Current Events in November 2012

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    Police departments want to use drones for routine surveillance

    As more and more entities apply for drone use in the U.S., some say privacy will be threatened

    The next time you look upward to do a little sky gazing, you may see something other than birds, planes and fluffy clouds.

    That's because some in Congress are proposing that military drones be used in the United States for things like patroling the border, rescue and recovery missions and  police surveillance.

    A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is used during military combat and controlled by pilots on the ground.

    Obviously, drones are much safer compared to humans being used for exploring enemy territory, and that has been proven in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But when it comes to entities like local police departments using drones for routine surveillance missions, some are split on whether it invades the privacy of everyday citizens who aren’t committing any crimes at all.

    It has been reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been tweaking some of its guidelines to make it easier for non-military entities to use drones in domestic surveillance missions.

    Big bucks

    While many people believe UAVs are good for police departments and border patrols to have, others point to the fact that money is the primary motivator in normalizing drone use the United States.

    Many people believe that since UAVs aren’t currently used on a routine basis by law enforcement, there’s still a big opportunity for companies that make the aerial vehicles to get in on the ground floor of  the industry and make huge amounts of money.

    According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Customs and Border Protection agency has been using UAVs peridically since 2005. The report also indicates that some states have already been granted permission to use UAVs.

    The Miami police department, for example, has already been doing test runs of its surveillance aircraft since 2011, after receiving FAA authorization.

    Colorado received permission from the airway regulators to use its drone called the Dragonflyer anywhere in the United States, which was the biggest grant of access for a police department at that time.

    How invasive?

    The ACLU and other privacy groups have also expressed concern about just how technologically advanced todays aerial surveillance systems are, and as UAVs continue to be developed, it will be hard for the average citizen to tell just how invasive the aircrafts can really be.

    It has been reported that the military is currently developing surveillance cameras that can see through walls, buildings and houses, and those same camera functions can and will be placed in drones, says the ACLU.

    The report also points to aerial surveillance vehicles having night vision, powerful zooming capabilities and the ability to record any footage it captures.

    Amie Stepanovich, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy group based in Washington D.C., told the Huffington Post thatdrones are so advanced nowadays, they have the potential of disrupting the privacy of law-abiding U.S. residents--which sort of defeats the purpose of law enforcement making the country a better and safer place to live.

    “There are contracts between the Department of Defense and companies that are developing facial recognition technology in order to put that technology on drones and they talked about identifying dissonance in crowds,” she said.

    “These contracts are talking about not only being able to identify who you are, but collecting the information when you’re engaging in this activity in the United States.”

    Safer than copters

    Those who support drones being used in the U.S. make the point that drones are safer than helicopters for aerial searches. Also, they're far less expensive and could dramatically lower the typical cost of tracking  down a criminal--and because of these advantages, the FAA says there will be about 30,000 drones in U.S. skies by 2033.

    Although full permission hasn’t been granted by the FAA for drone use in the states, UAV companies and Congressional supporters continue to push for legislation so drone use can be a standard line of defense by the year 2015.

    ACLU staffer Jay Stanley believes that harsh regulations should be put in place to make sure drones aren’t being disruptive to everyday life and removing people’s right to privacy.

    “Based on current trends, technology development, law enforcement interest, political and industry pressure, and the lack of legal safeguards, it is clear that drones pose a looming threat to Americans’ privacy,” he said.

    Some states like Texas have suggested that putting defense weapons like tear gas or rubber pellets in drones can add a higher level of effectiveness.

    “Those are things that law enforcement utilizes day in and day out,” said Randy McDaniel, chief deputy of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, in a published interview. “And in certain situation it might be advantageous to have this type of system on the UAV.”

    Although there haven’t been any reports about armed drones being used in domestic searches yet, McDaniel’s statement shows just how drones can be potentially used in the United States.

    The next time you look upward to do a little sky gazing, you may see something other than birds, planes and fluffy clouds.That's because some in congress...

    Who's watching what e-books you read?

    Your reading habits are a matter of great interest to Amazon, Google, BN, et al

    When you were a child, your parents and teachers kept track of what you read. They encouraged you to read more things you didn't want to read and fewer things you did want to read. And they probably looked over your shoulder and rifled through your backpack ... just to be sure.

    Now that you're a grown-up, you can read whatever you want. But that doesn't mean no one is looking over your shoulder or rummaging through your library. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Each year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a privacy group, studies the  tracking and data-sharing practices of major e-book distributors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Google.  It's not an easy task, as each company has multiple license agreements, privacy policies and other legalese-encumbered documents that must be found and deciphered.

    As in years past, EFF this year finds the distributors' policies "frustratingly vague and long-winded" but it's pretty easy to sum up the findings: you have a lot less privacy reading e-books than reading "real" books you find in a library or bookstore.

    A free country

    You may think this doesn't matter, and perhaps it doesn't. If your reading consists largely of how-to books, maybe you don't care if you wind up on all kinds of lists that mark you as someone who might be in the market for a box saw or a slow cooker.

    If, on the other hand, you are a gun enthusiast or a student of muslim culture or--let's say--one who enjoys reading slightly salacious fiction, you may not want this information shared with anyone and everyone.

    It's a free country, as they say, and most of us are accustomed to thinking that, thanks to those inalienable rights and all that, we can say, think and read just about anything we want without worrying very much about what others think. It's a little hard to change this thinking since it's what we grew up with and still enjoy in many aspects of everyday life.

    You can, after all, walk into any bookstore that has somehow managed to stay in business, pay cash for any book you want and walk out without anyone knowing what you have purchased or looked at. Libraries are almost as secure, as librarians are rabid, in their own mild way, about protecting their patrons' privacy.

    Opaque. Unclear too

    Ah, but browse for a book on Google and it will log your IP address and, if you are logged into your Google account, will associate the search with your account, EFF reports in its annual round-up of bookseller spying practices

    Or go traipsing through the virtual stacks at Amazon and it will--as Amazon so melodiously puts it--log data "on products viewed and/or searched for."  As we all know, Amazon will then immediately begin making bone-headed suggestions based on superficial characteristics of your recent searches. You know, novels about one-armed detectives in Oklahoma.

    Barnes & Noble's policies are even more opaque. It "probably" does not record searches made on the Nook and does not say if it records searches made by logged-in customers, EFF found. 

    Nearly all the booksellers surveyed by EFF were unclear about what they do without browing data they acquire from other sources. 

    Other sources? Oh, you know, those consumer profilers who follow your every step on the Web and add it to all the other information they have on you. 

    Maybe none of this matters to you. After all, 1 in 5 of us already have e-books and probably the rest of us soon will have. You don't have to be a big reader to find yourself with an e-reader--you're more likely to get a Kindle or a Nook than a necktie this holiday season, so while sipping egg nog around the fire, you might want to meditate on your privacy policy and see how it meshes with the privacy policies of the Amazons and Googles of the world.

