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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...

PhotoThe 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

PhotoWhile 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?

PhotoThe 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 that drones 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.

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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 probably encouraged you to read more things you didn't want to read and ...

PhotoWhen 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

PhotoYou 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

PhotoOr 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

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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 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 want-to-be bohemian type in my twenties, and noticed how different things were from the United S...

PhotoI 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

PhotoWell, 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

PhotoThe 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?

PhotoBut 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.

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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 i...

PhotoWhen 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.”

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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 Tenenb...

PhotoShowcasing 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.

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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 hard...

PhotoIn 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.

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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 ...

PhotoWe'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.

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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 of other financ...

PhotoThe “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.

'Outrageous'

“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.

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Gasoline prices continue to drift lower

Prices still higher than at this time in 2011

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

PhotoThe 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.”

Photo

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)
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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 reque...

PhotoNationwide 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. 

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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 contribu...

PhotoThis 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.
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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...

PhotoIf 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.      

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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Seaside living gets a lot more expensive

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

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

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This modest beachfront home on Long Island's Great South Bay was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy

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.Photo

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.

Deficit-driven

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.

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Staff photos

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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 a...

PhotoModern 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.

Materialism

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.

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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....

PhotoMillions 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.

Win-win

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.

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Which online retailers rate highest with consumers?

Amazon comes in first in a season of heavy online spending

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 ...

PhotoCyber 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.

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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 the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index rose 5.2 percent in the month a...

PhotoOctober 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.

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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 r...

PhotoTwo 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 Bankrate.com'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.

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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 m...

PhotoAlthough 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.

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U.S. economy picking up speed

Gross Domestic Product increases 2.7 percent in third quarter

The U.S. economy grew faster than expected in the third quarter of the year, expanding at a rate of 2.7 percent, according to the Commerce Department. The ...

PhotoThe U.S. economy grew faster than expected in the third quarter of the year, expanding at a rate of 2.7 percent, according to the Commerce Department. The initial estimate put growth at 2.0 percent during the July through September period.

The increase in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the sum total of goods and services produced in the U.S., reflects increases in consumer spending, private inventory investment, federal government spending, residential fixed investment, and exports.

It's double the 1.3 percent growth rate recorded in the second quarter and the highest rate since the fourth quarter of 2011.

What exactly pushed growth higher? The Commerce Department reports sales of computers added 0.12 percentage point to the third-quarter change in real GDP after subtracting 0.10 percentage point from the second-quarter change. On the other hand, motor vehicle output subtracted 0.24 percentage point from the third-quarter change in real GDP after adding 0.20 percentage point to the second-quarter change.

Personal consumption

Real personal consumption expenditures increased 1.4 percent in the third quarter, compared with an increase of 1.5 percent in the second. Durable goods -- things like washing machines and big screen TVs -- increased 8.7 percent, in contrast to a decrease of 0.2 percent in the previous quarter. Nondurable goods increased 1.1 percent, compared with an increase of 0.6 percent. Services increased 0.3 percent, compared with an increase of 2.1 percent.

Business spending also increased, recording a healthy $61.3 billion. That compares with $41.4 billion in business spending in the previous quarter.

The numbers might provide additional pressure on Congress and the White House to come to terms on an agreement to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year, when taxes are set to revert to the higher pre-2002 rates and major cuts in federal spending are scheduled to take effect. The Congressional Budget Office has reported that set of circumstances would likely trigger a recession in 2013.

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You can avoid the holiday shopping hangover

Making a list and checking it twice is a step in the right direction

With the holiday spending bacchanal now in high gear, consumers really need to think twice before throwing cash at items that are not on their list. An ...

PhotoWith the holiday spending bacchanal now in high gear, consumers really need to think twice before throwing cash at items that are not on their list.

An online survey commissioned by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) and conducted by Harris Interactive in September, finds that in a typical month more than two-thirds of U.S. adults purchase on impulse. And spending during the holiday season is anything but typical, with overindulgence often leading to a financial hangover come January.

“Holiday spending without a plan often leads to overspending -- not only because shoppers break the bank on presents. Decorations, holiday cards, entertaining, dining out and travel all impact the seasonal budget,” says Paul Golden, spokesman for NEFE. “Most people only think about gifts when it comes to planning for their holiday expenses.”

Big spenders

According to the National Retail Federation, a record 247 million people shopped in stores and online over the four-day weekend of Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And people are spending more. The average shopper spent $423 over the weekend, up from $398 last year. But because special discounts, sales and promotions -- which cause 50 percent of all impulse purchases -- will be abundant during the holiday season, shoppers should exercise restraint. The NEFE survey finds that 71 percent of the time impulse purchases lead to regret.

“A lot of families watch their budget very closely throughout the year and spend far beyond their expectations during the holidays,” says Golden. “This short period of major spending can lead to long-term problems such as credit card debt, which can cause a burden for years to come. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to gifts you cannot afford. The greatest gift you can give yourself is financial stability.”

Managing your spending

NEFE offers these five tips to manage spending during the holiday season:

  1. Stop at one. While shopping, you may come across items that seem like a great fit for someone on your list for whom you have already bought. But resist the urge. Once you buy for someone, check her off your list. If the new gift is even better, be sure to return the previous gift you purchased.
  2. Make concessions. Maintain your budget by cutting down your list of gift recipients. You also may have to be selective in what holiday parties you attend. Other activities, such as wrapping gifts and sending holiday cards can add up too, so avoid expensive wrapping and consider sending a letter rather than store bought cards.
  3. Shop smart. Consider online shopping to get the best deals, but be sure to figure in shipping costs. Also look for good deals on auction Websites. Check sale ads regularly and be selective in your shopping. Don’t wait until the last minute to do your shopping. Set a plan for your time and your spending.
  4. Limit credit card usage. One way to help with this is by using a layaway program. Some retailers are offering good incentives and have eliminated many fees associated with layaway. If you are using credit, limit yourself to using one card and preset a limit that you will not exceed. Keep the rest of your credit cards at home when you go shopping.
  5. Be realistic. Don’t get too carried away with your spending this holiday season just because the economy is showing signs of life. It’s important to stay mindful of your goals and the long-term outlook, and your plan for managing your finances.
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Pediatricians: Plan B should be given to teens at routine check-ups

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly backs the Plan B pill in its new policy statement

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), doctors should be suggesting and prescribing the morning after pill during the routine check-ups of ...

PhotoThe American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that doctors should be suggesting and prescribing the morning-after pill during the routine check-ups of sexually active teenage women.

The pill is also known by its brand names, Plan B and Next Choice, and has been a source of controversy among health officials as well as some parents.

In a recently released policy statement, the medical organization said it encourages the education and use of emergency contraception among teens, even more since its last policy statement on the subject in 2005.

“The data are even more supportive of emergency contraception,” said lead study author Dr. Cora Bruener from the University of Washington.  "These methods are absolutely not an abortion. They prevent pregnancies by blocking fertilization.”

Similar to the controversies surrounding the distribution of condoms in high schools, some parents believe that providing contraception before teenagers ask for it will encourage them to start having sex. Some also believe that it shows approval of their actions if teens are having sex already.

"Completely unfounded"

PhotoHowever, Bruener says this concern is completely unfounded based on a series of studies she has come across.

“People say that if you make this available that kids will have more sex and less protected sex, and that is not true," she said. “Seven studies showed that is not true”.

Critics of AAP’s policy statement may point to the fact that teen pregnancy is at an all-time low, according to recent data.

And some may question why the drug needs to be officially incorporated into regular physician visits, if it seems that teens are being more cautious when it comes to engaging in sex or having unprotected intercourse.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teen pregnancy has seen an 8 percent drop since 2010. In addition, birth rates diminished by 11 percent among women 15 through 17 and dropped 7 percent for women 18 and 19 years of age.  

In the United States children under the age of 17 need a prescription to get emergency contraception, and according to the AAP’s policy statement, the medical organization believes all teens need an equal amount of counseling and access to the drug, regardless of age.

Frank discussions

PhotoHowever the AAP also stresses in its statement that counseling along with prescriptions for the pill are equally important, and urges includes frank discussions about how the drug should really be used.

“The discussion of emergency contraception methods with patients must also include the fact that none of these methods will protect from sexually-transmitted infections,” the statement reads.

Emergency contraception--which often gets confused with what’s known as the abortion pill mifepristone--can prevent a women from becoming pregnant if taken within five days of intercourse, and the cost is relatively cheap varying between $10 and $70.

Earlier this year, New York City began issuing Plan B pills to students through schools' nurse’s offices, which caused a bit of backlash among some parents. But according to the city’s Health Department, only between 1 and 2 percent of the parents sent back a form indicating they wanted to opt out of the program and didn’t want their children to receive emergency contraception.

In the policy statement, the AAP suggests that all forms of contraception and teen sex in general need to be discussed even more openly, and although teen pregnancy numbers have declined a bit, proper education can bring the percentages down even further.

“If we are going to do anything about reducing our teen pregnancy rate and make it not the highest in the developed world, we need to provide more education to family and children,” said Bruener.

89% reduction

According to Planned Parenthood, the morning-after pill reduces pregnancy by 89 percent when taken within 72 hours after intercourse and becomes less effective the later one takes it.

The non-profit agency also says there have been no reports of severe complications with the drug. Side effects may include nausea and vomiting, however only one out of four women experienced such symptoms.

Other side effects may include dizziness, irregular menstruation, feelings of dizziness, headaches and possible breast tenderness, says Planned Parenthood.

The AAP also said that providing emergency contraception for teens ahead of time is the key component to its being properly used or even used at all, and that pediatricians should use their role in communities to further educate teenagers each time they come in for a routine checkup.

“Adolescents are more likely to use emergency contraception if it has been prescribed in advance of need,” wrote the AAP in its policy statement. “Pediatricians have an important role through their interactions with adolescents to address the major public health objective of continuing to reduce adolescent pregnancy in the United States.”

The AAP’s policy statement was published in the recent online edition of Pediatrics.

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Google CEO meets FTC, seeking anti-trust truce

The feds reportedly are insisting on a consent decree, which Google opposes

Forget the fiscal cliff for a minute. There's another cliff looming in Washington and Google is right on the edge of it.For months, the Federal Trade Com...

PhotoForget the fiscal cliff for a minute. There's another cliff looming in Washington and Google is right on the edge of it.

For months, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been investigating Google's dominance of web search and trying to determine if the company unfairly promotes its own services over its competitors in the way it presents search results.

Anti-trust probes are nothing to ignore. Just ask AT&T, Microsoft or any of the other companies that have been broken up or forced to knuckle under to restrictions that, in many cases, remain in place for years after the company has lost its dominant position in the marketplace.

So Google is, at least for now, putting on its serious face. CEO Larry Page was in Washington yesterday to meet with the FTC. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was seen around Capitol Hill with the company's chief lobbyist, former Congresswoman Susan Molinari, Bloomberg News reported.

So what was the outcome? Not surprisingly, no one is saying but the buzz is that FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz is said to be holding out for a consent decree to settle the agency's 19-month investigation of Google.  Page, meanwhile, is saying he won't submit to a consent decree.

Sounding more like the fiscal cliff all the time, isn't it?

Complicating matters a bit more, Google is also taking heat from European Union officials who have apparently been meeting with their counterpart at the FTC.

Google has about 70% of the Internet search market and many of its competitors charge the search giant uses its power to promote its own sites and services, particularly in high-traffic search categories like travel, jobs, health, and real estate. 

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Facebook glitch may have re-enrolled you in groups

Members wake up to find they are members of groups they dropped long ago

Many of Facebook's nearly one billion users have discovered that they suddenly belong to Facebook groups. In many cases, members are being re-enrolled in g...

PhotoMany of Facebook's nearly one billion users have discovered that they suddenly belong to Facebook groups. In many cases, members are being re-enrolled in groups they once belonged to but quit.

“It appears Facebook is at it again,” Iris, a Detroit-area Facebook member posted to her friends. “If you were ever part of a group on here and then left the group page or turned off the notifications FB has more than likely added you back to the group and turned back on your notifications. I just left several group pages and turned off multiple notifications again.”

Iris is hardly alone. Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos security software, reports a number of similar posts, including one from a woman who reports she was re-enrolled in groups while she slept. Cluley notes that Facebook's motto is “move fast and break things.”

“My guess is that Facebook did move fast and break things - and made a change to some of its systems, which caused this unintended privacy controversy,” Cluley writes in his blog.

He says he expects Facebook will move quickly to try and fix the problem. Until then, he suggests you check to see what groups you now belong to and manually unsubscribe to the ones you want no part of.

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Fiat is the latest to introduce an all-electric car

The 500e will initially be sold only in California

Back in the Depression, they had something called the Rural Electrification Administration. It rushed around stringing wires to bring electricity to isolat...

PhotoBack in the Depression, they had something called the Rural Electrification Administration. It rushed around stringing wires to bring electricity to isolated farms and small towns.

Today we have something sort of similar.  Call it the Mobile Electrification Agglomeration. Automakers are rushing around jamming big batteries into small cars and pronouncing them all-electric or hybrid vehicles.

The sparks have really been flying this week, thanks to the Los Angeles Car Show, where automakers are rolling out and charging up their newest electric creations. The latest is the Fiat 500e, an all-electric version of the cute little car that hasn't caught on quite as well in the U.S. as it has in Europe.

The 500e, which boasts a range of about 80 miles, will initially be sold only in California, which has a tough new law requiring automakers to manufacture a certain number of zero-tailpipe-emission vehicles.  But although it maintains a greeny exterior, if you take a tape measure to  California you notice something -- it's pretty big.

Range anxiety

While San Francisco proper and parts of Los Angeles qualify as high-density cities that make tiny cars practical, the rest of the state is criss-crossed with giant freeways and commuters who travel relatively great distances to get to work. While this may be OK for tiny cars, it sort of works against all-electric cars, most of which are limited to something less than 100 miles on a charge.

PhotoThink we're exaggerating? Take a look at the saga of Nissan Leaf owner Rob Eshman, who contracted a bad case of range anxiety buzzing around -- when not sitting glumly in the breakdown lane -- after getting his Leaf.

But California has decreed that automakers must be at least semi-pure so that's where the electric cars are going, at least for now.

Fiat is also introducing a slightly bigger version of the 500. Called the 500L, it comes witih four doors and quite a bit more room than the original 500, which has not exactly been a barn burner since it was introduced in the U.S. two years ago.

The powers that be at Fiat like to think the 500 is in the same class as BMW's Mini Cooper.  They can think that but most car enthusiasts would be to differ. We spent a week with a 500 a few months ago and found it lackluster compared to any of the three Mini Coopers we've owned.  (Actually, it's now four Mini Coopers since No. 3 had the bad fortune to be in an underground parking garage in Jersey City, NJ, a few weeks ago). 

The car has done well worldwide, selling more than 1 million so far but sales in the U.S. have been a paltry 36,000. 

---

Staff photos

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Student loan delinquency on the rise

But consumers' mortgage debt continues to go down

Students are not only taking out more and more loans to fund their education, an increasing number are having trouble paying it back.A report from the Fe...

PhotoStudents are not only taking out more and more loans to fund their education, an increasing number are having trouble paying it back.

A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York includes the troubling statistic that 11 percent of student loans were 90 days overdue in the third quarter of this year. That's a jump from 8.9 percent in the second quarter and 8.8 percent in the third quarter of 2011.

It's a matter of concern because of the huge amount of money that now makes up outstanding student loan debt. Earlier this year the total surpassed the $1 trillion mark, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. An escalating default rate among student borrowers could eventually threaten the financial system every bit as much as the housing crisis, analysts say.

In its report, the New York Fed noted that a big increase in student borrowing in the third quarter was partly responsible for the 2.3 percent increase in non-real estate household debt, which hit $2.7 trillion during the period. Students upped their borrowing by $42 billion. That compares to an $18 billion increase in auto loans and a $2 billion increase in credit card debt.

Total household indebtedness fell

The Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit is based on data from the New York Fed’s Consumer Credit Panel, a nationally representative random sample drawn from Equifax credit report data. During the third quarter of 2012, total consumer indebtedness shrank $74 billion to $11.31 trillion, a 0.7 percent decrease from the previous quarter.

If non-real estate debt rose but total indebtedness fell, that must mean there was less real estate debt during the third quarter. The New York Fed report says that's exactly the case.

In the July through September period, both mortgage and equity credit line debt fell sharply, despite the fact that mortgage origination increased for a fourth straight quarter.

Gaining confidence

“The increase in mortgage originations, auto loans and credit card balances suggests that consumers are slowly gaining confidence in their financial position,” said Donghoon Lee, senior economist at the New York Fed. “As consumers feel more comfortable, they may start to make purchases that were previously delayed.”

In another bit of good news, delinquency rates for mortgages decreased from 6.3 percent to 5.9 percent. Mortgage debt was at $8.03 trillion, its lowest level since 2006, at the height of the housing market.

New foreclosures are returning to their pre-crisis levels, as about 242,000 consumers had a new foreclosure added to their credit report, the lowest in nearly six years.

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Study: Banks limit consumers' dispute resolution options

The deck is often stacked against consumers, a study shows

If you get into a dispute with your bank about something related to your checking account, the deck appears stacked against you, according to a Pew Researc...

PhotoIf you get into a dispute with your bank about something related to your checking account, the deck appears stacked against you, according to a Pew Research Center study.

The report looked at the 100 largest financial institutions' dispute resolution clauses as well as consumer attitudes about these procedures. Of the 92 account agreements Pew was able to obtain, 64 percent restricted dispute resolutions in various ways, including mandatory arbitration, class action bans, jury trial waivers, restrictions on damages, and shortened statutes of limitation.

Of those, mandatory arbitration clauses appear to be the limitation of choice. It requires consumers to submit all disputes they have with their financial institution to a third party decision maker – an "arbitrator" -- instead of going to court. Only one-quarter of banks allow consumers to "opt out" of this process.

Didn't read the fine print

"A checking account is the most widely used financial product in the United States, and many bank customers become bound by a mandatory arbitration agreement when they open their account," said project director Susan Weinstock. "We found that most consumers were not aware that their right to go to court is often limited if they have a dispute with their bank."

In examining the dispute resolution process, Pew researchers took a look at the 100 largest financial institutions and how they handle checking account disputes with their customers. It found that the bigger the institution, the more likely that an account agreement will require mandatory binding arbitration.

Over half of the 50 largest financial institutions have arbitration clauses in their account agreements, while only 30 percent of the next fifty financial institutions contain such clauses. Seventy-five percent of banks with an arbitration clause also included a ban on class action lawsuits.

Won't be going to court

Over half of the account agreements contain clauses whereby the consumer waives the right to a jury trial. About two-thirds of agreements do not require that the arbitrator have a law degree.

Banks also restrict dispute resolution through jury trial waivers and limited liability provisions.

What do consumers think about this? The Pew survey found that nine in ten consumers objected to at least some of the arbitration procedures. But despite overwhelming dissatisfaction with the arbitration process, half of consumers support the overall goal of arbitration – to be a simpler, less costly alternative to court.

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What U.S. consumers should know about the Suzuki wind-down

The deals might not be that great and service could be a hassle

In early November Suzuki Motor Corporation announced it was winding down new vehicle sales in the U.S. as the American subsidiary of the Japanese automaker...

PhotoIn early November, Suzuki Motor Corporation announced it was winding down new vehicle sales in the U.S. as the American subsidiary of the Japanese automaker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The company acknowledged that it was facing a number of serious challenges, including low sales volume, a limited number of models in its lineup, unfavorable exchange rates and the high costs of state and federal regulatory requirements. So, where does that leave U.S. consumers who own a Suzuki or those who are considering the purchase of one as the company sells off its inventory?

Automotive site Edmunds.com looked into some of the most common questions submitted by readers and came up with some answers.

Are warranties still good?

Yes. Suzuki says all warranties will continue to be honored at Suzuki dealerships. Suzuki vehicles have a three-year or 36,000-mile basic warranty, three-year or 36,000-mile roadside assistance, a seven-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a five-year corrosion warranty for the body panels.

Where do you go for service?

"All parts and service will be provided to consumers through our planned continuation of a service and parts dealer network," Suzuki said in a letter to consumers.

But in a separate FAQ, the company put some limitations on its position, saying: "We intend to plan to continue to provide parts and service, as long as there is consumer demand, for a reasonable period of time beyond the warranty period." Edmunds said it has been unable to get clarification from Suzuki on that point.

What happens to Suzuki dealers?

Time will tell if Suzuki dealers can afford to stay in business by relying on parts and service alone. Suzuki's network of 220 dealers is already down from 246 at the start of 2012, according to Automotive News. A search of dealers on the Suzuki Website found at least three dealers that already were re-branded and selling Hyundai and Kia vehicles. If your local dealer drops Suzuki, Edmunds recommends checking with the service department to see if it will continue to service your Suzuki vehicle.

Who collects the monthly payments?

If you financed your purchase through American Suzuki Financial, you should continue to make payments as you normally would. If for some reason American Suzuki Financial ceases to be the lien holder, it would likely notify customers by mail.

What about expiring leases?

Your lease agreement should indicate where to turn in your vehicle. It is often the same dealer from whom you leased the car. If the dealer is no longer around, Edmunds suggests calling the Suzuki customer hotline at (877) 465-4819.

Will it affect the value of my car?

Probably. Edmunds reports every Suzuki model had already lost value before the announcement. But the loss may be minor. That means if you are planning on buying a new Suzuki, you shouldn't plan on getting it at a fire sale price. But Edmunds analysts predict that Suzuki dealers will be willing to negotiate lower prices on their remaining inventory. As of October 2012, Suzuki still had more than 5,000 new vehicles on dealer lots. Edmunds analysts say that supply should last into early next year.

If you decide to buy one of the remaining Suzukis, a quick call to your insurance provider for a quote might be in order. Consumers have noted that insurance premiums tend to jump on discontinued car brands.

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How to reduce your sodium (salt) intake

More attention to nutrition labels and less eating out could be the keys

Most of us consume waaaaay too much sodium, with salt (sodium chloride) being the most common form. That can be a serious health hazard, because excess sod...

PhotoMost of us consume waaaaay too much sodium, with salt (sodium chloride) being the most common form. That can be a serious health hazard, because excess sodium consumption contributes to the development and escalation of high blood pressure, a leading cause of heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke.

Research shows that we consume on average about 3,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium every day. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a reduction of sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg daily.

And those age 51 and older, and people of any age who are black or have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should further reduce sodium intake to 1,500 mg daily. This amount meets your essential need for sodium. These populations make up about half the U.S. Population.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that children and adolescents consume about the same amount of sodium as adults and also risk developing high blood pressure. The researchers found that kids who consumed the most sodium faced double the risk of having high blood pressure, compared with those who took in less sodium. For overweight or obese children, the risk was more than triple.

“There has been a common misconception that sodium intake is just a concern for people with high blood pressure,” says Jessica Leighton, Ph.D., MPH, senior advisor for science in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine. “But it’s a health risk for all people, including children, as the CDC report shows.”

FDA is working on a number of fronts to help consumers manage their sodium intake.

Seeking a gradual reduction

FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are collaborating to identify ways that sodium can be reduced in foods sold in the nation’s marketplaces and restaurants.

“Approximately 75% of the total sodium intake for most individuals comes not from people adding salt to their food but from packaged and restaurant foods,” says Michael R. Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “That makes it very difficult for consumers to reduce their sodium intake with the foods currently available to them in the marketplace.”

This reality makes it “very, very difficult” for consumers to meet the sodium levels established by the Dietary Guidelines, says Jeremiah Fasano, Ph.D., consumer safety officer at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Sodium is ubiquitous in packaged and restaurant foods.”

FDA and USDA are looking for ways to promote gradual, achievable and sustainable reduction of sodium intake. The agencies have sought data, evidence and comments from the food industry, consumer groups and health care professionals on reducing sodium levels in foods, as well as on current and emerging approaches to promoting sodium reduction. This input is currently under review.

“This is not about depriving anyone of their salt shaker. It's about creating more opportunities for everyone to actively choose how much sodium they take in,” says Fasano.

What’s a consumer to do?

When shopping for food, consumers can read food labels and choose foods that are lower in sodium.

The Nutrition Facts Label on food and beverage packages lists the “Percent Daily Value (%DV)” of sodium in one serving of a food, based on 2,400 mg per day. The %DV tells you whether a food contributes a little or a lot to your total daily diet. Foods providing 5%DV or less of sodium per serving are considered low in sodium and foods providing 20%DV or more of sodium per serving are considered high. But remember, all of the nutrition information on the label is based upon one serving of the food and many packaged foods have more than one serving.

It is recommended that consumers not exceed 100% of the daily value for sodium and those advised to limit intake to 1,500 mg per day should aim for about 65% of the daily value.

Consumers can also be aware of the sources of sodium in their diet. In a report issued in February 2012, CDC identified these 10 foods as the greatest sources of sodium:

  • breads and rolls
  • luncheon meat, such as deli ham or turkey
  • pizza
  • poultry, fresh and processed -- (Much of the raw chicken bought from a store has been injected with a sodium solution.)
  • soups
  • cheeseburgers and other sandwiches
  • cheese, natural and processed
  • pasta dishes
  • meat dishes, such as meat loaf with gravy
  • savory snack foods, such as potato chips, pretzels and popcorn

And how do you know how much sodium is in the food served at your favorite restaurant? Fasano notes that many chain restaurants are putting the nutritional content of their foods -- including calories, fats, sodium and sugars -- on their Websites, or it’s available by asking for it.

FDA has also created a number of online resources to help consumers reduce their sodium intake. They include:

  • A Sodium Education Website offers consumer advice on how to use the Nutrition Facts Label to reduce sodium intake.
  • The Spot the Block campaign challenges tweens from 9 to 13 to use the Nutrition Facts Label (the "block") to make healthy food choices.
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Good news: it's okay to re-gift

You no longer have to be stuck with that white elephant

Various surveys now tend to show a consensus: People who receive unwanted gifts are completely okay with giving them to someone else, a once frowned-upon p...

PhotoVarious surveys now tend to show a consensus: People who receive unwanted gifts are completely okay with giving them to someone else -- a once frowned-upon practice known as re-gifting.

According to Bookoo's 2012 Holiday Regifting Survey, the holidays are the most common time of year for people to regive presents that they previously received from someone else. In the survey, 92 percent said they believe it's completely acceptable to regift items, and more than 87 percent believe they too have been a recipient of a regifted item.

With shoppers trying to save more and spend less this holiday season, more than 62 percent say they plan to regift an item to a friend, neighbor or colleague.

"Regifting is not something to be ashamed of this holiday season, and you'll be in great company with many people planning to do the same this year," said Adam Allgaier, Bookoo's CEO.

There's an art to it

There is, however, an art to re-gifting and some of the more experienced re-gifters shared their secrets in the survey. Some popular techniques include re-wrapping the item to look new, inspecting the item and removing any gift cards or receipts from the previous giver and planning ahead to make sure they do not give the gift to anyone associated with the original giver.

And people don't re-gift because they're cheap. Or at least they say they don't. According to the survey, 62 percent of people regift because they think that someone will appreciate the item more than they do.

But you will save money by re-gifting. Eighty-two percent of those questioned said they saved as much as $150.

Proper gifts for re-gifting

What's a proper gift for re-gifting? Most respondents suggest sticking to more commonly acceptable items like home decor pieces, antiques, books, toys and jewelry.

The survey also asked respondents to name some inappropriate re-gifted items they received in the past. The list includes:

  • Two year old fruit cake
  • Box of chocolates with bites taken out of several pieces
  • Monogrammed items with someone else's initials
  • Used toilet seat
  • Electric toothbrush
  • False teeth
  • Fingernail clippers
  • Outdated old desk calendar
  • Items the recipient had originally given to the giver
  • Toys with broken pieces
  • Gift cards that were partially used

While regifting is most popular around the holidays, it is a common practice throughout the year. Women are more likely to re-gift than men by a three-to-one ratio.

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Fake 'Yellow Pages' scammers must pay $10.2 million

Foreign operation targeted small businesses and nonprofits in U.S. and other countries

A federal court has ordered a European-based operation to pay more than $10.2 million for tricking small businesses and nonprofits into paying for unwanted...

PhotoA federal court has ordered a European-based operation to pay more than $10.2 million for tricking small businesses and nonprofits into paying for unwanted listings in online business directories.

The default judgment, issued at the behest of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), permanently bans the defendants from marketing Internet directories and listings in the future, and prohibits them from collecting payments from their previous customers, disclosing or otherwise benefiting from customers’ personal information and failing to dispose of this information properly.

The FTC complaint

In July 2011, the FTC filed its complaint against Jan Marks; Yellow Page Marketing B.V., also doing business as Yellow Page B.V. and Yellow Page (Netherlands) B.V.; Yellow Publishing Ltd.; and Yellow Data Services Ltd.. They allegedly ran the scheme from Palma de Mallorca, Spain, using English and Dutch corporations, falsely represented that businesses and nonprofits had a preexisting business relationship with them, and that they were affiliated with a local yellow pages directory. A federal judge temporarily halted the operation and froze the defendants’ assets, pending resolution of the case.

The FTC received several hundred complaints from consumers who received faxes that appeared to be from their local yellow pages directories, confirming listings the consumers already had. Those who returned the faxed forms were billed by Yellow Page Marketing and told to send more than $1,000 to a Park Avenue address in New York City. Consumers who refused to pay were subjected to threatening and intimidating collection tactics.

Under the July 2011 temporary restraining order, the FTC intercepted and opened mail that consumers sent to that address, which included nearly 800 checks totaling more than $460,000. The FTC has determined that consumers’ information would be best protected by destroying the checks. In conjunction with this announcement, the FTC is mailing letters to affected consumers, advising them of these facts and providing an FTC Business Alert, “When Yellow Pages Invoices Are Bogus.”  The FTC further advises consumers that any attempts to collect on defendants’ invoices are in violation of the court order.

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Study suggests high fructose corn syrup linked to diabetes

Countries with the highest use have more diabetes cases

As food manufacturers and health groups argue over what is to blame for the rising obesity epidemic, another factor has entered the debate. It's not just t...

PhotoAs food manufacturers and health groups argue over what is to blame for the rising obesity epidemic, another factor has entered the debate. It's not just that people are putting on unhealthy weight, many are developing diabetes.

Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and at Oxford, in the UK, have produced a study that is likely to fuel the debate further. In their report they say countries using high fructose corn syrup in their food supply have a 20 percent higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes.

That, they say, may be one reason for rising levels of type 2 diabetes and resulting higher health care costs.

High fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, undergoes enzymatic processing to make it sweeter. Food companies like it because they don't have to use as much and save on the cost of producing food.

You find HFCS in a wide range of food and beverages, including bread, cereal , soup and condiments.

Comparing countries

The study reports that countries that use HFCS in their food supply had a 20 percent higher prevalence of diabetes than countries that did not. The analysis also revealed that HFCS's association with the "significantly increased prevalence of diabetes" occurred independent of total sugar intake and obesity levels.

"HFCS appears to pose a serious public health problem on a global scale," said principal study author Michael I. Goran, a professor at USC. "The study adds to a growing body of scientific literature that indicates HFCS consumption may result in negative health consequences distinct from and more deleterious than natural sugar."

The paper reports that out of 42 countries studied, the United States has the highest per capita consumption of HFCS at a rate of 25 kilograms, or 55 pounds, per year. The second highest is Hungary, with an annual rate of 16 kilograms, or 46 pounds, per capita. Canada, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Belgium, Argentina, Korea, Japan and Mexico are also relatively high HFCS consumers.

Germany, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Egypt, Finland and Serbia are among the lowest HFCS consumers. Countries with per capita consumption of less than 0.5 kilogram per year include Australia, China, Denmark, France, India, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

Countries with higher use of HFCS had an average prevalence of type 2 diabetes of eight percent compared with 6.7 percent in countries not using HFCS.

Drawing conclusions

"This research suggests that HFCS can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, which is one of the most common causes of death in the world today," said study co-author Professor Stanley Ulijaszek of Oxford.

The article speculates that this link is probably driven by higher amounts of fructose in foods and beverages made with HFCS.

As you might expect, HFCS producers take a different view. On its Website, Sweet Surprise says much of the criticism of its product is media hype.

“In the case of HFCS, the media often demonize it specifically, compelling consumers to focus on this one ingredient instead of looking at their overall diet,” the company said on its Website. “This is a dangerous trend. As a consumer, you need to be objective about the science you read or hear, be it about HFCS or another food fear.”

But the study authors cite what they say is growing evidence that the body metabolizes fructose differently from glucose.

"If HFCS is a risk factor for diabetes -- one of the world's most serious chronic diseases -- then we need to rewrite national dietary guidelines and review agriculture trade polices," said Tim Lobstein, director of policy for the International Association for the Study of Obesity. "HFCS will join trans fats and salt as ingredients to avoid, and foods should carry warning labels."

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Pyrex dispute explodes into federal court

The glassware's manufacturer sues trade journal over article about shattering glassware

The maker of Pyrex glassware claims in court that the American Ceramic Society disparaged its U.S.-made product in a "sensational" article that said it was...

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FDA shuts down peanut butter plant that supplies Trader Joe's

Sunland has been involved in numerous recalls over the last several years

The Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on a New Mexico peanut butter plant that had repeated food safety violations over several years, ...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has suspended the registration of Sunland, Inc., the nation's largest organic peanut butter processor, whose products are sold at the Trader Joe's grocery chain and many others.

FDA officials said they found salmonella in numerous locations in Sunland's Portales, N.M., processing plant. The agency had been tracing the source of salmonella that sickened 41 people in 20 states, many of them children.

The company had voluntarily closed the plant earlier this year and had announced plans to reopen this week.  The FDA stopped that plan in its tracks, using its new authority to close down operations that may be producing unsafe food, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The authority to close down suspected unsafe plants was provided by the food safety law signed by President Obama last year. This  is the first time that provision has been used.

PhotoFollowing Sunland's massive peanut butter recall in late September, the FDA said it found samples of salmonella in 28 locations in the plant, in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts. The Associated Press said that inspectors also found improper product handling, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside of the plant that were exposed to rain and birds.

A Sunland spokesman said the FDA's action was a "surprise." The company has the right to a hearing and will have to prove that it is taking steps to remedy the problem.

The company recalled hundreds of organic and non-organic nut butters and nuts manufactured since 2010 after Trader Joe's Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter was linked to the salmonella illnesses in September.

Sunland also sold hundreds of different peanut products to Target, Safeway, Whole Foods and other large grocery chains. Many of the grocery stores repackaged Sunland products and sold them under their own names.

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Inflatable castles and houses are causing more and more injuries

In the last 15 years the number of injury cases has doubled and researchers call for change

Kids love bouncy castles and houses, so a lot of parents rent them for birthday parties and inflate them in backyard.  Some restaurants that ha...

PhotoKids love bouncy castles and houses, so a lot of parents rent them for birthday parties and inflate them in backyards.  Some restaurants that have a children’s play area use bouncers, the large inflatable toys that kids love to jump on.

But according to recent findings that were published in the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of emergency room visits by children has doubled between the years of 2008 and 2010 due to inflatable bouncers, and researchers say a complete 180 needs to take place in terms of providing more regulations and much stricter monitoring at the manufacturing level to ensure better safety.

“If this was an infectious disease that was increasing at this rate, there would be headlines across the country,” said Gary Smith, the lead author of the study.

“We can use bouncers more safely, ask national groups to come up with guidelines and turn to manufacturers and say ‘What can you do to help us?'  If we all work together, it will be more fruitful than prohibition,” Smith said.

Story continues below video

Collisions & collapses

In the study, Smith and his team looked at the injuries of children ages 17 and younger who were hurt by inflatable bouncers and required emergency room treatment between the years of 1990 and 2010.

The findings showed that 10 percent of the children were hurt by running into another child while playing in the bouncer, and 6.3 percent of the children were hurt after one child collapsed on top of another.

Also, 81.7 percent of the children suffered broken bones, and in total, 3.4 percent of the children had to seek hospital treatment and needed to be kept for overnight observation.

In the last 15 years the rise in the number of injuries has jumped from just under 1,000 cases to 11,000 between the years of 1995 and 2010.

Smith says the findings didn’t show that the size or type of inflatable bouncer--whether a house, castle or otherwise--made a difference in the number or the type of injuries suffered, but there were more injuries than the researchers orginally anticipated.

“There is no evidence that the size or location of an inflatable bouncer affects the injury risk,” said Smith. “I was surprised by the number, especially by the rapid increase in the number of injuries.”

Good exercise

PhotoAlthough Smith has pointed out the many risks factors associated with inflatable bouncers, he says the toys are still a good source of exercise for kids, and if used properly with adult supervision, bouncers can still be a pretty safe go-to for parents choosing to rent them for birthday parties or other events.

The researchers also say setting strict guidelines for children when they use the bouncers should dramatically decrease the number of injuries.

For example, only allowing a small number of children to use the inflatable at the same time, and making sure kids are properly spaced while jumping will make the toys safer.

Kids should also only use the bouncer for jumping and not use it for running or horseplay, which causes even more injuries.

The researchers also compared the inflatable bouncer injuries to injuries suffered during trampoline use and say that stricter guidelines need to be put in place, as a lot of manufacturers and consumers have taken a casual approach to ensuring children’s safety when using inflatable castles or houses.

“The number and rate of pediatric inflatable bouncer-related injuries have increased rapidly in recent years,” said the researchers.

“This increase, along with similarities to trampoline-related injuries, underscores the need for guidelines for safer bouncer usage and improvements in bouncer design to prevent these injuries among children.”

Work together

PhotoSmith also says communities, health officials and parents need to work together to create official safety parameters for using bouncers and trampolines, and much more attention needs to be given to not only the high number of injuries these toys can cause, but just how children are actually using them.

“Ensuring that parents are aware of the potential risks, improving surveillance of the injuries, developing national safety guidelines and improving bouncer design are the first steps,” Smith says.

“The medical and public health community has yet to provide recommendations on the safe use of inflatable bouncers. The growing epidemic of inflatable bouncer injuries makes it clear that it is time to do so.”

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BlackBerry 10 creating some buzz ahead of launch

Were reports of the Blackberry's death premature?

Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the Blackberry and given up for dead a long time ago as the Apple and Android operating systems came to dominate the sma...

PhotoResearch in Motion (RIM), maker of the Blackberry and given up for dead a long time ago as the Apple and Android operating systems came to dominate the smartphone world, is showing some signs of life.

And it's all due to the Blackberry 10, a device that isn't even on the market yet. Earlier this month RIM announced the new phone would debut worldwide on January 30, 2013.

Blackberry 10 isn't just a smartphone but a new platform, and that's what's grabbed attention. Technology analysts have been impressed with what they've seen and heard so far.

BlackBerry Flow and BlackBerry Hub are two of the innovations. The company says BlackBerry Flow is a new user experience that allows seamless navigation across open applications and the BlackBerry Hub. All messages, notifications, feeds, and calendar events come into the BlackBerry Hub and no matter what the user is doing with the device, with a simple gesture, they can look into the Hub at any time.

Keyboard's gone

As advertised, the physical keyboard has disappeared from the Blackberry 10. Instead there is an on-screen keyboard that learns how you write and adapts to how you type so you can write faster and more accurately.

“In building BlackBerry 10, we set out to create a truly unique mobile computing experience that constantly adapts to your needs,” said Thorsten Heins, President and CEO of RIM. “Our team has been working tirelessly to bring our customers innovative features combined with a best in class browser, a rich application ecosystem, and cutting-edge multimedia capabilities.”

All of this has not escaped the attention of Wall Street. RIM stock, which had sunk to the low single digits on the belief the company was destined to become digital roadkill, has surged in the last week. It's now trading between $11 and $12 with a number of analysts sharply raising their price targets.

Blackberry once was the dominant player in the smartphone world, but that was before the iPhone changed the landscape. As Android opened the way for many more device manufacturers, RIM has struggled to stay afloat. The company is hoping Blackberry 10 changes all of that.

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GM's first all-electric car, the Chevrolet Spark, debuts this week

There'll be a lot of extension cords at this week's LA Car Show

Forget the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. At the Los Angeles Car Show this week, it's the Parade of the Electric Cars that's hoping to jolt consumers into ...

PhotoForget the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. At the Los Angeles Car Show this week, it's the Parade of the Electric Cars that's hoping to jolt consumers into a buying mood.

Among the entrants is GM's Chevrolet Spark. An all-electric version of the little car is being rolled out this week and will initially be sold only in California, Oregon, Canada and South Korea, perhaps rolliing out to the rest of the country later.

GM says new technology makes it possible to charge the battery to 80 percent of capacity in just 20 minutes. It develops 130 horsepower and can go from 0 to 60 in 8 seconds, the company says.

Automakers are racing to introduce electric cars in California, where a new state law requires that a certain number of vehicles meet a strict no-tailpipe-emissions standard. No one is sure if consumers will buy the things, but the car makers don't have much choice.

Ford is touting five new hybrids in addition to its all-electric Focus, Nissan is cutting the price of its all-electric Leaf and extending its range and just about every other automaker has one or more new models that use electricity in some form.

The Spark -- manufactured in South Korea at what used to be a Daewoo plant --  also comes as a gas-powered model, and even if the all-electric version doesn't exactly throw off sparks in the showroom, GM is hoping it will create a little halo around the gas version. 

Pricing for the electric Spark hasn't been finalized but GM says it will be cheaper than most of its rivals.

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Study identifies most expensive airports

Houston, Washington and Newark have the highest average fares

Looking for a cheap flight? You might want to fly on past Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Washington's Dulles International and Newark's ...

PhotoLooking for a cheap flight? You might want to fly on past Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Washington's Dulles International and Newark's Liberty International.

They have the highest average fares of 20 major international airports studied by LetsFlyCheaper.com, a travel site. Las Vegas' McCarran International was the least expensive of the 20 large international airport included in the study.

The three most expensive airports are all United hubs, the survey noted. United has been aggressive in recovering higher fuel costs. 

The airports were ranked on the cost of a domestic, round trip air fare against the national average U.S domestic fare cost of $384.81 during the second quarter of 2012. Lets Fly Cheaper used data directly from the Bureau of Transportation Statics.

PhotoHouston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport was ranked as the most expensive airport to use in 2012 with an average domestic round trip fare coming in at $517.50. Washington’s Dulles International was a close second with an average, round trip fare of $504.20. Newark’s Liberty International came in third at $480.30 for a domestic fare.

Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport ranked number twenty with an average domestic round trip fare costing $281.10, which is well below the national average.

“This is a good thing for McCarran. They are a hub for a few low cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines and Allegiant. We anticipate McCarran will likely rank among the cheapest airports to fly in and out of in 2013 with the addition of Spirit Airlines, which recently made Vegas one of their newest hub airports” said Lets Fly Cheaper CEO Ramon vanMeer. Spirit Airlines is among the cheapest U.S carriers and continues to increase their destination routes in and out of McCarran.

Below is the complete list based on the national domestic round trip average of $384.81

  1. Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport – $517.50
  2. Washing Dulles International Airport – $504.20
  3. Newark Liberty International Airport – $480.30
  4. Dallas Fort Worth International Airport – $449.40
  5. San Francisco International Airport – $425.70
  6. Los Angeles International Airport – $418.00
  7. Philadelphia International Airport – $412.50
  8. Charlotte Douglas International Airport KCLT – $410.00
  9. New York Kennedy International Airport – $405.50
  10. Chicago O’Hare International Airport – $392.50
  11. Seattle Tacoma International Airport – $391.70
  12. Boston Logan International Airport – $386.60
  13. San Diego’s Lindberg International Airport – $372.80
  14. Miami International Airport -$371.80
  15. Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport – $366.60
  16. New York’s LaGuardia International Airport – $365.80
  17. Baltimore Washington International Airport – $353.30
  18. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – $342.20
  19. Denver International Airport – $326.10                                                           
  20. Las Vegas McCarran International Airport – $281.10

 

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Consumers more confident as holidays approach

Confidence is at highest level since the 2008 melt-down

Consumers hit the malls on Black Friday and their computer keyboards on Cyber Monday with full force. The register receipts are still being tabulated but i...

PhotoConsumers hit the malls on Black Friday and their computer keyboards on Cyber Monday with full force. The register receipts are still being tabulated but initial reports suggest the total for both days was impressive.

It could mean that consumers are showing growing confidence in the economy and The Conference Board's monthly Consumer Confidence Index for November suggests that's the case. The index posted a moderate increase over October but the fact that the trend line is continuing to rise may be the more important piece of news.

“The Consumer Confidence Index increased in November and is now at its highest level in more than four and a half years, said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “This month’s moderate improvement was the result of an uptick in expectations, while consumers’ assessment of present-day conditions continues to hold steady.”

Increasingly upbeat

Over the past few months, consumers have grown increasingly more upbeat about the current and expected state of the job market, and Franco says this turnaround in sentiment is helping to boost overall consumer confidence.

In November, consumers saying business conditions are “good” declined to 14.4 percent from 16.5 percent, while those saying business conditions are “bad” deceased to 31.5 percent from 33.0 percent. Consumers’ assessment of the labor market, however, improved.

Those claiming jobs are “plentiful” increased to 11.2 percent from 10.4 percent, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” held steady at 38.8 percent.

Consumers also remained optimistic about the short-term outlook in November. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months edged up to 22.2 percent from 21.5 percent, while those expecting business conditions to worsen edged down to 14.3 percent from 15.0 percent.

If consumers are worried about the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year, when taxes could rise for everyone, it has yet to show up in the numbers. All of that bodes well for retailers now in the thick of the holiday season.

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Federal agency finds home prices still rising

Third quarter prices up 1.1 percent from second quarter

Generally, when the price of something goes up it isn't considered good news. The exception to that – at least at this point in our economic history ...

PhotoGenerally, when the price of something goes up it isn't considered good news. The exception to that -- at least at this point in our economic history -- is the price of residential real estate. Homeowners, Realtors and economists all cheer when that happens.

Lately there has been a lot of cheering. Home prices have been rising steadily since the beginning of the year. The latest evidence to suggest that trend is continuing is today's report from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which notes U.S. home prices ticked up 1.1 percent from the second quarter to the third quarter of this year.

When measured year-over-year, the increase is even more impressive -- 4.4 percent. The calculation was made using data from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages.

Continuing a trend

“With significant growth in home prices during the quarter and a modest inventory of homes available for sale, house price movements in the third quarter were similar to what we observed in the spring,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “The past year has seen consistent price increases, but a number of factors continue to affect the recovery in home prices such as stagnant income growth, high unemployment levels, lingering uncertainty about the macroeconomy and the large number of homes in the foreclosure pipeline.”

As prices rise, homeowners who have been underwater since the 2008 housing collapse are a little less so. Those who have been on the line between equity and no equity are getting in a position where they may soon be able to refinance their mortgages, or sell their homes. Millions of people in that situation have been unable to take advantage of record low mortgage rates because they have been unable to refinance.

Reason for optimism

That's why economists cheer the news of rising home prices. If an increasing number of homeowners are able to lower their monthly payments, more money will be available to spend in the economy and pay down other debt.

As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 25 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., third quarter price increases were greatest in the Phoenix-Mesa- Glendale, AZ, Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). That area saw prices increase by 7.2 percent between the second and third quarters.

Prices were weakest in the Edison-New Brunswick, NJ, metropolitan division, where prices fell 2.2 percent over that period.

The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the United States has increased for eight consecutive months. FHFA said it believes much of the recent price gain is attributable to decreases in the share of distressed sales in the latest quarter.

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IBISWorld: holiday spending to grow 3.7 percent in 2012

'Fiscal cliff' concerns are expected to shake consumer confidence and curb overspending

Consumers are expected to get deeper into the holiday mood as we approach Christmas. Industry research firm IBISWorld (pronounced eye-biss-world) predicts...

PhotoConsumers are expected to get deeper into the holiday mood as we approach Christmas.

Industry research firm IBISWorld (pronounced eye-biss-world) predicts holiday spending will rise 3.7 percent from last year -- to total $69.2 billion. Higher disposable income levels will allow consumers to spend more freely on food, decorations and gifts during the holiday shopping season, from Nov. 1 to Dec. 25.

At the same time, though, 2012 holiday spending will grow at a lower rate than the 4.9 percent rise in 2011 due to the approaching “fiscal cliff.” Many crucial financial decisions await a new deficit-reduction deal, and unstable consumer confidence is making Americans hesitant to overspend. Nonetheless, retailers are forecast to see expanding holiday sales. 

