Browse by year
 | 

Are waiters and waitresses slowly being replaced?

More and more tablets are appearing on restaurant tables. Is it good or bad?

For some reason I’m addicted to the show "Bar Rescue."If you haven’t seen the show, it stars bar expert Jon Taffer, who has been responsible ...

PhotoFor some reason I’m addicted to the show "Bar Rescue."

If you haven’t seen the show, it stars bar expert Jon Taffer, who has been responsible for opening or rejuvenating hundreds of bars around the world.

In each episode a different bar owner calls on Taffer to help turn around his or her failing business. From there, Taffer makes the necessary changes to get the bar back on its feet, which usually includes changing the entire look of the bar and sometimes its name.

In addition, Taffer usually modernizes the bar by giving it new gadgets and devices so it’s easier for the staff to do their jobs.

In a couple of episodes Taffer provided each table with its own tablet, so customers could order directly from where they’re sitting, without having to interact with a waiter or waitress.

And this new way of ordering food is not only popping up in many bars, it’s popping up in restaurants too, so there’s a good chance that ordering food from an actual person may be a thing of the past.

Presto!

PhotoTake, for example, the Presto touch-screen tablet that allows customers to view menus and order items with just a few swipes and presses. Customers can pay for their meals too, without having to wait for a paper check to arrive.

Rajat Suri, the creator of the Presto touch-screen told Bloomberg Businessweek that people want faster service these days and pretty much want to bring the convenience of the Internet into the restaurant experience.

“People have been changed by the Internet and expect faster speeds of service and access to information,” he said. “This technology makes it strictly better to attend a restaurant.”

Another convenience of the Presto and other tablets like it is the fact that customers can view big bold images of their food before ordering it, which paper menus simply can’t provide. Many times people like to see what the menu items are since it helps them make a decision a little faster. 

But Suri wasn’t the only person who jumped on the restaurant tablet craze.

Companies like E Menu, TouchBistro, MenuPad, OwnPoint of Sale and Menupad have all created ways for people to interact with waiters and waitresses less.

Many restaurant tablets display menus in multiple languages, so people will be able to view and order things regardless of the language they speak. In addition, many of the tablets come with an app that you can download, so you can stay abreast of future restaurant promotions and deals.

Play games

Ziosk is another company that makes restaurant tablets, and its devices allow customers to order food and play games until the food arrives. The cost of each game is usually 99 cents, which gets added to the bill at the end of each meal.

Perhaps some might say that interacting with a server is a big part of the restaurant experience and using a tablet to order and pay for food lessens that experience a little.

PhotoHowever, Charlie Ayers, who owns the restaurant Calafia, in Palo Alto, Calif., says tablets don’t take away from the dining-out experience, they add to it by allowing people to get their food faster, in case they have other places to go.

“It’s the future,” he said in a interview. “People say it’s very inhospitable. But it’s the epitome of hospitality. It empowers the guest to get in and to get out.”

But is that why people really go to restaurants, to quickly get in and out?

Some might say people go to restaurants to slow down a bit and enjoy a new dish, as well as any ambiance an establishment may provide.

Furthermore, others may not like the fact that many servers could lose their jobs, which is a great possibility, similar to the way many store cashiers have been replaced by digital checkout kiosks.

And there could be security issues when customers use restaurant tablets.

Credit card information could be compromised if businesses don’t take the right steps to protect you. And even then your information could still be stolen, because many times as a new gadget is created,  a new scheme to steal information from that gadget is created too.

Human interaction

And what about human interaction?

Some people enjoy the server who may be funny or personable. And having a server who can give you their personal opinion about a particular dish can be helpful too.

But according to Suri, restaurant tablets are not only here to stay, consumers will probably see more of them as time passes.

Tablets are “propelling the restaurant industry into the Internet age,” he says.

But Suri also believes that servers won’t be totally replaced. Consumers will just have another way to order and pay for their food.

“We’re not totally replacing human interaction. This doesn’t prevent you from talking to a server. But now you have two options,” he said.

More

Report: FDA jittery about caffeinated chewing gum

Wrigley's new entry brings attention to a previously obscure niche

Caffeinated chewing gum has existed in relative obscurity for a long time, but when the Wrigley chewing gum folks announced in March that they we...

PhotoCaffeinated chewing gum has existed in relative obscurity for a long time, but when Wrigley  announced in March that it was getting in on the game with its new Alert gum, things started happening.

Competitors scrambled to get their names into the stories about Wrigley, but now they may wish they hadn't. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is looking at the effects of caffeine on children and, more specifically, whether chewing gum increases the risks of caffeine overdoses in kids, Bloomberg News reported.

The FDA has also been looking sternly at energy drinks like those from Monster and Living Essentials following reports of deaths and hospitalizations involving children and teens.

Not targeted to teens

Wrigley, part of the Mars candy empire, says the new gum, Alert Energy, is being targeted at the 25-and-up market and will not be associated with existing brands like Doublemint.

"Alert Energy Caffeine Gum is an energy product for adults who consume caffeine for energy and are looking for a portable solution that lets them control their caffeine intake," the company says on its website.

Photo
Sen. Durbin

Could be, but that's not likely to allay the suspicions of people like Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) who have been pressing the FDA to convene an expert panel to study the effects of caffeine on children.

"Consuming large quantities of caffeine can have serious health consequences, including caffeine toxicity, stroke, anxiety, arrhythmia, and in some cases death," Durbin said in an April 2012 letter to the FDA. "Young people are especially susceptible to suffering adverse effects because energy drinks market to youth, their bodies are not accustomed to caffeine, and energy drinks contain high levels of caffeine and stimulating additives that may interact when used in combination,” wrote Durbin.

“The glossy marketing tailored to youth has worked -- 30 to 50 percent of adolescents report consuming energy drinks,” Durbin said. His letter calling for an investigation came after he learned of the death a 14 year-old girl from Maryland, Anais Fournier, who died in December 2011 of a cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity after drinking two 24-ounce Monster energy drinks in a 24-hour period.

Durbin and Blumenthal have been critical of the FDA's response to their requests, saying the agency is not paying enough attention to the unique characteristics of children.

"While we recognize the FDA’s efforts to assess caffeine consumption in the United States, young people are not small adults.  Therefore determinations on the safety of caffeine should not be based solely on healthy adults," Durbin said in a follow-up letter in September 2012. "We ask the FDA to include adolescents and children in their assessment of the safety risks posed by consuming high levels of caffeine, such as those in energy drinks."

Not a new idea

Wrigley and other companies have been producing caffeinated gum for years but distribution has been limited mostly to the military and other specialized markets. In 1998, it came up with a cinnamon-flavored caffeine gum intended for the military, the idea being to give combat troops a highly portable source of caffeine.

Although it is effective at delivering caffeine, the gum has a somewhat bitter taste. Wrigley is now trying to turn that into an asset.

Wrigley officials are hoping the slightly bitter taste is a reminder to customers that Alert is a gum with a purpose, not a sweet treat. No doubt the company is also hoping the taste discourages teens from abusing the gum.  

The company said a pack of Alert will sell for about $2.99 and will contain eight pieces, each packing about 40 milligrams of caffeine. That's about half the amount in an eight-ounce cup of coffee.

More

Stay-at-home spouses to get credit card application break

Reliance on 'accessible income' would now be considered for credit card applications

Spouses or partners who do not work outside the home may soon have an easier time qualifying for credit cards. An amendment proposed by the Consumer Fina...

PhotoSpouses or partners who do not work outside the home may soon have an easier time qualifying for credit cards.

An amendment proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) would let credit card issuers consider income that a stay-at-home applicant, who is 21 or older, shares with a spouse or partner.

“Stay-at-home spouses or partners who have access to resources that allow them to make payments on a credit card can now get their own cards,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. He called the new rule “an example of the Bureau’s commitment to working with consumers and financial institutions in order to ensure responsible access to credit for American families.”

Changing the CARD Act

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD Act), which became law in 2009, requires that card issuers evaluate a consumer’s ability to pay before opening a new credit card account or increasing a credit limit. Under current regulations, a card issuer generally may only consider the individual card applicant’s independent income or assets.

Those in the industry have provided information suggesting that otherwise credit-worthy individuals have been declined for credit card accounts, even though they have the ability to manage the debt. According to the data, a significant number of these individuals may be stay-at-home spouses or partners with access to income from an employed spouse or partner.

The revision allows card issuers to consider third-party income if the applicant, who is 21 or older. has a reasonable expectation of access to it. Although the new rule applies to all such applicants regardless of marital status, the CFPB expects it will ease access to credit particularly for stay-at-home spouses or partners who have access to a working spouse or partner’s income.

According to data from the U.S Census Bureau, more than 16 million married people do not work outside the home. That equates to approximately one out of every three married couples who now may have easier access to credit cards as a result of the amendment.

More

More women are getting upper arm surgery

Surgeons say celebrities are to blame

In today’s society it seems that celebrities have a tremendous amount of influence on folks.Whether it’s an influence on how people style the...

PhotoIn today’s society it seems that celebrities have a tremendous amount of influence on folks.

Whether it’s an influence on how people style their hair or an influence on how they dress, some people will shell out big bucks to look like their favorite celebrity.

But some people just don’t stop at fashion or hair styles when it comes to looking like their favorite famous person, some will go under the knife and make a permanent change to their faces or bodies through plastic surgery.

Today, it’s happening with a lot of women, as an increasing number choose to get arm lifts.

According to new statistics released by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) the number of women getting upper arm lifts has increased by a whopping 4,378% between the years 2000 and 2012.

An upper arm lift can either include a surgical procedure called brachioplasty or it can be done through liposuction.

The big screen

David Reath, MD, ASPS’s Public Education Committee Chair, says famous people have a tremendous influence on what we think we should look like.

“I think we are always affected by the people that we see consistently, either on the big screen or on TV,” he said. “We see them and think, ‘Yeah, I’d like to look like that.’”

And yeah is right, as 300 women received upper arm lifts in 2000 compared to 15,000 women who got the procedure done in 2012.

When women were recently polled about which celebrities influenced them the most to get upper arm lifts, First Lady Michelle Obama came in first.

“Women have probably been affected in terms of their perception of the beauty or esthetics of the arms as much by our First Lady Michelle Obama as anybody else,” said Reath.

“This does get women thinking about how can I improve my arms. How can I look like the First Lady or someone else they may have seen. Either it’s an athlete or a celebrity in other ranks.”

And who is the proper candidate for an upper arm lift?

Not for everyone

Photo
David Reath

Reath says the procedure is not for everyone and only people who have excess skin should get it. Not people who believe their arms are a little bit flabby.

“I think a brachioplasty is for a select group of people and that is people who have a significant amount of excess skin of the upper arm,” he says. “It’s not for somebody who’s just got a little bit of looseness or a little bit of excess fat.”

“If you have somebody who is expecting a different outcome than you can give them or is expecting that there’s not going to be a scar, when in fact there will be one or expects the scar to go away, which it will never do although it will improve, that might not be a good candidate.”

Weight loss

Natalie Robinson of Knoxville, Tenn., recently lost over 100 pounds, but she still wasn’t satisfied with the appearance of her arms, so she went with a brachioplasty, according to the ASPS.

 

Before Robinson got the surgery, she said her arms still reminded her of what she used to look like before losing weight.

“There was a reminder of that heavier person and you just couldn’t get rid of it,” she said. “It was just something else to worry about.”

Reath says that people should try exercising and eating properly to achieve the look they want, but for some exercise and proper diet just aren’t enough.

“We are genetically programmed to have different accumulations of fat in different areas, and for some women the arms can be a problem area, he says. "The arms are a very noticeable area and if excessive fat and skin are an issue, they tend to look more out of proportion than the rest of the body.”

What to do

For those who are considering getting brachioplasty or liposuction, they should think long and hard, because there are some sacrifices they’ll have to make, especially if they opt for the brachioplasty.

“It’s a trade-off,” says Reath. “We get rid of the skin, but we leave a scar. So as long as there’s enough improvement to be made in the shape of the arm to justify the scar, then it’s a great procedure.”

In addition, Reath says a successful upper arm surgery has everything to do with matching up the procedure with the right person.

“Success for an operation like this comes from selecting the right patient and making sure that patient has the right expectations,” he said. “You have to have enough there to make a difference."

Robinson said it made a difference for her and if she had to do it all over again, she would still go ahead with the procedure.

“I’m very happy,” she said. “It was well worth the investment. I’d do it again.”

If you are considering getting an upper arm lift, it’s extremely important to make sure you’re the right candidate and if a plastic surgeon isn’t asking you the right questions, you probably want to look for another one.

You certainly don’t want a plastic surgeon who takes on patients willy-nilly.

Moreover, you should always remember there are risks associated with any surgery, regardless of how big or small. And your decision to get any procedure done should come with a lot of personal research and seeking out the proper medical advice.

More

The benefits of exercise go beyond weight loss

Exercise can lower blood pressure, help your cholesterol count and improve your heart-lung function

It's an article of faith that exercise is good or you, but have you every stopped to ask yourself why? The answers are varied and may not be as obvious as ...

PhotoIt's an article of faith that exercise is good or you, but have you every stopped to ask yourself why? The answers are varied and may not be as obvious as you might think.

Most people exercise – and spend billions of dollars doing so – to lose or control weight. While regular exercise will help with weight control, it's really only a small part of that equation. It takes a lot of exercise to burn calories. Good nutrition and controlling calorie intake plays a bigger role in weight control.

The best reason to get exercise is to improve overall health, and here there are many benefits. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise can ward off heart disease, prevent high blood pressure and boost the level of “good” cholesterol relative to “bad” cholesterol.

Doctors say a lifestyle that includes regular exercise can also reduce the chances of stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and even arthritis. There's also evidence it can reduce some cancer risks.

Reduced cancer risk

Researchers in the Netherlands last week reported results of tests using laboratory mice that showed regular exercise to be effective at reducing liver cancer.

Photo"We know that modern, unhealthy lifestyles predispose people to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease which may lead to liver cancer; however it's been previously unknown whether regular exercise reduces the risk of developing HCC (liver cancer),” said Prof. Jean-Francois Dufour of EASL, a European scientific society. “This research is significant because it opens the door for further studies to prove that regular exercise can reduce the chance of people developing HCC."

For some time, doctors have prescribed regular exercise for people at risk for developing cancer. But controlling weight and preventing serious disease aren't the only benefits of exercise.

Regular exercise can improve your mood and relieve stress. Physical activity stimulates chemicals in your brain that make you relaxed and happier. And because it also helps you control your weight, you may have more self-confidence.

Even though exercise causes you to burn energy, you seem to end up with more energy when it's done. Regular exercise builds muscle strength and endurance and causes your cardiovascular system to work more efficiently.

Have trouble sleeping at night? Doctors say you may have less trouble if you get some regular exercise. Exercise causes you to fall asleep faster and and sleep more soundly. It can even perk up your sex life.

Economic benefits

Aside from all these health and lifestyle benefits there is also a financial benefit. Consider that consumers spend billions on pills to perk up their sex lives, sleep better, boost their energy and lower blood pressure and cholesterol. A healthy lifestyle, then, has the added benefit of saving money.

PhotoBut what about the expense of a gym membership? Doesn't it cost money to get exercise? It can but it doesn't have to. For the cost of a pair of sneakers you can go jogging. If your knees aren't quite up to that, then you can walk.

"Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity available to people," said Michigan State University researcher Mathew Reeves.

Reeves led a team of researchers in a recent study that found people who walk their dogs were 34 percent more likely to be considered “physically active,” when measured using current federal benchmarks.

"What we wanted to know was if dog owners who walked their dogs were getting more physical activity or if the dog-walking was simply a substitute for other forms of activity," he said.

According to the data, dog walkers do indeed appear to be more active. Reeves says the results show that promoting dog ownership and dog walking could help many Americans -- of which fewer than half meet recommended levels of leisure-time physical activity -- become healthier.

Decades ago Americans got more exercise because daily life demanded it. Today, most people engage in a sedentary lifestyle that is expanding waistlines and degrading health. Recent research suggests sitting for long periods should now be considered risky health behavior.

More

Avoiding moving day disasters

Picking a good moving company will take a lot of the stress out of moving day

Moving is one of the most stressful things you can do. The choice of moving company can either add to the stress or lessen it a bit.There are three major...

PhotoMoving is one of the most stressful things you can do. The choice of moving company can either add to the stress or lessen it a bit.

There are three major issues when you choose a mover -- the final cost, the safe delivery of all your belongings, and maintaining a schedule. Any one of the three has the potential to turn your move into a nightmare if not handled correctly.

Your move is probably going to cost more than you think. When a moving company representative visits your home and gives you a price for the move, the final cost to get your belongings delivered to your new home will almost always be higher.

Dustin, of Beaux Bridge, La., was on a budget for his move and, after doing some research, contacted All You Can Move.

Most quotes are not binding

“I was given a quote based on 2,000 pounds at 45¢ per pound and was instructed that this was the most accurate way to pay since square footage is an estimate of about $7 per square foot and obviously a box of pillows weighs less than a box of books,” Dustin posted at ConsumerAffairs. “So my initial estimate was $1,170: $900 for the initial 2000 lbs, and the rest was made up of a $45 fuel charge, $75 elevator charge at my current residence and $150 stair charge at my final destination which is on the 3rd floor.”

But the actual charge, he says, was 25% higher. It turns out that's not unusual. Dustin got a non-binding estimate. It was only an estimate of what the charges would be and moving company estimators, by and large, estimate low to beat the competition.

Dustin could have asked for a binding estimate, requiring the moving company estimator to tell him exactly what the move would cost. He would then have gotten a not-to-exceed figure. It's almost a certainty that number would have been higher than the non-binding estimate.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA) a binding estimate must accurately describe what you are shopping and list all the services you are getting. If you requested additional services, like long carry charges, the company must bill you separately for these charges after the move. When the truck is unloaded, the moving company cannot charge you more than the binding estimate.

Naturally, a binding estimate has to be in writing and given to you before the first item of furniture goes on the truck.

Protecting property

You also want to make sure the mover you hire will be careful with your property, not losing or damaging it while moving it from your old home to your new one. Marilyn, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., reports hiring Mayflower for her move, getting assurance that she would have two trucks and four men to load it.

“One truck was sent and could not fit all the furniture,” she writes. “The movers had to pack our two cars and we had to make a half a dozen trips in our cars to unload everything we had until 11 pm at night. We were promised that mattresses and fragile things would be covered. Our mattress was handled by their bare hands with no cover. Damage was done to several pieces of furniture. We were overcharged for the move and when we turned in a form on the damage to the furniture, they are refusing to fix it.”

Valuable and fragile items, needless to say, are best moved yourself.

Scheduling

Scheduling is another critical consideration when making a move. In most cases the consumer must vacate one property on a specific date. When hiring a moving company you need to be sure they can accommodate your needs.

Thelma, of Beaufort, S.C., says she hired Swift Movers Van Lines to move her from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and was given a definite date for delivery.