    It might be enough to send you dashing to the library when it opens on Dec. 26.   

    Want to know more? See EFF's 2012 Reader Privacy Chart here

    When you were a child, your parents and teachers kept track of what you read. They probably encouraged you to read more things you didn't want to read and ...

    Fire safety laws lead to toxic chemical exposure

    Study: California law results in consumers nationwide being exposed to harmful chemicals

    No doubt California meant well when it enacted fire safety laws that require the use of fire retardant chemicals in foam cushions but the end result is that consumers nationwide face potential harm from the chemicals, a pair of studies finds.

    The first study found potentially harmful chemicals in 85 percent of foam cushion samples collected from couches in 102 homes, including chlorinated Tris – a fire retardant known to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

    The researchers, led by Duke University’s Heather Stapleton and UC Berkeley’s Arlene Blum, found that the samples contained several other fire retardants that can cause cancer, hormone disruption or nervous system damage, laboratory studies indicate.

    “Hard to believe, 35 years after our research contributed to removing chlorinated Tris from children’s sleepwear, our current study suggests that more than a third of American couches contain the same toxic flame retardant,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, co-author of the study.“And sadly enough, many Americans could now have increased cancer risks from the chlorinated Tris in their furniture.”

    Regulations enacted by California often wind up affecting consumers nationwide. Because California is such a large part of the U.S. market, many manufacturers simply design their product to meet California's regulations rather than building two separate versions of the same thing.

    In the dust

    The second study, by researchers at the Silent Spring Institute in Boston, found the chemical Tris, along with 40 other fire retardant chemicals, in household dust collected from many California homes. In addition to finding fire retardants that are currently being applied to couches, kids’ products and electronics, this study also detected several classes of chemicals that were taken out of production in the 1970s and 2000s because of toxicity fears – but that still linger in the dust of people’s homes.

    “These dangerous chemicals are turning up everywhere largely because of a California regulation that requires that millions of pounds of toxic fire retardants be added to foam furniture, even though there is absolutely no evidence that they provide meaningful fire protection,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “They may even make fires more dangerous for first responders.”

    Previous research has shown that the fire retardants in foam products break down and contaminate household dust with microscopic particles that can stick to kids’ hands, toys and other items. 

    Widespread contamination

    Studies have shown that the bodies of nearly all Americans tested have measurable levels of one type of fire retardant known as PBDE. In 2008, EWG found that children have on average three times higher concentrationsof PBDE in their bodies than their mothers do, likely from household products. And recent studies have found that babies with the highest exposures to PBDEs in the womb had measureable deficits in learning and development over the first four years of life.

    “It is alarming to know the couch I’ve owned for seven years, which my children and grandchild have sat on, played on, and grown up on, is shedding harmful chemicals," said Kathy Curtis, LPN, and National Coordinator of the Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety. "It’s especially maddening given these chemicals don’t provide any meaningful fire safety benefit in regards to the current regulations.” 

    In response to mounting pressure, Israel Chemicals Ltd., the sole manufacturer of one of the chlorinated Tris chemicals (TDCPP), which was found in both studies, recently announced it will stop selling TDCPP for consumer products in January of next year.

    No doubt California meant well when it enacted fire safety laws that require the use of fire retardant chemicals in foam cushions but the end result is tha...

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      Tobacco companies must put more graphic warnings on cigarette packs

      It's been a six-year battle, but consumers could finally be seeing graphic warnings on cig boxes

      I remember the first few times I bummed around Europe as a wannabe bohemian type in my twenties, and noticed how different things were from the United States.

      From the food to the people, from public transportation to the type of night life--places like Germany, England and Holland for example, are always nice places to visit when you want to get an entirely different scene.

      Probably one of the first differences I noticed during those trips was how looser the social scene seemed to be. People drank and smoked freely with little judgment or dirty looks, and both the health enthusiast and the tobacco enthusiast seemed to coexist quite harmoniously.

      But although there seemed to be less judgment towards smokers in Europe, I also noticed how different some of the cigarette packaging was. 

      The cartons showed photos of what a lung looks like after years of smoking, or had the words “Smoking Kills” in big bold black letters across the box. It really caught my attention.

      Smoking kills

      Well, U.S. consumers will now be seeing similar warnings on cigarette cartons, as a judge just ruled that tobacco companies have to come clean about how harmful cigarettes truly are.

      This concludes a six-year battle between U.S. courts and cigarette makers after a judge ordered companies to put graphic warnings on cigarette boxes that covered at least 50 percent of the carton, just like cigarettes sold in Europe.

      Judge Gladys Kessler, who presided over this case since 2006, said tobacco companies have done an extremely poor job of reminding people what the effects of smoking really are, while also doing a wonderful job of marketing cigarettes like they're not highly addictive.

      Admit their lies

      The ruling also says that companies must let the public know that deceptive advertising was used to lure them in, so consumers should soon see new ads from cigarette makers that suggest they've been dishonest.

      But aside from the new ads that people will possibly see, having cigarette boxes pop up with graphic labels will definitely be a big visual change for consumers. Also, the new packaging could have an even bigger impact on future smokers, as younger generations will only know of cigarette cartons that contain such warnings.

      Unless tobacco companies appeal the judge’s decision, cigarette cartons will show warnings like, “Smoking kills on average 1,200 Americans everyday,” “Nicotine is the addictive drug in tobacco,” “When you smoke, the nicotine actually changes the brain, that’s why quitting is so hard” and “Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.”

      The warnings would be a much more specific statement than the warnings that are currently placed at the bottom of cartons.

      In a previous appeal, tobacco companies said that such warnings violated their free speech. 

      But whatever the main reason was for cigarette companies putting up such a  fight in court, Kessler said these warnings have to be put on boxes because they're factual, and for that reason alone consumers should be constantly reminded.

      “By ensuring that consumers know that [cigarette makers] have misled the public in the past on the issue of secondhand smoke in addition to putting forth the fact that a scientific consensus on this subject exists, defendants will be less likely to attempt to argue in the future that such a consensus does not exist,” Kessler said.

      Will it work?

      But will these kinds of warnings really encourage people to stop smoking or not start smoking at all, or will the warnings have the same impact as the surgeon general warnings, which seems to be none?

      In a recent study conducted by the University of South Carolina, researchers found that warnings placed on cigarette cartons can have a significant impact on consumers, namely graphic images that show what smoking cigarettes over long periods can actually do.

      James Thrasher, professor at the university and lead author of the study, said photos register much better with consumers, compared to warnings that are just in writing.

      “We found the more graphic the image, the more credible, relevant and effective smokers saw the warning,” he said. “Our study suggests that more graphic warnings would have a bigger impact on smoking than text warnings.”

