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How to Read a New Car's Window Sticker

10 pieces of information you should look for

If you've ever shopped for a new car, your first step was probably to glance at the car's window sticker. After seeing the price, maybe a few options and t...

PhotoIf you've ever shopped for a new car, your first step was probably to glance at the car's window sticker. After seeing the price, maybe a few options and the EPA mileage rating, you might have moved on to a closer inspection of the vehicle itself.

But that sticker has a lot of useful information about the car and it pays to read it closely. It can mean the difference it making a smart or bad buying decision.

"By taking the time to carefully review and understand the window sticker's information, car buyers can have an easier time comparing the vehicles on their shopping lists," said Edmunds.com Consumer Advice Editor Ron Montoya. "The layout of a window sticker can change depending on the automaker, but the information on what the industry calls the 'Monroney label' is required by law to be the same across all manufacturers."

PhotoThat's important because it means you are comparing “apples to apples” in your car search. Including the price, there are 10 items on a window sticker that you should absorb:

  1. Model Information — Check this part of the sticker to ensure that the car in front of you has the engine, trim and color configuration you're looking for.
  2. Standard Equipment — This section lists all items and features that are included as a part of the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP).
  3. Warranty Information — This lists the length of the car's bumper-to-bumper and powertrain warranties and free maintenance programs, and notes any roadside assistance package that the manufacturer offers.
  4. Optional Equipment — Here you'll find information on the car's factory-installed options. Some carmakers bundle them into packages. Others offer them à la carte.
  5. Pricing Information — This is where you'll find the base price of the vehicle and a breakdown of the costs of options and some of the fees associated with the purchase. Other items that appear here are the destination charge and any gas-guzzler tax.
  6. Parts Content Information — This section lists where the vehicle was assembled and often the percentage of U.S. and Canadian parts it contains.
  7. Total Price — You don't have to pay this price (also known as the MSRP), but it does give you a point of reference in your negotiations. Use Edmunds.com's True Market Value (TMV) calculator to help you determine a fair price.
  8. Fuel Economy Label — The EPA label is all-new for the 2013 model year and provides more information than it previously had. Use this label to compare the MPG numbers between vehicles.
  9. QR Code — Scan this pixelated square with a smartphone camera to link to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mobile Website. You can then customize your driving stats to get personalized fuel economy data for the vehicle.
  10. Safety Ratings — This section posts the results of NHTSA's or, occasionally, IIHS's safety ratings for that vehicle. Because NHTSA doesn't test every car on the market, the safety-rating section will sometimes be blank.
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Want to Help Sandy Victims? Here's How

FEMA offers advice for those who want to help

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, left, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, center, participate in a briefing on Hurricane San...

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FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, left, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, center, participate in a briefing on Hurricane Sandy at the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA headquarters.Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA Photo © Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

As recovery and clean up begins along much of the East Coast, people across the country are asking what they can do to offer to aid their fellow Americans.

FEMA offers this list of suggestions:

  • Cash is the most efficient method of donating. Cash offers voluntary agencies the most flexibility in obtaining the most-needed resources and pumps money into the local economy to help businesses recover. Remember, unsolicited donated goods such as used clothing, miscellaneous household items, and mixed or perishable foodstuffs require helping agencies to redirect valuable resources away from providing services to sort, package, transport, warehouse, and distribute items that may not meet the needs of disaster survivors.
  • Donate through a trusted organization. At the national level, many voluntary-, faith- and community-based organizations are active in disasters, and are trusted ways to donate to disaster survivors. In addition to the national members, each state has its own list of voluntary organizations active in disasters. If you’d like to donate or volunteer to assist those affected by Sandy, these organizations are the best place to start.
  • Give blood. Numerous blood drives have been canceled as a result of the storm and the Red Cross has a need for blood donations. To schedule a blood donation or for more information about giving blood or platelets, visit redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
  • Affiliate with existing non-profit organizations before coming to the disaster area. Immediately following a disaster, a community can become easily overwhelmed by the amount of generous people who want to help. Contacting and affiliating with an established organization will help to ensure that you are appropriately trained to respond in the most effective way.
  • Be safe. Do not self deploy until a need has been identified and the local community impacted has requested support. Wait until it is safe to travel to volunteer sites and opportunities have been identified. Once assigned a position, make sure you have been given an assignment and are wearing proper safety gear for the task.
  • Be patient. Recovery lasts a lot longer than the media attention. There will be volunteer needs for many months, often years, after the disaster - especially when the community enters the long-term recovery period.

For more information, check out this volunteering resource page from FEMA. 

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IRS Gives Extra Time to Hurricane Sandy Victims

File and pay deadline put off to Nov. 7

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is granting taxpayers and tax preparers affected by Hurricane Sandy until Nov. 7 to file returns and accompanying paymen...

PhotoThe Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is granting taxpayers and tax preparers affected by Hurricane Sandy until Nov. 7 to file returns and accompanying payments normally due today.

The relief applies to taxpayers and tax preparers in an area affected by Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States this week.

Businesses largely affected

This relief primarily applies to businesses whose payroll and excise tax returns and payments are normally due today. No action is required by the taxpayer; this relief is automatic. Regular federal tax deposits are due according to current rules.

However, the IRS notes that if taxpayers or tax practitioners receive a penalty notice for this period, they can contact the IRS at the number on the notice to request penalty abatement due to reasonable cause on account of the storm.

IRS expects to grant additional filing and payment relief as qualifying disaster declarations are issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  

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Sandy's Wrath Will Be Felt Nationwide

Lean inventories mean bare shelves will soon be evident around the country

The catastrophic damage left behind by Superstorm Sandy may be physically limited to the East Coast but its effects are already spreading rapidly across th...

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Barack Obama receives an update from officials on the ongoing response to Hurricane Sandy, in the Situation Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The catastrophic damage left behind by Superstorm Sandy may be physically limited to the East Coast but its effects are already spreading rapidly across the country, as the extent of the damage to the transportation network in New York and New Jersey becomes clear.

This has great significance for consumers, who may experience unexpected spikes in prices and dips in availability of popular items -- and may want to do their holiday shopping now. 

Forget Wall Street, the subways, Broadway and the television networks for a minute. The Greater New York area -- New Jersey in particular -- moves a huge portion of the merchandise, raw material and parts that fuel the manufacturing and retailing sectors.  

For the third day in a row, the cargo that normally moves through the New York area is trapped, sitting in warehouses, on loading docks and on trains and trucks that are unable to move.  Each day that goes by limits the supply of goods to the rest of the country and blocks the flow of American goods normally exported through New York and New Jersey ports.

On track

PhotoMost cargo at some point is moved by trains. Even goods that are shipped into and out of the New York area by sea, truck or air are often moved by rail through the complex network of railyards and ports in the Northeast. Until trains are moving again, much of that cargo will remain stuck somewhere. 

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put it yesterday: "There is major damage on each and every one of New Jersey's rail lines." 

While the Midwest is sometimes called the heartland, New Jersey is a barrel that's open on both ends. Things flow through it. Raw materials flow into the region and flow back out as manufactured products. Imported products come into the ports in the Tri-State region and flow through New Jersey to get to the rest of the country.

"From a transportation standpoint, you couldn't do a lot worse than take out New Jersey," said Martin Pietrucha, director of transportation studies at Penn State, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Roads blocked

PhotoIt's not just the railroads that are damaged. Highways, bridges and tunnels throughout the region are damaged. Many are still flooded and blocked with debris.

The region's three major airports -- JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty, which normally move 19,000 flights per day -- are struggling to resume operations. JFL and LaGuardia expect to resume a limited number of flights today but Newark is still closed.

Economists have estimated the storm caused $20 billion in property damages and $10 billion to $30 billion more in lost business.

Long-term, the storm may actually be a boost to the economy, as money is spent to repair and rebuild all those bridges, rails, tunnel, roads and buildings that were damaged but before that happens, there will be a huge economic loss to businesses unable to get the supplies they need to meet consumer demands.

While some major purchases may be only delayed until products are available, much of what consumers buy everyday is disposable -- meaning that if they don't buy it today, they never will and the money will be lost to the merchant in question. 

No fish

PhotoFor example, if a seafood restaurant is unable to get its daily supply of fresh seafood, it will sell fewer dinners and will not be able to make up the loss later.

The crisis comes at a particularly bad time for retailers, who are able to start their annual hoped-for march to profitability as holiday shopping gets into gear after Halloween. If consumer goods don't make it to the shelves, both retailers and consumers will suffer.

Online shopping isn't necessarily the answer either. The goods shipped by online merchants rely on the same network of trains, trucks, ships and airplanes as those sold through bricks-and-mortar stores.

Advice to shoppers

At its most basic level, what it comes down to for consumers is this: It might be a good idea to start your holiday shopping now -- today -- while retailers' shelves are still stocked.  The damange to the supply chain is also an argument to shop at physical outlets and to buy only items that you can carry home with you.

Even if retailers manage to restock popular holiday gift items, they're likely to be more expensive, as supply is likely to outpace demand.

 

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Study Names Panera Bread the Best Sandwich Chain

Eight sandwich restaurants made the list, and you might be surprised who was dead last

When it comes to the best things ever created by human hands, the sandwich has to lie somewhere between the light bulb and the wheel for the greatest inven...

PhotoWhen it comes to the best things ever created by human hands, the sandwich has to lie somewhere between the light bulb and the wheel.

Think about it—it’s the perfect invention.

A sandwich can be eaten on the go, it usually has the perfect balance of textures between the softness of the bread and the crunch of the fixings, and it’s typically not that expensive.

And although it’s one of the most basic foods in the world, a sandwich can still be eaten in a countless number of ways.

It’s simplistic but complex. Not too filling but filling enough. And the fact that you can eat a sandwich with your hands and still maintain a level of social decency, makes eating one all the more satisfying, doesn’t it?

Big bites

Well, a company by the name of Market Force wanted to see which sandwich chain was the most satisfying for customers, in a recent survey conducted among 7,600 American consumers.

The market research firm tallied all of the consumer votes and took into consideration the number of locations each chain possessed, which is the reason Subway had the most votes.

Subway Oct. 31, 2012, 3:27 p.m.
Consumers rate Subway
Interestingly enough, although Subway scored the most votes, the ubiquitous chain scored last on the list for favorite sandwich restaurant among consumers.

Could Subway be focusing too hard on the quantity of stores and not on the quality of its sandwiches?  According to some of our readers that could definitely be the case.

“I purchased a Cold-Cut-Trio Foot Long on wheat bread. I got home and ate the sandwich and while eating it I noticed green mold on the end of the meat,” wrote Glen of North Carolina in a posting to ConsumerAffairs.

Glen then explained how he confronted the manager, and how he didn’t get his money back or a new sandwich.

“He [the manager] continued to insult and embarrass me in front of other customers,” Glen said. “He would not give me a refund or just another sandwich for which I did not want at that point. He then said, ‘You go and call the district office and complain to them because here you get nothing.’”

According to Glen, the Subway manager accused him of trying to pull a fast one.

Panera ranks first

First on the list in the Market Force survey in terms of taste, cleanliness, service, atmosphere and overall value was the Missouri-based sandwich chain Panera Bread (2.38 percent).

PhotoSecond on the list was Jason’s Deli, receiving 1.99 percent of the votes, followed by McAlister’s Deli (1.10 percent), Firehouse Subs (0.85 percent), and Quiznos (0.57 percent).

At the bottom of the top eight lists was Jimmy John’s (0.50 percent) Arby’s (0.33 percent) and Subway (0.28 percent).

One could easily say that Subway’s success and rapid expansion has been both a gift and a curse for the 47-year-old franchise chain. While Subway has appealed to enough palettes to be the largest food chain, its sheer size makes it a challenge for each restaurant to maintain a strict level of uniformity.

Of course it’s easy for Subway to make sure the staff wears similar uniforms, and to make sure all the U.S. menus offer similar food items, but when it comes to making sure each ingredient is fresh, and every staff person, manager, and store owner provides the very best service—it’s extremely difficult for the company to do.

Also, since there’s a Subway on seemingly every city block and suburb, there’s a good chance consumers take it for granted and seek out other sandwich options. Or maybe other chains are simply trying harder and providing better service to keep up with Subway.

Must try harder

Market Force’s Chief Marketing Officer Janet Eden-Harris, says due to subway’s sheer size and reach, it’s going to have to do more than a smaller sandwich chain to win over consumers.

Photo“Subway is the largest QSR (quick-service restaurant) chain, and that gives them the big advantage in ubiquity for people to select them, but then it becomes a large denominator,” she said. “If you have that large of a number you need some really enthusiastic votes to overcome your size.”

Although Panera scored first overall in customer satisfaction in Market Force's survey, it didn’t score first in each individual category, as the study showed that atmosphere and the overall surroundings of the bread chain is what drew people in the most.

Eden-Harris says it’s not necessarily the prices that make chains popular or not, it’s the service, atmosphere and other things that people look for when choosing to get a quick bit.

“When you ask a consumer which is your favorite restaurant, they almost don’t pick the value brand,” she said.

“When you ask, ‘why do you love going there,’ it’s not typically because it is fast or has a good value. Five Guys and In-N-Out aren’t cheap either, and burger aficionados love them. Folks on the other end of the value scope won’t necessarily get as many of those favorite votes,” said Eden-Harris. 

 

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Deadly Dangers Linger After Hurricane Sandy Passes

Feds urge caution with generators, charcoal grills and gas

Hurricane Sandy was a massive, slow moving storm that has left millions of Americans along the East Coast without electricity. The U.S. Consumer Product Sa...

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A flooded street on the South Shore of Long Island. Photo by Tom Thorson

Hurricane Sandy was a massive, slow moving storm that has left millions of Americans along the East Coast without electricity. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Fire Administration(USFA) are warning residents in hurricane-affected areas about the deadly dangers that remain.

Consumers need to use great caution during a loss of electrical power, as the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from portable generators, fire from candles, and electrical shock from downed power lines increases.

Getting power

In order to power lights, keep food cold or cook, consumers often use gas-powered generators. CPSC, FEMA, and USFA warn consumers never to use portable generators indoors, in basements, garages, or close to a home. The exhaust from generators contains high levels of carbon monoxide (CO), greater than that of multiple cars running in a garage, which can quickly incapacitate and kill.

"Our goal is to save lives and prevent further disasters in the aftermath of Sandy," said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "Never run a generator in or right next to a home. Carbon monoxide is an invisible killer. CO is odorless and colorless and it can kill you and your family in minutes."

Deaths involving portable generators have been on the rise since 1999 when generators became widely available to consumers. There have been at least 755 CO deaths involving generators from 1999 through 2011. While reporting of incidents for 2011 is ongoing, there were at least 73 CO related deaths involving generators last year. The majority of the deaths occurred as a result of using a generator inside a home's living space, in the basement or in the garage.

Do not put your family at risk. Follow these important safety tips in the aftermath of the storm.

Portable generators

  • Never use a generator inside a home, basement, shed or garage even if doors and windows are open. Keep generators outside and far away from windows, doors and vents. Read both the label on your generator and the owner's manual and follow the instructions. Any electrical cables you use with the generator should be free of damage and suitable for outdoor use.

Charcoal grills and camp stoves

  • Never use charcoal grills or camp stoves indoors. Deaths have occurred when consumers burned charcoal or used camp stoves in enclosed spaces, which produced lethal levels of carbon monoxide.

CO alarms

  • Install carbon monoxide alarms immediately outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home to protect against CO poisoning. Change the alarms' batteries every year.

Electrical and gas safety

  • Stay away from any downed wires, including cable TV feeds. They may be live with deadly voltage. If you are standing in water, do not handle or operate electrical appliances. Electrical components, including circuit breakers, wiring in the walls and outlets that have been under water should not be turned on. They should be replaced unless properly inspected and tested by a qualified electrician.
  • Natural gas or propane valves that have been under water should be replaced. Smell and listen for leaky gas connections. If you believe there is a gas leak, immediately leave the house, leave the door(s) open, and call 911. Never strike a match. Any size flame can spark an explosion. Before turning the gas back on, have the gas system checked by a professional.

Candles

  • Use caution with candles. If possible, use flashlights instead. If you must use candles, do not burn them on or near anything that can catch fire. Never leave burning candles unattended. Extinguish candles when you leave the room.
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Switching Banks Isn't Always Easy

Consumers Union presses banks to make parting company more seamless

It was one year ago next week that a grassroots movement urged consumers to move their bank accounts from large national banks with high fees to smaller co...

PhotoIt was one year ago next week that a grassroots movement urged consumers to move their bank accounts from large national banks with high fees to smaller community banks and credit unions. Many did, but a large number haven't, one year later.

"Consumer frustration has only grown over the past year as bank fees have continued to rise," said Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union. "But many frustrated consumers end up staying with their bank because switching to a new financial institution can turn into a big hassle. It's time to make it easier for consumers to move their money so they have a real choice when it comes to where to bank."

It's not that consumers are too lazy to go through the effort of closing one account and opening another. If the consumer has auto payments and direct deposits, those must be transferred to the new account. And again, it's more that just simple effort. Timing is a factor.

Obstacles to moving

In July, a Consumer Reports national public opinion poll found that nearly one fifth of consumers had considered switching to a new financial institution in the previous 12 months, but the challenge of transferring automatic payments and other factors kept half of them from making the switch.

Consumers Union says banks lock in customers by encouraging them to use certain services like automatic payments and direct deposits in order to avoid monthly fees. Re-routing automatic payments and deposits into a new account can take four to six weeks and can be a very intimidating and complicated process for some consumers. Research shows that customers who utilize automatic deposits and payments are far less likely to switch accounts.

But it's more than just a matter of time. Having enough money to maintain two accounts during the switching process also can pose a significant barrier.

Maintaining two accounts

Because switching accounts can take up to six weeks, the only safe bet is to have enough money in both accounts to cover any potential automatic debits. Consumers may also be confronted with fees to close accounts or to transfer money into new accounts.

Figuring out how to make the switch can be a confusing process for many consumers. None of the top ten largest banks reviewed by Consumers Union provided customers with clear instructions for closing accounts on their web sites or in written account disclosures.

"Obstacles to switching banks can trip up even the most determined consumer," said Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union. "All of these hurdles create customer inertia and stifle the kind of competition we need to make banks more responsive to consumers."

Consumers Union has proposed a solution. It wants Congress and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to require banks to assume the responsibility for transferring a customer's automatic payments and deposits from the old account to the new account within 14 days.

It also says banks should provide same-day electronic fund transfers at no cost to consumers and take additional steps to make it easier for consumers to move from one bank to another.

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California Targets Lack of Privacy Policy on Mobile Apps

State is stepping up enforcement of new privacy law

A word to the wise mobile app developers and companies that have a mobile presence; make sure you have an easy-to-find privacy policy.Otherwise, you coul...

PhotoSome words of advice to mobile app developers and companies that have a mobile presence: make sure you have an easy-to-find privacy policy.

Otherwise, you could be hearing from California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris this week began formally notifying scores of mobile application developers and companies that they are not in compliance with California privacy law.

“Protecting the privacy of online consumers is a serious law enforcement matter,” Harris said. “We have worked hard to ensure that app developers are aware of their legal obligations to respect the privacy of Californians, but it is critical that we take all necessary steps to enforce California’s privacy laws.”

Must post a privacy policy

The law requires that developers post a privacy policy within their app that informs users of what personally identifiable information about them is being collected and what will be done with that private information. Companies found to be in violation will be given 30 days to get in compliance.

Companies can face fines of up to $2,500 each time a non-compliant app is downloaded.

Letters are being sent out to up to 100 non-compliant apps, starting with those who have the most popular apps available on mobile platforms.

Harris is following up on action she took with the seven leading mobile and social app platforms to improve privacy protections for millions of users around the globe who use apps on their smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices. Those platforms -- Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Research in Motion -- agreed to privacy principles designed to bring the industry in line with California law requiring mobile apps that collect personal information to have a privacy policy.

Review the policy before downloading the app

That agreement allows consumers the opportunity to review an app’s privacy policy before they download the app rather than after, and offers consumers a consistent location for an app’s privacy policy on the application-download screen in the platform store.

Harris has set up a special unit within her office to enforce the California Online Privacy Protection Act. She said the unit's investigators and researchers will enforce both federal and state privacy laws regulating the collection, retention, disclosure and destruction of private or sensitive information by individuals, organizations and the government.

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Kays Classic Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Recalled

The product contains pecans -- an undeclared allergen

Schoep's Ice Cream Company of Madison, WI, is alerting customers that because of a packaging error, Kays Classic Vanilla Bean Ice Cream contains an undecla...

PhotoSchoep's Ice Cream Company of Madison, WI, is alerting customers that because of a packaging error, Kays Classic Vanilla Bean Ice Cream contains an undeclared allergen.

Consumers, who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to pecans, run the risk of serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they consume this product.

The following product is included in the recall:

  • Kays Classic Vanilla Bean Ice Cream 48 oz. Round – UPC #0-87848-13021 with a Best if Used By Date of 02/28/14

The product was shipped to Food City and Super Dollar stores Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.

This recall was initiated upon discovery that certain containers of Kays Vanilla Bean Ice Cream contained Kays Butter Pecan Ice Cream.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

Consumers who have purchased the affected product are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Anyone with questions or concerns may contact Schoep's, the manufacturer, at 1-800-891-6411 extension 71.

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DOT Sends Emergency Funds for Hurricane Sandy Damage in New York and Rhode Island

Additional funding expected as states continue damage assessments

Money from Uncle Sam is on the way to help two of the states devastated by Hurricane Sandy. The U.S Department of Transportation (DOT) is making $13 mill...

PhotoMoney from Uncle Sam is on the way to help two of the states devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

The U.S Department of Transportation (DOT) is making $13 million in quick release emergency relief funds immediately available to New York and Rhode Island to help begin repairing the damage caused by the monster storm. Assessments are continuing throughout the Northeast to determine the full extent of the damage.

The announcement by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood builds on the disaster assistance for these states approved by President Obama in the last several days, including the major disaster declaration approved for New York, which make federal assistance available to supplement state and local response and recovery efforts.

First requests

The $13 million represents 100 percent of the state-requested funds -- $10 million from New York and $3 million from Rhode Island. These two requests are just the first to arrive at DOT and represent the first installment of federal-aid highway funds to help repair roads, bridges and tunnels in these two states. DOT is expecting other states slammed by Hurricane Sandy to apply for additional emergency relief funding in the coming days.

“President Obama has directed us to immediately help restore vital transportation infrastructure following this unprecedented and devastating storm -- and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said LaHood. "These emergency relief funds are just a down payment on our commitment to all of the states impacted by Hurricane Sandy.”

Infrastructure repair

Quick release emergency funds provided by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will be used to pay for a variety of repairs to roads and bridges that are immediately necessary. Rhode Island will use the funding to repair damaged sea walls supporting roadways; New York will use it for general emergency repairs to federal aid highways.

“This funding is only the first step in the difficult process of helping the region recover,” said FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez. "The federal government stands ready to assist in helping affected states repair roads and bridges so that residents can begin to resume daily activities.”

To further speed access to critical repair funds, LaHood held a conference call Tuesday afternoon with officials from 14 states to outline how they can apply for quick release emergency relief funding. He also described other steps DOT has taken to assist states, including an Eastern Regional Emergency Declaration from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to lift hours-of-service requirements and other regulations to assist interstate motor carrier drivers and operators providing direct emergency relief.

FHWA's emergency relief program provides funds for the repair or reconstruction of federal-aid roads and bridges damaged by natural disasters or catastrophic events. 

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Correction to Kevin Trudeau Article

On October 26, 2010, ConsumerAffairs.com published an article entitled “Kevin Trudeau Loses Appeal of $54 Million Judgment.” The article inaccurately repor...

On October 26, 2010, ConsumerAffairs.com published an article entitled “Kevin Trudeau Loses Appeal of $54 Million Judgment.” The article inaccurately reported that a federal appeals court presiding over a lawsuit entitled Federal Trade Commission v. Direct Marketing Concepts, Inc.et al. upheld a $54 million judgment against Mr. Trudeau and made negative comments about arguments Mr. Trudeau had advanced in that lawsuit. The article also inaccurately reported that Mr. Trudeau was awaiting sentencing at the time on a criminal contempt charge.

In fact, Mr. Trudeau was not a party to that lawsuit, and the appeals court did not uphold any judgment against Mr. Trudeau or otherwise find that Mr. Trudeau participated in any prohibited activity. In addition, Mr. Trudeau was not awaiting sentencing for a criminal contempt charge.

ConsumerAffairs.com sincerely regrets the errors. 

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Texas Firm Recalls Chicken Enchilada Products

The products are suspected of containing foreign materials

Food Source of McKinney, TX, is recalling approximately 11,400 pounds of frozen chicken enchilada products that may contain fragments of plastic. The produ...

PhotoFood Source of McKinney, TX, is recalling approximately 11,400 pounds of frozen chicken enchilada products that may contain fragments of plastic.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 57-oz. boxes of “Bremer Party Size White Meat Chicken Enchiladas”

The cartons bear the establishment number “P-13130” inside the USDA mark of inspection and the UPC code 0-41498-16921-3. The products have a best by date of “09/30/13.” The products were packaged on Aug. 31, 2012 and shipped to retail stores in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The company alerted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the problem after receiving two consumer complaints. There are no reports of injury associated with consumption of this product.

Consumers with questions should contact Richard Riccardi at (972) 548-9001.  

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Community College: Education's Overlooked Bargain

Typical two-year school costs less than half of what a state university does

People love bargains, except, apparently, when it comes to education. In pursuit of a college degree, students and their families run up huge debts, to the...

PhotoPeople love bargains, except, apparently, when it comes to education. In pursuit of a college degree, students and their families run up huge debts, to the point that total student loan indebtedness is now over $1 trillion.

But is it really necessary to spend tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of a college degree? Community colleges offer an overlooked alternative.

Community colleges started out almost as vocational schools. Students attended for two years getting a degree that prepared them for a particular vocational field, such as nursing.

Path to four-year degree

But community colleges also offer study in academic fields and increasingly, their credits transfer to most four-year colleges and universities. In many states, community colleges have become aligned with the state's university system, so that community college credits easily transfer to state-supported four-year schools.

The tuition at a typical community college is usually less than half of what it costs to attend a four-year public university. It is much less than a typical private or for-profit university. In fact, many students make the costly mistake of enrolling at an expensive for-profit school to obtain a two-year associates degree.

Sherley, of Hackettstown, NJ, said she pursued an associates degree from Katherine Gibbs, a for-profit school, hoping she could work as an administrative assistant. She said she ran up $50,000 in loans for a two-year degree that would have cost 10 percent of that -- or less -- at a community college.

“After eight years I am still unable to find a job in that field,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. ”Now I am stuck with a load of bills from two different lenders.”

Better education

Not only do community colleges cost less, the quality of education continues to improve, so that students who do their first two years of work there go on to have successful academic careers when they transfer to a four year college.

Tomas Hult, Director of Michigan State University's International Business Center, says community colleges do an exceptional job in providing courses in international business. His study found that in 2008, about 51 percent of community colleges offered a basic course in international business. Four years later that number had jumped to 85 percent.

“The most important takeaway is that we as a nation appear to be putting funds into community college education to infuse a global mindset in a much larger way than in the past few years,” Hult said. “International business education is really starting to flourish at two-year schools.”

Playing a pivotal role

Forty-four percent of college students -- about 13 million students -- attend about 1,200 community colleges in the United States, so the schools play a pivotal role in educating the 21st-century global workforce, he said.

And how can they do it so much more cheaply than four-year schools? It probably comes down to spending less money.

In recent years the typical four-year school has spent millions of dollars constructing luxury dormitories and other creature comforts to attract students -- not to mention football stadiums and basketball arenas. For-profit schools, of course, have to show a profit for stockholders.

Community colleges generally don't have those cost burdens. In many ways they operate the way colleges did decades ago -- a time when a college education wasn't so expensive.

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VA Guarantees 20 Millionth Home Loan

VA loans boast the lowest foreclosure and delinquency rates

A milestone for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The agency has now guaranteed 20 million home loans since its home loan program was established in 194...

PhotoA milestone for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The agency has now guaranteed 20 million home loans since its home loan program was established in 1944 as part of the original GI Bill of Rights for returning World War II Veterans. The 20 millionth loan was guaranteed for a home in Woodbridge, VA, purchased by the surviving spouse of an Iraq War Veteran who died in 2010.

Given the current low interest rates, the program has grown significantly in the past five years, with 71 percent more purchases and 20 times as many refinances processed in fiscal year (FY) 2012 than in FY 2007. Currently, there are 1.7 million VA guaranteed home loans in existence with a total value of $284 billion. VA has guaranteed 540,000 mortgages so far this year.

“The 20 millionth VA home loan is a major milestone and is a testament to VA’s commitment to support and enhance the lives of Veterans, Servicemembers, their families and survivors,” said Allison A. Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits. “As a result of their service and sacrifice, as a group, they prove to be disciplined, reliable, and honorable—traits that are ideal for this kind of national investment.”

Advancing the America Dream

The program makes home ownership more affordable for eligible veterans, servicemembers and surviving spouses by providing access to lower cost financing. VA loans are also attractive within the mortgage industry because they protect lenders from loss if the borrower fails to repay the loan.

Mortgages guaranteed by VA have had the lowest foreclosure rate for the last 17 quarters and the lowest delinquency rate for the last 14 quarters compared with all other types of home loans in the nation, including prime loans, according to a report by the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Much of the strength of VA’s home loan program stems from the efforts of VA employees and its industry partners nationwide to ensure Veterans receive every possible opportunity to remain in their homes and avoid foreclosure.

Since 2009, VA’s efforts have resulted in over $8 billion in savings to taxpayers in foreclosure avoidance.

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Americans Spend More on Drugs to Fight Aging than to Fight Disease

Anti-aging meds becoming bigger part of health care expense

U.S. consumers now spend more money for medications to ward off the effects of aging than they spend on drugs to treat chronic disease. Researchers at Expr...

PhotoU.S. consumers now spend more money for medications to ward off the effects of aging than they spend on drugs to treat chronic disease. Researchers at Express Scripts presented their findings at the American Public Health Association’s 140th Annual Meeting in San Francisco, Calif.

The research focused on medications used to treat conditions that have always been considered a normal part of aging. The include conditions like hormone replacement, sexual dysfunction and mental alertness.

Just behind diabetes and cholesterol drugs

The researchers found that these medications have become so popular that they now rank third for cost impact only behind diabetes and cholesterol drugs among commercially insured patients.

The study was based on trends in prescriptions filled for aging medications among those commercially insured and it found that in 2011 alone, per member cost for aging medications -- $73.30 -- was 16 percent greater than the amount spent on both high blood pressure and heart disease medications, which was $62.80.

The cost for diabetes medications was $81.12 and high cholesterol medications was $78.38. The cost for aging medications increased 46 percent from 2006. And this has an impact on public policy.

32 percent increase

Between 2007 and 2011, Medicare beneficiaries increased their use of these anti-aging drugs by 32 percent. Utilization increased by 18.5 percent among the commercially insured.

“At a time when people are forgoing care due to rising health costs, this study reveals a growing trend on where the public is placing its health care dollars,” said Reethi Iyengar, PhD, researcher at Express Scripts and an APHA Annual Meeting presenter. “Continued monitoring and potential management may be warranted for this category of medications.”

Without some intervention, this is a trend that is likely to continue. After all, the baby boom generation is entering old age. Not only is it a large population, it is by and large made up of people who will use whatever tools are available to ward off the effects of aging.

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Sandy Spares Northeast Gasoline Refineries

Analyst doesn't see the spike in prices California experienced

While there is very little good news to come out of SuperStorm Sandy, one bright spot for consumers in the Northeast may be gasoline prices.With most of ...

PhotoWhile there is very little good news to come out of SuperStorm Sandy, one bright spot for consumers in the northeast may be gasoline prices.

With most of the region's refineries in the storm's path, the damage to the distribution infrastructure could have been catastrophic. California consumers can testify to the pain that can quickly occur when there are problems at a key refinery or a major pipeline. Last month prices in California surged, accompanied by shortages.

Fearing the worst

Many in the oil industry expected that could have happened after Sandy drew a bead on the New Jersey shore, but from all reports, that hasn't happened. Gasoline analyst Stephen Schork, editor of the Schork Report, says refineries in New Jersey and the northeast came through the storm relatively unscathed.

“Refineries should have no problem getting ramped up faster than what was assumed just a few days ago,” Schork said in an interview with CNBC.

Schork says market action does not suggest there will be any significant supply interruption like California experienced. In fact, he says prices in the futures market have been surprising for those who closely follow the sector.

“They moved a little higher at the end of last week but there are now actually moving lower,” he said.

Pleasant surprise

This is a surprise, since refining capacity in the northeast has been in decline for the last two years. While some areas of the country have ample stockpiles, gasoline supplies have remained tight in the northeast, leading to prices that are higher than most areas of the country.

According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey, the statewide average price of self-serve regular is only slightly higher in New York today than it was yesterday, rising from $3.928 to $3.931. In New Jersey the average price is up from $3.547 yesterday -- to $3.551 today. Nationwide, the average price declined about a penny a gallon in that time.

Falling demand

Perhaps one reason prices have failed to respond to the storm is the lack of demand. Many consumers who are normally in their cars on a weekday are staying home today. Many businesses are shut down, requiring fewer trucks on the road.

While that situation will change in the days and weeks ahead, Schork sees little threat that gasoline prices will suddenly escalate.

“For consumers, it's going to translate into better prices in the weeks ahead,” he predicted.

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Consumers Are Generally Satisfied with Their Auto Insurance Claims Settlements

J.D. Power says satisfaction is up even though consumers are paying more

We often hear how unhappy some people are with the settlements they received from their auto insurers. Take Gloria of Acworth, GA, who is insured by Alls...

PhotoWe often hear how unhappy some people are with the settlements they received from their auto insurers.

Take Gloria of Acworth, GA, who is insured by Allstate. “After over 30 years with no insurance claims, I had one minor accident backing out of my driveway,” she says in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Allstate paid $1105 for the repair of my neighbor's vehicle and jacked my premiums $353 every 6 months for the next 3 years. My premium is going up $2118 because they paid an $1105 claim.”

Or John of Congers, NY, regarding his experience with AAA: “Car broke down in Englewood Cliffs and was towed to White Plains. Front bumper was torn from car during the tow. AAA first accused me of doing the damage myself,” he wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post, “then lied and said car was inspected by me and tow truck driver which it was not. Car was towed to an AAA garage, who found the damage and quoted a repair. Then AAA asked me to settle for $150 for a $900 repair job.”

Despite these and other complaints, the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 U.S. Auto Claims Satisfaction Study found that claimant satisfaction with their auto claims experience has increased from last year, driven primarily by an improvement in their perceptions of the fairness of settlement terms.

The study measures claimant satisfaction with the claims experience for auto physical damage loss. Depending on the complexity of the claim, a claimant may experience some or all of the following factors measured in the study: first notice of loss; service interaction; appraisal; repair process; rental experience; and settlement.

Auto-Owners Insurance on top

For a fifth consecutive year, Auto-Owners Insurance ranks highest in overall satisfaction with a score of 887 (on a 1,000-point scale). Following Auto-Owners Insurance are Amica Mutual and Erie Insurance in a tie (876) and Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA) and COUNTRY in a tie (874).

Overall claimant satisfaction has increased significantly to 852 index points -- a 6-point improvement from 2011. Satisfaction has increased in five of the six factors year over year, with settlement, the most important factor contributing to overall satisfaction, increasing by nine points to 846.

Settlement satisfaction has increased by 16 points among claimants with a total loss. The average total loss settlement has increased by nearly $690, compared with 2011, driven by increasing used-vehicle values throughout much of 2012.

"As used vehicle sale prices increase, the value of the loss settlement also increases," said Jeremy Bowler, senior director of the insurance practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "According to our Power Information Network, a database of vehicle sales transactions, used-vehicle sales prices peaked in May and June of this year, averaging nearly $18,500, compared with approximately $17,700 in January of this year."

Rising costs

Satisfaction with settlement has improved overall despite claimants spending more of their own money. The average out-of-pocket costs incurred have increased by $26 from 2011, to $403. Out-of-pocket costs include claimants' deductible and any additional expenses incurred, such as rental car or repair costs. Settlement satisfaction relies heavily on claimants' perceptions of the fairness of the settlement. In the 2012 study, this is an indication that insurers are managing claimants' expectations more effectively, as satisfaction has increased despite the increase in costs incurred by claimants.

"Providing exceptional customer service is an important element in driving the perception of being treated fairly," said Bowler "Claimants' perception of fairness is more than just the amount of the settlement, especially for repairable vehicles, where claimants are more focused on their vehicle being returned in its pre-accident condition. Focusing on keeping claimants updated and quickly communicating what will be covered in the claim also have a major impact on their perceptions of how fairly they are treated."

Big improvement

One area in which insurers improve the most this year is increasingly offering more options to keep claimants informed of the progress of their claim, with 64 percent of claimants indicating having been offered options, compared with 61 percent in 2011.

Failing to explain and update claimants adequately may lead to their questioning the settlement offer and potentially increasing the rate of negotiations, which negatively impact overall satisfaction.

The 2012 U.S. Auto Claims Satisfaction Study is based on responses from more than 12,508 auto insurance customers who settled a claim within the past 6 months. The study excludes claimants whose vehicle only incurred glass/windshield damage or was stolen, or who only filed roadside assistance claims. Survey data were collected between November 2011 and September 2012.

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Lumosity: Brain Exercises That Are Supposed to Improve Memory

But researchers say there are other things you can do for mental strength

Do you find it harder and harder to remember a person’s name after first meeting them? Or have you ever read a page from a magazine and forgot what t...

PhotoDo you find it harder and harder to remember a person’s name after first meeting them? Or have you ever read a page from a magazine and forgotten what the writer just conveyed? If so, you’re certainly not alone, as many folks, both young and old, have experienced a memory lapse or two at some point.

The company Lumos Labs has created what it calls Lumosity, which the company says is a web based tool that improves both memory and brain function.

You might have seen the commercials already, as they’ve been airing on TV for the past few months or so, and interestingly enough, the company has started its ad campaign geared towards younger people, which is most likely a technique Lumosity is using to show that all ages could use some memory strengthening, not just seniors.

What’s slightly different about Lumosity from other memory games or techniques is that exercises aren’t just randomly slapped together by software developers or game creators. The company says the mental exercises were put together under its Scientific Advisory Board, which is supposed to be made up of experts and researchers from Stanford, and the University of California, San Francisco.  

Brain exercises

PhotoAlong with the company’s team of in-house neuroscientists, the creators of Lumosity say it has made a series of brain exercises to improve overall memory and sharpen the mind’s processing speed, and uses about 30 different sessions within the drills that include games, mental exercises, and health tips for the brain.

Lumosity even gives you progress reports on how well your brain and memory are improving with each exercise.

One of the exercises uses a virtual maze filled with various hazards that users must memorize and avoid during the course of the game. This is supposed to sharpen memory, improve attention and help the mind retain things better,  says the company.

Lumosity designed these games to be played on a daily basis, as opposed to just using them when you feel like giving your memory a quick  jolt.

The lead scientist at Lumos Labs, Michael Scanlon, says people should be approaching mental exercises in the same way they do physical exercises, because both should be done daily and both should be taken very seriously.

“Research has shown that making brain fitness part of a healthy lifestyle early will lead to optimal cognitive performance and better long-term brain health,” said Scanlon in a written statement.

“We designed Lumosity to help adults of any age build their cognitive abilities without feeling like they’re doing homework. People have to be motivated to train, and we believe that the results we’re seeing stem in part from the fact that the program is enjoyable and you can see your progress," he said.

Five years

PhotoThe company says improvements in the areas of mental processing speed, attention and retention will last for five years after doing the exercises, which is a pretty bold guarantee.

The cost of Lumosity differs depending on whether you choose a monthly or yearly subscription, but a press release the company released when introducing the website a few years back, offers the exercises for a little under $80 for one full year of unlimited access.

Researchers at the University Of Utah School Of Medicine have also studied how people can improve memory and apply that progress into their daily lives.

They first say by organizing things we have to remember, it will put less pressure on our brains to memorize information. And the best way to organize information is by first giving it some sort of meaning or easy to remember association, say the researchers.

The research group also suggests grasping entire concepts of things you want to recall before trying to remember the small details.

This really works when you’re trying to understand something new for a test you’re studying for, or when you have to tackle a new project at work. By understanding the main components of new information, it will make it much easier to grasp and remember its details when you have to, say the researchers.

Stop to reflect

The Utah research team also said we should stop to reflect upon the new things we’re learning.

Sometimes we’re so eager to grasp and apply new pieces of information-- like someone’s name or something your boss said in a meeting--that we quickly try to lock it into our minds and thought process.

But if we take just a few moments to reflect or even meditate on what we’ve just learned, it’s more likely the new information will stick, which will make it easier for us to access it whenever we have to.

Whether games like Lumosity will really improve your memory remains to be seen, and it will be interesting to see what readers say after the product and company builds and even bigger reputation for itself.

Until then, people can simply improve their mental functions by challenging their brains, by maybe reading material that forces you to learn new concepts, or pondering ideas you usually wouldn’t ponder.

Experts also say physical activity and exercise can also improve brain function, so fortunately we don’t have to buy a game or product to help us with remembering somebody’s name. There are a lot of things we can do by ourselves. We just have to do them.

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Ford Skids in Consumer Reports Reliability Ratings

U.S. automaker dips as Japanese carmakers surge

What's happened to Ford? Two years ago it was Detroit’s poster child for reliability. It cracked the top 10 among brands in Consumer Reports predicte...

PhotoWhat's happened to Ford? Two years ago it was Detroit’s poster child for reliability. It cracked the top 10 among brands in Consumer Reports predicted-reliability scores, with more than 90 percent of its models being average or better.

This year the top seven spots are all held by Japanese brands.

“Ford’s bumpy road can be seen in the numbers,” said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports, which has just issued its 2012 Annual Auto Reliability Survey.”Sixty percent of Ford-branded models and half of Lincolns were below average in predicted reliability, and none placed above average.”

What could have happened in two years to cause this reversal of fortune? Several factors may have contributed to Ford’s decline.

More problems than usual

A few new or redesigned models, including the Explorer, Fiesta, and Focus, came out of the gate with more problems than normal. Ford has also added the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch electronic infotainment system, which has been problematic so far, to many vehicles.

In addition, three historically reliable models—the Ford Escape, Fusion and the Lincoln MKZ—are not included in the analysis; the three were redesigned for 2013 and Consumer Reports doesn’t yet have reliability data on them.

“My boyfriend and I bought a slightly used 2012 Ford Focus on September 1,” Sonia, of Huntington Beach, CA, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “After driving the car for a couple of days, my boyfriend noticed that the transmission was not right but he thought this was just because the car was new to us. Then when driving to work, I noticed that when I stopped on any inclined street between taking the foot off the brake and placing it on the accelerator, the car rolled back quite quickly to the point that I almost hit the car behind me.”

Toyota's back

Besides the complaints like the one above, Ford may be suffering more this year in comparison to competitors who have stepped up their game. Toyota, for example, has excelled in Consumer Reports latest ratings after a year marred buy recalls and the aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami.

Its three brands—Scion, Toyota, and Lexus—swept the top spots. Consumer Reports says Toyota is “clearly setting the pace in reliability.” Of the 27 models in the brand’s lineup, 16 earned the highest rating.

Mixed bag for domestics

Cadillac, meanwhile, is the top U.S. brand, having moved up 14 spots this year. Its CTS coupe was the most reliable domestic car.

A number of other General Motors nameplates—Buick, Chevrolet, GMC—also moved up in the ranking. The Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car continues to have above-average reliability, and the compact Chevrolet Cruze, dismal in its first year, improved to average.

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Want to Be On National TV? Youtoo Allows Viewers To Be Television Stars

This could be the next step in interactive television. You don't just watch--you're on TV too

Unless you haven’t noticed, we’re currently living in a time when there’s a fine line between television celebrities and the viewing audi...

PhotoIn case you haven’t noticed, we’re currently living in a time when there’s a fine line between television celebrities and the viewing audience.  

With reality shows like American Idol, The Voice, and The Amazing Race, the chance of everyday people getting on television and becoming famous or at least infamous is at an all-time high.

Certainly, the desire to be on TV is nothing new, as many people develop stars in their eyes and want to give fame, fortune and widespread notoriety a try.

Well, the company Youtoo is giving people their chance to be in the television spotlight, by allowing consumers to upload a brief video from their computers or smartphones, which can then be submitted to the company to be aired on national TV.

Here’s how it works: Viewers need to subscribe to Youtoo’s cable channel and download either the network’s app or go to its website to record their video or “Famespot” as the company calls it.

Once the video is made you then send it electronically to Youtoo where it gets distributed to a TV producer--and if your video is selected, it will run during the course of one of the network's television shows.

Not grainy

PhotoAnd your TV spot won’t be the dark grainy image that's sometimes seen on YouTube posts, as it will be converted to a high-quality format so it matches the TV show's level of visual clarity.

A few years ago when HBO pretty much owned Sunday nights with its back- to-back triple threat of Sex And The City,The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, the network also included short video spots in between the programming, where everyday people walked into video booths and spoke about different topics--which turned the average citizens into 15-minute celebrities.

Youtoo kind of works in the same way, but instead of recording your video spot in front of others, you can do it in the privacy of your own home, and simply send your Famespot directly to the network.

Strict rules

Of course there are strict rules to follow if one expects their video to make it onto TV. Nothing offensive can be used. Obviously, things like swearing or presenting divisive viewpoints are a big no-no, and viewers cannot submit any copyrighted material like song lyrics, other show clips or logos.

PhotoYoutoo also has a social media component with its own profile page, so users can notify their friends and followers when their video runs on TV. Also, the app and website can be connected to your Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts--so once your video airs, all of your followers will be alerted pretty much immediately.

The company’s CEO, Chris Wyatt, says Youtoo is ideal for those people who always had a desire to be on television and for those folks who regularly use  social media pages.

“Since millions of people want to be on TV, we have an app for that,” he said in a written statement. “Think of it as Facebook meets TV. It’s the evolution of the social network. In addition to interacting with your friends and followers, you can be on national television and interact with millions of people.”

The Famespots aren’t TV commercials or ads, the videos will be about specific questions Youtoo will ask like, “What’s the best vacation place you’ve been to?” so instead of viewers trying to figure out what to say in their videos, the network gives a guideline, so people can inject their own stories and personalities into the video.

True interactivity

The network itself will host a combination of original programming and older shows, and says it’s the first true interactive channel in television history.

Youtoo is also rumored to have a show entitled Say Yes & Marry Me, which allows viewers to propose to their mates on national television. The service certainly isn’t for the shy or those folks who would rather remain low-key.

The submitted videos have to be 15 seconds in length in order to be considered, and the network has specific technology that will automatically sift out any content that it deems inappropriate like hate speech, harsh language or nudity--so those looking to test the show's editorial limits will not make it past the electronic gatekeepers.

For those interested in downloading the Youtoo app can get the Android and iOS versions for free on the company’s website, or go directly to the iTunes or Android app store. They can also upload videos through the company website.

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Google Unveils Its Nexus 10 Tablet

So is this the one that will be an iPad killer?

Google picked New York for the unveiling of its new $399 Nexus 10 tablet yesterday. Unfortunately, that was also the day Superstorm Sandy picked to come cr...

PhotoGoogle picked New York for the unveiling of its new $399 Nexus 10 tablet yesterday. Unfortunately, that was also the day Superstorm Sandy picked to come crashing through, so the event didn't come off.

However, glitzy ceremony or not, the tablet is today "unveiled" on Google Play. You can't order it until Nov. 13 though.

What's so different about the Android-powered Nexus 10 that will cause consumers to pass up an iPad, Kindle Fire or any of the other tablets out there?

Well, for one thing, it has what Google insists is "the world’s highest resolution tablet display, all new multi-user features, immersive HD content and the best Google apps."

The base model also has 16 GB of memory and comes with WiFi only. If you want to use it on the cellphone network, you'll need a mobile hotspot.

The device, made by Samsung, is Google's most serious attempt so far to take a bite out of Apple's latest, full-size iPad, which sells for $499. Or you could pick up a Kindle Fire HD with an 8.9-inch screen and 16 GB for $299. 

Nexus 4

Google also introduced its Nexus 4 smartphone yesterday. Made by LG Electronics, the new phone has a 4.7-inch screen and a charging pad that lets you charge the phone without wires.

Google is selling the phone for $299 without a wireless contract, or you can get it through T-Mobile for $199 with a two-year contract.

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Smoke-Free Laws Led Quickly to Fewer Hospitalizations

People remain at risk when exceptions to smoke-free laws are made

Laws that ban smoking apparently are making a difference. According to research in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, fewer people are en...

PhotoLaws that ban smoking apparently are making a difference.

According to research in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, fewer people are ending up in the hospital and dying from heart and respiratory diseases, thanks to smoke-free legislation.

Researchers reviewed 45 studies covering 33 smoke-free laws at the local and state levels around the United States and from countries as varied as Uruguay, New Zealand and Germany and found:

  • Comprehensive smoke-free laws were associated with a rapid 15 percent decrease in heart attack hospitalizations and 16 percent decrease in stroke hospitalizations.
  • Smoke-free laws were also rapidly followed by a 24 percent decrease in hospitalizations for respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • The most comprehensive laws -- those covering workplaces, restaurants and bars -- resulted in the highest health benefits.

No exceptions

"The public, health professionals and policy makers need to understand that including exemptions and loopholes in legislation -- such as exempting casinos -- condemns more people to end up in emergency rooms," said Stanton Glantz, Ph.D., senior study author and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. "These unnecessary hospitalizations are the real cost of failing to enact comprehensive smoke-free legislation."

The findings support the American Heart Association's position that smoke-free laws should be comprehensive and apply to all workplaces and public environments, including restaurants, bars and casinos.

The analysis also is consistent with other studies that have found smoke-free laws were followed by significant decreases in acute heart attack and other cardiac-related hospital admissions.

"Stronger legislation means immediate reductions in secondhand smoke-related health problems as a byproduct of reductions in secondhand smoke exposure and increases in smoking cessation that accompany these laws," Glantz said. "Passage of these laws formalize and accelerate social change and the associated immediate health benefits."

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Indiana Seeks to Ban Meningitis-Linked Pharmacy

State's attorney general says Massachusetts compounding pharmacy poses immediate danger

The New England Compounding Center (NECC), the compounding pharmacy at the heart of the nationwide meningitis outbreak, has been shut down since late Septe...

PhotoThe New England Compounding Center (NECC), the compounding pharmacy at the heart of the nationwide meningitis outbreak, has been shut down since late September and it's products recalled.

But Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is taking no chances, filing an emergency petition asking the Indiana Board of Pharmacy to suspend the license of the Massachusetts pharmacy.

Indiana, along with Tennessee, has been particularly hard hit by the outbreak. The Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) has confirmed at least 43 cases of fungal meningitis and three deaths stemming from a tainted steroid injection produced by NECC. As a licensed non-resident pharmacy whose products are distributed and sold in Indiana, NECC is legally responsible for the “proper and safe storage and distribution of drugs and devices.”

Immediate danger

“It is tragically clear that this out-of-state pharmacy presents an immediate danger to public health and safety,” Zoeller said. “Our office will use all available resources to ensure Indiana patients are protected from any more harm and to pursue a formal administrative action against the company’s ability to operate in our state.”

The Indiana Board of Pharmacy will consider the petition for summary suspension at its next meetingon Nov. 5. If the suspension is granted, the NECC could not operate in Indiana for 90 days which would give the Attorney General’s Office time to file a formal licensing complaint before the pharmacy board. Once an administrative complaint is filed, the board could then determine the appropriate disciplinary action.

According to ISDH, there are now 1,502 Indiana residents have been exposed to the contaminated medication through an epidural or joint injection. Patients exposed in Indiana have been contacted by their healthcare provider.

Uncharted waters

“These are uncharted waters, but we are learning more about these infections every day,” said Joan Duwve, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at ISDH. “The State Health Department has been working diligently with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assist Indiana medical providers with the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of infections related to use of these contaminated products. We will continue to do so until this outbreak is resolved.”

In September, the CDC in coordination with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identified the NECC as the compounding pharmacy that produced the epidural steroid injections that caused the onset of meningitis in certain patients. Shortly after, NECC ceased production and initiated a recall of the drugs.

As of Oct. 29, the CDC had identified 354 cases of fungal meningitis across 19 states stemming from NECC’s tainted steroid injections. The cause of contamination of the steroid injections is still under investigation.

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Halloween Deadliest Day for Pedestrian Accidents

Parents can use this data to help keep their children safe

A child has a greater risk of being fatally injured by a car on Halloween than any other day of the year, according to data compiled by State Farm insuranc...

PhotoA child has a greater risk of being fatally injured by a car on Halloween than any other day of the year, according to data compiled by State Farm insurance.

The insurance company teamed up with research expert Bert Sperling, of Sperling’s BestPlaces, to analyze the risks of this holiday that is a favorite of children. The study looked at more than four million records in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) from 1990 – 2010 for children 0-18 years of age on October 31.

That detailed analysis revealed that Halloween recorded 115 child pedestrian fatalities over the 21 years studied. That's an average of 5.5 fatalities each year on October 31, which is more than double the average number of 2.6 fatalities for other days.

Useful for parents

The study also generated some data that could prove useful for parents in keeping their children safe.

For example, the most dangerous time on Halloween is not the midnight hour but between 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. In most time zones that's about the time daylight turns to nighttime.

The study further showed over 60 percent of the accidents occurred in the 4-hour period from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Where the accidents occurred is also revealing. More than 70 percent of the accidents occurred in the middle of the block, usually when excited trick or treaters darted between parked cars.

This can be avoided if parents stress to children to only cross a street at a corner or crosswalk.

Most at risk

Which children are most at risk? The data shows that most of the fatalities occurred with children ages 12-15, accounting for 32 percent of all child fatalities. The second most vulnerable age group is children ages 5-8, who accounted for 23 percent of fatalities.

What about the drivers in these pedestrian accidents? The study found that young drivers ages 15-25 accounted for nearly one-third of all fatal accidents involving child pedestrians on Halloween. Drivers ages 36-40 and 61-65 were involved in the fewest child pedestrian fatalities on Halloween.

Fortunately, the data shows that Halloween is actually getting safer with child fatalities on Halloween declining each of the last six years.

“State Farm wants children to be safe every day of the year whether they are inside or outside of a car,” says Kellie Clapper, assistant vice president of Public Affairs at State Farm. “The analysis of this data highlights the particular need for parents to be especially alert during Halloween.”

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Study: Overusing Supplements can Cause Liver Damage

New database provides information about supplements that may be dangerous

Health officials have made strides in recent years alerting consumers to the dangers of too much acetaminophen and the damage it can cause to liver functio...