“I stressed the importance of a firm delivery date prior to leaving because my daughter and daughter-in-law were both requesting time off from work to help with the move,” Thelma wrote.

But the trucks didn't arrive in South Carolina under several days after the promised delivery date. Thelma said another company representative told her that it was against company policy to guarantee exact delivery dates – that the person who told her they could do that was wrong. Perhaps so, but it didn't help Thelma to learn that after the fact.

Choosing a moving company should not be done lightly. As a start, talk to friends and relatives who have moved recently. Find out what companies they liked and ones to avoid.

Check the Internet. Sites like ConsumerAffairs have reviews of local and national movers and may help you avoid a stressful and costly mistake.

One final thing. Under federal law every moving company is required to give you a booklet called “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move,” that spells out how moving companies are supposed to operate. If the moving company you are interviewing fails to give you that booklet, that should serve as a red flag.

More

Home prices continue their rise

Phoenix leads the way, while New York, Boston and Chicago lag

Your home continues to become more valuable. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, a leading measure of U.S. home prices, the 10- and 20-C...

PhotoYour home continues to become more valuable.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, a leading measure of U.S. home prices, the 10- and 20-City composites rose 0.4% and 0.3%, respectively. from January to February. In addition, average home prices in the same composites increased 8.6% and 9.3% in the 12 months ending in February 2013.

Phoenix continued to stand out with an impressive year-over-year return of +23.0% while Atlanta and Dallas had the highest annual growth rates in the history of these indices since 1992 and 2001, respectively.

In 16 of the 20 cities, annual growth rates rose from the last month; Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis and Phoenix saw slight annual deceleration ranging from -0.1 to -0.4 percentage points. All 20 cities covered by the indices posted year-over-year increases for at least two consecutive months.

“Home prices continue to show solid increases across all 20 cities,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The 10- and 20-City Composites recorded their highest annual growth rates since May 2006; seasonally adjusted monthly data show all 20 cities saw higher prices for two months in a row – the last time that happened was in early 2005.

Phoenix, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Atlanta were the four cities with the highest year-over-year price increases, with Atlanta recovering from a wave of foreclosures in 2012 while the other three were among the hardest hit in the housing collapse.

At the other end of the rankings, three older cities -- New York, Boston and Chicago -- saw the smallest year-over-year price improvements.

A bright spot

“Despite some recent mixed economic reports for March, housing continues to be one of the brighter spots in the economy,” Blitzer noted. “The 2013 first quarter GDP report shows that residential investment accelerated from the 2012 fourth quarter and made a positive contribution to growth. One open question is the mix of single family and apartments; housing starts data show a larger than usual share is apartments.”

The number of cities that posted positive monthly changes increased in February. Boston, Dallas, New York, Portland and San Diego are now among the Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) posting month-over-month gains. Even though eight MSAs posted monthly declines, all twenty cities showed increases when compared to their February 2012 levels.

Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Tampa were the ten MSAs that continued to report double-digit year-over-year gains. San Diego and Tampa recorded their first months of double-digit annual increases of just over 10.0%.

More

Cop claims his DUI firing violated disability rights

Says alcoholism is protected by the law

An Oregon police officer who was fired after he was arrested on DUI charges is now suing his former employer, claiming that they discriminated against him ...

Photo
Photo: Gresham PD

An Oregon police officer who was fired after he was arrested on DUI charges is now suing his former employer, claiming that they discriminated against him based on his alcoholism. He claims the termination is a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Jason Servo, a former Gresham, Oregon police officer, was arrested in January 2011 after he crashed his car into a ditch.

Servo, a detective and his department’s head firearms instructor, drove an unmarked police car to a firearms training program. He was off duty at the time. Afterwards, he went out for dinner and drinks with other officers. Servo was driving an unmarked police car at the time of the accident.

Servo was known for aggressively investigating DUI cases and was credited with solving a 2006 fatal hit-and-run involving a drunken driver, The Oregonian reported. He was injured by a drunken driver in 2000, the newspaper reported.

Arrested by deputy 

Servo was arrested by a Clackamas County, Oregon, sheriff’s deputy. When the deputy testified in front of Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, he said that Servo was "probably one of the top 10 most intoxicated people he had arrested in almost 15 years of drunken-driving investigations,” according to published reports.

Ultimately, Servo pled guilty to the DUI and successfully completed a diversion program. After entering a rehabilitation center, Servo says he was diagnosed as an alcoholic and made the decision to get sober.

"There were times where I went home and I couldn't get crime scenes out of my head; I went to drinking for that and there are other officers that do the same thing," Servo, who is now 818 days sober, was quoted as saying.

ADA recognizes alcoholism

Perhaps surprisingly, the ADA does recognize alcoholism as a disease, stating that:

[A]n employer may not make job decisions based on the fact that an employee is an alcoholic, attends AA meetings, or takes medication to curb the urge to drink. However, an employer may prohibit drinking at work and may generally hold all employees to the same standards of performance and conduct.

A FAQ page for the ADA states:

While a current illegal user of drugs is not protected by the ADA if an employer acts on the basis of such use, a person who currently uses alcohol is not automatically denied protection. An alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected by the ADA if s/he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job.

An employer may be required to provide an accommodation to an alcoholic. However, an employer can discipline, discharge or deny employment to an alcoholic whose use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct. An employer also may prohibit the use of alcohol in the workplace and can require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol.

More

"Pedacyclist" death rate surges in 2011

Deaths were up 9% from the previous year

Riding your bike is becoming more hazardous. Figures released by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that 677 pedalcyclists were k...

PhotoRiding your bike is becoming more hazardous.

Figures released by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that 677 "pedalcyclists," as NHTSA insists on calling them, were killed in 2011 -- 9% more than the 623 killed in 2010. Another 48,000 were injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes.

Pedalcyclist deaths accounted for 2% of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities. In addition pedacyclists account for 2% of the people injured in traffic crashes during that year.

Pedacyclists include bicyclists and other cyclists, including riders of two-wheel non-motorized vehicles, tricycles, and unicycles powered solely by pedals.

Where, when and who

Most 2011 pedalcyclist fatalities occurred in urban areas (69%) and at non-intersections (59%) between the hours of 4 p.m. and 7:59 p.m. The second highest number of fatalities, 142 (21%), occurred between the hours of 8 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. The fewest fatalities took place between midnight and 3:59 a.m.

The average age of pedalcyclists killed in traffic crashes was 43, continuing the steady increase during the past 10 years in the average age of pedalcyclists killed and injured. Pedalcyclists ages 45–54 had the highest fatality rate (3.51) based on population, while the highest injury rate (380) occurred in the 16–20 age group.

Those 16 and younger accounted for 10% of all pedalcyclists killed and 19% of all those injured in traffic crashes in 2011, compared with 23% of those killed and 39% of those injured in 2002.

The vast majority of pedalcyclists killed or injured in 2011 were males (85% and 78%, respectively). The highest number of male fatalities was between the ages of 45–54 (130), and the most males injured were between 16–20 (6,000).

The pedalcyclist fatality rate per capita was almost six times higher for males than for females, and the injury rate per capita was almost four times higher for males

Alcohol a factor

More than a quarter (28%) of the pedalcyclists killed in 2011 had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .01 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or higher, and slightly fewer (23%) had a BAC of .08 g/dL or higher. Alcohol-involvement -- either for the driver of a motor vehicle or the pedalcyclist -- was reported in more than 37% of the traffic crashes that resulted in pedalcyclist fatalities in 2011.

In 31% of the crashes, either the driver or the pedalcyclist was reported to have a BAC of .08 g/dL or higher. Lower alcohol levels (BAC .01 to .07 g/dL) were reported in 6% of the crashes

State stats

Among all states, fatalities in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2011 ranged from 3,016 (highest) to 27 (lowest) depending on the size and population of the State. Fatalities were highest in Florida (125), followed by California (114), and New York (57). There were no pedalcyclist fatalities in Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

The proportion of pedalcyclist fatalities among total fatalities in states ranged from a high of 5.2% (Florida) to a low of 0.1% (Missouri and Oklahoma). The highest fatality rate per million population was in Florida (6.56) followed by Oregon (3.87).

More

Mortgage re-defaults increasing at an 'alarming rate'

And some homeowners are still trying to modify mortgages, meeting the same problems as before

The U.S. housing market all but collapsed in 2009 because of an avalanche of foreclosures. People with subprime mortgages found they couldn't make the paym...

More

Study: Consumers strongly support higher mpg standards

Car dealers are the only group still resisting the goal of 55 mpg by 2025

The Ford C-MaxConsumers are looking for better fuel efficiency in their cars and trucks and manufacturers are getting the message loud and clear even i...

Photo
The Ford C-Max

Consumers are looking for better fuel efficiency in their cars and trucks and manufacturers are getting the message loud and clear even if car dealers are not, researchers from the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) said today.

A new CFA study found that 85% of Americans support the requirement that automakers achieve a fleetwide average of 55 miles per gallon by 2025 while 80% say fuel economy will be an important factor in their next vehicle purchase.

The support for greater fuel economy extends across the political spectrum, with 77% of Republicans, 87% of Independents and 92% of Democrats saying they support the higher standard. Car dealers are the only organized group that has opposed it, the CFA researchers noted.

Controversial claims

PhotoQuizzed by ConsumerAffairs, CFA's Jack Gillis conceded that consumer confidence might be affected by controversies over manufacturers' fuel economy claims, like the lawsuits and consumer complaints challenging Ford's claim that its Fusion and C-Max hybrids get 47 miles per gallon.

"I think that's always been a concern -- that people don't get what the EPA ratings claim they will get," Gillis said. "But recent developments in the testing progress by the EPA have resulted in a closer approximation of what the consumer can expect to get.

"We think most consumers understand that the tests are best used on a comparison basis -- while the 37 miles per gallon car may not get you 37, it's going to be better than the 30 mpg vehicle," he said.

Gillis added that the new labeling introduced in 2013 is "extra easy to understand and consumer-friendly." He said it provides a "better basis of competition among manufacturers."

He noted that Hyundai's 2012 admission that it overstated mileage claims for its gas-powered vehicles didn't have an apparent impact on overall consumer confidence in mileage ratings.

Overall, Gillis, CFA's director of public affairs, said that the dynamic of the American automobile marketplace today is towards more fuel efficiency.

"If you see the TV ads, fuel economy is mentioned frequently. Go back ten years and you never saw it mentioned," he said at a news teleconference today.

Four-cylinder engines

The CFA report found the percentage of popular vehicles getting at least 30 mpg tripling over the last few years. Comparing popular 2009 models with 2013 models, the new analysis shows that the percentage of vehicles getting at least 30 mpg rose from 4% to 12%.

Over the same time period, the percentage of popular vehicles getting at least 23 mpg rose from 30% to 56% and the percentage getting under 22 mpg fell from 70% to 44%.

In part, this increasing mileage reflected the growing popularity of four-cylinder vehicles.  In 2005, less than 30% of the vehicles purchased had four-cylinder engines, and in 2012, nearly half of those purchased had four cylinders. 

“What is remarkable is that improvements in engine efficiency, driven by the standards and consumer demand, resulted in a significant increase in four-cylinder vehicles with little compromise in performance,” said Mark Cooper, CFA’s Director of Research. Increasing mileage performance is also reflected in the growing sales of hybrid and electric vehicles, which have doubled in sales during the past four years to over half a million vehicles.

The study did not look at diesel engines, the most popular fuel-saving choice in most European markets. 

 
More

New home or existing home? Some things to consider

In many area a new home may cost less

When the housing market went into full meltdown mode in 2009, new home builders were hit hard. National and regional builders that had enjoyed explosive gr...

PhotoWhen the housing market went into full meltdown mode in 2009, new home builders were hit hard. National and regional builders that had enjoyed explosive growth during the housing boom saw business dry up overnight.

After all, the market was flooded with existing homes, many going for a song. Why buy a new home, which carries very real labor and material costs, when you could pick up an existing home at a bargain basement price? Besides, almost no one was buying a home anyway.

So home building activity came to a screeching halt for a few years. When activity resumed, builders had learned how to be more competitive. The cost per square foot began to fall, to close the gap between new and existing homes.

Over the last 18 months, prices for existing homes have begun to rise in most areas of the country, mainly because of a big drop in the number of available homes. Part of the reason home inventories declined, of course, is because of home builders' inactivity.

New building boom

DR Horton Homes April 28, 2013, 10:53 p.m.
Consumers rate DR Horton Homes

But now construction crews have gotten busy again, meeting the new demand for homes. And home builders have become profitable again. Late last week home builder D.R. Horton reported second quarter earnings that delighted shareholders – income was up 236%, sales orders rose 34% and sales volume totaled $2 billion.

Company chairman Donald R. Horton cites strong housing demand, plus the fact that the builder is able to deliver a house at an attractive price.

“Our homes sold, closed and in backlog all increased by greater than 30% compared to the year-ago quarter, while the dollar values increased 52%, 47% and 76%, respectively,” he said. “With $250 million in pre-tax income through the first six months of the year, we have already exceeded our pre-tax profits for all of fiscal 2012.”

Consumers shopping for a home may have discovered they can purchase a new home at a lower price than an existing one, when the price is measured on a square footage basis. One reason is the price of land. While home prices have been rising the cost of a land has remained static, or even declined. Some savvy home builders purchased thousands of acres of land at depressed prices in 2009 and 2010 and are now developing it.

Location

Existing homes in metropolitan areas tend to be in well-established communities closer to the city center. Buyers usually have to pay a premium for that. New home communities, on the other hand, tend to be on the outer edges of a metro area. If you are in the market for a home, and are trying to decide between existing and new, location is a very important consideration. But here are some other things to think about.

You'll find a big difference in the design and layout of most new and existing homes. New homes tend to reflect modern tastes and trends. Kitchens, for example, are large and functional. New homes have lots of storage space.

Older homes, depending on exactly how old, usually have smaller rooms and less storage. Kitchens are usually smaller, built to be functional food preparation areas, not gourmet and entertaining showplaces.

Design

Most new homes offer a large and spacious master bedroom suite, with adjoining bathroom that often includes both a spa tub and walk-in shower. Existing homes, especially if they were built in the 1940s or earlier, might feature design details not found in most modern construction.

With an existing home, you pretty much know what you're getting. If there were problems with the house, they probably were addressed long ago. With a new home, you will be the one discovering a problem, if there is one. That's why it's very important to check out a builder before you buy.

A new home is likely to be in a subdivision or development that carries a homeowners association fee. It might be a small annual assessment or might be more, depending on the common area and amenities.

For example, if the community has a pool and fitness center, it can cost quite a bit to maintain them. Many existing homes are in mature neighborhoods that have no fee, although some do.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the choice between a new or existing home will involve trade-offs, requiring you to think about what is most important to you. In the end, the choice should come down to the home you think best meets your needs, as well as your budget.

More

Kids born outside the U.S. have lower allergy risk

Study finds risk of allergy increases with time in the U.S.

Asthma and other allergy-related diseases are serious business in the U.S., with the numbers of people affected increasing every year. And now a new study ...

PhotoAsthma and other allergy-related diseases are serious business in the U.S., with the numbers of people affected increasing every year. And now a new study finds that children born overseas are less likely to suffer from allergies than U.S.-born children, but their risk of allergy diseases rises when they move to the United States.

The study by researchers at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York, looked at more than 91,000 children and measured the  prevalence of allergic disease, including asthma, eczema, hay fever, and food allergies. The study was published Online First in JAMA Pediatrics.

According to the study results, children born outside the United States had significantly lower odds of any allergy disorder than those born in the United States, including asthma, eczema, hay fever, and food allergies.

Children born outside of the United States whose parents were also born outside the United States had significantly lower odds of any allergy  disorders than those whose parents were born in the United States.

Children born outside the United States who lived in the United States for longer than 10 years when compared with those who resided for up to 2 years had significantly higher odds of developing allergic disorders, including eczema and hay fever, but not asthma or food allergies.

“In conclusion, foreign-born Americans have significantly lower risk of allergic disease than US-born Americans. However, foreign-born Americans develop increased risk for allergic disease with prolonged residence in the United States,” the study said.

What's the cause?

Why? The study didn't address that question.

A leading theory for rising rates of allergies is known as the "hygiene hypothesis." The idea is that when things are too clean, the immune system doesn't get a chance to build up defenses against viruses, bacteria and so forth.

While this may turn out to be true for allergies, most leading authorities now think it is not true for asthma, which is not always related to allergies.

The reason the hypothesis has fallen out of favor, according to a recent Scientific American article, is that asthma rates are skyrocketing in urban areas that are not particularly clean. It may even be that developing childhood illnesses set the stage for asthma, rather than helping to prevent it, many researchers now think.

Serious problem

Whatever the cause, it's no small matter, as the number of people with asthma in the United States continues to grow. One in 12 people (about 25 million, or 8% of the U.S. population) had asthma in 2009, compared with 1 in 14 (about 20 million, or 7%) in 2001, according to the American Academy of Asthma Allergy and Immunology (AAAAI).

About 1 in 10 children and 1 in 12 adults had asthma in 2009, the AAAAI said. It cited figures showing that 185 children and 3,262 adults died of asthma in 2007. 

Among adults, women are more likely than men to have asthma while among children boys are more likely than girls to suffer from the disease.

More

Nissan hopes to charge up Leaf sales

More chargers would relieve buyers' range anxiety, the automaker hopaes

The Nissan Leaf is a nice-looking little car, if you like that kind of thing. And as a plug-in electric, it's relatively simple, compared to a full-bown hy...

PhotoThe Nissan Leaf is a nice-looking little car, if you like that kind of thing. And as a plug-in electric, it's relatively simple, compared to a full-blown hybrid. All you have to do is plug it in.

Buyers haven't been exactly electrified by the Leaf although sales have been starting to pick up. About  2,200 were sold in March and now a U.S. factory is starting to turn out Leafs in greater numbers.

Hoping to keep the Leafs from piling up, Nissan is launching an effort to get more public charging stations in place in California, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., where the Leaf is starting to gain a little momentum. 

In some of those markets, dealers have been selling as many as 100 Leafs a month, according to Automotive News. In San Francisco, the Leaf has become Nissan's second-biggest seller after the Altima.

Nissan thinks that having more charging stations scattered around those cities would help bump up sales, since the car's maximum range on a good day is 100 miles on a charge. It's not hard to exceed that figure if unexpected errands crop up. Having more spots where a quick charge is available might relieve drivers' angst.

Nissan says it will first try to install the powerful fast chargers at Nissan dealerships, then fan out to high-traffic areas. 

The big chargers, which put out 400 to 600 volts, can charge a battery in  30 minutes or less. OK, that's longer than it takes to fill up a gas tank but it's in the ballpark. They can cost $18,000 or more.

Smaller chargers for home use are much less expensive but take hours to fully charge the battery. Most electric-car owners do their charging at night.

More

What makes you happy?

A study has tracked Harvard graduates over 75 years to find out

What allows people to be happy and live fulfilled lives? To find out George Vaillant has been conducting a 75 year study on 268 Harvard students and docu...

