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What cyber warfare means for consumers

Financial data and vital infrastructure could be at risk

Chances are, when you're scanning the news you don't spend a lot of time reading about the latest Cyber warfare attack. After all, it's just countries batt...

PhotoChances are, when you're scanning the news you don't spend a lot of time reading about the latest cyber warfare attack. After all, it's just countries battling one another with computers – doesn't affect consumers, right?

Don't be too sure about that. In late March a massive cyber attack took place, not between warring nations but between an anti-spam group and a hosting service that rents server space to spammers. It resulted in what experts are calling the largest denial-of-service attack in the history of the Internet.

The players were Spamhous, a European group fighting spam, and Cyberbunker, a Dutch company that rents server space to a wide variety of clients, including those that send out spam. When Spamhous added Cyberbunker to its blacklist, war broke out.

It's war!

Swarms of computers suddenly started sending out huge data streams. In this latest attack, cyber warriors exploited the Internet's Domain Naming System (DNS), bombarding Spamhous' servers with data requests. Very soon, the servers couldn't be reached by anyone else.

But the effects didn't stop there. Many Internet users in Europe and North America found the Internet suddenly slowed or ground to a halt. Some found streaming a video on Netflix next to impossible. Others had trouble reaching websites they visit on a daily basis.

According to Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos Canada, Tier One service providers, who carry the bulk of Internet traffic, were simply overwhelmed by the volume of traffic from this attack. The signals you send from your computer to reach a particular place on the network had to contend with this huge overload of traffic. In this case consumers were collateral damage.

Life and death

But more may be at stake than inconvenience. Some believe that money and lives could be at risk due to the rising levels of cyber warfare. One of these people is former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who, from his seat in the Pentagon, was getting an up-close view of the threat every day.

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Leon Panetta
Before leaving office Panetta told Time Magazine that Americans tend to wait for a crisis before acting. In this case, he says, that could be dangerous. Sophisticated cyber warriors can turn loose worms, bots and malware that can infect networks all over the Internet, causing major damage.

“It is the kind of capability that can basically take down a power grid, take down a water system, take down a transportation system, take down a financial system,” Panetta told the magazine. “We are now in a world in which countries are developing the capability to engage in the kind of attacks that can virtually paralyze a country.”

That's because consumers – not just businesses – are heavily dependent on the web in a way they were not just a decade ago. Think about it – when was the last time you wrote a check?

Hackers one step ahead

Experts at Georgia Tech -- the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC) and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) -- constantly work to stay one step ahead of the hackers. They say 2013 is posing some steep challenges.

One of their concerns is the increase in cloud-based botnets. For example, attackers can use stolen credit card data to purchase cloud computing resources and create dangerous clusters of temporary virtual attack systems.

Cyber criminals can even manipulate search engine algorithms and other automated mechanisms that control what information you see when you do a search. Moving beyond typical search engine poisoning, researchers believe that manipulating users’ search histories may be a next step in ways that attackers use legitimate resources for illegitimate gains.

Fertile ground

PhotoThe most fertile ground may be in mobile browser and mobile wallet vulnerabilities. While only a very small number of U.S. mobile devices show signs of infection, the explosive proliferation of smartphones will continue to tempt attackers into exploiting user and technology-based vulnerabilities, particularly with the browser function and digital wallet apps.

The threat could be made worse because employers appear too willing to allow employees to access corporate systems through their personal devices. This, the experts fear, could be a virtual Trojan horse, giving hackers unfettered access to private data and vital infrastructure systems.

To combat this global threat INTERPOL is stepping up its cooperation with companies in the cyber security industry. INTERPOL's Global Complex for Innovation (IGCI) announced earlier this month it will equip international law enforcement with the tools and knowledge needed to better deal with the escalating problem. Eugene Kaspersky, CEO and co-founder of Kaspersky Lab, says his company will help.

“I have been pushing for the creation of what I used to call an ‘Internet-INTERPOL’ for over a decade now, and at last it has finally come to pass,” Kaspersky said. “It should come as no surprise that we wholeheartedly support this initiative.”

The new international policing effort is expected to be operational early next year.

What to do

There's very little consumers can do about a cyber battle that slows the Internet or doesn't allow them to visit a particular site. Of more pressing concern is the security of your personal devices.

Make sure you have up to date anti-virus software installed on all devices, not just desktop PCs. Mobile devices are increasingly vulnerable to attack. Mobile security software packages cost as little as $15.

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Vanilla Visa Gift Card not always so sweet

Consumers often disappointed -- and worse -- when they try to use the card

It's a long way from Noblesville, Ind., to California so when Jeff's daughter set off on a road trip, he fixed her up with a Vanilla Visa Gift Card to help...

PhotoIt's a long way from Noblesville, Ind., to California so when Jeff's daughter set off on a road trip, he fixed her up with a Vanilla Visa Gift Card to help pay for food and gas. But so far, the trip has been anything but smooth, he said in a complaint filed today.

"Purchased a $200 card for my daughter for her move to California. The card continually is turned down at gas stations - which was the main reason for its purchase," Jeff said. "When I called the company, I was told that she needed to use it at the pump,  not go into an attendant. So she slid her card at the pump and it said denied. She then went to the attendant - and he denied it too."

"I called the company and they said that even though it was denied, when she swiped it at the pump it automatically put a hold on her entire balance of $104 - so she is now out of money," Jeff said.

The question of whether to use the card at the pump or to take it inside is one that pops up frequently, and the advice Jeff got seems to contradict an instructional video on the Vanilla Visa site:

Jeff said he had spoken with four different people and been assured numerous times that the money would soon be available but so far without success, leaving his daughter stranded with no money for gas or food.

Others have similar problems

Although it's no consolation, Jeff and his daughter are far from the only consumers who've been disappointed with the Vanilla Visa card.

Vanilla Visa Gift Card March 29, 2013, 6:16 p.m.
Consumers rate Vanilla Visa Gift Card

"My boss gave me two Vanilla Visa cards, one in the amount of $250 and another one in the amount of $150 for Christmas gifts (I work for a law firm). He gave the same thing to the other employees," said Claire of Markham, Ontario. "All the cards, when we went to purchase, had $0 balance."

Claire said it took hours of calls to customer service to extract a promise that the problem would be taken care of in ten days, which wasn't a total satisfactory answer.

"Really, this is a problem that shouldn't take 10 days. It's fraud of taking people's money and keeping it for 10 business days," she said. What perhaps makes it even more irksome is that Claire is not alone.

"The same thing happened when my brother purchased one recently and they said the same thing," she said. "He got it for my dad's birthday and now, we have to wait 12 days. This is absolutely ridiculous and, when you call the Customer Service, they keep apologizing? What's apologizing going to do for me?"

Claire is not the only consumer to report multiple cards being declined. It's a common complaint with the Vanilla Visa, for some reason.  

"I purchased three $25 Vanilla Visa cards at CVS Pharmacy to give to my parents. They were all declined," said Greita of Talladega, Ala. "Since I had charged them to my Chase Visa card, I contacted them. They are now trying to put all the blame on CVS. I have received a temporary credit on my account but their representative says that if CVS doesn't pay Visa back, I will have to pay."

What to do

How can you avoid similar problems? Perhaps the best advice is to stay away from gift cards issued by banks and credit card companies. They charge higher fees and users tend to have more problems, according to a recent survey. It's better to stick with cards issued by a store or restaurant chain.

Consumers like Jeff may want to buy a gift card issued on behalf of a chain of gas stations, although this can get tricky, since not all companies operate in every state. One site we found that issues gas gift cards is SVMCards.com.

Read more about gift cards

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How to deal with a grease fire

You've probably already heard of not throwing water on one, but what else should you do?

Here’s a truth that many people forget when they’re in the thick of an emergency: All fires aren't the same, which means how they sta...

PhotoHere’s a truth that many people forget when they’re in the thick of an emergency: All fires aren't the same, which means how they start should trigger your reaction on how you put it out.

And when it comes to grease fires, probably the first thing you’ve heard is to never douse it with water, because doing so will only intensify the flames in a matter of seconds.

According to just about every fire expert under the sun, you should never try to place a burning pan or pot into a running sink or splash water on it. Even using a water-based fire extinguisher will make the fire get dramatically worse.

For grease fires, it’s always best to use a dry chemical fire extinguisher, experts say, and be sure you never try to pick up a burning pan to remove it from the home.

Plan ahead

State Farm researcher and kitchen fire expert John Donovan says that eliminating a grease fire has everything to do with planning, and that  doesn't mean just making sure you have the appropriate fire extinguisher close by, athough that's obviously key too.

PhotoIt’s important that you know exactly what you’ll do if a grease fire ever erupts, because sometimes out of  sheer instinct, a person will grab a damp towel to smother one, which is just as bad as tossing water directly on to the flames.

“There’s the potential to not get [the towel] on all the way, so you’re still going to have a fire going,” he said. “There’s the potential to drag that pot off the stove.”

The best way to put out a grease fire that’s small and just beginning is to carefully place a lid on the flames, and turn off the oven dial. However, it’s important to leave the lid on for about 20 to 30 minutes afterwards, as removing it will allow the flames to quickly shoot back up.

“As long as that burner is on, it’s going to continue to heat that oil and eventually it’s going to burn around whatever is around the lid. It’s very important to leave it shut off,” said Donovan

In addition, researchers have found that only one cup of water instantly turns into 1,700 cups of steam, which is the reason grease fires and water is such a potentially deadly combination, and it’s why a small stove fire can immediately burn surrounding walls, the ceiling and just about anything in its path.

Test runs

So it’s imperative that you and your family have everything down and memorized, in terms of what you’ll do if a grease fire or any other fire breaks out.

PhotoConducting family discussions along with dry test runs will only ensure that members of your family will be able to react both swiftly and appropriately.

And although grease fires have to be put out with dry chemical extinguishers, consumers should still keep a tri-class fire extinguisher, which handles fires in the A, B and C categories.

Class A fires are fires that start with wood, paper, cloth, trash and plastics.

Class B fires start with gasoline, flammable liquids, grease, oil or acetone. Class C covers the electrical fire category and class D are fires that start from combustible metals.

There’s a class K category too, for fires that start from animal and vegetable oils, as well as fat when it’s left in cooking appliances. But class K fire extinguishers are typically used in restaurants and other commercial kitchens.

If you’re currently in the market for a good fire extinguisher, FireExtinguisherDepot.com has an array of varieties and sizes.

And of course you’ll be able to get a good extinguisher at places like Home Depot, where you can pick up one of the latest models called the "Kiddie Kitchen 711A Fire Extinguisher" for a little over $20 on the store’s website.

According to the makers of the Kiddie Kitchen, it has been tested to meet the new 711A standard of fire safety, which is a series of tests, where extinguishers are used on things like vegetable and peanut oil, which are the cause of many residential fires.

Then there’s the Stove Top Fire Stop, small round canisters that attach underneath your vent hood. They release a chemical powder to put out a stovetop fire once the flames reach the container.

This can be ideal for those who may be a little nervous about dealing with a fire directly, and although this product works well--according to the general Internet reviews--you should still keep a traditional fire extinguisher handy, just in case.

And go easy on the cooking oil. It's not just flammable, it's fattening.

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Home energy-saving tips for the spring

With only a few adjustments, you'll get more comfort and save a little money too.

Despite the fact that some U.S. cities still have snow on the ground and folks are still keeping precautionary winter hats inside of jacket pockets, spring...

PhotoDespite the fact that some U.S. cities still have snow on the ground and folks are still keeping precautionary winter hats inside of jacket pockets, springtime is here, which means long-anticipated warmth, budding branches and longer days with a little more color and sunshine.

Furthermore, spring is that time of year when warm and cold weather are in a constant duel, and whoever the winner is will determine how you’ll dress that day, although it’s hard to figure out which climate really won sometimes.

That leaves many people wearing sweaters on 60 degree days and short sleeves on days that are 35 degrees, because as most people know, trying to dress for the season these days can be an annoying guessing game.

Another thing that can be confusing to some folks is how to switch their energy use with each change of season, because besides autumn, spring is the only season where people seem to switch back and forth between turning on the heat and opening their windows.

Adjust the thermostat

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According to the Wakefield Municipal Gas and Light Department in Massachusetts, you should adjust and set your thermostat on the lowest temperature you’re able to tolerate because doing so, will save you 3% on your heating bill for every degree your thermostat is lowered.

In addition, turn your water heater down to 120 degrees Fahrenheit once springtime hits, and be sure to close your windows during the day and open them up at night, which sounds backwards, since many people wake up, see a sunny day and open their window.

In actuality, people should be doing the opposite once it gets warm, says Wakefield Municipal, since sunlight during the day will obviously heat your home and make it too hot.

But by keeping your windows closed during the day and then opening them up at night, you’ll allow cool air to float in and make your house a little more comfortable. Then once you wake up in the morning, you should close your windows to keep the cool air inside.

Spring cleaning

And spring cleaning isn’t just an overused term, there are actual energy-saving benefits to doing a thorough clean-up once March and April rolls around.

Wakefield reminds pet owners that pets tend to shed during the spring, so it’s important to keep things like your refrigerator condenser coils clean and free of pet hair, as this will allow your fridge to run much more efficiently.

PhotoAdditionally, all ceiling and table fans should be checked and cleaned, so they can remain dust-free for maximum efficiency and once May and June hits, it’s best to change the direction of your ceiling fan so the air is being pulled upward.

Changing the direction of your fan, will allow better cooling and much better airflow, says the Massachusetts light and gas company.

Other energy-saving advice for the spring time involves not using lights and appliances that give off a lot of heat once the temperature rises -- like using the stovetop instead of the oven when it’s warm outside and making sure you’re using lighting that’s better suited for spring and summer.

According to the site Energy.gov, only 10% to 15% of the electricity used in incandescent lights produces actual light, the other 85% to 90% give off heat, and using the wrong lighting and appliances during the warmer months will most likely make you want to run your air conditioner continually, which we all know zaps tons of energy, and it can zap away your hard-earned dollars too. 

And if you can, use hair dryers, curling irons and the dishwasher a bit less during the spring and summer seasons, since these appliances produce a lot of heat. In addition, turn off your computer when you’re not using it, as this too will unnecessarily heat your home and force you to crank up the A.C.

Air leaks

When it comes to air leakage in your home, spring is an ideal time to recheck those common areas that let coolness out.

According to the company Green Home Gnome, walls, floors and ceilings account for 34% of air leakage, HVAC ducts account for 15%, Fireplaces 14% and windows and doors 10% and 11% respectively.

And using less hot water during the warmer months is advised as well.

So to do so, it’s important to know that 37% of your yearly hot water usage comes from the shower, 26% from the washing machine, 14% from the dishwasher, followed by running a bath (12%) and using hot water in sinks (11%).

So by making just a few adjustments in your home, you’ll not only be able to save money during the warmer seasons, you’ll be making your house a lot more comfortable too.

And by making some of these energy changes this year, you might be able to get a tax credit when filing next year, experts advise, which of course is another reason to be more efficient this spring, and in the following months too.

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Renting with an option to buy

It's not for everyone but it might be for you

An old concept has been getting a new look as home sellers have battled a weak market and would-be home buyers have found it difficult to qualify for a mor...

PhotoAn old concept has been getting a new look as home sellers have battled a weak market and would-be home buyers have found it difficult to qualify for a mortgage. The “lease option” or “lease with an option to purchase” has been making something of a comeback.

In short, it's a real estate transaction that is a hybrid between a sale and a lease. As with just about any type of option, the buyer pays something up front for the right to exercise the option – in this case to purchase a home that they are renting.

The option payment can be as little as $100 or as much as three to five percent of the agreed upon purchase price. It's money the seller gets to keep, whether the buyer exercises the option to purchase or not.

A way to sell a slow-mover

Very often a seller will agree to a lease option if they believe the property will be difficult to sell. A couple of years ago, when sales were very sluggish, a lot of homes were in that category. Today, with the market improving, homes are selling faster.

That means that if an owner is willing to consider a lease option, there may be something about the property that puts it at a competitive disadvantage to faster-selling homes. It might be a less-desirable location and have a less-than-ideal floor plan. That's something to consider if you are thinking about a lease option.

While the seller gets to keep the up-front option payment, the buyer gets to apply some of his or her rent toward equity, a huge advantage. You are going to pay rent anyway, right? This way some of it goes toward the down payment.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) notes that the lease option is also a way for a consumer with damaged credit to get into homeownership. Getting a mortgage today is tough enough without having bad credit.

Reduced rent

By agreeing to accept the down payment in monthly increments, the seller is actually letting you stay there for reduced rent. However, those payments turn out to be all rent if the buyer decides to walk away at the end of the lease. Even so, these types of arrangements tend to favor the buyer more than the seller, depending on how the contract is written.

In a lease option, whether the buyer follows through on the purchase is totally up to the buyer. If they change their mind, or circumstances change, they can pack up and move when the lease is up. They lose their up-front option payment, however.

If they decide they want to buy the house, they have already locked in the price. At a time when property values are rising, that can be a significant advantage, especially if the lease term stretches over a longer period.

Lease purchase

A lease purchase is a different type of arrangement and a buyer needs to be aware one big difference: a lease purchase binds both parties to follow through on the sale agreement. Buyers should avoid these contracts unless they are very sure they want to purchase the property.

A lease option contract, meanwhile, should state what the buyer has to pay for the option, the purchase price, the length of the term, how much the monthly payment will be and how much of it will be credited toward equity for the optional purchase.

Here's an example: the seller may determine that the home's market rental value is around $1,000 a month. For the rent option agreement, she may set the rent a little higher, at $1,100 and apply $200 of that amount toward the purchase. If the buyer follows through on the purchase, they've built up some equity while paying below-market rent over the term of the contract.

Tool for investors

Investors have been a big driver in the real estate market recovery and some of them have used the rent option tool to their advantage. If the property is in need of repair or renovation before it can be approved for a mortgage, an investor may rent the property and make improvements during the lease period. At the end of the term the investor obtains a loan, buys the property and flips it.

While most of the advantages appear to be with the buyer, there are a few for the seller. If the house has been sitting on the market for a while, or you need to generate income from it quickly, a lease option can provide immediate cash flow.

With mortgage standards as tight as they are, you have a large group of people who may see the lease option as their best chance at home ownership. They may be better tenants than you would get ordinarily because they quickly start thinking of the home as their own and take care of it.

Finally, if the buyers turn out not to be buyers but renters, you get to keep the money they paid for the option to buy and the rent premium.

What to do

If you think a lease option might be the right way for you to proceed, either as a buyer or a seller, you should study the question thoroughly. A good place to start is withNAR's Field Guide to Lease Option.

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iCandy World recalls Cherry strollers

An infant’s body can pass through the opening between the bumper bar and seat bottom of the stroller

iCandy America of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling about 830 Cherry model strollers. The opening between the bumper bar and seat bottom of the stroller can al...

PhotoiCandy America of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling about 830 Cherry model strollers.

The opening between the bumper 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 when a child is not harnessed. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall includes the iCandy Cherry stroller only in the colors Fudge (light-medium brown) and Liquorice (red and black). The iCandy Cherry stroller system has a telescopic folding frame where a seat, bassinet or infant carrier car seat can be placed.

The seat unit features three recline positions, adjustable footrest, 5-point safety harness, removable canopy and removable bumper bar. There is a printed white cherry logo on the rear of the seat unit. A label can be found under the basket fabric on the frame tubing that supports the lower basket on the following recalled models: 

Batch No.Cherry Stroller ColorSerial Number
U10001169FUDGE (IW119)1-500
U10002170      LIQUORICE (IW124)501-1000
U10014182      LIQUORICE (IW124)1001-1500
U10013181      FUDGE (IW119) 1501-2000

Consumers should immediately remove the bumper bar from the strollers and contact iCandy America to receive a free replacement bumper bar. Consumers can continue to use the strollers while awaiting the replacement bumper bar.

The strollers, manufactured in China, were sold at Buy Buy Baby and other juvenile product stores nationwide and online from October 2009, through December 2012 ,for about $400.

Consumers may contact iCandy America toll-free at (877) 484-4179 anytime or by email at info@icandyamerica.com.

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Bell Sports recalls BMX bike helmets

The helmet can fall off the rider, posing a risk of head injury

Bell Sports of Scotts Valley, Calif., is recalling about 2,500 Bell Full Throttle bike helmets. The buckle on the helmet’s safety strap can release in an...

PhotoBell Sports of Scotts Valley, Calif., is recalling about 2,500 Bell Full Throttle bike helmets.

The buckle on the helmet’s safety strap can release in an accident and allow the helmet to fall off the rider, posing a risk of head injury. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Bell Full Throttle, full coverage bicycle motocross (BMX) helmets with a chin bar. The all-black helmets have UPC code 035011 937052 and part number 1009159 printed on a label on the side of the helmet shell. The Bell logo is affixed to the front and lower side of the helmet.

The helmets, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Toys R Us stores nationwide and online between July 2012 and January 2013 for about $60.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled helmets and contact Bell Sports for instructions on receiving a full refund.

Consumers may contact Bell Sports toll-free at (866) 892-6059 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Want to be a parent, huh? Here's the cost from birth to age 17

Between school, food and clothing, we're talking big bucks. And that's not counting college.

The next time you have a talk with your child about teenage pregnancy and how hard being a parent is, try showing them some of these numbers.Accordi...

PhotoThe next time you have a talk with your child about teen pregnancy and how hard being a parent is, try showing them some of these numbers.

According to figures from a number of sources, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Childbirthconnection.org, it’ll cost a total of $234,900 to raise a child from birth to age 17. And that was as of two years ago, so the costs will be significantly higher this year.

Here are some of the breakdowns:

To educate and have your child cared for, it’ll cost you a total of $42,282 from nursery school to high school, which equates to 18% of the total child-rearing costs.

And to keep your child healthy from birth to age 17, it’ll run you $18,792 and that’s just for regular healthcare visits, not medical emergencies or unforeseen hospital stays.

But before your child has the chance to get hurt and dragged off to the emergency room, you’ll be paying through the nose before he or she even takes their first breath, as it costs at least $9,617 for the delivery and everything leading up to it.

Once your child is delivered, one would assume that you’ll have to provide food and nourishment for them, right? And once you do, the overall costs will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $37,584, and that’s for all meals.

Housing and transportation

Don't forget housing. In 1960 the average mortgage payment was $527 per month and $6,323 per year. In 2011, it was $1,061 monthly and $12,732 each year, and once you throw in maintenance, taxes and other costs for a home, that amount will be pushed way up.

PhotoThen there are transportation costs, which will make up about 14% of the amount it takes to raise a child, leaving parents to pay a sum of $32,886 for the vehicle, and giving your child money for public transportation.

The gasoline that will be used on each child will cost somewhere in the area of $19,000, and that amount can obviously go up or down, depending on gas prices.

And what about childcare?

Most people know how ridiculously expensive it can be, which is why many new parents reach out to grandma or a close family member who will watch their child either for free or for a very low amount.

In a report released by Child Care Aware of America, the average yearly cost of a daycare center is $15,000 in the state of Massachusetts and $5,000 in Mississippi, just to give an idea. And to take care of children around 4-years of age, it’ll cost you anywhere from $3,900 to $11,700 yearly.

In addition, the report said that today’s daycare costs equal today’s college tuition prices. In fact, when researchers compared the current prices for daycare centers, the prices were higher than tuition amounts for public colleges in 19 U.S. states.

Deeann Puffert, CEO of Child Care Resources of Seattle, says the worst thing about daycare costs is the timing, because most young families with small children haven’t even begun to make their highest salaries yet.

“It’s sticker shock," Puffert said, in an interview with the Seattle Times.

“Young families, who are nowhere near the peak of their earning power, are being asked to shoulder the cost of child care, which is the equivalent of going to the UW (University of Washington) for a year.”

Even babysitters aren't cheap

Even the cost of hiring a babysitter has gone up in recent years, so if you’re looking to get your neighbor’s teenage daughter to watch your child, offering them anything less than $10 an hour would be insulting, experts say.

PhotoAnd we can’t forget about miscellaneous costs, which are probably the expenses you’re least able to plan for. We’re talking about money needed for anything under the sun, whether it’s for school-related activities, entertainment, socializing, allowance, or whatever your child feels they need to be happy for the moment.

Unfortunately, for most parents, this kind of pleading for extra things will probably stretch far beyond the child’s seventeenth year.

As far as clothing your child, it’ll run you about 6% of the overall costs, with the average amount from birth to age 17 being $14,094. Not to mention all of the expensive sneakers and accessories kids need to have in order to blend in with their peers and to not be considered a have-not.

Because in kid circles, being a have-not can get you placed in social solitary confinement, and kids won’t be released until you’re able to purchase the latest and trendiest fashion items for them. It’s very sad but it's very true.

There’s no doubt that parents really have their financial work cut out for them, so it would be wise to make a conscious decision about having a child, and make as many financial arrangements beforehand that you’re able to.

This approach won’t really save you money when raising your child, since children cost what they cost, but at least you’ll be better prepared.

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Online Rebellion: The new way kids are being defiant these days

With kids using devices 24/7 today, can parents really monitor everything they're doing?

Usually, whenever most of us conjure up an image of a rebellious child; a few things come to mind.Maybe you get a picture of a kid stealing his pare...

PhotoUsually, whenever most of us conjure up an image of a rebellious child; a few things come to mind.

Maybe you get a picture of a kid stealing his parent’s car to take a joy ride with his friends and partners in defiance.

Or possibly you get an image of the teenage girl sneaking out the window to run off with that scruffy boy who looks like every other scruffy looking boy in town.

“Oh my goodness, look dear,” some parents will say, “His pants are sagging. What’s wrong with these kids today?” And some adults say these things while conveniently forgetting their own fashion statements of their younger days.  

I mean, do you remember some of those God-awful striped bellbottoms and butterfly collars people used to wear? Some would say they would rather have a kid sag his pants anyday. Well, as long as they pull them up the very moment that adulthood hits.

Up until recently, a kid’s level of rebellion could easily be gauged by what you saw them do, wear or say, whether it be breaking curfew, messing up in school or being disrespectful in their speech.

Rebellion goes digital

But as many people know, the art of youthful rebellion has gone digital and although a kid may appear to do all of the right things, as far as you're able to see, what they're doing on their computer or smartphone  could be a whole different story.

PhotoThis is particularly true in the late night hours when parents go to sleep, as 53% of children ages 10 to 15 are on Facebook after 10 p.m., and 23% are on after midnight, according to recent findings, leaving many parents clueless as to just what type of Internet behaviors their children are up to--and not knowing could make all the difference between your child falling victim to an Internet crime or being able to elude one.

According to statistics released in the Journal of Adolescent Health, 29% of Internet sex crimes among children were initiated on a social networking site and 26% of those crimes began when predators saw pictures of the victim on  those sites.

And social networking sites were used in over 50% of sex-related Internet crimes against teens and children.

Nothing new, really

Let’s face it, the topic of children and Internet safety is nothing new, in fact, these kinds of statistics have been floating around the news for quite some time, but perhaps shockingly, many parents still aren’t getting the message and through the years, many have given up and become complacent about what their kids are viewing online.

PhotoOf course it’s possible that the sheer vastness of the Internet causes many parents to feel overwhelmed and even helpless at times, as it’s truly hard to monitor what a child is doing when their handheld devices are with them 24/7, but parents need to step up their efforts, experts say.

According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, just 52% of parents supervise their child’s Internet use and once a child reaches the age of 14, a whopping 71% of parents said they stop supervising their children's online activity altogether.

This is particularly troubling since 72% of the Internet crimes that lead to missing children involve kids 15 years of age or older.

In addition, the report goes on to say that most children admit to their parents being in the dark when it comes to their Internet use and while children are conducting common searches, using everyday non-offensive words, they can easily stumble upon sexually explicit chatrooms that often times do very little to hide themselves from easy access.

And unfortunately, online destinations like chatrooms, adult social groups and social media pages have very thin borders between them, so a predator can easily move from one page to the next and checkout whatever photos or personal information that children post on their social network pages.

What to do

Ward Leber, who’s the CEO of the Child Safety Network said that children often post photos on Facebook and release small clues of personal information without even knowing it.

For example, a child may be mindful of not sharing personal info, but they often fail by maybe posting a photo of playing a sport, while wearing a uniform with their school's name on it.

And many times, they’ll post a profile picture in front of their house, street sign or in front a popular local attraction, which of course should be forbidden by parents, since predators can use the smallest piece of information to track a person down.

“Make sure you're looking at the background of a photograph and not just what’s in the foreground,” said Leber in an informational video on child Internet safety. “Because a lot of times people will use that information to find you, or they’ll know where you hang out.”

Most experts agree that all computers in the home should be kept centrally, so parents can watch all the Internet going-ons among their children, and parents can’t just rely on what they currently know about computers and handheld devices, they should constantly do research and stay abreast of all the latest digital trends and online activities.

Furthermore, it’s all about limits when it comes to child Internet use, say experts, which may sound easier said than done, but often times you might have to play the bad guy and actually take a child’s smartphone away after a certain point of the day. And it shouldn’t’ matter if the child is 10 years old or 16, as all children need to be managed and pointed in the right direction.

Parents will also have to feel less guilty about invading their child’s privacy, and know all of their passwords and settings.

This will allow you to conduct random checks on their profile pages, so you can catch and remove anything that may be harmful to them, because many times a child’s Internet errors has everything to do with their naivety rather than them trying to be disobedient.

Lastly, experts say that parents should know each and every time their children post a photo onto their social network page, and they should first ask your permission before doing so, because, sure, it may be hard to monitor everything your child does on the Internet, but easiness is overrated, right?

Especially when it comes to the safety and the protection of your children.

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Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, VW Sportwagen among AAA's top picks

We spend nearly an hour commuting each day. The right car can make it more fun.

How do you get to work each day? If you're like most Americans -- 86% to be precise -- you jump in the family car or truckster and hit the road. Lots ...

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Ford Fusion

How do you get to work each day? If you're like most Americans -- 86% to be precise -- you jump in the family car or truckster and hit the road. Lots of experts have lots of ideas about how commuting could be better, but assuming they're not going to build a subway stop at our door and we're not going to get a personal helicopter, the car remains the most realistic option for most of us.

The average U.S. commute is currently 25 minutes per day and so the question boils down to how enjoyable and expensive that ride can be each day. Picking the right car can make the daily trudge a little more fun and affordable, especially with gas prices hovering around $3.50 a gallon. 

AAA is the latest to draw up a list of the cars it thinks should be on your list of considerations, using the results of test drives and evaluations by AAA Auto Buying experts.

“Having a vehicle that is reliable, fuel-efficient and comfortable can really make a difference in your everyday routine.” says John Nielsen, director, AAA Automotive Engineering & Repair. 

Here are AAA's top picks in each category, with fuel efficiency, comfort and overall performance being the prime factors rated by the AAA experts.

Compacts

Toyota Prius March 28, 2013, 4:53 p.m.
Consumers rate Toyota Prius

Chevrolet Volt: This four-passenger, plug-in electric vehicle, sidesteps range anxiety with a gasoline engine on board to run a generator. AAA says the car is exceptionally quiet, handles well and boasts great acceleration but rear seat room is tight if you plan to carpool. ConsumerAffairs hasn't received enough reader reviews, negative or positive, to make a judgment about the Volt, although in 2012 we interviewed a Volt ownerwho claimed he had gotten 203 miles per gallon in 12,000 miles of driving.

Toyota Prius or Prius V: These gasoline-electric hybrids set the standard for fuel efficiency in a gasoline-powered vehicle. The Prius seats five in reasonable comfort and is exceptionally efficient for urban commutes where regenerative braking and the ability to turn the gasoline engine off while the car is stopped enhances fuel efficiency.  The Prius ranks poorly with ConsumerAffairs readers, however, collecting more than 600 negative reviews in its short lifetime. 

Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI: The SportWagen uses a diesel engine to deliver smooth acceleration with strong fuel economy. Handling is also precise and predictable. With the option of manual or automatic transmission, these cars are fun to drive, making the longer commutes seem less daunting. VW Jetta -- all models, not just the SportWagen TDI -- have a relatively high number of complaints -- nearly 300 -- from ConsumerAffairs readers, most dealing with stalling and transmission issues.

Sedans

Audi March 28, 2013, 4:54 p.m.
Consumers rate Audi

Audi A4: Beautifully finished and very comfortable in front, the A4 can make light work of any commute. Front-wheel drive is standard, but the option for Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system is available. The ride is firm but compliant and the handling is tops. The body structure feels exceptionally solid, even when facing rough urban pavement. Driving pleasure earns a very high grade, although the rear seat room earns a much lower score.  Audis in general, not just the A4, get a relatively low score from the 178 ConsumerAffairs readers who've posted reviews, although some of the reviews deal with such things as wind noise in a convertible. 

Buick LaCrosse: A steady ride, comfortable seating, responsive handling and an excellent V-6-based drivetrain make this car an ideal choice for commuting in a carpool. Performance is excellent. For buyers seeking the room and comfort of the LaCrosse with more fuel efficiency, a four-cylinder eAssist drivetrain is offered. Consider it a mild hybrid. Buick gets a relatively low score in 130 reader postings, many dealing with quality control, fit and finish and transmission issues. 

Ford Fusion: Ford’s entry in the affordably-priced family sedan arena has been completely redesigned for 2013. The new model features a sleek exterior, an upgraded interior and new drivetrains. This Fusion could easily have passed for a luxury car not too many years ago. Front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is an option. We haven't heard much about the Fusion from readers, which may be a good sign, considering how many have been sold.

Hyundai  March 28, 2013, 4:54 p.m.
Consumers rate Hyundai

Hyundai Genesis: This V-6-powered sedan is refined, powerful and roomy. The V-6 engine turns in an exemplary performance and the new 8-speed automatic transmission raises the performance level to the point that the optional V-8 is unnecessary. While handling is predictable, the ride does fall a little short of full luxury sedan status. Could be, but Hyundai in general gets a bad rap from many ConsumerAffairs readers, collecting 677 complaints for a wide range of issues. 

Nissan Altima: The redesigned 2013 Altima continues to be a top choice for commuting. It is comfortable for all passengers, performs well and offers several unique safety features, including clever use of the backup camera to provide lane departure and blind spot warnings in some models. The Altima has rankled 365 of our readers with various reliability issues.

Crossovers

Ford Flex:  This boxy crossover is hard to beat when looking for room in a vehicle. Buyers will find ample space for passengers or purchases. The ride is quiet and well controlled. The engines are V-6s, with the EcoBoost motor turning in a particularly good performance. 

Toyota Highlander: In the crossover category, this vehicle features a comfortable ride and roomy interior. More impressive are its highway cruising manners and despite its size, ease of maneuvering in traffic.

Minivans 

Honda Odyssey: This roomy minivan is offered in a wide range of models, though even basic versions are well equipped and comfortable. Its size suggests that it is best suited to a less crowded commute venue, but even in an urban setting, the Odyssey is easy to drive. Front and second row seating comfort is quite good. 

See more details, including average price information at AAA.com/AutoMaker 

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VW Golf takes 'World Car' title

The longer, wider, lower 7th-generation Golf won't reach the U.S. until 2014

The Volkswagen Golf has scooped up the "World Car of the Year" title at the New York Auto Show, the second year in a row VW has taken the award. It won las...

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Dr. Martin Winterkorn, VW chairman, displays the trophy (VW photo)

The Volkswagen Golf has scooped up the "World Car of the Year" title at the New York Auto Show, the second year in a row VW has taken the award. It won last year for its Up! supermini. 

The Porsche Boxster and its hardtop sibling the Cayman won the World Performance Car award, making it something of a grand slam for VW, which owns Porsche.

The awards are decided by a panel of 66 auto journalists from around the world. 

The new Golf is the seventh-generation car to bear the name. It's longer, wider, lower, sportier, more fuel efficient and much sportier-looking than the car it replaces. It comes in both gas and diesel versions and as a sportier GTI.

"To win this award again shows that the Golf is and remains in a class of its own all around the world," said Dr. Martin Winterkorn, VW chairman. "This car sets new benchmarks again and again, not least in terms of efficiency and environmental credentials. Soon, for instance, the Golf will also be launched as a plug-in hybrid and as a 100% electric car."

Not just yet

PhotoDon't rush over to your VW dealer just yet, though. Although the seventh-generation Golf is already on sale in Europe as a 2013 model, it won't reach the U.S. until the second quarter of 2014 as a 2015 model. Starting price is around $18,000 but options can quickly push the sticker price to $30,000, especially if you opt for the TDI diesel engine, which gets better mileage and is faster off the line than the gas version.

Diesels have had a hard time catching on in the U.S., partly because the price of diesel fuel has remained stubbornly high, although the gap has been narrowing somewhat. Also, the price of premium gas -- which many newer, turbocharged cars require -- has been climbing faster than regular, helping to make diesel a more affordable option.

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The continuing travails of air travel

What's good news for the airlines is often bad news for travelers

Since the depths of the post-9/11 recession, the U.S. airline industry has staged a strong comeback. Mergers and the discovery that passengers could be cha...

PhotoSince the depths of the post-9/11 recession, the U.S. airline industry has staged a strong comeback. Mergers and the discovery that passengers could be charged fees for all sorts of things has paced the recovery.

But what's been good for the airlines hasn't necessarily been so pleasant for passengers. The planes are usually packed to the bulkheads because the airlines have reduced capacity. Again, perhaps a good business move but giving consumers fewer choices and a lot less legroom.

In its latest accounting, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports domestic and systemwide load factors reached record levels in December. The increase isn't due to carrying more passengers – it's the result of a year-over-year decrease in capacity.

The numbers show that in December 2012, Southwest carried more system and domestic passengers than any other U.S. airline. United Airlines, following its merger with Continental, carried the most international passengers.

For the third straight year, Delta carried more total system passengers in 2012 than any other airline. Southwest carried more domestic passengers than any other U.S. airline for the ninth consecutive year.

Sounding off

What was it like for passengers? Some took to the Internet to let us know.

United Airlines March 28, 2013, 1:41 a.m.
Consumers rate United Airlines

“I traveled via United Airlines for Christmas to visit my family and on my way back to Los Angeles, United damaged not one but two pieces of my luggage,” Natalina, of Los Angeles, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

Damaged or lost luggage happens but when it does, consumers expect the airline to make things right. One of Natalina's bags was an expensive Coach carry-on. Why would Natalina check such an expensive piece of luggage? Well, she didn't mean to.

“The designer carry-on was not a checked bag as I was forced to give it to the flight attendant due to the overhead compartments being full on my flight,” she wrote.

Again, that's a product of a very crowded flight and something to keep in mind when you fly. Just because you think your bag is a carry-on doesn't mean it will turn out to be one. In addition to damage, if you've packed something valuable in your carry-on it can end up getting checked and exposed to theft.

As for Natalina, her biggest complaint is that United refused to replace the damaged Coach bag but insists on trying to repair it. Making matters worse, at last report Natalina said United sent her bag somewhere for repair and has been unresponsive to her efforts to get it back.

Fewer flights, fewer planes

Because airlines are flying fewer planes these days, it can cause problems for passengers when a flight is cancelled or there is a problem with one of the aircraft.

Delta Airlines March 28, 2013, 1:43 a.m.
Consumers rate Delta Airlines

“My dad and I had the unfortunate experience of missing a family wedding due to the cancellation of my flight to Johannesburg, South Africa on Saturday, March 16th,” writes Selwyn, of Dallas.

It happened, he says, because of a maintenance problem that took a long time to repair. By the time it was fixed, the flight crew was at the end of its work time limit. Once the plane was ready to fly, there was no crew to fly it.

“You would think that Delta would have a contingency plan with having a standby crew in place or switching the plane,” Selwyn writes.

Dream on. When airlines are trying to squeeze as much profitability out of every flight as they can, they don't have back-up crews sitting around.

A very red eye

Nancy, of Whittier, Calif., booked her parents on a JetBlue red-eye from Long Beach to Washington, D.C. At check-in they were told the flight was on time.

Jetblue March 28, 2013, 1:48 a.m.
Consumers rate Jetblue

“We ended up waiting over five hours at the airport for our plane to arrive,” Nancy writes. It left at three a.m. and had to make a stop in Vegas. It arrived in Dulles at 10 a.m. The online system and phone automated system both showed incorrectly that the flight was on time. I spoke to a JetBlue operator, and I was told it was caused by the airport in Long Beach shutting down the long runway due to construction. I told her if this was the case, then JetBlue should have known well ahead of time that there would be an issue. I asked why Jet Blue didn't inform their passengers. She said she didn't know.”

This is not to say that flights don't arrive and depart on time and many passengers are relatively pleased with the service they receive. But you can also be sure there are also more than the three quoted here who find air travel an increasingly frustrating and stressful experience.

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Quest for wealth information gets expensive, woman finds

Study-at-home courses often don't deliver what's promised

Norma of West Hempstead, N.Y., badly needed some information on wealth-building so she poked around the Internet a little while and stumbled across somethi...

PhotoNorma of West Hempstead, N.Y., badly needed some information on wealth-building so she poked around the Internet a little while and stumbled across something called the Wealth Information Network.

"I spoke with supposedly the Director of Wealth Information Network. He was very convincing in that I would be making money from home after taking his course," Norma said. "Even though I am unemployed I scraped up $399 to register and he said that I would need to pay $161 a month."

We're not quite sure what Norma was hoping to learn. The Wealth Information Network offers online and teleconference courses dealing with real estate investing. Now a course on investing in real estate is probably not going to be very helpful to someone who has trouble scraping $399 together but no one bothered to point that out to Norma, who quickly learned that she was just getting started writing checks.  

"Three pages into the course I could not go any further unless I had a lawyer and an accountant. I certainly could not afford them, so I tried to get back in touch with the people who signed me up and could not get them on the phone or have them return my calls; they knew that they had gotten me for the $560," she said.

"I finally got a call from someone on their behalf telling me that she could cancel my account. I told her that because they were not honest with me, I should get my money back. She very menacingly said, you either agree to lose the $560 or be forced to pay the full amount of $3,148," Norma said.

Unfortunately, Norma's experience doesn't seem to have been much of a learning experience, since she seems to have already been aware that online courses from obscure organizations are highly risky.

"This goes on all the time," she said.  "It is a shame that honest people are trying to make a living from home and end up with these scam artists taking advantage. Now I don't know how to get my money back."

Norma is unlikely to get her money back. She would probably be best advised to consider this an expensive lesson and look into Nassau Community College in Garden City, right next door to West Hempstead. There she can find legitimate, reasonably-prided business courses from a fully-accredited college.  

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10 things seniors should consider when investing

Financial professionals are concerned about growing fraud and abuse

Anyone investing money needs to do homework, talk to trusted, knowledgeable people and not act in haste. But it's especially good advice for seniors, who t...

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BabyHome USA recalls high chairs

The front opening between the tray and seat bottom poses a strangulation hazard

BabyHome USA of Chester, N.J., is recalling about 1,100 baby high chairs. The front opening between the tray and seat bottom of the high chair can allow ...

PhotoBabyHome USA of Chester, N.J., is recalling about 1,100 baby high chairs.

The front opening between the tray and seat bottom of the high chair can allow a child’s body to pass through and become entrapped at the neck. This poses a strangulation hazard to young children when the child is not harnessed. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall includes Eat model high chairs in red, black, green, purple, navy, orange, and brown. The model number BH2104 is located on a label on the back of the high chair. The word “babyhome” is printed on one leg of the chair and the word “eat” is printed on the opposite leg of the chair.

The high chairs have a nylon fabric seat with a plastic tray and metal frame and measure about 36 inches high and 24 inches wide. There is a printed white “babyhome” logo shaped like a backwards letter “h” on the seat back The recalled high chairs have lot numbers: BH00301/01-2012, BH00303/07-2012, BH00304/09-2012 and BH00304/09-2012.

The lot numbers are located on a sticker affixed to the bottom of the footrest.

The high chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at juvenile product stores nationwide including USA Baby, Magic Beans and RC Willey and/ online at Amazon.com, Babiesrus.com and Diapers.com from March 2012 through February 2013 for about $150.

Consumers should stop using the high chairs immediately and contact BabyHome USA to receive a free crotch restraint repair kit.

Consumers may contact BabyHome USA toll-free at (888) 758-5712 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Alitalia fined for posting misleading information on its website

At issue is the carrier's policy on delayed and canceled flight compensation

The Italian air carrier Alitalia is in hot water with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The agency has it the airline with a $125,000 fine for p...

PhotoThe Italian air carrier Alitalia is in hot water with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

The agency has it the airline with a $125,000 fine for providing inaccurate information on its website regarding its policy on compensation to passengers on delayed and canceled flights.

Inconsistent statements

While Alitalia’s website displayed a copy of the carrier’s General Conditions of Carriage (GCC) as required by DOT rules, and specifically adopted rules required by the European Union (EU) regarding compensation for delayed and canceled flights, the carrier claimed a right to refuse such compensation, citing provisions in its tariff that exempted travel from the U.S. from the terms of the GCC.

The consent order finds that the inconsistent statements of policy contained in the tariff and the GCC were an unfair and deceptive trade practice in violation of U.S. law. It directs the carrier to revise its tariff and GCC to reflect the carrier’s actual policy regarding compensation in cases of delayed or canceled flights to or from the United States and orders the carrier to cease and desist from further violations of the law prohibiting airlines from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices.

The Aviation Enforcement Office investigated after two Alitalia passengers whose flights were canceled complained about the carrier’s refusal to pay cash compensation.

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New multiple sclerosis treatment wins approval

Tecfidera lessens the the likelihood of relapses and worsening disability

Tecfidera (dimethyl fumarate) capsules has won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat adults with relapsing forms of multiple s...

PhotoTecfidera (dimethyl fumarate) capsules has won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat adults with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis (MS).

“No drug provides a cure for multiple sclerosis so it is important to have a variety of treatment options available for patients,” said Russell Katz, M.D., director of the Division of Neurology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Multiple sclerosis can impair movement, sensation, and thinking and have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life.”

Positive results

Results from two clinical trials showed that those taking Tecfidera had fewer MS relapses compared with people taking an inactive pill (placebo). One of the trials showed that those taking Tecfidera experienced a worsening of disability less often than patients taking a placebo.

Tecfidera may decrease a person’s white blood cell count (lymphocytes). Lymphocytes help protect the body from infection and low counts can raise the risk of infection, although no significant increase in infections was seen in patients taking Tecfidera in clinical trials. Before starting treatment, and annually thereafter, the FDA recommends that the patient’s white blood cell count be assessed by their health care provider.

Flushing (warmth and redness) and stomach problems (nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea) were the most common adverse reactions reported by patients receiving Tecfidera in clinical trials, especially at the start of therapy. These side effects may decrease over time.

Young adults at risk

MS is a chronic, inflammatory, autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body. It is among the most common causes of neurological disability in young adults and occurs more frequently in women than men. For most people with MS, episodes of worsening function (relapses) are initially followed by recovery periods (remissions).

Over time, recovery periods may be incomplete, leading to progressive decline in function and increased disability. MS patients often experience muscle weakness and difficulty with coordination and balance. Most people experience their first symptoms of MS between the ages of 20 and 40.

Tecfidera is made by Biogen Idec, Weston, Mass.

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Economy shows stronger growth in fourth quarter

However, the rate of expansion slowed considerably from the previous three months

After recrunching some numbers, the Commerce Department reports the economy was doing a bit better in the fourth quarter than initially reported. The Gros...

PhotoAfter recrunching some numbers, the Commerce Department reports the economy was doing a bit better in the fourth quarter than initially reported.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States -- increased at an annual rate of 0.4% in the final three months of the year.

This latest estimate, the government's third, is based on more complete source data than were available last month, when an increase of 0.1% was reported. Analysts at Briefing.com had projected a fourth-quarter growth rate of 0.3%.

Major factors

The fourth quarter increase primarily reflects positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), nonresidential fixed investment, and residential fixed investment that 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 fourth-quarter growth rate was considerably slower than the 3.1% advance in the third quarter.

The deceleration was due largely to 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.

Corporate profits

As it released its GDP report, the government said corporate profits rose $45.4 billion in the fourth quarter, compared with an increase of $45.7 billion in the third quarter.

Taxes on corporate income decreased $4.4 billion in the fourth quarter, in contrast to an increase of $9.1 billion in the third.

Jobless claims

Separately, the Labor Department reports first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose 2,000 in the week ending March 16 -- to a seasonally adjusted initial claims was 336,000. The previous week's total was revised up by 2,000 -- to 334,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 339,750 -- down 7,500 from the previous week's revised average of 347,250.

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Debt collectors agree to stop deceiving consumers

The settlement with the FTC also includes a payment of nearly $800,000

The defendants in a debt collection operation have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they allegedly misled consumers into paying...

PhotoThe defendants in a debt collection operation have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they allegedly misled consumers into paying unnecessary fees and falsely threatened consumers with lawsuits.

In its complaint, the FTC claims that the defendants -- a debt buyer and a debt collection law firm, both based in Mississippi -- violated the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by deceptively charging consumers a fee for payments authorized by telephone.

The commission says consumers were led to believe that the fee was unavoidable when, in fact, those who paid by mail or online did not incur the fee. The FTC also contends that the companies violated the laws by falsely threatening to sue consumers as a means of getting them to pay. A debt collector is prohibited by law from using false, deceptive, or misleading representations or tactics when collecting a debt.

Settlement terms

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the defendants will pay $799,958 in restitution for consumers. They also are barred from making any misrepresentations when collecting a debt, including false claims that consumers must pay an extra fee when making payments on a debt or that they will be sued for not paying a debt.

According to the complaint, debt buyer Security Credit Services, LLC, and Jacob Law Group, PLLC have worked together since 2006 to collect debts nationwide. Security Credit buys consumer debt accounts, and contracts with Jacob Law to collect on them.

The complaint alleges that Law called and pressured consumers to immediately make payments on their debts by authorizing electronic checks or credit or debit card payments over the phone. In addition, Law allegedly told consumers they were required to pay an additional fee of $18.95 for this service, but routinely failed to mention that they could avoid the fee by mailing the payment or paying online. Since 2008, the defendants have collected at least $799,958 in fees from consumers.

The FTC also says Jacob Law Group implied that it would file lawsuits to collect the debts even when it did not intend to do so.

What to do

Got a problem with debt and bill collectors? You have some rights and there are things you can do to protect yourself. Find out more here.

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Bugaboo recalls Cameleon3 strollers

The stroller’s carrying handle can break and detach, posing a fall hazard

Bugaboo Americas of El Segundo, Calif., is recalling about 10,000 Bugaboo Cameleon3 strollers. The stroller’s carrying handle can break and detach, posi ...

PhotoBugaboo Americas of El Segundo, Calif., is recalling about 10,000 Bugaboo Cameleon3 strollers.

The stroller’s carrying handle can break and detach, posing a fall hazard. The company has received 16 reports of carry handles breaking. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves the Bugaboo Cameleon3 strollers. The stroller has an aluminum and plastic frame with rubberized wheels, a removable seat and bassinet, a removable “U”-shaped carry handle, an under-the-seat storage bag and a sun canopy. The bassinet, seat and sun canopy come in a variety of colors. The removable carry handle is used to transport the bassinet or seat separately from the chassis. The words “Bugaboo” and “Cameleon3” appear on a fabric tag on the side of the sun canopy.

Strollers included in the recall have serial numbers from 19010 11153 00001 to 19010 51248 00215. Serial numbers are printed on a horizontal bar of the stroller’s chassis beneath the seat.

The strollers, manufactured in China, were sold at Buy Buy Baby, Toys R Us and other baby product stores nationwide, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, online and other online retailers from September 2012 to March 2013 for between $889 and $1,600.

Consumers should immediately remove the carry handle from the stroller’s bassinet or seat and contact Bugaboo for a free replacement handle. While awaiting the replacement handle, consumers can continue to use the seat or bassinet when attached to the chassis but should not attempt to use the seat or bassinet separate from the chassis.

Consumers may contact Bugaboo Americas at (800) 460-2922, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or by e-mail at serviceus@bugaboo.com.

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Consumers vs supermarkets, an enduring battle

Supermarkets count on your spontaneity, so keep your guard up

When it comes to luring you into spending a lot of money, supermarkets have been shaping and redesigning their tactics ever since the first food aisle...

PhotoWhen it comes to luring you into spending a lot of money, supermarkets have been sharpening their tactics ever since the first food aisle was created.

Probably one of the first maneuvers came in the form of a candy and magazine rack, placed right by the register to entice those in line to buy something at the last minute.

The overall logic is, why not squeeze a little more money out of the consumer, after they’ve probably already spent a ton.

It's a tactic stores use against our two most common reactions when we’re waiting on line: boredom and impulsiveness.

