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The New Romantic Movie Classics

Check out some of the newer films that are destined to stand the test of time.

Who doesn't like a good movie?Whether it’s a good action flick that has its leading man shooting a gun while dangling from a helicopter, or it&rsqu...

PhotoWho doesn't like a good movie?

Whether it’s a good action flick that has its leading man shooting a gun while dangling from a helicopter, or it’s a suspenseful drama where the actor completely vanishes into the character, there's something about the silver screen that keeps us coming back, despite today's DVDs, movie-streaming and cable television options.

And when it comes to romantic films there's a host of gems to choose from. Films like "Casablanca" and "Ghost" for example, either speak to our romantic selves or help create that romantic person inside of us.

Whether it’s the black-and-white romance flicks of the 30s, 40s and 50s, or the slick, fast-talking love films of the early thousands, each movie era has its fair share of romantic classics that have stood the test of time and hold a special place in our collective memories.

What's considered a new classic?

The films that aren’t old enough to be on many of the "best-of" lists yet, but they're old enough for consumers to watch repeatedly in order to appreciate all of its qualities.

So we at ConsumerAffairs have taken the liberty to compose a list of what we consider to be the new classics within the romantic film genre.

Of course it's impossible to list all of the newer romantic films, and we won't list the obvious ones like "When Harry Met Sally", or "Pretty Woman."

You’ll also notice all of the listed movies aren’t your usual love stories, as each one avoids the typical Hollywood way of creating plots and endings where the sole purpose is seemingly to appease the audience.

True Romance

PhotoDespite its title, many people wouldn't put this movie on a list of romantic films due to some of its dark and violent content, but that's what makes "True Romance" so special. It borrows ingredients from other movie genres and stirs them together to create a very off-the-wall love story.

Written by "Pulp Fiction’s" Quentin Tarantino, directed by the recently-deceased Tony Scott and starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, the movie is about a lonely video store worker who meets his true love under the most unordinary circumstances.

After they meet, the couple gets entangled in a crime due to not much fault of their own, turning the film into part caper film, part romantic love story.

And the characters are so likable you root for them the entire film, despite some of the questionable things they have to do to escape their circumstances.

The movie is also a who’s-who of current film stars including Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, James Gandolfini and Val Kilmer. If you haven’t seen "True Romance" watch it immediately and if you have seen it already give it another spin. It only gets better and better.

Before Sunrise

PhotoOkay here's the scene: A young American male traveler on a train which speeds through different parts of Europe. A beautiful French woman also traveling on that train eventually meets the lone traveler.

From there, they spontaneously get off the locomotive in Vienna, Austria and spend the next 24 hours together walking the city and slowly falling for each other.

Sound good? Not really, right? You may be asking, "Is that all that happens in this movie?" Well, yes and no, meaning that's all that physically happens but beneath the surface of the film lies a very unique and unconventional love story.

I think what turns a lot of men off to some romantic movies is the excessive  amount of sappiness or improbable story lines that lead to predictable endings. In fact, plenty of women aren't able to stomach these movies either, but Before Sunrise is anything but.

What makes this romantic flick such a new classic is that it doesn't have an overwhelming amount of romance in it.

The film is simply about two people relating to each other just as people, talking about world events, their personal outlooks and how they grew up. Many films have characters that immediately fall in love upon first glance and too quickly deem each other soul mates. But this film is different.

If you want to see what a realistic courtship is like between two intelligent, funny and likeable characters, this movie is one to check out.

(500) Days of Summer

PhotoReleased in 2009 this quirky and heartfelt movie is the true meaning of a new romantic classic. For those who despise predictable endings and are experts at determining the ending of a film from the very first scene, this one is definitely for you.

The movie tracks characters Tom and Summer during their very realistic relationship in non-linear fashion. Also, the film ends in a way you never actually see coming, which makes any movie great, but especially a love story.

The connection between the couple, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, is a very believable one, as the film doesn’t manipulate one’s emotions by forcing viewers to witness a sugary formulaic courtship.

"(500) Days of Summer" is beautifully offbeat and has all of the romantic components that moviegoers like, but it's done in a very unique way. The movie is also loaded with generous amounts of clever humor that does a good job of offsetting the film's tenser moments.

Anyone who loves smart writing, clever dialogue and believable acting will love this movie tenfold.

Leaving Las Vegas

PhotoOkay, so a love story about an alcoholic and a prostitute doesn’t sound all that romantic off the bat, but "Leaving Las Vegas" shows that a connection between two people can be made in life’s seediest places. This movie certainly wouldn’t be considered a feel-good picture in the traditional sense, as the characters go through their fair share of misfortune.

But how many times have you been to a movie where the characters face no real challenges, and have no hurdles to leap over to get to the films climax?It kind of leaves you feeling cheated as if the writers did nothing to flush out the storyline and simply wanted to hurry towards the ending.

"Leaving Las Vegas" does nothing of the sort, as the movie shows no fear in terms of delving into the dark parts of the human psyche and providing the viewer a glimpse of what a love story looks like with skid row being the backdrop.

Actors Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue do a wonderful job of bringing these two troubled but engaging characters to life.

Match Point

PhotoA scandalous love affair, a rich family and a murder. These are the some of the components to this atypical love story that isn’t really a romance film as much as it is a suspenseful thriller. But it still needed to make this list.

The film is set in London, which at the time was a big departure for New York director Woody Allen. Another thing that’s different about "Match Point" from Allen’s other movies is the serious and dramatic tone he incorporates. "Annie Hall" this film ain't.

Although the dialogue doesn’t have that usual Woody Allen-style banter, the film makes up for it by showing a realistic portrayal of what can happen when a married man’s attraction for a stranger leads him to dark places and extremely bleak-looking circumstances.

 Romantic, disturbing, wildly entertaining and beautifully shot, "Match Point" sucks you up within its first scene, holds you hostage throughout, and then frees you back into your seat once it’s finished. It’s definitely one of the new romantic classics in the film world.

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How Sweet It Is: Diet Pepsi May Get a Touch-Up

Sodamaker says it's not fooling with the formula, just the sweetener

Life is pretty exciting in the soft drink business, no doubt. Every decade or two somebody comes up with the bright idea of tampering with the formula or f...

PhotoLife is pretty exciting in the soft drink business. Every decade or two somebody comes up with the bright idea of tampering with the formula or fiddling with the packaging. Otherwise, things just sort of bubble along.

But this is one of those rare moments when there's a buzz in the executive suite that doesn't just come from too much caffeine and artificial sweetener. Pepsi is considering making changes in Diet Pepsi.

Sales have been kind of flat lately, so the Pepsi generators would like to fizz things up a bit. We looked at 71,000 consumer comments on social media over the last year and found that, sure enough, there's not a lot of enthusiasm for Diet Pepsi, with net sentiment burbling along around 55% or so, as shown in this graph:

 

Coke fiasco

Remembering the train wreck that occurred a few decades ago when Coca-Cola tried to fiddle with the Coke formula, Pepsi is emphasizing that it's not changing the taste or recipe for Diet Pepsi, it's just trying to get the stuff to stand up a little better to the battering it takes as it gets from the bottling plant to your lips. (Even changing the logo can get tricky, as Pepsi learned last year).

After all, the colored bubbly gets smashed into cans, loaded onto trucks, bounced around city streets, off-loaded, slammed into storerooms and just generally is shaken not stirred for what could be weeks or even months before it gets to the end guzzler.

All this rocking and rolling affects the aspartame that gives Pepsi its sickly sweet taste.

Oh, people still like the stuff, our sentiment analysis found, but the Pepsi people would like to see a bit more enthusiasm.

 

Ace K

So Pepsi is pondering whether it should replace aspartame or maybe give it a boost from another chemical, maybe one like acesulfame potassium, a really sweet little number.

Aspartame is, of course, more commonly known as Equal and NutraSweet. Most of us aren't on a first name basis with acesulfame potassium, although its really close acquaintances have been known to call it Ace K.

What you really want to know about Ace K is that he's stable under heat, not like that delicate little aspartame, who tends to go all to pieces, chemically speaking, when things get hot and heavy.

Both aspartame and Ace K are about 200 times sweeter than sugar, although Ace K has a teeny bit of bitterness in his aftertaste. Kind of gives him that rugged outdoorsy image, you know? Aspartame does too but chemists will tell you that put the two together and they cancel out each other's aftertastes and are just as sweet as they can be.

Kind of like some couples we know. Sometimes anyway.

Those pesky health advocates quibble about the safety of aspartame and Ace K, but hey, they've been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Rats have been stuffed full of sweeteners and nothing much happened to them, although there was some evidence of heightened prenatal cancer risks, so don't drink the stuff until after you're born.   

 

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Gasoline Prices Rise into Labor Day Weekend

After a one-week pause, the average pump price surged higher this week

Normally at this time of year, gasoline prices are starting to come down after a summer of driving. But this year, as consumers hit the road for the long L...

PhotoNormally at this time of year, gasoline prices are starting to come down after a summer of driving. But this year, as consumers hit the road for the long Labor Day weekend, fuel prices continue to rise.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.829 per gallon, compared with $3.730 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's up 30 cents a gallon in the last month.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.019 per gallon, versus $.090 a week ago.

After a week of little movement in prices at the pump, the cost of gasoline virtually exploded, rising more than 10 cents a gallon in more than a dozen states. Seven states now have average gasoline prices north of $4, up from only two the week before. In Illinois, the average price jumped by nearly 15 cents a gallon.

States with relatively cheap gas were not spared from this week's price surge. South Carolina, which has enjoyed the cheapest gas in the nation for weeks, saw the average price jump 14 cents a gallon. New Mexico, Mississippi and Arizona also had double-digit price increases. Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia also saw sharp price spikes.

Photo

In its weekly report the Energy Information Administration reported a surprising build-up in U.S. supplies of crude oil, thanks to an increase in imports, but a drop in gasoline stockpiles.

World oil prices have been rising, meanwhile, on speculation that the U.S. Federal Reserve will launch another round of stimulus, which will have the effect of driving down the dollar and making things purchased with dollars, like oil, more expensive.

The states with the highest gas prices this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.321)
  • California ($4.157)
  • Illinois ($4.134)
  • Michigan ($4.066)
  • Washington ($4.035)
  • Connecticut ($4.035)
  • Oregon ($4.018)
  • New York ($3.999)
  • Alaska ($3.984)
  • Wisconsin ($3.921)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • Colorado ($3.549)
  • New Mexico ($3.601)
  • South Carolina ($3.607)
  • Mississippi ($3.609)
  • Alabama ($3.631)
  • Wyoming ($3.635)
  • Arizona ($3.642)
  • Tennessee ($3.668)
  • Texas ($3.672)
  • Arkansas ($3.674)
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When Slimming Down, Target Belly Fat First

Mayo Clinic study suggests it's the deadliest fat of all

Not all fat, it seems, is created equal. Some is more harmful than others and the fat around the stomach is the most dangerous of all, according to researc...

PhotoNot all fat, it seems, is created equal. Some is more harmful than others and the fat around the stomach is the most dangerous of all, according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic.

Their study found that people who are of normal weight but have fat concentrated in their bellies have a higher death risk than those who are obese. The subjects in the study who had a normal body mass index but central obesity -- a high waist-to-hip ratio -- had the highest cardiovascular death risk and the highest death risk from all causes.

"We knew from previous research that central obesity is bad, but what is new in this research is that the distribution of the fat is very important even in people with a normal weight," said senior author Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, M.D., a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. "This group has the highest death rate, even higher than those who are considered obese based on body mass index. From a public health perspective, this is a significant finding."

Major study

The study included 12,785 people that comprised a representative sample of the U.S. population. Over the course of the study there were 2,562 deaths, with 1,138 of them cardiovascular related.

The risk of cardiovascular death was 2.75 times higher, and the risk of death from all causes was 2.08 times higher, in people of normal weight with central obesity, compared with those with a normal body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio.

Why belly fat is particularly deadly isn't immediately clear. Researchers say it may be related to a "higher visceral fat accumulation" in this group, which is associated with insulin resistance and other risk factors. Other types of fat is known to provide some protective elements. With less of the "protective fat" the visceral fat around the belly is even more dangerous.

Takeaway lesson

The take away from the research, the scientists say, is knowing your body mass index (BMI) isn't enough. It's also important to know that a normal BMI doesn't mean heart disease risk is low.

Getting a waist-to-hip measurement can tell you where on your body fat is distributed and can tell you if you are at risk, even if you have what is considered normal body weight.

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Is There Really a Way for Non-Rich People to Fly Private?

Surf Air says yes, and it hopes to change the way frequent fliers travel

Some believe those people who are considered frequent fliers are lucky.From the perspective of a person who may not get to travel a lot, a frequent flier...

PhotoSome believe those people who are considered frequent fliers are lucky.

From the perspective of a person who may not get to travel a lot, a frequent flier seems to have an exciting life filled with adventure and many fun experiences.

However the perpetual traveler often sees things differently, and they're sometimes envious of the person who doesn't fly a lot. After dealing with long airport lines and lengthy security checks, sometimes frequent fliers wish they didn't have to travel so often.

But what if there was another way to fly? What if you could pay a set monthly fee that would allow you to avoid all the airport hassles, and you could walk directly to your own private plane? And better yet, what if you didn't have to be a rich person to afford it?

Well, the company Surf Air has asked itself the same questions and for the past few years its founders, brothers Wade and David Eyerly, have been hard at work getting the answers.

Photo$1,000 a month

Surf Air allows frequent travelers the opportunity to pay a monthly fee that's around $1,000 to have unlimited flights within the state of California, and the company says there are no hidden charges, baggage fees or any other costs.

Once the company obtains approvals from both the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, it will offer flights to Palo Alto, Santa Barbara, Monterey and Los Angeles. Other flights in different parts of the country and around the globe will be announced in the future, the company says.

Here's how it works: Travelers go to the airport in one of the mentioned cities, go through security, and simply walk to a private plane where a personal staff awaits.

 

Want to fly to Monterey for lunch? Feel free.

The best part? You then enjoy your flight either by yourself or with a small group of other passengers on a private Pilatus PC-12 NG plane. It's a single-engine turboprop manufactured in Switzerland.  Set up as a corporate transport, it generally seats four, although it can seat up to nine using smaller seats. It is certified to operate with a single pilot.

OK, so it's not Frank Sinatra's Lear. But consider the cost -- $1,000 a month. Compare that to private flights listed on the private-plane search site bluestarjets.com, where private flights start at $1,550 per hour. Surf Air says it will allow unlimited flights and members will be able to make up to six different reservations at once.

PhotoNo advance reservations

Also, with a traditional private-plane company you often have to make your reservations far in advance, but Surf Air allows you to book your flight just a few minutes before you travel.

The company says it wants to differentiate itself from the big commercial airlines by developing a smaller frequent flier community, where the staff knows each passenger's name and provides a very personalized type of service.

So instead of trying to get the attention of a flight attendant for a drink, there's a whole team of workers waiting on board to help you, according to the company.

Many California residents have to decide whether to drive or fly to places within the state due to its sheer size. For that reason, Surf Air says it will cater to those people who would normally drive at least two and a half hours to reach their destination. The company will also focus on those travelers that often fly an average time of 30 to 90 minutes within the state.

Surf Air's reasoning is that yes, driving is usually cheaper but it doesn't allow you to work while you travel and you pay the other costs of not maximizing the day's hours.

Less stress

The founders of the company believe those who travel often would gladly fork over the $1,000 monthly cost to not only avoid the stress of traditional commercial flying, but also to get a small taste of how the rich and privileged live. It seems the company is selling temporary access to a specific lifestyle, just as much as it’s selling the flights.

Once Surf Air officially launches at the close of this year, it will announce exact routes. Routes so far include a non-stop flight from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes, Los Angeles to Monterey in about 120 minutes, and Santa Barbara to Palo Alto in about 130 minutes.

The company uses social networking to enhance its small-community-of-travelers feel, and allows each passenger to bring one guest with the use of complimentary guest passes. Surf Air also uses a third-party company to do security clearances before membership is granted.

Will it really get off the ground? Most new airlines fail but Surf Air is just different enough that it may have a shot.

Those interested in this new way of travel can go to the company's website and sign a wait list, although the company is not taking any money for memberships until later this year when it officially launches and offers its first fights.

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The Fire Is Out, but Look Out -- Sparks Will Fly Next Week

Amazon says the Kindle Fire is sold out but schedules a news conference for Sept. 6

The fire is out.  The Kindle Fire, that is. The Fire broke out in the tablet market just nine months ago and already controls 22 percent of the market...

PhotoThe fire is out.  The Kindle Fire, that is. The Fire broke out in the tablet market just nine months ago and already controls 22 percent of the market, with a new spark expected Sept. 6, when Amazon has scheduled a news conference in Santa Monica.

"We're grateful to the millions of customers who have made Kindle Fire the most successful product launch in the history of Amazon," CEO and founder Jeff Bezos said in a statement. "Kindle Fire is sold out, but we have an exciting roadmap ahead -- we will continue to offer our customers the best hardware, the best prices, the best customer service, the best cross-platform interoperability and the best content ecosystem."

So, those who parse statements for a living think Bezos is saying that the current model of the Fire is not only sold out but that it will be replaced by whatever is in the company's tinder box.

 

Amazon.com Aug. 30, 2012, 8:20 p.m.
Consumers rate Amazon

Speculation is that Amazon will introduce seven-inch and 10-inch versions of the Kindle Fire next week, along with perhaps a backlit e-reader and maybe a gaming console or a phone.

 

Bloomberg reported recently that the Chinese plant that makes iPhones and iPads is already grinding out an Amazon phone that will rival the iPhone and Android phones.

It was just a year ago that Bezos introduced the Kindle Fire for $199. Skeptics at the time said it was a cheap knock-off of the iPad but, in fact, it has -- to carry the metaphor just a little longer -- caught fire and may soon be nipping at the iPad's heels.

It's not hard to understand why. The iPad starts at $499 while the Kindle Fire starts at $199 and does essentially the same thing. Add in the Google Nexus 7, which sells for $199 and the Microsoft Surface which will go on sale in September and it's pretty apparent that Apple faces a continuing loss of market share, while the Fire -- with its lower price and access to Amazon's enormous content warehouse -- is well-positioned to hold its own against Google and Microsoft.  

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Chipotle Has Been Purposely Keeping Some of Your Change

And the company says it's all for your benefit, just trying to save you a little time

The next time you get that chicken burrito at Chipotle, you better check your receipt.The Mexican food chain restaurant has been accused of rounding...

PhotoThe next time you get that chicken burrito at Chipotle, you'd better check your receipt. The Mexican food chain restaurant has been accused of rounding up its prices to the nearest nickel and keeping the change.

The company says it has been using this method to speed up long lines in some of its stores, since doling out exact change, according to the restaurant, is unnecessarily time consuming. So a meal that would cost say $7.36 would be rounded off to $7.40, and the company keeps the change.

Chipotle has since claimed this practice does not enhance company profits, and insists it was only done to decrease the customer's wait time.

“The idea is simply to limit the possible combination of change on cash transactions to keep the lines moving quickly in high volume areas, said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold in a published interview. “It was never our intention to have a policy that was confusing or misleading.”

The story was first broken by a reporter from the Newark Star-Ledger after many customers took notice of getting short-changed, especially in Chipotle’s New Jersey and New York locations. The chain restaurant also chose to round down too. So if one's total was $7.42 for example, they actually paid $7.40.

Not too forthcoming

PhotoSome have accused the company of being non-forthcoming, since Chipotle never made this practice widely known to its customers. In its defense the company said the rounding up and down is indicated on each receipt, although this part of the receipt was only added earlier this summer.

Chipotle also emphasizes that time saving, not profit, is the only reason it chose to round off.

“It's something we do in some high-volume markets, including New Jersey,” said Arnold. “The way it works is that prices auto-round to the nearest quarter and that's indicated on the receipt. The idea is simply to limit the possible combinations of change on cash transactions to keep the lines moving quickly.”

But the question is would you rather save a little time or get your accurate amount of change? Some may say it’s not up to a company to decide, which has seemed to be the majority consumer opinion as the restaurant has announced it will no longer be rounding costs up, just down.

Although Chipotle has denied using this practice to pad its pockets, Chipotle has seen a 23.2 percent profit increase in the first six months of 2012 compared to last year.

Time is money, but whose?

Whether the company was being deceptive or not is arguable, but it makes one think what others chains are doing the same thing in an effort to “save time.”

In the course of consumers' lunch hour, when they're trying to get a quick bite, the receipt or exact change is usually the last thing on their mind. Sure a few pennies may not make or break you, and in fact, places like Canada have stopped using the penny altogether. But at the end of it all — it's still your money, no?

Be sure to take a second or two to read each receipt, as each consumer deserves to be in the know if a company decides to keep your change by rounding up the cost.

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States Throw the Book at E-Book Publishers

Publishers will pay consumers $69 million for antitrust violations

In a story with a happy ending for consumers, the attorneys general of 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia, have reached an antitrust settl...

PhotoIn a story with a happy ending for consumers, the attorneys general of 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia, have reached an antitrust settlement with three of the largest book publishers in the United States.

“We believe publishers illegally fixed e-book prices and that as a result, consumers paid more – millions more – for these products,” Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said. “Today’s settlement ... turns the page on the way e-books are priced. Competition will be restored.”

Hachette Book Group Inc., HarperCollins Publishers L.L.C. and Simon & Schuster Inc. have agreed to pay a total of more than $69 million to consumers to resolve the claims. 

The settlement is in conjunction with a civil antitrust lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster. 

 Competition undermined

“Unlawful collusion and price-fixing not only violates antitrust laws, it is anti-competitive and inconsistent with the free market approach that is critical to our economy," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "In this case, competition was undermined when publishers colluded to artificially set prices that should have been determined by the free market. Today’s settlements provide refunds to customers who paid artificially inflated prices for e-books and prohibit publishers from colluding, so that retail price competition is restored within the e-book market.”

The states allege that the three publishers and others, including non-settling publishers Macmillan and Penguin (collectively, the “Agency Five” publishers), “conspired and agreed to increase retail e-book prices for all consumers” and “agreed to eliminate e-book retail price competition between e-book outlets, so that retail prices to consumers would be the same regardless of which outlet they patronized.” 

As a result, the states allege that consumers paid millions of dollars more for their e-books.

The lawsuit and the settlement come from a two-year investigation conducted by the Connecticut and Texas Attorneys General and U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. 

Consumer compensation

Under the proposed agreement, which the court must approve, the three publishers will compensate consumers who purchased e-booksfrom any of the Agency Five between April 1, 2010 and May 21, 2012.  Payments will begin 30 days after final court approval of the settlement. In addition to paying restitution, the settling defendants will also pay to the states approximately $7.5 million in fees and costs.

The three publishers have agreed to terminate their existing agency agreements with certain retailers, requiring the publishers to grant those retailers – such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble – the freedom to reduce the prices of their e-book titles.  For two years they will be prohibited from making any new agreements limiting retailers’ ability to offer consumer discounts or other promotions which encourage the sale of e-books.  

The proposed settlement agreement also precludes the three publishers from further conspiring or sharing competitively sensitive information with their competitors for five years.  Also for five years, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster will be forbidden from entering into any agreement that could undermine the effectiveness of this settlement.

Another case against non-settling publishers-Penguin Group, Inc. and Holtzbrinck Publishers LLC (doing business as Macmillan) and Apple, Inc., remains pending in the Southern District of New York. 

 

 

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Exercise Caution When Buying Gold

As with any investment, do your homework and get trusted advice

Consumers who purchased gold three, four or five years ago are probably very pleased with their investments. Gold prices have climbed sharply since then....

PhotoConsumers who purchased gold three, four or five years ago are probably very pleased with their investments. Gold prices have climbed sharply since then.

But the commercials are still on TV, urging you to buy gold now to protect yourself against the declining dollar. It's interesting, however, that the companies selling the gold are perfectly willing to accept your declining dollars in exchange for their gold, but that's neither here nor there.

Gold has been gaining again in recent weeks on the growing belief that the federal reserve would launch another round of stimulus, which is another way of saying expanding the money supply. While the inflationary effects of that policy haven't shown up everywhere, they have definitely shown up in the price of gold.

Advice from the FTC

What does the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) say about buying gold? In a nutshell, it says "be careful." It advises consumers to do some digging -- not for the precious mental but for information about it -- before making a purchase.

The questions that have to be considered are how much gold to buy, in what form, at what price, and from whom?

The FTC warns that some gold promoters don't deliver what they promise and may push people into an investment that isn't right for them. While the commercials on TV push gold in the form of coins and bullion, that may be the most expensive way to buy it. With coins, especially, there can be a significant mark-up from the price gold is traded on the exchanges.

Gold stocks

Buying stock in a gold mining firm or buying into a mutual fund that invests in gold bullion is a common way to invest in gold. Most brokerage firms buy and sell these financial instruments.

Gold stocks and mutual funds may offer more liquidity than actual gold, and there's no need for an investor to store or protect gold investments purchased in this form. That said, any gold stock or mutual fund investment may carry inherent risk and may drop in value regardless of the price of gold.

Gold stocks and funds should only be purchased from licensed commodity brokers. You can check the registration status and disciplinary history of any futures firm or broker by contacting the National Futures Association.

Universal truths

Regardless of the form of gold you may invest in, the FTC says you should consider these universal truths:

The price of gold fluctuates over time. There is no guarantee that gold will increase – or even maintain – its value.

The prices coin dealers, banks, brokerage firms, and precious metals dealers charge for gold products, like bullion and coins, are almost always higher than the value of the gold the products contain. So it's wise to compare prices before making a purchase.

Some sellers say that the government may confiscate gold. Others say that "reportable" transactions lead to confiscation. Yet other sellers claim that modern bullion coins produced by the U.S. Mint are subject to confiscation while historic or collectible coins aren't. These claims sometimes lead people to buy historic coins at prices that exceed their value. No current federal law or Treasury Department regulation supports any of these claims.

Investigate Before You Invest

Whether you are buying gold stocks and funds, bullion and bullion coins, or collectible coins, the FTC says it's critical to do your homework first. If you are buying bullion coins or collectible coins, ask for the coin's melt value – the basic intrinsic bullion value of a coin if it were melted and sold. The melt value for virtually all bullion coins and collectible coins is widely available.

Consult with a reputable dealer or financial adviser you trust who has specialized knowledge. Get an independent appraisal of the specific gold product you're considering. The seller's appraisal might be inflated.

Consider additional costs. You may need to buy insurance, a safe deposit box, or rent offsite storage to safeguard bullion. These costs will cut into the investment potential of bullion.

Walk away from sales pitches that minimize risk or sales representatives who claim that risk disclosures are mere formalities. Reputable sales reps are upfront about the risk of particular investments. Always get a receipt for your transaction.

Refuse to "act now." Any sales pitch that urges you to buy immediately is a signal to walk away and hold on to your money, even if they are dollars that are "declining in value."

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Mortgage Rates Falling Again

The average rate is down for the first time in five weeks

After five straight weeks of increases, the average home mortgage rate is falling again, according to two separate gauges. Both Freddie Mac and Bankrate.co...

PhotoAfter five straight weeks of increases, the average home mortgage rate is falling again, according to two separate gauges. Both Freddie Mac and Bankrate.com report the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage (FRM) was between 3.8 and 3.59 percent in the just-ended week.

Freddie Mac shows the 30-year FRM average averaged 3.59 percent with an average 0.6 point for the week ending August 30, 2012, compared with last week when it averaged 3.66 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.22 percent.

The average 15-year FRM this week averaged 2.86 percent with an average 0.6 point, versus last week's average of 2.89 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.39 percent.

Contributing factors

"Treasury bond yields fell, allowing mortgage rates to follow, after the release of the July 31st and August 1st minutes of the Federal Reserve's monetary policy committee," said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. "Committee members agreed that economic activity had decelerated more in recent months than they had anticipated at their last meeting in June. Some members even saw room for additional stimulus fairly soon if needed."

Since mortgage rates are keyed to bond yields, home loan rates began falling again. That trend is confirmed in Bankrate.com's weekly mortgage rate round-up. It found the average rate on the benchmark 30-year FRM retreated to 3.8 percent, the lowest since August 1. That loan has an average of 0.4 discount and origination points.

The average 15-year FRM pulled back to 3.03 percent and the larger jumbo 30-year mortgage tied the record low of 4.38 percent. Adjustable mortgage rates were lower, with the 5-year and 7-year ARMs resetting record lows of 2.8 percent and 2.91 percent, respectively, Bankrate reported.

Influence of the Fed

The Website also credited the release of the Fed minutes with putting downward pressure on rates. All of this is good news for consumers hoping to buy a home. The rise in mortgage rates during August appeared to be bad timing, coming as it did amid signs the housing market is finally recovering.

New home sales rose 3.6 percent in July matching May's pace as the strongest month since April 2010. At the same time, pending existing home sales rose in July to their highest rate since April 2010. Finally, the S&P/Case-Shiller National Home Price Index rose 1.2 percent between the second quarter of 2011 and 2012, reflecting the first annual increase since the second quarter of 2010.

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Linzess Approved to Treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Constipation

Medication could help ease abdominal pain

Relief could be on the way for as man as 63 million people that the National Institutes of Health estimates are affected by chronic constipation. The U.S...

PhotoRelief could be on the way for as many as 63 million people that the National Institutes of Health estimates are affected by chronic constipation. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Linzess (linaclotide) to treat chronic idiopathic constipation and irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) in adults. 

Chronic idiopathic constipation is a diagnosis given to those who experience persistent constipation and do not respond to standard treatment. An estimated 15.3 million people are affected by IBS. IBS-C is a subtype characterized mainly by abdominal pain and by hard or lumpy stools at least 25 percent of the time and loose or watery stools less than 25 percent of the time. 

The treatment 

Linzess is a capsule taken once daily on an empty stomach, at least 30 minutes before the first meal of the day. The medication helps relieve constipation by helping bowel movements occur more often. In IBS-C, it may also help ease abdominal pain. 

No one medication works for all patients suffering from these gastrointestinal disorders,” said Victoria Kusiak, M.D., deputy director of the Office of Drug Evaluation III in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “With the availability of new therapies, patients and their doctors can select the most appropriate treatment for their condition.” 

Safety and effectiveness 

The safety and effectiveness of Linzess for the management of IBS-C were established in two, double-blind studies. A total of 1,604 patients were randomly assigned to take 290 micrograms of Linzess or a placebo for at least 12 weeks. 

Results showed Linzess was more effective in reducing the amount of abdominal pain and increasing the number of complete spontaneous bowel movements compared with placebo. 

The safety and effectiveness of Linzess for the management of chronic idiopathic constipation also were established in two, double-blind studies. A total of 1,272 patients were randomly assigned to take Linzess at doses of 145 mcg or 290 mcg or a placebo for 12 weeks. 

Results from these studies showed patients taking Linzess experienced more complete spontaneous bowel movements than those taking the placebo. The 290 mcg dose is not approved for chronic constipation because studies indicated it was no more effective than the 145 mcg dose.

Linzess is approved with a Boxed Warning to alert patients and health care professionals that the drug should not be used in patients 16 years of age and younger. The most common side effect reported in during the clinical studies was diarrhea.

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HypeTree: A Cool and Unique Way to Listen and Post Music

The artist-friendly site is what MySpace should have evolved into years ago.

Many of us tend to dream.I'm not talking about the kind where you're flying above earth during your deepest part of slumber; I'm talking about the type o...

PhotoMany of us tend to dream.

I'm not talking about the kind where you're flying above earth during your deepest part of slumber; I'm talking about the type of dream that usually occurs in the middle of the day, with your eyes wide open, while you’re in the middle of doing some unwanted task or job.

And a good portion of those dreamers imagine themselves jumping around a stage in a packed arena, or accepting that gold statue of a phonograph at the Grammys.

However there are also those people who don't daydream at all all, they simply plug in their headphones while they're working, or crank up the speaker nob to escape their day-to-day drudgery through music.

Democracy in action

PhotoNow there's a new website that serves both the aspiring musician and the music listener, and it's called Hypetree.

What's cool about this site is that it allows the Internet community to vote on independent music, which can grow a song's popularity and buzz among consumers.

The website has something it calls the “battle player” which allows users to vote on two songs, and whichever tune receives the most votes, it goes up in both score and chart rating, giving the independent artist more exposure.

Hypetree also provides the artist with statistical information about which song is being listened to the most and which is garnering the heaviest online buzz.

Musicians using the site also fill out a profile page which lists their social networks, their personal websites and other background info. The company is what Myspace should have evolved into quite some time ago.

For some reason Myspace chose not to focus on how popular its site used to be among independent artists.

Hypetree seemingly does a good job of catering to up and coming bands by allowing them to post three songs for free, and only charging a fee — not exceeding 99 cents — to upload each song afterward.

Yes, MySpace is free for artists, but the site provides no detailed statistical data and more importantly, it lost its cool factor a long time ago. And what's a musician without a little cool factor in their midst?

Artists can also sell their music through Hypetree as the site uses PayPal to accept payments.

Casual listeners welcome

PhotoHypetree is also for the casual music listener, especially those who had their fill of traditional radio. The site allows users to create their own radio station, which is made up of songs the user selects.

As the listener chooses which song they prefer in the battle player challenge, Hypetree saves that song for you, while suggesting other music based on your preferences. You also have the ability to select a song as a favorite that eventually will be saved to your personal playlist.

There's also no charge for accessing songs and users can listen to and rate a tune without signing up or becoming a member of the site. But if you want the ability to rate and save a tune you'll need to sign up, but there's still no charge.

Hypetree appears to be better than, say, Pandora because it allows you to personally choose the songs your radio station consists of. It's especially different for independent musicians compared to sites like Spotify where artists  have a harder time getting their music posted.

No red tape

Independent artists that want to get on Spotify usually have to go through a digital distribution company like Ditto Music or Tunecore, but on Hypetree there is no red tape to contend with and offering your music to the public is pretty fast and painless.

The company also says it will abstain from working with a large amount of advertisers in order to keep the site free, and avoid its users having to deal with intrusive pop-ups.

Although there have been other sites that help independent artists, Hypetree seems to be using this particular niche to its fullest advantage.

Today, the Internet and advancements in home recording studios have increased the number of independent artists from as recently as 15 years ago.

In previous times, an independent artist or band had to possess a substantial amount of money to pay for necessities like studio costs, marketing and printing up CDs. Today, most of these things are low-cost or free, which has increased the number of people making and offering music to the public.

It's safe to say there are a good number of indy artists today that wouldn't have taken the musician’s leap if costs weren't so dramatically reduced by technology.

Community radio

PhotoAnd for the music listener, Hypetree further pushes the current trend of community radio and consumers using their taste and purchasing power to determine which songs should be getting recognized and heard.

The site says it will not turn away any song based on the company's musical taste or personal preference, and will only reject something if it has poor sound quality or violates one of the company's rules. If a song is rejected, it can still be appealed by the user.

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Caring For Your Diabetic Dog

The right diet is essential to controlling blood sugar levels

Diabetes is, unfortunately, a relatively common disease in dogs, just as it is in humans. In both species, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle can be contrib...

PhotoDiabetes is, unfortunately, a relatively common disease in dogs, just as it is in humans. In both species, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle can be contributing factors, although dogs are more likely to develop Type 1 diabetes -- the kind that is caused by inadequate production of insulin by the pancreas rather than by lifestyle factors.

Thus, heredity gets most of the blame in dogs, as the disease occurs more widely in some breeds than in others and in some families within breeds. It can also result from repeated bouts of pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas. 

Pet owners sometimes blame their pet's food for diabetes, pancreatitis and other conditions.

"I have been feeding my 4 Chihuahuas Science Diet for 8 years. They are 10 and 11 years old and all 3 have diabetes and one has kidney problems from the dog food," said Cathy of Van Bureau, Ark., in a ConsumerAffairs posting. Medical authorities aren't likely to agree with Cathy, however.

"It is usually unclear why one pet develops diabetes and another does not. It is likely that many factors are involved and that most of them were beyond your immediate control," says Ron Hines, DVM, PhD, a widely-quoted Texas veterinarian.

Proper diet

Whatever the cause of your pet's diabetes, just as in humans, keeping it under control involves eating a proper diet -- one prescribed by the veterinarian who is caring for your pet -- as well as seeing to other lifestyle factors that can have a big influence on how well your dog manages its diabetes.

It's important to remember that Type 1 diabetes cannot be cured but it can be managed with daily injections of glucose and careful monitoring of blood sugar levels. Just like humans, dogs with Type 1 diabetes don't manufacture enough of the insulin that's needed to transfer glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, where it's needed to maintain life.

Thus, a dog whose diabetes is not properly managed can quickly develop too much sugar, or glucose, in the bloodstream while, at the same time, its muscle and nerve cells are starving because of inadequate glucose. This can lead to serious complications, including death, so it's not to be taken lightly, which brings us back to careful monitoring of blood sugar levels.

"There is absolutely no question in my mind that the best way to monitor pets with diabetes to aid in regulating insulin levels is for the veterinary client to learn to monitor blood sugar at home using a blood glucose meter," said Dr Mike Richards, DVM, in a posting on VetInfo.com. "If your vet is one of those who discourages clients from attempting home glucose monitoring I personally think that you ought to change vets, at least for the pet with diabetes, unless there is a really compelling reason to stay."

Simple answer

What kind of food is best for a diabetic dog? The simple answer is, the kind your veterinarian prescribes. In general, these will be high-fiber foods that are low in simple sugars. This helps prevent fluctuations in blood sugar levels throughout the day.

There are many prescription dog foods and chances are, your vet will prescribe one or more. Whether your dog will eat it is, of course, another matter.

If your dog refuses to eat the food your vet prescribes, you may have better luck with over-the-counter foods that are intended for overweight dogs. Again, check with your vet.

Dogs that refuse to eat prescribed foods may need additional insulin injections.

Lifestyle changes

Most dogs are creatures of habit. Left to their own devices, they tend to do the same thing at the same time day in and day out. Fortunately, this is exactly what your veterinarian is likely to prescribe for your dog -- a consistent schedule that combines feeding, insulin injection, exercise and the lounging about that is the specialty of most dogs.

If your dog is a female, it's important to have her spayed, as the pregnancy and reproduction routine causes wild fluctuations in hormones, just as it does in humans. This is bad news for diabetes management.

Also, since diabetes is regarded as primarily hereditary in dogs, spaying diabetic dogs helps to hold down the number of affected animals. 

As in humans, diabetes is a serious disease that cannot be taken lightly. If your dog is not treated properly, it will not have long to live. So take action promptly and follow your veterinarian's instructions. 

 

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Should Older Workers Be Rewarded for Putting Off Retirement?

Economists suggest eliminating payroll tax as incentive for older workers

U.S. workers now have the option of retiring at age 62, and with increases in longevity could expect to draw Social Security benefits for some 30 years. Sh...

PhotoU.S. workers now have the option of retiring at age 62, and with increases in longevity could expect to draw Social Security benefits for some 30 years. Should they be paid for extending their work lives?

Two economists at the University of Michigan (U-M) think they should and are advocating adjustments in the payroll tax rate to provide the incentive.

“People are living longer, healthier lives, and so far have opted to take most of that extra time as additional retirement rather than work,” said U-M economist John Laitner, who conducted the analysis with U-M economist Dan Silverman. “We are proposing a way of responding to this situation through targeted tax-rate changes that would reward older workers for staying on the job and also benefit the economy as a whole.”

Both Laitner and Silverman are affiliated with the U-M Retirement Research Center, based at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). Their outside-the-box approach would, in effect, give every employee over age 55 an automatic 10 percent pay raise. Under their plan, when a worker reached age 55 they would stop paying anything toward Social Security and Medicare tax, the payroll tax.

Tax cut would raise take-home pay

By eliminating social security payroll taxes starting when workers are 55-years-old, the study shows that people’s take-home pay would jump by 10.6 percent and they would work 1.5 years longer on average, paying more income taxes and helping to reduce the Federal deficit.

"Our idea is to lower the taxes on an individual precisely at the time of life when people are making decisions about whether to work longer or retire,” Silverman said.

The reasoning is that if employees were making more money they wouldn't want to give it up. Maybe so, but what about the drain that would place on the already over-burdens retirement system?

The answer, say Silverman and Laitner, is an increase in the payroll tax rates. Workers would pay about one percent higher payroll taxes a year until age 55 in order for the Social Security system to break even, the researchers said. This would mean that over their lifetimes, households would pay about $15,000 more in Federal income tax, providing welcome reductions in the Federal deficit.

Increases the incentive

It also increases the incentive to work as long as possible after age 55, they say. The longer they work the more they get back.

Work years beyond age 54 would not affect benefits, and as in the current system, workers could claim benefits as early as age 62 although waiting until full retirement age would continue to be rewarded with higher benefit levels.

“Not everyone would benefit,” said Laitner. “Households with a strong preference for very early retirement would pay the slightly higher payroll tax before age 55, but leave the labor force before gaining much from the elimination of the payroll tax after that. Late retirees would, by the same token, be big winners. And the point of the reform, after all, is to encourage work by rewarding it.”

The two economists say the whole point is to keep workers in the labor force as long as possible so that they are productive and paying taxes, rather than drawing benefits.

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New York Attorney General Reportedly Probing Energy Drinks

Neither the Attorney General nor the companies will comment

Earlier this month Monster Beverage reported in a Securities and Exhange Commission filing that it was being investigated by an unnamed state attorney gene...

PhotoEarlier this month Monster Beverage reported in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it was being investigated by an unnamed state attorney general. News reports this week put a name with the story. 

Published reports say New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has issued subpoenas to Monster, as well as Living Essentials, maker of the heavily advertised 5-Hour Energy Drink. Scheiderman's office refused to comment on the reports, as did the companies named.

Back in July, Living Essentials said it had received an inquiry from an attorney general, which it did not identify, requesting documents that related to the marketing of its products. According to the reports this week, Schneiderman is investigating whether the companies are overstating claims about the benefits of their products while soft-peddling the role of caffeine.

Health concerns

To date, it has mostly been health officials that have shown concern about energy drinks, which make up a rapidly growing component of the beverage market, mainly because they appeal to young consumers. They're marketed as a quick and easy way to boost energy levels and as an alternative to coffee.

In 2011 researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and Wake Forest University School of Medicine issued a study suggesting highly-caffeinated energy drinks may pose a significant threat to individual and public health.

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), they recommended immediate consumer action, education by health providers, voluntary disclosures by manufacturers and new federal labeling requirements.

The study followed a crackdown on energy drinks containing alcohol. A number of states banned those products and, under increasing pressure, Anheuser-Busch ended sales of energy drink products containing alcohol.

Removing alcohol not enough?

“Recent action to make pre-mixed alcoholic energy drinks unavailable was an important first step, but more continued action is needed,” University of Maryland School of Public Health researcher Amelia Arria as the time of the study. “Individuals can still mix these highly caffeinated energy drinks with alcohol on their own. It is also concerning that no regulation exists with regard to the level of caffeine that can be in an energy drink.”

Arria, who also directs the Center on Young Adult Health and Development, and co-author Mary Claire O’Brien, associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, alerted various state attorneys general to the risks of alcoholic energy drinks starting in 2009.

Partly as a result of that campaign, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission too action against some energy drinks with alcohol content.

The 2011 JAMA paper said energy drinks -- even those without alcohol -- have become part of the subculture of partying.

“The practice of mixing energy drinks with alcohol -- which is more widespread than generally recognized -- has been linked consistently to drinking high volumes of alcohol per drinking session and subsequent serious alcohol-related consequences such as sexual assault and driving while intoxicated… Research has demonstrated that individuals who combine energy drinks with alcohol underestimate their true level of impairment,” the authors wrote.

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10 Gas-Saving Technologies for 2013

How carmakers are squeezing more MPG out of their vehicles

Gasoline prices keep rising along with the price of crude oil. One answer is to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles and the U.S. government is foll...

PhotoGasoline prices keep rising along with the price of crude oil. One answer is to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles and the U.S. government is following that track.

You may have just read that the Obama administration has finalized new fuel efficiency standards that virtually double miles-per-gallon by 2025. A few years ago that number might not have seemed credible but now, hardly anyone seems to think it can't be done.

But how? Total Car Score, an automotive Website, reports carmakers have been focused on improving fuel efficiency without sacrificing performance for much of the last decade.

"Fuel efficient technology, and the impact it has on EPA ratings for current and future models, is a critical component in the design of today's cars," said Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief of Total Car Score. "Gas prices and miles-per-gallon claims are now top consideration points for new car shoppers when buying a car, playing a much bigger role than they did 10 years ago. Given the average car on the road is 11 years old, many consumers will be encountering all-new fuel-efficient technology when they research their next vehicle purchase."

And many automakers are not waiting to either incorporate or offer fuel-saving technologies on the cars they sell. Some of these fuel efficiency innovations have been around for several years on hybrids or compact cars while others are just coming to market, but all of them are becoming increasingly common on modern vehicles.

Consumers who want to control their fuel costs might consider these features as they prepare to make their next new-car purchase.

  1. Start-Stop Engines – Once reserved for hybrids, start-stop technology now improves fuel efficiency in non-hybrids by shutting the engine down when the vehicle is stopped. Seen on: BMW 3 Series, Kia Rio, Porsche Cayenne
  2. Variable Valve Control – Variable valve control maximizes fuel efficiency and performance by altering the opening and closing of an engine's valvetrain based on RPM and throttle input. Seen on: Mazda CX-5, SRT Viper, Volkswagen Golf
  3. Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVT) – These transmissions have an infinitely variable gear ratio that keeps an engine in its most fuel-efficient operating zone across a wide range of speeds. Seen on: Infiniti JX, Nissan Altima, Subaru Outback
  4. Active Aerodynamics – Modern cars are taking traditional aerodynamics a step further by actively altering their coefficient of drag according to vehicle speed and driving conditions. Seen on: Cadillac ATS, Dodge Dart, Ford Escape
  5. Lightweight Materials – Using high-strength steel, carbon fiber and aluminum allows automakers to create lighter cars without sacrificing safety and less weight means lower fuel consumption. Seen on: Acura RDX, Hyundai Santa Fe, Scion FR-S
  6. 1. 7+ Transmission Gears – A conventional automatic transmission with seven or more gears reduces fuel consumption by keeping the engine operating at peak efficiency at any speed. Seen on: Bentley Continental GT Speed, Dodge Ram, Mercedes-Benz S-Class
  7. Direct Injection – An evolution of fuel injection, this method injects fuel directly into the combustion chamber in extremely precise amounts to maximize fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. Seen on: Buick Encore, Fiat 500, Lincoln MKZ
  8. Cylinder Deactivation – Shutting down one or more engine cylinders when a car is coasting, or cruising under a light load, reduces fuel consumption without impacting performance. Seen on: Audi S8, Dodge Challenger, Lamborghini Aventador
  9. Plug-In Hybrids – Hybrids have evolved from charging their battery packs while driving to charging their battery packs while plugged into either a standard wall outlet or high voltage "quick charger." Seen on: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Toyota Prius
  10. Mild/Light Hybrids – By using a smaller motor and battery pack than traditional hybrids, a mild hybrid can increase fuel efficiency with a minimal increase in vehicle cost or weight. Seen on: Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda CR-Z
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Aerolineas Argentinas Fined for Violating Price Advertising Rule

Taxes and fees were not included in the ads

Aerolineas Argentinas has been fined $50,000 for violating the Department of Transportation's (DOT) new rule on full-fare advertising by failing to include...

PhotoAerolineas Argentinas has been fined $50,000 for violating the Department of Transportation's (DOT) new rule on full-fare advertising by failing to include government taxes and other fees in advertised airfares and was ordered to cease and desist from further violations. 

“Consumers deserve to know the full price they will have to pay for air travel, including all fees, before they purchase their tickets,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “DOT will continue to take enforcement action against carriers and ticket agents when our price advertising rules are violated.” 

Rule change 

DOT requires all ads that include airfares to state the entire price to be paid by the consumer. Prior to the rule taking effect on Jan. 26, advertised fares were not required to include certain government-imposed taxes as long as these additional charges were clearly disclosed in the ad. 

Under the new full-fare advertising rule, all government taxes and fees must be incorporated into the advertised fare. The rule applies to both U.S. and foreign airlines as well as ticket agents. 

Airfare searches made by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office on Aerolineas Argentinas’ Website after Jan. 26 returned separate listings of base fares for outbound and inbound legs that did not include additional government taxes and fees. 

By failing to advertise the entire price of the flight, the airline violated the full-fare advertising rule.  

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Another Lawsuit -- the 14th -- Filed Against Bumbo

Filing follows the latest recall of child seats

Two personal injury and product safety law have filed their 14th lawsuit against Bumbo International Trust. The CPSC earlier this month announced the se...

PhotoTwo personal injury and product safety law firms have filed their 14th lawsuit against Bumbo International Trust. 

The CPSC earlier this month announced the second recall of approximately 4 million Bumbo molded foam rubber seats sold at Toys R Us, Target, WalMart and other major retailers. The nation-wide recall follows hundreds of reported incidents in which babies have been injured after falling out of the chair manufactured by Bumbo International, based in South Africa. 

Rose Walker LLP and Pulaski & Middleman, LLC previously represented the families of 10 injured children. Those lawsuits were voluntarily dismissed less than a week before the first one was scheduled to start trial in a Houston courtroom almost two years ago. 

But, they kept pressing and in June 2011, filed suit in federal court in Austin, Texas. That lawsuit is set to start trial in November. And, since filing that suit, the firms say they have been contacted by more parents who wanted to sue Bumbo because of injuries suffered by their children. 

Frightening incident 

There's no shortage of horror stories. Brittany of Washington, UT, says her son was sitting in his Bumbo on the kitchen table. Her husband, she writes in a ConsumerAffairs post, "was cooking dinner. My husband had his back turned to him, and heard a noise. He turned around and my son had fallen out of his chair. He had a huge bump on the back of his head. We rushed him to the hospital and upon receiving a CAT scan, we got news that he had a skull fracture. We were required to overnight at the hospital so they could run test results and monitor his progress." 

"We have sued Bumbo 14 times now, and another 8 families have already contacted us and asked us to sue Bumbo because of their children's injuries," says Rose Walker attorney Ross Cunningham. "We will keep suing Bumbo and these retailers as long as parents keep hiring us because of the injuries to their children."

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Obama Administration Finalizes Fuel Efficiency Standards

Touts consumer savings comparable to lowering price of gasoline by $1 per gallon by 2025

The Obama Administration has finalized standards that would increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by Model Yea...

PhotoThe Obama Administration has finalized standards that would increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by Model Year 2025. 

When combined with previous standards, this will nearly double the fuel efficiency of those vehicles compared with new vehicles currently on the road, according to the administration. Officials say the standards would improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, saving consumers more than $1.7 trillion at the gas pump and reducing U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels. 

“These fuel standards represent the single most important step we’ve ever taken to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” said President Obama. “This historic agreement builds on the progress we’ve already made to save families money at the pump and cut our oil consumption. By the middle of the next decade our cars will get nearly 55 miles per gallon, almost double what they get today. It’ll strengthen our nation’s energy security, it’s good for middle class families and it will help create an economy built to last.” 

Reaction 

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) threw its support behind the initiative. 

"This is not only a big win for consumers, it is vital to the U.S. auto industry and the single most important thing we can do to end America’s addiction to oil -- something President George W. Bush called “a serious problem" -- and to improve our national energy security," said Mark Cooper, director of research at CFA. "The many benefits of this policy are so clear that is has garnered widespread support from the public, automakers, auto workers, national security experts, public health advocates and environmentalists." 

The Auto Alliance, which represents the major automobile manufacturers, posted a statement on its Website reading, "The Auto Alliance has called for a single, national program because conflicting requirements from several regulatory bodies raise costs, ultimately taking money out of consumers' pockets and hurting sales. We all want to get more fuel-efficient autos on our roads, and a single, national program with a strong midterm review helps us get closer to that shared goal." 

The standards issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) build on the standards for cars and light trucks for Model Years 2011-2016. Those standards raised average fuel efficiency by 2016 to the equivalent of 35.5 mpg.

New technologies 

Major auto manufacturers are already developing advanced technologies that can significantly reduce fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions beyond the existing model year 2012-2016 standards, according to EPA. In addition, many technologies are currently available for automakers to meet the new standards, including advanced gasoline engines and transmissions, vehicle weight reduction, lower tire rolling resistance, improvements in aerodynamics, diesel engines, more efficient accessories, and improvements in air conditioning systems. 

The program also includes targeted incentives to encourage early adoption and introduction into the marketplace of advanced technologies to dramatically improve vehicle performance, including: 

  • Incentives for electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and fuel cells vehicles; 
  • Incentives for hybrid technologies for large pickups and for other technologies that achieve high fuel economy levels on large pickups; 
  • Incentives for natural gas vehicles; 
  • Credits for technologies with potential to achieve real-world greenhouse gas reductions and fuel economy improvements that are not captured by the standards test procedures.
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Banks Adopting More Transparent Checking Disclosures

Pew Charitable Trust has pressed banks to make statements simpler and more user-friendly

Banks and consumers have had an uneasy relationship the past few years as banks have taken steps to increase profits that have almost always resulted in mo...

