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    Drug testing in schools: Is it the right move?

    The debate resurfaces after a Kansas City school tests students' hair for drugs

    The other day just for kicks, I watched the movie “Traffic” again with Michael Douglass and Benicio del Toro that was made back in 2000.

    I’d seen the movie in theaters when it was first released and for some reason it’s been on my mind for the past few weeks to the point where I just had to stream it -- because whether it’s a song or a movie that’s stuck in my head, the only way to get it out is to play it, reabsorb it, then move on.

    For those who haven’t seen the movie or need to be re-familiarized with it, "Traffic" shows different aspects of the drug epidemic in the United States and tells separate stories from the perspective of Douglass’ character, a newly appointed drug czar, del Toro’s character, a cop working in Mexico and the wife of a drug kingpin played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.

    A crucial part of the movie and one that probably hit close to home for many viewers is how the drug problem affects families, namely children and how even in the case of Michael Douglass’s character, who was in charge of America’s war on drugs, he had no idea that his own daughter was a heavy cocaine user and pretty much led a double life.

    The movie really made me think of kids, the drug problem and how parents are coping these days when a new drug seems to be released every other month. And with popular music, movies and television shows at times displaying a casual attitude towards drug use, it’s very easy for kids to develop that same casual attitude too.

    Drug testing

    And for that reason, many school districts around the U.S. have implemented drug testing policies to sniff out usage among the students, and some cases these drug tests are mandatory if students wish to participate in clubs, sports teams or other extracurricular activities.

    Take, for example, Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo., that just introduced a new drug testing policy which consists of cutting 60 strands of hair from each student to determine if they’ve been taken certain substances within 90 days of the test.

    Testing for drugs by using hair strands is known to be more accurate and makes it harder for people to cheat and manipulate the results.

    Of course Rockhurst’s new drug testing method caused quite the stir in the Kansas City area, as some parents are in favor of the school taking such measures and others believe Rockhurst is going just a little too far.

    But is that true?

    According to the government website DrugAbuse.gov, 6.5 percent of 8th graders smoke marijuana, 17 percent of 10th graders and 22.9 percent of 12th graders smoked pot in 2012.

    When it comes to cocaine usage, 6.2 percent of 8th graders and 4 percent of 10th graders use the drug, and although these percentages have come down since 2011, the numbers are still pretty substantial.

    Still a big problem

    The drug abuse website also shows that prescription drugs, ecstasy, alcohol and tobacco use are still big problems among America’s younger generation and school officials like Stuart Gulley, president of Woodward Academy,  the largest private elementary and high school in the United States, says that by testing 40 percent of his student body, he’s able to keep students on their toes on whether they’ll be tested or not.

    This approach he believes will dramatically cut down drug use in his school, which has students from K through 12.

    “We anticipate that approximately 12 students every other week will be tested for approximately 40 percent of our high school population,” said Gulley in an interview with a local news outlet.

    “We feel like with a 40 percent range it’s manageable for us from a logistic standpoint and it also sends the message to students that the likelihood is great that there name may be drawn in a given year.”

    In the case of Rockhurst high school, officials believe that by using hair samples as opposed to using urine samples, they’ll be able to better find out if a student is using drugs and provide the necessary help if its needed.

    “Our point is, if we do encounter a student who has made some bad decisions, we will be able to intervene, get the parents involved, get him help if necessary, and then help him get back on a path of better decision making, healthier choices for his life,” said Rockhurst Principal Greg Harkness in a published interview.

    And just like Douglass’s daughter in the movie "Traffic," Harkness says that most parents are in the dark about everything their kids are doing, especially when it comes to drug use and experimentation.

    “Adolescents by their very nature are also spinning off to be very independent, so there are things that they do behind their parents' back,  simply because they are beginning that process of individuation and moving on,” he said. “I have never had an experience as a counselor where parents were completely aware of everything that was going on and perhaps it should be that way. Part of an adolescent’s life is to be resourceful.”

    Some would say Harkness’s logic is spot on, and that many kids have their parents completely fooled about everything they do in those hours away from home.

    Dream on, parents

    In my own teenage experience I remember overhearing conversations parents had with each other at school events or when my parents would pick me up after practice. Some of the parents would go on and on to my mom about how happy they were that their kids stayed away from risky behaviors, which made me always think about how in the dark these parents were about what their children were really into.

    Doug Bonney, the legal director for the ACLU of Kansas City, says he disagrees with Harkness and said that nothing, not even the most technologically advanced drug test, will keep drugs away from a child if he or she really wants to use them.

    “Nothing prohibits it,” he said referring to some kids and their desire to use drugs. “But it is a colossal waste of money.”

    We reached out to both the Washington D.C. and the Kansas City branch of the ACLU for further comment, but neither responded.

    In a 2008 survey, it was determined that 14 percent of 1,337 school districts used random drug testing, 93.4 percent of districts used it for athletes and 65 percent used drug testing for students who are involved in extracurricular activities.

    The other day just for kicks, I watched the movie “Traffic” again with Michael Douglass and Benicio del Toro that was made back in 2000.I&rsq...

    Plenty of 2013 cars under $20,000 provide good value

    Kiplinger's rates new models for style, innovation and value

    Plenty of consumers are kicking tires these days. Automotive data service Kelley Blue Book notes that dealers likely sold more than 15 million new cars in the first month of 2013, which could set the pace for the rest of the year.

    "January tends to be the slowest month of the year, largely due to a significant number of buyers who purchase new cars in December to take advantage of year-end clearance events," said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst of automotive insights for Kelley Blue Book. "Although the deals available in January typically are not as attractive as they are in December, consumers should have little trouble finding a great price on the vehicle of their choosing this month."

    And there appears to be a lot of value in cars selling for below $20,000. In its 2013 model year rankings, Kiplinger, a financial information company, includes a total of 1,693 vehicles, highlighting new models and new trim levels of existing vehicles.

    Kiplinger's Best New Car honors go to a car in the under-$20,000 class – the Hyundai Elantra GT.

    “It replaces the Elantra touring model they had previously, said Jessica Anderson, an associate editor at Kiplinger. “It was more of a wagon. Kind of a ho-hum design. They really brought all of the features of the new Elantra that was redesigned for 2011 into this car. It's a really stylish compact product.”

    Warm seats, cool glove box

    Standard features in the 2013 Elantra GT include heated front seats, cooled glove box, seven airbags and an extra outlet for smartphones and tablets. For consumers who can remember the trouble-prone Hyundais of the mid to late 1990s, Anderson says the brand deserves another look.

