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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&rsq...

PhotoThe 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.

PhotoTake, 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.

Photo
Stuart Gulley

“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

PhotoIn 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.

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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 ...

PhotoPlenty 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.

Photo
Dodge Dart

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.

Photo
Nissan Sentra

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.

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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 t...

PhotoYou 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.

PhotoIt'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.

PhotoNow, 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.

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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....

PhotoJust 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.

PhotoNet-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."

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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...

PhotoA 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.
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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 fi...

PhotoFor 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.

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California firm recalls veal trimmings

The meat might be contaminated with E. Coli O157:H7

San Jose Valley Veal, a Santa Clara, CA, is recalling approximately 1,260 pounds of veal trimmings that may be contaminated with E. Coli O157:H7. The foll...

PhotoSan Jose Valley Veal, a Santa Clara, CA, is recalling approximately 1,260 pounds of veal trimmings that may be contaminated with E. Coli O157:H7.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 60-pound, cardboard box cases of "SAN JOSE VALLEY VEAL AND BEEF INC." boneless veal trimmings.

Boxes may contain the case codes: "L-1 11112," "L-1 11212," "L-1 11512," "L-1 11612," "L-1 11712," "L-1 11812" or "L-1 11912" and also bear the establishment number "EST. 2828" inside the USDA mark of inspection.

The products subject to recall were produced between Nov. 1 and Nov. 9, 2012 then were transported to a federal facility for further distribution. There is a concern that some product may be frozen and in customers' freezers.

The problem was discovered when a customer tested a shipment of veal and reported positive results. The customer held the shipment pending laboratory results, but other product from the producer's same lot had shipped into commerce.

There have been no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact company executives, Leo or John Teixeira, at (408) 727-4404.  

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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 ca...

PhotoSportspower 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.

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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 Dec...

PhotoYou 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.

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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 ...

PhotoMore 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.”  

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Petition seeks federal action to stop Jeep fires

Woman starts petition drive after seeing two people burn to death in their Jeep

A Virginia woman who stood by helplessly as two people burned to death in their Jeep Grand Cherokee is hoping an online petition will motivate federal safe...

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Want to sell your own art or merchandise? Here's how

Many of us have a good business idea, but don't know how to get that idea off the ground.

What separates the dreamers from the doers? Because most of us dream, right?Most of us at some point in our lifetime have mentally put together a game pl...

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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...

PhotoWhen 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.

Gold's Gym Jan. 30, 2013, 2:15 p.m.
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.

LA fitness Jan. 30, 2013, 2:16 p.m.
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.

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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,...

PhotoYou'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.

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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 ho...

PhotoThe 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.

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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. ...

PhotoThe 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.

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Gab Halal Foods recalls ground beef products

The meat may be contaminated with Salmonella

Gab Halal Foods of Troy, MI, is recalling approximately 550 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Typhimurium...

PhotoGab Halal Foods of Troy, MI, is recalling approximately 550 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Typhimurium

The products subject to recall are:

  • Various size bags of ground beef, wrapped in clear plastic

The products were produced between Dec. 4, 2012, and Dec. 10, 2012, and distributed to a restaurant in Macomb County, Mich., and sold directly to consumers at Gab Halal Foods. These products were sold without a label.

This recall has been initiated because of concerns involving a cluster of Salmonella Typhimurium illnesses that may be associated with consumption of raw ground beef from a restaurant in Macomb County, Mich. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) determined that there is a link between this illness cluster and the ground beef products from Gab Halal Foods, as well as another retail store (Jouni Meats, Inc., which recalled ground beef products on January 24, 2013).

Based on epidemiologic and traceback investigations, seven case-patients with the same outbreak strain have been identified in Ariz. and Mich. with illness onset dates ranging from December 9, 2012, to December 13, 2012. The seven case-patients consumed raw beef kibbeh on December 7, 2012, and December 8, 2012. It is not known at this time if this outbreak strain has any drug resistance; results are pending.

There are concerns that some product may be frozen and in consumers' freezers.

FSIS advises all consumers safely prepare their raw meat products, including fresh and frozen, safe;y and consume only ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160° F. The only way to confirm that ground beef is cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria is to use a food thermometer that measures internal temperature.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact the company's owner, Robert M. Berry, at (248) 879-0927.  

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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 a...

PhotoThe 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).
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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 alleg...

PhotoThree 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.
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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 200...

PhotoToyota 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).

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Woman sues Match.com after being stabbed by her date

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

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...

Photo
Wade Ridley Photo: Las Vegas Police
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.

Match.com Jan. 29, 2013, 5:37 p.m.
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.

Photo"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."

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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 rea...

PhotoWhen 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?

Photo

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.

PhotoBut 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

PhotoThis 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.

PhotoWhat’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.

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Some cards protect you from fraud better than others

Credit cards are safer than debit cards; avoid using your PIN where possible

It can happen. You lose your wallet or your purse is stolen. Quick, how many and what kind of credit and debit cards have been lost and, more importantly, ...

PhotoIt can happen. You lose your wallet or your purse is stolen. Quick, how many and what kind of credit and debit cards have been lost and, more importantly, what is your liability if some unauthorized person uses your cards?

The answer all depends on what type of card it is. If you're lucky, the thief will try to use your credit card. And it's the card you should be using too.

“A credit card is the safest type of payment vehicle for people to use for two reasons,” said Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of Card Hub, a credit card comparison site. “First, card network liability policies are simply more advantageous to the consumer when it comes to credit card transactions than transactions involving debit cards, prepaid cards, or ATM cards. Credit cards also make fraud easier to deal with given the inherent way in which they work.”

Consumer fraud liability study

Papadimitriou, whose firm has produced a new consumer fraud liability study, says consumers have up to 25 days to pay their bill once their monthly statement becomes available. It's assumed the consumer will be more likely to notice and report suspicious charges before they have to pay.

Credit cards, then, offer the best fraud liability protection for consumers, as all four major card networks provide $0 liability guarantees for unauthorized credit card transactions. In cases of fraudulent credit card use, it's usually the merchant that accepted the card as payment who is on the hook.

That's not always the case with a compromised debit card.

Debit cards

Photo
Odysseas Papadimitriou

“With a debit card, on the other hand, money gets removed from your account at the time a purchase is made,” Papadimitriou said. “That means you’ll not only have to try to recoup your lost funds, but you may also inadvertently bounce a few checks in the meantime if you aren’t keeping a watchful eye on your account activity. Plus, you also have to consider the psychological trauma, if you will, that comes with unexpectedly finding your bank account empty.”

But there are ways consumers can reduce their risk when using a debit card. When using the card to make a purchase, you have the choice of processing it as a debit or credit transaction. If you choose “credit,” you authorize the purchase with your signature. If you process it as a debit transaction, you use a PIN.

Consumers get better protection when they sign for a purchase instead of using their PIN. In fact, Consumers are not liable for fraud related to signature debit card transactions, regardless of the card network. Reloadable prepaid cards offer the same fraud liability protections as traditional debit cards.

If you do use your PIN for a transaction, your liability will vary, depending on whether it's a Visa or MasterCard. Visa offers limited protection, depending on the network that processes the transaction. MasterCard does not offer added liability protection for unauthorized PIN debit card transactions.

Discover and American Express

Discover, meanwhile, extends its $0 liability guarantee to all PIN debit transactions and American Express is not in the business of providing debit-based PIN transactions. But Papadimitriou says both cards set themselves apart in the fraud protections they provide.

Photo“People who have Discover and American Express cards in their wallets benefit from something that that VISA and MasterCard users don’t: blanket liability coverage and the peace of mind that comes with it,” Papadimitriou said.

“They know that no matter what type of card they use or transaction they make, the hit for any fraud that may crop up won’t be theirs to take. Since the dangers of fraud are largely psychological, in that the incidence of it is quite low and the chances you’ll personally lose any money are even lower, Discover and Amex have a distinct advantage over the competition in this regard.”

Lessons

There are several lessons here for consumers. First, make a credit card your primary spending vehicle, rather than a debit card. It's much safer.

When using your debit card, select the credit/signature option instead of entering your PIN. It will limit your liability.

When paying in a restaurant, always fill in all the fields, including tip, even if you are paying the tip in cash. Put $0 in the box instead of leaving it blank.

When you do use you PIN, safeguard it carefully, and don't share it with anyone else.

Finally, if you haven't already, make a list of your credit and debit cards, their account numbers and expiration dates, along with customer service telephone numbers. Print out the list, do not save it on a computer. Place the list in a secure location, just in case.

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Taco Bell pulls 'veggie attack ads'

Consumer groups spoke up for the right to bear vegetable trays

It was supposed to be funny but consumer activists weren't laughing at a Taco Bell ad that urged Super Bowl fans to leave the vegetables at home and "grab ...

PhotoA correction is appended to the bottom of this story.

It was supposed to be funny but consumer activists weren't laughing at a Taco Bell ad that urged Super Bowl fans to leave the vegetables at home and "grab the Taco Bell Variety 12 Pack" for their Super Bowl party.

"Bringing veggies to game day is a blatant violation of the Game Day Code -- it's a cop out," the ad said, suggesting that bringing a vegetable tray to a sports party is "like punting on fourth and one."

The Food Police were not amused.

"It's bad enough that there aren't many ads on television for broccoli, kale, or carrots," said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The last thing healthy fruits and vegetables needed was to be the subject of attack ads."

With surprising speed, Taco Bell responded and pulled the ad.

“We didn’t want anyone to misinterpret the intent of the ad,” said Rob Poetsch, a Taco Bell spokesman after hearing from Wootan and others who said the restaurant chain was attacking not only vegetables but those who eat them.

Wootan pronounced herself "delighted" at the decision.

"Thanks to Taco Bell for responding with record speed to address nutritionists' and consumers' concern over this ad campaign," she said.

CORRECTION: Taco Bell says the ad in question was not for the Super Bowl but rather for the college Bowl Championship Series.   

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How to buy and store seafood

Unlike other meats, consumers should deal with seafood in an entirely different way

If you ask me, seafood is quite special.And when comparing it to other foods like chicken, beef and pork, it stands  in its own section for being he...

PhotoIf you ask me, seafood is quite special.

Compared to chicken, beef and pork, seafood stands alone. It's healthier, lighter on the stomach and simply a more exotic choice when trying to figure out what to eat or cook.

But’s let’s be honest, not all seafood has been created equal, and in some cases using the term seafood is quite the creative stretch, especially in some fast-food places and take-out restaurants.

And when trying to decide where to buy fish, shrimp or any other kind of seafood, you just can’t walk into any old place that sells the stuff and feel confident its' fresh, safe to eat and won’t make you sick.

According to Eatright.org, a website and informational hub put together by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, fish needs to be stored and refrigerated below a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit at all times.

And different types of seafood needs to be either packaged or displayed separately in the store, to avoid the possibility of cross contamination, so going to a fish market and seeing the shrimp next to the scallops and the scallops next to the salmon in close proximity, should be a big sign to stay away.

Clean and cold   

Additionally, all seafood should be packaged separately by either you or the cashier before bringing it home, and while shopping, the seafood should be the last item you pick up before heading to the register, so it’s not kept away from refrigeration longer than it has to, says the Academy. 

PhotoThe organization also says the flesh on seafood should be shiny in color and if it appears dull or the flesh is hard to separate from the bone, you should avoid purchasing it.

And although many believe fish is supposed to smell fishy or ocean-like, it actually shouldn’t -- and if you do smell an odor, it should be a clear sign the seafood comes from a questionable source or hasn't been properly refrigerated.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a government agency that researches the conditions of the ocean, atmosphere and sea life, consumers should use a simple finger test to determine the level of freshness when buying fish fillets or whole fish, that entails pressing down on the flesh of the seafood and seeing if an indentation is left.

If there is an indentation, the NOAA says you should stay away from the fish. The flesh should give you a little resistance and appear firm when pressing down on it. If it doesn’t do that, the seafood is more than likely to be of very poor quality.

Also, if the eyes in a whole fish seem to bulge, it’s considered a good thing, say experts and if you notice the eyes are sunken, discolored, cloudy or have a pinkish hue, it’s a good indication the fish isn’t fresh and has been out of the ocean too long. 

No leaks or drips

According to the University of Illinois Extension, which studies different aspects of seafood from purchasing it to cooking it correctly, packaged seafood should not be leaking and if you notice dripping liquids or the contents of the package is swimming in raw juices, it shouldn’t be touched, since the seafood could contain bacteriathat can’t be removed by simply microwaving it.

PhotoThe Midwestern university also says that when buying frozen fish, you should stay away from packages that are kept above the frost line in the store’s freezer, and when buying shellfish, you should always buy it live and make sure you see movement in the animal’s tail, legs or shell.

Consumers should also be on the look-out for ice crystals, say experts, as this is an indication the seafood has been refrozen more than once, because once frozen seafood thaws, it should never be frozen and thawed again, say experts.

Seafood lovers should also remember to freeze seafood immediately after buying it, says The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics -- and when storing it, you should always put seafood in air-tight containers or wrap it up tightly in cellophane.

However, the opposite applies to shellfish, as it should be stored with proper ventilation says the Academy and it should be placed in containers that aren’t sealed too tightly. Shellfish should also be covered with a paper towel or damp cloth when being stored, say experts.

Not on the counter

The Academy also says consumers should never thaw seafood on the counter, and instead allow it to thaw in the refrigerator, in the microwave or in the sink under cold running water.

PhotoAnd if you want to ensure that your seafood is being harvested sustainably, you can choose between any number of seafood guides that helps with your purchasing options, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide or the Blue Ocean Institute-Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood.

These guides and others like them are released and updated periodically by various organizations to help educate consumers about where their seafood actually comes from and how responsible companies are at bringing it to you.

Experts also say if there’s one chief rule to buying seafood, it would be the rule of common sense, as you should always make purchases from reputable sources and use your eyes and nose as your first line of defense to determine the seafood’s freshness and level of safety.

Also, you want to make sure that where you’re buying your seafood is totally clean, and that level of cleanliness should be your barometer in gauging just how fresh and safe the seafood is.

It doesn’t take a professional seafood inspector to make wise buying decisions; it just takes a little more time and effort on your part when you’re in a fish market or grocery store.

As I said seafood is quite special, so really, it has to be handled and treated with a lot more care compared to other foods.

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Insurers hit safer drivers with higher premiums, study finds

Rating factors give more weight to education and occupation than driving record

A survey by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) reaches the surprising conclusion that major insurance companies frequently charge higher premiums to ...

PhotoA survey by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) reaches the surprising conclusion that major insurance companies frequently charge higher premiums to safe drivers than to those who recently caused an accident.

In two-thirds of the 60 cases studied, large auto insurers quoted higher premiums to safe drivers than to those responsible for an accident. And in more than three-fifths of the cases with these higher premiums, the premium quoted the safe driver exceeded the premium quoted the unsafe driver by at least 25 percent.

These higher prices for “good drivers” mainly reflect insurer use of rating factors such as education and occupation that, in a 2012 nationwide survey, over two-thirds of Americans said were unfair.

“State insurance regulators should require auto insurers to explain why they believe factors such as education and income are better predictors of losses than are at-fault accidents,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s Director of Insurance and former Texas Insurance Commissioner.

“Policymakers should ask why auto insurers are permitted to discriminate on the basis of non-driving-related factors such as occupation or education,” he added.

Discriminatory practices

“Unfortunately, the discriminatory practices of auto insurers mainly harm low- and moderate-income drivers,” noted Stephen Brobeck, CFA’s Executive Director. “This damage can be considerable since all states but one require drivers to carry auto insurance, and most Americans need a car to pursue work opportunities,” he added.

PhotoCFA priced policies in twelve cities using the websites of the five largest auto insurers – State Farm, Allstate, GEICO, Farmers and
Progressive – who together have over half the private auto insurance market.

It compared premiums quoted to two 30-year old women who each had driven for 10 years, lived on the same street in the same middle-income zip code, and sought minimum liability coverage required by that state.

But these two women differed in several important respects: One was a single receptionist with a high school education who rents, has been without insurance coverage for 45 days, and has never had an accident or moving violation. The other woman was a married executive with a Masters degree who owns a home, has had continuous insurance coverage, and has had an at-fault accident with $800 of damage within the past three years.

Photo
Robert Hunter

There were significant differences among the five major insurers. On the one hand, in every case Farmers, GEICO, and Progressive quoted the safe driver a higher premium than the driver causing an accident. (In several cases, companies refused a quote to the good driver but gave one to the accident-causer.)

On the other hand, in all twelve cities State Farm charged the good driver less. Moreover, in all twelve cities, the rates quoted by State Farm were
either the lowest (6 cities) or the second lowest (6 cities).

“With nearly one-quarter of the private passenger auto insurance business, State Farm dominates the market. If they can be a successful company without using highly discriminatory factors, other large companies should be able to do so as well,” Hunter said.

The full report is available on CFA's website.

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The value of your home continues to rise

Average home prices across the United States rebound to their autumn 2003 levels

The housing market -- as measured by home prices -- is showing strength unseen in several years. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, hom...

PhotoThe housing market -- as measured by home prices -- is showing strength unseen in several years.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, home prices rose 4.5 percent for the 10-City Composite and 5.5 percent for the 20-City Composite in the 12 months ending in November 2012. Prices rose in 19 of the 20 cities and fell in New York. In 19 cities prices rose faster in the 12 months to November than in the 12 months to October; Cleveland prices rose at the same pace in both time periods.

Phoenix led with the fastest price rise -- up 22.8 percent in 12 months as it posted its seventh consecutive month of double-digit annual returns.

Best showing in years

As of November 2012, average home prices across the United States are back to their autumn 2003 levels for both the 10-City and 20-City Composites. Measured from their June/July 2006 peaks, the decline for both Composites is approximately 30 percent through November 2012. In November 2012, the recovery for both Composites from their recent lows in early 2012 was approximately 8-9 percent.

In November 2012, the 10- and 20-City Composites posted respective annual increases of 4.5 percent and 5.5 percent, and monthly declines of 0.2 percent and 0.1 percent.

“The November monthly figures were stronger than October, with 10 cities seeing rising prices versus seven the month before.” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Phoenix and San Francisco were both up 1.4 percent in November followed by Minneapolis up 1.0 percent. On the down side, Chicago was again amongst the weakest with a drop of 1.3 percent for November.

Seasonal factors

Winter is usually a weak period for housing which explains why we now see about half the cities with falling month-to-month prices compared to 20 out of 20 seeing rising prices last summer. The better

annual price changes also point to seasonal weakness rather than a reversal in the housing market.

Further evidence that the weakness is seasonal is seen in the seasonally adjusted figures: only New York saw prices fall on a seasonally adjusted basis while Cleveland was flat.

Regional patterns are shifting as well. The Southwest -- Las Vegas and Phoenix -- are staging a strong comeback with the Southeast -- Miami and Tampa close behind. The sunbelt, which bore the brunt of the housing collapse, is back in a leadership position. California is also doing well while the Northeast and industrial Midwest are lagging somewhat.

On the comeback trail

Prices are rising as are both new and existing home sales. Existing home sales in November  were 5.0 million, highest since November 2009. New Home sales at 398,000 were the highest since June 2010. These figures confirm that housing is contributing to economic growth.

In November 2012, 10 cities and both Composites posted negative monthly returns. Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle were the ten MSAs to post positive month-over-month returns.

In the context of monthly changes, Boston, Chicago and New York have fared the worst -- with more than six months of declining prices in the past 12 months.

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Online sites offer help to those facing a divorce

Free information is available to help you deal with the legal, financial and emotional hurdles

Divorce is both costly and emotionally taxing. Even if both parties agree it's time to part, they will both need support, as research continues to show the...

PhotoDivorce is both costly and emotionally taxing. Even if both parties agree it's time to part, they will both need support, as research continues to show the long-term effects of divorce and stress.

For example, some studies have shown that divorced individuals are 20 percent more likely than married people to have chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

There are a growing number of websites that offer information and support to people going through a break-up. Here are five that might be worth checking out:

DivorceSource.com

DivorceSource.com is a site that offers “what you need to know about divorce” and is one of the more comprehensive sites in the space. One thing that may be particularly helpful is its breakdown of information on a state-by-state basis. After all, divorce laws are not uniform nationwide. 

There's how-to information, “divorce tools,” articles and checklists. There is also an extensive forum, where users can help one another. The forums air a number of complicated financial issues connected with divorce. One poster, Drownersz, of Columbus, Ohio, said her husband is living in the house but refusing to pay the mortgage.

“What can I do? I do not want to ruin my credit but I am at the point that I want to be free from this marriage and he is not being reasonable,” she wrote. “Neither one of us are financially well off and cannot really afford an expensive divorce but he is not being logical. What do I do?”

HelpGuide.org

HelpGuide.org is a self-help website offering support and advice on a number of issues relating to physical and emotional well-being. It's section on coping with divorce offers advice on the emotional aspects of a break-up.

It offers tips for grieving after a divorce, reaching out to others for support, and self-care tips.

ChildrenandDivorce.com

ChildrenandDivorce.com is a site that tackles the tricky issues of children in a divorce. 

Run by a pair of family practice physicians, ChildrenandDivorce.com is dedicated to bringing children through the separation of their parents with as little trauma as possible. There are resources for parents, children, healthcare professionals, teachers, mental health professionals, clergy and legal professionals.

The site's authors say children have the right to a lasting relationship with both parents, truthful answers and input in the visitation schedule, among other rights.

Support in a Split

Almost everyone has known a couple that has filed for divorce. When they are close friends or family members, it can be stressful on those not directly involved in the break-up.

Jarratt, of Glen Allen, Va., recently experienced the divorce of a couple with whom he was close friends.

“It's difficult because I know and like both of them,” he said. “I've made a point of being as balanced as possible, calling both of them regularly and staying in touch.”

SupportinaSplit.com is a blog designed for people in Jarratt's position. It offers advice to friends and family of people going through divorce, suggesting ways they can help.

"Having a support group is essential to help manage the stress of a break-up," says Alicia J. Klat, a licensed attorney and contributor to Support in a Split. "This blog provides an ongoing resource for the friends, families and co-workers of those in the midst of a divorce by providing them with valuable tips for physical, emotional and financial health."

Bloggers include attorneys, divorce counselors and divorce survivors with topics ranging from exercise, dating and updating legal documents.

MedicinePlus

Finally, the divorce section of MedicinePlus, a website operated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provides an inexpensive source of information about the physical and emotional toll that divorce can take on a family.

It covers issues ranging from coping with stress to marriage counseling. Much of the information is also available in Spanish.

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Sprouter Northwest recalls alfalfa, brocco sandwich sprouts, clover, spicy sprouts

The sprouts may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Sprouters Northwest of Kent, WA, is recalling 1953 pounds of alfalfa, clover, brocco sandwich sprouts, and spicy sprouts due to the potential contamination...

PhotoSprouters Northwest of Kent, WA, is recalling 1953 pounds of alfalfa, clover, brocco sandwich sprouts, and spicy sprouts due to the potential contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

The products were distributed from 1/10/13 to 1/18/13 in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and British Columbia, Canada, through retail stores and food service distribution chain.

The affected products are sold under the Sprouters Northwest brand and are packaged in plastic clamshell containers and plastic 1-pound bags.

The affected products are:

ProductSizeBest by DateUPC
Clover Sprouts5oz container1/26/20130 33383 70235 3
Clover Sprouts1 lb bag1/26/20130 79566 12351 5
Clover Sprouts2lb tray1/26/20130 79566 12351 5
Clover Sprouts4oz container1/26/20138 15098 00201 6
Brocco Sandwich Sprouts4oz container1/26/20138 15098 00028 9
Spicy sprouts4oz container1/26/20138 15098 00202 3
Alfalfa sprouts4oz container1/31/20138 15098 00108 8
Alfalfa sprouts3oz container1/31/20138 51042 00402 6

The problem was identified through a surveillance sampling and two samples collected at retail locations were tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Consumers should not consume the recalled sprouts products and are advised to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Anyone with questions may contact the company at 1-253-872-0577 from 7AM to 2PM PST.

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Consumer confidence takes a January hit

'Paycheck shock' is said to be a major factor

Consumer unease about the economy appears to be growing. In fact, the confidence level is lower than it was a year ago. The Conference Board says its Con...

PhotoConsumer unease about the economy appears to be growing. In fact, the confidence level is lower than it was a year ago.

The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 58.6 in January from 66.7 in December , which had declined in December -- erasing all the gains made through 2012.

The Expectations Index declined to 59.5 from 68.1, while the Present Situation Index dropped to 57.3 from 64.6 last month.

Growing discomfort

“Consumers are more pessimistic about the economic outlook and, in particular, their financial situation, “ said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “The increase in the payroll tax has undoubtedly dampened consumers’ spirits and it may take a while for confidence to rebound and consumers to recover from their initial paycheck shock.”

Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions deteriorated in January. Those claiming business conditions are “good” fell to 16.7 percent from 17.2 percent, while those stating business conditions are “bad” increased to 27.4 percent from 26.3 percent.

Consumers’ assessment of the labor market has also grown more negative. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” declined to 8.6 percent from 10.8 percent, while those who believe jobs are “hard to get” increased to 37.7 percent from 36.1 percent.

Short-term worries

Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook continued to deteriorate in January. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 15.4 percent from 18.1 percent. However, those expecting business conditions to worsen declined slightly to 20.6 percent from 21.1 percent.

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was more pessimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead declined to 14.3 percent from 17.9 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs remained virtually unchanged at 27.0 percent.

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to decline rose to 22.9 percent from 19.1 percent, while those anticipating an increase fell to 13.6 percent from 15.6 percent.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was January 17.

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Advance Pierre Foods recalls chicken fried chicken breasts

The product may contain small pieces of metal

Advance Pierre Foods of Enid, OK, is recalling approximately 1,200 pounds of chicken fried chicken breasts that may contain small pieces of metal. The fol...

PhotoAdvance Pierre Foods of Enid, OK, is recalling approximately 1,200 pounds of chicken fried chicken breasts that may contain small pieces of metal.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 22.75-oz. pouches of Fast Classics Chicken Fried Chicken Breasts
  • Cases containing 6, 22.75-oz pouches Fast Classics Chicken Fried Chicken Breasts

The recalled product bears the establishment number "P-2260Y" inside the USDA mark of inspection, and a "best by" date of Jan. 22, 2014, the lot number 1522960202, and a UPC number 75901-33100.

The products were distributed in Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

The problem was discovered after the company received two consumer complaints.

The problem was discovered when the company's metal detectors found that a small metal hand tool fell into a grinder, which was discovered by. The product being recalled was packaged and shipped before all corrective actions could be taken.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Advance Pierre Consumer Affairs at (855) 328-8888.

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Super Power male sexual performance supplement recalled

The product contains an undeclared, potentially hazardous active ingredient

D&S Herbals, LLC, d/b/a Freedom Trading is recalling Super Power, a product sold as a dietary supplement to support male sexual performance. The product wa...

PhotoD&S Herbals, LLC, d/b/a Freedom Trading is recalling Super Power, a product sold as a dietary supplement to support male sexual performance. The product was sold nationwide between August 2012 and January 2013.

The finished product was tested and found to contain trace amounts sildenafil, the active pharmaceutical ingredient in an FDA-approved drug that is used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED) making this product an unapproved new drug.

Sildenafil poses a threat to consumers because it may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs (such as nitroglycerin) and lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease often take nitrates. ED is a common problem in men with these conditions who may seek products to enhance sexual performance. Additionally sildenafil may cause side effects such as, headaches and flushing.

The recalled products are in capsule form, packaged in two (2) count blister packs. The lot and expiration date can be found on the back of the package.

The following lot is being recalled:

ProductBatch Lot #EXPIRATION DATES
Super PowerL0810806/2015

The company has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall.

Consumers who have purchased these products should discontinue their use immediately and contact their physician if they have experienced any problems that may be related to the product.

The products may be turned to their place of purchase or directly to Freedom Trading.

Customers can call the Company at 866-780-6474 Monday through Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm EST for instructions on the return and refund process.

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OurTime.com: A dating site for the 50+ crowd

Many older people are reluctant to get back in the game but a relationship expert says they shouldn't be

Some people say a lot of different areas of life are wasted on the young like the appreciation of youth itself, since many young adults and teens are eager...

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Identity theft increasingly targeting children

Even parents are getting in on the act, stealing their children's credit

With more people shopping and banking online, cyber criminals have greater opportunities to steal identities.The Justice Department estimates 11.7 millio...

PhotoWith more people shopping and banking online, cybercriminals have greater opportunities to steal identities.

The Justice Department estimates 11.7 million people, representing five percent of all persons age 16 or older in the United States, were victims of identity theft between 2006 and 2008. These cases resulted in total financial losses of over $17 billion.

But increasingly, the victims are not adults and are well below the age of 16. A 2012 report by Richard Power, a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon CyLab, found children are targeted for identity theft at 35 times the rate of adults.

For example, Power found that Nathan, a 14-year-old from Kentucky, had a credit history that went back more than 10 years. Several credit cards and a foreclosed mortgage were already in his credit profile, put there by someone living in California. The thief established good credit for the first 10 years and was able to finance a $605,000 home in California through first and second mortgages.

When a parent is the thief

But the thief isn't always a stranger. Randy, who works at a car dealership in rural Virginia, says he has seen an increasing number of cases of young people buying their first car, only to find they can't because their credit is ruined.

“We run a credit check and in turns out their parents have used their identities to open credit card accounts, run up huge bills, and don't pay,” he said. “It's terrible. Usually the young person breaks down and cries.”

Experts who follow this sort of crime say parental identity theft accounts for only a small percentage of identity theft cases in the U.S. but concede the numbers are rising. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tracks identity theft but does not keep information about how many children have their identities stolen by a parent.

It's easy for a parent to steal their child's identity because they have access to the child's Social Security number. They can also easily intercept mail to keep the child or other family members from discovering what they have done.

Rationalization

Not all parents who steal their children's identity think they are stealing, or doing anything wrong. They fully intend to pay off the debt in a timely matter and think they will be establishing a good credit history for their child. But in addition to being illegal, their good intentions almost always fail and they doom their children to beginning their adult life with bad credit.

The system is also helpful to someone who wants to assume a child's identity because companies that issue credit do not have any way to confirm the age of the applicant. If the applicant using the Social Security number of a four-year old says they are 28, the credit provider usually accepts their word.

The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) says that, while it's understandable how that could slide by in a telephone or online application, few credit issuers request proof of identity in an in-person application process. Even then, many clerks have not been trained on how to recognize counterfeited or altered licenses.

Something that needs to be fixed

“This is a fault within our system that needs to be rectified,” the group says.

The credit reporting agencies also have no way to know that the Social Security number belongs to a minor. ITRC says there is little, if any, sharing of information about the age of a person between the credit bureaus and the Social Security Administration.

The age of the applicant becomes “official” with the first credit application. For example, if the first application indicates that the applicant is 24, the credit agencies believe that person is 24 until a dispute is filed and proven.

Identity thieves know this and it's a major reason that children have become favorite targets. At a minimum, parents should contact all three credit reporting agencies and request a credit report for their child. If you are told that there is no credit report, take that as good news. A credit report should not exist until that child’s first credit application as an adult.

There are also a number of private companies that offer additional steps that they say will keep a child's identity more secure.

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Barnes & Noble plans to close a third of its stores, report says

The last of its kind, the giant chain insists its business model still works

It's not easy being the last of your kind. Just ask Best Buy or Barnes & Noble. Both chains have outlasted their brick-and-mortar competitors but the q...

PhotoIt's not easy being the last of your kind. Just ask Best Buy or Barnes & Noble. Both chains have outlasted their brick-and-mortar competitors but the question now is whether they'll go the way of the other dinosaurs as Amazon and other online retailers take over the retail ecosystem.

Perhaps in partial answer to that question, Barnes & Noble will close about a third of its stores over the next decade, according to a Wall Street Journal story that the company disputes. It's not, after all, just that people are buying more books online, but rather that they're not buying as many books anywhere -- "real" books, that is.

As readers shift at least a portion of their purchases to e-books that they can read on their iPads, Kindles and Nooks, there's no reason to venture into a bookstore, unless you're looking for a warm place to hang out and read while consuming a remarkably expensive cup of coffee.

Barnes & Noble Jan. 28, 2013, 4:09 p.m.
Consumers rate Barnes & Noble

Actually, there are those who think the used bookstore is the wave of the future, and certainly there seem to be more of these mostly mom-and-pop stores popping up here and there.

In Reston, Va., Bud and Susan Burwell's descriptively-named Reston's Used Book Shop has been thriving since 1978, when it opened in a small space on the shores of Lake Anne in what was then a futuristic shopping plaza.

Thirty-five years later, it's still there, with a steady stream of customers bringing in used books for store credits or cash and staggering out with bags full of purchases. The store has its own book club, hosts book signings by local authors and is the kind of place where customers engage each other in off-the-cuff critiques of books and authors.

It has the kind of atmosphere Barnes & Noble and the late Borders were always trying to recreate.

One and only

And soon, it will be Reston's only book store. A much larger Barnes & Noble has announced plans to vacate its space in Reston Town Center, a bigger, newer shopping, office and residential district that its boosters say "looks just like Manhattan."

PhotoBy itself, this isn't necessarily surprising. Like any national retail chain, Barnes & Noble has routinely closed stores that under-performed while opening new ones that its market researchers think have a better chance of success. In recent years, it has closed about 15 stores in an average year while opening 30 or so new ones.

But now, according to The Wall Street Journal, CEO Mitchell Klipper says  the chain is likely to have a net loss of about 20 stores per year, eventually whittling itself  down to 450 to 500 stores, down from its peak of 726 in 2008. 

A Barnes & Noble spokeswoman, however, took issue with the Journal's report. 

"Barnes & Noble has not adjusted its store closing plan whatsoever.  The Wall Street Journal article implies that our rate of store closures has changed," said Mary Ellen Keating. "We have historically closed approximately 15 stores per year for the past 10 years.  Of that number some of the stores are unprofitable while others are relocations to better properties.  The numbers reported today by the Wall Street Journal are consistent with analysts’ expectations. 

"It should be noted that in 2012, Barnes & Noble opened two new prototype stores and in 2013 plans to test several other prototypes, as well.    Barnes & Noble has great real estate in prime locations and the company’s management is fully committed to the retail concept for the long term,” Keating said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

Perhaps, but it's hard to escape some sobering trends, among them, B&N's less than stellar success with its Nook e-reader. The company is up against some of the biggest ventures on earth as it struggles to compete with Apple, Amazon, Google and other manufacturers of tablets and e-readers.

Klipper argues that most people who read books regularly read both e-books and the real thing. That may be true but major publishers are saying they expect e-books to make up half their total sales within the next few years, and many of those sales will naturally gravitate to Amazon, Apple, Google and other online giants who are in front of consumers all day, everyday.

And where will all the bookworms go when they want a real cardboard and paper book? Well, not to rub it in, but many of them will head for the local equivalent of RUBS, as Reston's Used Book Store is known to its regulars.

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Understanding why people stutter and how they can cope

Singing is proving to be an effective therapy

Stuttering is a speech disorder that has been around forever but doesn't get much attention. At least, it hasn't until recently.When someone who stutters...

Stuttering is a speech disorder that has been around forever but doesn't get much attention. At least, it hasn't until recently.

PhotoWhen someone who stutters speaks, their sounds, syllables or words are repeated, or held longer than normal. These problems cause a break in the flow of speech.

For obvious reasons, many stutterers shy away from the spotlight. An exception, however, emerged recently on the Fox series American Idol. Contestant Lazaro Arbos stuttered when he spoke to the judges but sang beautifully. The network featured Arbos in the promo below.

But Arbos' singing abilities are not unusual for people who stutter. Mel Tillis was a major country music star in the 1970s who had a stutter when he spoke.

"Many of the behaviors that reduce stuttering in daily speech overlap with behaviors found in singing," said Nan Bernstein Ratner, a University of Maryland professor and co-author of a textbook on stuttering. "Speech disruptions that interfere with the normal flow of communication that lead to stuttering appear to be smoothed during singing because of the way syllables and words are linked together during this process."

The King's Speech

In the Academy award winning film The King's Speech, a therapist working with King George VI employed singing as a way to help the British monarch manage his stuttering. Ratner says when humans attempt to produce a musical note, the larynx is used more gently than during spoken speech. Singers are also focused on hitting each note properly, and use a tempo or rhythm.

Photo"This is the same reason speech pathologists have people who stutter use a 'gentle onset' as one speech Ratner said.

Other famous people have learned to cope with stuttering. Actor James Earl Jones, the voice of Star Wars' Darth Vadar and countless commercials, told London's Daily Mail in 2010 that he stuttered as a child and was virtually mute for eight years.

Stuttering usually begins in childhood. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about five percent of children between the ages of two and five will develop some stuttering during their childhood. It could last a few weeks or a few years.

Can run in the family

For about one percent of children, however, the stuttering does not go away and may actually get worse. It can also run in families, since genes have been identified that cause stuttering. NLM says there is also evidence that stuttering may be a result of some brain injuries, such as stroke or traumatic brain injuries.

Stuttering may rarely be caused by emotional trauma. called psychogenic stuttering. Stuttering is more common in boys than girls and tends to persist into adulthood more often in boys than in girls.

Adults seeking a “cure” should use caution, says Judith Maginnis Kuster, a professor emeritus from Minnesota State University, Mankato, in the Department of Speech, Hearing and Rehabilitation Services. She operates a website, The Stuttering Homepage, that warns consumers that looking for a "cure" for stuttering in adults is generally not realistic. 

“Looking for ways to manage stuttering effectively is realistic,” the website says. “Consumers are warned that programs guaranteeing a 'cure' should be thoroughly studied before spending any money on them.”

There are a number of effective therapy programs to help those who stutter manage their condition. Consumers can find them at the National Stuttering Association and other support groups. 

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Feeling low on energy? A new app claims it can help

JUICE combines technology with expert advice to improve your energy level

Why does it seem that many of us struggle with our energy levels, even though we claim to get enough rest, eat the right foods and get enough exercise?So...

PhotoWhy does it seem that many of us struggle with our energy levels, even though we claim to get enough rest, eat the right foods and get enough exercise?

Some may say today’s individual is busier than ever, and with jobs becoming more complex, forcing people to work longer hours and newly created devices making it easier to bring work home, getting any downtime or just having time to do absolutely nothing seems harder and harder to do these days.

And what course of action do a lot of consumers take to get their energy back? 

To answer that question, just take a look at your neighborhood grocery store or pop into your local corner market and you’ll see just how many energy drinks there are on the market.

From 5-hour Energy, to Red Bull, from Monster Energy to Rockstar Energy Drink, the shelves are full of products claiming to boost our energy level.

Track your energy level

Well, a new app created by the company Mindbloom sets out to change that approach, through its new mobile device app called JUICE, that allows people to track their energy level and get tips on how to increase their energy naturally.

JUICE “takes a fun, simple approach to helping the average person become aware of the daily habits that zap their energy, while serving up relevant suggestions and resources from top-tier experts on ways to improve those behaviors,” says Chris Hewett, founder of the tech health company Mindbloom, in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“JUICE is not an app for the ultra-marathoner, it’s an app for the average person who lacks energy but doesn’t know why and doesn’t have the time to begin to learn how to address the issue. With JUICE, users can quickly and easily record and reflect on their daily behaviors in the areas of nutrition, sleep, exercise, mood, life balance and stress and track them against their daily energy level,” he said.

What’s also cool about the app, says Hewett, is that it’s fun to use, and instead of the app having a boring and scientific approach to gathering the needed information from you, it actually comes across like a game that will hopefully keep people permanently engaged.

“The application uses playful interaction to make the experience fun, such as offering a lighthearted visual sliding scale to rate that day’s nutrition behaviors from ‘awful’ (pizza, beer and a cupcake) to ‘great’ (salmon, vegetables and a glass of water)," says Hewett.

After the seven days, JUICE gives an energy report that sums up all of the information users gave during the seven-day period, then the app gives advice on the things you need to change, so you can maintain a proper energy level.

Customized tips

And the app doesn’t provide general input either, says Hewett, it actually gives customized tips that are tailored for your specific circumstance. 

Photo “JUICE users also receive daily tips from Mindbloom’s partner network of highly respected health experts and authors,” says Hewett. “The tips are personalized and relevant based on the users input, and are designed to encourage users to improve choices and behaviors that are problematic.”

Hewett also said that user feedback for the app has been encouraging.

"We launched the app just over two months ago and already have 70,000 downloads. Overall people have been ranking their energy as ‘ok’ across the board, so we’d like to see that go up and believe our expert tips have already started to make an impact, especially with people who are connecting expert tips with their New Year’s resolutions.”

And with the large number of downloads so far, Hewett says he can't wait to see what the app goes from here.

“Nutrition and exercise have been the lowest ranked areas so far, although we also saw improvement in January over December. It’s amazing to see the app making an impact on people’s lives so early after launch and we can’t wait to see even more results,” he says.

Negative behavior

See, many of us want to feel better during our daily routine, but don’t know how to go about it. Also, when we do decide to do something, we may work on only fixing one area that needs improving, like going to bed a little earlier.

PhotoAnd of course, correcting any negative behavior is great, but to make a complete change for the better and have an increased energy level, you’ll have to fix all of your problem areas , which is exactly what the app does,” says Hewett.

“Most people don’t even realize that certain energy-zapping behaviors are taking place as often as they are,” he said.

“Often you need a mental map to know where you’re going or recognize that you’re lost. Tracking allows you to see how behaviors are impacting other areas of your life. With JUICE, people get an easy navigational tool for checking in with themselves when energy levels are an issue and they get to see a map of their habits in a fun and non-invasive way.”

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to identify areas where potential small steps could make a huge difference in enabling positive behaviors that lead to more energy. Used effectively, JUICE is the perfect gateway app to better health, well-being and happiness,” says Hewett.

He also says that simply grabbing an energy drink is nothing but a temporary fix.

“While an afternoon energy drink or caffeine-loaded beverage might be part of someone’s daily repertoire to boost their energy, it’s a Band-Aid fix that doesn’t address why that person might be in the midst of an energy crisis brought on by potential unhealthy behaviors."

"With JUICE, people get to the bottom of identifying what is zapping their energy so they can start taking actions to get their natural energy to an optimal level.”

Hewett says what also sets JUICE apart from other health apps are the tips you get from experts to help keep your energy level up.

“The integration of top industry experts is important,” he says.

Juice can be downloaded for free in Apple’s iTunes store.

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Hartz Mountain 'Withdraws' Chicken Chews, Oinkies Pig Skin Twists

The dog treats contain trace amounts of unapproved antibiotics

The Hartz Mountain Corporation is withdrawing its Hartz Chicken Chews and Hartz Oinkies Pig Skin Twists wrapped with Chicken for dogs in the United States ...

PhotoThe Hartz Mountain Corporation is withdrawing its Hartz Chicken Chews and Hartz Oinkies Pig Skin Twists wrapped with Chicken for dogs in the United States because they contain trace amounts of unapproved antibiotic residue.

"We are taking this action after recent Hartz testing found trace amounts of unapproved antibiotic residue in samples of Hartz Chicken Chews and Oinkies Pig Skin Twists wrapped with Chicken products," the company said. "Even though two-thirds of the products we tested did not contain antibiotic residues, we would rather be overly cautious by voluntarily withdrawing these products from the market."

The company said the antibiotics are approved for use in poultry in China and other countries, including European Union member states, but are not among those approved in the U.S.

PhotoBased on the FDA’s review of the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets (NYSDAM) results, there is no evidence that raises health concerns, and these results are highly unlikely to be related to the reports of illnesses FDA has received related to jerky pet treats, Hartz said.

The company said that as soon as it learned of the finding, it contacted the FDA to share the test results and begin a nationwide voluntary withdrawal. There have been no known illnesses to date associated with the consumption of these products.

“Upon learning about the nationwide voluntary withdrawal of several other brands of chicken jerky products through media reports, Hartz acted immediately to begin additional testing to determine if the same unapproved antibiotic residues were present in our products,” said Sean McNear, Sr. Director of Quality and Regulatory at Hartz Mountain.

There is no indication that the trace amounts of unapproved antibiotic residue are linked to the FDA's ongoing investigation of chicken jerky products produced in China. The trace amounts of antibiotic residue do not pose a health or pet safety risk.

Hartz said customers can contact the company at 1-800-275-1414.

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Pyramid scheme promised riches but didn't deliver, feds charge

Federal court shuts down Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing

A federal court has At the request of the Federal Trade Commission and the states of Illinois, Kentucky, and North Carolina, a federal court has hal...

PhotoA federal court has pulled the blocks out from under Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing, which prosecutors say has defrauded more than 100,000 consumers in the U.S. and Canada.

“This is the beginning of the end for one of the most prolific pyramid schemes operating in North America,” Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said at a news conference in Lexington, Ky. “This is a classic pyramid scheme in every sense of the word.  The vast majority of people, more than 90 percent, who bought in to FHTM lost their money.”

According to the complaint filed by the FTC and the state attorneys general of Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina, the defendants falsely claimed consumers would earn significant income for selling the products and services of companies such as Dish Network, Frontpoint Home Security, and various cell phone providers, and for selling FHTM’s line of health and beauty products. 

Despite FHTM’s claims, nearly all consumers who signed up with the scheme lost more money than they ever made.  To the extent that consumers could make any income, however, it was mainly for recruiting other consumers, and FHTM’s compensation plan ensured that most consumers made little or no money, the complaint alleged.

A rigged game

“Pyramid schemes are more like icebergs,” said C. Steven Baker, Director of the FTC’s Midwest Region.  “At any point most people must and will be underwater financially.  These defendants were promising people that if they worked hard they could make lots of money.  But it was a rigged game, and the vast majority of people lost money.”

Photo

Prosecutors say the scheme affected more than 100,000 consumers throughout the United States, including Puerto Rico, and Canada.  In some areas, including Chicago, the scheme targeted Spanish-speaking consumers.

As alleged in the complaint, FHTM promoted itself as a way for average people to achieve financial independence.  Some FHTM representatives claimed they earned more than 10 times as much as their previous earnings in their second and subsequent years with FHTM. 

One person claimed that another representative earned more than $50,000 in his sixth month and millions of dollars in subsequent years.  Another person promoted a recruitment meeting on her Twitter account, stating, “Bring ur friends & learn how 2 make $120K aYR.” 

At its 2012 national convention in Dallas, FHTM called its top 30 earners to the stage to present them with a mock-up of a $64 million check, which several of them shared as a photo on social networking websites.

Compensation plan

To participate in the scheme, consumers paid annual fees ranging from $100 to $300.  To qualify for sales commissions and recruiting bonuses, they had to pay an extra $130 to $400 per month and agree to a continuity plan that billed them monthly for products unless they canceled the plan. 

Those who signed up more consumers and maintained certain sales levels could earn promotions and greater compensation, but contrary to FHTM’s claims, the complaint alleged, its compensation plan ensured that, at any given time, most participants would spend more money than they would earn.

In addition to charging the defendants with operating an illegal pyramid scheme and making false earnings claims, the FTC charged them with furnishing consumers with false and misleading materials for recruiting more participants.  The attorneys general offices of Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina joined the FTC complaint, as well as alleging violations of their state laws.

The defendants are Paul C. Orberson, Thomas A. Mills, Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing Inc., FHTM Inc., Alan Clark Holdings LLC, FHTM Canada Inc., and Fortune Network Marketing (UK) Limited.  

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New drug treatments approved for type 2 diabetes

Clinical trials involving thousands of patients found the treatments safe and effective

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three new related products for use with diet and exercise to improve blood sugar control in adults with ...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three new related products for use with diet and exercise to improve blood sugar control in adults with type 2 diabetes: Nesina (alogliptin) tablets, Kazano (alogliptin and metformin hydrochloride) tablets, and Oseni (alogliptin and pioglitazone) tablets.

Alogliptin is a new active ingredient, while metformin hydrochloride and pioglitazone are already FDA-approved for the management of type 2 diabetes. As the most common form of the disease, type 2 diabetes affects about 24 million people and accounts for more than 90 percent of diabetes cases diagnosed in the United States.

People with type 2 diabetes are either resistant to insulin or do not produce enough insulin, resulting in high blood sugar levels. Over time, high blood sugar levels can increase the risk for serious complications, including heart disease, blindness, and nerve and kidney damage.

"Controlling blood sugar levels is very important in the overall treatment and care of diabetes," said Mary Parks, M.D., director of the Division of Metabolism and Endocrinology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Alogliptin helps stimulate the release of insulin after a meal, which leads to better blood sugar control.”

Nesina, Kazano, and Oseni were studied as stand-alone therapies (monotherapies) and in combination with other type 2 diabetes therapies, including sulfonylureas and insulin. They should not be used to treat people with type 1 diabetes or those who have increased ketones in their blood or urine (diabetic ketoacidosis).

Nesina

Nesina was demonstrated to be safe and effective in 14 clinical trials involving about 8,500 patients with type 2 diabetes. It resulted in reductions in glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c), a measure of blood sugar control, of 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent compared with placebo after 26 weeks of use.

The FDA is requiring five postmarketing studies for Nesina: a cardiovascular outcomes trial; an enhanced pharmacovigilance program to monitor for liver abnormalities, serious cases of pancreatitis, and severe hypersensitivity reactions; and three pediatric studies under the Pediatric Research Equity Act (PREA), including a dose finding study and two safety and efficacy studies, one with Nesina as a monotherapy and one with Nesina and metformin.

Nesina 's most common side effects are stuffy or runny nose, headache, and upper respiratory tract infection.

Kazano

The safety and efficacy of Kazano were demonstrated in four clinical trials involving more than 2,500 patients with type 2 diabetes.

Kazano resulted in additional reductions in HbA1c of 1.1 percent over Nesina and 0.5 percent over metformin after 26 weeks of use.