PhotoBanks and consumers have had an uneasy relationship the past few years as banks have taken steps to increase profits that have almost always resulted in more fees.

Stepping into the fray as something of a referee is the Pew Charitable Trust, which has spent the last few months trying to persuade banks to adopt a set of uniform disclosures on checking accounts, so that at least consumers know about the fees and can take steps to avoid them. To date, the group says 12 major U.S. banks have signed on.

Bank of America on board

Bank of America is the latest to adopt the Pew disclosures. Webster Bank of Waterbury, Conn., the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank of Harwich Port, Mass., and Fifth Third Bank of Cincinnati, Ohio, also recently introduced this simple disclosure to their customers. Pew now says five of the top 12 U.S. banks are on board, representing 27 percent of total deposit volume.

"Now, millions more Americans can obtain essential financial information in an easy-to-understand format," said Susan Weinstock, director of Pew's Safe Checking in the Electronic Age Project. We urge other financial institutions to follow suit."

Most banks not user-friendly

Pew said it found that most financial institutions do not summarize key information in a simple, user-friendly way, making it cumbersome for consumers to find important policies and fees. It found disclosure documents among the nation's 12 largest banks have a median length of 69 pages.

So Pew said it set out to make the process simpler and more transparent. Its model disclosure box, as a preface to the larger document, allows customers to comparison shop and determine which checking account best meets their needs. Pew says consumers like it and, when you explain the benefits to them, so do the banks.

"Our customers want clear and easily accessible information about their accounts so they can make the choices that are right for them," said Susan Faulkner, Bank of America Consumer and Small Business Products executive. "We listened to customers and made enhancements that help make it easier for them to understand and control their finances. Our commitment to clarity is not new, but we continue to look for ways to improve our customers' experience."

Pew says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) should make the more transparent disclosures standard within the banking industry.

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FTC: Your Baby Can't Read

Company agrees to $185 million judgment, although it lacks the money to pay it

Parents and grandparents mesmerized by advertising claiming babies could be taught to read shelled out $200 or more for a supposed training kit that they h...

PhotoParents and grandparents mesmerized by advertising claiming babies could be taught to read shelled out $200 or more for "Your Baby Can Read," a supposed training kit that they hoped would magically transform their pre-verbal infants into bookworms. 

One 30-minute television infomercial featured a home video of a two-year-old girl who used the program and is purportedly reading a page from the children’s book Charlotte’s Web.  The girl’s mother then appears, saying that when her daughter was three years old, “She read her first Harry Potter book and she fell in love with it.”

But unlike most fairy tales, this one has an unhappy ending. After all, babies can't read, a fact cited by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as it charged the program's promoters with false advertising. Having read the writing on the wall, two of the three defendants named in the FTC's complaint have agreed to settle the FTC's charges.

The settlement prohibits the Carlsbad, California-based defendants from further use of the term “Your Baby Can Read.”  It also imposes a $185 million judgment, which equals the company’s gross sales since January 2008, although the company will only have to pay $500,000, which is all the money it says it has. 

PhotoBesides Your Baby Can Read LLC, the complaint charges company principal and product creator Robert Titzer, Ph.D, with making deceptive expert endorsements. Your Baby Can and Titzer represented that the program taught children as young as nine months old to read; gave children an early start on academic learning, making them more successful in life than those who didn’t use it; and that scientific studies proved these claims, according to the complaint.

In addition to Titzer and Your Baby Can, the complaint names as a defendant Hugh Penton, Jr., who served as president and chief executive officer of the company until March 2010. Penton and Your Baby Can have agreed to settle the FTC’s charges.  The agency is initiating litigation against Titzer in federal court.

Disputed charges

Yourbabycanread.com Aug. 28, 2012, 6:38 p.m.
Consumers rate Yourbabycanread.com

Beyond the question of how literate your average baby can become, many consumers who ordered the Your Baby Can Read program complained about disputed charges and delivery problems, as ConsumerAffairs reported in September 2010

Andrita Andreas ordered the product but did not receive her entire order. Jose Nio said he was charged the full $260 for attempting to order the trial period.

More recent complaints sound like subsequent chapters in the same book.

Take Ashley of Palm Springs, FL, who posted a review on July 5, 2011: "I ordered Your Baby Can Read in April 2011. I saw absolutely no improvement from my daughter after two months. Nothing at all.

"I called to complain and proceeded to tell the representative that I felt I was scammed. He told me the 30-day money back guarantee had expired and there was nothing they would do. No refund nor credit. I was simply stuck with my purchase. This program is a complete scam/fraud and rips people off."

Widely touted 

Prior to running afoul of the law, the Your Baby Can Read program was widely touted in infomercials and on the Internet.  The program used videos, flash cards, and pop-up books that supposedly teach children as young as nine months old how to read. 

According to the complaint, the defendants sold the Your Baby Can Read! program to parents and grandparents of children aged three months to five years since at least January 2008, charging about $200 for each kit and taking in more than $185 million, directly via a toll-free number and their own websites.  

The defendants marketed the program on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and television infomercials and ads on network and cable stations such as Lifetime, Discovery Kids, Disney DX, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon.  It also was available for purchase online at Amazon.com and BabiesRUs.com, as well as, at retail stores nationwide, including Wal-Mart, Kmart, Walgreens, Buy Buy Baby, Toys “R” Us, and BJ's Wholesale Club. 

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Planes, Trains and Ships of the Future ... Maybe

How some companies could be completely changing the way we travel

In 2012 it seems commercial air travel is worsening not improving.Overcrowded airports, higher baggage fees and delayed flights force people to consider ...

PhotoIn 2012 it seems commercial air travel is worsening not improving. with overcrowded airports, higher baggage fees and delayed flights. It's enough to make you take the train. Except that, outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's charges are sky-high and its service rock-bottom, consumers complain.

Slow boat to China? Most ships these days basically go in circles. They're called cruises and they're hardly a way to get from Point A to Point B. Many, we're told, are similar to being locked in a bowling alley with a bunch of drunken louts for a week or so.

Will things every get any better?

Well, maybe. A company called  Jacob Innovations has created a unique new design for airliners. It changes the plane's aisle-like seating structure by utilizing the height of the aircraft, which the company considers to be unused space.

The new seating plan consists of stacking individual seat compartments on top of each other instead of side by side.

For business-class flights and extended journeys the company combines the seat with an overhead bed and adjacent staircase allowing you to travel back and forth.

It’s sort of like a loft bed that has a thin mattress on top and a private seating area at the bottom.

The compartment also has large spaces for your luggage, big enough to store a giant family suitcase, so no more trying to stuff your bags in the narrow overhead compartment. In fact, there are no overhead luggage compartments. 

For economy flights the company builds each row of seats one step up from each other, again, utilizing the upper parts of the aircraft to create distance and ample space for reclining.

The added space allows the sleekly designed chairs to shift almost vertically, allowing those in economy the ability to practically lie down, almost as good as first and business class.

All Jacob Innovations has to do now is sell its ideas to the airlines.

Vacuum Trains

PhotoFor those choosing railway over air, they may someday have the chance to experience the impressive Vacuum Train, disturbingly fast trains that define  the meaning of both futuristic travel and beautiful innovation.

Vac-Trains, as they're known, have been on the drawing board since the 1990s.

Even before then, engineers like Robert Goddard have been trying to develop an underground tunnel that would have all of its air sucked from it, allowing trains to travel at speeds up to 2,500 mph due to lack of resistance.

Now, before you take your eyes off the webpage to roll them in disbelief, a group of researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University in China say they’ll have the first Vac-Train built in 10 years.

Other developers have been attempting to design an intercontinental vacuum tunnel that would allow one to travel from New York to London in about an hour. The train itself is small and capsule shaped, holding only six passengers each. So at least the boarding gate wouldn't be too crowded.

All eyes will be on China in the next decade to see just how the highly evolved train will actually work, because its success will most likely impact the decision to create intercontinental Vac-Trains and tunnels.

Daryl Oster — who is creating a Vac-Train of his own called the ET3 — says it can move at speeds up to 4,000 mph. The American engineer has already sold six licenses to China for possible use.

Not only could Vac-Trains make airplanes the slower way of travel, they could ultimately make the world a much smaller place. Just imagine living in Washington State, for example and making a trip to the Great Wall of China on a quick weekend excursion.

Freedom Ship

But if you ever get a chance to live on what's known as the Freedom Ship, you may not have to take the Vacuum Train to see the world.

The idea of the Freedom Ship was conceived by engineer Norman Nixon and his company Freedom Ship International, and it's a floating city of condominiums that circles the globe every two years.

 

Photo
Side view of the Freedom Ship

 

The ship would have an airstrip aboard so you wouldn't have to go to an airport if you wanted to fly to the mainland.

Freedom Ship International says about 18,000 people could live on the ship, which would actually be a flat-bottomed barge, rather than a traditional cruise ship. People could also find employment on the barge, as it would be a functioning city with companies, stores and schools for the children.

The floating condominiums were supposed to be completed back in 2001, but the company has yet to finish construction due to financial problems.  However, Nixon hasn’t made any announcements of throwing away the idea, and it’s quite possible something may be built in the future.

Since there has been no word about progress, it could be that Nixon has given up, or he may be secretly working under the media radar. Time will truly tell.

None of these projects are close to being incorporated into our everyday lives yet, but they are far from being merely good ideas stuck on drawing boards. All of these innovations are at least in the development stages and have gotten some financial backing, and companies have ironed out some of the necessary legalities.

 Both developers and the companies behind them are still in the selling-the-idea phase, but it may not be too long until commercial travel is completely turned upside down. Which would probably be a most welcome development.

  

 

 

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Hertz Snaps Up Dollar Thrifty, Passing Avis and Gaining on Enterprise

Once the deal is closed, three companies will control 95% of the U.S. car-rental market

As far as your typical consumer is concerned, this might be one of those ho-hum, who-cares stories, but here goes: Hertz is buying Dollar Thrifty, thereby ...

PhotoAs far as your typical consumer is concerned, this might be one of those ho-hum, who-cares stories, but here goes: Hertz is buying Dollar Thrifty, thereby passing Avis and gaining on Enterprise, which also owns Alamo and National.

In other words, Hertz is now No. 2 so it will have to try harder. What? You thought Avis was No. 2?  Nope, not since yesterday when Hertz sealed its $2.56 billion purchase. The deal means that Hertz will control about 25 percent of the U.S. rental car market. 

So is this the end of Dollar and Thrifty? By no means, no. Hertz says the purchase "will create a global, multi-brand rental car leader offering customers a full range of rental options through its strong premium and value brands."

 

Hertz Aug. 28, 2012, 3:30 p.m.
Consumers rate Hertz

In other words, you'll still be able to pay top price at the Hertz counter or, maybe, step over to the Dollar/Thrifty counter (or take a bus out to the rental shack) and pay a bit less. The company, of course, puts it a bit more elegantly than that.

 

"We have always believed that a combination with Dollar Thrifty is the best strategic option for both companies," said Hertz Chairman and CEO Mark P. Frissora.  "The transaction provides Hertz instant scale with two new, well-established brands with airport concession infrastructure in the mid-tier value segment."

No anti-trust worries

How can this possibly pass anti-trust muster, you ask? Why, it's simple. Hertz will be getting rid of its Advantage brand. You perhaps haven't heard of Advantage. It's been Hertz' "value" (meaning low-end) brand, the one targeted to cheapskates, like consumer advocates and reporters.

Snapping up the Advantage business is Franchise Services of North America ("FSNA") and Macquarie Capital.  FSNA's other properties include U-Save, Rent-a-Wreck, Practicar and X Press Rent-a-Car. 

Once all the cards are shuffled and dealt, Enterprise, Hertz and Avis will control 95 percent of the U.S. car rental market. 

 

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Apple Targets Eight Samsung Phones for Extinction

Company stops short of asking for removal of all 28 devices found to violate patents

Apple has asked a federal judge to order the removal of eight mobile devices made by Samsung from the marketplace, its first request made under its patent...

PhotoApple has asked a federal judge to order the removal of eight mobile devices made by Samsung from the marketplace, its first request made under its patent suit victory last week.

A jury in California ruled Friday that 28 Samsung devices violated Apple patents and awarded damages of $1.05 billion. Samsung said it would appeal the verdict.

The motion Apple filed Monday names eight Samsung devices that it wants banned from sale in the U.S. immediately. The devices are:

  • Galaxy S 4G
  • Galaxy S2 (AT&T)
  • Galaxy S2
  • Galaxy S2 (T-Mobile)
  • Galaxy S2 Epic 4G
  • Galaxy S Showcase
  • Droid Charge
  • Galaxy Prevail.

The jury found that the devices are among those that infringe on Apple's patents in both design and technology. For its part, Samsung made clear that it would vigorously contest the request.

Fighting back

"We will take all necessary measures to ensure the availability of our products in the U.S. market," the company said in a statement.

The Apple motion took some industry insiders by surprise because it targeted only eight phones, most of which are older models. In filing the motion Apple said it reserves the right to ask for a ban on all 28 Samsung devices later.

Samsung's latest products, the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note, are not on the list of 28 devices because they were issued after the lawsuit was filed. It's possible, however, that they could be the subject of a future action.

Real target Google?

Though not a target of the lawsuit, Google's Android operating system may feel the repercussions of the verdict. All eight of the smartphones targeted for a ban run on the Android system. The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs railed against Android, telling his biographer Walter Isaacson at one point that he would not hesitate to "go thermonuclear" against his rival, whom he accused of stealing Apple ideas.

Some think the verdict might provide a boost to Microsoft's mobile platform. A number of manufacturers, including Samsung, are working on Windows-based devices.

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Christmas Layaway Returns to Walmart

Critics say layaway programs amount to "hideaways for sky-high interest rates"

It's not too early to start shopping for Christmas, at least as Walmart sees it.  The giant retailer is bringing back its Christmas layaway program ...

PhotoIt's not too early to start shopping for Christmas, at least as Walmart sees it.  The giant retailer is bringing back its Christmas layaway program this year. Available nationwide Sept. 16 through Dec. 14, layaway at Walmart gives families an extra month to shop. 

“Last year, millions of Americans relied on layaway at Walmart to provide a great Christmas for their families. Because of their feedback, we’re offering the service again this year and making it better than ever,” said Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer, Walmart U.S.

Not everybody thinks this is exactly a gift.

“These layaway programs are nothing more than hideaways for sky-high interest rates that consumers would never tolerate with a credit card,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) as he lambasted Walmart last year. “The holiday season is supposed to be about giving and not taking, but these layaway programs are taking advantage of people and charging them outrageous interest rates, under the guise of making it easier and more affordable to shop.”

Citing the prospect of layaway fees that are the equivalent of an 81% credit card APR for a $100 purchase, Schumer called on the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the National Retail Federation (NRF) to work with member stores to clearly and prominently display the sky-high interest rate equivalent of the fees these programs charge so that consumers are better informed about the total price they’re paying.

New features

 

Consumers rate Wal-Mart Customer Service
Walmart may not have granted Schumer's every wish but it has expanded the program with these new features:

 

  • An expanded list of eligible categories, including small home appliances and select sporting goods such as basketball goals, trampolines and large exercise equipment. Customers can also use layaway for a broad selection of electronics, toys and jewelry.
  • Early layaway access for shoppers who "like" their local Walmart store on Facebook. Customers simply need to sign up on their local Walmart Facebook page beginning August 28 to be able to start their layaway two days early on Sept. 14.  
  • A full refund of the layaway open fee ($15) given on a Walmart gift card for customers who make their final payment.

Process and Pricing

  • A down payment of 10 percent or $10, whichever is greater, is required and is applied to the purchase. 
  • Individual items must be priced $15 or more, and the total layaway purchase must be at least $50.
  • If the order is cancelled or not paid in full, the open fee is not refunded; however, no additional cancellation fee will be charged.
 2011 Layaway2012 Layaway
Days to Pay6090
Open Fee$5$15
Down Payment10% or $10, whichever is greater10% or $10, whichever is greater
Cancellation Fee$10$0
Total Refunded when Completed$0$15 (gift card)

Schumer said last year that if merchants didn't more fully disclose the fees associated with their layaway programs, he would ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to get involved.

There's no much evidence that's happened, although the FTC does offer some advice for layaway shoppers on its website, consisting mostly of reminders to read the layaway program's terms carefully. An excerpt:

Look for details on:

  • the terms of the layaway plan: how much time you have to pay for the merchandise or service; when your payments are due; the minimum payment required; and possible charges for using the plan, like a service fee. Find out if there is a fee or a penalty for missed or late payments: Will your contract be cancelled? Will the merchandise be returned to inventory?
  • the refund policy: If you decide you don’t want the merchandise after you’ve made some or all the payments, can you get a refund? Retailers’ policies may differ: some give you all your money back; others may charge a non-refundable service fee; still others may offer a merchant credit for the amount you paid.

 

For its part, Walmart notes that terms and conditions of its layaway program may vary from one start to another. Details of the program's open fees and refunds can be found at www.walmart.com/Layaway.

Shopping list 

If you're wondering what to buy, Walmart says it has also worked with major brands to ensure the holiday season’s top electronics and toys are available in time for its mid-September layaway launch. A few of the season’s most coveted gifts include the following:

  • Apple iPad
  • FURBY by Hasbro
  • LEGO City The Mine
  • Vizio Smart, 3D HDTVs
  • Monster High® High School
  • HP Ultrabook Laptop PCs

 

 
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Consumer Confidence Index Down in August

Now at lowest level since November 2011

After showing improvement in July, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index has declined in August. The Index now stands at 60.6 versus the reading...

PhotoAfter showing improvement in July, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index has declined in August. The Index now stands at 60.6 versus the reading of 65.4 in July. 

he Expectations Index decreased to 70.5 from 78.4. The Present Situation Index, however, was virtually unchanged, at 45.8 versus 45.9 a month ago. 

"The Consumer Confidence Index is now at its lowest level since late last year (Nov. 2011, 55.2),” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “A more pessimistic outlook was the primary reason for this month's decline in confidence. Consumers were more apprehensive about business and employment prospects, but more optimistic about their financial prospects despite rising inflation expectations. Consumers' assessment of current conditions was virtually unchanged, suggesting no significant pickup or deterioration in the pace of growth." 

Mixed indicators 

Consumers' assessment of current conditions was little changed in August. Those claiming business conditions are "good" improved to 15.2 percent from 13.7 percent, while those saying business conditions are "bad" was unchanged at 34.4 percent. Consumers' appraisal of the labor market varied. Those stating jobs are "plentiful" declined to 7.0 percent from 7.8 percent, while those claiming jobs are "hard to get" edged down to 40.7 percent from 41.0 percent. 

Consumers' optimism about the short-term outlook deteriorated in August. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 16.5 percent from 19.0 percent, while those anticipating business conditions will worsen increased to 17.7 percent from 15.1 percent. 

Consumers' outlook for the labor market was also less favorable. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead decreased to 15.4 percent from 17.6 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs rose to 23.4 percent from 20.6 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes, however, improved to 15.7 percent from 14.2 percent. 

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was August 16.

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Lack of Sleep Tied to Aggressive Breast Cancer

Risks increase only after menopause, researchers say

If you are at risk of breast cancer, make a good night's sleep part of your routine. That, researchers say, will improve your odds of avoiding the disease....

PhotoIf you are at risk of breast cancer, make a good night's sleep part of your routine. That, researchers say, will improve your odds of avoiding the disease.

The team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University say their findings are the first to show an association between insufficient sleep and biologically more aggressive tumors as well as likelihood of cancer recurrence.

The researchers analyzed medical records and survey responses from 412 post-menopausal breast cancer patients treated at University Hospital Case Medical Center with Oncotype DX, a widely utilized test to guide treatment in early stage breast cancer by predicting likelihood of recurrence.

Six hours or less not enough

The patients were recruited at diagnosis and asked about the average amount of sleep they had gotten in the last two years. Researchers found that women who reported six hours or less of sleep per night on average before breast cancer diagnosis had higher Oncotype DX tumor recurrence scores.

The Oncotype DX test assigns a tumor a recurrence score based on the expression level of a combination of 21 genes.

"This is the first study to suggest that women who routinely sleep fewer hours may develop more aggressive breast cancers compared with women who sleep longer hours," said Dr. Cheryl Thompson, Assistant Professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and lead author. "We found a strong correlation between fewer hours of sleep per night and worse recurrence scores, specifically in post-menopausal breast cancer patients. This suggests that lack of sufficient sleep may cause more aggressive tumors, but more research will need to be done to verify this finding and understand the causes of this association."

Doesn't affect pre-menopausal women

The link between lack of sleep and aggressive cancer appeared only in post-menopausal women, the researchers said. They say that's not surprising since there are different mechanisms underlying pre-menopausal and post-menopausal breast cancers.

The data suggest that sleep may affect carcinogenic pathways specifically involved in the development of post-menopausal breast cancer, but not pre-menopausal cancer.

"Short sleep duration is a public health hazard leading not only to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but also cancer," said Dr. Li Li, a study co-author. "Effective intervention to increase duration of sleep and improve quality of sleep could be an under-appreciated avenue for reducing the risk of developing more aggressive breast cancers and recurrence."

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New Combination Pill Approved for HIV Treatment for Some Patients

Drugs provide a complete treatment regimen for HIV infection

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Stribild (elvitegravir, cobicistat, emtricitabine, tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), a new once-a-day comb...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Stribild (elvitegravir, cobicistat, emtricitabine, tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), a new once-a-day combination pill to treat HIV-1 infection in adults who have never been treated for HIV infection. 

Stribild contains two previously approved HIV drugs plus two new drugs, elvitegravir and cobicistat. Elvitegravir is an HIV integrase strand transfer inhibitor, a drug that interferes with one of the enzymes that HIV needs to multiply. Cobicistat, a pharmacokinetic enhancer, inhibits an enzyme that metabolizes certain HIV drugs and is used to prolong the effect of elvitegravir. 

The combination of emtricitabine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate, approved in 2004 and marketed as Truvada, blocks the action of another enzyme that HIV needs to replicate in a person’s body. Together, these drugs provide a complete treatment regimen for HIV infection. 

Evolving treatment 

Through continued research and drug development, treatment for those infected with HIV has evolved from multi-pill regimens to single-pill regimens,” said Edward Cox, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Office of Antimicrobial Products in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “New combination HIV drugs like Stribild help simplify treatment regimens.” 

Stribild’s approval is the latest HIV/AIDS-related action taken by the FDA this year. Other actions include approval of the first over-the-counter home-use rapid HIV test; approval of the first drug for pre-exposure prophylaxis in combination with safer sex practices to reduce the risk of sexually acquired HIV infection in adults at high risk; and commemoration of the full or tentative approvals of more than 150 antiretroviral products for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to treat those in countries most affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Clinical trials 

The safety and effectiveness of Stribild was evaluated in 1,408 adult patients not previously treated for HIV in two double-blind clinical trials. Patients were randomly assigned to receive Stribild or Atripla, an HIV drug that contains Truvada and efavirenz, once daily in the first trial; and Stribild or Truvada plus atazanavir and ritonavir once daily in the second trial. 

The studies were designed to measure the percentage of patients who had an undetectable amount of HIV in their blood at 48 weeks. Results showed between 88 percent and 90 percent of patients treated with Stribild had an undetectable amount of HIV in their blood, compared with 84 percent treated with Atripla and 87 percent treated with Truvada plus atazanavir and ritonavir. 

Side effects 

Like labels of many other drugs used to treat HIV, Stribild’s label carries a Boxed Warning alerting patients and health care professionals that the drug can cause a build up of lactic acid in the blood and severe liver problems, both of which can be fatal. The Boxed Warning also states that Stribild is not approved to treat chronic hepatitis B virus infection. 

Common side effects observed in clinical trials include nausea and diarrhea. Serious side effects include new or worsening kidney problems, decreased bone mineral density, fat redistribution and changes in the immune system (immune reconstitution syndrome). Stribild’s label gives advice to health care providers on how to monitor patients for kidney or bone side effects. 

Gilead Sciences, Stribild’s manufacturer, is required to conduct additional studies to help further characterize the drug’s safety in women and children, how resistance develops to Stribild, and the possibility of interactions between Stribild and other drugs.

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New Federal Standard for High-Powered Magnet Sets in the Works

The sets pose a sever risk to kids' health

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has voted 4 to 0 to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking aimed at developing a new federal standard for...

PhotoThe U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has voted 4 to 0 to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking aimed at developing a new federal standard for small, high-powered magnet sets. 

CPSC staff estimates that small, high powered magnet sets were associated with 1,700 emergency room-treated injuries between 2009 and 2011. The majority of injuries (70 percent) have been to children 4 to 12 years of age. 

Many of these magnet sets are marketed as sculptures, puzzles, and stress relievers and are labeled not for use by children. However, CPSC staff believes these magnet sets have strong appeal to children and pose a potential for high-severity injuries. 

Danger to kids 

If swallowed, these magnets can link together inside a child's intestines and clamp onto body tissues, causing intestinal obstructions, perforations, sepsis and death. Internal damage from magnets can pose serious lifelong health effects. 

The proposed mandatory standard would set performance requirements for magnet sets based on their size and strength. Magnet sets that do not meet the performance requirement could not be sold as a manipulative or a desk toy. 

The proposed rule has a 75 day public comment period.

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California Charges Real Estate Investment Broker With Fraud

State says two Sacramento men were running a Ponzi scheme

There are many ways to lose money in real estate. You can pay more for a house than it's worth, buy a home you can't afford and lose it to foreclosure, or ...

PhotoThere are many ways to lose money in real estate. You can pay more for a house than it's worth, buy a home you can't afford and lose it to foreclosure, or invest money in a real estate investment fund without carefully checking it out.

With foreclosed homes going for bargain basement prices, a number of savvy brokers have raised money from investors to purchase distressed properties for cash, fix them up and flip them. If you are tempted to invest in such an operation, California Attorney General Kamala Harris suggests investigating it thoroughly.

Investment fraud

Harris has brought charges against two Sacramento men, accusing them of stealing more than $3.2 million from investors who were told their money was being invested in a real estate venture to buy and re-sell foreclosed homes.

“These individuals fraudulently represented themselves as a legitimate business but had no intentions of carrying out what they promised,” Harris said.

The two men were arraigned earlier this month after being arrested on August 14. They face a combined 36 counts of theft and securities fraud.

Harris says the pair sold securities in the form of real estate investment contracts to seven investors in California and other states. They allegedly told investors their money would be used to purchase foreclosed homes at low-cost in order to refurbish them to sell for significant profit. While this business model has proven profitable and lucrative in recent months, investors should exercise a high degree of caution, as they should with any investment.

Ponzi scheme

Harris says the men used the investment money for personal expenses, to pay unrelated third parties, and to transfer into foreign currency trading platforms.

To keep up the façade that their money had been invested, Harris says the brokers paid “returns” to investors out of funds they received from other, unrelated third parties. In some cases, they paid investors with their own money.

Harris says it turned out the brokers were not registered to sell securities in the state of California, which should have been a major tip-off that the deal wasn't legitimate. Before making any similar investment, a first step should be to check out the broker with your state's Secretary of State or State Corporation Commission.

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Consumers Who Bought Bogus Supplements Getting Refunds

Products claimed to help with weight loss and erectile dysfunction

Consumers who bought widely-advertised supplements that claimed to remedy obesity and erectile dysfunction may still have their original problems but at le...

PhotoConsumers who bought widely-advertised supplements that claimed to remedy obesity and erectile dysfunction may still have their original problems but at least they'll be $40.45 richer.

The Federal Trade Commission is mailing 153,109 checks in that amount to consumers who bought supplements from National Urological Group and Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals. A federal district court ruled in favor of the FTC back in 2008 and ordered the defendants to provide money for refunds.

The marketer made false advertising claims that two supposed weight-loss supplements, Thermalean and Lipodrene, were clinically proven to cause substantial weight loss, including a 19 percent loss in total body weight.

A third supplement, Spontane-ES, supposedly treated erectile dysfunction. The ads deceptively claimed that the supplement was clinically proven to safely and effectively treat 90 percent of men with erectile dysfunction.

The checks, totaling over $6 million, will be mailed by an administrator working for the FTC. Consumers who have questions about the refund process should call toll free, at 1-877-483-2883, or visit the FTC’s refunds website. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed.

The checks will be valid for 60 days and must be cashed on or before October 23, 2012.

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Industry Working Group to Study In-Flight Usage of Portable Electronics

You may be able to play 'Words with Friends' while flying after all

Given the widespread consumer use of portable electronic devices (PEDs), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is forming a government-industry group t...

PhotoGiven the widespread consumer use of portable electronic devices (PEDs), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is forming a government-industry group to determine when these devices can be used safely during flight. 

Current FAA regulations require an aircraft operator to determine that radio frequency interference from PEDs are not a flight safety risk before the operator authorizes them for use during certain phases of flight. 

With so many different types of devices available, we recognize that this is an issue of consumer interest,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Safety is our highest priority, and we must set appropriate standards as we help the industry consider when passengers can use the latest technologies safely during a flight.” 

Wide-ranging study 

The government-industry group will examine a variety of issues, including the testing methods aircraft operators use to determine which new technologies passengers can safely use aboard aircraft and when they can use them. 

The group will also look at the establishment of technological standards associated with the use of PEDs during any phase of flight. The group will then present its recommendations to the FAA. The group will not consider the airborne use of cell phones for voice communications during flight. 

We’re looking for information to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today’s aircraft,” said Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We also want solid safety data to make sure tomorrow’s aircraft designs are protected from interference.” 

Information gathering 

The government–industry group, established through an Aviation Rulemaking Committee, will be formally established this fall and will meet for six months. It will include representatives from the mobile technology and aviation manufacturing industries, pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines, and passenger associations. 

As the first step in gathering information for the working group, the FAA is seeking public input on the agency’s current PED policies, guidance and procedures for operators. 

The Request for Comments, which will appear in the Federal Register on August 28th, is part of a data-driven agency initiative to review the methods and criteria operators use to permit PEDs during flights. 

The FAA is seeking comments in the following areas:

  • Operational, safety and security challenges associated with expanding PED use.
  • Data sharing between aircraft operators and manufacturers to facilitate authorization of PED use.
  • Necessity of new certification regulations requiring new aircraft designs to tolerate PED emissions.
  • Information-sharing for manufacturers who already have proven PED and aircraft system compatibility to provide information to operators for new and modified aircraft.
  • Development of consumer electronics industry standards for aircraft-friendly PEDs, or aircraft-compatible modes of operation.
  • Required publication of aircraft operators’ PED policies.
  • Restriction of PED use during takeoff, approach, landing and abnormal conditions to avoid distracting passengers during safety briefings and prevent possible injury to passengers.
  • Development of standards for systems that actively detect potentially hazardous PED emissions.
  • Technical challenges associated with further PED usage, and support from PED manufacturers to commercial aircraft operators.
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Internal Revenue Services to be Limited During the Labor Day Weekend

Maintenance and upgrading of an electrical system will curtail some activities

A planned power outage around the Labor Day weekend will affect a number of IRS systems and limit the availability of several services between Thursday, Au...

PhotoA planned power outage around the Labor Day weekend will affect a number of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) systems and limit the availability of several services between Thursday, Aug. 30 and Tuesday, Sept. 4. 

The systems will be unavailable due to maintenance and upgrading an electrical system. 

Detailed information describing what systems are affected by the temporary outage can be found below: 

Toll-free services 

  • Assistors who support the main toll-free lines can only provide limited service beginning early Thursday morning, Aug. 30 through 4 p.m. ET Friday, Aug. 31. During this time, help will be available for tax law issues, but the system will be unable to access or update tax account information.
  • The main toll-free system will be completely unavailable after 4 p.m. ET Friday until noon ET on Tuesday, September 4. For the tax practitioner community, the e-help desk toll-free service and the Practitioner Priority Service will be available during the dates and times indicated above. 

Taxpayer Assistance Centers 

  • The Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) will remain open for their regular hours during the outage period. They will be able to answer your tax law questions, prepare your returns and perform limited service to your tax account. If you need to make a tax payment, the TACs can accept most forms of payment, including checks and money orders, but cannot accept cash payments during the outage period. 

Taxpayer notice information 

  • If you have questions on a CP2000 notice, you received in the mail and you need to call the IRS, assistors will be available at the toll-free number included in the notice throughout the maintenance period.
  • Help will be available on other notices associated with a balance due or an open correspondence exam issue through 4 p.m. ET Friday, Aug. 31 and after noon ET on Tuesday Sept. 4.
  • Help on notices related to levies or liens will be unavailable Thursday, Aug. 30 until noon ET on Tuesday, Sept. 4. 

Information for business filers 

  • If you are a business filer and in need of an Employee Identification Number or need to make a Federal Tax Deposit, it's best to do so before Friday, Aug. 31 at 4 p.m. Those services will not be available until the outage period ends and the systems are restored around noon ET on Tuesday, Sept. 4. 

Information for student aid applicants 

  • If you need to file the Federal Application for Student Aid form, the FAFSA will be available electronically, but the fields requiring tax return information will not automatically populate during the outage. Keep these outage dates in mind as you or your student(s) need to submit this form, particularly if you don’t have access to previous year’s tax returns. 

Interactive tax assistant availability 

  • The Interactive Tax Assistant will be available on IRS.gov throughout the outage period. 

Electronic federal tax payment system 

  • You will be able to make payments through the EFTPS. Your account will be updated after the outage period and will reflect the date you made the payment.
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GM to Stop Making Chevy Volt for a Month

But it has nothing to do with sales, automaker says

It was first reported in Automotive News. USA Today and other news outlets have since confirmed it. General Motors is going to stop making the electric veh...

PhotoIt was first reported in Automotive News. USA Today and other news outlets have since confirmed it. General Motors is going to stop making the electric vehicle Chevrolet Volt for a month at it's Hamtramck, MI plant.

But the automaker says sales are fine and the stoppage has nothing to do with inventories of unsold Volts. USA Today quotes Chevrolet spokesman David Darovitz as saying the plant is switching over to producing the Chevrolet Impala, which is undergoing a redesign.

Political football

The Chevy Volt has become a political football, especially in a political year. Because it's an all-electric vehicle and because GM received a large government bailout, political conservatives have tended to question it's market viability. Political progressives tend to laud it as a big step toward green transportation.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Lee Speakerman, CEO of Speakerman Media, a conservative media consultant hired to promote the Volt, said there are a number of political myths surrounding the car. Speakerman said his fellow conservatives are simply wrong about the Volt.

"They're perpetuating this myth that the Volt was some kind of Obama administration green energy fantasy that was forced on General Motors during the bailout," Speakerman said. "It was in development two years before Obama was elected. The tax break for buying the Volt was implemented by the Bush administration."

Runs on fossil fuel

Since the Volt is a "plug-in," meaning its batteries are charged by plugging it into an electric outlet, Speakerman says the Volt actually runs on fossil fuel and is the quickest and easiest way to convert natural gas -- which is plentiful and cheap and powers many electric utilities -- to a transportation fuel.

GM says it has sold more than 10,000 Volts through July, more than three times the number sold in the same period a year ago. The car looks a lot like the Chevy Cruze but costs about twice a much, mainly because of the bank of batteries that allows the Volt to go about 38 miles before a small gasoline engine kicks in to recharge.

Safety probe

Politics aside, there are a few issues that engineers are checking out with the Volt. Last year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened a formal safety defect investigation after a Volt caught fire after a crash at a federal test site. NHTSA said the probe would determine whether the batteries in the car are safe.

NHTSA said it knows of no highway accidents that caused Volts to catch fire, but as of late 2011 there had been two reports of fires involving Volts parked in garages. People who have purchased a Volt, meanwhile, appear undeterred.

The Volt topped 2011's Consumer Reports owner-satisfaction study with 93 percent of Volt owners saying they "definitely" buy one again.

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Two Scams in Pacific Northwest Target Seniors

Officials in Washington and Oregon caution consumers about giving out personal information

Senior citizens have always been scammers' favorite target and now they are the focus of two new scams that have arisen in the Pacific Northwest.Oregon A...

PhotoSenior citizens have always been scammers' favorite target and now they are the focus of two new scams that have arisen in the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum says her office has received an "influx" of reports from seniors who got unsolicited telephone calls regarding updates to their medical cards. The scam artist making these calls asks for the consumer's bank account and/or routing number in order to process the update.

Rosenblum says the crooks behind the scam may already have some personal information about their victims, which makes this scheme even more dangerous. The senior at the other end of the line is more inclined to believe the call is legitimate. It's not.

Rosenblum says consumers should never share their personal or financial information with anyone by email or over the phone.

Washington scam alert

In neighboring Washington, Attorney General Rob McKenna is receiving reports from seniors who say they've had calls from solicitors posing as state agents for a senior property tax relief program.

Specifically, the seniors report the callers try to sell them reverse mortgages while falsely claiming to work for the state. McKenna said consumers reported a flurry of calls last week came from a group calling itself "Seniors First," in which callers either implied or overtly started that they were affiliated with the Washington state government.

There actually is an organization called Seniors First, but McKenna said the group denied it is making the bogus claims.

According to the complaints, the callers asked for personal information such as employment status, income and age under the guise of helping them determine whether they qualify for Washington’s property tax relief programs, or for aid and assistance programs for veterans.

McKenna said consumers should never give out personal information over the phone to someone they do not know. If they want to find out more about property tax relief programs, he says they should contact their county assessor’s office.

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Limiting TV Time is Effective Strategy for Preventing Weight Gain In Children

New study highlights how parents can help their youngsters achieve a healthier lifestyle

Turn off the tube! That's the advice of a study on ways to keep your kids from becoming obese couch potatoes....

PhotoTurn off the tube! That's the advice of a study on ways to keep your kids from becoming obese couch potatoes. 

The study, released in the September/October 2012 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, found that reducing television viewing may be an effective strategy to prevent excess weight gain among adolescents. 

Careful tracking 

Findings were based on a one-year community-based randomized trial that enrolled 153 adults and 72 adolescents from the same households. During that year, researchers from the University of Minnesota, School of Public Health Obesity Prevention Center conducted six face-to-face group meetings, sent monthly newsletters, and set-up 12 home-based activities. 

In addition, each household agreed to allow researchers to attach a "TV Allowance" to all televisions in the household for the one-year study period. Television viewing hours, diet, and physical activity levels were measured before and after the intervention. 

A clear association was observed among adolescents between reduction in TV hours and decreased weight gain over one year. The TV hours' impact on weight gain was not significant for adults. These findings suggest that television viewing is a risk for excess weight gain among adolescents. The implication is that parents who limit their adolescents' television viewing may help their adolescent maintain a healthy body weight. 

According to national survey data [NHANES] 2003-2006, about 31% of US children and adolescents are overweight or obese, therefore finding the causes for weight gain in this population is growing increasingly important. 

Baby steps 

"We tried to intervene on behaviors that are related to energy balance, such as television viewing, sugar-sweetened beverage intake, physical activity, and consumption of packaged convenience foods,” said Simone A. French, PhD, principal investigator of the study and the director of the University of Minnesota's Obesity Prevention Center. “Although the individual contribution of each of these behaviors to excess weight gain and obesity may be small, it is important to examine their possible role individually and together in promoting excess weight gain. Associations between these behaviors and risk for excess weight gain may differ among adults and adolescents because of their different physical and social developmental stages. 

"This study is an important piece of evidence that reducing TV hours is a powerful weight gain prevention strategy parents can use to help prevent excess weight gain among their children by changing the home environment and household television viewing norms," French concluded.

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Four Keys to a Healthy Blood Pressure

Researchers say a healthy lifestyle will keep blood pressure in a healthy range

If you ask your doctor the cause of high blood pressure, she'll probably tell you that there's no way to know for sure. But researchers increasingly say th...

PhotoIf you ask your doctor the cause of high blood pressure, she'll probably tell you that there's no way to know for sure. But researchers increasingly say there are things you can do to reduce your risks of developing it.

A healthy lifestyle -- getting exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco, using alcohol in moderation and eating a balanced diet -- reduces the risk of hypertension by two-thirds, according to research by Professor Pekka Jousilahti from the National Institute for Health and Welfare, in Helsinki, Finland.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, has increased with obesity. According to the World Health Organization, hypertension is the leading cause of death in the world. It now contributes to over seven million deaths a year.

Alcohol, activity, vegetables and body weight

The study examined people who were assigned to one of four different categories, based on their level of healthy living. Those categories were made of moderate alcohol consumption, leisure time physical activity at least three times per week, daily consumption of vegetables, and normal body weight.

Smoking was not included in the analysis because Jousilahti said it was not associated with the development of hypertension in the team's analyses.

"The risk of hypertension was only one-third among those having all four healthy lifestyle factors compared to those having none," said Jousilahti. "Even having one to three healthy lifestyle factors reduced the risk of hypertension remarkably. For example having two healthy lifestyle factors reduced the risk of hypertension by nearly 50 percent in men and by more than 30 percent in women."

Bigger impact on men

Jousilahti said the study suggests that maintaining a healthy lifestyle may have more of an impact on risk of hypertension in men than women.

"This could be because of the stronger association of obesity and alcohol consumption with the risk of hypertension in men than in women," he said.

While consumers spend billions of dollars each year on medication to control blood pressure, Jousilahti says the control may be within the grasp of each individual, at much less cost.

"Four modifiable lifestyle factors: alcohol consumption, physical activity, consumption of vegetables and keeping normal weight have a remarkable effect on the development of hypertension," he said. "Lifestyle modification has a huge public health potential to prevent hypertension."

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Mom and Pop Stores: How Do The Succesful Ones Survive?

There's still a spot for some kinds of local stores, but they need to be digitally savy

Even with all of the technology we have at our disposal today, the earth still holds its fair share of mysteries. Like how come water can't be duplica...

Photo
A record store. Remember records? Remember stores? Photo credit - Sirylok, Fotolia.com


Even with all of the technology we have at our disposal today, the earth still holds its fair share of mysteries. Like how come water can't be duplicated? Or how high does the sky really go?

Another earthly mystery — although more solvable — is how do mom-and-pop stores survive in today's world of big store chains and giant franchises?

This question always plagues me whenever I see a small storefront window in the midst of large shopping centers with their brightly lit windows and multitudes of people. It's baffling to me. How do they stay in business?

Take record stores for example. Between the double whammy of the Internet and big-box retailers, mom-and-pop record stores have pretty much spun their last. 

Not so long ago going to a brick-and-mortar store to thumb through rows of vinyl, cassettes and CDs was a joyful part of the music listening experience. Today consumers seek out music with the expectation that it should not only be received immediately but also for free, or close to it.

Newly-released music is treated almost as if it's disposable, which has even made large retail stores suffer. I mean think about it, when was the last time you went to Best-Buy to purchase a CD? It's probably been a while, which shows that all stores — big and small — are suffering in this particular area.

But somehow not all mom-and-pops are hurting, which brings me back to my point of being amazed whenever I see one wedged between two chain stores. I always think it's beautifully defiant.

It's like seeing an older person at a music concert full of twenty-something’s. It's like two people from completely different cultures finding common ground or even falling in love despite social norms.

It's a way of small family-owned businesses saying, "Hey, we're still here and we're providing a type of service you big guys can't."

Some mom-and-pop stores have learned through the years that a certain number of consumers just won't deviate from the way they use to purchase things. This has helped many independent store owners stay competitive, especially in the area of music sales. Others have harnessed the Internet to turn their brick-and-mortar store into a real community that exists both offline and on.

Digital hurts and helps

Photo
Amoeba's Hollywood store

Although both retail chains and the Internet have hurt mom-and-pop stores, Johnson Lee, owner of  Joe's Record Paradise, a D.C.- area store, says successful stores are using the web to their advantage as a way to bring their niche consumers together for proper advertising and community-building.

“At this point digital is big for us, i.e. Facebook, emails, lists, groups. You go on the Internet you find jazz vinyl lovers [for example], where all they do all day is talk about is 1950s jazz,” says Lee.

“If you can get into that, and say, hey guys we got lots of that, then promoting has become a little bit easier. You used to have to pay a newspaper to print something for you and now you can sort of get around that a little bit,” he explains.

One of the most spectacular examples of using digital media to sell older forms of music and entertainment is Amoeba, the California stores that have expanded beyond the mom-and-pop category but are still essentially local retailers surviving in a category that's supposed to be obsolete.

Amoeba operates stores in Hollywood, Berkeley and San Francisco and sells nearly every conceivable kind of music and movies "from the top 40 to the best in underground rock and hip-hop, soul, electronica, new and classic jazz, world music, roots music and experimental music," as the stores' website proclaims.  Amoeba sells and buys mostly vinyl LPs, CDs and DVDs, both new and used, but it also stocks turntables and other gear, sells downloads of some recordings and sponsors all kinds of in-store and around-town activities.

 

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Inside Amoeba's Hollywood store

"We're more than just a record store-- we're a 21st century music outlet, a website, a popular live performance venue, and together with our customers we're a meeting place for California's most colorful community of progressive and creative minds," Amoeba says. 

My colleague Truman Lewis, an Amoeba fan, says that Amoeba is "what Borders Books was trying to be -- a community gathering place that attracts a wide range of consumers looking for a shopping experience and social outing that amounts to a little more than sitting in front of a computer screen." 

Besides buying and selling records, CDs and DVDs, you see live performances, listen to poetry readings, go to a cookbook party, meet recording artists and even register to vote. 

At the Amoeba store on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, you also have a shot at running into some of the actors and artists whose work you admire -- not to mention bumping into actors and artists whose work you may admire a few years from now. The place is routinely packed right up until its 11 p.m. closing time each night.    

Niche market

Photo
Johnson Lee, Joe's Record Paradise

“It's a niche market that really never went away," said Johnson Lee. “A lot of people thought vinyl died when it just hibernated for a bit. There was always the core group of people that would never switch to a different format because they're addicted to vinyl.

“They love the sound, the feel of it, the artwork,” and the liner notes he said. “Big business corporate guys, they don't want small businesses around because it challenges their supremacy.”

Lee also said that mom-and-pop's survival sometimes depends on consumer trends returning from the past and younger generations being exposed to the buying ways of yesteryear.

“For at least ten years kids thought that's all there was, [digital music]” he says. “I've got young kids now and you turn on Nickelodeon and there will be a waffle commercial and the kid is DJ'ing a waffle, so the kids are being indoctrinated again to the vinyl side of things, which may be an industry move after all.

“At least the industry is somewhat supporting this move because you can't download vinyl, he adds. “If they [the music industry] print a vinyl record, they actually get to sell it instead of having the new Britney Spears album get spread to the millions of teenage girls that have Dropbox.”

Lee notes there is practically a universe of content that has not yet made it into digital form, and perhaps never will. 

“There's so much music from the 50, 60s, 70s, 80s, that never made it to CD,” says Lee. “So you come in here and you spend two or three hours, you're going to find 150 new artists that you never heard of that may interest you and lead you to other bands that they were in.”

Original form 

PhotoLee also says people of the older generations are bringing their kids and grandkids into mom-and-pop stores not only to introduce them to products of the past, but also to introduce them to the way things were bought in previous times. “It's a cultural point to come and check out American soul,” he says.

Lee took over the music shop, located in Silver Spring, Md. from his father Joe back in 2008, and the 36-year old says the family-owned business actually started in Los Angeles on Hollywood Boulevard, under the name Platypus Records.

After Lee's parents wanted to settle down in a more residential area, they decided to return to Joe's childhood stomping ground within the Washington, D.C., area.

Despite taking over the store around the time the current recession hit, Lee says he's been able to expand his location twice over and at the moment the store is in good financial standing.

What advice does Lee have for people starting small businesses in today's risky business climate?

“You just have to be smart, work hard, make good decisions and hopefully you'll survive, he says. “No one here is getting rich, but it’s a tradeoff. If you've got enough luck you'll make it.”

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Report Shows Consumers' Incomes Declined During Recovery

The recession is over, except for U.S. households

The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009 but for many consumers, it feels like it has continued. That may be because for consumers, it has.Consi...

PhotoThe Great Recession officially ended in June 2009 but for many consumers, it feels like it has continued. That may be because for consumers, it has.

Consider that a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the total of all goods and services bought and sold in the economy. One small part of GDP is consumers' household income.

While the overall economy has managed at least some growth in each quarter over the last three years, consumers' incomes have declined during that same period, according to a report by Sentier Research, a survey and data analysis company. It might not be much of a stretch to suggest that while the recession has ended for the economy as a whole, it is continuing for consumers.

Income, not net worth

Keep in mind we are not talking about net worth, which would include the value of homes and financial investments. It has previously been documented that net worth has declined since the Great Recession. What the Sentier report focuses on is just income -- the money consumers receive from jobs, businesses, investments, pensions, etc.

According to the Sentier report, median annual household income declined during the recession, from $54,916 in December 2007 to $53,508 in June 2009. That's the point at which the economy began to register positive growth.

But the downward trend in household income continued, according to Sentier. During the last three years of economic recovery, real median annual household income has fallen to $50,964 -- a decline of 4.7 percent over the last three years. During the same period, the economy has grown an average 3.9 percent per quarter.

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A consumer recession?

If consumer households were considered businesses, that would be negative annual growth of 1.5 percent, which would constitute a deep and prolonged recession.

“This latest report continues our efforts to help chronicle one important dimension of the economic hardships now being experienced by a large number of American households,” said Gordon Green of Sentier Research. “In many ways, median household income provides a measure of the net effect of economic activity on the middle class and how well they are able to buy food, housing, and other necessities every month, especially now during this unprecedented period of economic stagnation.”

Drilling deeper into the numbers, Sentier reports almost every consumer subgroup is worse off now than it was three years ago.

For households made up of consumers between 25 and 34 years old, income declined by 8.9 percent. Among households in which the householder has some college but no degree, real median annual income declined by 9.3 percent. For households headed by a self-employed person, income declined 9.4 percent. Among households with a householder between 55 and 64 years old, income fell 9.7 percent.

The only group that saw its income rise over the last three years were people over age 65, who presumably receive Social Security and funds from retirement accounts as a major part of their income.

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Facebook Feels No Love From Wall Street or Some Users

Stock price has plunged from May's IPO and users continue to grumble

When Facebook stock began trading in May, lots of people dreamed of striking it rich by getting in early on the initial public offering (IPO). That's turne...

PhotoWhen Facebook stock began trading in May, lots of people dreamed of striking it rich by getting in early on the initial public offering (IPO). That's turned out to be one of the year's most bitter miscalculations.

Those who brought on day one at the IPO price of $38 a share have seen their investment fall by 50 percent. Facebook opened this week's trading at $19.41. So what happened to one of the Street's can't miss opportunities?

It turns out that at $38 a share, Facebook's IPO was way overvalued. The underwriters who set the price assumed that traders would buy "potential," the way they did during the dot-com boom when Wall Street bid up the prices of Internet companies that had never turned a dime in profit.

Still overvalued?

Even at $19.41 a share there are some who think Facebook stock is still overvalued. It's price-to-earnings (PE) ratio is 67 - meaning investors must pay $67 for every $1 of company profit. When the PE ratio is that high, the company must promise incredible growth to justify such a valuation. Meanwhile, you can buy another fast-growing company, Apple, and pay less than $16 for each dollar of earnings. Which looks like the better buy?

That's not to say that Facebook isn't now turning a profit and has the potential to earn more in the future. After all, when you have 900 million or so users, there should be a way to monetize all those eyeballs.

But what if having such a huge customer base turns out to be a giant Achilles heel? A review of recent consumer complaints about Facebook shows many users are frustrated with a particular aspect of the company but can find no way to communicate it.

Complaints about a lack of response

For example, an anonymous user in San Diego posted a complaint at ConsumerAffairs about an individual he claims is running a real estate investment scam on Facebook.

"He steals deposits, investment funds and is not a licensed real estate person," the user writes. "Facebook continues to host his page with no regard to the members that he is stealing money from. Facebook has been notified of the fraud. There has been no contact from Facebook with regard to any investigation."

Some users continue to express surprise when Facebook suspends their accounts because they have "friended" other users who say they don't know them. The suspended user expresses surprise because Facebook frequently suggests these people as potential new "friends."

"I was banned for seven days for befriending people online," Ricky, of Canaan, NH wrote at ConsumerAffairs. "When playing blackjack, people 'friend' people all the time, who they don't know and you people give extra money for friending. I think it's my right to choose who I can be friends with or not. If they accept, fine. If they don't want to be your friend, then don't accept them."

Customer service challenge

 

Facebook Aug. 27, 2012, 3:52 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook

While Apple may be the world's biggest company in terms of market cap, Facebook is probably the world's largest in terms of "customers," though it collects no money directly from its users. But while having 900 million "customers" gives Facebook enormous potential, it also gives the company enormous headaches.

 

How do you deal with 900 million people? It's not like you can set up call centers all over the world to take phone calls -- though clearly many of the users who post complaints would like them to.

Meanwhile, Facebook's disappointing Wall Street debut has soured the mood for other IPOs, according to Jeffrey Goldberger, Managing Partner of KCSA Strategic Communications.