    “The strides they've made in quality and safety have just been remarkable.” she said. “They're not at all the cars they were, even 10 years ago.

    There's a lot of competition in the $20,000-and-under class in 2013, which is good news for consumers because that means there are many more good choices in an affordable price range. A couple of other vehicles give the Elantra GT a run for its money.

    “The only other cars that were redesigned this year and were competing for the best new car award were the Nissan Sentra and the Dodge Dart,” Anderson said. “I've driven both the Sentra and the Dart and they're both good products. I don't think the Dart came far enough, fast enough from its introduction, but it's certainly a nice package. The Sentra really did make some pretty good strides since its last generation.”

    Best in class

    Kiplinger named Ford Focus Best In Class and Best Resale Value. Anderson's other favorites in the under $20,000 space include the Honda Civic, Chevy Cruz, Kia Soul, Subaru Imprezia and the new compact Toyota Prius C.

    New car shoppers will find fewer cash incentives in this price range. With interest rates so low, carmakers probably think that's incentive enough. Some of these models are being advertised for lease at payments as low as around $150 a month.

    “Keep in mind the vehicle they're offering for $150 a month may be the base trim model and not have all the options you're looking for, and not everyone will qualify because of their credit,” Anderson said.

    Besides price, what other consideration should enter into a sale or lease decision? Anderson said value is important, no matter what price range you're shopping in.

    Resale value

    “Resale value is really important. Other things to look for, obviously fuel economy. Especially in this category, you should pay close attention to legroom. Not so much the front seat because all front seats are comfortable. Pay attention to the legroom in the back seat.”

    Because of rising federal mileage standards, cars in this class get some eye-popping fuel economy. The Toyota Prius C gets 53 miles per gallon (MPG) city. The Nissan Sentra gets 39 MPG highway as does the Mazda 3. The Fiat 500 gets 40 MPG highway.

    One final note -- some cars made the under-$20,000 list because Kiplinger included a model with manual transmission. If you want an automatic, Anderson says you should expect to pay another $1,000.

    Plenty of consumers are kicking tires these days. Automotive data service Kelley Blue Book notes that dealers likely sold more than 15 million new cars in ...

    Don't just eat your veggies, wash them too

    Health experts find most foodborne illness stems from leafy vegetables

    You probably remember the headlines. Since the mid 2000s foodborne illnesses – mainly Salmonella – have sickened and killed consumers and led to costly recalls.

    In an extensive analysis of the 10-year period between 1998 and 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that leafy vegetables – things like lettuce and spinach -- are mostly to blame. It says more illnesses were attributed to leafy vegetables -- 22% -- than to any other commodity. Illnesses associated with leafy vegetables were the second most frequent cause of hospitalizations and the fifth most frequent cause of death.

    Nine million illnesses annually

    The CDC study estimates foodborne illnesses cause nine million illnesses in the U.S. each year, many of them from meat and poultry. Consumers can lessen their risks, however, with thorough cooking and proper storage techniques.

    It's the things that aren't always cooked – things like fruits, vegetables and nuts – that can cause problems.

    “Outbreaks of E. coli O157 infections transmitted by spinach and lettuce and Salmonella infections transmitted by tomatoes, juice, mangoes, sprouts, and peppers underline concerns about contamination of produce consumed raw,” the authors wrote.

    Eating any fruit or vegetable without first cleaning it, to remove bacteria, is dangerous, food safety experts warn. But how best to clean them?

    Safety steps

    The Partnership for Food Safety Education works to help consumers avoid getting sick from the food they eat. It suggests washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets. 

    In addition, wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next food. Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If you use cloth towels wash them often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.

    Now, you are ready to begin raw food preparation. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten.

    Rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean vegetable brush. Don't fill the sink with water and let the produce sit. That doesn't really remove the dirt.

    Also, forget the soap or the commercial “produce cleaners” you see in the grocery aisle. The group says all you need to do is rub your produce under running water, using your hands.

    Wash even what you don't eat

    Some produce, like a watermelon or cantaloupe, has a skin or rind that isn't eaten. Should that be washed? It should if you want to ensure safety. All visible dirt and debris should be removed, and the produce should be scrubbed to make sure pathogens aren't sticking to the surface.

    The CDC study found that most foodborne illnesses are linked to food commodities that constitute a major portion of what U.S. consumers eat.

    “When food commodities are consumed frequently, even those with a low risk for pathogen transmission per serving may result in a high number of illnesses,” the authors conclude.

    While policymakers in Washington debate food safety initiatives, consumers can help protect themselves and their families by thoroughly cleaning produce before they eat it.

    You probably remember the headlines. Since the mid 2000s foodborne illnesses – mainly Salmonella – have sickened and killed consumers and led t...

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      Netflix now in one-quarter of U.S. homes, study finds

      Amazon and Hulu also gaining market share

      Just a few years ago, back when over-the-air TV and cable were kings, it was necessary to explain what streaming video was before you could talk about it.

      Those days are long gone, as a new survey from Frank N. Magid Associates makes clear. The research and consulting firm says Netflix is now used in one-fourth of U.S. homes, up from 20% just a year ago. 

      Amazon Instant Video's audience jumped to 8% of U.S. homes, up from 5%, the survey found, and Hulu rose to 5% from 4%.

      Overall, more than half of U.S. homes (55%) now stream TV episodes and movies, up from 49% in 2011, the survey of 1,500 U.S. homes in November 2012 found.

      "Netflix certainly is the de facto brand for long-form streaming," says Maryann Baldwin, vice president of Magid Media Futures.

      But nothing stands still and, while Netflix may be in the lead today, its two closest competitors are coming up fast.  

      "As more people discover Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime, their expectations for quality content are going to change because they tend to have the more recent content," Baldwin says. "The competition is making inroads."

      Net TV

      "Smart TVs" are also making inroads. Homes with Net-connected TVs rose to 35% of all U.S. households in 2012, up from 30% in 2011, the Magid survey found. That trend is accelerating and should hit 42% of all U.S. homes by the end of 2013, Magid projects.

      Net-connected TVs, like the Samsung Smart TV models, make it possible to  stream Internet video without having to use add-on devices like Roku boxes or Net-connected DVD players.

      As more homes replace their existing TVs with Net-connected models, the penetration of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu is expected to increase markedly.

      "It's interesting how quickly (Netflix has) evolved into similar challenges as the Comcasts and DirecTVs of the world," Baldwin says. "The content costs caught up to them pretty quickly. Content is still king."

      Just a few years ago, back when over-the-air TV and cable were kings, it was necessary to explain what streaming video was before you could talk about it....

