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The Year Ahead: Gridlock ends at last, errorism is defeated

All the news you need, before it even happens

With the price of newspapers rising faster than the price of milk and online paywalls replacing the Berlin Wall, Americans face a news gap in 2013.Of cou...

PhotoWith the price of newspapers rising faster than the price of milk and online paywalls replacing the Berlin Wall, Americans face a news gap in 2013.

Of course, if one already knows what will happen, one doesn't need to read the news, so in that spirit, the editors present The Year Ahead, a synopsis of events nearly certain to occur, based on current trends.

January

A new Congress is sworn in at the bottom of the fiscal cliff. It immediately deadlocks over committee assignments.

President Obama is stymied in his effort to move ahead with his promised gun control initiative by the inability of Congress to organize itself.

The Postal Service runs out of stamps and doesn't have the cash or credit to print more.

February

PhotoWith Congress hopelessly gridlocked over office assignments, Obama issues an executive order outlawing the private sale of ammunition and makes the U.S. Postal Service the nation's official ammunition depot and post office. Anyone wanting to buy bullets can "Go Postal(tm)" at their nearest post office, where stamps will also be available soon. Quantities (both stamps and ammo) will be limited.

This makes the Postal Service solvent and is expected to reduce the incidence of unwarranted firing of weapons by 2050, when the existing suppy of privately-held ammo is gone.

FedEx and UPS immediately file suit, seeking to sell bullets at five times the price charged by the post office, a marketing strategy that served them well in the document and parcel delivery business.

March

After an unfortunate series of post office shootings, the Transportation Security Administration is deputized to screen postal workers as they arrive and leave their work stations.

Amazon buys Walmart, Kmart, Sears, Best Buy, Costco, Macy's and what is left of J.C. Penney, turning their former stores into warehouses. A section of each is set aside as a homeless shelter, to be used by employees unable to afford traditional housing.

The Federal Trade Commission sues Google, seeking a fine of $1 trillion and a court-ordered break-up of the company. Google's stock price hits an all-time high.

April

PhotoGoogle offers to buy the Federal Trade Commission for $1.5 trillion in cash but Congress is unable to act on the offer because House Republicans are still wrangling over the selection of a Majority Leader. Google's stock price breaks $2,000.

Apple buys all the major movie studios and television networks and makes an offer for the Defense Mapping Agency.

Amazon buys Starbucks and assorted other Seattle businesses. CEO Howard Bezos announces that baristas will be trained to troubleshoot problems with Kindle devices. In addition, anyone ordering from Amazon will get a free grande latte from the Starbucks location nearest them.

May

Google offers to buy the federal government for $5 trillion in cash, with each Member of Congress being named a Senior Vice President for Life and receiving a $10 million signing bonus. Congress immediately accepts the offer, over the objection of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

PhotoThe deal closes quickly. Google merges the Federal Trade Commission into its Motorola division and moves it to Dallas.

Apple holds a very cool developers conference in San Francisco and, using the world's biggest LED screen ever, screens a brief memorial to the Federal Trade Commission and announces a new pricing plan for music and movies. iAnything owners will continue to pay 99 cents while for everyone else, the price goes to $99.

Amazon buys The Associated Press, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and closes them down. "Everything anyone needs to read is already in the Kindle store. This will save consumers from having to shop around for content," Bezos notes.

June

Amazon buys all of the remaining major book publishers for $1, twice its original bid. Bezos asserts it was a "steal at half the price"

July

PhotoGoogle's lawyers issue a statement asserting that all activities, actions, findings, documents, studies, drafts, reports and all appurtenances thereunto of the federal government are now its property and access to all such data, information, material, publications and whatever is henceforth restricted to authorized users.

The newly-named CEO of Google's United States subsidiary, Mitt Romney, legalizes driverless Google cars. 

August

Google issues a beta version of its new Unmanned Google Drone. Unexplained property damage is reported in Seattle.

Apple desperately bids $55 for Mexico. The offer is accepted but auditors later find an unexplained payment of $1.5 trillion in cash to unknown persons.

Amazon and Apple immediately challenge Google's "content land grab" but are unable to find the offices of the Federal Trade Commission. The federal courts have moved behind a firewall and are similarly unapproachable.

September

PhotoMysterious troop movements are reported along the Mexican border.

Texas launches a leveraged buyout of itself but because of an unexplained communications breakdown, the deal is never consummated. Unexplained property damage is reported in Austin.

Google announces its United States subsidiary is launching a War on Errorism.

"We seek only to find and eradicate error," CEO Romney insists. "The faithful and true have nothing to fear."

October

[redacted]

November

[redacted]

December

PhotoIn a ceremony simultaneously carried by all broadcast, cable and Internet outlets, as well as all computer-equipped eyeglasses, Google announces that all of the world's information has now been organized and all errors and errorists eliminated. 

Anyone seeking more information should register at the nearest post office.

 

 

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The Trusted Traveler Program rolls out to 35 airports

Most consumers are in favor of the program expanding, despite some security snags along the way

If you were waiting for your local airport to join the new trusted travelers program, you may just be in luck.TSA has just announced that it expande...

PhotoIf you were waiting for your local airport to join the new trusted travelers Pre Check program, you may just be in luck.

TSA has just announced that it expanded the expedited passenger service to 35 airports across the U.S. for passengers of Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines US Airways and Alaska Airlines.

Those who are a part of Border Protection in the United States, U.S. Customs, Global Entry and SENTRI, can also use the trusted travelers program that began in October of last year in Detroit Metropolitan Wayne Country airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Fort Worth and Dallas International airports and Miami International airports. 

TSA Administrator John Pistole said the program will also be rolled out to many other U.S. airports in the coming future.

28 largest

“Over the past year, we’ve expanded TSA Pre Check to 35 airports, covering all 28 of the largest airports along with seven others across the country,” he said in a statement.

“In the coming year, we will continue partnering with airlines, airports, and the traveling public to further expand TSA Pre Check making air travel safer and more efficient for the traveling public.”

The Trusted Traveler Program was designed to give what the TSA calls low-risk travelers the ability to go through special lines and kiosks when making domestic flights.

In order to be a trusted traveler, passengers have to be part of a frequent flyer program and undergo an intense level of pre-screening, and if the screening checks out, that information is placed on the passenger’s boarding pass by a bar code.

Once a TSA worker reads the barcode, the passenger is pointed to a specific lane where they may be able to forego the traditional screening by not having to remove their shoes, belt, jacket and laptop from its case.

Also, if a trusted traveler is toting a carry-on that’s compliant with TSA guidelines, they may be able to proceed to the plane without removing the bags' contents or opening it.

In addition, children who are age 12 and younger can also go through the designated security lanes and pass some of the traditional screening measures, if they’re traveling with a person in the trusted travelers program.

Eager to expand

PhotoPistole said the TSA is eager to expand the program to just about all U.S. airports, since it cuts down on the high cost of screening each passenger the traditional way, and the more TSA agents are able to screen passengers before they get to the airport, the more cost effective and convenient it will be for both the trusted traveler, and the regular passengers who isn’t in the program.

The TSA explained the need for this type of program will only continue to grow, as the rate of air travel will increase by extremely large margins within the next couple of decades.

“Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and TSA Administrator John Pistole deserve our thanks for their commitment to expanding the PreCheck trusted traveler program and reaching their goal of 35 participating airports by year’s end,” said Roger Dow, U.S. Travel Association president.

“Air travel continues to be the gateway to commerce and improving efficiency while maintaining the current high level of security is a win-win for travelers and the American economy.”

Not trouble-free

Although many consumers are pleased that such a program is being rolled out, critics of the program say just because a person passes the pre-screening test, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still be checked by security agents before getting on a plane, and according to some recent problems with a couple pf trusted travelers, those critics may be right.

Just a few days before Christmas, a passenger on the trusted travelers program was found with a shotgun in one of the expedited security lanes before entering the U.S. from Canada, which critics say is proof that the trusted traveler program has some huge flaws that need to be dealt with.

The passenger was quickly removed from the trusted traveler program for having a shotgun on airport grounds, and security reps said airports will take a zero tolerance approach to similar infractions.

“Participation in the NEXUS program provides a unique privilege of a higher level of trust for members,” said Roderick Blanchard, the Director of the Detroit Port of Entry. “All violations will result in removal from the program.”

The TSA also said just because someone is in the trusted travelers program, doesn’t mean they still can’t be checked at the security gate, as agents still have the full right to screen anyone they would like the traditional way.

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2013 will see some new taxes

Most are associated with phase-in of new health care law

Regardless of what does, or does not happen with the “fiscal cliff,” some consumers will see some tax increases in 2013, part of the Affordable...

PhotoRegardless of what does, or does not happen with the “fiscal cliff,” some consumers will see some tax increases in 2013, part of the Affordable Care Act.

And while Republicans and Democrats spent the last two months arguing over whether families earning $250,000 or more a year should pay a higher income tax rate, it's already been decided that that group will face a higher tax on investments in 2013.

It's called the Net Investment Income Tax. It imposes an extra 3.8 percent tax on investment income earned by individuals, estates and trusts that have certain investment income above certain threshold amounts. That group will also pay more in Medicare tax.

The 0.9 percent Additional Medicare Tax applies to an individual’s wages, Railroad Retirement Tax Act compensation, and self-employment income that exceeds a threshold amount based on the individual’s filing status. The threshold amounts are $250,000 for married taxpayers who file jointly, $125,000 for married taxpayers who file separately, and $200,000 for all other taxpayers.

An employer is responsible for withholding the Additional Medicare Tax from wages or compensation it pays to an employee in excess of $200,000 in a calendar year.

Medical device tax

PhotoAn excise tax on medical devices, such as artificial hips, goes into effect in 2013 as a way to help pay the cost of expanding health care coverage. Most consumers won't feel the tax directly but could eventually see higher health care premiums as the costs of these devices go up.

One potential tax increase many consumers could face in 2013 is a change in the way the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) treats employer-paid health benefits. Currently, this benefit is not taxed, providing a huge financial benefit to consumers who have it. It's the biggest middle-class tax break on currently on the books – even bigger than the mortgage interest deduction.

For example, if your employer pays $1000 a month for its share of your health coverage, you would have to report that $12,000 as income on your taxes. Many economists believe Congress will have to consider that change in 2013, although there will be strong bipartisan opposition.

Payroll tax

There's another tax increase, unrelated to health care, that all workers will feel in 2013. The payroll tax, used to finance Social Security and Medicare, will revert to its normal level. For the past two years the government reduced the employee share by two percentage points, as part of an effort to stimulate the economy. Since neither Republicans nor Democrats have suggested extending the tax holiday another year, it seems certain that consumers' paychecks will be a little smaller in 2013.

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Study: Female college students more likely to binge drink than males

Researchers also say it takes less alcohol to get women drunk

Many college students tend to over do it when it comes to consuming alcohol. A number of recent studies have sounded an alarm about student's unhealthy and...

PhotoIt's no secret that many college students tend to overdo it when it comes to consuming alcohol. A number of recent studies have sounded an alarm about students' unhealthy and dangerous behavior.

But a new study from researchers at the University of Vigo, in Spain, found that drinking might be more unhealthy and dangerous for female students. The study concluded female students get drunk faster than males and live a more sedentary life. The results also show that 56.1 of female students are considered binge drinkers as opposed to 41.3 percent of males.

"The amount drunk per unit of time is higher among women,” said José Cancela Carral, co-author of the study published by the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. “In other words, even though male students drink more often, females do so more intensively in shorter periods of time, which is known as binge drinking.”

The researchers selected 985 students at random to gauge their behavior. Of the females interviewed, 51.2 percent lead a sedentary lifestyle, while the percentage in males is 41.7 percent. While physical activity was low, drug use was fairly high.

"We were also surprised by the high consumption of illegal drugs among university students – 44.9 percent of men and 30.9 percent of women – which we understand could lead to significant future health problems, mainly related to the nervous system," Carral said.

Other studies

New research at the University of North Carolina (UNC), published earlier this year, shows that heavy alcohol use actually rewires brain circuitry, making it harder for alcoholics to recover psychologically following a traumatic experience.

Binge drinking has been identified as a growing problem on college campuses. A 2010 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more

than a quarter of all high school students and adults ages 18 to 34 engaged in binge drinking during the previous month.

The study also showed that each year more than 33 million adults reported binge drinking -- defined as having four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men over a short period of time, usually a couple of hours. And the report said levels of binge drinking have not declined during the past 15 years.

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New rules to allow faster approval of in-flight Internet

Feds to make satellite-delivered Internet the official in-flight system

More airline passengers are a step closer to having a wider array of Internet services available when they fly. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)...

PhotoMore airline passengers are a step closer to having a wider array of Internet services available when they fly. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has established rules to help speed the process.

The FCC action enables broadband providers to offer more in-flight services. As of now in-flight Internet services are limited to a few airlines and not available on all planes.

Since 2001, the FCC has authorized a few companies to operate Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft (ESAA), i.e., communicating with Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) geostationary-orbit (GSO) space stations. That's a fancy way of saying in-flight receivers capable of receiving Internet connections via satellite.

How it works

Installed on the exterior of the aircraft, the satellite antenna carries the signal to and from the aircraft, providing two-way, in-flight broadband services to passengers and flight crews. The agency's Report and Order makes ESAA the official in-flight Internet systems and sets up regulations to make sure other radio service operations are protected from harmful interference.

There's currently a ban on the use of cellphone and other devices aboard aircraft for fear the radio signals could interfere with sensitive navigation operations. The FCC is currently studying this policy to determine if it can be liberalized.

By formalizing ESAA as the means of providing in-flight Internet services, the FCC is making it easier for individual airlines to get FCC approval. By adopting the approved system, the FCC can be assured the service will meet standards and not cause interference.

Faster approval

The FCC said it expects the new rules will allow airlines to be approved for in-flight broadband services in half the current time.

"Whether traveling for work or leisure, Americans increasingly expect broadband access everywhere they go," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "These new rules will help airlines and broadband providers offer high-speed Internet to passengers. This will enable providers to bring broadband to planes more efficiently, helping passengers connect with friends, family, or the office."

A few airlines have already gone through the cumbersome approval process to provide in-flight Wi-Fi.

In September JetBlue announced it would partner with ViaSat to bring the Web to its fleet beginning in the first quarter of 2013.

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2012's most surprising real estate markets

Honolulu, Austin and the Twin Cities have served up some pleasant surprises

In many ways the 2012 real estate market has been something of a surprise. A mostly pleasant surprise.Sales have risen each month on a year-over-year bas...

PhotoIn many ways the 2012 real estate market has been something of a surprise. A mostly pleasant surprise.

Sales have risen each month on a year-over-year basis. Prices have also registered monthly increases. All of this has happened in spite of a lackluster economy, stubbornly high unemployment and stringent lending standards.

Perhaps most encouraging has been the improvement in the nation's hardest hit markets. While prices remain well off their bubble highs in Nevada, California, Florida and Arizona, cities in those states have seen strong improvement this year.

While the focus has been on those states, as well as some of the hard-hit Midwestern states like Illinois and Michigan, RealtyPin, a national real estate brokerage, has highlighted some often-overlooked markets where it found some surprising developments this year. Some of the surprises were good -- some not so good.

Honolulu, HI

Hawaii's capital is perhaps best known as a vacation destination but it has also been a red hot housing market in 2012. Lots of sales, according to Redfin, have been to international buyers. As you might expect from a sheer location standpoint, Asian buyers are the most common here. Surprisingly -- maybe not so surprising, when you look at the weather reports -- Canadians have also made up a big chunk of Honolulu's buyers this year.

This has served to strength Honolulu's housing market because foreign buyers tend not to default on their mortgages. In fact, many pay in cold, hard cash. The number of Honolulu foreclosures in the first half of 2012 was 49 percent lower than what it was in the first half of 2011.

West Palm Beach, FL

Despite its warm temperatures and sandy white beaches, West Palm Beach is one of those unpleasant surprises. On the bright side, the number of home sales was up in July. However, the median sales price was $217,500 -- a 15 percent drop from the month before.

West Palm Beach also has a very high foreclosure rate, which is not healthy for the market. In July 2012, over 22,000 Palm Beach County homes received a foreclosure notice. That's one out of every 349 houses.

Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

One of 2012's surprising housing trends was the increase in building activity, and much of that activity has taken place in the Twin Cities. There were 766 building permits issued in June and 1,100 the following month. That's a big contrast from March, when the number was barely over 400. Perhaps one reason builders have been drawn to this market is data showing home values there have climbed nearly six percent since the start of 2012.

Austin, TX

It may not be as big as other cities in the Lonestar State, but Texas' capital city has an active real estate market. For years, Austin has been a destination for new startups and a place for more established companies to set up shop. However, 2012 has been even better than expected.

In July, the median sales price was up four percent year-over-year. Plus, days on the market continued to fall. Demand for moderately-priced homes also increased, with homes priced at less than $200,000, spending three months or less on the market before selling.

Richmond, VA

For years, foreclosures have been a major problem all over Virginia. Despite that, sales boomed in Virginia's capital in 2012. Pending sales jumped 20 percent in July. The median asking price is ending the year close to $210,000. The only problem? That's what Richmond sellers were getting in the mid 1990s.

“It's nice to see that people are getting more excited about real estate in Richmond, but when you look at the numbers, their enthusiasm is a little surprising,” the RealtyPin report concluded.

2013 outlook

What will 2013 bring in terms of housing? Many analysts remain bullish. Rising home values could prompt mortgage lenders to relax their stringent lending standards a bit, allowing more people to buy homes.

As long as interest rates remain near record lows, the cost of monthly mortgage payments will compare favorably to rents, which have risen 10 percent or more in some markets.

The foreclosure outlook may also be improving. According to a report by Lender Processing Services, 7.12 percent of U.S. mortgages are delinquent at the end of 2012. That's higher than normal, but lower than the 9.06 rate at the end of 2011.

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'Ted,' 'Total Recall' top DVD and Blu-ray sales and rentals for week ending December 23

Comedy and action movies were at the top of the heap

What were we watching as the year was drawing to a close? Here is Rentrak Corporation's rundown of the Top-10 DVD & Blu-ray sales and rentals for the week ...

PhotoWhat were we watching as the year was drawing to a close? Here is Rentrak Corporation's rundown of the Top-10 DVD & Blu-ray sales and rentals for the week ending December 23, 2012:

RENTRAK TOP-10 DVD & BLU-RAY SALES*

RANK

TITLE

STUDIO

WEEKS IN RELEASE

1

Ted

Universal (NYSE: GE)

2

2

The Dark Knight Rises

Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX)

3

3

Pitch Perfect

Universal (NYSE: GE)

1

4

Total Recall (2012)

Sony (NYSE: SNE)

1

5

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Fox (NASDAQ: NWS)

1

6

Brave

Disney (NYSE: DIS)

6

7

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Fox (NASDAQ: NWS)

2

8

The Bourne Legacy

Universal (NYSE: GE)

2

9

The Dark Knight Trilogy

Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX)

3

10

Resident Evil: Retribution

Sony (NYSE: SNE)

1

*Week ended December 22, 2012

RENTRAK TOP-10 DVD & BLU-RAY RENTALS

RANK

TITLE

STUDIO

WEEKS IN RELEASE

1

Total Recall (2012)

Sony (NYSE: SNE)

1

2

The Watch (2012)**

Fox (NASDAQ: NWS)

6

3

Men In Black 3

Sony (NYSE: SNE)

4

4

Savages (2012)**

Universal (NYSE: GE)

6

5

Lawless (2012)

Anchor Bay/Starz (NASDAQ: LMCA, LMCB)

4

6

Hope Springs (2012)

Sony (NYSE: SNE)

3

7

Brave (2012)**

Disney (NYSE: DIS)

6

8

The Expendables 2

Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF)

5

9

The Campaign (2012)**

Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX)

8

10

Stolen (2012)**

Millennium

1

**Titles have delayed availability in certain rental outlets

The rundown was compiled by Rentrak's Retail Essentials and Home Video Essentials tracking services, which are based on estimated consumer spending.

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CareerBuilder: More jobs likely to be available in 2013

But the annual forecast says the hiring environment will remain cautious

If you're job hunting, 2013 may be your year. According to CareerBuilder's annual hiring forecast, 26 percent of hiring managers plan to add full-tim ...

If you're job hunting, 2013 may be your year.

According to CareerBuilder's annual hiring forecast, 26 percent of hiring managers plan to add full-time, permanent employees in the New Year -- up three percentage points from 2012. The study also points to heightened competition for high skill labor and improved compensation trends.

The nationwide survey was conducted by Harris Interactive from November 1 to November 30, 2012 and included more than 2,600 hiring managers and human resource professionals and more than 3,900 workers across industries and company sizes.

"More than 60 percent of employers reported that they are in a better financial position than 2012 and more than 40 percent said their sales increased over the last six months," said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. "While this bodes well for job creation, employers are still assessing the implications of a weakened global market and a modest recovery at home. The guarded approach to hiring that has been evident over the last few years was sustained in part by concerns over the fiscal cliff during the time of the survey."

Full-time, permanent hiring

While the number of employers adding headcount is trending up from 2012, so is the number planning to reduce staffs -- reflecting a mix of optimism and caution that has been characteristic of this recovery. Twenty-six percent of employers expect to hire full-time, permanent employees in 2013, three percent more than in 2012. Nine percent plan to decrease headcount, two percent more than in 2012. Fifty-five percent anticipate no change in their staff levels, while 11 percent are unsure.

The top two positions companies plan to hire for in the New Year -- Sales and Information Technology -- are also where employers expect to see the biggest salary increases. Hiring managers plan to recruit full-time, permanent employees for:

  • Sales – 29 percent
  • Information Technology – 27 percent
  • Customer Service – 23 percent
  • Engineering – 22 percent
  • Production – 22 percent
  • Business Development – 18 percent
  • Administrative – 17 percent
  • Research & Development – 15 percent
  • Accounting & Finance - 14 percent
  • Marketing – 14 percent

Temporary and contract hiring

More companies are turning to staffing and recruiting companies and temporary workers to help meet increased market demands. Forty percent of employers plan to hire temporary and contract workers in 2013; it was 36 percent in 2012. Among these employers, 42 percent plan to transition some temporary workers into full-time, permanent employees over the next 12 months.

Small business hiring

Fifteen percent of small businesses (500 or fewer employees) reported they plan to take out new lines of credit in 2013. While small businesses are showing more confidence in their hiring intentions, there are still concerns over financial stability and market demand. Plans to hire increased at least three percentage points across small business segments while plans to downsize trended up the same amount.

  • 50 or fewer employees – 19 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, up six percent from 2012; six percent plan to reduce headcount, up three percent from 2012.
  • 250 or fewer employees – 24 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, up four percent from 2012; seven percent plan to reduce headcount, versus four percent in 2012.
  • 500 or fewer employees – 24 percent plan to add full-time permanent staff in 2013, up three percent from 2012; seven percent plan to reduce headcount, up three percent from 2012.

Hiring by region

Similar to previous forecasts, the West and the South house the most employers planning to recruit new employees over the next 12 months.

  • West – 28 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013,versus 24 percent in 2012; nine percent plan to reduce headcount, the same as in 2012.
  • South – 27 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, four percent more than in 2012; nine percent plan to reduce headcount, compared with seven percent in 2012.
  • Midwest – 24 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, up slightly from 2012; ten percent plan to reduce headcount, versus six percent in 2012.
  • Northeast – 23 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, up two percent from 2012; ten percent plan to reduce headcount, also up two percent from 2012.

Navigating the skills gap

There are an increasing number of areas where demand for skilled positions is growing much faster than the supply. As companies work to remedy the situation and get qualified talent in the door, workers should be on the lookout for three trends in the New Year:

  • Employers Scouting Talent at Other Organizations – Employers may come knocking, solicited or not. Nearly one-in-five workers (19 percent) reported they have been approached to work for another company in the last year when they didn't apply for a position with that organization. Sales workers were the most likely to report being courted at 33 percent, followed by 31 percent of Professional & Business Services workers and 26 percent of Information Technology workers.
  • More Employers Willing to Increase Compensation – In an effort to retain and attract top talent for skilled positions, employers expect to provide higher compensation for both current staff and prospective employees. Seventy-two percent of employers plan to increase compensation for existing employees -- up from eight percent in 2012 -- while 47 percent will offer higher starting salaries for new employees – a 15 percent surge from 2012. Most increases will be three percent or less.
  • Employers Creating the Right Candidate Instead of Waiting for One – Employers are taking measures to "re-skill" workers themselves. Thirty-nine percent plan to train people who don't have experience in their particular industry or field and hire them for positions within their organizations, up a tick from 2012.  
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Payday lender settles charges with Minnesota

State sued Sure Advance LLC for violating consumer laws

In the last few years a growing number of states have enacted laws making it less profitable for payday lenders to operate within their borders. It doesn't...

PhotoIn the last few years a growing number of states have enacted laws making it less profitable for payday lenders to operate within their borders. The rules don't outlaw lending, but they have the same effect.

The state of Minnesota has reached a settlement with one payday lender -- Sure Advance LLC -- it says violated a consumer protection law enacted in 2009. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson says Sure Advance not only charged more interest than the law allowed, it wasn't licensed to do business in the state.

“Unlicensed Internet lenders charge astronomical interest rates, and many consumers who have applied for loans on the Internet have seen their private information end up in the hands of international criminal fraud rings,” Swanson said. “People should not take out loans from unlicensed Internet lenders, period.”

Fake debt collector scam

The scam to which Swanson refers is the “fake debt collector” scam. Using a call list with financial information about victims, an offshore “boiler room” called thousands of people between 2010 and 2012, claiming they owed money for an unpaid payday loan and threatening them with arrest.

“He knew my bank account information and everything,” Laura, of Englewood, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs in 2010. “He stated that if I could pay $786.87 today he would not have me arrested," she said.

Swanson's office, in the course of last year's payday loan investigation, concluded that these scammers were obtaining information, in some cases, through online payday lenders. Earlier this year a California man who worked with bogus debt collectors in India agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that he and his companies deceived and threatened consumers into paying debts that were not owed or that the defendants were not authorized to collect.


$760,000 payment

Under its consent decree with Minnesota, Sure Advance, LLC has paid $760,000 into a consumer restitution fund. The proceeds will be utilized to refund Minnesota consumers for unlawful interest charges and fees.

Swanson says the company, based in Delaware, made over 1,200 loans to Minnesota residents. The attorney general filed a lawsuit against Sure Advance, LLC in Hennepin County District Court in September 2011, accusing it of violating state payday loan laws.

Under Minnesota law, for loans between $350 and $1,000, payday lenders cannot charge more than 33 percent annual interest plus a $25 administrative fee. For loans less than $350, Minnesota law caps the fees that may be charged on a sliding scale as follows: $5.50 for loans up to $50; 10 percent of the loan amount plus a $5 fee on loans between $50 and $100; 7 percent of the loan amount (minimum of $10) plus a $5 fee on loans between $100 and $250; and 6 percent of the loan amount (minimum of $17.50) plus a $5 fee on loans between $250 and $350.

While payday lenders don't specifically charge an interest rate, their fees – if converted to an annual percentage rate (APR) can be well over 100 percent. In the case of Sure Advance, Swanson says some of its fees were more than 1,000 percent.

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Congress tries to head off increase in milk prices

Average price could double to $7 per gallon if nothing is done

The "fiscal cliff" drama is center stage these days but there are lots of back stories going on as well, including the possibility of a huge increase in th...

PhotoThe "fiscal cliff" drama is center stage these days but there are lots of back stories going on as well, including the possibility of a huge increase in the retail price of milk.

Forget millionaires' tax rates and the eternal guns-vs-butter debate, we're talking about pricing milk out of the mouths of infants.

It all has to do with Congress' nasty habit of deadlocking on just about every single issue. This time it's the Farm Bill, which covers a vast array of subsidies, price controls and other topics that rank as great mysteries to most consumers.

The current farm bill expired three months ago and, in typical Congressional fashion, no one could agree on whether to renew it or begin the tedious process of reworking it.

If nothing is done, milk prices would revert to rules that date back to 1949. Under complex price support rules, the retail price of milk would be expected to reach $6.00 to $8.00 a gallon versus current levels of about  $3.50.

The retail price of milk would not immediately increase but it would do so as the existing supply of milk worked its way through the pipeline.

Possible agreement

Farm-state lawmakers in the House and Senate said Sunday afternoon that they had reached agreement on a one-year extension of the expiring bill but no one knows whether the full House and Senate will approve the extension and whether President Obama will sign it.

For that matter, no one knows if the House and Senate leadership will even bother to bring the matter to a vote. After all, there is the little matter of the fiscal cliff to deal with. Also, one mustn't forget that many lawmakers are lame ducks. Their terms end when this session of Congress whimpers into history, so it's not like they have to face the voters again anytime soon.

Nor are the solons happy to be in Washington when they could be curled up at home or basking in the sun on a "fact-finding" mission to some warmer clime.

It could all be a recipe that leaves a sour taste in consumers' mouths.

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2013 might be a good year to buy a car

Expiring leases may flood the used car market

If you've been wondering how many more miles you have in the car you're driving, the time may be at hand to make a change. Chances are you can get a pretty...

PhotoIf you've been wondering how many more miles you have in the car you're driving, the time may be at hand to make a change. Chances are you can get a pretty good deal on either a new or late-model used car.

It turns out that as many as 500,000 more consumers are coming off car leases in 2013 than in 2012. That's good news for new car dealers, but growth in new car sales is still not expected to grow as fast next year as it did this year.

That means new car dealers will still be eager to deal and manufacturers may chip in more incentives when it comes to cash back and financing. At the same time, many of those three-year old vehicles coming off leases will end up in the used car market, increasing inventories and providing a bit more leverage for buyers.

Balanced market

It may be that 2013 shapes up as a year when the market is in balance. Sellers will still do well but consumers will find plenty of good value.

"What's especially encouraging is the current competitive strength among the automakers," said Edmunds.com Chief Economist Dr. Lacey Plache in a preview of 2013 auto sales trends. "Consumers will continue to benefit from exciting new models and technologies — and potentially lower prices — as automakers continue to battle for market share."

Edmunds predicts car sales will grow in 2013, but that growth will slow to a single-digit pace. The automotive site projects 15 million new car sales in 2013, a four percent increase over 2012.

Good deals on used cars

For consumers who prefer a late-model used car, off-lease vehicles and more trade-ins should flood the used car market and help to bring down prices. Edmunds.com expects the average used car price to fall $200-$300 per vehicle in 2013, which will continue the price drop seen this year after used car prices peaked in 2011.

Fears of used car shortages and higher prices, in the wake of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, are apparently unfounded.

A valid questions, however, is whether consumers will feel confident enough to purchase a new vehicle in 2013. If the government fails to reach an agreement to head off automatic end-of-the-year tax hikes and spending cuts, known as the fiscal cliff, many economists think the U.S. will experience a recession.

Just this week the Conference Board reported its Consumer Confidence Index fell in December to its lowest level since August.

"The sudden turnaround in expectations was most likely caused by uncertainty surrounding the oncoming fiscal cliff," said the Board's Lynn Franco.

But Plache remains bullish on the automotive market, pointing to other data showing that home prioces continue to rise, restoring some of the equity lost over the last four years.

"Rising home prices make consumers feel wealthier, which translates into greater consumer confidence to make large purchases such as a new car," Plache said.

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DirecTV tunes up a price hike

Higher programming costs blamed for 4.5% increase

DirecTV has a last-minute addition to your holiday stocking: an average 4.5% price increase, starting Feb. 7. The company blames higher programming costs i...

PhotoDirecTV has a last-minute addition to your holiday stocking: an average 4.5% price increase, starting Feb. 7. The company blames higher programming costs it expects to pay next year.

The satellite TV provider said on its Web site that  "almost all programmers who provide channels to the DirecTV platform are increasing their rates at a level we've never seen before."

Cable and satellite TV providers routinely raise fees on at least an annual basis. They typically blame the programming fees they must pay to the likes of HBO and CNN. DirecTV says its price increases are generally lower than its competitors.

The company said the increase will apply only to regular, nonpromotional rates. Customers paying a promotional price will continue to pay that price until the offer expires.

DirecTV Dec. 28, 2012, 6:48 p.m.
Consumers rate DirecTV

Of course, those promotional rates don't always turn out the way consumers expect, as Michael of North East, Md., said in a ConsumerAffairs posting earlier today:

I was a DirecTV member for 13+ years. I never had a late payment or complaint during the entire duration, but that's because I remained on the "billing cycle," and  never called them for anything. I found out that our local cable was much cheaper and attempted a simple "switch". DirecTV then offered a cheaper rate, but then never applied it accurately to my account. After months (almost a year of monthly phone calls), I demanded cancellation. DirecTV then fabricated an "early termination fee" of over $300.00. Now DirecTV has me in "collections," and is impacting my credit report. Wow. Explain an "early termination fee" after 13+ years of being a loyal customer! Unreal.

There've been a lot of cat fights between content providers and distributors over the last few years, including a spat between DirecTV and Viacom, which had resisted higher fees sought by channels like Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and MTV.

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Study: Alcohol is worse for the teen brain than marijuana

In a separate study, researchers find that kids don't think pot is as bad as they used to

One of the main warnings that kids hear about the harms of pot smoking is that it will ruin their brain cells, but researchers from the Universit...

PhotoOne of the main warnings that kids hear about the dangers of pot smoking is that it will ruin their brain cells, but researchers from the University of California-San Diego along with the University of Pittsburgh, say otherwise.

In a recent study, 92 young adults and teens were examined for a total of 18 months to determine the true effects of extended alcohol and marijuana use. Each of the participants had records of using both substances in the past, and brain scans were taken before and after the testing period.

One half of the group continued to use alcohol and marijuana in their usual amounts during the study and the other participants either kept away from both substances or dramatically reduced their levels of consumption.

At the end of the study, researchers learned the participants that continued to use alcohol showed signs of brain tissue damage, while those who continued to smoke marijuana during the study didn’t show any brain tissue damage.

Joanna Jacobus, who co-authored the study, said that because of the various ways the herb is grown today, it's hard to pinpoint its effect on users.

“One reason is that marijuana can really vary, is made in different ways, and with higher or lower levels of THC and other marijuana components,” she said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “For example, one component, cannabidiol, may actually have neuroprotective effects.”

Opinions changing

PhotoIn a separate study released by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers found that opinions about marijuana being harmful among teenagers is at a 20-year low, as 41.7 percent of kids in the eighth grade said periodic marijuana use is bad, compared to 66.9 percent that said dangerous results are attached to regular use. 

And although previous studies have also confirmed that many commonly-used substances are actually worse for teens and adults when it comes to brain tissue damage, researchers of the NIH study still warn young people of the lasting effects of pot smoking, and say that the younger one starts, the greater chance they’ll eventually become addicted.

“Marijuana use that begins in adolescence increases the risk they will become addicted to the drug,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We are increasingly concerned that regular or daily use of marijuana is robbing many young people of their potential to achieve and excel in school or others aspects of life.”

In regards to the University California-San Diego study, Duncan Clark, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says the white matter—which is the part of the brain that researchers were observing during the study—may have been damaged among the teens before the study was conducted, especially since both test groups used alcohol and marijuana regularly in the past.

“The areas of the brain that are composed mostly of connecting axons have been termed ‘white matter,’ since these areas appear white in color,” he said.

“However, prior research has not clearly demonstrated that this white matter disorganization is caused by alcohol or marijuana use. In some studies where adolescents are studied only once, white matter disorganization may have been present prior to alcohol or marijuana use.”

More damage

PhotoHowever Jacobson and her team did conclude that among the two substances, alcohol clearly caused more damage to the brain than marijuana did.

“We found evidence for poorer white matter tissue health in teens who engage in heavy alcohol and marijuana use compared to those who abstain,” she said.

We also found that “increasing alcohol use over 1.5 years in late adolescence was related to a decline in white matter health 18 months later, supporting a negative effect of alcohol use on the brain despite potential pre-existing differences.”

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7-Eleven wants you to eat healthier

The company says by the year 2012, 20 percent of its products will be fresh foods.

Let’s face it, when you think of places to get a healthy bite, 7-Eleven isn’t the first place that comes to mind.Apparently, executives for t...

PhotoLet’s face it, when you think of places to get a healthy bite, 7-Eleven isn’t the first place that comes to mind.

But executives for the company are looking to change that by adding healthier meal items to its existing menu options of hot dogs, Slurpees and snack foods.

The new initiative has already started being rolled out in U.S. and Canadian stores, and by 2015, 7-Elevens will contain about 20 percent of fresh food items compared to only 10 percent that are in stores now.

One could say 7-Eleven really deserves a lot of credit for trying to go healthier, but it may be the chain really doesn't have much of a choice, as not only have many fast-food places and supermarkets gone healthier, the entire country seems to be shifting its tastes towards healthier fare.

Although the U.S. still has some very serious health and obesity issues brought about by unhealthy eating and a lack of physical activity, the general attitude of the country seems to be less accepting of these lifestyle choices, as national debates and new health initiatives are being birthed everyday.

Change or die

So 7-Eleven executives are trying to change its brand image from being a place that drunken college kids go to after parties, to somewhere adults, professionals and families can stop and get something that’s not slathered in cheese or looks like it should come with a complimentary bottle of cholesterol medicine.

7-Eleven CEO Joseph DePinto admitted that his stores are  catering to new attitudes that consumers are developing about healthier eating, and that by ignoring these changing attitudes, it would do a disservice to customers, 7-Eleven’s brand and the country at large.

“We’re aspiring to be more of a food and beverage company,” he said. “And that aligns with what the consumer now wants, which is more tasty, healthy, fresh food choices.

Photo7-Eleven is also trying to make its stores a triple retail threat, by adding healthier foods that can serve as breakfast, lunch or dinner for people, instead of being a place that just serves snacks and a couple of overly cooked hot dogs.

“We’re working to create a portfolio of fresh foods," said a 7-Eleven spokesman. “Some will be snacking, some for a quick meal, but we hope everything we offer our guests is convenient and tasty.”

However the challenge for 7-Eleven and other brands trying to pull off an image change is changing the minds of consumers, who already look at the convenience store chain largely as a place for snacks and junk food, or maybe a quick quart of milk on the way home.

And even if 7-Eleven changes all of its items to offer healthier options, consumers may not ever make the mental shift required to consider 7-Eleven a healthier place to eat.

A long road?

It's good 7-Eleven is getting to work on turning around its image, but it has a long way to go, judging from the reviews posted to ConsumerAffairs.

7-Eleven Dec. 28, 2012, 4:16 a.m.
Consumers rate 7-Eleven
“Egg price for Large AA eggs are usually $1.89, a little expensive but worth it for the quality," wrote Ramon of Brooklyn, NY.

“Walked in today (after a snow fall) and the price is $2.49. A sixty cents increase, almost 33 percent. I want this price gauging recorded and investigated. There are many elderly and frail tenants in the Mitchell Lamas across the street from the 7-Eleven, and the practice is unfair.”

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how prices will be affected by the healthier food options coming to 7-Eleven, as fresher and healthier usually means pricier. It will also be interesting to see if consumers are willing to pay more for fresher foods.

There’s certainly a possibility the store chain could spend millions of dollars sprucing up its food offerings and people will still go there for items they’ve always purchased like coffee, cigarettes, gas in some locations and junk food.

But either way, 7-Eleven offering healthier food items is certainly a step in the right direction for the company if it’s looking to compete with other stores and eateries that have made a healthier switch too.

Plus, if 7-Eleven doesn’t make an effort to improve its offerings, it could eventually become a brand that’s synonymous with junk food eating and not caring about the health of its consumers or the country, and no business wants that.

Not even one that built a business on selling junk food for so many years.

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2012 housing market ends on bullish note

Sales are up late in the year and so are prices

The looming fiscal cliff not withstanding, the outlook for the U.S. housing market in 2013 continues to look brighter. A flurry of data at the end of 2012 ...

PhotoThe looming fiscal cliff not withstanding, the outlook for the U.S. housing market in 2013 continues to look brighter. A flurry of data at the end of 2012 is adding to the optimism.

Pending home sales, a measure of contracts signed but not yet closed, rose for a third straight month in November, reaching the highest level in two-and-a-half years, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

"Even with market frictions related to the mortgage process, home contract activity continues to improve," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. "Home sales are recovering now based solely on fundamental demand and favorable affordability conditions."

Pending sales hit their highest level since April 2010, when buyers rushed to get their contracts in under the expiring homebuyer's tax credit. The last time pending sales were this strong without an outside incentive was February 2007, early in the recession.

New home sales rise

This month also brought news on an increase in new home sales, the slowest part of the housing market to recover. The U.S. Commerce Department reports new home sales increased 4.4 percent in November. While any gain is good news, economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., says the market has a long way to go.

"We need to see something closer to one million units sold not the current pace of 377,000 so there is a long way to go before the market is considered to be strong," Naroff said.

There was also a lot of volatility in the numbers as demand jumped by double-digits in the Northeast, which was a surprise given Sandy, as well as South but was off double-digits in the Midwest and the West.

"The number of homes for sale is on the rise, an indication that builders' confidence is growing," Naroff said.

Gain in home prices

The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, also released this week, showed a strong year-over-year increase in home prices in October. The monthly 10-city index showed the average home price was up 3.4 percent. For the 20-city index, prices were up 4.3 percent.

Las Vegas saw the strongest gain at 2.8 percent. On the downside, Chicago and Boston continue to show weakness.

“Looking over this report, and considering other data on housing starts and sales, it is clear that the housing recovery is gathering strength," said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Higher year-over-year price gains plus strong performances in the southwest and California, regions that suffered during the housing bust, confirm that housing is now contributing to the economy."

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Losing weight is a lifestyle choice

Experts say it's part of a permanent commitment to change

If you ask people for a New Year's resolution, chances are a lot of people will tell you they resolve to lose weight in the coming year. Chances are also g...

PhotoIf you ask people for a New Year's resolution, chances are a lot of people will tell you they resolve to lose weight in the coming year. Chances are also good they will fail.

Despite the numerous diet programs and products available to consumers, losing weight and maintaining that new weight is not easy to do. Where most people run into trouble, says Shaynee Roper, clinical nutrition manager for the Harris Health System, is how they view the challenge.

Losing weight is not a change in diet, she says, but a change in lifestyle.

“A lot of people set goals and are really gung-ho in January and February, but then their energy fades because they’re not making a lifestyle change,” said Roper. “Most want a quick fix, but if you have more than 8-10 pounds to lose, it isn’t going to be a quick fix. You have to stay on task and stick with it for 6-12 months to see results.”

Small goals

How do you make losing weight part of your lifestyle? It starts with setting small goals. You might set a weekly goal of losing a pound or even five pounds over a month. Or better yet, don’t establish weight goals. Just try to reduce or eliminate bad foods like fried food or sweets.

Keeping track of what you eat and drink is also important. In the beginning it helps to write it down. If you know how many calories -- or approximately how many calories a food item has -- write that down too. Knowing how many calories you're taking in and how many you are burning is a good way to stay on track.

If you notice that there are certain foods you tend to over-consume, try to cut back. Eliminate them altogether if they aren't healthy. Replace them with fruits and vegetables.

Food is not a reward

PhotoRoper says it's fine to reward yourself for hitting certain goals, just don't reward yourself with food. Buy yourself something special or treat yourself to an event like a concert or movie.

The important thing to remember is the change can be gradual.

“When eliminating or reducing certain foods from your diet, pick one or two to start," Roper said. "Work on these for two weeks before adding more.”

Exercise is also part of a lifestyle change and 30 minutes a day will provide results. But again, don't feel like you have to do it all at once. Roper suggests breaking up the 30 minutes of recommended activity into small 5-10 minute segments throughout the day. The idea is to get your metabolism revved up and into gear.

Mayo Clinic advice

While hundreds of fad diets, weight-loss programs and outright scams promise quick and easy weight loss, the Mayo Clinic also stresses a healthy lifestyle as the foundation for a successful weight-loss program. And these changes must be permanent.

"It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to change your habits," the clinic staff says in a website posting. "So as you're planning new weight-loss-related lifestyle changes, make a plan to address other stresses in your life first, such as financial problems or relationship conflicts. While these stresses may never go away completely, managing them better should improve your ability to focus on achieving a healthier lifestyle."

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Amazon again tops customer satisfaction poll

Apple, Dell and JC Penney lose ground in annual survey

Consumers are not only doing more of their shopping online, they appear to be increasingly satisfied with the results, at least with some retailers.The a...

PhotoConsumers are not only doing more of their shopping online, they appear to be increasingly satisfied with the results, at least with some retailers.

The annual Holiday E-Retail Satisfaction Index from analytics firm ForeSee shows Amazon.com maintained its Index rating of 88 this holiday season, matching last year and leading the pack of other online retailers.

LL Bean was second with a rating of 85, up four points from last year.

Eighth annual survey

The survey is based on interviews with more than 24,000 customers, collected between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year's survey -- the eighth -- expanded the universe of e-retailers from 40 to 100.

The survey found that Amazon.com continues to set the standard for customer satisfaction, matching the record high of 88 it set last year in the holiday edition of the Index. It's not exactly a new trend. Amazon has had the highest scores in the Index for eight years in a row, consistently setting a pace that other retailers don’t seem to be able to touch, according to ForeSee.

“At this point, Amazon has been dominant for so long and has such a history of focusing on the customer, its hard to imagine anyone else coming close,” said Larry Freed, ForeSee president and CEO. “Companies should emulate Amazon’s focus on the customer, which is clearly linked to superior revenues over the years.”

Exceptions

As with any large company, however, not everyone is happy. Ramon, of North Brunswick, N.J., wrote to say he had a bad Amazon experience during the holidays.

"Simple, I paid $30.00 dollars for a 2 day delivery and it is taking the whole week," Ramon wrote in his ConsumerAffairs post. "This is wrong."

Though satisfaction with top retailers essentially remains the same, a few big-name retailers suffered declines in this year's survey. At the same time it's stock price was plummeting on Wall Street, Apple’s online retail store slid four percent to 80, slipping from a tie for second place and out of the top five entirely, registering its lowest score in four years.

PC seller Dell.com also fell four percent to 77 and below the Index average. But the biggest year-over-year decline went to JCPenney.com, with a six percent decline to 78.

Companies at risk

“This year, we’re seeing that even some of the largest companies in the country are at risk if they lose sight of customer satisfaction,” Freed said. “Satisfaction with the customer experience, when measured correctly, is the most important predictor of future success, and while Amazon clearly gets it, Apple stumbles from their usual focus on the customer experience. Dell and JC Penney seem to be struggling to find their way, which could make them extremely vulnerable to competitors.”

Companies have a lot to gain by making their customers happy. Compared to shoppers who report being dissatisfied with a Website, highly satisfied shoppers say they are 67 percent more likely to consider the company the next time they purchase a similar product.

Satisfied shoppers also report being far more likely to return to the site, recommend it and stay loyal to the brand. Analysis of top e-retailers in the U.S. has also shown that, on average, a one-point change in Website satisfaction was found to predict a 14 percent change in the log of revenues generated on the Web.

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Consumer confidence takes a dive

Uncertainty about what's likely to happen in the new year is a factor

Jitters about the so-called “fiscal cliff” have consumers on edge. The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index, which had declined slightly in...

PhotoJitters about the so-called “fiscal cliff” have consumers on edge.

The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index, which had declined slightly in November, posted another decrease in December. It now stands at 65.1 (1985=100) -- down from 71.5 in November.

The Expectations Index declined sharply to 66.5 from 80.9, while the Present Situation Index rose to 62.8 from 57.4 last month.

The fiscal cliff

“Consumers’ expectations retreated sharply in December resulting in a decline in the overall Index, “ said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “The sudden turnaround in expectations was most likely caused by uncertainty surrounding the oncoming fiscal cliff. A similar decline in expectations was experienced in August of 2011 during the debt ceiling discussions. While consumers are quite negative about the short-term outlook, they are more upbeat than last month about current business and labor market conditions.”

Other views

  • Consumers’ assessment of current conditions improved in December. Those seeing business conditions as “good” rose to 17.1 percent from 14.6 percent, while those who think business conditions are “bad” decreased to 27.3 percent from 31.2 percent.
  • Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was mixed. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” edged down to 10.3 percent from 11.0 percent, while those see jobs as “hard to get” declined to 35.6 percent from 37.4 percent.
  • Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook plummeted in December. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 17.6 percent from 21.3 percent, while those expecting business conditions to worsen increased to 21.5 percent from 15.8 percent.
  • Consumers’ outlook for the labor market also turned more pessimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead declined to 17.0 percent from 19.5 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs increased to 27.3 percent from 21.2 percent.
  • The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes was virtually unchanged at 15.4 percent. However, those expecting their incomes to decline rose to 18.7 percent from 15.6 percent.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was December 13.

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Uh-oh, gasoline prices are rising again

Despite falling demand, the average price has risen every day this week

Motorists should have known it was too good to last. After falling steadily for more than three months, prices at the pump started moving high this week....

PhotoMotorists should have known it was too good to last. After falling steadily for more than three months, prices at the pump started moving higher this week.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.279 per gallon, compared with $3.232 last week, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's about 14 cents lower than a month ago. Prices are about two cents higher than at this time a year ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.917 per gallon, versus $3.920 a week ago.

Annual January price increase

For the last two years January has brought higher gasoline prices. Both in 2011 and 2012 political turmoil in the Middle East provided an incentive for oil traders to bid oil prices higher. During both years belief the economy was recovering also made traders bullish on oil.

This year, however, the economy has slowed into the end of the year and concerns that Congress and the White House can't agree to head off automatic tax hikes and spending cuts have further raised the prospect of a recession. Inexplicably, oil prices are rising.

"As crude oil prices have firmed, the decline in retail gasoline prices has slowed and now reversed," said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. "Whether gas prices continue to rise or again turn lower will be impacted by action -- or inaction -- in Washington surrounding the looming fiscal cliff.”

Demand is falling

Prices at the pump have risen this week in the face of declining demand. MasterCard reports U.S. retail gasoline demand fell sharply from year-ago levels in the week before the Christmas holiday.

The AAA survey also shows sharp price swings in the west and Midwest. In the last week the average pump price plunged 13 cents a gallon in Utah and Idaho and eight cents in Wyoming and Colorado. Wyoming now has the cheapest average price in the nation. South Carolina, which led the nation for most of the year with the cheapest fuel, fell out of the top 10 states for least expensive gasoline this week.

Photo

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

  • Hawaii ($3.976)
  • New York ($3.732)
  • Connecticut ($3.667)
  • Alaska ($3.566)
  • California ($3.547)
  • Vermont ($3.531)
  • Rhode Island ($3.523)
  • Maine ($3.508)
  • Massachusetts ($3.457)
  • Pennsylvania ($3.455)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • Wyoming ($3.013)
  • Missouri ($3.025)
  • Oklahoma ($3.035)
  • Colorado ($3.046)
  • Utah ($3.074)
  • Idaho ($3.078)
  • Texas ($3.084)
  • Kansas ($3.089)
  • Minnesota ($3.091)

Tennessee ($3.110)

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Toyota agrees to $1 billion settlement in acceleration case

About 16 million consumers will be eligible for payments and safety updates

A Virginia man was severely injured in an unexplained single car accident involving this Toyota Camry. (Staff photo)Calling it a "significant step forw...

Photo
A Virginia man was severely injured in an unexplained single car accident involving this Toyota Camry. (Staff photo)

Calling it a "significant step forward," Toyota said it will pay more than $1 billion to settle lawsuits growing out of unintended acceleration incidents. About 16 million owners of Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles will be eligible for payments and safety updates to their cars.

The settlement is one of the largest ever in an automotive lawsuit, according to Steve W. Berman, one of the lead plaintiff lawyers. U.S. District Judge James Selna must still approve the terms of the settlement.

Just last week, Toyota agreed to pay $17.35 million -- the maximum fine allowable under the law -- in response to a federal agency's assertion that the automaker failed to report a safety defect to the federal government in a timely manner. It's the single highest civil penalty amount ever paid to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for violations stemming from a recall.

Toyota paid nearly $50 million in fines in the U.S. in 2010 and millions more conducting recalls and fighting lawsuits, most of them related to alleged incidents of unintended acceleration.

In May 2011, a panel of experts appointed by the automaker said it hadn't done enough to address the safety problems that have plagued the company and its customers.

The panel, headed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, said the recalls of more than 10 million vehicles since 2009 were largely attributable to Toyota's centralized decision-making process and the company "skepticism and defensiveness" towards consumers.

"Step forward"

PhotoAs is usual in such cases, the company issued a statement saying it decided to settle to spare the expense and distraction of a lengthy trial, neglecting to add the possibility that it might have lost had the case gone to trial.

“This agreement marks a significant step forward for our company, one that will enable us to put more of our energy, time and resources into Toyota’s central focus: making the best vehicles we can for our customers and doing everything we can to meet their needs,” said Christopher P. Reynolds, group vice president and general counsel, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A, and chief legal officer, Toyota Motor North America.  “In keeping with our core principles, we have structured this agreement in ways that work to put our customers first and demonstrate that they can count on Toyota to stand behind our vehicles.”

Toyota recalled millions of vehicles over the last few years to correct problems linked to reports of sudden, unintended acceleration. The company has denied its electronic throttle system was to blame, a position supported by most safety regulators but contested by owners of cars involved in accidents.

In some, but not all, models, a floor mat that could slide forward and interfere with control pedals was blamed for the problem.