PhotoHealth officials have made strides in recent years alerting consumers to the dangers of too much acetaminophen and the damage it can cause to liver functions.

But Steven Scaglione, MD, hepatology, Loyola University Health System, says there's another more common danger that consumers can easily overlook.

“Awareness of the dangers of acetaminophen has risen but many consumers and even many health care professionals are not aware that certain popular herbal and dietary supplements can also cause liver damage,” Scaglione said. “Kava, comfrey, valerian, vitamin A, niacin and even green tea, when consumed in high doses, have been linked to liver disease.”

LiverTox, a new database launched Oct. 12 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has a searchable database of about 700 medications. It can provide a way for consumers to stay informed about ingredients that, in quantity, could be harmful.

New website tool

“The LiverTox web site is very user-friendly and provides evidence-based data in a clear and succinct manner,” said Scaglione.

As part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH will be adding another 300 drugs within the next few years.

Acetaminophen does not require a prescription, so it is used in a wide variety of over-the-counter medications. But it is also present in many prescriptions. That makes it easy for a consumer to, in effect, over-dose.

”Therapeutic doses of acetaminophen have been associated with liver toxicity,” said Scaglione, who cares for liver patients at Loyola.

A 2007 study also found that mixing acetaminophen and caffeine can be dangerous. Health experts have also warned for years that consuming excess alcohol while taking acetaminophen can trigger toxic interactions and cause liver damage and even death.

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California Has a Message for App Developers

Scores of companies informed they are violating the state's privacy laws

Developers of mobile apps are getting some unwelcome news this week. California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris is telliing them they are not in complian...

Photo
Kamala Harris

Developers of mobile apps are getting some unwelcome news this week. California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris is telliing them they are not in compliance with California privacy law.

The companies were given 30 days to conspicuously post a privacy policy within their app that informs users of what personally identifiable information about them is being collected and what will be done with that private information. Letters will be sent out to up to 100 non-compliant apps at this time, starting with those who have the most popular apps available on mobile platforms.

“Protecting the privacy of online consumers is a serious law enforcement matter,” Harris said. “We have worked hard to ensure that app developers are aware of their legal obligations to respect the privacy of Californians, but it is critical that we take all necessary steps to enforce California’s privacy laws.”

The letters are the first step in taking legal action to enforce the California Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires commercial operators of online services, including mobile and social apps, which collect personally identifiable information from Californians to conspicuously post a privacy policy.

Harris said privacy policies are an important safeguard for consumers. Privacy policies promote transparency in how companies collect, use, and share personal information. Companies can face fines of up to $2,500 each time a non-compliant app is downloaded.

This action by Attorney General Harris follows an agreement she forged among the seven leading mobile and social app platforms to improve privacy protections for millions of users around the globe who use apps on their smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices.

Those platforms – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Research in Motion – agreed to privacy principles designed to bring the industry in line with California law requiring mobile apps that collect personal information to have a privacy policy. The agreement allows consumers the opportunity to review an app’s privacy policy before they download the app rather than after, and offers consumers a consistent location for an app’s privacy policy on the application-download screen in the platform store. 

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Disney Urged to Close Holiday Candy 'Marketing Loophole'

CSPI offers ideas for a healthier Halloween

Should Ariel, Belle and other Disney characters be shilling Dig N’ Dips, Lollipops, and Candy Rolls to young children? While the Walt Disney Company has w...

PhotoShould Ariel, Belle and other Disney characters be shilling Dig N’ Dips, Lollipops, and Candy Rolls to young children?

While the Walt Disney Company has won plaudits from health groups and parents for discouraging the use of its licensed characters to market junk food, Disney’s characters can be licensed to market candy to children as long as it’s Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Easter or any other “special occasion.”

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) thinks that's wrong and is calling on Disney chairman and CEO Robert A. Iger to keep Tinkerbell, Mickey Mouse and Toy Story characters off candy and junk foods.

"Disney understands as a general principal that it should take nutrition into account when it licenses characters to food companies -- and for much of the year it does," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Disney's otherwise laudable policy has a loophole that Cinderella could drive her carriage through. Twenty-five percent of candy sales occurs around four holidays, Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter."

'Encouraging' step

An encouraging step in the right direction is a licensing arrangement Disney has with Tim Burton's FrankenWeenie movie, says CSPI. Its ghoulish characters are promoting individually wrapped packets of Paramount Farms pistachios. The packs have just 20 calories and 20 milligrams of sodium.

The video gaming company PopCap has another great idea for Halloween, according to the group. Partnering with the American Dental Association, it is offering coupons for a free download of its wildly popular Plants v. Zombies game that parents can print out to give to trick-or-treaters. The “Stop Zombie Mouth” campaign comes with tips for healthy teeth.

Moderation in all things

"Halloween shouldn't be candy-free, but candy doesn’t have to be the only thing handed out at every house," Wootan said. "There are plenty of things to give to kids that don't promote obesity and tooth decay."

CSPI offers what it calls “Ghoulishly Great Ideas” for Halloween including temporary tattoos, individual packages of dried fruit, sugar-free gum and other trick-or-treating possibilities. It also provides tips for fun activities and healthier snacks for Halloween parties.  

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New Report Finds Many American Renters Never Want to Own a Home

Rents jump 10% over 18 months, with North Dakota, New York Leading All States

Not everyone, it seems, has bought into the American Dream of owning their own home. ApartmentList.com, an apartment search engine, says its first "Renton...

PhotoNot everyone, it seems, has bought into the American Dream of owning their own home.

ApartmentList.com, an apartment search engine, says its first "RentonomicsRentonomics" Report, shows a quarter of renters plan to never own a home.

"Forty percent of American households rent," says John Kobs, CEO and co-founder of Apartment List, adding that, “one-third of renters have had their rent raised in a tough economic climate. While the resale market slowly recovers, it seems that more Americans are embracing renting for the long term."

Rents on the rise

An overwhelming majority of states posted an increase in asking rents since January 2011. Thirty-four out of the 45 states the study analyzed showed rising rents. Nationally, residential rents rose 9.7% between January 2011 and June 2012. Breaking it down politically, 15 red states and 19 blue states saw rents rising, while 2 red states and 9 blue states experienced falling rents.

Renters in North Dakota (+32.9%), New York (+24.8%) and Massachusetts (+23.5%) saw the highest rent hikes around the country, while residents in Nevada (-8.6%), Louisiana (-7.4%) and Missouri (-4%) benefited most from falling rents. Due to a limited sample size, pricing data was not available for MT, SD, VT, WV and WY.

No plans to buy

Despite price hikes, nearly half of renters surveyed say renting is smarter than buying, and one-quarter never intend to own a home

When asked about the length of time they plan to rent, 24% of renters say they plan to rent for the rest of their lives and 47% of all people surveyed believe renting is smarter than buying a home in today's economy. Thirty-two percent of those surveyed report that their landlords have hiked their rent in the last 12 months and 44% expect an increase in the coming 12 months. At the same time, 57% of renters expect their incomes to remain flat or decline in the coming 12 months.

In addition, 37% of renters say home ownership is overrated and is not an important life goal. Of the 24% who said outright they do not want to be homeowners, 39% cite the expense of home ownership as a deterrent, and 31% believe that owning is too risky financially.

Economic factor

Fifty-five percent of renters surveyed say they wish they were homeowners and 59% say the current economy has delayed their ability or decision to buy a home. Of renters who do plan to buy a home eventually, only 4% indicated an intention to buy in the next year. 41% say they plan to rent for the next one to three years. Twenty percent plan to rent for four to five years and 7% think they will rent for six to ten years.

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Website Provides Sneak Peak at Black Friday Ads

Store also planning to take on more temporary help for the holidays

Want to get a jump on your Black Friday shopping planning? Would it be helpful to know what bargains stores will be offering the day after Thanksgiving?B...

PhotoWant to get a jump on your Black Friday shopping planning? Would it be helpful to know what bargains stores will be offering the day after Thanksgiving?

BlackFriday.com says it will have all the ads from major chains before the big shopping day. It just released the ad slick for Bath and Body Works, which is offering its VIP Bag filled with "7 Merry Must-Haves," which it says is a $100 value.

The Ace Hardware ad says the hardware chain will offer 20 percent off regularly priced items on Black Friday. The ad also contains a coupon for 50 percent off of one regularly priced item, under $30, on Saturday, November 24.

The ad for Music & Arts offers a free $100 Visa gift card to the first five people who spend $199 or more on Black Friday. It also contains a coupon for 20 percent off any single regularly priced item.

The Black Friday ad for Walmart offers a Furby for $54 and a Barbie Photo Fashion Dollar for $39.97. The Black Friday price on the Amazing Spider Man Electronic Action Figure is $16.97, according to the ad.

Stores hiring more workers

Retailers expect an active holiday shopping season despite the sluggish economy. A survey by CareerBuilder.com shows stores are adding more seasonal, part-time workers to help them deal with Black Friday and the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Thirty-six percent of retailers said they plan to have extra hands on deck around the holidays -- a healthy jump from 29 percent in 2011. The survey was conducted by Harris Interactive among more than 2,400 employers between August 13 and September 6, 2012.

“An increase in consumer confidence is helping to fuel the best seasonal hiring the U.S. has seen in recent years,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. “While the bulk of seasonal recruitment falls within the retail space, companies across industries are hiring for a wide range of positions to support their business operations as they wrap up the year.”

If you are interested in picking up one of these jobs, the survey shows the largest number of openings -- 23 percent -- will probably be in customer service. About 15 percent of the new jobs will be in administrative and clerical support.

More than six-in-ten (62 percent) employers plan to pay holiday staff $10 or more an hour in 2012, up from 53 percent last year. Twenty-two percent will pay $16 or more -- up from 14 percent last year.

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Poll Finds 'Strutting Your Stuff' Helps in a Tight Job Market

MBA students, employers find innovative ways to stand out

You have your MBA and the world is at your feet, with top companies begging you to come to work for them, right? Maybe in some alternative universe. But he...

PhotoYou have your MBA and the world is at your feet, with top companies begging you to come to work for them, right? Maybe in some alternative universe. But here on planet earth, it's a little tougher.

A a new poll conducted by Deloitte finds 95 percent of students surveyed from top graduate business schools in the country feel the need to distinguish themselves from their peers and are finding new and creative ways to do so in light of a challenging economy.

Students polled participated in the sixth annual National MBA Human Capital Case Competition, funded by Deloitte and General Electric (GE), on Oct. 20-21 at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

The new media in play

Results of the Deloitte poll show the majority of students have been leveraging social media and opportunities provided by employers, such as the Human Capital Case Competition. Ninety-two percent of students surveyed believe these types of professional practice opportunities are effective ways to distinguish themselves from their peers.

In addition to providing top MBA students with a way to stand out, employers are also able to differentiate themselves as innovative employers in the market and thus attract top talent.

Additional strategies identified in the survey as useful for gaining traction with respect to employment post-graduation include: attending networking events (100 percent) and industry/job-specific career fairs (69 percent); joining social media groups (88 percent) and professional business societies (51 percent); and participating in mock interviews (72 percent).

Dealing with pressure

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University captured top honors at the competition, which recognizes student teams’ problem- solving and analytical skills, creativity and ability to stay focused under pressure. University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and The Yale School of Management collected second-place and third-place honors, respectively.

This year’s competition engaged MBA students in solving real-world human capital business issues, allowing Deloitte and GE to glean insight into the participants’ perceptions of some of today’s most pressing workforce issues to better understand the goals, expectations and desires of this next generation of leaders.

“Today's top talent is increasingly savvy at developing new strategies to stand out in a competitive job market,” said Garth Andrus, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s human capital practice. "Many are turning to social media sites to help secure interviews and some are entering case competitions, like the National MBA Human Capital Case Competition, to get a leg up on their peers. We have learned as much from the students as they have from being involved in solving real world problems. Moreover, we are fortunate to have had a number of great competitors from past events join Deloitte.”

The competitors

Following is a list of the 12 MBA programs (listed in alphabetical order) chosen to compete in teams of five for $14,000 in cash prizes and be named National MBA Human Capital Case Competition champions:

  • Emory Goizueta Business School
  • The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
  • Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary
  • Michigan Ross School of Business
  • Michigan State University Broad College of Business
  • Purdue University Krannert School of Management
  • The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business
  • Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University
  • UCLA Anderson School of Management
  • University of Southern California Marshall School of Business
  • Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management
  • The Yale School of Management
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Sandy Takes Control, the Rest of Us Just Watch and Hope

"Frankenstorm" brings business, government, education, even politics to a standstill

Wherever you are, it's hard to escape the effects of Sandy, the massive and powerful storm that is threatening to turn the East Coast into a soggy mess.T...

PhotoWherever you are, it's hard to escape the effects of Sandy, the massive and powerful storm that is threatening to turn the East Coast into a soggy mess.

The storm itself is so much bigger than your average tropical storm or hurricane that it is bringing high winds and heavy rains as far west as Indiana. More significantly, although it is arguably affecting only the eastern one-third or so of the country, it is the equivalent of a federal holiday just about everywhere.

Wall Street is closed. The federal government is closed. Airline travel is disrupted. Express package delivery is affected. The political campaign, seemingly a force of nature itself, has had the wind swept from its sails. Even Broadway and the Atlantic City casinos are closed.

In a nation that just a few days ago was on the edge of its seat over a baseball game and a presidential contest, such pursuits have been shown to be relatively trivial when the real forces of nature take charge.

Those who live in hurricane zones have been through this before, of course, but in an odd way that doesn't make it easier. It's the waiting that gets tedious, not to mention the wondering about whether this really will be the Big One. At least Californians aren't told days in advance that the earth is going to shift around. It just happens suddenly, and then it's over and it's either bad or not so bad.

It will be at least this time tomorrow before we know how bad it was this time. In the meantime, those in the path are trying to be patient while everyone else is no doubt tired of hearing about it. 

Economic effects

PhotoBeyond the human toll, a storm of this magnitude could have a devastating effect on the nation's still-fragile economy.  On the other hand, as economists always hasten to add, it could also be beneficial.

"Disasters can give the ailing construction sector a boost, and unleash smart reinvestment that actually improves stricken areas and the lives of those that survive intact. Ultimately, Americans, as they always seem to do, will emerge stronger in the wake of disaster and rebuild better — making a brighter future in the face of tragedy," said University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business economist Peter Morici, while also conceding that in the short term, damage from the storm could be as high as $35 billion.

Morici, quoted in the Washington Business Journal. said that "rebuilding after Sandy, especially in an economy with high unemployment and underused resources in the construction industry, will unleash at least $15 billion to $20 billion in new direct private spending — likely more as many folks rebuild larger than before, and the capital stock that emerges will prove more economically useful and productive."  

Perhaps no one is more scared of Frankenstorm than retailers who had been counting on a burst of last-minute Halloween spending, which had been expected to hit $8 billion this year.

With the country's most populous region still likely to be hunkered down inside on Halloween, what retailers had hoped would be a treat is likely to turn into a big rotten trick. 

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The sea rises over a marina on Long Island's Great South Bay Monday morning. Photo by Tom Thorson

Biggest ever

Schools, government offices and mass transit closed today from Washington to Boston and beyond as Hurricane Sandy, which killed at least five dozen people in the Caribbean, took aim at more than 60 million as it moved up the East Coast towards the country's most densely populated region.

As it moves north, the giant storm is expected to meet up with two other powerful winter storm systems, creating an even more threatening hybrid. At mid-morning Monday, it officially became the largest tropical storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Crisis map

Google's Crisis Map combines information from the National Hurricane Center, American Red Cross and other trusted sources. It offers details about the storm's current and forecasted locations, emergency shelter locations, live webcam feeds, public safety alerts, traffic conditions, and a wealth of other vital information.

The New York Times, meanwhile, is publishing a state-by-state guide to Sandy. Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal have turned off their paywalls during the storm. 

Besides hurricane-force winds, the massive storm system is expected to blanket the region with sheets of rain, high winds and heavy snow, threatening New York Harbor, Long Island Sound and other coastal areas with flash flooding.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued in much of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, as well as along the exposed outer coastlines of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.  Beaches began to disappear and in Ocean City, Maryland, a large pier collapsed.

Officials warned that some barrier islands, many lined with expensive beach homes, could be wiped out by a massive storm surge.  

Outages a certainty

Power outages and communications interruptions are expected to last for days and possibly weeks, as the storm-soaked ground and high winds combine to fell trees throughout the region.

Phone companies are trying to prepare -- topping off fuel for backup generators and lining up disaster recovery trailers to move into flooded areas after the storm passes. Verizon says its network is operating normally so far (as of about 2 p.m).

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President Barack Obama receives an update on the ongoing response to Hurricane Sandy at the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Local and state governments scrambled to prepare for the brewing disaster. In Fairfax County, Va., officials issued these preparedness tips:

1.)    Supplies: Get your supplies – water, medicines, canned food, cash, pet food and more. We strongly recommend that you be prepared with at least three days of supplies.

2.)    Gas: Fill your car’s gas tank. Gas stations will be in short supply in a power outage.

3.)    Generators: If you have a generator or plan to buy one, please be familiar with safety tips.

4.)    Food Safety:  Power outages and flooding may happen as a result of a tropical storm or hurricane, so have a plan for keeping food safe. Have a cooler on hand to keep food cold, and group food together in the freezer so it stays cold longer.

5.)    Outdoor Items: Plan to secure all outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans and anything else that is not tied down.

6.)    Trees: Remove dead limbs on trees that could fall on your property (home, car, land).

7.)    Leaves: Clear leaves from storm drains, gutters and other areas that, if clogged, could cause flooding.

8.)   Weather Forecasts: Pay close attention to weather forecasts for the latest storm track. We will provide guidance as needed. Purchase or charge up your weather radio. If you have a weather radio that uses SAME codes, Fairfax County’s SAME code is 051059.

9.)    Tech Ready: View our Digital Preparedness Kit, which is an important way to stay informed and connected before, during and after an emergency.

10.) Phone Numbers: Save important phone numbers to your phone or write them down, especially your power company. Always report a power outage.

Best battery

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A beach house on Long Island awaits the rising tide. Photo by Tom Thorson

Consumer Reports magazine chimed in with some suggestions. If you're getting your flashlights ready to do battle, the magazine says the Energizer Ultimate lithium lasted the longest in the Consumer Reports flashlight tests, making it their recommendation for consumers who don’t want to get caught in the dark.  

Also check out Consumer Reports generators ratings, and if generators in your area are all sold out CR has identified power inverters that can keep your refrigerator running when attached to your car battery. 

 

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Keeping Your Pet Safe as Hurricane Sandy Blows Through

A few simple steps will help ensure that you and your companion stay safe

You've battened down the hatches in advance of Hurricane Sandy, but have you take care to make sure your pets are safe? The U.S. Department of Agriculture...

PhotoYou've battened down the hatches in advance of Hurricane Sandy, but have you take care to make sure your pets are safe?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering these tips to help residents protect the health of their animals in the event of power failures, flooding and other problems that could be associated with the storm.

Follow state or local officials for emergency information, such as your local Emergency Alert System television or radio stations, and fire, police and other local emergency response organizations.

Pet safety

If you have not been ordered to evacuate, make sure you have enough pet food and water on hand to feed your pets during an emergency.

If you have been ordered to evacuate by state or local authorities, take your pets with you when you go. If you need assistance, such as persons relying on public transportation or with medical special needs, contact your emergency management agency for instructions.

To keep your pets safe during the evacuation, secure them with a collar/harness and leash, or in a pet carrier, to safely transport them. For everyone's safety, you may also wish to bring a muzzle if your pet doesn't react well in stressful situations.

An emergency pet shelter might be available near the human emergency shelter, check with your local emergency management agency to find the nearest emergency pet shelter to you. Do not stay behind with your pet if state or local officials order you to evacuate.

If a pet shelter is located near a human shelter, pet owners could be allowed to visit and care for their pets during designated times.

At nearby shelters, pet owners may be allowed to care for and walk their pets during designated times.

Pet owners should be prepared to provide the following information to pet shelter workers if possible: name; species and breed; sex; color; distinctive markings; age; microchip identification number; vaccination records; health conditions and required medication.

What to bring to the shelter

Other useful items to bring to a shelter are:

  • a clear and current photo of you with your pet
  • an extra collar, leash, and/or harness that fits
  • favorite toys
  • any medications and special diets for their pets
  • information on feeding schedules, medical conditions, behavior problems, and the name and number of your veterinarian in case you have to foster or board your pets
  • a pet carrier/kennel large enough for your pet to sleep in comfortably
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Meet Boxee, a Cloud-Based DVR That's the Latest Entry in the TV/Streaming Video Derby

New gadget lets you control video on all your devices and offers a no-limit DVR

Everybody's heard of Apple and for years we've been hearing how Apple -- oh, and also Google -- were about to build a simple interface, or "box," that woul...

PhotoEverybody's heard of Apple and for years we've been hearing how Apple -- oh, and also Google -- were about to build a simple interface, or "box," that would let us grab over-the-air TV, unencrypted cable shows and Internet video (Netflix and so forth) simply and inexpensively.

Of course, no one has really delivered on that promise, except possibly for a little company nobody's ever heard of. It's called Boxee and it makes something called -- what else? -- Boxee TV.  

What this little gadget does is pull in video from anywhere, including all the sources we mentioned above, and stream it to the various devices in your house. 

It also acts as a DVR, letting you record programs and play them back later. But instead of being a "real" DVR -- a rather hulking device with a couple of hard drives inside -- the Boxee is a cloud-based DVR, meaning it stores the shows you save on its own system and then streams them back to you when you want to watch them.

Boxee calls it the "No Limits DVR" and explains it this way: "Instead of storing your recording on a local hard-drive, Boxee TV uploads your recordings to the cloud. It means there are no limits to how much you can record and no limits to where you watch - on your laptop, tablet and, of course, your TV."

Easily controlled

PhotoAll of this can be controlled from your laptop or from the remote that comes with the Boxee. Besides a couple of simple controls (play, pause, etc.), it has a full QWERTY keyboard so you can select programs without going through the maddening point-and-guess process of the ridiculous remotes now supplied by cable companies.

You don't have cable? You may not need it. If you get decent over-the-air TV, you can get digital high-def over-the-air broadcasts. You may need an antenna and, oh by the way, Boxee supplies an internal antenna as part of its basic package. You may not an external antenna, depending on where you live. 

As for cable shows, many of them make their way fairly quickly to the Internet and  Boxee will go and find them for you if you ask it to, again using your laptop or the keyboard remote.

What's the advantage of this over Apple TV? Well, for one thing, it's what we might call "open"  -- it will fetch and play video from just about anywhere, not just from iTunes. Google may trump Boxee eventually but hasn't done so yet. 

Boxee is rolling out first in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia and D.C. with more markets to follow in 2013.

What's it cost?

Becoming a DVR subscriber will cost your $14.99 a month. Buying the Boxee Box is $99. 

So, does this replace something you're already paying for? Maybe. You might be able to get rid of cable, assuming you get a strong local TV signal and can find most of the cable shows you want on Netflix, VUDU, etc. And, of course, if you're paying an extra charge for one or more DVRs from your cable company or from TiVo, you could give them the heave-ho. It could also save you the cost of additional room hook-ups. 

However it turns out, Boxee looks intriguing and we'll be getting a unit for testing as quickly as possible.

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Sherwin-Williams, PPG Settle FTC Charges

The companies allegedly misled consumers about the safety of their paints

Two of the nation’s leading paint companies have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they misled consumers to believe that some of...

PhotoTwo of the nation’s leading paint companies have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they misled consumers to believe that some of their paints are free of potentially harmful chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The settlements require Sherwin-Williams and PPG Architectural Finishes to stop making the allegedly deceptive claim that their Dutch Boy Refresh and Pure Performance interior paints, respectively, contain “zero” volatile organic compounds.

The FTC says while this may be true for the uncolored “base” paints, it is not true for tinted paint, which typically has much higher levels of the compounds, and which consumers usually buy.

Hard to confirm claims

VOCs are carbon-containing compounds that easily evaporate at room temperatures. Some VOCs can be harmful to human health and the environment. Historically interior paints, which are the subject of the FTC’s cases against Sherwin-Williams and PPG, have contained significant levels of VOCs.

“Environmental claims, like the VOC-free claims in this case, are very difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to confirm,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “That’s why it’s so important for the FTC to give clear guidance to marketers, like the Commission’s recently revised Green Guides, and to police the market to ensure that consumers actually get what they pay for.”

Wide scope

With annual sales of $7.8 billion, Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams is the largest coatings manufacturer in the United States and the third-largest in the world. It markets and sells product under the Sherwin-Williams, Dutch Boy, Krylon, Minwax, and Thompson’s WaterSeal brands.

PPG Architectural Finishes, Inc. (PPG) is headquartered in Pittsburgh. A subsidiary of PPG Industries, Inc., it does business under its own name, as well as under the names PPG, Pittsburgh Paints, Porter Paints, Pure Performance Paints and Olympic stain.

'False statements' alleged

The FTC’s administrative complaints against Sherwin-Williams and PPG charge the companies with violating the FTC Act by making false and unsubstantiated claims that that their paints contain “zero VOCs” after tinting.

Sherwin-Williams and PPG make their “zero-VOC” claims through a variety of media, including brochures, point-of-purchase marketing, product labels, and the Internet. Some of these materials are disseminated to independent distributors.

The FTC contends that consumers likely reasonably interpret the companies’ “zero-VOC” claims as applying to the final product -- tinted paint, which is made by adding color to a base paint to produce the final color the customer desires; and that they understand the claims to mean that the paint has no VOCs or only a “trace amount” of VOCs.

According to the FTC, however, in many instances, both Sherwin-Williams’s Dutch Boy Refresh and PPG’s Pure Performance paints contain more than trace levels of VOCs after the base paint is tinted. The complaints also charge the companies with distributing promotional materials that provided independent retailers with the means to deceptively advertise that the companies’ paints contain zero VOCs.

Terms of settlement

The proposed consent orders settling the FTC’s charges are the same for both Sherwin-Williams and PPG. First, they prohibit the companies from claiming that their paints contain “zero VOCs,” unless, after tinting, they have a VOC level of zero grams per liter, or the companies have competent and reliable scientific evidence that the paint contains no more than trace levels of VOCs. The definition of “trace” comes from the “trace amount” test included in the FTC’s recently released updated Green Guides for environmental marketing claims.

Alternately, the orders would allow the companies to disclose clearly and prominently that the “zero VOC” claims apply only to the base paint, and that depending on the consumer’s color choice, the VOC level may rise. In cases where the tinted paint’s VOC level could be 50 grams per liter or more, the proposed orders require the companies to disclose that the VOC level may increase “significantly” or “up to [the highest possible VOC level after tinting].”

In addition, the orders prohibit the companies from making any VOC claim or other environmental claim unless it is true and not misleading, and unless the companies have competent scientific evidence to back it up.

Finally, the proposed orders prohibit both Sherwin-Williams and PPG from providing anyone, including independent retailers or distributors, with the means of making any of the prohibited deceptive claims. The orders also would require the companies to send letters to retailers requiring them to remove all ads for the covered paints that have “zero VOC” claims and putting corrective stickers on current paint cans making these claims.

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Study: If You Want Successful Children Put Off Kindergarten for One Year

Kids born in June and July shouldn't start kindergarten when September hits, say researchers

It’s all a bit hazy, but believe it or not I do remember a little bit about kindergarten.I vaguely recall forming lines to go to other parts o...

PhotoIt’s all a bit hazy, but believe it or not I do remember a little bit about kindergarten.

I vaguely recall forming lines to go to other parts of the school, playing on the jungle gym at recess, and having a crush on a girl named Sharon Price--who would ultimately choose a guy named Alan because he always had Jolly Ranchers in his pocket. It was just the beginning of me losing girls to other guys who had cooler things than I did.

Alan was older and taller than me too, which couldn’t have worked in my favor, and according to a new study parents should be waiting an extra year to enroll their kids in school when their birthdays are during the summer months.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia suggest holding off enrollment for a short while could allow your child to be more successful, not only with their schooling, but also when they become adults and enter the professional world.

Fewer CEOs

PhotoResearchers at the Canadian school found that children who were enrolled in kindergarten as soon as they were eligible—as opposed to waiting one year later—grew up to fill fewer CEO positions than those kids who started kindergarten later on.

“Our findings indicate that summer babies underperform in the ranks of CEOs as a result of the ‘birthdate-effect’ a phenomenon resulting from the way children are grouped by age in school,” explained one of the study authors Maurice Levi.

“Older children within the same grade tend to do better than the youngest, who are less intellectually developed. Early success is often rewarded with leadership roles and enriched learning opportunities, leading to future advantages that are magnified throughout life.”

Parents of those kids who turn kindergarten age during the summer months have to decide, “Do I want my child to be one of the youngest and possibly least developed academically or socially in the class, or do I prefer my child to be among the oldest, which increases their chance to standout and outperform classmates.” It’s a mental back and forth many parents have to discuss with each other.

Not just age

PhotoAnd it’s not only age that makes a difference when kids start school. Size can also be a factor because some parents prefer their children to be one of the bigger students in the class as this sometimes leads to the child having more confidence, and increases their chances of excelling in physical activities during gym class or recess.

Researchers believe developing a good amount of confidence at an early age only raises the chances of that confidence staying with the child, as there will always be an age and potential size difference compared to other classmates for the child's whole academic career.

The study also revealed the amount of CEOs who have birthdays in June and July far outweigh those CEOs who were born in the other 10 months of the year.

“Our evidence is consistent with the ‘relative-age effect’ due to school admissions grouping together children with age differences up to one year, with children born in June and July disadvantaged throughout life by being younger than their classmates born in other months,” said the researchers in the study.

“Our results suggest that the relative-age effect has a long-lasting influence on career success.”

Earlier not always better

Many parents believe enrolling a child into kindergarten when they become old enough during the summer, allows them to practically get an extra year of schooling, as some would say “the earlier the better” when it comes to children learning how to read, count and spell their names.

And although some younger kindergarteners may actually outshine older classmates in these areas, sometimes they don’t do as well socially, as being the youngest and smallest student from the point of kindergarten all the way up until high school never really scores them any points with their peers.

In fact, younger age children and those with a smaller physical stature could be subject to teasing and ridicule from other children.

Levi says this could affect a child’s level of confidence by a great deal, which they can carry with them when applying for jobs after college graduation, especially those jobs that are in leadership roles.

This can not only have a big impact on the child’s future, but also to the business world, that could potentially have fewer capable and confident leaders.

“We could be excluding some of the business world’s best talent simply by enrolling them in school too early,” said Levi.

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East Coast Storm Takes a Toll on Air Travel

Getting somewhere on a plane this week may prove to be a problem

In addition to the evacuations in the Hurricane Sandy impact zone along the East Coast, air travel throughout the U.S. is being affected by weather-related...

PhotoIn addition to the evacuations in the Hurricane Sandy impact zone along the East Coast, air travel throughout the U.S. is being affected by weather-related flight delays and cancellations. Delays and cancellations at airports in the storm's path affect the entire system, because of connecting flights.

Nearly 8,000 flights have been cancelled, or are expected to be cancelled, before the storm runs its course by late this week. It's not just high winds forcing the cancellations. New York City, for example, has suspended mass transit services, which is how many passengers get to and from airports.

Airports like New York's Laguardia, which is located on the water, face the possibility of flooding from the storm surge.

Suspended flights

Nearly all airlines have suspended flights at East Coast airports. Southwest Airlines, for example, suspended operations at 13 East Coast airports on Sunday, including Philadelphia.

“The resumption of service at Philadelphia will be contingent upon the condition of the runways, taxiways, and airport services,” Southwest said on its website. “Southwest is offering flexible travel accommodations for our customers who are planning to travel to/from Philadelphia on Monday, October 29 and Tuesday, October 30.”

United Airlines says where severe weather and other uncontrollable events are affecting the airline's operations, it may issue an exception policy, waiving change fees, designed to accommodate customers with restricted tickets who wish to change their travel in advance of any potential disruption, as long as the travel was booked no later than October 26.

29 airports

It listed 29 airports where operations were impacted and these exemptions might be granted.

American Airlines announced a similar exemption policy and said it is continuing to adjust its schedules because of the storm.

“You may be experiencing some cancellations or delays as a result of some of the operational challenges we have been experiencing recently,” the airline said. “We are extending our limited schedule reductions through the first half of November, and apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. The planned flight reductions will not impact your holiday travel.”

JetBlue announced it would also waive change and cancellation fees for travel booked to or from New York area airports, Washington, Baltimore, Boston and Richmond, Va. Travel must have been booked on or before October 26.

The Federal Aviation Administration operates a webpage that monitors delays at airports. You can find it here.

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Some Last Minute October Deals on SUVs

There may be a small window of time when you can land a good deal

October is nearly gone but deals on SUVs are not. There are still some intriguing deals out there with zero percent financing.TrueCar.com, a site that an...

PhotoOctober is nearly gone but deals on SUVs are not. There are still some intriguing deals out there with zero percent financing.

TrueCar.com, a site that analyzes new car pricing information, has uncovered some deals on SUVs that include cash, finance and lease deals. The cash deals reflect the possible discount from the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) and include manufacturer-to-consumer rebates. With these available deals, TrueCar suggests that now is the best time for new-car shoppers to purchase a sport utility vehicle.

SUVs are not the gas hogs they were just a short time ago. Most are lighter, have more efficient engines but still provide the greater degree of utility that often comes in handy with the approach of winter weather. And now, it turns out, might be a good time to buy.

Consumer attitudes about SUVs haven't changed much over the last year, according to a ConsumerAffairs sentiment analysis of about 1.6 million comments on social media. Slightly less than half of consumers regard SUVs positively.

 

"If you are planning to shop for an SUV this winter, we recommend making your purchase either in the remaining days of October or early November," said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst at TrueCar.com. "Due to seasonality, demand for SUVs typically climbs to its highest levels in December, causing prices to increase from what you can buy them at today."

Some examples of discounts available on 2012 and 2013 SUVs include:

  • 2012 Dodge Durango –0% financing for up to 60 months plus up to $1,000 cash allowance (Expires: 10/31/12)
  • 2012 Chevrolet Equinox – 2.9% financing for 60 months (Expires: 10/31/12)
  • 2013 Hyundai Tucson – 0.9% financing for 36 months (Expires: 10/31/12)
  • 2013 Mazda CX-5 – 0.9% financing for 36 months (Expires: 10/31/12)
  • 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan – 0% financing for 72 months (Expires: 10/31/12)

Keep in mind that not every consumer will qualify for zero percent financing. You generally have to possess a pretty healthy credit score. If you can learn your score before arriving at the dealership you'll have a better idea if zero percent financing is a real option for you or just away to get you to visit the dealership.

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Are You Ready for a Robot Helper?

Most older people are receptive to the idea

The idea of a robot as domestic help is nothing new. Woody Allen employed the concept with hilarious results in 1973's “Sleeper.”But scientis...

PhotoThe idea of a robot as domestic help is nothing new. Woody Allen employed the concept with hilarious results in 1973's “Sleeper.”

But scientists have always been serious about the idea and are now tweaking robotic models that can help around the house, particularly in households with older adults. The question, however, is would older adults want a robot helper rather than a human?

When researchers at Georgia Tech asked that question, they got a resounding “yes,” with one caveat. For personal tasks and social activities, older adults prefer human help.

Participants in the study generally preferred robotic help over human help for chores such as cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry and taking out the trash. But when it came to help getting dressed, eating and bathing, the adults tended to say they would prefer human assistance over robot assistance. They also preferred human help for social activities, such as calling family and friends or entertaining guests.

Misconceptions

“There are many misconceptions about older adults having negative attitudes toward robots,” said Georgia Tech’s Cory-Ann Smarr a School of Psychology graduate teaching assistant. “The people we interviewed were very enthusiastic and optimistic about robots in their daily lives. They were also very particular in their preferences, something that can assist researchers as they determine what to design and introduce in the home.”

Smarr and Psychology Professor Wendy Rogers, the principal investigator on the project, also noticed that preferences varied across tasks, such as medication. For instance, adults said they are willing to use a robot for reminders to take medicine, but they are more comfortable if a person helps them decide which medication to take.

“It seems that older people are less likely to trust a robot with decision-making tasks than with monitoring or physical assistance,” said Rogers. “Researchers should be careful not to generalize preferences when designing assistive robots.”

The older adults in the study were all healthy and independent, and nearly 75 percent said they used everyday technologies such as cell phones and appliances.

Many said they don’t need immediate assistance. The research team is planning future studies for adults who currently need help with everyday tasks.

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Current TV Could Be Up For Sale

Reports suggest the troubled network may go to the next highest bidder.

Anybody want to buy a TV network?The progressive and left of center cable channel Current TV is reportedly up for sale after suffering from low ratings a...

PhotoAnybody want to buy a TV network?

The progressive and left-of-center cable channel Current TV is reportedly up for sale after suffering from low ratings and multiple changes in both programming and on-air personalities.

It’s been an interesting seven years for the cable network created and brought to life by former Vice President Al Gore in 2005.

For some viewers Current has been one of the go-to channels for compelling documentaries and political talk, while hiring some pretty big names from both the television and political worlds like former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and co-host of The View Joy Bailey.

Current has even found a place for former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose political career went down in flames after the New York Times reported he was paying for high-priced prostitutes back in 2008.

PhotoSince its beginning, Current has seemed to cater to a younger and more politically-minded viewing audience and has often covered subject matter that was either too out-of-the-box or edgy for mainstream media, which has made the network stand out from its competitors.

But sadly, the inventive programming also made it a niche channel that catered to a very specific corner of the viewing audience.

Olbermann ousted

In March of this year, former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann was fired from Current, which spawned a public back and forth between the famed TV personality and the cable network, and since then, Current has really tried to brand itself has a lefty political network, as opposed to years past -- when it shifted between politics and in-your-face-styled exposes.

PhotoAfter failing to reach audiences beyond the younger demographic it catered to, Current has seemingly lost its way in terms of balancing edgy programming with more middle of the road content, which appeals to larger audiences.

And although it reaches about 60 million households in the United States, that doesn't mean many people watch it; many just don't think of Current as the first place to go when it comes to global news, politics or creative documentaries.

As a result the network has suffered, and many have approached Vice President Gore, and Current’s CEO Joel Hyatt, about buying the station and possibly turning it into something entirely new.

“Current has been approached many times by media companies interested in acquiring our company, said Hyatt in an interview with the New York Post. “This year alone, we have had three inquiries. As a consequence, we thought it might be useful to engage expertise to help us evaluate our strategic options.”

If Current TV is ultimately purchased, it will be interesting to see if the network will get a complete makeover or if the new owners will just make some needed adjustments and programming tweaks.

Some may say the station doesn’t need to do that much to appeal to a wider audience, other than include lighter content, maybe some entertainment news, and grab a few more celebrities for interviews and guest-hosting.

It’s sad but this is seemingly what many viewers prefer over content that’s loaded with layered substance and thought-provoking material.

Better marketing

But where Current really needs improvement is in the area of marketing and letting people know what channels it’s on and what times programs run. Also what hurts the station is not being able to successfully promote and market itself outside the demographic that it’s trying to reach.

PhotoFor some reason the network has done a lot of preaching-to-the-choir  marketing, while those not familiar with Current remain in the dark.

There has been no official word about any specific offers in terms of dollar amount, but it’s pretty safe to say that Current may not be Current in the near future, as the new owners could take it from a source of creative programming to just a plain old cable network. Stay tuned, folks.

 

 

 

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The Raspberry Pi: $25 Computer Teaches Kids Computer Programming

And its creators the Raspberry Pi Foundation wants to ship these computers around the globe.

Around the early 1980s many schools started incorporating computer classes in its curriculums, as big clunky desk-tops computers were just starting to hit ...

PhotoAround the early 1980s many schools started incorporating computer classes in their curricula, as big clunky desktop computers were just starting to hit the market.

Both teachers and students learned how to do things like navigate the keyboard and turn the screen on and off, because even though teachers knew a little more than students about computers, it was still pretty new to everyone.

Fast forward to 2012, when using desktops, laptops and mobile devices couldn’t be more commonplace, and by the time most children are able to sit by themselves or stand, they’ve already figured out at least the basics of computer navigation, which makes computer classes not as important as they used to be.

Some would say the students could probably teach the teachers a thing or two about computers nowadays.

Below the surface

But how many children actually know how computers are built, or how they’re internally designed?

PhotoLearning how to use a PC is as easy as pie nowadays, especially because they’re made so user-friendly. But when it comes to how to build computers and create applications, there aren’t too many middle schools or high schools that teach those kinds of courses.

Well, a company by the name of the Raspberry Pi Foundation wants to change all of that, as it has created a small an inexpensive computer for children that will teach them about computer programming, so kids won’t only know how to use Google or play a game, they can also learn how computers actually work.

The idea behind the foundation and their product the Raspberry Pi, was to create a computer primarily for writing simple software and learning the basics of computer hardware. But it also works as a regular PC, capable of running video games, word processing and web access.

The Raspberry Pi only uses an SD card for storage, and comes without a monitor keyboard. Kids can plug in a keyboard and hook up their TVs, which might be a slight inconvenience, but the Pi goes for only $25 or $35 depending on which model you choose. Consumers can purchase it through global distributors, RS Components and Premier Farnell/Element 14. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is based in the United Kingdom.

Under the hood

The Raspberry Pi is actually just a circuit board ("mother-board" in geek talk), enabling students to get a clearer understanding of what goes on under the hood. The idea is to get kids just as excited about computer programming as they are about playing game consoles or using sites like Twitter or Facebook.

Some schools like Computing at School--based in the United Kingdom--are working with the Raspberry Pi Foundation by using the circuit boards in classrooms, while also creating manuals and tutorials to help teach computer science to children.

In fact, the Raspberry Pi’s goal is to send these inexpensive computers around the world, namely in underdeveloped countries, so the next generation of computer users will learn how to both use and build different devices.

The UK based academic organization the Royal Society said products like the Raspberry Pi are needed for a generation of children who have seemingly gone away from being interested in courses like computer science.

“We appear to have succeeded in making many people comfortable with using the technology that we find around us, but this seems to have been at the expense of failing to provide a deeper understanding of the rigorous academic subject of computer science,” said the Royal Society in a study it conducted.

Raspberry Pi’s founder Eben Upton says the new board will refocus the minds of children who may be cautious about tinkering with their own computers, because the devices are typically very expensive and even more costly to repair if broken.

“Many [children] just don’t have computers at all,” he said in a published interview. “If they do, it’s a family computer, and you don’t want to mess with it. What we’ve ended up with is something that’s very powerful from a multimedia level. We’ve styled the user experience to a recognizably modern thing while staying at the same price point.”

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The Worst Credit Cards of 2012

Credit card expert highlights some credit card offers you should avoid

A number of lenders compete to convince you their credit card is best. But what are the credit cards you should avoid?For starters, avoid cards that levy...

PhotoA number of lenders compete to convince you their credit card is best. But what are the credit cards you should avoid?

For starters, avoid cards that levy high interest rates and charge a large annual fee. There are just too many cards out there that offer better deals.

The credit card site CardHub.com has analyzed the current offerings -- more than 1,000 -- and come up with a handful of cards that it says consumers should avoid.

General consumer credit cards – rewards

Credit card companies offer rewards, either cash back or points toward other purchases, to build loyalty. The worst in this category, according to CardHub, is the Visa Black Card, a product offered by Barclaycard US. This is not to be confused with the famed Centurion Card from American Express.

While the latter is a status symbol and a pop culture staple, CardHub says the former is just grossly overpriced, charging a $495 annual fee for a measly 1 point per $1 spent, airport lounge access and the vague promise of luxury gifts.

“It’s obvious that the Visa Black Card’s pricing is one of the ways that Barclaycard US is trying to fool consumers into thinking they’re getting the Black Card they see their favorite musicians and actors flaunting,” said Card Hub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou. “They want you to think, ‘If it’s that expensive, it must be the real deal.’ However, the Centurion Card is rumored to have a $5,000 initial fee and a $2,500 annual fee. Besides, its secrecy is part of its lore, so the fact that you can even apply for the Visa Black Card online or see commercials for it on TV should tip you off that it’s not the real deal.”

General-consumer credit cards – big-ticket new purchases

Some credit cards give you a low introductory rate for new large purchases. Obviously, the lower the rate and the longer the introductory period, the better. CardHub says Arvest Bank Classic Credit Card offers a 4.9 percent interest rate for six month before it kicks up to 17.9 percent. CardHub says you can do a lot better.

“There are simply too many credit cards out there offering 0% introductory APRs for well over a year to even consider a card whose intro rate is nearly 5% and lasts for only six months,” Papadimitriou said. “In fact, the average 0% credit card offers that rate for over 10 months. This card’s inferiority is best illustrated when you compare it to the likes of the Citi Diamond Preferred and Citi Simplicity cards, both of which offer 0% on new purchases for 18 months.”

General-consumer credit cards – balance transfers

Consumers often apply for a new credit card that will allow them to transfer a high-interest balance from another card and pay a lower interest rate. That's a sound strategy for speeding up the pay-down of your account balance.

The worst of the balance transfer cards, according to CardHub, is the UBS Preferred Visa Signature card. It offers a 9.99% introductory balance transfer APR for 6 months and charges a 3% balance transfer fee as well as a $495 annual fee. Papadimitriou says there are plenty of cards that offer a 0% balance transfer option. A much better choice, he says.

Rebuilding credit

A number of cards promote themselves as a means for consumers to rebuild a damaged credit rating. All too often the cards in this category have the worst terms for consumers. But CardHub says the First Premier Bank Gold Card stands out.

In addition to a 36% interest rate, this card charges a $95.00 processing fee prior to account opening, a $75.00 annual fee during the first year, a $45 annual fee in each subsequent year, a $6.25 monthly fee beginning in the second year, and a 25% fee for any credit limit increase.

“When you’re building credit, you want a card with the lowest possible fee structure,” Papadimitriou said. “And under no circumstances should you waste $170 in fees when you can take $30 more and place a $200 fully refundable security deposit for a secured credit card with a $29 annual fee.”

“I knew that the credit limit was going to be very low ($300), but didn't care as my only intention was to further establish my credit,” Les, of Bradley, IL, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post about First Premier. “However, I didn't read all of the fine print (my fault) prior to receiving the card and soon found out that by the time they were finished applying all the needless charges i.e. annual fees, one-time fees, etc., I actually only had roughly $50 available for spending purposes. In the end, I ended up -$250 by the time I received the card.”

Credit card for students

Many students head off to college with a new credit card for expenses or emergencies. Which one should you avoid. CardHub awards the honor to U.S. Bank College Visa, saying it doesn’t provide any rewards or low introductory rates and students may end up with a regular APR as high as 20.99% APR -- the highest rate among student cards.

A common mistake consumers make is applying for a card based on an advertising mailer that arrives in their mailbox. The best strategy is to think about what you want from a credit card and compare as many options in that category as possible.

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FBI: Violent Crime Down in 2011

It's the fifth straight decline, with a drop in robberies leading the way

There's continued progress in the war against crime in the U.S. The estimated number of violent crimes declined for the fifth consecutive year in 2011, ac...

PhotoThere's continued progress in the war against crime in the U.S.

The estimated number of violent crimes declined for the fifth consecutive year in 2011, according to figures released by the FBI. Property crimes also fell, marking the ninth straight year that the collective estimates for these offenses were down.

The 2011 statistics show that the estimated volumes of violent and property crimes declined 3.8 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively, when compared with the 2010 estimates. The violent crime rate for the year was 386.3 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants – down 4.5 percent from the 2010 rate; the property crime rate was 2,908.7 offenses per 100,000 persons a drop of 1.3 percent from the previous year.

These and additional data are presented in the 2011 edition of the FBI’s annual report, “Crime in the United States,” a statistical compilation of offense and arrest data reported by law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program.

Local involvement

The UCR Program collects information on crimes reported by law enforcement agencies regarding the violent crimes of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, as well as the property crimes of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

(Although the FBI classifies arson as a property crime, it does not estimate arson data because of variations in the level of participation by the reporting agencies. Consequently, arson is not included in the property crime estimate.) The program also collects arrest data for the offenses listed above plus 20 additional offenses that include all other crimes except traffic violations.

The breakdown

In 2011, there were 18,233 city, county, university and college, state, tribal, and federal agencies that participated in the UCR Program. A summary of the statistics reported by these agencies, which are included in “Crime in the United States, 2011”, follows:

  • Nationwide in 2011, there were an estimated 1,203,564 violent crimes.
  • Each of the four violent crime offense estimates decreased when compared with the 2010 estimates. Robbery had the largest decrease at 4.0 percent, followed by aggravated assault with a 3.9 percent decline, forcible rape with a 2.5 percent decline, and murder and nonnegligent manslaughter with a 0.7 percent decrease.
  • Nationwide in 2011, there were an estimated 9,063,173 property crimes.
  • There was a 3.3 percent decline in motor vehicle theft and a 0.7 percent decline in larceny-theft offenses. Estimated burglary offenses increased by 0.9 percent when compared with the 2010 estimate.
  • Collectively, victims of property crimes (excluding arson) lost an estimated $15.6 billion in 2011.
  • The FBI estimated that in 2011, agencies nationwide made about 12.4 million arrests, excluding traffic violations.
  • The 2011 arrest rate for violent crimes was 172.3 per 100,000 inhabitants; for property crime, the rate was 531.3 per 100,000 inhabitants.
  • By violent crime offense, the arrest rate for murder and nonnegligent manslaughter was 3.5; forcible rape, 6.3; robbery, 34.5; and aggravated assault was 128.0 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants.
  • By property crime offense, the arrest rate for burglary was 95.6; larceny-theft, 410.6; and motor vehicle theft, 21.4 per 100,000 inhabitants. The arrest rate for arson was 3.8 per 100,000 inhabitants.
  • In 2011, there were 14,633 law enforcement agencies that reported their staffing levels to the FBI. These agencies reported that, as of October 31, 2011, they collectively employed 698,460 sworn officers and 303,524 civilians, a rate of 3.4 employees for each 1,000 inhabitants.
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Hurricane Sandy Threatens East Coast

From Kitty Hawk to Cape Cod, heavy wind and flooding damage is expected

Schools, government offices and mass transit closed today from Washington to Boston and beyond as Hurricane Sandy, which killed at least five dozen people ...

Photo
The sea rises over a marina on Long Island's Great South Bay Monday morning. Photo by Tom Thorson

UPDATED: 12 Noon Monday

Schools, government offices and mass transit closed today from Washington to Boston and beyond as Hurricane Sandy, which killed at least five dozen people in the Caribbean, took aim at more than 60 million as it moved up the East Coast towards the country's most densely populated region.

As it moves north, the giant storm is expected to meet up with two other powerful winter storm systems, creating an even more threatening hybrid. At mid-morning Monday, it officially became the largest tropical storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Crisis map

Google's Crisis Map combines information from the National Hurricane Center, American Red Cross and other trusted sources. It offers details about the storm's current and forecasted locations, emergency shelter locations, live webcam feeds, public safety alerts, traffic conditions, and a wealth of other vital information.

The New York Times, meanwhile, is publishing a state-by-state guide to Sandy. Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal have turned off their paywalls during the storm. 

Besides hurricane-force winds, the massive storm system is expected to blanket the region with sheets of rain, high winds and heavy snow, threatening New York Harbor, Long Island Sound and other coastal areas with flash flooding.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued in much of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, as well as along the exposed outer coastlines of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.  Beaches began to disappear and in Ocean City, Maryland, a large pier collapsed.

Officials warned that some barrier islands, many lined with expensive beach homes, could be wiped out by a massive storm surge.  

Power outages and communications interruptions are expected to last for days and possibly weeks, as the storm-soaked ground and high winds combine to fell trees throughout the region.

Phone companies are trying to prepare -- topping off fuel for backup generators and lining up disaster recovery trailers to move into flooded areas after the storm passes. Verizon says its network is operating normally so far (as of about 2 p.m).

Photo
President Barack Obama receives an update on the ongoing response to Hurricane Sandy at the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Local and state governments scrambled to prepare for the brewing disaster. In Fairfax County, Va., officials issued these preparedness tips:

1.)    Supplies: Get your supplies – water, medicines, canned food, cash, pet food and more. We strongly recommend that you be prepared with at least three days of supplies.

2.)    Gas: Fill your car’s gas tank. Gas stations will be in short supply in a power outage.

3.)    Generators: If you have a generator or plan to buy one, please be familiar with safety tips.

4.)    Food Safety:  Power outages and flooding may happen as a result of a tropical storm or hurricane, so have a plan for keeping food safe. Have a cooler on hand to keep food cold, and group food together in the freezer so it stays cold longer.

5.)    Outdoor Items: Plan to secure all outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans and anything else that is not tied down.

Photo
Sandy continues its slow trek up the East Coast. NOAA image.

6.)    Trees: Remove dead limbs on trees that could fall on your property (home, car, land).

7.)    Leaves: Clear leaves from storm drains, gutters and other areas that, if clogged, could cause flooding.

8.)   Weather Forecasts: Pay close attention to weather forecasts for the latest storm track. We will provide guidance as needed. Purchase or charge up your weather radio. If you have a weather radio that uses SAME codes, Fairfax County’s SAME code is 051059.

9.)    Tech Ready: View our Digital Preparedness Kit, which is an important way to stay informed and connected before, during and after an emergency.

10.) Phone Numbers: Save important phone numbers to your phone or write them down, especially your power company. Always report a power outage.

Best battery

Photo
A beach house on Long Island awaits the rising tide. Photo by Tom Thorson

Consumer Reports magazine chimed in with some suggestions. If you're getting your flashlights ready to do battle, the magazine says the Energizer Ultimate lithium lasted the longest in the Consumer Reports flashlight tests, making it their recommendation for consumers who don’t want to get caught in the dark.  

Also check out Consumer Reports generators ratings, and if generators in your area are all sold out CR has identified power inverters that can keep your refrigerator running when attached to your car battery. 

 

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Whole, Skim, Soy Milk - What's the Difference?

We spoke to an expert and registered nutritionist to see what type of milk consumers should be buying

Milk, milk, milk-- It’s all over the place.When one goes to the grocery store, the shelf that holds the milk is a display of bright colors. There&r...

Milk, milk, milk -- It’s all over the place.

When one goes to the grocery store, the shelf that holds the milk is a display of bright colors. There’s one color for whole milk, one color for skim milk, and by the time you’re ready to grab a container it’s hard to know just what’s the healthiest.

Photo

Is there really that much of a health difference between milk that’s 1 percent and 2 percent?

Some of us think that skim milk is too foul to drink, but surprisingly, a computerized sentiment analysis of 160,000 consumer comments posted on social media shows that some people actually like the stuff.