      Houston debt collector shut down

      Goldman Schwartz used insults, lies and phony threats, prosecutors alleged

      A federal court has shut down a Houston debt collector accused of using insults, lies, and phony threats to collect on payday loans.

      In one case, the company -- Goldman Schwartz -- told a Virginia woman that she would be arrested and jailed for three years, and would lose her disability payments if she did not pay a $980 debt.

      The court also froze the operation's assets, banned the defendants from engaging in debt collection, and appointed a receiver to take control of the business while the FTC moves forward with the case.

      The firm's debt collectors also allegedly told some consumers their minor children would be taken into government custody; disclosed debts to family members and military superiors; falsely claimed to work hand-in-hand with local sheriff’s offices; and collected bogus late fees and attorneys’ fees, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged.

      Goldman Schwartz did business nationwide collecting debts for numerous payday loan companies, including Ace Cash Express, Advance America, Allied Cash Advance, Checkmate, First Cash Advance, and MoneyMart.

      The complaint charges the defendants with multiple violations of the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, including:

      • falsely representing that Goldman Schwartz is a law firm and owner Gerald Wright is an attorney named Barry Schwartz.
      • falsely claiming that consumers have committed crimes by not paying their debts, will be arrested or jailed, and will lose custody of their minor children.
      • falsely claiming to be affiliated with or work in conjunction with law enforcement agencies.
      • harassing and abusing consumers by using obscene or profane language, calling repeatedly or continuously, and calling late in the evening or early in the morning.
      • adding unauthorized late fees and attorney’s fees to the amount consumers owe on their debts, and
      • failing to inform consumers of their rights to dispute the debts, have the debts verified, and obtain the names of the original creditors.

      A federal court has shut down a Houston debt collector accused of using insults, lies, and phony threats to collect on payday loans.In one case, the...

      Tax season is here -- officially

      Most individual returns can be filed now

      For those of you sitting around worrying -- you can now file your 2012 federal income tax return

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has opened the 2013 filing season with the announcement of a variety of enhanced products and services to help taxpayers prepare and file their tax returns by the April 15 deadline.

      New and expanded services for taxpayers this year include a redesigned IRS Website that’s easier to navigate and improved service options, including more video-conferencing assistance sites and additional social media tools. In addition, the IRS has stepped up its enforcement efforts to protect taxpayers from refund fraud and identity theft.

      Send them in

      The IRS is accepting and processing most individual tax returns after updating forms and completing programming and testing of its processing systems to reflect the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) that Congress enacted on Jan. 2. The vast majority of taxpayers can file now, but the agency is continuing to update its systems for some tax filers.

      The IRS will begin accepting tax returns from people claiming education credits in mid-February while taxpayers claiming depreciation deductions, energy credits and many business credits will be able to file in late February or early March. A full list of the affected forms is available here.

      This year, taxpayers have until Monday, April 15, to file their 2012 tax returns and pay any tax due. The IRS expects to receive more than 147 million individual tax returns this year, with about 75 percent projected to receive a refund.

      Last year for the first time, 80 percent of all individual returns were filed electronically. E-file, when combined with direct deposit, is the fastest way to get a refund. Last year, about three out of four refund filers selected direct deposit.

      Assistance options, virtual service availability

      The best way for taxpayers to get answers to their questions is by visiting IRS.gov. Last year, the Website received a record 340 million visits, a 17 percent increase over 2011.

      This year, the redesigned Website makes it easier than ever for taxpayers to get to key forms and vital information. The front page also has links to redesigned pages to help with everything from refunds to specific tax issues as well as easy access to taxpayer-friendly videos on the IRS YouTube channel.

      Taxpayers can access Free File, which provides options for free brand-name tax software or online Fillable Forms plus free electronic filing. Everyone can use Free File to prepare a federal tax return. Taxpayers who make $57,000 or less can choose from about 15 commercial software providers. There’s no income limit for Free File Fillable Forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms.

      People making $51,000 or less usually qualify for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program for free tax preparation and electronic filing. Tax Counseling for the Elderly, a similar community-based volunteer program, offers free tax help with priority assistance to people age 60 and older, specializing in questions about pensions and retirement issues. Information on these programs can be found at IRS.gov.

      This year, the IRS is doubling the number of sites where taxpayers can get assistance through two-way video conferencing. During 2012, the program’s first year, about 14,000 taxpayers received assistance at 13 locations. Following a strong response to the virtual assistance program, the IRS plans to roll out 14 new sites. A list of the 27 available locations can be found here.

      For tax law questions or account inquiries, taxpayers can also call the IRS toll-free number 800-829-1040 (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time) or visit a taxpayer assistance center http://www.irs.gov/uac/Contact-Your-Local-IRS-Office-1 . Taxpayers should check IRS.gov for the hours and services offered at the location they intend to visit.

      Apps and social media

      For the third year, the IRS will offer IRS2Go, its smartphone application, which enables taxpayers to check on the status of their tax refund and obtain helpful tax information. The IRS2Go app, available for Apple and Android users, has been downloaded more than 800,000 times and used by taxpayers millions of times.

      More helpful information is available through IRS social media platforms, including:

      • YouTube, where viewers can watch more than 100 short, informative videos. They are available in English, Spanish, American Sign Language and other languages.
      • The IRS also has several twitter feeds available for taxpayers in English and Spanish at @IRSnews or @IRSenEspanol. And @IRStaxpros covers news for tax professionals.
      • For the 2013 filing season, the IRS has added Tumblr to its list of social media platforms. People who want tax information now have another way of accessing and sharing helpful tax tips, videos, podcasts and other information.

      The IRS only uses social media tools to share public information, not to answer personal tax or account questions. And the IRS reminds taxpayers to never post confidential information, such as a Social Security Number, on social media sites.

      Check for a refund

      Even with the late opening of the tax season, the IRS expects to issue refunds within the usual timeframes. Last year, the IRS issued more than nine out of 10 refunds to taxpayers in less than 21 days, and it expects the same results in 2013.

      After taxpayers file a return, they can track the status of the refund with the “Where’s My Refund?” tool available here. New this year, instead of an estimated date, “Where’s My Refund?” will give people an actual personalized refund date after the IRS processes the tax return and approves the refund.

      Here are some tips for using "Where's My Refund?":

      • Initial information will generally be available within 24 hours after the IRS receives the taxpayer’s e-filed return or four weeks after mailing a paper return.
      • The system updates every 24 hours, usually overnight. There’s no need to check more than once a day.
      • “Where’s My Refund?” provides the most accurate and complete information that the IRS has about the refund, so there is no need to call the IRS unless the web tool says to do so.
      • To use the “Where’s My Refund?” tool, taxpayers need to have a copy of their tax return for reference. Taxpayers will need their Social Security Number, filing status and the exact dollar amount of the refund they are expecting.

