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Getting rid of private mortgage insurance

It can be a big addition to your monthly house payment

If you purchased a home with less than 20% down, chances are you are paying for private mortgage insurance (PMI) each month. Added to your principal, inter...

PhotoIf you purchased a home with less than 20% down, chances are you are paying for private mortgage insurance (PMI) each month. Added to your principal, interest, tax and insurance (PITI), it can make for a rather hefty monthly payment.

PMI is nothing new, but lenders have been more relentless in insisting on it since the housing meltdown. In short, it's an insurance policy in case you default on your mortgage.

During the Great Recession lenders lost hundreds of billions of dollars because they foreclosed on properties that were worth much less than the amount of the mortgage. When a buyer puts up 20% of the purchase price as a down payment, the lender is fairly sure they can get their money back if things go sour.

Banks got burned

Even if the house has lost some of its value, the thinking goes, the bank should be able to sell it for 80% of its original value. That proved not to be the case, of course, when homes in some markets plunged by 50% or more but that's still the theory.

PhotoThese days, unless you can make a 20% down payment you're going to be saddled with a PMI payment, which generally runs $40 to $50 per month for each $100,000 of mortgage. PMI for a $200,000 mortgage will cost $80 to $100 a month – on top of your mortgage payment. If you have questionable credit, the PMI could be much higher.

If you are already paying PMI, you can ask your lender to cancel the insurance when you get to the point where you have 20% equity in the property. But expect a vigorous discussion with your lender when you make such a request. It might entail a new appraisal if the lender isn't convinced your home is worth what you think it is.

Not in any rush

Your lender may automatically cancel PMI when your equity reaches 20%, but again, expect your lender to be slow to reach this decision. In fact, some lenders won't automatically cancel your PMI until they think your equity has reached 22%.

PhotoOrdinarily, a lender terminates PMI when the loan is scheduled to reach a 20% equity point. But because home values fell nearly everywhere over the last four years, that line has become blurred. If your home value is deemed to have fallen, the lender can classify it as "risky," requiring you to continue to pay PMI.

If you think you have reached the point of 20% equity, your first step should be to ask your lender to cancel the PMI. They might or might not, but it's certainly worth a try. If real estate in your neighborhood has been stable for a couple of years and you've made all your payments on time, it's possible the lender will look kindly upon your request.

If your home has increased in value recently, that can also help you shed PMI. If you bought the house for $150,000 and the house is now worth $175,000, the extra $25,000 in value goes to your equity. If you put $15,000 down and have since paid $8,000 on the principle, the mortgage is just $127,000 on a house worth $175,000 – giving you about 28% equity, more than enough to ditch the PMI.

Refinancing

Another way to get rid of PMI is to refinance your mortgage. If you are convinced you now own 20% of your home but just can't seem to convince your lender, try to find another lender. If you are correct, you should be able to find a loan that will not require you to pay PMI. It worked out for Philip, of Orange Calif.

Amerisave Mortgage Feb. 28, 2013, 3:20 p.m.
Consumers rate Amerisave Mortgage
“Although the refinance process lasted three months, Amerisave finally approved my loan, eliminated PMI (huge savings) and waived the impound account at no cost to me,” Philip wote at ConsumerAffairs. “In summary, Amerisave save me roughly $400 by a combination of better interest rates and elimination of PMI.”

Even if you are a bit shy of 20%, there is a way to drop PMI through refinancing. It's called 80-10-10 financing and it's actually two loans.

You take a first mortgage for 80% of the value and take a second mortgage for 10%. Your equity in the home makes up the remaining 10%.

The drawback are the fees associated with closing two loans, and the fact that the rate on the second mortgage will likely be a little higher. But if it allows you to get rid of PMI years ahead of schedule, you may come out better in the long run.

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Report finds technical support lacking for home network users

Home users are having to become their own "experts" to keep their networks running

Remember the days when most homes had a single computer, connected to the Internet with a phone line running directly to its modem?Today, the average hom...

PhotoRemember the days when most homes had a single computer, connected to the Internet with a phone line running directly to its modem?

Today, the average home might have a couple of desktops, a laptop or two, a tablet and several smartphones that are connecting to a home network through a router. Parks Associates, an international research firm, estimates that 78% of U.S. broadband households had a home network router in 2012, up from 54% in 2009.

With all this sophisticated connectivity, it's little wonder consumers encounter problems and frustrations with their home networks.

Complaints

The signal keeps dropping out,” Jim, of Sodus, Mich., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “In order to get it to work I have to unplug the NETGEAR N900 Router that comes from the satellite box every 15 minutes to 2 hours.”

Jim also complains that the satellite Internet provider's tech support is of little to no help, a complaint echoed by Greggory, of Centerville, Ohio, who says AT&T Uverse was no help when he experienced network problems.

“Still have big problems with the computers at the far end of house, about 60 feet from the hot spot,” Greggory wrote. “I called AT&T customer service and a not so techy tech told me to move my computers closer to the hot spot. Move our office?”

Pearce, of Franklin, Va., blames his Century Link modem for his problems and he too is unhappy with the level of tech support he's received.

Just buy a new one

“I have spent at least 10 hours with technicians and it has never been fixed,” he writes. One tech said the best bet would be for me to go to a store and buy my own modem and router!”

PhotoParks Associates says the increasing number of frustrated consumers shouldn't come as a surprise.

"Tablets, game consoles and smartphones have been incredibly popular, but the influx of connected devices adds new layers of complexity to the connected home," said Patrice Samuels, a research analyst at Parks Associates. "Approximately 35% of broadband households experience home networking problems when trying to sync devices and enable functions."

That's a lot of problems. But unfortunately hardware manufacturers and service providers are not staffed up to provide the support that consumers think they should receive. That creates problems for everyone.

Problems create opportunity

"In today's world, customer experience has become paramount to every business's success," said James Morehead, Vice President Product Management and Corporate Marketing, Support.com. "With the wide adoption of wireless networks and connected technology, and the challenges that they are causing for consumers, companies have an opportunity to take customer experience management to the next level through premium support."

Not surprisingly, Parks Associates research finds 68% of U.S. broadband households are interested in new technical support services. Over 70% of these consumers say they would expect this service to address all of their technical problems, highlighting the importance of a comprehensive support solution that covers all of the devices and services on the home network.

Many of the problems are not directly related to a piece of hardware or the Internet service. Instead, there's a glitch in the network configuration that's causing the problem. Tech support personnel are rarely equipped or have the time to help with a problem they don't think is directly related to their company.

Unfortunately, consumers are often left to fend for themselves, “Googling” the problem to see how others have dealt with it and reaching out to others on message boards.

Add a repeater

One simple way to deal with weak signals and overloaded routers is to add a repeater. An inexpensive unit like the Amped Wireless Repeater goes for less than $100 and is easy to set up.

 
Photo
An Amped wireless repeater

If you have a large house, just position the Amped anywhere you can get a reasonably strong signal from your primary router. It should then provide a stronger signal -- a second network, basically -- in the area where the signal is currently weak. 

Our editor and nitpicker in chief has a couple of these scattered around his house. They allow him to smoke cigars outside while enjoying a strong signal on his laptop, he tells us. 

Also, adding a second router will give you a new bank of numbers. Without getting into the details and oversimplifying it rather dramatically, each device that's using your router -- and all the devices that used your router recently -- have set aside space for themselves in your network.

If your book club comes over and each person has a smartphone, iPad, Nook or Kindle in tow, each of those devices stakes a claim to an address on your network, even after your literary friends have driven off in their SUVs.  Over time, this adds up and if you don't clean out your router and start over, you'll run into problems. 

Instructions for cleaning house for your particular router should be readily available in the Support section of the manufacturer's website. 

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Ever hear of a smart table or smart bed?

The smartphone concept isn't just for your phone anymore

Since everyone started carrying smartphones it seems that a lot of consumers expect other electronics to be smart too.Like what’s a TV recording sy...

PhotoSince everyone started carrying smartphones it seems that a lot of consumers expect other electronics to be smart too.

Like what’s a TV recording system like Tivo if it doesn’t anticipate what shows you may want to record? Or what good is a new video recorder or camera unless it has a bevy of touch-screen capabilities?

Apparently, the convenience that smartphones and tablets offer these days makes using items that don’t have the same level of intuitiveness seem old-fashioned and annoyingly slow.

But fortunately, inventors and designers have been hard at work creating some extremely eye-popping products that either take the smartphone concept and apply it to the everyday item or build everyday items to better accommodate modern technology.

For example, the Sound Sofa by the company CSL should comfortably seat four to five people -- but the kicker here is that you can connect your Bluetooth, mp3 player or memory card to play music, and through its USB port you can attach your mobile device for recharging.

Photo

So instead of sitting on the couch and stretching the chord to the wall to use your laptop fully charged, you can simply plug it into the couch.

The Sound Sofa also comes with built-in speakers that the company says don't take away from the comfort, since they're built into the bottom corner of the sofa. Although one could be suspicious.

A possible downside for some may be that the speakers are extremely visible, so there’s a good chance the sofa will appeal more to either ardent music lovers or people who aren’t looking for excessive subtlety.

You can purchase the Sound Sofa in a variety of different color greys or in a shade of burgundy. There’s even a purple option for those who really love the color or happen to be huge Prince fans.

CSL is a UK-based company, but it does have an online showroom.

Multimedia bed

Although not yet available, a company by the name of HiCan is rumored to be releasing a futuristic multimedia bed that has a canopy and four walls that have blinds which go up and down upon your control.

PhotoIn addition, the all-purpose and wonderfully freakish bed has a high tech sound system, a Microsoft PC already built into it, a place to connect game consoles and perhaps best of all it’ll come with a huge high definition screen that’s attached to the wall at the foot of the bed.

It also comes with overhead lights attached to the ceiling for night reading.

By remote control you can also raise and lower the mattress, so watching a movie or playing a game will be more comfortable and it also comes in a bunch of cool-sounding colors like Sky, Green Grey and Ice which all complete the futuristic look.

No supplemental oxygen though.

You would probably expect a bed like this to cost a ridiculous amount of money, so you might not be too surprised to learn that it costs over $62,000, but for those who have that kind of dough -- and obviously some do -- you’ll have to contact the HiCan company directly to place an order.

Coffee table

Or if you have about $7,800 to spare, there's the Mozayo Professional Series M42 Pro Interactive coffee table. It has a 42-inch liquid crystal display screen, so you’re able to use the table as you would a smartphone or a computer.  

PhotoIt also comes with a premium Dell Commercial Grade system computer built right inside.

The Mozayo has a water-resistant and stain-proof touch-screen, so it can be used as both a coffee table and a life sized smartphone at the same time and the table itself is beautifully designed and would make a fine addition to any rustic-colored living room, even if it didn’t have the 42-inch screen embedded.

Clearly, the California-based company did a stellar job of marrying functional use and creative design with technological innovation, which isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. That's assuming, of course, that it works. We didn't have the chance to try it out in person.

In fact all of these innovators have merged the idea of comfortable furniture and modern-day gadgetry quite well. Now if someone can just design a way for most of us to afford this kind of stuff that would be even better.

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E-Cigarette use is growing, study finds

The question is: Are smokers using e-cigs to quit or are they smoking more than ever?

Everything else is electronic today, so why not cigarettes? That seems to be the thinking behind the growing use of electronic cigarettes, though whether t...

PhotoEverything else is electronic today, so why not cigarettes? That seems to be the thinking behind the growing use of electronic cigarettes, though whether this is a good thing is open to question.

If e-cigarettes replace traditional cigarettes, the net effect might be good, since the e-cigs emit fewer toxins than the real thing. But if people end up using both -- like avid readers who tote around both books and e-books -- it would be a different story, health officials say.

“If large numbers of adult smokers become users of both traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes — rather than using e-cigarettes to quit cigarettes completely — the net public health effect could be quite negative,” said Tim McAfee, MD MPH, director of the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Research is needed to assess how e-cigarette marketing could impact initiation and use of traditional cigarettes, particularly among young people, the CDC said.

Anti-smokers huff and puff

One group that's already made up its mind is Americans for Non-Smokers Rights. It's gone on a crusade against the marketers of e-cigarettes, claiming they are using press releases and social media to tout the benefits of their product, despite a lack of independent peer-reviewed scientific evidence demonstrating the safety or effectiveness.

E-cigarettes don't just produce harmless water vapor, the group claims. Instead, they say, they pollute indoor air with detectable levels of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals.

"What I find most egregious are the direct advertisements with false and misleading claims, including that e-cigarettes are effective smoking cessation devices, that e-cigarette use is permissible in all indoor environments, including venues that are smoke-free, and targeting pregnant women claiming that e-cigarettes are safer and healthier than other tobacco products," said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Non-Smokers Rights.

Usage is up

PhotoOne thing's sure: more people are trying e-cigarettes.

In 2011, about 21 percent of adults who smoke traditional cigarettes had used electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, up from about 10 percent in 2010, according to a study released today by the CDC.  

Overall, about six percent of all adults have tried e-cigarettes, with estimates nearly doubling from 2010.

“E-cigarette use is growing rapidly,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH. “There is still a lot we don’t know about these products, including whether they will decrease or increase use of traditional cigarettes.”

During 2010–2011, adults who have used e-cigarettes increased among both sexes, non-Hispanic Whites, those aged 45–54 years, those living in the South, and current and former smokers and current and former smokers.  In both 2010 and 2011, e-cigarette use was significantly higher among current smokers compared to both former and never smokers. 

Awareness of e-cigarettes rose from about four in 10 adults in 2010 to six in 10 adults in 2011.

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Class action says Hertz overcharged its customers

Suit says Hertz charged too much sales tax

A class action lawsuit accuses Hertz of gypping customers by charging too much sales tax.The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York by Napol...

PhotoA class action lawsuit accuses Hertz of gypping customers by charging too much sales tax.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York by Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik, LLP, charges that Hertz violated New York and other states' laws by issuing customer coupons and discounts, while knowingly imposing sales tax on the pre-discount total.

This unlawful practice has resulted in the overcharging of Hertz customers, according to the suit.  

"This overcharge scheme by a multinational multibillion dollar corporate giant may have cheated Hertz's customers out of many millions of dollars," the law firm said in a press release.

"New York and other states have passed legislation and regulations disallowing this predatory behavior and to protect the public from this unscrupulous business practice that attempts to overcharge customers under the veil of the tax code," the firm said. "The class complaint seeks Hertz's compliance with these laws and regulations and the return of all improperly charged costs and fees to class members."

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New Jersey firm recalls chicken sausage product

The sausage may contain small pieces of plastic

Schmalz's European Provisions of Springfield, NJ, is recalling approximately 8,424 pounds of chicken and apple sausage that may contain small pieces of pla...

PhotoSchmalz's European Provisions of Springfield, NJ, is recalling approximately 8,424 pounds of chicken and apple sausage that may contain small pieces of plastic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 12 oz. vacuum packages of "Applegate Organics Chicken and Apple Sausage" with "Use or Freeze By 03/17/13" on each package.

The recalled product bears the establishment number "P-5411" inside the USDA mark of inspection. It was produced on January 24, 2013, and sold in retail stores nationwide and through limited Internet sales in New Jersey.

The problem was discovered after the company received three consumer complaints. There have been no reports of injury at this time.

Consumers with questions should contact Gina Asoudegan, public affairs specialist, or Gerry Clarkson, consumer affairs specialist, at (800) 587-5858.

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Hey!! The economy actually grew in the final three months of 2012

But the rate of expansion was minuscule

Back in January, the government reported that the real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property in t...

PhotoBack in January, the government reported that the real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property in the United States -- declined a bit. But now, after recrunching the numbers, the Commerce Department reports the GDP increased -- a bit.

According to the second estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the economy grew 0.1%. The earlier estimate had it contracting 0.1%. The latest estimate is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month.

A tiny change

The upward revision to the percent change in real GDP is smaller than the average revision from the advance to second estimate of 0.5 percentage point. While the direction of change in real GDP was reversed, the general picture of the economy for the fourth quarter remains largely the same as what was presented last month.

The increase in real GDP in the fourth quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), or consumer spending; nonresidential fixed investment and residential fixed investment. These were were partly offset by declines in private inventory investment, federal government spending, exports and state and local government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased.

The slowdown in real GDP in the fourth quarter primarily reflected downturns in private inventory investment, in federal government spending, in exports, and in state and local government spending that were partly offset by an upturn in nonresidential fixed investment, a larger decrease in imports, and an acceleration in PCE.

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Mailbox: Is this how checking your email should be in 2013?

The creators promise blissful euphoria, which may be going a little far

Remember when being able to send an email seemed futuristic?Do you remember when the very idea of being able to send an instant message to someone withou...

PhotoRemember when being able to send an email seemed futuristic, when the very idea of being able to send an instant message to someone without pulling out a pen and paper seemed George Jettsonish?

It seems the moment that email became available it changed many of us from occasional letter-writers, who only sent letters on special occasions, to full-on correspondents who contacted people for just about any reason, even if it was just to say a quick hello.  

Also, email made it easier for people to keep up with the hard-to-get-in-touch-with types.

But just like any other revolutionary invention, the revolution was short-lived and before you knew it, checking your inbox went from an anticipated daily event, to something you looked forward to about as much as you did to checking your physical mailbox.

And once social media sites swooped down from the digital skies and took over the Internet, email took a back seat while pages like Facebook and Twitter shared the driver’s seat and advanced the vehicle of communication to much greater speeds.

Another shot at steering

Well, a company by the name of Orchestra Inc. wants to give email use another shot at the steering wheel by releasing the very buzzed-about app Mailbox, that’s supposed to make checking your messages way easier by allowing you to quickly swipe them into various categories.

It’s like the creators of the app took the concept of message filtering and added a much-needed 2013 twist to it.

PhotoArguably the best feature of the app is that users don’t have to click on emails the traditional way, since it lets you swipe messages back and forth and allows you to really control how messages are accessed.

And just like you swipe images on your smartphone screen, Mailbox lets you quickly put messages in places like your trash bin or in your archives and it allows you to move emails to virtual folders that can later be opened.

But unlike traditional email folders, users can place messages into very specific destinations, which helps, since most of us tend to read different emails at different times of the day or week.

Users can store messages in specific locations named “later today,” “the weekend,” “next week” or “in a month,” and once you make your selection messages will be resent to you, so you don’t have to manually check those folders in order to read them. You can also select a date as to when the email will arrive in your inbox again.

Take a number

What’s also different about Mailbox is that people have to reserve a slot in order to access it, and the reason for that is twofold.

For one, there’s been a crazy demand for the new app, which recently launced and two, the company is using this reservation system to build even more buzz and anticipation, which so far seems to be working.

For those who downloaded the app prior to its launch, users can simply enter their registration code and begin using it, but for those who are newly interested you have to download it, which puts you on a first-come-first-serve waiting line.

You can also watch your place in the waiting line once you download the app, so you’ll have a basic idea of when you’ll be able to use it. The company also sends you a message that lets you know that your access is available.

The co-creator and CEO of the app, Gentry Underwood, said having the ability to specify where emails go, according to how you want to read them, allows your inbox to become less muddled and lets people manage how they're contacted.

“We want to decide ‘do I need to reply now,’ can I deal with this later,’ or ‘should I get it out of the way and never deal with it again,’” he said in a published interview.

Blissful euphoria

“That creates a very different experience and peace of mind where you know that everything is in its place. All of a sudden you can have the blissful experience without developing the ninja-like discipline and that’s the secret sauce behind this more euphoric experience.”

Honest, he really said that. And maybe it's a good thing because not everyone is feeing blissful or euphoric.

Over at BusinessInsider, columnist Nicholas Carson griped that after waiting two weeks to active Mailbox, he deleted it in just two days.

Why? "Mailbox makes you deal with one email at a time," he grumped. The whole idea is to save time, not create more busywork, he said.

Bonnie Cha at AllThingsD was a bit more pleased: "It has its limitations. Namely, it only works with Gmail accounts, and it doesn’t automatically sync labels. But I found the ability to set aside messages with reminders to respond later to be extremely useful."

Will it work for you? Well, it might. There's only one way to find out.
.


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How not to overspend on a car or truck

Study finds few consumers can afford the average-priced vehicle

New and used car sales continue to remain strong in a sluggish economy, as millions of consumers find they can get financing for the vehicle of their choic...

PhotoNew and used car sales are remaining strong in a sluggish economy, as millions of consumers find they can get financing for the vehicle of their choice. But behind those bullish car sales numbers is cause for concern, according to a personal finance webite. 

“What really got us going was when we saw the average cost of a new car or truck last year was $30,000,” said Mike Sante, managing editor of Interest.com. “And that just seemed like an extraordinary amount of money.”

So much money that Sante and his staff wondered how consumers could afford it. They conducted a study and found that, for the most part, they can't.

They studied the top 25 cities and calculated the average income. It turns out that residents of only one city – Washington, DC – could afford to pay $30,000 for a car, based on a sound personal finance metric that we'll get to later. According to this formula the average consumer in Houston can only afford a $19,000 car. The average consumer in Philadelphia can only afford to pay $21,000.

You can buy it anyway

So, if nobody can afford to buy a $30,000 vehicle, how are they doing it? Simple, says Sante, they're being sold cars they can't really afford.

Photo“What really defines affordability?” Sante asked. “Unfortunately, I think most people define that by how much the monthly payment is. A lot of people think, if the check doesn't bounce I must be able to afford it.”

But when they do that, they're inefficiently allocating their resources. They're taking a lot of money out of their pockets they could use to invest in themselves, or save up a reserve fund.

They're strapped, and they might not understand why. Chances are, it's because of the expensive vehicle in the driveway. This doesn't happen by accident.

“If you go into a car dealership, one of the first things the salesman will ask you is 'how much of a payment do you think you can afford?'” Sante said. “I think that if you ask a lot of people, they don't have a very good sense of what's affordable. For most people, the car dealer ends up defining it. We're trying to figure out a way to get people to think about cars in terms of what they can really afford.”

20-4-10 rule

As part of their study, Sante and his staff interviewed a number of financial planners and adopted the 20-4-10 rule. When buying a car, you should put 20 percent down, finance it for no more than four years, and keep the principal, interest and insurance total for the year at no more than 10 percent of your annual gross income.

PhotoUsing that formula, you may not be able to afford a $30,000 vehicle, even though the dealer is perfectly happy to sell you one. If this sounds familiar, it should. It's exactly how the housing bubble started.

Before going car shopping, consumers should sit down and figure out how much car they can afford, without focusing on the monthly payment. Interest.com has an auto loan calculator that can help you decide what you can afford by plugging in some key numbers. 

You may discover you can't afford the car you really want. The good news is, there are plenty of new and late-model used cars that probably are in your price range.

For comparative purposes, the average price of a new car or light truck in 2012 was $30,550, according to TrueCar. That equates to a monthly payment of approximately $601. If your numbers are less than that, don't let the salesman sway you.

“The dealer wants it to be an emotional decision that wraps your self-esteem up in what you're driving,” Sante said. “We're trying to separate those things and say, this can't be an emotional decision. It needs to be a dollars and cents decision.”

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How to save on prescription drugs

Not having prescription drug coverage doesn't mean you have to pay a lot

Prescription drug costs are a growing part of rising health care costs. Some drugs are very expensive. Even those that carry a moderate cost can be a burde...

PhotoPrescription drug costs are a growing part of rising health care costs. Some drugs are very expensive. Even those that carry a moderate cost can be a burden if the prescription must be filled on a regular basis.

Many consumers have prescription drug coverage as part of their health benefits but for those who don't, paying for prescription drugs can be a problem.

An obvious way to save money is to always purchase generic drugs instead of name brands. It's the same medicine but the cost reflects the absence of research and development and marketing costs.

When your doctor prescribes a medication, ask if there is a generic equivalent. These days many pharmacists routinely fill a prescription with the generic if one is available. Generic drugs have exactly the same active ingredients and effects as brand-name drugs, but they can cost 30 percent to 80 percent less.

Foreign purchases a no-no

Some U.S. consumers try to save money by purchasing prescriptions from outside the U.S., but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says, not only is that illegal, it's a safety hazard.

Photo"When Americans import medicines illegally or buy medicines online from unreliable sources, they are faced with a dangerous buyer-beware situation," says FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford, D.V.M., Ph.D. "The FDA understands why people who are having a hard time paying for prescription drugs might do this. We have been expanding our generic drug program to help make more affordable prescription drugs available. This is one solution that does not put consumers at risk."

If patients can't afford the drugs their doctors prescribe, the FDA views that as a public health issue. That's why the FDA has enhanced the process for the review and approval of generic drugs, and has taken steps to eliminate roadblocks that keep generics off the market.

Where you purchase your prescriptions can make a difference. Walmart, Walgreens and some other national chains have lists of generics they sell for $4 for a 30-day supply. The lists of these drugs are on their individual websites. Before filling your prescription, check to see if your generic drug happens to be one that's sold for $4.

Mail order

Some consumers try to save money by using mail order pharmacies, though this system can have its glitches and frustrations.

“I placed an order with Medco (now Express Scripts) seven days ago,” Jane, of Montclair, N.J., reported on Feb. 15. “They have sent me several e-mails in that time saying that they could not reach my physician to approve the order. I had tried to transfer my prescription from my retail pharmacy to Medco.

"The only reason I was doing this was because if I don't use Medco, the pharmacy charges me $200. Anyway, they wouldn't transfer the prescription and said they had to speak to my doctor to have her fax in a new one. When I called my doctor on Tuesday, her receptionist said they hadn't heard anything from Medco. Now today, I got another e-mail saying that they could not reach my doctor and they'd cancel the order by Tuesday if they couldn't get through.”

And mail order pharmacies are not always cheaper, according to Dr. Norman Carroll, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Surprising local savings

Carroll reviewed millions of Medicare Part D prescription drug event (PDE) data has found that community pharmacies provide 90-day medication supplies at lower cost than mail order pharmacies. Not only that, he said he found that local pharmacists substitute lower-cost generic drugs more often when compared to mail order pharmacies.

"Local community pharmacists not only offer expert medication counseling face-to-face, but they also provide affordable access to prescription drugs and are leading the way in the appropriate use of lower-cost generic drugs," said NCPA CEO B. Douglas Hoey, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association.

The key, of course, is being able to purchase a 90-day supply rather than 30 days.

Help from big pharma

Finally, pharmaceutical companies themselves may be able to help if you can show that you cannot afford prescription medicine. Several companies offer programs that allow consumers to take a discount drug card to the pharmacy to get a discount off of the price of prescription drugs. And most major pharmaceutical companies offer programs which give free or low-cost medicines to people in need.

For example, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) operates its Orange Card program. It offers 20 percent to 40 percent off the usual price of the company's drugs, and is open to older people who are without health insurance and who have an annual income not exceeding $30,000 to $40,000 for a couple.

Merck's discount program offers discounts of 15 percent to 40 percent on many of the company's medicines to uninsured patients, regardless of age or income. About 15,000 people signed up for the program within the first few weeks that it began in April 2005, the company says.

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Cablevision-Viacom stand-off may be the beginning of the end for bundled TV

It's only a matter of time before cable "tiers" break up and float away

They may be old but Charles Dolan, 86, and Sumner Redstone, 89, have their eyes on the future -- and what they see there may be what all of us will be look...

PhotoThey may be old but Charles Dolan, 86, and Sumner Redstone, 89, have their eyes on the future -- and what they see there may be what all of us will be looking at eventually.

Dolan controls Cablevision, a major cable TV provider, while Redstone controls Viacom and CBS. Their current tussle involves "bundling" -- the practice whereby cable TV systems sell "tiers" of service to us couch sprouts. 

You can't just call up Cablevision and say you want to subscribe to MTV, Nickelodeon and the Comedy Channel, Viacom's most popular cable channels. 

One reason you can't is that Viacom and other program providers require cable systems to buy a package of channels -- not just, to extend the example, MTV, Nick and the Comedy Channel but also Tr3s and Palladia, two of Viacom's lesser-known channels. 

The cable industry, which has never been shy about putting the hammer down when it comes to setting prices, is beginning to fret as the average monthly cable bill nears the $100 mark and as Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming giants begin cherry-picking some of the best shows and series.

In a weak economy, $100 is a lot of money to shell out every month just to watch TV when, after all, when you can do it for next to nothing through Internet streaming.

Cablevision Feb. 27, 2013, 8:24 p.m.
Consumers rate Cablevision

The cable industry -- not just Cablevision -- would like to get a handle on all this but the big program producers aren't showing any mercy. So Dolan has taken the first shot -- filing a federal antitrust suit against Viacom in U.S. Federal District Court in New York.

Cablevision charges that Viacom twisted its arm in the last contract negotiations, forcing it to carry and pay for numerous obscure channels that do nothing but line Viacom's pockets at Cablevision's expense.

Viacom fired back, vowing to "vigorously defend this transparent attempt" by Cablevision to squirm out of its two-month-old agreement.

No one is required to feel sorry for either Dolan or Redstone but it will be interesting to watch this unfold, as this may be the time when the cookie starts to crumble and cable TV becomes a lot more like Netflix and Amazon.  

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Don't get swept up by the Shark Navigator infomercial claims

The little vacuum may be OK but there are plenty of other models to choose from

The Shark Navigator is one of those intriguing gadgets featured on low-budget infomercials. Priced at around $150, it's a lightweight, battery-powered vacu...

PhotoThe Shark Navigator is one of those intriguing gadgets featured on low-budget infomercials. Priced at around $150, it's a lightweight, battery-powered vacuum cleaner that, like all infomercial-hyped items, claims to be unlike any vacuum cleaner you've ever experienced.

But is it really?

Christine of Vienna, Ohio, has a love-hate relationship with the Shark. 

"I have had at least a dozen or so Shark products, about 8 have been Shark Navigators," she said in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "Each one quit working within months. I don't know why I keep buying them. Maybe it's the price or that when it works, it is a great machine."

OK, so maybe it's turning into more of a hate relationship?

"After just a few months either the cord becomes defective or the motor just quits altogether. They say they have a 5-year warranty, but don't believe it. I am so dissatisfied and angry. I will never purchase another vacuum made by Shark. I have also owned the shark steam mop and it also quit making steam after about 10 uses."

Paulalee of Tampa had even worse luck with her Shark, which she said started shooting sparks and flames after she recharged the battery. 

"The battery melted and I discovered that a replacement battery with shipping is nearly $30.00. Too bad. It should be improved because it would be a nice household item," she said ruefully.

Shark Navigator Vacuum Feb. 27, 2013, 4:42 p.m.
Consumers rate Shark Navigator Vacuum

Christine of Cambridge, N.Y., didn't see any sparks but her Shark quit working after one month anyway.

"I called the customer service number. Together, over the phone we did some trouble-shooting. It was determined that the power nozzle, the main part of the vacuum, was the problem," she said. "At first they wanted to charge me $99.99 for this new part. I told them it was supposed to be under warranty for 5 years. Then I was told I would be receiving this new part free of charge."

But a few months later the part hadn't shown up and Christine was stuck with a non-functioning vacuum. It sounds similar to what happened to Doris of Bethlehem, Pa.

"My Shark Euro-pro has disconnected at the bottom of the machine...there is a red button that will not stay connected and therefore I cannot use the vacuum. I've only used it for one month."

PhotoOther consumers have had problems with the supposed "free trial," which turned out not to be free, and with various payment and delivery issues.

If you're looking for a small, battery-powered vacuum there are plenty out there. The Shark may be OK but instead of ordering directly via the infomercial, we'd recommend paying a visit to Amazon's or Walmart's battery-powered vacuum page. Both offer a wide variety of brands, including Hoover, Eureka and Black and Decker and a broad range of prices, including quite a few models under $100.

Better yet, drop by a Walmart, Best Buy, Sears or other big retailer and check out the various models before you spend your money. Any major online or bricks-and-mortar retailer will have a clear return policy so you're not left holding the bag if your purchase turns out to be a disappointment.

 

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Teen driver deaths rise in 2012

Deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers up 19 percent

Although overall traffic fatalities are on the decline, that's not the case with younger drivers. The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reports ...

PhotoAlthough overall traffic fatalities are on the decline, that's not the case with younger drivers.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reports the number of 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths in passenger vehicles increased dramatically for the first six months of 2012. Based on preliminary data supplied by all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths increased from 202 to 240 -- a jump of 19 percent.

Alarming increase

The new report -- the first state-by-state look at teen driver fatalities in 2012 -- was completed by Dr. Allan Williams, a researcher who formerly served as chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Dr. Williams surveyed GHSA members, who reported fatality numbers for every state and D.C.

Deaths of 16-year-old drivers increased from 86 to 107 (a 24 percent change), while the number for 17-year-old drivers went from 116 to 133 (a 15 percent change), a cumulative increase of 19 percent. Twenty-five states reported increases, 17 had decreases, and eight states and the District of Columbia reported no change in the number of 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths.

GDL laws may be a factor

Dr. Williams attributes much of the increase to the fact that the benefit of state Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) laws may be leveling off, as most of these laws have been in place for some time. Additionally, he speculates that improving economic conditions are contributing to an increase in teen driving, thus increasing their exposure to risk. “Based on 2011 final data and the early look at 2012,” he says, “it appears that we are headed the wrong direction when it comes to deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers.”

Dr. Williams stresses that while this is certainly not good news, deaths in this age group remain at a historically low level. “We are still at a much better place than we were ten or even five years earlier,” he notes. “However, the goal is to strive toward zero deaths, so our aim would be that these deaths should go down every year.”

Action urged

Kendell Poole, chairman of GHSA and director of Tennessee’s Governor’s Highway Safety Office, says any increase in highway deaths is unacceptable -- particularly among our teens. “We know from research and experience that teen drivers are not only a danger to themselves, but also a danger to others on the roadways. So these numbers are a cause for concern.” He pointed out. “As the report notes, a widespread strengthening of laws is still possible, and utilizing effective tools outside of GDL should be a focus. These include improving driver education and ensuring that scientifically based educational programs are available to new drivers.”

GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha stressed that while data are preliminary, she is concerned that signs point to a significant increase in 16- and-17-year-old driver deaths for 2012. She advises states to focus on strengthening GDL and programs that are data-driven, adding that states should consider implementing parent programs to help parents keep their teens safe. “Parents have a huge responsibility to ensure safe teen driving behavior,” she concludes, adding, “States can facilitate this by providing innovative programs that bring parents and teens together around this issue.”

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Amazon gets exclusive online rights to 'Justified' and 'The Shield'

Bidding war for popular shows heats up as Netflix, Amazon build their arsenals

Netflix had better watch it. There may not be room in town for both Netflix and Amazon Prime. Prime today got the drop on Netflix as it scored an excl...

PhotoNetflix had better watch it. There may not be room in town for both Netflix and Amazon Prime. Prime today got the drop on Netflix as it scored an exclusive deal to distribute a couple of FX shows -- "Justified" and "The Shield" -- online.

Amazon said it has reached a content licensing agreement with Sony Pictures Television to make Amazon Prime the exclusive location to watch FX's "Justified" and "The Shield."

Prime subscribers can watch the shows for free, while other Amazon visitors can purchase and download episodes for $1.99 apiece.

"Justified" is a gritty series bult around the deeds and misdeeds of Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal based in the backwater reaches of Kentucky, with Timothy Olyphant of "Deadwood" fame playing the lead.

It's been one of the most watched shows on Amazon Instant Video, where customers can purchase and download episodes for $1.99 each, and will now be available to Prime members at no additional cost, the company said.

In addition, Prime Instant Video will add the inner-city Los Angeles crime drama "The Shield" to its catalog.

“Justified" and "The Shield" are two fan favorites on Amazon,” said Brad Beale, Director of Digital Video Content Acquisition for Amazon. “We’re consistently looking for ways to make Prime even better – and one of the ways we’re doing that is adding shows like these that we know customers love.”

Amazon stole some thunder earlier this month when it acquired exclusive online rights to the PBS hit "Downton Abbey." 

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The buyers are out there: Pending home sales rise in January

Healthy gains were registered in every region except the West

The real estate market is humming, with pending home sales up in January. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports all regions but the West, whi...

PhotoThe real estate market is humming, with pending home sales up in January.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports all regions but the West, which is constrained by limited inventory, posted strong gains. But even that area showed slight improvement.

The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, rose 4.5 percent last month -- to 105.9 from a downwardly revised 101.3 in December. The index is is 9.5 percent above January 2012 and has been above year-ago levels for the past 21 months The data reflect contracts but not closings.

The January index is the highest reading since April 2010 when it hit 110.9, just before the deadline for the home buyer tax credit. Aside from spikes induced by the tax credits, the last time there was a higher reading was in February 2007 when it reached 107.9.

Inventory and affordability keys

Photo
Lawrence Yun, chief economist, National Association of Realtors

NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun says inventory is the key to this year's housing market. "Favorable affordability conditions and job growth have unleashed a pent-up demand,” he notes. “Most areas are drawing down housing inventory, which has shifted the supply/demand balance to sellers in much of the country. It's also why we're experiencing the strongest price growth in more than seven years."

Yun explains that over the near term, rising contract activity means higher home sales. But, he adds, “Total sales for the year are expected to rise less than in 2012, while home prices are projected to rise more strongly because of inventory shortages."

Regional sales

The PHSI in the Northeast rose 8.2 percent to 84.8 in January and is 10.5 percent higher than January 2012. In the Midwest the index increased 4.5 percent to 105.0 in January and is 17.7 percent above a year ago.

Pending home sales in the South rose 5.9 percent to an index of 119.3 in January and are 11.3 percent higher January 2012. In the West the index edged up 0.1 percent in January to 102.1 but is 1.5 percent below a year ago.

Yun expects approximately 5.0 million existing-home sales this year. However, price growth could exceed a seven percent gain projected for 2013 if inventory supplies remain low.

Previously, NAR had expected 5.1 million existing-home sales in 2013, while prices were forecast to rise 5.5 to 6.0 percent.

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Watch out for 'free trial offer' traps

Most free offers end up costing you time, money and maybe more

Free trial offers, used to market a variety of products sold online, are usually nothing more than a sucker pitch. The advertiser suggests the consumer can...

PhotoFree trial offers, used to market a variety of products sold online, are usually nothing more than a sucker pitch. The advertiser suggests the consumer can try the product for free, when in fact it's just a way to sell a full order of the product – sometimes several full orders.

When most consumers see a “free trial” offer, they reasonably think they will be allowed to try a sample at no charge, with no strings attached. The company, however, cannot afford to offer unlimited free samples unless it is assured of converting a large number of the free trials into sales. So sometimes they un-level the playing field.

They do this two ways. First, they set a very limited time for the consumer to receive and try the sample before they are charged for a full shipment. Second, they require the consumer to pay a nominal shipping and handling fee – usually around $2. It might not sound like much, but it's the key to charging you more later on.

The goal is to get your credit card

The consumer is required to pay this fee with their credit or debit card. When the marketer determines that the trial period has expired, it can then charge a full order to the consumer's card. And therein lies the rub.

In 2011 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) went to court to stop an operation it said took in more than $450 million from consumers by using “free” or “risk-free” offers for weight-loss pills and tooth whiteners, and then billed them for things they did not want or agree to purchase, providing false or misleading information to merchant banks in order to acquire credit and debit card processing services.

Consumers were often charged for the “free” trial plus a monthly recurring fee, typically $79.95. Consumers were also charged monthly recurring fees for the so-called bonus offers.

But legitimate companies also employ the “free offer” trap. They may follow the rules for such offers but consumers don't always understand that they must act promptly to prevent future charges. Consumers, then, have to be aware of the pitfalls of accepting a free offer.

Here are some products whose trial offers seem to draw a lot of complaints at ConsumerAffairs:

Hydroxatone

PhotoHydroxatone is a moisture cream that is supposed to keep skin looking younger. It offers consumers a free trial but many consumers complain they end up being charged for the product.

“They make it look like a free sample, but you pay for the postage by credit card,” Sean, of Victoria, British Columbia, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Then they charge you each month for the product whether you want it or not. They give you a small window of time to contact them to stop them from debiting your credit card. I'm pretty sure this is against the trades practices act.”

April, of Chicago, writes that she cancelled within the allotted time but was still charged for a full shipment.

SmileBrite

SmileBrite is just one of the teeth-whitening products that uses the free trial offer. Farah, of Ames, Iowa, reported she went for the $1.99 free trial but ended up getting charged $87.13.

Photo

“After reading the terms and condition, I quickly cancelled my order as I still able to do that within the time period,” Farah wrote.

But Farah says, despite being told by the company she would get a refund, she didn't.

Transunion

PhotoTransunion is one of the three credit reporting agencies that provide consumers with a variety of services that have to do with their credit. Many consumers who are in the midst of a major credit purchase will check their credit and sometimes go for the “free offers” in an effort to save a few dollars.

“Like most people here, I signed up for free trial and then when I tried to get my free report/print it the very next day, they charged me saying I'd upgraded,” Raychelle, of Charlotte, N.C., wrote. “They charged my card $29.99! There's no way I'd pay for something I know I can get for free! This is a major scam. And canceling the 7-day free trial is tricky too!”

Raychelle and others should keep in mind that, once a year, all consumers can check their credit reports at no charge at www.annualcreditreport.com.

The companies that offer free trials will insist that most unhappy consumers are simply not following the rules. But consumers overwhelmingly argue they are, or that the rules are impossible to follow. In many cases, the courts have sided with consumers.

A win for consumers

Last year the state of Washington brought action against Seattle-based Real Networks, claiming the software maker's free trials, and other marketing practices, were deceptive.

Photo“Deceptive pre-checked boxes and fine print obligated consumers to not-so-free trials for subscription services they didn’t want in the first place,” Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said at the time. “People were charged for months — sometimes years — paying hundreds of dollars for subscriptions they knew nothing about.”

Real Networks settled with the state and agreed to change its marketing practices. Consumers, meanwhile, should avoid the “free trial offer” trap.

Remember, if the company insists of getting your credit or debit card information, the chances are your trial offer isn't going to be free.

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Advanced breast cancer cases increasing in younger women

Younger women have a poorer prognosis so the findings are cause for concern

In a potentially ominous report, researchers have found "a small but statistically significant" increase in the incidence of advanced breast cancer in youn...

PhotoIn a potentially ominous report, researchers have found "a small but statistically significant" increase in the incidence of advanced breast cancer in younger women in the United States. 

“The trajectory of the incidence trend predicts that an increasing number of young women in the United States will present with metastatic breast cancer in an age group that already has the worst prognosis, no recommended routine screening practice, the least health insurance, and the most potential years of life,” the authors write a study appearing in the February 27 issue of JAMA.

"Young women with breast cancer tend to experience more aggressive disease than older women and have lower survival rates," the researchers noted. 

The study was conducted by Rebecca H. Johnson, M.D., of Seattle Children's Hospital and University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues, using data from three U.S. National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registries. 

“In the United States, breast cancer is the most common malignant tumor in adolescent and young adult women 15 to 39 years of age, accounting for 14 percent of all cancer in men and women in the age group. The individual average risk of a woman developing breast cancer in the United States was 1 in 173 by the age of 40 years when assessed in 2008," the article noted. 

Younger not always better

The researchers also found that the rate of increasing incidence of distant disease -- meaning malignancies that had metastisized, or spread to other parts of the body -- was higher in younger women. The greatest increase occurred in 25- to 34-year-old women. Progressively smaller increases occurred in older women by five-year age intervals and no statistically significant incidence increase occurred in any group 55 years or older.

“For young women aged 25 to 39 years, the incidence of distant [metastisized]  disease increased in all races/ethnicities assessed since at least 1992, when race/ethnicity became available in the SEER database,” the authors write. These increases occurred in both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, and were statistically significant in African American and non-Hispanic white populations.

The researchers said the causes for the increase are not known but said more study is needed.

"If verified, the increase is particularly concerning, because young age itself is an independent adverse prognostic factor for breast cancer, and the lowest five-year breast cancer survival rates as a function of age have been reported for 20- to 34-year-old women.

"The most recent national 5-year survival for distant disease for 25- to 39-year-old women is only 31 percent according to SEER data, compared with a 5-year survival rate of 87 percent for women with locoregional breast cancer,” the authors write.

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New service scans your snail mail, makes it easier to manage

Outbox reduces clutter, handles "unsubscribe" chores, lets you check mail from anywhere

This had to happen eventually. A feisty start-up called Outbox is offering a service that, for a few bucks a month, will turn your snail mail into ema...

PhotoThis had to happen eventually. A feisty start-up called Outbox is offering a service that, for a few bucks a month, will turn your snail mail into email, so you can delete it, forward it, save it or even unsubscribe from future mailings.

There's a physical element involved, of course. Outbox couriers come to your home a few days a week to pick up your mail and take it back to the mothership for scanning. This means that if you have a mail slot in your front door, you may have to do a little remodeling.

Outbox was founded in 2011 in Austin, Texas by Harvard classmates Will Davis and Evan Baehr. It's currently available only in Austin but is coming to San Francisco shortly, we're told.

"Outbox ushers postal mail into the digital era by making it social, interactive and sharable through a suite of mobile and web applications," the company says. "Outbox collects and manages postal mail on users’ behalf, discarding junk mail and enabling them to take action -- such as organize, prioritize, or unsubscribe -- on any piece of mail."

As Outbox explains it, mail is collected from customers' mailboxes three times a week and scanned the same day, making it available online.

PhotoIf the scanned mail includes a piece of mail you'd like to have physically delivered, Outbox promises it will do so in the next delivery after you request it.

And as for checks, if you see a check in your mail you can have it delivered physically or, better yet, if your bank accepts high-res scans of checks, you may just be able to send the scanned image to your bank.

The price for all this? $4.99 a month and Outbox swears there are no additional fees. 

It all leaves one big question unanswered though: Why didn't the Postal Service think of this?

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Researching colleges and tuition costs? Try these helpful sites

The College Scorecard and NextStepU make looking for colleges a bit easier.

There are many things that go into a student’s decision when their choosing a college, and for some, those reasons don’t really have much to do...

PhotoThere are many things that go into a student’s decision when they're choosing a college -- some related to academics, some to cost and some to location.

Sometimes people choose a school because other family members went there, so a student’s desires take second place to a sense of obligation and family pride.

There are also times when a high school student doesn’t have the proper amount of adult guidance and the college decision is simply left up to them, which can lead to students being placed in a school that doesn’t fit their passion or help them develop one. It's also hard for a student to generate excitement for a school if they don’t know enough about it.

Fortunately, there are some websites available that can at least help students get started on their college quest and although you’ll have to couple these sites with some good old-fashioned legwork by visiting schools and speaking to administrators, they can at least give you a basic amount of information that you can fill out later on.

College Scorecard

PhotoOne of the newer college sites comes from the U.S. Department of Education and was mentioned in President Obama’s last State of the Union address. It’s called “The College Scorecard,” which the President says will not only help parents and students decide which schools are best for them, but also help decide which schools will be best for their budget.

“My administration will release a new College Scorecard that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where can you get the most bang for your educational buck,” Obama said.

Parents and students can use the site in any number of ways by conducting searches by degree, major, size and location of the campus or campus setting.  You can plug a college name into the search field and pull up information that way too.

Once your search is completed, the screen brings up a digital scorecard that has each school's tuition cost, loan default rate, graduation rate, employment rate and the average amount that’s borrowed per student.

Photo
Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says the virtual scorecard is supposed to provide a quick college overview for students and will help them make a more informed decision compared to just a few years ago.

“We know students and families are often overwhelmed in the college search process, but feel they lack the tools to sort through the information and decide which school is right for them,” said Duncan. “The College Scorecard provides a snapshot about an institution’s cost and value to help families make smart decisions about where to enroll.”

NextStepU

Another useful site, which also serves as a good first step when researching colleges, is NextStepU.com. It lets you search for schools, find available scholarships and get guided tips on how to pay for school.

PhotoThe site also has different contests that users can join like writing competitions and contests where you can win tuition money, but it would probably be smart to stay away from these offers since you’ll most likely be inundated with annoying follow-up emails and non-stop promotional offers.

Although NextStepU doesn’t seem to provide the same depth of well-researched data as The College Scorecard, the site is still easy to navigate and has some helpful information about many different aspects of the college-hunting experience.

What’s a little annoying about NextStepU is that users will have to register to use some of its features, always an annoying step and one that raises privacy concerns.

But in an email, Diana Fisher, the site's publisher, said the only part of the site that requires registration (aside from the Win Free Tuition contest) is the Scholarship Search Tool.

"The rest of the site you are free to navigate at will. We abide by privacy laws and are quite strict in what we do with the registrations on the site, especially because they are teens and most are under 18," Fisher said.

But without signing up you can still do a quick college search based on your major and location and be able to see the cost of the school, the average amount of student aid awarded and some informational write-ups on each institution. Registered users can click on a link and contact a school of their choice to request information be sent to them.

Deciding on a school is no easy task and doing your homework can be a more cumbersome experience, but instead of picking up phones and using snail mail to get college info like many of us had to do back in the day, the process has been streamlined, thanks to technology and some creative educators who know just how difficult finding the perfect school can be.

These sites and others like them are also useful because parents can make sure their kids are choosing the right schools for the right reason and not making their selections solely based on where the campus is located and what the social scene will be like.

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The sequester: what's it mean for you?

If you don't work for the government, the impact may be slight

The “sequester,” a uniquely Washington word, has entered our economic vocabulary recently. What's it mean?It means on March 1, 2013, across t...

PhotoThe “sequester,” a uniquely Washington word, has entered our economic vocabulary recently. What's it mean?

It means on March 1, 2013, across-the-board cuts in government spending go into effect, meaning every non-entitlement federal program will have to cut its budget. It was designed to be a ticking time bomb, part of the debt ceiling negotiations of 2011. Under its provisions, either lawmakers came to an agreement on deficit reduction in the following months or a meat cleaver would be taken to the federal budget.

"The sequester was intentionally designed to be bad economic policy in order to motivate a political compromise on a better substitute," said Bank of New York Mellon chief economist Richard Hoey. "The adoption of a fiscal policy intentionally designed to be dysfunctional in its impact appears to be a unique American policy innovation, one unlikely to be copied by other countries."

Tap dance

So, in effect, the sequester is all about a political tap dance. Democrats prefer to address the deficit through tax hikes, Republicans through spending cuts. Neither side has shown much willingness to budge.

Hoey believes that once the sequester takes effect lawmakers will actually try to come up with some sort of compromise. So, will you be affected by all of this?

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Hampton Roads Bridge & Tunnel

It depends. If you work for a major defense installation or a government contractor, you could be. In fact, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), whose district includes the Newport News Naval Shipyards and a number of naval facilities, says the effects of the sequester are already being felt.

“Work for shipyard workers has been delayed and many men and women in uniform have been asked to stay home just days before they were set to deploy, injecting a great deal of stress on service members and their families,” Wittman said. “The Hampton Roads military community and shipyard already know firsthand the effects of sequestration.”

If you work for the federal government you might also be affected, especially if you work for a national park. Some workers might be furloughed, although for how long is a subject of debate.

Little impact in the private sector

If you work in the private sector, however, there may be little impact. The latest Wage Trend Indicator from Bloomberg BNA suggests little change in annual wage growth for private sector workers in the coming months. At the same time, if you are out of work it might make it harder to get hired.

"Labor market conditions overall have been improving slowly, but the economy remains somewhat weak," economist Kathryn Kobe, a consultant who maintains and helped develop Bloomberg BNA's WTI database, said. "Although the fiscal cliff has been avoided, there's still a lot of uncertainty about the economic impact of a possible federal budget sequester, and businesses appear hesitant to hire new employees," Kobe said.

National parks

Employees of, and visitors to national parks may feel some pain. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees projects sequestration will cut visitor access to the rim of the Grand Canyon, significantly delay the spring opening of key portions of Yellowstone and Yosemite, reduce emergency response help for drivers in the Great Smoky Mountains, limit access to the beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore, and impair the experiences in many other ways for millions of visitors at America's national parks.

PhotoIn addition, local, regional and state economies that depend on national parks will probably take hits as visitors are either turned away or skip visits due to the impact of the mindless sequestration budget cuts.

The group's report says sequestration will result in a much-reduced workforce, shutdowns of certain national park areas altogether or for extended period of times, closure of visitor centers and services, restrictions on the availability of campgrounds, visitor centers, comfort stations, and trail and other backcountry access. Additionally, the ability to respond to emergencies including wild fires will be sharply reduced.

Before you castigate Congress and the White House for being unable to reach an agreement on how to reduce the deficit, consider this Harris survey that suggests the American people can't even agree.

Public is divided

According to the survey, only 12% of the public want to see a cut in Social Security payments, 19% want to cut federal aid to education and 23% want to cut federal health care programs. But on the other hand, over three in ten U.S. adults want to see increases in spending for education (37%) and health care (31%).

The only programs of the 20 listed in the poll that half or more of Americans want to cut are foreign economic aid (77%), foreign military aid (74%), spending by regulatory agencies (55%), subsidies to business (54%), federal welfare spending (51%), and the space program (50%). Unfortunately, those programs account to only a tiny fraction of federal spending.

Which brings us to a final somber note. The sequester cuts, which have Washington in a panic, hack $85 billion a year from the federal budget. While that is a lot of money, consider this: the annual deficit is $1 trillion.

If reducing the deficit by a measly 0.85% can cause such alleged economic harm, it is difficult to see how the U.S. government will ever be able to live within its means.

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A bounce-back for consumer confidence

The jitters have eased -- for now, anyway

After posting a decline last month, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rebounded in February and now stands at 69.6 -- up from 1.2 from in Ja...

PhotoAfter posting a decline last month, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rebounded in February and now stands at 69.6 -- up from 1.2 from in January. The Present Situation Index increased to 63.3 from 56.2. The Expectations Index improved to 73.8 from 59.9 last month.

“Consumer Confidence rebounded in February as the shock effect caused by the fiscal cliff uncertainty and payroll tax cuts appears to have abated.” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions is more positive than last month. Looking ahead, consumers are cautiously optimistic about the outlook for business and labor market conditions. Income expectations, which had turned rather negative last month, have improved modestly.”

Present day improvement

Consumers’ assessment of present day conditions improved in February. Those claiming business conditions are “good” rose to 18.1 percent from 16.1 percent, while those stating business conditions are “bad” decreased to 27.8 percent from 28.4 percent.

Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was mixed. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” increased to 10.5 percent from 8.5 percent, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” edged up to 37.0 percent from 36.6 percent.