"With great anticipation, the US capital markets embraced the next generation of Internet sensations such as Facebook, Groupon and Zynga only to see the stocks prices of these companies plummet to levels well below their IPO price," Goldberger said. "So while initial backers, management and public investors have taken their lumps in the form of decreased stock value, the fallout of this negative sentiment has had an astonishingly detrimental effect on the IPO market."

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Feds Predict Higher Food Prices in 2013

USDA forecast confirms private economists' assessment of drought's impact

Food industry analysts have predicted that food prices in the U.S. will rise next year because of this summer's drought. Now the U.S. Department of Agricul...

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Study: Midlife Fitness Contributes to Healthy Old Age

Fitness lowers risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, other common conditions

All you 40-year-old joggers and weight-lifters should be happy to hear this: a new study finds that fitness in midlife is associated with a lower risk of c...

PhotoAll you 40-year-old joggers and weight-lifters should be happy to hear this: a new study finds that fitness in midlife is associated with a lower risk of chronic health problems later in life.

Seems self-evident, you say? Perhaps so, but any scientist will tell you that what seems obviously true doesn't always turn out that way. So, Benjamin L. Willis, M.D., M.P.H., of the Cooper Institute, Dallas, and colleagues examined the association between midlife fitness and chronic disease outcomes later in life by linking Medicare claims with participant data from the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study, a large group of individuals who were examined at the Cooper Clinic from 1970 to 2009.

Their findings: Fitness in midlife appears to be associated with a lower risk of common chronic health conditions later in life in men and women older than 65 years and enrolled in Medicare, according to their study published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication.

“Compared with participants with lower midlife fitness, those with higher midlife fitness appeared to spend a greater proportion of their final five years of life with a lower burden of CCs,” the authors comment. 

The study of 14,726 healthy men and 3,944 healthy woman (overall median age 49 years at baseline) used eight chronic conditions (CCs) for the analysis: congestive heart failure, ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, Alzheimer disease, and colon or lung cancer.

“In the present study, higher fitness measured in midlife was strongly associated with a lower incidence of CCs decades later,” the authors note.

Researchers suggest a moderate increase in fitness may mean a reduction in CCs in older age. 

Among those study participants who died, researchers note that higher midlife fitness appeared to be more strongly associated with a delay in the development of CCs than with survival.

 

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Walmart Offers Email Price Comparisons in Test Markets

The retail giant is asking its grocery customers to post the comparison results on social media

Walmart is trying out a new way of luring grocery shoppers to its stores. It's asking consumers to send a photo of their latest grocery receipt from a comp...

PhotoWalmart is trying out a new way of luring grocery shoppers to its stores. It's asking consumers to send a photo of their latest grocery receipt from a competing store.

In return, Walmart says it will analyze the purchases and compare the price the consumer paid to what he or she would have paid for the same items at Walmart.

The promotion is currently being offered in Chicago, Atlanta and Albuquerque, N.M.  Walmart isn't saying if it will be expanded but if it's successful, it's a good bet it will spread to other cities.

 

Consumers rate Wal-Mart Super Stores

Expressing confidence in the results, the discount giant is suggesting consumers post the results on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. 

 

The receipt comparison tool is reportedly an extension of a five-month print and broadcast ad campaign featuring real shoppers and actual receipts that challenges consumers to bring their receipts into Wal-Mart to see for themselves how much money they could have saved, Supermarket News reported.

Inventory matters

The price comparison app could be nifty if it works but Milton of Manassas, Va., thinks Walmart needs to pay more attention to keeping popular items in stock.

"The Walmart in Manassas Mall is the only store to stock UPC #60538800293, item #815156. Why do the other stores not stock this item? I have been to the store five times and the shelf is empty. Why? There are 24 on regular order and 96 ordered last week. Where are the cans of cat food?" Milton asked in a recent posting to ConsumerAffairs.

"It appears that the small cans keep coming in and the store has plenty on the shelf, but why should I pay $.47 for a small can when you are supposed to stock the large can for $.70? Come on, let's keep the shelves stocked. I know for a fact that the manager ordered 96 cans last week because I was standing next to him," Milton said.

 

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Consumers Harmed By Promises of Federal Jobs Getting Refunds

Materials were offered to help study for phantom jobs

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is mailing roughly 1,900 refund checks to consumers who allegedly were deceived ...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is mailing roughly 1,900 refund checks to consumers who allegedly were deceived by false promises that they could get federal jobs if they paid for study materials or counseling services to help them pass an exam -- even though often there were no exams or jobs. 

Under settlements reached in December 2010 and March 2012, the defendants, Government Careers Inc., Jon Coover, Richard Friedberg, and Rimona Friedberg, are permanently banned from selling employment-related products or services. 

More than $50,000 is being returned to consumers; payments will be 22.73 percent of their loss. Consumers who receive the checks from the FTC’s refund administrator should cash them within 60 days of the date they were issued. 

The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed. Consumers with questions should call the refund administrator, BMC Group, at 1-888-768-2051, or go here.

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West Nile Virus Outbreak Is the Worst Ever

Texas is the American epicenter of the disease

On Wednesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 55 percent rise in the amount of people infected with the West Nile Virus (WNV...

PhotoEverything's bigger in Texas, and that includes West Nile Virus outbreaks. Nearly 600 Texans have fallen ill and at least 21 have died as of a few days ago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week reported a nationwide 55 percent rise in the number of people infected with the West Nile Virus (WNV) compared to last year, which to date is the largest outbreak since the first U.S. resident was infected back in 1999.

“The number of West Nile cases in people has risen dramatically in the last few weeks and indicates that we are in one of the biggest West Nile virus outbreaks we have ever seen in this country,” said the CDC's Dr. Lyle Peterson.

The disease claimed the lives of at least 41 people so far this year, which has brought the total amount of West Nile deaths in the U.S. to 1,118 since the disease was introduced here in 1999.

Besides Texas, other states with high rates of infection include Mississippi, South Dakota, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Blame the mosquito

WNV is most commonly spread to humans and animals by infected mosquitoes. Although the virus cannot be passed through physical contact, it can be transferred through blood transfusion and breast feedings, but these cases are rare, says the CDC.

The government agency also says the best protection against WNV is by following the same measures you would to protect yourself from being bitten by a mosquito.

For example covering your arms during summer months — especially at night — using the proper amount of insect repellant, while also making sure all of your window screens are intact and contain no holes where mosquitoes can easily fly in and bite your family and pets.

One of the scariest parts of WNV, say experts, is the high number of people who feel no trace or signs of the disease. According to the CDC, 80 percent of people who get the illness will not have any symptoms whatsoever.

Not everyone who gets the disease is subject to severe illness or death. Around one out of 150 people who get the disease develop serious symptoms, as many who are stricken only have the illness for a few days or weeks, according to published research by the CDC.

For those who do develop symptoms, they include body aches, fevers, swollen lymph glands, fever, stomach pains, skin rashes and other overt signs.

The more severe WNV is, the more intensified the symptoms are, and the longer they are likely to persist, say experts. The infection is known to develop about three days after one is bitten.

Texas responds

With Texas having the highest amount of WNV cases in the U.S., officials have declared a state of emergency and announced plans to immediately spray many acres with potent insecticides, but the residents in the area are concerned about the health implications. A lot of the aerial spraying is being done in Dallas.

The city's mayor, Mike Rawlings, says the insecticides were of no harm to the residents, although some insects that provide value to the environment may be killed.

“There's a lot of sentiment that people don't want this, and there's a fear of the unknown,” he said in a statement. “You have the science, the CDC and EPA and all of these cities across the United States that say this is okay,” he said.

A representative of the Texas State Department of Health Services says using the spray is far less harmful than not using it, and pulling back on the treatment would cause even a greater health risk.

“Risks with aerial spraying are very, very low, especially compared with the risk of disease, she said. “We believe it is a safe and very effective approach for Dallas.”

Warmer weather

Many of the areas that have higher amounts of West Nile cases have longer stretches of summer than other parts of the United States, and that's no coincidence says Peterson.

“Hot weather, we know from experiments in the laboratory, can increase the transmission of the virus.

Other ways to protect yourself from the virus is to empty out left-over water in pet dishes, buckets, and pots, as this will help prevent mosquitoes from breeding in these areas, says the CDC.

The water in bird baths should also be changed each week, and children's plastic swimming pools should be emptied when not being used.

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Consumers Increase Credit Cards But Paying Loans on Time

Two new reports suggests lending standards are relaxing and consumers are handling it

Two new reports on consumer credit usage may constitute positive signs for the economy. On one hand consumers have increased the number of their open credi...

PhotoTwo new reports on consumer credit usage may constitute positive signs for the economy. On one hand consumers have increased the number of their open credit card accounts and on the other they are doing a better job of paying their car loans on time.

Equifax, one of the three credit reporting agencies, says the number of open retail credit card accounts exceeded 175 million in July for the first time since December 2009, when the economy was in the early stages of recovery. That reverses a trend of fewer accounts, as credit card issuers unilaterally closed many cardholders' accounts in 2009 and 2010.

Now, it appears as though lending standards have relaxed, resulting in the origination of some 13.8 million new retail card accounts year-to-date through May 2012. That represents a 10 percent increase over January – May 2011 totals.

"The economic recovery is increasing both demand for new credit cards and the supply of credit," said Equifax Chief Economist Amy Crews Cutts. "However, while consumers are seeking new credit card accounts, they are not increasing their use of that newly available credit as fast. Utilization rates of card limits continue to fall, and, additionally, we are seeing increasing payment ratios at the same time."

On-time payments improve

In fact, delinquency rates among retail cards in July 2012 saw a nearly 15 percent decrease from the same time a year ago. Delinquency rates on other types of consumer loans are falling as well.

The biggest improvement in on-time payments is for auto loans, according to an analysis by Loans.net. Delinquent auto loans are the lowest in 10 years. A year ago at this time, the total of outstanding loans in arrears was 25 percent higher.

"Banks are starting to approve auto loans again in record numbers," the company said in a statement. "There are even some lenders that are now approving bad credit car loans as well. Loan comparison Websites have seen a huge rush in traffic in just the past few months."

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Limited Quantity of Hearts of Romaine Salad Recalled

There's a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes

Fresh Express Incorporated is voluntarily recalling a limited quantity of expired 10 oz. Hearts of Romaine salad with the expired Use-by Date of August 23,...

PhotoFresh Express Incorporated is voluntarily recalling a limited quantity of expired 10 oz. Hearts of Romaine salad with the expired Use-by Date of August 23, 2012, and a Product Code beginning with "G222" as a precaution due to a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes. 

No illnesses are reported in association with the recall. No other Fresh Express products are being recalled. 

Fresh Express customer service representatives are already contacting retailers to confirm the product was removed from their inventories and store shelves in accordance with standard procedures for products that have reached their expiration date. Customers with questions may contact their Fresh Express customer service representative. 

In an unlikely event that consumers may still have this expired product in their refrigerators, it should not be consumed, but discarded instead. Consumers with questions may call the Fresh Express Consumer Response Center at (800) 242-5472 during the hours of 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. 

The recall was issued due to an isolated incident in which a sample of a singled package of 10 oz. Hearts of Romaine salad yielded a positive result for Listeria monocytogenes as part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s random sample testing program. Fresh Express is continuing to coordinate closely with regulatory officials. 

The limited quantity of recalled product is identified with a Product Code beginning with "G222" and a Use-by Date of August 23, which is located in the upper right-hand corner of the package. In addition, the UPC Code of 71279 26102 is located on the back of the package below the barcode. The 10 oz. Hearts of Romaine was distributed in limited quantities to predominantly eastern and southeastern states. 

 

BRANDPRODUCT NAMESIZEPKG TYPEUPCPOSSIBLE DISTRIBUTION STATES
Fresh ExpressHearts of Romaine10 ozBag7127926102AL, AR, FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, LA, MD, MO, MS, NC, OH, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV
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Florida On Guard Against Post-Isaac Gouging

Meanwhile, storm heads for Gulf Coast landfall on Katrina anniversary

With much of Florida feeling the effects of Tropical Storm Isaac, some gas stations appear to be raising their prices. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi i...

PhotoWith much of Florida feeling the effects of Tropical Storm Isaac, some gas stations appear to be raising their prices. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is warning these stations, and other retailers, they could face state charges if they are found to be price gouging.

Florida law prohibits extreme increases in the price of essential items food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, lumber and equipment needed as a direct result of an officially declared emergency.

Miami TV station WFOR-TV reports at least one south Florida gas station has raised the price of regular gasoline to $4.49 a gallon -- about 60 cents higher than some of its competitors. Over the weekend Bondi activated her office's price-gouging hotline.

“With thousands of visitors traveling to Tampa Bay for the Republican National Convention, we will protect all residents and visitors from unscrupulous individuals who attempt to prey on consumers,” stated Attorney General Pam Bondi. “I encourage everyone to prepare for Tropical Storm Isaac before the storm arrives.”

Penalties

Businesses found guilty of violating the price gouging statute are subject to civil penalties of $1,000 per violation and up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period.

Hurricane Isaac, meanwhile, has drifted to the west and appears to have spared Florida its full impact. However, the rest of the Gulf Coast might not be so fortunate. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has urged residents of his state to "prepare for the worst."

The storm is expected to make landfall early Wednesday -- eerily the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall on the Gulf Coast, causing massive devastation to New Orleans and the coastal region. Isaac is expected to pack much less punch than Katrina, however. It's expected to be a category 2 storm with top winds of 96 miles per hour.  

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Illinois Claims Autism Support Group is a Scam

Group collected money from parents for service dogs that were never provided

People all over the country have sent money of an Illinois-based organization called Animals for Autism. After all, it sounded like a wonderful idea.Anim...

PhotoPeople all over the country have sent money to an Illinois-based organization called Animals for Autism. After all, it sounded like a wonderful idea. Animals for Autism collected money it said would be used to train and provide service dogs to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

But Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says the people who sent money are victims of what she called “a heartless scam.” Madigan has filed suit against Glenarm, IL, resident Lea Kaydus and her organization, Animals for Autism. The lawsuit alleges that to date, none of the families who paid for the service has received a trained dog as promised by Kaydus.

Dashed hopes

“The organization targeted parents of children with autism who hoped that adopting a service dog would help their child,” Madigan said. “But instead of receiving a trained dog to assist their child, these families lost thousands of dollars and worse, had their hopes for their child dashed.”

According to the lawsuit, Kaydus’ Animals for Autism advertised it would specially train Alaskan Klee Kai puppies and Siberian Huskies for $3,000 to $8,000 and then pair the dogs with families to assist their children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Kaydus promised families that they initially would be introduced to their dogs in person or via teleconference calls and then would receive frequent updates until the dogs were trained and ready to be placed in families’ homes.

Phony pictures

Madigan said families in California, Ohio and Washington sent payments to Kaydus and were led to believe over the course of several months that Kaydus was training dogs to place in their homes. In some cases, families received pictures of puppies, though those images were taken years earlier and depicted dogs that weren’t involved in Kaydus’ supposed training program.

According to the suit, Animals for Autism collected at least $5,190 from families in the scheme. The lawsuit alleges numerous violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act and Solicitation for Charity Act against Kaydus and her organization.

Shortly after filing the suit Madigan reached a settlement with the organization. Under its terms, Kaydus must provide restitution to affected families and adhere to a court order requiring her compliance with the state’s charitable and consumer fraud laws.

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Jury: Samsung Ripped Off Apple

Many Samsung products could disappear from the marketplace

In a stunning victory for Apple, a jury in California concluded that Samsung used Apple's patented design and technology in development of its Android smar...

PhotoIn a stunning victory for Apple, a jury in California concluded that Samsung used Apple's patented design and technology in development of its Android smartphones and tablets. It directed Samsung to pay its competitor $1.05 billion in damages.

The impact on consumers may be felt in the marketplace if the verdict stands. While Apple generally releases one smartphone and one tablet per year, Samsung is constantly producing new products in those categories. Apple said it would file for an injunction to block U.S. sales of those smartphones and tablets within the next few days. If Apple is successful, consumers would no longer be able to purchase those devices.

In filing the suit, Apple claimed that Korea-based Samsung copied the design of its iPad when it developed it's line of Galaxy tablets. In addition, in maintains that some Samsung smartphones, which run on Google's Android operating system, unlawfully use technology Apple developed for the iPhone.

Mountain of evidence

"We are grateful to the jury for their service and for investing the time to listen to our story and we were thrilled to be able to finally tell it,” Apple said in a statement. “The mountain of evidence presented during the trail showed that Samsung's copying went far deeper than even we knew.”

Samsung, meanwhile, called the verdict a loss for the U.S. consumer.

“It will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices,” the company said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that patent law can be manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners, or technology that is being improved every day by Samsung and other companies.”

Samsung noted that the battle would continue, pointing out that the same case is being argued in courts around the world.

Real war is against Google

Some see Apple's aggressive legal campaign against Samsung as really being directed against Google's Android system, which the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs called a rip-off of Apple's system. Samsung has been the most successful manufacturing producing Android devices and thus has posed the largest threat to Apple's dominance in the marketplace.

As a result of the ruling many Samsung products could disappear from the marketplace, assuming a court grants Apple's request for a sales injunction. Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Galaxy S II smartphones are among the products that could be pulled.

Samsung is the world leader in Smartphone sales with a wide lead over Apple. Some technology analysts have recently speculated that Apple views their Korean competitor as a major threat and targeted it first with its patent claims.  

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Sick As a Dog -- It's Not Just Cantaloupes, Dog Food Is Blamed for Many Illnesses

Critics say FDA has "a poor track record" of assuring the safety of food, human and otherwise

Everyday ConsumerAffairs hears stories like this one, from Jill of Lawrence, Kan.: "I picked up a bag of Nutro Max Senior to try for my aging collie. ...

PhotoConsumerAffairs readers are long accustomed to stories like this one, from Jill of Lawrence, Kan.: "I picked up a bag of Nutro Max Senior to try for my aging collie. At first, I didn't see any problems, but she became progressively sick[er], throwing up at least once a day and becoming lethargic. The only thing that had changed in her life was her food.

"I stopped giving the collie this apparently toxic food, bought her familiar Science Diet, and all is well again. Shame on dog food manufacturers for not learning from the lessons of the past! We will never buy Nutro Max again."

Case closed?

Photo
Bernadette Dunham

There's no question that contaminated pet food can make pets sick, as a long history of recalls and pet illnesses and deaths indicates. But are consumers too quick to blame the food when their pet falls ill? Some veterinarians think so, including Bernadette Dunham, D.V.M., Ph.D., director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA).

The FDA has been in the middle of countless disputes over whether a pet food is to blame for animal illnesses, but in a recent FDA blog posting, Dunham says it is often difficult to pin down the cause of a specific pet's malady.

She offers these suggestions to pet owners:

1. Contact your veterinarian right away if your pet gets sick. Be ready to describe the symptoms and keep track of how soon after your pet's last meal or snack they occurred.

2. Always keep the original label or packaging of whatever you are feeding your pets. If you buy a large bag of feed and scoop it into a smaller container, be sure to save the original. The FDA needs not only the brand name but the lot number and other information that is only available from the label.

3. Report the incident to the FDA, either at its website or by calling the consumer complaint coordinator in your state. Contact information is available online

PhotoOf course, none of this does much good for someone whose beloved pet is in extremis. It's already too late for them.

"Purina SmartBlend Lamb and Rice killed my dog," said Lisa of Wichita, Kan. She said her one of her dogs became ill and was undergoing treatment when her second dog began refusing to eat. 

"The vet came out again, gave more meds and he was doing better. That night, he died," Lisa said. "I called Purina after I began researching and found that many other dogs became sick and/or died while on this food. Of course, I heard the, 'This is the first time we have ever heard of it.' They promised to reimburse my vet fees. I am still waiting. I even sent them a sample of the food. I called not too long ago and they closed my case."

Critics: FDA is lax

Nutro Pet Foods Aug. 24, 2012, 6:30 p.m.
Consumers rate Nutro Pet Foods

The FDA is with you all the way, Dunham assures us but not everyone agrees. Sarah Alexander, the education and outreach director of Food & Water Watch, a Ralph Nader-founded consumer organization, says the FDA "has a poor track record of ensuring the safety of food from China for people and pets."

"Despite the flood of reports of dogs dying from imported dog treats going back as far as 2007, the FDA has done nothing to fix the problem," Alexander said in a recent email to the organization's supporters.

Alexander quotes a pet owner named Rita, who experienced problems similar to those so familiar to ConsumerAffairs readers: "Heidi was a happy and healthy 8-year-old German Shepherd on May 23, 2012 when I gave her just two chicken jerky dog treats as a 'special' treat. Within two days she became ill, vomiting and diarrhea and lethargy, refusing all food but drinking water excessively. On Memorial Day, May 28, 2012, Heidi died a horrific death in my arms. The void her passing has left in my life is almost unbearable. I live alone and Heidi was my constant companion, my loyal friend, my fierce protector."

The FDA regulates the import of pet food and processed human food, but Alexander and other critics contend the agency has done too little to stop contaminated food from China from being sold in the U.S.

"This isn't the first time that tainted pet food from China has harmed our pets," Alexander noted. "Just a few years ago thousands of pets became sick and died after eating pet food contaminated with melamine, and right now there are more than 60 human food products that are banned from being imported from China because of unsafe substances, including milk products contaminated with melamine."

Alexander notes that the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by Congress last year has not yet been implemented. And just as critics say the Obama Administration's failure to adopt the rules in a timely manner is responsible for the current outbreak of salmonella contamination in cantaloupes, it is also being blamed for the failure to adequately regulate pet food. 

President Obama signed the bill into law in January 2011 and final standards were supposed to have been enacted within 12 months. But 19 months later, the standards are in limbo, awaiting final action by -- who else? -- the FDA.
  
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In Search of the Best Fast-Food Fish Sandwich

McDonalds, Burger King, Arby's and Wendy's battle for fish sandwich supremacy

During the summer when I was a kid, I and the other children in the neighborhood would gather every morning to play these marathon games of baseball which ...

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Feds Offer Food Safety Tips as Tropical Storm Isaac Nears Florida

Proper planning can keep you safe and sound

As Floridians ready their homes for Tropical Storm Isaac's potential blast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) ...

PhotoAs Floridians ready their homes for Tropical Storm Isaac's potential blast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) urges them to make food safety a part of their preparation efforts. Power failures and flooding that often result from weather emergencies compromise the safety of stored food, and planning ahead can minimize the risk of foodborne illness. 

"Storing perishable food at proper temperatures is crucial to food safety but can become difficult if you lose electricity for your refrigerator and freezer," USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said. "For those living in Tropical Storm Isaac's projected path, we recommend stocking up on canned food, bottled water, batteries, and dry ice." 

The publication "A Consumer's Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes" is available to print and keep for reference during a power failure. Florida residents can get timely food safety information on Twitter by following @FL_FSISAlert. 

Getting ready 

Steps to follow to prepare for a possible weather emergency:

  • Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer to help determine if food is safe during power outages. The refrigerator temperature should be 40° F or lower and the freezer should be 0° F or lower.
  • Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.
  • Group food together in the freezer -- this helps the food stay cold longer.
  • Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately -- this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than 4 hours.
  • Purchase or make ice and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.
  • Plan ahead and know where dry ice and block ice can be purchased. 

Power failures 

Steps to follow if the power goes out:

  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
  • A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if you keep the door closed.
  • A full freezer will keep its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).
  • If the power is out for an extended period of time, buy dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days. 

The aftermath 

Steps to follow after a weather emergency: 

  • Check the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer. If the thermometer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe.
  • If no thermometer was used in the freezer, check each package. If food still contains ice crystals or is at 40° F or below when checked with a food thermometer, it may be safely refrozen.
  • Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items) that have been kept in a refrigerator or freezer above 40° F for two hours or more.
  • Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Containers that are not waterproof include those with screw-caps, snap lids, pull tops, and crimped caps. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.
  • Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water and sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.
  • Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans and retort pouches (for example, flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches) can be saved.
  • Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters. If bottled water is not available, tap water can be boiled for safety.
  • Never taste food to determine its safety!
  • When in Doubt, throw it out!
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BP Says Tainted Gasoline Problem in Midwest Fixed

Indiana opens investigation to make sure consumers are compensated

BP said that it has traced the source of the contamination in gasoline that caused engine problems in vehicles in four Midwestern states this week.The co...

PhotoBP said it has traced the source of the contamination in gasoline that caused engine problems in vehicles in four Midwestern states this week.

The company said that the contamination occurred at its Whiting, IN, refinery and it has taken steps to resolve the issue. Though the initial recall affected regular grade fuel, BP said it has suspended the sales of premium and mid grade fuel in certain areas as a precaution.

Indiana investigates

Meanwhile, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has opened an investigation into the problem to make sure consumers’ rights are protected. Zoeller reacted after reports of problems with cars in Northwest Indiana that fueled up at BP and other retail outlets including Luke Oil, Thornton’s.

“Our office opened an investigation regarding the BP gasoline recall in order to protect the significant number of consumers impacted," Zoeller said. “We are closely monitoring the response by BP and will be reviewing their claims and reimbursement processes. As the watchdog for Indiana consumers my office has a duty to ensure consumer's rights are protected and that there is no undue delay in appropriate reimbursements.”

Motorists who purchased regular grade gasoline in Northwest Indiana and others have reported car problems as a result of tainted gasoline.

2.1 million gallons

According to a BP statement earlier this week, the company believes 2.1 million gallons of regular grade gasoline blended at BP’s Whiting, Indiana, gasoline storage terminal between Aug. 13 and 17 contained a “higher than normal level of polymeric residue,” which can cause drivability issues. This contaminant may cause hard starting, shaking of the engine, non-starting or the check engine light to come on.

Zoeller said consumers who purchased fuel in Northwest Indiana at BP and other retail outlets during the past week could be affected.

BP, meanwhile, has set up a hotline and has instructed customers to call 1-800-333-3991 or email bpconsum@bp.com if their vehicles were affected by the tainted gasoline.

In addition to the Chicago area, BP says some of the contaminated fuel was also delivered to the Milwaukee area.

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Cruises to Alaska Becoming More Expensive

New clean air rules raise costs for cruise ships

Cruises to Alaska have become popular in recent years but new clean-air rules are about to make the cruises more expensive.“As of August 1, 2012, t...

PhotoCruises to Alaska have become popular in recent years but new clean-air rules are about to make the cruises more expensive.

“As of August 1, 2012, the North American Emission Control Area (ECA) regulation aimed at reducing emissions from ships commenced,” noted Martha Mitchell Meade, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “No one argues that protecting our environment is important, but travelers should be aware that it will impact their wallets as prices are likely to rise.”

The new clean-air rule announced by the Environmental Protection Agency requires large ships, including cruise lines, sailing within 200 miles of the U.S. coastline to use low-sulfur fuel, which is more pricey than the type of fuel currently being used by most ships.

Travel industry experts and Alaskan State Officials estimate the ECA regulation will impact tourism in Alaska as increasing costs associated with cruising, dining and hotel accommodations will likely be passed on to the consumer.

“The Alaskan Cruise Association notes the new regulations could increase the cost of operating a cruise ship for a season in Alaska by as much as $3 million to $5.5 million,” according to Travel Weekly, driving up cruise prices from $15 to $18 per passenger per day. In addition, dining and hotel accommodations are expected to rise as transportation costs for all goods shipped into Alaska will increase.

“Alaska is among the most cherished and magical destinations for travelers, and a cruise to Alaska tops many a traveler’s bucket list,” added Meade. “While travel prices, will increase, we do not expect them to become unreachable; now is the time, however, for those travelers who are on the verge of booking to enjoy that dream cruise to Alaska and save a few dollars in the process.”

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Why You Should Steer Clear of Debt Settlement Companies

It could end up costing you more in the long run

You open your credit card bill and stare at the balance. How could it have gotten so large?And maybe that's not your only credit card balance. Combined, ...

PhotoYou open your credit card bill and stare at the balance. How could it have gotten so large?

And maybe that's not your only credit card balance. Combined, the monthly payments are almost more than you can manage each month. Then along comes a company that says it can help you settle your credit card debt for pennies on the dollar.

Though it sounds tempting, keep in mind that it's a sales pitch. It rarely works out the way they present it.

Joe, of Bradford, Pa., says he received a pitch from a debt settlement firm and, even though all his accounts were current and we was slowly paying down the balances, he signed up. Maybe he wouldn't have to pay his debts after all.

Too good to be true?

“They asked me if id like to get out of debt and not have to pay all the interest so I started putting money into the account to settle my debts,” Joe wrote to ConsumerAffairs. “They guaranteed settling at 50 cents on the dollar and hoped to do it at 30 cents.”

Joe says the first card was settled at around 39 cents on the dollar he was very happy. But the happiness was short-lived.

“Next I received a letter saying i was being sued because I hadn't made any payments.”

Joe said the debt settlement company told him to withhold payment so he did. In response to the suit, he said he settled at 80 cents on the dollar plus had to pay court costs, plus pay a percentage to the debt settlement company.

No savings

“So it cost me more to settle the account than it would have to pay it off in the first place,” Joe wrote. “It was my own fault for signing up but when they contacted me it seemed like it was a good way to help get out of debt. Now that they are paid off they no longer return any calls.”

Debt settlement companies now have to operate under new rules and government consumer agencies generally keep close tabs on them. In February 2010 the state of Illinois filed individual lawsuits against four debt settlement companies, claiming they engaged in deceptive marketing practices, charged excessive fees and did little or nothing to improve consumers' financial standing.

"These companies are unfairly luring financially strapped consumers with misleading claims that they can effectively eliminate consumers' debt," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said at the time. "The reality is that, after enrolling in a debt settlement program, consumers too often find themselves in even worse financial straits.”

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Food Products Seized at California Warehouse

Food and Drug Administration acts to prevent food distribution from rodent-infested facility

U.S. Marshals have seized food products stored in a Fremont, CA, company’s warehouse after inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) foun...

PhotoU.S. Marshals have seized food products stored in a Fremont, CA, company’s warehouse after inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found widespread and active rodent infestation. 

The on Aug. 21 seizure of various food products in the warehouse owned by the San Francisco Herb &Natural Food Company came under a warrant issued by the U.S. District Court for the Northern of California. 

Unsanitary conditions 

FDA inspectors found significant unsanitary conditions throughout the warehouse during a recent inspection, in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. These conditions included the presence of live and dead rodents in and around food products, and apparent rodent nesting materials in food. 

The seized held goods had been under an embargo by the State of California’s Department of Public Health. Those articles of food that were stored in metal and glass containers were exempt from the embargo and the seizure. 

"The violations at San Francisco Herb & Natural Food Company, in Fremont, Calif. are widespread and significant," said Dara A. Corrigan, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. "This prompted the FDA working together with its state partner, the State of California’s Department of Public Health to take these aggressive enforcement actions to protect the health of consumers.” 

To date, no illnesses have been associated with the San Francisco Herb & Natural Food Company’s products. Illnesses or adverse events related to use of these products should be reported to the FDA at caers@fda.hhs.gov or by calling 240-402-2405.

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New Links Between Alcohol, Tobacco and Cancer

Two studies raise new warnings about popular products

Two independent studies raise new health concerns about consumption of alcohol and use of smokeless tobacco products. Both students suggest a link between ...

PhotoTwo independent studies raise new health concerns about consumption of alcohol and use of smokeless tobacco products. Both suggest a link between the products and cancer.

Presenting the study at the meeting of the American Chemical Society, researcher Silvia Balbo explained how popular alcoholic beverages may be carcinogenic and hold special risk for people of Asian descent.

Balbo says the human body breaks down, or metabolizes, the alcohol in beer, wine and hard liquor. One of the substances formed in that breakdown is acetaldehyde, a substance with a chemical backbone that resembles formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. Scientists also have known from laboratory experiments that acetaldehyde can cause DNA damage, trigger chromosomal abnormalities in cell cultures and act as an animal carcinogen.

First evidence

“We now have the first evidence from living human volunteers that acetaldehyde, formed after alcohol consumption, damages DNA dramatically,” Balbo said.

Balbo says moderate drinkers have much less risk because a natural enzyme in the body converts the acetaldehyde to a relatively harmless substance. However, she says about 30 percent of people of Asian descent -- almost 1.6 billion people -- are unable to metabolize alcohol to the harmless substance. That genetic variant results in an elevated risk of esophageal cancer from alcohol drinking. Native Americans and native Alaskans have a deficiency in the production of that same enzyme, she said.

Also at the meeting of the American Chemical Society, researcher Stephen Hecht presented findings suggesting smokeless tobacco products contain a substance that is a strong oral carcinogen, posing a risk for the nine million consumers who use the products.

Strong oral cavity carcinogen

“This is the first example of a strong oral cavity carcinogen that’s in smokeless tobacco,” Hecht said. “Our results are very important in regard to the growing use of smokeless tobacco in the world, especially among younger people who think it is a safer form of tobacco than cigarettes. We now have the identity of the only known strong oral carcinogen in these products.”

Hecht’s team identified the carcinogen as (S)-NNN, one of a family of hundreds of compounds called nitrosamines, most of which are capable of causing cancer. Nitrosamines occur in a variety of foods, ranging from beer to bacon, and also form naturally in the stomach when people eat foods containing high levels of nitrite.

The problem, says Hecht, is that nitrosamine levels in smokeless tobacco are far higher than in food.

Hecht said evidence has been accumulating for years that people who use smokeless tobacco have an increased risk of cancer of the mouth, esophagus and pancreas. He says these findings should prompt the federal government to ban or regulate the products.

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Chamberlain Farm Produce, Inc. Recalls Cantaloupes

Salmonella contamination is possible

Chamberlain Farm Produce, Inc., of Owensville, IN, is recalling all of its cantaloupes from the 2012 growing season that may remain in the marketplace. T...

PhotoChamberlain Farm Produce, Inc., of Owensville, IN, is recalling all of its cantaloupes from the 2012 growing season that may remain in the marketplace. 

This recall is occurring because of concern some cantaloupes may be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. 

This recall follows a prior market withdrawal of all Chamberlain Farm Produce cantaloupes that occurred August 16 and 17. 

During the period June 21 to August 16, the company marketed cantaloupes to four retail grocery stores with grocery store retail outlets in Vanderburgh, Warrick, Gibson, and Dubois County, Indiana, and Wabash County, Illinois; and also to four wholesale purchasers located in Owensboro, Kentucky, St. Louis, Missouri, Peru, Illinois, and Durant, Iowa, respectively. As a part of the market withdrawal, Chamberlain Farm Produce notified all of the purchasers of its cantaloupes to take immediate action to remove all cantaloupes from the marketplace, and all of the purchasers confirmed compliance with that request. 

The CDC reports that for the period July 7 through August 22, there have been reports of some 178 people nationwide who may have become sick in connection with consumption of cantaloupes. The FDA investigation is continuing and incomplete at this time. After discussion with the FDA, Chamberlain Farm Produce decided to conduct the recall as a precautionary measure. 

Consumers should inquire about the source before purchasing additional cantaloupes or using those already purchased. To be absolutely certain, consumers should destroy any cantaloupes currently in their possession the origin of which cannot be identified.

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Student Loan Delinquency Still Rising

But payments on all other forms of consumer credit appear to be improving

There's new evidence that recent college graduates are struggling under the mounting burden of student loan debt, which earlier this year passed the $1 tri...

PhotoThere's new evidence that recent college graduates are struggling under the mounting burden of student loan debt, which earlier this year passed the $1 trillion mark.

Equifax, one of the three credit reporting agencies, has found that student loan delinquencies and write-offs have increased significantly over the past 12 months.

According to the report, student loan write-off rates increased more than 29 percent month-to-month from June-July 2012. Student loan 60-day delinquency rates increased more than 14 percent year-to-year in the same period.

Loan balances growing

Student loan balances are also going up, rising $58.5 billion year-over-year from July 2011-2012. The total number of student loans has increased nearly 24 percent from July 2011, when there were 89 million, to July 2012 when there were 116 million.

In the first seven months of 2012 lenders have written off $9.3 billion in student loan debt, a 10 percent increase over the year before. Severe derogatory balances, which usually comes just before a write-off, are up 14 percent over a year ago.

"Student loans is one area of lending not affected by tighter underwriting standards since the start of the recession," said Equifax Chief Economist Amy Crews Cutts. "The investment in higher education pays off over a person's lifetime, while the tuition cost has to be paid up-front, leading to big demand for student loans. Unfortunately, the current job market has not been kind to new graduates and their student loans start to come due once they graduate – if they don't have a job by the time the first installment is due, they can find themselves in quite a jam."

Other consumer credit areas improving

While student loan delinquency rates are surging, consumers appear to have a pretty good handle on their credit in other area. The Equifax reports shows that, in the July 2011 to 2012 period, auto loan 60-day plus delinquency rates declined 35 percent. Bank credit card 60-day plus delinquency rates were down 21 percent. Consumer finance 60-day plus delinquency rates declined 23 percent.

At the same time, consumers increased their use of new credit. It increased 13 percent from May 2011 to May 2012. The biggest increase in new credit was seen with bank credit cards, which was up 21 percent. It rose from $58.1 billion through May 2011 to $72.9 billion through May 2012.

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Is Rinsing Your Sinuses Safe?

If not done properly, it could cause more problems than it solves

Little teapots with long spouts have become a fixture in many homes for reasons that have nothing to do with tea. Called neti pots, they are used to rinse...

PhotoLittle teapots with long spouts have become a fixture in many homes for reasons that have nothing to do with tea. 

Called neti pots, they are used to rinse the nasal passages with a saline (salt-based) solution, and have become popular as a treatment for congested sinuses, colds and allergies, and for moistening nasal passages exposed to dry indoor air. 

However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concerns about the risk of infection tied to the improper use of neti pots and other nasal rinsing devices. The agency is informing consumers, manufacturers and health care professionals about safe practices for using all nasal rinsing devices, which include bulb syringes, squeeze bottles, and battery-operated pulsed water devices. 

These devices are generally safe and useful products, says Steven Osborne, M.D., a medical officer in FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH). But they must be used and cleaned properly. 

Rinsing water 

Most important is the source of water that is used with nasal rinsing devices. Tap water that is not filtered, treated, or processed in specific ways is not safe for use as a nasal rinse. 

Some tap water contains low levels of organisms, such as bacteria and protozoa, including amoebas, which may be safe to swallow because stomach acid kills them. But these “bugs” can stay alive in nasal passages and cause potentially serious infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Improper use of neti pots may have caused two deaths in 2011 in Louisiana from a rare brain infection that the state health department linked to tap water contaminated with an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. 

Misleading, missing information 

Information included with the device might give more specific instructions about its use and care. However, FDA staff has found that some manufacturers’ instructions provide misleading or contradictory information, or lack any guidelines. 

For example, some manufacturers have recommended using plain tap water; others warn against using it in printed directions, but show its use in pictures or videos. 

The device might also come without instructions. If you order a custom neti pot made by an artist, for example, that person might assume you know how to use it. 

The procedure for nasal rinsing may vary slightly by device, but generally involves these steps: 

  • Leaning over a sink, tilt your head sideways with your forehead and chin roughly level to avoid liquid flowing into your mouth.
  • Breathing through your open mouth, insert the spout of the saline-filled container into your upper nostril so that the liquid drains through the lower nostril.
  • Clear your nostrils, then repeat the procedure, tilting your head sideways, on the other side.

Nasal rinsing can remove dirt, dust, pollen and other debris, as well as help to loosen thick mucus. It can also help relieve nasal symptoms of allergies, colds and flu. 

The nose is like a car filter or home air filter that traps debris. Rinsing the nose with saline solution is similar to using saline eye drops to rinse out pollen,” Osborne says. The saline, he adds, enables the water to pass through delicate nasal membranes with little or no burning or irritation. 

FDA staff recommends that you consult a health care provider or pharmacist if the instructions do not clearly state how to use the device or the types of water to use, if instructions are missing, or if you have any questions. 

Questions and answers 

What types of water are safe to use in nasal rinsing devices? 

  • Distilled or sterile water, which you can buy in stores. The label will state “distilled” or “sterile.”
  • Boiled and cooled tap water—boiled for 3-5 minutes, then cooled until it is lukewarm. Previously boiled water can be stored in a clean, closed container for use within 24 hours.
  • Water passed through a filter with an absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller, which traps potentially infectious organisms. CDC has information on selecting these filters, which you can buy from some hardware and discount stores, or online. 

How do I use and care for my device? 

  • Wash and dry hands.
  • Check that the device is clean and completely dry.
  • Use the appropriate water as recommended above to prepare the saline rinse, either with the prepared mixture supplied with the device, or one you make yourself.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s directions for use.
  • Wash the device with distilled, sterile, or boiled and cooled tap water, and then dry the inside with a paper towel or let it air dry between uses. 

Are nasal rinsing devices safe for children? 

  • Some children are diagnosed with nasal allergies as early as age 2, Osborne says, and could use nasal rinsing devices at that time, if a pediatrician recommends it. However, he adds that very young children might not tolerate the procedure as easily as would older children or adults. 

What are some negative effects to watch out for when using nasal rinsing devices? 

  • Talk to your health care provider to determine if nasal rinsing will be safe or effective for your condition. If symptoms are not relieved or worsen after nasal rinsing, then return to your health care provider, especially if you had any of these symptoms while using the nasal rinse: 
  • fever
  • nosebleed
  • headaches
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Gasoline Prices Level Off This Week

But diesel fuel passes the $4 a gallon milestone

The surprising rise in gasoline prices this month appeared to taper off this week but the average price of diesel fuel topped $4 a gallon.The national av...

PhotoThe surprising rise in gasoline prices this month appeared to taper off this week but the average price of diesel fuel topped $4 a gallon.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.730 per gallon, compared with $3.716 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's up 24.5 cents a gallon in the last month.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.019 per gallon, versus $3.960 a week ago.

Gasoline prices continue to take their cue from oil prices which have drifted higher over the last three weeks amid conflicting economic data and a growing likelihood of a military confrontation with Iran this fall.

At the same time, refinery problems that caused pump prices to skyrocket in five Midwestern states earlier this month moderated a bit as operations at the troubled facilities resumed. The average price in Illinois, for example, fell about seven cents a gallon in the last week.

West coast states, meanwhile, are feeling the full brunt of a refinery fire at the Chevron facility in Richmond, Calif., that supplies much of the region. This week the four most expensive states for gasoline include California, Washington and Oregon.

Photo

 

The states with the highest gas prices this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.275)
  • California ($4.124)
  • Washington ($4.005)
  • Oregon ($3.999)
  • Connecticut ($3.999)
  • Illinois ($3.989)
  • New York ($3.960)
  • Alaska ($3.941)
  • Wisconsin ($3.862)
  • Michigan ($3.900)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.460)
  • New Mexico ($3.497)
  • Mississippi ($3.508)
  • Colorado ($3.518)
  • Tennessee ($3.527)
  • Arizona ($3.528)
  • Arkansas ($3.540)
  • Alabama ($3.541)
  • Wyoming ($3.554)
  • Texas ($3.557)
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Survey: Most Consumers Think the Economy Is in 'Bad' or 'Terrible' Shape

Nearly 25 percent think It will be difficult to purchase needed items over the next several months

We've been hearing a lot lately on how folks are doing financially. Well, that may or may not be the case....

PhotoWe've been hearing a lot lately on how well folks are doing financially. Well, that may or may not be the case. 

A new survey by RetailMeNot.com, the largest U.S. online coupon site, finds that 71% of consumers have a dismal view of the economy. Further, 1 in 4 are worried about being able to make all the necessary purchases in the coming months. Only 3% of respondents felt that the economy is in "good shape." 

"Our most recent survey looked at how consumers plan to shop for the remainder of the year. We believe a lackluster economy combined with high demand for discounts while shopping will lead to more frequent and higher first-time use of coupons over time," said Kristen Remeza, editor-in-chief of RetailMeNot Insider. "As shopping for the holidays -- in-store and online -- begins to gain steam, there are two other findings of note: First, nearly a third of consumers -- 31% -- intend to do their holiday shopping online in 2012. Second, 39% of consumers start their holiday shopping before November." 

The results of the survey found these shopping behaviors for the upcoming "holiday" shopping period: 

  • 39% of respondents start their holiday shopping before November.
  • Women (46%) are more likely than men (31%) to start their shopping earlier than November.
  • 23% of respondents start shopping in early November, 12% wait to start shopping until Black Friday/Cyber Monday and only 15% wait until after Cyber Monday to begin shopping.
  • 54% of respondents finish their holiday shopping sometime between Black Friday and when they actually give away the gift during the holidays.
  • Nearly 1 in 3 respondents (32%) say they are done with their holiday shopping by the end of Cyber Monday.
  • Women (58%) are more likely than men (50%) to say they tend to finish their holiday shopping after Cyber Monday.
  • Nearly a third of respondents (31%) intend to do their holiday shopping online in 2012 vs. a majority who intend to shop in-store (59%).
  • More than 70% of consumers (71%) think the economy is in "bad" or "terrible" shape.
  • A quarter (25%) believe that the economy is in "okay" shape, and fewer than 1 in 20 think that it is in "good" (3%) or "fantastic" (1%) shape.
  • Those 55 years old and over have a particularly negative view of the economy, with nearly 8 in 10 respondents (78%) saying that it is in "bad" or "terrible" shape – including 37% who think it is in terrible shape -- compared to 61% of those under 35.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 (24%) feel it will be difficult to purchase things they need over the next several months.
  • 4 in 10 respondents (40%) say that they should be able to get most of what they need in the coming months, but not be able to afford it all.
  • Only about a third of respondents (36%) are not worried about being able to buy all the things they need in the coming months.
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Wilson & Fisher Bistro Sets Recalled

Breakage of the chairs during normal user presents a fall hazard

Zest Garden, of Ontario, CA, is recalling about 22,500 Wilson & Fisher White Cast Bistro Table and Chairs Sets. The chairs can break during normal use, po...

PhotoZest Garden, of Ontario, CA, is recalling about 22,500 Wilson & Fisher White Cast Bistro Table and Chairs Sets. 

The chairs can break during normal use, posing a fall hazard to consumers. Zest Garden has received five reports of chairs breaking, including three reports of injuries. 

This recall involves three-piece patio sets sold in a white, cut-out rose pattern. The set consists of a table and two chairs made of cast iron and aluminum. The table is about 26 inches high and measures about 24 inches in diameter. Each chair is about 33 inches high with an oval-shaped seat that measures about 19 inches long and about 16 inches wide. The item number is XG-1015-23. The product measurements, the item number and "Wilson & Fisher White Cast Bistro Set" and "Made in China" are printed on labels located on the product's packaging. 

The sets, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Big Lots stores nationwide from November 2011 to May 2012 for about $100. 

Consumers should stop using the set immediately and return it to any Big Lots store for a full refund. 

For more information, contact Zest Garden at (800) 893-3006 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT, Monday through Friday, send an e-mail to info@zestgarden.com, or visit the firm's Website.

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New Fall TV Shows: What Looks Good and What Looks Just So-So

The pickings are slim on the cable channels, but network TV is trying to get its mojo back

It's definitely that time of year again when television and cable networks try to wow and amaze us with its new fall shows.Year after year it seems the b...

PhotoIt's definitely that time of year again when television and cable networks try to wow and amaze us with their new fall shows.

Year after year it seems the battle for viewership grows more intense as network TV tries to keep up with the anything-goes nature of cable programing, while cable channels attempt to achieve the longevity that network television channels have.

One of the most buzzed-about shows this fall season is clearly “Elementary” on CBS, for its creative take on detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty partner in crime-solving, Watson.

But instead of an older gentleman with a deerstalker hat and pipe, this version of Sherlock Holmes is a young, fast-talking, sarcastic recovering drug-addict living in Manhattan, played by British actor Jonny Lee Miller.

The character of his side-kick Watson is also written with a refreshing twist.

Played by Lucy Liu, of “Ally McBeal” fame, Dr. Joan Watson is not only Holmes' case-unraveling-companion, she's also his drug recovery sponsor which puts yet another spin on this modern take on an old detective series.

Containing a well-balanced mixture of humorous banter and probable New York City crime drama, the show has the see-if-you-can-solve-the-case-nature of Law & Order and the witty exchanges of popular shows like “30 Rock” or “Modern Family.”

"Elementary" premieres on September 25, at 10 p.m. Eastern. 

The Mindy Project

PhotoAnother show heavily buzzed about is “The Mindy Project,” starring Mindy Kaling of “The Office”. The show follows Kaling through her daily maze of work and life, as she plays a witty and single physician who doesn't quite have her dating and personal life all the way intact.

Also set in Manhattan, the Fox network sitcom is anticipated to be a hit among viewers 18 to 34, and its creators expect not only to capitalize on the popularity of “The Office,” but to also take advantage of the rising celebrity profile of Kaling, who is also a writer on the show.

Viewers can see if The Mindy Project hits the mark when it airs September 25 at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. 

NBC needs a Revolution

PhotoNBC has a few new shows that it hopes will bring the suffering network, now owned by penny-pinching Comcast, back to at least a semblance of its glory days when programs like “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “ER” sat atop the ratings hill.

Many critics believe the channel's science-fiction based drama “Revolution” might help NBC get a bit of its programming swagger back.

"Revolution" is set 15 years after an unmentioned apocalyptic event robs the earth of all its electricity. Everything that requires any electrical power fails to work including automobiles, airplanes, and even objects that only require batteries.

Eventually the U.S. Government collapses, and like any good post-apocalyptic tale, sheer anarchy breaks loose — dividing the country into independent armies and area leaders.

The protagonist in the series is really the entire family of the Mathesons, who hold some sort of object that could not only reinstate the earth's electricity, but also reveal why it shut down in the first place.

And of course the enemies of the Mathesons, which seems mainly to be the mean Captain Tom Neveille played by Giancarlo Esposito, is on the hunt for the family, desiring to capture the object that will explain why the electricity died 15 years prior.

You can catch this one starting September 17, at 10 p.m. Eastern, right after the popular singing show “The Voice.”

Single parents

PhotoAnother buzzed about NBC show is the comedy series “Guys With Kids,” executive produced by late night funny man Jimmy Fallon.

Whether all the talk of the show has been manufactured by NBC, or it simply comes from Fallon's association, "Guys With Kids" has a heavy presence on subway billboards, TV spots, and website pop-ups, despite its run of the mill premise.

The show doesn't seem to cover new ground, with three single fathers unsure about how to properly care for newborn babies.

But as in any TV series, its level of quality will be determined by the writing team’s willingness to avoid clichés and routinely covered storylines.

How successful they are at accomplishing this feat will be determined on the show's premiere date of September 12, at 10p.m. Eastern. 

Also playing

Among last season’s new shows that are returning to their airwaves this fall is HBO's comedy series “Girls” about a group of female 20-somethings living in New York. 

The show not only caught the eyes and ears of viewers and critiques alike, but also garnered an Emmy nomination earlier this year.

Showtime's “Homeland” starring Claire Danes is also returning to the cable network for its second season.

The series follows Dane's character Carrie Mathison, as a CIA operations officer who is uncovering a mole within the United States defense team that she suspects is war hero and Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis.

Homeland has been one of the most anticipated cable shows to return this year, and when it premiers on Sunday September 2, at 10 p.m. eastern time, many fans will be tuning in to see what new answers will be revealed.

And on the Late Night talk show front, host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel will move from his normal time slot of 12:05 a.m. to 11:35 p.m., starting in January 2013, taking on television big-boys David Letterman and Jay Leno.

The ABC network is moving Kimmel to the competitive time slot, as his Jimmy Kimmel Live! show is increasingly growing in popularity, and the network feels moving the show will allow for even a wider audience.

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Feds Sue DISH Network for Do Not Call Violations

Customers asked to be left alone but DISH kept calling, FTC charges

DISH Network, one of the nation's largest providers of satellite television service, faces a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit alleging that it illegal...

PhotoDISH Network, one of the nation's largest providers of satellite television service, faces a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit alleging that it illegally called millions of consumers who had previously asked telemarketers from the company or its affiliates not to call them again.

The calls allegedly violated provisions of the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule that state that even if a consumer is not on the National Do Not Call Registry, a telemarketer may not call him or her again if the consumer specifically asks to be placed on the company's own entity-specific do-not-call list.

"We have vigorously enforced the Do Not Call rules and will continue to do so to protect consumers' right to be left alone in the privacy of their own homes," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "It is particularly disappointing when a well-established, nationally known company – which ought to know better – appears to have flagrantly and illegally made millions of invasive calls to Americans who specifically told DISH Network to leave them alone."

According to the FTC's complaint, DISH Network violated the agency's Telemarketing Sales Rule while calling consumers nationwide in an attempt to sell its satellite television programming.

 

DISH Network  Aug. 23, 2012, 6:32 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network

DISH Network makes these telemarketing calls both directly to consumers and via a network of authorized dealers who make calls on its behalf. Specifically, the FTC alleges that DISH has made millions of outbound telephone calls since about September 1, 2007 to consumers who had already told them that they did not want to receive any more telemarketing calls from the company.