Being bored while waiting for that technically-challenged person to figure out the self-check-out machine, can allow you to pick up all sorts of trash in the form of gossip magazines and tabloid newspapers, which are filled with stories of zombie sightings, cheating celebrities and grainy photos of Tupac and Elvis having lunch together.

And if you’re going to read a little trash, you’ll also need to eat a little trash, right? Which is why stores fill racks with all kinds of chocolates, gums and candies to ruin any chance of your staying away from the sweet stuff.

And just think, you thought you scored a victory after successfully passing the bakery department without grabbing anything. Darn those tricky supermarkets, with their four-foot racks of last minute temptation.  

Apparently, when you're shopping, having the right amount of self-control is just as important as having the right amount of funds to make your purchases.

You’ll need self-control if you’re a parent too, because every red-blooded child on earth will utilize every scheme in their arsenal to get you to buy something.

And because of all this, consumers have been trapped within walls made of trash magazines, candies and begging children, and many times people will buy something just to escape.

But not anymore, experts say.

Tactical retreat

Between the combination of low magazines sales and consumers being more aware of today’s supermarket tactics, sales of items near the cash register have been going down dramatically.

PhotoAnd the primary reason for these low sales is that consumers are now armed with smartphones, to not only occupy their time while on line, but also to draw their attention away from these last-minute purchases.

Hearst, which has historically sold many of its magazines near cash registers, says it has begun to re-think the way its publications are displayed in stores; by placing cardboard shelves in various locations, the company hopes to entice people while they’re still in shopping mode and away from their handheld devices.

Of course this means that consumers should be alert to this new ploy, and raise their level of discipline by sticking to a shopping list and not randomly grabbing something from a cardboard display.

John Loughlin, general manager of the magazine unit at Hearst, told Bloomberg that smartphones have put a permanent black eye on its  magazine sales in supermarkets.

“We avoid the dreaded cell phone at checkout,” he said. “Magazines are an impulse purchase, so we have more than one opportunity to capture the consumer’s attention.”

Nick Jones, of the retail firm Leo Burnett, told Bloomberg that consumers should continue to be on the lookout for store-front items being displayed in seemingly random departments, as companies are starting to place magazines according to their subject matter—so food magazines may go in the deli department and home and garden publications may go in the housewares aisle.

In addition, be on the watch for candies and individually packaged snack cakes that are strategically placed all around the store, because, again, companies are hoping to catch you while you’re still whisking around your shopping cart, vulnerable to impulse buys.

And speaking of shopping carts, they seem to be getting bigger, huh? Another tactic by grocery stores to lure you into buying a bunch of things that you probably don't need or want.  

What to do

Money saving expert Andrea Worwoch says consumers shouldn’t even use a shopping cart if they can help it.

Photo“If you use a hand basket, you’ll realize when you’re throwing in unnecessary goods or impulse buys, because it’s becoming heavier, so if you’re making those quick trips with a shorter list, use a hand basket instead, and you’ll be less likely to buy on impulse,” said Worwoch in a TV interview.

In addition, she says to avoid buying anything that’s pre-cut. If you do, you’ll be paying a price markup between 30% and 60%, so it’s best to buy things like meats, fruits and cheeses whole, and then make the time at home to do all of the cutting and chopping on your own.

Not only will this save you money, but items like vegetables will maintain their nutrients longer, since most lose a little when they’re pre-cut and bagged, says Worwoch.

And you’ve probably heard this piece of advice before, but be sure to shop “high and low” as Worwoch puts it, because stores put the most expensive items and the worst deals at eye level on shelves, so be sure to look at both the top and bottom rows for less expensive brands, that many times have the same level of quality.

It’s always extremely important to look at the price per unit to figure out what the best overall deals are as well, says Worwoch.

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Privacy concerns still haunt Facebook

Worries about privacy may lead to a host of Facebook competitors

Maybe it's because it has nearly a billion users, but it's always been a challenge to maintain your privacy on Facebook. In fact, it has been a common them...

PhotoMaybe it's because it has nearly a billion users, but it's always been a challenge to maintain your privacy on Facebook. In fact, it has been a common theme among users posting complaints about the social networking site.

“I read certain articles. Facebook shares this with everyone without my permission,” Dianne, of Trenton, Ontario, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I feel this is a violation of my privacy.”

Deborah, of Seattle, believes Facebook is changing her privacy settings without her permission. Specifically, she says settings are being changed under “Apps/How to bring your info to apps they use.”

“I always uncheck all boxes,” she writes. “And when I remember to check back, Facebook has always re-checked at least one box for me.”

Privacy settlement

In late 2012 Facebook finalized an agreement to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowed it to be shared and made public.

The settlement required Facebook to take several steps to make sure it lives up to its promises in the future, including giving consumers clear and prominent notice and obtaining consumers' express consent before their information is shared beyond the privacy settings they have established. New privacy rules were announced at the end of 2012.

Still, privacy concerns persist and users have begun taking matters into their own hands. Early in 2013 this cut and paste post was making the rounds on Facebook, passed around among friends:

With the new FB timeline on its way this week for EVERYONE...please do both of us a favor: Hover over my name above. In a few seconds you'll see a box that says "Subscribed." Hover over that, then go to "Comments and Likes" and unclick it. That will stop my posts and yours to me from showing up on the side bar(ticker) for everyone to see, but MOST IMPORTANTLY it LIMITS HACKERS from invading our profiles. If you re-post this I will do the same for you. Thank You.

Controls in your hands?

Facebook says you can control your privacy but a clear understanding of how the controls work helps. For example, the default setting on “Who can see my stuff?” is set to allow search engines to access it. To turn it off, you have to navigate your way into “see more settings” to uncheck it.

PhotoAll of this has been especially unsettling for families who have worried about their children's privacy. This concern is spawning new social media apps that are said to be geared especially for families and more private.

One of the latest is Kinfish, touted as the “first kid-friendly, safe and family-centric social networking platform” that permits users to share information privately. Using the app, friends and families can share information privately in their own separate groups through Kinfish's secure mobile app.

Family frustration

"We noticed that more and more of us were getting frustrated at how our Facebook profiles were not private and required some arcane alchemy to figure out how to make it private time and time again,” said Kyle Watson, Kinfish's CEO. “Personally, as a father who wants to share life's moments with my family when I am traveling – we wanted to develop a solution to this challenge."

Watson says Kinfish was created by three dads with modern families, with the aim of putting power back in the hands of parents. It was developed for families who are separated – either by divorce, business travel or military service.

“We wanted an environment where parents don't have to second guess themselves when they post a picture of their children, or mention that they are having a great vacation,” Watson said.

Unlike Facebook, Kinfish says the app does nothing with the individual's private information because it believes it belongs to the individual. Increasingly, large social networking sites like Facebook are attempting to monetize your data with advertisers. One way is to show you ads based on websites you have visited.

What to do

PhotoIf you find all of this tracking just a bit too invasive, but still want to stay with Facebook, there are online tools that can help you block the trackers. Disconnect is a simple download that installs in your web browser.

It not only blocks tracking but, by clicking on the Disconnect Me logo in the upper right corner of your tool bar, you can see how many trackers have been blocked.

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T-Mobile adds iPhone with no contract

It will sell the iPhone for $100 plus $20 per month for 24 months

-Mobile Adds iPhone, Unveils No-Contract PricingT-Mobile USA, long trailing its rivals in the cell phone industry, is trying to catch up by changing the co...

PhotoOn its way to the altar with MetroPCS, T-Mobile is perhaps trying to add a last-minute touch of glamour, something that's been a bit lacking the last few years. At long last, it's getting the iPhone -- and offering it without a contract, no less.

Not only will T-Mobile be offering the iPhone without a contract, it's also selling it more cheaply than its rivals -- just $100 upfront, plus $20 a month for two years. Not having a contract means customers can dump T-Mobile before the two years is up, but they'll still have to make the $20 payments until the loan is paid off. 

Consumers can also use unlocked phones on the T-Mobile network, something most carriers don't allow. 

T-Mobile says it will also be offering other high-end smartphones, like the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and the BlackBerry Z10 with similar payment planes.

Photo
John Legere

T-Mobile says this is all part of its new "Un-carrier" attitude. It's trying to act less like a wireless carrier and more like a customer-focused retailer, saying it wants to "address consumer frustration with the unnecessary cost and complexity of wireless."

“These bold moves serve notice that T-Mobile is canceling its membership in the out-of-touch wireless club,” said John Legere, president and CEO of T-Mobile USA, Inc. “This is an industry filled with ridiculously confusing contracts, limits on how much data you can use or when you can upgrade, and monthly bills that make little sense. As America’s Un-carrier, we are changing all of that and bringing common sense to wireless.”

Radically simple

Legere said the Un-carrier campaign includes:

  • simplifying its lineup of consumer rate plans to one "incredibly affordable plan" for unlimited talk, text and Web;
  • ensuring that customers never have to sign another annual service contract through T-Mobile retail outlets; and
  • enabling customers to get the most popular smartphones whenever they want for the lowest upfront cost.  

Merger approved

Federal regulators earlier this month gave their blessing to the merger of MetroPCS and T-Mobile USA, potentially creating a bigger and more powerful player in the wireless arena that's now dominated by Verizon and AT&T Wireless.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said the deal would boost competition by creating the fourth-largest competitor, after Sprint. The Justice Department has also signed off on the transaction.

T-Mobile USA's parent company, Deutsche Telekom, will own 74% of the combined company.

 

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Higher prices at JC Penney means lower prices at jcp

If you raise prices and then lower them, that should make everybody happy, right?

There’'s a wonderful Yiddish reflection -- "The difference between genius and stupidity is genius has its limits." That may explain the difference between ...

Photo
Dr. Robert Passikoff

There’'s a wonderful Yiddish reflection -- "The difference between genius and stupidity is genius has its limits." That may explain the difference between Apple stores and JCPenney/jcp. What’'s interesting is the strategies for both retailers were set by the same person –-- Ron Johnson, formerly SVP, Retail Operations for Apple, currently jcp CEO. It was JCPenney when he joined and announced his long and short-term strategies. 

Long term: re-do all of the stores in the 111-year-old chain into mini-boutiques-under-one-roof, which sounds really cool, but, alas, to do that you need time and money and jcp is running out of both. Short-term:– a plan that was going to reinvigorate the store and restore profitability,– stop what Johnson labeled “fake prices,” and move away from nonstop promotions and coupons with everyday low prices (like Wal-Mart) to “fair-and-square” pricing.

The change didn't work all that well, but in their defense, the Ellen DeGeneres commercials were fun. Until they cancelled the advertising and strategy, neither of which was working, and the regular sales, that Mr. Johnson had characterized as “simplifying” pricing. If that seems contrary to the previous “fair-and-square” positioning, we think that’'s a perfectly acceptable position for you to take, so go ahead. 

That was about six months ago and Mr. Johnson finally acknowledged that, "It was clear that withdrawing from our promotional model to a more everyday model has been harder than we anticipated."

You think? It wasn’t just harder; it was expensive, coming with a price tag of a $552 million 4Q loss, which is a lot of money and pretty much a sign that your strategy isn’'t working. So what'’s a CEO with a chain in a death-spiral of same-store sales to do?

Back to Square One

J.C. Penney March 27, 2013, 8:06 p.m.
Consumers rate J.C. Penney

We’'re glad you asked, because Mr. Johnson has an answer to that question: go back to the original sales strategy they scrapped last year, and restore sales on a weekly basis. But if you do that, how do you protect your already tiny “fair-and-square” margins, where you’'re losing money big-time? 

Now you might think that was going to be a really difficult question to answer, but not so much, particularly for someone who came from a company where simplicity and elegance were the watchwords. It'’s been reported that Mr. Johnson’'s elegant plan is to raise jcp prices to their former, higher levels – the ones before the fair-and-square pricing – and then cut them. Simple, huh?

No, no, you read that right. They'’re going to raise the prices and then – -- wait for it -- lower them, figuring that will give them the appearance of having provided consumers with a large discount at a sales “event,” so it will appear even more special and of greater value to customers. So, all in all, not so fair-and-square and really fake prices.

If you are as dumbfounded as we, join the club. In a century where consumers are more marketer than fool, speak to each other before they speak to the brand, and have access to more digital information each day, how does Mr. Johnson figure this strategy hoax is going to bamboozle consumers? We’'d be fascinated to hear Mr. Johnson’s answer to that.

In the meantime, for those of you interested, the phrase "“fair and square"” dates back to the 16th century. “Fair” was spelled "“faire,"” and meant “aboveboard,” and “square ” meant “honest.” So aboveboard and honest. But given the circumstances, with their new, more modern jcp logo, and more contemporary consumers, perhaps jcp should consider a more recent tagline. One from 1941: Never give a sucker an even break!

---

Robert Passikoff is President of Brand Keys, a research consultancy.

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Walmart latest to add lockers for online order pickups

Amazon has been offering a similar option for customers who can't get deliveries at home

Wal-Mart Enlists Stores To Boost Online SalesWal-Mart Stores Inc is ramping up plans to combine its physical stores with online technology, testing the use...

PhotoOrdering stuff online works pretty well if you live in a safe neighborhood or if you're home all day and able to hustle deliveries inside before they walk away. But for those not so blessed, online shopping can be treacherous, as Asia of Queens Village, NY, learned.

"I placed an order online which required shipping. I then paid for 5 to 7 business days for the items to ship. ... My package which now says 'left at door step' according to tracking," she said in a recent posting to ConsumerAffairs. "I never saw a UPS truck at my house or even on my street at all that day. I called to complain and request help for my missing package and was told I did not pay for 'priority' shipping and there isn't anything that could be done about my package. That leaves me at a complete loss."

Amazon has been trying to address the problem by offering a locker service at places like 7-11 and Staples. Now Walmart is doing the same, setting up lockers at its stores where customers can pick up their online purchases.

Like lots of retailers, Walmart has previously let customers order goods online and pick them up at the store, but the process requires going to the service desk or otherwise dealing with humans who may or may not be able to find your order.

This is what happened to Robert of Monterey Park, Calif., who described his experience with a Walmart.com order:

"I ordered an item online from site to store pick up on 9/8/12 and paid $38.06. On 9/13 I got an email that my item was ready. When I went to Walmart the girl went to pull my order and checked twice. She said she couldnt find it," Robert said. "No apology or effort was made to get me my item, not even a shipment to my home." 

Of course, Walmart also ships orders to customers, opening them up to the same type of problem Asia encountered.

"I ordered checks through Walmartchecks.com and had them sent overnight delivery," said Christa of Knoxville, Tenn. "They were supposed to be delivered by the 19th, which was yesterday. When 7pm rolled around and I still had not seen a delivery person, I contacted Walmart for the tracking info. They told me that the checks were marked as delivered on Friday the 16th at 9:38 in the morning.

"I immediately called UPS to find out what was going on. I was at home all day on Friday and nothing was delivered by UPS. After a bit of research, it was found out that the delivery driver left them on the doorstep of someone else's house! That particular house happens to be up for sale and I have been unable to reach the owner," she said. "The package is not where it was supposedly left...so now, some stranger has access to my bank account information."

While these isolated examples may sound extreme, they're actually quite common and are a major deterrant to online shopping for many consumers.

Walmart remains the nation's largest retailer with sales last year of $466 billion. It  says it is on track to break $9 billion in online sales this year, compared to Amazon's $61 billion last year.  If either online giant can solve the home-delivery problem definitively, it should give it a big step up.

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Food may actually be getting a little bit safer

Studies find a decline in the number of foodborne disease outbreaks

Could it be that food is actually getting safer in the United States? Both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the nonprofit C...

PhotoCould it be that food is actually getting safer in the United States? Both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest say their most recent reports find a decrease in food-related illness.

The CDC says the number of foodborne disease outbreaks reported in 2009 and 2010 declined 32 percent compared with the preceding five years while CSPI says the incidence of foodborne illness outbreaks was down by more than 40 percent over the decade from 2001 to 2010.

Prior to 2011, CDC said foodborne illness in the U.S. sickened 72 million people annually. Then two years ago, that figure was cut to 48 million. It may be even lower than that now, although reporting problems make it hard to say so with any certainty.

Risky restaurants

One thing that doesn't change much from year to year, however, is that eating in restaurants, cafeterias and other public places is a lot more dangerous than eating food you prepare at home.

PhotoCSPI found there are roughly two and half times more foodborne illnesses picked up by dining at restaurants than by eating at home. During the decade covered in its report, there were 1,786 outbreaks at restaurants, sickening nearly 33,000 people. There were 922 outbreaks in private homes, affecting 12,666 people.

But health advocates say there are still more outbreaks than necessary.

"Despite progress made by the industry and by food safety regulators, contaminated food is still causing too many illnesses, visits to the emergency room, and deaths," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "Yet state and local health departments and federal food safety programs always seem to be on the chopping block. Those financial pressures not only threaten the progress we've made on food safety, but threaten our very understanding of which foods and which pathogens are making people sick."

Foodborne illness is already notoriously underreported, says CSPI, since most people do not seek medical treatment for typical cases of food poisoning. But another trend the group has observed is a decline in the extent to which reports of foodborne illness outbreaks are fully investigated, thanks partly to budget cuts.

PhotoSeafood, poultry, and beef showed the sharpest decline in the number of reported outbreaks in the study period. Outbreaks related to produce, which is responsible for more illnesses than any other category of food, have remained relatively flat.

Illnesses related to dairy actually reached their highest point in 2010, the last year of the study period. CSPI says the increased availability of raw, unpasteurized milk and cheese may account for this; these products are inherently hazardous and should not be consumed at all, the organization says.

What to do

Despite the high-profile outbreaks related to spinach, salsa, tomatoes, cantaloupes, and other fresh fruits and vegetables, CSPI says that people should continue eating a lot of them, because they are among the most nutritious foods, providing essential minerals, vitamins, and fiber.

In fact, the group says that on a pound-for-pound basis, fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy, are among the safest foods to eat. When adjusted for consumption, it is seafood that presents the greatest risk of illness, causing almost 20 times as much disease as fruit and dairy.

According to the CDC, each year foodborne pathogens sicken 1 in 6 Americans each year, or about 48 million people. Approximately 128,000 of those people will be hospitalized, and 3,000 will die.

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A fresh look at foreclosure prevention efforts

Five federal programs have improved over the last four years

With the housing market in rebound mode and home prices rising, it's easy to forget that many homeowners are still underwater and still struggling. A check...

PhotoWith the housing market in rebound mode and home prices rising, it's easy to forget that many homeowners are still underwater and still struggling. A check of real estate listing sites shows numerous homes in foreclosure or pre-forclosure.

After a bit of a slow start, the federal government now has five programs in place that are aimed at helping homeowners avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes. If you find yourself fighting off foreclosure, one of the five may be of some help.

1. HAMP Tier 1 and Tier 2

The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) has been extended through 2013 and expanded to help more homeowners. HAMP Tier 2 is now an option for homeowners who want to modify a mortgage on a second home or rental property which previously didn't qualify.

The original HAMP program was slow out of the gate. In 2010 testimony before Congress, Julia Gordon, of the Center For Responsible Lending, said HAMP's performance had been disappointing.

"HAMP has fallen far short of its initial goals for helping individual homeowners and has remained well behind the curve of additional foreclosures," she said in her testimony. "Worse, many families encounter an incompetent or even predatory mortgage servicing system once they apply to the program, experiencing delays or denials that are inconsistent with the promise of the program guidelines.”

Gordon said hundreds of thousands of people who received trial modifications during HAMP's initial phase ended up in a worse financial situation. Now, however, the process reportedly runs more smoothly and more people are eligible, including those who previously didn't qualify.

2. Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA)

HAFA is designed to help homeowners whose loans are not backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. It provides two options for transitioning to more affordable housing – a short sale or a Deed-in-Lieu for foreclosure.

In a short sale, the mortgage company lets a borrower sell their home for an amount that falls short of the amount they still owe. In a Deed-in-Lieu, the homeowner simply signs over the deed to the mortgage company and walks away.

A few years ago short sales were very difficult to pull off, mainly because mortgage servicers resisted them. Both homeowners and Realtors complained about the lack of cooperation, accusing the big banks of gaming the system. 

But policy changes for HAFA took effect February 1, 2013. Now servicers are required to make a decision on a borrower's request for a HAFA short sale within 30 days, down from 45 days.

Non-owner occupied properties are now eligible for short sales. Up to $3,000 in relocation assistance may now be available to tenants living in a distressed property.

The amount the primary mortgage holder can pay to subordinate lien holders has been increased from $2,000 to $5,000. However, these changes do not apply to mortgages backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which unfortunately disqualifies quite a few loans. Those agencies no longer participate with HAFA because they have their own Standard Short Sale and Standard Deed in Lieu guidelines.

3. Independent Foreclosure Review Alternative Settlement

In January 2013, 13 mortgage servicers subject to the Independent Foreclosure Review signed off on an agreement with federal regulators to pay more than $8.8 billion to help struggling borrowers. The agreement replaced the Independent Foreclosure Review program, which had been something of a disappointment. The agreement set up a broader framework allowing eligible borrowers to get help faster. More than 3.9 million borrowers, whose homes were in foreclosure in 2009 and 2010, are expected to receive cash compensation in a more timely way.

Servicers include Aurora, Bank of America, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JP Mortgage Chase, Morgan Stanley, MetLife Bank, PNC, Sovereign, SunTrust, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo.

Borrowers whose mortgage loan was serviced by one of the participating servicers and who were involved in a foreclosure action, between January 2009 and December 2010, will receive compensation, whether or not they filed a request for review form. This is one program where you don't need to do anything to be eligible for compensation. Payment agents will contact eligible borrowers by the end of March.

4. Fannie Mae Refinancing Incentive

In January 2013 Fannie Mae liberalized rules so lenders will be allowed to offer a refinancing incentive. These incentives can take the form of a lower rate, resulting in a lower payment, or a fixed rate product.

The lender may provide a borrower incentive that reduces the amount of the mortgage loan being refinanced, provided that the amount of the incentive does not exceed $2,000 and no repayment is required.

5. Hardest Hit Funds

In 2007, the U.S. government allocated Hardest Hit Funds to 18 states and the District of Columbia to help homeowners who are unemployed or underemployed. Like the federal agencies, many of the states have recently made program changes to improve the process and help more homeowners. People who weren't eligible at first may be now.

States have until the end of 2017 to utilize the funds allocated through this program. The jurisdictions include Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

What to do

If you think you qualify for any of these programs, here is how to contact them:

HAMP: Click here

HAFA: Click here. 

Independent Foreclosure Review Alternative Settlement: Call 888-952-9105

Fannie Mae Refinancing Incentive: Click here

Hardest Hit Funds : Click here.

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Temporary tattoos may put you at risk

They may not be permanent, but they can do damage

Ink is in. No doubt about that; just look around. But if you can't stand the idea of a needle or you don't want something you may later regret, how about ...

PhotoInk is in. No doubt about that; just look around.

But if you can't stand the idea of a needle or you don't want something you may later regret, how about one of those temporary tattoos?

Well, that may not be such a good idea either.

Temporary tattoos typically last from three days to several weeks, depending on the product used for coloring and the condition of the skin. Unlike permanent tattoos, which are injected into the skin, temporary tattoos marketed as "henna" are applied to the skin's surface.

However, "just because a tattoo is temporary it doesn't mean that it is risk free," says Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Office of Cosmetics and Colors. Some consumers report reactions that may be severe and long outlast the temporary tattoos themselves.

MedWatch, FDA's safety information and adverse event (bad side effects) reporting program, has received reports of serious and long-lasting reactions that consumers had not bargained for after getting temporary tattoos. Reported problems include redness, blisters, raised red weeping lesions, loss of pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and even permanent scarring.

Some reactions have led people to seek medical care, including visits to hospital emergency rooms. Reactions may occur immediately after a person gets a temporary tattoo, or even up to two or three weeks later.

Not necessarily safe

You may be familiar with henna, a reddish-brown coloring made from a flowering plant that grows in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and Asia. Since the Bronze Age, people have used dried henna, ground into a paste, to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather, silk and wool. This decoration -- sometimes also known as mehndi -- is still used today around the world to decorate the skin in cultural festivals and celebrations.

Today, so-called "black henna" is often used in place of traditional henna. Inks marketed as black henna may be a mix of henna with other ingredients, or may really be hair dye alone. The reason for adding other ingredients is to create a tattoo that is darker and longer lasting.

However, use of black henna is potentially harmful. That's because the extra ingredient used to blacken henna is often a coal-tar hair dye containing p-phenylenediamine (PPD), an ingredient that can cause dangerous skin reactions in some people. Sometimes, the artist may use a PPD-containing hair dye alone. Either way, there's no telling who will be affected. By law, PPD is not permitted in cosmetics intended to be applied to the skin.

You may see "black henna" used in places such as temporary tattoo kiosks at beaches, boardwalks, and other holiday destinations, as well as in some ethnic or specialty shops. While states have jurisdiction over professional practices such as tattooing and cosmetology, that oversight differs from state to state. Some states have laws and regulations for temporary tattooing, while others don't. So, depending on where you are, it's possible no one is checking to make sure the artist is following safe practices or even knows what may be harmful to consumers.

Learning the hard way

A number of consumers have learned the risks the hard way, reporting significant bad reactions shortly after the application of black henna temporary tattoos.

  • The parents of a 5-year-old girl reported that she developed severe reddening on her forearm about two weeks after receiving a black henna temporary tattoo. "What we thought would be a little harmless fun ended up becoming more like a nightmare for us," the father says. "My hope is that by telling people about our experience, I can help prevent this from happening to some other unsuspecting kids and parents."
  • The mother of a 17-year-old girl agrees. "At first I was a little upset she got the tattoo without telling me," she says. "But when it became red and itchy and later began to blister and the blisters filled with fluid, I was beside myself." She explains that as a nurse, she's used to seeing all manner of injuries, "but when it's your own child, it's pretty scary," she says.
  • And another mother, whose teenager had no reaction to red henna tattoos, describes the skin on her daughter's back as looking "the way a burn victim looks, all blistered and raw" after a black henna tattoo was applied there. She says that according to her daughter's doctor, the teenager will have scarring for life.

If you have a reaction to or concern about a temporary tattoo or any other cosmetic, in addition to recommending that you contact your health care professional, FDA asks you to contact MedWatch, the agency's problem-reporting program. You can also call 1-800-FDA-1088 to report by telephone, or contact the nearest FDA consumer complaint coordinator in your area.

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Walmart's "Bluebird" card adds FDIC protection

The checking account alternative offers services to "unbanked" consumers

Bluebird, the debit and checking alternative for "unbanked" consumers offered by Walmart and American Express, is adding FDIC insurance coverage and new fu...

PhotoBluebird, the debit and checking alternative for "unbanked" consumers offered by Walmart and American Express, is adding FDIC insurance coverage and new funding options.

It's estimated that more than eight percent of American consumers are "unbanked,"  meaning they do not have a bank account, forcing many to use expensive check-cashing services offered by currency exchanges and retailers. 

The Bluebird card is intended to provide many personal financial services at lower cost and with less financial risk than non-bank providers. Significantly, the addition of Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation coverage means that Bluebird account holders will now be eligible to receive direct deposit of Social Security and military payments and tax refunds.

Bluebird is also adding “no overdraft” check writing. Bluebird Members will have the ability to order Bluebird checks that they can use to pay bills and make purchases without worrying about insufficient funds or incurring overdraft fees because funds are set aside during the pre-authorization process

Customers can also balance their Bluebird checkbook in real-time with pre-authorized check writing, add checks to their Bluebird account by mail and add funds up to $100,000 annually.

“When we launched Bluebird last October, we were focused on serving the tens of millions of Americans who are not well served by the traditional financial services industry.  The unbanked, underbanked, and the unhappily banked are beset by onerous fees and numerous inconveniences,” said Dan Schulman, group president, Enterprise Growth at American Express.  “Today’s announcement, which reflects feedback from consumers, advocacy groups and government officials, represents the next set of enhancements that further distinguish Bluebird from other financial services options.”

For more information, see https://bluebird.com/faqs#fdic

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Dodge Challengers recalled

An electrical short circuit cold pose a fire hazard

Chrysler is recalling 4,051 model year 2013 Dodge Challenger vehicles manufactured from December 3, 2012, through January 24, 2013 and equipped with a V6 e...

PhotoChrysler is recalling 4,051 model year 2013 Dodge Challenger vehicles manufactured from December 3, 2012, through January 24, 2013, and equipped with a V6 engine.

The battery positive cable at the starter motor may experience an electrical short circuit to ground. A short circuit could lead to a vehicle fire.

Chrysler has began notifying owners and ad advising them to stop driving their vehicles immediately and contact their dealers. Chrysler Group further advises affected owners not to park their vehicles in, or near, any structures.

Dealers will replace the under hood starter cable assembly, free of charge. The recall notification began on March 20, 2013.

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

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Constrained inventory sends pending home sales slipping

But, the bigger picture shows the housing sector is continuing to strengthen

Limited buyer choices took some of the steam out of pending home sales during February. Still, they were at the second highest level in nearly three years....

PhotoLimited buyer choices took some of the steam out of pending home sales during February. Still, they were at the second highest level in nearly three years.

The National Association of Realtors' (NAR) Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) dipped 0.4% to 104.8 in February after being revised downward to 105.2 in January. Nevertheless, the index is 8.4% above the February 2012 reading of 96.6. Contract activity has been above year-ago levels for the past 22 months. The data reflect contracts but not closings.

Prior to January, the last time the index showed a higher reading was in April 2010 when it was 110.9, shortly before the deadline for the home buyer tax credit.

Not much choice

Limited inventory appears to be holding back the market in many areas. "Only new home construction can genuinely help relieve the inventory shortage, and housing starts need to rise at least 50 percent from current levels," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "Most local home builders are small businesses and simply don't have access to capital on Wall Street. Clearer regulatory rules, applied to construction loans for smaller community banks and credit unions, could bring many small-sized builders back into the market."

The PHSI declined 2.5% to 82.8 in the Northeast in February, but is 6.8% above February 2012. In the Midwest the index rose 0.4% to 103.6 and is 13.2% higher than a year ago. Pending home sales in the South slipped 0.3% to a reading of 118.8 in February but are 12.1% above February 2012. In the West the index increased 0.1% in February to 101.4 but is 0.8% below a year ago.

Looking ahead

Yun projects existing-home sales to rise about 7% in 2013 -- to approximately 5 million sales, which is near the current level of activity. "The volume of home sales appears to be leveling off with the constrained inventory conditions,” he explained, “and the leveling of the index means little change is likely in the pace of sales over the next couple months.”

The national median existing-home price is forecast to rise nearly 7% this year, while mortgage interest rates should remain historically low, but trend up slowly and reach 4% in the fourth quarter.

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PT Domusindo Perdana recalls drop-side cribs

The cribs' drop sides can fail, posing entrapment and suffocation hazards

PT Domusindo Perdana is recalling about 73,000 drop-side cribs. The cribs' drop sides can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail, causing part of the drop ...

PhotoPT Domusindo Perdana is recalling about 73,000 drop-side cribs.

The cribs' drop sides can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail, causing part of the drop side to fall out of position, creating a space into which an infant or toddler can roll and become wedged or entrapped, which can lead to strangulation or suffocation. A child can also fall out of the crib. Drop-side incidents can also occur due to incorrect assembly and with age-related wear and tear.

The CPSC and the firm are aware of three incidents involving drop side rails that malfunctioned or detached. No injuries were reported.

This recall includes 14 models of PT Domusindo Perdana wooden drop-side cribs:

Model #                            Description                                     Date Code

343-1509                          Jenny Lind Crib                            01/1991-12/1997151

343-3810                         Christopher Crib                           2001151

343-5500                        Early American Crib                     01/1998-12/1999151

343-6771                         Scottsdale Crib                               01/1998/12/1999151

343-7100                        Sleigh Crib without Rosette        01/2004-12/2006

343-7134                        Sleigh Crib                                        01/2001-2/2004

343-7144                       Anniversary Sleigh Crib                01/2002-12/2004

343-7753                       Kristin Crib                                       01/1998-12/1999

343-8249                     Cameron Crib                                    01/1998/12/1999

343-8020                     Solid Panel Sleigh Crib                   01/2001-12/2002

343-8070                      Roll Bar Convertible Crib              01/2004-12/2005

343-8155                       Anniversary Convertible

                                         Sleigh Crib                                         01/2002-12/2006

343-8200                     Spindle Convertible Crib               01/2001-12/2005

343-8913                      Bella 3-in-1 Crib                               01/2005-12/2008

 

The name, model number and date codes are printed on the plywood mattress board.

The cribs, manufactured in Indonesia, were sold at JCPenney.com and the JCPenney catalog from January 1998 through December 2008 for between $200 and $400.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs and contact customer service at Modus Furniture International to get a free immobilizer kit that will immobilize the drop side. The immobilizer kits will be available in May 2013. In the meantime, parents are encouraged to find an alternate, safe sleep environment for the child, such as a bassinet, play yard or toddler bed depending on your child's age.

Consumers may contact Modus Furniture International at (800) 827-2129 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Gluten: Do people without celiac disease really need to avoid it?

Some say eliminating gluten is best for everyone, others say its all about being trendy

According to figures presented by the site CeliacCentral.org, one in every 141 people in the United States has celiac disease, which equates to about 1% of...

PhotoA small percentage of us have celiac disease but you wouldn't know it from the fast-rising sales of gluten-free foods. 

Gluten—the substance used in foods to give it a stretchable and elastic  texture—must be avoided by those who have celiac disease, since it damages the villi in the small intestines, the small hair-like extensions that line the stomach and allow it to absorb nutrients.

But for reasons that aren't quite clear, more and more people who don’t have the digestive illness are staying away from gluten too, which experts say isn’t the best idea for both health and financial reasons.

According to those experts, a growing number of people associate the elimination of gluten with weight loss and good health, and because people do happen to lose weight while avoiding gluten, those numbers have only increased.

However, the main reason a person may lose weight on a gluten-free diet is because certain nutrients aren’t being absorbed, not because gluten itself is fattening, and the lack of guten is truly bad for those without celiac disease, experts say.

False feeling

PhotoHarry Balzer, the head industry analyst at the NPD group says people who eliminate gluten from their diet without having celiac disease, do it behind a false feeling of wellness.

“Most people must be doing this because they think they feel better, or they do feel better but they’re not diagnosed with gluten issues,” he said in a statement.

But the cost to live gluten-free isn’t small in the least bit, as Time magazine pointed to a study finding that showed products without gluten were 242% higher in price, which can be downright damaging to one’s bank account.

Health officials stress the importance of people following diets that have plenty of scientific evidence, instead of following diets that seem to be trendy and that become popular due to a lot of personal testimonials.

Furthermore, consumers should know exactly why they’re following certain diets and fully establish both the actual health benefits and the overall health risks.

No scientific support

Researchers say the number of people who are avoiding gluten and don’t have celiac disease “seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up.”

Photo“This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become ‘the new diet villain,'" a recent study found. 

As far as the number of adults who say they stay away from gluten, the percentages have increased just a bit, but consistently, as about 26% percent of people between the ages of 18 to 49 said they’ve eliminated gluten from their diets, which is a 2% increase since 2010. 

Of course some of the ingredients in foods that have gluten are barley, wheat, rye, spelt and oats, and all kinds of everyday foods contain the stuff like luncheon meats, cereals, sauces, marinades, packaged broths, soy sauce, MSG, rice mixes and modified food starch, just to name a few.

Even makeup and beauty products may contain gluten, so there’s no surprise that major cosmetic and food brands have rolled out a host of gluten-free products to cash in on the current craze.

According to the research company Spins, gluten-free food sales have swelled from $4.8 billion in 2009, to $5.4 billion in 2010 to a whopping $6.1 billion in 2011, and the numbers continue to go way, way up.

Today, leading companies that have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon are General Mills with its cereals, Pirate potato chips and Udi’s, which has a number of gluten-free breads on the market.

NPD's Balzer says the concept of removing gluten from a person’s diet has replaced some of the additives of old, that people used to heavily protest and avoid like fat and salt.

 “A generation ago, health was about avoiding fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium in our diet,” he said. “While those desires still exist for many, they no longer are growing concerns.”

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What if you didn't have to file a tax return each year?

The IRS could do the heavy lifting for you but computer industry groups are resisting

For most people, few things are more annoying than the annual chore of filling out their federal income tax return. For most taxpayers, the numbers are pre...

PhotoFor most people, few things are more annoying than the annual chore of filling out their federal income tax return. For the majority of taxpayers, the numbers are pretty much the same every year so it's mostly an exercise in drudgery -- collecting the information and trying to figure out which number goes where.

It's not really necessary, of course. The Internal Revenue Service already knows how much you made and has a pretty good idea of what deductions and incidental income you're going to claim, based on your past returns and the information submitted by your employer, bank, mutual fund, credit cards and so forth.

So why doesn't the IRS just send you a draft version of your tax return for your review? If everything is correct, you could check a box and collect your refund or authorize your bank to pay any additional amount you owe.

Good question, right? Well, here's the answer: the IRS doesn't do this because lobbyists for the computer and tax-software industries have managed to kill Congressional legislation that would have authorized the IRS to relieve taxpayers of the annual exercise, according to a ProPublica report.

You can thank TurboTax

PhotoThe non-profit investigative news organization reports that Intuit, the publisher of TurboTax, and a computer industry group called the  Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) have managed to kill two pieces of legislation that would have authorized so-called "return-free filing," claiming that it would amount to a "massive expansion of the U.S. government through a big government program." H&R; Block refused to comment but ProPublica said disclosure forms indicated that it has lobbied against at least one return-free bill.  

It's not hard to understand why these companies don't want the government making life easier for taxpayers.

After all, consumers currently shell out a lot of hard-earned money to commercial tax preparers and publishers of tax-preparation software, money that they could save if they didn't have to prepare a return from scratch. There's lots of money at stake:  TurboTax products and services made up 35 percent of Intuit's $4.2 billion in total revenues last year, according to the company's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Intuit - TurboTax March 26, 2013, 7:43 p.m.
Consumers rate Intuit - TurboTax

The CCIA has constructed a website that claims to "provide information and resources that demonstrate how 'Return Free' will put taxpayers at risk for fraud and identity theft, cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in a time of exploding debt and deficits, and rob taxpayers of the tax refund for which they are entitled."

Advocates stress that return-free filing would be voluntary and that it would be suitable only for taxpayers with relatively simple returns. They say that return-free filing would save consumers time and money, since they would not have to pay TurboTax, H&R; Block or other commercials preparers to help them with their returns and would not have to wait as long for their refunds. 

Profitable for politicians too

 

Opposition is coming not only from industry groups but also from political conservatives, who portray return-free filing as an intrusion into citizens' private lives.

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, has said the IRS wants to "socialize all tax preparation in America" to get higher tax revenues.

But much of the political opposition is bipartisan and driven more by pressure from industry groups than by allegiance to any particular ideology or rabid dedication to consumer protection.

Photo
Rep. Zoe Lofgren

For example, one of the bills to block return-free filing was introduced several years ago by Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the conservative House majority leader, and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a liberal stalwart whose district includes Silicon Valley. Intuit's political committee and employees have contributed to both Cantor and Lofgren.

Cantor has said that he "doesn't believe the IRS should be in the business of filling out your tax returns for you."

The ProPublica report was co-produced with National Public Radio.

 

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Even babies are getting too much salt in their diets

CDC study finds baby and toddler foods loaded with sodium

By now, just about everyone knows that packaged foods and restaurant meals tend to be loaded with salt, putting consumers at risk of high blood pressure, h...

PhotoBy now, just about everyone knows that packaged foods and restaurant meals tend to be loaded with salt, putting consumers at risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and other bad outcomes.

But baby food?

Yes, it's true. A study led by Joyce Maalouf of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that nearly 70% of commercial pre-packaged meals and snacks for toddlers in the U.S. have high levels of sodium, which may present long-term health risks.

Long-term risks

“Our concern is the possible long-term health risks of introducing high levels of sodium in a child’s diet, because high blood pressure, as well as a preference for salty foods may develop early in life. The less sodium in an infant’s or toddler’s diet, the less he or she may want it when older,” Maalouf said. 

Photo
Joyce Maalouf

Maalouf and her colleagues analyzed 572 food products for infants and toddlers and analyzed the sodium level in each, with 210 milligrams of sodium per serving being considered as high.

The study found that pre-packaged food for toddlers had higher sodium than the baby food.

The amount of sodium in some of the toddler meals was as high as 630 mg per serving -- about 40% of the 1,500 mg daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association. More than 70% of the toddler meals and snacks had more than 210 mg of sodium per serving,

Nearly all commercial foods for 4- to 12-month-olds were relatively low in sodium. Vegetable and meat baby foods were less salty than pasta options.

“Parents and other caregivers can read the nutrition facts labels on baby and toddler foods, to choose the healthiest options for their child,” Maalouf said.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium consumption to less than 1500 mg a day. 

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How to determine how much debt is too much

Wouldn't it be better to help consumers before they get over-extended?

There are lots of resources that say they can help consumers manage or get out of debt. But there are very few that try to help consumers avoid too much de...

PhotoThere are lots of resources that say they can help consumers manage or get out of debt. But there are very few that try to help consumers avoid too much debt in the first place.

Many consumers, especially young adults, begin accumulating debt before they really have an understanding of what it is and how it works. Before they know it, they're having trouble making ends meet.

In short, debt is a financial instrument that allows you to live above your means. You borrow the money to make a purchase that, if you had to pay for it all at once, you couldn't afford.

A good example is a house. Most consumers can't come up with $100,000 or more to purchase a home. To buy a home, most people get a mortgage, which is a loan with a term of as long as 30 years.

In most cases, mortgage debt is okay

Even though this is the largest debt most consumers will ever take on, it can be the most benign -- although it wasn't for people who purchased at the height of the housing bubble. But if the monthly mortgage payment is comparable to what the consumer would be paying in rent for a place to live, the debt becomes manageable.

That's the key -- being able to manage your debt. And this is where so many people go wrong. They run up high-interest credit card bills on multiple cards, take on a couple of new car payments and end up borrowing more money to make payments on old debt.

Before the economy crashed in the Great Recession, consumers were using debt to keep the economy growing. When credit sharply tightened in late 2008, consumers and the economy suffered.

Household debt is down

PhotoSince then, many consumers have worked hard to pay down debt. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of U.S. households holding some form of debt declined from 74 percent to 69 percent between 2000 and 2011.

That's the good news. The bad news is the people who still have debt have more of it. The median amount of household debt increased over this period from $50,971 to $70,000 in 2011 constant dollars.

While the stereotype is young consumers running up credit card debt, the report shows it's older consumers who have experienced the largest percentage increase in debt.

"Those 65 and over became more likely to hold debt against their homes, and their median housing debt increased, as well, which explains a significant portion of the increase in their overall debt between 2000 and 2011," said Census Bureau economist Marina Vornovytskyy.

This is not to suggest you should avoid debt altogether, although some people definitely hold to that view. Rather, the question is how much debt is manageable?

Debt-to-income ratio

For a clue, let's look at it from a lender's perspective. When you apply for a mortgage, the lender will measure your debt and obligations and arrive at your debt-to-income ratio.

This is the percentage of your monthly gross, pre-tax income that is used to pay your monthly debts. It's a combination of two number. The first is the percentage of your income that will be used to pay your mortgage. The second number adds in other debt -- car payments, credit cards, installment and student loans.

The mortgage industry wants that second number to be no more than 38, meaning the borrower's combined debt payments each month, including mortgage, should take up no more than 38 percent of their gross, pre-tax income.

Chances are, most consumers have no idea what that number is so it is easy to get over-extended. Credit card debt is especially hard to manage because the interest rates are high and the minimum payment required isn't usually enough to make much headway on paying it off.

Pay credit card balances in full

PhotoThat's why consumers who are just starting out should avoid allowing credit card balances to accumulate. Do not purchase something with a credit card that you cannot pay for, in full, at the end of the month. In some cases a major purchase, like a new refrigerator, could be carried for a short time. Just make sure you have a plan in place to pay it in full within a short period of time.

But when you charge restaurant meals, for example, make sure you pay for those, in full, at the end of the month. A meal at your favorite restaurant, running up interest charges of 21% each month, will turn out to be very expensive.

Avoiding too much debt requires a household budget. Make a list of monthly expenses, divided between "needs" and "wants." Making these hard choices can help you avoid getting into debt in the first place.

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Auto bill pay can be a useful budgeting tool

But you can't just set it and forget it

Paying bills was once a time-consuming end-of-the-month chore, made all the more unpleasant by the fact you were spending money on things like insurance an...

PhotoPaying bills was once a time-consuming end-of-the-month chore, made all the more unpleasant by the fact you were spending money on things like insurance and utilities. Auto bill-paying functions of online banking systems have taken a lot of the drudgery out of it.

“The biggest reason to use auto bill pay is because it is a time saver,” said Stacy Rapacon, an editor at Kiplinger, a personal finance publication. “It doesn't free you from having to keep track of your expenses and budget but you can do it on your own time.”

Don't set it and forget it

But the tool is far from a “set it and forget it” function. Rapacon speaks from experience when she says you have to provide some oversight, even if a computer is doing all the work. A few years ago, when she first started using auto bill pay, she experienced a number of nasty overdraft charges. Auto bill pay spit out a payment on a certain date, regardless of how much money she had in her account at the time.

Photo
Mint.com's home page

“Setting your bills to be paid automatically does not free you from all financial responsibility,” she said. “You still have to keep track of your expenses. I keep track of my budget and I make sure there's enough money in my account to cover all my bills.”

Rapacon also recommends using an online budget site to help track your finances. She uses a site called Mint.com. Mint is a system that allows you to see all your balances and transactions together in one place. You can access it at home or on the go, via your smartphone. The system automatically pulls all your financial information into one place, so you can see the entire picture.

Start with your bank

The place to start with an automatic bill-paying system is with your bank. Banks generally encourage online bill paying and don't charge extra for it. You can set up the accounts you normally pay each month and schedule the time to pay them. But you might not want to schedule all of them for automatic payment.

“I don't pay my water bill automatically because it varies each month,” Rapacon said. “Actually, to pay it online they charge a fee, so that's one for which I write a check each month.”

Some vendors that you pay each month have an automatic bill-paying function of their own, allowing you to set up a time for the vendor to take the payment from your bank account. Janice, of Philadelphia, Pa., lost her job and appealed to Sallie Mae for a new payment plan for her student loans. She said it was agreed to and that she should not make the next full payment. She cancelled her auto bill payment on the Sallie Mae site and thought everything was fine.

Unintended withdrawal

“On February 26 I received an email stating the Sallie Mae had withdrawn $591.52 out of my account,” Janice said in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I immediately called and they explained it was their mistake and claimed they would return my money in 7-10 business days. I was in shock! Because even though I owed nothing, and canceled my auto payment, I was now going to be forced to live without almost $600 dollars of MY money for 7-10 business days.”

That's the problem with using a vender's auto bill-paying system. If mistakes are made it's hard to get a refund.

“If I use the vender's bill paying system I don't provide them with my bank information,” Rapacon said. “Instead, I charge it to a credit card. If the payment is on a credit card it is much easier to resolve disputes. I wouldn't recommend giving your bank account information directly to the vendor.”

Auto bill-paying systems can also make sure you don't miss payments and damage your credit rating. Rapacon says it's a useful tool if you continue to stay on top of your finances, just as though you were still mailing out checks each month.

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Americans' consumption of sugary soda drinks falls to 1996 levels

Energy drinks and water are rising as carbonated drinks decline

Even though a judge struck down New York City's ban on oversized soft drinks, Mayor Bloomberg's message appears to be getting through. The trade pub...

PhotoEven though a judge struck down New York City's ban on oversized soft drinks, Mayor Bloomberg's message appears to be getting through. 

The trade publication Beverage Digest says Americans' consumption of carbonated soft drinks, which has been on the decline since 2005, fell last year to its lowest level since 1996. 

And not only are sales down, they're falling at an increasing rate. Sales volume fell 1.2% last year, compared with a 1% drop in 2011 and a 0.5%  drop in 2010.

Energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster are the only segments showing any, well, energy. Overall sales volume would have been down 1.7% without them.

Making us fat

Besides Mayor Bloomberg's campaign to take the fizz and sizzle, not to mention the sugar, out of large soft drinks, health authorities of all stripes have been warning that guzzling the sugary concoctions is contributing to the nationwide epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

PhotoOf course, health may not have much to do with it. It may just be that big sugary drinks are simply becoming uncool. Tastes change and while consumer attitudes can be slow to change, they can also flip quickly once a "tipping point" is reached.

That may be what's happened with soft drinks. In many circles, waddling around with a Big Gulp in hand is no longer seen as cool, while draining a potent energy drink is seen as daring, sort of like gunslingers flinging back shots of whiskey before saddling up and riding off into the sunset.

Nevertheless, carbonated soft drinks still make up the biggest category of nonalcoholic beverages and Coca-Cola and Pepsi are still the biggest drink makers. Each, of course, owns any number of water and energy drink brands, angling to remain in the picture no matter which way consumer tastes go.

The fastest-growing brands by volume were Monster, up 19.1%; Red Bull, up 17%; Dasani, up 9.1% and Rockstar, up 8%.

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The rise in home prices continued in January

The increase was the highest since the housing bubble burst

The upward momentum in home prices continued in January. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices -- the leading measure of U.S. home prices -- showed aver...

PhotoThe upward momentum in home prices continued in January.

The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices -- the leading measure of U.S. home prices -- showed average home prices increased 7.3% for the 10-City Composite and 8.1% for the 20-City Composite in the 12 months ending in January 2013.

All 20 cities posted year-over-year gains with Phoenix leading the way with a gain of 23.2%. Nineteen of the twenty cities showed acceleration in their year-over-year returns. Despite posting a positive double-digit annual return, Detroit was the only city to show a deceleration. After 28 months of negative annual returns, New York came into positive territory in January.

Best showing in nearly seven years

“The two headline composites posted their highest year-over-year increases since summer 2006,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “This marks the highest increase since the housing bubble burst.”

After more than two years of consecutive year-over-year declines, New York reversed trend and posted a positive return in January. The Southwest (Phoenix and Las Vegas) plus San Francisco posted the highest annual increases; they were also among the hardest hit by the housing bust. Atlanta and Dallas recorded their highest year-over-year gains.

“Economic data continues to support the housing recovery,” Blitzer continued. “Single-family home building permits and housing starts posted double-digit year-over-year increases in February 2013. Despite a slight uptick in foreclosure filings, numbers are still down 25% year-over-year. Steady employment and low borrowing rates pushed inventories down to their lowest post-recession levels.”

In January 2013, nine cities -- Atlanta, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco and Tampa -- and both Composites posted positive monthly returns. Dallas was the only Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where the level remained flat.

In terms of annual rates of change, all 20 cities as well as both Composites posted positive change. Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Phoenix and San Francisco were the eight MSAs to report double-digit annual returns.  

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Consumer confidence plunges in March

Pessimism appears to be creeping back in

Uncertainty -- some of it generated by the sequester -- has put consumers in something of a funk. The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Ind...

PhotoUncertainty -- some of it generated by the sequester -- has put consumers in something of a funk.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, which had improved in February, fell to 59.7 in March from 68.0. Factors include a drop in the Present Situation Index to 57.9 from 61.4 and a decline in the Expectations Index to 60.9 from 72.4 last month.

“Consumer Confidence fell sharply in March, following February’s uptick,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “This month’s retreat was driven primarily by a sharp decline in expectations, although consumers were also more pessimistic in their assessment of current conditions. The loss of confidence, particularly expectations, mirrors the losses experienced this past December and January. The recent sequester has created uncertainty regarding the economic outlook and as a result, consumers are less confident.”

Survey highlights

  • Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions declined in March. Those saying business conditions are “good” decreased to 16.0% from 17.6%, while those stating business conditions are “bad” increased to 29.3% from 28.2%.
  • Consumers’ assessment of the labor market was mixed. Those claiming jobs are “plentiful” decreased to 9.4% from 10.1%, but those claiming jobs are “hard to get” edged down to 36.2% from 36.9%.
  • Consumers are once again pessimistic about the short-term outlook. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months decreased to 14.4% from 18.0%, while those anticipating business conditions to worsen increased to 18.3% from 16.6%.
  • Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was also less favorable. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead declined to 12.3% from 16.1%, while those expecting fewer jobs increased to 26.6% from 22.1%.
  • The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase fell to 13.7% from 15.8%, while those expecting a decrease edged down to 18.0% from 19.3%.
  • The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a leading global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was March 14.
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New home sales slip in February

Home prices, on the other hand, moved higher

A little slack is showing up in the sales of new homes. Figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development sho...

PhotoA little slack is showing up in the sales of new homes.

Figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

show sales of new single-family houses totaled 411,000 units in February -- down 4.6% from the revised January rate of 431,000. The January rate was initially reported at 437,000.