PhotoOK, bring a wise consumer is important but we all know it's not the only thing that makes for a happy and fulfilled life. So, what does? 

To find out, George Vaillant has been analyzing a 75-year study on 268 Harvard students, documenting things like personality traits, physical well-being, IQ, alcohol consumption and overall style of living.

Known as the Grant Study, its subjects included President John F. Kennedy, four people who ran for the U.S. Senate, and one who served in a Presidential Cabinet.

One of the biggest contributors to living a full happy life, the study ha found, is how well the men maintained their relationships. And there was a definite correlation between how much money the men earned and how healthy their relationships were.

There were 58 men in the study who scored highest in the area of “warm relationships.” They earned $141,000 more than the 31 who scored lowest in this area. In addition, the study shows the men earned their highest salaries between the ages of 55 and 60.

Mom and dad

The relationship that most contributed to a healthy and happy life, according to the study, was the one between the men and their mothers.

The study shows that men who didn’t get along with their mothers had a higher chance of developing dementia in old age, while the men who had a strong bond with Mom earned $87,000 more than those who didn’t.

There also was a correlation between the relationships men had with their fathers and their level of happiness.

Those who got along well with Dad had lower rates of anxiety than those who didn’t. They enjoyed their time away from work more too. In addition, these men said they had more overall satisfaction in their lives once they reached 75 years of age.

Demon rum

Photo
George Vaillant

Moreover, Vaillant learned that alcohol led to all kinds of problems and caused things like depression and neurosis. Along with smoking cigarettes, alcohol was the leading cause of dying prematurely.

“Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power,” said Vaillant. In fact, not abusing alcohol was one of the seven major factors to living a full and happy life, the study shows.

The other six factors were: education, having a stable marriage, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, getting regular exercise and changing some of habits as you get older.

Healthy mind, healthy body

Vaillant says people have to make sure they’re living in a healthy way -- both mentally and physically. 

“So when we talk about well-being, we’re talking about two facets, not just one,” he said in a published interview.  For example, “alcohol abuse is bad for emotional and physical well-being. Smoking is only bad for physical well-being.”

In an interview with The Atlantic, Vaillant says people need to constantly put in the effort to be happy, and not just wait for happiness to fall out of the sky.

“Try being funny,” he said. “Try to make yourself fall in love. Try making yourself forgive someone. Studies have even shown that forgiveness is tremendously helpful to the heart and peace of mind. You can put yourself in positions where positive emotions are likely.”

And although reminiscing about the days of your youth is okay, thinking about it too much can lead to unhappiness, Vaillant says. “The take-home lesson is to enjoy where you are now. It’s alright that young people can do the things that they can do.”

Don't worry, be happy

Vaillant cautions people in their 20s and 30s against worrying about being successful, noting that many people in the study did exactly that.

“We have all this health and all this youth and you’re scared stiff that when it’s all said and done, you’re not going to amount to a hill of beans,” he said. “And if you just wait, virtually all of the men, by the time they were 45 or 50, amounted to something. Knowing that is such a relief and you just don’t know it at 30.”

The last thing you want to do is attempt to keep up with the Joneses, said Vaillant, because it’ll never get you anywhere.

“The job isn’t conforming. It isn’t keeping up with the Joneses. It is playing and working and loving. And loving is probably the most important. Happiness is love. Full stop," he said.

More

Acer settles Vista RAM class action

Suit alleged that notebooks were unable to run certain Windows Vista versions

Laptop manufacturer Acer has settled a lawsuit that alleged it sold laptop computers with insufficient Random Access Memory, or RAM, to properly run certai...

PhotoAcer has settled a lawsuit that alleged it sold laptop computers with insufficient Random Access Memory, or RAM, to properly run certain versions of Microsoft Windows Vista.

Acer maintains that it is not liable, but “has agreed to the Settlement to avoid the costs and risks of a trial,” according to a statement issued by the company. 

The settlement covers “all U.S. residents who purchased a new Acer notebook computer that: (1) came pre-installed with a Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium, Business, or Ultimate operating system; (2) came with 1 gigabyte (“GB”) of RAM or less as shared memory for both the system and graphics; (3) was purchased from an authorized retailer; and (4) was not returned for a refund,” the company said.

Crashes, freezing

Acer April 28, 2013, 11:56 a.m.
Consumers rate Acer

The suit was filed in 2009 by an Ohio couple who bought an Acer notebook from Wal-Mart. “Shortly after their purchase, and well within the one year warranty period,” the class action complaintalleged, “Plaintiffs discovered that their computer would not run properly and that it experienced numerous ‘crashes,’ ‘freezing,’ and was operating very slowly.”

The complaint cited numerous online consumer complaints, including one from ConsumerAffairs.com. The writer of that complaint said that, “I have had problems with my computer shutting down and restarting on its own since the second month ive [sic] owned it. I called acer tech support many times and was bounced back and forth ... Its [sic] had issues since the beginning.” 

Options and deadlines

According to the press release, class members are eligible to receive one of the following: “(a) a 16GB USB Flash Drive with ReadyBoost technology; (b) a check for $10.00; (c) a check for up to $100.00 for reimbursement of any repair costs that were incurred before April 25, 2013 in an effort to resolve performance issues related to insufficient RAM; or (d) for Class Members who still own their computer, a 1GB or 2GB laptop memory DIMM that will allow the Acer notebook to operate with 2GB of RAM.”

Class members who want to opt out of, or object to, the settlement, must file a notice by July 24, 2013. Claim forms are due on the same date. Claim forms can be accessed at the settlement website - AcerLawsuit.com - or by calling (877) 761-0698.

More

Woman sues hospital over “Shy Bladder Syndrome”

Alleges condition made her unable to provide urine sample for employment

“Shy bladder syndrome” -- the medical term for difficulty urinating in front of others -- has become the seemingly unlikely topic of litigation...

Photo“Shy bladder syndrome” -- the medical term for difficulty urinating in front of others -- has become the seemingly unlikely topic of litigation in Iowa.

It all began last June, when plaintiff Jennifer Conner applied for a job as organ transplant financial coordinator at Iowa Methodist Medical Center. The hospital offered her the job, but told her that she would need to provide a urine sample before she began working, the suit alleges.

According to the suit, Conner was diagnosed with paruresis, or “shy bladder syndrome,” as an adolescent. She deals with the condition by flushing the toilet, running water, or avoiding bathrooms with multiple toilets, the suit says.

“If Conner cannot flush the toilet or run the water in the sink, she is generally unable to urinate in a public restroom,” according to the complaint.

Four-minute limit

The suit says that Conner informed two nurses that she suffered from the condition “and that it might therefore take her awhile to provide a urine sample.”

However, according to the suit, Conner was told that the hospital typically allowed only four minutes to provide the sample, and that a nurse would knock on the bathroom door when time was up. Conner was then “placed ... in a restroom with no running water and no flushing toilet,” the suit alleges.

Conner was unable to urinate even as the four-minute time limit closed in, so she says she left the bathroom to tell the nurse she needed more time. Conner was given two more minutes, the suit alleges, after which time a nurse “informed Conner that someone else needed to use the restroom and instructed Conner to go back to the waiting room.”

Conner was given a third chance to try and provide a urine sample, according to the suit, but “could not provide a urine sample under the conditions as they were.”

Conner says she asked if she could provide a blood sample or use a catheter to provide a sample to the hospital, but was told that she should simply “go to lunch and come back and try again.” Conner left, knowing that she would be unable to provide a sample, the suit alleges.

Ultimately, Conner’s job offer was rescinded, and she was told that she could not apply again for at least a year.

Foundation: It's a “phobia”

The Urology Care Foundation describes the condition as “a phobia that involves fear and avoidance of using public bathrooms and an irregular idiopathic form of urinary retention (when you are unable ‘to go’).”

“Paruretics face difficulties ranging from work problems (when they have to submit a urine analysis for drug testing) to traveling on long plane rides to every day social situations,” the foundation’s site says.

Conner, who obtained a master’s degree in health care administration in 2012, alleges violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

More

Pending home sales rise in March

Analysts say while there was an increase, a leveling-off appears to be in the works

Pending home sales, which are based on contract signings, shot up 1.5% in March. However, the National Association of Realtors (NAR), which tracks the forw...

PhotoPending home sales, which are based on contract signings, shot up 1.5% in March. However, the National Association of Realtors (NAR), which tracks the forward-looking indicator, says contract activity in recent months shows only modest movement.

With March's increase, the NAR's Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) stands at 105.7 -- 7.0% above March 2012 when it was 98.8. Pending sales have been above year-ago levels for the past 23 months. The data reflect contracts but not closings.

Market leveling off

"Contract activity has been in a narrow range in recent months, not from a pause in demand but because of limited supply,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “Little movement is expected in near-term sales closings, but they should edge up modestly as the year progresses. Job additions and rising household wealth will continue to support housing demand."

The PHSI in the Northeast was unchanged at 82.8 in March and is 6.3% higher than a year ago. In the Midwest the index was up 0.3% to 103.8 and is 13.7% percent above March 2012. Pending home sales in the South rose 2.7% to 120.0 in and are up 10.4% from the same time last year. And in the West, the index increased 1.5% in March to 102.9, but is 4.3% below a year ago.

The NAR is projecting total sales of existing-home to increase 6.5 to 7% over 2012 to nearly 5 million sales this year. The the national median existing-home price is forecast to rise about 7.5%.

Incomes and spending

In other economic news, the government reports personal income inched up 0.2%, or $30.9 billion, in March, with disposable personal income rising by $20.7 billion, or 0.2%.

The full report can be found at the Bureau of Economic Analysis website.  

More

Maple View Farm recalls three flavors of ice cream

The products contain allergens that were not declared on package labels

Maple View Farm is recalling pint containers of Cookies & Cream, Carolina Crunch and Cookie Dough ice cream. Some or all of the products contain wheat, so...

PhotoMaple View Farm is recalling pint containers of Cookies & Cream, Carolina Crunch and Cookie Dough ice cream.

Some or all of the products contain wheat, soy, almonds and peanuts not declared on the packages, which can cause serious allergic reactions in people who have an allergy or sensitivity to these ingredients.

No complaints of allergic reactions to this product have been reported to date.

The recall affects 2,650 pints of ice cream distributed between Sept. 5, 2012, and April 24, 2013. The products were distributed to a limited number of grocery stores and specialty shops in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Hillsborough, Mebane, Morehead City, Morrisville, Pittsboro, Snow Camp and Wilmington, N.C.

Consumers who have allergies to these ingredients should return the product to the place of purchase or throw it away.

More

Honda recalls Fit Sport vehicles

A problem with electronic stability control system increases the risk of a crash

Honda is recalling 43,782 model year 2012-2013 Honda Fit Sport vehicles manufactured May 23, 2011, through March 22, 2013. The electronic stability contr...

PhotoHonda is recalling 43,782 model year 2012-2013 Honda Fit Sport vehicles manufactured May 23, 2011, through March 22, 2013.

The electronic stability control system of the affected vehicles may allow excessive yaw rates at high steering angles with certain tires. Excessive yaw rates prevent the proper function of the electronic stability control (ESC) system, increasing the risk of a crash.

Honda will notify owners and dealers will update the ESC software free of charge. The safety recall will begin on May 17, 2013.

Owners may contact Honda automobile customer service at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's recall campaign number is S99.

More

LivingSocial database hacked

Encrypted passwords, but not credit card data, likely accessed

LivingSocial, the Washington, D.C.-based daily deals website, sent out an email this morning warning users that the site has “recently experienced a ...

PhotoLivingSocial, the Washington, D.C.-based daily deals website, sent out an email this morning warning users that the site has “recently experienced a cyber-attack” that potentially exposed some sensitive user data.

The email, which confirms that the database containing customer passwords may have been compromised, stresses that “[t]he database that stores customer credit card information was not affected or accessed.” The message also stresses that passwords were stored in “encrypted ... technically ‘hashed’ and ‘salted’” form, and thus “would be difficult to decode.”

The email confirms reports yesterday by tech site AllThingsD, which said that it accessed an internal email by LivingSocial CEO Tim O'Shaughnessy to employees of the company stating that a hack had led to “unauthorized access to some customer data from our servers.”

According to AllThingsD, as well as a report from CNN, over 50 million LivingSocial members may have been affected by the hack.

Email: credit card database not accessed

The email sent by LivingSocial reads in part:

“LivingSocial recently experienced a cyber-attack on our computer systems that resulted in unauthorized access to some customer data from our servers. We are actively working with law enforcement to investigate this issue.

The information accessed includes names, email addresses, date of birth for some users, and encrypted passwords -- technically ‘hashed’ and ‘salted’ passwords. We never store passwords in plain text.

The database that stores customer credit card information was not affected or accessed.

Although your LivingSocial password would be difficult to decode, we want to take every precaution to ensure that your account is secure, so we are expiring your old password and requesting that you create a new one.”

The email, signed by O'Shaughnessy, also encourages users “to consider changing password(s) on any other sites on which you use the same or similar password(s).”

Passwords hashed, salted

In a security noticed posted on the company’s website, the company explained how it secures customer passwords in its database. The passwords, LivingSocial said, “were hashed with SHA1 using a random 40 byte salt,” meaning that “our system took the passwords entered by customers and used an algorithm to change them into a unique data string (essentially creating a unique data fingerprint) – that’s the ‘hash’. To add an additional layer of protection, the ‘salt’ elongates the password and adds complexity.”

The page also said that LivingSocial is “working with internal and external forensic security teams to investigate the nature of the incident and to further improve our security systems, and we are working with law enforcement to investigate this incident.”

More

Summer gas prices may be headed lower

One insider predicts $3 a gallon by Labor Day

If there is such a thing as “normal” gasoline prices in the U.S., that may be where we're headed. The dramatic price rise of winter has has bee...

PhotoIf there is such a thing as “normal” gasoline prices in the U.S., that may be where we're headed. The dramatic price rise of winter has has been replaced with moderating prices at the pump.

The national average price of self-serve regular is $3.51 a gallon, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's down from nearly $3.66 a gallon a month ago and 33 cents less than this time last year.

Between December 17, 2012 and February 25 prices at the pump rose 16 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The map showing states with cheap gas and those with expensive fuel is also returning to traditional form. The lowest prices in the nation are clustered in southeastern states. The most expensive fuel is found on the East and West Coasts and in parts of the Midwest. But nearly everywhere, it seems, prices are coming down.

Photo

Price down in 43 states

“Prices in 43 states and Washington D.C. are lower than one week ago, compared to four Great Lakes states, which have seen the average price increase more than a dime per gallon,” said Avery Ash, Manager of Federal Relations for AAA.

Joe Petrowski, CEO of Gulf Oil, says there are several reasons the price of gasoline is coming down. One reason is refinery maintenance is over and the switch to summer gasoline has taken place. He says alarm over a recent report showing a drop in U.S. gasoline supplies is misplaced – it doesn't mean we're suddenly using more fuel.

Photo“The drop in stocks was not a demand-led drop,” Petrowski said in an interview with CNBC. “It was that we have to clear our our winter inventories, making room for the summer shipments to come in.”

Even though summer blends of gasoline cost more to produce than winter grades, the summer price for gasoline is likely to head lower for some other reasons not obvious in the government report showing supplies of gasoline are falling.

Under $3 by Labor Day?

“If you get behind the numbers, you see that demand is down two percent, production continues to be very strong, so I think we have a good chance, if we don't screw it up from a government perspective, to actually see gasoline prices go below $3 a gallon by Labor Day,” Petrowski predicted.

One reason is that U.S. demand is going down because of efficiency and switching to other fuels. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to increase its production of oil and natural gas.

In early April China became the world's leading oil importer, taking a position the U.S. had held for nearly four decades and was only too happy to relinquish. In the same month Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Dakota combined pumped 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, which is more than Iran's daily output.

The problem, according to energy company executives, is that much of the plentiful U.S. oil is difficult to deliver to East Coast refineries. U.S. law requires Gulf Coast oil to be shipped only in U.S. flag vessels. If more ships were available to carry the oil, the thinking goes, more oil could be shipped to the East Coast and refineries there would not be dependent on more expensive imported oil.

Natural gas

PhotoAt the same time, another promising trend for motorists is evidence that the U.S. trucking industry is serious about switching over much of its fleet to run on natural gas. A leading manufacturer of truck engines has begun shipping engines that run on liquified natural gas. A number of truck stops have begun adding natural gas fueling stations. As large trucks convert to that plentiful and relatively cheap fuel, it should reduce demand – and the price – for gasoline and diesel fuel.

Finally, the price of oil continues to decline on world markets. The price of WTI – the kind of oil produced in the U.S. – is around $91 a barrel. The price of Brent – produced in much of the Middle East, is just over $101.

Energy experts say the outlook for sluggish global economic growth – as well as a strengthening dollar – could keep oil prices in check. All of that could lead to a summer when filling your tank isn't quite as painful.

More

Ginkgo biloba linked to cancer in mice and rats

The supplement is popular for its supposed memory-enhancing effects

Ginkgo biloba, the popular dietary supplement purported to have memory-enhancing properties, has been linked to cancer in rats and mice, according to a new...

PhotoYou may not remember why you started taking ginkgo biloba but it was probably because it's said to improve your memory. That's fine, but a new government study finds it may also be carcinogenic.

Researchers at the National Toxicology Program (NTP) fed the stuff to rats and mice over a two-year period and found that the rodents were more likely to develop thyroid and liver tumors than those who had managed to steer clear of the stuff.

In a shorter, three-month test, rats and mice who were given ginkgo showed early signs of tumor growth.

According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, ginkgo is one of the top 10 natural products used by Americans, so it's important to learn its relative safety and effectiveness. As for how -- and whether -- the results have implications for humans, the researchers say, as they so often do, that more research is needed.

But that doesn't stop pill pushers who sell the supplement from making  promises that, in many cases, aren't backed by solid research.

"Scientific research documents the ability of ginkgo to maintain peripheral circulation to the arms, legs and brain. In addition, ginkgo helps improve memory, especially occasional mild memory problems associated with aging," says Walgreens.com, adding that its claims "have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration" and that, "This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

What good is it?

PhotoWhen making a decision about swallowing supplements, it's a good idea to look not just at the possible dangers but also at the documented benefits. In the case of ginkgo, guess what? There are none.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found ginkgo "ineffective in reducing the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in older people."

Known as the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study, the research was carried out at four clinical sites over the course of 8 years. GEM is the largest clinical trial ever to evaluate ginkgo’s effect on the occurrence of dementia.

“We have made enormous progress in understanding the basic mechanisms involved in Alzheimer’s disease, and we continue to pursue a vigorous program to translate what we know into the development and testing of new potential therapies for this devastating disease,” said Richard Hodes, M.D., director of the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institues of Health. “However, it is disappointing that the dietary supplement tested in this study had no effect in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.”

GEM enrolled 3,069 participants age 75 or older with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment. Participants were randomly assigned to receive twice-daily doses of either 120 milligrams of ginkgo extract or an identical-appearing placebo. 

Impressive tumors

Stack that up against the findings involving mice and rats.