The FDA is requiring two postmarketing studies for Kazano: an enhanced pharmacovigilance program to monitor for liver abnormalities, serious cases of pancreatitis, and severe hypersensitivity reactions; and a pediatric safety and efficacy study under PREA.

Kazano carries a Boxed Warning for lactic acidosis, a build-up of lactic acid in the bloodstream, associated with metformin use.

The most common side effects of Kazano are upper respiratory tract infection, stuffy or runny nose and sore throat, diarrhea, headache, high blood pressure, back pain, and urinary tract infection.

Oseni

Oseni was demonstrated to be safe and effective in four clinical trials involving more than 1,500 patients with type 2 diabetes. It resulted in additional reductions in HbA1c of 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent over pioglitazone monotherapy and 0.4 percent to 0.9 percent over alogliptin monotherapy.

The FDA is requiring an enhanced pharmacovigilance program for Oseni to monitor for liver abnormalities, serious cases of pancreatitis, and severe hypersensitivity reactions.

Oseni carries a Boxed Warning for heart failure associated with pioglitazone use.

The drug's most common side effects are stuffy or runny nose and sore throat, back pain, and upper respiratory infection.

Nesina, Kazano, and Oseni are distributed by Takeda Pharmaceuticals America, Inc., Deerfield, Ill.

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Pending home sales dip in December

However, the overall uptrend continues

Pending home sales slipped in December but have were above year-ago levels for the 20 consecutive month, according to the National Association of Realtors ...

PhotoPending home sales slipped in December but have were above year-ago levels for the 20 consecutive month, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, fell 4.3 percent in December -- to 101.7. But it's still 6.9 percent higher than December 2011 when it was 95.1. The data reflect contracts but not closings.

Supply the key

 "The supply limitation appears to be the main factor holding back contract signings in the past month," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "Still, contract activity has risen for 20 straight months on a year-over-year basis. Buyer interest remains solid, as evidenced by a separate Realtor survey which shows that buyer foot traffic is easily outpacing seller traffic."

Yun said shortages of available inventory are limiting sales in some areas. "Supplies of homes costing less than $100,000 are tight in much of the country, especially in the West, so first-time buyers have fewer options," he said. "We expect a seasonal rise of inventory in the spring to help, but a seller's market may be developing. Much of the West is already a seller's market for homes priced under a million dollars, but conditions are much more balanced in the Northeast."

Even with tighter inventory, a pent-up demand and favorable affordability conditions bode well for the market. Yun expects existing-home sales to increase another 9 percent in 2013, following a 9 percent rise in 2012.

West leads decline

The PHSI in the West fell 8.2 percent in December to 101.0 and is 5.3 percent below a year ago. In the Northeast it fell 5.4 percent to 78.8 in December but is 8.4 percent higher than December 2011.

Pending home sales in the Midwest rose 0.9 percent to 104.8 in December and were 14.4 percent above a year ago. In the South, the PHSI declined 4.5 percent to 111.5 in December, but is 10.1 percent higher December 2011.  

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Don’t double up on acetaminophen

You could be doing yourself more harm than good

You have flu symptoms and you've been getting a little relief for the past two days by taking a cough and flu medicine every few hours. Late in the day, th...

PhotoYou have flu symptoms and you've been getting a little relief for the past two days by taking a cough and flu medicine every few hours. Late in the day, though, you get a headache and think about popping a couple of tablets of acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, to treat the pain.

Hold on!

What you may not realize is that more than 600 medications -- both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) -- contain acetaminophen to help relieve pain and reduce fever. Taken carefully and correctly, they can be safe and effective. But taking too much acetaminophen can lead to severe liver damage.

Acetaminophen is a common medication for relieving mild to moderate pain from headaches, muscle aches, menstrual periods, colds and sore throats, toothaches, backaches and to reduce fever. It's also used in combination medicines, which have more than one active ingredient to treat more than one symptom.

Cold and flu season hits

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says we catch one billion colds per year and as many as 20 percent of us get the flu. Moreover, 7 in 10 people use OTC medicines to treat cold, cough and flu symptoms.

Fathia Gibril, M.D., M.HSc., a supervisory medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), explains that consumers looking for relief from a cold or the flu may not know that acetaminophen comes in combination with many other medications used to treat those symptoms. "So if you're taking more than one medicine at a time," she says, "you may be putting yourself at risk for liver damage."

Symptoms of acetaminophen overdose may take many days to appear, and even when they become apparent, they may mimic flu or cold symptoms. The current maximum recommended adult dose of acetaminophen is 4,000 milligrams per day, To avoid exceeding that dose:

  • don't take more than one OTC product containing acetaminophen,
  • don't take a prescription and an OTC product containing acetaminophen, and
  • don't exceed the recommended dose on any product containing acetaminophen.

"When you're at the store deciding which product to buy, check the 'Drug Facts' label of OTC cold, cough and flu products before using two or more products at the same time," Gibril says. If you’re still not sure which to buy, ask the pharmacist for advice.

Listen to the experts

Acetaminophen is used in many commonly prescribed medications in combination with pain relievers such as codeine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. As of January 2011, FDA reported that overdoses from prescription medicines containing acetaminophen accounted for nearly half of all cases of acetaminophen-related liver injury in the U.S. When your healthcare professionals prescribe a drug, be sure to ask if it contains this active ingredient, and also to tell them about all other medicines (prescription and OTC) and supplements you take.

Even if you still have fever or pain, it's important not to take more than directed on the prescription or package label, notes FDA supervisory medical officer Sharon Hertz, M.D. But be careful, the word "acetaminophen" is not always spelled out in full on the container's prescription label. Abbreviations such as APAP, Acetaminoph, Acetaminop, Acetamin, or Acetam may be used instead.

When buying OTC products, Hertz suggests you make it a habit of telling the pharmacist what other medications and supplements you’re taking and asking if taking acetaminophen in addition is safe.

When the medicine is intended for children, the "Directions" section of the Drug Facts label tells you if the medicine is right for your child and how much to give. If a dose for your child's weight or age is not listed on the label and you can't tell how much to give, ask your pharmacist or doctor what to do.

If you're planning to use a medication containing acetaminophen, you should tell your healthcare professional if you have or have ever have had liver disease.

Acetaminophen and alcohol may not be a good mix, either, Hertz says. If you drink three or more alcoholic drinks a day, be sure to talk to your healthcare professional before you use a medicine containing acetaminophen.

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Shopping for a mattress isn't always easy

They're hard to compare and you don't always end up with what you thought you bought

After your home and your car, your mattress just might be the most important purchase you make. After all, you will probably spend a third of your life on ...

PhotoAfter your home and your car, your mattress just might be the most important purchase you make. After all, you will probably spend a third of your life on it.

But shopping for a mattress can be an experience with many pitfalls. You can do your homework on the best mattress for your needs, negotiate a fair price, and still not get what you paid for.

Cynthia, of Palmyra, Va., purchased a new mattress from Mattress Discounters and even took a pass on having it delivered, sending her husband to pick it up.

“When my husband went to pick it up, they said it wasn't there but they had a better mattress that they would give us at the same price,” Cynthia wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

But her husband had no way to know whether the mattress was actually better or not. He could have taken some time to look it up on the Internet and read some reviews, but since he was in the store, he said “Okay,” and took the “better” mattress.

Losing sleep

“Since day one, I have been in pain and missing sleep,” Cynthia writes. “ A month after we purchased it, the box spring broke. We tried to return the mattress a week after we got it, but were told we had to wait the 60 days. After much complaining, the salesman agreed to let us return and said his manager would call. It never happened! Basically, we are out over $1000 and no mattress. I would personally rather burn this mattress than sleep on it.”

PhotoEven when you research a mattress' specs, you need to make sure you understand all the terms. Ken, of Missouri Valley, Iowa, reports paying $900 for a Sealy mattress with a four-inch memory foam top that almost immediately developed a dip in the middle. But he found he couldn't return it.

“We dug out our receipt and found out it was sold to us as the last one of a discontinued model and with no guarantee or warranty,” he writes. “We went down and discussed it with the sales manager in the mattress dept and he said some of them do that. Heck, I wish he'd told me that before I shelled out $900.00.”

$99 fee to check it out

Debra, of Bolingbrook, Ill., says she also encountered a sag in the mattress she purchased at The Bedding Experts, at a cost of $1,800. She called the store where she bought it and said it was defective and she wanted a replacement. She learned that just finding out if it were defective would be costly.

“Three days later I get a call from Rick in the Joliet store who tells me that the dip in the mattress has to be more than 1 1/2 inches deep and I would have to pay $99 to have someone come to my house to measure the dip and take pictures of it,” Debra wrote at ConsumerAffairs. “Then if it was determined that it was defective, I would have to drive to the Joliet store to get a new mattress of the same kind.”

You will probably have best results if you arrive at the store with a truck or van capable of carrying the bedding, should you find something and decide to buy it. If the display mattress you want isn't in stock, keep looking. That avoids the problem of the wrong mattress arriving at your home.

Not something you want to buy online

That pretty much rules out buying a mattress online. Yes, the advertised price may sound great but a mattress is a product with which you should get up close and personal. The two of you are going to be spending a lot of time together.

Remember, a warranty is different than a comfort guarantee. A warranty covers materials and workmanship and little else. But a retailer or manufacturer who allows you to return the mattress in a reasonable period of time if it's uncomfortable will likely give you both a better product and shopping experience.

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Dieting is a game of inches – and patience

Be happy with small steps, you aren't going to reach your goals overnight

How's that diet going? It's easy to get discouraged if you don't reach your goals when you think you should. So maybe it's time to readjust your goals.&l...

PhotoHow's that diet going? It's easy to get discouraged if you don't reach your goals when you think you should. So maybe it's time to readjust your goals.

“If we set lofty weight loss goals, like 10, 20 or 30-plus pounds, and we don’t make progress quickly enough, it’s too easy to get distracted and have our emotions convince us that the goal is not achievable,” said Lauren Whitt, director of University of Alabama Birmingham's (UAB) Employee Wellness.

Whitt and other fitness expects believe that breaking down goals into smaller, more manageable short-term targets, like losing one to two pounds per week, can lead to better chances of success.

“Once those first one or two pounds are lost, you can celebrate,” Whitt added. “Then the next mini-goal can become the focus.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also found benefit from gradual weight loss. It's especially helpful, the agency says, when it comes to maintaining your new weight.

The challenge

Here's what dieters are up against. To lose one pound you need to burn or reduce 3,500 calories. For most people, walking briskly for one hour will burn about 300 calories, less than 10 percent of that. CDC recommends reducing caloric intake by 500 to 1,000 calories per day.

Going on a crash diet – reducing consumption far below that amount – can yield near-instant results. But it often results in what is known as “yo-yo dieting.” Your weight goes down and comes right back up.

Don't mess with your metabolism

By restricting so many daily calories, you are resetting your body's metabolism. Once you start eating normally again, your body burns calories more slowly. Not a good thing.

There's an abundance of commercial weight loss programs available to consumers. Some appear to be more effective than others. Before selecting one, however, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests you discuss it with your doctor.

Based on your doctor's advice, the agency suggests choosing a diet that emphasizes healthy eating that reduces calories but does not forbid specific foods or food groups. Supplement that healthy eating plan with daily exercise of some kind. And again, start small, especially if you have not been very active lately.

What would such a plan yield in the way of results? According to NIH, between a half pound and two pounds per week.

How realistic are your goals?

Another important factor is having a realistic assessment of your current weight and measure your goals against that. You're here, but you want to be here – how realistic, or healthy, is that?

To start, you'll need to know your body mass index (BMI), a number calculated on your weight and height and a measure of how much fat your body is carrying. CDC has a handy online calculator to help you quickly establish your BMI. It will also give you a target weight to shoot for.

If you can't lose, stop gaining

It may be that before you can start losing weight, you need to stop gaining. Whitt says that can be a realistic and helpful goal if you are finding yourself struggling to lose weight.

“Look at the number you are now, and tell yourself you will stay right there,” Whitt said.

Whitt said a team of people supporting you, whether in a contest or in an individual weight-loss plan, is crucial.

“They are the ones who can pick you up and encourage you on a day when it feels overwhelming,” Whitt said. “These same people will also challenge you to continue to push forward, helping to propel you to greatness and encourage your efforts.”

It's also important not to focus on failure. Remember, there are going to be setbacks along the way. When you get right down to it, getting to and maintaining a healthy weight is not a destination but a journey. It's something you should try to do for the rest of your life.

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Celebrity Battle: Martha Stewart vs. Paula Deen

Both celebrities are beloved, but do readers feel the same way about their products?

For some reason, there’s something exciting about purchasing a product that’s associated with a celebrity.It may be because we’re fans ...

PhotoFor some reason, there’s something exciting about purchasing a product that’s associated with a celebrity.

It may be because we’re fans of a particular TV personality or movie star that makes buying one of their items seem more eventful than buying something that doesn’t have that same celebrity association.

Or maybe we somehow transfer our admiration for that particular celebrity to their products, and just assume their items will be high quality simply because their shows or movies are high quality.

Also, when we’re talking about celebrity-endorsed products, it’s important to establish the difference between a person like Tiger Woods, who may attach his brand to a newly released watch for example, and a person like the TV host and cook Rachel Ray, who uses her celebrity to pretty much only release products within her field of expertise.

In the Tiger Woods example, you know the successful golfer probably didn’t have anything to do with the actual design and quality of the watch, whereas Rachel Ray's expertise in the kitchen gives her products a certain amount of credibility. 

PhotoBoth Martha Stewart and Paula Deen fall into this category of celebrities releasing a series of products that are associated with the areas of their professions that made them famous, but of the two moguls, who has fared better among ConsumerAffairs readers, in terms of their products being up to snuff and working like they’re supposed to?

A closer look

Before we answer that, a little look at both celebrities and the products they sell and, at least sometimes, stand behind.

Truly, it’s not really an equal playing field if you match Paula Deen up against Martha Stewart when it comes to the amount of products available, and the mere fact that Stewart is arguably the biggest celebrity name in the area of home and garden products.

Also, Stewart has pretty much been the go-to person for ideas on everything from home decorating to hosting events, so she amounts to pretty fierce competition.

Since Paula Deen burst onto the television scene in 2002, she’s also become a household name and her everybody’s aunt persona has almost become synonymous with Southern cooking itself -- at least on TV.

And although having a much later start than Martha Stewart, Deen has still managed to put together an impressive array of products.

Paula Deen Cookware  Jan. 24, 2013, 9:33 p.m.
Consumers rate Paula Deen Cookware

On the website Pauladeenstore.com consumers can buy everything from pots and pans, cooking tools, dishes, tableware and a bunch of other items that many consumers have given a try.

But again, which celebrity product has done the best among our readers in terms of quality and people having the best overall customer experience?

Well, Paula Deen’s cookware received one and a half out of five stars, and upon reading the reviews, a good number of people have complained about her cookware either fading in color or even bleeding color, as happened to Cathy of Richboro, Pa.

“Red Paula Deen Cookware that was purchased from Walmart and as a gift to me is less than one year old and all bottoms are bleeding off on dish towels continually,” Cathy wrote in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

“The inside of the cookware has held up great but not the bottoms/outside of the cookware. I wish a replacement if this issue has been corrected; otherwise a full refund to purchase other cookware."

Apparently, only the bottom of Cathy’s cookware began to wear out quickly, and the inside still remained intact, but other readers weren’t as fortunate.

“My wife and I bought a set of Paula Deen’s pot and pan set a little over a year ago,” wrote Ken of Oak Harbor, Wash. “Within six months, the Teflon was peeling from the 10-inch skillet on the inside bottom. Now most of the pots and pans are peeling Teflon from various places."

"We still have the first set of pots and pans we bought after we were married. That was 43 years ago," he added. 

"Those pans still are not peeling any Teflon; they just look a little worse for wear on the outside of them, which is why we elected to buy a new set. We chose Paula Deen’s red set because we like the color scheme."

In fact, readers say, many of Deen’s cookware products had either arrived with missing parts, started to peel and chip and some readers even complained of pots and pans developing little holes in them quickly after purchase.

Notorious tables

Martha Stewart Outdoor Furniture Jan. 24, 2013, 9:42 p.m.
Consumers rate Martha Stewart Outdoor Furniture

And what about Ms. Stewart's products?

Her products ranked about the same as  Paula Deen with the average perhaps being pulled down by her infamous exploding glass-topped tables.0

“I bought the Mallorca II Martha Stewart set about two months ago from Home Depot and I woke up this morning to it being shattered all over the ground,” wrote Lydia of New Hampshire in her ConsumerAffairs posting.  

“There was nothing around it to cause it to break. I have had this for two months and when I went to Home Depot this morning, they told me the glass is not under warranty. My only option is to pretty much buy a new set. I am very angry and disappointed that this product has not been taken off the shelves.

Sheri of Columbia, Md., had a similar problem when she found also found her patio table shattered for seemingly no reason.

Photo“On Friday, I was thinking about eating out on my deck for the holiday weekend and to my surprise, there was glass everywhere,” she wrote. “I had to go buy a shop vac and there are still shards in the slats and underneath. I called the manufacturer and they said the glass was not warrantied.”

As a matter of fact, many people in our review section, pretty much back to back, found that Martha Stewart’s glass tables somehow imploded for no particular reason -- on the first page of reviews alone, there were over 20 comments that all listed the same problem of  glass on the tables shattering.

Eternal problem

This is, by the way, a problem that goes back practically to the beginning of time. There have been lawsuits, demands of all sorts and even a reported bankruptcy by one of Martha's suppliers.

But Ms. Stewart herself has never deigned to comment, apologize or even acknowledge the problem. Nor, needless to say, has she fixed it.

And so, although many consumers said they still loved Martha Stewart and Paula Deen, it goes to show you, that even though we may love watching a particular celebrity on television, it certainly doesn’t mean that we’ll love their products just as much.

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Survey: independent shops top dealerships for car repairs

Consumers say pricing is a key issue

While you pretty much have to go to a dealer to buy a new car, you don't need to go back for repairs. A recent online survey on auto repair showed that wh...

PhotoWhile you pretty much have to go to a dealer to buy a new car, you don't need to go back for repairs.

A recent online survey on auto repair showed that while consumers are generally satisfied with their dealership experience, they trust independent repair shops over dealerships for auto repairs by two to one.

Better prices and mechanic relationships are the keys for independent repair shop preference, with 80 percent of those surveyed by AutoMD.com say they felt they had been overcharged for a repair at a dealership, and over 90 percent believing they can save at least 10 percent by visiting an independent shop. Meanwhile, most who reported choosing the dealership service center instead of an independent repair shop did so because their vehicle was under warranty/recall.

More expensive

But is this notion that dealerships are more expensive just a perception? Not according to the majority of respondents who say they have actually comparison-shopped repair job quotes: a whopping 87 percent reported that independent shop quotes were more affordable than dealership quotes.

"It is no secret that consumers are holding onto their vehicles for record lengths of time, meaning more and more visits to the repair shop or dealer service center," said Brian Hafer, VP of Marketing for AutoMD.com. "We conducted this snapshot survey to provide a window into how today's car owners feel about their repair shop/dealership service center options, and found that price and relationships are making consumers push the independent trigger - unless their vehicle is under a dealership warranty. But, with so many aging cars now falling outside the warranty, this survey indicates that consumers are going to compare repair quotes -- and then go where they believe the price is right."

Survey Highlights

  • Sixty-seven percent of respondents said that they trust an independent repair shop more than a dealership to repair their vehicle. When asked why they preferred the independent repair shop, the top two reasons were: 1) a relationship with their local mechanic (40 percent) and 2) better pricing (at nearly 30 percent).
  • Over 80 percent of respondents reported they had felt overcharged at the dealership, with 59 percent claiming that the overcharge was at least $200 and nearly 20 percent claiming over $500. Plus 47 percent said paying a premium or paying for unnecessary repairs / service is the worst part of the dealership experience.
  • Forty-seven percent of those who utilize dealership service centers said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their experience, with 23 percent feeling neutral. However, of those who were dissatisfied with their dealership experience (30 percent), the belief that they had been overcharged was the number one driver of dissatisfaction. And of the 33 percent who say they trust the dealership more than the independent shop for repairs, 60 percent cited the dealership mechanic's knowledge of and familiarity with their particular model as the reason for their preference.
  • Of those who go to the dealership for repairs, the vast majority are only doing so because their vehicle is under warranty or recall: 83 percent report that they would not have chosen the dealership if their vehicle hadn't been under warranty/recall. The top reason? Repairs at the dealership are more expensive than at the independent repair shop (51 percent).
  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents believe they can save over 20 percent on repairs by choosing an independent repair shop over a dealership, and 72 percent say a savings of just 10 percent would make them opt for the repair shop over the dealership.
  • This is not just perception or speculation, it's an educated opinion. Consumers are looking for comparison quotes: 78 percent say they have compared repair job quotes between the dealership and independent repair shop. The results overwhelmingly show that independent repair shop quotes are more affordable (87 percent).
  • Savings appears to be a key driver of consumers being proactive in getting repair quotes: 78 percent said that if they knew it would save them 10 percent or more, they would compare repair job price quotes.
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Air fares continue flying high

Highest fares at Huntsville, lowest at Atlantic City

If you flew anywhere last summer, you were probably paying more than you did the year before. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), ...

PhotoIf you flew anywhere last summer, you were probably paying more than you did the year before.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), average domestic air fares stood at $367 in the third quarter of 2012 -- up 1.8 percent from the average fare of $361 in the third quarter of 2011. Huntsville, Ala., had the highest average fare, $522, while Atlantic City, N.J., had the lowest, $133.

Not adjusted for inflation, the $367 third-quarter 2012 average fare is the fifth-highest average fare for any quarter since BTS began collecting air fare records in 1995. The highest was $385 in the second quarter of 2012. The previous third-quarter high was $361 in 2011. Third-quarter 2012 fares were $243 in 1995 dollars, down 18.1 percent from the average fare of $297 in 2000, the inflation-adjusted high for any third quarter.

Shrinking percentage

Passenger airlines collected 71.2 percent of their total revenue from passenger fares during the third quarter of 2012, down from 1990 when 87.6 percent of airline revenue was received from fares.

Unadjusted third-quarter fares increased 9.0 percent from the third quarter of 2000 to the third quarter of 2012. During those 12 years, inflation-adjusted fares declined 18.1 percent while there was an overall increase in consumer prices of 33.2 percent.

In the 17 years from 1995, unadjusted air fares rose 27.7 percent compared to a 15.5 percent decline in inflation-adjusted fares and a 51.0 percent increase in consumer prices.

Unadjusted third-quarter 2012 fares were up 19.6 percent from the recession low of $307 in 2009.

BTS reports average fares based on domestic itinerary fares, which consist of round-trip fares unless the customer does not purchase a return trip. In that case, the one-way fare is included. Fares are based on the total ticket value which consists of the price charged by the airlines plus any additional taxes and fees levied by an outside entity at the time of purchase.

Fares include only the price paid at the time of the ticket purchase and do not include other fees, such as baggage fees, paid at the airport or on board the aircraft. Averages do not include frequent-flyer or “zero fares” or abnormally high reported fares.  

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FDA approves over-the-counter treatment for overactive bladder

But Oxytrol is only available to women without a prescription

FDA approves over-the-counter Oxytrol for Women to treat overactive bladderThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved Oxytrol for Women, the fi...

PhotoWomen will now be able to buy Oxytrol for Women, an overactive bladder medication, over the counter, but men will still need a prescription, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced today.

Oxytrol for Women thus becomes the first over-the-counter treatment for overactive bladder in women ages 18 years and older.

Oxytrol for Women contains oxybutynin, a medicine that helps relax the bladder muscle. Oxybutynin belongs to a class of drugs known as anticholinergics. Oxytrol for Women is a patch that is applied to the skin every four days. The patch delivers 3.9 milligrams of oxybutynin per day.

Overactive bladder is a condition in which the bladder squeezes too often or squeezes without warning. Symptoms include leaking urine (urinary incontinence), feeling the sudden and urgent need to urinate, and frequent urination. Overactive bladder affects an estimated 33 million Americans, the majority of whom are older women.

“Studies demonstrate that over-the-counter Oxytrol for Women is a safe and effective treatment for overactive bladder,” said Shaw Chen, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of the Office of Drug Evaluation IV in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Women should make sure to follow the Drug Facts label and consult their doctor if their condition does not improve.”

The FDA said Oxytrol for Women’s safety and effectiveness for over-the-counter use were established in more than 5,000 subjects participating in nine studies. Overall, results from these studies showed that consumers can understand the information on the label, properly select whether the product is right for them, and use the drug appropriately.

Side effects reported during clinical studies were mild and included skin irritation where the patch was applied, dry mouth and constipation. A leaflet with tips to help manage overactive bladder will be provided with the product.

Oxytrol for Women is marketed by Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J.

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Specialized Bicycle Components recalls bikes

The steerer tube in the front fork can break, posing a fall hazard

Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, CA, is recalling about 12,200 bicycles and frame sets. The steerer tube in the front fork can break, posin...

PhotoSpecialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, CA, is recalling about 12,200 bicycles and frame sets.

The steerer tube in the front fork can break, posing a fall hazard. Two incidents were reported, one involving a fall with facial injuries and lacerations requiring stitches.

The 2012 and 2013 model road bicycles and framesets come in various colors and have the brand name "Specialized" on the frame. The model name "Tarmac SL4," "Crux" or "Secteur" is also located on the frame. The recall includes all models of the 2012 Tarmac SL4, 2013 Tarmac SL4, 2013 Crux and 2013 Secteur Disc. The model year and style names are on the sales documents.

The bicycles and frames, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized Specialized dealers nationwide from July 2011 through January 2013 for between $990 to $11,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the bicycles and take them to an authorized dealer for free inspection and -- if needed -- a free repair.

Consumers may contact Specialized Bicycle Components toll-free at (877) 808-8154 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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New home sales dip in December, but soar in 2012

Prices continued their rise during the year

Sales of new single-family houses ended the year on a sour note, falling 7.3 percent in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 369,000. At the sa...

PhotoSales of new single-family houses ended the year on a sour note, falling 7.3 percent in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 369,000. At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development report sales for the month were up 8.8 percent on a year-over-year basis.

The best sales news of all, though, is that 367,000 new homes were sold last year -- 19.9 percent above the 306,000 sold during all of 2011.

Regional breakdown

The December decline was led by a 29.4 percent drop in the Northeast, a decline of 11.1 percent in the West and an 8.4 percent dip in the South. Only the Midwest showed a gain last month -- 21.3 percent.

Year-over-year, sales were up 20.0 percent in the Northeast and 15.6 percent in the South, while dipping 1.7 percent in the Midwest, and 1.2 percent in the West.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of December was 151,000, representing a supply of 4.9 months.

Home prices

The average sales price of a home last month was $304,000 up more that $41,000 from a year earlier. The median sales price -- meaning half were above and half were below -- was $248,900, a gain of more than $40,000 from December 2011.

Despite the December decline, the housing picture is brightening. Earlier in the week, the National Association of Realtors reported both sales and prices of existing homes were up last year.

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Jouni Meats recalls ground beef products

The meat may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Typhimurium

Jouni Meats, a Sterling Heights, MI, retail store, is recalling approximately 500 pounds of ground beef products in various sized packages that may be cont...

PhotoJouni Meats, a Sterling Heights, MI, retail store, is recalling approximately 500 pounds of ground beef products in various sized packages that may be contaminated with a strain of Salmonella Typhimurium.

These products were produced between Dec. 4, 2012, and Dec. 9, 2012, and distributed to a restaurant in Macomb County, MI, and sold directly to consumers at Jouni Meats. These products were sold without a label.

This recall has been initiated because of concerns involving a cluster of Salmonella Typhimurium illnesses that may be associated with consumption of raw ground beef from a restaurant in Macomb County, MI. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has determined that there is a link between the ground beef products from Jouni Meats and this illness cluster.

Based on epidemiologic and traceback investigations, seven case-patients with the same outbreak strain have been identified in Ariz. and Mich. with illness onset dates ranging from December 9, 2012, to December 13, 2012. The 7 case-patients consumed raw beef kibbeh on December 7, 2012, and December 8, 2012. It is not known at this time if this outbreak strain has any drug resistance; results are pending.

FSIS and the company are concerned that some product may be frozen and in consumers' freezers.

FSIS advises all consumers to safely prepare their raw meat products, including fresh and frozen, and consume only ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160° F. The only way to confirm that ground beef is cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria is to use a food thermometer that measures internal temperature.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact the company's owner, Khalil Jouni, at (586) 274-0760.  

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Is your online data out of control?

If you are an Internet social butterfly, it just might be

There is probably a lot of information about you in cyberspace. If you have a Facebook account, or know people with a Facebook account, it's almost a certa...

PhotoThere is probably a lot of information about you in cyberspace. If you have a Facebook account, or know people with a Facebook account, it's almost a certainty.

The issue leaped into the headlines in early December when Facebook made changes to its privacy settings. It was supposed to simplify things but one result was the removal of the option for users to hide themselves from the site's main search tool.

"Many people posted stuff on their timelines that they did not expect to be publicly searcheable," Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said at the time.

Smile!

But it's not just your comments on Facebook, but photographs too. People post millions of pictures of family and friends, and if you happen to be in the picture – and even “tagged” with your name – your image is there for all to see and no one asks you for permission.

Facebook Jan. 24, 2013, 4:49 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook
And because pictures are easily downloaded from the Internet, once a picture of you is out there, it can end up anywhere. Vikash, of Punjab, Pakistan, reports that she discovered her likeness as the ID for someone else's Facebook account.

“I wish to make a complaint against Facebook not blocking a Facebook ID that's using my photo as the profile picture,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. Facebook ID (name redacted) is a fake ID and it used my photo as the profile picture.

Then there's the recent example of a California woman whose Facebook pictures became the image of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend. Your likeness, it seems, is out of control. Just ask 17 women in Texas.

Revenge-porn

The women have joined a class-action lawsuit against a “revenge-porn” website, claiming ex-boyfriends published nude photographs of them on the site. The women are suing Texxxan.com, as well as Godaddy.com, a commercial website hosting service, and all subscribing members.

The women claim their former lovers, angry at being dumped, published the photographs in an attempt to humiliate them, in an act of revenge.

"I'm going after the revenge porn industry," attorney John Morgan told the Houston Chronicle. "Those sickos who post private information of women without their knowledge."

It may be an extreme example, but it highlights the difficulty consumers have in maintaining control over their image in the Internet age. But what about other kinds of private data?

Little or no control

Microsoft, citing a survey showing 45 percent of U.S. adults feel they have little or no control over the personal information companies gather about them while they are browsing the Web or using online services, is promoting new privacy features in Windows 8.

"As online activities have become a valuable part of daily life, privacy is incredibly important,” said Brendon Lynch, Microsoft's chief privacy officer.

Microsoft has produced a series of web videos that explains how consumers can use the new privacy tools in the operating system. 

Mobile threats

Privacy risks, of course, are not confined to your desktop PC but increasingly are found on your mobile devices. Trend Micro, a security software company, found an explosion in Android threats in 2012, with new Android malware outpacing PC malware by a ratio of 14 to three.

Social media platforms continued to grow as areas of concern with attackers targeting them more, users putting themselves at risk by oversharing on them, and their legitimate services being co-opted to support cybercriminal activities, the company said.

How does your mobile device become compromised? In many cases it's done by downloading an app that is actually a front for malware. You can provide some measure of protection by only downloading apps from reputable sources. An app promoted through an unsolicited text or email is probably compromised.

The future may be even more hazardous. For 2013 Trend Micro expects hackers to infiltrate legitimate cloud services, using a blog or social media site like Facebook to transmit commands. Every web site now is supposed to have a privacy policy. It might be a good idea to read them.

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Netflix making lemonade from lemons

Company finds profit in providing access to full seasons of popular TV shows

Netflix has suffered some bumps in recent times, both from investors and from consumers. It's 2011 decision to split off its DVD rental business from strea...

PhotoNetflix has suffered some bumps in recent times, both from investors and from consumers. Its 2011 decision to split off its DVD rental business from streaming, and charge $8 a month for both, didn't go over well with its customers.

So it was something of a surprise on Wall Street when the company reported a profit in the fourth quarter of 2012 after previously warning it would lose money.

Netflix's net income for the three-month period totaled $7.9 million, equaling 13 cents a share. The consensus on the Street was the company would lose 12 cents a share, making for a 25 cent earnings swing.

What happened? The company has quietly been building its streaming business, the area where it now faces the greatest competition. It finished the fourth quarter with just over 27 million streaming customers, two million more than three months earlier.

Unhappy customers

Netflix, however, still has unhappy customers, like Kate, of Glorieta, N.M.

“Once upon a time, I was lipstick kissing the Netflix envelopes to let them know how much I loved them,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Now, they are just another corporate nightmare that invites anger and frustration because they care more about their bottom line (which will backfire eventually) than about their loyal and faithful customers. We are treated with indifference and neglect. Honestly, I have come to hate this company and am on the verge of terminating my account with them after many years of faithful membership.”

Netflix  Jan. 24, 2013, 6:38 p.m.
Consumers rate Netflix
Kate was so angry that she neglected to say what, exactly, Netflix did to earn her enmity. Greg, of Sugarland, Tex., went into more detail, saying he thinks the company's missteps means it is no longer the market leader it once was.

“I've been a member since 2002 and have been very satisfied for most of that time, even choosing to remain patient and loyal during the whole Qwikster debacle,” Greg wrote in his ConsumerAffairs post. “But in recent months three changes I've noticed are really making it hard for me to remain a customer: 1) fewer and fewer streaming options, despite them gearing the website to make it more difficult to add DVDs 2 ) more "long wait" delays for many DVDs and 3) longer turn-around times to receive DVDs by mail.”

Streaming, not DVDs, powers the growth

Note that two and a half of Greg's three complaints are about the DVD side of Netflix's business. But in the most recent quarter, it was the streaming side that powered the growth.

Netflix credits the higher subscriber numbers in the last quarter to consumers buying new electronic devices, such as tablets and smart TVs. Uncommented upon is the shift in Netflix's streaming options and how consumers may have responded.

Nearly a year ago Starz Entertainment, the major supplier of movies to Netflix's streaming service, ended its contract and refused to renew. Oddly enough, Starz said it declined to do business with Netflix because it didn't think it was charging consumers enough for access to its content.

It was seen as a major blow to the company's ability to attract new subscribers and keep old ones. But Netflix has appeared to take lemons and turn them into lemonade, by offering multiple seasons of hundreds of television series. In so doing, it may have altered the way consumers watching streaming video.

Changing habits

PhotoIn the past, a consumer might download a movie and that would be the evening's entertainment. But increasingly, consumers sit down and watch multiple episodes – sometimes an entire season – of a TV show in one sitting, staging their own “marathons.”

Netflix has given widespread exposure to programs that many people didn't watch when they were on network television or cable. Shows like Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Weeds, Louie, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia have expanded their audiences on Netflix. When the latest season of Portlandia was added to Netflix, it became an event – almost like the release of a new movie.

Even if you happen to be a regular viewer of How I Met Your Mother, but only picked it up in season four, you can watch the entire series, from the beginning and in order, on Netflix.

Worth watching

Finally, critics are point out that some of the best writing is on television, not movies. Series made specifically for cable, such as The Sopranos, Mad Men and Walking Dead have won critical acclaim, prompting actors who, in the past only considered movie roles, to take another look at the small screen. Actor Kevin Bacon, for example, has just launched a new drama series on Fox.

Netflix may have lost access to the most popular movies but the result is that it now appears to have an ample supply of content that a lot of consumers seem to value as much, or more. Is this development a happy accident or something cleverly engineered? Either way, Netflix appears to understand what it has working for it.

In it's promotion, it now gives its new content top billing, saying “Watch TV shows and movies...” not movies and TV shows.

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Everyday foods that aren't usually considered high sodium

One has to look everywhere to determine where the salt lingers

What is it about trying to lower our salt intake that’s so difficult?Because most of us have heard the warnings about getting too much sodium,...

PhotoWhat is it about trying to lower our salt intake that’s so difficult?

Most of us have heard the warnings about getting too much sodium, yet many of us still choose to pick up that salt shaker or order something from a restaurant that we know is just loaded with salt.

However, there’s a good portion of consumers that take heed of the medical warnings, and try their very best to incorporate meals that are healthier and try to use other flavors, like low-sodium options or natural ingredients to season their food.

And mostly, the sodium-conscious consumer does their best to avoid those store-bought items that are known to be plagued with salt -- like potato chips, frozen TV dinners or canned soups. By doing this, most would probably assume they’re being successful in their mission at cutting down the amount of salty foods they're bringing into their homes.

But what about those foods that aren’t typically thought of as high in  in sodium? Meaning, those foods that don’t taste salty often fall below the radar. 

Salty cereal

Like breakfast cereals for example — although many of them are lumped into the healthier category by many consumers, some of them can have tremendous amounts of salt that you usually can’t even taste.

PhotoTake Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, which contains 210 milligrams per serving. That can add up if you’re eating it daily, and some of us like to eat cereal as a snack, downing a couple a bowls per sitting, and many of us do this because we think it’s healthier than tearing through a bag of chips.

And you can’t forget about children’s cereals, which always get a bad rap for being too high in sugar, and rightfully so, but parents should be equally concerned with the high sodium levels in some brands like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, made by General Mills, which has about 220 milligrams of sodium -- and we all know how much  kids love to scarf that stuff down by the boatload.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least half of the U.S. population shouldn’t be consuming more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, and that 50 percent of the population is made up of people who have a history of high blood pressure, those with kidney problems, African-Americans and diabetic patients.

The other half of the population shouldn’t exceed 2,300 milligrams a day, says the CDC.

The government agency also explained the kinds of foods that aren’t normally talked about in high sodium discussions can be even more dangerous since people eat them more, thinking they’re staying away from overly salty foods.

In the CDC’s list of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it shows just how commonly eaten foods, that aren’t usually considered salty can really truly add up.

3,000 milligrams

On the informational sheet, it shows that during the course of a day a bowl of cereal in the morning, a soup and sandwich for lunch and a quick slice of pizza with a salad can equate to over 3,000 milligrams of sodium for that one day, which is  twice the recommended amount for some.

PhotoAnd although one may say, “Well, I’m not surprised a soup, sandwich and a slice of pizza has so much sodium,” they may not remember or realize that much of the salt is in the salad dressing, the bread for the sandwich and that big bowl of cereal you had in the morning.

Also below the high sodium radar are many of the popular coffee drinks that consumers buy these days, say experts, so consumers should be mindful of how much sodium they’re consuming if they’re making a daily trek to Starbucks or Dunking Donuts for a caffeine fix, especially some of the blended coffee drinks that have a high amount of sodium.

Also, if you take a look at the sodium levels in many of today’s ready-made pancake mixes, you’ll find they contain massive amounts of salt.

For example, a box of Aunt Jemima Original Pancake Mix has a whopping 740 milligrams per serving size, which reaches well over half of the recommended sodium intake for the day, so if you’re eating pancakes first thing in the morning, then you have what’s considered a normal lunch and dinner, there is a very good chance that you’ll exceed the 1,500 or 2,300 milligram count that the CDC suggests.

And it’s certainly not just breakfast foods that are high in sodium and sometimes sneak past us.

Watch the dessert

If you think you’ve successfully stayed away from too much salt on a given day, and decide to reward yourself after dinner with some dessert like cookies or prepackaged sweets, you could be getting way more sodium that you thought you were getting.

PhotoLike Entenmanns Carrot Iced Cake, that has 210 milligrams of sodium per serving, which can really add up if you continuously indulge. The company considers a serving slice to be only 67 grams, which is pretty tiny. Also, who has such a small piece of cake and just one slice at that when trying to satisfy  a sweet fix?

A lot of muffins, donuts and candies are also high in sodium, and experts say consumers should consider these foods right along with those foods like potato chips or pretzels when trying to lower their sodium intake.

On average, Americans consume about 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day and it’s safe to say that much of this sodium is coming from sources we're not even thinking of, say experts.

Experts also say to keep reading nutrition labels on packages, cans, on restaurant menus and on restaurant menu boards, and don’t assume that just because foods don’t taste salty they aren’t just as high in sodium or even more so than those foods that we more commonly associate with being high in salt.

 

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The best apps for this year's Super Bowl

These apps and games can also be a great addition to any Super bowl party

So now that it’s decided what two teams will go head to head in this year’s Super bowl, many people are starting to organize their parties...

PhotoSo now that it’s decided which two teams will go head to head in this year’s Super Bowl, many people are starting to organize their parties, get their meal ideas together and lock down their overall plans for the biggest television event of the year.

And besides making sure good food and company will be available, most people will also make sure their large-screen TVs and surround-sound speakers are working at full function, because the person who normally hosts a Super Bowl party is usually the one who has the biggest television with the best sound system.

But in 2013, flat-screen televisions aren’t the only devices that will be used this Super Bowl Sunday, as some people will also use their smartphones, either to watch the game, keep track of the statistics or help them follow the game if they're unable to watch it.

And since several companies have released apps that do all of these things, more and more people will have their electronic devices in hand or on their lap for all four quarters of this year’s Super Bowl.

The NFL Pro 2013 app for Androids doesn’t help you keep track of the game, it actually provides a diversion if you choose not to watch it fully, as each user can download the application to their smartphone and play a simulated game with any NFL team, including the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens if you want to create your own Super bowl outcome.

Extra diversion

The app is ideal for those who can’t simply watch the game and feel they have to be doing something while it’s going on, so if some of the guests at your party aren’t huge football fans and won’t watch every single down, the NFL Pro 2013 app may be just for them.

PhotoAnother app that can serve as an added activity during your Super bowl party is the American Football NFL Trivia Quiz, that has 250 multiple choice questions for those guests that are hardcore football fans and claim to know all there is about the sport.

Users can play individually or against each other, and the app has several game modes like, “Guess the Questions”, “Quiz Master”, “Race Against Time” and “Battleships.”

The app also comes with some pretty cool graphics and sound effects, and through a Blue Tooth connection, two players can play at once, which will hopefully calm some of those competitive juices, which seem to be at an all-time high during each year of the Super bowl.

The questions that are included in the game are made up of past Super bowl trivia, team history questions, player statistics and other aspects of the game that may or may not be difficult for the football fan. And with 250 questions that cover all areas of the sport, the app should be able to be enjoyed by both the football fanatic and casual fan alike.

ESPN Radio

And if for some reason you aren’t able to get in front of a TV for the big game, because maybe you’re traveling, you may want to check out the ESPN radio app that can be downloaded for free in the iTunes store.

On the app, users can access ESPN radio, podcasts and live play by play commentary.

You can also create your own playlist of your favorite ESPN shows and access all of them directly on your device, as the app will still remain useful for football fans after the Super bowl is done and the victor is decided.

PhotoThe app also gives you access to 35 ESPN radio stations from around the U.S., and allows you to manipulate the live commentary by having the ability to rewind and pause the game up to an hour of the audio being broadcasted.

Also for this year’s Super Bowl, Verizon just released what it calls the Super Bowl XLVI Guide app, that’s designed for those folks who were actually fortunate enough to secure a ticket to the big game this year.

The app will mainly let the people know who are visiting New Orleans for the Super bowl where the best restaurants are, where to find the coolest gatherings and the best places to go for Super Bowl weekend.

The app also comes equipped with 3D maps of New Orleans to help with navigation, and it also has a map that allows fans to be better directed through the Superdome where the pigskin battle is being fought this year.

You can also use the app to help with parking your car in New Orleans during Super Bowl weekend, since the city will be jampacked and people will need all the help they can get to secure a parking space, and then find their car when all of the madness is over.

So this Super Bowl, there are many other things you can do at your party besides just watching the game, and with these new apps you can add a nice level of variety to your gathering to appease both the serious football fan and the person who’s just showing up for the party itself.

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Timeshare resellers ordered to pay $6 million

National Solutions LLC bilked consumers hoping to sell their units, feds charged

As the result of a Federal Trade Commission action, the operators of a scheme that allegedly deceived consumers who were trying to sell their timeshare pro...

PhotoConsumers who paid up to $3.150 in hopes of selling their timeshares may take a little comfort in knowing that some of those responsible have been ordered to pay more than $6 million.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued National Solutions LLC and several individuals, accusing them of bilking consumers who were hoping to sell their timeshares. 

In July 2011, the FTC charged Leandro Velazquez, Edgar Gonzalez, Samuel Velazquez, Joel Velazquez, and others with violating the FTC Act and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule by misrepresenting that they had buyers willing to pay a specific price for consumers’ timeshare properties, that they would refund their upfront fee when the property was sold, and that the FTC would review and approve the proposed sales. 

According to the FTC, the defendants charged consumers up to $3,150 as an “earnest money deposit” to commit them to the sale or for sale-related expenses, and promised to refund the money when the sale closed. 

Customers often were not contacted again, their properties were never sold, and their refund demands were ignored or denied.  Contrary to the defendants’ alleged assertions, the FTC does not review or approve timeshare sales.

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Risk of lung cancer death up dramatically among female smokers

Study confirms prediction that 'if women smoke like men, they will die like men'

Remember the old Virginia Slims cigarettes slogan, “you've come a long way, baby?” A special article published in this week's New England Journal of Medici...

PhotoRemember the old Virginia Slims cigarettes slogan, “you've come a long way, baby?” A special article published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), puts what was intended as something positive into a very negative light.

According to the NEJM article, female smokers have a much greater risk of death from lung cancer and chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD) in recent years than did female smokers 20 or 40 years ago, reflecting changes in smoking behavior.

In fact, the increase in risk of death from lung cancer and COLD in female smokers has been large enough to completely offset improvements in longevity from medical advances that have reduced death rates in the rest of the population over the last 50 years.

Smoking like a man

Women smokers today smoke more like men than women in previous generations, beginning earlier in adolescence and until recently smoking more cigarettes per day (consumption peaked among female smokers in the 1980s).

To find out if these changing patterns have caused women's risk to converge with those in men, researchers, researchers led by Michael J. Thun, MD, recently retired as vice president emeritus of the American Cancer Society (ACS), measured fifty-year trends in mortality related to smoking across three time periods (1959-65, 1982-88 and 2000-2010), by comparing five large contemporary studies with two historical ACS cohorts.

In total the study included more than 2.2 million adults 55 years and older.

The rising risk

For women who smoked in the 1960s, the risk of dying from lung cancer was 2.7 times higher than that of never-smokers. In the contemporary cohorts (2000-2010) the risk was 25.7 times higher than that of never-smokers.

The risk of dying from COLD among female smokers was 4.0 times higher than that of never-smokers in the 1960s; in the contemporary cohort, this risk increased to 22.5 times higher than never-smokers. About half of the increase in risk of both conditions occurred during the last 20 years.

In male smokers, lung cancer risk plateaued at the high level observed in the 1980s, while the risk of death from COLD continues to increase for reasons that are unclear. Men and women smokers in the contemporary cohorts had nearly identically higher relative risks (compared to never smokers) for lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, ischemic heart disease, stroke, and other heart disease. This finding strongly confirms the observed prediction that "If women smoke like men, they will die like men."

Quitting by 40

The research also confirmed that quitting smoking at any age dramatically lowers mortality from all major diseases caused by smoking, and that quitting smoking is far more effective than reducing the number of cigarettes smoked. The study found smokers who quit by age 40 avoided nearly all of the excess smoking-related mortality from lung cancer and COPD.

"The steep increase in risk among female smokers has continued for decades after the serious health risks from smoking were well established, and despite the fact that women predominantly smoked cigarette brands marketed as lower in 'tar' and nicotine," said Dr. Thun. "So not only did the use of cigarette brands marketed as 'Light' and 'Mild' fail to prevent a large increase in risk in women, it also may have exacerbated the increase in deaths from chronic obstructive lung disease in male smokers, since the diluted smoke from these cigarettes is inhaled more deeply into the lungs of smokers to maintain the accustomed absorption of nicotine."

Never-smokers

Another study appearing in the same issue of the NEJM looks at longevity among current, former, and never smokers in the nationally representative National Health Interview survey. That study, led by Dr. Prabhat Jha at St. Michael's Hospital at the University of Toronto, found that persistent lifetime smokers lose an average of about 10 years of life compared to never smokers. Smokers who die prematurely lose about 20 years of life.

"The findings from these studies have profound implications for many developing countries where cigarette smoking has become entrenched more recently than in the United States, said Dr. Thun. "Together they show that the epidemic of disease and death caused by cigarette smoking increases progressively over many decades, peaking fifty or more years after the widespread uptake of smoking in adolescence. The good news is the benefits of smoking cessation occur much more quickly and are substantial at any age."

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It may not be a boom, but it's not a bust either

There are encouraging numbers on the prospects for economic growth and the job market

More signs that the economic recovery appears to be gaining strength -- or at least not losing steam. The Conference Board reports its Leading Economic In...

PhotoMore signs that the economic recovery appears to be gaining strength -- or at least not losing steam.

The Conference Board reports its Leading Economic Index (LEI) rose 0.5 percent in December following no change in November -- and a 0.3 percent increase in October.

"The U.S. LEI rose sharply in December, led by a large improvement in initial claims for unemployment insurance and positive contributions from the interest rate spread and the Leading Credit Index,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, economist at The Conference Board. “The increase in the LEI brought its six-month growth rate well above zero, with roughly two-thirds of the components advancing in the last six months. However, consumer expectations and manufacturers' new orders remain weak."

Conference Board Economist Ken Goldstein says the latest data suggest that a pickup in domestic growth is now more likely, compared with a few months ago. “Housing, which has long been a drag, has turned into a positive for growth, and will help improve consumer balance sheets and strengthen consumption,” he notes, while cautioning, “for growth to gain more traction we also need to see better performance on new orders and an acceleration in capital spending."

Jobless claims

From the Labor Department, meanwhile, comes word that initial claims for unemployment benefits fell by 5,000 in the week ending January 19 -- to 330,000.