Aggregate Spending ($mil)

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

Gifts

$ 56,509.0

$ 47,673.1

$ 44,755.2

$ 46,678.7

$ 48,987.2

$ 50,822.1

Gift Cards

$ 6,153.6

$ 5,388.9

$ 5,565.7

$ 5,720.4

$ 5,968.7

$ 6,245.7

Food

$ 5,508.1

$ 5,353.1

$ 5,158.0

$ 5,245.6

$ 5,578.9

$ 5,864.7

Decorations

$ 6,118.3

$ 5,564.9

$ 5,225.8

$ 5,247.4

$ 5,458.2

$ 5,703.9

Christmas Trees

$ 3,606.3

$ 3,223.7

$ 3,246.1

$ 3,382.9

$ 3,540.2

$ 3,639.4

Cards and Postage

$ 3,499.2

$ 3,123.8

$ 3,072.0

$ 3,062.7

$ 3,140.2

$ 3,165.0

Total

$ 75,240.9

$ 64,938.6

$ 61,457.1

$ 63,617.3

$ 66,704.8

$ 69,195.1

How we spend

IBISWorld expects consumers to spend a total of $50.8 billion on gifts in 2012 -- up $1.8 billion from last year. The fastest-growing gift segments will continue to be electronics and jewelry, with electronics forecast to grow 7.2 percent to $7.7 billion, and jewelry projected to rise 6.3 percent to $5.1 billion.

“Tablet computers in particular are expected to be popular gifts, with electronics sales accounting for 15.1 percent of total holiday gift spending,” says IBISWorld industry analyst Olivia Tang. A surge in new products has helped this segment capture much holiday spending, with new releases like Apple’s new iPad and iPad Mini, Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, Google’s Nexus 7 and Microsoft’s Surface. Even Leapfrog’s LeapPad2 for children is already on parents’ radars due to retailers’ early promotions.

Ultra-luxury items are forecast to perform particularly well this holiday season. High-end jewelry, in particular, is an expensive but sentimental gift that forms a major sector of the quickly growing luxury market.

The lion's share

Clothing will remain the largest gift category at 17.6 percent of total gift expenditures due to its practicality for all recipients, and is anticipated to grow 2.9 percent to $9.0 billion in 2012. Most clothing gift purchases will be high-end brand names due in part to the convenience of shopping at luxury retailers’ online stores.

Although home and garden gifts are forecast to increase only 0.9 percent in 2012, the $5.9 billion estimated spending for the category represents about 11.6 percent of total gift expenditures. The slight increase will be somewhat in line with the housing recovery, which remains sluggish.

Total Sales of Christmas Related Gifts ($mil)

2010

2011

2012

Growth (2011-2012)

Electronics (TVs, computers, gadgets)

$ 6,698.4

$ 7,156.3

$ 7,673.7

7.2%

Jewelry and Accessories

$ 4,504.5

$ 4,824.6

$ 5,129.6

6.3%

Gift Cards

$ 5,720.4

$ 5,968.7

$ 6,245.7

4.6%

Toys, sporting goods, hobbies etc.

$ 3,230.2

$ 3,301.9

$ 3,400.9

3.0%

Clothing

$ 8,427.9

$ 8,716.3

$ 8,967.3

2.9%

Personal Care and Cosmetics

$ 4,915.3

$ 4,994.5

$ 5,131.3

2.7%

Other

$ 7,416.6

$ 8,194.7

$ 8,390.7

2.4%

Home and Garden (incl. appliances)

$ 5,765.5

$ 5,830.3

$ 5,882.8

0.9%

Total

$46,678.7

$48,987.2

$50,822.1

3.7%

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Taking some of the stress out of holiday travel

Here are some tips for making it easier, and maybe cheaper, to get there

Unfortunately the holiday season requires many of us to travel. Sure, we'll enjoy being with family and friends once we get there, but the getting there se...

PhotoUnfortunately, the holiday season requires many of us to travel. Sure, we'll enjoy being with family and friends once we get there, but the getting there seems to get harder and more stressful every year.

So in the interest of removing some of that stress, here are a few ideas for making travel around the holidays simpler and easier, courtesy of the experts at the Ryerson University School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

First, don't overspend. Give yourself plenty of time to shop for the best travel and vacation deals. Don't use just one Website. Check them all, if possible.

Timing can be everything

Also, be very careful that when you book travel, you fully understand the terms. Many third-party sites have little flexibility if plans change. The price may seem low but if you have to make even a slight change in plans, it will end up costing a lot more.

While you want to give yourself plenty of time to shop you don't want to take too much time. If you are trying to travel around Christmas or New Years, for example, your options are more limited. The earlier you book, the better the chances of securing your preferred dates.

If possible, try to book one of your travel dates on Christmas Day or even New Year’s Day. Flights and trains will be less busy and wait times should be shorter.

The more flexible you can be the more travel options are at your disposal. If your plans include others, obviously you have to narrow your choices. But if you and your family are going away for a holiday, try to consider other options.

If you can go away for a week in January, for example, you might want to wait to book so you can take advantage of last-minute deals.

Leave presents unwrapped

Heightened security has made holiday travel harder. If you’re travelling with gifts, leave them unwrapped. Remember that Christmas gifts may be opened and checked by security.

Try to pack lightly, especially when you’re bringing gifts, to avoid excess baggage charges, which could push the envelope on your holiday budget. Consider shipping your gifts in advance to make travelling easier and to avoid your loved ones’ gifts ending up in the lost luggage abyss. Avoid sending everything in one box, just in case.

If you’re travelling with someone, pack some necessities in each other’s bag. This way, you’ll both be covered in case one your suitcases gets misplaced during the holiday rush.

Some of the stress of holiday travel is just getting to the airport. To avoid the parking hassle at the airport consider taking a taxi or airport limousine. This way, you can relax and start your hard-earned vacation on the right foot.

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Travelzoo fined for violation of code-share disclosure rules

The online ticket agency failed to provide full disclosure about flight operators

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has slapped online ticket agent Travelzoo with a $50,000 penalty for failing to tell consumers when flights wer...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has slapped online ticket agent Travelzoo with a $50,000 penalty for failing to tell consumers when flights were being operated under a code-sharing arrangement. It also ordered the company to cease and desist from future violations.

“Passengers deserve to know which airline will be operating their flight before they purchase their tickets,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We will continue to take enforcement action against airlines and ticket agents when they fail to comply with our code-sharing disclosure rules.”

Airline identity disclosure

Under code-sharing, an airline will sell tickets on flights that use its designator code but are operated by a separate airline. DOT rules require airlines and ticket agents to disclose to consumers -- before they book a flight -- if the flight is operated under a code-sharing arrangement. The disclosure must include the corporate name of the transporting carrier and any other name under which the flight is offered to the public. When tickets are purchased on the Internet, code-share information must be easily viewable on the first display of a Website following a search for flights corresponding to a desired itinerary.

An investigation by the Department’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings revealed that for a period of time this year, Travelzoo failed to properly disclose on its Website the existence of code-sharing arrangements when advertising code-share flights operated on behalf of a major air carrier by a regional air carrier.

Travelzoo did not display the corporate names of the carriers operating the flights or any other names under which those flights were sold to the public on its flight itinerary pages. As a result, consumers were unable to learn, at an early stage of the booking process, the identity of the airline that would actually operate the aircraft on which they would be flying.

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International strike force seizes 132 Web domains

Part of a crackdown on operations that sell counterfeit goods

International law enforcement used the occasion of Cyber Monday in the U.S. to announce the take-down of 132 websites they say were illegally selling count...

PhotoInternational law enforcement used the occasion of Cyber Monday in the U.S. to announce the take-down of 132 Websites they say were illegally selling counterfeit goods to unsuspecting consumers.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations joined law enforcement agencies from Belgium, Denmark, France, Romania, the United Kingdom and the European Police Office (Europol) in the action.

Authorities say these Websites were set up to dupe consumers into unknowingly buying counterfeit goods as part of the holiday shopping season. The operation was coordinated by the ICE HSI-led National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) in Washington, D.C.

Third year for crackdown

It's a never-ending project. In fact, this is the third year that the IPR Center has targeted Websites selling counterfeit products online in conjunction with Cyber Monday.

The operation -- known as “Cyber Monday 3” -- seized 101 Websites and yielded one arrest. Additionally, recognizing the global nature of Internet crime, this year the IPR Center partnered with Europol, who, through its member countries, executed coordinated seizures of foreign-based top-level domains such as .eu, .be, .dk, .fr, .ro and .uk. This effort is titled Project Transatlantic and resulted in 31 domain name seizures.

"This operation is a great example of the tremendous cooperation between ICE and our international partners at the IPR Center," said ICE Director John Morton. "Our partnerships enable us to go after criminals who are duping unsuspecting shoppers all over the world. This is not an American problem, it is a global one and it is a fight we must win."

On one hand the action might appear to benefit producers and intellectual property holders more so that consumers. After all, some consumers might not mind that the Gucci bag is a knock-off, as long as it's a good knock-off and is cheap.

How it hurts consumers

But authorities say the poor quality of counterfeit goods always harms consumers in the end. Also, they say some counterfeit products might be dangerous since they are not produced to the same standards as the real thing.

For their coordinated crackdown, the IPR Center and Europol received leads from various trademark holders regarding the infringing websites. Those leads were given to eight investigating HSI field offices in Baltimore, Buffalo, Denver, El Paso, Newark, San Antonio, San Diego and Ventura (Calif.), and to the investigating Europol member countries including Belgium, Denmark, France, Romania and the United Kingdom.

The domain names seized are now in the custody of the governments involved in these operations. Visitors typing those domain names into their Web browsers will now find a banner that notifies them of the seizure and educates them about the federal crime of willful copyright infringement.

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Haiku Deck: PowerPoint's younger, cooler and more rebellious sibling

Will the presentation app be Gen Y's way to express ideas, stories and business plans?

If you think about it, we’ve been using the same old Microsoft Office programs for quite some time.Word and Outlook haven’t been improve...

PhotoIf you think about it, we’ve been using the same old Microsoft Office programs for quite some time. Word and Outlook haven’t really changed all that much, and Microsoft Access hasn’t blown anyone’s socks off in recent memory either.

But probably one of the most surprising Microsoft programs to remain stagnant is PowerPoint, and you would think this wouldn’t be the case since the need to wow a person through a visual presentation is still very important in everyday life, not to mention business.

That’s where three Seattle buddies stepped in and created an app called Haiku Deck that could possibly rival PowerPoint in the area of presentations or at the very least be a hipper alternative to the serious no-nonsense -- and, let's face it, somewhat dull -- PowerPoint.

Simply put, if Microsoft PowerPoint is all charcoal grey suits and wingtips, then Haiku Deck is t-shirts and sneakers, which basically means the company is trying to bring a more youthful and playful approach to putting presentations together.

However, before reading farther, take note: this is an iPad app. If you don't have an iPad, maybe the Haiku people think you're not cool enough to use their app. But anyway, for whatever reason, it's only available for the iPad. You can, however, export completed slide shows to other types of devices.

Colorful gallery

PhotoA perfect example of the visual differences between Haiku Deck and other presentation programs like Prezi or SlideRocket is in the gallery section of the company’s website, where colorful and inviting photos are used to draw the audience into the presentation.

In addition, slides are able to move a lot quicker and in a much slicker fashion than PowerPoint, and fonts are bolder, making words seem more pronounced. 

What's also different is that users are able to put together extremely professional and creatively designed presentations without being a graphic designer or a PowerPoint expert.

The creators say they want to change people’s perception of visual presentations from something one has to sit through to something they're eager to experience. The company certainly has its work cut out for it in that regard, but the sheer ambition has to be admired.

Ideal for tablets

As noted earlier, Haiku Deck is an iPad app. CEO Adam Tratt says consumers are using their tablets for everything nowadays so it makes perfect sense to create programs that cater to that everyday use.

“The tablet began as a media consumption device,” he said in an interview with GeekWire. We are currently experiencing a “seismic shift in how people are using tablets, from content consumption to content creation.”

Tratt also says the program will attract other users besides the usual boss in the boardroom type.

“I think early adopters will include entrepreneurs who are always pitching, marketing types who are telling stories and creating narratives for brands, leaders/organizers who are promoting a movement, teachers/students who want to deliver impact,” he explained.

The company says it doesn’t only want to provide a fresh alternative to programs like PowerPoint, it wants to completely change the way presentations are thought about.

Business as usual

Photo“Presentation software hasn’t changed very much over the years,” the company said on its site. “It’s been business as usual since the invention of the Internet and mass adoption of mobile devices. We set out ... to change the game. With our product, anyone can create a stunning deck and share it.”

It seems that most presentation programs set out to provide content in a professional and uniformed way, but few companies have really tried to make presentations beautiful, entertaining and fun to watch.

Haiku Deck clearly seeks to be the first company to provide this service, and since it heavily associates itself with both the younger generation and the way mobile devices are used today, the company could eventually be looked at as Gen Y’s official way to present an idea, business plan or a solution to a problem.

The app is also perfect for organizers and companies that want to market their products and services in a youthful, cool and stylish way.

The color photos users will have access to are from the photo-sharing site Creative Common, and since every Internet photo seems to be going the Pintrest route these days with bold imaging, audiences of the presentation should be able to pay closer attention to what’s being shown.

More fun

The company also wants to increase the fun factor for the person putting the presentation together and by viewing the online video for Haiku Deck, it’s clear that easy use for the presenter is a big part of the this program.

Whether the app will eventually rival PowerPoint or similar programs is yet to be determined, but the Haiku has already received its fair share of attention, especially among those who are looking for the next generation of visual and presentation tools.

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Black Friday Diary: Inventory problems, price disputes leave shoppers peeved

It's pretty much the same story every year -- stores overpromise and underdeliver

As expected, hundreds of thousands of consumers trooped to the nation's big box stores this year for the annual shopping extravaganza known as Black Friday...

PhotoAs expected, millions of consumers trooped to the nation's big box stores this year for the annual shopping extravaganza known as Black Friday and its new predecessor, Black Thursday.

Although there were scattered protests about stores opening on Thanksgiving night, retailers said the promotion was a success. Walmart alone said it counted 22 million customers on Thanksgiving. 

Not everyone chose to fight the crowds in person. Online Black Friday sales topped $1 billion for the first time this year, comScore Inc said on Sunday, up 26% over last year. ShopperTrak estimated Black Friday sales at $11.2 billion, down 1.8% from last year.

With this many consumers determined to buy something -- anything! -- it's not surprising to find a growing reservoir of hard feelings over pricing, delivery, out-of-stock items and warranty issues, not to mention a little roughhousing.

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Here are some of the more representative postings to ConsumerAffairs memorializing Black Friday 2012.

Walmart

Consumers rate Wal-Mart - Customer Service

Bea of Hondo, Texas, is still fuming about her attempt to buy some sale items at Walmart. Here's her story:

Advertisement clearly reflected the three sale events, starting at 8pm thanksgiving night, 10 pm and 5 am the next morning. Two of the items I wanted were on the 10 pm sale event. I got to the store before 8pm thinking I might like some of the sale items at that time slot too. Right away I asked where I could find the 10 pm item so that I could stand in line or do whatever I needed to do to be ready for when it went on sale at 10. I was told that particular item was already sold out. Well, come to find out people were allowed to fill their carts at 6 pm with items that were not going on sale until 10.....four whole hours before the sale time! I thought that was just plain wrong, very bad misadvertisement.

Bea went back to the store the next day and spoke with a manager who told her that store personnel would sometimes sell items before they went on sale "if the crowd began looking like they might fight for a certain item."

This is probably understandable from a self-preservation standpoint but Bea thinks it's just plain wrong.

"So basically,Walmart caters to the violent people who don't respect the Walmart store environment nor their Black Friday sale events time and the honest customer gets the shaft," she said. "I for one will not bother to go again if they can't control their violent troublemakers and treat the good, loyal customer with more consideration."

Walmart confirms that it sold out of three of its heavily-advertised electronics specials -- an iPad 2, a 32-inch Emerson television and an LG Blu-ray player. But the giant retailer said that shoppers who were waiting in line for the deals will stil be able to buy them at the advertised price and will be able to pick them up at stores before Christmas.

Whether that word made it to all the consumers who missed out on sale items is open to question.

It wasn't just electronics causing problems. Fernando of Cocoa, Fla., would be loaded for bear if only he had gotten his shotgun. 

"The Walmart Black Friday ad had listed a Savage Model 320 shotgun [but] in all of Brevard County, Florida, Walmart had none of this item," Fernando complained. 

Kmart

Kmart  Nov. 25, 2012, 10:26 p.m.
Consumers rate Kmart

Christine of Cochranville, Pa., went to the Kmart in Lancaster at 7 a.m. on Black Friday to pick up an Eagle Talon Castle for her grandson.

"Scanned it on red laser and it said that it was $44.97 on-line or local, but when she rang it up it came up as $59.99. I showed her the red laser result from scanning the bar code and she called the manager," Christine said. "He said that was just the online price and I asked why it said local also. He said that was only if ordered online and picked up at the store."

"I said the was deceiving and he said too bad,"Christine said. "I went to Walmart got the same item , showed the the red laser and the gave it to me for that advertised price. That is why Kmart is losing customers and Walmart is growing. I will not shop Kmart any more."

Best Buy

Consumers rate Best Buy Computers

Samuel of Loma Linda, Calif., bought an HP laptop online on Black Friday and was told to go to the store to pick it up.

"A day later, I received another email telling me that they are out of the laptops and they are 'sorry.' They are giving me a $50 credit towards my next purchase but the discount on the laptop was $200. In other words, I will have to spend an extra $150 on the laptop.

"If they don't have it anymore and still sold it, they should allow me to purchase a similar laptop with a $200 discount or tell me I can get it as soon as they come in," Samuel said.

Sam's Club


Consumers rate Sam's Club

Jorge of Boca Raton, Fla., placed an online order with Sam’s Club for the 65” Vizio LED that they had on promotion for the Black Friday week, he told us.

Sam's Club Nov. 25, 2012, 10:28 p.m.
Consumers rate Sam's Club
"Their online ad said that they would start selling online at 11 PM on Wednesday 11/21/12. The item became available about 5min before 11PM and I placed the order online. The order was processed successfully, I received the confirmation by email and they took the money from my bank account," he said.

But to his surprise, Jorge received an email Friday morning saying his order had been canceled because of high demand and low inventory.

"I went to the store but it was too late since they only had 6 units per store. Not only that, but once I got home I saw that the money was still not returned to my account. So not only I lost Black Friday [but] I also cannot even try to buy another TV because Sam’s Club still have my money," Jorge said.

JC Penney

J.C. Penney Nov. 25, 2012, 10:29 p.m.
Consumers rate J.C. Penney

"I went Black Friday shopping hoping to get the 5n1 blender," Emily of Boca Raton Fla., said. "I arrived at the store 30 minutes before and there was no one waiting. Once it got closer to the time more and more people arrived.

"They opened the doors and I went upstairs to get a blender and noticed there was only about 10 in the piles which was immediately gobbled up by people. I think that's a little ridiculous for a department store Black Friday. I definitely won't be shopping there on Black Friday anymore," Emily vowed.

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Photo credit: YouTube

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Today should be busiest online shopping day of the year

More consumers are doing their shopping online

Black Friday is yesterday's news. Today is "Cyber Monday," a serious, and perhaps more civilized day for bargain-hunting.Cyber Monday, of course, is the ...

PhotoBlack Friday is yesterday's news. Today is "Cyber Monday," a serious, and perhaps more civilized day for bargain-hunting.

Cyber Monday, of course, is the Monday after after Thanksgiving, when online retailers put out their bargains for online shoppers. Since the tradition began it has turned into one of the busiest shopping days of the year, rivaling Black Friday.

Actually, holiday shopping online is already off to a big start. Online Black Friday sales topped $1 billion for the first time this year, comScore Inc said on Sunday, up 26% over last year. ShopperTrak estimated Black Friday sales at $11.2 billion, down 1.8% from last year.

And unlike Black Friday, which often gets a black eye from consumers unhappy with crowded stores, sold-out items and price disputes, shoppers are highly positive about Cyber Monday. We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 580,000 consumer postings to social media sites over the last year and found very positive sentiments, as reflected in this chart:

 

 Compare that to the rather dismal 27% positive sentiment for Black Friday we reported earlier and one might conclude that online shopping is fast becoming the people's choice.

If there's any doubt online shopping is growing, a new survey from CouponCabin.com shows 47 percent of Cyber Monday shoppers will spend more money online today than they will in-store the during the rest of the holiday season.

Going mobile

The holiday has gone mobile as well. More than one-quarter of smartphone and tablet owners plan to shop online on Cyber Monday on their devices. Some of those embracing mobile Cyber Monday shopping started scoping out items in-store on Black Friday. More than four-in-ten smartphone owners who plan to shop online on Cyber Monday said they "showroomed" certain products on Black Friday with the intention to buy them on Cyber Monday.

Spending is expected to rise this year. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they plan to spend between $101 and $500 today. Six percent will spend more than $500.

"Cyber Monday's popularity has grown year after year," said Jackie Warrick, President and Chief Savings Officer at CouponCabin.com. "For some people, it's even eclipsed Black Friday as the top day for saving, likely due to its convenience. Plus, Cyber Monday shoppers can access deals from anywhere, whether they're on the go, at home or at work."

Bosses may not approve, but a lot of these purchases today will be made by people who are on company time. Thirty-seven percent of employed shoppers report they plan to browse the Cyber Monday deals while they're at work, up from 24 percent last year.

Advice

No matter where you'll do your Cyber Monday shopping, Warrick offers the following tips to maximize the busiest online shopping day of the year:

Bookmark, subscribe to and follow your favorites. In the week leading up to Cyber Monday, take some time to bookmark web pages, subscribe to email alerts and follow your favorite stores on various channels so you're in the know about their savings specials. It will save you precious shopping time when Cyber Monday rolls around!

Read reviews. Nobody likes to return items or get stuck with something that's low quality. Figure out which items are good fits for your needs ahead of time by reading reviews online. Don't be swayed to buy lesser quality items or ones that don't have what you want just because they're cheap.

Start your shopping on a coupon site. The sheer volume of deals on Cyber Monday can be overwhelming, so start your shopping on a coupon site. They do all the homework for you and you can easily search for your favorite stores and brands.  

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Ford is energized over its new high-mpg models

The automaker is taking aim at Toyota as it rolls out five new hybrids

Do you think of Ford as the leader in fuel economy? Didn't think so. Neither does anyone else that we know of but that's not stopping Ford from blowing its...

PhotoDo you think of Ford as the leader in fuel economy? Didn't think so. Neither does anyone else that we know of but that's not stopping Ford from blowing its horn about the rising mpg ratings of its expanding hybrid fleet.

With three new hybrids already on the market and two more on the way, Ford is going after Toyota, which currently holds the top spot among most mileage-minded consumers. Hyundai had the title for a little while but has now admitted it overstated mileage claims for nearly 1 million cars in the 2011-13 model years.

"Ford has eight products that deliver 40 mpg or more. We can beat Toyota in every segment where they compete," C.J. O'Donnell, Ford marketing manager for electrified vehicles, said at the San Francisco launch of the C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, Automotive News reported. "We're not going to be shy about pointing out those advantages to customers."

Ford may have its work cut out for it, at least when it comes to raising consumers' awareness of its hybrid offerings. We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis and found only 1,700 consumer postings about Ford hybrids to social media sites over the last year. That's the bad news.

The good news is that the sentiments were highly positive, hitting the 100% mark several times throughout the year. This is partly a result of the small sample size but should nevertheless bring a little holiday cheer to Ford.

 

Aggressive edge

Ford is taking an aggressive edge in a series of new ads, comparing the C-Max to the Toyota Prius, claiming the 2013 C-MAX Energi is America’s "most fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid" – certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to offer the equivalent of 105 miles per gallon (MPGe) combined – 5 MPGe more than Prius Plug-in.

“Ford’s strategy to deliver the power of choice for leading fuel economy across our lineup seems very well timed as our customers and dealers are showing significant interest in vehicles such as the C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid,” O’Donnell said in an earlier press release. “C-MAX Energi joins C-MAX Hybrid to help Ford take on Prius for the first time, with great early signs as the hybrid outsold Prius v in its first full month of sales in October.”

Five models in 2013

PhotoBy early 2013, Ford says it will be the first automaker to sell three plug-in electrified vehicles when the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid arrives. In total, Ford is launching five new electrified vehicles, including:
  • C-MAX Hybrid: C-MAX Hybrid delivers EPA-certified 47 mpg city, highway and combined – up to 7 mpg better than Prius v – plus 50 more horsepower and 15 exclusive technologies, according to Ford.
  • C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid: Ford’s first production plug-in hybrid delivers 108 MPGe city EPA rating, 21 miles of all-electric range that’s more than triple Prius plug-in’s six miles, and 620 miles of overall range on a tank of gas, Ford said. The vehicle’s “real car” performance includes 195 horsepower (versus Prius plug-in’s 134 horsepower), engaging driving dynamics and a quiet interior – all with a leading EV-only speed of 85 mph, 20 mph above the Prius plug-in
  • Fusion Hybrid: EPA-rated 47 mpg city, highway and combined, up to 6 mpg better than the Toyota Camry Hybrid combined.
  • Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid (will begin production by the end of this year): Aims to be the most fuel-efficient midsize car in the world with more than 100 MPGe, according to Ford.
  • Focus Electric: America’s most fuel-efficient five-passenger car, with an EPA-certified 110 MPGe city rating and 105 MPGe combined, beating Nissan Leaf by 6 MPGe while offering more motor power and more standard features, the automaker claims.

Certified dealers

PhotoFord is not allowing just any dealer to sell the C-Max and its other electrified cars. So far it has more than 200  dealers certified to sell its lineup of plug-in electrified vehicles.

The first 67 certified dealers were in California, New York and New Jersey and have been selling the Focus Electric since spring. By early 2013, Focus Electric and C-MAX Energi will be joined by Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid – expected to be the world’s most fuel-efficient sedan by achieving more than 100 MPGe in electric mode – and available at certified dealers nationwide.

To become certified to sell the plug-ins, dealers first had to satisfy a list of  requirements, including:

  • One of the two required charging stations at the dealership must be in the customer area and the other must be in the service area
  • At least one Focus Electric and C-MAX Energi must be available at all times for demonstrations and events
  • Of the sales consultant, sales manager, service advisor and service manager jobs at each location, 80 percent must meet specific electric vehicle training certification requirements that cover topics including advanced knowledge of electrification
  • Each showroom will have point-of-purchase display materials including digital assets and window signage
  • Participation in a Ford Go Green Dealer Onsite Facility Assessment to identify energy- and cost-saving opportunities with a goal of facilitating energy efficiency, lower operating expenses and carbon footprint reduction.

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Photo credits: Ford Motor Co.

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The Stellaris Launch Pad: A $13 single-board computer

First it was the Raspberry Pi for $25 and now comes the Stellaris which also helps with computer design

We recently reported on the $25 Raspberry Pi computer that teaches people computer design, which has been the rave among those interested in coding and lea...

PhotoWe recently reported on the $25 Raspberry Pi computer that teaches people computer design, which has been the rave among those interested in coding and learning how a computer works from the inside out.

Well, now the folks at Texas Instruments have released their version of the single-board computer by way of the Stellaris Launch Pad, which is similar to the Raspberry Pi in shape and function but only costs $13, which has made techies who are interested in fiddling with the inside of computers extremely happy.

As electronic gear becomes more and more ingrained into our everyday lives, many believe schools have done a poor job teaching children how to design computers and build hardware from the ground up.

The Stellaris Launch Pad helps you do just that, and although it’s only a single-board computer and doesn’t come with a screen or keyboard,  it can still be connected to a desktop or laptop by its USB port to take on some of the functions of a regular computer, but it doesn’t allow you full computer use like the Raspberry Pi.  

But to use the Launch Pad like a traditional computer isn’t really the point here, as the main purpose of the device is to give people an inexpensive way to experiment and conduct a good bit of trial and error while learning computer design.

The specs

The specs of the Launch Pad include an onboard USB in-circuit debug interface, a Micro AB USB device port, and 3 user LEDs among other features. There’s also a software application that shows users how to code and program the Launch Pad from a Linux box.

The $13 computer comes with a series of tutorials, like how to start a new Code Composer Studio project, and an introduction to Stellaris’ Data Sheets and User’s Guides. The tutorials also show you how to import certain codes if you happen to be a novice at computer design.

Not for everyone

Now of course the Stellaris Launch Pad won’t be for everybody, as everyday device users probably won’t care much for a computer that doesn’t really function like a full-fledged computer, but many in the hacking world should be excited over this release, as the Launch Pad is yet another instrument like the Cubieboard and the Mini X that appeals to the group of consumers who may want to build their own computers one day.

The era of the single-board computer has also given opportunities for those children or nations that may not be able to afford high-end electronics and may be able to build their own device at a cheaper cost.

Now before you go and purchase the Launch Pad as a holiday gift--especially for a child--you should make sure they’re interested in computer design first, and want to use the board for that purpose.  Just buying the Stellaris because its $13 and trying to get regular computer use out of it, shouldn’t be your primary motivation.

But if you do pick one up they shouldn’t be too hard to find, as the Stellaris, can be purchased at both online and retail stores.

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Verizon dishes up 75 channels on its iPad app

But customers have to be in their home to use the service

Trailing a few steps behind Cablevision and Time Warner, Verizon is making 75 channels available to its FiOS TV and Internet customers via their iPad. But ...

PhotoTrailing a few steps behind Cablevision and Time Warner, Verizon is making 75 channels available to its FiOS TV and Internet customers via their iPad. But unlike Cablevision and Time Warner, the service doesn't include local TV channels. 

Comcast, meanwhile, has added the ability to download content from some premium channels which were previously available only through on-demand. 

Verizon's iPad app went on sale last week in the Apple iTunes App Store.  

To use the feature, customers must subscribe to both FiOS Internet and TV service, and must use a Verizon-provided router. Live TV on the iPad is accessible only within a customer’s home over Wi-Fi.

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Comcast's additions

Comcast has updated its service for mobile devices. Besides on-demand streaming of premium channels, subscribers can no download some content for offline viewing. Arriving simultaneously on iOS and Android, the Xfinity TV Player apps support downloads from premium channels Showtime, Starz, Encore, and MoviePlex.

Verizon channels

The 75 networks available through the FiOS iPad app -- available to customers based on their TV subscription package -- are: TNT, TBS, Spike TV, USA Network, FX, HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY, Style, History, National Geographic Channel, TLC, Discovery, H2, Military History, NatGeo Wild, Science, ID, Animal Planet, Military Channel, TV Land, AMC, TCM, Hallmark Channel, Nick, Nick Jr., TeenNick, Nicktoons, Sprout, The Hub, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, MTV, MTV2, CMT, MTV Jams, VH1, VH1 Soul, Fox News, CNN, HLN, Fox Business Network, CNBC, MSNBC, BBC World News, Galavision, TV One, BET, Centric, Comedy Central, truTV, ABC Family, A&E, Syfy, Bravo, E!, G4, BBC America, TV Guide Network, HBO, HBO2, Cinemax, Epix, IFC, ESPNews, NFL Network, Lifetime, Lifetime Movie Network, OWN, Oxygen and We TV.

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Cyber threats to watch for in 2013

They're getting more sophisticated and harder to avoid

The Internet has become more sophisticated over the years and so have the threats to users. Today, hackers are doing more than sending out infected spam em...

PhotoThe Internet has become more sophisticated over the years and so have the threats to users. Today, hackers are doing more than sending out infected spam emails -- they're exploiting the system's vulnerabilities to threaten consumers.

Experts at Georgia Tech -- the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC) and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) -- constantly work to stay one step ahead of the hackers. They say the coming year will pose some steep challenges.

Here are some threats they say consumers should be aware of:

Cloud-based botnets

The ability to create vast, virtual computing resources will further persuade cyber criminals to look for ways to co-opt cloud-based infrastructure for their own ends. For example, attackers can use stolen credit card information to purchase cloud computing resources and create dangerous clusters of temporary virtual attack systems.

Search history poisoning

Cyber criminals will continue to manipulate search engine algorithms and other automated mechanisms that control what information you see when you do a search. Moving beyond typical search-engine poisoning, researchers believe that manipulating users’ search histories may be a next step in ways that attackers use legitimate resources for illegitimate gains.

Mobile browser and mobile wallet vulnerabilities

This, unfortunately, may be a fertile growth area for scammers. While only a very small number of U.S. mobile devices show signs of infection, the explosive proliferation of smartphones will continue to tempt attackers in exploiting user and technology-based vulnerabilities, particularly with the browser function and digital wallet apps.

Malware counteroffensive

Unfortunately, your anti-virus software may prove less effective against emerging threats. The developers of malicious software will employ various methods to hinder malware detection, such as hardening their software with techniques similar to those employed in Digital Rights Management (DRM), and exploiting the wealth of new interfaces and novel features on mobile devices.

"Our adversaries, whether motivated by monetary gain, political/social ideology or otherwise, know no boundaries, making cyber security a global issue,” said Bo Rotoloni, director of GTRI’s Cyber Technology and Information Security Laboratory. “Our best defense on the growing cyber warfront is found in cooperative education and awareness, best-of-breed tools and robust policy developed collaboratively by industry, academia and government.”

The bottom line, say the Georgia Tech experts, is users must keep their guard up in the coming year.

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2013 Ford Focus captures top government safety rating

Automaker highlights improvements in airbags and stability

Ford Motor company says its 2013 Ford Focus received a top safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), earning a five-st...

Ford Motor Company says its 2013 Ford Focus received a top safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), earning a five-star Overall Vehicle Score in its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).

That ratings category combines vehicle performance in frontal and side-impact crash tests and a resistance to rollover evaluation. Ford said it believes the Focus was helped by improvements in its airbags and electronic stability control.

The driver's airbag uses a specially designed curve-shaped tether system that pulls in the lower section to create a "pocket" to help lessen the impact of the airbag on the driver's chest and ribs in frontal crashes.

Airbag 'venting'

New seat mounted side airbags feature shoulder vents designed to line up with the shoulder area of a larger occupant keeping the side airbag from venting. On smaller passengers, the effect is just the opposite. Because the occupant's shoulder is below the vent, the gas vents out of the airbag.

"The new Focus is another example of Ford's commitment to safety and NHTSA's NCAP program has recognized this fact," said Steve Kenner, global director of the Automotive Safety Office. "The Focus is built with technologies from bumper to bumper to help reduce occupant injury risk when a crash is unavoidable."

Ford said its AdvanceTrac with electronic stability control helps the vehicle maintain its intended path by measuring side-to-side skidding, by monitoring the vehicle's speed, throttle position and steering wheel angle, and when wheel slip is sensed, reduces engine torque and applies selected brakes.

Reducing distractions

Ford said its SYNC voice recognition technology allows customers to bring digital media players and Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones into their vehicles and operate the devices via voice commands or with the steering wheel's supplemental audio controls, thus reducing driver distraction.

For novice drivers, a feature called MyKey allows parents to program any key through the vehicle message center to limit the volume on the stereo, top speed, block incoming phone calls and texts and make sure a child is buckled up before using the audio system.

Ford said improvements can even reduce the number of scraps and dents collected while parallel parking. Active park assist uses an ultrasonic-based sensing system and electric power-assisted steering (EPAS) to position the vehicle for parallel parking, calculate the optimal steering angle and quickly steer the vehicle into a parking spot.

The 2013 Ford Focus starts at $16,200, according to automotive site Edmunds.com.

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Standard mileage rates to rise one cent-per-mile in 2013

The new rates will apply for business, medical and moving travel

Another penny from Uncle Sam. The Internal Revenue Service has announced the 2013 optional standard mileage rates used to calculate th...

PhotoAnother penny from Uncle Sam.

The Internal Revenue Service has announced the 2013 optional standard mileage rates used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business, charitable, medical or moving purposes. It works out to an additional penny-per-mile.

Beginning on Jan. 1, 2013, the standard mileage rates for the use of a car (also vans, pickups or panel trucks) will be:

  • 56.5 cents per mile for business miles driven
  • 24 cents per mile driven for medical or moving purposes
  • 14 cents per mile driven in service of charitable organizations

Fixing the rate

The standard mileage rate for business is based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile. The rate for medical and moving purposes is based on the variable costs.

Taxpayers always have the option of calculating the actual costs of using their vehicle rather than using the standard mileage rates.

Exceptions

A taxpayer may not use the business standard mileage rate for a vehicle after using any depreciation method under the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS) or after claiming a Section 179 deduction for that vehicle. In addition, the business standard mileage rate cannot be used for more than four vehicles used simultaneously.

These and other requirements for a taxpayer to use a standard mileage rate to calculate the amount of a deductible business, moving, medical, or charitable expense are in Rev. Proc. 2010-51.

Notice 2012-72 contains the standard mileage rates, the amount a taxpayer must use in calculating reductions to basis for depreciation taken under the business standard mileage rate, and the maximum standard automobile cost that a taxpayer may use in computing the allowance under a fixed and variable rate plan.

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Watch out for Cyber Monday scams

Scammers hope to cash in on the busiest online shopping day of the year

There will no doubt be some great deals online today, since it's Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day of the year. But the big day has also brough...

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Mediation fails, Hostess to liquidate

Maker of the Twinkie is going down after all

Perhaps obscured in the Thanksgiving festivities and the shopping frenzy that followed, the last-ditch effort to save Hostess Brands failed last week. A ba...

PhotoPerhaps obscured in the Thanksgiving festivities and the shopping frenzy that followed, the last-ditch effort to save Hostess Brands failed last week. A bankruptcy court has approved its emergency interim motion for the orderly wind-down of its business and sale of its assets.

Judge Robert Drain approved the motion after the company and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM) were unable to reach an agreement during an 11th-hour mediation yesterday.

Twinkies will be missed, at least for a little while. We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 310,000 consumer comments on social media over the last year.   

Not surprisingly, most of the comments were made in recent weeks, as Twinkies' plight became known -- and it was apparently news consumers were not happy to hear.

 

 Oddly, consumers seem most impressed by Twinkies' purported ability to survive nuclear devastation or other apocalyptic event. 

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No options

Hostess says it has no option other than liquidating, blaming the bakers' union strike for crippling it at a time when it was attempting to reorganize under bankruptcy to continue operating. More than 18,000 employees will eventually be laid off.

Hostess Brands said it intends to retain approximately 3,200 employees to assist with the initial phase of the wind down. Employee headcount is expected to decrease by 94 percent within the first 16 weeks of the operation. The entire process is expected to be completed in one year.

Hostess blames its demise on “an inflated cost structure that put the company at a profound competitive disadvantage.” Hostess said the biggest part of its costs was its collective bargaining agreements that covered 15,000 of 18,500 employees.

Among other provisions, the court order allows Hostess Brands to return excess ingredients and packaging; provides liquidity through an amended debtor-in-possession financing agreement and consensual use of cash collateral; and authorizes the Company to implement a non-executive employee retention plan to ensure the Company has the necessary personnel to implement the wind down.

Brands for sale

Hostess produces more than 30 brands, including the iconic Twinkies, Cupcakes and Wonder Bread product lines. But just because the company is going out of business doesn't mean those products will disappear from the marketplace.

Hostess said it fully expects to sell those brands to other food companies, who will continue to produce them. However the winddown will mean the closure of 33 Hostess bakeries, 565 distribution centers, approximately 5,500 delivery routes, 570 bakery outlet stores and the loss of 18,500 jobs.

Hostess brands was founded in 1930 and was based in Irving, Tex.

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Lots of free shipping offers from online retailers this weekend

Survey finds most retailers offering promotions, discounts, free shipping -- or all three

As surely as Black Friday follows Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday follows the weekend sales orgy. And whether they are affiliated with brick-and-mortar stores o...

PhotoAs surely as Black Friday follows Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday follows the weekend sales orgy.

And whether they are affiliated with brick-and-mortar stores or are standalone online stores, merchants are doing everything imaginable to grab their share of the holiday shopping rush.

According to Shop.org’s eHoliday survey conducted by BIGinsight, 97.3 percent of online retailers will offer special promotions at some point during the Thanksgiving weekend, up from 90.2 percent last year. Specifically, 45.7 percent will offer specific online deals on Thanksgiving Day, and a record 85.0 percent will offer special promotions on Cyber Monday, up from 78.4 percent last year.

"Consumers are increasingly shopping and buying both online and in-store this holiday season,” said Shop.org Executive Director Vicki Cantrell. “Savvy retailers are getting the word out to customers about in-store offers and events using online vehicles such as Facebook, email, Twitter, and mobile alerts."

Cantrell says retailers are "integrating their digital and in-store promotions, working to create that seamless shopping experience that they know consumers demand and expect."  

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Not always trouble-free

Of course, things don't alway turn out as cheerily as the blizzard of press releases, ads ad promotions would lead us to believe.

Consumers rate Best Buy - Laptops

Azhar of Indianapolis bought a laptop during Best Buy's Cyber Monday promotion last year and was none too happy with the outcome.

"I bought laptop online on Cyber Monday, just got an email about back order," he said in a ConsumerAffairs posting last year. "Then called three times, each time wait to talk with somebody, same answer -- back order or you can cancel your order.  My  nine-year-old son is asking with me everyday about his laptop."

Sam of Spring, Texas, had a disappointing experience with a Kohl's order.

"Kohl's canceled my Cyber Monday order due to NO reason (except incompetency. ... I have been chasing them for two weeks but their customer service is running me around with all kind of excuses but no solution," Sam said. "Now I don't have a Christmas gift for my wife and no more Cyber Monday deals anywhere. If you will Google 'kohl's order canceled' you will find hundreds of these incidents."

Laura of Elkhart, Ind., had a similar experience with Target.com.

Consumers rate Target Online

"On Cyber Monday I ordered a Wii bundle from the Target.com site. The item was listed as 'In stock' and I received a confirmation email and number saying my item would be shipped to me. At that point, I thought it was a done deal and waited to receive my item," Laura said. "I do not check my email more than once every few weeks. Today was the day and discovered I had recieved a Cancellation of order email from Target on Dec. 2 telling me the item was no longer available and I would not be getting it.

"I called the number for online order customer service and spoke with 2 different people. The only thing I was offered as compensation was an apology and a $10 gift card,"Laura said.

Slews of offers

Retailers are offering gifts of coupons/percentage off their purchases (47.1%), limited time promotions (26.5%), and other online specific promotions (29.4%).

However, the biggest draw is expected to be free shipping without conditions: 44.1 percent of retailers polled will offer the customer favorite on Cyber Monday, up significantly from the 12.5 percent who said so last year. Another 29.4 percent will offer free standard shipping with conditions.  

“There’s no question that one of shoppers’ favorite deals is free shipping—in fact, many expect it— and retailers are responding,” said BIGinsight Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “The free shipping ‘savings’ plus any additional discount or promotion should pique online shoppers' interest from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday this year.”

Cyber Monday, a term coined by Shop.org in 2005, began after retailers noticed a trend of shopping online the Monday after Thanksgiving when people returned to work.

Today, Cyber Monday is viewed as the online equivalent to Black Friday – the ceremonial kickoff to the online holiday shopping season when shoppers flood retailers’ websites expecting robust promotions such as deep discounts and free shipping offers.

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Photo  credits: National Retail Federation (top), Target.com (bottom)

 
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Nissan hopes to juice up its Leaf sales

The all-electric car's latest model goes farther on a single charge

Nissan is trying to recharge sales of its Leaf electric car. The company says its latest model can travel farther on a charger and how has a gauge that tel...

PhotoNissan is trying to recharge sales of its Leaf electric car. The company says its latest model can travel farther on a charger and how has a gauge that tells drivers how much battery life is left.
 
The changes were based on feedback from owners whose biggest worry was running out of electricity while driving, company officials said at a Tokyo unveiling of the newest model, which also featues a slightly lower price. The base model now starts at $31,000, down from $37,000.
 
The Leaf is the world's most popular electric vehicle, accounting for more than half of all electric car sales worldwide. Nissan sold 43,000 Leafs last year, about half of them in Japan.
 
Photo
Americans who think the Leaf is small should try one of the truly miniature electric cars now common in much of Europe, like this Renault-Nissan two-seater spotted recently in Florence, Italy.
 
All-electric cars have had a harder time winning acceptance in the United States, where commuting distances tend to be longer than in Europe and Asia. Although consumers have no trouble charging their cars at home, finding an outlet on the road is another matter.
Everyone admit that worries about being able to recharge -- commonly known as "range anxiety" -- must be dealt with if electric vehicles are to take off in the U.S.
 
"People who try out the Leaf are moved," Senior Vice President Masaaki Nishizawa said, the Detroit Free Press reported. "But they are worried about cruise range."
 
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Photo credits: Nissan (top) & staff (bottom)
 
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Study: Losing your job could lead to heart disease

According to researchers, it's just not your bills that will suffer from unemployement, it's your health

There's not doubt that joblessness hurts a lot of different areas of life.Obviously, household bills are slow to be paid if they’re able to be paid...

PhotoThere's no doubt that joblessness hurts a lot of different areas of life.

Obviously, household bills are slow to be paid if they’re able to be paid at all, savings accounts have to be tapped into and made into primary accounts and spending on things like eating out, going to the movies or just making a frivolous purchase seem to dramatically decrease.

But what are the health ramifications attached to unemployment? Of course one could easily associate the lack of health coverage to poorer health, but how else does not having gainful employment affect one’s level of well-being?

According to a recent study, unemployment can lead to heart attacks, particularly among the older portion of the work force. This was determined after researchers from Duke University surveyed both men and women since 1992 on a bi-annual basis, to establish a correlation between joblessness and heart disease.

The participants consisted of 13,000 men and women who were questioned about their level of health as well their employment status, and it was determined that Americans between the ages of 50 and 75 had a 35 percent higher chance of developing a heart attack if unemployed, compared to others who had similar health issues but still had their job.

One factor

PhotoThe findings proved to researchers that not having a job could be the one factor that pushes a person over the edge of proper health and causes them to have a heart attack when declining health was already an issue.

This supports the findings of a 2009 Harvard study that showed heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes can develop quickly after someone is laid off from a job, as opposed to quitting.

In the Duke study it was never revealed how the unemployed participants lost their jobs, but researchers said losing a position to no fault of their own was most likely the main contributor of becoming less healthy and ultimately becoming heart attack victims.

“The [size] of the impact was striking to us,” said Dr. Eric Peterson head author of the study in an interview. “There is this compounded effect of multiple job losses on an individual’s health. I think that was interesting and unique to see.”

The researchers also documented the health state of each respondent and took heart disease contributors like smoking, high-blood pressure and poor diet into account to determine heart attack risks. But after considering all of these factors, the study still showed that joblessness was a leading cause in the participants declining health.

And although it wasn't determined if unemployment was the sole cause of the respondents getting a heart attack, researchers saw it was a primary factor, especially for those who previously showed signs of heart disease before losing their job.

And during the study, 69 .7 percent lost their jobs at least one time, 7.9 percent suffered a heart attack, and 14 percent of the participants didn’t have a job at the start of the research.

Behavior affected

PhotoAdditionally, researchers learned that losing a job also led to behaviors that may add to the risk of heart disease like smoking, developing high blood pressure through stress and other things linked to being abruptly let go from a position.

“The risks of heart attacks associated with multiple job losses were of the magnitude of other established risk factors, such as smoking, hypertension and diabetes,” said Duke study author Dr. Matthew E. Dupree.

And the fact the health of older Americans seem to be more impacted by a job loss could be because younger workers may already expect their employment may be for a short while, as staying with one company until retirement is far from the norm nowadays, and the younger generation has seemed to except this.

Although losing a job is extremely unfortunate for a person of any age, younger workers may be prepared for it a little bit more since the word “job-security” doesn’t really apply these days, as companies and employers are continually cutting back and downsizing, while choosing to carry on with a smaller staff to spend less money.

Dupre says the findings weren’t at all a shock to the researchers, but the fact that joblessness seemed to have as heavy as an impact as other factors associated with heart disease, was extremely troubling for them.

“We weren’t surprised to find the association, but we were surprised to find that the effects were so large, on par with classic risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes,” he said.

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FDA approves new seasonal flu vaccine

It's the first vaccine manufactured using cell culture technology

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has signed off on Flucelvax, the first seasonal influenza vaccine licensed in the United States produced using cultur...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has signed off on Flucelvax, the first seasonal influenza vaccine licensed in the U.S. produced using cultured animal cells, instead of fertilized chicken eggs. Flucelvax is approved to prevent seasonal flu in people ages 18 years and older.

The manufacturing process for Flucelvax is similar to the egg-based production method, but a significant difference is that the virus strains included in the vaccine are grown in animal cells of mammalian origin instead of in eggs. Cell culture technology has been in use for several decades to produce other U.S. licensed vaccines.

“Today’s approval represents the culmination of efforts to develop a seasonal influenza vaccine using cell culture as an alternative to the egg-based process,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

Manufacturing alternative

Cell culture technology is another manufacturing alternative to conventional egg-based influenza vaccine production. Its advantages include the ability to maintain an adequate supply of readily available, previously tested and characterized cells for use in vaccine production and the potential for a faster start-up of the vaccine manufacturing process in the event of a pandemic.