“This was a difficult decision – especially since reliable scientific evidence and multiple independent evaluations have confirmed the safety of Toyota’s electronic throttle control systems," Reynolds said.  "However, we concluded that turning the page on this legacy legal issue through the positive steps we are taking is in the best interests of the company, our employees, our dealers and, most of all, our customers.”

More information

Reynolds said that if the settlement is approved by the court, Toyota will launch a "new customer-support program that will provide prospective supplemental coverage for certain vehicle components and will retrofit additional non-hybrid vehicle models subject to the floor mat recall with a free brake override system (BOS) to provide an added measure of confidence."  Toyota also said it would offer cash payments to eligible customers who sold or turned in their leased vehicles in a period during 2009-2010, as well to some other owners.

For more information on the economic loss settlement, consumers are asked to visit www.toyotaelsettlement.com or call 877-283-0507.

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Lasik Surgery: Have the risks been properly communicated?

The federal government says eye care providers aren't being totally honest

Back in the day if a doctor told you they would be able to shoot a laser directly into your eye to correct your vision one day, you might have thought...

PhotoBack in the day if a doctor told you they would be able to shoot a laser directly into your eye to correct your vision one day, you might have thought they were either a quack or a sadist.

Well, today Laser-Assisted in Situ Keratomeleusis -- Lasik surgery -- is a commonly-used procedure to permanently correct one’s impaired vision, specifically those with nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism.

The procedure involves reshaping the eye’s cornea with a laser to correct vision.

According to the research firm Market Scope, there were over 600,000 Lasik surgeries performed in 2011 and although many people have reported improved sight with no vision problems after the procedure, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still warns consumers about many potential side effects.

One of the first things to do before opting for Lasik surgery is to determine if you’re really a candidate for the procedure, says the FDA, as the surgery isn’t the answer for all people who have vision problems.

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Side effects, contraindications

Those who aren’t good candidates for Lasik surgery include people who had changes in their glasses or contact lenses in the past year, those who have certain chronic ailments like diabetes, and those who take medications like Prednisone, which can slow down post-surgery healing.  

The FDA also says those with a history of eye diseases such as glaucoma may also be ineligible for Lasik, which is why it’s important to do all the research you’re able to before speaking to your doctor, so you’re able to ask the questions that are most pertinent to your specific case.

The FDA put up a Lasik website and informational video (below) and emphasizes the importance of patients speaking to their ophthalmologist about any previous eye injuries or eye surgeries.

Experts say if used on the right candidate, Lasik can be a very effective type of surgery.

“The FDA reviews the clinical data from Lasik Laser manufacturers,” said Anita Rayner, an expert on FDA patient safety regulations. “These data showed that when Lasik is done properly, and on the right patients, the benefits outweigh the risks.”

90% successful

PhotoAccording to statistics from the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), over 90 percent of people who have undergone Lasik achieved 20/20 to 20/40 vision and are able to fully function without glasses or contact lenses in their daily lives.

However the AAO also warns that although many achieve 20/20 after the surgery, it may not be the 20/20 that most people are used to through their contact lenses, as many people have reported that their vision was improved by leaps and bounds, but their sight still wasn’t as sharp as it was when visual aids were worn.

In fact, this dullness of vision has been so prevalent among some Lasik patients that the ophthalmic community has coined the term “loss of contrast sensitivity” and warns people who are in jobs that require a lot of visual focus like an editor, painter or numbers cruncher, to give an extra amount of consideration to determine if undergoing Lasik is really worth the risks.

Other serious side effects patients can encounter include night vision problems, halos, starburst, light sensitivity and double vision, which can either be temporary or permanent depending on several factors that should be discussed beforehand with your doctor.

Take it seriously

In an published interview Morris Waxler, who directed the FDA’s initiative to regulate Lasik, said although the FDA revealed the side effects and dangers associated with the procedure, the general public -- the health community included -- should have taken the warnings much more seriously.

“I wouldn’t say it was pooh-poohed so much as it was just sort of shoved aside,” he said. “It’s right there in the record. The agencies and the refractive surgeons' people know these problems occur and there doesn’t seem to be a plan to handle some of the more difficult problems that are created.”

To assure that eye care providers properly communicate the risks involved with Lasik surgery, the FDA sent letters to eye-care facilities in Georgia, Indiana, Florida, Texas and California this week, warning them to halt their misleading advertising that fails to warn consumers about the many risks involved with Lasik.

The letters are part of an ongoing effort by the FDA to provide a better balance of information about the benefits and potential harm of Lasik and what consumers should keep in mind before going forward with surgery.

“Providers whose advertising does not provide adequate risk information are finding out today that the FDA is serious about consumer protection,” said FDA’s compliance director for its Center for Devices and Radiological Health division.

“The FDA reminds consumers that eye surgery such as Lasik is irreversible, that not all patients will achieve optimal results, and that some patients may need additional procedures.”

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Is chicken soup really good for the flu?

A researcher says yes, and he's been studying the stuff for over 18 years.

Let’s be frank. A lot of home remedies that are past down from previous generations just don’t work, and some can actually make your condition ...

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Dating sites that cut to the chase

New breed of site matches the 'attractive' with the 'generous'

When a consumer signs up with a dating site, they are usually in search of something. And dating sites usually have their niche, based on that desire.EHa...

PhotoWhen a consumer signs up with a dating site, they are usually in search of something. And dating sites usually have their niche, based on that desire.

eHarmony, for example, is usually favored by those who are looking for a deep, long-lasting relationship. Match.com by those who want to meet someone new. Busy professionals sometimes favor It's Just Lunch.

But there's a new breed of dating site that is a bit more direct. These are what are called "paid" dating sites. As in, paid to go on a date.

SeekingArrangements.com is one such site, promising to match up "attractive" women with wealthy dates. According to the site, an arrangement is short for "Mutually Beneficial Relationship" between two people.

Mutually beneficial

"At Seeking Arrangement, we believe that successful relationships are all Mutually Beneficial Relationships in that they are two way street, i.e., two people giving as much as they take from each other," the site says.

"So no matter what you are seeking whether it is love, companionship, friendship or some financial help, and whether it will be for a short-term, long-term or life-long arrangement, we hope you will find the perfect match here," the company says on its website. "Remember, it takes time to find your perfect soul-mate, but because you only live once, you ought to have fun while looking for that special someone."

Protection from economic turbulence

The site is currently promoting itself as a way attractive women can protect themselves from fallout from the fiscal cliff. A video on the site advises women that attractive women can improve their financial situation if they date successful and generous men.

Photo

WhatsYourPrice.com, which was founded by the same person as SeekingArrangements.com, is even more direct. It's divided into "attractive members" and "generous members." The generous members "bid" for the opportunity to have a first date with he attractive members. A company video describes how it works.

The site also offers "first date ideas" and etiquette tips. The etiquette tips include asking for 50 percent of the payment at the start of the date and 50 percent at the end, and only accepting cash.

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E-reader use jumps seven percent this year

Nearly a quarter of U.S. consumers have read an e-book this year

More consumers are reading books on tablets and e-readers. A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that in the past year, the number...

PhotoMore consumers are reading books on tablets and e-readers. A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that in the past year, the number of those who read e-books increased from 16 percent of all Americans ages 16 and older to 23 percent.

At the same time, the number of consumers who read a printed book in the previous 12 months fell from 72 percent to 67 percent.

It should come as no surprise that the trend toward e-reading is occurring at a time when more consumers own a tablet or e-reader. The number of people who own either a tablet computer or e-book reading device such as a Kindle or Nook grew from 18 percent in late 2011 to 33 percent in late 2012.

Rapid growth

As of November about 25 percent of U.S. consumers ages 16 and older own tablet computers such as iPads or e-readers like Kindle Fires, up from 10 percent who owned tablets in late 2011. In the latter part of this year 19 percent of Americans ages 16 and older owned e-book reading devices such as Kindles and Nooks, compared with 10 percent who owned the devices at the same time last year.

Thanks to the iPad, tablet ownership has overtaken e-readers in the U.S., according to the survey. In May of 2010 four percent of the population had an e-reader opposed to three percent who owned tablets. By November of this year, 25 percent owned a tablet whole 19 percent had an e-reader.

It should also come as no surprise that people who read e-books have more income and more education. The survey found that those most likely to have read an e-book have a college or graduate degree and live in households earning more than $75,000 a year.

A demographic breakdown of consumers shows growth in e-book consumption across the board. Men and women use them almost equally and the largest age group reporting e-book use is the 30-49 segment.

Not yet peaked

In the breakdown, all groups showed an increase in e-book use in the last year, suggesting the trend has yet to peak.

Amazon.com pioneered the e-book with the first Kindle, a gray-scale electronic reader that could download an electronic version of a book. It was introduced in 2007 as a single device. Today there are several versions, including the full color Kindle Fire, which is more of a tablet.

Barnes and Noble introduced an e-reader called the Nook in November 2009. The original Nook included both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity.

In April 2010 Apple changed the game with the introduction of the iPad tablet computer, which also operated as an e-reader. Since then other manufacturers have produced by e-readers and tablets, making e-books more accessible to consumers.

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Mortgage rates end 2012 near record low

Fiscal cliff fears are keeping rates down

It turns out last week's jump in mortgage rates may have been an aberration. In two weekly surveys mortgage rates have pulled back to end the year near a r...

PhotoIt turns out last week's jump in mortgage rates may have been an aberration. In two weekly surveys mortgage rates have pulled back to end the year near a record low.

Freddie Mac's weekly Primary Mortgage Market Survey shows the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) dipped to 3.35 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending today, down from last week when it averaged 3.37. A year ago this week the average 30-year FRM was 3.95 percent.

The 15-year FRM this week averaged 2.65 percent with an average 0.7 point -- unchanged from last week. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.24 percent.

The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.70 percent this week with an average 0.7 point, down from last week when it averaged 2.71 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.88 percent.

Low rates throughout 2012

"The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.66 percent for 2012, the lowest annual average in at least 65 years," said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. "Rates on 30-year fixed mortgages were nearly 0.6 percentage points below that of the beginning of the year, which translates into an interest payment savings of nearly $98,600 over the life of a $200,000 loan."

Rates in Bankrate.com's weekly national survey were slightly higher but were also down a bit from the previous week.

The average 30-year FRM was 3.59 percent, down from 3.62 percent the week before. The average 15-year FRM was 2.87 percent, down from 2.89 percent the previous week.

Bankrate found the 5/1 ARM averaged 2.77 percent this week. That's down from 2.78 percent the week before.

Bankrate analysts attributed the pull-back to renewed worries that the government would not resolve the fiscal cliff, making a 2013 recession more likely. Those fears prompt more investors to move into bonds for safety, thereby helping keep rates low.

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The strawberries are about to disappear from the labels of Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups

A settlement agreement reached with General Mills resolves a lawsuit

You may have a hard time finding any strawberries on the labels of Strawberry Naturally Flavored Fruit Roll-Ups. That's because General Mills has resolved ...

PhotoYou'll soon have a hard time finding any strawberries on the labels of Strawberry Naturally Flavored Fruit Roll-Ups.

That's because General Mills has resolved a lawsuit over the labels brought against the company by Annie Lam, who was represented by the nonprofit nutrition watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the consumer protection law firm Reese Richman LLP.

Strawberry Naturally Flavored Fruit Roll-Ups contain no strawberries but are made with pears from concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and 2 percent or less various natural and artificial ingredients.

Good-by strawberries

So long as the product continues not to contain strawberries, the new labels will not depict images of strawberries, according to the agreement.

And, so long as the product's label carries the claim "Made with Real Fruit," such claims will be required to include the actual percentage of fruit in the product. Both of those changes will take effect in 2014.

"By stating the actual percentage of fruit in the product, these labels will be less likely to lead consumers to believe that the product is all or mostly fruit," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "A more accurate name for the product would be Pear Naturally Flavored Fruit Roll-Ups, since pear is present and strawberry is absent. But the removal of pictures of strawberries is a step in the right direction.”

Other lawsuits

In recent years, CSPI's litigation unit has negotiated agreements or otherwise spurred improvements in labeling or advertising for products as diverse as Airborne dietary supplements, Centrum multivitamins and Aunt Jemima Blueberry Waffles . CSPI negotiated a settlement agreement improving the nutritional quality of Kellogg products marketed to children, and its lawsuit against KFC spurred that company to cease using partially hydrogenated oil.

CSPI currently is pursuing litigation aimed at correcting labeling and advertising for Coca-Cola's Vitaminwater and Dr Pepper Snapple Group's 7UP "Antioxidant" varieties.

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Four retailers to stop sale and recall Nap Nanny recliners

The actions are prompted by reports of five infant deaths

Four major retailers -- Amazon.com, Buy Buy Baby, Diapers.com and Toys R Us/Babies R Us -- are announcing a voluntary recall to consumers who own Nap Nanny...

PhotoFour major retailers -- Amazon.com, Buy Buy Baby, Diapers.com and Toys R Us/Babies R Us -- are announcing a voluntary recall to consumers who own Nap Nanny recliners made by Baby Matters of Berwyn, PA.

At the request of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), these retailers have agreed to voluntarily participate because the manufacturer is unable or unwilling to participate in the recall.

Design defect

CPSC is warning parents and caregivers that these baby recliners contain defects in the design, warnings and instructions, which pose a substantial risk of injury and death to infants. This recall includes the Nap Nanny Generations One and Two, and the Chill model infant recliners.

In July 2010, CPSC and Baby Matters, LLC issued a joint recall news release that offered a discount coupon to Generation One owners toward the purchase of a newer model Nap Nanny, and improved instructions and warnings to consumers who owned the Generation Two model of Nap Nanny recliners.

At the time of the 2010 recall, CPSC was aware of one death that had occurred in a Nap Nanny recliner and 22 reports of infants hanging or falling out over the side of the Nap Nanny, even though most of the infants had been placed in the harness.

Additional deaths reported

Subsequently, despite the improvements to the warnings and instructions, additional deaths using the Nap Nanny recliners were reported, including one in a Chill model. Since the 2010 recall, CPSC has received an additional 70 reports of children nearly falling out of the product.

The Nap Nanny is a portable infant recliner designed for sleeping, resting and playing. The recliner includes a bucket seat shaped foam base and a fitted fabric cover with a three point harness. Five thousand Nap Nanny Generation One and 50,000 Generation Two models were sold between 2009 and early 2012 and have been discontinued. One hundred thousand Chill Models have been sold since January 2011.

The recalled Nap Nanny recliners were sold at toy and children's retail stores nationwide and online. All models were priced around $130.

For more information, consumers should review the return policy of the individual retailer from which they purchased a Nap Nanny recliner. If the product was purchased at one of the retailers below, see the link or call for instructions on returns:

Amazon.com 

Buy Buy Baby: Toll-free at (877) 328-9222, 

Diapers.com: (800) 342-7377

Toys R Us/Babies R Us: (800) 869-7787, 

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Seven small steps toward improved financial health

Even minor changes in money management can pay off big

Money can't buy happiness, they say, but effectively managing your money just might. It can help you avoid lots of headaches that make life less enjoyable....

PhotoMoney can't buy happiness, they say, but effectively managing your money just might. It can help you avoid lots of headaches that make life less enjoyable.

Personal finance experts say reducing debt is one of the best ways to exercise control over your financial life. However, don't fall for the heavily-advertised debt settlement programs that make getting out of debt sound easy. It's usually not, unless you win the lottery.

However, there are seven small steps you can take in the coming year that might put you on the path to better financial stability.

Start with the basics

  1. Ask for your free credit report. Every consumer is entitled to a free copy of their credit report from all three credit reporting agencies -- Experian, Equifax and Trans Union -- once a year. Just make sure you go to www.AnnualCreditReport.com and not one of the commercial services that have the word "free" in their name. You'll know you're in the wrong place if you are asked to provide a credit card number. Getting your credit report will let you see where you stand credit-wise. It will also allow you to ensure no one has stolen your identity and begun opening accounts in your name.
  2. Create a budget. This is basic personal finance 101. It will allow you to see exactly where your money goes each month. and help eliminate non-essentials from your spending habits.
  3. Create a goal. It's easier to exercise financial discipline when there's a reason for it. The goal doesn't have to be a purchase -- it could also be to pay down debt.
  4. Develop a plan for paying down debt. Working with a financial planner or using an online debt management tool can help you prioritize debts.
  5. Analyze major purchases. If you are considering a new car or big screen TV create a list of pros and cons to help you make a smart financial decision. Make sure it fits within your overall budget plan.
  6. Pay your bills on time. Past-due bills can incur late fees and will negatively affect your credit score. They can also knock you off your financial discipline game very quickly.
  7. Manage your available credit. Avoid opening extra credit card accounts, even when retailers offer discounts for doing so. Just opening one could have a negative impact on your credit score.

Small steps

"It may seem daunting at first, but by taking even small steps in 2013, you can reduce debt and take more control of your own finances," said Trey Loughran , president of the Personal Solutions unit at Equifax. "This is a new year's resolution worth keeping all year long."

 

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Want to eat healthy in 2013? Here's how

eMeals suggests some small changes that can make a big difference

“This year, I'm going to eat healthy.” How many times have you said that on January 1 and by February 1 been back on the diet of a Big Mac for lunch and pi...

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Some New Millennium Bank customers to get refunds

Bank settles with FDIC and exits the credit card business

In a settlement with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), New Millennium Bank has agreed to make restitution to certain credit card customers....

PhotoIn a settlement with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), New Millennium Bank has agreed to make restitution to certain credit card customers.

The consent order stems from action FDIC took against the bank in 2010 regarding its credit card marketing and administrative practices. Under the order, the bank will make restitution payments to certain customers adversely affected by its prior practices, and pay to the FDIC a civil penalty.

New Millennium was a major supplier of secured credit cards offered to consumers with a poor credit rating. The cards had a low credit limit and large fees, even though they were secured by a fairly large payment by the consumer and held by the bank.

Lots of complaints

ConsumerAffairs received a barrage of complaints in 2010 from consumers who either didn't understand the terms of the card agreement or who were unable to get a card, even after sending in a payment.

"I applied for a secured credit card in April 2010 and had to pay a $99.95 processing fee," Paul, of Albany, NY, wrote in July 2010. "I did not receive the welcome kit I was supposed to receive. I called today because I have not received a welcome kit and was told that there was a suspension placed on issuing new cards or accepting deposits because of the new credit card regulations, that this started two weeks ago and that it would be resolved soon, but that there was no specific date the cards would be issued. I Googled it afterwards and found out this has been in place since May 10. I am not expecting my card, a refund, or the suspension to be lifted."

Waiting for a card

Gwendolyn, of Orlando, Fla., reported that same year that she responded to a mailer from the bank but got no card. Abraham of Far Rockaway, NY, reported a similar experience.

"I was pre-approved for a credit card with the premise that I must first send a processing fees," Abraham wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "My check was cashed and there was no card. I have waited for over two months now."

New Millennium came under FDIC investigation in 2010 and later that year, the agency forced the bank to suspend its credit card activities because of its consumer disclosure and compliance program.

In announcing its settlement with FDIC, New Millennium announced it is selling its remaining credit card portfolio to another financial institution and fully exiting the credit card business. The transaction is expected to close soon, subject to regulatory approval.

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The companies and brands that angered you the most in 2012

There were plenty of companies that didn't get it right this year

Well, it’s almost that time of year again where we break out the champagne, gather the confetti and put on those silly paper gold top hats that some ...

PhotoWell, it’s almost that time of year again where we break out the Champagne, gather the confetti and put on those silly paper hats. And as people try to mouth the words to Auld Lang Syne, they’ll also be recalling some of their experiences over the past 12 months, which will be a combination of memory flashes surrounding work experiences, the happenings in their personal lives and the events that took place with their friends, family members and co-workers.

Many will also recall some of the experiences they had with certain products, brands and companies in 2012, as consumers wrote to us about everything from furniture they purchased, to plunking money down on dating sites and not finding the love they were looking for.

Here's a look at a few of the companies that were on consumers' minds in 2012. These companies were selected not on the basis of how often they were reviewed but rather, how often consumers viewed their pages on our site.

So, being ono this list doesn't necessarily mean consumers are more upset with these companies than with others, it just means they're interested in finding out more about them.

Emerson TV

Emerson TVs Dec. 24, 2012, 6:45 p.m.
Consumers rate Emerson TVs

Probably the most talked-about company this year was Emerson, which released a string of new TVs that a lot of people weren’t too thrilled about.

The first comment in 2012 about Emerson TVs came on January 3, from Mike of Webberville, Mich., and the last comment was written by Jill of Topsahm, Vt. on December 21.

Both readers -- and many in-between -- gave Emerson a negative review and each gave the company a personal satisfaction rating of just one out of five stars.

Jill received an Emerson TV by delivery with no power cord and received practically no assistance from the company to get it delivered, Mike bought two TVs that didn’t even work.

There’s no doubt that it’s been a rough year for the electronics company, according to some reviews, and whether Emerson is able to improve some of its products and customer service issues in 2013 remains to be seen. 

“I bought two Emerson 32-inch LCD TVs at Christmas and neither one worked,” wrote Mike just two days into 2012. “What a joke. I have a lot better things to do with my time than drag TVs back and forth to Wal-Mart.”

Samsung TV

Samsung TV Dec. 24, 2012, 7:06 p.m.
Consumers rate Samsung TV

Samsung TV was close behind Emerson, thanks largely to problems with a capacitor in the power supply that can cause the flat-screen TVs to fail at an early age.

"I called Samsung with the problem and set up a service. They came out today and replaced the capacitor that Samsung would pay for. The TV is still doing the same thing. The TV is still turning on and off even after being 'repaired,'" Karen of Lakeland, Fla., wrote. "I was then told by the repairman that it was the main board that's needed to be replaced. Samsung's not paying for that.

"I called Samsung and they said that the main board is not covered under the defect with the TV. I looked at all the complaints and now know that other customers are having the same problem even after repair. Same thing - main board needs to be replaced. Samsung is supposed to have someone call me in 2-3 days. We'll see. Very disappointed. I paid over $1,500 for this TV!"

Whatever the brand, the sad truth is that flat-screen TVs are more prone to problems than their ancestors. They also use a lot more power than traditional TVs and cost a lot more. So maybe it's time to get used to watching TV and movies on our iPads and other handheld devices?

Kevin Trudeau

Kevin Trudeau Dec. 24, 2012, 6:48 p.m.
Consumers rate Kevin Trudeau

Another huge topic of conversation among readers in 2012 was Mr. Kevin Trudeau and his many They-Don’t-Want-You-to-Know-About books and infomercials.

Robert of Newnan, Ga. posted about Trudeau’s book Free Money and said there was nothing free about the ideas offered and the book itself was a waste of time and cost.

“My wife bought the book Free Money without researching it or Mr. Trudeau,” he wrote. 

“Anyone can go on the Internet and note the things written in this worthless book. Our 10-year-old daughter took one look at it and said, ‘Nothing is free.’ It’s wisdom from the mouth of a child. The only person making 'Free Money' is Mr. Trudeau.”

Select Comfort

Select Comfort - Sleep Number Dec. 24, 2012, 6:49 p.m.
Consumers rate Select Comfort - Sleep Number

Readers also had plenty to share about the Select Comfort Corporation and its popular Sleep Number Beds, as the company received a bevy of consumer reviews that had a lot to do with the bed’s motor not functioning properly, the firmness and softness levels of the mattress being inaccurate and experiencing delays in delivery.

Although there were some satisfied customers who wrote to us about the Sleep Number bed, the majority of readers felt they were short changed in the area of the actual product or by the customer service reps they dealt with.

Judith of Pennsylvania wrote in July of this year about having to fork over extra amounts of money for a faulty motor to be replaced.

“They said they I needed a new motor as it was losing air,” she wrote. “I replaced the motor with the remote and had to pay $275. This August, the chamber is still losing air. They had me cap it off and guess what, it’s still losing air. Now, I need to replace the bed which is now going to cost me $125.”

Quicken Loans

Quicken Loans  Dec. 24, 2012, 6:56 p.m.
Consumers rate Quicken Loans

Quicken Loans was also on the minds of consumers this year, as the company angered a lot of readers who wanted to settle a variety of financial issues.

In September, Eddie of Richmond, Va. warned consumers about what he saw as the  company’s level of disorganization, and he said if you use Quicken Loans you'd  better proceed with a lot of patience and allow extra time for mistakes.

“I applied for a mortgage loan with Quicken Loans,” Eddie wrote. “They have an inexperienced team who do nothing but drag their feet for two months through the whole loan process. They will have you resubmitting the same paperwork over and over because they are so disorganized.”

Not all bad

It's always worth noting that our site tends to attract more negative than positive reviews, simply because consumers are more motivated to post negative reviews. No doubt there are thousands if not millions of consumers who have been at least somewhat happy with products from the companies mentioned here.

But, on the other hand, it never hurts to be cautious. Before making any major purchase, it's always a good idea to check what other consumers are saying about the product or service you're considering. 

Thanks for being with us in 2012. It's consumer input that powers our site, and we're looking forward to our 15th year with you in 2013.

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Warning: SpamSoldier is invading Android devices

Mobile devices are increasingly vulnerable

The mobile world continues to become more vulnerable to malware with a newly discovered SMS spamming botnet called SpamSoldier causing concern.It reporte...

PhotoThe mobile world continues to become more vulnerable to malware with a newly discovered SMS spamming botnet called SpamSoldier causing concern.

It reportedly infects users of Android phones to send out a stream of spam in the form of text messages, much like some PCs become "zombie" computers in the service of spammers.

Victims are lured in with text messages that tell them they have won a $1,000 gift card at Target, but must enter a code at a special site. When they go to the site they download the malware.

Clicking will be costly

“Before you click on a link that is texted to you, understand it’s probably going to cost you,” said Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. “That text that appears to come from a reputable retailer is usually a trick to take your money, install a virus, or both.”

SpamSoldier is also spreading through messages that advertise free versions of popular paid games like Angry Birds Space. It is also found on disreputable, third-party app stores. Once it’s infiltrated an Android handset, it uses the subscriber’s allotment of text messages to send out more spam messages.

Someone who clicks on the link might actually receive a free game. But she will also install an application that in coordination with a kind of mother ship -- a server somewhere in cyberspace -- seeks to reproduce itself.

Difficult to detect

McKenna says detecting SpamSoldier can be difficult because the app is programmed to intercept responses to its texts before consumers see them. Still, those who pay by the text or have a limited number per month will eventually notice the activity.

There are ways to avoid SpamSoldier and other malicious apps. They include:

  • Only download apps from reputable vendors such as the app store pre-installed on your phone.
  • Do not download apps from a vendor who sends you a text.
  • Don’t fall for texts saying you’ve won something.
  • Regularly check your bill with an eye for texts you do not remember sending or for charges you did not authorize.
  • Check your smartphone’s security by visiting the FCC’s Smartphone Security Checker.
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Suzuki sales jump as company winds down its U.S. operations

The company is importing one last batch of cars to meet the demand

When American Suzuki announced in November that it was filing for bankruptcy, exiting the U.S. market and dumping its dealer network, that seemed to be the...

PhotoWhen American Suzuki announced in November that it was filing for bankruptcy and exiting the U.S. car market, that seemed to be the end of the road for the slow-selling Japanese brand.

But not only have dealers been clearing out their inventory, they're crying for more, Bloomberg News reported. Suzuki says it will import one final batch of about 2,500 cars to meet the demand that surged after the bankruptcy was announced.

November sales jumped 22% to 2,224 units and sales have remained strong in December, the company said.

Adopting an orphan

Why are so many consumers eager to buy a car that's about to become an orphan? It's most likely the allure of generous incentives and a seven-year warranty the company is offering during its final days.

What good is a warranty if the company is gone? Good question, but Suzuki insists it will maintain relations with its dealers, even though those dealers will no longer be selling new Suzukis and says it will provide full support for all of its cars in the U.S.

PhotoCould be, but before jumping to buy a Suzuki, consumers should check with owners of Peugeots, Alfa Romeos, Daewoos and other brands whose owners sailed away, leaving behind a support network that may have been adequate but was nowhere near as good as having full-fledged dealerships nearby.

There's also the little matter of resale value. Cars shed value like a cat sheds fur under the best of circumstances. Orphaned cars -- unless they are genuine collector items -- quickly become nearly worthless, the possible  exceptions being Saturns and Pontiacs, which are still fully supported by General Motors.

Is it possible Suzuki might change its mind? No way, say company executives, who insist that no further cars are being made to U.S. specifications.

Anyone just dying to own something with a Suzuki nameplate can still find motorcycles, boats and ATVs, although it might be a good idea to keep a careful eye out for safety recalls, which have been a frequent occurrence in the past.

Company quibbles

Suzuki publicists expressed surprise that we would caution consumers about buying a soon-to-be-orphaned car.

"I hope you’ll agree that with all of the top 50 dealers converting to parts & service operations, there is absolutely no question that consumers will have easy access to dealers that will continue to honor all auto warranties and service needs.  97% of Suzuki dealers signed agreement to become parts and service operations, and these agreements were approved in court last week," said Rachel Rosenblatt of FTI Consulting in an email. 

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Resolving to be a smarter shopper

A good 2013 resolution may be to make your money go further

There are different ways to accumulate wealth. You can earn more income or, when you make purchases, you can get more for your money. While earning more is...

PhotoThere are different ways to accumulate wealth. You can earn more income or, when you make purchases, you can get more for your money. While earning more is nice, it might be easier to make your money go further.

Personal finance experts say the hardest part about being a smarter shopper is committing to it and not sliding back into old familiar patterns.

"Before you go to the supermarket or the big-box store, make a list of what you need and only buy those things," said Michelle Perry Higgins, a financial planner and principal of California Financial Advisors in San Ramon, Calif.

By sticking to your list, she says you can avoid purchasing things that waste money. "You'll be amazed how much you'll save."

Couponing

Coupons are another way to stretch your dollar. Again, it takes time and commitment to search out the savings. Daily deal coupon sites have recently made it easier, but Higgins warns they can also be a trap, if you end up buying things just because they are on sale.

"It's only a bargain if you already use the item in the coupon," she said.

The best way to get the most for your money is to research major purchases carefully. The Internet is a great tool for price comparisons and smartphones give you the ability to do it on the go. In fact, "showrooming" has become a new, hated trend in the retail industry because more consumers are using their phones to price check when they spot an item in a store they are considering purchasing.

Sometimes there are ways to cut recurring expenses. Is your cable TV continuing to go up? A number of consumers have reported good results when they call their provider and politely say that, due to rising costs, they are considering switching to another provider. Many times, consumers report, a provider will offer a promotional rate -- at least temporarily -- to keep your business.

Can you cut insurance costs?

If you think you might be paying too much for car insurance, call some competing companies and ask for a quote. Just make sure you are comparing the same kind of coverage you currently have with the coverage you are considering replacing it with.

When it comes to auto and homeowners insurance, the amount of the deductible influences the rate. The higher the deductible -- the amount you are responsible for paying for any claim -- the lower the premium. By assuming more of the risk yourself, you can reduce your payments. Just be sure you can afford to pay the higher deductible in the event you make a claim.

Household incomes have gone down over the last three years. For consumers trying to get ahead, stretching their dollars may make the most sense. But it requires doing some research and being willing to make some changes.

And the beginning of a new year is a perfect time to do that.

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Journal: feds may expand mortgage refinance program

Currently, the program helps only homeowners whose mortgages are owned by Fannie or Freddie

The government has a program that helps struggling homeowners refinance their mortgages, but a number of criteria must be met in order to participate. For ...

PhotoThe government has a program that helps struggling homeowners refinance their mortgages, but a number of criteria must be met in order to participate. For example, your loan must be owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

But the Wall Street Journal, quoting "people familiar with discussions," reports the government is considering a move to expand the program, for the first time opening it up to homeowners whose mortgages are not owned by either of the Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE). That would allow of some of the riskier mortgages held by private investors to be transferred to the government.

By allowing struggling homeowners to refinance, even if they owe more on their mortgage than the home is now worth, it would lower their mortgage payments, potentially by several hundred dollars a month. Such a move, it is argued, could help strengthen the economy as well as further stabilize the housing market.

Current program

Fannie and Freddie's Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) is designed specifically to help borrowers who may be ineligible for traditional refinancing due to a loss of home value or because they have little or no equity. Like other refinancing options, with HARP you receive a completely new mortgage with new terms, interest rates and monthly payments.

The new loan completely replaces your current mortgage and may lower your payment or move you into a more stable loan product, which could help improve your monthly financial situation.

Homeowners are eligible if Fannie or Freddie owns their mortgage, they are current in their payments, they have limited equity and their home has lost value.

The proposal, which would require action by Congress to implement, would transfer risk for the loans to the government. The GSEs would pay for that increased risk by charging borrowers more for loans.

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West Virginia issues subpoenas against two car title loan companies

State is investigating debt collection practices

Why shouldn't you take out a car title loan? Think of it this way -- the risk is much more than the reward. Take it from Steven, of Wilmington, Del.I too...

PhotoWhy shouldn't you take out a car title loan? Think of it this way -- the risk is much more than the reward. Take it from Steven, of Wilmington, Del.

"I took a loan for $200, couldn't pay the loan back when they wanted it. So they took my car," Steven wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post about Cashpoint. "Now I paid $2300 for the car and the car was worth way more than $200. So they said I have to pay back $1242 if I wanted my car back."

This, unfortunately, is not an unusual situation and has prompted several states, including West Virginia, to severely restrict car title loan companies and the way they collect debts. West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw says he has filed suit against Cashpoint, and another Virginia-based company, Approved Cash Advance, as part of his investigation of consumer complaints in his state.

Investigative subpoenas

The suits were filed to enforce investigative subpoenas.

"The use of investigative subpoenas may be the most important tool we have to uncover violations of the law and to determine whether to bring enforcement actions when necessary to protect consumers," McGraw said. "If the law is being violated, we typically seek a company’s voluntary promise to comply without resort to litigation. Regretfully, when companies fail to comply with our subpoenas, we cannot complete the investigation that the Legislature expects us to conduct, which leads to subpoena enforcement proceedings such as these."

West Virginia law allows the attorney general to issue investigative subpoenas to obtain documents and other information when it has reason to believe that a person or company may be violating state consumer protection laws, or even to make sure that it is not.

Consumer complaints

In these cases, McGraw said he received complaints or other information indicating that the companies may be engaging in unlawful debt-collection practices, which led to the issuance of the subpoenas. When companies fail to comply with the subpoenas, as occurred in these cases, the attorney general must ask a court to issue an order enforcing.

Car title loans work much like payday loans, except rather than putting a paycheck up as collateral, the borrower signs over the title to an automobile. If the consumer defaults, he loses his car.

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Tamiflu use expanded to include infants

The flu treatment can now be used in treatment of children younger than 1 year

Tamiflu (oseltamivir) may now be used to treat children as young as 2-weeks-old who have shown symptoms of flu for no longer than two days. Under terms of...

PhotoTamiflu (oseltamivir) may now be used to treat children as young as 2-weeks-old who have shown symptoms of flu for no longer than two days.

Under terms of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, the drug is not approved to prevent flu infection in this population. In addition, the safety and efficacy of Tamiflu to treat flu infection has not been established in children younger than 2-weeks-old.

Tamiflu was approved in 1999 to treat adults infected with flu who have shown symptoms for no longer than two days. It has since been approved to treat flu in children ages 1 year and older who have shown symptoms of flu for no longer than two days, and to prevent flu in adults and children ages 1 year and older.

Careful dosing a must

Although there is a fixed dosing regimen for patients 1 year and older according to weight categories, the dosing for children younger than 1 year must be calculated for each patient based on their exact weight. These children should receive 3 milligrams per kilogram twice daily for five days. These smaller doses will require a different dispenser than what is currently co-packaged with Tamiflu.

“Pharmacists must provide the proper dispenser when filling a prescription so parents can measure and administer the correct dose to their children,” said Edward Cox, M.D., M.P.H, director of the Office of Antimicrobial Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Parents and pediatricians must make sure children receive only the amount of Tamiflu appropriate for their weight.”

Younger patients at risk for flu complications

Tamiflu is the only product approved to treat flu infection in children younger than 1 year old, providing an important treatment option for a vulnerable population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children younger than 2 years are at higher risk for developing complications from the flu -- with the highest rates of hospitalization in those less than 6 months of age.

The FDA expanded the approved use of Tamiflu in children younger than 1 year based on extrapolation of data from previous study results in adults and older children, and additional supporting safety and pharmacokinetic studies sponsored by both the National Institutes of Health and Roche Group, Tamiflu’s manufacturer.

Safety studies conducted

Almost all of the 135 pediatric patients enrolled in the two safety studies had confirmed flu. Results from these studies showed the safety profile in children younger than 1 year was consistent with the established safety profile of adults and older children.

The most common side effects reported with Tamiflu use in this age group include vomiting and diarrhea. Although not seen in the new studies, rare cases of severe rash, skin reactions, hallucinations, delirium, and abnormal behavior have been reported.

Tamiflu is not a substitute for early, annual flu vaccination, as recommended by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. CDC recommends all persons aged 6 months and older receive an annual flu vaccine.

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Consumers sending money internationally to get enhanced protection

Rule revisions would provide fee transparency, among other things

A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule regulating international money transfers is about to get more heft. Newly proposed revisions, which the...

PhotoA Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule regulating international money transfers is about to get more heft.

Newly proposed revisions, which the agency says are narrow in focus, creates a comprehensive consumer protection regime for remittance transfers sent by consumers in the United States to individuals and businesses in foreign countries.

“We are dedicated to bringing new protections to consumers who want to send money internationally,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. The proposal, he said, “will ensure consumers have continued access to remittance transfer services while making compliance easier for remittance transfer providers.”

More disclosure

Under the final rule, remittance transfer providers will be required to disclose certain fees and taxes, as well as the exchange rate that will apply to the transfer. The rule also provides consumers with error resolution and cancellation rights.

The proposed changes are designed to address the rule’s provisions on:

  • Disclosure of Foreign Taxes and Institution Fees: The proposal would provide increased flexibility and guidance with respect to the disclosure of taxes imposed by a foreign country’s central government as well as fees imposed by a recipient’s institution for receiving a remittance transfer in an account.
  • Disclosure of Subnational Taxes in Foreign Country: The proposal would require disclosure of foreign taxes imposed by a country’s central government, but would eliminate the requirement to disclose taxes imposed by foreign regional, provincial, state, or other local governments.
  • Errors from Incorrect Account Information: Under the proposal, when the provider can demonstrate that the consumer provided an incorrect account number and certain other conditions are satisfied, the provider would be required to attempt to recover the funds but would not bear the cost of funds that cannot be recovered.

Preserving competition

The CFPB’s proposed revisions are designed to preserve market competition and consumers’ access to remittance transfer services and to facilitate implementation of and compliance with the rule’s requirements, while maintaining the rule’s valuable new consumer protections and ensuring that those protections can be effectively delivered to consumers.

The Bureau expects to keep the rulemaking narrowly focused on these issues and to complete the rulemaking process on an expedited basis. Though the rule is scheduled to take effect on February 7, 2013, the Bureau is proposing a temporary delay of that date to accommodate the changes in the new proposal.

Consumers transfer tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. to foreign countries each year. Prior to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, these international money transfers were generally not covered by existing federal consumer protection regulations. To remedy this, the Dodd-Frank Act expanded the scope of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act to provide protections for remittance transfer senders, and directed that rules implementing certain provisions of the new protections be issued by January 21,

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States take action against debt-solution firms

Companies that make unrealistic promises get rigorous review

It's been a year in which debt-settlement firms have found themselves under increasing scrutiny, and in some cases have faced enforcement actions in some s...

PhotoIt's been a year in which debt-settlement firms have found themselves under increasing scrutiny, and in some cases have faced enforcement actions in some states. Colorado and North Carolina are the states taking the most recent action.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers says Orion Financial Group, which he sued earlier this year, has entered into a consent decree that, among other things, makes consumer restitution. In January Suthers' office accused Orion of provided debt-management services to Colorado consumers without meeting the required registration and regulatory requirements under the state’s consumer protection laws.

Didn't register

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office registers and regulates debt-management companies, including debt settlement and credit counseling companies.

Under the consent decree, Orion and its owner Eric Thompson agreed to be permanently enjoined from providing debt-management services to Colorado residents. In addition, judgment was entered against Orion and Thompson in the amount of $70,000 for consumer restitution. If they default in making payments under the consent decree, they must pay an additional $479,442.

Meanwhile, consumers in five states who paid money to a Florida debt relief firm but got no meaningful help will get $100,000 in refunds under a federal court order.

Federal-state action

The case against Payday Loan Debt Solutions, Inc. (PLDS) and its president, Sanjeet Parvani, is the first joint effort between states and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). North Carolina, Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wisconsin participated in the case.

“Companies that take your good money, promise debt relief, and then drive you deeper in the hole are breaking the law,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. “By working with other states and federal consumer protection authorities, we’ve been able to put a stop to this illegal behavior and win money back for consumers.”

$100,000 in refunds

At the request of the states, and the CFPB, a federal district court in Miami ordered PLDS to provide $100,000 in refunds to consumers who were charged advance fees but received no debt-settlement services from PLDS by the time their accounts were closed. PLDS was also ordered to pay a $5,000 penalty and to obey the law in the future.

"Today's order will put money back in the pockets of consumers who were wrongfully charged for debt-relief services," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "We are pleased to be working with our state partners on this important effort to protect consumers."

The investigation found evidence that PLDS routinely charged consumers upfront fees prior to settling the consumers’ debts, in violation of both state and federal laws.

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Christmas Day offers a brief respite from sales and promotions

But it all begins anew on Wednesday with launch of after-Christmas sales

This is that rarest of days -- a day when there are no pre-holiday sales, post-holiday sales or any other kind of sales, for that matter. Except for the ...

Photo

This is that rarest of days -- a day when there are no pre-holiday sales, post-holiday sales or any other kind of sales, for that matter. Except for the corner 7-11 and a gas station or two, U.S. businesses are taking an all-too-rare break.

Enjoy it while you can, because it won't last long. Most major stores will come roaring back to life Wednesday morning, many opening earlier than usual to lure shoppers seeking after-Christmas bargains.

Merry Christmas from all of us at ConsumerAffairs and thanks for helping to make 2012 our best year yet. We're looking forward to spending our 15th year with you in 2013.

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Hedge fund manager slams Herbalife as 'pyramid scheme'

Company fires back, accusing Bill Ackman of 'stock price manipulation'

Bill Ackman controls billions of dollars and is one of the titans of Wall Street. As founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, a successful hedge fund...

PhotoBill Ackman controls billions of dollars and is one of the titans of Wall Street. As founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, a successful hedge fund, his opinion of a company carries weight.

Lately, Ackman is telling anyone who will listen that he has a poor opinion of Herbalife Ltd., a distributor of health-related products. It's based on multilevel marketing, in which representatives not only sell product but recruit new distributors. Ackman calls it "the best-managed pyramid scheme in the history of the world."

Herbalife, based in the Cayman Islands, sells products including Formula 1 drink mix, aloe water and herbal tea. As is often the case with multi-level products, the independent distributors sometimes make health claims that have no scientific foundation, as Mema of Auckland, New Zealand, described in a recent ConsumerAffairs posting:

Our neighbor recommended their minister to my parents for a cure for cancer (as my father has lung cancer). They went with the neighbor to see this minister, who explained to my parents that Herbalife was the best cure for cancer. (I already knew what the product does.) As for my parents, they are islanders and don't really understand but just went to help dad out.

For a whole month every day, they paid $8 a day to drink three cups of Herbalife, aloe, tea and milkshake. Seriously, all it ever did was make my dad lose weight and put him into intensive care.

Unusual attack

PhotoEven Wall Street veterans say Ackman's attack is somewhat unusual. He staged a high-end multimedia presentation in New York last week that was streamed live on the Internet, bringing a quick response from Herbalife.

"Today's presentation was a malicious attack on our business model based largely on outdated, distorted and inaccurate information," Herbalife said in a statement. "We are not an illegal pyramid scheme."

Harold, of Eugene, Ore., is not a Wall Street tycoon but a consumer who signed up to be an Herbalife representative. However, he shares Ackman's view in some respects.

"I signed up, went to group training, and all they were doing was bragging about making '$1500 profit the first night' or 'currently making $18,000 and up, near the president's level of $23,000 per month,'" Harold wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

Slow refunds

PhotoHarold also said the company representatives pressed him to purchase hardware, such as blenders. Other consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs say they were made to wait weeks for refunds when they withdrew from the program.

Herbalife responded to Ackman by accusing him of trying to manipulate the price of the stock. They point out that he had previously taken a short position, meaning he would make money if Herbalife stock goes down.

Ackman says he will donate any money he earns from shorting Herbalife to charity. He accuses the company of paying its sales people more to sign up new distributors than to sell product. A few at the top earn millions, he says, while most at the bottom earn very little.

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Privacyfix may prove to be a thorn in Facebook's side

Browser app helps you restrict your data from online marketers

Facebook and other social media are constantly looking for ways to earn revenue and many of those ways involve selling information about you, if you happen...

PhotoFacebook and other social media are constantly looking for ways to earn revenue and many of those ways involve selling information about you, if you happen to be a user.

These sites provide tools on their privacy pages to allow you to manage your privacy settings, but the process can be cumbersome and often confusing. Enter Privacyfix, a free browser app for Chrome and Firefox that has streamlined privacy management.

Once you download the tool it provides a quick analysis of potential privacy issues and gives you some options for dealing with them. For example, your basic information, like name and photo, are always public to help others connect with you. You can make this data harder to find by blocking it from search engines.

Becoming less visible

By default Facebook allows your friends to share your profile information with game and app publishers. You can block all sharing or allow only specific kinds of data to be shared.

By default, Facebook makes your posts public. You can change your default settings to be more private.

When you Like something through Facebook, it may display your name and image and Like in ads shown to your friends. You can block this use of your data.

Facebook automatically shares some profile information when you visit certain websites, unless you turn off this feature. Facebook collects data across thousands of websites using Likes and widgets. PrivacyFix can block this data collection.

Your Facebook value

In its analysis, Privacyfix will also tell you how much money Facebook is making from your data. It might be a few cents or several dollars. The amount, of course, gives you an idea of how much of your data is being marketed.

The Privacyfix interface gives you an option to change a particular setting, then takes you directly to the webpage where you can make the change. It even provides directions on how to proceed.

As for the way it operates, Privacyfix says it saves no IP addresses or history and uses no cookies. You remain completely anonymous, the site says.

The tool was launched in October by a company called Privacy Choice, a data analysis firm.

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Major retailers will be closed on Christmas Day

Many are closing early today, Christmas Eve

Walmart took quite a bit of heat from employees and customers by opening its stores on Thanksgiving Day to get an early start on the annual Black Friday sa...

PhotoWalmart took quite a bit of heat from employees and customers by opening its stores on Thanksgiving Day to get an early start on the annual Black Friday sales.

But there won't be a repeat of that on Christmas Day. The company says that most of its stores will close at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve and reopen Dec. 26.

Other major retailers are following suit, including Target, Best Buy and Costco. Macys, Ikea, Toys "R" Us and Michaels will also be closed Christmas Day. 

Most retailers will be closing early today, Christmas Eve. Check with your local stores before setting out to do any last-minute shopping.

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Smartphones can be a serious security risk

The Federal Communications Commision releases a security check list for all smartphone users

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), smartphones robberies are on the steady incline.In New York City, for example, 40 percent of al...

PhotoAccording to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), smartphones robberies are  rising steadily.

In New York City, for example, 40 percent of all robberies involve smartphones or cell phones, and in Washington D.C., smartphone robberies were up by 54 percent compared to 2011, says the government agency.

And it’s not only in the big cities that smartphone crimes are increasing, as 30 to 40 percent of all robberies throughout the country involved the pricey electronic gadgets, and unless consumers really start applying a good old-fashioned dose of vigilance, the number of smartphone thefts will only continue to increase in the years to come.

To help prevent this from happening, the FCC has released what it calls the “Smartphone Security Checker”--an outline that smartphone users can follow to make sure their personal information is kept secure if their device is ever stolen or hacked into.

The ten-point check system serves as both a guideline and a reminder for consumers to follow and each suggestion seems to be made up of common-sense reminders and security tips that are pretty obvious but may have eluded some users along the way.

Watch those apps

PhotoOne example--be wary about changing the security settings on your phone once it’s purchased, as altering the default settings may dramatically diminish the phone's ability to block hackers and secure your personal data.

The FCC also suggests you be extremely leery of the apps you choose to download, and to make sure you’re getting apps from a trusted source.

Since there seems to be an application for just about everything these days, consumers can easily download something that’s harmful to their phone out of sheer habit or choose to blindly trust a certain app just because it has a lot of uses.

The security checklist also warns consumers to check the reviews of an app to see if it really works as promised before downloading it, and people should do a bit of research on the store that the app comes from, just to make sure it’s a legitimate source.

It’s also imperative that consumers know how an app works before giving it permission to carry out different functions on your smartphone and users should also familiarize the privacy settings on each app before using it, says the FCC.

Post-theft protection

An app that’s really smart for consumers to download is one that allows you to erase your personal data after your phone has been lost or stolen, which some phones are equipped with upon purchase.

The FCC says these security apps are extremely important for each smartphone user to have because it also allows them to remove stored data, even if the GPS tracker is turned off.

The government agency also says to be particularly careful when using Wi-Fi networks that are open to the public, and in actuality, consumers should really limit their use of these places in exchange for using Wi-Fi services that are from a known network.

Also, many consumers don’t take the same security precautions that they do with their laptops and home computers, although smartphones are used more frequently these days and have a bigger potential to become lost or stolen.

PINs

For this very reason, setting passwords and PINs is essential as the phone's home screen is truly the protective shield of the device--and if the right security measures are put in place, a thief will have a much harder time cracking into your personal information and using it for God knows what.

And we all know those little pop-up reminders that tell us to update our phone’s software can be annoying, but the FCC says these updates can better help your phone block out hackers and those questionable sources that may use malware to steal your info.

Some smartphones are equipped to automatically remind you of these software updates while others have to be enabled, but either way these updates at least try to keep up with the new ways that people are able to steal your information.

All things considered, the checkpoint system put together by the FCC is a useful one, and consumers will probably be reminded of some measure they’ve heard in the past, combined with new ideas to keep their data safe, because it will take a consistent level of proactivity to make sure a hacker or smartphone thief isn’t walking away with all of your stored information.

Because if that happens, a heap of potentially serious problems can develop that can be really hard to remedy, and nobody wants that.

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Study: More deaths among heart attack patients who get blood transfusions

Patients sometimes get transfusions because of bleeding, anemia

A new meta-analysis of 10 studies finds a higher mortality rate among heart attack patients who get blood transfusions, but medical authorities cautioned t...

PhotoA new meta-analysis of 10 studies finds a higher mortality rate among heart attack patients who get blood transfusions, but medical authorities cautioned that more research was needed.

In the meta-analysis published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication, Saurav Chatterjee, M.D., of Brown University and Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Rhode Island, and colleagues conducted a review of studies published between January 1966 and March 2012.

Ten studies, including 203,665 participants, were selected for analysis. Only one study was a randomized trial, while the others were observational studies.

“Analyses of blood transfusion in myocardial infarction revealed increased all-cause mortality associated with a strategy of blood transfusion vs. no blood transfusion during myocardial infarction (18.2 percent vs. 10.2 percent), with a weighted absolute risk increase of 12 percent,” the authors wrote. 

Blood transfusion also appeared to be associated with a higher risk for subsequent myocardial infarction, according to the study results.

Transfusions are sometimes needed because therapeutic measures including anticoagulation and antiplatelet drugs may increase the risk for bleeding, which can lead to patients developing anemia during their hospital stay and requiring blood transfusion, according to the study background.

“In conclusion, this meta-analysis provides evidence that rates of all-cause mortality and subsequent myocardial infarction are significantly higher in patients with acute myocardial infarction receiving blood transfusion. Additional outcomes data are needed from randomized clinical trials that investigate important outcomes with adequate sample size and with low risk for bias,” the authors concluded.

Skeptics unconvinced

But not everyone found the evidence convincing.

“Do blood transfusions kill more patients with an acute myocardial infarction than anemia? Chatterjee and colleagues would have you believe that they do. We remain unconvinced,” said Jeffrey L. Carson, M.D., of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, New Brunswick, and Paul C. Hébert, M.D., of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Canada, in an accompanying commentary. 

“What might we take away from this systematic review? The authors remind us that patients with an acute myocardial infarction are often anemic and receive red blood cell transfusion. However, because of its many limitations, as physicians, we should not use the results of this review to justify or limit the use of red blood cells,” they continue.

“For researchers and decision makers, we can now appreciate how little reliable information is available to inform clinical and policy decisions involving red blood cell transfusions in patients with acute coronary syndrome. Given that real risks and potential benefits exist as to how we choose to use the valuable resource of blood transfusion, we believe that high-quality research is long overdue,” they conclude.

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Firm linked to meningitis outbreak files bankruptcy

New England Compounding Center promises fund to compensate victims

As expected, the New England Compounding Center (NECC), the Massachusetts pharmacy at the center of the recent nationwide meningitis outbreak, has filed fo...