There was more optimism about the short-term outlook this month. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased to 18.9 percent from 15.6 percent, while those expecting business conditions to worsen declined to 16.5 percent from 20.4 percent.

Jobs & income

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was more positive. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead improved to 16.7 percent from 14.4 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs decreased to 21.5 percent from 26.7 percent.

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase rose to 15.7 percent from 13.5 percent, while those anticipating a decrease fell to 19.6 percent from 23.3 percent.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was February 14.

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New home sales soar in January

In addition, the past year was a good one for home prices

New home sales got off to a roaring start for 2013 as prices wrapped up a strong 2012. According to a joint report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Dep...

PhotoNew home sales got off to a roaring start for 2013 as prices wrapped up a strong 2012.

According to a joint report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, sales of new single-family houses shot up 15.6 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 437,000. That rate is 28.9 percent above the same period a year ago.

Regional sales

The advances was broad-based, with every region of the country posting gains.

The West led the way, with sales up 45.3 percent. The Northeast posted a gain of 27.6 percent, followed by the Midwest with an advance of 11.1 percent and the South edging up 3.2 percent

The median sales price of new houses sold in January rose to $226,400 from $221,700 a year earlier. The average sales price was $286,300, compared with $265,700 in January 2012.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of January was 150,000 – representing a supply of 4.1 months at the current sales rate.

A strong 2012 for prices

A leading measure of U.S. home prices ended last year with strong gains.

The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price national composite posted an increase of 7.3 percent for 2012. The 10- and 20-City Composites reported annual returns of 5.9 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively. Month-over-month, both the 10- and 20-City Composites moved into positive territory in December with gains of 0.2 percent more than reversing November’s losses.

In addition to the three composites, nineteen of the 20 MSAs posted positive year-over-year growth – only New York fell.

“Home prices ended 2012 with solid gains,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Housing and residential construction led the economy in the 2012 fourth quarter. In December’s report all three headline composites and 19 of the 20 cities gained over their levels of a year ago. Month-over-month, nine cities and both Composites posted positive monthly gains. Seasonally adjusted, there were no monthly declines across all 20 cities."

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Another strong quarter for U.S. housing prices

Prices were up another 1.4 percent in the final three months of 2012

What is probably your biggest investment is worth a little more these days The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA) reports house prices rose 1.4 perce...

PhotoWhat is probably your biggest investment is worth a little more these days

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports house prices rose 1.4 percent from the third quarter to the fourth quarter of 2012. The agency's seasonally adjusted purchase-only house price index HPI is calculated using home sales price information from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages.

Seasonally adjusted house prices rose 5.5 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011 to the fourth quarter of 2012 and the seasonally adjusted monthly index for December was up 0.6 percent from November.

A strong quarter

“The fourth quarter was another strong one for house prices, as it was the third consecutive quarter where U.S. price growth exceeded one percent,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “While a significant number of homes remained in the foreclosure pipeline, the actual number of homes available for sale was very low and fell over the course of the quarter.”

While the national, purchase-only house price index rose 5.5 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011 to the fourth quarter of 2012, prices of other goods and services rose 1.7 percent over the same period. Accordingly, the inflation-adjusted price of homes rose approximately 3.7 percent over the latest year.

The FHFA report also found:

  • The seasonally adjusted purchase-only HPI rose in the fourth quarter in 38 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Of the nine census divisions, the Pacific division experienced the strongest increase in the latest quarter, posting a 4.2 percent price increase. House prices were weakest in the East North Central division, where prices remained unchanged from the prior quarter.
  • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 25 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., fourth quarter price increases were greatest in the Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ, Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). That area saw prices increase by 6.8 percent between the third and fourth quarters. Prices were weakest in the Edison-New Brunswick, NJ, metropolitan division, where they fell 0.8 percent over that period.
  • The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the U.S. has increased for 11 consecutive months.
  • FHFA’s new “distress-free” house price index suggests that price gains in the latest quarter may be partially attributed to decreases in the share of distressed sales in the latest quarter. For 9 of the 12 metropolitan areas covered by the new set of indexes, the distress-free measures -- which remove the direct effect of short sales and sales of bank-owned properties -- showed more modest price gains than were evident in the traditional purchase-only indexes.
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Hercules recalls various tires

In-service belt and tread separations could cause a driver to lose control of the vehicle

Hercules Tire & Rubber Company (Hercules Tire) is recalling Hercules ALL TRAC A/T 10-ply Load Range E tires, sizes: LT215/85R16 115/112S, DOT Serial Numbe...

PhotoHercules Tire & Rubber Company (Hercules Tire) is recalling Hercules ALL TRAC A/T 10-ply Load Range E tires, sizes:

  • LT215/85R16 115/112S, DOT Serial Numbers JEHMECL5008-4010;
  • LT235/85R16 120/116S, DOT Serial Numbers JEKMECL4708-4010;
  • LT245/75R16 120/116S DOT Serial Numbers JEJKECL4608-4010;
  • LT265/75R16 123/120S, DOT Serial Numbers JENKECL4808-4010;
  • LT265/70R17 121/118S, DOT Serial Numbers JENJFCL5108-4010;
  • LT245/75R17 121/118S, DOT Serial Numbers JELKFCL5008-4010; and
  • LT225/75R16 115/112S, DOT Serial Numbers JEJKECL5108-4010.

These tires can experience in-service belt and tread separations. Should a separation occur, the driver could lose control of the vehicle without warning, which could increase the risk of a vehicle crash.

Hercules Tire will notify owners and replace the affected tires free of charge, including mounting and balancing. The recall is expected to begin during February 2013.

Owners may contact Hercules Tire at 1-888-965-5795 or by email at alltracresponse@HerculesTire.com for more information.

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New play yard safety rule set to take effect

Redesigned side rails to prevent strangulation are among the changes

There will soon be less of a chance that a small child will die or be seriously injured in a play yard. Beginning this Thursday (Feb. 28), manufacturers a...

PhotoThere will soon be less of a chance that a small child will die or be seriously injured in a play yard.

Beginning this Thursday (Feb. 28), manufacturers and importers of infant and toddler play yards are required to test their play yards to ensure that they meet new federal safety standards.

Play yards are framed enclosures with a floor and mesh or fabric side panels. Most can be folded for storage or travel.

New standards

Play yards that meet the new safety standard must have:

  • Side rails that do not form a sharp V when the product is folded. This prevents a child from strangling in the side rail.
  • Stronger corner brackets to prevent sharp-edged cracks and to prevent a side-rail collapse.
  • Sturdier mattress attachments to the play yard floor to prevent children from getting trapped or hurt.

The new play yard standard is one of many safety standards that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has passed as part of the Danny Keysar Child Product Safety Notification Act, or “Danny’s Law.”

Danny Keysar was killed in Chicago in 1998 when a previously recalled play yard in which he was napping collapsed, suffocating him. This new play yard standard was completed in honor of Danny and his family.

Various product safety standards

In addition to the play yard safety standard, CPSC has issued mandatory safety standards for cribs, children’s bed rails, baby bath seats, baby walkers, infant swings and toddler beds.

CPSC staff is currently working on safety standards for bedside sleepers, hand-held infant carriers, bassinets, and bassinet attachments to play yards and will propose rules this year for strollers, soft infant carriers and infant slings.

If you use a play yard, keep it bare when you put your baby in it. Each year, CPSC receives reports of infant suffocation deaths. Some key causes of these deaths are the placement of pillows and thick quilts in a baby’s sleeping space and/or overcrowding in the space.

More information on how to put your baby to sleep safely can be found here.

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Despite the evidence, calls for restricting video games move forward

Former FBI profiler says the games don't cause violence; researcher warns of "junk science"

Mary Ellen O'TooleEchoes of the Newtown Sandy Hook school tragedy are continuing to reverberate through the political atmosphere as politicians seek to s...

Photo
Mary Ellen O'Toole

Echoes of the Newtown Sandy Hook school tragedy are continuing to reverberate through the political atmosphere as politicians seek to shift some of the blame to violent video games, but scientists and even some high-ranking law-enforcement officials don't see the link. 

President Obama has called on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine whether there's a link between violent video games and real-life violence.

In Connecticut, state Rep. Debralee Hovey, whose district includes the Newtown area, isn't waiting for the answer. She has introduced a bill that would impose a "10% sin tax" on violent video games.

But on CBS' Face the Nation yesterday, a former FBI profiler said she and her colleagues don't see the games as a cause of shootings and other violent crimes, although conceding that they may sometimes be use as a sort of planning tool for carrying out attacks. 

"We don't see these as the cause of violence," Mary Ellen O'Toole said. "We see them as sources of fueling ideation that's already there."

Junk science

Photo
Christopher Ferguson

Appearing on the panel with O'Toole was Christopher J. Ferguson, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, who cautioned that national panics over violent incidents "can create junk science on video games."

Coincidentally, a new report published by Ferguson in the American Psychological Association’s flagship journal American Psychologist discusses the history of video game violence research, how video game violence research became politicized and dogmatic and the risks for this research in the future. 

Stating that video game violence research has always been inconsistent and often limited by significant flaws, Ferguson's report charges that moral panics over mass homicides and historical patterns of culture war drove politicians, activists and some scholars to make extreme statements about the “harmfulness” of violent games that could not be supported by the actual data. 

Although written before the tragic Sandy Hook shooting, the report highlights the risks that calls for research following Sandy Hook may become politicized, possibly compromising the scientific process. 

"The risks moving forward are that these politicized calls for research may create a new wave of junk science that will only further damage the credibility of the field," Ferguson said.

NSF gets involved

It was just a few weeks ago that a Virginia congressman released a report by a National Science Foundation advisory committee that named violent video games as one of three major risk factors linked to mass shootings. The other two were mental illness and easy access to guns.

Photo
Rep. Frank Wolf

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who had asked for the report and whose committee controls funding for scientific agencies, used the report to bludgeon President Obama for blaming gun violence on easy access to guns in his State of the Union Address.

"How can he in good conscience ... not acknowledge the fact that each one of the shooters in those events was mentally disturbed?  How could he not acknowledge the role that violent media played in some of their lives?" Wolf asked.

In a ConsumerAffairs guest column, Ferguson responded that the NSF report was "not credible." 

"It was a shame to see a credible group, the National Science Foundation (NSF), find its name attached to a report commissioned by a politician with a clear agenda that almost surgically avoided mentioning any research that conflicted with a highly ideological and alarmist view of media effects," Ferguson said.

He said the report "grossly misrepresents the field of video game violence."

Columbine set the stage   

In his American Psychologist article, Ferguson traces much of the anti-video game fever to the Columbine shootings. 

"In the political environment following the 1999 Columbine massacre some scholars made more and more extreme claims about violent media and games, and ultimately came to control policy statements made by the American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics," he said. 

"The result were policy statements that were filled with errors and omissions, and which continue to mislead the general public."

Ferguson's study calls for professional organizations and politicians to be more cautious and balanced in their approach to the topic in the future. 

 

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How to disable McAfee's auto renewal

If you don't disable it, you'll continue to be charged, even if you get a new debit card

Once you sign up for subscription services, chances are you will find your subscriptions renewed automatically unless you take steps to prevent it.Some c...

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Bricks-and-mortar purchases may drive online Facebook ads

Buying lots of Pampers? Expect to see Pampers ads -- and more -- on Facebooks

So let's say you're one of those people who values privacy. You don't like being tracked around the Web. Maybe you don't like to buy things online because ...

PhotoSo let's say you're one of those people who values privacy. You don't like being tracked around the Web. Maybe you don't like to buy things online because you think it helps marketers build a profile of you.

Well, see how you like this then. Facebook's latest bright idea is to let brands target ads to you based on what you've bought in stores, according to insiders quoted in Advertising Age.

So if this idea becomes reality and if you buy a lot of Diet Coke or order Nike running shoes frequently, you're liable to start seeing ads for Coke, Nike and related products when you're on Facebook.

How could anyone know all that about you? Well, you've heard of Big Data? Among other things, this term covers the massive amount of data that's constantly being collected and collated about individual consumers.

If you belong to a loyalty program at your local supermarket, for example, Big Data knows your shopping habits better than you do. And it's a relatively simple step to link that data up with your Facebook profile so that brands can keep a bead on you whenever you're logged in.

The process goes beyond tracking your favorite soft drink, though. Way beyond. Let's say you've started buying Pampers at your local Safeway recently.

Ah ha! A new parent, Big Data notes. This opens you up to all kinds of ads for baby care products and provides a pretty accurate timeline that tells marketers when your child hits age milestones so that ads can segue to products for toddlers instead of infants, and so on.

Slick, eh?

Of course not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Consumers generally say they don't like being profiled and don't like their web activities being logged. That alone may be enough to give pause to some brands, which  would prefer not to annoy consumers unnecessarily.

On the other hand, most marketers are pretty pragmatic and the truth is that very few consumers are going to take the trouble to find out which company is engaged in what ad-targeting practices and take their business elsewhere as a result.

There could also be some legal issues and possible run-ins with federal consumer protection agencies but for now, it's an idea that's likely to get serious attention over in the marketing department.

 

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GM plans 4G LTE in its 2015 cars and trucks

It's the biggest deployment of any manufacturer to date

Big squishy cars -- you know, the kind Detroit used to make -- were frequently derided as living rooms on wheels. But that was then. Now, General Motors wa...

PhotoBig squishy cars -- you know, the kind Detroit used to make -- were frequently derided as living rooms on wheels. But that was then. Now, General Motors wants to make its cars and trucks more like smartphones on wheels.

GM says it will embed 4G LTE mobile broadband in most of its 2015  Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. AT&T will be supplying the bandwidth in the United States and Canada. No word yet on how this will work in other countries.

GM says data speeds will be up to 10 times faster than 3G and will be capable of supporting simultaneous voice and data connections, so the driver can be yakking on the phone while passengers watch TV in the back or catch up on the latest lottery numbers or ball scores.

Photo

Of course, this is being presented as a great convenience and safety accomplishment. You'll be able to get updated weather, learn about traffic congestion and road construction and so forth. 

On the other hand, talking on the phone, texting and fiddling with apps are already seen as major safety hazards.   A recent University of Alabama at Birmingham study found that more than a third (35%) of college students use mobile phone applications while driving.

"The participants seemed to understand that using mobile apps while driving is dangerous, and some have even experienced motor vehicle crashes while using mobile apps, but they continue to do it," said UAB student Lauren McCartney, who conducted the survey.

"The technology is evolving so rapidly that science hasn't caught up to looking at the effects that mobile app usage can have behind the wheel of a car," said McCartney. "But something needs to be done because in psychological terms, Internet use involves substantial cognitive and visual distraction that exceeds talking or texting, making it much more dangerous."

Many other studies have found that, regardless of whether cell phones and devices were handheld or hands-free, humans don't multitask well enough to drive and fiddle with their gadgets.

University of Utah psychologists found in 2010 that there is just a small Photogroup of people who have the extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can drive safely while chatting on the phone.

These individuals -- described by the researchers as "supertaskers" - make up just 2.5 percent of the population. They are so-named for their ability to do two things at once successfully. In this case, they can talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.

The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is to appear later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review .

OnStar portfolio

Could be, but there seems little chance carmakers and technology companies will retreat from their campaign to turn cars into something resembling a home entertainment center.

In GM's case, it says its plans build on OnStar’s existing portfolio of built-in connected services, first introduced in GM vehicles in 1996.

The built-in 4G LTE structure is specifically designed for in-vehicle use as it is integrated into the vehicle’s electrical system and includes an external antenna to maximize coverage and connectivity. Customers will not be required to have a smartphone to use connected services, GM said. 

“In addition to allowing consumers to bring in and connect to personal mobile devices, the vehicle will also act as its own mobile device, enabling embedded vehicle capabilities,” said Mary Chan, president, Global Connected Consumer, General Motors.  “Turning this vision into a reality starts with enabling fast, reliable and responsive connectivity within the vehicle.  Through this built-in 4G LTE connection we have the opportunity to reinvent the mobile experience inside a vehicle.” 

“While our 4G LTE network will provide fast, reliable mobile broadband for GM’s connected vehicles, we’re also looking forward to working directly with GM researchers and engineers as well as the developer community to invent new in-vehicle applications that will take full advantage of our powerful network,” said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO, AT&T Mobility.

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Feds probe engine stalling problem in Ford SUVs, sedans

"Limp home mode" is just what its name implies

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it will investigate problems with stalling and surging engines in nearly 725,000 Ford Esc...

PhotoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it will investigate problems with stalling and surging engines in nearly 725,000 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner SUVs and Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans from the 2009 through 2011 model years.

The most commonly-cited problem is aptly called the "limp home mode." It's the condition in which the car suddenly drops to 20 mph and about 900 rpms.

The function is built into the engine control system. It's supposed to be triggered only by a serious engine problem and is meant to allow the driver time to maneuver to a safe place before stopping.

ConsumerAffairs has been hearing about this problem too. Randy of Jacksonville, Fla., posted a complaint in January about his 2010 Ford Escape Limited. 

"On January 23, 2013, the engine shut down on the highway while going 65 mph. Was is in the middle lane but was able to nurse it to the shoulder," he said. "Turned it off and restarted. Ran fine for another 20 minutes and the engine shut down again. Restarted and made it to the house. Don't tell me that there is nothing wrong Ford!"

Katherine of Ellwood City, Pa., had a similar experience in her Ford Escape.

"I was driving on the highway about 65 mph when suddenly it lost acceleration and went to 20 mph. I was on a bridge at the time with no shoulder and coasted to the end of the bridge to pull over. I could see the cars behind me fearing I would get hit," she said. "When the tow truck arrived he checked under the hood and started the car back up with no problem. I was able to get home. I am very worried now after reading hundreds of incidents of this same occurrence! This is unsafe and I am very upset."

NHTSA said it has recorded 1,500 complaints about the problem, with three crashes and one injury so far.

Besides stalling, NHTSA siad the affected vehicles may also surge unexpectedly as the rpms increase to prevent stalling during limp mode.

An earlier throttle problem in the Ford Escape has been fixed, Ford said. It is not thought to be related to the stalling problem.

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Drug overdose deaths increase for 11th straight year

Opioids drive continued increase in drug overdose deaths

Drug overdose deaths increased for the 11th consecutive year in 2010, according to an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC’s...

PhotoDrug overdose deaths increased for the 11th consecutive year in 2010, according to an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The research letter, “Pharmaceutical Overdose Deaths, United States, 2010,” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), shows that 38,329 people died from a drug overdose in the United States in 2010, compared with 37,004 deaths in 2009. This continues the steady rise in overdose deaths seen over the past 11 years, starting with 16,849 deaths in 1999.

Overdose deaths involving opioid analgesics -- things like oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone -- have shown a similar increase. Starting with 4,030 deaths in 1999, the number of deaths increased to 15,597 in 2009 and 16,651 in 2010.

In 2010, nearly 60 percent of the drug overdose deaths (22,134) involved pharmaceutical drugs. Opioid analgesics were involved in about three of every four pharmaceutical overdose deaths (16,651), confirming the predominant role opioid analgesics play in drug overdose deaths.

CDC researchers analyzed data from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics 2010 multiple cause-of-death file, which is based on death certificates.

Mental health related

The researchers also found that drugs often prescribed for mental health conditions were involved in a significant number of pharmaceutical overdose deaths. Benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety drugs) were involved in nearly 30 percent (6,497) of these deaths; antidepressants in 18 percent (3,889), and antipsychotic drugs in 6 percent (1,351). Deaths involving more than one drug or drug class are counted multiple times and therefore are not mutually exclusive.

“Patients with mental health or substance use disorders are at increased risk for nonmedical use and overdose from prescription painkillers as well as being prescribed high doses of these drugs,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Appropriate screening, identification, and clinical management by health care providers are essential parts of both behavioral health and chronic pain management.”

Additional steps are being taken at the national, state and local levels, as well as by non-governmental organizations, to help prevent overdoses from prescription drugs.

Federal government action

In particular, the federal government is:

  • Tracking prescription drug overdose trends to better understand the epidemic.
  • Encouraging the development of abuse-deterrent opioid formulations and products that treat abuse and overdose.
  • Educating health care providers and the public about prescription drug abuse and overdose.
  • Requiring that manufacturers of extended-release and long-acting opioids make educational programs available to prescribers about the risks and benefits of opioid therapy, choosing patients appropriately, managing and monitoring patients, and counseling patients on the safe use of these drugs.
  • Using opioid labeling as a tool to inform prescribers and patients about the approved uses of these medications.
  • Developing, evaluating and promoting programs and policies shown to prevent prescription drug abuse and overdose, while making sure patients have access to safe, effective pain treatment.

State government action

Promising steps that many states are taking include:

  • Starting or improving prescription drug monitoring programs, which are electronic databases that track all prescriptions for opioids in the state.
  • Using prescription drug monitoring programs, public insurance programs, and workers’ compensation data to identify improper prescribing of opioids.
  • Setting up programs for public insurance programs, workers’ compensation programs, and state-run health plans that identify and address improper patient use of opioids.
  • Passing, enforcing and evaluating pill mill, doctor shopping and other state laws to reduce prescription opioid abuse.
  • Encouraging state licensing boards to take action against inappropriate prescribing.
  • Increasing access to substance abuse treatment.

More information about prescription drug overdoses in the United States is available here.  

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Chrysler 200s and Dodge Avengers recalled

The gas tank could leak, posing the risk of a fire

Chrysler is recalling model year 2013 Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger vehicles manufactured from October 30, 2012, through November 2, 2012. These vehicle...

PhotoChrysler is recalling model year 2013 Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger vehicles manufactured from October 30, 2012, through November 2, 2012.

These vehicles may have a gas tank that has a broken control valve in the fuel tank assembly, which may lead to an engine stall or fuel leakage. An engine stall while driving could contribute to a vehicle crash. Fuel leakage in the presence of an ignition source may result in a fire.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the fuel tank assembly and replace any affected control valves, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during March 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753.

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College tax benefits now -- and in the future

There are lots of benefits and they're available to all taxpayers

Do you qualify for either of two college education tax credits or any of several other education-related tax benefits? Now might be a good time to check it...

PhotoDo you qualify for either of two college education tax credits or any of several other education-related tax benefits? Now might be a good time to check it out.

In general, the American opportunity tax credit, lifetime learning credit and tuition and fees deduction are available to taxpayers who pay qualifying expenses for an eligible student. Eligible students include the primary taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse or a dependent of the taxpayer.

Though a taxpayer often qualifies for more than one of these benefits, he or she can only claim one of them for a particular student in a particular year. The benefits are available to all taxpayers -- both those who itemize their deductions on Schedule A and those who claim a standard deduction. The credits are claimed on Form 8863 and the tuition and fees deduction is claimed on Form 8917.

Tax credit extension

The American Taxpayer Relief Act, enacted Jan. 2, 2013, extended the American opportunity tax credit for another five years until the end of 2017. The new law also retroactively extended the tuition and fees deduction, which had expired at the end of 2011, through 2013. The lifetime learning credit did not need to be extended because it was already a permanent part of the tax code.

For those eligible -- including most undergraduate students -- the American opportunity tax credit will yield the greatest tax savings. Alternatively, the lifetime learning credit should be considered by part-time students and those attending graduate school. For others, especially those who don’t qualify for either credit, the tuition and fees deduction may be the right choice.

All three benefits are available for students enrolled in an eligible college, university or vocational school, including both nonprofit and for-profit institutions. None of them can be claimed by a nonresident alien or married person filing a separate return. In most cases, dependents cannot claim these education benefits.

Normally, a student will receive a Form 1098-T from their institution by the end of January of the following year. This form will show information about tuition paid or billed along with other information. However, amounts shown on this form may differ from amounts taxpayers are eligible to claim for these tax benefits. Taxpayers should see the instructions to Forms 8863 and 8917 and Publication 970 for details on properly figuring allowable tax benefits.

American opportunity tax credit

Many of those eligible for the American opportunity tax credit qualify for the maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student. Here are some key features of the credit:

  • The credit targets the first four years of post-secondary education, and a student must be enrolled at least half time. This means that expenses paid for a student who, as of the beginning of the tax year, has already completed the first four years of college do not qualify. Any student with a felony drug conviction also does not qualify.
  • Tuition, required enrollment fees, books and other required course materials generally qualify. Other expenses, such as room and board, do not.
  • The credit equals 100 percent of the first $2,000 spent and 25 percent of the next $2,000. That means the full $2,500 credit may be available to a taxpayer who pays $4,000 or more in qualified expenses for an eligible student.
  • The full credit can only be claimed by taxpayers whose modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is $80,000 or less. For married couples filing a joint return, the limit is $160,000. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. No credit can be claimed by joint filers whose MAGI is $180,000 or more and singles, heads of household and some widows and widowers whose MAGI is $90,000 or more.
  • Forty percent of the American opportunity tax credit is refundable. This means that even people who owe no tax can get an annual payment of up to $1,000 for each eligible student. Other education-related credits and deductions do not provide a benefit to people who owe no tax.

Lifetime learning credit

The lifetime learning credit of up to $2,000 per tax return is available for both graduate and undergraduate students. Unlike the American opportunity tax credit, the limit on the lifetime learning credit applies to each tax return, rather than to each student. Though the half-time student requirement does not apply, the course of study must be either part of a post-secondary degree program or taken by the student to maintain or improve job skills. Other features of the credit include:

  • Tuition and fees required for enrollment or attendance qualify as do other fees required for the course. Additional expenses do not.
  • The credit equals 20 percent of the amount spent on eligible expenses across all students on the return. That means the full $2,000 credit is only available to a taxpayer who pays $10,000 or more in qualifying tuition and fees and has sufficient tax liability.
  • Income limits are lower than under the American opportunity tax credit. For 2012, the full credit can be claimed by taxpayers whose MAGI is $52,000 or less. For married couples filing a joint return, the limit is $104,000. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. No credit can be claimed by joint filers whose MAGI is $124,000 or more and singles, heads of household and some widows and widowers whose MAGI is $62,000 or more.

Tuition and fees deduction

Like the lifetime learning credit, the tuition and fees deduction is available for all levels of post-secondary education, and the cost of one or more courses can qualify. The annual deduction limit is $4,000 for joint filers whose MAGI is $130,000 or less and other taxpayers whose MAGI is $65,000 or less. The deduction limit drops to $2,000 for couples whose MAGI exceeds $130,000 but is no more than $160,000, and other taxpayers whose MAGI exceeds $65,000 but is no more than $80,000.

Eligible parents and students can get the benefit of these provisions during the year by having less tax taken out of their paychecks. They can do this by filling out a new Form W-4, claiming additional withholding allowances, and giving it to their employer.

Other benefits

There are a variety of other education-related tax benefits that can help many taxpayers. They include:

  • Scholarship and fellowship grants -- generally tax-free if used to pay for tuition, required enrollment fees, books and other course materials, but taxable if used for room, board, research, travel or other expenses.
  • Student loan interest deduction of up to $2,500 per year.
  • Savings bonds used to pay for college -- though income limits apply, interest is usually tax-free if bonds were purchased after 1989 by a taxpayer who, at time of purchase, was at least 24 years old.
  • Qualified tuition programs, also called 529 plans, used by many families to prepay or save for a child’s college education.

Taxpayers with qualifying children who are students up to age 24 may be able to claim a dependent exemption and the earned income tax credit.

The general comparison table in Publication 970 can be a useful guide to taxpayers in determining eligibility for these benefits. Details can also be found in the Tax Benefits for Education Information Center.

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Some people like higher gasoline prices

But chances are, they aren't scrimping to make ends meet each month

Consumers are grumbling about record high gasoline prices for this time of year as prices at the pump have escalated for the third winter in a row.This y...

PhotoConsumers are grumbling about record high gasoline prices for this time of year as prices at the pump have escalated for the third winter in a row.

This year's high prices are attributed to a variety of factors, ranging from ever-present worries about Middle East supply disruptions, market speculation and refinery maintenance.

While the higher prices are causing some pain for most consumers, it might come as a surprise to learn that not everyone thinks high gasoline prices are a bad thing. And it's not just people who don't own a car.

Sure thing

Let's start with the obvious – hedge fund traders. These days, the market sets the price of energy and traders analyze lots of data when placing a bet. While it is far from clear that these traders are manipulating the price – though many people think they are – it is clear they hope to make a lot of money from rising oil prices.

Photo
12-month average gas price (Source: AAA)
Think of it this way: once they take a long position in the crude oil futures market, they lose money if the price goes down. So naturally, they want the price to go up. A lot of money is riding on it.

After oil prices escalated for two straight Januaries, it was not unreasonable to believe prices could rise again this year. As money flows into the futures market for crude oil and gasoline, it has the same effect as when Wall Street is convinced that a hot stock is going to take off. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as money chasing a finite commodity has the effect of bidding up the price.

So, who else isn't upset by rising gasoline prices? What about government officials?

Policymakers

True, you will never find a politician anywhere who will say they think high gasoline prices are a good thing. But four years ago future Energy Secretary Steven Chu came pretty close.

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Steven Chu
In late 2008, as the Obama Administration was preparing to take office, Energy Secretary-designate Chu candidly told the Wall Street Journal that "we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe" to encourage Americans to drive less and take mass transit more.

Since then Chu has walked back that statement. As recently as a March 2012 Congressional hearing he refused to say he is in favor of higher prices.

"I'm not trying to boost the price of gasoline," Chu told the committee. "Quite the opposite. I'm trying, as a scientist, to diversify the use of gasoline."

Regardless of Chu's views then or now, some other scientists do, in fact, believe it's time for consumers to get used to paying higher prices at the pump. Shanjun Li, an expert in energy consumer behavior and energy economics at Cornell, says there's just too much competition for oil.

Get used to it

Photo
Shanjun Li
“Gasoline prices at this level will be more and more common due to underlying market determinants, namely growing oil demand from emerging economies and stagnant production capacity,” Li said. “In other words, this is something that the consumer will have to get used to.”

Perhaps, but it is worth noting that no country's economy is setting the world on fire at the moment. In fact, the industrialized nations are doing well to keep their heads above water. Even China's economy has sputtered lately. One shudders to think how high crude oil and gasoline prices would be if the global economy were in the midst of a robust recovery.

But scientists like Li believe rising U.S. fuel prices, while painful to consumers, are environmentally beneficial in the long run.

“If we want to be serious about dealing with negative consequences associated with gasoline consumption such as pollution, high gasoline prices will be an important signal or leverage to induce consumer behavioral changes such as using more fuel-efficient vehicles or public transportation,” he said.

How to make gas prices go up

In February 2012 The Atlantic reported that environmentalists see high gas prices as a “helpful step” toward the development of alternative energy. The piece, which noted the government could push prices up by restricting future drilling, restricting imports and adding more regulations, drew some enthusiastic comments from readers.

“I am glad somebody wrote this,” wrote one poster identified as Josef_2. “Yes, higher prices are the natural outcome of where we are headed and are probably the only effective mechanism to change behavior at the consumer level, both in commuting and choosing which cars to buy - good! It would be better if we had a dollar a gallon gas tax.”

Consumers wondering why no one “does something” about high gasoline prices should consider this: There are a lot of people who may think nothing should be done.

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Pew: two week payback time unrealistic for most payday loans

Study finds most borrowers can't repay the loan on time and have to borrow more

Every year 12 million U.S. consumers take out a short-term, payday loan. Most are faced with a financial emergency and plan to repay the money quickly. Mos...

PhotoEvery year 12 million U.S. consumers take out a short-term payday loan. Most are faced with a financial emergency and plan to repay the money quickly. Most, however, quickly discover they can't.

"I fell on hard times and decided to take out a small payday loan," Tareeka, of Jackson, Miss., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "The company loaned me $600.00. I already made a payment of $486.00 so far and still owe $812 and only borrowed $600. This is paying more then double back."

Tareeka's story is far from unusual. A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts found the average payday loan requires a repayment of more than $400 two weeks later. The average borrower, the report says, can only afford to pay $50.

The question never asked

If borrowers stopped to think, they might see the trap. If they are short of money now -- requiring them to borrow -- how are they going to be able to pay the money back, plus fees, in just two weeks?

But when people are in desperate straits, they often don't think ahead. When two weeks go by and they are unable to repay the loan, they have no choice but to borrow more money, starting the cycle all over again.

"Payday loans are marketed as an appealing short-term option, but that does not reflect reality," said Nick Bourke, Pew's expert on small-dollar loans. "Paying them off in just two weeks is unaffordable for most borrowers, who become indebted long-term. The loans initially provide relief, but they become a hardship.

Few can pay on time

PhotoPew researchers conducted a nationwide telephone survey of payday loan borrowers to compile their findings. They learned that only 14 percent of borrowers say they can afford to repay an average payday loan out of their monthly budgets. That means 86 percent have to take out a new loan two weeks later, paying an additional fee. The fee itself might not sound like much, but repeated over and over every two weeks, it can add up to a lot. Viewed as an annual percentage rate (APR), it's typically around 400% APR.

Many people who take out payday loans do so to avoid asking family and friends, or using other resources, to meet their emergency expense. The report found that ultimately they have to turn to these very same options to pay off the loans.

Forty-one percent need an outside cash infusion to eliminate payday loan debt– including getting help from friends or family, selling or pawning personal possessions, taking out another type of loan, or using a tax refund.

22,000 locations

Since its inception in the 1990s, the payday lending industry has established over 22,000 locations which originate an estimated $27 billion in annual loan volume, according to the Center for Responsible Lending (CLR), a consumer group that monitors U.S. lending practices. It maintains that repeated payday loans result in $3.5 billion in fees each year.

In recent years CLR has called attention to the fact that a few major banks have begun making payday loans. These banks, the group says, are making short-term loans with triple-digit interest rates, essentially duplicating the storefront payday businesses that routinely trap lower-income borrowers in long-term harmful debt.

A recent survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) shows that most banks offering small loans tend to give borrowers 90 days or more to repay, with an annualized interest rate of 36% or less.

Banks get into the act

Bank of America  Feb. 22, 2013, 2:50 p.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America

By contrast, banks pushing payday loans charge annual interest rates in the triple digits. For a typical 10-day loan costing $10 for each $100 borrowed, the effective APR is 365%.

This type of lending by non-depository payday lenders -- meaning businesses that aren't banks -- is prohibited or significantly restricted in 19 states. In some cases, CRL says these big banks are undermining state laws by making payday loans even where they have been banned.

Payday loans remain a problem for low-income consumers, perhaps because there are almost no other credit options for payday loan customers. They often turn to payday loans because they can't get a credit card or bank loan.

Don't  be unbanked

What's the solution? Rather than imagining that government will ride to the rescue and crack down on payday lenders, low-income consumers need to explore their options ahead of time. Or, the borrow a slogan from the Boy Scouts, they need to be prepared.

PhotoMany low-income consumers don't have bank accounts. They may be paid in cash or they may simply take their paycheck to a local retailer to cash it. This is what is called being "unbanked" and the problem with it is that the consumer does not build a relationship with a financial organization that can provide credit on reasonable terms.

One reason for this is that commercial banks typically shun the working poor. A ConsumerAffairs reporter recently witnessed a telling incident at a Bank of America branch in Northern Virginia. A man dressed like a restaurant kitchen worker approached a teller and asked to cash his paycheck.   

"Sir, you come in every week and cash your paycheck," the teller snapped as a manager sauntered over. The consumer protested that he had a checking account at the bank.

"Yes, but you're not using it as a checking account. You just come in here and cash your paycheck each week," the manager interjected.

Words were exchanged and the affair ended with the bank closing the man's account and sending him back into the street with his uncashed paycheck.

Perhaps the best solution open to the kitchen worker and others like him is to find a local credit union -- a non-profit organization that offers checking, savings and loan services, often on better terms than banks.

At a credit union, just like a bank, the kitchen worker could arrange for direct deposit of his check and get a checking account and debit card that he could use for his regular expenses. 

Even though he might have to pay a few dollars a month, he would be building a relationship with the credit union that would at least give him a chance of getting a loan on reasonable terms when he needed one.

The Credit Union Lookup site will help you find credit unions in your area. Some credit unions are tightly restricted to certain groups -- such as employees of the local school district. But many others are more liberal in their membership requirements. As always, it pays to shop around.  

 

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Some of the best health apps on the market today

In today's world, consumers can take much more control of their health with technology.

It seems in 2013 technology and health has become as common of a pair as say e-commerce and social networking or mobile devices and online programming...

PhotoIt seems in 2013 technology and health has become as common a pair as, say, e-commerce and social networking or mobile devices and online programming. As this partnership continues to grow, both health professionals and patients aren’t only excited about the life-saving possibilities, but many are also looking to see what other forms of medical technology will reach consumers in the years to come.

Certainly the marriage between technology and medicine isn’t a new one, since the two are the oldest of acquaintances, but what happens to be different compared to previous years is that a lot of the medical advancements have been marketed to the everyday consumer, as opposed to only being marketed to physicians, and a perfect example of this is the growing use of health apps that are used by millions of people every day.  

Like the Free Heart Rate Calculator for example, that’s compatible with iPhones, the iPad and Androids, and allows users to measure their heart rate while exercising, which can help determine one’s level of cardiac fitness.

The creators of the app say that while a person is jogging, exercising or doing any other physical activity, they can simply touch the screen of their device each time their heart beats, and they’ll be able to get an instant reading of their heart right there and then.

The screen of the app also has a colored meter that tells you how good or bad your heart rate is while exercising and whether your heart rate is that of an athlete, whether it’s considered excellent, good, average or whether your heart is being worked too hard.

Of course the Free Heart Rate Calculator isn’t supposed to take the place of you seeing your primary physician or a cardiologist, but it’s supposed to keep you in-the-know about your heart health and also get you in the habit of checking your heart rate to see if your numbers are where they're supposed to be.

EyeXam

Then there’s the EyeXam app that has multiple features, all imed at  keeping your peepers functioning properly.

PhotoOn the app, users can conduct self-tests to determine if they have a condition like astigmatism or if they have a problem with color perception.

Users can also do a visual acuity tests to see if they have 20/20 vision or not.

People can also search for eye doctors in their area, read patient reviews of those eye doctors and even schedule appointments in real time. You can also check to see if your personal insurance will be accepted by an eye doctor and get electronic reminders to get eye tests, re-check your prescription or order contact lenses.

All in all, the EyeXam app is supposed to be your one-stop shop for everything related to eye care and also help remind you to see your eye doctor in the first place.

iTriage

Another cool health app is iTriage, which was created by two ER doctors so people can quickly determine what a pain or a sudden ailment may be.

PhotoSo if you’re feeling sharp stomach pains and your body is developing a cold sweat, you can plug those symptoms into a search field and not only find out what may be causing the symptoms, but the app will also point you to the nearest place for treatment.

And depending on what the app diagnoses, it will let you know whether you need to go to the emergency room, an urgent care facility, a retail clinic, pharmacy, mental health clinic, imaging center, substance abuse clinic, or a community health center, and the app will even tell you what the average wait times in these places are.

Skimble

And for workout enthusiasts there’s Skimble, an app that almost serves as a personal exercise assistant where users can keep track of all of their workout routines -- whether it’s counting reps, documenting the amount of miles  jogged or keeping track of the amount of weight you bench-pressed.

PhotoThe app also has a social media component where users can join other folks who use the app to share stories, discuss progress and encourage each other.

Basically, Skimble serves as an electronic reference guide so users can gauge how much or how little there workouts have changed over a course of time and people can also compare their results.

Users can also compete with other Skimble users to see who’s dropping the most weight, running the most miles or getting in the most physical activity overall, which can easily serve as a positive motivator.

See, sometimes technology can get in the way of good health by creating apps and gadgets that cause one to have a sedentary lifestyle, but more times than not, technology is truly the consumer's ally and will allow health professionals to know more about a particular condition and how to treat it. 

Furthermore, today’s technology is being marketed and sold to the everyday consumer, which is different from earlier years, when the news of medical advancements stayed confined to doctors, inventors and scientists.

Fortunately, we’re now living in a time when a person can simply download a piece of technology that can be potentially lifesaving, while also allowing consumers to have a little more control and knowledge about their personal health, which is always a wonderful thing.

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Can using Facebook too much shorten your lifespan?

Researchers say too much social media is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

From Friendster to MySpace, from Facebook to Twitter—when social networking sites popped on to the scene most people believed it would allow them to ...

PhotoFrom Friendster to MySpace, from Facebook to Twitter — when social networking sites popped on to the scene most people believed it would allow them to become, well, more social.

And although we were using our keyboards to communicate with each other and quickly got used to the idea of having virtual conversations, many of us believed those virtual conversations would eventually continue offline and our Facebook friends would potentially become our actual friends.

In short, many of us thought social networking would somehow impact our social lives in the real world or at least give them a slight boost.

And for some that was the case. 

Social networking actually did allow people to connect with old friends, establish new ones and take those relationships offline, but for the majority of us, social media has only caused more isolation and allowed many to be content with communicating solely through their computers instead of going to visit someone or having a day out with them.

1 billion users

Recently, Facebook announced it has over 1 billion active users, and if you consider the other millions of people using other social media pages like Twitter and Google Plus, it’s safe to say interacting with people through modern technology is an accepted form of communication.

PhotoIn fact for many people, virtual communication is actually preferred because it's faster, more immediate and allows you to feel connected to a circle of people without ever having to leave your home, but now researchers are finding this growing amount of isolation through social media can actually become a health detriment.

According to researchers at Brigham Young University, having a low amount of physical social interaction could be as harmful to your health as smoking cigarettes or over-indulging in alcohol. More specifically, researchers said being an extreme homebody and cutting yourself off from your buddies has the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“The modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships,” said the study authors.

"Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. The idea that a lack of social relationships is a risk factor for death is still not widely recognized by health organizations and the public.”

Health effects

In their research, scientists looked at 148 different studies to gauge how often people interacted with others and how that interaction or lack of it affected their health throughout their lives.

PhotoThe results showed those who were continually social and interacted with people away from their computers and mobile devices, were able to extend their lives considerably.

“People with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships,” said the authors.

They also said that not being social and locking yourself indoors should be  discussed among the other established contributors to dying prematurely.

But how does one use social media less and get outside and connect with their actual friends more?

Many would say the first step is to dramatically lessen your Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus use, since the longer and more frequently these sites are used, the harder it will be to break away from them and go back to the traditional forms of communication.

No exit

But as many people can tell you, namely some of our readers, deactivating your Facebook account isn’t as easy as one might think.

Facebook Feb. 22, 2013, 9 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook

“I have been trying to deactivate my account several times in the past month,” wrote Patricia of Minnetonka, Minn. in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

“When I get to the end to deactivate Facebook, it requires me to put the password in and every time I did, Facebook says that it’s the wrong password. So of course I carefully retype my password again and again, still it’s the wrong password. That is just wrong that Facebook can do that.”

Mona of Eunice, La. also had problems trying to close her Facebook account, and after she thought it was closed, she found out it was still being used.

“I closed my Facebook account in February,” she wrote. “Now I’m hearing that there’s a fake Facebook page using my info trying to scam people. Facebook is doing nothing. This is a serious matter. Someone is using my personal info and Facebook seems to think this is no big deal.”

But what is a big deal, say researchers, is the fact that using social media too much also leads to other problems like weight gain and even having a proper amount of self-control.

Body mass

According to research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, those who used their Facebook pages to stay in touch with close friends, had a higher body mass index than those people who didn’t.

And those same people who lacked the self-control to stay off Facebook also lacked self-control when it came to purchasing things, most likely online, and they also had more debt.

In the Brigham Young University study, which is now published in the recent edition of Plos Medicine, researchers said health professionals should really speak more about the connection between physical interaction and good health and the topic should be discussed just as much as smoking, lack of exercise and obesity.

“Physicians, health professionals, educators and the media should now acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults and should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality,” said the Brigham Young researchers.

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Generic Drugs: Same medicine for a lower price

Paying more does not necessarily guarantee a superior product

Chances are you've done this before: You go to your local pharmacy to buy medicine. You're inclined to go with the familiar brand name product -- the one y...

PhotoChances are you've done this before: You go to your local pharmacy to buy medicine. You're inclined to go with the familiar brand name product -- the one you've seen in the TV commercials and other ads. But you see the generic version -- which is much less expensive -- and you think, "If it's so inexpensive, it must not be as effective or safe.”

You would be wrong -- and you're not alone.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pharmacist Brenda Stodart, Pharm.D., who for 14 years has answered questions on FDA's Drug Information line (1-855-543-DRUG ) says, "Every day without fail we educate consumers and health care professionals about the safety and efficacy of generic drugs."

So, what are generic drugs and how does FDA ensure they are a safe and effective alternative to name brands?

When a new, FDA-approved drug goes on the market, it may have patent or exclusivity protection that lets the manufacturer sell the drug exclusively for a period of time. When those expire or no longer serve as a barrier to approval, other companies can make it in generic form. FDA must approve the generic drug before it can be marketed.

Rigorous standards

Lawrence Yu, Ph.D., FDA acting deputy director for science in FDA's Office of Generic Drugs, explains that for a generic drug to be approved by FDA, its manufacturer must show that it is "equivalent" to the innovator drug (brand name). This means that to gain FDA approval, a generic drug must:

  • contain the same active ingredients as the innovator drug. Active ingredients make the drug effective against the disease or condition it is treating.
  • come in the same dosage form. If the brand name is a capsule, the generic should be a capsule, too.
  • be administered the same way. If the brand name is taken orally, the generic should be taken orally, too.
  • be identical in strength
  • have the same conditions of use
  • be bioequivalent (an equal rate and extent of drug absorbed the bloodstream)
  • meet the same standards for identity, strength, purity and quality
  • be manufactured under the same standards that FDA requires for the manufacture of innovator products

"Then, and only then,” says Yu, “we can assure consumers that the generic will work as well as the name brand."

Mansoor Khan, R.Ph., Ph.D., the agency's director of the Division of Product Quality Research, says the review process includes a review of scientific data on the drug's manufacturing, ingredients and performance.

Shifting gears

Sometimes, new complaints or evidence arise indicating that a generic drug may not have the same safety or effectiveness as was previously believed. "If we have reasons to believe a generic drug does not perform the same as a brand name product," Khan says, "we have the ability to perform experiments in the FDA laboratories and take a comprehensive, scientific look at the differences between the products."

This happened with the generic drug Budeprion XL 300 mg, a generic form of Wellbutrin, a drug used to treat depression. FDA's original bioequivalence evaluation had been of a lower dosage (150 mg). After receiving reports of adverse effects from consumers who used Budeprion at the 300 mg dosage level, the FDA conducted another study and determined that Budeprion XL 300 mg was not bioequivalent to the Wellbutrin XL 300 mg.

FDA requested that the manufacturers of Budeprion XL voluntarily withdraw the 300-mg version from the market, which they promptly agreed to do.

While FDA goes to great lengths to ensure that the brand and generic drugs perform equally, in very rare instances, such as Budeprion XL, these efforts do not succeed. BudeprionXL is definitely an outlier, however, Khan says, as there are literally thousands of approved generic products that perform equally without problems or complaints.

The price is right

Generic manufacturers are able to sell their products for lower prices because they are not required to develop a new drug from scratch with pre-clinical studies or to repeat the many costly clinical trials of new drugs, Khan says. Generally, they also do not pay for costly advertising, marketing and promotion.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that from 1984 to 1994, generic drugs save consumers an estimated $8 to $10 billion a year at retail pharmacies. Even more billions are saved when hospitals use generics.

Even greater savings were found in a report from the IMS Institute for Health Care Informatics commissioned by the Generic Pharmaceutical Association in 2012. It found that generic drugs have saved over $1 trillion over the last decade, $193 billion in 2011 alone.

But not every drug has a comparable generic.

To find out if there is a generic equivalent for your brand-name drug, use Drugs@FDA. You can also search for generic equivalents by using FDA's "Electronic Orange Book." You can also consult the most recent monthly approvals for "First Generics."

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Feds move on student loan affordability plan

Alternative repayment options for private student loan borrowers is under consideration

With student loans now topping credit cards as the largest source of consumer debt in the U.S., the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is gatherin...

PhotoWith student loans now topping credit cards as the largest source of consumer debt in the U.S., the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is gathering information to develop options for policymakers to make repayment of private student loans more manageable for struggling borrowers.

The CFPB says while private student loan borrowers wish to pay their loans, they face high payments, lack alternative repayment and refinance options.

“Too many private student loan borrowers are struggling with unwieldy debt that prevents them from climbing the economic ladder,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We will be analyzing plans for policymakers to consider that might help avoid a repeat of the mortgage meltdown for today's student loan borrowers.”

Difficulty repaying

In October 2012, the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman released a report noting that consumers had trouble negotiating affordable repayment plans with their lenders and servicers for private student loans -- loans that are not designed with income-based payment options. This report to the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Education, the CFPB Director, and Congress recommended that policymakers explore options to spur the availability of alternative repayment and refinance options.

In July 2012, Director Cordray and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan submitted a report to Congress on the private student loan market. The study indicates there are more than $8 billion in defaulted private student loan balances, representing 850,000 distinct loans, with even more in delinquency.

Unlike distressed borrowers with federal student loans, private student loan borrowers generally do not have long-term forbearance, income-based repayment, or rehabilitation options if they default. The study concluded that many borrowers are struggling to pay off private student loans, especially in tough economic times.

The CFPB has released a Notice and Request for Information in the Federal Register. With the information gathered from that notice, the CFPB plans to explore more detailed recommendations to policymakers in order to facilitate greater repayment affordability of private student loans.

Flexible repayment options sought

The Bureau is looking for ways that private student loan borrowers can have more flexible repayment options and is seeking input on a variety of issues related to repayment affordability, including:

  • How student loan burdens might affect the broader economy and hinder access to mortgage credit and automobile loans;
  • How distressed borrowers manage their student loan obligations;
  • What options currently exist for borrowers to lower their monthly payments on private student loans;
  • Examples of successful alternate payment programs in other markets and which features could apply to this market; and
  • The most effective mechanisms for communicating with distressed borrowers.

Members of the public, including financial institutions, colleges and universities, professional associations representing health professionals and educators, housing finance experts, students, and families are encouraged to submit comments.

Comments will be accepted until April 8, 2013.

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HTC agrees to patch security holes in smartphones, tablets

The Federal Trade Commission charged that HTC could have been a lot more careful

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would like for HTC America to be a bit more careful in making sure the software it develops for smartphones and tablets ...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would like for HTC America to be a bit more careful in making sure the software it develops for smartphones and tablets is secure.

In a settlement announced today, HTC has agreed to do so. Specifically, the company will fix vulnerabilities in millions of HTC devices and will develop a program to avoid such oversights in the future.

HTC develops and manufactures mobile devices based on the Android, Windows Mobile, and Windows Phone operating systems. Like all manufacturers, it has customized the software on its devices in order to differentiate itself from competitors and to comply with the requirements of mobile network operators.   

And that, says the FTC, is where the problem lies. The commission said HTC America failed to provide its engineering staff with adequate security training, failed to review or test the software on its mobile devices for potential security vulnerabilities, failed to follow well-known and commonly accepted secure coding practices, and failed to establish a process for receiving and addressing vulnerability reports from third parties.

The FTC’s complaint details several vulnerabilities found on HTC’s devices, including the insecure implementation of two logging applications -- Carrier IQ and HTC Loggers -- as well as programming flaws that would allow third-party applications to bypass Android’s permission-based security model.

Due to these vulnerabilities, the FTC charged, millions of HTC devices compromised sensitive device functionality, potentially permitting malicious applications to send text messages, record audio, and even install additional malware onto a consumer’s device, all without the user’s knowledge or consent.

The FTC alleged that malware placed on consumers’ devices without their permission could be used to record and transmit information entered into or stored on the device, including, for example, financial account numbers and related access codes or medical information such as text messages received from healthcare providers and calendar entries concerning doctor’s appointments.

In addition, malicious applications could exploit the vulnerabilities on HTC devices to gain unauthorized access to a variety of other sensitive information, such as the user’s geolocation information and the contents of the user’s text messages.

Moreover, the complaint alleged that the user manuals for HTC Android-based devices contained deceptive representations, and that the user interface for the company’s Tell HTC application was also deceptive. In both cases, the security vulnerabilities in HTC Android-based devices undermined consent mechanisms that would have otherwise prevented unauthorized access or transmission of sensitive information.

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Smithfield recalls pork sausage product

The product may contain small pieces of plastic

Smithfield Packing Company of Smithfield, VA, is recalling approximately 38,000 pounds of pork sausage that may contain small pieces of plastic, likely fro...

PhotoSmithfield Packing Company of Smithfield, VA, is recalling approximately 38,000 pounds of pork sausage that may contain small pieces of plastic, likely from gloves.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 1-lb. chubs of "Gwaltney mild pork sausage roll" with a use-by date of Mar. 12, 2013
  • Cases containing chubs of "Gwaltney mild pork sausage roll" with a case code of 78533109741

The recalled product bears the establishment number "Est. 221-A" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced on Jan. 11, 2013, and were distributed in Alabama, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

The problem was discovered after the company received two consumer complaints. There have been no reports of injury at this time.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Wendy Johnson, Manager of Consumer Affairs, at (877) 933-4625.  

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Mortgage rates show little movement

Rates have been near record lows for four weeks

There was little movement in mortgage interest rates as tracked by Freddie Mac and Bankrate.com during the past week. According to Freddie Mac, the 30-y...

PhotoThere was little movement in mortgage interest rates as tracked by Freddie Mac and Bankrate.com during the past week.

According to Freddie Mac, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.56 percent with an average 0.8 point for the week ending February 21, compared with last week's average of 3.53 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.95 percent.

The 15-year FRM averaged 2.77 percent with an average 0.8 point -- the same as last week. A year ago at this time, it averaged 3.19 percent.

Five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages (ARM) averaged 2.64 percent this week with an average 0.5 point -- the same as last week. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.80 percent.

The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.65 percent this week with an average 0.4 point, up four basis points from last week. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.73 percent.

"Mortgage rates have been relatively stable, hovering near record lows, for the past four weeks which is helping to spur new home construction,” according to Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “For instance, new construction on single-family houses rose to an annualized rate of 613,000 in January, the most since July 2008. In addition, single-family building permits were up to the highest issuance level since June 2008."

Bankrate

Bankrate's read on mortgage rates showed little movement. The benchmark 30-year fixed mortgage rate inched up one basis point to 3.80 percent,with an average of 0.33 discount and origination points.