Flucelvax was evaluated in a randomized controlled clinical study conducted in the United States and Europe that involved about 7,700 people ages 18 to 49 years who received either Flucelvax or a placebo. The study showed that it was 83.8 percent effective in preventing influenza when compared to placebo.

The use of Flucelvax in people older than 49 is supported by antibody responses in about 1,700 adults which showed it to be comparable to Agriflu, an egg-based seasonal influenza vaccine approved by FDA for use in people 18 years and older.

Safe and effective

The safety evaluation included about 6,700 individuals who received Flucelvax in controlled clinical studies. Injection site and general reactions to Flucelvax were typical of those seen with current influenza vaccines. Pain, redness and soreness at the injection site and headache and fatigue were the most common reactions.

Getting vaccinated each year remains one of the best ways to prevent seasonal influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older receive an annual influenza vaccine.

Flucelvax is manufactured by Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics GmbH, Marburg, Germany.

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Be thankful you've been a wary consumer; now don't get overconfident

Scams and rip-offs of all kinds increase dramatically during the holiday shopping season

You've been a cautious and careful consumer all year. Now, let's stay focused and make it safely thrugh the home stretch -- the most treacherous time of th...

PhotoYou've been a cautious and careful consumer all year. Now, let's stay focused and make it safely thrugh the home stretch -- the most treacherous time of the year. 

The FBI says Internet fraud is a particular menace during the holiday shopping season, as consumers step up their shopping while trying to hold everything else together as well.

Scammers use many techniques to deceive potential victims, including creating fraudulent auction sales, reshipping merchandise purchased with a stolen credit card, selling fraudulent or stolen gift cards through auction sites at a discounted price and using phishing e-mails to advertise brand-name merchandise for bargain prices or e-mails to promote the sale of merchandise that is counterfeit, the FBI warns.

Here are some common scams to watch out for:

Purchasing any new product or gift card on an auction or classified advertisement site where the price is significantly lower than any sale prices in retail outlets

Many of these sellers, especially for gift cards and tickets, have purchased these items with a stolen credit card. Most likely, the gift card or ticket will be deactivated by the time the recipient uses the card or ticket.

Never provide credit card numbers, bank account information, personally identifiable information or wire money to a person who advertises items on these sites at a too good to be true price. Many times, fraudsters will post a popular item to obtain this information, and the goods will never be mailed, but your card or identity will be used fraudulently later.

Phishing and scam e-mails, text messages or phone calls

Many times, e-mails, texts or phone calls will look or sound like they are coming from a well-known retailer, stating a need to “verify” the full credit card number you used for a purchase or ask you to click a link to update personal account information. If you receive an e-mail that asks you to click a link to verify information, delete it. 

"One Day Only" websites featuring the sale of a "hot item"

During the holiday season, there will be an increase in websites created to sell specific items in high demand. Typically, the cardholders never receive the product, but the credit card information they entered is used for fraudulent purchases. It is important to only make purchases with companies and sellers who have a history and can be identified when searching reviews and ratings.

Postings of popular items for free or drastically reduced prices

There are many gift card offers on social media sites claiming to be from major retailers. These offers are typically used to gain access to consumers’ social media accounts either to log in to other accounts you may have tied to this account or to post illegitimate offers on your behalf. 

"Work from home" offers, to act as a private reshipper, often fronting the shipping costs on behalf of the fraudster

Offers to work from home to reship items to another country or another person often means the goods were purchased with stolen credit cards. Having these goods shipped to your home and sending them to another person could have legal implications. Also, many times the money promised for completing this service is never paid. 

Remember, if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Consumers are urged to be very skeptical of people offering a great deal outside of any established retail business.

 

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Black Friday starts early; Does anyone care?

Is it the biggest shopping day or just the most-hyped?

Thanksgiving is often considered the most American of American holidays. It's the day we eat too much, drink too much, watch too much football, burn too mu...

PhotoThanksgiving is often considered the most American of American holidays. It's the day we eat too much, drink too much, watch too much football, burn too much gas going over the river and through the woods ... and flee in desperation to the nearest Target or Walmart when all the togetherness gets to be too much.

It was only a few years ago that your average consumer had no idea what Black Friday was.  It sounded kind of ominous, like the anniversary of some horrible disaster or act of war.  

But no, Black Friday was the term retailers used to describe the day after Thanksgiving, because it was the day that shoppers hit the stores in earnest to start their holiday shopping, thereby pushing retailers "into the black" -- meaning into profitability -- for the year.

What with all the grousing about rich people and taxes, poor people and entitlements and so forth, it's easy to forget that many businesses, including retail,  are only marginally profitable. Most retailers sort of limp along at a loss for most of the year, hoping to break into the positive side of the column when the post-Thanksgiving crowds hit the stores.

OK, that's great for retailers but what does it have to do with consumers? Not much, actually.

Why all the fuss?

PhotoSo how, then, did Black Friday get the be such a big deal?

Basically, it's the same process that made Mother's Day a big-spending holiday -- it's called promotion. Years ago, retailers started advertising their after-Thanksgiving sales, just to ensure that shoppers didn't decide to roll over and sleep in on the day after Thanksgiving.

But do consumers really care whether their favorite stores are profitable -- or believe all the promises and bluster of the annual barrage of ads? In fact, there's quite a bit of evidence that all the hype is starting to wear off. We conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of about 3.1 million consumer comments on social media over the last year.

What we found, not surprisingly, is that there's very little noise about Black Friday for most of the year, with a big peak around Thanksgiving.  But as this chart shows, last year saw a lot more consumer interest -- lukewarm interest at that -- than we've seen so far this year.

 

 Maybe all the bluster is starting to fall on deaf ears?

Endless escalation

The trade term Black Friday made its way into the general vocabulary over the last few years, as retailers themselves began using it in their advertising and promotions as they stepped up their efforts to whip consumers into a holiday-shopping frenzy. Walmart began opening its stores at 6 a.m. and soon Target and others followed suit. Then Walmart began opening at midnight and others followed.

Now Black Friday is becoming Black Thursday as the usual gang of retailers start opening on Thanksgiving Day, hoping to lure more shoppers who will spend more time shopping and buying more and more of the video games, toys, iPads, flat-screen TVs and other must-have gadgets the holiday demands.

Maybe it will all fall together again this year, even if shoppers are a little less feverish than a few years ago, when police had to be called to keep the peace as tempers flared at croweded store entrances. Our sentiment analysis finds many consumers still think Black Friday is not only the best day for deals, many also say it's their favorite holiday. 

Photo

PhotoThis year, it's not unruly shoppers giving retailing executives headaches. At Walmart and other chains, employees are complaining -- sometimes publicly -- about having to work on Thanksgiving. Union organizers have been leading protests outside Walmart stores and reporters have been writing stories questioning      whether Black Friday is really the best day to go shopping. 

Just a few days ago, a survey identified the 10 best holiday shopping days -- and, guess what, Black Friday wasn't among them. Another survey earlier this year found that, in fact, Black Friday is one of the worst shopping days.

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.

But, on the other hand, if too much family togetherness is starting to get to you, who's to say a brisk walk down the aisles of the nearest Walmart, Target or Best Buy won't be just the thing to aid the digestion and perk up your psyche. After all, saving money isn't everything.

   

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TaskRabbit.com: What Craigslist should have been long ago

Wouldn't it be nice to hire someone for a job and not fear for your life?

Today, it seems that all of us are busy all of the time. We’re either in the middle of a task, preparing to do a task or closing one out.Whether yo...

PhotoToday, it seems that all of us are busy all of the time. We’re either in the middle of a task, preparing to do a task or closing one out.

Whether you’re at work under the pressure of an over-caffeinated supervisor or you’re at home and the family is pulling you in infinite directions, there never seems to be enough time in a given day to do everything you need.

But what if there was a service that could help you with pretty much any task or chore you needed to do?

To be more specific, let’s say you and your spouse were invited to tonight’s football game at the last second because your boss had a couple of tickets he couldn’t use.

You’d really love to go to the game because the seats are perfectly situated, midfield and right in front of the action, your boss says.

There's just one thing though, your in-laws are coming in the morning to spend a few days before Thanksgiving and you haven’t even begun cleaning up the house or straightening up the room they’ll be staying in.

No worries though. You just go to TaskRabbit.com, post some information on what you need done, offer how much you’re willing to pay, and someone will show up at your door with all of the necessary cleaning supplies to trick your in-laws into thinking you're tidy.

The website TaskRabbit.com does this kind of stuff all of the time, as the owners set up a service and website were people can hire others to complete everyday tasks like shoveling your driveway after a storm or caring for your pet if you have to leave town.

Kind of like Craigslist

PhotoIn a way Task Rabbit is like Craigslist, in that you can post a job for someone to do while offering payment. But instead of hiring just a random person from cyberspace, you employ one of the company’s staff people to complete your task. The company calls these staff people “Task Rabbits.”

Task Rabbits are said to undergo layers of background criminal checks to ensure safety for customers, which is vastly different from anyone you hire through a Craigslist post. And each staff person is listed on the company’s website and has a rating to show how well they were reviewed by previous customers.

So far the company is set up in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, San Antonio, Austin, Seattle, L.A, Orange County, Calif. and New York--which allows you to hire a Task Rabbit in a different city from where you live.

Let's say it’s a friend’s birthday tomorrow that happens to live in another part of the country, and you want to buy them a gift.

Post anywhere

PhotoYou can post your task in one of the company’s associated cities, have a Task Rabbit go to your friend’s favorite clothing store, they'll buy an item and hand deliver that item to your friend the same day.

And you pay for the service and the gift online after the task is completed, so no cash is ever exchanged.

Alos, it’s free to sign up for the site and there’s no membership charge, so you can start posting tasks right away without paying up front.

Once you include how much you’re willing to pay for your task, the lowest bidder among the Task Rabbit employees gets the job, and they head out to complete whatever assignment you created.

Of course what you offer to pay should be in direct proportion to what the job is, especially if the task includes travel and if a purchase is involved--like in the case of your friend’s birthday gift.

The way payment works is, you reimburse the Task Rabbit when the job is complete, which strengthens the chances of customers not being duped.

Kind of creepy

Task Rabbit is clearly what Craigslist should have evolved into years ago when it comes to hiring people for a one time job.

Let’s face it, Craigslist has a creepy factor to it, since there's absolutely no type of background checking system or even the slightest way to monitor just who you’re dealing with.

With the Task Rabbit employees, the company says they’re heavily scrutinized and put through a rigorous interview and training process before they’re finally brought on.

And just who make up these staff people? They’re everyday folks looking for extra work, the company says, so the Task Rabbits could be someone who is currently under-employed, a person that’s retired, a college student, or someone looking for a job with a flexible schedule.

The company also says it’s always looking for staff people to hire, so those looking to make an extra few bucks can become Task Rabbits themselves if they choose.

In short, the website is basically learning from sites like Craigslist, as it’s taking the idea of letting people post jobs and name their own price, but allows them to hire people much more safely by providing background checks and a way you can hold the staffer accountable if a job isn’t done to your satisfaction.

Hopefully the Craigslists of the world will begin to follow suit and make using its job posting services a little less creepy.

Apparently that’s what Task Rabbit did, and so far the company is off to a good start, as more and more users are hiring people through the site, and countless people are trying to become Task Rabbits themselves.

 

 

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Dish Network's wireless hopes brighten

FCC chairman says he backs the plan, which could provide new competition for Verizon, AT&T

You don't normally think of Dish Network as a wireless carrier but that could change, if Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowsk...

PhotoYou don't normally think of Dish Network as a wireless carrier but that could change, if Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski has his way.

Genachowski is proposing to auction off a batch of spectrum that Dish could use to start a wireless service that would compete with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. Dish has long had its eye on that spectrum but there is one potential kink.

This would probably be good news to consumers who have long complained of the lack of competition in the wireless market. A consumer sentiment analysis of about 3.5 million comments posted on social media over the last year shows lukewarm feelings for Verizon.

 

AT&T fares even worse than Verizon, although 3.5 million consumers seemed to have warmer feelings in recent months.

 

 

DISH Network  Nov. 21, 2012, 5:41 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network

Genachowski wants to require Dish to use lower power levels than usual to minimize the chance of interference with other services.  The FCC is expected to vote on the plan before the end of the year.

“Telling us to lower our power levels cripples our ability to enter the business,” Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen told The Washington Post. “We want to enter the wireless business. We have $6 billion more we want to spend on building out this business. But the FCC could make it extremely risky for us.”

Ergen said the FCC has been dragging its feet on Dish's plan for the last 20 months. If it had approved the plan earlier, the new network could have been in place by next year. But now, Ergen says it will be at least 2015 b efore it's up and running.

Genachowski and others have complained that the highly lucrative wireless business is beginning to resemble a duoply -- with AT&T and Verizon hogging six of 10 wireless contracts. 

“If approved, these actions will promote competition, investment and innovation, and advance commission efforts to unleash spectrum for mobile broadband to help meet skyrocketing consumer demand, while unlocking billions of dollars of value to the public,” FCC spokesman Neil Grace said.

Disgruntled consumers

Verizon Wireless Nov. 21, 2012, 5:48 p.m.
Consumers rate Verizon Wireless

A little competition would be welcome to consumers like Edward of San Diego, who posted to ConsumerAffairs recently about his experience with Verizon Wireless.

So my Droid burns itself up. They tell me this is normal. Verizon forces you to sign a two-year contract and then do not support the hardware for that period, even if you get an insurance plan. My Droid burned itself up at temperatures of over 230 degrees.

Their solution? For me to pay $700 for a new one because they don't support my model, even though I bought it from them less than a year ago. Verizon is crap. Their customer service is crap.

AT&T Wireless also has more than its share of disgruntled customers. like Jennifer of Reno, who wrote to us recently about what she sees as a decline in AT&T's customer service. 

Prior to 2012, AT&T was wonderful. I've been using this company for many years, and before 2012, I use to think they took good care of me. However, something has changed with this company, and now it seems like their customer service is poor and all they want is the mighty dollar. Well, guess what, AT&T. You are not the only providers out there, so reexamine what truly makes AT&T what it is today - your customers! Just remember, without us, there would not be a you.

AT&T Wireless Nov. 21, 2012, 5:48 p.m.
Consumers rate AT&T Wireless

Not surprisingly, Dish generates quite a bundle of negative reviews itself but the theory is that another large player in the wireless field would generate at least some additional competition in terms of service plans, pricing and network penetration.  

In his comments, Genachowski noted that just two years ago, the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger was threatening to reduce the number of competitors in the marketplace. That plan was derailed by frederal regulators but T-Mobile and Metro PCS reached agreement in October to merge their operations, thus creating a stronger player to go up against Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. 

 

 

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Gasoline prices dip before Thanksgiving holiday

Price gap narrowing between cheapest and most expensive states

Motorists hitting the road for the Thanksgiving holiday will find gasoline prices a bit lower than last week but a bit higher than last Thanksgiving week....

PhotoMotorists hitting the road for the Thanksgiving holiday will find gasoline prices a bit lower than last week, but a bit higher than Thanksgiving week a year ago.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.426 per gallon, compared with $3.443 last week, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's 24 cents lower than a month ago but six and a half cents higher than the price a year ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.003 per gallon, versus $3.999 a week ago.

PhotoGasoline prices have fallen over the last several months but have been subject to conflicting factors. On one hand worries about going over the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year have depressed the oil market. However Israel's escalating conflict with Hamas in Gaza has put upward pressure on prices. Normally prices go down this time of year.

In general, travelers over the holiday weekend will find lower prices if they head south or to parts of the Midwest. They'll encounter more expensive fuel in the Northeast and West.

In the states the price gap between the states with the most expensive fuel and those with the cheapest narrowed over the last seven days. Prices fell in Hawaii, Alaska, New York and California. Prices rose in Missouri, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Photo

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

  • Hawaii ($4.090)
  • Alaska ($3.958)
  • New York ($3.924)
  • California ($3.772)
  • Connecticut ($3.832)
  • Vermont ($3.684)
  • Rhode Island ($3.672)
  • Utah ($3.629)
  • Pennsylvania ($3.626)
  • Massachusetts ($3.625)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • Missouri ($3.139)
  • South Carolina ($3.150)
  • Oklahoma ($3.152)
  • Texas ($3.164)
  • Tennessee ($3.170)
  • Arkansas ($3.183)
  • Mississippi ($3.184)
  • Kansas ($3.210)
  • Alabama ($3.216)
  • Louisiana ($3.226)
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More security for Facebook users

U.S. users get HTTPS connections starting this week

This might sound like gibberish but it's not. Facebook is providing an additional layer of security for its U.S. users. Starting this week, your connection...

PhotoThis might sound like gibberish but it's not. Facebook is providing an additional layer of security for its U.S. users. Starting this week, your connection to Facebook will start witih "HTTPS" instead of plain old "HTTP."

This is the extra security layer that until recently has been used mostly by banks and other high-security sites, like those that handle credit card transactions. Google, Twitter and some other major sites already use HTTPS -- or SSL -- connections. It took Facebook a bit longer because of all the third-party apps on its site.

It's more secure because all of the information is encrypted as it is sent to and from the Facebook servers.  As always, there is a price to be paid for the extra security -- it's a little slower because of the encryption process but most privacy experts will tell you it's well worth it because of the added privacy protection.

Certificates verified

PhotoThe HTTPS connection also verifies the site's certificates to be certain it's not an imposter site. It also does not cache information on your computer, where it could be vulnerable to snoopers.

At the simplest level, the HTTPS connection makes it much harder for nefarious foes to steal your user ID and password, which would enable them to hijack your account -- something that can happen rather easily if you use an "open" wi-fi connection in a coffee shop, airport or other public place.

Previously, users could select HTTPS protection in their account settings but it will now be the default for all U.S. users and will be added to users around the world "in the near future," Facebook said.

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Air travelers and employees at risk from secondhand smoke inside airports

Air pollution from secondhand smoke is five times higher outside smoking rooms and other designated smoking areas than in smoke-free airports

As travelers queue up at the nation's airports to travel home or wherever for Thanksgiving they may notice something in the air besides the holiday spirit ...

PhotoAs travelers queue up at the nation's airports to travel home or wherever for Thanksgiving they may notice something in the air besides the holiday spirit -- and it's not doing them any good

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), average air pollution levels from secondhand smoke directly outside designated smoking areas in airports are five times higher than levels in smoke-free airports.

The study conducted in five large hub U.S. airports also showed that air pollution levels inside designated smoking areas were 23 times higher than levels in smoke-free airports. In the study, designated smoking areas in airports included restaurants, bars, and ventilated smoking rooms.

Where the smoke is

Five of the 29 largest airports in the U.S. allow smoking in designated areas that are accessible to the public: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Denver International Airport, and Salt Lake City International Airport.

More than 110 million passenger boardings -- about 15 percent of all U.S. air travel -- occurred at these five airports last year.

The findings in the report, says Tim McAfee, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, “further confirm that ventilated smoking rooms and designated smoking areas are not effective. Prohibiting smoking in all indoor areas is the only effective way to fully eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke."

No escape

A 2006 Surgeon General’s Report concluded that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Although smoking was banned on all U.S. domestic and international commercial airline flights through a series of federal laws adopted from 1987 to 2000, no federal policy requires airports to be smoke-free.

"Instead of going entirely smoke-free, five airports continue to allow smoking in restaurants, bars or ventilated smoking rooms. However, research shows that separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air and ventilating buildings cannot fully eliminate secondhand smoke exposure," said Brian King, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health and co-author of the report. "People who spend time in, pass by, clean, or work near these rooms are at risk of exposure to secondhand smoke."

Secondhand smoke causes heart disease and lung cancer in nonsmoking adults and is a known cause of sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS, respiratory problems, ear infections and asthma attacks in infants and children. Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can trigger acute cardiac events such as heart attack.

Cigarette use kills an estimated 443,000 Americans each year, including 46,000 heart disease deaths and 3,400 lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke.

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Why December might be a good month to buy a home

Contrarian buyers can often get a good deal this time of year

This week we officially entered the holiday season. There will be full schedules and plenty of stress between now and January 2.So the last thing you wan...

PhotoThis week we officially entered the holiday season. There will be full schedules and plenty of stress between now and January 2.

So the last thing you want to do in December is buy a home, right? Well, maybe that's not quite true. If you are in the market for a home and want to drive the best bargain possible, maybe house-hunting is something to add to your already-crowded December to-do list. Here's why:

Less competition

Let's face it, not everyone is willing to take on extra stress around the holidays. Many consumers who are interested in purchasing a new home wait until after the holidays to start searching through the listings.

While the malls have more customers this time of year, the real estate market actually experiences a decrease in shoppers during the holiday season. So, if you find a home that is perfect for you, you'll probably have fewer competing bids from other prospective buyers. And that leads to our next benefit of buying a home this time of year.

More leverage

If the house has been on the market for a few months -- and didn't sell during the late summer and fall seasons -- the seller may reduce the price during the winter months. In fact, in many areas of the country, homes prices are typically at their lowest during the month of December.

Homeowners who are showing their homes during the holiday season often hope to sell it before the end of the year because of tax considerations, so they may also be more willing to negotiate on the price.

More attention

It's a slow time of year for realtors and lenders, too. Sellers aren't the only ones affected by the drop-off in home sales during the winter months. Realtors and lenders also feel the sting of their industry's slow season.

That means you may be get more personalized attention from your real estate agent, and a lender may shave a few points off your interest rate, just to get one final sale and home loan on the books before the year is over. Also, because there are fewer deals to juggle in December than at other times of the year, it's likely your paperwork will be processed faster as well.

Tax benefits

If you buy a home in December you may be able to reap a few tax benefits. Closing on a home before the end of the year means you can deduct certain settlement costs from your taxes for 2012. That includes any pro-rated property taxes and prepaid mortgage interest paid at closing. And, since discount points are considered prepaid interest, you can deduct those from your taxes as well.

There's one drawback to home shopping in December. There may be fewer homes to choose from. This year inventory levels are already pretty low. Not every seller wants to have potential buyers strolling through her home during the holidays. That's why some houses may not go on the market until January.

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Older consumers often viewed in negative light

Conflicts arise when consumers don't consider themselves 'old'

How does it happen? One day you're just a normal consumer. The next you're in a new category -- old.“Our society devalues old age in many ways, and...

PhotoHow does it happen? One day you're just a normal consumer. The next you're in a new category -- old.

“Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance and independence are highly valued,” said Oregon State University researcher Michelle Barnhart. “Almost every stereotype we associate with being elderly is something negative, from being ‘crotchety’ and unwilling to change to being forgetful."

Lately baby boomers, who are approaching seniorhood, have professed a new sensitivity to aging and say they want to improve the way it is viewed. But Barnhart says boomers themselves are often at fault for reinforcing negative stereotypes in their interactions with their parents.

Conflicts

“Conflicts come up when someone does not think of themselves as old,” Barnhart said. “But people in their family or caregiving group are treating them as such.”

Barnhart conducted in-depth interviews with consumers in their late 80s, their family members and paid caregivers. She said she found that study participants viewed someone as “old” when that person consumed in ways consistent with society’s concept of older people, and not simply when he or she experienced inabilities that come with increased chronological age.

Barnhart said her study explains how consumption activities, which can range from buying groceries to attending medical appointments, serve as a means of identifying someone as old. They also serve as a means for working through conflicts that arise when older consumers who do not identify themselves as old are treated as an “old person” by family members and service providers.

Aging without getting old

“When people in their 80s or 90s exhibited characteristics that society tends to associate with people who are not old, such as being aware, active, safe, or independent, they were viewed and treated as not old,” Barnhart said. “In this way, they were able to age without getting old.”

People who don't consider themselves "old" will often try to convince others of their not-old identity by arguing. Other times, they try to prove that they are not old by independently performing activities. Another strategy is to force a change, such as shutting out their younger family member entirely.

“Abbie,” an 89-year-old woman from Texas, told Barnhart when she went to her doctor with her daughters, the physician would only talk to her children.

Leave your son or daughter at home

“If younger people bring you in, they think it’s because you’re not, I guess, lucid enough to understand what they’re saying,” Abbie said. “But that irked me so bad that I wanted to grab him by the collar and say, ‘Look, talk to me! I’m the patient.’”

To avoid this type of treatment, Abbie barred her daughters from the doctor’s exam room during future appointments.

Barnhart said the adult children of elderly consumers in the study were primarily in their 50s, and often expressed confidence that baby boomers would change how people view old age. But she said unless society stops devaluing and marginalizing older people, that's not going to happen.

Boomers to get the same treatment

“Unless we change the way we view old age, the generation younger than the boomers will treat them the same way as soon as they show a few more wrinkles, or seem a bit shaky on their feet,” she said.

In addition, Barnhart said policies that view aging and health as issues faced by individuals need to change to reflect a larger group decision-making process. Programs such as Medicare, for instance, may need to shift to provide services not just for the elderly consumer, but their support networks to help them deal with the inevitable loss of ability that comes with aging.
“Losing a bit of your independence by getting help from others doesn’t have to equate with becoming a devalued and marginalized member of society,” she said. “Everybody ages, you can’t stop that. But what we can do is respond to someone’s limitations in a way that preserves dignity and value.”

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Cold weather can bring indoor danger

Health officials say carbon monoxide is a silent killer

With the temperature dropping, you could be at risk around the house from more than just a cold-inducing draft. Gas furnaces, space heaters and even firepl...

PhotoWith the temperature dropping, you could be at risk around the house from more than just a cold-inducing draft. Gas furnaces, space heaters and even fireplaces can give off dangerous carbon monoxide.

Known as the silent killer, carbon monoxide is the gas byproduct of the incomplete combustion of fuel used in cars, gasoline engines, stoves, lanterns, burning charcoal or wood, gas ranges, fireplaces and heaters. The gas is colorless and odorless, but can be deadly.

“You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide, but it can cause significant health issues and possibly kill you,” said Dr. K. Guntupalli, chief, Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep Section, Harris Health Ben Taub Hospital and professor at the Baylor College of Medicine.

Cuts off oxygen

Carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream and robs the body of much-needed oxygen. While mild exposure can be easily treated, high or prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide can be deadly.

Exposure symptoms include headache, dizziness, confusion, weakness, nausea and chest pain. High exposure can affect the cardiovascular system, central nervous system, lungs and brain.

Moderate exposure over a long period of time can also be very dangerous. It can cause depression, confusion, memory loss and even death.

400 deaths a year

You don't hear a lot about carbon monoxide poisoning but cases are far from uncommon. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 400 people nationwide die and 4,000 are hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning.

About 20,000 people get sick enough to visit an emergency center. The most at risk are children, the elderly and those with chronic problems like heart disease, anemia and respiratory conditions.

If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning go outside for fresh air. Oxygen usually clears up most symptoms. For more severe cases, medical staff can administer concentrated oxygen treatments using face masks or pressurized hyperbaric chambers.

Don't use an oven to stay warm

Another danger is using a gas stove or oven to stay warm. Operating a gas stove for an extended period is a good way to build up carbon monoxide in the home. The fact that most modern homes are now well-insulated and air-tight make them even more susceptible to carbon monoxide build-up.

“You could be creating carbon monoxide and not realize it until it’s too late,” said Dr. Nick Hanania, director, Asthma Clinical Research Center, Harris Health Ben Taub Hospital. “The dangers of carbon monoxide are too great to ignore.”

Installing a carbon monoxide detector, similar to a smoke detector, is an effective way to protect your home from a carbon monoxide build-up.

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Researchers propose recording ages of minor cell phone users

They may be about to do it in Spain; is it something the U.S. should consider?

There are products and sites that children should not buy or visit. But enforcing these age restrictions can be problematic. But in Spain they may have fou...

PhotoThere are products and sites that children should not buy or visit. But enforcing these age restrictions can be problematic. In Spain they may have found a solution.

While it is almost impossible to verify a user's age when he access a particular site from a desktop computer, there isn't that problem when he uses a mobile device. Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Valencia want mobile providers to begin requiring parents to register the ages of their children when they buy them a smartphone or tablet.

Automatic age verification

"Verification of age upon access to mobile phone services is not effective because the child can also falsify their age by checking a different box," said María de Miguel Molina, lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Valencia. "However, operators could be made aware of the age of their young users if their parents were to disclose such information when purchasing a mobile phone for their child. This information could then be registered."

She says such a system would keep minors away from adult sites, online tobacco and alcohol merchants, and even some video games that have age classifications.

Published in the Quality & Quantity journal, the report suggests that if this measure were adopted, access to all age-inappropriate sites or those not suitable for minors could be filtered or blocked. It would also mean common regulations for operators.

Honor system

The majority of companies currently operating in Spain have signed the self-regulation code of the Spanish Mobile Operators Association, AESAM, which supports "responsible access" to content. In the U.S., the system is similar, amounting more or less to an honor system. The site asks users to verify they are over 21 and if they say they are, they are admitted.

In their study the researchers have also recommended the creation of a classification scheme according to user age and service theme like the one currently in place for video games: the Pan European Game Information (PEGI), which recommends games for children and youngsters of 3, 7, 12, 16 and over 18 years.

The researchers say the study was conducted using surveys sent to companies, government agencies and child protection associations.

"Up until now we thought we could control youngsters' access to the Internet on the household desktop by locating it in a visible place, for example, and ensuring that children use the internet properly. But, smartphones have opened up new doors," said De Miguel.

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Spotify Turns Into a Record Company ... Sort Of

The music streaming site is now trying its hand at launching bands. Will it work?

Websites that provide music streaming have been a life saver for music consumers.Prior to sites like Groove Shark and Pandora, people downloaded songs wi...

Photo
Cazette
Websites that provide music streaming have been a lifesaver for music consumers.

Prior to sites like Groove Shark and Pandora, people downloaded songs with a level of trepidation since many folks were uncertain about all of the legalities surrounding downloads and if it was okay to share music with other people.

At the top of the music streaming hill is arguably Spotify, which allows users to access a countless array of songs by just a few mouse clicks, and the site has gotten so popular among music fans that the company is now delving into launching artists' careers instead of just hosting their music.

Spotify is first doing this with the Swedish Electronic music duo Cazzette , who doesn’t yet have a record deal but hopes to use the streaming site’s customer base to help bring about a healthy level of notoriety.

The partnership is another tactic that puts record labels even closer to irrelevance when it comes to discovering, developing and launching new artists. That's because since the early days of MySpace, musicians have developed less of a desire to shop their demos to big record companies and more of a desire to release their music to the public by themselves-- without the help of a percentage-gobbling middleman.

Steve Savoca, head of content operations at Spotify, said the company hopes to work with musicians to assist in their pursuits of being successful independent artists.

“We want to be a powerful partner to artists so they can leverage our platform to build strong one-to one relationships with their fans,” he said in an interview with Billboard. “That’s something we’ve been putting a lot of effort into lately.”

If the partnership between Spotify and Cazzette is a successful one, and the band ends up getting the notoriety it’s looking for, it could be yet another blow to the traditional record label approach of marketing--an approach that many already consider a dying dinosaur.

Still a challenge

PhotoUp until this point, the growth of the Internet has helped a small number of musicians become big stars, but for most independent artists it’s still a challenge to build a large following by just putting their music on SoundCloud, Last.FM or other artist-friendly sites.

So if Spotify can successfully launch the Swedish band towards global recognition, it could prove that an artist can be successful by allowing fans to stream their music for free, as opposed to releasing a single through a record label that they hope everyone buys.

Alexander Björklund--one half of Cazzette--says that large record sales are really not the band's primary goal and if they can use Spotify to build enough fans who will regularly attend their shows, the money from those shows should be enough to absorb whatever they don’t sell in CDs and then some.

“Album sales are secondary,” he said in a published interview. “Of course the promotion will reflect album sales, but that’s not the main reason we’re doing this. Accessibility and exposure is more important for us, as opposed to selling as many CDs as possible.”

The success of the Spotify and Cassette partnership will also determine how interested other artists will be in releasing their music on the streaming site, instead of seeking out a traditional record deal.

Direct to consumers' ears

PhotoArtists are already leery of big record companies and the way they make artists recoup large costs before being able to make money--so Spotify providing an even more direct route to the music consumer will be a very welcomed avenue for many artists.

See, with technology making it much easier for the average person to make and promote their own music, the music consumer and the musician are many times one and the same, which means social networking will forever be linked to the marketing and launch of a new artist. This puts Spotify in a perfect position to be the go-to site for artists who want to release their music to an already built-in customer base.

Björklund says that working with Spotify and using its reputation to help grow their fame provides the group total freedom when it comes to making the music they want and releasing it on their own timetable.

“We have a lot of freedom to release whenever we want,” he said. “Were not tied down to any release schedule, and we can add whatever content we like to our own application within Spotify. It’s an entirely different approach.”

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Walmart, Union Exchange Barbs in Threatened Black Friday Walkout

Company files formal complaint against United Food and Commercial Workers Union

Reports of a job action at Walmart Stores on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, have not been confirmed but appear to have gotten the atte...

PhotoReports of a planned job action at Walmart Stores on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, appear to have gotten the attention of company officials.

Attorneys for Walmart have gone to court to file a complaint against the United Food and Commercial Workers Union International, accusing the union of unlawfully disrupting business. Walmart says the union is behind a number of protests at some of its stores over the last couple of months.

Walmart has formally petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an injunction preventing the union from sending pickets and flash mobs to its stores.

The union has responded with a stinging statement of its own.

"Walmart is grasping at straws to try to stop a groundswell of voices from associates and their supporters who are protesting the company’s unlawful attempts to silence workers," the UFCW said. "Associates are exercising their freedom to speak out in protest of Walmart’s unfair actions against their coworkers. 
"Supporters like UFCW members, religious leaders, community members and other activists are taking action to support Walmart associates and demand the company listen to its workforce to improve working conditions.   There’s nothing in the law that gives an employer the right to silence workers and citizens," the UCFW said.

Organized effort

A group called OUR Walmart, which is said to represent disgruntled Walmart employees nationwide, is calling for a Thanksgiving protest at Walmart stores across the nation.

"Have dinner with your family, then join us for a protest against Walmart's illegal activities," the group said on its website.

OUR Walmart says it is protesting low wages for workers, poor working conditions and inadequate healthbenefits. It has been most active in stores in the Los Angeles area and in other California cities.

Then the announcement last week that Walmart, along with many of its competitors, would open on Thanksgiving night appears to have set off a backlash. Many store employees, at Walmart and elsewhere, expressed anger that work was encroaching on traditional holiday time with family.

Even some consumers have said it is too much. Target employees set up an online petition against the Thanksgiving night opening and quickly drew more than a quarter of a million signatures.

Black Friday walkout

The OUR Walmart website contains stories from Walmart associates who have decided to walk out on Black Friday and urges other Walmart associates to do the same.

"Members of OUR Walmart are coming together from across the country and are refusing to work on Black Friday in protest of Walmart’s continuing retaliation against Associates who speak out for better pay, affordable healthcare, improved working conditions, fair schedules, more hours, and most of all, respect," the group said on its website.

It's not clear exactly how many employees at which stores are planning to take part in the action. Walmart's complaint to the NLRB lays responsibility for the organized action at the feet of the union, which in the past has tried to organize Walmart employees.

Meanwhile, the company is trying to head off a public relations misfire on the biggest shopping day of the year.

"We have a great group of associates at Wal-Mart," Fogleman said. "We’ll have more than one million associates working throughout the holiday weekend, and they’re excited about our Black Friday plans this year," Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman said in a statement to Fox News. "This is the Super Bowl for retailers, and we’re ready."

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The Lowly Pay Phone Is Getting an Upgrade in New York City

Smart screens with iPad-like functions are replacing old-fashioned pay phones

iPad-like screens are replacing the lowly pay phone in all five of the city's boroughs...

PhotoIt used to be said that anything at street level in New York City would soon be either broken or stolen. Especially pay phones.

Things have gentrified a bit since then but finding a working phone can still be difficult, as thousands learned when Superstorm Sandy knocked out their cell phones.

Now the city is trying to go one step beyond fixing up its existing phones -- it's installing 250 new iPad-like devices in existing pay phone booths that will provide emergency broadcasts, city information and, yes, daily deals.

The platforms are run as a partnership between New York City and two companies, Cisco and City 24/7.  Multiple mobile apps are accessible through the 32-inch screens. Content also is fed directly to mobile and web platforms.

It's hard to think those 32-inch screens will last long out in public but everyone involved in the project seems to think they'll somehow survive the predation that befalls things left unattended on city streets.

So confident is City24/7 that it says its service eventually will be expanded to more than a dozen U.S. and foreign cities. The smart screens were tested in a pilot project for a while but are now going live in all five of the city's boroughs.

The public-private partnership also includes the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group and LG Electronics USA.

Besides being available on the screens, content developed for the project will be available via mobile and Web platforms.

One question that's not answered in any of the oh-so-cool information tidbits provided by the partnership: Will these things be two-way? In other words, will they be watching us as we watch them?

 

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Cyberwill Can Log You Off After You're Gone

Your digital estate needs to be shut down in an orderly manner too

If you're busy dying, the fate of all your Internet accounts might not be a prime concern to you, but it could be very important to your family, friends an...

PhotoIf you're busy dying, the fate of all your Internet accounts might not be a prime concern to you, but it could be very important to your family, friends and colleagues, not to mention your reputation.

But fear not. No need goes unmet for long in the Internet age and, sure enough, several start-ups have sprung to life to make it easier to manage your virtual afterlife. The newest, in Britain, is called Cirrus Legacy and will help you create a “digital will” containing your passwords and log-in details so your digital executor can efficiently tidy up your legacy.

It's estimated the average Briton has 26 Internet accounts covering everything from online banking to social media and shopping sites. The number is thought to be higher for Americans. A Rackspace study recently found that 12% of people store more than 1,000 emails online and 13% store more than 500 photos.

Still perking

Old Facebook postings could be confusing, leading your friends – real and virtual – to think you're not only still online but still alive. The dangers of leaving online bank accounts and other financial information up and running are obvious.

Leaving information about the departed lying around is also a danger to others, as it can be used to pull off identity thefts and other scams. You don't want someone using your identity and email account to bamboozle innocent consumers, now do you?

Just as your real executor ties up the loose ends and closes out your time on earth, so your digital executor would be expected to close your online accounts, delete your old emails and deep-six your social accounts.

Without a digital executor, your survivors can have a hard time closing your accounts. Facebook, for example, won't release your password, even to your next of kin and will only take your page down after being presented with a death certificate, a process that can take months.

Some states already recognize the rights of digital executors but even in those that don't your digital executor should be able to work in unison with your actual executor to get things wrapped up so that your digital remains are put to rest in a dignified manner.

If you think folks just won't be able to get by without you, there are some services out there that will send emails at staggered intervals after your demise, allowing you to nag your survivors. You might call it a dead-letter service.

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Shopping Habits You Will Not Believe

More than 38 million online Americans say they shopped while on the toilet

Is there any question people won't answer in a survey? Apparently not. According to results announced by CashStar, which bills itself as “the world's lead...

PhotoIs there any question people won't answer in a survey? Apparently not.

According to results announced by CashStar, which bills itself as “the world's leading digital gifting and incentives company,” more than 38 million online adult Americans admit to having shopped online while on the toilet.

The survey, conducted online nationwide by Harris Interactive on behalf of CashStar from November 6-8, 2012, also found that almost 17 million shopped using a mobile device while standing in the retailer's physical store.

Blame it on smartphones

"Smartphones and tablets have enabled consumers to shop and gift on-the-go in more ways and places than ever before," said David Stone, co-founder and CEO of CashStar. "The retailers who have been paying attention and catering to where and how consumers want to shop by mobile-optimizing their e-commerce sites and offering mobile eGift Cards will reap the rewards this holiday season and have a jump on the competition going into 2013.”

In fact, he says retailers on the CashStar platform whose eGift Card Website “is optimized for mobile” have seen 3,700 percent more sales from mobile devices this year than retailers whose sites are not mobile-optimized because the experience is so much better, faster and easier for consumers.

Surprising shopping trends

The strangest places consumers have shopped?

  • Do not disturb -- Men were more inclined to shop while on the toilet than women.
  • Shopping and driving -- Despite the danger, more than four million Americans have shopped online while driving a car.
  • Just checking email at the conference table? -- More than nine million Americans admitted they have secretly shopped while in a business meeting.
  • Bringing physical and online retail together -- More west coasters indicated that they were inclined to do this than people in other regions of the country.
  • Milk, bread, and that new flat screen -- More than seven million Americans have filled their grocery and online shopping carts at the same time; they have shopped from their mobile device while at the grocery store.
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Judge Intervenes in Effort to Save Hostess and 18,000 Jobs

One day of mediation will try to resolve differences with bakers' union

Hostess Brands may not be out of business yet and 18,000 workers may not be out of work. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain is sending the company and the strik...

PhotoHostess Brands may not be out of business yet and 18,000 workers may not be out of work. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain is sending the company and the striking Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union to a mediator.

The two sides will meet today to see if they can come to some agreement that would keep the company in business. Hostess announced Friday it is liquidating and selling its assets because it cannot continue to operate with the bakers' union on strike.

Drain said he intervened in an effort to save the jobs that would be lost if Hostess goes out of business. He'll be in charge of today's mediation session to see if the company and union can reach some kind of agreement.

Wage cuts

Hostess had asked the Bakers to accept an eight percent wage cut and other benefit reductions. The company said the other employee unions, including the teamsters, had agreed.

If the two sides cannot agree, Hostess said it will return to court and ask the judge to allow it to begin liquidating. Company officials say they aren't even sure that they could reopen, considering the losses they have already suffered during the closure.

Hostess owns 30 food brands, including Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes, Ding-Dongs, Ho Ho's and Wonder Bread. The company said it is confident that it can sell its brands to competitors who will continue to produce the products.

That, however, didn't stop a run on supermarkets and convenience stores over the weekend, with many consumers buying up every box of Twinkies they could find.

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Existing Home Sales Show October Gain

Another sign the housing market is getting back on its feet

Though it's generally believed the housing market is in recovery mode, few analysts expected home sales to rise in October. But according to the National A...

PhotoThough it's generally believed the housing market is in recovery mode, few analysts expected home sales to rise in October. But according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) monthly report, they did.

Total existing home sales rose 2.1 percent over September and were up nearly 11 percent from October 2011. One reason for the unexpected gain, however, is September's sales figures were revised downward.

Still, it's pretty impressive considering large areas of the northeast were dealing with Hurricane Sandy.

Trending up

"Home sales continue to trend up and most October transactions were completed by the time the storm hit, but the growing demand with limited inventory is pressuring home prices in much of the country," said Lawrence Yun , NAR chief economist. "We expect an impact on Northeastern home sales in the coming months from a pause and delays in storm-impacted regions."

Price action was also encouraging. The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $178,600 in October -- which is 11.1 percent above a year ago. It marks eight consecutive monthly year-over-year increases, which last occurred from October 2005 to May 2006.

"Rising home prices have already resulted in a $760 billion growth in home equity during the past year," Yun said. "Given that each percentage point of price appreciation translates into an additional $190 billion in home equity, we could see close to a $1 trillion gain next year."

Foreclosures still a factor

Distressed properties continued to make up a sizable portion of the market. In October, foreclosures and short sales accounted for 24 percent of the action.

But there continued to be fewer homes for consumers to choose from, which is helping support prices. Total housing inventory at the end of October fell 1.4 percent -- to 2.14 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 5.4-month supply at the current sales pace, compared with 5.6 months in September.

It's the fewest number of houses for sale since February of 2006 when it was 5.2 months. Listed inventory is 21.9 percent below a year ago when there was a 7.6-month supply.

Investors, meanwhile, remain very active in the real estate market. All-cash sales were at 29 percent of transactions in October, versus 28 percent in September. They were also 29 percent in October 2011.

Investors, who account for most cash sales, purchased 20 percent of homes in October, up from 18 percent in September. They were 18 percent in October 2011.

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5-Hour Energy Drinks Accused of Causing 13 Deaths

The FDA is currently looking further into the claims that the energy drink is harmful

If you’ve ever used 5-hour Energy drinks, then you know just how well they  work in terms of providing a quick caffeine jolt.But according to ...

PhotoIf you’ve ever used 5-hour Energy drinks, then you know just how well they work in terms of providing a quick caffeine jolt.

But according to the Food and Drug administration (FDA), those tiny orange and yellow bottles may have caused 13 deaths and made 33 people seek hospital care.

The makers of the energy drink, Living Essentials, said it hasn’t seen any proof that would suggest its product has caused the death or hospitalization of any of its customers.

“5-hour is unaware of any deaths proven to have been caused by the consumption of 5-hour Energy,” said Living Essentials. “It is important to note that submitting a serious adverse event report to the FDA, according to the agency itself, is not construed by FDA as an admission that the dietary supplement was involved caused or contributed to the adverse event being reported.”

5-hour Energy drinks have been one of the many energy drinks on today’s market that have received their fair share of backlash from those who have linked the powerful caffeine product to illness and death.

Monster suit

PhotoThe parents of a 14-year old Maryland high school student believe the popular energy drink Monster led to their daughter’s death and they’re suing the drink makers for an undisclosed amount. The case is still pending.

And in the United Kingdom, supermarkets are starting to ban the sale of energy drinks to customers below the age of 18.

In the case of 5-hour Energy drinks, the company says it has the same portion of caffeine as a premium cup of coffee which has about 100 milligrams per cup. 5-hour’s tiny 2-ounce bottle contains about 207 milligrams of caffeine, according to a study conducted by ConsumerLab.com in 2010—which shows a substantially higher portion of caffeine than just one cup of premium coffee.

Living Essentials says customers should be following the instructions of how to use the product very closely and although the company advertises 5-hour Energy as a product for daily use, people shouldn’t be consuming more than two bottles in one day. And if you do drink two per day, the portions should be spaced out between several hours.

A ConsumerAffairs reader wrote recently to say he is aware of how careful people should be when using these products, and said he chooses to use 5-hours moderately, and said the drink seems to help him whenever he needs an energy boost.

“I use the 5 Hour Energy types but I don’t use them every day,” wrote Samuel, commenting on a previous story we wrote on energy drinks. “If I have a lot of work to do like cleaning, laundry and it is going to take several hours then I use them, but less than one per week. They work for me so far in that way, but I would never depend on them daily.  [It’s] just not a good idea as I see it,” he wrote.

Every day

PhotoBut using 5-hour Energy drinks periodically isn’t what the company wants, as the current TV slogan for the product is “Every day’s a 5-hour Energy Day.”   

The trouble comes into play when people use energy drinks like its actual coffee, by drinking a couple of bottles each day--every day.

And since it’s pretty normal to drink two or three cups of coffee each day, some people may get confused and think they’re getting the same portion of caffeine they would get by drinking two cups of joe.

The makers of 5-hour Energy said portion control is key and if it’s taken correctly there won’t be any health issues associated with the drink.

The harmful effects are “overblown when it’s in small qualities,” said a company rep in an interview with ABC News. “It’s like this, water is good, but if you have too much you drown.”

Whether the number of deaths and hospitalization cases are really due to 5-hour Energy drinks will be revealed after the investigation, but it’s clear that this is not the kind of attention that Living Essentials was looking for.

And even if the investigation determines that 5 Hours had nothing to do with the deaths and hospitalization of its customers, it could still do harm to the company and lower the chances of people using the product every day.

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Study Reveals Four New Parenting Categories: Which Are You?

Do you fit into any of these parenting styles or are the researchers way off?

When it comes to parenting, there are a lot of different styles one can use to raise children and prepare them for the real world.Many years ago famed ps...

PhotoWhen it comes to parenting, there are a lot of different styles one can use to raise children and prepare them for the real world.

Many years ago famed psychologist Diana Baumrind broke down three type of parenting that was heavily examined by educators, other psychologists and parents alike.

She came up with the authoritarian parent, who uses a my-way-or-the-highway type of parenting style. And the authoritative parent who's more willing to listen to their children’s wants instead of ignoring them.

There's also the permissive parent who just wants to make their kids happy at any financial or emotional cost.

Of course other studies and parenting categories developed -- like the “helicopter parent” who hovers over their child’s every move and decision, and the “snow plow” parent that takes away every possible challenge for the child so they have it easier in life, and the “bulldoze” parent who makes their presence and opinions known to every teacher, coach and school that the child encounters.

Emerging trends

To learn more about his topic and the other possible parenting categories, the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, conducted a study to determine how parenting methods differ today compared to  parenting styles of the past.

Researchers also wanted to get a better idea of what type of adults the next generation of kids will be, as a result of today’s different parenting styles.

The study gathered 3,000 parents of school-aged children across the U.S. from September 2011 to March 2012, and follow-up research was conducted in a series of interviews to further develop and name the different parenting categories. Researchers received a grant of $850,000 from the John Templeton Foundation to finance the study.

Faithful parents

PhotoThe first category that researchers came up with was the "Faithful” parent, which makes up 20 percent of parents in the United States. The Faithful parent, according to the study, believes society is on a downward spiral in terms of morality and spiritual belief.