 

The Department of Justice, working on behalf of the FTC, is currently litigating another case against DISH Network for allegedly calling consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry, or causing its dealers to make such calls.  Information developed as part of that case was used to bring the new case against Dish Network announced today.

In filing the complaint, the FTC aims to stop the illegal calls and is seeking civil penalties for DISH Networks' numerous alleged telemarketing violations.

 

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Mosquitoes Appear to be Increasing Health Threat

Nation suffering record outbreak of West Nile Virus

The lowly mosquito was once thought to be mostly an annoyance in the U.S., but in recent years has become a feared agent in the spread of disease. In its l...


Photo
The lowly mosquito was once thought to be mostly an annoyance in the U.S., but in recent years has become a feared agent in the spread of disease. In its latest update, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says mosquitoes have contributed to a record U.S. outbreak of West Nile Virus.

As of August 21, 38 states reported infections with the most cases in Texas. Before 1999, the disease was unheard of in the U.S. As of this week, the CDC said more than 1,100 people had been infected and 41 people had died.

21 deaths

The Texas Department of State Health Services last week reported 552 state-confirmed cases of the disease, including 21 related deaths. The state has carried out aerial spraying in some areas that have been particularly hard hit but urged all residents to protect themselves by using insect repellent and draining standing water, which can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Serious illness from West Nile Virus is still fairly rare. Many people who are infected show no signs at all. If you do exhibit symptoms they are likely to include vomiting, fever and headache. They can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Mosquitoes can be disease transmitters because, when they bite an infected person they draw some of the victim's infected blood. When the mosquito bites the next person, it can transmit the infection.

Virus from Asia

In addition to West Nile Virus mosquitoes can also carry a disease-causing virus from Asia. In laboratory experiments, researchers at SRI International demonstrated that mosquitoes from Virginia and Georgia can transmit a virus called Chikungunya (CHIKV), which has infected more than 2 million people in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe since 2005. The U.S. has never witnessed an outbreak of CHIKV, although a number of infected people have been identified with a CHIKV infection acquired from travel to Asia.

Although CHIKV infection is rarely fatal, patients may suffer persistent complications, such as debilitating arthritis that can last from months to years. Currently, there is no drug to treat CHIKV and no vaccine is available.

"The findings underscore the importance of control measures, such as eliminating mosquito breeding sites, to prevent mosquito-borne viral infections for which there are no cures," said Rajeev Vaidyanathan, Ph.D., associate director of Vector Biology and Zoonotic Diseases in the Biosciences Division of SRI and lead study author.

For the experiment, researchers used the Asian tiger mosquito from the southeastern U.S. The tiger mosquito is common in Texas and the Midwest and along the East Coast as far north as New Jersey.

How to control mosquito populations

To control mosquito populations in your yard or neighborhood you must control standing water, which is the breeding ground for the mosquitoes. Don't allow garbage pails or buckets to collect rain water.

Keep gutters clean and free of debris that can cause clogs. That will reduce standing water in the gutters themselves and also prevent the overflow from spilling onto the ground next to the house and collecting.

Keep Swimming pools clean and chlorinated, even when not in use. Unattended swimming pools can quickly become mosquito breeding grounds.

Ornamental ponds should be aerated to keep water moving. Mosquitoes prefer still water for laying eggs.

Researchers at SRI say that, unfortunately, the huge number of foreclosures has contributed to the mosquito problem. Neglected property often ends up providing plenty of places for mosquitoes to breed.

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Dole Recalls Limited Number Of Salads

The salads may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Dole Fresh Vegetables is recalling 1,039 cases of bagged salad. The product being recalled is 10 oz. Dole Italian Blend coded 0049N2202008, with a Use-By d...

PhotoDole Fresh Vegetables is recalling 1,039 cases of bagged salad. The product being recalled is 10 oz. Dole Italian Blend coded 0049N2202008, with a Use-By date of August 20 and UPC 7143000819 due to a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes. 

No illnesses have been reported in association with the recall. 

The product code and Use-By date are in the upper right-hand corner of the package; the UPC code is on the back of the package, below the barcode. The salads were distributed in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Mississippi and Virginia. This recall notification was issued due to an isolated instance in which a sample of Dole Italian Blend salad yielded a positive result for Listeria monocytogenes in a random sample test conducted by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. 

No other salads are included in the recall. Only the specific product codes, UPC codes and August 20, 2012 Use-By date identified above are included in the recall. 

Consumers who have any remaining product with this Product Code should not consume it, but rather discard it. Retailers and consumers with questions may call the Dole Food Company Consumer Response Center at (800) 356-3111, which is open 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (PT) Monday-Friday.

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Marketers of 'Ab Circle Pro' Device to Settle FTC Charges

Consumers could see much as $25 million in refunds

Think just three minutes a day will make you thin? Think again. As part of its efforts to stop over-hyped health claims, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC...

PhotoThink just three minutes a day will make you thin? Think again. 

As part of its efforts to stop over-hyped health claims, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed deceptive advertising charges against the marketers of the Ab Circle Pro -- an abdominal exercise device -- who promised consumers that exercising on the device for just three minutes a day would cause them to lose 10 pounds in two weeks. 

The marketers have agreed to settlements that provide as much as $25 million -- and at least $15 million -- depending on the volume of refunds consumers request. 

Consumers who bought an Ab Circle Pro can submit a refund claim here

The claims 

According to the FTC, the defendants promised in their ads that a three-minute workout on the Ab Circle Pro -- a fiberglass disk with stationary handlebars and two knee rests that roll on the edge of the disk, allowing consumers to kneel and rotate side-to-side -- was equivalent to doing 100 sit ups. In the infomercial, pitchwoman Jennifer Nicole Lee compared the Ab Circle Pro to a gym workout, saying, “You can either do 30 minutes of abs and cardio or just three minutes a day. The choice is yours.” 

The infomercial claimed that consumers using the Ab Circle Pro for three minutes a day would “melt inches and pounds,” and featured testimonialists claiming they had lost as much as sixty pounds. Consumers buying through the infomercial typically paid $200 to $250 for the device, while the price for those buying from retailers varied more widely. 

“The FTC reminds marketers that they should think twice before promising a silver-bullet solution to a health problem -- whether it involves losing weight or curing cancer,” Said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Weight loss is hard work, and telling consumers otherwise is deceptive.” 

In addition to multiple versions of the infomercial -- which aired more than 10,000 times between March 2009 and May 2010 -- the defendants marketed the Ab Circle Pro online, in stores, in one- and two-minute television commercials, and in print advertisements. 

The charges 

The complaint names as defendants Fitness Brands, Inc., Fitness Brands International, Inc., and the two individuals who control them -- Michael Casey and David Brodess; Direct Holdings Americas, Inc. and Direct Entertainment Media Group, Inc.; infomercial producer Tara Borakos and two companies she controls -- Tara Productions Inc. and New U, Inc.; and Jennifer Nicole Lee and two companies she controls -- JNL, Inc. and JNL Worldwide, Inc. 

The complaint charges all the defendants except Lee and her companies with making false and/or unsupported claims, including that using the Ab Circle Pro caused rapid or substantial weight and fat loss; resulted in loss of weight, fat, or inches in specific parts of the body, such as the abdomen, hips, buttocks, and thighs; provided fat loss and weight loss equivalent to, or better than, a much longer gym workout; and provided the same rapid and substantial weight loss that people who provided testimonials for the infomercial said they experienced. The complaint also charges the Fitness Brands, Inc. defendants with providing the means to Direct Holdings Americas, Inc. and Direct Entertainment Media Group, Inc. to deceive consumers. 

The complaint charges all the defendants with misrepresenting that using the Ab Circle Pro allowed Jennifer Nicole Lee to lose 80 pounds. 

The complaint names Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. as a relief defendant, alleging that the company received proceeds of the deceptive advertising from its subsidiaries, Direct Holdings Americas and Direct Entertainment Media Group. 

The settlement 

Under the settlements, Lee and the two companies she controls cannot misrepresent that the Ab Circle Pro, any substantially similar device, or any exercise equipment, food, drug, or device contributed to her weight loss. She also cannot endorse any exercise equipment, food, drug, or device unless the endorsement reflects her honest opinion or experience. 

The settlements bar all defendants other than Lee and the two companies she controls from claiming that the Ab Circle Pro or any similar device is likely to cause rapid and substantial loss of weight, inches, or fat; is likely to do so in specific areas of the body such as the abdominal area, hips, thighs, and buttocks; or makes a significant contribution to an exercise plan that provides rapid and substantial loss of weight, inches, or fat. 

The defendants also are prohibited from claiming that the Ab Circle Pro or any similar device, if used for three minutes a day, causes users to lose 10 pounds in two weeks; provides the same exercise benefits as doing 100 sit-ups; or provides weight- or fat-loss benefits that are equivalent or superior to longer workouts on other exercise devices or gym equipment. 

The settlements also prohibit all except the Lee defendants from making fat-, inch-, or weight-loss claims for any exercise equipment, food, drug, or device unless such claims are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. 

The defendants further cannot claim that consumers using such products can generally expect to achieve the results claimed by endorsers of the products, unless such claims are supported by competent and reliable evidence. 

The settlements bar the Fitness Brands, Inc. defendants from providing others with the means to make any of the representations prohibited above. 

Under the settlements, the Fitness Brands, Inc. defendants will pay $1.2 million. Direct Holdings Americas, Inc.; Direct Entertainment Media Group, Inc.; and relief defendant Reader’s Digest will pay $13.8 million -- and up to $10 million more, depending on the volume of refund requests.

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Survey: What Couples Argue About the Most

And it's not sex

Money may or may not be the root of all evil, but online survey results suggest it is very much the root of all arguments among couples.A poll of more th...

PhotoMoney may or may not be the root of all evil, but online survey results suggest it is very much the root of all arguments among couples.

A poll of more than 2,100 engaged, married or pregnant women across Websites owned by media company XO Group found that money crops up in couples' arguments at every lifestage.

It can start with the wedding

For example, the survey found that half of engaged couples argue about money and finances while planning their wedding. Once married, about one-third of couples argue about when to start a family, with more than half of these couples -- 61 percent -- unsure if they have the money to have a family.

"Every couple argues, it's perfectly normal," said Carley Roney, XO Group co-founder. "We wanted to get to the cause of the issues that come up at key moments in couples' lives and find out why they clash so that we can offer help."

Be open and honest

Relationship experts say honest and upfront conversations about financial priorities and views on money are critical to a successful relationship. And in the case of marriage, some weighty financial decisions come front-loaded in the relationship.

There's the planning of the wedding, which can be very expensive. There's the matter of buying a home and the decision to start a family. Misunderstandings and conflicts easily arise unless both partners know where the other stands.

Weddings have gotten more elaborate and more expensive over the last two decades, creating a relationship mine field for many couples. Chase Blueprint, a free set of financial-management features available on select Chase credit cards, was created in part to help cardholders organize their finances and manage their spending and borrowing through all of life's stages.

More than half of engaged couples have tiffs over whether their wedding is the best way to spend the money they have. According to the Chase Blueprint, the process of planning a wedding is a good time in life to ensure that couples have a financial plan in place for the wedding and beyond.

Why not just elope?

Of the couples who clash about money and finances, about half -- 49 percent -- fight because they don't have the budget to have the wedding they want, so each and every planning detail becomes stressful to them. When parents contribute financially to the wedding, things can also get heated. Among couples where family politics has caused issues, 22 percent fought because their parents were giving them money for the wedding and then thought that gave them license to help plan, too.

The survey also revealed that three out of four married couples disagree about money and expenses. With the majority of couples arguing about money and expenses, nearly half of these couples do so because they want nice things but don't have the budget for them, and 41 percent disagree on where to spend their money.

Among couples who argue about expenses, nearly one out of three wives say they are more frugal than their partners. Of the 34 percent of couples who disagree about when to start a family, about one-third say they are not sure if they're ready for the responsibility of raising children.

Financial relationship tips

In addition to maintaining open and honest dialog about money, financial planners recommend these five steps to help couples avoid conflicts about money:

  • Each partner should have a separate checking account, in addition to a joint one
  • Make a budget and track family expenses
  • Set financial goals that both parties agree on and review them often
  • Talk about finances on a regular basis
  • Try to save 10 percent of your income
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Another 23 Counties Designated Drought Disaster Areas

New help announced for livestock producers with changes to emergency loans, crop insurance

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today designated 33 additional counties in 8 states as natural disaster areas -- 23 counties due to drought....

PhotoAgriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today designated 33 additional counties in 8 states as natural disaster areas -- 23 counties due to drought. 

In the past six weeks, the Agriculture Department (USDA) has designated 1,821 counties in 35 states as disaster areas -- 1,692 due to drought -- while USDA officials have fanned out to more than a dozen drought-affected states as part of a total U.S. government effort to offer support and assistance to those affected by the drought. 

Help on the way 

In an effort to help farmers, ranchers and businesses hurt by the most severe drought in 50 years, USDA intends to file special provisions with the federal crop insurance program to allow haying or grazing of cover crops without affecting the insurability of planted 2013 spring crops -- a move that can help provide much needed forage and feed this fall and winter for livestock producers. 

In a separate step, Vilsack said he will modify emergency loans, allowing loans to be made earlier in the season helping livestock producers to offset increased feed costs and those who have liquidated herds. 

Crop update 

The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that 63 percent of the nation's hay acreage is in an area experiencing drought, while approximately 71 percent of the nation's cattle acreage is in an area experiencing drought. 

Approximately 85 percent of the U.S. corn is within an area experiencing drought, down from a peak of 89 percent on July 24, and 83 percent of the U.S. soybeans are in a drought area, down from a high of 88 percent on July 24. On Aug. 10, USDA estimated the 2012 U.S. corn crop to be the eighth largest in history, at roughly 10.8 billion bushels. In 1988, when U.S. farmers were hit by another serious drought, total production was 4.9 billion bushels. 

During the week ending August 19, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that 51 percent of U.S. corn and 37 percent of the soybeans were rated in very poor to poor condition, while rangeland and pastures rated very poor to poor remained at 59 percent for the third consecutive week. 

New designees 

Primary counties and corresponding states designated as disaster areas for drought and other reasons: 

California [drought] 

  • Alpine 

Georgia [drought] 

  • Forsyth 
  • Hall 

Idaho [drought] 

  • Bannock 
  • Bear Lake 
  • Cassia 
  • Fremont 
  • Oneida 

Idaho [other] 

  • Bannock 
  • Camas 
  • Fremont 
  • Nez Perce 
  • Payette 
  • Bonneville 
  • Cassia 
  • Gem 
  • Oneida 
  • Teton 

Indiana [drought] 

  • Randolph 

Kansas [drought] 

  • Marshall 

Nebraska [drought] 

  • Gage 
  • Johnson 
  • Nuckolls 
  • Richardson 
  • Jefferson 
  • Nemaha 
  • Pawnee 
  • Thayer 

Tennessee [drought] 

  • Dickson 
  • Henderson 

Utah [drought] 

  • Beaver 
  • Iron 
  • Piute
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1994 Honda Accord Car Thieves' Favorite Heist

Annual list of most-stolen vehicles is dominated by 1990s models

If you are worried that car thieves are coveting your shiny new luxury car perhaps you should be more concerned about the other car in your garage, if it h...

PhotoIf you are worried that car thieves are coveting your shiny new luxury car perhaps you should be more concerned about the other car in your garage, if it happens to be a 1994 Honda Accord. It turns out that's the car thieves really want.

Each year the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) picks its “Hot Wheels,” its list of the 10 most-stolen vehicles in the United States for the previous year. The report examines vehicle theft data submitted by law enforcement to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and determines the vehicle make, model and model year most reported stolen in 2011.

The remarkable thing about the list is most of the cars are 1990s vintage. The newest model is a 2006 Ford pickup, which is the third most desirable vehicle in the eyes of a thief. Why isn't your 2010 Toyota Prius or 2011 Volkswagen Passat on the list?

It's not that they aren't nice vehicles, but the reason a thief takes a car is usually to strip it down and sell the parts. Older vehicles are more valuable because there are more vehicles like them on the road that need parts. An increasing number of stolen cars are being resold -- intact -- overseas.

The top 10 “hot cars” were evenly split in 2011 with five belonging to foreign brands and five to U.S. automakers. Most popular models among the domestic brands were Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet pickup trucks each holding one spot with the Dodge Caravan and Ford Explorer rounding out the domestic models.

Here's the complete list:

  1. 1994 Honda Accord
  2. 1998 Honda Civic
  3. 2006 Ford Pickup (Full Size)
  4. 1991 Toyota Camry
  5. 2000 Dodge Caravan
  6. 1994 Acura Integra
  7. 1999 Chevrolet Pickup (Full Size)
  8. 2004 Dodge Pickup (Full Size)
  9. 2002 Ford Explorer
  10. 1994 Nissan Sentra

Car thefts have declined in recent years and NICB says 2011 appears to uphold that trend. Preliminary 2011 FBI crime statistics indicate a 3.3 percent reduction from the 737,142 thefts recorded in 2010. Vehicle thefts have not been this low since 1967. And while older models tend to dominate the list of most stolen vehicles, that doesn't mean your late model car is safe.

“While overall thefts continue to decline, we are seeing a trend toward increases in the thefts of late model vehicles -- ones that are theoretically harder to steal due to sophisticated key code technology,” said NICB President and CEO Joe Wehrle. “Today’s vehicle thieves are typically professional criminals who have figured out how to get the key code for a specific vehicle, have a replacement key made, and steal the vehicle within a matter of days.”

NICB says it is aware of nearly 300 thefts that took place in the first three months of this year in which thieves possessed replacement keys using illegally obtained key codes. The group says many thefts can be prevented by simply locking your car and taking your keys. More sophisticated and expensive deterrents include a warning system, an immobilizing device and a tracking device.

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Tattoo Inks Pose Health Risks

Tempted to get a tattoo? Learn how to reduce your risk of infection

These days it seems like people from all walks of life have tattoos, which might lead you to believe that tattoos are completely safe. But there are heal...

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Central Valley Meat Suspended for Humane Handling Violations

The action was prompted by a video of slaughter operations

Central Valley Meat in Hanford, CA, has been shut down. The company was notified by the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service ...

PhotoCentral Valley Meat in Hanford, CA, has been shut down.

The company was notified by the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) that it was immediately suspending the assignment of inspectors at the establishment on August 19 -- effectively halting slaughter operations at the establishment. 

Within hours of being provided video taken by an animal welfare organization, USDA initiated an investigation, dispatching several teams of investigators to California and gathering information on the ground. 

In terms of humane handling, FSIS found violations and suspended the mark of inspection. The teams will continue to examine the violations which have been documented in the video provided. 

In terms of food safety, the video footage provided to USDA does not show a "downer" animal entering the food supply. However, the department is conducting a thorough investigation that encompasses food safety and will respond appropriately to its results. 

"Our top priority is to ensure the safety of the food Americans feed their families," said Al Almanza, Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. "We have reviewed the video and determined that, while some of the footage provided shows unacceptable treatment of cattle, it does not show anything that would compromise food safety. Therefore, we have not substantiated a food safety violation at this time. We are aggressively continuing to investigate the allegations." 

The regs 

USDA food safety regulations state that, if an animal is non-ambulatory disabled at any time prior to slaughter, it must be condemned promptly, humanely euthanized, and properly discarded so that it does not enter the food supply. 

FSIS is responsible for ensuring that meat, poultry, and processed egg products are safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled, and also works to ensure industry's compliance with poultry good commercial practices and with the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), which requires that livestock be handled and slaughtered in a humane way.

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Report: America Throws Out 40 Percent of its Food

Environmental group report says it wastes money and resources

Many baby boomers recall being admonished to clean their plates at dinner, reminded that there were plenty of hungry children in some country or other. But...

PhotoMany baby boomers recall being admonished to clean their plates at dinner, reminded that there were plenty of hungry children in some country or other. But the ethic against wasting food appears to have all but died out.

A new report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) claims Americans are tossing out 40 percent of their food, the equivalent of $165 billion in uneaten food each year. The report comes at a time when food prices are beginning to rise because of the severe summer drought.

“As a country, we’re essentially tossing every other piece of food that crosses our path -- that’s money and precious resources down the drain,” said Dana Gunders, NRDC project scientist with the food and agriculture program. “With the price of food continuing to grow, and drought jeopardizing farmers nationwide, now is the time to embrace all the tremendous untapped opportunities to get more out of our food system. We can do better.”

Tossing out $2,275 a year

The report says the average American family of four ends up throwing away an equivalent of up to $2,275 annually in food. However, all of this waste cannot be laid on the plate of the consumer.

Grocery stores often stock more perishable food than they can sell. The spoilage is a cost of doing business, but is included in NRDC's total. Fast food restaurants often have time limits for sandwiches to either be sold or tossed.

In the increasingly competitive food service industry, restaurants have over the years greatly expanded portion sizes as a means of attracting customers. Customers may order the Super Jumbo Tenderloin Platter with all the trimmings but find they are unable to consume all of it.

Filling up landfills

But no matter where the wasted food is coming from, the NRDC says it is now the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills.

In its report, the NRDC says grocery stores and other sellers are losing as much as $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables alone, with about half of the nationwide supply going uneaten. In fact, it says fresh produce is lost more than any other food product -- including seafood, meat, grains and dairy -- at nearly every stage in the supply chain. The report says supermarkets should decrease their offerings of perishable items.

But the report doesn't let consumers off the hook, calling them “a major contributor to the problem,” with the majority of food losses occurring in restaurants and household kitchens.

Gargantuan portions

“A significant reason for this is large portions, as well as uneaten leftovers,” the group says. “Today, portion sizes are two to eight times larger than the government’s standard serving sizes.”

NRDC is, of course, approching food waste as an environmental issue. It says wasted food also translates into wasted natural resources, because of the energy, water and farmland necessary to grow, transport, and store food. It says about half of all land in the U.S. goes to agriculture; some 25 percent of all the freshwater consumed in this country, along with four percent of the oil, goes into producing food that is never eaten.

As a solution it calls for the U.S. government to set national goals for waste reduction. It says businesses should take the opportunity to streamline operations and reduce food losses. And as for consumers, the report suggests they can waste less food by shopping wisely, knowing when food goes bad, buying produce that is perfectly edible even if it doesn't look that good, cooking only the amount of food they need, and eating their leftovers.

Oh yeah, and clean your plate!

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Could 3-D Printing Be the Biggest Invention Since the Internet?

Many experts believe so, with one company making 3-D printers somewhat affordable.

Okay, it's Saturday night and you're preparing to have a dinner party.The guests will be arriving in a few hours, and you're racing around the house...

PhotoOkay, it's Saturday night and you're preparing to have a dinner party. The guests will be arriving in a few hours, and you're racing around the house trying to pull both you and the dining room together.

The table is just about set, the last pot of food spews its last few bubbles before completion, and you're thankful because you have just the right amount of your best plates for each guest.

Then tragedy: One of the plates falls and breaks in half. Normally this would be a catastrophe, but you just purchased a new 3D printer, so you're able to calmly exhale.

You then print up a new dinner plate — identical to the original — place it on the table and finish getting ready for an evening of friends, conversation and food. And no, you don't have to wear special glasses to see it.

Next big thing

PhotoThis way of self-manufacturing, and fixing things in your home is said to be the next global-changing-technology since the Internet or the television, some experts say.

“Personally, I believe it's the next big thing, says Abe Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems, one of biggest companies that make 3D printing machines.

“I think it could be as big as the steam engine was in its day, as big as the computer was in its day, as big as the Internet was in its day. And I believe this is the next disruptive technology that's going to change everything. It's going to change how we learn, it's going to change how we create, and it's going to change how we manufacture,” he says.

What it is

PhotoExactly what is this new technology?

Three dimensional printing isn't new, as it used to be called “Rapid Manufacturing” or “Additive Manufacturing” in the 1980s to duplicate specific parts for machinery and other objects.

But since the early thousands 3D printers have developed somewhat of a consumer following, as more companies are making them commercially available, which has also lowered the price.

3D Systems has made what it calls the BotMill 3D Printer, which ranges from $999 to nearly $14,000 depending on the specific model. The company says it's easy to assemble and use, and comes with everything needed, including the required plastic material to duplicate items you would normally buy or replace in a store.

3D printers are able to take any digital design, slice it into thin layers, and stack those layers of material to duplicate the original object. On a video demonstration Reichental printed a napkin holder in a little over two hours using The Cube printer. The Cube kind of resembles a futuristic sewing machine and it's relatively inexpensive at $1,300.

Reichental says duplicating products will completely change the way companies manufacture durable goods, as 3D printing is theoretically less expensive, much faster and environmentally less harmful.

Reichental believes the 3D printing business will go from being a half billion dollar industry to a $35 billion industry in the next decade, as companies are now testing the technology within crucially important areas like education and medicine.

Printed meat

PhotoAlthough companies have been using this inventive type of printing for quite some time, there are limits to how and where the printed objects can be used.

For example, a needed engine part for a commercial airplane isn't yet allowed to be duplicated, but maybe printing a test plane to try out the cloned parts will be a reality in the near future.

But for now, the next wave of 3D printing to grow in popularity is in the area of home products, jewelry items and other items you would typically buy in a store or order online, says Reichental.

But, just when you thought this type of printing would limit itself to households, machine parts and medicine, a company by the name of Modern Meadow is experimenting with printing actual meat of all things.

The company, which received a $350,000 donation by investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel, began experimenting with 3D printed meat with hopes to shift the way it's commercially produced and distributed.

The co-founders of Modern Meadow, Andras and Gobor Forgacs, also developed the company Organovo, which tested 3D printing in prescription medicine, and human tissue.

“We currently produce organic tissues grown from cell samples, which can be used as a human analog for pharmaceutical drug discovery and development. The printing process can take as little as 12-24 hours. This can allow for more relevant results and less animal involvement than traditional research methods,” said Keith Murphy CEO of Organovo in an interview with Forbes.

The duo said their lab-created meat is still in its development stages, and early attempts to duplicate actual texture have been unsuccessful.

But over time, Modern Meadow believes it can manipulate taste and textures so companies will be able to produce meat differently, and keep up with the world's increasing meat consumption.

Some vegetarians have expressed interest in the development of this cloned meat, since it would obviously not require the killing of animals to create meals or leather products. Yet and still, 3D printing doesn't even stop there.

Print your own pistol

PhotoRecently, a gun expert used the technology to print a copy of a .22-caliber pistol that managed to fire real bullets. The maker of the duplicated gun used a 3D printer to build the outside of the pistol, and combined it with metal parts on the inside, so it was capable of carrying and firing actual bullets.

The gun's owner, who goes by the username HaveBlue, fired over 200 rounds of ammunition with the cloned pistol, and said the gun held up just fine.

To make the weapon, HaveBlue used an older model 3D printer (the Stratasys), and was able to create the necessary shell of the gun in a small amount of time for about $30, not including the metal parts he added.

Another kind of 3D printer called The Contour Crafting is said to be able to print an entire house in about 20 hours.

Behrokh Khoshnevis, who is a professor at the University of Southern California, said the machine can print a complete house with electrical wiring, painted walls, the necessary plumbing and other things a livable house would require.

Khoshnevis says the new technology is a fast and low-cost way to prepare homes damaged by storms. It could also potentially assist with the continued issue of homelessness.

Whether 3D cloning will be as big as the Internet still remains to be seen, but it does feel like we are on the precipice of some sort of change as it pertains to consumers, manufacturing, and medicine.

How soon 3D printing will widely be used in our everyday lives remains to be seen. But according to some experts, it's coming much sooner than later.

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Feds Try to Give Boost to Short Sales

New program speeds up approval for distressed homeowners

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) today announced thatFannie Mae and Freddie Mac are issuing new, clear guidelines to their mortgage servicers that...

PhotoHomeowners who are "underwater" -- who owe more on their homes than they are worth -- may get some relief under a new program announced by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). 

FHFA said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are issuing new, clear guidelines to their mortgage servicers that will align and consolidate existing "short sales" programs into one standard program, hopefully enabling lenders and servicers to quickly and easily qualify eligible borrowers for a short sale.

In a short sale, lenders agree to take less than the amount that is owed on a property in exchange for getting it off their books. 

The new program may help distressed homeowners like Paul of Jersey City, N.J.

“Due to a loss of my business and income I am trying to sell my home in a short sale rather than face foreclosure,” Paul told ConsumerAffairs recently. “I have an arms length buyer at a fair market price. The holder of the first lien, Hudson City Savings Bank has been compassionate and has worked well with us and our short sale negotiator and has signed off.”

But Paul said PNC, which holds his second mortgage, has not been cooperative.

“I was able to look at closing out my retirement account, which is my last remaining asset, and borrowing from my 92-year-old widowed mother to offer $60,000 in return for full forgiveness,” Paul said. “They refuse.”

The FHFA program limits the amount second-mortgage holders can collect to $6,000. That's intended to prevent endless haggling, although second-mortgage holders will still be able to block sales entirely.

Most second mortgages are in the form of home equity loans and are held by Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and Citibank. Granting a large number of short sales could set off another round of heavy losses for the banks.

Not delinquent 

The new guidelines, which go into effect Nov. 1, 2012, will permit a homeowner with a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgage to sell their home in a short sale even if they are current on their mortgage if they have an eligible hardship.

Previously, short sales were available only to homeowners who were behind in their payments. 

Hardships that may make a seller eligible for the program include death of a borrower or co-borrower, divorce, disability, or relocation for a job.

“These new guidelines demonstrate FHFA’s and Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s commitment to enhancing and streamlining processes to avoid foreclosure and stabilize communities,” said FHFA Acting Director Edward J. DeMarco. 

More information about the program is available on the FHFA website

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T-Mobile Plans Unlimited Data Option

Bigger competitors are setting caps on customers' monthly data usage

T-Mobile USA, a solid No. 4, has seemed somewhat adrift since its sale to AT&T Wireless fell through. But now the German-owned carrier is offering some...

PhotoT-Mobile USA, a solid No. 4, has seemed somewhat adrift since its sale to AT&T Wireless fell through. But now the German-owned carrier is offering something its bigger rivals aren't: unlimited data.

Currently, T-Mobile USA throttes its customers' data speeds after they have downloaded a certain amount of data each month.

But T-Mobile says that, starting Sept. 5, its "Unlimited Nationwide 4G Data plan offers the ultimate worry-free experience." Sprint Nextel is the only other big U.S. provider selling unlimited service.
Consumers rate T-Mobile Billing Disputes

The new plan is designed to satisfy both data-hungry customers who want to experience all their smartphones are capable of and those wanting the peace of mind of never having to keep track of their data usage, the company said.

“We’re big believers in customer-driven innovation, and our Unlimited Nationwide 4G Data plan is the answer to customers who are frustrated by the cost, complexity and congested networks of our competitors,” said Kevin McLaughlin, vice president, marketing, T-Mobile USA.  

Not all consumers would agree with that. Despite its relatively small size, T-Mobile collects more than its share of customer complaints, with billing disputes in the lead.

"Usage charges appeared on my monthly bills many times. When I tried to talk to their representative, they are pretty mean and told me I need to pay for whatever showed on my bill, even if I did not order or did not know what the charges were about," said Flora of Philadelphia. "It seems like they wanted to end the conversation ASAP and they do not care about the customers at all."

T-Mobile's network is another source of frequent complaints.

"I only get about 50% of my text messages," said Melany of Cincinnati. "Half of the calls I make, people claim they never had a missed call from me and visa versa. I have gone into the store numerous times and all they suggest I do is power up and down, remove batteries, do a system reboot. It is not my phone, it is the network!"

T-Mobile has been steadily shedding customers to its rivals for months. Whether the unlimited data plan is enough to reverse that trend remains to be seen.

 

 

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What Does it Take to Buy a House?

Fewer people can take advantage of low rates and prices

Mortgage rates are near historic lows. Home prices have crashed from their highs four years ago. It seems now would be a great time to buy a home, especial...

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PayPal Teams With Discover to Expand Payment System

PayPal accounts will be usable at most Discover locations in 2013

PayPal Teams With Discover to Expand Payment SystemPayPal is becoming more of an off-line payment source, allowing account-holders to pay with PayPal in ...

PhotoPayPal is becoming more of an off-line payment source, allowing account-holders to pay with PayPal in stores and restaurants.

In its latest move in that direction, it has announced a deal with Discover that will expand PayPal acceptance to more than seven million point of purchase locations in the U.S. beginning in 2013.

“What that means in a nutshell is that PayPal can be enabled as a payments option for our 50-plus million active users in the U.S. at any in-store location that accepts Discover,” Don Kingsborough, VP of Retail and Prepaid Products, said in a statement.

The addition of the Discover locations will add to the 16 million locations where PayPal is already in use. Kingsborough says more than 3,000 national retail chains accept PayPal.

Starting in 2013, Discover will work with PayPal to enable participating merchants to accept PayPal through their existing relationship with Discover.

Industry milestone

"The establishment of this relationship is a major industry milestone, which will help shape the emerging payments landscape by bringing together an established direct banking and payments company with a leading commerce enabler to create an alternative payments option for consumers at the point of sale," said Diane Offereins, President of Discover Payment Services. “This initiative will result in real change and innovation for the industry by bringing new technologies to the point of sale that benefit merchants and PayPal customers."

Kingsborough, meanwhile, says the relationship will create a seamless digital wallet allowing PayPal's users to spend their PayPal account money at brick and mortar locations where they shop. To offer PayPal, merchants will not have to install or upgrade existing point-of-sale hardware or software and consumers will know of this additional payments option through in-store signage.

PayPal currently is currently testing a point of purchase payment system at several retailers including The Home Depot, Abercrombie & Fitch or Jos. A. Banks. Originally established as a means to make online payments, it has begun a strategy to evolve into more of a traditional payment system, allowing customers to enter their mobile phone number and PIN on the merchant's payment terminal rather than swiping a card.

Under the newly announced agreement, Discover will process the PayPal payments made through its system.

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Big Retailers Latest to Oppose Credit-Card Swipe Fee Settlement

Walmart, Target, Home Depot among the latest to trash the deal

It was hailed as a victory for just about everyone. But it turns out no one is very happy about the $6 billion settlement of a seven-year dispute between r...

PhotoIt was hailed as a victory for just about everyone. But it turns out no one is very happy about the $6 billion settlement of a seven-year dispute between retailers and credit card issuers over "swipe fees." 

The latest to weigh in against it is the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), whose 70 members include some of the world's biggest retailers -- Walmart, Target and Home Depot, among others.

 

The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), the National Grocers Association and other trade groups had already come out in opposition to the settlement -- and RILA is urging all of the plaintiffs in the case to oppose the deal.

RILA said it particuarly objects to terms that prevent retailers from suing credit-card companies in the future over processing fees. Of course, this is exactly the kind of outrageous demand big corporations routinely impose on their customers, but that's another story.

“Retailers are concerned that in addition to limiting their future legal options, the proposed settlement preserves the Visa/MasterCard duopoly and constrains emerging innovations that could bring meaningful competition to the marketplace,” said RILA President Sandy Kennedy.

Who picks up the tab?

The settlement was announced in July with a great thunderclap proclaiming that Visa and MasterCard would have to pony up $6 billion, although when went mostly unsaid was that consumers might very well be the ones ultimately picking up the tab, since the settlement would allow retailers, who would split teh $6 billion, to impose a fee on customers who pay with credit cards -- in effect, allowing them to give a discount for cash.

The class-action suit combined more than 50 lawsuits that basically alleged that Visa and MasterCard had conspired to set swipe fees artifically high. 

Kennedy said the settlement demonstrates that retailers were on-target with their claims against the credit card companies.

“While Visa and MasterCard’s decision to pursue a settlement affirms the legitimacy of retailers’ claims, the flawed proposal upholds the networks’ anticompetitive practices and fails to provide retailers and their consumers with meaningful relief from tens of billions of dollars in hidden fees,” said  Kennedy. “We urge class plaintiffs to reject the proposal and send a clear message that a settlement that fails to engender competition and fix the broken electronic payments market is unacceptable.”

The settlement is not yet final. It must be approved by a federal district court judge in Brooklyn. The opposition of so many named plaintiffs and plaintiffs who are part of the class does not necessarily doom the settlement but it doesn't do much to grease the skids for it either. 

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Now, Nothing Has to be Lost in Translation

Apps and gadgets help break down language barriers

Technology and transportation advances have made the world seem smaller. Business is now global. However, the billions of people on the planet still speak ...

PhotoTechnology and transportation advances have made the world seem smaller. Business is now global. However, the billions of people on the planet still speak different languages.

Not to worry. There are now a number of apps and gadgets that can provide instant translations when you need to translate English into Russian, Chinese or dozens of other languages.

Smartphone apps

Google Translate for Android is an app that instantly translates words and phrases between more than 64 languages. For most languages, you can speak your phrases and hear the corresponding translations.

If you are writing, you can enter text in one language and get the translated text in another. If you need to speak to someone in another language, you can hear the translation spoken aloud.

Apple's iTranslate does much the same thing for iPhone users. It will translate words and phrases in over 50 languages. You can listen to spoken translations in over 20 languages.

These apps are handy for people engaged in international business as well as tourists traveling in foreign countries. But if expensive roaming charges mean you aren't using your smartphone, a stand-alone translator might be just what you need.

Talking translator

Speciality retailer Hammacher Schlemmer has just introduced The Full Phrase Talking Translator, a device about the size of a smartphone that translates and articulates entire sentences, phrases, or single words that are typed on its keyboard.

The device provides translations to and from English for 210,000 common travel phrases and 1.8 million words in 30 different languages, the company says.

"The Full Phrase Talking Translator's database contains three times more phrases and words than previous generations and allows users to type in entries instead of requiring them to select words to translate from a finite list," said Hammacher Schlemmer's General Manager Fred Berns.

Designed for the traveler, the translator also converts eight currencies, displays the current time for 260 cities worldwide, and comes integrated with scientific and basic calculators, six games (like Sudoku), and a voice recorder. The retail price is $249.95.

Online translators

In addition to apps and gadgets, there are website that also provide on-the-spot translations. Free-Translator.com is, as its name implies, a free site. In one field you type in a sentence or phrase you want to translate, up to 200 words. The translation appears in another field.

As an experiment, we typed in English “It looks like we have a deal,
congratulations,” and asked for a Spanish translation. It gave as the Spanish translation “Parece que tenemos un trato, felicitaciones.”

It really is a small world after all.   

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VW Sales Up 34% in the U.S.

The company is racing to pass Toyota and GM and take the No. 1 world title

Volkswagen has been tearing up the track the last few years, racing to become the world's largest automaker. It may just get there. The company repo...

Photo
2013 Golf TDI
Volkswagen has been tearing up the track the last few years, racing to become the world's largest automaker by 2018. It may just get there. 

The company reported today that it delivered 3.26 million vehicles worldwide from January through July, a 10.4 percent increase over the comparable period a year ago.

In the U.S., VW delivered 245,700 new cars and SUVs, a 34 percent increase.

“The Volkswagen Passenger Cars brand has grown global deliveries further despite the continued difficult market situation, above all in Western Europe,” Christian Klingler, Board Member for Sales and Marketing for the Volkswagen Group and the Volkswagen Passenger Cars brand, said in Wolfsburg.

More efficient

VW is also hard at work trying to wring more economies out of its design and manufacturing process. It's planning to reap massive savings from its new MQB architecture, which makes it possible to develop new models much faster and more cheaply.

One of the first models to benefit from the new shared architecture is the Golf. The seventh-generation Golf will lose 220 pounds and reduce its fuel consumption by 23 percent, VW said yesterday.

Most of the weight reduction comes from using stronger steel. Since the steel is stronger, it doesn't take as much of it, thus reducing the weight. The new Audi A3, which shares the same platform, has shaved 176 pounds. 

The new Golf is scheduled to be unveiled September 4. It won't be coming to the United States until at least late 2013, however.

 

 



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Existing Home Sales Rise In July

But Realtors say sales could be much higher

The housing market continues on a plodding path to recovery. Despite near record low interest rates and beaten down home prices, sales of existing homes in...

PhotoThe housing market continues on a plodding path to recovery. Despite near record low interest rates and beaten down home prices, sales of existing homes in the U.S. rose just 2.3 percent in July over June.

However, there is unmistakable progress. Sales were up 10.4 percent when compared to July 2011. Home values were up as well. The average sales price was 187,300 in July, 9.4 percent higher than in the same month a year earlier.

On a year-over-year basis, the market is in the midst of a double-digit recovery. National Association of Realtors (NAR) chief economist Lawrence Yun says the market should be farther along than it is.

Abnormal frictions

“Mortgage interest rates have been at record lows this year while rents have been rising at faster rates. Combined, these factors are helping to unleash a pent-up demand,” Yun said. “However, the market is constrained by unnecessarily tight lending standards and shrinking inventory supplies, so housing could easily be much stronger without these abnormal frictions.”

NAR reports July sales rose in every region but the West, where inventory is very tight. While a tight inventory reduces sales, it's actually a positive sign for sellers since it helps lift prices.

Given population and demographic demand, Yun said existing-home sales could be in a normal range of 5 to 5.5 million if all conditions were optimal. But they aren't all optimal. It's much harder these days to qualify for a mortgage, meaning there are fewer buyers in the marketplace.

“Sales may reach five million next year, but it will require more sensible lending standards and stronger job creation to push beyond that,” Yun said.

Distressed sales are down

Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales sold at deep discounts -- accounted for 24 percent of July sales, down from 25 percent in June and 29 percent in July 2011. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 17 percent below market value in July, while short sales were discounted 15 percent.

First-time buyers accounted for 34 percent of purchasers in July, up from 32 percent in June; they were also 32 percent in July 2011. Yun says that under normal conditions, entry-level buyers account for four out of 10 purchases but these buyers are typically the ones that can't qualify for a mortgage now.

All-cash sales slipped to 27 percent of transactions in July from 29 percent in June; they were 29 percent in July 2011. Investors, who account for the bulk of cash sales, purchased 16 percent of homes in July, down from 19 percent in June; they were 18 percent in July 2011.

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U.S. Households Climb Out of Financial Distress

CredAbility Consumer Distress Index says Orlando is most distressed U.S. city

Doing better financially? You are, according to one measure. The CredAbility Consumer Distress Index says that for the first time since the third quarter ...

PhotoDoing better financially? You are, according to one measure. 

The CredAbility Consumer Distress Index says that for the first time since the third quarter of 2008, U.S. consumers have clawed their way out of financial distress. 

Housing was the main driver of consumers’ improved financial condition this quarter, as late payments on mortgages hit a three-year low and housing costs dropped as more homeowners cut their payments by refinancing. 

The average household also held a tighter rein on his household budgets, which helped drive the savings rate to a one-year high in June. Net worth also ticked up. 

Tracking finances 

The quarterly index, published by CredAbility, a nonprofit credit counseling and education agency, tracks the financial condition of the average U.S. household by measuring five categories: employment, housing, credit, how families manage household budgets and net worth. The index has a national score, a ranking of all 50 states and 77 of the largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). 

A score below 70 indicates a state of financial distress, but U.S. households scored 71.3 in the second quarter on the Index’s 100-point scale. The 71.3 score is an increase of 1.4 points from the previous quarter and 4.6 points over the past year. 

Slowly but surely, consumers have worked to repair their finances during the past four years by paying down debt and better managing their credit, said Mark Cole, executive vice president of CredAbility. “They are more in control of their household budgets, increasing their savings even as gasoline prices have risen and the drought has started to affect food prices. While millions of people continue to battle unemployment, the majority of households with stable jobs and housing has made wise financial choices and are moving in the right direction.” 

A closer look 

On the local level, however, several major cities remain in financial distress, with three of the nation’s five largest MSAs in Florida topping the list. Orlando is the most distressed city, followed by Tampa-St. Petersburg, Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., Las Vegas and Miami-Fort Lauderdale. 

Among the 30 largest MSAs, the healthiest cities are Boston, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver. 

Only 15 of the 50 states scored below 70. Nevada had the lowest score at 62.70, followed by Georgia, Mississippi, Michigan and Florida. Nevada and Florida are “battleground” states in the November presidential election. 

The four other closely contested states -- Virginia, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado -- all scored above 70. The national highlights for the second quarter included the following: 

  • Mortgage delinquency rates continued to improve, with 6.55 percent of homeowners behind on their mortgage payments, a significant improvement compared to 7.64 percent in the first quarter. At the state level, California's delinquency rate fell from 6.82 percent to 5.88 percent during the quarter.
  • The index's unemployment score improved by only one-half point, from 59.4 to 59.8, and continued to drag down the index.
  • For the first time in three years, the score for the Credit category declined. Still, the index score for the Credit category is 86.7, indicating that households' credit is in far better shape now than at any time since 1996. 

Orlando had the lowest score among all large MSAs in the housing category, largely due to a mortgage delinquency rate of 13.58 percent. Riverside-San Bernardino is the most distressed MSA in the unemployment category, though the region has seen a pickup of 11,000 jobs during the past year. 

Major cities on the Eastern Seaboard and Texas laid claim to the households in the best financial health. Boston and Washington, D.C. were the only two cities that scored better than 77 while Dallas at 73.4 and Houston at 72.4 were among the top six. 

Among the MSAs with a population of 2 million or less, Omaha had the highest score at 79.6 while four cities in California and Florida reported the highest levels of financial distress. Bakersfield had the lowest score at 62.6, followed by Fresno, Calif., at 62.7, Bradenton-Sarasota, Fla. at 63 and Jacksonville at 63.1.

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Gasoline Prices Fall for Two Straight Days

Is it a trend or just a head-fake to motorists?

In case you hadn't noticed, the price of gasoline is going down for the first time in more than a month. The national average price of self-serve regular, ...

PhotoIn case you hadn't noticed, the price of gasoline is going down for the first time in more than a month. The national average price of self-serve regular, as measured by AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey, declined slightly both yesterday and today.

Today's average price is $3.716 a gallon, compared to $3.717 Tuesday. Monday's average was $3.720 a gallon.

That puts the current average less than a penny a gallon higher than it was seven days ago and may reflect the end of the marked escalation that took drivers by surprise early in the month. The average price today fell just below $4 in Illinois, where it had surged more than 40 cents in late July. Illinois prices are now down about seven cents in the last week.

The price is still climbing in California, but not by much. California prices escalated in the wake of a fire at Chevron's Richmond, CA, refinery in early August. Pump prices in the Golden State are up 33 cents a gallon in the last month but only by one and a half cents in the last week.

Unusual season

It's unusual for gasoline prices to rise as the end of summer driving season approaches but AAA's Avery Ash says this season has been unusual and that has affected the price of crude oil.

“Domestic supply and distribution issues have been the driving force behind rising pump prices the last several weeks as oil prices have drifted slightly higher and have provided some additional suppor,” Ash said. “For the first time since mid-May of this year, West Texas Intermediate crude oil has now settled above $90 per barrel every day for more than two weeks. This support for oil prices has been attributed to positive global economic data and continued geopolitical tensions with Iran.”

Oil prices rose again today as the Energy Information Administration reported that, once again, U.S. stockpiles of crude oil fell in the previous week. That suggests that this week's decline in gasoline prices could be short lived, or at least be so slight that motorists might not even notice it.

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Creation of Rating System for Financial Planning Urged

New survey shows seniors especially vulnerable to financial abuse

To help prevent the use of misleading, fraudulent and deceptive designations and certifications to promote financial services to senior citizens, the Cert...

PhotoTo help prevent the use of misleading, fraudulent and deceptive designations and certifications to promote financial services to senior citizens, the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. is calling on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to create a ratings system for financial certifications and designations. 

In support of this and other recommendations to address senior financial exploitations, the CFP Board included its Senior Americans Financial Exploitation Survey. 

Widespread abuse 

That survey found that more than half of the certified financial planner professionals who participated have worked with an older client who has been subject to unfair, deceptive or abusive practices in the delivery of financial advice or the sale of financial products. 

"Older Americans have already given many years of hard work and dedication -- raising families, serving in the military, building businesses -- all to become one of our most financially secure generations," said CFP Board CEO Kevin Keller. "This survey reveals the pervasive financial abuse victimizing America's seniors. CFP Board applauds the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for its focus on this problem and urges the Bureau to take prompt action to reduce the use of misleading certifications and designations.” 

In its letter, to the CFPB, the board noted that with more than 140 designations currently in use in the delivery of financial services, "senior investors are particularly vulnerable to confusion about professional designations and certifications." Financial designations vary significantly, according to the planners, and investors have no meaningful way of comparing their legitimacy, value or authenticity. “With no federal or consistent state regulation or oversight of certifications and designations,” they point out, “Americans -- especially seniors -- are left on their own to sort through the alphabet soup of letters at the end of a financial professional's name.” 

The board urged the CFPB to take practical steps to reduce the misleading use of certifications and designations. Specifically, it recommended that the CFPB: 

  • Establish a rating system for professional certifications and designations by identifying qualitative and quantitative standards (based on best practices for certifications) against which certifications and designations can be evaluated. The rating system would rank designations from the highest tier to those that are so deficient that their use in marketing is presumptively misleading or deceptive.
  • Communicate the rating system through an educational campaign to educate older Americans on how to use the system to evaluate the financial designations. 

The CFP Board suggested that CFPB could use the standards upon which the CFP certification is based -- an accredited certification program that requires substantial education and experience, a fair, valid and reliable exam that measures competencies for the standard of practice, continuing education required to maintain competencies, high professional and ethical standards, and a rigorous enforcement process that includes revocation of the certification, evidence that revocation is implemented, and public notice of disciplinary actions -- as the model for the types of criteria that should be used to evaluate financial service designations. 

CFP Board also urged the CFPB to support legislative and regulatory reforms to protect older Americans, including to: 

  • Encourage policies that support the delivery of financial advice to older Americans under a fiduciary standard of care;
  • Encourage reforms -- on a state or federal level -- that would require those who work with seniors to meet baseline competency and ethical standards; and
  • Address the use of misleading titles, e.g., financial professionals who hold themselves out as financial planners without meeting competency or ethical requirements, by encouraging the implementation of the Government Accountability Office recommendations to gather additional data on this consumer protection issue that affects older Americans. 

"As the Bureau takes much-needed steps toward addressing deceptive and fraudulent financial practices targeting American seniors, CFP Board and its nearly 67,000 certified financial planner professionals hope to serve as valuable partners in the identification and prevention of such abuse," said Keller.

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Website Domains Involving Cell Phone App Marketplaces are Seized

Thousands of apps were downloaded as part of an FBI investigation

Three Website domain names engaged in the illegal distribution of copies of copyrighted Android cell phone apps have been seized -- the first action of its...

PhotoThree Website domain names engaged in the illegal distribution of copies of copyrighted Android cell phone apps have been seized -- the first action of its kind. 

The three seized domain names -- applanet.net, appbucket.net and snappzmarket.com -- are in the custody of the federal government. Visitors to the sites will now find a seizure banner that notifies them that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities and educates them that willful copyright infringement is a federal crime. 

“Cracking down on piracy of copyrighted works – including popular apps – is a top priority of the Criminal Division,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer. “Software apps have become an increasingly essential part of our nation’s economy and creative culture, and the Criminal Division is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to protect the creators of these apps and other forms of intellectual property from those who seek to steal it.” 

Thousands of apps involved 

During the operation, FBI agents downloaded thousands of copies of popular copyrighted mobile device apps from the alternative online markets suspected of distributing copies of apps without permission from the software developers who would otherwise sell copies of the apps on legitimate online markets for a fee. 

In most cases, the servers storing the apps sold by these alternative online markets were being hosted in other countries, and U.S. international law enforcement partners assisted in obtaining or seizing evidence stored on these servers. Nine search warrants were also executed in six different districts across the country as part of the operation. 

“The theft of intellectual property, particularly within the cyber arena, is a growing problem and one that cannot be ignored by the U.S government’s law enforcement community,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Lamkin. “These thefts cost companies millions of dollars and can even inhibit the development and implementation of new ideas and applications. The FBI, in working with its various corporate and government partners, is not only committed to combating such thefts but is well poised to coordinate with the many jurisdictions that are impacted by such activities.” 

These enforcement actions are part of the efforts being undertaken by the Department of Justice Task Force on Intellectual Property (IP Task Force). The IP Task Force seeks to strengthen intellectual property rights protection through heightened criminal and civil enforcement, greater coordination among federal, state and local law enforcement partners, and increased focus on international enforcement efforts, including reinforcing relationships with key foreign partners and U.S. industry leaders.

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Reumofan Products Pose Risk to Consumers

The 'dietary supplements have hidden ingredients that could be harmful

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers about the risks they face if they take Reumofan Plus and Reumofan Plus Premium, products market...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers about the risks they face if they take Reumofan Plus and Reumofan Plus Premium, products marketed as “dietary supplements” that have hidden drug ingredients that can cause serious and potentially fatal side effects. 

Because of the possible risks, consumers should not buy or start using these products. 

FDA is issuing an updated alert that these products contain undeclared active ingredients found in prescription drugs that should be used only under the supervision of a health care professional. 

Earlier warning 

Since June 1, 2012, when FDA first warned the public about the dangers of these supplements, the agency has received reports of fatalities, stroke, severe bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract (including the esophagus, stomach and intestines), dizziness, insomnia (difficulty sleeping), high blood sugar levels and problems with liver and kidney functions, as well as corticosteroid withdrawal syndrome. 