“The tumors found in mice were pretty impressive,” Dr. Cynthia Rider, NTP’s study scientist for ginkgo, told Food Safety News. “They were among the highest in NTP studies for one of the tumors that doesn’t occur simultaneously all the time in mice.”

You can read the entire study abstract here but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that ginko just could be one of those things that does more harm than good.  

More

Grade school:The perfect time to talk alcohol and cigarettes with your child

Using strong arm tactics increases the chance of your child drinking and smoking

When it comes to preventing children from smoking and drinking, heart-to-heart talks are more effective than peer-pressure, marketing and all the national ...

PhotoWhen it comes to preventing children from smoking and drinking, heart-to-heart talks are more effective than peer pressure, marketing and all the national ad campaigns. And these talks need to start while kids are still in grade school, researchers say.

Zhiyong Yang, a marketing researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington and his partners Charles M. Schaninger and Michel Laroche, wanted to see if lessons taught during early childhood, about the harms of tobacco and alcohol, stayed with children once they became teenagers.

"The findings indicate that childhood parenting strategies impact smoking and drinking in the late teens, by reducing susceptibility to negative peer influence, with self-esteem playing a critical mediating role," wrote the study authors.

Good dad, bad dad

In a report entitled The Impact of Parenting Strategies on Child Smoking Behavior: The Role of Child Self-Esteem, both Yang and Schaninger stressed the importance of building up a child's self-esteem through parental talks and attention.

But if parents use psychological control to scare their children away from alcohol and tobacco, it could backfire and make those children want to try it. 

The study authors say parental psychological control is associated with using verbally and physically abusive methods to get a child to listen.

Using this tactic can lower a child's self-esteem and increase the chances of him or her caving to outside influences. And researchers say that many children are able to build up resistance against these strong-arm approaches.

Ads for parents

PhotoAnd while certain ad campaigns can be a helpful addition to parents when they talk to their kids about alcohol and tobacco use, more ads need to tell parents not to use psychological control as a tactic.

"Targeting parents through multimedia ad campaigns to bring about changes in parenting strategies to reduce or avoid teen smoking offers a fruitful complementary tool to targeting teens themselves," wrote the study authors. "Such campaigns should also emphasize avoiding parental psychological control as a strategy and begin reaching parents well before their children approach late grade school."

"In fact, our research shows those negative strategies, like withholding affection, drive a teen toward smoking," the authors said.

Changing tactics

And even though showing a child warmth and attention may not be a method that's associated with keeping a child away from alcohol and tobacco, researchers say it's the best weapon parents can have.

Photo
Zhiyong Yang

According to Yang, if parents are using psychological control to force obedience, it's never too late to change their approach, which they'll have to do if they want to give their child the best chance of turning down peer pressure.

"First, our conclusion is that parenting styles can be changed, and that's good news for the parents and the teens," he said.

"Second, our study shows that parental influence is not only profound in its magnitude, but also persistent and long-lasting over the course of a child's entire life. Effective parenting plays the critical role as a transition belt to pass normative values of society from one generation to another."

Positive influence

At the conclusion of his research, Yang said there was enough proof to dispel the common belief that teens couldn't be influenced by their parents in the same way their peers can influence them.

"What our research determined is that parental influence is a far greater factor than those," he said. "Parenting starts from birth. What could have a greater impact than that."

Additionally, Yang says parents should tell their kids about their own negative experiences with alcohol and tobacco, since being honest with them will do more good than harm.

"There's something to be said in telling a teen how you've suffered if you've smoked or engaged in a bad behavior when you were a teen," said Yang.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 80% of adult smokers first tried cigarettes under the age of 18 and when it comes to underage drinking, 4,700 underage youths die each year, which is why parents have to start having conversations about negative teen behavior when their kids are still in grade school.

More

Books are getting shorter; here's why

With shorter books and modern technology, leisure reading may be vanishing

Unless you're not a big TV watcher, you've probably seen the string of AT&T commercials featuring a bunch of cute kids.To me, the best out of th...

More

ERs have become the new psych ward

Study finds mental health patients can be stranded in the ER for days

If you rush to a hospital emergency room with appendicitis, you'll be quickly scheduled for surgery and admitted to the hospital. If you show up at an ER w...

PhotoIf you rush to a hospital emergency room with appendicitis, you'll be quickly scheduled for surgery and admitted to the hospital. If you show up at an ER with a psychiatric problem, it's a different story.

Dr. Wesley Boyd of the Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass., and Dr. Amy Funkenstein of Brown University are publishing a research letter that documents the long waits psychiatric patients must endure before they can be admitted to a hospital for treatment. The reason?

“Most insurance companies require prior authorization before psychiatric patients can be admitted to hospitals, whether they are being admitted through an emergency room or a clinician's office,” Boyd said.

This is not a hoop hospitals must jump through when treating physical ailments. The research letter argues that pre-authorization process is akin to health care "rationing by hassle factor."

Long waits in the ER

As a result, Boyd says patients face long waits in an ER while the physician treating them and other hospital staff spend extended periods of time on the phone with the patient's insurance company.

In the study half of the authorization requests took under 20 minutes to get approval, but 10% took an hour or more. After all that effort, only one of the 53 patients covered in the study was denied authorization. Interestingly, Boyd says Medicare is the only insurance provider that does not require pre-authorization to admit a psychiatric patient.

Boyd says there are three main reasons a psychiatric patient may need to be hospitalized. The most common reason is they are suicidal. They may also be so impaired that they are unable to care for themselves and have no one else to do so. In rare cases, they may be homicidal. Almost all end up in the ER.

Medical clearance

“If I see a patient today in a private practice setting and that patient needs to be hospitalized, more likely than not that person is going to have to be cleared medically through an emergency room,” Boyd said.

PhotoMedically cleared means the patient needs to be examined for any physical conditions that may also affect their health. But once in the ER, mental health patients must sit and wait while the hospital gets permission from the insurance company to admit them.

“Psychiatry is singled out for this kind of scrutiny far more than any other part of medicine,” Boyd said. “If these same requirements were in place for a woman who came into the hospital in labor, or a sick child who required immediate hospitalization, if you had to get on the phone for 40 minutes with the insurance companies to get permission, there would be a national outcry and the practice would end tomorrow.”

Poor stepchild

"Psychiatric care is really the poor stepchild in the world of insurance coverage," Funkenstein said.

Boyd says the Affordable Care Act, which takes effect in January 2014, won't do anything to help.

“The Affordable Care Act just requires people to get insurance,” he said. “If you buy any of these private insurance policies these are the rules we're all going to be subjected to.”

Scarcity of services

Boyd thinks part of the problem is a scarcity of mental health services. The scarcity is even worse, he says for children and adolescent patients. So the most vulnerable psychiatric patients are often subjected to the longest waits in the ER.

Boyd interviewed an ER nurse who told him it is not uncommon for a child being treated for psychiatric issues to spend two or three days in her ER, waiting for a bed to open up somewhere. As a result, hospitals are redesigning their ERs to include areas to house psychiatric patients to stay while they are waiting to be admitted to a hospital. The ER, then, has become a temporary psych ward.

“These patients deserve better,” Boyd said.

Boyd believes the problem won't be resolved unless clinicians and administrators are more resolute in dealing with insurance companies, refusing the accept the status quo. 

More

Senate lines up with measure to tax online purchases

But what will happen when the bill gets to the GOP-dominated House?

The days of buying online to avoid paying sales tax will soon become the much-lamented Good Old Days. The Senate this week passed the  Marketplace Fai...

PhotoThe days of buying online to avoid paying sales tax will soon become part of the much-lamented Good Old Days. The Senate this week passed the  Marketplace Fairness Act and, although a final vote is scheduled for May 6, it's regarded as a formality. 

With such big names as Amazon, Walmart and Best Buy behind it, the measure has a lot of steam, despite the "no new taxes" mantra that is the battle cry of the GOP.

Whether that's enough to get the bill through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives is another matter. It's not yet clear whether the GOP will stick with its pro-business roots -- which would seem to indicate support for the measure, seen as benefitting local businesses -- or whether it will try to mollify the Tea Party faction which views all taxes as evil incarnate.  

Sales taxes are local

Bricks-and-mortar retailers have long complained that online merchants were robbing local communities of the tax revenue they need to support their schools, police and fire departments and other essential services but no one wanted to tackle the issue without being certain they wouldn't be hung out to dry by powerful online interests.

Thus, for all practical purposes, the battle ended the day that the largest online merchant of all, Amazon, threw its weight behind the idea. Critics would say Amazon made a deal with the devil, but the company's motivation is a bit simpler: it wants to offer same-day delivery in major metro areas and to do that, it needs to build warehouses closer to big cities.

To get approval for warehouses in California, New York and other essential markets, Amazon was willing to begin collecting sales tax -- but it wants to make sure other online merchants do the same.

eBay plays the spoiler

Although businesses have presented a pretty solid united front in favor of the measure, eBay has emerged as a spoiler. It has been lobbying for a higher threshold at which sales taxes must be collected.

Currently, businesses would not have to collect the tax if they sold less than $1 million. eBay has been arguing with a straight face that a $1 million retail business doesn't amount to much, something that no doubt comes as news to millions of small businesspeople. 

eBay CEO John Donahoe has said it would place an immense burden on smaller retailers to have to deal with collecting the tax, even though that's presumably something eBay could do for its sellers.

Donahoe's argument may carry some weight when the measure gets to the House, though. It wouldn't be too hard to drum up a grassroots campaign that paints small online retailers as long-suffering, hard-working, over-taxed drones and few political careers have been ruined by opposing new taxes.

More

Feds propose rules governing 'deposit advance products'

Concerns have been raised about the high fee, lump sum repayment requirements

Some new rules are in the works for banks and other financial institutions offering so-called deposit advance products, which are similar to payday loans....

PhotoSome new rules are in the works for banks and other financial institutions offering so-called deposit advance products, which are similar to payday loans.

Guidance proposed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) is intended to ensure that banks are aware of a variety of safety and soundness, compliance, and consumer protection risks posed by deposit advance loans.

The announce comes in the wake of a study  that examined the impact on consumers of these types of loans.

Payday loans -- sort of

The products are offered to customers who have a deposit account, reloadable prepaid card, or similar deposit-related vehicle. The customer takes out a loan, which is to be repaid from the proceeds of their next direct deposit. These loans typically have high fees, are repaid in a lump sum in advance of the customer's other bills, and often do not utilize fundamental and prudent banking practices to determine the customer's ability to repay the loan and meet other necessary financial obligations.

Deposit advance loans share a number of characteristics seen in traditional payday loans, including high fees; very short, lump-sum repayment terms; and inadequate attention to the consumer's ability to repay. As such, banks need to be aware that deposit advance loans can pose safety and soundness, compliance, and consumer protection risks.

The proposal discusses supervisory expectations for the use of deposit advance products, including underwriting and credit administration policies and practices.

Agency concerns

The proposed supervisory guidance “reflects the serious risks that certain deposit advance products may pose to financial institutions and their customers,” said FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg. “Many financial institutions already profitably offer affordable small-dollar loans as an alternative to high-cost payday loans, and we encourage institutions to continue to seek ways to responsibly meet the need for small loans."

“We have significant concerns regarding the misuse of deposit advance products,” said Comptroller of the Currency Thomas J. Curry. The guidance, he added, “is an important step toward better protecting consumers and enhancing the safety and soundness of national banks and federal savings associations that may be offering similar products.”

George Goehl, executive director of National People's Action, which bills itself as a grasssroots organization that "works to advance a national economic and racial justice agenda," cals it a first good step. But he says the group is "disappointed that the Federal Reserve did not join the FDIC and OCC. He says NPA will continue to apply pressure to make sure that all consumers, regardless of their bank, are protected from "these predatory products."

The proposed guidance will be published in the Federal Register, with a 30-day comment period.

More

Economy picks up steam in first quarter

Increased consumer spending was an influence

The pace of economic growth accelerated sharply in the first three months of the year, but not as much as economists were expecting. The Commerce Departme...

PhotoThe pace of economic growth accelerated sharply in the first three months of the year, but not as much as economists were expecting.

The Commerce Department reports gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States -- expanded at an annual rate of 2.5% in the first quarter after rising a tepid 0.4%. While that's a considerable improvement, it failed to meet the Briefing.com forecast of 2.9%.

Today's report is an “advance” estimate of economic performance. More complete data will be released at the end of May.

Consumers a factor

Stronger consumer spending, private inventory investment, exports, residential investment,

and nonresidential fixed investment were major factors in the rising GDP. Those influences were offset to a degree by declines in federal government spending and state and local government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in calculating GDP, increased.

The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

More

3T Design recalls Cervelo bicycles

The handlebar clamps can detach during riding

Cervelo Cycles of Toronto, Canada, is recalling nearly 700 Cervelo bicycles with Aura Pro handlebars. The bike's handlebar clamps can detach during riding...

PhotoCervelo Cycles of Toronto, Canada, is recalling nearly 700 Cervelo bicycles with Aura Pro handlebars.

The bike's handlebar clamps can detach during riding causing the rider to lose control, posing a risk of injury. 3T Design has received one report of an incident resulting in minor injuries.

The Aura Pro custom bicycle handlebars are original equipment on the 2013 Cervelo P-Series bicycles, which come in black, gray and red color combinations. The handlebars are finished in gloss black with “3T,” AURA-PRO,” and “ULTIMATE-PERFORMANCE” in white on the handlebar’s top surface. The recall includes the P3 with Shimano Ultegra and P5 Three with SRAM Red bicycle models. "Cervelo" and "P3” or “P5” appear on the bicycle’s frame.

The bikes, manufactured in China, were sold at Cervelo bicycle retailers nationwide from September 2012 through January 2013 for about $3,600 for the P3 with Shimano Ultegra bicycle and about $6,000 for the P5 Three with SRAM Red bicycle with these handlebars.

Consumers should stop using their bicycles immediately and contact 3T Design to obtain a free repair kit that includes four replacement bolts and instructions. Consumers can follow the instructions to replace the handlebar’s bolts or take the bicycle to a Cervélo authorized dealer for a free repair.

Consumers may contact 3T Design at (800) 223-3207 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.  

More

No letup in fight against knives on planes

Flight attendants vow to prevent a change in TSA rules

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the federal agency that screens passengers boarding commercial aircraft, is delaying its new rule that al...

PhotoBesieged by protests from flight attendants, the families of 9/11 victims and others, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is delaying its new rule that allows passengers to carry small knives aboard commercial aircraft.

“The attacks in Boston prove once again that we can’t be selective in our vigilance. We must guard against all threats, big and small,” said Rebecca Marchand, whose husband was a flight attendant murdered on United Airlines flight 175, in a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole. “As the wife of a flight attendant killed on 9/11, and the mother of a flight attendant who flies today, I have earned the right to say this: Knives have NO place on an airplane."

TSA said it "temporarily" delayed implementation of the rule to allow more time for public input.  

The Association of Flight Attendants CWA (AFA), which represents about 90,000 flight attendants, is pressing to not only delay the rule, but to prevent it from ever going into effect. The standoff began late last year when TSA announced it was revising its list of prohibited items and said the category of small pocket knives, which had been on the list since 9/11, was being removed.

Why?

Why would TSA allow knives in the cabin when it prohibits so many other objects? The agency has said very little in the way of explanation.

Photo“The only public statement TSA has been making on the issue is that the changes are part of a risk-based approach to security,” said Corey Caldwell, a spokesman for AFA. “Additionally, it also conforms to EU standards.”

A “risk-based” approach means that TSA has concluded that there is very little risk in allowing passengers to carry small pocket knives. But the flight attendants and others who question the move point out the 9/11 hijackers took over four planes using box cutters as weapons. Box cutters would still be banned under the new rule.

“TSA’s recent decision to change the list of prohibited items to allow knives and sporting equipment on board planes defies logic,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), at a news conference with AFACWA officials. “TSA apparently made this decision without any formal consultation with the people who would be most impacted by the decision – flight attendants, pilots, air marshals, and passengers. I urge TSA to keep knives and sporting equipment on the list of prohibited items and consult with all stakeholders before making any changes to this critical list.”

Other lawmakers have questioned the TSA move. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) called it a “huge step backward.” She said knives are a danger to passengers but are particularly a threat to flight attendants. She expressed relief last week when TSA said it would delay lifting the ban and suggested most passengers feel the same way.

“The American public clearly saw that it is common sense to keep these potential weapons off our airplanes,” she said.

Pressing its advantage

With TSA apparently blinking, AFA isn't relenting in its effort to force an unconditional surrender on the issue.

"We will not stand down from the fight to keep knives off planes permanently,” said Veda Shook, AFA International President. “The recent TSA announcement to delay implementation does not change our efforts. We will continue to focus on a legislative path that permanently bans knives from the cabin. We need a common-sense approach to national security just like our country needs a common-sense budget that maintains our nation's aviation system as the best in the world."

Before TSA can change its list of prohibited items, it must submit its new rule to public comment. The flight attendants union says it believe TSA has received overwhelmingly negative comments on the proposed rule.

“If those procedures are followed, we have no doubt that the (TSA) Administrator will conclude that knives have no place on our planes and will leave the rule barring 'weapons' in place,” AFA said in a statement.

Here's a complete list of the items currently banned from the aircraft cabin.

More

New bird flu is one of the 'most lethal' strains

Some people who have the virus had no documented contact with birds

While previous outbreaks of bird flu haven't lived up to some fears about it, this latest strain of the virus that has shown up in China is causing growing...

PhotoWhile previous outbreaks of bird flu haven't lived up to some fears about it, this latest strain of the virus that has shown up in China is causing growing concern.

The virus, known as H7N9, has infected 108 people and killed 22 in China since early March, when it was first reported. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the virus normally circulates among birds. It's only been recently that it has shown up in people.

“As yet, there is limited information about the scope of the disease the virus causes and about the source of exposure,” the WHO said in a statement. “The disease is of concern because most patients have been severely ill. There is no indication thus far that it can be transmitted between people, but both animal-to-human and human-to-human routes of transmission are being actively investigated.

Worst-cast scenario

A human-to-human transmission would be a worst-case scenario. As long as the spread is limited to bird-to-human, a person would have to come in contact with a diseased bird in order to come down with the virus.

However, if it is found that a person can catch the virus from a bird and then spread it to another human, health officials fear that would lead to a pandemic. Seasonal flu germs are easily spread among humans and the H7N9 is a particularly nasty virus for people.

The good news, so far, is that health officials do not believe any of the human cases so far have been transmitted from another human. The bad news is that when humans do come down with the disease, it can be life-threatening.

"This is definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses that we've seen so far," said the WHO's Keiji Fukuda.

Not yet widespread

From the animal side, WHO said only a handful of the tens of thousands of chicken and birds tested have been positive for H7N9. There have been no positive results in pigs and virtually none of those animals were sick, in contrast to H5N1, which is the bird flu that emerged 15 years ago.

“With this different situation in animals, the presumed source of infection, we are still uncertain about the source of illness in people,” said Dr. Michael O'Leary, a WHO representative in China.