The average 15-year fixed mortgage rate was unchanged this week at 3.02 percent. The average jumbo 30-year fixed mortgage rate was up two basis points -- to 4.21 percent. Adjustable rate mortgages were mixed, with the 5-year ARM rising from 2.75 percent to 2.76 percent, and the 7-year ARM down slightly from 2.98percent to 2.97 percent.

The last time mortgage rates were above five percent was in April 2011, when the average 30-year fixed rate was 5.07 percent, meaning a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,082.22. With the average rate now 3.79 percent, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $931.91 -- a difference of $150.31 per month for anyone refinancing now.

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Credit card balance transfers can save you money

But you need to know the best cards and the terms

Many consumers struggle with credit card debt. If you have three or four cards that carry balances, you are looking at three or four minimum payments each...

PhotoMany consumers struggle with credit card debt. If you have three or four cards that carry balances, you are looking at three or four minimum payments each month, often at high rates of interest.

Getting those multiple balances consolidated on one low-interest, or even 0% interest card can save money and help monthly cash flow. But consumers often encounter frustration when trying to find just the right card.

Alicia, of Little Falls, N.J., said she tried to transfer her balances to a Citibank card but was unprepared for what she considers an invasive application process.

“The male I spoke with was asking me too many personal questions about my finances and how I was paying my bills,” Alicia wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I told him it was none of your business and my bills do get paid on time. He told me he could not do the balance transfer without updating personal info.”

Tougher application process

After a prolonged standoff, Alicia said Citibank simply closed her account. The lesson here is that banks are much more thorough in the application process in this new age of credit.

Chase Credit Cards Feb. 21, 2013, 2:21 p.m.
Consumers rate Chase Credit Cards

Anne, of Bozeman, Mont., said she used a 0% balance transfer check from Chase to pay off an account from another bank. But the transfer, she says, hasn't gone smoothly.

“Since then I have had to contact Chase each month to have interest fees explained and reversed,” she writes. “Each month the fees have been reversed, with the representatives not being able to explain why the interest was charged. Today I spoke with a representative who refused to reverse interest fees and in her defense she provided an explanation that directly contradicts what is printed on the back of the credit card statement.”

Disconnect

Doris, of Aiken, S.C., says she accepted a Discover balance transfer but found either she misunderstood the terms or the company did.

“They tacked on another $40 surcharge every month (not in Terms) and immediately raised my minimum payment percentage,” Doris wrote. “I am 75 and have only SS for income. It threw my budget off so I couldn't buy food, and then they started calling me accusing me of 'spending too much for my income.' They cut my available balance in half so I'd be over the limit, added huge penalties, and started a domino effect on my former 805 FICO that ruined my financial security.”

Doris' mistake was continuing to use the card with the transferred balance for new purchases. When transferring a balance, you should have a second card to use for day-to-day expenses. Understanding how balance transfers are supposed to work is key to saving money with them.

The best balance transfer cards

 

Capital One Feb. 21, 2013, 2:22 p.m.
Consumers rate Capital One

Card Hub, a credit card comparison site, has conducted a balance transfer study compares the balance transfer policies of each major credit card issuer and identifies the best balance credit cards on the market. The study found that six of the 11 issuers surveyed – Barclaycard US, Capital One, Pentagon Federal Credit Union, USAA,U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo – allow you to transfer most common types of consumer debt, including mortgages, auto loans, small business loans, and student loans.

Discover also accepts balance transfers from auto loans and medical expenses, but not mortgages, small business loans, personal loans, student loans, HELOCs, or payday loans. Out of the offers from the 11 major issuers included in this study, the three best balance transfer credit cards on the market are:

  • Chase's Slate Card
  • Pentagon Federal Credit Union’s Platinum Rewards Card
  • Discover’s it Card
Photo
Odysseas Papadimitriou

“While there are a number of interesting conclusions you can glean from an examination of the balance transfer credit card landscape, perhaps the most significant remains the existence of free balance transfer credit cards,” said Card Hub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou, a personal finance expert who previously served as a senior director at Capital One.

“The Slate Card from Chase boasts the best balance transfer terms by far, offering qualified consumers 0% on transferred debt for the first 15 months without charging either a balance transfer fee or an annual fee," Papadimitriou said. "In other words, it enables you to effectively eliminate your current interest rate for free. For the average consumer with a $6,700 credit card balance, that’s worth up to $1,000 in fees and finance charges that you no longer have to pay.”

Powerful tool

Papadimitriou says using a balance transfer to consolidate small balances on car and student loans can be a very powerful tool if used strategically. Not only does this type of transfer offer a pathway to a lower interest rate, but it also enables you to effectively transform secured debt into unsecured debt.

While an auto loan is guaranteed by the value of the vehicle it’s used to purchase – meaning the lender could repossess your car if you don’t pay as agreed – credit cards aren’t backed by any such physical property. Transferring the last little bit of an auto loan to a credit card will also get you the title sooner.

“With that said, you need to proceed with caution when contemplating transferring a non-credit card balance and make especially sure that you will be able to pay off your balance within the low-interest introductory period,” Papadimitriou said.

Regardless of which balance transfer card you select, make sure you understand the terms. If you are unclear on any points, ask a customer service representative before you execute the transfer.

Also, don’t fall into the common trap of only focusing on the introductory interest rate and term. Not only might the balance transfer fee increase your overall costs significantly, but regular rates could also quickly rob you of any savings if you aren’t able to pay off your full balance by the time regular rates take effect.

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Is it end times for LivingSocial?

Emergency cash infusion may not be enough to save the company, critics charge

Optimistic news releases yesterday warbled about daily deals site LivingSocial raising $110 million. In an email to employees, CEO Tim O'Shaughnessy called...

PhotoOptimistic news releases yesterday warbled about daily deals site LivingSocial raising $110 million. In an email to employees, CEO Tim O'Shaughnessy called the iinfusion "a tremendous vote of confidence in our business from the people who know us best," according to the Washington Business Journal 

But all may not be so rosy. A day after the deal, financial research firm PrivCo issued a scathing assessment of the transaction, calling it "a last-ditch attempt to save the privately-held daily deals company from imminent financial ruin."

PrivCo said that, far from being another round of venture capital financing, as many reports implied, the deal was  a mixture of "emergency" convertible debt and warrants.

It also pegs the company's current valuation at just $330 million, down from $5.7 billion in Dec. 2011. 

"LivingSocial essentially threw itself at the mercy of its investors -- who had already sunk over $823 million in the company before today's $110 million additional lifeline -- to avoid a total collapse of the company that would have occurred within days," said said PrivCo CEO Sam Hamadeh.

PrivCo said the latest financing forced LivingSocial to re-price participating investors' previous rounds.

"[It] effectively means that its most recent investors entirely control the equity of the company," said Hamadeh, rendering stock held by the company's founders and its 4,000 employees essentially worthless

O'Shaughnessy called PrivCo's analysis "straight up fiction."

Shine wears off

LivingSocial may be second only to Groupon in its difficulties, just as it is second to Groupon in most other ways. As we've previously reported, daily deals sites are finding the going gets a lot tougher once the shine wears off.

The problem basically is that the daily deals business model relies on a rate of growth that may prove unsustainable. Both companies take in wads of cash from consumers but a large percentage of that cash must be paid back out to the merchants who floated the discounts that drew in the consumers.

Back in November, Groupon was reported to have about $1.2 billion in the bank but it owed about half of that to its merchant partners. Meanwhile, it has high sales and overhead costs that must be paid.

Over time, as growth slows, incoming revenue may not be sufficient to cover the merchants' share, raising the scary prospect of running out of cash.

Late last year, observers thought that crunch-time for one or both of the sites would come early this year. If PrivCo's account is accurate, it would seem that that prediction came true.

What's this mean for consumers? Not too much. As long as coupons are promptly redeemed, the financial risk rests much more heavily on the companies' shareholders and on the merchants who are awaiting payments.

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Gadgets for your yard and garden

With springtime approaching, why not get a little help with maintaining your yard this year?

We still have a little ways to go until spring officially hits in about a month and before you know it, it’ll be time to replace your shovels and ice...

PhotoWe still have a little ways to go until spring officially hits but before you know it, it’ll be time to replace your shovels and ice scrapers with your garden hoses and sprinklers.

And to get a jump on getting your lawn in tip-top shape this year, we found a few tools to assist you. Not only will these garden and lawn aids save you time and back-breaking work, they’re also pretty unique and cool to look at, not to mention cool to own -- like the Weed Dragon propane weed remover on Amazon and Walmart.com for $56.

If you grew up like I did, then pulling weeds in or around the family garden was part of your responsibility and no matter how young and in shape you were, crouching down and bending over to yank out a countless amount of weeds certainly wasn’t an easy task, so the Weed Dragon would have come in pretty  handy back then. Note, however, that this is made for adults since it uses propane gas to remove the weeds. Sorry, kids, you'll have to stick with the old methods.

The creators of the Weed Dragon say it’s perfect for those who don’t need the full power of a farm torch so it’s properly scaled down for simple use. The company also says by using the Dragon you'll cut down on your need to mow or use chemical sprays to remove those weeds that are typically hard to reach.

The device comes already assembled and is able to connect to any reusable propane tank and it can also be connected to barbeque cylinders says the company.  And besides the Dragon being used for weed removal, it can also be used to thaw frozen water pipes, melt snow or ice on your driveway or patio and it can also be used to light charcoal or to light campfires when you go on camping trips.

Before you rush to order this, go out to your deck or backyard and hoist a full propane tank. Yes, they're heavy and you'll have to carry one around to power the Weed Dragon, but you'll still avoid some of the bending and kneeling. Nevertheless, it could save a lot of wear and tear on that precious back of yours, which you’ll probably need for small things like walking and moving at some point.

Robotic Lawn Mower

The Hondo Miimo Robotic Lawn Mower is for those folks who want a nice lawn so they can maintain that manicured look of their neighborhood, but don’t feel like trekking up and down their yard every week to do so.Photo

Honda says the automatic mower continuously cuts 2 to 3 millimeters of grass at a time until your entire yard is cut, and it doesn’t need a bag, as the razors cut the grass so fine that it can be left on the lawn and be used as a natural fertilizer.

The Miimo is controlled by a border wire that the user installs slightly beneath the ground or within the lawn itself and the device is self-charging, so the Miimo will automatically slither back to its docking station whenever it’s running low on battery power. 

Honda hasn’t announced a price for the Miimo just yet, as its rumored to hit European markets first, then the U.S. sometime later this year, but there have been reports that prices will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,600, which is quite pricey, but if cutting the grass isn’t your thing, but having a nice lawn is, the hefty dollar amount of this device might be worth it for you.

Also, if you pay a lawn service to keep your lawn trim, the Miimo might pay for itself in a year or so.

Cordless shears

Then there are the Gardena Cordless Grass Shears that you can get on Amazon for about $130, which is a far cry from those rusty old fashioned hedge clippers that seem to lose sharpness pretty quickly.

PhotoThe cutting width of the Gardena is 3.15 inches. It comes with blade protection and a charger for its two lithium ion batteries.

The company says that by charging the cordless trimmer for about six hours it will give you about 90 minutes of use before it has to be charged again, which isn’t the longest time in between charges, but the time you save by using this futuristic hedge clipper  should make up for the short operating time. 

With this device, you can quickly trim those hedges and get back to doing whatever you enjoy more, which is probably most things when you  think about how annoying yard work can be.

Indoor garden

This last item is perfect for folks like me, who have a stellar history of killing plants of all kinds, regardless of how careful I am to follow the care instructions and although it’s used indoors unlike the other products mentioned here, it can still be a cool addition to the items that you buy when doing your spring shopping for your home and yard.

PhotoThe Prepara Soilless Indoor Garden grows plants without the use of soil and the company says it will work with just about any kind of seeds you put into it.

All one has to do is place the seeds into the sponge like material that holds them, place one of the covers over the seed and add a little bit of water to the plant mix that comes in the box.

So basically, there’s no fuss, no soil, no dirty hands and most importantly no guess work it deciding how much water or light the plant needs. The machine also ideal for those who may not have a yard or the space to grow outdoor plants, as the Prepara Soilless Indoor Garden can be used near a window, on a fire escape or on a balcony, so it’s perfect for city dwellers.

You can snag this guaranteed plant grower at Amazon for about $55.

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Virginia attempts to regulate Facebook

State passes law giving parents access to deceased child's account

When 15-year old Eric Rash, of rural Virginia, committed suicide in 2011, the investigating officer told his grieving parents they should get access to the...

Photo
Eric Rash

When 15-year old Eric Rash, of rural Virginia, committed suicide in 2011, the investigating officer told his grieving parents they should get access to their son's Facebookaccount in their search for clues.

The Rashes, however, discovered that would not be easy. Facebook's terms and conditions make no provision for parents to take control, and close down a deceased child's Facebook account.

So the couple turned to the Virginia state legislature, which has passed a bill requiring Facebook to allow the Rashes, and other parents in similar circumstances, to gain access to their child's social media account if the child dies.

Facebook hedges

In a statement to WWBT-TV in Richmond, Va., Facebook hedged on its response to the legislation.

 

"These are tragic situations and Facebook always tries to be as helpful to families as possible while still complying with federal and state law," a spokesman told the station.

Facebook Feb. 21, 2013, 2:27 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook
Left unsaid is whether the social media giant will challenge the law in court. Meanwhile, other states are considering similar provisions to help grieving families and other people who are increasingly frustrated in dealing with Facebook account issues, including cases in which a Facebook member dies.

"I have asked to close my father's Facebook account, as he passed away almost a year ago," Alan, of Ontario, Canada, wrote at ConsumerAffairs. "It is still active. And I am getting notices from his account. Freaky! Big time. How much more do I need to notify them before closing his account?"

Traditional customer service doesn't work

As the Rush family discovered, that might not be easy. Part of the problem, no doubt, stems from the fact that Facebook has some 800 million members. With a customer base that large, and spread across the globe, traditional customer service methods simply don't work.

Patricia, of Minnetonka, Minn., has been trying to deactivate her Facebook account for a month.

"When I get to the end to 'Deactivate' Facebook, it requires me to put the password in, and every time I did Facebook says it's the wrong password," Patricia wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "So of course I carefully retype my password again and again, still it's wrong password. That is just wrong that Facebook can do that! What can be done?"

No 800 number

PhotoAnd it's not like there's an 800 number Patricia can call and get help from a human being. Harold, of Heiskell, Tenn., tells us he has also had trouble deleting his own accounts.

"We had a number of Facebook accounts and pages," Harold writes. "Over the past several months we were partially shut down so we could not do various things on a number of occasions on these accounts."

Harold decided to get rid of all the accounts and says he was able to delete all them -- except for one.

"They have us blocked so that we can not access this account, to delete the account," he wrote. "We have so far sent nine emails to Facebook, to three separate email addresses. We have received three general, useless information emails in return. We have called a phone number, and have tried several of the extensions, which all say the same thing. Facebook does not have any live telephone support."

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Older Americans deeper in debt than previous generations, study finds

Social Security is the primary income source for all age groups above 65

Another day older and deeper in debt is commonly considered to be the plight of the working man and woman, but the situation doesn't necessarily improve wi...

PhotoAnother day older and deeper in debt is commonly considered to be the plight of the working man and woman, but the situation doesn't necessarily improve with age, a new study finds. 

Mortgages and other housing debt topped the list for families headed by someone 55 or older. Almost three-fourths of debt payments go to pay for housing debt among these families.

Another study, meanwhile, finds that Social Security payments are the primary source of income for a growing number of retirees, as private pension plans dry up and personal savings pay little or no interest. 

The nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) study found that families headed by individuals 75 or older had increases in the incidence of debt, the average amount of debt held, and the percentage with debt payments greater than 40 percent of their income in 2010,

In contrast, families headed by those with ages just before normal retirement age (55–64) and just after (65–74) had very small changes in these debt measures and in some cases improvements.

For families with heads 75 or older, the average debt level increased from $13,665 in 2007 to $27,409 in 2010. The average debt of all of those headed by individuals 55 and older stood at $75,082 in 2010, up more than $1,300 (in 2010 dollars) from 2007.

Highest debt levels

However, the families found to have the highest levels of debt were those with heads ages 55–64, those most likely to still be working. Among those families with heads age 55–64, the average debt level was $107,060 in 2010, down from $112,075 in 2007.

“These debt results are troubling as far as future retirement preparedness is concerned, in that the data indicate that American families approaching retirement or newly retired are more likely to have debt—and higher levels of debt—than past generations,” said Craig Copeland, senior research associate at EBRI and author of the article on debt of the elderly.

“Older families that have taken on higher housing debt may well eventually have difficulty avoiding a major lifestyle change in living standards in retirement, certainly if they are planning to rely on their home as an income producing asset.”

For all American families with heads age 55 or older, the percentage with debt held steady from 2007 to 2010, at roughly 63 percent. Furthermore, those with debt payments greater than 40 percent of income—a traditional threshold measure of
debt load trouble—dropped to 8.5 percent in 2010 from almost 10 percent in 2007.

Despite the overall trend, the percentage of families with heads age 75 or older having debt increased from 31.2 percent in 2007 to 38.5 percent in 2010 and the percentage total debt payments represent of income increased from 4.5 percent to
7.1 percent.

Social Security is vital

PhotoAnother recent EBRI study confirmed the importance of Social Security payments, finding that the government program is the primary source of income for all age groups above 65.

 In 2009, households ages 65–74 and households with members age 85 or above received 54 percent and 66 percent of their total household incomes, respectively, from Social Security benefits.

Income from pensions and annuities is the second-largest source of income for older households.

The importance of Social Security income increases with age. For households that had members ages 65–69 in 2001, the share of household income derived from Social Security rose from 47 percent in 2001 to almost 60 percent in 2009.

The study found that while about 60 percent of elderly American households spend less than their incomes, in 2009 more than 14 percent of older households spent considerably more than their income.

Singles, households with no pensions, African-Americans and Hispanics have larger shares of households with deficits. Health care and home related expenses are the biggest drivers of income deficit.

Sudipto Banerjee, EBRI research associate and author of the article on income of the elderly, noted that deficit spending is especially damaging for elderly Americans with low incomes.

“Those with an income shortfall are far more likely to be low-income, low-asset households, and they spend down their liquid assets at a faster rate than
households that do not have an income shortfall,” Banerjee said.

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FDA warns codeine can be dangerous for young surgery patients

Some children have died after being given codeine following tonsil or adenoid surgery

Children who have their tonsils or adenoids removed often get codeine as a pain reliever after the surgery. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)...

PhotoChildren who have their tonsils or adenoids removed often get codeine as a pain reliever after the surgery. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that doctors should be extremely careful prescribing codeine in such cases.

Some children have died after being given codeine, leading the FDA to order a "Black Box" warning -- its strongest -- to alert doctors and other health professionals to the danger.

The agency says doctors should use an alternate pain reliever -- ibuprofen is a likely candidate -- and parents should monitor their child's treatment and insist that codeine not be used.

The warning applies only to tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy procedures, which are often used to relieve discomfort and sleep apnea in children. Sleep apnea is a dangerous condition that interferes with sleep but that can also cause death in some cases.

The problem is that some children are "ultra-rapid metabolizers" of codeine, meaning that their liver converts codeine to morphine in higher than normal amounts, possibly leading to a lethal dose in children who already have sleep apnea or other breathing problems.

A search of FDA's Adverse Event Reporting System (AERS) database from 1969 to May 1, 2012 identified 10 deaths and three overdoses associated with codeine. Many of these children were recovering from a surgery to remove their tonsils or adenoids.

The cases occurred in children who showed evidence of being ultra-rapid metabolizers. The children ranged in age from 21 months to 9 years old. All of the children received doses of codeine that were within the typical dose range, meaning that they were not given extra amounts of the medication.

In these cases, the signs of morphine overdose developed within one to two days after the children started taking codeine.

Signs of trouble

PhotoParents and caregivers should watch children receiving codeine for pain closely for signs of morphine overdose. There are a number of symptoms to watch for, says Bob Rappaport, M.D., director of the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Addiction Products (DAAAP) in FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

If your child shows these signs, stop giving the codeine and seek medical attention immediately by taking your child to the emergency room or calling 911:

  • Unusual sleepiness, such as being difficult to wake up
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Labored or noisy breathing, such as breathing shallowly with a "sighing" pattern of breathing or deep breaths separated by abnormally long pauses
  • Blueness on the lips or around the mouth

"The most important thing is that caregivers should tell the 911 operator or emergency department staff that their child has been taking codeine and is having breathing problems," Rappaport says.

Talk to your child's health care professional if you have any questions or concerns about codeine. If health care professionals decide that the benefit of prescribing products that contain codeine to pediatric patients outweighs the risk, FDA is advising that the lowest effective dose be prescribed for the shortest period of time.

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Former Peanut Corporation of America officials indicted

Charges are related to Salmonella-tainted peanut products

Four former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and a related company have been indicted on numerous charges relating to salmonella-tainte...

PhotoFour former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and a related company have been indicted on numerous charges relating to salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products.

The Justice Department says Stewart Parnell, 58, of Lynchburg, Va.; Michael Parnell, 54, of Midlothian, Va.; and Samuel Lightsey, 48, of Blakely, Ga., have been charged with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy. Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Mary Wilkerson, 39, of Edison, Ga., were also charged with obstruction of justice.

In addition, Daniel Kilgore, 44, of Blakely has pleaded guilty to charges including mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.

Dates to 2009 Salmonella outbreak

The investigation into the activity at PCA began in 2009, after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) traced a national outbreak of Salmonella to a PCA plant in Blakely as the likely source.

As alleged in the indictment, the Blakely plant was a peanut roasting facility where PCA roasted raw peanuts and produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter, and peanut paste; PCA sold these peanut products to its customers around the country.

The charging documents allege that Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in a scheme to manufacture and ship salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products, and in so doing misled PCA customers. As alleged in the indictment, those customers ranged in size from small, family-owned businesses to global, multibillion-dollar food companies.

“When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk,” said Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

Multitude of charges

Although PCA is now no longer in business, the allegations against each of the defendants arise from his or her conduct while at PCA and a related company. The following allegations are set forth in the indictment: Stewart Parnell was an owner and president of PCA; Michael Parnell, who worked at P.P. Sales, was a food broker who worked on behalf of PCA; Lightsey was the operations manager at the Blakely plant from on or about July 2008 through February 2009; and Wilkerson held various positions at the Blakely plant -- receptionist, office manager and quality assurance manager -- from on or about April 2002 through February 2009. As charged in the information, Kilgore served as operations manager of the PCA plant in Blakely from on or about June 2002 through May 2008.

“We all place a great deal of trust in the companies and individuals who prepare and package our food, often times taking it for granted that the public’s health and safety interests will outweigh individual and corporate greed,” said Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. “Unfortunately and as alleged in the indictment, these defendants cared less about the quality of the food they were providing to the American people and more about the quantity of money they were gathering while disregarding food safety. This investigation was complex and extensive, and I credit the cooperation of our federal agencies with not only making sure that the cause of this outbreak was uncovered and the people responsible called to account, but also with working hard every day to make sure that parents across the country can feel confident that the food they are feeding their children is safe.”

The charging documents maintain that Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in several schemes by which they defrauded PCA customers about the quality and purity of their peanut products and specifically misled PCA customers about the existence of foodborne pathogens, most notably salmonella, in the peanut products PCA sold to them.

As the charging documents allege, the members of the conspiracy did so in several ways -- for example -- even when laboratory testing revealed the presence of salmonella in peanut products from the Blakely plant, Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore failed to notify customers of the presence of salmonella in the products shipped to them.

In addition, the charging documents contend that Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in a scheme to fabricate certificates of analysis (COAs) accompanying various shipments of peanut products. COAs are documents that summarize laboratory results, including results concerning the presence or absence of pathogens.

As alleged in the charging documents, on several occasions these four defendants participated in a scheme to fabricate COAs stating that shipments of peanut products were free of pathogens when, in fact, there had been no tests on the products at all or when the laboratory results showed that a sample tested positive for salmonella.

FDA inspections

After the salmonella outbreak that gave rise to this investigation, FDA inspectors visited the plant several times in January 2009. According to the indictment, the inspectors asked specific questions about the plant, its operations, and its history, and, in several instances, Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson gave untrue or misleading answers to these questions.

Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, and Samuel Lightsey are each charged with two counts of conspiracy; multiple counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud; multiple counts of introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud; multiple counts of interstate shipment fraud; and multiple counts of wire fraud. Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson are also charged with multiple counts of obstruction of justice.

Kilgore pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud, one count of conspiracy to introduce adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce, eight counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud, six counts of introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud, eight counts of interstate shipment fraud, and five counts of wire fraud.

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Existing-home sales inch higher in January as prices continue to rise

Realtors see a seller's market in the making

The tide seems to be turning for homeowners trying to sell. The National Association of Realtors reports sales of existing-home sales inched higher in Jan...

PhotoThe tide seems to be turning for homeowners trying to sell.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports sales of existing-home sales inched higher in January as home prices continued their steady advance. Sales rose in every region but the West, which is the region hit hardest by limited inventory.

Sales of previously-owned homes, which include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 0.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.92 million in January from a downwardly revised 4.90 million in December. Sales are 9.1 percent above the 4.51 million-unit pace in January 2012.

Higher buyer traffic

Tight inventory is a major factor in the market. "Buyer traffic is continuing to pick up, while seller traffic is holding steady," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "In fact, buyer traffic is 40 percent above a year ago, so there is plenty of demand but insufficient inventory to improve sales more strongly. We've transitioned into a seller's market in much of the country."

Total housing inventory at the end of January fell 4.9 percent -- to 1.74 million existing homes available for sale. That represents a 4.2-month supply 2 at the current sales pace, compared with 4.5 months in December. It's the lowest housing supply since April 2005 when it was also 4.2 months.

Listed inventory is 25.3 percent below a year ago when there was a 6.2-month supply. Raw unsold inventory is at the lowest level since December 1999 when there were 1.71 million homes on the market.

"We expect a seasonal rise of inventory this spring, but it may be insufficient to avoid more frequent incidences of multiple bidding and faster-than-normal price growth," Yun explained.

Prices on the rise

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $173,600 in January -- up 12.3 percent from January 2012, which is the 11th consecutive month of year-over-year price increases. The January gain is the strongest since November 2005 when it was 12.9 percent above a year earlier.

Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 23 percent of January sales, down one percent from December and 12 percent from a year earlier. Fourteen percent of January sales were foreclosures and nine percent were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 20 percent below market value in January, while short sales were discounted 12 percent.

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage rose to 3.41 percent in January from a record low 3.35 percent in December; it was 3.92 percent in January 2012.

Regional sales

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast increased 4.8 percent -- to an annual rate of 650,000 in January and are 12.1 percent above January 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $230,500, up 2.4 percent from a year ago.
  • Sales in the Midwest rose 3.6 percent in January to a pace of 1.16 million and are 17.2 percent higher than a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $131,800 -- 8.6 percent above January 2012.
  • In the South, existing-home sales increased 1.0 percent to an annual level of 1.96 million in January and are 14.0 percent above January 2012. The median price in the South was $152,100, up 13.4 percent from a year ago.
  • Existing-home sales in the West fell 5.7 percent to a pace of 1.15 million in January and are 5.7 percent below a year ago. The median price in the West was $239,800, which is 26.6 percent above January 2012.
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Inflation holds the line in January, while weekly jobless claims rise

A drop in energy costs and steady food prices are major factors in the inflation number

Not much sign of inflation last month as the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged for a second straight month. A major factor in t...

PhotoNot much sign of inflation last month as the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged for a second straight month.

A major factor in the decline was a 1.7 percent drop in energy costs, thanks to decreasing prices for gasoline (3.0 percent) and natural gas (2.5 percent). The price of fuel oil rose (2.0 percent) as did the cost of electricity prices (0.5 percent ).

Food prices were unchanged in January after rising in each of the previous 10 months. Three major grocery store food group indexes increased in January. Dairy and related products rose 0.4 percent in January -- its sixth increase in a row. Fruits and vegetables rose 0.3 percent, and cereals and bakery products increased 0.1 percent.

In contrast to these increases, prices for nonalcoholic beverages declined 0.5 percent in January, and the cost of meats, poultry, fish and eggs was unchanged.

'Core inflation'

The “core rate,” which strips out the volatile food and energy sectors increased 0.3 percent in

January. Increases in price of shelter and apparel accounted for much of the increase, with advances in recreation, medical care, and airline fares also contributing.

Overall, consumer prices are up 1.6 percent over the last 12 months, with an increase in food prices of 1.6 percent over the last 12 months and energy prices down 1.0 percent.

Jobless claims

Separately, the government reports the number of people applying for unemployment benefits for the first time jumped by 20,000 in the week ended Feb. 16 -- to 362,000.

The 4-week moving average was 360,750 -- an increase of 8,000 from the previous week's revised average of 352,750. Economists consider the 4-week moving average a more accurate barometer of the labor market as it is not as volatile as the weekly reports.

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Feds approve new silicone gel-filled breast implant

Post-approval safety studies will be required to assess rare events

The Natrelle 410 Highly Cohesive Anatomically Shaped Silicone-Gel Filled Breast Implant has won the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)...

PhotoThe Natrelle 410 Highly Cohesive Anatomically Shaped Silicone-Gel Filled Breast Implant has won the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The implants, manufactured by Allergan, Inc., of Irvine, CA, are to be used to increase breast size (augmentation) in women at least 22 years old and to rebuild breast tissue (reconstruction) in women of any age.

The FDA based its approval on seven years of data from 941 women. Most complications and outcomes reflect those found in previous breast implant studies including tightening of the area around the implant (capsular contracture), re-operation, implant removal, an uneven appearance (asymmetry), and infection. In addition, investigators observed fissures (cracks) in the gel of some Natrelle 410 implants -- a characteristic called gel fracture which is unique to this implant.

“It’s important to remember that breast implants are not lifetime devices,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Women should fully understand the risks associated with breast implants before considering augmentation or reconstruction surgery, and they should recognize that long-term monitoring is essential.”

'Reasonably' safe and effective

Shuren said the reviewed data showed a “reasonable assurance of safety and effectiveness,” but added, “We will be looking at the results from post-approval studies that will focus on their long-term safety and effectiveness.”

The silicone gel in the Natrelle 410 implant contains more cross-linking compared to the silicone gel used in Allergan’s previously approved Natrelle implant. This increased cross-linking results in a silicone gel that’s firmer. Cross-linking refers to the bonds that link one silicone chain to another. The clinical significance of this type of silicone gel is not known.

Allergan’s studies did not compare the safety and effectiveness of the Natrelle 410 implant to other previously approved silicone gel-filled breast implants on the market. Therefore, these implants cannot be directly compared to any previously FDA-approved implant.

Post-approval studies required

The FDA requires that Allergan conduct a series of post-approval studies to assess long-term safety and effectiveness outcomes and the risks of rare disease. Lessons learned from previous post-approval studies on silicone gel-filled breast implants informed the design of post-approval studies for the Natrelle 410.

As a condition of approval for the Natrelle 410 breast implants, Allergan must:

  • Continue to follow, for an additional five years, approximately 3,500 women who received the Natrelle 410 implants as part of the company’s continued access study;
  • Conduct a 10-year study of more than 2,000 women receiving Natrelle 410 silicone gel-filled implants post-approval to collect information on long-term local complications (e.g., capsular contracture, reoperation, removal of implant, implant rupture) and less common potential disease outcomes (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, breast and lung cancer, reproductive complications);
  • Conduct five case control studies to evaluate the possible association between the Natrelle 410 implants, as well as other silicone gel-filled breast implants, and five rare diseases -- rare connective tissue disease, neurological disease, brain cancer, cervical/vulvar cancer and lymphoma;
  • Evaluate women’s perceptions of the patient labeling; and
  • Analyze the Natrelle 410 implants that are removed from patients and returned to the manufacturer.

Silicone gel-filled breast implants are medical devices implanted under the breast tissue or under the chest muscle for breast augmentation or reconstruction. These implants have a silicone outer shell that is filled with silicone gel. They come in different sizes and styles. They have either smooth or textured shells.

Breast reconstruction includes primary reconstruction to replace breast tissue that has been removed due to cancer or trauma or that has failed to develop properly due to a severe breast abnormality. Breast reconstruction also includes revision surgery to correct or improve the result of a primary breast reconstruction surgery.

Breast augmentation includes primary breast augmentation to increase the breast size, as well as revision surgery to correct or improve the result of a primary breast augmentation surgery.

With this approval, there are now four FDA-approved silicone gel-filled breast implant products available in the U.S. manufactured by three companies: Allergan, Mentor and Sientra.

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Most job applicants hit a wall of silence

A CareerBuilder survey finds most never hear back from employers

When a company puts out a “help wanted” call and you apply, you would at least expect to hear, “we've decided to go in another direction,” or some platitud...

PhotoWhen a company puts out a “help wanted” call and you apply, you would at least expect to hear, “we've decided to go in another direction,” or some platitude when you don't make the cut. Don't count count on it.

A nationwide survey by CareerBuilder finds that more than 25 percent of workers say they had a bad experience when applying for a job. And that's not the worst of it. Seventy-five percent of those who applied for jobs using various resources in the last year said they never heard back from the employer.

While this speaks to the challenges of finding employment in a highly competitive market, it also brings to light negative implications for today's employers. The survey shows candidates who have had a bad experience when applying for a position are less likely to seek employment at that company again and are more likely to discourage friends and family from applying or purchasing products from that company.

How important is it to acknowledge every job applicant?

  • Eighty-two percent of workers expect to hear back from a company when they apply for a job regardless of whether the employer is interested. Nearly one-third (32 percent) said they would be less inclined to purchase products or services from a company that didn't respond to their application.

What constitutes a bad applicant experience?

  • Twenty-six percent of workers have had a bad experience as a job applicant, citing a lack of follow through, inconsistencies from the employer or poor representation of the company's brand as the primary culprits.
  • Employer never bothered letting me know the decision after the interview -- 60 percent
  • Found out during the interview that the job didn't match what was written in the job ad -- 43 percent
  • Company representative didn't present a positive work experience -- 34 percent
  • Company representative didn't seem to be knowledgeable -- 30 percent
  • Employer never acknowledged receiving my application -- 29 percent

What would workers do if they have a bad applicant experience?

The effects of one candidate's negative experience can lead to a broader impact on the employer's ability to recruit or sell products. Workers said if they are dissatisfied with the way their application is handled by an employer, they would:

  • Never seek employment at the company again --- 42 percent
  • Tell others not to work there -- 22 percent
  • Tell others not to purchase products or services from the company -- 9 percent

What would workers do if they have a good applicant experience?

The study found that a good applicant experience can have positive long-term effects for organizations regardless if the candidate was actually hired. Workers said if they are happy with the way they are treated by an employer when applying for a job, they would:

  • Consider seeking employment with the company again in the future – 56 percent
  • Tell others to seek employment there – 37 percent
  • Be more likely to purchase products or services from the company – 23 percent

"From the second job seekers are viewing your job ad and applying to your company, they are forming an opinion of who you are as an employer and as a business," said Sanja Licina, Ph.D. and Senior Director of Talent Intelligence at CareerBuilder. "One bad applicant experience can have a ripple effect with candidates not only vocalizing their dissatisfaction with how they were treated, but encouraging others not to apply or even buy products from that company. It's so critical that your employment brand effectively carries through at every touch point with candidates."

The study of more than 3,900 U.S. workers was conducted online by Harris Interactive from November 1 to November 30, 2012.  

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Neighbors raise a stink over pig ear plant implicated in numerous recalls

Dog treat plant's smells offend neighbors' sensibilities, its products enrage pet owners

Dog owners have been raising a stink over some of the pet treats produced by Kasel Industries and now the company's West Denver neighbors are getting into ...

PhotoDog owners have been raising a stink over some of the pet treats produced by Kasel Industries and now the company's West Denver neighbors are getting into the act as well.

The problem is the place stinks, according to more than 150 complaints the city has received in recent years. 

"Caller left message regarding terrible odor. Said he was 'throwing up'," was a typical complaint recorded last year, according to Westword, a community news site.

Pet owners outside the Denver area may not care what the place smells like but many of them are irate about products Kasel has recalled in recent years, products like:

  • Boots & Barkley pigs ears;
  • Nature's Deli chicken jerky dog treats; and
  • American Variety Pack treats, recalled today along with all other products made at the plant from April 20, 2012, thru September 19, 2012.

The recalls involve possible Salmonella contamination of the treats. This is particularly galling to pet owners who seek out pet food and treats made in the United States, hoping to avoid the dangers associated with products containing ingredients from China.

Photo"I better start seeing this crap pulled from shelves at Petsmart... fat chance," said ConsumerAffairs reader Merri Krishnan in a Facebook posting after a batch of pig ears were recalled. 

But as Merri said, fat chance. Kasel is still operating, its products can be found in most pet stores and the neighbors are still beefing, despite the recalls and the efforts of the Food and Drug Administration and the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which have both found Salmonella in some of the company's products.

A citation

The city of Denver finally got into the act, responding last year to the neighbor's complaints. It issued an odor citation to Kasel, citing a section of Denver's air pollution ordinance and informed the plant's owner, Ray Kasel, that the fine would be $500.

PhotoNow you might say that $500 is a small price to pay for making West Denver smell like a rendering plant but Ray Kasel didn't take kindly to the citation. He filed an appeal, saying the neighbors were untrustworthy and claiming the wind was blowing the stench the other way on the days the neighbors complained.

The hearing officer was not impressed and the appeal was denied. So Kasel did what any respectable pig ear entrepreneur would do. He sued the city in federal court, claiming it was conspiring against him, harassing him and violating his constitutional property rights. He also sued various city officials and some of the complaining neighbors.

Leaving aside the legal niceties, Kasel appears to be arguing that it's not his fault that dead animals smell bad and that the nature of the neighborhood has changed since he went into business in 1986.

The West Denver neighborhood -- which for some reason is called RiNo -- was for decades an industrial area. Kasel's neighbors include a sausage factory, a company that cleans septic tanks and a corned beef plant, according to Westword. 

Probably none of these folks would say they should be run out of town just because some vacant industrial buildings have been turned into condos occupied by hipsters, artists and others not habituated to barnyard aromas.

As for pet owners looking for red-blooded American dog treats, our advice is to stick with baked snacks. Leave the pig ears out of it.

 

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Got clutter? You can use one of the many recycling sites

Sites like Freecycle.org are great hubs if you want to recycle or donate your stuff to someone

Whenever you’re trying to eliminate clutter, there’s an inner battle that can sometimes ensue.One side of yourself may say “You’l...

PhotoWhenever you’re trying to eliminate clutter, there’s an inner battle that can sometimes ensue.

One side of yourself may say, “You’ll never use this thing again and if you were brave enough and if you really wanted to do a thorough cleaning, you would get rid of this God-forsaken space gobbler right away."

At the same time the other side is saying in complete opposition, “Where’s your level of sentimentality? Are you really going to toss this precious belonging out or let some strange Salvation Army guy throw it in the back of his truck and drive off with it forever?"

Many of us have that conversation with ourselves when trying to de-clutter our homes, while others are far less attached to their possessions and just want to get rid of things to make more space. Many of the less sentimental will sell their items at a yard sale or tag sale while others will rely on that Salvation Army guy to haul away everthing in one simple shot.

But there are many others, millions in fact, who have turned to sites like FreeSharing.org and Freecycle.org to get rid of their stuff, sites that use the theory that one person’s trash is another person’s new couch, TV or baby stroller.

FreeSharing

The creators of FreeSharing.org say its main goal is to keep items out of the landfill and it uses over 900 groups in local communities across the United States, Canada and other parts of the globe, to place items that are still in decent shape in the hands and lives of people who really need them.

PhotoThe concept of free sharing or "freecycling," as it's known, isn’t a new one, but FreeSharing.org has made the practice much easier for folks by pooling local recycling groups that do things like manage the item exchange between you and the person you’re donating to. They can also tell you who needs what items in the communities they work in.

A lot of current users believe donating items through a recycling group in their area is better than blindly giving items away to the Salvation Army or similar organizations.

FreeSharing.org doesn’t actually organize the sharing for you or help you give items away; it instead serves as an Internet hub that connects users to local sharing companies that all have a dual mission to better the environment and place items with people who have a specific need.

For example, if you have an old coffee table that you no longer need, FreeSharing.org doesn’t want you to just leave it on your curb for the garbage man or for the neighborhood to grab up. Instead it wants you to use a little more strategy when getting rid of your items to not only help the environment but also to help someone who may not be able to afford an expensive item at that specific moment.

Some of the other freecycling or sharing sites include FreeUse.org, StagaNetwork.com, FreeMesa.com, Around Again, Worldwide Free Share and countless others. Just as when using any other site where communicating with strangers is a possibility, users are encouraged to follow all of the usual safety measures like not revealing personal information and being extra careful if you decide to meet with a person to exchange an item.

Freecycle.org

PhotoProbably considered the granddaddy of the sharing sites is Freecycle.org with a presence in over 85 countries around the globe. The site also works with thousands of community groups and the number of users in the Freecylce network is reportedly in the millions.

Local groups must be part of a Yahoo group or use the company’s software to participate in sharing, which some groups don’t like, but many believe having access to Freecycle’s vast network makes following that particular rule far worth it.

However, if you’re part of a recycling group in your area and don’t want to use Yahoo or Freecycle’s software, other recycling sites like FreeSharing.com may be a better fit for you.

The website ReUseItNework.org is another recycling hub that places items with the people that need them, and unlike similar sites, the creators tell users that your items don’t have to be in perfect condition as many who use the site like to repair things and are aware items may not be in the best condition.

The ReUseIt site pretty much has a global network and works in a way similar to the other recycling sites, as it’s mainly a hub for local recyclers to join or for people to exchange items for free.

And of course a lot of people don’t just donate on these kinds of sites, they also use them to get free stuff that they may need or want, but just like anytime you buy or receive something used, you always take on the risk of that item being a piece of junk, which some people who have used these types of sites have complained about.

But all in all, the concept of freecycling or freesharing is a good one, since many say the environment will benefit and people who may not be able to afford it can get things for free.

And most of all, people can finally get a chance to remove some of that clutter that they’ve been hanging on to, which can provide the necessary physical and mental space that most of us need.

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Post Launches Sesame Street Cereal

Whole-grain oat cereal contains only one gram of sugar, Post posits

Toddlers like to start their day watching Elmo and Cookie Monster, so Post Foods thinks they'll like adding Sesame Street Cereal to their mornings. How wel...

PhotoToddlers like to start their day watching Elmo and Cookie Monster, so Post Foods thinks they'll like adding Sesame Street Cereal to their mornings.

Seeking to get out ahead of the critics, Post is pushing the line that the two new oat-based cereals -- in apple and banana flavors -- contain whole grain, natural flavors, only one gram of sugar per serving and "nutrients to help support healthy brain development."

At least one frequent critic of the food industry is praising Post.

"It is great to see Post marketing a healthy, low sugar, whole grain cereal to kids," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We need more companies to make healthy eating fun for kids and easy for parents."

Doctor Mom

The company has also lined up an endorsement from Dr. Roshini Raj, a gastroenterologist and internist and attending physician at NYU Medical Center/Tisch Hospital in New York City.

 

Photo
Dr. Roshini Raj

“As a doctor who is also a mom to two young children, I’m thrilled to find a product that is a healthy option for my kids and was created with their specific nutritional and functional needs in mind,” said Raj in a Post press release. “The Whole Grain content and fortification of nutrients like choline, iron and zinc are essential to a growing toddler’s diet.”

 

Dr. Raj  also serves as an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.  

X and O

Post says the “X” and “O” shapes in each box are specifically designed for little fingers to easily grasp and are formulated to melt in a toddler’s mouth quickly for safe and easy consumption. In addition, educational activities are featured on the back of each box, encouraging number and letter skills.

Post's other cereals include Post Raisin Bran, Honey Bunches of Oats, Bran Flakes and Fruity Pebbles.

The company's president recently vowed to work harder to "become a long-term share gainer" after Post cereals lost market share in the first quarter of 2013.

Saying the loss was "self-inflicted," Terence Block said he was preparing to launch "the most aggressive new product line-up Post has had in years," according to Bakery and Snacks, a trade publication.

 

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Study finds diet sodas don't super-charge your appetite

Some researchers have suggested artificial sweeteners make you hungry

Diet soda often gets a bad rap from those who think it's really not much of an improvement over the full-sugar soft drink. One frequent criticism is that d...

PhotoDiet soda often gets a bad rap from those who think it's really not much of an improvement over a real-sugar soft drink. One frequent criticism is that diet sodas leave you hungry -- and therefore more likely to pig out on sugary and fatty food and snacks.

But a new study says it's not so. 

Researchers at the University of North Carolina studied 318 overweight or obese adults who said they consumed at least 280 calories' worth of drinks each day.

One third of the participants were advised to substitute at least two daily servings of sugary beverages with water. Another third was instructed to substitute diet drinks, including Diet Coke and Diet Lipton Tea.

At the conclusion of the six-month study, water and diet beverage drinkers reduced their average daily calories from what they had been at the start of the study, from between 2,000 and 2,300 calories to 1,500 to 1,800 calories.

At both the three- and six-month points, researchers said people in the two groups were eating a similar amount of total calories, carbohydrates, fat and sugar. Everyone in the study lost weight.

Theory contradicted

The findings seem to contradict the theory that artificial sweeteners used in diet drinks could disrupt the hormones that are involved in hunger and satiety cues -- making diet soda drinkers feel hungrier than others.

Some have speculated that, because the artificial sweeteners are sweeter than sugar, they might cause regular users to develop what we might call a hyper-sweet tooth, causing them to go in search of more sugary snacks and drinks.

But that's not what the North Carolina study found.

"Our study does not provide evidence to suggest that a short-term consumption of diet beverages, compared with water, increases preferences for sweet foods and beverages," wrote lead researcher Carmen Piernas in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

There are still studies out there that have suggested an increased risk of cancer related to artificial sweeteners, but most researchers say nothing is conclusive on that front.

It's worth mentioning that water is still the best thirst-quencher. It's sugar-free, has no calories and, if it's tap water, it's free. 

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Where are we on food safety?

Two years later, important food safety provisions in new law haven't been implemented

Is the U.S. food supply safer than in past years? After many high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (F...

PhotoIs the U.S. food supply safer than in past years? After many high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in 2011.

The measure was supposed to beef up government efforts to prevent foodborne illness and consolidate inspection and enforcement activity under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Two years later, FDA is still in the process of implementing the FSMA's provisions. In its 2013 report on High Risk Areas of Oversight, the General Accountability Office (GAO) put food safety near the top of the list.

Fragmented oversight

"The fragmented federal oversight of food safety has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources." the report warns. "The 2010 nationwide recall of more than 500 million eggs because of Salmonella contamination highlights this fragmentation."

The report points out that, under current regulations, several agencies have different roles and responsibilities in the egg production system, including the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The report also spotlights what it calls three major trends that create food safety challenges:

  • A substantial and increasing portion of the U.S. food supply is imported;
  • Consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed foods;
  • Growing segments of the population are increasingly susceptible to foodborne illnesses.

Not fully implemented

"Because FSMA is not yet fully implemented and a number of the regulations required under the law are still under development or review, it is too early to understand in depth the impact of the law on federal oversight of food safety," the report concluded.

Photo
Rep. DeLauro
Some in Congress are losing patience. When FDA announced it was extending the comment period on two food safety rules mandated under FSMA, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) suggested "special interests" were pressuring the FDA to slow the process in an effort to water down the rules.

“American families are already living with the specter of foodborne illnesses and contamination hanging over them," DeLauro said. "It is shameful that in a country as wealthy and prosperous as ours, with all the scientific and technological knowledge we possess, parents still have to worry if ground beef, cantaloupe, spinach, or any other number of foods, will send their children to the hospital, or possibly even their death."

Big increase in food recalls

While recent months have produced no major food safety incidents like the egg recall or 2007's deadly peanut contamination, there is evidence that consumers remain at risk. Stericycle ExpertRECALL, a recall management firm, reports food recalls during the fourth quarter of last year reached a two year quarterly high.

It reports an average rate of approximately six food recalls being documented every day in the fourth quarter, affecting some 18.4 million products, more than double the units affected in the previous quarter.

“Right before FDA’s announcement of two major requirements proposed under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the agency documented 552 food recalls, representing a 33 percent increase over the previous quarter and reaching the highest level of recall activity in more than two years,” said Mike Rozembajgier, vice president of recalls at Stericycle ExpertRECALL.

Of the recalled food products announced during the fourth quarter, 94 percent fell within the classification of having the potential to cause serious health consequences or death. 165 of those recalls were related to issues stemming from a plant processing nut products. Salmonella concerns were the number one cause of food recalls followed by undeclared allergens or other allergen concerns.

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Economic weakness and high gas prices. Coincidence?

There seems to be a pattern here

The economy has never quite gotten on track since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. Unemployment remains high and consumer spending -- alo...

PhotoThe economy has never quite gotten on track since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009. Unemployment remains high and consumer spending -- along with business spending for that matter -- remains in check.

While there are undoubtedly many factors at work, the role of gasoline prices continues to come under close scrutiny.

When the recession escalated with the credit crisis in late 2008, oil prices plunged, along with gasoline prices. After peaking at over $4 a gallon in July of that year, the national average price of regular plunged to below $2 a gallon by the end of 2008.

Since that time, gasoline prices have regained their footing while the economy has not. Gasoline prices escalated sharply at the beginning of both 2011 and 2012 -- always remaining well above $3 a gallon throughout the year.

Higher and faster

This year gasoline prices rose higher and faster than ever before. And just as in previous years, there are signs the economy is slowing down.

Bloomberg News obtained some very candid internal emails from Walmart executives showing the company is off to its worst winter start in seven years. One executive called the retailer's early 2013 sales "a total disaster."

The disaster just happens to coincide with a huge spike in gasoline prices. Not every economist is linking the two but economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., says the rise in pump prices is getting worrisome for the overall economy.

Economist's take

Photo
Joel Naroff
"Indeed, coupled with the payroll tax increase, there could be a real slowdown in consumer spending," Naroff said. "Add to that the potential for a government sequestration for a short time at least and once again we are looking at an economy that could falter."

That's right, another economic hit is waiting in the wings. On March 1, automatic across-the-board spending cuts will go into effect, lopping $85 billion a year from the federal budget. Though that will hardly make a dent in a $1 trillion annual deficit, it's likely to slow the economy even more.

"As I like to say, all we have to fear is Washington itself, though this time the energy sector is doing its part in hurting the economy," Naroff said.

It is, indeed, a triple whammy. The two-year payroll tax "holiday" expired at the beginning of this year, so everyone who works for a paycheck had a slightly smaller one starting last month. If the check wasn't that big to begin with, the reduction makes a big difference.

Math problem

Added to that employees who drive to work are now having to pay more to do that. Let's do the math.

Let's say Carol Consumer has to drive 20 miles one way to her job. Her car gets, on average, 20 miles to the gallon. She uses two gallons of fuel each day and, with about 22 workdays in the average month, she buys 44 gallons of gas each month.

If gasoline costs $3.28 a gallon, which it did on December 28, 2012, the monthly expenditure is $144.32. When the average price rises to the current $3.75, the monthly cost is $165.

Not a big difference, you say? Multiply the extra $20 a month by the millions of U.S. consumers living in the margins and you might find a big hit to the economy.

In fact, it's estimated that for every penny that fuel prices go up takes at least $1 billion away from consumers' disposable income. Simply put, if U.S. consumers are putting more money into their gas tanks, they have less to spend at Walmart, or at grocery stores and restaurants. It becomes a drag on the economy and so, it's no surprise that the economy begins to noticeably slow whenever gasoline prices go up.

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Telemarketers banned from selling healthcare-related products

Consumers seeking health insurance were allegedly cheated out of millions of dollars

If you get a phone call from someone trying to sell you health insurance -- hang up!! You could be the target of a costly scam. Under a settlement with th...

PhotoIf you get a phone call from someone trying to sell you health insurance -- hang up!! You could be the target of a costly scam.

Under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), telemarketers who allegedly tricked consumers into buying purported health insurance are permanently banned from selling healthcare-related products. Among consumers being targeted are those who are uninsured, unemployed, or have pre-existing medical conditions.

Last September, the FTC charged Roy D. Hamilton and his wife, Judy M. Hamilton, and their companies, Health Service Providers, Inc., Magnolia Health Management Corporation, Magnolia Technologies Corporation, and Fav Marketing Inc. (HSP defendants), with fraudulently selling bogus health insurance for the Independent Association of Businesses (IAB).

Predatory marketing

The HSP defendants allegedly called consumers who had submitted their contact information to Websites that claimed to offer quotes for traditional health insurance or equivalent coverage.

According to the FTC, after paying an initial fee ranging from $50 to several hundred dollars and a monthly fee ranging from $40 to $1,000, consumers eventually learned they had not purchased comprehensive health insurance, but were deceived into buying an IAB membership that supposedly provided discounts on services such as golf, travel, and some limited health related services and insured benefits.

In addition to the ban against selling healthcare-related products, the settlement order prohibits the HSP defendants from misrepresenting material facts about any goods or services, selling or otherwise benefiting from consumers’ personal information, and from violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, including calling consumers on the Do Not Call Registry.

The order also imposes an $11.8 million judgment that has been suspended following the HSP defendants’ surrender of assets to the FTC.

Continuing legal action

Litigation continues against the remaining defendants behind the allegedly fraudulent health insurance scheme: IAB Marketing Associates LP, Independent Association of Businesses, HealthCorp International Inc., JW Marketing Designs LLC, International Marketing Agencies, LP, International Marketing Management LLC, Wood LLC, James C. Wood, James J. Wood, Michael J. Wood, and Gary D. Wood.

The FTC has also sought to amend its complaint against the remaining defendants in the case, adding two individuals as relief defendants who allegedly benefited from the scheme but did not participate in it.

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New home construction slows in January

Still, the overall trend appears positive

The rate of construction for new homes fell sharply in January. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, p...

PhotoThe rate of construction for new homes fell sharply in January.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, privately-owned housing starts were down 8.5 percent from December's revised estimate -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 890,000. Still, the January rate is 23.6 percent above the year-ago rate of 720,000.

Single-family housing starts in January were at a rate of 613,000 -- 0.8 percent above the revised December figure of 608,000. The January rate for units in buildings with five units or more plunged 26.1 percent from December -- to 260,000.

Photo
David Crowe, chief economist,National Association of Home Builders

David Crowe, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders, tells ConsumerAffairs, that the huge decline in starts for the rental sector was due to a leveling out from the huge surge of starts in December.