      Taxpayers should remember that while most tax refunds are issued within 21 days, some tax returns need additional time to be reviewed. As part of that effort, the IRS has put in place stronger security filters this filing season to protect against refund fraud and identity theft.

      For those of you sitting around worrying -- you can now file your 2012 federal income tax return The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has opened the 2013 fi...

      Sportspower expands trampoline recall

      The netting around the trampoline can break, presenting a fall hazard

      Sportspower Ltd., of Hong Kong is recalling about 120,000 Sportspower BouncePro 14-foot trampolines

      The enclosure netting surrounding these trampolines can break, allowing children to fall through the netting and be injured.

      ‘Sportspower BouncePro 14’ is printed on a plate on the leg of the trampoline frame. The trampolines are surrounded by enclosure netting on the perimeter of the trampoline measuring about 6 feet high. The netting is designed to contain individuals bouncing on the trampoline.

      This recall is an expansion of the May 2012 recall of brown tetlon netting to now include black tetlon netting. This involves Sportspower BouncePro 14' Trampolines with model TR-1686-TPR. UPC code 687064045552 or 687064042100 is printed on the product’s box.

      The company has received an additional nine reports of the enclosure netting breaking since the May 2012 recall. There have been five reports of injuries including broken bones, back and neck injuries and contusions.

      The trampolines, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Walmart stores nationwide from February 2009 through March 2011 for about $300.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the trampolines and contact Sportspower to receive a replacement enclosure netting.

      Consumers may contact Sportspower toll-free at (888) 965-0565, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or email the firm at customerservice@sportspowerltd.net.

      Sportspower Ltd., of Hong Kong is recalling about 120,000 Sportspower BouncePro 14-foot trampolines The enclosure netting surrounding these trampolines ca...

      Personal income, spending and initial jobless claims on the rise

      The specter of tax hikes in 2013 likely played a role in the income gains

      You made more last month -- and you spent more, too.

      Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show personal income increased 2.6 percent in December. At the same time, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $22.6 billion -- or 0.2 percent.

      Personal income was boosted by accelerated and special dividend payments and by accelerated bonus payments and other irregular pay in private wages and salaries in anticipation of changes in individual income tax rates. Lump-sum Social Security benefit payments were also part of the mix.

      Wages and salaries

      Private wage and salary payments were up by $44.0 billion in December, compared with an increase of $61.4 billion in November. That works out to an annual rate of $30.0 billion for accelerated payments of bonuses or other types of irregular pay. This type of irregular payment is not accounted for in the primary monthly source data for wages and salaries.

      Personal spending and savings

      Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- increased $21.0 billion in December, compared with an increase of $40.2 billion in November. PCE increased $22.6 billion, compared with an increase of $41.6 billion.

      Personal saving was $805.2 billion in December, compared with $495.0 billion in November. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 6.5 percent in December, compared with 4.1 percent in November.

      Jobless claims

      From the Labor Department comes word that first-time claims for unemployment benefits jumped 38,000 in the week ending January 26 -- to a seasonally adjusted total of 368,000.

      The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, increased just 250 from the previous week – to 352,000.

      A year ago, initial claims totaled 381,000 while the 4-week moving average was 376,750.

      You made more last month -- and you spent more, too. Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show personal income increased 2.6 percent in Dec...

      Job cuts soar in January

      However, the cuts may be offset by planned hiring

      More than 40,000 workers got pink slips during January, but the overall employment picture might not be all that bleak.

      According to the latest report on planned job cuts released by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the nation’s employers announced plans to cut payrolls by 40,430 jobs in January.

      And while that was up 24 percent from 32,556 in December, it was 24 percent below the 53,486 firings announced by employers the same month a year ago. In fact, this was the third lowest January total in Challenger records going back to 1993. The only years to see fewer January job cuts were 1995 (38,962) and 2011 (38,519).

      Hiring increase projected

      Not only was the January total among the lowest on record, but it appears that the planned cuts will be more than offset by planned hiring. Planned hiring announcements, which represent a small fraction of the actual hiring activity in the economy, totaled 60,585 in January.

      The majority of these will come from home improvement retailer Lowe’s, which announced plans to add 54,000 seasonal workers nationwide.

      Finance and retail take the hits

      January job cuts were led by the financial and retail sectors, which announced 8,578 and 6,676 job cuts, respectively. Financial job cuts were up slightly from a year ago, when these employers announced 7,611 to start the year.

      Retail job cuts, however, were down by nearly 50 percent. The 6,676 job cuts by retailers in January was 46 percent lower than the 12,426 terminations announced in the sector in the first month of 2012.

      Brighter prospects

      “While GDP contracted by 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, the relatively low job-cut totals we have seen for the last couple of months indicate that employers do not foresee a prolonged decline in economic activity,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “In fact, recent data showing increased consumer spending, including a 14-percent increase in purchases of durable goods, as well as increased home sales and increased home prices, suggest that the economy is heading upward in the early part of the new year.”

      Challenger says the most promising news is related to the housing market, where rising prices will make it possible for more people to sell without incurring a significant loss. “The increased selling and buying of homes is great for the economy, because it leads to increased spending on big-ticket items such as furniture, appliances, moving transportation, etc.,” he said. “Rising prices will also make it possible for more people to relocate to areas where jobs are going unfilled due to lack of labor supply. This could further accelerate the recovery by getting long-time job seekers back onto payrolls.”  

      More than 40,000 workers got pink slips during January, but the overall employment picture might not be all that bleak. According to the latest report on ...

      Do you really need a gym membership?

      Researchers say a simple change in lifestyle can achieve similar results

      When people resolve to lose weight and get in shape, they often think of joining a gym. But gym memberships are expensive and the contracts can be hard to get out of.

      “I signed up for Gold's Gym in June of 2012,” Eric of Oklahoma City wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I used the gym a total of maybe three times. I decided that it was too crowded and cramped at any point that I went so I asked them about cancelling. They said I could cancel within 30 days. I went up to the Gold's on NW Expressway in Oklahoma City and cancelled my membership. There, they had me sign a form stating I was going to be cancelled and that I would still be billed till August.”

      But time went on and Eric said he is still being billed.

      “It is now January,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, I cannot find the carbon copy of the cancellation I signed. I honestly thought I wouldn't need it since Gold's seems to be a reputable name and company.”