 

There is, as they say, no accounting for taste.  

But to get back on-topic, we're supposed to be talking about the health benefits of  various types of milk, so we spoke to Registered Dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Amy Jamieson-Petonic, who previously spoke to us about the differences in fresh, canned and frozen foods.  

Jamieson-Petonic says that between cow’s milk, almond milk, rice milk, goats, and soy milk, the benefits differ depending on the health needs of the consumer.

“If you are lactose intolerant, I would suggest an unsweetened soy milk or almond milk," she said in a ConsumerAffairs interview.

"I recommend the unsweetened so that you do not get the added sugar  in the product. Added sugars increase inflammation and increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. If you are allergic to soy, then a milk-based product would work better.”

Photo
Amy Jamieson-Petonic

It’s safe to assume that most people associate milk consumption with getting needed levels of calcium, but according to Jamieson-Petonic, not all milks are created equal and consumers should carefully check the label on containers and do a little bit of math to determine just how calcium-rich a particular type of milk is.

“You take the nutrition facts panel, and look at the calcium (it’s written as a percentage). You take the calcium percentage and add a zero to the end and that tells you how many milligrams of calcium are in the product,” explained Jamieson-Petonic.

“For example, an 8 ounce (1 cup) serving of milk provides 30 percent of your daily calcium needs. Calcium needs are determined by 1,000 milligrams per day. So the 8 ounce cup of milk provides 300 milligrams of calcium for the day,” she said.

And what’s the daily amount of calcium we should be taking in? It’s different for both genders says Jamieson-Petonic.

“For men: 80 to 1,000 milligrams per day. For women: 1,000-1,200 milligrams per day,” she detailed.

She also says that mothers should choose to use their own milk instead of using formula for their infant.

“The Academy supports breastfeeding whenever possible," she said. "Breastfeeding not only promotes optimal nutrition, but also cognitive development, immunity, and perhaps long-term weight management strategies.”

1% - What a difference

PhotoJamieson-Petonic, who authored the two books How to Lose Weight and Feel Great Without Dieting as well as No Nonsense Nutrition: Real Nutrition for Real People, explained the differences between 1 and 2 percent milk and skim milk are pretty substantial.

“Whole milk provides 8 grams of fat per 1 cup, 2 percent [equals] 4 grams, 1 percent [equals] 1.5 to 2 grams, and skim [has] zero grams,” she said. "They all provide the same Vitamin D and calcium."

And what about those people who don’t like milk at all and avoid it all costs? The nutrition expert says there are other ways a person can get the health benefits of milk.

“There is calcium-fortified orange juice, breads, and other calcium-fortified products,” she said. “Calcium citrate is absorbed a bit better than calcium carbonate, so choose citrate if possible. Your body can only absorb about 500 to 600 milligrams of calcium at one time, so take your supplements at different times of the day. For example, take your 600 milligram supplement at breakfast and then the other with dinner, so you absorb the entire 1,200.”

So in short, it’s wise to carefully read the milk cartons label, as opposed to blindly grabbing the same type of milk you've been buying for years, as one’s health needs may change as time passes.

Jamieson-Petonic also says if milk is giving your infant or child a lot of phlegm and mucus, that's not normal, and the child should be taken to the pediatrician for further analysis.

 

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Lifestyle Lift Doesn't Always Turn Out as Expected

Consumers complain of hard-sell techniques, outcomes that don't meet their hopes

Want to light up your life? Songstress Debby Boone suggests you look into Lifestyle Lift, a nationwide cosmetic surgery company that claims to take a "revo...

PhotoWant to light up your life? Songstress Debby Boone suggests you look into Lifestyle Lift, a nationwide cosmetic surgery chain that claims to take a "revolutionary approach" to "facial rejuvenation."

In its infomercials and web ads, some narrated by Ms. Boone herself, Lifestyle Lift promises it "turns the clock back by tightening and smoothing your face and neck to create a more youthful appearance."

The advertising promises a quick and painless procedure without the messy complications of full-blown surgery. But consumers say it doesn't always turn out that way.

Hit by an IED

"One year ago, my mother almost died after having a Lifestyle Lift in Huntersville, NC.," said Teresa of Wake Forest, N.C., in a ConsumerAffairs posting earlier this month.  "Prior to her surgery, she was told it was okay to consume a small meal before surgery. She had a small box of chicken nuggets (6) and an unsweetened tea. During her surgery, she began to vomit while under local anesthetic and aspirated some of the partially digested contents of her meal into her lungs."

Teresa said that two days after the surgery, her mother's blood became septic and she wound up in the Intensive Care Unit.

Photo"She looked like she had been hit by an IED and was on a respirator. We were not given much hope by the doctors, but we knew she was a fighter," Teresa said.

Linda of Upland, Calif., said she had the procedure in July 2011 but was unhappy with the results.  

"The procedure was very painful. I experienced approximately 20 painful shots, which numbed the area, but I could feel (and hear) the cutting of my skin and stitching," she said.  "The recovery was long and painful and I followed their instructions to the letter, even sleeping in an upright position for a month. The results were not good. I saw no improvement."

A follow-up surgery was scheduled which Linda said turned out even worse.

"Now I am left looking worse than I did before the surgery with jowls and marionette lines and scars around my ears and chin area. I am out $6,000! I contacted the company and tried to get a refund (or partial refund) and they denied my request."

Painful and unsatisfying

Although their experiences were painful and ultimating unsatisfying, Teresa, Linda and the others who have posted on ConsumerAffairs can take some satisfaction in knowing that they have helped others by sharing their experience.

As Martha of Bronx, N.Y., put it: "Thank you to all who have suffered. You have saved me from myself. I also felt pressured when I made that phone call. I asked for printed material and doctors' names. The salesperson refused to give me names and in the end didn't send the printed material. I've dodged a bullet. Thanks again to all who are still in pain. I pray for you."

It hasn't always been easy to find honest reviews from real Lifestyle Lift patients. It was just a few years ago, in July 2009, that the company settled a lawsuit with the New York Attorney General over its attempts to post fake reviews on popular websites.

Under the settlement, Lifestyle Lift agreed to stop publishing anonymous positive reviews about the company to Internet message boards and other Web sites, and paid $300,000 in penalties and costs. The case was believed to be the first in the nation aimed at combating "astroturfing," a growing problem on the Internet.

Lifestyle Lift employees published positive reviews and comments about the company to trick Web-browsing consumers into believing that satisfied customers were posting their own stories, the attorney general said. 

Astroturfing

Lifestyle Lift Oct. 25, 2012, 8:40 p.m.
Consumers rate Lifestyle Lift

“This company’s attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative, and illegal,” said then-Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. “My office has and will continue to be on the forefront in protecting consumers against emerging fraud and deception, including ‘astroturfing,’ on the Internet.”

Internal emails discovered by Cuomo’s investigation showed that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in the illegal activity. One e-mail to employees said: “Friday is going to be a slow day - I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client.” Another internal email directed a Lifestyle Lift employee to “Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had.”

But that was then. We could find no reports of other substantive action against the cosmetic surgery chain, although some consumers -- like Linda of Upland -- think someone should do something.

"This place should be shut down. I think a class action suit should be brought against them. I am frustrated and angry and wish I knew how to get help," Linda said.

In fact, a class action suit is unlikely because of so many widely varying circumstances affecting each patient's case. What individual consumers Like Linda should do is consult an attorney who specializes in medical malpractice. If a patient has suffered serious and lasting harm as the result of medical error of negligence, there is always the possibility that litigation will bring relief.

Consumers should deal only with lawyers with extensive experience in malpractice or personal injury cases and should insist on a contingency arrangement, under which the attorney's fee is paid from the settlement, not upfront by the consumer, legal experts said.

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Survey Shows Many US iPad Owners Unhappy with Timing of New iPad 4 Launch

iPad Mini still set to be a hit though the Kindle Fire is more popular

While a lot of people may be happy with Apple's new iPad products, there are a lot who have a problem with the timing of the releases. Within 24 hours of...

PhotoWhile a lot of people may be happy with Apple's new iPad products, there are a lot who have a problem with the timing of the releases.

Within 24 hours of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s unveiling of the new iPad as well as the iPad Mini, Toluna QuickSurveys has the first reliable consumer reaction to the launch. A survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers online found 45% of iPad owners feel disgruntled that Apple has released a new iPad 4 only seven months after the release of the iPad 3.

Reaction to the iPad Mini was more positive with 14% saying they will “definitely buy one” and another 32% saying they will "probably buy one."

However, when directly asked which device they would prefer out of the iPad Mini, Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 Tablet, the Kindle came out on top with 46%, followed by the iPad Mini (40%) and Nexus a distant third (14%).

Size does matter

Size was the major factor driving demand for the iPad Mini with 25% saying it was the most impressive feature, followed by “speed and performance” (22%) and enhanced battery life (22%).

The survey also asked U.S. consumers about their general attitude toward Apple. More than 1 in 4 (26%) believe Apple’s reputation has been tarnished by the iMaps fiasco following the iPhone 5 release, and nearly half (45%) believe Apple is an inferior company since current CEO Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs.

Other findings

Other notable findings from the research include:

  • Current iPad owners were even more likely to purchase the iPad Mini, with 30% saying they would “definitely” purchase the new device and 39% saying they will “probably” purchase one.
  • The 3G or 4G iPad Mini is set to be marginally more popular than the Wifi only version with 51% of those intending to buy an iPad Mini preferring the cellular version.
  • Environmental friendly materials are a key driver for more than one-third of US consumers with 35% claiming the environmentally friendly and recyclable materials will positively impact their decision to buy one.
  • The iPad Mini is set to become a hot holiday gift with, 1 in 5 (21%) planning to buy the tablet as a holiday gift.
  • The double camera was the least impressive feature, with only 7% nominating it as a standout feature.
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Study Says Resveratrol Has Little Impact on the Healthy

But another ingredient in red wine may be responsible for promoting health

Resveratrol is an ingredient found in the skin of grapes that is thought to hold many health benefits. It may, in fact, but new research suggests it's not ...

PhotoResveratrol is an ingredient found in the skin of grapes that is thought to hold many health benefits. It may, in fact, but new research suggests it's not a miracle ingredient for everyone.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis say resveratrol may improve insulin sensitivity, reduce risk of heart disease and increase longevity, but it does not appear to offer these benefits in healthy women.

Admittedly, the study is a small one. It involved 29 post-menopausal women who did not have type 2 diabetes and who were reasonably healthy. For 12 weeks, half took an over-the-counter resveratrol supplement, and the rest got a placebo, or sugar pill.

In supplement form

"Resveratrol supplements have become popular because studies in cell systems and rodents show that resveratrol can improve metabolic function and prevent or reverse certain health problems like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer," said senior investigator Samuel Klein, MD, director of Washington University's Center for Human Nutrition. "But our data demonstrate that resveratrol supplementation does not have metabolic benefits in relatively healthy, middle-aged women."

The study may call into question the assumption, derived from previous research, that drinking red wine or taking resveratrol supplements lowers the risk of health problems. That may be because previous studies have mostly measured resveratrol's effects on specific parts of the population.

"Few studies have evaluated the effects of resveratrol in people," Klein said. "Those studies were conducted in people with diabetes, older adults with impaired glucose tolerance or obese people who had more metabolic problems than the women we studied. So it is possible that resveratrol could have beneficial effects in people who are more metabolically abnormal than the subjects who participated in the study."

Big business

Many people who have heard about red wine's health benefits but don't drink alcohol have purchased resveratrol supplements to get the benefits. Resveratrol has become a sizable segment of the supplement market, accounting for about $30 million in annual sales. But the research suggests that if you are a healthy person, you might not need them.

As part of the study, Klein and his colleagues gave 15 post-menopausal women 75 milligrams of resveratrol daily, the same amount they'd get from drinking 8 liters of red wine, and compared their insulin sensitivity to 14 others who took a placebo.

The team measured the women's sensitivity to insulin and the rate of glucose uptake in their muscles, infusing insulin into their bodies and measuring their metabolic response to different doses.

"It's the most sensitive approach we have for evaluating insulin action in people," he said. "And we were unable to detect any effect of resveratrol. In addition, we took small samples of muscle and fat tissue from these women to look for possible effects of resveratrol in the body's cells, and again, we could not find any changes in the signaling pathways involved in metabolism."

The researchers aren't ruling out that some other ingredient in red wine is providing a heart health benefit. They just don't know what it is.

"The purpose of our study was not to identify the active ingredient in red wine that improves health but to determine whether supplementation with resveratrol has independent, metabolic effects in relatively healthy people," Klein said.

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Pennsylvania Outlaws Gas Chambers for Pets

The Keystone State is the 20th to take that step

Pennsylvania has become the 20th state to outlaw the use of gas chambers to euthanize pets kept at animal shelters. Governor Tom Corbett signed the bill th...

PhotoPennsylvania has become the 20th state to outlaw the use of gas chambers to euthanize pets kept at animal shelters. Governor Tom Corbett signed the bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate.

"The citizens of Pennsylvania should be proud of their legislators for coming together to end this barbaric practice," said Nancy Shilcock of Main Line Animal Rescue (MLAR).

The bill was the subject of an intense lobbying effort but in the end, backers found that it was an easy sell. Many lawmakers were eager to sign on with their support.

"This is a victory not only for the dogs and cats of Pennsylvania but for all the people who fought so hard to ban gas chambers in our state," said Bill Smith, also of MLAR.

Only four Pennsylvania shelters still use gas

The new law mandates an end to the use of carbon monoxide chambers in Pennsylvania. It affects only four animal shelters in the state that still use gas to put down animals.

Supporters built on networks of support that proved instrumental in passing legislation in 2008 that cracked down on the state's puppy mills.

MLAR worked to raise awareness among lawmakers about how gas is used to kill animals. The group says the process can last up to thirty minutes with multiple terrified dogs or cats in the chamber at one time.

The American Humane Society says animal shelters are not required to keep records of the number of animals they take in and euthanize. However, it surveyed 1,000 animal shelters in 1997 and found that roughly 64 percent of the total number of animals that entered shelters were euthanized -- approximately 2.7 million animals in just these 1,000 shelters.

It is estimated that approximately 3.7 million animals were euthanized in the nation’s shelters in 2008. This number represents a generally accepted statistic that is widely used by many animal welfare organizations, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).  

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Look Out Apple, Android is Gaining

Android tablets now make up 41 percent of the tablet market

When Apple reported it's third quarter earnings Thursday, one stat stuck out. The high-flying tech company sold fewer than expected iPads during the period...

PhotoWhen Apple reported it's third quarter earnings Thursday, one stat stuck out. The high-flying tech company sold fewer than expected iPads during the period.

Not surprising, says a report from Strategy Analytics, which follows the technology sector. Android tablet sales surged in the last quarter, allowing it to capture 41 percent of the tablet market to Apple's 57 percent. A year ago, Apple was thought to control two-thirds of the market.

“Global tablet shipments reached 24.7 million units in Q3 2012, rising a sluggish 43 percent from 17.2 million in Q3 2011,” Peter King, director at Strategy Analytics, said. “Demand for tablets slowed due to ongoing economic uncertainty and consumers holding off purchases in anticipation of multiple new models, like the iPad Mini, during the upcoming Q4 holiday season.”

Apple disappoints

Strategy Analytics says Apple shipped a disappointing 14.0 million iPads worldwide and captured 57 percent share in the third quarter of 2012, dipping from 64 percent a year ago.

“Apple’s slowdown allowed the Android community to make gains and Android’s global share of the tablet market now stands at a record 41 percent,” King said.

Android's move up, meanwhile, has been dramatic. A year ago only 29 percent of the market belonged to Android. Now it has a 41 percent market share.

“Global Android tablet shipments doubled annually to 10.2 million units,” said Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics. “No single Android vendor comes close to Apple in volume terms at the moment, but the collective weight of dozens of hardware partners, such as Asus, Samsung and Nook, is helping Google’s Android platform to register a growing presence in tablets.”

The company says it expects tablet sales to pick up speed in the current quarter, thanks to new entries from Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

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Have a Cold? Maybe it's a Winter Allergy

Here are some ways to avoid winter-time misery

We've entered the cold and flu season and many people have already been afflicted. But not every sneeze and cough is caused by a cold. Sometimes it's winte...

PhotoWe've entered the cold and flu season and many people have already been afflicted. But not every sneeze and cough is caused by a cold. Sometimes it's winter allergies that are contributing to the misery.

While allergies are often thought to act up only in the spring and summer, the winter months can be brutal for people sensitive to mold spores and dust mites.

"During the winter, families spend more time indoors, exposing allergic individuals to allergens and irritants like dust mites, pet dander, smoke, household sprays and chemicals, and gas fumes -- any of which can make their lives miserable," said Dr. William Reisacher, director of The Allergy Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

And then there is mold. Mold spores can cause additional problems compared with pollen allergy because mold grows anywhere and needs little more than moisture and oxygen to thrive. During the holiday season it is especially important to make sure that Christmas trees and holiday decorations are mold-free.

If you or someone in your household suffers from allergies, here are some winter-time preventive steps you might consider:

  • Turn on the exhaust fan when showering or cooking to remove excess humidity and odors.
  • Clean your carpets with a HEPA vacuum to decrease dust mites and pet allergen levels.
  • Wash your hands after playing with the family pet and avoid touching your face to decrease exposure to common winter viruses.
  • Launder your bed linens and pajamas in hot water (above 130 degrees) to kill dust mites.
  • Treat your bedroom as the allergy "safe haven" of your home because this is where you may spend most of your time. Your bedroom should have the fewest allergy triggers so keep pets, carpets, rugs and plants out of this room to avoid dust mites and mold from decaying plants. You may also want to place an allergenic barrier around your pillows and mattress to create a barrier between dust mites and your nose.
  • Spray your live Christmas tree with a garden hose before setting it up and remove all dust from your holiday decorations.
  • Install high-efficiency furnace filters: they capture 30 times more allergens, and make sure your furnace fan is always on.
  • Keep your indoor humidity level between 30-40%, with the help of a humidifier or dehumidifier, to help prevent the growth of mold and mites.
  • Change the water and filters in your humidifier according to manufacturer recommendations to avoid contamination by mold and bacteria.
  • Perform an indoor and outdoor survey of the house every month to look for visible mold and identify areas that are at high-risk for mold formation, such as a pile of firewood close to the house or an area of the basement with a musty odor.
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Consumers More Upbeat in October

Government report shows economy grew at faster-than-expected rate

Even though household incomes have fallen over the last three years and unemployment remains stubbornly high, consumers are feeling better about the econom...

PhotoEven though household incomes have fallen over the last three years and unemployment remains stubbornly high, consumers are feeling better about the economy this month.

The monthly consumer confidence survey conducted by Thomson Reuters and the University of Michigan finds a significant one-month rise in the confidence index, from 78.3 to 82.6. That's the highest level since September 2007, just before the start of the Great Recession.

Confidence rose in both what consumers see as current conditions and their expectations for the future. According to the survey, consumers are disregarding forecasts of higher food and fuel prices, saying they expect prices to go down in the coming months, or at least stay stable.

Wall Street not feeling the love

While consumers appear confident it's not altogether clear that Wall Street investors feel the same way. The stock market suffered its biggest one day loss this week since June as concerns mounted over prospects for growth.

Part of the pessimism stems from the current earnings season, which has been marked by a number of disappointments. Both Amazon and Apple reported a worse than expected third-quarter performance Thursday on slowing sales.

Stronger growth

However, the U.S. Commerce Department reports the economy grew at a two percent rate in the third quarter -- faster than expected. The numbers show the housing actually got a boost from a recovering housing market, as well as an increase in defense spending.

The economy grew in spite of a sizable drop in exports. The value of U.S. goods and services sold overseas dropped 1.6 percent in the third quarter after rising 5.3 percent in the second quarter.

Consumers and homeowners did their part to boost the economy. Consumer spending rose two percent compared with 1.5 percent in the second quarter. The residential housing sector gained 14.4 percent, building on an 8.5 percent gain in the second quarter.

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Drops, Sprays Put Curious Kids at Risk

Swallowing even a small amount of these products can cause children serious harm

It's every parent's nightmare: Your back is turned, and your child swallows something toxic. It happens with products that you may not think of as dangerou...

PhotoIt's every parent's nightmare: Your back is turned, and your child swallows something toxic. It happens with products that you may not think of as dangerous.

Take over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops used to relieve redness or nasal decongestant sprays. "In the hands of young children who are apt to swallow them, they can cause serious health consequences," says pharmacist Yelena Maslov, Pharm.D., at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

FDA is warning the public to keep these products -- which contain the active ingredients tetrahydrozoline, oxymetazoline, or naphazoline (known as imidazoline derivatives) -- out of the reach of children at all times. The products are sold under various brand names such as Visine, Dristan and Mucinex, as well as in generic and store brands.

Tiny amounts are dangerous

Maslov explains that one teaspoon of eye drops or nasal spays containing imidazoline derivatives is equal to about 5 mL, and that harm has been reported from swallowing as little as 1 mL to 2 mL. "Children who swallow even miniscule amounts of these products can have serious adverse effects," she says.

Between 1985 and 2012, FDA identified 96 cases in which children ranging from one month to five years accidentally swallowed products containing these ingredients. Cases were reported by both consumers and manufacturers to government databases monitored by FDA. According to some case reports, children were chewing or sucking on the bottles or were found with an empty bottle next to them.

There were no deaths reported, but more than half of the cases (53) reported hospitalization because of symptoms that included nausea, vomiting, lethargy (sleepiness), tachycardia (fast heart beat), and coma.

"Underreporting of these types of events is common, so it is possible there are additional cases that we may not be aware of," says Maslov.

A call for child-proof packaging

These products are meant only for use in the eyes or nose. In the eyes, the ingredients work by narrowing blood vessels to relieve redness from minor eye irritations. In the nose, they constrict blood vessels to relieve nasal congestion due to the common cold, hay fever, or allergies.

In January, 2012, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) proposed a rule to require child-resistant packaging for all products containing at least 0.08 mg of an imidazoline derivative. However, this rule has not been finalized. In addition, FDA's Division of Medication Error Prevention and Analysis (DMEPA) is partnering with CPSC to warn consumers about the need to keep these products safely out of the reach of children.

According to Up and Away and Out of Sight -- an educational initiative to remind families of the importance of safe medicine storage, in which FDA is a partner -- more than 60,000 young children end up in emergency departments every year because they got into medicines while their parent or caregiver was not looking.

Up and Away literature suggests that parents explain to their children what medicine is and why parents must be the ones to give it to the child. In addition, never tell a child that medicine is candy to get him or her to take it, even if the child does not like to take the medicine.

Out of harm’s reach

If a child accidentally swallows OTC redness-relief eye drops or nasal decongestant spray, call the National Capital Poison Center (1-800-222-1222) and seek emergency medical attention immediately. Program this number into your home and cell phones so you will have it when you need it. Post it on the fridge so it is in plain sight.

To help avoid a child's accidental exposure to any medication, parents and other caregivers should:

  • Store medicines in a safe location that is too high for young children to reach or see.
  • Never leave medicines or vitamins out on a kitchen counter or at a sick child's bedside.
  • If a medicine bottle does have a safety cap, be sure to relock it each time you use it.
  • Remind babysitters, houseguests, and visitors to keep purses, bags, or coats that have medicines in them away and out of sight when they are in your home.
  • Avoid taking medicines in front of young children because they like to mimic adults.
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Auto Claims from Deer Collisions on the Rise

State Farm records a 7.7 percent increase over last year

Deer are beautiful animals, except when they leap in front of your vehicle. That, unfortunately, is happening more and more.State Farm Insurance reports ...

PhotoDeer are beautiful animals, except when they leap in front of your vehicle. That, unfortunately, is happening more and more.

State Farm Insurance reports the number of deer-related collisions in the U.S. has increased by 7.7 percent over the last year. This jump comes after a three-year period during which these collisions dropped 2.2 percent.

Over the last four years, the number of deer-related claims paid by State Farm has increased 7.9 percent while other similar auto claims have declined 8.5 percent.

“We have known for quite a while that the frequency of auto insurance claims has been declining,” said Chris Mullen, Director, Technology Research. “But whatever is causing that trend is obviously not impacting deer-related crashes.”

Increasing deer population

In all likelihood the increase stems from the continuing increase in the deer population. The State Farm research shows the states with the highest number of auto-deer collisions tend to be rural states with large deer populations.

For example, for the sixth straight year West Virgina topped the list of states where an individual driver is most likely to run into a deer. South Dakota was second and Iowa was third.

When motorists strike a deer on the highway, it's usually costly. The average property damage cost of these incidents during the final half of 2011 and the first half of 2012 was $3,305 -- up 4.4 percent from the year before.

And this is the time of year that motorists should be especially careful of deer crossing a highway. The State Farm statistics show November is the month when most of these accidents occur. October is second and December third.

Avoiding Deer-Vehicle Mishaps

For improved highway safety and reduced damage costs, avoiding these collisions is a priority. Some collisions are simply unavoidable but here are some tips for making these a little less likely:

  • Keep in mind that deer generally travel in herds -- if you see one, there is a strong possibility others are nearby.
  • Be aware of posted deer crossing signs. These are placed in active deer crossing areas.
  • Remember that deer are most active between 6 and 9 p.m.
  • Use high beam headlamps as much as possible at night to illuminate the areas from which deer will enter roadways.
  • If a deer collision seems inevitable, attempting to swerve out of the way could cause you to lose control of your vehicle or place you in the path of an oncoming vehicle.

You may see advertisements for car-mounted deer whistles. As air generated by the moving vehicle moves through the whistle, it creates a high-pitched sound that is supposed to frighten deer away.

If you mount one of these whistles on your vehicle, State Farm says you shouldn't count on it protecting you from a collision.

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BMW Recalls 7-Series Vehicles

Doors that appear closed and latched may inadvertently open

BMW is recalling 7,485 model year 2005-2007 7-Series vehicles, equipped with both Comfort Access and Soft Close Automatic options, and manufactured August ...

PhotoBMW is recalling 7,485 model year 2005-2007 7-Series vehicles, equipped with both Comfort Access and Soft Close Automatic options, and manufactured August 23, 2004, through September 3, 2007.

Due to a software problem, the doors may appear to be closed and latched, but, in fact, may inadvertently open. The door may unexpectedly open due to road or driving conditions or occupant contact with the door. The sudden opening could result in occupant ejection or increase the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

BMW will notify owners and dealers will update software. The recall is expected to begin in November 2012. Owners may contact BMW at 1-800-525-7417 or email BMW at CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

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Best Small and Medium Workplaces List for 2012 Released

Ninth annual list recognizes 50 best small and medium workplaces in the U.S.

Tired of the sweatshop where you toil for 8 hours a day? Think there's GOT to be something better out there? You may be right. In fact, you might want to ...

PhotoTired of the sweatshop where you toil for 8 hours a day? Think there's GOT to be something better out there? You may be right.

In fact, you might want to take a look at Great Place to Work's list of the Best Small & Medium Workplaces list for 2012, published by FORTUNE magazine.

Now in its ninth year, the list -- compiled by the global research and consulting firm -- recognizes the top 50 small and medium sized companies in the United States with exceptional workplace cultures.

At the top

The # 1 spot on the Small list is claimed by first-time list maker, Ruby Receptionists. "We have long been creating a unique and rewarding workplace culture that deserves recognition," said Portland, Oregon-based Ruby Receptionists founder and CEO Jill Nelson. "We all come to work each day with a real passion and purpose for the work we do -- and -- more importantly, for the people we work with."

Returning to the top spot on the Medium list for the fourth straight year is ACUITY. "Being on the Great Place to Work list nine years in a row doesn't represent a competition to us,” said Jessica Antonelli of ACUITY. “Rather, it is a reaffirmation of the way we try to innovate the relationship with our coworkers. The Great Place to Work process helps you evaluate how you are cultivating these long term relationships."

"The commitment to sustain great workplace cultures is flourishing in business of all sizes," said Susan Lucas Conwell, Global CEO of Great Place to Work. "We are pleased to recognize these companies and their success both as businesses and as workplaces. The diversity of industries, locations, and age of these companies suggests that there are no barriers to building great workplaces, except maybe the will to do so and the belief in the value of a strong workplace culture."

New faces, old faces

The 2012 Best Small & Medium Workplaces list features 18 first-time list makers, representing the largest influx of newcomers in several years. This year's list also features several companies that have been on the list for all 9 years the list has been produced, including -- as mentioned before -- ACUITY, EILEEN FISHER, Kahler Slater, Holder Construction Company and Professional Placement Resources.

While professional and financial service companies dominate the list, a handful of technology companies, staffing agencies, and even a mining company also grace the list. The 2012 list also features the first government agency: the City of Rancho Corodova.

Divided into two categories, Small (50-250 employees) and Medium (251-999 employees), the 2012 Best Small & Medium Workplaces list process, which uses Great Place to Work's unique methodology based on five dimensions: credibility, respect, fairness, pride, and camaraderie.

Best small workplaces

#1 Ruby Receptionists

#2 Intuitive Research and Technology Corporation

#3 Badger Mining Corporation

#4 Studer Group

#5 ENGEO Incorporated

#6 Talent Plus, Inc.

#7 Walker & Dunlop

#8 Root, Inc.

#9 McMurry

#10 Granite Properties, Inc.

#11 Radio Flyer, Inc.

#12 City of Rancho Cordova

#13 Xactly Corporation

#14 Akraya, Inc.

#15 Kahler Slater

#16 ZocDoc

#17 Assurance Agency, Ltd.

#18 Navigator Management Partners

#19 Dixon Schwabl

#20 Paramount Staffing

#21 AnswerLab

#22 Integrated Project Management Company, Inc.

#23 Professional Placement Resources, LLC

#24 Conductor, Inc.

#25 Insomniac Games

Best medium workplaces

#1 ACUITY

#2 Integrity Applications Incorporated

#3 Quantum Health

#4 Pinnacle Financial Partners

#5 EILEEN FISHER

#6 Ryan, LLC

#7 OtterBox

#8 Rally Software Development

#9 Cirrus Logic

#10 Ehrhardt Keefe Steiner & Hottman PC

#11 Return Path, Inc.

#12 Snagajob

#13 CustomInk, LLC

#14 Noblis

#15 Spectrum

#16 Spokane Teachers Credit Union

#17 dunnhumbyUSA

#18 Embrace Home Loans, Inc.

#19 DELTA Resources, Inc.

#20 Holder Construction Company

#21 Veterans United Home Loans

#22 4imprint, Inc.

#23 CALIBRE

#24 Mercedes-Benz Financial Services

#25 Higher One

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FLO Cycling Recalls Rim Tape

The tape can puncture the the bicycle's inner tube, posing a fall hazard to the rider.

FLO Cycling of Las Vegas is recalling about 800 bicycle wheel rim tapes. The rim tape can fail and break under pressure. When this happens, the inner tube ...

PhotoFLO Cycling of Las Vegas is recalling about 800 bicycle wheel rim tapes. The rim tape can fail and break under pressure. When this happens, the inner tube of the bicycle can puncture or burst. This poses a fall hazard to the rider.

The firm has received four reports of exploding inner tubes and flat tires. No injuries were reported.

The rim tape is a yellow plastic strip that was provided for free with the purchase of FLO 60, FLO 90 and FLO DISC wheels. The number 700X18 A/V is printed on the tape. The serial number is located either on the wheel rim under the tube or on the outer edge of the disc wheel.

The following serial numbers are included in this recall:

12DA3542 to 12DA354712EA294812GA0311 to 12GA0320
12DA355012EA2953 to 12EA296012GA0643 to 12GA0662
12DA3561 to 12DA356512EA317912GA0664
12DA3582 to 12DA358412EA318012GA0665
12DA358612EA3187 to 12EA318912GA0673 to 12GA0675
12EA277012FA1972 to 12FA198012GA0976 to 12GA1000
12EA2933 to 12EA294012FA1982 to 12FA199812GA1031 to 12GA1043
12EA294312FA294312GA1125 to 12GA1130
12EA294412FA302812GA1134 to 12GA1136

The tape, manufactured in Taiwan, was sold exclusively at FLO Cycling's Website from May 2012 through July 2012 with the purchase of FLO wheels. The wheels cost between $375 and $700.

Consumers should contact FLO Cycling to receive a $5 refund for each wheel purchased. The firm is contacting consumers who purchased wheels with the recalled rim tape directly.

Consumers may contact FLO Cycling at (800) 959-8312 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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401(k) Contribution Rises for 2013

Because of cost-of-living adjustments, you can kick in additional $500

You'll be able to contribute more to your 401(k) next year. The Internal Revenue Service has announced cost-of-living adjustments affecting dollar limitat...

PhotoYou'll be able to contribute more to your 401(k) next year.

The Internal Revenue Service has announced cost-of-living adjustments affecting dollar limitations for pension plans and other retirement-related items because the increase in the cost-of-living index met the statutory thresholds that trigger their adjustment.

However, some limitations will not be unchanged because the increase in the index did not meet the statutory thresholds that trigger their adjustment.

The changes

Highlights include:

  • The elective deferral (contribution) limit for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is increased from $17,000 to $17,500.
  • The catch-up contribution limit for employees aged 50 and over who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan remains unchanged at $5,500.
  • The limit on annual contributions to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) rises to $5,500 from $5,000 in prior years.
  • The deduction for taxpayers making contributions to a traditional IRA is phased out for singles and heads of household who are covered by a workplace retirement plan and have modified adjusted gross incomes (AGI) between $59,000 and $69,000, up from $58,000 and $68,000 in 2012. For married couples filing jointly, in which the spouse who makes the IRA contribution is covered by a workplace retirement plan, the income phase-out range is $95,000 to $115,000, up from $92,000 to $112,000. For an IRA contributor who is not covered by a workplace retirement plan and is married to someone who is covered, the deduction is phased out if the couple’s income is between $178,000 and $188,000, up from $173,000 and $183,000.
  • The AGI phase-out range for taxpayers making contributions to a Roth IRA is $178,000 to $188,000 for married couples filing jointly, up from $173,000 to $183,000 in 2012. For singles and heads of household, the income phase-out range is $112,000 to $127,000, up from $110,000 to $125,000. For a married individual filing a separate return who is covered by a retirement plan at work, the phase-out range remains $0 to $10,000.
  • The AGI limit for the saver’s credit (also known as the retirement savings contribution credit) for low- and moderate-income workers is $59,000 for married couples filing jointly, up from $57,500 in 2012; $44,250 for heads of household, up from $43,125; and $29,500 for married individuals filing separately and for singles, up from $28,750.
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Gasoline Prices Plunge 14 Cents in Last Seven Days

But gasoline is still more expensive than it was this time last year

The free-fall in gasoline prices continued for another week as lower oil prices and the switch to winter-grade fuel combined to provide needed relief at th...

PhotoThe free-fall in gasoline prices continued for another week as lower oil prices and the switch to winter-grade fuel combined to provide needed relief at the pump.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.575 per gallon, compared with $3.715 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's 23 cents lower than a month ago but still almost 14 cents higher than the price a year ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.083 per gallon, versus $4.131 a week ago.

Dramatic declines

The drop in gasoline prices in some states this week has been dramatic. In California, where prices have surged in the wake of shortages, the average price plunged more than 25 cents a gallon in the last seven days. Hawaii has reclaimed its usual spot as the state with the most expensive gas after California held that distinction for two weeks.

Some Midwestern states also saw unusual price declines. Ohio's average price fell another 17 and a half cents this week while prices fell 16 cents in neighboring Indiana. Minnesota, not known as a land of low fuel prices, saw its average price drop 24 cents a gallon in one week.

“For the last several months changes in the national average have often obscured regional volatility, as prices in some states have risen dramatically even as prices in others have fallen,” said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. “Over the last week, however, the decline in the national average has reflected lower pump prices in every state except Alaska and Utah, as regional supply concerns begin to diminish and demand continues to weaken nationwide.”

Three states average above $4 a gallon

Last Friday seven states had average gasoline prices over $4 a gallon. This week only three states -- Hawaii, California and Alaska -- hold that distinction.

Photo

The states with the most expensive gas prices this week are:

  • Hawaii ($4.390)
  • California ($4.262)
  • Alaska ($4.249)
  • New York ($3.955)
  • Connecticut ($3.935)
  • Oregon ($3.903)
  • Washington ($3.892)
  • Nevada ($3.862)
  • Idaho ($3.817)
  • Vermont ($3.816)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • Missouri ($3.240)
  • Ohio ($3.277)
  • Oklahoma ($3.278)
  • South Carolina ($3.310)
  • Tennessee ($3.354)
  • Arkansas ($3.372)
  • Texas ($3.373)
  • Indiana ($3.374)
  • Minnesota ($3.384)
  • Mississippi ($3.385)
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25 Worst Computer Passwords

Is yours on this list?

With each passing year your computer becomes less secure. Hackers become more sophisticated and your PC or mobile device becomes more vulnerable.In the e...

PhotoWith each passing year your computer becomes less secure. Hackers become more sophisticated and your PC or mobile device becomes more vulnerable.

In the early days of the Internet consumers used simple, easy to remember passwords. Most us still do. SpashData, a provider of password management applications, issues an annual list of what it considers the worst, most insecure passwords that consumers use.

Newcomers

New entries on this year's list include "welcome," "jesus," "ninja," "mustang," and "password1," while the top three remain the same from last year's list -- the terribly unimaginative "password," "123456" and "12345678."

With Halloween now upon us, SpashData is urging consumers to beef up their password security.

"At this time of year, people enjoy focusing on scary costumes, movies and decorations, but those who have been through it can tell you how terrifying it is to have your identity stolen because of a hacked password,” said Morgan Slain, SplashData CEO. “We're hoping that with more publicity about how risky it is to use weak passwords, more people will start taking simple steps to protect themselves by using stronger passwords and using different passwords for different websites."

The list

According to SplashData, here are the Worst Passwords of 2012:

  1. password
  2. 123456
  3. 12345678
  4. abc123
  5. qwerty
  6. monkey
  7. letmein
  8. dragon
  9. 111111
  10. baseball
  11. iloveyou
  12. trustno1
  13. 1234567
  14. sunshine
  15. master
  16. 123123
  17. welcome
  18. shadow
  19. ashley
  20. football
  21. jesus
  22. michael
  23. ninja
  24. mustang
  25. password1

The list was compiled from files containing millions of stolen passwords posted online by hackers. The company advises consumers or businesses using any of the passwords on the list to change them immediately.

“Even though each year hacking tools get more sophisticated, thieves still tend to prefer easy targets,” Slain said. “Just a little bit more effort in choosing better passwords will go a long way toward making you safer online.”

What makes a password strong and secure? Use passwords of eight characters or more with mixed types of characters. One way to create longer, more secure passwords that are easy to remember is to use short words with spaces or other characters separating them. For example, “eat cake at 8!” or “car_park_city?”

You should also avoid using the same username/password combination for multiple websites. Especially risky is using the same password for entertainment sites that you do for online email, social networking, and financial services. Use different passwords for each new website or service you sign up for.

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Consumer Watchdog Will Oversee Debt Collectors

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau continues to expand its jurisdiction

A day after announcing it would police credit reporting agencies, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) proposed a rule that will allow it to sup...

PhotoA day after announcing it would police credit reporting agencies, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) proposed a rule that would allow it to supervise the larger consumer debt collectors for the first time.

The CFPB also released the field guide that examiners will use to ensure that companies and banks engaging in debt collection are following the law.

“Millions of consumers are affected by debt collection, and we want to make sure they are treated fairly,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today we are announcing that we will be supervising the larger debt collectors in the market for the first time at the federal level. We want all companies to realize that the better business choice is to follow the law — not break it.”

Source of complaints

Debt collectors are a frequent source of complaints from consumers, who feel they are being unfairly pursued. Often times they complain of harassment both at home and at work.

PhotoDebt collectors are, in fact, allowed to collect legitimate debts but must abide by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Under the law, a collector may contact you in person, by mail, telephone, telegram, or fax. However, a debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. A debt collector also may not contact you at work if the collector knows that your employer disapproves of such contacts.

Approximately 30 million Americans have, on average, $1,500 of debt subject to collection. Debt collectors often report consumers’ collection status to the credit bureaus.

If they get the information wrong, this can be the difference between getting approved or denied for such financial products as a mortgage or a car loan.

Types of debt collectors covered

The consumer debt collection market covered by the rule includes three main types of debt collection: first, firms that may buy defaulted debt and collect the proceeds for themselves; second, firms that may collect defaulted debt owned by another company in return for a fee; and third, there are debt collection attorneys that collect through litigation.

A single company may be involved in any or all of these activities. By expanding the supervision program to oversee the non-banks that are larger participants in the consumer debt collection market, the CFPB would have a window into every stage of the process – from the origination of credit to debt collection.

The CFPB’s supervision authority over these entities will begin when the rule takes effect on January 2, 2013. Under the rule, any firm that has more than $10 million in annual receipts from consumer debt collection activities will be subject to the CFPB’s supervisory authority. This authority will extend to about 175 debt collectors, which account for over 60 percent of the industry’s annual receipts in the consumer debt collection market.

In the past the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has had jurisdiction over debt collectors. Once the new rule takes effect, consumers will have another avenue to air their complaints about debt collectors they believe to be abusive.

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Vonage: A Good Alternative to Your Current Phone Line or Just a Big Headache?

It all sounds good but many customers wind up going elsewhere

We’ve all seen the commercials for Vonage.The company has created several TV ads that show people tossing old phone bills in a giant pile, and othe...

PhotoWe’ve all seen the commercials for Vonage.

The company has created several TV ads that show people tossing old phone bills in a giant pile, and other ads that have customers speaking about giving up old phone services, so they can speak to love ones in distant places for lower costs.

The company says it’s an ideal alternative to traditional phone services because it offers unlimited calling around the globe for one cost, and all you need is a strong Internet connection and a home phone.

Vonage also says it offers much lower rates than practically every other phone company that exists in the U.S. and is ideal for those who regularly call long distance.

Vonage also says it provides a flat rate for global calls, has sound quality that equals traditional landlines or mobile services, and customers can  keep their original phone numbers if they choose.  

For $24.99 a month the company offers unlimited calls to U.S. and Canada, and for $19.99 a month customers can get 750 minutes of outgoing local and long distance calls. Each additional minute cost 3.9 cents, the company says.

Other packages include $11.99 a month for 300 minutes of outbound calls both local and long distance, and with two of its smaller packages--the company says it offers low rates for calling several countries, like Jamaica, Philippines and Guatemala.

On the surface ...

Vonage  Oct. 25, 2012, 1:56 a.m.
Consumers rate Vonage
On the surface, it does look like Vonage is a nice alternative to traditional phone service, but according to many of our readers, the company has failed to live up to its promises of low costs and high sound quality.

Consumers posting to ConsumerAffairs have complained about everything from being over-charged to not being able to cancel their accounts when they requested it.

“I wanted to cancel Vonage because I moved and wanted to get bundled service via Verizon,” said David of Arlington, Va. 

“I called Vonage to cancel and the first customer service rep routed me to the account manager. Since I had bad experience with canceling anything from online accounts to gym memberships, I wanted to make sure that it gets canceled on the day I made the phone call.”

Vonage offered David everything but the sun and moon to keep his business, but after he refused and went ahead with the cancellation, he found out his account was still active.

“Two months later my account is still active and they charged me a month of service,” he said.

“I called Vonage and went through three people regarding account cancellation and refund. The reason my account was open is that they said I agreed to their service comparison free service. At the end, I spoke to a person named May. She was the unfriendliest person I ever spoke on the phone with. I’ll be calling back and make sure I get my refund," David wrote.

Unlimited calling

 Many people join Vonage because of its unlimited calling feature which is arguably the company’s biggest draw -- and it makes sense, because if one can pay only $24.99 a month to call anywhere in the world with no hassles or hidden fees, it sounds like it would be worth it.

However, some customers said they were charged more than their agreed upon monthly payment, and felt extremely duped after Vonage called them and said their phone plans were being misused.

“Vonage is cheating customers and I believe committing fraud in the name of unlimited calling to US/Canada and 60 countries,” said Jay of New York.

“I live in the USA and have family and friends in India. I call my parents and friends very often. My kids call their grandparents, and sometimes phone calls can last for an hour or more. This month, I got an email from Vonage stating that I am misusing my phone, and my plan will be upgraded if usage goes above 3000 minutes a month.”

“Excuse me,” Jay added. “I have unlimited calling plan, right? I called Vonage and the rep told me that there are certain criteria that he didn’t explain and based on that, they can bump up my plan and charge me $49.99 a month, not $25.99 a month.”

Not just lately

And customer dissatisfaction didn’t just start recently, as my colleague Truman Lewis reported some years back that a class action suit against the New Jersey based company was filed for misleading consumers about how well its services worked, and for conducting questionable business practices.

ConsumerAffair readers also complained about the lack of good customer service, due to rude agents, painfully long hold times and unfulfilled company promises.

We reached outto  Vonage to get a response.  We’re still waiting for Vonage to reply.

In the 932 comments that Vonage received from our readers, it was a challenge to find any positive reviews, so customers should really think long and hard before being lured in by the unlimited call offer.

Wilvert of Killeen, Texas, who’s a soldier in the armed forces and uses Vonage to communicate with his family back home, says using the company has mainly been a big headache for him.

“I’m a soldier in the United States Army,” he wrote. “My only line of communication to my family is a Vonage line. I’ve been with them for one year and all of a sudden, they decided to change my plan without my consent and charge me for going over the minutes.”

“I’m currently stationed in Korea and now I can’t talk to my family as needed. I have to worry about minutes,” Wilvert added. “The service was okay sometimes, but lots of time when I call my wife, she wouldn’t be able to hear me and vice versa, constant call drops, systems error, etc.

Since they decided to make a profit on my need to communicate with my family, I then decided to look elsewhere for other options,” he said.

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Floridians Receive Phony Voting Letters That Question U.S. Citizenship

Officals say if you receive this fake document, ignore what it says, but report it.

As the nation gets closer and closer to Election Day, both Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to strengthen their base and win over independent voter...

PhotoAs the nation gets closer and closer to Election Day, both Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to strengthen their base and win over independent voters, and just like years past--Florida has become one of the key states for both parties.

Today, Florida officials are investigating a string of phony voter eligibility letters that were sent to voters in more than 20 counties, questioning the voters' citizenship along with their legal right to vote.

State officials say if anyone receives this letter they should completely ignore it and continue with their plans to vote, as the document is fraudulent and appears to be an attempt to scare certain people away from voting in this upcoming Presidential election.

“If you receive one of these fraudulent letters, it’s completely bogus and it has absolutely no impact on your eligibility to vote,” said Tim Durham the country chief deputy election supervisor of Collier County, in Florida.

Looks official

The phony letters had many worrying in Florida about not only their right to vote, but also their U.S. citizenship--as the document looked pretty official with a symbol of the American flag and eagle in the upper left hand corner.

Photo
Page 1 of a 3-page literacy test used in Alabama in the early 1960s. Source: Alabama Dept. of Archives & History

The letter also contains a header which says it’s from Jennifer Edwards, supervisor of elections, although it has no signature from Edwards herself, which should also make Floridians automatically suspicious.

The letter not only questions voters' true citizenship, it also threatens jail time for those that aren’t citizens and choose to cast a vote. In addition, the document threatens to remove the recipient’s name from voter registration lists if they don’t respond within 15 days. However, it has no return address, which makes it a little hard to respond, no?

But the letter still had some Florida citizens worrying, because it also said heavy legal action would be imposed on those who received the warning, but still tried to cast a vote.

The letter says state officials are “bringing into question your eligibility as a registered voter. A nonregistered voter who casts a vote in the State of Florida may be subject to arrest, imprisonment, and/or other criminal sanctions."

"Request a hearing"

The document also tells recipients before casting a vote in this upcoming election, “you may request an administrative hearing with the Supervisor of Elections to prove U.S. citizenship." 

A representative of Orange County in Florida said those familiar with official state documents, should be able to tell the difference between the fake letters and the legitimate ones.

“It’s just unfortunate that someone is playing a game this late in the elections," said Linda Tanko in a published interview. “This letter does not look anything like our normal letter we would send out," she said.

Florida officials say the phony letters will not be tolerated and those found responsible for creating and sending it, could face some pretty hefty jail time.

“The Florida Department of State unequivocally opposes all attempts at voter fraud or intimidation and will pursue every avenue to ensure free, fair and open elections for all eligible voters,” said Ken Detzner, Florida’s secretary of state in a statement. “Voter fraud and intimidation can deny voters their voice in government and will not be tolerated.”

Some believe the phony letters wanted not just to than intimidate voters, but also wanted to steal personal information, as it also asked for people’s driver’s license and social security numbers. 

Florida resident Jeff Siewert told a news outlet that he’s voted in many elections and has never received these kinds of letters or any form of voter intimidation. Initially, he really questioned whether he was able to vote for his chosen candidate legally or not.

“I was born in the U.S., Siewert said. “I’m 65 years old. I’ve voted in multiple elections since the mid ‘60’s and I was a little taken aback,” he said. I was just concerned that for one reason or another my vote wouldn’t be counted, and in this election every vote counts."

Although Democrats are blaming Republicans for the fake letters, many Republicans have received them too. Florida officials say recipients should call the state voter fraud hotline at 1-877-868-3737.

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Going Shopping? Don't Forget Your Apps

Survey finds online shoppers looking for apps that will help them score a deal

Consumers are revving up for the holiday shopping season and, since more than 110 million of them have smartphones, it's likely technology will play a bigg...

PhotoConsumers are revving up for the holiday shopping season and, since more than 110 million of them have smartphones, it's likely technology will play a bigger role than ever this year.

A survey from online shopping comparison site PriceGrabber finds that 31 percent of consumers already have shopping apps on their smartphone and 82 percent of them plan to use those apps to save money on holiday purchaases.

In addition, 32 percent of respondents with smartphones said they plan to download new shopping apps in preparation for the upcoming 2012 holiday season. Conducted from Sept. 14 to Sept. 27, 2012, the survey includes responses from 2,469 U.S. online shopping consumers.

Coupons, coupons, coupons

Asked what types of shopping apps they plan to download for holiday shopping, coupon apps were the most popular with 70 percent of the vote.

"Instead of clipping coupons, shoppers are scouring the internet and turning to their mobile devices to find the best deals.  Our survey data states that 82 percent of consumers who already have shopping-related apps will use them in an effort to save money when purchasing gifts this season," said Rojeh Avanesian, vice president of marketing and analytics of PriceGrabber. "With mobile shopping growing at a rapid rate, it will be interesting to see how retailers will gain the shoppers' attention in the competitive mobile market space this holiday season."

Comparison-shopping apps were close behind smartphones, with 66 percent of shoppers saying they will download comparison shopping apps; 63 percent plan to download price check apps with the ability to scan barcodes; and 54 percent of respondents will download apps dedicated specifically to searching Black Friday deals.

Forty-three percent of consumers plan to download deal-of-the-day apps from daily deal websites such as Groupon and Living Social; 32 percent selected price calculator apps to determine discounts, tax and total cost of purchases; and 30 percent plan to download a gift list app to manage their shopping lists.

Fewer trips

Saving money, time, or just for fun, holiday shoppers are turning to new shopping apps to complement their in-store buying this year.

When PriceGrabber survey respondents were asked how many trips they plan to make to retail stores for holiday gift purchases this year, 45 percent of consumers said they plan to make the same amount of trips, 7 percent indicated more trips, and 48 percent said less trips this year.

Of those respondents, 57 percent of consumers said they plan to make between one and five trips to retail stores to purchase holiday gifts. Thirty-three percent plan to make six to 10 trips; 8 percent of shoppers plan to take 11 to 20 trips; and 2 percent plan to make more than 21 trips to brick and mortar stores.

 

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Microsoft Unveils Windows 8

Contains touch screen controls for some devices

Microsoft has taken the wraps off Windows 8, the latest edition of its operating system. Beginning tomorrow, Oct. 26, consumers can start downloading the n...

PhotoMicrosoft has taken the wraps off Windows 8, the latest edition of its operating system. Beginning tomorrow, Oct. 26, consumers can start downloading the new OS.

To encourage upgrades the company has offered price incentives. Through the end of January, consumers currently running PCs with Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7 may download an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $39.99.

And eligible Windows 7 PCs purchased between June 2, 2012, and Jan. 31, 2013, in more than 140 markets can download an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $14.99 with the Windows Upgrade Offer, available at http://www.windowsupgradeoffer.com.

Those who want a DVD copy of the software will pay a standard retail price of $69.99.

1,000 devices

The long-awaited upgrade will run on more than 1,000 certified PCs and tablets, including Microsoft Surface -- Microsoft's own tablet.

“We have reimagined Windows and the result is a stunning lineup of new PCs,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. “Windows 8 brings together the best of the PC and the tablet. It works perfect for work and play and it is alive with your world. Every one of our customers will find a PC that they will absolutely love.”

Some of the new devices built to run on Windows 8 will incorporate a touch-screen function. On those devices the touch-screen interface will replace the standard Start button and Start screen.

The new version of the operating system also incorporates social media and cloud integration.

Three versions

At retail, Windows 8 will be available in two primary versions -- Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro -- as well as Windows 8 Enterprise for large organizations. Windows will also have a third version, Windows RT, designed for ARM-based tablets and available pre-installed on new devices.

In addition to Microsoft Office 2013, Windows RT is designed to run apps in the new Windows Store. Windows 8 features a redesigned Start screen that gives users one-click access to favorite apps and content. It comes with a new version of Microsoft's browser, Explorer 10.

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Knee Replacement Not an 'Easy Solution' for Obese Patients

Obesity is related to higher rates of infection and other complications following surgery

Obese patients have a greater risk of complications following total knee replacement surgery, including post-surgical infections, according to a new litera...

PhotoObese patients have a greater risk of complications following total knee replacement surgery, including post-surgical infections, according to a new literature review recently published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (JBJS). Because of complications, obese patients are more likely to require follow-up surgery or revision.

Obesity is reaching epidemic proportions, particularly in the United States, and is a well-documented risk factor for the development of osteoarthritis. Arthritis is initially treated non-surgically, but total joint replacement often becomes necessary if the disease progresses. Consequently, the rate of joint replacements in obese individuals has increased in the last several decades.

Higher risk

"Orthopaedic operations can technically be more difficult in obese people, and it is important for us to know whether there is a higher complication rate in the obese, and if the long-term outcome is worse," says Gino M.M.J. Kerkhoffs, M.D., Ph.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at the Academic Medical Center Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, and lead author of the study.

Findings include:

  • Obese patients have double the rate of infection following total knee replacement surgery compared to non-obese patients.
  • Obese patients' rate of infection is higher for both superficial and deep infections.
  • The long-term surgical revision rate for obese patients is nearly double that for non-obese patients.