Building permits

Applications for building permits, an indicator of what developers have in mind for the future, were higher.

Permits for privately-owned housing units totaled a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 925,000 -- up 1.8 percent from revised December rate of 909,000 and 35.2 percent above the January 2012 estimate of 684,000.

Single-family permits were up 1.9 percent from December at rate of 584,000, while authorizations for units in buildings with five units or more were up 1.0 percent -- to a rate of 311,000.

Crowe says overall, the January report shows “modest improvement” in housing and that he expects it to continue throughout 2013. He says those builders who have “been waiting for several years are finally deciding to go forward.”

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Wholesale prices rise in January

While food prices rose, energy costs were down

The Producer Price Index (PPI) -- or wholesale prices -- rose in January for the first time in three months. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ...

PhotoThe Producer Price Index (PPI) -- or wholesale prices -- rose in January for the first time in three months.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of goods one step shy of what consumers pay was up 0.2 percent following declines of 0.3 percent in December and 0.4 percent in November. On an unadjusted basis, the finished goods index advanced 1.4 percent

For the 12 months ended in January, the PPI was up 1.4 percent.

Food and energy

Over three quarters of the rise in finished goods prices can be attributed came from a 0.7 percent increase in the cost of for consumer foods, following an 0.8 percent drop in December. The January advance was led by a 39 percent jump in prices for fresh and dry vegetables. Increases in the prices for soft drinks and for candy and nuts also contributed.

Energy prices, meanwhile dropped 0.4 percent in January -- the fourth straight decrease. The January decline is mostly attributable to prices for gasoline, which fell 2.1 percent.

Core rate

Prices for finished goods less foods and energy -- the so-called “core rate” of inflation -- rose 0.2 percent in January, the third straight increase. Most of that can be traced to a 2.5-percent rise in the index for pharmaceutical preparations. Higher prices for communication and related equipment also contributed.

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Underwater homeowners may be on the move

Rising home prices could make it easier to relocate where the jobs are

News that home prices posted their biggest year-over-year gain in more than six years could produce a surge in relocation by job-seeking homeowners this ye...

PhotoNews that home prices posted their biggest year-over-year gain in more than six years could produce a surge in relocation by job-seeking homeowners this year. And that -- according to John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, -- could ultimately help accelerate the decline in unemployment rates.

“One factor that has kept unemployment rates high has been the inability of underwater homeowners to relocate for employment opportunities,” said Challenger. “With home prices bouncing back, even those who may now simply break even on a home sale might consider moving to a region where jobs are more plentiful. This could spark a more rapid decline in the unemployment rate over the next year.”

Demand for workers

As of December, there were still more than 130 metropolitan areas where the unemployment rate stood at 8.0 percent or higher and nearly 50 where the rate was at or above 10 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, there are about 20 metropolitan areas where unemployment is below 4.5 percent.

“It is likely that employers in these low-unemployment regions are actually struggling to find available workers with the skills need to fill job openings,” said Challenger.

Relocation for employment opportunities has been difficult in this recovery due to the collapse in home values. At the end of the third quarter, 22 percent of residential properties remained underwater, according to the latest available data from real estate analytics firm CoreLogic.

The turning tide

However, the percentage of underwater homeowners is likely to have declined since that last reading, based on the fact that December not only marked the tenth consecutive month of increased home prices, but it saw the biggest gain since May 2006, according to CoreLogic.

“As more and more homeowners reach or even exceed the break-even point on their mortgages, they will gain the freedom to explore job opportunities beyond their immediate surroundings,” said Challenger. “By casting a much wider net, these individuals will significantly reduce the length of the job search.”

According to Challenger, relocation is starting to increase among the job seekers going through the firm’s employment transition programs. Last year, an average of 13.3 percent of those finding new positions each quarter relocated for the opportunity. The average was 11.7 percent in 2011. In 2009 and 2010, as the recession and housing market hit bottom, the relocation rate dropped to just 10 percent.

“Increased mobility and churn in the housing market, of course, will help the economy in several ways. As mentioned, it could lead to an increase in the number of people leaving high unemployment regions for areas where job openings are going unfilled, thus getting more people back on payrolls,” said Challenger.

Increased mobility possible

It just so happens that some of the states with the biggest gains in home prices are also among those still struggling with high unemployment. Arizona home prices saw the biggest year-over-year increase in home prices at 20.2 percent. The unemployment rate for the state matches the national rate of 7.9 percent, but some metropolitan areas, such as Flagstaff, Lake Havasu City, and Prescott, have unemployment rates above 8.0 percent.

In California, where many cities are still experiencing double-digit unemployment rates, home prices increased 12.6 percent. Nevada home prices were up 15.3 percent, which is good news for the 10.2 percent of the state’s labor force that remains unemployed.

“In addition, increased home buying will ignite more consumer spending on relocation related services, new furniture and appliances, home improvement projects, etc. All of this activity will feed the economy and help create more jobs,” said Challenger.

Indeed, the latest report from the Commerce Department showed a 4.6 percent increase in orders for durable goods, which includes appliances and furniture. And, at least one company is reaping the benefits from increased home buying; Americo, the parent company of U-Haul International, reported that net earnings for the nine-month period ending December 31, 2012 were up 33 percent from the same period a year earlier.  

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Taxpayer reminder: Report 2010 Roth conversions this year

You may need to report half of the resulting taxable income on your 2012 return

If you converted amounts to a Roth IRA or designated Roth account in 2010, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reminds you that -- in m...

PhotoIf you converted amounts to a Roth IRA or designated Roth account in 2010, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reminds you that -- in most cases -- you must report half of the resulting taxable income on your 2012 return.

Normally, Roth conversions are taxable in the year the conversion occurs. For example, the taxable amount from a 2012 conversion must be included in full on a 2012 return. But under a special rule that applied only to 2010 conversions, taxpayers generally include half the taxable amount in their income for 2011 and half for 2012, unless they chose to include all of it in income on their 2010 return.

Roth conversions in 2010 from traditional IRAs are shown on 2012 Form 1040, Line 15b, or Form 1040A, Line 11b. Conversions from workplace retirement plans, including in-plan rollovers to designated Roth accounts, are reported on Form 1040, Line 16b, or Form 1040A, Line 12b.

Reporting distributions

Taxpayers who also received Roth distributions in either 2010 or 2011 may be able to report a smaller taxable amount for 2012. For details, see the discussion under 2012 Reporting of 2010 Roth Rollovers and Conversions. In addition, worksheets and examples can be found in Publication 590 for Roth IRA conversions and Publication 575 for conversions to designated Roth accounts.

Taxpayers who made Roth conversions in 2012 or are planning to do so in 2013 or later years must file Form 8606 to report the conversion.

As in 2010 and 2011, income limits no longer apply to Roth IRA conversions.

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Latest study finds no significant risk from BPA

The chemical, widely used in food packaging, is banned in baby bottles and sippy cups

There will quite possibly never be a last word on the health effects of bisphenol A, also known as BPA. The chemical is widely used in plastic bottles, can...

PhotoThere will quite possibly never be a last word on the health effects of bisphenol A, also known as BPA. The chemical is widely used in plastic bottles, cans and even on cash register receipts and has been linked in some studies with potential longterm health consequences in humans.

But the latest -- if not the last -- word comes from a toxicologist who examined 150 previous studies involving 30,000 people in 19 countries and found the exposure levels generally much too low to have any impact.

Justin Teeguarden, a senior research scientist at the Department of Energy laboratory in Richland, Wash., presented his findings at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His study was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Teeguarden said the levels he found were "thousands of times lower" than levels that cause health effects. Teeguarden's findings lend support to the assertions of the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups that have long argued that human exposure to BPA is so slight that it is inconsequential.  

"Safety assessments of bisphenol A (BPA) conclude that the potential human exposure to BPA from polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins is more than 400 times lower than the safe level of BPA set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This minimal level of exposure to BPA poses no known risk to human health," the council says on its website.

Supports earlier findings

Photo
Justin Teeguarden
It's not the first time Teeguarden's research has found no significant ill effects from exposure to BPA.

In a study published in the leading toxicology journal, Toxicological Sciencesin 2011, also funded by the EPA, Teeguarden tracked bloodstream and urine levels of BPA in volunteers who are a lot of canned food over a 24-hour period.

“In a nutshell," Teeguarden said in a July 2011 Forbes article, “We can now say for the adult human population exposed to even very high dietary levels, blood concentrations of the bioactive form of BPA throughout the day are below our ability to detect them, and orders of magnitude lower than those causing effects in rodents exposed to BPA.”

Teeguarden’s findings show “the majority of effects observed in animal studies are probably not relevant to humans because they involved much higher BPA exposures,” Professor Richard Sharpe, Principal Investigator at the Independent Medical Research Center’s Center for Reproductive Health in Britain, was quoted as saying in the Forbes article.

Teeguarden, who receied his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, has worked in toxicology since the late 1980s, with much of his work involving the "relationship between external exposure, target tissue dose and response," according to his DOE staff profile.

Questions remain

BPA is used to harden plastic and prevent the growth of bacteria in food packaging products. Some researchers have expressed concern that it can  interfere with the body’s hormone system, potentially leading to a variety of health problems, including damage to the reproductive system and the brain, particularly in children.

PhotoEleven states have banned the chemical’s use in certain products, typically baby bottles and other children’s goods; Canada, China and the European Union have similar restrictions.

A study released last year found that an unborn child exposed to BPA can be at increased risk of lowered thyroid function. The findings were based on a study of newborn sheep.

Last summer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups but said it is safe in other applications. The National Toxicology Program at the Department of Health and Human Services, however, says it has "some concern" about the possible health effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.

What to do

If you have concerns about the safety of BPA, here are some steps listed by Katherine Zeratsky, a Registered Dietician at the Mayo Clinic, to minimize your exposure:

  • Look for BPA-free products.  Unless labeled otherwise, most aluminum cans and bottles are lined with BPA, while steel bottles and cans aren't. 
  • Microwave carefully. Over time, polycarbonate plastic -- the kind with a No. 7 recycling symbol -- can break down, possibly allowing BPA to leach into the food.
  • Wash plastics by hand. Zeratsky notes that the National Toxicology Program advises against washing polycarbonate plastics in the dishwasher, although the American Chemical Council says it's safe to do so.
  • Use something else.  Use glass, porcelain or stainless steel instead of plastic for hot food and liquids.
  • Use less canned food. Many cans are lined with BPA. 

 

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Carnival problems put new focus on maritime safety

Experts say safety requirements are being watered down

The lawsuits have begun in the wake of the problem voyage of the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Triumph. After the ship docked in Mobile, Ala., passengers comp...

PhotoThe lawsuits have begun in the wake of the problem voyage of the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Triumph. After the ship docked in Mobile, Ala., passengers complained of severe hardships during the four days the ship was adrift after an engine room fire.

The U.S. Coast Guard has investigated the incident, linking the fire to a leak, which knocked out power and the sewage system. Meanwhile, a ConsumerAffairs reader, Holly, of Texarkana, Tex., says she was a passenger on the Triumph back in 2011 and worried then that the ship had problems with its waste disposal system.

"I logged a complaint with the on call manager letting them know something was wrong with the sewer system," Holly wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "The stink was all over the boat! I would say the Triumph has had a plumbing issue for many months that was never addressed when I logged a complaint."

Coast Guard regulation delayed

Carnival Cruise Lines  Feb. 19, 2013, 3:37 a.m.
Consumers rate Carnival Cruise Lines
Though the Triumph was never in danger of sinking, maritime writer and expert Robert Frump worries that safety requirements for passenger vessels are being watered down. In the last-minute rush of the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, Frump says Congress slipped through a measure that delays what he sees as necessary safety features for smaller passenger vessels. 

The measure requires that the Coast Guard to continue to study the use of modern out-of-the-water survival devices. Frump said this, in effect, keeps them from applying new standards to thousands of passenger vessels equipped with old fashioned life saving rings.

The out-of-water devices hold people up and out of the water, giving them a better chance to fight hypothermia. Old fashioned life rings submerge one's body core into water, which even at mild temperatures quickly can kill.

Recent example of effectiveness

Frump points to the recent sinking of the Bounty during Hurricane Sandy. The ship was equipped with the out-of-the-water devices, which Frump says saved lives. Two months later, he says, Congress essentially deleted the Coast Guard effort to require such devices on more and more passenger vessels such as whale watch boats, tourist DUKWs, fishing charter vessels and others.

"This is isn't a study, it's a stall," Frump writes. "The studies can last years and years more."

Frump says a faster, cheaper study of the effectiveness of out-of-the-water devices would be to watch the last reel of the movie Titanic.

"She is out of the water and lives," he writes, referring to a scene with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. "He's in the water and dies. In, dies. Out, lives. Study over."

Tougher regulations for cruise ships

Ever since the Titanic disaster, cruise ships have operated under stringent international safety regulations. A United Nations agency – the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – mandates global standards for the safety and operation of cruise ships.

When Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg in April 1912, it carried lifeboats for less than half the people on board. The disaster claimed more than 1,500 lives.

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BrainNook.com: A math and English site that's fun for kids

Through games, children can build their math and English skills and also build their confidence

Video games for kids come a dime a dozen these days and most of them have to do with either blowing something up, shooting something or someone, or providi...

PhotoVideo games for kids come a dime a dozen these days and most of them have to do with either blowing something up, shooting something or someone, or providing kids an opportunity to live out their hero fantasies and save the world.

But there are fewer games these days that help children understand math, science or English and some of the games that do exist either lack the cool graphics that kids love or they turn out to be unchallenging. And if a kid isn’t challenged or feel like they don't have some virtual mission to accomplish, they’ll simply turn to the million other games that happen to be on the market today.  

However, there are some educational games that have it right in terms of having the correct balance of learning tools and visual eye candy, which is desperately needed to keep the ever-wandering attention span of a child engaged, and one of those games that has that necessary balance is BrainNook.com, which has a bunch of games that surround both math and English.

Paid or free

Users can access Brain Nook either through a paid membership or for free; those who pay for a membership are able to play more games, have an extended number of features and are have an unlimited number of friends that users can compete against.

PhotoMembership prices are $6.99 for a one-month membership, $16.99 for a three-month membership or $49.99 for a 12-month membership, but kids can also get hours and hours of play without paying anything and still have access to several games that can help them understand math and English better, and also help build their confidence, which sometimes is the only barrier between a child and academic success.

The company, Nunook Interactive Inc., which created Brain Nook, says the games are for kids ages 6-11, but children outside of these age brackets can still benefit from the games and strengthen their learning and retention skills.

And if you happen to be a school teacher, you can sign up through a special link on the site and add your entire class to the database, so teachers can create friendly learning competitions among the students, track their progress and give out rewards.

The background story behind the Brain Nook games is that the user is an alien that crash lands on Earth, and goes on to explore various worlds that each contain a different language or math game.

The company says the site allows kids to interact with others in a safe manner, by allowing them to compete with other users and compare scores to build competitiveness among the players, which is what many kids are already used to with some of the games that are sold today.

State standards

In addition, each game is based on the Common Core State Standards, which are educational guidelines used by most states in the U.S., so in many cases the games will be able to meet a student where they are, in terms of what they’re learning at school and what their teachers are covering.

The Brain Nook games can be used before certain lessons even begin, so they can get an early jump on what’s going to be taught in the future.

The site also gives progress reports to parents that show which games their child played the most, and also informs parents which subjects kids are spending the most time on.

Some of the games are math challenges where kids have to fill in certain blanks to complete a multiplication table. In some of the language games, users have to match up synonyms in order to move on. There are many games that use different approaches and give different point totals, so kids have access to a good amount of variety with Brain Nook.

After completing a game or series of challenges, kids can report the results to their parents if they choose by sending them an electronic message, and once each game is completed successfully, kids are rewarded with points and badges that allow them to access other virtual worlds and delve deeper into the game where lessons become increasingly more difficult.

And not only does Brain Nook help with math and English lessons, it can also improve things like analytical skills, memorization, reasoning skills, decision-making, computer literacy and dexterity, the company says, which can do wonders for a child's academic self-esteem.

So instead of buying that new game to strengthen your child’s save-the-world skills, you may want to log onto BrainNook.com, because knowing how to save the planet is nice, but knowing how to construct a proper sentence or simplify a fraction just might come in a bit handier for your child, since many of the save-the-world-positions are already filled.

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Best Buy's new price match aims to end 'showrooming'

The electronics retailer is vowing to match all local and 19 online competitors' pricing

Best Buy has had it up to here with "showrooming" and has thrown down a gauntlet in the form of a low-price guarantee. The electronics chain says it will m...

PhotoBest Buy has had it up to here with "showrooming" and has thrown down a gauntlet in the form of a low-price guarantee. The electronics chain says it will match the price of any local retailer and 19 major online competitors

"Best Buy is the only retailer to offer a Low Price Guarantee in addition to having a full range of the latest and greatest devices and services, a sales force dedicated to providing impartial and knowledgeable advice and full support for the life of the product," the company said in a prepared statement.

Best Buy said the new policy will apply in all product categories and to "nearly all in-stock products" when it takes effect March 3. Best Buy temporarily matched online competitors' prices during the holiday season.

Hard times 

Best Buy hasn't had an easy time of it lately. It closed 50 big box stores last year, lost its chairman and lost market share to Amazon and other online competitors as well as to Walmart and other big box retailers that have been expanding their electronics offerings.

"With a Low Price Guarantee, our customers will have the best of both worlds when they shop BestBuy.com or come to a Best Buy store. They will get unbiased service from our Blue Shirts and support for the life of their product while also knowing they have a Low Price Guarantee on nearly every item," the company said. 

The full text of the Low Price Guarantee policy – including exclusions and the list of online retailers included  – is as follows:

 

Best Buy Low Price Guarantee

Online or In Store: Find a Lower Price and We’ll Match It

If you find a lower price on a qualifying product at a local retail competitor’s store or a designated major online retailer, we will match the price.

At the time of purchase, we will match the current pre-tax price for new, identical, immediately available products from a local retail competitor’s store and these designated major online retailers: Amazon.comApple.comBhphotovideo.comBuy.comCrutchfield.comDell.com,Frys.comhhgregg.comHP.comHomeDepot.comLowes.comNewegg.com,OfficeDepot.comOfficeMax.comSears.comStaples.comTarget.comTigerDirect.comand Walmart.com.  We will match prices between our stores and BestBuy.com ®.  We will also match prices post purchase if we lower our price within 15 days of your purchase.
The Guarantee is limited to one price match per identical item, per guest and does not apply to: Contract mobile phone devices and plans, the online prices of retailers not listed, the online prices of third party vendors (Marketplace vendors) on designated major online retailers websites, post purchase price match requests to competitor’s prices,

Best Buy for Business™, offers that include financing, gift card offers, bundling of items, free items, pricing errors, mail-in offers, coupon offers, competitors’ service prices, items that are advertised as limited-quantity, out of stock, open-box, clearance, refurbished/used items, our and our competitor’s Deal of the Day, daily deals, special hour sale event items and credit card offers, BestBuy.com Clearance & More and Marketplace items, and items for sale Thanksgiving Day through the Monday after Thanksgiving.

 Showrooming, the practice of looking at items in a physical store then going online to make the actual purchase, has been a big worry for consumer electronics stores. Customers showroom electronics items more than any other category, according to data from comScore.

Chris Morran at the Consumerist obtained an internal document from Best Buy that announces the change and has more details. Here's what it says:

Starting March 3, 2013 Best Buy will price match the current pre-tax price for new, identical, immediately available products from local retail competitors and select designated major online retailers at the time of purchase only. (No subsequent price matching of competitors is allowed)

If Best Buy lowers a price on a product (online or in-store) we will allow price-matching up to 15 days following the original purchase. This applies to all customers including Reward Zone Premier Silver members. Please note: After a transition period for Reward Zone Premier Silver members through April 18, 2013, the 15 day period of the Price Match policy goes into effect (post-purchase – Best Buy only).

There has also been one major change to Best Buy's return policy.

The "Return and Exchange" period is being cut in half to 15 days from its previous length of 30 days. All returns will still require a receipt and I.D., plus Reward Zone Premier Silver members will retain their 60-day return eligibility. 

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The 'real' Chevrolet SS is back

Chevy wants to get some street cred with this new V-8 powerhouse

Gentlemen, start your engines. The Chevrolet SS is back and it's a 415-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive V-8, evoking the SS (SuperSports) of old. The 2014...

PhotoGentlemen, start your engines. The Chevrolet SS is back and it's a 415-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive V-8, evoking the SS (SuperSports) of old. The 2014 Chevrolet SS will debut this weekend at the Daytona International Speedway as the SS racecar makes its NASCAR debut during the Daytona 500. 

“The Chevrolet brand was largely built on the strength of rear-drive performance sedans, yet it's been 17 years since we've offered one,” said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America. “The comfort, convenience, spaciousness and V-8 power make the SS a total performance package unlike any other on the road today.”

The Chevrolet SS is powered by the LS3 Chevrolet V-8, also used in the 2013 Corvette, expected to deliver 415 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque. It's married to a six-speed automatic transmission, which can be shifted manually using steering wheel paddles.

With an aggressive 3.27 final-drive ratio, the Chevrolet SS accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in about five seconds – making it one of the quickest sedans on the market, GM said.

The Chevrolet SS shares the rear-wheel-drive architecture that is the foundation for the Camaro, Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle and Holden’s VF Commodore, sold in Australia, where the SS will be built.

Photo

The new SS should please rear-wheel drive enthusiasts who have been mourning  the loss of the Pontiac G8, a sedan on the same platform that garnered solid sales and critical praise before Pontiac's demise in early 2010. It will no doubt cause severe indigestion in the eco-conscious -- but come on guys, life can't be all work.

GM says the car's sport-tuned chassis ensures that it will turn and stop as well as it accelerates. Handling is improved by a near 50/50 weight distribution, and a low center of gravity – made possible in part by the aluminum hood and rear deck lid that are 30 percent lighter than traditional steel panels.

“Our goal was to create a car that delivers incredible grip and handling balance while cornering, while still being comfortable to drive on the road,” said David Leone, executive chief engineer GM global programs.  “The perfect weight balance and lower center of gravity were a big part of that goal because it enabled the team to tune for a more comfortable highway ride without sacrificing handling or driver confidence while cornering at the limits.” 

The SS isn't expected to be a big seller but is intended to give Chevy a little more street cred with car enthusiasts.

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Home builders still fairly confident in February

But there are concerns about job growth and access to mortgage credit

How are home builders seeing the housing market these days? Pretty much the same as they have since the start of the year. The National Association of Hom...

PhotoHow are home builders seeing the housing market these days? Pretty much the same as they have since the start of the year.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) /Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) finds that builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes was virtually unchanged in February with a one-point decline -- to 46.

“Following solid gains over the past year, builder confidence has essentially leveled out and held in the same three-point range over the last four months,” noted NAHB Chairman Rick Judson, a home builder from Charlotte, NC. “This is partly due to ongoing uncertainties about job growth and consumer access to mortgage credit, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that builders are now confronting rising costs for building materials and, in some markets, limited availability of labor and lots as demand for new homes strengthens.”

NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe notes that after rising strongly in 2012, the HMI hit a slight pause in the beginning of this year as builders adjusted their expectations to reflect the pace at which consumers are moving forward on new-home purchases. Still, he says, “The index remains near its highest level since May of 2006, and we expect home building to continue on a modest rising trajectory this year.”

Gauging builder perceptions

Derived from a monthly survey that NAHB has been conducting for 25 years, the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.”

The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores from each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

Holding above the critical mid-point of 50 for a third consecutive month, the HMI component gauging current sales conditions fell by a single point to 51 in February. Meanwhile, the component gauging sales expectations in the next six months rose by one point, to 50, and the component gauging traffic of prospective buyers slipped four points, to 32.

Three-month moving averages for each region’s HMI score were mixed in February, with the Northeast up three points to 39 and the West up four points to 55 and the Midwest and South each down two points, to 48 and 47, respectively. 

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Decline in consumer spending expected to continue

A slowdown in in the rate of increase in home prices is a factor

Consumers are expected to continue to keep a watchful eye on their nickels and dimes. The Deloitte Consumer Spending Index declined again in January for t...

PhotoConsumers are expected to continue to keep a watchful eye on their nickels and dimes.

The Deloitte Consumer Spending Index declined again in January for the third consecutive month. The Index tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending.

“The index is down primarily due to slowing increases of new home prices,” said Patricia Buckley, director, economic policy and analysis, Deloitte LLP, and author of the monthly index. “Looking ahead, gradual improvements in initial unemployment claims and real wages may help the index reverse its course. In the near term however, spending may remain constrained as consumers contend with tax hikes and rising prices at the pump.”

The index, which comprises four components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- fell this month to 3.87 from a reading of 3.93 the previous month.

“Shoppers are taking their annual post-holiday pause and may slow their spending even more as they adjust to higher payroll taxes,” said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and retail & distribution leader. “The hit to consumers’ paychecks is likely to be more pronounced among lower- and middle-income Americans who may put household necessities on hold, not just discretionary items. Retailers should hone in on price sensitivity, basket size, and traffic data using analytics to quickly respond with appropriate pricing, assortment and promotions rather than lose a shopper to a more competitive retailer.”

Index highlights

Here's a closer look at the four major components:

  • Tax burden: The tax burden fell slightly over the past two months and is just below 11 percent.
  • Initial unemployment claims: After rising in November to 405,750 due to Hurricane Sandy, jobless claims fell 11 percent in December to 361,400. On a year-over-year basis, unemployment claims remained relatively unchanged.
  • Real wages: With inflation in check, hourly real wages have risen over the past two months to $8.76.
  • Real home prices: Home prices continue to rise and are up 12 percent over a year ago, though the pace of increases is slowing.  
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Big improvement seen in diabetes control

Still, there's a need for improved care, especially among youth, some minorities

There's been real progress over the past couple of decades in the way people with diabetes are handling the disease. According to a study conducted and fu...

PhotoThere's been real progress over the past couple of decades in the way people with diabetes are handling the disease.

According to a study conducted and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people are meeting recommended goals in the three key markers of diabetes control.

The report, published in Diabetes Care, shows that -- from 1988 to 2010 -- the number of people with diabetes able to meet or exceed all three of the measures that demonstrate good diabetes management rose from about 2 percent to about 19 percent. Each measure also showed substantial improvement, with over half of people meeting each individual goal in 2010.

The markers

The measures are A1C -- which assesses blood sugar (glucose) over the previous three months -- blood pressure and cholesterol. They are often called the ABCs of diabetes. When these measures fall outside healthy ranges, people are more likely to be burdened by complications of diabetes, including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness and amputation.

Despite improvement, the results show continued need for better diabetes control. In particular, young people and some minority groups were below average in meeting the goals.

To gauge diabetes management, researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 1988-1994 and 1999-2010. “The most impressive finding was the significant improvement in diabetes management over time across all groups,” said Catherine Cowie, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and director of the Diabetes Epidemiology Program at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), which conducted and funded the study. “However, we see a lot of room for improvement, for everyone, but particularly for younger people and some minority groups.”

Steady progress

According to 2007-2010 data on Americans with diabetes:

  • 53 percent met A1C goals, compared with 43 percent in 1988-1994 data
  • 51 percent met blood pressure goals, compared with 33 percent in 1988-1994 data
  • 56 percent met cholesterol goals, compared with 10 percent in 1988-1994 data

Improved cholesterol control was likely due to the increase in the use of statins, a type of cholesterol-lowering drug, from about four percent of people with diabetes during 1988-1994 to 51 percent during 2007-2010.

Falling short

Glucose control was worse in Mexican-Americans and in younger adults. Only 44 percent met A1C goals, versus 53 percent of whites and blacks in 2007-2010 data. People between 20-49 years old were less likely to meet A1C goals than older people.

“It is particularly disturbing that good control was seen less frequently in young people,” said Judith Fradkin, M.D., director of the NIDDK Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolic Diseases. “Research has shown that good diabetes control early in the course of disease has long-lasting benefits reducing the risk of complications. For people with long life expectancy after diagnosis of diabetes, it’s especially important to focus on meeting diabetes management goals as early as possible, because with that longer life comes a greater chance of developing complications if they do not control their diabetes.”

“Not only do Mexican-Americans and non-Hispanic blacks have higher rates of diabetes, members of these groups who develop diabetes also have poorer health outcomes,” said the paper’s first author, Sarah Stark Casagrande, Ph.D., an epidemiologist from Social & Scientific Systems Inc., Silver Spring, Md., whose work is supported by NIDDK. “While diabetes control has improved in these populations, some disparities remain, demonstrating the need for improved management of the disease to prevent its devastating complications.”

Setting goals

Goals for A1C, blood pressure and cholesterol must be individualized for people with diabetes, as effects of diabetes can differ depending on a person’s age, type of diabetes, diabetes medications, complications from diabetes and other factors.

For A1C, a goal for many people is below seven percent. It is particularly important for people with long life expectancies to control A1C to protect against eye, nerve and kidney disease in the future. Goals can be less stringent for people with limited life expectancy, since complications develop over time. For blood pressure, the goal for most people is 130/80. Moderate- or high-dose statin therapy is recommended for people over 40 with diabetes, with a goal of keeping the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) -- sometimes called bad cholesterol -- less than 100 milligrams per deciliter. Control of blood pressure and cholesterol are particularly important for lowering cardiovascular risk.

People at risk

About 26 million Americans have diabetes, and another 79 million have prediabetes, a condition that places them at increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Between 1988 and 2012, the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes has more than doubled, from nearly four percent of the U.S. population to nearly nine percent, according to data from the CDC.

To help people improve their health, the National Diabetes Education Program (NDEP), an initiative of the NIH and the CDC, is working to assist people in making positive, lasting changes to improve their health. NDEP’s Make A Plan tool can help make these changes become part of a daily routine to support people in reaching their health goals. The NIDDK's National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse creates and promotes research-based health information and campaigns for the public. Among many publications, the A1C Test and Diabetes explains how this important test can help with diagnosis and management of diabetes.

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Amazon bundles up exclusive streaming rights to Downton Abbey

Netflix can have its House of Cards, Amazon has the keys to the Abbey

While all eyes were on Matthew speeding home to Downton Abbey, Amazon was locking down the butler's pantry and tying up exclusive streaming rights to the b...

PhotoWhile all eyes were on Matthew speeding home to Downton Abbey, Amazon was locking down the butler's pantry and tying up exclusive streaming rights to the blockbuster British soap opera.

Abbeyphiles may find it hard to accept but, quite soon now, they'll not be able to watch missed episodes, or wallow repeatedly in their favorite scenes, on Netflix or on the show's own website.

Amazon Prime already has Seasons 1 and 2 of the series, which airs on PBS in the United States and will have the just-concluded Season 3 beginning in June.

What's perhaps more significant, is that it will have exclusive rights, meaning that it will be the only legal source for Downton streaming. While the first season is still on Netflix, it won't be for much longer. 

"Later this year, no digital subscription service other than Prime Instant Video will offer any seasons,” Amazon smirked.

The series, which for some reason has enormous appeal to Americans nostalgic for a past they never had, will definitely be around for at least one more season and may even go into a fifth season unless the populace comes to its senses before then.

Mirror image

PhotoNetflix has been awash in kudos over the success of its "House of Cards," a smash series that is sort of the mirror image of Downton Abbey. Instead of royals and their servants overcoming their baser instincts as they move regally towards equality, justice, love and what have you, House celebrates the drunken, seedy, corrupt and depraved atmosphere that Americans believe prevails in Washington, D.C.

It's a litte hard to tell which of these is the greater fantasy although those who have lived and worked in present-day Washington will tell you that, while the series may be entertaining, it is -- shall we say -- a bit of a stretch. Since no one we know of spent the early 20th Century in an English manor house, we're not able to gauge their opinion as to which series is the most far-fetched.

For those who have been unaware of Amazon's progress towards digital hegemony, the Downton Abbey coup may blow off their blinders. Amazon has been spending big bucks to acquire recent movie releases and TV series and many consumers would say it already has a more compelling, though smaller, catalog than Netflix.

The truth, however, is that the true film or TV addict needs both, since there is going to be less and less duplication as both players strive to cut exclusive deals for top content. Neither service is expensive but as anyone who has read his credit card statement recently will tell you, little things add up.

Netflix describes its price as $7.99 per month for streaming -- $96 a year, in other words. Amazon's streaming service is mostly free, although some top releases carry an extra charge. Amazon prices it at $79 a year, which sounds like a lot more than $7.99 a month.

Of course, if you're still paying attention, you'll know it's actually $16 less per year. 

Not only that, but the $96 a year for Netflix gets you video steaming. Period. The $79 for Amazon Prime gets you video streaming plus free shipping on most Amazon purchases and other goodies from Amazon's vast array of products and services.

Of course, you can still watch over-the-air TV -- you know, Channel 5 and so forth -- for nothing, other than the constant array of commercials  and fund-raisers. This comes as a shocking revelation sometimes and the occasional adolescent will assure you that watching "free TV" must be illegal. You might want to explain it to them someday when you're not polishing the silver or doing backroom deals with Congressmen.  

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5 things that can influence your insurance rates

Some may be obvious, some not so obvious but they can all make a big difference

Whether it's auto, health, life or home, insurance coverage is expensive. If you could know what makes it more expensive, you might be able to save some mo...

PhotoWhether it's auto, health, life or home, insurance coverage is expensive. If you could know what makes it more expensive, you might be able to save some money here and there.

Lynette of Boca Raton, Fla., said she and her husband have been insured with The Hartford, through AARP, for years. She was shocked when her rate surged.

“Many years with company never a late payment. Never a claim, no tickets, no accidents, clean driving record, no arrests,” Lynette wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “And a $600.00 increase! Their commercial says they will never drop you for any reason. But they sure know how to force you out!”

Credit score

Could there be a reason, unknown to Lynette, that caused her rate to rise? Kim Lankford, contributing editor, Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine and columnist at Kilpinger.com, says there are five factors that may be obvious, or not so obvious, starting with your credit score.

“Insurance companies did studies and found that people with low credit scores were more likely to have claims than people with high credit scores,” Lankford said. “I think that's a big surprise to people because it doesn't seem obvious. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with driving.”

And some people don't think it's fair. It's prompted some states, like California, to impose regulations preventing auto insurance companies from basing rates on credit scores.

Driving record

What's not exactly surprising is that a car insurance company will base rates on your driving record. Pick up a few speeding tickets or get in an accident or two and you could see you auto insurance rates rise. And that's not all. Lankford says you could see an impact on your health insurance rate.

“When you think about it, when people get in a lot of accidents they can get hurt,” Lankford said. “Some health insurers will actually reject people if they've had a DUI in the last five years.”

The kind of car you drive is also going to make an impact on your auto insurance rates. In general, a four-cylinder car is less costly to insure than a six- or eight-cylinder car.

“Insurance companies are all looking at the claims different cars produce,” Lankford said. “They're slicing and dicing it in various ways, looking at the correlations between car models and claims.”

House history

Where you live will make a difference in your homeowners insurance rate. If you live in a part of the country prone to hurricanes, for example, you'll pay very high rates – assuming you can even get insurance. If you live in the country, far from a fire station, your homeowners insurance rates will be higher than if you live in a city.

But here's something you might not know. Your house's claims history – claims that were made before you moved in – will also affect your rates.

“This kind of makes sense, because if the house has problems that keep resulting in claims the insurance company is going to be concerned that that kind of thing is going to continue to happen and cost them a lot of money,” Lankford said, “So they're not just looking at your personal claims record but claims on the house.”

Co-workers can affect you

And speaking of things beyond your control, your health insurance rates will be affected by the age and health of your co-workers, especially if you work for a small company.

If you've been working at a tech start-up with a lot of young, healthy people, then your health insurance rates have been based on those demographics and they've probably been relatively low. But go to work where most employees smoke and are in their 50s and you'll face higher premiums.

In the end, it's a numbers game. Actuaries at insurance companies spend their entire careers looking for tiny statistical nuances that can predict the likelihood that someone will file a claim — and that can justify charging a higher premium. Knowing what those factors are may help you make smarter decisions.

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Gas prices up 35 cents a gallon in 2013

29 straight days of pain at the pump -- prices have jumped every single day

Prices at the gas pump continued their upward climb, although double digit weekly spikes have eased.  Gas prices have climbed every day for the p...

PhotoPrices at the gas pump continued their upward climb, although double digit weekly spikes have eased.  Gas prices have climbed every day for the past 29 days, climbing 7 cents this week to a national average of $3.64 per gallon on Friday.  

In the past month, prices have jumped 35 cents and since February 1 prices have increased 18 cents.  The national average price remains 12 cents above year ago prices, making prices the most expensive ever for this time of year.

It comes at a bad time for consumers. Many have just taken a big hit in their take-home pay, thanks to the end of the payroll tax holiday. Many are also facing high home heating bills during a winter that's delivered some pretty severe weather. And many others are worried about what looming government budget cuts may mean to their jobs and the economy.

Photo

When will it end?

Well, believe it or not, the federal government says it should end sometime this year. In its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) report, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) says it expects that falling crude prices will contribute to a decline in the national annual average regular gasoline retail price from $3.63 per gallon in 2012 to $3.55 per gallon in 2013 and $3.39 per gallon in 2014.

But while that's a long-term decrease, it's still about 11 cents per gallon and 4 cents per gallon higher than the EIA forecast last month. In other words, prices may start falling one of these days but they may not fall as much as had been expected.

Crude oil prices are the biggest factor in determining gas prices, since crude oil makes up nearly 70 percent of a gallon of gasoline. They have  continued to hover in the $95 to $97 per barrel price range over the last week.

In addition to the price of crude oil, gas prices have also been affected by seasonal maintenance work at refineries, temporarily reducing gas supplies, and financial market speculation, where investors believe demand for oil will rise which further inflates prices.

National AAA average prices

 RegularMidPremiumDieselE85**E85 
MPG/BTU 
adjusted 
price
Current Avg.$3.730$3.885$4.034$4.128$3.328$4.380
Yesterday Avg.$3.714$3.864$4.013$4.121$3.311$4.358
Week Ago Avg.$3.587$3.748$3.898$4.048$3.230$4.251
Month Ago Avg.$3.301$3.453$3.612$3.896$3.032$3.991
Year Ago Avg.$3.556$3.686$3.821$3.950$3.119$4.105

 

Highest Recorded Average Price:
Regular Unl.$4.1147/17/2008
DSL.$4.8457/17/2008

 

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Smartphones are becoming more important health tools

But they aren't about to replace your family doctor

The smartphone is not just a trend in technology. Over the last couple of years it has become an emerging trend in healthcare.For example, there are apps...

PhotoThe smartphone is not just a trend in technology. Over the last couple of years it has become an emerging trend in healthcare.

For example, there are apps to help you lose or control weight. The Eatery app 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 are blocking ou from reaching your dietary goal and points out the times of day that seem to challenge you the most when it comes to eating better.

In January we reported on a new smartphone app called UMSkinCheck, one of several apps that claim to be adept at identifying dangerous skin conditions. 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. 

The National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is leading an initiative to help teens quit smoking through the use of a smartphone app. Developed by smoking cessation experts, SmokefreeTXT is a free text message cessation service that provides 24/7 encouragement, advice, and tips to teens trying to quit smoking. 

Like an electronic diary

“Smart phones are a great way for people to track how their daily activities impact their health,” said Aaron Michelfelder, MD, a physician at Loyola University Health System and professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “They give patients instant access to the effects their habits have on daily living, and they are better able to make connections between what they do and how they feel.”

PhotoSome health apps are more useful than others. In Michelfelder's book, the most beneficial apps are for people needing to monitor blood sugar and blood pressure, mood tracking and asthma as well as fitness and nutrition.

“People who are detailed and willing to truly keep track of their data find them the most beneficial,” Michelfelder said. “It’s great that they can see right away I had such and such for dinner and this is how it impacted my blood sugar.”

Aiding doctors

These apps don't just help consumers. Michelfelder says they can also help the consumers' physicians to better treat their patients, providing a more well-rounded view of their health. He says he's actually benefited from that.

Photo
Aaron Michelfelder
“I love when my patients bring their smart phone to a visit and show me their data or even email me in advance,” Michelfelder said. “This real-time data helps me better analyze a patient’s health than just the information I get from an office visit. This way instead of maybe having two blood pressure readings, I’ll have 25. This allows me to have a more in-depth conversation with the patient about where to go next.”

Some health researchers have raised concerns that consumers will put too much faith in their health apps and might overlook real health problems. Michelfelder says that's a legitimate concern. There can be other issues too.

Security issues

For example, the apps might not be compliant with the Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act that protects patients’ health information.

“This is especially true for apps that allow you to email your medical information,” he said.

Michelfelder says patients should carefully read an app’s terms and agreements to ensure a copy of the email is not being sent to the company and that personal medical information is not being stored in an unsecure location. Also, make sure the medical apps are password protected.

As for reliability, Michelfelder agrees that patients should never use apps for self-diagnosis. One the the biggest benefits, he says, is getting young people – who tend to be more tech-savvy, to take an active interest in health issues.

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BMW recalls variety of vehicles

Electrical and brake problems could result in crashes

BMW has issued a couple of recalls to rectify electrical and braking problems. In the first, the automaker is recalling certain model year 2008-2012 1-Ser...

PhotoBMW has issued a couple of recalls to rectify electrical and braking problems.

In the first, the automaker is recalling certain model year 2008-2012 1-Series coupes and convertibles manufactured December 2007 through July 2011; and 2007-2011 3-Series coupes and convertibles manufactured March 2007 through July 2011; 2007-2011 3-Series sedans manufactured March 2007 through October 2011; 2007-2011 3-Series sports wagons manufactured March 2007 through June 2011; and 2009-2011 Z4 vehicles manufactured March 2009 through June 2011.

The connector for the positive battery cable connector and the corresponding terminal on the fuse box may degrade over time. The resulting high current flow and heat from electrical resistance may lead to a breakage of the connection, and a loss of electrical power to the vehicle. If there is a loss of electrical power to the vehicle, the vehicle may unexpectedly stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the positive battery cable connector and secure it with an improved method, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in March 2013.

The second recall involves certain model year 2007-2010 X5 SAV vehicles, manufactured September 12, 2006, through March 18, 2010 and equipped with an 8-cylinder engine.

The brake vacuum pump may leak a small amount of lubricating oil into the hose. The contamination could result in a loss of power assist braking.

The loss of power assist in braking could increase stopping distance and lead to a vehicle crash.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the brake vacuum line with one that contains a check valve, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in February 2013.

For both recalls, owners may contact BMW at 1-800-525-7417 or by email BMW at CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

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What NOT to eat during pregnancy

There are a lot of foods you should eat, but there also a lot you should avoid

Congratulations! You're about to become a mother. No doubt you're getting all kinds of advice about what you should do to ensure your baby is healthy. But...

PhotoCongratulations! You're about to become a mother.

No doubt you're getting all kinds of advice about what you should do to ensure your baby is healthy. But what about those things you should not do?

Of course you want to avoid alcohol, tobacco and so-called “recreational” drugs. However, because pregnancy affects your immune system, you and your unborn baby are more susceptible to the bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause foodborne illness.

Even if you don’t feel sick, some “bugs” like Listeria and Toxoplasma can infect your baby and cause serious health problems. Your baby is also sensitive to toxins from the food that you eat, such as mercury in certain kinds of fish.

Here, from the President's Food Safety Working group, is a checklist to help you keep you and your unborn baby healthy and safe. Another piece of advice: Invest in a food thermometer to check the temperatures of cooked food.

Don’t Eat These Foods

Why

What to Do

Soft CHEESES made from unpasteurized milk, including Brie, feta, Camembert, Roquefort, queso blanco, and queso fresco

May contain E. coli or Listeria.

Eat hard cheeses, such as cheddar or Swiss. Or, check the label and make sure that the cheese is made from pasteurized milk.

Raw COOKIE DOUGH or CAKE BATTER

May containSalmonella.

Bake the cookies and cake. Don’t lick the spoon!

Certain kinds of FISH, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (golden or white snapper)

Contains high levels of mercury.

Eat up to 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, salmon, pollock, and catfish. 

Limit consumption of albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week.

Raw or undercooked FISH (sushi)

May contain parasites or bacteria.

Cook fish to 145° F.

Unpasteurized JUICE or cider (including fresh squeezed)

May contain E. coli.

Drink pasteurized juice. Bring unpasteurized juice or cider to a rolling boil and boil for at least 1 minute before drinking.

Unpasteurized MILK

May contain bacteria such asCampylobacter,E. coli, Listeria, orSalmonella.

Drink pasteurized milk.

SALADS made in a store, such as ham salad, chicken salad, and seafood salad.

May containListeria.

Make salads at home, following the food safety basics: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

Raw SHELLFISH, such as oysters and clams

May containVibrio bacteria.

Cook shellfish to 145° F.

Raw or undercooked SPROUTS, such as alfalfa, clover, mung bean, and radish

May contain E. coli orSalmonella.

Cook sprouts thoroughly.


Be Careful with These Foods

Why

What to Do

Hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, fermented or dry sausage, and other deli-style meat and poultry

May containListeria.

Even if the label says that the meat is precooked, reheat these meats to steaming hot or 165° F before eating.

Eggs and pasteurized egg products

Undercooked eggs may containSalmonella.

Cook eggs until yolks are firm. Cook casseroles and other dishes containing eggs or egg products to 160° F.

Eggnog

Homemade eggnog may contain uncooked eggs, which may containSalmonella.

Make eggnog with a pasteurized egg product or buy pasteurized eggnog. When you make eggnog or other egg-fortified beverages, cook to 160°F

Fish

May contain parasites or bacteria.

Cook fish to 145° F.

Ice cream

Homemade ice cream may contain uncooked eggs, which may containSalmonella.

Make ice cream with a pasteurized egg product safer by adding the eggs to the amount of liquid called for in the recipe, then heating the mixture thoroughly..

Meat: Beef, veal, lamb, and pork (including ground meat)

Undercooked meat may containE. coli.

Cook beef, veal, and lamb steaks and roasts to 145° F. Cook pork to 160° F. Cook all ground meats to 160° F.

Meat spread or pate

Unpasteurized refrigerated pates or meat spreads may containListeria.

Eat canned versions, which are safe.

Poultry and stuffing (including ground poultry)

Undercooked meat may contain bacteria such asCampylobacter orSalmonella.

Cook poultry to 165° F. If the poultry is stuffed, cook the stuffing to 165° F. Better yet, cook the stuffing separately.

Smoked seafood

Refrigerated versions are not safe, unless they have been cooked to 165° F.

Eat canned versions, which are safe, or cook to 165° F.

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Review: The Hamilton Beach Single-Serve Blender

Great upon first use, but will it pass the test of time?

Sometimes morning commutes can be all out war and the battle field is either the highways, the local roads or public transportation, and just to survive an...

PhotoSometimes morning commutes can be all-out war and the battlefield is either the highway, the local roads or public transportation, and just to survive and make it to work on time, commuters will arm themselves with whatever they can to make the commute easier, whether it’s loud music to drown out the surroundings, a book or newspaper for public transportation or a nice morning drink to help calm the nerves.

And whether it’s a cup of coffee, an energizer drink or a smoothie, a nice early-morning beverage can be all that’s needed to get you into your workplace on time and ready to go.

Some folks will stop in at a convenience store for their beverage, others will go to a local drive through, but the easiest and most time-saving way to get your morning drink is to simply make it at home and bring it along with you.

The Hamilton Beach Single Serve Blender for $14.99 on Amazon is supposed to be an easy way to blend smoothies, shakes or ice drinks with just one touch of a button, and it’s also supposed to blend everything in just a few seconds.

From there, the Hamilton is supposed to be easy to unscrew, so it can go from a blender to a travel cup pretty much instantaneously.

The blender makes beverages about 14 ounces in size, and is supposed to be faster and less messy than using a traditional sized blender, since you don’t have to transfer the contents into a separate cup.

The company says the Hamilton is also supposed to be all about convenience and speed, which are two things that every morning commuter needs, because fumbling around with a heavy kitchen appliance while you’re still half asleep just isn’t ideal.

And how did this miniature and portable blender perform? Check out this video or continue reading below.

Smoothly blended

I must say, it was more powerful than I anticipated, as it blended the ingredients of my banana smoothie in just a few seconds without the blades getting caught or slowing down.

After blending the smoothie for a few seconds, there were one or two ice-chips left behind, but I'm confident if I would have pressed the button for just a few more seconds, there wouldn't have been any ice chips at all.

PhotoIn addition, the-one-touch-of-the-button aspect of the blender makes it very easy to use, since you don’t have to turn a knob to a specific speed or fumble around with multiple buttons -- you just have to add your contents, press the button slightly and then lift the container from its base so you can bring it along on your travels

The company says the container fits in most drink holders, so you don’t have to lug it around while you’re driving or leave it in the seat where it’ll probably spill.

The blades are made of stainless steel and the blender is small enough to store in your cupboard or leave on your countertop without taking up too much space.

Price is right

And although I liked the Hamilton upon first use, it’s obviously difficult to determine how durable the blades will be after extended use or how long the plastic container will hold up after many washes or after a lot of years of wear and tear.

I also found the container to be easy to lift off the base, as I didn’t have to struggle or keep twisting it to remove it. I barely used any force at all and the blender came off very easily.

But probably the best thing about the Hamilton Beach Single Serve Blender is its price of $14.99 on Amazon, since it shouldn't break the bank. And even if it only lasts for a couple of years before it’s less powerful, I think it’s still a pretty good bargain.

However if you decide to pick up the blender in a department store like Target or Bed Bath & Beyond, it will probably run you a little bit more.

So the next time you want a new weapon in the battle of getting to work, the Hamilton Beach Single Serve Blender should serve you pretty well. Now whether it stands the test of time after repeated use is another story entirely.

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Dog treat-related illnesses still puzzle the FDA

Massive increase in imports of chicken from China may be a clue

For years, pet owners have been complaining that their dogs became ill and, in many cases, died after eating jerky treats from China. The U.S. Food and Dru...

PhotoFor years, pet owners have been complaining that their dogs became ill and, in many cases, died after eating jerky treats from China, many of them containing chicken. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been investigating but in a recent update, admitted that it has not found a definitive cause.

However, the agency noted that in the past 10 years, there has been a dramatic increase in pet food imported from China, much of it containing chicken.

It turns out that Chinese consumers prefer dark meat, which leaves a lot of white chicken meat available for export. But Chinese chicken is not approved for human consumption in the U.S. because of concerns about bird flu and unsanitary conditions in Chinese factories, meaning all that white meat -- the very same meat deemed unfit for humans -- is available for use in pet food and treats.

PhotoBy the FDA's count, the amount of pet food imported from China has grown 85-fold in recent years, with nearly 86 million pounds of pet food being imported in 2011.

"Pet treats, including jerky pet treats are currently considered the fastest growing segment in the pet food market," the FDA noted.

2,200 reports

The FDA says it has received about 2,200 reports of pets becoming ill or dying after eating jerky treats; 360 died. Most of those reports involved dogs, although a few cats have also become ill.

Waggin Train Treats Feb. 15, 2013, 4:04 a.m.
Consumers rate Waggin Train Treats

ConsumerAffairs receives a constant stream of such reports, like this one from Lucinda of Strasburg, Va.:

"After wondering why our dog was getting so sick, I started hearing about the Waggin Train Jerky Treats. I checked in her box of different treats and discovered that I have an almost empty bag of Waggin Train Jerky Tenders! I am so upset and broken hearted because my dog is dying! ... Our sweet girl is dying because of this poison!"

The majority of the cases in dogs report primarily gastrointestinal signs, including vomiting and diarrhea, sometimes with blood or mucus, and can involve severe signs such as pancreatitis or gastrointestinal bleeding.

The next most common signs relate to kidney function, including frequent urination, increased urine, severe thirst, kidney failure and some cases resemble a rare kidney related illness called Fanconi’s syndrome. 

There does not appear to be a geographic pattern to the case reports, the FDA said. Cases have been reported from all 50 states and 6 Canadian provinces in the past 18 months.

Warnings issued

The FDA has issued warnings to pet owners about the potential threat posed by tainted jerky treats from China but hasn't ordered the products off the shelves because it can't prove they are responsible for the reported illnesses.

PhotoWhy is it so hard to get to the bottom of the mystery? The FDA says its investigation is "complex, multifaceted and includes a wide variety of experts at the FDA including toxicologists, epidemiologists, veterinary researchers, forensic chemists, microbiologists, field investigators and senior agency officials."

It seems pretty simple, though, to pet owners whose animals are ill. Many try to avoid pet treats from China only to learn too late that they did not read all the fine print.

"To my surprise, these treats were made in China," said Beverly of Palmetto, Fla., whose two rat terriers became ill after eating Waggin Train treats. "The packages say product of the US, but if you search hard enough you'll find 'Made in China' somewhere on the bag.

What to do

So what's a pet owner to do?

In November 2011, the agency issued a warning to pet owners that echoed a similar advisory from 2007:

“FDA is advising consumers who choose to feed their dogs chicken jerky products to watch their dogs closely for any or all of the following signs that may occur within hours to days of feeding the products: decreased appetite; decreased activity; vomiting; diarrhea, sometimes with blood; increased water consumption and/or increased urination.  If the dog shows any of these signs, stop feeding the chicken jerky product. Owners should consult their veterinarian if signs are severe or persist for more than 24 hours.”

PhotoThe agency issued a similar warning just a few days ago.

Amidst all the verbiage, the advice boils down to this: if you want to feed your dog treats, make them baked cookie-type treats rather than meat jerky. But be aware that these can also cause problems in some dogs and be ready to respond if your pet shows signs of illness.

Frustrated with the lack of action, some pet owners have gone to court seeking action. Last July, a class action suit against Nestle Purina charged that the company's Waggin' Train treats had sickened their pets. 

Companies named

Most major pet food companies are included in the complaints on file at the FDA. A few of the more familiar brands identified by the agency include:

  • Milo's Kitchen;
  • Dogswell;
  • Smokehouse Pet Products Inc.;
  • Waggin' Train; and
  • Kingdom Pets.

There is, of course, no fool-proof way to avoid contaminated pet food just as there is no absolute protection against contamination in the human food supply. But sticking to baked snacks, along with carefully monitoring your pet's health and responding quickly to illness, is a good start. 

Maybe someday, the FDA will find an answer. Or, then again, maybe it will approve chicken from China for human consumption, which will at least put humans and their pets on equal footing. 