Consumers who are currently taking Reumofan Plus or Reumofan Plus Premium, or who have recently stopped taking it, should immediately consult a health care professional,” said Elizabeth Miller, Pharm.D., acting director of FDA’s Division of Non-Prescription drugs and health fraud. 

Miller notes that because one of the drugs found in Reumofan products is a corticosteroid, it is not advisable to stop taking the supplements without medical guidance. Corticosteroids are drugs used to reduce inflammation. Sudden discontinuation could cause withdrawal syndrome and life-threatening suppression of the adrenal glands, which regulate a number of hormones and body functions. The risk of withdrawal syndrome depends upon a number of variables that must be assessed by a health care professional. 

Reumofan Plus and Reumofan Plus Premium are marketed as “natural” dietary supplements for treatment of arthritis, muscle pain, osteoporosis (the thinning of bone tissue and loss of bone density), bone cancer and other conditions. The law defines dietary supplements, in part, as products that contain “dietary” ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or other botanicals. 

These products are manufactured in Mexico by Riger Naturals and sold widely on the Internet, as well as at flea markets and some retail outlets. FDA has worked with the Mexican Ministry of Health, which issued a health warning to the public and ordered Riger Naturals to recall the product. 

Natural vs. unnatural 

How do you know if a supposedly “natural” supplement actually contains potentially dangerous ingredients, especially when -- as is the case with the Reumofan products -- these ingredients are not listed on the label? 

Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Division of Dietary Supplement Programs, says consumers should avoid products marketed as supplements that claim to have any effects that are the same as those of prescription drugs. 

Fabricant says consumers should also be wary of products in which the important information on the label appears only in a foreign language. (Reumofan Plus and Reumofan Plus Premium are labeled in Spanish, but other versions of these products with labels in English may exist.) 

According to Miller, unlike the premarket review that FDA conducts for prescription and some over-the-counter drugs, “people are often surprised to learn that the law doesn’t require FDA to ensure that dietary supplements are safe and effective before they go on the market. That’s why it’s important for consumers to have heightened awareness so they can avoid products with hidden dangers.” 

FDA actions 

After receiving reports of adverse events associated with Reumofan Plus, FDA analyzed the product in one of its laboratories and found that it contains the following drug ingredients: 

  • diclofenac sodium -- a prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that may cause increased risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack, as well as serious gastrointestinal problems.
  • Methocarbamol -- a prescription muscle relaxant that can cause sedation, dizziness and low blood pressure, and impair mental or physical abilities to perform tasks such as driving a motor vehicle or operating machinery.
  • Dexamethasone -- a corticosteroid used to treat inflammatory conditions such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, which can increase the risk of infection, increased blood sugar levels, changes in blood pressure, damage to bones, psychiatric problems and adrenal suppression. 

An FDA laboratory analysis of Reumofan Plus Premium found that it contains two of the ingredients listed above, diclofenac sodium and methocarbamol. 

Serious consequences 

Miller says the presence of dexamethasone means that people taking these supplements must work with their health care professional to slowly and safely taper off the drug. A person who abruptly stops taking corticosteroids after long-term use or after taking high doses runs the risk of suffering from withdrawal syndrome. This may include nausea, low blood pressure, low blood sugar levels, fever, muscle and joint pain, dizziness and fainting. 

Any of the drug ingredients found in Reumofan Plus or Reumofan Plus Premium can also interact with other medications a consumer may be taking and result in serious health consequences. 

Fabricant suggests that consumers considering using a dietary supplement should think about consulting their health care professional or a registered dietitian first to see if the product is really needed and to help distinguish between valid and questionable information. 

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Three Airlines Fined for Violating Airline Consumer Protection Rules

Infractions of rules governing baggage fee disclosures and cancellations are cited

Royal Jordanian Airlines, EgyptAir, and Royal Air Maroc have been fined for violating the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) expanded airline passen...

PhotoRoyal Jordanian Airlines, EgyptAir, and Royal Air Maroc have been fined for violating the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) expanded airline passenger protection rules that took effect in January.

 Royal Jordanian Airlines violated the rule on full-fare advertising and the rule requiring the disclosure of fees for baggage and was assessed a civil penalty of $70,000. 

EgyptAir violated rules requiring the disclosure of fees for baggage and the inclusion of assurances in its customer service plan allowing consumers to cancel a reservation without penalty for 24 hours after they book a flight and was assessed a civil penalty of $60,000. 

Royal Air Maroc violated the rule requiring the disclosure of fees for baggage and was assessed a civil penalty of $60,000. 

Each carrier was also ordered to cease and desist from further violations. DOT discovered the violations during its review of carrier Websites to ensure compliance with its consumer protection rules. 

Fair treatment 

“Airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly when they fly, and that means knowing the full price of their trip, including charges for checking baggage, as well as being given the opportunity to cancel a reservation without penalty for 24 hours after booking,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. 

DOT requires all advertisements that include airfares to state the entire price to be paid by the consumer. Prior to a provision of the rule that took effect Jan. 26, advertised fares were not required to include certain government-imposed taxes as long as these additional charges were clearly disclosed in the ad. Under the new rule, all government taxes and fees must be incorporated into the fare. The rule applies to both U.S. and foreign airlines as well as ticket agents. 

Website searches 

Airfare searches made by the DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office on Royal Jordanian’s Website after Jan. 26 resulted in separate listings of base fares for outbound and inbound legs that did not include additional government taxes and fees. By failing to advertise the entire price of the flight when fares were first stated, the airline violated the full-fare advertising rule. 

Under a separate provision of the rule that took effect on Jan. 24, carriers must disclose to consumers booking a flight that they may have to pay baggage fees in addition to the basic ticket price. When consumers book a flight on-line, carriers must clearly and prominently disclose on the first screen that offers a specific itinerary that additional baggage fees may apply and tell the consumer where they can view the fees. The rule applies to all airlines selling air transportation in the United States, including foreign carriers. 

Airfare searches on Royal Jordanian’s Website made by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office after April 11 found that the airline failed to disclose on the first screen in which it offered a fare quotation for a specific itinerary that additional airline fees for baggage may apply and where consumers could see those fees. 

Searches made on EgyptAir’s Website after Jan. 24 found that the airline also failed to make this disclosure and instead referred customers to the airline’s baggage overview pages for more information without clearly indicating whether additional baggage fees would apply to the fares displayed. 

A review of Royal Air Maroc’s Website after Jan. 24 found that it contained a menu option which linked to the airline’s baggage fee policies, but that there was no reference to these policies on the website’s first screen in which a fare quotation for a specific itinerary was offered. The placement of the baggage fee policies did not make it clear whether additional baggage fees might apply to the fares displayed and therefore was not sufficient to comply with the requirement of the rule. 

DOT requires carriers to include a commitment in their customer service plans allowing customers’ reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or canceled without penalty, for at least twenty-four hours after the reservation is made if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure. 

A review of EgyptAir’s Website after Jan. 24, found that the airline failed to include this commitment in the contents of its plans.

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Some Really Cool Food Apps to Download

From making reservations to getting nutrition advice, there's a food app for every person and diet.

In the world of eating out, you have your casual diners; you're every-now-and-then-food enthusiast, and your hardcore foodie types.Way back when —...

PhotoIn the world of eating out, you have your casual diners, your every-now-and-then-food enthusiast, and your hardcore foodie types. But the one thing they all have in common is a way to find and keep up with the eateries that fit their taste and pocketbook.

Way back when — which was really just a few years ago — it was a bit harder to know where the best restaurants and eateries were. A person either had to count on word of mouth to find a good place, see some sort of advertisement or review in the newspaper, or run into that ambitious restaurant owner who talks you into entering his establishment when you walk by.

Today it's a lot easier to find out where the hot spots are through a bevy of new smartphone apps that do everything from allowing you to see restaurant deals in real time, to making reservations and inviting friends to come dine with you, like Foursquare for example.

Foursquare

PhotoThe company, founded by two buddies and based in New York City, gives the user suggestions on where to eat based on their preferences and past restaurant choices.

For example, if you've been frequenting a lot of Chinese restaurants, and you saved each location in the app, it will tell you about that new Szechuan place that just opened up by your house.

Foursquare will also give you deals and discounts for all the different types of eateries you've been visiting, and it will help you coordinate a restaurant dinner party, or simply let your friends know where you’re eating and invite them to join you for a bite.

And of course there's a review component to the app, so anybody can be a food critic with a built-in audience whenever they feel like it.

This past June, Foursquare relaunched the app after the company redesigned some of its features and highlighted its social media usage. 

Although some of its initial user numbers have slightly decreased since the relaunch, it's still one of the more popular free food apps for Androids, iPhones and iPads.

Around Campus

PhotoThe Around Campus app has a very specific area of usefulness, as it gathers all of the restaurant and bar deals from college campus planners and relevant Internet sources.

The app is ideal for the college kid with little to no money, or those people who happen to live in or near a college town.

The company says there are over 300 campuses that currently access the service, and the app almost serves as a personal deal expert that does all of the legwork for you by consolidating coupons and cheap places to eat.

The app also allows you to keep abreast of other businesses in the area that may be frequented and helpful to the average college student.

Around Campus is free to access and available on iOS and Androids, and with  new restaurants popping up by the second, these types of apps can only help consumers decide what's best out of a sea of choices.

Big eaters

According to research conducted by the National Restaurant Association, the entire restaurant industry will rake in nearly $632 billion before the year is over, which shows people are still eating out in droves, despite the economy, and app makers can barely keep up with the growing consumer interest.

Many of the app makers are competing with each other and trying to separate themselves by creating a unique service niche that has yet to be thought of by other companies.

Thryve

PhotoThryve is one of those apps that provide a niche service. Its creators made the app to serve as a nutritional coach to help you avoid foods that your body has a low tolerance for.

Users keep track of what they're eating and document how each food item made them feel.

Afterwards, the app suggests other foods to both eat and avoid, so if you that particular beverage or vegetable is making your stomach churn, the app will lead you to other options so you can hopefully enjoy your meal instead of feeling discomfort.

Another useful electronic assistannt that focuses on health is Nutritionix. It helps users eat a little better by providing useful menu information for popular eating locations. Although it's really a database and not an app, Nutritionix can still be accessed on your mobile device.

So if you would like to check the nutritional information of a particular restaurant you're going to, the app will individually breakdown each item, just in case you wanted to know what's really in that cheese dish at Red Lobster.

Mobilecious

PhotoMobilecious is pretty cool too. For those who have immersed themselves in the food-truck craze, this nifty little app could turn into your best friend.

Simply use it to find the particular food truck you crave in real time, and you can also check out what's on each truck's menu. The app also lets you know all of the RV's deals and coupons that are being offered.

Moblilecious can be downloaded for free, and is only available for the iPhone and iPad.

If you're one for an upscale dining experience, and live in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, Blackboard Eats may be just right for you.

The app uses staff members from the food magazine Gourmet to make suggestions, and provides deal offers, reviews and helps users find certain types of restaurants or cuisines. The app is free and can be accessed on both the Android and iOS.

All of these apps are great for foodies as well as the person who just loves to restaurant-hop. It doesn't matter if your taste-buds crave a laid back meal in a moderately priced restaurant, or a high-end dish that requires dressing up a little.

Either way, it's certainly easier than driving around aimlessly searching for the perfect place to eat.

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How Did Offline Dating Become New Again?

More online dating companies are trying to get you away from your keyboard

Somehow online dating has become so normal, that offline dating almost seems like a novelty.This is the thinking and marketing approach many dating ...

PhotoSomehow online dating has become so normal, that offline dating almost seems like a novelty. This is the thinking and marketing approach many dating sites like Match.com are now using, with its newly developed social mixers called “The Stir.”

The Stir events, which have been heavily advertised on television, are organized gatherings of Match.com subscribers, and the events include Happy Hour get-togethers, cooking classes, bowling parties, and Tequila tastings.

 

Match.com Aug. 20, 2012, 11:02 p.m.
Consumers rate Match.com

The online dating site has starting rolling out these events in twenty U.S. cities earlier this summer, including areas like New York, and San Francisco. Match has said the events will be coming to more cities in the near future.

 

So far, general Internet chatter about the social mixers has ranged from great to less than satisfactory.

Some people attending the mixers said the events were more or less glorified bar scenes, and many who showed up seemed to be completely different from their profile picture and background information. However, others said they felt the mixers were a good experience and they felt comfortable knowing everybody in the room was already single and looking to meet someone.

A few female Match subscribers said they didn't meet their soulmate during one of the events, but they met other women subscribers that eventually became friends.

Not just Match

Match.com isn't the only dating site that's marketing the possibilities of offline dating. Companies like howaboutwe are also trying to get their subscribers to meet-up for a date or just hangout face-to face.

Photo

Here's how it works: The site sends profiles to subscribers so you can communicate virtually with someone you're interested in. Once you get to a level of comfort you set up an in-person meeting.

Unlike other online dating sites, where actual dates also transpire, howaboutwe's main purpose is to establish in-person meetings, instead of its members speaking online and hoping a date will soon happen.

This site is also new so our readers have not yet commented on how useful howaboutwe is, but overall customer reviews throughout the Internet haven't been all that great.

One user said that although the site is being promoted on television, and seems very popular, the number of paid users on the website is relatively low.

Since many people that are signed up only have free access to the site, paid users aren't able to have many of their messages read. A good portion of the people they're interested in aren't forking over the necessary amount of bucks to have full access.

Testing the waters

Prices to join the site range from $36.99 for a one month subscription, to $119.88 for one year access, which may cause some people to simply use the free features just to test the Internet dating waters without jumping in.

And they have a right to be cautious, as according to a study published by the University of Rochester, many subscribers are let down by their Internet connections once they meet in person.

The authors of the study found that virtual exchanges and Internet flirting can lead one to be idealistic as it pertains to finding a lasting romantic connection.

“People with strong beliefs in romantic destiny (sometimes called soulmate beliefs) are especially likely to exit a romantic relationship when problems arise, the authors wrote. “And to become vengeful in response to partner aggression when they feel insecure in the relationship.”

But that doesn't stop other companies from providing off-line dating services.

This grouper's not a fish

Sites like Grouper, that match people according to their Facebook profiles, have also thrown their hat in the circle of online/offline dating.

Photo

The way it works is, once two people are virtually connected they are told to each bring two more friends along on the first outing.

This makes it a three-couple date, which theoretically diminishes any awkwardness associated with a blind date. Because let's face it, even though you've been chatting with someone online for months on end, doesn't mean you really know who the person truly is.

Once you have your two friends gathered, and come up with $20 each — the cost of going on the set-up date — Grouper picks the location, and springs for the first round of drinks for you and the whole group.

The selected venue locations are currently only in New York City, Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

On the other end of the dating scale, you have old-fashioned offline dating companies like Selective Search, which says it’s an upscale boutique, personal matchmaking firm.

According to the company website, 48 percent of its clients need only three meetings with a person before a true connection is made, and 34 percent said they meet their ultimate love on the very first date.

These numbers sound a bit padded, but a large amount of people, who can afford it, still use these traditional matchmaking services over online dating sites.

One-on-one

In theory, companies like Selective Search provide a more one-on-one specialized service, and tend to be a better filter against those who misrepresent themselves when trying to meet somebody.

Photo

Kenneth, of Chicago, used Selective Search, and initially was completely dissatisfied with the nationwide company. Here's what he wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review

“I thought I would meet women I would want to marry (and vice versa) and would be a huge improvement over Match.com. So I went to Barbie to find the 'one'. The cost? $20,000 for seven introductions and one year of service.”

He also wrote: “Girls see all of the SS advertisements, simply sign-up online, and then my 'personal recruiter' picks out a couple of hotties and hopes it will stick! You know what that is? Match.com with a middleman at 100x the cost,” he wrote.

Apparently, Selective Search caught wind of Kenneth's complaints and tried to make things better. Almost four months later Kenneth wrote:

“It's been a few months and SS has done a good job trying to make things right. They gave me a new matchmaker and she has set me up with a couple of women. None of them have worked out but I appreciate SS going the extra mile to make me happy.”

As with any dating service — whether it be on or offline — you should really not only do your homework before signing up, but also hold the company responsible for not living up to its claims.

Also, be careful not to pour all of your hopes into making a romantic connection through a matchmaking service. Many times people make plans to marry, have kids and live happily ever after before ever meeting someone.

Shouldn't it be the other way around? I mean, Shouldn't you meet the right person first, then develop the planning and decision making?

Making the decision first — before actually meeting that special someone — can lead to a bad relationship result.

Remember, neither fulfillment or happiness is synonymous with marriage or a heavy relationship, right?

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Good Food On a Tight Budget: It's Not Impossible

Environmental group identifies top 100 healthy, cheap, clean and green foods

Finding the right food isn't easy but it can help keep your family healthy while also keeping your budget under control and supplying a helpful nudge to th...

PhotoFinding the right food isn't easy but it can help keep your family healthy while also keeping your budget under control and supplying a helpful nudge to the environment, according to researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

With one in four Americans receiving federal nutrition assistance and obesity driving an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, there's no shortage of reasons for families to do what they can to eat right and stay fit.

PhotoEWG offers some help with Good Food on a Tight Budget, its new science-based shopping guide of the top 100 foods that are healthy, cheap, clean and green.

“Putting good food on your family’s table on a $5-or-$6-a-day budget is tough, but it’s possible,” said co-author Dawn Undurraga, EWG nutritionist and registered dietitian. “When shoppers fill their grocery carts with the foods on EWG’s lists, they’ll be doing something good for their health and the environment, meanwhile lowering their grocery bills and exposures to the worst chemicals.”

Tips from the guide:

• Raw cabbage is a top-ranked vegetable based on nutrition and price. At less than a dime a serving, it’s cheaper than potatoes and can be served as a salad, stuffed, or used in sandwiches, stir-fries, stews and soups.
• Carrots, bananas, frozen broccoli, pears and watermelon receive high marks for nutrition and ring up at less than 30 cents a serving.
• Pears have even more fiber, potassium and folate – and fewer pesticide residues – than apples.
• Parsley packs a nutritional punch as potent as kale for a quarter of the cost.
• Roasted turkey topped the list of animal sources of protein. Hot dogs ranked dead last.

Low-cost recipes

Photo
Chef Alli Sosna
Inside the guide, shoppers will find lists of foods that give consumers the biggest nutritional bang for their buck, simple tips for eating well, tasty recipes for meals and snacks, and easy tools for tracking food prices and preparing and planning meals at home. In collaboration with Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters and chef Ann Cooper, the guide provides 15 delicious low-cost recipes that average less than $1 a serving.

“Eight in ten low-income families cook dinner at home most nights, but many are struggling to afford the ingredients to make healthy meals,” said Laura Seman, senior manager of program development and evaluation for Cooking Matters, a national program that helps families at risk of hunger get the most from their food resources. “Practical tools like Good Food on a Tight Budget can help families stretch their food dollar in a healthy way.”

Highlights from the guide:

• Fresh isn’t always more expensive. And canned isn’t always cheaper. Fresh carrots are cheaper than frozen. Frozen corn can be cheaper than canned.
• Beans are cheaper and have a smaller carbon footprint than turkey.
• One serving of filling oatmeal is about half the cost of a bowl of sugared cereal.
• Brown rice costs as little as oatmeal and has twice as much fiber as white rice.
• Boil, bake or roast three servings of potatoes for the same cost as a single serving of hash browns.
• Plain yogurt has more calcium than sour cream and costs less.
• Queso blanco costs less than processed American cheese and like other soft cheeses, produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than hard cheeses.  

Home cooking

EWG’s guide underscores that home cooking is the best way to save money and enjoy good food. The best strategy, it says, is to cook and freeze large batches of healthy foods such as soup and turkey chili. Another winning strategy: buying rice, beans and other dry or frozen staples in bulk from warehouse stores and a growing number of local markets.

 

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Class Action Charges Hotels, Travel Sites Skinned Consumers

Expedia, Travelocity, Marriott, Sheraton and others conspired to fix prices, the suit charges

A class-action lawsuit accuses major hotels and online travel sites of price-fixing. The suit alleges that the defendants conspired to secretly create and...

PhotoA class-action lawsuit accuses major hotels and online travel sites of price-fixing. The suit alleges that the defendants conspired to secretly create and enforce Resale Price Maintenance (RPM) agreements to thwart competition on hotel room prices, especially from price-cutting online retailers.

Named in the suit are Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline's Booking.com, and the nation's largest hotel operators including Hilton Hotel, Sheraton Hotels and Resorts, and Marriott International.

The lawsuit was filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on behalf of hotel-room purchasers nationally.

The complaint contends that the defendants' unlawful conduct caused plaintiffs and other class members to overpay for their purchases of room reservations and seeks to represent all consumers who have purchased hotel rooms from the online retailer defendants.

Created an illusion

 

Consumers rate Travelocity - Hotels

"The large online travel sites, working with hotel chains, have created the illusion that savvy consumers can spend time researching hotel rates online to find good deals," said Steve Berman, managing partner and co-founder of Hagens Berman, the Seattle law firm representing the consumers. "The reality is that these illegal price-parity agreements mean consumers see nothing but cosmetic differences and the same prices on every site."

 

According to the complaint, online travel sites account for as much as 50 percent of hotel bookings in the United States and traditionally operate under one of two models. Under the agency model, online retailers charge a service fee to a hotel operator on a transaction basis for booking customers, and that customer pays the hotel directly at a rate set by the hotel.

Under the merchant model, online retailers purchase rooms outright at a negotiated rate from the hotel, and then resell the rooms to consumers at a higher price, increasing or decreasing margins depending on competitive influences.

New model

 

Consumers rate Expedia - Hotels

More recently, a new model has emerged that has cut into the traditional online retailers' profits, the complaint contends, and has led to the creation of the RPM agreements. In this model, known as the Wholesale Model, third-party companies buy up unsold blocks of rooms at the last-minute and resell them to smaller price-cutting online retailers, eroding the profits of the traditional online retailers.

 

Knowing hotels cannot afford to lose access to online distribution networks, the suit charges that online retailers devised an illegal scheme, extracting agreements from the hotels that online retailers may not sell rooms below the RPM rates -- even through the wholesale model -- on penalty of termination and as a condition of doing business through the online retailers, the lawsuit contends.

Consumers rate Priceline - Hotels

The complaint states that the online retailer defendants often use terms like "best price guarantee" to create the impression of a competitive market, but in truth these are nothing more than a cover for the price-fixing conspiracy. "The cold fact is that there are no 'best prices' but instead there is only a fixed price that all the defendant online retailers tout in unison," Berman added.

"We have abundant information that points to the existence of written or verbal agreements between the online retailers and hotel companies about the existence and enforcement of RPM agreements," Berman noted.

For example, in published statements, a spokesperson for Sabre Holdings which operates Travelocity admitted it uses RPM agreements "so that the customer can have the confidence that they will get the best rate and they don't have to go on 18 different sites," Berman said.

The suit alleges that the defendants' activities violate both the federal antitrust laws, as well as California's Cartwright Act. 

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Bariatric Surgery Increasing As Anti-Obesity Weapon

Researchers report average weight loss at around 100 pounds

More than one-third of all U.S. adults over 20 are classified as obese.Many are among the millions of Americans who have found that diet, exercise and me...

PhotoMore than one-third of all U.S. adults over 20 are classified as obese.

Many are among the millions of Americans who have found that diet, exercise and medication alone have not proved sufficient to shed the unwanted and unhealthy pounds. Sometimes, years of failed dieting have made things worse, altering the patient's metabolism.

Bariatric surgery, once considering a risky and extreme response to long-term obesity, is increasingly viewed as a more mainstream option and is getting better results. Weight loss of 100 pounds or more is not uncommon.

According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, about 220,000 people underwent bariatric surgery in 2009 in the United States -- up from about 13,300 procedures in 1998.

Evolution

The surgery itself has evolved over the years. The first bariatric procedure was performed by surgeon A.J. Kremen, in 1954 and was called the intestinal bypass, because it linked the upper and lower parts of the small intestine to allow food to pass by the middle section, where most of the calories are absorbed.

Early procedures were marked by serious side effects. In 1966, Dr. Edward E. Mason performed the first gastric bypass at the University of Iowa. Known as vertical banded gastroplasty, it used surgical staples to close off a portion of the upper stomach, making the patient feel full after eating a small amount of food. It was refined over the years to resolve complicating side effects.

By the late 1990s the surgery attracted a number of celebrities. Rosanne Barr, Carnie Wilson and the Today Show's Al Roker all underwent some form of bariatric surgery and lost significant weight.

Improved quality of life

New research shows that people who have bariatric surgery to treat obesity report an overall improvement in quality of life issues after surgery, from their relationships to their medical conditions.

“We thought there would be more negative reactions to the surgery, but the response was very positive,” said Arizona State University professor Jennie Jacobs Kronenfeld, co-author of the research report. “Most people had improvements in chronic health problems.”

The researchers collected data from 213 patients ranging in age from 26 to 73 years old, with an average age of 50, through a self-selected sample of participants in an online support group.

Medical conditions improved

The patients reported improvements in conditions ranging from diabetes and heart disease to high cholesterol and sleep apnea. Weight loss among participants averaged 95 pounds per person while the range of weight experiences was wide -- from a gain of 80 pounds, which is atypical according to the researchers, to a weight loss of 260 pounds.

The people who elected to have the surgery said they did so to improve relationships with family and friends. On that count, they said it worked. They also reported being less depressed.

“This provides evidence that overcoming the stigma of being overweight, as reflected by negative reactions of others, can lead to greater satisfaction among relationships with family and friends, and in social life in general,” said Doris A. Palmer, co-author of the paper and a doctoral student in the School of Social and Family Dynamics sociology program at ASU.

Not for everyone

But bariatric surgery is not for everyone. The surgery is riskier for those over age 55 who have complicating health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

It's also not for people who are not obese. If you don't have a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or greater, you don't need it. You just need to go on a diet and get more exercise.

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Best Credit Cards For College Students

The right card can be a positive experience

With student loan debt mounting, the last thing a college student needs to do is run up a lot of credit card debt on top of it.In fact, when Congress ref...

PhotoWith student loan debt mounting, the last thing a college student needs to do is run up a lot of credit card debt on top of it.

In fact, when Congress reformed credit card laws in 2009, it specifically regulated how credit cards could be marketed to college students. But that doesn't necessarily mean a college student shouldn't have a credit card.

Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of Card Hub, says a credit card in the hands of a college student can be a positive experience, as long as they're smart and choose the right card.

Build inexpensive credit

In looking for the right credit card, he says a student’s top priority should be to build credit as inexpensively as possible. As a result, Card Hub’s selections for the Best Credit Cards for College Students in 2012 -- which were developed after analysis of over 1,000 credit card offers -- includes mostly cards without annual fees.

The only thing better than a card with no annual fee is a card that provides rewards. Students who are confident that they will be able to pay their credit card bills in full each and every month should focus on finding cards that, on average, provide more than one percent cash back on all purchases.

Three cards fit that bill nicely. The Citi Forward Card for College Students provides five points per $1 spent on entertainment and at restaurants. It provides one point per $1 in spending on everything else, 100 bonus points each month you stay below your credit limit and pay your bill on time, and 1,000 bonus points for signing up for paperless statements during the first three months.

The Journey Student Rewards from Capital One pays 1.25 percent cash back on all purchases when you pay your bill on time and no fee for foreign transactions, great for students studying abroad.

The Citi Dividend Platinum Select Card for College Students pays five percent cash back on supermarket, drugstore, gas station and utilities purchases for 6 months and one percent thereafter. It also pays two percent on rotating spending categories and one percent on everything else.

Do a little homework

“There are a number of attractive student rewards credit cards on the market and deciding between them necessitates considering their value through the prism of your lifestyle,” Papadimitriou said. “It’s tempting to simply opt for whichever card offers the most points, miles, or cash back, but if earning them necessitates signing up for rotating spending categories when you know you’ll forget to do so, or the best rewards aren’t being linked to the things you spend the most money on, another card might be preferable.”

Gone are the days of credit card marketers signing up students at football tailgate parties. Thanks to the CARD Act, consumers under age 21 have to jump through a number of hoops to get a credit card. If you're going to go to all that trouble, you might as well get a card that works to your advantage.

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Crash Avoidance Technology Test Underway

Wi-Fi-like signals that warn of safety hazards could help reduce crashes during year-long project

Nearly 3,000 cars, trucks and buses equipped with “connected” Wi-Fi technology to enable vehicles and infrastructure to “talk” to each other in real time t...

PhotoNearly 3,000 cars, trucks and buses equipped with “connected” Wi-Fi technology to enable vehicles and infrastructure to “talk” to each other in real time to help avoid crashes and improve traffic flow are now on the roads of Ann Arbor, MI 

It's all part of the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) year-long second phase of the Safety Pilot, the largest road test to date of connected vehicle crash avoidance technology. 

Today is a big moment for automotive safety,” said Transportation Secretary LaHood. “This cutting-edge technology offers real promise for improving both the safety and efficiency of our roads. That is a winning combination for drivers across America.” 

Ground-breaking test 

Conducted by University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), the road test, or model deployment, is a first-of-its-kind test of connected vehicle technology in the real world. The test cars, trucks and buses, most of which have been supplied by volunteer participants, are equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication devices that will gather extensive data about system operability and its effectiveness at reducing crashes. 

According to DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), V2V safety technology could help drivers avoid or reduce the severity of four out of five unimpaired vehicle crashes. To accomplish this, the model deployment vehicles will send electronic data messages, receive messages from other equipped vehicles, and translate the data into a warning to the driver during specific hazardous traffic scenarios. Such hazards include an impending collision at a blind intersection, a vehicle changing lanes in another vehicle’s blind spot, or a rear collision with a vehicle stopped ahead, among others. 

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication has the potential to be the ultimate game-changer in roadway safety -- but we need to understand how to apply the technology in an effective way in the real world,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “NHTSA will use the valuable data from the ‘model deployment’ as it decides if and when these connected vehicle safety technologies should be incorporated into the fleet.” 

Follow-up test 

The model deployment is the second phase of DOT’s connected vehicle Safety Pilot, a major research initiative managed by NHTSA and the Research and Innovative Technologies Administration (RITA) Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. Earlier this year, DOT released data from a series of “driver acceptance clinics” conducted during the first phase of the Safety Pilot. 

The study revealed that an overwhelming majority of drivers (9 out of 10) who have experienced V2V technology have a highly favorable opinion of its safety benefits and would like to have V2V safety features on their personal vehicle. 

Many significant advances in roadway safety resulted from the collaborations between government, industry, and academia,” said Gregory D. Winfree, RITA Deputy Administrator. “The deployment today is the culmination of years of cooperative research on forward-thinking technology designed to save lives and prevent injuries on America’s roads.” 

The information collected from both phases of the Safety Pilot, and other key research projects, will be used by NHTSA to determine by 2013 whether to proceed with additional activities involving connected vehicle technology, including possible rulemaking. 

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Federal Report Finds US Seniors Doing Just Fine, Thank You

Older Americans live longer, healthier lives than their ancestors

Senior citizens are enjoying longer lives and and doing better physically than did previous generations, although -- for some -- an increased burden in hou...

PhotoSenior citizens are enjoying longer lives and and doing better physically than did previous generations, although -- for some -- an increased burden in housing costs and rising obesity may compromise these gains, according to a comprehensive federal look at aging.

The report, Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being, tracks trends at regular intervals to see how older people are faring as the U.S. population grows older. 

In 2010, 40 million people age 65 and over accounted for 13 percent of the total population in the United States. In 2030, the number and proportion of older Americans is expected to grow significantly -- to 72 million, representing nearly 20 percent of the population said the report, by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. 

Comprehensive report 

Older Americans 2012, the sixth report prepared by the Forum since 2000, provides an updated and accessible compendium of indicators, drawn from official statistics about the well-being of Americans primarily age 65 and older. The 176-page report provides a broad description of areas of well-being that are improving for older Americans and those that are not. Thirty-seven key indicators are categorized into five broad areas -- population, economics, health status, health risks and behaviors, and health care. This year's report also includes a special feature on the end of life. 

Highlights of Older Americans 2012 include: 

  • Increased labor force participation by older women -- Participation of older women in the labor force has increased significantly over the past 40 years. In 1963, 29 percent of women aged 62-64 worked outside the home; in 2011, that had increased to 45 percent. In 1963, 17 percent of women aged 65-69 were in the labor force; in 2011, that had increased to 27 percent. For women 70 and older, 6 percent worked in 1963, increasing to 8 percent in 2011. Some older Americans work out of economic necessity. Others may be attracted by the social contact, intellectual challenges or sense of value that work often provides. 
  • Declines in poverty, increases in income since 1974 -- Older Americans are in better economic shape now than they were in 1974. Between 1974 and 2010, the proportion of older people with income below the poverty thresholds (less than $10,458 in 2010 for a person 65 and older) fell from 15 percent to 9 percent. The percentage with low income (between $10,458 and $20,916 in 2010 for people 65 and older) dropped from 35 percent to 26 percent. There were also notable gains in income over the period, as the proportion of people 65 and older with high income ($41,832 and above in 2010) rose from 18 percent to 31 percent. 
  • Increased housing problems -- The most significant issue by far is housing cost burden, which has been steadily increasing over time. In 1985, about 30 percent of households with householders or spouses age 65 and over spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing and utilities. By 2009, the proportion of older people with high housing cost burden reached 40 percent. For some multigenerational households, crowded housing is also fairly prevalent. 
  • Rising rates of obesity -- Obesity, a major cause of preventable disease and premature death, is increasing among older people. In 2009-2010, 38 percent of people age 65 and over were obese, compared with 22 percent in 1988-1994. In 2009-2010, 44 percent of people age 65-74 were obese, as were 29 percent of those age 75 and older. 
  • More use of hospice -- The percentage of older people who received hospice care in the last 30 days of life increased from 19 percent in 1999 to 43 percent in 2009. The percentage of older Americans who died in hospitals dropped from 49 percent in 1999 to 32 percent in 2009. The percentage who died at home increased from 15 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2009. In 2009, there were notable differences in the use of hospice services at the end of life among people of different race and ethnicity groups.
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AT&T iPhone Users Face Restrictions on FaceTime

That could be a violation of the FCC's Open Internet rules

Current iPhone owners can use the product's video FaceTime feature if they are accessing the Internet through a Wi-Fi connection. But when Apple issues the...

PhotoCurrent iPhone owners can use the product's video FaceTime feature if they are accessing the Internet through a Wi-Fi connection. But when Apple issues the next update of its iOS, the iPhone will be capable of making these video calls using their carrier's cell signal.

All of a sudden carriers could see a big jump in bandwidth demand from iPhone users. AT&T has let it be known that, once the new operating system is out there, only AT&T iPhones on a shared data plan will be able to use the carrier signal for video calls. Those still on the older, unlimited data plans will have to continue using Wi-Fi.

Data drain

The reasoning is understandable. Those on a shared data plan have a fixed amount of bandwidth to use during each billing cycle. AT&T doesn't really care how customers use it.

But customers on the grandfathered unlimited data plans could significantly increase network demands if they are able to make unlimited video calls. While it's not hard to understand AT&T's reasoning, the public interest group Public Knowledge says it doesn't make it right. In fact, the group says it might not even be legal.

"By blocking FaceTime for many of its customers, AT&T is violating the FCC's Open Internet rules,” said John Bergmayer, Senior Staff Attorney at Public Knowledge. “These rules state that mobile providers shall not 'block applications that compete with the provider's voice or video telephony services.' Although carriers are permitted to engage in 'reasonable network management,' there is no technical reason why one data plan should be able to access FaceTime, and another not.”

Cutting into revenue

Bergmayer says “over-the-top” communications services like FaceTime are a threat to carriers' revenue, but the companies should respond by competing with these services and not by engaging in discriminatory behavior. AT&T says it isn't an issue because all iPhone users can continue to use Wi-Fi for FaceTime.

FaceTime is Apple's system for two-way video calling, allowing users to talk to each other face-to-face from an iPhone, iPad or Mac. The calls are made over an Internet connection and most of these connections are wired and unlimited. Cell networks are more limited and carriers, in recent years, have begun to look for way in which to limit usage as the proliferation of smartphones has greatly increased data demand.

Over the summer both Verizon Wireless and AT&T have moved to shared data plans, requiring all new customers to choose a measured amount of bandwidth that they can use during a billing cycle. Both companies hope to eventually eliminate most grandfathered unlimited plans, requiring these customers to move to a shared plan when they purchase a new subsidized phone.

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College Debt Falls Heaviest on Middle-Income Students

Study finds upper and lower income students manage to avoid heavy education debt

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) earlier this year raised the alarm over student debt, noting that the toll of outstanding student loans is ...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) earlier this year raised the alarm over student debt, noting that the toll of outstanding student loans is now over $1 trillion.

Who owes this money and how are they ever going to pay it back? A researcher at the University of Wisconsin has found that the student debt burden falls heaviest on students from middle-income families.

Upper income students don't need loans. Low-income students have a number of aid opportunities. But researcher Jason Houle says for many middle-income students, loans are the only form of student aid available to them.

Middle-income squeeze

Houle calls it the “middle-income squeeze.” The families of these young adults make too much money for their children to qualify for adequate financial aid benefits, but not enough to afford the rising costs of tuition, room and board, and additional university fees.

In his study, Houle found nearly 41 percent of all students left school with some student loan debt, and the average debt among those students was more than $22,000.

“Young adults from middle-income families are at the highest risk for student loan debt,” Houle said. “As tuition costs continue to rise and outpace inflation, students increasingly use loans as the primary means of financial aid.”

Among those who left school with student loan debt, Houle found that on average young adults from middle-income backgrounds, whose families earned between $40,000 and $59,000 annually, owed over $6,000 more in student loan debt than their low income peers whose families made less than $40,000 per year.

Similarly, students from somewhat more affluent middle-income backgrounds, whose families made between $60,000 and $99,000 annually, racked up nearly $4,000 more in student loan debt than young adults whose families earned less than $40,000 per year.

Pell grants go mostly to lower-income students

Over 90 percent of all Pell Grant recipients come from families with annual incomes of less than $40,000.

“Young adults whose families make just over $40,000 are less likely to qualify for such student aid packages, and tend to suffer a disproportional burden of student loan debt,” Houle said.

Houle looked at other factors besides income. He sound that students whose parents had less than a college degree were also at a higher risk of accumulating student loan debt. African American students were also significantly more likely than their white peers to rack up student loan debt. In addition, he found that young adults with single parents or step families were more likely than students whose biological parents were together, to incur student loan debt.

As college graduates struggle to find high-wage jobs in today’s economy, inflated student loan debt forces young adults to begin their careers at an increased risk of default and penalties for missed payments. Bankruptcy is not an option for students struggling to pay off their student loans, which, Houle said, makes student loan debt a very unique and dangerous liability.

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Orbitz Fined for Failing to Disclose Baggage Fees Properly

Feds say fees were not 'prominently' displayed

Orbitz is being fined $50,000 for violating the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) expanded airline passenger protection rule by failing to clearly...

PhotoOrbitz is being fined $50,000 for violating the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) expanded airline passenger protection rule by failing to clearly and prominently inform consumers that they may have to pay baggage fees The online ticket agent was also directed to cease and desist from further violations. 

“Airline passengers should be able to determine the full cost of their trip, including baggage fees, quickly and easily,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “The department adopted its rules on baggage fees to ensure that consumers have complete and accurate information about how much they will have to pay when they book a flight, and we will continue to take enforcement action when carriers and ticket agents fail to comply with our rules.” 

Not 'clear and prominent' 

Under a DOT rule that took effect Jan. 24, carriers and ticket agents must disclose to consumers booking a flight that they may have to pay baggage fees in addition to the basic ticket price. When consumers book a flight on-line, carriers must clearly and prominently disclose on the first screen that offers a specific itinerary that additional baggage fees may apply and tell the consumer where they can view the fees. The rule applies to all airlines selling air transportation in the United States, including foreign carriers. 

For a short period of time after Jan. 24, Orbitz’s Website disclosed on the first Webpage in which it offered fare quotations for specific itineraries that additional fees for baggage may apply and where consumers could see those fees. However, the location of the disclosure may have required consumers to scroll to the bottom of the first Webpage, and therefore was not clear and prominent as required by DOT’s rule.

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Resveratrol May Help Seniors Prevent Falls

But that's not an excuse to have a second glass of wine at dinner

Resveratrol, a substance in the skin of red grapes and other fruit, is credited with many potent health benefits.Among them are resistance to some cancer...

PhotoResveratrol, a substance in the skin of red grapes and other fruit, is credited with many potent health benefits.

Among them are resistance to some cancers, increased heart health, anti-diabetic effects and reduced inflammation. Now there's another.

Researchers studying resveratrol and the elderly conclude that it may help seniors remain upright, preventing falls that cause many serious and debilitating injuries.

“Our study suggests that a natural compound like resveratrol, which can be obtained either through dietary supplementation or diet itself, could actually decrease some of the motor deficiencies that are seen in our aging population,” said Jane E. Cavanaugh, Ph.D., leader of the research team. “And that would, therefore, increase an aging person’s quality of life and decrease their risk of hospitalization due to slips and falls.”

Preventing falls

Falls become more common with advancing age and are the leading cause of injury-related death among people older than 65. In addition, about one in three older Americans has difficulty with balance or walking, according to the American Geriatrics Society.

Other diseases associated with aging can make mobility issues even more serious for seniors. While drugs can help alleviate some of the motor-related problems in Parkinson’s disease, Cavanaugh points out that there are no comparable treatments for balance and walking problems in otherwise healthy older adults. She and her colleagues set out to rectify that, focusing on natural chemical compounds such as resveratrol.

Previous studies have suggested resveratrol is something of a wonder agent. These studies suggest this antioxidant found in red wine and dark-skinned fruits might help reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, slash the risk of heart disease and certain cancers and, perhaps, have some anti-aging effects in the body.

Not much resveratrol in wine

If you don't drink alcohol, you can still get plenty of Resveratrol. In fact, red wine actually contains very little of the substance. It is more abundant in the form of a dietary supplement and is present in foods such as red grapes, blueberries and nuts.

How does Cavanaugh know resveratrol promotes balance and mobility? Experiments on laboratory rodents. The researchers fed young and old laboratory mice a diet containing resveratrol for eight weeks. From time to time they tested the rodents’ ability to navigate a steel mesh balance beam, counting the number of times that each mouse fell.

At first the older mice had a harder time dealing with the obstacle. But by week four, the older mice were performing much the same as the young mice.

Cavanagh’s team also found some clues as to why resveratrol works in the body. Experiments on cells found that those fortified with resveratrol mitigated the damage done by oxygen free radicals. Overall, resveratrol seemed to promote healthier cells.

While the research is encouraging, it is not an excuse to have a second glass of red wine with dinner. In fact, to get any positive effects from resveratrol Cavanaugh believes it has to be taken in concentrated doses in the form of a manufactured compound.

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Health Professionals Hope to Get Jump on Flu Season

The vaccine is already being offered to consumers

The signs are out early this year. Just as retailers tend to promote holiday merchandise earlier and earlier each year, pharmacies, clinics and other healt...

PhotoThe signs are out early this year. Just as retailers tend to promote holiday merchandise earlier and earlier each year, pharmacies, clinics and other health-related businesses are already pushing flu shots.

Flu season generally begins in the early fall and extends into the early spring. Each year pharmaceutical makers project what strains will be a threat and begin preparing the vaccine in the spring.

CVS/pharmacy and MinuteClinic announced today that flu vaccinations are now available at all of their locations nationwide.

"Getting a flu shot is the first and most important step you can take to protect yourself and your family from getting sick with influenza," said Troyen A. Brennan, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, CVS Caremark. "Flu season can be unpredictable and, because it takes about two weeks after being vaccinated to develop full protection, a flu shot is recommended as soon as vaccine is available."

Preparing for swine flu

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The 2012 seasonal flu vaccine includes protection against the H1N1 influenza strain as well as two new strains: H3N2 and a B strain. There has already been an outbreak of so-called swine flu. More than 100 cases were reported in Indiana in late July and early August.

“It's possible that sporadic infections and even localized outbreaks among people with this virus will continue to occur,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said in a flu advisory. “While there is no evidence at this time that sustained human-to-human transmission is occurring, all influenza viruses have the capacity to change and it's possible that this virus may become widespread. So far, the severity of illnesses associated with this virus in people has been similar to the severity of illnesses associated with seasonal flu virus infections.”

Flu of all strains poses a more significant threat to the very old and very young. The CDC recommends that everyone who is at least 6 months old get a flu vaccine every year to protect against catching the flu.

Consumers can get a flu shot at many pharmacies and other retail locations, as well as from their health care professional. Some clinics and non-profit groups offer flu shots at no charge.

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The Best Feel-Good Songs To Get You Through the Work Week

No matter what your preferred genre is, each area of music have songs that will brighten the soul.

Its Monday folks. Probably the most challenging day of the work week.Some would say it represents the foot of the mountain before you begin your climb. O...

PhotoIt's Monday folks. Probably the most challenging day of the work week. Some would say it represents the base of the mountain before you begin your climb. Others would compare it to the starting line you crouch behind before the gun goes off.

If Fridays are considered to be the desired end point, than Mondays are surely considered to be the difficult beginning, and many people just need a little inspiration to get them through the next five days of meetings, projects, commuting and perpetual toil.

One way to get inspired is by listening to a nice feel-good song. You know the type, the kind of tune that not only sounds great but also provides feelings of motivation through its chords, lyrics and conceptual meaning.

In an effort to spread a little joy and sunshine to our hard-working readers, ConsumerAffairs has gathered some of the best feel-good songs to help you get to that far and distant area of Friday evening quitting-time.

Lovely Day -- Bill Withers

PhotoIt may be the way the bass guitar comes in, or maybe it's how the first few lyrics are smoothly delivered by Withers, but “Lovely Day” sounds just like its title, and it can make any dismal Monday seem like a bright and sunny Friday.

The song speaks of dealing with challenges, but still being able to recognize and appreciate a beautiful day. Some of the best feel-good songs are those that acknowledge life’s daily problems, but also give sensible advice on how to emotionally overcome those problems. 

Withers reminds us to acknowledge what's beautiful and good within our immediate surroundings. It's a bit harder to think of Monday's doom and gloom, for example, if you train your mind to focus on the good things in life, he conveys.

Plus, the overall musical arrangement is lush but not overbearing. Its summertime lightness of sound gives off a feeling of hopefulness and joy. It's a funky little tune to groove to as well.

Three Little Birds -- Bob Marley

PhotoWhen it comes to Mr. Marley and his music, there are probably 20 or 30 songs one could consider feel-good. Whether it's “One Love,” “No Woman No Cry,” or “Jammin,” the Reggae king's music usually tells you to either love, rebel, or continue to feel good.

But “Three Little Birds” is arguably his most joyful sounding, laid-back and beautifully simplistic offering. In the 70s classic, Marley speaks of seeing three small birds at the doorstep of his home, and they remind him not to worry about anything, and encourage him that everything will ultimately work itself out.

There's nothing happier than a song that has three singing and talking birds in it. 

And if nothing else, the type of Reggae music that Marley does so well, called Rock Steady, can propel you right to the West Indies, bringing you mentally under a palm tree sipping a mango flavored umbrella drink. Play this on a Monday or Tuesday and your usually hectic thoughts will suddenly feel warm and breezy. Hats off to Bob Marley & The Wailers.

Beautiful Day -- U2

PhotoLike Withers' Lovely Day, the legendary Irish band tells listeners to acknowledge beautiful things among turbulent times, but lead singer Bono takes the concept even further with a bit of added drama: “It's a beautiful day— the sky falls — you feel, it's a beautiful day,” he sings.

If anyone is able to seek and discover the positives in life, everyday can be beautiful — even if the sky is falling — says the band in this classic tune.

The overall concept of keeping your chin up in the midst of hard times may sound a little preachy or even corny to some, but that's maybe because pessimism and snark seems to get you a few more points in today's too-cool-for-school-world. Annoyingly, the earth is loaded with full-time contrarians.

Musically, the driving guitar provides a burst of energy for those who are Monday-morning-weary, and if you walk, bike or take public-transportation to work, the outside world doesn't seem as crazy when you have Beautiful Day blasting in your headphones.

On The Road Again -- Willie Nelson

PhotoIf you've ever had the opportunity to cruise down the highway with your best buddies on a road trip, you probably also experienced what it feels like to be care-free and exploratory. On a road trip, it's never about the destination, it's simply about traveling somewhere outside of your usual surroundings and daily routine.

Well, Willie Nelson's “On The Road Again” allows you to do that sonically, with its lyrics of open-travel and hunting for new experience. You almost feel like one of his co-passengers on your way to something fun and exciting when listening to this tune.

It's both beautiful and inspirational, as it allows the listener to focus on other things besides their commute to work or their cranky boss.

On The Road Again is Nelson's signature song, and has truly stood the test of time for its feel-good nature and useful message of getting of town and physically escaping the daily grind.

Hey Ya! – Outkast

PhotoAnyone that's been following Hip-Hop group Outkast's career since its 1994 beginnings, knows this Atlanta duo has been churning out classic albums since they first came on to the music scene.

Outkast is anything but a typical Hip-Hop group, as they're kind of the Pink Floyd or Radiohead of the rap world. Just like these two rock bands, Outkast has managed to create music that's wonderfully weird, but still palatable, which is not an easy feat at all.

The groups classic song Hey Ya! wasn't actually a collaborative effort, as one half of the group, Andre 3000, wrote and performed the feel-good tune for the duo's double album.

Since the song hit the billboard charts in 2003, it’s been considered one of catchiest and multipurpose songs ever created. No matter what genre of music that you like, Hey Ya! is ideal for providing a burst of energy, which is great for trudging to work, working out, or getting ready to tackle the work day.

Part pop-song, part soul-song, with a touch of in your face Hip Hop, the energetic tune will have you singing, dancing and temporarily escaping your usual dread of the work week

Now it's your turn. What's on your feel-good song list?

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Court Agrees Online Video Viewing Should Be Private

Ruling in Hulu class action affirms consumers' privacy rights online

Do you want others to know what movies you're watching? Maybe you do and maybe you don't but a federal judge in California has ruled that you have the same...

PhotoDo you want others to know what movies you're watching? Maybe you do and maybe you don't but a federal judge in California has ruled that you have the same right to privacy when watching an online video as you do when renting from a bricks-and-mortar video store.

The ruling came in a class action against Hulu, which admitted to selling data about its users' viewing habits to KISSmetrics, a marketing data service.

In denying Hulu's motion to dismiss the case, Judge Laurel Beeler held that the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) applies to online video, just as it does to  videotape rentals.

Hulu had argued that it was within its rights to sell its users' viewing preferences because they were not renting videotapes but, rather, were watching online.

The VPPA was passed in 1998 after the videotape rental habits of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork were disclosed to the press.  It applies to  “prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audio visual materials" and requires users' consent before any personal information showing their requests or purchases of this kind of material may be disclosed.

It also specifies that this information may only be disclosed “to a law enforcement agency pursuant to a warrant issued under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, an equivalent State warrant, a grand jury subpoena, or a court order.”  

The Court found that a  “plain reading” of the term “similar audio visual materials” suggests that the law covers various video content regardless of whether it is delivered online or on a videotape. It further found that “Congress [intended to protect] the confidentiality of private information about viewing preferences regardless of the business model or media format involved,” thus striking down Hulu's argument that because consumers did not pay for the videos they were no entitled to privacy protection rights.

 

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Federal Standards for 'Black Boxes' Effective in September

The rules don't require event data recorders in cars but seek to standardize data collection

Coming soon to a car near you -- event data recorders, or "black boxes." The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has refused to all...

PhotoComing soon to a car near you -- event data recorders, or "black boxes." The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has refused to allow more time for arguments by privacy advocates, allowing new data standards to become effective Sept. 1, 2012.

The event data recorders (EDR) collect and store vehicle operation information before, during, and after a crash, including vehicle location, speed, seat belt use and number of vehicle occupants.

The new government regulations don't require automakers to install the black boxes but rather set standards that must be followed if the devices are installed by the manufacturer or a third party. In fact, many cars already have EDRs but there is no common standard, something NHTSA has been trying to remedy since 1997.

Safety advocates have also been pressing for installation of the recorders for a long time, saying they would yield important data that could be used to make cars safer, spotlight driver errors and yield information about highway design.

But privacy advocates fear the data will be used for more nefarious purposes. It's not much of a stretch to imagine police and personal injury lawyers using data from the boxes to prosecute drivers involving in accidents.

 

Whose data?

Still largely unresolved is the question of who should own – and have access to – the data gathered by the devices.

  • The automakers say the data should be theirs, so that they can identify and correct shortcomings in the design and durability of their vehicles.
  • Safety regulators say they should have unfettered access to the data so that they can spot those same shortcomings and order recalls.
  • Law enforcement and insurance companies say they should have access to the data so they can determine not only what caused an accident but who, if anyone, was at fault.
  • Insurance companies would also dearly love to monitor the boxes in realtime, not just after accidents. That way, they could raise premiums for drivers who frequently sped, made emergency stops and engaged in other behavior that might raise the risk of an accident.
  • Personal injury and product liability lawyers say they should have access to the data so they can sue manufacturers, drivers and anyone else implicated by the EDR's data.