      Eric's complaint is not all that unusual and not limited to Gold's Gym. Members of other health clubs have raised similar concerns.

      Lifestyle changes

      Are there alternatives to gym memberships that will promote health and fitness? Researchers at Oregon State University say there are and you can easily work them into your daily routine. All it requires, they say, is change in your lifestyle and habits – taking the stairs instead of the elevator, raking leaves and doing other yard work, walking whenever possible instead of driving a car.

      Consumers rate Gold's Gym
      Small amounts of activity throughout the day, even as short as one or two-minute increments that add up to 30 minutes a day can be just as beneficial as longer periods of physical exercise achieved by a trip to the gym.

      “Our results suggest that engaging in an active lifestyle approach, compared to a structured exercise approach, may be just as beneficial in improving various health outcomes,” said Paul Loprinzi, lead author of the study. “We encourage people to seek out opportunities to be active when the choice is available. For example, rather than sitting while talking on the phone, use this opportunity to get in some activity by pacing around while talking.”

      When health is the goal

      Will it give you six-pack abs? Probably not, but the researchers say you should see improved health, heading off metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. And like Eric, many gym members find busy schedules interfere with trips to the gym.

      Consumers rate Bally Total Fitness
      The researchers found that 43 percent of those who participated in the “short bouts” of exercise met physical activity guidelines of 30 minutes a day. In comparison, less than 10 percent of those in the longer exercise bouts met those federal guidelines for exercise.

      “This is a more natural way to exercise, just to walk more and move around a bit more,” said study co-author Brad Cardinal. “We are designed by nature as beings who are supposed to move. People get it in their minds, if I don’t get that 30 minutes, I might as well not exercise at all. Our results really challenge that perception and give people meaningful, realistic options for meeting the physical activity guidelines.”

      In-home gym?

      What about buying some exercise equipment to use at home? The risk with that, just like a health club, is that you can quickly lose enthusiasm. Go to a weekend yard sale or flea market and you're likely to find plenty of treadmills and barbell sets.

      Consumers rate LA fitness
      But if you've decided to make a small investment, KMS 8 Business recently opened an online store offering a line of exercise, health and wellness products. It hosts the FitnessHealthAndMore.com blog on the site offering free access to exercise routines, how-to articles, and product reviews.

      If you decide to go that route, consider getting a personal trainer to give you a fitness assessment to guide you through your in-home workouts. Usually you can get such an assessment for a one-time fee. The assessment will show areas where you need work and provide a starting point for your fitness planning.

      Also, purchase the equipment that is right for you. Don't get something that is just going to end up being a coat rack. You want equipment that you will look forward to using, not something you'll dread.

      If you need cardiovascular work, buy a cardiovascular machine. Do you need some strength training? Purchase a Dyna-band or small hand weights. It depends on what sort of equipment you need and what sort of equipment you are going to use.

      Naturally, before starting any exercise program that is different than your normal routine, you should discuss it with your doctor.

      When people resolve to lose weight and get in shape, they often think of joining a gym. But gym memberships are expensive and the contracts can be hard to...

      What should you expect from your real estate agent?

      To avoid disasters, here's what to look for when you decide to list your home

      You've put your house on the market. Or maybe it's had a "For Sale" sign in the front yard for some time now. You read that the housing market is picking up, so why isn't your home selling?

      In situations like these, it's easy to blame your real estate agent. Kimberly of Stone Ridge, N.Y., did. She says she listed with a Century 21 agent, dropped the price and made the improvements the agent suggested.

      “Over the next few months, we dropped the price even further,” Kimberly wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Every time we contacted the agent to let him know our plans, he seemed less than eager about the market. In the meantime, comps in our development were selling at a higher price. He continued to recommend we rent the house out instead of sell.”

      Then Kimberly says they got their first offer. It should have been a time of celebration, but she says it wasn't.

      Wrong price

      “When our agent came back with a verbal counter, he quoted us the wrong price,” she writes. “We figured this out when we decided on a price lower then the actual counter. By this time, we lost the buyers.”

      Kimberly says they finally sold their house, but claims her agent went from being unhelpful to, as she put it, “sabotaging” the deal. While this may be an extreme example, it raises the question, what should Kimberly expect from her real estate agent? And how can she tell if the agent is holding up his or her end of the bargain?

      James Paffrath, CEO of the real estate site Realtypin.com, says these questions should have been addressed at the beginning of a relationship between a seller and listing agent.

      Level of comfort

      For example, if the agent sat down with you and explained a specific strategy for selling houses in your area, is that strategy still being carried out? So you need to select an agent who gives you a certain level of comfort that he or she knows what to do and will do it.

      “You need someone that can guide you through the process,” Paffrath said. “Even if you’ve bought and sold homes a bunch of times before, you probably haven’t done so since the recession – and things have changed considerably since the housing market collapsed. So, if you don’t 'mesh' with your Realtor, and don’t feel like this is going to be a team effort, you don’t have the right person.”

      One sign of a good agent is someone who will treat you as a partner. You should be able to ask questions freely and get answers that make sense, without feeling like you’re being talked down to.

      Look for signs that the Realtor is organized. If they never seem able to put their hands on important information, that's a bad sign. Being disorganized could mean you lose a sale.

      Signs of a good agent

      There are also indicators that a Realtor you're considering would be a good choice. One indicator is the use of technology.

      “Buyers are using state-of-the-art methods to find their homes, so your Realtor needs to be using state-of-the-art methods to market your home,” Paffrath said. “For example, don’t just take a bunch of still pictures. Instead, upload a video tour of your home, too. Or, make sure that your listing is properly optimized for smartphone users, since so many people use their phones to house-hunt on their lunch breaks at work. Or, use Twitter and Facebook to get the word out, instead of just posting your listing on a bunch of random websites.”

      A good real estate agent is constantly coming up with new ideas. If you home takes a little longer to sell than you like, Paffrath says a good agent won’t just sit around and wait.

      “Instead, she’ll be figuring out new ways to market it – whether it means finding new websites to list it on, new pictures that give a better view of the home’s best features, a better video tour, or a fresh idea for an open house.

      Above and beyond

      Some agents will go above and beyond the call of duty and Paffrath says they should be prized. But perhaps the overriding quality that a good Realtor brings to the table is the ability to know exactly how to price the home so that the seller doesn't over-price the market or leave money on the table.

      That means a good agent will spend plenty of time looking at your property and asking questions. The goal for both you and the agent, after all, is a speedy sale at a price that accurately reflects the market.

      You've put your house on the market. Or maybe it's had a for sale sign in the front yard for some time now. You read that the housing market is picking up,...