PhotoAs expected, the New England Compounding Center (NECC), the Massachusetts pharmacy at the center of the recent nationwide meningitis outbreak, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The company said in a filing that it is is also trying to set up a fund to compensate individuals and families affected by a nationwide meningitis outbreak. In papers filed with the court, the company said its goal is to provide a greater, quicker, fairer payout to its creditors than they could achieve through piecemeal litigation.

The company also announced the appointment of Keith D. Lowey as Independent Director of NECC and as the company’s Chief Restructuring Officer. Lowey will be responsible for NECC’s effort to establish the Compensation Fund and commence payments to affected parties.

“This will be a cooperative effort,” said Lowey. "We want to assemble a substantial fund, and then distribute it fairly and efficiently to those who are entitled to relief.”

Seeks to avoid litigation

Lowey said that NECC seeks to forge a consensual, comprehensive resolution of claims which will be funded by agreements reached among the claimants, the company, its insurers and other parties with potential liability for the meningitis cases. All such claims will be addressed in U.S. Bankruptcy court.

By the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest count, there have been 620 cases of meningitis nationwide linked to a tainted steriod drug produced at NECC. Ninteen states reported cases, with Michigan logging the most -- 223.

On October 3 NECC stopped all production and began a recall of all methylprednisolone acetate, a steroid medication, and other drug products prepared for injections in and around the spinal cord.

Working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) investigated NECC in October.

Investigation

"During the facility inspections, investigators documented serious health and safety deficiencies related to the practice of pharmacy," the DPH report stated.

Among the alleged violations of Massachusetts health regulations, DPH said NECC distributed large batches of compounded sterile products directly to facilities apparently for general use rather than requiring a prescription for an individual patient. It said records also show that NECC had lists of potential patient names but did not have patient-specific prescriptions from an authorized practitioner when compounding and dispensing medication, as required by state law.

The report also said manufacturing and distributing sterile products in bulk was not allowed under the terms of its state pharmacy license. If NECC was appropriately licensed as a manufacturer with the FDA the company would have been subject to additional levels of scrutiny. The investigation also found that NECC did not conduct patient-specific medication history and drug utilization reviews as required by regulations.

Sterility methods

The Massachusetts report also questioned NECC's methods of assuring sterility in drug production. The bankruptcy filing may mean limits on legal action impacted parties may take. The company, however, says litigation should be unnecessary.

“Many families across the U.S. have been impacted by this great tragedy, and it is difficult to comprehend the sense of loss so many people have experienced. Everyone associated with New England Compounding Center shares that sense of loss,” Lowey said. “We recognize the need to compensate those affected by the meningitis outbreak fairly and appropriately. We hope that by establishing this Fund under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, those families impacted by this tragedy may be compensated as quickly as is possible.”

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Spin magazine shuts down its print edition

After 27 years the magazine that grew with alternative rock and Hip Hop is no more

If you’re a like me, then you probably spent your fair share of time frequenting book stores and magazine shops rummaging through rows and rows of ma...

PhotoIf you’re like me, you probably spent a fair share of time frequenting book stores and magazine shops rummaging through rows and rows of magazines of every kind.

And if you’re a music lover, there was always a countless number of both well-known and obscure publications that kept you up to date about new music, music news and all of the happenings that took place in the industry.

One of those publications that many of us thumbed through during those days--that sat confidently among bigger magazines like Rolling Stone and Billboard on the shelf--was Spin magazine, which just announced it's making the September/October 2012 issue the very last.

Founded in 1985 by Bob Guccione Jr., Spin always seemed to be the type of magazine that was eager to recognize and cover newer and smaller artists, while placing more of a focus on up-and-coming acts, often giving them the front cover of the magazine over the bigger artists of the day.

To put it in supermarket terms, if Rolling Stone was the Whole Foods in the heyday of print music magazines, then Spin was the Trader Joe's for its seeming contentment to be smaller and more sharply focused on a fussier niche of consumers who aren’t as focused on what the mass market.

If Billboard tended to focus on who was hot in its issues, then Spin would focus on who was about to get hot, and this way of creating content brought the magazine to a level of prominence among those music fans who craved to see their underground artist get a chance to poke their head through the soil and see mainstream daylight.

Car mags

PhotoIt seems that Spin made arrangements with Car and Driver magazine to take over the remaining subscriptions, so each customer will receive a copy of the automobile mag for each copy of Spin they’re owed.

Although it’s certainly civilized for Spin to provide another magazine to subscribers as a means of compensation for shutting down abruptly, providing customers with a car magazine seems rather strange in music magazine realms.

Here’s some of what a Car and Driver spokesperson had to say about picking up Spin subscriptions.

“I know we can’t replace the insight and passion that Spin delivered to new-music lovers,” the magazine said in a letter to subscribers.

“But we can promise that Car and Driver will provide that same insight and passion for cars. Our approach, our worldview, our love of the subject—all that is shared between these two titles. I know a lot of you got deeper into music because of how Spin brought you into that world. Try it, and I guarantee Car and Driver will do the same thing for the automobile.”  

Fortunately, Spin said subscribers can also opt for a full refund if they choose, which I'm sure many will unless they're also car lovers.

Digital conversion

PhotoSimilar to many print publications, Spin said it was shutting down to focus on expanding its digital offerings, and it hopes that fans will make a voluntary exodus to its website and its other music-based products.

Spin has halted publication of our print edition to invest more deeply in our digital properties, including Spin.com, SPIN Play for iPad, and SPIN mobile” the company wrote. “Spin has been a pioneer in music journalism since 1985 and we hope you’ll continue to enjoy our leading editorial photographic and multi-media content online.”

Those who have been following Spin magazine in recent times are aware that the company was bought by Buzz Media earlier this year. Before that, it was owned by Miller Publishing,  Hartle Media, and also by the McEvoy Group, which purchased Spin in 2006 for $5 million.

Although Buzz Media seemingly wanted the print edition to continue-- according to the public statements the company made--consumers, the current magazine climate and the domination of digital media made it almost impossible to do.

Spin is the second major print publication shutting down its printing machines in 2012, as Newsweek will be stopping its print edition at year's end, which is certainly an indication that the hours and hours that you used to spend in magazine shops will be dwindling down to minutes and minutes, until being able to buy a print magazine will be a thing of the past.

Reports indicate that Spin had a circulation of 350,000 when the company printed its last issue.

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Dementia and driving: what's the risk?

New research suggests driving is a bigger threat than previously thought

When someone is diagnosed with dementia, families and other caregivers may consider taking away the car keys. In some cases it might be prudent but might n...

PhotoWhen someone is diagnosed with dementia, families and other caregivers may consider taking away the car keys. In some cases it might be prudent but might not seem necessary in others.

A diagnosis of dementia may not mean that a person can no longer drive safely, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA). In the early stages of dementia, some – though not all – individuals may still possess skills necessary for safe driving. Most dementia, however, is progressive, meaning that symptoms such as memory loss, visual-spatial disorientation, and decreased cognitive function will worsen over time.

No warning

And that's part of the problem. A patient may seem perfectly fine behind the wheel, able to run errands like grocery shopping and picking up the dry cleaning. But then one day driving down a street they've driven on hundreds of times, they get lost.

Florida, with its large senior population, has something called "Silver Alerts." Similar to the Amber Alert for missing children, the Silver Alert uses highway message boards and news broadcasts to alert the public to be on the lookout for a missing driver.

Researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) examined how people with dementia become lost while driving, how missing drivers are found, and the role of public notification systems like Silver Alert in these discoveries suggests techniques that may help recover drivers with dementia and prevent potentially harmful incidents.

They concluded that a comprehensive Silver Alert program that includes law enforcement and community education can be a very effective way of quickly finding missing drivers. Their findings led to recommendations for more study on how these programs can be expanded.

No more driving

But the researchers emphasize that getting cognitively impaired people to voluntarily give up their car keys may be the single most effective measure for prevent missing incidents that may lead to injury or death.

“Important aspects of successful driving retirement include a partnership between the healthcare practitioner and caregiver to support the decision for driving retirement, the identification of local and state programs… and assistance in finding alternative forms of transportation in the community,” they conclude.

In their study the USF researchers found that most missing drivers were men, ages 58 to 94, who were cared for by a spouse. Most got lost on routine trips to usual locations. Only 15 percent were found while driving, with most discovered in or near a parked car. Most of the time they were found by a police officer.

Another state

In addition, only 40 percent were found in the county where they were reported missing. Ten percent were found in a different state and another 15 percent were found in dangerous situations such as stopped on railroad tracks. There was a five percent mortality rate in the study population, with those living alone more likely to be found dead than alive.

“With the baby boomer generation getting older, the number of the people living with Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise,” said Dr. Meredeth A. Rowe, the lead researcher on the study. “Most Americans depend on driving their own car to meet their transportation needs, even for the most basic needs such as food. It will be critical to identify other means of transportation for people with dementia to facilitate driving retirement."

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Stehouwer's recalls Pigs in the Blanket products

The product contains an allergen that is not declared on the label

Stehouwer's Frozen Foods, of Grand Rapids, MI, is recalling approximately 6,039 pounds of Pigs in the Blanket products because of misbranding and an undecl...

PhotoStehouwer's Frozen Foods, of Grand Rapids, MI, is recalling approximately 6,039 pounds of Pigs in the Blanket products because of misbranding and an undeclared allergen -- milk, which is not declared on the label.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 13.5-lb. cases of "Stehouwer's Pigs in the Blanket." Each case contains 12 individual 18-oz. packages of "Stehouwer's Pigs in the Blanket." The products were produced on Sept. 27, 2012, Oct. 25, 2012, and Dec. 13, 2012, and they have use by dates of Sept. 27, 2013, Oct. 25, 2013, and Dec. 13, 2013.
  • 5-lb. bulk packages of "Stehouwer's Pigs in the Blanket." These packages are labeled "FOR INSTITUTIONAL USE ONLY." They were produced on Oct. 25, 2012, and have the use by date of 102513.

Each case and package bears the establishment number "EST. 6814" inside the USDA mark of inspection. They were distributed for institutional use and to retail stores in Michigan.

The problem was discovered when an inspector saw that nonfat milk was listed as an ingredient in the mix used to make the dough for this product, but it was not listed on the final product label. The ingredient supplier had changed its spice mix components in the time since Stehouwer's Frozen Foods had created labels for the Pigs in the Blanket products. There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Tim May, Stehouwer's Frozen Foods' president, at (616) 453-2471.  

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Dangerous supplement now sold as 'WOW'

It's the same old stuff -- just a new name

It's baaaaaack! A product distributed and sold under the name 'WOW' is really just another product in disguise -- one that can cause serious harm. Earlier...

PhotoIt's baaaaaack! A product distributed and sold under the name 'WOW' is really just another product in disguise -- one that can cause serious harm.

Earlier in 2012, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) twice warned the public about taking Reumofan Plus -- marketed as a "natural" dietary supplement for the treatment of many conditions, including arthritis and bone cancer -- because, in reality, it contains undeclared active ingredients found in prescription drugs that should only be used under the supervision of a health care professional.

Brad Pace, regulatory counsel at FDA's Health Fraud and Consumer Outreach Branch, says some distributors have deliberately put a new label and a new name -- WOW -- on bottles of Reumofan Plus to deceptively sell remaining supplies. Pace says WOW has been distributed to online retailers and other distributors, as well as directly to consumers.

FDA is concerned that other distributors will also put different labels on Reumofan Plus and sell it under other names.

Consumer advice

The agency offers this advice to consumers:

  • Immediately consult a health care professional if you are now taking Reumofan Plus or WOW.
  • Do not use any products with "Riger Naturals S.A." printed on the bottom of the bottle. Reumofan Plus is manufactured in Mexico by Riger Naturals.
  • Report any health problems related to these products to FDA's MedWatch Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program.

Serious health risks

Since June, FDA has received dozens of reports from consumers who used Reumofan Plus of serious, and sometimes fatal, outcomes. The reports include liver injury, severe bleeding, corticosteroid withdrawal syndrome, adrenal suppression and stroke.

FDA laboratory analysis confirmed that WOW contains the same undeclared prescription drug ingredients that are in Reumofan Plus:

  • dexamethasone -- a corticosteroid used to treat inflammatory conditions such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, that can increase the risk of infection, and cause increased blood sugar levels, changes in blood pressure, damage to bones, psychiatric problems. When taken for a prolonged period at high doses, it can cause adrenal suppression.
  • diclofenac sodium -- a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that may cause increased risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack, as well as serious gastrointestinal problems.
  • Methocarbamol -- a muscle relaxant that can cause sedation, dizziness and low blood pressure, and impair mental or physical abilities to perform tasks such as driving a motor vehicle or operating machinery.

In addition to causing injury on their own, the hidden drugs found in these products could interact with other medications, resulting in serious health consequences.

Medical advice needed

Because one of the hidden ingredients -- dexamethasone -- is a corticosteroid, people taking these supplements must work with their health care professional to safely stop taking the drug. A person who abruptly stops taking corticosteroids after long-term use or after taking high doses runs the risk of suffering from a withdrawal syndrome and life-threatening adrenal suppression.

The withdrawal syndrome may include nausea, low blood pressure, low blood sugar levels, fever, muscle and joint pain, dizziness and fainting. Adrenal suppression of cortisol production can be life-threatening because, among its many important roles in the body, cortisol is needed to maintain normal blood pressure and supply glucose to vital tissues, such as the brain and red blood cells, in response to stressors such as trauma, surgery, and infection.

FDA notes that there may be other harmful hidden ingredients in these products. Ingredients may vary from lot to lot, and products found to have hidden drug ingredients are generally not manufactured in a way that would ensure their quality and safety.

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Wayne Farms recalls barbeque chicken wing products

The product contains an undeclared allergen -- milk

Wayne Farms of Decatur, AL, is recalling approximately 2,320 pounds of frozen honey barbeque chicken wing products because of misbranding and an allergen –...

PhotoWayne Farms of Decatur, AL, is recalling approximately 2,320 pounds of frozen honey barbeque chicken wing products because of misbranding and an allergen -- egg -- that is not declared on the label.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 4-lb. bags of "GFS® Honey BBQ Flavored Chicken Wings" packed in 16-lb. cases

The cases bear the establishment number "P-33885" inside the USDA mark of inspection and a case code of 572160. The bags bear a production date of "11/28/12" above "p#33885" inkjetted on the package. The products were produced Nov. 28, 2012 and were shipped to a foodservice distribution center in Kentucky for distribution at the retail level in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The problem was discovered when a customer was unable to scan the product into inventory. The product being recalled was produced with eggs and packaged in bags for product formulated without eggs. There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions should contact the company's Director of Marketing and Communication, Alan Sterling, at (678) 450-3092.  

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U.S. seeks to approve genetically-engineered fish

New type of salmon reportedly grows twice as fast as natural breed

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it has concluded that allowing a genetically-engineered salmon to enter the food supply would have no sign...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it has concluded that allowing a genetically-engineered salmon to enter the food supply would have no significant impact on the environment.

The FDA's draft environmental assessment will remain open for public comment for 60 days -- one of the steps toward making the fast-developing salmon, which the agency says is as safe as Atlantic-raised salmon, an approved source.

The company behind the genetically-engineered fish is AquaBounty Technologies. It said it has spent the last 10 years pushing the proposal through the bureaucratic maze.

Patented fish

It has patented a way to grow a fish using an Atlantic salmon egg that includes a genetically-altered gene from a Chinook salmon. Not only can the fish be grown in captivity for harvest, they mature in about half the time as salmon in the wild.

The FDA's move brought a stinging rebuke from environmental groups, who said it now appears clear that the White House is fully behind the effort to introduce the new fish to the food supply.

“It is extremely disappointing that the Obama administration continues to push approval of this dangerous and unnecessary product,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “The GE salmon has no socially redeeming value; it’s bad for the consumer, bad for the salmon industry and bad for the environment. FDA’s decision is premature and misguided.”

Possible congressional opposition

The group said more than 40 members of Congress have repeatedly urged the agency to conduct more rigorous review of environmental and health safety, and stop any approval process until concerns over risks, transparency and oversight have been fully satisfied. It noted that the FDA had received nearly 400,000 negative comments.

The Center for Food Safety, a private, non-profit environmental group, said it is worried the genetically-engineered fish could spawn disease that could get loose in the wild and devastate native fish populations.

“We need a robust regulatory system that puts environmental, human health, economic and animal welfare risks first,” said Kimbrell. “Putting a GE animal on the path to consumer use without proper safeguards and with no mandatory labeling requirement proves that the system FDA has in place gives us none of that.”

The FDA, meanwhile, said it is extremely unlikely that genetically-engineered and native fish would ever come in contact. Even if some of the genetically-engineered fish did manage to escape to the wild they would not be able to survive in a native habitat.

A final decision is not likely anytime soon. After the comment period the FDA could take weeks to go over them before rending a final ruling.

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For J.C. Penney, 2012 has been a year to forget

Company's sweeping changes have alienated customers and racked up deep losses

It's been almost precisely a year since retailer J.C. Penney, under the leadership of Apple alum Ron Johnson, began a top to bottom remake of the company's...

PhotoIt's been almost precisely a year since retailer J.C. Penney, under the leadership of Apple alum Ron Johnson, began a top to bottom remake of the company's staid image.

So how has it worked out?

"It's been a disaster, and it probably will continue to be a disaster," Durban Capital's Steve Kernkraut said on CNBC the other day. "They've made every misstep you could imagine."

Off on the wrong foot

It started very early in 2012, when Penney's announced that it was doing away with sales, coupons and promotions in favor of a tiered pricing system that few consumers could understand. It chose to make the announcement in the form of a TV commercial featuring a series of screaming women that brought a huge backlash from consumers.

"This is the worst ad of all time, stop it immediately," Kathy, of Hillsboro, Ore., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post in January. "We will boycott J.C. Penney until it offers an apology to all its customers!"

"I am complaining about the obnoxious television commercial aired announcing your new pricing campaign," wrote Carole, of Lakewood, Calif. "It has to be one of the most irritating, annoying commercials ever created for television. If you think this will make anyone shop at your stores, you are mistaken as far as I'm concerned. I can't imagine anyone thinking this is good advertising. Remove it as soon as possible. IT IS ANNOYING!"

Out with the old?

It almost seemed as though Penney's was purposefully driving away its old customer base in hopes of drawing a younger, hipper and trendier group of customers. But the younger customers didn't show up in the numbers the retailer hoped.

PhotoEven anti-gay hate groups got into the act, lambasting Penney's for using popular comedian Ellen DeGeneres in some of its advertising. To its credit, Penney's refused to budge.

“This week Americans spoke out in overwhelming support of LGBT people and J.C. Penney’s decision not to fire Ellen simply for who she happens to love,” said Herndon Graddick, Senior Director of Programs and Communications at GLAAD, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) media advocacy and anti-defamation organization.

In retrospect, that might have been the only bright spot of the year. When the company implemented a concept of "stores within the store," customers seemed even more confused. Instead of the brands they were accustomed to buying at Penney's, they found various apparel manufacturers had their own little stations throughout the store.

J.C. Penney Dec. 22, 2012, 6:33 p.m.
Consumers rate J.C. Penney

“I've shopped Penney's for years! I was amazed to see a bustling well-stocked and appealing local store morph into a dead-end," Sue, of Wilmington, N.C., wrote in May. "Didn't like the changes in merchandise, pricing or displays. I quickly walked through to get to another store. I have not been back!”

No surprisingly, the consumer disgust has taken a toll on the bottom line. The company suffered a $163 million first-quarter loss and the red ink just got deeper as the year wore on. Penney's has since walked back some of its changes, promising regular sales promotions, but Kernkraut says it might not be enough, noting many of the stores just seem empty.

"They don't have compelling merchandise," he said.

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Wendy's makes some big changes

New restaurant design features fireplaces, wi-fi, big-screen TV

When it comes to selecting a fast-food restaurant for a quick meal, the amount of options to choose from can seem infinite.But no matter how many pl...

PhotoWhen it comes to selecting a fast-food restaurant for a quick meal, the amount of options to choose from can seem infinite.

But no matter how many places there are, many people will first think of McDonald's, Burger King and, these days, Wendy’s, which wasn't always the case.

There was a time when Wendy’s wasn’t a big part of the conversation when it came to discussing the fast-food powerhouses, since it seemed for years that McDonalds and Burger King’s battle for supremacy was so public, that it made a lot of consumers forget that other fast food places existed. And for many years Wendy’s was one of those forgotten places.

But today things are different, and over the years the Ohio-based chain has not only done a tremendous job of joining the ranks of McDonald's and Burger King in terms of ubiquity and staying in the minds of consumers, but Wendy’s has also separated itself from the burger giants by branding itself as higher quality, with better food, which a lot of customers believe.

And that belief has turned into sales results for Wendy’s, as the company recently announced that it saw sales increases for five consecutive quarters in its North American stores, with the most recent quarter showing a 3.2 percent growth.

Fireplaces & wi-fi

PhotoBut the burger chain isn’t resting on its recent successes, as its now rolling out a bunch of sleekly designed restaurants that seem to be part lounge café, part living room--complete with fireplaces, computerized menu boards, flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi access.

The company has even created a new logo, removing the big red box that the company name usually sits in, and instead going with  basic red lettering and a white background. The Wendy cartoon character also received a facelift.

Wendy’s President and CEO Emil Brolick said while changing the logo the company had to be careful not to remove the parts of it that consumers seemed to attach themselves to, and when the company made changes in the past that were too drastic, customers really spoke up.

“When we pushed things too far, they very much reeled us back,” he said in a recent published interview.

Besides the new logo -- the first since 1983 --  the company said it will create new 99-cent menu options, in an attempt to catch up to Mickey D’s and Burger King in the area of ultra-cheap offerings.

Aftertaste

Wendy's Dec. 21, 2012, 5:59 p.m.
Consumers rate Wendy's

But will the newly-designed restaurants and the additions to the 99-cent menu options bring more customers into Wendy’s locations throughout the country? The chain generates its share of consumer complaints and it may take more than a quick spruce-up to turn around some of the negativity that follows a bad experience.

“My husband and I had been running some errands and decided we wanted a hamburger,” wrote Judith of Illinois in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

“It was 10 am on 12/6/11. The place had just opened. In fact, my husband had to tap on the drive-thru window to get them to open it. The drive-thru ordering device did not work. We ordered three cheeseburger deluxes and a Monterey chicken sandwich.

“The chicken sandwich was fine, however the hamburgers were cold," she said. "The lettuce was limp and had that translucence that lettuce gets when it has been heated up. We were the first customers of the day. There is no reason we should have had left-over food, such as I believe the hamburgers were.”

Most of the gripes about Wendy’s were linked to poor customer service rather than bad food, but there were some readers who had horrible meal experiences.

“My wife picked up food from Wendy’s yesterday for the very first time,” wrote Nicholas from Dearborn, Mich.

“After we ate the food we all took a nap because we were up late the night before. An hour after waking up from the nap, my 2-year old son and I threw up all night. Thinking it was the flu, we went to the hospital. The doctor told us that my son and I had food poisoning.

“Now to remind you, I never said anything to the doctor about what we ate that day. Wendy’s was the first and only meal I ate that day and look at the outcome. I ended up going to the hospital for food poisoning. It was unbelievable," he said.

“I can’t stand McDonald’s, but I will never go back to Wendy’s,” wrote Nicholas.

Not all bad

PhotoBut despite the customer complaints that Wendy’s receives, it’s still a weekly destination for many consumers.

And by the company being so successful at differentiating itself from competitors by appearing as almost a fast-causal restaurant instead of fast-food place, it’s likely that the restaurant and brand transformation will serve the company quite well.

In fact, Brolick says the customer response to the change has been extremely positive so far.

“The transformation is already resonating with consumers and we’re building momentum, especially with our Image Activation restaurants that position our brand as a cut above the competition,” he said.

“We are unveiling the first Wendy’s brand logo change in nearly 30 years and next March we will introduce it across all of our consumer touch points. This is a very exciting time for Wendy’s.”

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Keeping food safe from the wrath of Old Man Winter

You can get through it you follow a few simple steps

Folks befuddled by all the warm weather and wondering where winter is need only look to the Midwest to find out. A powerful winter storm system bringing d...

PhotoFolks befuddled by all the warm weather and wondering where winter is need only look to the Midwest to find out.

A powerful winter storm system bringing damage and power failures has prompted the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to offer guidance to those who have been or expect to be affected by the storm on how to keep frozen and refrigerated foods at safe temperatures and how to determine if food is unsafe to eat.

"Keeping food at safe storage temperatures is crucial to avoiding foodborne illness, and this can be difficult without electricity," USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said. "As the first winter storm of the season hits the U.S., make sure your family has appliance thermometers, coolers, and plenty of ice to keep perishable food below 40° F until power is restored to your refrigerator and freezer. As a last resort for food safety, when in doubt, throw it out."

The publication Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency can be downloaded and printed for reference during a power outage. FSIS' YouTube video Food Safety During Power Outages also has instructions for keeping frozen and refrigerated food safe.

Preparing for a weather emergency

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

When the power goes

  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
  • A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if you keep the door closed.
  • A full freezer will keep its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).
  • If the power is out for an extended period of time, buy dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days.
  • Take advantage of cold outdoor temperatures to make ice to bring inside, but do not leave food out in the snow to keep it cold. Outside temperatures can vary, and food can be exposed to unsanitary conditions and animals. Fill buckets, empty milk containers, or cans with water and leave them outside to freeze. Use this ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers.

After a weather emergency

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

Has it made a difference for you? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wants to know

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act). The goal was to bring ...

PhotoIn 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act). The goal was to bring fairness and transparency to the credit card market.

Now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) wants to know if the CARD Act is doing its job -- how it has affected the daily lives of consumers and the behavior of industry. To do that, the CFPB is seeking public comment from consumers, credit card issuers, industry analysts, consumer advocates and others on the effects of the CARD Act.

“The CARD Act made major changes in the credit card marketplace in order to better protect consumers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “With today’s inquiry, the Bureau is seeking to understand how the credit card market is working in practice and how the CARD Act changes have affected consumers and credit card issuers.”

CARD conference

In February 2011, the CFPB held a conference to assess the CARD Act’s impact on the marketplace one year after many of the Act’s provisions took effect. It found that the Act had largely curtailed the long-standing practice of hiking interest rates on existing cardholder accounts -- prior to the CARD Act, credit card companies often raised customers’ interest rates with little or no advance warning. The conference also found that the CARD Act had substantially reduced consumer late fees and nearly eliminated overlimit fees.

Now, the agency is seeking to gather more information on the effects of this law as of today. The CARD Act requires that the CFPB conduct a review of the consumer credit market. As part of that review, the Bureau is seeking public comment from consumers, credit card issuers, industry analysts, consumer advocates, and others on the effects of the CARD Act.

Areas of inquiry

Some of the specific areas the agency is requesting information on include:

  • The terms of credit card agreements and practices of credit card issuers: The bureau wants to know how the terms and conditions of credit card agreements may have changed since the CARD Act went into effect and how effective disclosures of rates, fees, and other cost terms of credit card accounts have been. The CFPB is looking to see how card issuers may have changed their pricing, marketing, underwriting, or other practices in the wake of the CARD Act and whether or not those changes have benefited or harmed consumers.
  • The success of protections against unfair or deceptive acts or practices: The CFPB is looking for information on the extent to which unfair or deceptive acts and practices still exist in the credit card market and whether issuers have circumvented -- or tried to circumvent -- any CARD Act protections against unfair or deceptive acts or practices.
  • Changes in the cost and availability of credit: The bureau is evaluating how the cost and availability of credit has changed since the CARD Act, and will consider the extent to which the upfront interest rate, and all-in cost of credit has changed when controlled for risk.
  • The use of risk-based pricing: The CFPB is considering the changes in the incidence of risk-based pricing in the credit card market, including the adoption of alternative practices in the wake of rules that restrict account repricing.

The review will culminate in a publicly available report to Congress on the state of the consumer credit card market. The data gathered will be used in determining future policy decisions.

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Holiday travelers finding low gasoline prices

The average price is below $4 a gallon in Hawaii and $3 in Missouri

Gasoline prices continued their steady decline for another week, giving motorists driving during the holidays a present at the gas pump.The national aver...

PhotoGasoline prices continued their steady decline for another week, giving motorists driving during the holidays a present at the gas pump.

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.232 per gallon, compared with $3.286 last week, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's about 19 cents lower than a month ago, during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Prices are in line with where they were at this time a year ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.920 per gallon, versus $3.953 a week ago.

This week no state has an average gasoline price above $4 a gallon and one state -- Missouri -- has an average price below $3. Contributing to the favorable climate for motorists is the healthy supply of U.S. gasoline that is more than meeting current demand.

Prices in every state are less than they were a week ago, thanks to dramatic declines in the Midwest: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Illinois have all seen big price drops in the last week or so.

Photo

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

  • Hawaii ($3.971)
  • New York ($3.734)
  • Connecticut ($3.664)
  • Alaska ($3.621)
  • Vermont ($3.535)
  • California ($3.525)
  • Rhode Island ($3.514)
  • Maine ($3.501)
  • Massachusetts ($3.450)
  • Pennsylvania ($3.434)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • Missouri ($2.966)
  • Oklahoma ($3.019)
  • South Carolina ($3.026)
  • Tennessee ($3.037)
  • Texas ($3.042)
  • Arkansas ($3.042)
  • Mississippi ($3.054)
  • Louisiana($3.063)
  • Kansas ($3.081)
  • Minnesota ($3.094)
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Relax, the world isn't ending today

Even a calendar company is offering a money back guarantee if we don't make it to 2013

If you have done no Christmas shopping on the belief that the world would end on Dec. 21, you'd better hit the stores. The world isn't ending today.The l...

PhotoIf you have done no Christmas shopping on the belief that the world would end on Dec. 21, you'd better hit the stores. The world isn't ending today.

The long forecast end of the world is attributed to the Mayan calendar, which ends abruptly on Dec. 21, 2012. Some have taken that to mean that, because the Mayan's ended their calendar on a particular date, that's when the world would end. It was never explained how the Mayans were in a position to know this.

In truth, outside of China it seems no one is taking any of this very seriously. Perhaps last week's horror in Connecticut and the fiscal cliff wrangling in Washington have provided something more real to worry about.

There was actually more buzz about the alleged Mayan prophecy three years ago when a movie came out about a planetary collision bringing about the end of the earth on December 21, 2012. NASA was actually forced to address the issue, prompting us to produce this 2009 video:

Back in May of this year we reported that a group of Boston University researchers had made discoveries that completely debunked the theory that the end of the Mayan calendar somehow meant life was stopping. BU Assistant Professor of Archaeology William Saturno and his team excavated a Maya ruin in Guatemala and uncovered a wall of paintings with calculations relating to the Maya calendar.

“For the first time we get to see what may be actual records kept by a scribe, whose job was to be official record keeper of a Maya community,” Saturno said. “It’s like an episode of TV’s ‘Big Bang Theory,’ a geek math problem and they’re painting it on the wall. They seem to be using it like a blackboard.”

Just a misunderstanding?

After deciphering the calculations, the project scientists say that despite popular belief, there is no sign that the Maya calendar -- or the world -- was to end in the year 2012, just one of its calendar cycles.

“It’s like the odometer of a car, with the Maya calendar rolling over from the 120,000s to 130,000,” said Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University, a coauthor of the paper being published in the journal Science. “The car gets a step closer to the junkyard as the numbers turn over; the Maya just start over.”

But the, why let science stand in the way of firmly-held belief? This week Calendars.com weighed in on the issue, allowing readers to predict the way they think the world will end, if and when it does. The top choice was an asteroid impact, followed by a Yellowstone eruption.

Meanwhile, the company is hoping people will go ahead and purchase a 2013 calendar and has offered a money-back guarantee if the world ends today.

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Want to reach a stranger on Facebook? Pay up!

Facebook is testing the idea of putting a tollgate on your inbox

Facebook has its well-publicized downsides but at least you're not subjected to spam emails in your Facebook Messages inbox. Well, not yet anyway but that ...

PhotoFacebook has its well-publicized downsides but at least you're not subjected to spam emails in your Facebook Messages inbox. Not yet anyway but that may be about to change.

Currently, under most circumstances, you  only get inbox messages from your "friends," not counting the messages asking you to befriend someone. Messages that aren't from friends wind up in your "Other" box.

But now, Facebook says it's starting a "small experiment" today that will make use of "economic signals" to determine whether or not a message gets through to you.

In other words, those who are willing to pay will be able to put messages in your inbox, or at least to inboxes included in the test.

You think that sounds like an ad? Well, it does, sort of, but Facebook insists it has higher and more noble aspirations. Here's how Facebook explains it:

Today we’re starting a small experiment to test the usefulness of economic signals to determine relevance. This test will give a small number of people the option to pay to have a message routed to the Inbox rather than the Other folder of a recipient that they are not connected with.

Several commentators and researchers have noted that imposing a financial cost on the sender may be the most effective way to discourage unwanted messages and facilitate delivery of messages that are relevant and useful.

PhotoFacebook cites a couple of examples: "If you want to send a message to someone you heard speak at an event but are not friends with, or if you want to message someone about a job opportunity, you can use this feature to reach their Inbox. For the receiver, this test allows them to hear from people who have an important message to send them."

Of course, it's not hard to imagine that this little idea could quickly have us hearing unimportant messages from all kinds of people we'd rather never hear from, so maybe they'd have to pay a higher price?

Curious, I went into Facebook and took a look at the "other" folder, thinking perhaps I'd run across people who had heard me speaking or, you know, had always admired my reporting and wanted to include me in their will, or maybe send me one of those genius grants.

I found such specimens as these:

Farleigh Mohtashami

howdy

whats up James. you appear interesting. message me at awesomegirl777@xxxxxxx.com to get my best discreet pix

Adolpho Codyvaldez

hi! I'm a female!!! I really enjoy your entire user profile!!! there's no doubt that it's fantastic. I have a number of private images. i'm dying to show you. u interested?

Lewiss Metzler

hey there James. you look good.
email me:

Well, so much for the theory that there is worthwhile mail languishing away in the Other box.

Follow the money

Just to be clear: the money -- oh sorry, economic signals -- that the sender pays to get into your inbox goes to Facebook, not to you.  You know, sort of like Instagram's peachy idea of selling your photos to advertisers and keeping the money.

Facebook insists that the inbox toll is "only for personal messages between individuals in the U.S." and says that in the test, the number of paid messages a person can receive will be limited to one per week.

That's just for this test, of course, or as Facebook so eloquently puts it: "We’ll continue to iterate and evolve Facebook Messages over the coming months."

Well, that's fine, Facebook. We'll all be iterating and evolving too, unless something better comes along.

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Buying her another predictable holiday gift this year? Do something for her instead

When it comes to buying a romantic gift, doing something is better than buying something

It feels like Christmas day is just minutes away, although in reality we have a little over a week.And though that’s not a lot of time for us guys ...

PhotoIt feels like Christmas day is just minutes away, although in reality we have a few days left.

And though that’s not a lot of time for us guys to buy gifts for our spouses or girlfriends, there’s still a little time to get something really nice if we apply ourselves.

Let’s face it --  a lot of men kick up their level of procrastination a notch or two during the holiday season.

Maybe it’s because we dread the craziness that’s associated with holiday shopping or maybe we’re still unsure of what to buy. Sometimes our tendency to procrastinate when buying a gift is fueled by our indecision.

And if you thought of jumping online and purchasing something onlinem,  it’s far from certain that the gift will arrive by December 25, so at this juncture, it might be best to do something for your significant other instead of just buying something.

Of course you can just run out and pick up a piece of jewelry or some type of clothing if you want, since going that route usually doesn’t take a bunch of planning or searching, but if you want to get something that will be more memorable for her, it’ll require a little bit of action on your part to go along with that gift you buy.

A romantic dinner

Here’s a thought -- imagine it’s already Christmas Eve, and your mate comes home to a romantic dinner for two.

Whether you’re able to cook well or not, you can order a gourmet meal from the website SendAMeal.com, which is still buying something for gift, but at least the gift is a little left field and requires a bit of thoughtful action on your part.

Photo

And if you take a couple of minutes to create a personal dinner invitation  beforehand, it will only help you pull off your romantic dinner that much more. 

The meal site contains a host of tasty-looking dishes that are made for two, including a Lobster feast, a New York-styled steak dinner with romantic themed desserts and French rack of lamb. Each romantic meal comes with a bottle of wine too.

Overall, SendAMeal has tons of meal options for just about any occasion and the company says each meal comes frozen, except the live lobsters.  Preparation requires about 30 minutes of heating time before you serve.

In addition, you can either order the meal online or over the telephone and prices start around $60 and can go as high as $200 depending on what you purchase. Shipping costs aren’t included.

But if you don’t feel like doing the whole romantic meal thing on Christmas Eve, you can also purchase a gift voucher on the site, so your mate can choose when she wants her gourmet meal to be delivered.

Movie marathon

PhotoAnother romantic thing to do instead of just buying something this year, is to gather your mate's favorite selection of movies, include some wine and finger foods, and have a cozy holiday movie marathon.

Obviously, it’s very easy to put something like this together, as it will require just a little planning on your part to either secure the proper DVDs or make sure each movie is available for streaming with your Netflix package, assuming that you’re a customer.

And the movies don’t even have to be her favorites. You can easily put together a movie night surrounding the films that she planned to see or expressed a desire to see eventually. The mere attempt of your trying to gather the movies she has mentioned in the past through casual conversation will speak louder than you think it will.

You should also choose her favorite finger foods and snacks for the movie night, along with the wine that she typically fancies, even if you don't like it. You can also do a little extra planning to set up a cozy surrounding with candles and the whole nine yards, which will set the mood perfectly. 

Mood music

PhotoAnother romantic thing to do this holiday season instead of just buying her the new iPod Touch, is getting the device and loading it with a combination of her favorite songs and songs from your relationship.

Currently, Apple is selling the Touch for about $300 for the 32 GB version and $400 for the 64 GB. 

And sure, iPods aren’t as popular as they used to be since smartphones have taken over, but there’s still something nice about owning a device that’s only for music, so you don’t have to rummage through a bunch of icons and applications to play your favorite tunes.

Also, by putting your spouse or girlfriend's favorite songs on the device, you’ll be showing that you put in the time to not only gather each song, but you were also attentive enough to remember each song that's dear to her.

And since men are stereotyped to be deficient in the area of holding on to romantic memories, perhaps your mate will be completely blindsided by the gift idea, which makes giving someone a gift that much better, doesn’t it?

The iPod Touch also shouldn’t be too hard to find, because although it’s on a lot of people’s gift lists this year, Apple usually does a pretty good job of keeping its shelves stocked, especially during the holiday season.

Mushiness

PhotoThis last gift idea might be a little on the mushy side, but always avoiding mushiness is what sometimes gets us guys in hot water with our ladies.

A good way of embracing that ultra-romantic side of yourself is by putting together a booklet that contains everything from scheduled events in the future that you have planned for her, to poems, photos and romantic writings that you put together yourself.  

For example, if you have small children, one of the book’s pages can show a day or an entire weekend that you plan to take the kids, so your mate can enjoy some alone time or get the chance to hang out with her friends for an extended amount of time.

Another page in the booklet can show a specific time that you plan a special evening out or even better, a romantic evening in. Other pages can have poems and photos of you two together and you can jot down memories or silly little captions next to those photos.

I know the whole booklet thing sounds a little teeny-boppish, but sometimes we have to go back to our younger selves to really channel that feeling of innocent romance.

But it’s possible that your significant other isn’t really the romantic type in the traditional sense, so in that case, you’ll have to tweak your idea or go another route from the suggestions listed here.

But whatever gift you decide to get your significant other this holiday season, always keep in mind that what you do will always say more than what you buy. And the memory will last longer too.

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New app lets you check a bus company's safety record

The feds say consumers should do research before buying their bus ticket.

For anyone that has used an interstate bus company in the last 10 years has probably noticed the dramatic changes throughout the entire industry.As ...

PhotoHoliday travel gets into gear shortly, and many travelers will be going by bus. As anyone who has used an interstate bus company in the last 10 years will tell you, there have been some dramatic changes throughout the bus industry.

As recently as the 1990s, if you wanted to take a bus to visit a family member or friend, you were pretty much stuck with Greyhound or one of its subsidiary lines like Peter Pan or Trailways.

By the time the year 2000 arrived, mom-and-pop bus companies started to sprout up all over the country, drawing a collective sigh of relief from many frequent bus travelers, for several reasons.

First, many of the independently-owned bus companies offered much lower fares than the major companies, often undercutting them by 50 percent or more. For a broke college student, the $20 one-way fares were quite the financial relief.

Greyhound Dec. 19, 2012, 4:15 p.m.
Consumers rate Greyhound

And because of those low prices, mom-and-pop lines started to grow dramatically,  but sadly the number of safety violations and accidents started to grow too.

Earlier this year, we reported that 26 bus lines were closed down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) due to being  public safety threats.

Among the closed bus lines were New Century Travel, Inc., Coach Inc. Apex Bus, Inc. and I-95 Coach, Inc., and although the FMCSA has tightened some of the regulations for independently owned bus companies, there are many that are still traveling the highways with poor safety records and continued violations.

New app

PhotoTo provide a better idea of which bus companies are safer to travel on, the FMCSA released an app called SaferBus, where consumers can check the safety records of a bus company that their planning to use and they can also file a complaint to the FMCSA through their smartphone or mobile device.

The app can be extremely useful for passengers, as it can be nearly impossible to reach a customer service person that can help with a complaint or problem, since many smaller independently-owned bus companies don’t have a customer service team and they’re not set up to answer questions in a timely manner or even at all sometimes.

But filing a complaint is probably the second-best feature of the SaferBus app, since consumers can check to see if a bus company is worth traveling on in the first place before any negative experiences take place.

PhotoMany times, once you purchase a ticket and become a passenger, you’re at the mercy of not only the bus driver and their safety record, but you’re also at the mercy of the choices and business practices of the bus company.

But by doing a bit of research--which the SaferBus app makes very easy--you can potentially avoid running into bad customer service, an unsafe bus company or a driver with a bad safety record.

In addition, the app allows you to verify if a bus company is operating legally or not and whether it has authorization from the U.S. Department of Transportation to be in business.

The app also lets you find out if companies are carrying the proper federal insurance requirements when operating, and it also lets you track both the bus driver and the company to determine if there are any records of unsafe driving. SaferBus also lets you check if the driver ever had any issues with substance abuse in the past.

Rating system

For each safety category the app provides a rating system, so passengers can determine if past customers found the company satisfactory or not, which also gives a better idea about whether consumers should be using a particular bus line or not.

PhotoOn the bus app, the FMCSA uses three rating categories which are satisfactory, conditional and unsatisfactory, which makes it pretty clear for consumers when they’re trying to figure out which interstate bus company to go with.

You can download the app for free at the Apple iTunes App store or on your web browser at http://ai.fmcsa.dot.gov/sms/

It’s safe to say that most people would rather take an airplane or train to get to their destination instead of taking a bus, but sometimes bus ticket prices fit much better into people’s budgets.

Also, when it comes to booking a trip at the last minute, buses are the best way to go, as you can typically reserve a seat just hours before travel.

So the next time you decide to take an interstate bus, preparation for the trip should start with researching how safe the company is, as opposed to just jumping online and looking for the cheapest ticket.

More about bus lines

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States take action after Connecticut shootings

The steps are designed to cope with, prevent gun violence within their borders

In the aftermath of the murders of students and their teachers at a Connecticut elementary school, a number of states are taking action to prevent a simila...

PhotoIn the aftermath of the murders of students and their teachers at a Connecticut elementary school, a number of states are taking action to prevent a similar occurrence at school in their state.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott checked the list of Texas school not in compliance with the state's safety standards. While he was happy to see the list of 78 school had fallen to 38, he ordered those remaining non-compliant schools to immediately take action.

In New Jersey, Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa reports a gun buyback event had been scheduled for last Friday and Saturday in Camden County. Residents who had firearms they no longer wanted or felt comfortable keeping in their homes could turn them in for cash.

Outpouring

Perhaps because of the tragic shooting on Friday morning, New Jersey collected 1,137 firearms -- a record in the state.

“I am not suggesting that gun buybacks are some sort of magic solution to the complex and multi-faceted problem of violence in our society," Chiesa said during a press conference at Camden Police headquarters where all of the buyback guns were on display. "But we have to keep forging ahead using all of the strategies at our disposal. And while we’re at it, we have to keep thinking about new strategies as well. Here in New Jersey, inaction is not an option.”

Ohio and Oregon have recently experienced their own encounter with gun violence. In February, a young man killed three people in the school cafeteria at Chardon, Ohio, High School. After Friday's Connecticut shootings, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine released a copy of the guidelines that his School Safety Task Force created to help Ohio schools comply with the requirements to submit building plans and a school safety plan to his office.

Making schools safer

"After the Chardon shootings earlier this year, we put together a School Safety Task Force to further study the issue and come up with practical ideas to help schools," DeWine said. "One of the ideas that came from the task force was creating a set of guidelines that can be used to help schools who may not know what information to submit."

The wounds of violence are fresher in Oregon, where just three days before Newtown a gunman went on a shooting rampage at a mall that killed two shoppers and wounded others. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said her office is offering emergency financial compensation to help pay for counseling for people who were at the mall during the Dec. 11 shooting rampage.

“It’s hard to imagine the trauma and terror of witnessing a masked gunman indiscriminately firing an automatic weapon through a mall full of holiday shoppers,” Rosenblum said. “Our Crime Victims Services Division is well positioned to get people the help they may need.”

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Is Hollywood feeling some heat over violence?

Two new films featuring lots of shooting go for a lower profile

The first reaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was felt by the firearms industry. Share prices of gun manufacturers ...

PhotoThe first reaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was felt by the firearms industry. Share prices of gun manufacturers plunged as news of the tragedy spread and at least one retail store voluntarily pulled some weapons from its shelves.

But the blowback from Friday's tragedy may also be felt in Hollywood, where entertainment in recent years has featured more, and realistic gun violence. The impact may, or may not, fall on two blockbuster films being released next week for the holidays.

Cancelled premier

Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has cancelled this week's tinsel town premier of Django Unchained, Quinton Tarantino's new film. Tarantino's signature is gratuitous violence and Django Unchained is no different. It's the story of a former slave and his bounty hunter partner who embark on a mission of revenge. Lots of bullets are fired and lots of people die.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and in this time of national mourning we have decided to forgo our scheduled event,” Weinstein's company said in a statement. “However, we will be holding a private screening for the cast and crew and their friends and families.”

The company made clear that it wasn't showing sensitivity because of the gun violence in the film, but because it didn't seem right to be "celebrating" while the nation is in mourning.

Meanwhile, the Film Society of Lincoln Center postponed a scheduled fundraiser revolving around the premier of Jack Reacher, another violence-laced film. Actor Tom Cruise plays a former military policeman investigating a sniper incident in which five people are killed. Again, the sponsors said the change was made because a celebratory event at this time was unseemly.

Shooting scene dropped from ad?

Still, the Hollywood Reporter quoted sources at Paramount as saying the television ad for Jack Reacher is being edited to remove a scene where Cruise fires an automatic weapon.

While Hollywood in general may be feeling self-conscious about the amount of violence in its entertainment products, Tarantino is not having any part of the self-examination. Insisting on continuing the current media tour for Django Unchained, Tarantino said he's tired of defending his films after every shocking shooting incident.

“I just think you know there's violence in the world, tragedies happen, blame the playmakers," Tarantino told an interviewer in New York. "It's a western. Give me a break."

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Housing stats continue to create optimism

November saw a surprising surge in existing home sales

There are plenty of naysayers when it comes to the recovering housing market. They warn not to get too carried away by the steady, month-after-month improv...

PhotoThere are plenty of naysayers when it comes to the recovering housing market. They warn not to get too carried away by the steady, month-after-month improvement in both sales and prices.

Just this week Yale University professor and housing expert Robert Shiller cautioned against expecting too much from this housing market.

"We might see home prices go up a little bit, you know, a little bit above inflation, maybe," Shiller said on CNBC. "Not likely that we'll see a real boom."

Better than expected November

Perhaps not, but the latest existing-home sales report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) shows more of the continued progress that has fed optimism that the housing market, while not providing a boom, could at least contribute to a strengthening economy.

NAR reports that in November, home sales rose 5.9 percent over October and 14.5 percent over November 2011. Those numbers are solid any way you look at it, especially since the industry was expecting much less, due mainly to the effects Hurricane Sandy had in the Northeast.

But instead of going down, home sales in the Northeast rose 6.9 percent. In fact, home sales were exceptionally strong in all regions except the West. There, sales increased less than one percent.

"With lower rental vacancy rates and rising rents, combined with still historically favorable affordability conditions, more people are buying homes," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist.

Rising prices

Prices for homes are going up as well. In November the national median existing-home price for all housing types was $180,600 in November, up 10.1 percent from November 2011. This is the ninth consecutive monthly year-over-year price gain, which last occurred from September 2005 to May 2006.

Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales sold at deep discounts -- accounted for few sales last month, also helping raise the median sales price. But probably the biggest factor in rising prices is the declining number of homes for sale. With a lower inventory of available homes, there is more competition and sellers are able to hold closer to their asking prices.

Economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., calls housing "the leading light of the economy."

"Housing sales and prices continue to rise and the dearth of supply should lead to even stronger price gains," he said. "That will only help the market and improve consumer confidence."

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Mortgage rates jump in last week

Does the market sense inflation on the horizon?

Mortgage rates moved higher in two weekly surveys as the Federal Reserve announced new measures to spur the economy. Though rates are higher, they aren't t...

PhotoMortgage rates moved higher in two weekly surveys as the Federal Reserve announced new measures to spur the economy. Though rates are higher, they aren't that much higher.

For example, Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey shows the benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.37 during the week ending today, compared with 3.35 percent last week. Rates had an average 0.7 origination points.

But the 15-year FRM was slightly lower, averaging 2.65 with an average 0.7 point. That compares with an average 2.66 percent last week.

The five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.71 percent this week with an average 0.7 point, up from last week when it averaged 2.70 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.85 percent.

Mixed picture

"Mortgage rates were mixed this week following data reports on stable inflation and a thriving home construction market," said Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac's chief economist. "The 12-month growth in the core consumer price index has remained between 1.9 and 2.1 percent for the past five consecutive months ending in November. Meanwhile, housing starts averaged the strongest three months in November since September 2008, and homebuilder confidence rose in December to its highest reading since April 2008."

Bankrate has different take

The weekly Bankrate.com rate survey saw the biggest one week increase since March, with the benchmark 30-year fixed mortgage rate jumping from 3.52 percent to 3.62 percent. Points averaged 0.31 percent.

The 15-year FRM averaged 2.89 percent, up from 2.85 percent the week before. Points averaged 0.24 percent.

The 5/1 ARM averaged 2.78 percent -- up from 2.74 percent last week and average points of 0.27 percent.

Bankrate attributed the sharp increases in average rates to last week's announcement of additional stimulus by the Federal Reserve. While this newly announced bond-buying program is designed to keep long-term interest rates and mortgage rates low, Bankrate said the initial reaction was opposite because of concerns that the Fed's printing of more money would eventually lead to higher inflation.

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Tips for year-end giving

Some changes in tax law may affect what -- and to whom -- you want to give

Even though we haven't been through the holidays yet, it's not too early to start thinking about the bite the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will be taking...

PhotoEven though we haven't been through the holidays yet, it's not too early to start thinking about the bite the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will be taking from this year's earnings.

If you have made contributions to charity, you should know some key tax provisions have taken effect in recent year affecting donations of clothing, household items and money.

Rules for clothing and household items

  • To be deductible, clothing and household items donated to charity generally must be in good used condition or better. A clothing or household item for which a taxpayer claims a deduction of over $500 does not have to meet this standard if the taxpayer includes a qualified appraisal of the item with the return. Household items include furniture, furnishings, electronics, appliances and linens.

Guidelines for monetary donations

  • To deduct any charitable donation of money -- regardless of amount -- a taxpayer must have a bank record or a written communication from the charity showing the name of the charity and the date and amount of the contribution. Bank records include canceled checks, bank or credit union statements, and credit card statements. Bank or credit union statements should show the name of the charity, the date and the amount paid. Credit card statements should show the name of the charity, the date and the transaction posting date.
  • Donations of money include those made in cash or by check, electronic funds transfer, credit card and payroll deduction. For payroll deductions, the taxpayer should retain a pay stub, a Form W-2 wage statement or other document furnished by the employer showing the total amount withheld for charity, along with the pledge card showing the name of the charity.
  • These requirements for the deduction of monetary donations do not change the long-standing requirement that a taxpayer obtain an acknowledgment from a charity for each deductible donation (either money or property) of $250 or more. However, one statement containing all of the required information may meet both requirements.

