Current Events in December 2012

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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 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.

    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

    Another 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

    Another 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

    This 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.

    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 ...

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

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

    Holiday 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.

    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

    To 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.

    Many 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.

    On 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

    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 ...

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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 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.”

      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...

      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 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."

      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 ...

      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 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."

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.   

      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...

      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 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. 

      “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.

      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...

      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 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

      Pryor 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

      “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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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

      And 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."

      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...

      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 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.  

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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, 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.

      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...