Patient education

The paper's authors advise that knee replacement surgery not be withheld from obese patients. Rather, obese patients should be well-informed of the likelihood of complications following their total knee replacement, and advised to lose weight before surgery.

Orthopaedic surgeons should be prepared to refer them to medical weight-loss professionals, if necessary. The authors also note that weight loss could lessen some patients' osteoarthritis symptoms.

"Although these results are not really surprising," Kerkhoffs says, "for the obese patient, this literature sheds new light on treatment options for symptomatic knee osteoarthritis: a total knee replacement is not the 'easy solution.'"

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Mortgage Rates Hover Near Record Lows

Pending home sale also show small gain in September

Two weekly mortgage rate surveys show the costs of home mortgages were little changed over the last week as rates remained near record lows. At the same ti...

PhotoTwo weekly mortgage rate surveys show the costs of home mortgages were little changed over the last week as rates remained near record lows. At the same time, the number of pending home sales increased slightly last month.

Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey shows the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.41 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending October 25, 2012 -- up from last week when it averaged 3.37 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.10 percent.

The average 15-year FRM was 2.72 percent with an average 0.6 point, up from last week when it averaged 2.66 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.38 percent.

The 5-year Treasury-indexd hybrid adjustable rate mortgage averaged 2.75 percent this week with an average 0.6 point -- the same as last week. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 3.08 percent.

Can low rates spur sales?

"Mortgage rates remained relatively unchanged this week and should continue to support the housing market and mortgage refinance," said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac.

"Existing home sales in September eased slightly to 4.75 million but was the second strongest annualized pace since May 2010."

Meanwhile Bankrate.com's weekly survey revealed similar results. The average 30-year FRM was 3.61 percent -- down from 3.62 percent last week with average points of 0.44. The 15-year FRM was 2.90 percent, down from 2.91 percent the previous week with average points of 0.32. The rate on the 5/1 ARM ticked up slightly, from 2.72 to 2.73 percent.

Pending home sales

Meanwhile, there was a slight increase in the number of home sales contracts last month. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports pending home sales rose 0.3 percent from August, but were 14.5 percent higher than September 2011.

Pending home sales measure the number of home contracts signed, but not closed. Pending contracts usually close within 60 days but in this market, many have fallen through because buyers didn't qualify for a mortgage or the home didn't appraise for the contract price.

Nevertheless, pending home sales have risen for 17 consecutive months on a year-over-year basis, Which NAR sees as a sign of a solid housing recovery. In September all regions were showing double-digit increases in contract activity from a year ago with the exception of the West, which is constrained by limited inventory, NAR said.

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Rudi's Organic Bakery Bread Products Recalled

The packaging may contain metallic foreign objects

Rudi's Organic Bakery is recalling Rudi's Organic Bakery Multigrain Oat Bread, Rudi's Organic Bakery Colorado Cracked Wheat Bread and Rudi's Organic Bakery...

PhotoRudi's Organic Bakery is recalling Rudi's Organic Bakery Multigrain Oat Bread, Rudi's Organic Bakery Colorado Cracked Wheat Bread and Rudi's Organic Bakery Cinnamon Raisin Bread due to the possible presence of metallic foreign objects in select products or product packaging.

No other Rudi's Organic Bakery or Rudi's Gluten-Free Bakery products are included.

The affected products include the lot codes below:

  • UPC: 0-31493-82888-8 Rudi's Organic Bakery Multigrain Oat Bread (22oz) Lot Code 1-173-R
  • UPC: 0-31493-54373-6 Rudi's Organic Bakery Colorado Cracked Wheat Bread (22oz) Lot Code 2-193-R
  • UPC: 0-31493-92183-1 Rudi's Organic Bakery Cinnamon Raisin Bread (24oz) Lot Code 1-273-R

Lot codes are printed on the quick lock closure, which is the plastic piece that seals the bread bag, and the UPC code is listed on the barcode on the bread package.

Consumers with the lot codes and UPC codes listed and/or who have questions, should contact Rudi's Organic via e-mail at info@rudisbakery.com or call 877-293-0876 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (MST), Monday - Friday.

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Report: Firm Linked to Meningitis Outbreak Had Safety Issues

Massachusetts health inspectors report numerous code violations at facility

A nationwide meningitis outbreak that has claimed 24 lives has been traced to a steroid drug produced at the New England Compounding Center (NECC), a so-ca...

PhotoA nationwide meningitis outbreak that has claimed 24 lives has been traced to a steroid drug produced at the New England Compounding Center (NECC), a so-called "compounding pharmacy." Now, Massachusetts health officials say they may know why.

Working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) has been investigating the facility, which shut down immediately after the outbreak facts became known.

"During the facility inspections, investigators documented serious health and safety deficiencies related to the practice of pharmacy," the DPH report states.

Alleged violations

Among the alleged violations of Massachusetts health regulations, DPH said NECC distributed large batches of compounded sterile products directly to facilities apparently for general use rather than requiring a prescription for an individual patient. It said records also show that NECC had lists of potential patient names but did not have patient-specific prescriptions from an authorized practitioner when compounding and dispensing medication, as required by state law.

The report also said manufacturing and distributing sterile products in bulk was not allowed under the terms of its state pharmacy license. If NECC was appropriately licensed as a manufacturer with the FDA the company would have been subject to additional levels of scrutiny. The investigation also found that NECC did not conduct patient-specific medication history and drug utilization reviews as required by regulations.

While counter to regulations, those alleged violations don't explain how the drugs became contaminated. But the DPH report gets to that.

Release drugs before testing

"NECC distributed two of the recalled lots of methylprednisolone acetate 80 MG/ML prior to receiving results of sterility testing," the investigators wrote.

While NECC’s records show the sterility tests found no contamination, DPH says the adequacy of NECC’s sterility testing methods are currently under examination. It said final sterilization of products did not follow proper standards for autoclaving, which is sterilization through high pressure steam, as required.

In addition, investigators said visible black particulate matter was seen in several recalled sealed vials of the drug. Powder hoods, intended to protect pharmacists from inhaling substances during medication preparation, within the sterile compounding area were not thoroughly cleaned pursuant to regulations.

Residual powder

"Residual powder was visually observed within the hood during inspection," the report states. "This contamination may subsequently lead to contamination of compounded medications."

Finally, investigators said a leaking boiler adjacent to the requisite clean room created an environment susceptible to contaminant growth. A pool of water was seen around the boiler and adjacent walls, creating an unsanitary condition. Investigators said the culture results of this potential contaminant are pending.

Since September 24, 2012, the outbreak of fungal meningitis has affected people in 17 states, infecting 317 people and causing 24 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Subprime Mortgage 'Bundler' to Pay Nevada $42 Million

RBS Financial Products bought subprime mortgages and packaged them into securities

Mortgage lenders who made high-interest rate loans to home buyers who couldn't afford them have come under regulatory pressure. Now, so has a company that ...

PhotoMortgage lenders who made high-interest rate loans to home buyers who couldn't afford them have come under regulatory pressure. Now, so has a company that purchased those loans and packaged them into securities.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto has announced a $42 million settlement with RBS Financial Products (RBSFP) to resolve an investigation into the firm’s role in purchasing and securitizing subprime and payment option adjustable rate mortgages in her state.

The agreement requires RBSFP to commit to certain changes in its practices to the extent it securitizes Nevada mortgages and to pay the State $42 million to be used for payments to affected borrowers, mortgage fraud enforcement, foreclosure prevention and attorney’s fees and costs.

Holding 'players' accountable

“I remain committed to enforcing Nevada’s laws against the players --including those on Wall Street -- that contributed to and profited from reckless and deceptive mortgage lending in Nevada,” said Masto. “The payment from RBS will alleviate some of the injury to the Silver State and its residents. The changes to its securitization process should help make sure that we do not go down this road again.”

Nevada was at ground-zero of the housing market collapse. The state recorded among the highest percentage of foreclosures in the nation, primarily because so many homes in Las Vegas and other cities were financed with subprime mortgages.

Subprime mortgages, bundled into securities and sold to hedge funds and other investors, were attractive investments because they paid a high return. But when homeowners began to default on those loans, the securities became "toxic" because it was difficult to determine which securities contained bad loans.

Misrepresentations by lenders

Nevada's nearly two-year investigation centered upon potential misrepresentations by lenders, including Countrywide and Option One, to Nevada consumers who took out subprime loans and payment option ARMs that were bought and securitized by RBS between 2004 and 2007. These include whether lenders deceived consumers about the actual interest rate and payments on their loans, the appraised value of their property, and the potential payment shock when the initial “teaser” rate on their mortgages expired.

Masto said she was concerned that many borrowers who took these loans did not understand the likelihood that they would not be able to repay their loans or that they would have to refinance the loan before the payment increased. She also examined the extent to which RBS was aware of the lenders’ allegedly deceptive practices through its due diligence process when it bought the loans and whether RBS substantially assisted these lenders by financing and purchasing their loans.

Compensating homeowners

Part of the $42 million settlement will go to consumers whose subprime mortgages were purchased and packaged by RBSFP. For now, these borrowers do not need to do anything in order to obtain the benefits of the settlement as the distribution plan for eligible recipients is still being finalized, Masto said. Borrowers eligible for relief should periodically visit http://ag.nv.gov/RBS for information.

Only borrowers whose loans were financed or acquired by RBS are covered by this settlement.

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IIHS Finds Boosters Improve

Most new seats provide good belt fit

Fifteen of 17 booster seats introduced in 2012 earn the top rating of BEST BET from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), evidence that more t...

PhotoFifteen of 17 booster seats introduced in 2012 earn the top rating of BEST BET from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), evidence that more than ever, manufacturers are designing seats to provide good safety belt fit for booster-age children.

The improvements mean that BEST BET boosters now outnumber seats in any of the three other categories for the first time since the Institute released its inaugural booster ratings in 2008. Boosters are supposed to improve how adult lap and shoulder belts fit children so the belts can properly restrain them in crashes. BEST BET boosters correctly position belts on a typical 4-to-8-year-old child in almost any car, minivan or SUV.

“Booster manufacturers have risen to the Institute’s challenge to improve seat design, giving parents more choices than ever when shopping for a booster that will provide a good, safe fit for their children,” says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research.

Forty-seven make the grade

In all, there are 47 BEST BET boosters for 2012. The new rankings include the latest models, plus older top-rated designs still on the market. Five seats are a GOOD BET, meaning they provide acceptable belt fit in most vehicles.

The 37 boosters in the Check Fit category may provide good fit for some children in some vehicles, but not as many as a BEST BET or GOOD BET. As with any booster, parents should make sure the lap belt lies flat across their child’s upper thighs and the shoulder belt crosses snugly over the middle of the shoulder. If not, try a different seat.

Two boosters are not recommended because they don’t provide proper belt fit, and consumers are advised to avoid them. The Safety 1st All-in-One and Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite -- both made by Dorel Juvenile Group Inc. -- are older designs first evaluated in 2009. These models are 3-in-1s that can be used as rear-facing and forward-facing child restraints with a built-in harness. They can be converted to boosters by removing the harness and using lap and shoulder belts to restrain a child.

Although these seats should work well as child restraints, they aren’t the best option for boosters because they leave the lap belt too high on the abdomen and the shoulder belt too far out on the shoulder. Four other boosters on last year’s not recommended list have been discontinued by Evenflo Company Inc.

2012 IIHS booster evaluation results

(New models for 2012 are in bold)

BEST BET
Britax Frontier 85
Britax Frontier 85 SICT
Britax Parkway SGL (highback mode)
BubbleBum
Chicco KeyFit Strada (highback mode)
Clek Oobr (highback mode)
Cosco Pronto (highback mode)
Diono Monterey (highback mode)
Diono RadianR100
Diono RadianR120
Diono RadianRXT
Eddie Bauer Auto Booster (highback mode)
Evenflo Big Kid Amp
Evenflo Big Kid Amp High Back (backless mode)
Evenflo Big Kid Sport (backless mode)
Evenflo Maestro
Evenflo Secure Kid LX/DLX
Evenflo Symphony 65 e3
Ferrari Dreamway SP (highback mode)
Graco Argos 70 (highback mode)
Graco Backless TurboBooster
Graco Nautilus (highback mode)
Graco TurboBooster (backless mode)
Graco TurboBooster (highback mode)
Graco TurboBooster COLORZ
Graco TurboBooster Elite (backless mode)
Graco TurboBooster Elite (highback mode)
Graco TurboBooster Safety Surround (backless mode)
Graco TurboBooster Safety Surround (highback mode)
Harmony Carpooler
Harmony Cruz Youth Booster
Harmony Dreamtime Booster (backless mode)
Harmony Dreamtime Booster (highback mode)
Harmony Olympian
Harmony V6 Highback Booster (backless mode)
Harmony V6 Highback Booster (highback mode)
Harmony Youth Booster Seat
Kiddy Cruiserfix Pro
Kiddy World Plus
Kids Embrace Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Maxi-Cosi Rodi XR (highback mode)
Recaro ProBOOSTER
Recaro ProSPORT
Recaro Vivo
Safety 1st Boost Air Protect (highback mode)
Safety 1st S1 Rumi Air/Essential Air
The First Years Pathway B570

 

GOOD BET
Britax Parkway SG (highback mode)
Combi Kobuk Air-Thru (backless mode)
Combi Kobuk Air-Thru(highback mode)
Evenflo Symphony 65
Maxi-Cosi Rodi (highback mode)

 

Not recommended
Safety 1st All-in-One
Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite

Work needed

“Dorel should redesign the All-in-One and Alpha Omega Elite to improve booster function,” McCartt says. “Parents who own these seats should use them with the built-in harness as long as possible, up to Dorel’s recommended height and weight limits.”

There are better options for consumers who prefer the versatility of a 3-in-1. Four BEST BETs are 3-in-1s. These include the Evenflo Symphony 65 e3 and three models from Diono LLC -- the RadianR100, RadianR120 and RadianRXT. Another choice is the Evenflo Symphony 65, which is a GOOD BET.

Why fit matters

Federal regulations don’t address how a booster should position safety belts. Manufacturers crash test boosters, but these simulations don’t tell parents how boosters will fit their children in their vehicles.

The Institute launched its ratings program after research showed most boosters weren’t doing a good job of fitting safety belts correctly and consistently in a variety of vehicles.

Using a belt-positioning booster is important for kids who have outgrown harness-equipped child restraints and aren’t big enough for adult belts. Children ages 4-8 in boosters are 45 percent less likely to sustain injuries in crashes than kids restrained by belts alone. Children who are using improperly fitted belts are at risk of a host of crash injuries known as “seat belt syndrome.” These include spine injuries and internal organ injuries. Boosters help by elevating a child into position and guiding the belts for better protection.

No crash tests are conducted as part of the evaluations. The Institute’s ratings focus on belt fit. They don’t assess how boosters might perform in a crash because safety belts do the main job of protecting children, not boosters.

Some manufacturers say their boosters provide enhanced protection in a side crash, but the Institute hasn’t evaluated these claims. To assess belt fit, Institute engineers use a test dummy representing an average-size 6-year-old child. They measure how lap and shoulder belts fit the dummy in each booster under four conditions representing the range of belt configurations in real-world vehicles.

The Institute evaluates models new to the market each year. Ratings of boosters with designs that carry over into the next model year remain on the list until the seats are discontinued. In all, the latest ratings cover 91 boosters.

Dual-use boosters

Boosters come in two main styles: highback and backless. Highbacks have guides to route lap and shoulder belts and can offer some head support. Backless models have lap belt guides but may need a plastic clip to properly position shoulder belts in many vehicles. Some highbacks, called dual-use, can be converted to backless seats.

These get two ratings, one for each mode, because belt fit can differ by mode. Consumers should pay attention to each rating and consider how they will use the seats in their vehicles.

Six of the 24 dual-use boosters included in the 2012 ratings earn BEST BET or GOOD BET in both modes. These include two from Harmony Juvenile Products, the Dreamtime and V6 Highback Booster; one from Combi USA Inc., the Kobuk Air-Thru; and three by Graco Children’s Products Inc., the TurboBooster, TurboBooster Elite and TurboBooster Safety Surround.

“Parents often tell us they want a dual-use booster that’s a BEST BET no matter how they use it,” McCartt says. “Having more to pick from really simplifies things.”

Plenty of choices

This year’s top-rated boosters come in a variety of styles and a range of price points. BEST BETs retail for as little as $19 to as much as $300. Among the new BEST BET models, the backless Graco TurboBooster COLORZ sells for about $26, the highback TurboBooster retails for about $50 and the backless Harmony Carpooler starts at about $35.

McCartt points out that manufacturers sometimes use similar names for different seats, or even the same names for new models, so consumers should consult the Institute’s Website for model numbers, manufacture dates and photographs when they shop for a new booster seat.

She advises parents not to be in a hurry to switch to a booster. Kids should ride in harness-equipped child restraints in rear seats as long as possible, up to the height and weight limits of the seats. Many typically accommodate children up to about 65 pounds -- and some go higher. When children outgrow child restraints, they should use boosters until adult belts fit properly, usually when a child reaches 4 feet 9 inches and 80 pounds.

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Will Cashiers Still Be Needed This Holiday Season?

As more stores allow you to scan and buy products this holiday season, how can cashiers earn extra money?

Most people are aware that economic climates tend to fluctuate—which is why they are called climates I guess, but one good thing no matter what the j...

PhotoMost people are aware that economic climates tend to fluctuate—which is why they are called climates I guess, but one good thing no matter what the job situation is like, is that there always seems to be a spike in job offerings during each holiday season.

Whether it's department stores or online retailers, employers are always looking for warm bodies to handle the rush of consumers during the holidays. In fact, Amazon announced it will hire about 50,000 workers this holiday shopping season.

Additionally, Macy’s said it will bring on about 80,000 seasonal employees, Toys "R" Us plans to employ 45,000, and Wal-Mart says it will hire about 50,000 store associates for this year's holiday shopping rush.

But although stores are looking to fill all of their departments with qualified staff,  the need for cashiers may be a little lower this season compared to years past.

As many have already noticed, self-check-out has grown bigger and bigger in recent times and consumers will see stores using it more than ever this holiday season.

Photo

Target QR

PhotoIt seems like Target is leading the way in providing parents a faster and maybe easier way to buy gifts for their kids this season, as it announced the use of QR Code shopping, where parents can quickly scan and, using their smartphone, purchase a toy for later delivery, even if their child is right next to them. The new shopping program will begin in early November.

Many consumers have expressed a preference to buying items the traditional way, as some folks like to deal with a live person and don’t see waiting on line for a few minutes as a big deal.

Also, many people are cognizant of cashier jobs being at risk of becoming obsolete, so sometimes self-checkout systems are purposely avoided by consumers to make a statement to retail chains that cashiers are still not only preferred but appreciated.

However others would say Target’s new way of scanning holiday gifts is extremely helpful to consumers, namely the parent who has trouble finding a babysitter so they can go holiday shopping without their child.

With Target’s self code shopping, parents could easily maintain the surprise element of holiday gift giving, which can sometimes be a challenge when the determined mind of a child is ready to unearth the secrets of what you’ll get them.

The nationwide retail chain will select about 20 or so of this season’s most popular toys and place them in a specific area of the store, and once consumers get home they can arrange where they would like the gift to be sent on their smartphone or computer, and shipping is free anywhere within the United States, Target says.

Think of the cashier?

But the question here is should retail chains just ignore the growing amount of technological advancements that could make holiday shopping easier for the consumer or should they place emphasis on preserving cashier jobs?

More specifically, should Target’s ability to help the busy mom who has to shop with her kids be suppressed or should the store think of the cashier who needs a job to buy gifts for their own family?

Sure Target wants to sell more toys this holiday season, and being able to scan items could certainly make that happen for the retail chain.

But this futuristic way shopping does provide some real conveniences for parents during the holiday shopping season, says Target, and the fact that a customer can have all of their toy shopping done and walk out of the store without lugging a bunch of heavy packages will be of great benefit.

Of course Target feels its new shopping method will be the next wave in holiday gift buying, and according to the chain’s Vice President of Toys Stephanie Lucy, QR code shopping was specifically designed for the parent who doesn’t have enough time to spend days and weeks shopping for their children’s gifts.

“Not only do we have the hottest toys, we are helping guests shop the way they want in stores, online and directly for their mobile devices,” said Lucy.

“Our in-store QR codes for this year’s top toys will add real convenience for busy moms. Now, rather than hoping the kids won’t notice when a gift is slipped into the car, guests can scan the QR codes to buy top toys and have them shipped anywhere for free.”

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New Bra Claims to Detect Breast Cancer

Some say it will be a great benefit for early cancer detection, others think not so much

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and each year many groups in the United States look to educate people not only about the disease itself, but also...

PhotoOctober is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and each year many groups in the United States look to educate people not only about the disease itself, but also how to detect it early.

Lifeline Biotechnologies has licensed a new bra technology called First Warning System (FWS) that it says will assist women in detecting early signs of breast cancer, and the company says the bra will be more responsive and less costly than getting a mammogram.

Lifeline says the FWS can be used either by the OB/GYN or primary care physician, and if the bras test successfully during the trial phase, they could be available for retail purchase by 2014 in the U.S.

That's assuming, of course, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't declare the bra a medical device and require it to undergone rigorous testing, which could slow approval by months or even years. 

Accuracy results

The trial phase for FWS began with 650 women being tested, and the company claims it gave the correct diagnosis 92.1 percent of the time.

Lifeline Biotechnologies said mammograms usually have a 70 percent accuracy reading, and noted proper diagnosis heavily relies on the knowhow of the radiologist. Diagnosis following FWS test results would also rely on the examining physician's knowledge, presumably.

“The goal of the First Warning Breast System is to enhance clinical breast examination aiding in the reduction of superfluous mammograms, needless biopsies and other screening/diagnostic procedures, as well as to develop a physiological profile of the changing breast over time to identify breast tissue abnormalities at their earliest stages,” the company wrote on its website.

The company says the bra works by detecting temperature changes in the breast, which can be a sign of cancer. 

Physicians not sold

PhotoBut, doctors aren't sold -- either on the idea of the bra or thermography in general. 

“A woman who chooses any breast cancer screening test based on thermography instead of mammography would be making a serious mistake that could have fatal consequences,” said Dr. Ted Gansler of the American Cancer Society in an interview with Fox News. “The main reason is that once these new products are rigorously tested in clinical trials, the result of the study is that they are less effective than current practices.”

However, other medical experts said they believe new methods should be added to breast cancer detection and having the FWS could potentially keep many women from being misdiagnosed. And although the FWS may not be a perfect breast cancer detector, it could be another useful test that backs up mammograms, some believe.

“Hypothetically, it’s conceivable that malignant processes would have a temperature gradient compared to non-malignant tissues,” said Dr. Therese Bevers of the University of Texas in a published interview. “But that gradient may not be very large.”

“We see some thermograms come back as abnormal, and we do all kinds of imaging with mammogram, ultrasound and MRI and we follow the women and nothing develops, and we have women with breast cancers that are not seen on the thermograms,” she said.

"Non-radiogenic"

Lifeline Biotechnologies also says because FWS is non-radiogenic it isn’t toxic, and physicians could immediately start using the bra for breast cancer detection because they wouldn’t require any special or additional training on how to use it. Mammograms are not toxic either, medical authorities note.

If it goes beyond the testing phase, the bra will sell for about $1,000. The company also says the FWS will be somewhat affordable for consumers if it’s ever is sold over the counter, and patients could quickly and easily use the bra for testing, without it taking a lot of time from their day.

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Study Predicts Increase in Black Friday Shoppers This Year

More than half say they plan to fight the crowds

Black Friday is now less than one month away and the latest shopping forecast suggests the stores will be full, despite research showing it's actually one ...

PhotoBlack Friday is now less than one month away and the latest shopping forecast suggests the stores will be full, despite research showing it's actually one of the worst days of the holiday season for shopping.

Accenture's annual consumer holiday shopping study finds that 53 percent of consumers surveyed said they expected to shop the day after Thanksgiving. But it's not that they like rising before dawn, waiting in the cold for the store to open, and then jostling with other consumers for bargains.

In fact, 52 percent said they would be content to spend Black Friday shopping online if they could find the kinds of deals they expect to find in brick and mortar stores. Of course, if they just wait three days for "Cyber Monday" they would find that online retailers do, in fact, offer large discounts on that shopping day.

Reversing a decline

According to Accenture's previous surveys, interest in Black Friday shopping has been on the decline over the last three years. In 2011, the survey showed that only 44 percent of respondents were interested in shopping on Black Friday, down from 47 percent in 2010 and 52 percent in 2009.

Over the years consumers have complained that big box retailers seem to change the rules at the last minute, opening the doors earlier than advertised. They also complain that many of the "door-buster" specials that drew them to the store in the first place were in such short supply the chances of purchasing the prized merchandise were slim.

Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal crunched the numbers and found what many long suspected. While a limited number of big screen TVs might be generously marked down, the kinds of things you routinely buy as gifts aren't. If you want a wristwatch or Barbie doll for example,you'll save more money by watching sale circulars throughout the year and sleeping in on Black Friday.

Better times to buy

And if you really want a flat-screen TV, Black Friday might not be the time to buy. The Journal found that these items get more expensive the closer you get to the holidays. The lowest prices on the widest selections of sets, it turns out, is in October.

But the Accenture study also suggests consumers will be careful, savvy shoppers this holiday season. Fifty-one percent says they have already made their shopping plans and will use cash they have set aside throughout the year, rather than run up credit card balances.

“The U.S. consumer refuses to be counted out and is entering this holiday season better prepared and more willing to open his or her wallet,” said Chris Donnelly, managing director of Accenture’s Retail practice. “Self-sacrificing will be down and spending will be slightly up, however, our research also shows that shoppers will remain disciplined in their spending.

Showrooming

"Showrooming" will also be a factor. That's when consumers shop for merchandise in a brick and mortar store, then use their smartphones to check prices elsewhere and online. The study shows 56 percent of shoppers expect to "showroom" this year and 27 percent of these same shoppers say they would likely make the purchase online, using their smartphone or tablet, while they are still out shopping.

“The research illustrates a shift in U.S. consumers’ approach to their holiday spending,” said Donnelly. “Many consumers are still struggling to balance their household budgets, at the same time that pay raises and bonuses remain in short supply, and they are realizing that this is not a short-term phenomenon. Consumers will remain resistant to the impulse purchase, and retailers will have to work harder to secure that extra spend by having a unique product, service or experience, and being clear on the value to the customer.”

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U.S. Sues Bank of America for $1 Billion Worth of Bad Loans

Suit says Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac were duped by the bank's "Hustle" program

The federal government has sued Bank of America again -- this time claiming that the bank's Countrywide mortgage subsidiary caused government-underwritten ...

PhotoThe federal government has sued Bank of America again -- this time claiming that the bank's Countrywide mortgage subsidiary caused government-underwritten mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freedie Mac to lose more than $1 billion. 

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that after the subpriime lending market collapsed in 2007, Countrywide devised a loan-processing system it called "Hustle." Bharara said the name was meant to describe the speed at which the system could process loans but said it also resulted in inadequate quality controls.

“For the sixth time in less than 18 months, this office has been compelled to sue a major U.S. bank for reckless mortgage practices in the lead-up to the financial crisis," Bharara said. "The fraudulent conduct alleged in today’s complaint was spectacularly brazen in scope. As alleged, through a program aptly named ‘the Hustle,’ Countrywide and Bank of America made disastrously bad loans and stuck taxpayers with the bill.

"As described, Countrywide and Bank of America systematically removed every check in favor of its own balance – they cast aside underwriters, eliminated quality controls, incentivized unqualified personnel to cut corners, and concealed the resulting defects. These toxic products were then sold to the government sponsored enterprises as good loans. This lawsuit should send another clear message that reckless lending practices will not be tolerated,” Bharara said.

It's just the latest in a long series of state and federal actions against Bank of America and Countrywide. In an earlier case, Bank of America agreed to a $1 billion settlement of a suit that accused it of defrauding the government on loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration. 

The bank has also faced numerous civil cases, including class actions and suits on behalf of individuals and other corporations.  All told, it has spent tens of billions of dollars in settlements and legal fees.

Toxic products

PhotoFannie Mae and Freddie Mac rely on lenders’ representations and warranties that the loans they are delivering for sale comply with the agencies' quality standards, Bharara noted. They do not conduct their own pre-purchase loan review, relying instead on the banks to do so, according to Federal Housing Finance Agency Inspector General Steve A. Linick.

“To prevent fraud, conducting quality reviews and complying with underwriting standards are critical," Linick said. "Countrywide and Bank of America allegedly engaged in fraudulent behavior that contributed to the financial crisis, which ultimately falls on the shoulders of taxpayers. This type of conduct is reprehensible and we are proud to work with our law enforcement partners to hold all parties accountable.”

The actions allegedly occurred both before and after taxpayers invested $45 billion in TARP funds in Bank of America, said Christy Romero, Special Inspector General for the TARP program.

“The complaint filed today alleges serious and significant misrepresentations that Bank of America made before and during the time taxpayers invested $45 billion in TARP funds in the bank. SIGTARP and its law enforcement partners will investigate allegations of wrongdoing by TARP recipients, particularly conduct that results in substantial losses to the government and taxpayers.”

The Hustle

Bank of America  Oct. 24, 2012, 7:22 p.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America
The government's complaint says that Countrywide initiated the Hustle (or “HSSL,” for “High-Speed Swim Lane”) in 2007 through its Full Spectrum Lending Division, just as loan default rates were increasing throughout the country and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were tightening their loan purchasing requirements to reduce risk.

According to internal Countrywide documents, the goals of the Hustle were high speed and high volume, where loans “move forward, never backward” in the origination process, the suit charges and says that to accomplish these goals, the Hustle removed necessary quality control “toll gates” that could slow down the origination process.

"For example, the Hustle eliminated underwriters from loan production, even for many high-risk loans, such as stated income loans. Instead, the Hustle relied almost exclusively on unqualified and inexperienced clerks, called loan processors," according to the complaint. "The Hustle also did away with compliance specialists, whose job it was to ensure that any loans that were approved with conditions had the conditions satisfied before closing."

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Barnes & Noble Hit by Hackers But Online Accounts Are Safe, Company Says

The crooks stole credit and debit card information from in-store PIN pads

Barnes & Noble says hackers broke into payment devices at 63 of its stores nationwide and may have stolen credit and debit card information from custom...

PhotoBarnes & Noble says hackers broke into payment devices at 63 of its stores nationwide and may have stolen credit and debit card information from customers.

"We have detected a sophisticated criminal effort to steal credit and debit card information from our customers who have swiped their cards through PIN pads when they made purchases at certain retail stores. The tampered devices were capable of capturing information such as name, card account number, and PIN," the company said.

Barnes & Noble said it discovered the tampering during maintenance and inspection of the devices and has discontinued the use of all PIN pads in all of its stores.

Customers can make transactions securely today by asking booksellers to swipe their cards through the card readers connected to cash registers, the company said.

Barnes & Noble Oct. 24, 2012, 7:23 p.m.
Consumers rate Barnes & Noble
"We want to reassure you that this situation does not involve any purchases you may have made at Barnes & Noble.com or using your NOOK or a NOOK mobile app. The Barnes & Noble member database is secure. The tampering only affected transactions in which customers swiped their cards at one of the compromised in-store PIN pads," the company said in a statement on its website.

Machines were tampered with in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. 

In Connecticut, where three stores were hit, Attorney General George Jepsen wants to know what Barnes & Noble is doing to protect its customers.

“Given the possible impact on individuals in Connecticut and elsewhere, my office is requesting detailed information on how this breach occurred, what steps have been taken to protect the affected individuals, and what new procedures have been adopted to prevent future data breaches,” Jepsen wrote in a letter to Gene DeFelice, the company’s vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary.
 
Customers who are concerned that their credit card numbers may have been compromised should take the following actions, the company said:

Debit Card Users:

  • Change the PIN numbers on your debit cards
  • Review your accounts for unauthorized transactions
  • Notify your banks immediately if you discover any unauthorized purchases or withdrawals

Credit Card Users:

  • Review your statements for any unauthorized transactions
  • Notify your card-issuing banks if you discover any unauthorized purchases or cash advances

Stores listed

Here is a list of the stores B&N has identified as being hit by hackers.

Store Address

City

State

Zip

4735 Commons Way

Calabasas

CA

91302

2470 Tuscany Street Suite 101

Corona

CA

92881

2015 Birch Road Suite 700

Chula Vista

CA

91915

313 Corte Madera Town Center

Corte Madera

CA

94925

5604 Bay Street

Emeryville

CA

94608

810 West Valley Parkway

Escondido

CA

92025

1315 E. Gladstone Street

Glendora

CA

91740

5183 Montclair Plaza Lane

Montclair

CA

91763

894 Marsh St Bldg G

San Luis Obispo

CA

93401

2615 Vista Way

Oceanside

CA

92054

72-840 Highway 111 Suite 425

Palm Desert

CA

92260

27460 West Lugonia Ave

Redlands

CA

92374

1150 El Camino Real Space 277

San Bruno

CA

94066

10775 Westview Parkway

San Diego

CA

92126

3600 Stevens Creek Blvd

San Jose

CA

95117

11 West Hillsdale Blvd.

San Mateo

CA

94403

9938 Mission Gorge Road

Santee

CA

92071

40570 Winchester Rd

Temecula

CA

92591

4820 Telephone Road

Ventura

CA

93003

1149 S. Main St.

Walnut Creek

CA

94596

470 Universal Drive North

North Haven

CT

06473

100 Greyrock Place Suite H009

Stamford

CT

06901

60 Isham Road

W. Hartford

CT

06107

18711 NE Biscayne Blvd

Aventura

FL

33180

333 N. Congress Avenue

Boynton Beach

FL

33436

152 Miracle Mile

Coral Gables

FL

33134

1900 W International Spdway

Daytona Beach

FL

32114

2051 N. Federal Highway

Fort Lauderdale

FL

33305

12405 N Kendall Drive

Miami

FL

33186

11380 Legacy Ave

Palm Beach Gardens

FL

33410

14572 SW 5th St Suite 10140

Pembroke Pines

FL

33027

11820 Pines Blvd

Pembroke Pines

FL

33026

5701 Sunset Drive Suite 196

S. Miami

FL

33143

700 Rosemary Ave Unit #104

West Palm Beach

FL

33401

1441 West Webster Avenue

Chicago

IL

60614

1130 North State Street

Chicago

IL

60610

5380 Route 14

Crystal Lake

IL

60014

20600 North Rand Road

Deer Park

IL

60010

728 North Waukegan Road

Deerfield

IL

60015

1630 Sherman Avenue

Evanston

IL

60201

1468 Springhill Mall Blvd

W. Dundee

IL

60118

170 Boylston Street

Chestnut Hill

MA

02467

96 Derby Street Suite 300

Hingham

MA

02043

82 Providence Highway

East Walpole

MA

2032

395 Route 3 East

Clifton

NJ

07014

55 Parsonage Road

Edison

NJ

08837

2134 State Highway 35

Holmdel

NJ

07733

4831 US Hwy 9

Howell

NJ

07731

23-80 Bell Blvd.

Bayside

NY

11360

176-60 Union Turnpike

Fresh Meadows

NY

11366

1542 Northern Blvd

Manhasset

NY

11030

160 E 54th Street (Citicorp)

New York

NY

10022

2289 Broadway

New York

NY

10024

33 East 17th Street (Union Square)

New York

NY

10003

555 Fifth Ave

New York

NY

10017

2245 Richmond Avenue

Staten Island

NY

10314

230 Main St

White Plains

NY

10601

97 Warren Street

New York

NY

10007

100 West Bridge Street

Homestead

PA

15120

800 Settlers Ridge Center Drive

Pittsburgh

PA

15205

1311 West Main Road

Middleton

RI

02842

371 Putnam Pike Suite 330

Smithfield

RI

02917

1350-B Bald Hill Rd

Warwick

RI

02886

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Consumers Beware---Scammers Are Using This Political Season To Con You

Emotion overcomes common sense when talking about politics and other hot-button issues

In 2012 it seems that scammers have not only become more advanced in their techniques, but also more brazen.Maybe you’ve received an email that say...

PhotoIn 2012 it seems that scammers have not only become more advanced in their techniques, but also more brazen.

Maybe you’ve received an email that says you won a new flat screen TV, or maybe you’ve gotten a phone call from somebody that said by answering a survey and providing some information, you’ll get a check in the mail.

A good portion of consumers could probably see these types of scams approaching from light years away, because getting something for nothing usually makes our consumer antennas stand up in skepticism.

But when someone contacts us and speaks of things close to our hearts, like donating to a charity, we may lower our antennas and think, “Hey, I’ve heard about this particular cause before and I personally know people who have contributed, so the call must be legitimate.”

Scammers are aware of these occasional consumer slip-ups, so instead of using the old congratulations-you-won-a trip line, they may tug at your emotions in another way, like asking you to donate towards a political campaign.

Cameron Camp, a security researcher at the cybersecurity company ESET, and an expert on phone and Internet scams, says that political con games--especially this election season--are a growing threat. 

Election season scams

Photo“There are two main kinds of phone scams exploiting the election season,” he said in a ConsumerAffairs interview.

“First is a scam that pretends to be a political survey to get around Do Not Call List restrictions and offers a free cruise for participation. Consumers who go along with this scam are asked to provide their credit card to pay “non-refundable port fees” or other fees to complete booking of the “free” cruise.

"We documented this, with a picture of the cruise ship on our blog. In this case the scammer wanted a government port tax of $59.00 per person." 

“The second kind of phone scam is when someone pretends to be calling for donations to a political campaign or candidate but is in fact just a con artist,” Cameron said.

But how does one tell a con artist from a real political affiliate? Because any skilled con artist can transform into an identical version of what they’re pretending to be.

See, many times a crook, thief or con person has already figured out how they’re going to con you before they're out of bed and their feet have hit the ground in the morning.

And once they do get out of bed they make a bee-line to the telephone or Internet to start their day-long attempts of gaining money, personal information or both.

Free speech

Cameron says that nowadays political scammers use free speech as an effective way to get around the protection of Dot Not Call lists, and he also says that scams related to elections are just portals to larger and more intricate types of cons.

“Companies are not [only] using free speech as a loophole,” he says. “They are abusing the free speech exemption to the Do Not Call List, namely calls from or on behalf of political organizations, charities and telephone surveyors. Hence the political survey which leads to the cruise scam.”

Although the Internet is still one of the most popular con artist hangouts, the telephone remains a useful weapon for those looking to cheat you.

According to a report released by Pindrop, a company that deals with the prevention of phone scams, there were 1.3 million successful cons related to the telephone in just a six month period in 2012. And this year alone, phone scams have increased by 29 percent, according to the report, and a fraudulent call is placed in the U.S. more than five times each minute.

Many people might say by using common sense one could successfully avoid being the victim of a con, but sometimes common sense gets defeated by our emotions, and very few things pull at our emotions like the causes we believe in.

Plus, sometimes when discussing a cause in the heat of the moment, that heat has the potential to melt away some of our good reasoning.

A few simple steps

Even though that may be, Cameron says by just doing simple things one can reduce the chances of a scammer getting their way.

“I said it before: Only make donation by check, in person or by mail, to individuals and organizations you know are legitimate,” he says. “I would avoid giving credit card information over the phone.”

“A more extreme but quite effective measure is to stop using a landline. According to the FTC, telemarketing to cell phone numbers has always been illegal in most cases because FCC regulations prohibit telemarketers from using automated dialers to call cell phone numbers,” he said.

With the Presidential race nearly coming to a draw, the next couple of weeks promise to be filled with even more election emails and annoying phone calls, so be on your best guard against fraud.

Of course another way to avoid being scammed over the phone this political season, is to not answer it.

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Study: Cholesterol Levels For U.S. Adults Have Lowered Significantly

But will our lifestyle choices take away from the postive results?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 71 million adults in the U.S. have high cholesterol, but according to a recent study pub...

PhotoAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 71 million adults in the U.S. have high cholesterol, but a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that LDL or bad cholesterol has gone down significantly between 1988 and 2010.

In the recent study, CDC researchers found the increase of U.S. adults taking cholesterol medications like statins is among the main reasons for lowered cholesterol levels.

“Statins dramatically reduce LDL levels and reduce risk of heart attack and stroke, and people live longer,” explained Dr. Holly Anderson of New York-Presbyterian Hospital in a published interview.

According to the findings, only 3.4 percent of U.S. adults used statin between 1988 and 1994, and between 2007 and 2010, that amount grew to 15.5 percent.

High cholesterol is one of the leading factors when it comes to developing heart disease, along with obesity and smoking. And the decrease in the number of high cholesterol patients is having a direct impact on the amount of heart attacks in the U.S., say health officials.

“Levels of LDL cholesterol have declined substantially, and along with that decline, we are seeing a reduction in age-related heart disease," said Dr. Steven Nissen to WebMD. Nissen heads-up the cardiovascular unit at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic.  

"We know that the single best predictor of heart disease is cholesterol levels, and they have been going down," he said.

Many still at risk

PhotoHealth experts also say although cholesterol levels have dropped within the last twenty years, a large amount of U.S. adults are still at risk of developing heart disease because many are still eating unhealthy foods and not  exercising. In fact, researchers found the consumption of fatty foods hasn’t dropped since 1988 in the United States.

If one is taking a statin but still living an unhealthy lifestyle, the medication isn’t enough to completely remove the risk of developing heart disease, say experts.

“Cholesterol levels are just one measure of heart health,” said California physician Gregg Fonarow in an interview with HealthDay.

“While cholesterol levels have significantly improved in the U.S. during this 1998-to-2010-time frame, other components of heart health—such as maintaining a healthy body weight and participating in regular physical exercise have not.”

 The CDC, which conducted the research, also learned cholesterol levels dropped from 206 mg/dL between 1988 and 1994, to 196 milligrams between 2007 and 2010, and the good news is, it doesn’t stop there.

Kids also improving

PhotoA separate study conducted earlier this year—also by the CDC-- found significantly lower high cholesterol cases among children too. After examining 16,000 adolescents and children for a 20-year span, researchers found cholesterol levels dropped to 160 from 165.

Obviously children aren’t taking statin like adults to lower cholesterol levels, and researchers say there hasn’t been an increase in the amount of exercise among children either. But the younger ones seem to be eating less trans fats, say experts -- which has seemingly been the catalyst in lowering their cholesterol readings.

And kids’ eating a less amount of trans fats is directly related to it being removed from many popular children’s foods like desserts, fried foods and salty snacks. New York City has banned the use of trans fats altogether since 2008.

“I love the idea that reduced use of hydrogenated trans fats might be responsible” for lowering cholesterol among children, said Marion Nestle,  a professor and nutritionist at New York University, in an MSNBC interview.

“If so, and as usual, it’s clear that more research is needed—it would mean that public health measures like the trans fat ban in New York City are actually doing enough good to be measurable.”

Childhood obesity

Other health experts that weren’t part of the CDC study said although cholesterol levels have dropped for kids and adolescents, the positive results are tainted by the continuing problem of childhood obesity.

During the last three years of the study, between 2007 and 2010, the CDC found only one out of 12 children had high cholesterol, which equates to a 28 percent drop.

Dr. Sarah De Ferranti of Boston Children’s Hospital added to the CDC study, and said she finds the news of kids having lower cholesterol levels are extremely positive, but since many young people are still not leading healthy lifestyles, the effects will eventually catch up to them by adulthood.

“We may have a small effect in the right direction from lower cholesterol, but I’m worried it will be overwhelmed by the earlier onset of obesity in younger and younger children, she told the Associated Press. “I’m still pretty worried about how many kids are going to wind up patients of adult cardiologists.”

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Blow the Whistle: CFPB Now Taking Complaints on Credit Reporting

For the first time consumers will get federal assistance on complaints

For years, we here at ConsumerAffairs have received your complaints about problems with credit reporting. Examples are legion. Typical is a posting by fro...

PhotoFor years, we here at ConsumerAffairs have received your complaints about problems with credit reporting.

Examples are legion. Typical is a posting by from Cathy of Casper, WY, regarding CreditReport.com: "I was charged $19.95 for credit report that their system would not let me into,” she writes. “I called when I received the bill and still could not get into their system. I talked to a few different people and all they said they could do was cut my bill in half. And I never received my credit report from them. I never received anything from them but a bill."

Now, the Feds are getting into the act. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has started accepting consumer complaints, giving consumers individual-level complaint assistance for the first time at the federal level.

“Credit reporting companies exert great influence over the lives of consumers. They help determine eligibility for loans, housing, and sometimes jobs,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers need an avenue of recourse when they feel they have been wronged.”

Big business

Consumer reporting agencies, which include what are popularly called credit bureaus or credit reporting companies, are private businesses that track a consumer’s credit history and other consumer transactions. The credit reports they generate -- and the three-digit credit scores that are based on those reports -- play an increasingly important role in the lives of American consumers.

The largest credit reporting companies issue more than 3 billion consumer reports a year and maintain files on more than 200 million Americans. The consequences of errors in a consumer report can be catastrophic for a consumer, shutting him or her out of credit markets, jeopardizing employment prospects, or significantly increasing the cost of housing.

Although a small number of large businesses dominate the credit reporting market, there are many consumer reporting agencies in the United States. The market includes: the three largest credit reporting companies that sell comprehensive consumer reports; consumer report resellers that repackage information they buy from the largest companies; and specialty consumer reporting companies that primarily collect and provide specific types of information like on payday loans or checking accounts.

Following the procedure

For consumers who believe that there is incorrect information on their credit reports or who have an issue with an investigation, before filing with the CFPB, they should first file a dispute and get a response from the consumer reporting agency itself. There are important consumer rights guaranteed by federal consumer financial law that may be best preserved by first going through the credit reporting company’s complaint process.

Once that process is complete, if the consumer is dissatisfied with the resolution or if the consumer reporting agency does not respond, the CFPB is available to assist.

A consumer can go to the CFPB if he or she, for example, has issues with:

  • Incorrect information on a credit report;
  • A consumer reporting agency’s investigation;
  • The improper use of a credit report;
  • Being unable to get a copy of a credit score or file; and
  • Problems with credit monitoring or identify protection services.

Expanding the reach

The new announcement extends the kinds of complaints the CFPB already handles. The CFPB began taking credit card complaints when it launched on July 21, 2011. Since then, it has expanded to take complaints on mortgages, bank accounts and services, consumer loans and private student loans.

Consumers are given a tracking number after submitting a complaint with the CFPB and can check the status of their complaint here. Each complaint will be processed individually and sent to the company for response.

The CFPB expects the consumer reporting agencies to respond to complaints sent to them within 15 days with the steps they have taken or plan to take. Consumers will have the option to dispute the company’s response to the complaint.

To file a credit reporting complaint, consumers can:

  • File online at www.consumerfinance.gov/Complaint
  • Call the toll-free phone number at 1-855-411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at 1-855-729-CFPB (2372)
  • Fax the CFPB at 1-855-237-2392
  • Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244

Consumers can receive free copies of their credit reports every 12 months from AnnualCreditReport.com. This is the only authorized source that provides free disclosures from the three major national credit reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

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Could Yard Sales Become Illegal?

A Supreme Court case could affect your rights

Next week lawyers will go before the U.S. Supreme Court and present arguments in a case that could determine whether you have the right to resell something...

PhotoNext week lawyers will go before the U.S. Supreme Court and present arguments in a case that could determine whether you have the right to resell something you own on eBay or at a yard sale.

The case is Kirtsaeng vs. Wiley, which centers on a graduate student, Supap Kirtsaeng, who bought current textbooks -- published by John Wiley & Sons -- through friends and family in Thailand and sold them online in the United States.

The publisher sued, claiming that the right of first sale did not apply because the books were manufactured overseas, and he was therefore not authorized to sell the books.

The “first sale doctrine” is a common-law concept recognized by U.S. courts for more than 100 years. A coalition of retailers, libraries, educators, Internet companies and associations is worried that a ruling for the publisher in this case could eventually jeopardize that right. In the future, they say, consumers may not be able to sell goods they no longer want without running afoul of the law.

Erosion of ownership rights?

"The sudden erosion of ownership rights is becoming an alarming trend in the United States due to recent federal court decisions,” said Andrew Shore, executive director of the Ownership Rights Initiative (ORI). “Our position is simple: if you bought it, you own it, and you can resell it, rent it, lend it or donate it, and we believe the American people fundamentally agree.”

The case going before the court is far removed from the neighborhood yard sale, however. The publisher charges Kirtsaeng was basically running an import business, buying the textbooks for little money in Thailand and selling them for a large markup in the U.S., while still undercutting the price of the publisher.

ORI is concerned, however, that a decision against the right to resell a purchased product will eventually be expanded to include all types of items. For example, if you sold your old iPhone on eBay, the group says it's possible Apple would demand a cut, since it holds the copyright.

What did Congress intend?

"It is hard to conceive that Congress intended to incentivize manufacturers to move operations overseas, force American consumers to pay higher prices, make it hard for us to donate our own stuff to charity, and cripple the ability of libraries to lend books -- without saying anything like that in the law," said Marvin Ammori, a legal advisor to ORI and an Affiliate Scholar at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet & Society.

Ammori says if the high court rules in favor of Wiley's interpretation, it could be illegal for American consumers and businesses to sell, lend, or give away the things they own, but only if the company happened to have manufactured the goods overseas and put a little copyrighted logo or text on them.  

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New Home Sales Spurt in September

Sales were up 5.7 percent over August and 27.1 percent from September 2011

Sales of new homes in the U.S. jumped 5.7 percent in September, the largest one-month gain in more than two years.The Commerce Department reports new sin...

PhotoSales of new homes in the U.S. jumped 5.7 percent in September -- the largest one-month gain in more than two years.

The Commerce Department reports new single-family homes sold at an annual rate of 389,000. That's a giant 27.1 gain from September 2011.

At the same time new homes were selling at a faster rate, they sold for a lower price. The median sale price was $242,400 -- a decline of 3.2 percent.

But the decline might actually be good news. The median price fell because more entry-level homes sold than in previous months. That could signal that many would-be buyers are now able to purchase homes. Record low interest rates also make homes more affordable, allowing someone who might have been on the margin of qualifying for a mortgage to finally get a loan.

Numbers look good

Everything about the sales report suggests an improving housing market. Demand for new homes was up 27 percent from a year ago and while the median price was lower compared to last month, it was up more than 11 percent from September 2011.

Sales rose a healthy 16.8 percent in the south and 16.7 percent in the Northeast. Only the Midwest suffered a decline -- 37.3 percent.

The new home sales data is just the latest statistics to show positive movement in the housing market. Still, not everyone is convinced it's a sustainable trend.

Those who are bearish on the housing market point out that there is still an oversupply of homes, even though inventories have been on the decline. They say a "shadow" inventory of distressed properties has yet to reach the market.

The U.S. currently has 31 percent of its houses in a negative equity situation, meaning the owner owes more than the home is worth, according to real estate site Zillow. Of those homes, 10 percent are already delinquent on their mortgage.

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Dietary Supplements, Unapproved Drugs Seized in New York

The company claims the products prevent or treat disease

U.S. Marshals -- at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- recently seized dietary supplements and unapproved drugs from Confidence...

PhotoU.S. Marshals -- at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- recently seized dietary supplements and unapproved drugs from Confidence, Inc., of Port Washington, NY.

The products seized include Dr. Brain, pH Balance, Fe-Mon-9, Glucosamine Plus, and Prostate-7 -- all dietary supplements, and Full-Bloom -- a drug. The company claimed these products could be used to treat or cure specific diseases or conditions, such as senile dementia, brain atrophy, atherosclerosis, kidney dysfunction, gangrene, depression, osteoarthritis, dysuria and several types of cancer (e.g., lung, cervix and prostate).

To make a claim that a product prevents, treats, cures, or mitigates disease, companies generally must demonstrate to the FDA that the product is safe and effective for the particular claim.

No FDA interaction

Confidence, Inc.’s products did not conform to any monograph, nor did the company file or receive approval of a New Drug Application, and the products are not generally recognized as safe and effective for their recommended uses. Therefore, the products are unapproved new drugs. In addition, the products are misbranded drugs under the Act because their labeling failed to provide adequate directions for their use as drugs.

Additionally, they were not manufactured in accordance with the current good manufacturing practice (cGMP) regulations for dietary supplements.

Warning sent

The FDA has warned Confidence, Inc. that its products and manufacturing processes violate federal law.

"This firm made unfounded claims to consumers. Products with unapproved disease claims are dangerous because they may cause consumers to delay or avoid legitimate treatments," said Melinda K. Plaisier, FDA’s acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.

No illnesses have been associated to date with Confidence, Inc.’s products. Illnesses or serious side effects related to the 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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Rivers Edge Recalls Hunters Tree Stands

Snap-hook assembly failure can causing the tree stand and the user to fall to the ground

Rivers Edge Tree Stands of Cumberland, WI, is recalling about 14,000 tree stands for hunters. The snap-hook assemblies can fail, causing the tree stand and...

PhotoRivers Edge Tree Stands of Cumberland, WI, is recalling about 14,000 tree stands for hunters. The snap-hook assemblies can fail, causing the tree stand and the user to fall to the ground.

The company has received three reports of incidents of snap-hook assemblies failing. One included minor injuries of bumps, bruises and soreness and one included a broken toe and lacerated hand.

The recalled products are Rivers Edge Big Foot, Lite Foot and Baby Big Foot tree stands used for bow and rifle hunting. They are made of metal with a dark gray finish and have black nylon straps with white stitching.

The seats are camouflage and black and feature a yellow Rivers Edge logo on the top. The snap-hook assembly is used to attach the stand to trees or poles. Recalled models have the date “2012” on the round ID tag located on the crossbar beneath the seat and do not have an orange dot and an “X” stamped on the snap-hook.

The following models are being recalled:

Model NameModel Number
Big FootRE500
Big Foot XLRE501
Lite FootRE503
Baby Big FootRE504
Big Foot with FootrestRE506
Big Foot XL with FootrestRE507
Big Foot XL with Fast SticksRE510
Big Foot XL LoungerRE511

Model numbers are located on a black sticker on the seat post just below the seat and on the product packaging.

The tree stands, manufactured in China, were sold at Blain’s Farm and Fleet, Gander Mountain, Mills Fleet Farm, Orscheln – Farm & Home, Rogers Sporting Goods, Scheels All Sports and other sporting goods stores nationwide from May 1, 2012, to September 1, 2012, for between $39 and $120.

Consumers should immediately stop using recalled tree stands and contact the company to receive a free replacement snap-hook assembly.

Consumers may contact Rivers Edge toll-free at (866) 527-9690 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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ValcoBaby Booster Seats Recalled

The mechanism securing the seat to the baby stroller can disengage, allowing the toddler to fall

Unique Baby Products USA, d/b/a ValcoBaby, of Brooklyn, NY, is recalling about 975 ValcoBaby "Joey" booster toddler seats for strollers. The spring button ...