Until this week the outbreak had been confined to the Chinese mainland. This week there was a case of H7N9 reported in Taiwan. According to news reports a 53-year old man was stricken days after returning to Taiwan from Shanghai. He is reported hospitalized and in critical condition.

China is especially vulnerable to bird flu because birds play a prominent role as a source of food and livelihoods. WHO said it and its health sector partners are working at the level where humans and animal come in contact to identify and reduce animal health and public health risks within China and other countries where poultry is a major industry.

CDC monitoring

In the U.S. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is monitoring H7N9 in China. The agency notes that not all the people infected had documented contact with poultry.

“Close contacts of confirmed H7N9 patients are being followed to determine whether any human-to-human spread of H7N9 is occurring,” the CDC said in a statement. “No sustained person-to-person spread of the H7N9 virus has been found at this time.”

The agency also reports that some limited person-to-person spread of a milder strain of bird flu may have occurred in the past. It says some limited human-to-human spread of this more “lethal” strain wouldn't be surprising.

More

BMW sunroofs leak, class action claims

A crucial shortcoming in the "Ultimate Driving Machine," plaintiffs argue

You would think that a car that claims to be the ultimate in German engineering would at least keep you dry when it rains, but a class action suit says BMW...

More

Car dealers sue Carfax

They say Carfax is a monopoly that puts out a substandard product at a high price

Consumers have come to rely on Carfax to help them avoid mistakes when buying a used car. But long before consumers began using Carfax, car dealers were de...

PhotoConsumers have come to rely on Carfax to help them avoid mistakes when buying a used car. But long before consumers began using Carfax, car dealers were depending on it, and complaining about how much it cost.

Now more than 100 dealers have filed a federal antitrust complaint alleging that Carfax monopolizes the vehicle history market and charges them tens of thousands of dollars a year for a substandard product.

Carfax charges smaller car dealers $10,000 per year and tens of thousands of dollars more for larger companies, the plaintiffs say, according to Courthouse News Service.

Maxon Hyundai Mazda, the lead plaintiff, says Carfax is violating the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts. They say it monopolizes the market for vehicle history reports through a series of exclusivity agreements with major players in the auto industry.

The dealers say that through those exclusivity agreements, Carfax has tied up the vehicle history reports (VHRs) required for 37 of 40 certified pre-owned sales programs, as well as every used car listing on Autotrader.com and Car.com.

Blemished history

Photo"Carfax has stigmatized any listing without such a link in the eyes of consumers who infer that the absence means that the car has a blemished history," the dealers argue. "As a result of these exclusivity agreements, therefore, the plaintiff auto dealers are effectively compelled to purchase Carfax VHRs for their used car inventory and supply them tree of charge to persons shopping for used cars, despite the fact that other suppliers of VHRs offer more reliable VHRs at substantially lower prices than those charged by Carfax."

Carfax is one of 10 vendors of the history reports approved by the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, an electronic database created under the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992, although Carfax was in business long before the federal database was established.

The company, headquartered in Centreville, Va., was founded in 1984 by two computer engineers who were interested in combating odometer fraud. It originally distributed its reports to dealers via fax, as its name suggests. It launched a website to make its reports available to consumers in 1996.

Consumer issues

Consumer have their gripes about Carfax too. Arthur of Fort Worth, for example, said he bought a car in July 2009 and still has a copy of the clean Carfax report.

But when he tried to trade it four years later, it was a different story.

"They do a search on my car, and it is listed as salvaged months before I purchased it in 2009. I have emails where I discussed the car with the dealer. There was no mention of salvage and nothing on the Carfax," Arthur said in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

Carfax, like other vehicle history report companies, relies on public records, which can have inaccuracies, but most consumer advocates would likely agree that the easy availability of vehicle histories has cleaned up a lot of abuses in used-car sales.

More

Ground beef and chicken are riskiest meats, report finds

Chicken nuggets, ham and sausage have the lowest contamination risk

It hardly comes as news that ground beef and chicken are the riskiest meats in the U.S. food supply but a new report from the Center for Science in th...

PhotoIt hardly comes as news that ground beef and chicken are the riskiest meats in the U.S. food supply but a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says they're also the meats most likely to make you seriously ill.

"Outbreaks from ground beef and chicken are reported frequently, and all too often cause debilitating illnesses — illnesses that lead to hospitalization," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "For example, approximately a quarter of those who are sickened by Salmonella will go to the hospital. The hospitalization rate for E. coli infections is nearly 50 percent and for Listeria infections it is more than 90 percent."

The deadly bacterium E. coli O157:H7, for instance, was responsible for 100 outbreaks associated with ground beef in the 12-year study period. Because that pathogen is estimated to result in hospitalization in nearly half of those infected, ground beef had the highest severity index of the 12 meat and poultry categories. 

The nonprofit group looked at more than 33,000 cases of foodborne illness connected to products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find the products with the highest risk.

The report, Risky Meat: A Field Guide to Meat & Poultry Safety, ranks 12 categories of meat and poultry based on outbreak reports. It found that chicken nuggets, ham, and sausage pose the lowest risk of foodborne illness.

Photo

"Meat and poultry producers must bear primary responsibility for keeping pathogens out of their products, but when it comes to beef, chicken, and other raw meats, restaurateurs and home cooks must treat them like hazardous materials and take steps to minimize risk," said CSPI senior food safety attorney Sarah Klein. "Care should be taken to avoid spreading germs from the meat around the kitchen, and meat thermometers should be used to ensure that ground beef, chicken, and other meats are fully cooked."

More

Huge drop in weekly jobless claims

Meanwhile, we'll get a first look at the 2013 economic growth rate Friday

The number of people filling first-time applications for jobless benefits was down sharply last week. Figures released by the Labor Department show there ...

PhotoThe number of people filling first-time applications for jobless benefits was down sharply last week.

Figures released by the Labor Department show there were 339,00 initial applications -- on a seasonally basis -- down 16,000 from the previous week's figure of 355,000. Economists at Briefing.com were expecting the application rate to hold steady.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, fell 4,500 during the week ended April 20 -- to 357,500.

The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

Economic growth

The markets will be keeping an eye out for Friday morning's release of the government's first estimate of economic growth during the January-March quarter of 2013.

Briefing.com is projecting that the Gross Domestic Product expanded at an annual rate of 2.9% after registering a sluggish growth rate of 0.4% in the final three months of 2012. GDP is the the broadest measure of economic activity, reflecting the growth rate of total economic output.

More

Telemarketers banned, ordered to pay millions

The defendants acted with 'reckless disregard'

Five individuals and NHS Systems, Inc., the operation they ran, have been banned from telemarketing, charging consumers’ bank accounts, and making false an...

PhotoFive individuals and their company, NHS Systems, Inc.,  have been banned from telemarketing, charging consumers’ bank accounts, and making false and misleading statements.

The judgment, entered by U.S. District Court Judge Juan R. Sánchez at the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), also requires them to pay almost $6.9 million -- the amount their scheme took from defrauded consumers. 

“All defendants have acted with reckless disregard for the financial interest and security of thousands of consumers,” according to Judge Sánchez. “They have demonstrated their continued ability, desire, and success in committing the same deceptive acts. The danger of recurrent violations is real.”

Operation Tele-PHONEY

The FTC filed its complaint as part of ‘Operation Tele-PHONEY,’ a 2008 crackdown on deceptive telemarketing. An amended complaint filed in 2009 accused the defendants of using third-party telemarketers to unfairly and deceptively market and charge consumers for one or more discount health programs.

The telemarketers allegedly led consumers to believe they were from, or affiliated with, U.S. government agencies, including the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and Medicare, the complaint states. Consumers were told that they would receive substantial deposits into their bank accounts -- in the form of grants, tax refunds, or tax rebates -- if they first provided their account or credit card information. In many instances, the callers told consumers that they had been unconditionally selected.

Medicare scam

Medicare beneficiaries were told, in some cases, that they had to provide their financial information to continue receiving their benefits. In other cases, the defendants charged consumers’ financial accounts without any notice and without their authorization.

Consumers often were charged $29.95 to receive health care information, $299.95 to enroll in the program, and $19.95 per month thereafter, finding themselves in a “discount health care program” they never agreed to purchase.

The court found that the conduct of the NHS defendants, was unfair, as it “caused and was likely to cause substantial financial injury to the consumers.” It also determined their conduct was deceptive and that the telemarketers made the alleged misrepresentations to consumers, in violation of the FTC Act.

Numerous violations

Finally, the court ruled that the defendants violated several provisions of the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by:

  • misrepresenting the total cost of the programs;
  • overcharging consumers;
  • charging consumers who were not enrolled in the healthcare program;
  • charging consumers to enroll in what was supposed to be a free program;
  • misrepresenting aspects of goods and services sold; and
  • using audio authorizations that did not comply with the Rule.

 

More

Ditch the flowers and go with these cool Mother's Day gifts instead

Buying something for Mom that matches her interests is really the best way to go.

Through all the caring and nurturing, through all the unconditional love, good advice and bailing us out of jams, sometimes we forget to look at our paren...

PhotoThrough all the caring and nurturing, the unconditional love, good advice and bailing us out of jams, sometimes we forget to look at our parents as actual people.

What’s the proof?

Look how critical some of us can be about our parent’s mistakes and I’m not talking about the parents who abandoned their kids or committed some serious wrongdoing.

These are the parents who did their best to work hard and provide the things we wanted and needed, those who always tried to put their best foot forward when it came to caring for us. And although they probably made some mistakes, they were just that -- mistakes -- not acts born out of meanness or indifference.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget parents are merely products of their own upbringing and most directly draw from their childhood experiences when it comes to parenting. And instead of actually knowing how to handle each situation the best, many parents are just feeling their way through as they raise us -- figuring it all out as they go along.

Many children realize these things about their parents as they grow older and a lot of times, with each passing year of adulthood, children are able to see their parents more and more as individuals, instead of living breathing parental manuals who have all the right answers and know exactly what to do.

And as more time passes, you figure out who your parents are even more, to the point that your relationship gets closer and you look to do things for them based on their personality, likes and interests.

So this year, instead of buying your mom a generic gift for Mother’s Day like flowers or a day at the spa, why not really think about who she is, what she likes and how she can benefit the most from what you buy her.

To help you do that, we selected some pretty cool gadgets that won’t only surprise your mom, but perhaps perfectly match one of her hobbies or current needs.

The fitness mom

PhotoFor the mom who likes to exercise and stay fit, there’s the Griffin Adidas MiCoach armband that’s selling on Amazon for under $20.

Mom will be able to place her smartphone in the armband for listening to music while exercising or jogging, and it’ll keep her device nice and dry if it rains.

The armband also has tiny compartments for holding extra little things like keys or gym passes and ports for attaching plugs and headphones.

Of course there are more expensive brands, but the Griffin Adidas MiCoach pretty much does what most of them do and -- for the very low price -- you just can’t go wrong.

The cooking mom

PhotoFor just $32.99 on Amazon, mom can turn just about any vegetable into spaghetti with the GEFU Spirelli Spiral Cutter, especially if she wants to replace starchy pastas with a less-fattening and lighter substitute.

And the best part about this cutter is that it’s super easy to use.

All she has to do is stick her veggie of choice in, give it a turn and out comes evenly-sized spaghetti or angel hair strands.

The contraption has a finger guard as well, so mom won’t turn her thumb into pasta strings by accident. When she's done she can just stick the cutter in the dishwasher, as it's dishwasher safe.

The "Newish" Mom

This next item isn’t really a gadget, but it’s pretty cool just the same.

It’s called the Piggyback Rider Standing Child Carrier Backpack and it costs between $89.99 and $149.99 on the company’s website, depending on which kind you choose and what accessories you’ll add.

PhotoIn short, the Piggyback Rider is a standing carrier for kids up to 60 pounds, who are too big to fit into those flimsy front carriers.

The concept of having carriers for bigger children isn’t new, but the makers of this particular brand say it’s lightweight and was designed to distribute the child’s weight to one’s core, so parents can walk erect and be comfortable along with the child.

The carrier has safety handles for the child too, so they can grab on and feel secure. For some using the Piggyback rider might be preferable compared to lugging around a cumbersome stroller or taking the child by the hand and forcing her to keep up with you.

Is it safe?

According to our research, yes, although it might not be recommended for people with back pains or certain back issues.

Here’s what a mommy blogger “Jenna” had to say about it on her site.

“Having the chance to test and review the Piggyback Rider, I would definitely recommend families with children ages 2½-7 to check it out,” she wrote. “It’s extremely well-made and best of all, the high quality material and integrated safety features make it very safe and enjoyable for both parent and child.”

Grandmothers

Now I certainly don’t mean to stereotype all grandmothers and suggest they all need help doing everyday things, but the West Bend Electric Can Opener is considered to be one of the best of its kind, according to many reviews.

Basically, if granny is still opening cans by hand, this item is supposed to make it a lot easier.

PhotoAccording to many reviews for this product, it’s supposed to open cans of any size easily -- even the tall and heavy kinds, and it’s supposed to remove tops smoothly and even, so can lids won’t go from the start of a nice tuna fish sandwich, to a sharp and dangerous weapon that will cut and injure.

The design of the West Bend Electric Can Opener is made to take up a small amount of counter space, as it’s tall not wide, and includes a bottle opener plus a knife sharpener. In addition, the opener has an automatic shutoff and is billed as dishwasher safe.

So again, before you go out and buy the same item that you usually buy for your mother, try something that will match who she is and where she is in her life -- whether she’s a fitness mom, a cooking mom, a new mom or a grandmother.

Not only will this approach bring her a well-deserved smile on Mother’s Day, it’ll make her happy that you actually saw her as an individual and not just as your mom.

More

Lawsuit challenges Ford's mileage claims for Fusion, C-Max hybrids

The Pennsylvania suit says the 47 mpg claims don't come close to reality

In the latest challenge to Ford's high-mileage claims for its 2013 Fusion and C-Max hybrids, car owners in Pennsylvania have sued, saying teh cars didn't c...

PhotoIn the latest challenge to Ford's high-mileage claims for its 2013 Fusion and C-Max hybrids, car owners in Pennsylvania have sued, saying the cars didn't come close to the 47 miles per gallon Ford advertises.

“Plaintiffs are some of the tens of thousands of consumers who purchased a Fusion Hybrid or C-Max Hybrid, only to be stuck with under-performing, less valuable vehicles that inflict higher fuel costs on their owners,” according to the complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The lawsuit echoes complaints from consumers elsewhere as well as the findings of Consumer Reports magazine.

"I thought my 2013 C-MAX would be a Prius Killer? NOT! As a returning Ford buyer I feel deceived," said Ronald of South Portland, Maine, in a posting to ConsumerAffairs in March. "Based on the advertised EPA estimates, I would have been ok with low 40's but 28-33 mpg is not even in the ballpark."

Just 37 mpg

Earlier, Consumer Reports tested both the C-Max and Fusion and said they both came in well short of the claimed 47 mpg fuel efficiency. The C-Max achieved 37 mpg, the Fusion 39 in the magazine's tests.

Photo"These two vehicles have the largest discrepancy between our overall-mpg results and the estimates published by the EPA that we've seen among any current models," the magazine said in a statement.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which determines the mpg ratings, has said it is confident the 47 mpg finding is sound but has said it will review the ratings of both Ford vehicles. Ford has said that it has been talking to the EPA about the issue and that both parties agree there can be wide variation between the EPA's ratings and actual mileage achieved by consumers.

“Ford’s fuel economy labels are generated in accordance with EPA procedures and protocols,” Todd Nissen, a Ford spokesman, said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

All that aside, the lawsuit says that Ford knew or should have known that the hybrid versions of the C-Max and Fusion don’t deliver advertised fuel ratings.

The lawsuit seeks damages of at least $5 million. It accuses Ford of fraud and consumer protection violations. 

Not everyone's unhappy

But not all consumers are upset with their Fords. Joel of Minneapolis told ConsumerAffairs he has been getting around 40 mpg in his 2013 Ford Fusion through the cold Minnesota winter.

"Now that the weather is warming up I know we'll see better than 50 mpg on most tanks and expect that our full-year average will be very close to the 47 mpg EPA rating," he said.

However, Joel added this word of advice: "The Fusion Hybrid gets much better gas mileage in the city than on the highway even though the EPA ratings say 47 city and 47 highway. The EPA test cycles are not realistic to how most people drive," Joel said. "We see closer to 50-55 mpg in the city when the temperature is above 40 degrees, more like 45 mpgG when it's cold, and 40-45 mpg on the highway depending on cruising speed."

Joel said he has found 65 to be a good cruising speed for the car and said he gets 45 to 50 mpg on the highway when the weather is good.

The Fusion, hybrid and otherwise, has been a big seller for Ford. It was the sixth best-selling model in the U.S. this year through March and has been selling faster than many comparable Japanese cars.  

 

More

Consumers often trapped in debt by payday and deposit advance loans

A new study finds sustained use of these loans can lead to a 'cycle of indebtedness'

We all run a little short of money from time-to-time and there are both good and bad ways of dealing with the problem. Among the worst, according to a stud...

PhotoWe all run a little short of money from time-to-time and there are both good and bad ways of dealing with the problem. Among the worst, according to a study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), is depending on payday and deposit advance loans.

According to the study, these products can lead consumers to a cycle of indebtedness.

“This comprehensive study shows that payday and deposit advance loans put many consumers at risk of turning what is supposed to be a short-term, emergency loan into a long-term, expensive debt burden,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “For too many consumers, payday and deposit advance loans are debt traps that cause them to be living their lives off money borrowed at huge interest rates.”

Consumer protection concerns

According to the CFPB report, payday and deposit advance loans offered by a growing number of banks are generally similar in structure, purpose, and the consumer protection concerns they raise.

Typically described as a way to bridge a cash flow shortage between paychecks or other income, they offer quick and easy accessibility, especially for consumers who may not qualify for other credit.

The loans generally have three features: they are small-dollar amounts; borrowers must repay them quickly; and they require that a borrower repay the full amount or give lenders access to repayment through a claim on the borrower’s checking or savings account.

Renee of New Orleans says she found herself trapped when she agreed to a loan of $400 with Cash Direct Express. "Like other payday loan company I delt with you can reduce your payments to 4 payments," she writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "But this company took $100 for 4 paydays and then begin to take monies owed on the principal $40 at a time and then charged interest on the balance. the first pay was $40 + $120 then $40 + $95. I call to check the balance it was $354 so on $400 dollars I paid $1069. How do company get away with this?"

Not uncommon is the case of Andrew of Palm Springs, Calif., who says he borrowed $300 from EZPayDayCash.com, which offered a 6-month payback at $50 per month.

But, "the fine print charges you $75 per month to do it," he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "After 6 months you will repay the original loan of $300 along with almost $450 in fees. OMG! Didn't I understand what I was signing? Well, apparently not... and I'm a pretty bright guy. I didn't realize it on my bank statement initially and got a chuckle out of it as they explained it to me. Each time I asked a question they replied by chanting, 'You agreed, you agreed, all explained, you agreed.' And I guess they're right, which is why I am stunned by the smooth way they pulled the wool over my eyes and am now urging you to run away, run away, run away."