The 4-week moving average, considered a more accurate gauge of jobless benefit claims because it is less volatile, was 351,750 -- a decrease of 8,250 from the previous week.

A figure below 400,000 is considered by many economists to be a sign that the labor market is strengthening.

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Is weight-loss surgery the right answer for overweight teenagers?

Some researchers say teens suffer lasting damage from being severely obese

Over the last few years, there has been extensive talk about the obesity problem here in the United States, particularly childhood obesity, and there&rsquo...

PhotoOver the last few years, there has been extensive talk about the obesity problem here in the United States, particularly childhood obesity, and there’s also been a good amount of dialogue on what children should do to live more healthfully.

It’s been widely reported that childhood obesity is linked to a host of serious illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, so a large part of the national dialogue has also been about what kids and parents should do to eat better and get more exercise.

But what should parents do when eating right and exercising aren't  enough, and the obesity problem goes from something that can be self-managed to something that’s out of control?

Although a recent study found a majority of parents oppose bariatric weight-loss surgery -- also called gastric bypass -- for their obese  teens, a group of researchers say the procedure can be a big help to young patients.

Researchers found that weight-loss surgery improved blood flow among 60 percent of teens who underwent the procedure, and also decreased their heart size, which in many cases had become enlarged because of obesity.

These results were determined after a research team from Nationwide Children’s Hospital conducted cardiac MRI tests on teen patients, both before and after they underwent weight loss surgery, a procedure that's not typically done on teens today.

Teen lost 100 pounds

To find out just how weight loss surgery may impact the life of a teenager, we spoke to 21-year old Kelley Allen, from New Concord, Ohio, who had bariatric surgery when she was 17 years of age.

PhotoAfter losing 100 pounds since the surgery, she says the changes in her life have been pretty tremendous.

“Things have changed for me in many ways since surgery, not just physically but mentally," she said in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“I had zero confidence in myself before surgery. But after I had the surgery and saw the results and realized how much better I physically felt, I knew that I had a second chance at life and I was excited about it.”

Kelley also says that when it came time to decide whether to get the surgery, the decision wasn’t very difficult due to the heavy amount of research she did beforehand.

“It was not a tough decision for me at all, because I made an informed decision,” she said. “I did the research about the surgery and I felt that it was what I needed to do. The decision to go ahead with the surgery was one that I made on my own. I knew that my parents supported me and they had given me their opinions but they wanted me to solely make the final decision.”

The research team points to the fact that one out of five kids suffers from obesity in the United States, which is three times the rate of just a generation ago, and although new health initiatives have been established to help lower the childhood obesity rate, the number of kids suffering from obesity just isn’t decreasing fast enough.

Kelley says one of the good things about the weight-loss surgery, at least in her case, was a fast recovery time.

“Recovery for me personally was not difficult,” she says. “I was back to school in two weeks for half days and four weeks after surgery I was going for full days. I felt that a lot of the recovery was because I had the determination.”

A family affair

Photo
Dr. Marc Michalsky

Some parents may still be worried about their teenagers getting such an invasive procedure so early in life, but Dr. Marc Michalsky, who was involved in the study and also one of the physicians who performed the bariatric surgery on Kelley, said both parents and teenager really need to be involved in the decision-making process, and the procedure should not be one that kids make alone.

“One of the most important factors that parents of potential bariatric patients should consider is the fact that the process of surgical weight reduction for adolescents is a family affair,” said Dr. Michalsky in an  interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“Parents have a huge role in helping their child achieve optimal weight reduction since, in most instances; they are primarily responsible for overseeing the patient’s nutritional intake and associated behaviors.”

Dr. Michalsky also says that until now, there haven’t been many studies on the relationship between cardiovascular disease and childhood obesity.

“While there have been reports of indirect measures of cardiovascular risk in the severely obese adolescent population, including studies demonstrating the presence of several biomarkers of cardiovascular disease (i.e. elevated serum insulin level, cholesterol and triglycerides), only a few studies have shown direct evidence of cardiac structural and functional abnormalities in this population.”

And because there haven’t been many of these studies conducted on teen obesity, weight-loss surgery and how it affects the heart, many parents may not associate teen obesity with organ damage, and also may not realize what an impact weight-loss surgery can have.

Cardiovascular abnormalities

“We were initially quite surprised to learn that a certain proportion of patients appear to have cardiovascular abnormalities identified using cardiac MRI," Dr. Michalsky said. “However, it is important to realize that the results presented in the current study are quite preliminary and require additional large-scale investigation before more reliable conclusions can be drawn.”

“I believe that the important take-home message is that obesity affects many important organ systems which support the need for effective intervention designed to improve and extend the life of their child.”

Dr. Michalsky also says bariatric surgery should never be performed on teens solely for cosmetic reasons; each teen who qualifies is suffering physical damage, not just an image problem.

“Many of the adolescent patients that present for surgical weight reduction are dealing with many obesity-related co-morbid illnesses that were previously only thought to affect the adult population,” he said. “Examples include, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension, insulin resistance, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, etc.”

As far as whether teens and parents should move forward with weight-loss surgery, Kelley says it all starts with research, and doing your homework on the procedure is what should actually shape your decision.

“My first suggestion would be to research the surgery, so when they do make a decision it is an informed one. I feel that it is so important to understand what goes on with the surgery, because it is such a big change,” she said.

Also, “Stay positive. People do not always agree with the decision that you may make, but if you are happy and excited, then that is what matters.”

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Site links new musicians to record companies

Chartburst.com says it's the ultimate tool for indy artists, but is that really true?

In the realm of music, there are many injustices that an artist will sometimes face. Like signing a record contract that has terms which only b...

PhotoIn the realm of music, there are many injustices that an artist will sometimes face. 

Like signing a record contract that has terms which only benefit the label  or obtaining a record deal but getting shelved and not having the chance to ever release an album.

But probably one of the biggest injustices for the wannabe professional musician is being extremely good at their craft, but never being discovered or never having the chance to get their music properly exposed -- because let’s face it, being able to post your music on say SoundCloud or Bandcamp is great, but there’s still a certain amount of randomness in terms of getting people to really pay attention.

The other problem with many music posting sites, is the fact that it’s still hard for artists to get their songs heard by labels, managers or just people in the music industry who can possibly put some dollars behind your songs to get them marketed and heard.

Well, a new site has emerged that sets out to do what the Bandcamps of the Internet world aren’t able to do, by allowing artists to post music so songs can possibly be heard by record executives.

Direct connection

Creators of the site says it has direct connections to A&R reps, who seek out and sign talent, and if your music is played a lot on the site, your song is immediately reviewed by a label and you could possible get signed to a contract.

PhotoThe site we’re talking about is Chartburst.com, and it gives artists of many different genres of music the opportunity to build a fan base, and also lets record companies know if that fan base ever swells to a significant size.

The way it works is that artists choose what musical chart they want to post a song in, whether it’s Dance music, Folk, Rock, Country, Pop, Hip-Hop, World, Acoustic or Indie.

From there you simply upload your track of choice, in hopes that it will be played enough to be number one through five on that particular chart.

If your song does in fact reach the top 5, it will automatically be sent to record label A&R reps, who the company says work with the site and monitor the charts to see who’s currently buzzing among music fans.

Chartburst also says the A&Rs who work with the site are currently looking for acts, and even if they choose not to sign you to a deal, they’ll provide feedback on what to tweak, so you could possibly make that final leap from an independent artist to a signed one.

On the homepage of the site, are the company logos of Columbia, Sony, Warner and Interscope, which suggests  these are the record labels that Chartburst works with. Users will also be connected to artist management companies and other people in the industry like major producers, says the company.

$5 a month

PhotoTo use the site, it’ll cost you $5 a month, which seems like a good buy, assuming Chartburst works the way the company says it does.

And the fact that you can post songs to a specific chart of music, instead of having to compete with all artist from all genres, it allows your music to better stand out and reach the fans and industry people who really know and appreciate your particular genre of music.

For those artists who have posted their music on YouTube, and feel their video is just one of an infinite amount, they’re right -- so using a site like Chartburst may increase your chances of getting some notoriety, says the company, since it singles out your songs from other musical categories, where it could potentially get lost and ignored by the fans who don’t like your genre.

Resets the chart

The site says it resets each chart every two weeks, so every user has a chance to make the top five. If your music is on the top five for two weeks, it will be removed and given the opportunity to make it back there again, but the company says you can still be contacted by an A&R rep within two weeks of your song initially charting, which is really cool if it actually happens that way.

PhotoThe Chartburst site and its marketing angle heavily focus on people getting a record deal or at least getting feedback from a label and being mentored.

Although that could certainly be true, anyone that’s had serious musical pursuits knows that getting a record deal has a lot to do with inside connections, and who you know as opposed to the level of one’s sheer talent.

Also, labels rarely want to take a risk these days and sign an artist who doesn’t already have a large buzz, so the idea that you’ll be signed because your song is on the Chartburst site for a couple of weeks seems to be a long shot to say the least.

And as far as the artist mentoring part, those days simply don’t exist anymore.

Back in the day, I would say as recently as 15 years ago, a label may take a liking to an artist, help develop him or her and then slowly introduce that artist to the masses, but not anymore.

Artists getting signed just for the sake of their good music these days is an outdated concept, for the mere fact industry politics and money seem to be more important these days, and each record exec already has a list of 20 people they could potentially sign already.

Still need to promote

Another negative of the site, is the fact that artists still have to promote their music in order for it to chart, which is the whole idea of using the website, as just promoting yourself to your personal friends on Facebook and Twitter may not be enough for you to get that coveted one through five spot.

Also, what the site fails to mention is that A&R reps aren’t on the big hunt for artists as many people think they are, since there's always a talented musician with an underground buzz somewhere, so it's not that hard for them. 

Additionally, a large portion of their job is to shape the projects from the artists that are already on the label's roster, which takes up a huge part of an A&Rs time.

But don’t get me wrong, Chartburst sounds like a great idea, and for $5 a month, it’s not that much of a risk to give it a shot, but be sure you’re willing to wear both your marketing hat as well as your musician hat, and also prepare yourself for not getting noticed at all by a record company exec at all.

Because being discovered out of the clear blue by a label is a longer shot than one that's heaved from half-court.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Factory-installed navigation systems irk drivers, study finds

Consumers turning to smartphones to avoid confusing in-dash systems

Overall owner satisfaction with their vehicle's factory-installed navigation systems has declined slightly from last year--possibly because the systems are...

PhotoA J.D. Power and Associates survey finds car-buying consumers more frustrated than ever with factory-installed navigation systems, and many consumers are turning to their smartphones for directions.

On average, satisfaction with factory-installed systems is 681 (on a 1,000-point scale), a decrease of 13 points from 2011. Satisfaction declined in all factors measured, most notably in ease of use (637), down 25 points year over year.

J.D. Power said the reason for the decline may that the systems are becoming more difficult to use, or because more alternatives now exist, although many consumers say the systems simply don't work.

"The navigation system does not work. It never knows where it is!" said Gina or Torrance, Calif., in a ConsumerAffairs review of her 2013 Ford Escape

"Purchased a 2007 TL, brand new in Virginia. The military moved me to Alaska where the navigation system does not function because there is no disc that covers Alaska," said Ron of Chugiak, Alaska in a review of his Acura TL. "The car does not know where it is and as a result, many functions that I paid for do not function."

The J.D. Power study, now in its 14th year, identifies six factors that contribute to overall satisfaction with factory-installed navigation systems. In order of importance, they are ease of use; routing; navigation display screen; speed of system; voice directions; and voice activation. The study also measures quality by examining problems per 100 (PP100) vehicles, in which a lower score reflects higher quality.

Corey of Gaithersburg, Md., has repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to have the navigation system in her 2006 Acura fixed.

"I have the same problem with the vehicle with the navigation system as I had when I first purchased the vehicle. It, again, is the voice commands. This is only an intermittent thing so the dealer is unable to find the problem and there has been no resolution," she said.

Complex menu systems

Although many new-vehicle owners indicate that their factory-installed navigation system is better than their previous system, they are also frustrated with the complexity of menu systems, voice control commands, and inputting destinations.

PhotoMoreover, as smartphones become more sophisticated in their capabilities, more owners prefer to use them for navigation instead of the system installed in their vehicle.

In the 2012 study, 47% of vehicle owners indicate they use a downloaded application on their smartphone for navigation in their vehicle, compared with 37% in 2011. In addition, 46% of owners indicate they "definitely would not" or "probably would not" repurchase a factory-installed navigation system if their smartphone navigation could be displayed on a central screen in their vehicle.

"Manufacturers of navigation systems face a serious challenge as smartphone navigation usage continues to rise and gains preference among vehicle owners," said Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates. "Free apps, up-to-date maps, and a familiar interface allow for quicker routing and improved interaction, including better voice recognition. Manufacturers have a window of opportunity to either improve upon the current navigation system platforms or focus on new ways to integrate smartphones."

Not just navigation

Sometimes it's not just the navigation system that goes awry, as Alisa of Mesa, Ariz., said in a review of her Lexus IS 350.

"I have a 2006 IS 350 whose computer touch screen navigation system has stopped working. This is obviously a major inconvenience as it is not just the navigation that doesn't work, it is also the air conditioning controls, the heating controls, the radio controls, the CD/MP3 player, the computer settings and the rear view camera!" she said.

"All of the radio presets were erased without any way to reset them. There is no way to adjust the fan settings for the a/c or heater, I can no longer adjust the bass/treble/fade, the backup camera only works 10% of the time and of course, the navigation system is completely non-functional.

"As the car is only 5 years old and supposedly, a precision, luxury vehicle, one would not expect such major malfunctions affecting multiple systems. Unfortunately, for some reason, they designed all of these systems to be dependent on the navigation computer," Lisa said.

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In search of a higher rate of return on your savings

But before moving your money, consider what you hope to use it for

Where can you park some cash these days and get any kind of return? If your money is sitting in a bank account or CD, you know the return is a pittance.J...

PhotoWhere can you park some cash these days and get any kind of return? If your money is sitting in a bank account or CD, you know the return is a pittance.

Just how low? RateWatch, a banking data and analytics service owned by The Street, Inc. reports the interest rate on a six-month CD decreased 0.01 percent over the previous week based on data collected from over 90,000 financial institution locations.

According to the report, the rate on a six-month CD dropped from 0.17 percent to 0.16 percent. A consumer with $10,000 in the typical CD could expect to earn $80 over the six-month term, or $13.33 a month.

Fed driving down rates

The low rate of return is nothing new, of course. It's simply a product of Federal Reserve policy, which is aimed at stimulating the economy by keeping interest rates low. The Fed has pretty much maintained this policy since late 2008.

Rates aren't going up anytime soon, either. The Fed said in December said that it expected this target range to remain "appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6 1/2 percent," and as long as inflation projections remain within 0.5% of the central bank's long-term goal of 2%.

For the consumer who has managed to accumulate a little cash, the question remains where to put the money so that it at least outpaces inflation. Michelle Perry Higgins, a principal at the California financial advice firm Maloon, Powers, Pitre & Higgins, says the question has been a frequent topic of conversation around her office the last couple of weeks.

Tempting to chase yield

“I know it is tempting to move money around in search of yield, as many investors are frustrated with the rates on their CDs and savings accounts,” Higgins said. “However, I tell my clients that if there is a chance you might need those funds within the next 7 years, it’s probably best to stay put.”

Despite an anemic economy and signs of fiscal dysfunction in Washington, stocks are at a five year high. In addition to growth in value, many solid, blue chip names are paying yields of three to five percent. While that looks tempting, consumers need to remember that investments in any kind of asset carries a down-side risk. Higgins says stocks are typically a longer-term investment strategy.

“For a more mid-range approach, I might advise a client to consider bond funds, with the understanding they still carry a risk of losing principal value,” she said. “The reason a client might want to stay away from the stock market is that if the funds are for emergency reserves, college funds for today or a down payment on a home in the next few years, the money really should stay liquid and guaranteed in cash.”

Risk-reward

Markets can go up and markets can go down. It's a risk-reward assessment that every consumer needs to discuss their their financial adviser. Money in a CD, earning almost nothing, at least carries no risk, other than missing a gain if other available investment vehicles take off. A five percent correction in a stock or fund, however, could hand you a significant loss.

The risk to the consumer might be great or small. CNBC stock guru Jim Cramer, host of the stock-picking show “Mad Money,” admonishes viewers to only trade with money they are willing to lose, not the money in their 401(k). Few financial advisers would disagree.

“Consumers should always identify what their money will be used for and, so they can understand the level of risk they can afford to take with those funds,” Higgins said.

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Recent housing stats suggest an improving economy

As the housing market recovers, consumers grow more confident

Month after month, the news from the housing market has been better than expected. Sales are up and so are prices.But does an improving housing market te...

Photo
Joel Naroff
Month after month, the news from the housing market has been better than expected. Sales are up and so are prices.

But does an improving housing market tell us anything about the overall economy? Economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., thinks it might.

When housing starts showed a surprising 12 percent gain in December, Naroff saw signs it was helping to improve the labor market. New claims for unemployment benefits dropped in the aftermath.

Housing traditionally has helped an economy rebound from a recession. But that didn't happen this last time. The housing market was so damaged that the normal lift housing produced just didn't happen. But maybe that's changing.

Points to stronger consumer spending

“Housing is one of the indicators that are pointing to stronger consumer spending,” Naroff said. “I use it as a consumer number not just a construction report as households have to be willing to take on the debt and they do so only if they are confident. Housing sales rose sharply during the second half of the year and that is consistent with solid 3%-3.5% annualized increase in retail sales and strongly rising vehicle sales, it is clear that the consumer is making a comeback and leading the economy forward.”

Here's more evidence. A massive economic slowdown that most had been predicting for the last quarter of 2012 didn't materialize. Retail sales in that period were better than expected. At the same time, residential construction picked up. A coincidence? Probably not.

Here's another housing stat that could have deep meaning for the economy. A report by CoreLogic showed that approximately 100,000 more borrowers reached a state of positive equity during the third quarter of 2012, adding to the more than 1.3 million borrowers that moved into positive equity through the second quarter of 2012.

That means fewer “underwater” borrowers, who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Theoretically, that means they are closer to being able to refinance their mortgages to today's near historic low rates. By doing so they can lower their monthly payments, freeing more money to spend on other things and thus, stimulating the economy.

Moving in the right direction

Together, negative equity and near-negative equity mortgages accounted for 26.8 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage in the third quarter of 2012, down from 27 percent at the end of the second quarter in 2012. Nationally, negative equity decreased from $689 billion at the end of the second quarter in 2012 to $658 billion at the end of the third quarter, a decrease of $31 billion.

This decrease was driven in large part by an improvement in house price levels. This dollar amount represents the total value of all homes currently underwater nationally.

"Through the third quarter, the number of underwater borrowers declined significantly," said Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. "The substantive gain in house prices made in 2012, partly due to tight inventory caused by negative equity's lock-out effect, has paradoxically alleviated some of the pain."

Even in spite of the end-of-year fiscal cliff drama, the economy – and the housing market – appear to have held up well. Naroff sees that continuing into 2013, putting the economy on a track for marked improvement.

“Business spending, hiring and confidence will all jump,” Naroff predicted. “That sets us up for a better spring and a potentially strong second half of this year, even in the face of tax increases and spending cuts.”

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Union membership continues its decline

In addition, wages earned by union members are falling

If you belong to a labor union, you're seeing a thinning of the ranks. Figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show the union membe...

PhotoIf you belong to a labor union, you're seeing a thinning of the ranks.

Figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show the union membership rate -- the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union -- was 11.3 percent last year, compared with 11.8 percent in 2011.

In addition, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, was 14.4 million -- also a decline over the year. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

The data on union membership were collected as part of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 households that obtains information on employment and unemployment among the nation's civilian non-institutional population ages 16 and over.

Survey highlights

The BLS figures also show:

  • Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.9 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.6 percent).
  • Workers in education, training, and library occupations and in protective service occupations had the highest unionization rates, at 35.4 and 34.8 percent, respectively.
  • Black workers were more likely to be union members than were white, Asian or Hispanic workers. Among states, New York continued to have the highest union membership rate (23.2 percent), and North Carolina again had the lowest rate (2.9 percent).

Industry and occupation of union members

  • In 2012, 7.3 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, versus 7.0 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public-sector workers (35.9 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.6 percent). Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate -- 41.7 percent. This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters. Private- sector industries with high unionization rates included transportation and utilities (20.6 percent) and construction (13.2 percent). Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.4 percent) and in financial activities (1.9 percent).
  • Among occupational groups, education, training and library occupations (35.4 percent) and protective service occupations (34.8 percent) had the highest unionization rates in 2012. Sales and related occupations (2.9 percent) and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (3.4 percent) had the lowest unionization rates.

Characteristics of union members

  • The union membership rate was higher for men (12.0 percent) than for women (10.5 percent) in 2012. The gap between their rates has narrowed considerably since 1983, when the rate for men was 24.7 percent and the rate for women was 14.6 percent.
  • In 2012, among major race and ethnicity groups, black workers had a higher union membership rate (13.4 percent) than workers who were white (11.1 percent), Asian (9.6 percent), or Hispanic (9.8 percent). Black men had the highest union membership rate (14.8 percent), while Asian men had the lowest rate (8.9 percent).
  • By age, the union membership rate was highest among workers ages 55 to 64 (14.9 percent). The lowest union membership rate occurred among those ages 16 to 24 (4.2 percent).
  • Full-time workers were about twice as likely as part-time workers to be union members --12.5 percent compared with 6.0 percent.

Union representation

  • In 2012, 15.9 million wage and salary workers were represented by a union. This group includes both union members (14.4 million) and workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.6 million). Private-sector employees comprised about half (814,000) of the 1.6 million workers who were covered by a union contract but were not members of a union.

Earnings

  • Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $943 last year, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $742. In addition to coverage by a collective bargaining agreement, this earnings difference reflects a variety of influences, including variations in the distributions of union members and nonunion employees by occupation, industry, firm size or geographic region.

Union membership by state

  • Last year, 31 states and the District of Columbia had union membership rates below that of the U.S. average, 11.3 percent, while 19 states had higher rates. All states in the Middle Atlantic and Pacific divisions reported union membership rates above the national average, and all states in the East South Central and West South Central divisions had rates below it. Union membership rates declined over the year in 34 states, rose in 14 states and the District of Columbia, and remained unchanged in 2 states. (See table 5.)
  • Eight states had union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2012. North Carolina had the lowest rate (2.9 percent), followed by Arkansas (3.2 percent) and South Carolina (3.3 percent). Three states had union membership rates over 20.0 percent in 2012: New York (23.2 percent), Alaska (22.4 percent), and Hawaii (21.6 percent).
  • About half the 14.4 million union members in the U.S. lived in just seven states: (California, 2.5 million; New York, 1.8 million; Illinois, 0.8 million; Pennsylvania, 0.7 million; and Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, 0.6 million each), though these states accounted for only about one-third of wage and salary employment nationally.
  • State union membership levels depend on both the state wage and salary employment level and the union membership rate. Texas, with a union membership rate of 5.7 percent, had about one-third as many union members as New York, despite having 2.7 million more wage and salary employees. Conversely, North Carolina and Hawaii had comparable numbers of union members (112,000 and 116,000, respectively), though North Carolina's wage and salary employment level (3.8 million) was more than seven times that of Hawaii (537,000).
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C & H Meats recalls marinated pork and chicken products

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is not declared on the label

C & H Meat Company of Vernon, CA, is recalling approximately 79,400 pounds of marinated pork and chicken products because they are misbranded in that they...

PhotoC & H Meat Company of Vernon, CA, is recalling approximately 79,400 pounds of marinated pork and chicken products because they are misbranded in that they contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is not declared on the label.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 10-oz. packages and bulk packages of Korean Brand BBQ Flavored Spicy Pork Butt
  • 10-oz packages and bulk packages of Marinated Spicy Pork Butt
  • 10-oz. packages and bulk packages of Korean Brand BBQ Flavored Spicy Boneless Chicken Leg Meat

The products subject to recall may bear the establishment number "EST. 4831" or "P-4831" inside the USDA mark of inspection. These products were produced on various dates through Jan. 16, 2013, and distributed to retail establishments and restaurants in California.

There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions should contact Steve Kim at (323) 261-5388.  

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Home prices tick higher in November

The latest numbers add to evidence that the housing market is on the mend

On the whole, home prices are making a recovery. The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA) monthly House Price Index (HPI Washington, DC was up 0.6 perc...

PhotoOn the whole, home prices are making a recovery.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA) monthly House Price Index (HPI Washington, DC was up 0.6 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis in November. In addition, the previously reported 0.5 percent increase in October was revised upward to a gain of 0.6 percent.

For the 12 months ending in November, U.S. prices rose 5.6 percent. Still, the HPI is 15.2 percent below its April 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the August 2004 index level. National home prices have not declined on a monthly basis since January 2011.

Earlier this week, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported the national median existing-home price rose 1.5 percent in December from a year earlier and the strongest showing since November 2005 .

For all of 2012, NAR says the preliminary median existing-home price was up 6.3 percent from 2011, and the strongest annual price gain since 2005 when the median price rose 12.4 percent.

Regional breakdown

For the nine census divisions, the FHFA reports seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from October to November ranged from -1.0 percent in the East North Central division to +2.1 percent in the Mountain division. The 12-month changes ranged from +0.5 percent in the Middle Atlantic division to +14.8 percent in the Mountain division.

FHFA uses the purchase prices of houses with mortgages owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to calculate the monthly index.  

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Homestead Creamery Artisan Cheese removed from store shelves

The cheese may be contaminated with Shiga-Toxin producing E.coli

Homestead Creamery of Jamesport, MO, is withdrawing a batch of its Flory's Favorite cheese from the marketplace. Preliminary test results received from th...

PhotoHomestead Creamery of Jamesport, MO, is withdrawing a batch of its Flory's Favorite cheese from the marketplace.

Preliminary test results received from the Missouri State Health Laboratory indicate the cheese may be contaminated with Shiga-Toxin producing E.coli, which can lead to food borne illness. Tests to confirm this are cntinuing.

The Homestead Creamery plant license to sell milk products in Missouri has been temporarily suspended, pending the results of the investigation by the State Milk Board and Missouri departments of Agriculture and Health and Senior Services.

The withdrawn product, Flory's Favorite, is a 60-day aged cheese made with raw milk. Packages of the cheese are marked with "Packed On 210" on the label. This affects approximately 250 pounds of cheese and does not affect any other dairy products from Homestead Creamery.

The withdrawn cheese was sold at Homestead Creamery facility in Jamesport, MO, and may have been sold by the following retailers:

  • HyVee in Liberty, MO
  • HyVee in Trenton, MO
  • Benedict Builders' Farm in Knob Noster, MO
  • Milton Creamery in Milton, IA

The Missouri State Milk Board continues to review the company's records to determine when consumers may have purchased the product.

Anyone who has purchased the cheese may return the unused portion to the store from which they purchased the product.

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Study finds link between hearing loss and brain function decline in older adults

Hearing loss could mean 'long-term consequences' to healthy brain functioning

Many of us know what it is like to be around someone with a hearing loss -- or even experience such a loss ourselves. But the constant asking or being aske...

PhotoMany of us know what it is like to be around someone with a hearing loss -- or even experience such a loss ourselves. But the constant asking or being asked to repeat something isn't the worst of it.

According to a new study by hearing experts at Johns Hopkins, older adults with hearing loss are more likely to develop problems thinking and remembering than older adults whose hearing is normal.

In the study, volunteers with hearing loss, undergoing repeated cognition tests over six years, had cognitive abilities that declined some 30-to-40 percent faster than in those whose hearing was normal. Levels of declining brain function were directly related to the amount of hearing loss, the researchers say.

Direct correlation

On average, older adults with hearing loss developed a significant impairment in their cognitive abilities 3.2 years sooner than those with normal hearing.

The findings, reported in the JAMA Internal Medicine, are among the first to emerge from a larger, ongoing study monitoring the health of older blacks and whites in Memphis, Tenn., and Pittsburgh, Pa. Known as the Health, Aging and Body Composition, or Health ABC study, the latest report on older adults involved a subset of 1,984 men and women between the ages of 75 and 84, and is believed to be the first to gauge the impact of hearing loss on higher brain functions over the long term.

According to senior study investigator and Johns Hopkins otologist and epidemiologist Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., all study participants had normal brain function when the study began in 2001, and were initially tested for hearing loss, which hearing specialists define as recognizing only those sounds louder than 25 decibels.

"Our results show that hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging, because it may come with some serious long-term consequences to healthy brain functioning," says Lin, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Our findings emphasize just how important it is for physicians to discuss hearing with their patients and to be proactive in addressing any hearing declines over time," says Lin. He estimates that as many as 27 million Americans over age 50, including two-thirds of men and women aged 70 years and older, suffer from some form of hearing loss. More worrisome, he says, only 15 percent of those who need a hearing aid get one, leaving much of the problem and its consequences untreated.

Why does this happen?

Possible explanations for the cognitive slide, Lin says, include the ties between hearing loss and social isolation, with loneliness being well established in previous research as a risk factor for cognitive decline. Degraded hearing may also force the brain to devote too much of its energy to processing sound, and at the expense of energy spent on memory and thinking. He adds there may also be some common, underlying damage that leads to both hearing and cognitive problems.

Lin and his team already have plans under way to launch a much larger study to determine if use of hearing aids or other devices to treat hearing loss in older adults might forestall or delay cognitive decline.

In the latest study, which began in 1997, all participants were in good general physical health at the time. Hearing tests were given to volunteers in 2001, during which they individually listened to a range of soft and loud sounds, from 0 decibels to 100 decibels, in a soundproof room.

Brain functioning was also assessed in 2001, using two well-recognized tests of memory and thinking ability, known as the Modified Mini-Mental State (3MS) and Digit Symbol Substitution (DSS), respectively. Included in the 3MS test, study participants were asked to memorize words, given commands or instructional tasks to follow, and asked basic questions as to the correct year, date and time. In the DSS test, study participants were asked to match specific numbers to symbols and timed on how long it took them to complete the task.

Both types of tests were repeated for each study participant three more times until the study ended in 2007, to gauge cognitive decline. Factors already known to contribute to loss of brain function were accounted for in the researchers' analysis, including age, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke.

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House 'flipping' is back in vogue

Even in this market, investors are making money on real estate

During the housing boom, investors -- amateurs and professionals -- engaged in house "flipping" for fun and profit. They would buy or build a house and alm...

PhotoDuring the housing boom, investors -- amateurs and professionals -- engaged in house "flipping" for fun and profit. They would buy or build a house and almost immediately sell it. A lot of money was made that way.

It wasn't that hard to do because it was easy to get a loan and home prices kept going up. But the housing market crash of 2008 brought an end to flipping -- or did it?

The A&E cable TV program "Flip This House," which follows investors and contractors as they buy, renovate and sell homes, is as popular as ever. And though there isn't as much flipping going on as there was a few years ago, the practice is making a strong comeback. According to real estate portal RealtyPin.com, the number of flips rose 25% nationwide in the first six months of 2012, compared to the same period of 2011.

How can that be?

Days of easy money

"Before the bubble burst, flipping was something that you saw going on all over the country," said James Paffrath, RealtyPin.com's CEO. "After all, it was easy to get financing, so no matter how high purchase prices were, it didn’t matter. Investors could qualify for a loan, buy what they wanted with very little cash down, make some upgrades, then turn around and sell for a much higher price. They didn’t need a ton of cash on hand to make it work."

Maybe, but home prices were escalating rapidly back then. Today, not so much. How are flippers making money in this environment? It turns out they're doing it a little differently.

For one thing, they aren't borrowing the money. They're paying cash. The monthly existing home sales reports from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show that cash sales consistently make up about 30 percent of the sales each month and it's investors primarily who pay with cash.

Cash is king

"Because it’s so much tougher to qualify for a mortgage than it was during the height of the housing boom, many investors prefer to skip all of the red tape and pay with cash," Paffrath said. "That way, they can make purchases a lot faster than they would if they had to go through the traditional lender process."

PhotoThere are some disadvantages to paying cash. It ties up all your capital, limiting the number of "flips" you can do. But that might turn out to be an advantage, keeping investors from getting over-extended, which happened a lot during the bubble days.

And even though investors are limited to what they can buy with their own money, the post-crash market has offered up lots of bargains in the form of foreclosures and short-sales, so their are plenty of properties in their price range.

Fine, so investors can buy homes, fix them up and put them back on the market. But we've been in a housing recession for a while. Will anyone buy them? Paffrath says they will but you have to pick your markets.

Rising from the ashes

"Right now, Phoenix seems to be the most popular place for flipping," he said. "At the end of 2012, more than one-quarter of buyers in Phoenix were investors, most of whom were from out of state. Because home values are rising so quickly, flippers don’t even have to make any upgrades to the homes. All they have to do is hold onto the property for a few months and let natural area price increases work their magic."

How much can they make? Paffrath says home values in Phoenix are rising about two percent per month. Put a little sweat equity into giving the place some curb appeal and investors can reap a nice return.

By the same token, Paffrath says there isn't a lot of flipping going on in expensive housing markets like Seattle. The average cost of a home -- even one in foreclosure -- can be more than an investor wants to tie up. After all, they aren't using "other people's money" now but their own.

Adding value

Another difference with today's flipping is the requirement to add some value. That usually didn't happen in the bubble days because it didn't have to. It was a "sellers market." Things are different now.

With the housing market still on the mend, Paffrath says the only way you're going to make a significant profit on a flipping project is to actually flip the house -- and quickly. That means going in, updating out-of-date appliances, making all of the necessary repairs, both major and minor, and doing an overall renovation to the home. You'll have to spend money. Just don't spend too much.

"If you plan on renovating the home, you run the risk of over-improving – meaning that you improve the home beyond the scope of the rest of neighborhood," Paffrath said. "Buyers aren’t going to spend $200,000 on a house, when the rest of the homes around it are only worth $100,000. So, you have to know exactly what the area around you is worth before you start upgrading anything. Otherwise, you could end up wasting a ton of money."

Flipping could become even more widespread as the housing market continues to recover. Paffrath points out that last last year FHA waived an anti-flipping regulation that would have prevented the agency from insuring homes that were sold within 90 days of being purchases. He thinks they did it to encourage more people to start flipping, which would, theoretically at least, jump-start the housing market.

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Booking.com launches $35 million ad campaign in U.S.

Ads promise a "moment of joy" as consumers encounter lodging bargains

You'd think the hotel reservations market was already crowded enough, with Priceline, Travelocity, Hotels.com and countless other sites all claiming to fin...

PhotoYou'd think the hotel reservations market was already crowded enough, with Priceline, Travelocity, Hotels.com and countless other sites all claiming to find you the greatest hotel room ever at the lowest price imaginable. 

Wading into the middle of all this is Booking.com, a European site that has not previously promoted itself heavily in the U.S. 

Modestly referring to itself as "Planet Earth’s #1 accommodation site," Booking.com today launches its first-ever brand campaign, with $35 million worth of ads online, on TV and in movie theaters.

“With over 265,000 participating hotels and accommodations in 178 countries, and over 5,000 people worldwide dedicated to serving travelers since 1996, we believe Booking.com creates more of these incredible moments for people than anybody else,” said Paul Hennessy, Booking.com’s Chief Marketing Officer. “That moment of joy, when you realize just how great your accommodation is, and how amazing your trip is going to be, is the focus of the campaign.”

Well, could be, but even though it hasn't advertised heavily in the U.S. before, Booking.com is not exactly unknown to ConsumerAffairs readers.

"Booking.com's representatives sound professional on the phone, but they will do nothing to help you if the hotel frauds you," said Ray of Richmond, Calif., who complained that the Parayso Beach Hotel in Mexico charged his credit card not only for his deposit but also the full cost of his stay -- thus double-billing him for a few days.

Booking.com Jan. 22, 2013, 8:23 p.m.
Consumers rate Booking.com

"Don't use this service for Jahorina in Bosnia and Herzegovinia," said Radovan of Montenegro. "My reservation for a Hotel Snjeko was canceled the day before the trip. Suddenly, there was no longer a valid discount offered. The justification was, believe it or not, 'do not see the numbers on the credit card.'"

Sets the tone

The Booking.com advertising campaign is being managed by Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam. 

“The accommodation sets the tone for the trip. When it's wrong, the trip can never be what you've imagined. But when it's right, you have won. You will sleep amazingly well," said W+K creative director Mark Bernath. "You will be funnier and more charming.  And those who have entrusted you with the booking will consider you to have superhuman decision-making powers. You are a booking genius.”

Cute, but don't try that line with Maurice of Montreal.

"They advertised a room at the Marriott Courtyard in Toronto on January 11, 2013 that was supposedly discounted by over 70%. When I checked into the hotel and asked about the normal rate, it was the same as that posted by Booking.com. It simply advertised the normal rate on its site but claimed it was discounted from $399," he said in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "The room, needless to say, was a complete disappointment. It's very basic, not that different from a Super 8. It's a complete scam. I will never use this site again."

And just who is this Booking.com anyway? Well, it turns out it's part of the Priceline Group. Yes, that Priceline. It operates separately from the Priceline so familiar to U.S. travelers but is owned by the same corporate parent. 

"Their customer service talk sweet, but they do nothing for the customer," said M.A. of Charlotte, N.C.  "In a trip to Florida, I booked 2 rooms in a '3 star' hotel according to their classifications. The hotel name was Hollywood Beach Hotel on 1915 North Ocean Drive, Hollywood, FL. The 3 star hotel beds had hair, hair clips, blood clots, freezer dripping melted ice on the floor, coffee in the coffee maker, dirty baths and showers, to name a few.

Read more Booking.com reviews

 

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Airlines get tough with passengers over cell phones

Flight attendants are adopting a zero tolerance policy

As anyone who flies on commercial aircraft well knows, passengers are required to turn off cell phones and other mobile devices when they board.Today, wi...

PhotoAs anyone who flies on commercial aircraft well knows, passengers are required to turn off cell phones and other mobile devices when the door is closed for take-off.

Today, with nearly every human on the planet carrying a smartphone and perhaps an iPad, Kindle or other gadget, the task of enforcing that rule is a large one. Flight attendants, whose job it is to enforce that rule, are apparently losing patience and, if passengers are to be believed, are pretty much operating on a zero tolerance policy.

One may recall the December 2011 incident in which actor Alec Baldwin was unceremoniously booted off an American Airlines flight when a flight attendant said he refused to stop playing a word game on his smartphone as the plane sat on the tarmac. But celebrities are not the only ones complaining.

Stranded in Aruba

Anatoly, of New York, sent ConsumerAffairs a message thread he exchanged with Jet Blue customer service after he said he was bounced from a flight from Aruba to JFK.

Jetblue Jan. 22, 2013, 6:57 p.m.
Consumers rate Jetblue

According to Anatoly's side of the story, he was approached by a flight attendant prior to take off and told to turn off his cell phone.

“I told her that my phone is in safe AIRLINE MODE, and I let her see it,” Anatoly writes. “At the same moment she threatened with her finger and yelled, 'I said, turn off the phone!' I told her that her behavior is unacceptable. And this kind of voice and the way to approach looks familiar to me from the jail movies.”

That was probably not a good response, since Anatoly said the flight attendant went straight to the captain to demand that he be put off the plane. Anatoly said he explained the situation to the captain, who then agreed to allow him back on.

“When the flight attendant saw me on board again she start to scream out that I am not allowed to fly with them anymore,” Anatoly said.

Jet Blue response

The pilot, he said, then sided with the flight attendant and Anatoly was left in Aruba to fend for himself. A Jet Blue customer service rep named Terry was understanding.

“We assure you that the details and specifics of your situation will be discussed with our entire In-flight Crew, including the Captain,” she wrote. “We take your concerns seriously, and learn from your feedback.”

But Terry also made clear that, as far as airline policy in concerned, there is no such thing as “airplane mode” and all cell phones must be completely powered down prior to takeoff. Anatoly's point is that he thinks he could have been informed in a nicer way.

In fact, frequent flyers will tell you that flight attendants clearly say phones must be completely off, not in airplane mode.

Is this thing off?

Southwest Airlines Jan. 22, 2013, 6:57 p.m.
Consumers rate Southwest Airlines

Sonia, of Belleville, N.J., says she and her husband were flying on Southwestfrom Phoenix to Newark. As they boarded Sonia said she powered down her phone and reminded her husband to do the same.

“He showed me that he pressed the on/off button and the screen on his phone went blank,” Sonia wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I put his phone in his pocket and fell asleep. We were tired after a long day.”

But before the plane took off, Sonia said her husbands phone started ringing! As her husband fumbled with the device to try to power it down, a flight attendant, summoned by the passenger behind them, came up the aisle.

Honest mistake

“The stewardess got up, told my husband that when they said off, it means no current going through the unit, Sonia wrote. “My husband tried to show her how he turned his phone off and tried to explain that was an honest mistake that he really thought it was off. She snatched the phone out of my husband's hand, turned it off, and told him that if we were at the gate, she would have taken him back and that she could turn the plane around.”

Sonia said they were allowed to continue the flight but the flight attendant warned them they would have to speak to security officers at the gate when they arrived in Newark.

An overreaction? These and other passengers think so. But its also impossible to know how many times a day flight attendants have to carry on similar conversations. Maybe they start out reasonable enough but at the end of the day, who knows?

Concerned about disruptions

What is known is the union representing flight attendants, The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) is concerned about electronic devices and any future rule change that might allow their in-flight use. Last week the uniion joined government and industry experts in Washington to discuss the future of in-flight use of portable electronic devices. The committee, organized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has been tasked with evaluating regulations, policies and procedures that attempt to manage the safe use of portable electronic devices during flight.

“Flight Attendants have long been concerned about the potential for disruptions to safety and security from the use of portable electronic devices on commercial flights,” the union said in a statement. “Responsible for responding to any emergency as the last line of defense, we are prepared to have this important discussion on how the use of these devices present complex challenges for Flight Attendants in the cabin. Working in collaboration with the FAA, other federal agencies and various industry experts, AFA will assist efforts to evaluate these important issues and work to ensure that our nation’s aviation system is the safest in the world.”

The committee is experted to report its recommendations to the FAA in six months. In the meantime, airline passengers should probably double check to ensure their devices are turned off when they board – and not attempt a conversation with flight attendants about it.

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To be an employee or an entrepreneur---that's really the question

Start-ups are popping up all over the place, but is being a business owner really for you?

Remember the promises we made to ourselves when we were young? Those day dreams we dreamt about all of the things we were going to do when we got older?I...

PhotoRemember the promises we made to ourselves when we were young? Those daydreams about all of the things we were going to do when we got older?

I’m not talking about those kiddy dreams about pitching for the Yankees or becoming the first astronaut to visit Neptune, I’m talking about the goals we developed late in high school or in college.

During those days maybe you started making clothes for your friends that were well received, so you decided to head to New York to try your hand at a fashion business. Or maybe you’ve taken your mother’s recipes -- that you couldn’t care less about as a child -- and decided you wanted to open your own little café or luncheonette.

But somewhere in-between coming up with that idea and settling into the real world, those entrepreneurial ambitions started to subside and began to be replaced by hefty bills and an immediate need for employment. Plus, the pressure from your folks to “get a real job” didn’t help your level of ambition all that much either.

Most of us throughout the years have heard the advice of following your dreams, doing what you love, monetizing your passions, blah, blah, blah -- but is that really better than finding a job and having a consistent paycheck, a daily routine and some level of job security?

Stuck in jobs

It’s a question that many people go back and forth on, especially those people who are currently stuck in jobs they hate.

PhotoAnd we all know that trying to turn a passion into a fulltime business is risky, but just how risky is it? To be an employee or to be an entrepreneur -- for many, that is the true question.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration seven out of ten businesses shut down within two years and only 25 percent last for 15 years or longer, which shows just how large the potential for failure really is when starting a company.

But that shouldn’t discourage people from wanting to be a business owner, said Scott Shane in a Washington Post interview. Shane is a professor who teaches entrepreneurship at Case Western University.

He says quitting your job in order to start a business might not be the best game plan; instead you should work your business and your 9-to-5 simultaneously, which will better help your company get off the ground.

“Unemployed people tend to not start as successful companies on average as people who are employed do,” he said. “You’re not going to get as many successful businesses with young unemployed people as if you put your money into encouraging entrepreneurship among employed middle-aged people.”

Cash flow

In short, it takes a consistent flow of cash in order to add the things to your business that it needs. Being able to use your own capital to build your company -- at least in the beginning stages -- is preferable to starting out under any kind of debt.

In fact, Shane says if you hate your job but love the field, it’s best to stay in your position and learn all you can about the industry, that way it will be easier for you to build and maintain a customer base -- especially if you’ve already established a good reputation within that industry.

“Most people start businesses to pursue customers with similar products or services as their previous employers,” said Shane. “What helps to organize a business is industry knowledge, and that knowledge is learned by doing.”

PhotoBut not all future entrepreneurs are working a 9-to-5, and many don’t want to wait until they’ve mastered their industry before they start their companies.

A good portion of wannabe entrepreneurs still happen to be students, and many are eager to leave the college world for the business world, regardless of how huge the risk of failure is.

Take Eric Zhang for example a student at UC Berkeley who dropped out for a short while to pursue his dreams of starting an online company. Zhang has an opposite view of some experts that say people should wait to gain experience and money before starting a business.

The variance in philosophy could easily be attributed to generational differences, as many young people who begin start-ups may feel waiting for years is just too conservative, and if one waits until there’s no risk involved before starting business, they’ll be waiting forever.

No pain, no gain

“Entrepreneurship is never about ‘I’m going to wait until the risk is lowest,” Zhang told a California news outlet. “It’s always about taking every opportunity, even if the risk is high. And if you take 10 opportunities and you fail nine times and succeed once, then you’ve still succeeded.”

Many experts also say that having more than one business idea is key since the potential for one business failing is so significant.

Also, having a lot of resiliency is equally important when taking that entrepreneurial leap, due to the many no’s you may get and the amount of doors that will close before you even get a chance to get one toe across.

So again, the main question is should one be okay with being an employee if they ever had entrepreneurial ambitions or should they just throw risk and caution to the wind and hope it doesn’t blow back and painfully strike them?

The answer may lie in a person first defining what success is to them.

If success is being able to be good at a particular job — whether you love it or not — while making enough money to pursue outside interests like traveling, shopping or dining out, the entrepreneur's life may not be worth it for you.

But if just learning how to cope at your current job, while your mind is always on your passion, and you’re willing to take on the huge potential of your business not thriving, you may want to give being a company owner a shot.

Not always either-or

Also, it’s important to remember when it comes to deciding whether to stay at a job or start a business it’s not always either-or.

Not every start-up has to have Facebook-like ambitions, and people can work at their jobs, while still trying to turn the dreams of their youth into something profitable.  

As a matter of fact, that’s what many experts suggest you do.

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Groupon cancels all gun deals, says the category is "under review"

The move follows pressure from consumers, company doesn't say how long the hiatus will last

Groupon Inc. has stopped all current and future gun-related deals, apparently bowing to customer pressure a month after the deadly mass shooting at Sandy H...

PhotoGroupon Inc. has stopped all current and future gun-related deals, apparently bowing to customer pressure a month after the deadly mass shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn.

“All scheduled and current gun-related deals featured on Groupon North America, including shooting ranges, conceal-and-carry and clay shooting, have been placed on hiatus while we review internal standards that shape the deal inventory we feature,” spokeswoman Julie Mossler said. “The category is under review following recent consumer and merchant feedback."

The Chicago-based company didn't say how long the hiatus will last.

Some businesses whose deals were canceled reacted angrily. A Texas gun shop owner was calling for a Groupon boycott, media reports said. There was no word from LivingSocial or other daily deals sites about their plans, if any.

There was no immediate reaction from the National Rifle Association (NRA). However, in response to President Obama's inaugural address, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre repeated the organization's opposition to toughened gun laws.

"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation. Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy," LaPierre said in a commentary on the NRA website.

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AT&T devours Alltel

Says the deal will improve service in rural areas

American telecommunications giant AT&T has signed an agreement with Atlantic Tele-Network to acquire its retail wireless operations, which currently op...

PhotoAT&T is buying Alltel's wireless operations for $780 million in cash, saying the deal will improve its coverage in rural areas.

Under terms of the agreement, AT&T will acquire wireless properties, including licenses, network assets, retail stores and approximately 585,000 subscribers from Alltel's parent company, Atlantic Tele-Network.

Alltel's network covers about 4.6 million people in mainly rural areas across six states — Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina.

AT&T Wireless Jan. 22, 2013, 6:47 p.m.
Consumers rate AT&T Wireless

Federal regulators are expected to review and approve the deal, the companies said Tuesday. The companies predict the deal will close in the second half of the year.

AT&T said the deal includes spectrum in the 700 MHz, 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands and is largely complementary to AT&T’s existing network. ATNI currently operates a retail CDMA network for its subscribers in these areas. AT&T said the acquisition means that Alltel customers and AT&T customers who roam in these areas will "enjoy an enhanced mobile Internet experience."

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Court asked to shut down $70 million cramming operation

American eVoice, Ltd. allegedly placed bogus charges on consumers' phone bills

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to shut down an operation that allegedly placed more than $70 million in bogus charges on consumers’ phone bills -...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to shut down an operation that allegedly placed more than $70 million in bogus charges on consumers’ phone bills -- charges for services the consumers never ordered, did not authorize and often did not know they had.

In addition, the agency has asked a U.S. district court to freeze the operation's assets while the case moves forward.

Cramming crackdown

As part of a continuing crackdown on fraud and deception, the FTC filed a complaint against American eVoice, Ltd., eight other companies, Steven Sann, and three other people for "cramming" unauthorized charges onto consumers’ phone bills.