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Feds find broadband speeds hitting -- and exceeding -- their targets

Even satellite service is meeting its advertising speeds, FCC study finds

The Federal Communications Commission today released the results of its ongoing, nationwide performance study of residential broadband service in its ...

PhotoThink you're not getting the download speed your broadband provider promised? You might be right but a study by the Federal Communications Commission finds many providers are not only meeting but exceeding their advertised speeds.

That's a big improvement over 2011, when the first FCC survey found many providers not delivering the speeds they promised.

In the latest report, Verizon FiOS service averaged download speeds that were 118% of advertised download rates. Cablevision was at 115% and Comcast 103%.

“Faster broadband has brought untold benefits to millions of Americans - from distance learning to distance healthcare," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said. "This is good news for consumers and the economy, but we can’t be satisfied. To unleash innovation and realize broadband’s full potential, we must continue to see increases in broadband speed and capacity.”

In this year’s report, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) maintained 
their performance levels, delivering 97 percent of advertised speeds during peak periods. One provider significantly improved actual performance speeds by 13 percent from the previous report.

Did they do it by downgrading the speeds they promised, as some skeptics might suspect? No, said the FCC, the providers have actually improved their networks to improve performance.

Consumers have also doing some upgrading of their own, the report found, ordering faster speeds to satisfy their thirst for movies, music and other bandwidth-hungry applications.

The FCC found that the average speed tier subscribed to by consumers increased from 14.3 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 15.6 Mbps. Nearly half of consumers who subscribed to speeds of less than 1 Mbps six months ago have adopted higher speeds, and nearly a quarter of the users who subscribed to speeds between 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps have upgraded to faster speed tiers. 

Satellite performance

In what may come as a surprise to many consumers, the FCC also found that "significant improvements" have been made to satellite broadband technology service quality.

For the first time, the report includes results on satellite technology based on test results from ViaSat, a major satellite services provider.

"Although satellite technology has the highest overall latency, test results indicate that during peak periods, 90 percent of satellite consumers received 140 percent or better of the advertised speed of 12 Mbps," the report said, adding that there was "very little difference" between peak and non-peak performance.

ViaSat and HughesNet have both launched new satellites, which they say should provide vastly better service than their earlier models, a claim that's supported by the FCC's findings.

The "latency" that the FCC report referred to is the time it takes a signal to travel from earth to the satellite and back again. This creates a noticeable lag that often causes consumers to see the service as "slow" when in fact the data transfer rate is usually on par with advertised speeds, as the FCC report confirmed. 

Until someone figures out how to increase the speed of light, the satellite lag is here to stay and is not the fault of the service provider. 

To read the complete February 2013 "Measuring Broadband America" report, see www.fcc.gov/measuring-broadband-america.

 

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Are car buyers just as knowledgeable as dealers today?

Thankfully, it's much harder these days for auto dealers to pull the wool over your eyes

There’s an extremely thin line when it comes to being a little knowledgeable about a product and being completely in-the-know about it.And many in ...

PhotoThere’s an extremely thin line when it comes to being a little knowledgeable about a product and being completely in-the-know about it.

And in many cases, the Internet is responsible for drawing that line, because anyone who wants to learn about the ins and outs of a particular item or brand, all they have to do is conduct a little research, and pull up all the information they can to be properly armed when dealing with a store or salesperson.

Because let’s face it, being able to walk into a store or showroom with days of research at your disposal allows you to deal with a salesperson way more confidently and it also makes it harder for the salesperson to sell you something that you don’t want or need.

So in short, the Internet has leveled the playing field between the consumer and the salesperson, which was much harder to do, say, 15 years ago.

This ability for the consumer to almost be an expert if they choose, has really taken place within the auto industry and according to Craig LaRosa, Principal at Continuum, a global design and innovation consultancy firm, consumers are able to walk into a dealership with just about the same amount of facts and figures about a vehicle that the dealer possesses.

The same information

 
Photo
Craig LaRosa

“The biggest change in the auto sales world is that the customer now has access to the same information as the dealer,” said LaRosa in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“So the customer can find out the dealer cost of the car. This changes the whole bargaining dynamic because bargaining is based on one side not knowing the bottom dollar price. As such, the consumer in many ways now has the upper hand.”

LaRosa also says that many dealers are more concerned with further educating the consumer instead of taking advantage of their ignorance, because 1.) the level of ignorance among car buyers has decreased over the years, and 2.) brands know it’s increasingly harder to trick customers into purchasing something they were never in the market for.

“Many dealers are moving towards a model where frontline sales employees are non-commissioned, which allows the consumers to drop their defenses — allowing them to be receptive to recommendations and education to find the right car for their needs,” said LaRosa.

“Toyota and BMW are beginning to roll out this model. Toyota has started a program in their Wellesley, Mass. showroom, where they’ve separated the education from the buying — the red shirts and the white shirts."

“The red shirts are non-commission employees who are the frontline folks who are there to only educate the consumer on the models and get them into the right model for them. Then they pass the torch to the white shirts who are the actual sellers who find the inventory and facilitate the purchasing process,” he said.

Difficult dynamics

When it comes to which brands are making these changes, in terms of not being just about sales and being more about service, LaRosa says it’s hard to pick just one since state laws prevent brands from making these changes from state to state.  

BMW Feb. 15, 2013, 1:45 a.m.
Consumers rate BMW

“One of the dynamics of the car industry is that it’s difficult for brands to create consistency from dealership to dealership,” he explains. “This is because of the state laws in place to protect dealers. Historically, dealers have had laws in their favor because originally dealers took on all the risk to get a particular franchise started.

“Still, some dealer groups are instituting changes. So it may not be reflected in the larger brand across the board. For example, buying a car at Herb Chambers in Massachusetts or at Fletcher Jones in California, though it would be the same car, will be a completely different experience.”

“That being said, some brands are making the effort to work with the dealers to create better customer experiences across their brands. Brands like Toyota and Audi have committed to prioritizing customer service. Each is doing it in their own way, testing different models, but this is the beginning of a larger trend across the board in the industry,” LaRosa stated.

Bold steps

He also says the Silicon Valley based Tesla Motors has taken bold steps to give the company total control in the area of selling and customer service.

Photo“Tesla is unique because they are foregoing the dealer altogether and selling direct — to the chagrin of many state dealer organizations,” said LaRosa. “This gives them control over every aspect of the selling cycle, but a disadvantage in service because they don’t have the volume of locations to serve their customers all over the country.”

Another huge benefit for consumers in the market for a vehicle is that it’s harder for dealers to do a bunch of upselling, forcing consumers to pay more than they initially planned, which makes one wonder if overselling will eventually be an outdated technique among reputable dealers.

“There are two types of upselling,” said LaRosa. “The first is getting you into a bigger model, which is on the wane. Today, the sales team wants to get you in the right car — not the most expensive car — to provide the best driving experience possible. It’s about establishing loyalty, so you come back for your next car as well. Dealers make more money on volume than on the actual profit from each car.”

“The second type of upselling is the add-ons after you’ve agreed on the purchase price," he added. "Such as tire protection and extended service warranties. There is actually value in those plans, but the way it’s presented, often as a surprise after you’ve made one of the biggest purchases in your life, isn’t designed well.”

“For example, if you're the type of consumer who doesn’t want to worry about service, the warranty could be good for you. But in the context it’s offered, it feels like they’re trying to get a bigger piece of your wallet,” he explained.

'Genius Bar'

In a recent AdAge article, BMW announced it’ll be starting an Apple-esque Genius Bar, and hiring college-aged workers who will carry tablets to answer any questions customers may have about a vehicle, while only focusing on service and giving product information instead of sales.

Whether these “product geniuses” will really be able to help consumers more than consumers are able to help themselves remains to be seen, suggests LaRosa, and the success or failure of the new program will hinge on just how well it’s implemented.

“By referring to it as the Genius Bar, they are setting up a very high expectation that the way current dealer models are set up, will make it very difficult to meet,” he says.  

“Now, committing to a customer-centered service approach is great. The car dealership ecosystem is one of the most complex environments --  BMW regulations and franchise laws that vary from state to state — and makes instituting change very challenging. So the key here will be in the execution.”

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LG's $10,000 TV goes on sale Monday

It uses OLED technology, supposedly producing a brighter image than LCD screens

Would you pay $10,000 for a TV? It's probably not a good investment but the new LG 55-inch OLED TV is gong on sale in South Korea Monday and the company sa...

PhotoWould you pay $10,000 for a TV? It's probably not a good investment but the new LG 55-inch OLED TV is gong on sale in South Korea Monday and the company says it has pre-orders for more than 100 of the next-generation displays.

What's so great about it?

Well, primarily, along with the other bells and whistles -- built-in WiFi, "smart" technology and so forth -- the OLED uses an organic light-emitting diode display, which is where the OLED name comes from.

OLED is a new way of displaying an image on a screen and is considered the technology that's most likely to replace liquid-crystal display (LCD) TVs, which is what most of us have scattered around the house.

It's thought that Samsung has a similar model just about ready to go but hasn't said when it will start full-scale production, so LG is taking the opportunity to get out ahead of its primary competitor.

And what's so different about OLED? Its main advantage is a thinner screen and, we're told, a sharper, brighter image.

Or as LG puts it on its website: "OLED uses an organic substance that glows when an electric current is introduced. This revolutionary material is part of new design approach that drastically reduces the thickness and weight of the TV. The light passes through a combination of filters to reproduce spectacular high-definition images."

Photo

It's sort of like those phosphorescent fish you may have seen the last time you were in a diving bell at the bottom of the sea. Maybe.

LG TV Feb. 15, 2013, 7:25 p.m.
Consumers rate LG TV

OLED displays work without a backlight, which improves the contrast ratio -- blacker blacks in other words. An OLED display should also have a faster response time and a wider viewing area.

Longevity and energy consumption are question marks, however.  Manufacturers will no doubt claim hurdes in these areas have been overcome, but cautious consumers may want to wait a cycle or two before emptying out their checking accounts to cart one of these new playthings home.

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Toyota pays up again to settle unintended acceleration complaints

Long-running saga blamed on carpeting may finally be nearing an end

Toyota is closing yet another chapter in its long unintended-acceleration saga, agreeing to pay $29 million to 29 states and American Samoa to settle dispu...

PhotoToyota is closing yet another chapter in its long unintended-acceleration saga, agreeing to pay $29 million to 29 states and American Samoa to settle disputes about how it handled recalls.

Besides the payment, Toyota agreed to make vehicle information more easily accessible to consumers to help them operate their vehicles safely and make more informed choices. 

“Companies have an obligation to quickly and openly inform customers of product safety concerns,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said. “That’s particularly true of an automobile maker, where consumers’ lives may be at stake.”

Toyota sought to put a positive spin on the settlement.

“Resolving this inquiry is another step we are taking to turn the page on legacy issues from Toyota’s past recalls in a way that benefits our customers," said Christopher P. Reynolds, group vice president and general counsel, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. "Immediately after this inquiry was launched in 2010, Toyota began cooperating fully with the Attorneys General and implementing ‘customer-first’ initiatives to address their concerns and those of our customers."

Toyota also agreed to continue other customer-focused initiatives, including its rapid-response service teams, its expanded network of product quality field offices across the U.S., and a range of customer care amenities for owners of vehicles subject to certain recalls. 

Other actions

PhotoIn December 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) fined Toyota  $17.35 million -- the maximum fine allowable under the law -- claiming the automaker failed to report a safety defect to the federal government in a timely manner. It's the single highest civil penalty amount ever paid to NHTSA for violations stemming from a recall.

Also in December, Toyota agreed to pay more than $1 billion to settle lawsuits growing out of unintended acceleration incidents. About 16 million owners of Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles are eligible for payments and safety updates to their cars.

Toyota recalled millions of Toyota and Lexus vehicles to replace accelerator pedals that could get trapped in floor mats or carpeting. 

A 10-month investigation by NASA engineers determined that electronic flaws were not to blame for the unintended acceleration incidents.

 

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National Science Foundation report on mass shootings 'not credible'

Critic says the report lacks support for its claims that media and video games contribute to violence

NSF Report on Mass Shootings and Media Violence Not Credible The tragic shootings in Newtown Connecticut this past December have left the country ...

Editor's Note:In this guest commentary, Prof. Ferguson responds to a recent story that linked media coverage and violent video games to mass shootings. 

Photo
Christopher J. Ferguson

The tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, this past December have left the country reeling.  At such moments it is common for societies to experience what are called “moral panics.” 

During such times, extraneous phenomena, often media, are blamed for societal problems despite lack of evidence they are significant contributors.  These moral panics serve to give us an illusion of control over uncontrollable events and give us a “boogeyman” to blame. In the 1950s, comic books were blamed for delinquency, and media ranging from books to music to television have long been blamed for societal ills. 

Hyperbole from politicians, activists and some scholars often contributes to these moral panics.  Thus it was a shame to see a credible group, the National Science Foundation (NSF), find its name attached to a report commissioned by a politician with a clear agenda that almost surgically avoided mentioning any research that conflicted with a highly ideological and alarmist view of media effects.

Speaking as a video game researcher, the report commissioned by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) grossly misrepresents the field of video game violence.  One meta-analysis of media violence by Joanne Savage is cited as if supporting links between media violence and violent crime when, in fact, Dr. Savage concluded quite the opposite. 

Otherwise, the report misses countless studies that find no links between media violence and aggression or societal violence.  This is an issue known as citation bias … when scholars only cite studies that support their personal views and ignore studies which do not (or misrepresent them as in the case of Dr. Savage’s work). 

Grossly misrepresents

Generally this is considered to be an ethical violation.  This type of flawed scholarship grossly misrepresents the field of media violence and contributes to societal moral panics.

In fact, research on media violence has always been inconsistent and often flawed.  The NSF report can be contrasted with, of all things, an almost simultaneous report by Common Sense Media (CSM) which functions as an anti-media “watchdog” group. 

Although I disagree with many of CSM’s conclusions, I commend them for acknowledging the debates and discrepant evidence in this field.  CSM presents an honest argument for media effects, one I disagree with, but at least without the blatant misrepresentations of the field found in the NSF report. 

It is a surprise to find an anti-media advocacy group, one whose funding presumably depends on selling the notion of how bad the media is, outshining the NSF on accurate and careful reporting of the literature. 

The best research we have coming out now, using well-validated measures of clinically significant aggression and controlling well for other variables, has not found consistent evidence for harmful media effects.  Societal violence, including among youth, has been plummeting, not rising in recent decades.  Countries which consume almost identical media cultures as ourselves across the Western world have much lower violence rates. 

And, contrary to what one might read from the NSF report, consumption of violent media is not a commonality among mass shooters.  The 2002 Secret Service report (cited in the NSF study, but not in the section on media violence) found no evidence school shooters consume high amounts of media violence.  And in recent weeks we’ve seen a spate of high-profile crimes by elderly men who presumably were not gamers.  But society tends to ignore these cases that don’t fit the profile.

Writing before the Brown v EMA Supreme Court case (where the court found that current evidence did not support links between video games and societal violence) scholars Hall, Day and Hall warned that exaggerating the effects of violent video games would ultimately damage the credibility of the scientific field.  Unfortunately, the NSF report, blatantly misleading and biased as it is, contributes to this loss of credibility. 

Scientific organizations should be wary about associating with blatantly politicized calls for “research” to suit a political agenda.  I call upon the scientific community to do better. 

---

The author is an associate professor and chair of the Psychology & Communication Dept. at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

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Tips for finding a job in a brutal economy

Employment expert says the way you've been going about your job search is probably wrong

Since the beginning of 2009 the U.S. unemployment rate has been stubbornly high. Many people have been out of work so long they've stopped looking for a jo...

PhotoSince the beginning of 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate has been stubbornly high. Many people have been out of work so long they've stopped looking for a job. Recent college graduates have been lucky to find any kind of work.

In conditions like these, you need every job market advantage you can get. Knowing the right way to go about looking for and applying for a job can be a big advantage indeed.

“There are four common denominators between what an employee is looking for and what a potential employer should be looking for. And they're mutual,” said Roger Haggerty, author of Hire Me: A Practical Guide to Standing Out in the Crowded Job Market

What both parties want

Photo
Roger Haggerty
They are, in no particular order, dependability, integrity, will the prospective employee's skills be utilized properly and will the person fit in with the organization? Haggerty says the answers are important to both the employer and employee, but in most cases neither asks the questions.

Haggerty has spent the last 30 years adding to his expertise. Not only has he hired people, he volunteered through a professional services organization on a committee helping unemployed people get jobs. After providing guidance to his wife, who was preparing for a job interview, she insisted that he write a book.

The take-away from the resulting book is that job applicants have to do more than just respond to an ad or online posting with a resume. That just doesn't cut it. In fact, Haggerty calls that approach “lazy.”

Instead, he says applicants must first do their homework, not so much learning about the prospective employer as much as analyzing their own skills and accomplishments.

What makes you special?

“In the vast majority of cases, they're not looking for people that are duties and responsibilities oriented, they're looking for people who have accomplishments,” Haggerty said. “What have you done that will help my bottom line? What have you done that will help my company be better? Why are you special?”

For example, Haggerty says a truck driver might tell a prospective employer that he's been driving trucks for five years. But the employer probably won't be impressed by that.

What they should say is “I've had an accident-free, ticket-free record over the last five years. I've never had any thefts off my truck.”

“Anybody can drive a truck but someone who can drive it safely and preserve the assets aboard it is even more valuable,” Haggerty said.

So your homework is to evaluate your past performance and figure out what your accomplishments are, verses what you did at previous jobs.

Getting an interview

If sending out resumes isn't the way to go about it, how do you get an interview?

“About 80 percent of jobs are filled through networking, they're not posted or advertised,” Haggerty said.

To land one of these jobs, the candidate needs to know someone who knows someone. It works this way: You're at a networking event and someone says 'how can I help you?' You say you want to meet the HR person or marketing director at any of a number of companies.

Once you are in front of them you ask them for advice on your job search, you don't necessarily ask them for a job or if they have any openings. You simply ask them for advice. Haggerty says they are likely to refer you to someone they know who is looking for someone with your accomplishments.

Preparation

When you finally do get a job interview, Haggerty says applicants need to be prepared to ask a lot of questions. Remember, the object is to address those four issues of dependability, integrity, skill usage and fit. It's on you to make sure those questions get asked and answered.

“If you've been through the three stages of an interview where there's a screener, a hiring manager and the hiring manager's boss, none of them ask the questions that get at those answers,” Haggerty said. “So there's a whole section of the book devoted to how to answer company questions with those four factors in mind.”

The book also provides over 100 questions an employee should expect and suggestions on ways to answer them, getting to the four common denominator issues.

“What you want to have is a very brief story on each accomplishment, addressing what the problem was, what action you took and what the result was.,” Haggerty said.

Over 55 and no one wants me

A growing segment of the unemployed is made up of people within 10 years of retirement who are completely discouraged by their prospects in the job market.

“A lot of people give up,” Haggerty said. “They say 'I'm too old, over-paid, and so on.' You've got to remarket yourself.”

In many cases, Haggerty says someone in their 50s or 60s has many examples of their dependability and integrity. And they shouldn't hesitate to bring up subjects a hiring manager may be thinking about but not mentioning – like pay.

“If your last job paid significantly more than the job you're seeking, the employer may think that you'll leave once you find a higher paying job,” Haggerty said.

You counter that by bringing it up yourself, noting that your children have finished college and are independent, meaning you don't need to make as much money as you once did.

The bottom line, says Haggerty, is the need to stand out from other applicants. You do that by thorough preparation, stressing your accomplishments and asking a lot of questions.

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Food recalls hit two-year high in fourth quarter

However, medical company and consumer product recalls declined

It wasn't your imagination. There were a whole lot of food recalls in the last three months of 2012. According to Stericycle ExpertRECALL, a firm that tra...

PhotoIt wasn't your imagination. There were a whole lot of food recalls in the last three months of 2012.

According to Stericycle ExpertRECALL, a firm that tracks product recalls in the U.S., food recalls documented by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforcement reports reached a two year quarterly high during the fourth quarter of 2012.

This represents an average rate of approximately six food recalls being documented every day, affecting some 18.4 million products -- more than double the units affected in the previous quarter.

"Right before FDA's announcement of two major requirements proposed under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the agency documented 552 food recalls, representing a 33 percent increase over the previous quarter and reaching the highest level of recall activity in more than two years," said Mike Rozembajgier, vice president of recalls at Stericycle ExpertRECALL. "As the agency continues to shift its focus towards prevention rather than simply reacting to foodborne illness outbreaks, we can expect the FDA to pay more attention to what companies are doing to ensure our food is safe and prevent recalls from occurring. Companies with a recall plan that is ready are likely to best weather the impending storm of increased regulatory scrutiny."

Of the recalled food products announced during the fourth quarter, 94 percent fell within the Class I designation as the units could cause serious health consequences or death. 165 of those recalls were related to issues stemming from a plant processing nut products. Salmonella concerns were the number one cause of food recalls followed by undeclared allergens or other allergen concerns.

"The fourth quarter increase in food recalls is due in large part to the many products affected by a single ingredient supplier -- in this case a peanut butter supplier," said Joseph A. Levitt, a Partner in the Hogan Lovells law firm and a former director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, referring to the string of Sunland recalls that started on September 24, 2012. "This also reflects increased vigilance by both food companies and FDA to identify problems before people get sick and recall affected products promptly. Such vigilance will only increase as FDA moves to implement the new Food Safety Modernization Act."

Medical recalls

Meanwhile, recalls of medical devices declined when compared with the third quarter. Still, more than 10 million units were affected and 40 percent of medical device companies named in FDA Enforcement Reports in the final quarter of 2012 were involved in more than one recall.

Fourth quarter pharmaceutical recalls also dropped from the third quarter, returning to a level more in line with the three previous quarters. At the same time, though 45 percent of pharmaceutical companies faced more than one recall event -- the largest percentage of companies with repeat violations in at least two and a half years.

Consumer products

The company also found that recalls within the categories of consumer products and children's and infant products both reached a six-quarter high during the fourth quarter of 2012. While the number of affected consumer product units dropped from over 12 million units reported in the third quarter to just about three million units in the fourth quarter, recalls of sports and recreation products reached the highest level of activity recorded for the category in more than ten quarters.

This category includes products like bicycles, snowmobiles and trampolines. In total, consumer product recalls reported during the last quarter of 2012 were responsible for 2,015 product safety incidents, 58 injuries and six deaths.

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Maintaining heart health is a year-round job

Heart deaths spike in winter but a healthy lifestyle is your best defense

Researchers at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles have found that heart attack deaths are 36 percent higher during the winter months than in the summer...

PhotoResearchers at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles have found that heart attack deaths are 36 percent higher during the winter months than in the summer. Just why is not exactly clear.

Researchers had always assumed the increase in winter heart attacks was due to over-exertions during cold weather activities, like shoveling snow. But this latest research shows a similar death rate in warm climates as well as cold.

Your best defense is a healthy heart all year round and in nearly every case, the power to improve heart health rests with the individual.

“When I tell people that almost 80 percent of heart disease is preventable, they are surprised,” said Mayo Clinic cardiologist Martha Grogan, M.D., medical editor-in-chief of Mayo Clinic Healthy Heart for Life. “Better yet, there are daily things we all can do that can make a big difference in our effort to keep our hearts healthy.”

Move it

Grogan encourages people to move 10 extra minutes each day. A sedentary lifestyle may increase your risk of heart attack almost as much as smoking does, recent studies show. Movement, she says, provides a significant pay-off.

“Moving even 10 minutes a day for someone who’s been sedentary may reduce the risk for heart disease by 50 percent,” Grogan said.

Getting a adequate sleep is also important since it reduces the chances of obesity and high blood pressure, two major risk factors for heart disease. For women, the risks are especially high.

“The latest American Heart Association statistics reveal that heart disease is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined, killing one woman every minute,” said Liliana Cohen, MD, a board-certified cardiologist with The Robert Wood Johnson Medical Group. “Yet, these same studies show that relatively few women believe that heart disease is their greatest health threat.”

Women at risk

Cohen says 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.  She says these misconceptions could be putting women’s lives at risk every day.

“The symptom many women focus on is chest pain, but the reality is that women are also likely to experience other types of symptoms, including shortness of breath, back or jaw pain, and nausea or vomiting,” she said. “This misperception may lead many women to ignore or minimize their symptoms and delay getting life-saving treatment.”

Other symptoms of a heart attack for both women and men include dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting; pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen; and extreme fatigue.

Mariam Kashani, MS, CRNP and a DNP student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, says the Framingham Risk Score (FRS), which doctors routinely use to predict heart disease in their patients, has a blind spot that could leave many patients vulnerable. She says it ignores family history, which means many patients might never see heart disease coming until it hits them.

No. 1 cause of death

“Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death and disability in the United States,” Kashani said. “Being categorized as low-risk when you are, in fact, truly high-risk could leave patients unaware and unarmed to take action to protect themselves.”

She's working to identify and warn those overlooked by FRS and get them started on an aggressive program to limit the danger.

To be on the safe side, everyone should take steps to improve heart health, and that means no smoking, tracking your cholesterol, maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise. The American Heart Association says reducing sodium consumption is one of the healthiest things you can do for your heart.

Cut the sodium

Americans consume about 3,600 mg of sodium per day — more than twice the recommended limit. Reducing that by 40%, the researchers found, could save as many as 500,000 lives over ten years.

Excessive sodium intake contributes to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases.

“These findings strengthen our understanding that sodium reduction is beneficial to people at all ages,” said Pamela Coxson, lead author of the study and a mathematics specialist in the department of medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). “Even small, gradual reductions in sodium intake would result in substantial mortality benefits across the population.”

The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to 1.500 mg per day.

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Feds seize Florida company's diet products

Some of the drugs may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke

Acting on behalf of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. marshals have seized tainted dietary supplements from Globe All Wellness (Globe All) in Hol...

PhotoActing on behalf of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. marshals have seized tainted dietary supplements from Globe All Wellness (Globe All) in Hollywood, FL. The products contain an undisclosed active pharmaceutical ingredient and may be unsafe.

Several of the seized products contain sibutramine hydrochloride (sibutramine), the active ingredient in the obesity drug Meridia. Meridia was withdrawn from the U.S. market in December 2010 after clinical data demonstrated that it increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Unapproved drugs

Globe All markets its products with claims that its products can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, among others. Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), products offered for such use are considered to be drugs, since they are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.

The company’s products are drugs that have not been approved by the FDA for their claimed uses.

“Companies that distribute products containing undisclosed drugs are not only breaking the law, they are putting consumers at risk,” said Howard Sklamberg, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “With these kinds of hidden dangers, consumers cannot make informed decisions about the products they are taking.”

Failed inspection

During inspections of Globe All conducted in October 2012 and February 2013, the FDA also found that the company distributed dietary supplements that were not manufactured in accordance with the current good manufacturing practice (cGMP) requirements for dietary supplements.

“Two important protections for the public are that a firm may not sell new drugs unless they have been tested and approved by the FDA and a firm may not make false or unsubstantiated claims about drugs they sell,” said Melinda K. Plaisier, acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “When a firm disregards these protections, it not only violates the law but also creates a risk for consumers who may rely on a bogus product and forego effective and proven treatment. The FDA must and will take aggressive enforcement action.”

The FDA seized various lots of the following products:

  • SlimXtreme
  • SlimXtreme Gold
  • SlimPlus
  • SlimLee
  • GelSlim
  • SlimDrops
  • Colonew

No illnesses have been associated to date with Globe All’s products.

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Perfect Pasta recalls ready-to-eat roast beef products

The products may be contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes

Perfect Pasta of Addison, IL, is recalling approximately 315 pounds of ready-to-eat roast beef products due to possible contamination with Listeria monocyt...

PhotoPerfect Pasta of Addison, IL, is recalling approximately 315 pounds of ready-to-eat roast beef products due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 5-lb. packages of “GINA FULLY COOKED ROAST BEEF WITH SEASONED JUICE” with a lot code number of “040615RB” and a pack date of “02-06-13.”

The products, bearing the establishment number “EST. 19829” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were produced on February 6, 2013, and distributed to institutions in Chicago.

After the company received a positive sample for Listeria monocytogenes, most of its products were held but a portion may have been cross-contaminated as a result of equipment not being cleaned between production shifts and shipped into commerce. There are no reports of illnesses due to consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions should contact the company’s Quality Assurance Manager, Connie DeMarco, at (630) 543-8300.  

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'Bionic eye' offers hope for adults with rare genetic eye disease

The device does not restore vision but can help with day-to-day activities

An implanted retinal device -- a bionic eye if you will -- has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat adult patients with ad...

PhotoAn implanted retinal device -- a bionic eye if you will -- has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat adult patients with advanced retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, which includes a small video camera, transmitter mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, video processing unit (VPU) and an implanted retinal prosthesis (artificial retina), replaces the function of degenerated cells in the retina (a membrane inside the eye) and may improve a patient’s ability to perceive images and movement.

The VPU transforms images from the video camera into electronic data that is wirelessly transmitted to the retinal prosthesis.

Rare condition

RP is a rare genetic eye condition that damages the light-sensitive cells that line the retina. In a healthy eye, these cells change light rays into electrical impulses and send them through the optic nerve to the area of the brain that assembles the impulses into an image.

In people with RP, the light-sensitive cells slowly degenerate resulting in gradual loss of side vision and night vision, and later of central vision. The condition can lead to blindness.

“This new surgically implanted assistive device provides an option for patients who have lost their sight to RP -- for whom there have been no FDA-approved treatments,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “The device may help adults with RP who have lost the ability to perceive shapes and movement to be more mobile and to perform day-to-day activities.”

For use by adults

The Argus II system is intended for use in adults -- age 25 years or older -- with severe to profound RP who have bare light perception (can perceive light, but not the direction from which it is coming) or no light perception in both eyes, evidence of intact inner layer retina function, and a previous history of the ability to see forms. Patients must also be willing and able to receive the recommended post-implant clinical follow-up, device fitting and visual rehabilitation.

In addition to a small video camera and transmitter mounted on the glasses, the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System has a portable video processing unit (VPU) and an array of electrodes that are implanted onto the patient’s retina. The VPU transforms images from the video camera into electronic data that is wirelessly transmitted to the electrodes.

The electrodes transform the data into electrical impulses that stimulate the retina to produce images. While the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System will not restore vision to patients, it may allow them to detect light and dark in the environment, aiding them in identifying the location or movement of objects or people.

Solid clinical testing results

The FDA reviewed data that included a clinical study of 30 study participants with RP who received the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. Investigators monitored participants for adverse events related to the device or to the implant surgery and regularly assessed their vision for at least two years after receiving the implant.

Results from the clinical study show that most participants were able to perform basic activities better with the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System than without it. Some of the activities tested included locating and touching a square on a white field; detecting the direction of a motion; recognizing large letters, words, or sentences; detecting street curbs; walking on a sidewalk without stepping off; and matching black, grey and white socks.

Following the implant surgery, 19 of the 30 study patients experienced no adverse events related to the device or the surgery. Eleven study subjects experienced a total of 23 serious adverse events, which included erosion of the conjunctiva (the clear covering of the eyeball), dehiscence (splitting open of a wound along the surgical suture), retinal detachment, inflammation, and hypotony (low intraocular pressure).

Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. is based in Sylmar, Calif.

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Little change in fixed-rate mortgage

Freddie Mac 30-year fixed-rate holds, while Bankrate's inched higher

Not much change during the past week in the cost of financing a home. The most popular average fixed mortgage rates (FRM) were unchanged from last week, a...

PhotoNot much change during the past week in the cost of financing a home.

The most popular average fixed mortgage rates (FRM) were unchanged from last week, according Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey, remaining near their record lows.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.53 percent with an average 0.8 point for the week ending February 14 -- the same as last week. Last year at this time, it averaged 3.87 percent.

The 15-year FRM averaged 2.77 percent this week with an average 0.8 point –unchanged for the week. It averaged 3.16 percent a year ago.

The five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.64 percent this week with an average 0.6 point, compared with 2.63 percent last week and 2.82 percent a year ago.

The one-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.61 percent this week with an average 0.3 point, up eight basis points from last week's 2.53 percent. At this time last year, it averaged 2.84 percent.

"Mortgage rates remain near record lows and continue to support housing demand, translating into a pick-up in home prices in most markets,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “The median sales price of existing homes rose 10 percent between fourth quarter 2011 and 2012, the largest year-over-year gain in seven years. Among large metropolitan areas, 88 percent saw positive annual increases in the fourth quarter, compared to 81 percent in the third quarter and 75 percent in the second. The largest gains occurred in Phoenix (34 percent), Detroit (31 percent) and San Francisco (28 percent)."

Bankrate

Mortgage rates as tracked by Bankrate.com showed little movement, with the benchmark 30-year fixed mortgage rate inching up to 3.79 percent with an average of 0.34 discount and origination points.

The average 15-year fixed mortgage rate also rose slightly, from 3.00 percent to 3.02 percent. The average jumbo 30-year fixed mortgage rate was a touch higher -- from 4.17 percent to 4.19 percent.

Adjustable rate mortgages were mixed, with the five-year ARM falling slightly -- from 2.76 percent to 2.75 percent, while the seven-year ARM moved up -- from 2.96 percent to 2.98 percent.

The last time mortgage rates were above five percent was in April 2011, when the average 30-year fixed rate was 5.07 percent, meaning a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,082.22.

With the average rate now 3.79 percent, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $930.78 -- a difference of $151.44 per month for anyone refinancing now.

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Despite the pitfalls, more relationships starting online

And more than ever, you have to be careful out there

If you've had a bad experience with online dating, here's some more bad news. A relationship expert suggests it's the way people get together now. The numb...

PhotoIf you've had a bad experience with online dating, here's some more bad news. A relationship expert suggests it's the way people get together now. The numbers are in online dating's favor.

“There are 54 million single Americans today,” said Wichita State University’s Deborah Ballard-Reisch, who has researched the subject of communication and relationships for about 20 years. “Forty million of them are online in one way or another. You have a better chance of meeting Mr. or Ms. Right today than you ever have.”

So far, Viola, of South Carolina, isn't convinced, after signing up with a dating site.

“The few guys I did chat with were clearly looking for flings,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Also, I have noticed that since signing up, they don't send emails telling me when someone has flirted or sent emails like before I signed up (I guess they have my money now). I wish I had spent my $80 on a new pair of shoes!”

Maybe Viola would have better luck if she joined activities at church or took a class. You might meet someone with common interests but that universe is small compared to the online world.

Less in-person contact

Photo
Ballard-Reisch
“We used to develop romantic relationships with people we went to school with or knew through church, or family or friends introduced us to, and now we supplement that by meeting people online,” Ballard-Reisch said. “And the world of people available to us has exploded exponentially because of that.”

But that's not always a good thing. While the opportunity to get to know others has increased because of online dating, Ballard-Reisch says people need to be aware of some of the risks. One of the biggest, mentioned frequently in ConsumerAffairs posts about dating sites, is fraud.

“This site is full of scammers,” complained Chris, of Milwaukee. “I have been asked for money by subscribers several times. I see the same members posting under a different username.”

“There are a number of international consortiums that get on online dating sites and pretend to be someone they’re not in order to get money out of people,” Ballard Reisch said. “So if someone asks you to send them money, especially out of the country, run.”

Language clues

Sometimes it's obvious you are being scammed. Sometimes, there are more subtle tell-tale clues.

“One of the things to look out for in online dating is that, when people claim language fluency and then they have grammar and syntax and spelling errors, if their language doesn’t seem right, it likely isn’t,” Ballard-Reisch.

Even if you are convinced the person you are striking up a relationship with is who they appear to be, it's wise to take nothing for granted. Sadly, it's guilty until proven innocent.

“This might sound coarse, but so much information is available to us online now, if you’re thinking of meeting someone you have met only online, Google them,” Ballard-Reisch said. “Use multiple search engines. Consider seeking criminal background checks. Make sure that people are who they say they are.”

Safety tips

She has other online dating safety tips; If you decide to meet someone in person that you’ve spoken with only online, always meet in a public place the first few times. Drive yourself. Let your friends and family know where you’re going, with whom and when you plan to return. Have a panic word in case you have a quick second to call them if you need help. And keep your phone online so you can be tracked through GPS if necessary.

That might sound a little extreme, but Balland-Reisch says it's simply a prudent precaution. Just last month a Las Vegas woman sued Match.com after she said she was stabbed by a man she met on the dating site. We used to be able to rely on our support networks — our family and friends — to vet people for us. When we meet people online, we can’t do that anymore.

And more and more, we are meeting people online. Despite all the nightmare stories and bad experiences, Ballard-Reisch says an estimated one in five romantic relationships start online today.

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Look who's buying up single-family homes

Increasingly, it's hedge funds that hope to rent them to you

The housing market is into a second year of recovery and home sales continue to rise, but who is buying these properties? Increasingly, it's Wall Street....

PhotoThe housing market is into a second year of recovery and home sales continue to rise, but who is buying these properties? Increasingly, it's Wall Street.

Hedge funds have poured billions of dollars into snapping up foreclosed homes and turning them into rental property. Throughout most of 2012, first-time home buyers accounted for only 30 percent of monthly purchases, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Investors typically account for more than 20 percent.

Much of the hedge fund activity is centered in the most beaten-down markets, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. After buying distressed properties at a discount, they have no trouble renting them to people who can no longer qualify for a mortgage. After the housing melt-down, many people no longer want to own a home.

Shelter, not investment

People are moving back to buying houses for shelter, not for investment, and that's a very healthy trend,” said Sam Zell, chairman of Equity Group Investments, in an interview with CNBC.

That may mean more single-family homes will become rentals rather than owner-occupied. And Zell isn't backing away from real estate, saying the demographics are very positive for rental housing.

“I think the rental housing market is going to continue to be very strong,” he said.

Investment in single-family rentals has increased significantly over the past couple of years, prompting the Wall Street Journal and Morgan Stanley to label the segment a new asset class. Because of that, small investors are also picking up real estate.

Small investors

Many are paying with cash, to avoid having to deal with banks. NAR's monthly existing home sales report consistently shows about 30 percent of purchases are made with cash.

Rents are going up nationwide, but perhaps nowhere quite as fast as California. According to a rental pricing analysis conducted by RentRange LLC, La Quinta, Calif., saw the biggest rent spike in the country last year, rising by $932 or 35.75%, from December 2011 to December 2012.

In fact, six other California cities are included in the Top 10 markets with the greatest rental price increases for single-family residences in 2012. Three, like La Quinta, are in Riverside County's Coachella Valley.

Texas, Florida, and Georgia

Two are in San Diego County and one is in Orange County. The other three cities in the Top 10 markets with the greatest rental price increases for single-family homes are Harker Heights, Texas; Sarasota, Florida; and Mableton, Georgia.

"Rental price movement over time is one of many important metrics that investors utilize when evaluating suitable marketplaces. As popular markets become saturated with investment activity it is important for purchasers to leverage specialized rental market intelligence to identify attractive markets that competitors have yet to notice," said Walter Charnoff, RentRange's founder and CEO.

That's resulted in fewer homes for sale – which has begun to push up prices again – and more homes for rent.

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Limits urged on sugary soft drinks

Concerns raised about the role of sugary drinks in obesity, diabetes

It's time to do something about unsafe levels of high-fructose corn syrup or sugar in soft drinks, according to Center for Science in the Public Interest (...

PhotoIt's time to do something about unsafe levels of high-fructose corn syrup or sugar in soft drinks, according to Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), because they cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems

Along with scientists and health-advocacy organizations, CSPI wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine a safe level of added sugars for beverages. Public health departments in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, OR, and other jurisdictions are also supporting the proposal.

Too much sugar

A typical 20-ounce bottle of soda pop contains about 16 teaspoons of sugars from high-fructose corn syrup -- twice the daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association. It advises consuming no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day for women and no more than 9 teaspoons for men.

CSPI and the scientists say that despite the concerns over artificial sweeteners, diet drinks are safer than today's full-calorie soft drinks. A gradual change to safer drinks will be made easier by the use of new high-potency sweeteners like rebiana, according to the group, which is made from the stevia plant, and "sweetness enhancers" being developed by major manufacturers.

"As currently formulated, Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar-based drinks are unsafe for regular human consumption," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Like a slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon, sugar drinks cause obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The FDA should require the beverage industry to re-engineer their sugary products over several years, making them safer for people to consume, and less conducive to disease."

In a 54-page regulatory petition filed with the FDA, CSPI details scientific evidence that added sugars -- especially in drinks -- causes weight gain, obesity, and chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and gout. In particular, the group says a growing number of clinical trials have found that people who are assigned to drink sugary beverages gain more weight than those assigned to drink sugar-free beverages. Other clinical studies found that high-sugar diets increase triglycerides, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and liver fat.

Expert opinion

"If one were trying to ensure high rates of obesity, diabetes, or heart disease in a population, one would feed the population large doses of sugary drinks," said Walter Willett, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The evidence is so strong that it is essential that FDA use its authority to make sugary drinks safer." Willett is one of 41 scientists and physicians who signed a letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg in support of the petition. Willett and his colleagues have conducted epidemiology studies that strongly link consumption of sugary drinks to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and gout.

Soda pop and other sugar drinks are the single biggest source of calories in the American diet. Americans, on average, consume between 18 and 23 teaspoons -- about 300 to 400 calories worth -- of added sugars per day. Teens and young adults consume half again more than the average. About one-fifth of adolescents aged 12 to 18 consume at least 25 percent of their calories from added sugars, according to the government’s 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. About 14 million people of all ages consume more than one-third of their calories in the form of added sugars.

Safe levels

The FDA classifies high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose and other sugars as "generally recognized as safe," or "GRAS" in agency parlance. To be GRAS, there must be a scientific consensus that the ingredient is safe at the levels consumed.

CSPI's petition contends that the current scientific consensus is that added sugars are unsafe at the levels consumed. The petition asks the FDA to determine what level of added sugars would be safe for use in beverages, and to require those limits to be phased in over several years. The petition did not propose a specific safe level, but notes that several health agencies identified two-and-a-half teaspoons (10 grams) as a reasonable limit in a healthier drink.

In 1982 and again in 1988, the FDA committed to undertake a new safety determination if sugar consumption increased, or if new scientific evidence indicated a public health hazard. Both of those conditions have been met, which CSPI says obligates the FDA to act.

Changes coming

Some in the soft drink industry seem to see the writing on the wall.

"You will see Pepsi and Coke and Dr Pepper coming up with a whole variety of no-calorie sweeteners," Harold Honickman, the CEO of a major East Coast Pepsi bottler, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in October, describing how the soda market will be changing in the next few years. "I honestly think that you will find 'regular' Pepsi, 'regular' Coke with new kinds of sweeteners. They will be better-tasting drinks than we have today."

Soda pop's role in causing obesity has led many health experts to compare the drinks to cigarettes, and local and state health departments are seeking to decrease the consumption of sugar drinks to prevent obesity.

Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New York City will soon cap soda serving sizes at 16 ounces in restaurants and other establishments regulated by the city's health department. Boston now prohibits the sale of sugar drinks on city property. New York City, Los Angeles, and King County (Seattle), Washington, have all run print or Internet advertising campaigns urging people to drink less soft drinks.

Soda pop and most other full-calorie sugar beverages are no longer sold in schools, and two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed rules excluding high-sugar drinks from vending machines and elsewhere on school grounds. And state legislators have advocated excise taxes on sugar drinks to help reduce consumption and fund health programs.

Besides asking the FDA to reduce levels of added sugars in beverages, CSPI's petition urges the agency to encourage industry to voluntarily reduce added sugars in breakfast cereals, baked goods and other foods, though beverages are the biggest problem. CSPI says the agency should add a separate line for added sugars on Nutrition Facts labels and mount, perhaps with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, education campaigns aimed at curbing consumption of added sugars.

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More consumers buying groceries online

Survey finds 15% of U.S. adults have shopped for groceries online, 19% plan to

It's taken awhile but online grocery shopping appears to be catching on.  A new survey finds 15% of U.S. adults have bought groceries online and anoth...

PhotoIt's taken awhile but online grocery shopping appears to be catching on.  A new survey finds 15% of U.S. adults have bought groceries online and another 19% say they plan to do so.

Convenience is the most often-cited reason but online shoppers say they're also trying to save money, both by limiting impulse purchases and more easily finding the best price for a given item. 

"The combination of high food prices, busy families and easy Internet accessibility has led to an increased interest in online grocery shopping," said Jackie Warrick, senior savings advisor at CouponCabin.com, which commissioned the survey. "Consumers have long bought items like apparel and electronics online. Now, they're seeking out ways to further take advantage of online shopping."

The high cost of food may be a primary driver behind online grocery shopping, as 91 percent of U.S. adults indicate they are at least somewhat aware of rising food prices due to weather-related issues in 2012.

In addition, 70 percent of U.S. adults who haven't shopped for groceries online said they would be at least somewhat likely to do so if online groceries were less expensive than buying them in the store. Eighteen percent said they would be very likely to do so.

Not always so convenient

For some consumers, the desire for online groceries has yet to be met. In fact, nearly four-in-ten (39%) of U.S. adults wish their local grocery store offered a delivery service.

For others, they've had the experience but it hasn't turned out the way they hoped, like Margarita of Los Angeles, who was not thankful for her experience with Vons home delivery:

I logged in to vons.com. In the Search Box, I typed "whole frozen turkey" and about 10 results came up. I chose 28 turkey at $13.00 each, scheduled delivery time, and entered my credit card details.

On the day of delivery, I received a phone call that they cannot honor the sale price of $13 because somewhere on the website it says one per customer. It is not my fault that their software doesn't work properly. If I add more than one turkey to shopping card and there is a limit of one, the rest of the turkeys needed to be recalculated at full price.

I called corporate office and all they can say was sorry for inconvenience and they can't deliver at that price. I bought it for my employees because they can't afford to buy their own turkeys and it's a holiday. I told my employees about the delivery time, they are all coming to pick up their turkeys and I got nothing.

Kat of Norwalk, Calif., also ran into  problems with Vons:

Von's is constantly leaving items out of our order. On our first order with them for New Year's dinner, they delivered to us a rotten leg of lamb. It was completely sealed, so when I opened, everybody had to leave the house because it spread so fast.

Today we had a delivery of about 8 items. We are both disabled and cannot drive and really needed cat litter, so also got a couple additional items. The driver told us everything came except the Chinese yard long beans, but unpacked and discovered the two packages of pepper jack cheese (on sale, two pound packages $3 off) and the Hebrew National Hot Dogs (expensive! ) were not in the bags.

The sale is over tomorrow and I don't want to spend another $50 plus shipping for the delivery. After my son spoke to them on the phone they said they would deliver them tomorrow, except what lesson did they learn then? Deliver it today! I don't want it for free or as an apology. Just deliver it in the order. Geez. Come on, guys.

Greg of Fremont, Calif., ran into problems with his Albertsons order:

We just got off the phone with Albertsons customer service to ask why the $20 credit they gave us a little over a year ago has disappeared from our online account (for Grocery home delivery).

We received the credit after the delivery of our online order was more than a day late which resulted in no birthday cake (part of the order) for my daughters birthday last November.

Apparently the record of our order from a year ago (to a Newport Beach, CA address) has somehow been deleted. We did change the address on the account after coming back to Northern California and suspect that the data was lost when that profile update was made, but this is thier problem not ours!!! They didnt tell us we had to keep the delivery record for the $20 credit and why would we since they credited our online account! Now that its been deleted (and there's no record) theres nothing they can do about it they say.

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Report links violent media, mental health and guns to mass shootings

National Science Foundation study was requested by Congressman following Sandy Hook massacre

A report compiled by an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation (NSF) details three major risk factors associated with mass shootings --&nbsp...

PhotoA report compiled by an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation (NSF) details three major risk factors associated with mass shootings -- exposure to violent media, mental health, and access to guns. 

The report was requested by Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

Wolf, chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, said the report supports his belief that rampage shootings are the result of multiple factors, including access to firearms, mental health issues, and exposure to violent media, including violent video games. 

Wolf said he was expecting to hear President Obama’s plan to address the role of media violence and mental health in episodes of mass violence during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, but was disappointed those topics were left out.

“To only focus on one piece of a large and complicated puzzle is irresponsible,” he said. 

Outspoken lawmaker

Wolf, an outspoken lawmaker who has long represented a Northern Virginia district, has previously advocated measures that would prevent health insurers from placing discriminatory restrictions on mental health and addiction treatments, and has repeatedly cosponsored legislation aimed at protecting children from violent and sexually explicit video games and Hollywood films.

Photo
Rep. Wolf

“While I recognize the potential constitutional issues involved in tackling media violence, mental health parity and gun control, I am disappointed that mental health issues and media violence were left out of the president’s address,” Wolf said.  “The president said that the victims of mass shootings, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the college students at Virginia Tech, the children at Sandy Hook, the high school students at Columbine, and the movie-goers in Aurora all deserve a vote for gun control proposals. 

"How can he in good conscience call for that, but not acknowledge the fact that each one of the shooters in those events was mentally disturbed?  How could he not acknowledge the role that violent media played in some of their lives?  The president has failed the American people and the families of the victims by remaining frustratingly silent on these crucial issues and ignoring the other central factors related to mass violence of this kind,” Wolf said.

Violent games

The NSF report examines exposure to violent media, including video games, movies, television, apps, music and comic books. Violent video games increase aggressive thoughts and behavior, angry feelings and physiological arousal, and decrease helping behavior and feelings of empathy for others, according to the report. 

The researchers also said that rating systems have not kept up with the increasingly violent content of popular media, and there is no standard rating system in the U.S.

Exposure to violent media is “one of the easiest risk factors to change,” according to one study in the report.  It included possible solutions such as more warning labels, establishing a universal rating system that would make ratings among all types of media uniform and easier to understand, and educating parents.

Wolf also is considering legislation that would require reduced-violence versions of video games with less-realistic images (i.e. blue-colored blood), similar to measures that are already in place in Europe.

Media coverage

The report also questioned whether the extensive media coverage that takes place following a shooting negatively affects adolescents.

“The news media cover rampage shootings heavily, but very little is known about the effects of such coverage on adolescents and young adults,” one study said.  “Does such coverage increase thoughts of imitation, as it seems to in suicide?  Is it more likely to influence thoughts of imitation among youth who already have thoughts of suicide and homicide?”

Another study the report cited dealt with mental health, examining “signaling behavior” among rampage shooters.  Perpetrators are generally at the early onset of severe mental illness, with symptoms they find frightening, but often go entirely undiagnosed or untreated, according to the report.  Those who survive into their 20s often develop full-blown mental disorders that are immediately recognized, but at the age of 12-14, these conditions are often just beginning, but lead the shooter to magnify slights and feel severely depressed by rejection, the study showed.

Still another study found that there might even be a link between these three main factors, with a particular tie between mental instability and consumption of violent media. 

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American Airlines, US Airways to merge, forming world's largest carrier

The impact on consumers is of concern to passengers' rights advocates

It's a done deal -- almost. The boards of American Airlines parent AMR and US Airways have given their blessing to a merger that they say will create “a p...

PhotoIt's a done deal -- almost.

The boards of American Airlines parent AMR and US Airways have given their blessing to a merger that they say will create “a premier global carrier.” The value of the deal, which must jump through a variety of federal regulatory hoops, is put at approximately $11 billion based on the price of US Airways' stock as of February 13.

Initially, the newly-created carrier will operate under the American Airlines and will -- according to a joint press release -- give customers “access to more choices and increased service across the combined company's larger worldwide network.”

"Today, we are proud to launch the new American Airlines -- a premier global carrier well equipped to compete and win against the best in the world," said Tom Horton, chairman, president, and CEO of American Airlines. "Together, we will be even better positioned to deliver for all of our stakeholders, including our customers, people, investors, partners, and the many communities we serve.”

US Airways Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker, calls it “an exciting new chapter” for both carriers. “The combined airline,” he said, “will have the scale, breadth and capabilities to compete more effectively and profitably in the global marketplace. Our combined network will provide a significantly more attractive offering to customers, ensuring that we are always able to take them where they want to travel, when they want to go."

What about consumers?

The Association for Airline Passenger Rights worries that fewer airlines means less competition and higher fares…and fees. The group says if the merger is allowed to proceed, passengers stand to lose because they will have fewer choices, less competitive fares, and service to smaller airports will likely dwindle.

“You don’t have to be an economics professor to understand that less competition in the market is going to result in consumers paying more, and airfares are certainly not immune from this simple fact,” said Brandon M. Macsata, the group's executive director. “In fact, since a couple of the legacy airlines were lost to mergers we’ve not only seen an increase in airfares over the last seven years, they have been accompanied by ballooning fees for everything ranging from baggage, change-of-flight to seat selection.”

Here to there

The combined airline will offer more than 6,700 daily flights to 336 destinations in 56 countries and is expected to maintain all hubs currently served by American and US Airways, which the companies say will result in more travel options for customers.

Both airlines expect that the regional carriers they own -- AMR Corporation's American Eagle and US Airways' Piedmont and PSA -- will continue to operate as distinct entities, providing seamless service to the combined airline.

Completing the deal

The merger is conditioned on the approval by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, regulatory approvals, approval by US Airways shareholders, other customary closing conditions, and confirmation and consummation of the Plan. The combination is expected to be completed in the third quarter of this year.   

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Gator utility vehicles recalled

The oil filter can leak, posing a fire hazard

Deere & Company of Moline, IL, is recalling about 4,700 John Deere Gator RSX850i Base utility vehicles. The oil filter can leak, posing a fire hazard. Pin...

PhotoDeere & Company of Moline, IL, is recalling about 4,700 John Deere Gator RSX850i Base utility vehicles.

The oil filter can leak, posing a fire hazard. Pinholes or cracks have been identified in oil filters installed by the engine supplier which were not manufactured to specification. The company has received four reports of incidents resulting in fires. 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. Utility vehicles with the following serial numbers are included in this recall: 

Model

Serial Number Range

RSX850i Base

1M0850TB++M010009 thru 1M0850TB++M010778

RSX850i Sport

1M0850TS++M010001 thru 1M0850TS++M012077

RSX850i Trail

1M0850TT++M010001 thru 1M0850TT++M012867

The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at John Deere dealers nationwide from August 2012 through January 2013 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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Chrysler recalls a variety of pickup trucks, SUVs

The rear axle could lock up and cause a loss of vehicle control

Chrysler is recalling certain model year 2009-2012 Ram 1500 trucks manufactured from February 27, 2008, through June 30, 2009, and from December 1, 2009, t...