      “Smoking is highly concentrated among people with low levels of education and low income, and those groups are the ones that have the weakest response to text warnings," added Thrasher. "With pictures, you can increase their understanding of the risks of smoking in a way you can’t with text."

      According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45.3 million people are cigarette smokers in the United States, which equates to 19.3 percent of all adults. In addition, 21.5 percent of those smokers are men and 17.3 percent are women.

      Cigarettes are also the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths, says the CDC.

      I remember the first few times I bummed around Europe as a want-to-be bohemian type in my twenties, and noticed how different things were from the United S...

      Study: Heavy smokers cut back when the price goes up

      Price hikes don't seem to affect light smokers as much

      When governments hike taxes on cigarettes they usually have two goals: they want to raise some revenue but they also want to discourage smoking by making it more expensive. A new study suggests that strategy is working -- at least partially.

      More expensive cigarettes may not affect how much light smokers light up but researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis say heavy smokers cut back. And that's something of a surprise.

      “Most clinicians and researchers thought these very heavy smokers would be the most resistant to price increases,” says first author Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, PhD. “Many believed this group was destined to continue smoking heavily forever, but our study points out that, in fact, change can occur. And that’s very good news.”

      Major study

      The research team analyzed a subset of data from a large study documenting the prevalence of alcohol and drug use and associated psychiatric and medical conditions. The study identified 7,068 smokers and asked them how much they smoked. Three years later, researchers went back and asked the smokers the same question.

      “On average, everyone was smoking a little less,” said Cavazos-Rehg. “But when we factored in price changes from tax increases, we found that the heaviest smokers responded to price increases by cutting back the most.”

      At first, the average smoker in the study was smoking 16 cigarettes per day. Three years later the number of daily smokes had dropped to 14.

      What's behind the decline? During the three years between the surveys, the price for a pack of cigarettes increased from an average of $3.96 in 2001 to $4.41 in 2004. Most of the increase was due to hikes in state taxes.

      Where price didn't matter so much

      Among those who smoked less, rising prices had less of an impact. Individuals smoking 20 cigarettes, or about one pack per day, would have been expected to cut back by two cigarettes without a price increase, but in response to a 35 percent increase in price, they only reduced their smoking by three cigarettes a day.

      In response to the higher taxes, heavy smokers cut back by an average of 35 percent. Lighter smokers smoked about 15 percent fewer cigarettes.

      Other possible factors?

      Could other factors be responsible for the decline? The researchers said they look for them but didn't find any.

      “Other research has shown, for example, that smoke-free indoor air policies can reduce the number of cigarettes that people smoke,” said Cavazos-Rehg. “But our study didn’t find that. There weren’t a lot of changes in indoor smoking policies during the time period in which these surveys were conducted. So we can’t say those policies don’t help reduce smoking. It’s just that we didn’t find they had a big impact in our results.”

      When governments hike taxes on cigarettes they usually have two goals: they want to raise some revenue but they also want to discourage smoking by making i...

      Dangerous toys seized at U.S. ports of entry

      Federal agencies keep millions of unsafe products out of the hands of kids

      Showcasing their effort to keep families safe during this holiday toy shopping season, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Chairman Inez Tenenbaum and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar have announced that more than two million units of dangerous toys and children's products were seized in 2012 and were prevented from reaching the hands of children.

      Over the past four years, the two agencies have stopped more than 8.5 million units of about 2,400 different toys and children's products due to safety hazards or the failure to meet federal safety standards. The seizures keep the products off store shelves and out of consumer's homes.

      "Proactive port surveillance, strong toy standards, and educational efforts create a safer holiday toy shopping experience for consumers by keeping dangerous products off store shelves," said Chairman Tenenbaum. "Ultimately our goal is to protect our most vulnerable population -- kids -- and keep them safe this holiday season."

      "Together with CPSC, we have intercepted record amounts of unsafe products," said Deputy Commissioner Aguilar. "We are here to raise consumers' awareness about the very real danger of unsafe products and urge consumers to be vigilant when buying toys and children's products this holiday season."

      Toy recalls

      In fiscal year 2012, CPSC recalled 38 toys -- three of which involved a lead violation. Toy recalls continued to decline since 2008. There were 172 recalls in fiscal year 2008, 50 recalls in fiscal year 2009, 46 toy recalls in fiscal year 2010, and 34 recalls in 2011. Most toy recalls in 2012 were due to small parts, choking hazards or sharp points.

      Toy-related death reports to CPSC involving children younger than 15-years-old decreased to 13 in 2011 from 19 fatalities in 2010 and 17 reported in 2009. The majority of these toy-related fatalities were attributed to asphyxiation, choking or drowning. These included children choking on balloons, drowning after trying to retrieve a toy from a swimming pool, or being found with tricycles in swimming pools.

      A new CPSC report  estimates 193,200 toy-related, emergency department-treated injuries to children younger than 15 years of age occurred in 2011. Many of the incidents were associated with, but not necessarily caused by, a toy. For children younger than 15-years-old, non-motorized scooters continued to be the category of toys associated with the most injuries. Frequently, these injuries involved lacerations, contusions, and abrasions to the child's face and head.

      Holiday safety

      Here are some safety tips that consumers should keep in mind this holiday season:

      • Balloons -- Children can choke or suffocate on deflated or broken balloons. Keep deflated balloons away from children younger than 8-years-old. Discard broken balloons immediately.
      • Small balls and other toys with small parts -- For children younger than age 3, avoid toys with small parts, which can cause choking.
      • Scooters and other riding toys -- Riding toys, skateboards, and in-line skates go fast, and falls could be deadly. Helmets and safety gear should be worn properly at all times, and they should be sized to fit.
      • Magnets -- High powered magnet sets are dangerous and should be kept away from children under 14. Building & play sets with small magnets should also be kept away from small children.

      Once gifts are open:

      • Immediately discard plastic wrapping or other toy packaging before they become dangerous play things.
      • Keep toys appropriate for older children away from younger siblings.

      Battery charging should be supervised by adults. Chargers and adapters can pose thermal burn hazards to young children. Pay attention to instructions and warnings on battery chargers. Some chargers lack any mechanism to prevent overcharging.

      Showcasing their effort to keep families safe during this holiday toy shopping season, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Chairman Inez Tenenb...

      States challenge feds over new mortgage fees

      States that have passed homeowner protections feel they are being targeted

      In the last couple of years Illinois and four other states enacted new consumer safeguards for homeowners who face foreclosure. Basically, it makes it harder to foreclose.

      The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, responded by imposing an additional fee on mortgages originated in those states. The reasoning was this: if it's harder to foreclosure it will be more costly too. So all homeowners will bear a share of that cost.

      Not so fast, says Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who championed that foreclosure protection before the Illinois legislature.

