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Video Surveillance: Useful or Invasive?

Cameras are sprouting up everywhere; some will even talk back to you

A few years ago visiting Central America, an older gentlemen said to me "I like the way you Americans have so much respect for your laws'.He then to...

PhotoA few years ago in Central America, an older gentlemen said to me "I like the way you Americans have so much respect for your laws."

He then told a story of when he was visiting the U.S., and how he noticed people obeying every stop sign, although there were no other cars or law enforcement in the immediate area.

It was interesting that he thought Americans were more law-abiding, and there's no doubt his theory could have been easily argued. But then I thought, maybe all of the surveillance cameras in the United States have made us more mindful of costly fines and arrest, but it's hard to tell.

In a report released last year by the research company Urban Institute, it was  suggested that surveillance cameras aren't always the answer when it comes to thwarting criminal activity.

"Our study is interesting because it suggests that cameras can have a very powerful impact on crime, and a cost beneficial one," said Urban Institute's Director and one of the study authors of the report. "But it also suggests cameras don't work in all places and all contexts."

Crime cameras

PhotoThe video surveillance report focused on crime percentages in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago.

After cameras were installed in the Chicago neighborhood of Humboldt Park in 2003, police noticed a 20 percent drop in crime just one month after the cameras were set-up. However, in the neighboring area of West Garfield Park, crime rates remained the same and the cameras provided no impact.

The report showed the effectiveness of the surveillance camera’s fluctuated depending on how the cameras where installed and how closely they were monitored.

"Overall, the cameras — when actively monitored — were effective at cutting down crime," said the report. "And the savings and benefits of fewer crimes outweighed the cost of the surveillance system."

The study also found that $190,000 each month was spent on surveillance cameras, but the city saved about $815,000 on costs that would be spent during the criminal justice process.

However, not everyone believes surveillance cameras are worth the cost.

In a separate report conducted by the Berkeley, Calif. research group Citrus, it was found that cameras installed throughout San Francisco neighborhoods failed to reduce the rate of violent crimes. Researchers found that much of the criminal activity simply moved outside of the camera's range.

The findings were determined by Citrus researchers Jennifer King and Steven Raphael, who examined daily crimes, and where they were committed in relation to the surveillance camera. They also studied the type of crimes that were being perpetrated on a daily basis.

After researchers compared those crime statistics to numbers before cameras were installed, they saw no significant drop in rates as it pertained to burglaries or violent criminal activity.

However, smaller crimes like pick-pocketing and petty thefts went down after the cameras were placed.

Not going away

PhotoThough there are conflicting reports about the true effectiveness of video surveillance in residential neighborhoods, it's apparent that cameras aren't going away anytime soon. In fact, they're becoming increasingly advanced in their functions.

The architectural lighting company Illuminating Concepts recently made a series of talking and listening surveillance cameras, and U.S. residents should expect to see these contraptions in neighborhoods very soon.

That's right, on your next trip to the movies or dinner you could be hearing announcements, traffic news, and advertisements blaring from the street lamp-post. The invasive camera will also have the ability to record and pick up sound from people or objects nearby.

While some believe these talking cameras are a necessary security measure in a post 9/11 world, many people feel like they're characters in a new version of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" novel.

It's safe to assume that most people think catching or preventing a crime through video surveillance is a great thing, but many don't like being watched, especially since they're conscious of being law-abiding citizens.

Traffic cameras

No other type of surveillance video affects more everyday citizens than traffic or speed-detection cameras, and many consumers have stood up against more being installed.

In early July of ths year, the New York Senate struck down a law that would have added nearly 40 new speed-detection cameras throughout the five boroughs of New York City.

PhotoWhile some believe traffic videos are needed, many believe cameras are really attached to money-making agendas and spiteful city quotas.

"The cameras are not about safety; they're about generating revenue for municipalities, said Mike Doherty, a New Jersey state senator. "The towns are using their citizens as cash cows."

In places like New Jersey, Houston and Los Angeles, camera debates have grown extremely contentious and in 2012 there are still 12 states that refuse to install speed-detection cameras on stop lights or lamp-posts.

According to the Govenors Highway Safety Association, there are 29 states that have no regulations concerning traffic camera use.

Additionally, 13 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands have speed-detection cameras posted in at least one location.

In Washington D.C. traffic fines have increased 500 percent since 2008, and some district officials believe D.C. residents are being unjustly slapped witih fines that range from $75 to $250 per violation.

"The goal is to make sure the automated enforcement program is about safety, not just revenue, said Councilman Tommy Wells.

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, Washington D.C. brought in $55 million in traffic camera fines in 2011, and those in favor of not reducing the violation amount says it keeps drivers in check and increases traffic safety. But many disagree.

"If we can entice drivers to follow the law without having to have very high fines, then we should," said David Alpert, D.C. community activist. "Research shows it's more effective to catch people more often but charge them less."

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Outlook for Hotmail: Chilly

Microsoft phasing out Hotmail, replacing it with a new version of Outlook

You've got to give Microsoft credit. It's trying to haul itself into the 21st Century but it has a lot of baggage to drag along. Take Hotmail, the company'...

You've got to give Microsoft credit. It's trying to haul itself into the 21st Century but it has a lot of baggage to drag along. Take Hotmail, the company's rather tired email service. It's being shoved aside by a newcomer with an old name: Outlook.com.

The Outlook email program has always been one of Windows' most popular features, even though Microsoft inexplicably omitted it from Windows 7. Users like it because it's simple and straightfoward and easily integrates a calendar, address book and other essentials in a way that is both attractive and straightforward.

Photo

The new Outlook.com offers the first major improvement to cloud mail in eight years, said Chris Jones, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Windows Live.

“We think the time is right to reimagine personal email, from the datacenter to the user experience,” he said. “So today we’re introducing a preview of Outlook.com.”

Jones said Outlook.com, which builds off the power of the Outlook people have long used on their PCs and Macs, has a fresh, clean user interface that gets the clutter out of inboxes and takes away display ads and large search boxes, and works well with smartphones, tablets, and the new Outlook 2013 Preview. 

Outlook.com will be simpler to use than Hotmail and will serve as a single hub for contracts on email, Facebook, Twitter and so forth, Microsoft burbled happily.

Hotmail goes back a long way. It was launched in 1996 and was one of the first free online email services. It now has about 350 million users, trailing the much newer Gmail, which has about 425 million. 

Hotmail launched in 1996 as one of the first free online email services, helping popularize the idea of advertising-supported email. In 1998, Microsoft acquired Hotmail, which now has about 350 million active users.

Outlook.com will have ads, but they won't be based on the content of emails, Microsoft said, seeming to contradict Jones. Gmail is supported by contextual and keyword-driven advertising.

For now, Hotmail users can continue using Hotmail, although a "preview" period for Outlook.com starts today. During that time, users will have the option to convert to OUtlook.com and their emails will be automatically forwarded to their new address at outlook.com.

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Five Ways To Save Money On Homeowners Insurance

Taking the right steps can reduce the monthly cost of owning a home

Most people pay for their homeowners insurance from an escrow fund managed by their mortgage servicer. It's part of their monthly house payment and they pr...

PhotoMost people pay for their homeowners insurance from an escrow fund managed by their mortgage servicer. It's part of their monthly house payment and they probably don't think much about it.

But they should. Insurance costs will vary significantly, depending on where you live, what kind of policy you have and how much your home is worth. Here are some ways insurance industry experts suggest keeping your rates as low as possible:

1. Shop around

It may seem obvious that getting more than one insurance quote would be helpful in getting the best price, but a surprising number of homeowners don't bother. They go with a particular agent or company without doing any price comparison.

Actually, shopping isn't all that hard. According to the Insurance Information Institute, states often make information available on typical rates charged by major insurers and many states provide the frequency of consumer complaints by company. When comparing prices, however, make sure you're comparing policies that provide the same coverage.

2. Increase your deductible

Insurance is something to cover you in the unlikely event you suffer major damage to your home. But some homeowners want a policy that covers them 100 percent, so that they have no out of pocket expense for any kind of damage.

That's very expensive insurance. By raising your deductible as much as you can and paying for minor repairs out of pocket, you'll save hundreds of dollars each year, more than enough to handle the minor repairs. If your home suffers a disaster, yes you will pay more out of pocket but the odds are your home isn't going to suffer a disaster. By assuming some of the risk, you save money.

3. Insure it for the right amount

How much would it cost to rebuild your house if it burned to the ground? Knowing that number is critical to not over- or under-insuring your home. In this market many new homeowners bought distressed properties for much less than what it cost to build an identical house. They should consider the replacement cost, not the purchase cost. By the same token, remember that part of the cost of your home is the land, which doesn't need to be insured.

4. Bundle

If you have done all of the above, you will still want to get the best rate possible from your insurer. While a lot of factors go into setting rates for insurance, most companies will provide some kind of discount if you insure your automobiles as well as your home with them. Some discounts can be as much as 15 percent. Just be sure that the combined price is lower than if you bought different coverages from different companies.

5. Protect your credit score

Insurance companies are increasingly using credit information to price homeowners insurance policies. To protect your credit standing, pay your bills on time, don't take more credit than you need and keep your credit balances as low as possible. Check your credit record on a regular basis and have any errors corrected promptly so that your record remains accurate.  

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Accretive Health Agrees to $2.5 Million Settlement With Minnesota

Collection agency will be banned from the state for up to six years

Accretive Health has agreed to pay $2.5 million and will be banned from operating in Minnesota for up to six years as part of a settlement agreement with M...

PhotoAccretive Health has agreed to pay $2.5 million and will be banned from operating in Minnesota for up to six years as part of a settlement agreement with Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Swanson had accused the Chicago company -- which calls itself a "revenue consulting" firm -- of deceiving patients, harassing them for money in emergency rooms and mishandling patient data.

Hospital emergency rooms "should be a solemn place, not a place for a financial shakedown of patients," she said. 

Swanson conceded at a news conference that the action might seem harsh but said it was justified by the severity of the case. She noted that of 60 consumers who filed affidavits in the cdase, all but two had valid insurance policies but were still allegedly harassed and intimidated by Accretive agents.

Accretive, one of the nation's largest health care consulting and collection firms, has consistently denied any wrongdoing and said it agreed to the settlement "in order to prevent this matter from being a continued distraction."

Lost laptop

A lost laptop triggered the probe that led to Accretive's banishment. 

Swanson sued the company iin January over the loss of an unencrypted laptop that contained data on 23,500 Minnesota patients. That trigged a broader investigation into Accretive's business pratices and led to a highly crtiical report that accused Accretive of using heavy-handed debt-collection tactics that included putting pressure on patients to pay before they were treated.

Some patients said they were asked to pay while in the emergency room, lying on a gurney or hooked up to morphine. One woman said she was asked for payment while she was being treated for a miscarriage, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

The Minnesota settlement may not be the end of the matter. At least two federal investigations are said to be underway and Swanson said she has furnished several patient affidavits to federal investigators.

Federal law requires hospitals to assess and stabilize emergency room patients without regard to their ability to pay.

Denies wrongdoing

“Even though we believe the claims against us were either baseless or exaggerated, we have used this opportunity to carefully examine our own practices in order to ensure we are setting the very highest standards for our own performance and achieving the best possible outcomes for hospitals, patients and communities.” said Mary Tolan, Accretive's CEO. “Entering into this settlement agreement allows our company to put this matter behind us and prevents further distraction from the important work that we do for our hospital clients.”

“The Minnesota Attorney General’s actions towards Accretive Health were unnecessarily aggressive and, unfortunately, will cost more than 100 Minnesotans their jobs,” she added.

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Usual Suspects: Top Consumer Complaints to Local Agencies

Cars, credit, home improvements top the list of complaints

Cars, credit and home repair and construction once again topped the list of complaints made to state and local consumer protection agencies, according to a...

PhotoCars, credit and home repair and construction once again topped the list of complaints made to state and local consumer protection agencies, according to a survey by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI).

Thirty-eight agencies from across the United States provided information about the most common, fastest-growing, and worst complaints they received in 2011. They were also asked about new types of consumer problems, what their biggest achievements and challenges were last year, and what new laws are needed to better protect consumers.

“State and local agencies are essential components of the consumer protection system in the United States,” said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection at CFA. “Their services save consumers and businesses money, relieve the burden on courts, foster confidence in government, keep the public safe, and help ensure fairness in the marketplace.”

Top Ten Complaints

1. Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes

2. Credit/Debt: Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics

3. Home Improvement/Construction: Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job

4. Retail Sales: False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver

5. Utilities: Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas service

6. Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform

7. (Tie) Internet Sales: Misrepresentations or other deceptive practice, failure to deliver online purchases; Landlord/Tenant:Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics

8. Fraud: Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, the grandparent scam and other common frauds

9. Real Estate: Timeshare sales and resales, retirement communities and assisted living facilities, real estate fraud

10. (Tie) Household Goods: Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances; Home Solicitations: Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations, do-not-call violations

The full report can be found on the CFA’s website.

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Kenta Child Carriers Recalled

An unraveling strap can pose a fall hazard

Liberty Mountain, of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling about 400 Kenta and Kenta Plus child carriers – about 300 of them in the U.S and 100 in Canada. The...

PhotoLiberty Mountain, of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling about 400 Kenta and Kenta Plus child carriers -- about 300 of them in the U.S and 100 in Canada. The side strap's seam can unravel and cause the strap to separate, posing a fall hazard to the child in the carrier.

The manufacturer, VAUDE Sport GmbH & Company KG, of Germany, says it has received two reports of the side strap separating. No injuries have been reported.

The recall involves backpack-style child carriers sold under the Kenta and Kenta Plus model name. "VAUDE" is printed on the back and between the shoulder straps of the carrier. "Kenta" or "Kenta Plus" is printed on the lower back or hip belt of the carrier. The carriers were sold in black, red and brown and were designed for children up to 31 pounds.

They were sold at outdoor camping and climbing stores nationwide from January 2010 through May 2012 for about $150 for the Kenta and $170 for the Kenta Plus models.

Consumers should stop using the recalled child carriers immediately and return them to an authorized VAUDE dealer for a replacement. Consumers can contact Liberty Mountain at (800) 366-2666 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. MT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Websites at www.vaude.com or www.libertymountain.com to locate an authorized VAUDE dealer.

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Consumers Becoming More Confident

A key measure of consumer sentiment is higher after four straight declines

Have we turned the corner or is it a blip? The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index, which had declined in June, improved slightly this month. in ...

PhotoHave we turned the corner or is it a blip? 

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index, which had declined in June, improved slightly this month. in July. It now stands at 65.9 (1985=100), up 3.2 from its reading in June. 

The Expectations Index improved to 79.1 from 73.4, although the Present Situation Index, decreased slightly -- to 46.2 from 46.6 a month ago. 

Still on the low side 

"Despite this month's improvement in confidence, the overall Index remains at historically low levels,” said Says Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers' attitude regarding current conditions was little changed in July, but their short-term expectations, which had declined last month, bounced back.” 

She notes that while consumers expressed greater optimism about short-term business and employment prospects, they have grown more pessimistic about their earnings. “Given the current economic environment -- in particular the weak labor market,” she says, “consumer confidence is not likely to gain any significant momentum in the coming months." 

Here and now 

Consumers' appraisal of current conditions eased in July. Those claiming business conditions are "good" declined to 13.8 percent from 14.2 percent, while those saying business conditions are "bad" decreased to 34.2 percent from 35.9 percent. 

Consumers' assessment of the labor market was also mixed. Those stating jobs are “hard to get" declined to 40.8 percent from 41.2 percent, while those claiming jobs are "plentiful" decreased to 7.8 percent from 8.3 percent. 

Looking ahead 

On the other hand, consumers were generally more optimistic about the short-term outlook in July.  The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months rose to 18.9 percent from 16.0 percent, while those anticipating business conditions will worsen decreased to 14.6 percent from 15.8 percent. 

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was also more upbeat in July. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead increased to 17.6 percent from 14.8 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs edged down to 20.3 percent from 20.8 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes, however, declined to 14.2 percent from 15.3 percent. 

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a leading global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was July 19.

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Air Travel Pre-Check Hits 2 Million Mark

More people are taking advantage of Pre-Check, speeding the process for all travelers

Fewer of us are standing in line to take our shoes off at the nation’s airports....

PhotoFewer of us are standing in line to take our shoes off at the nation’s airports. 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has screened more than 2 million travelers through its Pre-Check prescreening initiative. 

TSA Pre-Check is currently available for U.S. citizens traveling in the United States who are members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs and select frequent travelers of participating airlines at many of the busiest airports across the country. 

How it works 

The system allows passengers to volunteer information about themselves prior to traveling domestically to expedite their checkpoint screening at participating airports. It’s all part of the agency's broader effort to implement risk-based concepts that enhance aviation security by focusing more on travelers the agency knows the least about and allowing known travelers the opportunity to expedite their travel through security checkpoints. 

"As TSA Pre-Check continues to expand to additional airports and passenger populations, we are seeing exponential growth in participation," said TSA Administrator John S. Pistole. "We are on track to bring TSA Pre-Check to 35 airports by the end of 2012 and even more next year." 

Pre-Check growing 

TSA Pre-Check is available at 19 airports and operational with five airlines, including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways. TSA will continue to add more airports and airlines to the highly acclaimed program. 

Eligible passengers include U.S. citizens of frequent traveler programs on participating airlines and current members of CBP Trusted Traveler programs, including Global Entry, SENTRI and NEXUS. Individuals interested in participating can apply online

New screening concepts 

As part of its broader risk-based security effort, TSA is in the process of testing and implementing several new screening concepts, which include an expedited screening program for flight crews, expanded behavior detection techniques, modified screening procedures for travelers 12 and younger and 75 and older, and expanding TSA Pre-Check screening benefits to U.S. military active duty members. 

TSA will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport, which means that no passenger is guaranteed expedited screening. The multi-layered approach to security also includes behavior detection officers, explosives-detection systems, canine teams, and federal air marshals, among other measures both seen and unseen.

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Former Florida Nursing Students to Get $469,000 Restitution

Students paid thousands to attend a school that wasn't accredited

The state of Florida has obtained $469,000 in restitution for nursing school students who were deceived into enrolling in classes at JLF University.Flori...

PhotoThe state of Florida has obtained $469,000 in restitution for nursing school students who were deceived into enrolling in classes at JLF University.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says the final judgment against JLF University, Inc., Green Cross School of Nursing, Advance Training Academy, Inc., Allied Health College at JLF University, Inc., Dr. Joseph LaFortune and Aline LaFortune also requires the schools to pay $67,000 in civil penalties and prohibits them from misrepresenting qualifications and programs.

In May Bondi filed suit against JLF and its principals for alleged violations of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

No accreditation

The owner of the schools, Joseph LaFortune, allegedly promised students they would eligible for licensure upon graduation. After completing the programs, the students learned that because the medicine and nursing programs are not accredited or approved, they would not be eligible for licenses in Florida.

“Prospective students can only make informed choices when schools fairly disclose critical information, such as costs and the opportunities available following graduation,” said Bondi.

According to the complaint, students enrolled in the nursing program were charged between $7,000 and $15,000 for a year-long program taught in both Miami and Jamaica. After enrolling, students learned that they would not be eligible for licensure in Florida because JLF is not an approved nursing education program.

When the students demanded refunds, Bondi said LaFortune allegedly offered to allow the students to “transfer” to Green Cross School of Nursing, which is owned by his wife, Aline LaFortune, for an additional payment of $7,000.

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Missouri Funeral Director Charged With Stealing

Indictment claims he failed to set aside funds for preneed funeral services

A Kansas City, Mo., funeral home operator faces charges that he stole money from consumers who paid up-front for funeral services in advance of their death...

PhotoA Kansas City, MO, funeral home operator faces charges that he stole money from consumers who paid up-front for funeral services in advance of their deaths.

Ronald C. Marts, owner and operator of Martron, LLC, doing business as Marts Memorial Services, is also charged with violating the Missouri Preneed Funeral Contract Act and with deceptive business practices.

The complaint, filed by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, contends Marts took payments from consumers for preneed funeral contracts, but neglected to set up a trust account in which to deposit the funds.

The attorney general also said Marts failed to tell consumers that he was not licensed to sell preneed contracts, and falsely promised consumers that their contracts would be fulfilled by another entity if Marts could not.

The events outlined in the complaint allegedly took place between 2005 and 2011.

Felony charges

The complaint stems from an investigation in which Koster was appointed special prosecutor, working with the Jackson County, MO, Prosecutors Office. The result was a 10-count felony indictment.

The indictment alleges one count of stealing of property or services of $25,000 or more, a Class B Felony; four counts of violations of the Missouri Preneed Funeral Contract Act, a Class C Felony; and five counts of violations of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, a Class D Felony.

In Missouri, Preneed Funeral Contract violations are punishable by up to seven years in prison per count and Unlawful Merchandising Practices is punishable upon conviction by up to four years in prison per count.

Preneed funeral sales have increased in recent years as more consumers have decided to make their own arrangements to spare family members in a time of grief. Missouri and many other states have strengthened laws governing sales of preneed funerals to protect consumers.

How to protect yourself

When paying in advance for funeral services, you should receive a statement of funeral goods and services and prepaid agreement at the time of purchase. Many states requires these documents to be presented and signed at the same time.

Consumers should not accept any documents that have not been completely filled in and signed in their presence by the funeral directors.

Most states require that money entrusted with the funeral director must be deposited in an interest-bearing account or used to purchase a funeral insurance policy within a specified time after the agreement is signed.

In New Jersey, for example, the preneed funeral arrangements may be moved to any funeral home at any time by the consumer. Regardless of the options selected, the money paid to the funeral directors for preneed funerals belongs to the consumer and must be made available to the consumer upon request at any time.

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Sausages With Possible Listeria Contamination Recalled

The products were shipped before test results were received

Enslin & Son Packing Company of Hattiesburg, MS, is recalling approximately 314 pounds of sausage products due to possible Listeria monocytogenes contamina...

PhotoEnslin & Son Packing Company of Hattiesburg, MS, is recalling approximately 314 pounds of sausage products due to possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

The recalled product is 1.5-lb. and 2-lb. packages of "Cedar Grove Red Hots." Each package bears the number "P-31806" inside the USDA mark of inspection and contains a use or freeze by date of "09/24/2012" or "09/28/2012." The product was produced on July 16, 2012, and distributed to retail establishments in Meridian and Philadelphia, MS.

The problem occurred as a result of the products testing positive for Listeria monocytogenes and being shipped prior to the company receiving test results. The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the company have received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of this product.

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

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the company's president, Augustus Enslin, at (601) 582-9300.

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Congressional Report Questions For-Profit College Performance

Senate committee suggests for-profit schools are too focused on profit

Through federal education aid, taxpayers invest billions of dollars in college students' education. A Congressional report says a lot of that money is goin...

PhotoThrough federal education aid, taxpayers invest billions of dollars in college students' education. A Congressional report says a lot of that money is going to for-profit institutions without much for students -- or taxpayers -- to show for it.

A two-year probe by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions shows $32 billion in the most recent year went to companies that operate for-profit colleges. Yet, more than half of the students who enrolled in those colleges in 2008-9 left without a degree or diploma within a median of four months.

“My experience at this school has been a nightmare,” Shannon, of Chicago, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post about University of Phoenix. “I feel lied to and used. I specifically chose this school as I was told most of my previous human service credits would be transferred, which they have not. I could accept retaking some classes if I felt I was learning anything useful. Instead, I have had professors who barely understand the material. My biggest complaint however is their heavy reliance on group work, a practice which greatly benefits them by increasing their graduation rate.”

Profit pressures

In its report, the committee suggests the corporate structure of the for-profit institutions creates pressure to produce ever-larger returns for shareholders. While small independent for-profit colleges have a long history, by 2009 the committee found at least 76 percent of students attending for-profit colleges were enrolled in a college owned by either a company traded on a major stock exchange or a college owned by a private equity firm. The financial performance of these companies is closely tracked by analysts and by investors.

“Congress has failed to counterbalance investor demands for increased financial returns with requirements that hold companies accountable to taxpayers for providing quality education, support, and outcomes,” the committee found. “Federal law and regulations currently do not align the incentives of for-profit colleges so that the colleges succeed financially when students succeed.”

Carlos, of North Hollywood, CA, chose Westwood College after being contacted by a recruiter. He was he was taken aback initially when he saw that the cost of a degree would be more than $72,000. He said he was told not to worry, that student loans and grants would cover most of that.

28 percent graduation rate

“The faculty helped me fill out the FAFSA and I couldn't help but notice that the graduation rate was 28 percent in 2009, updated for 2012 to 21 percent, according to OEDB.org,” Carlos posted. “I was concerned and brought it to the attention of the staff. They told me not to mind that and it just hasn't been updated.”

Carlos said he attended for one year before getting discouraged and going to another school. The committee said many for-profit colleges fail to make the necessary investments in student support services that have been shown to help students succeed in school and afterwards, a deficiency that it suggests contributes to high withdrawal rates.

In 2010, the for-profit colleges examined employed 35,202 recruiters compared with 3,512 career services staff and 12,452 support services staff -- more than two and a half recruiters for each support services employee.

High drop-out rate

“This may help to explain why more than half a million students who enrolled in 2008-9 left without a degree or Certificate by mid-2010,” the committee said in its report. Among two-year Associate degree-seekers, 63 percent of students departed without a degree.”

The lawmakers also voiced concern about the amount of public money flowing to for-profit colleges. The report notes that in 2009-10, 25 percent of the total Department of Education student aid program funds went to for-profit schools.

Pell grants flowing to for-profit colleges increased at twice the rate of the program as a whole, increasing from $1.1 billion in the 2000-1 school year to $7.5 billion in the 2009-10 school year.

For-profit colleges also receive the largest share of military educational benefit programs: 37 percent of post-9/11 GI bill benefits and 50 percent of Department of Defense Tuition Assistance benefits flowed to for-profit colleges in the most recent period. Because of the cost of the programs however, they trained far fewer students than public colleges.

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Consumer Bureau Touts 2012 Record

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau points to its work to ‘help consumers’

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), created last year by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, thinks it’s had a pret...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), created last year by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, thinks it’s had a pretty good six months. 

Billing itself as “the nation’s first federal agency solely focused on protecting Americans in the consumer financial products and services marketplace,” the agency has released its Semi-Annual Report  covering the first half of 2012. 

“Consumers deserve to be treated fairly, and to have someone stand on their side when they are not,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “The CFPB has used the tools at our disposal for the benefit of consumers in the past year, and we pledge to continue to do so as we work to promote a transparent, fair, and competitive consumer financial marketplace.” 

According to the report, the CFPB “has used its multiple authorities, including regulation, supervision, enforcement, market research, financial education and the authority to deal directly with consumer complaints regarding consumer financial products and services.”

Highlights 

Among the areas covered in the report: 

  • Consumer Engagement: The Bureau has held numerous field hearings across the country, inviting consumers to share their experiences and opinions on financial products and services such as credit reporting, payday loans, and prepaid cards. On the CFPB Website, a feature called “Tell Your Story” encourages consumers to share their experiences to help inform the Bureau’s agenda. The CFPB works to resolve consumer disputes with lenders by taking complaints through its Website and by telephone, mail, fax, and by referral from other agencies. Between July 21, 2011 and June 30, 2012, consumers submitted approximately 55,300 complaints about credit cards, mortgages, and other financial products and services.Financial Education: Through innovative technology and education, the CFPB has developed tools designed to empower consumers to make responsible financial decisions. With its Know Before You Owe   campaign, the CFPB is working to make mortgages, credit cards, and student loans easier to understand. The Bureau also developed AskCFPB , an interactive online database answering questions frequently asked by consumers. And, the CFPB made available to the public a database of the individual complaints it has received about financial products. Consumers can review and analyze the complaints and draw their own conclusions.
  • Regulation: The CFPB has used its regulatory authority to start fulfilling Congress’s mandate to reform the mortgage market. The CFPB is writing rules to help consumers make informed decisions when shopping for a mortgage; simplify mortgage disclosure forms so consumers know what they are getting and are not shocked at the closing table; and bring greater transparency and accountability to mortgage servicing.
  • Research: The CFPB is a 21st century, data-driven agency. This means the CFPB gathered information to better understand the markets for consumer financial products and services. The CFPB did this by conducting in-depth studies on consumer financial products, such as reverse mortgages and private student loans. The CFPB has also issued Requests for Information to gather information from consumers, industry, and other stakeholders for issues such as overdraft fees, prepaid cards, and the financial exploitation of seniors.
  • Supervision: The Bureau assumed authority to supervise larger banks and credit unions and their affiliates in July 2011. In January 2011, the CFPB launched its supervisory program for certain nonbanks. Many of these nonbanks had never before been federally supervised. Among those that the CFPB now has supervision authority over are residential mortgage companies (mortgage originators, brokers, and servicers, and providers of loan modification or foreclosure relief services); payday lenders; and private education lenders. The CFPB also has the authority to supervise nonbank “larger participants” as defined by rule. So far, the CFPB has added credit reporting companies and certain other consumer reporting companies to this category. The Bureau uses both its bank and nonbank supervision teams to make sure all of these supervised entities are complying with federal consumer financial protection laws.
  • Enforcement: When a business has not been complying with federal consumer financial protection laws, the CFPB does not hesitate to take action. Working with other parts of the CFPB, including supervision and those who monitor consumer complaints, enforcement staff investigates potential violations of the law. A recent example of the CFPB’s work: After routine supervision of Capital One revealed potential problems, the Bureau launched an investigation that ultimately led to enforcement action against the credit card issuer. Although the enforcement action is not included in the timeframe of the semi-annual report, it secured about $140 million for consumers who were wronged by the company. 

 

 

 

 

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Crowd Funding: The New Way Ideas Are Getting Off the Ground

Entrepreneurs, inventors and charities find funding "in the cloud"

One of the great things about the United States is its diverse pool of people and talents. Historically, the U.S. has always been a place of bold id...

PhotoOne of the great things about the United States is its diverse pool of people and talents. 

Historically, the U.S. has always been a place of bold ideas and world-changing creative inventions. Ever hear of the Internet?

And of course it’s not just in the States, but many people around the globe walk around every day with an idea, new business plan, or a solution on how they will fill a gap in the current market place.

In fact there are several websites today that help foster one's dream of starting a new business, creating the next blockbuster movie, or promoting a new  invention.

For example, you may have heard of Kickstarter. It’s a website that helps people gather the necessary funding to begin, finish or promote a creative project.

How it works

If you have a project that you want to get off the ground, you sign up for the site and input the necessary information to tell the online public what your project is about.

Kickstarter and other sites like it were created for serious projects. They discourage those who want to merely dabble in a new venture and those who have yet to map out a definitive business plan, project or desired result.

So if you're creating a new phone app, let’s say, and you've come up with half of the funds to complete it, you can post your project on the Kickstart website and explain how much funding you'll need. You will also communicate what you'll do with the  money.

And what's the catch? 

There really isn't one. The only thing the site requires, is for the person receiving the funds to offer something of value to the pledgers, whether it be a free CD of your completed album, a mention in the credits at the end of the documentary you’re making, or first dibs on that new app.

Kickstarter began in 2008, and has already helped a countless number of people receive funding for their project or invention.

PhotoTake Dan Garblik and Lalit Kalani for example. The two Philadelphia residents had an idea to create a series of traditional Indian chutneys to be used as condiments for the general American public.  Similar to what U.S. food brands did with the Chinese-food condiment duck sauce.

Garblik and Kalani joined Kickstarter back in June of this year, and told the public about their newly developed condiment and food company Bandar Foods.

They asked for $5,000 for product development, testing and strategy, and by the end of July the duo had received a whopping donation total of $20,192 from the general public.

Don't need money? You can also browse Kickstarter and donate to projects you find interesting or worthwhile. 

You might find a project like Natahan Wessel's. He created a more attractive and user-friendly transit map in Cincinnati. If you think your city needs some help, you can donate a few dollars to get Wessel's model promoted and hopefully used more widely.

Donation requests on Kickstarter usually begin at $25 a person, and go up to any number the pledgee feels is necessary to complete their project.

Those putting their project on Kickstarter first need to list the total amount of how much they wish to collect, and the time-frame in which they would like to collect it. If that amount isn't generated within the chosen amount of time, the requestor cannot collect the funds.

If the full amount is achieved, Kickstarter gets five percent of the total, and Amazon gets a payment processing fee of three to five percent.

Indiegogo

PhotoOther sites like Indiegogo allow requestors to collect money for their project whether the full amount is given or not. Also, Kickstarter is set up for creative projects and doesn't allow fundraising for charities on its site.

Indiegogo is a bit more liberal, as a person can post any type of project or charity need on its website.

One of biggest magnets on the site at the moment is the Anderson Relief Fund, which is raising money for 22-year-old Petra Anderson, critically injured in the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting.

The fees for Indigogo are four percent of the total amount if you reach your goal and nine percent of the sum if you don't achieve your listed amount.  Both Indiegogo and Kickstarter allow users to post a project for free.

There are also sites that provide niche funding like 33.com that caters more to those socially-minded people or groups that want to create a project to initiate some sort of change.

For example businesses like HalfUnited that creates clothes and gives some of its profits to needy children, or Emergent Energy Group that that deals with renewable energy initiatives, have received huge amounts from 33.com.

Consumers also can scan the site and contribute to causes they're attracted to.

Network for Good is another site that allows consumers to either start or donate to projects that surround a social cause. 

Microloans

Kiva.org works a little bit differently, as the site lets consumers lend money to people around the world in underdeveloped countries. The company allows microfinance companies in various parts of the globe to be a liaison for entrepreneurs who have a desire to create a business and contribute to the area's economic growth.

Unlike Kickstart or Indiegogo, Kiva lends the money to the entrepreneur as opposed to donating it.

A person would use PayPal to make a loan, the money then goes to microfinance institutions, or the "field partners" as Kiva calls them, and the field partners dole the money out to the business that are selected to receive funding.

Then that same process works itself backwards so the lender can receive their money back.

The receiver of the funds pays back the field partner, and the field partner sends the money back to Kiva so the lender can be repaid.

Kiva says they don't charge interest on the loan, but the field partners do and interest rates vary depending on the where in the globe the loan is dealt.

Caution advised

When it comes to using crowd funding sites one should use them with a vigilant eye. Even though most of them genuinely provide a useful service for both pledger and pledgee, there have been a handful of scams related to these types of websites.

Certain projects listed on some of these sites aren't really what they appear to be, and many times the creators exaggerate just how far along the project is in terms of development.

A film student back in 2011 raised over $2,000 for a movie he was suppossedly making. But in fact he simply copied an existing movie kept the money. He's since been caught.

There are also reports of projects receiving money and never being completed, or donors being stiffed on the items or money they were supposed to get back in the exchange.

A good way to know if a project is real is to pay attention to the project's information page. Someone who is serious about their creation will do all they can to show you how it works, what it is, and what it will ultimately do.

Someone who haphazardly throws a project on a site with little detail or proof of development should be ignored. The creator of a project will always provide updates as their endeavor moves closer to completion.

Also do a quick Google search on the person or project to see if there's any Internet history whether good or bad.

And as with anything else, listen to your gut when it comes to deciding whether a project sounds well thought out enough that it will be successful.

There's no use in giving your hard-earned dollars towards something that sounds like it won't work, after all.

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Yahoo! Now what?

Sure, a proud past but what's the future hold?

Marissa Mayer isn't losing much time putting her stamp on Yahoo!, which has been trying to organize the world's information even longer than her previous e...

PhotoMarissa Mayer isn't losing much time putting her stamp on Yahoo!, which has been trying to organize the world's information even longer than her previous employer.

Among her first actions -- free food in the URLs Cafe at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters. Employees in the other 24 countries, provinces and territories where Yahoo! has offices? They'll have to keep brown-bagging it, at least for now.

As nearly everyone knows, Google also provides free food for its geeks and wonks. Google also has an all-hands-on-deck staff meeting every Friday afternoon and -- surprise -- Yahoo! now has one too. 

So far, none of this has sunk in with the cybersphere. We ran a sentiment analysis on about 11 million consumer comments posted to social Web sites over the last year and found that Yahoo! has actually sunk to its lowest level, a rather wan 28% positive rating, in the last month.

 

No respect

Yahoo! is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of the Web. Although it is relatively  successful by most reasonable measures, and certainly not as troubled as lots of media companies we can think of, it has encountered difficulty becoming more than it is, whatever that is.

It's that "whatever" that Mayer will be wrestling with. Officially, Yahoo! says it is "the premier digital media company." This rubs Wall Street and lots of Silicon Valley the wrong way. It just sounds so, well, old world.  

After all, who would want to be a media company? You mean like the Saturday Evening Post? Media company? That sounds like somebody who creates content, which is way too expensive and, besides, it requires old-style artisan types -- you know, writers, editors, camera operators, lighting guys and who knows what else? 

What everybody wants to be today is a software platform -- you know, like Facebook, Twitter and, of course, Google. They don't exactly create anything; they just provide the stage on which information, entertainment and drivel are displayed. This is, of course, not quite as easy as we're making it sound and, in fact, smashing bits of information together can sometimes produce something much greater than the sum of the parts. Sort of like that Higgs boson particle thing. 

Human touch

Yahoo!, rather endearingly, has always prided itself on being a little more than a big black box. "Yahoo! stands out as one of the most visited and most trusted Internet destinations because we uniquely pair innovative technology with a human touch to personalize the digital world," it says on its Overview page.

So why do its users think? We went back to those 11 million social Web commenters to extract what they think is the best and worst of Yahoo!

 

The answer, as is so often the case, is that the most-liked and most-disliked attributes are pretty much the same, in this case Yahoo's account, messenger, answer and mail products.

Everybody has advice for Ms. Mayer.  Over at CNN Money, Dave McClure thinks Marissa should think pink. "The answer is simple: Focus on WOMEN," he advises. At AllThingsD, Kara Swisher surmises that Mayer will focus on her strength -- building great products.

We found lots of other opinions among those 11 million comments, some perhaps more useful than others:

Photo

Photo

At Google, Mayer was the supreme product czarina, focusing obsessively on ensuring that every feature and product worked well, looked nice and generally did what it was suppposed to do. Although Yahoo! basically works pretty well, it could certainly use some touching-up here and there, which may play well to its new CEO's strengths.

For the toughest view, of course, one must turn to Wall Street and its environs.  Sure enough, at TheStreet.com, we find Richard Saintvilus recalling fondly how he once trashed Yahoo! as "the best 'has-been' on the market" and, a bit less fondly, "a laughingstock."

But Saintvilus is feeling a bit more saintly today and, slipping into the sports metaphors through which the Street communicates, says, "Mayer can be to Yahoo! what Peyton Manning once was to the Indianapolis Colts -- a franchise savior."

Cutting through all the silly, bit-wasting comments about maternity leaves, pink logos, how many s's there should be in "Marissa" and so forth, Saintvilus nicely states the challenge: Yahoo! needs to finally decide what it wants to be.

"Will it be strictly a media company that focuses on content delivery or will it be a technology company with an innovative strategy? It must choose because it can't expect to do both very well."

Good question. Yahoo! might be at one of those crossroads poets are always metering on about -- you know, two roads diverged in the woods and so forth. In such an instance, as Saintvilus would probably agree, either choice -- left or right, east or west, content or technology -- is better than simply plowing straight ahead into the woods.   

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New Apps Bringing Online Socializing Closer to Home

The creator of the new social app City Chatter says it's just the beginning

Remember when meeting a person online had a creepy factor? There was once a time when meeting a person in your house was associated with t...

PhotoRemember when meeting a person online had a creepy factor? That started to change sometime around the millennium.

Sure we still make new friends the traditional way by maybe meeting a person at a party, or by becoming acquainted with another parent at our child’s sporting event, but for the most part socializing on the Internet has become quite commonplace.

A 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project showed that almost 7 million adults in the U.S. have met and gone out with a person they met over the Internet. And remember folks, that was 2006.

Fast forward to today's Internet-driven age and meeting a person online is as normal as seeking employment online.

It's ideal for the introvert who feels more confident initiating conversation through a keyboard, and it's also perfect for those who simply want to preview their social options before committing to a face-to-face meeting.

Apps bring it home

Photo
Phil Shpilberg

Now a new app by the name of "City Chatter" is taking online socializing to yet another level by allowing users to connect with people right in their neighborhood, office or local hang-out, as opposed to communicating with people in far-off cities that they're less likely to meet in person.

Instead of just meeting people online from your home, the app is for those who are already in a coffee shop, bar or business conference.

Instead of walking right up to a person and introducing yourself or joining a conversation the traditional way, you can speak to others virtually through the app first. Or you can initiate a conversation for others in the location to join.

City Chatter is available on popular mobile devices including the iPhone and Androids, and its creator Phil Shpilberg says it better allows people to choose just who they want to communicate with.

"City Chatter is a local social app that combines meeting new people with group and private chat," he explained in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. "You open the app and see who is in your neighborhood bar, business conference, coffee shop, stadium or any other place. From there you can browse profiles and start a group or private conversation with those that interest you." 

Shpilberg says a new generation of consumers have gotten used to receiving one's background information upon request before actually meeting them, and things aren't likely to reverse themselves anytime soon.

"I think we now have a generation of people who grew up with Google, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, and expect to learn about the people they interact with instantly," he said. "For them it's very natural to want to learn more about people around them. Personally, I created City Chatter because I wanted a way to meet people, and talk to them, virtually first."

Critics of virtual socializing believe it keeps people in their respective comfort zones, and disrupts the natural order of communication. Some think approaching someone face-to-face with shyness or trepidation is completely fine, and the traditional way of meeting people shouldn't be altered.

Will using an app to speak to someone just two bar stools away be the new thing? Will virtual socializing ultimately diminish the importance or need of face-to-face interaction?

"I bet Alexander Graham Bell had to answer that question just as much as Mark Zuckerberg," Shpilberg said.

"Social networking, like the telephone, is a tool for social interaction, not anti-social behavior. For example, when I travel I catch up, in person, with old friends I only keep up with because of Facebook. I don't believe tools like social networking make us introverted or extroverted. I believe they enhance our lives and make it easier to do the things we want, whether it's to talk to people more face-to-face or less," he said.

Helping, not hurting

PhotoShpilberg also says that technology isn't hurting the traditional way of meeting people, it's actually helping it.

"I think technology is both enhancing and changing the traditional way of meeting people," he said. "For example, I regularly make contact with business people on LinkedIn and start investor relationships on Angel.co. A few years ago it was really novel to hear people meeting their partners on dating websites and now it seems the most typical way people meet."

"But these connections, if they care to be successful, always result in face-to face meetings," Shpilberg added.

“The social graph makes things even more interesting now. We trust friends of our friends more than we do strangers. Now I can find out how I am connected to most people in the world and find somebody who can make an introduction or tell me more about the person. We are quickly moving to a world where the word "stranger" is losing meaning."

But is that a good or bad thing? Because we've all of heard of many disturbing cases when people have used the anonymity of the Internet to their deceptive advantage.

The social mask that the Internet provides is often what draws people to initiate communication. But that same mask can hide the face of someone who is simply up to no good.

Staying safe

So how does one stay safe with the City Chatter app? Especially since those you're communicating with will be within arm's reach. I mean, don't creepy people hang out in coffee shops too?

"The same common sense applies in digital interaction as in physical ones," says Shpilberg. "Don't give out personal information to people you don't know. In City Chatter in particular you have very simple privacy controls that allow you to hide your specific location or any other profile information you don't want to share."

"Just use the simple Show/Hide toggles in the Privacy menu. The only thing we require to use the network is your first name and first initial of last name. We take safety very seriously and encourage everyone to be thoughtful of what they are sharing and aware of their surroundings, both on our network or any other one they use," he said.

Shpilberg also explains how the new app will assist those in the work world, as trying to meet your new best friend or your soul mate is only one way a social app can be used.

"City Chatter makes communication at a shared physical location like an office, conference room, or convention very simple," he noted. "You simply log on and see everyone else there. There is no need to add people to a chat, or a group text message, one by one. You can start instant conversation and collaborate as a group on your mobile phones."

"When you go to a business event, you can get an instant directory of who is there. We are going to work on partnerships that will identify location as Featured Chat Rooms, to make the kind of communication as simple as possible," he said.

The app can be downloaded for free at the iTunes App Store, as well as on Google Play. It can currently be used throughout the U.S.

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Things to Think About Before Using Mobile Banking

Security flaws in banking apps are not the only problem

Banks are increasingly urging customers to use mobile banking, enjoying the convenience of accessing their accounts with their smartphones. But before jump...

PhotoBanks are increasingly urging customers to use mobile banking, to enjoy the convenience of accessing their accounts with their smartphones. But before jumping on the mobile banking bandwagon, there are dangers to consider.

"Trade securities, transfer funds between eligible accounts and get a single view of your Bank of America banking plus Merrill Edge investment accounts in one place," Bank of America says on its website. "You can also access a full range of investment products, analysis and market insights."

Bank of America and other financial institutions do provide security features and advanced encryption technology, which is good. But is it enough to provide protection against identity theft and other financial crimes? A number of researchers, including Paul O'Farrell of the Identity Theft Council, have warned some mobile banking apps have security flaws.

We've seen how hackers have generally been able to compromise PCs. Smartphones usually have less security than computers, though there are many new mobile security products coming to market. But what if you lose your smartphone?

Access to your identity

“Anyone who has access to your cell phone has access to your identity in a few clicks,” said Elizabeth Baker, an assistant professor at Wake Forest University and an expert in information system security issues. “Often, credit card companies limit your financial responsibility if your card is stolen and fraud is committed. This is not true for your checking and savings bank accounts. Money fraudulently withdrawn can be costly.”

Consumers using mobile banking apps should by all means take advantage of all the security features their banks offer. In addition, there are some common sense safeguards that will provide some protection should your device fall into the wrong hands.

For example, you should never store financial information or other sensitive information on your cell phone -- logins, passwords, account numbers, Social Security numbers, etc. -- not even in a mobile banking app.

"If you lose your phone, whoever finds it has immediate access to your account if your login credentials are stored," Baker said. "A thief can use the app and get your account info to withdraw your money. It's a big hazard."

Somethings you just don't text

Don't text financial information. Not only are texts not secure forms of communication, anyone who finds or steals your smartphone can access all the texts you've sent.

Think about what would happen if you lost your smartphone. It happens more than you think. A 2011 survey by the data security firm Sophos found that 22 percent of respondents had lost their phones. Seventy percent of them didn't use password protection. Also, find out if there is a way to remotely delete information from your phone and be prepared to take that step.

If you use mobile banking you should probably check your account for suspicious activity more frequently than you might otherwise. Stay on top of your account so you know nothing unexpected is happening.

Baker says teens and young adults may be particularly vulnerable to mobile identity theft because they are a bit too comfortable sharing information through their phones. Baker says parents should discuss the dangers of mobile banking with teens when they open their first bank accounts and monitor their accounts regularly.

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Most Expensive States For Car Insurance? Not What You'd Expect

Michigan, Louisiana, Kentucky have the highest rates

You might think the highest car insurance rates would be in the big crowded states -- the ones with lots of traffic, lots of accidents, lots of car thieves...

PhotoYou might think the highest car insurance rates would be in the big crowded states -- the ones with lots of traffic, lots of accidents, lots of car thieves and so forth.

But you'd be wrong, for the most part. 

A new study finds that Michigan residents face the steepest car insurance cost burden in the nation, followed by Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Mississippi.

The study, conducted by CarInsuranceQuotes.com, a Bankrate company, found that the typical Michigan household pays a whopping eight percent of its annual income for car insurance.

CarInsuranceQuotes.com divided the median cost for car insurance by the median household income in each state (plus the District of Columbia) to come up with its list of the most and least expensive states.

The least expensive state is Massachusetts, where the typical household pays 1.43 percent of its annual income for car insurance. North Carolina, Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon round out the five most affordable states.

Click here for a comprehensive breakdown of the car insurance costs in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia: www.carinsurancequotes.com/car_insurance-costs.

“The laws in each state vary widely,” explained John Egan of CarInsuranceQuotes.com. “For example, part of the reason why Michigan is so expensive is that it’s the only state that guarantees unlimited personal injury protection.

"While you’re probably not going to move to a new state just because of car insurance costs, the most important thing to remember is that – regardless of where you live – you can get a better deal than the Average Joe by shopping around,” Egan said.

To determine median car insurance rates, CarInsuranceQuotes.com used a proprietary system developed by Quadrant Information Services, Inc. that tracks the rates of car insurers in each state. Median car insurance rates were based on actual customer profiles of online car insurance shoppers that can include multiple drivers, multiple vehicles and other variables.

The car insurance data was collected in June 2012. The income data came from the 2010 Census.

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Tech Industry Trying to Connect Vets With Jobs

Virginia declares itself "most veteran friendly"

There's something wrong with the nation's employment picture. The unemployment rate is through the roof at 8% and yet, it's estimated that 150,000 tech job...

PhotoThere's something wrong with the nation's employment picture. The unemployment rate is through the roof at 8% and yet, it's estimated that 150,000 tech jobs go unfilled each year.

Meanwhile, a huge wave of military veterans are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them already trained in highly technical specialties, all of them trained in showing up, working hard and achieving their objectives. 

And yet, the rate of unemployment among veterans has nearly quadrupled over the last five years to nearly 15%.

Isn't it about time to do something about this? A new group called VetsinTech (VIT) thinks so and is sponsoring its first event tomorrow, Tuesday, at Adobe's offices in San Francisco's "Multimedia Gulch."

VetsinTech supports our current and returning veterans with re-integration services, and by connecting them to the Bay Area technology ecosystem. The event takes place at Adobe (601 Townsend Street) in San Francisco on Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m.

"Most Veteran Friendly"

PhotoOn the East Coast, Virginia last week declared its intent to become the nation's most veteran-friendly state as Gov. Bob McDonnell signed 22 bills intended to help veterans find jobs, get business and occupational licenses and qualify for various education and re-entry programs.

“Virginia is home to 830,000 veterans and the largest Navy base in the world. We do not take our strong relationship and history with the military for granted. Instead, it is imperative that we continue to further our goal of making Virginia the ‘most Veteran friendly state in America,’” McDonnell said.

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Tyson Canned Chicken Products Recalled

Mislabeling could lead to consumption of an undeclared allergen

Tony Downs Foods Company of Madelia, MN, is recalling approximately 70,500 pounds of premium chunk chicken due to mislabeling and an undeclared allergen....

PhotoTony Downs Foods Company of Madelia, MN, is recalling approximately 70,500 pounds of premium chunk chicken due to mislabeling and an undeclared allergen. 

The products may actually contain ‘Beef with Gravy.’ The canned beef product contains wheat, an allergen not declared on the canned chicken label, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). 

The product subject to recall is 12.5-oz. cans of “Tyson Premium Chunk Chicken.” 

The incorrectly labeled products bear the code date of “8965 248A 12139” and “Best by May 18, 2015” ink-jetted on the bottom of each can. Each label bears the number P-65 inside the USDA mark of inspection. Correctly labeled cans are inkjetted with the code “1392TDM4600” and “P65” beneath a “Use By May 18 2015” date and are not subject to recall. 

They were produced on May 18, 2012, and distributed to retail establishments nationwide. 

The problem was discovered after the firm received customer complaints that the product was incorrectly labeled. FSIS and the company have received no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about a reaction should contact a healthcare provider. 

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the company’s Tyson Consumer Hotline at 866-328-3156. 

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Dominican Mortgage Assistance Operation Halted

Spanish-speaking U.S. homeowners were allegedly defrauded of more than $2 Million

Telemarketers who allegedly preyed on Spanish-speaking homeowners by falsely claiming affiliation with Federal Mortgage Assistance programs are out of busi...

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Speculation Builds for September iPhone 5 Release

Photos purported to be the new device hit the Internet

Apple isn't saying a word but speculation continues to build across the Internet that the new iPhone 5 – the next version of the iconic smartphone &n...

PhotoApple isn't saying a word but speculation continues to build across the Internet that the new iPhone 5 -- the next version of the iconic smartphone -- will be revealed in September.

The latest and perhaps strongest rumor comes from iMore.com, which predicts Apple will introduce the iPhone 5 on September 12 and start delivering them September 21. iMore said it learned from its sources about Apple's plans.

It further reports that Apple will, at the same special event, introduce its iPad mini – a smaller version of the popular tablet that would sell in the range of its seven-inch tablet competitors. Also on the agenda at that September 12 event, iMore reports, will be a new iPod nano and a new iPod Touch.

New schedule

Apple changed up its product release cycle last year. Until then it introduced new iPhones at the end of June. In 2011, Apple introduced the iPhone 4S in October.

Many Apple fans were expecting the iPhone 5 last year, with big advances in features and technology. Instead, the 4S was mostly an update of the previous model, the iPhone 4, but with Siri, a voice-activated personal assistant.

As for the iPhone 5, purported photos of a prototype device have already leaked to the Internet. A Japanese website, iLab, has released photographs showing a thin, sleek device with a four-inch screen, 19-pin connector, relocated headphone jack and a centered FaceTime camera.

What hasn't leaked is what advances an iPhone 5 will offer. Nick Bilton, a writer for TheNew York Times, hopes Apple improves Siri. Earlier this month Bilton wrote an article complaining that Siri didn't always operate properly and sometimes didn't respond at all. It's not clear whether this is a widespread problem.

Sturdier phone

Apple customers writing to ConsumerAffairs would apparently like to see a sturdier phone. Margaret, of Westbury, CT, reports her iPhone 4s “died” at the age of seven weeks.

“I made two calls totaling almost three hours to Apple, got it working for less than 24 hrs,” Margaret wrote in a post. “I called back, tried to get a replacement per the one year manufacturer warranty. What a joke!”

“My 17 year-old daughter has had trouble with her six-month old iPhone 4s in the functions of playing music and camera use recently,” Catharine, of Landenberg, PA, wrote at ConsumerAffairs. “When we went to the store, we were told the entire warranty was void due to a small crack in the front glass due to my daughter dropping the phone about 2 months ago. Though the small crack had nothing to do with the software issues, we were told our only option is to purchase another phone for $199. We just paid $199 in December. The front glass is an inferior product that should be able to withstand being dropped as people frequently drop their phones.”

A common complaint about the iPhone, as well as most other smartphones, is battery life. The tech site Tapscape reports the iPhone 5 is expected to offer improved battery life thanks to advancements in its display technology.

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Research Finds Kids-Left–In-Car Warning Systems Unreliable

Public education and information campaigns on child heatstroke in vehicles are essential

Few things are more tragic than the death of a child inadvertently left in a vehicle on a sweltering summer day....

PhotoFew things are more tragic than the death of a child inadvertently left in a vehicle on a sweltering summer day.

And as aftermarket consumer products intended prevent this from happening are introduced, a new study finds they are limited in their effectiveness. The research, released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) also found them unreliable as a stand-alone preventative measure for addressing child heatstroke tragedies.

"With summer temperatures hitting record highs around the country, child heatstroke is clearly an issue of national concern," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Public education is the best way to help parents and caregivers prevent tragic accidents and keep their children safe."

Deadly heatstroke

Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children under the age of 14. Data from the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences show 33 children died last year due to heatstroke -- medically termed "hyperthermia" -- while there were at least 49 deaths in 2010.

As part of a comprehensive approach to this issue, NHTSA commissioned CHOP to evaluate a number of commercially available aftermarket products that connect to child restraints and are advertised to help parents and caregivers remember children who they may have unintentionally left behind in a parked vehicle.

Product problems

The results of the study indicate limitations in currently available technology and products designed to detect children left behind in vehicles. Among a range of technological limitations are inconsistencies in arming sensitivity; variations in warning signal distance; potential interference with the devices' notification signals from other electronic devices; susceptibility of the systems to misuse scenarios involving spilled liquid beverages; and disarming of the devices due to a slumping or otherwise out-of-position child.

In addition, many of the products required extensive efforts by parents and caregivers to set up, monitor and operate, which could give parents and caregivers using the devices a false sense of security. The technologies would also not address the 20-40 percent of children who are killed when they gain access to the vehicle without an adult present or are not in child restraints, since the devices are child restraint based.

"Everything we know about child heatstroke in motor vehicles is that this can happen to anyone from any walk of life -- and the majority of these cases are accidental tragedies that can strike even the most loving and conscientious parents," said NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland. "While many of these products are well intended, we cannot recommend parents and caregivers rely on technology to prevent these events from occurring."