      Blackberry unveils new operating system and new phones

      But the devices won't be available in the U.S. until March

      The Blackberry phone was once the first choice of business and professional users and maybe it will be again someday, although it's a little hard to see how.

      Blackberry's maker, Research in Motion, today lunched -- or at least revealed -- its new mobile operating system, BlackBerry 10, BB10 for short, and two new smartphones.

      Having not learned from the political world to keep it simple, the company also announced it's changing its name from Research In Motion to -- what else? -- Blackberry.

      New phones ... soon

      Oh, and also it introduced two new phones -- the BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry Q10 -- but then said they won't be available in the United States until March or so. You can get them in Canada and the U.K. now, if it means that much to you.

      "This is one of the biggest launches in our industry and today is not the finish line, it's the starting line," said CEO Thorsten Heins. Well, actually it's sort of the approach to the starting line, which will be sometime in March.

      And why should anyone wade through all this? What's the big selling point that will bring us all running to the nearest cell phone store?

      Well, it's a feature called Balance. RIM says it's geared towards  professionals who use their devices for personal use and work. Now, by using swipe gestures to switch between "work" and "personal" profiles. RIM says that businesses can keep data secure without forcing employees to carry two mobile devices.

      Then there's BlackBerry Flow. This allows users to move among apps by using swipe gestures instead of a home button.

      Heins also announced that singer Alicia Keys has been named the company's new Global Creative Director. He said Keys has been in a "long-term relationship" with the BlackBerry. 

      And as for those new phones, the BlackBerry Z10 is a touchscreen device running on BB10 with a 4.2-inch 1,280 x 768 touchscreen display and front- and rear-facing cameras. With no physical keyboad, it's Blackberry's answer to the iPhone and the many Android big-screen phones.

      The BlackBerry Q10 will, in the mode of older BB phones, keep a full QWERTY keyboard.

      Both can run 4G LTE and U.S. carriers AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile all say they will be announcing their pre-registration and price plans today.

      The Z10 -- the one without a keyboard -- will cost around $199 with a two-year contract when it becomes available in March.

      The Q10? No dates or prices were provided.

      The Blackberry phone was once the first choice of business and professional users and maybe it will be again someday, although it's a little hard to see ho...

      Patient loads often make hospitals unsafe

      Increased patient care needs can lead to stressed staffing demands

      The folks in a position to know say the workload may be be having an adverse effect on the safety and quality of patient care at the nation's hospitals.

      More than one-quarter of hospital-based general practitioners across the U.S. who take over for patients' primary care doctors to manage inpatient care say their average patient load exceeds safe levels multiple times per month, according to a new Johns Hopkins study. Moreover, the study found that one in five of these physicians -- known as hospitalists -- reports the workload puts patients at risk for serious complications, or even death.

      The research, reported in JAMA Internal Medicine, comes as health care systems anticipate an influx of new patients generated by the Affordable Care Act -- also known as Obamacare -- over the next few years; as restrictions on resident-physicians limit their duty hours; and as one in three physicians is expected to retire or otherwise leave medicine over the next 10 years, cumulatively resulting in increased patient care needs coupled with stressed staffing demands.

      Impact on quality of care

      "As perceived by physicians, workload issues have the significant potential to do harm and decrease quality," says study leader Henry J. Michtalik, M.D., M.P.H., M.H.S., an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "It is the elephant in the room that cannot be ignored. We have to find that balance between safety, quality and efficiency."

      The Johns Hopkins study comprised a survey of 890 hospitalists across the United States, 506 of whom responded. Twenty-two percent of the respondents reported ordering costly and potentially unnecessary tests, procedures or consults because they didn't have time to properly assess patients assigned to their care.

      "If a hospitalist is short on time and a patient is having chest pains, for example, the doctor may be more likely to order additional tests, prescribe aspirin and call a cardiologist — all because there isn't adequate time to immediately and fully evaluate the patient," Michtalik says.

      Voice of experience

      For the study, Michtalik, a hospitalist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and his colleagues electronically surveyed self-identified hospitalists enrolled in an online physician community, QuantiaMD.com. Of those who responded over the course of four weeks in November 2010, the average age was 38 years and more than half worked in community hospitals.

      Among other questions, physicians were asked to report what they felt was a safe number of patients to see in a typical shift. Most physicians reported that they could safely see 15 patients in a shift if they could focus 100 percent on clinical matters. When the average actual workload was compared with the perceived safe workload, 40 percent of physicians exceeded their own reported safe level.

      Michtalik says that JHH's hospitalists typically stay below that number, while hospitalists at community hospitals often see more than 15 patients per shift.

      "Hospitals need to evaluate workloads of attending physicians, create standards for safe levels of work and develop mechanisms to maintain workload at safe levels," he adds.

      The folks in a position to know say the workload may be be having an adverse effect on the safety and quality of patient care at the nation's hospitals. ...

      Economy shifts into reverse at year-end

      But on a year-over-year basis, growth accelerated

      The economy strengthened last year, but was sputtering as 2012 drew to a closae.

      The output of goods and services produced in the United States -- known as real gross domestic product or GDP -- decreased at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It was the first quarterly decline in GDP since the second three months of 2009.

      However, for the full year 2012, real GDP increased 2.2 percent after growing 1.8 percent in 2011.

      Minuses and pluses

      The decline in real GDP growth in the fourth quarter reflected the following:

      • Inventory investment turned down, mainly because of a decline in inventory investment in manufacturing industries.
      • Federal government spending fell significantly, reflecting a downturn in defense spending.
      • Net exports turned down, mainly reflecting a decrease in exports of goods; food, feeds and beverage items as well as civilian aircraft, engines, and parts fell significantly.

      In contrast, business investment was higher, as spending on equipment and software rebounded (mainly computers and related parts as well as transportation equipment). Consumer spending also picked up (mainly financial services as well as autos and parts).

      Prices and spending

      Prices of goods and services purchased by U.S. residents rose 1.3 percent in the fourth quarter, following a 1.4 percent rise in the third quarter. Energy prices slowed, and food prices turned up. Excluding food and energy, prices rose 1.1 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with 1.2 percent in the third quarter.

      Real personal consumption expenditures increased 2.2 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with an increase of 1.6 percent in the third. Durable goods increased 13.9 percent, versus an increase of 8.9 percent. Nondurable goods increased 0.4 percent, compared with an increase of 1.2 percent. Services increased 0.9 percent, compared with an increase of 0.6 percent.

