Current Events in December 2012

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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 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. 

    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

    But 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.

    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...

    Punchfork: A great site for your holiday cooking needs

    The recipe website is like 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 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 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 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.  

    Users 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.

    You 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.

    Most people in the United States consider Thanksgiving the official food holiday, so Christmas doesn’t get the acknowledgement it truly deserves...

    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 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?

    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.

    Redbox 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.

    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.

    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...

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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.

      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.

      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.

      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:

      Be careful! There are many similarly-named sites, including, which are commercial sites that charge a fee for their service. And navigating 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.

      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:

      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...

      Google downplays porn results

      Tweaks settings to make it harder to stumble onto pornographic images

      Is 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.


      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:

      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.


      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."

      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...

      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 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.

      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.

      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...

      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 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.

      States have cracked down on distracted driving, particularly people who send and receive text messages behind the wheel. But a new study suggests authoriti...

      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 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 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.

      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...

      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, 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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

      To 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.

      Next, 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.

      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 ...

      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 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."

      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.

      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 ...

      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 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.


      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.

      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 ...

      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 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.

      Thirty-three states have reached a settlement with Pfizer Inc. over claims the company fraudulently marketed Zyvox and Lyrica, drugs intended for treatment...

      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, 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.

      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, ...

      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 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.

      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...

      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.

      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.

      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...