Safety precautions

NHTSA strongly urges parents and caregivers to take the following safety precautions and ask themselves, "Where's baby? Look before you lock" as part of its national campaign to address this issue:

  • Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle – even if the windows are partially open or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on;
  • Make a habit of looking in the vehicle – front and back – before locking the door and walking away;
  • Ask the childcare provider to call if the child does not show up for care as expected;
  • Do things that serve as a reminder a child is in the vehicle, such as placing a cell phone, purse or briefcase in the back seat to ensure no child is accidentally left in the vehicle, writing a note or using a stuffed animal placed in the driver's view to indicate a child is in the car seat; and,
  • Teach children a vehicle is not a play area and store keys out of a child's reach.

NHTSA also urges anyone who sees a child alone in a vehicle to call 911 or the local emergency number immediately. The child should be removed from the vehicle as quickly as possible and rapidly cooled with water if in distress.

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‘Over 55’ Housing Discrimination Lawsuit Settled

Routine age verification steps were not taken

The kids are coming! That’s the bottom line in a settlement reached between the Justice Department (DOJ) and a California municipality and a homeowners’ a...

PhotoThe kids are coming! 

That’s the bottom line in a settlement reached between the Justice Department (DOJ) and a California municipality and a homeowners’ association to resolve allegations of discrimination on the basis of family status.   

The DOJ lawsuit claimed that the city of Santa Rosa, CA, and La Esplanada Unit 1 Owners’ Association unlawfully sought to restrict residency at a housing development to seniors aged 55 and older. 

While the law allows an exemption for senior housing, the suit alleged that neither the city nor the homeowners’ association took the steps -- such as routine age-verification -- necessary to qualify for an exemption to the Fair Housing Act. 

No enforcement 

Under the terms of the consent order, the city of Santa Rosa will not take any enforcement action against the housing development to force it to exclude families with children, and will waive the estimated $12,500 in costs associated with any zoning changes that may be necessary to bring the city’s regulation of the property into compliance with federal law.   

Further, when the city, through its zoning code, permits or requires a developer or property owner to operate senior housing, it will -- among other things -- designate the age restriction of the zoned property in its ordinances and zoning maps, and require that property owners for these developments submit biennial age verifications for the city’s review and certification.   The city will also designate an agency to review and certify the biennial certifications.  

Exclusions forbidden 

The homeowners’ association also is prohibited from excluding families with children from the development unless it affirmatively elects to become an age-restricted community for those 55 or older and conforms to the requirements of the Fair Housing Act.   

The Fair Housing Act's requirements include ensuring that at least 80 percent of the occupied units are occupied by at least one person who is 55 years of age or older and that proper age verification procedures in place. 

 In addition, the homeowners’ association will provide compensatory damages to the aggrieved persons in an amount of $44,000 by providing a set-off to amounts it has claimed it is owed by the aggrieved persons.

The consent order also requires the homeowners’ association’s officers, agents and employees, as well as city employees and agents with responsibilities related to zoning and land use to receive fair housing training, and requires the homeowners’ association and the city to pay $5,000 each to the United States as a civil penalty. 

 “It is critical that families with children have opportunities to find housing,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “We are pleased to achieve a resolution in this case that balances the housing rights of families against the ability of a municipality and community to maintain senior housing.” 

The lawsuit grew out of a complaint filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by the owner and representative of a portion of the condominium development that was the subject of the defendants’ enforcement actions.  

After HUD investigated the complaint, it issued a charge of discrimination and the matter was referred to the Justice Department.

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Direct Air Shutdown Draws Fine for World Atlantic Airlines

Passengers were left high and dry when the shutdown resulted in flight cancellations

World Atlantic Airlines will pay $180,000 in fines for violating rules protecting passengers when their public charter flights are suddenly canceled....

PhotoWorld Atlantic Airlines will pay $180,000 in fines for violating rules protecting passengers when their public charter flights are suddenly canceled. 

World Atlantic was one of several carriers operating flights for Direct Air, a charter operator also known as Myrtle Beach Direct Air & Tours, which ceased operating in March. Direct Air arranged charters from a number of cities in the Midwest and Northeast to Myrtle Beach, SC and cities in Florida. 

“Our public charter rules are designed to protect consumers from sudden cancellations and being stranded away from home with no return flight,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We will continue to hold airlines and charter operators accountable when they fail to respect the rights of charter passengers.” 

No service 

World Atlantic stopped flying charters for Direct Air on March 13, following a week in which Direct Air failed to pay the carrier all the money it was owed for operating the flights. A number of payments prior to that were late. 

Numerous passengers did not receive the service they paid Direct Air for when World Atlantic canceled the remaining flights it was scheduled to operate for Direct Air. 

In issuing its fine against World Atlantic, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT)   Aviation Enforcement Office said the carrier violated rules requiring that it be paid prior to operating a public charter flight and prohibiting the cancellation of such flights less than 10 days before their scheduled departure. In addition, the carrier providing the transportation is required to ensure return flights for all U.S.-originating round-trip passengers who have flown the outbound leg of their trip. 

Carriers also are required to make a reasonable effort to ensure that the charter operator for which they are providing flights is complying with the public charter rules. 

The Enforcement Office noted that the late payments should have prompted World Atlantic to look into whether Direct Air was following the rules. DOT is continuing to investigate Direct Air’s shutdown.

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Survey: Hotel Rates Will Probably Rise This Fall

U.S. rooms will cost more but chances are, you can find a deal in Greece

If a new survey is any indication, the cost of a hotel or motel room is going up, both in the U.S. and around the world.Travel site TripAdvisor surveyed...

PhotoIf a new survey is any indication, the cost of a hotel or motel room is going up -- both in the U.S. and around the world.

Travel site TripAdvisor surveyed 25,000 hotel operators, including 5,000 in the U.S., and found that 47 percent expect to raise their room rates this fall. Only 16 percent said they expect comparatively low rates. Most of those are in Europe, where economic conditions are highly uncertain.

When it comes to expectations of higher rates for hotel rooms, the U.S. leads the world with 47 percent of hotels planning to increase the cost of an overnight stay. Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and Turkey round out the top five countries where rate will likely rise.

As you might expect, however, you will probably get a pretty good deal on a room in Greece. That country's hotels lead the world in expectations of declining hotel room rates. Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand round out the top five.

A tale of two global economies

The breakdown tells the story of the global economy. Where business conditions are stronger, it's more likely that travel costs will rise. Where conditions are poor, travelers are more likely to find bargains.

For example, the U.S. ranks fourth in the world for hotels with the best business outlook, while Greece ranks last. Indonesian hotels offered the world's strongest business outlook in the survey, followed by Brazil and Russia.

After Greece's most negative outlook, hotels in Italy, Spain, France and New Zealand all expressed the worry that business conditions for travel are worsening.

Despite the U.S.' strong travel business outlook, hotels are less optimistic about adding jobs. At U.S. hotels, plans to hire have dropped from 27 percent last year to 15 percent in the latest survey.

Outside of North America, hoteliers in India and Brazil are reportedly the most likely to increase the size of their staffs, while operators in France and the UK are least likely to add new employees.

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Hyundai Recalls Santa Fe, Sonata Models to Fix Airbags

Problems with front passenger bags in the Santa Fe, side airbags in the Sonata

Hyundai is recalling more than 200,000 Santa Fe and Sonata models to fix a problem with the airbags.The recalled Santa Fes were built between April ...

PhotoHyundai is recalling more than 200,000 Santa Fe and Sonata models to fix a problem with the airbags.

The recalled Santa Fes were built between April 19, 2006, and July 7, 2008 and the Sonata sedans were manufactured from January 24 to June 21 this year.

Safety regulators said the front passenger airbags of the Santa Fe models appeared to have improper occupant classification system, putting small-bodied people at risk. 

Sensors for the side airbags of the Sonatas need to be reprogrammed because they may inflate without receiving a signal, increasing injury risks.

Dealers will make the repairs free of charge.


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Eight Tips For Quitting Smoking

These days you have both health and economic reasons to kick the habit

There are many good reasons to give up cigarettes, but health and economic. Smoking is associated with cancer and heart disease and has become increasingly...

PhotoThere are many good reasons to give up cigarettes, both health and economic. Smoking is associated with cancer and heart disease and has become increasingly expensive as federal and state governments have tacked on more and more taxes.

In Illinois, the cost recently went up as the state legislature increased the tax on cigarettes. So while there are many good reasons to quit, a lot of smokers find it's very difficult.

“Nicotine really is that addictive," said Phillip McAndrew, MD, Loyola University Health System internal medicine physician and an occupational health expert. "It’s a hard battle, but every one that we win, including increasing the cost of cigarettes through taxes, brings individual smokers to the tipping point where the pain of smoking overcomes the joys of nicotine and they quit.”

The tipping point could be a life-altering health experience, but often it’s the impact on the pocketbook that makes people really consider quitting. In Chicago it can easily cost a person $300 a month to smoke. This is more than twice as expensive as a monthly prescription of medications to help people stop smoking.

McAndrew offers these eight tips to turn a tipping point into a successful effort to kick the habit:

1. Build a team

Nicotine is powerfully addictive, but so are the psychological aspects of smoking. It's all wrapped up into pleasure. Gather people around you who can provide support and encouragement. McAndrew says you will need people who are with you in all areas of your life, especially in places that make you think of smoking.

2. Set a specific date

It is important to be specific on a date you want to quit but also give yourself time to prepare. Some people just wake up one morning and go cold turkey. McAndrew thinks you'll have more success if you set a date two to four weeks away so you have time to prepare your environment and your mind to quit.

3. Prepare for quit day

Once you've set a date, plan for how you are going to stop. Think about medications and other tactics to aid you in the fight. Keep gum or hard candy in the car or an office drawer as a substitute when you feel the need to light up.

4. Celebrate quit day

“Once the decision is made to quit smoking, start thinking about the quit day and get excited. Don’t see it as an end to a favorite habit, but a celebration of the beginning of a new, healthier life,” said McAndrew.

He suggests going out with friends or having a party to mark this special occasion. Just make sure there is no smoking allowed.

5. New mechanisms for coping with stress

Many people light up when they encounter stress, so think of ways to handle stress in your life without a cigarette. This is where a doctor, a support group and your team can really lend a hand. Devise healthier ways to deal with stress such as exercising or deep breathing.

6. Watch out for boredom

People sometimes light a cigarette when they're bored. Often this happens in the car, especially on a long drive. McAndrew suggests listening to audio books in the car to keep your mind engaged.

7. Continue to do the things you enjoy

Many people smoke because they find it pleasurable and associate quitting with a loss of pleasure. So make sure there is still plenty of pleasure that doesn't involve tobacco. If you are accustomed to taking a smoking break, go ahead and take the break -- just don't smoke. And don't hang out with others who are smoking on their break.

8. Think about those you love

This could be the biggest motivation. As McAndrew says, “quitting smoking is about so much more than ourselves." Studies have shown that second-hand smoke can be more devastating than first-hand smoke, especially for children. Children who live in homes where there is a smoker are more prone to allergies and have more colds, upper-respiratory infections and ear infections, McAndrew says.

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Travelocity Fined for Violating Price Advertising Rule

Information on fuel surcharges and other items was not included

Online travel agent Travelocity has been fined $180,000 for violating the U.S. Department of Transpo...

PhotoOnline travel agent Travelocity has been fined $180,000 for violating the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) rule on full-fare advertising by failing to include fuel surcharges and other fees in advertised airfares. The company was also ordered to cease and desist from further violations.

“Many consumers choose their flights based on price, which is why we require all airfare ads to include the full price consumers will have to pay,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We will continue to make sure that airlines and travel agents comply with our price advertising rules and will take enforcement action when they do not.”

International fares specified

An investigation in September 2011 by the department’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that Travelocity’s “flexible dates tool” did not always include fuel surcharges that were part of many international airfares. Consumers searching for flights were shown fares from lowest to highest, resulting in fares that omitted the surcharges being listed above those in which the surcharges were included.

In addition, the consumer was informed only on the final page before purchasing the ticket that some itineraries required a paper ticket with a minimum additional delivery fee of $29.95. Consumers were shown the full price, including the fuel surcharges and ticket fees, only after selecting an itinerary. As a result, some consumers may have purchased airfares on dates and carriers that they might not have chosen if they had accurate fare information.

These ads violated the DOT’s rules requiring all carrier-imposed surcharges and fees to be included in every advertised fare. Prior to new price advertising rules that took effect on Jan. 26, the only charges airlines could omit from the advertised fare were certain government-imposed taxes.

Under the agency’s new price advertising rule, carriers and ticket agents must show the total price, including all government taxes and fees, in every advertised fare. The rules apply to travel agents as well as airlines.

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Payday Lender Case Focuses More Attention on Tribal Immunity

A tribe-associated payday lender faces contempt charges in West Virginia

A standoff between Lakota Cash and two other Internet payday lenders and the state of West Virginia is heating up, with a state court telling the lenders t...

PhotoA standoff between Lakota Cash and two other Internet payday lenders and the state of West Virginia is heating up, with a state court telling the lenders to show cause why they shouldn't be held in contempt.

At stake is the issue of who can claim tribal sovereign immunity by virtue of their association with a recognized American Indian tribe. West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw says the outcome has national implications.

It started last October when the Circuit Court of Kanawha County found that Payday Financial, which did business as Lakota Cash, was not entitled to tribal sovereign immunity. As a result, the court required the business to comply with an investigative subpoena issued by McGraw’s office.

Tribe-owned casinos

Perhaps the best-known example of businesses operated under tribal sovereign immunity are casinos on Indian reservations. But those businesses are owned by the tribes themselves. McGraw argues the payday lenders are not.

Lakota Cash, an Internet payday lender based in Timber Lake, South Dakota, is owned by Martin Webb, who is an enrolled tribal member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Webb claimed in court that West Virginia has no jurisdiction over his operations by virtue of his status as a tribal member, even though Lakota Cash itself is not a tribe.

After Webb challenged the state court's ruling, the West Virginia Supreme Court refused to consider it. That leaves the court's order to Lakota Cash in effect, but McGraw said the company has not complied with his subpoena as ordered.

McGraw has now filed a petition for contempt against Lakota Cash and two other Internet payday lenders that also failed to comply.

Loophole

West Virginia is among the handful of states that have outlawed payday lending and McGraw has been active in targeting Internet payday lenders that he says have circumvented the law. He says that because of the crackdown by his and other states, many Internet payday lenders began partnering with Indian tribes as a way to keep operating.

Since Indian tribes are viewed as independent sovereign nations, they cannot be sued in state court or otherwise forced to comply with state laws. However, many states have alleged that the lenders are not really Indian tribes but instead have entered into arrangements to use Indian tribes, or individual tribe members, as “fronts” to evade state lending regulations.

In March the Federal Trade Commission accused Payday Financial of abusing its tribal connections by requiring customers it sued for non-payment to appear in tribal court in South Dakota.

This latest West Virginia court order requires Lakota Cash to appear on October 11, 2012, to show cause why it should not be held in contempt for violation of the court’s order. LoanPointe, LLC, and its owner, Joe E. Strom of Utah, and National Title Loans d/b/a National Cash 12 of Delaware, were also ordered to answer to McGraw’s contempt charges.

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Study Finds Top 50 Free Lance Jobs

No. 1 is still writing iPhone apps, Android not so much

The way people work nowadays has totally changed. Once, it was guaranteed a person would be in an office cubicle from morning to evening if they were emplo...

Photo
Yesteryear

The way people work nowadays has totally changed. Once, it was guaranteed a person would be in an office cubicle from morning to evening if they were employed.  And just as recently as 10 years ago, a person working from a remote location was quite rare.

Now it seems that more and more people are freelancing to make a buck, and a lot of companies are hiring employees on a contractual basis in more specialized areas of work.

In 2012, working from home or freelancing is rather normal, and with the constant growth of technology, more jobs are created as companies have increasing needs.

A survey conducted by the job site Freelancer.com showed that companies and brands that utilize technology for expansion are hiring freelancers in the largest numbers.

"The most lucrative [jobs] are those where specialist technical knowledge is required in high demand areas, at the cutting edge of technology and very few freelancers," said Freelance.com's Chief Executive Matt Barrie in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

"For example at the cutting edge of mobile phone apps, there's a premium. Where there is not a premium are areas like data entry etc. i.e. jobs anyone can do," he said.

Fastest-growing jobs

Photo
Matt Barrie

The Freelancer.com survey released the 50 fastest growing online jobs for Q2 in 2012. It found that if you can build an iPhone app, you're on top of the heap, with 5,112 new jobs for app builders this year.

Andoird trails markedly, with 3,444 employment opportunities. There are more Android phones but not as many apps being written.

"We are not predicting a comeback for Android next quarter, on the contrary" said Barrie. "Previously (2 quarters ago), Android was growing at a faster pace than the iPhone for new applications. We expected that by the end of this year for Android to overtake for new apps."

"However, in the last two quarters, Apple has slingshot itself back into the lead for grow with staggering increases. With the iPhone5 and mini-pad rumored to be coming out soon, we expect further acceleration of the Apple platforms over Android as new functionality comes on out the hardware platforms. We think that possibly Android might be running out of steam," he predicted.

Internet marketing

Photo
Not a typical free lancer

The report also found that Internet marketing jobs, especially through Facebook, are dramatically down, as companies are no longer sure of the effectiveness of social media marketing. Marketing jobs involving Facebook for example, dropped 14 percent this quarter, to 6,150 jobs.

"Internet marketing jobs across the board are down -- this is one of the biggest trends this quarter," Barrie explained. "The main reason for this is that Google and Facebook have created huge uncertainty in the space -- Google with their ever changing algorithm has completely changed the SEO industry and caused it to go into a spin while marketers figure out what they can really do to increase a site's rank."

The survey also detailshow leery companies are of Facebook, and have chosen to lower their spending amounts until the social site can really prove it can increase brand awareness.

"With Facebook, many people don't understand that the best way to use Facebook is for distribution -- reaching lots of people about your product or service quickly," said Barrie.

He also noted if companies aren't using Facebook in the correct way to reach a certain demographic, jobs through social media sites will continue to decline, providing employment seekers in that area of specialty with fewer opportunities.

"Facebook still remains an amazing platform for marketers if you know how to use it right, but all the negative press that came out during the IPO has caused confusion with [employers] who have pulled back their spend this quarter," said Barrie.

Open standards

PhotoThe survey also reveals that open standards dominate the 50 fastest-growing job list. Results show that interactive web technology jobs are up by 17 percent and have added 2,247 in the second quarter.

In addition, user interface jobs grew by 42 percent, as 1,756 freelance positions were offered. Microsoft.net jobs saw a dramatic decline in job opportunities, dropping 39 percent with only 2,919 freelance positions being available.

In terms of what job seekers should do to stay in the know when it comes to online freelance jobs, Barrie says: "Stay ahead of upcoming open standards that will have a huge effect on the industry, the latest updates to the mobile phone and tablet hardware platforms, new tools and so on."

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Too Much News on CNN? Its President Quits Amid Lagging Ratings

Hypnotized by Rupert Murdoch, Americans increasingly prefer opinion to journalism

It wasn't long ago that everyday Americans routinely complained about the "liberal news media" while those of the left-leaning persuasion griped that major...

PhotoIt wasn't long ago that everyday Americans routinely complained about the "liberal news media" while those of the left-leaning persuasion griped that major journalism outlets were too conservative.

Well, everybody should be happy now, as the amount of actual news -- you know, factual and impartial coverage of major events of public importance -- now takes a back seat to mindless pandering and caterwauling by apologists for the most simple-minded versions of liberalism and conservatism.

As we know from reading the papers, newspapers are withering quickly away but less notice is given to the shrinking presence of actual news on TV and cable. The latest evidence: today's announcement by CNN President Jim Walton that he is stepping down amid slumping ratings.

Saying that CNN needs "new thinking," Walton said he will exit the premises at the end of the year. Maybe he meant to say CNN needs "news thinking" or maybe he was misquoted but he went on to say that CNN needs "a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan."

No news, good news?

Photo
Reese Schonfeld

Could be but maybe CNN is just an idea whose time has come and gone. Maybe Americans are no longer sufficiently open-minded to care about getting impartial news coverage and would prefer to watch bewigged midgets yell at each other and set fire to their hair.

CNN, now a Time Warner property, was founded by Ted Turner's money and the know-how and moxie of one Maurice "Reese" Schonfeld back in 1980. 

Turner had become annoyed when The Associated Press gave him a hard time about getting AP news service for his Atlanta-based superstation, WTBS. In best Turner fashion, he got mad and said he would start his own damned news service.

"I'm fixin' to put you all out of business," Turner told me when we chanced to meet in Washington one fine spring day in 1979. (I was then an AP executive). "There ought to be more than one news service in this country."

Turner recruited Schonfeld, then heading up Independent Network News, a New York-based news service for independent TV stations. Schonfeld -- a hard-nosed hard news guy -- had a long history of nipping at AP's heels and relished the opportunity to build something on a global scale.

Schonfeld built CNN into a respected worldwide news operation that to this day is held in high esteem outside the U.S., where its global feed is much more straight-laced than its increasingly tepid domestic product.

Dancing dogs

But that was then and this is now. News, because it seems to be so plentiful, is no longer very highly regarded by a population that has drunk the Kool-Aid brought to these shores by Rupert Murdoch, who introduced British-style tabloid journalism to American television.

Surprise. People like to read about and see pictures of dancing dogs, topless actresses and ridiculous buffoons masquerading as political commentators. CNN's efforts to dress itself up have been half-hearted and thus not terribly successful. It's the old fish-foul thing. You can't have it both ways.

It's perhaps fitting that both CNN and Fox News disgraced themselves by getting it wrong when the Supreme Court upheld most of the Affordable Care Act. Ted Turner may not be watching anymore but he might want to note that his old nemesis, the AP, got it right.

Not to be trite, but the not-for-profit AP's informal motto for much of its long and somewhat shaky life has been, "Get it first, but first get it right."

Yes, it's hard for straight news to compete with show biz just as it's hard for real doctors to compete with charlatans or real financial advisors to compete with pyramid scamsters, but it can be done, though perhaps not as profitably as one's corporate masters might like.

So perhaps Walton is right that CNN needs new thinking. But we'd still like to think it needs news thinking.

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Ooops! Google Admits It Didn't Delete "Mistakenly" Gathered Private Data After All

Revelation stirring up a tempest in Europe; U.S. reaction muted so far

Remember all that data Google said it had "mistakenly" gobbled up from open Wi-Fi networks a few years ago? Well, now it turns out that Google was -- you g...

PhotoRemember all that data Google said its Street View cars had "mistakenly" gobbled up from open Wi-Fi networks a few years ago? Well, now it turns out that Google was -- you guessed it -- mistaken when it said had deleted all the data.

Turns out it still has quite a bit of it, AllThingsD reported today. Google made the admission in an email to the U.K. Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which in turn released it to the public.

None of this is doing much for Googe's street cred.

"Everything Google has said about 'Street View' has been misleading, even the name! Because of course the cars did not simply capture images of streets, but also intercepted private wi-fi communications," said Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington.

Perhaps even more surprising than the revelation that the data still exists, Google said that if local authorities want to look at the data before it's deleted (again), they're welcome to do so.

Keep in mind the data in question is stuff that Google's Street View cars collected from uprotected networks in homes and offices between 2008 and 2010. It includes emails, documents, photos and whatever else businesses and individuals had on machines connected to their unprotected networks.

Collecting all that private data was seen as extremely offensive by privacy adocates. One must wonder how those privacy advocates will feel when they learn that Google is now offering to hand the private data over to local governments.

Cause for concern

In London, the ICO -- calling the latest revelation "cause for concern" -- demanded to examine the data “immediately” to look for evidence that the privacy breach is  more extensive than Google had originally claimed. 

Rotenberg said the ICO now has a chance to dig a bit deeper than it did the first time around.

"We believe that the ICO failed to conduct an adequate investigation in the first instance, and also that it was a mistake to permit Google to delete the data it had wrongfully obtained," he told ConsumerAffairs.

"Now, the Commission will have the opportunity to examine the data that was seized and pursue a more comprehensive investigation. This is a critical matter," Rotenberg said.

In Ireland, a data protection officer said Google's retention of the data was  ‘‘clearly unacceptable.’’

The latest blunder is so far mostly roiling waters in Europe but is expected to reach American shores shortly, where it will make for even rougher sailing for the Google crew.

Google already faces an ongoing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) anti-trust probe that took on new life in May when it was disclosed that the government had hired a top private attorney to manage to case. 

"Google's motto has always been 'Do no evil.' It should also be 'Do no eavesdropping,'" said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to the Los Angeles Times report in May. "Google needs to fully explain to Congress and the public what it knew about the collection of data through its Street View program."

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Capital One Resolves Violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

A $12 Million payment covers a range of allegations brought by the Justice Department

Capital One will pay approximately $12 million to resolve a lawsuit by the Department of Justice alleging the companies violated the Servicemembers Civil R...

PhotoCapital One will pay approximately $12 million to resolve a lawsuit by the Department of Justice alleging the companies violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).

The settlement covers a range of conduct that violated the protections guaranteed service members by the SCRA, including wrongful foreclosures, improper repossessions of motor vehicles, wrongful court judgments, improper denials of the 6 percent interest rate the SCRA guarantees to service members on some credit card and car loans and insufficient 6 percent benefits granted on credit cards, car loans and other types of accounts.

The proposed consent order, which was filed simultaneously with the complaint, is one of the most comprehensive SCRA settlements ever obtained by a government agency or any private party under the SCRA.

The action, said Attorney General Eric Holder, “makes clear that the Justice Department will fight for our service members, and use every available tool, resource and authority to hold accountable those who engage in discriminatory practices targeting those who serve.”

Compensation

PhotoThe agreement requires Capital One to pay approximately $7 million in damages to service members for SCRA violations, including at least $125,000 in compensation plus compensation for any lost equity (with interest) to each servicemember whose home was unlawfully foreclosed upon, and at least $10,000 in compensation plus compensation for any lost equity (with interest) to each servicemember whose motor vehicle was unlawfully repossessed.

In addition, the agreement requires Capital One to provide a $5 million fund to compensate service members who did not receive the appropriate amount of SCRA benefits on their credit card accounts, motor vehicle finance loans and consumer loans. Any portion of the $5 million that remains after payments to service members are made will be donated by Capital One to one or more charitable organizations that assist service members.

Full cooperation

Capital One cooperated fully with the Justice Department’s investigation into its SCRA practices and has also agreed to pay above and beyond the $12 million if independent audits required by the settlement turn up violations in accounts that it recently acquired from HSBC or ING Direct USA.

Capital One has also, on its own initiative, recently adopted several policies that go beyond the requirements of the SCRA, such as extending a 4 percent interest rate to qualifying service members and giving an additional one-year grace period before de-enrolling service members from the reduced interest rate program.

Service members will be identified and compensated, with no action required on their part, on accounts dating back to July 15, 2006. As a result of the decree, Capital One has agreed to treat a service member’s request for a 6 percent rate relief in one area of its lending, such as credit cards, as a request for a 6 percent rate relief for any loan the servicemember may have with Capital One or its affiliates.

This is the first time the Justice Department has obtained this type of enterprise-wide rate reduction relief from a lender under the SCRA. The settlement also requires Capital One to adopt policies and practices to prevent violations of the SCRA in the future.

PhotoOCC settlement

In a separate action, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) is taking enforcement actions against Capital One for violations and compliance deficiencies related to the SCRA.

The enforcement actions require the banks to take prompt actions to correct deficiencies in their SCRA compliance programs.

  • First, the enforcement actions require the banks to improve their policies and procedures for determining whether servicemembers who request certain benefits provided by the SCRA are eligible for such benefits, ensuring that the SCRA benefits are calculated correctly, and verifying the military status of servicemembers prior to seeking or obtaining a default judgment.
  • Second, the enforcement actions require the banks to ensure the retention of accurate and complete records that document the basis for decisions regarding servicemembers' eligibility for SCRA benefits or protections, and to develop and implement a comprehensive SCRA training program for employees.
  • Third, the enforcement actions require the banks to establish robust oversight of and controls over their third-party vendors that provide marketing, sales, delivery, servicing, and fulfillment of services for the banks' financial products, such as credit card accounts, mortgage loans, motor vehicle finance loans, and consumer loans and lines of credit.
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Why Your Tweens Shouldn't Text

A researcher suggests 'techspeak' is corrupting grammar skills

In his second term, President Theodore Roosevelt tried to “reform” U.S. spelling, to make it simpler and easier to write words. But what Roosev...

PhotoIn his second term, President Theodore Roosevelt tried to “reform” U.S. spelling, to make it simpler and easier to write words. But what Roosevelt failed to do, the practice of “texting” may succeed in doing. And not everyone thinks that's a good thing.

Drew Cingel, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, says the group of adolescents known as “tweens” are forming poor language skills and he blames texting. When people send texts, they tend to shorten words, use abbreviations and initials.

These usages quickly spill over into everyday usage. Cingel says more tweens are performing poorly on grammar tests.

Gr8!

"They may use a homophone, such as gr8 for great, or an initial, like LOL for laugh out loud," said Cingel. "An example of an omission that tweens use when texting is spelling the word would, w-u-d."

Cingel said the use of these shortcuts while texting, especially if they do a lot of texting, may hinder a tween's ability to switch between techspeak and the normal rules of grammar. The consequences can be severe, such as not getting a job because you wrote “i wud b a gr8 worker:)” on a job application.

To prove his point Cingel gave middle school students in a central Pennsylvania school district a grammar assessment test. The researchers reviewed the test, which was based on a ninth-grade grammar review, to ensure that all the students in the study had been taught the concepts.

The researchers then gathered information about each student's texting habits.

Decline in grammar scores

"Overall, there is evidence of a decline in grammar scores based on the number of adaptations in sent text messages, controlling for age and grade," Cingel said.

Not only did frequent texting negatively predict the test results, but both sending and receiving text adaptations of words were associated with how poorly they performed on the test.

The damage appears more pronounced for spelling than punctuation. Typical punctuation and sentence structure shortcuts that tweens use during texting, such as avoiding capital letters and not using periods at the end of sentences, did not seem to affect their ability to use correct capitalization and punctuation on the test.

Ahead of his time

Roosevelt's idea to change the spelling of words like “through” to “thru” was met with extreme hostility by Congress, the Supreme Court and the nation's newspapers. Alas, he appears to have been a full century ahead of his time.

Young people are now changing the language to accommodate small screens and tiny keyboards. Cingel said he started the study after receiving texts from his young nieces.

"I received text messages from my two younger nieces that, for me, were incomprehensible," Cingel said. "I had to call them and ask them, 'what are you trying to tell me.'"

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Delta To Shut Down Regional Carrier Comair

Economic environment doesn't favor small jets

Comair, a regional carrier operated by Delta Airlines, will soon taxi to the hanger for the last time. The 35-year old airline will cease operations Sept. ...

Comair, a regional carrier operated by Delta Airlines, will soon taxi to the hanger for the last time. The 35-year old airline will cease operations Sept. 29, 2012.

"While regional flying has and will remain a key component of Delta's network, customer expectations and the unit costs of regional flying have evolved,” said Don Bornhorst, Sr. Vice-President of Delta Connection. “In response, Delta recently announced its plans to reduce the total number of regional jets in its network while adding more mainline flying.”

The plan includes reducing the number of 50-seat regional jets from nearly 350 aircraft to 125 or fewer in the upcoming years.

“As a result of this reduction and changes to its customer-focused business strategy, Delta has made the difficult decision to cease Comair's operations," Bornhorst said.

One percent

Currently, Comair accounts for approximately one percent of Delta's network capacity, according to Comair President Ryan Gumm. Gumm said there will be no disruption to customers and no significant adjustments to Delta's flight schedule or locations served.

“All customers who travel on the Delta network, whether on Delta Connection flights or mainline aircraft, can continue to make travel plans with Delta as they have in the past,” the airline said in a statement.

Cincinnati and Detroit will be among the most affected cities since Comair operates hubs at both airports. In addition, it also maintains a hub at New York's LaGuardia Airport. Gumm said Cincinnati remains an important Delta market.

Still profitable

Delta said Cincinnati is now a profitable market for the airline and the city continues to enjoy over 120 peak daily flights, with non-stop service to 49 destinations. No reductions in the number of Delta flights is planned at Cincinnati as a result of this decision, Delta said.

Delta's recent move away from 50-seat aircraft in essence signaled Comair's fate. Comair operates some of the oldest 50-seat aircraft in the Delta Connection fleet, which also have the highest unit cost per flight hour.

With Delta's decision to remove the remaining 16 Comair 50-seaters from the Delta network, Comair was left with only 28 aircraft in scheduled service. The airline said the reduction in Comair's active fleet created higher unit costs, “which equates to a business model that is no longer sustainable in this competitive regional environment.”

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House Votes to Trash Consumer Protection

Consumer groups say they're "profoundly disappointed" by supposed job-creation bill

On Thursday, July 25, 2012, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4078, the so called “Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act&rdqu...

PhotoWashington has truly become a place that Alice of Wonderland fame would recognize. Nothing is what it seems and most everything must be viewed through the looking glass.

Legislation that, let's say, purports to guarantee clean water is more likely to protect industries that discharge toxic wastes into lakes and streams. A bill that claims to guarantee auto safety probably guarantees automakers' earnings.

Seen in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that a bill entitled the “Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act” (H.R. 4078) mostly trashes consumer and environmental protection.

The GOP-backed measure, passed by a partisan 245-172 vote, includes seven bills that collectively make it impossible for consumer protections to be developed and implemented. It halts all protections until the unemployment rate falls to 6%,  which the Congressional Budget Office estimates may occur at the earliest in 2016.

Profoundly disappointed

"We are profoundly disappointed that the House of Representatives voted today to pass a bill that would entirely thwart the ability of federal agencies to protect consumers from unsafe food, predatory financial products, systemically risky financial practices, and dangerous consumer products," said Rachel Weintraub, Director of Product Safety and Senior Counsel at the Consumer Federation of America. "This bill has extreme and negative consequences that will result in harm to American consumers and harm to the U.S. economy. At a time when consumers need more protections, not less, the House of Representatives has tied the hands of government."

Of course, the bill has zero chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate, so it is what most would consider a waste of taxpayers' time and money. Not surprisingly, Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), the measure's sponsor, claims he doesn't see it that way.

“Hardworking Americans deserve a regulatory system that doesn’t hamstring their ability to invest, hire and grow. Yet Arkansas job creators have repeatedly told me how excessive and overly burdensome regulations have prevented them from hiring more employees and growing the economy," Griffin said. "Even President Obama has admitted that ‘unnecessary or too costly’ regulations are ‘placing unreasonable burdens on business [and having] a chilling effect on growth and jobs.’"

Griffin didn't say how curtailing food safety inspections would create more jobs, although his state is home to some pretty big chicken producers, who may have been clucking at him about those bothersome food and workplace safety regulations.

"HR 4078 will halt important food safety regulations that are essential to protect consumers from contaminated food," said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at CFA. "The reality is that both consumer groups and the food industry have been urging the Obama Administration to issue new food safety regulations to better assure the safety of fresh produce and imported foods."

“The SEC and CFTC, two agencies with central responsibility for reforming the financial system, already face tremendous burdens when it comes to enacting the tough, effective regulations needed to achieve that goal.  H.R. 4078 would make their jobs all but impossible, and leave the financial system vulnerable to Wall Street’s risky, unethical and rapacious practices,” said CFA Director of Investor Protection Barbara Roper.  “This is particularly ironic, since it was weak regulation of the financial system that led to the financial crisis that caused our current economic woes.”

Gift to criminals?

“HR 4078 is a gift to the corporate criminal and wrongdoer lobby, pure and simple,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “We need tighter controls over the big banks that are fixing markets, ripping us off and resuming risky practices that threaten economic stability. We need stronger rules to prevent the epidemic of needless death and injury from workplace hazards.

"We need far-reaching rules to avert catastrophic climate change. We need rules to ensure the safety of our food supply. And we need the government to perform its everyday functions. H.R. 4078 would block all of those efforts, in the interest of protecting Wall Street and the polluters, reckless employers and corporations that put dangerous products on the market,” Weissman said.

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Gasoline Prices May Be Approaching A Crossroads

For the first time in weeks, today's price is lower than yesterday's

Gasoline prices gained four cents in the last week, but in a hopeful sign for consumers, appear to have stopped rising – at least for the moment.Th...

PhotoGasoline prices gained four cents in the last week, but in a hopeful sign for consumers, appear to have stopped rising -- at least for the moment.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.488 per gallon, compared with $3.447 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. But that's down slightly from Thursday's average of $3.49, marking the first drop in prices in more than two weeks.

Diesel fuel is still rising, however. The average price today is $3.760 per gallon, versus $3.710 a week ago.

Photo

Oil prices were up and down throughout the week, responding to conflicting data. The latest direction is higher, responding to renewed hopes Europe will be able to cope with its debt crisis. Demand for oil has dropped in Europe, however.

In the U.S. the economy also appears to be dampening demand for gasoline. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports an unexpectedly large increase in stockpiles for gasoline and diesel fuel in the previous week.

There were big price fluctuations among the states in the last week. Among states with expensive fuel, Connecticut, California, Washington, New York and North Dakota all saw average price hikes of five cents a gallon or more. The price dropped before $4 a gallon in Alaska for the first time in months, however, leaving Hawaii as the only state with an average price north of that mark.

Gas prices also rose in states where fuel is cheapest. South Carolina saw the price rise seven cents a gallon. Prices also moved higher in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

The states with the highest gas prices this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.150)
  • Alaska ($3.997)
  • Connecticut ($3.822)
  • California ($3.796)
  • New York ($3.771)
  • Washington State ($3.678)
  • North Dakota ($3.671)
  • Oregon ($3.643)
  • Illinois ($3.605)
  • Maine ($3.623)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.186)
  • Mississippi ($3.230)
  • Alabama ($3.245)
  • Tennessee ($3.274)
  • Arkansas ($3.282)
  • Arizona ($3.285)
  • New Mexico ($3.305)
  • Louisiana ($3.318)
  • Virginia ($3.343)
  • Missouri ($3.348)
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The Best Concerts Left This Summer

It's still not too late to make your plans for these late summer music festivals

Autumn is certainly a beautiful time of year. The tree-tops host a spectacular array of rustic colors, and down on the ground people get excited for season...

Photo
Lollapalooza

Autumn is certainly a beautiful time of year. The tree tops host a spectacular array of rustic colors, and down on the ground people get excited for seasonal pleasures like cooler temperatures and fall football.

But wait, not so fast. It's only the end of July, right? And there are still plenty of warm midnights and summer sunsets to bask in.

It's also still the summer concert-going season, and it's not too late to take in your favorite artists or just wander around the grounds and soak up the music and scattered sunshine.

In 2012, there are many ways one can have a great music festival experience. Of course the traditional way is heading to a wide open space and attending a marathon concert that has 70 bands and a 1960ish feeling of social freedom.

Then there are the more laid-back, lawn-chair-friendly concerts, where a large blanket and an ice cooler will serve you better than a concert glowstick or finding a good place to mosh.

And today's digital age wouldn't be quite so digital if there weren't some sort of Internet component to concert going. If one would rather watch Barry Manilow sing "Mandy" live within the comforts of their living room computer they can do that quite easily these days.

So before all of this year's summer music festivals are gone, we'll highlight some of the best outdoor concerts, the quieter less-crowded music festivals, and some of the top concerts that are being streamed online.

Lollapalooza

A concert list wouldn't be a concert list without starting it with Lollapalooza. The Chicago festival has made itself sort of the granddaddy of the outside music gatherings.

Starting in 1990, and spearheaded by Jane's Addiction's front man Perry Farrell, Lollapalooza has been considered the go-to concert for both diehard and casual music fans alike.

Although tickets on the website have been sold out for the Aug. 3 through Aug. 5 concert, those still interested may have better luck at sites like StubHub, or Ticketsnow.com.

I called Ticketnow, and was told those interested can still get general admission tickets for $125.00. You won't be able to purchase a seat for any of the days, but you'll still be able to walk around and listen to over 100 bands that will be playing at this year's concert.

You'll be able to see everyone from recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Atlanta rapper B.O.B.

KahBang Festival

PhotoThis music festival in Maine is the state's biggest, and has activities that include film, food, art and outdoor team sports like adult kickball. There's even a "Brew Fest" within the concert. 

In the four-day festival starting Aug. 9 and ending Aug. 12, music lovers can see the Deftones, indie rockers Now, Now and electronic and dubstep artist Lorin Ashton.

Tickets start at $35 for a one-day pass, up to $105 for a camping pass. Guests can spend the night on festival grounds if they rather not commute from their home or local hotel.

Also, those looking for a break from the loud music can check out KahBang's Film Festival that's playing alongside the concert at the Film Tent at the Waterfront Festival grounds. Entertainment lovers will get plenty of bang for their buck at Kahbang this summer.

Long Beach Jazz Festival

Photo
Long Beach Jazz

On the opposite side of the continent, Jazz lovers can see some of the day's top Jazz artists at the Long Beach Jazz Festival. Its organizers say the festival is the only Southern California jazz festival that's nestled within a grassy knoll in a lagoon type setting. Sounds awfully nice doesn't it?

Being held in Long Beach’s Rainbow Lagoon park, which also hosts a series of crawfish festivals, guests can enjoy the tunes of Dianne Reeves, Poncho Sanchez, and the legendary Ronald Iseley & The Isley Brothers. Where do they find crawfish in California? Don't ask.

The festival is from Aug. 10 to 12, and tickets range from general admission prices of $50, to $185 for VIP access which includes dinner and wine.

Lake George Music Festival

For those who love classical music this festival is supposed to be extremely top rate, as it's six days long and will showcase classical performers from all over the world, including performances from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the Julliard School and the Yale School of music.

From Aug. 17 to Aug. 23, the festival is the only live indoor concert being featured in this story, with each performance being at St. James Episcopal Church, in Lake George Village, N.Y. Both admission and parking are free.

Austin City Limits (ACL)

When it comes to streaming a concert, Austin City Limits is a darn good concert to stream, which is why both YouTube and Dell are showing the concert in almost real time.

The way it works is by concert cameras capturing footage, then quickly transferring and uploading the images to multiple simultaneous YouTube channels.

The Austin, Texas, concert boasts a line-up of Neil Young, The White Stripe's Jack White, and the Black Keys. Tickets to attend the concert have been sold out for quite some time, which might make streaming this particular festival your only option at this point, unless you do an aggressive search for last minute tickets.

Those interested in streaming the festival should keep checking ACL's YouTube channel for updates. 

Tomorrowland Festival

Let’s just say you're not able to spontaneously purchase a plane ticket to Belgium within the next few days, you can view the TomorrowLand festival right at home.

Since 2005 this dance music concert is considered one of the biggest DJ events in the world, and this year you can catch Fatboy Slim, International DJ's Bloody Beetroots, and disc jockey duo Rebecca & Fiona, by streaming the concert from your home computer or mobile device.

The concert will play live on July 27 through July 29, and to stream Tomorrowland, viewers should simply go to Youtube.com/tomorrowland for more info.

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Interest Rates Headed In Two Directions

Credit card rates are rising but mortgage rates are still falling

The cost of borrowing money is both rising and falling, depending on the type of loan you need. In the last week credit card interest rates rose while mort...

PhotoThe cost of borrowing money is both rising and falling, depending on the type of loan you need. In the last week credit card interest rates rose while mortgage rates kept falling.

In its weekly Credit Card Rate Report, CreditCards.com reports the rates on news credit card offers rose this week. The average is comprised of 100 of the most popular credit cards in the country, including cards from dozens of leading U.S. issuers and representing every card category. Introductory “teaser” rates are not included in the calculation.

The national average annual percentage rate (APR) on new card offers climbed to 14.97 percent this week -- the highest it's been since March.

The jump in rates can be linked to changes by Chase and Capital One. Chase raised the APR on two of its business cards, the Business Ink card and the Ink Cash card. Both cards previously featured a flat APR of 10.24 percent and now feature an APR of 13.24 percent.

Record low rates

Money is a lot cheaper if you can qualify for a home mortgage. Freddie Mac reports fixed rate mortgage rates continue to reach record lows.

The 30-year fixed rate mortgage averaged 3.49 percent, more than a full percentage point lower than a year ago when it averaged 4.55 percent. Meanwhile, the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage, a popular choice for those looking to refinance, also set another record low at 2.80 percent.

While recent signs have supported hope the housing market is recovering, the mortgage market is spending other signals.

"Market concerns over the strength of the economic recovery brought long-term Treasury yields to new lows this week allowing fixed mortgage rates to reach record levels,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist at Freddie Mac. “The Conference Board Leading Economic Index showed the largest monthly decline in June since September 2011. Existing home sales fell to 4.36 million homes in June and represented the slowest pace since October 2011. Similarly, new home sales fell in June to their lowest level since January of this year."

Who's credit-worthy?

With mortgage rates at record lows, you might expect that would spur a big increase in sales. Realtors say it would, except that many credit-worthy buyers can't qualify for a loan.

Mortgage lenders, of course, have different ideas about who is credit-worthy. Generally, banks want to see a credit score of 720 or above and at least 20 percent as a down payment.

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Consumer Sentiment Drops As Economy Slows

Reuters/University of Michigan survey finds confidence at the lowest point this year

The dog days of summer find consumers feeling much less confident about the economy. The Reuters/University of Michigan index of sentiment declined this mo...

PhotoThe dog days of summer find consumers feeling much less confident about the economy. The Reuters/University of Michigan index of sentiment declined this month to 72.3 -- the lowest level of the year.

Unemployment is still high, stuck at 8.2 percent. Gas prices have started going up again after falling for several months. The drought promises to make food more expensive next year and, in fact, some food items are already going up in price.

Nearly half of all consumers reported in July that their finances had recently worsened, with equal numbers attributing the decline to lower incomes and to higher prices. Complaints about rising prices have shifted from gas to food prices. Just 10 percent of all consumers expected any inflation-adjusted gains in their incomes in the next year, and just 22 percent thought there was a better than even chance of real income gains over the next five years.

Depressing news

Consumers who follow the news may also be influenced by the daily dire warnings about Europe's staggering debt and the warnings of a “fiscal cliff” looming in the U.S. at the end of the year if Congress doesn't find a bipartisan agreement to trim the deficit.

“Consumers expect continued economic stagnation since they believe that current economic policies are incapable of solving the problems facing the economy,” said Richard Curtin, the Index's chief economist. “While politicians continue their semantic posturing about how and when the fiscal cliff will be bridged, consumers have begun to take precautionary steps. Although politicians understand that no consumer likes this game of chicken, they have pinned their political hopes on the other party being blamed, while ignoring the economic consequences of inaction. Even a temporary extension would decrease the impact of uncertainty on consumer spending in the second half of the year.”

Not as dark as they seem?

But just how bad are things, really? Perhaps not as bad as they might seem.

The U.S. government today reported Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the sum total of goods and services sold in the U.S., grew by 1.5 percent in the second quarter, while the first quarter growth was revised up to 2.0 percent. That's not particularly inspiring except that it's better than a lot of forecasters expected and is better than much of the rest of the world is doing.

At the same time, the real estate market appears to be in the beginning stages of righting itself after four years of carnage. The real estate site Zillow.com reported this week that the market had finally bottomed, with the national average price of a home rising for the first time in four years.

Consumers are basically saying they'll believe it when they see it. The Reuters/Michigan Index shows consumers do not expect the pace of economic growth to revive job and income prospects. Curtin says consumers never willingly choose to lower their aspirations; that change is slowly forced on them by unrelenting adversity.

The greatest concern to consumers is that wage and job growth will remain depressed in the foreseeable future, and that these meager gains are likely to be diminished in the years ahead by rising taxes and benefit cutbacks.

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Malware and Spam On the Rise In 2012

And much of it is coming from the U.S.

If it seems your email inbox is getting cluttered with spam again, its not your imagination. A German technology security firm says unwelcome or dangerous ...

PhotoIf it seems your email inbox is getting cluttered with spam again, its not your imagination. A German technology security firm says unwelcome or dangerous e-mails were on the rise again in the first half of 2012.

The company, called Eleven, said it documented a clear jump in the second quarter in particular: the bottom line shows 54.8 percent more spam, 52.4 percent more identified malware, and 90 percent more virus outbreaks.

In contrast, phishing e-mails saw an increase particularly in the first quarter, when their growth rate jumped by 169.6 percent. Measured against total e-mail volume spam had an average share of 70.8 percent in the first six months of 2012. On June 29, the heaviest spam day of the year until now, its share jumped to 89.2 percent.

The second main trend of the first half of 2012 was the rise in spam, phishing, and malware campaigns targeted to a specific country, customers of a regional banking institution or the users of specific services. What set this apart was a clearly limited recipient area, credible content, high language quality, and Websites that are almost perfect copies of the originals. In other words, more sophisticated perpetrators.

In the first six months of 2012, Eleven registered phishing campaigns against customers of Amazon Germany and Deutsche Postbank, as well as PayPal users. Malware campaigns disguised themselves as phony mobile telephone bills, postal notification slips, and tax notifications.

Holidays and special events

Valentines Day and Mother's Day in the U.S. were highpoints of spam activity. Most recently Euro 2012 and the run-up to the Olympic games in London have been marked by phishing campaigns. The most popular trick in both cases: phony ticket lotteries requesting bank account and credit card data.

The spam and malware are back, Eleven says, because spammers are recovering from the law enforcement efforts that shut many of them down in 2011. After the Rustock botnet was shut down in March 2011, the volume of spam coming from Western countries was reduced to a trickle.

For several months, they did not place on the top ten spam senders list at all. But in the second quarter of 2012 in particular, the volume of spam from these countries was clearly on the rise, Eleven says.

And in the first six months of this year, the U.S. was back on the list in sixth place, reaching fith in June alongside Germany in third and the United Kingdom in eighth.

India, meanwhile, remains the number one country for generating email-delivered spam and malware.

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CRM Labs Recalls Male Sexual Performance Supplements

The products contain undeclared active ingredients

CRM Laboratories is recalling all X-ROCK 3 Day Pill For Men and Z-ROCK products sold between October 2011 and April 2012. ...

PhotoCRM Laboratories is recalling all X-ROCK 3 Day Pill For Men and Z-ROCK products sold between October 2011 and April 2012. 

Analytical tests conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that the products contained sildenafil and hydroxythiohomosildenafil. Hydroxythiohomosildenafil is an analogue of sildenafil and is close in structure to sildenafil and is expected to possess a similar pharmacological and adverse event profile. Sildenafil is the active pharmaceutical ingredient in a FDA approved drug (Viagra) that is used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED), making these products unapproved new drugs. 

Threat to consumers 

These undeclared active ingredients pose a threat to consumers because sildenafil and hydroxythiohomosildenafil may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs (such as nitroglycerin) and lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. 

Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease often take nitrates. ED is a common problem in men with these conditions and they may seek products to enhance sexual performance. Additionally, hydroxythiohomosildenafil, like sildenafil, may cause side effects, such as headaches and flushing. 

Packaging 

All codes of X-Rock 3 Day Pill for Men and Z-Rock All Natural Male Supplement, within expiration, are included in this recall. The products are blue capsules individually packaged on a cardboard blister card; some older packaging configurations include blister double pack (2 capsules per blister card) and white plastic bottles (6, 12, 24 count). The products were sold as wholesale in the US to distributors who further distributed it nationwide through Internet sales and at retail. 

X-Rock 3 Day Pill for Men back panel may read “Distributed by XRock Industries PO Box 120863 Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33312” or “MATE Enterprises 1020 N. Venetian Drive Miami, Florida 33139 www.XRockHim.com   (888) XROCK-HIM).” 

Z-Rock All Natural Male Supplement back panel will read “Distributed By XRock Industries PO Box 120863 Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33312 www.ZrockUSA.com   877-976-2563.” 

XROCK Industries has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall. 

Customers who have these products in their possession should stop using them immediately and contact their physician if they have experienced any problems that may be related to taking this product. 

The Company is advising consumers to return any unused products, for a refund of the full purchase price, to the retail location from which it was purchased or to the Company directly. Consumers can call 305-587-9830 Monday through Friday 9am-5pm EST to receive instructions for returning the products.

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Ford Recalling Escapes With Sticky Throttles

The automaker says this poses the threat of a crash, resulting in injury or death

The risk of a high-speed crash has prompted Ford Motor Company to recall nearly 424,000 model year 2001 through 2004 Escape vehicles equipped with 3.0L V6 ...

PhotoThe risk of a high-speed crash has prompted Ford Motor Company to recall nearly 424,000 model year 2001 through 2004 Escape vehicles equipped with 3.0L V6 engines and speed control manufactured from October 22, 1999, through January 23, 2004. 

Inadequate clearance between the engine cover and the speed control cable connector could result in a stuck throttle when the accelerator pedal is fully or almost-fully depressed. This risk exists regardless of whether or not speed control (cruise control) is used. 

A stuck throttle may result in very high vehicle speeds and make it difficult to stop or slow the vehicle, which could cause a crash, serious injury or death. 

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will repair the vehicles by increasing the engine cover clearance, free of charge. The safety recall is expected to begin on, or before, August 6. Remedy parts are expected to be available in mid-August. 

Until then dealers will disconnect the speed control cable as an interim remedy, if parts are not available at the time of an owner's service appointment. Owners may contact Ford at 1-866-436-7332. 

It’s the second incident involving the Escape in two weeks.  On July 16, Ford issued a recall of thousands of 2013 models, saying the positioning of carpet padding could lead to the risk of a crash.

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Michelin Recalls BF Goodrich and Uniroyal Tires

Tread separation could result in a crash

Michelin is recalling 799,900 BF Goodrich Commercial T/A A/S LRE and Uniroyal Laredo HD/H LRE tires, sizes LT235/85R16 120 Q and LT245/75R16 120 Q. ...

PhotoMichelin is recalling 799,900 BF Goodrich Commercial T/A A/S LRE and Uniroyal Laredo HD/H LRE tires, sizes LT235/85R16 120 Q and LT245/75R16 120 Q. 

The tires may develop a separation at the tread/belt edge. A tread/belt separation of the tire while the vehicle is in use can result in rapid air loss that may increase the risk of a vehicle crash. 

Michelin will notify owners and replace the affected tires free of charge. The safety recall is expected to begin on, or about, August 6. Owners may contact Michelin Consumer Care at 1-800-637-5527.

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RedBox and Verizon Make Their Partnership Official

"RedBox Instant by Verizon" will offer more or less the same features as Netflix

Netflix may not be enjoying its lonely place on top of the DVD hill anymore; as Redbox and Verizon have made an announcement that the two are joining force...

PhotoNetflix has been King of the Hill in the DVD and streaming video game but Redbox and Verizon are hoping to muscle their way in with a new partnership expected to be available later this year.

The service called "RedBox Instant by Verizon" will offer more or less the same features as Netflix will, without the home delivery option.

Consumers will be able to select DVDs at the Redbox' kiosks, stream movies directly to home television sets, and also choose to download them.

Customers will be able to choose between 36,800 Redbox kiosks across the U.S., and will also be able to subscribe to Verizon's subscription and video on-demand streaming services.

Industry experts believe the partnership could make a fairly large dent inNetflix' customer base.

Perhaps the two companies teaming up will not only provide an alternative for DVD and game consumers, but also fix some of the service problems that Redbox has created over the years, although if anyone has ever tried to straighten out a customer service problem with Verizon -- and who hasn't? -- it's not exactly an encouraging prospect.

Redbox rants

Photo
Consumers rate Redbox

Redbox' kiosks are pretty straightforward but they still generate their share of grousing from movie-hungry consumers. 

"I rented 3 movies from Redbox and returned them within the allotted timeframe of a one-night rental. I have now been charged for all 3 movies totaling almost $80.000," said Cassandra of Minnesota."

"I contacted Redbox and after going back and forth with them for about a week, they decided they would be kind enough to refund half of the money they charged me. What?! I don't have these movies! I'm going to be calling them to offer one more chance to refund the remaining amount and then I will be heading to the bank to dispute that charge. I will never again be renting from a Redbox," she said.

Other consumers experienced problems with Redbox' DVD's being damaged or even blank.

"I want my money back," wrote Candice of Accokeek Md.

"Two weeks ago, I rented a game from a local Redbox, only to find out when I got home that there was a huge ring around the disc and it wouldn't play at all. I was charged 2 days on a game I couldn't play. Today, I made a reservation for another game at a Redbox, 10 miles out of the way. I got all the way to the Redbox, swiped my card, got 'what I thought was the game', and it’s nothing but a blank DVD-R disc with the barcode pasted around the ring."