The complaint also alleges that the Missoula, Montana-area defendants transferred the proceeds from their illegal cramming operation to a purported non-profit, Bibliologic, Ltd., controlled by Steven Sann.

Hundreds of consumers complained that charges from $9.95 to $24.95 per month suddenly appeared on their phone bills without their authorization. The FTC claims defendants told phone companies and third party “billing aggregators” that the consumers had authorized the charges by filling out forms on the internet. Since January 2008, according to the complaint, the defendants have billed consumers for more than $70 million.

Additional charges

The FTC alleged that the defendants violated the Federal Trade Commission Act by:

  • unfairly billing consumers for services they did not authorize; and
  • deceptively representing that consumers were obligated to pay for the services.

The FTC also alleged that defendants channeled their illegal proceeds to Bibliologic, and that the purported non-profit organization has no right to the funds and must disgorge them to the FTC.

The complaint names as defendants Steven Sann; Terry Lane (aka Terry Sann); Nathan Sann; Robert Braach; American eVoice, Ltd.; Emerica Media Corp.; FoneRight, Inc.; Global Voice Mail, Ltd.; HearYou2, Inc.; Network Assurance, Inc.; SecuratDat, Inc.; Techmax Solutions, Inc.; and Voice Mail Professionals, Inc. The complaint also names Bibliologic, Ltd. as a relief defendant.

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Consumers remain gloomy about the U.S. economy

More of them pulled back on their holiday spending than increased it

Worries about where the economy his headed prompted holiday shoppers to keep an eye on the nickels and dimes. New research published by Bankrate.com shows...

PhotoWorries about where the economy his headed prompted holiday shoppers to keep an eye on the nickels and dimes.

New research published by Bankrate.com shows 28 percent of Americans spent less than expected this holiday season while just 16 percent spent more than expected. This was held true for most age groups -- with only those under age 30 slightly more inclined to have spent more than expected.

When Bankrate asked the same holiday spending question a year ago, 24 percent of Americans spent less than expected and 17 percent spent more. Two years ago, 27 percent spent less than expected and 19percent spent more.

Financial security

At the same time, Bankrate said its Financial Security Index jumped three points to 98.6 in January -- the biggest increase in 13 months -- following a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. However, this is still lower than the October reading of 99.2 and is consistent with Americans’ long-term feelings of deteriorating financial security.

When the Financial Security Index is below 100, it indicates that Americans’ financial security is lower than the year before. The index has been below 100 in 24 of the 26 months since its inception in Dec. 2010.

“These results illustrate that the fiscal cliff was hardly the only headwind impacting the U.S. economy,” said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com’s senior financial analyst. “Yes, the resolution brought some temporary relief, but the economy continues to plod along in first gear. It’s going to take sustained, substantive job growth in order for Americans to feel considerably better about their financial security.”

Additional highlights

Findings in the latest Financial Security Index show:

  • Americans’ sentiment regarding their job security, savings, net worth and overall financial situation all posted increases over the past month. Job security and net worth have improved relative to one year ago.
  • Higher-income and more educated households were the most inclined to report higher net worth than one year ago.
  • The reading on Americans’ comfort level with debt was unchanged from one month ago.
  • Savings remains a sore spot. More than one-third of Americans are less comfortable with their savings now compared with 12 months ago, but just 13 percent are more comfortable. This disparity is evident across all age and income brackets.
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The housing comeback continues

Sales of existing homes rose in 2012 despite a slight dip in December

Sales of existing homes hit their highest level in five years during 2012, while the annual price increase was the best since 2005. Figures released by th...

PhotoSales of existing homes hit their highest level in five years during 2012, while the annual price increase was the best since 2005.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show that previously-owned home sales totaled 4.65 million in 2012 -- up 9.2 percent from 4.26 million in 2011. This happened even as home sales in December declined 1.0 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.94 million in December from a downwardly revised 4.99 million in November.

Pent-up demand is sustaining the market. "Record low mortgage interest rates clearly are helping many home buyers, but tight inventory and restrictive mortgage underwriting standards are limiting sales," said Lawrence Yun , NAR chief economist. "The number of potential buyers who stayed on the sidelines accumulated during the recession, but they started entering the market early last year as their financial ability and confidence steadily grew, along with home prices. Likely job creation and household formation will continue to fuel that growth. Both sales and prices will again be higher in 2013."

Inventories down

Total housing inventory at the end of December fell 8.5 percent -- to 1.82 million existing homes available for sale. That represents a 4.4-month supply at the current sales pace, down from 4.8 months in November, and the lowest housing supply since May of 2005 when it was 4.3 months, which was near the peak of the housing boom.

Listed inventory is 21.6 percent below a year ago when there was a 6.4-month supply. Raw unsold inventory is at the lowest level since January 2001 when there were 1.78 million homes on the market.

Prices rise

If you're trying to sell your home, you'll appreciate this: The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $180,800 in December -- 1.5 percent above December 2011. This is the 10th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains, which last occurred from August 2005 to May 2006, and is the strongest increase since November 2005 when it jumped 12.9 percent.

For all of 2012, the preliminary median existing-home price was $176,600, up 6.3 percent from $166,100 in 2011, and the strongest annual price gain since 2005 when the median price rose 12.4 percent.

Other highlights

  • Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 24 percent of December sales, up from 22 percent in November but below the 32 percent share in December 2011. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 17 percent below market value in December, while short sales were discounted 16 percent.
  • The median time on market for all homes was 73 days in December, compared with 70 days in November, but 26.3 percent below 99 days in December 2011. Short sales were on the market for a median of 117 days, while foreclosures typically sold in 45 days; non-distressed homes took 74 days. Thirty-one percent of all homes sold in December were on the market for less than a month.
  • First-time buyers accounted for 30 percent of purchases in December, the same as November; they were 31 percent in December 2011.
  • All-cash sales were at 29 percent of transactions in December, compared with 30 percent in November and 31 percent in December 2011. Investors -- who account for most cash sales -- purchased 21 percent of homes in December, up two percent from November; they were 21 percent in December 2011.
  • Single-family home sales slipped 1.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.35 million in December from 4.41 million in November, but are 11.5 percent above the 3.90 million-unit pace in December 2011. The median existing single-family home price was $180,300 in December -- up 10.9 percent from a year ago.
  • Existing condominium and co-op sales rose 1.7 percent to an annualized level of 590,000 in December from 580,000 in November, and are 22.9 percent higher than the 480,000-unit level a year ago. The median existing condo price was $184,100 in December, up 16.0 percent from December 2011.
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Cancer mortality down sharply from 1991 peak

A reduction in smoking is a major factor

The overall death rate for cancer in the United States continues to fall. The American Cancer Society's annual Cancer Statistics report finds deaths decli...

PhotoThe overall death rate for cancer in the United States continues to fall.

The American Cancer Society's annual Cancer Statistics report finds deaths declined 20 percent from its peak in 1991. That translates to the avoidance of approximately 1.2 million deaths from cancer -- 152,900 of these in 2009 alone.

Each year, the American Cancer Society estimates the numbers of new cancer cases and deaths expected in the United States in the current year and compiles the most recent data on cancer incidence, mortality, and survival. The report is based on incidence data from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Major categories post declines

The latest report finds that cancer death rates decreased from their peak of 215.1 per 100,000 in 1991 -- to 173.1 per 100,000 in 2009. Death rates continue to decline for all four major cancer sites: lung, colon and rectum (colorectum), breast, and prostate. Over the past two decades, death rates have decreased from their peak by more than 30 percent for cancers of the colorectum, female breast, and male lung, and by more than 40 percent for prostate cancer.

These large drops are primarily due to reductions in smoking for lung cancer and to improvements in early detection and treatment for colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers.

The authors say as encouraging as those drops are, further progress can be accelerated by applying existing cancer control knowledge across all segments of the population, with an emphasis on those groups in the lowest socioeconomic bracket and other underserved populations.

Looking ahead

According to the study, a total of 1,660,290 new cancer cases and 580,350 cancer deaths are projected to occur in the United States in 2013. Among men, cancers of the prostate, lung and bronchus, and colorectum will account for half of all newly diagnosed cancers; prostate cancer alone will account for 28 percent (238,590) of incident cases in men.

Among women, the three most commonly diagnosed types of cancer in 2013 will be breast, lung and bronchus, and colorectum, accounting for about half of all cases. Breast cancer alone is expected to account for 29 percent (232,340) of all new cancer cases among women.

While incidence rates are declining for most cancer sites, they are increasing among both men and women for melanoma of the skin and cancers of the liver, thyroid, and pancreas. Overall cancer incidence rates decreased slightly in males (by 0.6 percent per year) and were stable in females in the most recent five year period for which there is data (2005-2009).

Common areas of death

Cancers of the lung and bronchus, prostate, and colorectum in men and cancers of the lung and bronchus, breast, and colorectum in women continue to be the most common causes of cancer death. These four cancers account for almost half of the total cancer deaths among men and women. In 2013, lung cancer is expected to account for 26 percent of all female cancer deaths and 28 percent of all male cancer deaths.

Cancer death rates decreased by 1.8 percent per year in males and by 1.5 percent per year in females during the most recent five years of data (2005-2009). These declines have been consistent since 2001 and 2002 in men and women, respectively, and are larger in magnitude than those occurring in the previous decade. Between 1990/1991 and 2009, cancer death rates decreased by 24 percent in men, 16 percent in women, and 20 percent overall.

Death risk falling

"In 2009, Americans had a 20 percent lower risk of death from cancer than they did in 1991, a milestone that shows we truly are creating more birthdays," said John R. Seffrin, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society.

"But we must also recognize that not all demographic groups have benefited equally from these gains, particularly those diagnosed with colorectal or breast cancer, where earlier detection and better treatments are credited for the improving trends. We can and must close this gap so that people are not punished for having the misfortune of being born poor and disadvantaged," he concluded.

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Soup and melamine bowls may be a bad combination

Study: Melamine tableware may release melamine when used to serve hot foods

Everyone's heard of the problem of Pyrex cookware coming apart under the right circumstances and the danger of lead leaching from some types of ceramic bow...

PhotoEveryone's heard of the problem of Pyrex cookware coming apart under the right circumstances and the danger of lead leaching from some types of ceramic bowls is well-known.

But who would have thought twice about eating soup or other hot foods from a melamine bowl?

Now researchers say they have evidence that serving hot foods in melamine bowls releases melamine, which has been shown to be associated with painful urinary stones in both children and adults and with kidney failure and even death when ingested in large quantities.

Melamine is a chemical with a high nitrogen content. Besides being used to make plastics, it has sometimes been added to animal feed to increase its apparent protein content -- and it has sometimes been illicitly added to human and pet food with disastrous results.

In 2008, more than 53,000 illnesses and at least four deaths were blamed on melamine-tainted milk in China and elsewhere.  Thousands of dogs and cats became ill or died after melamine was added to pet food in 2007.

In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it had found  melamine in infant formula but said trace amounts were probably safe.

The FDA has said that tiny amounts of melamine "can migrate very slowly out of the plastic into food that comes into contact with the tableware" but in a 2011 statement said that it "has been found that melamine does not migrate from melamine-formaldehyde tableware into most foods."  

Noodle soup

In the latest study, however, Chia-Fang Wu, M.S., Ph.D., of Kaohsiung Medical University, Taiwan, and colleagues conducted a crossover study of noodle soup consumption in melamine bowls and total melamine excretion in urine.

According to a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine, 12 healthy individuals (six men and six women) participated in the investigation. One group consumed 500 mL of hot noodle soup in a melamine bowl and another group consumed soup in ceramic bowls.

Urine samples were collected from all participants after consumption for 12 hours. After a three-week washout, the assigned treatments were reversed.

PhotoTotal melamine excretion in urine for 12 hours was nearly eight times higher for the group served from melamine bowls compared to the group eating from ceramic bowls (8.35 µg vs. 1.31 µg).

“Melamine tableware may release large amounts of melamine when used to serve high-temperature foods. … The amount of melamine released into food and beverages from melamine tableware varies by brand, so the results of this study of one brand may not be generalized to other brands. … Although the clinical significance of what levels of urinary melamine concentration has not yet been established, the consequences of long-term melamine exposure still should be of concern,” the authors conclude.

In its 2011 statement, the FDA said that the risk was confined primarily to heating foods in microwave ovens.

"Foods and drinks should not be heated on melamine-based dinnerware in microwave ovens.  Only ceramic or other cookware which specifies that the cookware is microwave-safe should be used. The food may then be served on melamine-based tableware," the FDA said.

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Photo credit: Amazon.com

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Are shareholders bad for consumers?

Nationwide Insurance takes a slight anti-Wall Street stance with its advertising

Car insurance companies are pretty much alike, right? What sets them apart is their marketing.One might have an Australian lizard as a pitchman, another...

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Study links aspirin use to macular degeneration

Creates a dilemma, as regular aspirin use may reduce heart attack risk

A new study creates a dilemma for older Americans and their physicians, fiinding an association between regular use of aspirin and macular degeneration, a ...

PhotoA new study creates a dilemma for older Americans and their physicians, fiinding an association between regular use of aspirin and macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in older people.

The study, published Online First by JAMA Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication, found the higher risk of age-related macular degeneration was independent of a history of heart disease and smoking.

Aspirin is one of the most widely used medications in the world and is commonly used in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and ischemic stroke. While a recent study suggested that regular aspirin use was associated with macular degeneration, other studies have reported inconsistent findings.

Smoking is also a preventable risk factor for the disease, the authors write in the study background.

Gerald Liew, Ph.D., of the University of Sydney, Australia, and colleagues conducted the prospective analysis of data from an Australian study that included four examinations during a 15-year period. Of 2,389 participants, 257 individuals (10.8 percent) were regular aspirin users.

After the 15-year follow-up, 63 individuals (24.5 percent) developed incident neovascular macular degeneration, according to the results.

“Regular aspirin use was significantly associated with an increased incidence of neovascular macular degeneration,” the researchers said, noting that any decision concerning whether to stop aspirin therapy is “complex and needs to be individualized.”

“Currently, there is insufficient evidence to recommend changing clinical practice, except perhaps in patients with strong risk factors for neovascular macular degeneration (e.g., existing late macular degeneration in the fellow eye) in whom it may be appropriate to raise the potentially small risk of incident neovascular macular degeneration with long-term aspirin therapy,” the authors concluded.

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Alfa Romeo returns to the U.S. this year ... maybe

The sporty rear-wheel-drive 4C will lead the charge

This time they really mean it, they say. Alfa Romeo is returning to the U.S., with the rear-wheel-drive 4C sport coupe blazing the trail. "For sure it's ...

PhotoThis time they really mean it, they say. Alfa Romeo is returning to the U.S., with the rear-wheel-drive 4C sport coupe blazing the trail.

"For sure it's coming back this year with the 4C. With the Alfa Romeo 4C," Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said after a speech to a Detroit businesswomen's group, Automotive News reported. "We are finalizing the car now, so it should be here this year."

The 4C is being built at a Maserati plant in Modena, Italy, and the company says it will be a worthy successor to Alfa Romeo's proud heritage of scrappy, exuberant sports cars. Fiat plans to make about 2,500 of the cars each year. It will be the marque's top-performing car, intended to herald the brand's return under Marchionne's leadership.

PhotoPricing is still uncertain, although reports say the 4C will be priced at about 50,000 Euros, which would be about $66,000, but U.S. pricing may be a bit above that target as Fiat wants the Alfa to retake its position alongside Porsche, BMW and other "serious" premium sports cars.

Where can you buy one? Well, you can't yet and it's uncertain whether Alfa Romeos will be sold through Fiat dealers or Chrysler Group dealers. Fiat, of course, owns Ferrari and Maserati but it's not likely the mid-range Alfa would be admitted to such exalted company.

Alfa Romeo left the United States in the late 1990s and has been suffering from slow sales in Europe the last few years, thanks to the recession and a lack of new models, attributed partly to Fiat's being preoccupied with its new Chrysler division.

More Alfa models are expected, including a new Giulia sedan, which will be based on the Dodge Dart platform, although some would say the Dart is based on the Giulia platform, but why quibble?

Altogether, Fiat says it has six new Alfa Romeo models in the works, including sedans and SUVs. It's hoping to double its worldwide sales to about 400,000 by 2014.

PhotoFiat may have its work cut out for in trying to bring Alfa back to near the top of the heap. This reporter wore his Alfa Romeo Owner's Club cap around Florence earlier this year and, other than a few sympathetic shrugs and eye rolls, got little reaction from the locals, who appeared to regard Alfa as part of history. Sadly, there were more Audis and BMWs than Alfas in evidence on the streets.

In the United States, the brand is virtually unknown except to those nearly too old to drive.

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Drugs may be a future option for treating hearing loss

Researcher may have found a way to speed up human trials for hearing loss drugs

As humans age, their hearing tends to degrade. Years of exposure to noise will take its toll on the delicate instrument that is the human ear.The baby bo...

PhotoAs humans age, their hearing tends to degrade. Years of exposure to noise will take its toll on the delicate instrument that is the human ear.

The baby boom generation is now experiencing this. Not only has society generally become noisier over the last 40 years but all those years of rock concerts and headphone-listening too often means boomers don't hear as well as they enter their 60s.

For years, treatment for hearing loss consisted mostly of hearing aids. In 1984 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first Cochlear implant, a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to someone who has lost almost all hearing. It's a very expensive procedure.

Miracle drug?

It may not be long, however, before there are approved drugs that will treat hearing loss before it can occur. Pfizer, Novartis and many other large pharmaceutical firms are said to be looking into medicines that can prevent or reduce hearing loss.

While it may be too late to help some baby boomers who are already experiencing the effects of hearing loss, younger generations that are growing up on iPods may prove to be a huge market for that kind of medical attention, perhaps sooner in their lives than boomers. A Tel Aviv University study in 2011 concluded that current teens are damaging their hearing from use of personal music players and these effects may start showing up when they enter their 30s and 40s.

A drug that effectively addressed hearing loss might be highly profitable. But part of the problem in bringing such a drug to market is testing it on people. Prototype drugs have prevented noise-induced hearing loss in laboratory animals, but it has been hard to know whether the same protection is possible in humans. How, then, to test it on people?

Temporary hearing loss

PhotoColleen Le Prell, a researcher at the University of Florida (UF), says she has the answer. Le Prell devised a way to cause temporary hearing loss in a group of volunteers. She uses controlled music levels that accomplished that and met national safety standards for research on humans.

"Dr. Le Prell started with a unique idea to create a reversible noise-induced hearing loss and has established solid groundwork for this new model in the use of clinical drug testing," said hearing expert Jianxin Bao, Ph.D., an associate professor of otolaryngology and biology and biomedical sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who was not involved in the UF study. "As for every new model, several unknown factors exist for this elegant experiment model, which requires further detailed studies."

The objective, of course, is to speed up the time in which trials can be conducted. The sooner a drug for hearing loss can get FDA approval, the sooner people at risk for hearing loss can receive treatment.

Drug needed

"There's a real need for drug solutions to hearing loss," Le Prell said. "Right now the only options for protecting against noise-induced hearing loss are to turn down what you're listening to, walk away from it or wear ear plugs, and those options may not be practical for everyone, particularly for those in the military who need to be able to hear threats."

About 26 million American adults have noise-induced hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The group says prevention is key because damage to hearing-related hair cells in the inner ear by loud noise is irreversible.

Though hearing aids can help amplify sound and implanted devices can restore some sensation of sound for those with more profound hearing loss, they do not restore normal hearing. The goal of pharmaceutical researchers currently developing drugs is to prevent hearing damage in the first place.

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Southwest settles drink coupon lawsuit

The airline faces a $29 million bar tab

If you've been on Southwest Airlines the last year or two, you may have noticed the flight attendants saying that free drink coupons must be "current."If...

PhotoIf you've been on Southwest Airlines the last year or two, you may have noticed the flight attendants saying that free drink coupons must be "current."

If you've wondered what that's all about, here's the answer: In August 2010, the airline changed its policy and declared that free-drink coupons given to its "business select" passengers would be honored only on the date for which they were issued.

So even though the coupons did not carry an expiration date, passengers who hadn't used their coupons by the time the policy change was announced were out of luck.

In its defense, Southwest said it changed its policy because passengers were making photocopies of the coupons to get free drinks. But that cut no ice with plaintiffs Adam Levitt and Herbert Malone, who charged in a class action lawsuit that the policy change amounted to a breach of contract.

To settle the suit, Southwet has agreed to issue up to 5.8 million new free-drink vouchers to eligible passengers.

If you think you might be eligible, get details here.

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Care.com: Is it the Craigslist of the future?

The website not only gives you access to workers, it makes checking backgrounds easy.

There’s something pretty interesting happening these days with the Internet and a lot of websites.In year’s past, many websites were just pla...

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King's Delight recalls gluten-free chicken nuggets

The nuggets contain an undeclared allergen -- wheat

King’s Delight of Gainesville, GA, is recalling approximately 1,572 pounds of frozen chicken nuggets labeled as gluten-free because they contain wheat -- a...

PhotoKing’s Delight of Gainesville, GA, is recalling approximately 1,572 pounds of frozen chicken nuggets labeled as gluten-free because they contain wheat -- a known allergen that is not declared on the label.

The product subject to recall include:

  • 8-oz. cartons of “APPLEGATE Naturals Gluten-Free Chicken Nuggets."

The establishment number “P-2617” can be found printed on the side of each carton. The products were packaged on Sept. 19, 2012. The lot number “210864” and the best before date “08/28/13” are printed on each carton’s side panel. The UPC code “25317-00556” is printed on the back of each carton. The products were distributed to retail stores in Indiana, Maryland, Oregon and Washington.

Consumers who purchased these products should return them to the store for a full refund.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact Gerry Clarkson, Applegate Consumer Affairs Specialist, at (800) 587-5858.  

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LJD Holdings recalls fully cooked meat and poultry products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

LJD Holdings of Boise, ID, doing business as B and D Foods, is recalling approximately 33,500 pounds of fully cooked meat and poultry products. The produ...

PhotoLJD Holdings of Boise, ID, doing business as B and D Foods, is recalling approximately 33,500 pounds of fully cooked meat and poultry products.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 10-lb. boxes, containing 2, 5-lb bags of “ROYAL “THE TEMPURA KING” ROYAL TEMPURA CHICKEN, Fully Cooked Tempura Chicken Breast,” bearing an identifying code of “A-4615.” This product was distributed to food service and/or institutional customers in California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
  • 10-lb. boxes, containing 2, 5-lb bags of “BLINGS! CHICKEN BREAST WITH PARMESAN FLAVORING,” bearing an identifying code of “A-4844.” This product was distributed to food service and/or institutional customers in Idaho and Montana.
  • 10-lb. boxes, containing 2, 5-lb bags of “STEAKHOUSE TEMPURA SEASONED BEEF & BINDER STRIPS,” bearing an identifying code of “A-1070-10.” This product was distributed to food service and/or institutional customers in Idaho and Montana.
  • 30-lb. boxes of “KETTLE COOKED CHICKEN BREAST PIECES,” bearing an identifying code of “A-3900.” This product was distributed to an industrial customer in Ohio.
  • 30-lb. boxes of “FULLY COOKED PORK STRIPS,” bearing an identifying code of “A-3025-30.” This product was distributed to an industrial customer in Arizona and California.

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “EST. 6266” or “Est. P-6266” inside the USDA mark of inspection, as well as an identifying case code of “110622.” The products were produced on Dec. 6, 2012, and distributed to food service and institutional customers, as well as an industrial customer in the distribution areas noted above.

The problem was discovered by the company through microbiological testing and the products are being recalled due to concerns of cross-contamination. There have been no reports of illnesses due to consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions should contact the company’s chief administrative officer, Gary Shaw at (208) 344-1183 ext. 106.  

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Internet hoaxes are a new fact of life

It's hard to separate fact from fiction in the Internet era

Lies produced by and spread on the Internet have been a staple of online life for years now, but have mostly remained in the background. However, one spect...

PhotoLies produced and spread on the Internet have been a staple of online life for years now, but have mostly remained in the background. However, one spectacular hoax burst into full view this week, rocking the collegiate sports world.

Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o, the runner-up for last year's Heisman Trophy, had been cited for his emotional courage by remaining on the gridiron despite the reported early autumn deaths of both his beloved grandmother and girlfriend within 24 hours. The grandmother was real but it turns out, the girlfriend never existed.

In numerous interviews with the sporting press during Notre Dame's undefeated season, Te'o spoke in great detail about the young woman and Stanford grad, who he said had tragically died of leukemia September 12. Now, he says he only engaged with her online, and it was revealed this week she never existed.

Internet's dark side

While this sensational and bizarre story has yet to fully play out, it's a reminder of the Internet's dark side -- its ability to transmit completely erroneous information with a perplexing degree of credibility. One sees it in forwarded emails and Facebook posts. Someone receives a message that is either misinformed or an outright hoax and passes it on as gospel. Soon, people accept it as truth.

"Folks have a real tendency to believe much of the information online as they feel anything published must have some competency as many have thought in the non-digital world," Marcus P. Zillman, an author and expert on Internet hoaxes, told ConsumerAffairs. "Many have never experienced an educational endeavor of learning what misinformation is and how it truly affects society in today's New Economy."

Debunking hoaxes

Internet hoaxes have spawned a number of websites that do nothing but shoot them down. Snopes.com describes itself as a "reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation." In one example, it takes on the Darwin Awards, which were a subject of a popular circular email a decade ago.

The Darwin Awards were a series of news items detailing the death of some person who died as the result of incredibly stupid behavior. Most readers accepted these as fact.

"As is the norm for such Internet circulated lists, Darwin Awards-2006 email is a mixed bag," Snopes editors write. "There are some actual incidents, accurately chronicled, one that we know is an out and out fake, and a handful of others that we can't yet authoritatively prove or disprove. Interestingly, while this compilation purports to be from 2006, all of its entries date from 1995 through 1998."

The emails, the editors concluded, were authored not by a Darwin Awards Committee but by persons unknown.

Brett Christensen, of the Australian website HoaxSlayer.com, says people tend to accpt information they receive online because it comes from someone they trust. But in many cases, he says, it plays on their prejudices.

"Hoaxes often cater to preconceived ideas held by the recipient," Christensen said. "If a hoax message seems to confirm a person's views on religion, politics or general perception of the world, he or she is perhaps more apt to send it on without investigating its claims. In other words, if you really want to believe it, you might tend to overlook or excuse any logical inconsistencies or suspect claims that a hoax message contains."

Romance scams

Perhaps nowhere are Internet hoaxes more devastating than in affairs of the heart. It happens all the time on online dating sites, where a relationship begins without a face to face meeting -- many times with painful consequences.

Over the years ConsumerAffairs has received a large number of reports from dating site users who became emotionally involved with someone online, only to find out they were being scammed. David, of Loveland, Colorado, said he fell for a romance scam when he thought he was helping a young Russian woman stranded in a foreign country.

"Since then I have been approached on every dating site I have joined by supposed women who are stranded in Nigeria or Ghana," David wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "When the dating sites are notified they are scammers they do nothing about it."

Lately, dating sites have done more to warn users about possible scams, and a reading of the most recent ConsumerAffairs posts suggests users are now more savvy. Patsy, of San Antonio, Tex., writes that she spotted an attempted scam on Match.com right off the bat.

"He said he was from Germany, working on a project in Nigeria," Patsy wrote. "I come from a German family and the accent was definitely not German, another red flag. So, I continued to play along and last night he asked for a loan of $600.00, I declined. He wasn't too happy about that, so I just signed off."

Catfishing

These scams, of course, have a profit motive. The people attempting to fool unsuspecting love-seekers are hoping for a payday. But in recent years there is a new breed of Internet imposter, who may or may not be at the center of the current Manti Te'o firestorm.

These are people who create identities and try to fool people just for fun. There's even a name for it -- "Catfishing," named after an MTV series that outs Catfishers. High profile individuals, such as athletes, appear to be common targets.

A "Catfisher" will fabricate a profile and take someone's picture from their Facebook account to trick their victim into thinking they are someone who desires a relationship with them. Why they do it is anyone's guess. But profit does not seem to be a motive.

Here are three questions to ask yourself if you think you are being Catfished:

  • Why won't this person engage in a video chat with me?
  • Why won't this person agree to a face-to-face meeting?
  • Is this person too good to be true?

If there are not good answers to these questions, chances are you're being played as the victim of an Internet hoax.

As for the media's role in the Manti Te'o hoax, Christensen says it might be excused in this instance for swallowing the fabricated story hook, line and sinker, but in others, he sees it as very culpable.

"For example, a number of media outlets reported on the claims that the Google Street View car killed a donkey in Botswana," he said. "However, even some fairly basic research by journalists writing these stories should have been enough to reveal that the claims were untrue."

For consumers of the Internet, it means maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism, and not believing everything you read.

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Keek kicks its way into the startup stratosphere

Clever new site is sort of Twitter for video

Tired of hearing about Facebook? Good, because we're tired of writing about it. After all, it's not the only social media site, there are new ones everyday...

PhotoTired of hearing about Facebook? Good, because we're tired of writing about it. After all, it's not the only social media site, there are new ones everyday.

And one that's getting lots of attention, not to mention lots of interest from investors, is Keek, a Toronto-based social video sharing startup that says it emphasizes communications over entertainment through 36-second smartphone movie clips.

“We, from the beginning, have looked at video as a form of communication,” CEO Isaac Raichyk said. “It’s a way for people to communicate with their friends, with the followers, with their fans, or whoever, but it’s a way to communicate. We don’t provide any beautification filters, no video editing, just point; shoot; upload; communicate.”

Described by some as "Twitter for video," Keek's growth has been nothing short of explosive, with 6 million users signed up in just the past 30 days and a reported 200,000 new signups per day.

PhotoAnd unlike certain social media sites we could think of, Keek seems to be engaging its users, collecting 8 million monthly comments and likes, with 30 million monthly follows.

OK, but just what is it? Well, it's a place where you can post Keeks -- which are sort of like, you know, tweets, except they're 36-second video bites. See something you like or don't like. Just kick back and press the "Keekback" button to respond.

Do this often enough and you'll build Kred. You can also join Klusters, use Keekmail and so forth.

The combination of slick technology and feel-good, clever branding is kicking Keek into the stratosphere financially. It raised $7 million a few months ago and today announced an $18 million funding round.

Investors have been a little sour on tech startups recently, thanks to Facebook's missteps but that's not holding back Keek's kickstart.

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What happens to your pet when you die?

Survey shows only 17% have made legal arrangements

Many people say their pet is almost like a member of the family, but when it comes time to make out their will, few provide for someone to take care of the...

PhotoMany people say their pet is almost like a member of the family, but when it comes time to make out their will, few provide for the care of their pet after they're gone.

A study commissioned by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) polled 1,000 pet owners nationwide and found only 17 percent had taken any legal action to provide for the care for their dog, cat or other pet.

Not legally binding

The survey found that, of people who have made some arrangements for their pets, the most common form is unofficial and outside a legal arrangement. They usually ask a close friend or family member to take responsibility in the event of their death. ASPCA says that may not be adequate.

"Millions of companion animals are surrendered to shelters each year, some because their owners did not establish continuing care for their animals in the event that they were unable to do so," said Kim Bressant-Kibwe, trusts and estates counsel for the ASPCA. "This study offers evidence of the problem that we suspected – pet parents need to begin to plan for their pets' long-term well-being."

How exactly do you accomplish that? A few years ago your attorney might have given you a funny look when you broached the subject of putting your pet in your will. Today, however, they are usually the ones who bring it up.

You can't leave your dog money

Despite stories of rich people dying and leaving a fortune to their poodle, it doesn't work that way. You can't leave money directly to your pet.

In Arrington v. Arrington, a Texas court ruled in 1981 that, "A dog, for all its admirable and unique qualities, is not a human being and is not treated in the law as such."

The law considers pets "property," and one type of property cannot receive other property -- money -- in a will. That means you have to find another solution, and it turns out there are several.

Other solutions

ASPCA said it has collaborated with LegalZoom, the online legal form site, to created a Pet Protection Agreement that can be filed with a last will and testament. It allows pet owners to establish continuing care for all of their animals when they are not able to care for them.

Created by animal law attorney Rachel Hirschfeld, the Pet Protection Agreement allows pet owners to appoint a guardian for their pets, as well as set aside funds to ensure that their pets receive the same standard of care to which they're accustomed.

You can also set up a pet trust, allowing you to legally establish for your pet's care if you die or are incapacitated. It allows you to determine where the pets will go, what food they will eat and even which veterinarian they will see.

Put unofficial agreements in your will

If you have an informal agreement with a friend or family member to care for your pet if you die, Hirschfeld and other pet experts say it is important to make sure it's covered legally. The easiest way to do it is inserting a clause in your will.

The clause will state that you wish your pet to go to a certain person and that an amount of money from your estate will go to this person to pay for the care.

The legal website Nolo.com provides this sample clause for providing for your pet in you will:

"If my dog, Taffy, is alive at my death, I leave her and $3,000 to be used for her care to Brian Smith. If Brian is unable to care for Taffy, I leave her and the $3,000 to be used for her care to Susan McDermott."

Nolo.com points out that the money and dog will go to Brian but there's no guarantee Brian will use it to care for Taffy. Legal experts at the site suggest leaving your pet to someone you trust.

Big mistake

Whatever you do, don't try to leave money directly to your pet. No attorney would allow you to make this mistake but it could be an issue with do-it-yourself wills.

Should you try to leave money directly to a dog or cat, the court will probably void that part of the will and award the money to another beneficiary. Your pet would be on their own.

Legal Zoom's Pet Protection Agreement costs between $39 and $79 and, like a last will and testament, is a legally-binding document. It covers all of your current and future pets, gives you the ability to leave whatever amount of money you choose to care for your pets, and name pet guardians and a shelter of last resort.

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How to be a good sports parent

Sports can teach children a lot of great lessons, but parents should learn a few lessons too

Unfortunately, we’ve all seen it, the overbearing parent that gets a little crazed at their kid's sporting event.Whenever you see a mom or dad yell...

PhotoUnfortunately, we’ve all seen it, the overbearing parent that gets a little crazed at their kid's sporting event.

Whenever you see a mom or dad yelling at a referee, chastising their kid for missing a ground ball or repeatedly nagging the coach about game strategies, it makes you feel bad for the child and forces you to think -- if the parent is being this tough on their kid in public, how much tougher are they in private?

Of course, most sports parents choose to conduct themselves properly at sporting events and they just want their children to participate in sports for the fun, exercise and camaraderie.

But even well-intentioned parents, who try hard not to be overly competitive, sometimes fall into the trap of wanting success and victory so badly they lose their cool and let their emotions take over.

Key issues

So if you're a sports parent or you're going to be one soon, what are the key things you should remember and take with you at the start of every sports season and at the beginning of every game and practice?

Photo
Craig Sigl

According to Craig Sigl, an expert on youth sports and parenting, before signing a child up for a particular sport, two things need to be done: One, a detailed discussion needs to take place between you and your child about what signing up for a sport will entail.

Sigl, who created a series of sports videos under his company the Mental Toughness Academy, says it’s imperative that your child knows things like how much of their personal time will be occupied by joining a league, how they may have to practice or play when they might not feel like it and also how they’ll have to do certain things to help mom and dad like pack their gym bag, keep track of their equipment and make sure they stay aware of when games and practices are.

Two, Sigl tells parents to make sure the desire for a child to play a sport comes from them, and although you may suggest or give an ever-so-slight nudge to your child, they should show some sort of motivation to continue playing.

Teachable moments

He also says that parents should use each disappointment in a game or practice as a teachable moment and should try to use a story from their own childhood to show their child how to deal with a letdown.

PhotoExperts also say that parents should be careful not to treat their child differently after a win or loss. For example, if you and your child stopped for ice cream after the team won or when your child did well, you should also stop for ice cream if he or she made a bunch of mistakes and the team lost.

Also, parents should be cognizant of just how much they’re talking about sports with their child, in terms of their performance, how the team did, what the coach said or what the referee called.

If a child senses a disproportionate amount of conversation about sports compared to the other areas of their life, he or she may believe that your engagement with them hinges on their involvement with sports, say experts.

Moms and dads should also recognize that although they make most of the decisions for their children in everyday life, sports is an area where parents should allow kids to make some key decisions for themselves, in terms of their involvement and continued interest with a sport.

And although the relationship between coach and player should be honored by the parent and they should never run to the sidelines to give their input or to coach their child, Sigl says moms and dads should make sure their child knows that their coaches are human and will not always say or advise the right thing.

“There’s some great coaches out there and a lot of times there are coaches that mean well, but don’t have a clue on how to help kids deal with the emotional side of their sports participation,” said Sigl in a video about being a good sports parent.

“Most of us encourage our kids to play sports to learn focus, confidence, how to be a team player, how to overcome adversity, develop that never give up attitude, the list goes on and on. But sometimes in your child’s playing career they will encounter a coach who says or does something that could have a tremendous impact on your kid good or bad.”

“Unfortunately a lot of young athletes think their coaches are gods and what they say is always the truth. This can be really damage if the feedback is negative,” says Sigl.

Keep it in perspective

PhotoExperts also say parents make a common mistake of giving instruction immediately after a game, whether it’s a win or a loss, in hopes that they can provide their child with a quick lesson.

However, this eager approach takes the ability away from your child to learn how to process certain emotions and properly deal with a win or loss on their own. After being able to process those emotions by themselves, parents can then add their thoughts and advice, say experts.

Parents should also remember that to some kids, how they perform in a game shapes how they feel about themselves, so it’s imperative that parents always provide the right amount of perspective to let a child know that their self-worth has nothing to do with their sports performance, says Sigl.

“Sports parents need to understand that a lot of young athletes get their validation as a worthwhile person from performing well and they base their personal value on whether they win or lose."

"This can be devastating when they lose, if they don’t learn early on that this is not true. What you need to do as parents is to always refer them back to the reasons they started playing in the beginning.”

And most important, says Sigl, is that children shouldn’t only show a steady level of motivation to play a sport, they should be way more motivated than you.

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Survey: McDonald's is best fast-food value

Subway made the list too, although many say its foot-longs aren't really a foot

Even though there’s a new one seemingly built every day, people can’t get enough of fast-food restaurants.Despite all of the health warnings ...

PhotoEven though there’s a new one seemingly built every day, people can’t get enough of fast-food restaurants.

Despite all of the health warnings about eating too much fried and greasy foods, and new research findings being released regularly, people continue to flock to places like Burger King and Wendy’s in extremely high numbers, and this is confirmed anytime you see a drive-through lane filled to capacity with idling vehicles.

But with all of the fast-food places to choose from, what remains most important to people?

According to a survey from market research company Consumer Edge Insight, the answer is location, location, location, with 57 percent of consumers saying they want a fast-food joint close by.

This may be surprising to some who assume that all of those fast-food ads about new sandwiches and tastier fries are what draw consumers in, but according to the survey, not having to drive all around town to find those sandwiches and fries is what’s really most important to people.

In fact, how well the food tasted wasn’t even among the top factors for consumers when choosing a fast-food place, as 58 percent of respondents  said getting a good value was most important. Also, 57 percent of consumers said low prices trumped how the food tasted and 51 percent said fast service was most vital.

And for this reason, McDonald’s sat at the top of the list when it came to having the strongest perception for offering a good value, according to 57 percent of those surveyed, which has a lot to do with the chain's successful dollar menu, which kind of laid the path for other quick-service restaurants to follow, as getting a small chicken sandwich or one of many desserts for only a buck is heavily expected among consumers these days.

Service issues

But although it seems to be serving consumers well in the area of value, the house that Ronald McDonald built seems to have a few customer service holes somewhere in its structure.

 McDonalds  Jan. 18, 2013, 5:58 p.m.
Consumers rate McDonalds

Bambi of Eastvale, Calif., said a simple visit to one of the drive-through windows turned a routine transaction into an annoying pricing issue.

“I went through the drive-thru at our local McDonald’s on Limonite off the 15 Freeway in Eastvale, Calif.” wrote Bambi in her ConsumerAffairs posting.

“I ordered a double cheeseburger, small fries and a large Coke with extra ice. The cashier rang it up separately and it rang in $3.97. She did not say anything and my order disappeared off of the screen. I heard through the speaker, "Ring it up like this, it will cost more." A new order was showing up on the screen and it had the burger and fries as a combo with 70 cents up charge for the large coke. The total for the same meal was $4.19. She said, "Your total is $4.19 at the first window."

After getting to the second window, Barbi questioned why the pricing was inconsistent.

“Why are you charging me more for the meal when I saw it rang in for $3.97? She had no answer and said she would check into it. When I got to the window, a young girl was working with a manager right next to her. She said, ‘That will be $3.97'. I just wonder how many people they rip off just like they tried today?”

Subway second

PhotoWhen it came to offering a good deal on its menu options, Subway came in second with 57 percent of people saying the cold-cut chain gives the proper bang for your hard-earned bucks.

However, this was before just a few days ago, when consumers began to post pictures of their foot-long Subway sandwich online, claiming that it wasn’t really an entire foot in length as advertised.

As photos of foot-long Subway sandwiches began to fall slightly under the length of a 12 inch ruler, they become a viral hit of sorts, so the company issued this response, although it didn’t address the Internet photos specifically:

“Our bread is freshly baked daily in each of the over 38,000 Subway restaurants worldwide.

“We are committed to providing a consistent product, delivering the same amount of bread to the customer with every order. The length, however, may vary slightly when not baked to our exact specifications. We are reinforcing our policies and procedures in an effort to ensure our offerings are always consistent no matter which Subway restaurant you visit.”

PhotoAnother quick service restaurant that topped the list for providing good value was Taco Bell, according to 48 percent of consumers. And when it came to having the most convenient locations available, McDonald’s (68 percent), Subway (61 percent) Taco Bell (50 percent), and Burger King (50 percent) topped the list.

And the restaurants that gave the fastest service, according to the survey, were McDonald’s (64 percent) and Taco bell (56 percent). In addition, 55 percent of consumers said that Subway, Burger King and Wendy’s offered the fastest service.

But taste wasn’t totally cast out of the voting process, with Subway taking first place in that category.

No. 1 overall

However, David Decker, who is president of Consumer Edge Insight, said McDonald’s is currently doing the best job when it comes to fulfilling consumer expectations across a wide variety of wants.

“For quick-service restaurant patrons the most important factors that drive loyalty to a brand are good value and convenience, with low prices and quick-service being very important as well,” he said.

“McDonald’s has a clear image lead on all of these factors, with Subway consistently being the second best performing brand and Burger King and Wendy’s also performing well.”

“McDonald’s high repeat-purchase intention scores despite their lower satisfaction scores illustrates the strength of their brand on the attributes that matter most to quick-service customers. Smaller brands need to find ways to differentiate themselves to gain share of wallet in this ultra-competitive segment.”

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New rules discourage steering consumers into risky mortgages

Consumer Bureau bans incentives that tempt loan originators to sell unsafe loans

Richard CordrayThe housing crisis of the last decade didn't happen because consumers knowingly took our mortgages they couldn't pay. Many were led into...

Photo
Richard Cordray

The housing crisis of the last decade didn't happen because consumers knowingly took our mortgages they couldn't pay. Many were led into risky mortgages by loan originators who had financial incentives to sell high-cost loans.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is trying to keep that from happening again. It's issuing new rules that ban certain incentives that loan originators had to sell unsafe loans to consumers in the run-up to the financial crisis.

“Before the financial crisis, many mortgage borrowers were steered towards risky and high-cost loans because it meant more money for the loan originator,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “These rules will hold loan originators more accountable by banning the incentives that led so many of them to direct consumers toward disaster."

Mortgage loan originators – loan officers and mortgage brokers – generally present different kinds of loans to consumers depending on the consumer’s needs. Consumers can work with multiple loan originators to compare the offers that the loan originators obtain from creditors.

In the run-up to the housing crisis, unscrupulous mortgage loan originators too often led prospective homebuyers into risky and high-priced loan terms because they would generate higher compensation for themselves. 

The Federal Reserve Board, and then Congress through the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, took important steps to limit these unscrupulous loan origination practices. The CFPB is finalizing the regulations governing how loan originators are compensated.

Full details are available on the CFPB site

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Consumers gain access to mortgage loan appraisal reports

A separate rule establishes new appraisal requirements for 'higher-priced mortgage loans'

How do appraisers know how much the property you want to buy is worth? Thanks to a new rule adopted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) you...

PhotoHow do appraisers know how much the property you want to buy is worth?

Thanks to a new rule adopted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) you'll soon be able to find out.

The rule requires mortgage lenders to provide applicants with free copies of all appraisals and other home-value estimates. The rule will ensure that consumers can receive information prior to closing about how the property’s value was determined.

“This rule will guarantee consumers can receive important information on how a lender determines the value of the home,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Having this information available promptly makes it easier for loan applicants to make informed decisions.”

Information for your money

Appraisals and other estimates of a home’s value are generally used by mortgage lenders to inform their decisions. Consumers are typically charged for the costs related to conducting an appraisal; however, currently the law does not require that consumers receive a copy of the appraisal unless they request it and does not require that consumers receive a copy of any other estimates of the home’s value.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires that lenders give consumers a copy of each appraisal or other estimate free of charge although a lender generally may still charge the consumer a reasonable fee for the cost of conducting the appraisal or other estimate. The new rule implements these requirements.

The rule also requires that creditors inform consumers within three days of receiving an application for a loan of their right to receive copy of all appraisals. Creditors will then be required to provide the copies of appraisal reports and other written home-value estimates to consumers promptly, or three days before closing, whichever is earlier.

The new rule will go into effect in January 2014 and will apply to first-lien mortgages.

Higher-priced mortgages

Separately, six federal financial regulatory agencies have issued the final rule that establishes new appraisal requirements for “higher-priced mortgage loans.”

The rule implements amendments to the Truth in Lending Act made by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank Act). Under the Dodd-Frank Act, mortgage loans are higher-priced if they are secured by a consumer's home and have interest rates above certain thresholds.

For higher-priced mortgage loans, the rule requires creditors to use a licensed or certified appraiser who prepares a written appraisal report based on a physical inspection of the interior of the property. The rule also requires creditors to disclose to applicants information about the purpose of the appraisal and provide consumers with a free copy of any appraisal report.

If the seller acquired the property for a lower price during the prior six months and the price difference exceeds certain thresholds, creditors will have to obtain a second appraisal at no cost to the consumer. This requirement for higher-priced home-purchase mortgage loans is intended to address fraudulent property flipping by seeking to ensure that the value of the property legitimately increased.

Exemptions

The rule exempts several types of loans, such as qualified mortgages, temporary bridge loans and construction loans, loans for new manufactured homes, and loans for mobile homes, trailers and boats that are dwellings. It also has exemptions from the second appraisal requirement to facilitate loans in rural areas and other transactions.

The rule is being issued by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.  

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American Signature recalls Hayward Push Back chairs

The chair can tip over backwards when used in its fully reclined position

American Signature Inc., of Columbus, OH, is recalling about 2,158 Hayward Push Back reclining chairs. The chair can tip over backwards when used in its f...

PhotoAmerican Signature Inc., of Columbus, OH, is recalling about 2,158 Hayward Push Back reclining chairs.

The chair can tip over backwards when used in its fully reclined position, posing a fall hazard to consumers. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recalled chairs are Hayward Push Back reclining arm chairs. They are 38 inches high and covered in brown or black faux leather fabric with double-needle baseball stitching. The brown chair is item number HGB-805-1. The black chair is item number HGB-805-2. The item number is on the upper right-hand side of the product tag attached to the bottom side of the chair's footrest.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Value City Furniture stores and American Signature Furniture stores from June 2012 to August 2012 for about $150.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact American Signature to receive free replacement legs. Consumers may also return the chairs for a store credit equal to the full price of the chair. American Signature is contacting its customers directly.

Consumers may contact: American Signature at (800) 743-4577, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Consumer spending drops again -- Hurricane Sandy blamed

The Deloitte Consumer Spending Index posted a second straight decline in December

Another drop for the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index in December after a year of steady gains. The Index tracks consumer cash flow as a...

PhotoAnother drop for the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index in December after a year of steady gains. The Index tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending.

"The decrease in the Index,” said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and retail & distribution sector leader, “is primarily due to Hurricane Sandy -- which induced jobless claims, though that effect appears to have passed,. Paul noted though that consumers benefited from falling gasoline prices through the last quarter, which helped temper declining real wages, adding that “the fiscal cliff debate appears to have impacted consumer confidence late in the year, compounding the adjustment to new tax rates -- all of these factors may lead to more conservative spending in the months ahead."

The Index, which is made up of four components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- fell in December to 3.81 from a reading of 3.96 the previous month.

"Faced with a more selective consumer, retailers are likely to experiment with creative marketing, in other words, trying new approaches with social media and shifting spend to their mobile strategy, to differentiate themselves," Paul added. "Whether it's a new shopping app or sales strategy, promotions should both reflect their individual brand identify while offering distinctive value to the shopper. We are already seeing many 'price matching' experiments launched during the holidays being extended into the new year -- an effort to keep customers coming back."

Index highlights

  • Tax Burden: The tax burden was at 11.03 percent in the most recent month. A falling tax burden can be a sign of weaker growth in taxable incomes.
  • Initial Unemployment Claims: Jobless claims moved much higher in December to 405,750 from 367,250 the previous month, primarily due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy.
  • Real Wages: Real wages continue to fall from a year ago and are down 0.3 percent, although the pace of decline has moderated as gasoline prices fell sharply in November.
  • Real Home Prices: The housing market continues to improve, pushing housing prices up nearly 13 percent higher compared with a year ago.   
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Are today's young people 'deluded narcissists?'

Survey shows college freshman think very highly of themselves. Is Facebook to blame?

There's a great line in a 1990s Seinfeld episode in which Elaine, feeling rare self-doubt, asks Jerry “is it possible I'm not as attractive as I thin...