Toyota did little to build public support for manufacturers when it reportedly used EDR data from 2,000 cars involved in unintended acceleration incidents. The company then proclaimed proudly that in none of the cases was the car's electronic throttle found to be at fault.

Privacy organizations, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) strongly contend that the data should belong to the operator of the vehicle. 

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Many Consumers Confused About Insurance Policies

The danger is learning about policy limits at the worst possible time

Insurance is one of those things you pay for every month but hope you never use. But when you are in an auto accident or your home is damaged, adequate cov...

PhotoInsurance is one of those things you pay for every month but hope you never use. But when you are in an auto accident or your home is damaged, adequate coverage for your loses and liabilities is indispensable.

However, many consumers purchase insurance policies without fully understanding what they cover. They learn about the limitations in their policy at the worst possible time.

"I pay for free towing for a few different reasons, being I am a single female living in the southeast Houston area," Charity, of Pasadena, TX, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Now, when I think of free towing, I am under the impression that if for any reason, I should have to have my vehicle towed, it will be taken care of by State Farm because I pay for it with my policy. Wrong! I had to have my car towed due to a blown head gasket and manifold intake gasket."

More costly surprises

And there can be other more serious and costly surprises if you aren't clear what your policy covers and what it doesn't. Nieves, of Worthington, Ohio, got a nasty surprise when his basement flooded.

"I'm not an agent and didn't know until the crisis that I had to have an additional water back-up plan, which my agent finally told me it would have only cost me $35 a year," Nieves wrote. "His staff has offered me all kinds of marketing with regards to my car and knew I had a finished basement and never told me I needed sewage, water back-up etc. I thought this was included. I am not the agent here or his staff."

But ultimately, consumers like Nieves have to take the responsibility to educate themselves about insurance. True, a good agent will ask lots of questions and make suggestions but consumers should take the initiative.

Consumers often in the dark

But many times they don't. A recent survey by MetLife found that 30 percent of homeowners believe their insurance coverage is based on the current market value of their home. Actually, the available coverage limit for homeowners insurance is based on the cost to rebuild the home, a mistake that could lead to confusion for homeowners trying to evaluate whether they have the right amount of insurance.

An additional 46 percent don’t know how much coverage they have for their homes’ contents, such as furniture and clothing. Additionally, many aren’t aware of coverage overlaps that may exist, which could result in opportunities to save money.

When it comes to auto insurance, consumers need to know exactly what coverages the policy contains. If a car is being financed, make sure that the payoff in the event of a total loss will be adequate to pay the amount owed. This is a major consideration for leased vehicles as well.

But don't over-insure

Part of getting educated about insurance policies means not paying for coverages you don't need. In some cases, opting for a higher deductible will mean you will pay more out of pocket in the case of an accident, but will result in lower monthly payments.

Insurance, after all, is shared risk. If you expect the insurance company to take on all the risk, you will pay a higher premium each month. But if you are willing to shoulder some of the risk -- raising the deductible for a claim to $1000, for example -- it lowers your monthly costs.

Just be sure the critical needs in both a homeowners and auto policy are covered and you know their limitations.

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Apple Becomes the Most Valuable Public Company in History

Foreget Microsoft, Facebook and Groupon, Apple outshines their all

Look out, the pundits are circling. The dismal performance of Groupon, Facebook and other online properties is setting off another round of nay-saying and ...

PhotoLook out, the pundits are circling. The dismal performance of Groupon, Facebook and other online properties is setting off another round of nay-saying and predictions of a "tech bubble" that's either about to burst or has already done so.

Maybe, but try telling that to Apple. Its market value hit $623 billion today, making it the most valueable public company in history. It eclipses the previous record of $618 billion set by Microsoft way back in December 1999.

Apple shares hit a record of $664.74 per share at midday today, driven partly by rumors of a smaller iPad and a new Apple TV that completely redefines the video experience.

The stunning achievement is a memorial to the late Steve Jobs' obsessive focus on an elegant user interface and also demonstrates the value of persistence. Far from being a one-day wonder, Apple has been in the trenches for decades, focused on out-performing its competitors and building customer loyalty. 

Back in the 1990s, when Microsoft was riding high, Apple was being labeled as an also-ran whose day had passed. As recently as 2004, the company was valued at less than $10 billion. It was at $100 billion just three years ago.

Safe haven

Apple's astronomical valuation comes partly as a result of the troubles at Groupon and Facebook, whose investors have been heading for the exits and looking for better places to stash their money.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Silicon Valley veteran Marc Andreessen and other early Groupon investors were abandoning ship, selling off their holdings in the daily-deals company, which has lost more than three-quarters of its value since going public.

Shares of Facebook and game producer Zynga are also off as investors get cold feet about the companies' business prospects.

 

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Samsung Releases First Smartphone For MetroPCS

New phone allows viewing of broadcast TV in select markets

One reason Samsung is the sales leader in smartphones is that it produces a wide variety of models for a number of different carriers. According to a recen...

PhotoOne reason Samsung is the sales leader in smartphones is that it produces a wide variety of models for a number of different carriers. According to a recent Gartner report, Samsung increased its market share from 16.3 percent to 21.6 percent in the second quarter of 2012, thanks in large part to its popular line of Galaxy smartphones.

It's newest phone, the Samsung Galaxy S Lightray 4G, is designed specifically for MetroPCS. In fact, its the first Samsung phone for that carrier.

The Galaxy S Lightray 4G does what many smartphones do -- it allows consumers to browse the web and run applications, download content plus stream videos and music. It's offered with no annual contract and tax-and-regulatory-fee-inclusive service plans start at just $40 per month.

Live broadcast TV

But the Galaxy S Lightray 4G is also the first smartphone in the U.S. to offer live, local broadcast television with Dyle mobile TV. Dyle mobile TV allows consumers to watch local and national sports, news and entertainment broadcast programming on their mobile phones.

Access to the Dyle mobile TV service will be offered in select markets and at no additional charge to customers on a MetroPCS 4G LTE service plan. To see whether the service is offered in your market you can check out the coverage map here

The Galaxy S Lightray 4G runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread and featuresw a 4.3 inch touchscreen and 1GHz processor. It has an eight magapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash and a 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera, allowing for video chatting.

The Galaxy S Lightray 4G will be MetroPCS’ first smartphone to feature 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot, allowing customers to share their MetroPCS 4G LTE connection and data with multiple Wi-Fi-enabled devices. MetroPCS will also offer 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot on future 4G LTE Android smartphones.

The phone is available now at MetroPCS stores and online for $459 plus tax.

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Jury in Apple Suit Against Samsung to Get Case This Week

Future of smartphone and tablet universe is at stake

After three weeks of presenting evidence in court, both Apple and Samsung are gearing up for closing arguments as the landmark patent case reaches a climax...

PhotoAfter three weeks of presenting evidence in court, both Apple and Samsung are gearing up for closing arguments as the landmark patent case reaches a climax this week.

Closing arguments are set to begin Tuesday. It's expected the case could go to the jury on Wednesday. No less than the future of smartphone and tablet universe is at stake.

'Slavishly copying'

Apple, based in Cupertino, CA, brought the case against Korea-based Samsung, accusing the equipment maker of "slavishly copying" apple's design for smartphones and tablets. It's seeking $2.5 billion in damages, which would essentially be 100 percent of Samsung profits from smartphone and tablet sales.

During the three-week trial Samsung denied copying Apple's technology and argued that the iPad and iPhone were significantly aided by other companies' existing technology.

This isn't the only Apple versus Samsung case. Apple has sued Samsung in other countries making the same claims.

The suits come as Samsung has quietly taken a commanding lead in smartphone sales, though Apple's iPad still dominates among tablets. While Apple makes the iPhone 4S and sells older versions of the iPhone, Samsung has produced a wide variety of high-performance and feature-laden Android phones that run on the faster 4G LTE networks.

Turning out more smartphone models

While Apple puts out one new smartphone each year, Samsung might introduce a dozen. A recent Gartner report shows it continued to pull away from Apple in the smartphone sales race in the second quarter, commanding 21 percent of the market.

Technology writer Steven Vaughn-Reynolds, of ZD Net, who says he owns and uses a number of Apple devices, writes that he believes Apple is suing Samsung because it is afraid to compete with the Korean manufacturer.

"I think it's because Apple, without a well Jobs, has gotten frightened of competition," he writes. "Apple can afford to make nice with Microsoft. The boys from Redmond with their smartphones and tablets have never been competitive in either market. Android is another matter."

And Jobs, shortly before his death, expressed anger at Android, which is a product of Google, not Samsung, vowing to use all of Apple's money, if necessary, to destroy it.

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Lower Male Circumcision Rates May Lead to Higher Disease Rate

Study finds estimated lifetime medical costs rise when infants are not circumcised

Fewer male babies are being circumcised in the U.S. and a new study says that while that may save a few dollars now, it could lead to trouble down the road...

PhotoFewer male babies are being circumcised in the U.S. and a new study says that while that may save a few dollars now, it could lead to trouble down the road.

“Continued decreases ... are associated with increased infection prevalence, thereby increasing medical expenditures for men and women,” the study notes.

Using a computer-based simulation model, researchers project that a continued decline in male circumcision rates in the United States to levels in Europe, where the procedure is not routinely covered by insurance, may be associated with increased estimated lifetime medical costs and a higher estimated prevalence of infections including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and human papillomavirus (HPV), according to a report published Online First by Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a JAMA Network publication. 

State governments are increasingly eliminating Medicaid coverage for neonatal male circumcision (MC), with 18 states having already abolished coverage.

“Although there are multiple factors that contribute to a nation’s MC rate, it is likely that reductions in insurance coverage play a role in lowered MC rates. Thus, the financial and health implications of policies that affect MC are substantial,” the authors comment.

Although the prevalence of circumcision among men born in the 1970s and 1980s remained stable at about 79 percent, the rate decreased to 62.5 percent in 1999 and to 54.7 percent by 2010. There is growing evidence of medical benefits associated with circumcision, including lower risk of HIV and HPV infections in some clinical trials, according to the study background.

Seema Kacker, B.S., and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore,  used a computer-based simulation model that included a scenario whereby MC rates would be reduced to 10 percent, which the study results indicate could increase estimated lifetime health care costs by $407 per man and $43 per woman.

Urinary tract infections 

Under a 10 percent MC rate among males in a birth cohort of 4 million, cases of infant male urinary tract infections were estimated to increase 211.8 percent, HIV infections were estimated to increase by 12.2 percent, HPV infections were estimated to increase by 29.1 percent and herpes simplex virus type 2 by 19.8 percent.

Among women, cases of bacterial vaginosis were estimated to increase by 51.2 percent, high-risk HPV were estimated to increase by 18.3 percent and low-risk HPV by 12.9 percent, according to the study results.

The researchers conclude: “Furthermore, a closer examination of MC rates, STI [sexually transmitted infection] incidence and the demographic characteristics of Medicaid beneficiaries suggests that the subpopulations likely to quality for Medicaid also have the lowest rates of MC and the highest infection incidence. Therefore, decreased Medicaid coverage of MC may further exaggerate racial and socioeconomic disparities.”

 

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Study: Burnout Common Among U.S. Physicians

Nearly 1 in 2 physicians may be affected, study finds

Do you ever get the feeling your doctor seems remote and depressed? He or she may be suffering from burnout, new study suggests. The national survey f...

PhotoDo you ever get the feeling your doctor seems remote and depressed? He or she may be suffering from burnout, new study suggests. The national survey finds that symptoms of burnout among U.S. physicians are at an "alarming level."

The study found that 45.8 percent of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout, according to a report published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication.

“Collectively, the findings of this national study indicate that (1) the prevalence of burnout among U.S. physicians is at an alarming level, (2) physicians in specialties at the front line of care access (emergency medicine, general internal medicine and family medicine) are at greatest risk, (3) physicians work longer hours and have greater struggles with work-life integration than other U.S. workers and (4) after adjusting for hours worked per week, higher levels of education and professional degrees seem to reduce the risk for burnout in fields outside of medicine, whereas a degree in medicine (M.D., or D.O.) increases the risk,” the authors of the study concluded. 

Quality of care

Other studies have suggested burnout may influence the quality of care and increase the risk for medical errors, as well as have adverse effects on physicians, including broken relationships, problem drinking and suicidal thoughts, according to the study background.

“The fact that almost 1 in 2 U.S. physicians has symptoms of burnout implies that the origins of this problem are rooted in the environment and care delivery system rather than in the personal characteristics of a few susceptible individuals,” the authors conclude. “Policy makers and health care organizations must address the problem of physician burnout for the sake of physicians and their patients.”

Tait D. Shanafelt, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and colleagues conducted a national study of burnout in physicians from all specialty disciplines using the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile and a sample of working U.S. adults from the general population for comparison.

The study’s results indicate that 37.9 percent of U.S. physicians had high emotional exhaustion, 29.4 percent had high depersonalization and 12.4 percent had a low sense of personal accomplishment. Compared with 3,442 working U.S. adults, physicians were more likely to have symptoms of burnout (37.9 percent vs. 27.8 percent) and to be dissatisfied with their work-life balance (40.2 percent vs. 23.2 percent), the study found.

Differences in burnout also varied by specialty with emergency medicine, general internal medicine, neurology and family medicine having the highest rates, while pathology, dermatology, general pediatrics and preventive medicine had the lowest rates, according to the study.

Researchers suggest more work needs to be done to understand physician burnout and develop interventions.

 

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JetBlue Fined for Not Informing Passengers of Rights

Passengers were not told they had the opportunity to leave the aircraft during gate delay

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has fined JetBlue Airways $90,000 for violating federal rules last March by not informing passengers on an airc...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has fined JetBlue Airways $90,000 for violating federal rules last March by not informing passengers on an aircraft delayed at New York’s JFK Airport that they had an opportunity to leave the plane as it sat at the gate with the door open. DOT also ordered the airline to cease and desist from further violations. 

JetBlue violated a provision of the DOT’s new airline consumer protection rule requiring that if passengers on a delayed flight have the opportunity to leave the aircraft, the carrier must inform them that they can deplane. Announcements that passengers can leave the plane must come 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time and every 30 minutes afterward. 

“Airlines may not leave passengers stranded indefinitely aboard an aircraft, whether on the tarmac or at the gate, and passengers must be told if they are able to leave the plane,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “At DOT, we are committed to protecting consumers when they travel by air, and will continue to take enforcement action when our rules are violated.” 

Stuck on the tarmac 

On March 3, 2012, JetBlue Flight 645 was scheduled to depart New York’s JFK Airport at 7:30 p.m. and arrive at San Francisco at 11:16 p.m. local time. Boarding began at 7:06 p.m., but the flight was delayed and the doors to the aircraft did not close until 9:55 p.m. An investigation by DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that passengers were not notified that they had the opportunity to leave the aircraft during this delay, even though the aircraft door was open and customers could have deplaned at any time. 

The Enforcement Office also found that JetBlue’s contingency plan for long tarmac delays did not contain the assurance, as required by the DOT rule, that passengers on delayed flights will receive notifications about the status of the delay every 30 minutes, including the reasons for the delay. 

DOT’s new airline consumer protection rule, which took effect in August 2011, was adopted as part of the department’s efforts to prevent passengers from being left for extended periods aboard aircraft. The new rule expanded an existing ban on tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights, which took effect in April 2010, by adding a four-hour limit for tarmac delays on international flights operating at U.S. airports. Exceptions to the tarmac-delay limits are allowed only for safety, security, and air traffic control-related reasons.

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Researchers Identify Mood-Altering Chemicals in Some Food

Gives a whole new meaning to 'comfort' food

Ever wonder why eating some foods just make you feel better? New evidence suggests it's because their natural ingredients bear a striking chemical similari...

PhotoEver wonder why eating some foods just make you feel better? New evidence suggests it's because their natural ingredients bear a striking chemical similarity to valproic acid, a widely used prescription mood-stabilizing drug.

Valproic acid is used to treat bipolar disorder and major depression and is marketed under the names Depakote, Depakote ER, Depakene, Depacon, Depakine, Valparin and Stavzor.

A research team attending the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society presented findings from a study of more than 1,7000 substances that contribute to the flavors of a wide variety of “comfort” foods, such as chocolate, berries and some teas.

Positive effects on mood

“Molecules in chocolate, a variety of berries and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids have shown positive effects on mood,” said Karina Martinez-Mayorga, Ph.D., leader of a research team that has been studying the effects of flavors on mood.

“In turn, our studies show that some commonly used flavor components are structurally similar to valproic acid.”

Martinez-Mayorga said her team relied on a large body of evidence showing that chemicals in chocolate, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, teas and certain foods could well be mood-enhancers encourages. That, she said, encouraged the researchers to look for other mood modulators in food.

Drug researchers, of course, spend a lot of time working on compounds that can help patients cope with mood swings. And while food will not supplant pharmacology, Martinez-Mayorga sees room for this kind of exploration in the food industry as well. Food industry research, however, will focus on less-severe mood changes, she says.

New view of 'comfort' food

People have recognized the mood-altering properties of various foods for years. It's the whole reason we call some types of food “comfort food.” Previously, however, we just assumed the texture, smell and taste brought about this result. It was assumed to be a psychological response, often associated with pleasant childhood memories.

Now Martinez-Mayorga’s team and other research groups are seeking to identify the chemical compounds that moderate mood swings, help maintain cognitive health, improve mental alertness and delay the onset of memory loss.

She expects to see more research in this area and the identification of more foods that can have benefits beyond those of general good health. For example, in the last two years researchers have identified compounds in blueberries that can guard against cancer and cognitive decline. And while eating the right foods may keep you in better health, it's no substitute if you are already ill.

“It is important to remember that just eating foods that may improve mood is not a substitute for prescribed antidepressive drugs,” Martinez-Mayorga said.

And for people not requiring medication, she notes that eating specific foods and living a healthful lifestyle can generally boost mood.

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Georgia Tax Return Preparer Pleads Guilty to Stolen Identity Refund Fraud Crimes

Ex-clients' information used to file false income tax returns

A Macon, Georgia-tax return preparer has pleaded guilty to filing a false claim for tax refund, theft of government money and aggravated identity theft....

PhotoA Macon, GA, tax return preparer has pleaded guilty to filing a false claim for tax refund, theft of government money and aggravated identity theft. 

According to court documents, Willie C. Grant is a former tax return preparer who used many of his former clients’ names and Social Security numbers to file false federal income returns in their names and without their knowledge. 

On these tax returns, Grant intentionally claimed false tax refunds and directed the IRS either to electronically deposit the false refunds into his personal or business bank accounts or to issue paper refund Treasury checks which he then cashed or deposited into his personal or business bank accounts. He spent the proceeds of his false refund scheme on personal items including expensive cars and personal living expenses. 

Elderly and disabled victimized 

Court documents further established that from 2003 through 2008, Grant owned and operated a tax return preparation business, Grant Income Tax Bookkeeping and Check Cash (GIT) out of his home in Macon, eventually closing GIT in 2009. 

During calendar years 2006 through 2009, Grant prepared and filed false tax returns in the names of unsuspecting individuals. Many of the individuals were elderly or disabled former clients of GIT or deceased individuals. Grant admitted that that he abused his position of private trust as a professional paid tax preparer in committing his crimes. 

Grant faces a potential maximum sentence of 17 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000. Sentencing was set for Oct. 30, 2012.

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Highline Sliced White Mushrooms Recalled

The mushrooms may contain Listeria monocytogenes

Highline Mushrooms of Leamington, Ontario, Canada, is recalling tighline 8 oz. packaged Sliced White Mushrooms from all marketplaces. ...

PhotoHighline Mushrooms of Leamington, Ontario, Canada, is recalling Highline 8 oz. packaged Sliced White Mushrooms from all marketplaces. 

The grower/processor says it was notified that the product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems. 

The following Sliced White Mushrooms, sold in 227 g ( 8 oz ) containers bearing lot code L410805 followed by a 4-digit time code ( e.g., L4108051420 ) and a Best Before Date of 12AU15, are affected by the alert. 

BrandUPC
Highline Mushrooms7 71163 00005 2

The product was held for sale at Ciolino Produce, Temperance, MI. / Monroe, MI, on August 10, 2012 – August 12, 2012. 

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of these products. 

Consumers should discard all 8 oz. Sliced White Mushrooms and bring in a receipt for a complete refund. 

For more information consumers can call Ciolinos at 1-734-847-4140 between the hours of 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday Eastern time.

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Suzuki Recalls Forenzas and Renos

A possible headlight failure puts drivers at risk

Suzuki is recalling more than 101,600 model year 2004-2006 Forenza and model year 2005-2006 Reno vehicles manufactured from September 23, 2003, through Mar...

PhotoSuzuki is recalling more than 101,600 model year 2004-2006 Forenza and model year 2005-2006 Reno vehicles manufactured from September 23, 2003, through March 7, 2006. 

Increased resistance due to poor contact between the terminals of certain wires can generate heat that can melt the splice pack used to connect the power circuit wires for the headlamps. This can result in intermittent or total loss of low/high beam headlamp function. 

If the headlamps fail to function, this will lead to reduced driver visibility, increasing the risk of a crash. 

Suzuki will notify owners, and Suzuki dealers will reconnect the affected wires with two heat-shrink crimps, free of charge. The safety recall is expected to begin during September. Owners may contact Suzuki at 1-714-996-7040.

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Beef Products Recalled

The products may have been mislabeled

On-Cor Frozen Foods of Geneva, IL is recalling approximately 605 pounds of frozen boneless rib-shaped patties with barbecue sauce because they may have bee...

PhotoOn-Cor Frozen Foods of Geneva, IL, is recalling approximately 605 pounds of frozen boneless rib-shaped patties with barbecue sauce because they may have been mispackaged and labeled as Salisbury steak products. 

The products subject to recall include:

  • 28-oz. packages of "On-Cor Gravy & 6 Salisbury Steaks made with chicken, pork and beef, Family Size" with the number "EST. 1044G" inside the USDA mark of inspection. 

The products, which were produced on July 9, 2012, have a product UPC number of "070575040091" and the following code date located on the right end panel: "BEST BY Jul 09 2013, 1912 11:__ EST 1044G." The products were distributed to retail establishments in Iowa. 

The problem was discovered as a result of complaints reported to the company by consumers and may have occurred because of incorrect cartons being interspersed during the packaging process. 

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the company's Customer Service Manager, Julie Hooghkirk at (630) 692-2241.

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Latest Home Delivery Craze -- Paternity Tests

A New York City RV sells something other than lunch

A lot of industries have picked up on the concept of offering their products through a truck that drives around town.Food companies first introduced...

PhotoA lot of industries have picked up on the concept of offering their products through a truck that drives around town. Food companies first introduced the craze, then clothing brands, and even antique shops have gotten into the idea of bringing their products directly to the people.

But just when you thought you've heard it all, there's a truck in New York City that's selling, of all things, DNA paternity tests.

The truck's owner Jareed Rosenthal drives it on behalf of Health Street, a company that provides background checks, drug screenings and other types of services across the country. Rosenthal says many parents come to him full of worry and uncertainty. Although he's glad for the business, he said he feels their pain. 

“It's just drama, a lot of drama,” he says. “You see a man come in with a baby. You see them together and you just hope that he's the father.”

The truck which shamelessly has “Who's Your Daddy” written on its side, has been recently located in the downtown section of Manhattan on the Lower East Side.

Mail or in-home

PhotoRosenthal charges anywhere from $299 to $575 for the test, and customers have the option to have the results mailed to their home, or given to them in person once the tests come back from the laboratory.

According to a published report, the number of men taking paternity tests has increased by 64 percent within the last ten years, and over 400,000 males have undergone testing since then. Results of the test are reported to be 99 percent accurate.

By swiping the inside of one's cheek, a person can determine the truth about a child's true parent in about two days’ time. Rosenthal says just the sight of the truck is enough to prompt people to get spontaneously tested.

Photo“They flag us down, they pull us over, they talk to us,” he says. “Half the job is to be a psychologist to folks.”

But those interested don't actually have to flag down the truck to be tested, as they can also make calls for an appointment. Conveniently, the truck will drive to an area that's closer to you, or it will come directly to your home.

“Sometimes, because of the nature of the services, they want to be a little more discreet about it, but they do come or they'll call the number,” Rosenthal says.

OK, so who is your daddy?

Rosenthal also says he gets plenty of women who stop by the RV truck to have their kids tested, in an effort to learn who the actual father is. “I had one woman get six kids DNA tested once," he said. "Something about the RV makes it more intimate and people open up. It makes it is easier for them”

It would be easy to compare the paternity truck to the Maury Povich show that now seems to base most of its shows on who real fathers are. But Rosenthal doesn't want to be compared to the long-running TV talk show.

“We try to be the anti-Maury,” he stated. “They just do that stuff so they can prey on the fighting.”

Rosenthal says a lot of people in the armed forces have either phoned him, or visited his truck. “I get a lot of military requests,” he says. “I think when they're away, they want the assurance.”

Although the truck is parked within a residential area, and really stands out with its weird blue and black color-scheme, residents don't seem to mind, as few complaints have been reported.

Only in New York folks, only in New York.

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Lawsuit Takes Issue With Parkay Spray

The lawsuit claims the spray-on butter substitute isn't as fat-free as it claims to be

A Nebraska woman charges that Parkay Spray butter substitute isn't as calorie- and fat-free as it claims to be. Pamela Trewhitt claims in a lawsuit th...

PhotoA Nebraska woman charges that Parkay Spray butter substitute isn't as calorie- and fat-free as it claims to be. Pamela Trewhitt claims in a lawsuit that seeks class action status that ConAgra Foods intentionally misrepresents Parkay Spray in its advertising. 

The spray is marketed as fat-free and caloria-free but Trewhitt's suit claims that, in fact, an 8-ounce bottle contains 832 calories and 93 grams of fat.

"Defendant knew or should have known that its product was mislabeled and engendered confusion among consumers," the lawsuit says.

The comany said it stands behind the product and its labeling.

"While we don’t comment on pending litigation, ConAgra Foods stands behind the accuracy of our labeling and has a long-established commitment to marketing our food responsibly. We intend to vigorously defend this litigation," Becky Niiya of ConAgra told ConsumerAffairs.

The lawsuit quotes consumer complaints on the Internet about the spray.

"I could not figure out why I simply could not lose hardly even a pound, even though I was working out hard ... and monitoring calories ... for a couple of years ... I was also literally taking the top of the 'fat and calorie free butter' spray and pouring it on all my carefully steamed veggies when I found out that a bottle of that stuff is 90 fat grams," said one consumer quoted in the suit.

"I was going through two bottles a week, and working out and getting fat and unhealthy," the consumer complained.

But a more balanced review notes that serving size must be factored into the equation: "Well, it all boils down to legalities. The serving size is listed as 1 spray for cooking, and 5 sprays for a topping. I've never used only 1 spray no matter what I'm using it for; 5 sprays is a lot more realistic. Even so, with a 5 spray serving, they still claim 0 calories and 0 fat," said an unnamed reviewed on ePinions.

Photo

The lawsuit claims ConAgra is violating the Nebraska Consumer Protection Act and seeks damages of $5 million. It also asks for an injunction to prohibit the allegedly inaccurate labels.

Of course, not everybody's unhappy with the product. Melissa of North Carolina, for one, was so pleased with her bottle of Parkay Spray that she posted a video on the ExpoTv site. Melissa doesn't say whether she was paid or otherwise compensated for her endorsement.

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Consumer Bureau Seeks Input on Gift Card Laws

Bureau to explore whether certain state laws on gift cards are inconsistent with federal law

How much time should you have to use a gift card before it expires? That's what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is trying to decide as it ...

PhotoHow much time should you have to use a gift card before it expires? 

That's what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is trying to decide as it considers two requests for decisions on whether certain provisions of unclaimed property laws in Maine and Tennessee relating to gift cards are inconsistent with federal law on gift card expiration dates. 

We are committed to gathering input before we make these kinds of decisions,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This notice gives the public an opportunity to comment on a decision that could affect how consumers use their gift cards.” 

Feds vs. states 

Federal law, as set forth in the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) and the CFPB’s Regulation E, generally prohibits the sale of a gift card that expires sooner than five years after the card is issued, or five years after the date when funds were last loaded onto the card. 

At the same time, unclaimed property laws in Maine and Tennessee provide that certain types of gift cards are abandoned property if they remain unused for a period of two years. 

Under the EFTA and Regulation E, the CFPB is required to respond to such requests for determinations about potential conflicts between federal and state laws. The EFTA requires the CFPB to evaluate not only whether state law is inconsistent with federal law, but also whether it is more protective of consumers than federal law. 

The CFPB has issued a notice summarizing the relevant federal and state laws, explaining the factors that the Bureau will consider when making its determinations, and asking members of the public to weigh in with their views about whether provisions of unclaimed property laws in Maine and Tennessee relating to gift cards are inconsistent with federal law or provide consumers greater protection than federal law. 

The Bureau will consider any comments received before making a final determination.

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Weight Loss Equals Economic Gain in Oklahoma City

City follows Mayor Mick Cornett's example -- slims down and amps up

Oklahoma City has seen some wonderful days in the last recent years, and not just because of its successful NBA team the Oklahoma City Thunder.Natio...

 

Photo
Mayor Mick Cornett

 

Oklahoma City has seen some pretty good days in the last few years, and not just because of its successful NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nationally, the city has been known to be pretty much recession-proof, with one of the lowest unemployment and home foreclosure rates in the country.

In addition, Oklahoma City has created a $700 million educational campaign to either renovate or build over 70 schools throughout the evolving city. The construction campaign is one of the biggest education initiatives in the country.

With Oklahoma City's steadily growing economy and its extremely rapid pace of development, other areas are looking to the city for both ideas and inspiration when it comes to avoiding the full impact of the nation's recession.

But not only is Oklahoma City considered one of the best places to live and start a business, its residents were also able to lose one million pounds collectively, after being challenged by the city's mayor. The city was also recently named one of the "seven worst places to smoke weed," which is either a big plus or a big minus, depending on your point of view.

The missing million

PhotoConsumerAffairs spoke with the Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett about how his city has thrived during recessionary times, and how its residents lost those million pounds in a relatively short period of time.

“In the winter of 06/07, there was a story in Men's Fitness Magazine that went and called the city one of the most obese cities in the country, one of the fattest cities in the country,” he said.

 “It was about the time that we were starting to show up on a lot of complimentary lists -- best places to get a job -- those types of lists, and I was doing my best traveling the country and speaking inside the city talking about Oklahoma City's kind of emerging economy and [how] we're rising up to a new position. And that obesity list really bothered me,” he said.

 “And I kind of went through some personal reflection at the time, and got on the scales one day and went to a website and found out that I was obese. I didn't even know."

"So I decided to lose some weight and I lost a pound a week for about 40- weeks. During that time frame I studied the city’s infrastructure and culture and why we have a problem, and came up with an idea of trying to create awareness about obesity, [because] we weren't talking about it, we were in denial,” he explained.

“So I came up with the idea of putting the entire city on a diet and announcing that we were going to lose a million pounds. And got a private sector donor to put a website together so we can kind of collect the information from everybody. So there was no government money spent on it.”

“And as of January we reached the million-pound mark," he said. “We had 47,000 people sign up and we reached our goal. It took four years and three weeks.”

Self-inventory

PhotoMayor Cornett said that during that time, the city was able to take a look at itself and reexamine how its infrastructure was leading to the high obesity rate.

After the city's self-inventory, the Mayor was able to include jogging, and biking trails, sidewalks, senior health and wellness centers, and other additions to the city that helped residents remain active.

The Mayor admitted that if it wasn't for the million pound weight loss challenge, the additions to the city may not have been included in the development.

“Once we went through the awareness campaign, we saw what we had to correct,” he said.

Although a city losing one million pounds is a huge challenge, a bigger challenge may have been for the Mayor, when he had to tell the same people who voted him into office, that they needed to lose a bit of weight.

And what was the initial reaction?

“I think most were stunned,” the Mayor said. “I think it was 'check-out what the crazy mayor did'. I think that was the first reaction. But even if that's what it was, it got people talking about it. And obesity became the sort of topic in Oklahoma City that no one was comfortable talking about.”

“I think it’s because we consider ourselves nice people and obesity can affect the way you look,” he added. “And it's not nice to talk about the way people look, it's an unflattering situation.”

“I think when I went public with my story and my personal struggles, and announced this was going to be a topic of public debate -- and we're not going to hide it anymore -- I think it freed up everybody to talk, inside their home, inside their businesses, inside their church. Many, many people jumped on board. It just took off,” he said.

Weight loss, economic growth

PhotoBut has the city been able to maintain its new healthier lifestyle?

Mayor Cornett says there is a definite link between Oklahoma City's economic growth and its ability to keep improving its obesity rate.

“Our per capita income is going up because of the jobs we created, and with the per capita income on the rise, it will lower those obesity rates.” It all comes back to economic development and creating a city where they want to live,” he said.

And so far, the Mayor has been praised by Oklahoma City residents, as well as the entire nation for doing just that. Building a city that people are enthused to move to and reside in.

In fact, he says the old order of people moving to cities to follow certain jobs has changed. Nowadays people first determine where they want to live, then the jobs will follow them.

“Jobs follow people, people don't follow jobs anymore,” he says. "If you can create a city where highly educated twenty-somethings want to live, the jobs will follow. It was announced that we were the most entrepreneurial city in the country in terms of start-ups per capita.”

Mayor Cornett also says what makes Oklahoma City a great place to start a small business is the residents and their level of consumer confidence.

“People are spending money,” he said. “We have the lowest unemployment in the country. Our cost of living is low and is about 90 percent of the national average, and our wages are higher than the national average, so that creates a discretionary opportunity for people to spend money on things like, restaurants or NBA tickets or whatever they choose.”

“What it boils down to, if you're not spending all of your money on housing, and in many communities that's what it feels like, [then] you have money to do other things. And that option is one of the things that leads to the quality of life living in Oklahoma City.”

“Life is easy here,” he added. “Life can be a struggle in a lot of places, but life is not a struggle here on a daily business.”

The Mayor also says that because land is still very affordable in Oklahoma City, people are purchasing it in various areas, which will avoid any one area from becoming overpopulated.

In essence, the city has developed the best of both worlds. It's become a faster-paced city with more to see and do, but sprawled out enough so residents still have ample space.

So what's next for the country's number one developing city in the next decade or so?

“I think the next ten will be better than the last ten, with all of the projects we're building right now,” said the Mayor.

“We're building a new convention center and a new downtown street car, a new park, the new senior health and wellness centers, improvements on the river, the fairgrounds. We got a billion dollars of construction in the pipeline coming in, and almost all of it is in the inner city. You need to develop downtown.”

“We've convinced suburbanites that the quality of their life is directly related to the intensity of the core," he said. "You can't be a suburb of nothing. And that's been kind of the key to getting these tax generated infrastructure projects in line.

"We also pay cash; we don't go into debt for most of the stuff I just talked about. It takes us quite a while to build them, but I like that pay as you go philosophy."

Also,“We have another 10 years of projects to build. So you ask about the next ten years, the dirt is going to be flying from now on,” he said.

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Square Unveils Plan That Eliminates Swipe Fees

Some small business can qualify for $275 monthly flat fee

Square seems to be on a roll. Less than a week after closing a blockbuster deal with Starbucks for mobile payments, it's fired another warning shot across ...

PhotoSquare seems to be on a roll. Less than a week after closing a blockbuster deal with Starbucks for mobile payments, it's fired another warning shot across the bow of credit card processors.

Any business that does $250,000 a year in credit card transactions can eliminate the 2.75 percent swipe fee and pay a flat fee of $275 a month. For a business doing just the minimum $250,000 in credit charges a year, it's a savings of about $3,000 a year.

Square made credit card acceptance more accessible for small and micro businesses with its small card reader that plugs into a smartphone. Any business, anywhere could accept credit and debit cards with the device and pay a 2.75 percent swipe fee.

Its new pricing plan, the company says, will give small businesses a big advantage when it comes to lowering the cost of accepting a credit card.

“For 62 years, merchants have suffered complicated, expensive processing fees,” said Square CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey. “Square is the first company to rethink electronic payment pricing with the merchant in mind. We are giving merchants affordable, predictable pricing. With one monthly price, merchants know that the sales they’ve processed in a day is the same amount deposited in the bank.”

Square was founded in 2009 in San Francisco and its services currently are only available to businesses in the U.S. It's an upstart competitor in an industry dominated by Visa, MasterCard and American Express.

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Gasoline Prices Keep Moving Higher

The national average price climbs another four cents in last seven days

Motorists faced another week of rising gasoline prices though the increases moderated in parts of the Midwest impacted by regional pipeline and refinery is...

PhotoMotorists faced another week of rising gasoline prices, though the increases moderated in parts of the Midwest affected by regional pipeline and refinery issues.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.716 per gallon, compared with $3.673 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. The price has jumped 29 cents a gallon in the last month.

Diesel fuel is going up even faster. The average price today is $3.960 per gallon, versus $3.878 a week ago.

What's behind the summer gasoline hikes, that started in early July? Economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, PA, says blaming it on recent refinery problems in the Midwest and California doesn't hold up since the hikes began long before the fires.

“And I just get tired of the argument that it is either distillates or crude or politics or growth or geopolitical risks or whatever is the excuse du jour for the latest round of energy price increase,” Naroff said. “Very simply, even after the fire, we were not going to get any shortages if the price of gasoline remained where it was. Thus, the surge in prices makes no real economic sense given actual supply and demand. Buy hey, why let economics get in the way of a good trade?”

Among the states, meanwhile, some of the lowest prices in the country are centered in a five state pocket of the mountain west and southwest. The states along both coasts continue to have some of the highest pump prices in the land.

Photo

 

The states with the highest gas prices this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.201)
  • California ($4.115)
  • Illinois ($4.050)
  • Connecticut ($3.978)
  • Michigan ($3.951)
  • Oregon ($3.936)
  • Washington ($3.936)
  • New York ($3.928)
  • Wisconsin ($3.907)
  • Alaska ($3.904)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.422)
  • Arizona ($3.445)
  • Mississippi ($3.472)
  • New Mexico ($3.478)
  • Tennessee ($3.490)
  • Alabama ($3.495)
  • Utah ($3.517)
  • Arkansas ($3.517)
  • Colorado ($3.519)
  • Wyoming ($3.527)
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Survey: School, College Shoppers’ Lists Still Long

Increasing number of college families are influenced by coupons, sales and promotions

Even though they began shopping for back-to-school and college items earlier than ever this year, families with school and college-aged students said that ...

PhotoEven though they began shopping for back-to-school and college items earlier than ever this year, families with school and college-aged students said that as of August 7 they have more than half of their shopping lists to complete. 

According to National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2012 Back-to-School and College Surveys conducted by BIGinsight, the average person with children in grades K-12 has completed 40.1 percent of her shopping, while college shoppers and their families have completed slightly more at 45.3 percent. Overall, school and college shoppers this year are expected to spend a total of $83.8 billion. 

Last minute shopping 

It’s evident that there are plenty ‘last minute shoppers’ this year and for retailers these next two weeks are of utmost importance when it comes to attracting families who still have apparel, electronics and school supplies to stock up on,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Given how much of an impact the economy is having on consumers’ buying decisions, retailers will remain competitive up through the final sale after Labor Day, rolling out web, in-store and even mobile promotions to entice children and their parents.” 

The survey found that more college students and their families have already finished their shopping (16.4%), than school shoppers (7.8%). Additionally, there are fewer school and college shoppers who say they have not started their shopping yet (28.5% vs. 31.1% of college shoppers last year, and 26.9% vs. 28.3% of K-12 shoppers last year.) 

When it comes to how families will pay for their school and college merchandise, the survey found debit/check cards are the preferred payment method for shoppers this summer. Four in 10 (42.5%) with children in grades K-12 will use their debit cards most often, similar to the 39.4 percent of college students and their families. More than one-quarter (28.4%) of those shopping for school items prefer to use cash and another 25.6 percent prefer credit cards. College shoppers are more likely to use their credit cards (29.4%) over cash (26.7%). 

Economy a factor 

With eight in 10 shoppers saying the economy will affect their school and college spending plans, it’s no surprise promotions and coupons are popular with families this summer. According to the survey, of those who have already begun shopping, two in five (38.5%) with children in grades K-12 say at least half of the school-related purchases they made were influenced by coupons, sales and promotions, down slightly from 41.5 percent last year. The same number of college shoppers (38.6%) said at least half of their purchases were influenced by sales and promotions, up from 34.2 percent last year. 

To wrap up their shopping lists, school and college shoppers will continue to look for bargains as they comparison shop in stores and online. Back-to-school shoppers will do the remainder of their shopping at discount stores (59.6%), department stores (54.4%), clothing stores (42.9%), electronics stores (13.7%), and online (27.2%). College students and their families will head to discount (47.6%), department (41.1%) and clothing stores (30.1%). More than one-third (34.6%) of college shoppers will do the remainder of their shopping online. 

Smart shoppers are utilizing every channel they can to find the best back-to-school deals, which this year includes comparison shopping through traditional and non-traditional outlets like catalogs and drug stores,” said BIGinsight Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “With so many shoppers relying on debit cards and cash this year, it’s clear that parents are determined to send students back to class on budget.” 

Smartphones, tablets play big role 

Nearly seven in 10 tablet owners will utilize their tablets to shop for school and college items, and more than half of those who own smartphones will shop in some way via their mobile device for both school and college merchandise. Specifically, 68.9 percent of college students and their parents and 67.0 percent of school shoppers will use their tablets; 58.7 percent of smartphone owners looking for school merchandise will use their mobile device, compared to 51.6 percent of back-to-college shoppers. 

Mobile continues to drive the conversation in the retail industry, and when it comes to back-to-school, retailers have spent months preparing their mobile promotions in anticipation of one of the biggest mobile shopping seasons we’ve seen yet,” said Shay. 

Of those who own tablets, most (43.8%) will use their tablet to research products and compare prices, Four in 10 (40.6%) college students and their families will use their tablet to research products and compare prices. 

The survey also found that nearly three in 10 (28.4%) shoppers with children in grades K-12 will make an actual purchase with their tablet; slightly more (34.5%) will commit to purchasing college items via their device. Adults 25-34 are among the most likely to utilize tablets for back-to-class purchases. Four in 10 (42.8%) 25-34-year-olds who own a tablet will make a back-to-school purchase using their device, while nearly half (46.7%) who own a tablet in that same age group will purchase college merchandise via their tablet. 

When it comes to smartphone usage, most back-to-school (33.3%) and college (31.5%) shoppers will use their smartphones to research products and compare prices, while fewer school (19.2%) and college (20.9%) shoppers will commit to buying something on their handheld device. 

These numbers rise among 25-34-year-olds, with the majority of smartphone owners in this age group using their devices to research products and compare prices for back-to-school (54.2%) or college (50.1%). 

There’s no question that mobile technologies have changed the game for shoppers, especially when it comes to bigger shopping trips that require higher budgets,” said Goodfellow. “Savvy shoppers are learning how to seek out coupons, sign up for text alerts from their favorite companies to receive instant rebates, and even download applications that enhance the shopping experience.” 

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Brain-Pad Agrees to Be More Modest in its Claims

FTC took issue with claims the mouthguards protected against brain injury

You wouldn't think a mouthguard would prevent brain injuries, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn't think so either....

PhotoYou wouldn't think a mouthguard would prevent brain injuries, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn't think so either.

The agency has reached a settlement with mouthguard marketer Brain-Pad, Inc. and its President Joseph Manzo, barring them from making unsupported claims that their mouthguards reduce the risk of concussions from lower jaw impacts, reduce the risk of concussions generally, or have been clinically proven to do either. 

The settlement also prohibits Brain-Pad and Manzo from misrepresenting the health benefits of any mouthguard or other athletic equipment designed to protect the brain from injury.

According to the FTC, Brain-Pad and Manzo made their claims about the mouthguards’ concussion-protecting qualities on product packaging and in Internet and print advertisements. The Brain-Pad website now refers to the mouthguards as "the original jaw-joint protectors."

On packaging for the Brain-Pad Pro-Plus Junior mouthguard, the defendants claimed the device “creates new brain safety space!” and “Reduces Risk of Concussions!  From Lower Jaw Impacts.”  Similarly, packaging for the adult-size Brain-Pad Double Mouth Guard proclaims that the device, “Reduces risk of CONCUSSIONS! Protects Upper AND Lower Teeth!”  The mouthguards retail for $10 to $30.

Mouthguards can help to shield a person’s teeth from being injured, and some can reduce impact to the lower jaw,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  “But it’s a big leap to say these devices can also reduce the risk of concussions.  The scientific evidence to make that claim just isn’t adequate.”

The FTC administrative complaint charges the Conshohocken, Pennsylvania-based Brain-Pad and Manzo with deceptive advertising for claiming that their mouthguards reduce the risk of concussions from lower jaw impacts, reduce the risk of concussions generally, and have been clinically proven to do both. 

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Not Much Use Worrying About Newspapers' Future

It's hard to imagine an industry responding less effectively to new competition

Things are tough in the newspaper business.  Well, actually, things have always been tough in the newspaper business, at least for the reporters, edit...

PhotoThings are tough in the newspaper business.  Well, actually, things have always been tough in the newspaper business, at least for the reporters, editors, pressmen, compositors, printers and back-office staff. Publishers maybe had to buy cheaper Cuban cigars, which was a sacrifice no doubt much admired by the grunts on the lower floors.

Newspapers have always poor-mouthed their situation when holding down, turning back or simply ignoring staff demands for more pay, whe mercilessly raising classified ad rates and when raising the newsstand price to keep up with the price of a grande Starbucks concoction. Actually, Craigslist took care of the classified ad problem, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Thanks, Congress

PhotoWe've all heard about the problems the poor publishers face -- the rising cost of newsprint, the rising cost of ink, the rising cost of diesel fuel, the exorbitant demands of the mailroom staff, the difficulty getting a good cigar. Never discussed, of course, was the protection from the anti-trust laws daily newspapers were awarded decades ago. After all, when you buy ink by the ton, you can pretty much get what you want out of Congress. Until recently, anyway.

By buying up and closing down their local competitors, daily newspapers aimed to sew their markets up tighter than a tomb, which turned out to be ghoulishly prescient. Being a monopoly nearly always turns out to be a bad long-term strategy. Companies get flabby, bureaucratic and set in their ways.

So when something new comes along -- like, oh, the Internet -- big autocratic newspapers tend to ignore it.  After all, it worked with television, cable, radio and all those other new-fangled innovations.

Eaten alive

PhotoBut as we know, it hasn't worked out so well this time around and now we have the sorry spectacle of big, clumsy newspapers being eaten alive by all those nasty little Internet sites. Why, even The New York Times is feeling the heat.

The Times had no sooner built a monument to itself than business went south and it had to sell its brand-new building and lease it back.  Then it sold a bunch of regional newspapers and television stations. Then it sold WQXR, the classical music stations that lulled generations of New Yorkers to sleep. Then its CEO, former school teacher Janet Robinson, quit. The Times felt bad and gave her a $23 million exit package. It's expensive to live in New York, after all.

But now, the Times has pulled itself together and hired what the board is convinced is just the right guy to turn things around.  Some nimble entrepreneur fresh from Silicon Valley maybe? Or perhaps a hotshot journalist who's been running a successful Web start-up? Or an advertising whiz from Madison Avenue? 

Well, no. Marissa Mayer had already been snagged by Yahoo. So the new Times CEO is one Mark Thompson, most recently the director general of the British Broadcasting Corp., a government entity that's supported largely by mandatory license fees levied on Her Majesty's subjects.

He's being paid $10.5 million for coming aboard and will get an annual salary of $1 million, which is only fitting. After all, who better to turn around what is arguably the flagship U.S. newspaper than a Brit from a government entity that is not supported by advertising and that is nearly as old and hidebound as the Times?

There's been some mention of Thompson leading an "international expansion" of the Times.  After all, there are hardly any newspapers in Great Britian, 
Australia, Canada or other English-speaking venues. The Times does own the International Herald Tribune so perhaps they could shut that down, hoping to aid sales of the Times?

Insanely innovative?

PhotoOK, so he hasn't worked for an agile start-up that revolutionized the journalistic and advertising worlds. But at least Thompson has been a trailblazer on the Internet, which is arguably what the Times really needs. Right? Well, the Beeb has a Web site and runs video over the Web. They're not exactly Google, though, or even AOL.

This is all going over really well in the threadbare offices of the Newspaper Guild of New York, which represents almost 1,100 employees at the Times. They've been without a contract for more than a year.

An information company's primary assets, besides its brand, is its people but the industrial nature of the newspaper business leads to the same kind of cutthroat labor relations that typify industries that employ stevedores and teamsters.  Employees get a free lunch at Google and Yahoo. They're lucky to get time off for lunch at most newspapers.  

The Times has been seeking a wide swath of cuts in contract negotiations that, among other things, would freeze Guild members’ salaries, cut medical benefits and weaken retirement security, the Guild said in a statement on its website. That ought to just about ensure that reporters and editors give 110% each and every day. 

There are those who think it's too late -- that newspapers, like the global climate, have reached the tipping point and can't be saved. The Ford Foundation apparently buys into this view. It's started making grants to the likes of the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times

So the next time you're tempted to give a few bucks to a street person, ask yourself -- would it be better to go stuff a few dollars into the nearest newspaper box instead? Those Cuban cigars aren't getting any cheaper, after all.

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Cities Cracking Down On Unregulated Car Services

Technology gives these 'rogue' taxis a distinct advantage

Need a lift to the airport? A ride across town? Normally you would hail a cab but with the growing use of smartphones and social media apps, unlicensed and...

PhotoNeed a lift to the airport? A ride across town? Normally you would hail a cab but with the growing use of smartphones and social media apps, unlicensed and unregulated car services are competing with taxi companies.

They're called “grey area services” and are marketed to consumers through personal technology applications via smartphones and tablet devices, and sites such as Uber and ZoneRide. Regulators in major cities say they are conducting significant hackney-related commerce in cities without public safety and consumer protection oversight.

Consumers might like the convenience and lower prices but some cities and states are cracking down, saying unregulated car services pose a threat to public safety.

Bypassing the rules

"No one likes regulations but we have to work under a broad set of safety requirements that have evolved over decades of operation and are intended to protect the passengers and drivers," said Oleg Uritsky, a spokesman for Fleet owners in Boston. "Technology companies have recently found ways to bypass those rules and the result is a growing number of unlicensed cars that are operating with no accountability."

The technology companies don't hire drivers or purchase cars but instead market their software and applications to independent drivers who aren't subject to the rules and regulations of taxi companies. These regulations can cover safety inspections, fuel efficiency, pollution standards and criminal background checks for drivers.

Escape taxes

Adding insult to injury, as far as city regulators are concerned, they often garage the vehicles outside city limits to escape applicable excise taxes and other fees. And while consumers may think they're getting a better deal, officials say they usually don't. They point out that grey area services are free to charge consumers whatever they want and frequently jack up fares during rush hour, holidays and other busy periods using uninspected and unapproved meter-like devices.

Physical safety can also be an issue, officials say. They note grey area services don't follow the requirements for partitions or emergency buttons in the unlicensed vehicles. There are no GPS requirements to record the exact location of a vehicle during an emergency and no ID or consumer contact information requirements.

Unfair competition

There's also no question that licensed limo and taxi companies and the government agencies that regulate them view smartphone-marketed services as unfair competition. Even if they charge the same as a licensed company, they don't have to follow burdensome and costly rules.

Both ZoneRide and Uber advertise convenience, efficiency and lower costs. Uber, for example, offers “hassle free payment” that charges your ride, including tip, to your credit card on file.

In a recent report on the issue, Mathew Daus, the former commissioner of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, says that while consumers may find some temporary advantages that these companies have exploited, their innovations may simply illustrate how the industry can improve its services within the current system.

In other words, regulated taxi and limo services should adopt the mobile technology systems the grey area services use or risk getting left behind in traffic.

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PBteen Recalls Bunk Beds

A problem with a panel on the beds poses the risk of injury

PBteen, a division of Williams-Sonoma Inc., of San Francisco, is recalling about 390 Beadboard Bunk Beds. The front upper horizontal panel on the bunk bed...

PhotoPBteen, a division of Williams-Sonoma Inc., of San Francisco, is recalling about 390 Beadboard Bunk Beds. 

The front upper horizontal panel on the bunk beds can crack or break, posing a risk of injury to the consumer. PBteen has received 13 reports of panels that have cracked or broken, but no injuries have been reported. 