      In a letter to Edward J. DeMarco, the acting director of FHFA, Madigan and her counterparts in New York and Connecticut said the agency’s proposal targets higher fees on borrowers who live in Illinois and four other states that have enacted critical legal protections to safeguard homeowners in foreclosure.

      The new mortgage fee applies to loans to borrowers living in Illinois, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey and New York. The fees appear to be a direct response to those states enacting the new homeowner protections.

      'Lacks evidence'

      Madigan and the other attorneys general said FHFA’s proposal lacks evidence showing that statutory consumer protections are the main factors of higher foreclosure costs for Fannie and Freddie. In fact, she says the proposal ignores a known driver of higher foreclosure costs -- widespread mortgage servicer misconduct during the foreclosure process, as demonstrated by the $25 billion national settlement reached earlier this year with the nation’s five largest servicers.

      Ultimately, Madigan said the proposal amounts to a thinly disguised threat to compel the states to accept higher costs for borrowers in their states or dismantle important legal protections altogether.

      “If FHFA’s proposal is adopted, Illinois homeowners will inevitably pay a steep price -- through higher interest rates or diminished legal protections for borrowers,” Madigan said. “Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for homeowners.”

      In August, Illinois recorded the nation's highest level of foreclosure activity.

      In the last couple of years Illinois and four other states enacted new consumer safeguards for homeowners who face foreclosure. Basically, it makes it hard...

      Bed bug control raises health concerns

      Misapplication can cause serious health problems -- even death

      We've all heard the old saying, “sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite.” Well, apparently there's something worse than the bites.

      The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are alerting the public to an emerging national concern regarding misuse of pesticides to treat infestations of bed bugs and other insects indoors.

      Some pesticides are being applied indoors even though they are approved only for outdoor use. Even pesticides that are approved for indoor use can cause harm if over-applied or not used as instructed on the product label.

      Bugged by bed bugs

      There has been a dramatic increase in the number of bed bug-related inquiries received by the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) over the past several years, with many involving incidents of pesticide exposure, spills, or misapplications.

      From January 2006-December 2010, NPIC reported 169 calls to its hotline where residents, homeowners or pesticide applicators sprayed pesticides indoors to treat bedbugs. These cases involved pesticides that were misapplied, not intended for indoor use, or legally banned from use. Of those, 129 resulted in mild or serious health effects (including one death) for persons living in affected residences.

      Caution urged

      ATSDR warns that outdoor pesticides should not be used indoors under any circumstances. Homeowners and applicators should always carefully read the product label to make sure that:

      • it has an EPA registration number
      • it is intended for indoor use
      • it is effective against bed bugs (the label should say it is meant to be used to treat your home for bed bugs) and
      • you know how to mix the product properly (if a concentrate) and where and how to apply it safely within the home.

      Consumers should also be aware of recent cases where licensed and unlicensed pest control applicators illegally sprayed outdoor pesticides indoors to control bed bugs. In some cases, these pesticides were found at levels that harmed or could have harmed people’s health. In some cases, residents were relocated until their homes could be decontaminated.

      We've all heard the old saying, “sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite.” Well, apparently there's something worse than the bites. The Agency for Toxic ...

      Mortgage modifications may soon be taxed

      Attorneys general appeal to Congress to renew tax break for troubled homeowners

      The “fiscal cliff” is not the only thing looming over taxpayers at the end of the year. If you received a mortgage modification or other financial aid that reduced your mortgage obligation, you might find it's a taxable transaction.

      Under the federal Mortgage Debt Relief Act, in effect since 2007, mortgage debt that is forgiven after a foreclosure or short sale or through a loan modification provided to a homeowner in financial hardship may be excluded from a taxpayer’s calculation of taxable income. This exclusion only applies to mortgage debt forgiven on primary residences -- not second homes.

      However, that law is set to expire at the end of this year and, with lawmakers focused on a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, the outlook for extending it is uncertain.


      “It would be outrageous if Congress sticks unexpected tax bills to the very families who need help the most,” said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. “If Congress doesn’t extend this exclusion, it would discourage homeowners from taking part in the settlement we designed to help them. That would be a travesty.”

      Miller is one of 42 state attorneys general who signed a letter to Congressional leaders, urging an extension of the tax break. His colleague, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, said failure to do so would harm efforts to stem foreclosures.

      "I am urging Congress to extend this homeowner relief so families who are already suffering don't get an unexpected tax bill or become discouraged from participating in the historic National Mortgage Settlement," Gansler said. "Extension of this tax exclusion is estimated to save homeowners about $1.3 billion over the next two years. Unless Congress acts, any debt relief provided under the national settlement and other mortgage debt relief programs will likely be considered taxable income."

      Bad timing

      The expiration comes at a time when many homeowners are benefiting from the $25 billion national settlement agreement with the nation’s five largest loan servicing companies, which provides direct relief to homeowners. Many other banks across the country also offer mortgage modification and debt relief programs.

      Gansler says there is some hope. An extension is included in the Family and Business Tax Cut Certainty Act of 2012, S. 3521, which recently passed the Senate Finance Committee with bipartisan support.

      The “fiscal cliff” is not the only thing looming over taxpayers at the end of the year. If you received a mortgage modification of other financ...

      Gasoline prices continue to drift lower

      Prices still higher than at this time in 2011

      The price of gasoline continues to come down in most parts of the country as demand lessens and the markets lack any clear sense of direction.

      The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.402 per gallon, compared with $3.431 last week, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's 12 cents lower than a month ago but 11 cents higher than the price a year ago.

      The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.017 per gallon, versus $4.012 a week ago.

      The gasoline market found little direction from the crude oil market this week as prices were volatile, reflecting geopolitical concerns in the Middle East and fiscal concerns in Washington.

      Meanwhile, the highest prices for gasoline are now clustered in the east and northeast. Part of that is due to the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy.

      “Following the hurricane, electrical outages and infrastructure damage disrupted regional distribution networks,” said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. “While these issues were slowly resolved, prices in impacted areas were pressured temporarily higher, offsetting falling prices in other regions. Prices in affected areas have returned lower recently, however the decline in the national retail price of gasoline has now been impacted by rising crude oil prices.”

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

      • Hawaii ($4.056)
      • Alaska ($3.860)
      • New York ($3.880)
      • Connecticut ($3.798)
      • California ($3.718)
      • Vermont ($3.652)
      • Rhode Island ($3.637)
      • Pennsylvania ($3.593)
      • Massachusetts ($3.592)
      • Maine ($3.587)

      The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

      • Missouri ($3.150)
      • Texas ($3.155)
      • Oklahoma ($3.156)
      • South Carolina ($3.168)
      • Tennessee ($3.173)
      • Arkansas ($3.184)
      • Mississippi ($3.185)
      • Louisiana($3.213)
      • Alabama ($3.222)
      • Virginia ($3.232)

      The national average price of gasoline is falling with the highest prices now found in the east....