“The world can be an evil place,” a parent in this category might think, “So I have to set a strong religious foundation so my child doesn’t go astray.”

This parent usually has beliefs based in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam the study shows, and rebels against many of the social norms that they believe are actually sinful in nature.

For example, we all knew that one kid growing up who wasn’t able to come outside and play a lot, couldn’t receive phone calls or couldn’t come out to school dances or parties. Most likely these kids were raised by the Faithful type and were shielded from a lot of outside influences that their parents believed were actually harmful temptations.

Although school and overall success is important to the Faithful parent, they are more likely to place emphasis on their child’s spiritual development and the level of discipline their child has to the family’s beliefs.

Impressing God is far more important than impressing friends or teachers in the eyes of the Faithful parent, and using the help of a church, synagogue or temple for raising their child is extremely commonplace, reveals the study.

Engaged Progressives

“Engaged Progressives” represent 21 percent of parents, say researchers and are the ones that will most likely be called cool by their children’s friends.

This parenting group doesn’t use spirituality or religion to set guidelines for their child. Instead they use their own past experiences to dictate what’s right and wrong and also tend to be more optimistic about the present world and their child’s future.

The study also shows that Engaged Progressives are most likely to let their children find their own way at a very young age, as it pertains to being social, developing spiritual beliefs or engaging in sex. Meaning, if a father is talking to his 15-year-old son about condom use, instead of trying to talk him out of premarital sex is, he would fall within the Engaged Progressive category.

This type of parent also typically stays away from religion, the study found, and uses the Golden Rule as the main compass to teach morality.

And instead of trying hard to shape their child’s opinions, they consider their children to be “responsible choosers” and will probably engage in a lot more conversations with their child while listening to their needs much more than other parents.

Detached

PhotoThe study also shows that 21 percent of parents would fall into the “Detached” category of parenting, where they allow their kids to shape their own destiny and have a hands-off approach to child rearing.

Researchers say this type of parent is usually pessimistic about the future and believe outside influences will have a greater impact on their child’s development.

The findings of the study determined that many of the Detached parents are Caucasian, work in blue-collar jobs, rarely eat dinner together as a family, and don’t ask their kids about homework, tests or grades that much.

Researchers also say the Detached parent doesn’t feel a close connection with their child and spends less than two hours a day with them in one-on-one interaction.

American Dreamer

There’s also the “American Dreamer,” which represents 27 percent of parents, and this parenting style is usually low-income households that do everything in their power to balance the scales of opportunity for their children.

They also try to remove every social challenge the child may face because of their financial circumstance.

Researchers say a lot of parents in this category happen to be blacks and Hispanics, and many said in the survey that they have a “very close” relationship with their children and do all they can to keep them away from the harms of their sometimes harsh environment.

This particular parent is most likely pulled away from their child more than the other groups due to working more hours and trying to better their financial situation. But they somehow still stay heavily involved in their child’s upbringing while remaining extremely hopeful about their child’s future and the opportunities in this country.

The study also revealed that between all the categories, most of the parents said their children share the same values as they do, despite outside influences-- and dissension in the household is usually about everyday things like setting curfews or doing the dishes.

Researchers also found that there are less authoritarian types of parents than in previous generations and many try to properly balance the art of being a disciplinarian and friend to their child, which certainly wasn’t the case in the past with many parents.

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Consumer Bureau Warns Companies Against Using False Mortgage Ads

Investigations have been launched into the targeting of seniors and vets

Approximately a dozen mortgage lenders and mortgage brokers have been told to clean up potentially misleading advertisements -- particularly those targeted...

PhotoApproximately a dozen mortgage lenders and mortgage brokers have been told to clean up potentially misleading advertisements -- particularly those targeted toward veterans and older Americans.

The warning letters were sent by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

At the same time, the CFPB also announced it has begun formal investigations of six companies that it thinks may have committed more serious violations of the law.

“Misrepresentations in mortgage products can deprive consumers of important information while making one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Baiting consumers with false ads to buy into mortgage products would be illegal. We will conduct a fair and rigorous investigation into these issues and will take appropriate action for any violations we find.”

Joint sweep

Today’s actions stem from a joint “sweep,” a review conducted by the CFPB and the FTC of about 800 randomly selected mortgage-related ads across the country, including ads for mortgage loans, refinancing, and reverse mortgages.

The agencies looked at public-facing ads in newspapers, on the Internet and from mail solicitations; some came to the attention of the CFPB and the FTC from consumers who complained about them.

The agencies were looking for potential violations of the 2011 Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule, which prohibits misleading claims concerning government affiliation, interest rates, fees, costs, payments associated with the loan, and the amount of cash or credit available to the consumer. The CFPB and the FTC share enforcement authority for the rule. Companies that the CFPB finds have violated prohibitions on misleading advertising could be subject to enforcement actions.

Two-pronged attack

The CFPB’s review generally focused on mortgage advertisements, particularly ads that targeted older Americans or veterans. The FTC, meanwhile, examined ads by home builders, realtors, and lead generators. The FTC is issuing their own warning letters to about a dozen companies and continuing with their own investigations of even more companies based on their findings.

The sweep identified problems, such as:

  • Potential misrepresentations about government affiliation: For example, some of the ads for mortgage products contained official-looking seals or logos, or have other characteristics that may be interpreted by consumers as indicating a government affiliation.
  • Potentially inaccurate information about interest rates: For example, some ads promoted low rates that may have misled consumers about the terms of the product actually offered.
  • Potentially misleading statements concerning the costs of reverse mortgages: For example, some ads for reverse mortgage products claimed that a consumer will have no payments in connection with the product, even though consumers with a reverse mortgage are commonly required to continue to make monthly or other periodic tax or insurance payments, and may risk default if the payments aren’t made.
  • Potential misrepresentations about the amount of cash or credit available to a consumer: For example, some ads contained a mock check and/or suggested that a consumer has been pre-approved to receive a certain amount of money in connection with refinancing their mortgage or taking out a reverse mortgage, when a number of additional steps would customarily need to be completed before the consumer would qualify for the loan.

The warning letters advise the recipients that their ads may violate federal laws, and that they should review all their advertising.  

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Consumer Group Urges Crackdown on Caffeinated Snacks

Cracker Jack'D, MiO Energy and Extreme Sports Beans are singled out

Boxes of Cracker Jack are famous for having a toy surprise inside. But what parent suspects that Cracker Jack might come with a surprising dose of a mildly...

PhotoBoxes of Cracker Jack are famous for having a toy surprise inside. But what parent suspects that Cracker Jack might come with a surprising dose of a mildly addictive stimulant drug?

A soon-to-be-introduced version of that classic, kid-friendly snack does, in fact, have added caffeine -- in the form of coffee, according to the manufacturer. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest says that if government regulators don't take some kind of action, products like Frito-Lay's Cracker Jack'D could set off a new craze in which manufacturers add caffeine itself or coffee to more and more varieties of foods and beverages.

Raising concerns

In a letter to the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson alerted the agency to Cracker Jack'D, Kraft's caffeinated "water enhancer" MiO Energy, and caffeinated "Extreme Sports Beans" marketed by the Jelly Belly Candy Company.

"The way things are going, I fear that we'll see caffeine, or coffee. being added to ever-more improbable drinks and snacks, putting children, unsuspecting pregnant women, and others at risk," said Jacobson. "How soon before we have caffeinated burgers, burritos, or breakfast cereals?"

MiO Energy comes in 32- and 48-milliliter squirt bottles that dispense half-teaspoon-sized servings intended to flavor water, according to the label. Each serving has 60 milligrams of caffeine, about as much as a small cup of coffee. In a letter to Kraft, Jacobson said young children might enjoy squirting two or three times as much MiO Energy into water.

"It is relevant to note that several state and city attorneys general and United States senators recently expressed concern about the caffeine content and marketing of energy drinks," Jacobson wrote. "Those products are marketed mostly to teens and young adults and have reportedly been associated with several deaths."

MiO Energy appears to be formulated with many of the same ingredients as other "energy" drinks. Besides caffeine, MiO Energy (in the Black Cherry variety) contains water, citric acid, propylene glycol, taurine, guarana extract, ginseng extract, niacinamide, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, the artificial sweeteners sucralose and acesulfame potassium, sodium and potassium citrates, Red 40, Blue 1, and potassium sorbate. A Green Thunder variety is identical but has Yellow 5 instead of Red 40.

It's unclear exactly how much caffeine is in Cracker Jack'D, though the labeling suggests a serving has as much as a cup of coffee.

Marketing to kids?

"Whether or not they are advertised directly to children, it is certain that young children will consume Cracker Jack'D... and sometimes consume it to excess," Jacobson wrote executives at Frito-Lay and parent company PepsiCo. Both MiO Energy and Cracker Jack'D have fine print on labels saying the products are inappropriate for children but CSPI claims that's not sufficient to prevent children from consuming them.

Effects of caffeine include anxiety, restlessness, irritability, excitability, and insomnia, according to CSPI. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the consumption of caffeine and other stimulant substances in the diets of children and adolescents. The FDA considers caffeine safe for use in cola-type beverages up to 0.02 percent (72 mg per 12 ounces), but does not regulate coffee, according to CSPI.

"Additional concerns regarding the use of caffeine in children include its effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems and the risk of physical dependence and addiction," the AAP says. "Because of the potentially harmful adverse effects and developmental effects of caffeine, dietary intake should be discouraged for all children."

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Diagnosed Diabetes Up at a Dramatic Rate

Eighteen states saw 100 percent or more increase between 1995 and 2010

We're getting sicker at an alarming rate According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of diagnosed diabe...

PhotoWe're getting sicker at an alarming rate

According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes increased in all U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico between 1995 and 2010.

In fact, during that time the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes increased by 50 percent or more in 42 states, and by 100 percent or more in 18 states.

The report, appearing in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, finds that states with the largest increases are Oklahoma (226 percent), Kentucky (158 percent), Georgia (145 percent), Alabama (140 percent),and Washington (135 percent).

South leads the way

"Regionally, we saw the largest increase in diagnosed diabetes prevalence in the South, followed by the West, Midwest, and Northeast," said Linda Geiss, a statistician with CDC's Division of Diabetes Translation and lead author of the report. "These data also reinforce findings from previous studies, which indicate that the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes is highest in the southern and Appalachian states."

The study, which uses data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System -- an annual telephone survey of health behaviors and conditions of US adults aged 18 and older -- found that the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in 2010 was 10 percent or more in six states and Puerto Rico.

"In 1995 only three states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had a diagnosed diabetes prevalence of 6 percent or more. By 2010, all 50 states had a prevalence of more than 6 percent," said Ann Albright, Ph.D., R.D., director of CDC's Division of Diabetes Translation. "These rates will continue to increase until effective interventions and policies are implemented to prevent both diabetes and obesity."

Working on prevention

Type 2 diabetes, which may be prevented through lifestyle changes, accounts for 90 percent to 95 percent of all diabetes cases in the United States. CDC and its partners are working on a variety of initiatives to prevent type 2 diabetes and to reduce complications in those already diagnosed.

CDC leads the National Diabetes Prevention Program, a public-private partnership that brings evidence-based programs for preventing type 2 diabetes to communities. The program is helping establish a network of lifestyle-change classes for overweight or obese people at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

As well, the National Diabetes Education Program -- a partnership of CDC and NIH -- provides resources to improve the treatment and outcomes of people with diabetes, promote early diagnosis, and prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.

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New Jersey Bans Bogus 9/11 Charity

State says fundraisers gave no money to victims' families as claimed

A New Jersey court case underscores the importance of always checking out a charity before you make a donation – especially a cash donation.The cou...

PhotoA New Jersey court case underscores the importance of always checking out a charity before you make a donation -- especially a cash donation.

The court has ordered two men who claimed to be raising money for the families of emergency responders who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11 to give up $121,116 in donations and pay civil penalties. They are also permanently barred from working for any charitable organization in New Jersey, under terms of a Final Consent Judgment that resolves a lawsuit filed by New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

“This case illustrates how charlatans will use a tragic event, and the pretext of helping those in need, to profit themselves. We’re on alert for similar scams in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and consumers should perform due diligence before making donations if they are contacted and asked to aid storm victims,” Chiesa said.

Concern raised about fake Sandy charities

Chiesa points out that, to date, only one charity created specifically created to aid Hurricane Sandy victims has registered with the state.

In the just-settled case Chiesa said the two men brought a custom-painted pickup truck to public events, where they sold t-shirts featuring the logos of the New York City police and fire departments and also took cash donations, under the guise of helping the families of fallen first responders.

They were not authorized to use the logos and not legally allowed to solicit the donations. The pickup truck had painted images of the World Trade Center and listed the names of first responders who perished there. According to the factual findings in the Final Consent Judgment, no money went to the victims’ family members.

“We have zero tolerance for those who attempt to enrich themselves by using emotional appeals following a tragedy or disaster to defraud consumers who want to help those in need,” said Eric T. Kanefsky, Acting Director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs. “The Division will seek swift and severe action against those who use the name of a just cause to enrich themselves.”

Avoiding a rip-off

Consumer who want to support a worthy cause, of course, should. But New Jersey officials, along with most consumer advocates, suggest donors always show caution.

  • Before donating to a charity, find out whether the organization is registered with the state or is exempt from the registration requirement. In some states certain religious and educational organizations, and charities that raise less than $10,000 annually in contributions, are exempt.
  • Learn how, exactly, the charity plans to use your money. Learn how much the charity spent during recent fiscal years on program costs, management costs, and fundraising. Learn about the charity’s stated mission. If the charity representative is reluctant to answer these questions, it's not a good sign.
  • The charity should readily provide all of this information to you. Verify the information by calling your state attorney general's office.
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Five Ways to Prepare for the Upcoming Tax Season

You can take steps now to make tax filing a little easier in January

Believe it or not, tax-filing season is right around the corner. While Congress and the president wrestle over the “fiscal cliff” and the futur...

PhotoBelieve it or not, tax-filing season is right around the corner. While Congress and the president wrestle over the “fiscal cliff” and the future of taxes, consumers need to be focused on the 2012 tax year.

To get a speedier refund it helps to file as early as possible. Filing early, in turn, is aided by taking a few steps between now and December 31 to get ready. Here are five things you can do now to get ready:

  1. Think about any life changes you had in 2012 and how these may affect your tax return. Many common events, like having a baby or buying a home, can trigger tax credits or deductions. Start planning for your income tax return by putting together an action timeline and to-do list.
  2. Choose a professional tax preparer, if you need help completing your return. You'll want someone who has been around for a while and who will be around later. If you don't already have a tax preparer, ask friends and family for a referral.
  3. Start now gathering documents you'll need to complete your return. Keep in mind your W-2 and 1099 forms won't be available until the end of January but there are other documents that will prove helpful, like a copy of last year's tax return. If you have a part-time business you can begin now to organize and gather receipts.
  4. Consider year-end tax moves that will reduce your taxable income, such as giving to charity, prepaying your January mortgage payment or increasing your retirement plan contributions.
  5. Create a plan with your tax preparer that includes a list of things to do to get your taxes done this year. Start a shoebox for your tax documents, review your year for life changes and put a target date on the calendar to file.

Significant season

“The coming tax filing season is shaping up to be like no other in recent years,” said Mark Steber, chief tax officer, Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc. “The combination of expiring tax laws and tax policy changes, possible renewed retroactive provisions and last-minute legislative action calls for taxpayers to be extra careful when managing their taxes in order to ensure that there is no money left on the table."

Steber suggests keeping an eye out for late year legislative changes that can impact your future taxes. For example, Extender Provisions, which include the deductions for state and local sales tax, the mortgage insurance premium, deductions for out-of-pocket classroom expenses for teachers, deductions for college tuition and fees, as well as the $500 credit for making energy-efficient home improvements, could all be on the table.

That means paying attention to the news out of Washington over the next few weeks. What happens there could affect you tax-wise in the coming years.

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Suffocation, Entrapment Risks Prompt Recall of PeaPod Travel Tents

Children can become trapped between the mattress and the fabric sides of the tent and suffocate

KidCo Inc., of Libertyville, IL, is Recalling about 220,000 PeaPod and PeaPod Plus Travel Beds. Infants and young children can roll off the edge of the in...

PhotoKidCo Inc., of Libertyville, IL, is Recalling about 220,000 PeaPod and PeaPod Plus Travel Beds.

Infants and young children can roll off the edge of the inflatable air mattress, become entrapped between the mattress and the fabric sides of the tent, and suffocate.

Death, injuries reported

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is aware of a death of a 5-month-old boy in December 2011 in New York. The child who was found with his face pressed against the side wall of the tent. The cause of death was not determined.

In addition, CPSC is aware of six reports and Health Canada is aware of three reports of children who became entrapped or experienced physical distress in the product. Two of the six reports included infants who were found crying underneath of the mattress, which had not been inserted into the zippered pocket on the bottom of the tent.

The KidCo PeaPod Travel Beds and PeaPod Plus Travel Beds are small, portable sleep tents marketed for use by infants from birth to 3+ years, depending on the model. The tents have a zippered side for putting in and taking out the child and have an inflatable air mattress that fits into a zippered pocket underneath the floor of the tent. The tents fold into a compact round shape and come with a fabric bag for storage and transport.

The following models and corresponding tent fabric colors are included in this recall:

  • P100 Teal
  • P101 Red
  • P102 Lime
  • P103 Periwinkle
  • P104 Ocean
  • P201 Princess/Red
  • P202 Camouflage
  • P203 Quick Silver
  • P204 Sagebrush
  • P205 Cardinal
  • P900CS Green

The model number can be found on a small tag on the underside of the product.

The travel tents, made in China, were sold at independent juvenile specialty stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com from January 2005 through the present for between $70 and $100.

Consumers should immediately stop using the tents and contact KidCo to get a free repair kit. The kits will vary depending on the model and will be shipped to consumers starting in December 2012.

Contact KidCo toll-free at (855) 847-8600 between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. CT.

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Checking Out Some Black Friday Sale Items

This year's shopping day may require more homework than in years past

Black Friday this year may be even more confusing and chaotic than in years past. The decision by several major retailers to open Thanksgiving night means ...

PhotoBlack Friday this year may be even more confusing and chaotic than in years past. The decision by several major retailers to open Thanksgiving night means some of those door-buster specials will only be available to those who leave the dinner table to go shopping.

On the other hand, some stores are staggering their bargains, making them available only at certain times on Thanksgiving night and on Black Friday itself. A consumer who decides to shop will need to consult her favorite stores' advertisements closely to understand the rules.

While it's been established that overall, Black Friday isn't the best day for bargains, there are some tempting offers that have been offered so far. Here's a rundown of some of the better ones listed by ConsumerWorld.org found Edgar Dworsky:

Walmart Stores

Vizio 60” LED Smart TV for $688, LG Blu-Ray player for $38, 700-ct sheet sets $19.96, and men’s Dearfoam slippers for $6

Sears

Kenmore French door stainless refrigerator $1299.99, and Kenmore over-the-range stainless microwave $149.99; $10 off $40 clothing purchase coupon

Sam's Club

Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone for $0.96

Best Buy

Canon Powershot Elph 110 camera $129.99; Seagate 3-TB external hard drive $99.99

Kmart

Proctor-Silex small kitchen appliances from $4.99

Toys R Us

More than 150 toys for 50 percent off

Macy's

Coupon for $10 off a $25 purchase

Check ads for store hours in your area. For a look at more Black Friday sale items, check out the growing number of websites that have posted the ad slicks.

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There's No Need to Stock Up on Twinkies

Hostess is likely to find a buyer to take over turning out the high-calorie treat

Since Hostess Brands announced it is going out of business and liquidating, an absolute consumer panic appears to have formed around one of the company's p...

PhotoSince Hostess Brands announced it is going out of business and liquidating, an absolute consumer panic appears to have formed around one of the company's products, the Twinkie.

Consumers have hit supermarkets and convenience stores, stocking up on the high-calorie treat. Adults who haven't eaten a Twinkie in decades are bidding outrageous amounts on Ebay for cartons of Twinkies.

It's all a little much, especially when you consider that the Twinkie most likely isn't going anywhere. Within a few weeks it's likely someone else will be making the pastry.

“Hostess Brands will focus on selling its assets to the highest bidders,” said company CEO Gregory Rayburn on Friday.

Included in those assets are Hostess's 30 brands, which include the Twinkie. Even before the weekend hysteria over Twinkies it was likely another company would continue to make the snack. After all the publicity, it's almost guaranteed.

Going a little nuts

On Ebay Sunday, some people were frankly going a little nuts. Five boxes of 10 Twinkies had 12 bidders with a high bid of $117.50. That works out to $2.35 per Twinkie.

In an interview with CNBC Friday, Rayburn said he is hopeful Hostess will be able to sell all 30 of its brands and that its products, many of which have been around for decades, will continue to be produced.

That would include Twinkies, as well as Ding-Dongs, Ho Ho's and Wonder Bread. In short, they aren't expected to become collector's items. Besides, even with all the preservatives, there's a limit to how long even a Twinkie will last.

Hostess announced it was shutting down after its unionized Bakers rejected a pay cut and went on strike. Hostess, which was in the process of reorganizing under bankruptcy, said it was unable to continue operating in the face of the walkout by its bakers, who comprise about 30 percent of its employees.

The company's liquidation means the closing of 33 bakeries, 565 distribution centers and 570 bakery outlet stores, idling some 18,000 employees nationwide.

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FHA to Raise Mortgage Insurance Premium

Agency that helps first-time homebuyers is running short of cash

Federal Housing Administration, or FHA loans, have helped many consumers buy their first homes. Since the government guarantees the loans lenders will acc...

PhotoFederal Housing Administration, or FHA, loans have helped many consumers buy their first homes. Since the government guarantees the loans lenders will accept as little as 3.5 percent as a down payment.

Now, FHA says it is running short of funds and may have to turn to a taxpayer bailout for the first time in its 78 years. It projects losses of $16.3 billion in the current fiscal year.

To try to head-off a request for taxpayer funds, FHA says it will raise insurance premiums on FHA loans by one percent. The agency will also require those mortgage insurance policies to remain in effect, even after the borrower has accumulated more than 20 percent equity in the home.

The importance of FHA

Michael Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, says it's critical that FHA be restored to financial help.

“FHA has played a critical role during the housing crisis and the economic downturn,” Calhoun said. “It provided credit to families who otherwise would not have been able to buy homes.”

In fact, as mortgage lenders have tightened lending standards in the wake of the housing collapse, FHA has continued to make loans to first-time home buyers. Calhoun says this has not only helped the individuals getting the loans but also has helped stabilize neighborhoods and communities and boost the economic recovery. He says it's essential that FHA continue to fulfill this role, especially as the recovery continues.

“It is also essential that FHA operate on a financially sound basis,” Calhoun said. “FHA has already instituted changes so that its current and more recent loans are projected to generate a profit. Those safeguards, along with the additional changes FHA announced today, should produce the additional revenue that will enable FHA to operate without a subsidy from taxpayers.”

Running short of cash

Current rules require FHA to maintain enough reserved to cover projected losses on the $1 trillion in loans that it guarantees. It's running short of that. Just as conventional lenders have suffered losses through foreclosures, so has FHA.

Is it easier for a first-time buyer to qualify for an FHA rather than a conventional loan? It might be. But before approving a loan, the lender analyzes the integrity of the borrower's past credit performance.

Based on FHA requirements, those who have a good credit history demonstrated by a solid track record of timely payments will likely be eligible for a loan. Potential borrower's whose credit history is marred by slow payments, poor financial judgment and delinquent accounts is not a good candidate for loan approval.

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Facebook Now Has a Job-Hunting Feature

First e-commerce and now a service for job seekers. Will the new app catch on?

Is it really that surprising to hear that Facebook is entering yet another facet of everyday life?Probably not, but the social networking giants are doin...

PhotoIs it really that surprising to hear that Facebook is entering yet another facet of everyday life?

Probably not, but the social networking giants are doing just that by including  job hunting capabilities through a number of existing job sites and apps that already link people to job opportunities.

Facebook calls its new service the Social Jobs App and it serves as a search hub that displays jobs from other sites like Us.jobs, Work4Labs, and Jobvite.

The social site has even teamed with Monster.com, which was one of the first job search sites that was widely used by employment seekers before it lost many users to newer sites like Indeed.com

Just like Indeed, the Facebook Social Jobs App will also be a one-and-done type of service, that will allow users to pull up many jobs from different sites.

The app also shows users the number of available jobs at the top of the page, so people can check in periodically to see if new jobs were added since their last search.

Social Jobs Partnership

PhotoThe new app is part of the Social Jobs Partnership that was established in 2011 between Facebook, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The app will work on both mobile devices and web browsers and pretty much works like other job sites were users can either select a keyword or job category to begin their hunt.

There’s also a box one could check that says “veteran-friendly” that will bring up only those companies that are committed to hiring people who have served in the armed forces.

Of course the job app is a great move for Facebook, as the company is able to tack on another feature that will most likely draw in even more users.

But the other job sites the social site has partnered with—especially Monster.com—will get even more out of the deal, as sites like LinkedIn have robbed some of these companies of being the popular web destinations they used to be.

Even Craigslist, that doesn’t specialize in job searches at all, was able to lure  people away from sites like Monster.com.

Now websites and apps like Us.jobs and Jobvite, along with the other sites included in the partnership, will have easy access to every Facebook user under the sun who is looking for employment.

And the fact that most users are able to share new jobs on the app through Facebook, it will be quite easy for Monster.com and the rest of the job sites to be in everyday Internet discussions among users.

Also, job seekers won’t have to get off Facebook to do their job search, which will only make the new app more popular since sometimes searching for jobs is a chore—especially when you have to get off your favorite social site to do it.

However by including the sometimes annoying task of looking through hundreds of jobs with the enjoyment of social networking, it could bring a fun component to job hunting.  

Some users may worry that prospective employers will automatically view their Facebook pages that may contain personal images and other updates that are unrelated to the job search, but once you click on a position that comes up in your hunt, you’ll only deal with the job site that originated the post.

Based on referrals

PhotoStephane Le Viet, CEO of Work4Labs says that getting new employment is heavily based on referrals, and she feels Facebook is the perfect site to create discussions about jobs, new companies and exactly what opportunities are out there.

“Looking for a job is one of the most social activities you can think about,” said Le Viet in a published interview.

“When we started two years ago, everyone was telling us no way Facebook will be used for professional purposes."

"Now job seekers realize they can use Facebook to research companies, see whom they might know who could get them a job, and can use the direct-messaging system to make contacts. That’s important, since 30 percent of hires in the United States are made through referrals.” he said.

The downside of linking existing job apps and websites with Facebook, is that more people will have knowledge of a particular position, which will obviously make that job more competitive and harder to get.

Some job sites only attract a certain corner of the work population—but with Facebook—every Tom, Dick and Harriet will know about every job that comes up.

But yet, the Social app is a win-win for Facebook and its partners, and as long as users can keep their personal Facebook info separate from their potential employers, the app could be very useful.

Meaning, if people just use the social network to learn where jobs are, and then communicate to employers through a separate email—the app could be very useful.

However, if you’re using your Facebook page as your main point of contact or you’re using the direct messaging feature to communicate with employers, things could get really dicey. So you probably shouldn't do that.

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Windows 8 -- Big Success or Major Disappointment?

Nearly everyone agrees it's confusing but some analysts say a solid system lies beneath the puzzling exterior

Critics have been savaging Windows 8, calling it just about every name imaginable. Troy Wolverton, writing at Phys.org, was perhaps the most inventive...

PhotoMany critics have been savaging Windows 8, calling it just about every name imaginable. Troy Wolverton, writing at Phys.org, was perhaps the most inventive, comparing it to women's clothing.  

"It feels like Microsoft took a nice dress and attached it to an equally fine pantsuit and tried to pass it off as one garment," Wolverton huffed, complaining that the new operating system "has two separate and largely incompatible parts.  It just doesn't work."

Like Wolverton, many critics are questioning how well Windows 8 will work on existing computers, since they're most likely not equipped with the touchscreens that supposedly make Windows 8 a snap to use.

Adding to the froth surrounding the release is the sudden departure of Steven Sinofsky, the Microsoft executive who was in charge of Windows 8. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is insisting the new software is off to a "spectacular start" 

Maybe, but industry sources say sales of Windows 8-equipped PCs are way below Microsoft's projections and are considered disappointing. Microsoft is blaming PC makers, claiming they're not pairing the software with the right hardware but most industry analysts say Microsoft deserves a big piece of the blame. 

"It’s a floor wax. No, it’s a dessert topping. Microsoft’s new whatever-the-F-it-is operating system is a confusing, Frankenstein’s monster mix of old and new that hides a great desktop upgrade under a crazy Metro front-end," wrote Paul Thurrott on Supersite for Windows.

Well, could be but consumers may be willing to give Windows 8 a chance. A sentiment analysis of more than 3 million social media comments over the last year shows Windows 8 steadily rising in the estimation of consumers, as shown in this chart:

 

But while overall sentiment may be better than expected, those with negative opinions are perhaps being more vocal. As one Facebook user put it:

If anyone is thinking of "upgrading" to Windows 8, my strong recommendation is to forget it. If you do decide to ignore this advice, feel free to come find me afterwards and we'll hunt down Steven Sinofsky together -- losing his job as Windows manager at Microsoft isn't enough punishment for the sucky product he launched. ... Win7 and WinXP were usable, and the Win8 Preview was passable. But this full paid release of Win8 has been a NIGHTMARE from the first second I installed it.)

Microsoft  Nov. 16, 2012, 3:51 p.m.
Consumers rate Microsoft

Other early adopters are also reporting problems. Mike of Ft. Smith, Ark., ran into trouble trying to log into his Credit Onebank account: 

I wasn’t able to log into my account using Windows 8. I have two other PCs running Windows 7, and I have always been able to log in without any issues. Your (Credit One) Rep starts rambling on and on that she can’t help me with that and to check with my ISP. I told her that it is not my ISP, and too, I am a Computer Programmer and that it is more likely something with Credit One Bank's Website possibly not being compatible with Windows 8. She starts to become rude trying to over-talk me, and then ... hangs up on me.

Some consumers, like "J" of Maple Valley, Wash., are confused by the many versions of Windows 8. In a posting to ConsumerAffairs, J said:

I ordered Windows 8 Pro to upgrade a convertible table/netbook computer. After receiving the software, I had questions about the difference between Windows 8 Upgrade vs Windows 8 Pro vs Windows 8 Pro Pac. I was at Costco after already ordering Windows 8 Pro from Best Buy. Costco had Windows Pro and Pro Pac both for $66.00, I paid $69.00 to you (Best Buy) for the same software, but $3.00, no big deal. Besides, I get the professional assistance from the Geek Squad with my purchase. You even sent me an e-mail proclaiming the great assistance I could get from the Geek Squad if I needed any help with my Windows 8 purchase. Well, I did have questions, and I called the Geek Squad to find out what the difference was between Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 Pro Pac. The first person I spoke with could not tell me. I was transferred 3 more times and none of the other 3 people could tell me either. ... The answer your so called professional tech's could not answer was what I thought the answer was..... It is an add on Pac that completes Windows 8 Pro.

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Consumers a Little More Upbeat This Holiday Season, Survey Shows

U.S. households plan to spend an average of $521 on gifts

A lot of folks could be in for a merrier Christmas this year. U.S. households are expected to spend an average of $521 on gifts this holiday season, accor...

PhotoA lot of folks could be in for a merrier Christmas this year.

U.S. households are expected to spend an average of $521 on gifts this holiday season, according to The Conference Board. Nearly 10 percent of consumers said they plan to spend more on holiday gifts this year, up about three percent from last year. Approximately 31 percent plan to spend less than last year, compared with 40 percent a year ago.

"As the holiday season approaches, consumers appear to be in better spirits than last year," says Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. "Our survey results show a slight boost in holiday spending intentions. Retailers are cautiously optimistic that this holiday shopping season will be better than last."

Bargain hunting

Consumers will be searching for bargains this holiday season, with more than one-third saying they expect more than half of their purchases to be on sale or discounted. Nearly 70 percent expect to purchase a portion of their holiday gifts online, with about 20 percent saying more than half of their gifts will be purchased online.

The survey of holiday gift spending intentions, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board in October by Nielsen, a leading global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch.  

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Black Friday Backlash Puts Focus On Chain Store Employees

Some Walmart Stores employees reportedly threaten a job action

The decision by major retailers to push up the start of Black Friday to Thanksgiving night has struck a nerve. Not with consumers but with the people on th...

PhotoThe decision by major retailers to push up the start of Black Friday to Thanksgiving night has struck a nerve. Not with consumers but with the people on the other side of the counter, who often work long hours for low pay.

Now they have to come in on Thanksgiving. It's resulted in an online petition launched by Target employees and shareholders. And at Walmart Stores, the first chain to announce a Thanksgiving night opening, there are reports employees are planning a one-day strike on Black Friday.

An employees group calling itself OUR Walmart has reportedly called the informal job action for the company's most important shopping day. The reports have surfaced online this week, though there has been no official confirmation.

“This unique, one-day strike by non-union workers with public support can have significant impact because even a small dip in sales on Black Friday has significant implications for Walmart’s stock,” said Ken Margolies, a Cornell University labor expert. “The strike is part of an ongoing strategy and regardless of the outcome, the campaign is likely to continue.”

Whether it is a direct response to the change in Black Friday hours, Margolies says it's part of a campaign to pressure corporations to improve pay and working conditions.

Recognizing service workers

Freeman Hall, author of the book Retail Hell, says the backlash is an opportunity to give back to the service worker in a big way this holiday season. The best way to do that, he says, is to show courtesy and appreciation for those behind the counter.

“Corporations and many customers don’t see the faces of the people serving them, as with the Abercrombie CEO employee abuse scandal,” Hall said.

To try to change that he's declared Saturday, November 24 -- the day after Black Friday -- as Be Kind to Service Workers Day.

“It ultimately comes down to how we treat each other as human beings, Hall said. “I chose this day because many service workers are now forced to work Thanksgiving Day and there is a lot of negative energy surrounding Black Friday, and the stress of the upcoming holiday season.”

The retailers who are opening on Thanksgiving night say they are doing so as a benefit to consumers, who may be looking for something to do after a Thanksgiving dinner. However, it remains to be seen if consumers actually want that. More than 200,000 consumers have signed the Target petition, suggesting not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

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Postal Service Loses $15.9 Billion

Appeals to Congress for help

The U.S. Postal Service's (USPS) tale of woe is getting sadder. USPS says it lost a record $15.9 billion for the fiscal year that ended September 30.The...

PhotoThe U.S. Postal Service's (USPS) tale of woe is getting sadder. USPS says it lost a record $15.9 billion for the fiscal year that ended September 30.

The loss was made worse by an $11.1 billion expense related to two payments to pre-fund retiree health benefits. The Postal Service, which is uniquely required by law to pre-fund these obligations, was forced to default on these payments.

Until about 40 years ago the Postal Service was part of the U.S. government, where huge deficits hardly cause a ripple. It was separated into a semi-private company in the 1970s and was supposed to become self-sufficient at some point. That hasn't happened and USPS is looking to the U.S. government for help.

Help from Congress?

"It's critical that Congress do its part and pass comprehensive legislation before they adjourn this year to move the Postal Service further down the path toward financial health," said Postmaster General and CEO Patrick Donahoe. "We continue to do our part to grow revenue and reduce expenses by making our operations more efficient and by providing our customers with new and expanded services to meet their mailing and shipping needs. Additionally, through the expanded use of technology, including better use of digital tools and mobile technology, we are providing business mailers with new opportunities to connect with customers in a more individualized way."

In addition to a bailout, USPS is seeking permission to make some changes that it says would allow it to operate more profitably. However, these changes would affect consumers.

USPS want to be able to determine delivery frequency. Cutting out Saturday delivery, for example.

More flexibility

It also wants to be allowed to offer non-postal products and services and to instruct arbitrators that, during labor negotiations, they must take into account the financial condition of the Postal Service when rendering decisions.

Besides pension costs, what other areas are affecting USPS earnings? First the good news. USPS is making money delivering packages, competing with the likes of Federal Express and UPS. Revenue from Postal Service package business increased by $926 million, or 8.7 percent, on a volume increase of 244 million pieces compared to the same period last year.

Higher consumer spending, higher e-commerce retail sales plus increased marketing efforts drove much of the growth in this segment of the Postal Service business during the last year.

But that wasn't enough to offset continued declines in First-Class Mail and Standard Mail. First-Class Mail revenue, which peaked in 2007, dropped 3.9 percent while Standard Mail decreased $747 million or 4.3 percent compared to last year.

USPS' appeal for more government funding comes at a bad time, as Congress remains locked in tense negotiations with the White House on a package of spending cuts and tax hikes to reduce the deficit and avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year.

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Hostess Brands Shuts Down in Labor Dispute

Company makes Twinkies, Ho Ho's and other snacks

Hostess Brands, maker of the venerable Hostess Twinkie and other pastry products, says it will liquidate and lay off its 18,000 employees because of a stri...

PhotoHostess Brands, maker of the venerable Hostess Twinkie and other pastry products, says it will liquidate and lay off its 18,000 employees because of a strike by its bakers.

The company, attempting to reorganize in bankruptcy, said it had agreements with all of its union employees on a package of wage and benefit concessions. But the bakers union, which represents about a third of Hostess' employees, balked and called a strike instead.

"We deeply regret the necessity of today’s decision, but we do not have the financial resources to weather an extended nationwide strike,” Hostess CEO Gregory F. Rayburn said in a statement. “Hostess Brands will move promptly to lay off most of its 18,500-member workforce and focus on selling its assets to the highest bidders.”

Little bargaining room

Later, in an interview with cable channel CNBC, Rayburn said bankruptcy gave the company little bargaining room. He said he is hopeful the company can sell its 30 brands and that its products, many of which have been around for decades, will continue to be produced.

The company's liquidation means the closing of 33 bakeries, 565 distribution centers and 570 bakery outlet stores. It has filed a motion with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court seeking permission to close its business and sell its assets -- including its brands and facilities. Bakery operations have been suspended at all plants. Delivery of products will continue and Hostess Brands retail stores will remain open for several days in order to sell already-baked products.

The company said it moved quickly to wind down operations to preserve and maximize the value of the estate.

Shut down began this week

On Monday Hostess Brands permanently closed three plants as a result of the work stoppage. On Nov. 14, the Company announced it would be forced to liquidate if sufficient employees did not return to work to restore normal operations by 5 p.m., EST p.m., Nov. 15. The Company determined on the night of Nov. 15 that an insufficient number of employees had returned to work to enable the restoration of normal operations.

On Thursday, Hostess' largest union, the Teamsters, publicly called on the Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers International Union to hold a secret ballot vote to determine if the workers want to continue their strike of the company and force it into liquidation. Rayburn told CNBC today that it is now too late for that.

In addition to dozens of baking and distribution facilities around the country, Hostess Brands will sell its brands, including Hostess, Drakes and Dolly Madison, which make cake products such as Twinkies, CupCakes, Ding Dongs, Ho Ho's, Sno Balls and Donettes. Bread brands to be sold include Wonder, Nature's Pride, Merita, Home Pride, Butternut and Beefsteak, among others.

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Kawasaki Motors Recalls Lawn Mower Engines

A leaky fuel filter poses a fire hazard

Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA of Grand Rapids, MI, is recalling about 210,000 lawn mower engines. The fuel filter can leak, posing a fire hazard. The company...

PhotoKawasaki Motors Corp. USA of Grand Rapids, MI, is recalling about 210,000 lawn mower engines.

The fuel filter can leak, posing a fire hazard. The company has received 110 reports of fuel leaks. No injuries are reported.

This recall includes Kawasaki FH, FR, FS and FX series engines used in riding and wide area, walk-behind lawnmowers made and sold under the following brand names: Ariens, Bad Boy Mowers, Big Dog, Bob-Cat, Bush Hog, Country Clipper, Cub Cadet, Dixie Chopper, Dixon, DR Power Equipment, Encore, Exmark, Ferris, Gravely, Hustler, Husqvarna, Land Pride, SCAG, Simplicity, Snapper Pro, Tiger Corp, Toro, Worldlawn and Woods. Engines may have also have been bought separately and used in other lawn mowers.

Recalled engines are 13 to 36 horsepower, air-cooled, v-twin engines. “Kawasaki” and the model number are printed on the top of all of the engines. In addition, the spec and serial numbers are printed on a label on one side of the engine.

The following model, spec and serial numbers are included:

Brand(s)ModelSpecificationSerial Number Range
Ariens/GravelyFR691V
FR691V
FR730V
FR730V
FS481V
FS600V
FS691V
FX481V
FX481V
FX600V
FX691V
FX730V
FX730V
FX751V
FX850V
FX921V
AS19
CS09
AS15
CS07
BS22
BS18
CS08
DS04
DS04
DS08
DS04
DS04
DS04
DS05
DS07
AS09
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FR730VA19372 - FR730VA61003
FS730VA18873 - FS730VA36464
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS691VA07498 - FS691VA13372
FX481VA00810 - FX481VA01191
FX481VA00810 - FX481VA01191
FX600VA14634 - FX600VA18373
FX691VA18538 - FX691VA29675
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
FX751VA24127 - FX751VA33598
FX850VA32209 - FX850VA42326
FX921VA07267 - FX921VA13450
Bad Boy MowersFR651V
FR651V
FR730V
FS730V
FX850V
FX850V
AS19
BS17
AS16
AS14
AS15
ES09
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR730VA19372 - FR730VA61003
FS730VA18873 - FS730VA36464
FX850VA32209 - FX850VA42326
FX850VA32209 - FX850VA42326
Bob-CatFR651V
FR691V
FS481V
FS541V
FS541V
FS541V
FS600V
FS600V
FX541V
FX600V
FX651V
FX691V
FX730V
FX801V
FX921V
FXT00V
FXT00V
AS18
AS18
CS04
BS08
CS05
CS08
CS07
CS08
CS05
CS05
CS05
CS06
CS09
DS08
CS08
DS01
ES01
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FX541VA00980 - FX541VA01063
FX600VA14634 - FX600VA18373
FX651VA16250 - FX651VA22022
FX691VA18538 - FX691VA29675
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
FX801VA26410 - FX801VA35509
FX921VA07267 - FX921VA13450
FXT00VA08783 - FXT00VA11119
FXT00VA08783 - FXT00VA11119
Bush HogFS691V
FX730V
CS09
BS14
FS691VA07498 - FS691VA13372
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
Bush Hog, Tiger Corp.FX730VBS14FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
Country ClipperFS651V
FX730V
FX801V
FXT00V
AS13
CS00
AS09
ES00
FS651VA30654 - FS651VA48562
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
FX801VA26410 - FX801VA35509
FXT00VA08783 - FXT00VA11119
Cub CadetFR600V
FR651V
FR651V
FR691V
FR691V
FR730V
FX850V
FXT00V
BS06
CS05
CS08
AS17
DS05
CS05
CS11
CS09
FR600VA28739 - FR600VA47566
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FR730VA19372 - FR730VA61003
FX850VA32209 - FX850VA42326
FXT00VA08783 - FXT00VA11119
Dixie ChopperFS651V
FS730V
FX850V
FXT00V
CS07
BS09
AS14
AS10
FS651VA30654 - FS651VA48562
FS730VA18873 - FS730VA36464
FX850VA32209 - FX850VA42326
FXT00VA08783 - FXT00VA11119
DR Power EquipmentFS600VAS19FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
EncoreFS541VBS16FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
ExmarkFR651V
FR651V
FR651V
FR691V
FR691V
FS481V
FS481V
FS541V
FS541V
FS600V
FS651V
FS691V
FX730V
BS13
CS06
CS10
BS13
CS07
AS25
CS06
AS23
CS06
CS15
AS12
BS12
CS13
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS651VA30654 - FS651VA48562
FS691VA07498 - FS691VA13372
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
Ferris/Snapper ProFS541V
FS600V
FS730V
FX600V
FX651V
FX730V
AS25
AS22
AS12
CS06
AS11
AS18
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS730VA18873 - FS730VA36464
FX600VA14634 - FX600VA18373
FX651VA16250 - FX651VA22022
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
Ferris/Snapper Pro/SimplicityFS691V
FX801V
AS14
AS09
FS691VA07498 - FS691VA13372
FX801VA26410 - FX801VA35509
HusqvarnaFR691V
FR691V
FR730V
FR730V
FR730V
FX651V
FX730V
BS15
CS06
AS12
AS13
AS14
DS09
CS15
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FR730VA19372 - FR730VA61003
FR730VA19372 - FR730VA61003
FR730VA19372 - FR730VA61003
FX651VA16250 - FX651VA22022
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
Husqvarna/DixonFR651V
FR730V
FX691V
FX730V
FX801V
FX921V
CS09
DS04
DS10
CS07
ES00
DS06
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR730VA19372 - FR730VA61003
FX691VA18538 - FX691VA29675
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
FX801VA26410 - FX801VA35509
FX921VA07267 - FX921VA13450
Hustler/Big DogFR541V
FR600V
FR651V
FR691V
FR730V
FS481V
FS541V
FS600V
FS651V
FS691V
FX600V
FX691V
FX730V
FX850V
FXT00V
BS04
BS08
BS11
BS14
BS10
CS19
CS21
BS14
CS11
BS10
BS14
CS18
CS17
CS12
CS08
FR541VA05747 - FR541VA10514
FR600VA28739 - FR600VA47566
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FS730VA18873 - FS730VA36464
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS651VA30654 - FS651VA48562
FS691VA07498 - FS691VA13372
FX600VA14634 - FX600VA18373
FX691VA18538 - FX691VA29675
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
FX850VA32209 - FX850VA42326
FXT00VA08783 - FXT00VA11119
Land PrideFR541V
FR600V
FS691V
FX730V
FX850V
CS00
CS00
CS04
CS08
ES09
FR541VA05747 - FR541VA10514
FR600VA28739 - FR600VA47566
FS691VA07498 - FS691VA13372
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
FX850VA32209 - FX850VA42326
SCAGFS481V
FS541V
FS600V
FS600V
FS651V
FS651V
FS730V
FX600V
FX691V
FX730V
FX801V
FX850V
FX921V
CS18
CS19
BS13
CS12
BS10
CS09
AS11
CS09
DS11
CS06
CS07
DS10
BS07
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS651VA30654 - FS651VA48562
FS651VA30654 - FS651VA48562
FS730VA18873 - FS730VA36464
FX600VA14634 - FX600VA18373
FX691VA18538 - FX691VA29675
FX730VA13811 - FX730VA48607
FX801VA26410 - FX801VA35509
FX850VA32209 - FX850VA42326
FX921VA07267 - FX921VA13450
ToroFR651V
FR651V
FR691V
FR730V
FS481V
FS541V
FS541V
FS600V
FS600V
FS691V
FS730V
FX691V
BS12
CS10
CS12
CS09
CS08
CS06
CS11
BS10
CS09
CS05
CS06
DS13
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FR730VA19372 - FR730VA61003
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS541VA40673 - FS541VA74103
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS600VA08439 - FS600VA55651
FS691VA07498 - FS691VA13372
FS730VA18873 - FS730VA36464
FX691VA18538 - FX691VA29675
WoodsFH770DFS04FH770DA17828 - FH770DA17997
WorldlawnFR651V
FR691V
FS481V
FS481V
FS481V
FX651V
FX691V
FX751V
ES00
ES00
BS12
BS13
BS24
CS08
CS14
ES00
FR651VB13474 - FR651VB64183
FR691VB01958 - FR691VB51951
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FS481VA30837 - FS481VA73952
FX651VA16250 - FX651VA22022
FX691VA18538 - FX691VA29675
FX751VA24127 - FX751VA33598

Kawasaki Motors is recalling the filters used in these lawn mower engines and utility vehicle engines that use the recalled filters, also.

The engines, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at authorized Kawasaki small engine dealers and lawn and garden equipment retailers nationwide. Recalled units were sold between October 2011 and August 2012 for between $2000 and $10,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using mowers with the recalled engines and fuel filters and contact Kawasaki or a Kawasaki dealer for a free repair.

Consumers may contact Kawasaki Motors; toll-free at (866) 836-446, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, or e-mail the firm at ffrecall@kmc-usa.com for more information.

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Gasoline Prices Drift Lower

Diesel fuel's average price dips below $4 a gallon

Although there was little movement in gasoline prices during the week, a couple of price thresholds were crossed. For the first time this year the average ...

PhotoAlthough there was little movement in gasoline prices during the week, a couple of price thresholds were crossed. For the first time this year the average price of diesel fuel fell below $4 a gallon. And only one state -- Hawaii -- has an average price above the $4 mark.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.430 per gallon, compared with $3.456 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's 32 cents lower than a month ago and only three cents higher than the price a year ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.994 per gallon, versus $4.011 a week ago.