Reminders

To help taxpayers plan their holiday-season and year-end giving, the IRS offers the following additional reminders:

  • Contributions are deductible in the year made. Thus, donations charged to a credit card before the end of 2012 count for 2012. This is true even if the credit card bill isn’t paid until 2013. Also, checks count for 2012 as long as they are mailed in 2012.
  • Check that the organization is qualified. Only donations to qualified organizations are tax-deductible. Exempt Organization Select Check lists most organizations that are qualified to receive deductible contributions. In addition, churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and government agencies are eligible to receive deductible donations, even if they are not listed in the database.
  • For individuals, only taxpayers who itemize their deductions on Form 1040 Schedule A can claim deductions for charitable contributions. This deduction is not available to individuals who choose the standard deduction, including anyone who files a short form (Form 1040A or 1040EZ). A taxpayer will have a tax savings only if the total itemized deductions (mortgage interest, charitable contributions, state and local taxes, etc.) exceed the standard deduction. Use the 2012 Form 1040 Schedule A to determine whether itemizing is better than claiming the standard deduction.
  • For all donations of property, including clothing and household items, get from the charity, if possible, a receipt that includes the name of the charity, date of the contribution, and a reasonably-detailed description of the donated property. If a donation is left at a charity’s unattended drop site, keep a written record of the donation that includes this information, as well as the fair market value of the property at the time of the donation and the method used to determine that value. Additional rules apply for a contribution of $250 or more.
  • The deduction for a motor vehicle, boat or airplane donated to charity is usually limited to the gross proceeds from its sale. This rule applies if the claimed value is more than $500. Form 1098-C, or a similar statement, must be provided to the donor by the organization and attached to the donor’s tax return.
  • If the amount of a taxpayer’s deduction for all noncash contributions is over $500, a properly-completed Form 8283 must be submitted with the tax return.
  • And, as always it’s important to keep good records and receipts.

Additional information

Here is some additional information from the IRS on charitable giving including:

Charities & Non-Profits

Publication 526, Charitable Contributions

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Be on the lookout for travel scams

Latest case is Michigan travel operator accused of ripping off seniors

In addition to celebrating holidays, this is also a time of year that people plan winter vacations. A word to the wise -- when you use the services of an o...

PhotoIn addition to celebrating holidays, this is also a time of year that people plan winter vacations. A word to the wise: When you use the services of an outside agency or booking firm, make sure it is legitimate.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed nine felony charges against a travel operator he says scammed 100 people -- most of them seniors. Schuette said he began looking into the matter when complaints poured into his office that payments were made for trips but no trips, or refunds, were provided.

"It is absolutely shameful to prey on innocent seniors who are living their golden years on limited budgets," said Schuette.

Cautionary tale

It serves as a cautionary tale. Schuette says Timeway Tours and its owner face criminal charges for booking tours they never intended to deliver. It is alleged the victims, the majority whom were elderly, responded to newspaper ads for trips to destinations such as the Kentucky Derby, Branson and the Florida Gulf Coast.

When victims who failed to receive confirmation of their trips requested more information, they were promised refunds, but the refunds never materialized. According to the charges, the owner spent most of the cash at casinos.

According to the complaint, Timeway defrauded at least 100 victims in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Jackson and Traverse City, for a total of between $150,000-$200,000.

Doesn't mean to be a crook

Sometimes a tour operator doesn't set out to be dishonest but finds itself in financial trouble. If it's already spent the money it collected from you, it can't deliver the promised travel, even if it wanted to.

That's why it's always important to carefully checkout any company you are doing business with in the travel field. Check online sites like ConsumerAffairs to see what other customers say.

Here are some other tips for staying out of trouble before and during travel:

  • When faced with a "bait-and-switch" scenario, don't allow yourself to be intimidated. Be firm, but calm, and demand the rate that you were promised or the item that you agreed to order.
  • Be prepared to walk away if you don't get what you were promised. Chances are, if the business or individual is faced with losing a paying customer, it will agree to give you the deal as promised.
  • Take time to review all the details to ensure you know what you are purchasing before you buy. Ask if there are any additional fees not reflected in the advertised price.
  • Make sure you read all documents carefully before signing.
  • Once you have checked into a hotel, if you receive flyers under your door, or a call from the hotel's front desk, always check with the hotel's front desk in person, prior to placing an order or providing your credit card number or other personal identifying information.
  • Whether you are traveling or not, never provide personal information in response to an unsolicited phone call, email, or advertisement.
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Data broker industry to come under federal microscope

The Federal Trade Commission will analyze the companies' collection and use of consumer data

Nine data brokerage companies have been ordered to provide the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with information about how they collect and use data about co...

PhotoNine data brokerage companies have been ordered to provide the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with information about how they collect and use data about consumers. The information will be used to study privacy practices in the industry.

Data brokers collect personal information about consumers from a variety of public and non-public sources and resell the information to other companies. In many ways, these data flows benefit consumers and the economy; for example, having this information about consumers enables companies to prevent fraud. Data brokers also provide data to help their customers to better market their products and services.

The nine data brokers receiving orders from the FTC are: 1) Acxiom, 2) Corelogic, 3) Datalogix, 4) eBureau, 5) ID Analytics, 6) Intelius, 7) Peekyou, 8) Rapleaf and 9) Recorded Future.

The FTC wants to know:

  • the nature and sources of the consumer information the data brokers collect;
  • how they use, maintain, and disseminate the information; and
  • the extent to which the data brokers allow consumers to access and correct their information or to opt out of having their personal information sold.

Improved transparency needed

Earlier this year the FTC called on the data broker industry to improve the transparency of its practices as part of an agency report, Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers.

In the privacy report, the FTC set forth a voluntary framework of best practices for businesses based on the concepts of privacy by design, consumer control, and increased transparency for the collection and use of consumer data. The report noted that while data brokers collect, maintain, and sell a wealth of information about consumers, they often do not interact directly with consumers. Rather, they get information from public records and purchase information from other companies.

As a result, consumers are often unaware of the existence of data brokers as well as the purposes for which they collect and use consumers’ data. This lack of transparency also means that even when data brokers offer consumers the ability to access their data, or provide other tools, many consumers do not know how to exercise this right. There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes.

The FTC will use the responses it receives to prepare a study and to make recommendations on whether, and how, the data broker industry could improve its privacy practices.   

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Feds toughen rules protecting children's privacy on the Internet

New rules are "not Big Brother but Big Mother and Big Father"

Saying that he wanted to give a "very hard time" to companies that "make their living off of grinding out through various technological tricks private info...

PhotoSaying that he wanted to give a "very hard time" to companies that "make their living off of grinding out through various technological tricks private information about kids 12 and under," Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) today introduced toughened new restrictions for online sites that collect data about children.

The toughened rules are part of the Federal Trade Commission's COPPA Rule -- the COPPA standing for Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, first adopted in 1998.

The amendments strengthen kids’ privacy protections and give parents greater control over the personal information that websites and online services may collect from children under 13.

At a Capitol Hill news conference, Rockefeller said the FTC "went as far as they could on this one."

"My guess is they would have liked to have gone farther but they couldn't" because of legal restrictions, Rockefeller said, leaving no doubt that he would like to see legislation that allowed even tougher restrictions on exploitation of children by online advertisers, Internet sites, apps and data brokers.

"We can't do anything more about it right now. But to me this is such a no-brainer, it's an absolute priority. Children's privacy is an absolute top-line issue for me. I'm going to do every single thing I possibly can to make it strong, stronger and yet stronger," said Rockefeller, Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Two-year review

The amendments announced today are the result of a review the FTC opened in 2010 to ensure that the COPPA Rule keeps up with evolving technology and changes in the way children use and access the Internet, including the increased use of mobile devices and social networking. 

Photo“The Commission takes seriously its mandate to protect children’s online privacy in this ever-changing technological landscape,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.  “I am confident that the amendments to the COPPA Rule strike the right balance between protecting innovation that will provide rich and engaging content for children, and ensuring that parents are informed and involved in their children’s online activities.”

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said COPPA was "not Big Brother, it's Big Mother and Big Father."

"COPPA was put on the books for one reason: to protect the most vulnerable," Markey, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said.  "The Internet is our children's 21st century playground. Keeping kids safe on the internet is as important as ensuring their safety in homes, schools and cars. Parents are the best guardians of their chiildren's safety, which is why this update is so important."

The amendments:

  • modify the list of “personal information”  that cannot be collected without parental notice and consent, clarifying that this category includes geolocation information, photographs, and videos;
  • offer companies a streamlined, voluntary and transparent approval process for new ways of getting parental consent;
  • close a loophole that allowed kid-directed apps and websites to permit third parties to collect personal information from children through plug-ins without parental notice and consent;
  • extend coverage in some of those cases so that the third parties doing the additional collection also have to comply with COPPA;
  • extend the COPPA Rule to cover persistent identifiers that can recognize users over time and across different websites or online services, such as IP addresses and mobile device IDs;
  • strengthen data security protections by requiring that covered website operators and online service providers take reasonable steps to release children’s personal information only to companies that are capable of keeping it secure and confidential;
  • require that covered website operators adopt reasonable procedures for data retention and deletion; and
  • strengthen the FTC’s oversight of self-regulatory safe harbor programs.

COPPA requires that operators of websites or online services that are either directed to children under 13 or have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from children under 13 give notice to parents and get their verifiable consent before collecting, using, or disclosing such personal information, and keep secure the information they collect from children. 

It also prohibits them from conditioning children’s participation in activities on the collection of more personal information than is reasonably necessary for them to participate. 

Noting that the FTC had conducted extensive headings and meetings with industry groups as well as children's advocates, Leibowtiz noted that COPPA covers only sites directed to children and which knowingly collect data from children.

"This is a sliver of the Internet, but it's an important sliver," he said.

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How not to get wrapped up in holiday spending pressures

Advice from a financial expert about consumer restraint and how to repair your credit

There are a number of wonderful things the holiday season brings about.Like family members taking the time out of their schedules to meet up, the be...

PhotoThere are a number of wonderful things the holiday season brings about.

Like family members taking the time out of their schedules to meet up, the beautiful decorations that we're treated to every year, and the general pace of life slowing down until it comes to a screeching halt on Christmas Day.

And despite the packed malls, long lines and pushy customers that we have to deal with, gift-giving is still a fun part of the holiday season since it allows our altruistic selves to really get creative and try to find items that will make other people happy.

But what if you can’t afford to shell out all of that money this holiday season?

And when you have multiple people to buy Christmas gifts for, one can easily find themselves in a financial hole, that they should have avoided in the first place by not spending--but chose to jump right in instead.

Lots of pressure

It’s obvious that retailers, the ads they create and society at large have created a level of pressure for consumers to buy gifts and spend money, even if they don’t have it. And if you don’t have the necessary funds to purchase several presents for several people, the holiday season can go from a season of cheer to a season of fear for many.

So to avoid feelings of guilt, a lot of people dive into their credit cards like Greg Louganis to buy gifts -- and in the process, they really do a number on their credit score. It can be surprising just how much credit damage one can do in the few short weeks that surround Christmas.

According to Ariel Pryor, a financial expert who works at the personal finance  site ReallyBadCreditOffers.com, those trying to rebuild their credit may have a harder time doing so during the holiday season.

“For some, rebuilding one’s credit is a battle of wills, conquering one's immediate desires for decisions that over the long term are wiser," he said in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“The temptation of reckless spending is much higher during the holidays, and people are tempted to spend with abandon and worry about consequences after the New Year. This is a recipe for people to lose track and find themselves overburdened come Jan. 1.”

Discipline suspended

PhotoPryor also said the holidays make a lot of people suspend their financial discipline.

“Families that have been on a financial diet for months, years in some cases with gains hard fought are hungry for a little recklessness. The financial abandon preached during this period can often be irresistible to the financially famished.”

“This is a season of bingeing, a season of abandon with consequences to be worried about later, but the financial mistakes have lasting consequences,”  explained Pryor.

He also said that many different elements in our society keep the level of pressure high when it comes to people spending money they really don’t have or won’t soon get.

And what are these different societal elements?

“I believe tradition, marketing everywhere you look proclaiming how well the Jones may be doing, and of course kids coming home from school wide eyed proclaiming what their friends are expecting, combine to create a perfect storm of pressure on families,” said Pryor.

“Black Friday, Cyber Monday, packed stores leading up to the big day, make sure that even people without children understand what is perceived to be expected of them during this time.”

However, Pryor says one doesn’t have to shun giving gifts altogether, and with the proper amount of restraint one could still be able to play Santa Clause and still not break the bank.

Find a balance

Photo“By all means provide gifts,” he said. “I’m not advocating a tree sans gifts come Christmas morn. My advice though is to find a balance.”

“The look in a child’s eyes when they unwrap a present, with their excitement bubbling out is priceless. Achieving this result while staying within one's budget, though, is vital. I only hope to remind people gently that we are more than our things, more than our collected gadgets, and that gift-giving is as much about sentiment as cost.

“My family for example, has traditionally baked cookies and pies as gifts for friends, investing our time, good will and efforts. The latest gadget is soon forgotten, finding a way to stay within ones budget, not going into further debt, gives the gift of a solid financial foundation for the family, free of the financial pressures that plague so many,” said Pryor.

He also says there’s a right way to rebuild your credit, regardless of what time of year it is, and the first thing one should do is change the way they deal with their money.

Get organized

“The first step to rebuilding is to organize one's finances,” Pryor advised.

“When hardship strikes, the emotional toll is tremendous, and the sense of being out of control is stifling. The act of breaking up the various bills, loans, accounts and such into smaller parts and organizing them in a way that you can see clearly where your money is being spent is vital.”

“People are left in paralysis, not knowing what to do or where to go because they can only see what looks an impossible task set before them—looking at the top of the mountain so to speak."

"Once one's money matters are clearly laid before them, the steps needed to begin the journey of rebuilding is often laid clear before them. Then it is only a matter of taking action, building momentum. Making daily progress in this fashion can move mountains,” he said.

In closing, Pryor says the holiday season certainly shouldn’t be a time when you stress yourself out about not having enough money, and ignoring those entities that couldn't care less about your personal finances by telling you to spend should be ignored at all costs.

“Love, be happy, be merry,”  said Pryor about avoiding the pressure to spend too much this holiday season.

“Seek out what we have to be grateful for in all things. There are always those less fortunate than ourselves, this is a season for extending the warmth of family to all we come in contact to. Don’t let the marketers determine your Holiday,” he said.

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Expert finds report of lax kids' online privacy 'alarming'

Cornell professor says most apps makers are ignoring the law

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in recent days, has disclosed its concern about the privacy of children who use mobile and desktop apps.The problem i...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in recent days, has expressed  concern about the privacy of children who use mobile and desktop apps.

The problem is that the apps collect a lot of data about the user. If the user is underage, the apps are supposed to obtain parental permission before storing that data. The study was based on an analysis of the privacy disclosures and practices of apps offered for children in the Google Play and Apple App stores.

"While we think most companies have the best intentions when it comes to protecting kids’ privacy, we haven’t seen any progress when it comes to making sure parents have the information they need to make informed choices about apps for their kids. In fact, our study shows that kids' apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

1998 law

Children's online privacy is protected by the Child On-Line Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and it's not exactly new. The law was enacted in 1998.

Under that law, children must have the permission of their parents before disclosing personally identifiable information to any on-line business, marketer or individual. Originally this concern stemmed from child predator cases, and while that concern still exists, it has begun to shift to marketers or businesses that seek such information in order to target advertising, anticipate trends and to create lifelong profiles on the buying and spending habits of people from an early age.

Tracy Mitrano, Cornell’s director of IT Policy and Institute for Computer Policy and Law, says apps, especially the online applications for games entertainment and social networking, have newly brought this concern into greater focus.

“Not only do studies demonstrate that only a small percentage of children under the age of 13 who download these apps obtain the requisite permission from parents, but that the companies sponsoring the apps neither inform the user of the necessity to do so, nor are transparent about the information they collect in the process of both the download and then the activities of the user,” Mitrano said.

Activity and location tracking

In her own research, Mitrano says she has found these activities increasingly include tracking of Internet activity and physical location of the individual.

“Not only under COPPA is this failure to provide notice and obtain permissions a violation of the law, but the concern returns full circle to original intent of the law, which was personal and physical safety,” she said.

Mitrano says the information the FTC has turned up in its study is alarming. She says she hopes it will bring public pressure on Internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, to come to a reasonable agreement to address the issue.

She sees plenty of motivation among apps and social media companies to address the problem. If they don't, she predicts Congress and the White House will address it for them. But parents, she says, also have a role.

“At its core, however, this issue underscores the importance of public understanding about how technology, the market and user behavior shape public expectations of privacy, and how together with the law these factors may be worked in tandem for youth in particular and for the public good overall," Mitrano said.

According to the FTC, the industry has a lot of work to do. The study found, “most apps failed to provide any information about the data collected through the app, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection, and who would obtain access to the data.

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Facebook plans video ads in its news feeds

Instagram tries to eat its words, says it won't sell users' photos

Facebook plans to unveil a new video-ad product in the first half of next year, most likely plopping video ads into the middle of its news feeds, ad indust...

PhotoFacebook plans to unveil a new video-ad product in the first half of next year, most likely plopping video ads into the middle of its news feeds, ad industry sources are saying. Meanwhile, Facebook-owned Instagram has been claiming it's backing away from plans to sell its users' photos.

Advertising Age said the ads are planned for both the desktop and mobile versions of Facebook. They're expected to launch by April at the latest.

The reports say Facebook is leaning toward capping the length of the video ads at 15 seconds, just long enough to annoy users without fully satisfying ad agencies, who generally prefer to buy 30-second spots.

The ads are likely to be "autoplay" -- meaning that they'll start automatically when the Facebook page is loaded. Autoplay ads are generally regarded as annoying and inconvenient, especially for those sneaking a look at Facebook while at work or school.

Instagram dust-up

PhotoAnd as for Instagram's plans, site co-founder Kevin Systrom is not insisting there are no plans to sell users' photos, even though the new privacy policy gives it the right to do so.

Writing on the company blog, Systrom said:

"I’m writing this today to let you know we’re listening and to commit to you that we will be doing more to answer your questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate the confusion....

“To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.”

On the other hand, Systrom notes that Instagram "was created to become a business." He didn't mention that Facebook paid $1 billion for the site even though it doesn't have any revenue but he was obviously thinking it.

"Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation," Systrom said. "This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear."

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Feds unload more GM stock, taxpayers lose billions

At least GM execs will be able to fly on their private jets once again

Consumers know you almost never make money "investing" in a car and now the U.S. government is learning the same lesson.The Obama administration is selli...

PhotoConsumers know you almost never make money "investing" in a car and now the U.S. government is learning the same lesson.

The Obama administration is selling a large chunk of its remaining stock in General Motors Co. back to the automaker and plans to sell the rest by March 2014.

Taxpayers stand to lose billions. The government put up $49.5 billion to bail out GM and stands to lose about $13 billion at current stock prices. Of course, the government would argue that its purpose was to save jobs, not make a profit on the stock.

The White House said today that it would sell 200 million shares, 40 percent of its remaining stake, back to GM for $5.5 billion, or $27.50 per share. That leaves another 300 million shares to be sold over the next 15 months, most of it probably in a series of small blocks.

"Protecting taxpayer interests"

"The government should not be in the business of owning stakes in private companies for an indefinite period of time," Assistant Treasury Secretary Tim Massad said. "Moving to exit our investment in GM within the next 12 to 15 months is consistent with our dual goals of winding down TARP as soon as practicable and protecting taxpayer interests."

GM hopes that the buyback will silence critics who have labeled it "Government Motors" and charged that it was fleecing taxpayers with the expensive development of electric and hybrid cars like the Chevrolet Volt.

As part of the stock buyback, the Treasury is also releasing GM from one of the most onerous conditions that was imposed as part of the bail-out: executives will no longer be barred from using GM's fleet of corporate jets, a hardship they have endured since 2008.

However, those penurious $500,000 salary limits on most top GM executives will remain in force for now, although there are said to be "ongoing discussions" about the matter.

At least GM executives held to $500,000 in earnings won't suffer excessively under whatever tax plan finally emerges from the "fiscal cliff" budget talks.  

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McDonald's wants stores open Christmas Day

Is it a modern-day Christmas Carol? Who wants hamburgers on Christmas?

Ebeneezer Scrooge: You'll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?Bob Crachet: If quite convenient, sir.Ebeneezer Scrooge: It's not convenient, and it's not f...

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Consumers turning away from luxury cars

Study finds uptick in preference for eco-friendly vehicles

Is the U.S. really going green? A new study suggests as much. National car leasing firm Swapalease.com says there won't be as many luxury cars with big red...

PhotoIs the U.S. really going green? A new study suggests as much. National car leasing firm Swapalease.com says there won't be as many luxury cars with big red bows this holiday season.

Instead, look for little fuel-sippers with big green bows.

Swapalease.com says the previous two Decembers have shown a jump in eco-friendly vehicle preference compared with luxury model demand. In 2011, Swapalease.com processed an additional 5.5% luxury vehicle transfers in December compared with November. In a similar analysis for non-luxury and eco-friendly vehicle transfers, that percentage jumped 26.4% between the two months.

"The data is significant because leasing generally skews higher for luxury models, and December has traditionally been a good month for luxury vehicle shopping activity," said Scot Hall , executive vice president of Swapalease.com. "Looking at the larger picture, we aren't terribly surprised because of all the emphasis that's been placed on smaller cars with better fuel economy and additional features."

Vehicles such as the Ford Focus and Escape, as well as the Chevrolet Cruze and Toyota Prius are among today's non-luxury vehicles that boast strong fuel economy. What's more, these cars are equipped with technology and features that rival luxury models and fuel economy has improved noticeably for both smaller and mid-size sedans.

Luxury vehicle brands such as Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz each boost the volume of their marketing during December to take advantage of the holiday shopping season. All three brands enjoy among the top transfer volume on Swapalease.com throughout the year, which makes the focus on this particular trend even more noteworthy.

 

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Stay away from 'forensic mortgage audits'

Consumer authorities call them the latest form of mortgage rescue scam

Mortgage rescue scams are nothing new. But the scammers have a fairly new wrinkle called the “forensic audit.”Suppose you are a homeowner str...

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California seizes 2,000 illegal firearms in 2012

Credits computer database with helping remove guns from people not allowed to have them

As the nation grapples with the aftermath of the unfathomable murders at a Connecticut elementary school, the focus is falling first on the nation's gun la...

PhotoAs the nation grapples with the aftermath of the unfathomable murders at a Connecticut elementary school, the focus is falling first on the nation's gun laws. President Obama has appointed Vice-President Biden to lead administration efforts to reduce gun violence.

In California, meanwhile, state Attorney General Kamala Harris announced law enforcement officials had used existing laws to seize 2,000 firearms from people who were not legally allowed to have them. She said they included people who were mentally unstable and those under active restraining orders.

“California has clear laws determining who can possess firearms based on their threat to public safety,” Harris said. “Enforcing those laws is crucial because we have seen the terrible tragedies that occur when guns are in the wrong hands. This program is an important part of our law enforcement work and I thank all of the agents who work so hard every day to keep our communities safe.”

Database

Harris explained how agents in her department used existing laws to reduce threats of gun violence. The California Attorney General's Office maintains a computer database called the Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS). It identifies people prohibited from owning guns, including convicted felons, individuals with active restraining orders, and those determined to be mentally unstable.

In all, she says agents seized 2,033 firearms, 117,000 rounds of ammunition, and 11,072 illegal high-capacity magazines. These numbers include seizures conducted from January 1 to November 30, 2012.

The majority of firearms were seized during two 6-week sweeps. The first statewide sweep targeted individuals prohibited because of mental health issues and the second focused on people with legally registered assault weapons who were later prohibited from owning them.

The APPS database cross-references five databases to find people who legally purchased handguns and registered assault weapons since 1996 with people who are prohibited from owning or possessing firearms. The database was completed in November 2006, and the first statewide sweep was conducted in 2007.

Model for the nation?

Harris says California is the first and only state in the nation to establish an automated system for tracking handgun and assault weapon owners who might fall into a prohibited status. Could such a system be expanded nationwide, and if so would it be effective?

It could well be something Biden's task force will consider. The White House said Biden will coordinate a strategy among government agencies in an effort to reduce gun violence.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), a four million member organization that is a powerful Washington lobbying group, said it will hold a major news conference Friday, at which time it will comment on efforts to reduce gun violence.

“The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.

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Researcher: To control weight, get out of your car

Small transportation change can reduce body weight

For those who are watching their weight, the next few days will be critical. The end of the year holidays, from Christmas to New Years, bring dinners, part...

PhotoFor those who are watching their weight, the next few days will be critical. The end of the year holidays, from Christmas to New Years, bring dinners, parties and lots of sweets. One way to protect yourself is to resist reaching for that cookie -- and your car keys.

When you are adding extra calories to your body, it just makes sense that you need to do more to burn them. Unless you are going to make extra trips to the gym or spend more time on the treadmill, you might consider driving less and walking more.

Sheldon Jacobson is a University orf Illinois computer science professor who has studied the link between automobiles and body weight. He suggests that both daily automobile travel and calories consumed are related and reducing either one, even by a small amount, correlates with a reduction in body mass index (BMI).

Small changes

“We’re saying that making small changes in travel or diet choices may lead to comparable obesity reduction, which implies that travel-based interventions may be as effective as dietary interventions,” said graduate student Banafsheh Behzad, a co-author of the study, published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

The goal isn't just to walk more. Walking is good, make no mistake. But the object, according to the researchers, is to just spend less time in the car.

“Any time a person sits behind the wheel of a car, it’s one of the most docile activities they can do in a day,” Jacobson said. “The automobile is the quickest mode of transportation we have. But a consequence of this need for speed in getting things done may be the obesity epidemic.”

According to Jacobson, obesity is really just a math problem. Maintaining body weight essentially is a result of energy consumed and energy expended.

Other studies tend to look at the two issues individually, or at a local or individual level, but Jacobson’s group wanted to look at both sides of the equation through a national lens. They decided to use driving as a proxy for physical activity.

They created a model that took into account national average BMI, caloric intake and driving habits. They discovered that if all adults in the United States drove one mile less per day, the model predicted an associated decrease in the national average BMI -- though very slight -- after six years.

Moving more

“One mile is really not much,” Behzad said. “If they would just consider even taking the bus, walking the distance to the bus stop could have an impact like eating 100 calories less per day. The main thing is paying attention to caloric intake and moving more, together, can help reduce BMI.”

That's fine, of course, for people who live in urban areas and have access to public transportation. But people in rural areas sometimes don't have that kind of access. It might help explain why, year after year, the highest obesity rates in the nation are usually found in rural states like Mississippi and West Virginia.

The 2012 state-by-state obesity ranking by the Trust for America's Health(TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) found that 12 states had obesity rates of 30 percent or more -- the same number as last year. Twenty-six of the 30 states with the highest obesity rates are in the Midwest and South.

But for people not in rural areas, who are able to use mass transit, or better yet, walk to the post office or drug store, Jacobson insists it can be a practical way to help control weight.

“The most important thing for people to learn from this study is that they have a choice,” Jacobson said. “One has to be just as careful about when you choose to drive as when you choose to eat. These small changes in our driving and dietary habits can lead to long-term significant changes in obesity issues. Those are the kind of changes we advocate.”

And Jacobson says even a modest decrease in BMI, like that predicted by the model, could represent significant cost savings. If drivers nationwide traveled one mile less by car each day, not only would fuel consumption fall, but annual health care costs could drop by billions of dollars as fewer people would be classified as obese or overweight.

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How women can make more money than men

Separate occupations may make the difference

Why is is that -- in so many cases -- women earn less money than men? According to a large-scale survey of 20 industrialized countries it may be because t...

PhotoWhy is is that -- in so many cases -- women earn less money than men? According to a large-scale survey of 20 industrialized countries it may be because they're doing the same job.

Researchers from the universities of Cambridge in the UK, and Lakehead in  Canada, found that the more women and men keep to different trades and professions, the more equal is the overall pay average for the two sexes in a country.

They say the surprising results are due to the fact that when there are few men in an occupation, women have more chance to get to the top and earn more. But where there are more equal numbers of men and women working in an occupation the men dominate the high-paying jobs.

The research, published in the journal Sociology, compared the degree to which men and women are working in different professions with the gap between their pay.

Equality and gaps

Pay was most equal in Slovenia, where women on average earn slightly more than men, and in Mexico, Brazil, Sweden and Hungary, where women earn almost as much as men on average. In these countries men and women work in different occupations to a greater extent than in many of the other countries the researchers looked at.

In other countries such as Japan, the Czech Republic, Austria and Netherlands, women are more likely to work in the same occupations as men, and the gap between their pay and men's is higher than average. The UK was higher than average among the 20 countries for inequality in pay.

The researchers used statistics for each country on the proportion of women and men in each occupation, and the overall average gap in pay. They correlated these to show the relationships between workplace segregation of the sexes and the gap in their pay.

Positive segregation?

"Higher overall segregation tends to reduce male advantage and improve the position of women," the researchers say in their paper. The greater the degree of overall segregation, the less the possibility exists for discrimination against women and so there is more scope for women to develop progressive careers. For instance, within nursing men disproportionately fill the senior positions...but the fewer the number of male nurses, the more the senior positions must be filled by women.

"Perhaps our most important finding is that, at least for these industrially developed countries, overall segregation and the vertical [pay gap] dimension are inversely related,” the researchers conclude. “The higher the overall segregation, the lower the advantage to men. This is directly contrary to popular assumptions."

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Instagram to users: Hey, thanks for giving us your property

Facebook-owned site asserts right to sell users' photos to advertisers

Like to post stuff on the Web? Sure you do. It's yours after all, right? Umm, well, actually, it isn't once you've posted it.Read the privacy policies an...

PhotoLike to post stuff on the Web? Sure you do. It's yours after all, right? Umm, well, actually, it probably isn't once you've posted it.

Read the privacy policies and terms of use of the vast majority of Internet sites and you'll find that material posted there by users becomes the property of the site. This is not a bad thing, as the world would descend the rest of the way into chaos if every tiny bit of every Web site were owned by various individuals.

However, few Web sites have gone as far in asserting ownership of posted content as Facebook's Instagram. The photo-sharing site recently updated its privacy policy to explicitly give it the right to sell user-posted photos to advertisers without any notification or compensation to the user.

The new policy takes effect January 16. If you want to opt out, you'll need to delete your account before then. There is no opt-out provision other than quitting the site entirely.

In other words, post a nice photo of your dog Spot eating Purina kibble and you may soon see Spot on a billboard, but neither you nor Spot will be the richer for it. Spot will still have to buy his own kibble.

Photos of children

PhotoMore ominously, the new rules would allow the company to use images of children as young as 13 without their parents' permission.

Instagram's reasoning goes like this: You must say you are 13 or older to sign up for the service. The assumption is that when parents allow you to sign up, they are aware that you may become fodder for advertising, or worse.

There's also the little matter of photographing strangers. Amateur photographers -- just about everybody these days -- think nothing of snapping photos of people on the street or in other public or private venues and posting them on the Web, something no commercial photogrpher would dare do.

Using a photo of someone for commercial purposes without their permission is a serious matter and all photographers worth their camera strap always get a signed release before using such likenesses. (News photos are a slightly different matter).

Cookies & logs too

Here's the notice posted recently by Instagram:

Photo"We may share your information as well as information from tools like cookies, log files, and device identifiers and location data with organizations that help us provide the service to you... (and) third-party advertising partners."

"To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you," Instagram added in its terms of use.

The change is not going down well in the social media world, where one poster called it "suicide."

But look at it from Facebook's perspective. Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram in April, even though the site has nearly no revenue.

This is not unusual in Internetland, where the attitude generally is that if a site gets big enough fast enough it will be too big to fail, even though no one has figured out a business model.

Or as Facebook marketing executive Carolyn Everson put it earlier this month: "Eventually we'll figure out a way to monetize Instagram." Whether anyone who would make such a statement should be called a marketing executive is another story.

None of this is really very surprising, though. Facebook has stumbled into one pitfall after another as it tries to fiddle with privacy issues, attempting to install a rational business model that some would say shoud have been thought through before the site was ever started. 

It's a good thing civil engineers don't work this way. They'd start building bridges and railroads without knowing where they were supposed to end up. As long as they were big enough, maybe it wouldn't matter?

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Buckeyballs finally go away

The magnets endangered children and trivialized the legacy of a great thinker

If you haven't started your Buckeyball collection, it's too late. The company that makes the magnetic toys has finally bowed to pressure from federal safet...

PhotoIf you haven't started your Buckeyball collection, it's too late. The company that makes the magnetic toys has finally bowed to pressure from federal safety regulators and is going out of business.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has for years contended that the small rare-earth magnets are dangerous because children can swallow them and be severely injured.

There have in recent years been about 1,700 cases per year of small children swallowing the magnets, which can clump together inside the body and cause intestinal obstructions and other serious health problems, the commission contends.

Buckeyball manufacturer Maxfield & Oberton Holdings has resisted the commission's efforts but the CPSC recently filed a court action demanding that the company stop making the toys, warn consumers the Buckeyballs are dangerous and offer them a refund, as 11 other companies have already done.

"Buckeyballs will go the way of Crystal Pepsi and the DeLorean," said Craig Zucker, the company's CEO, perhaps elevating the importance of the doomed product.

Selling til the end

PhotoZucker is making the most of its going-out-of-business sale. The company's Web site displays a large clock that is counting down the seconds until the "Buckeyocalypse," when the dangerous devices fade into history. 

The Buckeyballs can be linked into a seemingly endless series of shapes -- they are, after all, magnets -- but beyond that, it's hard to grasp their apparently compelling appeal.

It's not just the CPSC that has been hounding Zucker. The family of the late R. Buckminster Fuller, after whom the balls are named, has filed suit in federal court claiming the company has misappropriated the late futurist's name.

The Buckeyballs are said to resemble the geodesic domes that Fuller designed in the 1940s, seeing them as an answer to the global shortage of affordable and environmentally friendly housing.

Information Man

Unlike the manufacturers of the frivolous and dangerous toys, Fuller was a serious man who devoted his life to the search for ways to improve human life, advance knowledge and alleviate suffering.

PhotoAlthough he seems doomed to be linked forever with the geodesic dome, Fuller was fervently interested in information technology and had a brilliant grasp of what could be achieved with just a little more processing power.

When I was a crass undergraduate in one of his Design classes back in the early 1960s, Fuller was already sketching out the topography of the computer program he was developing to store and organize all of the world's information.

Sound familiar, Google?

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Senate hearing will examine credit report inaccuracies

8 million Americans complained of inaccuracies last year

Sen. BrownThe three major credit reporting agencies are coming under increasing scrutiny, the latest a Senate hearing called for tomorrow (Wednesday) b...

Photo
Sen. Brown

The three major credit reporting agencies are coming under increasing scrutiny, the latest a Senate hearing called for tomorrow (Wednesday) by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Brown, Chairman of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection, said access to credit is critical for getting the economy back on track and creating jobs.

Brown's office said the hearing will examine the credit reporting market, consumer understanding of credit reports, and expanding oversight of key players in the credit reporting industry.

8 million complaints

A report released last week by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that consumers filed 8 million disputes to credit reports last year.

The CFPB report came on the heels of a multipart investigation by The Columbus Dispatch. The Dispatch analyzed nearly 30,000 consumer credit report complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and attorneys general during a 30-month period beginning in 2009. Dispatch investigative reporters spent more than a year documenting multiple cases of mistaken identities, mixed files, and inaccuracies on credit reports.

The Columbus Dispatch found that more than half of consumers who filed credit report complaints with the FTC had been unable to resolve their complaints through the normal dispute process with the credit bureaus.

Brown said he is working to ensure that consumers have access to clear and accurate credit reports and a fair system to dispute inaccurate claims. In March, Brown wrote to CFPB Director Cordray urging the watchdog agency to use its authority under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to investigate and curtail consumer abuses in the credit reporting industry.

 

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Web sites offer free credit monitoring

Credit reports and monitoring are slowly becoming more accessible

The common wisdom is that your credit report is something you have to pay for. But that's increasingly not true. At least two Web sites are now offering no...

PhotoThe common wisdom is that your credit report is something you have to pay for. But that's increasingly not true. At least two Web sites are now offering not only free credit reports but also free credit monitoring to their users. For several years, consumers have been able to get one free report per year from each credit bureau but free monitoring has been hard to come by.

The latest free source of credit reports and monitoring is Credit Sesame,  which offers reports from Experian, one of the three major agencies. The others are Equifax and TransUnion.

Another site, Credit Karma, offers free credit-monitoring services from TransUnion.

Credit monitoring, as opposed to a credit report, is useful in keeping track of who's looking at your credit record and can provide an early alert to identity theft and other types of fraud.

“We believe complete financial transparency is a consumer right, which is why we worked so hard to bring free credit monitoring to consumers," said Adrian Nazari, founder and CEO of Credit Sesame. "Your credit score and information on your credit report have a very real impact on your bottom line and determine the cost of your credit and loans. Both ultimately impact your wealth and the quality of your life,”

For example, on a $250,000, 30-year fixed rate mortgage, a person with a credit score of 760 will qualify for an interest rate that is half a percentage point less than someone with a score of 699 in today’s market. This can equate to saving $20,341 in interest over the life of the loan, Nazari said.

Credit Sesame also offers free credit scores, aggregated credit information, peer comparison data, bank-level analytics and market monitoring.

Privacy policies

PhotoWhile both sites are free, they collect a great deal of information about their registered users. Although their privacy policies state that users' information is not shared with other sites, consumers should read the privacy policies carefully to be sure they understand what use will be made of their personal information.

Many Web sites offering financial information use what is known as "lead-generation" advertising, meaning that they are paid -- often generously -- each time someone clicks on a link on their site that leads to an application for a credit card, mortgage, car loan or other financial product.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has begun investigating the credit agencies and is likely to impose new regulations to protect consumers. The bureau recently warned consumers that the credit score they buy from the agencies may not be the same as the score lenders use to make decisions about loans and interest rates.

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Survey: Kroger pharmacy tops in customer service

Researchers say customer service tipped the scales to Kroger

There are many store types that have been affected by the dominance of national retail chains and small neighborhood pharmacies are among them....

PhotoThere are many store types that have been affected by the dominance of national retail chains and small neighborhood pharmacies are among them.

With huge stores like Walgreens and CVS, many consumers no longer have access to small mom and pop pharmacies since many of them have closed down.

 However, some consumers choose large multipurpose stores for their medication, since other types of shopping can be done like buying food or housewares products. It seems the convenience of buying medication  along with groceries and other items heavily contributed to privately-owned pharmacies disappearing.

Probably the best aspect of going to a smaller neighborhood pharmacy is the personal one-on-one service you receive from either the store owner or one of the staff members.

In many cases each worker knows your name and knows the type of medication you're on, compared to many chain pharmacies were customers are likely to get a new person each visit.

So the question is: Does the convenience of being able to pick up your medication along with the other items you need, worth sacrificing the personal level of customer service that you’re likely to get at a small neighborhood pharmacy?

Customer service

Kroger Dec. 18, 2012, 3:18 p.m.
Consumers rate Kroger

According to a Canadian research company that surveyed 1,500 U.S. consumers on this subject, customer service is most important to folks, and even though large chains may not compare to mom and pop pharmacies in this area, some of them provide better customer service than others.

The research firm Empathica Inc. questioned consumers about what they thought of the pharmacy chains CVS, Kroger, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Walmart, and Costco--which happen to be the biggest chains in the United States that deal with prescription medication.

The results of the survey showed that Kroger ranked the highest in a number of customer service categories compared to other pharmacy chains both big and small.

The three areas of customer service that the survey covered were choice, meaning if the pharmacy provided options for the customer when it came time to buying certain kinds of medication.

The second criteria was service, in terms of how attentive the store associate was to customers, and the third area was trust, which more than likely depended on how knowledgeable the store associate or pharmacist was in dealing with consumers.

Kroger trumped the other large retailers in all three areas of customer service.

“Retail pharmacies can create a win-win relationship with consumers by providing exemplary customer service; in turn, there is an opportunity for customers to work for their primary pharmacy as brand advocates,” said Dr. Gary Edwards, CEO of Empathica, in a statement.

“There is little room for winning a price war in pharmacy retail. The real battlefront for pharmacies is in customer service and convenience.”

Not everyone agrees

PhotoAlthough Kroger’s pharmacy ranked high in the survey, the company didn’t fare quite as well among some of our readers.

Melinda of Bowling Green, Ky., explained in her ConsumerAffairs post that she was given a lot of misinformation about the medication she's taking.

“The last four times we have been to the Kroger pharmacy on Scottsville Road in Bowling Green, Ky., we have had issues,” she wrote in a posting to ConsumerAffairs. “Three times I was told I didn’t have refills on my prescriptions when in fact I did. The last time they said I had no refills, they went so far without my consent to call my doctor for a refill.”

“Today, my credit card was charged $50 too much for a prescription. I called the pharmacy, the girl admitted it was a mistake, instructed me to come in and she’d refund the money instead of just crediting my credit card that was used to pay for the prescription.”

“I contacted the store manager and after some time, he called me back and told me the pharmacy did not make a mistake and they would refund the difference anyway, but I still had to come back in,” Melinda explained.

Loyalty programs

After the survey, researches also determined that large pharmacies need to do a better job of mimicking the good practices of their competitors and also step up efforts to offer more loyalty programs for customers.

PhotoThe researchers also said that some pharmacies have good loyalty programs in place, but do a poor job of communicating those programs to customers.

Only one-third of customers that went to large retailers for their medication knew of the current loyalty programs, compared to 43 percent of customers who went to specialty drug retailers, said researchers.

The survey also showed that 32 percent of customers that go to specialty drug chains always find promotions that offer good prices, compared to 44 percent of customers who go to mass retail chains and said the same.

Edwards said it’s imperative for brands to establish deeper relationships with its customers by better communicating store deals and loyalty programs, and by focusing more on personalized customer service, rather than trying to beat competitors for the best prices.

“To build a stronger, more loyal customer base, mass retailers and specialty drug chain retailers can look to what the other has to offer,” said Edwards.

“Rather than focusing exclusively on general customer service or in-store promotions, all pharmacy retailers have an opportunity to better manage the key moments of truth on the customer journey.”

“This includes providing more choices, offering superior service throughout the experience and promoting loyalty programs to create deeper relationships with customers. When customers experience exceptionality in these areas, regardless of price, it definitely builds brand advocacy,” said Edwards.

 

 

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Toyota to pay record $17.35 million for unintended acceleration problems

The fine is in connection with unwanted acceleration caused by floor mat pedal entrapment

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is throwing the book at Toyota. The automaker has agreed to pay $17.35 million -- the maximum ...

PhotoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is throwing the book at Toyota.

The automaker has agreed to pay $17.35 million -- the maximum fine allowable under the law -- in response to the agency's assertion that the automaker failed to report a safety defect to the federal government in a timely manner. It's the single highest civil penalty amount ever paid to NHTSA for violations stemming from a recall.

"Safety is our highest priority," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "With today’s announcement, I expect Toyota to rigorously reinforce its commitment to adhering to United States safety regulations."

Disturbing trend

Earlier this year, NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation began noticing a trend in floor mat pedal entrapment in 2010 Lexus RX 350s in Vehicle Owner Questionnaires (VOQs) and Early Warning Reporting data.

In May, NHTSA contacted Toyota regarding the trend, and a month later Toyota advised NHTSA that it was aware of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX 350s since 2009. Toyota's own technicians and dealer technicians reported that certain alleged incidents of unwanted acceleration had been caused by floor mat pedal entrapment.

In June, Toyota advised NHTSA that it would conduct a recall of 154,036 Model Year 2010 Lexus RX 350 and Model Year 2010 RX 450h vehicles to address floor mat pedal entrapment.

Federal law requires all auto manufacturers to notify NHTSA within five business days of determining that a safety defect exists or that the vehicle is not in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards and to promptly conduct a recall.

"It's critical to the safety of the driving public that manufacturers report safety defects in a timely manner," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation’s highways."

Review of safety procedures

As part of today's settlement, Toyota and its U.S. based subsidiaries agreed to make internal changes to their quality assurance and review of safety-related issues in the United States, and to improve their ability to take into account the possible consequences of potential safety-related defects.

“Toyota is dedicated to the safety of our customers, and we continue to strengthen our data collection and evaluation process to ensure we are prepared to take swift action to meet customers' needs,” said Ray Tanguay, chief quality officer of Toyota North America. “We agreed to this settlement in order to avoid a time-consuming dispute and to focus fully on our shared commitment with NHTSA to keep drivers safe.”

The last time Toyota faced civil penalties was in 2010 when the automaker agreed to pay $48.8 million as a result of three separate investigations into the automaker's handling of auto recalls. The automaker paid maximum civil penalties for violations stemming from the pedal entrapment, sticky pedal and steering relay rod recalls.

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Study suggests link between aspirin, macular degeneration

The progressive eye disease is a common cause of blindness in seniors

A new study suggests a "small but statistically signifcant" increase in age-related macular degeneration among study participants who used aspirin reguarly...

PhotoA new study suggests a "small but statistically signifcant" increase in age-related macular degeneration among study participants who used aspirin reguarly for at least 10 years.

In the study, published in the December 19 issue of JAMA, researchers examined the records of nearly 5,000 individuals and recommended additional study to find the cause of the apparent increase in the potentially-blinding disease among aspirin users.

“Our findings are consistent with a small but statistically significant association between regular aspirin use and incidence of neovascular AMD. Additional replication is required to confirm our observations. If confirmed, defining the causal mechanisms may be important in developing methods to block this effect to prevent or retard the development of neovascular AMD in persons who use aspirin, especially to prevent CVD,” the authors conclude.

Barbara E. K. Klein, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, and colleagues used data from the Beaver Dam Eye Study, a longitudinal population-based study of age-related eye diseases conducted in Wisconsin.

Examinations were performed every 5 years over a 20-year period. Study participants were 43 to 86 years of age at entry in the study. At subsequent examinations, participants were asked if they had regularly used aspirin at least twice a week for more than 3 months. The average duration of follow-up was 14.8 years.

“Aspirin use in the United States is widespread, with an estimated 19.3 percent of adults reporting regular consumption, and reported use increases with age,” according to background information in the study. “AMD is a potentially blinding condition for which prevalence and incidence are increasing with the increased survival of the population, and regular use of aspirin is common and becoming more widespread in persons in the age range at highest risk for this disease. Therefore, it is imperative to further examine this potential association.”

For the study, the researchers measured the incidences of different types of AMD (early, late, and 2 subtypes of late AMD [neovascular AMD and pure geographic atrophy]).

 There were 512 incident cases of early AMD and 117 incident cases of late AMD over the course of the study. The researchers found that regular use of aspirin use 10 years prior to the retinal examination was associated with late AMD. When examining the relationships by late AMD subtype, neovascular AMD was significantly associated with such use, but not for pure geographic atrophy. Aspirin use 5 years or 10 years prior to retinal examination was not associated with incident early AMD.

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Danger: popping a Champagne cork is no joke

A flying cork moves with enough force to cause significant eye damage

It's been a staple of Hollywood comedies for decades; the misguided popping Champagne cork that hits another object or person. A sight gag almost guarantee...

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Enzyme linked to prostate cancer

Mayo Clinic researchers think it could lead to new treatment for most aggressive cancers

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic Florida campus may have stumbled onto an important bit of information when it comes to stopping the spread of prostate cance...

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News just gets worse for Apple

Judge rejects company's request to ban certain Samsung smartphones

At the start of the year Apple was most likely the hottest company on the planet. Consumers lined up for the chance to buy its products. And its $1 billion...

PhotoAt the start of the year Apple was most likely the hottest company on the planet. Consumers lined up for the chance to buy its products. And its $1 billion dollar judgment against its closest rival, Samsung, only brightened its outlook.

But lately things haven't been going that well for Apple. The latest blow came in court, the same place it achieved his historic victory over Samsung. A judge ruled on Apple's request to ban the sale of a number of Samsung smartphones and the answer was "no."

Last summer a federal court jury in California found that Samsung had infringed on a number of Apple design patents in the development of some smartphones and tablets. After the $1 billion jury award, Apple returned to court asking that Samsung products that had been found to violate Apple's patents be removed from the marketplace.

The evidence

"Apple's evidence does not establish that any of Apple's three design patents covers a particular feature that actually drives consumer demand," the judge in the case wrote. "The Court further found that though there was some evidence of loss of market share, Apple had not established that Samsung's infringement of Apple's design patents caused that loss."

In September, when Apple introduced the iPhone 5 and the latest mobile operating system, iOS 6, it suffered a major embarrassment when its maps function proved not ready for prime time. The company had jettisoned the Google Maps feature, saying its new Apple Maps would be far superior.

Consumers, however, complained of distorted and missing images and information that was not always accurate. As a result, Google last week issued a new maps app for the iPhone.

Tough three months on Wall Street

But perhaps most disturbing to Apple and its investors has been the company's stock performance in the current quarter. Apple shares began 2012 at $411 and hit $705 on September 21 -- a 71 percent gain in less than nine months.

But since then Apple shares have tumbled, hitting a 2012 low of $501 a share in Monday's trading. While it is still up from the start of the year, its losses from its high are significant.

As Apple's stock price fell, several analysts lowered their price targets, which seemed to lead to even more selling. While Apple remains a dynamic company and a consumer technology leader, analysts seem to be tempering their views of the company, suggesting it's mortal after all.

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U.S. workers optimistic about jobs, economy in 2013

Employees appear more upbeat about opportunities for promotions and the job market

As 2012 draws to a close, there appears to be an air of growing confidence among American workers. A recent survey by Randstad U.S., reveals workers are h...

PhotoAs 2012 draws to a close, there appears to be an air of growing confidence among American workers.

A recent survey by Randstad U.S., reveals workers are hopeful for a better year in 2013 when it comes to jobs and the economy. According to the survey, 57 percent of employees believe they are likely to get a pay raise in 2013 -- up 10 percent from last year.

Additionally, most employees (59 percent) believe the job market will pick up next year. Workers also feel positive about their companies, with 47 percent predicting their employers will expand their workforce in 2013 and 30 percent believing they will receive a promotion (up seven and six percent, respectively from October 2011).

However, nearly half (47 percent) of workers feel the economy has had a negative effect on their careers, yet only 15 percent of employees believe they might lose their jobs (down five percent from 2011). At the same time, most employees (78 percent) believe their companies have a great future.

"The outlook for next year certainly looks brighter for most employees. With the election and economic issues at home and abroad, a cloud of uncertainty had caused many employees to remain skeptical around future jobs and employability in 2012," said Jim Link, managing director of human resources for Randstad US. "Today we see employees are very positive about their future prospects and are hopeful to regain any economic momentum lost. As optimism increases, employee engagement will be increasingly important for companies' retention efforts. This is why it is so valuable for employers to analyze and understand what motivates their most important asset – talent."

Looking for improvement

Other data indicate employees are more optimistic when it comes to employer benefits and employment:

  • Just 16 percent of employees believe they will get a pay cut in 2013, down eight percent from last year
  • Forty-one percent of employees believe their company will cut back on benefits in 2013, down six percent from 2011
  • Only a third of employees, 33 percent, believe their company will fire people in the new year

When it comes to the job search, 47 percent of employees indicate they plan to explore their options when the job market picks up. While this number is down three percent from last quarter, it remains a top concern for companies as some struggle to retain top talent.

Most employees indicate positive attitudes towards their current jobs with over two-thirds, 68 percent, indicating their company makes an effort to keep them engaged. Also, 62 percent of workers expect to grow their careers with their current employers. Of workers surveyed, 79 percent indicated they are inspired to do their best and 77 percent are proud to work for their company or organization.

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More employers to hand out year-end bonuses

'Improved circumstances' is cited as a reason for the improved generosity

Did your boss give you a year-end bonus in 2011? He might this year. A survey of human resources executives conducted by outplacement consultancy Challeng...

PhotoDid your boss give you a year-end bonus in 2011? He might this year.

A survey of human resources executives conducted by outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas shows that 72 percent of employers plan to offer some type of year-end bonus this year, compared with just 53 percent a year ago.

According to the survey, nearly 28 percent of bosses will hand out bonus checks based on the company’s annual performance. Another 17 percent said their companies will award bonuses to a select group of employees based on individual performance.

Among the approximately 100 responses to an e-mail poll distributed in November, only 21 percent said no bonuses would be distributed this year. In contrast, the 2011 survey saw more than 43 percent say no bonuses would be handed out.

Improving economy cited

“Many companies enjoyed increased profits this year, along with increased productivity,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The fact that they achieved that without a rapid acceleration in hiring or capital investment means that existing employees were asked to deliver better results with fewer resources. Even with many companies still not enjoying pre-recession business levels, it is clear, at least among our small sampling of employers, that they are duly recognizing the hard work and achievements of their workforce.”

Companies that may not have been flush with cash are trying to find ways to reward employee performance. According to the survey, 14 percent will award a nominal ($100 or less) monetary award to all employees and 13 percent will give employees some type of non-monetary gift as a sign of appreciation.

Further indication of companies’ improved circumstances this year is evident in the fact that 25 percent of employers plan to increase the size of year-end bonuses this year, compared to less than 17 percent who said the same a year ago. The percentage saying bonuses would be smaller fell from 8.3 percent a year ago to 6.2 percent in the 2012 survey.

“Most employers understand that workers want to be recognized for their contribution to the company. It doesn’t have to be a Wall Street sized bonus check,” said Challenger. “Many workers would be happy with a $25 gift certificate to a local restaurant or store. Many would probably be happy with an extra day or two of paid vacation at the end of the year. Many are simply happy to have a job in this economy.”  

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Without assistance, home sales and prices continue to rise

Homeowners decisions not to sell keeps inventory down

Over the last four years, since home prices plunged at the start of the credit crisis, there have been many voices urging help for the housing market. Not ...

PhotoOver the last four years, since home prices plunged at the start of the credit meltdown, there have been many voices urging help for the housing market. Not surprisingly, many came from the real estate industry.