This recall involves wooden bunk beds with beadboard paneling. The upper bunk, accessible by a four-step ladder, is designed for a twin mattress and the lower bunk for a full-size mattress. The bunk beds were sold in white, chestnut, dark espresso and honey, and have storage cubbies below the lower bunk. The product number is listed on the purchase receipt. A label on each of the bunk bed's parts lists that part's SKU number. SKU numbers included in the recall are:

 

SKUDescription
ProductPart 
9878901 Beadboard Bunk Bed Twin/Full: Sun Valley White
 9848672Beadboard Bunk Rails: Sun Valley White
 9848748Beadboard Bunk Lower Headboard/Footboard: Sun Valley White
 9848839Beadboard Bunk Upper Headboard/Footboard: Sun Valley White
 9848987Beadboard Bunk Ladder/Slats: Sun Valley White
 9849050Beadboard Bunk Storage Box: Sun Valley White
9878976 Beadboard Bunk Bed Twin/Full: Sun Valley Honey
 9848664Beadboard Bunk Rails: Sun Valley Honey
 9848722Beadboard Bunk Lower Headboard/Footboard: Sun Valley Honey
 9848797Beadboard Bunk Upper Headboard/Footboard: Sun Valley Honey
 9848920Beadboard Bunk Ladder/Slats: Sun Valley Honey
 9849043Beadboard Bunk Storage Box: Sun Valley Honey
5765458 Beadboard Bunk Bed Twin/Full: Dark Espresso
 4179412Beadboard Bunk Bed Upper Headboard/Footboard:Twin/Full:Dark Espresso
 4185377Beadboard Bunk Bed Ladder/Slats:Twin/Full:Dark Espresso
 4185286Beadboard Bunk Bed Rails:Twin/Full:Dark Espresso
 4189411Beadboard Bunk Bed Storage Box:Twin/Full:Dark Espresso
 4190393Beadboard Bunk Bed Lower Headboard/Footboard:Twin/Full:Dark Espresso
5766084 Beadboard Bunk Bed Twin/Full Chestnut
 4179388Beadboard Bunk Bed Upper Headboard/Footboard:Twin/Full:Chestnut
 4185336Beadboard Bunk Bed Ladder/Slats:Twin/Full:Chestnut
 4185278Beadboard Bunk Bed Rails:Twin/Full:Chestnut
 4189387Beadboard Bunk Bed Storage Box:Twin/Full:Chestnut
 4190567Beadboard Bunk Bed Lower Headboard/Footboard:Twin/Full:Chestnut
5766266 Beadboard Bunk Bed Twin/Full White
 4179362Beadboard Bunk Bed Upper Headboard/Footboard:Twin/Full:White
 4185393Beadboard Bunk Bed Ladder/Slats:Twin/Full:White
 4185294Beadboard Bunk Bed Rails:Twin/Full:White
 4189403Beadboard Bunk Bed Storage Box:Twin/Full:White
 4190542Beadboard Bunk Bed Lower Headboard/Footboard:Twin/Full:White

The beds, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold at PBteen.com and through the PBteen catalog nationwide from January 2008 to April 2009 for the Sun Valley white and Sun Valley honey models, and October 2011 to February 2012 for the dark espresso, chestnut and white models. They were sold for between $1,700 and $2,000.  

Consumers should stop using the upper bunk immediately and contact PBteen. Consumers with the recalled bunk bed will receive a free, in-home installation of a replacement panel. 

For more information, contact PBteen toll-free at (855) 217-5223 between 7 a.m. and midnight ET daily. PBteen is contacting known purchasers directly.

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All Baby Boomers Urged to Get Tested For Hepatitis C

Sex, drugs, rock-n-roll generation may be especially vulnerable

If you were born between 1946 and 1964 – the huge population group known as baby boomers – you should get screened for hepatitis C.The advice...

PhotoIf you were born between 1946 and 1964 -- the huge population group known as baby boomers -- you should get screened for hepatitis C.

The advice comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who warns this generation, which widely experimented with sex and drugs, is especially vulnerable to this liver-destroying disease.

According to the health agency, one in 30 baby boomers has been infected with hepatitis C, and most don’t know it. Hepatitis C causes serious liver diseases, including liver cancer -- the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related deaths -- and is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.

The CDC included the advice in its regular Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Draft recommendations were issued in May, followed by a public comment period.

Getting checked for hepatitis C is simple

“A one-time blood test for hepatitis C should be on every baby boomer’s medical checklist,” said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “The new recommendations can protect the health of an entire generation of Americans and save thousands of lives.”

Previously the CDC only called for testing on individuals with certain known risk factors for hepatitis C infection. Risk-based screening will continue to be important, but is not sufficient alone, the agency said.

According to estimates, more than two million U.S. baby boomers are infected with hepatitis C, accounting for more than 75 percent of all American adults living with the virus. Studies show that many boomers were infected with the virus decades ago but don't know it and do not perceive themselves to be at risk, and therefore have never been screened.

Death toll

More than 15,000 Americans -- most of them baby boomers -- die each year from hepatitis C-related illness, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, and deaths have been increasing steadily for over a decade. The CDC is worried the death toll will growing quickly in coming years.

If every baby boomer got tested, the CDC estimates it could identify more than 800,000 additional people with hepatitis C. That would likely save many lives. With newly available therapies, up to 75 percent of infections can be cured. The CDC says it would prevent the costly consequences of liver cancer and other chronic liver diseases and save more than 120,000 lives.

The problem with hepatitis C is a lot of people can have the virus and not realize it. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, most people who were recently infected with hepatitis C do not have symptoms. About one in 10 have yellowing of the skin that gets better.

Of people who get infected with hepatitis C, most develop a long-term infection. Usually there are no symptoms. If the infection has been present for many years, the liver may be permanently scarred. In many cases, there may be no symptoms of the disease until cirrhosis has developed.

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Why Seniors May Be More Vulnerable to Scams

The physiological process of age is a likely factor

It's no secret that senior citizens are a con artist's favorite target. They seem more trusting and more likely to fall for a scammer's pitch.But why, ex...

It's no secret that senior citizens are a con artist's favorite target. They seem more trusting and more likely to fall for a scammer's pitch.

PhotoBut why, exactly? Conventional wisdom holds that older people are more trusting and, because they are from a generation that came of age at a time when people were more honest, they don't question a scammer's “too good to be true” promises.

But maybe there's something more at work here. Researchers at the University of Iowa believe it all has to do with deteriorating brain function, a product of advancing years.

They say they’ve pinpointed the precise location in the human brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), that controls belief and doubt, and that is what explains why some of us are more gullible than others.

Direct evidence

“The current study provides the first direct evidence beyond anecdotal reports that damage to the vmPFC increases credulity. Indeed, this specific deficit may explain why highly intelligent vmPFC patients can fall victim to seemingly obvious fraud schemes,” the researchers wrote in the paper published in a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Statistics tend to support their conclusions. A study conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 2009 concluded that nearly 12 percent of people 60 and older had been exploited financially by a family member or a stranger. And a report last year by insurer MetLife Inc. estimated the annual loss by victims of elder financial abuse at $2.9 billion.

In 2006, ConsumerAffairs reported the case of an elderly Kansas man who lost $300,000 to the Canadian lottery scam over a four-year period. In an interview, his daughter said repeated intervention by family members and the police did little good, that her father could not conceive that someone would lie to him.  

The Iowa authors say their research can explain why the elderly, like the subject of our story, are vulnerable.

Possible explanation

Photo“In our theory, the more effortful process of disbelief to items initially believed is mediated by the vmPFC, which, in old age, tends to disproportionately lose structural integrity and associated functionality,” they wrote. “Thus, we suggest that vulnerability to misleading information, outright deception and fraud in older adults is the specific result of a deficit in the doubt process that is mediated by the vmPFC.”

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain the size of a softball lodged in the front of the human head, right above the eyes. It’s part of a larger area known to scientists since the extraordinary case of Phineas Gage that controls a range of emotions and behaviors, from impulsivity to poor planning.

But brain scientists have struggled to identify which regions of the prefrontal cortex govern specific emotions and behaviors, including the cognitive seesaw between belief and doubt.

Tests with a deceptive ad

In a study 500 seniors with various forms of documented brain damage were shown advertisements mimicking ones flagged as misleading by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to test how much they believed or doubted the ads. The deception in the ads was subtle; for example, an ad for “Legacy Luggage” that trumpets the gear as “American Quality” turned on the consumer’s ability to distinguish whether the luggage was manufactured in the United States versus inspected in the country.

Each participant was asked to gauge how much he or she believed the deceptive ad and how likely he or she would buy the item if it were available. The researchers found that the patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were roughly twice as likely to believe a given ad, even when given disclaimer information pointing out it was misleading. And, they were more likely to buy the item, regardless of whether misleading information had been corrected.

“Behaviorally, they fail the test to the greatest extent,” says Natalie Denburg, assistant professor in neurology who devised the ad tests. “They believe the ads the most, and they demonstrate the highest purchase intention. Taken together, it makes them the most vulnerable to being deceived."

Process begins at age 60

The vulnerability begins as you get older. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex begins to deteriorate as people reach age 60 and older, although the onset and the pace of deterioration varies, according to Daniel Tranel, neurology and psychology professor at Iowa and corresponding author on the paper. He thinks the finding will enable doctors, caregivers, and relatives to be more understanding of decision making by the elderly.

“And maybe protective,” Tranel said. “Instead of saying, ‘How would you do something silly and transparently stupid,’ people may have a better appreciation of the fact that older people have lost the biological mechanism that allows them to see the disadvantageous nature of their decisions.”

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Diabetes in Dogs: It's More Common Than You Think

We spoke to an expert and learned what symptoms pet owners should look out for

Here's a statistic that may be surprising to some pet owners:There has been a 32 percent rise in dogs being diagnosed with diabetes between the years of...

PhotoHere's a statistic that may be surprising to some pet owners:

There has been a 32 percent rise in dogs being diagnosed with diabetes between the years of 2006 and 2010, according to a study released by Banfield Pet Hospital called the “State of Pet Health 2011 Report.”

The study shows that canine obesity was one of the leading factors in dogs developing Diabetes Mellitus, and it remained within the top five causes for the disease among young adult, mature adult and geriatric dogs.

The authors of the report advise owners to bring dogs to the vet twice a year as opposed to once, which will increase the chance of the illness being discovered in its beginning stages.

Also, pet owners should be engaging their dogs in the right amount of physical activity, while constantly managing their food intake, meal portions and other nutritional needs.

All of these methods combined will significantly lower the possibility of your dog developing diabetes or other dangerous illnesses, say experts.

Placing one hand on your dog's side is one quick way of checking to see if your dog is obese or not. If you're not able to feel your dog's ribs quickly and upon first touch, it's a good indication he or she may be overweight.

Other symptoms

There are also other symptoms that owners will notice when their dog is suffering from the disease.

“Polyuria, which means urination. Polydipsia, which is drinking more, is the first sign you see in dogs and weight loss,” said Dr. Sailendra Roy, a veterinarian at Ambassador Animal Hospital, located in Silver Spring, Md. in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“That's the characteristic or sign which prompts the owner to say 'hey something is going wrong here.' And then they bring the animals in, we do the blood work exactly the same way like humans. So that's the typical symptom. Once you get the blood work it tells you more if there are any other organs involved and things like that. But these are the primary symptoms," he said.

Experts also say if your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, but still able to hold down food and water without vomiting, they may be able to be treated as an outpatient and won't require an expensive and sometimes stressful hospital stay.

Of course this will be ultimately determined by the veterinarian during the initial diagnosis or within your pet's follow-up visits.

Insufficient insulin

Canine Diabetes is usually due to an insufficient amount of insulin being created in the dog's body, which is the Type 1 version of the disease, formerly known in humans as Juvenile Diabetes. In rare cases a dog may have enough natural insulin but the pancreas will process it in the wrong way, say experts. This can cause Type 2 diabetes, formerly known in humans as Adult Onset Diabetes.

Currently, there is no cure for the disease in animals, and although treatments vary, Dr. Roy says insulin has a far better success rate than other types of medicines, and really should be your first line of attack against dog diabetes.

“Once a dog is diagnosed, most dogs will be depending on insulin or medication,” he said. “In cats and dogs oral medication has questionable benefits.”

“So you start with insulin and there's a lot of foods out there which are designed as a prescription diet for diabetic patients,” he noted. “There are quite a few out there like Waltham. They have different kinds of diabetic diets that are normally recommended because home meds are kind of impossible [to properly treat the dog].”

The Banfield Hospital report also shows that geography may play a part in dogs being diagnosed with diabetes. In 2010, Rhode Island, Iowa, Idaho, Nevada, and Delaware had the highest rate of Diabetes Mellitus in dogs.

Although the reason why these states had a higher prevalence for Canine Diabetes wasn't revealed in the report, it could be due to the same reason diabetes numbers fluctuate between states among humans.

Awareness, lifestyle and overall culture have always impacted health and potential treatments in humans and their pets.

Chronic condition

Once a dog starts treatment, it's unlikely that the condition will reverse itself, and medication will be needed for the remaining years of the animal's life, Dr. Roy said.

“Once the insulin starts, spontaneous remission is non-existent,” he said. "Most dogs will be getting it for the rest of their lives. There are some reports that [show] sometimes dogs and cats get into remission, but it's so rare. I haven't seen that happen."

According to Michigan veterinarian Dr. Race Foster, who co-authored four books on pet health, certain dog breeds are more prone to getting diabetes than others.

Labrador and golden retrievers, German shepherds, Yorkshire terriers, the Keeshond, the beagle and poodles of various sizes all have a slightly greater chance of developing the disease, he says.

Although Dr. Roy agrees there are some key findings on the link between genetics and Canine Diabetes, there isn't enough large-scale research for veterinarians to make a full and absolute conclusion.

“In the same way that research has been done in humans you can see a familiar test result,” [in dogs] he says. “We ask the patient if their parents had diabetes. I don't think as far as my knowledge is concerned that there is any extensive research to find out whether there's an inherited gene that's possible for diabetes in animals.”

Experts also say that using a portable blood glucose meter for your dog as well as keeping an informational chart of the results is imperative once your dog is diagnosed, and it's also important not to change your pet's diet until you discuss it first with your veterinarian.

 

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Samsung's Galaxy Note Tablet Features Stylus and Split-Screen

Samsung is hoping the new features put a dent in the Apple iPad's dominance of the tablet market

The late Steve Jobs didn't like using a stylus and so Apple gadgets didn't have one, even though they were widely sold as accessories in the after-mar...

PhotoThe late Steve Jobs didn't like using a stylus and so Apple gadgets didn't have one, even though they were widely sold as accessories in the after-market. Now Samsung is hoping a stylus-style pen and a split-screen function set off its Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet from the competition, most notably the Apple iPad.

What this means is that a user could be looking at one side of the screen while taking notes or sketching on the other side. Samsung designers think it brings new functionality to the tablet, which many consumers find hard to use because of the on-screen keyboard.

But while those features may be attractive, they don't come cheaply. With 16 gigabytes of memory and Wi-Fi only -- no cell connectivity -- the Galaxy Note is priced at $499. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the same price as the similarly-equipped iPad.

Samsung is promoting the Android-based device as a game-changer -- as a completely new information appliance that goes beyond previous tablets, smartphones, laptops and other devices.

"It is the ultimate on-the-go device which consolidates core benefits of diverse mobile devices while maintaining smartphone portability," the company said in publicity matrials surrounding the launch.

"Consumer research indicates that people always want to do more tasks much better, even on the go, whether it is web browsing, email, games, or viewing photos and videos," Samsung said. "Even for consumers with multiple smart devices, they still carry around a notepad for writing down ideas."

Note-taker

Basically, once all the jargon and hype is taken away, the Galaxy Note is notable primarily for its ability to function as a note-taker that lets you look at something on one side of the screen while taking notes on the other. It sounds simple, but just try doing it on any other device.

Even a task as simple as jotting down a phone number or address from a smartphone requires either a dead-tree notepad or a pen that will write well on your sweaty palm. 

And yes, the Galaxy Note is capable of translating your written notes into text, although reviewers who've tried it say it works only moderately well. Of course, the same is said daily in much more emphatic language about the utilities that try to translate speech -- i.e., voicemail messages -- into text. The results are usually laughable, at best.

Reviewers have noted that the resolution of the Note's screen isn't as sharp as the iPad and the battery life isn't as good. But does any of that really matter if you're desperately taking notes or trying to make a quick sketch of the architectural concept that came to you on the subway?

The Note may catch on or it may not. But you've got to give Samsung credit for coming up with a new twist on what is by now an old idea.

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Mortgage Rates Moving Higher

The increase is small, but it's there

The cost of a mortgage is going up, though not by much, with rates still near historic lows. But two weekly gauges of interest rates both reveal upward mov...

PhotoThe cost of a mortgage is going up, though not by much, with rates still near historic lows. But two weekly gauges of interest rates both reveal upward movement.

Freddie Mac reports the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.62 percent with an average 0.6 point for the week ending August 16, up from last week when it averaged 3.59 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.15 percent.

The 15-year FRM this week averaged 2.88 percent with an average 0.6 point, up from last week when it averaged 2.84 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.36 percent

The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.76 percent this week with an average 0.6 point, down from last week when it averaged 2.77 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 3.08 percent.

Bankrate finds similar rate movement

At Bankrate.com there were similar results. The 30-year FRM averaged 3.86 percent; the 15-year FRM 3.05 percent and the 5/1 ARM 2.93 percent. Analysts say the rise, for the third week in a row, is actually a good sign for the housing market and the overall economy.

"The latest economic indicators point toward low inflation but gradually stronger economic activity which placed further upward pressure on long-term Treasury yields and, in turn, fixed mortgage rates, said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “For example, inflation remains in check with 12-month growth in the core consumer price index falling for a second month to 2.1 percent in July. At the same time, industrial production rose 0.6 percent in July compared to a 0.1 percent increase in June and retail sales jumped 0.8 percent in July from a 0.7 percent decline in June."

Why rates went so low

When it appeared that much of Europe was teetering toward default many international investors dumped money into U.S. Treasury bonds, driving yields to an all-time low. Because mortgage rates are tied to Treasury yields, that drove mortgage rates to an all-time low. As that crisis has lessened, investors have been selling those bonds, allowing the yields to rise. That, in turn, has lifted mortgage rates.

Whether the upward trend can be sustained depends on what happens on both sides of the Atlantic, with the European debt crisis and the path of the U.S. economy, analysts say.

The last time mortgage rates were above 6 percent was Nov. 2008. At the time, the average 30-year fixed rate was 6.33 percent, meaning a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,241.86. With the average rate now 3.86 percent, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $938.76, a difference of $303 per month for anyone refinancing now.

Ordinarily mortgage rates this low would set off a frenzy of home-buying and refinancing. It hasn't because lenders have significantly toughened underwriting standards, making it much harder now to qualify for a mortgage.

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Teens Blame Backpage.com for Their Rapes

The site was also cited in a high-school prostitution ring case in Virginia

In a court case in Tacoma, Wash., three girls say they were raped multiple times after pimps advertised them as prostitutes on Backpage.com, the classified...

PhotoIn a court case in Tacoma, Wash., three girls say they were raped multiple times after pimps advertised them as prostitutes on Backpage.com, the classified ad site owned by Village Voice Media.

The site has been the target of investigations and demands by state attorneys general and parents' groups. The site has also been implicated in a federal court case in Virginia, where prosecutors say gang members trafficked high school girls as prostitutes through Backpage.com

Two of the Tacoma girls were 13 and one was 15 when "professional adult pimps" advertised them as prostitutes on Backpage.com, which "at no time" tried to verify their ages or do anything to protect them, according to the complaint in Pierce County Court, Courthouse News Service reported.

"Two of the girls were 13 years old and one girl was 15 years old when they ran away from home and became controlled by professional adult pimps who posted advertisements for the girls on the Backpage.com escort website, a website owned, operated, designed, and controlled by the Backpage.com defendants. Hundreds of customers responded to the Backpage.com advertisements, and the girls were all raped by adults multiple times as a result," the complaint states.

"The Backpage.com defendants were well aware that their website was being used in this way because they developed and required content to ensure that young girls, like the plaintiffs, would continue to be advertised in this manner. The Backpage.com defendants did so because of the millions of dollars that they generated from the website every month."

The girls claim that Backpage "does more to promote illicit human sex trafficking than any other single entity in the United States," and has knowingly developed a reputation as a site where "pimps and prostitutes advertise commercial sex and where commercial sex customers can find it."

They claim that Backpage developed content requirements to "assist pimps and prostitutes in avoiding detection so that Backpage.com can continue profiting from their illegal activities."

For example, advertisers cannot offer "sex for sale," but can ask for "donations" for an "escort," and the site allows blurred photographs that conceal the escort's identity, the complaint states.

The girls, J.S., S.L. and L.C., sued Village Voice Media Holdings dba Backpage.com, and an alleged pimp, Baruti Hopson, who they say is in prison.

L.C. says she was 13 and "barely one month out of seventh grade" when her picture was posted as an escort on Backpage. L.C claims she "was raped by hundreds of adult prostitution customers - as many as twenty per day."
  
The girls call Backpage user requirements - that the advertiser must be at least 18 and may not post ads that solicit sex for money or exploit minors - a "fraud and a ruse that is aimed at helping pimps, prostitutes, and Backpage.com evade law enforcement by giving the appearance that Backpage.com does not allow sex trafficking on its website."

Backpage and its corporate parent Village Voice Media Holdings sued Washington State in June to stop enforcement of a new child sex-trafficking law that requires publishers to verify the age of people shown in sex ads. Enforcement of the law has been enjoined until the case is heard in Federal Court.

Attorneys general from 46 states last year demanded that Backpage.com  disclose information on its alleged attempts to remove sex trafficking advertising, especially that which could involve minors. 

In the past three years, there have been more than 50 cases in 22 states involving the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through the site, the AGs said.

Gangster Crips

PhotoIn the Virginia cases, two men associated with the Fairfax County-based Underground Gangster Crips (UGC) gang pled guilty in May to participating in a prostitution business that recruited and trafficked high school girls.

Donyel Pier Dove, aka “Bleek,” 27, of Alexandria, Va., pled guilty to sex trafficking of a juvenile and use of a firearm during a crime of violence.  He also admitted to purchasing a credit card that was used to pay for advertisements on Backpage.com to solicit customers for the prostitution enterprise. He was recently sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Michael Tavon Jefferies, aka “Loc,” 21, of Woodbridge, Va., was sentenced  to 10 years in prison.

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Poll: New Yorkers Oppose Limiting Soft Drink Sizes

Quinnipiac Poll also finds voters oppose Mayor Bloomberg's restrictions on infant formula

The latest Quinnipiac University poll finds New York City voters sour on Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to limit the size of sugary soft drinks. The poll finds...

PhotoThe latest Quinnipiac University poll finds New York City voters sour on Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to limit the size of sugary soft drinks. The poll finds voters oppose the plan 54-42 percent, stiffer opposition than a June 13 poll that found a 51-46 percent split.

By an even larger 56-24 percent margin, voters oppose another Bloomberg initiative to encourage breast-feeding by making baby formula less available to new mothers. Women oppose this measure 60-23 percent while men oppose it 53-24 percent.

However, by an intoxicating 56-17 percent, voters think a New York City crackdown on alcohol abuse would be a good idea. Support is 62-16 percent among parents of children under 18.

 

Voters approve 50-38 percent Bloomberg’s handling of public health. They are divided 47-49 percent on whether government should get involved in eating/drinking habits to fight obesity. But they say 48-38percent that these measures are not “nanny government.”

“Voters disagree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to increase breast-feeding and to limit the size of sugary drinks, but they like the idea of cracking down on alcohol abuse,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.  

“Overall, New Yorkers give Hizzoner good grades on public-health as they reject the criticism that it's ‘nanny government.’”

From August 8–12, Quinnipiac University surveyed 1,298 New York City voters with a margin of error of +/- 2.7 percentage points. Live interviewers call land lines and cell phones.

Stop and frisk 

Photo
Mayor Bloomberg
On the controversial NYPD "stop and frisk" policy, almost 3-1 opposition by black voters tips overall voter opinion to a narrow 50-45 percent disapproval of the police practice.

 

Black voters disapprove of stop and frisk 69-25 percent while approval is 57-37percent among white voters and 53-45 percent among Hispanic voters.

 

A decrease in police use of stop and frisk would not lead to an increase in gun violence, voters say 50-41 percent, again with significant racial division. Black voters say 63-28 percent the reductions would not lead to more crime. White voters believe it would 49-39 percent and Hispanic voters agree 52-36 percent.

“Public opinion is just about down-the-middle on the police tactic of stop and frisk. If the decline in such stops persists, will gun violence grow? On this question, too, New Yorkers are divided,” Carroll said.

“But we’re still a liberal city. If there’s a choice between taking all steps to end crime and protecting civil liberties, New Yorkers come down 78-16 percent on the civil liberties side.

“Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his cops continue to get high marks.”

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Are Digital Textbooks the Future?

Increasingly, students are finding electronic options for their course materials

As kids head off to school with backpacks loaded with heavy books and college students shell out hundreds of dollars for text books they'll use for one sem...

PhotoAs kids head off to school with backpacks loaded with heavy books and college students shell out hundreds of dollars for text books they'll use for one semester, digital publishers are promising to make education less expensive and easier to carry.

The same technology that allows consumers to download and read their favorite mystery on their tablet or e-reader also lets college students access course material electronically. More and more distributors are getting into the game.

Amazon textbooks

Amazon, which sells all types of books through its Kindle device, is lately promoting the availability of textbooks. On its website, Amazon says it can save students up to 80 percent of the cost of their print textbooks.

Students choose a rental length between 30 and 360 days and pay only for the exact time they need a book. They can extend their rental for as little as one day or convert to purchase. If you make annotations, you can access your notes and highlights anytime, even after the rental expires, at kindle.amazon.com.

Accessing the texts does not require a Kindle. According to Amazon, you simply download the Kindle reading app and can access the textbooks on a Mac, PC or almost any kind of mobile device.

CourseSmart

Meanwhile, companies specializing in textbooks are also getting into digital distribution. CourseSmart, which bills itself as the world's largest provider of eTextbooks and digital course materials, says it has saved students more than $100 million on textbooks since the company was founded in 2007.

"CourseSmart was founded on the principal of expanding access to higher education by offering students significant savings on their required course materials, and as the cost of earning a degree continues to rise, it is essential that students have digital options,” said Sean Devine, CEO of CourseSmart. “CourseSmart's savings go beyond the textbook sticker price, because students can access their digital course materials without having to purchase a dedicated device or specific eReader."

Of course, studying using an eTextbook only works if the provider has the book you need. CourseSmart claims to have over 90 percent of the core textbooks in use today, or 30,000 titles from over 33 publishers.

Free services

Colleges and universities, meanwhile, are also getting involved in an effort to reduce the very high cost of college texts, which pose a significant financial burden to many students. MIT's Open Course Ware, for example, provides free lecture notes, exams and videos.

Rice University has something similar, called Connexions Consortium, offering open source educational technology and open access educational content.

College textbooks can easily cost between $100 and $200. The good news for students is this cost will probably come down as eTextbooks expand through the educational system. It'll make the backpack a little lighter too.

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Gerber Recalls Machetes

Believe it or not, there's a laceration hazard

Gerber Legendary Blades, of Portland, OR, is recalling about 119,000 Gerber Bear Grylls Parang Machetes....

PhotoGerber Legendary Blades, of Portland, OR, is recalling about 119,000 Gerber Bear Grylls Parang Machetes. 

A weakness in the area where the handle meets the blade can cause the handle or the blade to break during use, posing a laceration hazard. 

The firm has received 24 reports of breakages, including one report of a laceration injury in Canada, which did not involve stitches. 

The recalled product is a curved blade machete with an overall length of 19.5 inches and a blade length of 13.5 inches. The handle is a dark gray textured rubber grip with wrist lanyard, orange trim and a stylized "BG" on it. The blade is marked with the "GERBER" trademark and a stylized Bear Grylls trademark. The machete comes in a black nylon sheath with orange and gray trim. 

The machetes were sold separately or as one of the products in Gerber's Apocalypse Survival Kit. The model numbers are on the package. Model numbers are: 31-000698, which has "Survival Series" printed on the package; and 31-001507, which was sold only at Walmart. Model number 30-0006010 is for the Apocalypse Survival Kit, which includes a Parang machete among other items in a foldable black cloth case with "GERBER" printed in orange on the inside right. 

They were sold at sporting goods stores nationwide and online from January 2011 through June 2012 for about $43 for the individual Parang machetes and $349 for the Apocalypse Survival Kits.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled Parang machetes and contact Gerber Legendary Blades to receive a free replacement. 

For additional information, contact Gerber Legendary Blades toll-free at (877) 314-9130 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Website.

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Survey: Consumers Value More Comfortable Car Seats

Carmakers are obliging with more enhanced seating features in compacts and subcompacts

When you think about it, 100 percent of the time you spend in a car is spent sitting down. So the fact that automakers would be putting more effort into ma...

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Agencies Issue Proposed Rule on Appraisals for Higher-Risk Mortgages

'Fraudulent property flipping' is among the issued that would be addressed

Six federal financial regulatory agencies have issued a proposed rule to establish new appraisal requirements for “higher-risk mortgage loans.” ...

PhotoSix federal financial regulatory agencies have issued a proposed rule to establish new appraisal requirements for “higher-risk mortgage loans.” 

Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, mortgage loans are higher-risk if they are secured by a consumer’s home and have interest rates above a certain threshold. 

For higher-risk mortgage loans, the proposed rule would require creditors to use a licensed or certified appraiser who prepares a written report based on a physical inspection of the interior of the property. It also would require creditors to disclose to applicants information about the purpose of the appraisal and provide consumers with a free copy of any appraisal report. 

Additional appraisal 

Creditors would have to obtain an additional appraisal at no cost to the consumer for a home-purchase higher-risk mortgage loan if the seller acquired the property for a lower price during the past six months. This requirement would address fraudulent property flipping by seeking to ensure that the value of the property being used as collateral for the loan legitimately increased. 

The proposed rule is being issued by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. 

The agencies are seeking comments from the public on all aspects of the proposal. The public will have 60 days, or until October 15, 2012, to review and comment on most of the proposal. 

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New York, Connecticut, Said to be Probing Major Banks

Authorities trying to determine impact of possible Libor rate manipulation

Two states, New York and Connecticut, have reportedly launched investigations of seven major banks on charges of rigging the Libor Rate, a rate used by int...

PhotoTwo states, New York and Connecticut, have reportedly launched investigations of seven major banks on charges of rigging the Libor Rate -- a rate used by international banks on money they lend to one another.

The Financial Times reports New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has sent subpoenas to seven major banks that have offices in New York. It's reportedly part of a probe Scheiderman has launched with Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen.

The investigation reportedly centers on whether the banks conspired to fix rates set by Libor, causing harm to investors, including state governments.

Libor stands for London Interbank Offered Rate and is a composite rate formed from the various rates banks charge one another. $350 trillion in derivatives are reportedly tied to this interest rate.

An international scandal erupted in June when it was discovered that some major international banks were fraudulently raising or lowering the Libor rate in order to profit from trades.

The Libor rate is supposed to accurately reflect banks' borrowing costs, as well as providing a gauge of economic sentiment in the banking sector. If bankers are feeling confident, the Libor should go down. It they are worried about a bank's solvency, the Libor should go up.

Going on for years?

What New York and Connecticut may be concerned about is how any manipulation of this rate could affect U.S. derivatives investments which use the Libor rate. In addition, mortgages, student loans and other financial products can also be tied to the Libor rate. In previous reporting, The Financial Times interviewed a former trader who claimed rate manipulation was nothing new, that it had been going on for more than 20 years.

Any rigging of the Libor rate is a major concern for financial regulators because the rate, more than anything, is supposed to be the canary in the coal mine. Supposedly, no one knows a bank like other banks. If bankers are reluctant to lend money to a fellow banker, that shows up in the form of a higher Libor rate and alerts the financial community to possible problems at a bank.

But if bankers conspire to keep the Libor rate artificially low, that early warning system is gone. The June investigation of Barclays Bank focuses on allegations that happened in 2008, masking the approach of the credit crisis that hit in October.

In addition to that, any manipulation could cause unnecessary rate fluctuations on nearly one million U.S. mortgages that were indexed to the Libor rate.

None of the banks said to be under investigation by New York and Connecticut have commented on the report. Barclays, meanwhile, has agreed to pay $450 million in Britain to settle charges that it attempted to manipulate this key rate.

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Retailers Form New Mobile Commerce Platform

MCX promises an easier way to pay, along with customized promotions

In a sign that mobile commerce has become mainsteam, a handful of major U.S. retailers have banded together to form Merchant Customer Exchange, also known ...

PhotoIn another sign that mobile commerce has become mainsteam, a handful of major U.S. retailers have banded together to form Merchant Customer Exchange, also known as MCX, providing another way for consumers to pay with their mobile devices.

The participating merchants include 7-Eleven, Inc.; Alon Brands; Best Buy Co., Inc.; CVS; Darden Restaurants; HMSHost; Hy-Vee, Inc.; Lowe’s; Publix Super Markets, Inc.; Sears Holdings; Shell Oil Products US; Sunoco, Inc.; Target Corp. and Walmart Stores, Inc.

The announcement follows a move by Starbucks earlier this month to adopt the Pay with Square system at 7,000 stores later this year, allowing customers with smartphones to pay for their purchases by simply saying their names.

MCX will provide a mobile app for point-of-purchase commerce that will also include customized promotional and discount offers from the the retailers. Development of MCX’s mobile application is underway and will be available for almost any smartphone.

Major players

 

Consumers rate Wal-Mart - Customer Service

MCX may expand to include more retailers in the future but at the start, the initial members reportedly account for approximately $1 trillion in annual sales. Its backers say it will address both the needs of financial institutions and merchants of all sizes.

 

“MCX will leverage mobile technology to give consumers a faster and more convenient shopping experience while eliminating unnecessary costs for all stakeholders,” said Mike Cook, corporate vice president and assistant treasurer, Wal-Mart. “The MCX platform will employ secure technology to deliver an efficiency-enhancing mobile solution available to all merchant categories, including retail stores, casual dining, petroleum and e-commerce.”

Security experts point out that consumers using the system will have to employ strong passwords and not allow their smartphones to fall into the wrong hands in order to ensure their data is not compromised. And though the system is not yet up and running, member businesses believe their backgrounds give the system a great shot at success.

Payment approaches not currently available

 

Target Stores Aug. 16, 2012, 5:23 a.m.
Consumers rate Target Stores

“We believe MCX is uniquely qualified to offer the most comprehensive mobile payment options for consumers,” said Terry Scully, president of financial and retail services, Target. “By participating in MCX, merchants are in a position to effectively deliver innovative payment approaches that aren’t available today.”

 

Mark Williams, president of financial services, Best Buy, echos that, saying the goal of the system is to provide a more engaging, convenient and efficient way for consumers to shop.

MCX said expects to announce additional members during the coming months.

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Blood Type May Influence Heart Disease Risk

Unfortunately, you can't ask for a change

People with blood type A, B, or AB had a higher risk for coronary heart disease when compared with those with blood type O, according to new research publi...

PhotoPeople with blood type A, B, or AB had a higher risk for coronary heart disease when compared with those with blood type O, according to new research published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, an American Heart Association journal. 

People in this study with the rarest blood type -- AB, found in about seven percent of the U.S. population -- had the highest increased heart disease risk at 23 percent. Those with type B had an 11 percent increased risk, and those with type A had a five percent increased risk. About 43 percent of the U.S population has type O blood. 

"While people cannot change their blood type, our findings may help physicians better understand who is at risk for developing heart disease," said Lu Qi, M.D., Ph.D., the study's senior author and an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. 

Know your type 

Knowing your blood type can be an important part of staying healthy and avoiding heart disease, Qi said. "It's good to know your blood type the same way you should know your cholesterol or blood pressure numbers," he said. "If you know you're at higher risk, you can reduce the risk by adopting a healthier lifestyle, such as eating right, exercising and not smoking." 

The findings are based on an analysis of two large, well-known U.S. studies -- 62,073 women from the Nurses' Health Study and 27,428 adults from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Participants were between ages 30 and 75, and both groups were followed for 20 years or more. 

Other factors 

Researchers also considered the study participants' diet, age, body mass index, gender, race, smoking status, menopause status and medical history. Researchers noted that the percentages of different blood types seen among the men and women enrolled in the two studies reflected levels seen in the general population. 

The study did not evaluate the biological processes behind blood type and heart disease risk. 

"Blood type is very complicated, so there could be multiple mechanisms at play," Qi said. 

However, there is evidence suggesting that type A is associated with higher levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, the waxy substance that can clog arteries, and type AB is linked to inflammation, which may affect the function of the blood vessels. Also, a substance that plays a favorable role in blood flow and clotting may be higher in people with type O blood. 

Understanding blood type could help healthcare providers better tailor treatments, Qi suggested. For example, a patient with type A blood may best lower heart disease risk by decreasing cholesterol intake. 

The study group was predominantly Caucasian, and it's not clear whether these findings would translate to other ethnic groups. Environment also contributes to risk, Qi said. 

"It would be interesting to study whether people with different blood types respond differently to lifestyle intervention, such as diet," Qi said, noting that further analysis is needed.

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Bumbo Does It Again, Recalls Millions of Baby Seats

19 skull fractures later, Bumbo adds a safety belt, and another warning label

The Bumbo is a baby seat that helps babies sit up before they are able to do so on their own.This is not a particularly good idea, since babies are not...

PhotoThe Bumbo is a baby seat that helps babies sit up before they are able to do so on their own.

This is not a particularly good idea, since babies are not only top-heavy but also tend to be emotionally volatile and physically active. One good rock backwards and an infant can either fall out of the seat or cause it to overturn.

"I was in the bath and my 6-month-old son Billy was in the bathroom with me right next to the bath in his Bumbo playing with a toy when he dropped it. As he was reaching for it, he fell straight out onto his head," a mom named Zoe said in a ConsumerAffairs review in March. "I did not leave him alone. I was right next to him. The purpose of a Bumbo is so that they can sit unaided safely. You don't expect to have to hold them in the Bumbo just in case they fall out!"

It's bad enough if the seat is on the floor, as in Zoe's case, but it's potentially disastrous if it's on a table or a counter. This is not just a theoretical risk. There have been at least 50 accidents, including 19 skull fractures, since October 2007.

October 2007 is the magic date when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) ordered a recall of about a million of the seats.  Were they rounded up and destroyed? Fitted with seat belts? Equipped with safety helmets?

No. Instead, the "recall" consisted of mailing warning labels to parents, cautioning them not to let their children fall out of the seat.

So here we are more than four years later and there are now four million of the seats in the U.S. Once again, Bumbo is issuing a recall, this time to add not just another sticker but also a safety belt that will keep babies from falling out. 

The belts won't keep the seats from falling over though. The new warning label will caution parents not to put the seats on an elevated surface or to leave children alone in the seat.

Parents not thrilled

PhotoParents were not exactly thrilled with the 2007 recall. 

"I feel that this item should be taken off the market, as a new warning label is not going to reduce the hazard this product poses," said Wendy of Hawthorne Fla., in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Wendy said her child was injured while her Bumbo was on the floor.

"I have a Bumbo Baby Seat and have always used it as suggested. I keep it on the floor and keep a close eye on my daughter," Wendy said. "She weighs way less than the 22 lbs suggested maximum weight. She still managed to come out of the seat landing on her head resulting in a large bruise."

Kevin of Santa Rosa, Calif., had an even more harrowing experience.

"My 4-month-old son arched his back and the product tipped over," he said, resulting in skull fractures and a ruptured artery. "I had him on the table right next to me. There was no safety label on the product itself."

Kevin said his son's skull cracked and began filling with blood. He was rushed to the hospital and airlifted to another hospital where emergency surgery saved his life.

Besides there being no safety warning on his seat, Kevin noted that the seat's packaging showed children sitting in Bumbo seats that had been placed on tables.

Still being sold

Not only are the seats not being rounded up and melted down, they are still being sold. 

Sears, Target, Toys R Us (including Babies R Us), USA Babies, Walmart, and various other toy and children's stores nationwide and various online sellers have been selling the seats ever since the October 2007 recall and will presumably continue to do so.

The Bumbo International Trust of South Africa says the seat is safe when used as directed.  In merchandising directories, the company boasts that "Innovation, Safety and Comfort are the two [sic] most important starting points for developing any of our products here at Bumbo."

"No parent can afford to be without a Bumbo," according to the company's listing in GVPedia.com, an international business directory. 

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Need a Little Adventure In Your Vacation?

Some of the best places to go for those who need more than a comfy bed and room service.

Not everybody likes to vacation the same way. While some prefer to spend their time away in a pool-side chair, others may have travel aspirations that are ...

PhotoNot everybody likes to vacation the same way. While some prefer to spend their time away in a pool-side chair, others may have travel aspirations that are a bit more exploratory.

Then of course you have your extreme vacationer who needs way more than a five star hotel experience and a tour-bus package.

For them, simply ordering room service and heading to the nearest museum just won't cut it. These travelers look for experiences that exist on the outer edges of the normal travel experience.

And there are plenty of places within the United States that will cater to them.

For example, Ace Adventure Resort in West Virginia offers rock-climbing, white water rafting and zip line canopies that allows you to slide from tree-top to tree-top. And that's just for starters.

Visitors at Ace Resort can also jump on ATVs for a few hours after receiving professional lessons from an instructor. Riders will be able to motor throughout wooded trails along the New River Gorge. The is known to appeal to the extreme vacationer that also loves nature.

If an ATV is too much machinery for you, Ace Adventure also offers horseback riding, mountain biking, paddle boarding, and expert guided fishing trips.

All of these activities are set within the lush surroundings of West Virginia's gorgeous surroundings, so visitors can enjoy picturesque scenery while partaking in activities that are fun, healthful and very different from your traditional vacation experiences.

Swimming with sharks

PhotoFor scuba diving enthusiasts, there's The Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa that allows you to swim up close and personal with exotic sharks from around the world.

Although there is certainly a level of danger involved, which may be the appeal for some, the diving is within a controlled environment.

For $175 per person, certified divers ages 15 and up can be led by professional dive masters through the aquarium, as the tour seeks to prove that sharks really aren't the dangerous man-eaters that people think they are. 

How many times have you gone to an aquarium and wondered what it's truly like on the other side of the glass? Now divers can swim with fish and sharks from around the globe, while also getting a close and vivid look at other types of wild life that exist outside of the United States.

For those who still are a bit worried about swimming with sharks, the dive masters are certified by The National Association of Underwater Instructors, and pictures are taken during your experience that you -- or your survivors -- can purchase at an additional cost when the trip concludes.

This particular vacation idea further proves that one doesn't have to break the bank or travel halfway around the world to get a taste of an extreme vacation experience.

Live your fantasy

PhotoBut of course not everyone is the rough and tumble type and many folks don't want to jump off a cliff during their vacation stay.

So those looking for an outside-of-the-box kind of vacation experience may want to try a fantasy camp, that allows you to live out your dream and hang out with the stars you've always admired.

Like The Broadway Fantasy camp in New York City, which is perfect for those who have dreamed about being underneath the bright stage lights, and performing in front of an audience.

Visitors to this camp will be trained daily by famed choreographers, directors, writers, and composers. They'll also be able to meet Tony Award winning actors, spend time with them, take pictures and get autographs and stage advice.

Although the camp doesn't come with lodging, it partners with the hotel InterContinental New York Times Square, so travelers going to the camp will receive a discounted rate.

Prices for The Broadway Fantasy camp depend on which package you choose.

For example, those interested in attending a fantasy session with the cast of the musical "Chicago" will spend $995 per person for a one day session, while those opting for a three day session with artists from “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” will pay about $2,495 for the package.

The Broadway Fantasy camp is for vacationers 18 and over and all skill levels are encouraged to give it a go.

Get physical

PhotoKE Adventure Travel is another company that sets up cool vacations for the physically active adventurer. For $3,295 a person, one can go on a 15-day hiking and nature excursion that concludes with a tour of the Grand Canyon.

Hikers will first start their journey in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. From there they'll be brought to Colorado to visit obscure places amongst the Rocky Mountains and visit small ski towns in the area. The tour group will also be camping within the famous Mesa Verde National Park and learn about Navajo culture.

The cost of the trip includes airfare and lodging, and a $400 deposit is needed to reserve each spot.

For those who prefer colder climates and relish winter landscapes, DogSled Tours in Seward, Ala. may be for you. The action packed vacation experience comes with tours of well-known glaciers, actual dog sled rides, and helicopter sightseeing. Overnight stays on the Alaskan Tour are $520 per person, which isn't too bad considering what other extreme vacation packages go for these days.

What's really cool is that visitors can control a team of huskies through pristine white surroundings, while taking in the local wildlife and natural surroundings. You'll also receive training from a personal instructor so you don't spend your entire vacation trying to figure things out.

One wouldn't think so, but this particular tour is quite popular, so advance planning is encouraged and reservations can be made directly on the company's website.

So the next time you’re looking for a place to escape, you may want to give an extreme vacation or a fantasy camp a try. You never know, the experience may pull out the adventurous side of you, that you never knew you had.

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How Long Will it Take to Pay Off Your Credit Card?

Using the Federal Reserve's handy calculator can help you figure it out

If you are like most consumers, you carry a credit card balance. Never mind how you acquired it, you'd really like to pay it off but don't seem to be makin...

PhotoIf you are like most consumers, you carry a credit card balance. Never mind how you acquired it, you'd really like to pay it off but don't seem to be making much progress.

Do you want to know how long the payoff process will take? You may think you do but you may also quickly learn why economics is called “the dismal science.”

You credit card bill arrives each month showing new charges, the interest on the balance, the new balance, with the addition of the new charges and the interest, and a minimum payment you are required to make to keep the account current.

Helpful calculator

To pay down your balance you need a payment plan that you can stick to. The Federal Reserve provides a Credit Card Repayment Calculator that is a handy tool in developing your plan.

For starters, let's assume that you owe $15,450 and your interest rate is 21.9 percent ARR. We'll assume you make no more charges on the card but you only make the minimum payment. After entering those figures we hit “calculate” and get the following message from the calculator:

  • $309 Estimated Initial Minimum Monthly Payment
  • Amount of time to pay off your balance: 142 years
  • Amount of interest you will pay in that time: $152,387

And that assumes you make your payments on time each month and don't rack up any late fees.

An eternity

Why in the world would it take 142 years? Because, your minimum payment – based on two percent of your monthly balance – will go down slightly each month because your balance will go down slightly. But if you just pay what the credit card company tells you is the minimum, you are putting less money each month toward the principal.

After that eye-opening exercise, let's see what happens if you pay that same $309 each month until the balance is paid off. Even though your minimum payment goes down each month, you keep paying $309. According to the calculator, it takes eleven years to pay off the balance, shaving off 131 years!

You can see why you should always pay more than the minimum due if you want to pay off your balance. The calculator will also tell you how much you should pay each month if you want to pay down the balance is a specific period of time. Using it, or one like it, can help you develop a plan to get out of debt.

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Samsung Unveils Galaxy Note 10.1

New tablet features split screen and writing stylus

Samsung's latest entry in the tablet wars, the Galaxy Note 10.1, will go on sale in the U.S. on Thursday, August 16, the...

PhotoSamsung's latest entry in the tablet wars, the Galaxy Note 10.1, will go on sale in the U.S. on Thursday, August 16, the company said.

It will be available in a 16GB version for $499 and a 32 GB version for $549 at major retailers, including Amazon, Best Buy, hhgregg and Tiger Direct.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 has been described as a bigger version of the original Galaxy Note, which is not a tablet but a smartphone. Actually, it falls into the category known as phablet, providing nearly all the functions of both devices.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 does not make phone calls but appears to do nearly everything else. Like it's smaller cousin, the Note 10.1 comes with a stylus called the “S Pen.” You use the S Pen to write on the tablet's screen.

Multi-screen function

The screen can be divided in two, so that users can run apps or brows the Web on one side and make notes, using the S Pen, on the other. Tho help you keep up with the S Pen, there is a slot on the side of the tablet where it fits. When it is removed, it activates a taskbar that quickly launches the various apps that use the writing tool.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 operates on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and employs a 1.4-GHz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. The screen offers a sharp 1,280-by-800 LCD display and two cameras: a five-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 1.9-megapixel one that faces front.

It comes preloaded with apps, including Adobe Photoshop Touch, optimized for the S Pen.

Floating video player

A familiar Samsung feature present on the Galaxy S III smartphone -- Pop up Play -- is back on the Note 10.1. Pop up Play is a floating picture-in-picture video player. On the Note 10.1 users can adjust the player's size.

"Our goal with the Samsung GALAXY Note 10.1 was simple -- redefine the tablet experience," said Tim Baxter, President, Samsung Electronics America. "The S Pen offers both active content creation as well as passive content consumption, while the Multiscreen capability finally enables true multitasking. For the user, the resulting experience is completely new and quite unexpected."

The Note 10.1 offers a mini-apps tray that can launch a selection of mini-apps on top of others apps and freely moves around the screen. They include Alarm, S Note, Music Player, Email, Calculator, World Clock.

Multitasking

The multi-screen feature enables users to utilize two different applications side-by-side simultaneously for multitasking. Users can view Web pages or videos, or launch other applications while writing or sketching ideas with the S Pen.

The tablet comes in a choice of white or dark gray. Available accessories include replacement S Pen, S Pen holder kit, book cover in gray or white, travel charger, USB connection kit to allow usage of thumb drives or USB peripherals, HDMI adapter and Universal desktop dock.

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Study: Diabetes Drugs Raise Cancer Risk

Popular TZD drugs increase bladder cancer risk two to three times

Nearly 20 percent of the drugs prescribed to treat Type 2 diabetes may put those patients at increased risk of bladder cancer.That's the conclusion of a ...

PhotoNearly 20 percent of the drugs prescribed to treat Type 2 diabetes may put those patients at increased risk of bladder cancer.

That's the conclusion of a new study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that patients taking thiazolidinedione, better known as TZD drugs, are two to three times more likely to develop bladder cancer than those who took a sulfonylurea drug, another common class of medications for diabetes.

Already at elevated risk

Not only is this a significant increase in the risk factor, but the researchers say people with diabetes are already at increased risk of developing bladder cancer compared to the general population.

Among the general population about 30 in 100,000 people develop bladder cancer. Among diabetes patients overall, the incidence of this cancer is typically about 40 out of 100,000.

The study is a major one, analyzing 60,000 Type 2 diabetes patients from the Health Improvement Network (THIN) database in the United Kingdom. They found that patients treated with the TZD drugs pioglitazone (Actos) or rosiglitzaone (Avandia) for five or more years had a two-to-three-fold increase in risk of developing bladder cancer when compared to those who took sulfonylurea drugs.

Risk sharply lower with sulfonylurea drugs

Patients taking TZDs for five or more years developed bladder cancer at a rate of 170 per 100,000. That compares with a rate of 60 in 100,000 for those who take sulfonylurea drugs -- such as glipizide (Glucotrol).

Diabetes afflicts 285 million people worldwide and the number is growing, thanks in part to increasing obesity.

“There are many factors clinicians must weigh in deciding which drug to use to control a patient’s diabetes, and these new data provide important information to include in that decision-making process,” said the study’s lead author, Ronac Mamtani, MD, an instructor in the division of Hematology-Oncology in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. “Our study shows that doctors who care for patients with diabetes should be very aware of any bladder-related symptoms patients might be having, like blood in the urine, and take steps to further evaluate those issues.”

Ninth most prescribed drug in U.S.

In recent years Avandia has fallen out of favor in the U.S. as it has been linked to heart attacks in some studies. Actos, meanwhile, is the ninth most commonly prescribed drug in the nation, accounting for some 15 million prescriptions each year.

The drug is often prescribed when Type 2 diabetes patients’ illnesses can no longer be controlled with the first-line diabetes drug Metformin.

Based on previous data examining safety risks among patients taking Actos, the FDA has already warned that it may be associated with a risk of bladder cancer, and France and Germany have removed the drug from their markets.

The authors say their findings add to mounting evidence against the entire class of TZDs, as one of the first studies examining this type of risk among people taking both types of TZDs and among those taking sulfonylurea drugs.

Patients currently taking a TZD to treat Type 2 diabetes should discuss the risk-benefit trade-off with their doctor.

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Simple, Inexpensive Steps to Looking Younger

Plastic surgery and Botox aren't your only options

It seems people have always been looking for the fountain of youth. Whether its expensive plastic surgery or Botox treatments, there is no shortage of proc...

PhotoIt seems people have always been looking for the fountain of youth. Whether its expensive plastic surgery or Botox treatments, there is no shortage of procedures and treatments that promise to take years off your appearance.

You can spend a lot of money trying to look younger, or you can spend a little. If you decide on the latter course, here are some tips from dermatologists to get the best results.

“People often think that the more expensive a product is, the more effective it will be,” said board-certified dermatologist Susan C. Taylor, MD, FAAD, founding director of the Skin of Color Center at St. Luke's and Roosevelt Hospitals in New York. “That’s not always the case. People need to shop smart since there are some very effective, affordable products in the skin care aisles of their local stores.”

Sunscreen for everyday use

For example, Taylor suggests wearing sunscreen every day, not just when you go to the beach. The sun can accelerate signs of aging, no matter where you are exposed to it.