      Looking at 2012

      The pickup in economic growth for the full year 2012 mainly reflected:

      • A slowdown in imports, notably in capital goods (except autos) and consumer goods.
      • A rebound in residential housing.
      • An upturn in inventory investment.
      • A smaller decrease in state and local government spending.
      • The contributions were partly offset by slowdowns in consumer spending (mainly on services
      • and nondurable goods) and in exports (mainly industrial supplies and materials).

      The economy strengthened last year, but was sputtering as 2012 drew to a closae. The output of goods and services produced in the United States -- known a...

      Arrests made in ‘We Kill Your Mortgage’ scheme

      The scam involved the use of Websites that have now been suspended

      Three suspects charged in a mortgage fraud scheme targeting struggling Northern California homeowners have been arrested.

      In addition, six Websites allegedly used by the suspects to advertise their scheme have been intercepted and redirected to a resource page on California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris’s Website.

      “Vulnerable California homeowners thought they were working to save their homes but were actually the victims of a fraudulent scheme,” Harris said. "Today, it's not enough to dismantle the brick-and-mortar aspect of a criminal operation; we need to shut down criminal operations in cyberspace as well."

      Multiple charges lodged

      According to the felony complaint, Ronald Vernon Cupp, 58, of Santa Rosa, deceived homeowners by falsely advertising a way to “kill” their mortgage debt on six Websites, including www.wekillyourmortgage.com. Cupp was allegedly assisted by Randall Gilbert Heyden, 69, of San Rafael, and Angelle Wertz, 38, of Santa Rosa, a public notary who allegedly certified phony legal documents. Cupp allegedly recorded fraudulent documents, which would only delay a foreclosure, not actually satisfy the preexisting mortgage debt.

      Cupp, Heyden and Wertz are charged in a 57-count complaint alleging theft, forgery, notary fraud and recording of false documents. They were booked at the Sonoma County Jail on January 23. Cupp and Heyden are being held with bail set at $500,000 and $75,000 respectively. Wertz was released but ordered to appear for arraignment on January 25.

      Through Cupp’s business, North Bay Trust Services, homeowners would often allegedly pay upfront fees of between $1,000 and $10,000 and sign a promissory note or new mortgage for a phony offer to eliminate their mortgage debt. Requiring up-front fees is illegal in California.

      The suspects would then allegedly record fraudulent documentation purporting to be the attorney for the homeowner’s actual lender and then relinquish the mortgage and record a new deed of trust in favor of North Bay Trust Services. The debt to the original lender was never actually satisfied.

      Websites suspended

      The following six Websites have had their service suspended pursuant to a court order at the request of the Attorney General Harris’s eCrime Unit:

      • http://www.northbaytrustservices.com/
      • http://wekillyourmortgage.com/
      • http://santarosatrustandtitle.com/
      • http://sonomafidelitytitle.com/
      • http://cortemaderafidelityandtitle.com/
      • http://marintrustandtitle.com/

      These pages have been redirected to the California attorney general’s Website, where individuals are able to file an online complaint form if they believe they may have been the victim of the scheme.

      Avoiding mortgage fraud claims

      The attorney general's office offers these tips for homeowners on how to avoid mortgage fraud schemes:

      • Never pay an up-front fee for mortgage-related services. It is against California law and should be reported to the California Department of Justice.
      • Be skeptical of third party phone or online solicitations.
      • Do not give your personal financial information, such as your bank account number, social security number or the name of your loan servicer, to a solicitor. Your bank or loan servicer already has this information.

      Three suspects charged in a mortgage fraud scheme targeting struggling Northern California homeowners have been arrested. In addition, six Websites alleg...

      Toyota recalls some Corolla, Lexus IS models

      Problems with airbags and windshield wipers

      Toyota is conducting two separate safety recalls involving about 752,000 Corolla and Corolla Matrix vehicles and 270,000 Lexus IS vehicles.

      In the 2003-2004 Corolla and Corolla Matrix, the airbag control module may deploy inadvertently. The seat belt pretensioners could also malfunction.

      The second safety recall involves the front wipers on certain 2006-2012  Lexus IS vehicles where the wiper arm nut might not be sufficiently tight. Under certain circumstances, one or both of the wipers could become inoperative.

      Owners of vehicles covered by these safety recalls will receive an owner notification letter via first class mail in the near future.  Any authorized Toyota or Lexus dealer will perform this recall at no charge to the vehicle owner.

      Detailed information is available to customers at www.toyota.com/recall and the Toyota Customer Experience Center at 1-800-331-4331 or www.lexus.com/recall and Lexus Customer Satisfaction (1 800-255-3987).

      Toyota is conducting two separate safety recalls involving about 752,000 Corolla and Corolla Matrix vehicles and 270,000 Lexus IS vehicles. In the 200...

      Woman sues Match.com after being stabbed by her date

      Others complain Match doesn't respond to their complaints about unsavory characters

      We hear from lots of consumers who say their Match.com dating experience was poor but few can top Mary Kay Beckman's complaint.

      The 50-year-old Las Vegas woman is suing Match.com for $10 million, saying she was brutally stabbed and beaten by a man the dating site set her up with.

      Other consumers have told ConsumerAffairs that sexually-menacing and deceptive men remain on Match.com even after they are repeatedly reported to the site's managers.

      Beckman said she and Wade Ridley, 53, dated for eight days in September of 2010 before she called it off. But a few months later, an enraged Ridley broke into Beckman's house and stabbed her several times with a butcher knife while stomping on her head and neck, according to Fox 5 Las Vegas.

      Beckman said Ridley told police he had intended to kill her, not just hurt her. While being questioned by police, he allegedly admitted to killing 62-year-old Anne Simenson, an Arizona woman he’d also met on Match.com, in early 2011. She was stabbed with a butcher knife and a machete.

      Inadequate warnings

      Beckman's suit argues that Match.com does not adequately warn clients that it may pair them up with people who are dangerous.

      The company called the suit “absurd” and said it will argue that it can't be held responsible for what its members do on their own time.

      Consumers rate Match.com
      "The many millions of people who have found love on Match.com and other online dating sites know how fulfilling it is," the company said in a statement. This is about a sick, twisted individual with no prior criminal record, not an entire community of men and women looking to meet each other."

      Could be, but that's not how Sandy of Nottingham, England, remembers her Match.com experience.

      She said she was hounded by sexually expicit emails from a man in  London insisting that he wanted to marry her. A meeting was arranged at a bar but Sandy said the man looked "disgusting" and she left quickly.

      "I then sent him a message and told him that I thought he was too old for me. However, when I got back, he would not take rejection and tried again to meet me," she said. "I decided to report it to Match.com and he is still on the website now. The Match team did not do anything to remove this man from the site but I think he is sexually harassing and abusing women.

