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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 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

    The 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

    Though 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.

    While 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."

    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...

    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'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.

    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.

    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'...

    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 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.  

    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...

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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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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 ...

      Average Home Prices Post Second Straight Monthly Increase

      It could be another sign the housing market is recovering

      Maybe April wasn't a fluke. For the second straight month, the average price of a U.S. single-family home rose in May, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index.

      Prices were up 2.2 percent over April, but down 0.7 percent from May 2011. Still, the year-over-year decline is the smallest in 18 months.

      While rising prices are generally not good for consumers, in this case they are. The housing market has been unable to recover because of falling home prices. Because prices have been falling, banks have been skittish about lending money for mortgages unless borrowers make large down payments and possess sterling credit ratings.

      If prices begin to rise again, current homeowners will regain some of their lost equity and would-be buyers could find it easier to obtain a mortgage. That might lead to more home sales, which has a stimulative effect on the economy.

      Not all good news

      Meanwhile, the May data were not all good news. Home prices fell annually by 1.0 percent for the 10-City Composite and by 0.7 percent for the 20-City Composite, measured against May 2011. Both Composites and 17 of the 20 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) saw increases in annual returns in May compared to April.

      Boston, Charlotte and Detroit were the three cities that saw their annual returns get worse in May. Atlanta continues to be the only city posting a double-digit negative annual return with -14.5 percent. However, this is an improvement over the -17.0 percent annual decline recorded in April 2012. All 20 cities and both Composites posted positive monthly returns. No cities posted new lows in May 2012.

      Continuing a positive trend

      “With May’s data, we saw a continuing trend of rising home prices for the spring,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “We have observed two consecutive months of increasing home prices and overall improvements in monthly and annual returns.

      While this is an encouraging sign, Blitzer cautions not to read too much into it. He says spring and early summer are seasonally strong buying months. To conclude the housing market has indeed bottomed, as Zillow reported last week, Blitzer would like to see the trend of rising prices continue throughout the summer and into the fall.

      But looking at the data, it's hard not to be optimistic. Some of the nation's hardest hit housing markets are recovering.

      Weakest markets getting stronger

      The May data show Phoenix once again posted the best year-over-year return. Average home prices in that region were up 11.5 percent versus May 2011. It was one of the hardest hit cities in the collapse, and prices are still more than 50 percent below their June 2006 peak, but the past five months have been positive for that market, Blitzer says.

      Miami and Tampa are two other Sunbelt cities that were hard-hit in the downturn, but are also showing positive annual rates of change. Las Vegas, ground zero for the housing collapse, posted both a positive monthly change in May and saw an improvement in its annual return. But it still has a long way to go, since the market is still more than 60 percent below it August 2006 peak.

      “June data for existing home sales, new home sales, housing starts and mortgage default rates were a bit mixed, but all are better than their year-ago levels,” Blitzer said. “The housing market seems to be stabilizing, but we are definitely in a wait-and-see mode for the next few months.”

      Maybe April wasn't a fluke. For the second straight month, the average price of a U.S. single-family home rose in May, according to the S&P/Case-Shille...

      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. 

      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.

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

      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.

      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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

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

      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 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.

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

      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 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.”


      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. 

      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...

      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 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.

      Take 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.


      Other 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. 


      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.

      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...

      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 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:

      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.   

      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...

      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? 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

      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

      Shpilberg 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.

      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...

      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, 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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"

      On 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.

      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...