Exactly how much Redbox' movies and games will now cost has yet to be announced.

Amazonian rumblings

Earlier this month Amazon said it will be working with Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution to offer new programming for its at-home video service.

Just like Netflix and Redbox, Amazon's Prime Instant Videos offers streaming services for those U.S. customers with a paid Amazon Prime or student membership. This of course is separate from the company's instant video division, that allows customers to rent and buy movies from a large selection.

However, Amazon only offers streaming capabilities, so customers aren't able to download. By partnering with Warner Bros., viewers will now have access to shows like "The Voice", "2 Broke Girls" and "The Bachelorette."

Netflix in the lead

With Netflix still being way ahead in the movie rental game, it will take both RedBox Instant by Verizon, and Amazon a long while to catch up. Especially since Netflix is doing everything in its power to strengthen its lead, at great cost to its bottom line. Its profits were off 91% for the second quarter and is forecasting a loss for the fourth quarter.

Just one year since the company's price fiasco, which drew away a large number of customers, Netflix recently announced that its customers watched over 1 billion hours of online video in June of 2012, which shows that while consumers may gripe, they are taking full advantage of Netflix' "all you can watch" pricing policy.

Netflix is in perhaps in that fabled location between a rock and a hard place. It is losing about 1 million DVD customers per quarter while its slow-growing online customers are consuming more and more streaming video. DVD rentals are about five times more profitable than streaming video.

All this and new competitors too? What's Netflix to do? Guess we'll have to wait and see.

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Nature Valley Not So Natural, Suit Charges

Suit charges snack bars have factory-made high-maltose corn syrup, maltodextrin

General Mills touts its Nature Valley granola bars and "thins" as "natural" snacks but a class-action lawsuit says the snacks contain industrially-produced...

PhotoGeneral Mills touts its Nature Valley granola bars and "thins" as "natural" snacks but a class-action lawsuit says the snacks contain industrially-produced artificial ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, and maltodextrin.

"Our Chewy Trail mix bars are made with delicious combinations of 100% natural ingredients like whole almonds, cranberries, peanuts, and pomegranate," is how the company describes Nature Valley Chewy Trail Mix bars on labels.

The front of the package describes the product as "100% NATURAL," and a side panel notes that Nature Valley "is proud to be the official natural granola bar for" the U.S. Olympic Ski Team and the PGA golf tour. Yet the product contains high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin.

But according to the complaint, high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin are both produced by applying acids, enzymes, or acids and enzymes in sequence to corn starch, depolymerizing the starch to glucose and maltose. The acids or enzymes are then neutralized, removed, or deactivated, and the resulting product is then refined, purified, and concentrated.

Highly processed

"High maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin are highly processed, do not exist in nature, and not even under the most elastic possible definition could they be considered 'natural,'" said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose litigation department is acting as co-counsel in the suit.

The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court in the Northern District of California, on behalf of Amy McKendrick, a resource teacher from Kern County, Calif., and another California woman, both of whom sought out natural products on medical advice.

"My daughter's special diet requires that I select natural products and avoid artificial dyes, sweeteners, or additives—and I'm willing to pay a little bit more for products that are truly 'all natural,'" said McKendrick. "Who would assume that a '100% Natural' product from a company called Nature Valley would have these factory-refined ingredients?"

CSPI said it privately raised concerns with General Mills over Nature Valley "Natural" claims in July 2010. General Mills responded by indicating they would work to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup from the product line, CSPI said in a press release.  It added that while few, if any, Nature Valley products still contain high-fructose corn syrup, many still do contain high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin.

"Few companies would like to brag that their ingredients are 'fresh from the factory,' but that's exactly where high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin come from," said CSPI assistant director of litigation Seema Rattan. "General Mills is misleading consumers when it suggests otherwise."

The suit says Nature Valley's labeling and advertising is in violation of several California consumer protection laws, including the California Legal Remedies Act, the Unfair Competition Law, and the False Advertising Law. Besides CSPI's litigation unit, the San Francisco law firms of Baker Law, P.C., and Sherman Business Law are representing the consumers. Besides seeking certification to proceed as a class action, the plaintiffs seek to stop General Mills from making deceptive natural claims on Nature Valley products.

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Consumers Can Expect Even Higher Food Prices

Summer drought is taking increasingly heavy toll

If you are already having a hard time staying within your grocery budget, this will not come as good news. Because of the extended U.S. drought, the U.S. D...

PhotoIf you are already having a hard time staying within your grocery budget, this will not come as good news. Because of the extended U.S. drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says we can expect food costs to go up across the board next year.

The forecast calls for a 3 to 5 percent increase in retail food prices next year, on top of additional increases likely to be felt this year. Food prices are up one percent so far this year, according to the U.S. government.

This year's drought has been worse than usual. It's not just the length and severity of it, but the extent of it. Drought-parched counties declared federal disaster areas stretch coast to coast. It's already sent prices for corn, wheat and soybeans skyrocketing.

In it's forecast, USDA said it expects the prices consumers pay for beef and veal to jump 3.5 to 4.5 percent this year. Not only is the feed for livestock more expensive, producers are reducing the size of their herds to save money. With fewer animals being slaughtered, the law of supply and demand drives up prices.

Meanwhile USDA sees no relief in the corn market. Prices of corn for December delivery rose to nearly $8 a bushel this week. Corn prices are up over 50 percent in the last three months.

Dought worsens as summer goes on

During the week ending July 22, USDA reports the portion of the U.S. corn crop rated in very poor to poor condition climbed to 45 percent. Soybeans rated very poor to poor rose to 35 percent. These ratings for both commodities have increased for seven consecutive weeks.

During the same period, from June 3 to July 22, the portion of the U.S. corn rated good to excellent fell from 72 to 26 percent. Soybeans rated good to excellent tumbled from 65 to 31 percent. The current corn and soybean ratings represent the lowest conditions at any time of year since 1988. At the same time, more than half -- 55 percent -- of the nation's pastures and rangeland are rated in very poor or poor condition.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week designated another 76 counties in six states as primary natural disaster because of the loss of crops due to heat and drought. That brings the total for the year to 1,369 counties across 31 states as disaster areas -- 1,234 due to drought -- making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans.

The additional counties designated this week are in the states of Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. The U.S. Drought Monitor currently reports that two-thirds of the continental United States is in a moderate to exceptional drought.

"President Obama requested that USDA take the steps within our existing programs to support struggling farmers and ranchers and we announced these new measures earlier this week," said Vilsack.

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Newsweek Preparing to Go Online-Only?

Report says the move may be announced as early as September

Like most other publications that have been "saved," Newsweek may be in danger of relapse. Reports today say it will soon end its 79-year run as a printed ...

PhotoLike most other publications that have been "saved," Newsweek may be in danger of relapse. Reports today say it will soon end its 79-year run as a printed newsweekly, ascending into the cloud in hopes of living happily ever after.

For most of its life, Newsweek was a doted-upon child of the Washington Post Company. It wasn't very profitable but no one much cared back in the day when newspapers printed money even faster than newsprint.

But a few years ago, as the Post's cookie jar began emptying at an alarming rate, Newsweek was cast off for the humiliating price of $1 to Sidney Harman, a fabulously wealthy stereo magnate, Congressional spouse and, one assumes,  avid reader.

Harman merged Newsweek into the Daily Beast Co., owned by Interactive Media Corp. (IAC).  Harman died not long afterwards, in April 2011, and now the Harman trust says it doesn't intend to keep putting money into Newsweek.

That leaves IAC Chairman Barry Diller at the helm. He didn't get to be a media kingpin by funding losing ventures forever and he reportedly made that clear during a a quarterly earnings call this week, saying the transition to online from print "will take place," according to Advertising Age magazine.

IAC makes most of its revenue from the Match.com and Ask.com websites. "Content" sites like Newsweek and The Daily Beast? Well, like doted-upon children, they're nice to have around but they don't contribute much to paying the rent.

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Two Southern California Men Sentenced In Rip-Off of Michaels Stores Patrons

The defendants possessed 952 blank gold and silver credit card-like cards

Two southern California men have been sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland for their roles in a scheme t...

PhotoTwo southern California men have been sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland for their roles in a scheme to defraud nearly 1,000 debit card holders by using stolen bank account information to withdraw money from ATMs. 

Eduard Arakelyan, 21, and Arman Vardanyan, 23, have each been sentenced to serve 36 months in prison on bank fraud and conspiracy charges, and an additional, consecutive 24 months in prison for the identity theft charge.  In addition, they were ordered upon release from prison to serve five years of supervised release and to pay $42,043 in restitution. 

Arakelyan and Vardanyan were charged in a criminal information filed on March 5, 2012, in the U.S. District Court in Oakland, with one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, one count of bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. They pleaded guilty to these crimes in Oakland and U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken pronounced the sentences. 

“These sentences send a clear message that if you take part in a fraud scheme that cheats consumers out of their hard earned money, you will pay a significant price,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.  “No matter the sophistication or size of the scheme, we are determined to bring to justice those who engage in these kinds of frauds.” 

High-tech theft 

Arakelyan and Vardanyan admitted that in or about July 2011, they participated in a scheme to defraud bank account holders and financial institutions by obtaining 952 stolen bank cards and traveling to Northern California to withdraw from ATMs as much money as possible using these stolen bank accounts.  

According to court documents, they possessed two loaded firearms, a GPS device pre-programmed with ATM locations and eight mobile telephones, all to further their scheme. 

The information charged that the stolen cards were linked to a 2011 theft of a reported 94,000 debit and credit card account numbers from customers buying goods at 84 Michaels Stores Inc. stores across the United States.  

The perpetrators of that security breach replaced about 84 authentic personal identification number pads, used by the stores to process debit and credit card purchases, with fraudulent pads from which they downloaded customers’ banking information.  

After this breach, financial institutions reported tens of thousands of incidents of fraudulent activity linked to customers who had visited the affected Michaels stores. 

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Credit Card Could Provide Extra Warranty Coverage

Another reason not to pay for extended coverage

Here's another reason not to pay for an extended warranty. The credit card you use to purchase the product may already provide one at not extra charge.Fi...

PhotoHere's another reason not to pay for an extended warranty. The credit card you use to purchase the product may already provide one at no extra charge.

First, let's take a look at so-called extended warranties but which are in reality service contracts. When you buy electronics or a major appliance, you can be sure the salesperson will push hard for you to also get the extended warranty.

According to a study from the University of Maryland, 31 percent of consumers opt for the extended warranty each year, spending around $1.6 billion. According to Business Week, extended warranties provide about three to four percent of a company's revenue but translate into as much as 50 percent of its profits. Why? Because many claims are never made or claims are made but denied.

Money wasters

As a result, CardHub says extended warranties are generally regarded as being among the biggest money wasters for consumers, and the ability to receive extra coverage at no cost through one’s credit card can provide a valuable source of savings.

When using a credit card to make a purchase, the card network, not the credit card company itself, provides the benefit. Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express all offer some level of extended warranty coverage for products purchased with their cards.

According to CardHub's study, all four major card networks extend original manufacturer’s warranties for up to one year for at least certain cardholder segments and will cover amounts up to $10,000. American Express’ extended warranty policy received a 90 percent rating, the highest cumulative score in this study. Discover finished second at 80 percent, MasterCard came in third at 71 percent, and Visa placed last with a rating of 67 percent.

The study also found that Discover and American Express are the only networks that provide coverage to all cardholders and that Discover used to be the only network that required cardholders to purchase extended warranty protection but has since upgraded to an improved policy that is free for all cardholders.

Exceptions

There are some exceptions to the coverage. MasterCard is the only network that excludes physical damage to an item from its coverage and none of the four networks provide a product warranty on items that lack an existing manufacturer’s warranty. In other words, if the manufacturer doesn't stand behind the product, the credit card network won't either.

Also, if you are buying a refurbished products, such as a computer or TV set, use your American Express card. American Express is the only network that provides coverage on refurbished products.

The best part for the consumer, besides this feature being free, none of the networks’ extended warranty programs require sign up or product registration. All you have to do is purchase the product with your credit card. Consumers must keep their purchase receipts in order to be eligible for an extended warranty under each of the networks’ programs.

It will be up to the card network administrator to decide whether the product that is the subject of a claim will be repaired, replaced or refunded. You should call your credit card company to find out the best way to submit your claim.

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Domestic Air Fares Are Taking Off

Highest fares are at Cincinnati airport, with the lowest at Atlantic City

If you do a lot of traveling by air, you already know this: the cost of flying is on the rise...

PhotoIf you do a lot of traveling by air, you already know this: the cost of flying is on the rise 

Average domestic air fares rose to $373 in the first quarter -- up 4.8 percent from the average fare of $356 in the first quarter of 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). 

Cincinnati had the highest average fare -- $526, while Atlantic City, NJ, had the lowest at $157. 

Record-high fares 

Not adjusted for inflation, the $373 first-quarter 2012 average fares reached an all-time high for any quarter. The previous high was $370 in the second quarter of 2011. The previous first-quarter high was $356 in 2011. 

First-quarter 2012 fares were $246 in 1995 dollars, down 19.2 percent from $304 in 1999, the inflation-adjusted high for any first quarter since the beginning of BTS air fare records in 1995.  

Figuring fares 

BTS, a part of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration, reports average fares based on domestic itinerary fares. Itinerary fares consist of round-trip fares unless the customer does not purchase a return trip. In that case, the one-way fare is included. 

Fares are based on the total ticket value, which consists of the price charged by the airlines plus any additional taxes and fees levied by an outside entity at the time of purchase. Fares include only the price paid at the time of the ticket purchase and do not include other fees, such as baggage fees, paid at the airport or onboard the aircraft. 

Averages do not include frequent-flyer or “zero fares” or a few abnormally high reported fares. 

Passenger airlines collected 69.5 percent of their total revenue from passenger fares during the first quarter of 2012, down from 87.6 percent in 1990. 

Historical record 

Air fares in the first quarter of 2012 increased 9.6 percent from the first quarter of 2000, not adjusted for inflation, compared with an overall increase in consumer prices of 34.0 percent during that period. 

In the 17 years from 1995, the first year of BTS air fare records, air fares rose 25.6 percent compared to a 51.5 percent inflation rate. The average inflation-adjusted first-quarter 2012 fare in 1995 dollars was $246 compared to $297 in 1995 and $301 in 2000.

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Samsung Tops Apple In Latest Smartphone Sales

Samsung bests Apple two to one in second quarter shipments

While Apple is waging war on Samsung in the courtroom, charging patent infringement, the battle between the two smartphone makers for the consumer's heart...

PhotoWhile Apple is waging war on Samsung in the courtroom, charging patent infringement, the battle between the two smartphone makers for the consumer's heart and mind continues as well. And Samsung appears to be winning that battle.

Juniper Research has released data showing Samsung has taken a rather sizeable lead in the number of shipped smartphones. According to Juniper, Samsung shipped 52.1 million units in the second quarter to Apple's 26 million.

Samsung also doubled its lead over Apple quarter-on-quarter, with its flagship product, the Galaxy S3, playing a key role by racking up sales of 10 million in June. Earlier this week Apple released disappointing second quarter profits, in part because of softer than expected iPhone sales.

Analysts say many smartphone shoppers who are normally partial to Apple are simply waiting for Apple to introduce the iPhone 5, expected in the next couple of months. The new product, they say, will help iPhone sales rebound in the last quarter of the year.

Coming on strong

But Juniper said Samsung's recent success can't simply be blamed on Apple's temporary weakness. The company says the Galaxy S3 has been a phenomenal success but other Samsung phones have proved to be highly popular among consumers who prefer an Android phone.

Other competitors are struggling and falling further behind the two leaders. RIM, whose Blackberry was once the dominate smartphone, continues to try to cope with the touchscreen world. Juniper says Nokia has yet to show any clear indication it is benefitting from the switch to Windows Phone 7, with its hopes riding on Windows 8.

Juniper says Samsung's other Android competitors continue to fall short, with the resources needed to compete with Samsung’s marketing push halting HTC’s early promise and Motorola, distracted by the Google acquisition, lacking a strong presence in Western Europe.

All of this puts added pressure on Apple to come up with a major advance in its next iPhone. The iPhone 4S, introduced last fall, added Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant. While the feature has been a major selling point, there has been grumbling lately that the feature doesn't always work the way it's supposed to.

Juniper says the iPhone 5 will need to offer something splashy like Siri, especially if the device retains the 3.5-inch display size, which is now dwarfed by the Galaxy S3's 4.8-inch screen.

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Burlington Coat Factory Slapped With $1.5 Million Civil Penalty

The company allegedly failed to report drawstrings in children's outerwear and sold recalled outerwear

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says the Burlington, NJ-based retailer has agreed to pay a civil penalty of $1,5 million to resolves CPS...

PhotoSelling recalled products and not reporting problems is a serious matter -- and Burlington Coat Factory is finding out just how serious. 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says the Burlington, NJ-based retailer has agreed to pay a civil penalty of $1,5 million to resolves CPSC staff allegations of a variety of offenses. 

Allegations 

Among the allegations are that Burlington knowingly failed to report immediately to CPSC, as required by federal law, that it had sold many different children's sweatshirts and jackets with drawstrings at the neck between 2003 and 2010. Children's upper outerwear with drawstrings, including sweatshirts, sweaters, and jackets, poses strangulation and entanglement hazards to children that can result in serious injury or death. 

The settlement also resolves CPSC staff allegations that from 2008 to 2012, contrary to federal law, Burlington knowingly sold or had in its store inventories many of these garments after they had been recalled. 

The penalty is the highest that CPSC has ever assessed for violations involving children's upper outerwear with drawstrings. 

Reporting requirements

Federal law requires manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to report to CPSC immediately (within 24 hours) after obtaining information reasonably supporting the conclusion that a product contains a defect that could create a substantial product hazard, creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death, or fails to comply with any consumer product safety rule or any other rule, regulation, standard or ban enforced by CPSC. 

Federal law also bars selling products that have been recalled by a manufacturer. 

Drawstring warnings

CPSC began warning about drawstring dangers in the early 1990s. The agency issued guidelines in 1996 about drawstrings in children's upper outerwear. Those guidelines were incorporated into an industry voluntary standard in 1997. In 2006, CPSC's Office of Compliance announced that children's upper outerwear with drawstrings at the hood or neck would be regarded as defective and presenting a substantial risk of injury to young children. 

Then, in July 2011, based on the guidelines and voluntary standard, CPSC issued a federal regulation that designated as substantial product hazards children's upper outerwear in sizes 2T to 12 (or extra-small to large) with neck or hood drawstrings, and children's upper outerwear in sizes 2T to 16 (or extra-small to extra-large) with certain waist or bottom drawstrings. 

The sweatshirts and jackets that are the subject of the penalty were sold by Burlington Coat Factory stores throughout the country. Beginning in 2007, CPSC and the garments' manufacturers and distributors, as well as Burlington in 2010, announced the recalls listed in the chart below of children's garments with drawstrings covered by the penalty.

 

Manufacturer/Importer/Distributor/Retailer

ProductNumber of Units (Approximate)
5 Star ApparelMecca children’s hooded jackets with drawstrings11,500
Allura ImportsGirls’ hooded sweatshirts3,700
BaycreekHooded sweatshirts1,900
Bobens TradingGirls’ hooded sweatshirts with drawstrings3,900
Brand EvolutionLocks All Over boys’ hoody, All Over Skaters boys’ hoody and
Rock Mask boys’ hoody
2,800
Bubblegum USAGirls’ hooded jackets with drawstrings900
Burlington Coat Factory12 brands of hooded jackets and sweatshirts10,000
Byer CaliforniaGirls’ cargo pocket jackets600
Fashion OptionsBoys’ velour warm-up sets5,400
FranshawChildren’s hooded jackets2,400
Haselson International TradingChildren’s hooded sweatshirts with drawstrings23,000
Hind FashionsBoys’ hooded jackets200
Jason EvansBoys’ fleece & flannel zip hooded sweatshirts with drawstrings18,300
Jason EvansChildren’s hooded jackets1,300
KOMAN SportswearBoys’ hooded sweatshirts and warm-up sets13,300
Liberty ApparelJewel brand girls’ hooded sweatshirts12,000
Liberty ApparelJewel girls’ hooded sweatshirts with drawstrings2,300
LollytogsRim Rocka boys' hooded jackets and Pelle Pelle girls' hooded jackets23,000
North-SportifNorth-Sportif hooded jackets and reversible vests360 jackets and 360 vests
RegalitiGirls’ hooded jackets with drawstrings3,600
S. Rothschild & Co.Girls’ coats13,500
Ten West ApparelBoys’ hooded jackets75
Trendset OriginalsGirls’ hooded jackets2,400 of Marci & Me brand,
unknown number of Shampoo brand
Weeplay KidsHooded sweatshirts with drawstrings11,800

In agreeing to the settlement, Burlington denies CPSC staff allegations that it knowingly violated the law.

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Budgeting Is Critical As Students Head for College

Managing money may be the most important subject learned at school

We could all use some improvement in our financial management skills but perhaps it's most critical for new college students.Millions of teenagers will h...

PhotoWe could all use some improvement in our financial management skills but perhaps it's most critical for new college students.

Millions of teenagers will head off to school in late August to live on their own for the first time. Among the challenges they'll face is managing money. It's important as an adult but may be even more critical to getting through college.

Here's why. These days most students go off to school with some type of student loan to help pay the cost of tuition, fees and books. As has been well-publicized in recent months, the total student loan indebtedness is now over $1 trillion and may pose the risk of a new financial catastrophe.

Keep loan money separate

That's why it is important for students to avoid, if possible, using student loans to pay for routine living expenses -- especially meals. It's the same as charging all your meals on a credit card and letting the balance accumulate. Keeping a barrier between pure education expenses and living expenses can keep student debt levels lower.

That's where financial management skills come in, and the first step is to create a monthly budget and stick to it. Not only will it help to manage finances throughout the college years, but it is an essential skill that will be needed throughout life and could be as important as anything you'll learn in the classroom. A budget, done properly, will have lasting benefits.

A monthly budget identifies the money that is accessible and where that money is going. By distinguishing between needs and wants students are able to identify exactly what they are spending their money on. The basics of budgeting, outlined for us by financial counselors at Money Management International, are the same for college students as they are for anyone else.

Income vs. expenses

First tally your sources of income including wage earnings, scholarships, grants, loans, family contributions, and available savings. Next, document your spending including fixed, variable, and periodic expenses and build a budget with help from an online expense worksheet.

Set Financial Goals. They need to be specific, measurable, achievable, rewarding and timely, and they can be both short-term or long-term. That allows you to determine how your spending decisions affect your progress toward your financial goals.

As a college student you may feel like you're living hand-to-mouth but try to save some money and put it in a savings account. You'll find you'll need it, not only for emergencies, but for the unexpected expenses you know will come up, such as the last-minute extra book your college professor will assign or repairs for your car. Being prepared with savings will keep a minor financial setback from becoming a financial emergency.

Track your spending. Often, it is the little everyday purchases that make the biggest impact on your budget. It's important to track your expenses and look for ways to keep costs down.

Get a job

As you prepare a college budget it may become clear that you might need another source of income to live comfortably. Instead of borrowing more money, consider getting a part-time job, the time-honored way millions have gotten their education in the past. Even a small paycheck each week can make it easier to stay on a budget.

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Maker of Magnetic Toys Sued

Action prompted by continuing harm to children from swallowed magnets

In an effort to prevent children from suffering further harm, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff has filed an administrative complaint ht...

PhotoThere was a good reason for your mom to tell you not to put your toys in your mouth: they can hurt you. 

In an effort to prevent children from suffering further harm, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff has filed an administrative complaint against Maxfield & Oberton Holdings LLC, of New York, alleging that Buckyballs and Buckycubes contain a defect in the design, packaging, warnings, and instructions, which pose a substantial risk of injury to the public. 

The complaint seeks -- among other things-- an order that the firm stop selling Buckyballs and Buckycubes, notify the public of the defect, and offer consumers a full refund. 

Stopping sales 

In response to a request from CPSC staff, a number of retailers have voluntarily agreed to stop selling Buckyballs, Buckycubes, and similar products manufactured by other companies. 

CPSC staff called upon these retailers to cease distribution of high-powered, manipulative magnetic products after dozens of young children and teenagers swallowed multiple magnets, which connected inside their gastrointestinal tracts and caused internal injuries requiring surgery. eBay has also agreed to implement steps to remove listings by sellers for these items. 

Voluntary recall plan fails 

The commission staff filed the administrative complaint against Maxfield & Oberton after discussions with the company and its representatives failed to result in a voluntary recall plan that considered to be adequate. This type of legal action against a company is rare; this is only the second administrative complaint filed by CPSC in the past 11 years. 

In May 2010, CPSC and Maxfield & Oberton announced a cooperative recall of about 175,000 Buckyball high powered magnets sets, because they were labeled “Ages 13+” and did not meet the federal mandatory toy standard, F963-08. The standard requires that such powerful loose as received magnets not be sold for children younger than 14. 

The Buckyballs and Buckycubes sets contain up to 216 powerful rare earth magnets. 

Multiple injuries 

At the time of the 2010 recall, Maxfield & Oberton was aware of two reports of children swallowing one or more magnets without injury. Subsequent to the recall, CPSC staff continued to receive reports of children ingesting the product and learned of incidents in which children had suffered injuries when the magnets attracted to each other through the victim’s gastrointestinal tract. In subsequent months, staff learned of one dozen surgeries, including numerous surgeries that involved Buckyballs. 

In November 2011, CPSC and Maxfield & Oberton worked cooperatively to inform and educate consumers that Buckyballs were intended for adult use only, and although the risk scenarios differ by age group, the danger when multiple rare earth magnets are ingested is the same. However, even after the safety alert, ingestions and injuries continued to occur. 

Since 2009, CPSC staff has learned of more than two dozen ingestion incidents, with at least one dozen involving Buckyballs. Surgery was required in many of incidents. The commission staff alleges in its complaint that it has concluded that despite the attempts to warn purchasers, warnings and education are ineffective and cannot prevent injuries and incidents with these rare earth magnets. 

CPSC has received reports of toddlers finding loose magnets left within reach and placing them in their mouths. It can be extremely difficult for a parent to tell if any of the tiny magnets are missing from a set. In some of the reported incidents, toddlers have accessed loose magnets left on a refrigerator and other parts of the home. 

Serious consequences

Use of the product by tweens and teenagers to mimic piercings of the tongue, lip or cheek has resulted in incidents where the product is unintentionally inhaled and swallowed. These ingestion incidents occur when children receive it as a gift or gain access to the product in their homes or from friends. 

When two or more magnets are swallowed, they can attract to one another through the stomach and intestinal walls, resulting in serious injuries, such as holes in the stomach and intestines, intestinal blockage, blood poisoning and possibly death. Medical professionals may not diagnose the need for immediate medical intervention in such cases, resulting in worsening of the injuries. 

Due to the number of ingestion incidents received by CPSC staff since the 2010 recall announcement and 2011 safety alert, CPSC staff seeks the remedies outlined in the complaint to stop further incidents and injuries to children.

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Debtors' Prison Thing of the Past In Illinois

New state law stops use of courts to jail the poor who can't pay

With the stroke of the governor's pen this week, Illinois debtors no longer have to fear going to jail if they don't pay their debts. The Debtors’ Ri...

PhotoWith the stroke of the governor's pen this week, Illinois debtors no longer have to fear going to jail if they don't pay their debts. The Debtors’ Rights Act of 2012, which will prevent poor people from being jailed over unpaid debts, is now law.

“It is outrageous to think in this day and age that creditors are manipulating the courts, even threatening jail time, to extract whatever they could from people who could least afford to pay -- veterans, the unemployed, seniors who rely solely on their benefits to get by each month,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who drafted the measure. “This law corrects that gross oversight and puts a stop to throwing people in jail for being poor while still allowing fair debt collection when people have the means to pay their debts.”

Pay or appear orders

The new law, which Gov. Pat Quinn signed Wednesday and becomes effective immediately, was prompted by “pay or appear” orders that are routinely entered against debtors in some Illinois counties. These orders -- which usually remain in effect for three years -- require debtors to make a monthly payment or appear in court each month to explain why they are unable to pay, even if their financial circumstances have not improved.

That means, if a debtor misses just one payment and court hearing, he can end up in jail. Debtors who have been victims of this practice typically owe outstanding medical bills, credit card debts or payday loans.

According to court documents obtained by Madigan’s office, one Illinois court entered a “pay or appear” order against a mentally disabled man living on legally protected disability benefits that provided him with $690 a month. Even though the man informed the court of his circumstances, he was still ordered to either pay $100 a month or appear in court once a month for a three-year period.

One-third of Illinois counties used the practice

Illinois' debtors’ rights bill effectively bars creditors from using the court system to put debtors in jail to collect on a debt they justifiably cannot pay. The attorney general said she sought the measure after learning that residents in roughly a third of Illinois’ counties commonly face incarceration when they fail to appear in court over a previously entered judgment to pay a debt.

In many of these cases, notices of court hearings were mailed to addresses that were no longer valid, leaving many debtors unaware of the hearings. In spite of the failure to notify the debtors, courts have frequently issued warrants for their arrests.

Madigan said in many of these cases, the debtors are living on income that is legally protected from being used to pay outstanding judgment debts, including Social Security, unemployment insurance or veterans’ benefits.

“This law corrects that gross oversight and puts a stop to throwing people in jail for being poor while still allowing fair debt collection when people have the means to pay their debts,” Madigan said.

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Omega3Water: Can This Stuff Really Be Healthy?

Sugar water with supplements is still sugar water

As many already may know, Omega-3s, which are the "good fats" found in some seafoods and plant oils, are really good for you.Many experts ...

PhotoAs many already may know, Omega-3 fatty acids, found in some seafood and plant oils, are really good for you. Many experts say they increase heart health, improves cholesterol levels and can even help with high blood pressure.

In fact, a new study conducted by the American Academy of Neurology shows that Omega-3 can even reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Many consumers who are health conscious simply take a daily gel-cap or two for the health benefits. But now a company claims that by drinking its newly released beverage, consumers can get  Omega-3 in one tall  cool drink of water.

Omega3Water comes in two different flavors, Orange Kiwi and Bold Berry, which both contain 20,000 mcg of Omega-3.

The beverage is also supposed to lack the fish flavor one often gets when consuming Omega-3s, since the additive is extracted from flax seed.

Core nutrients

"Omega-3 is one of the core nutrients to a healthy lifestyle," said Omega3Water's inventor Ed Beja.  "As more people become health conscious, we start to see supplements with Omega-3 (like fish oil), flying off shelves. We needed a way to incorporate more Omega-3 into our daily routine."

Claiming to provide a dose of Omega-3 is one thing. Making health claims for the water ... well, that's something else. Brands like POM Wonderful  and Kellogg's Frosted Mini Wheats are being brought up on lawsuits for making allegedly false health claims and agencies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have created a long trail of litigation, sanctions and penalties against companies claiming health benefits that are not scientifically documented.

So, consumers should be wary of any new dietary supplement -- be it food, drink or tablet -- that makes health claims.

Dietary supplements are largely unregulated and don't go through the kind of rigorous testing that drugs are subjected to. However, while it's legal to sell supplements, making claims that can't be supported can get a company or promoter in hot, Omega-3-free water.

The Omega3Water site lists many of the benefits of Omega-3 without coming right out and saying the product delivers these benefits. 

Legalities aside

But legalities aside, do consumers really receive health benefits when nutrients are added to drinking water, especially when they're laced with other unhealthy additives?

If you look at the ingredients in the Omega water it has a pretty decent dollop  of sugar (13 grams) and a calorie count of 45 for an eight-ounce serving.

Obviously, there are other flavored waters with way more sugar, but if a health drink has added sweeteners in it, is it still a health drink?

Sugary drinks are much easier to consume in large numbers, which can cancel out any health benefits that the Omega-3 water may provide. Instead of drinking the water for its Omega-3 content, consumers could start drinking the product for its pleasing sugary taste.

In 2009 a class action lawsuit was filed against Coca-Cola, for claiming its Vitaminwater product had a number of health benefits. In the company's defense, lawyers for Coca-Cola stated the following: "No consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage."

That statement alone should make one leery of drinking a manufactured water product that claims to have a bunch of health benefits.

The mega-soda-company tried to have the suit dismissed but was unsuccessful.

Can the liquid calories

John Robbins, who is author of the two books "Diet for a New America" and "The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less," says if one truly wants to become healthier and lose weight, they must abstain from consuming liquid calories and sugar based drinks, regardless if only a little bit of sugar is added.

In other words sugar, calories and vitamins should be on the opposite ends of the nutrient spectrum, not side by side.

Robbins also says the best way to get proper nutrients is to go to the actual source. Instead of drinking a beverage rich in B12 for example, you're much better off consuming a portion of eggs or fish, which are loaded with the important vitamin.

Also if you notice, many products on the market claim to be rich in vitamins. It's sort of the new marketing angle for a lot of companies. Everything from sweetened cereals to 5-hour energy drinks claim to have some sort of health component.

Now does that mean Omega3Water doesn't have any health benefits at all?

Maybe not, but if it's really Omega-3 you're after, it's a lot easier and probably cheaper to just swallow a capsule or -- much better -- have a serving of salmon or a soybean burger once or twice a week.  Getting nutrients in good instead of through supplement tablets is far superior, most nutritionists agree. 

It's true that Omega3Water doesn't have much sugar compared to other sweetened beverages, but you'll be getting more sugar than if you simply got your Omega-3 the traditional way.

 

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Walmart, Target Oppose $6 Billion Credit Card Deal

Settlement would allow retailers to charge more for customers using credit cards

  Target believes the proposed interchange fee settlement is bad for both retailers and consumers. The proposed settlement would perpetuate a...

PhotoWalmart and Target are joining convenience store operators and many consumers in opposing a proposed $6 billion settlement between credit companies, banks and retailers.

Under the settlement, which must still be approved by a judge, retailers, who will split the $6 billion settlement, will be allowed to charge customers more for paying with credit cards -- something the card issuers have long prohibited and consumers generally oppose.

"I will not stand for this and [will] just pay cash then or leave the store. Consumers have to stand up," said Nicole Swopes of Lake Forest, Ill., responding to a ConsumerAffairs story on the settlement. Seconding the sentiment was Steve Brienen, who said: "As Usual the real pain will be in the backside of the consumer no matter how this turns out. Using a credit card will cost us more one way or the other."

The retailers agree, or at least say they do.

“Walmart, along with a growing number of consumer groups and merchants, is disappointed in the proposed credit card interchange fee settlement," Walmart said in a statement. It said the settlement would not prohibit credit card networks from "continually increasing hidden swipe fees, which already cost consumers tens of billions of dollars each year."

Walmart said the settlement would also hamper payments innovation, such as paying for purchases with a smartphone or other device.

"As Walmart continues to seek reform that will provide transparency and true competition among financial institutions, we encourage all merchants to put consumers first and reject the settlement,” the statement concluded. 

Consumer spin

Target also put a consumer spin on its opposition.

"Target believes the proposed interchange fee settlement is bad for both retailers and consumers," the company said. "Target has no interest in surcharging guests who use credit and debit cards in order to allow VISA and MasterCard to continue charging unfair fees."

Retailers who brought the long-simmering suit have claimed the swipe fees of 2% or more charged by the card companies are a "hidden tax" on consumers and have long pressed for the ability to pass along the swipe fee to consumers who choose to pay with credit cards -- in effect giving a discount to customers who pay with cash.

But the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), a class plaintiff in the lawsuit, was quick to say it rejects the agreement.

"Not only does the proposed settlement fail to introduce competition and transparency into a clearly broken market, it actually provides Visa and MasterCard with the tools to continue to shield swipe fees from market forces," said Tom Robinson, chairman of the group.

According to the convenience store group, the proposed settlement allows the card companies to continue to dictate the prices banks charge and the rules that constrain the market including for emerging payment methods, particularly mobile payments, arguments later echoed by Walmart and Target.

 

 

 
 


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Lawsuit: Walmart Discriminates Against Disabled Consumers

Point-of-sale machines are too high for wheelchair, scooter users

It's taking an incredibly long time for retail stores and even medical offices to remember that not everyone is standing up when they reach the cash regist...

PhotoIt's taking an incredibly long time for retail stores and even medical offices to remember that not everyone is standing up when they reach the cash register or check-out desk.

A class action lawsuit filed against Walmart in federal district court in San Francisco today says that oversight amounts to unlawful discrimination against the disabled. 

Lawyers filing the suit say it's the first of its kind in the country. It was is filed nearly 22 years to the day after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the country’s landmark law guaranteeing people with disabilities the equal opportunity to participate in all aspects of society and the economy, including shopping with dignity and respect.

The Center for Independent Living, Inc., a disability service organization based in Berkeley, California, and two individuals with mobility disabilities, filed the case to address what they say is a widespread problem that impacts core concerns for wheelchair and scooter users, such as independence and privacy, at point-of-sale terminals. 

Feel unsafe

One of the plaintiffs is Janet Brown, a wheelchair user and resident of Pittsburgh, California. 

“I feel unsafe when I check out at Walmart.  I can’t reach the payment device on my own, read the display screen, enter my PIN or sign the screen to complete the transaction.  I have to share my private PIN with the cashier, which I hate to do,” said Ms. Brown.   

“It is offensive to me and every citizen who uses a mobility device that more than 20 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, we continue to be shut out and denied equal access to basic retail services,” said Yomi Wrong, Executive Director of the Center for Independent Living Inc.

"People with disabilities shop.  This is not news.  But Walmart, which purports to be America's go-to place to ‘save money and live better,’ apparently doesn't believe that dignity, respect and equal access for people who use wheelchairs and scooters are important core values," Wrong said.

Stubborn refusal

“Walmart’s stubborn refusal to meet its customers’ needs and provide point-of-sale terminals that consumers with disabilities can use independently goes directly against the central purpose and underlying intent of the ADA,” said attorney Kevin Knestrick of Disability Rights Advocates, representing the plaintiffs.

“Point-of-sale machines are the wave of the future in American retail. They should be accessible, convenient and secure to use for all customers.  Walmart should be an industry leader, not a defender of discrimination," said Bill Lann Lee, another plaintiffs’ attorney.

Disability organizations and consumers with disabilities have alerted Walmart to these issues for years, but Walmart refuses to make the changes necessary to ensure its point-of-sale machines are readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities, as required by the ADA, the plaintiffs charge.

“In addition to causing humiliation and physical discomfort as the price of doing business, Walmart is putting an already vulnerable population for identity theft at further risk by making wheelchair users announce their PIN in a public check-out line,” said attorney Arlene Mayerson.

In California alone, there are over 300,000 people who use wheelchairs and scooters, numbers that are expected to increase substantially over the coming decade, the plaintiffs noted.

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Carfax Releases Mobile App for 'Droids

Makes it easier for used car shoppers to check out possible deals

Carfax today announced that an Android version of the Carfax Reports mobile app is available to smartphone users. Carfax Vehicle History Reports can be vie...

PhotoCarfax today announced that an Android version of the Carfax Reports mobile app is available to smartphone users. Carfax Vehicle History Reports can be viewed in a matter of seconds with just a few screen taps.

Used car shoppers needing Carfax information now have three ways to access it – entering the vehicle identification number (VIN), license plate or scanning the barcode.

"Consumers love the ease and convenience of mobile apps," said Larry Gamache, communications director at Carfax. "Now, vital information from Carfax about a car's past is available to Android smartphone users anytime, anywhere. In addition, the license plate feature is especially useful when considering cars that are for sale by owner."

The mobile app for Android features user-friendly interfaces to access Carfax. The streamlined process quickly delivers Carfax information that car buyers need to find the right used car. In addition, Carfax Vehicle History Reports run from any computer or device automatically populate to and are viewable in the app.

The Carfax Reports app for Android is a free download on Google Play. Just search 'Carfax Reports' or click this link:http://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.carfax.consumer. Carfax also released the Carfax Reports mobile app for iPhone users in November 2011.

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'BMW on Demand' Coming to New York

Short-term rentals fill the niche between car-sharing and traditional rentals

Always wanted a BMW but thought you couldn't afford one?  Well, maybe you can't but you may soon be able to afford to rent one for a little while.BM...

Always wanted a BMW but thought you couldn't afford one?  Well, maybe you can't but you may soon be able to afford to rent one for a little while.

BMW Group Financial Services is launching a pilot project called BMW on Demand at BMW dealerships next month in the New York metropolitan area.

Photo

Customers will be able to make reservations for a BMW 328i online starting Aug. 13, said Ed Robinson, CEO of the finance company in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Pricing will be disclosed later.

Cars will be available for rental by the hour, day or weekend, according to the company's website. The program will initially be limited to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and will at least through year-end.

BMW is hoping the program will spur demand for new BMWs. After the cars have been in the rental fleet for a year or so, they will be offered to dealers for sale as used cars, just as off-lease cars are now handled.

"BMW on Demand will fit the market niche between car sharing and rentals," Robinson said in an interview with Automotive News.

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Additional 76 Counties Fall Victim To Drought

Producers in 1,369 counties in 31 states eligible for disaster assistance

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has designated 76 additional counties in six states as primary natural disaster areas due to damage and losses caused by...

PhotoEffects of the drought are spreading.           

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has designated 76 additional counties in six states as primary natural disaster areas due to damage and losses caused by drought and excessive heat. 

During the 2012 crop year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has designated 1,369 counties across 31 states as disaster areas -- 1,234 due to drought -- making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. 

The additional counties designated are in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. The U.S. Drought Monitor currently reports that two-thirds of the continental U.S. is in a moderate to exceptional drought. 

"As USDA officials visit drought-stricken areas to stand with our producers and rural communities, the urgency for Congress to pass a food, farm and jobs bill is greater than ever,” said Vilsack. “The hardworking Americans who produce our food and fiber, feed for our livestock, and contribute to a home-grown energy policy -- they need action now." 

Failing crops 

During the week ending July 22, the portion of the U.S. corn crop rated in very poor to poor condition climbed to 45 percent, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Soybeans rated very poor to poor rose to 35 percent. Such ratings for both commodities have increased for seven consecutive weeks. 

During the same period, from June 3 to July 22, the portion of the U.S. corn rated good to excellent fell from 72 to 26 percent. Soybeans rated good to excellent tumbled from 65 to 31 percent. 

The current corn and soybean ratings represent the lowest conditions at any time of year since 1988. At the same time, more than half -- 55 percent -- of the nation's pastures and rangeland are rated in very poor or poor condition. 

Primary counties and corresponding states newly designated as disaster areas are: 

Illinois: 

  • Crawford 
  • Pike 

Indiana: 

  • Blackford 
  • Boone 
  • Clinton 
  • Delaware 
  • Fountain 
  • Henry 
  • Madison 
  • Montgomery 
  • Rush 
  • Tippecanoe 
  • Tipton 
  • Vermillion 
  • Vigo 
  • White 

Kansas: 

  • Chase 
  • Dickinson 
  • Douglas 
  • Ellis 
  • Ellsworth 
  • Franklin 
  • Geary 
  • Jefferson 
  • Johnson 
  • Leavenworth 
  • Lincoln 
  • Marion 
  • Miami 
  • Mitchell 
  • Morris 
  • Osage 
  • Osborne 
  • Ottawa 
  • Rush 
  • Russell 
  • Saline 
  • Shawnee 
  • Smith 
  • Wabaunsee 
  • Wyandotte 

Michigan: 

  • Branch 
  • Cass 
  • Hillsdale 
  • St. Joseph 

Nebraska: 

  • Boone 
  • Custer 
  • Greeley 
  • Howard 
  • Merrick 
  • Nance 
  • Sherman 
  • Valley 

Wisconsin: 

  • Adams 
  • Columbia 
  • Crawford 
  • Dane 
  • Dodge 
  • Fond du Lac 
  • Grant 
  • Green 
  • Green Lake 
  • Iowa 
  • Jefferson 
  • Kenosha 
  • Lafayette 
  • Marquette 
  • Milwaukee 
  • Ozaukee 
  • Racine 
  • Richland 
  • Rock 
  • Sauk 
  • Walworth 
  • Washington 
  • Waukesha
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Experts Call for Label Change On Opioid Painkillers

Drug companies should not be permitted to advertise long-term opioids for non-cancer pain, experts say

Labels on opioid pain medications should be revised to prevent overprescribing, a coalition of doctors, researchers and public health officials said in a p...

PhotoLabels on opioid pain medications should be revised to prevent overprescribing, a coalition of doctors, researchers and public health officials said in a petition filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

If the requested changes were adopted, they maintain, drug companies would not be able to claim the pain medications are safe and effective for long-term use by non-cancer patients. 

According to the petition, opioid labels are overly broad because they fail to limit opioid use to severe pain, to include a time frame for use and to specify a maximum dose. Presently, the label on opioid analgesics simply states that they're approved for "moderate to severe pain." 

The petition is signed by 37 experts, including leaders in the fields of pain medicine, addiction and primary care; health commissioners; researchers; and program directors at public interest groups.

The requested changes relate specifically to when opioids are used for non-cancer pain. 

Getting rid of ‘moderate’ 

The petition calls for striking the term "moderate," adding a suggested maximum dose equivalent to 100 milligrams of morphine and adding a suggested duration of use. The petition's co-signers believe that preventing drug companies' aggressive promotion of these medications for moderate pain will help curtail overprescribing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC) says excessive prescribing of opioid analgesics is fueling an epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths. 

The proposed label changes would have serious implications for drugmakers because federal law prohibits "off-label" advertising. Drugmakers wouldn't be able to promote opioids for continuous long-term use by people who don't have cancer. 

The coalition of experts that signed the petition believes the label must be changed to reflect existing medical evidence. The long-term effectiveness and safety of opioid analgesics has not been established by scientific studies, and recent research calls into question the safety and effectiveness of these drugs when used long-term, particularly at higher dosage levels. 

Longer-term studies proposed 

The FDA typically approves conditions that a drug can be used to treat on the basis of clinical trials that are 12 weeks in length. In the case of opioid analgesics, Dr. Edward Covington, director of the Neurological Center for Pain at the Cleveland Clinic, believes that short-term studies like this are inadequate. 

"It's clear that the short-term effects, on the basis for which they are approved and marketed, do not mirror their effects in long-term use,” he said. “In the absence of long-term studies demonstrating safety and effectiveness, we need limits on what drug companies can claim about opioids." Covington also believes that suggested dose limits must be added to the label "given the lack of experimental support for using high doses." 

Although the proposed label changes would limit the way drug companies promote opioid analgesics, doctors would continue to be able to make prescribing decisions based on their clinical judgment, assessment of patient needs and response to treatment. "Off-label" prescribing is considered appropriate, even though "off-label" advertising is prohibited. 

According to Dr. Jane Ballantyne, a pain specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle and a co-signer of the petition, "A form of constraint that controls overuse while preserving opioids for patients in need can only be a positive step towards more rational and safer prescribing." 

"It's time to close the loophole on opioid labels," said Dr. Lewis Nelson, an emergency physician and medical toxicologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. He believes it amounts to "a mechanism that allows drug companies to promote opioids for unproven uses." Physicians are wrong to assume that "on-label" indications are evidence-based with regard to safety and efficacy. 

"Over-prescribing of opioids is harming many chronic pain patients," Covington said. "The label change is a way for the FDA to let the medical community know that risks may outweigh benefits when used long-term. The issue is tricky, because a subset of chronic pain patients benefit from chronic opioids, usually in low to moderate doses, and it is important that access is not restricted for those who show lasting benefit. The label change we're requesting balances the need to preserve access for these patients with the need to reduce overprescribing."

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Consumers Adapting To Smaller Vehicles

Today's small cars not the 'econoboxes' of yesteryear

Watch a movie made as recently as the late 1980s and one is struck by how big the cars are. On today's streets, most vehicles fit what would have been cons...

PhotoWatch a movie made as recently as the late 1980s and one is struck by how big the cars are. On today's streets, most vehicles fit what would have been considered the "economy car," subcompact category just a few years ago.

But few consumers, it seems, lament the passing of the gas-guzzling behemoth. A new study by J.D. Power and Associates finds that 27 percent of new-vehicle buyers who replaced a vehicle downsized, meaning they purchased a new vehicle in a smaller segment than the vehicle they replaced.

In contrast, only 13 percent of buyers "upsized," while 60 percent purchased a new vehicle in the same size segment as their previous vehicle. The move down in size appears to be a matter of choice, not necessity.

No sacrifice

"New-vehicle buyers who downsize are not making the sacrifice that they once were," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates. "Automakers are heavily focused on providing the U.S. market with appealing smaller models, and buyers may be surprised at just how good some of them are."

And how good are they? To find out they asked consumers. Chevrolet received the highest number of segment awards of all brands included in the study for the Avalanche, Sonic and Volt models.

Seven brands each received two model awards: Audi, for the A6 and A8; Dodge, for the Challenger and Charger; Ford, for the Expedition and Flex; Kia, for the Optima in a tie and Soul; MINI, for the Countryman and Coupe/Roadster; Nissan, for the Frontier and Quest; and Porsche, for the Cayenne and 911).

High marks for Audi and Porsche

The Audi A8 also recorded the highest APEAL Study score of any model in the industry in 2012.

Porsche is the highest-ranking nameplate for an eighth consecutive year. Dodge, Jaguar and Ram achieve the greatest year-over-year improvements, increasing scores by 21, 20 and 19 points, respectively.

Owners questioned in the study said their smaller models typically provide higher performance, have more pleasing styling, are more comfortable and include more features. They are not, they insist, the “econoboxes” that they may have once feared.

More umph

For example, most compact vehicles are more substantial than in the past and perform much better on the road. They also have many of the features and appointments that were previously found only on larger models. Vehicle owners who downsize are often finding that they are actually upgrading when they buy a new vehicle.

While many consumers turn to smaller cars in hopes of better fuel economy, the editors at J.D. Power say consumers should have realistic expectations in that regard. Remember that the city/highway/combined mileage ranges listed on the window sticker are merely estimates provided by the EPA. Your actual miles per gallon will vary due to many factors, including driving and weather conditions, driving style, tire inflation and the overall condition of your vehicle.

Before you buy, ask your salesperson to demonstrate all of the audio/entertainment/navigation features on the vehicle. Also, have them assist you in connecting your mobile device or portable audio player to the vehicle's communication system or audio interface in order to test for a good hands-free connection and to make sure the system recognizes your commands.

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Feds Urged To Ban Overdraft Fees On Prepaid Cards

Consumer groups claim prepaid cards in danger of becoming new payday loans

Consumer groups submitting comments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for rules on prepaid credit cards urged the government watchdog to b...

PhotoConsumer groups submitting comments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for rules on prepaid credit cards urged the government watchdog to ban overdraft and credit features on the cards.

“The most important step that the CFPB can take to ensure that prepaid cards fulfill their promise, and to prevent unfair, deceptive or abusive practices, is to ensure that prepaid cards are true to their essence as a prepaid transaction product,” the groups said in their comments.

The comments were submitted by the Center for Responsible Lending, the National Consumer Law Center and the Consumer Federation of America.

Similar to debit cards

Prepaid cards work like debit cards. Consumers “load” them by depositing money to their accounts, much like they would do at a bank. In fact, prepaid cards are growing in popularity because so many consumers have stopped using banks to escape high fees. But prepaid cards come with plenty of fees of their own.

Now some prepaid card issuers are also offering credit features, which the consumer groups say is a bad idea, undermining the integrity of the prepaid card market and the safety of the consumers who use the cards.

“Prepaid cards users are vulnerable consumers, who want controls on overspending,” the groups said. “Prepaid card credit features are promoted for large or unexpected expenses but designed to be used routinely, encouraging a cycle of debt -- a practice that is especially pernicious since prepaid cards do not underwrite for ability to pay.”

The groups say banning overdraft fees and credit features will minimize account closures and protect access to transaction accounts.

Card features are changing

Theoretically, you shouldn't be able to overdraw your prepaid card because the spending limit should be determined by how much money is on the card. In the past, many cards didn't offer that feature. If you tried to spend money you didn't have, the card would be declined.

Some consumers actually closed their bank accounts and obtained prepaid cards for that very reason. Now, the consumer groups warn that feature is being undone by the addition of overdraft and credit features, which they argue are just expensive loans.

“Prepaid credit features will undo the elimination of rent-a-bank payday lending that was laboriously achieved a decade ago and be much more difficult to control if left to spread,” they warn. “Prepaid credit features are already being used to circumvent the law, but it is early enough to nip this trend in the bud.”

Evading the law

The groups charge credit on prepaid cards evades federal and state laws protecting public benefits and wages needed for necessities and protecting military service members. Prepaid cards with credit features are credit cards, they argue, but escape Truth In Lending's credit card protections.

CFPB asked for comments on prepaid cards in May, suggesting at the time that it viewed the evolving industry as a potential problem for consumers. The agency said its 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.

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Court: Airlines Must Include Taxes In Ads

The cost means the WHOLE cost of getting from here to there

Consumers will get a bit more information about the true cost of an airline ticket, thanks to a court ruling. A U.S. Court of Appeals said airlines must in...

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CPSC Prevents More Than 360,000 Hazardous Products From Reaching Consumers

Shoddy children’s products top the list of imported goods stopped at the border

During the second quarter of fiscal year 2012, investigators screened more than 3,700 imported products and prevented more than 360,000 units of what are c...

PhotoInvestigators for the  U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) are on the job at the nation’s ports of entry. 

During the second quarter of fiscal year 2012, investigators screened more than 3,700 imported products and prevented more than 360,000 units of what are called “violative” and hazardous imported products from reaching the hands of consumers. 

CPSC port investigators, working with Customs and Border Protection agents, successfully identified 319 different consumer products that were in violation of U.S. safety rules or found to be hazardous, between January 1 and April 30, 2012. 

In the first half of the fiscal year, investigators screened more than 6,600 imported products at ports of entry and prevented more than one million units of violative or dangerous products from reaching consumers. 

Kids products top of the list 

Continuing to top the list of products stopped were children's products containing levels of lead exceeding the federal limits. This was also the leading category of products stopped in the first quarter. 

Second was children's sleepwear that did not meet the federal flammability standards. 

Toys and other articles with small parts that present a choking hazard for children younger than three years old also continued to be prominent in the second quarter. 

In addition to violative toys, children's sleepwear and other children's products, other significant shipments stopped at import included noncompliant fireworks and mattresses. 

CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum said the proactive work at the ports shows CPSC is on the front lines protecting consumers. 

"CPSC investigators are standing shoulder to shoulder with Customs and Border Protection agents and working to prevent defective and violative products from ever reaching store shelves and the hands of consumers," said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. 

She also said consumers can be confident that the state of product safety is strong and built to last, noting, "the pilot risk assessment methodology that we are testing is aimed at early detection and targeting of high risk products and repeat offenders at import. "I believe this will make CPSC even more effective in using our limited resources." 

Fiscal 2011 record

During fiscal year 2011, CPSC inspected more than 9,900 product shipments at the ports nationwide and stopped almost 4.5 million units of violative or hazardous consumer products from entering the stores and homes of U.S. consumers. 

CPSC has been screening products at ports since it began operating in 1973.The agency intensified its efforts in 2008 with the creation of an import surveillance division, and again in 2011 with the creation of the Office of Import Surveillance and Inspection.

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Home Values Finally Going Up, Zillow Says

Real estate site says this could be the market bottom

The last several months have brought mostly encouraging news from the housing front, suggesting that the long-awaiting recovery was just around the corner....

PhotoThe last several months have brought mostly encouraging news from the housing front, suggesting that the long-awaiting recovery was just around the corner. Zillow, the real estate site, says it's finally arrived.

The Zillow Home Value Index (ZHVI) rose in the second quarter on an annual basis for the first time since 2007 -- increasing 0.2 percent year-over-year to $149,300. Home values have now risen for four consecutive months.

Nearly one-third of metros, or 53 of the 167 covered by the Real Estate Market Reports, posted annual increases in home values. The largest increase was in Phoenix where home values are up 12.1 percent from the second quarter of 2011 to the second quarter of 2012. Phoenix was one of the hardest hit cities in the housing collapse.

Continuing trend?

Zillow predicts the trend will continue. Two in five, or 67 of the 156 markets covered by the Zillow Home Value Forecast, are expected to see increases in home values over the next year, with the largest increases expected in the Phoenix and Miami metros. U.S. home values are expected to rise 1.1 percent.