      Feds come down on nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies

      The companies are told they must provide consumers easy access to their consumer reports

      Nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies have been put on notice regarding their obligation to provide a streamlined process for consumers to request a free annual consumer report.

      “The CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) is reminding these companies that they must follow the law and provide consumers with easy access to their free annual report,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, as he issued a bulletin to the agencies. “If we have reason to believe that companies are not following the law, we will take action.”

      In addition, after reviewing a number of agencies’ practices, the CFPB is also issuing warning letters to those that may be violating the law by failing to provide consumers the required streamlined process for accessing their reports.

      Agencies' responsibilities

      The reporting agencies primarily collect and provide specific types of information on a consumer’s history, such as check-writing, medical payments, tenancy, employment, or insurance claims. They are included in the larger industry category of consumer reporting agencies, which also includes credit reporting companies or credit bureaus.

      Credit reporting businesses generally assemble or evaluate a consumer’s credit and other information, then sell it to third parties. There are roughly 400 consumer reporting agencies in the U.S., with three companies dominating the market -- Equifax Information Services LLC, Experian Information Solutions Inc., and TransUnion LLC.

      It's clear there's considerable unhappiness with the major credit reporting agencies.

      "I wanted a free credit report and agreed to pay Experian $1 for the report they offered," writes Kristin of San Francisco in a ConsumerAffairs post."Instead, they charged the card on Nov. 5th, 2012 in the amounts of $1 and $31.95. Then on Nov. 12, 2012, they charged $16.99. They apparently enrolled me in a monthly plan without my permission for $16.99/month. I called them and after a lengthy conversation where they made it as difficult as possible to get any kind of refund, I was able to get the $16.99 reversed, as well as a partial refund of $17 on the other charges. There was no indication that any charges would be made other than the initial $1 fee. This company practices fraudulent and dishonest business."

      Steven of Lynn, MA, has a problem with Equifax. "On 5/23/2012, I submitted my request for the three free credit reports, and went through the process," he says in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Previous times, I was mailed these reports, and did not realize that one must immediately print out the report. At the time, my printer was down, and believed I could come back. I did so with TransUnion and Experian, but Equifax did not allow me to. After calling, I was told there was a 30-day limit, and I was, at that point, a few days past or late. Checking back, TransUnion has a 90-day limit. I got a little lost, going back and forth through the credit report system! I think that Equifax should somehow be punished, at the very least, for misleading information!"

      Consumer rights

      Consumers have a right to a free annual report (technically known as a “file disclosure”) not only from the largest three credit bureaus, but also from nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies. Because many creditors make financial decisions and set terms on the basis of information contained in these reports, accuracy is critical.

      Under federal law, consumers have a right to dispute the information in these reports and the underlying information consumer reporting agencies have about them. The consumer reporting agency must then investigate the dispute and correct any inaccuracies it discovers.

      More about this important consumer right is available here.

      Company requirements

      The new bulletin emphasizes that the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which the CFPB oversees, requires all nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies to provide an easy way for consumers to get free access to their annual reports.

      Companies must provide a toll-free number that is published in every telephone directory in which a number for the company appears, and is clearly and prominently posted on the company’s Website. In addition, federal law requires the company to have clear and easy instructions for consumers to get these reports, and adequate staff in place or means to deal with consumers’ requests.

      Compliance check

      The CFPB actions stem from a review of how nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies are complying with these requirements. The CFPB looked at phone listings and Websites for nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies across the country and also attempted to request reports. The review identified several problems, such as companies that are not listing toll-free numbers, and companies that have toll-free numbers but do not make it easy for consumers to request reports.

      The warning letters are going to several companies that advise recipients that they may be in violation of the law, and that they should review their compliance with requirements to provide consumers streamlined access to their free annual reports. 

      Nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies have been put on notice regarding their obligation to provide a streamlined process for consumers to reque...

      California shines spotlight on commercial fundraisers

      Consumers should be aware if fundraiser is an unpaid volunteer or a business

      This is the season for shopping, feasting and partying. It's also the season of “good will toward men,” when many people make generous contributions to charity.

      But California Attorney General Kamala Harris wants consumers to be aware that not all charity fundraisers who call you are quite as generous as you are. For many, it's a business -- and a lucrative one at that.

      Harris has released a report showing commercial fundraisers in California raised $338.5 million in 2011, just over half of which was actually received by charitable organizations.

      51 percent goes to charity

      The 51 percent of donated funds going to charities using a professional fundraiser represents an increase from the 2010 average of 44.4 percent. The data are included in the California Department of Justice’s Annual Report of the results of commercial fundraising campaigns for charities, produced by the Charitable Trusts Section.

      “This report gives Californians the vital information they need to make educated choices about where to make charitable contributions this holiday season,” Harris said. “While commercial fundraisers play a role in supporting charities in California, it is important for donors to know how much of their money will be used to support the charity’s programs, and how much will go to overhead.”

      Commercial fundraisers who are hired by charities to raise money on their behalf typically charge a flat fee for their services or take a percentage of the contributions they collect. It is interesting to note that most charities registered with California do not use commercial fundraisers, but do their own, in-house fundraising. For consumers approached for a donation, that might be one of the first questions to ask.

      Other questions to ask

      Harris’ office also publishes the Guide to Charitable Giving for Donors that provides advice, guidelines and information to help donors make informed decisions about giving. The guide suggests that donors:

      • Ask the fundraiser how a donation will be distributed. Fundraisers are required by law to tell a consumer this information.
      • Ask what percentage of donations will be used to pay for fundraising expenses. This information can better inform the consumer as to how much of the contribution will go to the cause versus overhead.
      • Ask if the fundraiser works for a commercial fundraiser and is being paid to solicit. If the answer is yes, then it is likely less of the funds are going to the charity.
      • Avoid cash donations, as cash can more easily be diverted to non-charitable purposes and there is no way to trace it.
      • Avoid giving credit card information to a telephone solicitor or in response to a telephone solicitation.
      • Learn about a charitable organization, its activities and its fundraising practices before giving.

      This is the season for shopping, feasting and partying. It's also the season of “good will toward men,” when many people make generous contribu...

      Could the dollar bill be on its way out?

      A branch of the U.S. government is pushing for a dollar coin instead.

      If you’ve ever been to places like England and stayed for more than a day, you’ve probably walked around with a pocket full of change, as coins in the U.K. are used similarly to how one- and five-dollar bills are used in the United States.

      Although the dollar bill isn’t the almighty standalone currency it used to be in terms of value, there’s something about that army-green, leather-smelling piece of paper that serves consumers well.

      And the dollar may not buy you a whole lot these days, but it will still get you a lot of items that we use in our day-to-day lives, like that pack of gum sitting by the register at the convenience store or that tabloid newspaper that you grab on your way to work each morning.