Study highlights

PhotoThe study, which looked at a 12-month period with more than 15 million storefront payday loans and data from multiple depository institutions that offer deposit advance products, found:

  • Payday and deposit advance loans can become debt traps for consumers. The report found many consumers repeatedly roll over their payday and deposit advance loans or take out additional loans; often a short time after the previous one was repaid. 
  • Lenders often do not take a borrower’s ability to repay into consideration when making a loan. For the consumer, this means there may not be enough money left after paying off the loan for expenses such as for their rent or groceries -- leading them to return to the bank or payday lender for more money.
  • The risk posed by the loose underwriting is compounded by some of the features of payday and deposit advance loans, particularly the rapid repayment structure. Paying back a lump sum when a consumer’s next paycheck or other deposit arrives can be difficult for an already cash-strapped consumer, leading them to take out another loan.
  • Both payday loans and deposit advances are designed for short-term use and can have very high costs. These high costs can add up -- on top of the already existing loans that a consumer is taking on.
  • The loose underwriting, the rapid repayment requirement, and the high costs all may contribute to turning a short-term loan into a very expensive, long-term loan.

It's unclear whether consumers fully appreciate the risk that they may end up using these loans over a much longer period of time than the original term. Or, that they may end up paying fees that equal or exceed the amount they borrowed, leading them into a revolving door of debt.

More

Technology makes online cheating easier

But beware, the tech world isn't as private as you think

We're living in an interconnected world. We've gone from surfing the Internet at our desk at home to connecting with friends through social media on the go...

PhotoWe're living in an interconnected world. We've gone from surfing the Internet at our desk at home to connecting with friends through social media on the go, using a growing array of mobile devices.

All this technology may make us more productive and plugged-in, but it may also be leading us astray, making it easier to cheat on a spouse or partner – and it makes us more subject to betrayal.

Let's start with Facebook. The social networking site, with nearly a billion members, allows us to keep up with what our friends are doing. But it has also put us in touch with old friends from our past and provided a seemingly private, back-channel way to communicate with them.

According to Divorce Online, social media has become a factor in one in three divorces in the UK. The site says what people post not only causes marital friction but can be used as evidence in a divorce trial.

Seeds of an affair

While there are no hard numbers to confirm this, it can be safely assumed that all that chatting, flirting and interacting online can sow the seeds of an affair, a virtual one at first but perhaps later, the real thing.

The British website MyCheating reports a huge spike in female membership on UK “cheating” websites among married women over 30. It links the spike to another technology trend, the 2012 “Fifty Shades/Mummy Porn” e-book phenomenon.

"The Internet, and specifically social networks, have changed the way we interact with each other,” said Victoria Coxen, co-founder at MyCheating. “And one of the negative consequences is that it has become easier for people to cheat. Social media and technological advancements have put temptation at our fingertips, and this is demonstrated by the meteoric rise in extra-marital encounters.”

Recipe for disaster

PhotoWhich brings us to online dating. When married people go to a dating website and post a phony bio in hopes to starting a relationship, it is usually a recipe for disaster.

A spouse hoping to meet someone for a romantic affair can do so from the privacy of his or her computer, though sometimes a misdirected email can be their undoing. In 2011 ConsumerAffairs received a complaint from a woman who said an online dating site had emailed her husband recommendations for potential dates. She was angry at the dating site's “mistake” and hadn't quite figured out it might not be a mistake.

Online dating sites can be used to cheat another way. Dating scams abound on most dating websites when one of the parties pretends to be something they are not. Barbara, of Central, S.C., recently reported meeting a man on Match.com and carrying on what seemed like a normal online relationship for four months.

More and more money

“He needed to go to Malaysia on business, and when he came back, we were to get married,” Barbara wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “He got over there and things were more than Michael expected so he needed $1,000 till he got back, then another $1,000. Then finally, he came home but he needed more money. I didn't think much about it then; supposedly he was at the airport and had a heart attack and was in the hospital for two weeks. Now, he can't leave. They kept his passport because he couldn't pay the bill.”

So Barbara gave “Michael” her credit card, which ended up getting maxed out. When she went back to the dating site to look for his profile, she said it was gone.

Are fraud and infidelity on the rise because of technology? It seems that way. As the use of social media becomes second nature, individuals may be forgetting its very public nature. You aren't just sharing private thoughts with online friends. It's more public than you realize.

So, be careful what you write on your wall!

More

Appeals court throws out credit reporting settlement

Says settlement creates “divergence of interests” among class members

...

PhotoThe Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out a settlement in a case alleging that three leading credit reporting companies had disseminated incorrect information about consumers who had declared bankruptcy.

The suit, which originated as multiple actions in 2005 and 2006, alleged that Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion issued credit reports that claimed consumers had been delinquent in paying down certain debts. In reality, the suit alleged, those debts had been discharged during bankruptcy proceedings. The allegedly erroneous information would constitute a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), a federal statute.

The court ruled that the settlement -- which totaled $45 million -- “created a patent divergence of interests between the named representatives and the class” and thus should not have been approved by the district court.

Incentive awards 

The settlement offered “incentive awards” to the named plaintiffs in the suit. This is common in class action suits, since those individuals typically spend considerable time helping lawyers prosecute the action. 

However, the court ruled that, in this case, “these awards were conditioned on the class representatives’ support for the settlement,” which “caused the interests of the class representatives to diverge from the interests of the class because the settlement agreement told class representatives that they would not receive incentive awards unless they supported the settlement.”

The settlement offered “actual damage awards” to class members who could show that they suffered harm from the agencies’ alleged conduct. Class members who were denied housing would receive $500; those who could not obtain car or credit loans would receive $150; and those who were denied employment would receive $750. 

Class members who did not suffer economic damage were set to receive a “convenience award” of around $26.

Lawyers plan to rewrite settlement

The settlement would have been the second-largest ever reached in an FCRA suit, according to plaintiffs’ counsel Michael Caddell of Caddell and Chapman.

"Obviously we're disappointed," Caddell told Thomson Reuters. "We didn't believe the settlement agreement was coercive, and the facts were undisputed that our class representatives had decided months before the language was drafted to support it.

Caddell said he planned to rewrite the settlement.

More

Gonorrhea: More dangerous than you think

A strain of the disease has become resistant to many treatments

In the era of HIV and AIDS, perhaps old fashioned sexually transmitted diseases (STD) like gonorrhea don't seem like much of a threat anymore. But in the c...

More

iPhone 4: The check is in the mail

It's the final chapter of Antennagate settlement

The Apple iPhone 4 has achieved its place in history as the now-ubiquitous smartphone that first introduced the world to Siri. But the phone was also...

PhotoThe Apple iPhone 4 has achieved its place in history as the last iPhone not spookily inhabited by Siri. But the phone was also responsible for one of 2010’s biggest tech scandals: “Antennagate.”

Within days of the phone’s June 2010 release, users discovered that when the device was held a certain way, it received almost no signal. Users said that putting one’s hand over the phone’s metal frame in the lower left-hand corner -- where the antenna is exposed -- led to a marked decrease in signal strength.

Unsurprisingly, the issue quickly produced a flurry of lawsuits, with class actions filed in California and Maryland by the beginning of July. Ultimately, 18 cases were filed, although all were ultimately combined into a single class action.

Last year, Apple agreed to settle the matter for $53 million. This week, the final chapter of Antennagate will be written, with $15 checks being sent to eligible class members. Apple had also offered free iPhone 4 cases in place of monetary compensation.

Jobs: “Just avoid holding it that way”

The issue provoked a characteristically brusque response from late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. When a customer emailed Jobs to ask, “What's going to be done about the signal dropping issue[?],” Jobs replied, “Non issue. Just avoid holding it that way.”

Jobs did ultimately issue a mea culpa, stating that, “We are human and we make mistakes sometimes.”

Consumers who receive a check must cash it by July 16. If you haven’t filed a claim yet, it’s too late -- the deadline passed in August 2012.

Glassgate

The iPhone 4 was also at the center of “Glassgate,” involving the device’s alleged propensity to shatter when dropped. A Los Angeles suit centering around that issue claimed that “Apple ... failed to warn and continues to sell this product with no warning to customers that the glass housing is defective.”
 
More

Worried about an upcoming surgery? View the procedure beforehand

Touch Surgery doesn't only train surgeons, it can make patients feel more secure too

Before you go under the knife for surgery, why not get a look at what it’s going to look like beforehand?Today, you can do that with Touch Surgery,...

PhotoBefore you go under the knife for surgery, why not get a look at what it’s going to look like beforehand?

Today, you can do that with Touch Surgery, an app that gives patients a virtual walk-through of the procedure they’re getting. The app serves as a training tool for surgical students as well.

Jean Nehme, who created the app with Andre Chow, Advait Gandhe and Sanjay Purkayastha, said it really allows patients to involve themselves with the details of the surgery, which in turn allows them to feel better about it.

Furthermore, Touch Surgery lowers the wall of mystery that exists between many surgeons and patients and helps patients feel more secure about their procedure, since they’re able to see what’s being done.

“We’ve found that it really improves patient comprehension and reduces anxiety, and people are getting out of hospitals faster,” said Chow. “Once upon a time, the surgeon was god, but now it’s more of a shared partnership.”

Up close and personal

Although the virtual images may be graphic and disturbing for patients to see, Touch Surgery lets them get an idea of what the problem is and what needs to be fixed.

Chow says he and his partners really wanted to bring patients into the hard-to-understand aspects of surgery and the best way to do that was by creating an interactive tool.

Barrett Veldsman, a patient who underwent gallbladder surgery, said Touch Screen was the best way to understand his procedure, which he wasn’t able to understand when he went on the Internet to do research.

“You look at Wikipedia, you read it, it goes in and you really don’t understand all the terminology, but this is so simple it relaxes you,” he told a media outlet.

“With Touch Surgery we focused on the essence of surgical education and we combined it with new advances in consumer technology that allowed us to make something that’s mobile and interactive in a way that’s never been done before,” he said.

Training tool

But Touch Surgery just wasn’t made to educate patients on an upcoming surgery; it was made so surgeons have an easier and better way to teach their students.

PhotoAnd having training that’s more thorough will allow those students to feel more confident about procedures and explain things to patients a lot clearer, say the creators of the app.

“What the app has allowed trainees to do is to be much more prepared when they actually come to the operating room for the first time, so they understand the anatomy better,” Purkayastha said.

And for future surgeons, Touch Screen couldn’t be easier to use, its creators say. In order to perform mock surgeries, students simply have to swipe the screen or use a pair of virtual cutters to make incisions.

The app doesn’t only teach the technical aspects of performing a surgery, but it helps surgeons learn how to be more decisive in the operating room and make better decisions.

“There is a saying that decision is much more important than incision,” said Nehme.

“Before you cut, you need to be sure of your decision and what comes next. It’s about 75% decision making and 25% technical skill. The interactive learning process helps you identify risks, at what point should you be aware of this nerve, when should you be aware of this artery.”

Touch Screen is available on iPhones and iPads and can be downloaded in the iTunes app store.

More

Study finds the rich really are getting richer

On the other hand, those who aren't so rich...

The first two years of the nation’s economic recovery have not been particularly even. As a matter of fact, just the opposite appears to be the case. A Pe...

PhotoThe first two years of the nation’s economic recovery have not been particularly even. As a matter of fact, just the opposite appears to be the case.

A Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the Census Bureau data says the mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%. Households in the lower 93%, however, suffered a decline of 4%.

To put it in other terms, the mean wealth of the 8 million households in the more affluent group rose to an estimated $3,173,895 from an estimated $2,476,244 from 2009 to 2011, while the 111 million households in the less affluent group saw their mean wealth fall to an estimated $133,817 from an estimated $139,896.

What happened?

The fact that the stock and bond markets rallied during the 2009 to 2011 period while the housing market remained flat played a major role.

Affluent households typically have much of their assets in stocks and other financial holdings, while the wealth of less affluent households is typically concentrated in the value of their home.

From the end of the recession in 2009 through 2011 (the last year for which Census Bureau wealth data are available), the 8 million households in the U.S. with a net worth above $836,033 saw their aggregate wealth soar by an estimated $5.6 trillion. The 111 million households with a net worth at or below that level saw their aggregate wealth plunge by an estimated $0.6 trillion.

The gap widens

PhotoThese differences resulted in an increase in wealth inequality during the first two years of the recovery. The upper 7% of households saw their aggregate share of the nation’s overall household wealth pie rise to 63% in 2011 from 56% in 2009. On an individual household basis, the mean wealth of households in this more affluent group was almost 24 times that of those in the less affluent group in 2011. At the start of the recovery in 2009, that ratio had been less than 18-to-1.

The overall wealth of America’s households rose by $5 trillion, or 14%, during this period. Household wealth is the sum of all assets, such as a home, car, real property, a 401(k), stocks and other financial holdings, minus the sum of all debts, such as a mortgage, car loan, credit card debt and student loans.

During the period under study, the S&P 500 rose by 34% (and has since risen by an additional 26%),. At the same time, the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index fell by 5%, continuing a steep slide that began with the crash of the housing market in 2006.

The different performance of financial asset and housing markets from 2009 to 2011 explains virtually all of the variances in the trajectories of wealth holdings among affluent and less affluent households during this period.

Among households with net worth of $500,000 or more, 65% of their wealth comes from financial holdings, such as stocks, bonds and 401(k) accounts, and 17% comes from their home. Among households with net worth of less than $500,000, just 33% of their wealth comes from financial assets and 50% comes from their home.

Getting it back

Overall, net worth per household in the U.S. in 2011 made up nearly all the ground it had lost since 2005 -- $338,950 versus $340,252 in 2005, the latest pre-recession data published by the Census Bureau.

Pew says total household wealth doubtless rose for a period after 2005 before falling precipitously during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and rebounding since then. However, no household wealth data are available from the Census Bureau for the years between 2005 and 2009, so it is not possible to pinpoint when, or at what level, the peak in wealth per household occurred.

More

Remember Bosco Chocolate? There's now a new flavor

The company hopes to make its chocolate syrup popular again.

It seems like Bosco Chocolate Syrup has been around forever. For most of us it has: the company was established in 1928. Since that time, millions of peop...

PhotoIt seems like Bosco Chocolate Syrup has been around forever. For most of us it has: The company was established in 1928.

Since that time, millions of people have put Bosco in their milk, ice-cream and other deserts as a sweetener and to give deserts a nice chocolaty pop.  

It’s been about 10 years since Bosco released a new flavor, but recently the company announced a new addition, Bosco Mocha, made with cocoa and real coffee extract.

The new flavor will be released in 530 Walmart stores in 12 Eastern states, so if you live in places like Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts or West Virginia, you should be able to find the syrup pretty easily.

Bosco Mocha is the latest attempt by the company to reintroduce itself to Baby Boomers and to capture the attention of younger customers as well.

Is there a market?

PhotoBut just how many kids and teens will flock to a coffee-flavored chocolate syrup remains to be seen.

About a year ago, the New Jersey-based company partnered with Walmart, which has given the 85-year-old brand a much-needed shot in the arm, since chocolate syrup isn’t as popular as it used to be.

A reason for this decline in popularity may have to do with ice cream and milk being made in a variety of flavors today, so often one doesn’t have to add anything to get the taste he or she wants.

Gone regional

Besides Walmart, Bosco Syrup can be found in other large and independent retailers nationwide including Shop Rite, A&P, Pathmark, Cost Plus World Market, Stater Bros and select Publix, and HEB stores among others, although Scott Sanders, the company’s vice president, said it may be easier to find in states like New York and New Jersey.

“Over the years, Bosco became a regional item, with its strongest following in the New York City metro area,” he said in a published interview. "Much to my chagrin, chocolate syrup isn’t as popular as it was years ago, and the reduced sales volume doesn’t warrant large-scale advertising any longer. We are marketing Bosco in new, creative, cost-effective ways today. We are working hard to find new distribution for Bosco.”

Speak up

In addition, Sanders says if you want to see Bosco at a store near you, simply ask the store manager.

“It is cliché to ask, but it really does help: Ask your grocery for Bosco! We find that when regular people ask the manager at your supermarket to carry Bosco, it often helps us out.”

And it’ll help you out too, if you really love the stuff.

Sanders said he’s excited about the company’s new mocha flavor and feels people both young and old will really take to it.

“This is our first new flavor in nearly a decade and we’re thrilled to be the first to create a syrup that combines real coffee and cocoa to create an authentic mocha flavor,” he said. “We’re confident that Bosco Mocha will be almost as popular as Bosco Chocolate."

More

Lawmakers question pace of e-cigarette regulations

Some states have begun to consider their own rules as feds move slowly

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) served notice some time ago that it will probably regulate electronic cigarettes -- also called e-cigarettes -- but ...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) served notice some time ago that it will probably regulate electronic cigarettes but has yet to take the first step.

The FDA said it was preparing proposed regulations in 2011 but none appeared. It said the same thing the following year with the same results. Earlier this year it suggested a proposal would be offered in April.

Now the agency is coming under pressure from some lawmakers to get the process rolling. Five U.S. Senators have written to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging her agency to issue "deeming regulations" for the increasingly popular devices that some smokers have adopted in place of cigarettes.

The letter was signed by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Il.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Oh.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.). They note that the number of people who have used e-cigarettes has doubled since 2010 but, to date, the nicotine delivery devices are currently not required to be evaluated or approved by the FDA.

Can currently be marketed to children

Photo“Unlike traditional tobacco products, e-cigarettes can be legally sold to children and are not subject to age verification laws,” the Senators wrote. “E-cigarettes marketed to appeal to kids in candy and fruit flavors, like bubblegum and strawberry, are readily available to youth in shopping malls and online. These products risk addicting children to nicotine, which could be a pathway to cigarettes and other tobacco products.”

Earlier this month the CEO of an e-cigarette company also endorsed some regulation of his industry by the FDA. Eli Alelov, CEO of LOGIC Technology, told ConsumerAffairs that he wants to see manufacturing standards and age restrictions.

“I support raising the bar for the industry,” Alelov said. “Right now my biggest enemy is not the FDA, it's these 'me too' brands that come into the market with cheap electronic cigarettes, trying to make a buck, and they're putting lousy products on the market. That's hurting the entire industry.”

Alelov's company makes e-cigarettes in only two flavors – tobacco and menthol. He says the wide variety of fruit flavored e-cigarettes offered by other companies don't appeal to people who smoke cigarettes, but instead appeal to young people who don't smoke.

'Reasonable regulation'

The general counsel of FIN Branding Group LLC, another e-cigarette company, is also calling for "reasonable regulation."

"As the electronic cigarette industry continues to grow, it is important to work with stakeholders, including the FDA, to better understand how new regulations might alter our industry," said FIN Branding Vice President and General Counsel Rebecca Maisel. "We believe that some reasonable regulation that addresses quality control, product consistency, and a ban on selling products to minors is important."