PhotoThere's a great line in a 1990s Seinfeld episode in which Elaine, feeling rare self-doubt, asks Jerry, “Is it possible I'm not as attractive as I think I am?”

The joke is based on the self-absorption of the show's characters, but a number of researchers and social critics are concluding it's no joke when it comes to today's generation of young people, particularly college students.

The conclusions drawn from an annual survey of thousands of college freshmen, conducted by UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) has the blogosphere buzzing.

The survey asked participants to rate their own abilities when it comes to basic skills. The number describing themselves as “exceptional” has reached an all-time high. Also at an all-time high -- the number of students who consider themselves “gifted.”

They also consider themselves “above average” on many of the ratings questions and nearly 80 percent are above average in their “drive to succeed.”

Really?

No ideological split

This has prompted bloggers from across the political spectrum to find rare agreement. A Fox News contributor, psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow, cited the survey as evidence “we are raising a generation of deluded narcissists.” The Huffington Post, meanwhile, reported that today's college students “feel super-special about themselves.”

If this is, in fact, a trend it may have been building for a while. In 2006 Florida State University researchers conducted their own survey and found today's students are overly, perhaps unrealistically, ambitious, leading to what the study called “ambition inflation.”

While the “self-esteem” movement in education might be partly responsible, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia Business School are suggesting that Facebook and other social networks may magnify the trend. They found that users who closely follow close friends tend to experience an increase in self-esteem while browsing their social networks. Afterwards, these users display less self-control.

Unpleasant results

Less self-control can manifest itself in several unpleasant ways. The researchers found that greater social network use among this category of users with strong ties to their friends is associated with being overweight and having higher levels of credit-card debt.

Photo"To our knowledge, this is the first research to show that using online social networks can affect self-control," said coauthor Andrew T. Stephen, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "We have demonstrated that using today's most popular social network, Facebook, may have a detrimental effect on people's self-control."

You may have noticed it on your own Facebook page. Someone will post an item about something they feel is an accomplishment. Several of their friends might comment on the post, praising them for the accomplishment. It tends to make the poster feel very good about themselves.

Is the problem too much self-esteem? It might be. The researchers tried to find if there was something about browsing a Facebook page that could cause an increase in self-esteem and perhaps, some negative consequences.

Dividing participants into groups, they found that those who were told to pay attention to the status updates and other information people were sharing with them got a significant self-esteem boost, which may or may not have been justified.

Long-term effects

The study is scheduled for publication in the June 2013 Journal of Consumer Research. The authors are considering a future study of social networks and behavior that would address the long-term effects of Facebook on users.

Photo"It would be interesting," they wrote, "to explore the persistence of the effect of browsing Facebook over time."

It may be possible that the social aspects of an inter-connected world might lead many people to seek, and find, positive feedback. But aside from having access to social networks, that might not necessarily mean that this generation is any more “deluded” than the ones that have gone before it.

In fact, the CIRP survey shows the rate at which students are describing themselves as “above-average” is not increasing quite as fast as it did at another time in recent history – from 1966 to 1985, when baby boomers were the younger generation.

And they didn't have Facebook.

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FAA grounds Boeing 787 airliners in U.S.

The action is the result of a battery incident aboard a Dreamliner in Japan

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded the fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners operating in the U.S. as it investigates problems with batteries...

PhotoThe Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has grounded the fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners operating in the U.S. as it investigates problems with batteries that have plagued the aircraft recently.

United Airlines is currently the only U.S. airline operating the 787, with six airplanes in service.

The move follows an in-flight battery incident Wednesday in Japan. Earlier this week, there were incidents involving 787s in the Japan Airlines fleet.

The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787 airplanes. The root cause of these failures is currently under investigation. These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment.

Boeing cooperating

Boeing Chairman, President and CEO Jim McNerney said his company is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible. "The company is working around the clock with its customers and the various regulatory and investigative authorities," he said in a statement. "We will make available the entire resources of The Boeing Company to assist," adding, "We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity."

Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the FAA that the batteries are safe. The agency says it will work with the manufacturer and carriers to develop a corrective action plan to allow the U.S. 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible.

Comprehensive review

Last Friday, the FAA announced a comprehensive review of the 787’s critical systems with the possibility of further action pending new data and information. In addition to the continuing review of the aircraft’s design, manufacture and assembly, the agency also will validate that 787 batteries and the battery system on the aircraft are in compliance with the special condition the agency issued as part of the aircraft’s certification.

The FAA has also alerted the international aviation community to the action so other civil aviation authorities can take parallel action to cover the fleets operating in their own countries.

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To lose weight, put down the drink and pick up the phone

Reducing alcohol use and tapping into social networks can be a cheap way to lose weight

Who couldn't stand to lose a few pounds? Consumers spend billions on diets, diet food, exercise equipment and gym memberships.Maybe there is a less expen...

PhotoWho couldn't stand to lose a few pounds? Consumers spend billions on diets, diet food, exercise equipment and gym memberships.

Maybe there is a less expensive way to lose weight and, in the process, become a little more healthy. We're going to pass along two such ideas.

First, if you consume alcohol, consume less of it. Over the years Americans have worked up what seems to be a mighty thirst. After the end of Prohibition in the 1930s per capita consumption of alcohol in the U.S. gradually rose, until it peaked in around 1985.

Empty calories

Drinking a lot of alcohol has health consequences but many drinkers don't stop and consider what it does to your waistline. The National Center for Health Statistics reported late last year that on average, American adults drink in 100 calories daily from beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages.

PhotoMen ages 20 to 39 consume the most alcohol, about 175 calories per day, while women in the same age group consume about 60 calories daily. The study also pointed out that almost 20 percent of men and six percent of women consume more than 300 calories daily from alcohol.

That's like eating a candy bar every day, something most people would not do if they were trying to drop a few pounds.

“It is certainly not a good health strategy to have alcohol calories constituting a significant percentage of total calorie consumption,” said Dian Griesel, co-author of the book TurboCharged: Accelerate Your Fatburning Metabolism.

The authors say women, especially, would be better off giving up alcohol until their weight goals are met.

Social networks

Another way consumers often seek to lose weight is though support groups. Weight Watchers, in fact, has been an effective program for many since it requires members to attend meetings for support and accountability.

But mobile technology now gives dieters access to some of the same kinds of support through Twitter feeds and other social networks.

Photo
Brie Turner-McGrievy
A study at the University of South Carolina (USC) found that Twitter use among participants in a weight loss program increased the odds of their success at shedding pounds.

"The results show that those who regularly utilized Twitter as part of a mobile weight loss program lost more weight,” said Brie Turner-McGrievy, a USC researcher.

The study followed 96 overweight and obese men and women living in a metropolitan area over a six-month period. All participants had a smartphone or other mobile device that connected to the Internet.

The participants received regular podcasts on which they received health and nutrition information as well as feedback and encouragement. The study found the podcasts were effective in producing a 2.7 percent decrease in body weight at six months.

Twitter particularly effective

The researchers said they found the Twitter posts particularly effective. Many of the posts were from participants, offering encouragement or a personal success story.

"I avoided eating a pastry this morning at a breakfast meeting! I did have a skim Mocha without whipped cream...not too bad,” one post read.

It was these personal posts by study participants, Turner-McGrievy said, that seemed to be the most helpful.

“Traditional behavioral weight loss interventions generally provide social support through weekly, face-to-face group meetings,” she said. “While we know this is effective, it is costly and can create a high degree of burden on participants.”

But providing group support through online social networks can be a low cost way to reach a large number of people who are interested in achieving a healthy weight.

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Strong protections coming for homeowners facing foreclosure

New rules are designed to prevent servicer surprises and runarounds for borrowers

Struggling homeowners facing foreclosure are about to get some new protections. New rules issued by Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are also de...

PhotoStruggling homeowners facing foreclosure are about to get some new protections. New rules issued by Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are also designed to protect mortgage borrowers from costly surprises and runarounds by their servicers.

“For many borrowers, dealing with mortgage servicers has meant unwelcome surprises and constantly getting the runaround. In too many cases, it has led to unnecessary foreclosures,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Our rules ensure fair treatment for all borrowers and establish strong protections for those struggling to save their homes.”

Mortgage servicers are responsible for collecting payments from borrowers on behalf of loan owners. They also typically handle customer service, escrow accounts, collections, loan modifications and foreclosures. Borrowers generally have no say in choosing their mortgage servicers. Lenders frequently sell loans to investors after the mortgage deal is signed, and the investors -- not the consumers -- often choose the servicers.

Lack of service

Even before the financial meltdown, the mortgage servicing industry at times experienced problems with bad practices and sloppy record-keeping. As millions of borrowers fell behind on their loans, many servicers were unable to provide the level of service necessary to meet homeowners’ needs.

Many simply had not made the investments in resources and infrastructure to service large numbers of delinquent loans. Consumers complained about getting the runaround and being hit with costly surprises. Now, with millions of homeowners in distress, many borrowers are continuing to experience serious problems seeking loan modifications or other alternatives to avoid foreclosure.

Protections for struggling borrowers

The CFPB’s mortgage servicing rules ensure that borrowers in trouble get a fair process to avoid foreclosure. Borrowers shouldn’t have to worry about mortgage servicers cutting corners or losing applications for relief. They should be told about their options and given time to apply and be considered for loan modifications and other alternatives.

Most of all, they shouldn’t be surprised by the start of a foreclosure proceeding until they have had time to explore all available options. If they act diligently to seek alternatives, they should not face a foreclosure sale before their applications have been evaluated.

The new protections for struggling borrowers include:

  • Restricted Dual-Tracking: Under the CFPB’s new rules, dual-tracking -- when the servicer moves forward with foreclosure while simultaneously working with the borrower to avoid foreclosure -- is restricted. Servicers cannot start a foreclosure proceeding if a borrower has already submitted a complete application for a loan modification or other alternative to foreclosure, and that application is still pending review. To give borrowers reasonable time to submit such applications, servicers cannot make the first notice or filing required for the foreclosure process until a mortgage loan account is more than 120 days delinquent.
  • Notification of Foreclosure Alternatives: Servicers must let borrowers know about their “loss mitigation options” to retain their home after borrowers have missed two consecutive payments. They must provide them a written notice that includes examples of options that might be available to them as alternatives to foreclosure and instructions for how to obtain more information.
  • Direct and Continuing Access to Servicing Personnel: Servicers must have policies and procedures in place to provide delinquent borrowers with direct, easy, continuing access to employees responsible for helping them. These personnel are responsible for alerting borrowers to any missing information on their applications, telling borrowers about the status of any loss mitigation application, and making sure documents get to the right servicing personnel for processing.
  • Fair Review Process: The servicer must consider all foreclosure alternatives available from the mortgage owners or investors -- those with decision-making power over the loan -- to help the borrower retain the home. These options can range from deferment of payments to loan modifications. And servicers can no longer steer borrowers to those options that are most financially favorable for the servicer.
  • No Foreclosure Sale Until All Other Alternatives Considered: Servicers must consider and respond to a borrower’s application for a loan modification if it arrives at least 37 days before a scheduled foreclosure sale. If the servicer offers an alternative to foreclosure, they must give the borrower time to accept the offer before moving for foreclosure judgment or conducting a foreclosure sale. Servicers cannot foreclose on a property if the borrower and servicer have come to a loss mitigation agreement, unless the borrower fails to perform under that agreement.

No surprises

Mortgage borrowers should not be surprised about where their money is going, when interest rates adjust, or when they get charged fees. The CFPB’s rules help every borrower, whether struggling or not, by bringing greater transparency to the market with clear and timely information about mortgages.

These rules include:

  • Clear Monthly Mortgage Statements: Servicers must provide regular statements which include the amount and due date of the next payment; a breakdown of payments by principal, interest, fees, and escrow; and recent transaction activity.
  • Early Warning Before Interest Rate Adjusts: Servicers must provide a disclosure before the first time the interest rate adjusts for most adjustable-rate mortgages. And they must provide disclosures before interest rate adjustments that result in a different payment amount.
  • Options for Avoiding Costly “Force-Placed” Insurance: Servicers typically must make sure borrowers maintain property insurance and if the borrower does not, the servicer generally has the right to purchase it. The CFPB’s rules ensure consumers will not be surprised by this insurance, which often can be more expensive than the insurance borrowers buy on their own. The rules say servicers must provide more transparency in this process, including advance notice and pricing information before charging consumers. Servicers must also have a reasonable basis for concluding that a borrower lacks such insurance before purchasing a new policy. If servicers buy the insurance but receive evidence that it was not needed, they must terminate it within fifteen days and refund the premiums.

No Runarounds

When mortgage servicers make mistakes, records get lost, payments are processed too slowly, or servicer personnel do not have the latest information about a consumer’s account, the consumer suffers the consequences. The CFPB’s rules will require common-sense policies and procedures for handling consumer accounts and preventing runarounds.

These rules include:

  • Payments Promptly Credited: Servicers must credit a consumer’s account the date a payment is received. If the servicer places partial payments in a “suspense account,” once the amount in such an account equals a full payment, the servicer must credit it to the borrower’s account.
  • Prompt Response to Requests for Payoff Balances: Servicers must generally provide a response to consumer requests for the payoff balances of their mortgage loans within seven business days of receiving a written request.
  • Errors Corrected and Information Provided Quickly: Servicers must generally acknowledge receipt of written notices from consumers regarding certain errors or requesting information about their mortgage loans. Generally, within 30 days, the servicer must: correct the error and provide the information requested; conduct a reasonable investigation and inform the borrower why the error did not occur; or inform the borrower that the information requested is unavailable.
  • Maintain Accurate and Accessible Documents and Information: Servicers must store borrower information in a way that allows it to be easily accessible. Servicers must also have policies and procedures in place to ensure that they can provide timely and accurate information to borrowers, investors, and in any foreclosure proceeding, the courts.

Recognizing that small servicers approach servicing quite differently, the CFPB made certain exemptions to these new mortgage servicing rules for small servicers that service 5,000 or fewer mortgage loans that they or an affiliate either own or originated. These servicers are mostly community banks and credit unions servicing mortgages for their customers or members.

The mortgage servicing rules take effect in January 2014. As that date approaches, the CFPB will give consumers information about their new rights under these rules.

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Some great ways for teens to volunteer and keep busy

With so many problems in our world to fix, why not push more teens towards social service?

Sometimes teenagers get a bum rap, and as each generation becomes older, and transitions from adolescents to adulthood, something very interesting starts t...

PhotoSometimes teenagers get a bum rap, and as each generation becomes older, and transitions from adolescents to adulthood, something very interesting starts to happen.

With a lot of adults, as soon as they reach a certain age, they immediately lose their tolerance for the way teenagers and young folks do certain things, and the same behaviors they used to display as youths themselves, are now somehow unacceptable and vastly different from the things they did when they were kids. 

For example, have you ever ridden on a city bus and been extremely annoyed about how loud the students and teenagers were, although you did the exact same thing with your friends when you rode the bus? Or have you scoffed at a kid’s weird hair style or the way he wore his clothes, even though the styles of your era were just as controversial for your time?

Some say the first sign of getting older is when you complain about the exact same behaviors that you exhibited when you were growing up, and by this measure, some of us seem to get old very early on in life.

But don’t get me wrong, some young people are involved in things that past generations weren’t involved in, and unfortunately there are bunch of risky behaviors that justifiably contribute to the sometimes negative rap that young people get.

Too much information

A lot of the reason today’s teens engage in certain behaviors that previous generations didn’t, is that they’re exposed to a technology that provides an infinite amount of information through just one click.

PhotoAnd some of that information is harmful to young eyes and tends to rob teens of their innocence.

But what are the ways to combat some of those negative influences that your child will inevitably face?

Many parents will say that keeping a kid out of trouble is all about providing him or her with options, in terms of having activities to do, positive places to go and being around other kids that want to stay away from trouble.

A good way to accomplish this is by allowing your child to volunteer or to get them  involved with a website or company that creates programs around social change.

DoSomething.org is one of those sites, as the New York-based organization creates a new national campaign just about every week, and provides teenagers with the resources to put together events, drives or anything else that will further the campaign's initiative and bring about positive change.

The different selections of campaigns seem to cover just about every social need in our communities like teen bullying, homelessness, poverty, kids dropping out of school and a host of other projects.

There’s a chance that you might have seen an ad about DoSomething.org  or caught one of their online videos, as a bunch of A-list celebrities including everyone from Nick Cannon to R&B singer Usher have shot commercials for the organization while encouraging young people to get involved.

And to show just how popular Do Something has become in recent years, take a look at these statistics:

In the last year, over 2 million people joined the organization, and its organizers say about 7,000 additional people join each day. And the impact that young people are having in communities across the U.S. is evident in the statistics given by the organization on its website.

Having teenagers involve themselves in places like Do Something, whether they’re well behaved or not, is great not only for teaching responsibility, but it also lets them know that even at their age they can contribute to good causes and make a direct impact at bettering their surroundings.

Also, teens can receive monetary incentives for putting together a campaign in their town and also boost their college resumes and get scholarships through the organization if they volunteer.

Teens volunteering

Another organization that links teenagers up with community service and volunteering is VolunteenNation.com, where users can do a quick search to find out where in their area they can volunteer and help out.

PhotoFor example, I plugged in my name and zip code and I was immediately linked to over 20 businesses, schools and agencies that need help in a variety of areas. And although all age groups can join Volunteen Nation, the organization encourages young people to get involved, hence the name of the organization and website.

The way the site functions, it makes it easy for people to get in on the front-end of a new campaign, and with Volunteen being spread out all over the United States, it will be extremely hard for a teenager not to find something that they’re interested in and can lend their talents to.

The organization also provides paid internships and scholarships for young people that choose to volunteer, which is yet another reason it’s a good idea to lead your child to volunteerism through a reputable establishment like Volunteen Nation.

And just like Do Something, Volunteen provides the necessary tools for teens to start a campaign in their community and says it has over 1,500 lesson plans that will help train and prepare young people for volunteer work.

Because all in all, there are way more young people who are up to complete good than young people who are up to complete bad, and anyone that has worked with kids knows an adult's influence is tremendous, even if the child doesn’t admit it or chooses not to act like it.

So sometimes all it takes is a little nudge to push teens and young people on to the proper path, and there are few better paths for a young person to be on than the path of volunteering.

For one, it’ll teach them valuable skills for adulthood, and two--it’ll keep them out of trouble, well, at least you hope.

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Survey finds many young homeowners are mortgage-free

More than a third of 20- to 24-year-old homeowners have no mortgage, Zillow finds

Almost 21 million Americans, or 29.3 percent of homeowners, own their homes outright, unencumbered by a mortgage, according to a recent Zillow® analysi...

PhotoIt's no surprise that lots of older people own their homes free and clear but would you believe that more than a third of 20- to 24-year-old homeowners are free of mortgages?

That's the surprising finding of a survey by Zillow, an online real estate service. It found that almost 21 million Americans, or 29.3 percent of homeowners, own their homes outright, unencumbered by a mortgage.

Analyzing data through the third quarter of 2012, Zillow found that 20.6 million homeowners nationwide own their homes free and clear of mortgage debt.

Zillow found that 65- to 74-year-olds are most likely to be free-and-clear (20.5 percent), followed by 74- to 84-year-olds (17.9 percent). This is attributed to the fact that the longer someone owns a home, the longer they have to pay off their mortgage.

Interestingly, when examining free-and-clear ownership rates as a percentage of homeowners in various age groups, Zillow found 34.5 percent of 20- to 24-year-old homeowners are free of mortgages.

Good credit

Among homeowners who own their homes outright, 44 percent have a high VantageScore – representing their credit rating – between 800 and 900. Only 15.5 percent of homeowners with the highest credit rating of 900-990 are free-and-clear.

Among the nation's 30 largest metro areas included in the study, Pittsburgh (38.6 percent), Tampa (33.2 percent), New York (29.7 percent), Cleveland (29.4 percent) and Miami (28.9 percent) had the highest percentage of free-and-clear homeowners.

Washington, D.C. (15.5 percent), Atlanta (17.7 percent), Las Vegas (18.3 percent), Denver (18.5 percent) and Charlotte (20 percent) had the lowest percentage.

A number of elements influence the percentage of free-and-clear homeowners in a given area, including median home values. Zillow found that areas with lower home values generally have higher outright homeownership rates, as smaller loan amounts are easier to pay back more quickly.

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Lenovo unveils a Chromebook for school use

The rugged laptop is built to withstand the hard knocks of school life

Google's Chromebook got off to a slow start but has been steadily gaining ground, bringing simplicity, durability and low cost to the laptop market.The l...

PhotoGoogle's Chromebook got off to a slow start but has been steadily gaining ground, bringing simplicity, durability and low cost to the laptop market.

The latest addition to the line-up comes from Chinese giant Lenovo, which today announced the ThinkPad X131e Chromebook -- which the company describes as a fast booting, highly customizable laptop PC built with rugged features for the daily rigors of K-12 education.

Throughout the course of a typical school day, students’ laptops are often subject to extreme wear and tear, the company noted. To help school-proof them, the ThinkPad X131e has rugged features including a rubber bumper around the top cover and stronger corners to protect the system in the case of an accidental drop. The hinges and hinge brackets are also strengthened to last more than 50,000 open and close cycles.

“The ThinkPad X131e has proven to be very successful in education environments,” said Jerry Paradise, executive director of product marketing, ThinkPad Product Group. “With the rugged features we added to the X131e, we’ve seen reduced failure rates in the field. This is a huge benefit to schools and students. We’re pleased to be able to offer this hardened ThinkPad Chromebook as a great computer for schools.”

The $429 11.6-inch X131e laptop features an Intel processor, a 1366x768 HD LED anti-glare screen, and three USB ports. At less than four pounds1 and battery life for the entire school day, students can easily carry the laptop between classes without the need to recharge.

Third manufacturer

Lenovo becomes the third Chromebook manufacturer, joining Samsung and Acer. The machines run the Chrome OS operating system, a variant of Linux. They contain a small hard drive that is used primarily to boot up, relying on the cloud for programs and data storage.

“Chromebooks are in use today by more than 1,000 K-12 schools, and they make an ideal one-to-one device because they’re more cost effective, easier to manage and maintain than traditional laptops or tablets,” said Caesar Sengupta, director of product management, Chrome OS, Google. “Lenovo has a great reputation in schools for making durable and reliable laptops, so we’re excited to partner with them to introduce the ThinkPad X131e Chromebook.”

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New signs that the economy is on the mend

New home construction surges, unemployment benefit applications drop

In another indication that the homebuilding sector is on the comback trail, the Commerce Department reports new home construction shot up 12.1 percent last...

PhotoIn another indication that the homebuilding sector is on the comback trail, the Commerce Department reports new home construction shot up 12.1 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 954,000.

That total was nearly 37 percent above the December 2011 rate of 697,000. All told, an estimated 780,000 housing units were started last year -- 28.1 percent above the 2011 figure of 608,800.

Single-family housing starts last month were up 8.1 percent -- to a rate of 616,000. The December rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 330,000.

Building permits

Building permits, an indication of what builders are planning in the months ahead, rose 0.3 percent in December -- to an annual rate of 903,000. That's 28.8 percent the estimate of 701,000 a year earlier.

Permits for single-family homes were up 1.8 percent from November, while authorizations of units in buildings with five units came in at a rate of 301,000.

Jobless claims

In other economic news, the Labor Department reports a seasonally-adjusted 335,000 people filed initial claims for unemployment benefits last week -- a drop of 37,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 372,000.

The 4-week moving average, considered a more accurate gauge of jobless benefit claims because it is less volatile, fell by 6,750 -- to 359,250.

A figure below 400,000 is considered by many economists to be a sign that the labor market is strengthening.

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New seasonal flu vaccine approved

Flublok is made using novel technology

Flublok, the first trivalent influenza vaccine made using an insect virus (baculovirus) expression system and recombinant DNA technology, has been given th...

PhotoFlublok, the first trivalent influenza vaccine made using an insect virus (baculovirus) expression system and recombinant DNA technology, has been given the green light by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The vaccine is approved for the prevention of seasonal influenza in people 18 through 49 years of age.

Unlike current flu vaccines, Flublok does not use the flu virus or eggs in its production. Its novel manufacturing technology allows for production of large quantities of the influenza virus protein, hemagglutinin (HA) -- the active ingredient in all inactivated influenza vaccines that is essential for entry of the virus into cells in the body.

The majority of antibodies that prevent influenza virus infection are directed against HA. While the technology is new to flu vaccine production, it is used to make vaccines that have been approved by the FDA to prevent other infectious diseases.

“This approval represents a technological advance in the manufacturing of an influenza vaccine,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “The new technology offers the potential for faster start-up of the vaccine manufacturing process in the event of a pandemic, because it is not dependent on an egg supply or on availability of the influenza virus.”

Worldwide surveillance

Each year, the FDA, World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health experts collaborate on the review of influenza disease surveillance and laboratory data collected from around the world in an effort to identify strains that may cause the most illness in the upcoming season.

Based on that information and on the recommendations of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, the FDA selects the different influenza strains each year that manufacturers should include in their vaccines for the U.S. population for the upcoming influenza season. The closer the match between the circulating strains causing disease and the strains in the vaccine, the better the protection against influenza.

Flublok contains three, full-length, recombinant HA proteins to help protect against two influenza virus A strains, H1N1 and H3N2, and one influenza virus B strain.

Annual evaluation

As it does with all influenza vaccines, the FDA will evaluate Flublok annually prior to use by the public each flu season. The recombinant HA proteins produced in the baculovirus expression system and included in Flublok will be assessed by the FDA.

The effectiveness of Flublok was evaluated in a study conducted at various sites in the United States that compared the use of Flublok in about 2,300 people to a placebo that was given to a control group of similar size. Flublok was about 44.6 percent effective against all circulating influenza strains, not just the strains that matched the strains included in the vaccine.

Flublok’s safety evaluation was conducted in a study of about 2,500 people who were vaccinated with it. The most commonly reported adverse events included pain at the site of injection, headache, fatigue and muscle aches, events also typical for conventional egg-based, inactivated influenza vaccines.

The vaccine has a shelf life of 16 weeks from the date of manufacture. Health care providers should check the expiration date before administering it.

Flublok is manufactured by Protein Sciences Corp, of Meriden, Conn.

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Historic military burial records at your fingertips

Records from historic national cemetery ledgers have entered the digital age

Want to know where your great-great grandfather -- who died in the Battle of Gettysburg -- is buried? That information may soon be just a mouse click away....

PhotoWant to know where your great-great grandfather -- who died in the Battle of Gettysburg -- is buried? That information may soon be just a mouse click away.

The Department of Veterans Affairs  is teaming up with the Internet-based genealogy research firm Ancestry.com to bring burial records from historic national cemetery ledgers into the digital age. The effort will make the collection -- predominantly of Civil War interments -- accessible to researchers and Ancestry.com subscribers doing historical and genealogical research.

“We are excited to be able to share this wealth of primary documentation,” said VA’s Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Steve L. Muro. “With the help of Ancestry.com, we have opened the doors to thousands of service members’ histories through the information contained in these burial ledgers.”

Gaining access

From the 1860s until the mid-20th century, U.S. Army personnel tracked national cemetery burials in hand-written burial ledgers or “registers.” Due to concern for the fragile documents and a desire to expand public access to the ledger contents, VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA) duplicated about 60 hand-written ledgers representing 36 cemeteries using a high-resolution scanning process.

The effort resulted in high quality digital files that reproduced approximately 9,344 pages and 113,097 individual records. NCA then transferred the original ledgers to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) where they will be preserved. In addition to the NCA’s ledgers, NARA was already the steward of at least 156 military cemetery ledgers transferred from the Army years ago.

In 2011, NCA initiated a partnership with Ancestry.com to index its cemetery ledgers, allowing the data to be searched or browsed in a variety of ways. Ancestry.com spent more than 600 hours indexing NCA’s records at no charge to the government.

Ancestry.com has assembled the digitized and indexed NCA burial ledgers with those at NARA into a new collection, "U.S. Burial Registers, Military Posts and National Cemeteries, 1862-1960." The burial records contain information such as name, rank, company/regiment, date of death, age at death, date of burial and grave number.

No charge

A large number of Civil War soldiers were buried where they fell in battle or in temporary cemeteries, and sometimes that information, along with religious affiliation, can be found in the ledgers.

The collection was posted on the Ancestry.com Website on Veterans Day 2012. The information can be accessed free of charge by VA personnel as well as by employees of the other federal agencies that maintain national cemeteries, the Departments of the Interior and Defense.

Ledger data will also be available for free at all NARA facilities, and at public libraries that subscribe to Ancestry.com. NCA cemetery staff will use the database to answer requests from the public. The general public will have access to the database on their personal devices through Ancestry.com’s regular subscription service.

VA operates 131 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico and 33 soldiers' lots and monument sites. Seventy two of VA’s national cemeteries date from the Civil War.

More than 3.7 million Americans, including Veterans of every war and conflict -- from the Revolutionary War to the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are buried in VA’s national cemeteries on approximately 20,000 acres of land.

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Smartphone apps: Can they help identify skin cancer?

Several versions are on the market but researchers say accuracy varies widely

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 61,000 people in the U.S. was diagnosed with melanomas of the skin in 2009, and in that s...

PhotoAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 61,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin in 2009, and in that same year a total of 9,199 people died from the disease.

Researchers have been trying to find better ways to catch the disease in its early stages, when it's more treatable.

Recently we reported about a new handheld skin cancer detector called the Molemate, which allows doctors to run a device along a part of the body to test for cancer, without having to cut a piece of the skin off.

Now, pushing technology even further, there's a smartphone app called UMSkinCheck, one of several apps that claim to be adept at identifying dangerous skin conditions.

For some, it may be hard to think of an app as something one can use for skin cancer detection, but since most consumers have become extremely comfortable using apps these days, it makes sense for developers to create a user friendly kind of technology--like a phone app--that people will have at their fingertips to use regularly if they wish.

The smartphone app was created by the University of Michigan’s Health System and it lets users snap photos of a mole or lesion that could be cancer or could become cancerous over time.

Experts cautious

PhotoNot everyone is sold on the idea, though. In a study published today, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said the accuracy of smartphone applications in assessing melanoma risk is "highly variable."

Three of four applications incorrectly classified 30 percent or more of melanomas as unconcerning, according to a report published Online First by JAMA Dermatology, a JAMA Network publication.

Sensitivity of four applications tested ranged from 6.8 percent to 98.1 percent. The highest sensitivity for melanoma diagnosis was observed for an application that sends the image directly to a board-certified dermatologist for analysis, while the lowest sensitivity for melanoma diagnosis were applications that use automated algorithms to analyze images.

Supplement, not replacement

The app is intended primarily for people who are at higher risk of getting skin cancer, due to family history or other reasons, and health experts say these people should conduct skin tests on a regular basis--and, just to state the obvious, should stay in close touch with their dermatologist and use the app to supplement, not replace, regular doctor visits.

PhotoBesides storing images, the UMSkinCheck app presents a series of questions that will help you estimate how likely the mole or lesion you have is potentially cancerous.

By no means do the creators of UMSkinCheck expect people to use the app in place of a dermatologist, and they emphasize the app should be used under the supervision of a dermatologist or other physician who specializes in skin cancers.

The hope is that the app helps consumers make skin tests a routine part of their lives. People who are prone to skin cancer--including fair-skinned people, those who've spent a lot of time in the sun and anyone with a family history of skin cancer--should be seeing a dermatologist regularly, at least twice a year. 

Reminders and videos

Besides letting users conduct a full-body survey and track individual lesions, the UMSkinCheck gives  reminders about when to begin the next self-examination. The app also comes with a series of informational videos on skin cancer prevention, so users can remain educated about the illness.

PhotoDr. Michael Sabel, who was one of the physicians in charge of creating the phone application, said it can be especially useful for those who need body photos for cancer detection, but don’t have the insurance to cover regular doctor visits.

“Whole body photography is a well-established resource for following patients at risk of melanoma,” he said. “However, it requires a professional photographer, not always covered by insurance, and it can be an inconvenience. Now that many people have digital cameras on their phones, it’s more feasible to do this at home.”

Users of the app will not only be able to trace a lesion to determine if it’s growing or not, they can also share those photos with a dermatologist to get their insights, to determine if more tests and treatment are needed.

Dr. Sabel emphasized that allowing people to test themselves should dramatically increase the chance of cancers being caught early, which not only raises the chance of survival, but also may allow patients to undergo procedures that are far less intrusive.

“We recommend skin self-exams for everyone in order to detect skin cancer at the earliest stages, when treatment is less invasive and more successful, he said in a published interview.

“If you have fair skin or burn easily, have had sunburns in the past or used tanning beds, or have a family history of melanoma, you are considered high-risk, and so it’s even more important.”

The UMSkinCheck can be downloaded for free in the iTunes app store.

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POM Wonderful still not so wonderful, FTC finds

The agency upheld an earlier finding that ads for the juice were deceptive

Sometimes it's better to quit when you're just a little bit behind. When a finding went against POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice, the company appeale...

PhotoSometimes it's better to quit when you're just a little bit behind, but if you believe in your product that's easier said than done.

When a finding went against POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice, the company appealed and now the Federal Trade Commission has come down ever harder on the company.

In May 2012, Chief Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell found that POM marketers made deceptive or false health claims in 10 advertisements.

POM Wonderful appealed to the FTC, which not only upheld Chappell's ruling but extended it, finding that POM made false and deceptive claims in 36 ads and promotional items for POM Wonderful and POMx supplements.

The agency said POM did not have adequate support for claims that the products could treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction, and that they were clinically proven to work. 

The Commission issued an order that bars the POM marketers from making any claim that a food, drug, or dietary supplement is “effective in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of any disease,” including heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction, unless the claim is supported by two randomized, well-controlled, human clinical trials. 

POM fights back

“POM Wonderful categorically rejects the FTC’s assertion that our advertisements made any misleading disease treatment or other health claims," the company said in a statement. "POM has always communicated with our consumers in a transparent, honest and often humorous manner, delivering valuable information about the health benefits of our products.

POM also disputed the FTC's finding that it did not have scientific backing for its claims.

"This order ignores what $35 million of peer-reviewed scientific research, centuries of traditional medicine and plain common sense have taught us: antioxidant-rich pomegranate products are good for you," the company said.

"With this ruling, the FTC is taking the unprecedented step of holding food companies like POM Wonderful to the same standards as pharmaceuticals. Their new legal standard would require food companies to conduct double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in order to talk about potential health benefits of fruits and vegetables," POM said. 

Argument rejected

The order also prohibits misrepresentations regarding any test, study, or research, and requires competent and reliable scientific evidence to support claims about the “health benefits, performance, or efficacy” of any food, drug, or dietary supplement. 

The commission rejected the POM respondents’ arguments that the commission’s actions would violate their First Amendment rights, or their Fifth Amendment right to due process.

The challenged ads appeared in national publications such as Parade, Fitness, The New York Times, and Prevention magazines; on Internet sites such as pomegranatetruth.com, pomwonderful.com, and pompills.com; on bus stops and billboards; in newsletters to customers; and on tags attached to the product.   

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Running the home refinance obstacle course

You'll need equity, a pristine credit history and a lot of patience

Mortgage rates remain near all time lows but millions of homeowners with higher interest loans still have not refinanced. Many can't, because their homes a...

PhotoMortgage rates remain near all-time lows but millions of homeowners with higher interest loans still have not refinanced. Many can't, because their homes are worth less than they owe.

What about the rest? Those who hope to take advantage of today's rock-bottom rates had better have an impeccable financial past and be prepared to answer a lot of questions.

“As a homeowner who wants to refinance, the first thing you have to have is equity in your home, a minimum of five to ten percent,” said Pat Esswein, an editor at Kiplinger, a personal finance publication. “Secondly, you're going to have to show that you've been a diligent borrower.”

That means no late payments, not just on your mortgage but your bills in general. The rules in home finance have changed.

Traditional banking

“What we've really done is return to very traditional, conservative rules of lending,” Esswein said.

If you last took out a loan in 2005, for example, you'll find the process is very different. Lenders will look at your credit history, analyze your credit score, look for consistency of income and employer over the last two years and determine whether you can cover the closing costs. They will also look at your assets, even if you aren't drawing income from them.

And, they will demand lots of documentation to prove everything you've told them. Esswein discovered this first hand when she recently refinanced a home.

“I was shocked because I had to send the lender all the most recent statements for our retirement accounts and investments because they wanted to see how risky our investments were," Esswein said.

What it takes

The bottom line, the better your financial profile, the more equity you have, the better your credit score, the lower your household debt, the better your chances of getting a loan, and one with an attractive interest rate.

Bank of America Mortgages  Jan. 16, 2013, 4:27 p.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America Mortgages

You should also be prepared for delays. Raena, of Ashburn, Va., writes that she and her husband are in the process of refinancing a mortgage with Bank of America, an undertaking that began four months ago.

“There have been excuses along the way (one being Superstorm Sandy), but over the months we've basically just been asked over and over to update our application file with bank statements that continuously expire because this process is dragging along,” Raena wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “We've asked if there is a manager to discuss our application with. In the end, it seams that they want to string us along to keep paying at the much higher rate we currently have with our 30 year fixed loan through them. Maybe they're just waiting for the quoted rate we signed for to expire. Either way, there doesn't appear to be an end to this process.”

Reason for the restrictions

Lenders, of course, tightened their restrictions in response to the housing market meltdown. Risky loans to borrowers with little or no money down have led to increasing foreclosures and homes that have lost tens of thousands in equity.

That loss of equity can make for a nasty surprise when a homeowners, who put 20 percent down when they bought their home during the housing boom, tries to refinance their mortgage. They find their home has lost so much value they only have five to ten percent equity.

“They then have to make up the difference by bringing cash to the closing table or buy private mortgage insurance,” Esswein said.

New rules might help

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently published proposed new rules for lenders that essentially codified what lenders have been doing recently. Because the lenders didn't know what kind of rules the CFPB was going to come up with, they were imposing even more stringent requirements for the loans that they made.

“For example, if Fannie and Freddie said to get a loan you had to have a credit score of 660 to 680, many of the lenders were imposing their own rules, requiring a credit score of at least 740. If you look at the statistics of loans that have been made the last couple of years the average credit score is somewhere in the 740 ballpark.”

Esswein says knowing what the rules, are lenders may now relax a little bit. It might even get easier to get a mortgage.

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Mortgage settlement filing deadline is Friday

You can mail in your signed form or file online

If you were one of the borrowers who lost your home to foreclosure between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2011, you may be eligible to receive a payment ...

PhotoIf you were one of the borrowers who lost your home to foreclosure between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2011, you may be eligible to receive a payment under the national settlement worked out between five major lenders and 49 states and the federal government.

But you don't have much longer. The deadline for filing a claim is Friday, January 18, 2013. Attorneys general around the country have spent the week reminding their constituents there is no time to lose.

“With the deadline looming, I hope affected Mississippians will take advantage of this opportunity for some relief,” said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.

$1.5 billion in funds

The 2012 settlement earmarked approximately $1.5 billion in payments for approximately two million borrowers nationwide who lost their homes to foreclosure during 2008 to 2011 and had their loan serviced by one of the five settling servicers. The exact payment each borrower receives will depend upon the total number of borrowers who participate by filing a claim but the estimated payment is $840.

“The deadline to submit a claim is just days away,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “We know there are still thousands of eligible Illinois borrowers who haven’t stepped forward. I urge anyone whose mortgage was serviced by one of these five banks and who lost their home to foreclosure to contact the settlement administrator immediately.”

The settlement resolved allegations that major borrowers took illegal shortcuts to foreclose on homes whose owners were in default or behind on payments. In some cases people executing foreclosure documents signed them without reading them, even though they also signed an affidavit swearing they had read them.

The big five

Eligible borrowers had mortgages serviced by Ally/GMAC,Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers that agreed to the settlement with the federal government and attorneys general for 49 states and the District of Columbia.

Those who qualify must make at least one of the following claims through a simple form: they were unable to pay; their mortgage servicing company mishandled the process involving their loan modification or foreclosure alternative; or the servicer made errors during the foreclosure process.

“This is partial compensation for the mortgage servicers’ illegal conduct and servicing abuse,” said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who led the settlement negotiations on behalf of state attorneys general.

How to file

Your first step should be to find the letter that was sent to you in the mail. If you want to file your claim online, you will need it.

Next, go to the special website that has been set up to administer the settlement. You can get there by clicking here

Once you are on the site, read the directions carefully. You will see a warning not to fall for the many anticipated scams in which companies or individuals may offer to do “the paperwork” for you for a fee. It costs nothing to file a claim. If you have questions or need help filing your claim, you may call the Settlement Administrator toll free at 1-866-430-8358.

Review the pre-printed name and address at the top of the form and make any corrections to your current mailing address on the following screens.

Next, confirm your eligibility and sign the form. You can file your claim online or send it by U.S. Mail. However, if you do that it must be postmarked no later than January 18, 2013.

If your loan is owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac you should have not received a letter. Those loans are not part of the settlement.

Also, if you live in Oklahoma you are not entitled to participate. Oklahoma elected not to join the lawsuit and settlement.

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Claiming a deduction for your home office is getting easier

Eligible home-based businesses may deduct up to $1,500

If you have a home-based businesses work from home, this will likely make you sit up and take notice. The Internal Revenue Service is implementing a simpl...

PhotoIf you have a home-based business or work from home, this will likely make you sit up and take notice.

The Internal Revenue Service is implementing a simplified option that you may be able to use to figure the deduction for the business use of your home.

In tax year 2010 -- the most recent year for which figures are available -- nearly 3.4 million taxpayers claimed deductions for business use of a home, commonly referred to as the home office deduction.

The new optional deduction, capped at $1,500 per year based on $5 a square foot for up to 300 square feet, will reduce the paperwork and recordkeeping burden on small businesses by an estimated 1.6 million hours annually.

"This is a common-sense rule to provide taxpayers an easier way to calculate and claim the home office deduction," said Acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller. "The IRS continues to look for similar ways to combat complexity and encourages people to look at this option as they consider tax planning in 2013."

An easier path

The new option gives eligible taxpayers an easier path to claiming the home office deduction. Currently, they are generally required to fill out a 43-line form (Form 8829) often with complex calculations of allocated expenses, depreciation and carryovers of unused deductions. Taxpayers claiming the optional deduction will complete a significantly simplified form.

Though homeowners using the new option cannot depreciate the portion of their home used in a trade or business, they can claim allowable mortgage interest, real estate taxes and casualty losses on the home as itemized deductions on Schedule A. These deductions need not be allocated between personal and business use, as is required under the regular method.

Business expenses unrelated to the home, such as advertising, supplies and wages paid to employees are still fully deductible.

Current restrictions on the home office deduction, such as the requirement that a home office must be used regularly and exclusively for business and the limit tied to the income derived from the particular business, still apply under the new option.

Kicks in with next year's filing

The new simplified option is available starting with the 2013 return most taxpayers file early in 2014. Further details on the new option can be found in Revenue Procedure 2013-13, which is effective for taxable years beginning on or after January 1, 2013. The IRS welcomes public comment on this new option to improve it for tax year 2014 and later years. There are three ways to submit comments.

  • E-mail to: Notice.Comments@irscounsel.treas.gov. Include “Rev. Proc. 2013-13” in the subject line.
  • Mail to: Internal Revenue Service, CC:PA:LPD:PR (Rev. Proc. 2013-13), Room 5203, P.O. Box 7604, Ben Franklin Station, Washington, DC 20044.
  • Hand deliver to: CC:PA:LPD:PR (Rev. Proc. 2013-13), Courier’s Desk, Internal Revenue Service, 1111 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The deadline for comment is April 15, 2013.

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How to keep yourself from getting cyber-stalked

Each year, more and more people become victims of Internet stalking, bullying and harassment.

Sooner or later, we all get that email that we don’t want, or receive something posted onto our social network page that we wish we never g...

PhotoSooner or later, we all get that email that we don’t want, or receive something posted on our social network page that we wish we never got, and whether the message is from a company, an overzealous salesperson or from a personal acquaintance, they can be annoying and even upsetting at times.

But at what point do these unwanted messages go from being just annoying to becoming full-on harassment?

The month of January is Annual Stalking Awareness Month, and according to the Stalking Resource Center of the National Center for Victims of Crime, stalking someone online has a lot to do with repeated attempts of harassment and a certain level of deliberateness, which isn’t always the case with someone occasionally sending you a message that you don’t want.

Michael Kaiser who is the executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) says cyber-stalking is nothing that consumers should take lightly, and as soon as you notice a pattern or receive just one threatening message, you should contact your local police department as soon as possible.

“In order to effectively combat unwanted contact, it is important to know the signs of stalking and how to deal with such related incidents,” said Kaiser in a statement.

“Aggressive outreach such as persistent emails, harassing posts or text messages are not acceptable forms of online communication and NCSA encourages affected individuals to contact local law enforcement or victim service agencies to report such activities and get help.”

Take action

Experts say if you ever find yourself a victim of cyber-stalking you should immediately suspend your account whether it’s your email or social network page, and consumers should always make sure all of their contact pages have the correct privacy settings, so it’s difficult for cyber-stalkers to locate you in the first place.

PhotoExperts also say that Internet stalkers and other online criminals will more than likely pass up the person who makes it more difficult for them to commit their wrongdoings, and even though it can be tempting at times, people should keep the sharing of their personal information to a minimum, like announcing you’ll be out of town for the next two weeks.

Safety experts also stress for people to create usernames that aren’t gender specific, and be sure not to publicize any information that may give a cyber-stalker an idea where you live.

So posting that photo of you standing next to your new car in the driveway, that also happens to show a street sign or a familiar landmark in the background is a great big no-no, say experts.

Go Google yourself

Anupama Srinivasan, who is a program director for a non-profit organization that deals with violence against women, says that people should Google themselves just to get an idea of what personal information is already out there.

And just because you may see your name and address online, doesn’t mean that you have to accept it being there, because obviously the more personal information you’re able to remove from cyber space, the harder it will be for someone to stalk or harass you.

“If you locate personal information like address, phone numbers or pictures or information you don’t want to be out there, speak to the people involved and get it deleted,” said Srinivasan in a published interview.

“Write to the website that lists your phone number without your permission and get it removed. Use your full name and/or the name you go by generally to Google yourself, and be sure to add ‘plus photographs’ in your Google search.”

According to the NCSA one in five people in the U.S. have experienced cyber based crimes that include the stealing of personal information, stealing of identities, bullying and of course cyber-stalking, and over 29 percent of consumers said they know someone who was a victim of an Internet crime.

In all 50 states in the U.S. cyber-stalking is a crime, but some say it doesn’t get the same amount of attention that other Internet crimes do, like identity theft or pilfering money, and for this very reason experts say that consumers need to be even more vigilante when it comes to sharing too much information online and “friending” people they may not know.

The NCSA also says that removing old Internet posts or entries is a smart idea, and just like any other kind of stalker, cyber-stalkers will look under every stone until they can piece together your whereabouts or the necessary information to harass you or even locate where you are.

Be discreet

Also, consumers should not be posting their whereabouts online, as it’s now commonplace for people to let everyone know which restaurant they’re eating at or which movie they're attending, and for someone willing to sit by a computer to learn all of your daily movements, you’ll just be making it that much more easier for them to accomplish whatever bad deed they’re intending to commit.

Experts also say as parents use some of these safety measures in their own Internet use, they should also continually remind their children of what to do in order to diminish the chances of them getting stalked or bullied online.

“Adults are not the only ones at risk when it comes to cyber-stalkers,” said Gary Davis in a statement, who is the vice president of global consumer marketing at the software security company McAfee.

“Parents need to communicate with their children about such Internet dangers and promote Internet safety. Be sure to secure your devices with strong passwords and frequent updates, connect only with people you know, and be careful not to share contact information or your location,” he said.

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Gibson replaces guitar Delta Airlines destroyed

The airline offered Dave Schneider $1,000 for his $10,000 vintage guitar

Dave Schneider's vintage Gibson (Facebook photo)Delta Airlines is not on musician Dave Schneider's good guy list, but Gibson Guitar is.Delta worked o...

Photo
Dave Schneider's vintage Gibson (Facebook photo)

Delta Airlines is not on musician Dave Schneider's good guy list, but Gibson Guitar is.

Delta worked overtime to get on Schneider's bad side. First airline employees refused to let Schneider bring his 1963 Gibson ES-335 TD guitar on a flight to Detroit not long ago. They told him he had to check it.

Then on landing, Schneider discovered that his guitar had been crushed between a service elevator and loading dock at the gate.

Dave turned down Delta’s offer of $1,000 for his $10,000 vintage guitar.

Luckily, Gibson came to the rescue by giving Dave a new ES-335, which he picked up a few days ago at Gibson’s New York showroom.

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Schneider with his new Gibson (Gibson photo)

“As soon as we saw the picture of the crushed guitar case and heard Dave’s story, we felt immense sympathya for him,” said Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz. “For musicians like Dave, instruments are practically members of their family. It was only right to replace his guitar, and we are happy to have him at our showroom."

Dave Schneider is the lead singer of the Zambonis and lead guitarist of a Jewish band called The LeeVees. He says he’s happy to be able to continue performing, thanks to Gibson's gift.

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Feds warn: Someone is impersonating us

Businesses shouldn't open email that claims to be from the FTC

Small businesses may dread getting a negative review on Yelp, ConsumerAffairs or any of the other review sites but they really fear getting a complaint ema...

PhotoSmall businesses may dread getting a negative review on Yelp, ConsumerAffairs or any of the other review sites but they really fear getting a complaint email from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Well, there are good reasons for that fear, the chief one being that the email is almost certainly  scam.

The FTC says small businesses have been getting emails with a subject line reading “NOTIFICATION OF CONSUMER COMPLAINT.” 

The email falsely states that a complaint has been filed with the agency against their company.  The FTC advises recipients not to click on any of the links or attachments with the email.  Clicking on the links may install a virus or other spyware on the computer.