      Let’s face it, the dollar bill is still a nifty little piece of paper to have--and if you pool enough of them together, you don’t have to break that $20 bill in your wallet--because we all know that once that $20 is broken, it will disappear like David Blaine is practicing some elaborate trick with your finances.

      But what if the dollar was removed from U.S. currency altogether, and just like our good friends on the opposite side of the ocean, we only used coins to represent it, and instead of carrying a wad of ones we toted around a bunch of change?

      GAO's recommendation

      Throughout the last couple of decades, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been trying to get rid of the paper dollar and replace it with a coin; in several reports, the U.S. agency has indicated getting rid of the paper dollar would ultimately save the country a significant amount of money.      

      But many Americans don’t see it that way, as past surveys indicate that people prefer using dollar bills. Dollar coins seem to be used far less and wind up collecting dust on top of a dresser or being thrown into an empty bottle, never to be used again.

      As a result, the U.S. Treasury stopped production of dollar coins in 2011.

      However Lorelei St. James, the director of the GAO, said trying to save the government money should be the country’s primary concern rathr than consumer convenience, and if the paper dollar was to be replaced permanently, it could save the U.S. government about $146 million per year and $4.4 billion over a span of 30 years by shrinking production and processing costs dramatically.

      “We continue to believe that the government would receive a financial benefit from making the replacement,” said St. James in a statement. “We realize that replacing the $1 note with the $1 coin is controversial. In fact, public opinion has consistently been opposed to the $1 coin.”

      Environmental benefits

      The GAO also points to the environmental benefits of removing the dollar bill, since coins can eventually be melted and made into new coins when they become overused or damaged.

      The agency also says coins can last for almost 40 years, while dollar bills only last up to four years before they start to wear and can be easily torn.

      Plus, once dollar bills are unusable, many are dumped into landfills, and the entire process from printing to being discarded costs the taxpayer unnecessary amounts of money, claims the GAO.

      Although the GAO makes seemingly good points in terms of cutting back on taxpayer expense and creating a higher level of sustainability in the production of money, the auditing agency will have its work cut out for it when it comes to convincing consumers to make the switch from dollar bills to coins.

      Consumer opposition

      According to a survey conducted by the research firm Lincoln Park Strategies, 70 percent of those surveyed wanted the dollar bill to remain.

      Additionally, 73 percent said the dollar coin is completely unnecessary, 67 percent said the dollar bill is preferable because it’s easier to carry around, and 60 percent said the dollar bill should remain because it’s a better symbol of American tradition and pride than the coin.

      The president of Lincoln Park Strategies, which is based in Washington, D.C., says the survey findings were conclusive, and that most of the participants had very strong feelings associated with the dollar bill and some felt even stronger about what those in government should be spending their time on instead.

      “Sentiments against the dollar coin are strong across Wyoming and the rest of the country,” Stefan Hankin said, as the survey was conducted in that part of the country.

      “Our research shows people’s resistance to the dollar coin spans from everyday usage to the feeling that politicians should be spending their time on more important issues.”

      But there are still some in Washington who feel it’s not the consumer who should decide what forms of currency stays and goes, and those in government should be the ones to make the decision on what changes need to be made to lower the national debt.

      “Change can be difficult,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, of Wyoming in an interview earlier this year. “But doing things as we’ve always done has contributed to our debt. We’ve got to latch on to any reasonable handhold we can find to climb out of this hole.”

      Dollar bill advocates

      But others like Randy DeCleene, of the dollar-bill advocate group Americans for George, agree that making changes to lower the debt is needed, but removing the dollar isn’t the way to do it.

      “The federal budget and economy are facing hard times and this is when we need our government representatives to stand up for programs that will make a difference we need,” said DeCleene. “Leave the dollar bill alone and move on to more important issues.”

      If you’ve ever been to places like England and stayed for more than a day, you’ve probably walked around with a pocket full of change, as coins...

      Seaside living gets a lot more expensive

      Many who lost homes to Sandy may not be able to rebuild under new insurance rules

      Superstorm Sandy destroyed countless thousands of modest oceanfront homes in her rampage up the East Coast. New insurance rules may see to it that the homes are never rebuilt.

      Whether their homes were damaged by Sandy or not, many homeowners in coastal areas will be facing ruinous increases of 20% or more per year in the premiums they pay for flood insurance, thanks to new legislation intended to prop up the National Flood Insurance Program.

      And that's in addition to increases in homeowner policies that are nearly certain to hit most homeowners living within reach of the hurricanes that many scientists say will be more damaging as global warming continues to upset weather patterns. 

      Many homeowners are also running afoul of local building codes and zoning ordinances that may prevent them from rebuilding or repairing homes near the water. That's the experience of the owner of this beachfront home on Long Island's South Shore.

      This home and one adjacent to it were heavily damaged when a Sandy-driven storm surge came over the seawall and ripped the fronts off the modest homes.

      The homeowner, who asked that her name not be used, said she has been whipsawed between her homeowners policy and her flood insurance policy, with each company claiming the damage was caused by conditions not covered by the policy.

      "The homeowners people say it was flood damage, the flood people say it was wind-driven water, which isn't covered," she said, adding that local officials have told her the homes can't be rebuilt in their present location because they're too close to the water.

      She said the cost of demolishing the damaged homes and removing a non-functioning septic system will eat up most of her insurance proceeds.

      "So that leaves me with a lot that I can't afford to building anything on," she said.


      Unfortunate though the results may be, various officials say the higher flood insurance premiums are needed to keep the federally-underwritten program from running an even bigger deficit. And private insurers say they must raise premiums to more accurately the reflect the cost of living by the sea in an era of changing weather patterns.

      Federally-underwritten flood insurance has typically cost from $1,100 to $3,000 per year with coverage topping out at $250,000. Those premiums will double for new policyholders and existing policyholders will see their premiums rise steadily at 20% to 25% per year until they reach double their current level.

      Businesses and second homes already pay higher premiums and will also see steep increase. Many existing discounts will be eliminated and buildings that are "grandfathered" for one reason or another may face sharply higher rates.

      Homeowners who choose to do without flood insurance may find the choice is not theirs to make.  Mortgageholders will require homeowners to maintain flood insurance if they life in flood-prone areas.

      Somehomeowners may be able to remain in risky areas if they raise their homes on stilts -- an expensive proposition and one that may not even be successful or that may run afoul of revised building and insurability standards that will not be finalized for a year or more.

      What it comes down to -- although no one likes to hear it -- is that residents of Iowa are now subsidizing, through the flood insurance program, the lifestyle of those who live by the sea, which some would say is unfair. Of course, this raises the question of why Long Islanders should subsidize the costs of emergency relief when Iowans get hit by tornadoes. But that's a question for another day.


      Staff photos

      This modest beachfront home on Long Island's Great South Bay was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy Superstorm Sandy destroyed countless thousands of mod...