Gasoline prices are returning to their normal levels for this time of year as states switch over to less-expensive winter-grade blends. But other factors are at work that may give consumers an even bigger break in the weeks to come.

The political stand-off in Washington over the so-called “fiscal cliff” means oil markets are extremely nervous. Failure to resolve the issue would mean taxes would rise for everyone at the end of the year and the government would be required to initiate deep spending cuts. Most economists think such a scenario would bring on a recession. Look for oil prices to fall as that end of the year deadline approaches.

However, geopolitical events in the Middle East could counter-balance that effect. Israel's strike against Hamas this week and the growing concern it could get sucked into the Syrian conflict might raise concerns about supply problems in that region of the world.

In the states this week, prices were fairly stable. The average price even fell in New York, still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Photo

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

  • Hawaii ($4.147)
  • Alaska ($3.982)
  • New York ($3.957)
  • California ($3.811)
  • Connecticut ($3.848)
  • Vermont ($3.697)
  • Utah ($3.681)
  • Idaho ($3.677)
  • Nevada ($3.656)
  • Massachusetts ($3.641)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • Missouri ($3.107)
  • South Carolina ($3.112)
  • Oklahoma ($3.144)
  • Tennessee ($3.156)
  • Texas ($3.170)
  • Arkansas ($3.175)
  • Mississippi ($3.186)
  • Alabama ($3.204)
  • Kansas ($3.211)
  • Georgia($3.229)
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Showrooming, the New Way to Shop

Consumers with smartphones are finding what they want at the best price

If you own a smartphone, you have a very handy tool when you go shopping. If you're in a store and find an item you'd like to buy, you can very quickly lea...

PhotoIf you own a smartphone, you have a very handy tool when you go shopping. If you're in a store and find an item you'd like to buy, you can very quickly learn whether that merchant has a competitive price or if you can do better elsewhere.

Retailers hate it but for consumers, it saves both time and money. You don't have to physically visit a competitor's store, you simply go to its Website and find the price for the item.

Not surprisingly, more of us are now shopping with our phones. A survey by Aprimo, in collaboration with Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru, found that one in five consumers is now "showrooming" -- the practice of visiting retail stores to try products -- but then checking a mobile device for the best price online.

A third of showroomers buy elsewhere

Of those consumers already showrooming, 33 percent say they ultimately used the information to buy elsewhere. For retailers, that means they've wasted the advertising money to get consumers in the door. Because consumers can quickly learn their price is higher, they lose the sale.

The trend is only expected to continue growing, too, as 96 percent say they plan to use their smart phone to research prices the same way or more in the future.

"This research confirms what many in the retail industry have suspected -- showrooming is here to stay," said Sucharita Mulpuru, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester Research, who helped develop the survey questions and analyze results. "Retailers must seriously consider ways to avoid losing sales this way by using strategies such as price matching, personalized in-store service and loyalty programs."

In other words, retailers have to be more competitive. But that may present challenges for brick and mortar stores, who must maintain vast areas of retail space while their online competitors just need a warehouse.

Advantage, consumer

The advantage, of course, is all on the consumer's side. And for that reason showrooming as a trend may just be getting started. One third of those who have not used their smartphones for in-store research haven't done so simply because the idea hadn't yet occurred to them.

Showrooming isn't just for big-ticket items. While consumer electronics are the most popular items price-checked in store at 39 percent, groceries are the second-most researched and apparel/footwear came in third.

The question is how are retailers going to respond to this? Are they going to make shoppers check their smartphoness at the door? Probably not.

Instead of getting defensive, Aprimo believes stores can turn this trend to their advantage. This means that in order to preserve sales and sustain pricing levels, today's physical-store retailers need to become more customer-centric, giving consumers good reasons, in addition to price, to spend their money there.

If that happens, both the retailer and the consumer win.

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Study Finds Amazon Cheapest Place For Toys This Holiday Season

What other stores were mentioned in the study and which toy store has people bothered?

Consumers may want to head for their keyboards rather than toy stores this holiday season, as Amazon.com has the cheapest prices for toys compared to ...

PhotoConsumers may want to head for their keyboards rather than toy stores this holiday season, as Amazon.com has the cheapest prices for toys compared to places like Target, Walmart and Kmart, a Bloomberg Industries study finds.

On November 8 of this year, researcher Poonam Goyal compared the prices of 125 different toys and found that 44 percent of Amazon’s selections were lower in price compared to other retailers, even Toys “R” Us.

The study also showed that Amazon never ran out of online stock, compared to Target that had 3 percent of its toy stock missing, and Wal-Mart which had 8 percent of its toys unavailable for purchase.

Toys “R” Us also didn’t have any stock problems during the study, as the company fully expects that legions of consumers will flock to its virtual doors like they do every year during the holidays.

It's still Us

Consumers rate Toys R Us - Customer Service

Although Amazon won the prize for best toy prices, many consumers will still be heading to Toys "R" Us for gifts, as the New Jersey-based company is practically synonymous with the holiday season itself.

Also, the holidays are one of the few times of year that many people opt for a brick and mortar experience rather than shop online, so it will be interesting to see if people respond to the findings of Amazon being the cheapest place for toys.

And although Toys “R” Us is arguably the most-visited place for toy shopping, many consumers still take issue with the company’s gift card services, some of its products and its overall pricing.

“First I had picked up several Crayola Crayon travel packs,” wrote Martha of Kansas about Toys “R” Us.

“On the shelf they said $6.99 and all over the aisle, it said buy one get one half off. Well, not only did they ring up $10.99, I was informed they were not part of the sale. Next, I had bought some lunch boxes out of a bin that said $4.99 to $6.99 (there were several so not put there by mistake). Well, these rang up at $9.99 and I was told they were there by mistake.

“I went back to the Crayola aisle and got an employee off the floor and showed her the stack of packs I bought and where it was $6.99. Also, I pointed out the buy one get one half off. Her reply was ‘Well, I don’t know what to tell you, they are what they ring up,’”  explained Martha.

There have been similar complaints from readers about the toy store having confusing sale offers. We sent an email to Toys “R” Us for a statement and are awaiting a reply.

Maximizing dollars

PhotoLuckily, there are tons of other places besides Toys “R” Us that people can go to when searching for holiday toys, and according to Goyal’s research, Amazon should be the first place one should start if they’re looking to maximize their shopping dollars on popular items.

For example, a highly coveted PlayStation 3 game showed a price difference of almost $20 compared to Walmart, and if you tack on the convenience of being able to shop from your computer or mobile device, it makes Amazon seem like the better option hands down--but of course that’s not considering the associated shipping costs.

Some consumers have said they’ve been lured into using Amazon by a free shipping offer, but later found out there was a substantial charge.

“Amazon touts their free shipping, but nothing could be further from the truth,” wrote John of Massachusetts in a ConsumerAffairs posting.  “I placed a small order for three small items with Amazon (mistake). Amazon turned it into three separate orders with hefty freight on 2 out of the 3.”

80% less expensive

Although the digital retailer faired well in the Bloomberg survey, Walmart scored pretty well too.

According to Goyal, 80 percent of its toys were less expensive than the ones at Toys “R” Us and Kmart. In addition, 13 percent of Wal-Mart’s toys were lower priced than Amazon.

Goyal also suggested that consumers need to pay keen attention to the different shopping options for toys this year, because the sheer competiveness of the industry during the holidays makes retailers likely to lower prices just to get you away from other stores.

“Toys are important because they are the top category for the holiday, along with electronics, and are the most competitive,” he said in an interview.

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Black Thursday: A Good or Bad Idea?

More large retailers are jumping on the Black Thursday trend, but is it right?

As more and more stores are joining Black Thursday it seems that even more people are also starting to voice their opposition.Target’s employees, c...

PhotoAs more and more stores are joining Black Thursday it seems that even more people are also starting to voice their opposition.

Target’s employees, customers and shareholders have joined a petition that already has over 200,000 signatures and many are protesting the fact that Target’s workers have to leave their families early on Thanksgiving Day to handle the crowds of shoppers that are likely to visit stores.

Target recently announced it was opening on Thanksgiving this year in addition to Black Friday.

Other retailers like Walmart and Toys "R" Us have also joined the Black Thursday trend, where doors open almost a day earlier than they normally would, and many believe stores are putting profit over people and forcing employees to cater to those customers who prefer not to wait until Black Friday to do their shopping.

Consumers don't seem wild about the idea. A sentiment analysis of nearly 9,000 social media postings over the last year finds consumers holding mostly extreme opinions, i.e., they either really like the idea or really hate it.

 

 These wide fluctations may, of course, be due to the relatively small sample size. 

More shopping days

Rojeh Avanesian, who is the Vice President of Marketing and Analytics at PriceGrabber--a company that deals with retail cost comparison--says Black Thursday is beneficial to those customers who are looking to maximize the number of days they are able to shop and take advantage of deals.

“Black Thursday gives shoppers an opportunity to take advantage of deep discounts for a longer period of time,” he said in a ConsumerAffairs interview.

“Some retailers are offering additional sales to promote the extended hours and really push to get consumers in the door during Thanksgiving weekend. Since shoppers were preoccupied with the election, consumers will hit Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend hard with holiday shopping.”  

Avanesian also says the inclusion of Black Thursday should push holiday sales over the top this year compared to 2011.

“According to our survey, more than 60 percent of consumers are planning to spend about the same or slightly more money this holiday season than in 2011,” he explained. “Over half of the consumers we surveyed said that they plan to spend over $500 or more.”

Widespread dislike

A handful of recently released surveys show that a large number of people will avoid shopping on Black Thursday, which could indicate a widespread dislike for the controversial shopping day.

These survey results could also show that many consumers are in no rush to deal with the legions of people, the busy stores and the long lines. But experts say there are still some people who are solely focused on good deals, and if consumers believe there is a way to save a dollar or two-- they are willing to get up from the Thanksgiving table and head to a store that’s open for business.

According to a PriceGrabber survey, about nine percent of consumers plan to head to the stores on Black Thursday, which is a small number of people compared to those who still see Black Friday as the best day to shop and get deals.

“Consumers are largely focused on one major theme this holiday season—deals, deals, and more deals,” said Avanesian.

“Our survey results indicate that 71 percent of consumers believe the best deals can be found on Black Friday, and in order to capitalize on retailer incentives that day, 64 percent of shoppers are planning to take advantage of Black Friday extended store hours this year.”

Family shopping adventure

But some store executives are sticking to their point that Black Thursday was created with the customer’s shopping interests in mind. There was even a Target vice president that said Black Thursday was a way that households can participate in a family shopping outing after dinner is finished.

“We heard from our guests that they look forward to kicking off their holiday shopping with deal hunting on Thanksgiving night,” said Target’s Vice President Kathee Tesija in a statement. “Opening at 9 p.m. gives Target’s Black Friday guests a more convenient way to create an after dinner shopping event that the entire family can enjoy.”

However, many consumers would probably disagree with this logic, because anyone who believes that entire families are dying to leave the coziness of Thanksgiving dinner to pile into a car for late night shopping, has probably been in the retail business a little too long.

But some retailers are using exclusive deals to attract shoppers to leave their homes on Thanksgiving night and many  believe this sales tactic just might work.

Walmart is offering an Emerson 32-inch television set for $148, an Apple iPad 2 for $399 and a Blu-ray player from LG for $38 for those consumers who are in the store between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Thanksgiving night.

It will be interesting to see if consumers take this type of bait and head to stores on Thanksgiving or if they’ll exercise a little patience and just visit retailers on the following Friday and over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Of course 2012 isn’t the year that Black Thursday was invented, as many retailers have opened their doors on Thanksgiving in the past, but Avanesian said that most consumers still see Black Friday as the official start of the holiday shopping season--and according to PriceGrabber’s research-- consumers will spend more this Black Friday than last year.

“We expect Black Friday sales to increase slightly this year compared to 2011,” he says. “We predict sales will fall in-line with the industry projections of an approximate 4 percent increase. “Black Friday sales are also a good indication for how the rest of the holiday season will shape up.”

“According to our survey, more than 60 percent of consumers are planning to spend about the same or slightly more money this holiday season than in 2011. Over half of the consumers were surveyed said that they plan to spend over $500 or more,” said Avanesian.

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Sandy's Impact on Car Market May Be Overstated

AutoTrader and Kelley Blue Book say losses should not affect used car prices

It was hard not to view footage of the automotive devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and not conclude that the impact on the used car market would be si...

Photo
Cars on several levels of this underground New Jersey garage were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. Photo by Jon Hood

It was hard not to view footage of the automotive devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and not conclude that the impact on the used car market would be significant.

Indeed, a number of automotive sources, including the National Automobile Dealers Association, issued reports suggesting the huge need for replacement vehicles would lead to a shortage on the used car market and drive up prices as much as $1,000.

Now, two automotive sources are disputing that. Experts at both AutoTrader.com and Kelley Blue Book (KBB) say they have examined the available data and estimate between 200,000 and 300,000 new and used vehicles were destroyed as a result of the storm.

That's significantly lower than the initial estimate of more than 600,000 and the two auto sources point out that only represents 0.1 percent of the more than 240 million registered vehicles on the road.

This interpretation is not without its skeptics, however. ConsumerAffairs has heard from many consumers whose cars were totally submerged in salty water, rendering them a total loss but who are only beginning the claims process because vast swaths of the the New York-New Jersey area remain without power and shortages of gas are keeping adjusters from traveling to inspect damaged cars.

Thus, attempts to lessen the expected severity of the total loss should be taken with a grain of salt, many observers suggested. 

"No national impact'

Photo"There's absolutely no question that Superstorm Sandy has had a devastating impact on those who live in the Northeast," said Chip Perry, president and CEO, AutoTrader Group. "I've personally visited the area and spoken with many of our field sales representatives and customers, and it's clear that this event changed many of their lives. But when you look at the impact on the automotive industry, the fact is, the number of vehicles lost is too small of a fraction to significantly move the national market."

Data and analysis from the November Kelley Blue Book Market Report tends to back up that conclusion. Since the storm hit so late in the year, KBB analysts believe increased demand on the East Coast will only mute the market's typical decline through this time period.

Usually at this time of year, there's a one to two percent drop in demand for used cars, the KBB analysts say. Instead of the drop, they now think demand will remain flat.

From a used car pricing perspective, KBB.com Senior Market Analyst Alec Gutierrez anticipates only modest market increases, $200 to $300 at most, isolated mainly in the Northeast region.

Katrina comparison

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A flooded street in Hoboken, NJ. Photo by Jon Hood

"When Hurricane Katrina hit, Kelley Blue Book values increased more than two to three percent in the affected area from the time the storm hit until year-end," Gutierrez said. "This year, we believe that while we may see some price appreciation on the East Coast, from a national perspective, values will remain relatively flat."

That means used car shoppers should compare prices carefully and not be pressured into a hasty decision by a salesperson's claim that prices are rising due to a shortage.

Both KBB and AutoTrader analysts agree that Sandy's impact is just now starting to be felt in the market and it will take months before the total effects will be fully comprehended.

"It's going to take time for impacted consumers to get back in the market," Gutierrez said. "Some may have been able to get a replacement vehicle immediately, but many others could be waiting for their insurance check or unfortunately have to focus on repairing damage to their home. We're going to be keeping a close eye on this in the months ahead."

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Walmart Introduces Food 'Subscription' Service

Hopes to attract 'foodies' with selection of new food products each month

Consumers may be familiar with the “fruit of the month club” concept. Once signed up for membership, they receive a monthly shipment of a diffe...

PhotoConsumers may be familiar with the “fruit of the month club” concept. Once signed up for membership, they receive a monthly shipment of a different fruit for one monthly price.

Walmart is borrowing the concept for the launch of its new Goodies Co., a monthly food subscription service for consumers who want to sample new or gourmet products. The membership costs $7 a month and entitles the member to receive a gift box with five to eight food samples. The cost of shipping is included in the $7.

3,000 test users

Walmart says it has been testing the concept for the last few months with about 3,000 users in the U.S. The food arrives in a gift box with an information card that describes the food items in detail.

"With Goodies Co., subscribers have the pleasure of opening a box filled with delicious treats every month that they like or may never have tried before,” said Ravi Raj, vice president of products, WalmartLabs. “Great value combined with a community of food lovers and the sheer surprise of what a box might hold makes Goodies Co. a compelling offering."

Besides being a product, Goodies Co. is also a marketing program. Walmart gets to distributes new samples of food product lines to consumers who, the company hopes, will like what they get and become regular purchasers.

Is it worth it?

But should consumers be spending $7 a month in order to participate in this marketing program? Yes, the company says, because it's not only fun, but a bargain.

Walmart says Goodies Co. is the first to offer a large assortment of products for a total price that is almost half of the total value of the items if they were purchased separately. The total price for all of the items in the November box would be approximately $15 compared to the Goodies Co. $7 price, the company said.

When subscribers discover a product they like, Walmart hopes they will purchase full-size versions from the Goodies Co. website.

Users can sign up for the service online. After they sign up their name is placed in line to receive an invitation to join the Goodies community. Once an invite is received and the user completes the subscription, they can receive their first Goodies Co. box within weeks.

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GlaxoSmithKline to Pay $90 Million for Unlawfully Promoting Avandia

Company misrepresented cardiovascular risks posed by the drug, states charged

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum today announced that pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has agreed to pay $90 million to Oregon and 37 other stat...

PhotoOregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum today announced that pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has agreed to pay $90 million to Oregon and 37 other states to settle claims that it unlawfully promoted its diabetes drug, Avandia.

The 38 Attorneys General claimed lawsuits filed Nov. 15 that GlaxoSmithKline misrepresented the cardiovascular risks posed by Avandia. A negotiated consent judgment was filed shortly thereafter.

As the co-leader of the lawsuit, Oregon will receive $3.9 million of the settlement.

“It's fine to promote a product; it's not fine to misrepresent a drug's potential health risks,” said Attorney General Rosenblum. “When pharmaceutical companies cross the line, the Oregon Department of Justice will hold them accountable.”

Avandia was a blockbuster drug for GlaxoSmithKline. First approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1999, annual sales peaked at more than $2.5 billion in 2006.

Insulin sensitivity

The drug made cells more sensitive to insulin, a seeming boon for diabetes sufferers. Type 2 diabetes results from the body’s failure to produce enough insulin or to properly process the hormone, the substance needed for the body to convert sugar and other food into energy. Without insulin, sugar builds up in the bloodstream leading to numerous health dangers, heart attack and stroke chief among them.

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.

A 2007 study linked Avandia to increased risk of heart attacks, one of the very conditions diabetics are predisposed to.

Consumers filed thousands of lawsuits. Avandia sales plummeted.

The Oregon Department of Justice launched its investigation two years ago. Oregon and the 37 other states claim GlaxoSmithKline made safety claims about Avandia not supported by the scientific evidence. The states allege the company failed to disclose negative information about Avendia’s cardiovascular health effects.

Marketing reforms

As part of the consent judgment between the parties, GlaxoSmithKline agreed to reform how it markets and promotes diabetes drugs. It agreed to several conditions:

  • To refrain from making false, misleading, or deceptive claims about any diabetes drug;
  • To refrain from making comparative safety claims not supported by substantial evidence or substantial clinical experience;
  • To refrain from presenting favorable information previously thought of as valid but rendered invalid by contrary and more credible recent information;
  • To refrain from misusing statistics or otherwise misrepresenting the nature, applicability, or significance of clinical trials.

Other states participating in the Avandia action were Illinois, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

 

 

 

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For Younger Workers, the Recession Continues

Researcher warns 'underemployment' a growing problem for those under 30

Unemployment rose quickly after the financial meltdown of October 2008, when a normal recession turned into the Great Recession. Joblessness has slowly fal...

PhotoUnemployment rose quickly after the financial meltdown of October 2008, when a normal recession turned into the Great Recession. Joblessness has fallen slowly and many who have jobs have fallen into the category of “underemployed.”

That means they aren't able to find a job with full-time hours or one that pays very well. One group in particular is heavily represented among the underemployed -- younger workers.

“While on the decline, these rates have yet to return to their pre-recession levels. Moreover, as the recession and other economic forces keeps older workers in the economy, openings for full-time jobs for younger workers might remain limited in the short-term,” said Justin Young, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire and a research assistant at the Carsey Institute.

Young's research finds workers aged 30 and under are particularly affected. Usually they are just beginning careers and have borne the brunt of job cuts.

Untapped economic capital

“These workers represent a source of untapped economic capital, as their jobs do not allow them to maximize their output or skills. This has consequences for both the economy as a whole and the well-being of the underemployed and their families,” Young said.

Young people without a college education are most likely to be relegated to part-time work, lowering their already lower-than-average wages. Those with no more than a high school diploma had the highest rates of involuntary part-time employment and experienced a larger increase in this form of underemployment during the recession,” Young said.

Young found that underemployment, or involuntary part-time work, doubled during the second year of the recession, reaching roughly 6.5 percent in 2009. This increase was equally steep in both rural and urban areas.

It's not easy being under 30

Workers under age 30, as well as women, black and Hispanic workers, experience higher levels of underemployment. Underemployment is strongly linked with education, with the least educated workers experiencing higher rates of underemployment compared with more highly educated workers. This relationship is somewhat weaker in rural places.

“The longer workers are underemployed, the more difficult it becomes to move into better jobs as their skills and employers’ perceptions of their skills deteriorate or remain stagnant,” Young said. “Further, if those entering the job market bear the financial ‘scars’ of the current recession for years to come, economic recovery may be that much slower and the quality of life for these workers lower.”

While policymakers try to devise ways to reduce unemployment, now just under eight percent, Young said efforts should also be made to reduce underemployment.

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FTC Expands Fight Against Deceptive Business Opportunity Schemes

More than 70 actions brought by FTC and law enforcement partners

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is going after scammers promising job opportunities and the chance “be your own boss” to people are unemployed or under...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is going after scammers promising job opportunities and the chance “be your own boss” to people are unemployed or underemployed.

The agency is taking seven new law enforcement actions -- six of which are the first cases brought under its recently updated Business Opportunity Rule -- which requires business opportunity sellers to provide specific information to help consumers evaluate a business opportunity and provides a simple, one-page disclosure form.

As part of a continuing federal-state crackdown, “Operation Lost Opportunity” targets scams that took millions of dollars from more than two million consumers. The defendants in the FTC’s cases allegedly lured consumers with deceptive offers to help them start businesses as mystery shoppers, credit card processors, Website operators, and government insurance refund processors.

Widespread action

This joint effort by the Consumer Protection Working Group of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force also includes 22 actions brought by the Department of Justice, 15 administrative actions by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and 20 actions by state attorneys general in Indiana, California, Arizona, Colorado and Ohio.

Earlier federal-state enforcement efforts against consumer financial fraud include Operation Empty Promises, Operation Bottom Dollar and Operation Short Change.

“The scam artists the FTC shut down lied to people trying to make an honest buck, and robbed them of their money as well as their hopes,” said David C. Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We brought these cases on behalf of millions of people who wanted to jumpstart their incomes and rebalance their budgets -- people who placed their hopes in a business opportunity so they could better provide for their families.”

The defendants in the FTC cases allegedly committed multiple violations of the FTC Act, including misrepresenting how much money people could make through the business opportunity. The defendants in six of the cases also allegedly violated the amended Business Opportunity Rule.

FTC law enforcement actions

The agency took actions against the following companies

  • Shopper Systems, LLC; Revenue Works, LLC, also doing business as Surplus Supplier; EMZ Ventures, LLC; The Veracity Group, LP; Brett Brosseau; Michael Moysich; and Keith R. Powell allegedly sold the business of providing mystery shopping services to retailers, offering lists of merchants seeking mystery shoppers in the buyer’s area.
  • American Business Builders LLC; ENF LLC, also doing business as Network Market Solutions; UMS Group LLC; United Merchant Services LLC; Universal Marketing and TrainingLLC; Unlimited Training Services LLC; Shane Michael Hanna, also known as Shane Michael Romeo; and Stephen Spratt took tens of thousands of dollars from consumers, allegedly falsely promising that they would set up a profitable credit card processing business for the consumers.
  • The Online Entrepreneur Inc., also doing business as The Six Figure Program and Ben and Dave’s Program; Ben and Dave’s Consulting Associates Inc.; Benjamin Moskel; and David Clabeaux allegedly sold consumers a no-risk, money-back guaranteed opportunity to make money via their own Website.
  • Career Advancement Group. According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants have operated a nationwide job scam by placing ads in classified sections of newspapers and on job search Websites that appear to be postings for jobs with the U.S. Postal Service.
  • Smart Tools LLC and Kirstin Hegg allegedly sold a home-based business opportunity thatpromised purchasers they could become “Government Insurance Refund Processors.”
  • Rebate Data Processor. Christopher Andrew Sterling, doing business as rebatedataprocessor.com, sterlingvisa.com, and creditcardworker.com, and via links to those Websites from other Websites, allegedly claimed consumers could earn from $200 to more than $1,000 per day by processing applications for rebates or credit cards offered by certain marketers.
  • The Zaken Corp. and Tiran Zaken allegedly used direct mail and a Website to sell a plan that, for a fee of $148 or more, supposedly would enable consumers to earn thousands of dollars per month.
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Fake News Sites Marketers Settle Deceptive Advertising Charges

Affiliate network allegedly used deceptive claims to sell weight-loss products and colon cleansers

Is it news or is it a commercial. Sometimes it's had for the average consumer to know. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is trying to help you tell the di...

PhotoIs it news or is it a commercial. Sometimes it's hard for the average consumer to know. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is trying to help you tell the difference.

As a result, the Clickbooth affiliate network has agreed to pay $2 million to settle FTC charges that its affiliate marketers deceived consumers through bogus weight-loss claims on fake news sites about acai berry supplements and so-called “colon cleansers.”

The FTC will seek to use the $2 million judgment to provide refunds to consumers who were allegedly deceived by the defendants’ marketing. The settlement also bars the defendants from a wide range of deceptive marketing practices, including making misleading or unsupported claims; misrepresenting any material fact in the sale of any product; failing to adequately disclose a material connection to the seller of any product, service, or program; and misrepresenting the existence or result of a test or study.

Deceptive ads

According to the complaint, Sarasota, Florida-based Clickbooth has been paid by merchants since 2008 to market supposed weight-loss products to consumers, and recruited a network of affiliate marketers who deceptively advertised those products.

The complaint also alleges that the defendants prepared and designed Websites for Central Coast Nutraceuticals, a merchant that agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle FTC charges of deceptive advertising and unfair billing related to the sale of weight loss and colon cleanse products.

According to the commission, the defendants recruited affiliate marketers to advertise the merchants’ so-called weight loss products online. Clickbooth then monitored the ads that its affiliates used, suggested certain claims for the affiliates to make, and even designed some websites for the affiliates to use, according to the complaint.

Slick marketing

Marketing products such as Acai Pure, Acai Max, Pure Berry Max, Acai Advanced Cleanse, Acai Ultraberry Slim, TriSlim, Slimberry, HCG Extreme, ColoThin, Tone DeTox, and ColoPure, some Clickbooth affiliates designed their websites to look like news reports, using domain names such as channel5healthnews.com, dailyconsumeralerts.com, and online6health.com.

The supposed news reports had titles such as “Acai Berry Diet Exposed: Miracle Diet or Scam?” and “1 Trick of a Tiny Belly: Reporter Loses her ‘Belly’ using 1 Easy Tip,” according to the FTC. The sites often included the names and logos of major broadcast and cable television networks, falsely representing that the reports on the sites had been seen on the networks.

The defendants named in the complaint -- John Daniel Lemp and two companies he controls, Clickbooth.com, LLC and IntegraClick, LLC -- violated the FTC Act by making false or unsupported claims about weight loss products, the FTC alleges. The Clickbooth defendants also are responsible for their affiliates’ misrepresentations that the affiliate marketers’ websites are objective news reports, that objective reporters have performed independent tests of the products, and that “comments” in the affiliate marketers’ ads have expressed views of actual consumers, according to the complaint.

The defendants’ affiliates failed to disclose that the contents of their advertisements actually were paid advertisements, and that consumers who sign up for a “free trial” would be billed on a recurring basis for additional shipments of the product, according to the FTC.

Two other recent settlements involving online affiliate network marketers of acai berry supplements and other weight loss products that made allegedly deceptive claims include the affiliate network Coleadium, Inc., which does business as Ads4Dough, and IMM Interactive, Inc., which operated the affiliate network Copeac.

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Thanksgiving Tip: Check Your Medicine Cabinet Before Dinner

Some medicines can provide some stomach relief but others won't

No matter how much we resolve not to over-do it at Thanksgiving, most of us take a second helping of everything. We eat more than usual and we consume foo...

PhotoNo matter how much we resolve not to over-do it at Thanksgiving, most of us take a second helping of everything. We eat more than usual and we consume food we don't eat all that often.

The result can be a bad case of indigestion. Because so much is being consumed so quickly, symptoms can be quite unpleasant. Gloria Grice, associate professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, advises taking a closer look at what products are in the medicine cabinet before the parties or special meals start.

Some of the most heavily advertised heartburn medicines, she says, will not provide much relief. That's why you need to read the labels carefully.

Old-fashioned relief

“Products with sodium bicarbonate or calcium carbonate work well for occasional heartburn,” Grice said. “They neutralize stomach acid, which is usually the cause of the burning sensation. And they can be taken as soon as symptoms begin, or up to an hour after a meal that you think may cause heartburn.”

Grice also recommends heartburn products that contain magnesium hydroxide.

“It acts quickly and neutralizes acid,” she said. “However, patients with kidney disease should avoid this product. Also, it can have a laxative effect for any patient who takes multiple doses in a day.”

To avoid these negative side effects, Grice says aluminum hydroxide could be a possibility, but it can cause constipation if not taken with something that also contains magnesium hydroxide.

Controlling behavior

You can probably avoid these symptoms by simply slowing down, consuming small portions and showing restraint when seconds are offered. But Grice has some other advice that might help you avoid day-after gastric distress.

For example, avoid caffeine. It stimulates appetite, which could cause you to overeat, and it also overstimulates the normal processes of the digestive system causing poor absorption of nutrients.

Chew your food slowly. Grice says that's actually the best advice for preventing bloating. There are also products to take before the meal, or up to 30 minutes after, which will cut down on intestinal gas.

Go easy on cocktails. Drinking too much alcohol can inflame the lining of the stomach and intestines. Alcohol can also kill beneficial intestinal bacteria leading to indigestion and even diarrhea.

Take a small piece of pie. When sugar, fruit or fruit juice, and starch mix in the stomach, they ferment and cause bloating. You should also avoid fruit muffins and low-fat cookies sweetened with fruit juice.

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Tikit Folding Bicycles Recalled

The possible breaking of the handlebar stem can pose a falling hazard

Green Gear Cycling, dba Bike Friday, of Eugene, OR, is recalling about 3,800 Tikit folding bicycles. The bike’s handlebar stem can break and cause the rid...

PhotoGreen Gear Cycling, dba Bike Friday, of Eugene, OR, is recalling about 3,800 Tikit folding bicycles.

The bike’s handlebar stem can break and cause the rider to lose control, posing a fall hazard to the consumer. The firm has received six reports of breaking handlebar stems, resulting in two reports of injuries including scrapes, bruises and a head laceration that required stitches.

This recall involves all models of Tikit brand folding bicycles. The 16-inch wheel custom bicycles were sold in various colors. The Bike Friday Tikit brand decal is affixed to the bike frame.

The bikes, manufactured in the U.S., were sold by Bike Friday direct and dealers nationwide from January 2007 through September 2012 for between $900 and $5,000.

Consumers should immediately stop riding the bicycle and contact Bike Friday to schedule a free repair.

Consumer may contact Bike Friday; (800) 777-0258, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Ever Wonder Why You're Willing to Stand in Line?

Maybe Black Friday marketers have learned how to push your buttons

If you're a normal person and happen to find yourself lined up in the early morning hours after Thanksgiving waiting for a store to open, you may ask yours...

PhotoIf you're a normal person and happen to find yourself lined up in the early morning hours after Thanksgiving waiting for a store to open, you may ask yourself, “what am I doing here?”

It turns out a lot of other people are asking the same thing. Among them is Laura Brannon, a psychology professor at Kansas State University who has studied people who are willing to wait in line for the latest iPhone or for a store to open on Black Friday.

"People who are very motivated to have scarce items tend to have a high need to be unique," Brannon said. "On the other hand, people who are motivated by social proof tend to want to fit in with everyone else. You might see a bunch of people waiting in line, but different things might be going through all their minds. It's a little more complicated than it might first appear."

Why people wait

From Harry Potter midnight shows to smartphones and video games, waiting in line for the latest product or experience is not a new phenomenon. Brannon traces the most famous waiting incident back to the mid-1980s, when the Cabbage Patch Kids doll frenzy occurred.

Parents promised the dolls to their children, but the demand greatly exceeded availability, she said. Although the dolls were fairly inexpensive, people still paid hundreds of dollars to obtain them.

People lined up a few weeks ago for the release of the iPhone 5, and the lines will happen again with the arrival of Black Friday on Nov. 23. Although Brannon said there might be good deals on Black Friday, there is also a lot of clever marketing involved because marketers are aware of social influence practices on the consumer.

"I think the quality of the deals offered will obviously vary by store," Brannon said. "Many stores have a few very good deals to get consumers into the store, hoping that they'll buy other things as well."

Wanting things that are rare

It's true that people naturally want things that are rare and hard to get. Brannon says marketers know this and play it to their advantage with Black Friday. That why a retailer may only have a limited number of computers or big-screen TV sets at a “door-buster” price.

"Marketers create a demand by imposing an artificial scarcity on an opportunity," Brannon said. "Research shows that people tend to react against limits on opportunities and reassert their freedom to have and do what they want."

Even though people could wait an extra week for a new smartphone or a few extra days to see a movie, the scarcity principle motivates people to buy the smartphone or see the movie because they are difficult to obtain.

Taking a cue from the crowd

The other reason you may find yourself standing in line, shivering in the cold, is something called “the social proof principle.” That's the concept that if other people are doing something, we use that as evidence that it must be good, Brannon said.

Advertisers emphasize when their products are the best-selling or leading brand. It is usually the case that the reason a product or experience is very popular is because people realize it is of good quality or value.

"Once the lines form, there's a tendency to assume that's a cue to the value of the experience or opportunity, and people want to join in," Brannon said.

With the social proof principle, there also is an element of normative influence. That's when people want to fit in with what other people are doing.

And not all waiting is the same, Brannon points out. You might complain bitterly about waiting in line for two hours at the DMV but not complain about waiting for Target to open its doors.

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Consumer Bureau Moves to Spur Consumer-Friendly Innovation

Project Catalyst will collaborate with innovators within the consumer financial markets

Project Catalyst, an initiative designed to encourage consumer-friendly innovation and entrepreneurship in...

PhotoProject Catalyst, an initiative designed to encourage consumer-friendly innovation and entrepreneurship in markets for consumer financial products and services, is on the launch pad. The project, a creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is seen as “an important means of fulfilling its (CFPB's) mandate under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to give all consumers access to fair, transparent, competitive, and innovative markets.

“We want to collaborate with innovators seeking to advance consumer-friendly innovation,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “These collaborations help us better understand what works and does not work to improve life for consumers in the marketplace.”

Through Project Catalyst, the CFPB will engage more closely with companies and entrepreneurs who are at the front lines of innovation, according to a press release. The agency says it has already conducted early outreach to the innovation community, and is now establishing a Website dedicated to boosting access and communication between the bureau and those in that community.

The plan

With Project Catalyst, CFPB says it will work to:

  • Establish firm lines of communication with innovators: The bureau wants to be accessible to all those who may be affected by its regulations, including those on the front lines of innovation. Direct communication will allow the bureau to better understand the current situations in the market.
  • Understand new and emerging products in the market: Current regulations were written to address existing products. CFPB says as products evolve, regulations may need to evolve as well and it wants to be prepared.
  • Engage with innovators: The agency says it wants to engage with innovators who have new ideas that beget consumer-friendly innovation. These collaborations, the bureau says, will help it better understand what works and does not work for consumers.

Private sector involvement

In the inaugural phase of Project Catalyst, three companies have agreed to share anonymous data about consumer behaviors and trends with the CFPB. The data sharing, according to the bureau, will not contain personally identifiable information and appropriate precautions will be taken to ensure that individual consumers cannot be identified through the data. The agency will use that data gathered to better inform policy decisions. The three companies are:

  • BillGuard, a company that alerts consumers to questionable charges on their debit and credit cards and helps them resolve billing disputes quickly. BillGuard will share billing dispute data with the bureau, which will allow it to observe trends in consumer complaints and complaint resolution.
  • Plastyc, which is designed to be an alternative to traditional banking. Plastyc’s data sharing will focus on the value consumers place on easily depositing and obtaining immediate access to their funds.
  • Simple,  a firm designed to be an alternative to traditional banking. This collaboration will explore how consumers can gain insight into their spending habits and help the CFPB understand what tools can encourage saving.
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Study Links BPA to Lower Thyroid Function

French researchers say they have uncovered new risks

Ever since a study showed bisphenol A (BPA), a major molecule used in the plastic industry, was an endocrine disruptor that could exert negative effects on...

PhotoEver since a study showed bisphenol A (BPA), a major molecule used in the plastic industry, was an endocrine disruptor that could exert negative effects on human health, it has been the focus of even more health studies.

The latest, by researchers in France, has found that an unborn child exposed to BPA can be at increased risk of lowered thyroid function. The findings are based on a study of newborn sheep.

Hypothyroidism is characterized by poor mental and physical performance in human adults and in children can result in cognitive impairment and failure to grow normally.

A new direction

The French study is actually a departure from more recent investigations, that have focused on reproductive functions. It points to evidence that BPA might have negative effects on other endocrine systems including thyroid function.

The current study used sheep, which researchers said was a relevant model for human pregnancy and thyroid regulation and ontogeny. It analyzed the internal exposures of the fetuses and their mothers to BPA and determined to what extent those exposures may be associated with thyroid disruption.

“Our study is the first to show that BPA can alter thyroid function of pregnant animals and their offspring in a long-gestation species with similar regulation of thyroid function as humans,” said Catherine Viguié, PhD, of Toxalim, Research Centre in Food Toxicology in Toulouse, France and lead author of the study.

Further study

Because of the potential consequences of maternal/fetal thyroid disruption on neural and cognitive development, Viguié thinks her study warrants the need for further investigations on the effect of BPA on thyroid function.

Though BPA once was in nearly every kind of plastic container, it's being found in fewer these days. In the wake of studies raising health questions, many manufacturers have eliminated their use of the substance, even though the food industry continues to back it.

Most recently many beverage companies have begun using plastic bottles made without BPA, which is a hardening agent. Other manufacturers have also removed it from many brands of infant formula bottles.

Previous research

Most of the recent studies point to BPA’s ability to interfere with the body’s hormone system, potentially leading to a variety of health problems, including damage to the reproductive system and the brain, particularly in children. Eleven states have banned the chemical’s use in certain products, typically baby bottles and other children’s goods; Canada, China and the European Union have similar restrictions.

An industry group, the American Chemistry Council, says BPA has been used safely for decades and there is no evidence that it causes harm as it is currently used. A key component of many plastic products, BPA is found in everything from the lining of food cans to the paper used in store receipts.

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Kmart Releases $40 Tablets This Holiday Season

Could this be the start of tablet prices permanently coming down?

It’s hard to believe the Holidays season is here it again but it is.Weeks before Halloween this year, retailers and advertisers starting rolling ou...

Photo
Maylong 7-Inch Android tablet
It’s hard to believe the holidays season is here it again but it is.

Weeks before Halloween this year, retailers and advertisers starting rolling out sales and limited offers, and before you had time to sew your new Dracula costume for trick or treat, it was time to think about what you’ll be buying  your friends and family this season.

As many children will look for the latest toys this year--that they’ll probably get tired of by New Year’s Day--a good portion of consumers will be looking at what type of gadgets and electronics will be wrapped up in colorful paper for them.

The new iPad Mini will undoubtedly be on many people’s wish list this year, along with Microsoft’s Surface Tablet. But for parents who are looking to buy their kids the latest mobile devices but who don’t want to fork over hundreds of dollars, they may be interested in some new tablets that are being sold for well under $100.

Companies catching on?

A handful of gadget companies seem to be aware that there’s a portion of consumers that haven’t fully dived into the world of mobile devices yet.  Also, since many consumers have yet to buy a tablet for themselves, it is somewhat unlikely that they’ll spend high amounts of money on an Apple or Microsoft Tablet for somebody else.

PhotoTypically, expensive electronics are given as gifts when the gadgets have already been used and approved by the gift giver, so for those who don’t know a lot about tablets but want to surprise someone this year, they may want to look at these lower priced options.

Kmart is offering the X-treme Tab 7-inch tablet for just $40 that comes with 1.2 GHz, 1GB of RAM and 800 x 480 pixels resolution.

Mind you, the $40 tablet is short on RAM, has a slow chip and pretty crude resolution. It's also made by a pretty unknown company based in India, so it will definitely not have the bells and whistles one is used to getting with more expensive tablets, but for such a low price it might be a good gadget for a smaller child who has yet to own a mobile device.

Also, cheaper electronics are ideal for kids so they can learn the gadget’s basic functionalities and also learn how to care for a device before parents buy a more expensive one.

Mach Speed

Photo
Mach Speed Trio tablet
There’s also the Mach Speed Trio 4.3-inch tablet that will go for $49.99 this holiday season, and it comes with 4GB of storage space and a six-hour battery life. It also has built-in speakers a digital camera and camcorder and a touch screen color display.

Again, the inexpensive device will be a far cry from Apple and Microsoft tablets, but for $50 how much regret can one have if it doesn’t work as expected?

Consumers could opt for the 4Sight 9-inch tablet for $89.99 that comes with 1.1 GHz and 4GB of memory, and as far as its design, the tablet appears to be built pretty sturdily upon first glance, but everyday use and owning it for long periods will be the ultimate test to see if the device is durable. 

All of these tablets will be sold at Kmart beginning this Black Friday.

Then there’s the Maylong 7-inch Android 4.0 tablet for $99.99 that’s equipped with built in speakers and microphone, a four hour battery life, and holds a processing speed of 1GHZ with 512 MB of RAM. 

Again, it might be a good purchase for those still testing the tablet waters, and whether these devices will remain at these low prices remains to be seen.

Next wave

But many experts say that tablets being offered for under $100 will stretch far beyond Black Friday, as these kinds of electronics seem to be the next wave of gadgets that are destined to come down in price within the next year or so.

Also, with Apple and Microsoft charging a lot more for their name, reputation and array of features, other companies will market newer and cheaper products to those consumers that don’t necessarily want or need the latest gadget releases.

Of course the whole you-get-what-you-pay-for-reasoning will heavily apply with these cheaper tablets, but the fact that other companies are starting to undercut the Apples and the Microsofts of the world is a good thing, because not everyone wants to break the bank or their budget this holiday season, and now consumers may not have to.

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Brits: Amazon, Google, Starbucks 'Immoral' Tax Avoiders

British Parliament probes American firms' methods of wriggling out of taxes

It wasn't long ago that the U.S. Presidential contenders were complaining about American firms that shelter international revenue in tax-free and low-tax h...

PhotoIt wasn't long ago that the U.S. Presidential contenders were complaining about American firms that shelter international revenue in tax-free and low-tax havens, shielding it from tax collectors at home.

Now it's the British Parliament that's taking aim at Amazon, Google and Starbucks. The firms underwent a three-hour grilling yesterday about their tax avoidance policies. Among the testimony:

  • Google funnels profits to a subsidiary in the tax haven of Bermuda;
  • Starbucks buys coffee that is taxed in Switzerland, even though it goes to the UK;
  • Amazon, which claimed not to now how much revenue it collects in Britain, said it based its European operations in Luxembourg because of the favorably tax treatment it gets there.
Starbucks Nov. 14, 2012, 5:23 p.m.
Consumers rate Starbucks

"We're not accusing you of being illegal, we're accusing you of being immoral," MP Margaret Hodge told representatives of the companies who testified before her public accounts committee.

Besides Parliament, the companies may face the wrath of a UK protest group calle Uncut. It is vowing to shut down some of Starbucks' 700 UK outlets on December 8. 

"It is an outrage that the government continues to let multinationals like Starbucks dodge millions in tax while vital services like refuges and rape crisis centres face the axe," Sarah Greene, a UK Uncut activist, said. "The government could easily bring in billions that could fund vital services by clamping down on tax dodging, but are instead making cuts that are forcing women to choose between motherhood and work, and trapping them in abusive relationships."

Uncut said the Dec. 8 action "will see Starbucks stores transformed into refuges, crèches and homeless shelters to highlight the disproportionate impact of the government's spending cuts on women."

Anti-austerity protests

PhotoForeign corporations were also targeted by protestors who took to the streets as millions of workers struck in Italy, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere in Europe today, protesting austerity measures aimed at getting the nations' budgets back in balance.

Trains, airline flights and ferries were canceled across much of Europe as workers staged a general strike. There were at least 60 injuries reported.

In Florence, Italy, protestors called for expropriation of property owned by American corporations and urged higher taxation of foreign companies doing business in Italy. 

---

Staff photo

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Beware of Deferred Interest Payment Plans

Plans aren't always transparent and can carry unexpected interest charges

Consumers have been doing a good job of paying down their credit card debt over the last couple of years so it would be a shame to see them fall into a hig...

PhotoConsumers have been doing a good job of paying down their credit card debt over the last couple of years so it would be a shame to see them fall into a high-interest trap at the stores where they shop.

With most holiday shoppers planning to spend an average $750-$1000 this holiday season, it's easy to be tempted by those “90 days same as cash” offers at a retail store. Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub.com, says that can be a trap.

While deferred interest payment plans provide an interest-free period during which customers can make payment and may therefore seem awfully similar to those zero percent introductory interest rates that credit cards offer, there’s a crucial difference: if you don’t pay off your entire balance by the end of the deferred interest period, interest is retroactively applied to the entire original balance, rather than simply whatever balance remains at that time.

Taking these offers at face value

“When consumers see a no-interest offer, they tend to take that at face value, thinking they’re gaining a true respite from finance charges for the advertised length of time,” Papadimitriou said. “That’s why deferred interest is both so dangerous and reminiscent of the ‘gotcha’ type practices that were prevalent prior to the Great Recession and subsequently outlawed by the CARD Act.”

If you don't read the fine print of the credit agreement -- and most of us don't -- you might not know that you are on the hook for full interest charges until you get the bill.

“The average household already has $6,700 in credit card debt, we’re expected to incur $43.5 billion in new debt this year, and the economy is still on shaky ground,” Papadimitriou said. “We don’t need hidden costs adding to our problems.”

More than 80 percent of retailers offer a financing option. Keep in mind, and agreement to defer interest if you pay it off in a set period of time means exactly that. If you don't pay it off in the allotted time, you will own full interest on the entire amount of the purchase.

Lack of transparency

Papadimitriou says more than half of the retailers who offer some type financing plan are not transparent about the policies, meaning the consumer must carefully read the fine print before signing anything. Even companies like Apple and Amazon, he says, offer deferred interest, which he calls a “decidedly misleading and potentially harmful financing option.”

Maybe you are aware of the terms and conditions of a store's deferred interest plan -- here's another reason to exercise caution. You may think you will be able to pay off the balance in the alloted time.

But things happen. Suppose an unexpected expense prevents you from doing that. That will mean that you will have to pay the interest -- and it can be at a steep rate -- on the entire purchase, not just the balance when the time allotment expires.

Papadimitriou, a fomer executive at Capital One, says he thinks deferred interest plans should be abolished or regulators should require more disclosures.

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Top 10 Ways to Get a Black Friday Bargain

The planning is not that different than carrying out a military campaign

On Friday, Nov. 23, millions of consumers will flock to stores to take part in the Black Friday shopping experience. They are drawn by the promise of barga...

PhotoOn Friday, Nov. 23, millions of consumers will flock to stores to take part in the Black Friday shopping experience. They are drawn by the promise of bargains and the thrill of mixing it up with throngs of fellow shoppers.

Unfortunately, the bargains are not always plentiful. While stores promote deep savings on a handful of highly desirable items, the prices of everything else are not much different from a normal shopping day. Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, suggests going home with a Black Friday deal will require some advance planning.

“Black Friday now starts on Thursday,” Dworsky said. “And for the first time, some stores are staggering their doorbusters, releasing different ones at different times. For Walmart, it is at 8pm and 10pm on Thursday and 5am Friday, while at Sears it is at 8pm and 4am. “If you don’t read their circulars carefully, you may show up at the store either hours early or hours late.”