PhotoUnique Baby Products USA, d/b/a ValcoBaby, of Brooklyn, NY, is recalling about 975 ValcoBaby "Joey" booster toddler seats for strollers.

The spring button mechanism securing the booster toddler seat to the baby stroller can disengage, allowing for the carried toddler to fall. The company has received two reports of a child falling from the booster toddler seat after it disengaged from the stroller. No injuries were reported.

The product is a booster toddler seat, both single and twin, designed to attach to Valco "Tri-Mode" and "Zee" strollers. Only booster seats with batch numbers 3111, 7819, 7822 and 7831 and model number TOD1058, TOD9109 and ZEE0649 are included in the recall. The batch and model numbers are printed on a label attached to the product frame. The seats have a black color fabric seat on white metal base frame.

The booster toddler seat, manufactured in China, was sold in various juvenile product stores, Websites and the firm's Website from June 2011 through June 2012 for between $80 and $100.

Consumers should stop using these toddler booster seats immediately and contact ValcoBaby to arrange for a free replacement attachment mechanism.

For additional information, consumers may contact ValcoBaby at (800) 610-7850 between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or email recall@valcobaby.com

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Broken Wrist is Warning Sign for Osteoporosis

First fracture doubles the risk of a future fracture

One of the hazards of aging is falling down. And falls can be dangerous because they can break bones, especially the bones of older people.If you or a lo...

PhotoOne of the hazards of aging is falling down. And falls can be dangerous because they can break bones, especially the bones of older people.

If you or a loved one has had a fall recently and broken a bone, it's not something to be ignored. It could signal the onset of osteoporosis.

"A wrist fracture is a warning sign," says Prof. John A. Kanis, president of the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF). "We urge all adults aged 50 and over who have suffered a wrist or other fragility fracture, to get tested for osteoporosis."

Osteoporosis is a chronic 'silent' disease that causes bones to weaken and become more fragile and breakable. At age 50, up to one in two women and one in five men will go on to suffer a fragility fracture in their lifetimes. Kanis says these fractures can result in pain, disability, loss of quality of life and independence, or even early death.

Older women most at risk

Osteoporosis causes the bones to thin, which makes the more vulnerable to breaks. Risk factors are aging and being female; women are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis than men. Low body weight is also a risk factor.

Unfortunately, there are no symptoms for osteoporosis. You don't know you suffer from it until you fracture a bone. Prevention and treatment include calcium and vitamin D and regular exercise. In some cases your doctor may prescribe medications.

First fracture doubles the risk of more

According to IOF, a first fracture doubles the risk for future fractures.

One in four women who suffer a vertebral (spinal) fracture will experience another fracture within one year.

Half of all hip fractures come from 16 percent of the postmenopausal women with a history of fracture, including wrist fractures.

However, despite the fact that a first fracture is a clear warning sign, only two in ten patients with initial bone breaks get a follow-up test for osteoporosis or falls risk.

"We urge individuals over 50 who have suffered any kind of fragility fracture to insist on testing and, if indicated, treatment for osteoporosis," said Kanis. "This is the best way to reduce the risk of a cascade of future fractures."

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Hunters' Tree Stands Recalled

The hanging strap assembly could dislodge, posing a fall hazard

Summit Treestands of of Decatur, AL is recalling about 2,900 Crush Series: Perch, Stoop and Ledge trees stands for hunters The tree stand's hanging strap...

PhotoSummit Treestands of of Decatur, AL is recalling about 2,900 Crush Series: Perch, Stoop and Ledge trees stands for hunters

The tree stand's hanging strap assembly could dislodge from the tree stand or fail to restrain or hold properly on the tree, posing a fall hazard. No incidents or injuries have been reported

The recalled hunters' tree stands have the following names and item numbers: Crush Series Perch, number 82069; Crush Series Stoop, number 82070; and Crush Series Ledge number 82071.

The tree stands include the main stand platform and seat with a green cinch strap and a tan tree stand hanging strap assembly, which consists of one nylon strap with a hook and an adjustment portion with a metal buckle and a matching nylon tab and a hook. This hanging strap assembly has the recalled item numbers printed on the safety label attached near the buckle.

The product, made in China, was sold at hunting stores and in catalogs such as Bass Pro Shops, Cabelas and others nationwide from July 2012 through August 2012 for between $70 to $100.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled tree stands and contact Summit to receive a free replacement hanging strap assembly.

Summit Treestands can be reached toll-free at (855) 375-9808, anytime.

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Housing Groups Accuse Bank of America of Discrimination

The bank allegedly neglected foreclosed neighborhoods in three more cities

Do banks take better care of foreclosed property in white neighborhoods than in minority communities? A fair housing coalition says they do.The coalition...

PhotoDo banks take better care of foreclosed property in white neighborhoods than in minority communities? A fair housing coalition says they do.

The coalition, made up of the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the HOPE Fair Housing Center, the South Suburban Housing Center, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council and the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana announced a federal housing discrimination complaint against Bank of America Corporation.

The complaint alleges that an undercover investigation found that Bank of America maintains and markets foreclosed homes in white neighborhoods in a much better manner than in black and Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

Eight other cities

The complaint is similar to one filed in September alleging the same activity took place in eight other cities. Bank of America, at that time, denied the charges.

The groups charge their investigation in 13 cities of 505 foreclosed homes owned, serviced or managed by Bank of America demonstrates that it has engaged in a systemic practice of maintaining and marketing its foreclosed, bank-owned homes in a state of disrepair in communities of color while maintaining and marketing real estate owned (REO) properties in predominantly white communities in a much better way.

"Good neighbors are considerate, they take care of their yards, pick up their trash and care for their neighborhoods," said Shanna L. Smith, President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. "Bank of America is not a good neighbor in communities of color.”

State of disrepair

The complaint says foreclosed homes in minority neighborhoods often have broken windows and doors, water damage, overgrown lawns, trash on the property, and no “for sale” sign. Without a real estate sign, they say, prospective buyers won't know the property is available and neighbors have no way or reporting unauthorized occupants or storm damage.

Bank of America is not alone in being charged with discrimination. In April the same coalition filed a similar complaint against Wells Fargo. At the time it said its investigation of 218 foreclosed properties owned by Wells Fargo showed the lender had engaged in a systemic practice of maintaining and marketing its foreclosed, bank-owned properties in a state of disrepair in minority communities while maintaining and marketing REO properties in predominantly white communities in a far superior manner.

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1-800-GET-THIN LAP-BAND Weight-Loss Promoters Under Scrutiny

Lawsuits and investigations plague the brothers who once blanketed Southern California with ads

Two California brothers who have been leading promoters of the Lap-Band  surgical procedure for weight loss in obese adults are being targeted by...

PhotoTwo California brothers who have been leading promoters of the LAP-BAND surgical procedure for weight loss in obese adults are being targeted by several federal and state criminal investigations, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Michael and Julian Omidi, who for years ran the seemingly ubiquitous 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign, are also facing numerous lawsuits filed by patients and the survivors of patients who had bad outcomes from the procedure.

The LAP-BAND is a ring that is placed on the upper part of the stomach forming a small pouch. It is supposed to cause patients to experience a full feeling and restrict their dietary intake.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the LAP-BAND in 2001 for use in severely obese patients with a body mass index (BMI) of at least 40, and those with a body mass index (BMI) of at least 35 and who also have an existing severe condition related to their obesity, such as heart disease or diabetes, or those who are at least 100 pounds overweight. Last year, it expanded the eligibility to those with a BMI of 30 to 34. BMI is a general measure of body fat based on an individual’s weight and height.

The investigation centers around "potential violations of federal law, including conspiracy, healthcare fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, tax violations, identity theft [and] money laundering," Samanta Kelley, a special agent for the Food and Drug Administration's criminal division, said in an affidavit filed at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, the Times reported.

Ads everywhere

PhotoThe 1-800-GET-THIN advertisements blanketed Southern California roadside billboards, television, radio and the Internet for years but disappeared earlier this year after the FDA warned the company that the ads were misleading because they failed to include adequate warnings about the surgery

One worker at a clinic affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN was recently arrested after she tried to sell the medical records of two patients who died after Lap-Band surgeries to an attorney, Kelley said in an affidavit.

An attorney representing the Omidis, John Hueston, said his clients have done nothing wrong and he did not expect criminal charges to be filed against them.

5 deaths

Five patients died after undergoing the Lap-Band procedures at clinics linked to the 1-800-GET-THIN campaigns. In their lawsuits, relatives of the dead patients have charged that the clinics failed to warn patients about the risks of the surgery and alleged that doctors made numerous errors that led to the patients' deaths.

One of the lawsuits seeks damages in the death of a 50-year-old California woman who died in July 2010, five days after Lap Band surgery. Laura Faitro of Simi Valley died after undergoing surgery at Valley Surgical Center in West Hills, Calif. 

Her husband, John, said Ms. Faitro became interested in the surgery after seeing television commercials for 1-800-GET-THIN. But a few days after the surgery, she was hospitalized with an infection and later died.

Faitro's suit charges that there were three lacerations on her liver and her abdominal cavity was filled with bloody fluid, KABC-TV reported. 

Faitro claims surgeons discharged his wife despite her complaints of severe abdominal pain, and that the pain was so intense it forced her to seek help at the Simi Valley Hospital emergency room. She died on July 26 of "multi-organ failure and infarction due to shock, secondary to bleeding and sepsis in the abdominal cavity," according to the complaint.

Last resort

The LAP-BAND is intended to be used for weight loss in adults who have not lost weight using non-surgical weight loss methods. 

Patients using the LAP-BAND must be willing to make major changes to their lifestyle and eating habits, the FDA notes.

Obesity is a major public health concern in the United States,” said William Maisel, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director for science at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “A healthy lifestyle and weight loss are keys to improvements in health and a person’s overall quality of life.”

Use of the LAP-BAND in patients with BMIs between 30 and 40 was examined in a U.S. study. Results showed that 80 percent of patients lost at least 30 percent of their excess weight and kept it off for one year. Some patients in the study lost no weight, while others lost more than 80 percent of their extra weight.

In the same study, more than 70 percent of patients experienced an adverse event related to LAP-BAND, most often vomiting and difficulty swallowing. The events ranged from mild to severe but most were mild and resolved quickly.

Seven out of 149 patients needed other procedures after implantation: four to remove the LAP-BAND, two for port revisions, and one to reposition the LAP-BAND.

More about weight loss 

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Apple Introduces iPad Mini

New, smaller tablet will sell for $329

As expected, Apple has introduced a smaller version of it's iPad tablet but, despite the smaller size, it still carries a premium price.The new iPad mini...

PhotoAs expected, Apple has introduced a smaller version of it's iPad tablet but, despite the smaller size, it still carries a premium price.

The new iPad mini will retail for $329 while the new version of the standard iPad tablet starts at $499. That compares to $199 for the Nexus 7 and the new generation of the Amazon Kindle.

Apple executives say the new, smaller tablet has an improved camera that is actually superior to the one in the iPad 2. They compared their new product with the Nexus 7, noting it has a larger screen and runs more apps designed specifically for tablets.

Looks like an Apple

In the spirit of most Apple products, the Mini is light, thin and sleekly designed. Apple compares its thickness to an actual tablet of paper and has a 7.9 inch screen, compared to the 9.7 inch full-sized iPad.

The iPad Mini was no surprise and was long expected. While a full-sized tablet generally starts at $500 Apple's competitors, notably Amazon, have found a market for tablets with seven inch screens and a $200 price point.

Jobs was a skeptic

While Apple was widely expected to enter the mini market, it was by no means a certainty. The late Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder, made no secret of his contempt for the smaller tablets, saying the public would never embrace them.

Before introducing the iPad mini Apple rolled out the latest version of its full-sized iPad, trumpeting a number of improvements. It features a newer, faster chip that improvements performance, Apple executives said.

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Monster Beverage Sued, Under Federal Probe

Parents of Maryland teen sue for wrongful death

The pressure appears to be mounting on Monster Beverage, the maker of Monster energy drinks. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it is looking into...

PhotoThe pressure appears to be mounting on Monster Beverage, the maker of Monster energy drinks. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it is looking into any possible link between the high-octane beverage and five deaths. The family of a Maryland teenager who died is suing the company.

The parents of 14-year old Anais Fournier, who died after reportedly consuming two Monster drinks, are suing the company for wrongful death. In a statement the company said it is sure its products had nothing to do with the teen's death.

But energy drinks, in particular those made by Monster, have been under pressure for some time. In late August New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was reported to be investigating the health effects of Monster's energy drinks.

Health concerns

Health officials have also been drawing a bead on energy drinks. 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.

Now the FDA is looking into Monster Beverage. According to incident reports filed to the agency by doctors around the country, as many as five deaths may be tied to drinking the beverages. The incident reports also mention more than 30 other adverse reaction from drinking the beverages.

Lawmaker pushed for FDA probe

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) raised the issue back in April, citing Fournier's death the previous December. In a letter to the Commissioner of the FDA, Durbin called for an investigation into energy drinks like ‘Monster Energy’, ‘Rockstar’ and ‘Red Bull’ which contain high levels of caffeine. Durbin said the drinks contain potentially dangerous ingredients yet are marketed to young people.

Fournier died of a cardiac arrhythmia. Durbin says it was due to caffeine toxicity after drinking two 24-ounce Monster energy drinks in a 24-hour period.

“Consuming large quantities of caffeine can have serious health consequences, including caffeine toxicity, stroke, anxiety, arrhythmia, and in some cases death,” Durbin wrote in the letter. “Young people are especially susceptible to suffering adverse effects because energy drinks market to youth, their bodies are not accustomed to caffeine, and energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine and stimulating additives that may interact when used in combination.”

Durbin said the FDA has the authority to regulate caffeine amounts in beverages and should exercise that authority.  

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LivingSocial Settles Suit Over Expiration Dates

Daily deal site will pay $4.5 million and revise its policies

Like its competitor Groupon, LivingSocial has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit that challenged the way the daily deals site interprets the expiratio...

PhotoLike its competitor Groupon, LivingSocial has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit that challenged the way the daily deals site interprets the expiration dates of its coupons. LivingSocial will pay $4.5 million, about half what Groupon paid to settle a similar suit earlier this year. 

Both lawsuits -- and lots of consumer and merchant misunderstandings -- revolve around the expiration date issue. In LivingSocial's case, there are actually two expiration dates -- one for the “paid value” and another for the “promotional value.”

The "paid value" is what the consumer actually paid for the deal while the "promotional value" is the discount. So if you spend $20 for a LivingSocial voucher that gets you $50 worth of food at Papa Luigi's Trattoria, $20 is the paid value while $30 is the promotional value.

The promotional value expires faster than the paid value. In the just-settled lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that the federal Credit Card Accountability and Responsibility Disclosure (CARD) Act and some state laws prohibit the vouchers from going bad for at least five years. LivingSocial disagreed that its deals fall under regulations governing gift certificates or credit cards.

PhotoUnder the settlement, LivingSocial users who submit claims will be eligible for up to 100 percent of the paid value “of any LivingSocial deals that is unredeemed and unrefunded and whose promotional value has expired,” according to court documents. In other words, if your LivingSocial coupon lapsed, you might be able to get all or at least some of your money back. 

Spell it out

To prevent future misunderstandings, LivingSocial’s terms and conditions will be changed “so that the expiration dates on its vouchers and website are more clear and understandable to consumers.” That includes more explicitly spelling out a deal’s paid and promotional value and their respective expiration dates, offering a refund for an unredeemed LivingSocial voucher within seven days of purchase, and setting the expiration date of the paid value of a deal to at least five years.

Confused? So is pretty much everyone else. After all, the entire daily deal segment is sort of the latest and most modern version of the three-card monte street hustle. Maybe you get something pretty good for not much money. Or maybe not. 

Some of us who've gone to trattorias on a Groupon or LivingSocial voucher may have been told we were getting a $50 dinner but it was pretty hard to find underneath all the lettuce and cheese.

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Capital One '0% Balance Transfer' a Hoax, Suit Charges

Class action accuses bank of deception and omissions

Capital One Bank dupes credit cardholders into accepting a "0% balance transfer" offer that leaves people worse off than before, a class action claims in F...

PhotoCapital One Bank dupes credit cardholders into accepting a "0% balance transfer" offer that leaves people worse off than before, a class action claims in Federal Court, Courthouse News Service reports.

In the suit, Priscilla Barton accuses Capital One of "deceptive representations and omissions surrounding its '0%' balance transfer offers."

"Numerous times every year, Cap One solicits its cardholder base to take 0% balance transfers," she alleges in the complaint. "Cap One markets the balance transfers as a 'chance to save' - a means for the cardholder to pay off higher interest loans owed to other creditors. Cap One promises that these balance transfers will carry 0% interest for six or twelve months. ... Cap One promises that it will segregate the transferred balance from other segments of the cardholder's account. The balance transfer comes at a cost: Cap One charges the cardholder a fee of 2%-3% of the total balance transferred."

But, in fact, says Barton, once a cardholder accepts Cap One's '0% interest' balance transfer offer, Cap One unilaterally, and in breach of the cardholder agreement, eliminates the usual grace period and begins charging interest on all new purchases from the date of the balance transfer forward.

Capital One Oct. 23, 2012, 6:59 p.m.
Consumers rate Capital One

Normally, under Capital One's standard credit card arrangement, customers have 25 days after the close of each billing cycle to pay their "new balance" without interest, Barton says.

"Cap One did not disclose that it would eliminate the grace period for cardholders who accepted Cap One's 0% balance transfer offers and subject them to high interest charges," she alleges. 

Other complaints

Barton is far from the only consumer to feel misused. Terry of Lincoln, Neb., recently posted to ConsumerAffairs about her experience, sayine she accepted an offer of 0% APR for 12 months for balance transfers and purchases.

"To confirm this offer, we made a call and spoke to a customer service representative. We were told over the phone by this person that if we took this offer  ... there would be 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers till April 2013. So we agreed to do a balance transfer from another credit card, and had no issues."

But then, said Terry, she noticed she was being charged interest on her purchases.

"They said our account had no such agreement. We did not qualify for 0% APR on purchases, only balance transfers. ... [T]hey wouldn't do anything about agreeing to the terms of the offer we received in the mail. They kept telling us that we never took an offer."

 

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The Housing Market Continues to Recover Quietly

But you won't hear either presidential candidate talking about it much

There may be a number of reasons the recession of 2007 was particularly nasty but the collapse of the housing market has to be a major one.When foreclosu...

PhotoThere may be a number of reasons the recession of 2007 was particularly nasty but the collapse of the housing market has to be a major one.

When foreclosures began to mount among homeowners who lost their jobs or had their subprime mortgages reset to double-digit rates, it sent a shockwave through the financial services industry. Trillions of dollars were tied up in mortgage-backed securities that suddenly became toxic because no one knew which securities contained defaulting mortgages.

So is it significant if the housing market, which helped get us into this mess, starts showing real signs of recovery? Perhaps, but like all politics, all real estate is local. Some areas are doing a lot better than others.

Average home worth $153,800

For the nation as a whole, U.S. home values rose 1.3 percent in the third quarter of 2012 -- marking the fourth consecutive quarter of increases. The Zillow Home Value Index (ZHVI) also rose on an annual basis, increasing 3.2 percent year-over-year to $153,800, according to Zillow's third quarter Real Estate Market Reports.

However, the pace of the recovery is uneven across markets. In the Phoenix metro area, for example, home values rose 5.9 percent quarter-over-quarter, and increased 20.4 percent year-over-year. But in metro Atlanta, home values fell 2.2 percent quarter-over-quarter and 4.8 percent year-over-year.

Looking ahead, Zillow expects U.S. home values will increase 1.7 percent over the next year, and that 183 of the 253 markets covered by the forecast have hit a bottom. An additional 41 markets are expected to hit a bottom in the next year. But the recovery continues to be uneven.

End of home-buying season

"We're likely seeing home values fall back into the negative range in some markets due to the close of the traditional home-buying season," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries. "While that doesn't mean the recovery has come off the rails -- in fact, most markets have hit bottom -- it does present a confusing environment for consumers. Looking forward, we expect to see home values bump along the bottom for some time, before increasing at a slow and steady pace."

So why haven't we heard more about housing on the campaign trail? Perhaps because it is both a good news and bad news story.

Political impact

On a state level, 17 of the 41 states covered by Zillow showed quarterly home values decreases. More than half of the nine electoral battleground states -- New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin -- were among those showing quarterly declines.

"The positive news on a national level is dominating headlines, and perhaps that is why we haven't heard either presidential candidate talk in-depth about housing," Humphries said. "However, despite the national recovery, we are seeing significant polarization among markets, and more than half of battleground states still are experiencing home value declines.”

And that could mean, Humphries says, that for many pivotal voters who will decide the upcoming election, housing is still a key issue, and one that should be addressed by the candidates.

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Cost of Halloween Can be Scary

But here are some ideas for having fun on a budget

Once upon a time Halloween was a pretty inexpensive celebration. But that's changed as the holiday has become a bigger, more popular celebration.In fact,...

PhotoOnce upon a time Halloween was a pretty inexpensive celebration. But that's changed as the holiday has become a bigger, more popular celebration.

In fact, the seven out of 10 Americans who will celebrate Halloween this year are expecting to spend an average of nearly $80 on costumes, candy and decorating their houses, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF).

The survey shows the typical consumer will spend $28.65 on costumes, $23.56 on decorations and $23.27 on candy. Total consumer spending for this Halloween is expected to reach $8 billion, which is great for retailers but can put a dent in consumers' budgets.

Not a good time

This extra spending comes just before the start of the Christmas shopping season so going overboard at Halloween can easily put families in the hole, just before the start of the most expensive time of year.

Halloween wasn't always an expensive holiday. Instead of buying costumes people made their own. With a little planning and creativity, you and your little ones can win the costume contest using items you have on hand. Here are a few ideas.

Turn a cardboard box into a life-size laptop, TV, or robot. With a few folds of a sheet you can become a shepherd, Roman royalty, or the ever-familiar ghost. Need more costume ideas? The Internet has several Websites with inexpensive and last-minute ideas for everyone from the baby to the family pet. Just search "inexpensive Halloween costumes."

DIY decorations

Do-it-yourself decorations are easy to make too. Pumpkins are plentiful and fairly inexpensive this time of year. It's easy to turn your yard into a graveyard by cutting out cardboard headstones from old boxes, paint them gray, add your favorite saying, attach a stake to the back and place throughout your yard.

Change the color of your porch light to create an eerie glow. Check out lighting stores for inexpensive colored bulbs and blacklights.

Believe it or not, you can even save money on treats. Wait until the last-minute to purchase candy when many retailers will mark down the price. Additionally, kids will get enough treats, so stick to bite-size candy bars that are easier on your wallet.

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Fake Debt Collection Caller to Settle FTC Charges

The callers, who often posed as law enforcement authorities, will be barred from debt collection

“ I owe what?” That's often the response from consumers who get calls from collectors telling them to pay up -- or else. Victims of such scams will be glad...

Photo“I owe what?” That's often the response from consumers who get calls from collectors telling them to pay up -- or else. Victims of such scams will be glad to know that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is putting one of these operators out of business.

A California man who worked with bogus debt collectors in India has agreed to settle FTC charges that he and his companies deceived and threatened consumers into paying debts that were not owed or that the defendants were not authorized to collect.

As part of the settlement, the defendants will turn over nearly all of their assets -- amounting to an estimated $170,000 -- which will be used for consumer refunds.

The case against Villa Park, California-based Varang K. Thaker, American Credit Crunchers, LLC, and Ebeeze, LLC, is part of the FTC’s continuing crackdown on scams that target consumers in financial distress. The settlement order bans the defendants from debt collection, and prohibits them from misrepresenting:

  • that they are affiliated with the government or a non-profit group,
  • any terms or conditions for buying any good or service,
  • any aspects of the good or service, and
  • their refund policy.

The order includes a $5.4 million judgment, which is equivalent to the full amount of injury. The monetary judgment will be partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay, but if it is determined that the financial information they gave the FTC was untruthful, the remaining amount of the judgment will become due.

Payday loan collectors

The FTC’s February 2012 complaint alleged that the callers who worked with the defendants would contact consumers who previously had received or inquired about online payday loans. Often pretending to be law enforcement or other government authorities, the callers would falsely threaten to immediately arrest and jail consumers if they did not agree to make a payment on a supposedly delinquent payday loan.

The FTC alleged that information submitted by consumers who had applied online for these loans found its way into the hands of the defendants, who used it to convince consumers that they owed them money.

Saying they represented the local police department, the “Federal Department of Crime and Prevention,” or simply a “federal investigator,” the callers allegedly typically demanded more than $300, and sometimes as much as $2,000. At other times, the callers claimed to be filing a large lawsuit against the consumer, or threatened to have the consumer fired from his or her job, according to the FTC. But the consumers did not owe money to defendants -- either the payday loan debts did not exist or the defendants had no authority to collect them because they were owed to someone else, the FTC alleged.

Consumers received millions of collection calls from India, and in a two-year period the operation took in more than $5 million from victims, according to the FTC. During that time, consumers filed more than 4,000 complaints with the FTC and state attorneys general about fraudulent debt collection calls.

The FTC charged the defendants with violating the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. According to the complaint, they:

  • falsely told consumers they were delinquent on a loan, they must pay it, and the defendants had the authority to collect it.
  • falsely claimed to be law enforcement authorities or attorneys.
  • made false threats against consumers who refused to pay the alleged debts, including threats of arrest or imprisonment.
  • harassed and threatened consumers so they often paid the alleged debts out of fear of being arrested or sued.
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Target Sells Its Credit Card Portfolio to TD Bank

The change is intended to be transparent to customers

If you have a Target credit card, you can soon consider yourself a TD Bank customer. Target is selling its entire consumer credit card portfolio to TD...

PhotoIf you have a Target credit card, you can soon consider yourself a TD Bank customer. Target is selling its entire consumer credit card portfolio to TD Bank Group for about $5.9 billion.

"Target is very pleased to have reached this agreement with TD which is the result of extensive efforts by teams at both companies," said Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Target Corporation. "This transaction achieves all of Target's strategic and financial goals for a portfolio sale."

For Canadian-based TD -- Toronto and Dominion Bank, to be more precise --  the deal not only broadens its credit card operations but gives it a bigger presence in the U.S., where it has branches primarily on the East Coast.

"Our agreement with Target will significantly expand our presence in the North American credit card business and will establish TD as a key player in this space," said Ed Clark, Group President and CEO, TD Bank Group. "We're excited to be working with Targetfs strong team and leading retail brand. This asset acquisition aligns perfectly with our strategy, fits our risk profile and is a great complement to our high-growth credit card business."

Target said the agreement does not have any impact on Target's 5% REDcard Rewards program. Target team members will continue to provide all servicing for Target Credit Card and Target Visa accounts. The portfolio sale and program agreement are designed to have minimal impact on Target's current cardholders, guests and the Target team members who support financial products and services.

Not always on target

Not everyone is thrilled with Target's cards. 

"I was asked to open a Target credit card when I was buying a new TV at Target," said Chris of Woodstock, Ga., in a posting to ConsumerAffairs. "I was told I'd get an additional 5% off on a $500 TV I got on sale; the offer made the deal even sweeter. When the in-store application went through, I only got a $200 credit limit, not enough to cover the purchase of the TV. I only got $10 off the purchase and owed the balance of the sale and ended up paying for it on another card.

"I guess I should have refused the Target card offer right then and there, but it looked like the sale was already processed, and I had already spent a lot of time researching televisions. Anyway, I was not happy with that, I have excellent credit, and $200 limit seemed a joke. I think they gave me a low limit because they did not want to give me the full discount," Chris said.

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Hawaii Firm Recalls Ground Beef Products

The meat may be contaminated with E. coli

Higa Meat & Pork Market of Honolulu is recalling approximately 4,100 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7....

PhotoHiga Meat & Pork Market of Honolulu is recalling approximately 4,100 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 10-lb. bags of "HIGA MARKET-GROUND BEEF BULK" - 1 to 6 bags per carton/case.

Each case bears the establishment number "EST. 12457M" inside the USDA mark of inspection, as well as the identifying case code number: "291." The products were produced on Oct. 17, 2012, and were distributed to restaurants in the Oahu, HI area.

The problem was discovered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and occurred as a result of the products testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 and being shipped prior to the company receiving test results. There are no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact the company's vice president, Sheldon Wright, at (808) 531-3591.

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Gasoline Prices Dropping Like Fall Leaves

California no longer the state with the most expensive fuel

The rise in gasoline prices that began in August, just as the summer driving season was ending, appears to be coming to an end as well. Prices are falling ...

PhotoThe rise in gasoline prices that began in August, just as the summer driving season was ending, appears to be coming to an end as well. Prices are falling across the U.S. and, in some places, falling fast.

The national average price of a gallon of self-serve regular today is $3.648, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. That's down from $3.71 on Friday and $3.77 just seven days ago.

Some relief in California

California, meanwhile, is no longer the state with the nation's most expensive fuel, relinquishing the title to Hawaii. The average gasoline price in California today is $4.39, down 20 cents a gallon from a week ago.

California prices surged earlier this month, reportedly due to refinery and pipeline problems in the state that limited the delivery of mandated summer-grade gasoline. The early release of winter-grade gasoline apparently triggered a drop in prices.

Ohio and Indiana, which on occasion this year have had some of the most expensive fuel in the nation, now have some of the cheapest. The statewide average gasoline price is $3.358 in Ohio, down 20 cents from a week ago. In Indiana the statewide average is $3.43 a gallon -- down from $3.648 seven days ago.

“AAA expects that gas prices across the country will continue to drop leading up to Election Day and will move even lower approaching the end of the year, barring any unforeseen forces,” said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. “Wholesale gasoline futures have dropped nearly 30 cents since the start of October, and retail prices, which typically lag wholesale price declines, are now beginning to reflect this drop. In 2011 the national average price on November 6 was $3.41 and the price on Thanksgiving was $3.32. AAA expects that the national average is likely to be between $3.40-3.50 when Americans head to the polls in just over two weeks and to be between $3.25-3.40 by Thanksgiving.”

Wall Street's influence

Prices have been headed downward in large part because of Wall Street's influence. The current earnings reporting season has yielded some disappointing results, leading to speculation that U.S. growth won't meet expectations.

As a result, oil prices have been losing ground. Even so, gasoline prices are still abnormally high for this time of year. The national average price at this time last year was $3.456 a gallon.

Ash points out that prices at the pump could jump again if hostilities, or the threat of action, occurs in the Persian Gulf.

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Utah Firm Recalls Ground Beef Products

There's a possibility of E. coli contamination

Main Street Quality Meats of Salt Lake City is recalling approximately 2,310 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7....

PhotoMain Street Quality Meats of Salt Lake City is recalling approximately 2,310 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 10-lb cases of "GROUND BEEF BULK."
  • 12-lb cases of "GROUND BEEF PATTIES."

Each case bears the establishment number "EST. 19916" inside the USDA mark of inspection, as well as any of the following identifying lot numbers: "1018121," "1019121," "1018122," or "1019122." The products were produced on Oct. 18 and Oct. 19, 2012, and were distributed to restaurants in Utah.

The problem was discovered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and occurred as a result of the products testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 and being shipped prior to the company receiving test results. There have been no reports of illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact the company's Food Safety Coordinator, Scott Schmidt, at (801) 484-5295

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Suit Accuses Walmart of Breaking Federal Labor Laws

Workers say they were forced to work overtime without pay

Chicago-area temporary workers have filed suit against Walmart and two temporary staffing agencies, claiming Walmart forced temps to appear early for work,...

PhotoChicago-area temporary workers have filed suit against Walmart and two temporary staffing agencies, claiming the retailer forced temps to appear early for work, stay late to complete work, work through lunches and breaks and participate in trainings without compensation, a violation of federal law.

The suit, supported by the United Food and Commercial Works International union, names Twanda Burk at the primary plaintiff.

“I only get paid minimum wage and yet Labor Ready and Walmart still try to cheat me by not paying me for the time I actually work,” Burk said. “I’ve proven that I’m a good worker, and they just want to take advantage of that.”

Lack of information

The suit claims Labor Ready and QPS, two of the staffing agencies Walmart uses in the Chicago area, failed to provide workers assigned to Walmart stores with information related to their employment, such as employment notices and proper wage payment notices as required by Illinois law.

The suit further maintains Walmart itself failed to keep accurate records of workers’ time as required by federal and state law and has failed to provide workers with forms verifying hours worked. This made it impossible for workers to make claims that they were not paid by the temp agencies for all hours worked, the plaintiffs allege.

The violations of state and federal law are alleged to have occurred in early 2009 and continued up until the present time. In addition to seeking all unpaid wages for the workers, the suit calls for an injunction against Walmart and its temp agencies preventing them from future violations of state labor laws.

“There have been so many times I’ve been told to stay late after my shift to finish stocking the shelves, but I didn’t know they wouldn’t pay me for it,” said Anthony Wright, a temp worker at Labor Ready who has worked at a couple of the Walmart stores in the area since late last year.

More temps for the holidays

Walmart contracts with staffing agencies for the services of hundreds of temporary laborers -- many of whom earn minimum wage -- in Chicago-area stores. The company has said it would hire 50,000 temporary workers to staff its stores for the upcoming holiday season.

“The practices that Walmart and its staffing agencies are engaging in are exactly why the Illinois legislature passed the Illinois Day and Temporary Services Act,” said Chris Williams, of Workers’ Law Office PC, the workers’ attorney. “Workers need critical information to make sure they don’t get cheated on their pay, as they did here. These workers are required to be paid for the time they’ve worked.”

When Walmart received permission to expand in Chicago the union says it promised the Chicago city council to set starting wages at $8.75 per hour but has failed to do so.

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FTC: Web-Tracking Company Went Too Far

Compete, Inc. collected too much data, failed to honor promises, agency charged

You've probably never heard of it but Compete is one of those companies that, like a virtual blood-hound, follows you around the web, collecting crumbs of ...

PhotoYou've probably never heard of it but Compete is one of those companies that, like a virtual blood-hound, follows you around the Web, collecting crumbs of data -- including search terms, passwords and credit card information -- about what you see, buy and do.

The problem, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), is that Compete doesn't spell out how much data it's collecting and allegedly fails to honor promises to protect the personal data it scoops up.

Why would anyone go to the trouble of collecting so much data? Why, to sell it, of course, which is just what Compete and other data brokers do. They sell information about you and millions of other consumers to marketers who are hoping to, in turn, sell you something.

Under a settlement with the FTC, Compete has agreed to obtain consumers’ express consent before collecting any data from Compete software downloaded onto consumers’ computers, and to delete or anonymize the use of the consumer data it already has collected, and to provide direction to consumers for uninstalling its software.

"Consumer panel"

According to the FTC, Compete got consumers to download its tracking software in several ways, including by urging them to join a “Consumer Input Panel” that was promoted using ads that pointed consumers to Compete’s Website, www.consumerinput.com. Compete told consumers that by joining the “Panel” they could win rewards while sharing their opinions about products and services, the FTC alleged. The company also allegedly promised that consumers who installed another type of its software -- the Compete Toolbar (from compete.com) -- could have “instant access” to data about the Websites they visited.

Compete also licensed its Web-tracking software to other companies, the FTC alleged. Upromise, which licensed Compete’s Web-tracking software, settled similar FTC charges earlier this year.

PhotoOnce installed, the Compete tracking component operated in the background, automatically collecting information about consumers’ online activity. It captured information consumers entered into Websites, including consumers’ usernames, passwords, and search terms, and also some sensitive information such as credit card and financial account information, security codes and expiration dates, and Social Security Numbers, according to the FTC.

Unfair, deceptive

The FTC charged that several of Compete’s business practices were unfair or deceptive and violated the law. For example, the company failed to disclose to consumers that it would collect detailed information such as information they provided in making purchases, not just “the Web pages you visit.”

In addition, the FTC alleged that Compete made false and deceptive assurances to consumers that their personal information would be removed from the data it collected. The company made statements such as:

  • “All data is stripped of personally identifiable information before it is transmitted to our servers;” and
  • “We take reasonable security measures to protect against unauthorized access to or unauthorized alteration, disclosure or destruction of personal information.”

Despite these assurances, the FTC charged that Compete failed to remove personal data before transmitting it; failed to provide reasonable and appropriate data security; transmitted sensitive information from secure Websites in readable text; failed to design and implement reasonable safeguards to protect consumers’ data; and failed to use readily available measures to mitigate the risk to consumers’ data.

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Pheed: Part Twitter, Part Facebook, With a Bit of Tumblr Thrown In

Could it be the website that changes social networking as we know it?

If you think about it, most of us have been using social networking sites for over ten years now.It’s hard to pinpoint which site truly invented so...

PhotoIf you think about it, most of us have been using social networking sites for over ten years now.

It’s hard to pinpoint which site truly invented social networking, but according to many, Sixdeegrees.com, which started back in 1997, was the first to combine technology and socializing.

But it wasn’t until Friendster came on the scene that the entire concept of social networking caught on with the masses.

Friendster was one of the first sites that allowed users to share personal interests with online friends, and since it started in 2001 the entire world of social networking has grown to enormous heights, and has become as much a part of our everyday lives as our vehicles or home appliances.

In fact, there are so many different ways one can share photos, post music and circulate videos, that many spend hours upon hours each day shifting back and forth between Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

But what if there was a website that provided a one-stop shopping experience for all of your social networking needs? And you were able to get paid if people liked what you posted?

Meaning, you could post that video of you playing air-guitar, update your followers on your latest blog entry, and put up that annoyingly cute painting of you and your companion being blissfully in love, and make money from it. 

There’s a website called Pheed that provides just that.

Best of everything

PhotoInstead of being a social networking site that focuses on just a handful of features, it grabs the best parts of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other sites folks frequently visit.

O.D. Kobo, who is cofounder of Pheed, says that improving upon good ideas is what brought the world so many wonderful and lasting creations.

“The wheel had to come about before the car,” he said in an interview. “There are stages like how Friendster came, then MySpace, then Facebook, each one improving on and adding to the format. There was Twitter and now Pheed, the evolution of a genre.”

Of course one of the main benefits of Pheed is not having to shuffle back and forth between different sites, but the fact that users can charge other people to view their content could provide the site the proper niche it needs to stand out.

There are other sites like YouTube that have a monetization feature, but since Pheed allows you to perform a number of social networking functions at once, users can potentially make money on their songs, videos, writings and other content they post.

Users have the option of charging others a one-time fee for viewing content or they can charge a monthly subscription fee. Both monthly subscriptions and one-time views run between $1.99 and $34.99 depending on what’s being offered.

If Pheed plays its marketing cards smartly it could potentially attract the filmmaker, musician or photographer that wants to make a bit of cash from their art. Historically it’s only been the independent musician that has heavily relied on social sites to advertise and sell their works.  Somehow Pheed will have to prove to its creative portion of users that the site is artist-friendly.

Multitasking lifestyle

Photo
O.D. Kobo

Kobo says that although he likes websites like Facebook and Twitter they are extremely limiting in terms of other things you could use them for, and with most people living a multitasking lifestyle these days, visiting one site for all of your social networking updates can be quite convenient.

It seems Pheed is off to a good start too, as the company had a soft launch of the website and allowed celebrities and well-known business honchos to use it and spread the word.

Kobo also wants to separate Pheed from other sites by having users post high-quality content, like short films and live music broadcasts, and hopes the monetization feature will inspire people to post inviting content as opposed to just posting spur of the moment thoughts or photos.

The biggest challenge for the Los Angeles-based social site is to not get swallowed by other sites and maintain its uniqueness. Also it will have to establish itself as a cool place to visit once the newness wears off, which is a huge obstacle for start-ups.

But Pheed has managed to carve out a niche and be noticed which is a great accomplishment in today’s crowded cyber world. If it can separate itself from other websites by making itself the place to see quality postings and where people can also make money, it could turn social networking  upside down. It'll be fun to watch.

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New Product Claims to 'Dissolve' Dog Waste

But don't throw away those plastic bags just yet

Anyone who takes their dog for a walk knows the drill; before leaving you stuff a couple of plastic bags into your pocket to clean up after your pet.In f...

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Court Upholds Right to Criticize Companies on the Web

Use of trademarked name in web page title and meta tags does not constitute infringement, appeals court holds

The Internet has presented consumers with a powerful new tool to review their experiences with products and services but it has also given companies new ar...

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Pew Survey Finds Retirement Worries Are Growing

But it's not those close to retirement who are doing the worrying

U.S. adults are more worried now about their retirement years than they were in 2009, when the economy seemed at rock bottom.A Pew Research Center survey...

PhotoU.S. adults are more worried now about their retirement years than they were in 2009, when the economy seemed at rock bottom.

A Pew Research Center survey finds 38 percent of adults are “not too” or “not at all” confident they will have enough income or assets in retirement. That's up from 25 percent in early 2009.

In the last three and a half years the economy has begun to improve. The housing market has shown signs of life, the foreclosure wave is receding and job growth has been stable, although weak. On the other hand, household income has declined since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009.

Young people now more worried

So why the growing pessimism about retirement? According to an examination of the two surveys, it's not the same people who were worried in 2009 that are worried now. According to Pew, it is now younger and middle-aged adults who are voicing the most retirement worries.

In 2009 it was “gloomy boomers” in their mid-50s who were the most worried that they would outlive their retirement nest eggs. Today, retirement worries peak among adults in their late 30s -- many of whom are the older sons and daughters of the baby boom generation.

According to a Pew Research analysis of Federal Reserve Board data, this is also the age group that has suffered the steepest losses in household wealth in recent years.

The new Pew Research survey finds that among adults between the ages of 36 and 40, 53 percent say they are either “not too” or “not at all” confident that their income and assets will last through retirement. In contrast, only about a third of those ages 60 to 64 express similar concerns, as do a somewhat smaller share of those 18 to 22 years old.

Unpleasant surprise

In 2009 baby boomers were caught off guard by the financial meltdown and the resulting drop in value of both their homes and retirement accounts. Being closer to retirement, they were alarmed at the dramatic turn of events.

As a result many boomers recalculated their retirement plans, deciding to remain on the job longer than previously planned. Those who didn't panic and sell their investments saw the stock market quickly rebound in mid 2009. For boomers, the outlook doesn't seem nearly as bleak.

Why are younger people now more worried about retirement? A review of Federal Reserve data suggests the reason.

The median net worth of this group, in their late 30s and early 40s, has fallen at a far greater rate than for any other age group both in the past 10 years and since the beginning of the Great Recession.

56 percent decline

Led by declines in home value, the median wealth of adults ages 35 to 44 was 56 percent lower in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2010 that it had been for their same-aged counterparts in 2001 -- the steepest decline for any age group during that decade and more than double the rate of loss among those ages 55 to 64.

Compounding the problem is that these tend to be expensive years, especially for couples that have delayed starting a family. Declining wealth and rising expenses makes it doubly difficult to put away money for retirement.

Yet personal finance experts say this is the best time to be saving and investing, since time is the greatest contributor to wealth-building. They say putting some money away each month into an IRA or 401 (k) account, is critical to building a nest egg over the next 20 to 30 years that can go a long way toward alleviating some of those retirement concerns.

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Fed's Promises to Keep Interest Rates Low Fall Flat

Negativity about the economy continues to be the rule

Low interest rates and the likelihood that they'll stay that way and don't seem to be doing a lot for consumer confidence. Nearly three out of four people...

PhotoLow interest rates and the likelihood that they'll stay that way and don't seem to be doing a lot for consumer confidence.

Nearly three out of four people (74%) are not more inclined to borrow money despite the Federal Reserve's recent pledge to keep interest rates low until mid-2015, according to research released by Bankrate.com. In fact, just 23% report a greater inclination to borrow money.

The findings were announced in conjunction with release of Bankrate's monthly Financial Security Index, which rebounded to its highest level since June (from a 2012 low of 96.6 in September to 99.2 in October).

This was still not enough to tip it back into positive territory, since any number less than 100 indicates deteriorating financial security over the prior 12 months. The index has been below 100 in 21 of the 23 months since its inception in Dec. 2010.

More progress needed

"Recent stock market returns, housing data and the latest jobs report all have Americans feeling a bit better about their finances, but more progress is needed in order to achieve sustainable long-term improvement," said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst. "When asked about their overall financial situation now versus one year ago, slightly more Americans said it is worse now (25%) than better (24%). And the negativity is particularly pronounced among retirees: just 16% say they are better off today. That's the same reading as the unemployed."

Four of the index's five components improved over the past month: job security, savings, debt and overall financial situation. The other component (net worth) held steady. Only two readings (job security and net worth) indicate improvement in how consumers feel now compared to one year ago.

Thirty-one percent of full-time employees report better overall financial security now versus 12 months ago. And one-third of households with income of $50,000 or more per year report an improved overall financial situation now versus this time last year.

The new survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

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Patents: a Hidden Cost to Consumers?

Technology expert calls for caps on patent royalties

Apple's long-running patent dispute with Samsung and it's huge victory in court last summer made headlines. A jury found that Samsung violated a number of ...

PhotoApple's long-running patent dispute with Samsung and its huge victory in court last summer made headlines. A jury found that Samsung violated a number of Apple patents in its smartphone and tablet designs.

But beyond the $1 billion damage award, which Samsung says it is appealing, the whole issue of patents affects the price of all kinds of consumer technology, according to at least one expert.

Aija Leiponen, associate professor of technology and innovation strategy at Cornell University, says the cost patents add to products can be significant.

13 percent of a smartphone cost

“The royalty cost for patents held by equipment companies such as Nokia, Motorola Mobility and Qualcomm is estimated to form about 13 percent of the price of a 3G wireless handset,” Leiponen said.

Not only does that raise the price of a smartphone, Leiponen says it makes it more costly and therefore harder for technology innovators to start new companies or develop new products.

Added to that is the legal environment. With huge damage awards in patent infringement cases, the total intellectual property cost to consumers and innovators is likely to keep climbing.

Leiponen has proposed something revolutionary and undoubtedly controversial. Yet he thinks that it would be good for the industry and for consumers. And he thinks he is not alone.

Royalties cap

“There is some consensus among analysts that an agreed level of maximum royalties would be beneficial for consumers and the industry as a whole, he said. “It would shift incentives away from intellectual property creation and royalty extortion and toward product innovation and commercialization.”

Leiponen is enough of a realist to know that such a proposal faces still headwinds from entities that hold intellectual property rights. The industry, he says, will not be able to agree on this by itself.

“This might present a fruitful opportunity for governments and international organizations to provide some ground rules for the licensing negotiations regarding standard-essential patents,” Leiponen said.

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Nissan recalling Altimas

Steering problems could lead to a crash

Nissan is recalling 13,919 model year 2012-2013 Altimas manufactured from May 10, 2012, through July 26, 2012. The vehicles may have been equipped with tra...

PhotoNissan is recalling 13,919 model year 2012-2013 Altimas manufactured from May 10, 2012, through July 26, 2012. The vehicles may have been equipped with transverse link bolts and power steering rack bolts that were not torqued to proper specification.

The affected bolts could become loose and fall out which may lead to a loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will tighten the bolts to the proper torque specifications. The safety recall is expected to begin on, or about October 29.

Owners may contact Nissan Customer Service at 1-800-647-7261.

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Fake News Site Operator Ordered to Surrender More Than $2 Million in Assets

The sites are accused of making fake endorsements and deceptive acai berry weight loss claims

An operation that allegedly used fake news Websites to deceptively market acai berry weight-loss products will pay more than $2 million to settle Federal T...

PhotoAn operation that allegedly used fake news Websites to deceptively market acai berry weight-loss products will pay more than $2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges.

Last year, the FTC charged defendants Circa Direct LLC and Andrew Davidson with running Internet ads designed to look like news Websites, with misleading titles such as “News 6” and “New Jersey Job Report.” The Websites purported to provide investigative journalists’ reports on weight-loss products, work-at-home schemes, and penny auctions, But, according to the FTC, the sites were actually deceptive ads.

The FTC accused Circa Direct and Davidson, the company’s owner, with making false and unsupported claims about acai berry products and failing to disclose their financial relationship to the sellers of the products and services promoted on the fake news sites. In one fake news story, for example, a “reporter” claimed to have lost 25 pounds in four weeks using a supplement.

Seizing assets

The settlement imposes a judgment of nearly $11.5 million. The monetary judgment will be suspended when the FTC receives assets worth more than $2 million from the defendants’ personal and corporate bank accounts, investment and retirement accounts and proceeds from the sale of a home in Margate, New Jersey, and a 2010 Nissan Maxima.

Under the settlement, Circa Direct and Davidson are required to make clear when their commercial messages are advertisements rather than objective journalism. They are also required to disclose any financial connections they have with merchants.

The defendants are further barred from making deceptive claims about health-related products, such as the acai berry weight-loss supplements they marketed, and from making deceptive claims about other products, such as work-at-home schemes or penny auctions.

In approving the settlement order, U.S. District Court Judge Renee Marie Bumb cited the fact that the order does not contain an admission of liability, and required the FTC to create and host a Webpage that provides a notice from the court, a detailed summary of the factual allegations and links to supporting documents.

The FTC sued Circa and Davidson as part of a law enforcement sweep against 10 affiliate marketing operations accused of using fake news Websites to market acai berry weight-loss products. The agency has reached similar settlements with eight of the other operations.

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Meningitis Death Toll Rises to 23

Tennessee has been particularly hard hit

Tennessee remains the hot spot in the nationwide meningitis outbreak, tied to contaminated steroid drugs distributed by the New England Compounding Center...

PhotoTennessee remains the hot spot in the nationwide meningitis outbreak, tied to contaminated steroid drugs distributed by the New England Compounding Center (NECC).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed 285 cases in 16 states resulting in 23 deaths. Tennessee's death toll is the nation's highest, with eight. North Carolina reported its first death over the weekend.

The outbreak began earlier this month when a few cases of meningitis were linked to injected steroid drugs that came from the NECC, a compounding pharmacy that doesn't manufacture original drugs, but creates a new drug by mixing two or more existing drugs.

Still spreading

The outbreak, which has continued to spread after the initial reports of illnesses and deaths, has prompted calls for increased oversight of these compounding pharmacies. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and in whose district the facility is located, asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to look into increasing its oversight.

In a letter to the FDA, Markey asked the agency about current regulations and oversight practices that ensure that safety standards met by large drug manufacturing companies are also met by compounding pharmacies. Pharmacy “compounding”, which accounts for 37 million prescriptions each year, involves making a new drug whose safety and efficacy have not been demonstrated with the kind of data that FDA ordinarily would require in reviewing a new drug application, according to the lawmaker.

Regulatory black hole

“Compounding pharmacies currently fall into a regulatory black hole,” Markey wrote in his letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. “While such pharmaceutical operations capable of making specialized drug formulations play an important role for many patients who cannot take traditional medication such as pediatric patients, hospice patients, and patients with allergies to common dyes and fillers, they also carry inherent risks that are not always fully communicated to patients.”

The CDC and FDA investigations into the current outbreak are continuing. Specifically, the two agencies are trying to determine how the injectable steroid drugs became contaminated. Operations at NECC have been stopped since the outbreak and other drugs produced there have been recalled.

Last week investigators confirmed that they had found the extremely dangerous fungus Exserohilum in some of the vials NECC had used for its drugs.

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Study: Prescription Meds Still Potent Decades After Expiration Date

Researchers find that even some 40-year-old drugs were still effective

Let’s face it, the cost of medicine and prescription drugs can really add up, and often times we have to throw them away because they’ve past t...

PhotoLet’s face it, the cost of medicine and prescription drugs can really add up, and oftentimes we have to throw drugs away because they’re past their expiration date. But according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) finds drugs may remain potent a lot longer than expected.

A group of researchers examined eight different prescription medications that contained 15 active ingredients. And though all of the medicines expired between 28 and 40 years ago, the researchers learned the meds not only maintained their  level of potency, but also maintained the ability to work in the way they were intended to.

The lead author of the study, Lee Cantrell, says the expiration date on a prescription bottle is more or less a guideline, so patients can know what the minimum amount of time the medicine will be good for -- but that date isn’t necessarily a firm guide to how long the drug will remain effective, he says.

“All [the expiration date] means from the manufacturers’ standpoint is that they’re willing to guarantee the potency and efficacy for the drug for that long," said Cantrell. “It has nothing to do with the actual shelf life.”

The UCSF researchers also found the amount of active ingredient present in the drugs was at least 90 percent of the amount shown on the label, only diminishing by a small amount.

This was the case among 12 of the 14 drug compounds tested. The only active drugs that fell below the 90 percent mark were amphetamines and aspirin, say researchers.

All drugs have to contain between 90 and 110 percent of the active ingredient, which are guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Lots of waste

PhotoResearchers say because pharmacies have to discard prescription drugs right after the expiration date, and consumers have been told to throw medicines away after they expire, a lot of money and effective treatments are being vastly wasted.

It mirrors the same argument one could have against restaurants throwing away day-old food. Although the food isn’t freshly made and it wouldn’t be given to customers, shouldn’t it be given to those that can’t afford a meal? Or should it be wasted simply because it’s passed its expiration date?

In the same way, is it better for consumers to always scrape together the necessary funds to buy fresh prescriptions or should they save their money and just use medicines past their expiration date?

Cantrell says having consumers think they have to discard their medicine  simply because it stretched past its recommended date, is not only wasteful but illogical.

“We’re spending billions and billions on medication and medication turnover,” he says. “If a drug has expired, you’ve got to throw it away, it goes into a landfill, and you have to get a new prescription. This could potentially have a significant impact on cost.”

Planned obsolescence?

PhotoSome believe that drug manufacturers want consumers to keep buying medicine to make more money, and these same manufacturers are also responsible for creating the idea that medicine is ineffective and even harmful after the date on the bottle passes.

Others may say it’s just the manufacturer's way of letting the consumer know how long their medicine is supposed to be its most potent.

In a separate study conducted by both the Department of Defense and the Federal Drug Administration, it was learned that out of 3,005 drugs tested, 2,650 (88 percent) maintained the same level of potency, and upheld their strength for an average of 66 months after the expiration date.

There were also some drugs tested that didn’t lose any potency at all, and remained just as strong as the day they were released from the pharmacy. 

Colorado physician Dr. Phil Mohler says using expired prescription drugs is far better than a person going without their medicine because it’s outdated.

And for those who are more cash-strapped than others, using drugs past their expiration date may be their only choice to stay medicated and follow their doctor’s orders.

“In a situation where there are no reasonable alternatives, particularly if the expiration date is within the last few months, [or] years, it may be reasonable to use the expired drug,” said Mohler in a written statement.

“The risk of adverse effects related to the drug being out of date are small and  there is a high likelihood that the medication will be effective," he said.

