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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 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.

    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

    The 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.

    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...
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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 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.

    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

    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...
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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 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.

    It’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.

    Conducting 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.

    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...
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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, 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


      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.

      Additionally, 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Then 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.

      And 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      This 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.

      Of 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.

      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...
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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 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

      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

      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.

      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

      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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      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 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

      Don'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.

      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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      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 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.

      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.

      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.

      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.

      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...
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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 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.  

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

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