Here are Dworsky's top 10 ways to get a Black Friday bargain:

  1. Read the ads: Preview the Black Friday sale circulars before hitting the stores. Not only will they appear in local papers next week, many ad slicks are now online at numerous Black Friday shopping sites. Make sure there is a bargain worth getting up in the middle of the night for.
  2. Evaluate the deals: Not all Black Friday advertised items are great deals. Others will become available the weekend before Thanksgiving, on Cyber Monday, or in mid-December. Compare the ads to what the item is selling for online. For example, Amazon.com has been offering Black Friday deals throughout November.
  3. Research the Right Product: A low price on a lousy product is no bargain. Check Websites like ConsumerAffairs for consumer reviews. Some publications feature reviews by professionals.
  4. Use coupons: To save the most, combine the primary ways to save: buy items at a good sale price, use percent-off/dollars-off coupons offered by some stores to lower that price even more, and look for items that also have a cash back rebate. Keep in mind some Black Friday sale items may not accept coupons. If that's the case the ads should say so.
  5. Be an Early Bird: That may mean heading out on Thanksgiving night if you are shopping at Walmart, Sears, Kmart, Kohls, Macy's and Toys“R”Us. Just keep in mind the employees waiting on you will not be the happiest people in the world, having been dragged away from family celebrations by their bosses.
  6. Beat the Early Birds: In some cases you may be able to start shopping before everyone else. Sears is letting its reward club members buy some doorbusters starting on Sunday, November 18. To plan for the real Black Friday, scope-out key retailers on Wednesday before Thanksgiving to learn each store’s floor plan in advance. Avoid the crowds by ordering online since some Black Friday deals may be available on Thanksgiving Day or early Friday. Be warned, however, that stores are not generally good about indicating which items will also be available online.
  7. Check the Return Policy: Before buying, find out the store's return policy. While many stores have extended their return deadlines into January, others are clamping down by imposing restocking fees on certain categories of items, or by using a blacklisting database or returns tracking system to deny refunds to returns abusers.
  8. Get a Gift Receipt: Make returns easier for gift recipients by asking the store for a gift receipt and include it in the gift box. Without a receipt, a refund may be denied outright, or may be limited to only an equal exchange, or to a merchandise credit for the lowest price the item has sold for in the recent past.
  9. Use the Right Credit Card: Certain credit cards offer valuable free benefits. For example, don't be pressured into buying a service contract when you can get up to an extra year of warranty coverage free just by using most gold or platinum credit cards. Ask your credit card issuer what length warranties qualify for an extra year of coverage, if any. Some credit cards also offer a return protection guarantee.
  10. Save More with Price-Match Guarantees: Keep checking the prices of the items you buy. Since many stores offer a price protection guarantee, you may be entitled to get back some additional money if the seller or a competitor offers a lower price before Christmas.
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Bourbon Barbecue Sausage Products Recalled

The sausages may be undercooked

Pinnacle Foods Group of Fort Madison, IA, is recalling approximately 90,975 pounds of bourbon barbecue sausage products because they may have been underpro...

PhotoPinnacle Foods Group of Fort Madison, IA, is recalling approximately 90,975 pounds of bourbon barbecue sausage products because they may have been underprocessed.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 5-oz. cans of “Armour Vienna Sausage Bourbon BBQ Flavored” (24 per case).

Each can bears the establishment number "P-4247" inside the USDA mark of inspection, a UPC Code of “54100 93824” and a Use By date of Sept. 7, 2015. The products subject to recall were produced on Sept. 7, 2012, and sold to retail establishments nationwide.

The problem was discovered by the company, which believes the problem occurred as a result of processing time miscalculations that caused the product to be undercooked during the production process. There have been no reports of illnesses due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about an illness should contact a healthcare provider.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the company at 1 (888) 299-7646 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday.

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Powermate Generators Recalled

A leaky fuel filter poses a fire hazard

Pramac America of Kearney, NE, is recalling about 7,700 Powermate Sx 5500 portable generators. The fuel filter on the generator allows gasoline to leak, p...

PhotoPramac America of Kearney, NE, is recalling about 7,700 Powermate Sx 5500 portable generators.

The fuel filter on the generator allows gasoline to leak, posing a fire hazard. The company has received 51 reports of fuel filter leakage. No fires or injuries have been reported.

The recalled portable generators have "Powermate 5500" printed on the side of the black generator with wheels. These generators were sold under the model name Sx5500 and model number PM0125500. Both are printed on a plate on the rear of the generators with serial numbers of the recalled units ranging from K003xxxxxQ through K090xxxxxQ.

The generators, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Home Depot stores in northeast, mid-west and southeast United States from February 2012 through August 2012 for about $550.

Consumers should stop using these recalled portable generators and contact Pramac America to receive a free repair kit including a replacement filter, hose and hose clamps for fuel line.

Consumer s may contact Pramac America LLC at (800) 445-1805 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Feds Approve New Federal Safety Standard for Infant Swings

Included is a stability test and a warning label on the proper age for usage

In an effort to prevent injuries and deaths to children, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has unanimously (3-0) approved a new federal ma...

PhotoIn an effort to prevent injuries and deaths to children, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has unanimously (3-0) approved a new federal mandatory safety standard to improve the safety of infant swings.

Infant swings are stationary juvenile products with a frame and powered mechanism that enables an infant to swing in a seated position. The swing is intended for use with infants from birth until a child is able to sit up unassisted. Cradle and travel swings are included in the standard.

The standard

The new federal standard, which incorporates provisions in the voluntary standard ASTM F2088 - 12a, requires the following:

  • a stronger, more explicit warning label to prevent slump-over deaths. The warning advises consumers to use a swing in the most reclined position until an infant is 4 months old and can hold up its head without help;
  • a stability test that prevents the swing from tipping over;
  • a test that prevents unintentional folding;
  • tests on restraint systems, which are intended to prevent slippage and breakage of the restraints during use;
  • the cradle swing surface to remain relatively flat, while in motion, and while at rest;
  • electrically-powered swings to be designed to prevent battery leakage and overheating.;
  • toy mobiles to be designed to ensure that toys do not detach when pulled;
  • swings with seats angles greater than 50 degrees to have shoulder strap restraints; and
  • dynamic and static load requirements to ensure that the infant swing can handle specified loads without breaking.

Between May 2011 and May 2012, CPSC received reports of 351 infant swing-related incidents that occurred between 2009 and 2012. Two of those incidents resulted in fatalities, while 349 were nonfatal. Twenty-four of the nonfatal incidents resulted in injuries.

The effective date for the mandatory infant swing standard is May 7, 2013.  

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What Happens If We Go Over the Fiscal Cliff?

Your taxes will go up while the federal government will spend a lot less

Since the presidential election, attention has turned to resolving deficit negotiations to prevent the U.S. from going over “the fiscal cliff” ...

PhotoSince the presidential election, attention has turned to resolving deficit negotiations to prevent the U.S. from going over the "fiscal cliff” on January 1. So what exactly is the fiscal cliff and what would going over it do?

The term “fiscal cliff” was coined by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in testimony before Congress earlier this year. He warned that unless Congress reached agreement on a new deficit-reduction plan, the economy would take a very nasty spill.

A year ago, when Congress was at loggerheads over raising the debt ceiling, the two sides agreed on a temporary solution by putting in place a set of deep government spending cuts to go into effect January 1, 2013, when the “Bush” tax cuts, passed in late 2001, expired.

Unless Congress came up with an alternative plan, the net result would be a steep increase in everyone's taxes and a sharp drop in government spending. It was agreed to because it was so drastic it was supposed to nudge Republicans and Democrats from their dug-in positions and make them more agreeable to compromise, to head off what economists say would be a calamity.

January 1

Here's what is scheduled to happen on January 1: the “temporary” tax cuts put in place in the wake of 9/11 would expire, meaning everyone's taxes would revert to what they were before that time. While not technically a tax increase it would feel like one, since everyone would pay higher taxes.

Economists are worried about the impact because of the weakness of the economy. A tax burden that was seen as affordable during the booming economy of the late 1990s might push the U.S. back into a recession now.

However, President Obama and Democrats in Congress say upper income taxpayers, families earning over $250,000 a year, should have their taxes revert to the old, higher rate while everyone else's stays the same. Throughout the campaign Obama said upper income households “should pay a little more” because they can afford it.

Now that the president has won another four-year term, he and his allies see no reason they should retreat from that position. Republicans, however, have dug in their heels insisting that no one's taxes should rise.

The stalemate

That's the stalemate. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) says Republicans would agree to raise government revenue but only by closing loopholes and deductions, not by raising rates. Ever since President George H.W. Bush said “read my lips, no new taxes, ”then later agreed with Democrats to raise taxes and went on to lose re-election, no Republican has been willing to support a tax increase of any kind.

Democrats, meanwhile, never liked the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush, but concede taxes can't be raised on most households that are struggling to make ends meet. However, they have said there is no reason rates can't be raised on families earning $250,000 a year or more.

That's how we got to the edge of the cliff, but what happens if we go over. First, the tax consequences.

The current 10 percent tax bracket, for the lowest income taxpayers, would revert to 15 percent. The 25 percent tax bracket would rise to 28 percent; the 28 percent bracket would rise to 31 percent; the 33 percent bracket would rise to 36 percent; and the 35 percent bracket would rise to 39.6 percent.

That final tax bracket -- the 35 percent to 39.6 percent -- is what the stand-off is all about.

How would you be affected? If you fall within the category of a “middle income” taxpayer, the non-partisan Tax Policy Center estimates you would pay about $2,000 more in taxes next year, including the end to the two-year payroll tax cut, which no one is talking about extending.

Because consumers would have less money to spend, businesses would likely cut costs as well and many jobs might be eliminated. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 3.4 million jobs could be lost pushing the unemployment rate past nine percent.

Government spending cuts

The other part of the fiscal cliff is a set of pre-programmed across-the-board government spending cuts. Defense spending would fall 10 percent. Spending on domestic programs would drop eight percent, though in the way Washington looks at spending, a reduction in the planned increase in spending is considered a “cut.” In terms of actual spending, it's been estimated the overall spending would revert to around 2007 levels. Still, in a weak, recovering economy, the impact would be felt.

Is there any way to avoid going over the cliff? Probably. Negotiations have already begun with Republicans and Democrats displaying their best poker faces.

Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, an intellectual voice of the conservative movement, raised his fellow Republicans' blood pressure by suggesting it wouldn't hurt to raise taxes on millionaires, pointing out most probably voted for Democrats anyway.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) also floated a novel idea this week, suggesting it wouldn't be so bad if we in fact went over the fiscal cliff. She pointed out that once tax rates had reverted to their higher rates, Republicans would likely join Democrats in quickly voting to cut taxes for low and middle-income earners.

Taxes on upper income earners would remain the same. That way, she pointed out, Republicans wouldn't have to vote for a tax hike but Democrats would get the higher rates on upper income taxpayers that they want.

Perhaps because of the pain the fiscal cliff would cause, no one has mentioned the one benefit going over it would bring; the federal deficit, which has mushroomed in recent years, would get smaller.

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Reducing Knee Pain Without Surgery

Researchers find drug they say can postpone or eliminate surgery

Knee replacement surgery is one of the most common joint surgeries in the U.S., and is increasing as the baby boom generation ages. It's usually made neces...

PhotoKnee replacement surgery is one of the most common joint surgeries in the U.S., and is increasing as the baby boom generation ages. It's usually made necessary by the onset of osteoarthritis (OA).

But researchers say the use of a drug, strontium ranelate, may improve knee pain, reduce joint damage and the need for surgery, or at least postpone it for several years.

Cartilage breakdown

Knee osteoarthritis is caused by cartilage breakdown in the knee joint. Factors that increase the risk of knee osteoarthritis include obesity, age, prior injury to the knee, extreme stress to the joints and family history. In 2005, 27 million Americans suffered from osteoarthritis, and one in two people will have symptomatic knee arthritis by age 85.

Strontium ranelate is an osteoporosis treatment that has been shown to prevent vertebral and hip fractures. In non-clinical studies, strontium ranelate was shown to stimulate bone mass by slowing the breakdown of bone and stimulating new bone growth, having a positive effect on cartilage.

Current treatments

Current treatments focus on improving disease symptoms through a combination of medication and non-pharmaceutical therapy, but there is currently no treatment approved to delay the progression of the disease.

An international group of researchers tried to determine if strontium ranelate was effective in reducing joint damage and symptoms caused by knee OA. It found that it was and constitutes something of a breakthrough.

“Osteoarthritis is the most common disease in the elderly and there are currently major unmet medical needs in OA disease management,” said Jean-Yves Reginster, MD, PhD, lead investigator in the study and president and chair, department of public health sciences at the University of Liège in Belgium. “There is currently no medication, approved by regulatory authorities to prevent the structural progression of the disease.”

Currently strontium ranelate is approved in 102 countries for the management of post-menopausal osteoporosis, which has been proven to be safe when used for ten years in this particular indication. Researchers say results of the present trial show also its ability to reduce the progression of osteoarthritis.

“This could be a major step in the global management of musculo-skeletal disorders in the elderly subjects,” Reginster said. “Patients should talk to their rheumatologists to determine their best course of treatment.”

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Nearly $220 Million Recovered for Madoff Victims

The settlement will benefit worker retirement, health care plans

A settlement has been reached that includes the payment of nearly $220 million to compensate employee benefit plans and other investors that suffered losse...

PhotoA settlement has been reached that includes the payment of nearly $220 million to compensate employee benefit plans and other investors that suffered losses through investments in Bernard L. Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

The settlement is pending approval by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and resolves U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) litigation, actions brought by New York's attorney general, and several private lawsuits and class actions brought on behalf of plans and other investors that invested with Madoff.

The settlement was reached with Ivy Asset Management LLC, J.P. Jeanneret Associates Inc., Beacon Associates Management Corp., Andover Associates Management Corp., and their current and former owners and officers.

A measure of justice

"The settlement agreement we're announcing today provides a measure of justice for those Americans who worked hard to prepare for their retirement and then saw hoped-for stability disappear," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "My department is committed to ensuring that workers and retirees receive the benefits they've earned and deserve. If approved by the court, this settlement, combined with expected payments from the Madoff bankruptcy estate, will allow worker benefit plans impacted by Bernard Madoff's illegal and reprehensible scheme to recover all, or nearly all, of the money they invested with him."

DOL sued Ivy, Jeanneret, Beacon, Andover and their owners and officers Oct. 21, 2010, for alleged violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The suit alleged that they breached their fiduciary duties to a number of benefit plans by recommending, making and maintaining investments with Madoff, thus losing hundreds of millions of dollars in assets needed for the pension and health benefits of thousands of workers.

"Nothing can make up for the years-long agony that plan administrators and participants, and individual investors were put through by these defendants and Madoff," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits Security Phyllis C. Borzi. "But this settlement should go a long way toward making victims financially whole and, hopefully, closing a painful chapter for many workers and families."

Settlement terms

Under the settlement agreement, Ivy and its principals have agreed to pay a total of $210 million. Jeanneret and its owners, John P. Jeanneret and Paul Perry, have agreed to pay $3 million. Beacon and Andover and their owners, Joel Danziger and Harris Markhoff, have agreed to pay $3.5 million and relinquish a claim of more than $3.3 million for management fees.

The settlements resulted from investigations conducted by the New York and Boston regional offices of the Employee Benefits Security Administration, an agency of the Labor Department. Litigation was conducted by the Plan Benefits Security Division of the department's Office of the Solicitor in Washington, DC.

Workers in employer-sponsored health and retirement benefit plans who feel that they have been denied a benefit inappropriately, or have questions about benefits laws, can contact an EBSA benefits adviser here or by calling 866-444-EBSA (3272).

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Beware the 'Obama Punching a Guy' Video Scam

Panda Security warns it's a malware trap

Hackers and spammers have learned that social media is an effective way to spread malware around the Internet. That's why you should be very careful when y...

PhotoHackers and spammers have learned that social media is an effective way to spread malware around the Internet. That's why you should be very careful when you receive a direct message on Twitter inviting you to click a link to view an outrageous video or photograph.

Panda Security reports the latest Twitter spam campaign making the rounds may compromise user security. It uses a racial slur and promises to show President Obama “punching a guy in the face.”

Of course, there is no such video. If the user clicks the link in the message, he is taken to a bogus Facebook page where he is are prompted to submit his Twitter log-in details.

What happens if you fall for it

However, if the user enters her credentials, the malware will hijack her account in order to send the same malicious message to all of her contacts.

The user is then taken to a Website that displays a fake YouTube video set against a fake Facebook background. This time, the victim is asked to update a “YouTube player” to watch the video. As typical with this type of scam, if the user clicks on the “Install” button, the Koobface.LP worm is downloaded, infecting his computer and attempts to steal all his personal data.

"This attack exploits the two most popular social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter, to trick users into believing they are viewing a trusted site," said Luis Corrons, technical director of PandaLabs. "It also relies on its victims' curiosity by using a scandalous story involving U.S. President Obama and racism. Cyber-criminals know people are curious by nature and take advantage of this to trick users and infect them with their creations."

Twitter scams

Security experts point out that this is just the latest example of a cyber-scam that uses Twitter direct messages to spread. Users' accounts receive dozens of them every day with malicious links and enticing messages such as, "What exactly do you think you're doing on this video clip," "Hello this guy is saying bad rumors about u..." and "Did you see this pic of you?", etc.

"Never, ever, click the links within the text of those messages as they could infect your computer," said Corrons. "Every time you receive a direct message you should check with the sender that they have knowingly sent it to you. Make sure it has not been automatically forwarded to you from a hacked account. As a general rule, always keep your antivirus software up to date and be wary of messages offering sensational videos or unusual stories as, in 99 percent of cases they are designed to compromise user security."

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Toyota Recalls 2004 to 2009 Model Year Prius Vehicles

Steering problems could lead to a crash

Toyota is recalling nearly 2.8 million Prius -- 670,000 of them in the U.S. -- due to a steering problem. Due to insufficient hardness treatment of some ...

PhotoToyota is recalling nearly 2.8 million 2004 to 2009 model year Prius vehicles -- 670,000 of them in the U.S. -- due to a steering problem.

Due to insufficient hardness treatment of some of the extension shafts, the splines that connect the extension shaft to the steering gear box may deform if the steering wheel is frequently and forcefully turned to the full left or full right position while driving at slow speeds. This deformation may create increased internal clearance and the splines may eventually, over time, wear out.

Toyota dealers will inspect the extension shaft to determine if it needs to be replaced and, if confirmed, will replace it. The inspection and repair will take approximately one hour depending on the dealer’s work schedule.

Water pump problem

Approximately 350,000 of these same Prius vehicles are being recalled to replace the electric water pump for the hybrid system.

In the hybrid system, there is an electrically driven water pump that circulates coolant through the hybrid components to provide cooling. There is a possibility that the electric motor installed in the water pump may stop functioning, leading to illumination of various warning lights in the instrument panel. In limited instances, the electric power supply circuit fuse may open, causing the hybrid system to stop while the vehicle is being driven.

Toyota dealers will replace the electric water pump for the hybrid system. The repair will take approximately two hours depending on the dealer’s work schedule.

There have been no crashes or injuries reported for these two conditions. Owners of vehicles covered by these safety recalls will receive an owner notification letter via first class mail starting in December 2012.

Any authorized Toyota dealer will perform these recalls at no charge to the vehicle owner.

This is the second major recall for the Japanese automaker in the last five weeks. In October, Toyota recalled more than 7.4 million vehicles to deal with a problem involving the driver’s side power window master switch that could have led to a fire under some circumstances.

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In Search of the Best Chain-Store Pizza

Papa John's, Domino's and Pizza Hut go head to head to head for chain pizza supremacy

Throughout my years on this planet, I’ve yet to run into someone who says they don’t like pizza, and if I did I would definitely wonder a few t...

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Dreary Days for Daily Deals Sites

Such a deal -- consumers, merchants, deal sites could all wind up taking a bath

It wasn't long ago that Groupon and LivingSocial were all the rage. Everybody who could rub two digits together was starting some variant of a daily deal s...

PhotoIt wasn't long ago that Groupon and LivingSocial were all the rage. Everybody who could rub two digits together was starting some variant of a daily deal site. But the excitement has worn off as analysts and merchants gain experience with the deep discount strategy.

Groupon is increasingly being seen as a bad deal on Wall Street. Investors dumped Groupon stock after the company announced disappointing third-quarter results last week, driving its stock price down 90% from its IPO level and slicing 31% off the company's balance sheet.

Groupon's problem revolves mostly around cash. It has about $1.2 billion in the bank but owes about half of it to its merchant partners. Groupon takes in cash from consumers who buy its coupons and sits on it for a month or so before paying it out to retailers.

This was OK for Groupon when it was growing quickly but now that growth has leveled off as merchants do fewer deals and fewer new consumers sign up, the company's balance sheet is showing more growth in the liabilities column than investors like to see.

Retailers getting savvier

And then there's those pesky retailers. The whole daily deal thing seemed like a good idea when it was introduced but merchants have quickly learned that giving away their products at deep discounts doesn't necessarily win them new customers for life. In fact, many of the coupon clippers are already customers who simply get a great deal on something they would have bought anyway.

Retailers eventually caught on to this and began wondering why they have to wait longer to collect less revenue. Anyway you slice it, this will work out to their offering deals that, while they are still daily, are not quite the barn-burners customers have come to expect – a trend that consumers are catching onto.

Nor is No. 2 LivingSocial exactly on the upswing. The DC-based site appears to be facing the same retailer and merchant fatigue as Groupon, although since it is not publicly traded, it doesn't release detailed financial statements. But published reports say LivingSocial is facing the same cash crunch as Groupon, without the ability to raise capital in the public markets.

What to do

Assuming both sites get through the holiday season, crunch time could come next year. Most observers think Groupon would be a logical candidate to buy LivingSocial. Even though LivingSocial is thought to be only about one-fourth as large as Groupon, taking it out of the picture would allow Groupon to raise revenue and slash costs.

What's all this mean for shoppers and merchants? The most obvious advice for consumers is to use those daily deals coupons quickly.

And for merchants? Well, it's not our place to advise merchants but taking good care of your existing customer base – and maybe even rewarding your regular customers with loyalty promotions and great service – is always a good place to start.

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Meatless Mondays: Will Los Angeles and the Rest of the Nation Go For It?

Many believe the program is a step in the right direction, others believe it hurts farmers

Who doesn’t like a nice piece of steak every now and then? According to recent statistics a lot of people don’t.A study conducted by the Vege...

PhotoWho doesn’t like a nice piece of steak every now and then? According to recent statistics a lot of people don’t.

A study conducted by the Vegetarian Times shows there are 7.3 million people in the United States who are vegetarians and there's 22.8 million people in the country that who vegetarian-based diets.

Apparently, the city of Los Angeles wants to add to that high number, as officials want residents there to join Meatless Monday--a global initiative that asks people to forego meat one day each week. 

Those involved with the program hope it inspires residents to decrease their meat consumption and lower the amount of illnesses associated with heavy meat eating.

For those who attempt the challenge, they should remember a few key things.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) a vegetarian diet should include a strong focus on calcium and iron, as well as protein, and vitamin B12 consumption. 

The USDA also says meals should be built around sources of low-fat protein and include such foods as rice, beans and lentils.

The government agency also warns against using high-fat cheeses to make up for the lack of meat protein, since cheeses and other high cholesterol foods can easily undo the health benefits associated with eating vegetarian.

Mind games

PhotoWhat’s hardest for many people to do when it comes to cutting down their meat intake is dealing with the huge psychological component.

A lot of meat eaters don’t avoid going vegetarian because they dislike eating vegetables, it’s just that their minds are so used to associating a complete meal with a piece of meat, that eating veggies with a side of rice and beans seems horribly incomplete.

Meat eaters who share this belief should opt for soy-based products like imitation ground beef, veggie burgers and mock chicken, which are made by popular companies like Morning Star Farms, and Boca.

Although there are a countless number of artificial meat brands, Morning Star and Boca are probably the easiest to find and are the cheapest in price depending on where you live.

Nearly real

PhotoOut of the two mock meat companies, Morning Star seems to make products that will be easier for the meat eater to handle, as the company’s selections are much closer to meat in texture than the other brands I’ve tried. And with just the right amount of seasoning and cooking methods, soy based meats can actually come pretty close to the real thing.

But close is the operative word here, so meat eaters will definitely taste a difference right off the bat, but that difference should become less noticeable the more the artificial meat is eaten.

Los Angeles is the largest city in the United States to take the Meatless Monday challenge, and Councilwoman Jan Perry along with Councilman Ed Reyes believe the weekly meat fast could  lower the amount of future heart disease and cancer cases.

Many health experts around the globe attribute these ailments to heavy meat consumption.

“We can reduce saturated fats and reduce the risk of heart disease by 19 percent,” said Councilwoman Perry in a statement. “While this is a symbolic gesture, it is asking people to think about the food choices they make. Eating less meat can reverse some of our nation’s most common illnesses.”

Harvard study

PhotoThe Meatless Monday program pointed to a recent Harvard study that showed that by lowering the amount of fat-rich foods like meat and high-fat dairy, and going with foods high in polyunsaturated fat,  people can lower the chances of developing heart disease by 19 percent, which was a key point made in the announcement of the program.

Polyunsaturated fat can be found in many leafy green foods, as well as in fish, seeds and nuts.

Although there may be a little pressure from Los Angeles officials to join the program, residents shouldn’t worry about being hand-cuffed the next time they're caught eating a hamburger on a Monday. The meatless initiative is only a suggested one, and officials hope the program not only grows in popularity, but also leads to other lifestyle changes when it comes to health and diet.

“The issue is, how does a local municipality engage in this and how do we create change,” asked Councilman Reyes, while discussing the initiative. “If we do it one plate at a time, one meal, one day, we are ratcheting down the impact on our environment. We start with one day a week and then who knows, maybe we can change our habits for a lifetime.”

Stay out of Dodge

But not everyone is pleased about U.S. cities going meatless one day a week.

Kansas Senator Jerry Moran said the program is hurting the farming community by telling residents to abstain from meat, and instead of putting pressure on residents to go vegetarian--which many believe is based more on a belief system than anything else--the USDA should be helping out farmers.

“Never in my life would I have expected USDA to be opposed to farmers and ranchers,” said Sen. Moran earlier this year in an interview.

“American farmers and ranchers deserve a USDA that will pursue supportive policies rather than seek their further harm. With extreme drought conditions plaguing much of the United States, the USDA should be more concerned about helping drought-stricken producers rather than demonizing an industry reeling from the lack of rain.”

Although health experts have linked vegetarianism to better health, others have concluded that as long as meat is eaten moderately and properly balanced with other food groups, one can still maintain a healthy lifestyle.

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Columbus Camping Chairs Recalled

Chairs contain mold, which could pose a problem for consumers with respiratory ailments

Rec-Out LLC of Atlanta, GA, is recalling about 227 Columbus folding camping chairs. The chairs were found to contain a variety of molds that could cause ...

PhotoRec-Out LLC of Atlanta, GA, is recalling about 227 Columbus folding camping chairs.

The chairs were found to contain a variety of molds that could cause respiratory or other infections in individuals with chronic health problems or who have impaired immune systems. No incidents or illnesses have been reported.

This recall involves Basin model Columbus folding camping chairs, identified with style # CC3009-N on a label attached to the side of the seat. They are blue, foam-padded, polyester chairs with a cushioned seat and back. The chairs have adjustable side straps and two additional straps used as handles to carry the chair when folded. "Columbus" appears on the outer side of the back of the seat, above a mesh pocket.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Big 5 Sporting Goods stores from April 2012 through October 2012 for about $15.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and return them to any Big 5 Sporting Goods location for a full refund.

Consumer s may contact Rec-Out; toll-free at (888) 885-9129, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET Monday through Friday for more information. They can also email the firm at customerservice@rec-out.com.

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College Board Launches College Application Tool

Helps students and their families deal with college application process

November, besides being the kick-off to the holiday season, is also a critical month in the college application process.So amid planning for shopping and...

PhotoNovember, besides being the kick-off to the holiday season, is also a critical month in the college application process.

So amid planning for shopping and family feasts, students and their parents are trying to meet college decision deadlines. The College Board has unveiled a tool it says could be helpful in staying on track.

It's called BigFuture, a place where students can create a personalized plan that gives them expert advice on all the steps they need to take to apply to college. It might prove helpful to those who tend to procrastinate or get overwhelmed by decision-making.

How-to help

It offers guidance on how to finalize your application list, how to get a great letter of recommendation and how to craft your application essays.

“The key to minimizing the stress of the college application process, whether you are starting as early as middle school or are a senior just beginning now, is to get and stay organized,” said April Bell, director of counseling at the College Board. “A step-by-step action plan will allow you to keep track of deadlines and various elements of a strong college application.”

Students can get started by answering just five simple questions. Parents can also find action plans on the Website to help guide their children.

It also provides comparative information on almost 4,000 college options.

Finding the right school

Worried about getting into college? The site might prove helpful. College admission isn’t as competitive as many students think.

Fewer than 100 colleges in the U.S. are highly selective, accepting fewer than 25 percent of applicants. Close to 500 four-year colleges accept more than 75 percent of applicants. Open admission colleges accept all or most high school graduates. The site can help students find those schools.

The College Board cites research showing that applying to at least three colleges improves your chances of successfully enrolling in college.

“Also critical is the ability to narrow your list once you’ve explored all of your options,” Bell said. “Most counselors recommend that students apply to five to eight colleges -- more than that may not be the best use of time and resources.”

Of course, paying for college is also a challenge. BigFuture has a tool providing students a personalized cost estimate from more than 300 colleges by using the College Board Net Price Calculator. They can also link to an individual institution’s net price calculator by clicking on the “paying” tab on the school’s profile page on the college search section of BigFuture.

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AT&T Customers Recycle 50,000 Cell Phones in a Week

Achievement was one for the record books, company says

AT&T Wireless is boasting that its customers have literally set the standard when it comes to recycling. The carrier says customers recycled 50,942 old...

PhotoAT&T Wireless is boasting that its customers have literally set the standard when it comes to recycling. The carrier says customers recycled 50,942 old cell phones in one week, earning a spot in the Guinness World Records.

"We know we have the greatest customers in the world and now we have a world record certified by Guinness World Records to prove it," said Jeff Bradley, senior vice president, Devices, AT&T Mobility. "At the same time, we also know that there are millions of wireless devices in people's homes that are not being recycled, so it is our goal that one day all wireless customers will trade in or recycle their wireless devices when they buy new ones."

Sustainability program

AT&T said it launched the recycling campaign as part of its sustainability program. Last year the company collected approximately three million cell phones for reuse and recycling. This year it has launched a new trade-in program it hopes will increase that number. The objective, the company says, is to avoid sending approximately 25,471 pounds of waste to landfills.

But as we have previously reported, old cell phones are not without some residual value. Each year consumers discard millions of old, outdated computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. They are also discarding the gold and silver used in these devices, and it turns out there's more there than you might think.

A staggering 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver are now used each year to make PCs, cell phones, tablet computers and other new electronic and electrical products worldwide. AT&T is not the only company that would like to get its hands on your old devices.

Increasingly you'll see and hear ads for companies that offer to purchase your old cell phone. In some cases that might refurbish it and resell it, but chances are the phone will be mined for the valuable minerals inside.

Competition for your old phone

AT&T is perhaps the largest company to actively seek old cell phones but isn't the only one. Consumers should compare its offer with others from smaller operators. At any rate, the recycling trend is one that the wireless industry wholeheartedly supports.

"CTIA congratulates AT&T for its world record, which highlights the importance of recycling our 'old' devices and accessories," said Jamie Hastings, vice president of External and State Affairs for CTIA -- the Wireless Association, an industry trade group. "CTIA and its members are committed to sustainability, from an individual company's products, services and operations to helping other industries improve their business practices. Everyone plays an important role in helping to protect our environment."

By recycling 50,942 devices during a one-week period, AT&T* customers broke the world record for collecting the most wireless devices in a week as certified by Guinness World Records. As the company applauds its customers for reaching this milestone, it challenges consumers across the nation to increase recycling rates.

AT&T says Texas recycled the most devices during the one-week period with 5,879 devices, followed closely by California with 4,916 devices. Among stores, the Chippenham store in Richmond, Virginia, collected the most devices at 108.

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The 10 Best Holiday Shopping Days

Guess what? Black Friday isn't one of them

Last month a shopping service raised the hackles of major retailers when it released an analysis showing Black Friday was one of the absolute worst days fo...

PhotoLast month a shopping service raised the hackles of major retailers when it released an analysis showing Black Friday was one of the absolute worst days for consumers to shop. The prices for most gift items were not marked down.

So what is the best day? If you aren't necessarily interested in the best deals but rather a more relaxed, pleasant holiday shopping experience, you need to find the days when stores are the least crowded.

ShopperTrak, a company that analyzes retail foot traffic, says some days are, in fact, quieter than others. The weekdays after the busy Thanksgiving weekend top the list.

No shortage of bargains

"This holiday shopping season -- November and December -- will be busier than in 2011,” predicts Bill Martin, ShopperTrak's founder. “More shoppers will visit more stores. But even though consumer demand will increase, retailers still will offer plenty of specials and discounts.”

Martin has issued what he says are “the 10 best days for shopping. They're the days, he says, that present an opportunity for shoppers to secure the best customer service and potentially the best deals. They are:

  1. Nov. 27, Tuesday
  2. Nov. 26. Monday
  3. Nov. 28, Wednesday
  4. Dec. 4, Tuesday
  5. Nov. 29, Thursday
  6. Dec. 3, Monday
  7. Dec. 5, Wednesday
  8. Dec. 6, Thursday
  9. Dec. 10, Monday
  10. Dec. 11, Tuesday

Should you skip Black Friday?

During the Black Friday weekend last year, 684 million store visits resulted in $20.8 billion in retail purchases. ShopperTrak predicts this Black Friday will again be the holiday season's top-performing day for both retail foot traffic and sales. But that doesn't mean it will be best for shoppers.

However, Black Friday presents an opportunity for savvy shoppers. After Black Friday's burst of spending, most shoppers will temporarily reduce their shopping visits. Those who do return to stores Nov. 26-29, however, will be rewarded, as eager retailers will have more time to devote to individual customers as they inspect the sale merchandise.

"Black Friday is not for the faint of heart," said Martin. "Shoppers must brave the crowds to take advantage of good deals. If they can venture back out after just a few days, however, they'll have the full attention of store employees and plenty of remaining discounts."

Or just skip Black Friday altogether. Unless you like being part of the crush of a crowd, battling for limited-quantities of marked-down merchandise, it might be more rewarding to wait until that shopping spree is over. Just don't wait too long.

Martin says the "last-minute" crowds start to shop during the two weeks leading up to Christmas. That's when things will get hectic again.

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Frito-Lay Recalls Grandma's Peanut Butter Cookies

The cookies contain undeclared allergens -- milk and egg

Frito-Lay is recalling of Grandma's Peanut Butter Sandwich Crème cookies and Grandma's Peanut Butter Mini Sandwich Crème cookies because they contain undec...

PhotoFrito-Lay is recalling Grandma's Peanut Butter Sandwich Crème cookies and Grandma's Peanut Butter Mini Sandwich Crème cookies because they contain undeclared milk and egg. People who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to milk or egg run the risk of a serious or life threatening allergic reaction if they consume these products.

No other Grandma's cookies products or flavors are affected and no complaint or illness has been reported to date.

The products are sold in retail stores nationwide. The affected packages are:

  • 3.025 oz. packages of Grandma's Peanut Butter Sandwich Crème cookies that have a sell-by date of March 12, 2013 or earlier and UPC code of 28400-00153; and
  • 1.71 oz. Grandma's Peanut Butter Mini Sandwich Crème cookies that have a sell-by date of May 21, 2013 or earlier and UPC code of 28400-00901.

The sell-by date is located on the front of the package.

The recall was initiated after it was discovered the products did not list the presence of possible allergens that are included in an artificial butter flavor ingredient.

Consumers with any product noted above can return it to the retailer for a full refund, or contact Frito-Lay Consumer Relations at 1- 877-650-3479.

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McAfee Warns Consumers of the '12 Scams of Christmas'

Susceptibility rises as most consumers plan to shop online during the 2012 holiday season

Operating on the theory that forewarned is forearmed, McAfee is exposing what it calls it “Top 12 Scams of Christmas” that criminals plan to use to rip off...

PhotoOperating on the theory that forewarned is forearmed, McAfee is exposing what it calls it “Top 12 Scams of Christmas” that criminals plan to use to rip off consumers as they shop online this holiday season.

According to the security technology firm's 2012 Holiday Shopping Study, 70% of those asked said they plan to shop online this holiday season. Additionally, a surprising 1 in 4 (24%) of them plan to use their mobile devices and -- while aware of the risks -- they are willing to give away their personal information if they can get something they value in return.

Despite the fact that 87% of smartphone or tablet owners surveyed are at least somewhat concerned that their personal information could be stolen while using an app on a smartphone or tablet, nearly nine in ten are willing to provide some level of personal information in order to receive an offer that is of value to them.

Irresistible to criminals

Among those Americans planning on using smartphones and/or tablets to purchase gifts this holiday season, over half are specifically planning to use apps for shopping and/or banking during the holiday season; as such, mobile devices have proven irresistible to cybercriminals, and now they are targeting mobile users through malicious applications.

With roughly three in ten (28%) American smartphone and/or tablet owners admitting they do not pay attention at all to app permissions and 36% paying attention but specifying they do not always do so, Cyber-Scrooge criminals are ready to pounce.

The scams

‘Tis the season for consumers to spend more time online -- shopping for gifts. Eighty-eight percent of those who plan on shopping online during the 2012 holiday season say they'll use a personal computer to do so, and 34% will use a tablet (21%) and/or smartphone (19%). But with nearly half (48%) of Americans planning to shop online on Cyber Monday for sales (45% using a computer, 10% using a mobile device), here are the “12 Scams of Christmas” -- the dozen most dangerous online scams to watch out for this holiday season, revealed today by McAfee:

  1. Social media scams -- Cybercriminals know social media networks are a good place to catch you off guard because we’re all “friends,” right? Scammers use channels, like Facebook and Twitter, just like email and websites to scam consumers during the holidays. Be careful when clicking or liking posts, while taking advantage of raffle contests, and fan page deals that you get from your “friends” that advertise the hottest Holiday gifts, installing apps to receive discounts, and your friends’ accounts being hacked and sending out fake alerts. Twitter ads and special discounts utilize blind, shortened links, many of which could easily be malicious.
  2. Malicious Mobile Apps -- As smartphone users we are app crazy, downloading over 25 billion apps for Android devices alone. But as the popularity of applications has grown, so have the chances that you could download a malicious application designed to steal your information or even send out premium-rate text messages without your knowledge.
  3. Travel Scams -- Before you book your flight or hotel to head home to see your loved ones for the holidays, keep in mind that the scammers are looking to hook you with too-good-to-be-true deals. Phony travel Webpages, sometimes using your preferred company, with beautiful pictures and rock-bottom prices are used to get you to hand over your financial details.
  4. Holiday Spam/Phishing -- Soon many of these spam emails will take on holiday themes. Cheap Rolex watches and pharmaceuticals may be advertised as the “perfect gift” for that special someone.
  5. iPhone 5, iPad Mini and other hot holiday gift scams -- The kind of excitement and buzz surrounding Apple’s new iPhone 5 or iPad Mini is just what cybercrooks dream of when they plot their scams. They will mention must-have holiday gifts in dangerous links, phony contests (example: “Free iPad”) and phishing emails as a way to grab computer users’ attention to get you to reveal personal information or click on a dangerous link that could download malware onto your machine.
  6. Skype Message Scare -- People around the world will use Skype to connect with loved ones this holiday season, but they should be aware of a new Skype message scam that attempts to infect their machine, and even hold their files for ransom.
  7. Bogus gift cards -- Cybercriminals can't help but want to get in on the action by offering bogus gift cards online. Be wary of buying gift cards from third parties; just imagine how embarrassing it would be to find out that the gift card you gave your mother-in-law was fraudulent!
  8. Holiday SmiShing -- “SMiSishing” is phishing via text message. Just like with email phishing, the scammer tries to lure you into revealing information or performing an action you normally wouldn’t do by pretending to be a legitimate organization.
  9. Phony E-tailers -- Phony e-commerce sites, that appear real, try to lure you into typing in your credit card number and other personal details, often by promoting great deals. But, after obtaining your money and information, you never receive the merchandise, and your personal information is put at risk.
  10. Fake charities -- This is one of the biggest scams of every holiday season. As we open up our hearts and wallets, the bad guys hope to get in on the giving by sending spam emails advertising fake charities.
  11. Dangerous e-cards -- E-Cards are a popular way to send a quick “thank you” or holiday greeting, but some are malicious and may contain spyware or viruses that download onto your computer once you click on the link to view the greeting.
  12. Phony classifieds -- Online classified sites may be a great place to look for holiday gifts and part-time jobs, but beware of phony offers that ask for too much personal information or ask you to wire funds via Western Union, since these are most likely scams.

According to a global study commissioned by MSI International and McAfee, consumers place an average value of $37,438 on the “digital assets” they own across multiple digital devices, yet more than a third lack protection across all of those devices.

“Using multiple devices provides the bad guys with more ways to access your valuable 'Digital Assets,' such as personal information and files, especially if the devices are under-protected,” said Paula Greve, director at McAfee Labs. “One of the best ways for consumers to protect themselves is to learn about the criminals’ tricks, so they can avoid them. Beyond that they should have the latest updates of the applications on their devices in order to enjoy a safe online buying or other experience. We don’t want consumers to be haunted by the scams of holidays past, present and future -- they can’t afford to leave the door open to cyber-grinches during the busy holiday season.”

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Honda Gives 2013 Civic a Major Make-Over

Carmaker gives entry-level car some upscale touches

Workmanlike. That's a one-word description that has pretty much summed up the Honda Civic, and its direct competitor the Toyota Corolla, all these years....

PhotoWorkmanlike. That's a one-word description that has pretty much summed up the Honda Civic, and its direct competitor the Toyota Corolla, all these years.

Introduced in July 1972, the Civic has provided entry-level automotive transportation for millions of consumers, many of whom have driven their cars until the doors fell off. The car was prized mostly for its value and reliability.

Facelift

In 2013 Honda hopes to broaden the appeal. The carmaker this week provided the first look at the much-anticipated 2013 Honda Civic sedan, in advance of its debut at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show on November 29.

The refined styling of the 2013 Civic Sedan, which goes on sale at Honda dealerships on November 29, manifests itself in a host of safety, feature, comfort, chassis and interior styling enhancements that Honda hopes will further define the top-selling Civic as the best car in the compact class.

At first glance the 2013 Civic looks more expensive that its forerunners. The front end includes a new open-mouth lower bumper with a horizontal chrome accent and a sportier, black honeycomb mesh grille, anchored by new integrated fog lights on upper trims.

New front-end

The grill is flanked by new clear-lens corner lights that add to the more premium look. The 2013 Civic's more sculpted front end features a more deeply faceted hood, complemented by a collection of sharp new wheel designs.

A new rear bumper design and new rear trunk lid are just the beginning of the changes to the rear of the car. The tail lights carry into the trunk face as designers try to suggest an upscale style.

"The 2013 Honda Civic exterior refinements infuse Civic with a more youthful, premium style.” said Vicki Poponi, assistant vice president of product planning for American Honda. “Coupling these with additional changes beneath will ensure that Civic maintains its top-ranked status."

It remains to be seen if the “premium” enhancements also carry a premium price. Honda revealed no price information as part of is sneak peek. That will have to wait for Nov. 29. The starting price of the 2012 Honda Civic is just under $18,000.

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Store-Branded Gift Cards a Better Deal When It Comes to Fees

All-purpose cards offered by banks and credit card companies impose a wide range of charges

If you are among the growing number of people giving gift cards rather than gifts, you're better off staying way from bank cards and credit cards. New res...

PhotoIf you are among the growing number of people giving gift cards rather than gifts, you're better off staying way from bank cards and credit cards.

New research released by Bankrate.com finds that store-branded gift cards charge fewer fees than the all-purpose versions issued by banks and credit card companies. Of the 55 widely-held store-branded gift cards that Bankrate examined in its 2012 Gift Card Survey, only nine percent charge a purchase fee and only two percent charge a dormancy or maintenance fee.

A range of fees

Bankrate surveyed eight prominent gift cards offered by banks and credit card companies and all of them charge a purchase fee ranging from $2.95 to $6.95. Seventy-five percent charge a dormancy or maintenance fee (up to $3 per month) if the card is unused for 12 or more months.

"The key takeaway for consumers is that they're going to get the most value from store-branded gift cards," said Janna Herron, credit card analyst, Bankrate.com. "The benefit of general-purpose cards offered by banks and credit card companies is that they can be used anywhere, but because of the fees, you would be better off giving cash."

Banks and credit card companies are more likely to charge fees because they need to generate revenue for their gift card businesses. Retailers, in contrast, are less dependent on those fees since the money on the card will be used for goods and services at their stores.

Additional findings

  • Federal rules require gift cards to stay open for at least five years. Ninety-five percent of the cards that Bankrate surveyed do not have an expiration date.
  • Six retailers that offered reloadable gift cards last year discontinued those offerings, while three others began offering reloadable gift cards this year. At present, 51% of the gift cards that Bankrate surveyed can be reloaded.
  • Whereas electronic gift card (e-card) availability rose sharply from 2010 to 2011, the trend over the past year was essentially flat. Two retailers added e-cards and one discontinued its offering. In all, just over half of the issuers that Bankrate surveyed offer e-cards, about the same as last year.
  • Two-thirds of gift card issuers will replace the card and/or funds in the event of loss or theft.
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Who Wants to Host Thanksgiving Dinner?

There appear to be fewer takers because of the cost

Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's this year? Better check with Grandma again. The rising cost of food appears to have lots of people hoping to pass the buck...

PhotoThanksgiving dinner at Grandma's this year? Better check with Grandma again. The rising cost of food appears to have lots of people hoping to pass the buck instead of the mashed potatoes.

A new survey conducted by coupon site CouponCabin.com finds that more than one-in-ten consumers have said "no" to hosting a Thanksgiving dinner in the past because of the cost. In addition, 14 percent said they feel pressured to host a Thanksgiving dinner because others in their family and friends group don't want to spend money on hosting their own.

This survey was conducted by Harris Interactive survey was conducted October 18 – 22, 2012, among 2,082 U.S. adults aged 18 and older.

Biggest concern

What is it about Thanksgiving dinner that has would-be hosts ducking for cover? The biggest concern appears to be the cost. At a time when average household income is falling, food prices are rising. And as we all know, there's a lot of food at Thanksgiving.

Seven-in-ten who are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner this year said they are at least somewhat concerned that this summer and fall's weather will increase food prices for hosting Thanksgiving this year. Thirty percent say they are not at all concerned.

Of those that have already agreed to host a Thanksgiving celebration this year, 45 percent report they are at least somewhat overwhelmed with the cost. This is in line with last year's survey findings, when 44 percent said the same thing.

What makes a Thanksgiving feast so expensive? Both the types of food and the quantity. There's a turkey, side dishes and beverages. Side dishes are normally made from scratch and the ingredients can sometimes run up the costs.

What people are spending

Nearly one-in-ten consumers in the survey -- about seven percent -- said they plan to spend over $300 on the Thanksgiving meal this year, while 49 percent will spend between $101 and $300.

Others are planning a more frugal Thanksgiving, as 44 percent said they will spend $100 or less. Those hosting Thanksgiving plan to spend an average of $246 on the meal.

"While it's a time for celebration, the price tag that comes with hosting a Thanksgiving meal can be daunting for those hosting," said Jackie Warrick, president and chief savings officer at CouponCabin.com. "Many Thanksgiving hosts have gotten a jump on their shopping already, stocking up on non-perishables and frozen items to supplement their fresh purchases. By combining a head start with other savings strategies, hosts can trim their turkeys and their costs."

The best way to save money on your Thanksgiving feast is to go generic. When you have to buy so many different items to prepare a Thanksgiving meal, going generic means big savings. For staples like flour, sugar, spices, pasta, napkins, paper towels, vegetable oil and more, skip the name brands. Your guests won't even notice the difference.

Also, keep decorations simple. The food is the main event at a Thanksgiving meal, so don't waste time and money on elaborate furnishings.

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Could You Be Allergic to Your Smartphone?

Researchers say the Blackberry might not be the best choice for people with certain allergies

Before 2007, when Apple introduced the first iPhone, the Blackberry, made by Research in Motion (RIM), ruled the smartphone world.Since then, the Blackbe...

PhotoBefore 2007, when Apple introduced the first iPhone, the Blackberry, made by Research in Motion (RIM), ruled the smartphone world.

Since then, the Blackberry fortunes have fallen, not just because of the iPhone but because of competition from Android phones as well. So the latest news from the Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) can't be good news for RIM.

A study of smartphones looked at devices that might have a tendency to make you sick, because of the metals they contain.