Taylor recommends a sunscreen or facial moisturizer that offers broad-spectrum protection and has an SPF of at least 30. Be sure to apply sunscreen to all skin that is not covered by clothing.

Obviously if you are wearing sunscreen every day, you're trying to avoid getting a tan. Tan people do not age well. Getting a tan from the sun or a tanning bed exposes you to harmful UV rays that can accelerate aging, causing wrinkles, age spots, a blotchy complexion and even skin cancer.

Dollar for dollar, perhaps the most efficient anti-aging product is moisturizer. Moisturizing traps water in the skin, which can help reduce the appearance of some fine lines and make your complexion look brighter and younger.

Be careful with new products

Don't be a guinea pig for new products. Test them on a small part of your body, like your inner forearm, twice a day for four or five days. If you do not have a reaction, it is likely safe for you to apply to your face.

When you do use an anti-aging product, use it as directed. Sometimes active ingredients can do more harm than good when too much is used. Applying more than directed can cause clogged pores, a blotchy complexion, or other unwanted effects.

Be sensitive to reactions. If you use a product and it stings or burns, stop using it until you consult with a dermatologist. Some products prescribed by a dermatologist may cause stinging or burning. When under a dermatologist’s care, this can be safe and effective. Ordinarily, however, you want to avoid products that sting, since irritating the skin makes signs of aging more noticeable.

Finally, don't go overboard on anti-aging products. Using too many products on your skin, especially more than one anti-aging product, tends to cause irritation. This often makes signs of aging more noticeable.

“It’s very important that people allow time for the product to work. While a moisturizer can immediately plump up fine lines, most products take at least six weeks to work and sometimes it can take three months,” said Dr. Taylor. “See a dermatologist if after following these tips you still do not see the expected results,” Taylor said.

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New Rule Would Give Consumers More Information about Appraisals

Mortgage lenders would be required to share more information with home buyers

Consumers buying a home should be sure they know how much the home is really worth. A new rule proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) ...

PhotoConsumers buying a home should be sure they know how much the home is really worth. A new rule proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) would make that information a little more accessible.

The CFPB today released a proposed rule that would require mortgage lenders to provide home loan applicants with copies of written appraisals and other home value estimates developed in connection with the application. The rule would ensure that consumers receive information prior to closing about how the property’s value was determined.

“When looking to buy a home or refinance a mortgage, consumers need the best available facts and data,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This rule would guarantee consumers receive important disclosures on how a lender determines the value of the home, making it easier for loan applicants to make informed decisions.”

In response to the mortgage crisis, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires that creditors provide mortgage applicants with a copy of written appraisals and home value estimates developed in connection with the application. 

Today’s proposed rule would require that creditors inform consumers within three days of applying for a loan of their right to receive a free copy of appraisal reports and home value estimates. Creditors would then be required to provide the reports to consumers as promptly as possible, but in no case later than three days before closing, regardless of whether credit is extended, denied, incomplete or withdrawn.

Appraisals and other home value estimates are used by creditors to make informed lending decisions for most home sales. Consumers are typically charged for the costs related to conducting an appraisal; however, currently consumers must request appraisal reports from creditors and may be charged a fee to obtain the report that they have already paid for. 

Under the proposed rule, creditors could still charge reasonable fees associated with conducting appraisals and home value estimates; however, the rule would prohibit creditors from charging consumers additional fees for obtaining the reports. 

If given final approval, the rule will become effective in January 2013.

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Bumbo International Recalls Baby Seats

Consumers can order a free repair kit

Bumbo International Trust of South Africa is recalling about 4 million Bumbo Baby Seats in the U.S. One million of the seats were voluntarily recalled in...

PhotoBumbo International Trust of South Africa is recalling about 4 million Bumbo Baby Seats in the U.S. One million of the seats were voluntarily recalled in October 2007 to provide additional warnings against use on raised surfaces. 

Babies can maneuver out of or fall from the Bumbo seat, posing a risk of serious injuries. 

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Bumbo International know of at least 50 incidents after the October 2007 voluntary recall in which babies fell from a Bumbo seat while it was being used on a raised surface. Nineteen of those incidents included reports of skull fractures. 

CPSC and Bumbo International are aware of an additional 34 post-recall reports of infants who fell out or maneuvered out of a Bumbo seat used on the floor or at an unknown elevation, resulting in injury. Two of these incidents involved reports of skull fractures, while others reported bumps, bruises and other minor injuries. 

The bottom of the Bumbo seat is round and flat with a diameter of about 15 inches. It is constructed of a single piece of molded foam and comes in various colors. The seat has leg holes and the seat back wraps completely around the child. On the front of the seat in raised lettering is the word "Bumbo" with the image of an elephant on top. The bottom of the seat has the following words: "Manufactured by Bumbo South Africa Material: Polyurethane World Patent No. PCT: ZA/1999/00030." The back of the seat has several warnings and seats manufactured since 2008 have an additional label on the front of the seat warning against use on raised surfaces. 

The seats were sold by Sears, Target, Toys R Us (including Babies R Us), USA Babies, Walmart, and various other toy and children's stores nationwide and various online sellers from August 2003 through August 2012 for between $30 and $50. 

Consumers should immediately stop using the product until they order and install a free repair kit, which includes: a restraint belt with a warning label, installation instructions, safe use instructions and a new warning sticker. The belt should always be used when a child is placed in the seat. Even with the belt, the seat should never be used on any raised surface. 

Consumers should also immediately stop using Bumbo seat covers that interfere with the installation and use of the belt. A video demonstrating proper installation of the restraint belt and proper use of the Bumbo seat are available here. 

Order the free repair kit here or by calling (866) 898-4999 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Thursday and between 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. CT on Friday. 

Do not return the Bumbo seat to retailers as they will not be able to provide the repair kit.

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The Drought Expands

More assistance is being made available to producers

An additional 172 counties in 15 states have been added to the list of primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, making all qualified farm o...

PhotoAn additional 172 counties in 15 states have been added to the list of primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. 

Thus far, the Agriculture Department (USDA) has designated 1,792 counties as disaster areas -- 1,670 due to drought. 

Drought assistance 

USDA also announced today the availability of up to $5 million in grants to evaluate and demonstrate agricultural practices that help farmers and ranchers adapt to drought. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is taking applications for Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) to help producers build additional resiliency into their production systems. 

NRCS is offering the grants to partnering entities to evaluate innovative, field-based conservation technologies and approaches. These technologies and/or approaches should lead to improvements such as enhancing the water-holding capacity in soils and installing drought-tolerant grazing systems, which will help farms and ranches become more resilient to drought. 

Within the last month, USDA has opened the Conservation Reserve Program to emergency haying and grazing, lowered the borrower interest rate for emergency loans, and worked with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers. USDA has also: 

  • Authorized $16 million in existing funds from its Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.
  • Initiated transfer of $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and ranchers rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought.
  • Authorized haying and grazing of Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easement areas in drought-affected areas where haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands.
  • Lowered the reduction in the annual rental payment to producers on CRP acres used for emergency haying or grazing from 25 percent to 10 percent in 2012.
  • Simplified the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40 percent. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that 63 percent of the nation's hay acreage is in an area experiencing drought, while approximately 73 percent of the nation's cattle acreage is in an area experiencing drought. Approximately 87 percent of the U.S. corn is within an area experiencing drought, down from a peak of 89 percent on July 24, and 85 percent of the U.S. soybeans are in a drought area, down from a high of 88 percent on July 24. On Aug. 10, USDA reduced the estimate for the 2012 U.S. corn crop to 123.4 bushels per acre, down 23.8 bushels from 2011. However, record corn plantings in 2012 have put the crop in position to be eighth largest in history. In 1988, when U.S. farmers were impacted by another serious drought, total production was 4.9 billion bushels. Total production is now forecast at 10.8 billion bushels.

Latest designees 

Primary counties and corresponding states recently designated as disaster areas for drought and other reasons include: 

Alabama [drought] 

  • Calhoun 

Arkansas [drought] 

  • Chicot 
  • Desha
  • Drew 

Colorado [other] 

  • Weld 

Illinois [drought] 

  • Bureau 
  • Cook 
  • De Kalb 
  • Du Page 
  • Grundy 
  • Henry 
  • Kane 
  • Kankakee 
  • Kendall 
  • Knox 
  • Mercer 
  • Putnam 
  • Stark 
  • Will 

Indiana [drought] 

  • Adams 
  • Benton 
  • Dearborn 
  • Decatur 
  • Fayette 
  • Franklin 
  • Jennings 
  • Ripley 
  • Starke 
  • Union 
  • Washington 
  • Wayne 

Iowa [drought] 

  • Adair 
  • Adams 
  • Audubon 
  • Buena Vista 
  • Calhoun 
  • Carroll 
  • Cass 
  • Cerro 
  • Cherokee 
  • Clay 
  • Crawford 
  • Dallas 
  • Floyd 
  • Franklin 
  • Fremont 
  • Gordo 
  • Greene 
  • Guthrie 
  • Hancock 
  • Harrison 
  • Humboldt 
  • Ida 
  • Louisa 
  • Mills 
  • Monona 
  • Montgomery 
  • O'Brien 
  • Osceola 
  • Page 
  • Pocahontas 
  • Pottawattamie Sac 
  • Shelby 
  • Washington 
  • Webster 
  • Wright 

Kentucky [drought] 

  • Adair 
  • Allen 
  • Anderson 
  • Barren 
  • Bath 
  • Boone 
  • Bourbon 
  • Boyd 
  • Bracken 
  • Bullitt 
  • Campbell 
  • Carroll 
  • Carter 
  • Clark 
  • Clinton 
  • Cumberland 
  • Edmonson 
  • Elliott 
  • Estill 
  • Fayette 
  • Fleming 
  • Floyd 
  • Franklin 
  • Gallatin 
  • Garrard 
  • Grant 
  • Green 
  • Greenup 
  • Harrison 
  • Hart 
  • Jackson 
  • Jefferson 
  • Jessamine 
  • Johnson 
  • Kenton 
  • Laurel 
  • Lawrence 
  • Lewis 
  • Lincoln 
  • Madison 
  • Magoffin 
  • Marion 
  • Mason 
  • Menifee 
  • Metcalfe 
  • Montgomery 
  • Nelson 
  • Nicholas 
  • Owen 
  • Pendleton 
  • Pike 
  • Powell 
  • Pulaski 
  • Robertson 
  • Rockcastle 
  • Rowan 
  • Russell 
  • Scott 
  • Shelby 
  • Simpson 
  • Spencer 
  • Taylor 
  • Trimble 
  • Warren 
  • Washington 
  • Wayne 
  • Wolfe 
  • Woodford 

Kansas [drought] 

  • Nemaha 

Louisiana [drought] 

  • Morehouse 
  • Richland 
  • Union 
  • West Carroll 

Minnesota [drought] 

  • Nobles 

Mississippi [drought] 

  • Quitman 
  • Sunflower 
  • Tallahatchie 
  • Yalobusha 

Nebraska [drought] 

  • Cass 
  • Douglas 
  • Fillmore 
  • Lancaster 
  • Otoe 
  • Saline 
  • Sarpy 
  • Seward 
  • Washington 

Ohio [drought] 

  • Butler 
  • Defiance 
  • Fulton 
  • Hamilton 
  • Henry 
  • Paulding 
  • Preble 
  • Putnam 
  • Van Wert 

Oklahoma [drought] 

  • Murray 
  • Pontotoc 

Tennessee [drought] 

  • Madison 

Wyoming [drought and other] 

  • Big Horn 
  • Campbell 
  • Converse 
  • Fremont 
  • Goshen 
  • Johnson 
  • Natrona 
  • Park 
  • Platte 
  • Sheridan 
  • Sublette 
  • Washakie 
  • Weston 
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Utah Firm Recalls Beef Products

E. coli O157:H7 contamination is possible

Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing of Draper, UT, is recalling approximately 38,200 pounds of beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7....

PhotoDale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing of Draper, UT, is recalling approximately 38,200 pounds of beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. 

The following products are subject to recall:

  • Various weight combo bins of Boneless Beef "50/50," "85/15," "90/10," "93/07" or "95/05" produced on Aug. 7, 2012.
  • Various weight boxes of primal cuts, subprimal cuts and boxed beef produced on Aug. 7, 2012. 

Each box bears a label with the identifying package date of "08/07/2012" as well as the establishment number "EST. 4975" inside the USDA mark of inspection. 

The products subject to recall were distributed to wholesale and retail establishments in California and Salt Lake City, UT. It is important to note that the products were destined for further processing and may not bear "EST. 4975" on the products available for direct consumer purchase. 

The problem was discovered through lab testing conducted by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which confirmed positive results for E. coli O157:H7, and may have occurred as a result of a refrigeration malfunction. 

The company is recalling all beef products produced on Aug. 7, 2012, because of a strong potential for cross contamination during production. FSIS and the company have received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact a healthcare provider. 

E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, seniors and those with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness. 

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact the company's Plant Manager, Mike Smith, at (801) 571-3611. 

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Use of Codeine Poses Risk of Death in Some Children Following Surgeries

Ultra-rapid metabolizing can put patients at risk

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today issued a Drug Safety Communication concerning three children who died and one child who experienced a non...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today issued a Drug Safety Communication concerning three children who died and one child who experienced a non-fatal but life-threatening case of respiratory depression after taking the pain reliever codeine following surgery to remove tonsils (tonsillectomy) and/or adenoids (adenoidectomy). 

The surgeries were performed to treat obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, a condition that results in repeated episodes of complete or partial blockage of the upper airway during sleep. The children received doses of codeine that were within the typical dose range. 

Doctors, parents alerted 

Health care professionals and parents should be aware of the risks of using codeine in children who have had their tonsils and/or adenoids removed to treat obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. When prescribing codeine-containing drugs, health care providers should use the lowest effective dose for the shortest time on an as-needed basis. 

If parents or caregivers notice signs of overdose in a child, such as unusual sleepiness, difficulty being aroused or awakened, confusion, or noisy and difficult breathing, they should stop giving the child codeine and seek medical attention immediately. 

The FDA is currently conducting a review of adverse event reports and other information to determine if there are additional cases of inadvertent overdose or death in children taking codeine, and if these adverse events occur during treatment of other kinds of pain, such as post-operative pain following other types of surgery or procedures,” said Bob Rappaport, M.D., director of the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Addiction Products in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The FDA will update the public when more information is available.” 

Strong painkiller 

Codeine is an ingredient found in prescription medicines used to relieve pain or cough. Once in the body, codeine is converted to morphine in the liver by an enzyme called cytochrome P450 isoenyme 2D6 (CYP2D6). 

Some people metabolize codeine much faster and more completely than others. These people, known as ultra-rapid metabolizers, are likely to have higher-than-normal levels of morphine in their blood after taking codeine. 

These high levels can lead to overdose and death. The three children who died after taking codeine exhibited evidence of being ultra-rapid metabolizers. 

The estimated frequency of ultra-rapid metabolizers is generally 1 to 7 out of every 100 people. However, in certain ethnic groups, the frequency may be as high as 28 out of every 100 people. The only way to know if someone is an ultra-rapid metabolizer is to do a genetic test. There are FDA-cleared tests to check for ultra-rapid metabolism.

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There Was No Sign of Inflation in July

But with gas and groceries on the rise, August could be different

You may be paying more at the gas pump and the supermarket checkout counter, but that's about it. The Labor Department reports the Consumer Price Index (CP...

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Court Arguments Equate Cell Phones to Tobacco, Asbestos

Phone companies fight San Francisco ordinance that requires public warnings

San Francisco retailers should not have to warn consumers that their cellphones might emit cancer-causing radiation, a telecommunications trade group told...

PhotoCigarette labels warn that using the product as intended may cause disease, disability and death. Cars have warnings that sitting too close to the airbags may cause injury. Highways have signs that deliver such startling messages as "Slippery When Wet."

But cell phones? Despite a lack of conclusive evidence about whether or not long-term use of cell phones may contribute to brain tumors or other disorders, cell phones carry no warning about such potential ill effects.

Except in San Francisco, that is. Under the Cell Phone Right-to-Know Ordinance of 2010, retailers in the city must display information about each cellphone's Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) of radio frequency radiation.

Like the tobacco industry before it, the cell phone industry is fighting the measure, insisting the warnings are unnecessary and that there is no evidence cell phones are harmful to health. 

The phone companies may soon have more than San Francisco to worry about. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), known for going against the grain in Congress, has introduced the Cell Phone Right to Know Act, which would require a warning label on each handset sold nationwide.

The San Francisco fight is now in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the cell phone industry is arguing that it is a violation of the First Amendment to require businesses to post the regulations, even though nearly every square inch of space in California is already covered by one of the ubiquitous stickers warning that potential carcinogens may be lurking nearby.

The cell phone industry's lobbying organization, known as CTIA, also argues that the city ordinance is pre-empted by federal laws that do not require any warnings.

FCC standards

PhotoAs CTIA tells it, radiation from wireless phones is limited by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and that the limit set by the FCC is 50 times less than what is harmful to human health. The phone companies say 100 percent of the phones for sale in the U.S. meet the FCC standard.

What the cell phone lobbyists omit from their arguments is that just last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the FCC standards were 15 years old and may not be adequate to protect public health. It's not just that the standards have not been updated recently. They have not been updated at all since they were established back in the early days of cell phone usage.

Critics note that the FCC’s current standards allow 20 times more radiation to reach the head than the body as a whole, do not account for the possible risks to children’s developing brains and smaller bodies, and consider only the impact of short-term cell phone use, not frequent calling over decades. 

“The FCC has been wearing a blindfold for more than a decade, pretending that while cell phones were revolutionizing how we communicate, the agency didn't have to take a hard look at what this meant for its so-called safety standards,” said Renee Sharp, director of Environmental Working Group’s California office and senior scientist.

Injunction issued

PhotoIn October 2011, U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued an injunction delaying the labeling and poster requirements, but allowed the city to require stores to distribute a fact sheet.

Alsup said that although San Francisco has a public health interest in preventing cancer, the claimed interest "amounts only to protecting the public from a 'possible' carcinogen." Since the factsheets explain that "a debate exists about whether wireless phone use is linked to cancer and other illnesses," the judge upheld the law requiring their dissemination.

He directed the city to note that the World Health Organization has classified cellphone radiation as a "possible" carcinogen, putting it in the same league as coffee and pickled vegetables.

After San Francisco passed an amended ordinance within two weeks of Alsup's ruling, the cellphone companies against sought a preliminary injunction. Alsup denied the request, but the law has been stayed temporarily pending appeal.

Communist manifesto

The cell phone industry is taking a no-prisoners approach to the issue, not willing to make even the slightest concession. 

CTIA attorney Andrew McBride said the city is misusing its police power to make retailers say things they may not wish to say, and argued that the fact sheet is not objective.

The factsheet label is "like calling the communist manifesto a treatise on economics," McBride said.

"Let's not let this thing out the door until I get to litigate it because that's a bell that can't be unrung," he told the court. "Once I have to pass this out ... consumers will get the opinion that these phones are dangerous," Courthouse News reported.

San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Vince Chhabria said the law represents a reaction to sufficient evidence of harmful radiation.

"There is no rule that says that the government must wait until we know that a product actually kills people," he said. "Just look at asbestos; just look at tobacco. There was a long time where we didn't have conclusive proof that tobacco kills people, that asbestos kills people, but there was a strong suspicion."

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Higher One Inc. Will Pay $11 Million To College Students For Disputed Fees

Consumer watch groups say banks have been ripping off college students for quite some time.

Higher One Inc., which provides financial services for colleges, will soon pay $11 million to 60,000 students in a settlement. The financial inst...

PhotoHigher One Inc., which provides financial services for colleges, will soon pay $11 million to 60,000 students in a settlement. The financial institution has been accused of charging questionable service fees.

The company, based in New Haven, Conn., enables students to electronically keep track of their financial aid amounts, and extract funds by use of a debit card called the OneAccount card.

Upon each swipe or ATM use, Higher One charged students 50 cents per transaction fee, which diminishing the amount of the financial aid award that students rely on for tuition and other pertinent expenses.

Critics said Higher One charged students multiple fees for only one transaction, and allowed overdraft penalties to linger without notifying students.

This allowed the financial institution to continually tack on overdraft charges, which the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) charged was deceptive. The government agency has since told Higher One it must present its rules and penalty fees in a clearer and less deceptive way.

The consumer protection group US PIRG said the settlement should be a sign for other colleges that use Higher One, to fully understand what they're signing up for when hiring out these types of companies.

The advocacy group also said colleges should forbid any financial institution from charging service fees that ultimately diminish the financial aid amount, and take away the ability of students to make consistent tuition payments.

Piggy bank

“Student aid should not be a piggy bank for banks to dip into especially when their practices are unfair or deceptive,” said US PIRG rep Rich Williams. “We urge colleges to insist if they partner with Higher One or any other bank or firm to disburse financial aid or provide campus services, that contracts prohibit onerous fees and other unfair practices.”

Higher One said it has student’s best interest first in mind.

“We believe the relatively low civil money penalty imposed reflects how seriously we take our commitment to our customer, the degree of the issue, and our level of cooperation with FDIC,” it said.

In addition Higher One will pay $110,000 on top of the $11 million, and Bancorp Bank, which provides the debit cards, will also pay $172,000 to students in the settlement.

Going forward, Higher One will not charge penalties for accounts that have insufficient funds for more than a 60-day period.

Students who are eligible for the refund are those who started using the OneAccount card from July 16, 2008 until the institution officially said it would stop charging such fees in December of 2011.

Unfairly penalized

PhotoThe settlement concludes ongoing complaints from colleges and students alike that have long accused Higher One of unfairly penalizing students by way of 12 different fees the institution uses.

And with college students being among the least financially stable  consumers, the penalty costs hits them harder than it would regular bank customers, who are more established, and usually know more about bank costs, critics said.

Before the settlement was reached, Miles Lasater, Higher One's founder and CEO, said students should research and become familiar with all of the company's fees before using the card or taking out money.

Higher One also said it would waive $6 million in penalty fees that students owed the company before the FDIC stepped in. In addition to the settlement, the FDIC said Higher One will no longer charge more than three non-sufficient fund fees during one day.

Higher One has contracts with 520 campuses and service about 4.3 million students, according to a U.S PIRG report, entitled “The Campus Debit Card Trap.”

The report focuses on the bad aspects of colleges and universities that outsource their financial aid management to institutions. It goes on to say while these types of agreements benefit the school by helping them manage funds, they often impact the student in a negative way.

What to do

Photo
Read the report

The Campus Debit Card report also outlines what schools need to do to ensure their students aren’t being taken advantage of by financial institutions. Like providing students with alternate banks to use that’s not contracted by the school.

The report suggests that schools need to negotiate with banks and institutions to remove all debit card fees before working with them.

Also, if the school decides to use a company like Higher One, colleges shouldn’t be advertising to students about the debit cards or any other services offered, the report said.

Marketing debit cards to students can lead them to make unnecessary commitments before researching other options, the report found.

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Dogs Aren't Luggage; It Takes Planning to Transport Them Safely

With the right amount of homework, owners can increase the chances of their pet's safe journey.

When pet owners make plans to head-out on vacation or leave their area, one of the first things they do is make the necessary arrangements for their animal...

PhotoWhen pet owners make plans to head out on vacation, one of the first things they do is make the necessary arrangements for their animals to be safe and secure while they're away.

But consumers often aren't so careful when they decide to bring their pets with them. That may be OK if the pooch will be riding in the back seat on a road trip but if you're traveling by air, it gets a little more complicated.

Is it a good idea to put your pet in the plane's underbelly?

“The sound of the jet engines alone is enough to traumatize a pet,” said animal behaviorist Colleen Paige, in a published interview. “If you have a sensitive animal or an animal with any kinds of fears you will definitely create more of a problem in that area.”

The first thing to do if you pet will be traveling by air, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), is pay a visit to your animal's veterinarian and secure a health certificate 10 days prior to your trip. If you're traveling abroad, you'll want to contact the destination country to find out what health measures may be required. Many countries require a quarantine period for incoming animals.

Cargo areas

There has been a tremendous amount of controversy about transporting animals in airplane cargo areas, and some airlines have decided not to offer the service.

In 2010, JetBlue and Southwest decided they would no longer carry animals in  cargo, due to conflicting reports about safety.

For quite some time, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has required airlines to report deaths or disappearances of animals that were  considered pets. Other animals, however, were on their own -- even potential pets, iincluding dogs and cats being shipped to pet stores.

Recently, however, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a petition with DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requesting that they require airlines to report all animal-related issues, whether the animals are considered pets or not.

In addition, Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menedez of New Jersey and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut submitted a joint letter to the Secretary of Transportation saying the regulations that surround animal transport are based on a “flawed interpretation of laws.”

As of June of this year, the DOT updated its rules to require airlines to report any mishandling of cats or dogs, regardless of whether they're considered pets or whether they're shipped by individuals, stores or professional pet breeding facilities.

Get a crate

PhotoIf you decide the cargo area is the way to go, the next item on your list is a shipping crate approved by the USDA. The crate should be large enough for your animal to move normally in, and pets should be able to shift positions, stand, sit, and have ample room for comfort, says the ASPCA.

Be sure to write “Live Animal” in one-inch-tall letters directly on top of the crate.

You should also include your name, address, telephone number and the final destination. The crate should also be lined with paper or towels for when the pet relieves itself.

Also, an up-to-date picture of your pet should be placed on top of the crate so handlers know what your animal looks like in case of a mix-up. Owners are also encouraged to carry a picture of their pet in case their animals are lost or become separated.

Water & snacks

Other tips for sending your pets on an airplane include providing them with a frozen water dish, which will not spill when your dog is being loaded but will melt by the time the flight is underway so your pet can stay hydrated, which is especially important for long trips.

A small cloth pouch containing dried food should be placed in the crate, so airline employees can feed your animal during long layovers and extended flights. (Don't count on that happening, though).

It's also important to contact the airline you're using well in advance of your flight, to see if there are any specific rules regarding pet travel, as guidelines may differ from airline to airline.

For example, Continental and American Airlines will not allow you to bring pets younger than 8 weeks old onboard, whether you bring them on as a carry-on, or ship them in cargo.

Costs differ

PhotoCosts of shipping your pet in the cargo area will differ between airlines, and many flights will consider the crate as baggage, which may or may not incur fees depending on the company's policy.

Some airlines provide additional services for you and your traveling pet, which may cost a bit more.

For example, United Airlines has a team of customer service agents that are set up just to answer questions or concerns about your pet 24 hours a day. The airline also has a service that allows owners to track pets online.

Experts say consumers should look for airlines with these additional services, as they tend to make owners feel more secure during their pet's travel and tend to make the airline more accountable if anything goes wrong.

Some airlines provide insurance for your animal, and will pay for any mishaps that they're responsible for. But many experts say these insurance payouts do little to comfort an owner who has a lost or injured pet.

“These normally only pay out a few hundred dollars max,” says travel expert Christina Shelter. The insurance does not bring your animal back and most pet owners with a lost or injured or killed pet on an airline are not exactly happy with a $200 check.

Overall, experts say that pet owners should not count on airlines to make sure their animals are fed, hydrated and comfortable during a flight, and the more preparation you do, the better travel experience your pet will have.

A good amount of homework beforehand will also make owners feel much better during their pet's travel, as they'll know ahead of time what and what not to expect, which can make all the difference in the world for both you and your animal.

 

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How to Save at the Supermarket

Here are some easy ways to cope with rising food prices

Trips to the grocery store are getting more expensive and the cost will rise even more in the months ahead as the effects of this summer's drought make the...

PhotoTrips to the grocery store are getting more expensive and the cost will rise even more in the months ahead as the effects of this summer's drought make their way into the marketplace.

But a savvy consumer can still eat well while staying on a budget. It just may require a little more work and creativity.

First, if you aren't using coupons, start. You don't have to become an extreme couponer, just be aware of savings on the items you normally buy. The savings may seem small but they quickly add up.

Sites like Groupon and Coupons.com may be a good source of savings, but check with your local grocery store to make sure they accept online coupons. Not all stores do. Scan local newspaper inserts for savings and don't forget to check your grocery receipt.

Often stores will give you coupons at check-out that can be used on your next trip. Since these savings are often for items you have just purchased and perhaps buy on a regular basis, this may be the most targeted source of savings there is.

Make a list

The second step to saving at the checkout counter is to plan each trip to the supermarket carefully. No more heading down the grocery aisle without a list.

Plan meals for the next several days, making a list of the things you'll need to prepare them. Plan meals around what produce is in season. The quality and prices will be better.

Avoid pre-cut or pre-portioned food. In most cases the price of convenience is not worth the added cost.

Look for sales and stock up. That's what your freezer is for. Meat and bread are both items that will keep for extended periods. Use a permanent marker and write your purchase date on the package so you know how long it's been in the freezer.

Meat prices, especially, are rising in response to the drought. Try to buy it when it has been marked down. It would be helpful to know if the meat department at your supermarket has a regular time each day that it drops the price on meat that hasn't sold.

Don't neglect the top and bottom shelves

When you're cruising the grocery aisles, look at all the shelves. The store stocks the items it really wants to sell at eye-level. Some bargain-priced items might be found by checking the top and bottom shelves.

Finally, reduce portion sizes. Most U.S. consumers have gotten into the habit of eating too much at meals, which contributes to obesity. You can eat well without eating a lot.

Because of the effects of the drought, consumers can expect to see a three to four percent rise in commodity food prices next year. But those higher costs will also have a ripple effect throughout the entire food chain, so that nearly all food costs are expected to rise.

But with some careful planning and savvy shopping, consumers can actually achieve savings greater than the price increases.

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Insurance Institute Unveils New Crash Test

The idea is to improve protection for people in frontal crashes

Only three of 11 midsize luxury and near-luxury cars evaluated earn good or acceptable ratings in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) new s...

PhotoOnly three of 11 midsize luxury and near-luxury cars evaluated earn good or acceptable ratings in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) new small overlap frontal crash test -- the latest addition to a suite of tests designed to help consumers pick the safest vehicles. 

The Acura TL and Volvo S60 earn good ratings, while the Infiniti G earns acceptable. The Acura TSX, BMW 3 series, Lincoln MKZ and Volkswagen CC earn marginal ratings. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS 250/350, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 350 earn poor. All of these cars are 2012 models. 

The test 

In the test, 25 percent of a car’s front end on the driver side strikes a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. A 50th

percentile male Hybrid III dummy is belted in the driver seat. The test is designed to replicate what happens when the front corner of a car collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole. Outside of some automakers’ proving grounds, such a test isn’t currently conducted anywhere else in the United States or Europe. 

Nearly every new car performs well in other frontal crash tests conducted by the Institute and the federal government, but we still see more than 10,000 deaths in frontal crashes each year,” Institute President Adrian Lund says. “Small overlap crashes are a major source of these fatalities. This new test program is based on years of analyzing real-world frontal crashes and then replicating them in our crash test facility to determine how people are being seriously injured and how cars can be designed to protect them better. We think this is the next step in improving frontal crash protection.” 

The number of drivers of 0-3-year-old passenger vehicles involved in fatal frontal crashes has fallen 55 percent since 2001. Much of the improved outlook is due to the success of consumer information testing like the New Car Assessment Program begun by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1978 and crashworthiness evaluations the Institute started in 1995. In NHTSA’s frontal test, passenger vehicles crash at 35 mph into a rigid barrier covering the full width of the vehicle. In the Institute’s 40 mph offset frontal test, now called a moderate overlap frontal test, 40 percent of the total width of a vehicle strikes a deformable barrier on the driver side. 

In a 2009 Institute study of vehicles with good ratings for frontal crash protection, small overlap crashes accounted for nearly a quarter of the frontal crashes involving serious or fatal injury to front seat occupants. Another 24 percent of the frontal crashes were moderate overlap crashes, although they likely occurred at much higher speeds than the Institute’s moderate overlap test. An additional 14 percent occurred when passenger vehicles underrode large trucks, SUVs or other high-riding passenger vehicles. The Institute is exploring countermeasures for large truck underride crashes and in other research has found that the problem of crash incompatibility between cars and SUVs is being reduced. 

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Kids' Vitamin Buyers May Have a Refund Coming

Disney and Marvel Hero vitamins made false health claims, FTC charged

If you bought Disney- or Marvel Hero-themed vitamins for your kids during the last few years, you may be eligible for a refund.The Federal Trade Commissi...

PhotoIf you bought Disney- or Marvel Hero-themed vitamins for your kids during the last few years, you may be eligible for a refund.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is providing the refunds as a result of a settlement with vitamin marketer NBTY Inc. and two subsidiaries, which agreed to pay $2.1 million to settle charges that they made false health claims about their multivitamins.

Among the vitamins are those that featured characters such as the Disney Princesses, Winnie the Pooh, Finding Nemo, and Spider-Man. They were sold by major retailers such as CVS Pharmacy, Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, Kroger, Kmart, Meijer, and Rite Aid, as well as online. 

The FTC urges consumers who believe they may have purchased them between May 1, 2008 and September 30, 2010, to file a claim online, or call 866-224-4336 and request a paper claim form in the mail.  Eligible consumers will have until October 12, 2012 to file their claims.

As part of its ongoing efforts to stop bogus health claims, the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement in 2010 requiring children’s vitamins marketers NBTY, Inc. and two subsidiaries to stop making false and unproven claims that their multivitamins promote healthy brain and eye development in children.

The FTC charged NBTY, Inc., NatureSmart LLC, and Rexall Sundown, Inc., with making deceptive claims about the amount of DHA in their children’s vitamin gummies and tablets, and the effect of that amount on eye and brain development in children.

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What do Egg Yolks and Cigarettes Have in Common?

Both are bad news if you are at risk of cardiovascular disease

By now, everyone knows that cigarette smoking is bad for your helath and can accelerate atherosclerosis, also called coronary artery disease.New research...

PhotoBy now, everyone knows that cigarette smoking is bad for your health and can accelerate atherosclerosis, also called coronary artery disease.

New research suggests that eating egg yolks can do the same thing. Dr. David Spence of Western University in Canada says that after surveying about 1200 test subjects, he concluded that regular consumption of egg yolks is about two-thirds as bad as smoking when it comes to increased build-up of carotid plaque, a risk factor for stroke and heart attack.

The research is published online in the journal Atherosclerosis.

Lots of cholesterol in egg yolks

Atherosclerosis is a dangerous disorder that can be aggravated by cholesterol. The cholesterol, highly present in egg yolks, aids plaque forming in arteries. When this plaque breaks off, it causes heart attacks and strokes.

Spense studied men and women with a median age of 61.5 years who were attending a heart health conference, so all felt they had a heightened risk of vascular issues. The survey measured, among other things, their years of smoking and the number of egg yolks they consumed per week, both currently and in the past.

Here's what he found: areas of plague increased in people after they turned 60 years old. But they increased the most for people who smoked and people who ate egg yolks.

The study also found those eating three or more yolks a week had significantly more plaque area than those who ate two or fewer yolks per week.

"The mantra 'eggs can be part of a healthy diet for healthy people' has confused the issue," Spence said. "It has been known for a long time that a high cholesterol intake increases the risk of cardiovascular events, and egg yolks have a very high cholesterol content. In diabetics, an egg a day increases coronary risk by two to five-fold."

As you age, go easy on egg yolks

The lesson is that, as you get older, you shouldn't smoke and you shouldn't eat egg yolks since they have lots of cholesterol. Spence says the effect of egg yolk consumption over time on increasing the amount of plaque in the arteries was not influenced by sex, cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking, body mass index and diabetes.

While he says more research is needed in this area, Spence says he people at risk of cardiovascular disease shouldn't wait for further results. It's best, he says, if they avoid regular consumption of egg yolks altogether.

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Retail Sales Provide Another Hopeful Sign For the Economy

Sales were up solidly last month across all categories

Economists worried the U.S. economy was slipping back into a recession over the summer are breathing a little easier. Among recent hopeful signs for the ec...

PhotoEconomists worried the U.S. economy was slipping back into a recession over the summer are breathing a little easier. Among recent hopeful signs for the economy is the July retail sales report.

In July, sales were up a surprising 0.8 percent. Excluding vehicle purchases, which can often skew the results, the number was the same. Economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., was among those who was surprised by the numbers.

"Well, it looks like I was wrong," Naroff said. "People beat the heat by having the malls pay for the air conditioning and while they were there, they happened to pop into the stores and buy lots of goods."

Gasoline only a minor factor

Gasoline prices were rising during the month of July so it's possible that increased spending helped boost sales. But Naroff said it was only a minor factor.

"Every single component of the retail sales report rose, which was a real surprise," Naroff said. "Indeed, the only group that didn't post at least a strong 0.5 percent gain was food and beverage stores, which were still up decently."

A lot of the extra spending was from online retailers. That could have been a product of consumers not wanting to venture too far from air conditioned homes during the hottest month of the year or simply part of the growing trend of online shopping.

The real test for consumer spending will come this month, once all the back-to-school spending has been added up. Back to school has become a huge shopping season, second only to the Christmas holidays in importance for retailers. If sales turn out to be strong, it could be an important sign for the economy.

Businesses need to step up

"Nothing would do more for the economy and earnings than rising consumer demand," Naroff said. "But until some of the growing piggy banks in the corporate sector are distributed to workers, there will be limited potential for spending. It is hard to keep up the spending pace when your income is flat while prices are rising."

But there are still some things to worry about. June's retail sales numbers were revised downward. Also, gasoline costs are soaring and food costs soon will be. Naroff said he would feel more confident about the economy going forward if he saw businesses begin to spend more.

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Virgin America Dominates U.S. Passenger Ratings

Travelers polled on airlines in several different categories

Balloting for the Passenger Choice Awards, a yearlong survey asking passengers to rate their travel experience, is currently underway. So far only three U....

PhotoBalloting for the Passenger Choice Awards, a yearlong survey asking passengers to rate their travel experience, is currently underway. So far only three U.S. domestic airlines are among the finalists and only one made the final cut in more than one category.

Virgin America is a finalist in the "Best Overall Passenger Experience," "Best in the Americas Region," "Best In-Flight Entertainment Interface," "Best Inflight Connectivity & Communications," "Best In-Flight Video," "Best Cabin Ambiance," "Best Ground Experience," and "Best In-Flight Publication."

Best showing among domestic airlines

That's by far the best showing of any other U.S.-based airline with JetBlue making the list of finalists for "Best in the Americas Region" and Southwest Airlines for "Best In-flight Publication."

While Virgin America racked up finalist rankings in an impressive number of categories, the airline is not without an occasional complaint.

Photo"We flew Virgin America to Los Angeles on May 4, 2012 -- my daughter, my son-in-law and myself," Penelope, of Long Beach, NY, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Our seats were not together. My TV screen did not work. The Wi-Fi service I paid $17.50 for did not work either. My main complaint is that the crew was so rude it was painful. I did order from the menu and paid a hefty price. The order was dropped on my tray without a word. The cabin crew were never around for any reason and that was on the way to LA. Coming back the trip was worse."

Another view

But Jackson, of Studio City, CA, reports a completely different experience with Virgin America.

"I was just looking at the reviews for Virgin America and it is hard to believe some of them because out of my many flights with VA, they have all been great," Jackson wrote. "Every time I have entered the terminal, the agents have always been smiling and happy, same with the inflight crew! I don't even recall ever seeing any other passengers having a bad time either. I'm sure it does happen on occasion but not that I have seen."

Virgin America and JetBlue are the only U.S.-based airlinex to be finalists in the "Best Overall - Americas Region" category. The other finalists are Avianca, Lan Airlines, and Taca International.

The Passenger Choice Awards, organized by the Airline Passenger Experience Association, give travelers another way to compare the accomplishments of various airlines as they relate to the entire passenger experience. The winners will be announced at a ceremony September 17 in Long Beach, CA.

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Vaccines Approved for 2012-2013 Flu Season

Three strains are seen as likely to hit the U.S.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has signed off on the 2012-2013 influenza (flu) vaccine formulation for all six manufacturers licensed to produ...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has signed off on the 2012-2013 influenza (flu) vaccine formulation for all six manufacturers licensed to produce and distribute the vaccines in the U.S. 

Each year experts from the FDA, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health experts study influenza virus samples and global disease patterns to identify virus strains likely to cause the most illness during the upcoming flu season. 

Based on that information and the recommendations of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, the strains selected for inclusion in the 2012-2013 flu vaccines are:

  • A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like virus
  • A/Victoria/361/2011 (H3N2)-like virus
  • B/Wisconsin/1/2010-like virus. 

While the H1N1 virus is the same as what was included in the 2011-2012 influenza vaccines, this year’s influenza H3N2 and B viruses differ from those in the 2011-2012 influenza vaccines. 

Cornerstone of prevention 

Vaccination remains the cornerstone of preventing influenza, a contagious respiratory disease caused by different influenza viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. This year’s seasonal vaccines will provide protection against the three influenza virus strains that global surveillance indicates are likely to be the most common strains circulating during the upcoming season. 

There is always a possibility of a less than optimal match between the virus strains predicted to circulate and the virus strains that end up causing the most illness. However, even if the vaccine and the circulating strains are not an exact match, the vaccine may reduce the severity of the illness or may help prevent influenza-related complications. 

The best way to prevent influenza is by getting vaccinated each year,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “It is especially important to get vaccinated this year because two of the three virus strains used in this season’s influenza vaccines differ from the strains included in last year’s vaccines.” 

Get your flu shot 

According to the CDC, between five percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population develops influenza each year. This leads to more than 200,000 hospitalizations from related complications. Influenza seasons are unpredictable and can be severe, with annual influenza-related deaths ranging from a low of about 3,000 to a high of 49,000 people in the U.S. 

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, recommends that everyone six months of age and older receive an annual influenza vaccine. 

Health care providers play an important role in advising their patients to get vaccinated each year and should also protect themselves, their patients, their family and the community from influenza by getting vaccinated. 

The manufacturers licensed to produce the nation’s 2012-2013 flu vaccines and the brand names of the vaccines for the upcoming flu season are:

  • Afluria, manufactured by CSL Limited;
  • Fluarix, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals;
  • FluLaval, manufactured by ID Biomedical Corporation;
  • FluMist, manufactured by MedImmune Vaccines Inc.;
  • Fluvirin, manufactured by Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics Limited; and
  • Fluzone, Fluzone High-Dose and Fluzone Intradermal, manufactured by Sanofi Pasteur.
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Oral Drug Cefixime No Longer Recommended for Gonorrhea Treatment

Feds say the change is critical to preserve last effective treatment option

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) no longer recommends the oral antibiotic cefixime as a first-line treatment option for gonorrhea in th...

PhotoThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) no longer recommends the oral antibiotic cefixime as a first-line treatment option for gonorrhea in the U.S. because it's possible that the bacterium that causes the venereal disease is becoming resistant to the drug. 

The change was prompted by recent trends in laboratory data showing cefixime, marketed under the brand name Suprax, is becoming less effective in treating the sexually transmitted disease. That leaves just one recommended drug proven effective for treating gonorrhea -- the injectable antibiotic ceftriaxone. 

Combo therapy 

According to the revised guidelines, published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the most effective treatment for gonorrhea is a combination therapy: the injectable antibiotic ceftriaxone along with one of two other oral antibiotics, either azithromycin or doxycycline. 

In the past, gonorrhea has developed resistance to every antibiotic recommended for treatment, leaving the cephalosporins, which include cefixime and ceftriaxone, as the final recommended class of drugs. 

In light of this history and the recent lab data, CDC researchers are concerned that continued use of cefixime may prompt gonorrhea to develop resistance to all cephalosporins. Limiting the use of cefixime now may help preserve ceftriaxone as a treatment option for a little longer. 

As cefixime is losing its effectiveness as a treatment for gonorrhea infections, this change is a critical pre-emptive strike to preserve ceftriaxone, our last proven treatment option,” said Kevin Fenton, M.D., director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. “Changing how we treat infections now may buy the time needed to develop new treatment options.” 

Follow-ups recommended 

To guard against the threat of drug resistance, the guidelines outline additional follow-up steps providers should take to closely monitor for ceftriaxone treatment failure. According to the new recommendations, patients who have persistent symptoms should be retested with a culture-based gonorrhea test, which can identify antibiotic-resistant infections. The patient should return one week after re-treatment for another culture test -- called a test-of-cure -- to ensure the infection is fully cured. 

In some instances, cefixime may be needed as an alternative treatment option. If ceftriaxone is not readily available, providers may prescribe a dual therapy of cefixime plus either azithromycin or doxycycline. Azithromycin may be given alone if a patient has a severe allergy to cephalosporins. 

However, to monitor closely for resistance, if either of these alternative regimens is prescribed, providers should perform a test-of-cure one week after treatment. 

Additional measures will be needed to stay ahead of untreatable gonorrhea, according to Gail Bolan, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention. “It is imperative that researchers and pharmaceutical companies prioritize research to identify or develop new, effective drugs or drug combinations,” Bolan said. “Health departments and labs can help CDC monitor for emerging resistance by enhancing or re-building their ability to do culture testing.” 

Serious health consequences 

It is critical for individuals to take steps to protect themselves from infection. The surest way to prevent infection is not having sex. For those who are sexually active, consistent and correct condom use and limiting the number of sex partners are effective strategies for reducing the risk of infection. 

Gonorrhea is one of the most common STDs in the United States; more than 700,000 infections are estimated to occur in this country each year. Although some men and women may have symptoms (such as burning when urinating or discharge), most people do not. As a result, many infections go undetected and untreated. 

Left untreated, gonorrhea can cause serious health problems, particularly for women, including chronic pelvic pain, life-threatening ectopic pregnancy, and even infertility. Infection also increases the risk of contracting and transmitting HIV.

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Bank Fees Rise in First Half of 2012

The bigger the bank, the greater the increase

In the last few years Congress has passed new consumer protections for bank customers, but that hasn't stopped fees from rising. A semi-annual study by Mon...

PhotoIn the last few years Congress has passed new consumer protections for bank customers, but that hasn't stopped fees from rising. A semi-annual study by MoneyRates.com finds that bank customers saw all types of fees creep a little higher in the first half of the year.

For example, checking accounts got more expensive. The average monthly service fee on checking accounts is $12.08, compared with $11.28 in the previous six months. That's just under $145 a year for the privilege of having a checking account at a bank.

For those who wanted to open a checking account in the first six months of the year, the amount of funds needed to do so also rose. The average amount to open an account is $408.76, versus $391.41. While that's not a fee, that amount -- as it rises -- acts as a barrier to prevent poorer consumers from opening a checking account.

Rising minimum balance

If you want to avoid that monthly service fee on your checking account, you can do so at many banks by keeping more money in the account. But again, that threshold is rising. The study shows you now need an average of $4,446.57 in an account to avoid the fee; it was $3,590.83 in the previous six months.

Of course, if your bank offers free checking, there is no minimum balance and no monthly service fees. But finding one of these banks got a little harder in the first half of the year. Only 35.3 percent of the accounts in the survey were free of the monthly fee, down from 38.8 percent.

Thanks to new regulations consumers must now opt-in for overdraft "protection," meaning they can avoid overdraft fees altogether by not taking that action. But for those who are still paying for overdraft coverage on their checking accounts, they're paying more.

The average overdraft fee in the first six months of 2012 was $29.83, up 60 cents from the previous six months.

All fees are rising

The analysts at MoneyRates.com say in the past, their surveys showed some fees rising and some falling or staying the same. This survey is different, they say, because the average fee rose across all categories.

But there was a difference when you broke banks down by size. The bigger the bank, the more the fees went up. For example, the average monthly maintenance fee at large banks was $13.88 but only $9.87 at small banks. And almost all the free checking accounts were found at small banks.

Last November a grassroots backlash against rising bank fees resulted in "Bank Transfer Day," when fed-up consumers were encouraged to switch their accounts from banks with high fees to small banks and credit unions where fees were lower. The result appears to be even higher fees for those consumers who remained behind.

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Drinking Cocoa Could be Good for Your Brain

It may not be just a 'comfort food'

You like hot chocolate? Guess what -- it likes you....

PhotoYou like hot chocolate? Guess what -- it likes you. 

New new research in the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension finds that consuming cocoa flavanols daily may improve mild cognitive impairment. 

Each year, more than six percent of people 70 or older develop mild cognitive impairment -- a condition involving memory loss that can progress to dementia and Alzheimer's disease. 

Flavanol factor 

Flavanols, naturally occurring antioxidants, can be found in tea, grapes, red wine, apples and cocoa products and have been associated with a decreased risk of dementia. 

They may act on the brain structure and function directly by protecting neurons from injury, improving metabolism and their interaction with the molecular structure responsible for memory researchers said. Indirectly, flavanols may help by improving brain blood flow. 

In this study, 90 elderly participants with mild cognitive impairment were randomized to drink daily either 990 milligrams (high), 520 mg (intermediate) or 45 mg (low) of a dairy-based cocoa flavanol drink for eight weeks. The diet was restricted to eliminate other sources of flavanols from foods and beverages other than the dairy-based cocoa drink. 

Cognitive function was examined by neuro-psychological tests of executive function, working memory, short-term memory, long-term episodic memory, processing speed and global cognition. 

Researchers found: 

  • Scores significantly improved in the ability to relate visual stimuli to motor responses, working memory, task-switching and verbal memory for those drinking the high and intermediate flavanol drinks.
  • Participants drinking daily higher levels of flavanol drinks had significantly higher overall cognitive scores than those participants drinking lower-levels.
  • Insulin resistance, blood pressure and oxidative stress also decreased in those drinking high and intermediate levels of flavanols daily. Changes in insulin resistance explained about 40 percent of the composite scores for improvements in cognitive functioning. 

Encouraging evidence 

"This study provides encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols, as a part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally-balanced diet, could improve cognitive function," said Giovambattista Desideri, M.D., study lead author and director of Geriatric Division, Department of Life, Health and Environmental Sciences, University of L'Aquila in Italy. "The positive effect on cognitive function may be mainly mediated by an improvement in insulin sensitivity. It is yet unclear whether these benefits in cognition are a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular function." 

The study population was generally in good health without known cardiovascular disease. Thus, it would not be completely representative of all mild cognitive impairment patients. In addition, only some clinical features of mild cognitive impairment were explored in the study. 

"Given the global rise in cognitive disorders, which have a true impact on an individual's quality of life, the role of cocoa flavanols in preventing or slowing the progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia warrants further research," Desideri said. "Larger studies are needed to validate the findings, figure out how long the positive effects will last and determine the levels of cocoa flavanols required for benefit."

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Feds Buying Meat to Assist Drought-Stricken Livestock Producers

The purchases will also strengthen federal nutrition programs

The Agriculture Department (USDA) will purchase up to $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken, and catfish for federal food nutrition assistance programs, incl...

PhotoThe Agriculture Department (USDA) will purchase up to $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken and catfish for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks. 

The purchase is intended help relieve pressure on American livestock producers during the drought, while helping bring the nation's meat supply in line with demand while providing high quality, nutritious food to recipients of USDA's nutrition programs. 

"These purchases will assist pork, catfish, chicken and lamb producers who are currently struggling due to challenging market conditions and the high cost of feed resulting from the widespread drought,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The purchases will help mitigate further downward prices, stabilize market conditions, and provide high quality, nutritious food to recipients of USDA's nutrition programs." 

Pork, catfish, chicken and lamb 

The purchase includes up to $100 million of pork products, up to $10 million of catfish products, up to $50 million in chicken products and up to $10 million of lamb products for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks. 

Through the Emergency Surplus Removal Program, USDA can use Section 32 funds to purchase meat and poultry products to assist farmers and ranchers who have been affected by natural disasters. The pork, lamb and catfish purchases are based on analysis of current market conditions. 

A major factor affecting livestock producers is the value of feed, which is currently running high because of the drought. 

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) purchases a variety of high-quality food products each year to support the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. USDA also makes emergency food purchases for distribution to victims of natural disasters. 

Food items are required to be low in fat, sugar and sodium. The commodities must meet specified requirements and be certified to ensure quality. AMS purchases only products of 100 percent domestic origin. 

Assistance programs 

Within the last month, USDA has opened the Conservation Reserve Program to emergency haying and grazing, has lowered the borrower interest rate for emergency loans, and has worked with crop insurance companies to provide more flexibility to farmers. USDA has also announced the following: 

  • Authorized $16 million in existing funds from its Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.
  • Authorized the transfer of $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and ranchers rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought.
  • Authorized haying and grazing of Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easement areas in drought-affected areas where haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands.
  • Lowered the reduction in the annual rental payment to producers on CRP acres used for emergency haying or grazing from 25 percent to 10 percent in 2012.
  • Simplified the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40 percent. 

During the 2012 crop year, USDA has designated 1,628 unduplicated counties across 33 states as disaster areas -- 1,496 due to drought -- making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans.

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Hercules Recalls Truck Tires

Formation of U cracks could lead to crashes

Hercules Tire & Rubber Company is recalling 1,222 H502 radial medium tubeless truck tires, size 315/80R22.5 Load Range J. The affected tires may have been ...