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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 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.

    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 ...
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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 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.
    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 ...
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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

    The 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"

    However, 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

    However 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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Think 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

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.
      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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."

      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...
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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 (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.

      Following 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.

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

      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

      Smith 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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      Houston’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

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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