Such scams are not at all unusual. In December, the FTC shut down a bogus robocall operation that allegedly tried to trick consumers into turning over their bank account information and other sensitive personal data.

In a complaint filed in federal court, the FTC charged that the operation run by The Cuban Exchange, Inc., also doing business as CrediSure America and MyiPad.us, and its principal, Suhaylee Rivera, deceptively claimed it could help consumers get refunds from the agency, in an effort to trick them into providing their personal information and bank account numbers.

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Consumer inflation remains tame in December

Prices excluding food and energy were up slightly

A decline in gasoline prices helped keep inflation on the retail level in check during December. Figures released by the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statist...

PhotoA decline in gasoline prices helped keep inflation on the retail level in check during December.

Figures released by the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was

unchanged in December on a seasonally adjusted basis. Over the last 12 months, the CPI rose just 1.7 percent before seasonal adjustment.

Energy and food

The gasoline index declined again in December, but other indexes, notably food and shelter, increased, resulting in the seasonally adjusted all items index being unchanged. Gasoline was the only major

energy category to decline, with prices for natural gas and electricity both increased.

Within the food category, five of the six major grocery store food groups increased as the food at home index rose for the third consecutive month.

The index for all items less food and energy -- the so-called “core rate” -- increased 0.1 percent in December, the same increase as in November. Those categories are stripped out because of the tendency to be volatile.

Other prices

Besides shelter, prices for airline fares, tobacco, and medical care increased. The cost of recreation, household furnishings and operations, and used cars and trucks all declined in December.

The 1.7 percent increase in the CPI over the last 12 months follows a rise of a 1.8 percent figure in November. The core rate was up 1.9 percent for the year, matching the November increase. The price of food rose 1.8 percent over the last 12 months, while energy was up 0.5 percent.

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VistaPrint: The cards are OK but billing and privacy issues can be problems

It's important to be careful -- don't agree to any free offers or take any surveys

It’s safe to say that just about everybody had a business idea at one point or another.Whether it’s opening a restaurant based on mom’s...

PhotoIt’s safe to say that just about everybody had a business idea at one point or another.

Whether it’s opening a restaurant based on Mom’s recipes, starting a landscaping company with your buddies, or beginning some sort of Internet business, many people have taken that leap from dreaming of owning a business to actually getting it off the ground, or at least trying to.

Vistaprint says it can help market your business by getting you off to a strong start with its printed business cards, banners, promotional t-shirts and other things to make your company look professional.

Vistaprint’s customer base also includes consumers who may want to print invitations for a party or wedding. Some like to use the company to personalize holiday cards, which is a nice touch if it's done right.

Also, Vistaprint alludes to charging low prices for stellar work, which is what the company has to say, I guess. This isn't what every consumer experiences, however, as a perusal of the reviews posted to ConsumerAffairs shows.

Whenever discussing our complaints and review section, it’s always our goal to find any similarities in the comments, whether positive or negative, which gives consumers a general idea of how the company is received, and helps them decide whether it sounds like what they're looking for.

We reached out to VistaPrint for a comment on this story but did not receive a reply.

Good news

First the good news: Michelle of Sarasota, Fla. said her experience with Vistaprint was a positive one and the company kept its promises to her.

“I’ve used Vistaprint for years and think that they are a great value,” Michelle said. “Recently, I called because I had not received one of two items that I ordered and they immediately put a replacement in the mail, no questions asked.”

Vistaprint Jan. 15, 2013, 2:41 a.m.
Consumers rate Vistaprint

“I received the item (and then my husband handed me my original order two weeks later, he had picked it up from the mailbox and failed to give it to me. I feel terrible). But I would totally recommend this company and will continue to use them for business and personal needs,” she wrote.

Lebron of Ohio was also happy, despite the negative comments he read on our site.

“For starters, Vistaprint has excellent customer service,” he wrote. “I was a bit worried after reading the reviews here, but all my items were shipped in a timely fashion on schedule. I couldn’t be happier with the quality of the t-shirts, business cards, notebook, return address labels and stamps. Great low prices for exceptional merchandise! I highly recommend Vistaprint.”

Lebron was so happy with the company he gave it a personal satisfaction rating of five stars, which pretty much says he felt Vistaprint couldn’t do any better. It’s always great when a company makes you feel like that.

However, he did mention being “a bit worried” about the high number of negative reviews the company received -- and rightfully so, because Vistaprint has done a pretty good job of frustrating a lot of its customers. But we’ll get back to that part in a little bit.

Personally, I used the company only one time — many years ago, when I wanted to be the kind of writer that hands out business cards left and right,  pridefully showing what I do and where my passions lie. 

Since I only used the company once, and my order was pretty straightforward, my experience was non-eventful, which is really what consumers expect. We all want to order a product or service — then forget we ordered it and have everything finalized before any feelings of dread creep in.

Repeated users

Based on the majority of the reviews in the comments section, it seems Vistaprint has frustrated customers that went beyond using the company just once for business cards.

PhotoSomething else to take note of is that many customers posting to our site seemed to have good first experiences with Vistaprint, but ran into problems thereafter.

If any company can make your first experience, they’ve accomplished a very important and needed task. But when you return to that company and it doesn’t provide you the same level of service, it’s not only baffling, but disappointing, and you think it’s sort of your fault for letting your  guard down and trusting that company.

Lynette, of Australia, wrote about being unhappy with Vistaprint when she continued to deal with the company after her first order.

“I owed $79 and they (Vistaprint) popped another digit on, equaling $790,” she said. “They also accessed my savings account as well as my credit card to the value of $1,200, making as many as 10 orders a day (supposedly from me). It took me 10.5 months to get the money returned and I was totally unable to contact them.”

 “Vistaprint never returned any e-mails nor was their supposed contact number ever manned except for an annoying recording. This made it totally impossible for me to contact them, obviously exactly what they wanted. The result, PayPal came to my rescue and my bank,” she said.

Anything else?

It’s unfortunate that Lynette suffered billing issues with the company, as have many of the others we hear from. But besides the billing issues, how are the overall printing jobs? I mean, the company is supposed to be there for the little guy, right? Which gives the idea that Vistaprint is mindful of tight budgets and having to get things correct on the first shot?

For the most part many of the consumer complaints aren’t related to what the business cards, posters, or sweatshirts looked like.

In fact, a good portion of readers said the final product was either good or fair. Sure there are some who complained about Vistaprint using cheap quality paper for its business cards, and a few people said certain logos looked better on the company’s website than they did once they were  downloaded.

But many of the complaints, which far outweigh the positive comments, were related to consumers' names and contact information being passed along to other companies.

Robert of Lakeville, Mass. said that after ordering 1500 business cards, along with a few other items, his name was sold to other companies, and soon after, he was sent magazines with his name and address on the covers although he had never ordered them -- at least as far as he knew.

“Over the phone, I was told that I ordered those magazines,” said Robert.  “This is far-fetched since I am looking at my invoice and there is nothing about subscribing to any magazines. Bottom line is they sold my name probably multiple times. My email box is getting more spam as we speak.”

In some cases, consumers may have agreed to take a survey or clicked on a special offer during the ordering process. By doing so, they may have unwittingly supplied their personal and credit card information to third parties.

So, if it's business cards you want, be sure that's all you order. Don't agree to take a survey, sign up for a free offer or jump at a discount on an unrelated item.


 

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Coca-Cola ads gently tackle obesity issue

The big soft-drink maker professes its undying concern for its customers

The first rule of public relations and crisis management is, basically, to round up all the lemons and make lemonade. Turn your weakness into your strength...

PhotoThe first rule of public relations and crisis management is, basically, to round up all the lemons and make lemonade. Turn your weakness into your strength, in other words.

This is what Coca-Cola is hoping to do with a new ad campaign that expresses its supposed deep and undying concern about obesity. What, you didn't think a sugar-water bottler cared about obesity?

Well, think again. Coke cares, and it will be spending millions to air two new ads -- one on news shows aimed at regulators and what are called opinion leaders, and another on entertainment shows aimed at consumers. Both, in the words of Coca-Cola, "encourage everyone to be mindful that all calories count in managing your weight."

Here's the news-show ad:

Coke would like for us to think that it has been tossing and turning at night, worried sick about what it calls "the complex challenge of obesity."

Have fun, move around

It says the purpose of the ads "is to highlight some of the specifics behind the company’s ongoing commitment to deliver more beverage choices, including low- and no-calorie options, and to clearly communicate the calorie content of all its products."

The consumer-focused ad, called "Be OK," debuts on American Idol tomorrow (Wednesday) night. It notes that a can of Coca-Cola says right up front that it has 140 calories -- and the ad suggests some fun ways to burn off those calories.

Like what? Well, walking the dog, dancing. You know, moving around.

“We are committed to bring people together to help fight obesity,” said Stuart Kronauge, general manager of sparkling  beverages. “This is about the health and happiness of everyone who buys our products and wants great-tasting beverages, choice and information. The Coca-Cola Company has an important role in this fight. Together, with willing partners, we will succeed.”

Critics say this is all too cute by half.

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the commercials are "just a damage control exercise and not a meaningful contribution toward addressing obesity."

As far as we know, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hasn't yet chimed in. He has been on a campaign to get his city's residents to lighten up and New York last year banned the sale of super-sized soft drinks in some public places.

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Things to remember when using the microwave

Sure it's been around for decades, but there still a few rules to follow

I remember the first time my Dad brought home a microwave oven back in 80s, which easily had to be the size of one of those college foot lockers.The firs...

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The right credit card can help you get out of debt

If you can qualify for a 0% interest balance transfer, it can help

Millions of consumers would like to get out from under their crushing credit card debt but don't know where to start. It just might start with havinbg the ...

PhotoMillions of consumers would like to get out from under their crushing credit card debt but don't know where to start. It just might start with having the right credit card.

For example, if your debt is on a card with a very high interest rate, it will take a long time to pay off the balance. But if you can transfer that balance to a card with a lower rate, it's a little easier. If you can transfer to a card with zero percent interest for a limited time, all the better.

Zero percent interest? Do such cards exist? Yes they do, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, a former executive at Capital One and the founder and CEO of credit card comparison website CardHub.com.

No brainer

“The zero percent interest rate offers are not getting any better, but they're much better than they have been in the last few years,” Papadimitriou said. “Taking advantage of these offers is a no brainer, since every penny of your payment goes toward paying down your credit card debt.”

So, off the bat having the right credit card can help you pay down debt quicker, but how do you find out exactly which card is best? A credit card calculator can help. The calculator at CardHub is helpful because there's an added dimension.

When you enter your data -- the amount of debt, the interest rate and the length of time you want for the payoff -- it matches you up with the current credit card offer that will best help you reach that goal.

Using the calculator, we entered a debt amount of $6,700 at 14 percent and said we wanted to pay it off in 24 months. The calculator showed we could reach that goal by paying $322 a month. The calculator also shows that if we transferred the balance to the Slate from Chase card, we could pay it off two months earlier and save $950.

That particular card has a zero percent interest rate for 15 months and no transfer fee. Its regular rate is between 11.99 and 21.99 percent. The key factor, however is that for the first 15 months 100 percent of your payment is going to pay down the balance.

You need a good credit score

Photo
Odysseas Papadimitriou
Not everyone can qualify for the card, however, because it takes a credit score of 700 or better. But that's no reason not to apply. In fact, chances are 50-50 that your credit is good enough.

“The misconception that exists here is a lot of people think, when they hear 'excellent credit,' that it doesn't include them,” Papadimitriou said. “But we have data that shows more than 50 percent of consumers have what is considered excellent credit.”

Once you've transferred your balance to a low or no interest card, you'll need at least two other credit cards. One for everyday purchases that you will pay off at the end of every billing cycle and one for an emergency purchase, which might require up to six months to pay off.

The last thing you want to do, Papadimitriou says, is mix new purchases with the balance you are paying off.

“When you do not pay a credit card in full every month you do not have a grace period,” he said. “When you don't have a grace period you pay interest on the purchase from the day you make the purchase. And that interest compounds daily.”

Paid in full

The card with everyday expenses – like gas and groceries – should be paid in full every month. If you find you are unable to pay the full amount each month, it's a sign you're living above your means and adjustments are in order.

Papadimitriou calls this method of segregating expenses on different cards the “island approach.” It should be part of your plan for getting out of debt. Trying to pay off debt without devising a plan to do so, he says, is very hard to do.

Finally, budgeting is key. Paying down debt takes a bite out of your monthly expenses so it is very important to account for every dollar and eliminate luxuries for a while.

“If everything in your life looks like a necessity and you cannot identify anything as being a luxury, then you know that there is an issue there,” Papadimitriou said.

Debt settlement

Paying down debt is doable but rarely easy and consumers should be leery of anyone who says it is. So a final word here about so-called debt settlement companies that advertise on radio, TV and the Internet.

“There's a lot of scams out there,” Papadimitriou warned. “What these companies do, and they won't tell you this, they make you default on your credit cards. They make you make payments to them instead of the credit card company so you can accumulate a significant position. Then they go to the credit card company and offer to settle your debt for less than what you owe. The credit card company sometimes accepts those offers.”

But can you stand up to the pressure of having the credit card company's debt collectors calling you several times a day, sometimes threatening legal action? Because that's what happens.

Some people can't deal with it and cave in, promising to pay back what they owe. Meanwhile, they've already made several payments to the debt settlement company, which has collected its fee off the top. So they're actually deeper in the hole.

Better to craft a plan and a budget that allows you to pay off the debt over time. It's rarely easy but in some cases, having your debt on the right credit card can make it a little more manageable.

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The pros and cons of buying a franchise

It usually comes down to how much money and experience you have

For many reasons, a lot of people who have worked most of their careers for a paycheck have thought about going into business for themselves. What are the ...

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Walmart to offer jobs to honorably discharged veterans

The retailer says it expects to hire 100,000 vets over next five years

When Johnnie -- or Joannie -- comes marching home, it could well be to a job at Walmart. The world's largest retailer says that beginning Memorial Day ,it...

PhotoWhen Johnnie -- or Joannie -- comes marching home, it could well be to a job at Walmart.

The world's largest retailer says that beginning Memorial Day ,it will offer a job to any honorably discharged veteran in his or her first 12 months off active duty. Most of the jobs will be in Walmart stores and clubs, and some will be in distribution centers and the home office.

“Hiring a veteran can be one of the best business decisions you make,” said Walmart U.S. President and CEO Bill Simon. “Veterans have a record of performance under pressure. They’re quick learners and team players. They are leaders with discipline, training, and a passion for service. There is a seriousness and sense of purpose that the military instills, and we need it today more than ever.”

Long-term project

Walmart says the pledge is not the end of this effort -- it’s the beginning. The company projects it will hire more than 100,000 veterans during the next five years.

“We believe Walmart is already the largest private employer of veterans in the country, and we want to hire more,” added Simon, speaking at the National Retail Federation’s annual BIG Show. “I can think of no better group to lead in revitalizing our economy than those who have served in uniform. Through their service, veterans give us a land of freedom. When they return, it must be to a land of possibility.”

Walmart has spoken with the White House about this commitment. The First Lady’s team immediately expressed an interest in working with Walmart and with the entire business community to join forces to build upon this commitment.

In the next several weeks, the White House will convene the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, and major American employers to encourage businesses to make significant commitments to train and employ America’s returning heroes.

Stamp of approval

“This is exactly the kind of act we hoped would be possible when we started Joining Forces - a concrete example of our nation's love and support that our troops, veterans, and their families can feel in their lives every day,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “As our wars come to an end and our troops continue to come home, it's more important than ever that all of us -- not just government, but our businesses and nonprofits as well -- do our part to serve those who have served us so bravely. So today, my challenge is simple: for every business in America to follow Walmart's lead by finding innovative solutions that both make sense for their workplaces and make a difference for our veterans and their families. Given what we've seen from Walmart and so many other companies over the past two years, we know that they will.”

Simon also called on the retail industry to work together to provide greater career opportunities for veterans.

“Imagine what retail could do together,” said Simon. “We could leave an incredible legacy as an industry. We can be the ones who step up for our heroes. And we can do this now.”

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Wholesale prices fall in December

Declines in the costs of food and gasoline led the drop

For the third time in as many months, the Producer Price Index (PPI)for finished goods -- also popularly known as wholesale prices -- declined in December ...

PhotoFor the third time in as many months, the Producer Price Index (PPI) for finished goods -- also popularly known as wholesale prices -- has posted a decline

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that on a seasonally adjusted basis, prices for finished goods were down 0.2 percent in December following declines of 0.8 percent in November and 0.2 percent in October.

Food and energy

Most of the December decline is due to a drop of 0.9-percent in prices for consumer foods. Over one-third of the the drop in food prices can be traced to beef and veal costs, which plunged 4.8 percent. Lower prices for fresh and dry vegetables and for natural, processed, and imitation cheese also were factors in the decline.

Energy prices were down 0.3 percent in December -- the third straight decrease. Leading the December decline, gasoline prices fell 1.7 percent. Lower prices for liquefied petroleum gas also contributed to the decrease in the finished energy goods

The core rate of wholesale inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy categories, edged up 0.1 percent in -- the same as in November. The December advance was a 2.0 percent increase in cigarette prices.  

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Home prices continued their rise during November

Positive growth was recorded in almost all states

Housing prices are continuing to rebound -- and the outlook for that to continue appears bright. Home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- i...

PhotoHousing prices are continuing to rebound -- and the outlook for that to continue appears bright.

Home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- increased 7.4 percent this past November from the same month a year earlier, according to the latest CoreLogic HPI report

The provider of information, analytics and business services says that represents the biggest increase since May 2006 -- and the ninth consecutive increase in home prices nationally on a year-over-year basis. On a month-over-month basis home prices were up 0.3 percent in November. The HPI analysis shows that all but six states saw year-over-year price gains.

Excluding distressed sales, home prices nationwide increased on a year-over-year basis by 6.7 percent in November. On a month-over-month basis, they rose 0.9 percent. Distressed sales include short sales and real estate owned (REO) transactions.

November highlights

  • Including distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were: Arizona (+20.9 percent), Nevada (+14.2 percent), Idaho (+13.8 percent), North Dakota (+11.3 percent), California (+11.1 percent).
  • The five states with the lowest home price depreciation were: Delaware (-4.9 percent), Illinois (-2.2 percent), Connecticut (-0.5 percent), New Jersey (-0.5 percent) and Rhode Island (-0.3 percent).
  • Excluding distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were: Arizona (+16.5 percent), North Dakota (+12.9 percent), Nevada (+12.6 percent), Hawaii (+11.6 percent) and Idaho (+11.6 percent).
  • Only two states posted home price depreciation: Delaware (-3.5 percent) and Alabama (-2.2 percent).
  • Including distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the national HPI (from April 2006 to November 2012) was -26.8 percent. Excluding distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the HPI for the same period was -20.7 percent.
  • The five states with the largest peak-to-current declines, including distressed transactions, were Nevada (-52.9 percent), Florida (-44.3 percent), Arizona (-39.8 percent), California (-35.8 percent) and Michigan (-35.4 percent).
  • Of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population, only thirteen are showing year-over-year declines in November -- seven fewer than in October.

The outlook

The CoreLogic Pending HPI indicates that December 2012 home prices -- including distressed sales -- are expected to rise by 7.9 percent on a year-over-year basis from December 2011 and fall by 0.5 percent on a month-over-month basis from November 2012 reflecting a seasonal winter slowdown.

Excluding distressed sales, December 2012 house prices are poised to rise 8.4 percent year-over-year from December 2011 and by 0.7 percent month-over-month from November 2012. The CoreLogic Pending HPI, which provides the most current indication of trends in home prices, is based on Multiple Listing Service (MLS) data that measure price changes for the most recent month.

"As we close out 2012 the pending index suggests prices will remain strong," said Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. "Given that the recently released Qualified Mortgage rules issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are not expected to significantly restrict credit availability relative to today, the gains made in 2012 will likely be sustained into 2013."

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Strawberries, blueberries may cut heart attack risk in women

The berries' benefits go beyond those of a diet rich in other fruits and vegetables

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, think what berries might do. A study reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association finds eat...

PhotoIf an apple a day keeps the doctor away, think what berries might do.

A study reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association finds eating three or more servings of blueberries and strawberries per week may help women reduce their risk of a heart attack by as much as one-third.

Blueberries and strawberries contain high levels of naturally occurring compounds called dietary flavonoids, also found in grapes and wine, blackberries, eggplant, and other fruits and vegetables. A specific sub-class of flavonoids, called anthocyanins, may help dilate arteries, counter the buildup of plaque and provide other cardiovascular benefits, according to the study.

A separate study  has found that blueberries likely help prevent the cell damage caused by cancer.

"Blueberries and strawberries can easily be incorporated into what women eat every week," said Eric Rimm D.Sc., senior author and Associate Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Mass. "This simple dietary change could have a significant impact on prevention efforts."

Blueberries and strawberries were part of this analysis simply because they are the most-eaten berries in the United States. Thus, it's possible that other foods could produce the same results, researchers said.

Four-year study

Scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health in the United States and the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, conducted a prospective study among 93,600 women ages 25 to 42 who were registered with the Nurses' Health Study II. The women completed questionnaires about their diet every four years for 18 years.

During the study, 405 heart attacks occurred. Women who ate the most blueberries and strawberries had a 32-percent reduction in their risk of heart attack compared with women who ate the berries once a month or less -- even in women who otherwise ate a diet rich in other fruits and vegetables.

"We have shown that even at an early age, eating more of these fruits may reduce risk of a heart attack later in life," said Aedín Cassidy, Ph.D., lead author and head of the Department of Nutrition at Norwich Medical School of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom.

The findings were independent of other risk factors, such as age, high blood pressure, family history of heart attack, body mass, exercise, smoking, caffeine or alcohol intake.

The American Heart Association supports eating berries as part of an overall balanced diet that also includes other fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products. Eating a variety of foods is the best way to get the right amounts of nutrients.

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New electronic gadgets for your dog and cat

Pet owners will do anything for their pets, but they still need a little help

As any pet owner can tell you, providing care and love for an animal can bring about a lot of joy.You can see snippets of this joy whenever you see a per...

PhotoAs any pet owner can tell you, providing care and love for an animal can bring about a lot of joy. It can also get messy. 

One area of cat care that owners wish they could avoid, for example, is scooping out the litter box. A potential solution is the Litter-Robot, which is supposed to dramatically cut down the numbers of times you have to remove your cat’s wastes.

This is the second version of the Litter-Robot released by Automated Pet Care Products over the years, and it's a mechanism that allows cats to do their business while giving owners at least a partial respite from clean-up duties.

When your cat leaves the device, it spins and gathers the waste, then dumps it into a bagged compartment. From there, you simply remove the bag and throw it away.

One of the main advantages of the Litter-Robot, the company says, is that it can hold waste for several days, which is especially useful for the times when you have to take a short business trip or go on a weekend excursion.

And since the robot gathers waste by rotating and dumping it into a separate drawer, owners no longer have to scoop it out by hand.

LitterMaid Jan. 14, 2013, 8:43 p.m.
Consumers rate LitterMaid

Other companies make similar devices, including the LitterMaid, which unfortunately has generated a lot of complaints from cat owners who say it fails in its most essential mission. 

The company also says Litter-Robot’s rotating process is a patented and unique sifting method that removes waste clumps in the litter, and the waste drawer itself is designed to remain odorless and to prevent mold from growing on the inside of it.

Both of these design features are supposed to ensure the device remains clean each time your cat uses it, but owners should still remove the drawer's contents at least once a week, the company says.

Another perk of Litter-Robot is that it doesn’t require a special receptacle, and its drawers can hold bags of many sizes. The company does offer biodegradable bags, but just about any bag can be used inside the drawer--including old shopping bags.

The makers also say the globe-shaped apparatus uses a special carbon filter which insulates the unpleasant odor of the waste, thus releasing less odor throughout your home than traditional litter boxes. The device also doesn’t require any special kind of litter, which of course is nice.

The Litter-Robot itself looks like a spaceship of sorts, and it's designed to fit just about any size cat. And to ensure the device doesn’t start to rotate while your cat is in it, the company installed a sensor, so the globe won’t move if your cat is within range.

If there’s a downside to this product, it would have to be its steep price of about $340, but for those who want to cut down their litter box cleaning to just once a week, and allow their cats to have a little more independence, it might be worth the high cost.

Another not so great thing is that it makes a bit of noise when it rotate, so if you live in smaller quarters and you’re unable to put the machine in a distant space, then you may be disturbed by it.

Road work

PhotoAnother product that might be worth the money for dog owners is The Canine Treadmill, which costs between $500 and $1,000, depending on the size of the treadmill and where you buy it. Currently it’s on Amazon for $523.99.

Is it expensive? Yes. But for those times when walking your dog is inconvenient for a variety of reasons, The Canine Treadmill could pay itself off in terms of human effort, specifically for the times when it’s too cold for you and your dog to walk or when temperatures are so high that even going for a short trip outside could be dangerous.

Also, many veterinarians and pet experts say dogs need at least of 15 to 45 minutes of walking time per day, depending on the type of dog you have, so pets that aren’t getting that amount of exercise can use the treadmill no matter what the weather is like outside.

The treadmill is also useful for dogs that could stand to lose a little bit of weight and need a little more than the required 15 or 45 minutes of physical activity per day.

PhotoThe creators of The Canine Treadmill say the walking belt is made of a soft rubber so it’s easy on your dog’s paws, and it also comes equipped with safety barriers so your dog remains in position and doesn’t tip over or shift.

Owners can adjust the speed and level of resistance of the treadmill, so your dog will be able to get their needed level of exercise regardless of their size or breed.

The motorized exercise machine comes with training guidelines so owners will know just how to use it, and also know how much walking your dog will need to stay healthy.

The company says the treadmill uses a quiet motor so it doesn’t disturb other people in the house, and it looks really cool, so it won’t stand out in your home like a sore thumb or look like an ugly and serious piece of exercise equipment.

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Western Sky is expensive, but doesn't try to hide it

Consumers should do the math before borrowing. Later is too late.

In its advertising, Western Sky, a division of Payday Financial, is upfront and unapologetic about its fees."Yes, the money's expensive, but it's a lot c...

PhotoIn its advertising, Western Sky, a division of Payday Financial, is upfront and unapologetic about its fees.

"Yes, the money's expensive, but it's a lot cheaper than a payday advance," the message says. "And it's enough to really get you over the hump. So get off the payday treadmill."

Payday lenders often make small loans of $200 or so but Western Sky makes larger loans, usually of $850 to $10,000. Owned by a Native American and based on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, it has sought to set itself apart from payday lenders but has generated some of the same kinds of consumer complaints.

Complaints

Karen, of Portage, Wis., said she applied and was approved for a loan of $1,500.

Photo"Right away they took $500 off that I had to pay back," Karen wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Then I gave them all my information including my account number and routing number and password. She told me she was going to email me. An hour later I got an email, then she said she was going to call back and didn't. So I called to cancel. The supervisor was rude to me and I kept telling him, 'No, I don't want the loan,' and he hung up on me. A $1,500 loan is costing me $5,000 in 24 months."

Everado, of Defiance, Ohio reports taking a loan of $2,500 in November 2010 and was also chagrined to see he had been charged a $500 origination fee.

"My payments are $298.94, which I have been paying for 19 months, so far," he writes. "I cannot find a way out. They say I still owe $2,500.00 as of today. Do the math and I have so far paid back $5,679.86."

Different than a payday loan?

Just like most payday loan customers, Everado and Karen are finding it's very hard to get out of debt. But perhaps a difference is most payday loan customers go into the two-week transaction believing they will somehow be able to repay the loan in that time. When they can't they are forced to take out an endless series of payday loans that the Center for Responsible Lending calls the payday loan debt trap.

Western Sky says it is more upfront about the costs of its loans, which it says are installment loans of up to seven years. Indeed, that appears to be the case.

On it's web page devoted to rates, Western Financial lists six representative loan amounts and shows the origination fee, the amount of money the borrower receives, the annual percentage rate (APR), the number of payments and the length of the loan.

What it costs

In the example of the $5,000 loan the borrower would pay a $75 origination fee -- it's $500 for loans under $1,500 -- and would pay 116.73% APR for seven years, making monthly payments of $486.58. Over the life of the loan the borrower would pay a total of $40,872.72. The loan of $5,000 would cost $35,872.72.

"Yes, the money's expensive," as Western Financial acknowledges in its ads. Are there cheaper alternatives for people with poor credit?

Subprime alternative

Let's compare it to First Premier Bank's Mastercard, which often makes the list of the most expensive subprime cards and draws a number of complaints at ConsumerAffairs. It, too, is aimed at poor-credit consumers and charges a $120 annual fee and 59.99 % APR.

Using the example of the $5,000 loan for seven years, the credit card's monthly payment would be $254.18 (assuming the $120 annual fee was paid in full each year) as opposed to $486.58. The cost of the loan over seven years, including the seven annual payments, would be $1,7191.12, a savings of about $18,681.

Western Sky's parent company has run afoul of state and federal authorities in the last couple of years, though not for its loan rates. Other business practices have come under scrutiny.

Colorado crackdown

In March 2011 Colorado Attorney General John Suthers sued Western Financial, accusing the company of making unlicensed, high-interest loans to Colorado consumers. The suit claimed the company made more than 200 loans to Colorado consumers since at least March 2010, during which time it was not licensed with the state.

The loans ranged in value from $400 to $2,600 and had terms ranging from seven months to 36 months. The loans’ annual percentage rates ranged from 140 percent to 300 percent. Under Colorado’s Uniform Consumer Credit Code, lenders making subprime loans must be licensed with the Office of the Attorney General. Because Western Sky Financial made loans with interest rates higher than 12 percent, it must be licensed, the suit said.

A year later West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw reached a settlement with Western Sky's parent, knocking down one of the company's principal shields against prosecution. The company claimed that the loans originated on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where Payday Financial was located, and were subject to tribal laws rather than the laws of West Virginia or other states where the borrowers resided.

Not an Indian tribe

After a lengthy court battle a circuit court ruled that Payday Financial was not an Indian tribe and therefore was not entitled to tribal immunity. The judge ruled that the loans were governed by West Virginia laws. Payday Financial challenged the ruling by filing a petition for writ of prohibition with the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, but the Appeals Court let the ruling stand.

Because of actions by various states, Western Sky says it does not do business in California, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Early last year the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) expanded its case against Payday Financial, charging that it sought to unfairly and deceptively manipulate the legal system and force debt-burdened consumers throughout the country to travel to South Dakota and appear before a tribal court that did not have jurisdiction over their cases.

In an amended complaint, the FTC charged that the South Dakota-based lender's suits against customers are unfair, and that its contract language about the court where such suits would be brought is deceptive.  

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Google's latest: Zavers, a "digital coupon solution"

Add coupons to your account, the discount is applied automatially at check-out

The days of coupon-clipping are just about over, as various forms of online coupons displace the old printed coupons. The latest entrant in the field is, w...

PhotoThe days of coupon-clipping are just about over, as various forms of online coupons displace the old printed coupons. The latest entrant in the field is, who else, Google with a product called Zavers.

Zavers is basically a coupon book that you tie to your smartphone. You add coupons to the account and they're automatically applied at check-out.

The benefits to the consumer are pretty obvious: no more coupon clipping and no fumbling around at check-out trying to find a coupon you just know you saved somewhere in your email folder.

There are also some big benefits for retailers, at least as Google tells it. It says Zavers will give manufacturers a real-time way to see coupon performance and redemption rates, and the service also offers a personalization and targeting system that sounds a lot like Google's AdWords.
 
"Today we’re excited to introduce Zavers by Google — a digital coupon solution that enables retailers and manufacturers to reward loyal customers with coupons that are relevant to them -- increasing basket size and redemption rates. So dog owners don’t get cat food coupons and parents of teenagers don’t get diaper coupons," said Spencer Spinnell, Director, Emerging Platforms, Google Commerce.

Spinnel says the system is convenient and trouble-free for shoppers and manufacturers.

"With Zavers, shoppers find manufacturer discounts on their favorite retailer websites, and save the digital coupons to their accounts. Then they simply shop for those products and check out as usual.Redemption occurs in real time, with savings automatically deducted at checkout when shoppers provide their rewards cards or phone numbers — no scanning or sorting necessary. Manufacturers only pay when a product is moved off the shelf," he said.

Spinnell said New York City supermarket chain D'Agostino is the newest retailer to join the Zavers network. Other participating retailers include

A&P, Waldbaum's, Superfresh, The Food Emporium, Pathmark, Harris Teeter, Price Chopper Northeast, and BI-LO.

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Insurance spending: how to get a handle on it

Most people saw their outlays for insurance rise or hold steady last year

It's said that only death and taxes are inevitable. You might want to add insurance to that short list, especially since the new healthcare law will requ...

PhotoIt's said that only death and taxes are inevitable. You might want to add insurance to that short list, especially since the new healthcare law will require all of us to be covered

Are you paying more for insurance, less or about the same? According to Bankrate's Financial Security Index, more than a third of consumers in the U.S. saw their overall insurance spending increase last year -- mostly due to rising premiums. In its survey, Bankrate asked people about their household insurance budgets. Relatively few spent less on insurance, suggesting – according to experts -- consumers may be missing out on insurance savings.

The survey says...

The survey results show that 37 percent spent more overall for all kinds of insurance, including homeowners, renters, auto, life and health coverage, while 52 percent spent about the same; just seven percent saw their insurance bill decrease.

Of those whose overall insurance tab rose, 62 percent attributed the increase to a rise in premium costs. Other reasons included: the addition of coverage for a new home, vehicle, boat or RV (12 percent); changes in coverage due to family circumstances, such as marriage or addition to the family (nine percent); and a decision by the consumer to boost coverage on an existing policy (four percent).

Why you may be paying more

Michael Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group, says an unusual streak of natural disasters in 2011 almost certainly contributed to a rise in homeowners insurance rates for many during 2012.

"We had Hurricane Irene, the Joplin tornado that was the single biggest insurance event in Missouri history, and widespread winter storms, tornadoes and flooding in interior states like Minnesota," he notes. "While homeowners rates don't move significantly in just one year, when you look at how some of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history have all occurred in the last decade, this is not a surprise."

Consumer Federation of America's director of insurance J. Robert Hunter has a different prime suspect for the cost increase.

"It's probably health insurance," he says. "That's one that people recognize because a lot of times it comes through their employer, so they have an opportunity to look at various options and think about that policy a little more."

In Hunter's view, the percentage of survey respondents who actually faced higher insurance bills last year was probably higher than the survey shows.

"I'd guess more than half probably had premium increases and just don't realize it," he says. "Consumers are buying insurance in six-month pieces instead of annually, and insurance companies have taken advantage of that. Instead of raising rates 10 percent every two years, they raise them 2.5 percent every six months, and people don't notice that."

Some consumers aren't so sure why they're paying more. Pam of Anderson, SC, says she purchased a term life insurance policy for her husband approximately four years ago after he retired. "New York Life through AARP was happy to draft my checking account for the monthly premiums", she writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "This month the premium increased with no notification from New York Life - AAPR. When I called to question the increase, NYL would not talk with me because the policy is on my husband. I only wanted to know why the premium increased, no other information. They draft from my account, therefore, I feel I have the right to ask why the draft amount increased!"

Ken of Pasadena, TX, has an auto insurance policy with Allstate. "I just received my premium statement," he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Last year it went up 5%. This is to be expected, all prices increase in this economy. This year, my premiums went up 20%! I have been calling my agent and he is unable to find a cause for this jump. There was no warning this was about to happen, there is no explanation of why. This is unprofessional. I will be moving my account to another insurance carrier."

Inertia could cost you

Hunter says insurance companies know we dislike shopping for insurance, don't understand our policies, and so are prone to park ourselves with one carrier.

"There's a huge inertia in insurance," he says. "People are afraid if they move from a company after 20 years and then have an accident, the company might cancel them, so they pay the occasional $50 (increase) and stay put."

Now that insurers have the technology to identify those inert clients through online buying and other behaviors, chances are if you appear willing to spend a little more, you probably will, Hunter says.

Reining in costs

"Shopping is the key," says Hunter. "When I was insurance commissioner in Texas, we got 25 regular people to bring in their auto policies and 25 their home insurance policies, gave them our buyers guide and a telephone. In one hour, the average person saved $125 per car and $85 on home insurance. We called it the $100 hour."

Barry, of the Insurance Information Institute, offers these tips to save on insurance without unduly sacrificing on coverage:

  • Increase your homeowners deductible. "A lot of people can achieve double-digit percentage decreases in their homeowners insurance premiums by going from a $500 to a $1,000 deductible, if you're in the position to pay the first $1,000 out of pocket," he says.
  • Adjust your auto policy options. To trim your auto insurance bill, ditch collision coverage rather than comprehensive, especially if you drive an older vehicle. "Collision should be the first to go because it's the most expensive," Barry says. "I would recommend keeping the comprehensive coverage because it covers so many events such as a tree falling on a car or the car being flooded."
  • Bump up your auto deductibles. As with your homeowners, it may make sense to increase your auto insurance deductibles, depending on how much risk you're willing to assume. "That will almost certainly result in premium savings," Barry says.
  • Bundle home and auto policies. Most insurers offer a discount to customers who purchase more than one type of policy with them.
  • Consider a new term life insurance policy. Premiums for term life policies have dropped significantly in recent years. If you currently own a waning term policy, you may be able to purchase the same or better coverage for less by shopping around.
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Does the personal computer have a future?

Yes, but sales of desktops and laptops have "flatlined"

For the first time in five years, sales of personal computers (PCs) did not go up in the just completed holiday season. International Data Corporation (IDC...

PhotoFor the first time in five years, sales of personal computers (PCs) did not go up during the holiday season. International Data Corporation (IDC) reports worldwide PC shipments totaled 89.8 million units in the fourth quarter of 2012, down 6.4 percent compared to the same quarter in 2011 and worse than the forecast decline of 4.4 percent.

Maybe it's not surprising. After all, mobile computing is now the rage. Consumers are doing their computing on the go, using a wide variety of tablets and smartphones that didn't exist just a few years ago.

The boxy desktop computer, and even its cousin, the laptop, appear to be unloved in this new environment and maybe even a little old-fashioned. And to make matters worse, consumers continue to report problems with their PCs that their tablets don't seem to have.

Problems

Celita of Keokuk, Iowa, reports a problem with her Dell laptop right out of the box.

Dell Customer Service Jan. 14, 2013, 4:49 p.m.
Consumers rate Dell Customer Service

"When I turned it on it said it was doing thousands of updates," Celita wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "So I let it run. The second day, it was still doing updates, so I called Dell. Dell says it should not be doing it, but let it run."

Despite that, she said the machine never finished updating and never operated properly and that customer service could provide no help.

H.L., of Los Angeles, reports a new Hewlett Packard PC, lightly used for web surfing, lasted less than two years. Cecelia of Brooklyn, N.Y., said her HP's hard drive failed after a year. In many caces frustrations like these prompt consumers to look at computing alternatives.

Does all this spell the end of the PC era? A lot of tech experts don't think so. Jeremy Laird, writing in Tech Radar last July, found the conventional PC proving to be remarkably resilient.

Industry is flatlining

"Sure, the PC is essentially flatlining as an industry," he wrote. "In the western world, refreshing the installed base rather than actual sales growth is where we're at. But that's very different from saying PCs are about to disappear.

From a software standpoint, Microsoft is trying to breathe new life into the PC with Windows 8, which features several departures from past operating systems, including a touch-screen function. But Windows 8 not only powers PCs but tablets as well, providing desktops and their more mobile laptop counterparts with some of the same features from the tablet world.

But not every PC user, apparently, is comfortable with that. Bill, of Burke, Va, said he bought a new Toshiba Satellite computer as a gift for his father-in-law as a Christmas gift. Though it came with Windows 8 pre-installed, he paid a computer store to downgrade the system to the more traditional Windows 7. He too, reports a bad PC experience.

"I didn't even open the box, just took it to the pros to do the install," Bill wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Out of the box, the G key on the laptop was broken. It works if you mash down on it, but it needs to be replaced, which can only be done by replacing entire key board for $140. It was under warranty but Toshiba refuses to do anything."

Betting on the PC

PhotoOne company that does not believe in the death of the PC is Intel, for decades a leader in chip design and manufacturing. It's invested recently in a line of sleek Ultrabook notebook computers and is currently developing a new processor that it says will improve computing and graphics features while using less electricity.

Xi3 Corporation is another company betting on the future of the PC, while trying to redefine what a PC is. At the just completed Consumer Electronics Show, it introduced the Z3RO Pro Computer, showcasing what it said is the future of small form factor desktop computing.

Tiny desktop

Unlike the boxy desktop, the Xi3's tiny chassis is the size of a typical paperback book, making it smaller than most tablets.

However, it's a computer designed for general computer use, including home and office environments, and is powerful enough for specialty applications such as digital signage environments and home theater use.

"The Z3RO Pro Computer is the ideal size for the ultimate in small form factor x86-based general computing," said Jason A. Sullivan , the company's founder and CEO. "In this post-PC era, it's clear that there's no reason to buy a tower or mini-tower computer ever again. Not only does the Z3RO Pro Computer help round out the Xi3 product line, it also marks the end of desktop computing as we've known it."

The tiny "desktop" is available with:

  • A dual-core 64-bit, x86-based processor running at 1.65GHz (with 2MB of Level2 Cache),
  • An integrated graphics processor (GPU) containing 80 graphics cores (or shaders),
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM,
  • 16GB—1TB of internal solid-state SSD storage (with up to 12Gbps throughput speeds),
  • Two display ports providing maximum resolution of 2560x1600 (including 1 HDMI/DisplayPort v1.2 and 1 Mini-DisplayPort v1.2),
  • Four eSATAp 3.0 ports, and
  • 1Gb Ethernet port.

The computer ships standard with openSUSE Linux v11.2, but will also run an array of other x86-based Operating Systems, including Windows 8 and lower and other Linux variants. Perhaps best of all for consumers, it starts at $399.

Still kicking

Jay Chou, senior research analyst with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, also doesn't believe the PC is on its deathbed. He said some of the fourth quarter's slow PC sales can be attributed to faulty marketing, with too much attention paid to Windows 8's touch-centric innovations and too little to other positive aspects of the operating system.

"As Windows 8 matures, and other corresponding variables such as Ultrabook pricing continue to drop, hopefully the PC market can see a reset in both messaging and demand in 2013," he said.

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Major products and inventions consumers should watch for in 2013

Whether it's cars, gadgets or new research findings, this year will be eventful for consumers

It seems like it was just a minute ago that Ryan Seacrest made his ten second countdown to usher in the New Year, and since then, 2013 has been off to a fa...

PhotoIt seems like it was just a minute ago that Ryan Seacrest made his ten-second countdown to usher in the New Year, and since then, 2013 has been off to a fast start.

And with each New Year comes a certain level of anticipation for consumers, when it comes to new products being released, and seeing what companies will do to win our dollars and get us to pay attention.

A lot of people are also interested in seeing what new laws and government policies will be announced or what medical breakthroughs will be introduced in 2013.

To get an idea of what consumers will be seeing this year, we put together a small list to moisten your palette.

Take the new smartphones that Samsung is creating -- with a screen that’s able to bend and twist into various shapes, so one can either use it like a traditional phone and put it to their ear, or they can bend it and wrap it around their wrist like a watch or bracelet.

These bendable smartphones were announced in this year’s Consumers Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The screens are made of a thin plastic material that’s malleable enough to be turned and twisted into a number of positions.

So imagine getting a phone call, and unrolling your smartphone like a map to answer it.

What’s great about the new phones is that they'll take up less space in your bag or pocket and they should be lighter and easier to handle than regular smartphones, which will come in handy when you’re trying to multitask.

What’s also cool about these new phones is that the actual size won’t matter that much, because whether you get a tiny or colossal-sized model, you’ll be able to fold and twist it into a size that suits your needs.

The Molemate

Almost every year, scientists and researchers announce a new finding or medical breakthrough that has a huge impact on all of us, and so far there’s been a lot of talk about a skin cancer-detecting device called the MoleMate Skin Imaging System, which allows dermatologists to test for melanoma by just running the device along the skin, instead of doing an invasive procedure like a biopsy.

PhotoThe inventor of the handheld device, Symon Cotton, says physicians will be able to read the machine's light waves to detect melanoma without having to remove a portion of the skin.

The MoleMate “operates by using wave lengths of light that interact with different cells in different ways,” said Cotton in an informational video about the device. “Because we know how they interact with these cells we can identify what’s in the skin without having to do a biopsy, i.e. cut a piece of the skin out.”

The company also says the MoleMate is extremely easy to use, as one pretty much just has to hold the oblong device to a patient’s skin.

What’s also terrific about the device is that physicians will be able to learn how to use it in just a couple of hours. It’s also said the device will be able to detect melanoma at earlier stages and provide more accurate readings.

Although there hasn’t been an exact release date of the Molemate, it has already been approved by the FDA and is rumored to hit U.S. doctor offices by this year. Hopefully by 2014 it will be a device commonly used by dermatologists.

Cool wheels

PhotoLet’s face it, it wouldn't be a New Year for many consumers unless a nice-looking new vehicle is released, and although there are a bevy of highly price cars being introduced this year by higher-end brands like Mercedes Benz and BMW, the 2013 Ford Fusion Mondeo seems to be on the lips and minds of those consumers who want a practical and affordable vehicle with a little pizazz.

This year’s Mondeo is built with a lot of new features that previous models didn’t have, and it will join a lot of cars being released this year that will have far better gas mileage.

The “all new Mondeo is the first model built on Ford’s new global CD-segment platform to deliver more driver-focused, dynamic performance,” Ford said in a press release. “All-wheel drive diesel powertrain and retractable panoramic roof offered for the first time; as well as segment-first adaptive full LED headlamps.”

Ford also said the Mondeo will be the first car to have a 1.0 liter powertrain, which will allow consumers to dramatically lower the amount they spend on fuel. Expect to see this vehicle on the roads a lot in 2013.

That masked man

Besides electronics, medical breakthroughs and new cars, many people are eager to see what will be new in the world of entertainment this year, and there’s arguably no area of entertainment bigger than the movies when it comes to getting the chatter among consumers really going.

PhotoThe movie on the minds of many people this year is the big screen version of The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, and the rising star Armie Hammer as the masked Kimosabe himself.

Being released on July 3, just in time for Independence Day, the story will show the origin of the Lone Ranger, and how he and his partner Tonto came to be the horse-riding vigilantes that many of us know today.

Based on the trailer for the movie, it appears The Lone Ranger will focus more on the Tonto character compared to the old black and white TV show, as Tonto finds the young cowboy passed out after experiencing some sort of cataclysmic event, and explains to him how and why he must now be a crime fighter and become the Lone Ranger.

But despite looking forward to cool movies and new products; none of us ever knows what the New Year will bring, and within the next 12 months most of us are bound to experience our fair share of peaks, valleys and winding roads that will sometimes be challenging for us to navigate.

But there’s one thing that most of us are certain of -- there will be more products for us to consume, more gadgets and forms of entertainment that will intrigue us, and hopefully a lot more medical breakthroughs that will allow us to experience many more New Years to come.

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eHarmony vs. Match.com: Which site is better?

Both sites are complaint magnets but both have their fans as well

Who doesn’t want to find a mate at some point in their life?Sure, being a single person has its perks. You can come and go without checking in with...

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The Eatery: An easy-to-use diet app

For those who like to snap pictures of their meals, this one is just for you

Taking a picture of your food before you eat is extremely commonplace nowadays, as capturing a meal before diving into it has become a daily ritual for man...

PhotoTaking a picture of your food before you eat is extremely commonplace nowadays, as capturing a meal before diving into it has become a daily ritual for many. Some say all of this food sharing is entertaining and others say meals should be eaten not photo’d.

Some take these pictures so they can share the joyous occasion of eating a yummy plate of food with a fellow foodie, and others play Gordon Parks with their meal to document the moment, so it can be experienced in the future--at least visually.

But a good number of people today snap pictures of their meals for other reasons, and they use a variety of apps to help them either lose weight, control bad eating habits or get a better idea of what things they need to change in order to eat healthier.

Take the “The Eatery” app for example, that allows users to take pictures of each meal and provides feedback in terms of how those meals are contributing to overall weight gain or loss.

The app also lets you know what specific foods aren’t allowing you to reach your dietary goal and points out the times of day that seem to challenge you the most when it comes to eating better.

Picks out patterns

The creators of The Eatery say the app differs from others that people use today, because it focuses less on the calories and measurements and instead uses photos to point out bad dietary patterns that you might not  realize you have.

Apparently, the best way to reach consumers is through their mobile device these days, so there’s no surprise that dieting has gone digital just like everything else. It makes one wonder how people were inspired to eat healthier before these apps and healthy living websites came along.

PhotoWas it the random highway billboard that reminded us to put down that greasy burger before apps took over? Was it the sporadic TV commercial or public service announcement that we came across that nagged us to eat better? Or maybe our spouses or significant others nagging us?

It seems with all of the new research findings, health warnings and  suggestions coming via the Internet these days, using your mobile device for dieting will soon be just as conventional as using a piece of exercise equipment or a personal trainer.

And Massive Health—the company that created The Eatery app—says providing people with deeper insight into themselves, as well as their eating habits, will allow folks to have a better chance of modifying unwanted food behaviors.

Since we’re now living in a digital society that counts heavily on visual stimulation through handheld electronics, using photos as both inspiration and a perpetual reminder to alter bad food patterns makes extremely good sense.

Just snap a pic

PhotoTo use The Eatery, users just snap a picture of each meal—which many people do anyways—and rate it whether it's “fit or fat.” The app will then give you guidance on where to make changes, and also give feedback about the time of day you choose to eat bad foods.

Massive Health says it uses crowd-source feedback from people chosen by the company, to help you along your dietary journey, so you’re not just guessing about what to tweak in your meal regimen.