Even with the decline, the February rate is 12.3% above the year-ago estimate of 366,000 and topped the 400,000 projected by forecasters at Briefing.com.

Home prices rise

The median sales price of new houses sold in February 2013 was $246,800 -- up $7,000 from the month before. The average sales price was $313,700 -- a gain of $18,500 from January.

Regarding home prices, The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices -- released earlier in the day -- showed the increase in home prices in the year ending in January was the highest since the housing bubble burst.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of February was 152,000 -- a supply of 4.4 months at the current sales rate.

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Should airlines charge by weight?

It takes more fuel to transport heavier passengers, so a higher charge seems fair, professor suggests

Airlines are charging fees for carry-on bags, checked bags, boarding passes, snacks, drinks aisle seats and just about every other option you can think of....

PhotoAirlines are charging fees for carry-on bags, checked bags, boarding passes, snacks, drinks, aisle seats and just about every other option you can think of. And yet, they're missing an obvious opportunity to jack up the rates for a large portion of the flying public -- charging by the pound.

After all, freight and delivery service charges usually include a flat fee plus an additional charge for each weight increment. Why not airlines? After all, it takes more fuel to transport heavier passengers and there's more wear and tear to seats and other aircraft parts.

So says Dr. Bharat P. Bhatta, a professor at a Norwegian university writing in this month's Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management.

"Charging according to weight and space is a universally accepted principle, not only in transportation, but also in other services," he said. "As weight and space are far more important in aviation than other modes of transport, airlines should take this into account when pricing their tickets."

"According to a recent article published in The Economist, a reduction of 1 kg (about 2.2 pounds) weight of a plane will result in a fuel savings worth $3,000 a year and a reduction of CO2 emissions by the same token," Bhatta wrote. "Air Canada's regional carrier has removed life vests from all its planes in order to save weight and fuel that makes each flight about 25 kg lighter."

Some airlines, most notably Southwest, already require oversized passengers to buy two seats. Air Tran, recently acquired by Southwest, has started doing the same.

Where to weigh?

Implemention might prove a little burdensome. Since most passengers now get their board passes online, how would the airlines know how much they weigh? Would we have to go to a weighing station before making a reservation? That hardly seems workable.

Putting scales at check-in boarding would make the resemblance to a barnyard even stronger than it already is at most busy airports. Maybe passengers could be weighed as they go through security. What's one more indignity, after all?

Perhaps someone will publish an app that records our weight on a minute-by-minute basis and automatically uploads it to Google and Facebook, where it will be available to anyone who wants it.

Three models

Photo
Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg could require weight-based air fares at NYC airports?

Lightweight comments aside, Bhatta presents three possible pricing models in his paper:

  • Fare according to actual weight: Charging passengers according to how much they, and their belongings weigh, fixing a rate for kg per passenger so that a person weighing 60kg (132 pounds) pays half the airfare of a 120-kg (264-pound) person.
  • "Base fare" minus or plus an extra charge: This option involves charging a fixed base rate, with an additional charge for heavier passengers to cover the extra costs. Every passenger could have a different fare according to this option.
  • Same fare if the passenger has an average weight, but discounted/extra fare for low/excess weight below/above a certain limit. 

It seems unlikely this will come about, but if it does, it would at least provide yet another reason to lose weight, which would probably be a good thing for everyone. On the other hand, Mayor Bloomberg may make it a requirement for airlines that fly in and out of New York City.

Not a new idea

In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be noted that this is not a new idea. I proposed it in a letter to the editor of Frequent Flyer Magazine back in 1980 when I had an assignment that involved frequent air travel.

One gloomy Monday morning, I watched nervously as my boss, who modeled himself physically and temperamentally on Ed Asner, thumbed through the magazine, stopping at the letters section.

"Here's some idiot saying airlines should charge by weight," he scowled. "That sounds like something you'd dream up, Truman."

I nervously suggested we adjourn to the Pastrami Palace without further delay, successfully distracting my hot-tempered superior before he read further. 

 

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Fad Diets and food eliminations: Why our culture is so obssessed

Whether it's just the promise of the quick fix or the easy nature of it all, fad diets continue to soar

 If you ask me, food fads are kind of interesting for a couple of reasons.First, it’s interesting to see how millions of people will all of a...

PhotoIf you ask me, food fads are kind of interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s interesting to see how millions of people will all of a sudden decide to stay away from a certain food or choose to eat only one type of food in order to lose weight.

Like the Atkins craze for example, which seemed to peak a few years ago in terms of popularity, for a third time since it was first introduced in the late 1950s.

By the time 2001 and 2002 hit, many people abruptly decided to shun all carbohydrates and they considered things like rice, pasta and bread to be the actual Devil in food form.

Technically, diets like Atkins and The South Beach Diet aren’t fads, because they’ve been around forever, but for some reason, depending on maybe just one study, a widespread news report or a manipulated study finding, many consumers will abruptly shift their regular eating habits to replace it with the newest and latest diet craze.

According to a study released by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research & Extension, there are very specific ways to spot a fad diet, which can be helpful for new dieters, who may think a particular diet is an across-the-board scientifically proven approach.

The study shows that if a company is saying its product has quick weight loss potential, and it’s not pitching long-term permanent fat loss, removed healthfully, you really want to be suspicious of that product and place it in the here-today-gone-tomorrow category of fad diets.

Initial weight loss

Researchers say initial weight decline is from loss of muscle and water, and the successes of a diet product shouldn’t be measured by this type of weight loss, since it’s predictive of how long you’ll be able to keep off that weight.

PhotoIn addition, if a diet product says that you’ll be able to lose more than one to two pounds per week, you should press your inner consumer alert button, since quick loss generally means quick gain, the study shows.

Another telltale sign, of course, is if a diet plan doesn’t include exercise in its program, which many don’t.

A lot of these companies cater to the folks who don’t like to exercise and they use the reasoning that all you have to do is either eliminate or add certain foods. Products hardly ever deal with the problem of over-eating or inactivity, in case you haven't noticed.

Completely removing certain foods or choosing to stock up on another is a basic characteristic of the fad diet and many companies choose to use customer testimonials over scientific evidence to sell their products.

Furthermore, fad diet companies either make huge sweeping claims about what the results will be after using a product or they’ll draw a simplistic and catchy-sounding conclusion from a very intricate study, researchers show. 

And they’ll do this just to make a decent sales pitch, the study shows. There’s very little concern about your actually losing weight to keep it off.

Dollars over health

Additionally, researchers say the entire concept of buying a certain product to lose weight should be the first sign to consumers that something isn’t right, and it shows that the company is placing dollars over health and not using an approach that includes patience, hard work and follow-up.

In fact, researchers say choosing to eliminate or add a particular food to follow a diet plan can lead to all kinds of health risks and even death in some cases.

“This practice is extremely dangerous because it can lead to nutritional deficiencies and starvation,” said researchers in the study. “It can also lead to anemia, malnutrition, decreased renal function and ultimately death. Weight loss does usually occur but sticking to the plan tends to be difficult because of the monotonous nature of the diet.”

But yet and still, why are so many popular fad diets, well, popular?

Because you would think common sense would engender a bit of caution among consumers when it comes to using a diet product that’s advertised in-between one of those wretched reality shows.

For some reason, it’s hard to take a product seriously when it follows some Brandi Glanville rant from the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

Yes, unfortunately, I know who that is.

Photo
Kristi King

Kristi L. King, who’s the Senior Dietitian for Texas Children’s Hospital, Clinical Instructor at the Baylor College of Medicine and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition of Dietetics says a lot of these kinds of diets are merely repackaged and sold again throughout the years, and each time, new people are sucked into the giant promises of quick results.

It’s really nothing new, says King.

“Earliest reports of fad diets are from early 19th century, so we have been at this for a long time,” said King in a statement for ConsumerAffairs.

“Fad diets sometimes do produce results, however, they don’t necessarily teach someone how to sustain a good quality of life on the diet and most importantly, how to live a healthy lifestyle. So, one goes off the diet and the pounds come back quickly. Someone then repackages the diet again and viola a new 'fad' diet. It’s a vicious cycle,” she says.

In addition, King says the luring combination of small work and large results are the perfect line to cast out towards a sea of people who don’t have the time or desire to lose weight the traditional way.

Instant gratification

“Instant gratification,” she says. “Many people think quick fix when they see the new diet. We as a society tend to be fixated on immediate results with as little work as possible. So when the newest diet pops up in the media or on the front display of the bookstore, people tend to want to try it, seeking those quick results.”

Another tactic by companies, experts find, is they’ll take a basic weight loss truth and apply it to the results of their own product. Like with the Atkins diet, for example.

Researchers point out diets like Atkins take a simple and scientifically proven result and combine it with a quick and fast, usually unhealthy, weight-loss approach.

And continually, people all over the world buy into this concept, when they should really be hyper-aware and stay away from companies that put health over convenience, improper time over proper methods and fast results over actual well-being.

“The Atkins diet essentially eliminates several foods and food groups like fruits, cereals, breads, grains, starches, baked goods, dairy products, starch vegetables and sweets,” wrote the University of Arkansas researchers.  

“This simply translates into a significant daily calorie reduction—the basis of any weight loss diet. Any reduction of calories—whether from protein, carbohydrate or fat—will result in weight loss."

"The basic weight loss formula, is calories burned must exceed calories consumed. Easily done when the majority of foods on a typical day’s diet are eliminated. There’s nothing revolutionary about this regimen," said researchers.

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Can we prevent being addicted to sugar?

Experts say we're addicted to the sweet white stuff before we can even crawl

If you think about it—addiction doesn’t have any grey areas, because either you’re dependent on something or you’re not. But what a...

PhotoIf you think about it, addiction doesn’t have any grey areas, because either you’re dependent on something or you’re not. But what addiction does have are stages, some might say.

Meaning, one can be at the tail-end of an addiction and along the way they’ve learned—not mastered—a way to co-exist with it, while others can be in the throes of their habit and be both aware and content with it at the same time.

Then of course there are those who don’t know they’re addicted and don’t want to know.

This happens in the case of sugar addiction more often than people realize, experts say, and although many are aware of eating too much sugar in things like sweetened beverages, pastries and candies, a good number of people aren’t thinking about the hidden sugars in those foods that aren’t necessarily sweet.

Toxic and difficult to avoid

Photo
Dr. Robert Lustig

Dr. Robert Lustig, who’s a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco and a well-known crusader against the overuse of sugar, says the addictive white sweet stuff isn't only toxic, but one of the most difficult addictions to avoid.

Sugar, of course, falls into the same accessible and legal category of addictive substances as alcohol, cigarettes and prescription drugs, which makes avoiding these things even more difficult compared to illegal substances, which are more commonly associated with the word “addiction.”

And Lustig says because of this reason and others, our culture has a predisposition to being sugar-addicted for the mere reason that our brains heavily associate it with goodness, enjoyment and satisfaction, which certainly aren’t the brain signals one needs when they’re trying to cut back on something.

"We love it"

“We love it,” said Lusting in a 2012 television interview.

“We go out of our way to find it. And I think one of the reasons evolutionarily is because there are no [foods] on the planet that have fructose that are poisonous to you. It is all good, so when you taste something that’s sweet, it’s an evolutionary Darwinism signal that says this is a safe food. We were born this way,” he said.

PhotoIn addition, Lustig says that, chemically, there is absolutely no difference between conventional sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which many people have just recently learned about, thanks to a continued national dialogue that’s been taking place over the course of the last decade or so.

Although high-fructose corn syrup has taken a beating by many people during this dialogue, Lustig says both are equally bad for you and have the same addictive qualities.

And whether you’re consuming sugar or the syrupy additive on a daily basis, it doesn’t really matter from a health-risk perspective.

Additionally, you’ll be equally challenged when it comes to being able to completely remove yourself from wanting, craving and being addicted to sugar.

“But I don’t have a sweet tooth," some might say. 

"It doesn’t matter," an expert might reply, for the mere fact that just about every processed food under the big bright yellow sun has either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in it, which is why many scientists have compared sugar to cocaine in terms of being extremely hard to eliminate.

As addictive as cocaine

In a study published in the medical journal PLOS One, researchers found that not only is sugar just as addictive as cocaine, sugar replacements like saccharin are even more addictive and resemble cocaine dependency.

Photo“Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and addicted individuals,” wrote the researchers.

“We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants. In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants.”

“The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”

And when it comes to the similarities between cocaine and sugar, in terms of addiction, the line is pretty darn slender.

Dopamine festival

Dopamine levels dramatically increase in the brain with both substances. Both sugar and cocaine trigger the part of the brain that controls incentives and being rewarded, experts say, and both produce mental and physical withdrawals of very serious proportions.

According to Lustig, the government only did it half right when it set a mandate to lower the amount of fat in foods in order to lower the chance of people getting heart disease, because the cases of heart disease are still extremely high, and most people don’t attribute this to sugar use.

He says the removal of fat in certain foods meant there was an increase in the amount of sugar that we started using, and that had a lot to do with consumers eating too much sugar in recent years.

After fat was removed “heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and death are skyrocketing,” said Lustig. “When you take the fat out of food it tastes like cardboard and the food industry knew that, so they replaced it with sugar.”

Of course some may say Lustig’s war on sugar is a bit over the top and if sugar or high-fructose corn syrup are completely avoided, there will still be the same health problems, like heart disease, metabolic syndrome and obesity to deal.

Others might say that lowering our sugar intake is an absolute must, not only in the foods commonly associated with sugar, but in other foods that are more likely to fall under the sodium umbrella and fall under our radar of overconsumption too.

Lustig and many other experts believe that too much sugar and a fried greasy sandwich, let’s say, will produce the same results. Sugar, fat and salt can all contribute to heart disease and other deadly disorders, so all of us could be at risks, he suggests.

 

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Autistic children learning social skills through Shakespeare

It may sound unconventional, but researchers say they've seen positive results

Some of us who read Shakespeare either in high school, college or in our leisure time had sort of a love, hate relationship with the playwright’s wor...

PhotoSome of us who read Shakespeare either in high school, college or in our leisure time had sort of a love, hate relationship with the playwright’s work, especially the first time we picked it up and tried to become familiar with the language of his day.

Oh sure, as we got older some of us began to appreciate stories like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Hamlet” and before we knew it, we thought to ourselves, man, I wished I would have paid a little more attention in high school English class, but I guess some of us didn’t yet develop the literary palate to properly receive Shakespeare’s incredibly written stuff.

Plus, it’s hard to appreciate the nuances of a story knowing that a test or quiz is just around the bend.

For some reason a lot of schools forget this when their trying to teach the written classics and they wonder why some students don’t get more enjoyment out of reading Shakespeare and the other literary greats.

And if high school and college professors are having trouble getting students excited about Shakespeare, imagine those teachers that try to introduce it to younger kids—like middle schoolers for example. 

Well, a group of researchers from Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University have been working with autistic elementary school children, using Shakespeare plays like “The Tempest," to teach them a host of different skills.

More specifically, the researchers are using these plays to help teach social and communication skills to autistic children, since the English writer’s works are full of exaggerated voices and facial expressions, which can be used for both teaching and therapy.

Hunter Heartbeat Method

Photo
Kelly Hunter

The idea was conceived by Shakespearian actress Kelly Hunter, with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, where she started a program called the “Hunter Heartbeat Method,” in order to “release the communicative blocks within children with autism.”

Eventually, the program caught the attention of some university researchers.

Dr. Marc J. Tassé, who’s the director of the Nisonger Center at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, says he was pleasantly surprised to learn how well the children in his pilot study have responded to the legendary creations of Shakespeare.

“It’s quite amazing to see how a Shakespearian play can be transformed into, really, a therapeutic intervention,” he said.

The main purpose of the study was to confirm if there was any scientific proof in Hunter’s artistic approach, and so far, Tassé says he’s seen noticeable improvement in the children and he's eager to see what the next level of research will bring about.

The next phase of the study will last for 42 weeks, says Tassé, so researchers can determine just how successful this Shakespearean approach towards helping children with autism really is.

Although the "Hunter Heartbeat Method" has produced some successes with autistic children—as it relates to their social and communication challenges—researchers still needed to take a closer look to determine if the positive results had a firm level of consistency.

Hunter “has what we would call a lot of anecdotal evidence, but there hasn’t really been any empirical evidence,” said Tassé. “We are trying to figure out scientifically what exactly happens with Shakespeare that strikes a chord with these children.”

And to help figure that out, Tassé and his team will conduct research on two groups of autistic children in Columbus, Ohio. One group will be introduced to Shakespeare as a form of therapy and the other group will use therapy that doesn’t include the famed writer’s works.

Eventually, scientists will be able to determine just how one group responds to Shakespeare compared to the other.

Truly optimistic

However, on the basis of the first study, which included 14 children, Tassé says he’s truly optimistic.

Photo
Dr. Marc Tasse

“With the first pilot study, we saw some significant improvement in communication, in social relationships and in pragmatic language skills,” Tassé explained. “Things like eye contact, emotion expression, emotion recognition, and expressive communication also improved dramatically.”

“We can then compare if the gains that we see in the children who participate in the Shakespeare intervention are greater than the gains other children with autism are achieving through just regular school and just regular intervention,” he said.

Robin Post, who works with Ohio State University’s theater department, says she was not only thrilled to learn that children were open to the sometimes-hard-to-understand plays, but that she felt privileged to witness the sheer joy that it bought to the children too.

Apparently, the playful methods Post and her team have been using to incorporate Shakespeare, have allowed the children to receive the stories as a game instead of a cumbersome literary lesson.

“There’s this opportunity to have this real joyful experience with this kids, and I’m really honored that the kids will let us [teach them],”said Post.

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Survey names best chain restaurants

80,000 consumers were involved in this one, and the results may be surprising

When deciding whether to dine in or dine out there’s usually a few things to consider.For one, you’ll have to decide what you’re in the...

PhotoWhen deciding whether to dine in or dine out there’s usually a few things to consider. For one, you’ll have to decide what you’re in the mood for, as figuring out what you feel like eating is usually way more difficult than it needs to be.

Then you have to determine if you really want to spend the money, because in some cases people continue to eat out—several times a week even—regardless of whether they’re on a tight budget or not.

“An evening out with friends, good food and wine over paying my light bill on time, why not?” some might say. “Hopefully, I’ll have so much fun it’ll be worth it," they'll rationalize.

Using this type of reasoning is practically a way of life for some young adults, who are still figuring out the balance between financial responsibilities and trying to maintain at least a semblance of the social life they had when they still lived with their parents.

And even those who don’t live on a tight budget and are able to eat out anytime they want—at the best places, mind you—have occasional difficulty finding a restaurant that meets their expectations and offers both the high quality food and service that most expect when they’re shelling out big money.

Some people like chains

Most people have at least one favorite place to eat out and it’s usually not a chain restaurant or an establishment that works as part dining facility, part assembly line—popping pre-made dishes onto the stove or into the microwave, serving you in about 15 minutes flat and getting you out the door soon after.

But for a good number of people, chain restaurants are their favorite places to eat, since some people love familiarity and uncomplicated menus.

In fact,  it’s safe to say that more consumers in the U.S. will visit a place like Red Lobster, instead of a high-end seafood place, one that charges so much for  a piece of fish, that you probably could have bought a boat and caught the darn thing yourself.

So the question is, why not go to a chain restaurant? Are they really that bad?

Sure, the food won’t be as fancy, or even as good as a one-of-a-kind place, but for the price, it can be worth it sometimes, especially when you can get out of the house and eat at a place that focuses on fun rather than reputation, which can sometimes make all the difference in the world when you’re out on the town with friends.

Of course, there are some people who are releasing their inner food snob as they read this, and these people love saying they’ll never step inside a chain restaurant, as if they’re just too above it all.

Stop it already. It’s just a meal. Plus, no one said you had to go to the Macaroni Grill each and every time you want a bowl of pasta, and because of co-workers, friends and family members, you’ll probably be forced to go to a chain restaurant sooner or later, so you might as well face it.

Besides, my guess is places like Applebee’s and T.G.I.F won’t kill you; they’ll just kill any chances of you paying a lot of money for a little bit of food, because most high-end restaurants love to do that.

Il primo

PhotoSo out of the countless chain restaurants in the U.S., which ones do consumers consider the best?

In a survey conducted by the research company Technomic, Carrabba’s Italian Grill won for best food and drink out of the 115 major restaurant chains consumers were asked about.

And when it came to service and hospitality, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store took the prize for having the best service and hospitality.

When it came to overall restaurant appearance, as well as ambiance, Ruth’s Chris Steak House was crowned No. 1 and its competitor LongHorn Steakhouse was considered the place that offered the best value, consumers said.

And completing the top five of full-service chain restaurants was Red Lobster for convenience and for having the best take-out service, and if you’ve ever been to a busy Red Lobster, you’ll notice its takeout line can be as busy as the dining room.

Technomic said about 80,000 consumers who visit chain restaurants were included in this survey, and their answers serve as a good indicator for other people who want to know which chains to visit and which ones didn't make the top five. 

Darren Tristano of Technomic says, that many chain restaurants are aware of what consumers are looking for in their dining experience, but often times don’t have the dollars to respond to consumer wants, so it’s safe to say that any existing problems you may have with a chain restaurant, won’t be fixed anytime soon, so you’ll have to be patient.

“Restaurant operators are making efforts to track consumer purchasing habits and attitudes,” says Tristano.

“But very few of them have the resources to benchmark their results against their competition and measure performance over time. Today, success depends on excelling on the touch points that consumers feel are most important.”

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Americans upbeat about their financial security, survey finds

Most consumers are unfazed by higher payroll tax rate

Are happy days here again? New research from Bankrate.com finds consumers' feelings of financial security improved markedly over the past month, thanks to ...

PhotoAre happy days here again? New research from Bankrate.com finds consumers' feelings of financial security improved markedly over the past month, thanks to new stock market highs and continued job growth.

Bankrate's March Financial Security Index reading of 101.5 is the highest since the monthly polls began in December 2010. The 4.7-point jump from February's 96.8 is the second-biggest monthly gain in the Index's history (after a five-point gain from April 2011 to May 2011). This is only the third time in the past 28 months that consumers are feeling better about their financial security versus 12 months prior.

A non-starter

Bankrate found that more than half of working Americans either haven't noticed (48%) or have been unaffected (7%) by the January 1 expiration of the payroll tax cut. Another 30% have cut their spending as a result, 8% are putting less money into savings and 3% have scaled back retirement contributions.

"What is shocking is that the lowest-income households were the least likely to have cut back on spending and the most likely not to have noticed the change in the payroll tax," said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst. "These results contradict the widely held assumption that lower-income households would feel the biggest squeeze from the payroll tax cut expiring."

Surprising result

Those most likely to have cut spending were households with income between $50,000 and $75,000 per year. The same surprising results were evident when evaluating on the basis of educational attainment: households headed by college graduates were the most likely to have cut spending, whereas households headed by those with less than a college degree were the most likely not to have noticed the higher payroll tax rate.

Four of the Financial Security Index's five components -- job security, debt, net worth and overall financial situation -- indicate that Americans are better off now than one year ago; savings is the only laggard. All five components improved over the past month.

The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

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Relief available to many taxpayers who requested extensions

Unavailability of forms works to the benefit of some late-filers

If you have requested an extension for filing your 2012 federal tax return, you may be getting a break from the Internal Revenue Service. The agency is pr...

PhotoIf you have requested an extension for filing your 2012 federal tax return, you may be getting a break from the Internal Revenue Service.

The agency is providing late-payment penalty relief to individuals and businesses who asked for the extension because they are attaching to their returns forms that couldn’t be filed until after January.

The relief applies to the late-payment penalty -- normally 0.5 percent per month -- charged on tax payments made after the regular filing deadline. This relief applies to any of the forms delayed until February or March, primarily due to the January enactment of the American Taxpayer Relief Act.

Covered forms

Taxpayers using forms claiming such tax benefits as depreciation deductions and a variety of business credits qualify for this relief. A complete list of eligible forms can be found in Notice 2013-24.

Individuals and businesses qualify for this relief if they properly request an extension to file their 2012 returns. Taxpayers who are eligible need not make any special notation on their extension request, but as usual, must properly estimate their expected tax liability and pay the estimated amount by the original due date of the return.

The return must be filed and payment for any additional amount due must be made by the extended due date. Interest still applies to any tax payment made after the original deadline.

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Pawn shops versus payday lenders

If you lack credit and need money, an old-school solution might be best

The problems with payday loans are well-documented. These short term loans carry fees that translate into triple-digit interest rates, trapping most borrow...

PhotoThe problems with payday loans are well-documented. These short term loans carry fees that translate into triple-digit interest rates, trapping most borrowers in an ongoing cycle of debt.

Even when consumers are able to repay the loan within the two-week term they can meet with problems. Jo, of Hammond, Ind., says she asked Payday Loan Yes for $250 but received $350 instead. Now, she says she's frustrated when she tries to pay off the loan.

“I have attempted to pay in full on my last two paydays, but they have not taken out the full amounts and keep charging me a finance charge,” Jo wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I have e-mailed several times, along with calling but have not received any response by either e-mail or phone.”

Jo may be a rarity among payday loan borrowers in that she can so quickly repay. The Center for Responsible Lending says the typical payday loan borrower is indebted for more than half of the year with an average of nine payday loan transactions at annual interest rates over 400%.

Just providing a service

Payday lenders, meantime, insist they are providing a needed service for people with no or poor credit who are in need of emergency cash. If the payday lender isn't there to make the loan, the question goes, who will?

What about the old-fashioned pawn shop? Could it be an acceptable alternative? It might be in some cases.

A payday lender lends money by using your future earnings as collateral. When your paycheck is deposited, the lender can access your bank account and withdraw funds. The problem is, you need those future earnings to pay rent, buy groceries and put gas in the car. If you had extra money in your budget each month, you wouldn't need a loan.

A pawn shop accepts something you own as collateral. If you don't pay, it recoups its money by selling your property. There is no cycle of debt.

Pawn procedure

Here's how it works: You bring in a piece of property for the pawn shop to hold as collateral. First, the pawn broker has to decide whether the item has any value. Next, it has to decide if it even wants it.

Suppose you bring in a portable TV but the store has 25, just like it, sitting on a back shelf. It might not want one more.

PhotoEven if the pawn broker decides your item has value and they could sell it, they might only offer a small percentage of what it's worth as a loan. A ring they value at $250 might only net you $25 to $50 as a loan. Again, it's based on a judgment of how long it will take to sell and what price it will actually bring.

If the pawnbroker agrees to accept your collateral and loan you the money, you will be charged an interest rate. The rate is going to be steep but in nearly all cases, it will be less than what a payday lender would charge.

You receive a pawn ticket that lists the details of the transaction – the amount borrowed, the item used as collateral and the amount that must be repaid at the end of the term, usually 30 days. If you need more time to repay you can return to the pawn shop and pay the interest and renew for another 30 days. If you decide not to repay the loan, the pawn shop keeps your collateral and puts it up for sale.

Other business activities

Another difference between a pawn shop and a payday lender is that lending money is only part of a pawn shop's business. In addition to taking in items as collateral it also purchases items outright and resells them.

The cable TV reality series Pawn Stars has popularized pawn shops in recent years, showing the behind-the-scenes decision-making process of running a successful pawn shop. The broker must first arrive at the value of an item, then determine what they would be able to sell it for and how long it would likely take. That means the customer selling the items usually gets only a small portion of the value.

Pawn shops are highly regulated and each state has its own rules as to how they operate. They cooperate with law enforcement agencies in their jurisdiction to make sure the items bought and sold in a store are not stolen. Anything you bring in to pawn will be checked out in that regard.

While a payday loan might trap you in an endless cycle of debt, you shouldn't have that problem with a pawn shop. At some point the store will simply sell your merchandise, so anything you use for collateral should be something you are willing to part with.

If you are willing to part with it, maybe you should consider selling it on eBay or somewhere similar to start with. That way you avoid any interest charges. And it may be the best way to deal with a need for quick cash – sell an asset and avoid going into debt.

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Global warming may be making allergy symptoms worse

And things won't be getting better anytime soon, experts warn

Have you noticed that you’ve been getting your allergies a little sooner this year compared to last year?Have you noticed that some ...

PhotoHave you noticed that you’ve been getting your allergies a little sooner each year? And have you noticed that some of your symptoms feel way stronger the last few years?

If the answer is yes on both fronts, you certainly aren’t alone, because according to researchers at National Jewish Health Hospital (NJH) in Denver, global warming is making allergy season worse and the bad news is, things won’t be reversing themselves anytime soon.

“With the combination of increased temperature and carbon dioxide, we are seeing a dramatic change, and allergy sufferers can probably feel that change,” explained Richard Weber, M.D., president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, and an allergist at National Jewish Health.

“We are experiencing longer allergy seasons, earlier onset and there is just more pollen in the air," he says.

National Jewish Health allergy experts recently examined Janet Clement, a local patient who typically gets her allergy symptoms each April, but this year, the symptoms started to present themselves in the dead of winter, and they came with much more of a wallop compared to last year, she said.

 “You don’t typically have allergies in the winter,” she said in an interview with National Jewish Health.

“But this year they got really bad and I was trying to figure out what was going on. In the past I’ve taken over-the-counter things to try to help, but I think, really, this year I need something more.”

Pollen counts up worldwide

In his own research, Weber referenced three other studies that showed pollen counts are going up all over the world due to global warming, as British researchers found a total of 385 plant species that were budding much earlier than they used to, which is obviously triggering allergy symptoms for some people much sooner in the year.

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Dr. Richard Weber
In the past, ragweed pollen season used to be for 13 days, Weber explained, but now it’s been extended to 27 days in the United States and in Canada, which has certainly caused more people to suffer stronger symptoms, for a much longer period of time.

“With the increased temperature, many plants tend to pollinate earlier in the season,” said Weber. “Not only that, but they're producing more pollen, so pollen counts are going up, and in some cases, dramatically so.

“A year ago, we saw pollen counts of certain trees that were about three times higher than what we normally would see in years past. It was awful. Plants that ordinarily were pollinating in April, by the beginning of March, they were going gangbusters,” he said.

In addition, Weber says depending on where you live in the U.S., but particularly in the northern states, there's not as much frost or cold temperatures as early as before. That's bad because it takes a “killing freeze” to keep ragweed pollen from persevering through the winter months.

“The season has broadened out so we're dealing with a much longer exposure,” says Weber.

“There’s going to be increased dampness and the like, especially in the coastal areas and that’s going to have an impact on molds like alternaria and cladosporium [which] will increase with increased temperature and increased CO2, so it is more dramatic -- longer season, earlier onset and more pollen in the air,” warns Weber.

Moreover, he says if people haven’t felt the difference in severity in their allergy symptoms yet, they probably soon will.

“The overall exposure of people that have allergies to these particular pollens is that they’re getting a bigger snoot full of allergenic protein over a longer period of time," says Weber.

What to do

In order to combat some of these allergy symptoms, Weber says it’s all about planning and trying to do things a little bit differently than you normally would.

PhotoFirst, begin taking your allergy meds earlier -- before your immune system is working at full capacity, which can cause your medication to be less helpful and cause it kick-in at a much slower pace.

Additionally, if you have to get outside during the day, do it earlier rather than later, as experts say weed pollens peak at midday, and at night. Also, close your windows, because those same pollens will still be in the air once twilight hits, so you want to be sure to close all windows once you’re inside.

And if you’re allergic to ragweed, you should stay away from these specific fruits, NJH says: Melons, bananas, honeydew melons and watermelons, since these fruits can cause people to have the same allergy symptoms that ragweed produces.

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PETA kills 90% of animals at its Virginia shelter

Restaurant group says the animal-rights group belongs in the doghouse

PETA is the animal rights group that stages spectacular demonstrations aimed at galvanizing opposition to animal cruelty. It encourages veganism, a form of...

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PETA photo

PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals-- is the animal rights group that stages spectacular demonstrations aimed at galvanizing opposition to animal cruelty. It opposes wearing fur, condemns all types of cruelty to animals and encourages veganism, a form of vegetarianism that eliminates all animal products. It also operates a large animal shelter at its headquarters in Norfolk, Va.

PETA's in-your-face tactics have made it Public Enemy No. 1 as far as the food industry is concerned, and now the organization's animal shelter is giving its enemies an opportunity to tar PETA with the same brush it uses on restaurants, the fur industry and meat growers.

 

Something called the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a restaurant industry front group, is hoping to put PETA squarely in the doghouse by publicizing statistics indicating that it killed almost 90 percent of the dogs and cats placed at its shelter last year, a much higher percentage than other shelters in Virginia. CCF says that since 1998, the shelter has euthanized a total of 29,398 pets.

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Euthanization rates in Virginia animal shelters, 2012

This chart, using official figures from the Virginia Department of Animal and Consumer Services, the state agency that regulates animal shelters, compares figures for all shelters in Virginia with those operated by humane societies, county shelters, the Charlottesville SPCA and PETA.   

VirginiaInEuthanized'%Adopted%Reclaimed Transferred%
All shelters37,07813,27235.8%11,61031.3%2,6917.3%6,29317.0%
Humane societies10,1432,51924.8%4,99549.2%5505.4%7427.3%
County shelters19,81410,63353.7%2,97315.0%2,08610.5%3,63018.3%
Charlottesville SPCA3,2941675.1%2,55277.5%1073.2%672.0%
PETA1,8771,67589.2%231.2%50.3%1306.9%

"It is a large number, they took in more than 1,800 last year and euthanized 1,600," said Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia agency. "If you look at the Richmond SPCA last year, I think they took in over 3,000 and euthanized fewer than a dozen."

But Lidholm noted that the Richmond SPCA is a "no-kill shelter. "They won't take an animal they think is not adoptable but PETA will take anything." 

Lidholm noted that her department, like most government agencies, collects and compiles the statistics but does not independently verify them and does not make value judgments about how the shelters are operated. 

Who's hypocritical?

The restaurant group says the statistics show that PETA is being hypocritical in its defense of animal rights.

"With a $30 million annual budget, PETA could make an effort to provide for homeless animals -- if it wasn’t too busy harassing farmers, diners, and shoppers with media stunts," CCF said in a statement. "PETA can run, but it can’t hide from its shameful animal-killing record." 

For its part, PETA says it does the best it can for the hard-luck cases it takes in. 

"We have a small division that does hands-on work with animals, and most of the animals we take in are society's rejects: aggressive, on death's door, or somehow unadoptable," PETA spokeswoman Jane Dollinger told ConsumerAffairs. 

"CCF's goal is to damage PETA by misrepresenting the situation and the number of unwanted and suffering animals PETA euthanizes because of injury, illness, age, aggression, and other problems; because their guardians requested it; or because no good homes exist for them," Dollinger said. "Anyone who is shocked to learn how many animals have to be euthanized annually should ask themselves if they're spaying and neutering their companion animals, adopting from shelters instead of buying from breeders and pet stores, and demanding higher animal care standards in their own communities."

PETA says a peaceful death is sometimes the only answer for worst-case animals.

"We never turn our back on animals who need help, even if the best we can offer them is a peaceful release from an uncaring world. PETA also works every day to prevent animals from ending up abused, homeless, and euthanized in the first place—a fact that the CCF never mentions," the animal-rights group says on its website.

 "[T]he statistics that CCF reports don't include the many adoptable animals we have referred to high-traffic open-admission shelters where they will have the best chance of being seen and finding a new home. Those numbers also don't take into account the tens of thousands of animals whose lives we have improved and saved — by providing free spay and neuter surgeries, sturdy doghouses stuffed with straw, nutritious food, and much more."

 

 

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Netflix agrees to settle privacy suit for $9 million

Suit claimed the video rental service unlawfully retained consumers' viewing histories

Netflix will pay $9 million into a settlement fund to resolve a privacy case that began in 2011. U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Davila in San Jose, Ca...

PhotoNetflix will pay $9 million to resolve a privacy case that began in 2011. U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Davila in San Jose, Calif., has granted final approval in the case that charged Netflix with retaining consumers' viewing histories and other personal information.

Plaintiffs Jeff Milan and Peter Comstock filed suit in early 2011 alleging violations of the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), recently amended to allow wider sharing of viewing information. A wave of similar suits followed and the court consolidated the cases. After court-supervised mediation, the parties reached a settlement, which the court has now approved.

Those covered by the settlement include all Netflix subscribers as of the date of the preliminary approval, a group estimated at more than 62 million. Because of the unwieldy size of the class, individual class members will not receive any payment. Named plaintiffs Milan and Comstock will each receive a $30,000 payment and, after payment of court costs, attorney fees, etc., any remaining funds will go to nonprofit orgniazations and programs promoting consumer education and privacy protection.

Minimal recovery

"In light of the minimal monetary recovery" that individual class members would receive, the court agreed that the lump sum payments to further consumer education about privacy issues was an appropriate solution. Details can be found at www.videoprivacyclass.com.

This is what is known as a "cy pres" remedy, a structure that gives class members an indirect benefit rather than a check or other direct direct personal benefit. It is frequently used where proof of individual damage would be difficult. In this case, for example, it was not conclusively shown that any of the viewing histories or other data were distributed to third parties in a way that made individual users identifiable by name.

A similar settlement was used in privacy litigation involving Google Buzz. In that case, it was argued that tens of millions of Gmail users' personal information was wrongly disclosed when Google introduced its now-defunct Buzz social networking service. In that case, the settlement included an $8.5 billion payout to nonprofit groups working to further consumer privacy protection and security.

Besides making the payment, Netflix has agreed to "decouple" viewing histories from customers' identification and payment methods within one year of the settlement.   

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The pros and cons of leasing a car

It might be a good option but only if you focus on the bottom line

If you've paid attention to car commercials on television lately, you may have noticed there are some jaw-dropping deals on auto leases – or so it se...

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Pitfalls of real estate investing

With the housing market improving, is history repeating itself?

Here we go again. With the slow turn-around in the housing market, investors are beginning to come back in, shopping for what are perceived as under-valued...

PhotoHere we go again. With the slow turnaround in the housing market, investors are beginning to come back, shopping for what are perceived as under-valued properties.

Books and seminars are beginning to proliferate once again after a hiatus prompted by the 2008 housing collapse and Great Recession. Radio commercials again tout property buying “systems” in which the purchaser isn't required to use their own money. Dozens of new websites offer “a treasure of real estate investing advice, training and techniques.”

It is true that some early investors during the housing downturn have done pretty well. Investors with cash were in a perfect position to snap up foreclosures that had been damaged or neglected – homes that couldn't pass an inspection for a conventional or FHA loan.

These homes often went for well below the amount of the mortgages that were in default, resulting in a huge loss for the investors who owned the note but a windfall for the investor. Hedge funds were early to the party, buying up thousands of single-family homes that have been converted into rental property.

Rental market

Because fewer consumers can now qualify for a mortgage, more people are limited to renting. That has led to a shortage of rental property in some markets and rising rents. It has been that trend that has drawn small investors back to real estate investing.

But the first pitfall of investing in real estate is actually managing the property. First, it must be prepared for leasing, then advertised. Once tenants move in, the rent has to be collected and repairs made on a regular basis.

You have to hope the tenants don't damage the property and few purposefully do so. But most people don't take care of someone else's property the same way they would their own.

Any profit on the property must take into account local taxes, painting the property between tenants –- required by law in many jurisdictions -- and the lost rent while it sits empty. And that assumes the tenant pays the rent each month.

Photohere are other pitfalls as well. You could buy a home in an area where rental income isn't growing but unemployment is. That usually translates into more months without a tenant and stagnant property values.

"Despite the fact that home sales and home prices are increasing on average across the country, we are still seeing weaknesses in some markets," said Ingo Winzer, president and founder of Local Market Monitor, a real estate investment company. "Sometimes weaknesses can signal opportunity for real estate investors, but not in the markets we ranked as 'dangerous.' In those markets, the risk far outweighs any opportunity."

Winzer's company is one of those behind the “We Buy Ugly Houses” signs you tend to see everywhere. But these days Winzer is selective about where those signs appear. For example, he's not putting any up in Battle Creek, Mich. That city tops the company's list of “most dangerous” real estate investing markets.

Also making the list are Norwich, Conn., Augusta, Ga., and Port St. Lucie and Daytona Beach, Fla.

"All of the markets we ranked as dangerous have a combination of factors such as high unemployment or weak job growth and falling or weak home prices," said Winzer.

That's not to say that there isn't money to be made. But it does mean you have to know what you're doing and be fairly well capitalized.

HomeVestors is another company that buys up houses at a discount. Co-president Ken Channell says that's the key – getting the property at the right price. Most novices tend to overpay. That's why he says investors must do lots of homework and collect lots of data before making an offer.

Photo"This information can help investors determine a purchase price for a property that will allow them to build equity over the long term while generating rental income immediately," he said.

Along that line, the steady rise in home values off their bottoms appears to be slowing and even retreating in some markets. A recent report by Pro Teck Valuation Services suggests the Federal Reserve's stimulus policy of purchasing mortgage-backed securities isn't as effective at stimulating home prices as it once was.

"Affordability is definitely improved when interest rates are lower," said Norman Miller, professor at the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate at the University of San Diego. "But it is very likely that the top tiers of the owner-occupied housing market are the ones benefiting the most from lower mortgage rates as this group has been less affected by credit score downgrades or more restrictive underwriting."

What to do

The real estate investment market is probably not fertile ground for the novice investor. As with any investment, you are well-advised to seek the counsel of a trusted and objective financial adviser – preferably one familiar with the risks and travails of investing in rental property, before investing in real estate.

A better real estate investment could well be in one of the many real estate investment trusts (REITs), which are securities sold on the stock market and which usually pay an attractive dividend. Depending on the REIT, the income could rival what you would net for a rental property, with a lot fewer headaches.

Before investing, do lots of homework and seek good advice.

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Bank payday loans need guidance, study finds

Seniors are said to face particular risks

Banks making payday loans continue to trap customers in a cycle of debt, according to a new study by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL). Banks pitc...

PhotoBanks making payday loans continue to trap customers in a cycle of debt, according to a new study by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

Banks pitch payday loans as short-term borrowing that allows customers to deal with a financial emergency, repay the loan and move on. But is that really how it works? The new study says these triple-digit interest rate loans -- averaging from 225% to 300% APR -- trap borrowers in a long-term cycle of repeat loans.

Senior borrowers

One of every four payday borrowers is a senior citizen receiving Social Security.

The finding on Social Security recipients highlights how changes in federal rules make seniors even more vulnerable. As of March 1, 2013, Social Security benefits must be distributed electronically, through a prepaid card or direct deposit into a checking account. As part of this new mandate, the Treasury Department specifically prohibits Social Security benefits from being distributed on prepaid cards with payday loan features -- but deposits into checking accounts remain vulnerable.

Are they or aren't they?

Banks offering payday loans -- Wells Fargo Bank, U.S. Bank, Regions Bank, Fifth Third Bank, Bank of Oklahoma and its affiliates, and Guaranty Bank -- say their product is not a payday loan because they call it an open-end line of credit. But this study found that these products are structured like non-bank payday loans and function the same way. These are short-term balloon loans that borrowers are unable to repay in full when due. They carry triple-digit interest rates, lack meaningful underwriting to assess a borrower’s ability to repay and ensnare customers in a cycle of long-term debt that leaves them worse off.

Many states have passed laws to limit or prohibit payday lending, and federal law forbids payday loans to active military service members and their families -- but some banks are ignoring both state and federal laws. 

The report, an update of CRL’s 2011 report, “Big Bank Payday Loans,” urges the three prudential regulators -- the Federal Reserve Board, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation -- to issue guidance or a rule that would put an immediate end to this product before it spreads from a handful of banks to the entire system.

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Can you have too much energy?

A new study finds energy drinks may affect blood pressure

We've all seen and heard those energy drink commercials that promise to do everything from improving your golf game to putting more zip in your sex life. T...

PhotoWe've all seen and heard those energy drink commercials that promise to do everything from improving your golf game to putting more zip in your sex life. That may be the least of it.

A study presented at the American Heart Association's Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism 2013 Scientific Sessions found that these same drinks may increase blood pressure and disturb your heart's natural rhythm.

Researchers analyzed data from seven previously published observational and interventional studies to determine how consuming energy drinks might affect heart health.

In the first part of the pooled analysis, the researchers examined the QT interval of 93 people who had just consumed one to three cans of energy drinks. The QT interval describes a segment of the heart's rhythm on an electrocardiogram; when prolonged, it can cause serious irregular heartbeats or sudden cardiac death. They found that the QT interval was 10 milliseconds longer for those who had consumed the energy drinks.

Life-threatening consequences

"Doctors are generally concerned if patients experience an additional 30 milliseconds in their QT interval from baseline," said Sachin A. Shah, Pharm.D., lead author and assistant professor at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

"QT prolongation is associated with life-threatening arrhythmias. The finding that energy drinks could prolong the QT, in light of the reports of sudden cardiac death, warrants further investigation." said Ian Riddock, M.D., a co-author and director of preventive cardiology at the David Grant Medical Center, Travis Air Force Base, Calif.

Researchers also found that the systolic blood pressure -- the top number in a blood pressure reading -- increased an average of 3.5 points in a pool of 132 participants.

"The correlation between energy drinks and increased systolic blood pressure is convincing and concerning, and more studies are needed to assess the impact on the heart rhythm." Shah said. "Patients with high blood pressures or long QT syndrome should use caution and judgment before consuming an energy drink.

"Since energy drinks also contain caffeine, people who do not normally drink much caffeine might have an exaggerated increase in blood pressure."

The pooled studies included healthy, young patients 18-45 years old. "People with health concerns or those who are older might have more heart-related side effects from energy drinks", said Shah.

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Outed by a Facebook ad?

It isn't the first time the social media site got involved where it shouldn't have.

It happened again.Another person has claimed that Facebook has revealed their sexual orientation to the public, and at no time did this user talk about b...

PhotoIt's happened again -- a gay man says he's been "outed" by Facebook, in this case by an ad, even though he says he had never revealed his sexual orientation or talked about being gay.

Late last year, two students from the University of Texas at Austin said they were outed to their families, after joining their school's “Queer Chorus” and being added to the chorus’ Facebook discussion page.

This time around, a man known only as Matt said a “coming out” ad was placed on his public newsfeed for all to see, although he never discussed his sexual orientation on Facebook, “liked” anything related to being gay or joined any discussion groups that would reveal his orientation. 

Here’s what Matt told the website BuzzFeed in an email:

“As many LGBT individuals know, for a time, the most closely held secret we have is our sexuality. Several nights ago, I texted a close and dear friend for advice on revealing such sensitive personal information. The next morning, I woke up to a ‘sponsored story’ on my Facebook page that asked ‘Coming out? Need help?’ How did Facebook know such a specific ad would apply to my profile?”

Matt was probably outed by an algorithm.

You know what they are—those nasty little calculations that sites like Facebook use to determine consumers' lifestyle, shopping habits and interests, in order to tailor specific ads and messages for them.

So if you’re “liking” a posted ad by Macy’s let’s say, you better believe you’ll be seeing more ads about upcoming sales and expensive new products that you'll probably never want. It’s just the way social media pages and companies are doing things these days.   

How did Facebook know?

But again, what was strange to Matt was that he never “liked” anything that would reveal to Facebook that he was gay. The only thing he did was tweet a close friend, asking him for advice about coming out to his parents, that’s it, however, somehow, the coming out add was still placed on his newsfeed.

PhotoThe actual ad was from the self-proclaimed “Coming out Coach” Rick Clemons, who helps people reveal to their families that they’re gay.

In the past, Facebook has said it doesn’t read the messages of its users to determine which ads to display, which was again confirmed by a Facebook spokesperson who contacted BuzzFeed to tell the company's side of the story pertaining to Matt.

But the question remains, how did Facebook know that Matt may have been interested in ads targeted to the LGBT community?

Other than his Twitter conversation, it seems the only thing Matt did was comment on a friend's Facebook post about Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announcing that after he had changed his position on gay marraige after learning his son was gay.

That could be enough, since Facebook can take all sorts of your posted information and target you for certain ads and sales pitches.

Early warnings

It was in 2010, when Saikat Guha of Microsoft and Bin Cheng and Paul Francis of the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, said that Facebook could and would unintentionally out LGBT people.

So Guha, Cheng and Francis warn people to be extremely mindful on what they click and comment on, especially if they want to control what’s being revealed about them to other users.

“The danger with such ads, unlike the gay bar ad where the target demographic is blatantly obvious, is that the user reading the ad text would have no idea that by clicking it he would reveal to the advertiser both his sexual preference and a unique identifier (cookie, IP address, or e-mail address if he signs up on the advertiser’s site),” said the researchers.

“Furthermore, such deceptive ads are not uncommon; indeed exactly half of the 66 ads shown exclusively to gay men (more than 50 times) during our experiment did not mention 'gay' anywhere in the ad text."

The researchers said they would like to see Facebook change a few things, when it comes to how the company uses algorithms to link certain ads to certain users.

“Do not allow advertisers to target advertisements based on sensitive categories, such as religion, sexuality, or political affiliation,” they wrote. And “disclose, directly below the ad, the fact the ad was targeted based on a specific profile attribute and state there which attribute that was.”

“Users should also be told, after clicking on the ad, but before being directed to the site, that the advertiser may be able to learn this sensitive information about them, simply by visiting the site.”

Whether Facebook decides to make these changes remains to be seen, but until then, beware of what you click, tweet, comment or post, because you should be the only person who’s in control of telling the public want you want them to know.

You certainly don’t want to leave it up to Mark Zuckerberg, do you?

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Is self-publishing your book even worth it these days?

Many people do it, and they should, but they'll first have to adjust their expectations.

Do you remember when the term “Do it yourself” pretty much applied to home repairs and fixing things?It became the advertising slogan for man...

PhotoDo you remember when the term “Do it yourself” pretty much applied to home repairs and fixing things?

It became the advertising slogan for many hardware stores, which told people to release their inner Bob Villa, even if they didn’t possess a thick beard and a flannel shirt.

Today, the do it yourself slogan means much more, thanks to the infinite reach of the Internet, and for practically little or no money, one can move a good product idea or business plan from their head, to the drawing board and out to the masses fairly quickly.

These days, doing it yourself can either mean you’re reaching for a hammer or you’re hammering down on your keyboard trying to perfect an idea, and this new type of digitized self-containment has made it easier for the dreamer to become the doer, further blurring the once very visible line between buyer and seller.

In addition, the Internet gave folks new avenues to release their self-made products and most of those avenues didn’t lead to some office building with a closed-minded decision maker inside, because those guys love telling you that your idea isn’t any good and they won’t financially back it.

Anybody can write, right?

Consumers using the Internet to fuel their ideas is surely happening in music, it’s happening in fashion and in the small business world too, but arguably one of the biggest places the Internet has empowered the person who says, “Maybe I’ll do it one day,” is in the world of authors and people who choose to self-publish their book.

PhotoSure the Internet will allow everyone who wants to write a book the chance to publish it, but there’s a slight problem with that, and that is -- well, the Internet allows everyone who wants to write a book the chance to publish it, which means your book can easily get lost and go completely unnoticed in a sea of other self-published titles.

Not to mention having to compete with those authors who have book deals and a PR team that can market their books around the clock.

So the question is, is publishing your own book even worth it these days?

Shawn Welch who, along with his partner Guy Kawasaki, wrote "APE: How to Publish a Book," says yesAPE is an acronym for author, publisher, entrepreneur.

Welch says that a person has to be realistic about the recognition and financial rewards one might be looking for.

“The average indie author sells less than 150 copies of their book, which means on average, indie authors make between $500-$1,000 on a self-published book (if they sold it for $4.99), said Welch in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“The reason you hear about self-published millionaires in the news is because they’re rare, not because they are commonplace," he said. "If you want to write a book, that’s great. In fact, Guy and I think everyone who wants to write a book, should write a book. It is truly one of life’s great accomplishments.”

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Guy Kawasaki

But Welch says if you want to be a self-published author, your motivation has to come from a different place other than a place of wanting to get rich.

“If you’re writing a book because you want to make money or pay off your mortgage, you’re probably doomed from the beginning,” he says.

“Very few people can turn out a good book when the motivation is money. Money should be a side-effect not a goal. Before you write a book you should ask yourself, ‘Will this book add value to people’s lives?’ Because that is the number one reason to write a book. If you have a book that adds to people’s lives, it will probably sell.”

“Writing and publishing a book is an end in itself, it is not a means to an end," adds Welch. 

"If the reality that you probably won’t make a lot of money self-publishing discourages you from writing, ask yourself why you were writing in the first place and why that reason would cause someone to pick up your book out of the thousands available.”

Furthermore, he says self-publishing really isn’t a decision, as much as it is the only avenue for most authors, because an extremely small portion of writers actually get book deals.