And in fact Congress provided a hefty tax incentive to first-time home buyers in 2009 and extended it into the first half of 2010. For a time, sales rose and prices held steady but just as soon as the tax break expired, a flood of distressed properties dragged prices down again amid a scarcity of buyers.

People who bought at the top of the market, in 2005 and 2006, found their homes were worth much less than what they paid for them. In some overheated markets like Phoenix and Las Vegas, values dropped by 50 percent.

Cautious lenders

Understandably, mortgage lenders were somewhat careful about making loans. Not knowing how much more home values would fall they demanded 20 percent or more as a down payment. Congress passed new regulations requiring lenders to retain ownership of mortgages made to unqualified borrowers but failed to define what a “qualified” borrower was. Erring on the side of caution, lenders demanded high credit scores. The number of buyers began to dry up.

Things looked pretty bleak for a while but, starting in late 2011, sales and prices somehow began to show some signs of life. Now, in its November National Housing Report, RE/MAX reports home sales rose 15.7 percent over November 2011. In October, sales were up 17.8 percent year-over-year.

November's median sale price was up 3.6 percent from October and 6.9 percent from November 2011.

Reasons for recovery

What's behind the increasing health of the housing market? New tax incentives? No. Relaxed lending standards? Not really.

Homeowners and banks appear to both be contributing to the improved environment by not pulling houses on the market. Homeowners aren't selling, and in truth many can't, since they remain under water. Banks that have properties in default and slow to foreclose and put them on the market.

As a result, the available homes for sale nationwide has dropped sharply. According to RE/MAX, the average number of homes for sale is now 29.1 percent lower than last year. Low inventory levels are having a negative impact on home sales in many markets, where there are more buyers than homes for sale. Competition leads to higher prices.

Hopes for 2013

"2012 has been a great turn-around year for housing, with prices and sales moving beyond where we were last year," said Margaret Kelly, CEO of RE/MAX, LLC. "We're ending the year the way we started it, with better than expected performance. If we can get more reasonable regulation from Washington and if mortgage availability improves, 2013 will see a much stronger housing market."

But part of the turnaround has been accomplished without the aid of mortgage lenders. Investors, who usually make purchases with cash, have consistently accounted for nearly 30 percent of sales each month. Even though they have concentrated on distressed properties, they have nonetheless helped keep the inventory down.

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Filling up your kids on fewer calories

Offer smaller quantities of healthy snacks such as fruits and vegetables

It's no secret that childhood obesity is reaching alarming levels. Thirty-two percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese according to the ...

PhotoIt's no secret that childhood obesity is reaching alarming levels. Thirty-two percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

One of the many factors leading to the obesity epidemic is increased snacking by children. Today they eat around three snacks daily while thirty years ago they ate only one.

Parents want to ensure that their children snack healthfully, but restricting or limiting children’s snacking can backfire.

Children in homes where parents carefully regulate snacking were found to eat more unhealthy snacks in an unregulated environment than children with less restrictive parents.

The snack test

Researchers Brian Wansink, Ph.D., Mitsuru Shimizu, Ph.D., and Adam Brumberg set out to discover whether certain types of snacks would lead children to feel full while consuming fewer calories. 201 students in the third through sixth grade were given either a plate of potato chips, a plate of vegetables, a plate of cheese, or a plate of vegetables and cheese while watching some of their favorite afterschool cartoons.

They were asked about their fullness at the beginning of the experiment, after watching one episode of a cartoon, and again after watching a second episode of a cartoon.

Healthy snacks for kids

Children who ate the vegetable and cheese snack plate needed significantly fewer calories than the children who ate the plate of potato chips to achieve satiety. Further, children from low-involvement families (families which spent less time eating meals together or interacting with each other while eating) ate more potato chips than other children when given potato chips to snack on.

However, children from low-involvement families and overweight children showed the greatest reduction in the amount of calories consumed when eating the cheese and vegetable snack instead of potato chips. Overweight and obese children ate 76% fewer calories when they were given the cheese and vegetable snack while other children averaged a 60% reduction in calories eaten. Both groups reported being as full when eating the Cheese and veggie snack as they did when eating chips.

Snack tips

Use these results to help your child eat fewer calories when snacking, try:

  • Having more nutritious snacks available instead of eliminating snacking
  • Substituting a healthier snack like veggies and cheese in place of chips on a regular basis
  • Offering smaller quantities of a variety of healthy snacks (multiple kinds of vegetables or fruit) on a plate. Variety tends to stimulate consumption; increasing the healthy options available can lead to more of them being selected and eaten.
  • Encouraging children to be mindful of internal cues and stop eating when they feel full
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Average gasoline price below $4 in every state

The last time that was true was November 2008

The average price of gasoline, as tracked by AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Survey, shows a milestone, of sorts. The average price of a gallon of gasoline is now b...

PhotoThe average price of gasoline, as tracked by AAA's daily Fuel Gauge Survey, shows a milestone, of sorts. The average price of a gallon of gasoline is now below $4 a gallon in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Until this week Hawaii was the only state where the average price topped $4 a gallon. While you are sure to find a station here or there on the islands that charges that much or more, when all the stations in the state are factored in, the average price today is $3.971.

Hawaii is habitually the most expensive state for gasoline and its price has been above $4 for nearly four years. The last time all U.S. states recorded average prices below that benchmark came in late 2008, when oil and gasoline prices plunged in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the resulting credit crunch.

$1 gap

Today there is a more than $1 a gallon gap between the most expensive state for gasoline and the cheapest. Missouri reached a milestone of its own this week, as its statewide average price fell below the $3 mark, to $2.946 a gallon.

Oklahoma is poised to drop below that threshold, with an average price today of $3.006 a gallon. Both Missouri and Oklahoma are enjoying prices that are slightly lower than they were one year ago. Nationwide, today's average price of $3.236 is only a penny higher than at this time last year.

What's responsible for the break consumers are getting at the gas pump? The futures market has been quieter than usual. With the “fiscal cliff” looming and things fairly quiet on the geopolitical front, traders have been less active.

That's made old fashioned supply and demand more important in setting prices and at the moment, the U.S. has plenty of supply to more than offset the slight rise in demand.

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Diet Pepsi tinkers with its formula, adding a new sweetener

Sodastream is taking some of the fizz out of soft-drink sales

When it comes to popular food and beverage brands, most consumers would probably be against changing the formula or recipe, but that’s exactly what&r...

PhotoWhen it comes to popular food and beverage brands, most consumers would probably be against changing the formula or recipe, but that’s exactly what’s happening over at PepsiCo., as the company is using a new sweetener for its lower calorie product Diet Pepsi, and it's doing a good job of sneaking the change past consumers.

The reason for the change has more to do with preserving the sweet flavor of Diet Pepsi for longer periods rather than changing the taste.

Currently, the carbonated beverage contains the sweetener aspartame, but soon an ingredient called acesulfame potassium will be added, which makes the original flavor of the soda last longer. Rumors of the impending change were reported by ConsumerAffairs last August.

The additive is used in many food and beverage products like ice cream, fruit juices, yogurts and a host of other items. Even mouthwash and tooth paste contain the chemical preservative.

Although Pepsi isn’t hiding the fact that it’s making the ingredient change, it’s safe to say the company doesn’t want to cause a consumer stir by making a big announcement, which could make Diet Pepsi lovers think the taste is going to be altered.

"Ensure consistency"

In a quiet statement made by PepsiCo, the company explained the reason for the ingredient change. “To ensure consistency with every sip,” the company said it is adding a “very small amount” of acesulfame potassium.

The addition of the chemical ingredient comes on the heels of not only a huge new advertising push by Pepsi—including a $50 million deal with the pop singer Beyoncé to be a spokeswoman for the brand—but also right after a back-and-forth began with the company that makes SodaStream.

In recent months, the SodaStream makers created a TV commercial that urges consumers to shun big-brand sodas and make their own beverages at home.

If you’ve seen the new commercial, it shows several people using the carbonation machine while plastic soda bottles--that resemble Pepsi and Coke products--explode each time the SodaStream button is pushed.

Banned in Britain

PhotoClearcast, an organization that pre-approves commercials for British programming, banned the SodaStream ad in the U.K. saying it unfairly led consumers to think that making soda at home is better for the environment because bottles aren’t being used.

“The ad could be seen to tell people not to go to supermarkets and buy soft drinks, instead help to save the environment by buying a SodaStream. We thought it was denigration of the bottled drinks market,” said Clearcast.

In a retaliatory blow, SodaStream not only expanded the UK-banned commercial to 59 other countries, but it also purchased an extremely pricey ad slot for this year’s Super Bowl, which is the most-watched television event of the year.

With SodaStream growing in popularity, both Pepsi and Coke are starting to react with new product strategies and it’s rumored that both companies will be releasing their own versions of soda-making machines and syrups in the near future.  

In the past year market share for SodaStream went up by 38 percent, which shows just how well the home soda company has been doing since it first came on to the market.

PhotoIn a move that’s very David and Goliath-esque, SodaStream seems to be extremely eager to take on the soda giants of Pepsi who have the No. 3 beverage in the U.S. in terms of sales. Coca-Cola stands at No. 1.

Whether Pepsi’s advertising push and its new additive will bring the company a heftier amount of success in the coming year remains to be seen, but Pepsi spokespeople say cans and bottles with the new ingredient will be in stores and vending machines in the upcoming weeks.

Some stores in the U.S. are already carrying Diet Pepsi with acesulfame potassium.

“It’s not like a light switch,” said PepsiCo representative Andrea Canabal. “It’ll start appearing as shelf space clears."

Acesulfame potassium has been approved eight different times by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1988, and has been deemed safe, though it’s reported to be 100 times sweeter than sugar.

In addition, nutrition experts say the non-caloric preservative doesn’t store up in your body and is quickly absorbed after consumption.

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Is your hair making you fat?

Study finds black women may avoid exercise because of hair issues

Exercise is good for you. Everybody knows that. But it has drawbacks -- for one thing, it can make you sweat, which can be a problem for women with certain...

PhotoExercise is good for you. Everybody knows that. But it has drawbacks -- for one thing, it can make you sweat, which can be a problem for women with certain hair styles.

That may sound fanciful but it's not. In fact, a recent study surveyed 103 African-American women and found that nearly 40 percent of the women reported avoiding exercise at times because of their hair, according to a report published Online First by Archives of Dermatology,a JAMA Network publication.

Rebecca R. Hall, M.D., of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C., and colleagues surveyed 103 African-American women, average age 42, about their hair care practices and physical activity.

“Hair maintenance in African-American women in this study limited their participation in physical activity with more than half of the women exercising less than 75 minutes/week and 26.2 percent reporting 0 minutes of exercise per week,” the authors said.

Most of the women (62.1 percent) wore their hair in a relaxed, chemically-straightened style and most washed their hair every one to two weeks (81.6 percent).

Specifically, the researchers found that hair concerns caused 35.9 percent of the women to avoid swimming, while 29.1 percent avoided aerobic and gym activities.

Women with normal scalps (not dry or oily) were significantly more like to participate in aerobic/gym activities than those with scalp complaints. Women who exercised less because of hair concerns were 2.9 times less likely to exercise more than 150 minutes per week, according to study results.

Because hair care and hairstyle maintenance can be costly for African-American women and because of the relative infrequency of hair washing needed to maintain many common hairstyles they may opt to avoid exercise and the associated sweating, according to the study.

Long-term, this is bad news for black women's health, the researchers said.

“Effective strategies to promote physical activity in African-American women, known to disproportionately have obesity and associated sedentary diseases, must include addressing dermatologic barriers to physical activity with strategies that address hairstyle maintenance," the study said.

The authors said physicians need to be aware of these issues when counseling their African-American patients.

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Guns, mental health, video games top post-shooting agenda

'Everything's on the table' in the wake of the tragedy

Friday's horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., appear to have improved chances that gun laws, video games and mental he...

Friday's horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., appear to have improved chances that gun laws, ammunition sales video games and mental health policies will all get new scrutiny.

President Obama said in his remarks in Newtown Sunday night that he will bring the powers of his office to bear on “changes” to make sure there are no more mass shootings. While it is widely accepted that he was referring to gun laws, other areas are also likely to get a review.

Photo

Stock prices of gun makers tumbled on Wall Street as talk of gun control surged. Shares of Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. fell as much as 5% on Monday after sinking more than 4% on Friday.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a National Rifle Association (NRA) member and supporter of gun rights, said over the weekend that “everything should be on the table” to prevent future massacres. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said she would push for a reinstatement of the ban on the sale of “assault weapons,” which expired several years ago.

Weapons of war

“As I have said many times before—and now repeat in the wake of yet another tragedy—weapons of war don’t belong on our streets or in our theaters, shopping malls and, most of all, our schools,” Feinstein said. “I hope and trust that in the next session of Congress there will be sustained and thoughtful debate about America’s gun culture and our responsibility to prevent more loss of life.”

PhotoSome gun enthusiasts are beginning to talk openly about restrictions on ammunition purchases. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton doesn't understand people's need for high-capacity ammo magazines, he writes in Monday's column.

"Neither do I get the objection to registering guns or licensing owners," he says. "Or requiring a license to buy ammunition, for that matter — not when a slight inconvenience could save lives."

Skelton says that the hunting culture that he grew up with has been replaced with "a narrower gun worship based on the fear of other humans."

There have been periodic suggestions that restricting ammunition purchases to small quantities could prevent at least some of the worst mass attacks that rely on high-capacity assault weapons. A decade or so ago, the idea was floated as a possible way around the Second Amendment ban on gun control.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has maintained its usual post-massacre silence. It went so far as to temporarily take down its Facebook page, temporarily redirecting it to the main page on its Website, just a few days after celebatiing its 1.7 million "Like."

Mental health

There is also likely to be a debate about mental health issues. Earlier this year Connecticut state legislators debated proposals “to enhance the care and treatment of persons with psychiatric disabilities in both inpatient and outpatient settings.” But a bill to that effect was defeated after critics said it would have allowed people to be committed against their will and called it discriminatory and a violation of patients' privacy rights.

And then there are violent video games in which players often assume the role of commandos and shoot opposing avatars in increasingly realistic fashion. While not every violent video game player goes out and shoots up a school, those who have done so were said to be avid players.

And in some cases, including the most recent case of Adam Lanza, they have dressed themselves as commandos.

Violent video games

PhotoOver the years a number of studies on the effects of violent video games have reached conflicting conclusions. A February 2011 study from Ryerson University concluded that people who played violent games did not get desensitized to violence or have differences in their “emotional memory.”

But last week, three days before Lanza's murderous rampage, ConsumerAffairs reported on a study done at Ohio State, where researchers concluded that playing violent video games for an extended period of time tends to color your worldview, causing you to see the world as a violent place best suited to aggressive solutions.

The researchers say they found that people who played a violent video game for three consecutive days showed increases in aggressive behavior and hostile expectations each day they played. Meanwhile, those who played nonviolent games showed no meaningful changes in aggression or hostile expectations over that period.

“It’s important to know the long-term causal effects of violent video games, because so many young people regularly play these games,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.

In the coming weeks, President Obama says he will engage his fellow citizens – from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.

“As a nation, we are left with some hard questions,” the President said in a speech Sunday night.

Expect those questions to be asked, and attempts at answers made, in the coming weeks.

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Sprint reaches deal to buy the rest of Clearwire

The purchase should make Sprint more competitive with AT&T and Verizon

It was just two months ago that Japanese giant Softbank bought 70% of Sprint for $20 billion, injecting much-needed financial muscle into the third-place w...

PhotoIt was just two months ago that Japanese giant Softbank bought 70% of Sprint for $20 billion, injecting much-needed financial muscle into the third-place wireless carrier.

Now Sprint is shelling out $2.2 billion to buy the rest of Clearwire Corp., a deal that would greatly expand its wireless spectrum and help it to compete more effectively with market leaders Verizon and AT&T.

Regulators must approve the purchase.

"Today's transaction marks yet another significant step in Sprint’s improved competitive position and ability to offer customers better products, more choices and better services," said Sprint CEO Dan Hesse.

Sprint already owned 51% of Clearwire and the buy-out was widely anticipated following the Softbank deal.

It's the latest development in a fast-changing wireless market.  T-Mobile and MetroPCS announced plans to merge earlier and Dish Network has won preliminary FCC approval to enter the wireless market.

It will take a few years for the reconfigured players to get their new networks up and running but by 2016 or so, there should be five big, powerful wireless companies fighting for consumers instead of two dominant carriers and a handful of struggling second-string entrants.

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Food industry steps up production of gluten-free products

But if you don't have celiac disease there are no benefits

On store shelves you now find a gluten-free version of almost every food product. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)says the food industry has spent...

PhotoOn store shelves you now find a gluten-free version of almost every food product. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) says the food industry has spent the last few years on that project.

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and spelt that gives dough its elasticity, helps it to rise, and keep its shape. It’s because of gluten that baked goods have their characteristic texture, strength and crumb structure.

However, in recent years doctors determined that people with celiac disease should avoid all gluten in their diets. According to the Mayo Clinic, People with celiac disease who eat foods containing gluten experience an immune reaction in their small intestines, causing damage to the inner surface of the small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients.

Celiac disease is more common that you might think. An estimated 1 in 133 people are afflicted with celiac disease, and another 18 million Americans may be gluten-intolerant. That's why the industry has put such emphasis on coming up with gluten-free alternatives.

Gluten-free challenges

There are some challenges involved, according to IFT. Taking the gluten out of baked products can reduce volume and create a dry, crumbly, grainy texture that consumers find a turn-off.

As an alternative, companies are using flour made from ancient grains like amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum, and teff, as well as brown rice, corn and tapioca starch. These formulations achieve optimal texture, flavor, appearance, and functionality in a variety of grain-based foods. Breads, tortillas, muffins, cereals, cookies, cakes, pasta, pizza, soups, and even soy sauce are now available to gluten-free consumers.

Even though you now see more gluten-free products on store shelves, there's no reason to buy them if neither you nor anyone in your family suffers from celiac disease. They won't make you healthier or help you lose weight.

No health benefits

The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says there is no benefit of a gluten-free diet for the average healthy adult. It disputes the perception that going gluten-free is an effective way to lose weight and may in fact lead to weight gain because of extra sugar and fat often added to gluten-free foods to improve taste.

A gluten-free diet usually contains more fresh produce and that usually is a healthy improvement. If someone eats more varieties of vegetables and fruits and engages in portion control of other foods, then this type of gluten-free living may elicit health benefits, experts say.

If you don't have celiac disease, gluten won't hurt you and, in fact, is a good source of fiber. If you have any questions or concerns, you should discuss them with your doctor.

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Seven vehicles get Cars.com's 'Best of 2013' nod

Two Honda models make the list

If a new car or truck is in your future in the coming year, no doubt you've already started doing some research. Automotive site Cars.com has some more dat...

PhotoIf a new car or truck is in your future in the coming year, no doubt you've already started doing some research. Automotive site Cars.com has some more data for you to consider. It's just named seven vehicles as finalists for its “Best of 2013” designation.

The nominees are the BMW 3-Series, Honda Accord, Honda CR-V, Ram 1500, Scion FR-S, Subaru BRZ and the Toyota Prius c.

"Each year, automakers roll out upwards of 70 brand-new or redesigned cars," said Patrick Olsen, Cars.com's editor-in-chief. "From those, we choose the very best new or fully redesigned cars that represent change, innovation, forward thinking and a breath of fresh air."

BMW 3 Series

According to Cars.com, the new 3 series has made so many improvements in so many areas it has to be considered one of the best cars of the year. It points to more interior room, a new contemporary design, and a lot of power and performance under the hood.

Honda Accord

The Accord boasts admirable EPA mileage, has improved driving refinement and generous standard equipment. “This impressive redesign improves in a number of areas where its predecessor lacked,” Cars.com said.

Honda CR-V

The compact-crossover segment is packed with comfortable, competent cars, but Cars.com said no automaker blends those two attributes better than Honda has with its CR-V. Helping the CR-V earn a place on the list are its “edgy” styling, standard features, affordable prices and fuel-efficiency.

Ram 1500

There is no other segment more competitive and more significant than full-size half-ton pickups. But the judges said the new 1500 from Dodge offers class-leading fuel economy, a segment-exclusive 8-speed transmission, another exclusive airbag suspension and a vastly improved and more technologically advanced interior than they've ever had before.

Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ

These two vehicles are being listed together because Cars.com says they are nearly identical from chassis to sheet-metal. According to the judges, the FR-S and BRZ sports cars provide a rate driving experience. “In a market dominated by the practical and the expensive, sports cars at this price alone deserve praise,” the judges said.

Toyota Prius c

This is a new model for 2013 and comes in smaller than the regular Prius. Cars.com describes it as a subcompact that achieves an EPA-estimated 50 mpg combined, at a price that is about $5,000 lower than the regular Prius. The judges also praised its smaller features, saying it is ideal for city driving.

"There is no shortage of great cars on the market these days," said Olsen. "However, these seven cars, representing a variety of segments, buyers and lifestyles are what we consider to be the best of the best. Car shoppers can be assured that a Cars.com award nominee has our highest seal of approval and is a worthy investment."

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Feds to take closer look at student lenders

CFPB examiners will ensure lenders are following the law

Are the folks who make student loans on the up-and-up? A set of student lending examination procedures to be used by examiners from the Consumer Financia...

PhotoAre the folks who make student loans on the up-and-up?

A set of student lending examination procedures  to be used by examiners from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is designed to make sure they are.

“For many borrowers, a student loan may be their first major financial decision,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “With student debt topping a trillion dollars, we will be working to ensure consumers are treated fairly and lenders are held accountable.”

Ensuring compliance

The CFPB has the authority to supervise large banks, as well as nonbanks, that make private student loans, and the procedures released today may be used to examine both types of lenders. Examiners will be assessing whether student lenders have the appropriate processes in place to prevent harm to borrowers. Examiners will be looking to verify that lenders are complying with requirements of federal consumer financial law, including:

  • Using accurate, nondiscriminatory advertising or marketing: Examiners will evaluate marketing and advertising materials, such as mail and text messages, telephone solicitation scripts, and agreements and disclosures for the products and services to make sure the materials are not deceptive, misleading, or discriminatory.
  • Making appropriate disclosures: Examiners will assess whether the lender or service provider makes proper, clear disclosures about loan costs and terms at the time of the consumer’s application, loan approval, and loan disbursement as required under special rules for education lending.
  • Providing borrowers with accurate account information: Examiners will determine if the lender or service provider -- if required to do so -- supplies the borrower with periodic statements that include such information as monthly payment requirements, charges, fees and interest rate changes.
  • Handling borrower inquiries and complaints: Examiners will determine if a lender or service provider has adequate and effective channels to receive customer questions and complaints. Examiners will also evaluate the systems, procedures and policies used by the company for tracking, handling, investigating and resolving consumer inquiries, disputes, and complaints.

Exam procedure

In general, CFPB supervision activities will include gathering reports from and conducting examinations of supervised entities. The examination process will be a process of pre-examination scoping and review of information, data analysis, onsite examinations, and regular communication with supervised entities, as well as follow-up monitoring. When necessary, examiners will coordinate and work closely with the CFPB’s enforcement staff to take appropriate enforcement actions to address harm to consumers.

The CFPB has also recently published reports on the student loan marketplace, the Annual Report of the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman about private student loan complaints, and The Next Front, which addresses student loan servicing issues faced by military families.

The CFPB is working to arm consumers with information to make better financial decisions about paying for college. As part of its Know Before You Owe  student loan initiative, the CFPB worked with the Department of Education on a “financial aid shopping sheet.” More than 500 colleges have already agreed to use this format to improve information for students and families when making decisions about student loans.

New consumer tools

The Bureau is also developing a suite of new consumer tools, including:

  • Guides for students and families shopping for student loans and managing money while in college;
  • A comparison tool to help students and their families compare financial aid offers from multiple schools; and
  • A new Web tool to help student loan borrowers navigate their repayment options.

Consumers can take advantage of these tools today and provide feedback as the CFPB adds new features.

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Is your smart TV watching you?

Security firm claims Samsung devices can be hacked

It sounds creepy to consider, but a security firm claims to have exploited vulnerabilities in all 11 of Samsung smart TV models, allowing it to take contro...

PhotoIt sounds creepy to consider, but a security firm claims to have exploited vulnerabilities in all 11 of Samsung smart TV models, allowing it to take control of the devices' microphones and cameras.

A smart TV is a television set that is made for integration with the Internet. The devices allow more seamless viewing of Internet TV and streaming content, along with traditional broadcast television programming.

The company, ReVuln, says if it has figured out how to get access to consumers' TV sets to spy on them, hackers have probably figured it out as well.

But it might not be so simple and if a Samsung smart TV is sitting in your den, you don't have to assume you are being watched. In order for a hacker to get control of the device, they must first hack into the network the TV is using and know the IP address the device is using.

The TVs are vulnerable because they lack the same security features that protect computers connected to the Internet. Last year we reported that hackers had developed malware and worms that can infect your computer and take control of your Webcam. When you least expect it, your Webcam could be watching you.

Once in control of your PC, hackers can turn any attached camera on and off at will. ReVuln warns the same risk applies to Samsung's smart TVs. The company produced the video below to show how it is done.

ReVuln - The TV is watching you from ReVuln on Vimeo.

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Privacy: tips for protecting your personal information

Make sure you know what happens with all that info that's out there

Every day you share personal information about yourself with others. It’s so routine that you may not even realize you’re doing it. You may write a check a...

PhotoEvery day you share personal information about yourself with others. It’s so routine that you may not even realize you’re doing it. You may write a check at the grocery store, charge tickets to a ball game, rent a car, mail your tax returns, buy a gift online, call home on your cell phone, schedule a doctor’s appointment or apply for a credit card.

Each transaction requires you to share personal information: your bank and credit card account numbers; your income; your Social Security number (SSN); or your name, address, and phone numbers.

It’s important to find out what happens to the personal information you and your children provide to companies, marketers, and government agencies. These organizations may use your information simply to process your order; to tell you about products, services, or promotions; or to share with others.

Scoundrels abound

And then there are unscrupulous individuals, like identity thieves, who want your information to commit fraud. Identity theft -- the fastest-growing white-collar crime in America -- occurs when someone steals your personal identifying information, like your SSN, birth date, or mother’s maiden name, to open new charge accounts, order merchandise, or borrow money.

Consumers targeted by identity thieves usually don’t know they’ve been victimized. But when the fraudsters fail to pay the bills or repay the loans, collection agencies begin pursuing the consumers to cover debts they didn’t even know they had.

Staying safe

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) encourages you to make sure your transactions -- online and off -- are secure and your personal information is protected. The FTC offers these tips to help you manage your personal information wisely, and to help minimize its misuse:

  • Before you reveal any personally identifying information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others. Ask about company’s privacy policy: Will you have a choice about the use of your information; can you choose to have it kept confidential?
  • Read the privacy policy on any website directed to children. Websites directed to children or that knowingly collect information from kids under 13 must post a notice of their information collection practices.
  • Put passwords on your all your accounts, including your credit card account, and your bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information -- like your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN, or your phone number -- or obvious choices, like a series of consecutive numbers or your hometown football team.
  • Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you’ll actually need. Don’t put all your identifying information in one holder in your purse, briefcase, or backpack.
  • Keep items with personal information in a safe place. When you discard receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards, credit offers you get in the mail, and mailing labels from magazines, tear or shred them. That will help thwart any identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information.
  • Order a copy of your credit report. Make sure it’s accurate and includes only those activities you’ve authorized. Each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- are required to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months.

To order your free annual report from one or all national consumer reporting companies, visit www.annualcreditreport.com, call toll-free 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to:

Annual Credit Report Request Service

P.O. Box 105281

Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

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5-hour Energy stops 'deceptive' Web ad

CSPI recommends consumers avoid product pending FDA investigation into deaths

5-hour Energy -- the controversial caffeinated supplement drink under federal scrutiny for its reported role in 13 deaths -- has at least temporarily stop ...

Photo5-hour Energy -- the controversial caffeinated supplement drink under federal scrutiny for its reported role in 13 deaths -- has at least temporarily stopped running a Web-based video ad that the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said misled the public about the nonprofit watchdog group's stance on the product's safety.

Lawyers for the Farmington Hills, MI-based manufacturer of 5-hour Energy say the ad will remain down while the company "research[es] the legal issues further."

Misleading quote

The ad in question featured a quotation from Time magazine in which CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson answered a question about whether it is possible to die from caffeine. "It's highly unlikely," Jacobson told Time. "Someone would really have to make an effort to consume 40 or so 200-mg caffeine tablets." CSPI told 5-hour Energy that its use of that quote in its ad gave the false impression that Jacobson or CSPI endorsed the product.

In fact, CSPI does have concern about 5-hour Energy, which contains far more than just caffeine. It also contains citicoline, tyrosine, phenylalanine, taurine, malic acid, glucuronolactone, unspecified natural and artificial flavors, the artificial sweetener sucralose, potassium sorbate, and sodium benzoate.

"People have been drinking coffee and tea for millennia," said Jacobson. "People have been consuming 5-hour Energy only since 2004. Considering that the FDA is investigating reports of heart attacks, convulsions, and deaths associated with the product, we recommend people not consume 5-hour Energy until the FDA gets to the bottom of the problems."

The company is also under investigation by the New York Attorney General's office, and Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) recently called for a Federal Trade Commission probe into the advertising for 5-hour Energy and other energy drinks.

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Anti-stalking app measure advances in U.S. Senate

Would criminalize stalking apps for smartphones

The Location Protection Act of 2012, better known as the Stalking Apps Bill, is headed for the floor of the U.S. Senate where it could be enacted into law....

PhotoThe Location Protection Act of 2012, better known as the Stalking Apps Bill, is headed for the floor of the U.S. Senate where it could be enacted into law. It cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bi-partisan vote, suggesting chances of passage are good.

The measure would criminalize stalking apps for smartphones. The apps are designed to help friends keep up with other friends' whereabouts. Critics, however, charge that stalkers can use them to follow their victims.

Last week a report by the Federal Trade Commission found that some apps for children were transmitting location information to third parties without the parents' permission. These would be illegal should the measure become law.

Closes loopholes

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who drafted the bill, says the legislation closes legal loopholes by requiring all companies to get customers' permission before collecting their location data or sharing it with third parties. It also contains targeted provisions to protect against stalking apps.

"I believe that Americans have the fundamental right to control who can track their location, and whether or not that information can be given to third parties," Franken said. "But right now, companies -- some legitimate, some sleazy -- are collecting your or your child's location and selling it to ad companies or who knows who else. Passing my bill out of committee means we're one step closer to ending this practice and ensuring people's privacy."

Franken pushed the legislation over concern that the technological precision of GPS could put some consumers at risk.

Puts onus on companies

"Companies aren't protecting the information the way they should,” Franken said. “Half of apps give out location information to third parties without users' knowledge.”

Franken also claims that a few developers are actually producing apps specifically designed to help abusers stalk their victims. The measure requires companies to get a customer's permission before collecting his or her location data or sharing it with non-governmental third parties.

It also raises awareness and helps investigations of GPS stalking while making it a crime to operate intentionally a stalking application to facilitate stalking.

With the fiscal cliff dominating lawmakers' attention in the lame duck session, it appears certain that Congressional action will have to wait until next year.

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Why you should be suspicious of government logos

Pretending to be government-sanctioned is a scammer's favorite ruse

You've seen the Internet ads. They feature President Obama's smiling face or the seal of a federal agency, suggesting the company making the offer has offi...

PhotoYou've seen the Internet ads. They feature President Obama's smiling face or the seal of a federal agency, suggesting the company making the offer has official sanction.

They don't, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is urging consumers not to fall for this blatant scam.

“No, really. Just because something has a government logo on it doesn’t mean that it’s legitimate,” the agency warns on its website.

Two cases

As a case in point, the CFPB points to enforcement action is has launched against two mortgage modification operations it accuses of ripping off struggling homeowners. The Websites, emails and other promotional materials bear government agency logos, letterhead or other markings that could mislead a consumer into thinking these services are associated with government agencies.

The government claims these two companies took in more than $10 million by charging consumers for services that falsely promised to prevent foreclosures or renegotiate troubled mortgages.

“We are taking on schemes that prey on consumers who are struggling to pay their mortgages or facing foreclosure,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We are especially concerned with those who misrepresent government programs or Websites to divert distressed homeowners from needed assistance.”

Both firms based in California

The CFPB says it asked U.S. District Court Judges in California halt both operations, the Gordon Law Firm and the National Legal Help Center. In addition, the court froze their assets while the CFPB moves forward with the cases.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for unscrupulous con artists to take advantage of our nation’s housing crisis by targeting homeowners looking for help from TARP’s Home Affordable Modification Program,” said Christy Romero, Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP). “We thank the CFPB for protecting homeowners. SIGTARP will continue to stop these scams and educate homeowners that mortgage modifications through HAMP are free.”

It's on the Internet, it must be true

CFPB says consumers can protect themselves by not believing everything they see on the Internet. Just because a Website looks official does not mean that it is.

Mortgage assistance and foreclosure relief scams are designed to take your money, the agency warns. They often use mail or email designed with emblems, logos and names intended to mimic government agencies or programs, lawyers or law firms, or legitimate creditors.

Unfortunately, scammers are also constantly re-inventing new ways to scam struggling homeowners. So it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the scams and legitimate services. But there are a number of ways to help spot the fakes. Keep an eye out for red flags if a mortgage assistance or foreclosure relief scheme:

  • Tells you to stop making mortgage loan payments. Not making your mortgage loan payments could hurt your credit score and limit your options.
  • Tells you to start making payments to someone other than your servicer or lender.
  • Asks you to pay high fees upfront to receive services.
  • Promises to get you a loan modification.
  • Asks you to sign over title to your property.
  • Asks you to sign papers you do not understand.
  • Pressures you to sign papers immediately.
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Amazon links with Facebook for easier holiday shopping

Meanwhile, Facebook cooks up a new e-commerce feature of its own

As more and more brick and mortar stores are ramping up efforts to compete with digital stores, it seems that digital stores are doing more to compete with...

PhotoAs more and more brick-and-mortar stores are ramping up efforts to compete with online stores, it seems that online stores are doing more to compete with brick-and-mortars.

This seems to be the current battle between both types of retailers, as each one is eager not to be outdone by the other when it comes to attracting customers and introducing products and deals.

For example, Walmart was one of the first to strike in this way by adding its e-commerce feature Shopycat, where gift ideas are recommended based on a person’s profile information.

And in what seems to be a retaliatory move against Walmart and other physical stores trying to move into e-commerce realms, Amazon has launched a new feature called Friends and Family Gifting, which allows users to get email reminders about birthdays and also allows them to share wish lists through Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook pages.

This feature is different from the way people currently use Amazon’s wish list, as ideas will be suggested based on a person’s Facebook profile and the different items that they’ve “liked.”

Easy to use

PhotoWhat's great is that the Friends and Family Gifting is really easy to use and follows the recent trend of linking retail sites to social network pages, so items can be shared, discussed and purchased with a strong level of background information on the person your shopping for, thus removing the guess work when burying gifts.  

All one has to do is sign into Amazon using their Facebook account, where you’ll be reminded of not only your friends' birthdays, but also what’s on their Amazon wish list, assuming they have one.

Amazon will also recommend other gifts based on that wish list, which should make it easier for shoppers to not only better organize all of their Facebook friend’s birthdays, but also remove any level of guessing when it comes to selecting the perfect gift.

The social networking move is a good one for Amazon, as the online retail store already offers everything from A to Z for consumers in terms of products, but it hasn’t added a social network component so users can bounce ideas off of each other, which the company will have to do if it wants to keep the dominance it has been enjoying.

MasterCard on board

Credit card giant MasterCard has partnered with Amazon to release this feature, and the company says the service is ideal for this time year when getting someone a perfect gift is all the more challenging.

“The reaction from a friend or loved one when they receive a thoughtful gift is priceless, however, identifying and purchasing that gift can be stressful,” explained Cheryl Guerin, senior vice president of MasterCard’s U.S. marketing division.

“We’re happy to join Amazon in simplifying the gift giving experience with Friends and Family Gifting, giving customers more time to spend experiencing the joys of holiday traditions," she said.

The gifting service also provides users the option to know far in advance when birthdays are coming up and allows one to better plan what they’re giving each year.

The new Friends and Family feature comes on the heels of Facebook launching its own gifting service called Facebook Gifts, which allows users to send items to their friends through the social site, by  going on their profile page and clicking a button.

You can also add a note to your gift to add even more of a personal touch.

The actual gifts you can send someone through Facebook are usually confined to typical birthday or holiday items like flowers or giftcards; once purchased, a note is sent to your Facebook friend letting them know that a gift was just purchased, and it also asks the recipient where they would like it shipped.

The fact that Facebook Gifts allows the recipient to select where items are sent,  should make it much easier for shoppers who can pretty much be finished with the transaction once it's bought, instead of waiting and hoping it arrives at the right place, at the right time.

You can also choose to donate to a charity in the name of a Facebook friend, or give money towards Hurricane Sandy relief, which a lot of e-commerce sites are doing these days.

Both new services by Amazon and Facebook seem to be just the beginning in social networking sites, online retailers and brick-and-mortars melding together to make it easier for the consumer to shop, share and ship gifts all at the same time.

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Obama on marijuana: policy shift or smokescreen?

Critics say the President is waiting to see which way the smoke blows

President Obama's latest statements about marijuna are igniting sparks  around the country but some pro-pot groups say they shouldn't set the night on...

PhotoPresident Obama's latest statements about marijuna are igniting sparks  around the country but some pro-pot groups say they shouldn't set the night on fire.

In an interview to be broadcast tonight, President Obama tells ABC's Barbara Walters that, "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational [marijuana] users in states that have determined that it's legal."

Last month voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use in those two states. But federal statutes still outlaw possession of the drug and the feds could take a hard-nosed approach to enforcement.

Obama's comments may make it sound like the feds will be backing off in states where marijuana use is legal but the chairman of Marijuana Majority warns the whole thing may be a smoke screen.

"The president's statement about not targeting individual marijuana users doesn't mark a shift in policy. The federal government rarely goes after individual users," said Tom Angell. "The real question is whether the Obama administration will try to prevent voter-approved marijuana sales systems from being enacted or if they will force individual users to buy marijuana from the black market, where much of the profits go to cartels and gangs that kill people."

Photo
President Obama discusses marijuana laws with ABC's Barbara Walters. (White House photo)

In fact, as Angell sees it, Obama is trying to straddle the fence on the issue, much as critics say he did with gay marriage and deficit-trimming during his first term.

"The president also tries to unjustifiably pass the buck to Congress, claiming that there's not much he can do to change federal policy on marijuana because 'Congress has not yet changed the law,'" Angell said. "The fact is, the executive branch was granted the power to unilaterally reschedule marijuana when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.

"The president should lead on this issue instead of deferring to Congress, a branch of government that he probably knows better than most isn't exactly prone to getting a whole lot done these days."

While the issue is a little too hot for many lawmakers to handle, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would force the federal government to stand aside and not enforce the federal laws regarding marijuana in those states.

Blowing in the wind

In the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote yesterday to Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, asking how the feds intend to deal with states that have recently legalized marijuana possession.

"What assurances can and will the administration give to state officials involved in the licensing of marijuana retailers that they will not face Federal criminal penalties for carrying out duties assigned to them under state law?" Leahy asked.

"One positive thing to take away from this interview is that the president couched his opposition to marijuana legalization by saying he doesn't support it 'at this point,'" Angell noted. 'That could indicate his position on this issue may 'evolve' to catch up with the majority of voters who now support letting states set their own marijuana laws, not unlike how his position on marriage equality 'evolved' as it became clear the what direction the public was moving in."

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Scientists find antidepressant drug that works almost immediately

Although the drug is still in its trial phase, researchers are excited about its potential

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 10 adults in the United States report having depression, although experts say the...

PhotoAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 10 adults in the United States report having depression, although experts say the numbers are higher since many people aren’t properly diagnosed.

Fortunately for patients living with depression, there are several drugs on the market, but unfortunately, some of the medications don't work as fast as some doctors and patients would like.

To help patients get faster and longer relief from antidepressants, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) conducted research on the experimental drug AZD6765, which scientists believe could provide more immediate results for those suffering from depression, particularly those patients who haven’t responded well to other drugs or other types of mental therapy.

The study consisted of 22 volunteers, all suffering from various forms of depression, and each person filled out a survey so researchers could determine what type of depression each person had.

Researchers then gave half of the participants AZD6765 and the other half placebo and later in the study the two groups switched. Eventually, the placebo group started taking AZD6765 and the treatment group began taking placebo.

The results showed that 32 percent of the participants had positive effects from the drug--with feelings of relief for up to 48 hours--while others reported relief only lasting 30 minutes.

Glutamate blocker

PhotoExperts say AZD6765  works because of its ability to prevent a chemical in the brain called glutamate from attaching itself to nerve cells, thus lowering the chances of depressive feelings ever developing.

Other antidepressant drugs like ketamine are known to work quickly and in the same way, however AZD6765 was found to have fewer  side effects.

In a previous and separate study, scientists learned those taking ketamine had lasting positive results for up to a week, which shows the drug may be more potent than AZD6765, despite its side effects.

But researchers in the recent NIMH study were still pleased with the results and appeared to be excited about AZD6765 and its possibilities of treatment.

“Our findings serve as a proof of concept that we can tap into an important component of the glutamate pathway to develop a new generation of safe, rapid-acting practical treatments for depression,” said head researcher Dr. Carlos Zarate, of NIMH.

Suicide prevention

Photo
Dr. Carlos Zarate

The new findings are important experts say, especially for those patients suffering from depression who may also be suicidal, as immediate relief for a lot of mental patients has been elusive for quite some time.

Dr. Zarate also said these new findings could have a colossal impact within the health community and greatly assist those suffering from the serious mental disease.

 “One infusion of a low dose of the medication resulted in rapid effects within two hours compared with many weeks for many of our current treatments,” he told a news outlet.

“In addition, those who responded had tried many of our medications. This proved that rapid antidepressant effects can be done in very sick people within a very short period of time. This could have a real impact on public health.”

“From now on, it’s a matter of looking at different doses, repeated doses, etc. It also opens that door for other investigations and industry to jump in and see if they can identify other agents that work rapidly without the side-effects of ketamine.”

Most likely to suffer

In a separate study conducted by the CDC, scientists found that those aged 45-64 are most likely to suffer from depression, along with women, African Americans, Hispanics, and people who were married but are now single.

The CDC study also showed those without health insurance or unable to secure employment make up a large portion of patients suffering from depression.

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Microsoft's Surface RT comes to Staples and Best Buy

Microsoft hopes the move to traditional retail will spur sales

The news may not start a stampede but the Surface RT tablet is now on sale at Best Buy an Staples as Microsoft tries to jumpstart slow sales. The tablet ha...

PhotoThe news may not start a stampede but the Surface RT tablet is now on sale at Best Buy and Staples as Microsoft tries to jumpstart slow sales. The tablet has, until now, been available only through Microsoft's website or at its brick-and-mortar stores.

Best Buy said it currently has the RT for sale online but expects to have it in stores starting Sunday. Staples said it has the tablet both online and in stores.

Although it's thought that the Surface has been slow out of the gate, it has been getting favorable reviews from some consumers who like having their familiar Office programs readily available.

Not so keen

More ominously, however, a survey finds developers not so keen on the Surface and the Windows Phone, both Windows 8 products. The survey, by IDC and Appcelerator, found that while 56% of developers said they like the Surface hardware, they're skeptical of its sales prospects -- and thus reluctant to invest a lot of time and money developing apps for it.

PhotoOf course, this may not matter to many consumers who use their laptops and tablets primarily for business and prefer to stick with Microsoft products. The same survey found developers cool to the Kindle Fire, which continues to burn up the marketplace.

Pricing of the Surface is attractive, with most versions running about $100 less than a comparably-equipped iPad.

By moving into bricks-and-mortar retail channels, Microsoft will also be exposing the Surface to consumers who may be relatively unaware of it. Believe it or not, not everyone waits breathlessly for the latest technogadget to emerge, and the Surface's bright colors and big screen may catch the eye of shoppers who weren't previously aware of it.

"Customers have come to expect Best Buy -- both its store and website -- to be the place with the broadest selection of consumer electronics, and our sale of this much-hyped new tablet just reinforces that point," said BestBuy.com president Scott Durchslag.

"Staples is excited to provide this innovative product to customers just in time for the holiday season," said Mike Edwards, Staples executive VP for merchandising.

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Ample supplies and looming fiscal cliff push gas prices lower

Lowest prices found in south central region, highest in the Northeast

Gasoline prices fell in nearly every U.S. state this week as supplies rose and crude oil prices fell, depressed by worries about Washington's "fiscal cliff...

PhotoGasoline prices fell in nearly every state this week as supplies rose and crude oil prices fell, depressed by worries about Washington's "fiscal cliff."

The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.286 per gallon, compared with $3.371 last week, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's 16 cents lower than a month ago and only two cents higher than the price a year ago.

The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.953 per gallon, versus $4.001 a week ago.

Gasoline supplies are rising, even with increasing demand. The Energy Information Administration reported this week that for the week ending December 7 the U.S. had more than 217 million barrels of gasoline on hand, about three percent higher than the five-year average. Even in the Northeast, where Hurricane Sandy disrupted supplies last month, gasoline stockpiles are growing, not shrinking.

Both Hawaii, with the nation's highest average gasoline and Missouri, with the lowest, are poised at key thresholds today. Hawaii is about to dip below $4 a gallon and Missouri $3 a gallon.

Most states saw price dips between three and six cents a gallon this week. The average price in Minnesota dropped about 12 cents a gallon.

Photo

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

  • Hawaii ($4.000)
  • New York ($3.772)
  • Alaska ($3.698)
  • Connecticut ($3.698)
  • California ($3.588)
  • Vermont ($3.560)
  • Rhode Island ($3.543)
  • Maine ($3.522)
  • Massachusetts ($3.483)
  • Pennsylvania ($3.481)

The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

  • Missouri ($3.008)
  • Oklahoma ($3.062)
  • South Carolina ($3.069)
  • Texas ($3.075)
  • Tennessee ($3.082)
  • Arkansas ($3.095)
  • Mississippi ($3.098)
  • Louisiana($3.107)
  • Minnesota ($3.127)
  • Kansas ($3.141)
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Feds revamping reverse mortgage rules

Consumer groups worried borrowers have too little information

As many Americans reach retirement age and decide to locate to a lower-cost area, they typically debate whether to buy or rent. But there is a third option...

PhotoAs many Americans reach retirement age and decide to locate to a lower-cost area, they typically debate whether to buy or rent. But there is a third option, which involves staying put, that more and more homeowners are selecting -- a reverse mortgage.

Reverse mortgages are a special type of home loan that lets homeowners convert the equity in their home into cash. It can give older Americans greater financial security to supplement Social Security, meet unexpected medical expenses, make home improvements, and more.

But what is sometimes more important to retiring homeowners who are still making mortgage payments -- it can allow them to stop making payments.

Worries

Some consumer groups have expressed concern that some seniors are rushing into reverse mortgages without fully understanding the pros and cons. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is proposing steps to strengthen the program but two groups -- Consumers Union and the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform -- urge consideration of a more comprehensive package of protections to ensure reverse mortgages are a safe financial option for seniors.

"More and more reverse mortgage borrowers are opting to take a lump sum payment at increasingly younger ages," said Norma Garcia, senior attorney and manager of the financial services program of Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. "These borrowers are at higher risk of prematurely using up all their equity and losing their homes. FHA should be applauded for recognizing a serious problem and proposing steps to remedy it. But we need comprehensive reforms to ensure that borrowers are truly protected."

How they work

Reverse mortgages enable borrowers who are 62 or older to obtain income by tapping the equity in their home through a lump-sum payment, monthly scheduled payments, or lines of credit. The reverse mortgage loan becomes due when the borrower dies, leaves the home for 12 consecutive months or more, or fails to maintain the property or pay homeowners insurance or property taxes.

Reverse mortgage borrowers must pay a loan origination fee, closing costs, and compounding interests on the loan principal, which can be significant.

Earlier this year the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that people signing up for reverse mortgages are almost always opting to take a lump sum payment. They are also doing it at a relatively young 72 years of age. Borrowing a lump sum and too soon can result in seniors depleting their home equity prematurely. After exhausting their home equity, many senior borrowers will have no resources to fall back on.

Changes

At a recent Senate Banking Committee hearing, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan proposed both immediate, interim steps and longer-term changes to reduce losses and permanently strengthen the FHA's Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) program.

In the short term, the FHA is proposing to use its existing authority to reduce the maximum amount of funds available to a reverse mortgage. The FHA is proposing longer-term changes that would include limiting the borrower's draw at origination to mandatory obligations; requiring the performance of a financial assessment to determine the suitability of various loans for individual borrowers; and establishing a tax and insurance set-aside or an annuity to ensure there is sufficient equity available to pay taxes and insurance to avoid defaults from non-payment of taxes and insurance.

"The FHA's proposals are a positive step that will help ensure borrowers don't wind up with a reverse mortgage that may not be suitable for them," said Prescott Cole, Senior Attorney with the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. "But more must be done to protect seniors and their families. Too many seniors are falling through a fiscal trap door while trying to unlock their home equity with a reverse mortgage."

Seniors, meanwhile, need to understand that a reverse mortgage is not practical in every case. The borrower needs to own the house free and clear or have a large amount of equity in the property for the loan to be in both the best interests of the borrower and the lender.

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Consumer prices go down in November

Falling gas prices put more money in consumers' pockets

The prices consumers pay for goods and services went down in November. The 0.3 percent decline in the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index (CPI) was the...

PhotoThe prices consumers pay for goods and services went down in November. The 0.3 percent decline in the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index (CPI) was the first drop in prices at the retail level since May.

The big driver of negative inflation was a 7.6 percent drop in gasoline prices, which are only now returning to normal levels. Fuel prices inexplicably surged in late August and early September, just as the summer driving season was ending.

Gasoline wasn't the only commodity that cost less last month. Prices of used vehicles, clothing and even medical care fell. In categories where prices increased, the gains were small and hardly noticeable. Food prices were up last month, mostly because of the summer's drought. It's possible those effects will increase in the months ahead.

More money in consumers' pockets

"The decline in consumer costs helped push up household spending power," said economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa. "Real earnings jumped in November as wages rose while prices fell. People had a little more to spend in November and if the retail sales numbers are any indicator, they put it to good use this holiday shopping season."

Prices are also falling at the producer level, and again lower energy costs are mostly responsible. The government's Producer Price Index (PPI) fell 0.8 percent in November, led by a 4.6 percent drop in energy costs. As with the consumer numbers, food costs bucked the trend and moved higher.

Naroff says the numbers mean that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is likely to keep pumping money into the economy since there is no sign of inflation. However, consumers may need to keep an eye on their food budgets since the damage of last summer's drought will likely be felt in full force early in 2013.

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You can help reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke

It's not as hard to do as a lot of people think

Poor eating and exercise habits could be the game-changer in the fight against heart disease and stroke deaths, according to the American Heart Association...

PhotoPoor eating and exercise habits could be the game-changer in the fight against heart disease and stroke deaths, according to the American Heart Association's "Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update 2013," published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation.

"Americans need to move a lot more, eat healthier and less, and manage risk factors as soon as they develop," said Alan S. Go, M.D., chairman of the report's writing committee and chief of the Cardiovascular and Metabolic Conditions Section of the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research in Oakland. "If not, we'll quickly lose the momentum we've gained in reducing heart attack and stroke rates and improving survival over the last few decades."

Between 1999 and 2009, the rate of deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD) fell 32.7 percent, but still accounted for nearly one in three deaths in the nation. That's 2,150 people dying from CVD each day -- about one death every 40 seconds.

Meeting the goal

In 2010, the American Heart Association set a goal to improve cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent and reduce heart disease and stroke deaths 20 percent by 2020.

However, according to projections in the 2013 report, heart health may only improve by six percent if current trends continue. The biggest barriers to success are projected increases in obesity and diabetes, and only modest improvements in diet and physical activity. On a positive note, smoking, high cholesterol and high blood pressure rates are projected to decline.

Not in good shape

Among heart disease and stroke risk factors, the most recent data show:

  • More adults age 20 and over are obese (34.6 percent) than normal or underweight (31.8 percent); 68.2 percent are overweight or obese.
  • Among children ages 2-19, 31.8 percent are overweight or obese.
  • Thirty-two percent of adults report no aerobic activity; 17.7 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys, grades 9-12, report fewer than an hour of aerobic activity in the past week.
  • 13.8 percent of adults have total cholesterol of 240 mg/dL or higher.
  • Thirty-three percent of adults have high blood pressure; blacks have among the highest prevalence of high blood pressure (44 percent) worldwide.
  • 8.3 percent of adults have diagnosed diabetes, and 8.2 percent have undiagnosed diabetes; 38.2 percent have prediabetes.

Despite four decades of improvement, 21.3 percent of men and 16.7 percent of women age 18 and over still smoke cigarettes; 18.1 percent of students in grades 9-12 report cigarette smoking.

Improving your health

"As the leader in the fight against heart disease and stroke, we are taking a more aggressive and innovative approach, including taking some pages from the playbooks of the public health sector," said Donna Arnett, Ph.D., president of the American Heart Association and chairperson of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. "We're focusing on population-based ways to improve health factors for all Americans."