      Do you suffer from cell phone addiction?

      Researchers claim impulsiveness and materialism combine to create dependency

      Modern life seems to keep extending the list of possible addictions. Besides old-fashioned addictions to alcohol and drugs, people are now addicted to sex and the Internet. Now a researcher at Baylor University is adding cell phone addiction to the list.

      "Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture," said study author James Roberts, Ph.D., professor of marketing at Baylor's Hankamer School of Business. "They are not just a consumer tool, but are used as a status symbol. They're also eroding our personal relationships."

      Roberts says cell phone and instant messaging addictions are driven by materialism and impulsiveness and can be compared with consumption pathologies like compulsive buying and credit card misuse. He says cell phones are used as part of the conspicuous consumption ritual and also act as a pacifier for the impulsive tendencies of the user. And it's impulsiveness, he says, that plays an important role in both behavioral and substance addictions.

      Roberts' study, co-written with Stephen Pirog III, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the department of marketing at Seton Hall University, also found that materialism helps drive cell phone addiction.


      Roberts says materialism is an important consumer value that affects many of the decisions we make as consumers. It's so pervasive we hardly notice it.

      At the same time, he says cell phone use and over-use have become so common that it is important to have a better understanding of what drives these types of technological addictions.

      Previous studies have shown that young adults send an average of 109.5 text messages a day or approximately 3,200 texts each month. They receive 113 text messages and check their cell 60 times in a typical day and, on average, college students spend approximately seven hours a day interacting with information and communication technology.

      "At first glance, one might have the tendency to dismiss such aberrant cell phone use as merely youthful nonsense -- a passing fad. But an emerging body of literature has given increasing credence to cell phone addiction and similar behavioral addictions," Roberts said.

      Roberts and Pirog gathered research for their study by surveying 191 business students at two U.S. universities. They estimate that 90 percent of students use the devices.

      Modern life seems to keep extending the list of possible addictions. Besides old fashioned addictions to alcohol and drugs people are now addicted to sex a...

      A look at FHA's Streamline Refinance

      If you have a current FHA loan, this program could quickly save you some money

      Millions of homeowners have taken advantage of this year's record low mortgage rates to refinance their home loans, saving hundreds of dollars each month.

      One of the most popular options for reworking mortgage terms has been the Federal Housing Administration's (FHA) Streamline Refinance.

      Just how popular is this option? According to FHA, 84 percent of all its refinances this year have been through this program. Closings for Streamline Refinances more than tripled in August 2012 when compared to the same month from the previous year.

      The agency predicts that by year's end, it will have insured over 1.1 million of this type of refinanced mortgages. What makes this option so popular?

      Why so popular?

      This type of refinance option requires very little paperwork. It also doesn't require an income verification or a re-appraisal on the property. Unfortunately, not every can take advantage of it.

      A Streamline Refinance is a special mortgage program for homeowners with an existing FHA-insured home loan. In other words, homeowners with conventional mortgages through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae don't qualify.

      FHA, of course, doesn't lend money to homeowners. It's actually a government insurance program. It tells the lender that if it makes a loan to a creditworthy consumer who might not otherwise qualify for a mortgage, FHA will guarantee that the loan is paid. It gives the lender some peace of mind.

      If you receive a mortgage from a lender that is FHA-insured, and you default on the loan, forcing the bank to seize your home in a foreclosure, the lending bank can file a claim with the FHA and get repaid for its losses. So, it only makes sense that if the FHA insures original mortgages that it would also insure refinances.


      By streamlining the refinancing process, FHA helps homeowners have a cheaper mortgage payment. That makes it less likely they'll get in financial trouble and lose their home. That's a win for everyone since the bank doesn't have to deal with a foreclosure and the FHA doesn't have to pay back any losses to the bank.

      With its Streamline Refinance program, FHA's goal is to reduce the amount the borrower owes each month on his mortgage. So, it doesn't ask for income or credit verification or a re-appraisal on the property.

      For an FHA Streamline Refinance, the idea is to get as many people approved for a refinance as possible. Instead of a new appraisal, the FHA will allow you to use your original purchase price as your home's current value, regardless of what your home is actually worth today.

      In a market where home values have fallen from their all-time highs, this can be a big advantage, as long as the homeowner's current mortgage is FHA insured. Homeowners with FHA mortgages who are interested in refinancing should ask a loan officer about FHA's Streamline Refinance.

      Millions of homeowners have taken advantage of this year's record low mortgage rates to refinance their home loans, saving hundreds of dollars each month....

      Which online retailers rate highest with consumers?

      Amazon comes in first in a season of heavy online spending

      Cyber Monday sales set records this week as consumers migrated to the Web to do their holiday shopping.

      Digital data analyst comScore reports holiday season U.S. retail e-commerce spending for the first 26 days of the November-December 2012 holiday season hit $16.4 billion -- a 16 percent increase over the same period last year. Cyber Monday reached $1.465 billion in online spending, up 17 percent versus year ago, representing the heaviest online spending day in history and the second day this season -- in addition to Black Friday -- to surpass $1 billion in sales.

      And which online merchants offered the best deals and service? According to the Harris Poll Shopper Satisfaction Study of Online Retailers, Amazon currently sits at the top of the heap.

      Most consumers are satisfied

      In fact, the study found that a majority of online U.S. adults are satisfied with the overall online shopping experience. All retailers tested receive a rating of a 5 through a 7 on a 7-point scale. Also, all tested brands show positive when consumers were asked if they would recommend the merchant to others.

      Survey takers asked about the selection of products, ease of shopping, perceived value and likelihood to recommend, along with overall satisfaction ratings.

      Among the other Websites in the study, Costco Wholesale receives high marks when it came to mass merchandisers seen as offering a good value, Zappos and L.L. Bean share the top spot for selection of products in the clothing and apparel category, and online shoppers rate Kohl's Website highest for ease of shopping within the department store category.

      Value counts

      When asked which factor -- value, selection or ease of shopping -- is most important in determining return visits to an online retailer, “good value for the money” proved most important, with 33 percent mentioning it. By comparison only 16 percent chose “ease of shopping” and only 10 percent mentioned “selection of products.”

      Beyond Amazon, Costco is the second ranked mass merchandiser for value, with Walmart and Target close behind. Kohl's is the top-ranked department store for perceived value, and L.L. Bean and Zappos are the top-ranked clothing and apparel Websites for the same.

      Interestingly, the survey found that women were more satisfied with their online shopping experience than men. Also, Nordstrom, whose brick and mortar stores are famous for their service and selection, failed to crack the top 10 among online merchants.

      Cyber Monday sales set new records this week as consumers migrated to the web to do their holiday shopping.Digital data analyst comScore reports holiday ...