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Shawn Welch

Deciding between self-publishing and shopping for a book deal is a “superficial choice,” he says and if you do happen to be among the 0.1% of authors who get a book deal, you’ll still have to endure long wait times and a bunch of industry battles.

“Most authors don’t have the option of choosing between self-publishing or signing a traditionally published deal,” says Welch. “If you’re lucky enough to have a deal on the table, and you don’t want to deal with the hard work involved with self-publishing, then absolutely sign a traditionally published deal, take the advance and smile.”

“But, if you’re like the other 99.99% of authors today, you don’t have a choice. It will take you 6-18 months to get a traditional publisher to respond to your proposal, so why not self-publish in the meantime? The reality is traditional publishers sign authors that already have a platform to sell books. In today’s market, an author name sells a book more than the publishing company imprint. So many traditional publishers look for authors that are already well known.”

“So if you are shopping your book around, one of the best ways to prove you’re worth signing on is to show that people want to buy your books. What better way than that to point at the sales of your self-published books? It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

Stranger than fiction

For those of you who write fiction, writing an ebook is the best route to go, and by using Kindle, you’ll have immediate access to Amazon’s incredibly large clientele, which certainly doesn’t hurt, says Welch.

Photo“For fiction, ebooks make up a large percentage of the market cap,” he explains.

“This isn’t necessarily true for non-fiction books, so print isn’t completely dead. But for fiction, you can do very well with just ebooks. Kindle is great because for fiction authors it makes up 80% or more of the market.”

“Print isn’t dead, but ebooks are much easier to self-publish," he says. "And to simplify matters, with one platform, and one format, you can reach a very large market. In today’s world, Amazon owns the ebook market. So a self-publishers would be foolish to ignore it.”

And how much will self-publishing actually run you?

Although using the Internet to self-publish is less expensive, it’ll surely cost you more than just a few bucks, so if you’re expecting to spend a tiny amount to get your book off the ground, you might be disappointed.

“$4,000 is a very realistic number,” says Welch.

“In general, you should budget $1,000 for content editing, $1,000 for copyediting, $1,000 for a cover, and $1,000 for book production. If you know someone who is willing and able to do one of these tasks for free, you can certainly save some money, and it’s possible to find these services for less and more. But just because you self-publish does not mean these tasks go away.”

Nothing is worse than a debut book filled with typos, misspellings, factual errors and other amateurish blunders. Such mishaps are marginally acceptable in daily news publications and amateur blogs but not in book and magazine publishing.

And if you’re a busy parent who loves writing and you always thought about publishing your own book, Welch says that you should start writing now; if you wait for the perfect time to start typing those pages, you might be waiting forever.

In addition, he advises that parents and busy adults should make a conscious decision to carve out writing time on a daily basis, as opposed to trying to find the right time when things aren't hectic.

“There’s never a good time to write a book,” says Welch.

“If you wait until the house is clean, the kids are doing well in school, or that one project is finally finished, you’ll never start. History is full of people who bootstrapped their efforts in the middle of the night to achieve something they really want.”

“If you really want to write a book, you have to make the time. Time won’t just appear out of nowhere,” he says.

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Chances are pretty good that you're eating too much salt

Study finds most people consume almost twice the daily recommended amount of sodium

Without seeing any facts and figures, most of us will admit we use too much salt. The food we buy is loaded with the stuff -- and most of us dump more of ...

PhotoWithout seeing any facts and figures, most of us will admit we use too much salt.

The food we buy is loaded with the stuff -- and most of us dump more of it on as we sit at the table.

But exactly how much is too much? According to research presented at the American Heart Association's Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention 2013 Scientific Sessions, 75% of the world's population consumes nearly twice the daily recommended amount of salt.

Global sodium intake from commercially prepared food, table salt, salt and soy sauce added during cooking averaged nearly 4,000 mg a day in 2010.

The World Health Organization recommends limiting intake to less than 2,000 mg a day and the American Heart Association recommends staying under 1,500 mg a day.

"This study is the first time that information about sodium intake by country, age and gender is available," said Saman Fahimi, M.D., M.Phil., lead author and a visiting scientist in the Harvard School of Public Health's epidemiology department in Boston, Mass. "We hope our findings will influence national governments to develop public health interventions to lower sodium."

Major problems

Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the world; excess sodium intake raises blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the major contributors to the development of cardiovascular disease.

Among women and men, average sodium intake exceeded healthy levels in almost all countries, researchers said. Kazakhstan had the highest average intake at 6,000 mg per day, followed by Mauritius and Uzbekistan at just less than 6,000 mg per day.

Kenya and Malawi had the lowest average intake at about 2,000 mg per day. In the US, the average intake was about 3,600 mg a day.

Way too much

One hundred eighty-one of 187 countries, representing 99 percent of the world's population, exceeded the World Health Organization's recommended sodium intake of less than 2,000 mg a day; and 119 countries, representing 88 percent of the world's population, exceeded this recommended intake by more than 1,000 mg a day. All countries except Kenya exceeded the American Heart Association recommended sodium intake of less than 1,500 mg a day.

The researchers analyzed 247 surveys of adult sodium intake to estimate sodium intake, stratified by age, gender, region and nation between 1990 and 2010 as part of the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases Study, which is an international collaborative study by 488 scientists from 303 institutions in 50 countries around the world.

What’s a consumer to do?

When shopping for food, consumers can read food labels and choose foods that are lower in sodium.

The Nutrition Facts Label on food and beverage packages lists the “Percent Daily Value (%DV)” of sodium in one serving of a food, based on 2,400 mg per day. The %DV tells you whether a food contributes a little or a lot to your total daily diet. Foods providing 5%DV or less of sodium per serving are considered low in sodium and foods providing 20%DV or more of sodium per serving are considered high. But remember, all of the nutrition information on the label is based upon one serving of the food and many packaged foods have more than one serving.

It is recommended that consumers not exceed 100% of the daily value for sodium and those advised to limit intake to 1,500 mg per day should aim for about 65% of the daily value.

Consumers can also be aware of the sources of sodium in their diet. In a report issued in February 2012, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified these 10 foods as the greatest sources of sodium:

  • breads and rolls
  • luncheon meat, such as deli ham or turkey
  • pizza
  • poultry, fresh and processed -- (Much of the raw chicken bought from a store has been injected with a sodium solution.)
  • soups
  • cheeseburgers and other sandwiches
  • cheese, natural and processed
  • pasta dishes
  • meat dishes, such as meat loaf with gravy
  • savory snack foods, such as potato chips, pretzels and popcorn

And how do you know how much sodium is in the food served at your favorite restaurant? Fasano notes that many chain restaurants are putting the nutritional content of their foods -- including calories, fats, sodium and sugars -- on their Websites, or it’s available by asking for it.

The Food and Drug Administration has created a number of online resources to help consumers reduce their sodium intake. They include:

  • Sodium Reduction Website provides links to resources on how to reduce the amount of sodium in your diet.
  • A Sodium Education Website offers consumer advice on how to use the Nutrition Facts Label to reduce sodium intake.
  • The Spot the Block campaign challenges tweens from 9 to 13 to use the Nutrition Facts Label (the "block") to make healthy food choices.

 

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Why are more children being diagnosed with autism?

The condition affecting young children is rising at an alarming rate

Over the last two decades, the number of children diagnosed with autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has risen at an alarming rate.Just a couple o...

PhotoOver the last two decades, the number of children diagnosed with autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has risen at an alarming rate.

Just a couple of years ago the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated one in 88 school children had some form of autism. That was a 23% increase over 2009's count and a 78% rise over 2007.

In a new report, the CDC puts that number at one in 50 school age children.

What's behind this condition that was unknown to much of the population just 30 years ago? First, let's look at what exactly health professionals mean when they speak of autism.

Biology and chemistry

Autism is a physical condition linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) most parents of an autistic child can tell something is not quite right by the time the child is 18 months old.

Health experts say there are many different symptoms and different types of autism, which may explain in part the rapid rise in diagnosis. Generally, the symptoms affect the way the child communicates and interacts socially.

Austic children, for example, often have difficulty speaking. Because of that, they might seem overly quiet. They may have a hard time using their imagination while playing and usually play alone, since they have a hard time making friends. There are different levels of severity of the disorder.

New study

These symptoms may show up earlier than doctors generally believe. Researchers writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry say their just-completed study found children later diagnosed with autism have subtle but measurable differences in attention as early as seven months of age. These children, the study found, are slower to move their eyes from one object to another, compared to other children.

PhotoThe scientists also identified specific brain circuits that seem to cause the slower response. The findings point to a problem with "sticky attention," the same phenomenon observed in preschool and older children with autism, but not well studied before in babies at risk for autism.

"This is a very exciting study, because the impairments in shifting gaze and attention that we found in seven-month-olds may be a fundamental problem in autism," said Robert T. Schultz, Director of the Center for Autism Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a co-author on the study. "These results are another piece of the puzzle in pinpointing the earliest signs of autism. Understanding how autism begins and unfolds in the first years of life will pave the way for more effective interventions and better long-term outcomes for individuals with autism and their families."

Still in the dark

However, we seem to be no closer to knowing what causes autism and what's responsible for the huge increase in diagnosis. Is there some emerging, overt cause or are we simply now more aware of a condition that has always been there?

Some doctors believe the increased incidence in autism is due to newer definitions of the disorder. The term "autism" now includes a wider spectrum of children. For example, a child who is diagnosed with high-functioning autism today may have been thought to simply be odd or strange 30 years ago.

Parents who were unaware of the condition might have just accepted that their child was “a little different.” Today's parents are much more likely to seek medical advice if they have any concerns about their children's development.

A large part of the increase in autism cases comes from the African-American and Hispanic populations, two groups that in the past might not have had access to the health care they do today. Some suggest autism cases are not growing as much as awareness of the disorder is.

Environmental factors?

But many parents are not convinced. Some believe there could be environmental factors, perhaps not present in previous generations, that are causing the rise.

For example, some parents have expressed concerns that autism might be linked to the vaccines children receive. One vaccine ingredient in particular – thimerosal – emerged as a suspect during the 1990s. It's a preservative that was commonly used in many childhood vaccines.

However, in 2001 thimerosal was removed or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines except for one type of influenza vaccine. The CDC says “several studies examining trends in vaccine use and changes in autism frequency do not support such an association between thimerosal and autism.”

Some suspect things like exposure to mercury and diet play a role. At this point, research continues and parents wait.

What to do

If you suspect your child has a developmental problem that could be a form of autism, your first step should be an examination by the child's pediatrician. A health care provider experienced in diagnosing and treating autism is usually needed to make the actual diagnosis.

According to NIH, an early, intensive, appropriate treatment program will greatly improve the outlook for most young children with autism. Treatment is most successful when it is geared toward the child's particular needs.

There are a number of research and support groups for autism, including the Autism Society and Autism Speaks.

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How will you pay for retirement?

If you're a baby boomer, the answer may be to work longer -- if you can

Living longer and retiring earlier doesn't appear to be a good combination. Surveys show more baby boomers have put off retirement because of what some att...

PhotoLiving longer and retiring earlier doesn't appear to be a good combination. Surveys show more baby boomers have put off retirement because of the recent economic downturn.

But there could be another reason. With people now living well into their 90s, many people nearing the traditional retirement age realize they don't have the money to retire now, and didn't have even before times got rough.

While many people downsize in retirement and reduce expenses, the bills still come each month. Social Security goes only so far and, with the precarious nature of the government's unfunded liabilities, it might be wise not to put all your eggs in that financial basket.

Social Security dependency

But according to the Social Security Administration, Social Security benefits amount to 39% of the income a typical elderly person receives. Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 53% of married couples and 74% of unmarried persons receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security. Twenty-three percent of married couples and about 46% of unmarried people rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.

So the simple answer to the question, “how will you fund retirement,” may be to keep working. Stay on the job, keep putting money away in a retirement account and delay Social Security benefits as long as possible.

Boomers appear to be doing just that. A survey conducted by Country Financial found 38% of boomers said they would delay retirement by at least two years due to the downturn, the highest of any age group.

Don't want to be dependent

Only 31% believe the government should do more to fund Americans' retirement, compared to 34% of Americans overall.

"Boomers might be slamming the door on more government assistance because of the national debt or they're satisfied with Social Security as is," said Joe Buhrmann, manager of financial security support at Country Financial. "The boomers showed younger generations it's never too early to save. Start setting aside money in your 20s if possible and establish a long-term financial plan to stay on track and meet your goals."

Staying on the job longer presents a problem, however, if you become unemployed. And it seems to be a special problem if you lose your job as you are approaching your traditional retirement years.

Harder to find a job

A Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) report showed that 5.8% of workers aged 55 and older were out of a job and actively looking last month. While this figure is lower than the national average of 7.7%, unemployed older workers are more likely to be out of work longer than their younger counterparts. In 2012, adults aged 55-64, on average, were unemployed for 54.6 weeks, compared to 36.4 weeks for workers aged 25-34, the report shows.

"Being age 55-64 and out of work is particularly difficult, because you're unable to tap into the traditional safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security," said Nora Dowd Eisenhower, senior vice president of economic security at the National Council on Aging (NCOA). "But jobs still matter for this population. With years of life still ahead of them, mature workers need opportunities now for training or retraining that leverage their experience and give them marketable job skills."

But older job seekers shouldn't assume that employers would prefer to hire a recent college graduate. AARP recently published a boomer re-employment guide with tips for older workers on how to market themselves.

What to do

If you are close to traditional retirement age and out of work, you might consider what demographic experts call a “bridge job.” It might not be in your field and it might not pay as much as you were making, but it can be rewarding and provide an income as you downsize and slide into retirement. Many people choose to work for a cause or goal they believe in, perhaps giving them a higher level of satisfaction than they received with their “career” job.

Depending on your income requirements, you can also consider starting a small, home-based business. Just steer clear of those packaged work-at-home “opportunities” that require an investment on your part. Try to choose something with no start up costs and that you will enjoy.

For example, if you are an animal lover you could start a pet sitting business. Walking a neighbor's dog while they are at work or out of town not only provides a small revenue stream but gives you some healthy exercise.

Check out some tips for starting a small business here.

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Amazon introduces 'Send to Kindle' button

Kind of an underwhelming idea, critics say

See something on the Web that you'd like to read later? There's now a feature on some sites that lets you send a Web page to your Kindle, so you can read t...

PhotoSee something on the Web that you'd like to read later? There's now a feature on some sites that lets you send a Web page to your Kindle, so you can read the article later -- you know, on the beach, in your hammock or, more prosaically, on the train.

Amazon, logically, calls it the "Send to Kindle Button" and it's now available on The Washington PostTIME, and the popular blog Boing Boing.

Unlike a smartphone app, this is not something you can download and use on any site. The button must be installed by the site operator, so it won't be available everywhere, at least not right away.

Amazon proudly introduced the button on its Kindle Daily Post, which was quickly peppered by comments from readers asking why, if the button is so great, it doesn't appear on the Kindle blog.

"Why don't you have a Send to Kindle button on this blog?" asked a reader named Devon. "Cool idea but same question as Devon," chimed in Stephen.

"Readability has had this for years now," said Jacob. "And it works on any site you want!"

Better browser?

Other skeptics might ask why Amazon doesn't simply build a better browser for the  Kindle, one that would let users download any page they wanted but there was no reining in Amazon's enthuasiasm. 

Amazon.com March 21, 2013, 6:27 p.m.
Consumers rate Amazon.com

"Have you ever encountered news, blogs, articles and other content on the web that you want to read but don't have time to do so immediately? The Send to Kindle Button lets you easily send that content to your Kindle to read later, at your convenience," the company's blog burbled happily. "Just send once and read everywhere on any of your Kindle devices or free Kindle reading apps for iPhone, iPad and Android phones or tablets. No more hunting around for that website or blog that caught your eye -- just open your Kindle and all the content you sent is right there.

"The Send to Kindle Button is also great for those who want to collect content from the web to use in work projects, school assignments, or hobbies."

Some would say this is sort of like going back in time, back to the days when we clipped -- really clipped, with scissors -- articles out of newspapers and magazines and stuffed them away, planning to read them later. Most were never found again, of course, but that's another story.

Where's my paper?

Some Kindle addicts were perhaps rather find a way to get digital content they're already paying for without having to pay again to have it "Kindleized."

Newspaper readers, for example, who pay for home delivery and/or digital subscriptions to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other papers are routinely assured that they'll have full digital access at no additional charge.

It's true that you can read the paper on your laptop, iPad and even your smartphone, if you have shockingly good vision. But on the Kindle? No one seems to know how to do this without paying $20 or so per month for the content we've already paid for.

Might be something the Kindle Daily Post could look into, no? 

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Car dealers, lenders warned about racial discrimination

Consumers should not have to pay more for a loan based on race, feds warn

The price of a car and the loan that consumers use to purchase it shouldn't vary according to race, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) sa...

PhotoThe price of a car and the loan that consumers use to purchase it shouldn't vary according to race, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) said today, as it warned lenders who offer loans through dealers that they will be held responsible for unlawful, discriminatory pricing.

“Consumers should not have to pay more for a car loan simply based on their race,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s bulletin clarifies our authority to pursue auto lenders whose policies harm consumers through unlawful discrimination.”

Consumers could be losing tens of millions of dollars a year because of  discriminatory lending, the agency said.

PhotoThe problem involves what are called "indirect" auto lenders, which often allow the dealer to charge the consumer an interest rate that is higher than the rate the lender gave the dealer -- typically called “dealer markup.” 

As a result, markups generate compensation for dealers while frequently giving them the discretion to charge consumers different rates regardless of consumer creditworthiness. Lender policies that provide dealers with this type of discretion increase the risk of pricing disparities among consumers based on race, national origin, and potentially other prohibited bases.

Research indicates that markup practices may lead to African Americans and Hispanics being charged higher markups than white consumers with similar credit ratings, CFPB said.

Today’s bulletin explains how the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) applies to indirect auto lending. The ECOA makes it illegal for a creditor to discriminate in any aspect of a credit transaction on prohibited bases including race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, and age.

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McDonald's unwraps its "Subway Buster," the McWrap

It's the burger chain's latest entry in the healthy-eating derby

First it was Starbucks that loomed in McDonald's radar. It create McCafe line of coffee drinks to deal with that. And now McDonald's is turning its attenti...

PhotoFirst it was Starbucks that loomed in McDonald's radar. It create McCafe line of coffee drinks to deal with that. And now McDonald's is turning its attention to Subway, unveiling a new line of McWrap sandwiches that it hopes will win over consumers hungry for a healthful lunch.  

The McWrap totals between 360 and 600 calories, depending on whether the chicken is grilled or deep fried. It also comes in Chicken & Bacon, Sweet Chili Chicken and Chicken & Ranch.

And if that's not heresy enough for you, there's also an egg white Egg McMuffin about to make its appearance.

 McDonalds  March 21, 2013, 4:18 p.m.
Consumers rate McDonalds

So far McDonald's isn't saying much publicly about the new additions, but it's clearly hoping the McWrap, which includes romaine lettuce and  cucumbers as well as the choice of three sauces, will appeal to younger people who seem to award wraps more cool points than burgers smashed between buns.

Subway has been sort of eating McDonald's lunch the last several years and is by most measures the largest sandwich chain in the U.S.
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Housing continues to be an economic bright spot

Existing home sales and prices continued to rise in February

What many analysts see as the healthy recovering in the housing sector of the economy continued in February. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) re...

PhotoWhat many analysts see as the healthy recovering in the housing sector of the economy continued in February.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports both sales and prices of previously-owned homes rose last month. Sales have now been above year-ago levels for 20 consecutive months, while prices show 12 straight months of year-over-year price increases.

February sales

Existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 0.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.98 million in February, and are 10.2% above the 4.52 million-unit level seen a year earlier. Sales in February were at the highest level since the tax credit period of November 2009.

"Job growth in the improving economy and pent-up demand are causing both home sales and rental leasing to rise,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Though home prices are rising much faster than rents, historically low mortgage rates are still making home purchases affordable."

Yun says the only headwinds are limited housing inventory, which varies greatly around the country, and credit conditions that he believes remain too restrictive. Total housing inventory at the end of February rose 9.6% -- to 1.94 million existing homes available for sale. That represents a 4.7-month supply at the current sales pace, compared with 4.3 months in January, which was the lowest supply since May 2005. Listed inventory is 19.2 percent below a year ago when there was a 6.4-month supply.

February prices

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $173,600 in February, up 11.6% from a year ago. The last time there were 12 consecutive months of year-over-year price increases was from June 2005 to May 2006. The February gain is the strongest since November 2005 when it was 12.9 percent above a year earlier.

"A strong rise in home values is contributing to housing wealth recovery, which has risen by $1.4 trillion in the past year and looks to top that increase this year," Yun said. "The extra consumer spending arising from growth in housing wealth is expected to be $70 billion to $110 billion this year."

Separately, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports home prices rose 0.6% from December to January, while the previously reported 0.6% increase in December was revised downward to a 0.5% increase. For the 12 months ending in January, prices were up 6.5%.

The agency's House Price Index is 14.4% below its April 2007 peak and is roughly the same

as the September 2004 index level. National home prices have not declined on a monthly basis

since January 2012.

Jobless claims

In other economic news, the Labor Department says first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose by 2,000 last week -- to a seasonally adjusted total of 336,000.

The four week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 339,750 -- a decrease of 7,500 from the previous week's revised average of 347,250.

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Yuba Bicycles recalls Mundo cargo bikes

Passengers’ feet can get caught in the rear wheel, posing an injury hazard

Yuba Bicycles of Sausalito, CA, is recalling about 1,000 Mundo V4 cargo bikes. Passengers’ feet can get caught in the rear wheel, posing a foot injury. Th...

PhotoYuba Bicycles of Sausalito, CA, is recalling about 1,000 Mundo V4 cargo bikes.

Passengers’ feet can get caught in the rear wheel, posing a foot injury. The company says it is aware of two reports of passengers having their feet caught in the rear wheel. No injuries were reported.

The 26-inch bicycles have steel frames, aluminum fenders on the front and rear wheels, and a wood utility deck mounted on the rear cargo rack. The bikes come in orange, black or blue. The word “Mundo” is on the top tube of the bicycle frame and “Yuba” is on the down tube. The serial number range for the recalled bikes is ADA11A008000 to ACA12D018000. The serial number is located on the kickstand plate.

The bikes, manufactured in China, were sold at bicycle dealers nationwide and by Yuba Bicycles online from May 2011 through December 2012 for about $1099.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cargo bikes and contact Yuba Bicycles to receive free wheel covers/wheelskirts and have them installed at no cost.

Consumers may contact Yuba Bicycles toll-free at ‪(877) 889-9822, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Did magicJack turn out to be not so magical?

With complaints of hidden costs and poor reception, consumers want improvements

I think it was the comedian George Carlin who said that a pessimist is nothing more than a disappointed optimist, so it was no surprise that many consumers...

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Monster, Rockstar change labels to thwart regulators

By calling themselves "beverages," the energy drinks can evade some oversight

Regulators and health advocates have been pouring scalding criticism on high-caffeine energy drinks the last few years following reports of death and illne...

PhotoRegulators and health advocates have been pouring scalding criticism on high-caffeine energy drinks the last few years following reports of death and illness unofficially attributed to the potent drinks.

But now the energy drinks are fighting back. Monster Beverage, makers of Monster Energy, and Rockstar Energy are changing their labels and product descriptions to wriggle out from under the jurisidiction of the Food and Drug Administration.

Henceforth, Monster and Rockstar drinks will be marketed as beverages rather than dietary supplements. Among the advantages of the change -- the companies will not be obligated to inform the feds when they learn of deaths and injuries attributed to their products.

Monster will also be disclosing its caffeine content for the first time and the results may surprise some critics. According to the company, a 16-ounce can of Monster's leading drinks contain 140 to 160 milligrams of caffeine, less than half the 330 mg found in a 16-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee.

The moves come as criticism of the drinks grows. Earlier this week, a group of 18 doctors and researchers urged the FDA to do more to protect adolescents and children from the possible risks of high caffeine consumption.

Potential health risks

“There is evidence in the published scientific literature that the caffeine levels in energy drinks pose serious potential health risks,” they said. But Monster has been fighting back against such allegations. 

PhotoIn a recent statement, Monster said a recent report linking energy drinks to emergency room visits is "highly misleading and does not support any conclusion that energy drinks are unsafe for consumers."
It said the report "does not provide enough information to determine the nature of patients' complaints, the amount of caffeine consumed from all sources, or whether there was any connection between the complaints and the consumption of an energy
drink."
"Any causal connection between energy drink consumption and emergency room visits is further substantially weakened by the existence of other factors more likely to have been responsible for the patients' medical issues, such as the use of pharmaceuticals, alcohol or illegal drugs, which was reported by 42% of patients," the company said. "This number was almost certainly under reported because many of the patients, especially those under 21, likely would have been reluctant to voluntarily admit this type of information."

Recent target

5-hour Energy was the most recent target of regulators' wrath, with the FDA charging the drinks may have caused 13 deaths and made 33 people seek hospital care.

The makers of the energy drink, Living Essentials, said it hasn’t seen any proof that would suggest its product has caused the death or hospitalization of any of its customers.

“5-hour is unaware of any deaths proven to have been caused by the consumption of 5-hour Energy,” said Living Essentials. “It is important to note that submitting a serious adverse event report to the FDA, according to the agency itself, is not construed by FDA as an admission that the dietary supplement was involved caused or contributed to the adverse event being reported.”

Nothing healthy

Could be but health and nutrition experts say there is little to recommend the drinks.

Photo
Karen Ansel
“There’s nothing healthy about energy drinks. Even though they promise an energy boost they’re often packed with sugar, calories and excessive caffeine,” said Karen Ansel, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Ansel says what can be dangerous about drinks like Rock Star and 5-Hour Energy is their strange combination of unnatural ingredients.

“The concern with many energy drinks on the market is that they combine many ingredients not usually found together in nature," she said in a ConsumerAffairs  interview. “As a result, people who don’t know that they have underlying conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure or seizure disorders may unknowingly be susceptible to dangerous elevations in blood pressure and heart rate or the risk of seizures.”

“In addition, energy drinks are easy to chug much faster than you would ever drink a cup of coffee so you could end up inhaling much more caffeine than you normally would from more natural sources such as coffee or tea. The labels of some of these suggest limits as to how much is safe per day, but few people actually read the label," Ansel said.

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Relieving stress through mindfulness

Corporations are doing it -- maybe you should too

Modern life is better in many ways. Better food, better healthcare, better education, a better standard of living. But unlike even a half-century ago, it c...

PhotoModern life is better in many ways. Better food, better healthcare, better education, a better standard of living. But unlike even a half-century ago, it carries more stressful demands.

In the corporate world that can mean long days at the office, eating on the run, little time with loved ones and feeling guilty about it, and trying to fit everything into a 24-hour day. Increasingly, the corporate world is turning to the practice of “mindfulness” to relieve stress and improve both health and productivity.

Mindfulness is associated with meditation. It's a spiritual or psychological faculty believed to be an important step on the road to enlightenment. It's reached by establishing a state of calm through meditation and relaxation exercises.

Mindfulness in the workplace

In recent years businesses have encouraged the practice as a way to reduce tension in the workplace. The more pressure an employee is under, the thinking goes, the more they benefit from a state of mindfulness.

For example, before the start of an important meeting attendees might be asked to participate in a relaxation, or meditation, exercise, to improve their ability to focus and communicate. Studies have found that teams that practice just a few minutes a day of mindfulness report improved team performance.

How do you achieve mindfulness? It can start with something as simple as breathing.

Exercises

Yes, we all breathe to stay alive but chances are, we're hardly ever conscious of it. A breathing exercise focuses your full attention on this life-preserving function. In this mindfulness exercise you breath from your stomach rather than your chest.

PhotoYou inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Focusing on each breath, its sound and rhythm, can have a calming effect and help you stay focused on the present moment.

Listening to music can also help achieve mindfulness. Some people prefer new-age music, others classical pieces. The important thing is that it be a slow, soothing tempo to enhance a feeling of calm. Listen to and concentrate on just the music, keeping other thoughts and concerns from creeping in.

If you find that your mind is full of pressing thoughts that are simply impossible to ignore, try looking at them as an objective observer. Let your thoughts flow and sit back and observe them, as though they were someone else's problems. As you continue this process you might find that your mind relaxes a bit. You might even come up with some answers.

Trying something different

Corporations have come to mindfulness slowly, usually after finding their expensive “leadership development” programs didn't produce very much and left a lot of participants cold. Polly LaBerre, writing on the Harvard Business Review blog, says these types of programs usually resulted in the wrong people being elevated within an organization.

Photo“What if, instead of stuffing people with curricula, models, and competencies, we focused on deepening their sense of purpose, expanding their capability to navigate difficulty and complexity, and enriching their emotional resilience?” she asked. “What if, instead of trying to fix people, we assumed that they were already full of potential and created an environment that promoted their long-term well-being?”

Beyond the corporate world

The benefits may extend well beyond the corporate world to help individuals cope better in everyday life. The University of Massachusetts Medical School is among the academic institutions that have established a Center for Mindfulness. At UMASS, there's even a mindfulness training program for teens.

Some believe mindfulness may be helpful in treating depression. A study in the February 2013 journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests why.

According to Catherine Kerr, lead author of the new study and director of translational neuroscience at Brown University, when someone is depressed their attention can become consumed by negative thoughts.

Mindfulness allows patients to disengage from this negative thought pattern through the "body scan" technique. Patients are asked to systematically pay attention to each region of the body. As this happens, the alpha rhythms that are responsible for the flow of sensory information to the brain fluctuate.

If you're thinking this all sounds really touchy-feely, you're not alone. But the number of books and CDs on the subject continues to proliferate, suggesting more people are giving it a try. And that includes some of the world's largest corporations who are now using it in an effort to make executives and employees healthier and more productive.

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Are you ready for an electric lawn mower?

These new models cost a lot less to operate and work better to boot

Automakers have begun turning out battery powered vehicles for eco-friendly drivers, as well as those who hate spending money on gasoline. But it turns out...

PhotoAutomakers have begun turning out battery-powered vehicles for eco-friendly drivers, as well as those who hate spending money on gasoline. But it turns out lawn mower manufacturers are slightly ahead of them.

Electric lawnmowers are nothing new, but previous models all got their power through long extension cords that plugged into a wall outlet. Unless you had a postage-sized lawn, or a number of very long extension cords, they weren't very practical.

But the new generation of electric mowers are battery powered and untethered. Once their battery is fully charged, they can handle a good-sized lawn with plenty of power.

More volts usually better

Today's cordless electric mowers use NiCad or lead-acid batteries and can generate 18-36 volts of power. The larger the number of volts, the more mowing you can do between recharges. Most manufacturers say you should be able to mow a one-quarter- to one-third-acre lawn on a single charge.

Not only do the new batteries run longer, many can be recharged hundreds of times before they have to be replaced.

Consumers might be put off, since battery-powered vehicles are much more expensive than their gasoline-powered counterparts. However, battery-powered mowers are comparable in price to good gasoline mowers. Most major manufacturers now offer one or more battery models.

The Black & Decker 18-inch, 36-volt mower lists for $349.97 at Home Depot. The 14-inch, 24-volt Neutron C5, from DR Power, currently lists for $299.99 on the company's website.

Three features

When shopping for an electric mower, there are at least three features that you should keep in mind. The first is the battery. A larger, more powerful battery will be more expensive, but should allow you to cut more grass between charges.

PhotoYou'll also need to decide whether you will buy a mower that you have to push or one that is self-propelled. You have the same choice when buying a gas-powered mower but with an electric, choosing a self-propelled model may require more frequent charging.

Just as with gas-powered mowers, you can select an electric model that will mulch the clippings. You can also buy a model that collects the clippings in a bag.

Is an electric mower right for you? It depends on the size of your lawn and to some extent, your values. In the past electric mowers were favored by consumers who wanted to create less pollution. With fuel prices as high as they are, many people buying them today are simply trying to save money.

According to a Yale University study, U.S. consumers use more than 600 million gallons of gasoline to mow and trim lawns every year. In the process, they spill about 17 million gallons. Is electric mowing cheaper?

A dime to recharge

According to DR Power, a manufacturer of both gasoline and electric-powered mowers, the cost of mowing is significantly reduced for homeowners who switch to electric mowing. The company says its Neuton Battery Electric Mowers cost just 10 cents to recharge, and a single charge is sufficient for mowing lawns up to one-third of an acre.

“Battery mowers are ideal for smaller lawns, where expected run times are lower and the grass is mowed more frequently,” said Joe Perrotto, President of Neuton Power Equipment. “Where battery mowers have a hard time is on acre-plus lawns or on off-lawn conditions which require a longer mowing time or more power to get the job done. For those jobs, it’s hard to beat gas power. Even with battery technology advancement, I doubt that battery mowers will overtake gas mower sales in my lifetime, but for the sake of our environment, I hope that they do.”

Electric mowers are also easier to maintain. The drop-in/lift-out battery design on most models makes "refueling" easier and push-button starting takes the strain off your arms and back.

Perhaps because of that, industry reports show sales of electric lawn care equipment are on the rise and project they will continue to account for a growing share of the country's lawn-care equipment sales.

While maintenance is easier with an electric mower, there is still maintenance. After each use the battery should be fully charged. When mowing, you shouldn't completely drain the battery before recharging, since that can significantly reduce storage capacity.

Electric mowers might not be right for every lawn. Perrotto says anything that puts more strain on the blade will cause the battery to drain faster. Long grass or certain types of tough grass can cause this to happen.

"Fortunately with removable batteries, the mower owner can quickly switch out to a fresh battery to continue mowing,” he said.

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Federal agencies abandon the U.S. Postal Service

Feds spend only 2% of their delivery budget with the USPS; FedEx, UPS get the rest

Everyone knows the U.S. Postal Service is in trouble, but is anyone doing anything about it?Well, federal agencies are. They're taking their business els...

PhotoEveryone knows the U.S. Postal Service is in trouble, but is anyone doing anything about it?

Well, federal agencies are. They're taking their business elsewhere. A new report finds that out of $337 million spent on shipping last year, federal agencies spent only $4.8 million with the Postal Service, less than two percent. The lion's share of the money went to FedEx and United Parcel Service.

Why?

One big reason is that, unlike private companies, the Postal Service can't sell any products below cost, even if doing so would enable it to snag contracts that would be profitable overall. 

Who would impose such an onerous and unbusinesslike restriction on what is supposed to be a semi-independent government corporation? Congress, of course.

The Postal Service has much in common with Amtrak and the District of Columbia. All are hamstrung by Congressional micromanagement that leaves them often unable to pursue simple initiatives that would improve their fortunes and provide better service to their clients and, in the case of D.C., their subjects. (You can't really call them citizens since they don't get to vote for the people who boss them around).

But while the Postal Service is forbidden from, say, granting a big discount on one service that would let it sell additional, profitable services, it is also hamstrung by a Congress that continues to require Saturday delivery and other anachronisms that waste millions of dollars while doing little or nothing to generate profits.

Canada, after all, has done without Saturday mail delivery for as long as anyone can remember and seems to be doing OK, and the Postal Service is going ahead with its plans to stop Saturday deliveries this summer, saying it doesn't need Congressional approval. 

Faint glimmer 

The Postal Service's Inspector General says that while the situation is grim, all is not lost.

"Although its competitors have consistently captured more than 98 percent of shipping revenue from federal agencies through GSA contracts, the Postal Service has opportunities to increase its share of this market," the IG said in its report.

On the other hand, the situation is not going to be resolved quickly. Because the Postal Service missed out on contract opportunities, many federal agencies have several years to go on their existing contracts with UPS and FedEx.

 

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In search of a free checking account

This quickly-vanishing commodity is increasingly hard to find

Where to keep money for everyday purposes has become a greater issue for consumers in recent years. Years ago almost everyone had a checking account at a l...

PhotoWhere to keep money for everyday purposes has become a greater issue for consumers in recent years. Years ago almost everyone had a checking account at a local bank.

But now, with banks charging fees for checking accounts, or requiring large balances to avoid fees, consumers who want to prevent the constant erosion of their money have to look long and hard for what we used to know as “free checking.” Many have bailed out of the banking system all together.

Why do so many financial institutions now charge fees for the privilege of having a checking account? The answer has to do with the way banks made money in the past and the way they do now.

In the past, almost all of a bank's profits came from the spread between what they paid for money and what they charged for it. They might pay their depositors two percent interest but charged borrowers six percent. The spread, four percent, was profit.

Risk avoidance

But since the financial crisis, banks have relied less on lending money because it entails risk. What if the borrower can't pay it back? Fees, on the other hand, entail no risk.

Banks rarely pay interest on checking deposits because that money is more liquid. The bank has less flexibility in lending money from checking deposits because account holders can write checks on it at any time. Since a certain amount of checking deposits must remain in the bank's reserves, the bank can't make money on it – hence, the fee.

Some banks offer free checking but require a certain minimum balance. A consumer needs to know what type and how much before deciding whether it's a worthwhile price to pay for free checking.

What the fine print means

For example, if the fine print says “minimum balance $500,” it means that at no time during the statement cycle can the balance fall below $500 without a fee be assessed.

PhotoSome banks require a “minimum daily balance,” meaning you can dip below the minimum during a given day as long as the total is above the minimum at the end of the day. This is very tricky to manage, however, as a bank might not post a deposit when you think it will.

A “minimum combined balance” gives the consumer a bit more flexibility. If you have multiple accounts, the minimum is based on the total amount you keep in the bank. This can be useful if you have a savings account from which you rarely take money.

Another way to deal with a minimum balance requirement is to keep a portion of your savings in the account. Suppose you have $1,000 in a savings account that earns a paltry 0.5% interest – $4.16 a month.

Using savings

Now suppose you closed your savings account and kept your $1,000 in your checking account, but didn't spend it. If, in a given month you spent all the money in your checking account but didn't tap into $1,000 you would stay well above the minimum balance requirement and thus, would save the $5 monthly fee. That more than makes up for any loss of interest.

But maybe you don't want to go through those contortions – you simply want an old fashioned “free checking” account that was once standard in the industry. Do they still exist? They do, but you have to look a little harder.

Forget about looking at a large national bank or even a regional bank. They are almost certainly to offer fee-based checking with minimum balance requirements. If you live in a small town a locally-owned bank might still have free checking and, if you live in an urban or suburban area, a credit union may offer what you're looking for.

Bankrate survey

In its 2013 survey, Bankrate.com found that 72% of the 50 largest credit unions in the U.S. offer free, no strings attached checking accounts. Only 39% of banks had similar offers.

PhotoThe survey found that 96% of the credit union checking accounts in the survey are free or can become free with direct deposit, e-statements, transaction activity, other accounts/balances or some combination. Since 2010, the availability of standalone free checking at credit unions has declined much more slowly than at banks, probably because unlike banks, credit unions are non-profit membership cooperatives.

"While banks have significantly scaled back free checking accounts, free checking remains the rule, rather than the exception, among credit unions," said Greg McBride, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst.

As an example, the Virginia Credit Union offers a basic free checking account that includes no minimum balance, no monthly service charge and no limit on the number of checks you can write in a given month. As a bonus, it pays up to $8 a month in refunds of fees you pay other banks to use their ATM.

What to do

You can't just walk into a credit union and open an account, however, you must “join.” There are membership criteria for each individual credit union and these criteria are so broad it is almost a certainty that you can find a credit union that will accept your application.

The U.S. National Credit Union Administration has this online tool to help you find a credit union.

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Consumer spending levels hold steady in February

Initial unemployment claims, improving real wages help offset increased tax burden

You didn't spend much more last month than you did in January. But then, you didn't spend a lot less, either. That's the bottom line from the Deloitte Con...

PhotoYou didn't spend much more last month than you did in January. But then, you didn't spend a lot less, either.

That's the bottom line from the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index, which remained steady in February primarily as a decline in initial unemployment claims and a rise in real average hourly earnings offset negative forces. The index tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending.

"The economic fundamentals that influence consumer spending are aligning," said Patricia Buckley, director, economic policy and analysis, Deloitte LLP, and author of the monthly Index. "Financial institutions and the markets are stronger, and consumer confidence and real spending appear to be weathering the 2013 payroll tax increases fairly well. Absent the uncertainty surrounding the impact of the sequester, an economic turnaround would likely be imminent."

Barely budging

The index, which comprises four components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- rose slightly to 4.0 from a reading of 3.9 the previous month.

"The index along with other positive retail news demonstrates that retailers have been able to focus consumers on spring -- Easter entertaining, warm-weather apparel and home improvement projects," said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and retail & distribution sector leader. "Keeping that momentum will take more than just traditional seasonal signage and promotions. Highlighting new and unique merchandise -- both in store and on web sites while fully integrating with mobile apps -- can continue to drive traffic and encourage full-price purchases, inspiring consumers to spend their tax refunds."

Index highlights

  • Tax burden: The tax burden rose nearly 2 percent on a year-over-year basis in January to 11.29 percent.
  • Initial unemployment claims: Claims continued downward to 352,750, falling more than 6 percent from a year ago.
  • Real wages: Hourly real wages increased modestly over the past three months to $8.78.
  • Real new home prices: Real new home prices ticked down slightly -- about 0.5 percent on a year-over-year basis -- to $97,925.  
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Poison awareness the message in North America

Product safety agencies in the U.S, Canada and Mexico put out the message

This is Poison Prevention Week and the consumer product safety agencies in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are putting out the word about the dangers of unint...

PhotoThis is Poison Prevention Week and the consumer product safety agencies in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are putting out the word about the dangers of unintentional poisoning.

Unintentional poisoning is one of the leading causes of injury among children. Even though these incidents can be prevented, thousands of children in the United States visit emergency rooms each year after consuming poisonous substances.

"Child-resistant packaging saves lives," said U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "When used properly, this special packaging can prevent a child's exposure to hazardous items. Parents must always remember to reseal the packaging after each use."

Reducing the numbers

Child-resistant packaging, critical safety messaging, and education efforts have contributed to a significant decline in injuries and deaths. However, the United States, Canada and Mexico are aiming to reduce further the number of unintentional poisonings.

Among the recommended safety tips for parents and caregivers:

  • Keep chemicals, medications, cleaning supplies, and art supplies not meant for children safely stored in a locked cabinet or box, out of the reach of children.
  • Keep household chemicals and medicines in their original containers and leave the original labels on the products.
  • Make sure children understand the hazard symbols on household chemical products so they do not unintentionally harm themselves or others.
  • If a poisoning is suspected, contact the local Poison Help Line immediately at: 1-800-222-1222.
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Be careful seniors: an accidental fall could land you in the emergency room

Emergency physicians say many falls are avoidable

If you're over 65, there's a pretty good chance you could take a tumble that'll land you in the hospital. According to the Centers for Disease Control and...

PhotoIf you're over 65, there's a pretty good chance you could take a tumble that'll land you in the hospital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year with producing everything from minor injuries to severe trauma that may even result in death.

"We see so many cases of people who appear to have a minor fall that result in a significant injury," said Dr. Andrew Sama, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. "The older you get the more vulnerable you are. The good thing is -- many of these falls are preventable if you take action now."

Falls in the millions

In 2010, 2.3 million nonfatal fall injuries among older adults were treated in emergency departments with more than 662,000 of these patients being hospitalized, according to the CDC.

  • Twenty to thirty percent of people who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries. They may include hip fractures, head trauma and lacerations.
  • Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries.
  • Most fractures among older adults are caused by falls.
  • Over 95% of hip fractures in the United States are caused by falls.

Preventing falls

There are numerous things that can be done to prevent falls -- especially for older people.

  • Reduce the number of tripping hazards around your house. Keep loose objects off floors, position furniture in way that you have a lot of walking space and make sure your flooring has a lot of traction.
  • Add grip bars in a tub or shower and next to toilets or any area where you would be more vulnerable to falls.
  • Improve lighting in and around your home -- illuminating hard to see areas.
  • Have your eyes examined by a doctor at least once a year and update your eyeglasses as needed.
  • Exercise regularly, focusing on increasing leg strength.
  • If you have dizzy spells, see your physician and ask what you can do or perhaps what medications to take in order to reduce them.
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Ford faces challenges over C-Max mileage claims

Consumers grumble but Ford and the EPA stand by their 47 mpg rating

Ford got a lot of favorable reviews and rave notices when it launched its C-MAX and Fusion hybrids. Reviewers gave the cars high marks for handling, f...

PhotoFord got a lot of favorable reviews and rave notices when it launched its C-MAX and Fusion hybrids. Reviewers gave the cars high marks for handling, fit and finish and all those other good things, and everyone pretty much accepted the 47 mile-per-gallon estimates that showed up on the window stickers.

But some of that good feeling has rubbed off as consumers have actually gotten their hands on the cars.

"I thought my 2013 C-MAX would be a Prius Killer? NOT! As a returning Ford buyer I feel deceived," said Ronald of South Portland, Maine. "Based on the advertised EPA estimates, I would have been ok with low 40's but 28-33 mpg is not even in the ballpark."

Ron is not the only one complaining. Consumer Reports magazine tested both the C-Max and Fusion and said they both came in well short of the claimed 47 mpg fuel efficiency. The C-Max achieved 37 mpg, the Fusion 39 in the magazine's tests.

"These two vehicles have the largest discrepancy between our overall-mpg results and the estimates published by the EPA that we've seen among any current models," Consumer Reports said in a statement.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which determines the mpg ratings, has said it is confident the 47 mpg finding is sound but has said it will review the ratings of both Ford vehicles, the Detroit News reported.

Ford's President of the Americas Joe Hinrichs has defended the fuel efficiency claims, saying Ford followed the EPA's rules.

Don't blame EPA

PhotoBut consumers like Ronald aren't content to let the EPA take the rap.

"This is not an issue about EPA testing standards, but rather an issue about setting false customer expectations in order to promote sales," Ronald says in an open letter to Ford that he shared with ConsumerAffairs. "Ford's 47 mpg marketing campaign tarnished what should have been the roll-out of a truly remarkable vehicle, the C-Max."

Ronald also faults the dealer who sold him the car, Yankee Ford. He said service personnel there have accused him of not knowing have to drive a hybrid.

"For the record, during the last three years I have leased both a 2010 Prius and 2010 Honda Insight Hybrid, and consider myself an experienced hyper-miler. My mileage in the Prius is 50 plus, the Insight is 40 plus," he said. "Is there a difference how I drive Prius Hybrid vs. the CMAX hybrid? I think we all know the answer to that."

Ronald added that he had just returned from a trip to San Francisco, where the driver of a DeSoto Cab said he was averaging about 30 mpg as well.

Out for a spin

After reading Ron's complaint, we jumped in the car and hustled over to Ted Britt Ford in Fairfax, Va., where an obliging salesman soon had us whirring down Lee Jackson Memorial Highway in a new C-Max.

It is indeed a spiffy little car, with impressive handling, braking, acceleration and so forth.  By chance, we had been confined in a Prius just a few days before and found it to be like driving a tin box on roller skates. In our brief spin, we found the C-Max equivalent to the Volkswagen Tiguan that is our current family cruiser.

"But what about the mileage?" we asked. "I've read that some people aren't getting 47 miles per gallon."

"Oh, that is when the car is new. You have to drive it about 5,000 miles before you start getting the 47 mpg," the salesman replied, perhaps hoping he would be 5,000 miles away by the time we had run the odometer up to that point.

Ronald, for the record, has 4,400 miles on his C-Max, so perhaps things will soon turn around for him, although we're not holding our breath.

Who's right? It may be too soon to say. There aren't many owner reviews, positive or negative, yet. There has been at least one class action suit filed in California, claiming Ford's ads are deceptive but we may all be too old to drive by the time it and similar suits are settled.

Meanwhile, consumers are snapping these cars up. The C-Max broke launch records in October and November 2012, selling 8,030 units, making it the highest-selling hybrid ever in its first two months. As those cars roll up the miles, we'll no doubt be hearing about the new owners' experiences, good and bad. Until then, if you're looking for an ultra-high-mileage vehicle, you might want to wait and let the mpg dispute play itself out.

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How safe is your pet in the car?

Most people don't restrain their pets while traveling, but experts say they should

It's hard to imagine, but 50 years ago most cars didn't have seat belts. It's only been in recent decades that passenger restraints and other safety featur...

PhotoIt's hard to imagine, but 50 years ago most cars didn't have seat belts. It's only been in recent decades that passenger restraints and other safety features have become accepted standard equipment on U.S. passenger cars and trucks.

But these safety features are for the people riding in cars and trucks. What about pets who happen to be passengers? If you've paid attention to other cars on roads and highways, you've probably noticed that there are a lot of four-legged riders these days.

In an accident, or when the driver slams on the brakes to avoid one, unrestrained pets can be hurt or killed. An often-cited study by the pet safety organization Paws to Click estimates 30,000 pets are killed each year while riding in a vehicle. A 2010 survey of 1,000 pet owners by AAA found a third let animals ride in a vehicle unrestrained while 21 percent admitted to letting an animal sit on their lap while they drove.

Safest cars for pets

Automotive site Edmunds.com recently produced a list of what it says are the safest vehicles for pets. It found 10 SUV's, minivans, hatchbacks and wagons that offer the most safety and comfort for animals.

"Not only are these vehicles safe for pets, but they also offer a certain measure of convenience for pet owners," said Edmunds.com Automotive Content Editor Warren Clarke. "And with each one of these vehicles starting at under $35,000, owners won't have to chase their own tails to make ends meet."

On the list are:

  • Dodge Journey — Available features include an in-dash cooler that can be used to store beverages, medicine or pet food.
  • Ford Flex — The crossover offers ample legroom and wide door openings for your pet's easy ingress and egress.
  • GMC Acadia — The Acadia's tri-zone climate control helps monitor temperature in the rear of the vehicle, thus ensuring that pets secured in back aren't exposed to extreme heat
  • Hyundai Tucson — This Hyundai offers privacy glass that helps block the strong rays of the sun.
  • Jeep Liberty — The Jeep brand offers specialized pet travel gear, including crates, carriers and a ramp.
  • Kia Soul — The Soul comes standard with side curtain airbags that can keep both two-legged and four-legged passengers safe in the event of a collision.
  • Mazda 5 — The Mazda 5 has tethers and anchors in both the second and third rows — helpful since pet safety seats need to be secured in the same way as a child's seat.
  • Mitsubishi Outlander — The SUV also boasts fold-flat seating and stowable third-row seats — both of which increase the amount of room available for larger pets.
  • Subaru Tribeca — Pet owners will appreciate the Tribeca's five-star crash test scores, steering-wheel-mounted auxiliary controls and rear back-up camera.
  • Volvo XC70 — The XC70 is available with a Volvo-designed pet barrier, created to remain intact during a collision.

Pet restraints

PhotoOf course, not everyone is going to buy a new car just to increase their pet's safety and comfort, though some undoubtedly will. For those who plan to hang onto their present vehicles, manufacturers offer a number of pet restraints.

A popular choice for dogs is a harness that snaps into your car's seatbelt latch. There are many different styles and brands but they all generally work the same.

According to BarkBuckleUp, a company that sells restraining harnesses, at a speed of just 35 miles per hour, a 60-pound unrestrained dog can cause an impact of 2,700 pounds, slamming into a car seat, windshield, or passenger. The company says 98% of dogs do not travel properly restrained in a moving vehicle.

Strong reservations

But the Center for Pet Safety has voiced strong reservations about these harness restraints. In a pilot study it said it found a 100% failure rate among all the harness devices tested. None, it says, was deemed safe enough to protect both the dog and the humans in the event of an accident.

PhotoThe organization refused to reveal the brands of the harnesses tested, saying it didn't want to discourage companies from creating products to protect animals. They just want the products to be better.

“Our primary concern is not to attack individual manufacturers for selling well-intentioned products,” the group said in a statement. “If we share brands at this early stage in our work, we shift the focus away from what is truly needed: measurable, safe standards that manufacturers can follow for the benefit of consumers.”

Until then there may be things pet owners can do to make their animals safer. Nearly every expert agrees that driving with your pet on your lap is a serious safety issue. Besides being a distraction, it can make it harder for a driver to respond to road emergencies.

A pet barrier might be a way to make your pet safer while traveling. Available in a variety of sizes for wagons, minivans, or SUVs, a barrier gives your pet some room to move, but keeps them safely contained behind the rear seat and off the upholstery.

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Sugary soft drinks take heavy worldwide toll

Low and middle-income countries are most at risk

Death from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer are being laid at the doorstep of drinks sweetened with sugar. According to research presented at...

PhotoDeath from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer are being laid at the doorstep of drinks sweetened with sugar.