"After four months with rising home values and increasingly positive forecast data, it seems clear that the country has hit a bottom in home values," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries. "The housing recovery is holding together despite lower-than-expected job growth, indicating that it has some organic strength of its own.”

Fewer homes on the market

What's behind the recovery? For one thing, the National Association of Realtors has reported a sharp decline in the number of homes for sale over the last couple of months. With fewer homes for sale, buyers have less leverage to force down prices.

There has been a drop in the number of distressed properties on the market, though Humphries says that can quickly change.

"Of course, there is still some risk as we look down the foreclosure pipeline and see foreclosure starts picking up,” he said. “This will translate into more homes on the market by the end of the year, but we think demand will rise to absorb that, particularly in markets where there are acute inventory shortages now.”

The problem until now has been the tighter lending standards that have prevented some otherwise creditworthy buyers from getting into the market. Analysts say the rise in home values is a positive sign because it will make lenders more confident when they make loans.

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Peg Perego Recalls Strollers

Risk of entrapment and strangulation; one child death reported

Peg Perego USA Inc., of Fort Wayne, IN, is recalling about 223,000 strollers due to a risk of entrapment and strangulation....

PhotoPeg Perego USA Inc., of Fort Wayne, IN, is recalling about 223,000 strollers due to a risk of entrapment and strangulation. 

A 6-month-old baby boy from Tarzana, Calif. died of strangulation after his head was trapped between the seat and the tray of his Peg Perego stroller in 2004. Another baby, a 7-month-old girl from New York, N.Y., nearly strangled when her head became trapped between the seat and the tray of her stroller in 2006. 

Entrapment and strangulation can occur, especially to infants younger than one year of age, when the child is not harnessed. An infant can pass through the opening between the stroller tray and seat bottom, but his/her head and neck can become entrapped by the tray. Infants who become entrapped at the neck are at risk of strangulation. 

The recall involves two different older versions of the Peg Perego strollers -- Venezia and Pliko-P3 -- manufactured between January 2004 and September 2007, in a variety of colors. 

They were manufactured prior to the existence of the January 2008 voluntary industry standard that addresses the height of the opening between the stroller's tray and the seat bottom. The voluntary standard requires larger stroller openings that prevent infant entrapment and strangulation hazards. 

Only strollers that have a child tray with one cup holder are part of this recall. Strollers with a bumper bar in front of the child or a tray with two cup holders are not included in this recall. 

The following Venezia and Pliko-P3 stroller model numbers that begin with the following numbers are included in this recall. The model number is printed on a white label on the back of the Pliko P-3's stroller seat and on the Venezia stroller's footboard.

Pliko-P3 Stroller
Model Numbers
Venezia Stroller
Model Numbers
IPFR28US34xxxxxxxxIPPF28NA32IPVA13MU09
IPFT28NA63IPPF28NA57IPVA13MU10
IPFT28NA64IPPF28NA65IPVA13US09
IPP328MU10IPPF28NA66IPVA13US10
IPP328MU09IPPF28NA67IPVA13US32
IPP328US09IPPF28NA68IPVA13US34
IPP328US10IPPO28US32IPVC13NA32
IPP329US10IPPO28US34IPVC13NA34
IPPA28US32IPPO28US62 
IPPA28US33IPPO28US69
IPPA28US34IPPO28US70
IPPD28NA34IPPO28US71

 

"Peg Perego" and "Venezia" or "Pliko-P3" are printed on the side of the strollers. 

The strollers were sold at various retailers nationwide, including Babies R Us and Buy Buy Baby from January 2004 through September 2010 for between $270 and $330 for the Pliko P-3 stroller and between $350 and $450 for the Venezia stroller. They were manufactured in Italy. 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled strollers and contact the firm for a free repair kit. Do not return the stroller to the retailers as they will not be able to provide the repair kit. 

For additional information, call Peg Perego at (888) 734-6020 anytime or visit the firm's Website.

These strollers may be available on the secondhand market, in thrift stores or at yard sales. Consumers should not buy or sell these recalled strollers until the repair kit is installed. 

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Car Insurance Rate Hikes Not Uncommon This Year

There may -- or may not -- be a legitimate reason

Many consumers have opened letters from their car insurance company this year and been disappointed to learn that their premiums are going up. Sometimes by...

PhotoMany consumers have opened letters from their car insurance company this year and been disappointed to learn that their premiums are going up. Sometimes by a lot.

Lynette of Boca Raton, Fla., said she and her husband have been insured with The Hartford, through AARP, for years.

“Many years with company never a late payment. Never a claim, no tickets, no accidents, clean driving record, no arrests,” Lynette wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “And a $600.00 increase! Their commercial says will never drop you for any reason. But they sure know how to force you out!”

Before Lynette changes insurance companies she should call The Hartford. She is entitled to ask why her rate went up, especially by so much. It's possible that it's a error that could be corrected. It never hurts to ask.

Just because Lynette and her husband are good drivers and haven't submitted a claim doesn't mean their rate can't go up. Insurance is a shared risk, and if claims have jumped in Lynette's geographic area, all policyholders might be hit by a rate increase. And according to one insurance professional, that could well be one explanation.

Tough year for premiums

“I know you don’t want to hear this, but 2012 is going to be a tough year for your premium,” Keith Verisario, Vice-President of Chicago-area All-Security Insurance, writes in his blog. In 2011 insurance companies paid $1.16 for every $1.00 collected. They paid over $100 billion in worldwide losses. In the U.S. they paid $36 billion in losses. In 2010 it was about $18 billion -- that is a lot of negative profit, or in other words, insurance companies lost a lot of money.”

Verisario suggests consumers faced with a big rate hike contact an independent insurance agent that can offer quotes from multiple A to A++ rated carriers. Another way to get a lower rate is to bundle your homeowners and auto policies with the same carrier.

In Lynette's case, she should definitely follow up with The Hartford to learn the reason for her rate hike and to make sure it isn't a mistake. Sometimes rates can be affected by a change in your credit score. By following up with the company she can make sure there isn't adverse information in her credit report that she doesn't know about.

Another Florida consumer -- Patricia, of Merritt Island -- provides hope.

“AARP/Hartford raised my car insurance from $604.00 to $732.00 and they told me that the State of Florida allowed them to do so,” Patricia wrote to ConsumerAffairs. “I cancelled my policy and got new insurance for less than $300.00 a year.”

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My Pillow: Does It Really Do That?

Our brave testers slept on the job to bring you this report

It's funny how life goes in circles.When you're a child you fought tooth and nail with your parents not to send you to bed. Then as you grew further into...

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Gun Violence: How Divided Are We?

NRA takes a hit but overall, consumers remain divided on gun control

The horrific shooting in a Colorado theater is the latest in an astonishing series of   attacks allegedly carried out by seemingly intelligent but soc...

PhotoThe horrific shooting in a Colorado theater is the latest in an astonishing series of mass murders allegedly carried out by seemingly intelligent but socially isolated young white men.

Though attention-getting, these attacks are outnumbered by the daily shootings that occur as a result of drug deals gone bad, botched hold-ups and family feuds. About 100,000 are shot each year; about a third die.

The pattern is by now familiar but what seems to be changing is that there is less discussion of whether or not some form of gun control would stop or at least slow the pace of violent attacks in America. Liberals charge that gun control advocates have been intimidated into silence. Conservatives generally argue that criminals and the unbalanced would simply switch to other weapons if guns were not available.

Third rail

What does seem to be true is that gun control has become the new third rail of American politics, displacing Social Security and other once-sacrosanct programs. The National Rifle Association generally gets the blame -- or the credit, depending on your point of view -- for maintaining a ferociously effective lobbying machine that can quickly end the career of any politician who dares cross it.

This doesn't mean, of course, that the American public is unanimously standing its ground against gun control and a ConsumerAffairs study of consumer sentiment indicates that, in fact, Americans remain just about evenly divided on the issue, as they are on so many other red-blue topics.

We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 400,000 comments that used the phrase "gun control" on social media like Facebook and Twitter over the last year and found that net public sentiment hovers within a few points of zero -- about evenly divided, as shown in this graph:

 

Note that, although the number of comments increases dramatically within days of the Colorado shootings, the net sentiment remains about evently divided.

Looking more closely at the comments made by consumers, however, it becomes apparent that those who favor gun control are somewhat divided on their motivations, opponents are quite clear: they feel it would negatively affect law-abiding citizens and would be ineffective.

Photo

The NRA

So how about the NRA? Demonized by gun control advocates, the National Rifle Association portrays itself as the champion of the law-abiding, gun-owning sportsman.  

We analyzed 550,000 social media comments and found the NRA generally flying high, with a net positive sentiment around 50% for most of the year. However, it took a sharp dive in the wake of the Colorado massacre, falling to the year's low of 17% positive. 

 

No way out? 

Photo
NRA Headquarters

The NRA doesn't particularly care whether the general public agrees with its views, of course. It is most concerned with keeping its four million or so members fired up and in line and there are no signs that NRA members are massing in front of the organization's Fairfax, Va, headquarters to blast holes in their membership cards.

So is there any way to begin chipping away at the problem of mass murders in the U.S.? One comment we ran across on Facebook suggested that every citizen be mandated to take a psychiatric exam once a year. Those who were found to be teetering on the brink would be dispatched for treatment.

This is no doubt a fine idea but would be about as easy to implement as legislating a 26-hour day. If gun control is unconstitutional, probing the psyches of citizens who have not yet done anything wrong surely ranks close behind. 

As long as public opinion remains as deeply -- and evenly -- divided as it is now, the likelihood of even a modest attempt at a political solution appears remote.

That doesn't mean it will never happen, though.

Some issues, like gay marriage or legalized marijuana, linger for years as talking points on the margins of society but, once a tipping point is reached, move rapidly to general acceptance. This seems to be happening now with the gay marriage issue and many think marijuana will be next. 

Gun control or some other as-yet-unimagined public safety measure? Still out in orbit somewhere.

 

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Ora TV: Can Larry King Change Online Programming?

New venture brings network-quality TV to the Internet

Television is constantly evolving.In just the last few decades consumers have gone from having to manually turn a dial, to having access to hundreds of c...

PhotoTelevision is constantly evolving.

In just the last few decades consumers have gone from having to manually turn a dial to select from a handful of channels, to having access to hundreds of channels.

According to statistics released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person spends 2.8 hours per day in front of the television, which shows that channel flipping is still a popular pasttime.

But large portions of the viewing population have decreased their time on the couch and choose instead to watch their programs on the go.

So billionaire investor Carlos Slim Helu decided to capitalize on this growing trend and put some of his dollars behind a new Internet venture which he calls Ora TV.

Ora, which is Italian for "now," claims to bring together the best of the Internet and the best of traditional televeision for one unique viewing experience.

Executives say the channel will especially cater to people who watch their shows on mobile devices. Unlike other web channels, Ora will provide high-quality video programming on smartphones, tablets, laptops and connected televisions, says the company.

It will also be the first online channel to be run like a traditional TV network.

Ideal time

Ora TV's CEO Jon Housman says now is the ideal time to offer a station that only provides Internet content, since the way people watch TV today has greatly shifted.

The first program to be broadcast will be the "Larry King Now" show, which debuted last week.

 "With the exponential burst in video consumption via Internet-connected devices, this is an incredible moment to be launching a digital network and studio, says Housman. ”Moreover, to create a new network with Carlos Slim and Larry King, arguably two of the most accomplished individuals in the worlds of business and broadcast journalism, is an unprecedented opportunity,”

Back into the fray

It's also a wonderful opportunity for TV legend Larry King to jump back into the media fray and establish himself among younger viewers who may have missed his popular CNN show which ran for 25 years.

King retired from his interview-based cable program in 2010.

"I am thrilled to be working with Carlos and Jon to create Ora TV, a bold new model for digital television," King said in a statement to the press. "The backing of Carlos given his stellar track record in the business combined with Jon's track record of leadership and innovation is a recipe for success."

The on-demand channel says it will provide the same production quality as  traditional programming, but will offer shows in many formats, including short-form segments.

"In addition to traditionally styled programs, we will produce shows in alternative formats and varying lengths so that viewers can find and get information and insights they really care about in ways designed to harness the new mobile and interactive platforms," said Housman.

"This approach will allow us to thoughtfully address topics and ideas that might not be as well suited to traditional TV. Additionally with Ora, we will be able to incorporate content, social interactions, and technologies in ways that are difficult to pull off with linear platforms," he added.

King Hulu

Just a few days ago Ora announced that it signed a licensing and distribution deal with Hulu, to stream the Larry King Now program exclusively. Each show will run for 30 minutes and will be digitally broadcast in the evening, Monday through Thursday, Easter Standard Time.

The buzzed-about talk show can be viewed free of charge on Hulu, Hulu Plus subscription services, Ora TV and on-demand.

Ora says it will also be releasing other shows, and hopes to be a pioneering force in the way people watch TV today.

If the station truly wants to be successful it will have to develop programming that caters to the younger portion of consumers, since they are the group most likely to watch online programming instead of traditional television.

According to a study conducted by Nielsen Media Research, those age 25 to 34 watched four and a half hours less television in 2011's third quarter, than they did the same time one year prior.

The study, which was first reported by the New York Times, also showed that viewers age 12 through 17 watched nine fewer minutes of TV a day, and 18 to 24 viewers watched six fewer minutes a day, which shows younger consumers are choosing other mediums to watch their programs on.

And Carlos Helu, who is considered the richest man in the world, says this venture with Ora TV will change the way digital media is presented, and feels the company is at the beginning of a digital revolution in the realms of Internet-based programming

"Ora TV represents a great opportunity," he said. "The business model is sound and the team brings the talent and industry understanding that will help Ora stand out in digital television, a category which is primed for exponential growth."

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Kolcraft Recalls Contours Tandem Strollers

Strollers contain fall and choking hazards

Kolcraft Enterprises Inc., of Chicago, IL, is recalling about 5,600 Contours Options LT Tandem Strollers....

PhotoKolcraft Enterprises Inc., of Chicago, IL, is recalling about 5,600 Contours Options LT Tandem Strollers. 

The front wheel assembly can break, posing a fall hazard to the child in the stroller. In addition, for strollers manufactured in January and February 2012, the nuts that hold the stroller's basket support screws in place can detach, posing a choking hazard to young children. 

Kolcraft has received six reports of front caster wheels breaking and two reports of the basket's support screws and nuts detaching. No injuries have been reported. 

The recall involves all Contours Options LT tandem strollers with model number ZT012. The model number and date of manufacture are printed on a label found on the rear leg of the stroller. The dual-seat strollers have one mesh basket beneath both seats and were sold in two color schemes; black with red canopies and accents, and gray with yellow canopies and accents. "Options LT" is printed on a bar along the side of the stroller. 

The strollers, manufactured in China, were sold at Burlington Coat Factory and juvenile product specialty stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, Target.com and other online retailers between February 2012 and July 2012 for about $250. 

Consumers should immediately stop using the product and contact the company to receive free replacement wheels. Consumers with strollers manufactured in January and February 2012 will also receive replacement nuts for the basket support screws. 

For additional information, contact Kolcraft toll-free at (800) 453-7673 between 8 a.m. and 6:45 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. ET Friday, or visit the firm's Website

Under federal law, it is illegal to attempt to sell or resell this or any other recalled product.

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Study: Facebook Could Cost You Your Next Job

Researchers say they've confirmed what many suspect

It's been suggested that what you post about yourself on Facebook and other social media sites could torpedo your job application. Now a, in-depth study of...

PhotoIt's been suggested that what you post about yourself on Facebook and other social media sites could torpedo your job application. Now a, in-depth study of employers from six different industries confirms it.

The study reveals that many employers are using the Facebook profiles of job candidates to filter out weaker applicants based on perception of lifestyle, attitudes and personal appearance. In other words, it could keep you from making the final cut.

Facebook now has more than 800 million members world-wide and has become one of the most popular sites for staying in touch with family and friends. People engage in give and take, often making off-color comments or expressing strong political views. It's all out there for a potential employer to see.

The researchers from Florida International University suggest that employers using Facebook to assess those applying for a job with them are creating a new digital divide, as well as revealing how freedom with regard to virtual identity is being encroached upon increasingly by the world of work.

Screening tool

"While employers are using Facebook to monitor their employees, they have also begun to use it as a screening tool when considering potential candidates," said researcher Vanessa de la Llama and colleagues. "Because this is a fairly new trend, a standardized set of guidelines has yet to be established, with employers often assessing job applicants in a subjective manner."

The research team interviewed representatives from the areas of information technology, healthcare and wellness, education, law enforcement, food and drink, travel, advertising and suggest that their findings shed light on a growing trend.

They say they hope to raise the ethical questions for debate surrounding whether or not employers should be using Facebook and perhaps other social networking sites to screen candidates. This question is this -- are employers overstepping the bounds of privacy, or is examining a Facebook profile an acceptable way to gauge someone's personality?

"Job seekers should be aware that their future employers are closely observing their Facebook profiles in search of a window into their personality," the research team concludes. "Though this practice raises many ethical issues, it is an emerging phenomenon that is not slowing."

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Boomers Beware: Scammers Are Targeting You

Baby Boomers are where the money is

The investment plan sounded very good. A New Jersey marketing company said it was preparing to launch a pre-paid debit card with international calling feat...

PhotoThe investment plan sounded very good. A New Jersey marketing company said it was preparing to launch a pre-paid debit card with international calling features which would be marketed to Hispanic consumers who were unable to procure a traditional credit card.

The pitch found a number of willing investors. New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa says more than 50 investors pledged $1.4 million to the venture. But Chiesa says there was a problem. Earlier this month he and the New Jersey Bureau of Securities sued Branded Marketing and three top executives, claiming multiple violations of securities laws.

The complaint alleges that, among other violations, instead of using the money for legitimate business purposes as they had represented to investors, the defendants misused hundreds of thousands of dollars of Branded Marketing and investor funds for personal use, including the purchase of a 28-foot boat, installation of a home theater, meals and gifts, among other items.

Song and dance routine

“These defendants pitched what appeared to be a legitimate investment opportunity but was actually just a song-and-dance routine to get investors to part with their money,” said Eric T. Kanefsky, Acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. “They used deceit and lies to line their pockets with investors’ money.”

Investment fraud is becoming more common as Baby Boomers age. Boomers are becoming the new seniors -- the longtime favorite target for scammers. Boomers are even more attractive since many have accumulated large nest eggs for retirement.

Watch out!

AARP has begun advising its members to be extra cautious when making financial decisions. It says you should run if you hear phrases like “your profit is guaranteed,” “there's no risk,” “you can get in on the ground floor,” “or this offer is only available today.”

Most investments are some form of security that must be registered with your state securities regulator or with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Find out how to contact your regulator on the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA). A simple rule is, if it's not registered, don't invest.

Boomers, especially those who have done well in life, can expect even more attention from scammers as they age, as the statistics appear to indicate. In 2010, NASAA says state securities regulators opened 1,241 enforcement actions, including criminal complaints and cease-and-desist orders, involving investors ages 50 or older. The previous year, the number was only 506.

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Cargill Recalls Ground Beef Products

Products pose risk of Salmonella contamination

Cargill Meat Solutions of Wyalusing, PA, is recalling 29,339 pounds of fresh ground beef products that may be contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis, acc...

PhotoCargill Meat Solutions of Wyalusing, PA, is recalling 29,339 pounds of fresh ground beef products that may be contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). 

The products subject to recall, sold wholesale and for further processing: 

  • 14-pound chub packages of "Grnd Beef Fine 85/15", packed 3 chubs to approximate 42-pound cases. 

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number "EST. 9400" inside the USDA mark of inspection. While the use-by date has passed and these products are no longer available for retail sale, FSIS and the company are concerned that some product may be frozen in consumers' freezers. These products were produced on May 25, 2012, and were shipped to distribution centers in Connecticut, Maine and New York for further distribution. 

FSIS became aware of the problem during the course of an investigation of a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis involving 33 case-patients from seven states (MA, ME, NH, NY, RI, VA, VT-preliminary data, subject to change). 

Working in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Vermont Department of Health, New York State Department of Health, and New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, FSIS was able to link illnesses in five case-patients to the ground beef products produced at this establishment based on epidemiologic and traceback investigations, as well as in-store reviews.  Illness onset dates among these five case-patients ranged from June 6, 2012 to June 13, 2012. Two of the five case-patients were hospitalized. 

Leftover product with no packaging information collected during the course of this investigation by the Vermont Department of Health tested positive for Salmonella Enteritidis with the outbreak strain. This outbreak strain of Salmonella Enteritidis is drug sensitive, meaning antibiotics can be effective in treating patients who need them. 

Consumption of food contaminated with Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial foodborne illnesses. Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially to those with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly, and persons with HIV infection or those undergoing chemotherapy. 

The most common manifestations of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within 12 to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider. 

FSIS advises all consumers to safely prepare their raw meat products, including fresh and frozen, and consume only ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160° F. The only way to confirm that ground beef is cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria is to use a food thermometer that measures internal temperature. 

Consumers who have questions should call the company's consumer information line at (888) 812-1646. 

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FDA Approves Tudorza Pressair To Treat COPD

The med helps muscles around the large airways of the lungs stay relaxed to improve airflow.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Tudorza Pressair (aclidinium bromide) for the long-term maintenance treatment of bronchospasm (narrowing...

PhotoHere’s something that may help you breathe easier. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Tudorza Pressair (aclidinium bromide) for the long-term maintenance treatment of bronchospasm (narrowing of the airways in the lung) associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. 

COPD is a serious lung disease that makes breathing difficult. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. It is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Symptoms can include chest tightness, chronic cough, and excessive phlegm. 

Tudorza Pressair, a dry powder inhaler used twice daily, is a long-acting antimuscarinic agent that helps muscles around the large airways of the lungs stay relaxed to improve airflow. 

“COPD is a serious disease that gets worse over time,” said Curtis Rosebraugh, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Office of Drug Evaluation II in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The availability of long-term maintenance drugs for COPD provides additional treatment options for the millions of people who suffer with this debilitating disease.” 

The safety and efficacy of Tudorza Pressair were demonstrated in three randomized, placebo-controlled confirmatory clinical trials that included 1,276 patients ages 40 and older with a clinical diagnosis of COPD. Those treated had a smoking history of at least one pack a day for 10 years. 

Possible side effects 

Tudorza Pressair may cause serious side effects, including paradoxical bronchospasm, new or worsened increased pressure in the eyes (acute narrow-angle glaucoma), or new or worsened urinary retention. It should not be used as a rescue therapy to treat sudden breathing problems (acute bronchospasm) and is not recommended for people younger than 18 years. 

The most common side effects reported by patients using Tudorza Pressair include headache, inflammation of the nasal passage (nasopharyngitis), and cough. 

Tudorza Pressair is distributed by St. Louis-based Forest Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Forest Laboratories.

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Consumers Going Longer Between Auto Purchases

The days of trading in every two or three years appear to be long gone

Once upon a time a consumer might purchase a new car every two or three years, trading in their vehicle on a newer model. It probably never made a lot of f...

PhotoOnce upon a time a consumer might purchase a new car every two or three years, trading in their vehicle on a newer model. It probably never made a lot of financial since and makes even less today.

Not surprisingly, data supplied from a survey of nearly 4,000 car owners suggest very few people think frequent trade-ins are practical. Seventy-eight percent of those questioned said owning a car for 10 or more years, “or until it dies,” is the appropriate vehicle life span.

Over 50 percent of the drivers in the survey said even a better economy wouldn't change that.

In spite of reports from automakers showing near record sales, the data suggest the U.S. automotive fleet is aging. In part that's because today's cars last longer than those of the past.

When consumers engaged in frequent trade-ins, it was also spurred by “planned obsolescence,” when the average car was ready for replacement a lot sooner. Driving a car 100,000 miles was unusual.

Now 100,000 miles is considered young for some cars, especially if they have been well cared-for by their owners. It's not unusual for many models to hold up for 200,000 or more miles.

100K and counting

For the second year in a row, 60 percent of respondents in the AutoMD survey say their primary vehicle has over 100K miles. Sixty-six percent plan to drive their primary vehicle for over 150K –- or until it dies -- and over half plan to rack up 75K more miles than on their previous vehicle.

While the economy continues to be the number one reason for holding on to vehicles, improvements in initial quality and maintenance now appear to be a main driver.

"There is nothing surprising about the economy driving car owners to hold onto their vehicles for longer -- our data has been showing this trend for the past three years,” said Brian Hafer, VP of Marketing at AutoMD.com. “But what is most compelling is that longer ownership has become an embedded habit for car owners, regardless of what the economy does."

Another factor in longer ownership is cost. A new car can easily cost $30,000. A consumer making payments for five or more years will want to drive it a long as possible without making payments to get the full value.

Hafer said he believes this is a trend that's here to stay, supported by better vehicles and more repair options.

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Hertz Targets Enterprise In Move To Neighborhoods

Seeks to provide rental services away from airport locations

Hertz has long claimed to be number one in car rentals but the company may be looking over its shoulder at Enterprise.Enterprise secured its position in...

PhotoHertz has long claimed to be number one in car rentals but the company may be looking over its shoulder at Enterprise.

Enterprise secured its position in the marketplace by establishing rental car locations away from airports, where most of its competitors were clustered. Enterprise targeted consumers who weren't necessarily visiting from out of the area but were local residents who just needed to rent a car.

In a shift in expansion strategy, Hertz now appears to be following a similar model. While retaining its airport locations, the company is expanding into what it calls the “neighborhood” car rental market servicing replacement, leisure and business customers.

Adding locations

Since the beginning of 2012, Hertz has opened 275 new locations with more to come. Most of these are in the neighborhood market.

Hertz said it now has approximately 2,350 neighborhood locations nationwide, the majority of which offer pickup and delivery service as well as insurance replacement rentals.

Replacement rentals are usually tied in with insurance companies, where policy holders are provided a replacement vehicle while their car is being repaired. Hertz said it is now a recognized supplier to more than 193 of the 209 largest insurance companies.

Lower fees

For consumers, having rental car stores in neighborhoods is not only an added convenience but can also save money. Renting a car from an airport location is usually more expensive because the airport adds on a lot of fees that have to be passed along.

A recent Travelocity student showed the average airport tax on rental cars is just over 28 percent. Off-airport locations reported taxes about half that.

If you are going to be renting a car for several days, it might pay to compare prices at airport and neighborhood locations. Even if you have to take a cab from the airport to the neighborhood location, you might still come out ahead.

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Indiana Sues Two More Foreclosure 'Rescuers'

State claims homeowners paid upfront for no services

Forsta Mediation of Arizona and Mortgage Relief Center of California face charges of ripping off homeowners in Indiana. Lawsuits accuse the two firms of vi...

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Time for Surgeon General to Weigh In On Sugary Drinks?

It's been nearly 50 years since the Surgeon General wrote tobacco's epitaph

Like turning a cruise ship, changing public opinion takes a lot of time, patience and planning. For decades, tobacco was regarded as harmless and ev...

PhotoLike turning a cruise ship, changing public opinion takes a lot of time, patience and planning. 

For decades, tobacco was regarded as harmless and even as a healthful stress management tool.  Medical experts recognized the error in the 1950s but it wasn't until 1964, when the Surgeon General of the United States, Luther A. Terry, issued a landmark report on smoking and health, that public opinion began to shift.

The report was factual and fully documented, devoid of loaded language or political overtones.  Like a U.S. Treasury note, it carried the full force and authority of the United States government.  

Even then, it took more than 30 years for widespread acceptance of the horrific health effects of smoking on both smokers and those unlucky enough to be downstream. Add another 10 years for state and local governments to finally ban smoking in public places. 

Since then, various Surgeons General have continued the crusade, issuing more than 25 subsequent reports documenting various ill effects of smoking -- smoking and women, smoking and youth, smokeless tobacco -- along with occasional reports on youth violence, sexual abuse, physical inactivity and AIDS, but nothing on excessive sugar intake.

It's time

PhotoNow, a coalition of health and consumer advocates and several municipal public health departments say it's time to do it again. They're calling on the current Surgeon General, Regina A. Benjamin, to issue a similarly authoritative report on the health effects of soda and other sugary drinks.

They're looking for a comprehensive report that pulls together all the current research on the health effects of widespread consumption of soda and the damage done to the economy by the diseases attributed to large-scale guzzling of the sugary goop that has somehow come to be identified with youthful vigor.

"Soda and other sugary drinks are the only food or beverage that has been directly linked to obesity, a major contributor to coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, and a cause of psychosocial problems," the groups wrote in a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. "Yet, each year, the average American drinks about 40 gallons of sugary drinks, all with little, if any, nutritional benefit."

Impossible?

Is it an impossible dream? Isn't bubbly, sugary soda so ingrained in the American way of life that it can't be driven out? You might think so but then again, public opinion may already be shifting.

ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of more than 2.3 million postings about Pepsi-Cola on social media like Facebook and Twitter over the last 12 months. Surprisingly, we found that the negative attributes far outweighed the positive ones, as shown in this graph:

Photo

Interestingly, we found nearly identical sentiments about Coca-Cola -- about 2.3 million comments with an overwhelming number recognizing that sugary drinks contribute to tooth decay.

Photo

Devastating effect

Photo
Regina Benjamin, MD, MBA

The groups say that soda and sugary drinks have a devastating effect on the health of young people in particular. Each extra soft drink consumed per day was associated with a 60-percent increased risk of overweight in children, according to one important study.

Type 2 diabetes, which used to occur primarily in middle-aged and older adults, is now becoming more common among teens. Though soda consumption has declined somewhat in recent years, consumption is still dangerously high, according to the letter. Even almost half of two- and three-year-olds consume sugary drinks every day, according to the group.

"Previous reports and calls to action from the Surgeon General, on topics as varied as tobacco, underage drinking, and obesity, have helped galvanize policymakers at all levels of government," said Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Unlike just about any other product in the food supply, sugar-based drinks are directly connected to obesity and diet-related disease. Reducing their consumption should be one of the main pillars of the government’s prevention strategy."

The call for a Surgeon General's report on soda and sugary drinks was organized by the CSPI, and included the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, Consumer Federation of America, National Hispanic Medical Association, Prevention Institute, the Trust for America's Health, and Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Public health departments in Boston, El Paso, New York City, and Philadelphia also signed the letter to Sebelius.

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Are Cashiers and Cash Registers Obsolete?

J.C. Penney is the latest to give cash registers the heave-ho

If you've noticed lately, cashiers and cash registers are becoming scarcer in retail locations.With the increasing use of kiosks and digital checkout sca...

PhotoIf you've noticed lately, cashiers and cash registers are becoming scarce in retail locations.

With the increasing use of kiosks and digital checkout scanners, stores are using technology to speed up the shopping experience and make paying for items easier.

The latest retailer to do so is J.C. Penney, which just announced it will be getting rid of its cash registers and replacing them with mobile checkout devices and self-pay kiosks.

J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson said within the next year, he would like to see all cash registers disappear, and also said the new process will be extremely user friendly.

"My goal by the end of 2013 is to eliminate the cash route," he said. "You'll be able to check out anywhere anytime, from anyone including yourself, because we're going to roll out self-checkout to our stores next year. It's really cool and it's really easy because it's RFID-based. You don't have to scan an item. You just throw it down and there's the price."

Need to spruce up

PhotoJohnson, who helped Apple and Target grow into retail prominence, also said that brick-and-mortar stores still need to make continuous efforts to spruce up the shopping experience and make it better for consumers.

As the popularity of online shopping continues to grow, many retailers have put large amounts of effort into keeping up with the digital times by creating apps and adding more product selection to online stores.

But Johnson says as the physical and digital shopping worlds continue to merge, stores should still pay plenty of attention to their offline shopping experience, not just their online offerings.

"If I had to pick today, would I rather be an online-only retailer trying to compete ten years from now, or a physical retailer trying to compete ten years from now?" he asked the audience at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference. "Knowing that the digital and physical worlds come together, I'd take the physical retailer in a heartbeat."

Apple has also adopted this philosophy and eliminated cash registers in all of its stores.

Instead of forming pesky lines and dealing with slow cashiers, Apple sales people now come directly to you and complete transactions with a mobile point-of-sale check-out.

Visa gets into the game

Visa has also gotten into the game of trying to eliminate both the cashier and the cash register.

In April of this year the credit card company announced its partnership with Square Inc., the company that created a small device that attaches to iPads, iPhones, and Androids through the headjack, and allows credit card payments to be excepted anywhere. The company was founded by Jack Dorsey, who also created Twitter.

Square, Inc. has enabled all-cash-businesses like street vendors to have the option of accepting at least two types of payments, thus creating more earning potential.

The tiny device which resembles a flattened cube is also perfect for the everyday person who needs to accept a one-time payment for a reimbursement, or the selling of a personal item. The device is under $10, making it affordable for most consumers who want to give it a whirl.

People can also use Square to make payments at everyday stops like coffee shops and convenience stores, making the need for cash registers, and eventually credit cards much smaller, which is more or less the same concept Johnson wants to bring to J.C. Penney.

Early in the year Penny announced it was changing its pricing structure by replacing its big sale days for an everyday low price system, but the plan hasn't seemed to catch on. The company has experienced a net loss of $163 million in the first quarter.

But Johnson says the loss is just a matter of the buying public getting used to the new order of the store.

"Transformation takes time," he said. We're in a marathon here. It's going to be four years, and we've got a very precise vision of how we're going to get there, and we're going to stick to our plan."

Whether Johnson will be able to bring JCPenney out of its slump remains to be seen, but many retail experts believe making the shopping experience easier and faster is a step in the right direction.

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Seven-Inch Tablets Offer Low-Cost Mobility

Here are a few models to consider

When Apple introduced it's iPad tablet computer, it set the entry level price right at $500. For Apple and the competitors who followed with tablets of the...

PhotoWhen Apple introduced its iPad tablet computer, it set the entry-level price right at $500. For Apple and the competitors who followed with tablets of their own, that price has remained firm.

But there is now an entire subset of smaller tablets that sell for much less. While the iPad has a nine-inch display, the lower-priced competitors have seven-inch screens. Some consumers, in fact, prefer the smaller size since it can be easily gripped in one hand.

The popularity of these seven-inch devices was aptly demonstrated last week when online and brick-and-mortar retailers quickly sold out of the new Google Nexus 7 tablet, which starts at $199.

As the holidays approach some electronics industry analysts think tablets will be the “hot toy” for children this year. For parents on a budget, the seven-inch variety is an attractive alternative to the pricier nine-inch models.

Here then are some seven-inch tablets to consider:

Google Nexus 7

Assuming you can get your hands on one, the Google Nexus 7 seems to be the hot tablet in the class of 2012. The Nexus 7 wins high praise for its screen clarity, speedy performance and cool media options. The 8GB version is $199 with a 16GB version for $249.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2

Samsung is no stranger to mobile devices, with a full range of smartphones and tablets. Its Galaxy Tab 2 offers a lot of things other smaller tablets don't. It's pluses include front and back cameras, the ability to add memory and a TV remote function. The 8GB version retails for $250.

Amazon Kindle Fire

Amazon had been making grayscale e-readers as part of its retail book operations for a couple of years when it jazzed up its line, offering the full-color Kindle Fire. If you are already an Amazon customer then this device will make it easier to purchase and use Amazon content. Unlike many of the other devices it's limited to Wi-Fi connections and lacks some other tablet features like cameras. It's limited to 8GB of storage but, at $199, many consumers still find it attractive.

Barns and Noble Nook

The Nook is another e-reader that evolved into a tablet. The latest Nook wins praise for its screen clarity and offers 16 GB of storage. While ideal for downloading and reading books, the device also has an excellent video display for watching movies. It, too, lacks some tablet features like cameras and, at $240, costs a little more than the Kindle Fire.

Blackberry Playbook

The Blackberry Playbook started off costing as much as an iPad when it was introduced last year but has quickly come down in price. In fact, it's price tag may now be one of the more compelling arguments for it. Initially designed for business use it now finds a consumer audience willing to consider it for its $200 price tag for the 16GB version. Many in the industry saw the Playbook as another of RIMs series of missteps last year as it tried to adapt to the new mobile universe. However, at the lower price the Playbook offers enough apps and capability to make it worth consideration.

Economy tablets

For especially price-conscious tablet shoppers, there are a growing number of tablets being offered well below the $199 price point. These generally have less memory and features but may provide all the tablet that needed. They might especially be appropriate for a child's first tablet.

Sylvania Mini Tablet

The device, with 256MB Ram and up to 4GB Flash, comes out of the box with features to let you download and read books, watch movies and play music. Because it runs the Android operating system there are plenty of apps to choose from. The suggested retail prices is $199 but some online retailers sell it for as low as $76.

Archos 4GB Arnova 7 G2

This device runs the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system and is powered by a 1 GHz processor. It also has full video capability and access to a wide range of games. It sells for around $105.

Coby Kyros MID7022-4G

Another Android-powered device with a 1 GHz processor. Works well for video, music and games. Offers many tablet features such as front and back cameras and microphone. Retails for around $105.

Game changer?

If you are planning a tablet purchase for the holidays, it might be wise to wait until October before making a purchase. The Apple rumor mill has been busy with suggestions that Apple will change the landscape later this year by introducing its own seven-inch version of the iPad.

Some discount this theory since the late Steve Jobs was adamantly opposed to the idea when he was running the company. However, a low-priced iPad would certainly be something for consumers to consider and might force competitors' prices even lower.

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Reports Of Microwave Oven Fires Persist

Most recent reports center on Emerson models

Since January consumers have consistently reported fires caused by their microwave ovens, in particular ovens made by Emerson. The complaints continue to r...

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FTC: Wireless Phone Bill Cramming Is ‘Significant Consumer Problem’

Agency tells FCC wireless customers have option to block all third-party charges

In response to a request by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for comment, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says the “cramming” of unauthorized...

PhotoIt’s bad -- really bad. 

In response to a request by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for comment, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says the “cramming” of unauthorized charges on wireless phone bills poses a serious problem for American consumers. In its comment, the agency also said wireless providers should be required to give customers the option to block all third-party charges from their bills. 

In its efforts to protect consumers against the cramming of unauthorized charges on their landline telephone bills, the agency has advocated for reforms to eliminate landline cramming.  

A growing problem 

With regard to wireless cramming, the comment notes, in the past few years the FTC and FCC have reviewed thousands of complaints about unauthorized third-party charges on wireless bills. The number of reported complaints undoubtedly understates the full extent of wireless cramming by a substantial amount. 

“Mobile cramming is likely to continue to grow as cramming schemes expand beyond the landline platform and mobile phones are more commonly used for payments,” the comment states. 

Many of the complaints involve recurring charges of just under $10 a month for “premium services” that provide trivia or horoscope information by text message to a consumer’s phone, the comment states.  

Consumers often report receiving a text message informing them of a subscription to a service of which they have never heard and that they never requested. 

A ban? 

The comment states that it would be premature to recommend a ban or default blocking of third-party billing as it did for landline phone bills in a separate comment to the FCC in October of last year.  

In contrast to landline third-party billing, which has been used almost exclusively by scam artists, the mobile billing platform has been used for some legitimate charitable activity; it also is a potential platform for consumers to fund mobile payments by placing those payments on their wireless bills, the comment states. 

However, it is unclear whether industry best practices have been consistently followed or are effective in stopping mobile cramming, the comment states.  In light of the significant number of mobile cramming complaints received, the FTC believes that some basic consumer protections are needed in the mobile billing space. 

“At a minimum, all wireless providers should offer their customers the ability to block all third-party charges.  Wireless providers should clearly and prominently inform their customers that third party charges may be placed on the consumers’ accounts and explain how to block such charges at the time accounts are established and when they are renewed.  And wireless providers should provide a clear and consistent process for customers to dispute suspicious charges placed on their accounts and obtain reimbursement.  The FTC believes that such measures should be mandated by law or regulation to ensure that consumers have baseline protections,” the comment states.

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Consumers Trying to Eat Healthier Foods

Calories are important but they're not the only factor

It seems that consumers are doing a better job of resisting unhealthy foods.Whether it's due to the many awareness campaigns centered on healthy living o...

PhotoIt seems that consumers are doing a better job of resisting unhealthy foods.

Whether it's due to the many awareness campaigns centered on healthy living or it's people just being tired of feeling poorly due to diet, folks are eating healthier these days than in years past.

According to a report entitled "Attitudes Toward Healthy Food- US June 2012," well over half of consumers are choosing healthier food options. Results of the report showed that 31 percent of consumers are selecting healthier foods for weight loss, and 30 percent are choosing foods that will help them maintain their current size.

The research conducted by market research company Mintel also shows that 48 percent of Americans age 65 and above say they are mindful of what they eat, while 32 percent of those 18 to 24 said the same. This shows that people are more likely to become increasingly aware of their diet choices as they grow older, the study shows.

"Consumers are more aware than ever of their own nutritional deficits, and what poor eating habits can do in terms of their long-term health," said John N. Frank, who is the category manager for Consumer Packaged Goods.

"As a result, today's consumers are seeking out healthy food with greater urgency. However, skeptical or confused consumers aren't likely to pay a premium for healthier food, making it hard for manufacturers to justify investment in nutritional/ingredient upgrades," he said.

Seniors less active

PhotoThe Mintel report also shows participants aged 65 and older often choose not to exercise at all, and researchers feel this increases the older populations desire to eat healthier, since their level of motivation and sometimes ability keeps them from exercising on a regular basis.

"Younger adults generally still feel invincible and have a more naturally active metabolism, making it easier to maintain their weight," said Frank.

The report also shows not only age causes a difference in eating habits and exercise but also gender, as 67 percent of men believe they can judge the health level of foods, compared to 76 percent of women who had similar beliefs.

The researchers attribute this health awareness to women being more in-the-know when it comes to fitness, as they are more inclined to read nutritional labels and be more selective with their food choices.

Results also showed that 64 percent of women read the nutritional facts on labels, compared to 56 percent of men, and both genders said their children provided the necessary motivation for healthier eating.

In total, 67 percent of females said they eat healthier to be good examples for their kids, compared to 57 percent of men who said the same.

But when it comes to eating healthier, which foods are the most fattening and cause the most weight gain?

Skip the chips

PhotoIn a separate study conducted by Harvard University, and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, it was found that potato chips had the most impact on a person’s weight per serving, followed by unprocessed and processed meats, potatoes, and sugary beverages.

Researchers studied 116,686 women and 51,529 men for a 20-year period, and tallied their weight gain every four years.

It was learned that potato chips accounted for a yearly weight gain of 1.69 pounds every four years, and regular potatoes whether baked, boiled or mashed accounted for 1.28 lbs.

French fried potatoes caused a 3 lb weight gain each year, sugary beverages accounted for a 1.00 lb gain, unprocessed meats 0.95, and processed meats caused a weight adage of 0.93 lbs annually.

Additionally, refined grain food items like bread, white rice and certain cereals caused the same amount of weight gain (0.39 lbs.) as sweetened deserts (0.41 lbs).

Researchers also found that the lack of eating healthy foods caused the same amount of weight gain as indulging in fatty foods like chips or unprocessed meats.

All of the study participants gained more weight when choosing not to consume whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts or yogurt, and lack of these foods caused them to gain an average of 3.93 lbs every four years.

Calories not everything

Photo"For diet, conventional wisdom often recommends 'everything in moderation,' with a focus only on total calories consumed," said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and chief author of the study. “Our results demonstrate that the quality of the diet and the types of food and beverages that one consumes is strongly linked to weight gain."

The researchers also detailed just how exercise and other lifestyle habits impact weight gain.

Those who exercised gained 1.76 fewer lbs. than those who didn't increase their fitness regimen, and adults who slept only six hours also gained more weight. Those participants who received over eight hours of sleep also had a weight increase compared to those with different sleep patterns.

The participants who smoked cigarettes and quit during one of the four year intervals gained 5.17 more lbs., compared to those who never smoked during their lifetime.

After the 20-year study was completed, the volunteers gained 3.35 lbs. of their body weight, and increased their overall size by 17 lbs.

"It's not that calories don't count; indeed they do," said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University. "But it's a lot easier to control calories by eating healthfully and avoiding junk foods and sodas than it is to delude yourself into thinking you can count them accurately," she explained.

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Why You Should Have A Financial Plan

Families that plan do better financially, regardless of income

Make no mistake. We're living through an incredibly harsh economic environment. But a new study shows some families cope better than others and it doesn't ...

PhotoMake no mistake. We're living through an incredibly harsh economic environment. But a new study shows some families cope better than others and it doesn't necessarily have to do with the size of a paycheck.

A report compiled by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) shows that those who have prepared a personal financial plan feel more confident and report more success managing money, savings and investments than those who have not.

About 38 percent of the 1,508 household financial decision-makers surveyed said they live paycheck to paycheck, while fewer than one-third indicated they felt comfortable financially and only about one-third think they can afford to retire by age 65. According to several measures of financial well-being, those with a financial plan report faring better than those without one.

The survey found that by a margin of 50 percent to 32 percent, and for all but the lowest income bracket -- people earning less than $25,000 -- where few have a comprehensive plan, planners are more likely to feel they are on pace to meet all of their financial goals, such as saving for retirement or for emergencies.

Across all income brackets planners, by a margin of 52 percent to 30 percent, are more likely to feel "very confident" about managing money, savings and investments. By a 48 percent to 22 percent margin, those who plan are more likely to describe themselves as “living comfortably.”

Manage credit cards better

Consumers with a financial plan are also less likely to be buried in credit card debt. Of consumers in the two lowest income brackets, planners with credit cards report being much more likely to pay credit card bills in full each month.

"Our survey clearly shows that having a personal financial plan helps both rich and poor achieve their financial goals," said Stephen Brobeck, CFA's Executive Director. "Having a financial plan increases one's confidence and effectiveness in managing, borrowing and saving money."

However, only 31 percent of respondents said they had a comprehensive financial plan, while about two-thirds -- 65 percent --indicated they follow a plan for at least one of their savings goals.

A financial plan starts with a monthly budget, accounting for all expenses and measuring them against anticipated income. The goal is to have money left over each month -- even a small amount -- that can be saved and invested.

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Retail Sales Using Mobile Devices Rise

But social media-based sales drop

If you are a typical consumer, you are buying more products and services using your mobile phone or tablet.The IBM Retail Online Index, a cloud-based ana...

PhotoIf you are a typical consumer, you are buying more products and services using your mobile phone or tablet.

The IBM Retail Online Index, a cloud-based analysis of the online retail sector, reported that retailers saw a 15 percent growth in sales from mobile devices in the second quarter of the year. Sales traced to social media declined 20 percent, suggesting social media are becoming a less persuasive force.

“Shoppers today are shifting from a singular online approach to a multi-channel experience that includes both mobile and social media,” said Craig Hayman, General Manager, IBM Industry Solutions.

Hayman said as the holidays approach, consumers should look for an increase in mobile-based promotions as retailers make it easier for them to purchase on the go.

Brave new world

Retailers are already struggling with the growing trend of consumers using their mobile devices to comparison shop when they are in a store. A German study released in May shows that of those shoppers with a tablet or smartphone, 50 percent used a mobile device to compare prices while shopping in stores, 44 percent were seeking out coupons, 33 percent "liked" a certain store on Facebook, and 17 percent actually purchased something using a phone app.

It's very possible that a portion of that 15 percent increase in mobile sales recorded in the second quarter came from consumers shopping in one store choosing to make the purchase online at another after comparing prices.

At the same time, retailers appear to be struggling to sustain substantial success with their social media efforts, evidenced by a more than 20 percent drop in social shopping. IBM thinks one reason for this could be that consumers aren't finding nearly the deals they did through social media sites in the first three months of the year.

And there may be a good reason for that. In the first quarter, retailers were holding sales in hopes of clearing inventory left over from the holidays. That produced attractive bargains for savvy shoppers.

Where are the bargains?

In the second quarter, retail prices went back to normal levels and there were fewer promotions. Thus consumers were disappointed with the lack of deals.

“Retailers must be prepared to connect with their customers on all fronts, or lose them to the competition,” Hayman said.

As a result, Hayman says consumers may see a return to aggressive promotions and creative use of online strategies as the holiday shopping season approaches.

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Colombian Style Cheese Recalled

Improper pasteurization could lead to consumption of pathogenic bacteria, such as Listeria and Salmonella

Tita Products, located in Glendale, NY, is voluntarily recalling certain fresh cheese products due to the improper pasteurization of the milk used to make ...

PhotoProductos Tita Corp (Trade Name of Tita Products), located in Glendale, NY, is voluntarily recalling certain fresh cheese products due to the improper pasteurization of the milk used to make the cheese.  

Proper pasteurization heats milk in order to effectively eliminate all pathogenic bacteria, such as Listeria and Salmonella. 

The recalled fresh cheese products are all sold in plastic pouches, or rectangular clear plastic tubs and are marketed under the brand name “Tita.” The package labels bear the plant code 36-8440. The products also possess a stamped ink date code beneath the label bar code. 

The recall applies to all date codes of these products found in the marketplace -- the metropolitan New York area. The cheese products involved in this recall are labeled: Quesito Colombiano Colombian Cheese. 

The problem was detected by a New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ milk inspector during an inspection on July 17, 2012. The inspection found a failure to follow proper pasteurization procedures by the Productos Tita Corp. cheese plant. 

While the recalled products have not been found to be contaminated with any harmful pathogens, the company is recalling all production date codes of this product, as a precautionary measure. 

No illnesses have been reported to date. Consumers are warned not to use or consume the recalled product, even if it does not appear or smell spoiled. 

Consumers who have purchased any of the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase or discard them. Anyone with questions may contact Productos Tita Corp directly at 718-381-4393.

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DOT Announces $787 Million for Nation’s Aging Transit Infrastructure

The money will fund 255repair and modernization projects in the U.S., Puerto Rico

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced $787 million to modernize and replace aging transit facilities and vehicles to meet the growing dema...

PhotoMass transit is getting a much-needed shot in the arm. 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced $787 million to modernize and replace aging transit facilities and vehicles to meet the growing demand from millions of riders across the country. 

This third round of federal funding will support 255 projects in 48 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. 

“By investing in the transit infrastructure people depend on to get where we need to go each day,” LaHood said, “we will keep our economy moving forward well into the future.” 

Demand for dollars 

Demand for the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) funds was overwhelming with requests from 836 projects totaling $4 billion in requests. In FY2010 and FY2011, FTA awarded a total of more than $1.8 billion in grants for hundreds of repair projects, primarily involving buses and bus facilities. 

“For millions of Americans,” said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, “these investments mean that they may more reliably and safely get to work to earn a paycheck or get to daycare to pick up their children on time, or simply have new choices to enjoy the communities in which they live.” 

Projects 

Examples of projects selected include: 

  • New Jersey Transit: $76 million to upgrade its statewide bus fleet, to improve commuting times, improve air quality for state residents, and save on fuel by doubling the fleet of fuel-efficient buses. In addition, the state will put new hybrid coach buses on the road to improve the commute to New York City and start a new Bus Rapid Transit service between Camden County and downtown Philadelphia.
  • Maryland Department of Transportation: $40 million to replace Baltimore’s 65-year old Kirk Division Bus Facility with two sustainable “green” buildings that will help reduce operating costs, create local construction jobs in Northeast Baltimore, and help more than 350 local transit employees maintain a growing fleet of new, energy-efficient buses that are now serviced elsewhere.
  • Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority: $15 million to replace aging buses with new buses that will use compressed natural gas. These new buses will improve reliability for riders, leave a smaller environmental footprint and reduce fuel costs.
  • Capital Area Transportation Authority in East Lansing, Michigan: $6.3 million to redevelop a former Amtrak station near Michigan State University into the Capital Area Multi-Modal Gateway Project, which will improve bicycle and pedestrian access and connections to local bus and rail service.
  • City of Charlotte, North Carolina: $4 million to replace Charlotte Area Transit System diesel buses that have met or exceeded their useful lives with new hybrid technology buses that will reduce emissions, save on fuel costs, and reduce long term maintenance costs.
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FDA Approves Afinitor for Advanced Breast Cancer Treatment

The treatment with a new drug combo delays progression of the disease

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Afinitor (everolimus) for use in combination with Aromasin (exemestane) to treat certain postmenop...

PhotoA new drug combination for treatment of breast cancer will soon be on the market. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Afinitor (everolimus) for use in combination with Aromasin (exemestane) to treat certain postmenopausal women with advanced hormone-receptor positive, HER2-negative breast cancer. 

The drug combination is intended for use in women with recurrence or progression of their cancer after treatment with Femara (letrozole) or Arimidex (anastrozole). 

“This is the first approval from the class of drugs known as mTOR inhibitors for the treatment of postmenopausal women with advanced hormone-receptor positive breast cancer,” said Richard Pazdur, M.D., director of the Office of Hematology and Oncology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Afinitor is another example of the value of continuing to study drugs in additional types of cancer after their initial approval.” 

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death among women. An estimated 226,870 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and 39,510 will die from the disease. 

Rigorous testing 

The safety and effectiveness of Afinitor was evaluated in a clinical study of 724 patients with advanced breast cancer. All patients had experienced menopause, had estrogen receptor-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer that had spread, and had previously received treatment with Femara or Arimidex. 

Patients were selected to receive either Afinitor in combination with Aromasin or Aromasin with a placebo (sugar pill). Patients received treatment until their cancers progressed or side effects became unacceptable. 

The study was designed to measure the length of time a patient lived without the cancer progressing, or progression-free survival (PFS). Patients who were assigned to receive Afinitor plus Aromasin combination had a 4.6 month improvement in the median time to disease progression or death compared to patients receiving the placebo plus Aromasin. 

The most common side effects observed in patients receiving Afinitor for breast cancer were mouth ulcers, infections, rash, fatigue, diarrhea and decreased appetite. Patients aged 65 years and older should be monitored closely as these patients experience a higher rate of serious side effects than younger patients receiving the treatment. 

Other uses 

The FDA has previously approved Afinitor to treat patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma that has progressed after treatment with other cancer therapies, in adult patients with progressive advanced neuroendocrine tumors of pancreatic origin, for patients with renal angiomyolipoma and tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) not requiring immediate surgery, and for adults and children with subependymal giant cell astrocytoma associated with TSC who require treatment but are not candidates for curative surgery. 

Afinitor is marketed by East Hanover, N.J.-based Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation.

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Medications Target Long-Term Weight Control

New drugs are the first approved by the FDA in 13 years

To help obese and overweight Americans who have been unsuccessful in getting their weight under control with diet and exercise, the Food and Drug Administr...

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Midsummer Drowning Checkup: 90 Child Drownings Nationwide Since Memorial Day

Parents, Caregivers Urged To Follow Safety Steps and Support Pool Safely Day 2012

New information from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) shows that 90 children younger than 15 were reported to have drowned in swimming po...

PhotoNew information from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) shows that 90 children younger than 15 were reported to have drowned in swimming pools since Memorial Day. 

An additional 106 children of that age required emergency response for near-drowning incidents, according to media reports, providing a sobering reminder of how a fun day at the pool can quickly turn tragic. 

The figures show that young children and toddlers are especially vulnerable to drowning. Seventy-two percent of the children reported to have drowned since Memorial Day were younger than five years old. 

Pool Safely Day 

In light of this information, CSPC’s Pool Safely: Simple Steps Save Lives campaign is encouraging water parks, municipal swimming pools and other indoor and outdoor aquatic facilities to celebrate Pool Safely Day, an annual event promoting water safety that encourages all Americans to pool safely every day. 

Participants from all around the U.S. will be participating in Pool Safely Day activities this week (July 22-29).  More than 70 facilities in 30 states have registered events with CPSC during the week.  Events will range from free swimming lessons, to CPR training, to distributing Pool Safely information materials to parents and caregivers. 

"Making sure their children learn how to swim is one of the most important steps parents can take," said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "Swimming is a fun activity to help keep cool in the summer and it also can be a lifesaver." 

Texas leads the way 

Texas had the highest number of drownings (13) in this time period with California, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania each reporting five drownings.  

CPSC's latest submersion report shows on average 390 pool or spa-related drownings occur each year for children younger than 15, based on statistics from 2007-2009. About 5,200 pool or spa-related emergency department-treated submersion injuries occur on average each year for children younger than 15. 

"This information tells a heartbreaking story," said Tenenbaum. "Behind each one of these incidents are grieving family members and communities. These are preventable tragedies, so we must continue to share the simple safety steps that parents and caregivers should take both before and during time spent in or near the water. That's what we mean when we say America needs to learn how to pool safely."