      Pending home sales jump in October

      Could be a sign the housing recovery is picking up momentum

      October was a busy month for homebuyers, as theNational Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index rose 5.2 percent in the month and was up 13.2 percent over October 2011.

      Pending sales reflect contracts that have been signed but not yet closed. Normally it takes 30 to 60 days for a residential real estate transaction to close, so the Pending Home Sales Index is an indicator of what may be in the pipeline.

      Actual sales may be lower than pending sales, since some deals fall through. In many cases the prospective buyer is unable to qualify for a loan or the property fails to appraise for the sale price. Even so, Realtors see the latest numbers as a very good sign.

      "We've had very good housing affordability conditions for quite some time, but we're seeing more impact now from steady job creation, and rising consumer confidence about home buying now that home prices have clearly turned positive," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “Outside of a few spikes during the tax credit period, pending home sales are at the highest level since March 2007 when the index also reached 104.8. On a year-over-year basis, pending home sales have risen for 18 consecutive months.”

      Midwest leads

      Pending sales were particularly strong in the Midwest and the South was active as well. Sales were off a bit in the Northeast and West.

      "The Northeast saw some impact from Hurricane Sandy, but limited inventory in the West is keeping a lid on the market. All regions are up from a year ago, with double-digit gains in every region but the West," Yun said.

      Pending sales in the Northeast slipped 0.1 percent to 79.2 in October but were 13.3 percent above a year ago. In the Midwest, the index jumped 15.6 percent to 104.4 in October and is 20.0 percent above October 2011.

      Pending home sales in the South rose 5.5 percent to an index of 117.3 in October and are 17.4 percent higher than a year ago. In the West, the index declined 1.1 percent in October to 105.7, but is 0.9 percent above October 2011.

      October was a busy month for homebuyers, as the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index rose 5.2 percent in the month a...

      Mortgage rates remain near rock bottom

      Economic uncertainty is adding to the favorable borrowing environment

      Two weekly surveys of mortgage rates yield mixed results but both show that it remains an opportune time to buy or refinance, with rates near last week's record lows.

      In its Primary Mortgage Market Survey, Freddie Mac reports rates were mostly unchanged from last week. The average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) was 3.32 percent with an average 0.8 point for the week ending November 29, 2012, up from last week when it averaged 3.31 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.00 percent.

      The survey found the 15-year FRM this week averaged 2.64 percent with an average 0.6 point; last week it averaged 2.63 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.30 percent.

      The five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.72 percent this week with an average 0.6 point, down from last week when it averaged 2.74 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.90 percent.

      "Mortgage rates were virtually unchanged this week amid growing concerns around the fiscal cliff,” said Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac's chief economist. “Although low mortgage rates failed to boost new home sales in October, year-to-date sales are up 20 percent compared with 2011 volumes, and there are growing signs of a turnaround in house prices.”

      Bankrate survey

      In's weekly national survey, the 30-year FRM tied the record low of 3.52 percent, with an average of 0.38 discount and origination points.

      The average 15-year FRM held at 2.86 percent while the larger jumbo 30-year mortgage inched lower to 4 percent, resetting a record low for the 5th week in a row, the survey found. The 3-year ARM moved higher to 2.89 percent and the popular 5-year ARM bounced up to 2.74 percent.

      The financial Website said uncertainty of the fiscal cliff outcome has businesses, consumers, and financial markets uncertain and that uncertainty is good for mortgage rates. Mortgage rates are closely related to yields on long-term government bonds, with both declining in times of uncertainty. Bankrate said it expects mortgage rates to remain at these levels as long as the fiscal cliff talks drag on.

      Two weekly surveys of mortgage rates yield mixed results but both show that it remains an opportune time to buy or refinance, with rates near last week's r...

      More companies planning parties this year

      Hiring may be down, but it's still party time at some companies

      Although companies continued to hire at a less-than-stellar rate this year, strong corporate profits are giving them plenty of reason to celebrate -- and more of them are doing it. A new survey shows that more than 83 percent are planning year-end holiday parties this year -- up 15 percent from 2011.

      In its annual survey of human resources executives, global outplacement and workplace consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. not only found that more companies are hosting holiday parties, but 17 percent said more money is being budgeted for the festivities.

      Despite the increase in holiday parties from a year ago, the percentage of companies holding year-end functions remains shy of a pre-recession 2007, when about 90 percent of companies surveyed held holiday festivities.

      Change in policy

      In the non-scientific survey of approximately 100 human resources professionals, 10.3 percent said their companies were holding a holiday party after one or more years without parties as a result of the economic downturn. The other 72.4 percent of respondents said their companies held year-end parties throughout the downturn.

      “For many companies, 2012 probably feels like the first time in a while that there is reason to celebrate,” said Rick Cobb, executive vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The economy and job market continued to make strides this year. While employment did not grow as fast as many had hoped, company profits did increase due to increased sales as well as cost-cutting initiatives. And, despite ongoing uncertainty related to fiscal cliffs and European debt crises, consumer and business confidence are on the rise.”

      Building morale

      With hiring still relatively weak, employers are basically asking existing workers to do more with less. Strong profits and rising productivity numbers suggest that workers are in fact delivering on that request. What better way to reward this hard work than with a holiday party?

      “Holiday parties are a relatively low-cost morale builder. For smaller companies, the holiday party is simply an extension of a more family-like relationship that often exists between these employers and their employees,” said Cobb.

      “The nice thing about holiday parties is that they do not have to be full-blown extravaganzas to be meaningful to employees. A small company on a tight budget can easily host a potluck lunch, where employees bring in a favorite dish to share with co-workers,” he added.

      Watching the budget

      About 83 percent of those surveyed said their companies were planning to spend the same as last year on the holiday party. Perhaps in an effort to keep costs in check, 55 percent said holiday parties would be hosted on company premises, versus 30 percent who said parties would be on-site a year ago. However, the costs savings related to keeping the party in house appears to be going toward improved food and planning costs.

      Nearly two out of three companies plan to use a caterer, event planner or other outside service to ensure a successful party. Last year, only 45 percent of companies relied on outside vendors. Additionally, nearly half of companies plan to serve alcohol and 36 percent will allow employees to bring a guest.

      "For workers whose companies are holding parties this year, particularly those where alcohol is available, it is important to remember that there is a fine line between having fun and having too much fun,” said Cobb. “The economic recovery is still very fragile, so it is not the time to draw attention to oneself with embarrassing conduct at the holiday party.”

      However, employees should not simply stand in the corner in an effort to stay off the radar, Cobb noted. “It is equally important to remember that these events also offer great opportunities, such as socializing with senior executives whom you do not interact with on a daily basis. Make an effort to break away from your comfort zone and introduce yourself to those who might help your career,” he advised.

      Although companies continued to hire at a less-than-stellar rate this year, strong corporate profits are giving them plenty of reason to celebrate -- and m...