According to research presented at the American Heart Association's Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism 2013 Scientific Sessions, sugar-sweetened soda pop, sports drinks and fruit drinks may be associated with about 180,000 deaths around the world each year.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are consumed throughout the world, and contribute to excess body weight, which increases the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers. Using data collected as part of the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases Study, the researchers linked intake of sugar- sweetened beverages to 133,000 diabetes deaths, 44,000 deaths from cardiovascular diseases and 6,000 cancer deaths. Seventy-eight percent of these deaths due to over-consuming sugary drinks were in low and middle-income countries, rather than high-income countries.

"In the U.S., our research shows that about 25,000 deaths in 2010 were linked to drinking sugar-sweetened beverages," said Gitanjali M. Singh, Ph.D., co-author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Mass.

Highs and lows

Researchers calculated the quantities of sugar-sweetened beverage intake around the world by age and sex; the effects of this consumption on obesity and diabetes; and the impact of obesity and diabetes-related deaths.

Of nine world regions, Latin America/Caribbean had the most diabetes deaths (38,000) related to the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in 2010. East/Central Eurasia had the largest numbers of cardiovascular deaths (11,000) related to sugary beverage consumption in 2010.

Among the world's 15 most populous countries, Mexico -- one of the countries with the highest per-capita consumption of sugary beverages in the world -- had the highest death rate due to these beverages, with 318 deaths per million adults linked to sugar-sweetened beverage intake.

Japan, one of the countries with lowest per-capita consumption of sugary beverages in the world, had the lowest death rate associated with the consumption of sugary beverages, at about 10 deaths due to per million adults.

Broadening the study

"Because we were focused on deaths due to chronic diseases, our study focused on adults. Future research should assess the amount of sugary beverage consumption in children across the world and how this affects their current and future health," Singh said.

The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 is an international, collaborative, systematic effort to quantify the global distribution and causes of major diseases, injuries and health risk factors.

The American Heart Association recommends adults consume no more than 450 calories per week, from sugar-sweetened beverages, based on a 2,000 calorie diet and offers tips on how Life's Simple 7 can help you make better lifestyle choices and eat healthier.

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Are bartending schools really necessary?

Of course folks who work at bartending schools say yes, but not everyone agrees

You know what? Bartenders rule the world—they really do.Now mind you, I’m talking about the night life world in clubs, lounges and bars where...

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Ready for March Madness? If not, get an app

We put together some cool apps for creating brackets and keeping abreast of all the games

The other night I caught the ESPN documentary Survive and Advance, which covered the NC State Wolfpack’s fairytale 1983 run, when the team won the na...

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American Idol's Simon Cowell launches a global talent contest via YouTube

Why go all the way to Hollywood? New series collects auditions via Skype

Simon Cowell Launches Global Talent Contest Via YouTubeSimon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment and YouTube today unveiled details about the March 20 launch...

PhotoYou know how the contestants on "American Idol" and the "X Factor" go, like, nuts when they come face to face with Simon Cowell?

Well, it's an experience a lot more wannabe performers will be having now that Cowell's Syco Entertainment is launching "The You Generation," a global audition channel on YouTube.

Officially launching tomorrow (Wednesday), the new show will be available in 26 countries and will run a competition over 52 weeks with 26 two-week rounds.

Submit an audition? It happens via Skype -- no more standing in long lines, sweating in the sun and being nudged and crowded by fellow hopefuls. 

Cowell and Co. are, of course, hoping the excitement is a strong as ever, as shown in this video:

Besides singing, there are numerous categories including makeup and style to cooking. The winner of each round will be announced on the second Friday of each two-week cycle. Winners will get a cash price and will be finalists for the grand prize at the end of the year-long contest.

The series host will be Will Best, with Cowell chiming in as necessary or as the spirit moves him.

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Tipping point: Instant noodle burn incidents

Is it truly a design flaw when one puts boiling liquid in front of a three-year-old?

Tipping Point: Instant Noodle Points – Design Flaw or User Error?By Hans Lienesch, The Ramen Rater Since I was a small child, I have been enamore...

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'Faux fur' once again spells trouble for Neiman Marcus

Two other retailers also admit they sold real fur while claiming it was artificial

Neiman Marcus is still a little fuzzy when it should be furry, or maybe it's the other way around. A few years ago, the upscale retailer paid $25,000 to se...

PhotoNeiman Marcus is still a little fuzzy when it should be furry, or maybe it's the other way around. A few years ago, the upscale retailer paid $25,000 to settle charges that it sold products made from raccoon and other animal fur while claiming they were "faux fur."

Now Neiman Marcus and two other retailers are settling Federal Trade Commission charges that they misled consumers by marketing that products contained “faux fur,” when in fact, the products contained real fur.

Many consumers prefer to buy faux fur because of concerns about animal cruelty.

Besides Neiman Marcus, the FTC charges that DrJays.com Inc., and Eminent Inc., doing business as Revolve Clothing, falsely claimed that  some products had “faux” fur, and in other cases didn't name the animal that real fur was taken from.

Neiman Marcus also allegedly misrepresented that a rabbit fur product had mink fur, and failed to disclose the fur country of origin for three fur products. 

Burberry & Stuart Weitzman

According to the FTC, Neiman Marcus’s website misrepresented the fur content and failed to disclose the animal name and fur country of origin for three products:  a Burberry Outerwear Jacket, a Stuart Weitzman Ballerina Flat shoe, and an Alice + Olivia Kyah Coat. 

Neiman Marcus also misrepresented the fur content of the shoe in its catalog, at bergdorfgoodman.com, and in ads mailed to consumers.

DrJays.com allegedly misrepresented the fur content and failed to disclose the animal name for three products:  a Snorkel Jacket by Crown Holder with a fur-lined hood, a Fur/Leather Vest by Knoles & Carter with exterior fur, and a New York Subway Leather Bomber Jacket by United Face with fur lining.
  
Eminent Inc., doing business as Revolve Clothing, allegedly misrepresented the fur content and failed to disclose the animal name for four products:  an Australia Luxe Collective Nordic Angel Short Boot with a fur-trimmed hood, a Mark Jacobs Runway Roebling Coat, a Dakota Xan Fur Poncho, and an Eryn Brinie Belted Faux Fur Vest.

The FTC has proposed a 20-year consent order, under which the retailers would agree not to make further misrepresentations or violate the Fur Act.

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Radio investment guru sentenced to prison

John Farahi scammed victims out of $24 million, prosecutors charged

 Investment manager and "radio personality" John Farahi was sentenced Monday to 10 years in federal prison for running a $24 million bond scam. &...

PhotoA Beverly Hills, Calif., investment manager and radio personality has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on charges of running a $24 million bond scam.

Prosecutors said John Farahi was basically running a Ponzi scheme, promising investors that their money would be used to buy corporate bonds backed by the Troubled Assets Relief Program.  Instead the money was transferred into personal accounts controlled by Farahi and his wife to fund construction of their multi-million dollar mansion in Beverly Hills and in risky option futures trading in the stock market that resulted in more than $18 million in losses for investors, according to court documents.

Farahi admitted to scamming 59 victims out of more than $7 million but prosecutors said the real figure was closer to $24 million and the court ordeered him to pay restitution in that amount.

Farahi's radio program was carried on KIRN-AM, a Los Angeles-area radio station that programs to an Iranian-American audience. 

Four felonies

Farahi pleaded guilty to four felonies in June 2012: mail fraud, loan fraud, selling unregistered securities and conspiring to obstruct justice. He collaborated with his corporate counsel to cover up the fraud, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement announcing his sentencing.

His former corporate counsel, David Tamman, was suspended from practicing law in California following his conviction on charges related to Farahi's scheme. 

The bar automatically suspends any attorney convicted of "felonies involving moral turpitude." Tamman is a graduate of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law who has been practicing since 1995. 
Tamman was charged with backdating documents and lying about it during a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

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Health advocates target SpongeBob SquarePants

Group is Urging Nickelodeon to stop marketing 'junk food' to kids

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has issued a “wanted” poster for SpongeBob SquarePants, accusing Nickelodeon, in the person of the ...

PhotoThe Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has issued a “wanted” poster for SpongeBob SquarePants, accusing Nickelodeon, in the person of the the popular cartoon character, of marketing “junk-food and obesity” to children.

CSPI and other groups purchased a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter last week featuring a "Wanted" poster with mug shots of an unshaven and disheveled SpongeBob SquarePants. The ad says the character should be “approached with caution: he may be armed with nutritionally dangerous foods.”

"Nickelodeon prides itself on responsible programming for children, but what about its advertising?" asked CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Nickelodeon is lagging behind companies like Disney when it comes to supporting parents and protecting kids from junk-food marketing."

Efforts to contact Nickelodeon and its parent company, Viacom, for comment were unsuccessful.

Unrepentant Nickelodeon

In 2011, American children under age 12 saw an average of 13 food ads per day, most of which were for unhealthy foods, according to CSPI, which says unlike Disney and Ion Media's Qubo, “Nickelodeon has yet to set nutrition standards for which foods it will advertise to young children through television, its Websites, apps, and other media.” The group claims Nickelodeon, NickToons, and Nick Jr. recently have advertised unhealthy products such as Cocoa Puffs, Air Heads candies, Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants, and Fruit Roll-Ups.

Nick characters are on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Cheese Nip crackers and snacks, including Pez candy and Popsicles. Unilever's Popsicle brand sells ice pops in the shape of SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. The SpongeBob SquarePants bar is made from water, several forms of sugar, and a long list of preservatives, artificial food dyes, and other additives.

Disney sees the light

In 2006 and again in 2012, CSPI praised the Walt Disney Company for the “progress that it has made to curb junk-food marketing to kids.” CSPI says Disney's updated policy will mean that the company will no longer accept ads for the unhealthiest foods on its children's television, radio, and Websites, and that it is strengthening the nutrition standards for the foods its licensed characters can be used to promote. The Disney character Goofy, for instance, appears on packaging for a snack pack that includes cherry tomatoes, carrots, celery sticks, and dip.

"It's simply wrong for children's entertainment companies to push junk foods and junk drinks on their young viewers," said Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment, a co-sponsor of the ad. "Nickelodeon should follow the example of the Walt Disney Company and establish strong advertising guidelines that teach good nutrition and bar the promotion of unhealthy products on its television, radio, and online channels."

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When it comes to free checking, it's credit unions hands down

In the battle between credit unions and banks, it's no contest

You want free checking accounts with no strings attached? You're not likely to find it at a bank. According to Bankrate.com's 2013 Credit Union Checking S...

PhotoYou want free checking accounts with no strings attached? You're not likely to find it at a bank.

According to Bankrate.com's 2013 Credit Union Checking Survey, 72% percent of America's 50 largest credit unions offer them, compared with the 39% of banks.

In addition, 96% of the credit union checking accounts that Bankrate surveyed are free or can become free with direct deposit, e-statements, transaction activity, other accounts/balances or some combination thereof. Since 2010, the availability of standalone free checking at credit unions has declined modestly from 78% to 72%. At banks, the percentage has plunged from 65% to 39%.

"While banks have significantly scaled back free checking accounts, free checking remains the rule, rather than the exception, among credit unions," said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst.

ATM charges

Credit unions' average ATM surcharge jumped 10% over the past year -- from $2.08 to $2.29. Credit unions increasing the fee outnumbered those decreasing the fee by a margin of nearly 3-to-1. Surcharging is nearly universal at both banks and credit unions, with $2 and $3 the most common fees assessed by credit unions and $3 the most common by banks.

An ATM surcharge is the fee that an ATM operator charges a non-customer. It is separate from the fee that a financial institution charges its own customers for making out-of-network withdrawals (most commonly $1 and $1.50 at credit unions, $2 at banks).

Survey highlights

The survey also found:

  • Half of the credit union checking accounts that Bankrate surveyed have no minimum opening deposit requirement and none of the 50 accounts require more than $100 to open.
  • Seventy-four percent have no minimum balance requirement, 18% have a monthly fee regardless of balance and the remaining 8% have a fee that can be waived by maintaining a balance of no more than $750.
  • The range of monthly service fees on the accounts is $1 to $10, with $2 and $5 the most common.
  • The range of non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees at credit unions is $12 to $37. This compares to $18 to $38.50 at banks.
  • The most common NSF fee at credit unions is $30, compared with $35 at banks.
  • Credit union fees for debit cards and debit card transactions are rare (present on less than 5% of accounts in each case).
  • Thirty percent of credit unions either do not charge a fee to use another bank's ATM or provide at least one free withdrawal per week.

Average Credit Union Fees

  • NSF: $26.74 ($26.65 last year)
  • ATM Surcharge: $2.29 ($2.08 last year)
  • Fee to Use Other ATM: $1.01 ($0.97 last year)

Average Fees (Credit Unions vs. Banks*)

  • NSF: $26.74 at credit unions, $31.26 at banks
  • ATM Surcharge: $2.29 at credit unions, $2.50 at banks
  • Fee to Use Other ATM: $1.01 at credit unions, $1.57 at banks

*Bank fee data from Bankrate.com's 2012 survey of bank checking accounts (released in Sept. 2012)

Methodology

Bankrate.com surveyed the 50 largest credit unions in the United States from Jan. 15-28, 2013. Size was based upon total deposits. Bankrate surveyed one checking account at each credit union, along with the accompanying debit card and ATM transaction fees.

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New home construction perks along

The rise in building permits indicates the trend will continue

More evidence that the housing market is strengthening -- at least the construction end of it. The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and U...

PhotoPhotoMore evidence that the housing market is strengthening -- at least the construction end of it.

The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development report the building of privately-owned housing rose 0.8% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 917,000. Economists at Bankrate.com were looking for an annual rate of 905,000. At the same time, the government revised its January rate of construction upward from 890,000 to 910,000.

Single-family housing starts rose 0.5% to a rate of 618,000 while the February rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 285,000.

Building permits

And there are signs that this will continue. Applications for building permits shot up 4.6% last month -- to an annual rate of 946,000 -- 33.8% above the year-ago estimate of 707,000. Economists had projected February permits would come in at 915,000.

Permits for construction of single-family homes rose 2.7% -- to a rate of 600,000, while authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were totaled 316,000 in February.

Looking ahead

We'll find out later this month whether the apparent builder optimism is well-founded. The Commerce Department is scheduled to report next week on new home sales for February. During January, sales surged 15.6% with every region of the country posting gains.

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Is identity theft unavoidable?

An identity theft expert says it's not a matter of if but when

“Identity Theft cannot be prevented. It can’t.”Those were the words uttered by identity theft expert Adam Levin, who’s the chairm...

Photo“Identity theft cannot be prevented. It can’t.”

Those were the words uttered by identity theft expert Adam Levin, who’s the chairman and co-founder of Identity Theft 911, a company that provides data protection services for businesses.

This could make a consumer feel pretty helpless.  After all, there are things you can do to prevent home burglaries and auto theft, but identity theft? That's another matter.

By now, you’ve probably heard that the Social Security numbers and credit reports of some famous individuals were posted by a covert group of folks  who have, so far, done a pretty decent job of staying anonymous and remaining behind digital walls.

So far, the data bandits posted the Social Security numbers of former Vice President Al Gore, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Michelle Obama and a bunch of entertainment and sports figures like Tiger Woods, Britney Spears, Jay-Z, Kim Kardashian and Mel Gibson.

Additionally, the hackers released bank account and credit card balances of the celebrities since this information was on most of the credit reports.

Now let’s face it, some of you will probably roll your eyes at the fact that some of the rich and famous were hacked into, since it’s logical to think their level of wealth and celebrity makes them bigger targets and more likely to be stolen from.

Too much information

But Levin says everyday consumers should be just as worried, because identity theft isn’t something that can be completely halted, for the mere reason that there’s an unprecedented amount of information being exchanged today.

“There’s way too much information out there about people," said Levin in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“People have a tendency to overshare information and there have been so many breaches at so many levels of government and business. And oftentimes businesses put in fairly well-thought-out security systems, but the problem is a security system is only as good as its weakest link and historically people are the weakest link.”

“So you see a company like RSA, which is arguably the most secure company in the world getting breached, because a low-level employee clicked on a "spearfishing" email that allowed [others] to crawl into the bowels of the company by collecting his email and following the trail to where it led them and basically comprising the security codes of the company and forcing the company to replace 40 million fobs.”

Levin says that between people’s newly developed need to share, state-sponsored hackers and independent hactivists, the world presents a new kind of danger that hasn’t been fully grasped by the everyday consumer, and because identity theft is still relatively new—at least in digital realms—a lot of people haven’t realized that they need to do more than change their password every now and then.

New mindset

What needs to happen, says Levin, is that people need to develop a completely new mindset when it comes to dealing with data thieves.

“You’ve got to have a paradigm shift in the way you think, stop thinking you can prevent it,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do everything you possibly can to minimize your risk of exposure.

“That means you do everything that everybody from the beginning of time when the subject of identity theft comes up has told you: Don’t carry your Social Security number, don’t give information to people you don’t know, don’t click on things ever if you can avoid it, certainly not things that don’t look right."

Photo"Have the best security systems on your computer and your smartphone. People think smartphones are communication devices they’re really mini storage devices. Shred everything in sight," said Levin.

One of the most effective ways to learn if your identity or financial information has been tampered with is to request a free credit report, which helps people understand and manage their credit better.

If possible, people should look at their credit information on a daily basis to determine if anything looks off, even slightly, and if it does you should immediately jump into action, instead of assuming something was your fault and that maybe you forgot to pay something off on time.

Joining a transactional monitoring program through your bank and credit card company will help you stay on top of each daily transaction, which may sound a bit drastic to some, but Levin says these are the measures that consumers need to take these days.

In short, the level of consumer vigilance needs to be stepped up tenfold if people expect to keep their information secure, Levin says.

Once you sign up with the transactional monitoring program you can either ask to be notified after every transaction or only on those transactions that reach a certain limit.

In addition, Levin says that thieves are stealing information in much more advanced ways today and often it’s not by hacking or by breaking your password.

He says scammers are moving a lot more slowly and more methodically these days and they'll take long amounts of time to gather the information they need to begin their scam.

Not a hack

In the case of the celebrities, Levin says their information wasn’t actually hacked, it was gradually collected.

“It wasn’t a hack,” he said. “What they did was they assembled all of this information, because that’s what these guys do. They [gather] together information slowly, sometimes from social networking sites, sometimes from businesses of social networking sites and their goal is how much information can they get together to answer the authentication questions.”

Another piece of advice Levin has for consumers is to make up answers for those authentication or security questions that ask you for your mother’s maiden name, for example. Although you may have to write your answer down to remember it, it’ll be hard for someone to use that piece of information in their intended scam.

A big place that people slip up and release personal information is when they’re faced with convenience over using slow and careful safety measures, Levin says.

But even with all of the statistics on identity theft and even after the numerous stories of people having their identities used in a number of different frauds, a lot of people still consider all of the identity theft talk just another scare tactic and just like other dangers in the world, many people don’t believe those dangers will happen to them, at least not on a large scale.

In a poll conducted by research company GFK and released by telecommunications company Omnitel, researchers interviewed 1,000 people, consisting of 500 adult males and 500 adult females.

When the participants were asked if they believed the issue of identity theft was just a scare tactic and not a serious problem, 390 people (39%) said they strongly agreed with that statement. That's a substantial amount and indicative of just how many opportunities there are for people that want to steal your data.

And they’re not just stealing money, scammers are into all kinds of nasty little deeds from child identity theft to medical theft, where a person can steal your information, get medical care under your name and create all types of confusion and harm, says Levin.

What to do

Besides doing all of the traditional things if you learn your information has been stolen or compromised, like changing your passwords and contacting your banks and credit reporting agencies, it’s important to communicate with your insurance company to see what type of identity theft protection you have. In some cases the protection may be free, Levin says.

In addition, filing a police report is imperative.

“You’ve got to file a police report,” Levin says. “If you don’t file a police report it is a nonstarter, because the sense is, if you don’t file a police report that means maybe you’re the identity thief.”

And if your information isn’t just compromised but outright stolen, you’ll have to do a little more legwork, which can be labor-intensive, but extremely necessary to start fixing some of the wrongs that were committed against you.

“You’ve got to communicate with those government agencies that are appropriate,” says Levin.

“There are some states that have an identity password and that’s something where a card is issued in most cases by the Attorney General confirming that you’re a victim, so if you encountered any issues you have the card.”

 

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CupSoup can be CupBurnWard, suit charges

Designs flaws in instant soup, noodle containers a serious burn hazard, lawsuit alleges

Low-cost, no-trouble instant cups of soup and noodles are popular with harried moms looking to serve their child a hot meal but a lawsuit filed today charg...

PhotoLow-cost, no-trouble instant cups of soup and noodles are popular with harried moms looking to serve their child a hot meal but a lawsuit filed today charges that design flaws make them a serious burn hazard.

The Pawa Law Group today is filing a products liability case in California Superior Court on behalf of a three-year old boy who was badly burned by a CupSoup that tipped over and spilled its scalding hot contents on him in 2012.  

The scalding hot soup caused severe burns to sensitive areas of the boy's body that have required skin graft operations and extensive medical care. The lawsuit alleges that Nissin, the manufacturer of CupSoup, defectively designed the product by making it unstable and susceptible to tipping over and spilling its contents onto consumers.

According to the allegations of the case, CupSoup is highly unstable due to its narrow base and other dimensions that make it top-heavy and easily tipped over. The suit quotes peer-reviewed articles in academic journals that have found that about 600 children wind up in emergency rooms each year because of instant soup and noodle burns.

Design flaws

Design flaws in certain instant noodle containers have been documented by emergency room burn doctors as a serious cause of injury to children. Approximately 600 children each year are admitted to emergency room burn units for injuries resulting from instant soup burns, mainly due to faulty packaging according to a report by  emergency room burn doctors. Please find the three peer reviewed attached.  

While some kinds of instant soup are sold in containers that are wide and low and thus less susceptible to tipping over, others, like CupSoup, are unstable and tip over easily, according to a scientific study published in the Journal of Burn Care & Research.

Small children are particularly susceptible to burns as they have more sensitive skin than adults and older children. The contents of instant soup, such as noodles, also tend to stick to skin, thus increasing the severity of burns.

The nationwide litigation filed today is intended to change how instant soup containers are designed so as to protect children and stop the epidemic of burns.

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Is it ADHD, or something else?

Doctors say there is no single test to diagnose this common but vexing condition

When is a child's behavior the product of just being a kid and when is it evidence of something else, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?...

PhotoWhen is a child's behavior the product of just being a kid and when is it evidence of something else, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? That's what a lot of parents would like to know.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors or be overly active. Critics who argue that ADHD is overly diagnosed and medications overly prescribed, point out that sounds a lot like the way most kids behave.

Doctors agree that for these problems to be diagnosed as ADHD, they must be out of the normal range for a child's age and development. Parents and their pediatricians need to look at a lot of data.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder among children. It affects up to five percent of school aged children, boys more than girls.

Genetic factors

It may run in the family. What's not exactly clear is what causes it. What is known is that it begins early in life, when the brain is still developing. Other problems, such as depression, learning disabilities and behavior problems are commonly confused with ADHD.

According to the CDC. research does not support the popularly held views that ADHD is caused by eating too much sugar, watching too much television, parenting, or social and environmental factors such as poverty or family chaos. The agency says these things might make symptoms worse, especially in certain people. But the evidence is not strong enough to conclude that they are the main causes of ADHD.

Deciding if a child has ADHD should be a several step process. There is no single test to diagnose it.

One step of the process involves having a medical exam, including hearing and vision tests, to rule out other problems with symptoms like ADHD. Another part of the process may include a checklist for rating ADHD symptoms and taking a history of the child from parents, teachers, and sometimes, the child.

Three types

PhotoThere are three types of ADHD – lack of attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior – with lack of attention making up the bulk of the diagnosed cases.

For parents and their pediatricians, it can be a delicate balance. Often times difficult children are incorrently labeled with ADHD. At the same time, may children with the disorder go undiagnosed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued guidelines for diagnosis. As a baseline, the group says symptoms must be visible in more than one environment and children should have at least six attention symptoms or six hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms, with some symptoms present before age seven. They should also be present for longer than six months.

Problems in adulthood

Another thing about ADHD, if a child has the disorder they never “out grow” it. While they can manage its symptoms they continue to have the disorder as adults, which can raise a whole host of other troubling issues.

Recently, researchers at the Mayo Clinic conducted a major study, following up with children diagnosed with ADHD to see how they are doing as adults. The study found that ADHD often doesn’t go away and that children with ADHD are more likely to have other psychiatric disorders as adults.

They also appear more likely to commit suicide and to be incarcerated as adults, the study found.

“Only 37.5 percent of the children we contacted as adults were free of these really worrisome outcomes,” says lead investigator William Barbaresi, M.D., of Boston Children’s Hospital, who started the study when he was at Mayo. “That’s a sobering statistic that speaks to the need to greatly improve the long-term treatment of children with ADHD and provide a mechanism for treating them as adults.”

Two hundred thirty-two people  diagnosed with ADHD as children  took part in the study. The researchers found that 29 percent of them said they still had ADHD symptoms as adults. Of the group, 57 percent had at least one other psychiatric disorder as adults. The most common were substance abuse/dependence, antisocial personality disorder, hypomanic episodes, generalized anxiety and major depression.

“We suffer from the misconception that ADHD is just an annoying childhood disorder that’s overtreated,” Barbaresi said. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. We need to have a chronic disease approach to ADHD as we do for diabetes. The system of care has to be designed for the long haul.”

In fact, Barbaresi thinks the situation is worse than the study suggests. Most of those in the study were middle class and the products of good educations. He thinks the findings are actually a “best case scenario.”

What to do

If you think your child is displaying ADHD symptoms, Barbaresi advises you to seek a proper diagnosis. If found to have ADHD, then make sure your children are in high-quality treatment — and remain in treatment as they enter adolescence.

Children also should be assessed for learning disabilities and monitored for conditions associated with ADHD, including substance use, depression and anxiety, Barbaresi said.

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Anti-Google Glass group warns of dire consequences

The sky really is falling this time, says Stop the Cyborgs. It offers t-shirts to buy a little time.

It's been nearly a year since the world first heard of Google glasses, now officially known as "Google Glass."  The high-tech eyewear (or is it eyewar...

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Job site TheLadders.com faces class action suit

Complaint says top-flight job site misrepresented itself, didn't deliver

Jobs site TheLadders.com has been hit with a class action complaint accusing it of having "scammed its customers" by advertising jobs that did not meet the...

PhotoTheLadders.com has been hit with a class action complaint accusing it of  advertising jobs that did not meet the site's former salary requirements or were not authorized to be posted on the site.

According to the complaint, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, "TheLadders sold access to purported '100k+' job listings that (1) did not exist, (2) did not pay $100k+, and/or (3) were to authorized to be posted on TheLadders by the employers."

The suit also calls TheLadders's vaunted resume-writing service misleading, claiming that "[i]nstead of providing bona fide resume critiques as promised, TheLadders sent its members a form letter that failed to provide any resume criticism responsive to members' individual resumes."

The filing is padded with complaints posted on internet boards, and provides the interesting bit of trivia that, "[a]s of February 15, 2011, upon typing 'the ladders' into Google, the first 'autocomplete' suggestion provided was 'the ladders scam.'"

TheLadders, which was founded in July 2003, initially purported to offer only jobs that paid a salary of at least $100,000. In September 2011, the site did away with the $100,000 salary minimum.

"Hand-selected" and "pre-screened"

According to the suit, TheLadders stated that "experts pre-screen all jobs so they're always $100k+," and invited members and potential members to "search jobs that have been hand-screened by our experts." 

However, the suit alleges, TheLadders's job listings "were neither 'hand-selected' nor 'pre-screened.'" Instead, according to the suit, the site "scraped" job listings from different websites without first obtaining permission, and did not check to see if the jobs actually paid at least $100,000. The site also did not take any steps to see if the jobs were already filled, the suit alleges.

The suit quotes a number of complaints posted online from employers and recruiters. One recruiter/employer quoted in the complaint says:

"My biggest complaint … is when people would call to ask about a job they saw on The Ladders, or to follow up on an application they'd made. I'd have to explain to them that we didn't list on The Ladders, that the job had been closed for months (in a few cases, for over a year), and that the job paid well less than six figures."

Stale job postings

PhotoThe suit's plaintiff, Barbara Ward, is an Arkansas resident who signed up for TheLadders in January 2011. According to the complaint, Ward applied for "numerous" jobs but only heard back from two employers, allegedly "because the purported opportunities were stale."

Ward wants to represent a nationwide class of individuals who had a premium membership with TheLadders between March 11, 2007 and August 31, 2011, as well as a narrower Arkansas subclass.

Alexandre Douzet, who is desired on TheLadders's website as "CEO & Co-founder," said in a statement to Business Insider: "We believe the allegations set forth in this complaint to be false. In fact, our employees review job listings before they are posted to our site, as has always been our protocol."

"Additionally," Douzet said, "We have a team of specialists who review resumes and provide individualized critiques. This complaint lacks merit, and we fully intend to take the necessary legal steps to dispose of it quickly. In the interim, we remain steadfast in our commitment to providing the best job-matching experience for employers and job seekers, while serving as the fastest-growing source for career-driven professionals."

Prescient blog?

The complaint was posted on corcodilos.com, also known as the "Ask The Headhunter blog." The blog's owner, Nick Corcodilos, has previously alleged some of the same things now charged in the suit.

In a May 9, 2011 blog post entitled "TheLadders: How the scam works," Corcodilos claimed that "TheLadders takes job listings from employers’ own websites without authorization, even after being told to stop, and that TheLadders misrepresents the salaries on those jobs so that it can beef up its questionable database of “50,000, high-level 100k+ executive positions.”

Corcodilos also says that "TheLadders CEO, Marc Cenedella, has admitted that 50% or more of those '$100k+' jobs are 'scraped' from other online databases, over which TheLadders has no authority or quality control." Corcodilos's blog entry was cited in the class action complaint.

And in a January 2009 newsletter entry entitled "Liars at TheLadders," Ask The Headhunter published a chat that allegedly occurred between a customer of TheLadders and one of its employees. (The chat was also included in the class action complaint.)

In the chat, the purported TheLadders employee "Andy" tells customer Alishia that "we make no claims that all of our jobs are submitted directly to us. Many of the positions on our site are linked directly to from external job boards." Alishia had complained about a job she said she found on TheLadders, only to discover that it paid a salary of $50,000 and had not been authorized by the employer to be posted on TheLadders.

The suit alleges breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair  dealing, money had and received, unjust enrichment, violation of the Arkansas Deceptive and Unconscionable Trade Practices Act, and breach of contract. The plaintiff and class are asking for a refund of their subscription and service fees.

---

Jon Hood is an attorney in New York City.

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Survey sees frugal Easter celebrations this year

The Easter Bunny will be keeping an eye on the budget as he makes his rounds

This year's Easter celebrations, while stylish, will also be on budget, according to the National Retail Federation's (NRF)s Easter Spending Survey conduct...

PhotoThis year's Easter celebrations, while stylish, will also be on budget, according to the National Retail Federation's (NRF)s Easter Spending Survey conducted by BIGinsight.

Keeping cost and their shopping list in mind, the average person celebrating Easter will spend approximately $145.13 on candy, decor, apparel and food -- about the same as last year -- with total spending will reaching an estimated $17.2 billion.

“With a plethora of budgetary concerns already on their plates, Americans this Easter will look for special, creative ways to celebrate the holiday without breaking the bank,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “And as spring weather rolls in, consumers will find affordable ways to spruce up their homes and wardrobes, just in time for visiting family and friends this Easter holiday. Retailers are already lining their shelves with specials on chocolates, warm-weather apparel and even gardening tools and outdoor furniture.”

How we spend

The survey found much of consumers’ budgets will go towards food for a family brunch or dinner: 86.9 percent of those celebrating Easter will spend an average of $45.26 on items needed for their holiday meal.

Traditionally known as the kickoff to spring, many will specifically set out to purchase new spring attire. Nearly half (48.4%) will purchase clothing this Easter, spending an average of $25.91 on bright new outfits for their children and even something new for themselves.

And, nine in 10 (90.5%) will stock up on Easter candy, spending an average of $20.66 on jelly beans, chocolate and more. Additionally, consumers will spend an average of $20.82 on gifts, $9.49 on flowers and $9.11 on decorations.

When it comes to where people will shop for their Easter needs, the survey found families will shop for price and value. Most people (63.4%) will shop at discount stores and four in 10 (40.7%) will shop at their favorite department store. Others will shop at specialty stores (24.9%), online (21.1%) and specialty clothing stores (10.6%).

Smart shopping

“While many of today’s consumers are coping with tight budgets, the Easter Bunny isn’t headed toward retirement in 2013,” said BIGinsight Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “Look for cost-conscious parents to scope the sale racks, head to discounters, and clip coupons to keep spending on track and to make the holiday special for youngsters this year.”

The survey also found that many people will use their smartphones and tablets to shop for Easter items. Four in 10 (43.3%) smartphone owners will use their mobile device to research product information, look up store hours and location, compare prices and even purchase gifts and other items. Specifically, 14.8 percent say they will purchase Easter products with their smartphones.

More than half (51.0%) of tablet owners will use their device to make purchases, research products and prices and look up retailer information such as store locations and hours. One in five (22.1%) say they will purchase something via their tablet.

About the survey

The NRF 2013 Easter Spending Survey of 5,050 consumers was conducted from March 5-11, 2013. The consumer poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.4 percentage points.  

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Builder confidence slips in March

Rising costs for building materials and labor are said to be factors

Is the housing market on the comeback trail or not? Results of the latest National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HM...

PhotoIs the housing market on the comeback trail or not? Results of the latest National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) make it hard to tell.

During March, the HMI fell two points -- to 44, the third straight decline after eight consecutive months of improvement. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

“Although many of our members are reporting increased demand for new homes in their markets, their enthusiasm is being tempered by frustrating bottlenecks in the supply chain for developed lots along with rising costs for building materials and labor,” said NAHB Chairman Rick Judson, a home builder from Charlotte, NC. “At the same time, problems with appraisals and credit availability remain considerable obstacles to completing deals.”

Growth pains

NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe points out that in addition to tight credit and below-price appraisals, home building is beginning to suffer “growth pains” as the infrastructure that supports it tries to re-establish itself. “During the Great Recession, the industry lost home building firms, building material production capacity, workers who retreated to other sectors and the pipeline of developed lots,” Crowe explained. “The road to a housing recovery will be a bumpy one until these issues are addressed, but in the meantime, builders are much more optimistic today than they were at this time last year.”

Derived from a monthly survey that NAHB has been conducting for 25 years, the HMI 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.

Mixed results

While the HMI component gauging current sales conditions declined four points to 47, the component gauging sales expectations in the next six months and the component gauging traffic of prospective buyers both posted gains, of one point to 51 and three points to 35, respectively, in March.

Three-month moving averages for each region’s HMI score were also mixed, with the Northeast holding unchanged at 39, the Midwest and South posting one-point declines to 47 and 46, respectively, and the West registering a four-point increase to 58.

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Ben-Lee Processing recalls pork products

The products were produced without a HACCP plan

Ben-Lee Processing of Atwood, KS, is recalling an undetermined amount of ready-to-eat and heat-treated bacon and ham products that were produced without a ...

PhotoBen-Lee Processing of Atwood, KS, is recalling an undetermined amount of ready-to-eat and heat-treated bacon and ham products that were produced without a Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • Various weight packages of cured pork products, including country style bacon, sliced bacon, ham, sliced ham and summer sausages

The recalled products are in consumer-sized packages in various weights, and are wrapped in white butcher paper with the name and address of Ben-Lee as well as the mark of inspection and the name of the product in a contrasting ink color.

The recalled products bear the establishment number "Est. 2366" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced prior to March 14, 2013, and were distributed in northwest Kansas for further distribution.

The problem was discovered by the Kansas State Department of Agriculture in conjunction with U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Some fully cooked products were given the mark of inspection, but the company does not have a HACCP plan for fully cooked product.

Further investigation revealed that other Ready-To-Eat or heat-treated products were produced without HACCP plans. HACCP plans, in which establishments identify potential hazards associated with a given product, and identify a means of addressing those hazards in the production process, are required for all products bearing the mark of inspection.

There are no reports of illness at this time.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Tom Carroll, the company's owner, at (785) 626-3732.  

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FPL Food recalls ground beef chuck

FPL Food recalls ground beef chuck The beef may contain small pieces of plastic

FPL Food of West Columbia, SC, is recalling approximately 5,820 pounds of ground beef chuck that may contain small pieces of plastic. The following produc...

PhotoFPL Food of West Columbia, SC, is recalling approximately 5,820 pounds of ground beef chuck that may contain small pieces of plastic.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 80 oz. (5 lb.) chubs of "80% Lean 20% Fat All Natural Ground Beef Chuck"

The establishment number "EST 332B" and the sell by date "03/27/2013" are inkjetted on each package. The products were packaged on March 7, 2013, and were sold in retail stores in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

The problem was discovered after the company received three consumer complaints. The pieces of plastic are believed to be pieces of a blue plastic liner that covers source material used to produce the final ground product. There are no reports of injury at this time.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact FPL Food Customer Service at (706) 922-3920.  

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Avoiding costly mistakes when you buy a home

Pre-purchase education reduces chance of foreclosure

During the last decade's housing boom, a lot of Americans bought homes they shouldn't have. They either bought the the wrong house or ended up with the wro...

PhotoDuring the last decade's housing boom, a lot of Americans bought homes they shouldn't have. They either bought the the wrong house or ended up with the wrong mortgage. Many ended up losing their homes to foreclosure.

Could it have been avoided? Douglas Robinson, spokesman for NeighborWorks America, thinks so. NeighborWorks America is a Congressionally-chartered nonprofit that supports community development.

To make sure history doesn't repeat itself now that the housing market is recovering, the organization provides a free pre-purchase education program for people about to buy a home. The course has several components.

Beef up your credit

“First, and most important, is strengthening the homebuyer's credit,” Robinson said. “Having someone walk you through your credit profile, tell you how to strengthen it and get the best mortgage for you, is a big component of housing education and counseling.”

A second piece is understanding your own personal housing needs. You must ask is home ownership better than renting? There are a number of factors that will determine the answer and it's going to vary, depending on the individual.

A number of websites, for example, provide free calculators to weigh owning versus renting. Right now, with interest rates so low, home ownership may look appealing. Rent, after all, is going up all the time.

But there are a lot of costs associated with homeownership that you must consider. Property taxes, homeowner association dues and regular maintenance are examples. And here's one that might not have occurred to you: if you live in a metropolitan area, you might find you can rent a place close in, but to purchase a home, you must look in the far-out suburbs. Thus, commuting costs will rise significantly.

“You have to weigh what's right for you. Even if everyone else is buying a home, it might be bad for you,” Robinson said.

Getting the right mortgage

And then there are the ins and outs of mortgages. During the housing meltdown, many consumers found their adjustable rate mortgages doomed them to poverty or foreclosure, or both.

PhotoRobinson says getting educated before you buy a home will pay off, and he offers some data to back up that claim.

“We found that homebuyers, whether they've bought homes before or not, are one-third less likely to fall behind on their mortgage within the first two years if they have gone through our pre-purchase course.”

The research was conducted by Neil Mayer and Associates and Experian, and is based on approximately 75,000 mortgage loans originated in 2007, 2008 and 2009, when residential mortgage underwriting standards began to tighten. The study used econometric methods to measure whether and to what extent pre purchase services provided by the NeighborWorks network affect first mortgage loan performance.

Compelling evidence

“Policy makers and lenders should take note,” said Eric Belsky, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. “This study provides compelling evidence that pre-purchase counseling has a significant impact on reducing serious loan delinquencies within the first two years after a mortgage loan is originated.

The course is available through 190 of NeighborWorks America's 235 offices nationwide. It focuses the would-be buyer on information they need to make a sound decision. Robinson said it's the same exercise an investor should go through before buying stock on Wall Street.

“When you think about investing, a poor investor is one who does it on their own,” He said. “If you don't get some advice, or do some research, you could buy Apple at its high instead of right now.”

The course also helps buyers find the professional help they need as they start looking for a home.

“Picking the right real estate agent is important,” Robinson said. “You need someone who will be your advocate, helping you find the house you need, not the one they want to sell you.”

Down payment assistance

You can also find out about programs to help you buy a home. There is even a program to help you come up with a down payment and it's accessible to more people than you might think.

“A lot of middle-class people don't believe they can qualify for a down payment assistance program, yet demanding on where you live, you might,” Robinson said.

The program is based on the median income for an area. For example, in Loudoun County, Va., the median income is $103,000. If you earn $85,000 a year, you can qualify.

Interestingly, the NeighborWorks America research shows that even repeat homebuyers benefit from receiving housing counseling and education. According to the report, repeat homebuyers who received housing counseling also are about one-third less likely to fall 90 days or more behind in their mortgages than repeat homebuyers who didn’t receive housing counseling and education.

With the housing market in recovery, consumers who've been on the housing sidelines may now be looking to buy. Robinson says he hopes they educate themselves first.

“I think the thing that is lost today is a homebuyer sees record low interest rates and automatically assumes that they should buy a house,” he said. “But they might be buying the wrong house or the taxes are too high. Without the right information, it's easy to make a mistake.”

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ACL tears becoming more common among high school athletes

It's not just famous sports figures who are getting these injuries, teens are getting them too

If you’re a sports fan, then you’ve probably heard of the high amount of Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears among pro athletes in the last ...

Photo
Graphic: University of Maryland Medical Center

If you’re a sports fan, then you’ve probably heard of the high number of Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears among pro athletes in the last year.

Among the most recent cases are Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo and  Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose. Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio also fell victim and Washington Redskin Robert Griffin III, or RG3 as he’s more popularly known, went down with a nasty tear in the late part of last year's season.

Timothy Hewett, PhD, who’s the director of research at Ohio State University’s sports medicine program is an expert on ACL injuries, and he says it’s not only pro athletes who suffer these tears, young sports players, especially on the high school level, are getting these injuries too.

“At the high school level it’s estimated between 120,000 and 350,000 ACLs occur in the U.S. every year or at least 50,000 a year. It’s a big problem,” said Dr. Hewett said in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“And girls at that level are significantly more susceptible than boys in the range of four- to six-fold, because they demonstrate these neuromuscular imbalances more often than boys do.”

Screening test

An indication of an athlete having a neuromuscular imbalance is when they favor one leg over the the other, after landing from a rebound in basketball, after coming down from spiking the volleyball or playing any sport that involves frequent jumping.

Photo
Timothy Hewitt

And to determine if one does have an imbalance, Hewett and his team have come up with screening methods that can tell an athlete if he or she has an increased risk of developing an ACL injury.

Two of the tests that Hewett mentioned entail jumping off a box about a foot off the ground, while lining your feet up with the width of your shoulders.

If you consistently land on the ground with the width of your legs decreased by half of the amount when you jumped, you’re in danger of getting an ACL tear, says Hewett.

Another test to determine if you’re at risk is by putting an “X” on the floor using tape.

By jumping in all four sections of the “X,” kind of like hopscotch, you’ll be able to determine if you’re favoring one leg over the other, and if you are, you could be on your way to damaging your ACL.

Higher risk

Hewett says these screenings, which can be done by both doctors and by athletes  themselves at home, will accurately tell if one has a muscular imbalance and if they’re susceptible to injury.

Photo“What we do know in our last 15 years of work is that certain people are at higher risk of tearing their ACL than others are," said Hewett. “And basically, what we’ve developed is a research paradigm and a parallel screening method where we look for specific neuromuscular imbalances that we know are predictive of injury risk and these four imbalances we call ligament dominance.”

“Like in Newton’s third law, he tells us if you hit the ground or if you hit anything that has an equal and opposite reactive force, [like when a basketball player lands on the court], the court hits them back with equal and opposite force, which is actually multiples of their body weight, because their body mass, their body segments have inertia, momentum," Hewitt said.

"So the floor is hitting them back with three, four, five, six times the body weight, depending on how they land, whether it’s with a flat foot, a straight knee or flex knee,” he said.

And Hewett says the screening can predict if a player is at risk of getting an ACL tear with about 80% specificity, and through training and conditioning, doctors can teach an athlete how to properly land, so they can decrease the chances of an injury  by about 62%.

Tested in Ohio

These screenings have been conducted in Hewett’s local school system and at Ohio State University for over 10 years, where students are tested and retrained before the season begins and then retested after it concludes, so Hewett and his team can gauge how effective their training protocols were.

PhotoHewett, who in addition does ACL research and training for the NBA, says the kind of sports that cause ACL injuries the most are soccer, volleyball, football and basketball and once you tear your ACL, you’re about 25% more likely than the average person to tear it again.

And the first time you develop a tear some might opt for surgery right away, while others may opt for therapy, and according to Hewett, whether you’ll continue to play that sport will most likely determine which option is best for you.

It really comes down to a rule of thirds, he explains.

“About a third of people can function okay without an Anterior Cruciate Ligament, even going back to sports,” says Hewett.

“About a third can function without an Anterior Cruciate Ligament if they don’t go back to sports and they just [do] everyday activities of living and about a third can’t function at all, even in their activities of daily living, without an ACL -- so if you’re going back to sports about two-thirds of people need to have their ACL reconstructed.”

In addition, it will take an average of at least six months before a person with an ACL tear can return to sports and oftentimes athletes will take a whole year off, Hewett says.

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Verizon, Redbox launch their Netflix-killer wannabe

They don't have many movies but they have a lot of kiosks

Netflix is one of those ideas that has turned out to be so good that everyone else wishes they'd thought of it. Now, Verizon and Redbox are trying to take ...

PhotoNetflix is one of those ideas that has turned out to be so good that everyone else wishes they'd thought of it. Now, Verizon and Redbox are trying to take it one step further, with a new service that offers streaming movies and rental DVDs.

Oh wait, that's what Netflix does.

OK, let's try it again: Verizon and Redbox are offering a new service that offers streaming movies and DVDs you can rent from one of  those 35,000 Redbox vending machines.

But although it is starting out with a lot of vending machines and a lot of network capacity, the new venture -- called Redbox Instant by Verizon (catchy, eh?) -- is kind of short of movies. It only has 4,600 streaming titles, far fewer than Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus, the household names in the field.

But never mind that. The company says it's not trying to compete with Netflix, which offers not only movies but also thousands of TV shows old and new, and even a few Netflix-produced original series.

PhotoRedbox Instant will only offer movies. Old movies. New movies. Just, you know, movies. Many better titles are only available at the kiosks, which will take a little getting used to. 

It will cost you $8 a month -- which, coincidentally, is what Netflix charges -- to be part of this grand experiment. For that you can stream as many movies as often as you can stand it and also get credits good for four DVD rentals at one of those kiosks. Kick in another buck and you can upgrade to Blu-ray rentals.

Verizon and Coinstar -- Redbox' elegantly-named corporate parent -- are high on the idea anyway.

“When you consider the core elements the parties bring to this venture – our powerful brands; our national rental kiosk footprint; our anytime, anywhere network presence; and our mutual commitment to customer-focused innovation – it’s clear that Verizon and Redbox are a powerful entertainment team,” said Bob Mudge, president of Verizon consumer and mass business markets.

The companies have been working on this for the last year or so and they say it's finally ready for primetime at RedboxInstant.com.

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Consumers protest food dye in Kraft Mac-N-Cheese

Two food activists say things need to change in the U.S. when it comes to additives

When people think of macaroni and cheese some envision a picture of it being prepared by scratch and they get excited when they think of all the needed ing...

PhotoWhen people think of macaroni and cheese, they may envision it being prepared by scratch; they get excited when they think of all the great ingredients like pasta, milk, butter, cream in some cases and, of course, cheese. 

And when it comes to cheese, what’s not to like, especially when it comes in mounds of melted loveliness that’s evenly distributed throughout each firm yet succulent morsel of pasta.

Others who think of mac and cheese may conjure up an image of a rectangular cardboard box that holds smaller pieces of pasta, and buried inside that pasta, is a big, white, hard-to-tear-open-envelope that contains the powdered cheese.

Although the box kind of macaroni and cheese isn’t your mother's or grandmother's, it’ll do sometimes, especially among finicky little kids that only like consuming bright and fun-to-eat-foods that come in colorful boxes.

And what macaroni and cheese box is more colorful than Kraft's, with its dark blue and bright gold design?

In fact, what other macaroni and cheese brand even comes close to being in the mind of consumers when folks want the cheesy and gooey yellow stuff?

Meal in a box

Kraft Mac and Cheese or Kraft Dinner as it's otherwise known, came to the U.S. in the late 1930s and pretty much since then, the idea of combining uncooked pasta and powdered cheese in one package became a staple for many.

PhotoToday, it's clearly a staple for the mom and dad who need a quick meal idea, the latchkey kid who is home by himself and is able to microwave one of the smaller Kraft bowls for a meal and the college kid who receives boxes of Kraft in care packages form their parents, to help tide them over until they can get to the dining hall.

Well, that's all just dandy, but recently a couple of food bloggers created a Change.org petition and so far they have gathered 200,000 signatures in an effort to get Kraft to remove Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 food dye from its mac and cheese. The chemicals are what give the beloved dish its golden-colored pop.

So far, Kraft has removed these additives in certain European countries, but has failed to do the same here in the States, which has left food bloggers Lisa Leake and Vani Hari angry and ready to take on the mega-company.

Leake says it only took a little over a week to get the 220,000 signatures, which suggests that a lot of people have questions about why the food dyes were removed in other markets but not here in the United States.

“We have been surprised by the response,” said Leake in a published interview. “They don’t have to reformulate and re-invent the wheel. They just have to use the same formula that they do in the U.K.”

Hari says their petition isn’t just about getting Yellow #5 and 6 removed; it’s more about alerting consumers about what’s in one of their favorite food products.

“We wanted to educate the American consumer and let them know what is in their food,” she said. “We just picked an iconic food product to really get that message across.”

More grumbling

PhotoIt’s not just Leake, Hari and the people who signed those petitions who are  frustrated with Kraft. Tabitha, one of our readers from California, says she got ill when she ate one of the company’s hot dogs.

“A few weeks ago, I purchased a box of Kraft Weiners for myself and my two kids,” Tabitha wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. 

“I’m a single mother who barely gets by as it is; however, after I fed myself as well as my kids the product that I bought from Kraft, we all three were sick within that hour. I had to miss work, kids had to miss school, so I lost out on pay, and the mental condition I’m in didn’t help whatsoever.”

Nathan, another Californian, said he was misled by one of Kraft’s dessert products, since the wording on the package suggested that he could get a healthy dose of calcium, which turned out not to be true.

“I bought several packages of Jell-O brand instant pudding,” wrote Nathan in his posting. “I was enticed by the large word ‘Calci-Yum’ in the upper left corner. Beneath it said, ‘A good source of calcium as prepared.’”

“Foolishly, I assumed this meant that the actual pudding had calcium in it, but after I got home I realized that there literally is no calcium in this pudding mix and what they are actually advertising is the calcium that is found in milk.”

“That is extremely misleading and in addition I wasn’t even planning on making it with milk. Why should this product flaunt the trademarked term ‘Calci-YUM,' yet not even have any calcium in it? I think this is deliberate trickery,” Nathan wrote.

The way Kraft is able to get away with such confusing advertising is by not actually using the word "calcium." Many times a company simply changes the spelling of a word — as Kelloggs did with Froot Loops. No fruit in the loops? Well, who said there was?

Perfectly legal

It should be noted that food dyes Yellow #5 and #6, along with many other additives, are perfectly legal. Many are a necessary trade-off for the convenience of buying a meal in a box instead of making it from scratch, a point Kraft was quick to make.  

“The safety and quality of our products is our highest priority and we take consumer concerns very seriously,” said a company spokesperson. “We carefully follow the laws and regulations in the countries where our products are sold, so in the U.S. we only use colors that are approved and deemed safe for food use by the FDA.”

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Can Joe Fresh save J.C. Penney?

It's the struggling retailer's latest attempt to reinvent itself

Can a popular Canadian named Joe Fresh save a tired old American named J. C. Penney? We'll soon know. The troubled retail chain is opening Joe Fresh a...

PhotoCan a popular Canadian named Joe Fresh save a tired old American named J. C. Penney? We'll soon know. The troubled retail chain is opening Joe Fresh apparel shops inside 681 of its U.S. stores today, hoping to draw in new, younger customers to replace the ones it's driven away with its attempt to revamp itself.

"We want to become famous for irresistible style at incredible value every day," said Ron Johnson, Penney's embattled chief executive officer and former Apple retail wunderkind. "By introducing these exciting brands at truly affordable prices, we are making it easier for customers to look and live better every day."

Joe Fresh, as close as we can figure, is sort of the Gap of the North.  It's billed as Canada's favorite apparel brand, claiming to offer "classic style with a twist."

Beginning today, Joe Fresh's spring collection of "modern basics for women" will be presented in 750- to 2,500-square-foot shops in nearly 700 jcp stores. All of the apparel and accessories will also be available on jcp.com for under $70, the retailer said.