Some of these include:

  • Working with healthcare systems to support and reward providers who help patients improve their health behaviors and manage their health risk factors.
  • Working with insurers to cover preventive health services and reward positive health behaviors and medication adherence.
  • Working with the education community to make changes in schools that support healthy diets and physical activity for children.
  • Building comprehensive worksite wellness programs.
  • Building healthier communities with improved access to healthier foods and green space for physical activity.

"In this race against time, it will take nationwide efforts driven by communities and systems — a patient-by-patient approach alone won't do it," Arnett said. "But we're optimistic that if we increase our efforts for improvements in prevention and reductions in risk factors, we can be successful — we can save lives."

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Bon-Ton to pay civil penalty to settle drawstring charges

The company failed to report drawstrings on children's jackets and sweatshirts

The Bon-Ton Stores of York, PA, will pay a $450,000 civil penalty resolving U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff allegations that it knowin...

PhotoThe Bon-Ton Stores of York, PA, will pay a $450,000 civil penalty resolving U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff allegations that it knowingly failed to report immediately -- as required by federal law -- that its children’s hooded jackets and sweatshirts were sold with drawstrings through the hood.

Children’s upper outerwear with drawstrings, including jackets and sweatshirts, pose a strangulation hazard to children. CPSC and three U.S. importers announced recalls of children’s jackets and sweatshirts with drawstrings through the hood on February 18, March 10 and May 27, 2010. Bon-Ton was a retailer of about 800 total jackets and sweatshirts in all three recalls.

Early warnings

CPSC began warning about drawstring dangers in the early 1990s. The agency issued guidelines in 1996 about drawstrings in children's upper outerwear. Those guidelines were incorporated into an industry voluntary standard in 1997. In 2006, CPSC's Office of Compliance announced that children's upper outerwear with drawstrings at the hood or neck would be regarded as defective and presenting a substantial risk of injury to young children.

Then, in July 2011, based on the guidelines and voluntary standard, CPSC issued a federal regulation that designated as substantial product hazards children's upper outerwear in sizes 2T to 12 (or extra-small to large) with neck or hood drawstrings, and children's upper outerwear in sizes 2T to 16 (or extra-small to extra-large) with certain waist or bottom drawstrings.

Federal requirements

Federal law requires manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to report to CPSC immediately (within 24 hours) after obtaining information reasonably supporting the conclusion that a product contains a defect that could create a substantial product hazard, creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death, or fails to comply with any consumer product safety rule or any other rule, regulation, standard or ban enforced by CPSC.

Federal law also bars selling products that have been subject to a voluntary recall by a manufacturer or a mandatory recall ordered by the commission.

In agreeing to the settlement, Bon-Ton denies CPSC staff allegations that it knowingly violated the law.

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Debt collector settles Minnesota's 'robo-signing' complaint

Midland Funding must now prove consumer owes the debt

The term 'robo-signing' became part of consumer vocabulary in 2010 when major mortgage lenders were accused of cutting corners on legal documents required ...

PhotoThe term 'robo-signing' became part of consumer vocabulary in 2010 when major mortgage lenders were accused of cutting corners on legal documents required in a foreclosure. Now, the state of Minnesota has come to terms with a debt collector it accused of doing much the same thing.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson last year sued Midland Funding, LLC, one of the country’s largest debt buyers, accusing it of filing unreliable “robo-signed” affidavits in collections lawsuits and sometimes targeting the wrong people for payment of old bills that it purchased from credit card companies and banks for pennies on the dollar.

All about respect

“This lawsuit was about respect for the legal system," Swanson said. "In its rush to quickly collect old debts that it purchased for just a few pennies on the dollar, the company ignored legal requirements designed to protect the rights of an individual in court.”

In a settlement with the state, Midland has agreed to change a number of its business practices, including providing individuals with proof of the debt before filing a lawsuit. If an individual indicates that he or she doesn’t owe the money, Midland must investigate the matter and, if it cannot substantiate the debt, close the account.

Midland buys old, charged-off debt from banks and credit card companies, including Bank of America,JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, from phone companies like Verizon Wireless, and from other debt buyers. Midland is one of the largest debt buyers in the country, Swanson said.

Unreliable documents

The attorney general's lawsuit claimed that Midland aggressively filed thousands of collections lawsuits against individuals in Minnesota courts, often supported by unreliable “robo-signed” affidavits generated at Midland’s St. Cloud, Minnesota offices.

Several Midland employees admitted in sworn testimony to signing up to 400 affidavits per day, either without reading them, without personal knowledge of their contents, or without verifying the accuracy of the information contained in them.

The state's lawsuit accused Midland employees of robo-signing hundreds of affidavits a day and falsely attested to have personal knowledge of their content, including the validity of the debt, the amount of the debt, the company’s ownership of the debt, and/or the documents giving rise to the debt, even though the employee did not have this knowledge and did not read the affidavit he or she signed.

Earlier this year West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw filed suit against Midland Funding, making similar accusations. The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) has estimated that one out of ten lawsuits filed by debt buyers are premised on bad or incorrect information.

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Barcode inventor dies at age 91

Norman Woodland came up with the idea on the beach

Sixty years ago young Norman Woodland and a fellow student were relaxing on a New Jersey beach when Woodland drew four lines in the sand. It was the beginn...

PhotoSixty years ago young Norman Woodland and a fellow student were relaxing on a New Jersey beach when Woodland drew four lines in the sand. It was the beginning of what we know today as the barcode, or Universal Product Code.

Woodland died this week at his New Jersey home from complications of Alzheimer's disease. He was 91.

What's an optical scanner?

In October 1952 Woodland and classmate Bernard Silver were awarded a U.S. patent for something called "classifying apparatus and method." In a day before computers, Woodland had figured out that a pattern of thick and thin lines could be used to identify objects for an optical scanner, which at the time existed mostly in theory.

He based his system on Morse Code, which he had learned as a Boy Scout. Instead of dots and dashes to form words, Woodland used lines.

The world didn't exactly beat a path to his door. The invention lay dormant for two more decades. All the while, consumers waited patiently in line at the supermarket while the cashier dutifully looked for a price tag on each item and entered it in the cash register.

Supermarkets take the lead

By the mid 1970s grocery stores started experimenting with barcodes and optical scanners. The goal was to increase productivity and speed the checkout process for the consumer. By the 1980s nearly every supermarket chain in America was scanning products and speeding consumers on their way.

The first barcodes, as designed by Woodland and Silver, were round -- almost like the bullseye of a target. The design was so a clerk could scan the code from any angle. They later became the rectangular pattern consumers now see every day.

According to "A Brief History of Barcodes," published in Esquire in 2010, the first Universal Product Code marked item ever scanned at a retail checkout occured at Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio, was at 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974, and was a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

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Psychosocial distress associated with increased stroke risk

Stress and negative emotions often increase with age

People over age 65 with high psychosocial distress -- a broad concept that includes depression, stress, a negative outlook and dissatisfaction with life --...

PhotoPeople over age 65 with high psychosocial distress -- a broad concept that includes depression, stress, a negative outlook and dissatisfaction with life -- face increased risk of stroke, according to new research in the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

In their 10-year study, researchers followed 4,120 people in the Chicago Health and Aging Project for rates of death and stroke incidents. Due to some participants being involved in an HMO only 2,649 participants were analyzed for rates of incident stroke.

Participants were 65 years and older (average age 77, 62 percent women, 61 percent black). Researchers identified 151 deaths from stroke and 452 events that led to first-time hospitalization for stroke.

Race, sex not factors

Those with the most psychosocial distress had three times the risk of death from stroke and a 54 percent increased risk of first hospitalization from stroke compared to those least distressed.

The impact of psychosocial distress on stroke risk did not differ by race or by sex, researchers said.

"People should be aware that stress and negative emotions often increase with age," said Susan Everson-Rose, Ph.D., M.P.H., study senior author and associate professor of medicine and associate director of the Program in Health Disparities Research at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "Family members and caregivers need to recognize these emotions have a profound effect on health."

In a separate analysis, researchers found a striking association between psychosocial distress and risk of hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding), but not ischemic stroke (caused by blood clot).

"There was about 70 percent excess risk for each unit increase in distress that wasn't explained by known stroke risk factors," Everson-Rose said. "So there must be other biologic pathways at play linking distress to hemorrhagic stroke in particular."

Measuring stress

The researchers measured psychosocial distress by four indicators: perceived stress, life dissatisfaction, neuroticism and depressive symptoms. They used standardized rating scales to determine the score of each indicator, such as the 6-item Perceived Stress Scale. For each indicator, higher scores represent a higher level of psychosocial distress. A distress factor score was based on averaging the values of the psychosocial measures.

For the study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews in homes in three stable neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago representing blacks and whites from the same socio-economic spectrum. The interviews covered medical history, cognitive function, socioeconomic status, behavioral patterns, traditional risk factors for stroke and psychosocial characteristics.

Stroke deaths were verified by the National Death Index and stroke hospitalizations were based on Medicare claims from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"It's important to pay attention when older people complain of distress and recognize that these symptoms have physical effects on health outcome and clearly affect stroke risk," Everson-Rose said.

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Commercials too loud? Feds are riding to the rescue

Life has lots of little annoyances, none so small they don't merit legislation

How loud is too loud? It's a question that comes up quite a bit. Is your muffler too loud? Your dog's barking? Your leaf blower? All of these are pretty su...

PhotoHow loud is too loud? It's a question that comes up quite a bit. Is your muffler too loud? Your dog's barking? Your leaf blower? All of these are pretty subjective and not likely to be settled easily.

How about the sound of your fingers hitting the laptop keys as you sit in the Amtrak quiet car? Believe it or not, this is a not-infrequent source of controversy.

Ah, but here's something just about everyone has complained about, at least occasionally: those blaring TV commercials. Don't take it lightly. We heard from Anonymous of Pearland, Texas, last May and he was ready to take DirecTV out for a good thrashing.

"FCC had made it illegal for loud commercials but DTV still blows us out of the house and provides audio for the main program that requires full volume to hear," Anon said. Actually, he had his fact wrong about there already being an FCC rule in effect last May but nevertheless he raises a good point. 

DirecTV Dec. 13, 2012, 9:24 p.m.
Consumers rate DirecTV

After all, everyone agrees commercials are too loud, right? Well, actually, no. Broadcasters don't think so. But as of today, there  is a new cop on the loud-commercial beat and it is none other than the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the ancient and somewhat creaking agency that, among other sterling achievements, has listed the seven words that must never be uttered on TV, adjudicated numerous wardrobe malfunctions and, back in the day, addressed any number of complaints about supposed political bias creeping into news programs.

Well, be calm because as of today, a new rule takes effective. It's called the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM -- get it?).

The rule -- actually a bunch of rules bundled under one acronym -- was adopted a year ago but broadcasters were given a year to get bigger volume control knobs.

Shout out

But anyway, assuming the rule is more widely observed than your average traffic law, it should make life a little more relaxing, although broadcasters and advertising agencies fear their efforts won't satisfy everyone.

The problem is partly one of context, say those in the ad biz. Most TV shows have their high spots and their low spots -- moments that are noisy and other moments that are quiet, in other words.

If you think about your average commercial break, it often comes at a dramatic moment, just as the female lead gazes wistfully out the bedroom window after discovering her significant other is perhaps not as significant as she had thought.

As the curtains lightly flutter in the breeze and a cloud drifts by, the image fades and BAM! You're in Ford Country where big tough cowboys are loudly abusing their pickup trucks.

OK, that's jarring.

And then there's the matter of average loudness. While dramas, as noted above, have highs and lows, commercials mostly have highs. Everyone is so darned happy about their nice clean shirts that they just can't shut up about it.

So the new CALM rules say that commercials should have roughly the same average loudness level as the programs that surround them. Just how this will be accomplished is anyone's guess but keep your ears on and we'll know soon enough.

If you feel that a given commercial is unbearably blaring and you have plenty of time on your hands, there is even a complaint form you can fill out on the FCC site.

Invisible hand

PhotoBut maybe you're one of those rugged individualists who don't want the government bumbling around in your life, even when it's trying to help. If so, you might want to explore this free-market solution: Samsung now makes TVs that have a feature called Auto Volume.

Here's how Samsung describes it:

Auto Volume automatically adjusts the volume of the desired channel, lowering the sound output when the modulation signal is high or raising the sound output when the modulation signal is low. This reduces the difference in volume when changing channels. The Auto Volume feature can be set to Normal, Night or Off.

And why didn't Samsung -- or somebody -- do this years ago? Sorry, we can't answer that.

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Punchfork: A great site for your holiday cooking needs

The recipe website is like Kayak.com for foodies--Just one search and you're done

Most people in the United States consider Thanksgiving the official food holiday, so Christmas doesn’t get the acknowledgement it truly deserves...

PhotoMost people in the United States consider Thanksgiving the official food holiday, so Christmas doesn’t get the acknowledgement it truly deserves for being a big day for delicious turkeys, colorful side dishes and tasty desserts.

Sure, many of us will use family recipes and call Mom to get last-minute cooking tips, but some of us will be in the dark about what to prepare and just how to prepare it.

Of course you can pull out that dust-riddled cook book that you’ve had since your first apartment, but many times you’ve tried the recipes that you've liked already, while ignoring the ones you didn’t.

Or you can jump on your laptop and search for a particular recipe online and hope you find something that catches your eye and palette, but how do you know if what you’re cooking will actually come out good?

To help in this particular area, the website Punchfork.com gathers the most popular recipes from top cooking sites like Bon Appetit, Simply Recipes and Picky Palate and lets you know which ones are considered the best.

The site is kind of like Indeed.com or Kayak that allows you do a specialized search of a bunch of sites with a single entry.

Social data

Punchfork says it uses social data from sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to gather which recipes have garnered the most chatter amongst the Internet community, and the company says it creates a ranking system which determines which recipes are not only the most popular, but churn out the highest quality dishes.  

PhotoUsers of Punchfork can either search the site by a particular dish they’re craving or browse the site and bookmark the recipes that catch their eye. You can even search for recipes according to the ingredients that you have left over in your refrigerator.

You can also do a filter search and look for recipes that follow a particular diet or eating preference like a vegetarian diet, gluten-free or a low-sodium diet and you can also conduct broad searchers like typing in the word “holiday” for example, which brings up multiple pages of dishes and desserts that you can prepare for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza.

And once your search results are available, huge colorful photos of the dish are displayed, just so you know how the finished product is supposed to look once it’s done.

What's trending?

Punchfork also lets you sort recipes by which ones are trending on Twitter or on blogs, and you can search for recipes that have just been added to the site. You can also seperate searches by the most Facebook “likes” a recipe has received.

The company says its search options differ dramatically from other recipe sites that display information with no rhyme or reason, where the user doesn’t know which dishes and recipes are the absolute best and which ones may be worth a try.

PhotoYou can also put your own recipes on Punchfork, which could be a good test to see if the dishes that you’ve come up with will be liked and admired by others who supposedly know a lot about food.

Also, if you’re a budding chef who wants to make a little name for yourself, throwing out a couple of recipes and getting credit for them can only help you get popularity among the food community.

Like many successful start-up sites these days, Punchfork uses social networking to its maximum benefit, allowing users to share dishes and discuss them back and forth, which makes searching and trying recipes much more fun than thumbing through a cookbook or going to just one website for dish ideas.

Punchfork’s founder Jeff Miller says he got the idea for the site by just thumbing through food publications while shopping.

Foodie magazines

“The inspiration for Punchfork came from the foodie magazines at the grocery checkout line,” said Miller in an interview with Forbes . “There’s something very tantalizing and thrilling about leafing through page after page of delicious-looking pictures of food.”

“The idea for Punchfork was simply to take that experience of browsing amazing food photos, relocate it to the web and blow it up 1,000 times larger with an automated feed in real time from the best food bloggers. The problem is that nobody wants to read a magazine with 50,000 pages. There has to be some form of curation involved,” he said.

Punchfork also has an app for Apple devices that can be downloaded for free in the iTunes store.

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Redbox starts battle with Netflix with $6 streaming service

Will lower prices lure customers away from market leader Netflix?

You never know, but maybe one of the people on your gift list would like a movie streaming package from Redbox this year.It seems that Redbox and Verizon...

PhotoYou never know, but maybe one of the people on your gift list would like a movie streaming package from Redbox this year.

It seems that Redbox and Verizon Communications Inc. have officially joined swords to begin what’s probably going to be an ongoing duel with Netflix, as the company just announced it would offer movie streaming for just $6 a month, which is $2 lower than Netflix’s current streaming prices.

The new service is called Redbox Instant and Mark Greenberg, its president, said the partnership between Redbox and Verizon creates an  inexpensive way to enjoy movies quickly, which may lead some of Netflix customers away, since many have complained about the company’s prices and services in the past.

“Redbox Instant by Verizon will be an exciting new service for consumers in the digital entertainment marketplace and we are thrilled to be their partner, providing our movies from some of the world’s leading studios,” said Greenberg.

“We have a long and successful relationship with Verizon FiOS, which was our first distribution partner at the launch of EPIX, and we are excited to build on that relationship with Redbox Instant. We are confident that the movies we have will be a popular and important part of the success of this new service.”

The company also announced that it would offer four one-night DVD rentals along with streaming for $8 a month, and customers can purchase high-definition Blu-ray DVDs for $9. 

This also undercuts Netflix's streaming and DVD package prices, which allows you to get both services for $16 a month.

Make the leap?

Netflix  Dec. 13, 2012, 7:16 p.m.
Consumers rate Netflix

But will people start making the move from Netflix to Redbox in order to save a few bucks? Some may.

Rick of Washington State, who is currently a Netflix customer, might give the new Redbox service a try, as he has been frustrated with billing issues.

“I have paid my account around the 14th of September, and still was not able to get online,” he wrote in his ConsumerAffairs posting.

“I called the company and they said that the billing hadn’t gone through, yet on my credit card [although] it stated that it did go through. Three days later I called again, and tried to order DVDs and they told me that they were having problems with the billing and that I would get service soon.”

Rick said that he paid his bill in the middle of the month, but didn’t get a full month of service and was unable to find the proper avenue within Netflix to speak to a decision-maker or file a complaint.

PhotoRedbox may also be getting a flock of new customers during the holidays, as some of our readers said that giving a Netflix gift certificate may be more of a hassle than it’s actually worth, especially when it comes time for the person receiving the gift certificate to redeem it.

“I wanted to buy a Netflix gift certificate for a friend of mine,” wrote Matt of Lake Tahoe, Nev. in the comments section.

“I bought her a 3-month subscription and I wanted to write a note that was 3 sentences (as I can do on every other site I’ve bought a certificate from). However, Netflix for some reason limits the personalization to only 80 characters. I don’t know why they do this, but it makes it harder to write even a short gift note. So I decided to send my friend the gift, even with the generic note.”

“The real problem occurred when she has to redeem the gift. Netflix wouldn’t let her unless she put in a billing card. I thought I was giving a gift to my friend, not signing her up to continuity. I know Netflix is a business, but the bottom line is my friend couldn’t use her gift unless she entered here credit card. This felt wrong to me, especially since it wasn’t clear during the checkout process when I bought the card.”

More movies

Redbox CEO Shawn Strickland says customers will be able to take advantage of an even wider array of movie selections due to the company’s deep relationships with the some of today’s biggest film studios.

Redbox  Dec. 13, 2012, 7:18 p.m.
Consumers rate Redbox

“We are building a compelling entertainment choice through our ability to support both physical and digital distribution of movies that people love, made possible by the depth of relationships we’ve established with top Hollywood studios and distribution partners,” said Strickland.

However, Redbox definitely isn’t starting this new venture without its own set of consumer complaints, especially when it comes to billing issues with the company and customers receiving disks from kiosks either damaged or unable to be played.

“If I could give it a zero star out of 5 I would.  This was my first time using Redbox,” wrote Gevin of Michigan.  

“I rented a video game. Once I got the game home, I noticed it had a huge ring on the disc and did not work. I called customer service and all they are capable of doing is giving me promo codes for free movies and half off the game. I just had to pay full price. So I went to a new machine and once again, the disc was scratched in the same way.”

It will be interesting to see if Redbox customers who have been frustrated with the kiosks and DVD damage will give the company’s streaming service a try.

It’ll also be interesting to see if Netflix customers abandon ship to save money, since Redbox offers its packages for considerably less.

Greenburg says by adding steaming to Redbox, it will more than likely bring in younger consumers who tend use streaming services more than DVDs.

“We’re expanding the pie by adding more people to the mix. I think that’s healthy,” he said.

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No substitute for checking your credit report annually

Consumers may be turned down or charged more for loans because of errors if they don't check

When it comes to your credit score, paying your credit card bill on time may be a lot more important than paying your mortgage or car payment promptly.Th...

PhotoWhen it comes to your credit score, paying your credit card bill on time may be a lot more important than paying your mortgage or car payment promptly.

That's one of the findings of  a study of the credit reporting industry released today by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the new federal agency that has the power to regulate just about every nook and cranny of the financial services business

The CFPB's study of Equifax Information Services, LLC, Experian Information Solutions Inc. and TransUnion LLC is perhaps the most comprehensive study of credit reporting to date.

Equifax Dec. 13, 2012, 4:18 a.m.
Consumers rate Equifax

It found that credit card history dominates the information in credit reports and that debt collection items  generate the highest rate of disputes.

“Today’s study is another step toward bringing more clarity to the confusing world of credit reports. It will help educate regulators and consumers about how this important industry works,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "If consumers know how these companies handle their credit histories, they can make better decisions on how to handle their financial lives."

Annual check-up essential

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Cordray said the agency's study shows how important it is for consumers to check their credit ratings regularly.

"Nobody has as much incentive to protect you as you have to protect yourself. Checking your credit report can uncover errors. Everyone should conduct this self-check at least once every year," Cordray said.

Experian Dec. 13, 2012, 4:18 a.m.
Consumers rate Experian

Consumers who check their reports routinly find errors, he said, and added: "If consumers don't check their report, these errors can persist and can block them from making an important purchase or cause them to pay a higher interest rate than they should."

Federal law provides that every consumer can get a free annual report from each of the three credit agencies -- but only at this site: www.annualcreditreport.com.

Be careful! There are many similarly-named sites, including freecreditreport.com, which are commercial sites that charge a fee for their service. And navigating www.annualcreditreport.com can also be tricky. You must read each prompt carefully to be sure you are not ordering costly options.

New supervision

The CFPB is the first federal government agency that supervises both consumer reporting companies and those that provide consumer reporting companies with consumers’ credit information, such as large banks and many types of nonbanks.

Trans Union Dec. 13, 2012, 4:19 a.m.
Consumers rate Trans Union

In July, the CFPB adopted a rule to extend its supervision authority to cover larger consumer reporting agencies. In September, the CFPB released a study examining credit scores that compared credit scores sold to creditors and those sold to consumers.

It found that while credit scores sold by credit bureaus to consumers were generally highly correlated with credit scores used by lenders, about one in five consumers would likely receive a score that could be materially different from what a lender would see.

In October, the CFPB began accepting individual complaints about credit reporting companies. If a consumer files a complaint with a credit reporting company and is dissatisfied with the resolution, the CFPB is available to assist. Consumers can find out more at: https://help.consumerfinance.gov/app/creditreporting/ask

 

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Google downplays porn results

Tweaks settings to make it harder to stumble onto pornographic images

Google is showing signs of middle age. It says has tweaked its algorithm for image search to make it more difficult for users to stumble onto explicit imag...

PhotoIs Google showing signs of middle age, or is it thinking more like a  responsible publisher? Whatever the motivation, Google says it has tweaked its algorithm for image search to make it more difficult for users to stumble onto explicit images.

"We are not censoring any adult content, and want to show users exactly what they are looking for -- but we aim not to show sexually explicit results unless a user is specifically searching for them," Google said in a statement to CNET.

Big G said image search now works the same way as Web search, which requires the user to be quite explicit about wanting to find sexually explicit content.

SafeSearch

The change applies to the "SafeSearch" setting, which is designed to stop images of violence or sex from displaying in search results. The number of options has been reduced from two to one, with "filter explicit results" either on or off.

And how does one turn "SafeSearch" off or on, we wondered. To find out, we went to Google Images but found no clearly visible settings menu. Nevertheless, we ventured bravely on and, trying to think of something that would be saucy but not downright salacious, did a search for "nude beach."

Here's what popped up:

Photo

Can't miss that, we must admit.

Google says it's not trying to be prudish or dictate taste but wants to provide filtering for families, children and anyone else who would rather not encounter graphic images of the human form.

"SafeSearch is designed to screen sites that contain sexually explicit content and remove them from your search results. While no filter is 100% accurate, SafeSearch helps you avoid content you may prefer not to see or would rather your children did not stumble across," the company says in its Family Safety Tools section.

Dissenters

Of course, not everyone is happy with the change. Search Engine Journal ran a story headlined "Google 'Censors' Porn in Image Search.' The use of the quotation marks around "censors" might lead one to think that SEJ thinks Google is not actually censoring images. Or maybe not. Grammar does not seem to be the site's strong suit.

At any rate, warming to the topic, SEJ goes on to say:

"The mighty promoter of the free Internet for all, freedom of expression and the like, has made a significant change to the way it displays explicit images in its image search. reddit users, and not only them [sic], are in disbelief, and their concerns about censorship attracted immediate media attention," SEJ said.

But SEJ consoled its readers by adding: "Porn consumers already know where to go to find porn, and they don’t need Google image search for the purpose."

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Facebook 'simplifies' settings, privacy advocates balk

The company says it's trying to "improve the Facebook experience" for everyone

Facebook is trying to simplify its privacy settings but some privacy advocates are already objecting. Facebook says the changes will make it easier for use...

PhotoFacebook is trying to simplify its privacy settings but some privacy advocates are already objecting. Facebook says the changes will make it easier for users to keep track of their settings.

One of the changes removes the option for users to hide themselves from the site's main search tool. It had previously been possible to keep one's timeline out of search but Facebook said few people used  the option.

"Many people posted stuff on their timelines that they did not expect to be publicly searcheable," said Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, adding that the change might violate Facebook's recet settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which had charged that privacy policy changes made in 2009 were "unfair and deceptive."

That settlement requires Facebook to submit to detailed privacy audits for 20 years.

Better experience

For its part, Facebook insists the changes will improve the overall experience for its users.

Facebook Dec. 13, 2012, 7:45 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook

"We believe that the better you understand who can see the things you share, the better your experience on Facebook can be," said Facebook executive Samuel W. Lessin in a prepared statement.

"Today’s updates include Privacy Shortcuts, an easier-to-use Activity Log, and a new Request and Removal tool for managing multiple photos you’re tagged in. We're also adding new in-product education that makes key concepts around controlling your sharing clearer, such as in-context reminders about how stuff you hide from timeline may still appear in news feed, search, and other places."

Lessin said the new controls are easier to find and easier to understand.

"Up until now, if you wanted to change your privacy and timeline controls on Facebook, you would need to stop what you’re doing and navigate through a separate set of pages. Today we’re announcing new shortcuts you can easily get to," he said. "Now, for key settings, you just go to the toolbar to help manage 'Who can see my stuff?' 'Who can contact me?' and 'How do I stop someone from bothering me?'"

Big issue?

Is this something Facebook users are up in arms about?

Perhaps, but most of the recent postings on ConsumerAffairs about Facebook deal with people whose accounts have been disabled, like "R" of Riverside Calif.

"Has anyone read Facebook's (GOD) policy on disabling accounts? You wouldn't believe the ideas these people follow as written in stone. They will disable your account or delete it without warning if they feel you violated their terms of service and they send no warning at all. It's the most ignorant rant I ever read," R said. "Half of these employees are students and don't even have a clue about Freedom of Speech. ... Where does Mark find these wanderers? Off the street?"

Others are frustrated at being unable to have FB accounts deleted and pages taken down. Audrey of Linside, W.V., said she has been trying unsuccessfully to have her deceased son's page taken down.

"I tried for an hour this morning to have my son's account taken down, all to no avail. I couldn't talk to an American. They told me they would file a report for $60. I told all three people that I didn't want to look at his death certificate, but that's all they could harp on.

"We are hurting enough and we do not and will not have them hurting us anymore. I will spread this all over the world if I need to and let people know just how heartless Facebook is. All it's good for is to hurt people," Audrey said.

 

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Distracted walking a growing hazard

Study finds one in three pedestrians are distracted while crossing the street

States have cracked down on distracted driving, particularly people who send and receive text messages behind the wheel. But a new study suggests authoriti...

PhotoStates have cracked down on distracted driving, particularly people who send and receive text messages behind the wheel. But a new study suggests authorities may need to take a look at distracted walking.

An observational study published in the journal Injury Prevention found that nearly one in three pedestrians is distracted by their mobile phone or other electronic device while crossing busy intersections. Texting was judged most distracting but other non-electronic distractions were also noted.

The study was based on more than 1,000 pedestrian crossings at 20 business intersections in Seattle last summer. The intersections were monitored at different times during the day.

Children and pets also a distraction

The observers watched as pedestrians talked on their phones, sent and received texts or listened to music. They also observed pedestrians being distracted by conversations with other pedestrians and dealing with children or pets.

Nearly half of the observations were made in the morning rush-hour between 8 and 9 am, and just over half of those observed were between the ages of 25 and 44. Of the pedestrians monitored, about 80 percent were alone and obeyed the traffic signals, crossing at the designated point. But only 25 percent followed the full safety routine, including looking both ways before crossing.

What most concerned the researchers is nearly one in three of the 1102 pedestrians were doing something else when they crossed the road. Around one in 10 were listening to music, seven percent were texting and six percent were talking on the phone.

Taking longer to cross

And there was another concern. Those judged to be distracted took significantly longer to cross the road - 0.75 to 1.29 seconds longer. And while listening to music speeded up the time taken to cross the road, those doing it were less likely to look both ways before doing so.

Texting was judged the most risky behavior. The researchers said texters took almost two seconds longer to cross the average intersection of three to four lanes than those who weren't texting at the time.

And that's not all. Texters were also almost four times more likely to ignore lights, to cross at the middle of the street, or fail to look both ways before stepping off the curb.

Vehicle-pedestrian accidents injure 60,000 people and kill 4,000 every year in the U.S. Researchers say the casualties are likely to increase as smartphones become more widespread.

"Individuals may feel they have 'safer use' than others, view commuting as 'down time,' or have compulsive behaviors around mobile device use," write the authors.

The study suggests states should begin awareness programs about distracted walking, much like they did with drunk-driving in previous decades.

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Mortgage rates remain near record lows this week

Rates have been below four percent most of 2012

Two weekly mortgage rate surveys show there was little movement in rates during the week. The cost of a home mortgage remains near record lows/In its Pri...

PhotoTwo weekly mortgage rate surveys show there was little movement in rates during the week. The cost of a home mortgage remains near record lows.

In its Primary Mortgage Market Survey, Freddie Mac reports the 30-year fixed rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.32 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending December 13, 2012. That's down from last week when it averaged 3.34 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.94 percent.

The 15-year FRM averaged 2.66 percent with an average 0.6 point, down from last week when it averaged 2.67 percent. A year ago it averaged 3.21 percent.

The five-year Treasury indexed hybrid adjustable rate mortgage averaged 2.70 percent this week with an average 0.6 point -- up from last week when it averaged 2.69 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.86 percent.

Steady rates

"Mortgage rates held relatively steady following the November employment report," said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. "Although 146,000 jobs were created, above the market consensus forecast of 85,000, revisions subtracted 49,000 workers over the September and October period."

The weekly survey from Bankrate.com showed similar results. The average 30-year FRM was 3.52 with an average of 0.37 discount and origination points. That's slightly higher than the week before.

The average 15-year FRM rate held at 2.85 percent and the larger jumbo 30-year mortgage remained at the record low of 3.98 percent. Adjustable rate mortgages were mixed, with the 1-year ARM sliding to 2.97 percent, the 5-year ARM staying at 2.74 percent for a third consecutive week, and the 10-year ARM rising to 3.2 percent.

Bankrate attributes the static nature of rates to uncertainty about whether the U.S. will go over the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year, creating a drag on the nation's economy.

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Foreclosure activity drops again in November

But bank repossessions show a marked increase during the month

As the housing market has slowly recovered, economists have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other shoe being thousands of pent-up foreclosures...

PhotoAs the housing market has slowly recovered, economists have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other shoe being thousands of pent-up foreclosures, put off while major lenders and the states and federal governments came to terms on a settlement.

But the other shoe was nowhere to be seen in November. RealtyTrac, a foreclosure marketing company, reports there were 180,817 foreclosure filings last month -- default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions. That's a three percent decline from October and is down 19 percent from November 2011 -- marking the 26th consecutive month with an annual decrease in foreclosure activity. The report also shows one in every 728 U.S. housing units with a foreclosure filing during the month.

“The drop in overall foreclosure activity in November was caused largely by a 71-month low in foreclosure starts for the month, more evidence that we are past the worst of the foreclosure problem brought about by the housing bubble bursting six years ago,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.

Continuing to hold back the market

But Blomquist believes foreclosures will continue to hold back the U.S. housing market as lenders finally seize properties that started the process a year or two ago -- and much longer in some cases.

"We’re likely not completely out of the woods when it comes to foreclosure starts, either, as lenders are still adjusting to new foreclosure ground rules set forth in the National Mortgage Settlement along with various state laws and court rulings,” he said.

Foreclosures, and to a lesser degree short-sales, hurt the housing market because they artificially lower the value of the house and those that surround it. Banks want to unload the property for whatever they can get for it, meaning buyers can get these properties for thousands less than the market price.

The more foreclosures on the market, the harder it is for the overall price of real estate to rise. The fact that foreclosure activity has remained subdued is good news for sellers and the real estate market as a whole.

Repossessions on the rise

The RealtyTrac report shows foreclosure starts were down 13 percent from the previous month and down 28 percent from a year ago to the lowest level since December 2006 -- a 71-month low. Bank repossessions (REO), however, increased 11 percent from the previous month and were up five percent from November 2011, a nine-month high and the first year-over-year increase in REOs since October 2010.

Just as earlier increases in foreclosures were centered in a handful of states, several states were also responsible for the drop last month. In November thee were big year-over-year drops in California, Georgia, Michigan, Texas and Arizona.

Foreclosure activity increased from a year ago in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Nine states posted 12-month highs in foreclosure activity in November, including Florida, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and South Carolina.

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Google Maps back on iPhone

Competitor comes to the rescue after Apple's maps flap

Three months after a rare Apple misstep exposed a glaring glitch in its maps app, Google has ridden to the rescue. Google has just released Google Maps for...

PhotoThree months after a rare Apple misstep exposed a glaring glitch in its maps app, Google has ridden to the rescue. Google has just released Google Maps for iPhone, allowing iPhone users to more easily get where they are going.

Back in September when Apple released the iPhone 5 and iOS6, the maps feature struck a sour note with otherwise devoted customers. Apple replaced Google Maps with its own version, called Apple Maps, drawing instant complaints.

It wasn't just that Apple wanted to cut the cord with Google, it said it wanted to provide an improved "map experience." The maps in the app were supposed to be prettier, provide turn-by-turn directions, synced up with Siri, and give users the perspective of flying over the landscape.

Not ready for prime time

Consumers complained of a lack of accuracy and in some cases, distorted or missing images. Eventually, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a rare apology and suggested users access Google Maps with their browser. Now, that's no longer necessary. Google says its maps app for the iPhone is available in the Apple App Store.

"The app shows more map on-screen and turns mobile mapping into one intuitive experience," Google said in a statement. "It’s a sharper looking, vector-based map that loads quickly and provides smooth tilting and rotating of 2D and 3D views. The search box at the top is a good place to start—perhaps by entering the name of a new and interesting restaurant. An expandable info sheet at the bottom shows the address, opening hours, ratings and reviews, images, directions and other information."

The company says its world map includes detailed information for more than 80 million businesses and points of interest. In addition to street view and photos of the insides of businesses, the map app offers a few new wrinkles.

New features

"To get you there, you’ve got voice-guided, turn-by-turn navigation, live traffic conditions to avoid the jams and if you want to use public transportation, find information for more than one million public transit stops," the Google statement said.

Apple announced back in May that it was dumping Google Maps from its updated mobile operating system. At the time it boasted of an "incredible" in-house maps app that was said to be much cleaner, faster and more reliable than the current version.

At the time, the move was views as evidence of a growing rift between Apple and Google, who own competing operating systems in the fast-growing mobile market.

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TV and furniture tip-over deaths hit record level in 2011

Many of these incidents are easily preventable

It can't be said often enough: parents of young children need to anchor and stabilize their televisions, furniture and appliances to prevent tip-over relat...

PhotoIt can't be said often enough: Parents of young children need to anchor and stabilize their televisions, furniture and appliances to prevent tip-over related incidents.

A new data report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) shows 349 consumers (84 percent of them children younger than 9) were killed between 2000 and 2011, when TVs, furniture or appliances toppled over onto them.

Many of these happen when young children use dressers and tables as climbing devices in an effort to reach a toy, TV or game remote, or other desired item.

Deaths and injuries

Last year (2011) had the highest one-year number of fatalities reported. The 41 recorded fatalities is ten more than in 2010 and 14 more than in 2009. This total could increase in the future as additional fatalities are reported.

“We know that low-cost anchoring devices are effective in preventing tip-over incidents,” said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. “I urge parents to anchor their TVs, furniture and appliances and protect their children. It takes just a few minutes to do and it can save lives.”

CPSC estimates that more than 43,000 consumers are injured each year in tip-over incidents. More than 25,000 (59 percent) of those injuries are to children under the age of 18. Falling furniture accounts for more than half (52 percent) of the injury reports. Falling televisions have proven to be more deadly, as they are associated with more than half (62 percent) of reported fatalities.

Small children at risk

Small children are no match for a falling dresser, wall unit or 50- to 100-pound television. Children involved in these tip-over incidents often sustain severe head and other injuries to the body as a result of being crushed by the product or trapped under its weight. In 57 percent of the reported fatalities and 39 percent of injuries, the victim was struck in the head by the falling item.

Some reports indicate that as families purchase or transition to flat screen televisions, their older and often heavier televisions are moved into bedrooms and other rooms in the house, without the proper stand or anchoring device accompanying them.

Many of the reported fatalities occurred in bedrooms, living rooms and family rooms with 40 percent occurring in bedrooms and 19 percent occurring in living rooms or family rooms.

Unanchored televisions placed on dressers, bureaus and tables not intended to be used as a TV stand have been associated with many tip-over incidents involving both the TV and the furniture. Flat screen and older, bulkier cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions should be placed on stands appropriate for the size and weight of the product. Once in place, an anti-tip or stabilizing device should be installed to help prevent tip overs.

Safety measures

To help prevent tip-over tragedies, CPSC recommends the following safety measures in homes where children live or visit:

  • Anchor furniture to the wall or the floor.
  • Place TVs on sturdy, low bases, or anchor the furniture and the TV on top the base, and push the TV as far back on the furniture as possible.
  • Keep remote controls, toys, and other items that might attract children off of TV stands or furniture.
  • Keep TV and/or cable cords out of reach of children.
  • Make sure freestanding kitchen ranges and stoves are installed with anti-tip brackets.
  • Supervise children in rooms where these safety tips have not been followed.
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Suddenly, U.S. is swimming in gasoline

But that doesn't mean gasoline prices are about to go down even more

This week's report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration revealed something of a surprise. U.S. supplies of gasoline jumped by more than five mil...

PhotoThis week's report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration revealed something of a surprise. U.S. supplies of gasoline jumped by more than five million barrels last week.

It was a surprise because demand for gasoline has been ticking upward. Despite a still-sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment, consumers are driving more, perhaps encouraged by prices falling below $3 a gallon in some parts of the country.

For the week ending December 7 the U.S. had more than 217 million barrels of gasoline on hand -- about three percent higher than the five-year average. Even in the Northeast, where Hurricane Sandy disrupted supplies last month, gasoline stockpiles are growing, not shrinking.

Normal output

U.S. refineries aren't working overtime to produce the increase. In fact, output last week was around 90 percent of capacity, just slightly above normal for this time of year.

Refineries have plenty of crude oil with which to work. The EIA report shows crude oil inventories rose 843,000 barrels to 372.609 million barrels.

That was partly due to continued strong U.S. oil production. Domestic oil producers turned out about 6.8 million barrels a day last week. The U.S. imported 8.4 million barrels a day, mostly from Iraq, Canada and Columbia.

The build in supply is keeping retail gasoline prices stable but that isn't affecting price all that much. Gasoline prices have been falling over the last several weeks, mainly because that is the historic norm. In fact, today's national average price is about four cents higher than it was a year ago.

Oil prices influence

Rather, gasoline prices are likely to continue to take their cue from oil prices in the year ahead. And if recent history is any guide, consumers can expect prices to rise sharply in the first half of the year.

In both 2011 and this year, oil prices began rising in January -- not because of supply and demand issues but because of fears in the oil markets that there could be a supply problem in the future.

In 2011 it was unrest in Egypt and Libya that sent prices higher. This year it was Syria. Higher oil prices meant higher gasoline prices as well, as the national average price approached $4 a gallon both this year and last.

Will the pattern hold again this year? Consumers might be wise to prepare for it. But should we go over the fiscal cliff at the end of the year -- and the economy slips into a recession -- prices might not rise at all, but actually go down.

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Precious metals dealers settle charges for $24 million

Consumers were allegedly tricked into buying high-fee, risky investments on credit

The promoters of a bogus investment scheme have agreed to a $24 million settlement to resolve Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they conned cons...

PhotoThe promoters of a bogus investment scheme have agreed to a $24 million settlement to resolve Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they conned consumers into buying precious metals on credit without clearly disclosing significant costs and risks.

Under two settlement agreements, Harry Tanner, American Precious Metals and Sam J. Goldman are permanently banned from marketing any investment opportunities, and Andrea Tanner is banned from marketing precious metals investments. In addition, each is permanently prohibited from misrepresenting or failing to disclose material terms about any goods or services they offer consumers in the future. They also are barred from disclosing or otherwise benefiting from customers’ personal information, and from failing to dispose of this information properly.

The settlement orders require the defendants to pay more than $24.3 million, including proceeds from the sale of a Florida condo and other personal property. Goldman is also required to surrender a rental property to his lender.

Charges resolved

The settlements resolve an FTC enforcement action  filed in May 2011, which charged Harry R. Tanner, Jr., his wife, Andrea Tanner, and their company, American Precious Metals LLC, with violating federal law. Sam J. Goldman was named a co-defendant in November 2011, based upon his alleged role as an owner or manager of the business. According to the FTC, the defendants promised consumers they would earn large profits quickly on precious metals investments, but they did not disclose the hefty fees or significant risks.

The FTC complaint alleged that consumers often were not told their investments were financed and that they had received loans for up to 80 percent of the purchase price of their precious metals. Consumers also did not know their investments were subject to equity calls that might require them to pay more money to prevent their investments from being liquidated.

Prior to these settlements, the court had barred the defendants from misrepresenting the risk and earning potential of their investment offers and required them to clearly disclose the total costs and risks before consumers agreed to invest, pending resolution of the case.

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X-Mini Portable Speakers: Do they make the grade or fail the test?

We checked out two versions of the X-mini--The Uno and the Max

Remember when we used to play our music outwardly and hardly ever used headphones?  There was a time not too long ago that most people played their ...

PhotoRemember when we used to play our music through speakers and hardly ever used headphones?  

There was a time not too long ago that most people played their music to not only enjoy it themselves, but also to share it with whomever was in close listening range.

But somewhere between the downfall of the compact disc and the rise of the mp3 player, consumers developed a stronger desire to play music to themselves through headphones, and as devices got smaller and easier to carry, using your headphones became the normal way to listen to music.

And people aren't just using their headphones outside of their homes anymore. A lot of the people I know admit to playing music through their headphones in their house too, since many times the headphones they own are much better than the speakers they bought long ago.

But in the last year or two traditional speakers have started to make a comeback.

Making a comeback

With more companies creating portable speakers that seem to be getting tinier but more powerful with each new release, a lot of consumers are returning to the days when they want to play their music "outwardly" again.

And with speakers being so small and portable today, music lovers can get the best of both worlds by having the ability to fill up an area with music, while still being able carry their sounds anywhere they want to go.

And when it comes to carrying those sounds to different places, the X-mini capsule speakers are among some of the most popular with their many styles and various colors, so I was eager to see just how well these mushroom-shaped speakers actually performed.

What’s interesting is that headphones have been made so well these days that they’ve become the standard for portable sound, so speakers that are within the same price range really have some catching up to do.

So the first thing I wondered about the X-mini was how much would I miss that fullness of sound that I usually get with my headphones.

Now I realize that outward sound will always lose to inward sound when it comes to directness and fullness, but good portable speakers are able to come pretty close by covering each corner of the room or area with music, which is all you can ask from speakers that aren’t sitting directly on your ear.

Max and Uno

PhotoTo determine a level of consistency among the X-mini brand and the different models of speakers they release, I tested both the X-mini Max and the X-mini Uno speakers that come two in a box.

I first gave the Uno model a whirl, as it’s supposed to defy its size by putting out big sounds with remarkable clarity, while also having the ability to maximize bass sounds, which unfortunately so many portable speakers are unable to do.

I wasn’t only interested in seeing if the right amount of bass sounds were produced, I was also eager to see if the bass could be captured without being distorted, and if the mid- and high-level sounds remained intact without being swallowed by the lower parts of the music.

To gauge the level of sound quality I listened to songs that I’m very familiar with and have completely memorized in terms of just where where certain instrument and vocal levels should be.

I must say, the X-mini Uno certainly captured the bass without struggling to do so. In fact, it captured the bottom of the musical track more than I thought it would, being a speaker of such a small size.

When I played a bass-heavy track and turned up the volume on my laptop, the bass was one of the first instruments that I heard and it didn’t sound distorted until I turned up the volume as high as it could go.

Using maximum volume isn’t the best way to test out speakers because most studio engineers master or finalize songs at a high level these days, so you don’t have to blast the volume to get a full sound, but I wanted to see how powerful the tiny speakers really were.

The rest of the instruments in the song came out very closely to what they sounded like when I play them in more expensive speakers or headphones, which pleased me.

A little distortion

Although there was a small bit of distortion when songs were turned up to maximum volume, the X-mini Uno worked very well when music was turned down to more moderate levels, as it produced a clean sound that wasn’t the absolute sharpest, but it still played better than I expected.

After playing several genres of music at various levels of volume, the X-mini was able to fill up the room, and the tunes could still be heard with some level of clarity when I walked to other parts of the house, which means the Uno can definitely be used for a small gathering without the music sounding small or confined.

However, one area that bothered me a bit was how the Uno wasn’t able to remain still when heavy bass sounds were played through it.

After playing several songs, the speaker vibrated, moved and danced around the desk with each bass pump, which may be cute to some, but to me it was a little annoying. I found by putting the speaker on top of a cloth, it took away the vibrating movement and remained still.

PhotoNext, I plugged in the X-mini Max speakers that are supposed to provide an even fuller sound, which it should since it's two separate speakers intead of one. Users have the option to play the speakers together or separately.

First off, I was very impressed with the Max version, as its thickness of sound caught me off guard a bit since the room was instantly filled up with big sound and musical clarity, and the subtle and quieter parts of each song weren’t lost when the music was played at a high volume.

And not only were the Max speakers powerful, they also played with a smoothness that lacked any kind of distortion or cloudiness.

Although the Max has two speakers, it didn’t provide the separation of sound that I was looking for, as it just played louder than the Uno which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it would have been nice to adjust the balance  levels on each speaker, which is usually a benefit of having two.

But still, the X-mini Max still performed at a high level and is great for gatherings, to bring on vacation or to just blast your favorite tunes to yourself when you’re home.

Both the Uno and the Max are extremely small, being only a few inches in length and each has a battery life of 20 and 18 hours respectively. They can be charged through USB ports.

The design of the speakers is a plus too, as they come in nifty little colors like royal blue, a rusted orange color and lime green.

Each speaker also seems pretty solidly built despite its small size, and it doesn’t seem like it will break by being carried daily or by throwing it into a bag when you’re going on vacation or heading out of town.

It’s hard to lock down an exact price point for both the Uno and the Max, as the company offers it for around $65 on its website and other online stores have it for less.

But either way we definitely recommend both X-minis, as each unit had an extremely strong output with little distortion, aside from the Uno having a small bit of static when turned up to maximum volume.

All in all, the Uno and the Max make really solid holiday gifts for the music lover who wants to get back to playing music outwardly again. It will be interesting to see just how much more portable speakers will advance in the years to come.

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SUVs just keep getting smaller

Honda will unveil a new small SUV concept car next month

Think SUV and you think of a big, hulking beast like the Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade. But SUVs have been getting steadily smaller as automakers ...

PhotoThink SUV and you think of a big, hulking beast like the Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade. But SUVs have been getting steadily smaller as automakers strive to match new fuel economy standards and as consumers tire of lugging all that extra bulk around.

Honda, which knows about small, is joining the downsizing movement and says its all-new compact "Urban SUV Concept" vehicle will make its world debut in January at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Teased in a sketch released by Honda, the Urban SUV is what the company calls "a global concept model combining a sporty and dynamic SUV profile with a spacious, functional interior."

Honda Dec. 12, 2012, 7:34 p.m.
Consumers rate Honda

While nobody's saying it's bigger inside than it is outside, Honda promises the new little car -- said to be built on the Fit platform -- makes maximum use of every square inch to achieve cargo space adequate for most everyday hauling jobs.

While Honda's not saying much yet, the new model will obviously be slotted in below the CR-V in terms of size and price when it goes into production in a few years. It's expected it will be built in Mexico at the same plant that makes the Fit.

Honda could use a boost. It lost sales last year when the Japanese earthquake disrupted production, its 2012 remake of the Civic got a lukewarn reception and it has seen Hyundai and Kia taking bites out of its market share, so something new and different would be welcome.

Dealer network

Honda also needs to keep an eye on its dealer network. Hondas have sold so well for so long that some dealers have become complacent, or worse. Look what happened to Anil of Bronx, NY, who posted to ConsumerAffairs recently:

Bronx Honda refused to perform services due to a poor evaluation - Two years ago, I had some service work done and I was not happy so I gave Bronx Honda a poor evaluation. Yesterday, I went in for services and the service manager refused to service my vehicle because of my evaluation. I don't understand why we are asked for a survey of the dealer's performance and then if the dealer is not happy with our suggestion, they can refuse services. Why own a Honda if the local dealer is not going to service your vehicle? I was also told that recall work cannot be refused, but they did refuse to perform my recall work. They also made me order and pay for the part, then refused services.

Arleen of Paterson, NJ, went to the source when she had trouble with her Honda, with results that weren't any better than Anil's:

When I was younger, I always dreamed of getting a Honda. I loved these cars. So as soon as I was able to get one, I did. So sorry I did. I have fixed my car radio a couple of times and it cost about $400. ... I called 1-800-999-1009 and no one wanted to help me. So, I told them about the radio draining my battery and dying, leaving me and my kids stranded on the side of the road and no one seemed to care. Obviously, this is not the first they have heard of this problem because it's all over the net. This is my first and last Honda.

I was trying to convince my boyfriend to get one. Now, I am convincing him not to. Now in the midst of me having temporary home due to hurricane Sandy and just lost my job, I have a car that continues to die in the freezing cold. I will never get another Honda.  My mom has been buying Nissan for about 20 years and they have really good customer service. Boo to you Honda.

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FCC approves Dish's entry into cell phone market

Dish could be a powerful competitor, breaking open the currnet oligopoly

Americans just can't get enough smartphones. And the cell phone companies just can't get enough bandwidth to service all the smartphones they've sold. But ...

PhotoAmericans just can't get enough smartphones. And the cell phone companies just can't get enough bandwidth to service all the smartphones they've sold. But Dish Network, the satellite TV provider, just may crack the market wide open, muscling in on Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given unanimous approval to Dish's plans to use some of its satellite spectrum to build a new cellular network, adding new capacity to the crowded airwaves.

"These actions will help meet skyrocketing consumer demand and promote private investment, innovation, and competition, while unlocking billions of dollars of value," FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun said, as agency chairman Julius Genachowski testified on Capitol Hill.

In prepared remarks, Genachowski said the FCC is committed to taking final action that clears the way for Dish's entry into the lucrative market.

Ground-based

Although Dish will be using some of its satellite spectrum, the cell phone network will be ground-based, eliminating the time lag that makes satellite telephones balky because of the delay in relaying signals to and from the satellites.

“The FCC has removed outdated regulations and granted terrestrial flexibility ...  We appreciate the hard work and focus of the FCC and its staff throughout this process," said Jeff Blum, DISH senior vice president and deputy general counsel. "The Commission has taken an important step toward facilitating wireless competition and innovation, and fulfilling the goals of the National Broadband Plan."

The commission has been working to open up new spectrum space for smartphones and wireless broadband use. It is expected to auction a block of frequencies adjacent to Dish's existsing segment. Sprint Nextel is expected to be among the bidders.

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Pfizer to pay out $42.9 million to 33 states

States claim the company fraudulently marketed Zyvox and Lyrica

Thirty-three states have reached a settlement with Pfizer Inc. over claims the company fraudulently marketed Zyvox and Lyrica, drugs intended for treatment...

PhotoThirty-three states have reached a settlement with Pfizer Inc. over claims the company fraudulently marketed Zyvox and Lyrica, drugs intended for treatment of severe infection and seizures, respectively.