PhotoChrysler is recalling certain model year 2009-2012 Ram 1500 trucks manufactured from February 27, 2008, through June 30, 2009, and from December 1, 2009, through October 20, 2011; model year 2009-2011 Dodge Dakota trucks manufactured from February 27, 2007, through June 30, 2009, and from December 1, 2009, through September 30, 2011; model year 2009 Chrysler Aspen trucks manufactured from January 3, 2008, through December 18, 2008; and model year 2009 Dodge Durango trucks manufactured from January 3, 2008, through December 18, 2008.

The rear axle pinion nut may loosen due to a omission of an adhesive patch. If the rear axle pinion nut loosens, the axle can lock up and cause a loss of vehicle control and/or a vehicle crash with little warning.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will install a pinion nut retainer, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during March 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753.

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ZIP International recalls dry salted fish

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum

ZIP International Group is recalling Dry Salted Fish (bream) because it product was found to be uneviscerated, and has the potential to be contaminated wit...

PhotoZIP International Group is recalling Dry Salted Fish (bream) because it product was found to be uneviscerated, and has the potential to be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium which can cause life-threatening illness or death.

Consumers are warned not to use the product even if it does not look or smell spoiled.

The recalled Dry Salted Fish (bream) was distributed by East Coast Foods Inc. Brooklyn, NY via delivery to retail stores and wholesalers in September 2012.

The product is packaged in vacuum sealed packaging labeled "Astrakhansky Lesh" (Dry Salted Fish Eviscerated) weight 14.2oz. Bar Code 835856001228 is located on the top right corner of the package. Dry Salted Fish (bream) is a product of Russia.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

Consumers who have purchased Dry Salted Fish (bream) are advised not to eat it and should return it to the place of purchase or discard for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact East Coast Foods Inc. at (718) 371-1113, Monday-Friday 10am-4pm EST.

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Foreclosure filings plunge to six-year low in January

California leads the way with a 62 percent drop

Another indication that the housing market is on the comeback trail. RealtyTrac says foreclosure filings -- default notices, scheduled auctions and bank r...

PhotoAnother indication that the housing market is on the comeback trail.

RealtyTrac says foreclosure filings -- default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions -- were reported on 150,864 U.S. properties in January -- a decrease of 7 percent from December and down a whopping 28 percent from January 2012. It also reports one in every 869 U.S. housing units filed for foreclosure during the month.

“The U.S. foreclosure landscape in January was profoundly altered by the effects of new legislation that took effect in California on the first of the year,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac. “Dubbed the Homeowners Bill of Rights, this legislation extends many of the principles in the national mortgage settlement -- including a prohibition on so-called dual tracking and requiring a single point of contact for borrowers facing foreclosure -- to all mortgage servicers operating in California. In addition the new law imposes fines of up to $7,500 per loan for filing of multiple unverified foreclosure documents. As a result, the downward foreclosure trend in California accelerated into hyper speed in January, decisively shifting the balance of power when it comes to the nation’s foreclosure activity.”

Blomquist notes that for the first time since January 2007, California did not have the most properties with foreclosure filings of any state. That dubious distinction went to Florida, where January foreclosure activity increased on an annual basis for the 11th time in the last 13 months.”

Report findings

  • U.S. foreclosure starts were down 11 percent from the previous month and down 28 percent from a year ago to the lowest level since June 2006 -- a 79-month low.
  • U.S. bank repossessions (REO) decreased 5 percent from the previous month and were down 24 percent from January 2012 to the lowest level since February 2008.
  • Scheduled foreclosure auctions increased from the previous month in 26 states and the District of Columbia, hitting 12-month or more highs in several key judicial foreclosure states, including Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, although foreclosure starts were down on a year-over-year basis in Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
  • Some of the biggest year-over-year increases in foreclosure starts came in non-judicial foreclosure states where legislation or court rulings stalled foreclosure actions last year: Arkansas (539 percent increase), Washington (179 percent increase), and Nevada (87 percent increase).
  • Florida posted the nation’s highest state foreclosure rate for the fifth month in a row in January, and also had the highest number of properties with foreclosure filings for the month, marking the first month since January 2007 that California has not had the highest number of properties with foreclosure filings.

Highest state foreclosure rates

The Florida foreclosure rate ranked highest among the states for the fifth month in a row. One in every 300 Florida housing units had a foreclosure filing in January -- more than twice the national average. A total of 29,800 Florida properties had a foreclosure filing during the month, up 12 percent from the previous month and up 20 percent from January 2012.

With one in every 344 housing units with a foreclosure filing in January, Nevada posted the nation’s second highest foreclosure rate for the fourth consecutive month. Overall Nevada foreclosure activity decreased 43 percent from a year ago, but foreclosure starts (NODs) increased 19 percent from the previous month and were up 87 percent from January 2012 to a 16-month high.

A 32 percent month-over-month jump in scheduled foreclosure auctions helped the Illinois foreclosure rate rise to third highest among the states in January. One in every 375 Illinois housing units had a foreclosure filing during the month.

Other states with foreclosure rates among the nation’s 10 highest were Arizona (one in 501 housing units with a foreclosure filing), Georgia (one in 513 housing units), Ohio (one in 612 housing units), Washington (one in 674 housing units), California (one in 753 housing units), Indiana (one in 784 housing units), and Michigan (one in every 837 housing units).

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Breaking up with your bank

Consumers to banks: 'It's not me, it's you'

If bank relationships were like romantic relationships, divorce lawyers would stay pretty busy – at least, busier than they already are.A survey by...

PhotoIf bank relationships were like romantic relationships, divorce lawyers would stay pretty busy – at least, busier than they already are.

A survey by McGraw-Hill Credit Union shows over 70% of consumers would like to break up with their bank. Fees rank as the top reason, but it turns out there are a lot of irreconcilable differences.

Claire, of Sacramento, Calif., says she recently broke up with Bank of America.

Bank of America  Feb. 13, 2013, 3 p.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America
“They have been nothing but a nightmare,” Claire wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Customer service is the worst you'll experience. They do not care about you and you will go in debt with all their wonderful overdraft fees. Their supervisors talk over you and give you plenty of attitude trying to prove their point and does not give you any options to help your situation. I'm never banking with them again.”

While fees are a big source of friction, many consumers, like Meghan, of Germantown, N.Y., are unhappy with the level of customer service they receive.

I don't even know you anymore

Chase customer service by phone is horrid,” Meghan wrote in her post. “I've spent hours trying to fix an error made between Chase credit card and Chase checking account. Chase phone service appears to be outsourced, and it is difficult to understand customer service agents. They also have a difficult time understanding the customer.

Chase Bank Feb. 13, 2013, 3 p.m.
Consumers rate Chase Bank
"Furthermore, Chase has a large number of fines with little forgiveness. For a little guy without much monetary clout, Chase is difficult to work with. I want a bank that will work with me to develop my monetary resources, not fine me and charge me at every opportunity.”

Megham did say she likes Chase's website and phone app, but she says it's not enough to keep her in what she considers a bad relationship. She thinks they'll be sorry one day.

“While I have little financial resources now, I am finishing my Ph.D. and my income will be increasing dramatically,” she wrote. “But Chase is likely about to lose me as a customer.”

Bad breakup

Felix, of West Covina, Calif., said he closed his checking and savings accounts with Citibank because they discontinued free checking. But the breakup didn't go well.

Citibank Feb. 13, 2013, 3:01 p.m.
Consumers rate Citibank
“I stopped using it and closed it on the phone, but I got a letter stating it was not closed and in fact I owed over $100 in fees,” Felix wrote at ConsumerAffairs. “I am now trying to pay the fees and buy a house. Citibank is stating that they can't find the account, but it's still showing up on my credit history. On top of that, I have tried to call at least 4 times in the past 3 days and I get left on hold, hung up on, or they tell me to call back during hours. I do call during working hours but they are too incompetent to complete this transaction properly.”

McGraw-Hill Credit Union is a competitor to banks, of course, but says there's no mistaking consumer angst when it comes to their bank relationships. Thirty-six percent of those surveyed likened dealing with their bank to interacting with their in-laws – in-laws they don't particularly like.

The cable guy, IRS and the dentist

PhotoOver 25% of women surveyed selected “I Can’t Make You Love Me” as the song that best described how they feel about their bank. When asked to compare dealing with their bank to unpleasant or onerous interactions, 30% of respondents liken it to “dealing with the cable guy,” 25% compared banks to the IRS and 23% said dealing with banks was like going to the dentist. Ouch.

Seventy-three percent of respondents ages 18 to 29 are interested in learning about a new banking option. Quite naturally, credit unions are eager to become new suitors.

“Credit Unions can provide consumers a caring, healthy financial relationship,” said Shawn Gilfedder, McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union President and CEO. “We are passionate about teaming customized solutions with expansive financial education resources to deliver a lifetime of wellness.”

Credit unions are member-owned and do not have stockholders, and often that is enough of a difference to make teaming up with them more affordable and less of a hassle. Credit unions also says they can credit unions offer a viable financial wellness alternative steeped in financial education and literacy, minimal fees, and better rates on loan and deposit products.

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SARS-like virus may have spread through personal contact

British officials say the latest patient is a family member of another victim

British health officials say a "novel" SARS-like coronavirus may be sprading through person-to-person contact. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) toda...

PhotoBritish health officials say a SARS-like coronavirus may be spreading through person-to-person contact. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) today said it has confirmed the illness in the U.K.'s third victim, who is a relative of an earlier patient infected with the virus.

Previously, all of those infected had traveled to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Pakistan, but that's not the case with Patient No. 11, who is in intensive care at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. 

"Confirmed novel coronavirus infection in a person without travel history to the Middle East suggests that person-to-person transmission has occurred, and that it occurred in the UK," said Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA. "This case is a family member who was in close personal contact with the earlier case."

Watson said Patient No. 11 has an underlying health condition and who may have been at greater risk of acquiring an infection.

“To date, evidence of person-to-person transmission has been limited. Although this case provides strong evidence for person to person transmission, the risk of infection in most circumstances is still considered to be very low," Watson said. "If novel coronavirus were more infectious, we would have expected to have seen a larger number of cases than we have seen since the first case was reported three months ago. However, this new development does justify, the measures that were immediately put into place to prevent any further spread of infection and to identify and follow up contacts of known cases."

Watson said the risk associated with the virus in the general population was "very low" but said the HPA would continue to monitor the situation.

In the U.S., Michael Osterholm, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota, warned the virus could be adapting into a more transmissible form, according to an Associated Press report.

"At any moment the fire hydrant of human-to-human transmission cases could open," he said. "This is definitely a 'stay tuned' moment." 

Coronaviruses and SARS

Coronaviruses are causes of the common cold but can also include more severe illness, such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

This new coronavirus was first identified in September 2012 in a patient who died from a severe respiratory infection in June 2012. The virus has so far only been identified in a small number of cases of acute, serious respiratory illness who presented with fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties.

SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia before the SARS global outbreak of 2003 was contained.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died. In the United States, only eight people had laboratory evidence of SARS-CoV infection. All of these people had traveled to other parts of the world

with SARS and no person-to-person spreading of the disease was found in the U.S.

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Gadgets under $50 for parents with newborns and toddlers

Sure you'll need strollers and playpens, but these items can be just as useful

For many, the nine months of pregnancy can be an anticipatory blur, and during that time Mom and Dad will do everything in their power to make sure the bab...

PhotoFor many, the nine months of pregnancy can be an anticipatory blur, and during that time Mom and Dad will do everything in their power to make sure the baby’s room is complete, they have an overstock of baby products and they have everything that’s needed to make their new roles as parents  successful.

And when it comes to deciding what the baby will need, most will go the traditional route and first buy the usual things like strollers, cradles and playpens. Others who may be a little more into gadgetry may purchase the newest and latest electronics to help them take care of their little ones.

Like the Squirt Baby Food Dispensing Spoon that allows parents to feed their babies without the use of a jar, as the baby food is placed in the spoons’ handle and is released as the adult squeezes it.

The Squirt is also said to be safe because no matter how much you squeeze it, it only dispenses one bite of food at a time, and with parents being able to feed their child with only one hand, it will allow them to use the other hand to do other things like wipe the baby’s mouth.

The spoon also holds three ounces of baby food at a time and is designed for children as young as four months. The company that made the Squirt spoon also says it's dishwasher safe and completely BPA-free.

You can purchase the Squirt at many popular retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond  for about $8 and it’s supposed to make meal time for your baby a lot less messy, and the bright colors and toy look of the spoon may provide a bit of entertainment for your baby.

It also comes with a storage cap so the food in the body of the spoon can be stored for later use.

iPotty

Another product that’s bound to make the life of new parents a little easier, but will also provide some fun for your baby is the digital iPotty, made by the company CTA digital.

PhotoUpon first glance the iPotty looks very unusual as its part training potty  and part computer work station, but the idea here is to entertain your child while they‘re learning to use the bathroom by themselves, which is supposed to make things a lot easier.

The potty itself is attached to a stand that’s supposed to hold your iPad safely in place, so kids can use apps or play games while they’re learning the fine art of toilet usage.

It also comes with a protective screen cover so your device doesn’t become messy or damaged and the stand will rotate 360 degrees, which allows your baby to use the iPad either horizontally or vertically.

You can also remove the potty part of the contraption so it can be used as a chair and gaming station that your child will probably use for hours on end if you allow them to

The digital iPotty is sold for 39.99 on Amazon, but won’t be available until March 1, 2013.

Sound Sleeper

Then there’s the Dex Baby Sound Sleeper, which was made to help keep your baby asleep by releasing a collection of peaceful sounds.

PhotoIn all, the electronic device has about 34 different sounds and creates noises your baby will be accustomed to like the sounds made inside of a mother’s womb, and it also has a timer so you’re able to program how long you want the noises to run.

In addition, the Sound Sleeper is supposed to keep baby sleeping longer, so parents are able to get their rest and it also comes with a  volume control so the noises can be contained to a specific area.

The device can also be used to block out other sounds in the house that may keep your baby awake, so other occupants of the home don’t have to tiptoe or whisper while the baby is snoozing.

Babies 'R' Us sells the Sound Sleeper for a little under $30, which is a pretty good buy when you think of the potential benefits it offers.

Keep It Kleen

This next product is only $3.95 on the site Babyearth.com and it’s a pacifier that stays clean when it’s dropped. After all, most babies only keep pacifiers in their mouths for about 50 percent of the time.

PhotoThe Keep-it-Kleen pacifier is made by the company Razbaby and comes with a specially designed shield that will close up around the pacifier whenever it’s dropped on the floor, so the rubbery nipple part stays protected which can lessen the chance of your child ingesting dirt, dust or excess germs.

The nipple of pacifier is made from a material called Silicone Orthodontic, and is recommended for children up to 36 months of age.

Plus, the general Internet feedback on the Keep-it-Kleen is really good, as most say the protective shield works without fail whenever the pacifier is dropped, no matter how many times it happens.

The pacifiers come in 15 different styles, all having cute little characters like Adam Airplane or Bobby Bear so your baby can also use it like a toy, which they probably will.  

Look, there will be a lot of items your baby will need that will run you a lot of cash, whether it's baby room furniture or the continuous amount of diapers that you’ll need until they master that digital potty, but at least not all of the products you’ll need to buy will damage your wallet, because you’ll have the rest of your child’s life to get that opportunity.

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Poll shows Amazon is the most respected company

Amazon ousted Apple from the top spot this year

Amazon still remains one of the most well-liked companies doing business today, according to the 14th annual Harris Poll RQ Study that ranks different comp...

PhotoAmazon has edged out Apple in this year's Harris Poll Reputation Quotient Study. Whole Foods also got high marks.

According to the poll, Amazon ranked highly for having the best products and services, which is impressive for an Internet company that doesn’t have any physical locations, but those who worked on the poll say Amazon has done a stellar job of building trust among consumers and having a strong reputation overall.

“Our results show that Amazon has managed to build an intimate relationship with the public without being perceived as intrusive and we characterize this year’s overall findings as the great muddling of corporate America,” says Robert Fronk, Executive Vice President of Reputation Management at Harris Interactive.

Amazon.com Feb. 13, 2013, 4:08 p.m.
Consumers rate Amazon.com

Some of our readers have also expressed how much they like using Amazon like Sarah of Tulsa, Okla., who said she has been pleased with how easy the site is to use for finding new books, especially since she’s been using her iPad lately to do much of her reading.

“I have been purchasing books for my iPad on Amazon via the Kindle app for 2 years and have never had a bad experience,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs posting. “It’s easy to find any book I want in an Amazon search. Most books are available for Kindle and the one click purchasing process is so easy. I have it delivered directly to my iPad and within one minute of deciding that I need to read a book, I am reading it on my iPad.”

Amazon beat out Apple for the best overall reputation score, and closing out the top five in that category were the Walt Disney Company, Google and Johnson & Johnson.

Amazon didn’t only win in the reputation category and for its products and services, but it also scored the highest when it came to having that emotional appeal that consumers sometimes look for -- whether it’s satisfying a customer’s humorous side or selling items that cater to the love a person has for their family.

The other dimensions that the Harris Poll used to determine a company’s reputation included its level of social responsibility (Whole Foods) financial performance as well as vision and leadership (Apple) and best workplace environment (Google).

Amazon along with Google and Apple also scored high in categories like outperforming competition, being the most trustworthy and the most respected among consumers.

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Implementation plan for new mortgage rules spelled out

Protection from irresponsible lending and costly surprises and runarounds are included

We now have a better idea of how the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will implement a plan to make sure the mortgage industry complies with new...

PhotoWe now have a better idea of how the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will implement a plan to make sure the mortgage industry complies with new consumer protections that go into effect in January 2014.

“Our plan is to work with the mortgage industry to ensure that the CFPB’s new rules are implemented accurately and expeditiously,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Both consumers and industry will win when the new rules are understood, applied, and carried out evenly and effectively. Mortgage borrowers, who have dealt with much heartache since the financial crisis, deserve this level of attentiveness.”

Variety of consumer protections

Among the new mortgage rules is the Ability-to-Repay rule. It's designed to protect consumers from irresponsible mortgage lending by requiring that lenders make a reasonable, good faith determination that prospective borrowers have the ability to repay their mortgage.

The rule also protects borrowers from risky lending practices, such as underwriting loans based only on low introductory “teaser” interest rates, which contributed to many homeowners ending up in delinquency and foreclosure after the 2008 housing collapse.

New mortgage servicing rules designed to protect borrowers from costly surprises and runarounds were also announced. These rules establish new, strong protections for all homeowners. Other new rules address appraisals, escrow accounts, protections for high-cost mortgages, and compensation and qualifications for loan originators.

Ensuring borrower protections

In an effort to support rule implementation and ensure industry is ready for the new borrower protections, the CFPB will:

  • Coordinate with other agencies: The CFPB is coordinating with other federal government regulators that also conduct examinations of mortgage companies to ensure all regulators have a shared understanding of the CFPB’s new rules. This will help promote a consistent regulatory experience for industry.
  • Publish plain-language guides: The CFPB will publish what it believes are “easy-to-understand” summaries of the regulations in both written and video form. The guides, available in the spring, will -- according to the agency -- be particularly helpful to smaller businesses with limited staff for compliance.
  • Publish updates to the official interpretations: Over the next year, the CFPB plans to issue updates of the “official interpretations,” which provide guidance on how to comply with the rules. These updates will allow the CFPB to address important questions raised by industry, consumer groups, or other agencies. Priority for these updates will be given to issues that are important to a large number of providers or consumers, and that critically affect mortgage companies’ implementation decisions. The Bureau expects to issue the first one in the spring and issue additional updates, as needed.
  • Publish readiness guides: These guides, available this summer, will help mortgage originators and servicers prepare to comply with the new rules by giving them helpful check-lists, such as suggesting that implementation plans include items like revising policies and procedures and finalizing training plans for staff. More in-depth examination procedures are expected to be published later this year by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council. Industry members will be able to use these examination procedures to conduct self-assessments and internal reviews of their readiness and compliance.
  • Educate consumers: As the January 2014 date approaches, the CFPB will give consumers information about their new protections under these rules through a broad-reaching consumer education campaign.
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People at risk of diabetes should better understand the disease

Diabetes is on the rise, along with obesity, but many Americans don't know much about it

Diabetes is becoming a more common disease in the U.S. but one that remains little understood by those most at risk.An estimated 26 million U.S. children...

PhotoDiabetes is becoming a more common disease in the U.S. but one that remains little understood by those most at risk.

An estimated 26 million U.S. children and adults have either diabetes 1 or 2 and another 79 million have what is known as “prediabetes,” meaning they are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the body does not produce insulin. It usually develops in children or young adults and is nowhere near as common as type 2, comprising only 10% of all U.S. diabetes cases. Type 1 is primarily genetic, meaning it's not related to lifestyle.

Type 2 diabetes usually develops from lifestyle factors, such as poor diet and excessive weight. It's similar to type 1 in that insulin levels are out of control. The result is excessive levels of blood sugar.

Managing type 2 diabetes

Some people may be able to control type 2 diabetes symptoms by losing weight, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and monitoring their blood glucose levels. But it's usually a progressive disease and the patient will probably have to take insulin to treat it.

Because of America's obesity epidemic, type 2 diabetes is growing at an alarming rate. A late 2012 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 18 U.S. states saw diabetes cases increase more than 100% from 1995 to 2010.

The report, appearing in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that states with the largest increases are Oklahoma (226 percent), Kentucky (158 percent), Georgia (145 percent), Alabama (140 percent), and Washington (135 percent).

"Regionally, we saw the largest increase in diagnosed diabetes prevalence in the South, followed by the West, Midwest, and Northeast," said Linda Geiss, a statistician with CDC's Division of Diabetes Translation and lead author of the report. "These data also reinforce findings from previous studies, which indicate that the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes is highest in the southern and Appalachian states."

Extremely serious

Undiagnosed, diabetes is extremely serious. Those with the disease can lose limbs and their eyesight and they can die from its complications.

How do you know if you have it? Being obese or overweight is a major risk factor. Having a lot of visceral fat, also known as central obesity or belly fat, is a risk multiplier, causing the body to release chemicals that can play havoc with the body's cardiovascular and metabolic systems.

The risk also increases as a person ages, though experts aren't sure why.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), symptoms of diabetes include blurry vision, excessive thirst, fatigue, hunger, frequent urination and unexplained weight loss.

Because type 2 diabetes develops slowly, some people with high blood sugar have no symptoms.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes develop over a shorter period of time. People may be very sick by the time they are diagnosed.

Diagnostic tests

A urine test may reveal elevated blood sugar levels but by itself does not diagnose diabetes. Measuring blood sugar levels after fasting is a much more reliable method.

According to NIH, diabetes is diagnosed if the fasting blood glucose level is higher than 126 mg/dL twice. Levels between 100 and 126 mg/dL are called impaired fasting glucose or pre-diabetes. These levels are risk factors for type 2 diabetes.

Once diagnosed, a patient will need to measure their blood sugar daily using a glucose meter.

“Many patients will need to test 6-8 times per day, but some will need to test more, depending upon their activity level, how often they eat and what other types of activities their day may include,” said Carol Wysham, MD, section head for the Rockwood Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology. “It is not reasonable or practical to set a specific number for all people with diabetes who are on intensive insulin regimens, as no two people’s lives are the same. Even for the same individual, no two days are exactly alike. A person may need to test six times one day and 10 the next.”

Possible new treatment

While diabetes is normally treated with insulin, University of Michigan (U-M) researchers have found that amlexanox, an off-patent drug currently prescribed for the treatment of asthma and other uses, also reverses obesity, diabetes and fatty liver in mice.

“One of the reasons that diets are so ineffective in producing weight loss for some people is that their bodies adjust to the reduced calories by also reducing their metabolism, so that they are ‘defending’ their body weight,” said researcher Alan Saltiel. “Amlexanox seems to tweak the metabolic response to excessive calorie storage in mice.”

Saltiel is teaming up with clinical-trial specialists at U-M to test whether amlexanox will be useful for treating obesity and diabetes in humans.

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Slacker slinks onto the music streaming stage

More competition for Pandora, Spotify, MOG, etc.

There used to be about 10,000 actual, over-the-air radio stations. It seemed like a lot. But, although as far as we know no one is counting, the number of ...

PhotoThere used to be about 10,000 actual, over-the-air radio stations. It seemed like a lot. But, although as far as we know no one is counting, the number of virtual stations has surely left the old figure in the dust.

The latest is something called Slacker, which says that it has just launched "the world’s most complete music service for the Web, mobile devices and a range of automotive and consumer electronics platforms."

“Slacker is the most complete music service on earth, with 10 times the music of Pandora, expert-programmed stations Spotify can’t touch, and personalization that satellite services only dream of,” said Jim Cady, CEO, Slacker. “We’ve quietly built a scaleable business with more than a half-million paying subscribers and more than four million monthly average users.  2013 will be a blockbuster year for Slacker as we ramp up our marketing efforts and take the service to a broader audience.” 

Yeah, so ...

PhotoOK, so how does it differ from Pandora, Spotify, MOG and all the other streaming and on-demand music services? Well, we're not sure. It sounds pretty similar but to hear Slacker tell it, the world's never heard anything like this. 

"The new Slacker gives listeners anytime, anywhere access to millions of songs and hundreds of expert-programmed stations for free on any device.  Slacker also raises the bar for music discovery, highlighting stations, personalized picks and exclusive content from Slacker’s team of expert curators," the company enthused. 

Slacker, available at www.slacker.com, works from the web or you can  download the app for iOS, Android, Windows Phones and Blackberry devices.

Slacker claims to offer more than 13 million songs and offers customization tools that even extend to news, sports and talk from ABC and ESPN. It has more than 200 genre and specialty stations.

There is a free version of Slacker. A commercial-free version of Slacker Radio Plus is $3.99 a month. The Slacker Premium service includes on-demand listening and the ability to create custom playlists for $9.99 a month. 

Although it was founded back in 2006 as a satellite radio company, Slacker has been slumping along under the radar for quite awhile. It became a digital music service in 2010 and says it has doubled its business every year.  

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Lexus, Porsche, Toyota, Lincoln top J.D. Power dependability rankings

Land Rover, Dodge, Mitsubishi, Jeep, VW, Jaguar don't do so well

Lexus, Porsche, Toyota and Lincoln took top honors in this year's J.D Power and Associates vehicle dependability study, while Land Rover brought up the rea...

PhotoLexus, Porsche, Toyota and Lincoln took top honors in this year's J.D Power and Associates vehicle dependability study, while Land Rover brought up the rear, its owners reporting problems at three times the rate of Lexus drivers.

Other top scorers included Buick, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Acura. Dodge was second worst, followed by Mitsubishi. Jeep, Volkswagen and Jaguar also scored poorly.

The study found that overall, cars are becoming more reliable. In particular, it found that new or substantially redesigned models had fewer problems than "carryover" models, the first time that's happened.

"There is a perception that all-new models, or models that undergo a major redesign, are more problematic than carryover models," said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates. "Data from the 2013 [survey] suggests that this is not the case. The rapid improvement in fundamental vehicle dependability each year is more than offsetting any initial glitches that all-new or redesigned models may have."

More confidence

Land Rover Feb. 13, 2013, 6:09 p.m.
Consumers rate Land Rover

Sargent said that finding should also give consumers more confidence when they're shopping for a relatively new used car, or an off-lease model. 

"The continuous improvement in long-term dependability means consumers should have more confidence in three-year-old vehicles, whether they are keeping their current vehicle or shopping for a used car, truck, crossover or SUV," said Sargent. "This means there are a lot of dependable off-lease vehicles in the used-vehicle market. It also means that owners who keep their vehicle beyond the manufacturer's warranty period are able to have greater peace of mind that vehicles are becoming increasingly more dependable."

The study measures the number of problems owners have experienced over the last 12 months in cars purchased during the 2010 model year.

Overall, the cars experienced an average of 126 problems per hundred vehicles. That was a decline from 132 the previous model year and the lowest average since J.D. Power launched the study in 1989.

Highest-ranked

Lexus ranks highest in vehicle dependability among all nameplates for a second consecutive year. Among models, the Lexus RX has the fewest reported problems in the industry. This is the first time in the history of the VDS that a crossover or SUV has achieved this distinction. Rounding out the five highest-ranked nameplates are Porsche, Lincoln, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz. Chrysler Group LLC's Ram brand posts the greatest year-over-year improvement from 2012.

Toyota Motor Corporation continues to perform well in long-term dependability and earns seven segment awards--more than any other automaker in 2013--for the Lexus ES 350; Lexus RX; Scion xB; Scion xD; Toyota Prius; Toyota Sienna; and Toyota RAV4.

General Motors receives four segment awards for the Buick Lucerne; Chevrolet Camaro; Chevrolet Tahoe; and GMC Sierra HD. American Honda Motor Corp., Inc., receives two model-level awards for the Acura RDX and Honda Crosstour. The Audi A6, Ford Ranger, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda MX-5 Miata, and Nissan Z also receive segment awards.

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You'll never guess the top trending health issue when people go Web surfing

But apparently it's a big enough concern that a lot of people want information

Admit it. When you go Googling, you probably Google yourself. And, if you have health concerns, you probably search for information on things like weight l...

PhotoAdmit it. When you go Googling, you probably Google yourself. And, if you have health concerns, you may search for information on things like weight loss and skin problems. 

But -- and this may surprise you -- in Google's annual roundup of popular search terms, hemorrhoids was the top trending health issue in the United States for 2012. (The "top trending health issue" means that more people searched Google for information on hemorrhoids than on any other health topic.).

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), these swollen and inflamed veins in the lower part of the rectum or anus affect 75 percent of people at some point in their lives. Hemorrhoids are most common in adults ages 45 to 65, and particularly for women during pregnancy and after childbirth. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are also contributors.

What causes hemorrhoids? How are they treated? Are there things you can do to keep from having hemorrhoids yourself?

Causes and symptoms

For the most part, hemorrhoids are caused by increased pressure in the veins of the anus. There are two kinds of hemorrhoids: internal (not covered by skin), which form inside the rectum, and external (covered by skin), located near the anal opening.

"You often can't see or feel the internal ones," says Food and Drug Administration (FDA) medical officer Herbert Lerner, M.D., a colon-rectal surgeon. "But straining during bowel movements and constipation can cause these hemorrhoids to bleed and occasionally push through the anal opening."

This is known as a protruding or prolapsed hemorrhoid, and it causes pain or irritation.

Sometimes blood pools in an external hemorrhoid and forms a clot, Lerner says, which can result in severe pain, swelling and inflammation. If the blood is dark red or black, you should call your health care professional, as it can be a sign of something more serious, he cautions.

Common symptoms of hemorrhoids include:

  • itching and pain (especially when sitting);
  • bright red blood on toilet tissue, stool, or in the toilet bowl;
  • pain during bowel movements; and
  • one or more hard, sore lumps near the anus.

Treating hemorrhoids

There are a number of over-the-counter creams and other products that are available to patients with hemorrhoids. "These products may help you feel more comfortable," Lerner says, "but they won't get rid of the underlying hemorrhoids, such as internal hemorrhoids, that commonly cause bleeding."

According to FDA gastroenterologist Rajat Malik, M.D., other ways to relieve mild symptoms may include soaking regularly for 10 to 15 minutes in a warm bath, and using wet toilet paper after a bowel movement.

"With these measures, mild symptoms should decrease in two to seven days," Malik says "If your symptoms don't improve with these home treatments, and certainly if they get worse, it's time to talk to your health care provider."

If the hemorrhoid is thrombosed (there is a blood clot), your physician may decide to remove the clot with a small incision, Lerner explains. "You can do this under local anesthesia and as an outpatient," he says. "I've had a lot of uncomfortable, unhappy patients walk into my office with a thrombosis, and then leave happy after it's been excised."

Other procedures include ligation (cutting off the hemorrhoid's blood supply with a rubber band), sclerotherapy (the injection of a chemical solution into the hemorrhoid tissue to shrink it), and coagulation, which uses a laser or infrared light to harden and shrink hemorrhoids. "FDA is responsible for reviewing the devices used in both ligation and coagulation," Lerner says.

Large hemorrhoids may not be able to be treated with less invasive procedures such as ligation and sclerothapy, and may require surgery, known as a hemorrhoidectomy.

Preventing hemorrhoids

Of course with hemorrhoids, as with so many other ailments, prevention is key, Malik says. For the most part, the best way to prevent hemorrhoids is to keep your stools soft, so they pass easily. Some ways to do this are:

  • eating foods high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains;
  • drinking plenty of fluids;
  • exercising and not sitting for long periods of time;
  • using stool softeners; and
  • using fiber supplements.

Asked if he believes most people would rather search anonymously online for information about hemorrhoids than ask their doctors, Lerner says not necessarily. "Most people came to see me not because of the hemorrhoid itself, but because of the bleeding associated with it.

"By the time they came to see me, they were usually pretty uncomfortable," he adds. "They were more than happy to talk about hemorrhoids if it meant getting some relief."

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There's now a pretty good chance that your airline baggage will end up where you are

The mishandled airline baggage rate hits lowest point in 18 years in 2012

According to the the U.S. Transportation Department's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, the nation’s largest airlines had their lowest rate of mishandled b...

PhotoMore suitcases are showing up at the same airports as their owners

According to the the U.S. Transportation Department's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, the nation’s largest airlines had their lowest rate of mishandled baggage for a year during 2012. The carriers also set high marks for on-time performance, the fewest long tarmac delays and a low rate of canceled flights.

The reporting carriers posted a rate of 3.09 reports of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers -- an improvement on 2011’s rate of 3.35 and their lowest rate of mishandled baggage for a year since these data were first reported in September 1987.

Improved on-time performance

The 15 largest U.S. airlines also posted an 81.85 percent on-time arrival rate during 2012, the third highest annual performance in the 18 years DOT has collected comparable data. The high was 82.14 percent in 2002, followed by 81.96 in 2003. The 1.29 percent cancellation rate for the year also was the second lowest rate for the past 18 years, with the lowest being the 1.24 percent mark set in 2002.

In addition, there were 42 tarmac delays longer than three hours on U.S. domestic flights in 2012 – eight fewer than in 2011, which was the first full year the rule limiting tarmac delays was in effect. This follows the DOT rule, which took effect in April 2010, setting a three-hour limit for aircraft carrying passengers on domestic flights to sit on the tarmac. Exceptions to the time limits are allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons.

Between May 2009 and April 2010, the final 12 months before the rule took effect, the carriers reported 693 tarmac delays of more than three hours. Since August 2011, U.S. and foreign airlines operating international flights at U.S. airports have been subject to a four-hour tarmac delay limit.

“This remarkable decrease in flight delays, tarmac incidents, cancellations and mishandled bags is a tribute both to the hard work of the airlines and the Department of Transportation’s oversight of the aviation industry,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We will continue to work with the carriers to make air travel more convenient and hassle-free for consumers.”

December data

The monthly Air Travel Consumer Report for December also includes the following data:

On-time performance

  • The reporting carriers posted an on-time arrival rate in December of 76.6 percent, compared with December 2011’s 84.4 percent mark and November 2012’s 85.7 percent.

Tarmac delays

  • Airlines reported 16 tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and one tarmac delay of more than four hours on international flights in December. Fourteen of the domestic tarmac delays took place on Dec. 25 at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport where a snow and ice storm affected the area that day.

Cancellations

  • The reporting carriers canceled 1.6 percent of their scheduled domestic flights in December. In December of 2011, the cancellation rate was 0,8 percent and November 2012’s cancellation rate was 1.0 percent.

Chronically delayed flights

  • At the end of December, there was one flight that was chronically delayed -- more than 30 minutes late more than 50 percent of the time -- for two consecutive months. No flights were chronically delayed for three consecutive months or more.

Causes of flight delays

  • In December, the carriers filing on-time performance data reported that 6.19 percent of their flights were delayed by aviation system delays, compared with 3.68 percent in November; 8.55 percent by late-arriving aircraft, versus 4.89 percent in November; 6.21 percent by factors within the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems, compared with 4.27 percent in November; 0.59 percent by extreme weather, as opposed to 0.22 percent in November; and 0.05 percent for security reasons, versus 0.02 percent in November. Weather is a factor in both the extreme-weather category and the aviation-system category. This includes delays due to the re-routing of flights by the Federal Aviation Administration in consultation with the carriers involved. Weather is also a factor in delays attributed to late-arriving aircraft, although airlines do not report specific causes in that category.
  • Data collected by BTS also show the percentage of late flights delayed by weather, including those reported in either the category of extreme weather or included in National Aviation System delays. In December, 32.81 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, down 5.17 percent from December 2011, when 34.60 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, and up 29.43 percent from November when 25.35 percent of late flights were delayed by weather.

Mishandled baggage

  • The U.S. carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 4.15 reports per 1,000 passengers in December, compared with December 2011’s rate of 3.22 and November 2012’s rate of 2.64.

Bumping

  • The report also includes airline reports of involuntary denied boarding, or bumping, for calendar year 2012 and the fourth quarter of last year. The carriers posted a bumping rate of 0.99 per 10,000 passengers last year, versus the 0.77 rate posted in 2011. For the fourth quarter of last year, the carriers posted a bumping rate of 1.00 per 10,000 passengers; the rate was 0.65 for the fourth quarter of 2011.

Incidents involving pets

  • In December, carriers reported five incidents involving the loss, death or injury of pets while traveling by air the same as in December 2011. There was one report in November 2012. December’s incidents involved one pet death and four pet injuries. For all of last year, carriers reported 30 pet deaths, 27 pet injuries, and one lost pet. In 2011, carriers reported 35 pet deaths, nine pet injuries, and two lost pets.

Complaints about airline service

  • In December, DOT received 901 complaints about airline service from consumers, up 26.7 percent from the 711 complaints received in December 2011, and down 8.7 percent from the total of 987 filed in November 2012. For all of last year, there were15,335 complaints, 32.8 percent more than the 11,546 complaints received in 2011.

Complaints about treatment of disabled passengers

  • The report also contains a tabulation of complaints filed with DOT in December against airlines regarding the treatment of passengers with disabilities. There was a total of 35 disability-related complaints in December 2012, compared with 59 disability in December 2011 and 55 in November 2012. For all of last year, DOT received 743 disability complaints, up 18.3 percent from the total of 628 received in 2011.

Complaints about discrimination

  • In December, there were three complaints alleging discrimination by airlines due to factors other than disability -- such as race, religion, national origin or sex – compared with down a total of seven filed in both December 2011 and in November 2012. For all of last year, the DOT received 99 discrimination complaints, down 22.7 percent from the total of 128 filed in 2011.

Consumers may file their complaints in writing with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, C-75, W96-432, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20590; by voice mail at (202) 366-2220 or by TTY at (202) 366-0511; or on the Web.

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What's up with Netflix streaming problems?

It's the hands-down leader in streaming but service complaints are increasing

OK, so give Netflix credit -- it pioneered DVD movie rentals by mail, then morphed itself into the top video-streaming service, it's adding original conten...

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Is Hollywood helping or hurting in the battle against identity theft?

The new movie Identity Thief might bring welcome exposure to a serious issue

Identity theft is serious business. But that hasn't stopped Hollywood from turning out a comedy with that as its central theme. In fact, it's the title of...

PhotoIdentity theft is serious business. But that hasn't stopped Hollywood from turning out a comedy with that as its central theme. In fact, it's the title of the movie.

Identity Thief opened in theaters Feb. 8 and was No. 1 at the box office its first weekend. It stars Jason Bateman as a businessman whose identity is stolen by a woman, played by Melissa McCarthy, who opens credit cards in his name and starts living it up. Unfortunately, that happens all the time in real life. And it's not as funny as it appears in the movie.

The movie attempts to play identity theft for laughs when Bateman's character turns vigilante and goes after the impostor, attempting to bring her to justice single-handedly. That kind of thing is rarely done and is definitely not advisable.

So, is a comedy about identity theft helpful or hurtful to the men and women who spend each day trying to help victims?

Embracing the exposure

“We're embracing the fact that the movie has brought exposure to this issue,” said Eva Casey Velasquez. President and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), in San Diego. “We would have preferred a more mainstream, realistic portrayal but we also realize the purpose of this movie is to make people laugh. Even though it's not a realistic picture, hopefully people who see it will think, maybe this is something I should be concerned about.”

The movie has received poor reviews, particularly among consumer advocates. Some point out a victim of identity theft should never bypass the police and go after the perpetrator themselves. On the other hand, the movie's very title highlights an issue that needs more awareness.

More than 11.6 million adults were victims of identity theft in 2011, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. Child identity theft is also a significant problem, which many people don't realize; 2.5 percent of U.S. households with children under age 18 have at least one child whose personal information has been compromised by identity criminals. Sadly, the perpetrators are often their parents.

In the federal fiscal year 2012, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Identity Protection Specialized Unit received 448,809 cases, up nearly 80 percent over the previous year.

Nine real life tips

Here are nine tips for avoiding identity theft that you won't see in the movie:

  1. Keep birth certificates, Social Security cards and other personal documents in a lockbox in your home. Make sure they are put away when someone is working in your home or even if you have a roommate.
  2. When disposing of documents, use a diagonal shredder, which makes documents harder to piece together than a traditional shredder does.
  3. Don't leave outgoing bills, government forms or tax forms in a mailbox. Take them directly to the post office.
  4. Have your mail held by the post office while on vacation.
  5. Don't put your driver's license number on your personal checks. Consider writing just your first initial and last name instead of your full name.
  6. Don't toss credit card receipts in public places.
  7. Install anti-virus software, anti-malware software and a firewall on your computer and keep them up to date. A tech-savvy identity thief can use a virus to get personal information from your computer without your knowing.
  8. Use unique passwords that are different for each website. 
  9. Don't put your birthdate or other sensitive information on your social media accounts, even just the month and day. A thief can figure out the year you were born by looking at your posts.

If you become a victim of identity theft, Velasquez says ITRC is a resource you should turn to. She says the call center is staffed Monday through Friday from 7am to 5pm PT. If you call 1 (888) 400-5530, she says you'll speak to a person, not a phone tree.


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Low-tech LEGO's popularity grows among high-tech kids

Even adults are fascinated by the colorful bricks, which can be used to build almost anything

Every youngster these days has a smartphone and is addicted to video games. At least that's the perception of the way kids grow up in the technology age....

PhotoEvery youngster these days has a smartphone and is addicted to video games. At least that's the perception of the way kids grow up in the technology age.

But for millions of children and their parents, a plastic toy that's been around since 1949 is the object of their obsession. LEGOs, consisting of brightly-colored interlocking bricks that can be used to build whatever you can imagine, are taking the country by storm, more popular now than they've ever been.

LEGO KidsFest, a traveling LEGO festival, sold out this weekend's Richmond, Va., show more than a week in advance – 30,000 tickets. The LEGO Facebook page has 3.9 million likes. 

Starting early

10-year-old Mason Heil of Charlotte, N.C., has been playing with LEGOs since he was three years old. He says the creative aspects of the toy were always a big draw. Now, it has social aspects as well.

“My friends are really into Minecraft so it's fun to share with them, and talk about different projects,” he said.

LEGO Minecraft is based on the popular Minecraft video game. The result is a toy that's in such demand it's hard to find in stock. The toy was impossible to find during the last holiday season and the LEGO website is currently limiting consumers to five sets per order.

Young Mason, meanwhile, says he is interested in becoming an engineer, perhaps in no small part due to LEGOs Minecraft.

“I can see something and then try to recreate it using LEGOs,” he said.

Despite what seems like overnight success, LEGO has been popular for decades. The company, a privately-held firm based in Denmark, actually dates back to 1932 when toymaker Ole Kirk Christiansen began making wooden toys.

By the mid 1950s LEGO saw the potential for a toy that was actually a system for creative play. The plastic brick design was perfected and then patented in 1959.

Smart marketing

While children loved playing with the colored bricks, the company continued to enhance the product to make it both more fun and creative. In the 1990s LEGO teamed with Lucasfilm to produce a Star Wars LEGO series. The kits contain Star Wars figures and building materials to construct space ships and bases.

PhotoAll the while LEGO stayed focused on creativity and the ways in which children played. As the technology revolution gained speed in the late 1990s, LEGO kept up. Some might say it set the pace, introducing LEGO Mindstorms in 1998.

With Mindstorms, LEGO made the leap to robotics. With a LEGO Mindstorms kit, you can build and program robots. The kit includes everything you need to build and program an intelligent LEGO robot, and make it perform different operations.

When Mindstorms first launched in 1998 it was regarded as the first real “smart toy.” Fifteen years later, LEGO has redesigned the toy to keep up with the kids who have grown up with technology. The audience for consumer robotics has grown considerably, leading the company to focus on simplifying the experience for a younger user while making it more flexible and powerful for hobbyists and other enthusiasts.

The Mindstorms system is powered by the new EV3 Intelligent Brick. It's stronger and faster with more memory and a larger processor. This latest generation of Mindstorm, introduced in January, no longer has to be controlled by a computer. It has expanded “on-brick programming” and tighter integration with smart devices.

Smarter robots

The company says a new infrared sensor will give builders more control over their robots than before, adding more personality to the robot as it follows the builder or other devices. New Linux-based firmware, a USB port and SD expansion slot will offer nearly unlimited programming and expansion capabilities. Additionally, LEGO Mindstorms EV3 will also include full iOS and Android compatibility out of the box.

Remember, this is a toy we're talking about.

PhotoThe kit comes with instructions for building 17 different robots such as “Everstorm” a Mohawk-sporting humanoid that shoots mini-spheres as it walks, “Spiker” a scorpion-like robot that searches for an IR beacon “bug” or “Reptar,” a robotic snake that slithers, shakes and strikes, all designed to excite and inspire children with the endless possibilities of consumer robotics.

“Fifteen years ago, we were among the first companies to help children use the power of technology to add life-like behaviors to their LEGO creations with the Mindstorms platform,” said Camilla Bottke, LEGO Mindstorms project lead at The Lego Group. “Now, we are equipping today’s tech-literate generation of children with a more accessible, yet sophisticated robotics kit that meets their tech play expectations and abilities to truly unleash their potential so that they may surprise, impress and excite the world with their creativity.”

That creativity has evolved over the years. Where children might have once been content to build LEGO houses, they now construct complext LEGO machines, as shown in the video below.

It's not just children who are big fans of LEGOs. Plenty of adults are as well. A number of artists use LEGOs as their medium, creating brick sculptures. They also have a business component.

LEGO Serious Play is a business productivity company that uses LEGOs to help members of an organization work together more productively. Corporate executives play with the bricks in games that have a serious purpose.

“The use of LEGO bricks simply enables you to take a speedy shortcut to the core,” the company says on its website. “The bricks work as a catalyst – and when used for building metaphors, they trigger processes that you were previously unaware of.”

The company says participants come away with skills to communicate more effectively, to engage their imaginations more readily, and to approach their work with increased confidence, commitment and insight.

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Are your kids taking dance classes? Learn how to prevent injuries

Dance-related injuries are more common than you may think, especially among children and teens

When it comes to helping a child build confidence, learn patience and think critically, the arts are a wonderful vehicle.Whether it’s learning...

PhotoWhen it comes to helping a child build confidence, learn patience and think critically, the arts are a wonderful vehicle.

Whether it’s learning an instrument, painting or taking a drama class, introducing children to their creative side and helping to cultivate that creativity is one of the greatest gifts you can give them as a parent.

Dance classes are great too, because there are very few areas of the arts that require as much discipline, repetitive training and focus as dancing--plus it's fun -- which is why ballet, tap, jazz, Hip-Hop and other forms of dance are very popular among parents and their children.

And when it comes to kids getting injured during an extracurricular activity, most people probably wouldn’t first think of dance as being a dangerous sport, but according to a study conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, dance-related injuries are up by 37 percent compared to years past.

The findings were determined after researchers examined children and teen dancers for a 17 year span, and according to Kristin Roberts, a senior research associate at the center, dance-related injuries just aren’t confined to bruises or soreness, a good portion of young dancers have to seek emergency room treatment.

17 years

“We looked at 17 years’ worth of data and found that over 113,000 children and teens sustained a dance-related injury that required a visit to the emergency department,” said Roberts in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

Photo
Kristin Roberts

“We also found that these injuries increased 37 percent over the study period. In 2007 alone, over 8,000 children and teens were treated for a dance-related injury in an emergency department. That is about 23 children every day or almost one child injury ever hour.”

The high amount of injuries should indicate just how many young people are taking dance classes today, either at private dance studios or at school as a part of their curriculum.  

According to statistics provided by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, there were over 6,000 private dance studios in the U.S. in 2006 and 3.5 million kids took dance classes at school, which not only shows how popular dance has become for young people to express themselves, get exercise and be social, but it also leads one to think that not all of these private studios and school dance classes are doing all they can to prevent injuries.

But Roberts says dance has always been a very well-liked form of the arts among parents and children and the increasing amount of dance shows on television may be a contributor to both the rise in dance class participation and the high number of injuries kids are receiving today.

Why the increase?

“Dance has always been a popular sport, although it is hard to tell why the number of dance-related injuries increased over our study period,” said Roberts.

Photo“We can speculate that the increase is likely due to a combination of factors including an increased interest and participation in dance. In recent years, dance-related television shows and video games have become more popular which may have caused and increase interest in an already popular sport.”

And what were the most common injuries among the dancers?

“Sprains and strains, which accounted for over 50 percent of the injuries and nearly 45 percent of the injuries occurred from a fall,” explained Roberts.

“Almost 60 percent of the injuries treated occurred to the lower extremities, which included injuries to the ankle (21 percent), knee (17 percent) and the foot (12 percent).”

Roberts also says that parents and young dancers should take the right preventive steps to lower the risk of injury, choosing not to be proactive and simply waiting for an injury to happen before thinking of dance safety is the wrong thing to do.

“We want to encourage children to keep dancing and exercising but it is important for dancers to take precautions to avoid injuries,” she says.

“Dancers should always stretch and focus on using proper technique. Staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest can also help a dancer avoid a dance-related injury.”

Older dancers

The 17-year research, which is published in the February 2013 edition of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, also revealed that a good portion of dance-related injuries were sustained by older dancers who spent longer amounts of time in classes than the younger ones, which suggests that parents of teen dancers should be especially on alert.

“We found that 4 out of 10 injured dancers were between 15 and 19 years of age,” said Roberts.

“We believe this age group was injured the most because as a dancer gets older they are also getting more advanced in their skills and spending more time training and practicing.”

And just like other sports injuries, a dance-related injury needs the proper time to heal, so trying to get better while also trying to keep on dancing is the wrong move to make.

Photo
Eric Leighton

So to understand how a person should properly heal, we also spoke to Eric Leighton, a certified athletic trainer for Nationwide Children’s Hospital,  who’s an expert at dance injuries and athletics among kids and adolescents.

“One of the most important things to first do when injured is manage the injury to prevent it from progressing,” said Leighton.

“Stop the activity immediately, apply ice to the painful or swollen area and provide support, which could be a splint or even crutches. If it is a foot, ankle, knee or hip injury that is painful with weight bearing, stay off of the affected limb, use crutches if available.”

Leighton also says dance injuries shouldn’t be self-diagnosed and one should get immediate medical attention, so proper healing can begin.

“Seek medical attention from an urgent care center, Emergency Department, your primary care physician or athletic trainer if available. Once the extent of the injury has been determined, then a plan for recovery and return to dance can be established.”

And once the injury is starting to feel better, parents shouldn’t allow their kids to start dancing immediately. They should wait until the proper amount of rehab is received, which is the only way to help prevent an injury from resurfacing in the future, which is very likely if a dancer is still young and plans to keep dancing for many years.

“Once the healing process has begun, it is important to reestablish the pre-injury condition of the injured body part,” Leighton explained.

“Rehabilitation with a skilled specialist is the best and safest way to get back to performing. As the healing progresses, the dancer may feel good and ready to dance, but there are often strength, flexibility, balance and control deficits that are not obvious until the dancer attempts to return to activity.”

“In order to prevent re-injury by returning too soon, these deficits are evaluated and addressed during a functional rehabilitation progression allowing them to return to the stage as they were before the injury, and often, even better.

"At their age, these young dancers have a potentially long career ahead of then, make sure that the injury is truly healed and ready to perform at its best,” said Leighton in closing. 

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Folic acid supplements lower risk of autism, study finds

Supplements taken around the time of conception may protect the developing infant

In a study that included approximately 85,000 Norwegian children, maternal use of supplemental folic...

PhotoThe incidence of autism has been growing at an alarming rate but the cause of the disorder has been unclear. However, a new study finds that folic acid supplements taken by the mother may provide some protection for the developing fetus.

The study, appearing in the February 13 issue of JAMA, included about  85,000 Norwegian children. It found that maternal use of supplemental folic acid from 4 weeks before to 8 weeks after the start of pregnancy was associated with a lower risk of autistic disorder in children.

The apparent benefit that was found in early pregnancy was not, however, present for folic acid use in mid-pregnancy.

“Our main finding was that maternal use of folic acid supplements around the time of conception was associated with a lower risk of autistic disorder," the researchers said. "This finding does not establish a causal relation between folic acid use and autistic disorder but provides a rationale for replicating the analyses in other study samples and further investigating genetic factors and other biological mechanisms that may explain the inverse association.” 

Folic acid supplementation has long been recommended for use around the time of conception because of evidence that it reduces the risk of neural tube defects in children.

This protective effect has led to mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid in several countries, and it is generally recommended that women planning to become pregnant take a daily supplement of folic acid starting one month before conception.

Study details 

Pal Surén, M.D., M.P.H., of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo, and colleagues conducted the stsudy, which used a sample of 85,176 children was derived from the population-based, prospective Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa).

A total of 270 children (0.32 percent) in the study sample have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): 114 (0.13 percent) with autistic disorder, 56 (0.07 percent) with Asperger syndrome, and 100 (0.12 percent) with pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

The researchers found that there was an inverse association between folic acid use and subsequent risk of autistic disorder. Autistic disorder was present in 0.10 percent (64/61,042) of children whose mothers took folic acid, compared with 0.21 percent (50/24,134) in children whose mothers did not take folic acid, representing a 39 percent lower odds of autistic disorder in children of folic acid users.

Characteristics of women who used folic acid within the exposure interval included being more likely to have college- or university-level education, to have planned the pregnancy, to be nonsmokers, to have a pre-pregnancy body mass index below 25, and to be first-time mothers.