Staying safe 

The Pool Safely campaign provides information on the simple steps that parents, caregivers and pool owners can take to ensure that children and adults stay safe around pools and spas: 

  • Stay close, be alert and watch children in and around the pool. This means never leave children unattended in a pool or spa; always watch children closely around all bodies of water; teach children basic water safety tips; and keep children away from pool drains, pipes and other openings.
  • Learn and practice water safety skills.  This means every family member should know how to swim and learning to perform CPR on children and adults.
  • Have appropriate equipment for your pool or spa. This include fencing, a lockable safety cover, proper drain covers to avoid entrapments, and lifesaving equipment such as life rings and a reaching pole. 

Pool Safely campaign 

The Pool Safely campaign was launched in 2010 to raise awareness about pool and spa safety, as mandated by the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. 

This year, the campaign is increasing its focus on populations most at risk of drowning, including children younger than five years old who represent 75 percent of child drowning fatalities on average, and black and Hispanic children between the ages of 5 and 14 who drown at higher rates than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Data from USA Swimming indicate that 70 percent of black children and 62 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim, making them especially vulnerable to drowning.

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Seniors Who Can't Sleep May Face Early Nursing Home

Fragmented sleep linked to a number of aging-related diseases

Seniors who have trouble getting a good night's sleep may be headed for a nursing home sooner than their sounder-sleeping peers.That's the conclusion of ...

Seniors who have trouble getting a good night's sleep may be headed for a nursing home sooner than their sounder-sleeping peers.

That's the conclusion of a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They say fragmented or interrupted sleep could predict future placement in a nursing home or assisted living facility.

“Sleep disturbances are common in older people,” said Adam Spira, PhD, lead author of the study and an assistant professor with the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health. “Our results show that in community-dwelling older women, more fragmented sleep is associated with a greater risk of being placed in a nursing home or in a personal care home.”

Compared with women with the least fragmented sleep patterns, those who spent the most time awake after first falling asleep were three times more likely to end up in a nursing home or assisted living facility. The linkage may have something to do with disease.

Linked to diseases

In previous research the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found not getting enough sleep is associated with a number of chronic diseases and conditions -- such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression.

Research has established that lack of sleep is responsible for an increased risk of motor vehicle and other accidents. Previous studies have also linked disturbed sleep with disability in older adults and impairment in activities of daily living and mobility.

The latest study found that senior adults who suffer from insomnia are at risk of requiring institutional care within five years.

More research needed

“It’s important to remember that this is an observational study, so our findings cannot demonstrate a conclusive causal link between sleep disturbance and placement in long-term care facilities,” Spira said. “We need more research to explain how sleep disturbance might lead to this outcome, and whether interventions to improve sleep might prevent it.

Here are some tips for increasing your chances of a full night's rest:

  • Get on a regular schedule: Varying your bedtime radically will disrupt your sleep pattern
  • Don't eat or drink a lot just before bedtime: When you go to sleep your stomach should not be full but it shouldn't be empty either.
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco: Using tobacco is never a good idea, but especially in the evening. Having a drink just before bedtime is also to be avoided.
  • Keep the room dark: Exposure to light may disrupt your sleep.
  • Consider a white noise generator: Many people find this sound restful, plus it helps disguise other sounds that may be in the house.

If sleep disruption consists, discuss it with your doctor.

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Getting Divorced? What Should You Do Now?

Divorce is unpleasant but planning and discretion can make it less so

It can happen to any couple, not just Tom and Katie.When people get married and utter those famous vows of matrimony, most convey those words with heartf...

PhotoIt can happen to any couple, not just Tom and Katie.

When people get married and utter those famous vows of matrimony, most convey those words with heartfelt sincerity.

Sure it's all good when the rice is being thrown, and the soda cans are dangling from the car's rear, but for some, it goes completely downhill from there.

It doesn't take much research to find that consumers generally regard divorce as being on a par with death and taxes. We surveyed nearly 7 million comments posted on social sites like Twitter and Facebook over the last year and found divorce trending barely above a zero percent approval rating.

 

 Aside from a few who said the experience was "worth it," most of those commenting saw more bad than good in the divorce process:

 

How many?

And just how many U.S. marriages end in either separation or divorce?

It's actually hard to pinpoint specific figures as there are conflicting statistics from both surveys and government reports, but according to the National Center for Health Statistics, one-third of new marriages will end in divorce within ten years, and 43 percent within 15 years, but those numbers vary and heavily depend on the couple's age.

To get a proper sense of how couples should proceed when getting a divorce, ConsumerAffairs spoke with Tennessee lawyer John Hollins, Jr., who is author of the informational guide, and book "Surviving Divorce."

"Divorcing couples must spend less time worrying about who is right and more time worrying about what is right," Hollins said.

"Do the right thing, and always take the high road," he said." Using the divorce process simply to punish your spouse is likely to boomerang and hurt the punisher."

Easier said ...

PhotoBut those who have been through a bitter split know all too well that it's easier said than done to remain on that high road, especially when things like finances, insurance and property are at stake.

Thankfully, there are tangible things that couples can do to get through a divorce with the least amount of anger or contention.

"Divorce lawyers understand that people are not their best under the pressures of divorce," said Hollins.

"The lawyer is there to help you keep your case on track, guide you through the process, and make the experience as quick and painless as possible. As long as you understand there are no real winners in contested litigation, divorce has a devastating effect on the parties and their children. The emotional and legal costs of lengthy trials are substantial," he said.

According to the divorce website Divorcestatistics.com, the average cost to end a marriage is in the neighborhood of $20,000, and the entire divorce industry is a $28 billion-a-year business, so obviously a strong piece of advice would be to make sure you really want to split, while making sure your finances are equipped to take on such high costs.

And of course having children adds to the level of difficulty when ending a marriage and putting them first should be your first goal amidst your feelings of hurt and anger, says Hollins. 

"When children are involved, parents must always honor their children by placing their best interest first," he says. "You must love your children more than you dislike your spouse and put what is important for them ahead of any animosity."

Counseling helpful

Parents should be "involving an experienced and qualified counselor to advise a couple as to how, when and where to break the news to the children, he added.

“Children naturally blame themselves and must be told that they are not responsible for the demise of the marriage. They need to know that they will go to the same school, have the same friends, and, if possible, see both parents frequently."

However, ending a marriage if you don't have children can be just as taxing on your emotions, finances and the other people around you. Hollins says trying not to blame yourself or even your partner will make you better off in the long run.

"If you have no children, you must remember that we all have shortcomings; it is human nature to try to hide them. We tend to look at things the way we want to see them, and not the way they really are. Each spouse must accept responsibility for his or her conduct, good or bad. Admit your mistakes and be honest with yourself," Hollins explains.

He also says that keeping the details of the divorce a secret should be a high priority, which can be a great challenge for many, as it's easy to vent frustrations and sadness to close friends or family, but that may not be the best thing to do.

Keeping secrets

PhotoSo how does one keep quiet when they're in a vulnerable and expressive state?

"The attorney/client privilege requires lawyers to preserve as confidential all information, written and oral, communicated on or behalf of the client except under limited circumstances, said Hollins.

”Disclosures to anyone other than your attorney are typically not protected unless it is made to a psychologist and/or health care professionals, he said"

Also "many people tend to trust their pastors, friends, and family. Unfortunately this can backfire because those individuals could also be talking to your spouse without your knowledge. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut!".

But sometimes couples aren't sure if they want a divorce, and decide a brief separation is needed to gauge if a final split is really in the marital cards. What are the legalities people should be aware of when they just want a break from the marriage?

"Unless a complaint for absolute divorce or a complaint for legal separation is filed with the court at the time of the separation, the courts offer no real protection to either party other than existing criminal laws in that jurisdiction," Hollins said.

“If couples do separate without any court filings, agreements must be reached with respect to the children, payment of all expenses, and boundaries with respect to each party's residence."

Hollins also says that nickel and diming each other isn't going to assist either person during the divorce, and couples should really decide what's important as well as what's not important to them, as it will not only speed up the process, it will save you from additional heartache.

"Choose your battles wisely," he says. Determine on the front end if this is an issue you are 'prepared to die for.'"

Emotional issues

Back up Hollins' view was divorce lawyer Neil T. Magner, of Magner, Hueneke, Smith & Borda LLP.

Magner says sure there are emotional holes to eventually repair and fill, but getting your paperwork and legal documents together should be ahead of anything else.

"One of the most important things for client's to concentrate on is their Financial Disclosure Statement, which reflects their assets, liabilities and monthly income and expenses," he said.

"For example, client's need to figure out what their monthly expenses are for transportation, food, insurance (including automobile, health, dental, vision, propter, renter's, etc.), minimum monthly credit card payments."

"In addition," Magner said, "Clients should make sure they get their retirement statements and tax returns organized because their attorney will need copies. If minor children are involved, the parties should have clear understanding of any school fees and costs for extracurricular."

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Listen Up! We Test Four Top Headphones

Our Daryl Nelson tunes in, rocks out and writes up the results

Since there are a countless number of portable devices for music listening, there's also a countless number of headphones. Whether it's the white flimsy ki...

Photo
Beats by Dre

Since there are a countless number of portable devices for music listening, there's also a countless number of headphones. Whether the white flimsy kind that accompanies the iPod, or the over-the-ear bulky variety, there's no shortage of selections.

Of course headphones are easily distinguishable by their design, but unless you listen to different models side by side, it's hard to tell which ones sound the best.

So instead of listening to a particular headphone and assessing its quality of sound, I compared some of the most popular ones on the market today, in a side by side, beat for beat, note for note sound comparison.

First up are the Beats by Dre Headphones made by Monster. There are a few different models of these headphones. The one I checked out was the "Beat Mixer Over-The-Ear" model for $299.

There's been a lot of hype about these headphones, and ConsumerAffairs previously did a quick review, but this was the first time these headphones were compared directly against the competition.

I was reminded of how powerful these headphones are, and how much they're specifically designed for bass-heavy music. With bass sound you usually either get power or clarity, but Beats By Dre gives you both... loud bass, but with crispness and accuracy. No muffled bass sound here.

Within seconds of listening to a Rap tune, I was completely enveloped by the fullness and attention-grabbing-nature of the Beats by Dre headphones.

As far as the design, nothing special, but that might be a good thing. If you're looking for more musical wallop than fancy design, these headphones are just right for you.

Dre's headphones do have a somewhat futuristic look and appeal to them, and the soft leather felt quite light and comfortable around my ear, but as far as sound, they're extremely high quality.

Bose Audio

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Next up was the Bose Audio Headphones for 149.99, which also sounded pretty darn good. If not known for anything else, Bose is widely known for its sound clarity, and that reputation is very well deserved.

Compared to Beats by Dre, the Bose headphones scored high in the sound test, but just average on picking up and properly distributing bass sounds. But that's kind of Bose's claim to fame. The company provides a smooth clean sound that picks up the high parts of a melody, as opposed to only picking up its bottom foundation.

If Beats by Dre are ideal for listening to Rap or Rock Music, the Bose Oe2 are perfect for Jazz, Classical, or Ambient music.

The kind of music you listen to most should directly affect the type of headphones you buy.

Roc Nation

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Roc Nation Aviator

I then tried out the Roc Nation Aviator Headphones, made by Skullcandy, that cost $149.99. The first thing I noticed was how gorgeous these headphones were. They should really be called eye candy rather than Skullcandy.

The headphones I tested were brown and gold with see through ear pieces and brown soft leather ear-cups. The head band was made of soft leather on the outside and a suede or rawhide material on the inside. And the sound?

On my phone, I brought up a song by the Doors to test out the Aviators. I can never get enough of Mr. Morrison so I was hoping the Skullcandys would do his haunting voice some justice. They really didn't though.

The sonic output was just okay, nothing spectacular, nothing horrible. It shot out mediocre amounts of sound quality, and didn't really separate each instrument by highs, lows, or mid-range. The Doors' classic tune "Crystal Ships" seemed to be at all one level, which really took away from the song.

Those who like some flash in their headphone design will love the Aviators, but consumers will give up a bit of high quality sound for prettiness.

Another thing I didn't care for in the Aviators was the cord attached to the headphones. Instead of a thick strong wire that plugs into your device, the Skullcandys uses a flimsy string.  If you're using these headphones in the rain, the cord will more than likely get wet. Then you'll have to plug a soggy cord into your device.

Soul 

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SOUL

The last headset I checked out was Soul, which is designed by Atlanta rapper Ludacris. If you know anything about Ludacris and his music, you know his songs are filled with in your face beats, coupled with a strong and clear vocal delivery.

Well, his headphones sound just like that. Somehow Luda was able to design a pair of headphones that sort of mimic his style.

Similar to the Beats by Dre headphones, Soul sucks you in upon first listen, and clearly picks up each individual level of sound. At $199.99 the headphones are not a bad buy, considering there are other brands for the same price that don't deliver the same quality of sound.

As far as the design, the headphones are pretty straightforward. They have large earcups and a headband that's made of a fiberglass type of material. They also feel very comfortable and light, and have an overall look that’s very similar to Dr. Dre's headphones.

The winner

Out of the four tested, which headphones were the best?

By far, Beats by Dre won for its quality of sound. The legendary Los Angeles producer says he made the headphones so consumers can hear the music just like it sounds in the studio when the music is being made.

Producers spend hours and hours, sometimes days, tweaking a snare drum sound for example, or adjusting a guitar lick to get it at just the right level in relation to the rest of the instruments.

It sounds like Dre's headphones accomplished this feat, as each individual sound seemed to come through quite loud and clear.

The runner up was Soul by Ludacris. The headphones were just a couple of notches under Beats by Dre in terms of sound quality, but didn't capture the music's fullness in the same way.

The headphones are $100 less than Dre's, and you can actually hear that $100 difference in the sound. But if you don't want to spend nearly $300 for the Dre headphones, Soul by Ludacris is certainly worth the $199.99 price tag.

The Bose Oe2s were third on the rating chart, but could also be first depending on the type of music you typically listen to. It seems as if the Bose company made the headphones for an older audience who may not choose Rock, Rap, or Dance music as their first musical choice.

Bose's headphones are ideal for those who prefer a quieter brand of music.

Last on the list were the Aviators. Although they scored the highest in the best design category, the sound quality didn't match the headphones' slick design. The music didn't sound terrible or distorted, but all of the sounds seemed to mesh together. You can get the same listening results with much cheaper priced headphones.

So the next time you shop for a pair of headphones do an extended side by side listening test. Also, plug the headphones into your own device, as opposed to using the ones on the display wall that will play only one song.

That way you can decide if the headphones you're getting will suit you and your particular brand of music.

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DIRECTV, Viacom Reach Deal On Channels

Sources say Viacom will receive $600 million over seven years

All is well again in TV Land for DIRECTV subscribers upset that Viacom yanked 17 channels from the satellite service in a contract dispute. The two sides h...

PhotoAll is well again in TV Land for DIRECTV subscribers upset that Viacom yanked 17 channels from the satellite service in a contract dispute. The two sides have announced agreement on a long-term contract.

On July 10 the Viacom channels, including Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV, BET, Spike, CMT, TV Land and ten other channels disappeared from the system, leaving many viewers upset.

"DIRECTV dropped Viacom and yet they are charging me as if I am receiving them," Patricia, of Estill, SC, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. "It is totally unfair for them to continue charging the consumers when we are actually not able to watch these channels."

Phyllis, of Norfolk, VA, also viewed it as a reduction in service without a reduction in price.

"When I signed on eight years ago with DIRECTV, it included all these channels that have been taken away and they still want me, the consumer, to pay the same amount," she wrote to ConsumerAffairs.

Financial terms of the agreement that restored the channels were not disclosed but Businessweek quotes source close to the negotiations as saying Viacom will receive $600 million over seven year. Previously, DIRECTV said Viacom wanted $1 billion.

DIRECTV suggested the subscriber revolt that appeared on sites like ConsumerAffairs didn't play into the final agreement and that the satellite provider held its ground.

Standoff 'unfortunate'

“It’s unfortunate that Viacom took the channels away from customers to try to gain leverage, but in the end, it’s clear our customers recognized that tactic for what it was,” said Derek Chang, executive vice president of Content Strategy and Development for DIRECTV. “The attention surrounding this unnecessary and ill-advised blackout by Viacom has accomplished one key thing: it serves notice to all media companies that bullying TV providers and their customers with blackouts won’t get them a better deal. It’s high time programmers ended these anti-consumer blackouts once and for all and prove our industry is about enabling people to connect to their favorite programs rather than denying them access.”

Chang said the new agreement will also give DIRECTV customers will also gain the ability to see Viacom programming on tablets, laptops, handhelds and other personal devices via the DIRECTV Everywhere platform.

The dispute called attention to the growing tension between content providers and companies that distribute content to consumers. Currently rival Dish Network is embroiled in a similar contract dispute with AMC Network, which airs the popular series "Mad Men," "Walking Dead," and "Breaking Bad."

DIRECTV says the standoff with Viacom helped generate significant public support from high-profile DIRECTV competitors. The 850 small and independently owned local cable systems that make up the American Cable Association lent public support, the company said, as did Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable and Mediacom.

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Gas Prices Creep Higher In Last Week

Average price at the pump gains six cents in last seven days

Gasoline prices headed higher for another week, with the average price gaining six cents a gallon over the last seven days.The national average price of ...

PhotoGasoline prices headed higher for another week, with the average price gaining six cents a gallon over the last seven days.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.447 per gallon, compared with $3.388 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Gas prices now are only four cents a gallon cheaper than a month ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.710 per gallon, versus $3.683 a week ago.

Oil prices have been rising over the last two weeks in spite of concerns about slowing economic growth. Prices edged up on data showing U.S. crude oil supplies have fallen this month. In its most recent report the Energy Information Administration reports crude stockpiles dipped 809,000 barrels in the week ending July 13 after a significant decline the week before.

Familiar pattern

Arvery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations, says July's price action is following a pattern set last year.

"Rising gas prices in July also occurred last summer after prices fell 44 cents per gallon from a high of $3.98 on May 5 to a summer low of $3.54 on June 30," Ash said. "Last year prices increased 17 cents in July and remained elevated through Labor Day before declining following the busy summer driving period. This year, just more than halfway through July, the price at the pump has increased seven cents."

This year the decline may be strengthened if the Federal Reserve holds off on another stimulus round. That would keep the dollar stronger and oil prices lower.

Among the states this week, prices remained fairly stable with drivers in Arizona and New Mexico enjoying a drop in prices at the pump, propelling both states into the top 10 cheapest gas price states.

The states with the highest gas prices this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.186)
  • Alaska ($4.011)
  • Connecticut ($3.782)
  • California ($3.751)
  • New York ($3.735)
  • Washington State ($3.638)
  • Illinois ($3.614)
  • North Dakota ($3.611)
  • Oregon ($3.604)
  • Colorado ($3.546)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.117)
  • Mississippi ($3.148)
  • Alabama ($3.182)
  • Tennessee ($3.199)
  • Arkansas ($3.233)
  • Louisiana ($3.237)
  • Virginia ($3.281)
  • Texas ($3.305)
  • New Mexico ($3.314)
  • Arizona ($3.322)
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Feds Find 'Cycle of Boom and Bust' in Student Loans

Risky practices, loose underwriting lead to problems

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the U.S. Department of Education today released a report that describes the risky practices a...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the U.S. Department of Education today released a report that describes the risky practices and debt that stemmed from the boom and bust of the private student loan market in the past ten years. 

According to the CFPB’s estimates, outstanding student loan debt in the United States topped $1 trillion in 2011 -- $864 billion of federal student debt and approximately $150 billion of private student loan debt. 

“Our findings reveal that students were yet another group of consumers that were hurt by the boom and bust of the financial crisis,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray.  “Too many student loan borrowers are struggling to pay off private student loans that they did not understand and cannot afford.  Moving forward, we must do our best to leave the next generation in a better place than we are today, rather than buried under a mountain of debt.” 

“Subprime-style lending went to college and now students are paying the price,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “We still have some work to do to ensure that students who take out private student loans have the same kinds of protections offered by federal loans. In the meantime, if you have to take out a loan to pay for college, federal student aid should be your first option.”

Significant changes

PhotoPrivate student loans were originally designed to supplement federal student loans, and still serve that role in most cases, but there were significant changes in lending in the years leading up to the financial crisis. 

Funded in large part by the asset-backed securities market, many lenders made money by originating and then selling private student loans with less regard for borrowers’ creditworthiness. The market grew from less than $5 billion in 2001 to over $20 billion in 2008, and then rapidly contracted to less than $6 billion in 2011. After the financial crisis, underwriting standards tightened as investors pulled out of the market.

In the Dodd-Frank Wall Street and Consumer Protection Act, Congress mandated that the CFPB and the U.S. Department of Education conduct a detailed study to determine where there might be consumer protection gaps in the private student loan market.  For this report, the CFPB received loan data from nine lenders on over five million loans made between 2005 and 2011, as well as data from five nonprofit lenders.

Three major findings of the joint report are:

  • Private student loans are riskier: Used appropriately, private student loans have a role to play in financing higher education.  However, compared to federal student loans, private student loans often lack repayment flexibility and other protections when borrowers are struggling to make ends meet.  Most private loans have few options for payment modification or forbearance.  Federal loans have a fixed interest rate and most private loans have variable rates, making estimates about future debt payments difficult.  Prior to 2010, federal law did not require a disclosure showing the actual interest rate on a borrower’s loan until after the lender documented the loan, approved the credit, and readied the check for mailing.
  • Lax underwriting practices rise during boom:  Some lenders bypassed school financial aid offices and marketed loans directly to students.  As a result, in many cases, the school could not review the borrower’s financial need, compare it to the loan amount, or even verify that the borrower was enrolled.  Many lenders also lowered the minimum credit score required to receive a private student loan so that they could originate and then sell off more loans.  Many students did not understand the differences and features between federal and private loans.  They ended up using riskier private loans before exhausting their safer federal options.  
  • Borrowers are trapped after bust: Defaults on private student loans have increased since the financial crisis.  Based on the CFPB’s sample, there are now over $8.1 billion in defaulted private loans, representing more than 850,000 distinct loans.  Congress amended the bankruptcy code in 2005 to make it tougher to discharge private student loans.  There is little to no evidence that there was an improvement in price and it is unclear that there was an increase in access to credit as a result of these changes.  Borrowers reported their lenders were unable or unwilling to modify or adjust repayment terms.

Since 2008, lending standards in the private student loan market have tightened.  Lenders are not able to easily sell off the student loans they originate, so they have more “skin in the game” when it comes to the borrower’s ability to repay. 

In 2011, 90 percent of private student loans had a creditworthy co-signer, compared to only 67 percent in 2008. The credit scores of those obtaining student loans in the past few years have risen.  More than 90 percent of loans are now reviewed by a school financial aid office to make sure that loan amounts match financial need.

Recommendations 

As part of the study, the CFPB and Department of Education each offered common-sense recommendations to reform the private student loan market to ensure that the bad practices of the past are not repeated.  

They recommended that lenders and school financial aid counselors work together in everyone’s best interest.  Borrowers should have the information they need to have a full picture of their debt obligations, and lenders need to maintain careful underwriting standards. 

They also articulated the need to take a second look at how borrowers might be able to restructure their debt in the bankruptcy process.

The CFPB launched a tool to help borrowers once they have missed monthly payments on their private or federal student loans.  The Student Loan Debt Collection Assistant is designed to help these borrowers understand their options, communicate effectively with their servicer or debt collector, and bring their loan out of default.

Because student loans are not generally dischargeable in bankruptcy, and because federal student loans have specific consumer protections guaranteed by law, it is very important for borrowers to understand their rights and responsibilities.

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Six Steps To Building An Investment Nest Egg

Saving for the future has never been more important

The American consumer may find it harder than ever to get ahead. Incomes have been stagnant and net worth has declined. Meanwhile, prices for a lot of day-...

PhotoThe American consumer may find it harder than ever to get ahead. Incomes have been stagnant and net worth has declined. Meanwhile, prices for a lot of day-to-day necessities have increased.

Even though it may be harder, it's still possible to build a savings or investment nest egg. Personal finance experts counsel that it takes careful budgeting, goal-setting and discipline.

"Today many Americans lack the financial resources to exercise a full range of choice over how they live," said Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. "Aspirations of owning a home, providing for a family, and retiring comfortably are being hampered by today's financial necessities. By prudently investing now, one can open up the future to the possibilities the American Dream promises."

Blayney says important for consumers to create an investment strategy to guide their efforts and offers up six steps she says can increase the odds of success:

1. Invest in what you understand

Venturing into unfamiliar investment areas can be a prescription for failure. Start simple by creating cash reserves first for tomorrow's needs. As you accumulate cash, look for ways to make it grow. The younger you are when you start the more risk you can take on. Become a student of whatever you invest in.

2. Be prepared for losses

This is hard for many new investors to get their minds around but losses are a necessary part of investing. Without some downside, there can be no upside and, therefore, no possibility of creating a better future.

For example, when you play it safe by choosing only cash or fixed income investments and avoid equities, you lose to inflation and diminished wealth in the long-term. By investing in a diversified portfolio, your winners should outpace you losers and keep you ahead of the game.

3. Start now

"Not enough money to invest" is no excuse. The time to invest is now. Even if it's only a small amount, every dollar put towards meeting your future needs helps.

Start small by looking at what you're spending your money on every day and cutting out one or two small expenses. Take the money you save and start investing. The earlier you begin, the less you need to invest to meet any given future goal.

4. Build flexibility into your investment plan

The future can be uncertain so it's important to hedge your bets and position your investments with a variety of economic possibilities in mind. Whether interest rates move up or down, the Eurozone disbands, or the Republicans take the Senate in November, there should be enough diversification in your portfolio so that some of your investments come out ahead.

5. Don't simply follow the leaders

The financial world is in a constant state of flux and you have to keep up. Yesterday's successful strategy usually becomes today's loser. Investing in the latest hot sector or stock, just because everyone else is, is a bit like following others straight into enemy fire. It's a good way to lose big. This goes back to step one, investing in what you know. If circumstances change, your investments may have to change too.

6. Ask for help

Talking with a trusted and qualified financial adviser is a good idea, especially for novice investors. But make sure these advisers are not selling investment products and would profit by steering you to a particular investment that might not be in your best interest. It's perfectly reasonable to ask any potential adviser if they market any products and if so, what they are.

Avoid turning to financial advisers that suddenly appear in your church congregation or civic club. These often turn out to be scams. Instead, choose someone you have known a long time or someone people you trust have used for a long time and recommend.

Blayney says investing, at its root, isn't all that complicated. It involves looking at cash flow, debt and exposure to risk. It's about living below your means, at least by a little, so that excess money can be diverted to the future.

"A secure and healthy retirement, education for children, and a satisfying legacy for family and community," Blayney said. "The critical planning link between the two, between today's facts and tomorrow's goals, is investing."

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DC Funeral Home To Pay $25,000 for Funeral Rule Violations

Charged with failing to show casket price lists to consumers

A Washington, DC, funeral home and its owners will pay a $25,000 civil penalty to resolve charges that they violated the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) F...

PhotoA Washington, DC, funeral home and its owners will pay a $25,000 civil penalty to resolve charges that they violated the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Funeral Rule, which helps ensure that people have the information they need to compare prices and buy only the funeral services and goods they want. 

In May 2011, at the FTC's request, the U.S. Department of Justice charged B.K. Henry Funeral Chapel Inc., Brian K. Henry and Lisa Henry with failing to provide consumers with a casket price list, as required by law. The Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to show consumers a casket price list before they view any caskets. 

Secret shoppers 

The FTC's complaint was based on inspections by FTC staff posing as consumers seeking to make funeral arrangements. The FTC conducts undercover inspections every year to ensure that funeral homes are complying with the Funeral Rule. 

In addition to the civil penalty, the proposed settlement permanently prohibits the defendants from failing to show consumers their casket price list and from violating other Rule requirements. 

Funeral rule 

The Funeral Rule, issued in 1984, gives consumers important rights when making funeral arrangements. 

Key provisions of the Rule require funeral homes to give consumers a general price list itemizing the prices of the funeral goods and services they offer at the start of a discussion of funeral arrangements, show consumers casket and vault price lists before they view caskets or vaults, and provide price information by telephone on request.

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Nexus 7 Seems To Be A Sell-Out

Heavy demand reported for Google's inexpensive tablet

Want to buy a Nexus 7, Google's new seven-inch tablet? Take a number. Retailers and mail order sites say they are mostly sold out.GameStop reports on its...

PhotoWant to buy a Nexus 7, Google's new seven-inch tablet? Take a number. Retailers and mail order sites say they are mostly sold out.

GameStop reports on its Website the 16GB version of the tablet is backordered and the company "cannot predict the actual delivery time for this item." B&H, another online retailer, said orders will be filled in the order they are received.

Brick and mortar stores say they are running through shipments just as fast as they are received.

The Nexus 7 has been on the market for less than a month. It runs on Google's Android operating system and features a quad-core processor. But the one feature driving the demand could be the price.

The 8GB version of the tablet sells for $199, the same price as Amazon's Kindle Fire. A 16GB version is available for $249.

The entry level iPad, meanwhile, starts at $499 for the Wi-Fi version. Apple is said to be working on a smaller, cheaper version of the iPad that could be released before the holidays.

Google units pre-ordered by consumers are on their way to them. Orders placed after July 11, the company said, will ship next week.

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Children's Beach Chairs Recalled

Downeast Concepts says the chairs have exposed, sharp metal rivets, that pose a laceration hazard

Downeast Concepts Inc., doing business as Backyard and Beyond, of Yarmouth, ME, is recalling about 15,400 children’s folding beach chairs. The recalled cha...

PhotoDowneast Concepts Inc., doing business as Backyard and Beyond, of Yarmouth, ME, is recalling about 15,400 children’s folding beach chairs. The recalled chairs have exposed, sharp metal rivets, posing a laceration hazard. The company says it is aware of one injury -- a 21-month-old girl who fell on the chair's metal rivets and cut her forehead and had to have stitches. 

The recalled children's folding beach chairs, which were made in China, have white aluminum tube frames and pink, yellow, blue or purple fabric seats and chair backs with fish, palm trees or mermaid decorations. The chairs measure 13 inches wide by 18 inches high by 20 inches deep. 

They were sold at Home Goods and other stores nationwide from June 2011 through June 2012 for between $13 and $25. 

Consumers should stop using the recalled beach chairs immediately and return them to Downeast Concepts for a full refund. 

For additional information, contact Downeast Concepts at (800) 343-2424 between 8:30 a.m. through 5 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday and between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on Friday, or visit the firm's Website.

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Timeshare Rental/Resale Operation Sued for Deception

Timeshare owners allegedly told they had renters or buyers lined up for their properties

The Federal Trade Commission and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi have brought legal action, charging the operation allegedly deceived thousands of consu...

PhotoA timeshare rental/resale telemarketing business and its owner are in hot water. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FDA) and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi have brought legal action, charging the operation allegedly deceived thousands of consumers into paying up to $2,000 based on false promises that they had buyers or renters lined up for consumers' timeshare properties -- and then failing to deliver promised refunds. 

A federal court has halted the operation and froze the defendants' assets pending further litigation. 

Unkept promises 

According to the complaint against Edward Lee Windsor and Information Management Forum Inc., also doing business as Vacation Property Marketing and Vacation Property Marketing Inc., the defendants cold-called timeshare property owners and falsely promised they had renters or buyers who would pay a specific dollar amount for the consumers' properties. 

They also promised a full refund of consumers' fees, which ranged from $500 to $2,000, if they did not rent or sell the timeshares as promised, or if consumers asked for their money back within a certain time period. 

According to the complaint, the defendants falsely told consumers they had business relations with major corporations, such as Home Depot and Pepsi that had an immediate need for the consumers' timeshare properties. 

Using a script 

A telemarketing script filed with the court stated, "What we do is market and advertise the rental and sale of resort properties to corporations who use them for conventions, training seminars, employee perks, business trips as well as their own vacation time . . . the reason that I've been calling you is because this weekend there is going to be a major event . . . We currently have over 700 corporate buyers and renters coming into town for this event." 

Consumers were allegedly told the properties could be rented for a certain amount, such as $1,800 a week, or that there were buyers willing to pay specific amounts, such as $18,500, within 90 days. Some consumers were also falsely told they would receive the proceeds from their rentals or sales before or shortly after the charges to the consumers' credit cards became due. 

Consumers who sought refunds were often strung along with more false promises to the point that they could not dispute the charges with their credit card providers, and when they were able to dispute charges, the defendants often vigorously contested their efforts to get their money back. 

As alleged in the complaint, consumers who were charged fees by the defendants did not obtain renters, buyers, or refunds. In limited instances, the defendants offered consumers a small portion of their money back, but most often they denied refund requests, contending they had fulfilled their agreement by placing an ad on their Website, onlinevpm.com.

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FCC: Advertised Web Speeds Now More Accurate

Consumers now getting 96 percent of advertised speeds from ISPs

Internet Service Providers (ISP) in the U.S. are doing a better job of providing advertised speeds for their broadband services, according to a new report ...

PhotoInternet Service Providers (ISP) in the U.S. are doing a better job of providing advertised speeds for their broadband services, according to a new report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The study involved actual performance tests for thousands of subscribers in over 80 percent of the residential market. The FCC said it found a marked improvement in performance between the first report, completed in August 2011, and this latest one, completed in April 2012.

"First, accurate delivery of advertised performance by ISPs has improved overall," the report said. "Five ISPs now routinely deliver nearly one hundred percent or greater of the speed advertised to the consumer even during time periods when bandwidth demand is at its peak."

Improvement since August

That's a big improvement from the August 2011 report, when only two ISPs met that level of performance. In 2011, the average ISP delivered 87 percent of advertised download speed during peak usage periods.

In 2012, that jumped to 96 percent. In other words, consumers today are experiencing performance more closely aligned with what is advertised than they experienced one year ago.

Consumers posting reviews at ConsumerAffairs still complain about speeds, however, even if complaints about billing and customer service are more numerous. Edward, of Corryton, TN, wrote recently to express is frustration with Comcast.

"I am paying every single month for 12 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 3Mbps upload," Edward wrote. "Yet, when doing several speed tests for Comcast Xfinity, my download speed ranged from 0.40Mbps to 1.81Mbps download and 0.58Mbps to 0.76Mbps upload. When I called and asked Comcast why it was so slow, the customer service lady said I could pay another $10 a month to upgrade to 12Mbps download and 5Mbps upload. I told her I was not even getting what I was paying for now, so why would I want to pay them more money for something I'm not even getting now?"

An exception?

The FCC report authors suggest when it comes to Comcast customers, Edward may be an exception. The report found that Comcast is now providing 103 percent of its advertised speeds.

The report found that providers delivering service with fiber optics had the best record of hitting advertised download speeds. They were over-performing at a rate of 117 percent.

Room for improvement

But not all ISPs are showing improvement. Frontier and Windstream showed declines since August, with Frontier performing the worst. Clayton, of West Alexandria, Ohio, a Frontier business customer, said he finds the service very uneven.

"First, their high-speed business Internet slows down to a complete halt, and if it doesn't slow down to a halt, it is extremely slow, around.02 mbps," Clayton wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. "This throws everything off at our business location. We can get a little over 2.5mbps when it works as it should."

The report suggests that ISPs were motivated to improve performance by the first study, when the FCC publicized which providers were hitting their numbers and which were not. And the agency says the improvements appear to be real.

"Our analysis shows that the improvements of ISPs in meeting their advertised speeds were largely driven by improvements in network performance, and not downward adjustments to the speed tiers offered," the authors wrote.

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'Egg Therapy' Can Benefit Children Allergic To Eggs

Study shows the immune system can be retrained

Giving children with egg allergies increasingly higher doses of the very food they are allergic to can eliminate or ease reactions in most of them, accordi...

PhotoIt’s almost like the “hair of the dog.” 

Giving children with egg allergies increasingly higher doses of the very food they are allergic to can eliminate or ease reactions in most of them, according to results from a federally funded study conducted at Johns Hopkins Children's Center and four other U.S. institutions. 

The findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, add to a growing body of evidence showing that feeding escalating doses of a food -- an approach known as oral immunotherapy -- can, over time, condition the immune system to tolerate the food with minimal or no reactions. 

Recent, smaller studies conducted at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere have shown the approach can also be useful in treating children allergic to milk and peanuts. 

Cautious optimism 

The researchers say the results are promising but caution that, at present, oral immunotherapy is still considered experimental and should not be used outside of a strictly controlled research protocol. 

In the current study, conducted as part of the NIH-funded Consortium of Food Allergy Research, 35 of 40 children treated with egg immunotherapy experienced improvement. Five of the 40 patients dropped out of the study, four of them due to allergic reactions related to treatment. 

Eleven of the 35 patients experienced complete long-term elimination of egg-related allergic reactions, the most sought-after therapeutic outcome. The rest were able to tolerate higher doses of egg with only mild or no symptoms, but lost some of their tolerance after discontinuing treatment. 

However, a higher threshold of tolerance, the researchers say, is an important therapeutic endpoint because it can protect against serious allergic reactions from accidental or incidental exposures and give patients and parents a peace of mind at restaurants, parties and other venues where food control is difficult or impossible. 

"More than a quarter of the children in our study lost their egg allergies altogether, but we also saw dramatic improvements in those who didn't, which in and of itself is an important therapeutic achievement," says Robert Wood, M.D, director of allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "These children went from having serious allergic reactions after a single bite of an egg-containing cookie to consuming eggs with minimal or no symptoms." 

Increasing dosages 

In the study, 55 children, ages 5 through 18, received escalating doses of egg-white powder or a cornstarch placebo for 10 months. Thirteen of the 15 patients treated with placebo failed an oral food challenge, which requires a child to eat under medical observation 5 grams of egg protein, or the equivalent of half a large egg. Two placebo patients had dropped out before the challenge. 

After the initial 10-month buildup, 22 of 35 children treated with egg whites were able to consume 5 grams of egg protein -- 14 of them without symptoms. All 35 children continued to consume small doses of egg whites daily for 22 more months -- the so-called maintenance phase, during which daily exposure to small doses of the allergen is believed to build tolerance. 

Food challenge 

At the end of the 22-month maintenance phase, children underwent a food challenge with 10 grams of egg whites. Thirty out of the 35 children passed the 22-month food challenge. 

Those who passed the 10-gram food challenge then ceased all egg consumption for four to six weeks and underwent a final food challenge after the "abstinence" period. Eleven children were still able to tolerate 10 grams of egg protein -- the equivalent of a large egg -- without any symptoms and were considered completely cured of their allergy. 

Being able to consume eggs without a reaction after a period of abstinence is considered the true marker of sustained tolerance, the scientists say. During a phone follow-up one year later, all 11 reported eating eggs and egg-containing products without symptoms as frequently or as infrequently as they chose. 

The fact that most children lost some of their tolerance after only a month of abstinence underscores the importance of daily exposure to an allergen to maintain tolerance, the researchers say. 

An estimated four percent of U.S. children have food allergies and, by age 3, nearly 3 percent of children have evidence of egg allergies, the researchers say. Some children outgrow their food allergies, but for many they are life long and require complete avoidance to prevent serious or life-threatening reactions.

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AARP: Older Americans Bearing Brunt of Foreclosures

And for many, it isn't over yet

Between 2007 and 2011 the number of foreclosures in the U.S. skyrocketed as the air escaped from the housing bubble. Older homeowners were disproportionall...

PhotoBetween 2007 and 2011 the number of foreclosures in the U.S. skyrocketed as the air escaped from the housing bubble. Older homeowners were disproportionally represented among those foreclosures, according to a study by AARP.

The study found that more than 1.7 million seniors lost their homes during that four-year period. Seriously delinquent loans -- those in foreclosure and loans 90 or more days delinquent -- increased from 1.1 percent in 2007 to 6.0 percent as of December 2011 for people age 50 and older, a more than fivefold increase.

“The collapse of the housing market has been especially painful for older homeowners,” said Debra Whitman, AARP Executive Vice President for Policy.

Crisis not over

And for older Americans, AARP says, the housing calamity isn't over. As of December 2011 some 600,000 loans held by consumers aged 50 or above were in foreclosure. The same number were behind in their payments by 90 days or more.

Making matters worse, 16 percent of mortgages held by 50-plus consumers -- a total of 3.5 million loans -- were underwater, meaning the homeowner owed more than the property is worth. Extending beyond the housing market, AARP says this reality will have widely felt ramifications.

“Older homeowners often rely on their home equity to finance their needs in retirement -- things like health care, home maintenance and other unexpected needs. The fact that so many older Americans have no equity at all is troubling,” Whitman said.

Why seniors?

It's not clear why the housing downturn has hit older consumers especially hard. It may be that many older workers were among the first to lose their jobs in the Great Recession and have had great difficulty in finding new employment.

The good news for older homeowners is their serious delinquency rate is lower than for their younger counterparts. However, serious delinquencies went up faster for the older population over the past five years.

The news is worse for homeowners well into their retirement years. The study found that people age 75 and older have a higher foreclosure rate than those age 50 to 64 or age 65 to 74.

It seems reasonable that many older homeowners are still living in homes they purchased 10, 20 or even 30 years earlier, when prices were lower. Years of mortgage payments should have given them sizable equity. So why are they in foreclosure or underwater?

Possible answer

A likely explanation is the serial refinancing that went on during the housing boom, when homeowners took equity out because the value of their homes had risen. The homes are no longer worth what they once were, but the owners have saddled themselves with debt.

“More older Americans are carrying mortgage debt than in the past, and the amount of that debt is also increasing,” Whitman said. “Because before-tax income has decreased on average for people age 75 plus, while spending for mortgage interest, property taxes, utilities, and health care have increased, their economic situation is worsening.”

The bottom line, says AARP, is the foreclosure crisis is far from over. The housing market may be showing signs of improving, loans held by many consumers over age 50 are still in danger of falling into foreclosure.

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What's The Real Deal Behind Generic Products?

And what's the difference between generic and private label?

Sunkist or orange soda? Green Giant or simply sweet corn?When it comes to choosing between brand name and private label items, many consumers aren't sure...

PhotoSunkist or orange soda? Green Giant or simply sweet corn?

When it comes to choosing between brand name and private label items, many consumers aren't sure of the true difference.

In an effort to remove some of the mystery surrounding private label items, ConsumerAffairs contacted food distribution company Private Label Sourcing Inc. based in Franklin, Tenn.

Bert Edwards, who is president of the company and has been in the private label industry for nearly 30 years, explained where private label products actually come from and how they compare to national brands.

"The majority of products come from manufacturers specializing in producing private label products," he said. "While there are some national brand companies that also produce private label products, that number is relatively small. This is significant because branded manufacturers often will not produce a true match to their own brand, while private label manufacturers work hard to match national brand quality where applicable."

Oftentimes, consumer choices will default to brand name products because of familiarity, without knowing the true difference -- if any -- in quality between brand labels and private.

"In terms of product quality, this is generally driven by the retailer these days," says Edwards. "Most larger retailers will work with their manufacturers to create the quality they (the retailer) want to offer under their own brand. Sometimes this is a direct match to the national brand; while other times a retailer may want a product they perceive to be better than the brands."

Private vs. generic

PhotoBut wait a minute. When did we start referring to generic brands as private label brands? What happened?

"Generic was applicable as recently as the 1980's," Edwards explained. "When there really were not many product specifications in place and the quality more times than not was whatever a supplier could make at the lowest possible cost."

Also, "beginning in the 80's and early 90's most retailers began getting serious about the quality of their private label products. That has continually improved over the last couple of decades, with most retailers being very specific in the products they offer."

In other words, generic brands were by and large a lower-cost option. This seemed to turn many consumers off. 

"The private label industry is much different than when I started," said Edwards. "The main change has been in product quality. For years many retailers simply offered 'generic' products — they often looked for the lowest price, and quality did not really factor in. You might get a great product one time and something terrible the next."

Not just beans

Things started to change when retailers began putting their brand name on what had previously been generic products. Instead of "beans," a product became LivingFree Beans, or whatever.

PhotoPackaging also began to improve, in an effort to give a more upscale look to what would otherwise just be a can of corn. 

"Packaging became more upscale so consumers would not feel as though they were buying an inferior product. And marketing picked up as well. Finally, a sense of ownership and pride in the brand began to permeate throughout many retailers," said Edwards.

But are there certain brand names consumers shouldn't deviate from?

Edwards says it really depends on the retailer, as quality consistency may differ from store to store. If one finds a specific location that carries at least one private label brand you like, the chances are high that same retailer will have many good private label items.

However, Edwards says there's a good chance that all the private label products may not be to your liking at one store, and there shouldn't be a difference in the way you choose non-brand name items from the way you choose brand named ones.

"Just as you may like many products offered by Kraft (or any national brand company), my guess is there are some items they offer that you do not buy. It is the same with private label," said Edwards. Makes sense, right?

He also says when choosing a private label item, customers should  try to eliminate their prejudices and give the non-branded item a fair shake. Also, just because you may have been dissatisfied with one private label product, doesn't mean other retailers will carry the same level of poor quality. 

Consumers should be careful not to judge the entire private label industry just because one store owner chose low prices over everything else.

Shop around

Consumers should also remember to use the same shopping logic when looking for private labels as when looking for national brands. "Find the private label items you like and buy those. If you switch just 25 percent of your purchases to private label, your savings will be measurable," said Edwards.

In addition, shoppers should use the overall appearance and level of quality in other store areas to give a better indication on the quality of its private label items.

Meaning, if the produce looks wilted, or the bakery section has a poor selection of breads, cakes, and pies, there's a good indication all of the products in that store could be suffering from the same inadequacies.

"The bottom line is, with the quality of private label products available at many retailers, you should be buying private label products because it saves you money on products you like, not because you are settling on those products to save money," Edwards concluded. 

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U.S. Fidelis Customers to Get Partial Refunds

States reach liquidation agreement with bankruptcy court

The attorneys general of 12 states have reached agreement on the bankruptcy liquidation plan for U.S. Fidelis – a former nationwide vehicle serv...

PhotoThe attorneys general of 12 states have reached agreement on the bankruptcy liquidation plan for U.S. Fidelis – a former nationwide vehicle service contract marketer.

The agreement, which has been approved by the bankruptcy court, provides $13 million in consumer restitution as well as injunctive relief. This settlement, along with a prior settlement with the service contract underwriter Warrantech, creates a $14.1 million Consumer Restitution Fund.

"This was a complex case. We knew that if it continued to drag on among all the intertwined parties, there would be no money left for consumers," said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. "We worked hard to negotiate this settlement, which wraps up the case and provides relief for consumers. It also serves as a warning that businesses cannot hide in bankruptcy court. If they fail to fulfill their obligations to consumers, we will go after them," 

Many consumers had experiences like Joseph of Fairfield, Ohio, who wrote to ConsumerAffairs in March.

"I purchased bumper to bumper warranty on Dec. 2008 and tried to use it for the first time yesterday at Borcherding GMC in Mason, Ohio. Auto was leaking coolant from intake manifold and was told they would not cover it."

Photo
Consumers rate U.S. Fidelis

U.S. Fidelis misled car owners into believing it was affiliated with vehicle manufacturers and that the owners’ warranties were about to expire. U.S. Fidelis’s telemarketers then falsely claimed that the vehicle service contracts it marketed provided the same protections as new car warranties.

“U.S. Fidelis misled thousands of Texas vehicle owners by selling them unnecessary and worthless vehicle service contracts,"said Greg Abbott, the attorney general of Texas.

Not the same

While service contracts do not provide nearly the same repair coverage as new car warranties, the company led purchasers to believe they were getting the equivalent of “bumper to bumper” coverage as with new vehicles. The company failed to disclose the fact that its products did not provide the same coverage as ordinary vehicle warranties.

U.S. Fidelis also flooded the market with deceptive junk mail, made thousands of robo-calls and produced misleading TV ads.

The federal bankruptcy court in St. Louis, Mo., established an initial $14.1 million restitution fund to provide compensation to eligible customers.

The company was shut down during bankruptcy proceedings and its assets were liquidated to benefit creditors. In the meantime, U.S. Fidelis partners -- brothers Darain and Cory Atkinson -- were criminally indicted in Missouri. They surrendered 100 percent of their personal assets to partially fund the consumer restitution fund.

The following states joined Ohio and Texas in the settlement: Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Consumers may obtain more information by visiting the U.S. Fidelis bankruptcy web site at www.usfbankruptcy.com. The site offers a “frequently asked questions” tab, toll-free telephone numbers for questions about the fund and a proof of claim form with instructions for consumers who wish to submit a claim to the fund. The deadline for submittals is Oct. 5, 2012.

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Ford Recalls 11,000 2013 Escapes Because of Fire Danger

Tells customers not to drive the cars until they are fixed

Ford Motor Company is recalling 2013 model year Ford Escape vehicles equipped with the 1.6-liter engine built through July 11, 2012. Ford estimates that th...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 2013 model year Ford Escape vehicles equipped with the 1.6-liter engine built through July 11, 2012. Ford estimates that there have been approximately 11,500 of these vehicles produced and distributed for sale in North America, with most in the U.S. market.

Ford is recalling Escapes with the 1.6-liter engines to replace an engine compartment fuel line, which could split and leak fuel, potentially resulting in an underhood fire, although the company said no injuries have been reported.
 
The issue does not affect other 2013 Escape models and the condition does not present itself in vehicles when the engine is not running, unlike other Ford models from previous years that had a tendency to burst into flames while parked and unattended.   
 
Ford recalled more than 10 million vehicles, mostly light trucks, in 2006 and 2007 to fix a problem with the cruise control that was blamed for starting fires in parked vehicles.
 

Stop driving

 
Customers who already own 2013 Escape vehicles with the 1.6-liter engine are being advised to stop driving their vehicles and to immediately contact their dealers. Dealers will deliver a loaner vehicle to these customers and will transport their 2013 Escape to the dealership for the necessary repairs. The company is working to make parts available as quickly as possible and customers will keep the loaner vehicle at no charge until the repairs on their vehicle are completed, Ford said.
 
The company’s dealers will stop delivering or conducting demonstration drives of these vehicles so that proper steps can be taken to remedy the issue at the dealership first. 
 
"We have identified an issue and are taking quick actions in the best interest of our customers,” said Ray Nevi, assistant director, Ford Automotive Safety Office. “Our intensive investigation and testing has identified the area of concern and we are moving as quickly as possible to repair vehicles for our customers. In the meantime, it is extremely important that affected customers not ignore this recall and immediately contact their dealer."
 
The repairs are straightforward and should take dealers less than an hour to complete, pending parts availability. If affected customers quickly take action and contact their dealers as advised, all vehicles can be remedied in less than two weeks.
 
Customers may get further information about these and other recalls at www.fordowner.com or they may contact Ford's Customer Relationship Center at 1-866-436-7332.
 
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Micro-Units: Could You Live Comfortably in 250 Square Feet?

Well, Mayor Bloomberg thinks you ought to try it

Nowadays you either need a lot of zeros on your paycheck, or be willing to have a bunch of roommates in order to afford rent costs in New York City.The a...

PhotoNowadays you either need to have a lot of zeros on your paycheck, or be willing to have a bunch of roommates in order to afford the rents in New York City.

The average monthly rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments in Manhattan start at around $3,000 a month, and that's on the low-end of the rent scale.

And even if you have the funds to pay that kind of rent, apartment availability in your desired neighborhood can be scarce, and the competition from other home seekers can be really intense.

In an effort to create more rental opportunities for younger residents and for those who need less space, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to build a collection of tiny living spaces, or micro-units, that will have lower rents than other areas in New York.

The miniature units will only be 275 to 300 square feet, which is considerably under New York's current zoning laws, which require apartments to be at least 450 square feet. The mayor will be adjusting certain zoning laws to accommodate the new digs.

According to Bloomberg, the micro-units will be built to house New York's growing population of single residents, and those who just want to pay lower rent.

"Today there are about 1.8 million one- and two-person households in our city, but there are only about 1 million studio and one-bedroom apartments, said Bloomberg. "You notice the mismatch?"

Kips Bay

In an announcement at the American Institute of Architects' Center for Architecture, the mayor said he will be bringing his vision to life by way of a pilot program that will consist of a newly-constructed building containing 75 percent micro-units.

The pilot program, which is called adAPT NYC, will create the first building in Manhattan's Kips Bay section, at 335 East 27th Street.

According to Bloomberg, the apartments will have kitchen and bathrooms, and the units will be built in areas that provide generous amounts of light to create a feeling of open space for residents.

This is the newest affordable housing initiative by the mayor, who is trying to repair New York's reputation of being a city only for the affluent. Other city officials are also in favor of the building plan.

Photo
Linda Gibbs

"Research has shown that stable, affordable housing can have a positive impact on health and well-being," said Linda I. Gibbs, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. "From young graduates just starting out to older adults seeking to downsize, adAPT NYC will allow us to better meet the changing housing needs of New Yorkers by piloting apartments that are affordable, efficient, and in tune with New York lifestyles."

Small apartments in New York are nothing new, as many residents have decided they would rather pay for location than space. But whether Big Apple dwellers can comfortably live in a 250-square-foot studio remains to be seen.

"It can fit a twin-size bed, maybe a small nightstand, a small dining table for two, and that's pretty much it," said Jonathan Miller, CEO of the housing consultant firm Miller Samuels. "A master bedroom of a modest ranch home equipped with a bathroom would probably be the equivalent."

Not inexpensive

As we reported previously, New York has three different areas in the city that has made the top ten lists of most expensive cities. 

Photo
Kips Bay neighborhood

A report conducted by The Center for an Urban Future, shows that New Yorkers need to make at least a $100,000 a year to live comfortably, which has made many move away seeking lower costs.

According to city officials, this new apartment initiative will be the first among many to provide residents with another option besides fleeing Manhattan because rents are too high.

Others believe the new concept of smaller apartments and cheaper rents could potentially catch on in other high rent cities, like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

But first, officials say they hope the housing program will quickly grow to include other areas in New York.

"adAPT NYC is a fantastic opportunity to create a model of housing that could be replicated in other locations and contexts to expand New York City's housing stock, said Mathew M. Wambua, Commissioner of New York's Housing Preservation and Development office.

"Were looking for creativity, affordability, imaginative design and responsiveness to the needs of real New Yorkers. Show us something we haven't seen before that is ingenious sustainable, replicable and practical, and we will work with you to make it a reality," he said.

If you can fit in here ...

PhotoBloomberg says he sees this pilot program as a way to better suit not only current New York residents but those who desire to live there, but are worried they can't afford it.

"Developing housing that matches how New Yorkers live today is critical to the city's continued growth, future competitiveness and long-term economic success," said Bloomberg. "People from all over the world want to live in New York City, and we must develop a new scalable housing model that is safe, affordable and innovative to meet their needs."

There's not a definitive date as to when the first building of micro-units will be built, but the mayor says he plans to create 165,000 units of affordable housing by the end of 2014.

Official rents for the units also have yet to be established, but  Bloomberg says it will be a far cry from what New Yorkers are paying at the moment.

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FDA Bans BPA From Baby Bottles and Sippy Cups

The synthetic estrogen can disrupt the hormone system

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has followed California's lead and banned baby bottles and sippy cups made with the plastics chemical bisphenol...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has followed California's lead and banned baby bottles and sippy cups made with the plastics chemical bisphenol-A, BPA, but some environmental and consumer advocates say the action doesn't go far enough.

"The FDA’s action, while a positive step, will have little impact on children’s health," the Environmental Working Group said in a statement. "A consumer revolt and state-level legislation have already driven BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups."

However, EWG said the epoxy coating that lines infant formula cans and most other aluminum food cans sold in the U.S. does contain BPA and said the  chemical leaches readily into liquids it touches. In 2007, researchers found that four of the world’s leading formula makers were using BPA as an ingredient in their formula cans.

“Once again, the FDA has come so late to the party that the public and the marketplace have already left,” said Jason Rano, Director of Government Affairs for Environmental Working Group. “If the agency truly wants to prevent people from being exposed to this toxic chemical associated with a variety of serious and chronic conditions it should ban its use in cans of infant formula, food and beverages.”

Industry drops objection

After the California statute was passed last October, the chemical industry  dropped its years’ long objection to banning BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups and urged FDA to remove it. Public health and environmental groups called the industry’s acquiescence a cynical attempt to quell calls for a wholesale ban of the substance from food cans, beverage containers and infant formula.