State action

While the FDA ponders regulations, some states are considering action of their own. California is considering a measure that would ban the use of e-cigarettes in locations where smoking is banned. Currently e-cigarettes can be used in public spaces since they do not emit smoke, only water vapor.

PhotoThe measure, SB 648, would ban e-cigarette use inside or within 20 feet of any public building or in a vehicle owned by the state. It would also allow landlords to ban e-cigarette use in private homes.

The Rhode Island legislature is currently debating a measure to ban e-cigarette sales to minors, but would also greatly restrict online sales of nicotine-containing products by treating e-cigarettes the same as traditional tobacco products.

E-cigarettes contain no tobacco but simulate the act of smoking by using heat to create water vapor that is inhaled. The flavored vapor contains nicotine and many smokers have said they find e-cigarettes an acceptable alternative to tobacco.

Anti-smoking groups, however, don't consider them acceptable. They have called for regulating e-cigarettes as tobacco products.

More

Kale, collards, squash, baby food loaded with pesticides, study finds

Apples, peaches, spinach, potatoes also make "Dirty Dozen" list

Kale and collars are popular lately but, along with an apple a day, they can give you a daily mouthful of pesticides, a study by the Environmental Wor...

PhotoKale and collards are popular lately but, along with an apple a day, they can give you a daily mouthful of pesticides, a study by the Environmental Working Group finds. Strawberries, grapes and celery are nearly as bad. Baby food isn't so great, either.

Other fresh fruits and vegetables on the organization's Dirty Dozen list this year include peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hot peppers.

But wait, it gets worse. For the second year, EWG has added a "Plus" category to its Dirty Dozen, highlighting crops that were commonly contaminated with pesticides exceptionally toxic to the nervous system.

This year's Plus crops are domestically-grown summer squash and leafy greens, specifically kale and collards.

In USDA tests, kale and collars were found to be contaminated with organophosphate pesticides, potent neurotoxins that can affect children's IQ and brain development, even at low doses.

Baby food 

Baby food's not exactly kid stuff, either. EWG found that green beans canned for baby food tested positive for five pesticides. Pear samples tested positive for 11.

Pesticides are, after all, toxic by design and are created expressly to kill living organisms -- insects, plants and fungi that are considered "pests." Many pesticides pose health dangers to people and have been linked to brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone disruption, skin, and eye and lung irritation.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents more than 60,000 pediatricians, for the first time adopted an official position warning doctors and parents that pesticide exposures from food are potentially dangerous to children's health.

Clean 15

PhotoFind all this upsetting?

It is, but the good news is that EWG also has a "Clean Fifteen" list, consisting of those fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide load, including corn, onions, pineapples, avocados, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, papayas, mangoes, asparagus, eggplant, kiwi, grapefruit, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

Want to go beyond that list? Choosing organic food is the most reliable way to avoid toxins, EWG says.

"When given a choice, more consumers are choosing organic fruits and vegetables or using EWG's Shopper's Guide to find an easy affordable way to avoid toxic chemicals," said Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst. "They want to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables without eating too many pesticides. And they want to support local farms and agriculture that is better for the environment."

EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce ranks pesticide contamination on 48 popular fruits and vegetables and gives consumers a head-start on finding healthier foods for themselves and their families.

More

Toasters can be fire hazards

Consumers report timers don't shut off, causing the toaster to overheat

Under the right circumstances, perhaps any electric appliance can be a fire hazard. Lately, electric toasters are falling into that category.Joni, of Cle...

More

Safety regulators issue guidelines to limit distracted driving

The voluntary guidelines only apply to devices installed in cars by the manufacturer

Ray LaHoodThe feds have had it with electronic devices that distract drivers, so much so that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today relea...

Photo
Ray LaHood

The feds have had it with electronic devices that distract drivers, so much so that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today released voluntary guidelines that call on automobile manufacturers to disable distracting gadgets unless the vehicle is stopped.

"Distracted driving is a deadly epidemic that has devastating consequences on our nation's roadways," said LaHood. "These guidelines recognize that today's drivers appreciate technology, while providing automakers with a way to balance the innovation consumers want with the safety we all need."

According to federal data, 3,331 people died in distracted-driving accidents in 2011, up from 3,092 in 2010. Another 387,000 people were injured in 2011 in crashes involving a distracted driver, vs. 416,000 in 2010.

Issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the guidelines establish specific criteria for devices that require drivers to take their hands off the wheel or eyes of the road to use them. The guidelines include recommendations to limit the time a driver must take his eyes off the road to perform any task to two seconds at a time and twelve seconds total.

Put it in park

The guidelines also recommend disabling several operations unless the vehicle is stopped and in park, such as:

  • Manual text entry, including text messaging and internet browsing;
  • Video entertainment and communications like video phoning or video conferencing;
  • Display text messages, web pages and social media content.

The guidelines only apply to built-in devices -- like the navigation units mounted in the dashboards of many of today's cars and the growing number of devices being offered on new cars.

New study identifies risks

PhotoThe guidelines are based partly on a new NHTSA "naturalistic driving" study, which found tha tasks associated with handheld phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times.

"The new study strongly suggests that visual-manual tasks can degrade a driver's focus and increase the risk of getting into a crash up to three times," said David L. Strickland, NHTSA Administrator. "The new guidelines and our ongoing work with our state partners across the country will help us put an end to the dangerous practice of distracted driving by limiting the amount of time drivers take their eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and their attention away from the task of driving."

The study found text messaging, browsing, and dialing resulted in the longest duration of drivers' taking their eyes-off-road. Text messaging increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by two times and resulted in the driver's eyes off the road for an average of 23.3 seconds total. Visual-manual activities performed when completing a phone call – such as reaching for a phone, looking up a contact and dialing the number – increased the risk by three times.

Another study currently underway is examining the nation's highway system including speed, curves, intersection control, lighting, driver fatigue, and distraction, among others.

 

More

Adults with autism finding success in the tech world

A Texas-based company is teaching job skills and independence

When it comes to autism, many people might be aware of the social challenges involved. But not the professional ones, but that’s not the case with Ga...

PhotoWhen it comes to autism, many people might be aware of the social challenges involved but not the professional ones. That’s not the case with Gary Moore, the founder of the nonPareil Institute in Plano, Texas.

Moore and his partner, Dan Selic, have created a software and training program for people on the autism spectrum to help them find employment and develop skills to work in the tech industry.

“There is a 90% unemployment rate for adults with autism,” said Moore in a published interview.

“Many people with autism have the intellectual capacity to do the work, but their social and sensory issues prevent them from going into the workforce. We think we have figured out the solution to train them with marketable skills that will generate more than a minimum wage income that will be sustainable the rest of their lives.”

How it works

For about $600 a month, students are taught software design, which includes training in 3D animation and video game creation. For training purposes, instructors use an on-site computer lab, as well as a home training system so students can practice at home.

The institute even has a residential services program that helps students find housing close to the training program if they happen to live far away.

Photo
A nonPareil class

After the training is completed, students are either hired by the institute or seek employment through an outside company, as the whole idea of the training is to build confidence among the students and teach them a skill that can be used in a variety of ways.

Moore says that a lot of his students are fully capable of understanding the tech world, but they just need the right type of training, and so far the nonPareil Institute is one of the few places they can go.

“Many of the high-functioning guys are brilliant, but they can’t get a job because they’re different,” said Moore. “We’re trying to build a future for them.”

Selic agrees and says although the training program is about job placement, it’s about teaching adults with autism how to be independent as well. 

“If we can consistently get product on the market, instead of having this tidal wave of individuals look for a welfare answer or a governmental answer, what we’re focused on is getting them resources they need to learn and earn their own way in their lives,” he said. “We’re committed to giving them the skills that they need to build great products and compete in the marketplace.”

Success stories

So far, the program has been successful at getting major companies to hire nonPareil graduates.

Jim Pierce, vice president of corporate administration for the Fortune 500 company Alliance Data, says hiring people with autism has worked out well.

“We’ve got this one guy, for example -- his productivity is three times as productive as the person doing his job, who did not have cognitive disabilities before him,” said Pierce. “And his error rate is 2%. He is 98% accurate. He’s a phenomenal worker.”

Moore says the institute will be adding more to its curriculum in the near future.

“We’re still young, but we fully intend to expand the curriculum to include a lot of other disciplines,” he said. “We may do 3D movies down the road, astronomy, art, music. We may have our own restaurant or cafeteria someday and run a chef program.”

More

YouTube wins again in long-running Viacom suit

Judge in intellectual property case calls Viacom’s position “anachronistic”

YouTube Wins Summary Judgment in Viacom Suit Judge in intellectual property case calls Viacom’s position “anachronistic” ...

PhotoGoogle has prevailed -- again -- in a closely-watched lawsuit brought by media giant Viacom. In a ruling that could have major reverberations throughout intellectual property law, a federal judge in New York granted summary judgment to YouTube, rejecting Viacom’s argument that the video site should be held liable for its users posting Viacom-owned material on the platform.

Judge Louis Stanton, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Manhattan, held that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “safe harbor provisions” dictate that, because there is no proof that YouTube had knowledge of copyright infringement, it cannot be held liable.

The case began back in March 2007, when Viacom filed suit, claiming that YouTube’s then-recent appearance on the media scene came partly from Viacom-owned content being posted on the site. Viacom pointed out that episodes and clips of copyrighted shows like South Park and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show were regularly posted to YouTube.

Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006.

First summary judgment in 2010

In 2010, Judge Stanton ruled in YouTube’s favor, granting a summary judgment motion. Viacom appealed, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Stanton, holding that “a reasonable jury could find that YouTube had actual knowledge or awareness of specific [copyright] infringing activity on its website,” making summary judgment inappropriate.

In holding again for YouTube, Stanton said that given the volume of clips uploaded to YouTube on a daily basis, the Safe Harbor Provision of the DMCA did indeed protect the site.

Viacom argued that YouTube “apparently are unable to say which [video clips] they knew about and which they did not,” and that “[i]t follows, given the applicable burden of proof, that they cannot claim the ... safe harbor [provision]-especially in light of the voluminous evidence showing that [YouTube] had considerable knowledge of the clips on their website, including Viacom-owned material.” 

In a 24-page ruling, Stanton called Viacom’s argument “ingenious, but ... anachronistic.” The judge said that the entire purpose of the safe harbor provision is to protect high-traffic service providers like YouTube -- which has “more than 1 billion daily video views, [and] more than 24 hours of new video uploaded to the site every minute” -- and to “place[] the burden of notifying such service providers of infringements upon the copyright owner or his agent.”

“Great victory for YouTube” 

“The ruling is a great victory for YouTube,” said Eric Goldman, who directs the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law, in an interview with TIME Magazine. “The judge emphatically rejected all of Viacom’s arguments, as well as its spin on the facts. Given that Viacom has made no real progress in this case after 6 years of litigating, the judge’s ruling reinforces how the entire lawsuit has been a waste of time and resources for everyone concerned.”

Viacom has vowed to press on, saying in a statement that “[t]his ruling ignores the opinions of the higher courts and completely disregards the rights of creative artists.”

“We continue to believe that a jury should weigh the facts of this case and the overwhelming evidence that YouTube willfully infringed on our rights, and we intend to appeal the decision,” Viacom’s statement continued.

YouTube founder Chad Hurley was considerably more upbeat. In a Twitter posting, apparently referencing Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, Hurley said, "Hey Philippe, wanna grab a beer to celebrate?! YouTube Again Beats Viacom's Massive Copyright Infringement Lawsuit."

More

Millions of Americans still falling for scams

Weight-loss programs and prize promotions are the biggest offenders

Have you been scammed? If so, you have a lot of company. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has released a statistical survey showing that an estimated 25...

PhotoHave you been scammed? If so, you have a lot of company.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has released a statistical survey showing that an estimated 25.6 million American adults -- 10.8% of the adult population -- were fraud victims.

“The FTC fights fraud every day by taking scammers to court and telling consumers how to avoid being scammed,” said Charles Harwood, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Studies like this one help us fine-tune both our enforcement and education efforts.”

Online caution

Online commerce has been a boon for consumers, giving them greater choice and convenience. However, it cuts both ways. The FTC survey indicates that, as of 2011, the Internet was also the place where consumers most often learned about fraudulent offers.

The Internet category, which included email, social media, auction sites and classified ads, was followed by print advertising, and TV and radio. Most consumers were scammed via the World Wide Web. Telephone purchases ranked second.

The survey asked consumers about 15 specific categories of fraud, and two general categories. Of the specific categories the top 10 were:

  • Weight-loss Products (5.1 million estimated)
  • Prize Promotions (2.4 million est.)
  • Unauthorized Billing for Buyers’ Club Memberships (1.9 million est.)
  • Unauthorized Billing for Internet Services (1.9 million est.)
  • Work-at-Home Programs (1.8 million est.)
  • Credit Repair Scams (1.7 million est.)
  • Debt Relief (1.5 million est.)
  • Credit Card Insurance (1.3 million est.)
  • Business Opportunities (1.1 million est.)
  • Mortgage Relief Scams (800,000 est.)

Most likely to be cheated

An estimated 17.3% of blacks and 13.4% of Hispanics were victims; the rate for non-Hispanic whites was 9%. The survey found that high school graduates were the least likely to have been fraud victims; those who did not complete high school were the most likely to have been victims.

Consumers who were more willing to take risks and those who had recently experienced a negative life event (such as a divorce, death of a family member or close friend, serious injury or illness in their family, or the loss of a job) were much more likely to have been victims. Consumers who indicated they had more debt than they could handle were significantly more likely to have been fraud victims than those who were more comfortable with the amount of debt they had.

More

Nokia wins injunction against HTC

Claims new One phone uses Nokia-owned microphone parts

Phone manufacturer HTC has been hit with an injunction in a lawsuit by competitor Nokia, threatening to trip up the progress of its new HTC One phone, whic...

PhotoPhone manufacturer HTC has been hit with an injunction in a lawsuit by competitor Nokia, threatening to trip up the progress of its new HTC One phone, which has already been hobbled leading up to its release.

The injunction was granted by a court in Amsterdam, and stemmed from parts of a microphone installed in the One. The microphone parts, manufactured by ST Microelectronics, are allegedly identical to parts in the microphone of Nokia’s Lumia 720. Nokia says that it invented the parts in question and that they were made solely for use inside Nokia phones.

"HTC has no license or authorization from Nokia to use these microphones or the Nokia technologies from which they have been developed," read a statement from Nokia.

"In its marketing materials, HTC claims that its HDR microphone is a key feature for the HTC One, but it is Nokia technology, developed exclusively for use in Nokia products.”

More problems for the One

The injunction is one more hurdle for HTC, which has struggled with delays for the One. The flagship phone was originally scheduled to be released in February, but just last week became available in AT&T and Sprint stores.

The pressure is on for the Taiwanese manufacturer, which reported record-low profits in the first quarter of 2013. The company posted a net income of $2.8 million, an eye-popping 98 percent decline from the first quarter of 2012.

The company said it is  “considering whether [the decision] will have any impact on our business and we will explore alternative solutions immediately."

The injunction, which prohibits ST from selling microphone parts to HTC, will remain in effect until March 2014.

Nokia and HTC have a lengthy litigation history, with Nokia having filed around 40 other patent cases against HTC.

More

Survey: job prospects brightening for recent college graduates

High-skill pros may have the upper hand

The college class of 2013 may find a better world out there when it comes to job-hunting. A new study from CareerBuilder.com and CareerRookie.com finds 53...

PhotoThe college class of 2013 may find a better world out there when it comes to job-hunting.

A new study from CareerBuilder.com and CareerRookie.com finds 53% of U.S. employers plan to hire recent college graduates in 2013 -- about the same (54%) as in 2012, but significantly that the 46% in 2011 and 44% in 2010.

Industries that generally demand more high-skill workers -- primarily information technology -- are more likely to recruit recent college graduates. Sixty-five percent of IT hiring managers and human resources professionals said they plan to hire recent graduates, followed by financial services employers (63%) and health care employers (56%). IT and financial services are also the most likely to recruit workers for hard-to-fill jobs (37%) prior to graduation.

“New college graduates are facing a better employment situation this year, but the number of employers planning to recruit them are still trailing pre-recession estimates by more than 20 percentage points,” said Brent Rasmussen, president of CareerBuilder North America. “The market remains highly competitive. Those graduating with niche or technical skill sets will be in a better position to find more opportunities in higher-paying jobs.”

The money

Twenty-seven percent of those who plan to hire recent college graduates say they expect to offer higher starting salaries than they did last year. Nearly half report that starting salaries will range between $30,000 and $49,999. But offers will also be offered at the low and high ends of the pay scale:

  • Less than $30,000 -- 25%
  • $30,000 to less than $40,000 -- 29%
  • $40,000 to less than $50,000 -- 20%
  • $50,000 and higher -- 25%

Job types

Recent college grads are likely to be recruited to fill two types of jobs: front-line customer and client facing roles such as customer service and sales, and roles that require specific technical knowledge or hard skills, such as IT, finance or health care.

  • IT -- 26% (employers recruiting for jobs in this role)
  • Customer service -- 19%
  • Finance/accounting -- 16%
  • Sales -- 16%
  • Business development -- 15%
  • Health care – 12%

Educational prestige

A majority of hiring managers and human resource professionals say the name of the school won't make a difference. Still, a notable percentage concede they may be influenced by it. Twenty-five percent of hiring managers said they are more likely to hire a recent grad who went to a more prestigious school. Similarly, 20% said they are more likely to hire someone who is a fellow alumna or alumnus.

Job hunting tips

If you are a recent grad about to enter the labor market, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Highlight relevant “non-work” experience. The majority of employers agree that internships are the most common form of relevant experience (70%), and many also consider volunteer work (46%), involvement in school organizations (36%), relevant class work such as research projects or term papers (31%) and fraternity or sorority leadership (21%) as relevant experience. If positioned to match requirements on the job listing, such information can make a difference.
  • Do your homework on the company. The most common reasons employers pass on recent college graduates have to do with candidates’ lack of preparedness or disinterest in the company, such as: candidate didn’t know anything about the company (20%); candidate seemed bored (19%); candidate didn’t ask questions (19%).
  • Network early and often. More than one quarter (27%) of employers recruit candidates for hard-to-fill jobs before graduation. Expected graduates can get a leg up on their peers by attending campus career fairs, preparing resumes early, following company career pages on social media or joining a College Talent Network (custom recruitment sites for college students or recent graduates seeking employment at a specific organization).

The nationwide survey -- conducted online by Harris Interactive from February 11 to March 6, 2013 -- included more than 2,000 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries and company sizes.

More

Pace of new home sales picks up in March

Home prices were on the rise as well

Sales of new single-family homes picked up a little steam in March. Government figures show sales last month were up 1.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual...

PhotoSales of new single-family homes picked up a little steam in March.

Government figures show sales last month were up 1.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 417,000. That's a bit shy of the Briefing.com forecast of 415,000, but better than the February rate of 411,00. It's also well below the January peak of 445,000 homes sold.

