Current Events in March 2013

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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 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.

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

    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, 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.

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

    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 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.

    And 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.

    “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.

    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...

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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 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.

      All 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

      If 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.

      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...

      T-Mobile adds iPhone with no contract

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

      On 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.

      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.

      -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...

      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 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

      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.

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

      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

      Ordering 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      CSPI 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.

      Seafood, 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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 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

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

      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 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.

      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...

      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.

      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.

      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....

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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

      A 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

      Harry 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.”

      “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.”

      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...

      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 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

      The 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.

      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.

      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.

      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...

      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, 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. 

      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. 

      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...

      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 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

      Since 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

      That'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.

      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...

      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 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.

      “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.

      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...

      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 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.

      Of 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%.

      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...