      "He brags that he can get sex on the website 7 days per week if he wanted to. I decided to immediately remove myself from the site," she said. "Despite complaining on numerous occasions to Match.com, no one did anything about it. I felt very angry and disappointed with the Match.com team and moreover that there is no policing of these emails, etc. How can Match.com not do anything to protect vulnerable women?"

      Not alone

      Sandy is not alone. Ellie of St. Audries, England, had a similar experience with the same man.

      "This man was on the face of his profile a responsible man and supposed to be a 55-year-old gentleman, who ran his own business. He turned out to be nothing more than a sex pervert who was clearly not using the site to date but made it clear that he could get sex on the website 7 days per week," Ellie said. "I reported this man as a concern but he is still allowed on the site even now."

      Karen of Ajax, Ontario, said she met a man who claimed to live in her area and to be single and 40. In fact, she said, a background check found that he lived in San Francisco, was 50 and married.

      "His entire profile was a lie," Karen said. "I reported him to Match.com so that his profile can be removed because there were too many discrepancies in the information he provided."

      But Karen said the same man kept reappearing under different user names.

      "I called Match.com and they told me that they can't do anything about the situation because they only look at the username and deal with the username alone for the issue," she said. "So basically, if this guy was a rapist or sexual offender, the user can come back again and again on the website even if Match.com checks their current Match.com predators with the sex offenders list as they say they will."

      t was an online dating match made in hell.A Las Vegas woman is suing Match.com for $10 million dollars after being brutally stabbed and beaten by a m...

      Valentine's Day gifts for the active man in your life

      From electronics to fishing gear, why not buy something different for him this year?

      When it comes to wives and girlfriends buying gifts for the men in their lives, it can get pretty tricky sometimes.

      For one, a lot of men aren’t really into clothes, at least not to the point where they’ll truly appreciate the latest fashion item or a gift card. And two, guys can be quite minimalistic at times, often choosing to delay a new purchase of an item until the old one has breathed its last.

      So the best approach to buying a Valentine’s Day gift for your guy is to first really think about what he likes to do, as opposed to buying something for him that you think he should be doing more of.

      In other words, you should probably stay away from getting him that new treadmill this Valentine’s Day, which he actually may need, and instead go with a gift that allows him to delve further into his particular hobby.

      Because few things feel better to a husband or boyfriend than getting a gift that perfectly matches his interests, since it shows both appreciation and acknowledgement for the individual that he is, and also lets him know that his interests are important to you.

      Now with that being said, it’s important to say that the concept of Valentine’s Day always had this annoying obligatory component to me, which of course has been carefully crafted by advertisers and store chains since Day 1, so ConsumerAffairs certainly isn’t encouraging people to break the bank this February 14, or even do anything outside of saying, “I love you or happy Valentine’s Day,” we just wanted give you a few gift ideas.

      So if you're doing the gift thing this cupid's day why not give something a little more creative than the usual Hallmark card or bottle of cologne?

      The Slingbox

      ts fan who follows a certain team for example,  you can buy them the Slingbox 350, which will allow him to watch and control his home TV from anywhere in the world, directly from his computer, laptop or mobile device.

      The Slingbox connects to either the DVR, cable box or satellite receiver and allows one to enjoy their local sports teams, local programming and favorite shows from any location that has Internet access.

      Using the device differs from being a member of Netflix or using another streaming service, because he won’t have to pay an additional membership fee to access sporting events and shows, he'll simply pay one price upon purchase and enjoy the same programming that he would on his living room couch.

      The bad news about the Slingbox is its hefty price of $178, which is the current cost on Amazon, so the device might have been a better Christmas gift than a Valentine’s Day gift, but if you’re looking to wow your guy this year and catch him completely off guard, the Slingbox isn’t a bad way to go.

      Jukebox CD Player

      Another cool gift idea, especially for the music lover, is the Crosley CR11CD Jukebox CD Player, for about $100. The retro musical contraption looks like something The Fonz would hit with his fist to get sound out of, as the modern day jukebox actually looks like a well preserved relic of the 1950s.

      But it doesn’t just look cool, the Crosley Jukebox is perfect if you haven’t been sure where to put all of those CDs that you never play anymore, and unlike a traditional  jukebox, the CR11 is small enough to fit on any table or countertop, and can be a great addition to any den, mancave or corner of the house where your guy likes to occasionally retreat.

      The Crosley also comes with an AM/FM radio and built in speakers, and although it probably won’t give him the high sound quality of modern  listening devices or even jukeboxes of a higher cost, it plays well enough to satisfy both his ears and his sense of nostalgia in one fell swoop. It also makes a nice conversation piece for company.

      Fish TV Plus

      This particular device is great for the guy who loves to fish on either the dock, boat or on top of the ice, as the Fish TV Plus 5-inch Monitor and Underwater Camera Combo will allow him to see exactly what’s going on beneath the water, so that casting his line and sinking his hook won’t be a complete guessing game while he's fishing.

      The Fish TV Plus comes with an underwater camera that’s built so as not to scare the fish and it also comes with a 50-foot cable so your guy and his fishing pole aren’t confined to just one small area.

      The screen’s picture is in black and white, but many consumer reviews on the Internet explain the images are quite clear and say the device has helped them catch more fish than before.

      Clocky clock

      And to help get your hubby or boyfriend up in the morning for those pre-dawn fishing excursions, there’s the Clocky alarm clock, designed for the person who is a habitual snooze-button pusher.

      What’s different about this alarm clock are its wheels that allow the Clocky to roll right off the night stand as it's going off, which makes it impossible for a person to hit the snooze button from their bed.

      The durable and tiny alarm clock only goes for about $40 and comes in an array of colors, and as it lets off a barrage of whistles, rings and ear-piercing noises, the Clocky will continue to roll around  the floor until you finally get up and turn it off.

      Some may find this alarm clock way too annoying for early morning, but that’s the whole point. I guess the company figured not even the heaviest sleeper will be able to stay in bed while this thing is rolling around the room like some crazed remote control car.

      You can also program the Clocky to stay put and not roll off the night stand if you choose, but then why get an alarm clock that has wheels?

      So if you’re going the gift-giving route this Valentine’s Day, you may want to avoid gifts of romance and mushiness and give your mate something that he’ll use regularly, that way, he'll be able to enjoy his particular hobby even more than he does now.

      When it comes to wives and girlfriends buying gifts for the men in their lives, it can get pretty tricky sometimes.For one, a lot of men aren’t rea...