As always, research studies should be taken only as general information. Future studies may come to other conclusions and general findings may not apply in a specific instance. All of which is a way of saying, talk to your doctor before making a decision about using drugs past their expiration date. 

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Did CVS Refill Prescriptions Without Permission?

Justice Department opens investigation into possible Medicare fraud, reports say

We've all had the experience of signing up for a credit report, anti-virus tool or "free sample" of some useless product, only to find the charge shows up ...

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College Students and Credit Cards: What Role do Parents Play?

Students learn bad financial behavior at home, researchers say

A few years ago college students found themselves saddled with credit card debt, in addition to student loans. Credit card companies eagerly sponsored camp...

PhotoA few years ago college students found themselves saddled with mounting credit card debt, in addition to student loans. Credit card companies eagerly sponsored campus events, signing up students for credit cards, even though they had no source of income besides Mom and Dad.

The CARD Act, signed into law in 2009, went a long way to end those activities. Researchers at East Carolina University say parents should do more to help their college-bound children make sensible financial decisions.

The researchers analyzed data for 413 undergraduate students from seven different American universities, who took part in the College Student Financial Literacy Survey. Through an online survey, the authors examined credit card debt and number of credit cards owned.

Parental influence

In particular, the researchers honed in on students’ interactions with their parents when discussing finances as a family, their years of work experience, financial knowledge of credit cards, loans, insurance, and personal finance. They also asked how comfortable they were making only the minimum payment each month.

Overall, nearly two-thirds of students had a credit card, and nearly a third had more than one. Gender and class year were the top predictors of the number of credit cards students had, followed by parents who argued about finances.

Specifically, juniors and seniors were nearly four times more likely to report having two or more cards, and females were more than twice as likely as males to have two or more cards.

Arguing parents a bad sign

Students who reported that their parents argued about finances were also twice as likely to have more than two cards than those who reported having parents who did not argue about finances. In addition, those comfortable with minimum payments were also more likely to have more cards.

In terms of debt, those students who had two or more credit cards were nearly three times more likely to report having credit card debt over $500. Parental influence, and parental arguments about finances specifically, was also one of the top predictors of a student having a credit card debt over $500.

“It is clear that the influence of parents cannot be underplayed,” the authors concluded. “Researchers, educators and policymakers should work with, and include, parents in finding effective ways to increase the positive financial behaviors of college students, particularly those behaviors related to credit card use. We need to help students and parents learn financial skills and establish healthy financial attitudes at earlier ages to prevent poor financial habits from taking root.”

Some good news

A survey of college students by CreditDonkey, released last month, is more encouraging, finding that most college students have improved their credit card performance In fact, it found that 30 percent of college students polled said they did not have a single credit card.

A major problem with credit cards is that consumers often run up their balances, intending to pay them down in the future, but find they are never able to do so. As a result, they suddenly find themselves with balances of several thousand dollars and, at credit cards' high interest rates, it is all they can do to keep up with the interest payments.

The CreditDonkey survey suggests college students have yet to fall into that trap. When asked how much they pay on their credit card bill each month, a surprising 42 percent said they paid off the balance each month. Only 17 percent confessed to paying just the minimum each month.

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Iskream Brand Peanut Butter and Jelly No Sugar Added Ice Cream Recalled

There is a potential of Salmonella contamination

Buck's Ice Cream of Milford, CT, co-pack manufacturer for Iskream, is voluntarily recalling all lot codes of Iskream Brand Peanut Butter and Jelly No Sugar...

PhotoBuck's Ice Cream of Milford, CT, co-pack manufacturer for Iskream, is voluntarily recalling all lot codes of Iskream Brand Peanut Butter and Jelly No Sugar Added Ice Cream, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

The decision was made as the result of the expanded recall of peanut butter, nut butters and peanut products by Sunland because of potential contamination with Salmonella.

The Iskream brand Peanut Butter and Jelly was distributed to retail customers through several wholesale distributors in the Northeast between March 1, 2012, and October 17, 2012.

The ice cream is packaged in ice cream pint containers under the Iskream brand, and is labeled as “Reduced Fat No Sugar Added Peanut Butter and Jelly. The UPC code is 858452020554, and the Lot Code and Best by Date is printed or stamped in the bottom of the container.

The Pints could also be packaged in white corrugated cases containing 8 pints per case. Each case has a label identifying the product as Iskream Peanut Butter and Jelly, and has the UPC, code, and best by dates on label wrapped around one corner of the box.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

Consumers who have purchased any of the recalled products are urged not to eat them and to return products to the place of purchase for a full refund or dispose of them immediately, or contact Iskream directly for refund information.  

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Debt Settlement Programs Called Top Threat to America’s Most Indebted Consumers.

Schemes work for just one in 10 who pay for them

So, you think that guy on TV who says his company will get you out of debt will really help? Guess again. As few as one in 10 unwary consumers who are lur...

PhotoSo, you think that guy on TV who says his company will get you out of debt will really help? Guess again.

As few as one in 10 unwary consumers who are lured into so-called “debt settlement” schemes actually end up debt free in the promised period of time, according to a major new consumer alert issued by the nonprofit National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA). That, the NACBA says, makes these risky schemes the No. 1 threat facing America’s most deeply indebted consumers.

Getting in deeper

The alert notes that already struggling with home foreclosures, harsh bank and credit card fees, and other major financial challenges, the most deeply indebted consumers are now falling victim to a major new threat – so-called ‘debt settlement’ schemes that promise to make clients ’debt free’ in a relatively short period of time.

Unfortunately, most consumers who pursue debt settlement services find themselves facing not relief but even steeper financial losses. Even the industry acknowledges -- though not in its ever-present radio, TV and online advertising -- that debt settlement schemes fail to work for about two thirds of clients.

Federal and state officials put the debt-settlement success rate even lower -- at about one in 10 cases -- meaning that the vast majority of unwary and uninformed consumers end up with more red ink, not the promised debt-free outcome.”

Robust industry

The private debt-settlement industry remains robust. More than 500,000 people with approximately $15 billion of debt are currently enrolled in debt settlement programs, according to industry estimates. And there is room for further growth: One in eight U.S. households has more than $10,000 in credit card debt.

“Based on what bankruptcy attorneys are seeing across the nation, we believe that debt settlement schemes are the number one problem facing America’s most deeply indebted consumers today,” says Durham, NC, bankruptcy attorney Ed Boltz, NACBA Board member and incoming NACBA president. “Bombarded with slick radio and Web advertising falsely promising a smooth road to being debt free in a short period of time, these companies prey on the most desperate victims of the economic downturn. These particularly vulnerable consumers usually end up getting sued, stuck with outrageous fees, more deeply in debt, and far worse off in terms of their credit score.”

Earlier this year, NACBA focused national attention on the “student debt bomb,” which then was identified as the fastest growing consumer debt problem being handled by consumer bankruptcy attorneys.

Horror stories

“I went with Freedom Debt and ended up getting sued by three of the credit companies,” writes Randy of Palm Desert, CA,  in a ConsumerAffairs post. “It cost me about $900.00 out of pocket. After talking to the companies, they would have worked out a deal with me if I had not used Freedom Debt. It has been the worst experience of my life. I have money to pay my debt, but they will not contact the creditor. You can do it yourself and not have to pay almost $2,000.00 before they say they will start. Save the money and do it yourself.”

“They (Debt relief Network) have about $1000 of my money, which they deduct from my bank account; and I cannot reach them,” Angela of Guadalupita, NM, tells ConsumerAffairs. “They stopped taking money, but their phone line is a recording and I have been trying to reach them without success. I do not want to be a client anymore, and I want my money back! I am getting ready to get my car repossessed, and my bills are piling up. Creditors call every minute of the day.”

Alert highlights

The NACBA consumer alert also notes:

  • There is now across-the-board agreement on the danger that debt settlement schemes pose to consumers. The Better Business Bureau has designated debt settlement as an “inherently problematic business.” Similarly, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs called debt settlement “the single greatest consumer fraud of the year.” Across the country, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Federal Trade Commission, 41 state attorneys general, consumer and legal services entities, and consumer bankruptcy attorneys have all uncovered substantial evidence of abuses by a wide range of debt settlement companies.
  • Debt settlement schemes encourage consumers to default on their debts. Because creditors frequently will not negotiate reduced balances with consumers who are still current on their bills, debt settlement companies often instruct their clients to stop making monthly payments, explaining that they will negotiate a settlement with funds the client has paid in lieu of their monthly debt repayments. Once the client defaults, he or she faces fines, penalties, higher interest rates, and are subjected to increasingly aggressive debt-collection efforts including litigation and wage garnishment. Consequently, consumers often find themselves worse off than when the process of debt settlement began: They are deeper in debt, with their credit scores severely harmed.
  • “Self help” may be the best answer for smaller debt burdens. If you have just a single debt that you are having trouble paying (such as a single credit card debt) and you have cash on hand that can be used to settle the debt, you may be able to negotiate favorable settlement terms with the creditor yourself. Creditors typically require anywhere from 25 to 70 percent on the dollar to settle a debt so you will need that much cash for a successful offer. Be sure to get an explicit written document from the creditor spelling out the terms of the debt settlement and relieving you of any future liability. Also be prepared to pay income taxes on any of the forgiven debt.

Red flags

NACBA urges consumers to steer clear of any companies that:

  • Make promises that unsecured debts can be paid off for pennies on the dollar. There is no guarantee that any creditor will accept partial payment of a legitimate debt. Your best bet is to contact the creditor directly as soon as you have problems making payments.
  • Require substantial monthly service fees and demand payment of a percentage of what they’ve supposedly saved you. Most debt settlement companies charge hefty fees for their services, including a fee to establish the account with the debt negotiator, a monthly service fee, and a final fee-- a percentage of the money you’ve allegedly saved.
  • Tell you to stop making payments or to stop communicating with your creditors. If you stop making payments on a credit card or other debts, expect late fees and interest to be added to the amount you owe each month. If you exceed your credit limit, expect additional fees and charges to be added. Your credit score will also suffer as a result of not making payments.
  • Suggest that there is only a small likelihood that you will be sued by creditors. In fact, this is a likely outcome. Signing up with a debt settlement company makes it more likely that creditors will accelerate collection efforts against you. Creditors have the right to sue you to recover the money you owe. And sometimes when creditors win a lawsuit, they have the right to garnish your wages or put a lien on your home.
  • State that they can remove accurate negative information from your credit report. No company or person can remove negative information from your credit report that is accurate and timely.

“Many different kinds of services claim to help people with debt problems,” Boltz points out. “The truth is that no single solution works in all cases. Bankruptcy is an option that makes sense for some consumers, but it’s not for everyone. For example, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys and its individual consumer bankruptcy attorney members do not encourage every person who looks at bankruptcy to enter into it. What makes sense for each consumer will depend on their individual circumstances. We encourage everyone to get the facts and do what makes the most sense in their situation.”

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Retailers Brace for Choosy Holiday Shoppers

Stores offering bargains earlier in hopes of luring thrifty shoppers

Last year most consumers waited for Black Friday to start their holiday shopping, looking extra hard for bargains that would stretch gift budgets. This yea...

PhotoLast year most consumers waited for Black Friday to start their holiday shopping, looking extra hard for bargains that would stretch gift budgets. This year retailers are hoping to lure them into shopping earlier and spending more.

Already major retailers have rolled out promotions and bargains. Best Buy and Target have pledged to match prices of a handful of online competitors, including Amazon.com.

The National Retail Federation (NRF), relying on a survey conducted by BIGinsight, predicts the average holiday shopper will spend $749.51 on gifts, décor, greeting cards and more -- up slightly from the $740.57 they spent last year. NRF is forecasting holiday sales will increase 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion.

Attracting bargain-conscious consumers

"We’ve seen this pattern of cautious optimism all year and despite the challenges that still exist in our economy, it looks as if consumers are eager to celebrate with friends and family,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “As the most promotional time of the year, retailers will continue to look for ways to stand out, specifically with attractive deals on toys, electronics and apparel, even well before the ‘official’ start of the holiday shopping season -- Black Friday and Cyber Monday.”

According to the survey, the biggest portion of shoppers’ budgets this year will go towards gifts for family members with the average person planning to spend $421.82 on children, parents, aunt, uncles and other family members. Additionally, people will spend $75.13 on friends, $23.48 on co-workers and $28.13 on others, such as pets and community members.

Consumers will also spend $100.76 on food and candy, $51.99 on decorations, $28.66 on greeting cards and $19.55 on flowers. Total spending on holiday décor will reach $6.9 billion, the survey predicts. But with all that spending, consumers will be focused on the best deals.

Economy still taking a toll

“More than half of Americans this holiday season will feel the impact of the economy and will compensate by doing what they’ve been doing for several years -- looking for ways to cut any corners, comparative shop online and in stores more often, and even planning to travel less or not at all,” said Shay.

For that reason, consumers say stores that offer the best deals will get their dollars. Thirty-six percent said the most important factor in deciding where to shop are offers for sales and discounts, along with 16.1 percent who say the most important factor is selection of merchandise and 13.7 percent who say it’s quality of merchandise.

Gift cards top wish list

And what will consumers be shopping for this year? The usual suspects top the list in the survey: clothing, DVDs and electronics. But six in 10 consumers said this year they would prefer to receive a gift card, so they could buy whatever they want.

And some are not waiting to receive a gift card but buying for themselves while they are out shopping for others. The survey finds “self-gift,” particularly among the young, is a growing holiday trend.

“It looks like young adults have the ‘one for you two for me’ mentality about the holiday season this year, which is surprising given that this is also the age group that typically doesn’t have the income or ability to splurge,” said BIGinsight Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “What isn’t surprising is that retailers’ holiday promotions continue to strike a chord with this age group, especially with promotions surrounding popular electronics and apparel items.”

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Happy Swing II Infant Swings Recalled

A child can become entrapped in a wide opening, which poses a strangulation hazard

Dream On Me of South Plainfield, NJ, is recalling about 560 Happy Swing II infant swings. The opening between the tray and seat or the grab bar and seat c...

PhotoDream On Me of South Plainfield, NJ, is recalling about 560 Happy Swing II infant swings.

The opening between the tray and seat or the grab bar and seat can allow a child’s body to pass through and become entrapped at the neck, posing a strangulation hazard to young children if the belt is not engaged. There have been no reports of incidents or injuries.

The Happy Swing II is a fabric infant swing that comes in red and green with a tray and grab bar attachment. The model/style number included in the recall is “432” and is printed on a label on the frame of the swing. The fabric swing sits on a triangular frame and is battery operated.

The swings, made in China, were sold at juvenile products stores and CSN stores nationwide and online at Wayfair and Amazon.com from October 2010 through September 2012 for between about $80 and $130.

Consumers should stop using the recalled infant swings immediately and contact Dream On Me for a replacement product. Consumers will have a choice between a free replacement swing or a Melody Musical baby walker.

For additional information, consumers may contact Dream On Me toll-free at (877) 201-4317 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Existing Home Sales Drop in September

But prices rose as a declining inventory gave sellers more leverage

Fewer people bought homes last month but Realtors say that was because there were fewer for sale. Existing home sales dropped 1.7 percent in September from...

PhotoFewer people bought homes last month but Realtors say that was because there were fewer for sale. Existing home sales dropped 1.7 percent in September from August but rose 11 percent over September 2011, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

"Despite occasional month-to-month setbacks, we're experiencing a genuine recovery," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. "More people are attempting to buy homes than are able to qualify for mortgages, and recent price increases are not deterring buyer interest. Rather, inventory shortages are limiting sales, notably in parts of the West."

Part of the reason for Yun's optimism is the decline in the number of homes on the market. With fewer homes to choose from, fewer consumers bought.

Inventory is down

Total housing inventory at the end September fell 3.3 percent -- to 2.32 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 5.9-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 6.0-month supply in August. Listed inventory is 20.0 percent below a year ago when there was an 8.1-month supply.

"The shrinkage in housing supply is supporting ongoing price growth, a pattern that could accelerate unless home builders robustly ramp up production," Yun said.

Prices were, indeed, higher. The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $183,900 in September, up 11.3 percent from a year ago. The last time there were seven consecutive monthly year-over-year increases was from November 2005 to May 2006 -- at the height of the housing boom.

Distressed sales rise

Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales sold at deep discounts --accounted for 24 percent of September sales, versus 22 percent in August. A year ago they accounted for 30 percent of home sales.

The median time on market was 70 days in September, unchanged from August. Thirty-two percent of homes sold in September were on the market for less than a month, while 19 percent were on the market for six months or longer.

All-cash sales were 28 percent of transactions in September, compared with 27 percent in August. That suggests investors are still very active in the real estate market since it is mostly investors who pay with cash.

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Bistro High Chairs Recalled

Wide openings on the chairs pose a strangulation threat

Dream On Me of South Plainfield, NJ, is recalling about 90 Bistro high chairs. The front openings between the tray and seat bottom and on the side openi ...

PhotoDream On Me of South Plainfield, NJ, is recalling about 90 Bistro high chairs.

The front openings between the tray and seat bottom and on the side openings of the high chair between the armrest and seat bottom can allow a child's body to pass through and become entrapped at the neck. This poses a strangulation hazard to young children if the belt is not engaged. In addition, exposed springs between the seat and armrest on both sides of the high chair can create a pinch hazard to the child.

There are no reports of incidents or injuries.

This recall involves all Bistro high chairs with model/style number "255" printed on a tag attached to the back of the seat. The high chair was sold in blue or pink. The fabric on the seat has a polka-dot design and "Dream On Me" is printed on a label attached to the front of the white tray. The recalled high chair was manufactured in July 2011 and has a date code printed on a label on the back of the chair.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Americas Kids, Kid Pro USA and independent juvenile specialty stores and online at Toysrus.com between November 2011 and September 2012 for about $75.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled high chair and contact Dream On Me Inc. for instructions on receiving a free replacement high chair.

Consumers may contact Dream On Me Inc. toll-free at (877) 201-4317 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Cold Season Brings Acetaminophen Overdose Risk

This common ingredient can be in both prescription meds and cold remedies

Millions of Americans take prescription medicine. Millions of Americans get colds and flu. If they take prescriptions containing acetaminophen and then tak...

PhotoMillions of Americans take prescription medicine. Millions of Americans get colds and flu. If they take prescriptions containing acetaminophen and then take a cold remedy containing acetaminophen, that can spell trouble.

Chances are, if you take a pill, you take acetaminophen. It's the most common drug ingredient in America.

It is found in more than 600 different medicines, including prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, fever reducers, sleep aids and numerous cough, cold and flu medicines. It is safe and effective when used as directed, but there is a limit to how much can be taken in one day. Taking more than directed is an overdose and can lead to liver damage.

Safety campaign

With the start of cold season, the Acetaminophen Awareness Coalition is launching a nationwide initiative urging consumers to double-check their medicine labels so they don't double up on medicines that contain acetaminophen during the cold and flu season. It's easy to do.

Each year, Americans catch an estimated one billion colds, and as many as 20 percent get the flu. Seven in 10 consumers use over-the-counter medicines, many of which contain acetaminophen, to treat their symptoms.

"Adults typically suffer from two to four colds per year, and children six to eight colds. During cold and flu season, consumers who are taking a prescription medicine that contains acetaminophen should also check the labels of any over-the-counter medicine they take," Dr. Angela Golden, President of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, said. "Many cold and flu medicines contain acetaminophen, so I remind my patients to always double-check the label so they don't exceed the daily limit when taking multiple medicines."

Safety steps

When taking medicines for cough, cold or flu this coming season, consumers should follow these four simple acetaminophen safety steps:

  1. Know if medicines contain acetaminophen, which is in bold type or highlighted in the "active ingredients" section of over-the-counter medicine labels and sometimes listed as "APAP" or "acetam" on prescription labels.
  2. Never take two medicines that contain acetaminophen at the same time.
  3. Always read and follow the medicine label.
  4. Ask your healthcare provider or a pharmacist if you have questions about dosing instructions or medicines that contain acetaminophen.
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Report: Servicemembers Face Hurdles In Accessing Student Loan Benefits

CFPB Partners with DOD to educate and protect members of the military

After facing such things as IEDs and car bombs while serving overseas, the last thing a U.S. servicemember needs upon returning home is a hassle with a stu...

PhotoAfter facing such things as IEDs and car bombs while serving overseas, the last thing a U.S. servicemember needs upon returning home is a hassle with a student loan.

But according to a newly-released report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), that's exactly what a lot of them are facing. The report, “The Next Front? Student Loan Servicing and the Cost to Our Men and Women in Uniform,” describes servicemember complaints regarding the difficulties they have accessing the protections granted to them under federal rules.

The hurdles they describe range from not being able to get the information they need, to being met with roadblocks when they do try to pursue their benefits.

“We are concerned that our men and women in uniform are not being given the opportunities they have earned under federal law,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “For all the service our military members give us, the least we can do is protect them from this kind of disservice.”

Paying off loans

Many servicemembers have student loan debt, including both federal and private student loans. The average cumulative amount of student loan debt for active-duty servicemembers graduating from college in 2008 was about $26,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Student loan default can be particularly troubling for active-duty servicemembers because it can affect their security clearance and military career. Burdensome debt can also be distracting and difficult to deal with, especially if serving overseas.

Congress put in place laws and programs to grant additional protections to servicemembers with student loan debt. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) gives an interest rate reduction to men and women in uniform who acquired student loan debt before they went on active duty.

The Income-Based Repayment program reduces monthly payments based on income and family size. And, among other choices, there are special loan deferral programs, principal reduction options on certain loans for service in hostile areas, and loan forgiveness on certain federal loans for public service.

Myriad problems

The report, based largely on complaints filed with the CFPB, as well as input from military borrowers at dozens of town halls and forums across the country, looks at how servicemembers are handling both their federal and private student loans.

It considers servicemembers who entered the military with debt and those who acquired it while serving. The report found that from trying to get good information to trying to take advantage of the benefits, servicemembers said they run into trouble. Specifically, servicemembers say that they:

  • Receive incomplete or inaccurate information: A common theme the CFPB heard from servicemembers was that they relied on their loan servicers to properly inform them of their repayment options -- but that servicers were not providing clear and accurate information. According to servicemembers, this was particularly true for military deferment and forbearance. By relying on this information and choosing less favorable repayment plans, servicemembers may be setting themselves up for tens of thousands of dollars in excess debt over the life of the loan.
  • Have difficulty navigating the system of benefits: The patchwork of options for military student loan borrowers can be confusing. Some laws and rules apply only to federal loans. Some benefits have specific eligibility requirements or conditions attached. Some require loan consolidation which might exclude borrowers from other protections. And other options vary greatly depending on the private student loan lender. Servicemembers who have multiple loans from multiple lenders say that it can be particularly difficult figuring out which loans are eligible for benefits.
  • Face roadblocks when they try to get their benefits: Even if they navigate the maze of options, servicemembers report that they are often met with loan servicer roadblocks. For example, the CFPB has heard from military borrowers, including those in combat zones, who have been denied interest-rate protections because they failed to resubmit unnecessary paperwork. These kinds of servicing obstacles prevent servicemembers from taking advantage of the full range of protections they have earned through their service to this country.

The problems that servicemembers report are typically on top of the problems civilian borrowers report in loan servicing as outlined in the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman’s Annual Report issued this week. That report -- which focuses specifically on private student loans -- described complaints received from private student loan borrowers, including surprises, customer service runarounds, and dead-end loan terms.

Education program

The CFPB is teaming up with the Department of Defense to create better awareness of the rights and options for servicemember student loan borrowers. The partnership will be multi-pronged, including Judge Advocate Generals, Education Service Officers and working with personal financial counselors on military bases.

CFPB staff, for example, will be visiting the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, VA, to train legal assistance attorneys from all branches of the military about issues raised in the report, and to ensure they know about repayment options for servicemembers.

In an effort to educate military consumers and the advisers seeking to assist them, the CFPB has developed a guide for servicemembers with student loans with information on the various student loan repayment options, as well as frequently asked questions commonly posed by military student loan borrowers at Ask CFPB.

Servicemembers can also use the CFPB’s online Web tool, the Student Debt Repayment Assistant, to navigate their options.

More information about how the CFPB is helping servicemembers is available here.

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Verizon Wireless Says Customers Are Embracing Shared Data

Company says more unlimited data customers switching to shared plan

Back in June, when Verizon Wireless announced it's shared data plan, and that existing customers with unlimited data would have to move to it when they pur...

PhotoBack in June, when Verizon Wireless announced its shared data plan, and that existing customers with unlimited data would have to move to it when they purchased a new, subsidized device, consumers, in the words of the company, “freaked out.”

But it seems to be a different story now. When Verizon reported its third-quarter earnings, company CFO Fran Shammo said many current customers are voluntarily switching to “Share Everything,” a plan that allows users to allocate a set amount of data among different devices on one account.

Migration

"We're seeing customers from our legacy business moving from the unlimited data plan to Share Everything,” Shammo said. “And we're seeing people attach more devices and more smartphones."

New customers must enroll in a Share Everything account but current customers are grandfathered into their unlimited data plans. They can keep unlimited data until they buy a subsidized phone. At that point, that can either pay full price -- usually about $600 for a typical phone -- or go on a Share Everything account.

While Verizon says while the third quarter saw a larger-than-usual number of consumers paying full price for a phone, many others willingly adopted the shared plan. At the end of the third quarter 13 percent of Verizon Wireless's customer base was on a shared plan.

Unlimited fear

Carriers like Verizon and AT&T fear unlimited data plans. As smartphones, and now tablets, have proliferated, the demands for bandwidth have exploded. Fixed data plans give the carriers the ability to better manage the amount of bandwidth they have to provide.

To make the shared data plans more appealing to consumers, Verizon Wireless's Share Everything plans include unlimited text and calling, as well as Mobile Hotspot for all devices, a feature that costs $20 a month under the grandfathered unlimited data plan.

Consumers who have an unlimited data plan may discover that they don't really need it, and that switching to a shared data plan will actually save them money.

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Dole Recalls American Blend Salad

There is a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes

Dole Fresh Vegetables is recalling a limited number of cases of Dole American Blend salad in 12 oz. bags, coded A275208A or B, with Use-by date of October ...

PhotoDole Fresh Vegetables is recalling a limited number of cases of Dole American Blend salad in 12 oz. bags, coded A275208A or B, with Use-by date of October 17 and UPC 7143000933, 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 10 states: Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

No other salads are included in the recall. Only the specific Product Codes, UPC codes and October 17, 2012 Use-by date identified above are included. Consumers who have any remaining product with these Product Codes 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 am to 3:00 pm (PT) Monday - Friday.  

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Gasoline Prices Drop Nearly a Dime in a Week

Ohio, Indiana and Missouri see sudden price declines

Just as quickly as gasoline prices rose in an uncharacteristic fall surge, they appear to be coming down.The national average price of self-serve regular...

PhotoJust as quickly as gasoline prices rose in an uncharacteristic fall surge, they appear to be coming down.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.715 per gallon, compared with $3.810 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's 14 cents lower than a month ago but almost 24 cents higher than the price a year ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.131 per gallon, versus $4.127 a week ago.

Seasonal factors

Gas prices are falling as stations begin switching over to the cheaper winter-grade gasoline. At the same time, crude oil prices have been in decline in the last week amid concerns the global economy is slowing.

The Energy Information Administration reported this week that U.S. crude oil inventories rose 2.9 million barrels to 369.2 million barrels in the last week. At the same time, U.S. gasoline stockpiles rose by 1.7 million barrels to 197.1 million barrels.

Prices dropped sharply in California but it remains the most expensive state in the U.S. for fuel. The biggest drop came in the key presidential election battleground state of Ohio, where the average price plunged from $3.694 last Friday to $3.498 today, a 24 cent drop.

Prices were also down sharply in Missouri, which became the state with the cheapest gas in the nation. It's average fell 14 cents. The price fell 13 cents in Oklahoma 22 cents in Indiana.

Photo

The states with the most expensive gas prices this week are:

  • California ($4.514)
  • Hawaii ($4.441)
  • Alaska ($4.263)
  • New York ($4.058)
  • Connecticut ($4.052)
  • Washington ($4.049)
  • Oregon ($4.027)
  • Rhode Island ($3.911)
  • Nevada ($3.935)
  • Vermont ($3.906)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • Missouri ($3.414)
  • Ohio ($3.452)
  • South Carolina ($3.454)
  • Oklahoma ($3.471)
  • Texas ($3.492)
  • Mississippi ($3.496)
  • Tennessee ($3.485)
  • Alabama ($3.519)
  • Arkansas ($3.529)
  • Indiana ($3.533)
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New Laws Ban Smoking at Home

Will the new laws really make people quit smoking or will they just find ways around them?

Sometimes cigarette smokers get a bad rap.I’m not a smoker, but I do feel for them at times, because their chosen decision to smoke has been almost...

PhotoSometimes cigarette smokers get a bad rap.

I’m not a smoker, but I do feel for them at times, because their chosen decision to smoke has been almost criminalized.

When smokers were forced to leave bars and restaurants, many believed it was a great idea, and although there were obviously some critics of the new smoking laws, there surprisingly wasn’t too much push-back from either smokers or non-smokers.

In the Southern California enclave of Burbank, my collegue Truman Lewis reports that smoking is now strictly forbidden in all areas of the apartment complex he occupies, including balconies.  This is the result of the Secondhand Smoke Control Ordinance adopted way back on April 3, 2007. The ordinance prohibits smoking in specific locations throughout the city, including multi-family residences.

Truman says this hasn't stopped him from enjoying an evening cigar on his balcony.

"The balcony overlooks the 134 (freeway). Does a single cigar really cause more pollution than ten lanes of traffic?" Lewis wonders. 

Photo
A Burbank no-smoking sign

Farther north, a new law in San Rafael provides that smoking will not be allowed in multi-family homes, duplexes or condominiums -- and some may ask, if smokers can’t smoke in their own homes or in restaurants, where should they go to smoke? (The answer, of course, is that they must buy a single-family home on a big lot and keep the windows closed).

“We are happy to blaze a trail, said the mayor of San Rafael, Gary Phillips. “We’re most happy to be in the forefront of the issue because we think it will greatly benefit our residents and those visiting San Rafael, and we think it will set the tone for other cities as well.”

Smoking will also be forbidden in the downtown streets and sidewalks of San Rafael.

Smoke slithers

PhotoThe primary reason for the new law is that second-hand smoke easily travels through vents, air ducts and hallways of apartment buildings and condominiums, thus potentially affecting other families and households in the  complex.

It's not just cities. States are considering putting these kinds of laws into place in an effort to make smoking so inconvenient for smokers that they’ll eventually quit.  

But does that work? Does imposing strict laws on people really get them to give up a particular lifestyle, even if that lifestyle is bad for them health-wise?  Anyone who has seen a person addicted to drugs could probably answer that question pretty easily.

Critics say the smoking ban robs folks of the option of being themselves in the privacy of their own home, and is a form of punishment for people who choose to go against the health warnings attached to smoking.

“This proposed smoking ban actually intends to punish people for what they do in their own homes,” said a critic of the ban, Thomas Ruppenthal, to the San Rafael city council. “I really feel this is tyranny.”

However, proponents of the new law say it will definitely discourage smoking across the California city, and the statistics prove it.

“The San Rafael ban is a very significant event because it will spread," said Stanford University professor Robert Proctor in an interview. “We’re on the downslope of a big curve. Smoking peaked in 1981 with 630 billion cigarettes sold in the United States. Now it’s down to 350 billion. And that number will keep on going down until smoking is a distant memory.”

Enforcement questions

However the question is, how will officials really keep people from smoking in their homes? Will the new law create a bunch of 911 calls or complaints to the police, because a non-smoker smells smoke in their apartment? Some would say those non-smokers would have good reason to make sure the law is enforced.

Up in the wine country, a Healdsburg, Calif., resident told us he resigned from his condominium association board because he was tired of dealing with complaints about second-hand smoke.

"People keep their noses pressed to the vents, hoping to gather evidence on their neighbors. Who has time for that?" he asked. "I could be over at the tasting room instead."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), second-hand smoke contains about 250 known toxins and 50 chemicals that can cause cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

In addition, more than 126 million non-smokers inhale secondhand smoke from places like their jobs, vehicles and you guessed it, in their homes.

No escape

PhotoBut the question remains, where will smokers go where they’re not affecting others with their cigarettes, pipes, or cigars?  They won't be able to go outside much longer. Cities are beginning to ban smoking in all public areas, including the outdoors -- and not just in health-obsessed California.

The Metro subway system in the Washington, D.C., area strictly forbids smoking on its outside sidewalks, escalators and so forth. Tickets are issued with some frequency. (And don't you dare try eating a banana or snack bar either). 

New York City imposed an outdoor citywide smoking ban earlier this year. The law, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed in February, makes smoking illegal in New York City's 1,700 parks and on the city's 14 miles of public beaches. Smoking is also be prohibited in pedestrian plazas like Times Square and within a certain number of feet of building exits.

Think you can retreat to the wilderness? Not likely. Smoking and open fires are verboten in many areas of national parks, forests and so forth. Smoking might still be OK on glaciers but they, as we know, are melting. 

Some airports now have smoking rooms -- usually resembling holding cells. Guess that might become the last resort. But would you have to buy an airline ticket just to get into the airport to have a smoke?

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Advice to Black Friday Shoppers: Sleep In

ShopAdvisor says Black Friday is the worst day to shop

Many consumers who rise before dawn on Black Friday and stand in the cold waiting for a store to open often complain that it wasn't worth it – they d...

PhotoMany consumers who rise before dawn on Black Friday and stand in the cold waiting for a store to open often complain that it wasn't worth it – they didn't get the item they wanted or it cost more than they thought.

Their experience is not all that uncommon, it turns out. According to a new study by ShopAdvisor, a shopping service, Black Friday was among the worst sales days of the 2011 shopping season.

Higher prices on Black Friday

The study tracked the prices of 252 toys from the first day of autumn and found that in the 54 days from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, the day with the lowest percentage -- 46 percent -- of products on sale below their initial holiday season price was Black Friday, Nov. 25. The day with the highest percentage -- 59 percent -- of products on sale was Sunday, Nov. 13. After Thanksgiving, Thursday, Dec. 1 was the day with the next largest percentage of products on sale.

As a matter of fact, Black Friday turned out to be the day on which shoppers begin to see prices spike on select items. On Black Friday itself, 24 percent of the toys on ShopAdvisor's list were priced above their initial holiday season price.

Waiting too late is costly, too

PhotoAfter Black Friday, the day with the most toys selling at a premium price was Dec. 23, two days before Christmas.

"Our experience tracking more than a hundred million products shows that although Black Friday may be a good day for shopping, there are 'blacker' days to be found during the holiday shopping season," said Scott Cooper, CEO of ShopAdvisor.

ShopAdvisor drew up its list of toys by monitoring the choices of its more than 6.5 million users who add products to their ShopAdvisor Watchlist and receive email and mobile notifications when prices drop or out-of-stock products become available. The company says prices will fluctuate during the season, probably more than most consumers realize.

The most vigilant shoppers will watch for sudden price drops and avoid price spikes that often last only a day or two before plunging back down to their original price or lower.

Volatile prices

For example, National Products' 6 Volt Pink Hummer H2 started the holiday season selling for $186. For two days it dropped as low as $132. On Thanksgiving Day it spiked to $227, fell to $190 on Black Friday, and then spiked back to $227 eight more times before Christmas day.

In between those spikes, a savvy shopper could find it for $160 on six different days.

Hasbro's popular Sesame Street Let's Rock Elmo was a bargain for almost the entire season, selling below its initial holiday season price of $59 on 60 of the next 65 days. The only question for shoppers was how long to hold out. Those who waited until Sunday, Dec, 18 got a 49 percent discount, paying only $29.

Best day?

If you hit the snooze bar on Black Friday, then when should you shop for the best deals? It will probably vary store to store, but ShopAdvisor says steep discounts of 30 percent or more began to show up the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

For example, the $117 LEGO Ninjago Fire Temple dropped 38 percent to $72 for three days from Nov. 18-20.

The more risk you're willing to take on, the longer you should wait to shop. If shoppers are willing to wait, or procrastinate, they can count on steep discounts in the two weeks before Christmas. Last year, every day, starting Dec. 11, at least one in ten toys were available for 30 percent or more under their original prices.

And here's another piece of holiday shopping advice: avoid day-after-Christmas shopping; wait until Dec. 29. If the toy you are giving does not have to be under the tree on Christmas day, it pays to wait until Dec. 29 when 17 percent of all the toys in the ShopAdvisor Watchlist were available for 30 percent less than their pre-Black Friday prices.

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University of Phoenix Closing 115 Locations; 13,000 Students Affected

Students can transfer online or move to other locations, the school said

There was a time when it looked like for-profit education had nowhere to go but up. But things change and after a period of explosive growth, the Universit...

Consumers rate University of Phoenix

There was a time when it looked like for-profit education had nowhere to go but up. But things change and after a period of explosive growth, the University of Phoenix says its profits are off sharply and it's closing 115 of its smaller locations.

That leaves about 13,000 students looking for someplace to finish their course work. The school said they can transfer to online courses or move to a different locations. The locations being closed are scattered around the country in 30 states.

Students are being notified today, the school said.

UOP has about 328,000 students, down from its peak of about 400,000. After the closures announced today, it will have 112 locations in 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

University of Phoenix President Bill Pepicello blamed the falling enrollment on economic uncertainty. 

"People are simply holding off investing money in education at a time when the costs are escalating and the outcomes are uncertain," he said said.

Maybe so but while it's true that enrollment is falling at for-profit schools, traditional public and private universities are struggling to keep up with surging student loads.

Heavy backlash

PhotoFor-profit schools have been feeling a heavy backlash lately, as students complain about the quality of the courses and critics lash the industry for siphoning off billions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

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

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

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

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

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Is a Holiday Break-Up in Your Future?

Signs that your relationship may be about to end

Caution, we're about to enter “the holidays.” If you are in a relationship that has about run its course, seriously, now is the time to pull th...

PhotoCaution, we're about to enter “the holidays.” If you are in a relationship that has about run its course, seriously, now is the time to pull the plug. If you wait, it can be uncomfortable for both of you.

The period between Halloween and New Years Day can be a happy, fun time if you are in a relationship. There are parties, dinners and gatherings with family and friends in which it's nice to be part of a couple. It's great, if everyone is happy.

But what if one of the people in the relationship is ready to call it quits but just hasn't gotten around to telling the other person. Once you pass Halloween and are in the holiday zone, it's really hard to find a good time to do it until you come out on the other side.

There are worse things

But maybe a holiday break-up, as bad as that can be, isn't really the worst that can happen. The dating site Match.com addresses that question and comes down on the side of going with your feelings.

“The key is to remember that you’re doing the right thing,” Match.com says. “If you don’t want to date someone, stringing him or her along is just plain unfair. Even stringing the person along under the guise of not ruining the holidays is unfair.”

Unless you are an Oscar-winning actor, your significant other is going to know something is not right. Maybe you can pull it off for a week or two but not two and a half months, with the stress of the holidays thrown in.

Do you handle a holiday break-up differently from an ordinary break-up? Most relationship experts say you don't. Just do it with respect, the way you would any other time of year.

Warning signs

PhotoBut what if you aren't the one who wants to break up? What are the signs that a break-up is looming? They may be different for men and women – then again, some of the indicators may be the same.

The advice site Ask Men has identified these tip-offs:

  • Lack of contact: what were repeated texts or calls during the day disappear
  • The future is past: she no longer wants to make plans, even about where to go next weekend
  • You find yourself watching TV together every night
  • Short fuse: Nothing you do pleases her. It's almost like she's looking for a fight.
  • Secrets: Suddenly, she's not telling you everything
  • No passion: The bedroom is the coldest room in the house

And how can women tell if their relationship is headed for the rocks. BettyConfidential.com offers these hints:

  • All of a sudden he's busy and the reasons are real complicated
  • Suddenly celibate: He's just not that interested any more
  • Big changes on his Facebook page: If his photo goes from funny to flattering, watch out
  • Change: When he starts talking about changing his life, you might not be part of the change
  • I'll be needing that: He starts removing stuff that he's left at your place forever

If you suspect you're about to be dumped, relationship experts say its best to not ignore the signs but ask if everything is okay in the relationship. It's probably not and the break-up will hurt, but it might be less painful if you take the initiative.

And it's certainly better than getting dumped on New Year's Day.  

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Google Introduces Smallest, Lightest Chromebook Ever

It also swallows hard as it releases a dismal earnings report

Google released a couple of things today. Neither one went over very well. In one instance, it revealed that its quarterly profit plunged 20%, causing its ...

PhotoGoogle released a couple of things today. Neither one went over very well. In one instance, it revealed that its quarterly profit plunged 20%, causing its stock price to mimic Felix Baumgartner's free fall from space last weekend and sparking incidents of  hyperventilation throughout the financial services world. 

Less dramatic -- in fact, almost unnoticed -- was its introduction of what Google, with the modesty for which it is becoming known, termed "the best computer that's ever been designed" for a price of $249.

The little laptop in question is similar to all the other ultrabooks out there -- the MacBook Air, Asus Zenbook, et. al. It has an 11.6-inch screen and comes in a spiffy-looking little shiny metal case.

It's being called the Samsung Chromebook and is a browser-based notebook that runs on the Chrome OS, which is basically Linux, except no one wants to call it that (too proud, apparently).

Here are some key specs:

  • Less than 0.8 inches / 2.5 pounds
  • 6.5 hours of battery (Varies based on usage)
  • Boots up in less than 10 seconds
  • 100 GB of Google Drive free for 2 years

Room under the hood

So what's missing, you ask? Well, folks, there's no hard drive to speak of. There's just a little solid-state drive that holds the minimal operating system, which is why you need Google Drive or something similar. The browser is the operating system and all the applications and data files are stored in the cloud, either Google's or someone else's. 

It's kind of like an electric car. The car is great if you can find a place to plug it in. The Chromebook is fine as long as you have Wi-Fi wherever you go. Otherwise it's just another pretty case.

This is not as daunting as it sounds, though. Assuming you have a smartphone, you undoubtedly have an option that allows you to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot. Problem solved, but keep your credit card handy. You could also try the much cheaper FreedomPop, which we wrote about a week or two ago. It is currently undergoing testing in Truman Lewis' Burbank habitat and getting glowing reports. 

There is one other thing missing -- an Intel or AMD processor. This Chromebook uses an ARM Cortex-A15 processor built by Samsung, something you'd normally find in a smartphone or tablet.

So instead of thinking of the Samsung Chromebook as a scaled-down computer, maybe you'd prefer to look at it as a beefed-up smartphone? Take your choice, it doesn't really make much difference.

Google is hedging its bets slightly. It's not promoting this as the be-all and end-all computer. You probably would not use it to design spaceships or map DNA. But for email, wasting time on Facebook or doing simple word-processing on the go, it should be fine.

Light weight, fast boot-up, long battery life. What's not to like?

 

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Newsweek Scrapping Its Print Edition

An extended adolescence finally comes to an end

Newsweek grew up as a child of privilege, doted on by the Washington Post Co., which treated it as a brilliant and talented but ne'er-do-well offspring.&nb...

PhotoNewsweek grew up as a child of privilege, doted on by the Washington Post Co., which treated it as a brilliant and talented but ne'er-do-well offspring. But then, the Post fell on hard times as readers and advertisers fled to the Internet to chat about their Pilates lessons.

As the Post began trying to adjust to its new circumstances, Newsweek was in danger of winding up on the street. But then, along came Sidney Harman, an elderly Washington billionaire who paid $1 -- less than the cover price of a single copy -- and welcomed the shivering newsmagazine, by now nearing 80, into his family.

Harman teamed up with Barry Diller's IAC/Interactive Corp., publisher of The Daily Beast, an online-only site edited by Tina Brown. But just as Newsweek was getting comfortable in its new surroundings, Harman died. 

Harman's widow, Jane, left her seat in Congress and took a job at a think tank, while Uncle Barry and Aunt Tina contemplated the wastrel they had taken in. The Harman family continued sending money, for a little while, but then said enough was enough, it was time for Newsweek to grow up.

A good read

Diller hinted recently that all was not well. Oh, Newsweek was a good read, he said, but the printing and mailing costs were eating him alive. And so it came as no shock when Aunt Tina announced that the Dec. 31 issue of Newsweek will be the last print edition.

What hurt, though, was that she made the announcement on The Daily Beast, under a headline reading "A Turn of the Page for Newsweek." How would you like to read about your own demise somewhere else? 

Trying -- though not too hard -- to put a good face on their eviction of the foundling they had taken in, Brown and Diller assured everyone that Newsweek will continue to dwell up in the clouds and will even get a new, longer name -- Newsweek Global. 

It will be, Brown assures us, "a single, worldwide edition targeted for a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context." 

Well, Newsweek had a good run. Founded in 1933, it competed fiercely with Time Magazine, summarizing the week's news for millions of readers, each title putting its own spin on the news. Time was conservative, Newsweek liberal.  

Somewhere in the dull middle was U.S. News & World Report, which gave up a few years ago and went online-only, where it now spends most of its time reviewing colleges.

It came in the mail!

Believe it or not, folks used to keep an eager, eagle eye on their mailbox -- their real mailbox, not their Gmail -- awaiting the latest edition. It was regarded as a minor miracle to put out an entire magazine that was reasonably up to date, get it into print and push it through the clogged-up Post Office in time for the weekend.

It's still kind of miraculous if you think about it. A lot of technology goes into publishing newspapers and magazines and it is a much harder and more difficult task than slipping some electrons through the router and off into the Internet's slipstream.

Perhaps fittingly, last week's edition of Newsweek featured "Heaven is Real: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife," about a doctor who, well, he goes to heaven and comes back, see? 

You think maybe Newsweek had an intimation that the end was near? 

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Corporations Issued Guidelines for Breast Cancer Promotions

New York Attorney General pushes for more disclosure to consumers

We're more than halfway through October and the month, at times, has been a sea of pink mixed in with fall colors. That's because it's Breast Cancer Awaren...

PhotoWe're more than halfway through October and the month -- at times -- has been a sea of pink mixed in with fall colors. That's because it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month and everyone from NFL players to retail stores are wrapping themselves in the pink awareness ribbons.

In recent years some companies have been accused of cashing in on the cause, suggesting that a purchase of one product or another would support the cause of breast cancer research. In some cases it was shown little or no money went to a charitable cause.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has issued a set of “best practices” to promote transparency in charitable “cause marketing” campaigns, which he says is a growing billion-dollar-a-year industry in which companies advertise that the sale or use of a product will result in a charitable contribution.

What does showing a pink ribbon mean?

The standards follow a year-long review of “pink ribbon” and similar campaigns of nearly 150 companies. While these campaigns have resulted in substantial donations, the Attorney General's review found that consumers often do not have sufficient information to understand how their purchases will benefit charity.

“National Breast Cancer Awareness Month continues to increase our understanding of breast cancer and raise funds for the charities fighting it. Consumers who intend to support this worthy cause deserve to know that their purchases do the good promised by the pink ribbon campaigns,” Schneiderman said. “These best practices, agreed to by the nation’s largest breast cancer charities, will help ensure that cause marketing campaigns provide the benefit that’s expected, and that consumers, charities, and above all, the women and families affected by this devastating disease are protected.”

Key information

The best practices require companies clearly and prominently disclose key information about each campaign, including the specific amount that will be donated to charity from each purchase. Companies using ribbons and similar symbols on products must make clear to consumers if a purchase will trigger a donation, or if the symbols are used merely for awareness of a cause.

The best practices are also designed to ensure more transparency in social media campaigns, in which companies promise donations if consumers agree to “like” or “follow” them or their products. Schneiderman said the nation's two largest breast cancer charities, Susan G. Komen For The Cure and Breast Cancer Research Foundation, are showing their commitment to transparency by adopting the best practices.

“Our office commends Susan G. Komen For The Cure and Breast Cancer Research Foundation for signing onto these best practices, and leading the industry to greater transparency and accountability,” Schneiderman said. “These guidelines will bolster public confidence in cause marketing and hopefully will result in more money going to fighting this horrible disease.”

The five-point best practices are:

  • Clearly Describe the Promotion
  • Allow Consumers to Easily Determine Donation Amount
  • Be Transparent About What Is Not Apparent
  • Ensure Transparency in Social Media
  • Tell the Public How Much Was Raised
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Trend Lab Recalls Children's Upholstered Chairs

Staples may come loose, posing laceration and choking hazards

Trend Lab of Burnsville, MN, is recalling about 16,850 children's upholstered toddler chairs because staples in the binding on the back of the chair may co...

PhotoTrend Lab of Burnsville, MN, is recalling about 16,850 children's upholstered toddler chairs because staples in the binding on the back of the chair may come loose, posing a laceration or choking hazard if swallowed.

The recalled children's upholstered toddler chairs in Club style and Mod style are 24" wide by 18" tall by 17" deep.

The Club style chairs come in three fabrics and colors:

  1. suede in brown, pink, avocado green, red and turquoise blue;
  2. velour in blue, green, pink and red; and
  3. print fabric in chocolate dot on pink or blue.

The Mod style chairs come in dark pink or zebra printed velour in chocolate on blue or pink; or on printed fabric of chocolate stripes on pink or blue.

The Trend Lab name is on a label attached on the bottom of the chair with date codes TL1007C through TL0812C, which are read as TL two-digit month and two-digit year followed by C. These date codes include 10/07 thru 08/12 or October 2007 thru August 2012 production. All chairs were sold with matching ottomans, which are not part of the recall.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold online at trend-lab.com, Amazon.com, BabiesRUs.com, Target.com, Walmart.com and Seussland.com, as well as in Buy Buy Baby and other specialty stores from November 2007 to August 2012,for about $100 to $140.

New chairs with "Remedy 2012" stamped in ink on the bottom side of the chair are NOT subject to this recall.

Consumers should immediately take the chair away from children and inspect the binding. Contact the firm for a repair kit with instructions.

Consumers may contact Trend Lab toll-free at (866) 814-7978 between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or email Recall@trend-lab.com,

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Weekly Mortgage Rate Surveys Show Mixed Results

But overall, rates remain near record lows

Mortgage rates remain near record lows but two weekly surveys differ on whether they are moving higher or lowers.Freddie Mac's weekly Primary Mortgage Ma...

PhotoMortgage rates remain near record lows but two weekly surveys differ on whether they are moving higher or lower.

Freddie Mac's weekly Primary Mortgage Market Survey shows fixed rates mortgages (FRM) slightly lower than last week. The 30-year FRM average averaged 3.37 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending October 18, 2012. That's lower than last week when it averaged 3.39 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.11 percent.

The 15-year FRM this week averaged 2.66 percent with an average 0.6 point -- down from last week when it averaged 2.70 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.38 percent.

Meanwhile, the five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.75 percent this week with an average 0.6 point, up from last week when it averaged 2.73 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 3.01 percent.

"Mortgage rates remained more or less unchanged this week as home construction builds up steam,” said Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac's chief economist. “Construction on single-family homes jumped to an annualized rate of 11 percent in August, the strongest pace since August 2008. Over the first nine months of the year, single-family starts were 23 percent higher than the same period last year.”

Bankrate survey

The weekly Bankrate.com national survey shows a slightly different picture. The average 30-year FRM rose to 3.62 percent with an average of 0.41 discount and origination points.

The average 15-year FRM inched up to 2.91 percent and the larger jumbo 30-year mortgage dipped slightly to 4.18 percent. Adjustable mortgage also rose this week with the five-year ARM jumping to 2.72 percent and the 7-year ARM to climbing to 2.85 percent.

The lower interest rates make buying a home more affordable but rates might not go much lower. JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said last week that consumers should not expect mortgage rates to keep going down, even though the Federal Reserve is aggressively buying mortgage-backed securities.

The Fed's effort is aimed at making banks more profitable and encouraging more mortgage lending. So far lending is up, but since most of it is homeowners refinancing current mortgages at lower rates, some banks are losing money on mortgages.

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Biltwell Recalls Motorcycle Helmets

The helmets fail to meet some federal requirements, posing a hazard to users

Biltwell is recalling about 3,480 El Fuerte model motorcycle helmets, sizes XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL. The helmets, manufactured in July 2012, fail to conform...

PhotoBiltwell is recalling about 3,480 El Fuerte model motorcycle helmets, sizes XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL.

The helmets, manufactured in July 2012, fail to conform to the impact attenuation, retention and labeling requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218, "Motorcycle Helmets."

By wearing one of these helmets, the user may not be adequately protected in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of personal injury.

Biltwell will notify owners and repurchase the helmets including return shipping costs. The safety recall is expected to begin on, or about, October 20.

Owners may contact Biltwell at 1-951-699-1500 ext 803 or send an email to Recall@Biltwell.com.

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American Airlines to Recruit and Hire More Than 1,500 Flight Attendants

This would be the largest group of new flight attendants to be hired by American in over a decade

American Airlines has been in the news quite a bit recently, with stories ranging from the possibility of a merger with US Airways to problems with loose s...

PhotoAmerican Airlines has been in the news quite a bit recently, with stories ranging from the possibility of a merger with US Airways to problems with loose seats to plans by passenger service agents to unionize.

Now, the carrier has announced plans to bring more than 1,500 new flight attendants onboard over the next year.

November recruitment

American will begin the process of recruitment and hiring in November, with the first new-hire class beginning training in January 2013. American says what it calls “the overwhelming response by current flight attendants to the company's recent voluntary separation options, combined with an aggressive training schedule during the transition to the newly established flight attendant contract,” led to the ability to welcome hire new flight attendants.

"For the first time in over a decade, American is seeking to add more than 1,500 new flight attendants who we believe will bring new perspectives to the airline," said Lauri Curtis, American's vice president – Flight Service. "We look forward to welcoming new faces and working together to bring a fresh energy to our team, while at the same time giving current flight attendants the opportunity to move up the seniority list and reducing the number of current flight attendants who have to serve on reserve."

The airline will post the job openings in November, at which time eligible candidates can visit go here aacareers.com and submit their resume's.

American intends to start the selection process for new-hire flight attendant candidates in early December, with the first training course starting in late January.

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Failure to Report Defective Baby Boats Costs Aqua-Leisure $650,000

The case involves problems dating back more than a decade

Aqua-Leisure Industries has agreed to pay a civil penalty of $650,000 for failing to report a defect involving its inflatable baby boats to the U.S. Consum...

PhotoAqua-Leisure Industries has agreed to pay a civil penalty of $650,000 for failing to report a defect involving its inflatable baby boats to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) immediately, as required by federal law.

The leg strap in the seat of baby boats -- manufactured from August 2002 to July 2008 -- can tear, causing children to fall unexpectedly into or under the water, posing a risk of drowning.