Earlier this year, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) petitioned the FDA to remove BPA from packaging for baby food and food and beverage packaging and also reusable food and beverage containers.

“It’s our hope the FDA will do exactly what Rep. Markey has asked of the agency on behalf of the American people and ban BPA in infant formula,” added Rano. “No chemical with strong ties to cancer, diabetes, obesity and many other health problems should be an ingredient in infant formula containers.”

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Gills Onions Recalls Onions and Celery Mix

There’s a possible risk of Listeria contamination

Gills Onions, LLC of Oxnard, CA is recalling a single day’s production of diced and slivered red and yellow onions and diced celery and onion mix because t...

PhotoGills Onions, LLC of Oxnard, CA is recalling a single day’s production of diced and slivered red and yellow onions and diced celery and onion mix because they may be contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes.

 

Gills Onions’ July 18, 2012 product recall
 
Recalled
Lot Code
Product Description
("Gill's Onions” Brand)
Use-by-date
UPC Code*
USA 
 
 
22YAA1A2184Diced Yellow Onions, 7 oz
07/20/12
643550000405
22RAA1A2184Diced Red Onions, 7 oz
07/20/12
643550000412
22YAA1A2184Slivered Yellow Sweet Onions, 5oz
07/20/12
643550000092
22RAA1A2184Slivered Red Onions, 5 oz
07/20/12
643550000009
22YAA1A2184Diced Celery and Onion, 7 oz
07/20/12
643550000429
22YAA1A2184Diced Celery and Onion, 19 oz
07/20/12
643550000351
 
CANADA
 
 
 
22YAA1A2184
Diced Yellow Onions,
Oignons jaunes frais, en dés, 198g
07/20/12
643550000443
22RAA1A2184
Diced Red Onions,
Oignons rouge frais, en dés, 198g
07/20/12
643550000450
22YAA1A2184
Diced Celery & Onions,
Céleri et oignons frais, en dés, 198g
07/20/12
643550000467
*The UPC Code can also be found on products not included in this recall, so please refer to the lot code in order to identify the recalled product.

 

No illnesses have been reported and no other Gills Onions products are affected by this recall. 

The recall was initiated when the company was notified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that a random sample of diced yellow onions taken at retail tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. 

Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. 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. 

The recalled products, which are packaged under the brand "Gill's Onions," were shipped between July 2-4, 2012, directly from Gills Onions to retailers in California, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington and Canada. 

Gills Onions is notifying all customers who received the recalled product directly from the company and requesting that they remove it from commerce. The company is also asking its direct customers to notify their customers of this recall. 

Anyone who has the recalled product should not consume it and should destroy or discard it. Consumers with questions may contact Gills Onions at 1-800-348-2255, M-F 8am-5pm PDT. 

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More Than $700,000 Awarded In Bogus Alcoholism Cure Scheme

Sellers of "Cure" threatened to disclose consumers' alcohol dependence

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Florida Attorney General have won a big one in the case of a phony alcoholism "cure" program....

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Florida Attorney General have won a big one in the case of a phony alcoholism "cure" program. 

A federal court in Florida has ordered the program’s marketers to pay more than $700,000 for having tricked consumers into paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to participate in the program. 

The court's order follows its September 2011 ruling upholding the FTC's and Florida AG's charges that the defendants prescribed ineffective concoctions of dietary supplements as a supposed cure for alcoholism -- and then threatened to make public the consumers' alcoholism when they tried to cancel their memberships. 

Deceptive marketing 

The complaint, filed in March 2010, named Jacksonville, Florida-based Alcoholism Cure Corporation and its owner, Robert Douglas Krotzer.  It charged the defendants, who also did business under the names Alcoholism Cure Foundation, Enjoy A Few, and Guilt Free Drinking, with deceptively peddling their program, ultimately taking in at least $732,480 from about 450 consumers. 

Online ads referred to defendant Krotzer -- who is not a doctor -- as “Dr. Doug,” and boasted that the company’s “team of doctors” would create customized, low-cost, and permanent alcoholism cures.  The court upheld the complaint allegations, ruling that the defendants made false and unsupported claims that their program “cures alcoholism while allowing alcoholics to drink socially.”  

The defendants also deceptively claimed that the program had the “best technology to end alcohol abuse permanently,” and was “scientifically proven to cure alcoholism.”

The court also found the company and Krotzer falsely claimed that their program cost about $350 and consumers could cancel anytime, that consumers would be monitored by trained professionals and that the defendants would keep consumer information private.  

Going public 

When consumers tried to cancel their memberships, the defendants “routinely used disclosure of personal and health information as a threat to extract payment” and made “impossible demands” that consumers submit so-called “proofs of continued drinking,” including expensive lab test results and hair samples.  

The defendants also charged consumers’ financial accounts for fees they supposedly owed -- ranging from $9,000 to $20,000 -- without authorization.  After threatening to disclose consumers’ alcohol dependence, the defendants actually did so in some cases:  by telling PayPal, credit card companies and the Better Business Bureau; by filing the information publicly in Florida small claims court; and by exposing the entire database of consumer information to the debt collectors they hired to pursue the fees. 

Out of business 

The court’s final order permanently bans the defendants from marketing or selling any treatment or cure for alcoholism, drug addiction or any other human health-related problem.  It also prohibits the defendants from using trade names such as “alcoholism cure” or “permanent cure,” from unauthorized billing, and from taking any further collections actions against their victims.  

The defendants also may not misrepresent the cost or terms of any offer they make, the professional qualifications of Krotzer or any employee, or that the company is a charity.  Finally, the order requires the defendants to pay $732,480, to be used for consumer refunds, if practical.

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Existing Home Sales Fall In June

A setback in what appears to be a housing recovery

The residential real estate market suffered a setback in June as sales of existing homes fell 5.4 percent from May, interrupting a series of mostly positiv...

PhotoThe residential real estate market suffered a setback in June as sales of previously-owned homes fell 5.4 percent from May, interrupting a series of mostly positive reports from the housing front.

But the National Association of Realtors (NAR) suggests the news is not is bad as it might seem. NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun points out that June's sales were up 4.5 percent over June 2011. And he suggests that sales declined last month because there just weren't enough homes for sale.

"Despite the frictions related to obtaining mortgages, buyer interest remains solid," Yun said. But inventory continues to shrink and that is limiting buying opportunities."

And with a smaller supply of homes for sale, Yun says that is pushing up home prices in many markets.

"The price improvement also results from fewer distressed homes in the sales mix," he said.

Prices rise 7.9 percent

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $189,400 in June, up 7.9 percent from a year ago. This marks four back-to-back monthly price increases from a year earlier, which last occurred in February to May of 2006, at the height of the housing bubble. June's gain was the strongest since February 2006 when the median price rose 8.7 percent from a year prior.

Another positive sign, says Yun, is distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales sold at deep discounts -- accounted for 25 percent of June sales, unchanged from May but down from 30 percent in June 2011. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 18 percent below market value in June, while short sales were discounted 15 percent.

"The distressed portion of the market will further diminish because the number of seriously delinquent mortgages has been falling," said Yun.

Despite record low mortgage rates, all-cash sales accounted for 29 percent of all sales in June, rising slightly from May. Investors, who account for most of the all-cash sales, were more active buyers in June, purchasing 19 percent of the homes -- up two percent from May.

Yun once again blamed tight lending standards for keeping many first-time buyers on the sidelines.

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Hacker Draws Seven-Year Prison Stretch

Hacking schemes involved more than 240,000 stolen credit card numbers

Aleksandr Suvorov, of Estonia, has been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in two separate hacking schemes involving a total of more than 240,...

PhotoAleksandr Suvorov, of Estonia, has been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in two separate hacking schemes involving a total of more than 240,000 stolen credit card numbers. 

Suvorov, 28, an accomplice to Albert Gonzalez, one of the most prolific identity thieves ever prosecuted by the U.S. government, pleaded guilty in May 2009 to a wire fraud conspiracy charge for hacking into the national restaurant chain Dave & Buster’s and stealing more than 80,000 credit card numbers.  

In addition, he pleaded guilty in November 2011 to a trafficking in unauthorized access devices charge related to the sale of more than 160,000 stolen credit card numbers to an undercover agent with the U.S. Secret Service.  In addition to his prison term, Suvorov was ordered to pay $675,000 in restitution and to satisfy a $300,000 asset forfeiture judgment. 

“Suvorov participated in a scheme to sell thousands of credit card numbers stolen from unsuspecting consumers,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer.  “Computer hackers like Mr. Suvorov victimize businesses and individuals, posing a serious threat to their financial security.” The sentence, he added, “sends a clear message that cyber criminals operating abroad will suffer severe consequences for their crimes.” 

The schemes

According to court documents, Albert Gonzalez and a third co-conspirator devised a scheme to gain unauthorized access into the computer systems of Dave & Buster’s for the purposes of installing malicious software and extracting credit card information of the Dave & Buster’s patrons.  

Gonzalez, who was in Miami, sent the software, known as a “packet sniffer,” to a co-conspirator in Ukraine.  A packet sniffer is malicious software designed, in this case, to collect credit card information.  The co-conspirator in Ukraine then provided the packet sniffer to Suvorov in Estonia.  

Suvorov, working with another individual, gained unauthorized access to 11 Dave & Buster’s restaurants throughout the United States, one of which was in Islandia, N.Y., and installed the packet sniffer.  Suvorov and his co-conspirators ultimately obtained data from 81,005 credit cards. 

Gonzalez was sentenced in March 2010 to 20 years in prison for his role in the Dave & Buster’s hack, as well as hacks into a major payment processor and several retail networks. The other co-conspirator was arrested in Turkey on related identity theft charges, and was sentenced there to 30 years in prison.  

In a California case, Suvorov and an accomplice conspired to sell more than 160,000 stolen credit card numbers to a buyer in San Diego who was an undercover agent with the U.S. Secret Service.  Suvorov provided the stolen credit card numbers to an accomplice, who in turn sold them to the undercover agent.

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Study: Marijuana Use Doubles Risk of Premature Birth

Based on study of more than 3,000 women in Australia and New Zealand

Marijuana use has rapidly increased among young people and health researchers in Australia suggest there could be serious consequences. For women and their...

PhotoMarijuana use has rapidly increased among young people and health researchers in Australia suggest there could be serious consequences. For women and their children, especially.

The study at the University of Adelaide found that women who use marijuana can more than double the risk of giving birth to a baby prematurely. The use does not have to be while they are pregnant, but can be in the months before they became pregnant.

Premature birth is defined as at least three weeks before a baby's due date and can result in serious and life-threatening health problems for the baby, and an increased risk of health problems in later life, such as heart disease and diabetes.

A study of more than 3000 pregnant women in Adelaide, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand, has detailed a number of the most common risk factors for preterm birth. The greatest factor was a strong family history of low birth weight babies. Marijuana use by the mother was second on the list.

The results were published online in the journal PLoS ONE.

Widely used

An estimated 20.4 million people in the U.S. use some kind of illicit drug and marijuana is the most common among them. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimates there are nearly 15 million marijuana users in the U.S.

Marijuana has been illegal in the U.S. since the early 20th century but in recent years efforts to make it at least partially legal have gained ground. A number of states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, requiring users to obtain a doctor's prescription.

Law enforcement officials in Michigan, meanwhile, have recently tightened enforcement of the law, claiming drug dealers have abused it to legally sell the drug.

Marijuana is used to treat nausea, vomiting, premenstrual syndrome, unintentional weight loss, insomnia and lack of appetite. It is also used to treat pain, movement disorders and glaucoma.

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Samuel Lawrence Furniture Expands Recall of Sleigh Beds

Hardware problems pose a fall hazard

Samuel Lawrence Furniture, of High Point, NC, is expanding its June recall of full- and twin-size Bordeaux Collection bed frames....

PhotoSamuel Lawrence Furniture, of High Point, NC, is expanding its June recall of full- and twin-size Bordeaux Collection bed frames.

An additional 2,400 beds in the United States and 100 in Canada are being recalled. In June, the firm recalled about 18,400 King- and Queen-size beds in the United States and 1,250 in Canada.

The beds are being recalled because the hardware holding the headboard and footboard can loosen or detach, posing a fall hazard.

The firm has received more than 100 reports of headboards or footboards detaching, including one report of a Florida man who injured his foot when a footboard detached.

This recall includes Bordeaux Collection full- and twin-size sleigh beds with wooden headboards and footboards in a cherry finish. Each bed also has two matching wooden side rails.

“Bordeaux” and a model number are printed on a white label on the back of the headboard and footboard. Model numbers for the recalled beds are 8070-242 and 8070-243 for the full-size and 8070-232 and 8070-233 for the twin-size.

The beds, manufactured in Malaysia by Poh Huat Furniture Ind., were sold in furniture stores nationwide from August 2009 to April 2012 for between $300 and $400.

Consumers should stop using the recalled beds immediately and contact Samuel Lawrence Furniture to obtain a free repair kit.

Contact Samuel Lawrence Furniture toll-free at (888) 572-9889 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the company’s Website.

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Pew Survey Finds 12 Million Americans Use Payday Loans

And most use them for everyday expenses, not emergencies

The payday loan industry is big business. Just how big? The Pew Charitable Trusts' Safe Small-Dollar Loans Research Project.reports n estimated 12 million...

PhotoThe payday loan industry is big business. Just how big? The Pew Charitable Trusts' Safe Small-Dollar Loans Research Project reports an estimated 12 million U.S. consumers take out payday loans each year, paying an average $520 in fees for a $375 loan.

The survey found 5.5 percent of the adult population have used a payday loan in the past five years, with three-quarters of borrowers using storefront lenders and almost one-quarter borrowing online. Data from various state regulators show that borrowers take out eight payday loans a year.

Payday lenders don't assess an interest rate for the loan, but rather a fee. The survey found $15 per $100 borrowed in typical. But because the loans are only for two week periods, that translates into a triple-digit interest rate. 

Payday loan customers generally reflect U.S. demographics. Most are white, female, and are 25 to 44 years old. But behind those numbers another pattern emerges.

Who uses payday loans?

After controlling for other characteristics, the survey shows there are five groups that have higher odds of having used a payday loan:

  • People without a four-year college degree
  • People who rent their home
  • African Americans
  • People earning less than $40,000 a year
  • People who are separated or divorced

"It is notable that, while lower income is associated with a higher likelihood of payday loan usage, other factors can be more predictive of payday borrowing than income," the authors of the report write. "For example, low-income homeowners are less prone to usage than higher-income renters: eight percent of renters earning $40,000 to $100,000 have used payday loans, compared with six percent of homeowners earning $15,000 up to $40,000."

How consumers use payday loans

The survey also looked at how consumers use payday loans. The industry markets these small, short-term loans as an emergency advance, to help the consumer deal with an unexpected expense like car repair.

But according to the Pew survey, most borrowers use payday loans to cover ordinary living expenses over the course of several months. The average borrower, the survey finds, is in debt about five months of the year.

The survey found that 69 percent of borrowers used the money to cover a recurring expense, such as utilities, credit card bills, rent or mortgage payments or food. Sixteen percent said the money went to cover an unexpected expense, such as a car repair or emergency medical expense.

Under fire

Critics of the industry says this disconnect between the perception and reality of payday loans makes them dangerous to consumers, who end up in a cycle of loans, using one to pay off the next. In comments filed in April with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Center for Responsible Lending said regulators need to tighten rules that govern payday loans.

“The product’s structure -- lack of underwriting, high fees, short-term due date, single balloon payment, and having access to a borrower’s checking account as collateral -- results in most borrowers having no choice but to take out more loans to pay off the initial loan," the group said.

The industry counters that it is providing a needed service for a large portion of the population that has no other access to credit in the event of an emergency. Take away payday loans, the industry says, and you get more consumer distress.

The Pew survey specifically asked consumers who have used payday loans what they would do if payday loans didn't exist. Eighty-one percent said they would cut back on expenses. Other responses included delay paying some bills, rely on friends and family or sell personal possessions.

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Panline USA Recalls Trampolines

Breaking of handlebar could pose a fall hazard

Panline USA Inc., of Northvale, NJ, is recalling about 8,000 Alex ® Model 786X Little Jumpers Trampoline...

PhotoPanline USA Inc., of Northvale, NJ, is recalling about 8,000 Alex ® Model 786X Little Jumpers Trampoline 

The company says the handlebar can break, causing a fall hazard, but notes there have been no reported Incidents or injuries. 

The product is a small, toddler-sized trampoline with a yellow and blue colored handlebar over the top of the trampoline for toddlers to hold on to while jumping. The trampoline has a blue mat and orange pads with different colored circles printed onto the pads, yellow legs and blue feet. 

A white label is sewn into the underside of the orange pads which has “786X Little Jumpers Trampoline” printed above the bar code. This recall involves trampolines with the codes 21011-P0003070, 21011-P0003246, 25511-P0003071, 27811-P0003372, 29811-P0003373 and 34211-P0003375. This code is printed underneath the barcode. 

The trampolines, which were manufactured in China, were sold at independent specialty toy and retail stores from January through March 2012 for about $100. 

Consumers should stop using the product immediately and contact the firm for instructions on receiving a replacement trampoline. 

For additional information, contact the firm at (800) 666-2539 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s Website.

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DreamWorks Chided for Letting Madagascar Characters Promote Junk Food

Studio should set stricter standards, says consumer group

DreamWorks Animation is renting out the lovable images of Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, and Melman the Giraffe to peddle nutritionally poor food choices ...

PhotoDreamWorks Animation is renting out the lovable images of Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, and Melman the Giraffe to peddle nutritionally poor food choices to impressionable young children, the Center for Science in the Public Interest complains.

In a letter to DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the nonprofit nutrition watchdog group urged the studio to set nutrition standards for the foods for which it licenses its characters, much in the way Katzenberg’s former employer, Disney, did recently.

Disney said last month that it will stop advertising junk-food products on its TV programs, radio shows and websites, and promote healthier snack items to its young viewing audience. 

"Parents are faced with an enormous amount of advertising that's intended to change their children's dietary preferences," said CSPI director of nutrition policy Margo Wootan. "When a young child sees the Madagascar penguins on a package of junky crackers, they feel a powerful emotional connection—which is why companies do it in the first place. Entertainment companies like DreamWorks have a responsibility to wield that power in a way that doesn’t undermine kids’ health."

PhotoCSPI's letter pointed to the Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted characters appearing on packages of Lance Sandwich Crackers and Nekot Cookies. The products exceed recommendations for the amounts of saturated fat or sodium appropriate in snacks marketed to children, according to draft guidelines from the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, a federal taskforce composed of representatives from the FTC, CDC, FDA, and USDA.

Madagascar 3 characters also have tie-ins with McDonald’s, General Mills, and other companies.

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Survey: Facebook Customer Satisfaction Plummets

With 800 million customers, it's hard to keep them all happy

The 800,000 people who use Facebook don't pay anything, but that doesn't mean they aren't customers. And the social networking company's customer service r...

PhotoThe 800 million people who use Facebook don't pay anything, but that doesn't mean they aren't customers. And the social networking company's customer service rating -- as measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) -- has taken another hit.

ACSI says Facebook was already the lowest-scoring e-business company that it measures. The drop in customer satisfaction, it says, was the largest so far.

Among the five lowest-scoring companies

Facebook dropped eight percent to 61 on a 100-point scale. That places it among the five lowest-scoring companies of more than 230 measured by ACSI.

Many of the recent user complaints about Facebook have to do with the company's friends policy.

"I get told I'm befriending people I don't know," Joanna, of West Creek, NJ, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Sometimes, people do it to me too. A lot times it's harmless and sometimes it's not and they want to block off my Facebook."

Too many friends

Customers are not happy when access to their accounts is blocked, and it appears there can be reasons other than "friending" too many people. Eleanor, of Erie, PA, writes that her Facebook account was locked because she requested a code reset too many times and her account has been hacked.

"When I called Facebook to ask if they can reset it for me, the guy wanted $100.," she writes. "I am contacting the attorney-general's office and the Better Business Bureau. I strongly believe that Facebook is the one who is hacking the accounts."

Darlene of Interlochen, MI, also complains that she has lost access to her account.

"I am a stroke survivor.," Darlene wrote. "I'm mad because Facebook puts me in time out and I cannot reach out to other stroke survivors! Also, I keep getting requests to play games and I cannot find a way to stop it. Most of all, my pictures keep disappearing from my timeline! Very upsetting!"

Google+ on the rise

If these examples are typical of the kinds of complaints Facebook receives, it is easy to see how its customer satisfaction could go down. With Facebook's decline Google+ did well with a score of 78 in its first appearance in the ACSI. According to the report, Google+’s strong showing is a result of an absence of traditional advertising and what is seen as a superior mobile product.

Google+’s strengths may be Facebook’s weaknesses, as users complain about ads and privacy concerns. However, the most frequent complaints about Facebook are changes to its user interface, most recently the introduction of the Timeline feature.

“Facebook and Google+ are competing on two critical fronts: customer experience and market penetration. Google+ handily wins the former, and Facebook handily wins the latter, for now,” said Larry Freed, President and CEO of ForeSee, a partner in the ACSI report. “It’s worth asking how much customer satisfaction matters for Facebook, given its unrivaled 800 million user base. But I expect Google to leverage its multiple properties and mobile capabilities to attract users at a rapid pace. If Facebook doesn’t feel the pressure to improve customer satisfaction now, that may soon change.”

Falling scores

Claes Fornell, ACSI Chairman and author of The Satisfied Customer, says the e-business sector overall has dropped 1.6 percent from a year ago to a score of 74.2, lower than the national ACSI score of 75.9. Fornell says that suggests these businesses need to do a better job responding to customers needs.

In the case of Facebook, however, that may prove difficult. With 800 million users in countries all over the world, it's difficult to respond to customers individually. And that appears to be the biggest source of complaints.

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Drought Continues To Take A Toll

Additional 39 counties in eight states designated as primary natural disaster areas

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has designated another 39 counties in eight states as primary natural disaster areas due to damage and losses caused by d...

PhotoAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has designated another 39 counties in eight states as primary natural disaster areas due to damage and losses caused by drought and excessive heat. 

During the 2012 crop year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has designated 1,297 counties across 29 states as disaster areas, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. 

The most recently designated counties are in the states of Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming. The U.S. Drought Monitor currently reports that 61 percent of the continental United States is in a moderate to exceptional drought. 

"Our hearts go out to all of those affected by this drought," said Vilsack. "President Obama and I are committed to ensuring that agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation's economy by sustaining the successes of America's farmers, ranchers, and rural communities through these difficult times. That's why USDA officials are fanning out to affected areas, to let our farmers and ranchers know that we stand with you and your communities when severe weather and natural disasters threaten to disrupt your livelihood.” 

Earlier in the week, USDA designated the entire state of Missouri a disaster area due to drought in response to a request from the state's governor. 

Drought damage 

Increasingly hot and dry conditions from California to Delaware have damaged or slowed the maturation of crops such as corn and soybeans, as well as pasture- and range-land. Vilsack has instructed USDA subcabinet leaders to travel to affected areas to augment ongoing assistance from state-level USDA staff and provide guidance on the department's existing disaster resources. 

To deliver assistance to those who need it most, the Secretary last week effectively reduced the interest rate for emergency loans from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent, while creating greater flexibility for ranchers within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for emergency haying and grazing purposes. 

In addition, the disaster designations announced today fall under a new, streamlined process that simplifies Secretarial disaster designations and will result in a 40 percent reduction in processing time for most counties affected by disasters. 

Primary counties and corresponding states designated as disaster areas: 

Arkansas: 

Arkansas County 

Cleburn County 

Cleveland County 

Crittenden County 

Jefferson County 

Lee County 

Lonoke County 

Monroe County 

Phillips County 

Prairie County 

St. Francis County 

Georgia: 

Douglas County, Georgia 

Indiana: 

Bartholomew County 

Brown County 

Clay County 

Hamilton County 

Hancock County 

Hendricks County 

Johnson County 

Marion County 

Monroe County 

Morgan County 

Owen County 

Parke County 

Putnam County 

Shelby County 

Mississippi: 

DeSoto County 

Panola County 

Tate County 

Tunica County 

New Mexico: 

Cibola County 

Tennessee: 

Shelby County 

Tipton County 

Utah: 

Garfield County 

Kane County 

Wasatch County 

Wayne County 

Wyoming: 

Fremont County 

Sublette County

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AT&T Wireless Moves To 'Shared Data' Plan

The switch means a new pricing structure will kick in

The tried and true system of paying for mobile services by voice minutes appears to be going by the wayside. AT&T Wireless says it will discontinue voi...

PhotoThe tried and true system of paying for mobile services by voice minutes appears to be going by the wayside. AT&T Wireless says it will discontinue voice minute plans and instead move to a "shared data" system, much like the one Verizon Wireless announced last month.

Starting in late August, new customers will get unlimited voice and texting. Right now there are caps on those services, with charges incurred if you go over your limit. Some consumers may consider that a plus.

Balancing that out, however, will be a limited data plan. Not only will the amount of data be limited per billing cycle, all the devices on the account -- smartphones and tablets -- will share the data, even if there are multiple users on the account. If you exceed the allotted data, where will be an overage charge.

With AT&T joining Verizon in this move, it appears this is where the industry is going. Carriers are finding the promise of unlimited data is a hard one to keep.

Data at a premium

Smartphones gobble up bandwidth at unforeseen rates. Now that tablets have been added to the mix, the pressure is mounting on providers to force consumers to keep track of their data usage. Industry executives say each year will likely bring more types of connected devices.

“Today we think of people’s smartphones and tablets sharing a bucket of data," said David Christopher, chief marketing officer, AT&T Mobility. "But in the future we’ll see health care monitors, connected cars, security systems and other devices in the home all connected to the mobile Internet,” said Christopher. “Our Mobile Share plans are simple, easy and a great value for individuals or families with multiple mobile Internet devices.”

Customers can select one of the new shared data plans or choose one of AT&T’s existing individual or family plans. Current customers are not required to switch to the new plans, but can choose to do so without a contract extension. There are no changes to AT&T’s device upgrade policy, which means customers eligible to upgrade to AT&T’s best device price are not required to switch plans. The new plans will also be available for business customers.

New price structure

Under the new data sharing system, customers choose the amount of data they want each month; one gigabyte for $40 -- plus $45 for each smartphone -- all the way up to 20 gigabytes for $200 -- plus $30 for each smartphone. Going over the allotment will cost $15 per extra gigabyte.

You can add basic and messaging phones to your account for $30 per device. Connect laptops to your data plan for an extra $20 per month. Add a tablet or gaming device for $10 per month.

A family of four with four smartphones, two tablets and a laptop -- using 15 gigabytes per month of data -- would cost $320 per month.

While both AT&T and Verizon have cast the change as a benefit for consumers, many don't see it that way. After Verizon announced its change last month, current customers lit up message boards, unaware that they could keep their present unlimited data plans for the time being. Verizon responded with a press release telling customers not to "freak out."

While existing customers at Verizon and AT&T may keep their current arrangements, both carriers eventually expert to have everyone on a measured data plan. Verizon customers currently receiving unlimited data will be pushed to a shared data plan when they purchase a new, subsidized smartphone. The only way to avoid losing unlimited data is to keep your old phone or pay the full retail price of the phone when you finally upgrade.

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VA Expands Online Access To Benefits Information

The Website lets veterans register for benefits without leaving home

More than a million veterans and servicemembers -- 1.67 million, in fact -- have registered for the secure, joint Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)-Depar...

PhotoMore than a million veterans and servicemembers -- 1.67 million, in fact -- have registered for the secure, joint Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)-Department of Defense (DoD), self-service Web portal, eBenefits, which provides online information and access to a wide variety of military and veteran benefits resources. 

“We know that 3 out of 4 veterans who use VA services want to connect online, so we must to be there for them with the information they need,” said Allison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits.  “eBenefits is clearly becoming the platform of choice for veterans seeking access.” 

The strong pace of registrations for the site since its launch in October 2009 has allowed VA to exceed its fiscal year 2012 agency priority goal of 1.65 million users, and puts it on track to meet the 2013 goal of 2.5 million users, as outlined for VA in Performance.gov. 

Helping hand for vets 

Veterans and servicemembers new to the Website are guided through the registration process to get a full-access account, called a premier account, which allows maximum ability to update personal information and learn about benefits without having to visit a VA facility. With the premier account, one password -- called a single sign-on -- lets veterans access multiple applications on the secure portion of the Website. 

A premier account also allows vets to check the status of compensation and pension claims that they have filed with VA.  This feature, the most popular within the eBenefits application, had over 700,000 visits in June alone. Overall, visits to the site have increased 60 percent over the previous year, approaching 2 million per month. 

On July 1, VA introduced its 11th consecutive quarterly release of improved functionalities to the eBenefits application that includes benefits eligibility email messages to servicemembers as they reach career milestones and a new Career Center page with employment self-assessment tools, a resume builder, and a translator that relates military expertise to civilian work skills.  

The Career Center, which received over 8,000 visits in its first week, has single sign-on connectivity to VA’s veteran hiring site, “VA for Vets.”  Another key function added is a single sign-on capability for veterans to transition securely between benefits information on eBenefits and health information on VA’s myHealtheVet Website without an additional log-on step.  

Going digital 

VA has completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year the last two fiscal years, and is on target to complete another 1 million claims in FY2012.  Even so, too many veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned.  That is why VA is aggressively building a strong foundation for a paperless, digital disability claims system -- a lasting solution that will transform how VA operates and eliminate the backlog.  This plan will help VA achieve Secretary Shinseki’s goal: claim completion in less than 125 days with 98 percent accuracy in 2015 – delivering faster, better decisions for veterans. 

With the most recent release, there are now 46 self-service features enabling servicemembers and veterans the ability to download copies of their official VA and military correspondence, including veterans civil service preference, service verification, benefits verification letters, military records and VA home loan certificates of eligibility.  

Servicemembers and veterans can also access records that directly impact their family members, like the Post-9/11 GI Bill enrollment status, VA payment history, and DoD TRICARE health insurance status.

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Credit Agencies Beware - The Feds Are Watching

CFPB cranks up oversight of credit reportiing companies

Starting this fall, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will begin to watchdog 30 credit reporting companies, including Equifax, Solutions Inc....

Photo
Richard Cordray

Consumers have a new set of federal eyes to look over their finances.

Starting this fall, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will begin to watchdog 30 credit reporting companies, including Equifax, Solutions Inc., and Experian Information, which account for nearly 94 percent of the industry's annual receipts.

This should create some indigestion in the executive suite, as the credit honchos observe the $140 million in refunds the CFPB has ordered Capital One to shell out to consumers.

"Supervising this market will help ensure that it works properly for consumers, lenders and the wider economy said Richard Cordray, bureau director of CFPB. "There is much at stake in making sure it is both fair and effective."

Beginning Sept 30, 2012 CFPB will have the authority to write new rules for credit reporting agencies to follow under the Dodd-Frank and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and have the power to conduct on-site audits at credit sites.

CFPB's says it will examine the agencies level of compliance with federal laws, while also looking for any holes in policy or practice that would be potentially harmful to the consumer.

The federal agency's monitoring will also be coupled with an educational component, as it plans to teach consumers about credit reporting laws and how to fully understand and utilize these laws to maximum benefit.

Photo
Consumers rate Experian

Q&A

CFPB also will release a series of informational questions and answers that could potentially be helpful for those seeking an auto loan, home loan or other lines of credit.

According to a report released by CFPB, the U.S. has about 400 credit reporting agencies, which account for over $4 billion in yearly receipts. In addition, the three biggest consumer reporting agencies have credit files on over 200 million Americans, thus having a large say in the  credit and financial destiny of every consumer.

According to the Consumer Data Industry Association, 3 billion consumer reports are dispensed and 36 billion updates are made to consumer's credit files.

The sheer influence that credit companies possess and the potential harm they can do if unsupervised, is what made CFPB initially announce its plans to monitor credit agencies back in February of 2012.

"Credit reporting is at the heart of our lending systems and enables many of us to get credit, afford a home or get an education," said Cordray. "Up to this point, no single federal government agency could access all the information necessary to generate a complete picture of what was happening inside these companies."

Inattention and error

This new effort is an added piece of supervision from a 2003 amendment by Congress that allowed consumers to receive their credit reports from national agencies upon request, once a year.

Photo
Consumers rate Equifax

Cordray also explains that inattention and common error can harm the consumer’s future in various ways, and this new type of policing will force credit agencies to be more mindful of its transactions, and be held more accountable when errors are made.

"The wrong information may cause them to be denied a loan, to be charged a much higher interest rate or to be passed over for a job, causing them serious economic hardship," he said. And inaccurate credit reports also deprive lenders of essential information they need to assess credit risk properly."

 Earlier this month the consumer protection agency created a website that allows credit card users to file and track complaints, whether it be a charge dispute, a complaint about a credit decision, or unfair interest rates.

The site will also grow to include complaints or questions about other types of loans whether personal, auto or student.

Creators of the site say having the ability for complaints to be seen and publicly known will better empower the consumer, as they can compare complaints and not feel isolated in their particular credit or financial challenge.

CFPB also says that most consumer issues and complaints should be remedied within 60 day’s time.

Between the website and the watchdog group's new authority of supervision, CFPB believes consumers now have the proper tools to make better credit decisions, and have a safety net if they make a mistake or if they're wronged by a financial institution.

"Our country's credit system is a resource in which we all have much at stake," said Cordray. "Both directly and indirectly, and we need this system to operate effectively in order for the credit markets to work properly and fairly."

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Back To School Means Big Spending

Parents shell out the bucks whether they can afford it or not

Summer is moving fast and while there's still a good amount of sun, beaches and barbecues left, autumn lingers near the horizon and is almost ready to make...

PhotoSummer is moving fast and while there's still a good amount of sun, beaches and barbecues left, autumn lingers just over the horizon and is almost ready to make its appearance.

And that means a new school year for kids, and back-to-school shopping for parents.

In a recent report conducted by the cost comparison site PriceGrabber, it was found that 63 percent of consumers plan on spending up to $500 on back-to-school items, which is up from 48 percent in 2011.

ConsumerAffairs spoke with PriceGrabber to get a sense of why back-to-school spending is up, even though many Americans are still digging themselves out of a financial hole.

"We noticed a dramatic increase in our survey respondents that said they planned to spend more money on back-to-school shopping this year compared to 2011," said PriceGrabber’s General Manager Graham Jones. "Forty-six percent indicated that they plan to spend more in 2012 compared to 12 percent that said they would purchase more in 2011 versus the previous year."

"Although this number is only an indication of anticipated spending, it does offer some insight into the high levels of consumer confidence present in current back-to-school shoppers. This data is a hopeful sign that the economic recovery is gaining some traction and this year's back-to-school season will be more positive for retailers," he said.

Do they need it?

PhotoBut do returning students always need brand-new back-to-school items, especially when it comes to clothes? Assuming kids haven't outgrown some of last year’s apparel, couldn't they wear some of those same duds again?

We asked PriceGrabber if new clothes each school year was just a tradition, or if there is some sort of academic or social benefit to having new attire from head to toe on the first school day.

"Purchasing new back-to-school clothes has been a popular tradition for the last several years," said Jones. "In both 2010 and 2011, we saw a similar number of survey respondents that cited clothing as a top item on their back-to-school shopping lists."

And, "We suspect that if shoppers are going to spring for one splurge this season, it may very be a nice piece of clothing. While general school supplies rank at the top of consumers back-to-school shopping lists, according to our survey data, new clothing purchases came in a close second with 79 percent of parents planning to send their kids to school in the latest fashions, he stated."

Confidence down

PhotoWhat may be surprising is that many previously released reports suggest that consumer confidence has been on the steady decline since the start of 2012.

According to a seperate survey conducted by Thomson Reuters and the University of Michigan, consumer confidence dropped to 72 in the month of July, down from 73.2 in June of this year. The survey indicates that confidence numbers continue to be on a consistent downward slope.

So if 63 of respondents say they're just fine with spending at least $500 before the first day of school, are consumers overspending?

"It is hard to say whether or not parents are overspending on back-to-school items," explained Jones. ”Our survey data certainly supports the idea that parents are willing to spend money to prepare their kids for the new school season, but the numbers for this year do not indicate a dramatic difference compared to 2011 or 2010."

The PriceGrabber report also shows that 40 percent of consumers will buy electronics for their children, 50 percent said they will purchase new laptops, 49 percent will plunk down funds for a tablet computer, 28 percent said they'll be buying new smartphones, and 10 percent will bring a new desktop computer home for their child student.

But that doesn’t mean electronic gadgetry has replaced the need to buy traditional school staples, as 83 percent of respondents said they will purchase general school supplies like rulers and binders, and 51 percent of consumers said they'll spend their back-to-school dollars on books over other items.

Where to go

PhotoAnd where are the best places for parents to save money this school year?

"Many savvy consumers are utilizing the Internet to take advantage of the latest and greatest back-to-school shopping deals coupled with in-store purchases," said Jones.

”We suspect that given the large amount of back-to-school shoppers who said they will shop online (79 percent), many are planning to do so in order to comparison shop, set price alerts, find coupons, and take advantage of last-minute discounts, free shipping and price drops."

With the buying public using their tablets and smartphones for just about every facet of their purchasing decisions, back-to-school shopping has also gone electronic, as parents will use both physical and digital stores to find the best deals.

According to Jones, the majority of back-to-school shopping will be conducted online, as people are eager to avoid crowded stores and heavily picked-over school supplies.

"Seventy-nine percent of PriceGrabber survey respondents indicated they will be doing their back-to-school shopping online," Jones said. "The rise in frequency and popularity with online shopping is proving to have a significant impact in bottom line revenue for brick and mortar retailers."

"These retailers are going to have to adjust to this evolving pattern of purchasing or lose the battle to obtain the consumer's dollar. Mobile shopping has also proven to be an increasingly strong method of shopping."

And of course parents will be using their smartphones and tablets to price compare among the various locations, instead of doing the traditional summer's end store-hopping from location to location.

"Thirty seven percent of shoppers indicated that they will compare back-to-school prices via their mobile device while shopping in brick and mortar stores this year," detailed Jones.

Smart smartphone shopping

"Consumer's use of smartphones to find the best deals while shopping continues to grow in popularity. Consumers are utilizing their smartphones to: 1) access coupons; 2) read customer reviews; 3) check price comparison sites online to see the best deals; and 4) scan the barcode of a specific product to find the best price on a shopping comparison website."

So although parents are doing their best to seek out sales and discounts for their children's school supplies, the current state of the economy doesn't seem to be scaring them away from spending hundreds of dollars on each child going back to school, despite reports of low consumer confidence.

But as plenty of consumers already know, when it comes to cutting back on spending for new items, many parents choose to cut back on themselves and not on their children, which may give a slight indication as to the high percentages of parents spending at least $500 this back-to-school year.

However parents should still keep in mind that it isn't truly necessary to buy everything at once and spending hundreds of dollars per child before the first day of school isn't a requirement.

Items like new school clothes and electronics can be bought gradually throughout the year.

Later in the fall months, parents are likely to see reduced prices, as back-to-school items will be marked up at the start of the school year, only to drop in the following months.

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Ben Bernanke May Keep Gasoline Prices Low

The lack of a further stimulus is likely to have an impact at the pump

Wall Street listened to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's testimony to Congress Tuesday and didn't like what it heard.The Chairman said the Fed was...

PhotoWall Street listened to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's testimony to Congress Tuesday and didn't like what it heard.

The Chairman said the Fed was ready to step in to support the U.S. economy if it began to slide back toward recession but gave no indication there was any plan to do that right away. The Street was hopeful the Fed would unleash a new round of stimulus. It was disappointed.

Motorists, meanwhile, can be happy with Benanke's answer because it's short term effect is likely to prevent gasoline prices from rising again. Each time the Fed has launched a round of “Quantitative Easing,” the dollar has plunged in value and oil prices have skyrocketed, pulling up gasoline prices with them.

The Bernanke effect

Right on cue Tuesday, oil prices fell sharply, reversing days of gains in anticipation that the Fed was going to embrace a new round of stimulus. While supply and demand considerations play heavily in oil traders' strategy, the value of the dollar is also a key element.

When traders believe the dollar will lose value, that makes commodities priced in dollars -- like oil and gold -- more expensive. They are willing to pay more because the dollars they are using aren't worth as much.

Currently, Brent crude -- mostly from the Middle East -- is trading around $103 a barrel on the futures market. U.S. crude is much cheaper, around $88 a barrel. The national average price of gasoline, as measured by AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Survey, is $3.40 a gallon, up about seven cents from its recent low, achieved earlier this month.

If gasoline prices follow the pattern set last year -- and so far they have -- prices may rise a bit more before beginning to fall once against at the end of summer driving season. Should the economic slowdown continue, they might even fall lower than they did last year.

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Target Tells Singer Frank Ocean To Sail Away

Is it because he's bisexual? Target says no

Target and the LGBT community are entangled in debate once again.The first round of back-and-fourth was in 2011, when the mega-store donated $150,00...

PhotoTarget and the LGBT community are entangled in debate once again.

The first round of back-and-fourth was in 2011, when the mega-store donated $150,000 to political action group MN Forward, helping the group back Republican Tom Emmer in his bid for the 2010 Minnesota governor’s seat. Emmer was and is opposed to same-sex marriage.

This current round of debate began when Target announced it would not sell the new album by R&B singer Frank Ocean, who recently announced he was bisexual.

Ocean's recently released CD "Channel Orange" has been a Top Twitter Trend for the past few days, and is currently the most-talked-about album in popular music at the moment.

Target says the CD ban is because Ocean released his highly anticipated album through iTunes a week earlier than it was supposed to be released in stores.

This took away the opportunity for Target to cash in on the album's first week's sales, as the digital release opened at number one in 10 different countries around the globe.

Really?

However many attribute the ban of Channel Orange to Ocean opening up about his sexual orientation.

"Target has refused to carry Frank's album because of iTunes exclusive, tweeted Christian Clancy, Ocean's manager. Interesting since they also donate to non-equal rights organizations."

It didn't take long for Target to fire back in a written statement saying it has a record of supporting a diverse group of artists regardless of sexual orientation.

"The claims made about Target's decision to not carry the Frank Ocean album are absolutely false. Target supports inclusivity and diversity in every aspect of our business. Our assortment decisions are based on a number of factors, including guest demand," the company said in a statement."

Clancy later removed his tweet and apologized. "I apologize for my comments about Target. They are not carrying Frank's album because it went digital first. Not for any other reason. My response was simply an emotional knee jerk reaction."

Back in 2010 Lady Gaga decided not to release her anticipated CD "Born This Way," after Target helped fund Emmer’s failed gubernatorial bid, making Target miss out on huge sales from the album which went on to sell 2 million copies in the United States.

In an effort to repair its image with the LGBT community, Target announced it would be selling pride t-shirts during June's LGBT pride month.

Deciding to partner with pop star Gwen Stefani, the retailer said it would donate up to $120,000 to the Washington D.C. LGBT advocacy group the Family Equality Council.

Half-hearted

But many considered Target's gesture as a half-hearted one, as the company only sold the shirts online, thus being accused of not wanting the gay pride message to be viewable in its stores.

Target again denied the claim while pointing out its history of support for gay pride festivities, especially in its home state of Minneapolis.

"Target is not anti-gay said Michael Francis, the company's executive vice president and CEO."It's important to set the record straight and provide some context."

In the case of Frank Ocean's album, Target continues to say the ban is solely related to the early exclusive iTunes release and nothing else.

"We focus on offering our guests a wide assortment of physical CDs, so our selection of new releases is dedicated to physical CDs rather than titles that are released digitally in advance of the date," the store said in a statement.

However there's a bit of inconsistency in that statement, as many artists have released their albums through early iTunes exclusives, but their physical releases are still being offered at Target.

Take the Minnesota based electronica group Owl City for example, who released their first major label debut through iTunes in an early digital release in 2009, but their album is still being sold at Target stores to this very day.

That certainly doesn't mean that Target is being discriminatory, but the retailers should maybe provide a stronger level of consistency when deciding not to sell CDs because of exclusive iTunes releases.

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OnStar Hooks Up With RelayRides

If you have an OnStar-equipped car, it's easier to rent it out when you're not using it

Once upon a time, people used to rent out spare rooms in their house to make a few spare dollars. Now, you can rent out the spare hours on your car if it's...

PhotoOnce upon a time, back in the Great Depression, people used to rent out spare rooms in their house to make a few spare dollars. Now, in the shadow of the Great Recession, you can rent out the spare hours on your car if it's equipped with OnStar.

General Motors says it is working with RelayRides, an online car-sharing site that brings car owners together with people who need a car for a few hours or a few days, part of a trend more fully described by ConsumerAffairs' Daryl Nelson in a story a few weeks ago.

You don't need OnStar to enroll in RelayRides but it makes it a little bit easier. For one thing, OnStar will let the renter unlock the doors of your car using their smart phone. Without OnStar, you'll have to meet up with the renter and give them the keys.

"Individuals who forgo car ownership can conveniently access affordable and reliable transportation in a Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, or Cadillac," GM said in a statement. "Owners of these OnStar-enabled GM vehicles rent out their cars and turn their idle vehicles into an income source without the hassle of installing expensive aftermarket hardware or having to meet a renter to hand off keys."

Studies show that each shared car results in up to 13 fewer cars on the road, leading to less-congested roads and less pollution, GM said.

“Using the OnStar API to access GM vehicles empowers RelayRides to make car sharing even safer and more convenient,” said Shelby Clark, RelayRides founder and Chief Community Officer. “The sheer number of vehicles eligible for the program allows us to greatly expand across the U.S. and introduce the economic, environmental and community benefits of car sharing to regions that car sharing services have previously been unable to serve.”

OnStar is primarily known for its ability to summon help if you're involved in an accident but GM has lately been working to establish OnStar as an independent profit center by tapping into its many other capabilities.

GM, it just so happens, is an investor in RelayRides, as is Google Ventures, Google's venture capital arm.

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Prices for Luxury Brand Used-Vehicles To Rise In 2012

NADA says the law of supply and demand is kicking in

A sharp decline in the supply of luxury brand used cars and light trucks will result in higher prices this year, according to Jonathan Banks, senior analys...

PhotoYou want it, we got it -- you pay.

A sharp decline in the supply of luxury brand used cars and light trucks will result in higher prices this year, according to Jonathan Banks, senior analyst with the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) Used Car Guide. 

NADA predicts the supply of luxury used vehicles up to five-years-old will decline by 13% in 2012 from a year ago -- resulting in an average price increase of 1.9% this year. Prices in the overall used-vehicle market are expected to increase 2.9% in 2012.  

“The falling used supply will raise used-vehicle luxury prices again this year, but overall appreciation will be mild by recent standards,” said Banks, in the NADA Used Car Guide’s latest report, 2012 Special Analysis: Luxury Brand Trends and Used Price Forecast. Prices for luxury brand used vehicles increased 9% in 2011. 

NADA’s price forecast for the following luxury brands in 2012, include: Acura (up 4.8%), Audi (up 3.3%), BMW (down 0.2%), Cadillac (up 0.5%), Infiniti (up 1.5%), Lexus (up 1.6%), Lincoln (up 2.6%), Mercedes-Benz (up 0.7%) and Volvo (down 3.1%). 

Supply decline 

The decline in used-vehicle supply was caused by the 2007-2009 economic recession when fewer new vehicles were purchased or leased, resulting in a drastic drop in trade-ins and off-lease vehicles returning to the market. In 2011, mainstream (non-luxury brands) and luxury brand sales grew by 11% and 4%, respectively, compared to 2010. 

In the luxury sector alone from 2009 to 2011, prices for used vehicles up to five-years-old grew by about 22%, with appreciation across brands ranging from a low of 14.7% for Volvo to a high of 29% for Mercedes-Benz, according to the NADA Used Car Guide. Prices for luxury used vehicles are still at historic high levels. 

“Used-vehicle prices have risen over the past couple of years because of economic conditions that lowered supply and increased demand,” Banks added. 

Supply turnaround expected 

NADA anticipates another year and a half of losses before the supply of luxury used vehicles swings back up again. Although the upturn in overall supply is still some ways off, shorter-term off-lease supply is set to improve much sooner, Banks said. 

In fact, NADA estimates that 36-month off-lease supply is already on the rise, and that supply for these units will be 9% higher in the second half of the year than it was in the first. 

“This means that for the first time in years, downside price risk is on the horizon in 2013 and even more so farther out into 2014,” Banks said. 

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Report: Focus On Risks for Stroke and Dementia Saved Lives, Money

Simple measures can lead to improved quality of life, doctors say

Fewer people died or needed expensive long-term care when their physicians focused on the top risk factors for stroke and dementia, according to research r...

PhotoFewer people died or needed expensive long-term care when their physicians focused on the top risk factors for stroke and dementia, according to research reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA). 

The primary care doctors in the German study focused on high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation) and depression. The researchers found that during a five-year period, the need for long-term care was cut 10 percent in women and 9.6 percent in men. 

Based on data collected in a comparison district, 2,112 deaths were expected in the intervention group, but only 1,939 patients died. 

An ounce of prevention 

"Primary prevention pays off," said Horst Bickel, Ph.D., lead author of the study and senior researcher at the Department of Psychiatry at the Technical University of Munich in Germany. "Prevention measures have a potential for improving health in old age which has up to now not been satisfactorily exploited." 

He described these as "relatively simple" interventions, such as encouraging patients to: 

  • be more physically active;
  • eat healthier foods;
  • quit smoking;
  • reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

The study included nearly 4,000 people age 55 and older in rural Upper Bavaria, Germany. Their family doctors were given a brochure summarizing the recommendations, treatment guidelines and goals. Those patients were compared with 13,000 people in a nearby area who received the usual care without the focus on preventing stroke and dementia. 

"We found that not only the risk of long-term care dependence was lower, but also that death rates decreased," Bickel said. "In addition, the cost of inpatient treatment was reduced in the intervention region." 

Wider application 

Bickel said he's confident the results can be applied in the United States and other Western populations that suffer from similar sedentary lifestyle-related illnesses. He points to smoking, lack of exercise and obesity as the main culprits. 

"At the population level, even simple measures can lead to substantial achievements," he said. "Our results are only one example for how health risks can be reduced through uncomplicated, routine treatment of risk factors in the framework of a real-world setting."

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10 Cities Where Money Goes Farther In Retirement

How much you need for retirement depends on how much you plan to spend

Most retirement planners place stong emphasis on the income you will receive in retirement. It's in their interest, after all, for you to save and invest a...

PhotoMost retirement planners place stong emphasis on the income you will receive in retirement. It's in their interest, after all, for you to save and invest a large amount of money.

While there is no question that having a sizable nest egg will make retirement more pleasant, the expense side plays an important role as well. The less money you have to spend each month, the less money you need to retire.

Retirees willing to relocate during their golden years can find many great places to live that probably cost a lot less than their current locations, especially if they live in northeastern metros. AARPrecently surveyed the most inexpensive, yet desirable cities and came up with ten where you can live for $100 a day or less:

  1. Eau Claire, Wisc.: The upper Midwest might not seem like retirement country but AARP notes Eau Claire is a city of “family-friendly values with a progressive twist.”

    • Median home price: $121,100
    • Sunny days per year: 200
  2. Gainesville, Florida: The country's sixth largest college — The University of Florida — fuels an economy more durable than most Southern cities.

    • Median home price: $125,500
    • Sunny days per year: 205
  3. Grand Junction, Colorado: Grand Junction has plenty of Western charm but is also home for a strong arts community. And the view's pretty nice too.

    • Median home price: $159,800
    • Sunny days per year: 214
  4. Las Cruces, New Mexico: Las Cruces is a favorite destination for people who love casual living.

    • Median home price: $148,000
    • Sunny days per year: 287
  5. Morgantown, West Virginia: Morgantown is a small college city, giving it a sophisticated flavor in the heart of the Appalachians.

    • Median home price: $168,900
    • Sunny days per year: 185
  6. Omaha, Nebraska: Omaha is not just farm country. In recent years it's earned the nickname “Silicon Prairie,” for its large number of start-up companies.
    • Median home price: $123,500
    • Sunny days per year: 193
  7. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: This industrial city is a lot “greener” than in the past and it's 88 distinct neighborhoods create a European atmosphere.

    • Median home price: $106,500
    • Sunny days per year: 194
  8. Roanoke, Virginia: A bustling small city, amid the magic of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

    • Median home price: $151,500
    • Sunny days per year: 217
  9. San Antonio, Texas: San Antonio offers an Old West urban flair

    • Median home price: $135,000
    • Sunny days per year: 263
  10. Spokane, Washington: Lush green beauty meets smart urban planning. Impress friends and family with the city's stunning Riverfront Park and its historic downtown.

    • Median home price: $145,000
    • Sunny days per year: 176

"Each year we strive to highlight lively, low-cost cities that offer rewarding environments, and that specifically appeal to the 50+ audience," said Nancy Perry Graham, Editor-in-Chief of AARP The Magazine. "There are quite a few really wonderful cities where $100 a day goes a long way and buys not just a spacious home in a thriving neighborhood, but loads of culture, lively entertainment, and recreational opportunities."

In compiling its list AARP said it looked first at at affordability, in particular housing, cost of living, taxes, and economic stability. Other criteria include access to parks and recreation, arts and culture, health care, and local flavor.

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Pfizer, CSPI Resolve Centrum Labeling Issues

Company will drop breast, colon health claims on Centrum dietary supplements

Pfizer Consumer Healthcare will remove claims related to breast and colon health on advertising and labeling for certain Centrum brand multivitamin supplem...

PhotoPfizer Consumer Healthcare will remove claims related to breast and colon health on advertising and labeling for certain Centrum brand multivitamin supplements, as part of an agreement negotiated with the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). 

The agreement means CSPI will not move ahead with a lawsuit it had planned to file against the company over those and other claims on Centrum supplements. 

Unfounded claims 

Labels for Centrum Ultra Women's and Centrum Silver Women's multivitamin supplements stated those products supported "breast health," while labels for Centrum Ultra Men's and Centrum Silver Ultra Men's stated those products supported "colon health." 

In CSPI's view, those claims of breast and colon health implied that the supplements would prevent breast and colon cancer -- disease prevention claims that supplement manufacturers can't legally make. 

Centrum relied, in part, on the presence of vitamin D in all of those products to base those claims. In fact, there is limited and inconsistent evidence on vitamin D’s relationship to breast cancer, and inconclusive evidence on vitamin D's relationship to colon cancer. 

"For many consumers, a daily multivitamin is an inexpensive insurance policy to make sure that one's getting the recommended daily amounts of important vitamins and minerals," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "But supplement manufacturers must not mislead consumers into thinking that these pills will help ward off cancer." 

Clarifying language 

On labels and advertising for Centrum products that bear a claim for "heart health," Pfizer Consumer Healthcare will add clarifying language that the products are "not a replacement for cholesterol-lowering drugs." On labels and advertising for Centrum products that bear an energy claim, Pfizer Consumer Healthcare will add language clarifying that the products do not directly provide an energy boost, but rather help support metabolic function. 

The changes negotiated with CSPI will be made on product labels over the next six months as supplies of packaging are depleted. 

"Although Pfizer disagrees with our position, we are pleased with the collaborative spirit with which Pfizer was willing to discuss our concerns and resolve them without resorting to litigation," Gardner said. 

CSPI's litigation unit has helped achieve other improvements for consumers on supplement advertising and labeling. CSPI sued Bayer in 2009 over false claims that the selenium in its One A Day men's multivitamins reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Eventually a group of three state Attorneys General announced a settlement agreement  with Bayer that ended those claims. 

In 2008, CSPI joined litigation that returned approximately $12 million in refunds to consumers who purchased the dietary supplement Airborne; labels and ads falsely claimed the product would cure and prevent colds.

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Should You Have Renters Insurance?

If you have a lot to lose, it can be a prudent purchase

If you own a home with a mortgage, the lender requires you to have a homeowners insurance policy. While some landlords require tenants to take out renters ...

PhotoIf you own a home with a mortgage, the lender requires you to have a homeowners insurance policy. While some landlords require tenants to take out renters insurance, most don't.

Should you have renters insurance? It depends. In some cases it could provide protection and peace of mind at a fairly reasonable cost. The average renters insurance policy cost only $184 per year in 2009, ccording to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

But according to the Insurance Information Institute(III) only 31 percent of renters buy renters insurance, according to an survey conducted in May, 2012.