State officials claimed Pfizer promoted Zyvox as a superior medication to vancomycin, an antibiotic used by physicians for decades, without scientific evidence to back up that claim and without disclosing critical safety information for patients.

The attorneys general also charged the company illegally promoted its seizure medication, Lyrica, for “off-label uses,” or to treat conditions, including chronic pain and migraines, without approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Pfizer also allegedly offered incentives to its sales employees to promote Lyrica over another drug, Neurontin, and its generic equivalent, gabapentin, without scientific evidence to back it up.

Overstating claims

In its promotions, Pfizer is charged with broadening the indications of Lyrica and Zyvox , an antibacterial agent approved to treat certain types of infections. Lyrica had been approved by the FDA for the treatment of neuropathic pain associated with diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN), post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) and for adjunctive therapy for adult patients with partial onset seizures. In 2007, the FDA approved Lyrica for the treatment of fibromyalgia.

“Pfizer put its business interests ahead of patients’ health and safety,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “The settlement will put a stop to the company’s potentially dangerous sales and marketing practices.”

It will also put millions into state coffers. Under the settlement Illinois will receive $2.1 million.

"Patients could face serious risks when major pharmaceutical companies claim that a drug has health benefits that are unproven," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler. "This office will stay vigilant against the deceptive marketing of drugs that threatens the health and well-being of Marylanders.

Marketing practices

In addition to the financial settlement, the multi-state agreement also requires Pfizer to change how it markets and promotes Zyvox and Lyrica. The company must not make any false, misleading or deceptive claims when comparing the efficacy or safety of Zyvox to vancomycin or promote any Pfizer product for off-label uses.

It requires Pfizer to ban financial incentives for sales representatives based on improper marketing of Zyvox and Lyrica, and the company must promptly notify its sales force of any warning letter received from the FDA that affects sales representatives in their promotion of Pfizer products.

In addition to Illinois and Maryland, states party to the settlement include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Virginia and Wisconsin.

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Feds nail National Card Monitor, LLC

The company charged $599 for a supposed low-rate credit card

The Internet is crawling with companies that claim they can get you a low-interest credit card, even if your credit is on a par with Greece. All it takes, ...

PhotoThe Internet is crawling with companies that claim they can get you a low-interest credit card, even if your credit is on a par with Greece. All it takes, supposedly, is a few hundred dollars upfront.

This, of course, almost never pans out, and the Federal Trade Commission has shut down several such companies recently, The latest is National Card Monitor, LLC, which charged consumers up to $599 upfront to supposedly secure a new low-rate credit card on their behalf.

According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants sought out consumers seeking relief from high credit card interest rates. In the scheme, telemarketers working for National cold-called consumers and told them the company could reduce their credit card interest rates to as low as zero percent by obtaining new lower-rate cards on their behalf, onto which they could transfer existing balances.

Consumers who accepted the offer were required to pay an advance fee, typically ranging from $499 to $599. National also claimed it had a 100 percent money-back guarantee, and assured that consumers that if they did not get the promised cards they would receive a full refund.

After paying the fee, however, most consumers found out that National failed to deliver on its promise to secure a new credit card on their behalf, and that getting a “guaranteed” refund of their payment was very difficult, the FTC alleged.

The agency’s complaint also alleges National called consumers whose numbers are on the Do Not Call Registry and never paid the fees required to access registered phone numbers in the area codes its telemarketers call.

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Predatory lending persists, group warns

After financial reforms, Center for Resonsible Lending says consumers are still at risk

Despite legislation and regulatory reform, U.S. consumers are still victimized by predatory lending practices. That's the gist of a new report by the Cente...

PhotoDespite legislation and regulatory reform, U.S. consumers are still victimized by predatory lending practices. That's the gist of a new report by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), a consumer group focusing on financial issues.

The report suggests the issue helps explain why the economy remains stagnant three years after the official end of the Great Recession. The economy is driven, it maintains, by working families who spend money every day.

But CRL says these families remain cut off from affordable credit. Too many families, it says, remain at high risk of abusive lending practices.

The foreclosure debacle and resulting economic downturn have turned back the clock on previous wealth gains, especially among minority groups. In fact, the housing meltdown has produced the largest documented wealth gap ever between white households and families of color, the report says.

Credit cards, student and auto loans

In addition to mortgage lending, the group said it also documents abuses in credit cards, student loans and auto loans that undercut the benefits of these products.

“If abusive lending practices are not reformed, we again will all pay dearly,” former FDIC Chair Sheila Bair wrote in the forward to the report.

While applauding recent legislative and regulatory changes designed to protect consumers, the report says much of the damage from the mortgage meltdown has yet to be addressed. It claims that the “spillover” cost of foreclosures has wiped out nearly $2 trillion in family wealth and that auto loan interest-rate markups cost consumers nearly $26 billion each year.

It also maintains that borrowers with lower credit scores pay up to 68 percent higher monthly payments on private student loans than on safer federal loans.

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Always tired? You may have sleep apnea

Effects can be serious -- but there is treatment available

Your spouse says your snoring is driving her nuts. You wake up feeling unrested and irritable. You nod off at the computer -- or worse, at the wheel. Thes...

PhotoYour spouse says your snoring is driving her nuts.

You wake up feeling unrested and irritable.

You nod off at the computer -- or worse, at the wheel.

These are common signs that you may have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder that -- left untreated -- can take its toll on the body and mind.

Untreated OSA has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, work-related accidents and depression. According to the American Sleep Association, OSA affects more than 12 million Americans.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the safety and effectiveness of devices, including the device most often used to treat OSA -- the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine, commonly known as CPAP.

What is sleep apnea?

The Greek word "apnea" literally means "without breath." With sleep apnea, your breathing pauses multiple times during sleep. The pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and can occur 30 times or more an hour. Sometimes when you start breathing again, you make a loud snort or choking sound.

Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type, is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses. The less common form, central sleep apnea, happens if the area of your brain that controls breathing doesn't send the correct signals to your breathing muscles.

According to Eric Mann, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of FDA's Division of Ophthalmic, Neurological, and Ear, Nose and Throat Devices, you may be unaware of these events since they happen while you're sleeping.

Because you partially wake up when your breathing pauses, your sleep is interrupted, and you often feel tired and irritable the next day.

Maria Jison, M.D., a medical officer in FDA's Anesthesiology and Respiratory Devices branch, says, "Sleep apnea is often under-recognized by patients, who may attribute their chronic tiredness to various other factors in their busy lives. They don't even think to mention day-to-day fatigue when they see a physician."

Sleep apnea is almost twice as common in men as it is in women. Other risk factors include:

  • being overweight, as extra fat tissue around the neck makes it harder to keep the airway open,
  • being over age 40,
  • smoking,
  • having a family history of sleep apnea, and
  • having a nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies or sinus problem.

Children also get sleep apnea, most commonly between ages 3 and 6. The most common cause is enlarged tonsils and adenoids in the upper airway.

"You should certainly tell your physician if you think you are experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea," Mann says. "But the diagnosis of sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea requires a formal sleep study."

Polysomnogram (PSG) is the most common sleep study for sleep apnea and often takes place in a sleep center or lab. You sleep with sensors on your scalp, face, chest, limbs and fingers that record brain activity, eye movement, blood pressure and the amount of air that moves in and out of your lungs.

Getting treatment

The first line of defense can be behavioral. Weight loss may go a long way toward improving OSA. It may also help to stop using alcohol or medicines that make you sleepy, because they can make it harder for you to breathe. Some people with mild OSA find it helpful to sleep on their sides instead of their backs, Jison says.

The second and most common treatment is a CPAP machine.

CPAPs use mild air pressure to keep your airways open. They have three main parts:

  • A mask that fits over your nose or nose and mouth, with straps to hold it in place.
  • A tube that connects the mask to the machine's motor.
  • A motor that blows air into the tube.

Mary Weick-Brady, M.S., R.N., senior policy analyst at FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), says manufacturers are improving and refining CPAPs to make them easier and more comfortable to use. "They're getting smaller, more portable, and quieter," she says. The hoses are easier to extend and retract and less intrusive to the person using the device. But, Brady adds, CPAPs are only effective if you use them properly every night. That means making sure you have a correct fit, keeping the equipment clean, and working with your physician or respiratory therapist to make sure the air flow settings are correct.

CPAP devices can have unpleasant side effects, such as a dry or stuffy nose, irritated skin from the mask and straps, and headaches. "It takes patience, perseverance and a willingness to work with your physician or respiratory therapist," Brady says.

There are no drugs that are approved by the FDA to treat sleep apnea.

Ronald Farkas, M.D., Ph.D., at FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation, says doctors sometimes prescribe drugs that promote wakefulness such as Provigil and Nuvigil for patients suffering from the daytime sleepiness caused by sleep apnea -- but that these drugs do not treat the nighttime breathing problem.

Moreover, Farkas recommends that if you've been diagnosed with sleep apnea and are taking other medications, you should let your doctor know what those medications are. "A number of drugs can actually make sleep apnea worse, including many for insomnia, anxiety or severe pain," he says.

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Consumers rate small banks higher than big ones

Bank of America least popular of the big banks

With the exception of JPMorgan Chase, big banks continue to fall out of favor with consumers. A report by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) f...

PhotoWith the exception of JPMorgan Chase, big banks continue to fall out of favor with consumers. A report by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) finds customers satisfaction with banks rose 2.7 percent this year, due almost entirely to satisfaction with small community banks.

Small banks -- stable at an ACSI score of 79 -- continue to outclass large banks and capture market share because of it.

“As more customers move from large banks to smaller banks and credit unions, the overall customer satisfaction level for banks goes up as a matter of mathematics,” said Claes Fornell, ACSI founder. “As the smaller banks do a better job with customers and therefore attract more of them, customer satisfaction for banks on the whole gets a boost.”

JPMorgan leads

JPMorgan Chase leads among big banks. Its ACSI score rose six percent to 74, matching its pre-recession result from 2007. But other big banks have to deal with deteriorating customer satisfaction.

Wells Fargo, for example, fell three percent to 71 and Citigroup retreats four percent to 70. Bank of America was the biggest loser, falling three percent to 66, reaching its lowest level of customer satisfaction in over a decade. Fees may be a big reason for that.

“The total fees from overdraft charges alone in 2011 -- most of them from big banks -- amounted to more than $30 billion,” Fornell said. “Customers increasingly are rejecting the ever-mounting fees charged by large banks and taking their business to credit unions instead.”

But customer service still rankles a few consumers, as evidenced by Nina, of Roseville, Calif., in her complaint to ConsumerAffairs.

"I hate Bank of America, not least because of its completely incompetent customer service," Nina wrote in a recent post. "I always introduce the problem before launching into an explanation. But the person on the other end of the line has, without fail, waited until I finished before informing me they can't help me."

Fornell says Bank of America, in particular, stands out as the only bank that is still below its pre-recession customer satisfaction level. He believes it is mostly because of fees.

Challenge for credit unions

Even though ACSI still rates credit unions at the top of the heap in financial services, Fornell says these institutions have been victims of their own rapid growth in the last year. As more consumers moved their accounts, customer service reps at credit unions have struggled to keep up.

“The large influx of new customers for credit unions, many of whom left banks because of rising fees, poses new challenges for customer service,” Fornell said. “The question becomes, how to best serve a fast-growing customer franchise? The more customers you have, the more difficult it gets.”

When it comes to insurance, ACSI found policyholders are less pleased with property and casualty insurance as higher-than-average rate increases took a toll on customer satisfaction.

Overall, the property and casualty insurance industry tumbled six percent to an ACSI score of 78. Much of the weakness, it found, is opposite the banking industry. Consumers appear less satisfied with smaller insurance companies.

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No takeoff hassles for domestic flights in August

And, there was only one tarmac delay longer than four hours on international flights

Airlines reported no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights in August and only one delay of more than four hours on international flig...

PhotoAirlines reported no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights in August and only one delay of more than four hours on international flights, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report.

The reported international delay involved an Aug. 15 flight by Caribbean Airlines from New York’s JFK Airport to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago that was on the tarmac for four hours and 28 minutes prior to takeoff. It's under investigation by the DOT.

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 79.1 percent in August, compared with 79.3 percent the same month a year earlier, and 76.0 percent in July.

Cancellations

  • The reporting carriers canceled 1.3 percent of their scheduled domestic flights in August, versus the 2.5 percent cancellation rate posted in August 2011 and July 2012’s cancellation rate of 1.4 percent.

Chronically delayed flights

  • At the end of August, there were 56 flights that were chronically delayed -- more than 30 minutes late more than 50 percent of the time -- for two consecutive months. There were no chronically delayed flights for three consecutive months or more.

Causes of flight delays

  • In August, the carriers reported that 5.26 percent of their flights were delayed by aviation system delays, compared with 6.07 percent in July; 7.68 percent by late-arriving aircraft, versus 9.03 percent in July; 5.79 percent by factors within the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems, compared with 6.32 percent in July; 0.53 percent by extreme weather, as opposed to 0.82 percent in July; and 0.04 percent for security reasons, the same as in July.
  • 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 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 August, 32.95 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, down 16.52 percent from August 2011, when 39.47 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, and down 19.06 percent from July when 40.71 percent of late flights were delayed by weather.

Mishandled baggage

  • The U.S. carriers reporting posted a mishandled baggage rate of 3.38 reports per 1,000 passengers in August, falling from both August 2011’s rate of 3.45 and July 2012’s rate of 3.52.

Incidents involving pets

  • In August, carriers reported five incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets while traveling by air, the same as August 2011. There were three reports filed in July 2012. August’s incidents involved three pet deaths and two pet injuries.

Complaints about airline service

  • In August, DOT received 1,886 complaints about airline service from consumers, up 33.2 percent from the 1,416 complaints filed in August 2011, but down 23.5 percent from the 2,466 received in July 2012.

Complaints about treatment of disabled passengers

  • The report also contains a tabulation of complaints filed with DOT in August against airlines regarding the treatment of passengers with disabilities. There was a total of 73 disability-related complaints in August, compared with 48 in August 2011, and 97 in July 2012.

Complaints about discrimination

  • In August, there were nine complaints alleging discrimination by airlines due to factors other than disability -- such as race, religion, national origin or sex – versus 12 in August 2011 and 16 in July 2012.

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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Do tobacco companies target gay consumers?

Members of LGBT community are more likely to smoke than general population

Since 1998 cigarette marketing has operated under tight control. Tobacco companies are not allowed to target underage consumers or minority groups.But on...

PhotoSince 1998 cigarette marketing has operated under tight control. Tobacco companies are not allowed to target underage consumers or minority groups.

But one group, represented by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations, says it continues to be the target of tobacco marketing and -- as a result -- its members are more likely to smoke.

A number of organizations have worked together to combat what they say is pervasive tobacco use within the LGBT community, focusing on the reasons. An edgy Delicious Lesbian Kisses (DLK) campaign draws attention to smoking among lesbians. The Network for LGBT Health Equity helps bridge the gap between LGBT organizations and tobacco control funding. The CRUSH campaign uses “cuties” to spread the message that being tobacco free is sexy.

Why do LGBT people smoke so much?

“It’s very likely that smoking is the single greatest health issue stealing years off the lives of LGBT people. Why do LGBT people smoke so much? We’ve been targeted by the tobacco industry, we’re extremely vulnerable for social acceptance as we come out, and the pressures of stigma can nudge anyone towards unhealthy behaviors,” said Scout, Ph.D., Director of the Network for LGBT Health Equity. “More LGBT civil rights leaders’ voices have been silenced by tobacco disparities than any other single thing. For me, tobacco is one of the biggest social justice issues.”

An analysis published by the American Journal of Public Health found that LGBT people smoke cigarettes at rates that are nearly 70 percent higher than the general population. It is estimated that LGBT adults are 1.5 to 2.5 times more likely to smoke than heterosexual adults.

Why? LGBT organizations say it is because since the 1990s, tobacco companies have heavily marketed toward gay and lesbian communities, especially among youth.

Public health knowledge lacking

An organization called Legacy says its analysis shows a number of reasons mainstream anti-smoking efforts are less effective in the LGBT community. For one, it says LGBT groups over-rely on tobacco company funding by LBGT organizations. It also finds a lack of knowledge among community members in recognizing the public health threat that tobacco poses.

“For more than a decade, Legacy has worked hard with grassroots groups across the country to help combat the direct targeting that the industry has had on this community in an effort to reduce tobacco use and encourage cessation,” said Cheryl Healton, President and CEO of Legacy. “Through funding and research, it has been our charge to help the LGBT community fight back and educate others on the dangers of tobacco use and nicotine addiction.”

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Is smoking that can kill you 'moderate?'

New research says such smoking is associated with sudden death risk in women

Women who are even light-to-moderate cigarette smokers may be significantly more likely than nonsmokers to suffer sudden cardiac death, according to new re...

PhotoWomen who are even light-to-moderate cigarette smokers may be significantly more likely than nonsmokers to suffer sudden cardiac death, according to new research in Circulation: Arrhythmia & Electrophysiology.

The findings indicate long-term smokers may be at even greater risk. But quitting smoking can reduce and eliminate the risk over time.

"Cigarette smoking is a known risk factor for sudden cardiac death, but until now, we didn't know how the quantity and duration of smoking effected the risk among apparently healthy women, nor did we have long-term follow-up," said Roopinder K. Sandhu, M.D., M.P.H., the study's lead author and a cardiac electrophysiologist at the University of Alberta's Mazankowski Heart Institute in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Researchers examined the incidence of sudden cardiac death among more than 101,000 healthy women in the Nurses' Health Study, which has collected biannual health questionnaires from female nurses nationwide since 1976. They included records dating back to 1980 with 30 years of follow-up. Most of the participants were white, and all were between 30 to 55 years old at the study's start. On average, those who smoked reported that they started in their late teens.

During the study, 351 participants died of sudden cardiac death.

Study findings

Other findings include:

  • Light-to-moderate smokers, defined in this study as those who smoked one to 14 cigarettes daily, had nearly twice the risk of sudden cardiac death as their nonsmoking counterparts.
  • Women with no history of heart disease, cancer or stroke who smoked had almost two and a half times the risk of sudden cardiac death compared with healthy women who never smoked.
  • For every five years of continued smoking, the risk climbed by eight percent.
  • Among women with heart disease, the risk of sudden cardiac death dropped to that of a nonsmoker within 15 to 20 years after smoking cessation. In the absence of heart disease, there was an immediate reduction in sudden cardiac death risk, occurring in fewer than five years.

Sudden cardiac death results from the abrupt loss of heart function, usually within minutes after the heart stops. It's a primary cause of heart-related deaths, accounting for between 300,000-400,000 deaths in the United States each year.

"Sudden cardiac death is often the first sign of heart disease among women, so lifestyle changes that reduce that risk are particularly important," said Sandhu, who is also a visiting scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Mass. "Our study shows that cigarette smoking is an important modifiable risk factor for sudden cardiac death among all women. Quitting smoking before heart disease develops is critical."

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FakeTV offered as low-cost security system

Company says its product can fool burglars into thinking someone is home

When you leave your home at night, leaving a TV set on can be a deterrent to a burglary. Burglars prefer an unoccupied house and seeing the flickering ligh...

PhotoWhen you leave your home at night, leaving a TV set on can be a deterrent against a burglary. Burglars prefer an unoccupied house and seeing the flickering light in the window from the street might encourage them to look for another target.

But leaving your TV set on wastes electricity and if you make a habit of it, will affect your utility bill. And with all the problems with flat screen TVs, it's not advisable to leave it on when no one is watching it.

So a group of entrepreneurs at Hydreon Corporation came up with FakeTV, an LED light that mimics the flicker of a television screen. Because it's an LED light, it uses very little energy.

Anybody in there?

From outside the house, FakeTV makes it look like someone must be home watching TV. So, Fake TV acts as burglar repellent. And at $35, it's a fairly inexpensive one.

This isn't the first low-cost product that has been offered to scare away would-be burglars. There was a barking dog recording that played every few seconds; not exactly something to endear you to the neighbors.

So instead of sounds to suggest someone is occupying the dwelling, FakeTV uses light. The device itself is small, no larger than a motorcycle headlight.

It simulates scene and color changes, fades and on-screen motion. It has a built-in light sensor and timer, so you can decide when you want it to come on.

Though small in size, the light produces the equivalent to a 27 inch LCD HDTV. Electricity consumption, the company says, is equivalent to a night light.

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Have college degrees become obsolete?

CreativeLive and Unwanted.com think so and they've created some alternatives

A lot of times, once a child starts going to elementary school, parents already start thinking about their college future.In previous generations go...

Photo
Zack Arias, who teaches photography courses at CreativeLive
A lot of times, once a child starts going to elementary school, parents already start thinking about their college future.

In previous generations, going to a college or university was something of a privilege, as oftentimes high school graduates needed to work and contribute to the household finances or they chose to start their own families and immediately joined the workforce.

But today going to college is often a complete no-brainer, whether a child really wants to attend or not. Usually, there’s pressure from parents, teachers, high schools and society in general to attend. In these cases, a person goes to college with no real game plan or real desire to attend, often wasting tuition costs and doing poorly academically.

Also, a lot of kids feel if they don’t go to college, they’ll have no future or won't become succesful, which is not necessarily true.

But there's little debate that college isn’t for everybody, as college dropout rates make clear. It’s similar to a person who automatically gets married and has children just because they feel it’s the next logical phase after reaching a certain stage in life--only to find out later that marriage and raising a family isn’t want they really wanted.

College alternatives

Photo
Tamara Lackey teaches "Taking Care of Business" at CreativeLive
Well, a couple of companies have recognized the need to offer services for the person who may not be interested in college but still wants to get an education, pursue their passion and eventually become successful. 

CreativeLive is one of those companies, as it allows people to join college courses through streaming in any part of the world.  Many classes are free, while there is a modest fee of a few hundred dollars or less for others.

Users can stream a class and have the ability to participate in classroom discussions and communicate with professors, or for a fee, they can download past courses. Some of the more popular lecturers also offer occasional in-person courses at CreativeLive's Seattle headquarters.

CreativeLive also gives users the option to view a company calendar and decide which courses they want to join and at which university. One can also choose a class that’s happening live and immediately join in.

There are no degrees involved with CreativeLive, as the company focuses more on a person receiving training and feedback from experts rather than a receiving a certificate or a degree.

Going it alone

CreativeLive and other companies like it have recognized that some individuals are  capable of becoming successes without a college degree, and by focusing on a particular passion and developing a skill, one could find a job that’s pretty lucrative. These kinds of possibilities have grown right along with the growth of the Internet in recent years.

For example, if you have an interest in software development and are highly skilled, a company may be willing to hire you based on your talent and experience instead of your level of formal education.

Or if you have an Internet company that you want to get off the ground, and you can sell the idea to investors, they're more likely to look at how good your idea and business plan is, instead of checking your GPA and what type of degree you have.

CreativeLive offers a variety of courses you can take like film and video, business courses, photography, design classes and software development, and so far the company has over 1 million students who have already joined.

Resource hub

PhotoUnCollege.com is another company that provides an alternative route for those who want to pursue an education on their own.

The company pretty much serves as an education and resource hub, as it links users with workshops, forums, experts in a particular field and class information from various institutions.

Again, there’s no degree at UnCollege and students don’t receive a grade, as the site’s emphasis is strengthening a particular skill, so those interested in entrepreneurship or turning their art into a business will have access to mentors, useful information and other class enrollees to bounce ideas off of.

The founder of UnCollege, Dale Stephens, says most colleges haven’t updated their methods and they simply follow traditional teaching styles, which often don't relate to today’s competitive world and the new type of job opportunities that are out there.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the classical education model was designed during the Industrial Revolution, basically to train individuals to be factory workers,” said Stephens in a published interview. He might get some arguments on that, but it's his opinion.

“There was not an emphasis on creativity, independent thought or analytical thinking or any of those skills that today are required for success in a globalized environment,” Stephens asserted.

Users of UnCollege.com will, we're told, be able to join classes from several universities like, Stanford, Penn and Princeton free of charge from their computer or mobile device, and more educational websites are bound to pop up that choose to focus more on training rather than giving out degrees.

Whether students of UnCollege and CreativeLive will be able to financially and professionally prosper with no degree remains to be seen, but in today’s fast-paced world where the Internet is at the base of many great business ideas, its more possible these days than ever before.

Education is ongoing

While it's currently fashionable for people like Dale Stephens to declare traditional colleges obsolete, it misstates the case to say that colleges developed as training mills for factory workers.

The original academies existed to pursue education as a pure pursuit--one that is its own reward, sort of like "pure" science instead of technology. There are still many out there, including some of the most successful people on earth today, who would argue that picking up a few undergraduate and graduate degrees is something any reasonably intelligent person should do, not just to have a credential but to develop the analytical thinking skills and well-rounded knowledge base that enable them to pursue careers, ventures and pursuits in a number of fields.

Stephens and others like him would do well to examine their most loyal students, those who return to take course after course after course. They might find that those avid learners already have a couple of degrees and are basically on a lifelong quest for learning or simply working hard to keep up with changes in their profession.

Much of the smart money today is betting on what we used to call "distance learning" to be a big growth area. But it's not necessarily going to be at the expense of Stanford and UCLA. Most expect that the easy availability of online learning will make it possible for individuals who are already knock-outs in one field to achieve breakthroughs in new fields that strike their fancy.

Hey Google, doesn't that sound a lot more promising than developing another Facebook knock-off?

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Netflix rates the ISPs

Google Fiber, Verizon FiOS trounce the competition

No one has more at stake in the performance of Internet service providers (ISPs) than Netflix. The movie streaming service is the country's biggest user of...

PhotoNo one has more at stake in the performance of Internet service providers (ISPs) than Netflix. The movie streaming service is the country's biggest user of Internet bandwidth by most measures -- its customers rate its performance based largely on how well their local ISP delivers.

The movie was choppy and pixellated? Subscribers are likely to curse Netflix, when in fact the local ISP is often to blame. So, Netflix keeps a careful eye on local ISPs' performance, using its own testing protocols and surveying customers to ask how their streaming experience was.

Today, Netflix released the first of what it says will be a monthly report of ISP performance. Not surprisingly, the top spots were taken by Google Fiber and Verizon FiOS -- the only major ISPs using "pure" fiber-to-the-home delivery.

Verizon Fios Dec. 11, 2012, 8:19 p.m.
Consumers rate Verizon Fios

Google Fiber, which currently operates only in a portion of Kansas City, scored an average of 2.55 Mbps in November, with FiOS closed behind at 2.19 Mbps. Unsurprisingly, DSL services came in behind all the major cable/fiber services, with the best performer averaging just 1.42 Mbps in November.

"Our 30 million members view over 1 billion hours of Netflix per month, so we have very reliable data for consumers to compare ISPs in terms of real world performance," said Ken Florance, Vice President of Content Delivery at Netflix, in a blog posting.

"AT&T U-verse, which is a hybrid fiber-DSL service, shows quite poorly compared to Verizon Fios, which is pure fiber.  Charter moved down two positions since October.  Verizon mobile has 40% higher performance than AT&T mobile," Florance said. 

Here is a Netflix chart showing the November results:

Photo

 

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Wantful: Could it be the perfect site for holiday gift-giving?

You create a personalized shopping catalogue so a person can choose their own gift

Most of us like giving presents to people, especially during this time of year when you’re pretty much expected to pass along a gift to a friend, co-...

PhotoMost of us like giving presents to people, especially during this time of year when you’re pretty much expected to pass along a gift to a friend, co-worker or family member. But sometimes finding just the right gift can be nothing but a big colossal, temple-piercing headache.

It’s safe to say that no one wants to play Scrooge during Christmas, but sometimes the sheer craziness of the holidays is enough to take away some of that good feeling you get when you hunt down, buy and handover the perfect gift.

But what is the perfect gift? I mean, does such a thing really exist?

Some would say the perfect gift has a lot to do with timing. Meaning, if you buy something for someone at a time when they don’t have it, they want it, or they planned to get it—it's the perfect gift.

But others may say the perfect gift is about buying something that seamlessly matches a person’s taste and is also hard to find.

Most challenging

PhotoBuying those hard to find gifts is arguably one of the most challenging aspects of holiday shopping, and finding items that are unique to a person’s specific style can be even a bigger challenge.

That’s where the gift-giving site Wantful comes in, as the bicoastal company has created a service that allows consumers to create an entire catalog of items that are tailored around someone's taste and style. Then the person chooses out of the 12 items in the catalog that were either selected by the site or by you.

And once you create the printed catalog, it’s mailed to the person’s address and they decide which items to buy or reject.

Wantful says creating a catalog for someone based on a series of questions is a better way to go than giving someone a gift card or guessing what they may or may not use.

The way it works is the gift-giver logs onto the Wantful website and fills in some needed information that will determine what gifts are chosen for the catalog. You also design what the cover of the booklet will look like, address it, and select from a variety of artsy backgrounds.

Each gift on the site is made by artists and designers that work with Wantful and you can pick from an array of product categories like jewelry, accessories, art and décor, beauty items and outdoor products. You can even choose to donate to one of the charities on the site in the person's name.

Personalized catalog

After you answer a few questions about a person’s interests and style, Wantful selects 12 gifts that will appear in the personalized catalog. You can also browse the different items yourself and choose the 12 items on your own if you wish.

Each catalog always contains a dozen gifts that a person can choose from, and you determine how much the spending limit is by prepaying an amount that’s between $30 and $500.

PhotoFrom there, the company says it prints up the shopping booklet in one to three business days and mails it to the person’s house.

Wantful also says after the custom catalog is printed, it's wrapped in Japanese rice paper and delivered in a sleek black envelope, so it won’t look like the flimsy wrinkled shopping catalog that you get as junk mail every day.  You can also choose to have the booklet emailed if you prefer to give an electronic version.

Wantful isn’t really a brand new company, as it launched about a year ago and released an iPad app just a couple of months back. The app also shows the uniquely designed products in bright photos like the catalog,  but includes more in-depth product descriptions as well as short stories behind the designs.

Both the site and the app are a great way to give a gift this holiday season, because it gives the person receiving the gift a chance to select from a wide range of choices, as opposed to getting a gift that you hope they like or already have.

Also, there’s something nice about someone receiving a personal catalog with their name on it that has a bunch of items they would probably buy themselves.

A holiday gift like a personal shopping catalog says two things: One, that you took time and thought to pinpoint the perfect gift selections and two: You know and paid attention to that person's particular style.

You can also use Wantful to buy something for yourself if you see an item that strikes your fancy.

Wantful says it has a desire to change the entire way gifts have been traditionally given, and wants to remove the guess work that’s involved in selecting the perfect holiday or birthday gift.

“We’ve partnered with hundreds of the best designers and producers in the world to bring you products you won’t find anywhere else, says the company. “We’ve built some smart and playful tools to help you discover them, and we’ve created a head-turning gift experience that adds style surprise, personalization and choice to the gift you’re giving.”

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Diabetes blamed for increase in visual impairment

As diabetes cases increase, so do common vision problems

The incident of visual impairment is increasing in the United States and diabetes is one of the major factors, according to a new study in the December 12 ...

PhotoThe incident of visual impairment is increasing in the United States and diabetes is one of the major factors, according to a new study in the December 12 issue of JAMA.

The researchers found that prevalence of nonrefractive visual impairment--meaning something other than simple nearsightedness or farsightedness--increased 21 percent, from 1.4 percent in 1999-2002 to 1.7 percent in 2005-2008. It increased 40 percent among non-Hispanic whites 20-39 years of age, from 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent. 

“We report a previously unrecognized increase of visual impairment among U.S. adults," the authors write. “If the current finding becomes a persisting trend, it could result in increasing rates of disability in the U.S. population, including greater numbers of patients with end-organ diabetic damage who would require ophthalmic care."

The study identifies yet another risk associated with the rising tide of obesity among younger Americans, said an editorial that accompanied the study.

“[T]his report should send an important message to pediatricians, family practitioners, internists, and ophthalmologists who already are seeing an increase of type 2 diabetes among their younger patients, and should alert public health planners, who need to prepare for the effects on the health care system," said David C. Musch, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Thomas W. Gardner, M.D., M.S., of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "The findings ... should also stimulate funding for new and ongoing efforts to prevent the underlying causes that lead to diabetes and its complications such as obesity-prevention programs aimed at children and adolescents."

It is estimated that more than 14 million individuals in the United States aged 12 years and older are visually impaired, meaning their uncorrected vision is less than 20/40. Of those 14 million, 11 million are due to simple refractive error that can be corrected with eyeglasses.

Increasing caseload

Photo"In the United States, the most common causes of nonrefractive visual impairment are age-related macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and other retinal disorders,” according to background information in the article. Previous studies have shown that visual impairment is common in persons with diabetes.

The study notes that the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes has increased among adults in recent years, rising from 4.9 percent in 1990 to 6.5 percent in 1998, 7.9 percent in 2001, 10.7 percent in 2007, and 11.3 percent in 2010.

Fang Ko, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and colleagues conducted a study to assess the prevalence of nonrefractive visual impairment and factors associated with risk of visual impairment.They found that prevalence of nonrefractive visual impairment increased 21 percent, from 1.4 percent in 1999-2002 to 1.7 percent in 2005-2008; and increased 40 percent among non-Hispanic whites 20-39 years of age, from 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent. 

In analysis among all participants, factors associated with nonrefractive visual impairment included older age, poverty, lower education level, and diabetes diagnosed 10 or more years ago. Among these risk factors, only the latter has increased in prevalence between the two time periods considered. 

Prevalence of diabetes with 10 or more years since diagnosis increased 22 percent overall from 2.8 percent to 3.6 percent; and 133 percent among non-Hispanic whites 20-39 years of age, from 0.3 percent to 0.7 percent.

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Homeowners sue Wells Fargo over mortgage settlement

The bank's "greed seems to have no bounds," suit charges

Claiming that Wells Fargo's "greed seems to have no bounds," a class action lawsit charges the bank approved fewer than three percent of loan modifications...

PhotoClaiming that Wells Fargo's "greed seems to have no bounds," a class action lawsit charges the bank approved fewer than three percent of loan modifications after it acquired troubled mortgages from Wachovia and others.

Despite agreeing in an earlier settlement to help troubled homeowners, Wells Fargo did next to nothing, according to the suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco.

"Defendants have not followed through on their promises to provide substantial relief to homeowners," the 81-page complaint states, according to Courthouse New Service.  The suit charges that from April 1, 2011 to Sept. 30, 2012, there were 52,252 loan modification requests made by consumers covered by the earlier settlement but only 1,055 modifications, about two percent.

Pick-a-Payment

Wells Fargo Mortgage Dec. 11, 2012, 4:12 p.m.
Consumers rate Wells Fargo Mortgage

The case grows out of Wells Fargo's purchase of Wachovia and its "Pick-a-Payment" loan portfolio, for $15.1 billion, in 2008. 

"While Wachovia had substantial liabilities, and Wells Fargo knew that it would need to substantially write down Wachovia's Pick-a-Payment portfolio, the key to the deal for Wells Fargo was that it could use Wachovia's substantial losses to avoid paying taxes on its own profits, which could potentially save it $40 billion in taxes," the complaint states.

As the merger progressed, a class action suit against Wachovia charged that the Pick-a-Payment program had left "hundreds of thousands of homeowners ... suffering the effects of undisclosed negative amortization." In 2011, a federal judge in San Jose approved a settlement that created a new loan modifiation program, which required Wells Fargo to reduce borrowers' principal, thereby reversing their negative amortization.

But in the current suit, Jennifer Murphy and 30 other named plaintiffs charge that Wells Fargo, Wachovia, World Savings Bank and Golden West Financial failed to live up to the terms of the settlement.

The plaintiffs are represented by Jeffrey Berns with Berns Weiss, of Woodland Hills.

Other cases

While the class action case applies only to former Pick-a-Payment customers who were covered by the earlier settlement, there is no shortage of homeowners who have tried and failed to modify their Wells Fargo mortgages.

Photo
Ann Maree's Spring Grove, Ill., home

One is Ann Maree of Spring Grove, Ill., who said she and her husband applied for a modification five months ago. While the process dragged on, Ann Maree was hospitalized briefly and was on short-term disability while she recovered, she said in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

"Because I was out, they said they wanted to check my employment again and when they found out I was on STD, they discriminated against me and my being ill," she said. "I went back to work next week but Wells Fargo, because the pay-off date is tomorrow, closed out the loan as I was not working.

"If I am forced to foreclose on this loan, it will be their doing, not mine. I have had the loan with them for 15 years. All I wanted was a better rate as we are planning on retiring," she said.

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Delta and Virgin Atlantic to join forces

The new joint venture is expected to contain enhanced customer benefits

Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic Airways have agreed on a new joint venture that will create an expanded trans-Atlantic network and enhance competition ...

PhotoDelta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic Airways have agreed on a new joint venture that will create an expanded trans-Atlantic network and enhance competition between the U.K. and North America and -- according to both parties -- offer greater benefits for customers traveling on those routes.

As part of the deal, Delta will invest $360 million in Virgin Atlantic -- acquiring a 49 percent stake currently held by Singapore Airlines. Virgin Group and Sir Richard Branson will retain the majority 51 percent stake and Virgin Atlantic Airways will retain its brand and operating certificate.

Revenue and cost sharing

Highlights of the agreement include:

  • A fully integrated joint venture that will operate on a "metal neutral" basis with both airlines sharing the costs and revenues from all joint venture flights.
  • A combined trans-Atlantic network between the United Kingdom and North America with 31 peak-day round-trip flights.
  • Enhanced benefits for customers including cooperation on services between New York and London, with a combined total of nine daily round-trip flights from London-Heathrow to John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport.
  • Reciprocal frequent flyer benefits.
  • Shared access to Delta Sky Club and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse airport lounges for elite passengers.

Jumping through hoops

The airlines will file an application with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) for antitrust immunity, which will allow a closer relationship and coordination on schedules and operations. The transaction also will be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the European Union's competition regulator and other relevant authorities. The share purchase and the joint venture are expected to be implemented by the end of 2013.

"Our new partnership with Virgin Atlantic will strengthen both airlines and provide a more effective competitor between North America and the U.K., particularly on the New York-London route, which is the largest airline route between the U.S. and Europe," said Delta CEO Richard Anderson. "By combining the strengths of our two companies in a joint venture, we can provide customers with a seamless network between North America and the U.K., and continue building a better airline for our customers, employees and shareholders."

Steve Ridgway, Virgin Atlantic Chief Executive, added: "Consumers will reap the rewards of this partnership between two great airline brands on services from the UK to the USA, Canada and Mexico through a shared ethos in the highest standards of customer service. This joint venture will deliver much more effective competition at Heathrow.

Both airlines express are confidence that DOT will approved the deal by the end of 2013. T

Customer benefits

Delta and Virgin Atlantic say customers will be able to earn and redeem miles across Delta's SkyMiles and Virgin Atlantic's FlyingClub frequent flyer programs. Premium customers also will have reciprocal access to the Delta Sky Club and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse airport lounges. Full details will be announced as services become available.

The partnership allows both carriers to offer a greatly expanded network at Heathrow and to overcome slot constraints, which have limited the growth and competitive capability of both airlines. The two carriers will operate a total of 31 peak-day round-trip flights between the U.K. and North America, 23 of which operate at London-Heathrow. The enlarged network will benefit customers of both carriers by providing greater access to a broader network, improved connectivity and convenient booking options.

In addition, corporate and travel agency customers of both airlines are expected to benefit from an aligned sales effort on both sides of the Atlantic.

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A month after voters legalized pot, Colorado and Washington light up

But there are still limitations on the drug in both states

Colorado has joined Washington in officially implementing the legalization of recreational marijuana use, approved by both states' voters last month.Colo...

PhotoColorado has joined Washington in officially implementing the legalization of recreational marijuana use, approved by both states' voters last month.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order that makes an "official declaration of the vote" related to Amendment 64. This declaration formalizes the amendment as part of the state Constitution and makes legal the personal use, possession and limited home-growing of marijuana under Colorado law for adults 21 years of age and older.

"Voters were loud and clear on election day," Hickenlooper said in a prepared statement. "We will begin working immediately with the General Assembly and state agencies to implement Amendment 64."

What it means

From now on the state will not make arrests for possessing, using, displaying, purchasing or transporting one ounce or less of marijuana. It is legal to grow up to six marijuana plants and give up to one ounce of marijuana to someone who is at least 21 years of age.


It is not legal to use marijuana in a public place or in any manner that endangers others, such as behind the wheel.

Last week officials in Washington implemented similar changes to state law there. There was a celebratory “smoke-in” under Seattle's Space Needle over the weekend, even though public use -- just as in Colorado -- is still against the law.

In Colorado the governor has announced formation of a 24-member task force to oversee the implementation of the law, which ultimately mandates for the commercial production and sale of cannabis by those licensed to do so. But for all the celebrating, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) points out the two states have not decriminalized marijuana. They have just made its use and possession legal under certain circumstances.

Marijuana is still contraband

The state laws, in fact, continue to define cannabis as illegal contraband and subjects its consumers to civil penalties.

“Today in Colorado, like in Washington, cannabis -- when possessed in private by an adult in specific quantities -- is a legal commodity. And it is likely that there is very little that the federal government can do to stop it,” NORML said in a statement.

However federal laws against marijuana use and possession are still on the books and the Obama administration has yet to play its hand. But it seems clear that in Colorado and Washington, if the federal government intends to enforce its laws controlling marijuana, federal agents will have to do the enforcing.

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Study: Hedge funds manipulate stock prices

Ohio State researchers find evidence of 'portfolio pumping'

Since the start of the great recession, many consumers, known as “retail” investors, have shunned the stock market. Many are suspicious that Wa...

PhotoSince the start of the Great Recession, many consumers, known as “retail” investors, have shunned the stock market. Many are suspicious that Wall Street is simply fixed against the small investor.

A study by researchers at Ohio State's business school gives that theory some credibility. In particular, it found that some hedge funds manipulate stock prices at the end of the month to improve the returns that they report to their investors.

In a study of 10 years of hedge fund data, researchers found evidence that some funds run up prices on specific stocks they hold on the last day of the month and quarter -- especially the last 20 minutes of trading -- before they report their returns for the period. But the prices usually fall back the next day, after the abnormally large returns have already been reported to investors.

“Some hedge funds that do this are trying to make themselves look more successful than they really are,” said Itzhak Ben-David, an author of the study and assistant professor of finance at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “What this means is that investors could be getting the wrong messages about the quality of the hedge fund. They’re not getting a clear picture of how the fund is doing.”

Portfolio pumping

It's known as “portfolio pumping” and it's not uncommon, Ben-David said. The study found that stocks that have the most hedge fund ownership -- in the top 25 percent -- see on average an abnormal return of 0.30 percent on the last day of the quarter, most of which reverts back the very next day of trading.

A hedge fund is an investment fund open only to certain large, mostly institutional investors. Because they invest massive amounts of money, they can easily move the market.

Hedge funds didn't start this practice. In the past, some mutual funds did the same thing until the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) cracked down on the practice in 2001. But this research suggests that hedge funds are undeterred.

“This is a legal gray area. I think if a hedge fund were to be seen doing this systematically, the SEC would be interested in investigating,” Ben-David said.

Paper trail

There was quite a paper trail for the researchers to follow. In looking at mandatory institutional quarterly portfolio holdings reports and information about hedge fund characteristics and performance from 2000 to 2010, Ben-David said he and his colleagues found evidence of very large stock orders on the last trading days of a month and quarter -- orders that were big enough to move the stock prices. Most, he said, took place in the last 20 minutes of trading.

Seeing the sharp upward move, a small investor might be led to believe the stock was moving higher and be influenced to purchase shares. On the next day of trading, however, the share prices inevitably fell.

While portfolio pumping hurts investors, by relying on misstated returns and risk, it can benefit the hedge fund managers whose compensation is tied to end-of-month performance. It can also help companies whose stock prices rise at the end of reporting periods, as some financial contracts may rely on end-of-month stock prices -- even if they fall right back the next day.

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Another concern about violent video games

Study shows extended playing time creates violent worldview

It's true, researchers say. Playing violent video games for an extended period of time tends to color your world view, causing you to see the world as a vi...

PhotoIt's true, researchers say. Playing violent video games for an extended period of time tends to color your worldview, causing you to see the world as a violent place best suited to aggressive solutions.

The researchers say they found that people who played a violent video game for three consecutive days showed increases in aggressive behavior and hostile expectations each day they played. Meanwhile, those who played nonviolent games showed no meaningful changes in aggression or hostile expectations over that period.

How is this different from previous studies about video game violence? They tended to focus on short-term aggression. This study, the authors say, is the first to show longer-term effects.

Long-term effects

“It’s important to know the long-term causal effects of violent video games, because so many young people regularly play these games,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.

Here's another way to look at it. Playing video games is like smoking. A single cigarette won’t cause lung cancer, but smoking over weeks or months or years greatly increases the risk. In the same way, repeated exposure to violent video games may have a cumulative effect on aggression.

The study reached its conclusions by having participants play violent and non-violent games, then write the end to various stories involving stressful scenarios. The group that played the violent games tended to have characters display hostile or violent actions.

A second part of the study had the groups ask each other a series of questions. If a respondent gave a wrong answer, the person asking the question responded by playing a loud, unpleasant sound through the other person's headphones.

The world as a hostile place

“People who have a steady diet of playing these violent games may come to see the world as a hostile and violent place,” Bushman said. “These results suggest there could be a cumulative effect.”

This may help explain why players of the violent games also grew more aggressive day by day, agreeing to give their opponents longer and louder noise blasts through the headphones.

“Hostile expectations are probably not the only reason that players of violent games are more aggressive, but our study suggests it is certainly one important factor,” Bushman said. “After playing a violent video game, we found that people expect others to behave aggressively. That expectation may make them more defensive and more likely to respond with aggression themselves, as we saw in this study and in other studies we have conducted.”

Students who played the nonviolent games showed no changes in either their hostile expectations or their aggression, Bushman said.

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November holiday hiring strongest on record

Retail hiring last month was up nearly 20% from 2011

We'll have to wait a while to see how busy the Christmas shopping season was this year. But if the number of people hired in the retail industry is any gui...

PhotoWe'll have to wait a while to see how busy the Christmas shopping season was this year. But if the number of people hired in the retail industry is any guide, it should be a good one

Retailers added 465,500 seasonal workers in November -- the most ever added during what is typically the busiest hiring month of the holiday hiring season, according to an analysis of non-seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics  (BLS) by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

The net gain in retail employment achieved last month barely surpassed the previous record set in 2007, when retail payrolls grew by 465,400 workers during the month of November.

November job gains were up 21 percent from the 383,700 seasonal workers hired by retailers a year ago. Furthermore, October job gains in the retail sector were adjusted upward to 145,200 from an originally-reported figure of 130,100.

Retail employment on the move

Retail employment has grown by a total of 610,700 in October and November -- up 19 percent from 512,600 in the same two-month period a year ago. And it's just shy of the 660,200 seasonal workers added during the entire three-month holiday hiring period last year.

“Despite all of the uncertainty, all the talk of fiscal cliffs, the widespread damage to retail epicenters on the east coast by Hurricane Sandy, and the continued growth of e-commerce, retailers are hiring holiday workers in record numbers,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“An early Thanksgiving and the fact that many retailers started the traditional Black Friday sales on Thursday may have contributed to strong early holiday sales and the need for additional workers. Of course, more people working this holiday season could result in further retail sales gains as more Americans have more spending money in their pockets for gifts,” he added.

Last year, retail employment increased by 147,600 in December. Even if retailers simply match that level of hiring activity, seasonal hiring this year could reach nearly 760,000. If that occurs, it would the strongest retail holiday hiring season since 2000, when 788,100 seasonal workers were added to retail payrolls.    

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'Tis the season for seasonal affective disorder

If you find the winter months change your mood, you may have SAD

If you have noticed that you aren't quite yourself this time of year, it may not be the holidays that are getting you down.You may suffer from a malady k...

PhotoIf you have noticed that you aren't quite yourself this time of year, it may not be the holidays that are getting you down.

As winter begins, temperatures drop and hours of daylight fade, it’s not uncommon for people to begin feeling sluggish, moody or stuck in a funk. Those symptoms are typical of someone experiencing seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a type of depression that typically occurs during the winter. As many as one in five Americans have SAD, and 75 percent are women, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal

The disorder was first identified by psychiatrist and author Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of the best-selling book Winter Blues, in which he described his own experience with SAD.

Symptoms include sleeping too much, overeating, loss of energy, social withdrawal and difficulty concentrating. People in northern climates are more likely to experience SAD.

While many people experience some elements of SAD, Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Mark Frye, M.D., says you should seek professional help if your symptoms begin to affect your ability to perform at work or take a toll on your personal relationships.

Seeking help is particularly important if you begin to feel hopeless or have thoughts of self-harm, he says.

Let the sun shine in

According to Rosenthal, the best way of dealing with SAD is to expose yourself to more light during the day. Get outside as much as possible. If you work during the day, try to go for a walk during a break or lunch.

Light therapy boxes can also help boost your mood when you’re unable to get outdoors. Exercise also helps. Try to exercise at least three times a week for at least 30 minutes.

What causes SAD? Sunlight enters the brain through the eyes, stimulating the production of a neurotransmitter, serotonin, that supports nerve cell functioning, including mood. Less light results in lower serotonin levels.

Darkness stimulates the production of melatonin, which promotes sleep. It’s the combination of less serotonin and increased amounts of melatonin that causes SAD. Rosenthal discusses symptoms in the video clip below.

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First-time buyers competing with investors in real estate market

And investors appear to have the upper hand

As the housing market has slowly recovered, two types of buyers have helped propel the market. At the same time, they have been locked in heavy competition...

PhotoAs the housing market has slowly recovered, two types of buyers have helped propel the market. At the same time, they have been locked in heavy competition with each other, according to First Team Real Estate, a large Orange County, Calif., real estate brokerage.

The first of the two competitors is the first-time home buyer, historically a big driver of the residential real estate market. The second is the investor, who is having far greater impact than the historical norm.

There is a good reason these two groups have emerged as major players. Buyers who want to purchase a home with a conventional mortgage must first accumulate a sizable down payment and then demonstrate to the lender that they are highly creditworthy.

Big down payments

For example, many conventional lenders are demanding at least 20 percent down payments and are not considering borrowers whose credit rating is less than 720. Since a typical down payment on a $250,000 home would be $50,000, that leaves many people out.

Lenders have tightened their lending restriction in response to the housing market collapse. Until recently, home prices were still falling so lenders were fearful of lending more than 80 percent of the sale price. Also, since part of the problem was loans made to people who couldn't really afford them, lenders are erring on the side of caution.

In this environment, first time home buyers have an advantage if they can qualify for an FHA loan. That means the government will guarantee their mortgage so the lender is more comfortable making the loan. And with an FHA loan the buyer only has to put down 3.5 percent.

Advantage, investors

But investors usually have an even larger advantage. They normally purchase the property using their own money and have no need to go through the mortgage process. Even though they normally drive a harder bargain than an FHA buyer, the seller might prefer the certainty of a cash sale.

In this head to head battle, investors appear to be winning out.

"All-cash purchases and absentee buyers are at nearly twice their historic 12 year averages," said Chris Pollinger, Senior Vice President of Sales for First Team Real Estate. "At the same time FHA loans have dropped for another month even though they are still high, which shows that these two different groups are increasingly competing for single family homes in the price range of $225,000 to $400,000."

According to figures supplied by DataQuick, nearly one of every three property purchases went to investors, many who paid all cash for houses with a median price of $245,000. At the same time, first time homebuyers made up 25.5 percent of mortgage originations with FHA backed loans, down for the second time in as many months.

Sometimes these two groups are competing for the same properties and sometimes not. For a home to be purchased with an FHA loan, for example, the house has to be in move-in condition. Sometimes investors want these properties but often they compete for distressed properties like foreclosures, which may need significant repairs. Since they are paying cash that gives them significant leverage and often they can purchase the houses as steep discounts.

As these two groups compete for the mid-range of properties, they are increasingly using the Web to find the properties that suit them best. A recent national study from the WAV Group showed that the most up-to-date information came from local real estate Websites rather than national real estate sites.

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Under $50 gifts for the college student

And these aren't just your run of the mill mini-fridges, these gifts are slightly out of the box

We’re only a couple of weeks away from the big present giving day, but fortunately, there’s still a good amount of time to get those ...

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Inactivity isn't just lack of exercise

We really need to move around more, even if we don't run or lift weights

The Newseum is a popular Washington D.C. tourist destination. It sort of memorializes sitting around and reading the newspaper, something that's being rapi...

PhotoThe Newseum is a popular Washington D.C. tourist destination. It sort of memorializes sitting around and reading the newspaper, something that's being rapidly replaced by sitting around and reading boring postings on social media.

So perhaps it was fitting that public health specialists gathered at the Newseum last week for a four-hour panel discussion imaginatively titled "Inactivity in America: A Looming Public Health Crisis." At the energetic urging of my editor, I went and sat through all four hours of it.

Although it involved a lot of sitting, the discussion wasn’t only about our individual need to be more physically active; it mainly discussed how the country can adopt a mentality that says constant movement--as opposed to just doing exercises--is needed for a healthy lifestyle, not just for looking good or appearing to be fit on the surface.