"Significant milestone"

J.C. Penney March 15, 2013, 6:05 p.m.
Consumers rate J.C. Penney

"Building Joe Fresh shops inside jcp is a significant milestone because it makes us truly national, and now customers can buy Joe Fresh products online exclusively at jcp.com," said Joe Mimran, creative director of Joe Fresh. "The ability to broaden our reach reinforces the Joe Fresh brand promise, which is rooted in the belief that everyone deserves fresh style at fresh prices."

Having a bunch of "shops" inside the jcp stores is one of the key elements in Johnson's plan to reimagine the aging retail chain. 

The hope, obviously, is that Joe Fresh will bring a fresh start to jcp. It certainly needs something. Even skeptics were shocked earlier this month when the company reported fourth quarter earnings that were a disaster even by recent J.C. Penney standards. The retailer reported a quarterly loss of $552 million, amounting to $2.51 a share.

Company revenue declined more than 28%. Same-store sales plunged 32%, worse than the previously worst 26.1% in the third quarter. Online sales dropped a stunning 34.4%.

Besides plummeting sales, jcp has been enmeshed in a bruising court battle with Macy's and Martha Stewart, the sort of dispute that winds up makes all parties look bad.

Fresh enough?

Will Joe Fresh be enough to turn things around? Maybe, but if it's not, the result could be a lot worse than another bad earnings report. 

Photo"If it doesn’t work, I think it’s going to get really ugly,” said one analyst quoted by Bloomberg Businessweek, echoing a sentiment that's become commonplace on Wall Street.  

Consumers aren't wild about the changes either. Angela of Carolina Shores, N.C., said she went to the Penney's in Myrtle Beach a few days ago and found it even emptier than the last time she was there.

"I did see 1 or 2 people cutting through to get to the parking lot but not shopping. I did find a blouse [but] lo and behold, there were no cashiers," Angela said in a ConsumerAffairs review. "I then stopped an associate and asked 'Where do I pay for this?' She took out an iPhone and asked for my credit card.

"I stood there with my mouth open. I proceeded to say 'Are you kidding, what is this all about?' She told me it was a new process now at Penney's. ... By the way, I completed my shopping at Dillard's. They are more people friendly!"

Diane of Menomonee Falls, Wis., blames the company's directors.

"You allowed this one CEO high-tech idiot to destroy what took a century to build. I am (was) a loyal JC Penney customer. I am 54 and ex-New Yorker who spent zillion hours shopping in my life while always hunting for a good sale, a good sale, which is something you took away! Why did you allow this to happen? Why did you stop the fun sales?" Diane asked.

"You allowed this non-retail person to end fashionable and affordable lines for ladies (who are not 15 and a size 0). Those people don't shop in JC Penney's anyway. You lost the middle age shoppers like me. You never had many of the 20 something's; the 30's don't like what you did either. So who do you have shopping besides your employees? No one," she said. "Get rid of Mr. High Tech. Let him turn Best Buy around and hire a few of your 50-something female employees who know what we like before it's too late. I won't be back until he's gone!"

Like Diane, Charlotte of Kingsport, Tenn., is a longtime customer who has scratched Penney out of her playbook.

"I have tried to keep an open mind about the changes being made at JCP, but I have reached the point that I am completely unable to see any improvements that have been made. All of the changes seem to be detrimental," she said. I received a $10 coupon last week, so I thought I would give it one more try. I was shocked since my last visit in early January. The store was so empty it looked like it was going out of business. Many of the customer service centers (cash registers) had been closed. I didn't find anything that I wanted to buy even with $10 off. All of the brands that I loved are gone. Ordering on the website is a joke. It's hard to find anything in stock. If the coupon had been for $100, I still would not have been able to use it. I can't believe the damage that has been done to this company and cannot imagine how it will ever recover."

See more consumer reviews of jcp

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High-fat yogurt, milk, ice cream increase death rate in breast cancer patients

Study looked at the relationship between dairy products and long-term survival rates

Breast cancer patients who eat high-fat dairy products increase their chance of dying from the disease years later, a new study finds.“Specifical...

PhotoBreast cancer patients who eat high-fat dairy products increase their chance of dying from the disease years later, a new study finds.

“Specifically, women consuming one or more servings per day of high-fat dairy had a 64 percent higher risk of dying from any cause and a 49 percent increased risk of dying from their breast cancer during the follow-up period,” said Candyce H. Kroenke, ScD, MPH, staff scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research.

The category of high-fat dairy products researchers tracked included cream, whole milk, condensed or evaporated milk, pudding, ice cream, custard, flan and also cheeses and yogurts that were not low-fat or non-fat.

The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, is the first to examine the relationship between high-fat and low-fat dairy consumption following a diagnosis of breast cancer and long-term breast cancer survival.

Estrogen levels

Previous studies have shown that higher lifetime exposure to estrogen is a  pathway to breast cancer. Estrogen levels are believed to be elevated in dairy products consumed in the Western world, because most of its milk comes from pregnant cows. Estrogenic hormones reside primarily in fat, so levels are higher in high-fat than in low-fat dairy products.

The researchers studied a cohort of women who were diagnosed with early-stage, invasive breast cancer between 1997 and 2000, primarily Northern California and Utah.

Those consuming larger amounts of high-fat dairy (one serving or more per day) had “higher breast cancer mortality as well as higher all-cause mortality and higher non-breast cancer mortality,” Kroenke wrote.

In general, the women studied reported that they consumed low-fat milk and butter most often, and they consumed relatively limited amounts of low-fat dairy desserts, low-fat cheese and high-fat yogurt. Overall, low-fat dairy intake was greater than high-fat dairy.

Switch to low-fat 

The study found an association between high-fat dairy and breast cancer mortality, but no association with low-fat dairy products and breast cancer outcomes.

“High-fat dairy is generally not recommended as part of a healthy diet,” said senior author Bette J. Caan, DrPH, a Kaiser research scientist. “Switching to low-fat dairy is an easy thing to modify.”
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Replacing your home's heat pump

These appliances have a lifespan as short as 10 years

Many homes today are both heated and cooled with a heat pump, an appliance that came into wide use in the late 1970s when natural gas shortages caused the ...

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Stubborn gas prices push consumer prices up a notch

February's consumer price index increase in February was the biggest since June 2009

Gas prices have been stubbornly high this year and that's driving an increase in the Consumer Price Index, which rose 0.7% last month, the biggest increase...

PhotoGas prices have been stubbornly high this year and that's driving an increase in the Consumer Price Index, which rose 0.7% last month, the biggest increase since June 2009, according to the Labor Department.

The gasoline index alone was up 9.1%, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the overall increase.

The national average retail price of regular gas hit a four-month high of $3.784 a gallon toward the end of February, according to Energy Information Administration data, up almost 15% from the start of the year.

But prices have eased a bit since then, settling back to $3.70 earlier this week, according to AAA. That figure is 12 cents more than one month ago, but it is five cents less expensive than one week ago and ten cents less than the average price one year ago.

Photo

The national average dropped nine cents to begin March, which is counter to the trend that motorists may remember from the same stretch in recent years, AAA said. The price increased by 17 cents and six cents during the same periods in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Not just gas

It's not just energy that's more expensive. Food prices were up 0.1% in February. Vegetables, fresh fruits, meats and eggs all cost more.

New cars, clothes and airline fares were all down a little but that was offset by increases in food, shelter and healthcare. 

Although consumers haven't cut back their spending yet, many economists worry that they will, since most wage-earners saw their paychecks shrink in January, as a temporary reduction in payroll taxes expired.

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Boeing outlines 787 battery improvements

The company says putting Dreamliners back in the air is a 'top priority'

Boeing thinks it has the 787 battery problem licked. The aircraft maker has unveiled what it calls a “comprehensive set of improvements that will add seve...

PhotoBoeing thinks it has the 787 battery problem licked.

The aircraft maker has unveiled what it calls a “comprehensive set of improvements that will add several layers of additional safety features to the lithium-ion batteries on 787 commercial jetliners are in production.” Boeing says they could be ready for initial installation within the next few weeks.

In addition, new enclosures for 787 batteries also are being built and will be installed in airplanes in the weeks ahead.

The fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners operating in the U.S. was grounded in January pending the outcome of an investigation of the problems with the batteries.

These improvements, the company says, will allow operators to resume commercial flights with their 787s as soon as testing is complete and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other international regulators grant their final approval.

"We are following all of the necessary protocols to get our new design fully approved and properly installed so that we can help our customers start flying as soon as possible,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Ray Conner. “We're simultaneously moving out on an effort to resume deliveries but completing our certification work and getting the delivered fleet flying again is our first priority."

The improvements include enhanced production and operating processes, improved battery design features and a new battery enclosure.

Enhanced production and operating processes processes

The first layer of improvements is taking place during the manufacture of the batteries in Japan. Boeing teamed with Thales, the provider of the integrated power conversion system, and battery maker GS Yuasa to develop and institute enhanced production standards and tests to further reduce any possibility for variation in the production of the individual cells as well as the overall battery.

Four new or revised tests have been added to screen cell production, which now includes 10 distinct tests. Each cell will go through more rigorous testing in the month following its manufacture including a 14-day test during which readings of discharge rates are being taken every hour. This new procedure started in early February and the first cells through the process are already complete. There are more than a dozen production acceptance tests that must be completed for each battery.

New battery design features

Changes inside the battery will help to reduce the chances of a battery fault developing and help to further isolate any fault that does occur so that it won't cause issues with other parts of the battery.

To better insulate each of the cells in the battery from one another and from the battery box, two kinds of insulation will be added. An electrical insulator is being wrapped around each battery cell to electrically isolate cells from each other and from the battery case, even in the event of a failure. Electrical and thermal insulation installed above, below and between the cells will help keep the heat of the cells from affecting each other.

New battery enclosure

The battery case will sit in a new enclosure made of stainless steel. This enclosure will isolate the battery from the rest of the equipment in the electronic equipment bays. It also will ensure there can be no fire inside the enclosure, thus adding another layer of protection to the battery system. The enclosure features a direct vent to carry battery vapors outside the airplane.

New titanium fixtures are being installed in the electronics equipment bays to ensure the housing is properly supported.

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The taxman may have some money for you

People who have not filed a 2009 income tax return could be missing out

There's a lot of money lying around out there. And some of it may have your name on it The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says refunds totaling just over ...

PhotoThere's a lot of money lying around out there. And some of it may have your name on it

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says refunds totaling just over $917 million may be waiting for an estimated 984,400 taxpayers who did not file a federal income tax return for 2009. But -- there's a catch: To collect the money, you have to file a return for 2009 with the IRS no later than Monday, April 15, 2013.

The IRS says that half the potential refunds for 2009 are more than $500.

Didn't file?

Some people may not have filed because they had too little income to require filing a tax return even though they had taxes withheld from their wages or made quarterly estimated payments. In cases where a return was not filed, the law provides most taxpayers with a three-year window of opportunity for claiming a refund. If no return is filed to claim a refund within three years, Uncle Sam keeps the money.

For 2009 returns, the window closes on April 15, 2013. The law requires that the return be properly addressed, mailed and postmarked by that date. There is no penalty for filing a late return qualifying for a refund.

The IRS reminds taxpayers seeking a 2009 refund that their checks may be held if they have not filed tax returns for 2010 and 2011. In addition, the refund will be applied to any amounts still owed to the IRS or their state tax agency, and may be used to offset unpaid child support or past due federal debts such as student loans.

More than a refund at stake

By failing to file a return, people stand to lose more than refund of taxes withheld or paid during 2009. In addition, many low-and-moderate income workers may not have claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). For 2009, the credit is worth as much as $5,657. The EITC helps individuals and families whose incomes are below certain thresholds. The thresholds for 2009 were:

  • $43,279 ($48,279 if married filing jointly) for those with three or more qualifying children,
  • $40,295 ($45,295 if married filing jointly) for people with two qualifying children,
  • $35,463 ($40,463 if married filing jointly) for those with one qualifying child, and
  • $13,440 ($18,440 if married filing jointly) for people without qualifying children.

Current and prior year tax forms and instructions are available here or by calling toll-free 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676). Taxpayers who are missing Forms W-2, 1098, 1099 or 5498 for 2009, 2010 or 2011 should request copies from their employer, bank or other payer.

If these efforts are unsuccessful, taxpayers can get a free transcript showing information from these year-end documents by filing Form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return, with the IRS or by calling 800-829-1040.

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Veterinarians warn U.S. pets pack too many pounds

The term 'fat cat' is reverting to its original meaning

Maybe it's simply a fact of modern life; not only are people increasingly overweight and obese, so are their pets.In its annual survey for 2012 the Assoc...

PhotoMaybe it's simply a fact of modern life -- not only are people increasingly overweight and obese, so are their pets.

In its annual survey for 2012, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) found the number of overweight cats in the U.S. has reached an all-time high. Veterinarians rated 52.5% of dogs and 58.3% of cats overweight or obese. Just as with humans, it's a major health problem.

"Pet obesity remains the leading health threat to our nation's pets," said APOP's founder and lead veterinarian for the survey Dr. Ernie Ward. "We continue to see an escalation in the number of overweight cats and an explosion in the number of type 2 diabetes cases."

Alarming trend

Insurance companies that write health policies for pets are also alarmed.

Photo
Ernie Ward, DVM

“Diabetes, heart and lung diseases, bone and joint diseases, skin conditions and different types of cancer are more common in overweight animals, as is a shorter life expectancy,” VPI Pet Insurance, part of Nationwide, said in a recent statement.

In 2009, the company said its policyholders filed more than $17 million in claims for conditions and disease caused by excessive weight. The company suggests pet owners are adding to the problem by over-feeding their animals or feeding them the wrong types of food.

While many people consider their pet part of the family, you should resist the urge to feed them like a family member. A single biscuit from the table can contain over 100 calories – and that's in addition to their regular food. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reports dog owners spend more than $300 a year on food and treats while cat owners spend more than $200.

Terrible toll

"The soaring rate of feline and canine obesity is taking a terrible toll on our animals' health,” said New York veterinarian Dr. Mark Peterson. “There is a vast population of overweight cats and dogs facing an epidemic of diabetes. The best preventive measure a pet owner can make is to keep their dog or cat at a healthy weight. Diabetes is far easier to prevent than treat, especially when twice daily insulin injections are needed."

PhotoCould there be some kind of weird link between the soaring rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in humans and the same two conditions in animals? Ward thinks there is and it stems from not understanding how many calories we -- and our pets -- consume each day.

"The causes of pet and childhood obesity are largely the same: too many high-calorie foods and snacks combined with too little physical activity,” Ward said. “Parents need to encourage children to put down their video games and pick up the dog leash to go for a walk. Instead of snacking on sugary treats, share crunchy vegetables with your dog. Eat more whole foods instead of highly processed fast food.”

Oblivious

How can you tell if your pet is overweight? It sounds like a silly question but many people simply don't recognize excess pounds on themselves or their pets.

Photo
Joe Barges, DVM, Ph.D.

Veterinary nutritionist and internal medicine specialist at the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Joe Bartges cites a survey in which approximately 45 percent of cat and dog owners assessed their pet as having a normal body weight when the veterinarian assessed the pet to be overweight. Ward calls it “the fat gap.”

"The disconnect between reality and what a pet parent thinks is obese makes having a conversation with their veterinarian more challenging,” Ward said. “Many pet owners are shocked when their veterinarian informs them their pet needs to lose weight. They just don't see it."

And of course, some breeds tend to pack on excess pounds more than others. Veterinarians classified 58.9 percent of Labrador retrievers and 62.7 percent of golden retrievers surveyed as overweight or obese. It may be that these breeds were once exclusively kept outdoors, where they got lots of exercise. If they are house-bound and overfed, their metabolism may be such that they quickly put on weight.

Obesity clinic

PhotoIn perhaps a sign of the times, the nation's first obesity clinic for pets opened at Tufts University last year. The clinic focuses on weight-loss programs for pets, especially hard-to-treat obesity-related conditions and training other veterinary professionals on how to identity, prevent and treat obesity-related diseases.

The best way to keep your pet's weight under control is regular check-ups at the vet. Also, take a good honest look at your pet. You should be able to feel its ribs without pressing.

You should see a noticeable “waist” on your pet, between the back of the ribs and the hips, when viewing your pet from above. When looking from the side, your pet’s belly should go up from the bottom of the ribcage to inside the thighs.

If your pet fails these tests, it's time to put him or her on a diet and increase exercise.

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Bravo! Chicken Blend for Dogs and Cats recalled

The raw food product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Bravo! is voluntarily recalling its 2 lb tubes of Bravo! Raw Food Diet Chicken Blend for Dogs and Cats, product code: 21-102, batch ID code 6 14 12, becaus...

PhotoBravo! is voluntarily recalling its 2 lb tubes of Bravo! Raw Food Diet Chicken Blend for Dogs and Cats, product code: 21-102, batch ID code 6 14 12, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

The recall involves 2 lb. Bravo! Chicken Blend frozen raw diet tubes (chubs) made on June 14, 2012 only; no other products or sizes are involved. The recalled product should not be sold or fed to pets.

This batch tested negative by a third party independent laboratory prior to release for distribution to consumers, however routine testing by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture of product collected from a single retail location tested positive for presence of salmonella. While the testing discrepancy is unclear, Bravo said that it was issuing the recall "in an abundance of caution."

The company has received no reports of illness in either people or animals associated with this product.

The recalled product is distributed nationwide to distributors, retail stores, internet retailers and directly to consumers, and can be identified by the batch ID code 6 14 12 located on the white hang tag attached to the bottom of the plastic film tube.

Pet owners should return unopened frozen tubes of food to the store where purchased for a full refund. Pet owners should dispose of opened tubes of product in a safe manner (example, a securely covered trash receptacle) and return the washed plastic batch ID tag to the store where purchased for a full refund.

Salmonella can affect animals eating the products and there is risk to humans from handling contaminated pet products, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with the products or any surfaces exposed to these products.

Healthy people infected with Salmonella should monitor themselves for some or all of the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever. Rarely, Salmonella can result in more serious ailments, including arterial infections, endocarditis, arthritis, muscle pain, eye irritation, and urinary tract symptoms. Consumers exhibiting these signs after having contact with this product should contact their healthcare providers.

Pets with Salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets will have only decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. Infected but otherwise healthy pets can be carriers and infect other animals or humans. If your pet has consumed the recalled product and has these symptoms, please contact your veterinarian.

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When is it time to replace your roof?

Here are some tell-tale signs to look for

For a homeowner, a brown spot on the ceiling is very bad news. It means you have a roof leak and the possibility exists that, by the time you see the evide...

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Green tea, coffee may help lower stroke risk

This is a case where more really is better

Green tea and coffee may help lower your risk of having a stroke, especially when both are a regular part of your diet, according to research published in ...

PhotoGreen tea and coffee may help lower your risk of having a stroke, especially when both are a regular part of your diet, according to research published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association. In fact, the more you drink, the better off you may be.

"This is the first large-scale study to examine the combined effects of both green tea and coffee on stroke risks," said Yoshihiro Kokubo, M.D., Ph.D., F.A.H.A., F.A.C.C., F.E.S.C., lead author of the study at Japan's National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center. "You may make a small but positive lifestyle change to help lower the risk of stroke by adding daily green tea to your diet."

Bottoms up

Researchers asked 83,269 Japanese adults about their green tea and coffee drinking habits, following them for an average 13 years. They found that the more green tea or coffee people drink, the lower their stroke risks.

People who drank at least one cup of coffee daily had about a 20 percent lower risk of stroke compared with those who rarely drank it.

People who drank two to three cups of green tea daily had a 14 percent lower risk of stroke and those who had at least four cups had a 20 percent lower risk than those who rarely drank it.

People who drank at least one cup of coffee or two cups of green tea daily had a 32 percent lower risk of intracerebral hemorrhage, versus those who rarely drank either beverage. (Intracerebral hemorrhage happens when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds inside the brain. About 13 percent of strokes are hemorrhagic.)

Participants in the study were 45 to 74 years old, almost evenly divided in gender, and were free from cancer and cardiovascular disease.

During the 13-years of follow-up, researchers reviewed participants' hospital medical records and death certificates, collecting data about heart disease, strokes and causes of death. They adjusted their findings to account for age, sex and lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol, weight, diet and exercise.

Green tea drinkers in the study were more likely to exercise than non-drinkers.

Breaking new ground

Previous limited research has shown green tea's link to lower death risks from heart disease, but has only touched on its association with lower stroke risks. Other studies have shown inconsistent connections between coffee and stroke risks.

Initial study results showed that drinking more than two cups of coffee daily was linked to increasing coronary heart disease rates in age- and sex-adjusted analysis. But researchers didn't find the association after factoring in the effects of cigarette smoking -- underscoring smoking's negative health impact on heart and stroke health.

A typical cup of coffee or tea in Japan was approximately six ounces. "However, our self-reported data may be reasonably accurate, because nationwide annual health screenings produced similar results, and our validation study showed relatively high validity." Kokubo said. "The regular action of drinking tea, coffee, largely benefits cardiovascular health because it partly keeps blood clots from forming."

Tea and coffee are the most popular drinks in the world after water, suggesting that these results may apply in America and other countries.

Questions remain

It's unclear how green tea affects stroke risks. A compound group known as catechins may provide some protection. Catechins have an antioxidant anti-inflammatory effect, increasing plasma antioxidant capacity and anti-thrombogenic effects.

Some chemicals in coffee include chlorogenic acid, thus cutting stroke risks by lowering the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. Further research could clarify how the interaction between coffee and green tea might help further lower stroke risks, Kokubo said.

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U.S. drivers more likely to be texting, talking than Europeans

Study finds "most" U.S. drivers talk while driving, one in three also text

What is everybody talking about? Lately it seems that nearly every car, truck and monster SUV is being driven by someone who has a phone plastered to their...

PhotoWhat is everybody talking about? Lately it seems that nearly every car, truck and monster SUV is being driven by someone who has a phone plastered to their ear.

What can all these people be saying that is so important?

Well, we don't know but whatever it is, they spend a lot of time doing it. A new study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that most U.S. drivers say they talk on their cell phones and smartphones while driving, even though it isn't very smart. And a third of them also admit to texting while driving.

The study analyzed data from the U.S. and Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Researchers found that 69 percent of U.S. drivers talked on their cell phone while driving within the 30 days before they were surveyed compared to 21 percent of drivers from the United Kingdom. The study also found that 31 percent of drivers in the United States reported that they had read or sent text messages or emails while driving, compared  to 15 percent of drivers in Spain.

“The cell phone can be a fatal distraction for those who use it while they drive,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.  “Driving and dialing or texting don’t mix.  If you are driving, pull over to a safe place and stop before you use your cell phone.”

No gender difference

CDC researchers also looked specifically at U.S. drivers and found that in the 30 days before they were surveyed:

  • There were no significant differences between men and women in terms of cell phone use or reading or sending text or e-mail messages while driving.
  • A higher percentage of 25-44 year-old men and women reported talking on a cell phone while driving than those ages 55–64, and;
  • A higher percentage of 18-34 year-old men and women reported reading or sending text or e-mail messages while driving than those ages 45-64.

“Everyone, of every age and generation, has the ability to make a decision to drive distraction-free,” said Linda C. Degutis, Dr.P.H., M.S.N., director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “It’s especially risky for young, inexperienced drivers—who are already extremely vulnerable to crashes—to be distracted when they are behind the wheel. Answering a call or reading a text is never worth a loss of life.”

Many strategies have been applied to try to reduce distracted driving in the United States and other countries. These include law enforcement efforts, communication campaigns, vehicle and cell phone technologic advances, legislation, and safe driver education. Some strategies have been aimed specifically at high risk drivers such as teens and new drivers.

As of February 2013, 33 states and the District of Columbia have laws in place restricting at least some teens or new drivers from using cell phones while driving.

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New regulations would rein in student loan servicers

As delinquency rates rise, feds fear borrowers will be treated unfairly by lenders

As student loan delinquencies rise, there are growing fears that borrowers will be treated unfairly by lenders and their servicers. Seeking to get a handle...

PhotoAs student loan delinquencies rise, there are growing fears that borrowers will be treated unfairly by lenders and their servicers. Seeking to get a handle on the situation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) wants to extend federal oversight to some so-called "nonbank" student loans.

“The student loan market has grown rapidly in the last decade, and servicers are now facing the stress of an increasing number of delinquent borrowers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Our rule would bring new oversight to the student loan market and help ensure that tens of millions of borrowers are not treated unfairly by their servicers.”

The Bureau already oversees student loan servicing at larger banks. Thew proposed new rule would expand that supervision to certain nonbanks, requiring them to comply with federal consumer financial laws.

The Bureau would ensure that banks and nonbanks are following the same rules in the student loan servicing market. The vast majority of student loan servicing is conducted by nonbank servicers.

Under the rule, any nonbank student loan servicer that handles more than 1 million borrower accounts would be subject to CFPB supervisory authority. With that threshold, the Bureau estimates that it would have authority to supervise the seven largest student loan servicers.

Combined, those seven service the loans of 49 million borrower accounts, representing most of the activity in the student loan servicing market.

The CFPB said it will continue to coordinate closely with the U.S. Department of Education, which conducts reviews of companies handling loans in accordance with the federal student aid program.

"Director Cordray and the CFPB team have always been great partners with us, and we have worked together on a number of projects to protect consumers and better support students," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "We look forward to working with them on their efforts to ensure that loan servicers are protecting student loan borrowers." 

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Mortgage rates move to higher ground

Signs of an improving economy are said to be a factor

Freddie Mac says stronger signs of jobs growth and consumer spending pushed the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) to its highest reading since the week of...

PhotoFreddie Mac says stronger signs of jobs growth and consumer spending pushed the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) to its highest reading since the week of August 23, 2012.

According to the Freddie Mac Primary Mortgage Market Survey, the 30-year FRM rose 11 basis points in the the week ending March 14 -- to 3.63% with an average 0.8 point. Last year at this time, it 30-year FRM averaged 3.92%.

The 15-year FRM averaged 2.79% with an average 0.8 point. Last week it averaged 2.76% and a year ago it was 3.16%.

The average for the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) was 2.61% with an average 0.6 point, compared last week when it averaged 2.63%. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.83%.

The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.64% with an average 0.4 point, little-changed from last week's average of 2.63 percent. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.79 percent.

"Fixed mortgage rates rose this week on stronger signs of jobs growth and consumer spending,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “The economy added 236,000 new workers in February which helped push down the unemployment rate to 7.7 percent. This helped offset the effects of the payroll tax holiday expiration and led to a 1.1 percent increase in retail sales, which was well above the market consensus forecast."

Bankrate

The weekly national survey conducted by Bankrate.com shows fixed mortgage rates jumped to a 7-month high following a report of robust job growth and encouraging economic data on business investment and retail sales.

The benchmark 30-year FRM jumping to 3.85% from 3.73% with an average of 0.35 discount and origination points. That's the highest rate since it was 3.91% on Aug. 22, 2012.

The last time mortgage rates were above 5% was Apr. 2011. At the time, the average 30-year FRM was 5.07%, meaning a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,082.22. With the average rate currently at 3.85%, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $937.62 -- a difference of $145 per month.

The average 15-year FRM climbed to 3.03% from 2.96% (avg. points: 0.35), as did the larger jumbo 30-year fixed mortgage -- jumping to 4.18%. Adjustable rate mortgages were mixed, with the 3-year ARM slipping to 3.00%, the 5-year ARM rising to 2.82% and the 7-year ARM inching up to 2.99%.    

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Court puts brakes on repeat offender’s most recent scam

Operating a bogus prize promotion scheme violated a 1998 court order

Sometimes you really have to keep an eye on these guys. Fifteen years ago, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stopped Glen E. Burke from making deceptive ...

PhotoSometimes you really have to keep an eye on these guys.

Fifteen years ago, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stopped Glen E. Burke from making deceptive telemarketing pitches. Apparently, that didn't do the trick.

Now, at the FTC’s request, a U.S. district court in Las Vegas, Nevada, has issued an injunction appointing a receiver and freezing the assets of a bogus prize-promotion scheme that was run by Burke.

His latest scam is a prize promotion pitch in which consumers were told they won a valuable prize, only to receive cheap costume jewelry or a lithograph print after paying money up-front.

Based on Burke's role an earlier film investment scheme, a federal district court entered an order in 1998 permanently banning him from engaging in telemarketing and prohibiting him from making material misrepresentations about any product or service. In addition, the FTC had obtained a prior order in 1996 against Burke in connection with a business opportunity scam, and he has also been the subject of enforcement actions by other federal agencies.

At it again

Despite the 1998 order, the FTC alleges that since early 2011, Burke and his company, American Health Associates, LLC (AHA), have engaged in a deceptive telemarketing scheme through which they call consumers and tell them that they have won valuable prizes, supposedly worth thousands of dollars.

Consumers are told that to claim the prizes they must first buy vitamins for between $300 and $500. In some cases, the defendants then seek additional payments for even “more valuable” or “second level” prizes. After consumers make these payments, however, either no prizes are delivered, or the prize they do “win,” such as costume jewelry or lithographs, is worth less than they initially paid for the vitamins. Consumers who try to return the vitamins for a refund find the process difficult, if not impossible, to complete.

The court order freezes the assets of Burke and AHA and appoints a receiver over AHA. The order grants this relief pending the outcome of the FTC’s civil contempt actions against the defendants for violating the 1998 order. In its contempt actions, the FTC claimed Burke violated the 1998 order both through his AHA telemarketing scheme and through an additional direct-mail sweepstakes scheme.

The direct-mail scheme promised consumers thousands or millions of dollars in winnings if they made a small payment, but after making the payment, no consumer received the promised winnings. The FTC is seeking compensation for consumers harmed by the defendants’ order violations.

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Sears Canada recalls Nevada infant girl's shirt

A detachable ribbon row poses a potential choking hazard

Sears Canada is recalling Nevada infant girl's shirts The small ribbon row can easily detach posing a potential choking hazard. There are no reports of in...

PhotoSears Canada is recalling Nevada infant girl's shirts

The small ribbon row can easily detach posing a potential choking hazard. There are no reports of incidents or injuries to date.

The Nevada tee shirt was sold in sizes: 6 months to 24 months at Sears Canada retail stores between September 2012, and December 2012, for $12.99.

The Sears item numbers are as follows and can be found on the customer's receipt.

Customers who have the affected shirt should stop children from wearing it and return it to their nearest Sears department store for a full refund if accompanied by a receipt of sale or Sears Card statement, or for the lowest selling price without a receipt.

Sears Canada will post signs in all retail stores to advise customers of the recall.   

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Wholesale prices continued their rise in February

Weekly jobless claims post a surprising drop

Prices one step short of the retail level rose in February for the second straight month. Figures released by the Labor Department show the Producer Price...

PhotoPrices one step short of the retail level rose in February for the second straight month.

Figures released by the Labor Department show the Producer Price Index (PPI) for finished goods was up 0.7% last month following an advance of 0.2% in January. Economists at Briefing.com had projected a rise of 0.8%. For the 12 months ended in February, the PPI is up 1.7 percent -- the largest 12-month increase since a 2.3-percent rise in October 2012.

Energy leads the way

The February advance in the PPI was led by energy prices, which rose 3.0 percent%. The cost of gasoline accounted for most of this advance, jumping 7.2%. Rising prices for home heating oil and diesel fuel also were factors.

Prices for consumer foods helped take the sting out of the overall increase, falling 0.5% after rising 0.7% in January. Fresh and dry vegetable costs accounted for most of the decrease, falling 18.0%.

Core inflation

When the volatile food and energy sectors are stripped out, the “cor rate” of inflation was up 0.2% -- on target with economists' forecasts and the fourth consecutive advance. About 20% percent of the February increase can be traced to prices for pharmaceutical preparations, which were up 0.2%. An advance in the cost of plastic products also contributed to higher a higher core rate.

Weekly jobless claims

Separately the government reports the number of people standing in the unemployment line during the week ending March 9 fell by 10,000 from the previous week as 332,000 people filed initial claims for jobless benefits. Economists at Briefing.com were calling for increase to 350,000. The previous week's figure was revised upward by 2000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 346,750 -- down 2,750 from the previous week's revised average of 349,500.

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Now you can share your Netflix favorites on Facebook

It sounds like a small thing but it took an act of Congress to get it done

So, would you like to see what your Facebook friends are watching on Netflix? How about letting your FB buddies see what you're watching?That sounds spoo...

PhotoSo, would you like to see what your Facebook friends are watching on Netflix? How about letting your FB buddies see what you're watching?

That sounds spooky to a lot of people but it's apparently something Netflix customers have been saying they want, and now it's here. 

Netflix announced today that its U.S. members will be able to connect to Facebook and agree to share favorite TV shows and movies on Netflix. The company will be turning on the feature "over the coming days" and expects that all U.S. members will have access to the social feature by the end of the week.

"There are few better ways to find a movie or TV series you'll love than hearing about it from your friends," said Tom Willerer, vice president of product innovation at Netflix.  "Facebook already makes it easy for our international members to connect with friends over TV shows and movies and we're thrilled to now bring this experience to our U.S. members."

The feature has been available internationally for quite some time but, until recently, it was prohibited in the U.S. by something called the Video Privacy Protection Act, enacted in 1988 to keep prying eyes from finding out what movies consumers rented from Blockbuster and other video rental stores. It was amended by Congess last year after some intensive lobbying by Netflix.

The new Netflix/Facebook integration lets Netflix members see what their friends have watched by adding new "Friends' Favorites" and "Watched by your friends" rows to Netflix. Members also automatically share what they watch only within Netflix and can optionally share what they've watched to Facebook, Netflix said.

"People naturally talk about TV shows and movies and love to share their experiences," said Willerer. "Through the Netflix/Facebook integration we want to let Netflix members express themselves on Facebook and provide a digital version of the proverbial water cooler."

"By default, sharing will only happen on Netflix," Cameron Johnson, director of product innovation at Netflix, wrote in a blog post. "You'll see what titles your friends have watched in a new 'Watched by your friends' row and what they have rated four or five stars in a new 'Friends' Favorites' row. Your friends will also be able to see what you watch."

Johnson provides a step-by-step guide in this video:

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The report is out -- Just how well are U.S. schools doing?

The answer is not so well, although experts see slight improvement.

A lot of schools in the U.S. are in dire need of funding, quality teachers and modernized buildings and if you’ve been to certain schools in some of ...

PhotoA lot of schools in the U.S. are in dire need of funding, qualified teachers and modernized buildings and if you’ve been to certain schools in some of the country’s inner cities and rural areas, you’ve seen schools that look as if they’re in a Third World setting, which leaves many people confused about why only certain districts in this country seem to get the help they need.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced that that the Department of Education will provide some much-needed funding to 11 states that are dramatically underperforming compared to other places in the country.

The funding will come from the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants (SIG) program and Duncan says it will take an extreme amount of effort to turn some of these low-performing schools around. But he says that doing so won’t just help students achieve academic success, but will also improve the surrounding communities that feel the effects of a school not hitting its numbers on statewide tests or graduation rates.

“When schools fail, our children and our neighborhoods suffer,” Duncan said.

“Turning around our lowest-performing schools is hard work but it’s our responsibility. We owe it to our children, their families and the broader community.”

The states that will receive the funding are West Virginia ($3.3 million), Utah ($3.4 million), South Dakota ($1.5 million), South Carolina ($7.4 million), Ohio ($20.2 million), New Mexico ($4.1 million), Mississippi ($6.1 million), Minnesota ($5.5 million), Kentucky ($7.7 million), Connecticut ($3.6 million) and Maryland ($6.8 million).

Perhaps ironically, although Maryland is among one of the states receiving funding from the SIG program, it scored No. 1 for overall education quality in the 17th edition of the Quality Counts report that ranks states based on their schools’ overall performance.

The reason Maryland received funding from the SIG program, but scored highly on the Quality Counts report shows just how much of a gap there is in the state, between schools that are getting the proper funding and the schools that aren’t.

Slight uptick

Amy Hightower, along with seven other researchers created the report and Hightower says everyone is extremely tough on each state in their grading, and in order to benefit parents, students and the community, the researchers don’t pull any punches when it comes to scoring tough.

“We’re probably tough graders,” said Hightower in a published interview. “The national grade overall had a very slight uptick. That was a nice surprise."

Photo
Arne Duncan

That uptick Hightower is talking about is the overall grade U.S. schools receive for their level of quality in the education they provide. Last year, schools in the United States received a solid "C" grade and in this year’s report U.S. schools were bumped up to a "C+."

The C+ isn’t a huge improvement but one could say our nation’s schools are on the proper trajectory.

Besides Maryland ranking the highest in the Quality Counts report for having the best overall education programs, Massachusetts came in second, New York third, Virginia fourth, then Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, West Virginia, Kentucky and Vermont closing out the top ten.

But again, the reason some of these same states are getting funding from the SIG program is that many of schools are hitting their academic goals, but the ones that aren’t seem to be doing so poorly that they bring the overall achievement scores down tremendously.

Ten worst

According to Education Week’s school report card, the ten states that have the most underperforming schools are Oregon, Arizona, Montana, Washington D.C., Nebraska, Alaska, Mississippi, Idaho, Nevada and South Dakota.

In a separate report issued by The Center for Green Schools, the cost of fixing some of the country’s elementary and high school buildings was estimated at $270 billion and that’s just to get the structures back to their original working order; it doesn’t include what it would cost to modernize the buildings, so teachers and students will have access to more technology and better facilities.

Photo
Rachel Gutter

Rachel Gutter, who works with the U.S. Green Building Council says the national dialogue about improving U.S. schools usually goes as far as curriculums and educational approaches, but hardly ever include what needs to be done to improve the actual buildings of the schools, which has everything to do with how well kids are able to learn and how effectively instructors are able to teach.

“We have a moral obligation,” said Gutter in a published interview. “When we talk about a quality education, we talk about the who and the what—teachers and curriculum—but we don’t talk about the where. That needs to change.”

In addition, she says that the government needs to do a far better job of monitoring schools to make sure they’re keeping up with maintenance and safety requirements, as many buildings tend to fall to the waste side without anything being done or without any action being taken.

Gutter says the reason for this seeming lack of concern with certain buildings is because admitting these failings would humiliate the school district.

“It’s a secret that we’re keeping because it’s shameful and embarrassing to us as a country,” she said.

Healthy work environment

Former President Bill Clinton, who wrote the foreward on the Green School’s proposal, said creating a healthy work environment is just as important, if not more so, than creating a proper curriculum and providing students with the right education materials and teachers.

“Every day we let pass without addressing inefficient energy practices, poor indoor air quality and other problems associated with unhealthy learning environments, we are passing up tremendous opportunities,” Clinton wrote.

“I’m optimistic that by working together, we can give our children the best possible education and make America the world’s greatest innovator for generations to come.”

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Choosing a home remodeling contractor

There are four main steps in the screening process

If you plan a major renovation to your home – anything from updating a bathroom to adding a master suite – you'll need a modeling contractor to...

PhotoIf you plan a major renovation to your home – anything from updating a bathroom to adding a master suite – you'll need a remodeling contractor to do the job. Who you choose may be the biggest decision you've made since you bought your home.

Choose the right person and your project will go smoothly and you'll be delighted with the results. Choose the wrong one and it will be a nightmare, and a costly one at that. There is no margin for error.

It's not that there are a lot of crooks in the industry. There may be a few but probably no more than in any other line of work. The problem arises when the project exceeds the contractor's level of competency.

You can't rely on a contractor looking for work to tell you that a particular job is too difficult for them. In most cases they'll think they can give you what you want but once into the project, realize they're over their heads. By then, it's too late.

So you have to be the one to decide if a particular contractor is up to the job and four steps can help you make a good decision.

Referrals

First, ask for referrals. If someone you know has recently done a similar renovation, find out if they were happy with the results. If possible, visit their house and look at the results for yourself. Compare their job to the one you have in mind, making sure the same knowledge and skills are required.

In addition to inspecting the finished work, ask what it was like to work with the contractor or company. Remember, you are going to be living with this person for an extended period of time, often in the middle of a construction zone.

If they tend to be messy, noisy or disruptive, that's something to take into consideration. Someone who sings off-key all day long is likely to get on your nerves after the first hour or two. A remodeling industry consultant once said that the happiest the homeowner is with the contractor is the day they sign the contract – it's all downhill after that.

Credentials

PhotoOnce you have a few candidates, do some legwork to check them out. A good place to start is with the contractor's website. That's where the contractor will list all their selling points. You should be able to find out if they hold all the required licenses from the state and local municipality. Membership in industry associations can also be a good sign.

The industry provides opportunities for remodeling contractors to take advanced courses and earn specific certifications. If they have a certification in bathroom remodeling, and your project happens to be a bathroom upgrade, that might be a point in their favor.

When a contractor lists certifications and credentials, do a little research to see what they actually mean and what's required to earn them.

Interview

Once you have a list of candidates, schedule in-person interviews. Prepare a list of questions in advance, including start and stop times for the work day, timeline for starting and completing a project, as well as more general questions.

The object of the interview is more than gaining information; you're taking the measure of the contractor as a person. Pay attention to their general demeanor and attitude. Do they strike you as someone you can get along with? Remember, you're going to be in close quarters with them for quite a while.

If there is a conflict or misunderstanding along the way, which can happen, how do you think they will be to deal with? What kind of questions do they ask? A prospective contractor who asks a lot of questions is a good sign.

References

You've probably already checked out the candidates with family and friends but you should still ask the contractor to provide references. These will be jobs the contractor believes went well and is proud of.

Make sure you are comparing apples to apples, however. If the references all seem to be for exterior work, such as decks or outbuildings, this contractor may not be the right choice for a kitchen remodel. It's not that they can't do the work, but there may be someone else who can do it with better results.

The contractor should give you names and contact information so that you can talk to the references directly. Sometimes people are reluctant to give a negative review – especially if they like the person – so ask, “Is there anything about the job you wished was done differently?" The answer will often reveal a hidden problem or concern.

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Feds approve T-Mobile/MetroPCS merger

But some big MetroPCS shareholders are holding out for a better offer

Federal regulators have given the go-ahead to the merger of MetroPCS and T-Mobile USA, potentially creating a bigger and more powerful player in the wirele...

PhotoFederal regulators have given the go-ahead to the merger of MetroPCS and T-Mobile USA, potentially creating a bigger and more powerful player in the wireless arena that's now dominated by Verizon and AT&T Wireless.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said the deal would boost competition by creating the fourth-largest competitor, after Sprint. The Justice Department has also signed off on the transaction.

T-Mobile USA's parent company, Deutsche Telekom, will own 74% of the combined company.

MetroPCS offers no-contract, month-to-month service and T-Mobile has traditionally undercut Verizon and AT&T in its contract offerings. 

Neither carrier covers the entire country with its network and the combined company won't either. Also, neither offers the iPhone. That's estimated to have caused the loss of 1.7 million customers at T-Mobile. 

Consumers rate T-Mobile Customer Service
The boards of both companies have approved the deal, although dissident shareholders at MetroPCS are holding out for better terms. Two large shareholders say the company should remain independent if it can't strike a better deal.

In a news release, the companies urged shareholders to approve the merger.

"If stockholders vote against the proposed combination, there is no assurance that MetroPCS will be able to deliver the same or better stockholder value," they said.

“Our combined company will have the products, spectrum, scale and resources to shake up this industry and deliver an entirely new wireless experience," said John Legere, President and CEO of T-Mobile.

“We are pleased with the FCC’s approval of the proposed transaction,” said Roger D. Linquist, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of MetroPCS. “We thank the FCC for its prompt review of our proposed combination with T-Mobile, which will create the value leader in the United States wireless marketplace.”

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Popular antibiotic poses risk of potentially fatal heart rhythms

Some patients are more at risk than others

If you use the antibiotic azithromycin, which is sold as Zithromax or Z-Pak, you should know that it can cause abnormal changes in the electrical activity...

PhotoIf you use the antibiotic azithromycin, which is sold as Zithromax or Z-Pak, you should know that it can cause abnormal changes in the electrical activity of the heart that may lead to a potentially fatal irregular heart rhythm.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says patients at particular risk for developing this condition include those with known risk factors such as existing prolongation of the QT interval -- a measure of the time between the start of the Q wave and the end of the T wave in the heart's electrical cycle, low blood levels of potassium or magnesium, a slower than normal heart rate, or use of certain drugs used to treat abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias.

The FDA advisory follows a review of a study by medical researchers as well as another study by a manufacturer of the drug that assessed the potential for it to cause abnormal changes in the electrical activity of the heart.

Updated labels

The azithromycin drug labels have been updated to strengthen the Warnings and Precautions section with information related to the risk of QT interval prolongation and torsades de pointes, a specific, rare heart rhythm abnormality. Information has also been added regarding the results of a clinical QT study which showed that azithromycin can prolong the QTc interval.

Health care professionals are advised to consider the risk of fatal heart rhythms with azithromycin when considering treatment options for patients who are already at risk for cardiovascular events .

Antibacterial drugs

FDA notes that the potential risk of QT prolongation with azithromycin should be placed in appropriate context when choosing an antibacterial drug: Alternative drugs in the macrolide class, or non-macrolides such as the fluoroquinolones, also have the potential for QT prolongation or other significant side effects that should be considered when choosing an antibacterial drug.

FDA released a statement on May 17, 2012, about a New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) study that compared the risks of cardiovascular death in patients treated with the antibacterial drugs azithromycin, amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin (Cipro), and levofloxacin (Levaquin), or no antibacterial drug.

The study reported an increase in cardiovascular deaths, and in the risk of death from any cause, in persons treated with a 5-day course of azithromycin (Zithromax) compared with persons treated with amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin, or no drug. The risks of cardiovascular death associated with levofloxacin treatment were similar to those associated with azithromycin treatment.    

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Charging your smartphone is getting easier

Wireless chargers make it less likely you'll be caught with a dead battery

From the time people started using cellphones, keeping the battery charged has been a challenge. It got worse a few years ago when smartphones flooded the ...

PhotoFrom the time people started using cellphones, keeping the battery charged has been a challenge. It got worse a few years ago when smartphones flooded the market.

It turns out data usage -- sending and receiving email, accessing the Internet and using apps -- drains a cellphone battery much faster that making a phone call. And not all data usage is created equal.

When Apple updated the iPhone's operating system last year, a number of users found their batteries drained even faster than usual in the iPhone 4 and 4S. In a recent study, Purdue University computer scientist Abhinav Pathak found that apps you can download for free tend to drain batteries faster than those you pay for. The ads gobble up energy by tracking user habits and running other tasks in the background.

Regardless of the reason for battery drain, manufacturers are not only working on ways to extend battery life but make it easier and faster to recharge them.

Wireless charging

In the meantime, a number of manufacturers have devices that can charge your phone without having to plug it in. All you do is place it on a pad that's plugged into an outlet.

Many of the devices use the Qi wireless charging standard, backed by Energizer. It works through magnetic induction, allowing power to be transferred from a charging mat or even a speaker dock to a smartphone’s battery.

Battery maker Duracell got into the act last year with its PMA system, teaming with AT&T, Google and Starbucks, working to create an “ecosystem” of wireless power. It also uses inductive charging and, besides consumer products, is working to install these wireless charging pads in public spaces. Delta Airlines recently installed PMA-compatible Wireless Charging Spots in lounges and gates in a number of airports.

So as wireless technology continues to evolve, both the PMA and Qi systems will compete for dominance.

Monster Watts, a producer of power accessories for both Apple and Samsung phones, has just introduced three wireless chargers for the Samsung Galaxy S3. The Stealth wireless receiver is ultra-thin and fits under the S3 existing back cover.

The Simple wireless receiver back cover and charger set has a similar install process. The company says it adds only about 1 mm to the thickness, and will fit into most standard flexible cases.

Charging on the go

The Super Pack model is an external case with a built-in wireless receiver and rechargeable back up battery. The S3 slides into it and charges wirelessly. Gavin Carter, media coordinator for Monster Watts, says the Super Pack is about as close as you can get to wireless charging on the go.

Photo“We actually have sold thousands of cases with built-in rechargeable battery packs that charge Apple iPhones and Samsung S3 on the go,” Carter said. “They are recharged via a micro USB port. However, for something to charge using the Qi technology standard, the transmitter would have to connected to an outlet. We did sample a Qi standard transmitter charging pad with a built-in battery pack but it felt too heavy and cost too much.”

Carter says the current systems require the transmitter and receiver to be touching, or almost touching, so the day you can charge your phone by walking through an airport or shopping in a mall is not here yet.

But the current crop of wireless charges make it faster and easier to keep your smartphone running. Monster Watts' three new offerings start at $68 and go to $118.

Hedging its bets

Google, meanwhile, is hedging its bets. The latest Nexus 4 phone from LG comes standard with Qi wireless charging. A number of technology sites are reporting that new phones from Samsung and Apple this year will include wireless charging.

Of course, what consumers would really like is a cell phone battery that lasts longer. Work is underway in that area too. Two years ago researchers at the University of Michigan invented what they call a "subconscious mode" for smartphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices that could extend battery life by as much as 54 percent for users on the busiest networks. The product, however, is not yet commercially available.

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Twinkies, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Dolly Madison find a new home

Hostess Brands chooses a buyer for its troubled cake collection

It's turning into quite the week for sugar lovers. First Judge Tingling dumps Mayor Bloomberg's Big Gulp ban, now Hostess Brands picks a new owner for its ...

PhotoIt's turning into quite the week for sugar lovers. First Judge Tingling dumps Mayor Bloomberg's Big Gulp ban, now Hostess Brands picks a new owner for its Twinkies and other snackies brands.

Bankrupt Hostess Brands Inc. says it will seek bankruptcy court approval to sell the snack cake brands to Apollo Global Management, which had offered $410 million. 

It's not as though the line stretched around the block. There weren't any other offers, although several prospective buyers had expressed interest but swallowed hard at the $410 million figure.

The offer will be presented at a court hearing March 19.

It's not just Twinkies, et. al., whose fate hangs in the balance. Other Hostess brands like Wonder Bread, Nature's Own and Beefsteak, a rye-bread brand, are also up for grabs. 

Hostess shut off the ovens and threw in the towel back in November, when it announced it was closing its 36 plants and 30 or so brands. It blamed the bakers' union for making its cakes fall, at a cost of 18,000 jobs.

 

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Feds update disclosure standards for online ads, including tweets

Ads can be deceptive and unfair no matter how short they are

OK, it's oh so clever to send out a short tweet about a life-changing new shampoo or a really cool new snack bar, but look out. If it's a paid endorsement ...

PhotoOK, it's oh so clever to send out a short tweet about a life-changing new shampoo or a really cool new snack bar, but look out. If it's a paid endorsement or advertisement, it has to be labeled as such.

The Federal Trade Commission yesterday released a new document -- guidance for mobile and other online advertisers -- that spells out just how clear those disclosures need to be. Answer: very clear.

How can you do it in a tweet? Simple: put "ad:" in front of the hucksterism you're putting out there. Same goes for endorsements or "likes" on Facebook. It can't look like a personal endorsement or gee-whiz exclamation if someone's paying for it. 

Laws apply equally

The new set of guidelines make it clear that consumer protection laws apply equally to marketers across all mediums, whether delivered on a desktop computer, a mobile device, or more traditional media such as television, radio, or print. 

If a disclosure is needed to prevent an online ad claim from being deceptive or unfair, it must be clear and conspicuous.  Under the new guidance, this means advertisers should ensure that the disclosure is clear and conspicuous on all devices and platforms that consumers may use to view the ad. 

Disclosures must be clear enough that they aren't "misleading a significant minority of reasonable consumers," the FTC said.

The new guidance also explains that if an advertisement without a disclosure would be deceptive or unfair, or would otherwise violate a Commission rule, and the disclosure cannot be made clearly and conspicuously on a device or platform, then that device or platform should not be used.

The 2000 guidance stated that to help ensure clear and conspicuous disclosures,   advertisers should consider the disclosure’s placement and proximity to the relevant ad claim, its prominence, whether audio disclosures are loud enough to be heard, and whether visual disclosures appear for long enough to be noticed. 

Although the 2000 guidelines defined proximity as “near, and when possible, on the same screen,” and stated that advertisers should “draw attention to” disclosures, the new guidance says disclosures should be “as close as possible” to the relevant claim.

Like the original guidance, the updated Dot Com Disclosures calls on advertisers to avoid using hyperlinks for disclosures that involve product cost or certain health and safety issues.  The new guidelines also call for labeling hyperlinks as specifically as possible, and they caution advertisers to consider how their hyperlinks will function on various programs and devices. 

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Hot Springs Packing recalls chicken Polish sausage and chicken breakfast link products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Hot Springs Packing of Hot Springs, AR, is recalling approximately 6,120 pounds of chicken Polish sausage and chicken breakfast link products due to possib...