In 2001, the Avon, MA, firm and CPSC conducted a recall of 90,000 "Sun Smart" inflatable baby boats after receiving 12 reports of the seats tearing and causing children to fall into the water. Four children became completely submerged before a caregiver was able to reach them. No injuries were reported.

Continuing complaints

After the 2001 recall, Aqua-Leisure continued to produce different versions of the inflatable baby boats, which also became the subject of consumer complaints. Between July 2003 and July 2006, Aqua-Leisure became aware of 17 incidents involving inflatable baby boats sold after the 2001 recall in which the seats "fell out," "ripped," "failed," "tore," "split" or "separated," including four incidents in which a baby boat seat ripped, causing children to fall into the water unexpectedly.

By October 31, 2008, Aqua-Leisure was aware of at least 24 consumer complaints regarding several models of inflatable baby boats since the 2001 recall but did not adequately inform the CPSC until May 2009.

Aqua-Leisure and CPSC announced a recall  of 4 million inflatable baby boats on July 2, 2009. The baby boats were sold nationwide from December 2002 through June 2009 for between $8 and $15. By the date of the recall, there were 31 reports of the boat seats tearing, causing children to fall into or under the water. No injuries were reported.

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

Allegations denied

In agreeing to the settlement, Aqua-Leisure denies CPSC staff allegations that its inflatable baby boats could create an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death, or contained a defect that could create a substantial product hazard, or that Aqua-Leisure violated the reporting requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act.

Pursuant to the Consumer Product Safety Act, CPSC must consider the appropriateness of the penalty to the size of the business of the person charged, including how to address undue adverse economic impacts on small businesses. Aqua-Leisure is a small business as set forth in the Small Business Administration guidelines regarding size of business.

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Parents Urged to Establish Rules of the Road for Teen Drivers

Feds note that parents serve as primary influences on teenage driving behavior

If you are the parent of a teen who is driving, you've no doubt spent some sleepless hours waiting for the car to pull into the driveway. But there's a lot...

PhotoIf you are the parent of a teen who is driving, you've no doubt spent some sleepless hours waiting for the car to pull into the driveway. But there's a lot you can do to increase the odds that your son or daughter makes it home safely.

As part of National Teen Driver Safety Week, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are urging parents and caregivers to set and enforce safe driving ground rules for their teens.

Parental involvement is a key component in the development of safe young drivers, and while the number of motor vehicle crashes has declined significantly in recent years, safe driving habits remain essential since crashes remain the leading cause of teen deaths in America.

Setting an example

"As a father of four, I know it may seem that children -- and teenagers in particular -- aren't always listening to what we say, but they are watching what we do," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "By highlighting the dangers associated with driving and reinforcing responsible driving habits and decision making, parents can help mold their teens into safe drivers."

NHTSA data show that 1,963 young drivers between the ages of 15 to 20 died and an additional 187,000 young drivers were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2010. One out of ten drivers involved in a fatal crash was between the ages of 15 and 20.

"Immaturity, inexperience and a penchant for risk-taking are the major reasons for high crash and fatality rates among teen drivers," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "In addition to comprehensive state graduated driver licensing systems and strong bans on teen cell phone use and texting while driving, parents who are involved throughout the learning-to-drive process are vital in creating safe and prepared young drivers."

Advice to parents

NHTSA offers the following advice to parents and caregivers of teen drivers:

  • Learn and follow your state graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws: GDL systems have been shown to reduce teen crashes. All states have three-stage GDL programs (learner's permit, intermediate or provisional license, full licensure). During the process, restrictions are put in place so young drivers can gain critical driving experience in lower-risk situations and a gradual introduction to more complex tasks through controlled exposure to high-risk situations.
  • Create and sign a parent-teen driving contract: A parent-teen driving contract sets ground rules and creates and explains the consequences of breaking those rules. This ensures teen accountability, ownership of expectations, and an understanding that driving is a privilege that can be revoked.
  • Prohibit the use of electronic devices while driving: Driving while talking on the phone or while texting is risky for all drivers -- but especially for teens. In 2010, 368 teen drivers ages 15 to 19 involved in fatal crashes were distracted, accounting for 13 percent of all fatal distraction affected crashes. Use of electronic devices while driving is also forbidden by law in many states for all drivers. Parents and caregivers should forbid the use of portable electronic devices while driving and also model safe behavior by turning off their cell phones while behind the wheel. Encourage your teen to speak up when someone is using an electronic device while driving. A recent NHTSA survey found that young people were less likely than other age groups to say something to a driver who made them feel unsafe.
  • Limit teen passengers and night driving: A NHTSA analysis found teen drivers were two-and-a-half times more likely to engage in one or more potentially risky behaviors when driving with one teenage peer compared to when driving alone. That risk increased with multiple passengers. In 2010, 1,326 passengers in young drivers' vehicles were killed in crashes involving young drivers. Most nighttime fatal crashes of young drivers occur between 9 p.m. and midnight. NHTSA recommends a maximum of one passenger in the car with your teen at all times (no passengers if required by your state GDL law) and nighttime driving restrictions starting no later than 10 p.m.
  • Encourage your teen to always buckle up: Wearing a seat belt is the most effective protection for drivers and passengers in the event of a crash. In 2010, three out of five 16- to 20-year-old occupants killed in passenger vehicles were not wearing seatbelts.
  • Talk to your teen about alcohol: All states and the District of Columbia have 21-year-old minimum-drinking-age laws. In 2010, 22 percent of the young drivers involved in fatal crashes were drinking. Talk to your teen about the risks of both drinking and driving, and of riding with an impaired driver.
  • Establish regular supervised driving and feedback sessions: Most parents and caregivers are unaware of the number of hours of supervised driving teens must complete as part of the intermediate phase of their state's GDL program. Parents should refer to the minimum supervised driving requirements required by their state, but are also encouraged to continue to drive with their teen in a variety of driving situations and environments, such as at night, in inclement weather, and in high traffic situations even beyond what's required. More practice will only make them better drivers. Set aside a regular time to discuss your teen's progress, experiences, concerns and achievements.
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How to Disable User Tracking on iOS 6

Information about you will be forwarded to advertisers unless you turn tracking off

Apple's new mobile operating system, iOS 6, has lots of new features that owners of the new iPhone 5 really like. But there's one Apple didn't mention when...

PhotoApple's new mobile operating system, iOS 6, has lots of new features that owners of the new iPhone 5 really like. But there's one Apple didn't mention when it introduced the phone last month.

Back in 2011 privacy advocates were unhappy when they learned that Apple and many apps makers were collecting information about users' mobile surfing habits and sharing it with advertisers. Now, apparently, the practice has returned in iOS 6.

The new tracking system is fairly simple. It employs a unique identifier for your device called an IDFA. It's less invasive than the previous version because the IDFA only links a particular device with certain online activity.

Recent data breach

The previous system, which employed an ID number called a UDID, is still causing some concern. Just last month ConsumerAffairs reported that hackers stole the UDIDs of 12 million consumers. The hackers said the files contained user names, name of device, type of device, Apple Push Notification service tokens, zip codes, cellphone numbers, addresses, etc.

Another important difference between the UDID and IDFA is the IDFA can be turned off. If you want it off, however, you'll have to do it yourself because it was turned on, by default, when the operating system was loaded on your device.

Our friends at Sophos Security software provide this simple guide to turning off the tracking system:

  • Click on Settings.
  • Click on General to access the General Settings.
  • Click About
  • Scroll down and click on Advertising.
  • Set Limit Ad Tracking to "ON"
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Are Flu Vaccines Really All That Effective?

A new study conducted by the University of Minnesota questions the flu shot's true effectiveness.

Personally, I’ve never gotten a flu shot before and never gotten the flu, but it’s easy to see why so many people get them, since there has bee...

PhotoPersonally, I’ve never gotten a flu shot and never gotten the flu, but it’s easy to see why so many people get them, since there has been a lot of documentation about their effectiveness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people over six months of age should receive their flu vaccinations each year, and annually the government health agency as well as other entities put out strong publicity campaigns that encourage people to get their shots.

But not everyone believes the flu shot is the all-protecting serum that it’s advertised as, and although many health experts agree that getting a flu shot is better than not getting one, a lot of experts say people may be putting too much faith in a vaccine that might not be all that preventive.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently said although the flu shot is helpful, there are many improvements the vaccine needs to undergo in order to match its public perception of being completely protective against the flu.

“The current influenza vaccine protection is substantially lower than for most routine recommend vaccines and is sub-optimal,” said Michael Osterholm, the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), a research center that’s within the University of Minnesota.

“The perception that current vaccines are already highly effective in preventing influenza is a major barrier to pursuing game-changing alternatives,” he said

The researchers took this particular stance after examining 12,000 pieces of documentation stemming all the way back from 1936. They also interviewed almost 100 experts on the flu vaccine.

Complacency in the system

Photo
Dr. Gregory Poland

Others who weren’t part of the University of Minnesota study said these new findings shouldn’t discourage people from getting flu shots; rather they should put pressure on government entities to improve the vaccine and better communicate the flu shots' true level of usefulness.

“What the authors are saying is that they’re fearful that there is complacency in the system and that people think that the efficacy of the vaccine is higher than it is,” said Mayo Clinics’ Dr. Gregory Poland in an interview. “Therefore they’re not motivated to invest, and this will be billions, to invest the billions we need to get the vaccines.”

Other health experts have also been critical of the way the flu shot has been advertised to the public as a completely preventive vaccine.

Tom Jefferson, who is an epidemiologist with Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit organization that’s involved in medical research, says that after reviewing a number of studies on the flu shot, many of the findings incorrectly indicate that the vaccine protects people from the flu more than it really does, specifically among the elderly.

“We looked at studies on vaccines in the elderly and in health care workers who work with the elderly, and we found an implausible sequence of results,” said Jefferson in a published interview.

 “We have studies that claim up to 90 percent effectiveness against death from all causes. If you were to believe that evidence, you would believe that flu vaccine is effective against death not only from influenza, but also from heart attack, stroke, hypothermia, accidents and all other common causes of death among the elderly. That is quite clearly nonsense,” he said.

More studies needed

PhotoJefferson also says more studies are needed to prove the effects of the flu vaccine and says it’s time for government officials to largely increase their efforts to provide new and updated research about the effectiveness of the flu shot -- because until then, the general public will never be properly informed about how truly preventive flu vaccines are.

“The answer is a question mark,” Jefferson says. “We don’t know what protection, if any, vaccines offer. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Uncertainty is the motor of science. We need large studies to find out. We’ve known for years that we needed proof one way or the other, and governments have not taken any notice of this. It’s an extraordinary situation.”

Although researchers at the University of Minnesota would most likely agree with Jefferson’s opinion about the government’s need to provide better transparency about flu vaccines, Osterholm says people should still get the shot since it’s still the best preventive measure we know  today.

“It’s clear that influenza vaccination offers substantially more protection for the population then being unvaccinated, that’s why I’ve got my flu shot this year,” he said.

Dr. Poland of the Mayo Clinic says that improvements on vaccines and all medicines is an ongoing effort, and bettering the public’s chance to avoid and beat certain illnesses will never be complete.

“Urging them [government officials] to do what all of us already feel and many of them, myself included have published, and that’s we need better vaccines, he said.

“We need better and better vaccines and soon as we have the next better vaccine, we’ll be calling for the next better one after that.”

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Another Recall of Kasel Industries Dog Treats Because of Salmonella Fears

This time, Kasel is recalling Boots & Barkley pig ears and variety pack dog treats sold at Target

Kasel Associated Industries of Denver, CO is voluntarily recalling its BOOTS & BARKLEY ROASTED AMERICAN PIG EARS AND BOOTS & BARKLEY AMERICAN VARIE...

PhotoIt was just a few weeks ago that FDA inspectors found Salmonella bacteria in Nature’s Deli Chicken Jerky Dog Treats at Kasel Associated Industries of Denver during a routine sampling inspection. In September, the company recalled Boots & Barkley beef bully sticks. 

Now the Colorado Department Of Agriculture says a routine sampling finds that  Boots & Barkley pigs ears and variety treats made at the Kasel plant contained the Salmonella bacteria.

The company says it has "ceased distribution of any lots that have possible contamination of the bacteria." No other products made by Kasel Associated Industries are included in the recall of the 12 count packages of Roasted Pig Ears and the 32oz Variety Pack Dog Treats.

The recalled products were sold at Target stores.

PhotoThe recalled Roasted Pig Ears and Variety Pack Dog Treats were distributed nationwide through Target retail stores in August 2012. The Roasted Pig Ears product comes in a clear plastic bag containing 12 pig ears marked with UPC bar code 647263899158. The Variety Pack product also comes in a clear plastic bag weighing 32oz and marked with UPC bar code 490830400086. 

The company did not furnish any photos of the recalled products, as is customary in such cases. Located at 3315 Walnut Street in Denver, Kasel Industries maintains a low profile. 

The company's website says it started its business in 1986, "to serve the refrigeration and boiler needs of the local food processing industry." It does not mention pet food and describes itself as a manufacturer of industrial refrigeration and boiler systems as well as "new slicing equipment, primarily for the meat processing industry."

Long history

There's nothing new about this, of course. Pets have been dying of poisoned food and snacks for years and, in many cases, their owners have been infected as well. The pet food companies argue that there is no definitive diagnosis in many cases but angry pet owners say that even when they send a sample of the suspect food to the manufacturer, nothing is done.

PhotoThe FDA, long lambasted by critics for being lax in policing pet and human food supplies, insists it is looking into the problem, although the agency recently took the unusual step of posting a commentary questioning the seriousness of the problem. 

Bernadette Dunham, D.V.M., Ph.D., director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA echoed the pet food manufacturers as she wrote that it is often difficult to pin down the cause of a specific pet's malady. She urged consumers to report their pets' illnesses to the FDA but critics were not encouraged.

Earlier this year, the FDA insisted it has been "unable to determine a definitive cause of reported dog illnesses or a direct link to chicken jerky products" and said that "extensive chemical and microbial testing ... has not uncovered a contaminant or cause of illness from any chicken jerky treat."

The FDA does note that jerky and other snacks "should not be substituted for a balanced diet and are intended to be fed occasionally in small quantities."  

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.

More about Pets & Pet Food

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New Rule Would Make It Easier for Non-Working Spouses to Get Credit Cards

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau thinks stay-at-home spouses should be able to qualify

Spouses of the female variety were once regarded as chattels -- portable personal property. Like human appliances, they were useful for cooking, cleaning, ...

PhotoSpouses of the female variety were once regarded as chattels -- portable personal property. Like human appliances, they were useful for cooking, cleaning, bearing children and performing other domestic tasks as well as providing certain types of, shall we say, entertainment and companionship. 

They could not vote or own their own personal property and whatever credit they had access to was granted solely by their master.

Things have changed considerably but it is still difficult for spouses and domestic partners who don't have trust funds or jobs outside the home to qualify for credit cards in their own name. But that may change.

Today the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) proposed a new rule that would make it easier for non-working spouses and partners to qualify for credit cards by relying on their spouse's shared income. 

"Common-sense changes"

“When stay-at-home spouses or partners have the ability to make payments on a credit card, they should be able to obtain a card in their own name,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray.  “Today the CFPB is proposing common-sense changes that would facilitate credit access for spouses or partners who do not work outside the home.” 

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD Act) became law in 2009.  The CARD Act requires that card issuers evaluate a consumer’s ability to make the necessary payments before opening a new credit card account. Under current CARD Act regulations issued by the Federal Reserve, a card issuer generally may only consider the individual card applicant’s income or assets.  

Data made available to the CFPB suggest that some otherwise credit-worthy individuals have been declined for credit card accounts under the current regulation, even though they have the ability to make the required payments, the agency said.  Discussions with industry sources indicate that a significant number of these individuals may be stay-at-home spouses or partners with access to income from an employed spouse or partner.

The Bureau’s proposed revision would allow credit card applicants who are 21 or older to rely on third-party income to which they have a reasonable expectation of access.  Although the proposal applies to all applicants regardless of marital status, the Bureau expects that it will ease access to credit particularly for stay-at-home spouses or partners who have access to a working spouse or partner’s income.

According to the Census, over 16 million married people do not work outside the home.  That equates to approximately one out of every three married couples who now could have easier access to credit cards with the Bureau’s proposal.  Today’s proposed change would make it easier for consumers who are 21 or older to qualify for credit cards if they can afford the payments. 

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Target Joins Online Price Matching Movement

Move aims to blunt the impact of Amazon.com this holiday season

Before the last tree has been decorated, every major retailer may be forced to raise his right hand and solemnly swear to meet the online prices of his ...

PhotoBefore the last tree has been decorated, every major retailer may be forced to raise his right hand and solemnly swear to meet the online prices of his competitors.

Target is the latest major retailer to make the pledge for some, but not all, its competitors, calling it the Holiday Price Match.

“Target’s holiday plans are built around an outstanding shopping experience, exclusive merchandise and competitive prices,” said Gregg Steinhafel, Target Chairman, President and CEO. “Our guests will be able to shop with confidence this holiday season knowing that we are intensely focused on providing them the right merchandise at the right price.”

Terms and conditions

Target's policy will allow consumers to match select online competitors’ prices in its stores between Nov. 1 and Dec. 16. Qualifying online retailers include Amazon.com, Walmart.com, BestBuy.com, Toysrus.com and even Target.com.

Certain merchandise will also carry the Holiday Price Match if it shows up in a brick and mortar competitor. If a Target customer purchases a qualifying item at Target stores between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24, and then finds it for less at Target.com or in a local competitor’s printed ad, Target will match that price, the company said. Terms and conditions are online.

Extended return period

Target also said REDcard debit and credit card holders who make a purchase as of November 1 will receive an additional 30 days on Target’s existing return policy on nearly all REDcard purchases made at Target and Target.com. Target's return policy has long been a source of complaints by some consumers.

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal reported Best Buy would adopt an online price match guarantee for the holidays and offer free delivery of items not in stores.

The cause of all this sudden competitiveness is most likely Amazon.com, which gains a bigger share of the holiday dollar each year and is ramping up efforts to provide faster delivery. It's also an effort to counter "showrooming," the practice of visiting a brick and mortar store to examine a product, check its price, and then order it from Amazon.com.

Walmart announced earlier this week that it was testing same-day delivery of online purchases in Northern Virginia and Philadelphia, seeking to counter Amazon's increasing emphasis on rapid delivery.

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Where is Your iPhone in Most Danger?

Study finds most damage occurs in the kitchen

Last month we reported iPhones tend to have a lot of accidents. SquareTrade, a company that sells smartphone insurance policies, released a study showing t...

PhotoLast month we reported iPhones tend to have a lot of accidents. SquareTrade, a company that sells smartphone insurance policies, released a study showing that damaged iPhones have cost U.S. consumers $5.9 billion since their introduction in 2007.

But where and how does this damage occur? SquareTrade can now answer that question, releasing a study that shows 51 percent of accidents to iPhones happen around the home, usually in the kitchen.

Unusual not so unusual

The study also revealed that "unusual" iPhone accidents are much more common than previously expected: In addition to an astonishing nine percent toilet mishap statistic, the research shows that five percent of iPhone users have put an iPhone in the washing machine and six percent of users have put their device on top of their car and then driven off.

"Smartphones have become our third hand -- our instinctual resource for information and entertainment," said Ty Shay, SquareTrade's CMO. "Whether or not you're the one in ten that drops your iPhone in the toilet, you're likely taking your phone everywhere, and that habit needs protection."

Danger zones

As far as danger around the house, the survey ranks it this way:

  1. the kitchen (21 percent of accidents around the home happen here)
  2. the living room (17 percent)
  3. the bathroom (16 percent)
  4. the driveway (10 percent)
  5. the bedroom (8 percent)

SquareTrade, of course, would like to sell you an insurance policy to cover your phone or other device. Considerations before making such a purchase should be how much you paid for the phone and what the replacement cost would be, what exclusions or deductibles are included in the policy, and how careful you tend to be.

Keeping your phone out of the kitchen, it appears, greatly improves your odds.

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Is Apple About to Think Small?

It may be ready to launch a 'mini' version of the iPad

The battle for supremacy in tablet computers is about to kick into high gear, and not because of Microsoft's just-released tablet Surface.The Surface may...

PhotoThe battle for supremacy in tablet computers is about to kick into high gear, and not because of Microsoft's just-released tablet Surface.

The Surface may turn out to be a popular device, time will only tell. But its price -- starting at $499 -- doesn't put it where the real action is at the moment. That would be in the seven-inch tablet space, where devices cost $200 or less. And that's where it's about to get interesting.

Cryptic invitation

Apple Tuesday sent out a number of invitations to the technology press for an event October 23 at the California Theater in San Jose. Like Kremlinologists who once analyzed every nuance of the Soviet Politburo to figure out what was happening in that country, the tech press has scoured the invitation and concluded the event will be to unveil a long-rumored "mini iPad."

Though Apple has not confirmed that it will introduce a smaller version of its top-selling iPad, a number of reporters who follow the tech world are convinced Apple will introduce a smaller version of its iPad that it can sell for $199.

If that were to happen, an already competitive market would get red-hot. The reason is simple. A lot more people are willing to pay $200 for a tablet than $500. The extra screen size just doesn't seem worth $300 to many consumers as long as the tablet has the same functions as its larger competitors.

Kindle set the pace

Amazon demonstrated this fairly convincingly with its Kindle Fire last year. It was a lot more than just an e-reader. It featured a color screen, WiFi connectivity, a browser and hundreds of Android apps. Consumers bought them in droves.

Last month Amazon introduce three new tablets -- what it calls the “Kindle Fire HD family.” Two of the three have 8.9 inch screens and sell from $300 to $500. But the third model, the Kindle Fire HD, is the updated version of Amazon's seven-inch tablet selling for the old price of $199.

Another major player is the Nexus 7, a joint venture by Asus and Google. It has won rave reviews since its debut, when Wired's Nathan Olivarez-Giles called it "the best 7-inch" tablet I've tested. It starts at $200.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 fits in the small tablet category, even though its entry point is slightly higher -- $250. It offers a lot of things other smaller tablets don't. Its pluses include front and back cameras, the ability to add memory and a TV remote function.

The Barnes and Noble Nook is another e-reader that evolved into a tablet. The latest Nook wins praise for its screen clarity and offers 16 GB of storage. While ideal for downloading and reading books, the device also has an excellent video display for watching movies. It, too, lacks some tablet features like cameras but starts at $149.

This is the playing field Apple will enter if it chooses to unveil a seven-inch tablet later this month. However, if it does and prices it around $200, the impact may be hard to quantify. Consumers that have hesitated to buy an iPad because of the price might now take the plunge -- if they haven't already purchased one of the seven-inch competitors.

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Meteorologist Plans Social Network Built on Weather

You like to talk about the weather? This site's for you

It's been said that no one does anything about the weather but everybody talks about it. Or something like that. In recent years, of course, the prevailing...

PhotoIt's been said that no one does anything about the weather but everybody talks about it. Or something like that. In recent years, of course, the prevailing theory is that we have done quite a bit about the weather, perhaps too much, providing even more to talk about. 

And so it makes sense that a new social networking site will give those with lots of spare time the opportunity to endlessly discuss weather conditions past, present and future.

The brainchild of two New England TV weathermen, SkyWatchers.me, promises to provide all weather, all the time. Its website, still forming off on the horizon, promises to provide "the future of weather."

Hmmm.  Actually, we would probably have future weather with or without the website, but who's quibbling? After all, New England has more than its share of weather, so the site should get a warm reception locally, especially among longtime fans of Dick Albert, who's been the meteorologist at WCVB-TV in Boston for 31 years. His sidekick, Steve Cascione, holds forth come rain or shine a bit to the south, at WLNE in Providence, R.I.

Lots of it around

“During things like hurricanes and flooding and New England blizzards, there’s a massive amount of people who are involved in the weather and want to know before it starts,” Albert said, according to the Boston Herald.

“Weather is more and more the lead story on local news and the story in national news," Albert said. "And, generally speaking, it will become more and more talked about because 100-year storms are now 10- and 20-year storms. ... There’s just a multitude of things happening more often than they used to.”

SkyWatchers will offer the ability to search by town, city or ZIP code for hourly and long-term forecasts, radar, and satellite information, and will feature forums, almanacs, blogs, a weather story of the day, teaching tools and mobile applications, the chatty weathermen promise.

 

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Consumers Show New Interest in Full-Sized Pick-Ups

And why that may be good news for the housing market

It might seem odd, considering gasoline prices are at a record seasonal high, that more consumers are looking at full-sized pick-up trucks these days. Thes...

PhotoIt might seem odd, considering gasoline prices are at a record seasonal high, that more consumers are looking at full-sized pick-up trucks these days. These vehicles, after all, tend to use more fuel than smaller cars and trucks.

But during the third quarter of the year, shopper interest in new full-size trucks on AutoTrader.com showed significant year-over-year growth, indicating that other economic factors might be at play. AutoTrader says interest in full-size trucks showed year-over-year increases in July, August and September -- a time when prices for regular and diesel fuel rose over 40 cents per gallon.

What could be behind this puzzling trend? The folks at AutoTrader believe it's a sign that the housing market -- especially the market for new homes -- is finally gaining traction. Construction workers, they say, hope to replace their aging trucks, which they've been driving since before the 2008 housing collapse.

Counter-intuitive

"Shoppers typically move away from larger vehicles in times of rising gas prices, particularly when those prices are above $3.75 per gallon, but that wasn't the case in the third quarter," said Rick Wainschel, vice president of automotive insights at AutoTrader.com. "Seeing a big spike in interest in July and continuing to see interest well above the levels of 2011 is a solid indication that the recovery of the housing market was strong enough to overcome shoppers concerns about the price of fuel."

The company says overall, interest in full-size trucks was up 14 percent in the third quarter, compared with the same period in 2011. In looking at the numbers month-by-month, the biggest year-over-year spike was in July, when interest was up 25 percent.

August and September also showed growth year-over-year, with interest up 13 percent in August and up eight percent in September.

Rising gas prices

While all of this was happening, prices at the pump were rising. In the third quarter, prices for regular gasoline went from $3.50 per gallon in July to $3.78 in August and $3.91 in September -- an increase of 41 cents per gallon. Prices for diesel fuel went from $3.72 per gallon in July to $3.98 in August and $4.12 in September, an increase of 40 cents per gallon.

AutoTrader may be onto something. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, new building permits were up 29.5 percent in July, up 24.5 percent in August and up 11.6 percent in September year-over-year.

Housing starts also hit a four-year high in September, up 15 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 872,000 units. With the average age of vehicles in the U.S. at 11 years, AutoTrader says it's likely that this growing interest in full-size trucks is being fueled by the need for workers in the industry to replace their aging workhorses.

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Promoters of Phony Debt Reduction Schemes Settle FTC Charges

Ads on 17 Websites allegedly featured misleading claims and phony testimonials

You can't go online these days without seeing ads promising to either reduce your debt or get you out of debt altogether. It's something that keeps the Fed...

PhotoYou can't go online these days without seeing ads promising to either reduce your debt or get you out of debt altogether. It's something that keeps the Federal Trade Commission busy.

The agency has charged an Ohio-based company and its owner with fraudulently claiming on 17 Websites they operated that consumers could quickly get out of debt by working with one of several debt settlement companies. And now the company owner, Ryan Golembiewski, has agreed to a settlement barring the deceptive claims, and to a judgment requiring him to pay more than $390,000.

Golembiewski and a company he controlled -- United Debt Associates -- were “lead generators” paid by debt settlement companies to refer consumers who responded to the deceptive ads, according to the complaint. Using Websites such as legitimatedebtsettlement.com, debtreliefemergency.com, DebtDecreaser.com, freedebtreductionhelp.com, and disputedebts.com, and earning approximately $24.60 per lead generated, the defendants directed consumers to either provide their contact information online, or call a toll-free number for help with their credit card debt.

Consumers who called either were routed directly to the debt settlement companies or were asked to provide preliminary information to the defendants, the complaint stated.

'Deceptive claims'

According to the complaint, the deceptive claims the defendants used to entice consumers to contact them included:

  • “Once creditors agree to make a deal, you can get out of debt from 12 to 36 months.”
  • “The U.S. government decided to introduce a stimulus package to boost the financial institutions and prevent them from breaking down. Part of this stimulus money is being utilized by the [c]redit card companies to offer debt settlements to the users.”
  • Debt settlement companies “can take all of your outstanding debt and not only eliminate at least 50% of it but also provide a realistic repayment plan for the rest of your debt.”
  • “If you play your cards right, your debt problems will vanish before the first year ends.”

Purported consumer testimonials on the defendants’ Websites, which conveyed the impression that consumers could successfully and quickly reduce or eliminate their debts by using the supposed debt settlement services the defendants advertised, were not genuine, the FTC alleged.

The defendants did not have support for the claims they made that the debt settlement companies would substantially reduce or eliminate consumers’ debts, according to the complaint. Instead, they merely posted claims provided by the debt settlement companies, or copied information from other debt relief Websites.

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'Biggest Loser' Study Finds Modest Diet and Exercise Can Sustain Weight Loss

Research shows exercise as key in reducing body fat while preserving muscle

Are you a fan of "The Biggest Loser," the TV program that shows obese adults losing large amounts of weight over several months? It appears that this is mo...

PhotoAre you a fan of "The Biggest Loser," the TV program that shows obese adults losing large amounts of weight over several months? It appears that this is more than just another of those so-called “reality” shows that seem to have captured the attention of a lot of TV viewers.

In fact, a study conducted by National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) that involved some of the folks on the show found that exercise and healthy eating reduce body fat and preserve muscle in adults better than diet alone. The study was recently published online in Obesity.

NIDDK senior investigator Kevin Hall, Ph.D., analyzed the individual effects of daily strenuous exercise and a restricted diet by examining data from 11 participants from "The Biggest Loser." Participants were initially isolated on a ranch followed by an extended period at home.

"By including the show's contestants as voluntary study participants, this research took advantage of a cost-efficient opportunity to study a small group of obese individuals already engaged in an intensive lifestyle intervention," said Hall, who has no financial ties and no other affiliation to the show.

Gauging progress

Researchers measured body fat, total energy expenditure and resting metabolic rate -- the energy burned during inactivity -- three times: at the start of the program, at week 6, and at week 30, which was at least 17 weeks after participants returned home.

Participation in the program led to an average weight loss of 128 pounds, with about 82 percent of that coming from body fat, and the rest from lean tissue like muscle. Preserving lean tissue, even during rapid and substantial weight loss, helps maintain strength and mobility and reduces risk of injury, among other benefits.

Hall used a mathematical computer model of human metabolism -- currently intended for research conducted by scientists and health professionals -- to calculate the diet and exercise changes underlying the observed body weight loss. Because the TV program was not designed to directly address how the exercise and diet interventions each contributed to the weight loss, the computer model simulated the results of diet alone and exercise alone to estimate their relative contributions.

Diet vs exercise

At the competition’s end, diet alone was calculated to be responsible for more weight loss than exercise, with 65 percent of the weight loss consisting of body fat and 35 percent consisting of lean mass like muscle. In contrast, the model calculated that exercise alone resulted in participants losing only fat, and no muscle. The simulation of exercise alone also estimated a small increase in lean mass despite overall weight loss.

The simulations also suggest that the participants could sustain their weight loss and avoid weight regain by adopting more moderate lifestyle changes -- like 20 minutes of daily vigorous exercise and a 20 percent calorie restriction -- than those demonstrated on the television program.

More than two-thirds of U.S. adults age 20 and older are overweight or obese, and more than one-third of adults are obese. Excess weight can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and certain cancers.

"This study reinforces the need for a healthy diet and exercise in our daily lives," said NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers. "It also illustrates how the science of metabolism and mathematical modeling can be used to develop sound recommendations for sustainable weight loss -- an important tool in the treatment of obesity -- based on an individual’s unique circumstances."

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Survey Finds Job-Seekers Will Go to Great Lengths to Impress Employers

Bribes, show and tell and just telling the truth are among the tactics being used

With the labor market still in a squeeze, it's not an exaggeration to say that some folks will do almost anything to land a job. But sometimes it's the lit...

PhotoWith the labor market still in a squeeze, it's not an exaggeration to say that some folks will do almost anything to land a job. But sometimes it's the little things that get job-seekers noticed by prospective employers, a new survey by OfficeTeam suggests.

Human resources (HR) managers were asked to recount the most impressive action they have seen or heard an individual take to try to land a position.

Here are some of their responses:

  • "An applicant walked in with coffee and donuts, and her resume underneath."
  • "I've had someone outline what he planned to do for the company in his first six months."
  • "One job seeker sent a handmade get well card when she heard the hiring manager was under the weather."
  • "I've had people offer to work for free."
  • "I recall someone who traveled a great distance just to be interviewed."
  • "One applicant sent a gift and an invitation to coffee."
  • "We had a candidate who contacted our board of directors to try to make his case for being hired."

The survey was developed by OfficeTeam, a staffing service specializing in the placement of highly skilled administrative professionals. It was conducted by an independent research firm and is based on telephone interviews with more than 650 HR managers at companies with 20 or more employees in the United States and Canada.

Show and tell

Some job seekers did a little show and tell:

  • "I recall applicants who have impressed me with their overall marketing approach. A few have sent in fancy CDs that contained a video message explaining why they should get the job."
  • "Someone applying for a position as a car detailer brought in his own vehicle to demonstrate his skills."
  • "I was impressed by a candidate who prepared an elaborate online portfolio and presentation."
  • "One woman showed up with, literally, a suitcase full of binders containing letters of reference, certificates of achievement and other accolades."
  • "A job seeker brought in a performance review from his past employer."
  • "The most impressive thing to me is a creative resume."

The pros

There were professionals who shined by going back to basics:

  • "One applicant explained what he knew about our company. I was very impressed with his knowledge and research."
  • "I had a follow-up email from a candidate immediately after our meeting."
  • "I liked the way one job seeker explained his skills in a way that correlated directly to what we needed for the position."
  • "A candidate gave me a thank-you note right after the interview."
  • "One woman didn't just recite her skills -- she provided many examples of her work."
  • "The candidates I recall most are the ones who were persistent in calling to make sure they got the position."
  • "An entry-level job applicant arrived for the interview in a three-piece suit."
  • "I am impressed when a job seeker arrives on time and is well-dressed. It's that simple."

The best policy

And then sometimes employers just want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth:

  • "The most impressive thing to me in any applicant is honesty."

"Extreme tactics aren't always the best way to stand out with hiring managers. Often, perfecting job-search basics can get you noticed," said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam. "There is much to be said about showing up on time for interviews, dressing in professional attire and doing your homework."

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Report Finds Private Student Loan Borrowers Face Roadblocks to Repayment

Complaints of surprises, runarounds, and dead-ends similar to problems found in mortgage servicing

If there's anything worse than graduating college and not being able to find a decent job, it has to be not being able to find work AND facing a mountain o...

PhotoIf there's anything worse than graduating college and not being able to find a decent job, it has to be not being able to find work AND facing a mountain of student loan debt.

According to a report  released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Student Loan Ombudsman, private student loan borrowers say they are sometimes surprised by the terms and conditions of their loans, they are given the runaround by their loan servicer, and they have few options to refinance or modify repayment for a better deal.

“Graduates don’t have a fair chance to pay back their debts if they are faced with surprises, runarounds, and dead-ends by student loan servicers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, who was presented with the report today. “These young consumers are facing serious challenges in dealing with their debt, which can hold them back from getting ahead in life.”

Familiar scenario

“Student loan borrower stories of detours and dead-ends with their servicers bear an uncanny resemblance to problematic practices uncovered in the mortgage servicing business,” said CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Rohit Chopra, who wrote the report. “Consumers deserve clarity, not chaos and confusion.”

“I graduated from college in 2003, had a student loan for $8,000 and have been paying it off continuously since then,” writes Rebecca of Lyman, NH, in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I still owe $5,000 on my loan and have paid more than originally borrowed so far, doubling up on my payment most months. Even so, I will end up paying more than double the amount I borrowed by the time I am done. This is a very bad loan for anyone. Citibank also calls my house up to three times a day at all times of the day and night (often when you pick up the phone there is no one there!) and harasses me from the day the payment is due until it is paid each month. I tell them I have paid it online, the time and date, but they say their system won't update for days and I will be contacted regardless. If there is not a lawsuit on unethical business practices with this company, there should be.”

Kimberly of Cairo, GA, has a student loan with rates of 10.75% with Wells Fargo. “They call me morning, noon, and night asking for money,” she tells ConsumerAffairs. “I could not pay a bill of $650.00, so I took a hardship deference. Now the deference has come to end, they expect me to make a payment of $800.00! I have tried to make smaller payments, but they will not accept these. I also have other student loans which I do stay current because they are more affordable. I am afraid they are going to go after my husband, which is my cosigner. I am not a traditional student either. I am 43 years old, and I have a family. I graduated in May 2011, and dealing with this is a nightmare!”

Huge burden

Student loans have now surpassed credit cards as the largest source of consumer debt in the United States. Earlier this year, the CFPB announced that outstanding student loan debt crossed the $1 trillion mark.

Before the financial meltdown, the private student loan market boomed and many consumers borrowed significantly to pay for post-secondary education. But unlike federal student loans, private student loans generally have higher and variable interest rates and may not allow borrowers to easily manage their payments in times of hardship.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act established an ombudsman for student loans within the CFPB to assist borrowers with private student loan complaints. Today’s report, which was mandated by Congress, analyzed approximately 2,900 private student loan complaints, comments, and other submissions and input from borrowers. The report found that roughly 95 percent of the complaints are about loan servicing -- when borrowers try to pay back their debt or are unable to pay.

Top findings

The three major findings of the report are:

  • Surprises cause borrower confusion: Private student loan borrowers told the CFPB that after they graduate, some have a hard time figuring out how much they owe. Borrowers complain that they may not receive the information they need about their loans when repayments begin, and are caught off guard by unexpected terms and costs. Some surprises include unknown or misunderstood terms and conditions, accounts changing hands, unauthorized payments, and unexpected forbearance fees. With limited information to anticipate and avoid these surprises, some borrowers end up in trouble.
  • Borrowers report getting the runaround from servicers: A common theme found in the complaints is the difficulty some borrowers face when trying to contact their servicer. Borrowers report having difficulty taking advantage of the incentives promised to them before they signed up for the loan. Then, whether it is looking for clear and accurate information about bills, trying to find payment options, or simply trying to get payments processed properly, some borrowers complain about getting the runaround. This may include payments credited late or unevenly, faulty record-keeping, and inadequate assistance from servicing staff. The report finds that the service problems in private student loan servicing reported by borrowers mirrors the experiences borrowers have reported in mortgage servicing.
  • Borrowers face refinancing dead-ends: The report found that another theme of the complaints was that responsible borrowers find themselves locked into loan terms they cannot negotiate out of – no matter what their circumstances. Despite efforts to make good on their loans, some borrowers stated that they ended up in distress with limited or no options for deferrals, forbearance, or interest-rate changes. According to the complaints, even some co-signers who were promised that they would be released from responsibility after a period of on-time payments, may find themselves trapped in the loan. The results can be disastrous for some borrowers, especially ones new to the job market and struggling to find work.
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Bank Fees Are Hard to Avoid, Especially for Lower-Income Consumers

Study confirms many families are unable to avoid rising bank fees and penalties

 Consumers are having difficulty avoiding rising checking fees unless they directly deposit regular income checks such as paychecks, pension checks, a...

PhotoThere's a lot of talk about cutting the banking fees paid by lower-income consumers but so far it's hard to find anything more than talk.

There are scattered new entrants, like PerkStreet and Simple, that offer free checking and debit cards but they don't have physical branches. So without direct deposit -- something the underemployed often don't have -- it's difficult to make deposits in a timely manner.

And as for established banks, a new study by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) finds that consumers are having difficulty avoiding rising checking fees unless they directly deposit regular income checks such as paychecks, pension checks, and Social Security checks.

The CFA found that many interest and noninterest-bearing checking accounts require consumers who are unable to maintain average balances of $1,500 -- a large majority of checking customers -- to be charged regular monthly fees that total as much as $300 annually.

Bank of America  Oct. 16, 2012, 7:37 p.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America

Just triggering one debit card overdraft, having one check returned for insufficient funds, and having one deposit rejected could add an additional nearly $100 in charges to the annual cost of using a checking account, CFA found.

This is what happened to Mark of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who posted on ConsumerAffairs about his recent experience with Bank of America: "I am disabled due to 9/11/2001. I have a fixed income and try to balance the account to the penny. Something went wrong this month, and I was overdrawn $3. The bank charged me $35. This is causing me to get further behind. I called a supervisor who told me I had reached my quota for courtesy adjustment and could do nothing to help."

This is not something that is flying under consumers' radar. We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of 39,000 consumer comments on social media over the last year and found bank fees about as popular as a Black Plague epidemic, with nearly 60% of the expressed sentiments being negative.

 

CFA's study

CFA performed research analyzing both bank checking account characteristics and consumer attitudes towards checking accounts as part of their analysis of the 25 largest banks according to the number of branches. The research revealed a great diversity of checking policies and prices at the 25 banks. 

PNC Bank Oct. 16, 2012, 7:44 p.m.
Consumers rate PNC Bank

For example, the following banks each offer free checking with no waiver requirements – PNC’s “Free Checking,” M&T Bank’s “Free Checking,” First Citizens Bank’s “Free Checking,” Huntington National Bank's “Asterisk-Free Checking,” and New York Community Bank’s “My Community Free Checking” and “My Community Interest Checking.”  At the other end of the scale, consumers would have to keep $25,000 in combined accounts at BB&T to avoid paying $25 per month for the Elite Gold interest-bearing account or at Keybank for the “Key Privilege” account.

And while these banks may offer free and low-cost checking, that doesn't mean that every customer benefits, or that the plan always works out as consumers expect. Witness the example of PNC customer Lori, who posted to ConsumerAffairs recently about her experience: 

"They constantly reverse sequencing of checks so they can cause overdraft on checks that were previously processed. I have been overcharged huge overdraft fees because of how they reverse sequences. They make sure they process the largest check that will cause all checks that were previously processed to bounce!"

“Banks are increasing fees and balances needed to avoid fees,” Jean Ann Fox, CFA's Senior Adviser for Financial Services noted.  “These higher fees and hurdles to avoid fees are especially challenging to the 45 percent of accountholders who maintain low balances and are most likely to overdraw their accounts.”

It should come as no surprise that consumers are annoyed, even hostile, about this state of affairs. This chart shows the top negative and positive emotions expressed by consumers while discussing bank fees:

 

Examining the verbatim comments that are summarized in this chart, by the way, reveals that the positive emotions are generally related to banks and credit unions that do not gouge their consumers. There were virtually no positive comments directed towards high-fee banks.

Low balance

An analysis of Raddon Financial Group survey data on consumer checking accounts found that nearly three-fifths (59%) of respondents saw checking balances fall below $500 in a typical month, with over one-third (36%) saying their balances fell below $100.  And less than one-quarter (24%) said they had been able to keep balances above $1,000.  

The survey found that those with low balances were the most likely to overdraw their accounts.  Two-fifths (40%) of those with low balances below $500 said they had overdrawn their checking account in the past two years, while only 3 percent of those with low balances above $1,000 said they had done so.  Thirty percent of all respondents said they had overdrawn their checking account in the past two years.

Direct deposits and income

The likelihood of directly depositing income checks was also highly correlated with income.  Only 25 percent of those in the lowest income quintile used direct deposit.  That figure was 52 percent for the second quintile, 66 percent of the third quintile, and over four-fifths of the upper two quintiles.  These differences are important because a large majority of big banks will waive minimum or average balance requirements if income checks are directly deposited at least monthly.

“The families who most need free or low-cost checking are the least likely to be paid by direct deposit, either because their employers do not offer the service, they work in short-term positions, or because they are unemployed,” noted Stephen Brobeck, CFA's Executive Director.  “Consumers who cannot waive fees through direct deposit and who do not have a comfortable cushion in their accounts at the end of the month pay the full freight for checking accounts.”

Chase Bank Oct. 16, 2012, 7:49 p.m.
Consumers rate Chase Bank

Unfortunately, even those who carefully set up and maintain direct deposits are not immune from high overdraft charges, as Chase Bank customer Natalie of Woodridge, Ill., reported in a posting to ConsumerAffairs:

Diverse checking accounts

CFA surveyed checking accounts at the 25 largest banks by number of branches, collecting information on each bank’s budget or all-electronic account, mainstream non-interest checking account and the lowest-cost interest-bearing account.  One positive finding of this research is that nearly all bank websites now include both useful summaries of each checking account and also links for fuller descriptions of the accounts including monthly fees, though finding details on overdraft fees and practices sometimes required further searching.

  • Budget Checking:  Nine of the 25 surveyed banks offer accounts described as "budget" or "basic."  These accounts cost $7 or less a month even when checks are not directly deposited and any required minimum balances are not met.  Most of the free accounts, listed in paragraph 3 of this release, fall into this category.
  • Electronic Accounts:  Bank of America, Fifth Third, and Keybank offer electronic accounts that usually require customers to conduct all banking at ATMs or online.  Monthly fees can be avoided, depending on the account, by maintaining a $500 minimum balance or directly depositing income checks.
  • Non-Interest Checking:  Most consumers utilize non-interest bearing checking accounts, which we found at 24 of the 25 banks surveyed.  Monthly fees on these accounts, when minimum or average balance requirements are not met, are usually $9-10 but were found to be as high as $15.  CFA’s research found that nearly all banks will waive these fees if the minimum or average balance requirements are met which most commonly is $1,500, or if funds are direct deposited.  Additionally some banks will waive the fees if a minimum number of transactions occur during the billing-period.
  • Interest Checking:  All surveyed banks offered at least one account that received interest on deposits. These accounts generally are subject to higher minimum/average balance requirements and monthly fees than non-interest accounts. These average balances are as high as $25,000 at BB&T and at Keybank, while the monthly fees are $25 per month at Bank of America, Chase, BB&T, TD Bank, and Keybank.

“As the FDIC’s 2011 Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households found, high fees and minimum balance requirements are an obstacle to account ownership for some unbanked consumers, especially for households who had recently been banked,” Fox noted.   “Since the FDIC survey was conducted before the rash of fee hikes and higher minimum balance requirements in late 2011, it is likely that rising fees and higher thresholds to avoid fees are a serious barrier to bank account ownership for families struggling in this economy.”

The complete report can be found here.

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Are Brick-and-Mortar Banks Becoming a Thing of the Past?

Companies like Simple are turning banks completely virtual--and for many--it's a welcomed change

I’m starting to notice more and more tiny white whiskers on my chin-- and if you ask me-- I think dealing with my bank is a partial contributor....

PhotoI’m starting to notice more and more tiny white whiskers on my chin -- and if you ask me, I think dealing with my bank is a partial contributor.

With its secret fees and spiteful penalties, dealing with banks and financial institutions can easily turn one's hair from its natural color to a premature grey.

And one would think the introduction of online banking would have removed most of the hassles associated with doing business with traditional banks, but somehow most of them, whether big or small, consistently find a way to stick it to the consumer, so it’s always great when you hear an outside-of-the box statement like this one from a bank:

“We believe that sort of business model (charging bank fees) creates an adversarial relationship between banks and their customers, since the bank benefits when customers make mistakes. That’s not right. We’re adamant about minimizing fees and never penalizing our customers.”

Now I know I just typed that, but did that last sentence really say customers never get penalized or charged fees for having a financial misstep?

It's Simple

This eye-catching statement is from the website of the virtual bank “Simple,” formerly known as BankSimple.  

Photo

The company’s CEO Josh Reich says although people will initially consider Simple a bank — especially because of its former name — it’s really a company that focuses on improving the customer experience rather than  charging a bunch of fees to stay afloat and pay for overhead costs.

“Simple replaces your bank, but we are not a bank,” said Reich in an interview. “We entertained the thought [of starting a traditional bank], and from our perspective we wanted to solve the user experience problem.”

And  how does the company plan to solve that problem of bad user experience and change the negative perceptions many people have about banking?

Well, what’s different about Simple is all of your funds are kept in an FDIC-insured account with Simple’s partner bank, The Bancorp Bank, not in a branch -- so one never has to make their way to a physical location.

This may all sound a bit like PerkStreet, which also works through Bancorp, and in fact, it is.  PerkStreet provides a free online checking account and rewards debit card but hasn't ventured into the iPhone and Android sphere to the extent Simple has. 

And it's not like traditional online banking either, because all transactions are primarily done through your smartphone or mobile device. It's really banking on the go.

In fact, Simple says the company is really set up for those who use their smartphones or mobile device on a regular basis, as the collection of services it offers goes hand in hand with web and mobile use.

The company also says although iPhones will work best for its banking, any iOS device that runs on IOS 5.0 or higher will provide a person with full user capability. Simple also plans to release an app for the Android ICS, it says.

Photo

Safe to spend

The digital bank also has a budget assistance feature for users, as its screen has a section called “Safe to Spend,” which provides customers with a clear and large listing of their balance, the amount they have in their pending transactions, and what upcoming payments they have coming in.

Of course other banks list similar information, but Simple's banking system allows you to search for specific expenditures like the meals during a vacation, and by clicking the search tab, only those particular purchases will appear in big bold blue letters.

The company says this will allow you to have a better understanding of what you’ve spent, allowing you to save money easier.  

The difference between Simple and the virtual bank Mint is the latter company works with outside banks and will provide budgeting information from all of your other accounts, whether it’s a Mint account or not.

Simple, however, wants to completely replace your bank and do all of your financial business in-house, which if you ask me is a little frightening since it’s still pretty much a new company.

On their smartphones, customers can use the electronic transfer feature to send money and pay bills, and if you want to cash a check, you simply have to take a picture of it with your smartphone, and the check will soon show up in your account.

However, Simple does provide some services like a physical bank, like giving you access to a team of customer service reps that assist you with questions or concerns.

The company also says cash can be pulled from its Allpoint ATM network that’s nationwide, and there are no fees for withdrawals. Each customer receives a Visa debit card that also comes with no fees, Simple says.

In order to be a customer of Simple you have to fill out its online invitation form and submit it electronically, then the company gets back to you with the necessary information to start your account.

Lots of interest

The online bank opened in 2010, and since then, there’s been almost an overload of interest, says Reich.

“The rate at which folks from our invitation list are becoming customers has exceeded all of our expectations,” he wrote on his blog.

As far as user feedback, there are currently no reviews about Simple in our ConsumerAffairs comments section, however overall Internet feedback has been pretty good, especially for a company that is still pretty new and is bound to have some kinks to work out.

However time will tell if Simple can maintain its fairly good standing with its growing crop of customers, while adding more useful features that go beyond what a traditional banks offers.

Or we'll see if the sudden large amount of consumer interest will eventually be too much for the start-up. 

Both time and future customer reviews will tell, but if Simple can do everything right, it will be a welcomed change to dealing with traditional banks and all of their nonsense.

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Microsoft Hopes the Surface Rises to the Top

Hold your breath, Microsoft fans, here comes yet another tablet

You probably have not been counting the days until the Microsoft Surface goes on sale. After all, does the world really need another tablet? But just in ca...

PhotoYou probably have not been counting the days until the Microsoft Surface goes on sale. After all, does the world really need another tablet? But just in case you have, you can stop counting -- the day is here.

The Surface officially went on sale this morning, but only for pre-order. It won't be in stores until Oct. 26. 

The tech world is sort of all abuzz about this and some tech writers have even said that Microsoft was re-inventing the tablet. That may be true but, after all, it's not the wheel we're talking about -- it's a flattened-out computer. Not exactly a time machine.

But maybe we're underestimating the degree of public frenzy. Just to be sure, we conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of more than 15 million consumer comments in social media over the last year. Did we find a crescendo of shock and awe as the Surface hovered into view? Well, not exactly. It turns out Microsoft has been steadily drifting along with positive sentiment in the high 40% neighborhood all year. 

 

Pricing not too revolutionary

Microsoft  Oct. 16, 2012, 4:30 p.m.
Consumers rate Microsoft

Considering that the hypemasters are calling this an event of cataclysmic proportions and astonishing innovation, it's worth noting that one area in which the Surface is sort of business as usual is price. The 32 GB model will go for $499, or $599 with a Touch Cover, which is a fancy name for the black version of the cover-keyboard combo. A couple of other options are available but basically, it's pretty much what you'd expect.

If the pricing sounds familiar, that's because it's pretty much the same as the iPad, although the Surface models have a little more memory. That's probably good, since Microsoft is not exactly known for building lean, mean software.

The Surface is being touted as an amazing leap by Microsoft into manufacturing, everyone having seemingly forgotten that Microsoft also manufactured the Xbox, which was not exactly one of it more sterling moments.

It means business?

The biggest differentiating factor so far appears to be the Surface's claim to being more attuned to business applications, intimating that the iPad is sort of a pretty face that is sleek and entertaining but not great on the job. There is a trimmed-down version of Office on the Surface but whether it's enough to do more than, well, skim the surface, only time will tell.

Reading all the gushing stories, one would think the tablet world would soon be divided up more or less equally between Microsoft and Apple. You know, sort of like the desktop world?  That, of course, is about as far from reality as one can get. The world is pretty much awash in tablets at the moment, including models from Amazon, Google, Samsung, HP, Blackberry, ASUS and just about everybody else who ever pieced together a computer.

But maybe there's a bit of depth to the Surface that we're missing. Let the games begin. 

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FDA Wants Avon to Smooth Out Anti-Aging Cream Claims

Agency takes issue with some of Avon's claims for its skin care potions

The latest wrinkle in the skin cream game is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears to be cracking down on the claims made by major cosme...

PhotoThe latest wrinkle in the skin cream game is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears to be cracking down on the claims made by major cosmetic companies.

Last month, the agency warned L'Oreal about some of the claims it was making for its Lancome products, and now the FDA has put Avon on notice that it needs to smooth out some of its claims.

It's Avon's Anew skin care brand that has drawn the FDA's attention. On its website, Avon calls Anew the "anti-aging breakthrough of the decade" and claims that "deep wrinkles begin to fade in just 1 week."

Photo

In a warning letter to the company, the FDA said it had examined the claims for various Anew potions and said they "indicate that these products are intended to affect the structure or any function of the human body, rendering them drugs" under federal law.