And by users being able to see all of their meals, snacks and beverages in one place, it’ll be much easier to see problem areas or negative patterns, like being able to see how many slices of bread you've eaten in a given week or how many sugar-loaded cups of coffee you had in two months’ time.

And just like every other company and brand these days, The Eatery uses Facebook to include the obligatory social network component to help keep users motivated.

The logic here is that by allowing your friends and followers to see everything you’re eating--while they’re also being advised of what you’re trying to accomplish--you’ll be provided with more motivation that could go a long way in getting you to your goal.

Also, if users know their followers will see everything they’re eating, maybe they’ll be more mindful of eating better, if for no other reason than sheer embarrassment -- not wanting to appear like an undisciplined glutton who only likes the unhealthy stuff.

The company also says that being able to see everything you consumed over a long period of time, like in a course of several months let’s say, you’ll be able to see your progress and also be able to view any transgressions.

“Studies show that simply recording your meals helps you lose more weight,” says Massive Health on its site for the app. “It’s not about counting calories, it’s about becoming aware of your habits.”

It’s apparent that Massive Health also feels that by being able to record all of your meals over a course of time, you will naturally draw useful conclusions about why you eat certain foods, and why you choose to eat them at certain times.

Probably the most challenging thing about using The Eatery app is having to take a photo of everything you eat.

For those who aren’t accustomed to this, taking all of those photos could get annoying, but for those who happen to be unpaid food journalists already, this app may be right up your alley.

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Taxpayers will see several changes when they file this year

Higher tax rates and more generous deduction amounts are ahead

The Internal Revenue Service has made a number of changes for tax year 2013 -- including the tax rate schedules – as a result of the recently-passed Americ...

PhotoThe Internal Revenue Service has made a number of changes for tax year 2013 -- including the tax rate schedules – as a result of the recently-passed American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) of 2012.

The tax items for 2013 of greatest interest to most taxpayers include the following changes:

  • Beginning in tax year 2013 (generally for tax returns you will file a year from now), a new tax rate of 39.6 percent has been added for individuals whose income exceeds $400,000 ($450,000 for married taxpayers filing a joint return). The other marginal rates -- 10, 15, 25, 28, 33 and 35 percent -- remain the same as in prior years. The guidance contains the taxable income thresholds for each of the marginal rates.
  • The standard deduction rises to $6,100 ($12,200 for married couples filing jointly), from $5,950 ($11,900 for married couples filing jointly) for tax year 2012.
  • The ATRA of 2012 added a limitation for itemized deductions claimed on 2013 returns of individuals with incomes of $250,000 or more ($300,000 for married couples filing jointly).
  • The personal exemption rises to $3,900, up $100 from the 2012 exemption. However beginning in 2013, the exemption is subject to a phase-out that begins with adjusted gross incomes of $250,000 ($300,000 for married couples filing jointly). It phases out completely at $372,500 ($422,500 for married couples filing jointly.)
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax exemption amount for tax year 2013 is $51,900 ($80,800, for married couples filing jointly), set by the ATRA of 2012, which indexes future amounts for inflation. The 2012 exemption amount was $50,600 ($78,750 for married couples filing jointly).
  • The maximum Earned Income Credit amount is $6,044 for taxpayers filing jointly who have three (3) or more qualifying children; the total is $5,891 for tax year 2012.
  • Estates of those who die during 2013 have a basic exclusion amount of $5,250,000, up $150,000 from the 2012 amount.
  • For tax year 2013, the monthly limitation regarding the aggregate fringe benefit exclusion amount for transit passes and transportation in a commuter highway vehicle is $245, up $5 from tax year 2012 (the legislation provided a retroactive increase from the $125 limit that had been in place).
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Nutrition labels turn 20

Checking the package for information on food has become a way of life

Can you remember the last time you bought a food item at the supermarket and did NOT check to see how many calories or grams of sodium it contained? Didn't...

PhotoCan you remember the last time you bought a food item at the supermarket and did NOT check to see how many calories or grams of sodium it contained? Didn't think so.

It seems like something we've been doing for most of our lives, but it's only been for the past 20 years that the Nutrition Facts label has been required.

This now-familiar rectangular box provides -- in a standard format -- important information about the nutritional content for most packaged foods, including breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts and drinks.

A sea-change for consumers

"It was revolutionary," says Jessica Leighton, Ph.D., senior nutrition science and policy advisor in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine. "For the first time, people had consistent information they need right at the point of purchase for the majority of packaged food products."

In the years since FDA issued the final rule for this labeling on Jan. 6, 1993, the Nutrition Facts label has influenced many companies to make their foods more healthful. Additionally, notes Claudine Kavanaugh, Ph.D.,M.P.H.,R.D., a scientist at the agency, "FDA was really a trailblazer in nutrition labeling. The Nutrition Facts label has been adapted by countries around the world that have chosen to mandate food labeling."

Label use increasing

The Nutrition Facts label was mandated after passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Before it became standard practice, manufacturers provided nutritional information on a voluntary basis that wasn't consistent from product to product, explained Felicia Billingslea, M.S., director of FDA's food labeling and standards staff.

"The label is all about the attributes of the food," she said. "It's not to say that this is a good food or a bad food. It provides information that consumers can use and rely upon in developing healthful diets for themselves."

FDA survey data show that use of the Nutrition Facts label has been increasing. In comparing the Health and Diet Survey conducted in 2002 with the most recent one conducted in 2008, the percentage of consumers reporting that they often use the label rose from 44 to 54 percent.

This usage has influenced many companies to change their ingredients to make the foods more healthful and thus more appealing to many consumers.

FDA cites as an example the decrease in consumption of trans fat, which has been linked to heart disease, primarily because of a decrease in manufacturers' use of partially hydrogenated oils. From the late 1990s to 2010, trans fat intake in adults decreased from 4.6 grams to 1.3 grams per day, with most of the reduction occurring after trans fat was added to the food label in 2003.

Changes may be coming

FDA is planning to update the Nutrition Facts label based on the latest science-based nutrition recommendations.

Paula Trumbo, Ph.D., acting director of FDA's nutrition programs staff says updates are being assessed to address such factors as current nutrient recommendations, public health concerns based on recent data on food consumption, and the agency's desire to make this information as clear and useful as possible.

The updates are still being formulated. The public will be asked to comment when the changes are proposed.

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Java marketer goes scot-free while Internet prodigy is hounded to death by feds

Does it sometimes seem that the iron boot of the State falls on the wrong people?

Aaron Swartz (Creative Commons photo)Two current news stories illustrate a seeming imbalance: a brilliant Internet prodigy is hounded to death by feder...

Photo
Aaron Swartz (Creative Commons photo)

Two current news stories illustrate a seeming imbalance: a brilliant Internet prodigy is hounded to death by federal prosecutors for misdeeds involving scholarly papers. Meanwhile, flaws in a giant corporation's software threaten worldwide economic catastrophe but elicit no federal action except a fix-it-yourself warning to consumers.

The Internet prodigy was Aaron Swartz, who took his life at the age of 26 while facing federal prosecution that could have resulted in a 30-year prison sentence.

The above-it-all corporation is Oracle, which markets Java, the popular program that gives the Internet much of the interactivity prized, frankly, more by advertisers than consumers.

While still a teen-ager, Swartz developed RSS -- the Internet protocol that is distributed free to users that has enabled millions of Web sites to easily syndicate their content to anyone who want to display it elsewhere on the Web. The technology was key to the development of the popular content-sharing site Reddit, which counted Swartz as its co-founder.

Scholarly papers

Swartz ran afoul of the law when he was accused in 2011 of illegally accessing documents on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Web site, downloading them and making them freely available to others. 

While this may have been a bit more than a prank, it was not a scheme to make money or expose vital defense secrets to enemy nations. It was, apparently, primarily an exercise in unlocking information and making it freely available to everyone.

The government calls it theft, although it is hardly comparable to the act of using a mask and gun to deprive a storeowner of his day's receipts or bankrupting consumers through sleight-of-hand deception. It's not even comparable to copying CDs and DVDs without permission, a "crime" that drives the the entertainment and software industries to reach out frantically to their friends on Capitol Hill, seeking ever tougher penalties for what in most cases are laughably minor infractions.

But maybe it's not so strange. This is, after all, a country where you can without difficulty buy a car that will go 175 miles per hour or a rifle that will shoot hundreds of rounds without reloading but where you face prosecution for buying too many nasal decongestant tablets or using the wrong kind of asthma inhaler.

It's not as though Swartz' actions, even though technically illegal, would actually bring physical harm to anyone. Perhaps one or two tenured faculty members would receive a few dollars less in royalties for a learned article, an outcome that does not seem to warrant a $1 million fine or 30 years in prison for the perpetrator, the penalties that hung over Swartz' head.

Or, as Aaron's family and friends said in a statement: "“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

Above it all

PhotoThen there's Oracle, which sat on its hands for weeks as reports circulated of serious security deficiencies in its Java software. There was, critics warned, a real and present danger that hackers would be able to insert malware into computers running Java that posed a threat both to individual consumers and to businesses and governments.

The threat to consumers involves identity theft. By eavesdropping on individuals' computers, crooks could gain access to bank and credit card accounts, possibly cleaning out consumers' checking and savings accounts and plunging them thousands of dollars into debt.

An even more severe threat involves the ability of thieves and terrorists to take control of computers and turn them into zombies that could be used to carry out gigantic denial-of-service attacks on government and industry, the same types of attacks that have repeatedly disabled major banks' Web sites in recent months.

Security analysts also worry that such attacks could compromise national security, disrupt power distribution and shut down vital transportation networks.

It's a big deal, in other words. Security vulnerabilities in commercial software can result in billions of dollars in economic losses and major loss of life. This is several orders of magnitude more serioues than pilfering someone's Ph.D. thesis.

Taxpayer dollars

So worried was the Department of Homeland Security that last week it issued a nationwide warning to consumers, asking them to disable or uninstall Java on their machines. Of course, most consumers have no idea how to do this, or whether they even have Java on their computer.

Oracle remained silent during all of this, as government agencies spent taxpayer dollars to identify the threat and warn consumers. It finally issued a statement over the weekend saying it was working on an update, which it planned to issue on Tuesday.

Although issuing a terse statement, which it did not bother including in the Pressroom section of its Web site, Oracle had no information for consumers readily available on its corporate site

So that's it, apparently. If you're a youthful enthusiast of the information-should-be-free school, the Justice Department will spend vast quantities of taxpayer funds to prosecute and persecute you for doing what amounts to not much of anything.

But endanger hundreds of millions of consumers by exposing them to the very real potential of critical economic and physical harm? No problem. Have a nice day. We're from Washington and we're here to help you.

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Homeland Security warns of threat in Java software

Computer users should disable or uninstall Java until a fix is provided

Java software, a key tool installed on most personal computers, is vulnerable to attack and should be shut down or removed, the U.S. Department of Homeland...

PhotoJava software, a key tool installed on most personal computers, is vulnerable to attack and should be shut down or removed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is warning.

Hundreds of millions of users are at risk of having their computers infected with malware that could result in identity theft or worse.

What's worse than identity theft? Well, your computer could be taken over by hackers and used to stage botnet attacks on innocent business or government networks in what are called denial-of-service attacks.

The threat applies to Windows, Apple and Linux operating systems.

"We are currently unaware of a practical solution to this problem," said the DHS' Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT).  "This vulnerability is being attacked in the wild, and is reported to be incorporated into exploit kits. Exploit code for this vulnerability is also publicly available."

Oracle Systems, which maintains Java, has yet to come up with a response to the problem.

For most computer users, uninstalling or disabling Java is relatively simple but will affect certain Web browser functions that will make some sites respond slowly, or not all.

You can find a guide to uninstalling Java here.

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Apple's lost its mojo, but should you care?

No longer the dominant force in the smartphone world, where does Apple go from here?

Over the last few weeks Wall Street has been wringing its hands over Apple. The once high-flying stock has returned to earth, down 25 percent from it's pea...

PhotoOver the last few weeks Wall Street has been wringing its hands over Apple. The once high-flying stock has returned to earth, down 25 percent from its peak.

The word on the Street is Apple has lost it's mojo. Once a company that could seemingly do no wrong, it has lately seemed to be, well, ordinary.

When the late Steve Jobs was running the company and serving as its driving creative force, Apple was more than a brand, it was a lifestyle, a new approach to modern consumer technology.

It started with the iPod, a portable music player making it easier for consumers to always have their music collection with them, accessible at the touch of a button.

Revolutionizing smartphones

Apple iPhone Jan. 11, 2013, 3:07 p.m.
Consumers rate Apple iPhone

In 2007 Apple revolutionized smartphones with the introduction of the iPhone. It quickly displaced the reigning smartphone, the Blackberry, which was designed for business customers who valued its robust encryption and instant access to email.

But Jobs and Apple figured out consumers wanted in on smartphones too, but were more interested in applications giving them access to games and the Internet.

By 2010 Apple again turned the mobile world on its ear with the introduction of the iPad, a sleek tablet computer that did just about everything the iPhone did except make telephone calls.

Last summer a California jury awarded Apple more than $1 billion in its patent infringement suit against Samsung, its main competitor from the Android side of the smartphone world. Apple appeared to be on a roll, but oddly enough that seems to be the time when things started to slide.

Fighting back with satire

Instead of being cowed by the verdict, Samsung appealed and kept turning out products. It introduced several new smartphone models in the time Apple introduced one, and made fun of its competitor with the ad below.

Being the target of Samsung satire notwithstanding, should Apple users care that the company appears to be losing marketshare to its Android and Windows competitors? Does that, in any way, diminish the products the company produces? Let's ask consumers about their recent experiences.

What customers say

Photo"Up to this point, I have been a long, loyal, and valued apple customer," writes Mark, of St. Paul, Minn., in a ConsumerAffairs post.

Mark said he's been an Apple customer since 1987, purchasing the company's desktop computers, Powerbooks, iPods, three iPhone 4s', and an iPad 2. Mark said the problems began when his family upgraded their phones.

"All three of us have had issues with accessing/losing voicemails; many crashes on safari, contacts, and calendars resulting in lost data; battery requires frequent charging (2-3 times daily)," Mark wrote. "My family is beginning to question whether Apple products are right for us. We certainly do not want to act as Beta testers for their products."

Mark isn't alone. Some consumers, like David, of Las Vegas, Nev., seem to have a case of buyer's remorse.

"I lost my Blackberry Storm when it dropped into a huge materials shredder when it fell out of its holster," David posted at ConsumerAffairs. "This iPhone does not measure up to my antiquated 3g Blackberry, which is not available any longer . This truly is not advancement of engineering but in this current state of the world, not much is."

Two perspectives

But to be fair, Apple still has legions of loyal customers and Wall Street's perspective and consumers' view are not the same. The problem for Wall Street is that Apple's once-dominant position in the industry is threatened.

Samsung produces great products and more of them than Apple does. While Apple virtually invented the tablet, it resisted the smaller versions of the device until its competitors were well ensconced in that space.

All of this has caused investors to recalculate their assumptions about Apple, hence the falling stock price. But Apple still makes great products and whether one brand is better than the other is mostly a matter of opinion.

For consumers, the overriding question is which product provides what they want and at what price. That's the way it's always been. The fact that Apple may now be just another product troubles Wall Street but consumers probably shouldn't care.

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Feds strengthening protections for high-cost mortgages

The new rule would ban or limit balloon payments and some fees

If we've learned nothing else during the financial meltdown it's that buying a home is serious business. The landscape is littered with the results of cons...

PhotoIf we've learned nothing else during the financial meltdown it's that buying a home is serious business. The landscape is littered with the results of consumers failing to pay attention to what they were doing.

In many cases, potential homebuyers were unaware of some of the pitfalls. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is taking steps to remedy that by issuing final rules to strengthen consumer protections for high-cost mortgages and to provide consumers with information about home ownership counseling. The agency is also finalizing a rule that requires escrow accounts be established for a minimum of five years for certain higher-priced mortgage loans.

“Addressing problems in the mortgage market is critical to helping our economy recover,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, adding that the changes “will better help consumers to understand the real costs of owning a home while protecting them from harmful practices that can trap them into high-cost mortgages.”

Addressing abuses

The Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA) was enacted in 1994 to address abuses in home-equity lending and refinances. Since then, HOEPA has deterred high-rate and high-fee lending in those markets. In recent years, high-cost mortgages have made up only about 0.2 percent of those types of loans.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) expanded HOEPA to cover home purchase loans and home equity lines of credit (“HELOCs”); revised HOEPA’s rate- and fee-thresholds for coverage; added a new coverage test based on a transaction’s prepayment penalties; and provided new limitations on risky loan features, as well as other new protections for high-cost mortgages. The CFPB has finalized rules to implement the Dodd-Frank Act’s amendments to HOEPA.

For loans that are high-cost mortgages, the final rule:

  • Bans potentially risky features: For mortgages that qualify as high-cost, the rule generally bans balloon payments (a large, lump sum payment usually due at the end of the loan) with some exceptions, such as for certain types of loans made by creditors serving rural or underserved areas, and bans penalties for paying the loan early.
  • Bans and limits certain fees and practices: The CFPB’s rule bans fees for modifying loans, caps late fees at four percent of the payment that is past due, generally prohibits closing costs from being rolled into the loan amount, and restricts the charging of fees when consumers ask for a payoff statement (a document that tells borrowers how much they need to pay off the loan). The rule also prohibits certain bad practices, such as encouraging a consumer to default on an existing loan to be refinanced by a high-cost mortgage.
  • Requires housing counseling: The rule requires consumers to receive housing counseling before taking out a high-cost mortgage.

Other changes

In addition to strengthening the protections for high-cost mortgages, the CFPB is implementing a requirement of the Dodd-Frank Act that lenders provide a list of home ownership counseling organizations to consumers shortly after they apply for a mortgage so consumers know where to get help when deciding what loan is best for them.

The agency is also implementing other changes made by the Dodd-Frank Act concerning escrow accounts. An escrow account is an account that a lender may set up to pay certain recurring property-related expenses on a consumer’s behalf, such as property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Escrow accounts help to ensure that consumers have enough money to pay those bills when they come because the lender breaks the expenses down into monthly installments and adds them to the monthly mortgage payment.

Through an escrow account, consumers can better see the true cost of owning a home with insurance and tax costs laid out with each mortgage payment and are better assured that those costs are paid in a timely manner.

Under current regulations, creditors are required to establish escrow accounts for certain higher-priced mortgage loans for a minimum of one year. The new final rule implements changes from the Dodd-Frank Act that generally extend the required duration of an escrow account on such mortgage loans from a minimum of one year to a minimum of five years. To preserve access to credit, the rule exempts loans made by certain creditors that operate predominantly in rural or underserved areas, as long as certain other criteria are met.

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2013's new acquisitions and how they'll affect the consumer

The New Year isn't even a month old yet, but the wheeling and dealing has already begun

It seems that 2013 is off to a fast start, at least when it comes to new busines acquisitions.And with the New Year still being quite new and still&...

PhotoIt seems that 2013 is off to a fast start, at least when it comes to new business acquisitions.

So far one of the biggest acquisitions to be announced in 2013 is the purchasing of Zipcar by the rental car company Avis for a reported $491.2 million.

The deal will undoubtedly allow Avis to better compete with other rental car companies like Hertz, who have also gotten into the car-sharing craze, which has exploded among younger consumers who would rather be part of a membership and get as-they-need-it access to a vehicle, instead of renting or owning one the traditional way.

The deal also gives Avis a much-needed dose of cool and youth appeal, as Zipcar pretty much created the car-sharing business, which is mainly used by college students and 20-somethings. Because, let’s face it, younger consumers use their vehicles differently.

And just like Hertz, Avis is aware of this purchasing difference and up until now the company has missed out on a big portion of the consumer dollar. But now, not only will Avis tap into those younger consumer dollars, it will also give itself a necessary shot in the arm and appear a little more hip and modern. 

But what does this all mean for the consumer?

It means that folks will have another way to use Avis and another way to avoid going to a branch office, forming a line and filling out a bunch of pain-in-the-neck-paperwork when renting a vehicle.

The acquisition could also mean cheaper prices for the consumer, as the car sharing model typically allows for lower rental costs and automated,  flexible pick-up and drop-off times, which greatly benefits those people who only need a vehicle for a few hours at a time.

Zipcar’s current customer base will also benefit, since Avis will undoubtedly be able to provide more vehicles at more locations, and also bring car sharing further into the everyday lives of adults, families and business travelers.

Pinterest pinches Punchfork

PhotoAnother acquisition announced in 2013 was Pinterest buying out the recipe site Punchfork.  

Jeff Miller, who is CEO of Punchfork, says the deal is a perfect pairing, which many would probably agree with since both sites look similar, and allow users to share trendy ideas through big, bright colorful photos.

“We believe that a unified destination benefits our users in the long run," said Miller. “And the Punchfork team will focus on contributing to Pinterest as the premier platform for discovering and sharing new recipes and other interests on the web.”

Last month we did a feature on Punchfork and explained how it’s been a popular site for people to receive and offer new cooking ideas, and the visual candy that the site provides is almost as fun to access as the unique recipes.

The new deal serves as Pinterest’s first acquisition, and many people were surprised that Punchfork sold its brand, since the site only started in 2011 and just really began to gain momentum.

But Punchfork being bought out only means a stronger Internet presence for the company, and although the site will be officially taken down and users will have to log on through Pinterest, the deal will only make the recipe site more present in the mind of consumers, and also more present on their web browsers.

PhotoWhat does the Pinterest deal mean for the consumer?

If you liked the way Punchfork gives cooking inspiration then you’ll probably be even more inspired, as the site will take on countless more users since Pinterest has become an official Internet powerhouse.

The deal also makes the Internet cooking community even bigger, which is perfect for those folks who go online for meal ideas.

And since sharing seems to be one of the main benefits to being online nowadays, Punchfork users will be able to share and receive ideas in larger doses and take advantage of even more recipes. Plus, you’ll be able to see more big beautiful pictures of tasty foods, which is a nice plus.

Tully's

PhotoThis last acquisition primarily affects our readers on the West coast, but actor Patrick Dempsey’s buying of Tully’s Coffee--a Seattle-based coffee chain--is significant because it’s the first David and Goliath story in the business world since 2013 began. 

Dempsey’s company Global Baristas LLC won a bankruptcy auction against the godfather of coffee houses Starbucks, and saved the beloved chain from closure, while announcing that he plans to keep the original name.

“We met the green monster, looked her in the eye and she blinked,” tweeted Dempsey after winning the bid. “We got it! Thank you Seattle!”

The deal will allow the small coffee chain to stay in business, at least for now. Tully’s filed for chapter 11 in October of 2012, mainly due to low sales and not being able to maintain some of its store leases.

It also allows the beloved coffee brand to remain in the public eye and still be able to throw blows at the bigger and much more powerful Starbucks for coffee supremacy on the West coast.

But what does the deal mean for the consumer?

It means another alternative for coffee lovers, especially since Tully’s is known for a lighter, less harsh cup of Joe.

Hopefully, it will also mean cheaper prices for a cup of coffee compared to Starbucks, which has taken coffee prices practically to the moon.

The deal also means thousands of Tully’s workers will keep their jobs,  which will make the Grey's Anatomy heart throb a real hero, at least in the Seattle area.

Maybe the locals should buy Dempsey a cup of coffee as a thank you.

 

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Auto accidents often lead to unpleasant encounters with insurance companies

After an accident it might be wise to go to the hospital and call a lawyer

Being in an auto accident is a traumatic event. Even if no one is seriously hurt there can be lasting repercussions, especially if you encounter resistance...

PhotoBeing in an auto accident is a traumatic event. Even if no one is seriously hurt there can be lasting repercussions, especially if you encounter resistance during the insurance claims process. And that appears to be happening a lot, industrywide.

Diana, of Fresh Meadows, N.Y., reports being in an accident on November 29.

"I was making a left turn in the proper turning lane when a minivan struck me on the right hand side attempting to make a left turn from a middle lane," Diane wrote in a recent ConsumerAffairs post. "Laws of driving, we know this is not allowed!"

Geico insured them both

GEICO  Jan. 11, 2013, 3:18 p.m.
Consumers rate GEICO

To make matters worse Diana said the driver of the other car left the scene, but not before she got the make of the car and the license number. She phoned the police and initiated an accident report. She said she also called her insurance company, Geico, providing pictures of her car at the scene. Police quickly tracked down the other driver and Diana assumed all was well. But, she said, the other driver was also insured by Geico.

"Geico inspected the other party's car and found that he had past damage to his minivan but there was no concrete evidence that he had hit my car and now is denying the accident ever happened," Diana writes. "Now he is saying he never touched my car. I have the paint on my car still to prove it and pictures. Geico wants to dismiss this case."

Takeisha, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., writes that she was also involved in an accident. Though she says she was not at fault the company insuring the other driver initially refused to pay. She said she was forced to cover the repairs out-of-pocket until she was finally reimbursed. But it turned out she wasn't finished paying.

Escalating premiums

Allstate Auto Insurance  Jan. 11, 2013, 3:19 p.m.
Consumers rate Allstate Auto Insurance

"I had zero fault for the accident yet my insurance premium at Allstateis now more than 200 percent more than it was before the accident," Takeisha wrote. "I have a good driving record. I am over 40 yet my premium is like that of a teen driver. I have paid for insurance and never used it . Why am I being penalized for something beyond my control?"

J.B., of Richmond, Va., reports a two-year wrangle with Progressive after a serious accident injured both him and his children.

"Progressive attempted to allow the statute of limitations to run out, thereby having no obligation to pay me a dime," J.B. wrote. "I had to file a Warrant in Debt to wrangle a settlement from them, which did produce a low ball offer, and they would not offer more."

Advice

Progressive Insurance Jan. 11, 2013, 3:20 p.m.
Consumers rate Progressive Insurance

J.B. said he went to court to get a higher settlement and said the court granted it, but that the company has yet to pay. His advice to those who get in an accident:

"Get a lawyer, day one," J.B. wrote. "That is the way the lawyers have written the statutes, ensuring their own business."

Lawyers at Lane & Lane, in Chicago, would probably agree with that advice. In the firm's blog, attorneys also recommend that you go to the emergency room, even if you don't feel hurt.

Getting immediate medical attention creates a paper trail you will need should things go sour with the insurance company, as an increasing number of consumers have found.

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Google plans free Wi-Fi in NYC's Chelsea neighborhood

In Kansas City, Google Fiber has captured a lot of interest

Google said it will provide free Wi-Fi in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, where the company maintains its New York offices. It will become ...

PhotoGoogle said it will provide free Wi-Fi in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, where the company maintains its New York offices. It will become the largest contiguous Wi-Fi network in New York.

"This network will not only be a resource for the 2,000-plus residents of the Fulton Houses, it will also serve the 5,000-plus student population of Chelsea as well as the hundreds of workers, retail customers and tourists who visit our neighborhood every day," said Ben Fried, Google's Chief Information Officer.

The network will cover all of the outdoor areas of the Fulton Houses, a property owned and managed by the New York City Housing Authority, as well as several of the local public schools.

“We are excited to partner with Google in creating an important digital amenity in New York City and giving thousands of New Yorkers free Internet access,” said Dan Biederman, President of the Chelsea Improvement Company, which partnered with Google in the effort.

“New York is determined to become the world’s leading digital city, and universal access to high-speed Internet is one of the core building blocks of that vision,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Thanks to Google, free Wi-Fi across this part of Chelsea takes us another step closer to that goal.”

Fiber trial

Google is also conducting a massive experiment in bringing super-high-speed Internet connections to the home, wiring sections of Kansas City with fiber optic cable.

A recent survey found 30 percent of possible subscribers in the Kansas City metro area footprint, coined "fiberhoods," have paid a $10 pre-registration fee and 60 percent say they are interested in signing up for the service.

"Google Fiber has conducted a remarkable marketing campaign," said Glen Friedman, president of Ideas & Solutions Inc. "Historically, pay TV 'overbuilders' penetrate about one-third of their marketplace over time. This level of interest in the beginning is unprecedented. For Google Fiber, the challenge moving forward is to do an equally good job on the fulfillment."

The Internet giant employed a host of measured marketing tactics in Kansas City beyond the usual advertising and news coverage. Google and Google Fiber used their online advertising juggernaut, together with social media; they also hosted local promotional events planned by neighborhood organizers, opened a Google Fiber store, operated a Google ice cream truck and planted yard signs.         

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Best Buy's holiday sales slipped, cash flow weakens

Things aren't looking so good for the last big electronics retailer

If you've been tossing and turning at night, fearful about the future of Best Buy, the company's holiday sales reports won't do much to ease your slumbers....

PhotoIf you've been tossing and turning at night, fearful about the future of Best Buy, the company's holiday sales reports won't do much to ease your slumbers.

The last surviving nationwide electronics outlet reports its holiday sales fell 1.4% at outlets open more than a year.  That's actually better than expected, but still nothng to celebrate. 

The company had revenue of $12.8 billion for the nine weeks ended January 5, 2013 compared to $12.9 billion for the nine weeks ended December 31, 2011.

“While it will be a journey with ups and downs, we are focused on becoming an increasingly effective multi-channel retailer and engaging with the tens of millions of consumers who shop us online and in-store,” Best Buy President and CEO Hubert Joly said.

Consumers rate Best Buy Extended Warranties

Best Buy's biggest problem, of course, is Amazon and the other online outlets that have turned Best Buy into somethiing of a showroom where consumers can examine the goods they buy online. Best Buy has tried to counter that trend by offering to match online prices.

A potentially bright spot in all of this is that Best Buy is emerging as a pretty successful online retailer. Its online channel delivered revenue of $1.1 billion, a 10 percent revenue increase compared to the prior-year period, driven by a traffic increase.

Best Buy notes its strong online performance was recognized by various third parties, in particular:

  • ComScore indicated Best Buy was in the top three most trafficked websites for the Thanksgiving holiday and Black Friday
  • Experian data ranked Best Buy as the No. 3 retail website on Cyber Monday with 9.3 million visits

Joly took over as CEO in September after turmoil in the executive suite boiled over.  The company's founder and former CEO, Richard Schulze, has been working on a proposal to buy the company and take it private.

Whether the latest sales and cash-reports help or hinder that effort remains to be seen.

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FCC wants to speed up Wi-Fi speeds

The agency is trying to free up spectrum space to reduce congestion

If you've tried to get any serious work done on a public Wi-Fi network at an airport or convention center, you already know there's a problem, and it's one...

PhotoIf you've tried to get any serious work done on a public Wi-Fi network at an airport or convention center, you already know there's a problem, and it's one we deal with everyday on the nation's roads -- congestion.

Just as there are too many cars trying to use a limited quantity of pavement, there are too many laptops, smartphones and other devices trying to use a limited amount of spectrum space. The result is that everything slows down, sometimes crawling to a halt.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a plan to break the logjam. It involves a government-wide effort to free up large amounts of unlicensed wireless spectrum.

Under the plan, the FCC will take its first steps next month to unleash up to 195 megahertz of spectrum in the 5 gigahertz band. If successful, the project would increase speeds and alleviate Wi-Fi congestion at major hubs, such as airports, convention centers and large conferences, while also improving Wi-Fi speeds on home networks where multiple devices operate simultaneously.

It would be the largest block of unlicensed spectrum to be made available for expansion of Wi-Fi since 2003.

Frequency frustration

"We all know the frustration of Wi-Fi congestion at conferences and airports," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show. "Today, the FCC is moving to bring increased speed and capacity to Wi-Fi networks. As this spectrum comes on line, we expect it to relieve congested Wi-Fi networks at major hubs like convention centers and airports. It will also help in homes as tablets and smartphones proliferate and video use rises."

“When the FCC helped pioneer Wi-Fi nearly thirty years ago - through an innovative spectrum policy that relied on unlicensed use - no one knew the potential it held. But that FCC-created platform for innovation 
gave us cordless phones, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, benefitting consumers and our economy massively. We'll keep nurturing today's Wi-Fi as we also develop a next generation of spectrum policies to drive our mobile future for our innovators and our economy," Genachowski said.

The FCC warned that the effort will require "significant collaboration" with other federal agencies currently using the spectrum.

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FDA requiring lower recommended dose for Ambien, other sleep drugs

There's a risk of impaired activities the morning after using insomnia drugs

The current recommended doses for Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar and Zolpimist -- widely used sleep drugs that contain the active ingredient zolpidem -- are bei...

PhotoThe current recommended doses for Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar and Zolpimist -- widely used sleep drugs that contain the active ingredient zolpidem -- are being scrapped.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it will require the makers of those sleep aids to lower the recommended doses because new data show that zolpidem blood levels in some patients may be high enough the morning after use to impair activities that require alertness -- including driving.

Less residual effect

Using lower doses of zolpidem means less of the drug will remain in the blood in the morning hours. Since women eliminate zolpidem from their bodies more slowly than men, the FDA has notified the manufacturers that the recommended dose should be lowered for women and that the labeling should recommend that health care professionals consider a lower dose for men.

Data show the risk for next-morning impairment is highest for patients taking the extended-release forms of these drugs. The FDA urges health care professionals to caution all patients -- men and women -- who use these products about the risks of next-morning impairment for activities that require complete mental alertness, including driving.

Typical is the case of Darcydola of Prior Lake, MN, who wrote that after taking one 10 mg pill of Ambien, she woke up in her kitchen. "I had made a disaster of the kitchen looking for food," she said in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I spoke on the phone to my boyfriend and was sobbing apparently. I also sent him strange emails. I have no memory of any of this. This medication should be taken off the market."

A bit more extreme is the experience of  L. of Waldorf, MD. "I made phone calls to a woman and told her that her husband had an affair," she told ConsumerAffairs."I beat up on my husband, drove and hit a pole. I have no memory of any of this. My husband told me what happened. I somehow took 17 pills in 3 days! It's a wonder I am not dead. I have to pick up the pieces to my life now. I am reading the internet about this drug, I don't know how it remains on the market. If legal troubles are the result of this, I just might sue!"

Lowering the dose

The FDA has informed the manufacturers that the recommended dosage of zolpidem for women should be lowered from 10 milligrams (mg) to 5 mg for immediate-release products (Ambien, Edluar, and Zolpimist) and from 12.5 mg to 6.25 mg for extended-release products (Ambien CR).

For men, the FDA has informed the manufacturers that the labeling should recommend that healthcare professionals consider prescribing these lower doses (5 mg for immediate-release products and 6.25 mg for extended-release products). These products are currently available on the market in both the higher and lower dosages. (Both Ambien and Ambien CR are also available as generics)

“To decrease the potential risk of impairment with all insomnia drugs, healthcare professionals should prescribe, and patients should take, the lowest dose capable of treating the patient’s insomnia,” said Ellis Unger, M.D., director, Office of Drug Evaluation I in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Patients who must drive in the morning or perform some other activity requiring full alertness should talk to their health care professional about whether their sleep medicine is appropriate.”

Changes are study-driven

The labeling change is based on findings in driving simulation and laboratory studies showing that, in some individuals, zolpidem blood levels the morning after use appear capable of impairing driving to a degree that increases the risk of a motor vehicle accident.

“Over the years FDA has received spontaneous adverse event reports of driving impairment and motor vehicle accidents associated with zolpidem, but these reports lacked the information necessary to fully understand whether and how zolpidem affected people’s mental alertness and ability to drive,” said Dr. Unger. “Recently, data from clinical trials and other types of studies have become available, which allowed FDA to better characterize the risk of next-morning impairment.”

Morning impairment is common

The FDA also reminded the public that morning impairment is not limited to zolpidem. Drowsiness is listed as a common side effect in the labels of all insomnia drugs, along with warnings that people may still feel drowsy the next day after taking one of these products. Moreover alertness can be impaired even in people who do not feel drowsy.

People who are currently taking the higher doses (10 mg or 12.5 mg) of zolpidem-containing insomnia medicines should continue taking the prescribed dose as directed until discussing with their health care professional how to safely continue to take the medicine. Patients should read the Medication Guide that comes along with their medication for additional information on the benefits and risks of these products.

The FDA is continuing to evaluate the risk of impaired mental alertness with other insomnia drugs, including over-the-counter (nonprescription) drugs.  

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Feds to review 'Dreamliner' design and production

The investigation will focus on the plane's electrical power and distribution system

It's been turbulent flying recently for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner passenger jet. This past Monday, an electrical fire was discovered aboard an empty Japan ...

PhotoIt's been turbulent flying recently for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner passenger jet.

This past Monday, an electrical fire was discovered aboard an empty Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 scheduled for departure from Boston's Logan International Airport. The following day a JAL flight to Tokyo aborted takeoff from Logan after a crewmember on another airplane spotted the Dreamliner leaking fuel

As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will conduct a comprehensive review of the 787's critical systems -- including the design, manufacture and assembly. The purpose of the review is to validate the work conducted during the certification process and further ensure that the aircraft meets the FAA’s safety standards.

“The safety of the traveling public is our top priority,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This review will help us look at the root causes and do everything we can to safeguard against similar events in the future.”

A statement issued by Boeing said the aircraft maker "is confident in the design and performance of the 787," and that it welcomes the review. The statement adds that after 15 months of service, the Dreamliner is showing reliability "well above 90 percent."

Joint review planned

A team of FAA and Boeing engineers and inspectors will conduct the joint review, with an emphasis on the aircraft’s electrical power and distribution system. The review will also examine how the electrical and mechanical systems interact with each other.

“We are confident that the aircraft is safe. But we need to have a complete understanding of what is happening," said FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta. "We are conducting the review to further ensure that the aircraft meets our high safety standards.”

The review will be structured to provide a broader view of design, manufacturing and assembly and will not focus exclusively on individual events. The review is expected to begin in Seattle, but may expand to other locations over the course of several months.

FAA technical experts logged 200,000 hours of work during the 787 type certification and flew on numerous test flights. The FAA reviews 787 in-service events as part of our continued operational safety process.

United Airlines is currently the only U.S. airline operating the 787, with six airplanes delivered. The worldwide in-service fleet includes 50 aircraft.

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Binge drinking a 'serious' problem among women and girls, report says

High school girls and young women are seen most at risk

When it comes to drinking, how much is too much? According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking, defined for women, is ...

PhotoWhen it comes to drinking, how much is too much?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking, defined for women, is consuming four or more drinks on an occasion). And a new CDC Vital Signs report says more than 14 million U.S. women binge drink about three times per month, consuming an average of six drinks per binge.

That kind of drinking results in about 23,000 deaths in women and girls each year and increases the chances of breast cancer, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy and many other health problems.

Despite these risks, about one in eight adult women and one in five high school girls binge drink. Binge drinking is a problem for all women and girls, but it is most common in high school girls and young women, whites and Hispanics, and among women with household incomes of $75,000 or more. Half of all high school girls who drink alcohol report binge drinking.

Serious health effects

Women's and girls' bodies respond to alcohol differently than men's. It takes less alcohol for them to get intoxicated because of their size and how they process alcohol. Binge drinking can lead to unintended pregnancies, and women and girls who are not expecting to get pregnant may not find out they are until later in their pregnancy.

Further, if women binge drink while pregnant, they risk exposing their baby to high levels of alcohol during its early development, which can lead to miscarriage, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

Simply put, alcohol use and pregnancy don't mix; it's not safe to drink at any time during pregnancy.

Binge vs. moderate drinking

Binge drinking is a dangerous drinking pattern that -- as mentioned above -- is defined as the consumption of four or more alcohol drinks for women (or five or more drinks for men) on an occasion. An occasion is generally considered to be about 2-3 hours. Binge drinking usually leads to acute impairment (intoxication), but most binge drinkers are not alcoholics or dependent on alcohol.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to one drink a day for women or up to two drinks a day for men. Anyone under the minimum legal drinking age of 21 and women who are pregnant should not drink at all. It is not recommended that anyone begin drinking alcohol or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits.

Binge drinking prevention

The Guide to Community Preventive Services recommends evidence-based strategies for preventing excessive alcohol consumption, including:

  • Increasing alcohol taxes.
  • Reducing alcohol outlet density (the number and concentration of alcohol retailers in an area).
  • Maintaining existing government controls over alcohol sales (avoiding privatization).
  • Holding alcohol retailers liable for injuries or damage following illegal service to intoxicated or underage customers (dram shop liability).
  • Maintaining or reducing the days and hours of alcohol sales.
  • Enhanced enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors.
  • Electronic screening and counseling for excessive alcohol use.

Health care providers should consider asking all patients about binge drinking and advising those who do to drink less. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening and counseling to reduce alcohol misuse by adults, including pregnant women, in primary care settings.

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John Deere Recalls Gator utility vehicles

The fuel line can separate, posing a fire hazard

Deere & Company of Moline, IL, is recalling about 4,650 Gator utility vehicles. The fuel line can separate, posing a fire hazard. The company has received...

PhotoDeere & Company of Moline, IL, is recalling about 4,650 Gator utility vehicles.

The fuel line can separate, posing a fire hazard. The company has received three reports of separated fuel lines. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves John Deere Gator RSX850i Base, Sport and Trail model recreational utility vehicles manufactured between May 2012 and October 2012. They have side-by-side seating for two people and were available in Realtree Hardwoods HD Camo, olive and black, or traditional green and yellow. RSX850i is located on the hood. The serial number is on the rear frame above the receiver hitch.

Only utility vehicles with the following serial numbers are included in this recall:

Serial Numbers:
1M0850TB++M010013 thru 1M0850TB++M010768
1M0850TS++M010001 thru 1M0850TS++M011932
1M0850TT++M010001 thru 1M0850TT++M012765

The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at John Deere dealers nationwide from August 2012 through October 2012 for between $12,900 and $15,500.

Consumers should stop using the recalled utility vehicles and contact a John Deere dealer to schedule a free inspection and free repair. John Deere is contacting all registered owners of the recalled utility vehicles directly.

Consumers may contact Deere and Company at (800) 537-8233, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET.

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Redbox transitioning to video streaming service

A select number of consumers can try the beta service for free

Redbox, one of the "last men standing" in the physical media video wars, is moving into streaming video, partnering with Verizon. The target, of course, is...

PhotoRedbox, one of the "last men standing" in the physical media video wars, is moving into streaming video, partnering with Verizon. The target, of course, is industry leader Netflix.

Called Redbox Instant by Verizon, the new service is now in beta testing. Consumers can register at the beta site for one of a limited number of access codes that are being handed out. Just like Nexflix and Hulu Plus, the site offers online streaming of movies and TV programs.

Netflix, you will remember, also started out as a physical media video service. Members ordered movies that were shipped by mail. It was wildly popular and helped put many brick-and-mortar video stores out of business.

Bumps in the road

PhotoIts popularity grew when it added online streaming but the company alienated many customers in 2011 when it changed its policy, charging $8 a month for streaming and another $8 a month for the DVD service.

Meanwhile, Redbox, a division of Coinstar, used its parent's existing relationships with supermarket chains to establish thousands of DVD kiosks nationwide. With the last video store chain out of business, consumers who wanted to rent a DVD on the spur of the moment, and lacked broadband access, had little option but to line up at a kiosk to rent a DVD.

But as anyone who has ever purchased a soft drink or candy bar from a machine well knows, interacting with a machine can bring on a host of problems.

Problems

Redbox  Jan. 10, 2013, 7:28 p.m.
Consumers rate Redbox

"I was charged for a movie that was already returned, never received any correspondence that I supposedly had a movie still outstanding -- on the contrary - I do have the confirmation of return email in my inbox, an anonymous poster wrote at ConsumerAffairs.

The problem escalated, the consumer writes, when Redbox would only offer a $10 refund, not the total $27, even though the consumer had proof the movie was returned.

James, of Hartford City, Ind., writes that Redbox has been charging him twice for movies that he returned after one day.

"I really didn't notice it at first," James writes. "I returned a movie last week and my account went $20 in the negative and I knew I did nothing wrong."

An alternative to machines

In fact, many of the reviews about Redbox in the ConsumerAffairs database stem from problems with Redbox kiosks. Lori, of Ogilvie, Minn., writes that she rented a particular movie from a Redbox kiosk and got a movie different than the one she selected. Again, anyone who has ever bought a Snickers bar from a machine and gotten a bag of chips instead knows things like this can happen.

PhotoSo perhaps Redbox Instant will give its current customers an alternative to ordering movies from a machine. Will it catch on?

Initial reviews of the beta service have been mixed. Some users, posting online, have praised the streaming quality of movies. Others have said it's terrible.

CNET, a technology site, opines that the new service "is no Netflix killer." Barron's, a business publication, says it doesn't have to be. With the number of customers it already has, it should be able to enter the streaming market on firm footing and be profitable.

And Redbox Instant may have something else going for it as well. Its monthly fee is $8 a month, the same as Netflix's. But as part of the deal each streaming customer will get access codes for four free rentals at Redbox kiosks each month. A pretty good deal, as long as those machines work the way they're supposed to.

How they stack up

  • Netflix: $8 a month for streaming, $8 a month for DVD rentals
  • Amazon Prime: $79 a year ($6.59 per month); access to 5000 videos plus free 2-day shipping of Amazon.com orders and free borrowing of thousands of Kindle e-books
  • Hulu Plus: $8 a month for instant access to current TV shows and a large movie library
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Feds finally set new rules for mortgages

The regulations will reduce the number of consumers who can qualify for a mortgage

The federal government, for the first time since the housing market collapse, is setting standards for what constitutes a "qualified mortgage," a move that...

PhotoThe federal government, for the first time since the housing market collapse, is setting standards for what constitutes a "qualified mortgage," a move that may both help and hurt the real estate market.

The new rules come from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is taking responsibility for defining for banks what is a good loan and what is a risky one. The CFPB is defining a "qualified mortgage" as a loan to a consumer whose total debt burden is no more than 43 percent of his income.

The new rules also limit some upfront fees and riskier lending practices, such as interest-only loans. CFPB will also establish standards that income borrowers must have to get a home loan.

Will probably limit number of mortgages

While the new rules are expected, by their very nature, to reduce the number of prospective buyers who can qualify for a mortgage, they could end up making the mortgage process a bit easier for more applicants.

When Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Bill in 2010, it protected banks from lawsuits if they made what the law called a "qualified mortgage." However, Congress failed to define exactly what that was.

Housing market analysts say that resulted in much tighter and more cumbersome restrictions in the mortgage lending industry. Without knowing exactly what constituted a "qualified mortgage," bankers were left to guess, and they often made application requirements tougher than they needed to be.

Consumer advocates respond

Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), says the new rules are a step in the right direction.

"The standard CFPB establishes for a safe, well-underwritten mortgage is appropriately broad enough to include the vast majority of creditworthy home owners, and it is clear enough for lenders and borrowers alike to understand," Calhoun said. "And the rules preserve legal protection for borrowers with the riskiest loans."

Calhoun says the rules directly address a key cause of the mortgage meltdown and ensuing recession: lenders who made high-risk, often deceptively packaged home loans without assessing if borrowers could repay them. Because of these reforms, he says lenders now must actually assess a mortgage borrower’s ability to repay. While it is true many lower-income consumers will not be able to qualify for a mortgage under the rules, the rules also protect them from harmful loan terms such as balloon payments, teaser rates and high fees.

"Ideally the new rules would have allowed all holders of a qualified mortgage to challenge loans when lenders don’t follow the law," Calhoun said. "However, they do allow borrowers to hold lenders accountable on the riskiest types of mortgages -- those in the subprime market where the problems that led to the housing crisis were concentrated."

Industry reaction

Debra Still, chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), was also generally supportive of the new rules, saying they will bring stability to the mortgage market.

"The rule was just issued, and we must examine it carefully," she said. "Nevertheless, we applaud the Bureau for offering a legal safe harbor to lenders when they originate loans that meet the rigorous ‘qualified mortgage’ standards in the rule. This approach should allow lenders to offer sustainable mortgage credit to a great number of qualified borrowers without having to risk unreasonable and overly punitive litigation and penalties."

Many housing experts have believed uncertainty over what was a "qualified mortgage" prompted some lenders to deny loans to otherwise qualified borrowers. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has complained that overly tight lending criteria have prevented the housing market from recovering as quickly as it might have.

While some consumers with high levels of credit card debt will be excluded from obtaining a mortgage, the new rules may make banks more confident when they do make loans, making mortgages more accessible to those who qualify.

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Study links BPA to heart, kidney disease in kids

Researchers say even low levels might be harmful

The evidence seems to be mounting that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in food and beverage packaging, is not a very healthy substance, though it conti...

PhotoThe evidence seems to be mounting that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in food and beverage packaging, is not a very healthy substance, though it continues to be used in some applications.

Researchers at the NYU School of Medicine say BPA appears to be associated with a biomarker for higher risk of heart and kidney disease in children and adolescents. Their lab studies suggest even low levels of BPA can increase oxidative stress and inflammation that promotes protein leakage into the urine.

Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, associate professor of pediatrics and co-author of the study, says that's a biomarker for early renal impairment and future risk of developing coronary heart disease. A biomarker is an indicator of a biological state.

Study isn't definitive

"While our cross-sectional study cannot definitively confirm that BPA contributes to heart disease or kidney dysfunction in children, together with our previous study of BPA and obesity, this new data adds to already existing concerns about BPA as a contributor to cardiovascular risk in children and adolescents," Trasande said. "It further supports the call to limit exposure of BPA in this country, especially in children.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year banned the use of BPA in infant formula bottles and sippy cups used by children. By then, however, many manufacturers had stopped using it and some major retailers, such as Walmart, no longer sold plastic items for children that contain it.

BPA acts as a hardening agent in plastic. It was once quite common in water bottles but many bottlers have stopped using it. Manufacturers say the chemical provides an antiseptic function and it is still widely used in food containers, particularly as liners for canned food.

Cans are key

"Removing it from aluminum cans is probably one of the best ways we can limit exposure," Trasande said. "There are alternatives that manufacturers can use to line aluminum cans."