Assess your needs

For those considering renters insurance, a good place to start is a needs assessment, comparing that to what a policy actually covers.

"Renters insurance provides financial protection against the loss or destruction of your possessions when you rent a house or apartment," said Jeanne M. Salvatore, III's senior vice president for Public Affairs. "While your landlord may be sympathetic if you experience a burglary or a fire, your possessions are not covered by your landlord's insurance.”

Under most renters insurance policies your belongings are covered against losses from fire or smoke, lightning, vandalism, theft, explosion, windstorm and water damage, not including floods. But if your upstairs neighbor's bathtub overflows, ruining items in your apartment, you're covered.

Another argument for renters insurance is its liability coverage. Just as a homeowners policy protects the homeowner from damages when someone is injured, renters insurance covers your responsibility to other people injured at your home or elsewhere by you, a family member or your pet and pays legal defense costs if you are taken to court.

Additional living expenses

Most policies cover your additional living expenses (ALE) if you are unable to live in your home because of a fire or other covered peril. ALE pays for hotel bills, temporary rentals, restaurant meals and other expenses you incur while your home is being repaired or rebuilt. However, not all coverage is the same and there are limits.

Probably the biggest consideration in deciding on renters insurance is risk. What do you have to lose?

For example, if you're a college student with limited possessions, protecting those possessions may be less critical than if you are a professional with nice furniture, a big screen TV and an extensive wardrobe.

If you have expensive jewelry, furs, sports or musical equipment, or collectibles, the need for insurance is obviously greater. But keep in mind you may have to add what's called a “floater” to your policy to cover these items.

Most standard renters policies offer only a limited dollar amount for items of extra value. A floater is a separate policy that provides additional insurance for your valuables and even covers them if they are accidentally lost.

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FDA Approves Weight-Management Drug Qsymia

However, the drug is not for use by everyone

People fighting the Battle of the Bulge have a new weapon in their arsenal with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of Qsymia (phentermi...

People fighting the Battle of the Bulge have a new weapon in their arsenal with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of Qsymia (phentermine and topiramate extended-release) as an addition to a reduced-calorie diet and exercise for chronic weight management. 

The drug is approved for use in adults with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater (obese) or a BMI of 27 or greater (overweight), who have at least one weight-related condition such as high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol (dyslipidemia). 

BMI, which measures body fat based on an individual’s weight and height, is used to define the obesity and overweight categories. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese. 

“Obesity threatens the overall well being of patients and is a major public health concern,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Qsymia, used responsibly in combination with a healthy lifestyle that includes a reduced-calorie diet and exercise, provides another treatment option for chronic weight management in Americans who are obese or are overweight and have at least one weight-related comorbid condition.” 

Drug combo 

Qsymia is a combination of two FDA-approved drugs, phentermine and topiramate, in an extended-release formulation. 

Phentermine is indicated for short-term weight loss in overweight or obese adults who are exercising and eating a reduced calorie diet. 

Topiramate is indicated to treat certain types of seizures in people who have epilepsy and to prevent migraine headaches. 

Limited use 

Qsymia must not be used during pregnancy because it can cause harm to a fetus. Data show that a fetus exposed to topiramate, a component of Qsymia, in the first trimester of pregnancy has an increased risk of oral clefts (cleft lip with or without cleft palate). 

Females of reproductive potential must not be pregnant when starting Qsymia therapy or become pregnant while taking Qsymia. They should also have a negative pregnancy test before starting Qsymia and every month while using the drug, and should use effective contraception consistently while taking Qsymia. 

The safety and efficacy of Qsymia were evaluated in two randomized, placebo-controlled trials that included approximately 3,700 obese and overweight patients with and without significant weight-related conditions treated for one year. All patients received lifestyle modification that consisted of a reduced calorie diet and regular physical activity. 

Trial results 

Results from the two trials show that after one year of treatment with the recommended and highest daily dose of Qsymia, patients had an average weight loss of 6.7 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively, over treatment with placebo. 

Approximately 62 percent and 69 percent of patients lost at least five percent of their body weight with the recommended dose and highest dose of Qsymia, respectively, compared with about 20 percent of patients treated with placebo. 

Patients who did not lose at least three percent of their body weight by week 12 of treatment with Qsymia were unlikely to achieve and sustain weight loss with continued treatment at this dose. Therefore, response to therapy with the recommended daily dose of Qsymia should be evaluated by 12 weeks to determine, based on the amount of weight loss, whether to discontinue Qsymia or increase to the higher dose.  

If after 12 weeks on the higher dose of Qsymia, a patient does not lose at least five percent of body weight, then Qsymia should be discontinued, as these patients are unlikely to achieve clinically meaningful weight loss with continued treatment. 

Qsymia must not be used in patients with glaucoma or hyperthyroidism. Qsymia can increase heart rate; this drug’s effect on heart rate in patients at high risk for heart attack or stroke is not known. Therefore, the use of Qsymia in patients with recent (within the last six months) or unstable heart disease or stroke is not recommended. Regular monitoring of heart rate is recommended for all patients taking Qsymia, especially when starting Qsymia or increasing the dose. 

The most common side effects of Qsymia are tingling of hands and feet (paresthesia), dizziness, altered taste sensation, insomnia, constipation, and dry mouth. 

Qsymia is marketed by Vivus Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

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Your Credit Card May Provide Some Rental Car Insurance

But don't count on it providing complete protection

In recent years car rental companies have become more aggressive in nicking customers for minor damage to vehicles discovered long after the car has been t...

PhotoIn recent years car rental companies have become more aggressive in nicking customers for minor damage to vehicles discovered long after the car has been turned in.

Consumers can protect themselves to accepting the company's damage waiver, but that adds a fee to the daily rental. That can be very expensive protection.

Depending on the credit card you use to pay for the rental car, you can acquire some extra insurance coverage. It turns out most credit card companies offer some measure of insurance protecting to their customers. The trick, however, is knowing which card protects you the most and which cards can leave you exposed.

Visa provides best coverage

Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub, has analyzed credit cards for their car rental insurance coverage. He said Visa's rental insurance is the best, with a high score of 87 percent, followed by Discover, American Express and MasterCard.

“We evaluated the networks in a number of different categories, ranging from which cardholders are eligible to how claims must be filed, and compared their policies to our subjective definition of the ‘ideal’ policy -- one where you’d know what you were getting based on common sense, without having to read the fine print,” Papadimitriou said.

It's important, he says because far too few credit card users read their cardmember agreements.

“In the end, Visa’s policy won out, largely due to the ubiquity of coverage on network cards and the fact that it covers towing charges and a rental company’s loss of use,” he said.

Limits

But consumers should understand there are limits to what credit cards offer and it might not be prudent to rely on this coverage. David, of Ashland, OR, reports a tree limb fell on his Hertz rental last summer, a car he had paid for his his Visa card.

“Within the hour, we had notified our insurance company, Hertz and Visa, which was supposed to cover the damage since we had used the Visa card for rental,” David wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. The car was repaired three weeks later. "In spite of calls to Hertz, we next heard from them on seven months after the accident. Since we had been unable to provide Visa with the paperwork they required within 45 days, Visa refused to honor our claim with them. We ended up paying the deductible not covered by our insurance.”

And in the case where a rental car company charges you for damage discovered after you turned in the vehicle, these credit card policies may be of little or no value. According to CardHub, Discover and American Express both require that cardholders submit a police report when filing a claim; Visa asks for one, when available, and MasterCard requests one in cases of vandalism, multi-car collisions and when a vehicle is no longer driveable.

The best way for consumers to avoid being charged for minor damage that is not of their doing is to photograph the car before you drive it off the lot and then again when you return it. At the very least you then have evidence to present to your credit card company and they might be able to persuade the rental agency to drop the claim.

But sadly, the only sure way to avoid being charged for “after the fact” damage is to take the rental car company's expensive damage waiver.

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Consumer Credit Defaults Reach Pre-Recession Levels

It appears consumers are getting their financial houses in order

Consumers appear to be making progress in handling their debts. Data from S&P Dow Jones Indices and Experian shows another decline in consumer credit d...

PhotoConsumers appear to be making progress in handling their debts. Data from S&P Dow Jones Indices and Experian show another decline in consumer credit defaults.

For some loan types, it was the sixth straight month the default rate has declined.

The default rate on first mortgages fell nine basis points to 1.41 percent in June, bringing it back to its May 2007 level, before the housing market collapse. It reached a high of 5.67 percent in May 2009.

The second mortgage rate also fell during the month, by 15 basis points, and is at an eight year historic low.

The default rate on credit cards fell by 38 basis points to its lowest level since the end of 2007.

Auto loan defaults up slightly

There was a slight increase last month on auto loan defaults but a closer look at the numbers puts it in perspective. The May default rate was the lowest on record.

"June 2012 data continued a positive trend in consumer credit quality," said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Dow Jones Indices. "Consumer default rates are falling and we are approaching new lows across most loan types. In the last recession most default rates peaked in the spring of 2009; since then the decline has been bumpy but consistent.”

The Indices track default rates in five U.S. cities and in June, the rate was down in four of them. In Chicago, the rate fell from 2.84 percent back in December to 1.84 percent in June, it's lowest reading since August 2007.

The default rate in Miami fell for the fifth consecutive month -- dropping 11 basis points from May's 2.55 percent to June's 2.44 percent. It's the lowest rate for Miami since October 2006. To show just how much the credit climate has improved in Miami, the high -- reached in June 2009 -- was nearly 19 percent.

Meanwhile, Dallas recorded its lowest rate in its eight year history, moving down by seven basis points to 0.87 percent. Los Angeles' default rate fell by a quarter point.

New York the exception

Only New York saw the default rate rise, gaining three basis points over the month, from 1.61% in May to 1.64% in June.

After years of depressing statistics, the latest report on consumer's credit habits can only be described as encouraging.

"There is only positive news in June's numbers,” Blitzer said. “In the past three years, households have come a long way in repairing their balance sheets.”

Across the 10 headline indices, only one -- bank cards -- shows default rates above 2.5 percent and even those are close to their eight year historic low, Blitzer said.

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The Next Big Thing: Online Sales Tax

Republicans joining Democrats in tacking local sales tax onto online purchases

Read our lips: Grover Norquist must have left the building. The no-new-taxes mantra of Republican politicians is undergoing renovation. When finished, it w...

PhotoRead our lips: Grover Norquist must have left the building. The no-new-taxes mantra of Republican politicians is undergoing renovation. When finished, it will be: "No new taxes except online."

Anyone who thinks this is not going to happen needs to get out of the way to avoid being crushed by GOP heavyweights who are piling onto the idea, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the lead.

There are certain inescapable truths, after all. The sun comes up each day, it gets cold in the winter and local governments need money. It's been estimated that states and cities are "losing" $23 billion each year by not collecting tax on online sales.

Of course, that money isn't really lost, it's just staying in the pockets and bank accounts and, yes, credit lines, of everyday consumers, who are having their own little cash crunch the last few years. Protecting cash-short consumers and taxpayers gets a lot of lip service from politicians of all stripes but, forget them for a moment, the online sales tax issue has finally caught fire.

Consumers are probably OK with this, you say? After all, they want to be fair to local merchants and make sure their local governments have enough money, right?

Not really. We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 940,000 consumer comments on social media and found sales taxes hitting their nadir with an 11% negative rating in October, clambering up to 27% positive in June, then plummeting to 3% in July as word of the GOP's change of heart began to get out.

 

Wonder why?

Well, with states and cities declaring bankruptcy because they promised too much all those years ago, every politician recognizes that more money has to come from somewhere. Those red-light cameras can only produce so much, after all.

But there's something else at play here too. Bricks-and-mortar retailers have been doing some serious arm-twisting behind the scenes. In public, they portray themselves as the Mom and Pop Hardware Store, Grandma's Pie Shop and Uncle Al's Service Station.

But what we're really talking about here are The Home Depot, Target, Best Buy and other gargantua that like to think they would be racking up more sales if only it weren't for those cheapskate consumers buying things online to save that nasty 7% sales tax.

Lowe's, for example, complains that it has a 5% to 10% price disadvantage compared with its online rivals and, like other retailers, grumbles that consumers come into the local Lowe's to look at lawn tractors and then order one online.

Really? It wouldn't be that the undecided consumers are leaving to swing by The Home Depot or Walmart, now would it? Or that they can't get the lawn tractor into their Prius and home delivery is not exactly the easiest thing to arrange at most big box stores, although The Home Depot will be glad to rent you a truck.

But consumers will go along with paying the new tax when it's explained to them that it's really for their own good, you say? Well, Senator, maybe so but that's not what those 940,000 consumers said. If it replaced the income tax, it might be OK, but good luck with that. A larger number said it would hurt the poor and would not have much effect on closing the deficit or bringing fiscal sanity to local government. A few said it was insane.

Photo

Amazon talks, politicians listen

Be that as it may, there's another reason that it is suddenly OK to talk about raising taxes -- oops, sorry, we're not supposed to put it that way -- and that is that the biggest online retailer of them all, Amazon, has changed its tune and is now onboard with soaking its customers for local sales taxes.

Again, why?

It all has to do with Amazon's latest strategy to drive sales completely through the ceiling, to infinity and beyond. It is building new distribution centers closer to major population centers, striving to achieve same-day delivery.

Already, Amazon customers can get next-day delivery of most items in most parts of the country but Amazon wants to ratchet that up a notch -- offering delivery this afternoon of items ordered this morning.

The expectation is that this will be so convenient that consumers will simply curl up into a ball and remain in their dream homes indefinitely, venturing out only for urgent medical care and perhaps the occasional touring experience.

How does sales tax figure into this? Well, currently, online retailers can get by without charging sales tax as long as they don't have physical facilities in the state where a consumer lives. If Amazon wants to build distribution closer to big cities -- say in, oh, New Jersey -- it's going to wind up paying the sales tax anyway.

So, as the Amazonian mind works, it sees an opportunity to make peace with local politicians, get some givebacks for creating jobs in local communities (OK, they're warehouse jobs but hey ...) and, last but not least, forcing all of its smaller online competitors to take on the somewhat difficult task of keeping track of varying sales tax laws in the 50 states and countless cities and towns.

Who's sorry now?

Oh, and then there's this final question: Where does this leave The Home Depot, Target, Best Buy and all the other whining brick-and-mortar guys who have been crying about how unfair life is?

It leaves them facing a competitor who will still have competitive pricing, a nearly infinite selection, same-day delivery and a constantly-evolving Web site that practically lets you drive that little lawn tractor around the block, not to mention letting you read what your fellow consumers say about it. 

When all those pieces fall into place, do you think consumers will still go to Lowe's to look at the lawn tractor, then buy it online. Or will they just buy it online and save the trip?

Time, as it always does, will tell.  What do you think? Use the comment box below.

 

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Complaints Mount About Pet Treats From China

Suit against Purina gains class-action status

Pet food maker Nestle Purina now faces a class-action suit by pet owners in eight states who say the company's jerky treats killed or sickened their pets....

PhotoPet food maker Nestle Purina now faces a class-action suit by pet owners in eight states who say the company's jerky treats killed or sickened their pets.

Yet the product remains on store shelves and NBC News reports the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is unable to pinpoint a contaminant that could be causing the problem.

The original lawsuit was filed back in April by an Illinois pet owner. Six other pet owners have now joined it and are also suing the retail stores that carry the product, Walmart, Costco and Target.

Complaints

Consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs continue to report adverse results when they feed Waggin' Train treats to their pets.

“I began to notice things just weren't right with her,” Dennis, of Bellport, NY, wrote about his pug in a ConsumerAffairs post. “She had become lethargic, had loose bowel movements, and seemed to drink a lot more water than usual. When she started to not want to eat her food, I knew something was wrong. I cook everything she eats, and give her no store bought dog food, so the Wagg'n Train treats were the only thing she was given besides freshly prepared foods.”

Steve, of Franklin Park, NJ, reports he had purchased Waggin' Treats for years and that his dogs loved them. But last month, his Westie suddenly got sick after eating them and died.

“My regular vet ran several logical tests – but came up clueless as to what was causing his lethargy, lack of eating, and vomiting,” Steve wrote. “He thought it was colitis – so we tried antibiotics. That made my “Max” feel no better – even worse. He was then tested for Addison’s Disease. Nope – that was not it, as well.”

Common link?

Both Steve and Dennis noted that they prepared their dog's food themselves, which might suggest the animals has particularly sensitive digestive systems. Whether that's a possible contributing factor is unknown.

Since last November the FDA has been cautioning pet owners about chicken jerky products for dogs. The FDA notes that it has seen an increase in the number of complaints about the products, but as yet it does not know why.

“FDA is advising consumers who choose to feed their dogs chicken jerky products to watch their dogs closely for any or all of the following signs that may occur within hours to days of feeding the products: decreased appetite; decreased activity; vomiting; diarrhea, sometimes with blood; increased water consumption and/or increased urination,” the FDA says on its site. “If the dog shows any of these signs, stop feeding the chicken jerky product. Owners should consult their veterinarian if signs are severe or persist for more than 24 hours.”

The FDA says the illnesses may not be associated with the jerky treats and that it continues to investigate the origin of the animals' sickness.

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Maid Service or New Vacuum? Both Can Present Problems

Maids aren't always merry and finding the right vacuum isn't easy

Some household chores can be put off for a short while.Pulling out the last bit of clean clothes to delay laundry another few days is normal, or letting ...

PhotoSome household chores can be put off for a short while.

Pulling out the last bit of clean clothes to delay laundry another few days is normal, or letting the hedges grow another week before clipping them won't do too much harm.

However, when it comes to cleaning your house or apartment, a consistent and steady attack is the only way to keep your home clean and free of dust and grime. But sometimes a steady cleaning attack isn't possible.

With people being pulled in multiple directions between jobs and families, it’s easy for the household cleaning chores to be delayed or put off altogether.

So many consumers use maid services, cleaning companies and new cleaning appliances, to help keep the dirt and clutter at bay.

As with other consumer products and services, maid services don't always work out too well. Take Merry Maids for example. It's owned by ServiceMaster, which also owns TruGreen, American Home Shield and Terminix.

Poor results

Photo
Consumers rate Merry Maids

Up in Wasilla, Alaska, a reader who calls herself "S" (but probably isn't that "S") complains that her home hasn't yet been 100 percent cleaned after using Merry Maids six times.

"Nothing was done correctly," "S" said. "They have sent two people for 2 hours and they still couldn’t get my house cleaned. Then there were three people for 2 hours. Still not right. Floor around toilet not cleaned. Inside toilet not cleaned. Bathtub and sink not cleaned; half of kitchen done; half dusting in living room done. Carpet still had dirt all over it."

Suzy of California also encountered problems: "Large framed puzzle had pieces knocked out and lost, so I had to throw it away after having it for 20-plus years.”

The second time Suzy used the company, something else was also damaged and it never got repaired or paid for. "I came home to one of the set of three shower doors off the track. The cleaners either didn't see it or couldn't fix it," she said.

Suzy called Merry Maids but nothing was done, so ConsumerAffairs placed a call to the company, but the corporate office in Tennessee failed to return calls and didn't comment.

However we did reach a local branch of Merry Maids located in Gaithersburg, Md., and spoke to employee rep Katie about how easy it is for a dissatisfied customer to have their home re-cleaned.

“If you have ongoing service with us we come back the next day and clean any missed areas in the home. If it’s a one-time cleaning we create a service report of the rooms, and the specific details to pay attention to before the clean. Then we come back as soon as possible. If the areas that you chose to have cleaned aren’t done right, we’ll come back until you’re happy,” she said.

On the Merry Maids website, it indicates the company has liability coverage for items it damages, but since each location is independently owned and operated, it’s important that consumers learn how to file an insurance claim through their local Merry Maids office if something is broken, as protocols may differ from office to office.

Some dissatisfied customers have claimed they received yet another poor cleaning when Merry Maids returned to redo the job.

Though the company’s website guarantees that cleaners will return to your home if you call within one business day of your initial cleaning, some consumer comments suggest there may have to be a bit of toil on the part of the customer to get this promise honored.

Sometimes the problem isn't breakage but theft, consumers claim. 

“Merry Maids employee (s) in Conyers, Ga. location performed a very poor home cleaning job; however they cleaned us out of prescription medicine," said Jerry of Conyers. "I called the local office. The manager said owner was out of the country. When I described the problem, she said ‘Do what you have to do’ and did not call back with a solution. I am awaiting a phone. I filed a police report on missing meds.”

The Conyers Merry Maids office failed to return our calls seeking comment.

DIY

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Consumers rate Kirby

There are those who choose to avoid maid companies altogether, and decide to purchase an upgraded cleaning appliance or a more powerful vacuum cleaner instead.

Kirby Vacuum Cleaners have been around forever but haven't done much to improve their popularity rating.

Complaints about the vacuum stem from it being cumbersome and heavy to push, to salespeople making consumers feel pressured or uncomfortable when the company's in-home sales people come to call.  

As with Merry Maids, Kirby has independent distributors who provide service, making it  difficult to know what to expect.

Steve of Michigan had a horrific experience with a Kirby salesperson. Not only did the salesperson refuse to leave when asked, but made inappropriate comments towards Steve's wife.

"He starts addressing my wife instead of me, stepping in between me and my wife. He keeps this up and refuses to leave until I start cussing him out, then he walks to the door and starts making a pass at my wife. At this point, I picked up the phone and called 911 because he's telling me to come outside so he can start a fight with me! I will never ever buy a Kirby," Steve vowed.

Another consumer, Michelle, experienced both a poor user demonstration and an unusable vacuum cleaner.

Photo“They came in late at night, brought family members with them, laid all over couches and left little circles of dirt,” Michelle said in our phone interview about the sales team. “I have a table that seats eight, and they left dust circles under it and all over my house. They say they used good cleaning stuff [in the demo] but we don’t know if that’s the same stuff they sell.”

Concerning the vacuum cleaner itself, which Michelle eventually bought from the salesperson, she said it was way too pricey and functioned like an old outdated appliance.

“When I signed the papers, I didn’t realize that I was paying $3,000. I’m livid because I could have bought the Dyson Ball. It would have been lighter. I haven’t used it (The Kirby Vacuum), because it’s too heavy, doesn’t go around corners and looks like it’s from the 1950’s. It’s not sleek,” she said.

Michelle also said after using the Kirby and not being satisfied with its weight and movement, she still made the first payment so not to damage her credit. But when she decided to return the vacuum, the company couldn’t be reached.

“I made my first payment, because I don’t want it going on my credit. I didn’t make the second payment because I couldn’t get in touch with them. Then they call, and they lowered my credit score. Even though I made two more payments I’m still on Equifax.”

After contacting Kirby about its return policies I was referred to the company’s website by an employee rep, which states: “The Kirby Company requires its independent distributors to adhere to any county, state or local laws or regulation pertaining to consumers’ cancellation rights.”

Not very specific, is it?

Michelle also stated the Kirby demonstration wasn’t much help on how to use the vacuum, because the salespeople moved extremely fast and didn’t properly show her how to remove and change the parts.

“They took it apart very fast, but didn’t show me how to use it. You have to know how to take everything apart to make it work under your couches.”

Although Michelle didn’t have a problem with the actual sales team, they still left a bunch of dirt rings on her floor after the demo was complete, she said.

“The people were nice, not to say anything about their personalities, but they should clean up your house instead of leaving those little dust things,” she stated.

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FDA Approves New Colon-Cleansing Drug for Colonoscopy Prep

Prepopik offfers split-dosage or day-before prep

This may or may not make a difference, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Prepopik (sodium picosulfate, magnesium oxide and citric ac...

PhotoIf you have ever had a colonoscopy, you would probably agree that the worst part of it is preparing for it. 

This may or may not make a difference, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Prepopik (sodium picosulfate, magnesium oxide and citric acid) to help cleanse the colon in adults preparing for colonoscopy. 

Dosage 

One dose of Prepopik consists of two packets of powder, each dissolved in cold water and taken at separate times. Patients should take Prepopik the night before colonoscopy and the morning of colonoscopy (Split-Dose regimen). 

If this is not possible, patients may take Prepopik in the afternoon and evening before the colonoscopy (Day-Before regimen). 

As part of this colon-cleansing regimen, patients taking Prepopik must consume additional fluids during and after use. Additional fluid intake is also important to reduce the risk of fluid and electrolyte imbalance. 

The most common side effects reported in adult patients taking Prepopik include nausea, headache and vomiting. 

“The choice of a bowel cleansing regimen for colonoscopy should be based on a patient’s health and personal preferences,” says Victoria Kusiak, M.D., deputy director of the Office of Drug Evaluation III in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Today’s approval provides a new treatment option for patients and doctors to consider.” 

Safe and effective 

The safety and effectiveness of Prepopik were established in two clinical studies with about 1,200 adult patients scheduled to have a colonoscopy. Patients were randomly assigned to take the Prepopik Split-Dose regimen, the Day-Before regimen, or a control preparation consisting of polyethylene glycol plus electrolytes (PEG+E) solution and two 5-milligram bisacodyl tablets. 

The studies were designed to measure the number of patients whose colons were cleansed successfully. In both studies, Prepopik was as effective as the control preparation in cleansing the colon. In the study in which Prepopik was administered in the Split-Dose regimen, it was superior to the control preparation in cleansing the colon. 

In the Split-Dose regimen, Prepopik is administered on the day before colonoscopy and on the morning of colonoscopy. The control preparation of the study was administered entirely the day before colonoscopy. 

As a condition of approval, Prepopik’s manufacturer, Parsippany, NJ-based Ferring Pharmaceuticals, must conduct studies to determine if the drug can be used safely and effectively in children.

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International Visitors Spending At A Record Pace

May marks more than two years of growth in tourist outlays

International visitors spent an estimated $13.9 billion on travel to, and tourism-related activities within, the United States in May, according to figures...

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People coming to America with full wallets.

Figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce show international visitors spent an estimated $13.9 billion on travel to, and tourism-related activities within, the United States in May. That’s $1 billion, or eight percent, more than what was spent a year earlier. 

“The new international spending numbers mark 29 consecutive months of growth in the travel and tourism sector,” said Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. “Tourism remains a high-growth bright spot in our economy, and we’re on pace for yet another record year.” 

The recently-released data show that purchases of travel and tourism-related goods and services by international visitors to the United States totaled $10.6 billion during May.

These goods and services include food, lodging, recreation, gifts, entertainment, local transportation in the United States, and other items incidental to foreign travel. Fares received by U.S. carriers from international visitors also increased by more than 8 percent to $3.3 billion for the month. 

On a record pace 

The U.S. travel and tourism industry is on pace for a record-setting year. International visitors have spent an estimated $68.4 billion thus far in 2012 -- an increase of 12 percent from the same five-month period last year. 

U.S residents have also spent nearly $50 billion abroad year to date -- resulting in an $18.4 billion trade surplus for travel and tourism through the first five months of 2012. 

The challenge

The Task Force for Travel and Competitiveness created by President Barack Obama last January charges the Secretaries of Commerce and the Interior with developing a National Strategy that lays out concrete steps to be taken in five key areas. 

As part of those efforts, Commerce’s International Trade Administration is continuing to supply the travel and tourism industry with important data, including international arrivals to the U.S., the forecast of international travel to America for more than 30 countries, and estimates of the total impact of travel and tourism on the economy, among others.

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Microsoft Reaches For The Clouds With Office Upgrade

Ambitious upgrade to be released with Windows 8

Calling it the biggest and most ambitious redesign of a software package it has ever done, Microsoft has unveiled the “customer preview” versio...

PhotoCalling it the biggest and most ambitious redesign of a software package it has ever done, Microsoft has unveiled the “customer preview” version of its new update of Microsoft Office, a widely-used suite in both homes and the workplace.

The redesign is an abrupt departure from previous versions, in that it makes use of touch-screen features, social networking and the cloud.

“We are taking bold steps at Microsoft,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. “The new, modern Office will deliver unparalleled productivity and flexibility for both consumers and business customers. It is a cloud service and will fully light-up when paired with Windows 8.”

When running on Windows 8, Microsoft says Office will function with touch, as well as the keyboard and mouse. You'll be able to add new content and access features through touch.

You can also use a stylus to create content, take notes and access features. Should the mood strike you, you can handwrite email responses and convert them automatically to text. The stylus may be used as a laser pointer when presenting. It also allows you to color your content and erase your mistakes.

In the cloud

The cloud feature may be the biggest departure. Microsoft says the new Office saves documents to SkyDrive by default, so content is always available no matter what device you happen to be using. Your documents are also available offline and sync when you reconnect.

Once signed in to Office, your personalized settings show up on all your devices, including your most recently used files, templates and even your custom dictionary. Microsoft calls this its “roaming” feature. With a subscription, you can access Office even when you are away from your PC by streaming full-featured applications to an Internet-connected Windows-based PC.

Microsoft said it plans to offer the upgrade as a local version called Office 2013 and the cloud-based version that will be sold on a subscription basis and called Office 365. It will be sold in three packages:

  • Office 365 Home Premium - designed for families and consumers. This service also includes an additional 20 GB of SkyDrive storage and 60 minutes of Skype world minutes per month.
  • Office 365 Small Business Premium - designed for small businesses. This service also includes business-grade email, shared calendars, website tools and HD webconferencing.
  • Office 365 ProPlus - designed for enterprise customers who want advanced business capabilities and the flexibility to deploy and manage in the cloud.

Microsoft said the new Office will be released in the fall, along with Windows 8.

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IRS To Taxpayers: Avoid Becoming Victims of Tax Scams

Vigilance is your best defense against being taken for a ride

Be careful about following the “advice” you get about filing for tax credits or rebates. The Internal Revenue Service is encouraging taxpayers to guard ...

PhotoBe careful about following the “advice” you  get about filing for tax credits or rebates. 

The Internal Revenue Service is encouraging taxpayers to guard against being misled by unscrupulous individuals trying to persuade them to file false claims for tax credits or rebates. 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notes there’s been an increase in tax-return-related scams -- frequently involving unsuspecting taxpayers who normally do not have a filing requirement in the first place. 

These taxpayers are led to believe they should file a return with the IRS for tax credits, refunds or rebates for which they are not really entitled. Many of these recent scams have been targeted in the South and Midwest. 

A few bad apples 

Most paid tax return preparers provide honest and professional service, but there are those who engage in fraud and other illegal activities. Unscrupulous promoters deceive people into paying for advice on how to file false claims. 

Some promoters may charge unreasonable amounts for preparing legitimate returns that could have been prepared for free by the IRS or IRS sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance partners. In other situations, identity theft is involved. 

Be careful 

Taxpayers should be wary of any of the following: 

  • Fictitious claims for refunds or rebates based on excess or withheld Social Security benefits.
  • Claims that Treasury Form 1080 can be used to transfer funds from the Social Security Administration to the IRS enabling a payout from the IRS.
  • Unfamiliar for-profit tax services teaming up with local churches.
  • Home-made flyers and brochures implying credits or refunds are available without proof of eligibility.
  • Offers of free money with no documentation required.
  • Promises of refunds for “Low Income – No Documents Tax Returns.”
  • Claims for the expired Economic Recovery Credit Program or Recovery Rebate Credit.
  • Advice on claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit based on exaggerated reports of self-employment income. 

Empty promises

In some cases non-existent Social Security refunds or rebates have been the bait used by the con artists.  In other situations, taxpayers deserve the tax credits they are promised but the preparer uses fictitious or inflated information on the return, which results in a fraudulent return. 

Flyers and advertisements for free money from the IRS, suggesting that the taxpayer can file with little or no documentation, have been appearing in community churches around the country. Promoters are targeting church congregations, exploiting their good intentions and credibility. 

These schemes also often spread by word of mouth among unsuspecting and well-intentioned people telling their friends and relatives.

Promoters of these scams often prey upon low-income individuals and the elderly. 

They build false hopes and charge people good money for bad advice.  In the end, the victims discover their claims are rejected or the refund barely exceeds what they paid the promoter.  Meanwhile, their money and the promoters are long gone. 

Unsuspecting individuals are most likely to get caught up in scams and the IRS is warning all taxpayers, and those that help others prepare returns, to remain vigilant. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

Anyone with questions about a tax credit or program should call the IRS toll-free number at 800-829-1040 or visit a local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center.

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Retail Expert: 'Consumers Are Getting Poorer'

Data suggest U.S. consumers plight will only get worse

If it feels like you are falling behind in this economy, maybe you are. A retail expert says the American consumers is getting poorer."The American consu...

PhotoIf it feels like you are falling behind in this economy, maybe you are. A retail expert says the American consumer is getting poorer.

"The American consumer is going to continue to get poorer," Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, said in an interview with Yahoo! Finance's Daily Ticker. "They're going to shop at the places that are cheapest. This is not rocket science."

Davidowitz was reacting to the report that retail sales had fallen in June for the third month in a row. The U.S. Commerce Department reported that consumer spending was down 0.5 percent after sales fell 0.2 percent in May.

Pretty ugly

“If your net worth is down 40 percent, if your income is down 10 percent over the last few years, if you're in the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression, the jobs numbers are terrible, that shows where the consumer is,” Davidowitz said in the interview.

Davidowitz said growing consumer poverty is most visible in the food business. He said traditional grocery chains are losing marketshare, not only to Walmart, but also non-traditional food sellers like Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar.

In January the Federal Reserve reported that in 2010, the median value of income for the average American between 2007 and 2010 fell 7.7 percent while median net worth plunged more than 38 percent.

Consumers take the hit

Consumers in the workforce saw their wealth drop the most.

“Most noticeably, median incomes moved higher for retirees and other nonworking families,” the report said. “The decline in median income was most pronounced among more highly educated families, families headed by persons aged less than 55, and families living in the South and West regions.”

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When Should You Start Drawing Social Security?

Later is probably better than sooner

As things now stand, retirees can begin drawing Social Security benefits at age 62. But as they say, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.If you...

As things now stand, retirees can begin drawing Social Security benefits at age 62. But as they say, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

If you choose to start drawing benefits at age 62, the benefit is smaller than it would be if you waited to start drawing at age 66 – four years later. But the appeal of early benefits proves tempting for a lot of people.

The Great Recession, with its massive job losses, hit just as the first of the baby boomers were hitting 62. Many who found themselves suddenly jobless opted to begin drawing benefits. Others, given the opportunity, decided to take the money and run.

Patience is a virtue

In most cases, however, it pays to wait. By taking benefits early, you forfeit future increases in benefits. You might receive a benefit of $1500 a month at age 62 but get a check for $2000 a month if you wait until you are 66.

By taking benefits at 62, you are getting $1500 a month for four years that you wouldn't get if you waited. After you turn 66, however, you would be getting an extra $500 a month as a reward for waiting.

A simple math equation shows that drawing at age 62 gets you $72,000 by the time you turn 66. How long would it take you to make up that $72,000 if you wait until age 66 to begin receiving benefits?

Twelve years, at which time you would be 78. From then on, each year you live would put you ahead $6,000.

If you don't expect a normal lifespan, then maybe drawing early makes sense. But keep in mind there are some other disadvantages.

Could affect your spouse

If you are married and you expect your benefit to be higher than your spouse's, you should probably consider waiting. If you die first, you spouse has the option to receive your monthly amount if it's higher than his or her own. The benefit payments, however, will be less than they could have been for the rest of our spouse's life as a result of you opting to take early benefits.

Receiving early benefits also has important tax ramifications. If you plan to work in retirement and have a good income, there's a tax penalty on Social Security benefits between age 62 and 66. After age 66, you can earn as much as you want without affecting your benefits.

If you are at the peak of your earning years at age 62, it makes little sense to stop. You can significantly add to your nest egg over the next four years.

A research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research supports the notion of waiting. It notes that the difference in benefits is “actuarially fair,” meaning that, on average, individuals can expect to receive the same present value of benefits regardless of when they claim.

But the researchers say it doesn't really work out that way.

“Instead, delay appears to be actuarially advantageous for a very large subset of the population,” the authors wrote.

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Virginia Dentist's 'Fix 311' Offers Cities a Quick Fix for Citizen Service Problems

See a pothole, stray dog or flooded street? Free smartphone app lets you report it

They used to say you can't fight City Hall. Maybe they're right but Minh Tran thinks you should be able to help City Hall do its work more efficiently. Cit...

PhotoThey used to say you can't fight City Hall. Maybe they're right but Minh Tran thinks you should be able to help City Hall do its work more efficiently. Cities like Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco agree with him. 

Tran, a Virginia dentist, has developed a smartphone app called Fix 311. It's a quick, simple and inexpensive way for citizens to report problems -- anything from animal control issues to potholes -- to local governments. The app is free to citizens and all cities have to do is agree to accept the incoming information.

Many cities now use the 311 telephone number to take citizen calls but staffing is expensive and there's no easy way to verify the incoming information. 

Tran's app solves those problems.  It doesn't require any telephone operators and it uses the built-in GPS on iPhones and Androids to report the exact location of any problem needing government attention. Citizens can also use the phone's camera to snap a photo that accompanies that textual report.

New York City's Mayor Bloomberg is interested and Tran said he has an upcoming meeting to present the idea. Washington, D.C., is also interested, he said.  

Tran said the idea grew out of a pothole-reporting app he built a few years ago. It was quickly adopted by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), which promotes it heavily to motorists in the traffic-choked state.

One nation, one app

"My goal is to have the government of the entire United States take this system and use it," Tran said. "Right now, every city is trying to make their own app and it's kind of wasteful of taxpayers' money. Why does every city have to make its own when Fix 311 already works nationwide?"

Tran, who graduated from the Temple University School of Dentistry, practices in Falls Church, Va. Although he makes his liviing drilling teeth, Tran said he worked in network administration before dental school and continues to enjoy writing his own apps and programs.

The dental business being what it is, Tran said he is not trying to get rich with Fix 311 but just wants to provide a way for governments to provide better service to their citizens without wasting huge amounts of money to do so. 

His biggest frustration at the moment is that, although his app has won wide acceptance around the country, he hasn't been able to get any interest from Fairfax County, Va., where he lives and works.

"I've sent them letters and emails but no one responds," he said. "I don't know why."

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Convenience Stores Reject Swipe Fee Settlement

Retail group says proposal doesn't solve the problem

The headlines from Friday's “swipe fee” settlement between credit card companies and retailers casts it as a victory for retailers. At least on...

PhotoThe headlines from Friday's “swipe fee” settlement between credit card companies and retailers casts it as a victory for retailers. At least one group of retailers doesn't see it that way.

The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), a class plaintiff in the lawsuit yielding a more than $6 billion settlement, says it rejects the agreement.

The settlement, which must still be approved by a federal judge, allows retailers to charge customers more if they pay with a credit card. MasterCard, Visa and major banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, agreed to the huge payment to settle accusations they engaged in anti-competitive practices in payment processing. The dispute has dragged on for seven years.

"Our decision to settle is based on our belief that MasterCard and our stakeholders are best served by an amicable resolution," said Noah Hanft, MasterCard's general counsel.

Unmoved

But the NACS Board of Directors unanimously rejected the agreement, unmoved by the more than $6 billion.

"Not only does the proposed settlement fail to introduce competition and transparency into a clearly broken market, it actually provides Visa and MasterCard with the tools to continue to shield swipe fees from market forces," said NACS Chairman Tom Robinson, president of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Robinson Oil Corp.

According to the convenience store group, the proposed settlement allows the card companies to continue to dictate the prices banks charge and the rules that constrain the market including for emerging payment methods, particularly mobile payments.

Consumers and merchants to pay more?

“Consumers and merchants ultimately will pay more as a result of this agreement -- without any relief in sight," Robinson said.

The proposed settlement allows merchants to show consumers some of the costs of accepting credit cards, something they have been fighting for. But NACS says the agreement allows that disclosure only under very limited circumstances with strict oversight by Visa and MasterCard.

While news reports have noted the proposed settlement is the largest antitrust settlement in U.S. history, NACS says it only amounts to less than two months' worth of swipe fees, based on the estimated $50 billion in swipe fees collected by the credit card companies on an annual basis. Worse, the group says, there are no fundamental market changes that would constrain Visa and MasterCard from continuing to raise rates to a point where the net effect is to make merchants pay for their own settlement — and then some.

Larger goals

As a class plaintiff in the litigation, NACS pushed for a trial where it intended to argue that the anticompetitive practices engaged in by the credit card industry are illegal. NACS said it wants to force changes on credit card companies that it says would open the market to more competition.

"Even the monetary agreement in this proposal is a mirage," said Robinson. "Merchants won't get these funds for years and will have paid more than that through increased swipe fees long before they see those funds."

NACS made clear that it will do what it can to prevent the settlement from going forward but said it hopes other retailer groups will also reject it.

"There is plenty of time for merchants to make thoughtful decisions related to this proposed settlement,” said NACS President and CEO Henry Armour. We hope and expect that, as they have the time to review it, many other merchants including class representatives will decide to reject this proposal.”

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Hotel Germs Are Ready to Welcome You

They're just about everywhere, especially on light switches, pens and the TV remote

Staying at a hotel can either be a fun experience or a harrowing one.Whether you're staying in a swanky hotel with an $80 breakfast, or you choose a smal...

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Nice but how clean?

Staying at a hotel can either be a fun experience or a harrowing one, whether you're staying in a swanky hotel with an $80 breakfast, or you choose a small motel where things like "free color television in each room" are touted as amenities.

Aside from a few exceptions most hotel rooms look great upon arrival. The sheets are perfectly tucked into the queen sized mattress, the fluffy white towels are arranged just so, and the room has a lemony or pine aroma indicating a recent clean.

But what about below the surface -- in those small crevices where housekeeping may not automatically think to clean.

In a recent report by the University of Houston, it was found that many germs in hotel rooms are located on the light switch by the bed, on the pens in the room, and on the TV remote.

The researchers conducted germ tests in 19 hotel rooms located in North Carolina, Texas, and Indiana, and learned that 81 percent of the surfaces contained traces of E. coli.

The study group also learned that cleaning staffs spent about half an hour cleaning each room.

At least you hope that's the case, as it's easy to think of the disgruntled housekeeper choosing to clean haphazardly one day because her boss snapped at her.

Invisible grime

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A typical rhinovirus

As expected, the sink and bathroom had high levels of invisible grime, but surprisingly most of the germs in the room area came from the housekeeper's cleaning cart, which means a thorough cleaning of many rooms may be doomed from the very start.

Mops, brooms, dirty towels and rags were all heavily contaminated with germs, which increase the chance of viruses being spread from room to room.

At this year’s General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, Katie Kirsch, one of the study authors said, "Currently, housekeeping practices vary across brands and properties with little or no standardization industrywide."

Our research "could aid hotels in adopting a proactive approach for reducing potential hazards, and provide a basis for the development of more effective and efficient housekeeping practices," she explained.

In a separate 2006 study conducted by the University of Virginia, researchers gathered 15 participants who were all medically diagnosed with rhinoviruses, which often infects the respiratory area and causes the common cold.

Each volunteer stayed one night in separate rooms, and after checking out the following morning, researchers tested ten surface areas to determine how much of the rhinoviruses were left behind.

Although rooms are obviously cleaned when guests check out, the findings were still telling in terms of how germs can both spread and stick to multiple areas after just one night of stay.

The researchers found bacterium on seven of the 14 door handles, six  of the 14 pens, and six out of the 15 light switches. Other areas like the drapes, the phone, the alarm clock and the coffee maker all contained viruses.

A chat with the housekeeper

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E. coli

ConsumerAffairs contacted Raleigh Marriott City Center, in North Carolina, which was one of the states the University of Houston researched.

We spoke to director of housekeeping Juan Oliveira and asked him what Marriott's particular policy on room cleaning was.

"We clean the rooms daily and every surface is wiped down. If you have special [cleaning] needs we can accommodate that too. We can come to your room anytime between 8:30 and 4:30 and you tell us when you want us to clean. We again clean and change everything when the guest departs."

After asking if the less obvious places like the remote, light switches and pens in the room were cleaned, he repeated, "We can accommodate any need," which is an indication these smaller surfaces may not be sanitized on a regular basis.

Many travel experts suggests guest should bring their own disinfectant and even their own bedspreads, as it's generally known  the thick comforter lying across the bed is rarely washed.

It's also wise for travelers to ask the hotel how often items are washed in their room, and what the overall cleaning policy is, as with large chains it varies from hotel to hotel.

Most importantly, wash your hands frequently as most germs can be killed on the surface with just soap and water.

What gives certain hotels the yuck factor is that rooms have huge amounts of uncertainty attached to them, and one doesn't have any control on how dirty a room was kept, or how many germs were left behind.

Hotel rooms aren't "any dirtier than at home, says Kirsch. “But there's a stranger factor."

And that's what can be so unnerving when you’re just trying to find a place to rest comfortably when away from home.

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FDA Approves HIV infection Drug

Evidence-based approach enhances existing prevention strategies

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Truvada (emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), the first drug approved to reduce the risk of HIV...

PhotoAnother step forward in the battle against HIV infections. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Truvada (emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), the first drug approved to reduce the risk of HIV infection in uninfected individuals who are at high risk of HIV infection and who may engage in sexual activity with HIV-infected partners. 

Taken daily, Truvada is to be used for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in combination with safer sex practices to reduce the risk of sexually-acquired HIV infection in adults at high risk. 

The FDA previously approved Truvada to be used in combination with other antiretroviral agents for the treatment of HIV-infected adults and children 12 years or older. 

Using Truvada 

As part of PrEP, HIV-uninfected individuals who are at high risk will take Truvada daily to lower their chances of becoming infected with HIV should they be exposed to the virus. 

A PrEP indication means Truvada is approved for use as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention strategy that includes other prevention methods, such as safe sex practices, risk reduction counseling, and regular HIV testing. 

"Today’s approval marks an important milestone in our fight against HIV," said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. "Every year, about 50,000 U.S. adults and adolescents are diagnosed with HIV infection, despite the availability of prevention methods and strategies to educate, test, and care for people living with the disease. New treatments as well as prevention methods are needed to fight the HIV epidemic in this country." 

Caveat 

As a part of this action, the FDA is strengthening Truvada’s Boxed Warning to alert health care professionals and uninfected individuals that Truvada for PrEP must only be used by individuals who are confirmed to be HIV-negative prior to prescribing the drug and at least every three months during use. 

The drug is contraindicated for PrEP in individuals with unknown or positive HIV status. The FDA strongly recommends against such use. 

Training and education program

Truvada for PrEP is being approved with a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) to minimize the risk to uninfected individuals of acquiring HIV infection and to reduce the risk of development of resistant HIV-1 variants. The central component of this REMS is a training and education program to assist prescribers in counseling individuals who are taking or considering Truvada for PrEP. 

The training and education program will not restrict distribution of Truvada but will provide information about the importance of adhering to the recommended dosing regimen and understanding the serious risks of becoming infected with HIV while taking Truvada for the PrEP indication. 

"The REMS for Truvada for the PrEP indication is aimed at educating health care professionals and uninfected individuals to help ensure its safe use for this indication without placing an unnecessary burden on health care professionals and patients," said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. 

Testing procedure 

Truvada’s safety and efficacy for PrEP were demonstrated in two large, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. The iPrEx trial evaluated Truvada in 2,499 HIV-negative men or transgender women who have sex with men and with evidence of high risk behavior for HIV infection, such as inconsistent or no condom use during sex with a partner of positive or unknown HIV status, a high number of sex partners, and exchange of sex for commodities. 

Results showed Truvada was effective in reducing the risk of HIV infection by 42 percent compared with placebo in this population. Efficacy was strongly correlated with drug adherence in this trial. 

The Partners PrEP trial was conducted in 4,758 heterosexual couples where one partner was HIV-infected and the other was not (serodiscordant couples). The trial evaluated the efficacy and safety of Truvada and tenofovir versus placebo in preventing HIV infection in the uninfected male or female partner. 

Results showed Truvada reduced the risk of becoming infected by 75 percent compared with placebo. 

No new side effects were identified in the clinical trials evaluating Truvada for the PrEP indication. The most common side effects reported with Truvada included diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, headache, and weight loss. Serious adverse events in general, as well as those specifically related to kidney or bone toxicity, were uncommon. 

Monitoring 

As a condition of approval, Truvada’s manufacturer, Gilead Sciences, Inc. of Foster City, CA, is required to collect viral isolates from individuals who acquire HIV while taking Truvada and to evaluate these isolates for the presence of resistance. Additionally, the company is required to collect data on pregnancy outcomes for women who become pregnant while taking Truvada for PrEP and to conduct a trial to evaluate drug adherence and its relationship to adverse events, risk of seroconversion, and resistance development in seroconverters. 

Gilead has committed to provide national drug utilization data in order to better characterize individuals who utilize Truvada for a PrEP indication and to develop an adherence questionnaire that will assist prescribers in identifying individuals at risk for low compliance.

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Why Now May Be A Good Time To Buy A Home

But getting a mortgage may still be a problem

Yes, it's still scary out there but recent data from the housing market suggests this might be a good time to buy a home.Prices are still relatively low ...

PhotoYes, it's still scary out there but recent data from the housing market suggests this might be a good time to buy a home.

Prices are still relatively low but rising, while interest rates have never been lower. Assuming you can qualify for a mortgage, you often can get more house for less money than if you were to rent. In one of its periodic reports on the state of the industry, CoreLogic notes that home prices are up in many markets and that future increases are likely.

One reason for that is the supply of homes for sale has fallen sharply, even with the distressed properties finally making their way to the market. The construction industry is only now beginning to put up new homes again after the housing collapse sent many builders into hibernation.

Would like to sell but can't

At the same time, many people who would normally sell their homes and move, can't. They're under water, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

With fewer homes for sale, the old law of supply and demand begins to exert itself. Even with tighter lending standards keeping many would-be buyers out of the market, there are enough consumers looking at homes to support present price levels.

The CoreLogic report contains other encouraging data. It shows that the lower end of the home price tier is rebounding at more than three times the rate of the upper end. In previous months the lower end was dominated by foreclosures, usually sold at a steep discount. The new data shows that either there are fewer distressed sales or the discount for these homes is not as cheap as it once was.

CoreLogic's Home Price Index (HPI), including distressed sales, posted the largest year-over-year spring price gain in the last 25 years. That should give buyers confidence that a home they purchase should hold, and eventually increase it's value.

Getting a loan may still be tricky

First, of course, they have to be able to qualify for a mortgage. That seems to be easier to do if you already own a home. Estimates show that refinancing accounted for 70 percent of the total mortgage originations market over the past 12 months.

Last week the National Association of Realtors (NAR) urged Congress to develop a broadly defined Qualified Mortgage (QM) regulation that does not shut out qualified buyers from purchasing a home. The QM is designed to protect lenders to ensure that loans only go to consumers with the ability to repay them. But NAR says making the regulation to narrow will deny credit worthy borrowers and strangle the recovering market.

"The first step to creating certainty in the housing finance system is to broadly define QM so that it encompasses the vast majority of the safe, high quality lending being done today," said NAR Vice-President Scott Louser.

In testimony before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, Louser said current underwriting standards are already tight and are contributing to the slow housing market recovery.

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Feds Order Shutdown of Alabama-Based Truck Company

MTI Transportation, LLC found to be ‘imminent safety hazard’

The U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has ordered MTI Transportation, LLC, to cease all transpo...

PhotoThe term “off road" has a negative meaning for an Alabama trucking company. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has ordered MTI Transportation, LLC, to cease all transportation services immediately. 

The government says the order is based on evidence that it was a chameleon operation for two unsafe truck companies previously shut down by the agency. 

“We must keep our nation’s roadways safe for drivers and passengers,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This case sends the message that we will shut down unsafe truck companies that attempt to illegally operate.” 

Safety citations 

FMCSA placed MTI Transportation out of service after safety investigators discovered the company was transporting goods for the former BM&L Trucking, LLC, and IDM Transportation, Inc.  

On May 11, the FMCSA issued an imminent hazard out-of-service order against both BM&L Trucking and IDM Transportation for serious federal safety violations in the areas of vehicle maintenance and driver drug and alcohol testing compliance. 

The agency’s safety audit of MTI Transportation found that three of the company’s drivers were previously employed by BM&L Trucking or IDM Transportation. 

Additionally, MTI Transportation used two commercial vehicles still registered to BM&L Trucking or IDM Transportation.  The May 2012 imminent hazard out-of-service order now also applies to MTI Transportation. 

"The practice of unsafe companies quickly reincarnating as chameleon companies to continue operations is unacceptable.  Our agency is constantly doing everything within its current legal authority to keep one step ahead of these illegal actors,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro.

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Summer Drought Likely To Push Food Prices Even Higher

Over 1,000 counties seeking U.S. disaster aid

Dry, parched conditions persist in much of the nation, including sections heavily involved in agriculture. That doesn't bode well for food prices, economis...

PhotoDry, parched conditions persist in much of the nation, including sections heavily involved in agriculture. That doesn't bode well for food prices, economists say.

Already, corn prices have soared on commodities markets raising the costs to manufacturers, who are likely to pass along that extra costs to consumers. The impact was apparent in last week's Producer Price report from the U.S. government, which for the most part showed price stability.

“The one major exception was food, especially meat prices which posted its highest jump in nearly a year,” said economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, of Holland, PA. “Intermediate food and feed costs jumped in June and the drought across the farm belt looks like it will lead to large increases in food costs going forward. That is not good news for consumers as these expenses get passed through fairly quickly.”

So far more than 1,000 counties in the U.S. have applied for federal disaster relief. To quality for that kind of help, the regions must have experienced drought conditions for at least eight weeks.

Photo

 

 

Last week Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak rolled out changes to the natural disaster relief program he said would deliver faster, more flexible assistance to agriculture producers. He said the changes would result in a 40 percent reduction in processing time for most counties affected by disasters.

Bright spot?

"Agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation's economy and it is increasingly important that USDA has the tools to act quickly and deliver assistance to farmers and ranchers when they need it most," Vilsack said.

But the economic damage to the agriculture industry might exceed $50 billion, by some estimates. While that will be sure to cut into exports, of immediate concern to consumers is how that will impact prices on the grocery shelf.

Corn futures have increased nearly 50 percent since the drought began. That will have a huge impact since corn not only goes directly into many manufactured food products but is also a key ingredient in feed for cattle, hogs and chicken. Those prices can be expected to rise in the coming weeks because of the extended drought.

Naroff says food is the main trouble spot in the economy, with other prices fairly tame. In fact, if the economy continues to slow, consumers could be faced with something similar to the “stagflation” of the early 1970s -- when economic growth ground to a halt but prices kept rising.

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Study Finds Families Continue To Cut College Costs

Students assume greater share of college costs, while parents trim

A new national study from Sallie Mae and Ipsos Public Affairs finds that 83 percent of college stude...

PhotoIt doesn’t appear that the student debt problem is going to go away anytime soon. 

A new national study from Sallie Mae and Ipsos Public Affairs finds that 83 percent of college students and parents strongly agreed that higher education is an investment in the future, and that the majority are finding multiple ways to cut college costs. 

Mom and pop back away 

Students now foot an expanding share of the college tuition bill, while parents scale back compared with four years ago. Drawing from savings, income and loans, students paid 30 percent of the total cost of attendance last academic year versus 24 percent four years earlier, while parents covered 37 percent, down eight percent in the same time period. 

“Once again, we see that families recognize the value of a college education and that they are taking steps to keep college costs in line with their financial resources,” said Albert L. Lord, vice chairman and CEO, Sallie Mae, the nation’s No. 1 financial services company specializing in education. “Data confirms again and again that the investment carefully made significantly enhances the lives and livelihoods of those who complete their education.” 

The percentage of families who eliminated college choices because of cost rose to the highest level (69%) in the five years since the study began and virtually all families exercised cost-savings measures. 

How they cut 

The most common cost-savings strategies included living at home (51%), adding a roommate (55%) and reducing spending by parents (50%) and students (66%). In 2012, families continued the shift toward lower cost community college, with 29 percent enrolled, compared with 23 percent two years ago. In fact, overall, families paid five percent less for college than they did a year ago. 

“This is really a tale of the resilient American family who still see the extreme value of a college education and are finding new and creative ways to pay for it,” said Clifford Young, managing director, Ipsos Public Affairs and a principal author of the report. 

The survey 

In response to new survey questions, American families reported that students make college selections largely on their own while parents played a much greater role in deciding how to pay for it. For the first time this year, the study examined student loan borrowing by student course of study. The field with the highest percentage of borrowers was visual and performing arts (53%), followed by liberal arts (42%). 