The question that lingered over the conference and that each panel member tried to answer was why it's so hard for a lot of us to stay physically active and truly realize that constant movement can add years to our lives.

We’ve all heard of the reports, statistics and studies on the importance of being physically active, but inactivity in the United States and other developed countries is still not just a huge problem, it’s a full-on crisis. And based on the findings released in the conference, it’s time for health leaders and consumers to go into crisis mode.

Low fitness  levels

PhotoAccording to recent study findings, 41 percent of all U.S. adults are inactive or underactive, and 25 to 35 percent of Americans have low respiratory fitness due to sitting most of the day, whether at work, at home or in the car.

When it comes to the adult population, the average person’s life just isn’t set up to include a lot of physical activity, since most towns in the U.S. are steeped in the car culture and many jobs force you to sit instead of walk, run or stand. 

In addition, most people set up their homes to be as comfy as possible, to maximize down time and get plenty of relaxation and sit-down time.

In short, inactivity is the nation’s biggest health problem, even among the other serious diseases and ailments the United States currently has.

Not just looks

What might be called "fitness porn" is to blame for some of Americans' antipathy towards fitness.

PhotoDr. S. Robert Licther, a professor and researcher at George Mason University, conducts studies on the societal effects of the entertainment and news media and he said that many publications, including fitness magazines, focus on body appearance and looking good, instead of urging people to stay active because of good health.

This is particularly truth of men’s fitness magazines, Lichter said, as there is an excessive focus on exercise instead of promoting basic physical activity, which doesn’t have to be boring calisthenics or traditional work-out routines that people get bored with  quickly.

“It’s all about looking good,” said Licther. “That’s the one area where women and men’s magazine look alike. There are reasons that looking good is a good thing [including] quite frankly, getting women. Not that I’m against propagating the race but being healthy while you do it is a good thing.”

So just what will it take for adults and children to incorporate physical fitness in their everyday lives without force or reminder?

The panelists, which included an ex-NFL player as well as scientists and researchers, agreed that schools, federally-funded programs and local initiatives have to get the message out that physical activity is different from exercise, and that just plain old continuous movement on an everyday basis will provide get the physical activity that you need in most cases.

Way of life

Dr. James Hill, the founding Executive Director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, said the way people currently live doesn’t allow them to naturally get in the required amount of physical activity for good health.

Photo
Coy Wire fears kids will develop big thumbs.

This differs from early generations, where in many cases people had to walk to work or worked in jobs that required a great deal of physical activity, but now technology allows people to move very little if they choose, which has contributed to the United States' serious obesity problem.

Another panelist was Coy Wire, who played nine years in the NFL for both the Buffalo Bills and the Atlanta Falcons. He pointed to a Stanford University study that said much of America’s day is spent looking at a glowing rectangle.

“If we don’t do something about this phenomenon that’s happening, we're soon going to have a generation of kids that have these gigantic thumbs. So we need to get these kids moving.”

Worst time of the day

Dr. Lisa Witherspoon, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s School of Physical Education and Exercise Science, says in order to bring up a generation of children for whom physical activity is a normal part of life, schools have to first completely change the way physical education is being taught.

Photo“Physical Education isn’t recess. It’s not game time. It’s time to develop the essential and necessary skills that kids have to learn in order to feel comfortable moving their bodies,” Witherspoon said.

“In terms of physical education, I agree some of you had terrible physical education experiences. I have many friends that think about physical education and they say ‘it was the worst time of the day'. ”

She also said in order to get children to like physical education more,  school districts are starting to remove the competitive aspects of gym class and doing away with games like dodge-ball, since such games only allow the athletic kids in class to get the most out of the activity.

Witherspoon said that gym class isn’t enough to ingrain an active lifestyle for children, and pointed to a recent study that suggests 65 percent of children are completely inactive when they’re at home, which happens to be the majority of the time.

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Kids' apps still lax on privacy, disclosure, feds find

FTC: little progress has been made in stemming "alarming" flow of data

Kids' apps are siphoning an "alarming" amount of information from mobile devices, a Federal Trade Commission report finds. The agency studied the privacy d...

PhotoKids' apps are siphoning an "alarming" amount of information from mobile devices, a Federal Trade Commission report finds. The agency studied the privacy disclosures and practices of apps offered for children in the Google Play and Apple App stores.

"While we think most companies have the best intentions when it comes to protecting kids’ privacy, we haven’t seen any progress when it comes to making sure parents have the information they need to make informed choices about apps for their kids.  In fact, our study shows that kids' apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. 

"All of the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job.  We'll do another survey in the future and we will expect to see improvement," Leibowitz said.

It's the second such study the FTC has conducted, and the results are not much better than the first study in 2011, the agency said.

The FTC staff said it found little progress toward giving parents the information they need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared, or who will have access to it.  The report also finds that many of the apps surveyed included interactive features, such as connecting to social media, and sent information from the mobile device to ad networks, analytics companies, or other third parties, without disclosing these practices to parents.

Photo

Hundreds of apps

The researchers examined hundreds of apps for children and looked at disclosers and links on each app’s promotion page in the app store, on the app developer’s website, and within the app.

According to the report, “most apps failed to provide any information about the data collected through the app, let alone the type of data collected, the purpose of the collection, and who would obtain access to the data.  

Even more troubling, the results showed that many of the apps shared certain information with third parties – such as device ID, geolocation, or phone number – without disclosing that fact to parents.  Further, a number of apps contained interactive features – such as advertising, the ability to make in-app purchases, and links to social media – without disclosing these features to parents prior to download.”

The report strongly urges all entities in the mobile app industry – including app stores, app developers, and third parties providing services within the apps – to accelerate efforts to ensure that parents have the key information they need to make decisions about the apps they download for their children. 

The report also notes that the FTC is launching non-public investigations to determine whether certain entities in the mobile app marketplace are violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or engaging in unfair or deceptive practices.

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Study questions effectiveness of coated aspirin

Not all researchers agree that low-dose coated aspirin is the way to go

Although aspirin is an inexpensive over the counter medicine, people have been using it for all sorts of things for more than a century. Whe...

PhotoAspirin is an inexpensive over-the-counter medicine that people have been using for all sorts of things for more than a century. Whether it’s to lower a fever or treat pain, aspirin has been many things to many people.

“It’s one of the best medicines we have to prevent heart attacks,” said Dr. Fernando Salazar, a Florida cardiologist in a published interview. “In the right patients, it’s a very good drug. A powerful one.”  

Over 40 years ago doctors found if taken daily, aspirin could lower the risk of heart attack and strokes among patients.

But not everyone in the health and prescription drug community agrees that aspirin is the lifesaving drug that many believe it is. A 2010 study published in the Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin suggests that people have been putting too much faith in the aspirin and that it doesn’t lower heart attack and stroke risks as effectively as previously thought.

Some have also said that aspirin’s potential to cause stomach bleeding outweighs any cardiovascular benefits it has.

“For those who do not have heart and circulatory disease the risk of serious bleeding outweighs the potential preventative benefits of taking aspirin,” said the British Heart Foundation.

“We advise people not to take aspirin daily, unless they check with their doctor. The best way to reduce your risk of developing this disease is to avoid smoking, eat a diet low in saturated fat and rich in fruit and vegetables and take regular physical activity.”

Long-running debate

PhotoThe debate over the true effectiveness of aspirin as a cardiovascular drug has been going on for many years, and critics of using aspirin as a preventative medicine say that many people are resistant to it and it doesn’t work in the same way for everyone.

But researchers in a new study said the coating on some aspirin, which is used to ease the effects of the drug on one’s stomach, is making some people resistant to the drug.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examined 400 people and didn’t find one person who had any level of aspirin resistance, and said it was the coating of the drug that made it seem like it was ineffective when people were previously tested.

“When we looked for aspirin resistance using the platelet test, it detected in about one-third of our volunteers,” said Dr. Tilo Grosser, a University of Penn professor and one of the study’s researchers.

“But when we looked a second time at the incident of aspirin resistance in the volunteers, the one-third that we measured who was now resistant was mostly different people. Nobody had a stable pattern of resistance that was specific to coated aspirin.”

Dr. Garret FitzGerald, who also conducts research at UPenn, said these new findings bring some concern about aspirin’s coating, since it has the potential to give improper test readings when it comes to cardiovascular treatment. The researchers also found no proof that aspirin’s coating eases stomach tension.

Value questioned

Photo“These studies question the value of coated, low-dose aspirin,” said FitzGerald in a statement.

“This product adds cost to treatment, without any clear benefit. Indeed, it may lead to the false diagnosis of aspirin resistance and the failure to provide patients with an effective therapy. Our results also call into question the values of using office tests to look for such resistance.”

Bayer, the largest aspirin manufacturer in the world helped to fund the study, but said it didn’t fully agree with UPenn’s findings questioning the effect of the coating. Bayer also said the coating even has some health benefits of its own.

“When used as directed, both enteric (coated) and non-enteric (uncoated) aspirin provides meaningful benefits, is safe and effective, and is infrequently associated with clinically significant side effects,” said the company.

According to statistics, one out of every five people takes aspirin everyday as a preventative medicine.

And although many studies have confirmed the benefits of taking aspirin for heart attack and stroke prevention, health experts say you should still speak to your doctor if you plan to take it daily, especially if you have allergies to aspirin or other drugs or have problems with ulcers or internal stomach bleeding.

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Diabetes diet programs more effective in coach-led groups

Study compares usual programs with coach-led and in-home DVD-led

A study of two "lifestyle intervention" diabetes prevention programs finds the programs resulted in weight loss, as well as improvements in waist circumfer...

PhotoA study of two "lifestyle intervention" diabetes prevention programs finds the programs resulted in weight loss, as well as improvements in waist circumference and fasting plasma glucose level for overweight or obese adults compared with usual care over a 15-month period.

“Proven effective in a primary care setting, the 2 DPP-based lifestyle interventions are readily scalable and exportable with potential for substantial clinical and public health impact,” said the authors of the report of a randomized trial published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication.

With an estimated 69 percent of U.S. adults overweight or obese, diabetes prevention is a top public health and previous studies have found that lifestyle modifications that focus on modest weight loss (5 percent to 10 percent) and moderate-intensity physical activity are associated with a reduced incidence of type 2 diabetes.

But, the study authors said, there has been a failure to incorporate weight management into clinical practice, according to the study background.

Jun Ma, M.D., Ph.D., of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, Palo Alto, Calif., and colleagues evaluated two adapted diabetes prevention program (DPP) lifestyle interventions among overweight or obese adults who were recruited from one primary care clinic and had pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or both.

The Evaluation of Lifestyle Interventions to Treat Elevated Cardiometabolic Risk in Primary Care (E-LITE) was a primary-care based randomized trial designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the adapted DPP lifestyle interventions.

Three groups

PhotoParticipants were assigned to one of three groups: a coach-led group intervention, a self-directed DVD intervention or usual care. The behavioral weight loss program was delivered during a 3-month intervention phase by a lifestyle coach or home-based DVD and then was followed by a 12-month maintenance phase, according to the study.

The participants (47 percent of whom were women) had an average age of nearly 53 years at baseline and an average body mass index (BMI) of 32. At month 15, the average change in BMI from baseline was -2.2 in the coach-led group,-1.6 in the self-directed group and -0.9 in the usual care group.

The percentage of participants who reached the 7 percent DPP-based weight-loss goal were 37 percent and 35.9 percent in the coach-led and self-directed groups, respectively, compared with 14.4 percent in the usual care group. Compared with the usual care group, improvements reached “statistical significance” for waist circumference and fasting plasma glucose levels in both interventions, according to the study results.

“The E-LITE trial makes a unique contribution to this growing literature in that its interventions integrate standardized, packaged DPP translational programs (delivered in groups or by DVD) with existing health IT [information technology],” the authors conclude. “Although these intervention components and delivery channels are not new, their integration into structured interventions for use in primary care is novel.”

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Can your iPhone help you lose weight?

Study finds digital devices, telephone coaching can enhance weight loss

Some things aren't much fun to do alone. Losing weight must be one of them, as a new study finds that short-term weight-loss programs are more effective wi...

PhotoSome things aren't much fun to do alone. Losing weight must be one of them, as a new study finds that short-term weight-loss programs are more effective with the addition of a personal digital device and telephone coaching.

“Little is known about whether the outcome of physician-directed weight loss treatment can be improved by adding mobile technology,” the authors write in the study posted Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication. However, “self-monitoring of diet and physical activity is associated with weight loss success and can be performed conveniently using handheld devices.”

Bonnie Spring, Ph.D., with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, and colleagues conducted a two-group 12-month study involving 69 adults from October 2007 through September 2010.

Patients were randomly assigned to a standard care only treatment group (standard group) or to a standard treatment with mobile technology system (+mobile group). All patients attended biweekly weight loss groups held by Veterans Affairs outpatient clinics, and the +mobile group also received a personal digital assistant (PDA) to self-monitor diet and physical activity, and biweekly coaching calls for six months. Weight was measured at randomization, and at 3-, 6-, 9- and 12-month follow-up.

Patients assigned to the +mobile group lost an average of 3.9 kg (8.6 pounds) more than the control group at each weigh-in, and the authors found no evidence that this varied across time. Specifically, weight loss among the +mobile group was greater than weight loss in the control group at three and six months, nine months and 12 months.

Big loss

More than 36 percent of participants in the +mobile group lost at least 5 percent of their initial body weight at three months, compared with 0 percent in the standard group, and this effect also did not vary significantly across time.

“In sum, this study highlights the promise of a mobile technology system as a scalable, cost-effective means to augment the effectiveness of physician-directed weight loss treatment,” the authors conclude.

“Technology offers new channels to reconfigure the provision of effective components of behavioral weight loss treatment (i.e., self-monitoring, goal setting, lifestyle counseling and in-person sessions).”

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Marijuana associated with overeating, study finds

Attacks of the munchies are not a minor matter, researchers report

Colorado and Washington recently became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, not just for medicinal purposes, and the weed appears ...

PhotoColorado and Washington recently became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, not just for medicinal purposes, and the weed appears to be on the road to legalization elsewhere. 

But a new study finds that it may bring an unexpected problem with it -- binge eating. The study published Online First by Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a JAMA Network publication finds that overeating and binge eating in adolescents and young adults may be associated with the use of marijuana and other drugs.

Kendrin R. Sonneville, Sc.D., R.D., of Boston Children’s Hospital, and colleagues examined the association between overeating and binge eating  and adverse outcomes such as overweight/obesity, depressive symptoms, frequent binge drinking, marijuana use and other drug use.

The study included 16,882 boys and girls who were 9 to 15 years old in 1996 and participated in the Growing Up Today Study. Overeating and binge eating were assessed by questionnaires every 12 to 24 months between 1996 and 2005.

More common among women

PhotoBinge eating was more common among females than males, with 2.3 percent to 3.1 percent of females and 0.3 percent to 1 percent of males reporting binge eating between the ages of 16 and 24, according to the study results.

“In summary, we found that binge eating, but not overeating, predicted the onset of overweight/obesity and worsening depressive symptoms. We further observed that any overeating ... predicted the onset of marijuana and other drug use,” the authors comment.

Binge eating is defined as eating an amount of food that is larger than most people would eat in a similar period under similar circumstances and feeling a lack of control over eating during the episode, according to the study background.

“Given that binge eating is uniquely predictive of some adverse outcomes and because previous work has found that binge eating is amenable to intervention, clinicians should be encouraged to screen adolescents for binge eating,” the authors said.

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Economist questions jobs report numbers

Government's monthly telephone surveys may miss too many cellphone-only families

When the Labor Department reported Friday that the unemployment rate for November dropped to 7.7 percent, a lot of economists' eyebrows went up. The number...

PhotoWhen the Labor Department reported Friday that the unemployment rate for November dropped to 7.7 percent, a lot of economists' eyebrows went up. The numbers were a big surprise.

Anecdotal evidence suggested firms were still laying off, not hiring. Then there was Hurricane Sandy, the storm that devastated the Northeast, disrupting the normal hiring process.

Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows the economy added 146,000 jobs for the month. Economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., says the numbers were better than expected across the board.

Big surprise

"First, and most surprisingly, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in nearly four years," Naroff said. "Forget the data nerd discussion about labor force declines, my issue is with the phone interviews."

The monthly employment report is compiled much like a public opinion survey. To find out if people are employed, or looking for work, survey takers make calls to key areas across the country. Naroff has begun to question whether those surveys still accurately reflect what's happening in the job market.

"I don't know the answer to this but it is possible that the phone survey doesn't capture enough of the cellphone-only households that may have populated the Sandy-created job losers," he said. "Thus, the survey could have underestimated the number unemployed."

More consumers only have a cellphone

A growing part of the population no longer has a landline. In fact, cellphone-only households tend to be made up of younger Americans, precisely the people hit hardest by the bad economy. Since survey calls are made to landline numbers, is it possible that this important segment is under-represented?

"I have some issues with both the unemployment rate and job gains numbers," Naroff said. "If the survey does not adequately collect data from cellphone only households, the unemployment rate may have been understated."

And in fact, the weekly "new claims for unemployment benefits," released each Thursday, suggests that's the case. As for the jobs numbers, over the next couple of months Naroff says more small to mid-sized firms will weigh in. That, he says, could result in downward revisions.

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NHTSA analysis: traffic fatalities down nearly two percent in 2011

Highway deaths were at the lowest level in more than six decades -- down 26 percent since 2005

Fewer lives were lost on the nation's highways last year as fatalities fell to 32,367. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHT...

PhotoFewer lives were lost on the nation's highways last year as fatalities fell to 32,367. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that was a 1.9 percent decrease from the 2010 and the lowest level since 1949.

The updated 2011 data show the historic downward trend in recent years continued through last year and represent a 26 percent decline in traffic fatalities overall since 2005.

"The latest numbers show how the tireless work of our safety agencies and partners, coupled with significant advances in technology and continued public education, can really make a difference on our roadways," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "As we look to the future, it will be more important than ever to build on this progress by continuing to tackle head-on issues like seat belt use, drunk driving, and driver distraction."

Record low fatality rate

While Americans drove fewer miles in 2011 than in 2010, the nearly two percent drop in roadway deaths significantly outpaced the corresponding 1.2 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled. In addition, updated Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) information shows 2011 also saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded, with 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2011, down from 1.11 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2010.

Other key statistics include:

  • Fatalities declined by 4.6 percent for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks (including SUVs, minivans and pickups).
  • Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped 2.5 percent in 2011, taking 9,878 lives compared to 10,136 in 2010.
  • Fatalities increased among large truck occupants (20 percent), pedalcyclists (8.7 percent), pedestrians (3.0 percent), and motorcycle riders (2.1 percent). NHTSA is working with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to gather more detailed information on the large truck occupant crashes to better understand the increase in fatalities in 2011.
  • The number of people killed in distraction-affected crashes rose to 3,331 in 2011 from 3,267 in 2010, an increase of 1.9 percent. NHTSA believes this increase can be attributed in part to increased awareness and reporting.

An estimated 387,000 people were injured in distraction-affected crashes, a seven percent decline from the estimated 416,000 people injured in such crashes in 2010. Thirty-six states experienced reductions in overall traffic fatalities, led by Connecticut (100 fewer fatalities), North Carolina (93 fewer), Tennessee (86 fewer), Ohio (64 fewer) and Michigan (53 fewer).

"In the past several decades, we've seen remarkable improvements in both the way motorists behave on our roadways and in the safety of the vehicles they drive, and we're confident that NHTSA's 5-Star Safety Ratings Program and nationwide collaborations like ‘Click It or Ticket' and ‘Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over' have played a key role in making our roads safer," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "Even as we celebrate the progress we've made in recent years, we must remain focused on addressing the safety issues that are continuing to claim more than 30,000 lives each year."

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Looking for a job? Here are your best bets -- if you're qualified

Technology and engineering are way up on the list, but there are other opportunities, too

Is finding a job on your list of New Year's resolutions? If so, here's a rundown -- compliments of CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists (EMSI...

PhotoIs finding a job on your list of New Year's resolutions?

If so, here's a rundown -- compliments of CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists (EMSI) -- of the the best bachelor degree jobs for 2013 based on occupations with the most jobs added since 2010. The study uses EMSI's labor market database, which pulls from over 90 national and state employment resources and includes detailed information on employees and self-employed workers.

"Where the U.S. will produce the most jobs in 2013 is likely to follow growth patterns of the last few years," said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. "It's no surprise that technology and engineering occupations comprise six of the top ten positions on our list, but workers should also see more opportunities in production-related fields, marketing, healthcare and financial services. The competition for educated, specialized labor has intensified as market demands increase in both the manufacturing and services sectors."

The positions

Occupations requiring bachelor degrees that have produced the most jobs post-recession include the following:

Software Developers (Applications and Systems Software)

  • 70,872 jobs added since 2010, 7% growth

Accountants and Auditors

  • 37,123 jobs added since 2010, 3% growth

Market Research Analysts and Marketing Specialists

  • 31,335 jobs added since 2010, 10% growth

Computer Systems Analysts

  • 26,937 jobs added since 2010, 5% growth

Human Resources, Training and Labor Relations Specialists

  • 22,773 jobs added since 2010, 5% growth

Network and Computer Systems Administrators

  • 18,626 jobs added since 2010, 5% growth

Sales Representatives (Wholesale and Manufacturing, Technical and Scientific)

  • 17,405 jobs added since 2010, 4% growth

Information Security Analysts, Web Developers and Computer Network Architects

  • 15,715 jobs added since 2010, 5% growth

Mechanical Engineers

  • 13,847 jobs added since 2010, 6% growth

Industrial Engineers

  • 12,269 jobs added since 2010, 6% growth

Computer Programmers

  • 11,540 jobs added since 2010, 3% growth

Financial Analysts

  • 10,016 jobs added since 2010, 4% growth

Public Relations Specialists

  • 8,541 jobs added since 2010, 4% growth

Logisticians

  • 8,522 jobs added since 2010, 8% growth

Database Administrators

  • 7,468 jobs added since 2010, 7% growth

Meeting, Convention and Event Planners

  • 7,072 jobs added since 2010, 10% growth

Cost Estimators

  • 6,781 jobs added since 2010, 3% growth

Personal Financial Advisors

  • 5,212 jobs added since 2010, 3% growth
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A new way to battle leukemia

Pennsylvania researchers genetically engineer T cells to kill cancer cells

At one time, the diagnosis of leukemia was a death sentence. Recent medical advances have improved the odds of survival but this form of cancer is still a ...

PhotoAt one time, the diagnosis of leukemia was a death sentence. Recent medical advances have improved the odds of survival but this form of cancer is still a deadly disease that claims many lives.

Now there's an inspiring and hopeful story from Philadelphia where doctors tried an experimental treatment on 12 leukemia patients with very promising results. Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania medical school extracted T cells from the 12 patients, genetically engineered them to attack cancer cells, and injected them back into the patients.

The clinical trial participants, all of whom had advanced cancers, included 10 adult patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and two children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Two of the first three patients treated with the protocol remain healthy and in full remissions more than two years after their treatment, with the engineered cells still circulating in their bodies.

Great promise

"Our results show that chimeric antigen receptor modified T cells have great promise to improve the treatment of leukemia and lymphoma," said the trial's leader, Carl June, M.D. "It is possible that in the future, this approach may reduce or replace the need for bone marrow transplantation."

T cells are a type of white blood cell that plays a role in the immunity process. Researchers involved in the genetic modification experiments believe the new treatment has the potential to completely change the way blood cancers are treated. They may also believe they will vastly improve survival rates.

One of the 12 patients, a young girl, was featured on a national news broadcast Sunday night. She is one of the cases that is in full remission after two years and her physicians have found no trace of cancer in her body.

Some side effects

In the patients who experienced complete remissions after treatment, the re-engineered T cells grew after infusion, with the most robust expansion activity usually occurring between 10 and 31 days after infusion. There were side effects, marked by fever, nausea, hypoxia and low blood pressure, which doctors treated when needed. But over time, the modified T cell treatment eradicated large amounts of tumor in these patients, doctors say.

Tests of patients with complete responses also show that normal B cells have been eliminated along with their tumors. Since these cells are important for the body's immune system to fight infection, the patients now are receiving regular gamma globulin treatments as a preventive measure. No unusual infections have been observed.

What's next? The University of Pennsylvania has reached agreement with Novartis for the rights to the treatment. Penn and Novartis will collaborate in building a Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies (CACT) in Philadelphia that will be devoted to the new therapy.

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New program aims to corral contaminated meat

The new initiative could reduce recalls significantly

A new round of testing is about to be implemented for non-intact raw beef and all ready-to-eat products containing meat and poultry. After the first of t...

PhotoA new round of testing is about to be implemented for non-intact raw beef and all ready-to-eat products containing meat and poultry.

After the first of the year the Agriculture Department's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will require producers to hold shipments of such products until they pass agency testing for foodborne adulterants.

"This new policy will reduce foodborne illnesses and the number of recalls by preventing contaminated products from reaching consumers," USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said. "Many producers hold products until test results come back. We're encouraging others in the industry to make this a routine part of operations."

Release pending results

The new policy requires official establishments and importers of record to maintain control of products tested for adulterants by FSIS and not allow the products to enter commerce until negative test results are received. FSIS anticipates most negative test results will be determined within two days.

The policy applies to non-intact raw beef products or intact raw beef products intended for non-intact use and that are tested by FSIS for Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli. Also, the policy applies to any ready-to-eat products tested by FSIS for pathogens.

FSIS developed the "hold and test" policy, which will reduce consumer exposure to unsafe meat products, based on public comment and input received on a Federal Register notice published in April 2011.

FSIS estimates if this new requirement had been in place between 2007 through 2010, 49 of the 251 meat, poultry and processed egg product recalls that occurred during that time could have been prevented.

One of many

Other actions taken by the USDA include:

  • Zero-tolerance policy for non-O157:H7 STECs. On June 4, 2012, FSIS began routinely testing raw beef manufacturing trim for six strains of non-O157:H7 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) serogroups. Trim found to be contaminated with these pathogens -- which can cause severe illness and even death -- will not be allowed into commerce and will be subject to recall.
  • Labeling requirements that provide better information to consumers about their food by requiring nutrition information for single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products and ground or chopped products.
  • Public Health Information System, a modernized, comprehensive database with information on public health trends and food safety violations at the nearly 6,100 plants FSIS regulates.
  • Performance standards for poultry establishments for continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens. After two years of enforcing the new standards, FSIS estimates that approximately 5,000 illnesses will be prevented each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and approximately 20,000 illnesses will be prevented under the revised Salmonella standards each year.
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How a cat parasite can affect your brain

Secreted substance reduces fear, increases risk-taking

Earlier this year researchers writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggested a parasite associated with cats might raise the suicide risk of women...

PhotoEarlier this year researchers writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggested a parasite associated with cats might raise the suicide risk of women who live with the animals as pets.

The parasite, the researchers found, was spread through contact with cat feces as well as eating undercooked meat or unwashed vegetable. Now, in a follow-up, Swedish researchers believe they know how the parasite enters the brain and influences the behavior of its victim.

“We believe that this knowledge may be important for the further understanding of complex interactions in some major public health issues, that modern science still hasn't been able to explain fully", said Antonio Barragan, researcher at the Center for Infectious Medicine at Karolinska Institutet and the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control. "At the same time, it's important to emphasize that humans have lived with this parasite for many millennia, so today's carriers of Toxoplasma need not be particularly worried."

Nothing new

In other words, the parasite is widespread and has been for a long time. Yes, cleaning a cat's litter box may bring you in contact with it but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to harm yourself.

The current study, which is published in the scientific journal PLoS Pathogens, suggests between 30 and 50 per cent of the global population is infected. The infection is also found in animals -- especially domestic cats.

People contract the parasite mostly by eating the poorly cooked meat from infected animals or through close-up contact with cats. The infection causes mild flu-like symptoms in adults and otherwise healthy people before entering a chronic and dormant phase, which has previously been regarded as symptom-free.

It is, however, known that toxoplasmosis in the brain can be fatal in people with depleted immune defense and in fetuses, which can be infected through the mother. Because of this risk, pregnant women are recommended to avoid contact with cat litter boxes.

Even dangerous while dormant

Other studies have shown that the toxoplasmosis parasite can affect the victim even during the dormant phase. It has, for example, already been observed that rats become unafraid of cats and even attracted by their scent, which makes them easy prey. And here it gets a little creepy -- almost like a science fiction movie.

Some scientists believe this is the parasite's way of assuring its survival and propagation, since the consumed rat then infects the cat, which through its feces can infect the food that other rats might then proceed to eat. A number of studies also confirm that mental diseases like schizophrenia, depression and anxiety syndrome are more common in people with toxoplasmosis, while others suggest that toxoplasmosis can influence how extroverted, aggressive or risk-inclined an individual's behavior is.

"We've not looked at behavioral changes in people infected with toxoplasma, as that's been dealt with by previous studies," Barragan said. "Instead, we've shown for the first time how the parasite behaves in the body of its host, by which I mean how it enters the brain and manipulates the host by taking over one of the brain's neurotransmitters."

Reduces fear

In one laboratory experiment, human cells infected with toxoplasma secreted what's known as a “signal substance.” Among its effects is reducing the sensation of fear and anxiety. It's similar to the effects seen in people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar diseases, anxiety syndrome and other mental diseases.

Battagan says the findings convince him that scientists should closely study the link the toxoplasmosis parasite and major public health threats.

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A dozen dynamic holiday shopping tips

Save yourself some time, aggravation -- and money

The holiday shopping season is now in full swing. I fact, a lot of us may have already finished purchasing gifts. But for those who haven't, here are a doz...

PhotoThe holiday shopping season is now in full swing. I fact, a lot of us may have already finished purchasing gifts. But for those who haven't, here are a dozen practical tips from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to help you watch your wallet, shop wisely and protect your personal information.

  1. Make a shopping list and check it twice. Make sure your budget includes incidentals like cards, wrapping paper, parking, or eating out.
  2. Consider customer reviews carefully. The law says reviewers should disclose their connection to a company, but not all of them do. Before you buy anything based on a review, search online for information from sources you trust. Compare reviews from a variety of websites.
  3. If you use mobile apps to shop for deals, be aware of how the apps are paid for, what information they may gather from your device, or who gets that information.
  4. Giving jewelry? Take some time to learn the terms used in the industry so you can get the best quality and value.
  5. Make sure the scanned price is right. Overcharges cost you money and time, especially if you don’t notice them right away.
  6. Save every receipt. When you’re shopping online, keep copies of your order number, the refund and return policies, shipping costs and warranties.
  7. Free can be costly. Screen savers, e-cards, or other free seasonal downloads can carry viruses. Keep your anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and your firewall, current.
  8. Billed for merchandise that wasn’t received? Here’s what to do  if you get a bill for merchandise that you -- or your Aunt Colleen -- never received.
  9. Treat a gift card like cash. If it’s lost or stolen, you may be out the whole amount. Report it to the issuer right away.
  10. If you’re shopping “green,” online or off, examine product claims carefully.
  11. Be stingy when it comes to sharing your personal information. Don’t give out your credit card or other financial information for a chance at the newest tech toy, free gift card, seasonal job or holiday vacation rental.
  12. Tis the season to be wary, especially of charities that don’t -- or won’t -- provide key information in writing. Look for their mission statement, costs and where the money goes.
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Pacemaker for the brain being tested as Alzheimer’s treatment

The devices provide deep-brain stimulation and are already used in Parkinson's patients

A pacemaker implanted in a patient's heart is designed to keep the heart beating regularly. So, what if you implanted a similar device in the brain? Could ...

PhotoA pacemaker implanted in a patient's heart is designed to keep the heart beating regularly. So, what if you implanted a similar device in the brain? Could it protect it from cognitive decline?

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine believe it would. Last month they surgically implanted a pacemaker-like device into the brain of a patient in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The device provides deep brain stimulation and has been used in thousands of people with Parkinson’s disease. Doctors are hoping it could be a way to boost memory and reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s, a growing health threat as the baby boom generation ages.

Drug treatments

Alzheimer’s disease has been the focus of intense research in the last decade, with most efforts focusing on drug treatments. But many of these drugs have yielded disappointing results in clinical trials so far.

The use of low-voltage charges to stimulate the brain is an entirely new approach that researchers believe could hold promise.

As part of a preliminary safety study in 2010, the devices were implanted in six Alzheimer’s disease patients in Canada. Researchers found that patients with mild Alzheimer’s showed indications of increased brain activity over a 13-month period.

Most Alzheimer’s disease patients show decreases in brain activity over the same period.

The first U.S. patient in the new trial underwent surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a second patient is scheduled for the same procedure this month.

Alternative strategies

“Recent failures in Alzheimer’s disease trials using drugs such as those designed to reduce the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in the brain have sharpened the need for alternative strategies,” said Paul B. Rosenberg, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “This is a very different approach, whereby we are trying to enhance the function of the brain mechanically. It’s a whole new avenue for potential treatment for a disease becoming all the more common with the aging of the population.”

Some 40 patients are expected to receive the deep brain stimulation implant over the next year or so. Only patients whose cognitive impairment is mild enough that they can decide on their own to participate will be included in the trial.

One reason researchers are hopeful is the success the procedure has already achieved with Parkinson’s disease patients. More than 80,000 Parkinson’s patients have undergone the procedure over the past 15 years, with many reporting fewer tremors and requiring lower doses of medication afterward.

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Is a bad gift better than a gift card?

Sometimes -- but not always -- it really is the thought that counts

When it comes to gifts, some people are just hard to shop for. That's probably a big reason why gift cards have become so popular in recent years. Rather t...

PhotoWhen it comes to gifts, some people are just hard to shop for. That's probably a big reason why gift cards have become so popular in recent years. Rather than risk giving someone a "bad" gift, the giver opts for a gift card.

But before you run out and buy a gift card for that person on your list, Gettysburg College philosophy professor Steven Gimbel would like to persuade you that it would be better to give a bad gift. Gift cards, he says, are just an easy way out.

"To avoid giving bad gifts, people have turned more and more to gift cards," Gimbel said. "More stylish than the awkwardly sized paper gift certificate, the new plastic versions are gaining currency as an acceptable alternative to shopping. But does this really avoid the problems of the poorly executed present? No."

Remember why you're giving a gift

Why? Gimbel says you need to remember why you're giving a gift in the first place. People are often fearful that despite their good intentions, a the recipient will be disappointed with their gift, so they opt instead to buy a gift card with a predetermined monetary value that allows the recipient to "get what they want."

"Giving a good gift is a very difficult task because it requires thought on several different levels. To start, there is the care that gives rise to the desire to give the gift," Gimbel said. "A good gift is also something that the recipient will use to make their life better and something someone wants. There is no greater success than seeing wide eyes and hearing, 'How did you know?' A great present is one that displays an unspoken intimacy."

Give it a shot

PhotoGimbel's advice? Try to give a good gift -- not a gift card -- even if your gift ends up to be a bad one.

"A bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes the bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought of a bad gift that counts," Gimbel said.

Gimbel says a gift card sends the wrong message -- it's about the giver, not the recipient. It sends the message that happiness is to be found in acquiring the things you want, not in being close to people who care about you -- even if the people close to you do not really know you.

On the other hand ...

Dr. Gimbel's advice notwithstanding, there are quite a few people who actually want gift cards -- college students and other young adults, for example. Their tastes are so specific, and probably so different from the gift-giver's, that a gift card enables them to get something they really, really need. Or really, really want, which isn't quite the same thing, but close enough.

In which case, take note of research released by Bankrate.com last month, which found 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

PhotoBankrate 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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A cure for diabetes? Be skeptical

Advertising isn't a substitute for science. Be wary of claims about diabetes break-throughs

Type 2 diabetes, along with heart disease and cancer, seems to be the curse of civilization, increasing rapidly in many industrialized nations.  Unlik...

PhotoType 2 diabetes, along with heart disease and cancer, seems to be a curse of civilization, increasing rapidly in many industrialized nations, with diagnosed cases increasing by 100 percent or more in 18 states between 1995 and 2010, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Both types of diabetes have a genetic component. What triggers the development of type 1 is not fully understood while type 2 diabetes is often associated at least partly with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.

It's type 2 diabetes -- too much glucose in the bloodstream -- that has been increasing at such an alarming rate in recent years, marching along in tandem with the incidence of overweight and obesity and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle found in developed countries.

So, if that's the cause of diabetes, it should be easy to find a cure, right? Unfortunately, no. Someone once compared type 2 diabetes to a car wreck -- once it happens, the resulting injuries can treated but the only complete  cure is to avoid the accident in the first place.

Reducing weight through exercise and a healthy diet can often reduce the severity of type 2 diabetes and even enable some people to return to more normal glucose levels. In more severe cases, it is sometimes possible to nudge type 2 diabetes into remission through weight-loss surgery, a drastic step but one that is sometimes the most effective option for the morbidly obese.

However, it's important to note that a remission is not a cure. If the patient regains the weight, as many do, the diabetes is likely to return.

Potential type 1 cures

Researchers are developing and testing many potential cures for both types of diabetes, including stem cell therapy, which could theoretically be used to build new pancreatic cells that would generate and control insulin for those with type 1 diabetes.

But while stem cells may hold the key to treating many types of illness, there is still no proven method for implanting them in humans, so any cure involving stem cells is far from imminent.

Islet cell transplantation can improve the quality of life for patients with type 1 diabetes, by enabling the pancreas to produce and regulate insulin more effectively but while it may improve quality of life, it is not yet regarded as a cure.

Type 2

But while stem cells and islet cell transplants are seen as potential cures for type 1 diabetes, there is still no cure on the horizon for type 2 diabetes, which is why prevention is so important and why public health officials are so alarmed at the virulent spread of type 2 diabetes.

PhotoThe Internet is full of ads and bogus news stories about "natural" and "secret" cures for diabetes -- the types of claims we hear about every chronic disease, often using phrases like "the diabetes cure they don't want you to know about."

Such claims can cause consumers to pursue phony treatments that may leave them worse off than when they started -- while also draining their bank accounts.

"I keep receiving bill for a book. I already paid for a book called 30 Day Diabetes Cure with a check that was cashed by Bottom Line Books," said Marjorie of Greenville, N.C., in a recent posting to ConsumerAffairs.

PhotoEven cookware manufacturers have been known to claim that using their pots and pans will somehow prevent or cure diabetes. Rena Ware International, Inc., agreed to pay more than $600,000 a few years ago to settle claims by the California attorney general that it "made fraudulent and unethical claims" that its high-priced cookware could cure diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

A good rule of thumb is to immediately dismiss any claims -- about anything -- that supposedly reveal a "secret" known only to a handful of insiders. While the CIA may still have a few secrets up its sleeve, the truth is that very few things are secret in today's wide-open world of information, misinformation and disinformation.

Rest assured, if anyone develops a cure for diabetes, scientists, public health officials, the government, the press and the health insurance companies that now pay billions to treat diabetes will be quick to publicize it.

"Natural" cures

Consumers should also be cautious of claims made by nutrition supplement peddlers and those who say there are "natural" cures for diabetes and other diseases.

PhotoThere is a natural prevention for type 2 diabetes -- maintaining a good diet, keeping weight to a healthy level and exercising regularly. While this may not be 100 percent effective, most experts agree it would prevent millions of new cases of type 2 diabetes.

Will adding a few magnesium and chromium supplements to your diet prevent or cure diabetes? Not likely.

While vitamin and mineral supplements may contribute to overall health, it's important to talk with your doctor before taking any supplement. Many can conflict with prescription medications or aggravate existing health conditions.

Misinformation

The Internet has arguably done a few good things for humanity but enabling  the spread of false and misleading health information is not one of them. There are many sources of sound information, including the American Diabetes Association website and sites operated by major medical centers, like the Mayo Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Diabetes Center.

However, it's important to remember that all health information pubished in books, on websites and elsewhere is general in nature. Only your doctor can apply general information to your particular situation.

It's worth noting that taking the steps recommended to prevent or treat diabetes -- a heathy diet, regular exercise, limited or no use of alcohol -- can also contribute to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and many other health problems.

Sitting in a chair reading fraudulent claims on the Internet isn't nearly as good as taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood.

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T-Mobile gets the iPhone, ends phone subsidies

AT&T customers with "unlocked" phones can switch and save money, T-Mobile says

T-Mobile is finally getting the iPhone, and it's shaking up the smartphone market by announciing that it will stop subsidizing the phones it sells to its c...

PhotoT-Mobile is finally getting the iPhone, and it's shaking up the smartphone market by announciing that it will stop subsidizing the phones it sells to its customers. T-Mobile also announced network upgrades in several key markets.

Cell phone companies have traditionally built part of the cost of the phones they sell into the monthly fee customers pay on a two- or three-year contract. This makes the phone seem more affordable but raises the monthly bill.

Under T-Mobile's plan, customers can either pay full price for the phone upfront, which can be as much as $800 for an iPhone, or buy the phone on an installment plan with a down payment plus 20 month of interest-free payments.

So how is this different from subsidizing the phone purchase? T-Mobile says its monthly plans will cost less because they won't have the phone subsidy built in and that even customers who finance the phones over 20 months will have lower payments than those who get the same phone from AT&T or Verizon.

T-Mobile is calling this "Value Pricing" and other companies worldwide are adopting similar plans, although other U.S. carriers have been slow to do so.

T-Mobile has for quite some time offered service to customers who own their own phones. It was the first carrier to offer service when Google introduced its "unlocked" Nexus phones. 

The addition of the iPhone may fill a gap in T-Mobile's line-up. It has been the only major carrier not offering the popular phone. 

Network build-outs

Photo
This "cactus" is a T-Mobile cell tower in Phoenix area

T-Mobile also says it's sprucing up its network in time for the holidays.

Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said new performance-enhancing technology has been installed in 10 additional metro areas, including Miami; Phoenix; San Francisco; Mesa and Tucson, Ariz.; Modesto, Oakland, San Jose and Stockton, Calif.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He said customers in those areas "will benefit from enhanced voice and data coverage, and faster speeds on unlocked devices to connect with friends and family."

The advancements will also boost the performance of unlocked AT&T smartphones in those areas, Ray said.

"Customers in these metro areas can also bring their unlocked AT&T smartphones to T-Mobile, and experience a significant speed boost on our 4G network, while also saving up to $50/month compared to AT&T,* he said.

T-Mobile has long offered service to AT&T customers who want to unlock their phones but data speeds are sometimes suffered because the companies use different frequencies in some areas.

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Lesson learned: don't keep important files on a flash drive

A reporter faces the loss of important data and sees the error of his ways

It's a modern nightmare. I had stopped at a 7-11 in Fredericksburg, Va., Wednesday on my way to meet a colleague for lunch. As I was getting back in my car...

PhotoIt's a modern nightmare. I had stopped at a 7-11 in Fredericksburg, Va., Wednesday on my way to meet a colleague for lunch. As I was getting back in my car my cellphone rang.

As I retrieved it from my pocket I thought I heard something hit the asphalt parking lot. I looked, saw nothing, continued my conversation and then resumed my journey. Hours later I realized my 64 GB flash drive was not in my pocket where it was supposed to be.

A 64 GB flash drive holds a lot of data and I had put a lot on it, transferring things from one computer to the next. Then I got lazy and started using the drive for storage, meaning I didn't always back up files to other computers, a huge no-no. Worse still, some of the files on the drive were financially sensitive, another taboo.

Violating my own rules

I've written a number of articles about data breaches and have urged consumers to be careful with their data and I had violated nearly all the rules. Not willingly, of course. I had meant to clean up the drive but somehow just never got around to it. Then suddenly, I lost my opportunity.

Returning to the 7-11 hours after my first visit I held out little hope the flash drive would still be where it fell. There was even a young employee sweeping the driveway and he said he was sure he hadn't swept up a flash drive.

That evening I changed passwords and accepted the fact that many original files were lost. But the next morning there was an email from Chris, a computer science student at Germanna Community College, who had found the drive, taken it home and repaired it after a car had run over it. By the end of the day, it was back in my possession.

Better lucky than good

Mine was an extremely humbling experience but in the end, I got very lucky. However, you can't count on luck.

Besides the mistake of storing original and sensitive files on the drive the other mistake I made was carrying it in a pocket. These things are small and it's a sure way to lose them.

Instead, if I continue to use a flash drive I will use some type of accessory to secure it. One of the most common accessories is a key chain attachment. The drive stays on your key ring, and as long as you don't lose your keys you probably won't lose the flash drive.

If a drive contains sensitive data, it should also be password protected. You can use encryption software or you can buy an encrypted flash drive.

But finding ways not to use a flash drive may be the most prudent course of action. A service called Dropbox, for example, allows you to store files in the cloud and sync up all your devices, so files are available on your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. There are other similar services.

Carrying a flash drive in a secure way, password protecting it and not keeping original or sensitive data on it is the way to sleep at night. Lesson learned.

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USDA unveils new poultry product safety initiative

Accounting for Salmonella outbreaks is high in the list of priorities

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is about to implement new steps designed to improve the food safety plans required for companies that produce...

PhotoThe Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is about to implement new steps designed to improve the food safety plans required for companies that produce poultry products.

Companies producing raw ground chicken and turkey and similar products will be required to reassess their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans. The HACCP reassessment, which establishments must conduct in the next 90 days, must account for several Salmonella outbreaks that were associated with those types of products.

"HACCP reassessments improve a company's ability to identify hazards and better prevent foodborne illness," said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. "Incorporating information obtained from Salmonella outbreaks will enhance food safety efforts, helping to avoid future outbreaks and ensure a safer food supply for consumers."

Numerous changes

The FSIS also will:

  • Expand the Salmonella verification sampling program to include other raw comminuted poultry products -- products that are reduced to small, fine particles -- in addition to ground product;
  • Increase the sample size for laboratory analysis from 25 grams to 325 grams to provide consistency as the Agency moves toward analyzing samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter; and,
  • Conduct sampling to determine the prevalence of Salmonella in not-ready-to-eat comminuted poultry products and use the results to develop new performance standards for those products.

The announcements mark the latest public health measures FSIS has put in place to safeguard the food supply, prevent foodborne illness and improve consumers' knowledge about the food they eat.

Other actions taken by the USDA include:

  • Zero-tolerance policy for non-O157:H7 STECs. On June 4, 2012, FSIS began routinely testing raw beef manufacturing trim for six strains of non-O157:H7 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) serogroups. Trim found to be contaminated with these pathogens, which can cause severe illness and even death, will not be allowed into commerce and will be subject to recall.
  • Labeling requirements that provide better information to consumers about their food by requiring nutrition information for single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products and ground or chopped products.
  • Public Health Information System, a modernized, comprehensive database with information on public health trends and food safety violations at the nearly 6,100 plants FSIS regulates.
  • Performance standards for poultry establishments for continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens. After two years of enforcing the new standards, FSIS estimates that approximately 5,000 illnesses will be prevented each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and approximately 20,000 illnesses will be prevented under the revised Salmonella standards each year.
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States warn consumers to watch out for scams

New schemes surface in Illinois, Iowa and Connecticut

A number of scams have begun popping up in various states, prompting officials to warn consumers to keep their guard up. While the scams are appearing in s...

PhotoA number of scams have begun popping up in various states, prompting officials to warn consumers to keep their guard up. While the scams are appearing in specific states, there's no reason to think they won't be duplicated elsewhere.

In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) have alerted utility customers in the Chicago area that someone claiming to be a utility employee asks for immediate payment of a bill either at a customer’s door, over the telephone or by e-mail.

The ICC has received complaints from utility customers about scammers claiming to be utility representatives, telling customers that their service will be disconnected unless payment is made directly to the scammers.

Slam the door

“If someone appears at your door claiming to be from your utility company and asking for immediate payment of your bill, I would slam the door in their face, call the police and contact your utility company directly. Utility companies do not go door-to-door collecting payments,” Madigan said.

The scam has also reportedly surfaced in neighboring Iowa. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says MidAmerican Energy last month reported a phone scam in the Des Moines area, where someone who claimed to represent MidAmerican contacted several customers claiming they needed to make an immediate payment to avoid disconnection.

Alliant Energy customers were also hit with the same scheme. In both cases the victims were asked to pay with a pre-paid debit card.

“Never give financial or personal information over the phone or through email, unless you’re the one who initiated the conversation and you know who you’re dealing with,” said Miller. “If someone calls you out of the blue and demands immediate payment or requests personal information, hang up.”

Phony sweepstakes

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen is warning residents of his state about a postal scam involving a phony sweepstakes accompanied by fake checks purporting to be from the Connecticut Department of Social Services.

Typically the award notification arrives in an envelope stamped in another state, or another country. The notification instructs the “winner” to deposit the fraudulent check into his bank account and immediately withdraw money to wire under the pretense that the wire transfer will cover administrative fees or taxes on the purported winnings. The “check” eventually bounces and the consumer is out the full amount, including the money wired to the scammers.

“While the check may look real, it is fraudulent and should not be deposited,” said Jepsen. “This scheme is the latest variation on the check overpayment and money-wiring scams that have plagued consumers in recent years.”

If you don't happen to live in Illinois, Iowa or Connecticut, don't be lulled into thinking you won't be exposed to these scams. If experience is any guide, scams that work in one place generally show up everywhere, eventually.

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California sues Delta Airlines over privacy issues

Airline is required to post a privacy policy for its Fly Delta app

The state of California is suing Delta Airlines, the first legal action taken under the state's online privacy law. The airline was cited for failing to co...

PhotoThe state of California is suing Delta Airlines, the first legal action taken under the state's online privacy law. The airline was cited for failing to conspicuously post a privacy policy within its mobile app, informing users of what personally identifiable information is being collected and what will be done with it.

“Losing your personal privacy should not be the cost of using mobile apps, but all too often it is,” said California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “California law is clear that mobile apps collecting personal information need privacy policies, and that the users of those apps deserve to know what is being done with their personal information.”

Privacy policy now required

The California Online Privacy Protection Act is a law requiring commercial operators of Websites and online services, including mobile and social apps, to inform California users of what information about them is being collected and how it will be used. Privacy policies promote transparency in how companies collect, use, and share personal information.

If developers do not comply with their stated privacy policies, they can be prosecuted under California’s Unfair Competition Law and/or False Advertising Law.

The lawsuit claims that since at least 2010, Delta has operated a mobile app called “Fly Delta” for use on smartphones and other electronic devices.

The Fly Delta app may be used to check-in online for an airplane flight, view reservations for air travel, rebook cancelled or missed flights, pay for checked baggage, track checked baggage, access a user’s frequent flyer account, take photographs and even save a user’s geo-location.

Privacy policy never posted

Despite collecting substantial personally identifiable information such as a user’s full name, telephone number, email address, frequent flyer account number and pin code, photographs and geo-location, the suit says the Fly Delta application does not have a privacy policy.

The suit seeks to stop Delta from distributing its app without a privacy policy and penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation.

The suit follows an agreement Harris forged among the seven leading mobile and social app platforms to improve privacy protections for millions of users around the globe who use apps on their smart phones, tablets, and other electronic devices. Those platforms – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Research in Motion – agreed to privacy principles designed to bring the industry in line with California law requiring mobile apps that collect personal information to have a privacy policy.

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

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How to prevent holiday decoration fires and injuries

Following a few simple tips can keep the holidays from turning into tragedy

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Maryland’s Office of the State Fire Marshal are tea...

PhotoThe U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Maryland’s Office of the State Fire Marshal are teaming up in hopes of helping consumers give the gift of a safe holiday home.

Each November and December, thousands of consumers are injured and millions of dollars in property losses are reported as a result of falls, fires, and other incidents associated with holiday decorations.

Injuries on the rise

Since 2009, the estimated number of holiday decoration-related injuries has increased at a rate of 1,000 per year -- from 12,000 in 2009, to 13,000 in 2010, to 14,000 in 2011. Between 2008 and 2010, property losses from Christmas tree fires have increased from an estimated $18 million -- to $19 million. Candle-related fires during this same period resulted in reports of 74 deaths and $347 million in property losses.

“Make sure you water your Christmas tree frequently, use holiday lights that are tested and certified and safe and not damaged, use candles carefully, and do not put a frozen turkey into a deep fryer,” said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. “We want consumers to avoid fires and injuries by adding “safety” to their holiday checklist.”

Common incident scenarios involve fires from dried-out evergreen trees and clippings, burns from open-flame candles and falls while attempting to hang holiday decorations. CPSC has several safety tips to help prevent these and other incidents this season.

“Christmas and the days around it are typically some of the top days for home fires,” said Greg Cade, division director of Government Affairs for NFPA. “With an increased fire risk around winter holidays, following safety tips at this time of year is especially important to prevent fires.”

“Holidays are a time of celebration with family and friends,” stated Maryland State Fire Marshal William E. Barnard. “However, fire and life safety is everyone’s responsibility; by testing smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, keeping exits clear of obstructions, monitoring water levels for live trees, staying with food while it is cooking, and following basic safety guidelines involving open flame devices such as candles and fireplaces, we can all avoid injury or death from fire.”

Safety tips

Trees and Decorations

  • Buying live trees? Check for freshness. A fresh tree is green, its needles are hard to pull from branches, and its needles do not break when bent between your fingers. The bottom of a fresh tree is sticky with resin, and when tapped on the ground, the tree should not lose many needles.
  • Setting up a tree at home? Place it away from heat sources, such as fireplaces, vents, and radiators. Because heated rooms dry out live trees rapidly, be sure to monitor water levels daily, and keep the tree stand filled with water. Place the tree ou