The study adds to the growing concerns about BPA, which studies have shown disrupts multiple mechanisms of human metabolism. A number of studies have focused on BPA's effect on human reproduction. A 2011 study found the widespread chemical causes lower fertility in mice.

A 2012 study found that exposure to BPA can affect adult learning and another study last year suggested exposure to BPA can last generations. It prompted Campbell's Soups last year to announce it would phase out BPA use in soup cans.

On the money

A 2011 study even found that BPA from grocery receipts showed up on the world's currency.

Children in the U.S. are exposed to the chemical early in life and surveys have shown that by age six nearly 92 percent of children have some trace of BPA in their urine. Its use has been banned in the European Union and Canada.

While banning it in children's bottles and cups, the FDA says the amounts of BPA used in food packaging is not harmful to humans.

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Are you an online or bricks-and-mortar shopper?

Consumers who choose either one cite convenience as a factor

You may shop at stores and online, but chances are you prefer one over the other. Which is it, or have you even thought about it?Some who have thought ab...

PhotoYou may shop at stores and online, but chances are you prefer one over the other. Which is it -- or have you even thought about it?

Some who have thought about it are the people at Continuum, a global consulting firm. They set out to interview consumers across the U.S. and uncover their reasons for shopping in-store or online. Their findings, they admit, were something of a surprise.

Convenience rules

First, a lot of consumers still prefer to shop in stores. Of those, 40 percent said it's for convenience. Another 22 percent said they don't trust the quality online. They want to see it in a store before buying it.

About 17 percent mentioned that they don't want to pay for shipping, or deal with online returns. Another 17 percent said they feel they get a better price in a store and four percent said they simply prefer to interact with people. That last one is a surprise, considering all the complaints to ConsumerAffairs about dealing with store personnel.

Showrooming fears misplaced?

The big surprise, according to Continuum, is that price is not the biggest reason for choosing a shopping venue. Retailers are convinced that's the overriding consideration and explains their near panic over "showrooming," the practice of consumers finding something they want in a store, then using their smartphones to find a better price online.

Why do people prefer to shop online? These consumers also cite convenience, believing it is more convenient to order the item than go look for it in a store. Forty-three percent cited convenience as their number one reason while another 29 percent said it's easier to find what they are looking for online than in a store.

Twenty-five percent believe they will get a better price online and three percent said they wanted to avoid interaction with store employees. The only surprise there is that the number isn't larger.

Consumers like to 'showroom'

Retailers may hate showrooming but their efforts to fight it may be doomed to failure. It seems to be something shoppers enjoy, with 70 percent saying they found browsing in stores and then finding the product cheaper online was a satisfying experience.

And it's clear, from reviews posted at ConsumerAffairs, that many in-store shoppers find various aspects of the experience frustrating.

Frustrations

"Yesterday I called the Target in Allen Park, Michigan for a specific item," Linda, of Southgate, Mich., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I was told they had it and would hold for me until following day. They said they would put my name on the item and hold it at the service desk. I was excited because it was what my grandson wanted for his birthday, The following day I went to this Target and nothing was left for me. Of course I was very disappointed and ended up with nothing. I made a special trip and it was a waste of time."

However, even online shoppers can run into the same sort of problems. Mike, of Concord, N.C., wrote to ConsumerAffairs that he purchased a tricycle online at Walmart.com and arranged to have it picked up at another store. It should have been easy, or so he thought.

"After the order it was okayed, in stock - no worry the order was done, " he wrote. "I checked my e-mail at a later time and Walmart has canceled my order, saying item out of stock. I would think with the great computer systems that they wound not have taken my order if they where out of stock with this item."

Whether it is serving in-store or online consumers, Continuum concludes retailers can do a better job to satisfy their customers.

"There is clearly a benefit for retailers to concentrate not only on price but also how they are designing as holistic an experience as possible for their customers to be able to efficiently interact with their brand whether it is in-person or online," said Craig LaRosa, Principal of Continuum's Service Design group. "A one-size-fits-all approach does not work when it comes to designing a great customer experience or service."

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Five more years: Obama signs warrantless wiretapping bill

Proponents says the FISA Act protects the country while critics say it threatens privacy

Among all of the fiscal cliff talk that has taken place over the last few weeks, many haven’t noticed that the Warrantless Wiretapping Law was q...

PhotoAmong all of the fiscal cliff talk that has taken place over the last few weeks, many haven’t noticed that the Warrantless Wiretapping Law was quietly signed by President Obama recently.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, also known as FISA, allows government entities to legally engage in surveillance on U.S. citizens, both internationally and domestically, as long as at least one person in the communication is outside of the U.S.

This has caused a great deal of civil rights and privacy concerns among private citizens as well as some in the Senate.

FISA, which was originally established in 1978, was first amended in 2001 under the USA Patriot act shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, then ammended again in 2008.

The act states that intelligence agencies are able to listen to phone calls and look into email exchanges and Internet activity if a person is considered suspicious of wrongdoing or considered a terrorist threat.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was just one of the people in favor of extending FISA and says that regardless of the privacy or civil rights concerns that others may have, FISA has kept America safe.

“I have supported FISA and the FISA Amendments Act because our ability to gather information about known and suspected terrorists has proven instrumental to keeping Americans safe,” he wrote in a recent letter. “While intelligence and law enforcement agencies need the tools to do that job, it’s also critically important that we protect the rights and privacy of law-abiding citizens.”

FISA gives phone and Internet companies the legal right to hand over customer records to government agencies if a person is deemed suspicious or is believed to be communicating with someone to commit some sort of terrorist act -- and protects them from litigation that may result from their doing so.

Worried about privacy

PhotoIn a TV interview, U.S. policy analyst Webster Tarpley said if consumers were worried about their privacy being threatened under the Patriot Act in 2001, they should be equally worried today, since the bill hasn’t been amended to include any of the concerns voiced by private citizens or public officials.

“The Federal government in effect can wiretap you, they can snoop on you, they can break into your house—all the things that Bush and Cheney did,” said Tarpley.

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who was one of the critics of the bill being extended, said that he has concerns that FISA goes against Americans' constitutional rights to be protected against arbitrary searches and surveillance.

“I’m concerned about the government’s ability without a warrant to search through FISA materials for communications involving individual American citizens. I worry that this authority is inconsistent with and diminishes the essential constitutional right that each of us has to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures," he said.

Other critics of the act say the federal government is using the fears of citizens, especially after 9/11, to convince them that wiretapping is among the best ways to protect America, and it's the main reason the United States hasn’t experienced an attack since 9/11.

The extension of FISA passed in September of 2012 with a House vote of 301 to 118. The extension will last until 2017.

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Mortgage rates on the rise again

The increase may be a reaction to the December employment report

Mortgage rates, as charted by Freddie Mac and Bankrate.com, are heading higher following an employment report for December that some economists took as pos...

PhotoMortgage rates, as charted by Freddie Mac and Bankrate.com, are heading higher following an employment report for December that some economists took as positive.

Freddie Mac says the 30-year fixed rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.40 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending January 10, 2013 -- its highest reading in eight weeks.  The week before the FRM averaged 3.34 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.89 percent.

The 15-year FRM week averaged 2.66 percent with an average 0.7 point, versus last week's average of 2.64 percent. A year ago, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.16 percent.

The five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.67 percent this week with an average 0.6 point. That's a decline from last week, when it averaged 2.71 percent. A year ago, the five-year ARM averaged 2.82 percent.

The one-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.60 percent with an average 0.5 point, compared with 2.57 percent last week and 2.76 percent a year ago.

"Fixed mortgage rates increased slightly following a positive employment report for December,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist at Freddie Mac. “The economy added 155,000 jobs, above the consensus market forecast, and November's job growth was revised upward by another 24,000 workers. This helped keep the unemployment rate steady at 7.8 percent, the lowest since December 2008. For all of 2012, 1.86 million jobs were created and represented the largest annual gain since 2006."

Bankrate.com survey

Bankrate.com says the idea that the Federal Reserve will eventually have to stop buying mortgage bonds to keep rates low sent rates higher.

The benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rose to 3.67 percent from 3.58 percent, according to Bankrate.com's national survey of large lenders. The mortgages in this survey had an average total of 0.32 discount and origination points. One year ago, the mortgage index stood at 4.18 percent; four weeks ago, it was 3.52 percent.

This is the highest rate for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in nearly four months. The last time it was higher was the Sept. 19, 2012, survey, when the 30-year fixed averaged 3.7 percent.

The benchmark 15-year fixed-rate mortgage rose to 2.92 percent from 2.88 percent. The benchmark 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage rose to 2.77 percent from 2.76 percent.

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If you haven't done so yet, it's time to get your flu shot

It's late, but not too late to protect yourself

This may sound like nagging, but have you received your flu shot yet? Even though we're closing in on mid-January, it's still not too late if you haven't. ...

PhotoThis may sound like nagging, but have you received your flu shot yet? Even though we're closing in on mid-January, it's still not too late if you haven't.

"Everyone seems to know that the elderly are particularly vulnerable, but so too are children," said William Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatrician at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "Severe complications are most common in children under age two, and all children ages six months and older should be immunized."

Rodriguez notes that in each of the last 10 flu seasons, between 43 and 153 children died from influenza in the U.S. An average 20,000 children a year under age five are hospitalized. So far this year, 16 deaths of children under age 18 have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Forty-three states are currently reporting widespread flu outbreaks, with the District of Columbia and remaining states -- Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and Missouri -- reporting localized outbeaks.

There's still time

People are generally immunized in the fall, but they can still get protection from the flu for what remains of the flu season -- even though immunization takes several weeks to take effect. The season usually peaks in January or February, with some cases continuing into the spring and even beyond.

"This is particularly late in the flu season for very young children, because to optimize immune response, children between the ages of 6 and 35 months need two shots, four weeks apart, during their first season of vaccination," said Rodriguez. "However, even one shot provides some protection, so even now there is time to get some benefit."

As of the end of November 2012, 112 million Americans were immunized for this flu season, leaving the majority unprotected as of that time, according to CDC.

Although some locations have stopped offering the flu vaccine, which each year is approved by FDA, supplies remain available. Consumers can find out where to get a flu shot by calling doctor's offices, clinics, pharmacies and supermarkets.

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Tax reform, identity theft seen as top Internal Revenue Service priorities

The latest report from the national taxpayer advocate also addressed agency funding

The complexity of the tax code was named the “most serious” problem facing taxpayers in the 2012 annual report to Congress by National Taxpayer Advocate Ni...

PhotoThe complexity of the tax code was named the “most serious” problem facing taxpayers in the 2012 annual report to Congress by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson. And she's recommending that lawmakers take significant steps to simplify it.

In her report, Olson also found that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is not doing enough to assist victims of tax-related identity theft and return preparer fraud. She also expressed concern that the IRS is not adequately funded to serve taxpayers and collect tax, and identified ways in which this chronic underfunding harms taxpayers. She also found that the IRS is not doing enough to assist victims of tax-related identity theft and return preparer fraud.

Crushing burden

“The existing tax code makes compliance difficult, requiring taxpayers to devote excessive time to preparing and filing their returns,” Olson wrote. “It obscures comprehension, leaving many taxpayers unaware how their taxes are computed and what rate of tax they pay; it facilitates tax avoidance by enabling sophisticated taxpayers to reduce their tax liabilities and provides criminals with opportunities to commit tax fraud; and it undermines trust in the system by creating an impression that many taxpayers are not compliant, thereby reducing the incentives that honest taxpayers feel to comply.”

The report states that the tax code imposes a “significant, even unconscionable, burden on taxpayers.” Since 2001, Congress has made nearly 5,000 changes to the tax code, an average of more than one a day, and the number of words in the code appears to have reached nearly four million.

An analysis of IRS data by the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) shows that individuals and businesses spend about 6.1 billion hours a year complying with tax-filing requirements. “If tax compliance were an industry, it would be one of the largest in the United States,” the report says. “To consume 6.1 billion hours, the ‘tax industry’ requires the equivalent of more than three million full-time workers.”

Individual taxpayers find return preparation so overwhelming that few do it on their own. Nearly 60 percent of taxpayers hire paid preparers, and another 30 percent rely on commercial software, with leading software packages costing $50 or more. In other words, taxpayers must spend money just to figure out how much money they owe.

Simplification urged

To reduce taxpayer burden and enhance public confidence in the integrity of the tax system, the report urges Congress to greatly simplify the tax code. In general, this means Congress should reassess the need for existing income exclusions, exemptions, deductions and credits (generally known as “tax expenditures”).

For fiscal year (FY) 2013, the Joint Committee on Taxation has projected that tax expenditures will come to about $1.09 trillion, while individual income tax revenue is projected to be about $1.36 trillion. To put these numbers in perspective, if Congress were to eliminate all tax expenditures, straight math indicates it could cut individual income tax rates by 44 percent and still generate the same amount of revenue it collects under current rules.

Tax-related identity theft

The number of tax-related identity theft incidents has increased substantially in recent years. Within TAS, identity theft case receipts increased by more than 650 percent from FY 2008 to FY 2012. At the end of FY 2012, the IRS had almost 650,000 identity-theft cases in its inventory service-wide. The problem has grown worse as organized criminal actors have found ways to steal the Social Security numbers (SSNs) of taxpayers, file tax returns using those taxpayers’ names and SSNs, and obtain fraudulent tax refunds.

Then, when the real taxpayer files a return claiming the refund, that return is rejected. The impact on victims is significant. More than 75 percent of taxpayers filing returns are due refunds, which average some $3,000 and are not paid until the IRS fully resolves a case.

The report says the IRS has created numerous task forces and other teams in recent years in an attempt to improve its identity theft processes, yet victims still face the same “labyrinth of procedures and drawn-out time frames for resolution” that they faced five years ago. The IRS is instructing its employees to advise identity theft victims that it will take 180 days -- half a year -- to resolve their cases. Complicated cases inevitably will take longer. Thus, the IRS’s procedural changes are not providing faster relief.

IRS funding

The IRS budget has been reduced in each of the last two fiscal years, and appears likely to face further cuts in coming years. Although these cuts reflect across-the-board reductions in federal discretionary spending, underfunding the IRS makes no sense, Olson said.

“The IRS is materially different from other discretionary programs in that it serves as the de facto Accounts Receivable Department of the federal government. Each dollar appropriated for the IRS generates substantially more than one dollar in additional revenue. It is therefore ironic and counterproductive that concerns about the deficit are leading to cuts in the IRS budget, when those cuts are making the deficit larger.” Olson added: “The plain truth is that the IRS’s mission trumps all other agencies’ missions, because without an effective revenue collector, you can’t fund those other agencies.”

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ShopperTrak: It was a merry Christmas for retailers after all

The follower of retail trends says both sales and foot traffic were up

Cash registers were chirping more during the 2012 holiday season than they did the year before, according to ShopperTrak, which keeps tabs on the retail in...

PhotoCash registers were chirping more during the 2012 holiday season than they did the year before, according to ShopperTrak, which keeps tabs on the retail industry.

ShopperTrak estimates that during November and December 2012, national retail sales increased 2.5 percent and foot traffic also increased 2.5 percent when compared with the same two months last year. The firm's initial data indicate that shoppers spent $248.8 billion during this period. The U.S. Department of Commerce will release its December general merchandise, apparel and accessories, furniture and other sales (GAFO) sales numbers in February.

The 2012 Christmas shopping season marked the third consecutive year with positive total retail sales. It also was the second holiday season of the past three with positive foot traffic changes.

"Our data indicates that more people visited more stores this holiday season than the previous year," said ShopperTrak Founder Bill Martin. "Retailers who understood their foot traffic were able to staff, stock and market to best serve their customers, ultimately converting more of the browsers into buyers."

Ending on a strong note

The 2012 holiday season had the longest interval possible between Black Friday and Christmas. Within these 32 days, shoppers had an extra weekend of shopping. As a result, many consumers procrastinated in finishing their holiday shopping.

But once the late-bloomers headed out to stores, their last-minute shopping and post-Christmas exchanges drove large increases in both retail sales and foot traffic during the final days of December. ShopperTrak forecasts that for the week ending Dec. 29, sales increased 18 percent and traffic increased 14.4 percent from the same period last year. This indicates the largest year-over-year increase of the holiday season.

"Heavy discounting by retailers at the end of December led to increases in shopper activity across the board," said Martin.

Late-December boom

Indeed, ShopperTrak estimates that three of the busiest foot traffic days occurred in late December. Though "Black Weekend" held its own -- Black Friday, Nov. 23, retains the top spot and Saturday, Nov. 24 comes in as the fifth-busiest traffic day -- the weekends leading up to Christmas saw the most shoppers at stores and malls. ShopperTrak reports that "Super Saturday," Dec. 22, was the second-busiest shopping day of the season, followed by Saturday, Dec. 15 in third and Sunday, Dec. 23 ranking fourth.

Similarly, the top sales days of the holidays took place largely toward the end of the season. Black Friday again led the pack, followed by Super Saturday. Dec. 23, Dec. 21, and Dec. 15, in that order, rounded out the top five best sales days of the holidays. They helped to close the holiday season on a high note, according to Martin.

"The presidential election and Hurricane Sandy drew consumers' attention away from shopping at the outset of the holiday retail season," said Martin. "However, lower unemployment, higher consumer confidence and stable gas prices positively influenced shoppers to make purchases this holiday season."

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Ancestry.com: Useful or Stressful?

We looked at what some of our readers had to say, and the news isn't so good

For those interested in learning more about their family history, the Internet has made it much easier to do so.In the past, one had to do a lot of physi...

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Samsung steals the show with bigger TVs, higher definition

Apple and other once-promising TV innovators might as well have stayed home

Samsung has released so many new technologies at this year's Consumer Electronics Show that nobody can figure out which ones to write about. But for the ge...

PhotoSamsung has released so many new technologies at this year's Consumer Electronics Show that nobody can figure out which ones to write about. But for the general couch-bound consumer, probably the biggest news is that TVs are getting bigger again. Sharper too.

For a little while there, it seemed that we would all be watching TV on our smartphones and tablets but Samsung has broken that model wide open with a gigantic 85-inch TV.

Of course, bigger isn't always better. Remember the original big-screen TVs?  They were the size of a car but the picture left a lot to be desired.

Not this time around. Samsung has not only introduced some truly gigantic screens, it's also increased the resolution nearly fourfold. The current standard for high-def is a horizontal resolution of 1,080 pixels which is, as they say, mighty fine. But even finer is Samsung's new 4,000-pixel standard, already known simply as 4K, and also as UHD, for ultra-high definition.

Now, having a screen that can reproduce a 4k image doesn't do you much good without the image, so Samsung has built in circuitry that takes a 1080p image and "rezzes it up," to to speak, to 4k.

Smart TV

Besides the bigger screens and higher definition, Samsung has also made numerous improvements to its suite of Smart TV applications, including a search tool that lets you search cable, over-the-air and Internet sources when you're looking for a particular show or series.

As promised, Samsung unveiled its "Evolution Kit," which enables Samsung 2012 Smart TVs to evolve into Samsung’s new 2013 Smart TVs. By simply attaching the Evolution Kit device into the back of a Samsung Smart TV, consumers can enjoy the latest features that the 2013 Smart TVs have to offer.

Samsung TV Jan. 9, 2013, 7:40 p.m.
Consumers rate Samsung TV

With hardware enhancements, such as CPU, memory and GPU up to the level of the latest Smart TV, users can enjoy faster speeds for browsing the Internet and multitask by using apps while watching TV, the company said.

In addition, Samsung’s Smart Interaction features such as voice control and motion control will be enhanced. Once the Evolution Kit is attached to the slot, 2012 Smart Hub is transformed to 2013 version. Every year, consumers will now be able to enjoy the latest services with Samsung's Smart TVs, according to Samsung.

Sales of TVs have been slumping lately, partly because consumers have been throwing money at tablets and smartphones. With its Evolution Kit, Samsung appears to be hoping to convince consumers they can upgrade their TV today without worrying about it becoming obsolete in the next year or two.

Skeptics may point to the rash of early failures in Samsung TVs over the last few years. And in fact, it's usually wise to avoid the leading edge in any kind of electronic gear. Early versions tend to have more problems and, of equal importance, the price tends to come down as a new technology becomes more commonplace.

It's also good to remember that these are not your father's TVs. Modern electronic gear isn't exactly delicate but it is very sensitive to heat, spikes and surges, so don't count on getting more than a few years of service. Budget accordingly.

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Researchers take on youth sports and concussions

The Institute of Medicine will track child athletes until adulthood

In many countries around the world, playing in youth sports is a big part of growing up.Whether teams are sponsored by schools or part of an organiz...

PhotoIn many countries around the world, playing in youth sports is a big part of growing up. Whether teams are sponsored by schools or an organized sports league, many parents want their children to experience what sports can provide, like the camaraderie of being on a team, learning how to win and lose gracefully and getting a good amount of exercise.

But in recent years, concussions have been on the minds of parents and physicians alike, due to several stories about children and adults suffering head injuries and concussions from falling or being hit while playing.

Although there has been some research conducted on the relationship between children, sports and concussions, and certain measures have been taken to ensure children are safer--like the redesigning of helmets--the U.S. government has yet to conduct a study that focuses on the long-term effects of concussions in children.

This very type of study will be conducted by The Institute of Medicine, an independent non-profit research organization. Researchers will track children who suffer concussions and other head injuries into adulthood, in an effort to see if there are lasting effects from injuries that might otherwise be shrugged off. The study will also seek ways to prevent these kinds of injuries from happening in the first place.

Silent epidemic

PhotoJust last month, the state of Ohio took a first step towards keeping kids safer while playing sports, when Governor John Kasich signed a law that would require each child to get a note from a doctor if they wish to return to sports after being injured and showing signs of a concussion.

Although getting clearance from a physician after a head injury seems like common sense and many parents would probably take this measure on their own, the new law will help lower the chances of an injured child falling through the cracks and returning to sports prematurely.

In addition, coaches and referees of youth sport leagues will be required to undergo  online training, which Ohio state representatives believe will better educate adults about concussions and how to prevent them.

Dr. Joseph Congeni, who is the medical director of the Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital, said that injuries to the brain are unique compared to other sports injuries, for the mere fact the extent of damage isn’t always known right away.

“Brain injuries or concussions that occur in sports are known as ‘the invisible injury’ or the ‘silent epidemic,' because they are not always obvious like other sports injuries,” he wrote in an email to a local news publication.

“For that reason, the fact that many medical disciplines around Ohio such as physicians, athletic trainers, physical therapists and chiropractors have come together to help craft and support this bill is important,” he wrote.

Key signs

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), parents should look for key signs if they suspect their child may have a sports related concussion.

First, the CDC emphasizes that most people who get a concussion don’t lose consciousness, so any blow or bump to the head should be taken seriously and investigated for possible damage, even if the person never loses consciousness. The CDC also says that people can get concussions from a quick body movement that forces their head to turn rapidly.

PhotoAlso, if a child isn’t sure of the score of the game, who they're playing or what game they're involved in, there’s a very high chance they have a concussion, says the CDC.

The government agencies also say feeling pressure in the head or becoming sensitive to light or noise are signs of a concussion, and if one is experiencing nausea, vomiting or vision problems, it could be a sign of brain damage and should be evaluated immediately.

In addition, if one receives a blow to the head during a sporting activity, they should immediately stop playing until they can be seen by a doctor. The CDC also says that some people with concussions don’t show symptoms at all, so they should be monitored for weeks after a head injury, since concussions can stretch out for long periods of time.

Robert Graham who is leading the study at the Institute of Medicine, says he expects a huge reaction to the results once researchers hand in their initial findings at the end of 2013.

“You start talking about, ‘Is it safe for Sally to be playing soccer?' You get lots of public interest,” he said.

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Report warns U.S. teachers increasingly victims of violence

Incidents of attacks by students rising at 'alarming' pace

Teaching is an increasingly dangerous profession, and not just because a mentally ill person with an automatic rifle might attack a school. According to a ...

PhotoTeaching is an increasingly dangerous profession, and not just because a mentally ill person with an automatic rifle might attack a school. According to a new report from the American Psychological Association, most of the danger is from the students themselves.

The report, based on surveys of teachers across the U.S., found alarmingly high incidents in which the teacher experienced physical violence or witnessed it against others. It's an issue that hasn't received enough attention, APA says.

“Violence directed against teachers is a national crisis with far-reaching implications and deserves inclusion in the school violence equation,” said the article’s lead author, Dorothy Espelage, PhD, of the University of Illinois.

Growing problem

Espelage was chair of APA’s Task Force on Classroom Violence Directed Against Teachers, which issued a report in 2011. While there have been only 14 studies published on the topic, they all point to a growing problem.

One study, conducted by an APA task force, found that 80 percent of the teachers surveyed reported being victimized at school at least once in the then-current or prior year. Of those, 94 percent said they had been victimized by students -- 44 percent reported being physically attacked and 72 percent reported harassment, while 50 percent said they experienced theft or property damage at school. The findings were based on survey responses from almost 3,000 K-12 teachers in 48 states.

“Because professional training typically does not prepare teachers to deal with violence at school, most lack the skills to prevent challenging behavior from occurring and to respond effectively when it does occur. As such, many teachers have been shocked by frequent violent occurrences in our nation’s schools during recent years and the far-reaching implications of violence,” Espelage said.

Problem in the UK too

This is not just a phenomenon found in American classrooms. British educators have been dealing with the issue for several years.

In 2009 a British teacher claimed her career was wrecked after a schoolgirl poisoned her drinking water with whiteboard cleaning fluid. The teacher sued for damages, but lost the case.

That same year government statistics showed that 14 children age five and under were suspended from primary schools in England daily for violence directed at teachers and other students. In a survey, British teachers said the problem is becoming worse, with children becoming more aggressive at earlier ages.

The APA report provides detailed recommendations to curb the violence against teachers. A first step, the authors write, is creation of a national database to track each incident of classroom violence. The report also suggests teachers get training in “classroom management” as part of receiving a teaching certificate.

“Professional psychologists can play a critical role in helping prevent violence against teachers, which in turn can make school a safer place for all concerned,” Espelage said. “This is a significant yet under-investigated problem in the United States that has profound implications for schooling, teacher retention and over all student performance.”

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Flu season could cost employers billions

Things may be bad now, but they could get worse in the months ahead

You can't turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper without being told how bad this flu season is shaping up to be -- and there's another three months to go. ...

PhotoYou can't turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper without being told how bad this flu season is shaping up to be -- and there's another three months to go.

Employers around the country are undoubtedly feeling the financial impact of increased health care costs and widespread absenteeism and -- making matters worse -- according to one workplace authority, is the tendency of employees concerned about job security to keep coming to the office despite their apparent illness.

“The economy is still on shaky ground and many workers continue to be worried about losing their jobs, despite the fact that annual layoffs are at the lowest level since the late 1990s,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. “In this environment, workers are reluctant to call in sick or even use vacation days. Of course, this has significant negative consequences for the workplace, where the sick worker is not only performing at a reduced capacity but also likely to infect others.”

The cost of flu

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that -- on average -- seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation’s employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits. That does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.

This year, the cost to businesses may be significantly higher in light of the increased number of cases. So far, 29 of 41 states reporting flu cases say the outbreak is at “severe” levels. According to a report in the New York Daily News, the number of cases in the state has already surpassed 15,000, versus just 4,400 reported cases during last year’s entire flu season.

“Unfortunately, we are now entering what is typically the peak time for catching the flu. January and February are considered the heaviest period of the flu season that stretches from October into March. So, companies that may already be shorthanded coming out of the recession could find themselves struggling to keep up with demand in the weeks ahead as absenteeism claims more manpower,” said Challenger.

Don't be a martyr

While sick employees may think they are doing the right thing by “toughing it out” and coming into work when ill, Challenger says they are only making matters worse. “Whether it is motivated by job security or a desire to continue making a contribution in an overburdened workplace, presenteeism, as it has come to be called, only spreads illness to more workers and further damages the employers ability to meet demand,” he added.

Challenger says a company having an effective leave policy is critical in preventing an office-wide outbreak of the flu. “You want to encourage workers to stay home when they are sick so they do not spread illness to co-workers,” he said. “You also want them to stay home to care for sick children so they are not forced to go to school and spread the virus to other kids.”

Proper planning

Companies would also be wise to prepare for the worst in order to ensure continuity in the wake of an outbreak, according to Challenger. “They need to consider not just the possibility of their own workforce being depleted by absenteeism, but also of the likelihood of their suppliers being hobbled,: he points out. “A company might be running at 95 percent capacity, but if a supplier cannot deliver key parts because half of its workers are sick, it could still find itself unable to keep its operations running.” he continued.

Challenger believes one of the most effective ways to prevent the flu from spreading through the workplace would be to become a predominantly telecommuting workforce. Any employee who can do his or her work from home with a computer and phone should be doing so prior to an outbreak.

“For those who must go to the workplace, such as retail workers and hands-on service providers, companies should enforce a three-foot minimum buffer between all personnel at all times,” he advises. “Employees should also be encouraged, if not compelled, to follow strict hygienic practices, including washing hands regularly and using anti-bacterial wipes to keep their work area, phone, keyboard and mouse clean.”

Recommended strategies

In addition to encouraging workers to step up hygiene efforts, the CDC recommends two strategies for businesses and employers to help fight the flu: 1) host a flu vaccination clinic in the workplace; and 2) promote flu vaccination in the community.

Challenger offered some other steps employers might consider with the peak of flu season upon us:

  • Increase the number of shifts. This will reduce the number of people working in the office at one time.
  • Limit meetings. If there is no need to gather large groups of workers in a confined space then do not do it. Conduct meetings via conference calls. Bigger companies may want to consider video conferencing.
  • Expand telecommuting. Determine who can work from home or other locations. This will keep people off of public transportation and out of the office.
  • Allow sick workers to stay home without fear losing their jobs.
  • Institute flexible leave policies to allow parents to care for an ill child or one who is home due to school closures.
  • Provide no-touch trash cans and hand sanitizer.
  • Encourage employees to wash their hands frequently, avoid handshaking and take other hygienic precautions such as wearing a mask in heavily populated work areas.
  • Assign someone to the post of flu czar or workplace illness coordinator, who would be responsible for monitoring absenteeism rates, coordinating leave and informing employees of company measure to prevent and/or respond to outbreak.
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You can start filing federal tax returns Jan. 30

But some filers will have to wait until late February or early March

Having digested the changes in the tax law made by Congress's New Year's Day fiscal cliff legislation and sent the form changes to the printer, the Interna...

PhotoHaving digested the changes in the tax law made by Congress's New Year's Day fiscal cliff legislation and sent the form changes to the printer, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it will be ready to receive and process your tax return Jan. 30.

That shortens the tax preparation window by a month, but since most taxpayers don't get started until they receive their w-2 forms, it might not make a lot of difference to most people. Then again, early filers who want to get their hands on their refund as quickly as possible might be frustrated.

Some filers must wait longer

The announcement means the vast majority of tax filers -- more than 120 million households -- should be able to start filing tax returns starting Jan 30. But not everyone.

The IRS estimates that remaining households will be able to start filing in late February or into March because of the need for more extensive form and processing systems changes. This group includes people claiming residential energy credits, depreciation of property or general business credits. Most of those in this group file more complex tax returns and typically file closer to the April 15 deadline or obtain an extension, the IRS said.

Takes time to update and test systems

“We have worked hard to open tax season as soon as possible,” IRS Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller said. “This date ensures we have the time we need to update and test our processing systems.”

The IRS will not process paper tax returns before the anticipated Jan. 30 opening date. There is no advantage to filing on paper before the opening date, and taxpayers will receive their tax refunds much faster by using e-file with direct deposit.

“The best option for taxpayers is to file electronically,” Miller said.

This is the second straight year the IRS has delayed the opening of tax season. In 2012 the agency said it made extensive changes to its systems in an effort to thwart identity theft, which it said is a growing problem.

If identity thieves get access to your Social Security number, they can file a fake return in your name, receiving a refund they aren't entitled to. Changes to the IRS systems are designed to help the agency identify fraudulent returns more easily.

Because of the threat of identity theft, it's beneficial to file early. If you file early and receive your rightful refund, an identity thief can be easily spotted if he files a fake return, using your Social Security number.

Who Can File Starting Jan. 30?

The IRS anticipates that the vast majority of all taxpayers can file starting Jan. 30, regardless of whether they file electronically or on paper. The IRS will be able to accept tax returns affected by the late Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patch as well as the three major “extender” provisions for people claiming the state and local sales tax deduction, higher education tuition and fees deduction and educator expenses deduction.

Who Can’t File Until Later?

There are several forms affected by the late legislation that require more extensive programming and testing of IRS systems. The IRS hopes to begin accepting tax returns including these tax forms between late February and into March; a specific date will be announced in the near future.

The key forms that require more extensive programming changes include Form 5695 (Residential Energy Credits), Form 4562 (Depreciation and Amortization) and Form 3800 (General Business Credit). A full listing of the forms that won’t be accepted until later is available on IRS.gov.

If you use an off-the-shelf tax preparation software, keep in mind these changes will affect it as well. Check with your vendor as to when updates for the 2012 tax year will be available.

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California sues Phillips gas stations

Charges companies circumvented environmental rules on gas tanks

California has some of the toughest environmental laws in the nation and California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris claims Phillips 66 and ConocoPhillips...

PhotoCalifornia has some of the toughest environmental laws in the nation and California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris claims Phillips 66 and ConocoPhillips violated one of them.

Harris has sued the two oil companies on charges of failing to properly inspect and maintain underground tanks used to store gasoline for retail sale at more than 560 gas stations in the state.

"The state's hazardous waste laws help protect our residents from contaminated groundwater," Harris said. "This lawsuit safeguards public health by ensuring proper maintenance of the tanks that store fuel beneath many California communities."

Several counties, including Alameda, El Dorado, Merced, Nevada, Placer, San Bernardino and Stanislaus, joined the state in the litigation. The suit alleges that since November 2006, Phillips 66 and ConocoPhillips have improperly monitored, inspected and maintained underground storage tanks used to store gasoline for retail sale.

Accused of tampering with safeguards

In addition, the complaint accused the defendants of tampering with and disabling leak detection devices and failing to test secondary containment systems, conduct monthly inspections, train employees in proper protocol and maintain operational alarm systems, among other violations.

The lawsuit also alleges that the defendants improperly handled and disposed of hazardous wastes and materials associated with the underground storage tanks at retail gas stations throughout the state.

Harris said her investigators turned up violations at gas stations in 34 California counties.

Widespread issue

Other states have wrestled with the problem of contamination from underground storage tanks as gas stations. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey, which randomly sampled 225 water supply wells in Rockingham County, NH, in 2003, detected the gasoline additive MtBE in 40 percent of public wells, and found a correlation between MtBE concentration and proximity to underground storage tanks.

Abandoned gasoline stations perhaps pose the greatest environmental risk. As the tanks sit unused and deteriorate, remaining petroleum product can leak into the soil and groundwater. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, more than 50,000 gas stations have shut down since 1991.

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New online Social Security services available

All you need is a 'my Social Security account'

It's getting easier to find information about Social Security when you go online The Social Security Administration is expanding the services available wi...

It's getting easier to find information about Social Security when you go online

The Social Security Administration is expanding the services available with a “my Social Security account,” a personalized online account that people can use beginning in their working years and continuing throughout the time they receive Social Security benefits.

More than 60 million Social Security beneficiaries and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients can now access their benefit verification letter, payment history and earnings record instantly using their online account. Beneficiaries also can change their address and start or change direct deposit information online.

“We are making it even easier for people to do their business with us from the comfort of their home, office, or library,” said Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security. “I encourage people of all ages to take advantage of our award-winning online services and check out the new features available through an online 'my Social Security account'.”

Getting needed documentation

Social Security beneficiaries and SSI recipients with a “my Social Security account” can go online and get an official benefit verification letter instantly. The benefit verification letter serves as proof of income to secure loans, mortgages and other housing, and state or local benefits. Additionally, people use the letter to prove current Medicare health insurance coverage, retirement or disability status, and age. People can print or save a customized letter.

Social Security processed nearly nine million requests for benefit verification letters in the past year. This new online service allows people to conduct business with Social Security without having to visit an office or make a phone call, and very often wait for a letter to arrive in the mail. It also will reduce the time spent by employees completing these requests and free them to focus on other workloads.

Signing up

People age 18 and older can sign up for an account at here. Once there, they must be able to provide information about themselves and answers to questions that only they are likely to know. After completing the secure verification process, people can create a “my Social Security account” with a unique user name and password to access their information.

People age 18 and older who are not receiving benefits can sign up for a “my Social Security account” to get a personalized online Social Security statement. The online statement provides eligible workers with secure and convenient access to their Social Security earnings and benefit information, and estimates of future benefits they can use to plan for their retirement. In addition, the portal includes links to information about other online services, such as applications for retirement, disability and Medicare.

“Given our significantly reduced funding, we have to find innovative ways to continue to meet the needs of the American people without compromising service,” said Astrue. “These new enhancements will allow us to provide faster service to more people in more places.”

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Are beta blockers effective against Alzheimer's disease?

Blood pressure drug reduced brain shrinkage in study

Among the types of medication people take for high blood pressure are beta blockers, which are a class of drugs that reduce stress levels within the body....

PhotoAmong the types of medication people take for high blood pressure are beta blockers, which are a class of drugs that reduce stress levels within the body.

If you take one, you might be reducing your risk of Alzheimer's disease. A study involving autopsies of 774 elderly Japanese-American men, most of whom had suffered from high blood pressure, yielded interesting results.

Only 15 percent of the men had been taking beta blockers for their high blood pressure. Their autopsies revealed they suffered the least amount of brain damage.

The researchers found that all types of blood pressure treatments were clearly better than no treatment. However, men who had received beta blockers as their only blood pressure medication had fewer abnormalities in their brains compared with those who had not been treated for their hypertension, or who had received other blood pressure medications.

Less brain shrinkage

The brains of participants who had received beta blockers plus other medications showed an intermediate reduction in numbers of brain abnormalities. Study participants who had taken beta blockers alone or in combination with another blood pressure medication had significantly less shrinkage in their brains.

“With the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease expected to grow significantly as our population ages, it is increasingly important to identify factors that could delay or prevent the disease,” said study author Lon White, MD, of the Pacific Health Research and Education Institute in Honolulu. “These results are exciting, especially since beta blockers are a common treatment for high blood pressure.”

Beta blockers questioned as blood pressure treatment

In October researchers at the NYU Langone Medical Center questioned whether beta blockers were an effective means of combating high blood pressure. They studied patients taking the drugs and concluded they weren't helping -- at least they weren't lowering blood pressure.

Sripal Bangalore, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine and leader of the research team, suggested the current use of beta blockers to treat high blood pressure is based on old studies.

“Our results found none of the patient populations studied showed benefit from taking beta-blockers, including patients with a history of heart attack,” Bangalore said in October, when his study was released. “This is concerning in light of current treatment patterns and reveals a need for more education among practitioners who treat patients at risk for heart attack and stroke.”

This latest study, however, supported by the National Institutes of Health, might have found an additional use for the drugs. But beta blockers are known to have side effects, which include increases in cholesterol levels, weight gain, upset stomach and headaches.

If you think you are at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease you should discuss beta blockers with your doctor to determine if it is medication you should be taking.

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What happened to Netflix? Remember when the company could do no wrong?

With Redbox and Verizon snipping at its heels and now HBO, it could mean trouble for Netflix.

Remember not too long ago, when Netflix seemed to stand alone in the area of home entertainment and movie streaming?When Netflix first came into prominen...

PhotoRemember not too long ago, when Netflix seemed to stand alone in the area of home entertainment and movie streaming?

When Netflix first came into prominence a few years ago, by creating what seemed to be the perfect idea of allowing customers to receive movies through the mail or by streaming, it didn’t seem like anyone could compete with the compay.

But those days have passed, and today Netflix isn’t the stand-alone Goliath it was just a couple of years ago. For example, Verizon and Redbox teamed up not too long ago to offer video streaming and DVDs for a lower monthly price than Netflix.

And the fact that Verizon and Redbox have secured the proper deals with Hollywood film studios to get content that Netflix won’t be able to access, there’s a good chance that many consumers will flock to Redbox’s Instant by Verizon, because the company is offering newer and better movies.

It seems that more and more companies are coming together that could lead customers away from Netflix, as many consumers feel the California-based company just doesn’t offer the kind of movies for streaming that it used to, as newer released films are usually on DVD only, which tends to frustrate many consumers.

And with deals being made between home entertainment companies and Hollywood film studios, it seems that Netflix is getting fewer newly-released movies, which is why many people signed up with the company in the first place.

Fewer movies

Netflix  Jan. 8, 2013, 6:46 p.m.
Consumers rate Netflix

HBO is another company that just made this kind of deal, as the cable channel just finalized an agreement with Universal, and its movie division Universal Films to show exclusive content that Netflix won’t be able to access.

The deal will also allow HBO to carry Universal’s art house film division Focus Features, which consumers can access on TV or on their mobile devices.

The exclusive deal also means that Netflix will have even fewer movies for DVD and streaming, as Universal makes a significant amount of movies each year that Netflix won’t be able to touch. This may cause even more customers to jump off the Netflix ship, as many have complained the company just doesn’t offer the type of movie variety that it used to.

“In the last few years, Netflix has really gone downhill from being an industry leader and innovator to a joke of marketing incompetence,” wrote Greg of Texas in a ConsumerAffairs posting. “I’ve been a member since 2002 and have been very satisfied for most of that time, even choosing to remain patient and loyal during the whole ‘Qwikster’ debacle.”

“But in recent months, three changes I’ve noticed are really making it hard for me to remain a customer: (1) Fewer and fewer streaming options, despite gearing the website to make it more difficult to add DVDs; (2) more ‘long wait’ delays for many DVDs, and (3) longer turnaround times to receive DVDs by mail,” wrote Greg.

In his comment, Greg agreed with another reader named Barry, who shared a similar view about Netflix.

“I’ve subscribed to Netflix for more than a decade and for a number of years, I was very happy with the service, even giving it as a gift to others,” wrote Barry in his ConsumerAffairs posting.

“Thanks to what’s been going on for the past 6 months or more, my enthusiasm has completely vanished and turned to anger. I can no longer get the new releases at the top of my list—for many, many months.”

“I certainly hope others enter this market and become what Netflix used to be. I’ve already cut way back on what the number of discs I have at one time because they refuse to provide what I want, and I expect I may cut off the service altogether very soon. From a great company, it has turned to one of the worst.” 

Ten years

PhotoThe HBO deal is rumored to be for ten years, which means it will be at least a full decade before Netflix can get its hands on Universal’s films and other content.

And if you consider the movies that Netflix won’t be able to show based on the exclusive deal that Redbox and Verizon signed with Hollywood studios in 2012, it seems that Netflix will only have a very limited movie pool to draw from and offer its customers.

Vice chairman and COO of Universal and Focus Features films Rick Finkelstein said his company is extremely eager to provide HBO with exclusive content that will already add to the company’s huge library of movies.

“With HBO’s far-reaching network of premium services, ranging from the traditional in-home experience to its mobile applications, we are pleased to continue this relationship and bring Universal and Focus Features’ films to HBO subscribers for many years to come,” said Finkelstein.

“With our upcoming slate of films, HBO will continue to offer outstanding film content to their already vast library of movies, specials and award-winning original programming.”

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Electronics makers eye cars as the next entertainment frontier

As cars become routinely connected to the Internet, new business models emerge

Until recently, the car was something of a refuge from the distractions of everyday life. Oh sure, you could listen to the radio or even pop in a CD or may...

PhotoUntil recently, the car was something of a refuge from the distractions of everyday life. Oh sure, you could listen to the radio or even pop in a CD or maybe plug your iPod into the auxilary jack, all while keeping an eye on the GPS, propping up the phone and occasionally glancing out the windshield.

It's about to get even harder to stay focused, as automakers rush to add entertainment and electronics gadgets to cars, many of them being previewed at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Examples:

  • Ford says it will offer the Internet music service Rhapsody in more than 1 million Ford and Lincoln vehicles. Rhapsody says 40% of its subscribers are already listening in the car. By integrating Rhapsody with Ford Sync's voice commands and steering wheel buttons, the listening experience may become a bit safer.
  • Rhapsody rival Pandora says it is already available in 75 vehicle models. More are likely to be announced soon.
  •  Slacker Radio will be bringing its 200 “expert-programmed” stations of news, talk, sports, and music to selected Chrysler models equipped with the Uconnect system, similar to Ford Sync.
  • Giant radio station owner Clear Channel will integrate its iHeart Radio into Chrysler and General Motors vehicles. It also introduced iHeartRadio for Auto, a version of its app that will be offered through after-market radio vendors.
  • Not to be left behind, Greater Media is bringing 16 of its terrestrial radio stations to the mobile Web and Ford vehicles via Ford Sync. Drivers can listen to their favorite radio stations from places like Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Detroit and New Jersey wherever they are driving – all without touching their smartphone.
  • News junkies, meanwhile, will be able to access, navigate, search and listen to morning and evening editions of the USA TODAY headline content, again via Ford Sync.

Time to fill

If all this sounds a little far-fetched, consider for a moment that the average American who drives to work spent 46 minutes per day on the road. That's a lot of time to fill, and listening to music or news/talk is the obvious solution.

The question for automakers is whether there's a way for them to cash in on any of this, over and above what they get for the hardware and software that's installed in the car.

Roomsful of MBAs are no doubt running scenarios at this very moment, looking for ways that carmakers can get their fingers into the pot somehow. Could it be that someday the likes of Ford and VW will be producing entertainment, information and data-processing services for the drivers and passengers in their well-connected cars?

It might sound outlandish but not long ago, it was considered foolish to think Americans would pay more than $30 a month for cable TV service.

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RHA headphones are smaller but compare well to their bigger competitors

We compared them to some of the top brands with good results

If you haven’t noticed yet, headphones have gotten pretty big in size lately.There seems to be a new correlation that has developed between hi...

PhotoIf you haven’t noticed yet, headphones have gotten pretty big in size lately.

There seems to be a new correlation that has developed between high-quality listening devices and their size, because several companies like Beats by Dre and Soul by Ludacris, have released some pretty well-received headphones that are big  and cover the ears from top to bottom.

The big headphone craze is a total departure from the earbuds that really came onto the scene when Apple made the average consumer want to listen to music on the go rather than at home through huge house speakers.

That’s certainly not to say that people don’t crank up the old home stereo anymore, it’s just that the new generation of music fans would rather access a digital music catalogue--that contains thousands of songs--rather than buy an album and soak it up on their living room couch.

And because of this shift in the way folks listen to music, the electronic music device became the common way people access their favorite songs, and headphones, which weren’t really on the minds of consumers that much before, became the common accessory for people who wanted to maximize the power of their mp3 player or smartphone.

Buds to cups

And just when you thought consumers would stick with that skinny white chord to listen to their devices, you slowly but surely saw more people replacing earbuds with colossal-sized ear cups, which many people associate with a better and more powerful sound.

PhotoBut why haven’t more companies developed circular headphones that are smaller in size but still pack a serious musical punch?  Since lighter headphones are easier to stick in your bag and wear around your neck between listens, you'd think they'd be more popular.   

The RHA SA950i headphones are in this category of smaller headphones, as the British company that designed them created a pair of listening tools that are much smaller in size compared to other brands. And for that very reason, I was interested to see how they would measure up.

I wanted to compare the RHAs to some of the better headphones that we reviewed over the course of 2012 like the Sennheiser HD 558s and the Bose Audios, just to see where they fit in terms of design, overall power and sound clarity when a device is played at maximum volume.

Applecentric

But first a little bit about the RHA SA950i headphones:

The company says the headphones are designed and engineered at RHA’s research and development center in Glasgow, United Kingdom, which suggests that some sort of science and research has been put into making the headphones, as opposed to just slapping them together with a cool look and average sound.

The SA950i comes in jet black and the outside of the cups are coated in a smooth titanium material that gives the listening device a sleek fiberglass look.

PhotoThe cable is made of braided fabric and looks like a thin string rather than a wire, and on the cable sits a sliding remote control that allows you to manipulate the volume, forward a song, rewind it, pause it or play it.

The tiny remote control also lets you use the headphones as a microphone to record your voice or capture your surroundings.

But the remote can only be used with iPhones, iPods and iPads, as the headphones are really made to be used with Apple products, but you can still use them on other devices--including your laptop and home computer--but in these instances you won’t be able to use the remote control.

One of the best features of the headphones is their light weight and extreme portability, as I noticed the cups sat comfortably on my ears without creating an annoying heaviness. They also didn’t cause my ears to feel suffocated or overheated like a lot of bigger headphones can do.

The overall design of the RHAs is pretty spiffy too, so if you’re into a stylish  headphone that’s not too teenage-looking they may be right up your alley.

Compared to the Sennheisers for example, the RHA headphones win in the design category as they are more pleasant to look at and the foam padding inside the ear cups make for a much more comfortable fit.  

Half the size

The SA950i model is about half the size of Beats by Dre headphones and easier to carry, which comes in handy if you’re a person that stays on the go and has to shuffle headphones in and out of a bag during travels.

And how did the RHAs compare to the better headphones that we reviewed this year in terms of power and clarity?

When played against the Sennheisers, I can’t say the RHAs beat out the German headphones in fullness of sound, as it appears the Sennheiser company really made the type of headphones that are worn in music studios and by studio engineers.

But that’s not to say the RHA headphones lacked power, as each song that was played thumped very strongly without losing detail of sound or removing the richness of each tune.

And although the UK-made headphones didn’t exceed the clarity levels of Beats by Dre or Bose models, they still held their own for such a small and portable listening device. 

This power was evident when I played songs with a lot of alternating highs and lows, as string instruments were heard with a shrieking crispness and I was able to hear the clear sound of thumbs being used on bass guitars.

Now mind you, the RHA SA950i headphones