“No association was found with Asperger syndrome or PDD-NOS, but power was limited. Similar analyses for prenatal fish oil supplements showed no such association with autistic disorder, even though fish oil use was associated with the same maternal characteristics as folic acid use,” the authors write.

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Privacy protector? Snapchat makes online images self-destruct after viewing

It's one of a growing assortment of apps that promise to restore a trace of privacy to the cyberworld

Just about everyone has by now learned the hard way that photos posted to Facebook and other social sites may never go away. Sure, you may be able to remov...

PhotoJust about everyone has by now learned the hard way that photos posted to Facebook and other social sites may never go away. Sure, you may be able to remove them from your timeline but chances are, they're still floating around out there somewhere, just waiting to pop up at the worst possible time. You know the kind of photos we're talking about.

Snapchat is one of a number of new products designed to attack the problem. Basically, the iPhone and Android app puts the time element -- and, of course, the visual element -- back into the chat concept. Snapchat lets you send a photo or brief video to one or more friends. After they look at it for a few seconds, it disappears.

"The allure of fleeting messages reminds us about the beauty of friendship -- we don't need a reason to stay in touch," is how Snapchat explains it. "There is value in the ephemeral. Great conversations are magical. That's because they are shared, enjoyed, but not saved."

“It became clear how awful social media is,” said one of Snapchat’s founders, Evan Spiegel, 22. “There is real value in sharing moments that don’t live forever.”

Of course, nothing is ever quite as simple as we might hope. The fleet-of-finger recipient may be able to grab a screenshot of the image you send. Snapchat says it will warn you if this happens but that's about it, as far as remedies go. 

It's still true, of course, that the safest way to keep potentially embarrassing images private is to keep them to yourself. 

It should also be noted that Snapchat states in its terms of service that it is not intended to be used by children, but doesn't take any steps to verify users' age. Parents still need to monitor their offsprings' online activities.

Other apps

There's actually quite a land rush in the private-app business these days. Several new companies are offering interesting ways to boost online privacy.

Wickr, whose motto is "Leave no trace," is an iPhone app that claims to provide "military-grade encryption of text, picture, audio and video messages" and to let you control who can read your messages and for how long.

Vidburn, which seems determined to communicate only through pictures (sort of like IKEA) promises you can, "Share goofy videos with your friends that self-destruct after being watched."

Poke, an app produced by none other than Facebook, garnered this review in the Apple apps store: "Huge ripoff of snapchat! Good app but why try and copy what already exists? Make something original. I think I'll stick with snapchat at least until this goes big." That pretty well says it.

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Mountain Dew brews up a new breakfast drink

Forget the coffee and juice, Kickstart puts it all together

Pepsi's Mountain Dew has brewed up a new concoction that it hopes will become the morning drink of choice for millennial males. It's called Kickstart and i...

PhotoPepsi's Mountain Dew has brewed up a new concoction that it hopes will become the morning drink of choice for millennial males. It's called Kickstart and it comes complete with juice flavors, caffeine and a dollop of vitamins B and C.

A massive ad campaign kicks off Feb. 25 and ad industry insiders say it's built around a "Chasing Sunrise" theme. 

"This is an opportunity to drive some loyalty by putting out a comprehensive, differentiated morning solution," said Emily Silver, marketing director at Mountain Dew, as quoted by Advertising Age. And yes, marketing people really do talk like that.

What's she saying, we think, is that Kickstart combines the fruit flavor, vitamins, sugar and caffeine that you would normally get from a small cup of coffee and a glass of juice. That makes it "comprehensive," see?

And then, of course, it's "differentiated" because, well, it's not a cup of coffee or a glass of orange juice. It's something different, if you can consider a can of soda different.  

Not just a dream

According to Ms. Silver, this is not just something the marketing folks dreamed up in a Mad Men-like brainstorming session in some modern-day Don Draper's office. She says the company's research found that quite a few millennials were already blending Mountain Dew with fruit juice for their morning pick-me-up.

The Taco Bell chain was already on the case. It was offering a drink called Mountain Dew A.M., a blend of Mountain Dew and Tropicana orange juice.

The appeal of the mixture, apparently, is that it's relatively light yet flavorful. It's not a huge blast of caffeine like an energy drink and not quite as sugary as a full-strength Mountain Dew.

It's also a guy thing, appealing mostly to millennial males, who range in age from about 15 to 30. They're old enough to need a boost in the morning but not yet so decrepit they feel the need to glug down a venti latte or two.

Although we suspect the food police will not be happy with the idea of guzzling carbonated drinks in the morning, Kickstart packs a fairly light punch, just 80 calories compared to 240 in that venti latte with 2% milk. It will supply about 90 milligrams of caffeine in each 16-ounce can, compared to about 330 in a 16-ounce bucket of coffee.

So, whether this is something younger guys are eager to get their hands on remains to be seen. But it's certainly something Pepsi hopes will take off. It is, after all, an "underdeveloped daypart" as one marketing type put it, meaning that most of us don't now quaff soda in the morning.

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Small business owners remain on needles and pins

The new year begins with low expectation for future growth

Small-business owners were a little more confident about the economy in January -- with the emphasis on “a little.” The National Federation of Independent...

PhotoSmall-business owners were a little more confident about the economy in January -- with the emphasis on “a little.”

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Optimism Index rose just 0.9 points last month -- to 88.9, failing to regain the losses caused by the “fiscal cliff” scare.

Expectations for improved business conditions increased by five points, but remain overwhelmingly low -- negative 30 percent -- the fourth lowest reading in survey history. Actual job creation and job creation plans improved nominally, but still not enough to keep up with population growth.

“The Optimism Index barely budged in January,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “The only good news is that it ‘budged’ up, not down. If small businesses were publicly traded companies, the stock market would be in shambles. While corporate profits are at record levels as a share of GDP, small businesses are still struggling to turn a profit.”

Dunkelberg says news the economy actually contracted in the fourth quarter of 2012, it's no surprise that more small firms expect their real sales volumes to fall, few have plans to invest in new inventory, and hardly any owners are expanding or hiring. “Owner pessimism is certainly not surprising in light of higher taxes, rising health insurance costs, increasing regulations and just plain uncertainty,” he adds. “The president will address the state of our nation tonight, but he apparently won’t have much that’s positive to relay to our small-business community -- not while the pall of uncertainty over economic policy continues to depress investment spending and growth.”

Optimism Index highlights

  • Sales: Sales trends remain overwhelmingly negative for small employers, with still more owners reporting declining sales than experiencing positive sales trends. The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales over the past three months improved 1 point in January, landing at a negative nine percent.
  • Job Creation: Job creation was positive in January, but ever-so-slight. Overall, 11 percent of surveyed owners (unchanged) reported adding over the past few months, and nine percent reduced employment (down 4 points), seasonally adjusted. But the vast majority—the remaining 80 percent of owners—made no net change in employment.
  • Inventories: The pace of inventory reduction continued in January, with a net negative seven percent of all owners reporting growth in inventories (seasonally adjusted), 3 points better than December, but still more owners reducing stocks than adding to them.
  • Capital Spending: The frequency of reported capital outlays over the past six months rose three points -- to 55 percent. Of those making expenditures, 39 percent of owners reported spending on new equipment (up three points), 21 percent acquired vehicles (up three points), and 12 percent improved or expanded facilities (down one point). Five percent acquired new buildings or land for expansion (down one point) and 11 percent spent money for new fixtures and furniture (unchanged). Overall, there was no sign that capital spending might be returning to levels more consistent with past recovery periods.
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Treatment for ADHD yields scant results

Study says symptoms persist for most young children

So, just how much good do Ritalin and other drugs prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) actually do? Not much, according to ...

PhotoSo, just how much good do Ritalin and other drugs prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) actually do? Not much, according to investigators at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, nine out of 10 young children with moderate to severe ADHD continue to experience serious, often severe symptoms and impairment long after their original diagnoses and, in many cases, despite treatment.

The investigators say the study -- the largest long-term analysis to date of preschoolers with ADHD -- sheds much-needed light on the natural course of a condition that is being diagnosed at an increasingly earlier age.

"ADHD is becoming a more common diagnosis in early childhood, so understanding how the disorder progresses in this age group is critical," says lead investigator Mark Riddle, M.D., a pediatric psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "We found that ADHD in preschoolers is a chronic and rather persistent condition, one that requires better long-term behavioral and pharmacological treatments than we currently have."

Struggle continues

The study shows that nearly 90 percent of the 186 youngsters followed continued to struggle with ADHD symptoms six years after diagnosis. Children taking ADHD medication had just as severe symptoms as those who were medication-free, the study found.

Children with ADHD, ages 3 to 5, were enrolled in the study, treated for several months, after which they were referred to community pediatricians for ongoing care. Over the next six years, the researchers used detailed reports from parents and teachers to track the children's behavior, school performance and the frequency and severity of three of ADHD's hallmark symptoms -- inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. The children also had full diagnostic workups by the study's clinicians at the beginning, halfway through and at the end of the research.

Symptom severity scores did not differ significantly between the more than two-thirds of children on medication and those off medication, the study showed. Specifically, 62 percent of children taking anti-ADHD drugs had clinically significant hyperactivity and impulsivity, compared with 58 percent of those not taking medicines. And 65 percent of children on medication had clinically significant inattention, compared with 62 percent of their medication-free counterparts.

Questions remain

The investigators caution that it remains unclear whether the lack of medication effectiveness was due to suboptimal drug choice or dosage, poor adherence, medication ineffectiveness per se or some other reason.

"Our study was not designed to answer these questions, but whatever the reason may be, it is worrisome that children with ADHD, even when treated with medication, continue to experience symptoms, and what we need to find out is why that is and how we can do better," Riddle says.

Children who had oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder in addition to ADHD were 30 percent more likely to experience persistent ADHD symptoms six years after diagnosis, compared with children whose sole diagnosis was ADHD.

ADHD is considered a neurobehavioral condition and is marked by inability to concentrate, restlessness, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. It can have profound and long-lasting effects on a child's intellectual and emotional development, Riddle says. It can impair learning, academic performance, peer and family relationships and even physical safety. Past research has found that children with ADHD are at higher risk for injuries and hospitalizations.

More than seven percent of U.S. children are currently treated for ADHD, the investigators say. The annual economic burden of the condition is estimated to be between $36 billion and $52 billion, according to researchers.

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Cutting back on salt -- a life-saving move

Hundreds of thousands of deaths could be prevented over 10 years

There's little dispute that most of us use too much salt. If you're a doubter, just check the nutrition labels of the foods you eat. Get out your calculato...

PhotoThere's little dispute that most of us use too much salt. If you're a doubter, just check the nutrition labels of the foods you eat. Get out your calculator and add up the amount of salt in each product. That that should convince you.

And that doesn't even take into consideration what you pour of of a salt shaker at every meal.

Need a good reason to cut back on sodium? How about your life? New research in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension finds less sodium in the U.S. diet could save 280,000 to 500,000 lives over 10 years.

Using computer simulations and models, researchers projected the effects of small (about five percent of a teaspoon of salt per person per day), steady annual reductions of sodium consumption in the U.S. diet, reducing sodium consumption by 40 percent -- to about 2,200 mg/day over 10 years.

Key findings

Researchers also found:

  • A gradual reduction in sodium consumption by 40 percent to about 2,200 mg/day over 10 years is projected to save hundreds of thousands of lives – between 280,000 and 500,000 depending on the modeled assumptions.
  • About 60 percent more deaths could be averted over this time period if these same reductions could be achieved more quickly (500,000 to 850,000 lives).

Three-pronged approach

Three research groups contributed to the study, each using a different approach for their simulation.

One approach used observational cardiovascular outcome follow-up data, while the other two based their projections on established evidence that salt reduction lowers blood pressure. These two groups inferred the cardiovascular effects of reducing sodium from data about the relationship of blood pressure to cardiovascular disease.

"The research groups used the same target populations and baseline death rates for each projection, and our study found that the different sources of evidence for the cardiovascular effects of sodium led to similar projected outcomes," said Pamela Coxson, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a mathematics specialist in the department of medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

"It is helpful when three research groups use different approaches and come up with similar results," said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, Ph.D, M.D., senior author of the study and associate professor of medicine at UCSF and director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations.

Cutting back

The three approaches included a gradual reduction of sodium by 40 percent, instant reduction of sodium by 40 percent or instant reduction of sodium to no more than 1500 mg/day. According to the researchers, only the first scenario -- gradual population-wide reduction of sodium by 40 percent over ten years -- is a potentially achievable public health goal.

Currently the U.S. food supply makes it difficult for consumers to choose lower sodium foods and achieve recommended daily levels. Americans consume an average 3,600 mg of sodium a day, with about 80 percent coming from commercially prepared and processed foods, according to the researchers.

Excessive sodium intake contributes to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases. In the U.S, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death, and nearly half of these deaths are related to high blood pressure.

Everybody wins

"These findings strengthen our understanding that sodium reduction is beneficial to people at all ages," Coxson said. "Even small, gradual reductions in sodium intake would result in substantial mortality benefits across the population."

"Such gradual reductions could be achieved through a combination of consumer education and food labeling, but should likely also include regulation to assure that lower sodium options are available for US consumers," said Bibbins-Domingo.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 1,500 mg of sodium daily, and has called on the Food and Drug Administration to lower the daily value for sodium and set limits on the amount of sodium foods can contain.

The association also favors robust sodium standards for foods served in schools and purchased by governments and encourages the food industry to make meaningful efforts at reducing sodium which would provide consumers with greater choice in foods and a healthier overall food environment. There are a number of healthy recipes and tips for helping you reduce salt in your diet.

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United fined for violating tarmac delay rule

Passengers were not told they could leave the plane during the delay

United Air Lines has been fined $130,000 for violating federal rules last May by not informing passengers on an aircraft delayed at Chicago’s O’Hare Intern...

PhotoUnited Air Lines has been fined $130,000 for violating federal rules last May by not informing passengers on an aircraft delayed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport that they had an opportunity to leave the plane as it sat at the gate with the door open.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), United violated a provision of its airline consumer protection rule requiring that if passengers on a delayed flight have the opportunity to leave the aircraft, the carrier must inform them that they can deplane. Announcements that passengers can leave the plane must be made 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time and every 30 minutes afterward.

“It’s very simple -- if a plane is delayed at the gate and it’s possible for passengers to leave, the airline must tell them of their rights,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We adopted our tarmac delay rules to protect passengers’ rights and will continue to take enforcement action when necessary.”

Failure to notify

United Flight 881 was scheduled to fly from O’Hare to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on May 7, 2012. The aircraft was pushed back at 12:38 p.m. but returned to a gate at 2:25 for maintenance, at which time the doors were opened. However, United failed to make an announcement notifying passengers of that opportunity to leave the plane as required by DOT’s rules.

The aircraft doors were closed again at 3:10, but because of another mechanical problem the flight was canceled and passengers deplaned at 5:22 p.m. Three passengers on board the flight filed complaints with the Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division regarding the delay.   

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Flowers for your Valentine? Deal directly with the florist

Using a middleman increases the chances of disappointment on a special day

It seems after every special occasion holiday, like Valentines or Mother's Day, we hear from irate consumers who ordered flowers through a third-party enti...

PhotoIt seems that after every special occasion holiday, like Valentines or Mother's Day, we hear from irate consumers who ordered flowers through a third-party entity with a website or 1-800 number.

Last May, for example, we heard from a very unhappy Deana, of Manassas, Va., who says she had placed an order through Just Flowers.

"I ordered flowers for my mom for Mother's Day for $65," Deana wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "They weren't delivered. Today is Wednesday, May 16. I spent in excess of 90 minutes on the phone with JustFlowers.com, only to be told that the flowers were delivered, that no one was home and they were left on her porch. She was home all day Sunday. She has a locked gate. No one gets to her front porch unless the gate is unlocked and they are allowed entry. So at this point in my day, I've spent 90 minutes trying to get a refund only to be told that they will investigate and determine if I am owed a refund."

Surprise! And not the good kind

Sometimes the flowers arrive and they aren't at all what was expected.

1800flowers.com Feb. 11, 2013, 4:05 a.m.
Consumers rate 1800flowers.com
"My boyfriend ordered a $70 bouquet from 1-800 Flowers for my birthday," Courtney, of Gilbert, Ariz., wrote. "He was so excited to surprise me with what were supposed to be gorgeous roses. I waited for the flowers all day. They didn't arrive until 7pm. I wasn't too bummed until I opened them. They smelled awful and when I looked, they were wilted and dead. They were also extremely hot. We tried to save them but it was a lost cause."

Time and again consumers use Internet-based middlemen to order flowers and end up disappointed. They can avoid the disappointment, in many cases, by simply dealing directly with a local florist, just as the middlemen do. In this day and age, there is no excuse not to.

What consumers don't always realize is that online florists have no flowers of their own. When they get an order for a floral arrangement in a particular city, they contact a local florist and make arrangements for the delivery. In many cases they work out a discount with the local florist, or mark up their price significantly.

Because the middleman is just another layer in the transaction, it increases the chances of something falling through the cracks. In some cases either the wrong thing gets delivered or nothing gets delivered at all.

Early days of the web

These florist middlemen mostly date back to the early days of the Internet. Then, not that many local businesses like florists had websites. Now, most do, making it easy to deal with them directly.

Just Flowers Feb. 11, 2013, 4:06 a.m.
Consumers rate Just Flowers
To begin, use a search engine to search for "florists" and the city where the recipient lives. You should find quite a selection.

Visit the florists' web sites so you can see photographs of their products and perhaps even see a price list. While some sites may provide a way to order online, you might consider calling the florist and speaking with someone about what you are looking for. If the conversation doesn't give you a level of comfort with that particular florist, call another, until you are satisfied.

It also stands to reason that a local florist will be more diligent in fulfilling the order of one of its own customers rather that one they received from a middleman. Just a little more effort on your part will avoid embarrassment on a special day and probably make you a hero.

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Things to consider before deciding to retire

Report shows growing number of people are delaying their retirement plans

A report by the Conference Board has gotten a lot of attention as it suggests an increasing number of Americans are putting off retirement. The report focu...

PhotoA report by the Conference Board has gotten a lot of attention as it suggests an increasing number of Americans are putting off retirement. The report focuses mainly on economic reasons.

The business group noted a huge spike in the number of 45 to 60 year-olds saying they planned to delay retirement -- from 42 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in 2012.

"It's disconcerting that the two years in which the U.S. economy seemed to finally, if fitfully, turn the corner also left so many more workers compelled to change their retirement plans late in their careers," said Gad Levanon, Director of Macroeconomic Research at The Conference Board and a co-author of the report.

Putting off retirement

Those who've experienced a job loss, salary cut, or significant decline in home price are much more likely to have plans for delaying retirement. Overall, the report sees this as a negative development for those involved.

Just the title of the report, "Trapped on the Worker Treadmill," is dark and gloomy. It makes the assumption that most employees hate their jobs and find getting up every day and going to work to be a "daily grind."

For companies, it can be a mixed blessing. It can keep an experienced work force in place a while longer but also hamper efforts to cut costs. Staff reductions normally carried out through attrition will now require more buyouts. It can also be an obstacle to younger employees just entering the work force.

Good reasons to keep working

PhotoWhile the report focuses on the negative aspects of delayed retirement, there are also some pretty good reasons to stay on the job, assuming you don't hate it.

For one thing it gives you more time to build your nest egg. Assuming the children are independent and your mortgage payment is low, along with the rest of your expenses, your 60s are an opportune time to sock money away.

The longer you work, the fewer years you will be dependent on your retirement savings. By law you are not required to being withdrawing retirement funds until age 70 and a half. However, just because you are withdrawing the money from the tax deferred account, it doesn't mean you are required to spend it -- you just have to pay taxes on it.

Reduced benefits

The longer you can put off drawing Social Security, the larger your monthly payments will be. If you start your Social Security benefits at age 62, you will permanently reduce the amount of money you will receive by as much as 30% than if you had waited just four more years till the normal or full retirement age for most baby boomers.

If you don't think you can put it off to age 66, there is still an advantage to postponing it as long as possible. With each year between 62 and your full retirement age of 66 or 67, the reduction in your benefits is not as great.

If you are married and you expect your benefit to be higher than your spouse's, you should probably consider waiting. If you die first, you spouse has the option to receive your monthly amount if it's higher than his or her own. The benefit payments, however, will be less than they could have been for the rest of our spouse's life as a result of you opting to take early benefits.

Tax implications

Receiving early benefits also has important tax ramifications. If you plan to work in retirement and have a good income, there's a tax penalty on Social Security benefits between age 62 and 66. After age 66, you can earn as much as you want without affecting your benefits.

If you have group health coverage provided by an employer, you might think twice before giving that up. At age 65 you can begin Medicare coverage, but until then, you'll probably need some kind of coverage. Getting individual coverage is very expensive.

Another thing to consider is your social life. Many people don't realize it but work is a huge part of their life, especially if they have been with one employer for a long time. You may get tired of your co-workers from time to time, but decide if you are ready to end those daily relationships and how you will replace them.

Finally, think about what you expect from retirement. What, exactly, are you going to do with your time? A 2001 survey by SunAmerica found a majority of respondents said they planned to work in some capacity in retirement. For many, working at a job you enjoy isn't really work.

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Food cops accuse Girl Scouts of selling junk food

Group claims 'Mango Cremes with NutriFusion' are as junky as other cookies

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), also known as the food cops, is taking on the Girl Scouts. According to the group, “it's bad enough ...

PhotoThe Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), also known as the food cops, is taking on the Girl Scouts.

According to the group, “it's bad enough that the Girl Scouts of the USA sells cookies to raise money, but it shouldn't pretend that its new 'Mango Crèmes with NutriFusion' are nutritionally equivalent to fruit.

CSPI says the cookies at issue are 98 percent white flour, sugar, palm oil and dextrose (sugar made from corn). Yet marketing copy on the manufacturer's Website claims that its filling has "all the nutrient benefits of eating cranberries, pomegranates, oranges, grapes, and strawberries!"

Misleading marketing

In a letter to Girl Scouts of America CEO Anna Maria Chávez, CSPI says that by marketing these new cookies as a "delicious new way to get your vitamins," the Girl Scouts is misleading its young members and undermining their health.

Besides flour, sugar, palm oil, and dextrose, the remaining 2 percent of Mango Crèmes with NutriFusion includes corn syrup, leavening, natural and artificial flavor, corn starch, salt, and coconut, followed by "nutrients from natural whole food concentrate (cranberry, pomegranate, orange, grape, strawberry, shitake mushrooms)." Soy lecithin, citric acid, malic acid, and annatto color round out the list of ingredients.

A serving of three cookies has 180 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and less than a gram of fiber. CSPI says the tiny amounts of nutrients from fruit concentrate don't make the cookies remotely equivalent to fruit of any kind.

"The Girl Scouts should promote healthy eating through all of its educational activities, including fundraising," wrote CSPI's executive director Michael F. Jacobson and nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Sweet baked goods, including cookies, are a leading source of calories, sugars, and fats in Americans' diets."

"If there were a badge for misleading marketing I'm afraid the Girl Scouts of the USA just earned it," Wootan concluded.

Girl Scouts respond

According to a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts, the organization and its licensed bakers are “very careful to ensure the accuracy and truthfulness of all statements made regarding all Girl Scout Cookie varieties.”

Michelle Tompkins points out that Mango Crèmes with Nutrifusion includes fruit derived nutrient benefits. “The Mango Crème,” she notes, “is not the first Girl Scout Cookie produced that includes a benefit associated with an added ingredient, or a benefit associated with a reduced or removed ingredient.”

Tompkins concludes, “all Girl Scout cookies should be considered an occasional treat and eaten in moderation.”

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Errors on credit reports could hit you in the wallet

Less favorable terms for loans could be a consequence

If you think just keeping a good credit record is enough to get you favorable terms for a loan -- think again. A study of the U.S. credit reporting indust...

PhotoIf you think just keeping a good credit record is enough to get you favorable terms for a loan -- think again.

A study of the U.S. credit reporting industry by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that five percent of consumers had errors on one of their three major credit reports that could lead to them paying more for such things as auto loans and insurance.

Overall, the study on credit report accuracy found that one in five consumers had an error on at least one of their three credit reports.

“These are eye-opening numbers for American consumers,” said Howard Shelanski, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics. “The results of this first-of-its-kind study make it clear that consumers should check their credit reports regularly. If they don’t, they are potentially putting their pocketbooks at risk.”

Errors abound

The study, in which participants were encouraged to use the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) process to resolve any potential credit report errors, also found that:

  • One in four consumers identified errors on their credit reports that might affect their credit scores;
  • One in five consumers had an error that was corrected by a credit reporting agency (CRA) after it was disputed, on at least one of their three credit reports;
  • Four out of five consumers who filed disputes experienced some modification to their credit report;
  • Slightly more than one in 10 consumers saw a change in their credit score after the CRAs modified errors on their credit report; and
  • Approximately one in 20 consumers had a maximum score change of more than 25 points and only one in 250 consumers had a maximum score change of more than 100 points.

Karla of Louisville, KY, knows what it's like to deal with erroneous credit reporting. "I have been fighting for nearly a year to get Equifax to correct mine and my husband's credit reports," she writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "They are reporting a mortgage delinquency on both our reports for May 2008 and on my husband's report, only for October 2009. This is a joint account; shouldn't reported info be the same on both reports? Neither delinquency ever existed!"

Jacob of Alexandria, VA, wants his life back -- literally. "I recently applied for a credit card with Capitol One and I received the following response from them on 1/26/2013: 'Based on the credit report from TransUnion for Jacob **, applicant is reported as deceased,'" he says in a post on ConsumerAffairs. Jacob wants to know how this is going to be corrected.

“Your credit report has information about your finances and your bill-paying history, so it’s important to make sure it’s accurate,” said Charles Harwood, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The good news for consumers is that credit reports are free through annualcreditreport.com, and if you find an error, you can work with the credit reporting company to fix it.”

First-of-its kind study

The FTC report is the first major study that looks at all the primary groups that participate in the credit reporting and scoring process: consumers; lenders/data furnishers (which include creditors, lenders, debt collection agencies, and the court system); the Fair Isaac Corporation, which develops FICO credit scores; and the national credit reporting agencies (CRAs).

It is based on work with 1,001 participants who reviewed 2,968 credit reports with a study associate who helped them identify and correct possible errors on their credit reports.

Consumers in the study were selected to match the demographic and credit score information of the general public, and participants were encouraged to dispute errors that could affect their credit standing. Credit reports with potential errors identified by study participants were sent to Fair Isaac (FICO) for rescoring.

After completing the FCRA dispute process, study participants were provided with new credit reports and credit scores. The original reports were then compared with the new reports. If any modifications were made as a result of the disputes, the impact of errors on the consumer’s credit score was determined.

Consumer resources

The FTC has a wide range of general information for consumers on credit reporting issues, including Free Credit Reports, Disputing Errors on Credit Reports and Your Source for a Truly Free Credit Report? AnnualCreditReport.com, as well as a new consumer blog posted titled It Pays to Check Your Credit Report.

It also has information available on how credit scores affect the price of credit and insurance and what consumers need to know about their credit reports when looking for a job. Finally, the FTC has a video for consumers on how to get a free credit report.

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Carnival Triumph being towed after fire at sea

The ship was drifting off the Yucatan Peninsula after the fire. No injuries were reported.

Fire struck the Carnival cruise ship Triumph off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Sunday morning, leaving it dead in the water as U.S. Coast Guard s...

PhotoFire struck the Carnival cruise ship Triumph off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Sunday morning, leaving it dead in the water as U.S. Coast Guard ships rushed to its rescue.

The fire was quickly contained by the ship's automatic extinguishers and no injuries were reported among the 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew members, the cruise line said.

Reports said electricity, water and sewage systems were working on at least half the ship and there was adequate food and water.

The ship was heading back to Galveston, Texas, when the fire broke out. Now, tugs are towing the vessel to Progreso, Mexico, the closest port. It's expected to arrive there Wednesday. Passengers will be flown back to the United States.

Carnival said passengers will get a full refund, credit that can be used toward a future trip and reimbursement for all expenses, except casino and gift shop purchases, for their current trip.

The vessel's next two departures, scheduled for Monday and Saturday, have been canceled. Those slated to be on those trips will get full refunds and discounts toward future cruises, the cruise line said.

Smaller disasters

Carnival Cruise Lines  Feb. 11, 2013, 5 p.m.
Consumers rate Carnival Cruise Lines

It's the latest large-scale mishap to afflict Carnival after the Costa Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy just over a year ago. But while major accidents are relatively rare, consumers tell of endless smaller difficulties and disasters aboard Carnival ships.

"I thought Carnival had reached the maximum level of incompetence and indifference with the Costa Concordia. They outdid themselves on the Magic cruise out of Galveston 20-27 January," John of Houston said in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "Debarkation was a nightmare. After leaving our room at 7:00 AM, our group of 35 did not get out of the terminal until after 1:00 PM. We were treated like cattle. People were driven up and down the huge terminal like animals.

"One elderly gentleman fell down in front of me. The only thing that saved him was he fell on top of his luggage. I watched him struggle for several minutes until he could stand again. No one could help him. I couldn't because  we were blocked in the line by chains. We stood in line for over three hours with no water and no trips to the restroom."

Mark of Dallas was also miffed about his experience.

"My friends, partner and I were on the Carnival Glory cruise ship which, before even embarking, was marred by miscommunication, disorganization and mechanical failures that delayed our departure and caused us to miss or be late to ports-of-call and pre-booked excursions to be cancelled without warning. My phone then was stolen, guest services was a joke, and the experience left much to be desired overall," he said.

Patrick of Albuquerque also found the Glory less than glorious.

URGENT NOTICE. That was the heading of an email my wife and I received five days before our cruise on Carnival Glory, which we had planned eight months in advance. At the last minute Carnival told all the passengers that ALandChuck.travel, the biggest GLBT travel agency in the US, was hosting "Drag Stars at Sea" on our sailing and had booked a large group. The email cautioned that those wishing to dress in drag would do so. ... I'm sure that Carnival had been working with this travel agency for months. Carnival should have notified all passengers as soon as they started working with this travel agency in case customers wished to cancel or change their sailing.

The URGENT NOTICE from Carnival offered to give a full refund of their cruise fare, as well as reimbursement for any non-refundable travel related expenses, but this was a cruise we had planned for eight months. I worked frantically with my travel agency to rebook on another ship. But apparently, many others booked on the Carnival Glory were trying to do the same thing and it was very difficult. 

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Mini starting to look pretty mighty

The second generation Mini Cooper is coming next year

The Mini PacemanMini Coopers used to be novelties. Mini drivers waved at each other and often fielded questions from the curious at service stations an...

Photo
The Mini Paceman

Mini Coopers used to be novelties. Mini drivers waved at each other and often fielded questions from the curious at service stations and other public venues.

But now the little Minis are everywhere and are getting to be a pretty mighty force in the U.S. car business, selling a record 66,1223 vehicles last year, 15 percent more than the previous year. It's also more cars than veteran brands like Jaguar, Land Rover and Porsche sold.

Mini's growth over the last 11 years is evident at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Orlando, where the brand had its own dealer get-together this year for the first time ever, according to Automotive News reporter Diana T. Kurylko.

Mini has come of age and it’s now a mature brand, said Jim McDowell, who heads Mini USA, Kurylko reported.

Mini has 115 dealers in the United States, and with the addition of the Paceman coupe in March, will have seven vehicles -- more than the other marques mentioned above.

Cute but not always cuddly

The little cars are not without their issues, of course, and have their share of major problems, including engine and transmission failures, readers tell us.

Photo"I almost feel as though I should apologize to all of you. I bought my 2003 Mini in December 2002 and feel now that I should have warned you all away," said Linda of Memphis in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "It is an adorable car and fun to drive, but I've had more problems with it than with all of the other vehicles I've ever owned combined."

Linda said she's replaced the power steering motor three times but, even worse, suffered a transmission failure at 45,000 miles. Fortunately, the dealer replaced it at no charge even though the car was out of warranty at that point.

"J" of Redlands, Calif., complained of thermostat problems, electrical issues and expensive tune-ups and oil changes.

"I have had more problems with this Mini Cooper than I have had for any other car in my life. I'm beginning to believe this product is a lemon, a true sour lemon. After it is fixed, I am trading the damn car in," he said.

On the other hand, some Mini Cooper owners just keep buying the things. A colleague here at ConsumerAffairs has had four Minis, including the very clean "S" convertible pictured above. One suffered an engine failure at 40,000 miles but the dealer, Mini of Sterling, Va., repaired it free of charge even though it was not under warranty. The others have led uneventful lives, except for the one that washed away in Hurricane Sandy.

"Hang around Mini Cooper enthusiasts and they'll tell you to buy 'em new, run 'em hard and get rid of them at the three-year mark," the proprietor of  an independent service center in Los Angeles told us.  Also, use synthetic oil and change it every 3,000 miles, regardless of what the manual says.

New generation

Mini Cooper Feb. 11, 2013, 5:16 a.m.
Consumers rate Mini Cooper

At the Orlando meeting, dealers learned of plans for Mini's second generation, coming next year. Not much has leaked out but the company's goal is obviously to try to hang onto its loyalists even as they outgrow the smaller Mini models.

Over the last few years, the company has turned out a crossover, the Countryman, and a small station wagon, the Clubman, and has added a two-seater Coupe.

Its newest model, the Paceman, perhaps offers a look at where Mini is headed. It's a little bigger and a lot more rakish than the original Cooper and is the first Mini sedan to offer all-wheel drive -- an attempt to appeal to driving enthusiasts who disdain the front-wheel drive offered in most Mini Coopers.

Mini is, of course, a BMW company and is an important element in BMW's growth plans. It's a way for BMW to sell to consumers who aren't quite ready to spend the kind of money a BMW demands but don't want to settle for a dull econocar. 

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Macmillan agrees to $20 million ebook price-fixing settlement

Suits charged the publisher conspired to fix the price of ebooks

The Macmillan publishing house has agreed to pay about $20 million to settle ebook price-fixing charges. It's the last of five publishers to settle the cha...

PhotoThe Macmillan publishing house has agreed to pay about $20 million to settle ebook price-fixing charges. It's the last of five publishers to settle the charges. 

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Macmillan would create a settlement fund totaling $20 million from which claims to consumers who purchased e-books would be paid. In addition, the publisher has agreed to lift restrictions on discounting for e-books and will not be allowed to enter into new agreements restricting prices until December 2014.

Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, a Seattle consumer-rights law firm, 33 state Attorneys General and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reached the settlement Friday.

The settlement resolves claims filed by the DOJ, numerous state governments, and a class-action suit brought by Hagens Berman on behalf of a nationwide class of consumers.

Earlier, Hachette Book Group Inc., HarperCollins Publishers L.L.C. and Simon & Schuster Inc. agreed to pay a total of more than $69 million to consumers to resolve the claims. Hagens Berman’s complaint estimated that the scheme may have increased the prices of many e-books by as much as 50 percent by eliminating the ability of retailers to offer discounts.

Macmillan was the last of five defendant publishers to settle claims brought by the DOJ. In that case, Apple is the only remaining defendant, with a trial scheduled for June, 2013. In the consumer class-action case, Penguin and Apple have not agreed to a settlement.

The settlement must be approved by the court before funds can be distributed.

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How to shovel without over-exerting yourself

Although it's a common task, many people are shoveling the wrong way

Last weekend, the Northeast received huge amounts of snow, up to 35 –inches in some parts, and just to get an idea of how impactful that amount of sn...

PhotoLast weekend, the Northeast received huge amounts of snow, up to 35 inches in some parts, and just to get an idea of how much impact that amount of snow has, here are some numbers: 

Over 5,000 flights were cancelled over the weekend, 635,000 people lost their power and at least 11 people died in the storm.

But thankfully, the storm has passed and now it’s just about power being restored and life returning to a semblance of normalcy, but even before that happens, many people have been taking out their shovels to dig their way out. 

But in doing so, it’s important to shovel safely. Lots of people have passed away  while shoveling, which proves there’s a right and wrong way to go about removing  snow from your staircase, driveway or porch.

Experts say people should avoid shoveling heavy and wet snow, because the combination of the cold weather and the physical strain from lifting that snow could cause a heart attack.

Who shouldn't shovel

Experts from the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute in Chicago say heavy smokers, those who are considered obese, people who don’t get a lot of exercise, people over 50 years of age and those who have a history of cardiovascular disease, should speak to their doctors before taking on a shoveling project.

And although shoveling can quickly cause a person to sweat and become overheated, experts say you should still dress in layers and don’t take off your jacket. And if you find yourself a little hot and uncomfortable while shoveling, it’s best to take a small break and cool down, instead of taking off any clothing.

Experts also say to start slowly and pace yourself, as jumping right into shoveling a big amount of snow and trying to do it quickly can increase the chances of  overexertion. In fact, the Bluhm Institute says you should approach shoveling as you would any other physical activity, by stretching first and gradually beginning the activity instead of starting off at full speed.

People also shouldn’t shovel on an empty stomach, experts say. They should eat small meals to maintain their energy.

But you should avoid eating heavy meals before shoveling, because digestion puts added strain on the heart. You should also avoid drinking caffeinated beverages for the very same reason.

Additionally, if a snowstorm produces heavy snow, its best to push it rather than lift it, so using a push broom or simply pushing the snow with the edge of your shovel is better for your heart and will lower the chances of you becoming overexerted, doctors say.

And although you may not associate drinking a lot of fluids with cold weather, it’s important to do so when shoveling, since many people have suffered from dehydration.

Back injuries

A lot of folks have also suffered from back injuries while shoveling, which can easily be prevented if you follow a few easy steps.

PhotoDavid Kingwater, a chiropractor in Whitesboro, NY., says lowering your chances of injury during shoveling can be as simple as just choosing the right shovel.

“The ergonomic shovels if people have seen them, those are the shovels that have the bent handles,” he told a local news outlet. “They are bent so you can shovel while standing upright you don’t have to bend over as far, again placing excess stress on your lumbar spine.”

And many people opt for snow blowers since they obviously remove snow faster and much easier, but there are still some very important safety tips to remember when using them, experts say.

According to the Michigan Institute for Public Safety Education, it’s important that you remove any debris before taking on the snow, since the potential of blowing an object that’s either sharp or hard and striking someone is very high.

Also, you should never blow the snow towards your vehicle or towards a person, say experts, and be sure to never leave the snow blower running if you have to step away for a few seconds.

Safety experts also say to remove the spark plug wire before doing any repairs on your snow blower or if you have to make any modifications to the equipment.

And when shoveling, the Institute says to stretch for a few minutes so you can properly loosen up your arms, back, shoulder, neck and leg muscles, and you should also breathe in while lifting the snow and breathe out while tossing it.

But if you do lift the snow, you should bend your knees and straighten your back while doing it, and be sure not to twist your body, as this too can cause muscle injuries, experts say.

So although most have survived the Northeast blizzard, it’s pretty safe to assume that we haven’t experienced our last snowstorm this winter,which means you should remember these small saftey tips the next time you're shoveling, because clearing your property so people can walk safely shouldn’t mean putting yourself at risk while doing it.

 

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How do you keep food safe during an emergency?

Folks in the Northeast are learning the hard way

Digging out of three feet of snow is just part of the problem for residents of the Northeast who got pounded by a blizzard over the weekend. If the power i...

PhotoDigging out of three feet of snow is just part of the problem for residents of the Northeast who got pounded by a blizzard over the weekend. If the power is out, you have the additional concern about keeping your refrigerated food safe.

"Major winter storms that bring heavy snow, ice and strong winds can impact food safety," said Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Al Almanza.

FSIS offers these steps to follow after a weather emergency:

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
  • The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) and the door remains closed.
  • Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after 4 hours without power.
  • Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40° F or below when checked with a food thermometer.
  • Never taste a food to determine its safety.
  • Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for 2 days.
  • If the power has been out for several days, check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer. If the appliance thermometer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.
  • If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.
  • When in Doubt, throw it Out!
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Grab bars are only as safe as their mounting

Stick-on bars may look nice but when the floor is rushing to meet you, they may not be much help

The world is a pretty treacherous place, even the world that's bounded by the four walls of your home. Most accidents happen in the home, after all, with t...

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Some great products to help seniors keep living independently

There's a countless amount of gadgets out there for seniors, and we picked out some good ones.

When it comes to describing our parents or the people that took care of us, it’s often futile to try and come up with the proper words that expl...

When it comes to describing our parents or the people that took care of us, it’s often futile to try and come up with the proper words that explain what they’ve done for us and in many cases what they continue to do.

And one thing that a lot of parents have taught many of us is how to be independent and how to do things on our own.

In many cases Mom and Dad gave us that ever-so-needed nudge that finally got us out of the nest and off the cliff, so we could test our own flying capabilities and see just how far we could go.

But fast forward to the present, when you’ve tested those wings over and over and found out they’re pretty darn good thanks to your parents, and now that same independence they taught you growing up is harder for them to maintain for themselves, especially since they’ve gotten much older and find it harder to do some of the things they used to.

Of course, in some cases a senior person living alone just isn’t the right course of action, and in other instances it’s completely safe, especially with the help of certain gadgets.

Fortunately, there's a countless amount of those gadgets out there, both electronic and non-electronic, that can make it easier for older adults to do those everyday things they more than likely want to keep doing without any help.

Med Reminder

PhotoOne product to help seniors keep living independently comes in the way of a digital watch.

The Med Reminder Watch, priced at $79.95 on the retail site First Street, has up to eight alarms that ring each time a prescription is supposed to be taken. In addition to the alarms, the face of the watch will show a message that the user can customize.

These days, there are a lot of electronic pill cases on the market, but the good thing about using a watch as a reminder is that it stays with you wherever you go, so you can be alerted no matter what time of day it is. 

Also, using a watch is oftentimes less expensive than getting an electronic pill case.

The makers of the watch say it's easy to program and doesn’t require a lot of technical know-how and also comes with vibrating alarms for those who may have hearing problems.

Exercise peddler

PhotoThen there’s the Medical Deluxe Folding Exercise Peddler, which is useful for seniors looking to stay in shape and keep active, since it’s designed to be low-impact and safe on one’s knees and joints.

The bottom of the peddler is made of a special rubber material that the company says is anti-slip to prevent the machine from sliding and the user being injured. There’s no assembly required, so it pretty much just has to be unpacked, unfolded and then you’re ready to go.

The amount of resistance on the device can be adjusted like traditional exercise bikes, but what’s different with this peddler and others like it, is its light weight since it’s only a frame and not a full bicycle with handlebars or wheels.

The exercise machine can be purchased at several popular retail outlets like Target and Walmart for under $30, which is a pretty good buy considering the peddler serves almost the same purpose as the more expensive exercise bikes.

Dignity mug

PhotoAnd the least expensive among these products, but still very useful is the Granny Jo Dignity Mug, that sells for about $7 on Amazon.

What I love about this mug is its two handles on either side, which makes picking up a heavy and hot cup of coffee or tea much easier, especially for those seniors who may not be strong enough or have a powerful enough grip to hold it. The Granny Jo is also great for people who suffer from constant tremors.   

In addition, the mug allows those who merely want a nice hot drink, but can’t do so, a chance to have more control of the mug overall and prevent dangerous spills that can cause bad burns.

So all and all, there are a lot of nifty tools on the market to help seniors remain independent, and the items mentioned here are just scratching the tip of the retail iceberg.

But yet and still, it’s nice to know that many companies continue to be innovative when it comes to designing products that assist our beloved parents, because we want them to enjoy their lives as much as possible.

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What consumers should know about credit counselors

Fundamental information about them is often kept under wraps

Credit counseling agencies have always had a fairly good reputation. If you find yourself loaded with debt, these non-profit agencies can often help you de...

PhotoCredit counseling agencies have always had a fairly good reputation. If you find yourself loaded with debt, these non-profit agencies can often help you develop a plan so you can pay off your debt.

That's different from a debt settlement or debt resolution company. These for-profit entities negotiate directly with creditors in an attempt to reduce a consumer's indebtedness.

They take a completely different approach than a credit counselor. In fact, one debt settlement company airs a commercial urging consumers to avoid credit counselors because "they work for the credit card companies."

While consumers should exercise extreme caution when considering any debt settlement company, the commercial has a point, according to CreditCards.com, which has just produced an exhaustive analysis of credit counselors.

Conflict of interest

"Credit counselors can have a built-in conflict of interest," said Fred Williams, senior reporter at CreditCards.com.

That's because a credit counselor's objective is to develop a plan for the consumer to repay their debt, in full, to the credit card company. In addition to receiving a small fee from the consumer, the agency also receives a small portion of the consumer's monthly payment to the credit card company.

"These agencies wear their nonprofit status like a halo, but the reality is that they are taking in large sums of money from people who are struggling financially," CreditCards.com Editor in Chief Daniel P. Ray said. "We think it is important to look at their performance and ask why fundamental information about them is kept under wraps."

Marginally effective

Ray says credit counseling is a marginally effective life preserver, failing more than half the time. Almost no counseling agencies publish information about their failure rates. Ray says that makes it difficult for clients to improve their chances of success.

PhotoWhile credit counseling associations are supposed to set standards in the industry and make sure that members are non-profit, Williams found that's not always the case.

"We found a case where the IRS had revoked an agency's non-profit status but the agency was still a member of an association whose members were only supposed to be non-profit," he said.

CreditCards.com found agencies no longer qualifying as nonprofits may still keep the designation for years during lengthy, secret appeals to the IRS. It says two of the ten largest agencies fought revocation of their status for more than five years, behind a shield of IRS privacy rules.

Industry consolidation

Face-to-face counseling is being replaced by phone and Internet service as consolidation has become a trend. Hundreds of small counseling agencies have been absorbed in recent years, while the 10 largest agencies have grown to a combined $400 million in annual revenue.

As credit counseling has become a bigger enterprise, the people who work for the agencies can do quite well. Median pay for top executives at the 10 largest agencies is about $353,000, according to CreditCards.com, putting several CEOs among the top one percent of U.S. incomes.

However, this is not to say consumers shouldn't consider credit counseling.

"Some agencies do a lot of good work, but you can't go into a relationship blindly, Williams said.

How to choose

But how is a consumer supposed to know whether one credit counseling agency is going to be helpful and another isn't? In many ways, it's like any other consumer decision. You have to do research and, in many cases, go with your instinct.

"If it looks like working with a credit counselor is the way to go, the best advice I could give is to talk to the individual at the agency you would be working with. If they genuinely seem interested in doing what's best for you, that's a good sign. If they simply want to sign you up for a plan, that's a red flag."

The two main alternatives to credit counseling are debt settlement and bankruptcy, both of which have plenty of downside as well. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to dealing with unmanageable debt.

Contrary to what financial industry lobbyists would have us believe, however, many consumers who should file for bankruptcy protection don't do so. If you have suffered irreparable financial harm because of job loss, serious illness or caregiving responsibilities, bankruptcy may be the best option. Talk to an attorney to learn more.

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Hybrid index annuity becoming the hot retirement investment vehicle

But they're complex products, so make sure you understand how they work

Retirement investment strategies are a hot topic all of a sudden. Not only has the investment landscape shifted over the last decade, a big portion of the ...

PhotoRetirement investment strategies are a hot topic all of a sudden. Not only has the investment landscape shifted over the last decade, a big portion of the population is headed toward retirement.

With thousands of baby boomers reaching their 60th to 65th birthdays every day, the search is on for investments that can produce enough income to support a comfortable retirement. It can be a problem, since the last decade has shaken a lot of confidence in Wall Street.

"Right now, $9.43 trillion is sitting in cash vehicles as people are moving away from the stock market," said Steve Jurich, President of IQ Wealth Management, in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The demand for that risk, for the potential upside in the stock market, has shifted sideways. The smart investor is asking where they can go to ensure a stable retirement income. That's now an area of demand."

Hybrid index annuities

Photo
Steve Jurich
Jurich is an advocate of the Hybrid Index Annuity, which has emerged as the hottest sector of the retirement investment scene since the Great Recession. Consumers nearing retirement often find it attractive because it is said to combine the best features of many different types of annuities.

Stan Haithcock, an annuity specialist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., says the Hybrid Index Annuity is still little understood by most investors.

"Please understand that indexed annuities are complex products, and the majority of agents are unable, or unwilling, to properly explain them and usually just focus on a few sizzle points," he writes.

Annuities

First, let's focus on plain old annuities. An annuity is a stream of fixed payments you will receive, based on the amount of money you put in and how it is invested. The company managing the annuity takes what you pay in and invests it, creating returns that are used to fund the regular payments you receive.

Some retirees like the idea of an annuity because it's money they can count on each month. However, the return on the money is usually fairly modest, which results in lower payments.

Some annuities pay for a fixed period of time and then stop. Others, called "life annuities," pay as long as you live. These annuities are usually sold by insurance companies.

Upside potential

A hybrid Index annuity generally pays a standard rate of interest but also delivers the possibility of gains if the stock market goes up. It's this potential for upside gain that many find attractive. Jurich says it's a different breed that provides stability while preserving the option to make money when the market goes up.

"You don't have to worry about losing money, and there are still competitive rates of payout," he said.

But in a report on annuities, Walter Updegrave, senior editor at CNN Money, said the hybrids are hardly all gain and no pain. While they can shield you from market setbacks, he writes, their hefty fees and many restrictions dramatically dampen their growth potential.

Watch out for fees

In any retirement plan, fees are a major concern since they can cut into earnings. Since many retirement investments tend to be conservative in nature, there isn't a lot of growth there to start with.

Ideally, soon-to-be-retired consumers should be getting their financial advice from someone who is not trying to sell them an annuity, or any other type of investment for that matter. A retirement investment portfolio should be custom-tailored to the individual's needs and goals.

Over the last decade, with the stock market showing little long-term growth, some financial advisers and their clients have found income-producing securities to be an attractive way to build a retirement nest egg.

For example, investments in stocks or mutual funds that produce regular quarterly dividends provide a steady flow of cash. Over time, the value of the security might also rise, giving the investor two benefits -- income and growth. The stock price could also go down, but the dividends would continue in most cases.

Look for profitable companies

Not all stocks pay a dividend, but many do. Paying a dividend is one way a company returns a portion of its profits directly to its shareholders. So, before a company can pay a dividend, it needs to be profitable.

While banks are paying less than one percent on CDs, blue chip companies like Johnson & Johnson, Campbell Soup, General Mills, Chevron, and Kimberly Clark, pay dividends of three percent or more. Altria, Eli Lilly, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AT&T and Verizon, pay dividends of five percent or more.

A company may cut its dividend, so the income is not guaranteed. It requires the investor to follow the stocks in the investment portfolio closely. Still, the returns can be impressive.

If you invested $100,000 in a balanced, diversified portfolio of high-yield stocks that yielded on average six percent, your money would earn $6,000 a year in dividends, as long as the companies continued to pay those dividends. You would receive the dividends, usually paid quarterly, whether the price of the stock went up or down. If the stock value rose three percent per year, that's a combined nine percent annual return.

Master limited partnerships

For funds in a tax-deferred retirement account, you might ask your financial adviser about master limited partnerships (MLP) that have issued common stock. MLP dividends tend to be even higher because the companies are required by law to return more of their profits to shareholders.

It's not uncommon for an MLP to pay a dividend of eight or nine percent. While the tax reporting requirements can make them a nuisance for small investors, there are generally no tax reporting requirements if the shares are owned in a tax-deferred account.

Before making any investments, however, you should do research and consult with a qualified and objective financial adviser.

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Chevrolet introduces diesel option for the Cruze

It's the first GM passenger-car diesel since the smelly, noisy 1980s version

Gas, electric, hybrid and diesel -- the choices for American motorists just keep rolling along. The latest new option is the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze diesel, m...

Gas, electric, hybrid and diesel -- the choices for American motorists just keep rolling along. The latest new option is the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze diesel, making its bow at the Chicago Auto Show today.

The clean-diesel Cruze is expected to get about 42 miles per gallon on the highway. It's perhaps shooting for the same market niche as the Volkswagen Golf TDI, rated at 49 mpg, and other small VWs.

Photo

The Cruze will be the first GM passenger-car diesel since the 1980s, when the company turned out a batch of noisy, slow, smelly engines that succeeded only in souring American drivers on diesel for another generation or so.

The Cruze has a 2.0-liter turbo churning away under its hood and generates a torque rating approaching the Camaro. This is one thing European drivers have known that Americans are just finding out -- diesels are fast off the line.

VW has had the American diesel market pretty much to itself, offering its clean TDI in the Jetta, Passat, Beetle and Golf. Last year, 20 percent of U.S. Jetta sales were diesel versions, the company said.

GM says it's confident it can compete head-to-head with the VWs, although the German carmaker has decades more experience and a head-start in the U.S.

The compact sedan’s new 2.0L turbo-diesel engine produces estimated 148 horsepower and estimated 258 lb-ft torque with 0-60 performance of 8.6 seconds, which GM says is better than the Volkswagen Jetta TDI automatic and competitive with German diesel cars that dominate the U.S. market.

“Chevrolet has a diverse portfolio of products and technologies to meet the needs of the most discerning customer, whether it’s driving across town gas free in a Spark EV or cross-country  in a clean turbo diesel,” said Chris Perry, Chevrolet vice president of marketing.

GM is not exactly a newcomer to diesels. The diesel engine being used in the Cruze is already widely used in Europe, where it powers the Opel Astra, Insignia and Zafira.

“Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel fills an important role in Chevrolet’s diverse four-cylinder lineup, and is primed to win over diesel devotees and compact car buyers with its performance, torque and fuel economy,” said Perry. “We leveraged engineering expertise from around the globe to develop a world-class, low-emissions engine to give U.S. and Canadian customers a car that’s both fun to drive and practical at the pump.”

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How safe is the bridge in your town?

SaveOurBridges.com is a website that can tell you, while keeping you in-the-know

As consumers, there are just some things that you always assume are safe and well taken care of like airplanes for example.Each time that we sit in ...

PhotoAs consumers, there are just some things that you always assume are safe and well taken care of -- like airplanes, for example.

Each time that we sit in our seats and fasten our belts, most of us feel completely safe and assume all of the mechanics and inner workings of the plane have been well maintained.

It's just like when we step into our cars.

Don’t we usually drive with a certain level of comfort and assume that car companies wouldn’t release a product into the world without making sure every safety measure is met first and the vehicle is safe to drive?   