More than two-thirds of students and parents strongly agreed that college is needed now more than ever (70%) and the path to earning more money (69%). The number of students willing to stretch themselves financially to pay for college (61%) is higher than each of the previous five years of the survey, while parents’ willingness held steady from last year (53%). 

Less than half of parents strongly agreed that they would rather borrow than not send their child to college (47% vs. 51% in 2011), whereas the percentage of students who preferred to borrow rather than not attend remained unchanged (62%). 

Grants and scholarships declined from last year’s peak, but were still higher than previous years, financing the largest portion of college bills (29%). Student borrowing funded a larger percentage of costs (18% vs. 15% in 2010), with federal student loans accounting for 13 percent, private student loans 4 percent and other types of borrowing one percent. 

Thirty-five percent of students took out education loans to pay for college: 25 percent used federal loans only, 9 percent used a mix of federal and private loans, and one percent tapped private loans only. The high usage of federal loans among students with private education loans reflects their nearly universal use of the FAFSA (98% compared to 81% overall). 

Credit card ownership by college students has dropped two years in a row. Overall, 35 percent of undergrads carried a credit card, down from 42 percent in 2010, with the sharpest drops among sophomores and juniors. Of those with a card, the average balance was $755. Thirty-three percent reported carrying no balance on their credit card. 

The 2012 nationally representative study, “How America Pays for College,” is the fifth in the series. Interviews with 801 undergraduate college students, ages 18 to 24, and 800 parents of undergraduates were conducted by telephone spring 2012. The margin of error on percentages from this survey using the whole sample is +/-2.5 percentage points with a confidence level of 95 percent. 

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Responding To Recall Notices Can Be Life And Death Matter

It takes a sense of personal responsibility to make the recall system work

There is a system in place for safety recalls for cars and trucks. Government safety regulators issue the recall and the automaker sends out notices and ma...

PhotoThere is a system in place for safety recalls for cars and trucks. Government safety regulators issue the recall and the automaker sends out notices and makes the repair. The system works pretty well.

But there is a third, and very critical element. Consumers who receive the notices must act on them. If they don't, not only could they be in danger, but when they sell the vehicle other, unsuspecting consumers can be endangered.

Authorities in Texas are investigating a house fire in which two small boys died to determine whether a Ford F150 pick-up truck parked in the driveway was responsible. The older model truck had beensubject of a recall years ago to repair a faulty cruise control switch. Ford began offering the repair seven years ago but reports only about half the affected vehicles have been brought to dealers.

"Whether the recalled truck is the cause of the fire or not, this is a tragic reminder of how important it is to check regularly for recalls on vehicles, trailers and tires," said Linda Water Nelson, editor of INSIDEout: Cars & Trucks.

Forgotten recall notices

The problem is that when a vehicle owner doesn't respond to a recall notice, it can quickly be forgotten. Once the owner sells the vehicle to another consumer, the buyer is usually unaware that there was a safety issue or, more importantly, that the issue hasn't been addressed.

Based on typical sales patterns, many of these recalled vehicles have been sold and are now in the hands of second or even third owners who don't realize their safety is threatened. The carmaker can't help because it only knows who originally owned the vehicle. If the original owner still has the vehicle but has moved and is unreachable by mail, they will also fail to receive notice.

"Unless the current owners have checked for recalls on their vehicles, and verified whether the specific vehicle has been fixed, they are literally playing with fire," Nelson said. "This is not only true of the truck in question. Recalls have become relatively common and consumers must be aware of their own responsibility to learn about them."

Tracking a recall is easy. The federal government has a Website with this information. Or, you can plug in the terms: recalls for (name and year of product) to your search engine and obtain information to get your search started. Sites like ConsumerAffairs also have recall information.

"This is as much an owner's responsibility as purchasing car insurance, and I recommend using at least two methods of search," Nelson said. "It's as important as having smoke detectors in your home, and checking them regularly."

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FTC: Health Care Scammers Out In Force

Supreme Court's Affordable Care Act ruling brings them out of the woodwork

No sooner had the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act – also known as “Obamacare” -- than scam artists began working the phones. They say ...

PhotoIt's enough to make you sick! 

No sooner had the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act – also known as “Obamacare”  -- than scam artists began working the phones. They say they're from the government and that, using the Affordable Care Act as a hook, they need to verify some information. 

Various approaches 

They might have the routing number from your bank, and then use that information to get you to reveal the entire account number. Or, they'll ask for your credit card or Social Security number, Medicare ID, or other personal information. 

The Federal Trade Commission says do NOT give out personal or financial information in response to unsolicited phone calls, emails, or knocks on your door. Scam artists want your information to commit identity theft, charge your existing credit cards, debit your checking account, open new credit card, checking, or savings accounts, write fraudulent checks, or take out loans in your name. 

If someone who claims to be from the government calls and asks for your personal information, hang up. It's a scam. The government and legitimate organizations you do business with already have the information they need and will not ask you for it. 

You can file a complaint here or call 1-877-FTC-HELP. If you think your identity's been stolen, go here  or call 1-877-ID-THEFT. You also can file a complaint with your state Attorney General.

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New IRS Scam Making The Rounds

Email tries to scare recipients into revealing bank information

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) commands attention. When you get something in the mail from the tax agency, you can bet you'll open it right away.That...

PhotoThe Internal Revenue Service (IRS) commands attention. When you get something in the mail from the tax agency, you can bet you'll open it right away.

That's why the agency is a favorite of scammers who try to trick victims into disclosing personal information. A new scheme is packaged in a spam email with the heading “Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR).”

The first line of the email is designed to get your attention and, perhaps, make you drop your guard:

“This is in reference to your 2010 U.S. Individual Income Tax Return we seem to have some discrepancies with your filing.”

Notice there is a missing period after “Return” and “we” is not capitalized, as the first word of a new sentence should be. In addition, the email header, with the IRS logo, has been enlarged and distorted from an original and is a poor copy.

The biggest giveaway that this is not coming from the IRS are instructions in the email to download an attached form, fill it out with account information for all foreign and domestic bank accounts, and to fax it back.

The IRS would never seek sensitive financial information in that way. People who comply with the email will have their accounts emptied by the scammers.

The scam coincides with the recent announcement by the IRS of an effort to collect owed taxes from offshore accounts. Increasingly scammers model their schemes after events in the news so that there might be a slight ring of authenticity with their victims.

The IRS email scam also uses the element of fear. It notes that “it is a crime to evade or defeat the collection of a federal tax."

Consumers who receive this email -- or one like it -- should simply delete it from their inbox. You can also report it to the IRS by calling 1-800-829-3676.

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Consumers May Face Surcharges for Using Credit Cards

Settlement of long-running "swipe fee" case may end up costing consumers plenty

A seven-year dispute between retailers and credit card issuers over "swipe fees" has been settled. It will cost Visa and MasterCard $6 billion -- and ...

PhotoA seven-year dispute between retailers and credit card issuers over "swipe fees" has been settled. It will cost Visa and MasterCard $6 billion -- and may end up costing consumers a lot more than that.

Under the settlement, retailers, who will split the $6 billion, will be allowed to charge customers more for paying with credit cards -- something the card issuers have long prohibited.

The dispute between the retailers and the credit card and banking industries has been confusing to consumers, as both sides have put their spin on the issue.

Retailers have claimed the swipe fees of 2% or more charged by the card companies are a "hidden tax" on consumers and have long pressed for the ability to pass along the swipe fee to consumers who choose to pay with credit cards -- in effect giving a discount to customers who pay with cash.

The card companies have argued that consumers should have the choice of paying with cash or a credit or debit card and should not be penalized for choosing one method over another.

The legal arguments, however, had little to do with that and were built around antitrust and price-fixing allegations. There are, after all, only a handful of major national credit card brands and retailers said the card companies used their power to make merchants bow to their will.

Eye-popping

There are some eye-popping numbers in the settlement, thought to be the largest ever in a private antitrust case.  

Lawyers in the case had amassed a client list of 7 million American merchants who sued the card companies in 2005. The total value of the agreement is $7.25 billion, including a temporary reduction in card fees.

In the end, both sides claimed to be happy with the deal. Executives of Visa and MasterCard said the settlement was in the best interests of both parties. The Electronic Payments Coalition, an industry group, said the settlement contains important regulations that will prevent retailers from gouging consumers.

“As part of the settlement, retailers negotiated the ability to charge their customers a checkout fee (merchant surcharge) at the register," said the coalition said in a prepared statement.  "Historically, banning surcharging has been an important safeguard, and it remains illegal in ten states.  To the extent that retailers do assess checkout fees, we are pleased that the settlement includes important safeguards that will help to curb any abusive or excess checkout fees at the register."

The National Retail Federation was not quite as sanguine.

"The money is significant but money is only temporary - it's here today and spent tomorrow. What we need are changes in the rules that bring about transparency and competition that would be here for years to come," said NRF Mallory Duncan. "The test will be whether the injunctive relief is meaningful. Unless it is, the card market will stay broken and neither merchants nor their customers will achieve a long-term benefit. In that case, it would be a missed opportunity."

Convenience factor

Ironically, while the case has been working its way through the courts, debit cards have largely displaced credit cards for many smaller purchases and many retailers have taken advantage of new technology that makes it faster and easier to process payments.

Retailers also pay swipe fees for debit card transactions and there has been an entirely different -- thousand somewhat similar -- controversy swirling around those fees. 

It takes just a few minutes of hanging around a retail establishment to find that many consumers aren't sure whether the card they're using is a credit or a debit card, a situation that is not aided by the fact that many cards can be used as either.

In the end, consumers are not likely to put up with different prices based on how they choose to pay except in the rare instances when large purchases are being made with credit cards.  

 

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Senator Questions Whether Toyota Acceleration Problem is Really Solved

Federal probe "may have been too narrow," Sen. Grassley suggests

A federal investigation into reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles "may have been too narrow," an influential U.S. Senator is suggesting....

PhotoA federal investigation into reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles "may have been too narrow," an influential U.S. Senator is suggesting.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) says that information his office has received from whistle-blowers indicates that a probe by NASA and federal highway safety officials may not have uncovered the real culprit in the incidents, which led to a massive recall of Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

The joint probe by NASA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded that Toyota's electronic throttle control system was not to blame for the incidents, which included numerous accidents, some of them fatal.

In August 2009, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350 on a San Diego freeway. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV.  

The Los Angeles Times reports that Grassley has written to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, asking for detailed information about the investigation -- specifically whether vehicles were tested for the presence of an electronic phenomenon known as "tin whiskers" that could have been the cause of unintended acceleration.

In February 2011, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced with great fanfare that the joint investigation by NHTSA and NASA engineers had found no evidence the automaker's electronic throttle system played a part in incidents of unintended acceleration.

"There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas," LaHood said.

Instead, the agencies said the acceleration problems were most likely mechanical in nature. They blamed floor mats that could jam the gas pedal and sticky accelerator pedals.

Tin whiskers

PhotoThe NASA engineers did consider the tin whiskers phenomenon but concluded it did not play a role in the incidents.

The term is used to describe small crystalline "whiskers" that sometimes grow from electroplated tin. Under certain conditions, the whiskers could conceivably create a short circuit that "could theortetically lead" to unintended acceleration, Grassley said in his letter to LaHood.

The Times, however,  quoted a Toyota spokesman as saying, "No one has ever found a single real-world example of tin whiskers causing an unintended acceleration event."

NHTSA said the agency is reviewing Grassley's letter.

Huge recalls

Toyota has recalled more than 18 million vehicles since 2009. Five million of those recalls were to fix floor mat problems and four million were to fix gas pedals that were prone to stick.

Toyota faces hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of accidents blamed on unintended acceleration. It has already paid $48 million in fines in three separate cases and faces potential liabilities of $10 billion or more in the cases that are still pending.

While the 2011 report exonerated Toyota's electronic throttle system, it did not directly examine the prevalence of pedals that became trapped in place by floor mats or pedals that stuck in the open position.

However, the report said that most of the incidents NASA and DOT engineers examined occurred at low speed and appeared to be caused by driver error, with the driver inadvertently stepping on the gas rather than the brake, or in some bases depressing both pedals at once.

The few high-speed incidents that have been documented were likely caused by the floor mat jamming the accelerator pedal into the wide-open position, the investigators said, basically blaming driver error for the problem.


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SodaStream: Does It Really Do That?

Make soda from water in the comfort of your home? Sounds too good to be true

Okay, so I'm watching television one night, completely immersed in an old episode of Law & Order, or was it a newer episode? I can never tell since the...

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Yahoo Confirms Data Breach

But says it's "more wake-up call than threat"

Yahoo! has confirmed that hackers were able to break into servers and steal more than 450,000 user names and passwords.The good news, the company says, i...

PhotoYahoo has confirmed that hackers were able to break into servers and steal more than 450,000 user names and passwords.

The good news, the company says, is most are for an old service and many are no longer active. The company calls it a "wake-up call more than a threat."

According to Yahoo, the unencrypted user names and passwords are for a division called Yahoo Voices, a self-publishing company that was originally called Associated Content. The user names and passwords were posted online by hackers, who said they acted only to call attention to Yahoo's vulnerabilities.

Yahoo, meanwhile, downplayed the breach. In a statement, it noted that only about five percent of the passwords were still active. Yahoo said it is in the process of fixing the breach and is notifying parties that may have been compromised.

More serious?

However, the breach could be more serious than it seems at first glance. The data published online also includes email addresses that Yahoo Voice clients used when registering. Some security experts note that if the passwords used for Yahoo Voices were also the ones used for the email accounts, there could be a more serious breach.

"The only silver lining on the cloud is that the website hosting the passwords is temperamental, and people are experiencing difficulties accessing the information," Anna Brading, os Sophos Security Software wrote in her blog. "But maybe the access problems are being caused by so many people trying to access the stolen passwords at once?"

AOL reports only about seven of the its 25,000 AOL Mail addresses revealed in the Yahoo breach had the same passwords on their email accounts.

Yahoo said it is changing affected users' passwords and notifying companies with accounts that might have been compromised.

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Listeria Threat In Mexicali Cheese Corp. Products

Risk of illness based on contamination at New York production facility

Be careful about buying or consuming any products from the Mexicali Cheese Corp. of Woodhaven, NY....

PhotoBe careful about buying or consuming any products from the Mexicali Cheese Corp. of Woodhaven, NY. 

The warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) follows the discovery of the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes in the company’s finished product. 

The affected Mexicali Cheese products were distributed in the New York City area, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The FDA is asking retailers to remove any Mexicali cheese products from their shelves and warns that consumers may have moved the products beyond those states. 

Serious illness 

Listeria contamination can result in listeriosis, a disease that primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. However, in rare cases, people without these risk factors also can be affected. 

Although healthy people may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headaches, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women. 

Warnings issued 

The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which issued warnings on June 29 and July 2, 2012, said the product is packaged in a rigid 14 oz. plastic tub that displays the plant number 36-0128 and a code of 071512. The following product names are on the package containers: 

  • Mexicali Queso Fresco Mexicano, Mexican Style Fresh Cheese
  • Acatlan Queso Fresco, Fresh Cheese
  • Mi Quesito Mexicano, Mexican Cheese; and
  • Quesillo Ecuatoriano, Ecuadorian Style Cheese 

Those who have eaten these products and experience any of the symptoms of listeriosis listed above should contact their health care professional. Consumers can report problems with FDA-regulated products to their district office consumer complaint coordinator. 

Under a May 1, 2012, consent decree of permanent injunction, Mexicali Cheese was required by a court order to stop manufacturing and distributing any articles of food until it completed FDA-approved measures to correct food safety deficiencies, decontaminate its facility and take other steps needed to comply with the law. 

The company did not comply with these requirements.

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DOT Fines TripAdvisor for Violating DOT Price Advertising, Code-Share Rules

Ticketing firm ran afoul of new federal rules requiring more complete disclosure

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has imposed the first penalty for violating the new airline price advertising requirements that took effect in...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has imposed the first penalty for violating the new airline price advertising requirements that took effect in January. 

Ticket agent TripAdvisor is being fined $80,000 for violating rules on full-fare advertising and  for failing to disclose that flights were being operated under code-sharing agreements. The company was also ordered to cease and desist from further violations. 

“Air travelers have the right to know how much they’ll have to pay for a ticket and which airline will be operating their flight,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “We will continue to make sure that carriers and ticket agents disclose this important information to consumers.” 

New requirements 

DOT requires all advertisements that include airfares to state the entire price to be paid by the consumer. Prior to a rule that took effect Jan. 26, advertised fares were not required to include certain government-imposed taxes as long as these additional fees were clearly disclosed in the ad. Under the new rule, though, all government taxes and fees must be incorporated into the fare. 

Taxes that are included in the advertised fare may also be listed separately or through links or pop-ups, but these listings may not be displayed as prominently, or in the same or larger size font, as the total price. 

Rule violations 

An investigation by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that from at least March 2012 through June 2012, the total fares displayed on TripAdvisor’s website were not displayed more prominently than the base fares, which did not include taxes and fees. 

When consumers entered specific itineraries, TripAdvisor returned lists of flights that displayed base fares in front of and in the same font size as the total fares. The rule applies to ticket agents as well as air carriers. 

The Department also found that TripAdvisor failed to comply with DOT’s code-share disclosure rules. Under a code-sharing arrangement, an airline sells tickets on flights that use its designator code, but are operated by another airline.  

DOT rules require airlines and ticket agents to disclose to consumers, before they book a flight, if the flight is operated under a code-sharing arrangement.  The disclosure must include the corporate name of the transporting carrier and any other name under which the flight is offered to the public. 

Under a new law, when tickets are purchased on the Internet, code-share information must be easily viewable on the first display of a website following a search for flights corresponding to a desired itinerary. From at least March through June 2012, TripAdvisor failed to display the corporate names or other names being used by regional carriers providing transportation on behalf of a major airline. Consumers had to rely on a hover text feature to learn the identity of the airline that would actually operate the aircraft on which they would be flying.

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Three Steps To Help Women Lose Weight

Save your money, these tips cost nothing

There are all kinds of diets and weight-control products on the market, but losing weight isn't complicated and doesn't have to be expensive. Researchers a...

PhotoThere are all kinds of diets and weight-control products on the market, but losing weight isn't complicated and doesn't have to be expensive. Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center say there are three things that cost nothing that can help people -- women especially -- lose weight.

Dr. Anne McTiernan and her colleagues were studying the impact of a wide range of self-monitoring and diet-related behaviors and meal patterns on weight change among overweight and obese postmenopausal women when they made their finding.

The first step is to keep a food journal. Faithfully record everything you eat each day.

The second step is to eat three meals a day. Skipping a meal here and there doesn't help, it actually hurts the weight-control process, the researchers said.

The third step is to avoid eating in restaurants. Restaurant meals, especially lunch, can easily torpedo your diet routine.

Reducing calories is the goal

“When it comes to weight loss, evidence from randomized, controlled trials comparing different diets finds that restricting total calories is more important than diet composition such as low-fat versus low-carbohydrate. Therefore, the specific aim of our study was to identify behaviors that supported the global goal of calorie reduction,” McTiernan said.

Specifically, McTiernan and colleagues found that:

  • Women who kept food journals consistently lost about 6 pounds more than those who did not
  • Women who reported skipping meals lost almost 8 fewer pounds than women who did not
  • Women who ate out for lunch at least weekly lost on average 5 fewer pounds than those who ate out less frequently. Eating out often at all meal times was associated with less weight loss, but the strongest association was observed with lunch.

“For individuals who are trying to lose weight, the No. 1 piece of advice based on these study results would be to keep a food journal to help meet daily calorie goals. It is difficult to make changes to your diet when you are not paying close attention to what you are eating,” said McTiernan, director of the Hutchinson Center’s Prevention Center and a member of its Public Health Sciences Division.

Be honest

If you keep a food journal, McTiernan said its important that you be honest, accurate and complete. You should also be consistent. That means carrying your food journal with you at all times, or using a diet-tracking app on your smartphone.

The reason not to skip meals is it can cause you to crave high-calorie foods and eat more than you might otherwise. Eating in restaurants may cause you to make unhealthy food choices.

“Eating in restaurants usually means less individual control over ingredients and cooking methods, as well as larger portion sizes,” the authors wrote.

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Government Agency Look-Alike Scam Plagues Small Business

Mailings appear to be official and demand a payment

Scammers don't just target consumers. Small businesses are sometimes favorite targets and the government agency look-alike scam is claiming more victims....

PhotoScammers don't just target consumers. Small businesses are sometimes favorite targets and the government agency look-alike scam is claiming more victims.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has secured a temporary injunction against a California man doing business as Iowa Corporate Compliance. Miller says the firm has duped a number of businesses into paying $125 “document fees.”

Miller accused Aaron Vincent Williams, of Playa Vista, California, of misleading consumers or violating the Iowa Consumer Fraud Act throughsolicitations that appear to be from a governmental entity. Miller sought the temporary injunction in conjunction with a consumer fraud lawsuit against Williams and Iowa Corporate Compliance.

Sought $125 from businesses

“This government agency look-alike is targeting business people across Iowa with official-looking mailings, and convincing them that they must complete and return a form with a $125 fee,” Miller said. “We allege that these documents are not worth anything more than the paper they’re printed on.”

Miller says the scam depends on busy business people paying invoices as a matter of routine without questioning them very much, especially if the mailing appears to come from the government. He says the Iowa Corporate Compliance mailings, bearing an official-looking seal, create the false impression that they are sent by a governmental agency and that recipients are required to respond.

Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz says the office’s Business Services Division received calls and letters from concerned owners and representatives, as well as copies of the bogus form labeled, “Annual Meeting Disclosure Statement.”

No such requirement

“While state law requires businesses to keep records of certain meeting minutes, the law does not require businesses to file those minutes with us. Neither do we collect a fee for this type of filing,” Schultz said.

Miller's suit says the ruse was aided by the use of a Des Moines mail drop as the address of the state agency look-alike. It fooled a lot of people.

“It looked like paperwork I’m required to fill out,” said Chris Rademacher who, with his wife Jamie, own the Des Moines West KOA Campground. “It seemed like it was legitimate.”

The Rademachers filled out the form and wrote out a $125 check, which the Consumer Protection Division intercepted through its subpoena.

Miller’s lawsuit seeks refunds for any Iowa consumer losses, a permanent injunction, and a penalty of up to $40,000 for each Consumer Fraud Act violation.

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Feds Shut Down Bogus Websites

The sophisticated scam sites duped consumers into buying counterfeit merchandise

Seventy Websites that were illegally selling counterfeit merchandise have been put out of business. ...

PhotoSeventy Websites that were illegally selling counterfeit merchandise have been put out of business. 

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) -led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) seized the sites as part of Project Copy Cat, an iteration of Operation In Our Sites (IOS). 

The bogus sites closely mimicked legitimate Websites selling authentic merchandise and duped consumers into unknowingly buying counterfeit goods. In fact, many of them so closely resembled the legitimate Websites that it would be difficult for even the most discerning consumer to tell the difference. 

The Websites are now shut down and their domain names are in the custody of the federal government. Visitors to the sites will find a seizure banner that notifies them that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities and educates them about the federal crime of willful copyright infringement. 

"This operation targeted criminals making a buck by trying to trick consumers into believing they were buying name brand products from legitimate websites when in fact they were buying counterfeits from illegal but sophisticated imposter sites located overseas," said ICE Director John Morton. "The imposter sites were simply a fraud from start to finish and served no purpose other than to defraud and dupe unwary shoppers." 

New twist 

A new twist in the Websites seized in Project Copy Cat involved the appearance of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates. SSL certificates provide authentication for financial information, meaning consumers should be able to trust that they are sending information to the intended server and not to a criminal's server. 

Trusted SSL providers should only issue SSL certificates to verified companies that have gone through several identity checks.

In addition to providing authentication, SSL certificates also provide encryption, enhancing the security of credit card numbers, usernames, passwords and other sensitive information. 

These Websites, however, displayed SSL certificates, further duping the consumer into thinking they were shopping on a legitimate website, potentially putting customers' financial information at risk. 

Undercover operation 

During this operation, federal law enforcement officers made undercover purchases of a host of products, including baby carriers, professional sports jerseys, language and fitness DVD sets, and a variety of clothing, jewelry and luxury goods from online retailers who were suspected of selling counterfeit products. 

In most cases, the goods were shipped directly into the United States from suppliers in other countries. If the copyright holders confirmed that the purchased products were counterfeit or otherwise illegal, seizure orders for the domain names of the Websites that sold the goods were obtained from federal magistrate judges. 

"Every day the U.S. economy and American jobs are negatively impacted by criminal organizations engaged in the sale of counterfeit merchandise through rogue websites. Even more importantly, consumer's health and safety can be threatened when they unknowingly purchase counterfeit products," said IPR Center Director Lev Kubiak. "Our goal at the IPR Center is to protect the public's safety and economic welfare through robust intellectual property enforcement and we hope that today's enforcement actions raise the public's awareness to this pervasive crime." 

This operation was the next phase of IOS, a sustained law enforcement initiative that began two years ago to protect consumers by targeting the sale of counterfeit merchandise on the Internet. These 70 domain name seizures bring the total number of IOS domain names seized in the last two years to 839. 

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Chicco Polly High Chairs Recalled

The pegs on the rear legs of the high chair pose the potential for bruising or laceration

Artsana USA Inc., of Lancaster, PA, is recalling about 455,000 Chicco Polly high chairs in the United States and 30,690 in Canada....

PhotoArtsana USA Inc., of Lancaster, PA, is recalling  about 455,000 Chicco Polly high chairs in the United States and 30,690 in Canada. 

Children can fall on or against the pegs on the rear legs of the high chair, resulting in a bruising or laceration injury. The firm is aware of 21 reports of incidents in which a child fell against the peg and received injuries -- including four laceration injuries requiring medical closure (stitches, tape or glue) and one scratched cornea. 

This recall involves a range of Chicco Polly high chairs with pegs on the back legs intended for tray storage. The high chairs have a folding metal frame for storage and a reclining seat. The recalled high chairs can be identified by the model number and date code printed on a label on the underside of the seat, close to the footrest. 

The date code is in the format DDMMYYYY or YYYY-MM-DD. High chairs included in this recall were manufactured prior to October 13, 2010 and have one of the following model numbers on the label:

Model Numbers
0006380343007005063803260070
0006380348007005063803270070
0006380349007005063803570070
0006380358007005063803660070
0406376500007005063803970070
0406376554007006063765650070
0406376576007006063765970070
0406380363007006063803650070
0406380386007006063803770070
0406380390007006063803820070
0506376502007006063803960070
0506380302007006063803970070
0506380322007007063803780070

 

They were sold at retail stores including Babies R Us, Burlington Coat Factory, Buy Buy Baby, Shopko and Toys R Us, as well as online outlets including Albeebaby.com, Amazon.com, Babyage.com, Babysupermart.com, Diapers.com and Target.com from January 2005 through July 2012 for between $100 and $150. 

Consumers should contact Chicco for a free peg cover kit which will be mailed to them. To help prevent injuries before repair, consumers should store the tray on the pegs when the high chair is not in use. 

For additional information, contact Chicco toll-free at (800) 807-8817 between 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Website

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Gas Prices Gain Three Cents In Last Week

Pump prices appear to be following last year's pattern

With a rally in oil prices the last two weeks, the price of gasoline is on the rise again, but fortunately for consumers, the turnaround has been slow and ...

PhotoWith a rally in oil prices the last two weeks, the price of gasoline is on the rise again, but fortunately for consumers, the turnaround has been slow and steady.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.388 per gallon, up from $3.358 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. Gas prices 15 cents a gallon higher a month ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.683 per gallon, down from $3.662 a week ago.

We've seen this before

If motorists are feeling a little deja vu as far as gas prices go, it's not that unusual.

"This reversal in a trend of falling prices at the pump to begin July is not a unique phenomenon," said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. "In 2011, prices declined for 52 of 56 days, falling 44 cents from a peak of $3.98 on May 5 to a summer low of $3.54 on June 30. July 2011 saw prices rise 17 cents and then remain elevated through Labor Day and the end to the busy summer driving period. From September 6 until December 21, 2011, the national average steadily declined, falling 46 cents to $3.21 per gallon. The low price to-date for the summer of 2012 came on July 2 at $3.33 and the national average is currently five cents above that low."

Economic trends are still putting a damper on oil prices, so why aren't they continuing to fall? Many oil traders fully expect the Federal Reserve to begin another round of "quantitative easing" to boost the economy, which will also make the dollar worth less. Since commodities like oil are priced in dollars, the price will go up.

Role reversal

In states where gasoline has been the most expensive, prices actually continued to fall. In Oregon, the price fell by four cents a gallon. In California, the price dropped three cents.

The increase was felt in states that have enjoyed the lowest average prices in the country. The price at the pump surged a dime a gallon in Georgia and by seven cents in Louisiana.

The states with the highest gas prices this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.209)
  • Alaska ($4.051)
  • California ($3.694)
  • Connecticut ($3.684)
  • New York ($3.658)
  • Illinois ($3.581)
  • Washington State ($3.578)
  • Colorado ($3.574)
  • Idaho ($3.572)
  • North Dakota ($3.565)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are: 

  • South Carolina ($3.041)
  • Mississippi ($3.073)
  • Alabama ($3.112)
  • Tennessee ($3.118)
  • Louisiana ($3.170)
  • Arkansas ($3.198)
  • Virginia ($3.236)
  • Texas ($3.239)
  • North Carolina ($3.249)
  • Georgia ($3.261)
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Scientists To Study Genetics Behind Foodborne Illnesses

The genome project for food pathogens will help track down the source of an outbreak

The tiny organisms that cause foodborne illnesses -- bacteria, viruses and others – are formidable foes. Despite efforts to reduce outbreaks, bacteria like...

PhotoThe tiny organisms that cause foodborne illnesses -- bacteria, viruses and others – are formidable foes. Despite efforts to reduce outbreaks, bacteria like Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli and Listeria are pervasive in the environment. Like masters of disguise, they evolve into different strains to adapt to changing surroundings. 

These microorganisms are collectively referred to as food pathogens. And they do a lot of harm. Every year an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. get sick from a foodborne disease, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC). 

Despite progress in the understanding of these pathogens, there is a lot that scientists do not yet understand, including where these harmful organisms live, how they survive or multiply in the environment, and whether some geographic locations affect them in unique ways. 

Building a database 

To answer these and other questions, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is embarking on a five-year collaboration with public and private partners to create a public database of the gene sequences of 100,000 bacteria that have been responsible for outbreaks of foodborne illnesses around the world. Gene sequences are the ordered chemical building blocks that make up the bacteria's DNA. 

The goal of this effort, called "The 100K Genome Project" is to give public health officials the tools they need to more rapidly identify the source of the contamination and bring these outbreaks under control, says Steven Musser, Ph.D., director of the Office of Regulatory Science in FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). 

Practical applications 

Musser explains that this new database containing the genetic codes of food pathogens will: 

  • enable scientists in both the public and private sectors to develop tests that can identify the bacteria present in a sample within days or even hours.
  • help investigators discover the likely source of an outbreak. For example, a cluster of Salmonella illnesses is detected using current testing procedures but the contaminated food is not easily identified. A test would reveal what bacteria is present in the person's body and the genome database could indicate where that strain or one like it came from the last time it was detected. That would point investigators in the direction of a specific food or region.
  • greatly expand the pool of researchers able to develop software for the diagnosis and analysis of potential hazards that could lead to new methods of preventing and controlling outbreaks. Making this information available to the public means that researchers throughout the world can use it. "If we keep this information to ourselves at FDA, we're limited to just what we can think of doing with it," says Musser. 

Public-private collaboration 

This initiative is a collaboration between FDA, the University of California/Davis, and Agilent Technologies Inc

The genomic sequencing will be done at a new facility at UC Davis that will coordinate the overall effort. As the gene sequences are completed, they will be stored in the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Biotechnology Information's public database. 

FDA is providing hundreds of genetic sequences its scientists have already drafted, thousands of actual food pathogens for additional sequencing, and other technical support. Under a cooperative agreement grant to UC Davis, FDA scientists will guide the project and provide technical assistance. 

CDC will provide its foodborne disease expertise, strains to be sequenced and other information for use in the project. CDC experts will also serve on the steering committee for the project.

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Legal Helpers Agrees To $2.1 Million Illinois Settlement

Illinois says debt settlement firm broke consumer protection laws

Legal Helpers, a national debt settlement firm, has made a settlement of its own with the state of Illinois.Illinois sued the Chicago-based firm, chargin...

Legal Helpers, a national debt settlement firm, has made a settlement of its own with the state of Illinois.

Illinois sued the Chicago-based firm, claiming it unlawfully charged consumers upfront fees to provide debt settlement services with promises to make them debt free.

Mark, of Delaware, OH, says he retained Legal Helper's services when he was on the brink of bankruptcy. A Legal Helpers representative, he says, explained debt settlement would be a better option.

“He explained that I would make $875.00 monthly payments to them for three years and that would be the total I would pay for everything, settlements and legal fees,” Mark wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “He said the national average for settlements was 28 percent and if they could not settle it for that amount, they would pay the balance out of their fees. Not one of these happened.”

What happened, Mark writes, is that each and every one of his creditors sued him. The fees, of course, were paid up front.

"This company was fronting as a law firm claiming to help consumers reduce their debt, but in reality, their scheme had nothing to do with the practice of law,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “The company's primary purpose was to squeeze thousands of dollars in illegal upfront fees from struggling families for supposed debt relief that never materialized.”

$2.1 million in restitution

While it might not help Mark, the settlement with Legal Helpers Debt Resolution LLC will provide $2.1 million in restitution for Illinois residents who paid for debt settlement services but failed to receive meaningful debt reduction. The company also agreed not to accept any new Illinois customers.

Madigan filed the action in March 2011 and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation joined the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff in September 2011 after the company failed to respond to the department's cease-and-desist order for not obtaining the proper licensing required under Debt Settlement Consumer Protection Act.

Warning

"Governor Quinn signed the Debt Settlement Consumer Protection Act in 2010 to stop companies that attempt to prey on consumers who find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt," said Secretary of Financial and Professional Regulation Brent Adams. "This settlement should make clear that we will vigorously pursue companies that try to circumvent the protections of the new law."

In addition, on June 5, 2012, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the entity that regulates licensed Illinois attorneys, filed a disciplinary action against two Legal Helpers Debt Resolution LLC managing members, attorneys Thomas Macey and Jeffrey Aleman. The disciplinary action alleges misconduct in connection with their debt settlement business.

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DirecTV Axes Nick, Comedy Central and MTV

It's the latest fee dispute between distributors and program producers

It's not Nick at Nite, or any other time, in 20 million American homes today. And the Jersey Shore? You can't there from here.DirecTV has axed Viacom's c...

PhotoIt's not Nick at Nite, or any other time, in 20 million American homes today. And the Jersey Shore? You can't get there from here.

DirecTV has axed Viacom's channels, which include Nickolodeon, the Comedy Channel, BET and MTV. And DirecTV's customers are not happy. After all, they want their MTV.

It's the latest stand-off between program producers and distributors. In this case, the usual tug of war -- Viacom wants more money, DirecTV wants to pay less -- is being aggravated by Viacom's aggressive courting of online viewers.

Viacom makes most of its programming available on Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. DirecTV and the other satellite and cable operators increasingly view Internet streaming as direct competition. They're not happy with Viacom and other program producers who are helping the streaming business get a foothold.

But try telling that to angry viewers. ConsumerAffairs conducted a sentiment analysis of about 620,000 consumer postings to social media over the last year and, not surprisingly, found net sentiment for DirecTV going off a cliff in recent days.

 

It's not just pocket change we're talking about. Viacom is pushing for a 30% increase, which works out to an extra $1 billion, according to Derek Chang, DirecTV's executive vice president of content, strategy and development.

Photo
Consumers rate DirecTV

Chang argued that the increases are out of line given declining ratings for many of Viacom's channels over the last year, including the kids network Nickelodeon.

Chang said Viacom was willing to let DirecTV continue carrying its channels while talks continued but DirecTV pulled the plug.

"Let's be clear, Viacom took these channels from DirecTV viewers," Chang said in a statement.

Viewers seem to know that. DirecTV is taking quite a bashing online.

"Every DirecTV customer should get a reduction in their bills for every day we are without 26 channels," fumed Greg of Cincinnati in a ConsumerAffairs posting.  "We shouldn't have to pay the same price. Why should I pay the same price for fewer channels?"

Our analysis found these positive (in green) and negative (in red) attributes most frequently mentioned by consumers:

 

Jarom of Anaheim, Calif., is one of the thousands of subscribers who tried to cancel their DirecTV contract, only to find it's not quite that simple. 

"So tonight, when I lost my channels that I watch, I called to cancel my contract with DirecTV. I was thinking that they just took away 26 channels from my plan. So they must not be able to still charge me the same or at least charge me for all 17 more months, $20 per month, since they aren't living up to their end of the commitment," Jarom said.

"On the phone with the specialist, this is the response I got to start my call with him. 'I don't want to be that guy, but technically we could drop all your programming and still charge you the same for every month that's left on your contract.' Now I am not a lawyer or anything close, but how could that be legal at all?"

The sad truth that Jarom and other subscribers are learning is that they have a multi-year contract with DirecTV that doesn't give them the option of cancelling except at the end of the contract. Most likely, the contract does not require DirecTV to provide a specific program line-up and the customer rep Jarom spoke to is thus technically correct in his seemingly outlandish statement. 

But now that consumers have harnessed the power of the Internet to make their wishes known, it's becoming harder for large corporations to simply impose their will without considering the consequences.

It's likely this squabble will be worked out shortly, as it is not in either side's interest to infuriate their customers any longer than necessary.

 


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Cruises Aren't Always Smooth Sailing

Carnival collects complaints the way freighters collect barnacles

It's nice to get away, isn't it? Whether by train, plane or car, having an extended trip to look forward to can be just what's needed to get us through a c...

PhotoIt's nice to get away, isn't it? Whether by train, plane or car, having an extended trip to look forward to can be just what's needed to get us through a challenging work week.

Many people choose to escape their everyday routine via a cruise line, because it has all the comforts of a relaxing all-inclusive hotel, but with an adventurous and exploratory component to it.

But the consumers who share their experiences with ConsumerAffairs are often somewhat sick of the whole affair by the time their ship comes in. Disney Cruises, Princess Cruises, and Celebrity Cruises have amassed a collection of complaints that would make a sailor blush.

Photo
Consumers rate Carnival

But Carnival Cruise Lines outdoes them all; it has virtually swamped the cruise section, receiving by far the most negative reviews.

"While on Blue Lagoon, we were supposed to receive a complimentary lunch with a rum drink (never happened)," said Rosalyn of South Carolina. "We didn't see our guide again until it was time to leave which was 6:30 p.m. By the time we got back, it was 7:00 pm and we had to board the boat before 7:30 p.m., therefore we never saw Nassau! Very disappointing!"

Lawsuits

Carnival Cruise Lines has also been foundering amidst a tidal wave of lawsuits brought by aggrieved vacationers.

Earlier this year the Miami-based line was sued for allegedly allowing one of its passengers to bleed to death, after she cut an artery by falling on a drinking glass. The ship's staff took an hour to get the 39-year-old to the emergency infirmary where she later died. The family of the deceased woman is suing Carnival, alleging negligence.

In addition, an 18-year old girl and her family are suing Carnival for what they're saying was an illegal strip-search of the teenager, after she was accused of trying to bring marijuana onboard.

PhotoAnd most recently the cruise line had a well-publicized fatal accident when the Costa Concordia partially sank off the Italian coast on June 13, 2012, a disaster that killed 30 people and left 64 others injured. A group of survivors from the wreck have sued the company for gross negligence and are asking for $528 million in restitution.

Plunging sentiment

The Costa Concordia incident was a disaster not just for the passengers but, at least in the short term, also for Carnival's image.  ConsumerAffairs conducted a sentiment analysis of about 58,000 consumer postings on social media over the last year and found that, other than during the immediate aftermath of the Italian accident, Carnival enjoys a positive net sentiment of about 80%.

 

Of course, you might think that many of those expressing positive sentiments haven't taken a cruise, either lately or at all. This doesn't appear to be the case, however, as a closer reading finds that by far the majority of the positive comments are along the lines of "best vacation ever."

 

Be prepared

What to make of this? Like so many experiences, when they're good they're very good but when they're bad, they're really bad. Thus, as we always say, you shouldn't read our complaints and reviews and think that all the bad things you read about will happen to everyone. But it doesn't hurt to keep in mind that they just could happen to you. Never hurts to be prepared. 

Sometimes seemingly little problems add up and ruin what would otherwise be a fun time.

Amy, of Holmstead Fla., for example, said she had a miserable experience traveling with Carnival, as the company made no efforts to fix her room's damaged light fixture, properly clean the cabin's bathtub, or have the right accommodation for her baby.

"This was no vacation. I am more tired, more stressed than before I got on the ship," she said.

"The lights in our closets did not turn off all night because the doors would not close completely. The entire cruise, we had to try and sleep with light beaming out of closets. We couldn't get hold of anyone. Not front desk, not guest services, not our room steward, not anyone. It wasn't til almost 2 hours later that we got someone."

Or how about Mary Sue of Iowa who wrote to us about the cruise company leaving her luggage in the rain and ruining some of her personal items?

There's also Angela of Chesapeake, Va. who had a far less than perfect travel experience with the company.

"Right from the start getting onto the boat was disorganized," she said. "Lines all over the place on the boat, to get anywhere or to do anything there were lines. Staff was kind of rude. I had to ask for towels and ice all the time and when I did, they seemed to be very irritated."

What to do

ConsumerAffairs called the corporate office of Carnival Cruise Lines to learn what action really takes place once a complaint is made.

"We try to rectify each problem while the guest is on the ship," said Patrice, an employee of Carnival’s guest care department. "We advise the guest to first speak with guest services. The goal is to solve the problem while the guest is still onboard, and we'll do a work order and send the appropriate person to the cabin."

Which sounds all well and good, but what if the issue isn't properly resolved by the service team during the guests' stay? As in Amy's case.

"They have 30 days to file their complaint after they leave the ship," said Patrice.

What if the guest reports a problem, say, on day 31?

"If the guest isn't satisfied they can follow up with customer care" said Patrice.

She also said the customer care department, which is separate from the guest services team on the ship, is the second line of defense if one's complaint isn't dealt with satisfactorily.

I also told Patrice of Amy's problem with the dirty room, broken light fixture, and no accommodations for her child.

"Guest services documents everything so we can see what happened, and what the resolution was."  But there was no resolution, I reminded her.

"We can always email the ship and review the file and see what took place," she said.

So apparently one has to do their own legwork and constant follow-up if their issue isn't rectified while on board. Passengers with unresolved problems can call Carnival Cruise Lines corporate office at 1-305-599-2600, and ask to be connected with guest services.

According to Patrice, the guest service department will review each issue, as cases are supposed to be documented, then contact the ship to get a full report.

Then the problem will be escalated to the right person, depending on the issue and a follow-up call is supposed to be placed to the traveler.

However consumers shouldn't take the word of Carnival Cruise, and assume all of this will really be done. It’s important to get names, numbers and extensions, and make sure your issue is actually going through the proper ranks.

Also document the names, times and issues you first filed your complaint with guest services when onboard. The company says it has a file for each issue, but it's wise for you to keep a file too. Just in case the company's memory gets a little fuzzy.

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Would You Ever Be a Slug?

Slug lines are probably the most efficient form of urban transit yet invented

"Some say that the single greatest wasted transportation resources are all the empty seats in private automobiles."The above quote was from Marc Oli...

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Wells Fargo Settles Federal Fair Lending Case

The settlement means more than $175 million in relief for homeowners

The second largest fair lending settlement in Department of Justice history has been filed, resolving allegations that Wells Fargo Bank engaged in a patter...

PhotoThe second largest fair lending settlement in Department of Justice history has been filed, resolving allegations that Wells Fargo Bank engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against qualified black and Hispanic borrowers in its mortgage lending from 2004 through 2009.  

The settlement provides $125 million in compensation for wholesale borrowers who were steered into subprime mortgages or who paid higher fees and rates than white borrowers because of their race or national origin. 

Wells Fargo, the largest residential home mortgage originator in the United States, will also provide $50 million in direct down payment assistance to borrowers in communities around the country where the department identified large numbers of discrimination victims and which were hard hit by the housing crisis.  

Additionally, the bank has agreed to conduct an internal review of its retail mortgage lending and will compensate African-American and Hispanic retail borrowers who were placed into subprime loans when similarly qualified white retail borrowers received prime loans.   

Compensation paid to any retail borrowers identified in the review process will be in addition to the $125 million to compensate wholesale borrowers who were victims of discrimination. 

“The department’s action makes clear that we will hold financial institutions accountable, including some of the nation’s largest, for lending discrimination,” said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. “An applicant’s creditworthiness, and not the color of his or her skin, should determine what loans a borrower qualifies for. 

“With today’s settlement,”, he continued, “the federal government will ensure that African-American and Hispanic borrowers who were discriminated against will be entitled to compensation and borrowers in communities hit hard by this housing crisis will have an opportunity to access homeownership.” 

The complaint 

The settlement, which is subject to court approval, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in conjunction with the department’s complaint, which alleges that between 2004 and 2008, Wells Fargo discriminated by steering approximately 4,000 black and Hispanic wholesale borrowers, as well as additional retail borrowers, into subprime mortgages when non-Hispanic white borrowers with similar credit profiles received prime loans.   

All the borrowers who were allegedly discriminated against were qualified for Wells Fargo mortgage loans according to Well Fargo’s own underwriting criteria. 

The government also alleges that, between 2004 and 2009, Wells Fargo discriminated by charging approximately 30,000 black and Hispanic wholesale borrowers higher fees and rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers because of their race or national origin rather than the borrowers’ credit worthiness or other objective criteria related to borrower risk.  

“By reaching a settlement in this case, African-American and Hispanic wholesale borrowers who received subprime loans when they should have received prime loans or who paid more for their loans will get swift and meaningful relief,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.   “As one of the largest mortgage lenders in the country, Wells Fargo’s commitment to conduct an internal review of its retail lending and compensate African American and Hispanic retail borrowers who may have been improperly placed in subprime loans is significant. We will continue to work aggressively to ensure that all qualified borrowers have access to credit on an equal basis.” 

Race a factor 

The United States’ complaint alleges that black and Hispanic wholesale borrowers paid more than non-Hispanic white wholesale borrowers, not based on borrower risk, but because of their race or national origin.   Wells Fargo’s business practice allowed its loan officers and mortgage brokers to vary a loan’s interest rate and other fees from the price it set based on the borrower’s objective credit-related factors.   

This subjective and unguided pricing discretion resulted in black and Hispanic borrowers paying more. The complaint also alleges that Wells Fargo was aware the fees and interest rates it was charging discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers, but the actions it took were insufficient and ineffective in stopping it.  

In addition, the complaint contends that, as a result of Wells Fargo’s policies and practices, qualified black and Hispanic wholesale borrowers were placed in subprime loans rather than prime loans even when similarly-qualified non-Hispanic white borrowers were placed in prime loans.   

The discriminatory placement of wholesale borrowers in subprime loans, also known as “steering,” occurred because it was the bank’s business practice to allow mortgage brokers and employees to place a loan applicant in a subprime loan even when the applicant qualified for a prime loan .   

In addition, Wells Fargo gave mortgage brokers discretion to request exceptions to the underwriting guidelines, and Wells Fargo’s employees had discretion to grant these exceptions.         

The department began its investigation into Wells Fargo’s lending practices in 2009 and received a referral in 2010 from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) which conducted its own parallel investigation of Wells Fargo’s lending practices in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas.  

The OCC found that there was reason to believe that Wells Fargo engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination in these metro areas on the basis of race or color, in violation of the FHA and ECOA.

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Three LCD Makers To Pay $543 Million Restitution

Total of 10 companies now agree to more than $1 billion settlement

The last three manufacturers to be charged with fixing prices of LCD screens have settled charges with several states and the U.S. government.As a result...

PhotoThe last three manufacturers to be charged with fixing prices of LCD screens have settled charges with several states and the U.S. government.

As a result of the settlement, Toshiba Corp.; LG Display Co., Ltd.; and AU Optronics Corporation have agreed to pay $543.5 million in restitution to consumers who bought LCD monitors, notebook computers, and LCD televisions between January 1, 1999, and December 31, 2006.

The action follows previous settlements with seven other manufacturers who agreed to pay $500 million, making the total restitution in the case over $1 billion. The earlier settlement has already been approved in federal court, where it was filed.

“These settlements should make it clear that price fixing will not be tolerated in Missouri,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. “My office will continue to investigate and prosecute any anticompetitive actions – whether they originate in Missouri or across an ocean in Taiwan – that harm our state’s consumers.”

Consumers and businesses who believe they may be owed restitution can find information at a special Website.

The case stems from a 2010 lawsuit in which consumer advocates claimed companies selling LCD screens conspired to make the prices artificially high. That in turn, they claimed, made computers and TV sets more expensive than necessary.

Koster said his office, along with seven other state attorneys general and the federal government, uncovered evidence of a high-level conspiracy involving secret meetings in which the companies’ executives agreed to raise prices for their LCD screens.  

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New Online Tool Helps Students Manage Loan Debt

The Financial Awareness Counseling Tool pledges a ‘new transparency’

The U.S. Department of Education http://www.ed.gov/ has released a new interactive loan counseling tool to provide students with financial management basic...

PhotoHow much will your degree cost? Here’s one way to get a good idea. 

The U.S. Department of Education has released a new interactive loan counseling tool to provide students with financial management basics, like information about their current loan debt and estimates for student loan debt levels after graduation. 

Students can access the new resource, known as the Financial Awareness Counseling Tool here. 

“Managing student loan debt can be a difficult and confusing process for many borrowers. That's why the Obama Administration has been working to unravel the mystery of college financing and arm students and parents with the information they need to make smart educational choices," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Students need to know up front how much college will actually cost them instead of waiting to find out when the first student loan bill arrives. This new tool will help bring new transparency to the process of debt management on the front end and empower students to keep their school loan payments on track and on time after graduation.” 

Interactive tutorials 

The Financial Awareness Counseling Tool provides students with five interactive tutorials covering topics ranging from managing a budget to avoiding default. Students are able to access their individual loan history and receive personalized feedback that can help them better understand their financial obligations. 

In addition, college financial aid professionals can monitor a student’s progress in using the tool and provide assistance if necessary to help ensure they can utilize the information the site provides. 

The announcement is part of what the Obama administration says is an effort “to make college costs more transparent for education consumers.” Recently, the Education Department published its annual college cost lists, which detail schools with the highest and lowest published sticker price, schools with the highest net price once grants and scholarships are factored in, and those schools where prices are rising the fastest. 

In the coming weeks, the administration is set to release its model financial aid shopping sheet. The shopping sheet, which all institutions of higher education will be encouraged to adopt, will tell prospective students how much aid they will receive in grants and scholarships; how much they’ll need to borrow in student loans; the difference between private loans and federal student loans; and the average student loan payment after graduation.

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Studies Find Hospitals Not Always Alerted of Incoming Stroke Patients

Despite the benefits of quick response, there is a serious lack of pre-notification

Although treatment is delivered faster when emergency medical services (EMS) personnel notify hospitals a possible stroke patient is en route, pre-notifica...

PhotoAlthough treatment is delivered faster when emergency medical services (EMS) personnel notify hospitals a possible stroke patient is en route, pre-notification doesn't occur nearly one-third of the time. 

That's the finding of two separate Get With The Guidelines–Stroke program studies published in American Heart Association journals. 

The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association recommends EMS notify hospitals of incoming stroke patients to allow stroke teams to prepare for prompt evaluation and treatment. Quick response is vital for stroke patients, particularly those with ischemic stroke, when a clot cuts off the blood supply to a portion of the brain. Clot-busting drugs can only be given within a limited time -- three to 4.5 hours after the onset of symptoms. 

For both studies, researchers examined the records of 371,988 acute ischemic stroke patients transported by EMS to one of 1,585 hospitals participating in the Get with The Guidelines–Stroke quality improvement program between 2003 and 2011. 

The benefits 

Pre-notification of hospital by EMS resulted in faster diagnosis and treatment for stroke patients, according to the study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality & Outcomes

Pre-notification was independently associated with better treatment times: 

  • arrival-to-imaging times of 25 minutes or less,
  • arrival-to-treatment with the clot-busting drug tPA within 60 minutes,
  • symptom onset-to-tPA treatment times of 120 minutes or less,
  • and more eligible patients treated with tPA. 

Sorely lacking 

However, pre-notification occurred in only 67 percent of patients in 2011, only a modest increase from the 58 percent in 2003, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA). 

"Despite national guidelines recommending pre-notification by EMS for acute stroke patients, it's disappointing that there's been little improvement," said Gregg C. Fonarow, M.D., senior author of both studies and professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles. "However, with these powerful new findings demonstrating substantial benefits with pre-notification, we have a tremendous opportunity to make positive changes in this component of stroke care."

Faster treatment 

Among patients arriving within two hours of symptom onset, patients with EMS pre-notification were more likely to: 

  • be treated with tPA within three hours (82.8 percent vs. 79.2 percent);
  • have shorter arrival-to-imaging times (26 minutes vs. 31 minutes);
  • have shorter arrival-to-tPA treatment times (78 minutes vs. 80 minutes); and
  • have shorter symptom onset-to-tPA treatment times (141 minutes vs. 145 minutes). 

The researchers found dramatic variations in pre-notification rates: 

  • Rates ranged from 0 percent to 100 percent among individual hospitals.
  • Rates were higher in non-academic hospitals and those that more frequently use tPA.
  • States and regions also varied widely, from 93.4 percent in Montana to 19.7 percent in the District of Columbia.
  • Rates were lower in the northeast. 

"The large variations by state and hospital are really striking and should be a concern because the potential for ideal patient care isn't being met," Fonarow said. "We've developed a map of rates by state. This tool can identify areas that are most in need of improved stroke care systems." 

Furthermore, EMS pre-notification was significantly less likely if patients were older, black or had a prior history of stroke, diabetes or peripheral vascular disease (clogged leg arteries). 

"This tells us what we need to target EMS education," Fonarow said. "These patients are at higher risk for stroke and other ailments and may present challenges to EMS determining in the field whether their symptoms represent stroke. The goal is that EMS provides advanced notification for every potential stroke patient being transported." 

The studies included only data from Get With The Guidelines–Stroke hospitals. However, these comprise about one-third of U.S. hospitals and are considered representative of all hospitals in terms of pre-hospital care, Fonarow said.

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Pace Of Foreclosures Picks Up In June

And why that might help the housing market recover

For the second month in a row, the number of foreclosure filings in June increased, compared to the same month a year ago. Except for the people living in ...

PhotoFor the second month in a row, the number of foreclosure filings increased in June compared with the same month a year ago. Except for the people living in those homes, that might be a good thing, analysts say.

RealtyTrac, which issues a monthly accounting of all U.S. foreclosure filings, reports California had the biggest spike in June foreclosure starts -- up 18 percent over June 2011.

Catching up

“Lenders and servicers are slowly but surely catching up with the backlog of delinquent loans that under normal circumstances would have started the foreclosure process last year, and that catching up is why the average time to complete the foreclosure process started to level off or decrease in some states in the second quarter,” said RealtyTrac CEO Brandon Moore. “The increases in foreclosure starts in the first half of the year will likely translate into more short sales and bank repossessions in the second half of the year and into next year.”

In fact, Moore believe banks will actively seek out short sales, becoming more cooperative than they have in the past. Not only do they usually lose less money on a short-sale, it's neater, cleaner, and takes less time to clear the books.

Now that lenders have settled a major base with the states and the federal government over past foreclosure practices, they are eager to begin clearing the backlog of distressed properties and real estate analysts say that can only help the market in the long run.

Could housing lead the recovery?

There are those who believe this increase in distressed properties on the market will not hurt home values because it coincides with a recovery in housing demand. Bill Smead, CEO of Smead Capital Management, is among them.

In an interview with business news cable channel CNBC Smead said the housing market is “reviving,” and will help lift the overall economy, which is sagging in other areas. Interest rates are at historic lows and homes in many areas are the cheapest they've been since the 1980s. All that remains is for mortgage companies to increase lending to credit-worthy buyers.

While foreclosures may continue to increase over the next few months, they could see a sharp decline as problem homes work their way through the system. RealtyTrac forecasts 700,000 homes will have been repossessed by ban