Many Blackberries contain nickel

“Approximately one-third of all Blackberries contain nickel, but neither cobalt nor nickel was detected in iPhones or Droids,” said allergist Tania Mucci, M.D., lead study author and ACAAI member. “Both metals can cause an allergic reaction including dry, itchy patches along the cheek bones, jaw line and ears.”

If you haven't updated your own flip cell phone for a smartphone, the researchers suggest you have a reason if you suffer from certain allergies. These older model phones also contain cobalt and nickel.

Roughly 91 percent contained nickel and 52 percent tested positive for cobalt. These metals are commonly used in items such as jewelry, coins and even makeup.

Common allergy

Nickel is one of the most common contact allergens, affecting 17 percent of women and three percent of men.

“Patients with nickel and cobalt allergies should consider using iPhones or Droids to reduce the chance of having an allergic reaction,” said allergist Luz Fonacier, M.D., study author and ACAAI fellow. “Blackberry users with known allergies should avoid prolonged conversations, text messaging and handling their phones if they begin noticing symptoms.”

Symptoms of nickel and cobalt allergies can include redness, swelling, itching, eczema, blistering, skin lesions and occasional scarring. For sufferers that are glued to their phones, ACAAI advises opting for plastic phone cases, wireless ear pieces and clear film screens to decrease allergic reactions.

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E-Commerce and Social Networking: A Match Made in Digital Heaven

It's a popular union nowadays, and these three sites have taken full advantage

In the world of the Internet, there hasn’t been a more perfect marriage than the one between e-commerce and social networking.Let’s first tak...

PhotoIn the world of the Internet, there hasn’t been a more perfect marriage than the one between e-commerce and social networking.

Let’s first take a look at the groom in this marriage, e-commerce.

Since its inception e-commerce has been the answer to a lot of consumers' prayers and it’s grown in popularity right along with the Internet itself.

Much older than its bride, it has been one of the first examples that showcased how companies are able to monetize the web, while also showing the world how the Internet could threaten the sales of physical stores.

E-commerce’s groomsmen were services like electronic money transfers, Internet marketing and online delivery services, which also grew in popularity once consumers starting leaving brick and mortars for online shopping.

Although very successful, e-commerce needed a better half to really maximize its potential, and social networking was the perfect match.

Becoming just as popular as e-commerce, social networking caught everyone’s attention once it was first introduced in the early thousands.

Bridesmaids Facebook & Twitter

PhotoMeanwhile, its bridesmaids Facebook and Twitter allowed social networking to become the global form of communication while making the world not only a smaller place but one that’s connected better through shared information.

Of course social networking could have survived just fine on its own, but once it attached itself to e-commerce both services were better able to secure more users and make a lot more money.

What makes the union so perfect is that e-commerce sites needed a social and interactive component in order to maximize sales and social networking sites needed a way to successfully include shopping.

The joyful union between the two services brought about the offspring of several start-ups like Fab.com, TheFancy.com and Lyst.com, which offer the sharing features of Facebook and Twitter with the purchasing options of Amazon or Buy.com.

Fab.com provides consumers with affordable and creative designs attached to a number of different industries like fashion, home furnishings and art, and so far the company has become the fastest growing e-commerce site ever, mainly due to its highly used social networking component.

In almost one year, Fab went from almost 200,000 members to 6 million.

Similar to Pintrest, Fab seduces its users with large and colorful photos and allows them to share various designs that you wouldn’t find in retail stores. Fab also caters to the hipster or outside-of-the-box-type, who would rather buy a vintage purple typewriter rather than a regular laptop.

Products are on the Fab site for short periods of time, and once the product reaches its sales period it goes away completely and another product is featured.

Sense of urgency

PhotoThe company was smart to create a sense of urgency around buying products, as it adds a-first-come-first-serve aspect to the website.

The social networking parts of the site are pretty cool too, as user’s purchases and “likes” are seen by followers in real time, creating a virtual dialogue among shoppers so they can see what the other person is buying.

It’s similar to going shopping with your friend in that funky part of town that only sells unique items that cater to the unconventional consumer and the ardent collector.

The Fancy.com also effectively uses e-commerce and social networking by allowing users to add items from other online stores to personal timelines, and users can also describe the items for other members, serving almost as a personal reviewer for the site.

This gives other members a clear idea of what makes the product worth buying, so consumers don’t just like an item, they know a lot about it.

And instead of selected items just becoming part of your wish list, they become part of a personal catalogue that others can browse through. And the better your catalogue is the higher ranking you’ll get on the site.

Through these rankings users get promoted to official user titles like Men’s Fashion Director, Women’s Fashion Director, Kids Fashion Director, Pet Whisperer or Art Director.

Basically, The Fancy counts on its users to be the experts when it comes to finding the best items online, and through communicating with other members  products are not only shared, but they’re discussed and reviewed beforehand.

And a few clicks will allow users to buy any product that's selected and they'll be connected directly to the retailer’s website.

In order to add items from other sites users would need to add the “Fancy button” to their web browsers, and the service is also available as a mobile app for Apple and Android devices.

Create a Lyst

PhotoSimilarly, Lyst.com allows users to discuss fashion items, but it also lets users follow their favorite boutiques, stylist and designers, which helps them keep abreast of new products in the fashion world. Users will also be alerted to various sales and special deals.

Users can create their own “Lyst” and once an item goes on sale, the company shoots you an email to let you know.

Like the other sites mentioned, Lyst.com is all about feedback and keeping members in the loop when it comes to what to buy, where to buy it and when it will go on sale.

Apparently, the fashion website recognizes that the line between the fashion industry and consumers is becoming less visible. And by allowing users to get first dibs on the latest items, it allows people to be part of the fashion dialogue as opposed to just being fans and customers.

Any good social commerce site succesfully feeds a person’s desire to be kept up-to-date on what’s hot and new.

Lyst connects you with fashion experts around the world and once you choose to buy an item you deal directly with that retailer, so shipping prices and delivery times may vary.

Another thing the marriage of e-commerce and social networking did was remove the level of secrecy some consumers used when buying items, namely trendy clothes.

Instead of people wanting to be the first and only person to own something, they rather share it nowadays, and don’t mind if everybody else has the exact same thing.

In addition, people just don’t want to shop anymore- they want to discuss products with other people who share similar interest and taste.

And folks don’t just want to chat about items on social sites, they want a way to buy things, making social and e-commerce sites a match made in digital heaven.

That’s why sites like Facebook have added an e-commerce feature, and sites like Pintrest that only allows you to discover items, have gotten stiff competition from sites that let you purchase.

It’s the idea of taking the shopping experience with your friends and putting it online which is currently the trend.

The marriage between e-commerce and social networking sites has been a blissful one so far, and it doesn’t look like the two are divorcing anytime soon.

There's no doubt that the union is here to stay.

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Jeep Bringing a Diesel Model to the U.S.

High price of diesel fuel is still an obstacle to wider adoption of the oil burners

ven though fuel prices have generally fallen in recent weeks -- outside of areas ravaged by superstorm Sandy -- there are more than a few consumers out the...

PhotoYou would think that SUV owners would be diesel-engine fans. After all, the diesel delivers more torque and better gas mileage and is better suited for towing boats and trailers, going off-road and doing other brawny stuff SUVs are made for.

That hasn't been the case in the U.S. but Chrysler is giving it a shot, bringing a diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee to North America next year. The Jeeps will be powered by a 3.0-liter diesel power plant that's quite highly regarded in Europe – and yes, it will be legal in all 50 states.

Paired with Chrysler's Torqueflite 8-speed automatic transmission, the oil-burning Jeep should turn in mileage comparable to a full-size sedan. But will that be enough to lure American Jeep owners away from the gas pump? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

Pricing paradox

After all, in diesel-happy Italy, for example, a gallon of gas goes for about US$6. A gallon of diesel is a little less. But in the U.S., with gas hovering mostly on the downhill side of $4, a gallon of diesel will cost you about $1 more.

The lopsided equation is why – besides outdated stereotypes of diesels as smelly and noisy – diesel engines are having a hard time gaining traction in the U.S. Which, in turn, is why diesel prices remain stubbornly high.

It's that old supply-and-demand thing again, although sort of in reverse. Normally, low demand would be expected to result in lower prices. But in this case, refineries just aren't turning out much diesel fuel because they don't see enough demand.

Lower supply, higher price. Isn't economics great?

Jeep is hoping it's helping to start a trend with the Grand Cherokee. Certainly a Wrangler equipped with a brawny diesel would be just the thing for pulling out stumps, walking up the side of hills and churning through the mud. All it takes is a few hundred thousand consumers willing to take the plunge.

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Holidays May Increase 'Phishing' Risks

Expert offers tips for minimizing them

With the arrival of the holiday season, consumers are probably spending more time online. They're comparing prices, checking out restaurants, and making pu...

PhotoWith the arrival of the holiday season, consumers are probably spending more time online. They're comparing prices, checking out restaurants, and making purchases. Criminals know this and try to exploit it.

Carrying out a scheme known as “phishing,” they send out spam emails that are designed to trick consumers into clicking links to take them to a site they believe to be a retailer, bank or travel site. In reality they are dummy sites where consumers will be encouraged to enter sensitive information.

More than a simple invasion of privacy, these online scams have turned into a multimillion dollar industry that can wreak havoc on people's finances and sense of personal security.

Don't take the bait

"The idea behind phishing is that an attacker will try to get you to enter your information into a decoy website that looks exactly like the legitimate one you are used to using," said Wesley McGrew, a scientist at Mississippi State University's Center for Cyber Security Research. "The decoy site will allow them to collect your username and password, and once they have that, they can access any personal or financial information you've stored on that account."

McGrew is what's known in computing circles as a "white hat hacker," someone who breaches secure computer systems to identify weaknesses or threats before they can be exploited by criminals. But he says you don't have to be a computer expert to thwart scammers, just a little cautious about what you click.

"If you receive an e-mail directing you to log in to a site, that should be your first warning that you might be going to a phishing site," McGrew said. "It's important to be aware of how you arrive at a website and its always best to be suspicious if anything seems wrong or if your Web browser issues a warning."

Don't reply

McGrew says consumers should never reply to an e-mail that directly asks for username and password information. They should never follow links from an e-mail to log in to a website. Instead, type in the Web address and use the site directly.

Also, before entering login information on a website, be sure that the Web address begins with "https" or that there is a lock icon in the address bar, which means information entered on the site will be encrypted during transmission.

To eliminate any remaining doubt about the legitimacy of a website, McGrew said users can click the lock icon to see the Web page's security information and verify that the site is being operated by the organization it claims. He said contacting the website's support staff is also a good idea to alleviate lingering concerns.

In 2011, Internet crimes netted a loss of more than $4.5 million, according to a report from the national Internet Crime Complaint Center. FBI-related and identity theft scams, which commonly involve phishing, were the most common of the more than 314,000 crimes reported to the center last year.

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Two More Retailers to Open Thanksgiving Night

Toys R Us and Target join Walmart and Sears

Thanksgiving, until now perhaps the least-commercialized holiday in the U.S., appears to be sliding toward a major holiday shopping day.Target and Toys R...

PhotoThanksgiving, until now perhaps the least-commercialized holiday in the U.S., appears to be sliding toward a major holiday shopping day.

Target and Toys R Us have announced they will open their stores to shoppers Thanksgiving night in a prelude to Black Friday. Toys R Us will open at 8:00 p.m. while Target will open an hour later. They join Walmart and Sears, which made similar announcements last week.

Macy's and Kohl's said they will open their doors for Black Friday shoppers at midnight, as planned.

Previously, stores didn't open for Black Friday any earlier than midnight, lest they encroach on the family-centered holiday. Apparently that is now considered a quaint tradition.

Target says it believes the Thanksgiving night opening will provide an enjoyable after-dinner activity for the whole family. But increasingly retailers have begun to increase competition for Black Friday shoppers, who have declined in number over the last couple of years.

Research has shown that Black Friday might not be the best day to shop for the best bargains, beyond a few “door-buster” specials. And online retailers, such as Amazon.com, have already started offering their Black Friday specials.

Increasingly, the people who shop on Black Friday are those who just enjoy the hustle and bustle of the experience. They may or may not spend money on purchases on that particular day.

While shopping after dinner on Thanksgiving might seem like fun, consumers should remember store employees might not see it the same way. Most will be pulled away from their family festivities early.

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Blue Hippo Customers in Texas to Get Restitution

Texas just the latest state to intervene on behalf of its consumers

Throughout the decade of the 2000s BlueHippo marketed over-priced computers and TV sets to consumers with poor credit using a lay-away plan. Oftentimes the...

PhotoThroughout the decade of the 2000s BlueHippo marketed over-priced computers and TV sets to consumers with poor credit using a lay-away plan. Oftentimes the consumers never even received the merchandise.

After numerous actions by consumer agencies, the company is in bankruptcy but the repercussions are still being felt. The state of Texas has just secured a court order requiring the sole shareholder in the now-defunct firm to pay $175,000 in restitution for violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Texans who were defrauded by BlueHippo are eligible for reimbursement from the restitution fund established by the State. Presumably, Dianne, of Waller, Tex., will be one of them.

Dianne's experience

“Bought two computers on two occasions,” Dianne wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post in January. “Received one but not the other. Paid in full both times. $1995.48 was the cost of second computer purchased in 2005. I requested my money to be given back and they sent me to a web page.”

Consumers who purchased computers through BlueHippo typically were charged more than $2,000 for an older model PC that could have been purchased at a discount retailer for less than $500. They were required to make weekly payments until they had covered the cost of the computer. Many times, such as in Dianne's case, they never got the computer.

Violated state law

“The BlueHippo firms violated state law when it took Texans’ money and refused to deliver the computers or equipment customers purchased,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. “The state’s investigation also showed that BlueHippo unlawfully refused to honor refund requests and withdrew payments from customers’ bank accounts without their permission. Today’s court order requires the defendants to pay $175,000 in restitution so that Texans who were defrauded by BlueHippo can seek reimbursement for financial losses they suffered because of the defendants’ unlawful conduct.”

In addition to ordering restitution, the court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting owner Joseph Rensin or his businesses from attempting to collect approximately $2.3 million in debts that Texans incurred because of their dealings with BlueHippo. The court also barred Rensin and his businesses from reporting Texas customers’ nonpayment of the debt to any of the nation’s credit reporting agencies.

Texas consumers who feel they were defrauded by BlueHippo have 90 days to file a claim using this form.

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Young People More Likely to Drive Drowsy

Twenty percent find their daily activities are impaired by sleepiness

It's not just the old folks who tend to nod off while behind thew wheel. A recent survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that you...

PhotoIt's not just the old folks who tend to nod off while behind the wheel.

A recent survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that young people are more likely to drive drowsy. Specifically, one in seven licensed drivers ages 16-24 admitted to having fallen asleep at least once while driving in the past year , compared with one in ten of all licensed drivers who said so.

A recent National Sleep Foundation poll found that teens and adults in their twenties reported less sleep satisfaction and roughly one in five rated as "sleepy" on a standard clinical assessment tool that determines whether sleepiness impairs daily activities.

"Young Americans are sleepy, and this affects their health and safety," says David Cloud, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation. "It's important to get the word out that it's dangerous to drive drowsy. This could save thousands of lives."

Dangers of drowsiness

In recognition of Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, (November 12-18), the two groups are teaming up to educate drivers about sleep safety. A recent survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that young people are more likely to drive drowsy.

Using an analysis of previous data, the AAA Foundation estimates that about one in six deadly crashes involves a drowsy driver. The National Sleep Foundation's 2011 Sleep in America poll found that among those who drove, about one-half (52%) indicated that they have driven drowsy, with more than one-third (37%) doing so in the past month.

Sleepiness can impair drivers by causing slower reaction times, vision impairment, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information. In fact, studies show that being awake for more than 20 hours results in an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%, the legal limit in all states. It is also possible to fall into a 3-4 second microsleep without realizing it.

Drowsy driving warning signs

The following warning signs indicate that it's time to stop driving and find a safe place to pull over and address your condition:

  • Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking and/or heavy eyelids
  • Difficulty keeping reveries or daydreams at bay
  • Trouble keeping your head up
  • Drifting from your lane, swerving, tailgating and/or hitting rumble strips
  • Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven
  • Missing exits or traffic signs
  • Yawning repeatedly
  • Feeling restless, irritable, or aggressive.

An ounce of prevention

Here's what you can do to prevent a fall-asleep crash:

  • Get a good night's sleep before you hit the road. You'll want to be alert for the drive, so be sure to get adequate sleep (seven to nine hours) the night before you go.
  • Don't be too rushed to arrive at your destination. Many drivers try to maximize the holiday weekend by driving at night or without stopping for breaks. It's better to allow the time to drive alert and arrive alive.
  • Use the buddy system. Just as you should not swim alone, avoid driving alone for long distances. A buddy who remains awake for the journey can take a turn behind the wheel and help identify the warning signs of fatigue.
  • Take a break every 100 miles or 2 hours. Do something to refresh yourself like getting a snack, switching drivers, or going for a run.
  • Take a nap -- find a safe place to take a 15 to 20-minute nap, if you think you might fall asleep. Be cautious about excessive drowsiness after waking up.
  • Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness as a side-effect.
  • Avoid driving at times when you would normally be asleep.
  • Consume caffeine. The equivalent of two cups of coffee can increase alertness for several hour
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MoneyGram International Admits Anti-Money Laundering and Wire Fraud Violations

The company will forfeit $100 million, which will be returned to victims

MoneyGram International has admitted it criminally aided and abetted wire fraud and failed to mainta...

PhotoMoneyGram International has admitted it criminally aided and abetted wire fraud and failed to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program

The global money services firm has agreed to forfeit $100 million and enter into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with the Justice Department

According to court documents, MoneyGram was involved in mass marketing and consumer fraud phishing schemes, perpetrated by corrupt MoneyGram agents and others, that defrauded tens of thousands of victims in the United States. MoneyGram also failed to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

The Justice Department will return the forfeited funds to the victims of the fraud scheme through its Victim Asset Recovery Program.

“MoneyGram’s broken corporate culture led the company to privilege profits over everything else,” said Assistant Attorney General Breuer. “MoneyGram knowingly turned a blind eye to scam artists and money launderers who used the company to perpetrate fraudulent schemes targeting the elderly and other vulnerable victims. In addition to forfeiting $100 million, which will be used to compensate victims, MoneyGram must for the next five years retain a corporate monitor who will report regularly to the Justice Department.”

Enhanced compliance ordered

As part of the DPA, MoneyGram has agreed to enhanced compliance obligations and structural changes to prevent a repeat of the charged conduct, including:

Creation of an independent compliance and ethics committee of the board of directors with direct oversight of the chief compliance officer and the compliance program;

Adoption of a worldwide anti-fraud and anti-money laundering standard to ensure all MoneyGram agents throughout the world will, at a minimum, be required to adhere to U.S. anti-fraud and anti-money laundering standards;

Adoption of a bonus system which rates all executives on success in meeting compliance obligations, with failure making the executive ineligible for any bonus for that year; and

Adoption of enhanced due diligence for agents deemed to be high risk or operating in a high-risk area.

The fraud scheme

According to court documents, starting in 2004 and continuing until 2009, MoneyGram violated U.S. law by processing thousands of transactions for MoneyGram agents known to be involved in an international scheme to defraud members of the U.S. public. MoneyGram profited from the scheme by collecting fees and other revenues on the fraudulent transactions.

The scams -- which generally targeted the elderly and other vulnerable groups -- included posing as victims’ relatives in urgent need of money and falsely promising victims large cash prizes, various high-ticket items for sale over the Internet at deeply discounted prices or employment opportunities as “secret shoppers.” In each case, the perpetrators required the victims to send them funds through MoneyGram’s money transfer system.

Tolerating misconduct

Despite thousands of complaints by customers who were victims of fraud, MoneyGram failed to terminate agents that it knew were involved in scams. As early as 2003, MoneyGram’s fraud department would identify specific MoneyGram agents believed to be involved in fraud schemes and recommended termination of those agents to senior management.

These termination recommendations were rarely accepted because they were not approved by executives in the sales department and, as a result, fraudulent activity grew from 1,575 reported instances of fraud by customers in the United States and Canada in 2004 to 19,614 reported instances in 2008. Cumulatively, from 2004 through 2009, MoneyGram customers reported instances of fraud totaling at least $100 million.

Ineffective anti-money laundering program

MoneyGram’s involvement in this international fraud scheme resulted from a systematic, pervasive, and willful failure to meet its anti-money laundering (AML) obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), a set of laws and regulations enacted by Congress to strengthen the U.S. financial system’s protections against criminal money laundering activity through financial institutions, including money services businesses like MoneyGram.

Court documents show that MoneyGram failed to meet its AML obligations by, among other things, failing to:

  • Implement policies or procedures governing the termination of agents involved in fraud and/or money laundering;
  • Implement policies or procedures to file the required Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) when victims reported fraud to MoneyGram on transactions over $2,000;
  • File SARs on agents MoneyGram knew were involved in the fraud;
  • Conduct effective AML audits of its agents and outlets;
  • Conduct adequate due diligence on prospective and existing MoneyGram Agents by verifying that a legitimate business existed; and
  • Sufficiently resource and staff its AML program.

MoneyGram’s BSA failures spanned five years, and resulted, among other things, from the failure of its fraud and AML compliance functions to share information and from its regularly resolving disagreements between its sales and fraud departments in the sales department’s favor.

One notable such disagreement occurred in April 2007, when, at a meeting attended by senior MoneyGram executives, the fraud department recommended that 32 specific Canadian agents that were characterized as “the worst of the worst” in terms of fraud be immediately closed.

The sales department disagreed with the fraud department’s recommendation, and these outlets were not closed; instead, MoneyGram continued to process transactions from the 32 outlets despite continued complaints of fraud.

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Sandy Victims May Need More Than 600,000 Vehicles

Demand may boost new car sales and create used car shortage

Among the clean-up in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, crews have had to remove thousands of automobiles, destroyed by the storm's wind and flood waters. Aside...

PhotoAs part of the clean-up in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, crews have had to remove thousands of automobiles destroyed by the storm's wind and flood waters. Aside from the impact on insurance companies, the carnage has implications for the automotive market as well.

The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) projects prices of used cars, up to eight years old, will go up between 0.5 and 1.5 percent between now and the end of the year.

"The loss of used-vehicle supply and the increase in replacement demand after Hurricane Sandy will have the greatest impact on used-vehicle prices in December," said Jonathan Banks, executive automotive analyst with the NADA Used Car Guide.

Where will they come from?

The car lease transfer Website Swapalease.com projects that when the clean-up is complete, more than the 600,000 vehicles -- that's the number lost in Hurricane Katrina -- will need to be replaced. With already tight supplies threatening to drive prices higher, where will affordable replacement vehicles come from?

The Website says vehicles from Florida, Texas and Ohio may represent the largest number of affordable units that make their way into New York and New Jersey. Swapalease.com studied vehicle transfer patterns since January and identified those three states as representing the most frequent origination of leases transferred into New York or New Jersey.

In fact,18.5 percent of all vehicles transferred into New York have come from Florida so far in 2012. Other states feeding into New York and New Jersey on a smaller scale have included North Carolina, Illinois, Minnesota and Alabama.

While driving up used car prices, Hurricane Sandy may also drive year-end new car sales. Those who lost vehicles in the storm may decide to buy or lease a new car, particularly if the vehicle they lost was nearing he end of its useful life.

Five steps to replacing a vehicle

For storm victims in the market for a new car, here are five things that may smooth the process of getting a new set of wheels:

  1. Make it easy for your insurance company to handle your claim. The automotive website Edmunds.com has a tool to generate an appraisal of your car to present to your insurance company, whose claims adjusters may be too busy to get to you anytime soon. Also, indicate to your insurer what it will take for you to replace your car.
  2. Decide whether you will buy a new or used car as a replacement vehicle. There are pros and cons to each choice, especially given that many dealerships suffered great losses during the storm. New car buyers will likely find favorable credit conditions with interest rates at near-all-time-lows. Those in the market for a used car may want to hold off if they can. Remember, used car prices are likely to climb for a few months.
  3. If you choose to buy a new car, check with the automakers of interest to determine if you are eligible for one of the many incentives available to storm victims. Good national incentives may also be available.
  4. If you need to buy a new car quickly, work the phone and the Web to find the right car for you. Be sure to ask for an "out-the-door" price that includes all taxes and fees. To save even more time, you can also ask the dealership to deliver a new car to your home or office.
  5. If want to buy a used car, make sure that it was not one of the many damaged by flooding. Look for discolored carpet, dirt build-ups and unusual odors. Also make sure to run a vehicle history report on the car to make sure there was never a flood or salvage title placed on the car.
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UPS Follows The Trend of Doing Business Sustainably

And the delivery company isn't alone. It seems that many brands are doing the same.

Today, it seems a lot of companies are going the sustainable living route.We recently reported that IKEA is making huge efforts to conduct busi...

PhotoToday, it seems a lot of companies are going the sustainable living route.

We recently reported that IKEA is making huge efforts to conduct business in a green way and now another global company is following suit.

Now, UPS has announced that it's beginning a new initiative called UPS Carbon Neutral, allowing customers to replace the amount of carbon it takes for packages to be delivered, by supporting an existing emissions reduction project that’s going on someplace in the world.

Customers have the option of joining the program by paying a little more on each package delivery, and UPS says it will match that extra amount and put it towards one of the several carbon reduction projects the company is linked to.

Some of the projects include the La Pradera Landfill gas project in Colombia, or Garcia River Forestry in the United States. Other ongoing carbon reduction projects customers can donate to include Cholburi Wastewater Biogas-to-Energy in Thailand and the Fujian Landfill Gas project in China.

Get customers involved

PhotoJust about every major company has announced it will conduct business in a greener and more sustainable fashion, but instead of companies simply attaching their brands to green initiatives, they want customers to be heavily involved too.

What’s also popular among many companies today is trying to replace the energy, water and other natural resources they use while conducting business.

Companies generate more revenue through these green initiatives by not only appealing to the person who is trying to live greener--which is arguably your average consumer nowadays--they also increase revenue through the very advertising of their green initiative.

Even though certain marketing campaigns focus on social responsibility, the overall brand is still being kept in the public’s consciousness, which can only help sales.

UPS says it will use a third party company by the name of Société Générale de Surveillance that verifies the legitimacy of carbon reduction projects. The delivery company also makes sure projects are certified by The CarbonNeutral Company.

Since the idea of carbon reduction became a part of the national conversation when it comes to the environment, UPS has been trying to counterbalance the amount of carbon it uses each day to make its deliveries.

Both UPS and FedEx have a pretty decent stronghold on the package delivering industry and due to the company’s sheer size and amount of business, it has a lot of offsetting to do in order to make up for the amount of carbon it uses.

Things still get lost

United Parcel Service (ups) Nov. 9, 2012, 8:19 p.m.
Consumers rate United Parcel Service (ups)

One would think between the success of UPS and the company’s global customer base it would be able to anger customers a little less by not losing their packages.

“I own a business and have had a business account with UPS for about four years now,” wrote Genny of Orlando, Fla., in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

“I have to say that when it comes to UPS losing the packages, they can trick you into not paying you for their claims. UPS had lost my first package of signs I sent (I make signs) and I ended up making the signs again for the client because my client was very unhappy.

“UPS took my second package I sent and claimed it as the lost one. They also made some kind of scam and linked both tracking numbers to the same case number. I lost money and they are not willing to take responsibility. So be really careful when it comes to them losing your boxes,” Genny warns.

We sent an email to UPS for a statement about lost shipments and what customers should do to recover them, and received the following statement:

If a package is not delivered, UPS can help by performing a search to locate the package. If the package cannot be found, the shipper can file a claim up to the declared value of the package contents.

Back to green

But enough of complaints. Let's get back to the sustainability program. The cost per package to donate will be a flat rate since the amount of carbon UPS uses varies between destination, origin and the type of transport the shipment undergoes, which would make calculations rather difficult.

Customers can also choose to participate in the carbon program whenever they use UPS for delivery or they can sign a contract so all of their packages will include the extra donation charge automatically.

Either way, those customers trying to live more sustainable will be happy, UPS will probably appear more responsible in the public eye and more importantly it provides another avenue for those who want to contribute to environmental causes.

However it would be nice if UPS didn’t lose your darn shipment.

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Salvaging Photos Damaged by Hurricane Sandy

Experts at University of Delaware offer their help

Hurricane Sandy destroyed billions of dollars in property when it hit New York and New Jersey late last month. It also claimed memories, damaging or destro...

PhotoHurricane Sandy destroyed billions of dollars in property when it hit New York and New Jersey late last month. It also claimed memories, damaging or destroying thousands of family photographs.

But researchers at the University of Delaware (UD) say there is hope for reclaiming some of those photos that, at first glance, appear damaged beyond repair. Debra Hess Norris, professor and chair of the Department of Art Conservation at UD, says whatever you do, don't throw them away.

Norris, who is an expert on photograph preservation, and her colleagues and students at UD are triaging to provide the public with advice and resources for salvaging storm-damaged photographs. You can take advantage of their expertise by emailing your questions to art-conservation@udel.edu with the subject line “Save My Photograph.” The UD team will provide recommendations for treatment, as well as contact information for professional conservators if requested.

Providing some hope

“It’s about giving people who have had to deal with so much some hope and guidance for saving photographs that are precious to them,” Norris said. “In many cases, water-damaged photographs can be saved.”

Norris offers this advice:

  • Don’t dispose of your photographs even if they have dirt on them or have become distorted from being in water.
  • Allow the photographs to air dry. Place them on screens or paper towels to allow the air to circulate around them. Do not use a hair drier or other direct source of heat, as this can lead to further damage.
  • If photographs are in plastic sleeves, remove them from the sleeves to dry.
  • If the photographs are stuck together, allow them to air dry. Conservators can later do their best to disassociate them while minimizing damage.
  • Document everything -- snap a photograph of the damaged photos with your cell phone or other camera.

UD’s Department of Art Conservation has trained some of the U.S.' top photo restoration experts. The program’s alumni work in museums and private practice throughout the world.

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Diamondback Bicycles Recalled

Incorrect assembly poses a fall hazard

Diamondback Bicycles, of Kent, WA, is recalling about 40 2013 Diamondback Steilacoom RCX bicycles. The bikes assembled with incorrect headset parts could ...

PhotoDiamondback Bicycles, of Kent, WA, is recalling about 40 2013 Diamondback Steilacoom RCX bicycles.

The bikes assembled with incorrect headset parts could cause the steerer tube to fail, causing the rider to lose control and fall or crash. No incidents or injuries have been reported

Bicycles included in the recall are the 2013 Diamondback Steilacoom RCX, which are black in color and sold in various sizes ranging from 50-cm to 59-cm. "RCX" is printed on the top tube of the bicycle. The bicycle is for use on or off-road.

The bikes, manufactured in China, were sold online through Promotive.com and 3point5.com, as well as through authorized Diamondback retailers nationwide from August 2012 through September 2012 for between $900 and $1100.

Consumers should stop riding their bicycles and take them to an authorized Diamondback dealer for inspection. Bicycles found to have the incorrect headset parts will have the fork replaced and assembled with the correct headset parts at no charge.

Consumers may contact Diamondback Bicycles at (800) 222-5527 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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JC Penney's 'Turnaround' Fails to Impress

Company continues to alienate old customers without drawing new ones

Since taking over as CEO at JC Penney, Ron Johnson has made it his stated goal to transform the stodgy retailer into the next big thing. The transformation...

PhotoSince taking over as CEO at JC Penney, Ron Johnson has made it his stated goal to transform the stodgy retailer into the next big thing. The transformation began in January with edgy commercials and a new pricing structure that did away with sales and coupons.

So how's that working out?

It's fair to say it has yet to catch fire. JC Penney reported its third-quarter results today, showing a 26 percent decline in sales. Wall Street was prepared for a decline of 18 percent.

Third-quarter results

The company lost $123 million, or 56 cents a share in the July through September period. The loss was much bigger excluding one-time items. Revenue totaled $2.93 billion, but the Street was expecting $3.27 billion. If Wall Street was surprised by the showing, many long-time Penney's customers, and former customers who have railed against the changes these last 10 months, weren't.

"I have been buying jeans from JC Penney for as long as I can remember. I've been getting bombarded by emails for months now saying how great the new JC Penney is. My daughter and I went to get some jeans last night and were shocked at an empty-looking store," Christopher, of Hernado, Miss., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I was even more shocked about the tiny selection of clothes there was to purchase. The jean selection was the worst. JC Penney has lost a customer for good. Whoever decided to do the revamp should be fired."

Barbara, of Mechanicsville, Md., who also describes herself as a long-time Penney's customer, was turned off by the changes in her local store.

"I received an email from the new CEO about all the good things that were coming," she wrote to ConsumerAffairs. "This week, I went back to the store in California, Md., to again look for clothes for my husband. There was even less than a few months ago. When I looked for underwear for him, I found that same package of boxer shorts and no more new ones. I talked to a sales person and was told that she thought the company was targeting a younger customer base. Well, JC Penney, you should be a company for all ages. I will not come again to shop."

New concept

Johnson makes no secret that Penney's is looking for new customers who are attracted to his concept of transforming Penney's stores into a collection of small boutiques under one roof. In a statement, he says Penney's is "a tale of two companies."

"By far the largest part of our store is the old jcp, which continues to struggle and experience significant challenges as evidenced by our third quarter results," Johnson said. "However, the new jcp, centered around the shop concept, is gaining traction with customers every day and is surpassing our own expectations in terms of sales productivity which continues to give us confidence in our long-term business model."

During the quarter, Penney's opened shops under the Levi's , Izod, Liz Claiborne, The Original Arizona Jean Co., and jcp brands. The company also opened 38 Sephora inside jcpenney stores, bringing the total to 386. Yet the shops remain a small part of overall sales.

Johnson said he's confident that, given enough time, the shops concept will catch on and Penney's will attract a new set of customers who will return the company to profitability.

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Gasoline Prices Fell Again This Week

Price at the pump is returning to seasonal norm

Gasoline prices fell for another week as the price of fuel returned to levels a year ago. Fuel remains in short supply, however, in areas hard hit by Hurri...

PhotoGasoline prices fell for another week as the price of fuel returned to levels of a year ago. Fuel remains in short supply and more expensive, however, in areas hard hit by Hurricane Sandy.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.456 per gallon, compared with $3.496 last Friday, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's nearly 36 cents lower than a month ago but only two cents higher than the price a year ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $4.011 per gallon, versus $4.044 a week ago.

Back to normal?

After rising in the early fall weeks, gasoline prices are only now returning to normal levels. The Energy Information Administration forecast calls for retail gasoline prices to continue falling through the end of the year.

Oil prices have contracted in recent days as traders have worried that Congress and the president will not be able to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," sending the U.S. economy into recession.

Big drop in California

Among the states California experienced the largest price change again this week. The statewide average fell another 15 cents a gallon and is no longer above the $4 a gallon mark. Prices in Ohio, meanwhile, rose an average eight cents a gallon.

Prices were also sharply higher this week in New York and New Jersey, two states where Hurricane Sandy has created supply shortages. This week's average price rose nine cents a gallon in New Jersey and five cents in New York.

Photo

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

  • Hawaii ($4.235)
  • Alaska ($4.066)
  • New York ($3.988)
  • California ($3.896)
  • Connecticut ($3.872)
  • Idaho ($3.745)
  • Utah ($3.729)
  • Vermont ($3.723)
  • Nevada ($3.707)
  • Massachusetts ($3.662)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • South Carolina ($3.122)
  • Missouri ($3.138)
  • Oklahoma ($3.192)
  • Tennessee ($3.197)
  • Arkansas ($3.219)
  • Texas ($3.223)
  • Mississippi ($3.236)
  • Alabama ($3.241)
  • Georgia($3.258)
  • Kansas ($3.262)
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Airlines Report No Excruciatingly Long Tarmac Delays in September

Your baggage also stands a better chance of going where you go

Getting off the ground and on your way to your destination is getting better. Accordig to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Rep...

PhotoGetting off the ground and on your way to your destination is getting better.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, airlines reported no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights or more than four hours on international flights in September.

The larger U.S. airlines have been required to file complete reports on their long tarmac delays for domestic flights since October 2008. Under a new rule that took effect Aug. 23, 2011, all U.S. and foreign airlines operating at least one aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats must report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports.

Also beginning Aug. 23, 2011, carriers operating international flights may not allow tarmac delays at U.S. airports to last longer than four hours without giving passengers an opportunity to deplane. There is a separate three-hour limit on tarmac delays involving domestic flights, which went into effect in April 2010.

Exceptions to the time limits for both domestic and international flights are allowed only for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons. Severe weather could cause or exacerbate such situations.

On-time performance

The reporting carriers posted an on-time arrival rate of 83.3 percent in September -- down from September 2011’s 83.9 percent mark, but up from August 2012’s 79.1 percent.

Cancellations

The reporting carriers canceled 0.8 percent of their scheduled domestic flights in September, the same as the rate posted in September 2011, but down from August 2012’s cancellation rate of 1.3 percent.

Chronically delayed flights

At the end of September, there were 24 flights that were chronically delayed -- more than 30 minutes late more than 50 percent of the time -- for three consecutive months. There were an additional 14 flights that were chronically delayed for two consecutive months. There were no chronically delayed flights for four consecutive months or more.

Causes of flight delays

In September, the carriers filing on-time performance data reported that 4.98 percent of their flights were delayed by aviation system delays, compared with 5.26 percent in August; 5.72 percent by late-arriving aircraft, versus 7.68 percent in August; 4.65 percent by factors within the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems, compared with 5.79 percent in August; 0.34 percent by extreme weather, as opposed to 0.53 percent in August; and 0.03 percent for security reasons, compared with 0.04 percent in August.

Weather is a factor in both the extreme-weather category and the aviation-system category. This includes delays due to the re-routing of flights by the Federal Aviation Administration in consultation with the carriers involved. Weather is also a factor in delays attributed to late-arriving aircraft, although airlines do not report specific causes in that category.

Data collected by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) also shows the percentage of late flights delayed by weather, including those reported in either the category of extreme weather or included in National Aviation System delays. In September, 27.66 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, compared with September 2011, when 36.15 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, and August when 32.95 percent of late flights were delayed by weather.

Mishandled baggage

The U.S. carriers reporting flight delays and mishandled baggage data posted a mishandled baggage rate of 2.7 reports per 1,000 passengers in September, compared with September 2011’s rate of 2.8 and August 2012’s rate of 3.4. For the first nine months of this year, the carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 3.06 reports per 1,000 passengers, versus the 3.51 rate recorded during the first nine months of 2011.

Bumping

The report also includes reports of involuntary denied boarding, or bumping, for the third quarter and first nine months of this year. Carriers posted a bumping rate of 0.98 per 10,000 passengers for the quarter, up from the 0.71 rate for the third quarter of 2011. For the first nine months of this year, the carriers had a bumping rate of 0.98 per 10,000 passengers, up from the rate of 0.77 posted during the first nine months of 2011.

Incidents involving pets

In September, carriers reported two incidents involving the loss, death or injury of pets while traveling by air. There were three reports filed in September 2011 and the five reports filed in August 2012. September’s incidents involved one pet death and one pet injury.

Complaints about airline service

In September, there were 1,075 complaints about airline service from consumers, up 10.5 percent from the 973 complaints filed in September 2011, but down 43.0 percent from the 1,886 received in August 2012. For the first nine months of this year, there were 12,145 consumer complaints, up 33.5 percent from the total of 9,096 filed during the first nine months of 2011.

Complaints about treatment of disabled passengers

The report also contains a tabulation of complaints filed with DOT in September against airlines regarding the treatment of passengers with disabilities. There were 73 disability-related complaints in September, compared with 54 complaints filed in September 2011 and equal to the total received in August 2012. For the first nine months of this year, there were 590 disability-related complaints, up 27.7 percent from the total of 462 filed during the first nine months of 2011.

Complaints about discrimination

In September, DOT received seven complaints alleging discrimination by airlines due to factors other than disability -- such as race, religion, national origin or sex -- down nine from the total recorded in September 2011 two from the number recorded in August 2012. For the first nine months of this year, the Department received 82 complaints about discrimination, down 15.5 percent from the total of 97 filed during the first nine months of 2011.

Consumers may file their complaints in writing with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, C-75, W96-432, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20590; by voice mail at (202) 366-2220 or by TTY at (202) 366-0511; or on the Web.

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How to Talk to Your Pre-Teen About Being Overweight

Actions speak louder than words, experts say

You think talking to a son or daughter about sex is hard? Try discussing the subject of being overweight.On the other hand, a new study suggests it might...

PhotoYou think talking to a son or daughter about sex is hard? Try discussing the subject of being overweight.

On the other hand, a new study suggests it might be more effective if parents addressed the subject without words. Instead, creating a healthful home environment, modeling healthful behaviors, and providing encouragement and support to adolescents for positive behavior changes may be more effective than communicating with adolescents about weight-related topics.

It's an issue in many U.S. households. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 28 percent of adolescents are overweight. Overweight and obese adolescents have an increased risk for physical ailments, including type 2 diabetes and negative psychosocial consequences stemming from the stigma associated with being overweight. Doctors believe the right development of parental intervention could be part of the solution.

Loss for words

Weight issues, it turns out, are hard to talk about. The University of Minnesota research team that conducted the study posed two questions: what issues do parents of overweight adolescents face? And what advice do they have for other parents? Twenty-seven adolescents and their parents were surveyed to determine factors contributing to successful weight loss among adolescents.

The investigators found that the issues raised by parents included difficulties encountered in effectively communicating with their adolescent about weight-related topics, perceived inability to control the adolescent's decisions about eating and physical activity, concern for the adolescent's physical and mental well-being, and feelings of personal responsibility for the adolescent's weight issues.

Parental advice for helping overweight adolescents included having a healthful home environment, modeling healthful behaviors, and providing encouragement and support to adolescents for positive behavior changes.

Parents play important role

"Parents have an important role in helping their children and adolescents to adopt healthful behaviors and it can be challenging to know how to involve parents in interventions for adolescents because of issues related to developing autonomy and increasing independence," said Shira Feldman, a registered dietitian and researcher.

Feldman says parents of overweight and obese adolescents often find themselves in a dilemma. On one hand, parents may be concerned about their adolescent's health, the psychosocial stigmas and the negative physical consequences associated with being overweight or obese. On the other hand, parents also recognize their adolescent's need for autonomy. As a result, parents may struggle with what to say or do to best help their adolescent manage his or her weight.

Actions speak louder than words

"In terms of 'talking' about adopting more healthful eating and physical activity behaviors, it is important for parents to remember that their adolescent could have a negative emotional response, for example sad or angry, when questioned about their weight," Feldman said.

So the best way to speak on the subject may be with actions. Encourage you child to take part in organized or informal sports. Plan family activities that include exercise, such as a weekly bowling outing or weekend nature hikes.

At meal time, try to serve healthy, high fiber foods that are filling and result in less between-meal snacking.

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Amazon.com Opens Online Wine Shop

But to begin, only consumers in a few states can order

Amazon.com says it is opening an online wine shop, and a pretty big one at that. The online retailer says Amazon Wine will offer customers more than a thou...

PhotoAmazon.com says it is opening an online wine shop, and a pretty big one at that. The online retailer says Amazon Wine will offer customers more than a thousand wines crafted by wineries around the country.

Besides wine the new store will offer shopping tools to help customers explore different kinds of wines and recommended food pairings and total case production.

“Whether it’s helping customers find a favorite varietal, shop for holiday pairings or expand their cellar with a special hand-crafted bottle, we’re excited to provide the right tools and information needed to guide them to the perfect wine,” said Peter Faricy, Vice President, Amazon Marketplace. “We’re thrilled for wineries around the country to share their great collections of wines with our customers through the Amazon Wine Store.”

Where they ship

Customers can now ship up to six bottles of their favorite wine for $9.99, but only if you live in certain states. At launch, shipping is available to California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and the District of Columbia.

Amazon says the store will feature a wide selection of wines from both large and small wineries. Vineyards have flourished in the U.S. in recent years but many small operations have difficulty reaching customers outside their immediate geographic area. Amazon Wine could be a way for them to reach a wider audience.

“People love to explore wine, but it is rare to have detailed information and opinions located all in one place,” said Tom Hedges of Hedges Family Estate, Red Mountain, Wash winery. “What Amazon has done with their new wine store is take the experience of hundreds of tasting rooms and put them online. We could not be more excited by the possibilities of growing our business and reaching new customers.”

Provides a tasting room alternative

Eden Canyon Vineyards of Creston, Calif., does not have a tasting room so relies on word of mouth to reach new customers. Owner Elaine Blackaby says Amazon Wine fills a need.

"Now we are so excited to finally bring a tasting room experience online, where we can tell our story and share details about our wines that we’ve never been able to," Blackaby said. "Amazon Wine is truly a game changer for the small winery that is off the beaten path!”

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High Salt Intake Puts Kids at Risk of High Blood Pressure

Sugar gets lots of attention but salt can cause big problems too

When it comes to children and their health, there have been many national discussions about the high amounts of sugar they’re ingesting and how it le...

PhotoWhen it comes to children and their health, there have been many national discussions about the high amounts of sugar kids are ingesting and how it leads to problems of obesity and other potential ailments.

But not much focus has been given to children and their daily intake of salt, which experts say is as problematic as sugar for younger people.

According to newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children in the U.S. are consuming 1,000 milligrams of salt over the suggested daily amount. American adults happen to be in the exact same category.

From 2003 to 2008 the CDC studied 6,200 children between the ages of 8 and 18, and asked them to document what they ate each day. The researchers found about 15 percent of the children either already had high blood pressure or were in danger of becoming high blood pressure patients.

The children who were overweight in the test had a 300% greater chance of developing hypertension due to their heavy salt intake.

Some health experts believe that more focus needs to be placed on kids consuming high amounts of salt, as many food brands, companies, and children’s eateries have been making foods and beverages with less sugar but with the same amounts of sodium.

Same intake level as adults

PhotoThe researchers also said that children’s salt intake is equal to what adults ingest, and ultimately it will cause the same health ailments.

“Many youth consume not only the same amount of salt as adults, but they also consume the same amount of calories as adults, so it would stand to reason the two groups consume the same types and amounts of processed foods,” said Kurt Eggerbrecht, a public health officer in Wisconsin in a published interview.

“They [kids] also have increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Just like obese adults they can experience breathing problems, such as sleep apnea, and asthma. Even at a young age there can be joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort. Over consumption and lack of exercise is a growing problem that has occurred within the past 30 years for a variety of reasons,” he said.

If you think about it, salty snacks are just as ubiquitous as sugary snacks, maybe even more so.

Chips & pretzels

PhotoAs schools, communities and entire cities have either cut down or banned certain sugary products, salty foods like chips and pretzels have snuck through the back door of the public’s consciousness and remains under the radar of conversation between parents, schools and health officials.

Sadly this has caused more kids and young adults to develop high blood pressure although many times it isn’t properly diagnosed.

In a separate study, researchers found young adults have a much greater chance of not being diagnosed with high blood pressure when going for routine checkups compared to older adults.

Scientists gathered over 13,000 participants of both genders aged 18 and older to gauge if those with hypertension were correctly diagnosed over a four-year period.

Researchers discovered that 67 percent of younger adults aged 18 to 24 who were potential hypertension cases where undiagnosed, compared to 54 percent of patients aged 60 and older who didn’t receive the right medical conclusion from their doctor.

In addition, 65 percent of adults aged 25 to 31 who were borderline hypertension cases were also undiagnosed, compared to 59 percent of those aged 32 to 39, and some say the focus on young adults and their salt consumption as well as their potential of developing hypertension needs to be reexamined by those in the medical community.

“We know that once high blood pressure is diagnosed and young adults receive the treatment they need, they can achieve pretty high control rates,” said lead study author Dr. Heather Johnson of the University Of Wisconsin School Of Medicine in a statement.

For both children and younger adults Johnson says health experts have to “guide both patient and provider to make elevated blood pressure one of the key things to focus on during the visit.”

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Amercians, three quarters of the salt people consume come from processed foods and restaurant meals.

In addition, experts suggest that parents should have their children checked for high blood pressure every year year by the time the child is 3-years old.

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Verizon Wireless Offers Credits to Superstorm Sandy Victims

Customers in NYC/NJ will be credited for voice and text overages

Verizon Wireless today announced customers in counties of the New York Metro Area and New Jersey impacted by Hurricane Sandy will receive credit for voice ...

PhotoVerizon Wireless today announced customers in counties of the New York Metro Area and New Jersey impacted by Hurricane Sandy will receive credit for voice and text overage charges. The voice and text credits will be automatically applied to accounts for usage between Oct. 29 and Nov. 16.