Look, we all know that both airplanes and cars crash, and sometimes the crash has everything to do with the way these items were built, as opposed to the accident being caused by the operator, but yet and still, most of us still have a very high amount of confidence when it comes to stepping into an aircraft or vehicle and many of us assume that we’ll arrive to our destinations safely.

And when taking your vehicle across a bridge either to go to home, go to work or to transport your children to school, you also assume that bridge is safe to travel across and was properly built.

Well according to construction expert Barry B. LePatner, author of  Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix American’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry and Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, America’s bridges aren’t as safe as some of us might think.

“We all are led to believe that the wonderful bridges in our nation are built to last,” said LePatner in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“Unfortunately, that never was the case and the failure of our politicians to provide for needed maintenance of these structures — which are exposed to the wind, rain and snow and the vibrations of vehicles each day that are sometimes double what the bridge was designed for — has created a national problem that keeps growing with every year.”

Dangerous bridges

 

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Barry LePatner

To help consumers become more aware of this problem, LePatner created the website SaveOurBridges.com, which allows people to learn about dangerous bridges in their area and become educated on the issue of unsafe bridges and whether those bridges have been properly maintained.

 

The site also has a useful search function that allows you to plug in your city or zip code and see each bridge in your community, in terms of when it was built, how many vehicles travel on it each day and whether it’s structurally deficient.

The data on each bridge is pulled from the Federal Highway Administration and state transportation agencies, says LePatner, and users have the ability to either pull up an interactive map of the bridge and its surrounding area or access a still photograph.

The website's map also uses certain color symbols that indicate where in your area there may be an unsafe bridge and the site makes it possible for the everyday citizen to stay abreast of these matters, LePatner explains.

“When politicians and the public hear the estimates for remediating our deteriorating infrastructure — which the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated to cost $2.2 trillion — their eyes glaze over and few can grasp the enormity of what is at stake,” he says.

“The SaveOurBridges.com website seeks to bring that magnitude down to eye level so that citizens and communities can see how these dangerous bridges in their own neighborhoods can be addressed with their local politicians at the grass roots level.”

I-35W collapse

LePatner often points to the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 that killed 13 and injured 145 people, and he says that after the devastating collapse he was very disappointed by the response from our nation’s leaders.

“When the I-35W Bridge collapsed, both the State of Minnesota and the Federal Highway Administration knew that they were dealing with a bridge that was in a state of imminent collapse,” said LePatner.

“An engineering analysis only one year earlier laid this all out clearly and called for as little as $11 million to address the weakness of the bridge. That recommendation was rejected by the state as a “budget buster.”

“The federal government knew that around the nation there were nearly 8,000 bridges that were in the identical state (they had to know this since it was from the unpublished database of bridges on the www.fhwa.gov website that I obtained the information in the SaveOurBridges.com website) as the I-35W but failed to take any steps to address these bridges to avoid future collapses,” he said.

“Bridge repairs just aren’t sexy enough,” which is oftentimes why they don’t get the proper funding for the necessary repairs, he said.

“Have you ever seen a photo in any newspaper in the nation showing a politician proudly heralding this commitment of funding to fix the underside of a bridge,” he asks. “Yet you have seen many a photo with a politician standing next to a new road or another transportation project that helped a campaign contributor to celebrate his/her shopping center.”

New features

Users of SaveOurBridges can expect new features very soon, as an iPhone and iPad app will be added in a few weeks, LePatner says.

He also explains that consumers should stay aware of bridge safety and by using his website; they should be able to accomplish this much easier than before.

“It is important that our citizens be informed and have a choice as to whether they wish to use bridges in serious danger of collapse or choose an alternate route. Now we all have a choice,” he said.

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Tax returns with education credits, depreciation can be filed next week

Latest moves mean nearly everyone will be able to start filing

If your tax return will be claiming education credits and depreciation for the 2012 tax year, get ready to send it in. Starting next week, taxpayers will...

PhotoIf your tax return will be claiming education credits and depreciation for the 2012 tax year, get ready to send it in.

Starting next week, taxpayers will be able to start filing those two forms -- Form 4562, Education Credits on Sunday, Feb 10, and Form 8863, Education Credits on Thursday, Feb. 14,

This step clears the way for almost all taxpayers to start filing their tax returns for 2012. These forms affected the largest groups of taxpayers who weren’t able to file following the Jan. 30 opening of the 2013 tax season.

The IRS will be able to accept the education credits and depreciation forms following the completion of reprogramming and testing of its systems. Work continues on preparing IRS systems to accept the remaining tax forms affected by the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) enacted by Congress on Jan. 2.

More to come

The IRS also says it will start accepting the remaining forms affected by the January legislation the first week of March. A specific date will be announced later.

Most of those in this group file more complex tax returns and typically file closer to the deadline or obtain an extension. A full list of the forms that will be accepted the first week of March is available here .

Next week’s opening covers two groups of taxpayers using:

  • Form 8863, Education Credits. Form 8863 is used to claim two higher education credits -- the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.
  • Form 4562, Depreciation and Amortization. Most of the people using the depreciation form tend to file later in the tax season or obtain a six-month extension. Non-1040 business filers using Form 4562 can also file starting Sunday.

For taxpayers using e-file, most software companies are now accepting tax returns with these two forms and will submit them after the IRS begins accepting them next week.

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Feds shut down California drug, dietary supplement maker

The government action was prompted by repeated violations

A California company and its owner have been ordered to stop manufacturing and distributing drugs and dietary supplements in domestic commerce until manufa...

PhotoA California company and its owner have been ordered to stop manufacturing and distributing drugs and dietary supplements in domestic commerce until manufacturing operations comply with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act).

U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright of the Central District of California signed the order on Dec. 11, 2012, against Titan Medical Enterprises of Santa Fe Springs, CA, and James L. McDaniel, Titan Medical’s owner and president. The order was entered in response to a complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Failure to follow standards

The court found that the company and McDaniel violated the Act by failing to follow current Good Manufacturing Practice for drugs (Drug cGMP) and for dietary supplements (Dietary Supplement cGMP). The court also found that the defendants violated federal law by distributing unapproved new drugs in violation of the Act. Prior to entry of the court’s order, Titan Medical Enterprises manufactured and domestically distributed a variety of drugs and dietary supplements.

“The FDA continues to take strong enforcement actions against companies that fail to comply with federal drug and dietary supplement manufacturing regulations,” said acting Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs Melinda K. Plaisier. “The actions we are taking are necessary to make sure that the drugs and dietary supplements consumers purchase have been manufactured in compliance with cGMP."

Multiple violations

Nine FDA inspections of Titan between 2001 and 2012 revealed that the company’s drugs were not manufactured and distributed in compliance with Drug cGMP. Violations included failure to establish an adequate written testing program to assess the stability of finished products and failure to establish and follow adequate laboratory controls.

The Dietary Supplement cGMP regulations went into effect in 2007 and became effective over the following three years based on company size. Titan’s compliance date was in 2010, and FDA inspections in 2010, 2011, and 2012 revealed that Titan violated the Dietary Supplement cGMP regulations by, among other things, failing to verify that a subset of finished dietary supplement batches met product specifications and failing to adequately confirm the identity of dietary supplement components.

Drug cGMP includes practices and systems required to be adopted in the manufacture and testing of pharmaceuticals. Drug cGMP outlines the aspects of production and testing that can impact the quality of a product.

Similarly, Dietary Supplement cGMP regulations require dietary supplement manufacturers to ensure quality in their dietary supplements by appropriately controlling all aspects of their processes and procedures to ensure a supplement meets minimal quality standards and is not adulterated by the presence of contaminants.

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More mothers are breastfeeding

African American mothers need more support

Breastfeeding is a win-win proposition for both babies and mothers. For infants, there's protection from illness provided by cells, hormones and antibodie...

PhotoBreastfeeding is a win-win proposition for both babies and mothers.

For infants, there's protection from illness provided by cells, hormones and antibodies in breast milk. And breast milk is easier to digest. For moms, breastfeeding is linked to a lower risk of health problems including Type 2 diabetes, breast and ovarian cancer and postpartum depression.

It may be that the word is finally getting out, as the percentage of mothers who start and continue breastfeeding is rising, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

From 2000 to 2008, mothers who started breastfeeding increased more than four percentage points. During that same time, the number of mothers still breastfeeding at six months jumped nearly 10 percentage points -- from 35 percent in 2000 to nearly 45 percent in 2008.

Narrowing the gap

In addition to increases among all groups, gaps in breastfeeding rates between African American and white mothers are narrowing. The gap narrowed from 24 percentage points in 2000 to 16 percentage points in 2008.

“Breastfeeding is good for the mother and for the infant -- and the striking news here is hundreds of thousands more babies are being breastfed than in past years and this increase has been seen across most racial and ethnic groups,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Despite these increases, many mothers who want to breastfeed are still not getting the support they need from hospitals, doctors, or employers. We must redouble our efforts to support mothers who want to breastfeed.”

While gaps continue to narrow among groups, more targeted strategies to increase breastfeeding support for African American mothers are still needed. To address this, CDC is currently funding Best-Fed Beginnings, a project that provides support to 89 hospitals -- many serving minority and low income populations -- to improve hospital practices that support breastfeeding mothers.

CDC has also recently awarded funds to six state health departments to develop community breastfeeding support systems in communities of color.

Trends and differences

To better understand breastfeeding trends and differences among African American, white and Hispanic infants born from 2000 to 2008, CDC analyzed National Immunization Survey data from 2002–2011.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • From 2000 to 2008, breastfeeding at six and twelve months increased significantly among African American, white and Hispanic infants.
  • While numbers are rising across all groups, all mothers need more support to continue breastfeeding since less than half of mothers are breastfeeding at six months (45 percent) and less than a quarter of mothers (23 percent) are breastfeeding at twelve months.
  • Although rates of breastfeeding at six months increased by more than 13 percent among African American mothers, this group still had the lowest rates of breastfeeding duration, indicating that they still need more, targeted support.
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Mutsy USA recalls EVO strollers

An opening in the stroller poses a strangulation hazard to children who are not harnessed

Mutsy USA of Newark, NJ, is recalling about 340 EVO strollers The opening between the grab bar and seat bottom of the stroller can allow an infant’s body ...

PhotoMutsy USA of Newark, NJ, is recalling about 340 EVO strollers

The opening between the grab bar and seat bottom of the stroller can allow an infant’s body to pass through and become entrapped at the neck, posing a strangulation hazard to young children who are not harnessed.

This recall includes EVO strollers manufactured between February 2012 and November 2012 with the following model numbers: MT12-03, MT12-11, MT12-14, MT12-31, MT12-34, MT12-37, MT12-39, MT12-42, MT12-43 and MT12-48.

The model number and date code can be found underneath the stroller seat on a white sticker. The strollers have black or silver-colored metal frames with brown, navy blue, black, or white seats. “EVO” is printed on the lower back frame of the stroller. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The strollers, manufactured in China, were sold at juvenile product stores nationwide and Websites including www.amazon.com between April 2012 and December 2012 for about $400.

Consumers should stop using the strollers immediately and contact Mutsy USA to receive a free replacement seat unit and grab bar.

Consumers may contact Mutsy USA toll-free at (877) 546-9230 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or by e-mail at usa@mutsy.nl.

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Sky King fined for charter violations

The violations are related to the cessation of service by Direct Air

Air carrier Sky King has been assessed a $500,000 penalty for violating rules that protect passengers when their public charter flights are suddenly cancel...

PhotoAir carrier Sky King has been assessed a $500,000 penalty for violating rules that protect passengers when their public charter flights are suddenly canceled. The airline was also ordered to cease and desist from further violations.

Sky King was one of several carriers operating flights for Direct Air, a charter operator also known as Myrtle Beach Direct Air & Tours, which ceased operating in March 2012. Direct Air arranged charters from a number of cities in the Midwest and Northeast to Myrtle Beach, SC, and cities in Florida.

Public charters differ from scheduled flights in that they operate only for a specific time period and are usually sold by a charter operator rather than an airline. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has specific rules applying to public charters, including a requirement that the charter operator have a financial security arrangement, such as a bond or letter of credit and an escrow account to protect consumers’ money if a flight is canceled. There is also a ban on canceling flights less than 10 days before departure unless it is physically impossible to operate the flight.

“Airline passengers should be able to book charter flights with the confidence that they will be returned home on time,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “DOT will continue to protect the rights of airline consumers and take enforcement action against airlines and charter operators when those rights are violated.”

Funding shortfall

Beginning with flights departing in January 2012, Direct Air failed to transfer sufficient funds from its escrow account to Sky King prior to the operation of the charter flights. However, Sky King continued to operate the charter flights without requiring full payment of the total charter price from Direct Air, in violation of DOT rules.

On March 13, 2012, Sky King ceased all flights under the public charter program, as Direct Air owed money to Sky King for flights the carrier had completed on its behalf. Numerous passengers did not receive the service for which they paid Direct Air when Sky King canceled the remaining flights it was scheduled to operate for Direct Air.

In assessing its fine against Sky King, DOT found the carrier violated rules requiring that it be paid prior to operating a public charter flight and prohibiting the cancellation of public charter flights less than 10 days before their scheduled departure.

Passengers left high and dry

In addition, Sky King failed to ensure return flights for all round-trip passengers who traveled on the carrier for the outbound leg of their trips. Carriers also are required to make a reasonable effort to ensure that the charter operator for which they are providing flights is complying with the public charter rules. The Enforcement Office noted that the late payments should have prompted Sky King to look into whether Direct Air was following the rules.

This is the fourth and largest penalty assessed by DOT related to the Direct Air program. The penalty amount will be included in DOT’s proof of claim that will be filed in Sky King’s bankruptcy case. The Department is continuing to investigate Direct Air’s shutdown.  

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Cool gadgets to keep your kids safe

Some say too many gadgets aren't good for children, but in this case, they can really help

For many adults starting a family is a huge priority and once that family gets started, keeping everybody protected and safe becomes even a bigger pri...

PhotoFor many adults, starting a family is a top priority and once that family gets started, keeping everybody protected and safe becomes an even more urgent priority.

And the common saying among many parents is that it takes a village to raise a child, but in the year 2013 some would say these villages need help, and good way to get some of that help is through an electronic device.

Because we all know that kids pretty much just want to have fun and remain in their imaginary worlds for as long as they can, which sometimes doesn’t make them the absolute best at recognizing and avoiding danger.

This often happens in or around swimming pools for example, because there seems to be something about the blue water and chlorine that make kids not only lose their composure but also forget the very safety lessons that you tried to teach them -- like not going into the pool when no adults are around to supervise.

Brick House

PhotoThat’s why the company Brick House Security released the Brick House Security Swimming Pool Alarm for about $200 on the its website. Although its winter in many parts of the country, this easy-to-use device is something parents who own swimming pools can order and have ready way before summertime arrives.

The Brick House pool alarm comes with cute little bracelets that secure around your child’s wrist and as soon as he or she touches the water, an alarm will sound so you can rush to help immediately. The device is also small and portable so parents can bring it with them when traveling.

The Brick House Security Swimming Pool Alarm can also be used for your pet and the company says there’s no installation and it’s easy to set up and operate.

Amber Alert

Another useful gadget to help protect your kids is the Amber Alert GPS which costs $199 on the company’s website for a one-year contract. The company also offers discounted prices for longer service commitments.

PhotoThe child simply carries the tiny device which appears to be about the size of an iPod mini, and parents can track all of their child’s whereabouts from their home computers or smartphones, by bringing up a map that shows you not only the exact location of your child, but the  address and how to get there.

You can also bring up a record of the different locations your child has been throughout the day.

The company says the Amber Alert GPS locator is vastly different from simply giving your child a smartphone that has GPS tracking, because the Amber serves no purpose other than to track your child, as opposed to a smartphone that’s used for countless other things and may not provide the same amount of accuracy.

The Amber Alert GPS can also send emails or text messages when your child leaves certain locations, which is helpful for those kids who travel to places without you like to school, team practices or a friend’s house.

The GPS also has a speed alert component that alerts you if the device and your child are going above certain rates of speed while driving, which is a big potential plus for parents of teen drivers.

Dropcam

PhotoSetting up cameras inside your home for security isn’t a new concept, but how about one that you’re able to set up in just 60 seconds?

That’s how long the company Dropcam Inc. says it will take to install its security device that can be used to monitor a babysitter who’s watching your children, keep an eye on your kids when they’re in a section of the house alone or when you want to watch your newborn sleep while you’re in another room.

The Dropcam also has motion sensors, so when an event occurs like a child coming home from school, it sends your smartphone or PC an alert, so you can see and communicate with your child through a two way voice recording system .

In addition, camera is pretty small, almost the size of one of those tiny external PC cameras, so it’s easy to move from room to room without any wires or cords, because the entire device runs off of Wi-Fi signals.

The cost of the Dropcam monitoring system is $149 on the company’s website and you can also purchase other services from the company, like video security protection for an additional cost.

Crystal Clear

But if you would rather spend a little less money on a home security camera, you could always go for the Safety 1st Crystal Clear Baby Monitor that costs under $25 on Amazon.

PhotoThe device certainly doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles that the Dropcam has, especially because it only allows you to monitor sound, but it's good if you’ll only need to monitor your child for a short period of time or you’re  the type of parent that doesn’t plan to use a monitoring system all that much.

And although the Safety 1st Baby Monitor is a solid product and reviewed pretty well overall, other reports say it may start to pick up static over long periods of use, so again, if you’re a parent that plans to use a monitoring system daily, you may want to go with a more expensive device.

So as it seems the job of parenting may be getting harder with new societal ills always developing and children becoming exposed to those ills much easier, but thankfully certain aspects of technology are making it easier to help parents keep their children safe and protected, because everyone can use some help every now and then, especially Mom and Dad.

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Privacy issues may dominate in 2013

From the sky to your smartphone, someone may be watching

We don't mean to create paranoia, but it seems there are no secrets anymore. Almost everything you do now is public, and there's always the chance someone ...

PhotoWe don't mean to create paranoia, but it seems there are no secrets anymore. Almost everything you do now is public, and there's always the chance someone is looking over your shoulder.

Take the whole issue of aerial drones. These small, pilotless planes were developed for military purposes but are also now being deployed in U.S. airspace.

A new report from the Congressional Research Service -- "Integration of Drones into Domestic Airspace: Selected Legal Issues" -- warns that "perhaps the most contentious issue concerning the introduction of drones into U.S. airspace is the threat that this technology will be used to spy on American citizens."

Eye in the sky

In 2012 the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) warned Congress that "there are substantial legal and constitutional issues involved in the deployment of aerial drones by federal agencies." EPIC, along with more than 100 organizations, experts, and members of the public, petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin a rule making to establish privacy safeguards.

PhotoLaw enforcement advocates the use of domestic drones for surveillance, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns it would be a move that "would profoundly change the character of public life in America."

There are also privacy issues involving our every day communication. Earlier this month the operator of the Path social networking app agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it deceived users by collecting personal information from their mobile device address books without their knowledge and consent.

The company also will pay $800,000 to settle charges that it illegally collected personal information from children without their parents’ consent.

Spying on your kids

But what about a technology that's sole purpose is to allow parents to spy on their children? App developer Retina-X Studios has rolled out a version of its Mobile Spy app for the Apple iPhone 5.

PhotoParents can load the app on their children's iPhone and then keep tabs on their activities. According to the developers, the hidden software remains completely silent on the device while it monitors text messages, call information, GPS locations and other activities of children or employees, even if phone logs are erased.

Though it sounds a bit creepy, Derrick, a Mobile Spy user, calls it a "priceless" piece of software.

"After having some doubts about honesty, this really helped set the record straight and confirmed my suspicions," he said.

"For those who want to keep tabs on their teens, this is the answer," said Craig Thompson, media coordinator of Retina-X Studios. "Mobile Spy provides parents with the information they need, when they need it. This helps keeps teens safe, and helps parents feel better about letting them out of their sight with an iPhone."

Another view

But not everyone agrees that it's healthy or productive for parents to spy on their kids. Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, told a panel at the 2011 convention of the American Psychological Association, that spying on kids is counter productive.

“If you feel that you have to use some sort of computer program to surreptitiously monitor your child's social networking, you are wasting your time,” Rosen said, “Your child will find a workaround in a matter of minutes.”

He encouraged parents to assess their child’s activities on social networking sites, and discuss removing inappropriate content or connections to people who appear problematic. Parents also need to pay attention to the online trends and the latest technologies, websites and applications children are using, he said.

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Southern diet could raise your risk of stroke

Fried foods and sugary drinks are said to be the culprits

You might want to take another look at the way you've been eating -- particularly if you live south of the Mason-Dixon line. A diet of fried chicken, frie...

PhotoYou might want to take another look at the way you've been eating -- particularly if you live south of the Mason-Dixon line.

A diet of fried chicken, fried fish, fried potatoes, bacon, ham, liver and gizzards, and sugary drinks such as sweet tea may be linked to a higher risk of stroke.

Research presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2013 says that in addition to being high in fat, fried foods tend to be heavily salted.

In the first large-scale study on the relationship between Southern foods and stroke, researchers characterized a Southern diet by a high intake of foods such as fried chicken, fried fish, fried potatoes, bacon, ham, liver and gizzards, and sugary drinks such as sweet tea. In addition to being high in fat, fried foods tend to be heavily salted.

Risk factors

"We've got three major factors working together in the Southern-style diet to raise risks of cardiovascular disease: fatty foods are high in cholesterol, sugary drinks are linked to diabetes and salty foods lead to high blood pressure," said Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., M.P.H., lead researcher and a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Alabama Birmingham's biostatistics department.

Previous research has shown that Southerners are about 20 percent more likely to have a stroke than the rest of Americans.

The first large-scale study on the relationship between Southern foods and stroke compared the dietary habits of more than 20,000 black and white adults. It found:

  • Stroke frequency was directly proportional to how much Southern food participants ate.
  • People who ate Southern foods about six times a week had a 41 percent higher stroke risk compared with those who ate it about once a month.
  • Eating a Southern diet accounted for 63 percent of the higher risk of stroke among African-Americans above that of their white counterparts.
  • Those whose diets were highest in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains (eaten about five times a week) had a 29 percent lower stroke risk than those whose diets were the lowest in these foods (eaten about three times a week).

Ethnic component

The study raises red flags for African-Americans who are five times more likely to eat Southern foods than whites, Judd said. And first-time stroke risk among blacks is almost double that of whites, according to American Stroke Association statistics.

Participants from 48 states answered telephone questionnaires about what foods they eat as part of the continuing Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study (begun in 2003). Participants were evenly divided between men and women, and the minimum age was 45.

Each person underwent an in-person medical assessment including height, weight and blood pressure measurements; an electrocardiogram; and a blood test. Every six months after, participants answered follow-up telephone questions about their stroke incidence, sleep habits and overall health.

Researchers designed a mathematical model to group foods commonly eaten together into 56 different categories. Each person's eating habits were scored based on the categories. The scores were further analyzed in relation to how often they had a stroke.

About two-thirds of the participants who ate the most Southern-style foods lived in the southeastern United States. But, no matter where they live, people eating a lot of Southern foods should be more aware of their risks of stroke, Judd said.

Healthcare providers should educate patients about nutrition earlier, and ask patients about what they're eating, how much and how often, she said.

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A little help for people with sensitive stomachs

Every person is different but here are some remedies for common problems

I remember having a conversation with somebody once about which is the worst kind of pain—a headache, toothache or a stomach ache.Obviously it wasn...

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Are you a big social media person? Then get rewarded for it

Influenster.com wants people who are natural trendsetters to join forces with them, sort of

The growth of the Internet has obviously assisted many businesses, spawned many jobs and created a lot of industries, but probably one of the biggest ...

PhotoThe growth of the Internet has obviously helped many businesses, spawned many jobs and created a lot of industries, but probably one of the biggest uses of the Internet is its sharing component, which has not only made the world seem smaller for many, but it has also made it easier for people to exchange information and borrow ideas from each other.

And probably the biggest web destinations for sharing ideas are Facebook and Twitter, as both sites have been constant go-tos, not only for everyday consumers, but also for those ardent shoppers and tastemakers that many companies rely on to spread the word about its products or new ventures.

And exactly what is a tastemaker?

Many people have heard the term before, but for those who haven’t, a tastemaker is basically a person who is very much "in the know" about areas of consumerism like fashion, gadgetry and style. 

But a tastemaker isn’t just in the know about certain industries; they also have a huge desire to communicate their knowledge on just about every popular social site, because having throngs of followers and people who look up to you and follow your every suggestion, makes you an important asset for any company that wants to reach the young buying public that regularly uses social media.

Oftentimes companies will pay everyday consumers pretty decent sums of money just to tweet or blog about products they’re using or the products they're looking forward to using, so creators of the website Influenster have set themselves up as  a digital liaison of sorts, so both companies and tastemakers can find each other and communicate.

Strong network

PhotoThe site is free to join and the owners encourage people to sign up who either have a bunch of social media followers already or are starting to build a strong network of followers, but more importantly the site wants people who always look for the newest trends and are able to communicate those trends to their followers on a consistent basis. 

And the more successful users are, the more they’ll be rewarded by the companies and brands that Influenster works with.

And what are those rewards you might ask?

It really depends on how successful you are at spreading the word to your followers about a particular product, so if you’re one of those people who normally take photos of things you see online, in stores or in restaurants, Influenster wants you do the same thing but just through them.

The whole idea of the site is to let others know what’s on the horizon of both trend and coolness, while giving users the chance to be rewarded for their social media postings.

One of the chief goals for each user is to get a badge, which symbolizes their level of influence.

For example the “Influenster badge”-- which is the highest badge of honor -- shows other users and brands that you have a vast reach when it comes to letting people know about a new item or a new project being introduced.

Other badges the site offers, like the “Expert,” show just where your expertise lies, whether it's fashion, gaming, travel, environmental causes or other areas.

Creators of the site say users who do a lot of sharing and tastemaking will have access to information that shows just how much you’re tweeting, posting and sharing to help lift a company’s sales. Successful users will also have access to products before they’re released, special promotions and exclusive sales deals, and the more sharing you do the bigger the rewards.

Invitation required

To join Influenster, you’ll have to request an invitation, which entails filling out a form and providing your name, email, etc., and you’ll also be asked to indicate what social sites you frequent so companies and brands know just how you’re communicating.

PhotoThe site also uses what it calls “Influenster Scores” to determine what badges you receive and how many rewards you’ll get, and the numbers are mainly driven by how much you participate on the site and how much you communicate through social media.

The general Internet reviews about Influenster are fairly good, but if there’s a downside to the site, it’s how much legwork one has to do in order to get significant deals or rewards.

So if you’re a person who’s thinking about using the site in order to rack up a bunch of free stuff, you’ll probably be disappointed -- but what’s good is that Influenster comes right out and tells you this and warns consumers that the site is more about sharing rather than getting free stuff.

The company says it wants to attract people who have a natural desire to share cool things, which should trump any desire you have to have a room full of free products.

So if you consider yourself a tastemaker, a trendsetter or just somebody who stays in the know about the next greatest thing, you might as well be rewarded and get a few consumer perks at the same time, but if you’re someone who casually post things on Facebook or Twitter and you don’t have any level of consistency in terms of how much you post or tweet, the site may not be for you.

Because since the site relies heavily on scores and points to deem people successful users, you should already be a big social media person, which believe it or not, a lot of people just aren't.

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Another expansion of the Sprouters Northwest recall of sprouts products, wheatgrass and pea shoots

There is a potential for contamination with Listeria monocytogenes

Sprouters Northwest is recalling all varieties of sprouts products, wheatgrass and pea shoots due to the potential contamination with Listeria monocytogene...

PhotoSprouters Northwest is recalling all varieties of sprouts products, wheatgrass and pea shoots due to the potential contamination with Listeria monocytogenes. There have been no illnesses reported to date.

This is an expansion of recalls anounced on February 5 and January 29, 2013 

All varieties of sprouts products including 3-Bean Munchie, Alfalfa, Bean, Broccoli, Brocco Sandwich sprouts, Clover, Deli, Spicy; Wheatgrass and Pea Shoots that were distributed through 1/30/2013 in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, Canada through retail stores and food service distribution chain.

The affected products are sold under the Sprouters Northwest, LifeForce and Brassica brand names and are packaged in plastic clamshell containers, plastic cups, plastic trays in 3 oz., 4 oz., 5 oz., and in plastic 1 lb. 2lb, or 5lb. bags. The Best by Dates are including all and up to 2/17/2013.

Trader Joe's Organic Pea Shoots (SKU 92756), packaged in a 4 oz. clamshell offered only in Oregon and Washington state are also affected. The Best by Dates are through 02/16/13. The Best by Date sticker is located in the top right hand corner, front of the package.

Consumers who have purchased a specific lot of items mentioned above are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a full refund or dispose of it.

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

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It's almost like a game of 'can you top this?' when it comes to reasons for being late to work

Here are some of the most memorable excuses from tardy employees

Have we become a nation of foot-draggers? With more than a quarter (26 percent) of workers admitting to being late to work at least once a month, and 16 pe...

PhotoHave we become a nation of foot-draggers? With more than a quarter (26 percent) of workers admitting to being late to work at least once a month, and 16 percent tardy once a week or more, you could make that argument.

But perhaps more astounding than those numbers are the reasons people give for not showing up on time.

According to a new CareerBuilder study, frozen car keys, a functionally fashionable cement duck and coin-operated newspaper machines top this year’s list of most outrageous excuses for arriving to work late.

“Employers understand that every now and again circumstances will arise that are out of a worker’s control and unfortunately cause a late arrival to work,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of Human Resources at CareerBuilder. “It escalates to a problem when the behavior becomes repetitive, causing employers to take disciplinary action. More than one-third of hiring managers reported they had to fire someone for being late.”

What’s your excuse?

Traffic is the most common culprit causing tardiness according to 31 percent of workers. Other factors include lack of sleep, the need to drop off the kids at daycare or school, bad weather and public transportation delays.

Not all employees blame jammed roads. Hiring managers shared some of the most memorable excuses they’ve heard from employees who were late getting to the office, including:

  • Employee dropped her purse into a coin-operated newspaper box and couldn’t retrieve it without change (which was in the purse)
  • Employee accidentally left the apartment with his roommate’s girlfriend’s shoes on and had to go back to change
  • Employee’s angry wife had frozen his truck keys in a glass of water in the freezer
  • Employee got a late start because she was putting a rain coat on her cement duck in her front yard (because rain was expected later that day)
  • Employee’s car wouldn’t start because the breathalyzer showed he was intoxicated
  • Employee attempted to cut his own hair before work and the clippers stopped working, so he had to wait until the barber shop opened to fix his hair
  • Employee’s car was attacked by a bear (had photographic evidence)
  • Employee drove to her previous employer by mistake
  • Employee claimed to have delivered a stranger’s baby on the side of the highway

The survey was conducted online by Harris Interactive© from November 1 to November 30, 2012 and included more than 2,600 hiring managers and more than 3,900 workers nationwide.

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Telecommuting could save you time, money -- and your sanity

Only a tiny fraction of the U.S. workforce works from home

Let's face it -- for a lot of people, getting to and from work is the worst part of their day. And, with a new report detailing the growing cost of daily...

PhotoLet's face it -- for a lot of people, getting to and from work is the worst part of their day.

And, with a new report detailing the growing cost of daily commuting, one workplace authority wonders if it is time for the nation’s employers to make a serious commitment to expanding the use of telecommuting strategies.

“Right now, a very small fraction of the nation’s workers who could viably work from home on a regular basis are actually doing so,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. “By not expanding the use of telecommuting, employers are negatively impacting the environment, worker productivity, job satisfaction and, most importantly, their bottom lines. And, it is not a lack of technology or other resources that is holding back this expansion. It is simply a lack of vision, a shortage of trust and an irrational adherence to antiquated notions of how and where work should be done.”

Commuting times get longer

The call for increased telecommuting comes on the heels of a new report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which revealed that increased traffic congestion is forcing the nation’s workers to build in extra time to their daily commutes to the tune of $121 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2011.

The longest commuting times are found in Washington, DC, where it takes drivers three hours to reach a destination that would be 30 minutes away with no traffic. On average, commuters are giving themselves one hour for what should be a 20-minute drive with no traffic.

“The impact of these monster commutes on the workplace is enormous,” said Challenger. “Workers who do not build in enough commuting time are likely to be late or may simply decide to take a personal day. Those who leave at the crack of dawn simply to arrive at a normal starting time of 8am or 9am are probably fatigued and not in a very good mood. The end result is a workforce that is late, absent, and/or performing well below their potential,”

Growth of telecommuting

Obviously, there are many occupations that are not conducive to telecommuting. However, the number of jobs that can be done remotely have grown significantly over the last two decades and will continue to expand going forward.

The latest available statistics from the Telework Research Network indicate that 3.1 million people -- not including the self-employed or unpaid volunteers -- considered home to be their primary place of work in 2011. That is roughly 2.5 percent of U.S. nonfarm payrolls.

Overall, the number of telecommuters increased by 73 percent between 2005 and 2011. However, according to the data, the number of telecommuters remains well below the potential. The Telework Research Network estimates that as many as 64 million U.S. employees (just under 50 percent of the workforce) hold a job that is compatible with telework.

What's the problem?

So, what is keeping telecommuting from growing? It is not resistance from workers. Nearly 80 percent of Americans polled in a 2009 survey said they would like to work from home.

If there is any resistance from employees, it is most likely related to how increased telecommuting might impact their status in the office, according to Challenger. “There is a perception that if you are not in the office, you are more likely to miss important meetings, get passed over for promotion or get targeted for layoff in the event of a downsizing. These are not irrational concerns, by any means, as these are the subtle, and sometimes overt, messages that get passed on to workers from management.”

He points out that companies are embracing the latest portable tablets and laptops, social networking, video conferencing and many of the other technological advancements that make telecommuting increasingly viable. However, he notes, in many ways, companies are stuck in the old way of doing business, where people are expected to work from 9 to 5 and are judged more on the amount of ‘face time’ than on the quantity or quality of output .

Companies that have embraced telecommuting have found that their remote workers are just as, if not more productive than traditional office workers. Analyses of Best Buy, British Telecom, Dow Chemical and many other employers have found that teleworkers are 35 percent to 45 percent more productive. American Express found that its teleworkers produced 43 percent more than their office-based counterparts.

Benefits to employees

In addition, various studies have found that telecommuting employees are happier, more loyal and have fewer unscheduled absences.

“All of these outcomes positively impact the bottom line,” said Challenger. “However, they represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corporate finances. Companies that have widely adopted telecommuting are realizing significant savings in many areas but, most notably, real estate costs.”

In a 2008 Workforce Management article, a Sun Microsystems spokesman said the company had realized “huge cost savings,” as a result of the 18,000 workers participating in its telecommuting initiatives. According to the article, the San Francisco-based technology company saved $67.8 million in real estate costs in fiscal 2006 alone.

Challenger says the benefits of increased telecommuting extend beyond individual companies. “The positive effects on the environment alone should make telecommuting a higher priority,” he contends. “Not only would it reduce greenhouse gases, but it would greatly reduce our dependency on foreign oil. There really are not many negatives related to increased telecommuting other than imagined ones.”  

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Gasoline prices surge for third straight winter

Unlike in previous years, this can't be blamed on 'Middle East tension'

Here we go again. For the third straight winter, retail gasoline prices have accelerated.The national average price of self-serve regular is over $3.54 a...

PhotoHere we go again. For the third straight winter, retail gasoline prices have accelerated.

The national average price of self-serve regular is over $3.54 a gallon, according to AAA. It's up 15 cents in a week and 25 cents in a month.

In case you've forgotten, the same thing happened in early 2011. At the time, the increase was attributed to worries in the market that political instability in Libya would lead to supply shortages.

In 2012, when prices shot up again, it was blamed on tensions with Iran over its nuclear program. The worry was that any kind of Persian Gulf dust-up would interrupt oil supplies.

No Middle East turmoil

This year, there's a shortage of oil-producing Middle East tensions but that has not prevented retail gasoline prices from making their annual February surge. So what's to blame for this year's pain at the pump?

According to a consensus among industry analysts, this year's price rise is mostly to be blamed on U.S. refineries shutting down for scheduled maintenance. In other words, a completely foreseeable and, perhaps, controllable set of circumstances has caused the market to spike.

Other reasons that have been given for the sudden increase in price is optimism about economic recovery, even though the economy declined in the fourth quarter. Also, the fact that refineries, once they are operating again, will be switching over to summer-blends, which are more expensive.

However, consumers with long memories will recall that these annual occurrences rarely seemed to result in the big price increases we have seen over the last three winters.

Don't blame the service stations

PhotoIt's useful for consumers to also remember that their local service station operator is not to blame for the price at the pump. The station buys the fuel from a wholesale distributor, who obtains the product on the open market. Beginning last month, that market has been very active.

Gasoline futures, traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, have rocketed higher since mid-January. The price of futures contracts has risen 12% since the middle of last month.

At the same time, the price of crude oil has also been rising. Why? Not really because of supply. In fact, America's appetite for oil continues to decline while the country's domestic oil production continues to rise.

The Wall Street Journal links the rise in crude prices to pipeline problems, making it difficult to move product around the country. In other words, we have plenty of oil, we just can't get it where it needs to be. Because of that, the price rises.

Where's the demand?

If consumers were buying more gasoline, that would certainly help explain the recent rise in gasoline prices, both at the commodities market and the retail levels. But that isn't the case.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports gasoline demand in the U.S. peaked in 2007. Last year's demand was a half-million barrels a day below that. Not only are people driving less, they're driving more fuel-efficient cars. Yet the amount of money they're shelling out for fuel continues to rise.

When consumers are suddenly hit with a big increase in gasoline prices, it has much the same effect as raising their taxes or cutting their pay. The effect on the economy can be toxic. In 2011 the economy was beginning to show signs of life when the large spike in gasoline prices coincided with the economy hitting what economists described as a "soft patch."

Futures prices retreat

That said, it's possible gasoline prices may level off, or perhaps even drop a few cents in the next couple of weeks. Energy traders in the futures market in recent days have begun selling their long positions. As a result, gasoline futures prices actually retreated a bit this week. Oil prices have also declined before hitting the $100 a barrel mark.

Why? It appears the market is now not so sure the economy is doing that well. Some analysts cite last weeks jump in first time unemployment claims, a highly volatile indicator that rarely moves markets. Others suggests the market for gasoline simply went up too fast in too short of a period of time.

The hedge funds that poured millions into the futures market in mid January, however, are looking at a handsome profit. Consumers, meanwhile, are looking at high gasoline prices, in what has become a winter tradition, along with Groundhog Day.

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Are TVs getting better?

Consumer Reports says they are but our expert is undecided

Problems with flat screen TVs, regardless of the manufacturer, have been well documented. From the "capacitor plague" to lines in the screen, consumers hav...

PhotoProblems with flat screen TVs, regardless of the manufacturer, have been well documented. From the "capacitor plague" to lines in the screen, consumers have complained for years that their expensive TVs only last a year or two out of warranty.

In a recent report, Consumer Reports tested the latest model TVs and found them to be bigger, better, smarter and cheaper.

“If you’re thinking about upgrading your TV, or if you’re one of the holdouts planning to buy your first flat-panel TV, you’ll find plenty of great models in our latest ratings — many at prices that will put a smile on your face,” said Jim Willcox, senior editor for electronics.

Blown capacitors

Samsung TV Feb. 6, 2013, 5:44 p.m.
Consumers rate Samsung TV

Of course, that hasn't always been the case. Frustrated consumers have been sounding off at ConsumerAffairs for years about problems with their TVs. For a while, blown capacitors was a common problem.

The heat building up in the set's chassis caused cheaper capacitors to blow. Fortunately, that's a relatively easy fix. Unfortunately, problems in the display are not, as we heard from Francis, of Monroeville, Ala., in a ConsumerAffairs post:

"We purchased a 55-inch Samsung LCD TV Christmas 2010.  The picture went out in 2011. It was still under warranty and was repaired. Picture began going out again in Dec. 2012 but would come back after being turned off a little while. By January the problem became really bad. We called Samsung and were referred to a service number. When the service people called us back, they told us the part would cost $800 and repair would be $242. Their advice was to purchase another TV. I paid $1,400 for this TV, and I expected to get more than two years of service from it or at least a repair within reason."

Consumers like Francis might be happy to hear that the latest model TV sets are of better quality. Dave Maltz, who owns Dave's TV Repair, in Grants Pass, Ore., says he doesn't see a high enough volume of TVs to make an accurate judgment about any improvements. But he says he has seen some TVs that have made it five-plus years before they had any problems.

"Just yesterday one of my customers told me his Philips Plasma TV is five years old and still operating fine," Maltz said. "This surprised me because I had often heard bad things about Philips TVs, and the gentleman who told me this is a real heavy TV watcher."

Improved efficiency

Maltz said plasma TVs are more efficient than they once were. Since they now build up less heat, it may aid their longevity.

Sony TVs Feb. 6, 2013, 5:44 p.m.
Consumers rate Sony TVs

"As for LCD TVs I'm not sure what to think," Maltz said. "I still see or get calls from people who have display issues from bonding problems, and most of the time this makes them not worth repairing, in my opinion. As you probably know this has been a real problem with LCD TVs, and angered many who purchased them."

Maltz passed along the YouTube video below from a fellow repairman who found a cheap way to address the the display problems so common in Sony LCD flat screens. While you will see that it works, Maltz cautions that he doesn't think it can be counted on as a lasting fix.

Most consumers should not attempt this repair themselves, but it might be worth pointing out to the person repairing your TV.

Vizio Feb. 6, 2013, 5:44 p.m.
Consumers rate Vizio

A review of ConsumerAffairs complaints about flat screen TVs found that, indeed, most of the complaints appear to be about sets manufactured between 2008 and 2010, so Consumer Reports' observation that newer sets are better might be true.

It's also helpful to keep in mind that Consumer Reports qualified its findings by saying lower-priced TVs might still have quality issues. When it comes to TV sets, the best "bargain" might be the more expensive one.

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How to stay safe in a night club

After the tragedy in Brazil where over 235 people died, it's time to take another look at club safety

Since over 235 people were tragically killed inside of a night club in Southern Brazil last month, some believe there’s a huge need to not only reeva...

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Postal Service plans to end Saturday mail delivery this summer

The troubled agency is announcing a wide range of cost-cutting measures today

Say what you will about the U.S. Postal Service. It's determined. Determined to end mail delivery on Saturday, that is.The end to Saturday home deliverie...

PhotoSay what you will about the U.S. Postal Service. It's determined. Determined to end mail delivery on Saturday, that is.

The end to Saturday home deliveries is one of a number of cost-cutting measures the post office announced  today as it tries to find a way to end deficits that hit nearly $16 billion in its most recent fiscal year.

The Saturday mail blackout, starting Aug. 5, won't be total -- post office boxholders will still get mail in their box and packages will still be delivered. Not letters though. 

US Postal Service Feb. 6, 2013, 3:06 p.m.
Consumers rate US Postal Service

Of course, just because the Postal Service says something doesn't mean it will happen. Like Amtrak, USPS is a government corporation, an odd creation that many critics say combines the worst aspects of both business and government. 

Both are constantly derided for big losses, service problems and, in Amtrak's case, stale sandwiches. But both are also hamstrung by being stepchildren of Congress. The USPS has floated one idea after another that would -- maybe -- improve service, increase revenue and save money but many if not most wind up being sidetracked when they get to Capitol Hill.

Whether Congress let Saturdays get stricken from the USPS calendar remains to be seen. Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, which oversees postal operations, isn't happy about the announcement.

"For nearly three decades, it has been the clear intent of Congress that the Postal Service provide most communities with six days of mail delivery," Carper said.

Magazine publishers aren't happy either. Lots of magazines time their schedules to hit mailboxes on Friday and Saturday, in time for weekend reading. Yes, it sounds a little like 1950 but magazines are still big business.

One of the few remaining big weeklies -- Time -- said it wasn't surprised by the USPS decision.

"Time has been anticipating this possibility for awhile and we are preparing plans to continue timely delivery of the magazine to our subscribers," a spokeswoman said, according to Advertising Age. She noted that subscribers can read the magazine online if it's not delivered when they want it.

Who do you trust? 

Meanwhile, although it does nothing but make the Postal Service feel better, a new survey has named the USPS the "Most Trusted Government Agency" for the seventh year in a row.

There was no mention of Congress, which apparently didn't make the list.

The Ponemon Institute also ranked the Postal Service as the fourth most-trusted company of 704 entries from 25 industry sectors. The results show that customers regard the Postal Service as one of the best in keeping their information safe and secure.

The Postal Service ranks as the fourth most trusted company — a two-point increase from 2011 and its highest company ranking since the survey’s inception by the premier privacy trust study in America. 

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Art exhibits in 2013 you've got to check out

Just about all over the country there's a cool exhibit, so it shouldn't be hard to find one near you

With the month of February approaching, we couldn’t be more smack dab in the middle of winter, which in many parts of the country means spiteful snow...

PhotoNow that it's February, we couldn’t be more smack dab in the middle of winter, which in many parts of the country means spiteful snow falls that seem to slow you down when you have the most to do, fluctuating temperatures that leave you confused about what to wear and winds so bitterly piercing that just going outside is way too much of an adventure.

Luckily, there are some fun things to do indoors until it gets warmer in a few months and checking out a museum or a specific art exhibit is always a cool option for the visual eye candy part of it and the educational aspects too.

Also, there’s something extraordinary about getting the chance to be up close and personal to a particular creation, and being able to witness artistic output from a unique talent can inspire you, and also make you want to go home and work on your craft.

Well this year, there are a lot of opportunities to get inspired, as just about each part of the country has an exhibit or showing that should really be checked out this year.

Picasso in Chicago

PhotoAmong some of the most anticipated is the huge Picasso exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is a great fix for all you Picasso junkies.

With these exhibits, you get three showings in one, and if you time your trip correctly, you can take in all of  them in just one visit.

Visitors can take a look at “The Artist and the Poet” exhibit from February 1, 2013 to June 2, 2013, which is a collection of drawings inspired by Picasso and his love for poetry. It’s known that the famous artist befriended and collaborated with many poets during his early days in Paris, and the drawings reflect both the influence and the artistic approach that Picasso had on the artists around him.

Visitors can also see the exhibit “Picasso and Chicago,” which gathers more than 250 of the Spanish artist’s works, including his finest sculptures, paintings, drawings, ceramics and prints, the museum says.

Picasso and Chicago will run from February 20, to May 12, 2013.

And the last leg of the Picasso triple play is an exhibit entitled “The Picasso Effect,” which displays two of his rarely scene pieces “Three Musicians” and “Self-Portrait”, which are bound to excite both the Picasso fan and the Picasso novice at the same time.

This particular exhibit runs from February 20, to May 12, 2013.

Photos in Milwaukee

And not too far from the Windy City is the Milwaukee Art Museum, and its historical exhibit “Color Rush, 75 Years of Color Photography in America.” 

PhotoThe exhibit seems to be perfect for the photography buff and the person who just likes to take in cool photos from different photographers all over the country.

The Midwestern museum says Color Rush traces the historical steps that eventually ended with color photography being the norm among professionals, everyday picture takers and artists.

The exhibit will also display famous publications from the past and present, and show film clips, photographs and slide-shows from a varied amount of photographers both popular and unknown.

You can catch Color Rush from February 22 to May 19, 2013.

Basquiat in Manhattan

Over at the Gagosian Gallery in the downtown Manhattan section of New York City, you can catch the fine works of the 80s icon Jean-Michel Basquiat in an exhibit that stretches for nearly two months.

PhotoBasquiat was sort of the Jim Morrison of the art world if you will; in the way he seemed to sacrifice everything for his art including his health, emotional soundness and his overall well-being.  And before dying at the young age of 27, just as Morrison did, Basquiat captured the attention of a generation, while also becoming the absolute darling of the art world.

I mean any guy that Andy Warhol looked to for artistic inspiration had to have a unique creative vision.

The Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit will display over fifty pieces from the Brooklyn artist and will run from February 7, to April 6, 2013.

Pre-Raphaelites in DC

At the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C., fans can enjoy the biggest showing of Pre-Raphaelite art ever presented in the U.S.

The exhibit which is entitled “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design 1848-1900,” will show about 130 painting all showcasing painters from that particular era who were eager to go against the artistic norms set by older artists of the time, who didn’t use the same amount of lush colors and full detail in their work.

Earl A. Powell III, who’s the director of the National Gallery of Art, says he couldn’t be more excited to hold the biggest showing of these highly admired types of work.

“The Pre-Raphaelites rejected the rigid rules for painting that prevailed at the dawn of the Victorian era to launch Britain’s first avant-garde movement,” he said on the exhibition's website.

“We are thrilled to present this rare exhibition to our audiences and grateful to lenders, both public and private as well as our generous sponsors.”

You can see the Pre-Raphaelites exhibit from February 17 to May 19, 2013.

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Disparity between blacks and whites in cancer death rates dropping

There have been nearly 200,000 fewer cancer deaths among African Americans since 1990

While there has been progress in narrowing the gap between whites and blacks in the battle against cancer, it has been spotty. The cancer death rate for m...

PhotoWhile there has been progress in narrowing the gap between whites and blacks in the battle against cancer, it has been spotty.

The cancer death rate for men declined faster among African Americans than among whites in the latest time period, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society, narrowing the racial disparity in overall cancer death rates.

But while gaps are closing for some cancers -- such as lung and other smoking-related cancers and for prostate cancer -- the racial disparity has widened for colorectal cancer and female breast cancer, cancers that are most affected by screening and treatment.

The findings are published in Cancer Statistics for African Americans, 2013 which appears in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The report and its consumer version, Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2013-2014, provide current data on cancer incidence, mortality, survival, screening test use, and risk factors for African Americans.

Significant decline

The decrease in overall cancer death rates among African American males was the largest of any racial or ethnic group during the most recent time period. The reduction in overall cancer death rates since the early 1990s translates to the avoidance of nearly 200,000 deaths from cancer among African Americans.

Meanwhile, five-year relative survival rates are lower for African Americans than whites for most cancers at each stage of diagnosis. "These disparities largely reflect unequal access to health care and other socioeconomic factors," said Otis W. Brawley. M.D., American Cancer Society chief medical officer. "While cancer death rates among African American men have been declining rapidly, they remain 33 percent higher than those among white men, evidence that more can and should be done to accelerate this progress by making sure all Americans have equal access to cancer prevention, early detection, and state-of-the-art treatments."

The report finds that from 2000 to 2009, the overall cancer death rate declined faster among African American males than white males (2.4 percent vs. 1.7 percent per year), but similarly among females of both races (1.5 percent and 1.4 percent per year, respectively).

Other findings

About 176,620 new cancer cases and 64,880 cancer deaths are expected among African Americans in 2013.

  • The most commonly diagnosed cancers among African American men are prostate (37 percent of all cancers), lung (14 percent), and colon and rectum (10 percent).
  • Among African American women, the most common cancers are breast (33 percent of all cancers), lung (13 percent), and colon and rectum (11 percent).
  • African American males have higher incidence rates than whites for all cancers combined (15 percent higher) and for the most common cancers (including prostate, lung, colorectal, kidney, and pancreas).
  • African American females have lower overall incidence rates than whites for all cancers combined (6 percent lower) and for many cancers, including the two most common: breast and lung.
  • Cancer death rates remain 33 percent higher among African American men than white men, despite the larger declines among African American men in the most recent time period.
  • The cancer death rate among African American women is 16 percent higher than that among white women, despite a 6 percent lower cancer incidence rate.
  • The higher overall cancer death rates among African Americans compared to whites is due largely to higher death rates for cancers of the breast and colorectum in women and for cancers of the prostate, lung and bronchus, and colorectum in men.
  • The disparity in lung cancer death rates between African American and white men has been reduced by half overall (from an excess of 50 percent in 1990-1992 to 26 percent in 2005-2009) and has been eliminated in adults younger than age 40, likely reflecting faster declines in smoking prevalence among African Americans compared to whites.
  • African American men have historically had higher smoking prevalence than white men, though in recent years the rates have converged. African American women have generally had slightly lower smoking prevalence than white women over the past two decades.
  • Smoking prevalence among high school students is markedly lower among African Americans than whites. As of 2011, 14 percent of African American high school boys and 7 percent of African American girls smoked cigarettes, compared to 22 percent of white boys and 19 percent of white girls.
  • Despite similar mammography screening rates, only about half (51 percent) of breast cancers diagnosed among African American women are diagnosed at a local stage, compared with 61 percent among white women. The difference has been largely attributed to a lower frequency of and longer intervals between mammograms, and a lack of timely follow-up of suspicious results.
  • Incidence rates for colorectal cancer are 23 percent higher in African American men and 22 percent higher in African American women compared with white men and women, respectively, and death rates are 53 percent higher in African American men and 46 percent higher in African American women, reflecting differences in risk factors, screening, and treatment. In 2010, 56 percent of African Americans aged 50 and older were up to date on guideline-recommended colorectal screening compared with 62 percent of whites.
  • Overweight and obesity are more common among African American women and girls than white women and girls, while there is less racial disparity among men and boys. Fifty-nine percent of African American women and 25 percent of African American girls are obese compared to 33 percent of white women and 15 percent of white girls.
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Home Depot to beef up staffing

The home improvement giant is hiring 80,000 people for the spring season

Looking for a job and like the home improvements business? The Home Depot may have just what you're looking for. The world's largest home improvement reta...

PhotoLooking for a job and like the home improvements business? The Home Depot may have just what you're looking for.

The world's largest home improvement retailer says it has started filling more than 80,000 seasonal positions to assist customers during the company's busiest selling season. This year, the company is hiring ten thousand more spring associates than it did last year to support anticipated sales growth in the spring.

"Spring is always a special season for us, when we can offer employment opportunities for literally tens of thousands of Americans," said Tim Crow, executive vice president - Human Resources. "We find some of our best associates during our peak season, and many of them have built long, meaningful careers with us."

Variety of positions

Job opportunities range from part-time to full-time and are available on a market-by-market basis based

on individual store needs and geographical variance in climate. Job seekers can begin applying online now.

For those returning military and veterans who are interested in a position, The Home Depot recently launched its Online Military Skills Translator, a new tool designed to help translate and match an applicant's unique military skills with positions that might offer the best fit.

The firm has also partnered with military focused career fairs and will be participating in events throughout 2013. Both the skills translator and 2013 events calendar can be found here.

The company says it encourages technical school and college students, as well as retirees, to apply.

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