PhotoHot Springs Packing of Hot Springs, AR, is recalling approximately 6,120 pounds of chicken Polish sausage and chicken breakfast link products due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 30-lb. packages of "DOUBLE D INTERNATIONAL FOOD CO., INC., 4/1 CHICKEN POLISH SAUSAGE, REDUCED SODIUM" with lot code numbers of "05013A" or "05013B" stamped on the box.
  • 30-lb. packages of "DOUBLE D INTERNATIONAL FOOD CO., INC., 16/1 CHICKEN BREAKFAST LINK, REDUCED SODIUM" with a lot code number of "05013B" stamped on the box.

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number "P-10695" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced on February 19, 2013, and distributed to an institution in Jackson, Michigan.

The problem was discovered by the company through samples collected by the firm. The affected product was shipped prior to receiving the final results. There have been no reports of illnesses due to consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions should contact the company's owner, John Stubblefield, at (501) 767-2363.  

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Tarmac delays at a minimum in January

Only two delays of three hours or more were posted for domestic flights

Airlines continue to do a good job of keeping long tarmac delays at a minimum. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), carriers reported...

PhotoAirlines continue to do a good job of keeping long tarmac delays at a minimum.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), carriers reported just two tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights, but no tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights during January.

The long domestic tarmac delays took place on January 27 -- one on a flight departing Chicago O’Hare Airport and the other on a flight diverted to Bullhead City, Ariz. DOT is investigating both.

The larger U.S. airlines have been required to file complete reports on their long tarmac delays for domestic flights since October 2008. Under a rule that took effect Aug. 23, 2011, all U.S. and foreign airlines operating at least one aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats must report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports.

Also beginning Aug. 23, 2011, carriers operating international flights may not allow tarmac delays at U.S. airports to last longer than four hours without giving passengers an opportunity to deplane. Exceptions to the time limits for both domestic and international flights are allowed only for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons.

Other areas covered by the report include:

On-time performance

  • The reporting carriers posted an on-time arrival rate of 81.0% in January, compared with January 2012’s 83.7% mark and December 2012’s 76.6%.

Cancellations

  • The reporting carriers canceled 1.5% of their scheduled domestic flights in January, the same as January 2012, and down 0.1% from the rate in December 2012.

Chronically delayed flights

  • At the end of January, there were 12 flights that were chronically delayed -- more than 30 minutes late more than 50% of the time -- for two consecutive months. There were no chronically delayed flights for three consecutive months or more.

Causes of Flight Delays

  • In January, the carriers reported that 5.73% of their flights were delayed by aviation system delays, compared with 6.19% in December; 6.02% by late-arriving aircraft, versus 8.55% in December; 4.98% by factors within the airline’s control, such as maintenance or crew problems, compared with 6.21% in December; 0.55% by extreme weather, versus 0.59% in December; and 0.04% for security reasons, compared with 0.05% in December. 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 DOT’s 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 the Bureau of Transportation Statistics also shows 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 January, 34.12% of late flights were delayed by weather, down 3.78% from January 2012, when 35.46% of late flights were delayed by weather, and up 3.99% from December when 32.81% of late flights were delayed by weather.

Mishandled baggage

  • The carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 3.41 reports per 1,000 passengers in January, compared with January 2012’s rate of 3.30 and December 2012’s rate of 4.15.

Incidents involving pets

  • In January, carriers reported three incidents involving the loss, death or injury of pets while traveling by air. In January 2012, there were eight reports, five reports were filed in December 2012. January’s incidents involved three pet deaths.

Complaints about airline service

  • In January, DOT received 1,368 complaints about airline service from consumers, up 46.3% from the 935 complaints filed in January 2012, and up 51.8% from the 901 received in December 2012.

Complaints about treatment of disabled passengers

  • The report also contains a tabulation of complaints filed with DOT in January against airlines regarding the treatment of passengers with disabilities. There was a total of 56 disability-related complaints in January, compared with 41 complaints in January 2012 and 35 in December 2012.

Complaints about discrimination

  • In January, there were six complaints alleging discrimination by airlines due to factors other than disability -- such as race, religion, national origin or sex --- four fewer than in January 2012, but three more than December 2012.

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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Retail sales post solid gain in February

Gas station sales led the charge

A 5% surge in sales at gas stations helped propel overall retail sales up 1.1 percent in February following a revised advance of 0.2% the month before. Tha...

PhotoA 5% surge in sales at gas stations helped propel overall retail sales up 1.1 percent in February following a revised advance of 0.2% the month before. That was well above the expectation of economists surveyed by Briefing.com.

Figures released by the Commerce Department show advances in eight of the 13 major categories. Following gas stations were auto sales and building materials sales -- both up. 1.1%; food and beverage stores, with a gain of 0.8%; and general merchandisers, showing an advance of 0.5%.

Furniture and home furnishings stores were the biggest losers, slumping 1.6%, followed by sporting goods, hobby, and book & music stores down 0.9%.

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White House\Black Market women's shoes recalled

The heels on the shoes can become unstable, posing a fall hazard

Impo International of Santa Maria, CA, is recalling about 13,500 pairs of women's high-heeled shoes. The heels on the shoes can become unstable, posing a ...

PhotoImpo International of Santa Maria, CA, is recalling about 13,500 pairs of women's high-heeled shoes.

The heels on the shoes can become unstable, posing a fall hazard. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Versailles model (570053826) and Lourdes model (570053756) women's shoes with four-inch heels. The Versailles is cream, black and brown-colored faux snakeskin. The Lourdes is black-colored faux snakeskin with a white t-strap and trim. The model name is stamped inside the shoes and on the shoe box. The model number is printed on the shoe box.

The shoes, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at White House\ Black Market stores nationwide or online from August 2012, through October 2012, for about $120.

Consumers should immediately stop wearing the recalled shoes and return them to a White House | Black Market store to receive a merchandise card for the full purchase price of the shoes, or contact White House\Black Market to receive instructions for returning the shoes by mail.

Consumers may contact White House\Black Market toll-free at (877) 948-2525 anytime, or email customerservice@whitehouseblackmarket.com.

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Want to do a little 3D designing? Now you can

Shapeways.com bridges the gap between 3D printing and the everyday consumer.

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of the artsy fartsy type and I get extremely excited anytime I get to be creative, which happens to be every day thanks to...

Photo
A 3D-printed chair

Okay, I admit it. I’m kind of the artsy fartsy type and I get extremely excited anytime I get to be creative, which happens to be everyday thanks to my job and probably one of the biggest perks of being an artsy type is belonging to a massive community of creative people that has everyone from painters, actors, poets, photographers, musicians and more.

I have an equal amount of respect and admiration for all creative types and oftentimes I wish it was me that came up with one of their great ideas or concepts, but probably the people that I’m most blown away by are designers who are able to take a mere idea and bring it to three-dimensional life.

It’s safe to assume that many people are like myself in that they might be able to put together a song or they might be able to draw something if they had to, but when it comes to creating beautiful buildings, cool-looking furniture or intricate sculptures, many of us wouldn’t even dare try, not because we don’t possess any good ideas, it’s mainly because we don’t have access to the right kind of technology.

Shapeways.com bills itself as the “world’s leading 3D printing marketplace and community,” and whether that’s true is arguable, but one thing Shapeways has going for itself is that it’s one of the first Internet companies to jump into the 3D printing industry and offer a way for everyday consumers to take advantage of it.

Photo

Quite simply, Shapeways is to designers what websites like KitsyLane.com are to jewelry makers, in that people can sell their own designs over the Internet.

Not just design

But instead of being able to sell just a statement necklace or being able to offer a cool-looking bracelet to someone, you can actually put together just about anything your mind can come up with, as long as it’s under a certain size. From there, you can have it printed and shipped to either yourself or someone who’s willing to pay good money for it.

PhotoIn case you’re unfamiliar with 3D printing, it’s the concept of taking the blueprints of any design from just about any object and duplicating it through the use of a specially made 3D printer. We offered a full story on it last year, when the concept was just starting to hit mainstream consumer realms.

The idea behind Shapeways’ approach is to capture people who may be interested in 3D printing, but don’t have the funds or interest in purchasing their own 3D printer, which can easily go for thousands of dollars.

To get started, one must first create an account and then you can pretty much start designing products after that, but obviously the more challenging part for some people will be to actually create the designs.

If you’re already familiar with 3D printing in terms of what materials to select and how to properly specify the dimensions of an object, you can jump from the signing-in phase to the design phase, and choose to either have your product shipped to you or placed into Shapeways’ store for sale.

The company will determine a price for your object based on design, size, and materials and shipping costs, all included in the price, which will be listed next to your design once it’s available for purchase.

User-friendly

In terms of the general Internet reviews about Shapeways and how easy it is to create stuff, most people have given the site pretty good ratings for being user-friendly for people who know about 3D printing and for those who don’t.

Photo
A 3D espresso cup

As far as the quality of the objects you’re designing, they seem to be pretty well-made and sturdy according to some who have received products through the mail already.

For those who are not in the know about 3D printing, Shapeways has a bunch of tutorial links that users can click on for help and you can post your questions in the community forum and other users will be able to give you instruction, but if you would rather have another Shapeway user actually create a design for you, you can do that too.

In addition, the site suggests a handful of 3D modeling packages like Rhino, Blender and Maya, which can help walk you through the process of  3D printing from A to Z if need be.

Some of the previous reviewers of the site complained about how long it takes to get finished products shipped, which can be anywhere from 10 to 21 days, depending on the type of material you use for your object.

And although people these days are making a lot of things through 3D printing, users aren’t allowed to print any weaponry or distasteful material  of a sexual nature. Doing so will get your design automatically removed by the company.

Next big thing

A lot of experts are saying that 3D printing is the next big thing that will dramatically shift manufacturing, commerce and trade in the very near future and if you’ve been paying attention during the last couple of years, you’ve probably noticed more and more people talking about this huge shift in technology.

Photo
A 3D-printed ornment

So before 3D printing becomes mainstream and a normal part of our society, which it probably will very soon, using Shapeways is a good way to start tinkering around with the overall concept.

Additionally, the site does a decent job of creating a bridge between the idea of design and the average consumer who normally might not give 3D printing a try.

And the site can be useful for the experienced designer who wants to sell products, but doesn’t have the proper technology to do 3D prints, which is a definite plus for the site.

Whether Shapeways grows into a major destination for consumers remains to be seen, but if it could somehow cut down on some of its delivery times, it would not only help the site, it would probably attract more users too.

It'll be interesting to see where the concept of 3D printing goes from here.

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How to exercise and stay fit when you're a senior

It'll just require a few tweaks to your exercise routine to stay in shape as you get older

I think it started about a decade ago when a lot of people starting using the whole “30 is the new 20, 40 is the new 30” rationale, and to this...

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The benefits of brown-bagging it

You can both save money and avoid weight gain

If you've looked for places to tighten your budget but still find you need to cut, take a look at what you do at lunchtime. Many of us, it turns out, think...

PhotoIf you've looked for places to tighten your budget but still find you need to cut, take a look at what you do at lunchtime. Many of us, it turns out, think nothing of buying lunch out each day.

A recent study by Accounting Principals, a finance and accounting staffing firm, found that 66 percent of employees buy their lunch instead of packing it, costing them an average of $37 per week – nearly $2,000 a year.

Most of us don't realize how much we're spending at work. When the surveytakers asked respondents which work-related expense they would most like to be reimbursed for, most people said commuting costs. Only 11 percent chose lunchtime expenses.

"Small – but consistent -- expenses add up quickly over time, and it can be difficult for consumers to realize it because they’re only spending a few dollars at a time. But, as our survey shows, those few dollars can quickly turn into a few thousand dollars," said Jodi Chavez, senior vice president, Accounting Principals. "Additionally, when you look at it over a worker’s lifetime, that number grows exponentially. Consider the average American who works for about 40 years, starting their first job around age 22. By the time they retire at age 62 they would have spent at minimum $120,000 on coffee and lunch, not including inflation."

Younger workers are more inclined to spend more on lunch and less inclined to brown-bag it. The survey found that younger professionals age 18-34 spend almost twice as much on coffee during the week than those ages 45 and over. They also shell out more for lunch, spending an average of $44.78 per week on lunch compared to their older colleagues who spend $31.80 per week.

Not as healthy

Not only is grabbing lunch at the corner deli more expensive, it can be less healthy.

“Restaurant meals are typically high in calories, fat and sodium,” said University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) Assistant Professor of Nutrition Sciences Beth Kitchin. “It is possible for you to make good choices – but it’s harder to make healthy choices when the temptation is staring at you.”

PhotoKitchin said packing a lunch can make healthier decisions easier.

“Bento style -- where you pack several single portions in a box -- offers a lot of opportunity to get creative and really use the resources you have on hand,” Kitchin said. “Grab some of the leftover chicken from the night before. Add some carrot sticks, cheese and crackers – basically any finger food that travels well.”

When taking your lunch to school or work, nutritionists suggest packing simple, well-rounded meals.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, just healthy and balanced; it should have a protein, a carbohydrate, fruits and vegetables, even a fat.

Some people may resist brown-bagging because it requires a bit of planning. But getting organized makes it easier. Prepare foods on the weekend, so they are ready to grab in the mornings.

Store something like a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers in a desk drawer at work. If you are in a rush some morning, at least you have a lunch starter. Perhaps add a piece of fruit or some cheese from a grocery store on your way to the office.

In fact, many supermarkets have salad bars, allowing your to pick up a salad on your way to work. It costs less and is healthier than a sandwich from the downstairs coffee shop.

Subsidized lunch

In a bid to encourage employees to stay in for lunch and even eat at their desks, some companies have begun providing free or subsidized lunches in the office. Chavez says its a good idea.

"As the recovery gains momentum and companies look to attract and retain talent, they should consider worrying less about big-ticket discounts and focus instead on what will impact their employees’ happiness every day," she said. "Small improvements around the office, such as better equipment, food and drinks, can make a big difference in workers’ morale. After all it is often the little things in life that tend to make people the happiest."

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Do you need renter's insurance?

While a growing number of landlords demand it, most renters are uninsured

With mortgages harder to get, more consumers are renting their homes these days, with rents rising sharply across the U.S.While homeowners who have mortg...

PhotoWith mortgages harder to get, more consumers are renting their homes these days, with rents rising sharply across the U.S.

While homeowners who have mortgages are required to have a homeowner's insurance policy, not all landlords require renter's insurance. In fact, a recent survey by InsuranceQuotes.com found only 34% of renters carried insurance policies.

Many renters may think the property owner's insurance covers them. It doesn't. In case of loss or damage, the landlord's policy just covers the building and their own liability from lawsuits. It doesn't cover the renter's belongings.

With more people now renting, all the major insurance companies offer renter's insurance policies. Whether you take out one depends on your risk tolerance because these policies are not very expensive. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the typical cost is $185 per year.

Surprisingly affordable

Photo"Renter's insurance is a lot more affordable than most people think," said Laura Adams, senior insurance analyst, InsuranceQuotes.com. "Most renters don't realize that their landlord's insurance usually only covers the structure and not the renter's belongings. And even in a safe area, renters can fall victim to theft, fire, water damage or another calamity. Fifteen dollars a month is a small price to pay in order to protect your possessions and liability in a lawsuit."

Like any kind of insurance policy, your cost will depend on what you buy. There are different levels of coverage and you can select the deductible you're comfortable with. The lower the deductible – the amount you have to pay before coverage kicks in – the higher your premium.

What should rental insurance cover? According to insurance experts at the University at Buffalo, a renter's policy should cover personal property against theft, fire and wind damage. It should also cover:

  • Personal liability for accidents of others on your premises
  • Damage to property of others in your care
  • Living expenses if you're forced to vacate the premises during disasters or repairs.

“Acts of God” excluded

Renter’s insurance usually will not cover you for "acts of God", such as floods and natural disasters.

To get a policy, ask friends or fellow tenants for a referral. If you have auto insurance, you may be able to get a discount by going through the same company.

Just like other types of insurance, renter's insurance coverage isn't always a sure thing. Companies are selective about who they insure.

Allstate Homeowners Insurance  March 12, 2013, 12:53 a.m.
Consumers rate Allstate Homeowners Insurance
Kathleen, of Mooresville, N.C., filed a claim with Allstate in 2010 when her home suffered ice damage during a snowstorm. When she sold her house and rented a apartment, she again turned to Allstate for rental insurance and was quoted $79 a year.

“I'm sure you can imagine my surprise when they called back to tell me I was denied because I filed a claim over two years ago,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Okay, so I filled a claim for a service that I've paid for, for many years, and now I'm being denied because I actually used that service? Will someone please tell me the logic here?”

Kathleen was in a real jam because her apartment building is one that requires tenants to take out an insurance policy.

Even if you are not required by your landlord to take out a renter's insurance policy, it could still be the prudent thing to do. You might not believe your possessions are valuable, but once you start adding up their replacement value, their loss could hit you harder than you think.

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Google settles suit with states over Wi-Spy scandal

The company's Street View cars eavesdropped on unsecured wi-fi networks

In a less than resounding settlement, 39 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to split $7 million from Google as a token penalty for its Street ...

PhotoIn a less than resounding settlement, 39 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to split $7 million from Google as a token penalty for its Street View mapping cars eavesdropping on unsecured wi-fi networks a few years ago.

“While the $7 million is significant, the importance of this agreement goes beyond financial terms," said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. "Consumers have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This agreement recognizes those rights and ensures that Google will not use similar tactics in the future to collect personal information without permission from unsuspecting consumers,” 

Google's Street View cars were equipped with antennae and software that the company acknowledged collected network identification information for use in future geolocation services. At the same time, Google collected and stored the content of Internet communications being transmitted over those unsecured business and personal wireless networks.

Google has always maintained that it was unaware the data was being collected. It has since disabled the equipment used to collect the payload data from the Street View vehicles.

Wi-Spy scandal wraps up

The agreement with the states appears to be the final chapter in the so-called Wi-Spy scandal, which has been a source of embarrassment for Google and consternation for privacy advocates for years.

While Google has always maintained the eavesdropping was accidental, it hasn't exactly won plaudits for its cooperation with investigators. The FCC  fined Google $25,000 in 2012 for willfully obstructing the FCC’s investigation into the incident.

"Google's motto has always been 'Do no evil.' It should also be 'Do no eavesdropping,'" said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, last year. "Google needs to fully explain to Congress and the public what it knew about the collection of data through its Street View program."

Other key elements of the agreement with the states require Google to run an employee training program about privacy and confidentiality of user data and continue the program for at least 10 years. Google must also conduct a public service announcement campaign to help educate consumers about steps they may take to better secure their personal information while using wireless networks.

States participating in the settlement are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. 

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Concussions: Do helmets and mouthguards do any good?

New international guidance says 'no' and contains recommendations for dealing with injuries

Given the rise of concussions in the National Football League and in other sports, a lot of attention is focused on preventing the injuries. While mouthgu...

PhotoGiven the rise of concussions in the National Football League and in other sports, a lot of attention is focused on preventing the injuries.

While mouthguards and helmets can help ward off other serious head and facial injuries, the experts say there is no good evidence that they can help prevent concussion. Paradoxically, according to a Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, they may even encourage players to take greater risks.

That, says the Statement, is precisely why it is so important to recognize and treat concussive symptoms promptly.

The Consensus Statement is the fourth revision of recommendations first developed in 2001 in Vienna, in a bid to offer some practical and evidence based guidance to healthcare professionals on the on-field assessment of the condition, and one of the most important aspects of its treatment -- the timing of return to play.

In high profile sports team doctors are under pressure to get players back into competition as quickly as possible. But safe return to play after concussion is a key issue across all sports, regardless of whether they are played at elite level.

Broad support

This latest version of the Consensus Statement, which has the backing of the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, the International Equestrian Federation and the International Rugby Board, was drawn up after a two day meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, in November 2012.

Over the course of the two days, researchers from around the world were invited to present the latest findings on this common type of brain injury, which has the potential to cause long term neurological damage if not dealt with appropriately, particularly in sports -- such as football, rugby, ice hockey, horse riding, skiing, and boxing -- where the risk of concussion is high.

A panel of 32 international experts then distilled the research -- details of which are published in the current Injury Prevention and Health Protection (IPHP) issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine -- until complete agreement was reached.

Raising awareness

The Consensus has been designed to raise awareness of concussion among the public, so for the first time includes a concussion recognition tool (CRT).

And it clarifies the definition of concussion to emphasize that a player does not have to lose consciousness before being considered concussed and therefore removed from play. Symptoms of concussion can range from headache and memory loss to irritability, slowed reaction times and sleep disturbance, it says.

Recommendations

It contains a new focus on the assessment and management of concussion in kids , who should not be returned to play the same day and who may require longer to heal than adults, it says.

And it provides a useful Q&A, a handy pocket symptom checker and assessment tool, as well as advice on medico-legal considerations and injury prevention.

It makes clear that mouthguards and helmets have a role in minimizing injuries and are to be recommended, but emphasizes: "There is no good clinical evidence that currently available protective equipment will prevent concussion."

"An important consideration in the use of protective equipment is the concept of risk compensation…where the use of [this] equipment results in behavioral change, such as the adoption of more dangerous playing techniques, which can result in a paradoxical increase in injury rates," it cautions.

While the competitive/aggressive elements of some sports make them fun to play and watch, "sporting organizations should be encouraged to address violence that may increase concussion risk," it recommends.

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Small-business owners more upbeat about the economy

But there's no sign of a surge in confidence

We know from recent reports that consumers are felling a little more confident about the economy these days. But what about the folks who operate small bus...

PhotoWe know from recent reports that consumers are felling a little more confident about the economy these days. But what about the folks who operate small businesses.

Well, according to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Index of Small Business Optimism, there was an uptick of 1.9 points in February -- to 90.8. While that's an improvement over the last several reports, the index remains on par with the 2008 average and below the trough of the 1991-92 and 2001-02 recessions. NFIB calls the direction of February’s change positive, “but not indicative of a surge in confidence among small-business owners.”

Of the ten index components, one fell, one remained unchanged and eight improved. Most notably, the gains in capital spending and inventory investment plans were large. Still, by historical standards the levels remain very low.

Main Street not keeping pace

“While the Fortune 500 are enjoying record high earnings, Main Street earnings remain depressed. Far more firms report sales down quarter over quarter than up,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “Washington is manufacturing one crisis after another -- the debt ceiling, the fiscal cliff and the sequester. Spreading fear and instability are certainly not a strategy to encourage investment and entrepreneurship.”

The index shows three-quarters of small-business owners think business conditions will be the same or worse in six months. Although the index gained almost 2 points last month, Dunkelberg says until owners’ forecast for the economy improves substantially, “there will be little boost to hiring and spending from the small business half of the economy.”

Index highlights

Photo

  • Sales: Weak sales is still the top business problem for 18% of owners. The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales over the past three months was unchanged in February -- at a negative 9%. There are still far more owners reporting declining sales than reporting positive sales trends.
  • Earnings and Wages: Earnings trends were unchanged from January’s reading of a net negative 26%. Not seasonally adjusted, 13% of small employers reported profits higher quarter to quarter (unchanged), and 43% reported profits falling (up 3 points). In comparison, the Fortune 500 are posting record high profits, revealing a bifurcated economy.
  • Credit Markets: Small business demand for credit remained weak in February, given the weak economy. Only 7% of owners surveyed reported that all their credit needs were not met, up 1 point but only three points above the record low. Twenty-nine percent reported all credit needs met, and 51% explicitly said they did not want a loan (64% including those who did not answer the question, presumably uninterested in borrowing as well). Only 2% of owners reported that financing was their top business problem.

The report is based on the responses of 870 randomly sampled small businesses in NFIB’s membership, surveyed throughout the month of February.  

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Kolcraft settles defective play yard charges

The company will pay a $400,000 penalty and make compliance improvements

Kolcraft Enterprises of Chicago has agreed to pay a civil penalty in the amount of $400,000 resolving allegations that it knowingly failed to report a defe...

PhotoKolcraft Enterprises of Chicago has agreed to pay a civil penalty in the amount of $400,000 resolving allegations that it knowingly failed to report a defect involving its Travelin' Tot play yards.

In addition to paying the civil monetary penalty, Kolcraft agreed to implement robust changes to its internal control and compliance systems. Specifically, Kolcraft agrees to:

  • maintain and enforce a system of internal controls and procedures to ensure that the company promptly and accurately reports required information about its products to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC);
  • give CPSC staff written documentation of its improvements, processes, and controls related to its reporting procedures upon request;
  • and establish an effective program to ensure it remains in compliance with safety statutes and regulations enforced by CPSC.

Kolcraft agrees that, at a minimum, its compliance program must provide its employees with written standards and policies, compliance training, and the means to report compliance-related concerns confidentially.

Reporting failure

CPSC staff alleged that the firm knowingly failed to report to CPSC immediately, as required by federal law, a defect involving Kolcraft Travelin' Tot play yards and play yards manufactured by Kolcraft for Carter's, Sesame Street, Jeep, Contours, Care Bare, and Eric Carle. The play yards were sold nationwide from January 2000 through January 2009 for between $50 and $160.

The side rail of the play yards can fail to latch properly and can unlatch unexpectedly when a child pushes against it, posing a fall hazard to children.

In August 2005, failure analysis experts hired by the firm identified the potential for false latching. In 2006, the firm made prospective improvements to the warning labels, instruction sheets, and the side-rail latch to eliminate false latching in future production of the play yards.

From about January 2000 through July 2009, Kolcraft received about 350 reports of the play yard collapsing, resulting in 21 injuries to young children, including bumps, scrapes, bruises, and one concussion.

Kolcraft did not report the information regarding the play yards to CPSC until January 2009.

In July 2009, Kolcraft and CPSC announced the recall  of one million play yards.

Federal requirements

Federal law requires manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to report to CPSC immediately (within 24 hours) after obtaining information reasonably supporting the conclusion that a product contains a defect which could create a substantial product hazard, creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death, or fails to comply with any consumer product safety rule or any other rule, regulation, standard, or ban enforced by CPSC.

In agreeing to the settlement, Kolcraft denies CPSC staff allegations that its play yards contained a defect which could create a substantial product hazard, or that it knowingly violated the reporting requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act.  

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'Night Bullet' male sexual performance enhancer recalled

The product contains a potentially hazardous active ingredient

Green Planet is recalling "Night Bullet," a product sold as a dietary supplement to enhance male sexual performance. The product was tested and found to...

PhotoGreen Planet is recalling "Night Bullet," a product sold as a dietary supplement to enhance male sexual performance.

The product was tested and found to contain trace amounts of Sulfohydroxyhomosildenafil and Aminotadalafil, analogues of sildenafil -- the active pharmaceutical ingredient in an FDA-approved drug that is used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED).

These undeclared active ingredients pose a threat to consumers because sildenafil may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs (such as nitroglycerin) and lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease often take nitrates.

The recalled products are in capsule form, packaged in one (1) count blister packs. The lot and expiration date can be found on the back of the package. The following lot is being recalled:

ProductBatch Lot #UPC CodeEXPIRATION DATES
Night BulletB43N03201850512223310/2015

Night Bullet was sold nationwide between October 2012 and March 2013 to wholesalers and sample provided at trade shows.

Consumers who have purchased these products should immediately discontinue their use and return them to their place of purchase. Consumers may also return products directly to Freedom Trading.

Customers can call the Company at 877-621-2048 Monday through Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm PST for instructions on the return and refund process.

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It costs how much to get married these days? You might be surprised

Researchers reveal just how much you'll have to spend for that wedding of your dreams.

You’ve probably heard the nursery rhyme before that goes “First comes love, then comes marriage, then, comes baby in the baby carriage,” ...

PhotoYou’ve probably heard the nursery rhyme that goes “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage,” which is a song that definitely gets points for being cute and succinct, but loses points for leaving out a major part of the relationship storyline.

The song should really go, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes debt”—because a lot of folks end up breaking the bank to pull off the wedding of their dreams and it’s not just women who are steering the ship when it comes to the planning, as both genders do their parts to spend ridiculously on the ceremony, the reception and the rest of the things people feel they need to make a wedding day seem fairytale-like.

And since the start of the economic downturn a few years ago, elaborate weddings were just some of the things that people cut back on, but according to TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com, two popular wedding websites, people are starting to let go of their frugality and are planning bigger and more expensive weddings these days.

Both of the sites surveyed 17,500 brides who said “I do” in 2012, to gauge just how much they were spending on weddings compared to 2011. In addition, the survey revealed the most expensive U.S. marriage venues. 

According to Carley Roney, co-founder of The Knot, wedding budgets and overall spending first started to increase back in 2011 and today people are starting to feel less guilty about shelling out the dough for their nuptials. 

“In 2011, budgets increased for the first time since the economic downturn, and this past year, in 2012, we saw that wedding budgets are continuing to rise even more and to an all-time high since 2008. Couples are increasingly less concerned with the economy and are comfortable investing more than ever in the once-in-a-lifetime experience of planning their wedding and making it a fabulous experience for their guests.”

Big bucks

But let’s face it folks—fabulousness doesn’t come cheap, in fact it can run you $28,427 for the entire wedding and that’s not even counting the honeymoon, the survey found.

PhotoHere are just some of the financial breakdowns:

On average, it’ll cost you $12,905 for the venue, $2,379 for the photographer, $1,997 for the flowers and $3,084 if you want a band for your reception, which is a hefty amount to pay for a bunch of cover songs--I’m mean, how many different versions do we really need of “Twist and Shout" anyway?

Some of the other wedding costs include $1,619 for a videographer, $708 for the limo and even the rehearsal dinner will run you a cool $1,135.

But unfortunately, as we all know, high cost doesn’t guarantee high quality and some of our readers who have planned a wedding can easily attest to this.

In our ConsumerAffairs Weddings section, there are numerous tales of great plans gone sour and there are a handful of companies--like the wedding site HeleneBridal.com--that have really loused up some peoples weddings.

This is what Danielle of Lake Forest, Calif. had to say about Helene Bridal after she ordered a dress for her wedding day:

“If you look at the tab on the website, it says ‘wholesale cheap wedding dresses.’ Very accurate,” she wrote. “The dress I ordered was indeed cheap. The color of the bodice didn’t match the skirt and the dress in the photo wasn’t the dress I received. I contacted the company, but since it wasn’t within their allotted ’24 hour notification return policy,’ they won’t take back the dress.”

“In fact, customer service told me to contact the manufacturer, take photos and maybe they will give me some sort of discount, taking no responsibility for the products they are selling. Please, please think twice before ordering. That return policy is definitely their loophole to get away with ripping people off.”

We reached out to HeleneBridal for a comment and we’re waiting for a response.

Priciest spots

PhotoAs far as the most expensive places to get married, according to the survey,  New York City is at the top of the list, so if you want to exchange vows in a Manhattan loft overlooking the Hudson, complete with the Upper Westside reception, it’ll just cost you a meager $76,687--but keep in mind that City Hall is just a cab ride away and you’ll still be able to get married in Manhattan, right?

Next on the most-expensive-wedding-destination list is Chicago, third is the New York Metropolitan area, then New Jersey, Rhode Island, Santa Barbara/Ventura Calif. and Boston, closing out the top seven.

Look, many people dream of having a celebrity-style wedding, sometimes so much so that fulfilling that dream ends up being the deciding factor in their decision to get married.

But others know that even the fanciest and biggest wedding won’t be a springboard that determines how well a marriage is going to do, and with finances being one of the main topics of argument and divorce among married couples, maybe you shouldn’t start your lives together in debt.

Just a thought.

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Understanding credit can help you avoid costly mistakes

But many consumers aren't as credit-savvy as they should be

How do you use credit? There are right ways and wrong ways, and the latter almost always lands you in trouble.Consumer credit as we know it has evolved f...

PhotoHow do you use credit? There are right ways and wrong ways, and the latter almost always lands you in trouble.

Consumer credit as we know it has evolved fairly quickly in the last four decades. Before the late 1970s few people had credit cards. Even if they had a Mastercard or Visa – it used to be called BankAmericard – they rarely had more than one.

Over the years, having credit cards allowed consumers to expand their purchasing power, sometimes buying things they really couldn't afford. But it stimulated the economy and generated income for the banks so everyone was happy.

End of the party

Eventually it caught up with us. The credit crisis of 2008 was about more than mortgages. In its aftermath credit card companies reduced customers' credit lines and in some cases, unilaterally closed accounts.

Even now, more than four years later, we're still left with a significant credit balance. Combining credit statistics from a number of federal agencies, NextAdvisor.com, a financial research site, came up with the top credit mistakes that consumers make.

For example, the company cites Federal Reserve data showing consumers carry more than $793 billion in credit card debt. That debt is borne by the 46% of credit card holders who don't pay off their full balance each month.

“If you're not paying your credit card balance each month, you're paying interest in addition to the principal your owe,” said Jeff Hindenach, director of content for NextAdvisor. “I think the most shocking statistic is the $22.5 billion in credit card penalty fees. That's people paying their credit card bill late or going over their credit limit. These are penalties that no one should have to pay.”

Blissfully unaware

Not only that, 36% of consumers are unaware of the interest rate on their credit cards. Maybe knowing the rate isn't very important if you pay the balance down to zero each month, but if you carry a balance, it's information you really need to know.

“If you don't know what interest rate you're paying and its 22%, then you're paying a lot more interest than you should be paying,” Hindenach said. “There are balance transfer cards out there that can save a lot of money but you have to be aware of your interest rate in order to take advantage of them.”

A recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study showed that 42 million consumers have errors on their credit reports that they do not know about. Hindenach says it's just more evidence that consumers are not always aware of the credit mistakes they are making.

Credit report errors

“Errors in your credit report will obviously lower your credit score and a lower credit score can often times mean a higher interest rate,” he said. “If your credit score dips low enough you could have problems getting credit cards, getting loans, getting a mortgage.”

PhotoTo make sure the information in your credit file is accurate, you should go to www.annualcreditreport.com, a site sanctioned by the U.S. government, and download your credit reports, at no charge, from all three credit reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. If you find inaccurate information, go to the website for the agency containing the errors and look for instructions for disputing the information and seeking a correction.

“After you file that paperwork, which is actually like a letter, they have 30 days to respond,” Hindenach said. “Resolution is fairly quick.”

Not always wise to close credit accounts

When examining your credit report you may see a number of credit accounts you are not using. But don't close them. Sometimes, doing that can negatively impact your credit score.

Instead, if you make a couple of small purchases each year on a little-used credit card and pay off the balance immediately, it will boost your credit score. Carrying a credit card balance, especially a large one, not only limits your purchasing power but can lower your credit score over time.

“It would be great if schools started having some sort of financial literacy class for students,” Hindenach said. Something we advocate is parents talking to their kids about credit at an early age.”

Then again, a lot of parents will probably need to educate themselves about credit and break some bad habits too.

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10 spring cleaning chores your home really needs

If your cleaning time is limited, start with these tasks

Why is it that we only get serious about housecleaning in the spring? It probably goes back to harsh winters where people had to stay indoors most of the t...

PhotoWhy is it that we only get serious about housecleaning in the spring? It probably goes back to harsh winters where people had to stay indoors most of the time and tracked in mud and dirt when they did venture out.

In any event, whether it's springtime or another season, your home needs intensive cleaning and maintenance on at least an annual basis. No less an authority than Martha Stewart recommends getting organized and giving yourself plenty of time.

"Create a realistic schedule, keeping in mind that a single weekend won't suffice, as you'll need several days for more involved projects, such as shampooing carpets and organizing closets," she writes on her website. "Whether you prefer to proceed from the attic to the basement or start outdoors and wind your way inside, focus on one task at a time."

But maybe you don't have as much time to devote to cleaning as Martha would like. Let us, then, offer 10 chores that your home really needs.

1. Trimming and pruning

Let's start with your home's exterior. What happens outside can impact the health of your home's structure. Specifically, inspect trees and shrubs growing near the house. Prune tree branches that are growing too near the house or outbuildings. Look for branches that are now extending over, or coming in contact with the roof. Vegetation that touches the building can trap moisture and cause all sorts of problems.

For that same reason, cut back bushes and shrubs that are growing near the house. Not only are out-of-control bushes unsightly, they can damage decks and siding.

2. Inspect and clean gutters

You may need help on this one if you aren't able to climb a ladder. However, after the winter your gutters are probably going to need a thorough cleaning so that they efficiently channel rain water away from your home. Inspect them to make sure they haven't been damaged by ice over the course of the winter.

3. Power wash and reseal deck

PhotoIf you have a deck made of pressure-treated lumber, it should be pressure washed and sealed when it no longer repels water. A water test is the easiest way to ensure that the wood can absorb sealer or finish.

Pour a small amount of water on the deck. If it soaks in immediately, the deck should be sealed. If the water beads up or stands on the deck, your deck may not need sealing yet. Before sealing, clean the area with a pressure water to restore the wood's appearance and remove dirt and grime. Now, we can move indoors.

4. Replace furnace filter

Replacing the filter to the air intake to your home's heating and air conditioning system should actually be done several times a year, but a spring cleaning should be one of those times. The filter traps dirt, dust and pet hair to prevent it from being sucked into the air handler. A dirty and clogged filter will reduce HVAC efficiency.

5. Clean and dust electronics

All that dirt and dust circulating in the air all winter is hard on the sensitive electronics in your home, and these days there's a lot more electronic devices in homes than in years past. In some cases these devices act as a magnet, attracting dust.

Using a soft cloth, or a wipe made specifically for screens, wipe down the front and back of your TV sets. Using the same type of cloth, clean computer screens and desktop towers. You may find that the vents on these machines are clogged with hair and debris. After powering down the computer, use a vacuum cleaner to remove as much of the dirt as possible.

6. Remove dust from light fixtures

Dust circulating in your home all winter long will attach itself to light fixtures on the ceiling. When you dust furniture and woodwork, don't forget to look up. Dust on light fixtures can become quite heavy and fall, continuing the dusting cycle.

If your home has ceiling fans, this can be a special problem. The fan blades tend to attract a thick coating of dust during the winter, creating unhealthy conditions.

7. Clean kitchen appliances

PhotoMajor appliances need routine cleaning and the spring is a good time to do it. Dean, of Livermore, Calif., had written to ConsumerAffairs complaining about problems with his Samsung French door refrigerator. The freezer wasn't keeping food frozen. He wrote us back after someone suggested removing the unit's back cover.

"I did this and found that the coils were covered in lint and dog hair, we have dogs," Dean wrote. "The fan blade to cool the coils was also dirty and the water sump was full. I vacuumed as much of the build up I could out of there, then unplugged the unit and used a small air compressor to blow out as much dust from the coils as I could. I then carefully cleaned off the fan blades with hot water and dish soap, with a sponge. It will make a mess to clean up, but it should probably be done yearly."

You should also clean the oven. Clean the stove top, remove elements and drip bowls and clean thoroughly. Clean the inside of your microwave oven, removing any food splatters that have baked onto the sides of the oven.

8. Clean kitchen and bathroom grout

The grout between ceramic tile in the kitchen and bath needs to be cleaned on an annual basis to prevent a build-up of dirt and grease. Consumers can purchase commercially-available grout cleaner or make their own. Powdered oxygen bleach is nontoxic, doesn't produce harsh fumes, and don't alter colors. It gets rid of stains with no or minimal scrubbing. The oxygen ions attack the stain molecules, breaking them into pieces that rinse away.

9. Clean flooring

If you have carpets throughout your home, spring is a great time to have them cleaned. You can rent a carpet shampooer and do it yourself or hire a carpet-cleaning company to do it for you. If you have hardwood floors, clean them in accordance with manufacturer's guidelines. There are a number of commercially-available products that will restore a shine.

10. Change batteries in smoke detectors

Finally, purchase new batteries and put them in all of your home's smoke detectors. Ideally this should be done twice a year, but doing it on your spring cleaning day may help make it a chore you'll remember to do. An early warning if a fire breaks out will not only save your home, it could also save your life.

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Judge pours out NYC's big-sugar ban

Too many loopholes for the ban to be effective, judge rules

Mayor BloombergThat big gulp you heard east of the Hudson? It was the reaction to a ruling by New York Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling, who to...

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Mayor Bloomberg

That big gulp you heard east of the Hudson? It was the reaction to a ruling by New York Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling, who today tossed out New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on large sugary drinks, which were set to go into effect tomorrow.

Fuhgeddaboudit, said the melodiously-named jurist.

The judge said the regulations were "fraught with arbitrary and capricious consequences," partly because they would have barred restaurants, food carts, delis, theaters and stadiums from selling sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces while supermarkets and convenience stores would not have been affected.

That, said the judge, made no sense.

"The simple reading of the rule leads to the earlier acknowledged uneven enforcement even within a particular city block, much less the city as a whole….the loopholes in this rule effectively defeat the state purpose of the rule," he wrote.

It's not that the city didn't want to impose its rules on supermarkets and convenience stores, it's simply that it isn't able to do so because they're regulated by the state, whereas the delis and so forth fall under the warm embrace of the NYC Health Department.

Tingling over the last-minute setback, Bloomberg's office Tweeted that it would appeal: "We plan to appeal the sugary drinks decision as soon as possible, and we are confident the measure will ultimately be upheld."

The big shape-up

The big-sugar ban followed a string of New York City health edicts that include a strict policy on public smoking, and a ban on trans fats throughout the five boroughs.

PhotoWhile His Honor insists he's just trying to make New Yorkers shape up, lose weight, live longer and so forth, critics say the nanny-state rules are turning New York into the kind of namby-pamby town where people don't even jaywalk anymore, let alone smoke, drink big sodas and wolf down whatever it is that would have trans fat in it.

Cynics say that Hoboken -- yes, Hoboken -- is becoming the wild and crazy place New York used to be, as our Daryl Nelson noted recently, adding the truly painful observation that Hoboken and even Jersey City have a better view of the New York skyline.

Not surprisingly, Hizzoner's mouthpieces don't agree with the critics.

“We’ve heard claims of pending apocalypse before when we proposed bold public health initiatives, and they have been proven false, said a spokeswoman for Bloomberg, Samantha Levine, in a statement last year. “Critics predicted the end of tourism and that businesses would sink when we banned smoking in bars and restaurants, yet we’ve grown tourism to record levels and the restaurant and bar industry continues to grow.”

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Netflix: U.S. leads in broadband speeds

Google Fiber helps put USA over the top, even though few customers have it

Netflix unveiled its Global Speed Index website Monday, aggregating performance results from its 33 million worldwide subscribers in one place, a...

PhotoYou frequently hear complaints that the United States lags in broadband access, and it may well be that rural areas aren't as well served as they might be. But when it comes to speed, the U.S. is doing just fine, thanks.

That's the result of Netflix' most recent Global Speed Index, which aggregates performance results from its 33 million worldwide subscribers, letting consumers see which ISP offers the best Netflix performance in their country.

The U.S. can thank Google Fiber for putting it over the top in February. Although there aren't many Google Fiber customers yet, since the service is only being offered in a portion of Kansas City, those lucky few saw an average Netflix speed of 3.35 Mbps in February.

The Netflix finding lend support to a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, which found broadband speeds hitting, and even exceeding, their advertised targets much of the time. 

Second in is the U.K., where Virgin customers averaged 2.37 Mbps during the same month. At the bottom of the list is Mexico, where the fastest ISP averaged 2.10 Mbps.

As for which companies are delivering the fastest streaming in the U.S., well, here's the chart:

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Flu and the weather: a connection?

A new study says the two are related

Remember how your mother would warn you that going out in chilly or rainy weather without a coat would make you sick? Turns out that -- as was usually the ...

PhotoRemember how your mother would warn you that going out in chilly or rainy weather without a coat would make you sick? Turns out that -- as was usually the case -- mom was on to something.

An epidemiological study led by researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center found that two types of environmental conditions -- cold-dry and humid-rainy -- are associated with seasonal influenza epidemics.

The paper, published in PLoS Pathogens, presents a simple climate-based model that maps flu activity globally and accounts for the diverse range of seasonal patterns observed across temperate, subtropical and tropical regions.

Tracking the spread of flu

The findings could be used to improve existing current influenza transmission models, and could help target surveillance efforts and optimize the timing of seasonal vaccine delivery, according to Fogarty researcher Cecile Viboud, Ph.D., who headed the study.

“The model could have a broader application, encouraging researchers to analyze the association between climatic patterns and infectious disease across a wide range of diseases and latitudes,” said Viboud.

Human influenza infections exhibit a strong seasonal cycle in temperate regions, and laboratory experiments suggest that low specific humidity facilitates the airborne survival and transmission of the virus in temperate regions. Specific humidity is the ratio of water vapor to dry air in a particular body of air while relative humidity -- commonly used in weather forecasts -- the amount of water vapor in the air relative to its capacity to hold water vapor, and is primarily a function of temperature.

Data from animal studies indicate low temperature and humidity increase the duration of the virus’s reproduction and expulsion in infected organisms and virus stability in the environment, increasing the probability of transmission through coughing, sneezing or breathing. In contrast, high temperature seems to block airborne transmission.

According to James Tamerius, Ph.D., a geographer at Columbia University, New York City, and the first author of the study, the effect of low specific humidity on influenza could cause annual winter epidemics in temperate areas. “However, this relationship is unlikely to account for the epidemiology of influenza in tropical and subtropical regions where epidemics often occur during the rainy season or transmit year-round without a well-defined season,” he said.

Predicting flu outbreaks

After assessing the role of local climatic variables on virus seasonality in a global sample of study sites, Viboud and her colleagues found that temperature and specific humidity were the best individual predictors of the months of maximum influenza activity, known as influenza peaks.

The team discovered that in temperate regions, influenza was more common one month after periods of minimum specific humidity. These periods happen to coincide with months of lowest temperature. In contrast, sites that maintained high levels of specific humidity and temperature were generally characterized by influenza epidemics during the most humid and rainy months of the year. “The models we used predicted the timing of peak influenza activity with 75 to 87 percent accuracy,” said Viboud.

More to be done

"Anecdotal evidence suggests that colder climates have winter flu while warmer climates that experience major fluctuations in precipitation have flu epidemics during the rainy season, and the current study fits that pattern,” said Viboud. “In contrast, the seasonality of influenza is less well-defined in locations with little variation in temperature and precipitation, and is a pattern that remains poorly understood. One hypothesis that is often used to explain tropical influenza activity is that people congregate indoors more frequently during the rainy season, increasing contact rates and disease transmission. There is little data to confirm this, however, and it’s an interesting area for future research."

Though the study offers researchers a new tool in the global effort to track the spread of influenza, climate is only one of several potential drivers of influenza seasonality. “Further work should focus on examining the role of population travel and other factors in influenza transmission,” notes Mark Miller, M.D., director of Fogarty’s Division of International Epidemiology and Population Studies. ”

More broadly, additional analysis of the link between climate and infectious diseases is needed -- particularly for respiratory and intestinal pathogens that display marked seasonality. The authors conclude, “A better understanding of the environmental, demographic and social drivers of infectious disease seasonality is crucial for improving transmission models and optimizing interventions.”

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Irregular heartbeat symptoms differ by gender

The differences could be important in 'real-world' situations

It may be politically incorrect to say so, but there is a difference between men and women -- particularly when it comes to certain heart ailments. Accord...

PhotoIt may be politically incorrect to say so, but there is a difference between men and women -- particularly when it comes to certain heart ailments.

According to an analysis of patients in a large national registry compiled by the Duke Clinical Research Institute, women with atrial fibrillation have more symptoms and lower quality of life than men with the same condition.

The finding adds to a growing body of research that highlights gender disparities in how cardiovascular disease is managed, and serves as a caution to doctors to be alert to treatment decisions that might perpetuate the differences.

"We need to pay close attention to women with atrial fibrillation, and it's important for physicians to know that women with the condition have more symptoms and a lower quality of life than their male counterparts," said Jonathan P. Piccini, M.D., MHSc, an assistant professor of medicine and electrophysiology at Duke. Piccini presented the data during the American College of Cardiology's 62nd Annual Scientific Sessions & Expo.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of abnormal heart rhythm, affecting more than 2 million people in the United States. Symptoms include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue. The condition is associated with an increased risk of stroke and reduced survival.

Piccini and colleagues at Duke analyzed outcomes data from more than 10,000 patients with atrial fibrillation enrolled in a long-term, observational study called the Outcomes Registry for Better Informed Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation, or ORBIT-AF.

The study was launched in 2010 to help healthcare providers understand how atrial fibrillation is managed and to better understand long-term outcomes among patients in "real-world" situations. The registry is tool to evaluate long-term health outcomes, quality of life, and the impact of existing and emerging treatments.

The current analysis involved 10,132 people with atrial fibrillation from 176 clinics and practices across the country. About 42 percent of study participants were women.

Gender disparities

Both men and women took blood thinners at about the same rate, but beyond that, several disparities emerged. Compared with men, women in the study:

  • Tended to be older;
  • Generally had lower rates of coronary artery disease and sleep apnea, as well as a less severe form of atrial fibrillation that occurs periodically;
  • Had higher risk for stroke;
  • Reported lower quality of life on a survey that measures symptoms, daily activities and treatment concerns in patients with atrial fibrillation;
  • Had less optimal control of their anti coagulation.

"If you look at many disease processes, the experience and outcomes of men and women are different," Piccini said. "Although women live longer than men in general, in many cardiovascular diseases, women have more functional limitations. Why this occurs is the $64,000 question."

Despite having more symptoms and worse quality of life, women with atrial fibrillation tended to live longer than their male peers. Piccini said additional studies could help pinpoint the causes of the disparities.

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Post-stroke walking program improves stroke survivors' lives

A little time and exercise can make a lot of difference

People who have suffered a stroke often lack energy and are afraid of falling while walking, prompting them to withdraw from meaningful activities like goi...

PhotoPeople who have suffered a stroke often lack energy and are afraid of falling while walking, prompting them to withdraw from meaningful activities like going to church, buying groceries and visiting friends and family. But a new study finds that ratcheting back isn't particularly helpful.

In fact, research in the American Heart Association journal Stroke shows regular, brisk walking after having a stroke could help boost your physical fitness, mobility and quality of life.

"Walking is a great way to get active after a stroke," said Carron Gordon, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a lecturer in the physical therapy department at University of the West Indies in Jamaica. "It's familiar, inexpensive, and it's something people could very easily get into."

Walking study

Researchers divided 128 adult stroke survivors into a group that performed brisk outdoor walking three times a week for three months and a group that had therapeutic massage and no supervised exercise.

Compared with the massage group, the walkers:

  • Reported a 16.7 percent improvement in quality of life based on physical health.
  • Walked 17.6 percent farther in a six-minute endurance test.
  • Had a 1.5 percent lower resting heart rate (the massage group's resting heart rate was 6.7 percent higher).

Previous research has shown that improving physical activity without putting too much stress on your body can help achieve a higher quality of life after a stroke. But those studies evaluated treadmill walking and cycling.

The new study shows you can walk without exercise equipment at any convenient place in the community, Gordon said.

Quality of life improves

Study participants were from three Jamaican hospitals, had either an ischemic or hemorrhagic stroke six to 24 months before the study and could walk independently with or without a cane. The average age of the 70 women and 58 men was 64.

Before and after the study, researchers interviewed participants and measured their fitness and quality of life. They also monitored heart rate and blood pressure before and after each walking session.

Walking group participants were supervised by instructors during their walk. Eventually, friends or family members could walk along instead, until the participants were comfortable walking alone, Gordon said.

Although most study participants were blacks living in Jamaica, similar results can be expected in any ethnic or cultural group, Gordon said. However, the results can't be extended to patients with more severe effects or those unable to walk independently.

"Walking can help control blood pressure, reduce lipid or fat levels and help with weight control — all cardiovascular risk factors," Gordon said. "So doctors should encourage it for patients who have had a stroke."

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or some combination of both) for most people. For stroke survivors, the association recommends aerobic exercise three to seven days a week, for 20 to 60 minutes, depending on fitness level.

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Turducken Canine Recipe patties recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Steve’s Real Food of Murray, UT, is recalling its 5-lb. bags of "Turducken Canine Diet -- 8-oz. patties due to potential contamination of Salmonella. Pet...

PhotoSteve’s Real Food of Murray, UT, is recalling its 5-lb. bags of "Turducken Canine Diet -- 8-oz. patties due to potential contamination of Salmonella.

Pets with Salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets will have only decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. Infected but otherwise healthy pets can be carriers and infect other animals or humans. If your pet has consumed the recalled product and have these symptoms, please contact your veterinarian.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The recalled Turducken Canine Diet -- 8-oz Patties in a 5-lb. bag were distributed from October 2012, to January 2013, in retail stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, California, Minnesota and Tennessee.

Production of the product has been suspended while the company and the FDA continue their investigation as to the source of the problem.