Avon Cosmetics Oct. 16, 2012, 4:02 p.m.
Consumers rate Avon Cosmetics
In its letter to Avon, the FDA cited these examples of objectionable claims on the company's website:
 
Anew Clinical Advanced Wrinkle Corrector:
  • “The at-home answer to wrinkle-filling injections. Start rebuilding collagen in just 48 hours.”
  • “4D WRINKLE-REVERSE TECHNOLOGY IS DESIGNED TO:
Rebuild collagen to help plump out lines and wrinkles.
Stimulate elastin to help improve elasticity and resilience.
Regenerate hydroproteins to help visibly minimize creasing.”
  • “Formulated to boost shock-absorbing proteins to help strengthen skin's support layers.”
  • “Improve fine & deep wrinkles up to 50%. Immediately plumps out wrinkles and fine lines. Within 48 hours begins boosting collagen production.”
Anew Reversalist Night Renewal Cream & Anew Reversalist Renewal Serum
  • “[W]rinkles are a result of micro-injuries to the skin, so AVON studied how skin heals. As part of the repair process, the body produces Activin . . . . [E]xhaustive research, testing & review have resulted in an unprecedented discovery by AVON scientists: how to activate this key repair molecule. . . . Designed to boost Activin, ANEW’s Activinol Technology helps reactivate skin’s repair process to recreate fresh skin & help dramatically reverse visible wrinkles.”
Anew Clinical Thermafirm Face Lifting Cream
  • “Our effective lifting treatment is formulated to fortify damaged tissue with new collagen. In just 3 days, see tighter, firmer, more lifted skin.”
  • “[H]elp tighten the connections between skin's layers.”
Solutions Liquid Bra Toning Gel
  • “Formulated with pomegranate and fennel extracts to help boost production of collagen and elastin.”
 

The FDA said Avon needs to fix the violations immediately. 

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How Couples Can Avoid Arguing About Money

We spoke to a financial expert to see how couples should be pooling their respective incomes.

Marriage can be both a wonderful and tricky undertaking, as theoretically, two people morph into one and try to bring everything from their single lives ov...

PhotoMarriage can be both a wonderful and tricky undertaking, as theoretically --  two people morph into one and try to bring everything from their single lives over to their married lives in a seamless transition.

Whether it’s the combining of each other’s furniture or putting together each person’s collection of music, books and art, part of the excitement of starting a new life with someone is bringing parts of yourself from your unmarried life over to your new union.

But let’s face it, issues over sharing things like the book and art collection probably hasn’t broken too many couples up, but when it comes to having access to each other’s income, all kinds of conflicts can arise.

In fact, many relationship experts have said the big three when it comes to what couples argue about is sex, communication and of course the household finances.

Let’s face it — sometimes it can be hard trying to manage your own finances on a day-to-day basis, and when you throw another person’s income into the marital fray, it requires even a higher level of money management and more responsibility on each person’s part to make sure the household finances run smoothly.  

But should couples always combine their incomes into one account? Couldn’t the household finances still be managed if each person overseas their own money?

No need to choose

We spoke to financial expert Dr. Gizem Saka, who teaches economics at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, about how couples should handle their finances when first getting together. She says that couples shouldn’t really choose between having joint or separate accounts, as both should be used.

Most of the money should be in a joint account,” says Dr. Saka. “But individuals should keep separate accounts for personal expenditures that the partner wouldn’t need or understand. Research shows an interesting fact about couples: Everyone believes that they’re doing more than their share. When married couples are asked about what percent of the household chores that they complete, the wife and the husband’s answer consistently add up to more than 100 percent.”

“When explained to the participating couples that it is impossible for the total to exceed 100 percent (and that it’s possible for one party to undertake more of the burden, for example, the wife undertaking 75 percent and the husband undertaking 25 percent would work fine, but only if both parties gave the same answer), the answers don’t change,” she said.

“This suggests that individuals in relationships will always think they’re doing more of the work, and since saving can be considered work (it takes self-control), over time, everyone would see themselves as the one doing more of the saving, even when it’s not the case.”

Dr. Saka also explained the benefits of having separate accounts and says that many times each person in a relationship sees the finances and expenditures very differently, thus creating the strong possibility for arguments to begin over too much money being spent.

Demilitarized zones

PhotoAnd no matter how each person in the union tries their hardest to keep a level of peace in the home when it comes to finances, there will always be areas when it comes to money that many couples will never agree on.

“It’s a good idea to keep a separate account for personal expenditures,” says Dr. Saka. Research shows that we don’t have as much empathy for each other as we believe we do. We have several self-serving biases and one that would be relevant in this domain is the Actor-Observer bias in attribution. People are more likely to attribute their own behavior to environment or situation factors; but they view other people’s actions as products of their personality.”

“For instance, a man would think of his own expenditure in football tickets as a form of entertainment spending ("my friends were going and the situation demanded me to buy tickets"), he might think of his wife’s spending on ballet tickets differently ("she’s a spender"). At any relationship there will come a point where two people won’t see eye to eye; for those moments it’s good to have a personal account,” advises Dr. Saka.

One of the common complaints from at least one person in some marriages, is they miss the old days of financial freedom -- when they didn’t have to let their spouse know where every dollar is being spent.

What's personal?

Photo
Dr. Saka

Once you get married do you have to reveal all of your daily and monthly expenditures? I mean, is it wrong for a person in a marriage to keep some of their spending ways personal?

“Being personal doesn’t have to mean being secretive,” said Dr. Saka. “It’s a way to draw a border, but what’s behind the border could still be visible. If you’re putting 10 percent in a personal account every month and spending it, it doesn’t have to mean ‘I won’t show you what I bought,’ it only means, ‘I used my personal discretion to buy these golf clubs and I didn’t have to ask you.’

“This will work because we all engage in mental accounting,” she added. “For instance, we view $15 saved on a cheaper item as more valuable than $15 saved on a more expensive item, even though the dollars don’t know what item they were saved on. This compartmentalization, even though not perfectly rational, helps us make quicker decisions in our everyday lives without feeling guilty or responsible. Everyone needs to spend some money without having to account for it to someone else. What’s more important is to impose sensible limits to the spending behavior, whether personal or joint,” Dr. Saka explained.

And for couples who reside together but aren’t legally married, Dr. Saka says although there are no benefits from a tax perspective, there are still certain things non-married couples can do to manage the household finances properly.

No tax breaks

“There are no tax advantages if you’re not legally married, so the government wouldn’t financially help unmarried couples,” she says. “On the other hand, some companies do recognize partners in benefits programs. When it comes to the household finances, I don’t think anything should change: Couples should encourage each other to participate in IRAs, whether their companies match their contributions or not.”

As far as the best ways for couples to save money, Dr. Saka says Automatic Enrollment Plans are the way to go, as counting on yourself to extract the same amount of money from your paycheck each cycle for your savings, is a difficult undertaking, especially for those on a tight budget.

“Research shows that people like to stick with the status quo; they don’t like change, but most importantly they don’t like to be the initiators of change,” she said.

"Even with an important decision, such as whether to become an organ donor or not, the deciding factor is the question on the application sheet: If the default condition says you’re a donor, but you can opt out anytime you want, people wouldn’t opt out. If the default condition says you’re not a donor, but you can opt in, no one would opt in."

“Using this insight towards retirement savings, policy-makers have come up with the Automatic Enrollment Plans. I’d suggest that couples establish a default savings condition as soon as possible. A good benchmark is 10 percent of the gross income to be saved every month. If that’s established early on, you’d have to explain to your partner why you need it changed; but you won’t have to come up with the arguments as to why you should continue saving. You’ll automatically save as a couple,” said Dr. Saka.

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Consumer Credit Default Rates Dive

Consumers doing better job with debt, except for car payments

The Great Recession was caused, in large part, when a large number of consumers couldn't handle their mortgages. It quickly escalated to defaults on other ...

PhotoThe Great Recession was caused, in large part, when a large number of consumers couldn't handle their mortgages. It quickly escalated to defaults on other types of loans.

But the latest reading on consumer default rates suggests borrowers are back on track. Data compiled by S&P Dow Jones Indices and Experian showed most loan types saw a decrease in default rates in September. The National Composite Default Rate fell for the ninth month in a row.

Four of the five loan types posted their lowest rate since the end of the 2007/2009 recession. Only the auto loan default rate increased, from 1.09 percent in August to 1.11 percent in September.

Better with credit card bills

Consumers did better with credit cards. The bank card default rate fell in September to 3.70 percent, from August's 3.77 percent, and the first mortgage default rate decreased from 1.40 percent in August to 1.36 percent in September, both hitting post-recession lows.

At 0.64 percent, the second mortgage default rate fell to the lowest in its eight-plus year history. The composite index fell to a post-recession low of 1.46 percent, down from August's 1.50 percent.

"We think it is very fair to say that 2012 has proven to be a period of financial repair for consumers," says David Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Dow Jones Indices. "Consumers' financial condition continues to improve as witnessed by these declining credit default rates."

Bad debt already written off

Part of the improvement undoubtedly can be traced to higher lending standards. And over the last four years credit card companies have written off much of their bad debt as uncollectable. The consumers who still have access to credit are doing a better job of handling their debt. The single exception is in the area of auto loans.

"Only the auto loan rate rose in September, up two basis points to 1.11 percent," Blitzer said. "This is still a decent number, as the historic low for such loans was 1.01 percent posted just two months ago in July."

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Use Care in Disposing of Your Old Cell Phone

They can be both an environmental hazard and data breach

Whether you are lining up to buy a new iPhone 5 or one of its many competitors, you then have the problem of what to do with your old cell phone. The last...

PhotoWhether you are lining up to buy a new iPhone 5 or one of its many competitors, you then have the problem of what to do with your old cell phone. The last thing you should do is simply throw it away.

Not only are there toxic materials in these devices that should not go into a landfill, there is sensitive information that you should keep out of the hands of people who might misuse it.

Mining for gold

There are plenty of companies advertising online that will buy your old cell phone. In most cases they won't refurbish and resell them but tear them apart for the gold and other materials they contain.

Earthworks, an organization that collects and recycles old cell phones, says recovering the gold found in 50 million cell phones -- iPhone 5 sales are projected to reach 50 million by year's end -- could prevent the creation of 2 million tons of mining waste.

"Recycling helps protect communities and the environment in the U.S. and around the world by keeping hazardous chemicals out of landfills and reducing the demand for conflict mineral mining," said Earthworks' Recycle My Cell Phone Manager Hilary Lewis. She continued, "We hope the public will embrace this easy option for recycling with the guarantee that their devices are being handled responsibly."

Professionally sanitized

All cell phones collected through Earthworks' Recycle My Cell Phone campaign are sent to MPC, a certified IT Asset Lifecycle Management company, where the phones are securely handled in accordance with environmental and data security standards. All cell phones are either sanitized for reuse or physically destroyed and recycled in the United States.

Consumers, however, should not allow their old cell phone to be removed from their possession without first going through some "sanitizing" steps first. Even if you’re sending your phone to a company where the data is securely wiped or the phone is shredded, think about how your phone gets there. If you’re sending it in the mail you can’t be sure that it won’t be lost, or if you’re throwing it in a collection bin at a public drop off site, you never know who could get to your device before that company picks it up.

Steps to follow

So what’s a person to do when the time comes for an upgrade? One authorized method for sanitizing a phone is to delete all information, such as calls made and phone numbers, manually and then perform a full manufacturer’s reset to put the cell phone at its factory default settings. Removing the SIMcard of the phone, a commonplace for stored information, is also recommended.

The Federal Trade Commission says encrypting passwords and other sensitive data stored on your cell phone, and “locking” the keypad while your phone is not in use, can help prevent unauthorized access even after your cell phone is no longer in service. Still, certain data on your phone, including personal contacts, photos and Web search terms, may be recoverable with relatively simple and inexpensive software programs.

Permanent data deletion may require you to clear data from the phone’s contacts and other stored information. Your owner’s manual, your wireless provider’s Website, or the manufacturer will likely provide information on how to permanently delete information from your mobile device.

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Texas Firm Recalls Beef and Pork Products

The products were misbranded and did not undergo federal inspection

Lao Chareune Foods of Dallas is recalling approximately 8,200 pounds of various beef and pork products because they were produced without the benefit of fe...

PhotoLao Chareune Foods of Dallas is recalling approximately 8,200 pounds of various beef and pork products because they were produced without the benefit of federal inspection and misbranded.

The following products are being recalled:

  • 3-oz. and 8-oz. packages containing "Pork Snack Stick"
  • 3.20-oz. packages containing "Seasoned Fried Beef"
  • 1.76-oz. packages containing "Fried Pork Skins"
  • 1.20-oz. packages containing "Sliced Fried Pork Ears."

Each package bears the establishment number "EST. 13479" inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mark of inspection. There are no production or expiration dates on the products in commerce.

The pork snack stick is also misbranded in that it is raw and as such cannot be labeled as a snack stick. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has determined that the products were produced from May 22, 2012 to the present and distributed to retail establishments in Louisiana and Texas.

The problem was discovered by FSIS enforcement personnel who identified the products in commerce labeled with the USDA mark of inspection and determined that they were produced without the benefit of inspection.

There are no reports of illness due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider.

Consumer questions regarding the recall can contact the company's owner, Charlie Souriyavong, at (214) 330-5995.

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Fresh Express Recalls Romaine Salad

Salmonella contamination is a possibility

Fresh Express Incorporated is conducting a voluntary, precautionary recall of a limited quantity of Fresh Express Hearts of Romaine Salad with a Use-by Dat...

PhotoFresh Express is recalling a limited quantity of Fresh Express Hearts of Romaine Salad with a Use-by Date of October 11 and Product Code of S270A24, due to a possible health risk from Salmonella.

No illnesses or consumer complaints have been reported to Fresh Express at this time in association with this recall. No other Fresh Express products are subject to this recall.

The recall notification is being issued based on an isolated instance in which a random sample yielded a positive result for Salmonella as part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s random sample testing program.

Fresh Express customer service representatives are already contacting relevant retailers to confirm the recalled product has been removed from store shelves and inventories and that none is available for consumer purchase.

Customers with questions should contact their Fresh Express customer service representative. The recalled salads were distributed primarily in the West-Northwest and Midwest regions of the U.S.

Consumers who may have purchased the recalled salad are asked not to eat it, but to throw it out instead. Fresh Express is offering a full refund.

Fresh Express Precautionary Salad Recall- 10/11/12 (No other Fresh Express Salads are included in this recall)

BRANDPRODUCT NAMESIZEUPCProduction
Code
Best If Used
By Date
POSSIBLE DISTRIBUTION
STATES
Fresh ExpressHearts of Romaine18 oz.071279-262017S270A24OCT 11AZ, AR, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, LA, MN, MT, NV, NM, ND, OK, OR, TX, UT, WA, WI, WY

Anyone with questions or who would like to secure a refund 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.

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New Drug Contamination Suspected at Mass. Firm

Regulators advise doctors to follow-up with patients who received any NECC drugs

The New England Compounding Center (NECC), the source of a contaminated steroid drug that triggered a national meningitis outbreak, may have distributed ot...

PhotoThe New England Compounding Center (NECC), the source of a contaminated steroid drug that triggered a national meningitis outbreak, may have distributed other contaminated drugs, federal regulators say.

The outbreak, which has claimed 15 lives so far, is associated with the drug methylprednisolone acetate, which is injected near the spine. As a result of its continuing investigation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it has identified a meningitis patient who was injected with an additional NECC product, triamcinolone acetonide.

All products distributed by NECC have been recalled and activities at the facility have been suspended, pending an investigation.

Could be other explanations

In addition to the new meningitis patient, two transplant patients with Aspergillus fumigatus infection who were administered NECC cardioplegic solution during surgery have been reported. Investigation of these patients is continuing, the FDA says. The agency concedes there may be other explanations for the infection. Cardioplegic solution is used to induce cardiac muscle paralysis during open heart surgery to prevent injury to the heart.

"At this point in FDA’s investigation, the sterility of any injectable drugs, including ophthalmic drugs that are injectable or used in conjunction with eye surgery, and cardioplegic solutions produced by NECC are of significant concern, and out of an abundance of caution, patients who received these products should be alerted to the potential risk of infection," the agency said in a statement.

Possible risk from eye surgery

So far, no cases of infection have been reported in connection with any NECC-produced drug used in eye surgery. However, the FDA said it believes this class of products could present risks of infection.

Products from NECC can be identified by markings that indicate New England Compounding Center by name or by its acronym (NECC), and/or the company logo.

The FDA is now advising physicians that have administered any NECC drugs to patients that they should follow-up to ensure no infection is present.

"You should inform patients who received the NECC products noted above of the symptoms of possible infection and instruct them to contact you or another healthcare provider immediately if they experience any of these symptoms," the advisory said.

The signs and symptoms of meningitis include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, photophobia (sensitivity to light) and altered mental status. Symptoms for other possible infections may include fever; swelling, increasing pain, redness, warmth at injection site; visual changes, pain, redness or discharge from the eye; chest pain, or drainage from the surgical site.

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Social Security Announces 1.7 Percent Benefit Increase for 2013

However, rising Medicare premiums could wipe out the hike in benefits

Monthly Social Security benefit checks will be a little -- emphasis on “little” -- fatter next year. The Social Security Administration has announced that...

Monthly Social Security benefit checks will be a little -- emphasis on “little” -- fatter next year.

The Social Security Administration has announced that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 62 million recipients will increase 1.7 percent in 2013.

The cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits that more than 56 million Social Security beneficiaries receive in January 2013. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 31, 2012.

Determining the COLA

The purpose of the COLA is to ensure that the purchasing power of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits is not eroded by inflation.

It's based on the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the third quarter of the last year a COLA was determined to the third quarter of the current year. If there is no increase, there can be no COLA.

The 1.7 percent COLA increase works out to about $20 per month.

Other changes

Some other changes that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages. Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $113,700 from $110,100.

Of the estimated 163 million workers who will pay Social Security taxes in 2013, nearly 10 million will pay higher taxes as a result of the increase in the taxable maximum.

Information about Medicare changes for 2013 -- when announced -- will be available on the Medicare Website. Some Social Security beneficiaries may see their COLA partially or completely offset by increases in Medicare premiums.

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Nintendo Slashes Price of Wii to $130

Price cut comes just ahead of next generation of the popular game console

The Wii game console was different from its competitors when it was introduced six years ago. Users didn't just sit passively on the couch pushing buttons ...

PhotoThe Wii game console was different from its competitors when it was introduced six years ago. Users didn't just sit passively on the couch pushing buttons -- they got up and moved around.

Now that Nintendo is preparing to launch a new generation of the popular game system, it's cutting the price of the original to $129.99. Nintendo says the price cut goes into effect October 28 and the bundle will include copies of Wii Sport and Wii Sports Resort. The current bundle includes New Super Mario Bros.

The price cut comes just ahead of the November 18 planned launch of the new generation Wii game system - Nintendo Wii U., starting at $299.99.

Still a hit

"Almost six years after its release, people are still attracted to the pure, inclusive fun of the Wii console," said Scott Moffitt, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nintendo of America. "A new suggested retail price and the inclusion of two excellent games make it an easy choice for families looking for a great value this holiday season."

Wii has attracted a different segment of the gaming market. While Xbox and PS3 are popular platforms for fantasy-oriented games, Wii is heavily sports oriented. Its controllers respond to movement and players must often move around, burning calories while they play.

How healthy?

A number of health experts have looked at the Wii console for its cardiovascular benefits. While most say there are limits to its effectiveness, most concede it's healthier than other types of games that don't require movement.

Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort games are examples that helped push the industry to move towards video games motion control. The games include a variety of sports that use singular controls.

Players can test their skills in games like bowling, tennis, baseball, archery, table tennis, and basketball, all while simulating real-life movements using the Wii Remote Plus. For the first time, both games are included on one game disc.

The Wii system was an instant hit when it debuted in 2006. Nintendo says it has sold 95 million units since then.

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Deloitte Consumer Spending Index Rises

The upturn is due largely to gains in the housing market

The consumer appears to be loosening up on her purse strings. The Deloitte Consumer Spending Index rose in September -- due in large part to a nearly 11 p...

The consumer appears to be loosening up on her purse strings.

The DeloittePhoto Consumer Spending Index rose in September -- due in large part to a nearly 11 percent increase in home prices, which offset weakness in other areas of the Index.

The Index tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending.

“The sizable increase in home prices may overstate the strength of the real estate market, though on a positive note, the declines may be over and the market stabilizing,” said Carl Steidtmann, Deloitte’s chief economist and author of the monthly Index. “The increase may also provide a much-needed boost to consumer confidence as other hurdles lie ahead. Consumer spending growth has slowed, and the primary reason that it is flat but not declining is that households are putting less into their savings. Energy prices remain a drag on household incomes and rising prices account for the largest month-to-month drop in real wages since September 2005.”

Other indications

Deloitte’s analysis of factors influencing consumer spending further indicate:

Personal income and spending data for August were disappointing. Real incomes dropped 0.3 percent while spending was up just 0.1 percent from the previous month. While overall spending is up 2 percent from a year ago, growth in the past three months has been tepid, falling 0.1 percent in June, rising 0.37 percent in July and increasing just .08 percent in August. The savings rate also fell from 4.1 to 3.7 percent in the most recent month.

Energy prices remain an important factor. Gas prices usually decline in autumn as the summer driving season ends, but in a highly unusual turn, they have continued upward this fall.

The labor market remains a drag on the Index and the broader economy. Claims have moved up and down and hiring seems limited. Job gains over the summer were very weak.

The Index, which comprises four components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- rose to 3.53 from a reading of 3.27 the previous month.

A renewal of enthusiasm

“The ups and downs in housing, employment and energy costs may have given consumers pause this past month,” said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and retail & distribution sector leader. “As the holidays get into full swing, however, we anticipate shopper enthusiasm will be renewed. Turning their attention away from politics after the election, consumers can get back to the business of shopping. Retailers should benefit from a predicted 3.5 to 4 percent increase in November through January holiday sales over last year, and non-store channels such as online, catalogs and interactive TV, are expected to increase 15 to 17 percent. In addition to generating non-store sales, retailers can lift brick-and-mortar performance by using digital channels’ influence to drive in-store traffic and conversion.”

Index highlights

Highlights of the index include:

  • Tax burden: The tax burden rose slightly in the most recent month to 11.05 percent. A rising tax burden is often a sign of healthy income growth.
  • Initial unemployment claims: Jobless claims moved higher this month to 371,000, and were two percent higher than this time last year.
  • Real wages: Rising energy prices sent real wages tumbling to $8.71 -- the largest month-to-month drop since September 2005.
  • Real home prices: In a thin market, housing prices can be volatile as the mix of homes sold becomes more significant. Real home prices soared 10.5 percent in the latest month accounting for all of the gain in the Index.
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Minority Home Owners Sue Morgan Stanley Charging Predatory Lending

Suit seeks class action status

The housing collapse of 2008 crushed millions of American home owners but a suit filed in federal court in New York claims it hit minority home owners part...

PhotoThe housing collapse of 2008 crushed millions of American home owners but a suit filed in federal court in New York claims it hit minority home owners particularly hard.

The suit, filed on behalf of five Detroit residents and Michigan Legal Services, is against the investment bank Morgan Stanley, claiming it discriminated against black homeowners and violated federal civil rights.

In a statement, the bank said the charges in the suit were without merit and promised a vigorous defense.

Encouraging risky business

The suit is tied to the securitization of mortgage-backed securities, the action that eventually brought on the credit meltdown. It seeks to hold Morgan Stanley accountable for allegedly providing strong incentives to a subprime lender to originate mortgages that were likely to be foreclosed on.

The suit is the first to connect racial discrimination to the mortgage-backed securities that were sold to institutional investors and pension funds. It is also the first case where a prospective class of victimized homeowners is suing an investment bank directly rather than the subprime lender whose loans the bank bought.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Michigan, the National Consumer Law Center, and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, a San Francisco-based law firm. The complaint asks the court to certify the case as a class action.

Stepping forward

"With this lawsuit, real victims of the subprime lending scandal are stepping forward to hold investment banks like Morgan Stanley accountable for the devastation the banks wrought in their lives and in our economy,” ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said. “Illegal practices surrounding mortgage-backed securities robbed people of their homes, violated our civil rights laws and left all Americans holding the bag as our economy teetered on the brink of another Great Depression.”

The five homeowners in the suit received their loans from now-defunct New Century Mortgage Corp., a one-time major player in subprime lending. Many of its loans were eventually purchased by Morgan Stanley, which bundled them into securities.

One of the plaintiffs is Rubbie McCoy of Detroit, who purchased a home through New Century with an adjustable mortgage rate of 12.1 percent.

Dictated the terms

The plaintiffs argue Morgan Stanley provided funds to New Century to originate the loans and dictated the terms of the loans it wanted and ultimately purchased for its securitized pools. It allegedly pushed New Century to issue certain types of loans with no concern about risk, because it made its profit at the outset, when the securities were created and sold.

“Morgan Stanley actively encouraged the proliferation of irresponsible subprime mortgage loans, the complaint charges, in order to feed its hunger for purchasing, pooling, and securitizing mortgage debt for sale to investors,” said Elizabeth J. Cabraser, a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, and co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “The targeting of communities of color for loans that unfairly raises the risk of default and foreclosure is the quintessential ‘reverse-redlining’ outlawed by the Federal Fair Housing Act.”

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Starbucks Stores Getting Smaller and Greener

The mega coffee chain opens its first walk-up and drive-through location with no lounge area.

Somewhere around the time that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain turned Seattle’s local Grunge scene into a full-fledged part of American music, another lo...

PhotoSomewhere around the time that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain turned Seattle’s local Grunge scene into a full-fledged part of American music, another local scene was starting to take hold of the country.

The tradition of sitting in a coffee house spending hours and hours with a cup of Joe is as much a part of Seattle as its cloudy weather, and since the 1990s Starbucks has been the company that turned a local coffee drinking tradition into a national pastime of sorts, and today the ubiquitous chain is almost synonymous with the word coffee itself.

Starbucks Oct. 14, 2012, 4:12 p.m.
Consumers rate Starbucks

Starbucks is also synonymous with the word growth, as currently there are nearly 20,000 locations in over 60 countries around the globe, rivaling older chains like McDonald's and Subway in terms of having a consistent neighborhood presence.

But instead of only trying to grow more in size and making its coffee shops bigger with more spaces for both the customer and their laptops, the Washington State-based company is actually downsizing. Well, not in terms of the number of locations it will have, but in terms of the actual size of some of its coffee shops.

Greener and smaller

PhotoIn recent days the company has opened up its first experimental green Starbucks location, but instead of being the usual beverage sipping hangout place, the new location is only a drive-through and walk-up window.

The president of global development for Starbucks, Arthur Rubinfeld, says he wants a portion of the company to return to the days when it was associated with being a community coffee house, as currently Starbucks is mainly known for being hot beverage making juggernauts only looking to expand in size.

“When I joined in ’92, we were under 100 stores,” Rubinfeld said in an interview. And we had an understanding that espresso-based beverages were on trend. We knew this from the loyalty of our customer base at the time, but our category-specialty-beverages was not in itself a business driver. At that point it was about establishing the American idea of the coffee house. Hundreds and hundreds of years old in Europe, it was mostly about community.”

The very look of the new Colorado Starbucks is likely to draw the eyes of curious consumers when they're driving or walking by. The structure resembles one of those brown wooden houses that stood in many suburban neighborhoods in the ‘70s and ‘80s before aluminum siding grew in popularity.

Although it certainly looks interesting enough, the structure also resembles a  boarded-up building, and if it wasn’t for that ever so familiar green Starbucks sign, neighborhood residents could possibly think it was some sort of failed business that had shut down.

And instead of putting a cozy lounge area inside so people can plug in their devices and camp out for a few hours, Starbucks is focusing on installing green items like LEED-certified drive-through signs.

No lounge

PhotoThe location is also reported to be about 500 square feet, which holds just a couple of employees with no lounge or sitting area for customers.

Rubenfeld said that maintaining its community roots is crucial for the brand to stay truly connected to its vast customer base.

“Chicago is one of the early Starbucks entry points” he said. “When Starbucks entered in Chicago, it was at the core of office buildings on the way into work. Then it became more where you live work and play, and then it became the third place between home and office. The community connection point, the human interaction point that’s so critical.”

The new walk-up Starbucks is so small in size that it was delivered on a flatbed truck which should give you an idea of just how tiny this coffee shop is, and its designer Anthony Perez said he hopes this is only the beginning of companies rethinking their location designs and creating new structures with green components.

“What we’ve done is standardize the interior,” said Perez. “But what we want to be able to do is, as people are going around this prefab, we want the materials on that exterior to feel like it’s part of the local environment,” he said.

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It's Official: Japanese Company to Buy 70% of Sprint

Lash-up is seen as strengthening the companies, both #3 in their home markets

Japanese wireless carrier Softbank Corp. has reached agreement to buy 70% of Sprint for $20 billion, the largest foreign acquisition ever by a Japanese com...

PhotoJapanese wireless carrier Softbank Corp. has reached agreement to buy 70% of Sprint for $20 billion, the largest foreign acquisition ever by a Japanese company. Both companies are No. 3 in their home markets. They use the same basic architecture, so there should be significant economies of scale in the merger.  

"Our management team is excited to work with SoftBank to learn from their successful deployment of LTE in Japan as we build out our advanced LTE network, improve the customer experience and continue the turnaround of our operations,” said Sprint CEO Dan Hesse.

It was just a few weeks ago that T-Mobile and MetroPCS announced plans to merge, setting off the usual lamentations about Sprint being left at the altar. Sprint has been barely holding its own in recent years and its merger with Nextel set the process back badly.

But Sprint and Softbank are saying that's all in the past now.

Sprint PCS  Oct. 15, 2012, 5 p.m.
Consumers rate Sprint PCS

"SoftBank’s cash contribution, deep expertise in the deployment of next-generation wireless networks and track record of success in taking share in mature markets from larger telecommunications competitors are expected to create a stronger, more competitive New Sprint that will deliver significant benefits to U.S. consumers," the companies said in a joint statement.

SoftBank Chairman and CEO, Masayoshi Son, who founded the company in 1983, said, “This transaction provides an excellent opportunity for SoftBank to leverage its expertise in smartphones and next-generation high speed networks, including LTE, to drive the mobile internet revolution in one of the world’s largest markets.

"Our track record of innovation, combined with Sprint’s strong brand and local leadership, provides a constructive beginning toward creating a more competitive American wireless market.”

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Best and Worst Halloween Candy for Kids' Teeth

Dentists offer tips for treats that won't cause as much tooth decay

A few years back there was a push to hand out tooth brushes, pennies and small toys at Halloween instead of candy. Needless to say, that didn't go over so ...

PhotoA few years back there was a push to hand out tooth brushes, pennies and small toys at Halloween instead of candy. Needless to say, that didn't go over so well with trick-or-treaters.

Still, some parents would like their children to come home with treats that are easier on teeth. Does any candy fit that description? The Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) says some candy is better in that regard.

While dentists would, in fact, prefer your children come home with a bag of tooth brushes and dental floss, they're realistic enough to know that's just not going to happen. They're just trying to limit the damage.

"Of course, dentists do not advocate that children eat large amounts of sugary treats, but it is that time of year, so we want to clarify for parents which treats are better for their kids' teeth and which ones may increase the risk of developing cavities," says AGD spokeswoman Cynthia Sherwood.

Worst choices

First, the very worst kind of candy for kids' teeth:

  • Chewy/sticky sweets, such as gummy candies, taffy and even dried fruit can be difficult for children and adults to resist -- and even more difficult to remove from teeth. "These candies are a serious source of tooth decay, particularly when they get stuck in the crevices between teeth, making it nearly impossible for saliva to wash them away," said Sherwood, who is a dentist.
  • Sour candies are highly acidic and can break down tooth enamel quickly. The good news: saliva slowly helps to restore the natural balance of the acid in the mouth. Sherwood recommends that patients wait 30 minutes to brush their teeth after consuming sour/acidic candies; otherwise, they will be brushing the acid onto more tooth surfaces and increasing the risk of enamel erosion.
  • Sugary snacks, including candy corn, cookies and cake, all contain high amounts of sugar, which can cause tooth decay.

Best choices

So if you stay away from those kinds of treats, what's left? Sherwood has three suggestions:

  • Sugar-free lollipops and hard candies stimulate saliva, which can help prevent dry mouth. "A dry mouth allows plaque to build up on teeth faster, leading to an increased risk of cavities," Sherwood said.
  • Sugar-free gum can actually prevent cavities as it not only dislodges food particles from between the teeth but also increases saliva -- which works to neutralize the acids of the mouth and prevent tooth decay.
  • Dark chocolate and its antioxidants, according to some studies, can be good for the heart and may even lower blood pressure.

"Parents should closely monitor their children's candy intake this Halloween -- and all year round -- and continue to promote good oral health habits," Sherwood said. "Kids also should be brushing their teeth twice a day for two minutes."

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Current Caller ID: An Inventive Way To Screen Your Telephone Calls

The ID isn't called "Current" for no reason, as it's tailored for today's busy moblie device user, says its creators

Remember the first time you experienced the benefit of having a caller ID?Do you recall the first time you saw a persons phone number flash on that ...

PhotoRemember the first time you experienced the benefit of having Caller ID?

Do you recall the first time you saw a person's phone number flash on that big bulky square box that was attached to your home telephone? Do you remember thinking, "this is just what I needed"?

At the time, Caller ID seemed to be a delicious taste of the future for consumers, and today, thinking about not having the ability to screen your  calls seems quite insane.

Also, most people don't just use their home phones to communicate with friends, family and associates, as mobile devices are the common way people choose to stay socially plugged-in. And using the caller ID feature is a big part of that process.

So the folks at White Pages have created what they call Current Caller ID that  not only allows you to see the phone number of the person calling you, but it also gives you other caller information -- including a person’s social media updates.

And according to the Director of Mobile Products at White Pages, Lori Roth, Current Caller ID allows one to better communicate with people, while also giving them other caller information they may find pertinent.

New Android app

Photo“Current is a new Android app that takes Caller ID beyond simply identifying a name,” she said in a statement. “So we set out to marry call and text ID with social status, local news and weather to create a single useful service that makes it easy for people to instantaneously stay up-to-date with the people they communicate with the most.”

“This approach allows us to move well beyond making Caller ID just about a name and a number and provide consumers timely, relevant information to keep on top of things in an information overloaded world,” said Roth.

As most know, phones aren’t used just for phoning nowadays, and checking things like social media updates equals the daily routine of placing a call in terms of repetitive usage.  

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs, Roth says Current Caller ID is the ideal app, as it’s perfectly shaped to handle the way devices are used today and makes it easier for the user to navigate through the digital world, which can  be cumbersome sometimes.

“Between Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networks, people are increasingly overwhelmed not only with hundreds of connections, but with thousands of updates,” she details. “Current helps you break through the clutter by providing social updates all in one place, when you need it the most — right when you are about to pick up the phone to call someone or as they are calling you. It is also the perfect conversation starter for friends, family and even business acquaintances.”

Different apps for this app

Roth also explains that people have been using Current Caller ID in a number of different ways so far.

And if you think about it, Current makes perfect sense as today’s consumer expects to have that wall of anonymity that's associated with digital exchange lowered -- so users are able to peek over it -- and see just who they’re communicating with.  

 “We have had nearly 1 million downloads since we launched in early August,” says Roth.

“The feedback has been tremendous with people using the app for a wide variety of use cases — everything from ensuring a Craigslist buyer is who they say they are (Caller ID verifies this), to a cheating girlfriend (an incoming call caught in the act!), to proof points that a needy girlfriend is indeed being paid attention to (infographics show time spent texting/calling one another)," she said.

As far as privacy concerns go, Roth says that Current Caller ID doesn’t release any social media information that the contact person doesn’t want viewable, so people still have the power to control what shows on the caller ID.

“We don’t see local information like weather and news as an invasion of privacy, as these things are readily available across any device with Internet access,” Roth affirms.

“As far as social information, we only surface updates for the people that you are connected to on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter. As a user, you will only be able to see information that the contact has allowed to be available to you or to the Current Caller ID App,” she says.

International use on the app could be next on White Pages creative plate, but first the company wants to nurture it, so it can not only grow in popularity — but provide a consistent level of quality and usefulness, says Roth.

“We are always looking to enhance our products and services, but for now are focused on making sure the existing product provides the best experience for our users,” she notes. “Some features that you could see down the road include optimization for international usage and further integration with additional social networks.”

Current Caller ID can be downloaded for free at Google Play.  

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Texas Students Forced To Wear Microchips To School

District officials say it's to ensure proper attendance, critics says it's about the cash

It’s been quite a while since I’ve wandered the hallways of a middle or high school, which means I’m currently in the dark about some of ...

PhotoIt’s been quite a while since I’ve wandered the hallways of a middle or high school, which means I’m currently in the dark about some of the methods used today.

Like what’s the general rule when it comes to students doing research papers?

We had to risk paper cuts on our fingers by thumbing through rows of index cards in library drawers, and today kids are able to Google any topic they would like to assist with research.

And cell phones -- how successful are teachers in competing with them for the student’s attention, especially with their ability to covertly text and phone each other?

Also, in a day when most things are done digitally, do students still have to carry paper hall passes to use the bathroom or go to another part of the school?   

Well, the answer to that last question has been answered by a Texas school district, as students will be made to carry microchips in ID cards so their whereabouts before and during school can be tracked by administrators.

The new tracking program will use a radio frequency identification system (RFID), and at least 100,000 students will tote chip imbedded ID badges in San Antonio, Houston and Austin. Apparently, the school districts' reason to use these microchip IDs is a two-pronged one.

Wanting to keep students totally accounted for is the first and obvious reason school officials went forward with the new tracking program, which began Oct 1.

But also, kids missing school and skipping class has been a steady problem in many states, and it hurts the amount of funding schools are able to get.

So, officials believe they can keep students at their desks, while also improving the districts' chances of getting heftier funding.

Critics object

It’s not hard to believe that critics of the student tracking system are completely up in arms, as it’s difficult for people not to react when they hear the word microchip.

Between the George Orwell fans of his 1984 book, Bible readers who have been anticipating a “mark of the beast” chip, or just parents who believe their children’s whereabouts shouldn’t be tracked by a computer system, it may be surprising to some that the new program actually saw the light of day.  

Previously, we ran a story about a Michigan school district’s use of something called ZPass, where students swipe a card when boarding the school bus.

Although ZPass also uses a tracking technology to tally students, it only tracks them when they’re on the school bus. But the students in Texas will be tracked all day -- whether in the hallways, during recess, in the locker room, while using the bathroom or any other place they go during the school day.

PhotoIf students don’t bring their ID badges to school each day, they’ll be unable to take out library books, use the card to get lunch, or be allowed to participate in school activities.

Officials believe the impact that microchip cards will have on attendance and safety, will soon be widely appreciated by many of those currently in opposition.  

“Parents expect that we always know where their children are, and this technology will help us do that,” said Pascual Gonzalez, district spokesman in an interview earlier this year. “This way we can see if a student is at the nurse’s office or elsewhere on campus.”

Health risks

PhotoMany groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, have expressed strong opposition to the RFID system, and say it not only could add an unnecessary amount of tension to students, but it could also be hazardous to their health.

“RFID systems emit electromagnetic radiation, and there are lingering questions about whether human health might be affected in environments where the reading devices are pervasive,” read an opposition paper that was signed by several privacy groups. “This concern and the dehumanizing effects of ubiquitous surveillance may place additional stress on students, parents and teachers.”

And privacy groups aren’t the only ones in opposition, as many students have rebelled against the tracking program by not bringing their badges to school. The IDs have to be worn on lanyards so they're visible, say officials.

Whether the Texas tracking program will go beyond the trial phase and spread to other parts of the U.S. is yet to be determined, but if the current times are able to predict the future, it’s a pretty safe bet that students and other people will continue to be tracked under the guise of safety and security.

And when school attendance is attached to school funding, it would be a challenge for districts not to incorporate an RFID tracking program, or some other invasive tactic to ensure students show up to class so the district gets its money from the state. Oh, and of course, the school districts want the students to get the benefit of being in class, right?

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Which Fast-Food Chains Have The Best Drive-Through Service?

Researchers tested, speed, accuracy, and friendliness. See who came out on top.

When it comes to getting a quick bite from a fast-food place, one always has to question whether to go inside and endure lines or simply pull around t...

PhotoWhen it comes to getting a quick bite from a fast-food place, one always has to question whether to go inside and endure lines or simply pull around to the drive-through. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is faster.

On one hand if you attempt a quick run inside, you’re often held up by that indecisive customer in front of you, who is having trouble deciding between the burger and the chicken sandwich.

But sometimes when you decide to stay in your car and use the drive-through, everyone else at the restaurant has the same idea, and the next thing you know, you’re in a snail-paced car line, which seems to only move once every five minutes.

And as you watch the car before you sit in front of the speaker to order food you wonder two things: Why is the person in that car so confused about deciding on a handful of menu options? And why is it when I use the drive-through it's always empty inside with no lines. 

Burger King Oct. 15, 2012, 4:36 p.m.
Consumers rate Burger King

Many of us have asked ourselves these questions when trying to get a quick meal. We also probably asked ourselves which establishments really provide the fastest drive through service?

And it’s not just the quickness either, I mean speedy service is only as good as the restaurant’s level of accuracy and friendliness, so in the areas of speed, order accuracy and being nice to the customer, which franchise scores the highest?

Burger King flubs

Well, researchers discovered when it comes to accuracy at the drive-through, Burger King scored the worst, getting orders correct only 83 percent of the time. Chick-fil-A had the highest level of accuracy with 92.4 percent, and McDonald’s got its orders right 90.9 percent of the time.

The study also included other fast-food restaurants' level of accuracy including Taco Bell (91.2 percent) and Wendy’s (89.9) percent.

What’s interesting to see is just how far these places are from actually having 100 percent accuracy levels. Obviously, it’s almost impossible to get each and every order correct, but the fact that these establishments aren’t somewhere in at least the 95 to 98 percentile range may be surprising to some. 

There’s nothing more frustrating than getting your food and realizing the fries are missing. “Why didn’t I check the bag,” you always ask yourself.

Bucket of biscuits

I even heard of a lady ordering a family-sized meal of KFC at a drive-through, only to find nothing but a bucket full of biscuits. No chicken, no sides, just biscuits -- talk about a dinner-time nightmare.

When it comes to getting you through the drive-through the quickest, Wendy’s took the crown with an average speed of 129.75 seconds from when a customer places their order, to when they receive their food.

PhotoWendy’s Senior Vice President of Communications Denny Lynch says workers making a stronger effort to anticipate upcoming orders and specialty orders is what makes Wendy’s able to provide extremely fast service.

“You want a chicken sandwich, and you want mustard, pickle, onion on it? Ok, I get the chicken fillet, the mustard, the pickle, and onion, put it on a bun, wrap it up, and you’ve got it,” said Lynch.

“You want a smoothie? Ok, I’ve got to get the ingredients, I’ve got to portion out the ingredients, I’ve got to put it into a blender and smooth it. Because of that, you put the stress on the speed of service at the pick-up window. I think that has influenced the total speed of service," he said.

Industry experts say drive-through times are also getting faster, because of the growing use of pre-sell boards at many fast-food locations. You’ve probably seen these boards before. They’re the ones that only have the pictures of food items, so by the time you get to the speaker; you already know what you want.

 McDonalds  Oct. 15, 2012, 4:38 p.m.
Consumers rate McDonalds

“The benchmark group is primarily national chains, but I would expect to see more of a dramatic impact [with the use of pre-sell boards] if you were a regional player and you’re looking to expand the geography where you operate," said Brian Baker, president of the research firm Insula.

“When you’re going into new markets, I think they would be even more important, that you give people the opportunity to familiarize themselves with your menu before they get to the order point,” he said.

Both Chik-fil-A and McDonald’s scored low in the speed category, both averaging more than five cars on their drive-through lines. Burger King, Taco Bell, Krystal and Bojangle’s scored much better, all averaging just two cars in drive-through lines.

Not too friendly

The research also shows that all the restaurants did poorly when it came to courtesy and friendliness, as only 57.2 percent of drive-through workers used the word “please,”  85.9 percent of employees used the word “thank you,” and only 37.8 percent of drive through window workers were considered “very friendly.”

“Even with pleasant demeanor, I’m thinking, why would that not be 100 percent,” said Baker. “Ok, so maybe 98 percent because everybody has a bad day, but it just seems like a no-brainer to me. I’m still scratching my head on that.”

The drive-through study is published in the October edition of QSR Magazine.

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Study Finds Risks of Substance Abuse After Weight-Loss Surgery

Patients turn to alcohol, drugs and tobacco as addictive personality resurfaces

Weight loss surgery can definitely take the weight off but a new study finds that patients who have the surgery are at risk of turning to drugs, alcohol an...

PhotoWeight loss surgery can definitely take the weight off but a new study finds that patients who have the surgery are at risk of turning to drugs, alcohol and tobacco to satisfy their urges.

In particular, the study found that patients who undergo laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery appear to be at increased risk for alcohol use following surgery, according to a report published Online First by Archives of Surgery, a JAMA Network publication.

“Studies have shown that drugs, alcohol, and food trigger similar responses in the brain and that bariatric surgery candidates whose condition has been diagnosed as binge-eating disorder (BED) display addictive personalities similar to individuals addicted to substances,” the authors write. “Therefore, alcohol and drugs (including nicotine) are likely to substitute for overeating following WLS [weight loss surgery.]”

Alexis Conason, Psy.D., of New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center  and colleagues studied questionnaire responses from 155 patients (132 women) who underwent weight loss surgery.

Overall, the authors found that patients reported an immediate decrease in how often they abused substances after surgery but by 24 months after surgery, they reported a significant increase in their use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Additionally, patients who underwent laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery (LRYGB) reported a significant increase in the frequency of alcohol use from the time before surgery to 24 months after surgery. 

“Based on the present study, undergoing RYGB surgery appears to increase the risk for alcohol use following WLS,” the authors conclude. “Risks and benefits should be weighted when recommending LRYGB surgery to patients who may be at increased risk of developing problems with alcohol after WLS, such as those with a personal or family history of alcohol abuse or dependence.”

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ADHD Children Have Problems as Adults, Study Finds

With 5% of the population affected, ADHD has a huge effect on society and the economy

It's estimated that 5% of children are afflicted with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They have a tough time as kids and a new stuy f...

PhotoIt's estimated that 5% of children are afflicted with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They have a tough time as kids and a new stuy finds the results linger throughout their lives.

The 33-year study found that male adults who had been diagnosed with ADHD as children had significantly worse educational, occupational, economic and social outcomes compared to men without childhood ADHD, according to a report published Online First by Archives of General Psychiatry, a JAMA Network publication.

“On average, [adult men who had ADHD as children] had 2½ fewer years of schooling than comparison participants … 31.1% did not complete high school (vs. 4.4% of comparison participants) and hardly any (3.7%) had higher degrees (whereas 29.4% of comparison participants did)," the authors of the study noted.

Similarly, the former ADHD patients "had significantly lower occupational attainment levels,” the authors note. While most (83.7%) were holding jobs, their median salary was $40,000 less than that of their more fortunate peers, a comparison the researchers called "striking."

Rachel G. Klein, Ph.D., of the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York and colleagues conducted the study, which included 135 men who had ADHD as children and 136 who did not.

The average age of the men in the study was 41. The average age at which they had been diagnosed with ADHD was 8.

“The multiple disadvantages predicted by childhood ADHD well into adulthood began in adolescence, without increased onsets of new disorders after 20 years of age. Findings highlight the importance of extended monitoring and treatment of children with ADHD,” the study concludes.

Other problems

Economic and social problems were not the only trouble the former ADHD patients encountered.

The men who were diagnosed with ADHD in childhood also had more divorces (currently divorced, 9.6% vs. 2.9%, and ever been divorced 31.1% vs. 11.8%); and higher rates of ongoing ADHD (22.2% vs. 5.1%, the authors suspect the comparison participants’ ADHD symptoms might have emerged during adulthood), antisocial personality disorder (ASPD, 16.3% vs. 0%) and substance use disorders (SUDs, 14.1% vs. 5.1%), according to the results.

During their lifetime, the men who were diagnosed with ADHD in childhood (the so-called "probands") also had significantly more ASPD and SUDs but not mood or anxiety disorders and more psychiatric hospitalizations and incarcerations than comparison participants. And relative to the comparison group, psychiatric disorders with onsets at 21 years of age or older were not significantly elevated in the probands, the study results indicate.

The authors note the design of their study precludes generalizing the results to women and all ethnic and social groups because the probands were white men of average intelligence who were referred to a clinic because of combined-type ADHD.

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Settlement Proposed in Electronic Arts Football Game Lawsuit

Consumers who bought Madden NFL, NCAA Football or Arena Football Xbox games affected

 If you bought a new copy of an Electronic Arts' Madden NFL, NCAA Football, or Arena Football videogame for Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, P...

 If you bought a new copy of an Electronic Arts' Madden NFL, NCAA Football, or Arena Football videogame for Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, GameCube, PC, or Wii, with a release date of January 1, 2005 to June 21, 2012, you may be covered by the proposed settlement to a class action lawsuit.

EA Sports Oct. 14, 2012, 9:39 p.m.
Consumers rate EA Sports

A proposed settlement has been reached in a class action alleging that Electronic Arts overcharged consumers for some football videogames.  Electronic Arts denies any liability and all allegations of misconduct, including that it overcharged consumers.

The settlement must still be approved by the U.S. District Court in Oakland. A hearing has been for Feb 7, 2013, according to Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, the law firm representing consumers.

EA denies it

The lawsuit claims that Electronic Arts violated federal and California antitrust laws, as well as California consumer protection laws, by signing exclusive licensing agreements with the NCAA, NFL and other organizations. Electronic Arts denies that there is a relevant market limited to "interactive football videogames," and denies that it ever charged inflated prices for its videogames.

You are a member of the Settlement Class if you are in the United States and bought a new copy of an Electronic Arts' Madden NFLNCAA Football, or Arena Football videogame for Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, GameCube, PC, or Wii, with a release date of January 1, 2005 to  June 21, 2012.

The proposed settlement provides that Electronic Arts will pay $27 million into a fund that will include money for class members after deducting lawyers fees and other costs.

For more information, or to file your claim online, please visit the case website, www.easportslitigation.com.

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Baby Strangled on Baby Monitor, Suit Charges

Parents say Angelcare failed to warn against the danger

- A year-old girl strangled to death on the cord of a baby monitor her parents bought at Babies R Us, the mom and dad say in a sad complaint.  &n...

PhotoA California couple charges that their one-year-old daughter strangled on the cord of a baby monitor they bought at Babies R Us.

Traci and Steven Porretta said they had been using an Angelcare AC401-2P monitor to protect their twin daughters from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. They say they followed the instructions provided in the owner's manual and installed the device as instructed.

But on Nov. 20, 2011, Traci Porretta entered the girls' bedroom and found Vincenza Marie in her crib with the monitor cord wrapped around her neck.

Babies R Us Oct. 14, 2012, 8:41 p.m.
Consumers rate Babies R Us

The Porrettas rushed Vincenza to the emergency room, where she was pronounced dead. 

"Visible ligature marks from the cord of the subject monitor were noted around decedent Vincenza's neck," the complaint states, according to Courthouse News Service.

No warning

The parents say the Angelcare monitor has many defects, including no warning system to alert parents if their baby is playing with the cord, and a cord design "which allowed it to easily become entangled, constricted and tightened around the bodies and persons of the infants it was designed to protect."
They claim Angelcare knew about these problems but failed to fix them. And they claim that the company has known since 1981 that babies can die from ligature strangulation, but did not put warnings about it on the monitor's packaging.

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Five Steps to a More Financially Secure Retirement

A balanced portfolio and reduced spending may provide the edge you need

Lots of baby boomers are nervous about retirement. The Great Recession took a heavy toll on many investments and former financial goals don't seem as attai...

PhotoLots of baby boomers are nervous about retirement. The Great Recession took a heavy toll on many investments and former financial goals don't seem as attainable in some cases.

Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate for the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) Board of Standards, says retirees and prospective retirees need a plan to spend their savings wisely while maintaining assets that grow and generate income.

"Today, many Americans are on their own when it comes to saving -- and then spending -- their retirement income," Blayney said. "The majority of Americans will have to learn how to generate income using assets and investments they themselves have set aside in their retirement plans."

That means retirees need to create a financial plan that continues to produce income throughout their retirement. It's what Blayney calls "creating your own paycheck."

There are other steps she recommends to help establish a retirement that will be financially secure.

Timing is everything

The point when you start taking income from your retirement account can make a huge difference. Withdrawals from a portfolio during a bad investment market may diminish the sustainability of those savings by several years. In cases of bear markets, those able to delay retirement, and continue earning income rather than consuming assets, are in a much better position to avoid running out of money during their lifetimes.

Conservative can be costly

Being overly safe, investing only in bonds or annuities, can end up hurting you in the long run. For most retirees, a healthy allocation to investments that will grow over time, rather than those that promise regular income, will pay off. Dividend stocks are good, but must be closely monitored and portfolios adjusted. Bonds are more predictable but not without risk. As a balance, investing in equities or other assets that are likely to increase in value can provide added security. According to Blayney, it's simplistic to think that investments that pay interest or dividends are safe, whereas growth stocks are not.

Finding the right withdrawal rate

Generally speaking, there is a consensus that a four percent annual withdrawal rate -- defined as the highest yearly payout from an investment portfolio that will not deplete the portfolio over a given period -- is a reasonable payout over the life expectancy of most retirees. However, retirees should adjust this rate in certain situations. When an investment portfolio is doing well, or when there are large expenses, perhaps for medical costs, a higher rate may be warranted or necessary.

Don't be afraid to spend capital from a retirement portfolio. Traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and self-employed plans are structured, under the tax laws, to be depleted over our lifetimes. Retirees are penalized if they fail to take principal from these accounts at a certain age. Many retirees find the prospect of spending down these accounts very upsetting, when, in fact, doing so under the guidance of a CFP professional can result in a far more comfortable and secure retirement.

Understand your tax obligations

Most retirement funds are tax deferred, so that you don't start paying taxes until you withdraw money. Tax rates help determine acceptable savings withdrawals, and utilizing both taxable and tax-deferred accounts appropriately can help control the amount of taxes owed in any given year. Withdrawing from these two types of accounts can be critical to sustaining a retirement portfolio.

Cut expenses

This may be one of the more overlooked aspects of a successful retirement. If you can downsize so that you don't require as much money each month, you don't need as much retirement income. The best place to save is probably with housing. If you are still making a mortgage payment, for example, consider taking your equity and moving to a smaller home -- preferably one you can purchase for cash. If you are considering the purchase of a condo, don't forget that most condos have pretty steep monthly homeowners association dues.

According to Blayney, spending matters more than investments. She notes the amount of fixed income in a portfolio could vary from approximately 35 to 65 percent without significantly changing sustainable withdrawal rates. This suggests retirees should focus primarily on expense management in retirement as the most effective way to ensure that their resources will last.

"Taxes, timing and spending are what matters most in creating income in retirement," says Blayney.

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Employee Cooked to Death at Bumble Bee Plant

California officials investigating "horrendous tragedy"

A worker at a Bumble Bee seafood plant was cooked to death in a large industrial oven last week. Jose Melena, 62, had worked at the Sa