Customers in the following counties in New York Metro Area and New Jersey will be credited for voice and text overage charges between Oct. 29 and Nov. 16:

New Jersey

  • Atlantic County
  • Bergen County
  • Burlington County
  • Camden County
  • Cape May County
  • Cumberland County
  • Essex County
  • Gloucester County
  • Hudson County
  • Hunterdon County
  • Mercer County
  • Middlesex County
  • Monmouth County
  • Morris County
  • Ocean County
  • Passaic County
  • Salem County
  • Somerset County
  • Sussex County
  • Warren County
  • Union County

 

New York

  • Bronx County
  • Kings County
  • Nassau County
  • New York County
  • Putnam County
  • Queens County
  • Richmond County
  • Rockland County
  • Suffolk County
  • Westchester County

Customers in the impacted areas who have questions about credits to their accounts should contact Customer Service at 1-800-922-0204, Contact Us, or on Twitter through www.twitter.com/vzwsupport.

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Forget Black Friday -- Walmart's Open Thanksgiving

Retailer is also guaranteeing availability of some popular items

If you show up at Walmart early on Black Friday, you may have missed it. The largest retailer in the U.S. says it will open its doors at 8:00 p.m. Thanksgi...

PhotoIf you show up at Walmart early on Black Friday, you may have missed it. The largest retailer in the U.S. says it will open its doors at 8:00 p.m. Thanksgiving night, Nov. 22.

The store will open for three limited-time sales events Thanksgiving night offering a number of special sales and promotions. The first sales event is at 8:00 p.m. The second is at 10:00 p.m. The last is at 5:00 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 23.

"We know it's frustrating for customers to shop on Black Friday and not get the items they want," said Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer, Walmart U.S. "This year, for the first time ever, customers that shop during Walmart's one-hour event will be guaranteed to have three of the most popular items under their tree at a great low price."

More wish list items

And the company says it's taking steps to make sure popular "wish list" items, like the iPad 2, are available during the one-hour event on Thanksgiving.

A common Black Friday complaint is that the low-priced item that draws the crowd is not available in large quantities. It sells out before the consumer can get one. Walmart has responded with what it calls its one-hour guarantee.

"Due to the large quantity of product already secured, Walmart guarantees that customers who are inside the store and in the queue line between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. local time on November 22 can purchase the following electronics at special low prices," Walmart announced in a press release.

Those guaranteed items are:

  • Apple iPad 2 16GB with Wi-Fi – $399 plus get a $75 Walmart Gift Card
  • Emerson 32" 720p LCD TV – $148
  • LG Blu-ray Player – $38

If any of these items happen to sell out before 11 p.m. local time, Walmart says it will offer a Guarantee Card for the item which must be paid for by midnight and registered online. The product will then be shipped to the store where it was purchased for the customer to pick up before Christmas.

The 8:00 p.m. Thanksgiving opening is the earliest ever for Walmart.

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Hotels, Travel Sites Disappoint Guests During Superstorm Sandy

Instead of being a refuge, some hotels made life harder for those displaced by the storm

Natural disasters are inconvenient, disturbing and stressful. They're also a good test of how companies view their responsbility to their customers. When S...

PhotoNatural disasters are inconvenient, disturbing and stressful. They're also a good test of how companies view their responsbility to their customers. When Superstorm Sandy hit, travelers' plans were disrupted and countless homeowners went in search of lodgings elsewhere.

Many hotels and travel sites came through for their customers, putting forth a little extra effort to accommodate guests and bending the rules when plans were upset by the storm. 

Not all of them did so, however. Hotels.com earned a black eye with several guests.

Betsy of New York, NY, wrote: "My husband and I were stranded in NYC during Hurricane Sandy because we live downtown. We used hotels.com to book a hotel at the Intercontinental in Times Square.

Hotels.com Nov. 8, 2012, 8:08 p.m.
Consumers rate Hotels.com

"When we called the hotel itself, they said they had no record of our booking and that they had been full all day. Hotels.com had taken our money without making sure that there was even a room for us. When we called to get our money back, they said they couldn't refund us for 24 hours. Unbelievable."

Another reader, who asked that his name not be used, reserved three nights at a nearby hotel after the lights went out in his New Jersey home. 

"They (Hotels.com) confirmed on the phone that the hotel was open. I packed the wife and our 2 kids and our dog and my parents. When we arrived at the hotel we were surprised to find it was shut down due to not having power. Thanks, hotels.com for this," he said.

Blowing smoke

Janet of Richmond, Va., found herself stranded in Newark when Hurricane Sandy struck, so she checked into the Courtyard Marriot Newark.

Marriott Hotels Nov. 8, 2012, 8:14 p.m.
Consumers rate Marriott Hotels

"Initially there was electricity [but] after about 2 hours, hotel rooms lost power. I was charged a rate of $204.06 per night and an additional charge of $250 for a Smoke Free Environment fee," Janet complained, even though she said she had not smoked in the room.

"Also I asked if customers were going to be charged full price, since there was no electric, no heat or hot water, etc and front desk stated to me that it is not their fault the lights were out so customers would be charged full price."

Janet's not happy. "My $50 trip turned into a $674.11 disaster. I understand that during this time some have experienced far more hardship than myself but I disagree with this outcome," she said.

Bear Mountain

PhotoOlga of Stony Point, NY, tried to plan ahead. Before the storm arrived, she called the Bear Mountain Inn to book a room for two nights and asked if the hotel had back-up power.

"I mention to her that I will have my 86-year-old mother with me and I needed to make sure that there would be electricity in the room. She stated not to worry that at The Bear Mountain Inn they have a back up generator and the rooms had microwave and refrigerator," Olga said.

On Oct. 29 the power went out. "To my surprise the rooms and the hallways were pitch black. I had to take the stairway down to the lobby to get information -- and  surprise, the whole entire lobby had power, The desk clerk stated that the generator was only for the lobby."

Olga complained to the manager, Zack, who refused to refund even part of the $350 tab.

Discomfort at the inn

Comfort Inn Nov. 8, 2012, 8:16 p.m.
Consumers rate Comfort Inn

After the power went out, Mario of Cresco, Pa., booked a room at the Comfort Inn in Mount Pocono, reserving a non-smoking room with two beds. 

"Once we got there they didn't give us a choice but staying in a dirty smelly one-bed smoking dark room. ... My whole family (4) had to stay in one bed but we had no choice since there was no power in my house. The staff was very nasty and didn't care about this emergency situation."

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Judge says Dish's Hopper Can Keep Blocking Commercials

In a battle between Dish and Fox, the court sides with Dish and viewers

In the battle between the Fox channel and Dish Network, the winner seems to be the consumer.Los Angeles judge Dolly Gee recently sided with Dish and said...

PhotoIn the battle between Fox and Dish Network, the winner seems to be the consumer.

Los Angeles judge Dolly Gee recently sided with Dish and said the company’s Hopper feature—which allows one to record shows without commercials—will not harm the network’s revenue stream by allowing viewers to skip the ads.

Lawyers for Dish said Judge Gee’s ruling gives a bit more viewing power for the consumer, who should have the right to watch or skip over a commercial if they choose. 

“Dish is gratified that the Court has sided with consumer choice and control by rejecting Fox’s efforts to deny our customers access to Prime Time Anytime and AutoHop, said Dish lawyer Stanton Dodge in a statement.

“The ruling underscores the U.S. Supreme Court’s Betamax decision, with the court confirming a consumer’s right to enjoy television as they want, when they want, including the reasonable right to skip commercials, if they choose.”

No other challenges

As we previously reported, Prime Time Anytime and AutoHop are features that come with the Hopper digital recorder, that records prime time shows on CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox, and so far none of the other networks have challenged Dish or its AutoHop feature by filing an injunction.

Fox did score a minor victory however; when Judge Gee said Dish has been breaking the agreed-upon contract with the TV channel and is overstepping copyright laws by copying its shows.

“We are gratified the court found the copies Dish makes for its AutoHop service constitute copyright infringement and breach the parties’ contract,” Fox said in a written statement. “Dish is marketing and benefitting from an unauthorized VOD service that illegally copies Fox’s valuable programming.”

Dish’s Hopper seems to be growing in popularity since the company released the recording feature in March of this year, and to promote it, a series of commercials featuring a family with strong Boston accents explains how the Hopper can record up to six shows and be played back in any room of the house simultaneously.

Some viewers miffed

DISH Network  Nov. 8, 2012, 5:59 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network

Some consumers have received flyers from Dish saying they would be eligible for a free upgrade for anyone who signed up for the service at a specific time, but according to one of our readers from South Carolina the company didn’t honor this particular offer at all.

“In September I called because we were in the process of purchasing a new HDTV and I wanted to get the Hopper service, which I had been told I could upgrade to, wrote Sonal in her ConsumerAffairs posting.

“I had also received a flyer stating that the Hopper upgrade was free for any accounts opened between 08/01/12 and 1/31/13. At that time, I spoke at length with 3 different people who all proceeded to tell me that I was not qualified for a free upgrade and it would cost me over $500 if I wanted the Hopper system.”

Sonal's case sounded really unfair to us, so we phoned Dish to get some answers about these types of flyers. We also wanted to see why consumers may receive promotional offers that Dish won't honor. 

According to Dish employee Melissa, oftentimes promotional flyers are mailed by third-party retailers in in your area, and the offers usually pertain only to brand-new customers.

Third parties

PhotoShe also said that some of these flyers are fake and leave many people duped, so consumers should always check with Dish to verify the validity of the promotional offer.

“Look to see if it’s [the promo flyer] from a third party or if it’s actually through Dish,” Melissa said. “I would do some research online, because sometimes people will put their flyers out there and their not associated with Dish. Unfortunately that is how people get taken.”

Also, “See what you can find [through online research] if there’s an actual company name on there. If there is a company name on that flyer what we can do is, you can give us a call and we can pull it up and find out if they’re a third party that’s associated with us,” she said.

As far as Dish’s victory over Fox about the Hopper, the judge said she didn’t find any real proof that Fox was losing revenue due to Dish recording shows and removing commercials.

So AutoHop and the Hopper remain, giving viewers the wonderful option to skip over annoying TV ads.

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Samsung Galaxy S3 Overtakes Apple iPhone 4S in Sales

But sales lead may be short-lived

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what's the most popular smartphone of them all? In the third quarter of this year, it was the Samsung Galaxy S3, not the Apple...

PhotoMirror, mirror on the wall, what's the most popular smartphone of them all? In the third quarter of this year, it was the Samsung Galaxy S3, not the Apple iPhone 4S.

Strategy Analytics, which follows mobile device sales, says the popular Samsung phone edged out the iPhone 4S during the July through September period. The company found that Samsung’s Galaxy S3 smartphone model shipped 18.0 million units worldwide during the third quarter of 2012.

11 percent share

The Galaxy S3 captured an impressive 11 percent share of all smartphones shipped globally and it has become the world’s best-selling smartphone model for the first time ever. Apple shipped an estimated 16.2 million iPhone 4S units worldwide for second place.

It's the first-ever second place finish for the iPhone but it doesn't suggest flagging interest. The third quarter just happened to coincide with the end of the iPhone 4S' product cycle. Many consumers held off a purchase, waiting for the expected iPhone 5, which debuted September 12.

In fact, when you add in all the iPhone 5 sales in the last two weeks of the quarter, the 4S and 5 combo outsold the Galaxy S3 with more than 22 million shipments.

Advantage Samsung

"A large touchscreen design, extensive distribution across dozens of countries and generous operator subsidies have been among the main causes of the Galaxy S3’s success," Strategy Analytics said in its report.

Interestingly, the numbers show a spike in Galaxy S3 sales at about the same time a California jury found Samsung was guilty of violating a number of Apple's patents. Some analysts think the publicity surrounding the case, and the suggestion the Samsung product was little different from an iPhone, helped boost sales.

Bitter rivals

The two companies are also bitter rivals because the Galaxy S3 uses Google's Android operating system, which late Apple CEO Steve Jobs always maintained was a rip-off of Apple's iOS.

Samsung may not hold the smartphone sale lead for long. Strategy Analytics notes that the Apple iPhone 5 is likely to regain the crown in the current quarter, outshipping the Galaxy S3.

Samsung and Apple together dominate the smartphone market. Analysts project the two companies' combined market share to be about 24 percent.

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PayPal Adds Price Matching Program

Consumers would like to see more improvements in basic services

When PayPal first got started most people were leery about sending money back and forth electronically.Mind you, this was 2000 when a good portion of fol...

PhotoWhen PayPal first got started most people were leery about sending money back and forth electronically.

Mind you, this was back in 2000 when a good portion of folks still trekked to their local branch for their banking needs, and if you checked your balance by printing out an ATM receipt, it didn’t make you seem ancient or completely out of the technological loop.

Today both businesses and consumers shuffle finances through PayPal with a great amount of confidence. No longer do users wonder if their money will end up in the land of digital nowhere or in the pocket of some Internet robber using PayPal as his mask.

Truthfully, using the online money exchange service is as common as using sites like Twitter and Facebook, and the level of trust and comfort users have equals both social sites.

And for that very reason PayPal is trying to compete with giant retailers in the area of price matching -- which is when a store pays you the price difference if you happen to find one of its sale items cheaper someplace else.

The company plans to roll out the digital program this holiday season.

Snag sales

Many retailers—both online and brick and mortar—are eager to secure shopping dollars this holiday season, and mega stores like Target and Best Buy have already used price matching to help pull that off.

Whether consumers will associate PayPal with holiday shopping remains to be seen, because sometimes it takes a little while for people to change their view of a company once it takes on other roles and different functions.

PhotoHere’s how the price matching program works: If you buy certain products exclusively with your PayPal account, you have 30 days to see if another store has it for less. Easy enough, right?

But consumers will have to locate a printed version of the other store’s advertisement and the ad needs to have details like the sales price, the name of the store or dealer, and the dates of that store’s sale.

Also, the item must be identical to the one you initially purchased, and it can’t be offered on any auction sites. However items that are bought new on eBay can be part of the price matching program, but they have to be sold by one of the sites’ top rated sellers.

PayPal also limits payments for each item up to $250, and each customer won’t be paid more than $1,000 while the program exists. Also, once you see the advertisement for the cheaper item, you have 10 days to file a request if you want to be paid the difference.

Improvement needed

Although the price buying program is a good step for the online company, many consumers would prefer if PayPal would first make improvements in the area of money exchange.

Consumers rate PayPal - Complaints from Buyers

Just ask Carlos of Azusa, Calif.—one of our readers who experienced some stressful dealings with the company.

“My wife opened a new PayPal account to transfer money to our bank account in Mexico and they blocked her account,” he wrote in his ConsumerAffairs posting.

 “Then she calls and asks why. They said that she needs to provide some information and a phone number, but my mom doesn’t have a phone number in Mexico. Then she tried to send the money back to me as a refund and they limited the account. Now, they limited my account and they are asking us for IDs and proof that we are who we are or they will hold the money for 180 days,” Carlos explained.

And he isn’t the only one who experienced trouble with the company, as many readers have complained about PayPal holding their money for seemingly no just cause. Apparently, it doesn’t take much for the company to keep your finances.

“I have sold an item for several hundred dollars last weekend,” wrote Tom from Oregon.

“I was paid the day after the auction ended. PayPal put the funds on hold for 21 days. They may release them earlier if positive feedback was left by the buyer. They may release the funds three days after they have confirmed delivery of the item. I am a casual seller. I am not a business.

“I have a 100 percent positive feedback rating. This is my money and PayPal has no right to put the funds on hold. This company appears to be totally out of control. If this practice isn’t illegal, then it definitely should be,” Tom wrote in the comments section.

A PayPal spokesperson responded on Nov.9 to the sellers' complaints, providing this statement:

"We recognize that the holds process is frustrating for anyone affected who is selling via PayPal, and we are making some significant changes in how this policy is implemented and how we communicate what's happening to our customers.  Holds are put in place to protect the entire ecosystem of online payments - for both buyer and seller. Unfortunately, when you provide a service that enables millions of people to send and receive payments around the world, there is a high potential for fraud.

"We take this very seriously and have in place some of the best
anti-fraud and automated risk technology in the business.  A very small percentage of the six million transactions we process every day are affected, but we apologize if anyone is subject to a hold who should not have been affected ."

Airline tickets

The company’s price matching program also includes airline tickets. If you purchase an eligible ticket using your PayPal account within the U.S., you’ll be paid the difference if you see the same flight on a printed ad or on another airlines’ website. You have seven days from the initial purchase to request payment.

 The price limit is $1,000 per person during the program for the tickets and PayPal will pay each person up to $250.

In addition, the ad showing the cheaper flight must include the sales price, the flight number, the date the lower price was listed, and the departure date. You also have ten days from when you see the other ad to file a payment request.

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EyePrints to Provide Smartphone Security

Biometric security application is currently in beta testing

It sounds like something out of a James Bond movie but it could be available on your smartphone next year. It's a biometrics application that uses your "ey...

PhotoIt sounds like something out of a James Bond movie but it could be available on your smartphone next year. It's a biometrics application that uses your "eye print" to access sensitive information with your mobile device.

EyeVerify has produced what it calls "the first eyeprint solution" for mobile users to verify their digital identity. It allows them to securely access highly personal information on the Web in the blink of an eye -- literally. The system uses the hardware that is already part of your smartphone, namely the built-in camera.

The camera scans the user's eye to image and pattern match the unique veins in users' whites of the eyes. If it's a match, the user gains access to the information. If it's not a match, he doesn't.

Just like fingerprints

"Similar to how fingerprints historically were the standard in identifying individuals, EyeVerify is the first and only mobile authentication solution leveraging the uniqueness of eye vein patterns to obtain a person's 'eyeprint,'" said Toby Rush, CEO EyeVerify. "This new method is redefining standards for simple, yet secure authentication for personal or business use leveraging existing mobile devices without requiring additional hardware."

Currently most mobile devices are protected by passwords but Rush says that's no longer effective. He maintains they're not secure, there are too many, and these types of passwords are no longer a viable method for digitally proving we are who we say we are.

Other authentication technologies, such as fingerprint, Iris and keyfob tokens may offer comparable accuracy, but they require additional hardware and expense.

Everything's going mobile

Rush says something else was needed. Mobile devices are increasingly becoming the standard for how we manage our work and personal lives, potentially exposing ourselves to identity theft and fraud.

According to Aberdeen Group, there were $221 billion in identity-related crimes reported in 2011. The average user today manages over 25 online accounts, plaguing consumers with the battle of "password sprawl."

Dr. Arun Ross, Associate Professor at West Virginia University and a leader in biometric research, says that the applications for eyeprint technology are limitless. Eye vein biometrics can potentially be used for applications such as mobile banking, enterprise security and healthcare. And almost everyone has a smartphone with a camera.

EyeVerify's eyeprint technology isn't available just yet. The company says it is currently in beta test on the Apple iOS and Android mobile platforms. It should be available for general release in early 2013.

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Mortgage Rates Settle in Near Record Lows

Meanwhile, refinancing homeowners continue to pay down debt

It remains an affordable time to take out a new mortgage or refinance an old one. Two weekly surveys show rates continued to hover at record lows for yet a...

PhotoIt remains an affordable time to take out a new mortgage or refinance an old one. Two weekly surveys show rates continued to hover at record lows for yet another week.

Freddie Mac reports the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) for the week ending today was 3.40 percent with an average 0.7 point. That's up from 3.39 the week before.

The 15-year FRM averaged 2.69 percent with an average 0.7 point for the same period. That's down from 2.70 last week.

The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.73 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 2.98 percent.

The story was much the same in Bankrate.com's weekly rate survey. The 30-year FRM averaged 3.57 percent, unchanged from last week. It carried an average 0.40 point.

The 15-year FRM averaged 2.88 percent, dropping from 2.89 percent last week. It carried an average 0.32 point. The 5/1 ARM averaged 2.72 percent, unchanged from last week.

Paying down debt

Those taking advantage of recent low interest rates to refinance existing mortgages continue to pay down debt. Unlike the days of the housing boom, when homeowners often took out equity when they refinance a mortgage, 83 percent of refinancing homeowners in the third quarter either maintained about the same loan amount or lowered their principal balance by paying in additional money at closing, according to Freddie Mac's quarterly accounting.

Of these borrowers, 54 percent maintained about the same loan amount, and 29 percent of refinancing homeowners reduced their principal balance. The average interest rate reduction was about 1.7 percentage points, or a savings of about 31 percent in interest rate -- the largest percent reduction recorded in the 27 years of analysis.

Savings

"On a $200,000 loan, that translates into saving about $3,500 in interest during the next 12 months," said Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac's chief economist. "Fixed-rate mortgage rates hit new lows during September, with 30-year product averaging 3.5 percent and 15-year averaging 2.8 percent that month, according to our Primary Mortgage Market Survey.

The net dollars of home equity converted to cash as part of a refinance, adjusted for consumer-price inflation, remained at a low volume. In the third quarter, an estimated $7.7 billion in net home equity was cashed out during the refinance of conventional prime-credit home mortgages, up from an estimated $5.9 billion in the second quarter, but substantially less than during the peak cash-out refinance volume of $84 billion during the second quarter of 2006.

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Santa Likely to Hit Some Traffic

Year-end holiday travel expected to nearly double over last year

More of us plan to travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas than last year, but we'll pack less to save money and stay closer to home. According to HomeAwa...

PhotoMore of us plan to travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas than last year, but we'll pack less to save money and stay closer to home.

According to HomeAway, Inc., an online marketplace for vacation rentals, about a quarter of Americans (26 percent) say they'll travel over Thanksgiving , compared with 17 percent last year. The number of people traveling in December for the holidays is expected to nearly double, increasing from 22 percent in 2011 to 40 percent this year.

"From our survey (HomeAway Vacation Rental Marketplace Report), it seems people feel optimistic about the economy and are starting to travel more, but our research shows they're still cost conscious," says Brian Sharples, chief executive officer of HomeAway. "In an effort to save money, many travelers are driving instead of flying and looking for ways to avoid all the extra fees -- from checked bags and in-flight meals, to fees for being able to sit next to one another -- which can quickly add up, especially for families."

Shorter trips

While more people are traveling during the year-end holidays, they aren't traveling as far as they did last year. The percentage of people traveling more than 250 miles for Thanksgiving is expected to drop to 52 percent this year from 61 percent last year, with three quarters (75 percent) traveling by car.

The number of people traveling more than 500 miles over the December holidays is expected to fall from about 58 percent in 2011 to 51 percent this year, with slightly more traveling by car (54 percent) than by plane (45 percent).

Where to stay

When they get to their destination, 44 percent of people plan to stay at a friend or family member's house for Thanksgiving; 38 percent have the same plan for the Christmas holiday. Others seek alternative accommodations, including:

                  Thanksgiving

            December Holidays

Vacation rental

18%

31%

Hotel or resort

18%

20%

Personal vacation home

10%

5%

Bed-and-breakfast

1%

1%

Cruise ship

1%

1%

Campground

1%

0%

Other

7%

5%

Travelers take a stand

According to the HomeAway report, travelers will spend an average of $434 per person for Thanksgiving-related travel and $926 per person for travel during the December holidays. Contributing to the cost of holiday travel is the rise in additional fees charged by airline companies and others in the travel and tourism industry, which has left many travelers frustrated.

In fact, about half of travelers (48 percent) think airline fees for checked luggage are the most unfair of all travel fees, followed by:

  • Parking fees at hotels and attractions (18 percent)
  • Fees for in-flight services such as food, headphones and pillows/blankets (11 percent)
  • Fees for wireless Internet access (11 percent)
  • Fees to reserve a specific airline seat (10 percent)
  • Fees to ensure priority boarding on an aircraft (1 percent)
  • Mini-bar fees (1 percent)

With the rise in fees associated with traveling, many people are changing their travel habits to take a stand against travel fees. Nearly a third (31 percent) of travelers pack less to avoid airline luggage fees; 30 percent fly on different airline carriers every time to get the best deal; and about a quarter (25 percent) drive rather than fly. Almost one in five (18 percent) stay in alternatives to hotels, such as vacation rentals, where fees aren't as prevalent.

While 35 percent of travelers refuse to pay for any conveniences, some people may shell out some extra dough for additional space. Twenty-one percent of travelers say they'd pay more for roomier accommodations, and 20 percent would pay more for additional space on a plane. Access to a kitchen (21 percent), pool/hot tub (12 percent), and laundry facilities (11 percent) were also among the perks people say they'd pay extra for when traveling.

"The great thing about vacation rentals is that the perks are all included," says Sharples. "Families can be together under one roof with access to more bedrooms, a kitchen, laundry facilities and a host of other amenities for no additional charge. Togetherness doesn't cost extra in a vacation rental."

Cramped quarters a no-no

While 36 percent of travelers enjoy staying with friends and family during the holidays, 64 percent aren't overly thrilled. In fact, 29 percent feel the worst part of staying with family and friends over the holidays is the lack of personal space, and 28 percent say the lack of comfortable sleeping arrangements. Five percent say the worst part is their actual relatives, two percent say the noise levels are unacceptable and one percent say they aren't fond of their host's cooking.

While most people say they would prefer to host the holidays at their house, when asked to name the relative for whom they'd most like to find separate accommodations, about one in three (29 percent) say they'd send their sibling packing while 22 percent said their grown child could stay elsewhere.

Fathers and fathers-in-law were the most welcome during the holidays, with only 6 percent saying they'd want to find separate accommodations for dad and only 4 percent naming their father-in-law as an ideal candidate to stay somewhere else.

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Can Coupons Make For a Better Black Friday Experience?

Coupon Website touts savings on even big-ticket items

How can you make sure you get a good deal on Black Friday? Use a coupon, say the people who run coupon websites. They point out that more retailers are usi...

PhotoHow can you make sure you get a good deal on Black Friday? Use a coupon, say the people who run coupon Websites. They point out that more retailers are using coupons this year and that consumers are missing the price-savings boat if they don't pay attention.

A poll cited by Offers.com shows only 24 percent of online shoppers say they look for coupons or deals always or most of the time when making online purchases -- a decrease from 40 percent last year. Thirty-six percent say that they never do so, an increase from 23 percent in 2011.

"With more savings available by all major retailers, there's tremendous opportunity for shoppers to save," said Steve Schaffer, CEO of Offers.com. "In fact, we've found that consumers save an average of $25 on the most wanted holiday gifts when they shop through Offers.com."

Still a big shopping day

The survey also found that this year 32 percent of consumers plan to shop on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Among those Black Friday shoppers, 57 percent plan to shop primarily in stores, 31 percent to do so both online and in stores, and 11 percent to do so primarily online.

Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that the best deals of the year are not found on Black Friday. 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.

According to a new study by ShopAdvisor, a shopping service, Black Friday was among the worst sales days of the 2011 shopping season. While that may be true, Schaffer maintains to doesn't take into account the power of coupons.

Making the deals better

"There is a lot of talk right now that the savings opportunities on Black Friday are not all that great," said Schaffer. "However, we think those who are savvy Black Friday shoppers can find fantastic deals this year.

Coupons, he says, can make even big-ticket items like digital cameras, Blu-ray players and HDTVs more affordable.

Another trend to watch for this year is the merging of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when online retailers roll out their bargains. Increasingly online retailers aren't waiting for the Monday after Thanksgiving but are offering their savings on Black Friday as well.

Just another reason to avoid the crowds and shop from the comfort of your home.

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Fresh Express Recalls Spinach

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Fresh Express Incorporated is recalling a limited quantity of Fresh Express Spinach with a Use-by Date of November 7 and Product Code of S299B25 due to a p...

PhotoFresh Express Incorporated is recalling a limited quantity of Fresh Express Spinach with a Use-by Date of November 7 and Product Code of S299B25 due to a possible health risk from Salmonella.

No illnesses or consumer complaints have been reported at this time and no other Fresh Express products are subject to this recall.

The recall notification is being issued due to an isolated instance in which a random sample yielded a positive result for Salmonella under U.S. Department of Agriculture'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.

The recalled salads were distributed primarily in the Western region of the U.S.

BRAND

PRODUCT NAME

SIZE

UPC

Production Code

Best If Used By Date

POSSIBLE DISTRIBUTION STATES

Fresh Express

Spinach

9 oz.

071279-13204 4

S299B25

NOV 7

AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NM, OK, OR, SD, TX, UT WA, WY 

Consumers who may have purchased the recalled salad are urged not to eat it, but to throw it out instead. Fresh Express is offering a full refund.

Consumers with questions or who would like to a refund may call the Fresh Express Consumer Response Center at (800) 242-5472 between 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time.

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Gruga Office Chairs Recalled

The seat plate can break, posing a fall hazard to consumers

Sauder Woodworking Company of Archbold, OH, is recalling about 72,300 Gruga office chairs -- about 70,000 in the U.S. and 2,300 in Canada. The seat plate ...

PhotoSauder Woodworking Company of Archbold, OH, is recalling about 72,300 Gruga office chairs -- about 70,000 in the U.S. and 2,300 in Canada.

The seat plate can break, posing a fall hazard to consumers. The company has received 17 reports of seat plates breaking, two of which involved consumers falling and receiving bumps and bruises.

The recalled chairs are entertainment, executive, manager's and task chairs with the brand name "GRUGA - Seating from Sauder." The chairs are sold in a variety of fabrics and colors. The model number and Universal Product Code (UPC) are on a tag attached to the bottom of the seat. A blue date code is stamped on the legal disclaimer label on the underside of the chair seat. Recalled chairs are dated August 2009 and later.

The following chair models have been recalled:

DescriptionModelUPC
Black Fabric Butterfly Chair403612042666601627
Executive Chair Leather Brown404237042666604659
Executive Chair Leather Black404238042666604666
Executive Chair Fabric Black404240042666604680
Executive Chair Leather Black404241042666604697
Manager's Chair Fabric Black404242042666604703
Manager's Chair Leather Black404243042666604710
Task Chair Fabric Black404244042666604727
Task Chair Fabric Black404245042666604734
Task Chair Fabric Black404246042666604741
Exec Chair Leather Black404260042666604888
Manager's Chair Fabric Black404261042666604895
Executive Chair Fabric Silver/Brown404279042666605335
Executive Chair Leather Burnt Brown404281042666605359
Air Seat Managers Chair404370042666605373
Black Micro Fabric Executive404398042666607742
Premium Executive Leather405147042666609678
Premium Executive Fabric407688042666609685
Fabric Manager's Chairs407702042666609708
Leather Manager's Chair407894042666609722
Deluxe Fabric Task Chair407895042666609739
Executive Fabric Mesh Chair407896042666609746
Executive Mesh Back Chair407897042666609920
Task Chair408989042666104920
Vinyl Manager's Chair408993042666101561
Deluxe Leather Executive Chair409977042666101578
X-Vibe Entertainment Chair410409042666105187
X-Vibe Entertainment Chair410573042666105170
Duraplush Mid Manager's Chair410593042666104883
Duraplush Manager's Chair410879042666104890
Air Comfort Executive Chair412429042666109284

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Meijer, Menards, Shopko and Target and a variety of retail outlets nationwide, and online retailers including BestBuy.com and Kohls.com from August 2009 to September 2012 for between $79 and $399.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact Sauder for a free replacement seat plate and attachment tool.

Consumers may contact Sauder Woodworking Company toll-free (888) 800-4590, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Scam Alert: Airline Ticket Email Links to Malware

Victims think they are downloading an American Airlines ticket

You open your email program and there's a message from American Airlines with the heading "download your ticket." That's weird, you think, I didn't buy an ...

PhotoYou open your email program and there's a message from American Airlines with the heading "download your ticket." That's weird, you think, I didn't buy an airline ticket.

But you open the email and there, indeed, is an official-looking link to download a ticket. It must be some mistake, you think, but the idea of a free airline ticket is simply too hard to resist -- so you click.

If you do, you will be disappointed to learn you haven't downloaded a free airline ticket but a computer virus instead.

The emails, of course, are not from American Airlines but from spammers distributing malware. Once the malware is loaded on your computer the hacker can steal personal information and financial data.

The airline ticket ruse is just the latest incarnation of an old scam. Because most airline tickets are now distributed electronically scammers are counting on victims to click first and think later.

Warning from American

"Do not click on any links, open any attachments, call phone numbers listed or follow any instructions in these fraudulent emails including opening any type of attachments," American Airlines warns on its website. "Instead, delete all emails and attachments. American Airlines will never send executable files as attachments, nor ask our customers for this type of personal information in email communications."

Details, including subject lines, order numbers and flight information in the subject line or body of the malware emails may vary. And not all work exactly the same way.

Different types of emails

Some emails may contain the malware in an attachment. Others may direct victims to a Website where the malware is installed.

Even the name of the airline may not be the same. There have been reports that some consumers received the bogus ticket emails purporting to be from Delta Airlines.

The scammers, of course, are counting on human nature working in their favor; that people drawn to the idea of getting an airline ticket they didn't pay for will cause them to act in a reckless manner.

To avoid these scams always refrain from even opening obvious spam emails and be very suspicious of those asking for sensitive information or directing you to click on links.

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Wall Street's Sell-Off: What Happened?

Now that the election is over, fear appears to have taken hold

The day after election day, which saw Barack Obama returned to the White House for another four years, Wall Street swooned. The Dow Industrials plunged 313...

PhotoThe day after election day, which saw Barack Obama returned to the White House for another four years, Wall Street swooned. The Dow Industrials plunged 313 points. The S&P 500 dropped 2.37 percent.

Were investors reacting to Obama's re-election or were there other reasons for the mighty sell-off? Yes and yes.

It's not that the markets recoiled in horror at the thought of four more years of Obama. In fact, the stock market hasn't exactly suffered under the 44th President of the United States.

Since Obama took office the S&P 500 has risen more than 75 percent. The NASDAQ is up 128 percent. The president's election to another four-year term, by itself, shouldn't be enough to trigger that kind of selling.

Out of favor stocks

That said, market analysts suggest heavy selling Wednesday of coal, oil and gas stocks may be because Obama has been unfriendly toward fossil fuels. Now that it is clear there will be no roll-back of financial regulations or health care legislation, investors bailed out of those sectors as well, although hospital stocks bucked the market trend and surged. Hospitals expect to be more profitable under ObamaCare.

There were two other factors that may have influenced selling. Worries about Europe's debt crisis -- which seem to crop up every couple of months -- again spooked investors on Wednesday.

And now that the election is over, investors have suddenly focused on the so-called "fiscal cliff," when tax rates are set to rise and spending is to be slashed at the end of the year. These two recession-inducing actions are automatically set to go into effect without Congress and the President agreeing on an alternative course, something that has eluded policymakers so far.

Looming tax hikes

Assuming there is no agreement, taxes will go up, not just on those making over $250,000 but on low-income taxpayers as well. For example, the current 10 percent tax bracket is eliminated and replaced by a 15 percent bracket, a significant tax hike on modest wage-earners.

More significantly, the 15 percent tax rate on capital gains and dividends -- the kind of income primarily earned on Wall Street -- reverts to the higher rates in place before 2002. For investors, the thinking goes, better to sell before the end of the year, and better to sell before other investors do and drive down the stock price.

However, there may be a ray of hope that the fiscal cliff can be avoided. Late Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans in the House would accept a deal that increased government revenue, "under the right circumstances."

Boehner said Republicans might accept a package that increased revenue while lowering tax rates but eliminating some deductions and loopholes. That may or may not fly at the White House but investors may be looking for any reason to be hopeful at this point.

What should you do about stocks in your retirement account? Nothing, until you talk to a trusted financial adviser. No one has a crystal ball when it comes to the market's performance but a hasty decision is usually a wrong one.

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Consumers Enraged by Continued Power Outages in Sandy's Wake

Utilities say they're making progress but that's not much comfort as temperatures dip

With a Nor'easter bearing down on what's left of the New York Metropolitan Area, thousands of residents whose electricity has not yet been restored are fac...

Con Ed Nov. 7, 2012, 7:44 p.m.
Consumers rate Con Ed

With a Nor'easter bearing down on what's left of the New York Metropolitan Area, thousands of residents whose electricity has not yet been restored are facing a new wave of flooding and freezing temperatures.

"On October 29th, the Pelham Gardens section of the Bronx lost power due to Hurricane Sandy. Majority of the power was restored on November 1," said Con Ed customer Adil of the Bronx in a posting to ConsumerAffairs today. "Unfortunately a radius of 8 blocks has yet to be restored. This 8 block radius includes many families as well as a nursing home for the elderly (above 100 residents).

"We have been calling Con Ed non-stop to send someone to restore power to the rest of Pelham Gardens. The city did their portion to help, cleaning up trees at a rapid rate. Con Ed has had ample time and sufficient space to work on the damaged poles. We just discovered last night after speaking to a supervisor, that NO ONE has been dispatched to our area," Adil said.

"Our neighborhood has been powerless, without heat for 9 days and I suspect with the Nor'easter on the way we can expect to be powerless for more than 2 weeks. I feel it is an injustice what has been to my neighborhood. We have simply been forgotten. We as a neighborhood are tired of being mistreated, feeling hopeless, we are tired of this injustice," Adil said.

Con Ed and other utilities say they are working around the clock, using their own crews as well as others from around the country, as described in this Con Ed video:

David, who lives on Seton Avenue in the Bronx, filed a similar complaint. He said the electricity failed Oct. 29 when a large tree fell onto the power lines.

"Con Ed stated, well, tree needs to be cut first then we can repair. Tree people came and stated Con Ed has to shut power off first then we can cut tree down. And this has been going on since the 30th of October. So now here we are on day 8 and 9 nights with no power and the runaround," David said.

Adil, David and other consumers still without power should contact the New York City Office of Emergency Management. If power cannot be restored, the city may be able to offer shelters, blankets or other assistance.  

PSE&G

PSE&G Nov. 7, 2012, 7:54 p.m.
Consumers rate PSE&G

PSE&G, which serves New Jersey, is also getting its share of criticism. Gregory of Highland Park said he has been without power for more than week. 

"We cannot get any detailed information about when power will be restored. Apparently, faulty power restoration at a pumping station in New Brunswick has led to pump failures and a consequent water advisory in our town, adding considerably to the misery," he said.

"I understand that the devastation from Sandy was enormous. However, PSE&G has seen several widespread storm-related outages in recent years. They had plenty of warning that this was coming and that this would be big," Gregory said. " They were obviously inadequately prepared despite plenty of advance warning. ... The people on the ground are working heroically."

Patti of Waldwick, NJ, has also been without power since Sandy struck and says she has not seen a single repair truck in her town. 

"I feel officials aren't doing enough. There is a downed pole with wires on a main road (Wyckoff Ave & Franklin Turnpike) since Monday, 10/29 and no from PSE&G has look looked at it to see if wire is live. The weather is dropping to 30's and I had to send my daughter away For the weekend," Patti said.

For its part, PSE&G says it expects to have "virtually all" of its customers back in service by Friday, Nov. 9 but says there may be individual cases that take longer.

"Currently, we have restored 1.5 million customers, or about 89 percent of those
interrupted," the company said. "Our work plan is prioritized by where we can restore the maximum number of customers in the shortest possible time, the critical nature of some operations e.g. schools is affected by a number of technical considerations including the ability to access roads and equipment."

"We currently have 185,000 customers still without power, this does not reflect work still being performed in the field at this time," the company said in a posting on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities site. That posting also includes a list of communities where work is still being performed.

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California Voters Defeat Genetic Food Labeling Proposition

Chemical industry spent $46 million in advertising to defeat the measure

Monsanto "Roundup Ready" soybean plantsIt cost $47 million but pesticide and biotechnology corporations succeeded in defeating Proposition 37 on the Ca...

Photo
Monsanto "Roundup Ready" soybean plants

It cost $47 million but pesticide and biotechnology corporations succeeded in defeating Proposition 37 on the California ballot. The measure would have given consumers the right to know whether the foods they buy at the grocery store contain genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs). 

With 95% of the vote counted, according to the California Secretary of State's office, the proposal was defeated 53-47%. Opponents argued the measure was unnecessary and would raise food costs.

"Genetically engineered foods found on market shelves have most commonly been altered in a lab to either be resistant to being sprayed by large amounts of toxic herbicides, or to produce, internally, their own insecticide," said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, one of the measure's leading proponents. 

"Corporations that produce both the genetically engineered crops and their designer pesticides, in concert with the multi-billion-dollar food manufacturers that use these ingredients, fought this measure tooth and nail, throwing $46 million at the effort that would have required food manufacturers to include informational labeling on GMO content on their packaging," Kastel added.

Many food activists nationwide looked to the California initiative as "the last best hope" for GMO labeling in this country.  Such labeling is required throughout Europe, and by scores other countries worldwide.  

Lawsuits threatened

The battle's not over by any means. Activists are warning food companies that they will continue to face class-action lawsuits claiming that labeling products containing GMOs as "natural" is a violation. 

"The lawsuits are based on claims that the popular understanding of 'natural' is something that is unmodified," said Mark Goodman, partner at international law firm Hogan Lovells.  "Plaintiffs are seeking to have the courts define what natural is.  The problem for plaintiffs’ lawyers is that it is difficult to certify a class for these cases, as not all consumers buy products because they claim to be 'natural.'” 

"That is why Prop 37 was going to be such a boon for plaintiffs’ lawyers – they would not have to show that all consumers bought the products for the same reason," Goodman said.

Not completely in the dark

The failure of Proposition 37 does not leave consumers completely in the dark about genetically engineered (GE) foods, however, since foods without GE ingredients are already widely available and clearly carry the USDA "organic" seal.  Federal law prohibits the use of GE seed or ingredients in any product labeled "organic."

In some ways, the "organic" label goes much further than what Proposition 37 would have required, since organic meat, milk and eggs must come from animals that were not treated with GE hormones and fed a diet that is free of GE ingredients.  Proposition 37 would not have required labels on meat, milk and eggs from animals given GMO feed.  Alcoholic beverages were also not covered under proposition 37.  Organically labeled beer, wine and spirits are increasingly available in the marketplace.

"Organic foods are already required by federal law to be free from genetic engineering," says Steven Sprinkel, an organic farmer in Ojai, California who fought for prop 37 passage.  "And the icing on the organic cake is that certified organic foods are also grown without a long list of dangerous and toxic chemicals and pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other drugs that are routinely used in conventional agriculture."

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Airlines Canceling Flights as Nor'easter Moves Towards New York

Yet another storm closes in on the battered East Coast

Moving image of April 2007 nor'easter.(Credit: NOAA)As huge swaths of the New York City area remain in shambles following Superstorm Sandy, a Nor...

PhotoAs huge swaths of the New York City area remain in shambles following Superstorm Sandy, a Nor'easter is taking aim at the battered region and airlines are rushing to cancel flights in and out of New York's three major airports. Some are also canceling Philadelphia flights. 

United and American said they are suspending operations this afternoon, while other carriers urge passengers to reschedule and say they will waive fees for those who do so.

The latest storm is weaker than Sandy but will bring high winds, rain and snow and the chane of more flooding, particularly at LaGuardia and JFK, which are both low-lying and near the water. 

At last word, the storm was farther offshore than expected as it moved up from Florida but New York is still expected to suffer high winds, ice, snow and rain and storm surges of three feet or more. 

Moving image of a nor'easter, or major storm sytem.

Moving image of April 2007 nor'easter.

(Credit: NOAA)

JetBlue, the biggest carrier at JFK, had just gotten its flights back on schedule after the massive disruption caused by Sandy.

Airlines are quick to cancel flights so as to avoid stranding equipment and crews. 

And passengers should take note that airlines are not required to pay for hotels, food, cabs or anything else when flights are canceled because of weather. 

What's a Nor'easter?

You don't have to be an old salt to be familiar with Nor'easters. A Nor'easter is a cyclonic storm that moves along the east coast of North America. It’s called “nor’easter” because the winds over coastal areas blow from a northeasterly direction -- and they tend to occur in very crowded areas, where they cause maximum disruption.

The phrase, “crowded coastline” might conjure up images of tanned tourists on the warm, sunny beaches of Florida and California. But, the most crowded coastal corridor in the United States stretches between Washington, D.C., and Boston — and includes the densely urban cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

In this region, 180 coastal counties support 77 percent of the area’s total population, all crammed into urban areas with transportation systems that are filled to capacity even under ideal circumstances.

Nor’easters may occur any time of the year, but are most frequent and strongest between September and April. These storms usually develop between Georgia and New Jersey within 100 miles of the coastline and generally move north or northeastward. 

Nor’easters typically become most intense near New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. In addition to heavy snow and rain, nor’easters can bring gale force winds greater than 58 miles per hour. These storms can produce rough seas, coastal flooding and beach erosion. 

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AT&T Unveils Three New Windows 8 Phones

Carrier and manufacturer both betting on Windows' new mobile platform

AT&T has announced three more new smartphones in its growing Windows Phone 8 portfolio.Beginning Nov. 9, AT&T customers will be able to purchase ...

PhotoAT&T has announced three more new smartphones in its growing Windows Phone 8 portfolio.

Beginning Nov. 9, AT&T customers will be able to purchase the Nokia Lumia 920 for $99.99 and the Nokia Lumia 820 for $49.99. Before Thanksgiving, customers can pick-up the Windows Phone 8X by HTC with 16 GB of memory for $199.99.

AT&T also revealed an exclusive version of the Windows Phone 8X by HTC with 8 GB of memory in California Blue and Limelight (yellow) for $99.99. AT&T said it is the only carrier to offer this device in Limelight.

Starting today, Nov. 7, the Nokia Lumia 920 and Lumia 820 will be available for pre-order here and here. So far, AT&T says it has sold more Windows Phones than any other carrier.

"Our Windows Phone portfolio features the best designs for the fantastic experience of Windows Phone 8," said Jeff Bradley, senior vice president, Devices and Developer Services, AT&T Mobility. "Combine that with very exciting prices and our customers have lots of good reasons to choose Windows Phone this holiday season."

Nokia Lumia 920

Among the features found in the Nokia Lumia 920 is an advance in Nokia PureView imaging technology. The 8.7-megapixel camera features advanced floating lens technology, dubbed 'optical image stabilization,' which helps eliminate blur by compensating for hand movement while photos or videos are being shot. The camera in Nokia Lumia 920 can take in five times more light than typical smartphones to capture top quality photos and videos in low light.

Nokia says it has put its largest battery in the Lumia 920, which also includes built-in wireless charging capabilities. For a limited time -- and while supplies last -- AT&T said it will also include a free wireless charging plate with each purchase of a Lumia 920.

The 920 comes with a 4.5-inch PureMotion HD+ ClearBlack display, protected by Corning Gorilla Glass and is optimized for readability in the bright light conditions. It also has a new sensitive touchscreen that lets you type with fingernails or while wearing gloves.

It's available in red, white, black, yellow and cyan.

Nokia Lumia 820

The Nokia Lumia 820 is a mid-range smartphone that has the look and feel of its higher-end sister. It has a ClearBlack display and new sensitive touchscreen -- in a design that supports exchangeable shells. These exchangeable shells, which are sold separately, are available in range of colors and features, including wireless charging.

The Lumia 820 offers the same exclusive content as the Lumia 920, including Nokia Drive, a turn-by-turn voice navigation solution, Nokia Music, a free music streaming service and Nokia City Lens, an augmented reality application that uses the phone's camera viewfinder to provide information about points of interests in the surrounding area.

The Nokia Lumia 820 comes in black.

Windows Phone 8X by HTC

The Windows Phone 8X by HTC also has a unibody design along with a 4.3-inch 720p HD display (1280 x 720 pixels) for enhanced viewing of photos, video and Web pages.

The 2.1-megapixel, 88 degree, wide-angle front-facing camera can capture self-portraits and the faces of up to four friends all at once. The 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with an f/2.0 aperture allows you to capture photos and videos in low light.

AT&T says it's the first-ever Windows Phone 8 smartphone with built-in Beats Audio technology, giving it improved sound. The device has a unique audio amplifier that powers the 3.5mm audio jack and speaker to provide improved sound for music, video and even gaming.

The Windows Phone 8X by HTC will be available in two models -- California Blue with 16 GB of memory for $199.99 and an AT&T exclusive in California Blue or Limelight (yellow) with 8GB of memory for $99.99.

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Trouble Sleeping? Try Losing Weight

Researchers say it could improve your overall health

U.S. consumers buy millions of dollars worth of prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids each year but maybe all they need to do for a good night's res...

PhotoU.S. consumers buy millions of dollars worth of prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids each year but maybe all they need to do for a good night's rest is lose a little weight.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have completed a study in which they determined that weight loss, whether it’s from dietary changes alone or from diet combined with exercise, can help improve the quality of sleep among people who are overweight or obese.

Weight loss and sleep quality

“We found that improvement in sleep quality was significantly associated with overall weight loss, especially belly fat,” says Kerry Stewart, Ed.D., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of clinical and research exercise physiology.

Stewart and colleagues presented their findings this week at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions.

For the six-month study, the researchers enrolled 77 people who had type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes. The participants, all of whom also were overweight or obese, were randomly assigned to one of two groups