The product comes in 5 lb. green and cream colored biodegradable film bags with lot number 209-10-27-13 with an expiration date of October 27, 2013.

Consumers who have purchased 5-lb. bags of Steve’s Real Food Turducken Canine Recipe are urged to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions should contact the company at 801-540-8481 or gary@stevesrealfood.com Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 5:00 pm MST.

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It's time to get serious about retirement

But it's a subject many of us put off at our peril

Retirement was once a subject of fond anticipation. All too often these days its a topic of dread. Who, after all, can afford to retire?The whole concept...

PhotoRetirement was once a subject of fond anticipation. All too often these days it's a topic of dread. Who, after all, can afford to retire?

The whole concept has changed in recent years. At one time, a retiree hung it up around age 65 and began drawing Social Security and maybe a pension. If they had a low cost of living, they could do nicely. Weekly golf games, parties with friends and maybe a trip or two each year.

Somewhere along the way our idea of retirement became a bit more ambitious: a vacation home in Florida or maybe the purchase of a New England bed & breakfast or a California vineyard as a retirement business.

Some might have adequately saved and invested for such a life of leisure but most of us didn't. According to a survey by ING, the national average for retirement savings is 2.42 times your annual income. People in New Mexico saved the most, at 4.56 times their income.

Great Recession

Then along came the Great Recession of 2008. That seemed to change the landscape for a lot of people nearing retirement age.

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Michelle Perry Higgins

“I believe this downturn hit baby boomers the worst,” said Michelle Perry Higgins, a principal at California Financial Advisors, in San Ramon, Calif. “Many people at or nearing retirement age were forced back to work or had their retirement dates pushed out. Some even began tapping into their retirement funds early to make ends meet. They simply never imagined that home value and stock market losses could be so severe. I also believe that many investors have had to reassess their risk level and determine what they could tolerate in this new economy.”

They've also had to recalibrate their savings goals. But how much savings is enough? A number of websites have devised retirement savings calculators, to help answer that question.

Last November the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College issued a report finding that over half of U.S. households may be unable to maintain their present standard of living in retirement. The hardest-hit were those nearing retirement and those with the highest incomes.

Rising medical costs

A 2012 study by Fidelity Investments found a 65-year-old couple retiring last year was estimated to need $240,000 just to cover medical expenses throughout retirement. That was a four percent increase from the previous year, when the estimate was $230,000.

“Today’s workers must understand that the cost of health care is expected to continue rising significantly in future years,” said Brad Kimler, executive vice president of Fidelity’s Benefits Consulting business. “Medical inflation is outpacing salary increases and cost-of-living adjustments for many people. Until that situation changes, it is critical that individuals include health care costs in their retirement savings strategies today so they can be prepared to pay their medical bills throughout retirement.”

Social Security won't get you very far but surprisingly, many retirees rely on Social Security benefits as their primary source of income. For a 65-year-old couple retiring in 2012 on a $75,000 annual household income, Fidelity estimates their annual Social Security payments will be about $29,970.

In another report, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found 60% of workers report total savings and investments, excluding home value and pension, are less than $25,000. It found 56% of workers have not even attempted to determine how much they need in retirement savings.

Sense of urgency

Photo“The people I see that have a heightened sense of urgency about retirement are those that were actively planning for retirement pre-recession,” Higgins said. “They were caught off guard like everyone else, but they made corrections more quickly. During the financial crisis they were on top of their finances, adjusting living expenses, reviewing their portfolios and evaluating risk. These folks understand how the meltdown changed their financial plan, and are making moves necessary to keep themselves on track.”

Making matters worse for many people approaching retirement age is debt. It's a huge drain on resources at a time you need to be putting money away for the future. Credit card debt, car loans and even student loans are proving to be a financial drag for some baby boomers. If there's one message Higgins would like to deliver it's this: stop procrastinating.

“I believe there are many Americans that are not adequately prepared for retirement and the reality of this terrifies them,” she said. “I urge those people to take their heads out of the sand and start the planning process now. The recession didn’t discriminate against race or class; it affected everyone, so we all need to take some type of action. A retirement recovery plan will take a bit of effort, but it doesn’t have to be done alone. There are plenty of well qualified financial advisors that can help.”

Getting a handle on expenses

To get serious about retirement, Higgins says you need to get a handle on your expenses. If you've never tracked your expenses, start now – looking for places to cut. In addition, she says there are five questions you need to answer to get on the road to a secure retirement:

  1. Would I be willing to downsize my home or move out of the area?
  2. Am I willing to reduce my standard of living, if need be?
  3. Can I continue to work for several more years if my financial plan requires it?
  4. What is my model for retirement and is it a priority to me?
  5. Have I been honest with my financial planner so they can help me achieve my goals?
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Is your nail salon clean? Here's how to tell

There's all kinds of nasty little things that you can catch at your neighborhood nail shop

Maybe you’re getting ready for an evening out with your guy or your girlfriends or maybe you just want to get your usual weekly touchup, but either w...

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Facebook gets a facelift

The social media and trivia site insists it is becoming a "personalized newspaper"

Facebook, where people post pictures of their babies, cats, dogs and cars, is undergoing a facelift that its impresarios hope will make it look a little le...

PhotoFacebook, where people post pictures of their babies, cats, dogs and cars, is undergoing a facelift that its impresarios hope will make it look a little less like the bulletin board at the local Safeway.

The redo of Facebook's "news feed," as it calls its often odd collection of postings, brings a cleaner, more minimalist look to the site, in the hope that users will stay there longer and consume more advertising and sponsored content.

"We've completely rebuilt each story to be much more vibrant and colorful and highlight the content that your friends are sharing. Photos, news articles, maps and events all look brighter and more beautiful," Facebook gushed in a prepared statement.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg says -- and actually appears to believe -- that the new design will be the foundation for building the "best personalized newspaper" anywhere.

News isn't noise

News, of course, is something a bit more than just random noise but Zuckerberg either doesn't know this or just chooses to ignore it. He proudly proclaimed at a briefing Thursday that the new Facebook would feature bigger pictures, new fonts and logos of publications and companies.

These, of course, are things that newspapers have -- you know, pictures, words, ads. So since he has those, Facebook must be a newspaper, seems to be the logic.

Currently, lots of users complain that they have trouble figuring out why their "news feed" has the content it does, much of it clearly not being news. The answer, of course, is that it's selected by an algorithm that thinks it knows what each person wants to see, based on who that person's friends are, where they're located, what types of things they've posted, and so on.

To try to make it a little easier to comprehend, Facebook will be reverting to something it offered a few years ago -- the option of seeing the latest items in the "news feed," all of them or certain other types of items, rants about music, for example.

Besides the "news feed," Facebook says it's adding these new entries:

- All Friends - a feed that shows you everything your friends are sharing
- Photos - a feed with nothing but photos from your friends and the Pages you like
- Music - a feed with posts about the music you listen to
- Following - a feed with the latest news from the Pages you like and the people you follow.

The new design is being rolled out over the next few weeks. If you just can't wait, you can put yourself on a priority waiting list

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Ford SUVs can roll away while in 'park,' feds find, but do nothing

It's not a common-enough problem to warrant a recall, NHTSA decides

For four years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been investigating whether three Ford SUVs can roll away when the ...

PhotoFor four years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been investigating whether three Ford Motor Co. SUV models can roll away when the transmission is in "park."

The verdict: Yes, they can, but not often enough to warrant a recall. NHTSA said its calculations lead it to conclude that the parking gear in the automatic transmission failed 4.4 times per 100,000 vehicles.

Had the feds decided the SUVs were more likely to roll away unexpectedly,  Ford might have had to recall 1.5 million Ford Explorers, Mercury Mountaineers and Lincoln Aviators from the 2002 to 2005 model years.

NHTSA said it has received 36 complaints, including 14 that involves crashes and six that included injuries. No deaths were reported.

In its statement, NHTSA seemed to say the transmissions are defective but stopped short of conceding anything needs to be done about it.

The "closing of this investigation does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that a safety-related defect does not exist," the agency said, apparently trying to resolve any confusion. It added that the number of incidents has been declining in recent years and, therefore, the condition offers less of a risk than it did a few years ago, say back when the investigation started.

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Wrigley's introducing caffeinated gum

"Alert Energy" gum hopes to avoid some of the problems that have plagued energy drinks

For decades, chewing gum was just, well, chewing gum. About the most you could expect to get out of it was a bubble now and then.Nicorette changed all th...

PhotoFor decades, chewing gum was just, well, chewing gum. About the most you could expect to get out of it was a bubble now and then.

Nicorette changed all that; suddenly chewing gum became a delivery vehicle for nicotine, supposedly helping smokers kick the habit. Oddly, not much else happened -- no vitamin-enriched, antibacterial, gluten-free gums.

Ah, but now there's caffeinated gum, courtesy of Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., longtime makers of such household names as Juicy Fruit and Doublemint. Instead of just doubling your fun, Wrigley's new Alert Energy Caffeine Gum promises to give you an energy jolt without the bother of glugging liquid from a bottle or gulping down pills.

But there's a lot to chew on when you get into the energy-boost market. Just ask the makers of AMP, Monster Energy Drinks and 5-hour Energy. They're facing scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration as well as city and state regulators concerned about caffeine overdoses in younger users.

No brand extension

Hoping to avoid similar problems, Wrigley says Alert Energy is being targeted at the 25-and-up market and will not be associated with existing brands like Doublemint.

And while this may be a good idea, it's not actually a new one. Wrigley has been producing caffeinated gum for years. In 1998, it came up with a cinnamon-flavored caffeine gum intended for the military, the idea being to give combat troops a highly portable source of caffeine.

Congress funded a study on the gum's effectiveness and the results were encouraging, according to published accounts from long ago.

Among the advantages: caffeine from gum is absorbed quickly, delivering 85 percent of its dose in five minutes, compared to 45 to 90 minutes for a cup of coffee to take effect. That's because chewed nicotine is absorbed through the tissues of the mouth instead of having to travel through the digestive system. 

Among the disadvantages: the taste. Caffeine is bitter and while the cinnamon covered up some of the taste, it didn't obliterate it entirely.

A competitor, Jolt, emerged and stole some of Wrigley's thunder and was promptly sued by Wrigley for patent infringement. Meanwhile, Red Bull and similar energy drinks became popular among troops, stealing some of the gum's thunder. But both Wrigley and Jolt have continued producing more potent caffeinated gum for the military for years.

A little bitter 

In its latest attempt to get everyday Americans chewing their caffeine, Wrigley is being upfront about the taste, admitting that, although Alert comes in fruit and mint flavors, it still has a bitter, medicinal taste. But then, so do most energy drinks.  

Wrigley officials are hoping the slightly bitter taste is a reminder to customers that Alert is a gum with a purpose, not a sweet treat. No doubt the company is also hoping the taste discourages teens from abusing the gum.  

The company said a pack of Alert will sell for about $2.99 and will contain eight pieces, each packing about 40 milligrams of caffeine. That's about half the amount in an eight-ounce cup of coffee.

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Sell your house with five inexpensive improvement projects

How to make your home stand out without spending a lot

For homeowners who want to put their homes on the market, the news seems to get better by the day. Sales are up and so are prices. The number of homes for ...

PhotoFor homeowners who want to put their homes on the market, the news seems to get better by the day. Sales are up and so are prices. The number of homes for sale continues to decline, meaning more buyers may be looking at your home.

But it is far from a seller's market and to make your home stand out, and reduce the number of days it sits on the market, you should consider some home improvement projects that will make it more appealing. At the same time, you should avoid expensive projects because it's money you won't get back in a sale.

After consulting with a number of home improvement and real estate experts over the years, we've come up with five inexpensive projects that will not only make your home sell faster, but might get you closer to your asking price.

A clean look

Let's start with something basic; soap and water, along with a fresh coat of paint. Maybe you've gotten used to the dirty smudges on woodwork and faded paint but it's going to be jarring to a prospective buyer walking into your home for the first time. It's going to plant the thought in their minds that the home hasn't been cared for.

You can change that perception with a thorough cleaning and a fresh coat of paint, on both walls and woodwork. If you have the time, patience and proper tools this can be an easy do-it-yourself job. Paint is inexpensive but don't be tempted by buy the cheapest brand. Using a quality paint might mean the difference in having to apply one coat or two. Before starting, repair any holes or scars in the walls so you have a nice, smooth surface.

Curb appeal

PhotoDon't neglect the outside of your home. Trim and siding may need a fresh coat of paint. If you have vinyl or aluminum siding, consider renting a power washer and cleaning it. If bushes next to the house have gotten too large, cut them back and accent them with a fresh mulch bed.

Look for ways to make the front of your home more appealing from the street. When someone drives by and sees the sign in the yard, what they see should make them want to stop and see more. This is one of the least expensive projects you can take on, yet can yield the greatest results – especially if it gets a prospective buyer in the door.

Flooring

Once a prospective buyer crosses the threshold, chances are their eyes are going to dip to the floor. You want to make sure that what they see isn't a turnoff. Replacing flooring is the most costly of the five projects we'll cover, but it can be the most important if your carpet is old, worn and dirty.

PhotoAt the very least you should consider shampooing all carpets. If any flooring is to be replaced, the flooring in the main entryway should be the top priority. It might not be necessary to replace flooring throughout the house but the first flooring a prospective buyer sees should be pleasing to the eye.

If you are considering replacing old carpet, check into the cost of replacing it with hardwood flooring instead. The difference in price might not be that much more. If you already have hardwood, consider using some type of brightener product to restore their luster. Again, it's a small investment.

Kitchen improvements

There is no doubt that the kitchen is one of the most important rooms in your house when it comes to closing a sale, but don't go overboard. It's easy to spend a lot of money on a kitchen, but unless yours is a total wreck, it's not necessary.

PhotoBecause kitchens are often a matter of individual taste, the buyer will eventually redo the kitchen, in all likelihood. You just want to make sure yours isn't a total turnoff.

If your cabinets are old and out of date, consider refacing them with new doors and hardware. It can provide a clean, modern look for not a lot of money.

Consider updating the plumbing and light fixtures. Try to avoid replacing major appliances – again, these are highly personal choices – making those a bargaining chip.

Hardware 

If you have an older home, chances are previous owners have painted over door hinges and light switch plates at some point. To give your home a fresh, new look throughout, replace hinges and switch plates with new ones.

At the same time, replace heating and air conditioning vent covers. It costs very little but yields dramatic results.

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Spring may be coming earlier as climate change progresses

Fall could come later as well, creating an even longer, hotter summer

Tired of winter? Well, hang around a few years and spring will start a bit earlier, according to a new study which finds that by 2100, "budburst" may &nbsp...

PhotoTired of winter? Well, hang around a few years and spring will start a bit earlier, according to a new study which finds that by 2100, "budburst" may  come five weeks earlier in the Northeast, but only a week or so earlier in the South, giving Southern states something new to complain about. 

The term "budburst" refers to the time when buds leaf out and Nature basically shakes itself awake after its long winter's nap, rather than to the "official" start of spring, which coincides with the March 20 equinox.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, used data from the USA National Phenology Network and simulated how climate change would impact the budburst date of trees in different areas.

Researchers say that spring is already coming about three days earlier than it did a few deacades ago. They say that fall could start coming later as well, creating a longer summer in much of the nation.

While a longer summer is good for growing crops, it can cause problems like drought and extended heat waves. Longer summers also increase the risk of skin cancer, already a major  health problem in the U.S. 

Longer summer 

Spring is already coming about three days earlier than it did between 1951 and 1980, on March 17 instead of March 20. Fall could even start coming later, as well, extending the summer and the growing season, though there will also be more frequent and more intense drought and heat waves.

The changing conditions will affect the behavior of migratory birds and animals and are expected to upset the existing order of things in the animal kingdom, stressing some species while energizing others.

While no one can really predict all the consequences of climate change, the authors of the report say that, in general, “the North is going to become more South-like.”

Chances are the accents won't change though.

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Daylight Saving Time means Battery Replacement Time

It's time to make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are working properly

Daylight Saving Time (DST) is wonderful thing. For example, it means a lot of us will arrive home from work before it's dark. But it also means it's time f...

PhotoDaylight Saving Time (DST) is wonderful thing. For example, it means a lot of us will arrive home from work before it's dark. But it also means it's time for a little simple maintenance that could literally save your life.

If you have working smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in your home it's time to change the batteries. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), two-thirds of fire deaths occur in homes without working smoke alarms. In fact, there are more than 366,000 home fires every year and more than 2,300 people die in them, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) latest Residential Fire Loss Estimates report.

Change your clocks -- and your batteries

PhotoWhen setting clocks ahead one hour for Daylight Saving Time this weekend, replace the batteries in alarms. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey for 2011, only three out of four homes reported they changed the batteries in their smoke alarms in the last six months. Batteries need to be replaced in alarms every year. In addition, CPSC recommends that consumers test their alarms every month to make sure they are working.

Smoke alarms should be placed on every level of the home, inside each bedroom, and outside sleeping areas.

CO alarms

While about 95% of U.S. homes report having at least one working smoke alarm, only 42% report having a working CO alarm, based on 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data. CO alarms can alert you and your family to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide inside your home.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 500 people die each year in the U.S. from unintentional, non-fire related CO poisoning. This includes incidents involving automobiles left idling in a home’s garage, which does not fall under CPSC’s jurisdiction. Each year from 2007 to 2009, there were nearly 170 deaths involving consumer products under CPSC’s jurisdiction, including portable generators and home heating systems.

Carbon monoxide is called the invisible killer, because you cannot see or smell it. This poisonous gas can come from a variety of sources and quickly incapacitate and kill its victims.

If you do not have CO alarms, get them. They should be installed on every level of the home and outside sleeping areas. Like smoke alarms, CO alarms need fresh batteries every year. They should be tested once a month to make sure they are working.

Combination smoke and CO alarms are also available all in one unit.

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Pampered Chef recalls garlic slicers

A blade can unexpectedly dislodge, posing a laceration hazard

The Pampered Chef of Addison, IL, is recalling about 286,000 garlic slicers. A blade on the slicer can unexpectedly dislodge during use, posing a lacerati...

PhotoThe Pampered Chef of Addison, IL, is recalling about 286,000 garlic slicers.

A blade on the slicer can unexpectedly dislodge during use, posing a laceration hazard to the consumer. The company has received 23 reports of blades detaching during use, including one report of a consumer who cut her finger.

This recall involves The Pampered Chef garlic slicers sold individually and with a garlic peeler. The slicers were sold under product numbers 1113 (individual) and 2578 (set). The two-piece white plastic, tube shaped slicer measures 2 1/4 inches by 3 1/2 inches and has two blades on the end. "The Pampered Chef" is engraved on the top cover.

The slicers, manufactured in China, were sold at The Pampered Chef independent consultants nationwide and online from January 2009 through July 2011 for about $14 for the individual garlic slicer and $20 for the set.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled garlic slicers and contact The Pampered Chef for a replacement product.

Consumers may contact the company at productalert@pamperedchef.com or toll-free at (877) 917-2433 anytime. To speak with an operator, consumers can call between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CT Saturday.

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Unemployment drops in February as job creation rises

Economists were expecting fewer new jobs and a steady unemployment rate

The economy cranked out a surprising 236,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in February, pushing the unemployment rate down to 7.7%. While the unemployment rate e...

PhotoThe economy cranked out a surprising 236,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in February, pushing the unemployment rate down to 7.7%.

While the unemployment rate edged down 0.2% last month, it has shown little real movement since September 2012. The decline in the rate is largely due to the fact that 130,00 people dropped out of the labor market -- in other words -- quit looking for work. The number of people unemployed is put at 12.0 million.

Figures released by the Labor Department show the major employment gains came in professional and business services, construction, and health care. In the prior three months, employment had risen by an average of 195,000 per month.

Both the payroll and unemployment numbers were unexpected. Briefing.com was calling for creation of 170,000 jobs with the unemployment rate holding steady at 7.9%. Payroll processing firm ADP was a bit more optimistic in jobs creation calling for payroll positions to increase by 198,000.

Employment gains

Professional and business services added 73,000 jobs in February after showing little change (+16,000) in January. Employment in administrative and support services, which includes employment services and services to buildings, rose by 44,000. Accounting and bookkeeping services added 11,000 jobs, and growth continued in computer systems design and in management and technical consulting services.

Employment in construction increased by 48,000. Since September, construction employment has risen by 151,000. In February, job growth occurred in specialty trade contractors, with this gain about equally split between residential (+17,000) and nonresidential specialty trade contractors (+15,000). Nonresidential building construction also added jobs (+6,000).

The health care industry continued to add jobs in February (+32,000). Within health care, there was a job gain of 14,000 in ambulatory health care services, which includes doctors' offices and outpatient care centers. Employment also increased over the month in nursing and residential care facilities (+9,000) and hospitals (+9,000).

Demographics

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for whites (6.8%) declined in February while the rates for adult men (7.1%), adult women (7.0%), teenagers (25.1%), blacks (13.8%), and Hispanics (9.6%) showed little or no change. The jobless rate for Asians was 6.1 percent -- little changed from a year earlier.

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Are mobile wallets really in our future?

A fragmented industry and other obstacles mean it could be a distant future

Right now you probably carry your credit cards in a wallet. In the future, will you carry them in a smart phone?You might. A few early adopters are givin...

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Adopting a pet? Here's how to do it the right way

You shouldn't just choose an animal willy-nilly, there are some very important things to consider

As most people know bringing home a new pet can be like bringing home a new baby in many ways.Both add a certain level of excitement to a household, caus...

PhotoAs most people know, bringing home a new pet can be like bringing home a new baby in many ways.

Both add a certain level of excitement to a household, causing people to happily alter some of their ways, both bring an added amount of joy for people who may have lacked it before and both provide a fresh chance for someone to express love and care, which is always healthy to do.

Some folks will head to the pet store to get the animal of their choice and many will head to the nearest shelter to adopt a pet, which adds a rescuing component to caring for an animal.

But what are some of the first things people should think about when adopting a pet, especially those who are adopting for the first time?

Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of  ASPCA’s Adoption Center said proper planning is mandatory when adopting a pet and that planning should start with a discussion between you and each member of your household.

“We do recommend that everyone in the household have a discussion about getting a pet and that means relatives [and] family members. And they should think about who is going to take care of the pet,” said Buchwald in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

Primary caregiver

“Designating a primary caretaker would be appropriate, that’s the person that’s going to be primarily responsible for the feeding, the watering, the walking if it’s a dog and the general care for a cat," she said. "It’s really important that everybody understand whose responsibility it’s going to be, because even though it can often seem like a shared responsibility, typically there’s one person who’s taking on the brunt of it."

“And if I were going to be that one person I want to know it beforehand in a discussion,” she said.

PhotoAnother important step, says Buchwald, is to discuss what the expectations are for everyone in the house, in terms of which pet everybody would prefer and what type of pet would best fit that particular home.

She pointed to some information on the ASPCA website that helps people determine the cost of owning an adopted pet, and the organization is able to break down those numbers according to species and animal size, so people are able to budget much easier and know what to expect financially   each year.

Buchwald says by doing a good amount of research and having informed discussions “the pet search is getting off to a terrific start.” 

An appropriate gift?

But does that mean that adopting a pet for someone as a gift is a bad idea, since it’s best to pre-plan and have household discussions about owning a new animal?

Buchwald says it’s common for people to think that giving an adopted pet as a gift is a bad idea, but in actuality, it’s a wonderful idea she says -- but those same conversations and steps of planning still need to take place and whomever you’re deciding to give a pet to should be let in on the gift idea beforehand, so they can be prepared when the animal arrives.

Photo
Gail Buchwald

Buchwald pointed to a recent case in one of the ASPCA’s adoption shelters where a daughter wanted to give her mother a kitten as a gift, but instead of just going out and getting one, both mother and daughter had extended conversations to determine what the proper fit would be, and the surprise element of the gift came when the daughter brought her mother to the shelter unexpectedly, which suggests adopting a pet as a gift is fine, but the recipient should still be in the know before they take on owenership. 

Furthermore, Buchwald says the ASPCA finds that animals are less likely to be returned when they’re given as gifts, since people feel a sense of gratitude and sentimentality for receiving it. The organization also has gift aid pet certificates that people can purchase and give to someone.

Looks aren't everything

A common mistake when adopting a pet, Buchwald says, is choosing an animal simply because they’re cute, as opposed to selecting one that matches your household and lifestyle.

A common error is “choosing an animal on the basis of their looks,” she says.

Photo“So the puppy that looks real cute or the kitten that’s so energetic and playful and looks adorable, [is the lure] and then we realize what it’s like to live with that 24/7. Or “the kitten that lands on your face at 5 a.m.”

“All of these things that can be so wonderful if we know about them in advance, but can be so difficult if they weren’t anticipated,” says Buchwald.

“We wouldn’t choose a person that we would want to live with solely on the basis of their looks," she adds, "there’s obviously a lot more than that, so it’s sort of the same thing.”

So the right way to adopt a pet has everything to do with planning, and not just randomly selecting an animal that you may be immediately taken with, and if you’ve never owned a pet before and aren’t familiar on how to properly care for one, Buchwald says the ASPCA can help you make the perfect match.

“We have a wonderful program called the ‘Meet Your Match’ program that was developed by a Ph.D. in animal behavior, Dr. Emily Weiss, and it is a way to look at a person’s lifestyle and their lifestyle preferences and their household makeup and match them up with a pet based on compatibility.”

“So getting a real good understanding of things like, ‘Is your household more like a library or more like Grand Central Station?' will help determine if a shy or fearful pet will do well in that home with all the comings and goings."

"Asking are there children in the home or children that come to visit the home sometimes or no children? That will help determine if a pet you’re looking for will do well with children,” Buchwald explains.

Canine-ality test

In addition, she says the ASPCA has a “canine-ality” test for dogs and “feline-ality” test for cats.

“What we do when every animal enters our facility is we test them and find out what their personalities are so we can make informed matchups, she says.”

And what’s the best way to get a pet acclimated to your home? Buchwald says it really depends on the species of the animal.

“We say that a quiet household is going to be the best transition, so the day you bring your pet home don’t bring your family, friends and others to come meet him. Give him some time to settle in and get used to the routine.”

“Routine is very important to animals," she adds. "They find comfort in being fed the same time each day." 

"I would strive to try to provide the same type of food that was being provided at the adoption center and try to provide a similar schedule.”

“It can always be altered later in a gradual way, but interestingly enough studies have shown if the cat is used to being fed at 7 a.m.[for example] at 7 a.m. in the new home he’s going to start looking around for his breakfast and if it tastes really different from what he used to eat, he’s going to start feeling like this is a little weird."

Moreover, a gradual change in diet is necessary for digestion purposes, she says.

Lastly, Buchwald advises to keep cats in a separate room away from the rest of the house, as complete access to the home may overwhelm a cat and cause it to hide beneath a couch or bed.

 

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Don't know your rights with telemarketers? You have a lot of company

Consumers say it's hard to tell who is and isn't a scammer

You get one of those phone calls we all hate to get: a telemarketer from a company you don't know trying to sell you something. Is it legit? Who knows. Th...

PhotoYou get one of those phone calls we all hate to get: a telemarketer from a company you don't know trying to sell you something. Is it legit? Who knows.

That's a pretty common occurrence. According to a new survey from Consumer Federation of America (CFA), nearly nine in 10 adults in the United States are concerned that these kinds of calls might be scams. And, more than three-quarters think that it’s hard for most consumers to tell if a sales call is on the level.

Additionally, the survey revealed that most adults don’t know their basic telemarketing rights. “Knowing your rights can help you tell the difference between legitimate telemarketing offers and scams,” says Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection at CFA and leader of CFA’s Consumer Protection Institute.

As part of National Consumer Protection Week, CFA is offering new resources to help consumers avoid telemarketing fraud. They include a guide about consumers’ basic telemarketing rights, tips on spotting fraud and a short, humorous video. This educational project was supported by a grant from Western Union.

"A person’s best defense is to learn how to spot the signs of a scam before sending money,” said Shelley Bernhardt, director of global consumer protection at Western Union. “Consumer fraud is an industry issue. By working with CFA we can help prevent unsuspecting individuals from becoming a victim of fraud.”

National Do Not Call Registry

The first question in the survey was whether the respondents had put their phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry (DNC). Of the 1,008 adults surveyed, more than half (52%) said they had put their number on the DNC, 46% had not, and 2% were unsure. A greater number of older people said they had done so than younger people (68% of respondents age 55 and older versus 30% age 18-34).

But in a series of multiple choice questions about consumers’ telemarketing rights, the people who had put their numbers on the DNC or who said they were concerned about telemarketing fraud did not necessarily fare any better than other survey respondents in choosing the correct answers. For instance, the second question asked, if you put your phone number on the DNC, which of the following is true:

  1. No telemarketers are allowed to call you.
  2. Telemarketers are allowed to call you if you have recently done business with them. (correct)
  3. Any telemarketer is allowed to call you, but only in the late afternoon between 4 and 6 p.m.

Only 34% of the people surveyed answered this correctly overall, and of those who had put their number on the DNC, only a slightly higher number -- 39% -- got it right. More than half of the respondents (55%) thought that no telemarketers were allowed to call them if their numbers were on the DNC; the percentage was the same for those who had put their numbers on the DNC. Of those who said they were very or somewhat concerned about telemarketing calls being scams, the results were more mixed: 30% of those very concerned about telemarketing fraud chose the right answer, while 46% of those who said they were somewhat concerned did. Eight percent of respondents overall thought that putting your number on the DNC limits the time that telemarketers can call to late afternoon. The results were similar for those who were very concerned about telemarketing fraud (9% chose that answer) and somewhat concerned (8%) and a bit better for those that had put their numbers on the DNC (only 4% choose that answer).

“Simple things such as understanding when companies are violating your Do Not Call rights and when they’re not can help consumers detect possible fraud, because legitimate companies usually follow the rules, scammers don’t,” said Grant. “Consumers who put their numbers on the Do Not Call Registry should be very wary of sales calls from unfamiliar companies, because those companies shouldn’t be calling.”

Significant survey findings

  • Fifty-eight percent of consumers knew that if you don’t put your phone number on the DNC, telemarketers must stop calling you if you tell them over the phone not to call again – others incorrectly thought that they could ignore your request (21%) or it had to be in writing (17%). The CFA guide explains that consumers always have the right to tell telemarketers not to call again, no matter whether their numbers are on the DNC and regardless of whether they have recently done business with those companies or had given them written permission to make sales calls to them.
  • Consumers were more knowledgeable about their rights when prizes are offered as part of a sales promotion, with 63% correctly answering that you cannot be required to buy something to be eligible to win. Only 11% mistakenly thought that you could be required to make a purchase as long as the cost was less than half the value of the prize, but disturbingly, 19% incorrectly believed that buying something will improve your chances of winning.
  • On a question about robocalls that use recorded messages rather than live people speaking, only 25% of respondents answered correctly that robocalls for sales purposes may only be made to your home phone or cell phone if you gave the telemarketer written permission to make such calls to you. Twenty-nine percent incorrectly thought that telemarketers could make these calls to your home phone but not your cell phone, and 36% mistakenly believed that telemarketers could make those calls to you without your written permission if you had bought something from them before.
  • Thirty-six percent of respondents knew that when a telemarketer calls on behalf of another company, it is allowed to show that company’s number on consumers’ Caller ID instead of its own. Thirty-five percent incorrectly thought that a telemarketer is only required to show its number on Caller ID if the consumer’s number is on the DNC, and 16% mistakenly believed that a telemarketer calling on behalf of a charity is not required to show Caller ID information.
  • When asked about a telemarketer that calls offering to fix problems with your credit record, 35% of respondents correctly answered that the company is not allowed to ask for any payment until it has actually fixed the problems. Nearly as many, however (34%), mistakenly believed that that the company could charge the whole fee upfront as long as it had to give you a full refund if it failed to fix the problems and 16% incorrectly thought that the company could charge 10% of the fee in advance and the remainder after providing the service.
  • When asked if they were concerned that telemarketing calls from companies they haven’t done business with might be a scam instead of a legitimate offer, 89% of respondents said they were (67% were very concerned, 22% somewhat concerned). And when asked how easy or difficult they thought it was for most consumers to tell if telemarketing call is legitimate or a scam, 76% said that they thought it was difficult (42% said very difficult, 34% said fairly difficult).

How they see it

Some of the demographic information gleaned by the survey was also interesting. Far more white respondents had put their numbers on the DNC (61%) than black (33%) or Hispanic (24%). Fewer adults at the low end of the income scale (less than $25,000) had put their numbers on the DNC (36%) than at the higher end of the scale (68% of those with incomes from $75,000 up to $99,999, and 60% of those with incomes of $100,00 or more had done so).

The differences between age, race and income were generally less sharp, however, when it came to answering the telemarketing rights questions correctly. One notable difference was in the question about prize offers, where a greater number of older people answered correctly than younger (75% of those age 55 to 64 and 71% age 65 and older compared to 50% of respondents age 18-34).

On the level of concern about whether telemarketing calls from unfamiliar companies might be scams, there were no significant differences between age, racial or income groups. Younger people and Hispanics were a bit more confident that most consumers can easily tell if a telemarketing call is legitimate or a scam (31% of those age 18-34 thought it was easy for most consumers to tell, and 38% of Hispanics, compared to 23 % of survey respondents overall). Only 15% of those in the $100,000+ income level thought that it would be easy for most consumers to tell.

“We want consumers to ask themselves, ‘Should this company be calling me? Why am I getting a recorded sales pitch when I never gave this company written permission to make them to me? Why doesn’t the company’s phone number show on my Caller ID?’ And to hang up if they think that something is wrong,” said Grant. “There are other clues to look for as well, such as whether telemarketers are asking for payment upfront for to help you settle your debts and whether they only accept payment using a money transfer service or a prepaid card product.”

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Average fuel economy of cars sold in U.S. at record high

New cars sold in February averaged 24.5 mpg, tying the high reached in January

Some people think cars are getting funny-looking. Others think they're getting too small. Could be, but they're also getting a lot more efficient.In fact...

PhotoSome people think cars are getting funny-looking. Others think they're getting too small. Could be, but they're also getting a lot more efficient.

In fact, the University of Michigan reports that the average fuel-economy (window-sticker) value of new vehicles sold in the U.S. in February was 24.5 miles per gallon -- tying the record high reached in January and up 4.4 mpg from the value in October 2007, the first month to be monitored.

Using this and other data, the university puts together something it calls the Eco-Driving Index (EDI) -- an index that estimates the average monthly emissions of greenhouse gases generated by an individual U.S. driver.

Photo

The EDI stood at 0.80 in December, an improvement of 20% since October 2007.  The EDI takes into account both the fuel used per distance driven and the amount of driving.

The average sales-weighted fuel economy was calculated from the monthly sales of individual models of light-duty vehicles (cars, SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks) and the combined city/highway fuel-economy ratings published in the EPA Fuel Economy Guide (i.e., window sticker ratings) for the respective models.

For both monthly and model year averages, sales-weighted arithmetic means were calculated. The bars in the graph show the average for each model year. 

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Sitting the new smoking? No, it's sausages

European study spells it out: eat bacon, you die

Someone recently said that sitting is the new smoking, setting one up for premature death and disability. Perhaps, but a new study shows pretty decisively ...

PhotoSomeone recently said that sitting is the new smoking, setting one up for premature death and disability. Perhaps, but a new study shows pretty decisively that, in fact, sausages are the new smoking. Also bacon.

The study included half a million men and women and was part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. It found a link between processed meat and heart disease and cancer, according to a report of the study published in BMC Medicine

Processed meat includes sausages, ham, bacon, hot dogs and brats. It's apparently the salt, smoke and nitrate that make these kinds of meats so toxic, not to mention the high levels of fat. 

While it's been known for quite some time that such things aren't good for you, this study really puts the nail in the coffin, so to speak. It found, in no uncertain terms, that the more processed meat you eat the more likely you are to die early. 

PhotoThe researchers think the increased cancer risk could be due to the presence of preservatives like the salt, smoke and nitrate. Also, the high levels of fat in these meats.

"Overall, we estimate that 3 percent of premature deaths each year could be prevented if people ate less than 20 grams of processed meat per day," said study researcher Sabine Rohrmann, from the University of Zurich.

This study, by the way, was huge. Half a million people is a lot of data. The researchers said the huge sample makes it possible to filter out the effects of other lifestyle habits besides meat-eating and thus makes the study more reliable. 

There is one little ray of sunshine for carnivores: the study found that there is a small positive effect from eating a small -- we said small -- amount of red meat, possibly because meat is a good source of nutrients and vitamins that are hard to find elsewhere.

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What to do when you find asbestos in your home

Sometimes, doing nothing is the best course of action

Asbestos has been outlawed as a building material for more than three decades, but that doesn't mean it can't turn up in your home. And when it does, it sh...

PhotoAsbestos has been outlawed as a building material for more than three decades, but that doesn't mean it can't turn up in your home. And when it does, it shouldn't be ignored.

It wasn't unusual to find asbestos in construction materials, such as drywall products, floor tile and roofing shingles, up until the mid 1980s. It was used as an insulator and flame retardant. Though it was banned in 1978, the law allowed companies to use up their existing supply of the material until 1986.

Joy, of Fort Worth, Tex., recently discovered her pipes were insulated with asbestos when she called a plumber to repair her water heater.

“He told us the water heater was not even installed to code,” Joy wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “We were not told about the asbestos pipe either. At this point there is no resolution. I don't even know where to begin with this.”

Linked to fatal diseases

Asbestos was outlawed because it is dangerous when it becomes airborne, leading to diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Despite that scary fact, asbestos removal is not always necessary when you discover it. In some cases, experts say doing so could actually increase the risks to you and your loved ones.

That's because asbestos creates harm when the material ages and breaks down or is damaged. As it crumbles, tiny particles are released in the air and can end up in your lungs. If asbestos-containing materials such as drywall and floor tile are undamaged, you could be better off leaving it alone.

But here's a problem. Generally, you can't tell whether material contains asbestos just by looking at it, unless it happens to have a label. To be sure  requires sophisticated tests.

When in doubt

If in doubt, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency with jurisdiction over asbestos removal, says you should treat the material as if it contains asbestos and leave it alone. You may want to have your home inspected for asbestos-containing materials by a trained and accredited asbestos professional if you're planning a remodeling project that could disturb or damage the materials in question.

A trained and accredited asbestos professional should take samples for analysis, since a professional knows what to look for, and because there may be an increased health risk if fibers are released. In fact, if done incorrectly, sampling can be more hazardous than leaving the material alone. For that reason, taking samples yourself is not recommended.

If building materials in your home aren’t damaged and won’t be disturbed, the EPA advises you do not need to have your home tested for asbestos. Material that is in good condition and will not be disturbed should be left alone.

No cause for alarm

For that reason, finding what you think is asbestos in your home is no call for alarm. A visual inspection of the area should tell you if the material is damaged and “leaking” tiny fibers. If it appears to be in good shape, and is unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, it probably poses no risk.

If the material you suspect is asbestos shows signs of wear or damage, or is exposed to potential wear and damage, there are two courses of action and both should be left to professionals.

Repair usually involves either sealing or covering asbestos material. With any type of repair, the asbestos remains in place.

Sealing, also known as encapsulation, involves treating the material with a sealant that either binds the asbestos fibers together or coats the material so fibers are not released. Pipe, furnace and boiler insulation can sometimes be repaired this way. This should be done only by a professional trained to handle asbestos safely.

Covering, also called enclosure, involves placing something over or around the material that contains asbestos to prevent release of fibers. Exposed insulated piping may be covered with a protective wrap or jacket.

Asbestos removal

Removing asbestos from your home can be an expensive project. To keep it from being more expensive than it should be, EPA recommends avoiding a conflict of interest. An asbestos professional hired to assess the need for asbestos repair or removal should not be connected with an asbestos firm that does the actual repair or removal of materials. It is better to use two different firms so there is no conflict of interest.

When considering the services of asbestos professionals, ask them to document their completion of federal or state-approved training. Each person performing work should provide proof of accreditation to do asbestos work.

It is also a good idea to check on the past performance of your candiates with your local air pollution control board, the local agency responsible for worker safety, and the Better Business Bureau. Ask if the firm has had any safety violations. Find out if there are legal actions filed against it.

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Carfax rolls itself onto the used database lot

The privately-owned company reportedly is seeking a buyer

For sale: Single-owner car records company. 140 years on the clock, excellent condition, well-cared-for, has never seen rain....

PhotoFor sale: Single-owner car records company. 140 years on the clock, excellent condition, well-cared-for, has never seen rain. If you have $1 billion or so, you can park Carfax in your driveway. 

Actually, it's not just Carfax that is reportedly for sale but all of R.L. Polk & Co., the family-owned company that provides all kinds of data, research, forecasting and consulting services to the automobile industry.

Polk is best known to consumers for Carfax, which provides car histories  for a fee, using the data it collects from all 50 states.

Although consumers frequently complain about alleged omissions or additions in Carfax reports, it wasn't long ago that car histories were  available only to dealers.  

Potential buyers are likely to include companies such as J.D. Power  & Associates, CarsDirect.com and other research and data services.

Polk was founded in 1870 when it began publishing city directories, including the so-called "reverse" directories -- they listed residents by address instead of by name -- beloved of reporters, private detectives and insurance salesmen.

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'Forensic loan audits,' 'mass joinder lawsuits' didn't solve mortgage problems

California promoters agree to stop their allegedly illegal activities

A California group accused of victimizing more than 1,000 consumers has agreed to stop promoting its "forensic loan audits" and "mass joinder" lawsuits to...

PhotoA California group accused of victimizing more than 1,000 consumers has agreed to stop promoting its "forensic loan audits" and "mass joinder" lawsuits to homeowners seeking relief from mortgage-related problems.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said the promoters deceived cash-strapped consumers into believing they could hold onto their homes and reduce their mortgage payments by either suing their mortgage lenders in so-called “mass joinder” lawsuits or buying “forensic loan audits.”

All of the defendants, including two individuals and seven companies, will surrender assets and be prohibited from making deceptive claims about any product or service, and all but one are banned from marketing mortgage- and debt- relief services.

The FTC filed a complaint in 2012 against Santa Ana-based Sameer Lakhany and five companies he controlled.  The agency later added three more defendants.  

"Specialty law firm"

In the first alleged scam, Lakhany and defendants Brian Pacios, Precision Law Center, Inc., Precision Law Center LLC, National Legal Network, Inc., and Assurity Law Group, Inc., allegedly held themselves out as a specialty law firm called Precision Law Center, making the false promise to consumers that if they sued their lenders along with other homeowners in so-called “mass joinder” lawsuits, they could obtain favorable mortgage concessions from their lenders or stop the foreclosure process. 

According to the complaint, they charged $6,000 to $10,000 in advance, but failed to follow through with the suits, all of which were dismissed shortly after filing.

The second alleged scam, involving Lakhany and defendants The Credit Shop, LLC, Fidelity Legal Services LLC, and Titanium Realty, Inc., typically charged consumers between $795 and $1,595 for a so-called “forensic loan audit.”  

The complaint alleged that these defendants falsely portrayed themselves as nonprofit organizations using the domain names “HouseholdRelief.org,” “MyHomeSupport.org,” and “FreeFedLoanMod.org.”  

They told consumers the loan audits would find lender violations 90 percent of the time or more, and that this would force lenders to give them better mortgage terms.  In fact, the complaint alleged that consumers rarely if ever obtained better mortgage terms as a result of these “forensic loan audits.”

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Feds crack down on spammmers promoting 'free' gift cards

More than 180 million spam text messages were sent

What could be more American then getting something for nothing? After all, that's pretty much the idea behind playing the lottery, isn't it? But when some...

PhotoWhat could be more American then getting something for nothing? After all, that's pretty much the idea behind playing the lottery, isn't it?

But when someone makes a business out of falsely promising something for nothing, that's when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) steps in.

The is agency cracking down on affiliate marketers that allegedly bombarded consumers with hundreds of millions of unwanted spam text messages in an effort to steer them towards deceptive Websites falsely promising “free” gift cards.

In eight different complaints filed in courts around the United States, the FTC charged 29 defendants with collectively sending more than 180 million unwanted text messages to consumers -- many of whom had to pay for receiving the texts.

Bogus promises

The messages promised consumers “free gifts” or prizes, including gift cards worth $1,000 to major retailers such as Best Buy, Walmart and Target. Consumers who clicked on the links in the messages found themselves caught in a confusing and elaborate process that required them to provide sensitive personal information, apply for credit or pay to subscribe to services to get the supposedly “free” cards.

The complaints, according to Charles A. Harwood, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, say “‘game over’ to the major league scam artists behind millions of spam texts. The FTC is committed to rooting out this deception and stopping it. For consumers who find spam texts on their phones, delete them, immediately. The offers are, in a word, garbage."

The FTC complaints targeted defendants who sent the unwanted text messages, as well as those who operated the deceptive Websites. In addition, the commission is pursuing a contempt action against a serial text message spammer, Phil Flora, who was barred in 2011 from sending spam text messages and who is accused of being part of this spam texting scheme as well.

The complaints seek restraining orders against the defendants preventing them from continuing their alleged deceptive and unfair practices as well as preserving and accounting for their assets.

Randomly sent texts

According to the FTC complaints, the defendants sent text messages to random phone numbers, including to consumers who do not have a text message subscription plan. As many as 12 percent of mobile phone users fall into this category.

When consumers followed the links included in the unwanted messages, they were directed to sites that collected a substantial amount of personal information, including in some instances health information, before being allowed to continue toward receiving the supposed gift cards.

In many cases, the information was requested under the guise of being shipping information for the supposed gift cards. The commission alleged the information collected was then sold to third parties for marketing purposes, meaning consumers were deceived as to the real use of the information.

Once consumers entered their personal information, they were directed to another site and told they would have to participate in a number of “offers” to be eligible for their gift card. In some cases, consumers were obligated to sign up for as many as 13 of the offers. These offers frequently included recurring subscriptions for which consumers were required to provide credit card information.

In other cases, they required consumers to submit applications for credit that would be reflected in their credit reports and possibly affect their credit score. If a consumer completed all of the “offers,” they were then notified that to get the promised gift card, they had to find three others who also would complete the offers.

The FTC alleged that the operators of these sites violated the FTC Act by failing to tell consumers about all the conditions attached to the “free” gift, including the possibility that consumers would actually be required to spend money to receive the gift.

According to the FTC, the defendants who sent the text messages were paid by the operators of the “free” gift Websites based on how many consumers eventually entered their information. The operators of these Websites were in turn paid by those businesses who gained customers or subscribers through the “offer” process.

Complaints filed

Seven complaints were filed against the alleged senders of the unsolicited text messages containing deceptive promises of free gifts and prizes:

  • Superior Affiliate Management, a case against five defendants: Ecommerce Merchants, LLC (also doing business as Superior Affiliate Management); Cresta Pillsbury, Jan-Paul Diaz, Joshua Brewer and Daniel Stanitski. This case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago.
  • Rentbro, Inc., a case against three defendants: Rentbro, Inc., Daniel Pessin and Jacob Engel. This case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago.
  • Jason Q. Cruz, a case against one defendant, Jason Q. Cruz (also doing business as Appidemic, Inc.) This case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago.
  • Rishab Verma, a case against two defendants: Verma Holdings, LLC and Rishab Verma. This case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston.
  • AdvertMarketing, a case against three defendants: AdvertMarketing, Inc., Scott A. Dalrymple and Robert Jerrold Wence. This case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston.
  • Henry Kelly, a case against one defendant, Henry Nolan Kelly. This case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta.
  • Seaside Building Marketing, a case against four defendants: Phillip Flora, Sandra Skipper, Kevin Beans and Dakota Geffre (all of whom are also doing business as Seaside Building Marketing Inc. and SB Marketing). This case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles.

One complaint was filed against the alleged operators of the deceptive websites to which consumers were directed by the spam text messages:

  • SubscriberBASE Holdings, Inc.,  a case against ten defendants: SubscriberBASE Holdings, Inc.; SubscriberBASE, Inc.; Jeffrey French; All Square Marketing, LLC; Threadpoint, LLC; PC Global Investments, LLC; Slash 20, LLC; Brent Cranmer; Christopher McVeigh (also doing business as CMB Marketing, Inc.) and Michael Mazzella (also doing business as Mazzco Marketing, Inc.). This case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago.
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Weekly jobless claims fall in advance of February employment report

The total was well below the estimates of economists

A day ahead of the eagerly anticipated February employment data, the Labor Department reports initial applications for state unemployment benefits fell by ...

PhotoA day ahead of the eagerly anticipated February employment data, the Labor Department reports initial applications for state unemployment benefits fell by 7,000 last week -- to a seasonally adjusted 340,000. Economists at Briefing.com were calling for a total of 355,000 .

At the same time, the government revised its number for the holiday-shortened week ending February 23 higher by 3,000 -- to 347,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 348,750, a decrease of 7,000 from the previous week's revised average of 355,750. The previous week had initially been reported as 355,000.

Looking ahead

The government is scheduled to report Friday morning on the employment picture for February. Briefing.com expects that nonfarm payrolls increased by 170,000 last month with the unemployment rate holding steady at 7.9%. The economy created 157,000 jobs in January

Earlier this week, payroll processing firm ADP projected creation of 198,000 jobs during February.  

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Checks in the mail to consumers defrauded in mortgage relief scam

More than 17,000 consumers will be getting checks for $62.50

Checks are going out to more than 17,000 consumers who were swindled by hucksters who charged an upfront fee for bogus mortgage relief services and po...

PhotoChecks are going out to more than 17,000 consumers who were swindled by hucksters who charged an upfront fee for bogus mortgage relief services and posed as a government mortgage assistance program. 

More than $1 million is being returned to consumers, each of whom will receive $62.50. It's part of a settlement with the Residential Relief Foundation, which was ordered to pay restitution and was banned from selling debt relief services.

Consumers who receive the checks from the FTC’s refund administrator should cash them within 60 days of the mailing date.  The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before refund checks can be cashed.  

Those with questions should call the refund administrator, BMC Group, at 1-8662246718, or visit www.FTC.gov/refunds for more general information.

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Job cuts soar in February

The number of pink slips handed out was up for a second straight month

Employers continue to thin the ranks of their workforce with news they planned to cut 55,356 payroll positions in February. That's a jump of 37% from Janu...

PhotoEmployers continue to thin the ranks of their workforce with news they planned to cut 55,356 payroll positions in February. That's a jump of 37% from January's total of 40,430 and the second month in a row that cuts have increased.

Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which puts out the monthly tally, notes that the February total was 7% higher than the 51,728 job cuts announced the same month a year ago and the highest since last November, when 57,081 workers were let go.

Employers have now announced 95,786 job cuts so far this year -- down 9% from the first two months of 2012.

Financial sector woes

The financial sector dominated job cuts last month, with firms announcing 21,724 planned layoffs, the most since 31,167 were announced in September 2011, and nearly three times more than the 7,611 job cuts announced by financial institutions in January. Employers in this sector have now announced 30,302 job cuts this year -- nearly 75 percent of the 41,008 financial job cuts announced in all of 2012.

Retailers announced another 2,279 job cuts in February, bringing the year-to-date total to 8,955 -- the second largest sector total behind financial. Retail job cuts are down 38 percent from a year ago, when these employers announced 14,516 layoffs in January and February.

The largest job-cut announcement of the month came from JP Morgan Chase, which reported plans to reduce its headcount by 19,000 positions over the next two years. On a positive note, a majority of the cuts are due to an improving housing market. The bank is trimming its mortgage unit, which had swelled in recent years to process the large number of troubled mortgages.

“Ideally, you want an improving economy to lead to job creation, but it is not unusual to see employers make reductions in some areas while simultaneously adding in others as changing economic conditions require them to shuffle workforce priorities,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Sequester effect

While the Chase layoffs are a sign of economic bright spots, the 3,000 job cuts planned by United Technologies Corp. this year, may foreshadow a surge in layoffs by aerospace and defense companies as the spending cuts forced by the sequester affect these and other employers.

“In addition to aerospace and defense, the sequester is likely to result in increased job cuts in the government, education and non-profit sectors, as well as private-sector industries that count the government among their biggest customers, such as technology, construction and transportation,” said Challenger.

Sequester-related job cuts have yet to be announced, but several employers are already warning of impending workforce reductions. According to a report by cable news outlet CNN, the Federal Aviation Administration informed contractors that it will begin closing 168 contractor-staffed air traffic towers nationwide on April 1 and another 21 towers by September 30. The number of air traffic controllers impacted by the move has not been released, but one contractor operating 77 of the targeted towers told CNN that the closures could put more than 400 of its employees out of work.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that BAE Systems, contracted by the Navy to repair ships in Hawaii, California, Virginia and Florida, sent a letter to its nationwide “ship r