The median sales price of new houses sold in March 2013 was $247,000 -- up 3% from the same time a year ago. The medial means half cost more and half cost less. The average sales price was $279,900.

The complete report can be found at the Commerce Department website.

Housing price index

In a separate report, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports its monthly House

Price Index (HPI) rose 0.7% from January to February. And for the 12 months ending in February, prices of homes shot up rose 7.1%.

Still, the HPI is down 13.6% from its April 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the October 2004 index level. Housing prices have not declined on a monthly basis since January 2012.

The nation's nine census divisions saw monthly price changes from January to February ranging from -0.6% in the Middle Atlantic region to +1.7% in the South Atlantic. The changes over 12 months ranged from +1.9% in the Middle Atlantic to +15.3% in the Pacific division.

More

Forcing your kids to clean their plates? Stop it

Researchers say you could be teaching your child unhealthy eating habits.

Forcing your kids to clean their plates at each meal increases their chances of becoming obese, say researchers at the University of Minnesota.Katie Loth...

PhotoForcing your kids to clean their plates at each meal increases their chances of becoming obese, say researchers at the University of Minnesota.

Katie Loth and her team used two separate studies to learn more about the relationship between food and children. One study involved 2,800 kids from Minnesota public schools; the other was called Project F-Eat, which focused on the eating habits of teenagers.

After examining both studies, researchers said they found a strong link between parents and their relationship with food, and how their children saw food.

Pressuring to eat

“We found that between 50% and 60% of parents from our sample reported requiring that their child eat all of the food on their plate at a meal,” said Loth in an interview with CNN. “Further, we found that between 30-40% of parents from within our sample reported encouraging their child to continue eating even after their child stated that they were full.

“While these pressures-to-eat behaviors were more frequent among parents of non-overweight adolescents, they were still endorsed quite frequently by parents of overweight and obese adolescents, indicating that many parents endorse these behaviors regardless of their child’s current weight status.”

In addition, Loth said that forcing a child to clean his plate could start an unhealthy relationship between that child and food, and instead of eating something because he's hungry or because it’s mealtime, a child could start eating for other reasons, which could lead to obesity.

“Parental pressure to eat can be detrimental to children because it takes away from a child’s ability to respond naturally to their own hunger,” Loth said. “Instead, (it) encourages them to respond to cues in their environment which can lead to unhealthy weight gain over time.”

And placing food restrictions on your children isn’t the best approach either, researchers say, as it can make them want that particular food even more when they become adults.

Moderation the key

PhotoTeaching moderation instead of banning certain foods is a much better approach, said Loth, since at some point kids will have to learn how to live among items like salty snacks and desserts -- so it’s better to teach them coping skills from early on.

Elaine Schulte, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, who didn’t participate in the study, believes parents have to do a complete about-face when it comes to their involvement with their kids eating habits, especially with older kids.

“Parents are doing way too much in controlling the way kids eat,” said Schulte in an interview with MedPage Today. They “need to back down in terms of the way they are helping children figure out how to eat.

“When you’re a teenager, you don’t want to be controlled; parents need to help regulate what their children put in their mouth, and it’s not by telling them what to eat," she said.

Other studies have confirmed that telling kids what to eat has very little influence on what they’ll eat when they grow older. One group of researchers found that 72% of adults who were forced to eat a particular food as a child, stayed away from it when they got older.

Experts say a better way for parents to teach their kids healthier eating is by being patient with them; many times a child will start liking healthier foods after they’ve tried it several times.

Additionally, parents should eat the same foods as their child, as this should work much better than sticking a plate of broccoli in front of them while you’re away from the table.

And it’s extremely important for parents to practice what they preach, say experts. If you’re eating pizza while making your child eat his vegetables, you’re sending the wrong message.

Loth says it’s the parent’s responsibility to establish healthy eating habits and that these lessons should come through example, not force. 

More

Oogababy: Learn how your child is developing

The creators say the app makes tracking your child’s growth fun and easy

Hot off the presses in the tech world is Oogababy, an app that lets parents track their child’s development and compare it to national statistics. Th...

PhotoHot off the presses in the tech world is Oogababy, an app that lets parents track their child’s development and compare it to national statistics and the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Just like Instagram or Viddy, Oogababy allows you to capture photos and videos of your child and share them on timelines if you choose, but that’s not its main purpose.

When it comes to Facebook, some parents don’t mind posting a lot of photos, but for those who do, Oogababy might be a better fit. The company says it wants to help parents get children’s photos off Facebook and onto a more private and useful site.  You can still set up lists of relatives and friends who have access.

“Our idea has evolved into an awesome product which aims to shift baby-related posts away from Facebook to a channel controlled by parents,” Oogababy, a Norwegian company, says on its website. 

Some parents who have already reviewed the app said it helps them keep track of their child’s development and document certain milestones. And based on your child’s level of growth, Oogababy may be able to predict some of their future achievements, like being able to walk or read.

The app can track the development of your unborn baby too.

Digital baby book

Like many of the other apps that record child development, Oogababy is pretty much a digital baby book that parents can look through and see how far their child has grown both physically and mentally.  

Photo
Gunnar Wold

Another cool thing about the app is its user friendliness, which makes it kind of fun to use.

“Oogababy lets parents track and predict growth and development in a simple manner,” said company CEO Gunnar Wold in a press statement.

When it comes to posting your child’s photos on Facebook, you can set controls but it’s easy to get the feeling that anyone can still access those photos anytime they want. With Oogababy, photos stay inside the app unless parents choose to share them.  

Again, the app seems to be more for the parent who has less of a desire to post photos on timelines, and more of a desire to track growth and development for their own sake.

But with that said, Oogababy still links with Facebook and Twitter, for those who want to post more publicly. And in fact, the founders of Oogababy say they’re planning to work with other social media platforms in the future.

Oogababy is free to download. An iPhone version was just released.

Not as cute

PhotoIt may be something new parents should look into. Because seeing and hearing about how little Johnny scored a goal at last Saturday’s soccer game can be cute the first couple of times you hear about it. Scratch that. It’s only cute the first time; after that it can be a bit much.

So who knows, maybe Oogababy could pull some parents away from always putting their kids' photos on Facebook, which wouldn’t hurt, because you never know what creepy folks are lurking behind a keyboard these days.

More

How to make your housing offer stand out

Believe it or not, it's a seller's market in some areas

Not only has the U.S. housing market come back from the dead, some experts think we are now again in a housing bubble. After plunging four years ago, home ...

PhotoNot only has the U.S. housing market come back from the dead, some experts think we are once again in a housing bubble. After plunging four years ago, home prices are rising again.

Some of the strongest gains are coming in the South, Southwest and West, areas where the housing bubble popped with the most damage. In cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Sacramento, home prices are up double digits year over year.

One big reason for rising prices is cheap money. Interest rates are almost 50% lower than before the housing collapse. Another reason is a sharp reduction in inventory – there are simply fewer homes for sale. Back when prices were falling, there was a glut of homes on the market – in some cities a year's worth of inventory.

“We now have numerous cities where the supply of homes is just at four months or in some cases, as little as one month,” said Pat Esswein, an editor at Kiplinger, a personal finance publication. It's crazy.”

Days of easy money

Prices are still lower than at their peak but some think those prices were never realistic to begin with. They were fed by demand from consumers who found it extremely easy to borrow money to buy real estate. Often they couldn't afford the homes and the loans offered very low “teaser rates” that adjusted much higher a year or two later, beginning the foreclosure tsunami.

What's unsettling to some industry observers is the fact that, in many markets, there is the same sort of rapid sales action and rising prices that marked the recent housing bubble. Esswein recently surveyed real estate professionals across the country to gauge the current market conditions.

“The advantage now is to the seller,” she said. “They've got leverage because they know that, if they have a nice home and are willing and able to sell, they're probably going to get multiple offers.”

Buyers, meanwhile, have fewer homes to choose from and they may feel under pressure. In some markets real estate investors have come in and snapped up as much property as they could, flipping some houses, converting other to rentals.

Investors are a big reason there are so few houses on the market, especially attractively priced distressed property. Esswein asked Realtors what advice they were giving buyers who wanted their offers to win out in a competitive situation.

Cash is king

One big advantage, she was told, was buy with cash, not a mortgage.

“You just about can't go wrong with it because it alleviates everyone's fear that the prospective buyer won't be able to qualify for a mortgage,” Esswein said. “Cash just greases all wheels.”

Investors tend to pay with cash but increasingly, so do ordinary buyers. They may have sold another house or not want to jump through the hoops of mortgage approval.

Offer what you're willing to pay

Everyone likes to feel they're a negotiator, driving a hard bargain for the best deal. In many housing markets, that's not uncommon. The asking price is $250,000 but you start at $235,000, hoping to end up at $242,000.

“That doesn't work very well when you are competing with other home buyers and they're willing to pay full price,” Esswein said.

Beefing up the earnest money

When you make an offer on a home, you sign a contract and write a check for a deposit. It's often called “earnest money” and, if your contract is accepted, it is deducted from your down payment at settlement.

Making the deposit a large one – say $5,000 instead of $1,000 – signals to the seller you are serious. However, you had better be serious.

“You don't do this idly, because if you back out on a whim, you lose your deposit,” Esswein said.

It almost goes without saying that you get pre-approved for a mortgage before you look at the first house. In fact, most Realtors require that now. They can't afford to waste time showing you a house you won't be able to purchase. And in a competitive market, you can be sure a home seller isn't going to take your offer seriously unless you are pre-approved.

Emotional pitch

Esswein offers up another tip that costs nothing and might give you a slight edge with the seller. When you submit the contract, also include a personal letter to the sellers, telling them why you love the house and the neighborhood. The emotional connection, Esswein says, might give you that extra bit of leverage when most of the offers are about the same.

It seems odd that just four years after the housing bubble popped that we would again be talking about it being a seller's market – and true, it isn't happening everywhere. And Esswein thinks this current boom might not last.

Once investors are no longer able to buy cheap properties they will probably withdraw from the market and sales will moderate. And as long as that happens without a damaging bubble pop, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

More

Stress and Alzheimer’s disease may be linked

Exercise among Alzheimer’s patients could be extremely beneficial

It's a pretty well-established fact that stress can cause numerous health problems. But now there may be a new concern. Researchers at Umea University ...

PhotoIt's a pretty well-established fact that stress can cause numerous health  problems. But now there may be a new concern.

Researchers at Umea University in Sweden say psychological stress during middle age could cause one to develop Alzheimer’s disease years later.

The scientists looked at the stress hormones in the brains of mice and found those with more stress had less memory. In addition, the brains of the mice with more stress had larger amounts of beta amyloid, a protein that’s associated with Alzheimer’s disease.  

In a 2007 study, researchers discovered the connection between beta amyloids and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Beta amyloid is associated with brain dysfunction — even in apparently normal elderly individuals — providing further evidence that it is likely related to the fundamental cause of Alzheimer’s disease,” explained Christopher Rowe, director of the nuclear medicine department and Centre for PET, at Austin Hospital in Australia.

In addition, the researchers involved in the 2007 study said that beta amyloid led to common Alzheimer’s symptoms like memory loss and brain synapses.

More study needed

Dr. Simon Ridley, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said additional studies involving humans is needed,

“Some research has already highlighted a possible link between chronic stress, cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer’s, and further study in people is needed to fully investigate these links,” he said. “If we can better understand the risk factors for Alzheimer’s we can also empower people to make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk.”

Additionally, researchers said people who use their brain in high capacity throughout life, like learning new languages or being in a job that requires a lot of critical thinking, have less risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life.

Exercise may help

In a separate study at the University of Helsinki, Finland, researchers found that intensive exercise at home has the ability to slow down some of the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s.

Researchers gathered 210 Alzheimer patients who lived at home with their spouses and split the groups into three.

One trial group had four-hour group sessions with one hour of home-based exercise; one group only had one hour of exercise and the other group received traditional care.

Although all groups in the study showed signs of deterioration as time went on, the group that went through four-hour sessions and one hour of training had the least amount.

Furthermore, the researchers made a connection between Alzheimer’s patients who exercised in their home and the possibility of keeping health and social services costs down.

The group that underwent four-hour training sessions and one hour of exercise had a total health and social service cost of $22,066. The second group, undergoing only one hour of exercise, ran a cost of $25,112 and the group that received traditional care had a health and social service cost of $34,121.

The lower costs along with the ability to possibly slow down physical deterioration in Alzheimer’s patients, shows how beneficial exercising at home can be, say researchers.

“In conclusion, this study demonstrates that exercise administered at the patient’s home may attenuate the deleterious effects of AD on physical functioning,” the researchers wrote.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and over 5 million Americans currently live with the disease. In addition, one in three seniors who have Alzheimer’s or other dementia passes away.

More

EA Sports class action settlement modified

Individual claimants will receive bigger payouts

A settlement in a lawsuit against EA Games has been modified to triple the amount of money that class members will be eligible to receive.Per the m...

PhotoA settlement in a lawsuit against EA Games has been modified to triple the amount of money that class members will be eligible to receive.

Per the modifications, each class member will receive more money from the $27 million total settlement fund. This is apparently because there are fewer individuals in the class than was originally anticipated.

The modified terms provide that claimants will get $20.37 for every last-generation game on Xbox, Windows PC, GameCube, and PlayStation 2. This amount is considerably higher than the $6.79 that these claimants would have received under the original terms.

Similarly, the amount for the most recent generation of games for Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 has risen from $1.95 to $5.85.

"Blatantly anticompetitive conduct"

 
The suit, filed in 2011, alleged that EA Sports engaged in "blatantly anticompetitive conduct" by entering into "an unlawful and anticompetitive series of exclusive agreements with the National Football League, the NFL Players Union, Arena Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association ('NCAA')," thereby allegedly driving its competition out of the market and driving up the price of its own games.
EA Sports April 21, 2013, 4:54 p.m.
Consumers rate EA Sports
According to the suit, "[p]rior to signing the exclusive agreements referred to above, Electronic Arts charged $29.95 for its flagship product Madden NFL," whereas once the alleged agreements went into effect, the price "increased nearly seventy percent to $49.99."

The suit alleged that EA violated federal and California state antitrust laws, as well as California consumer protection laws. EA denied that it ever charged inflated prices for its videogames, and also disagreed that there was a relevant market limited to "interactive football videogames."

$27 million settlement fund

Under the original settlement agreement, announced in October, EA would pay $27 million into a fund including money that would include money for class members after lawyers' fees and other costs were deducted.

In addition to the monetary changes, class members have been given additional time to file a claim. The deadline has been extended from March 15 to May 15. Claimants can do so at the official settlement website.
 
More

Boeing 787 battery fix approved

The FAA's okay followed 'rigorous' testing

The trouble-plagued Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a step closer to returning to flight. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved the aircraft-mak...

PhotoThe trouble-plagued Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a step closer to returning to flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved the aircraft-maker's design for modifying the 787 battery system. The changes are designed to address risks at the battery cell level, the battery level and the aircraft level.

As part of the process, the FAA will require airlines that operate the 787 to install containment and venting systems for the main and auxiliary system batteries, and to replace the batteries and their chargers with modified components.

“A team of FAA certification specialists observed rigorous tests we required Boeing to perform and devoted weeks to reviewing detailed analysis of the design changes to reach this decision,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

"The FAA set a high bar for our team and our solution," said Boeing chairman, president and CEO Jim McNerney. "Our shared commitment with global regulators and our customers to safe, efficient and reliable airplanes has helped make air travel the safest form of transportation in the world today."

Fixing the fleet

The FAA said it will closely monitor modifications of the aircraft in the U.S. fleet to assure proper installation of the new design. Any return to service of the modified 787 will only take place after the FAA accepts the work. The agency will also support other authorities around the world as they finalize their own acceptance procedures.

The new 787 battery system was approved by the FAA after it conducted an extensive review of certification tests over a month-long period beginning in early March. The tests were designed to ensure that individual components of the battery, as well as its integration with the charging system and a new enclosure, all performed as expected during normal operation and under failure conditions.

Boeing will begin installing the changes on new airplanes at the company's two 787 final-assembly plants, with deliveries expected to resume in the weeks ahead. The company says it expects to complete all planned 2013 deliveries by the end of the year.  

More

Settlement proposed in Canadian Sony hacking case

Double outages in 2011 disrupted gamers

A settlement has been proposed in a Canadian lawsuit focusing on hacks of Sony’s PlayStation Network (“PSN”) and Sony Computer Entert...

PhotoA settlement has been proposed in a Canadian lawsuit focusing on hacks of Sony’s PlayStation Network (“PSN”) and Sony Computer Entertainment (“SOE”).

The suit, filed in May 2011, grew out of two apparent system hacks that potentially exposed gamers’ information. Lead plaintiff Natasha Maksimovic, a 21-year-old Canadian gamer, sought $1.04 billion in damages.

Timeline of hacks

The first hack occurred in April 2011. After the PlayStation Network was down for several days, Sony Computer Entertainment released a statement explaining that an illegal entry of its network had potentially exposed sensitive user information to unauthorized individuals.

In its statement, Sony Computer Entertainment said, “We believe that an unauthorized person has obtained the following information that you provided: name, address (city, state, zip), country, email address, birthdate, PlayStation Network/Qriocity password and login, and handle/PSN online ID.”

Sony added that “[w]hile there is no evidence at this time that credit card data was taken, we cannot rule out the possibility.”

Within a week, Sony Online Entertainment discovered that its own system had been hacked as well. Sony revealed that “[s]tolen information [in the SOE hack] includes, to the extent you provided it to us, the following: name, address (city, state, zip, country), email address, gender, birthdate, phone number, login name and hashed password.

Congressional subcommittee called for investigation

The hack led to calls for a Congressional investigation, with the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade of the U.S. House of Representatives sending a letter with 13 questions to Sony chairman Kazuo Hirai.

“If you can’t trust a huge multi-national corporation like Sony to protect your private information, who can you trust?” Maksimovic said at the time the suit was filed. “It appears to me that Sony focuses more on protecting its games than its PlayStation users.”

Terms of settlement

The settlement applies to Canadian residents who had a PSN account before May 15, 2011.

Gamers who used their PSN account from January 1, 2011 through May 14, 2011, but then did not use it again until January 24, 2013 because of the hack, can receive “a payment equal to any balance of of paid virtual currency in your account wallet if that balance is at least U.S. $2.”

If the user “paid other companies for certain media services that you could not access through the PSN during the PSN outage from April 20 through May 14, 2011, you can get 3 free PS3 themes or a 50% discount on PlayStation Plus for 3 months.”

The settlement must be approved by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice before it is finalized.

Consumers who want to opt out of the proposed settlement have until May 20 to do so. Information on how to opt out is available at the official settlement website.
More

Fact and fiction about poison ivy

A close encounter with this plant can mean trouble

One of the downsides of spending time in the great outdoors is eventually, you're going to have a close encounter with poison ivy that will result in a pai...

More

Woman sues CVS over allegedly racist receipt

New Jersey woman’s receipt contained pejorative phrase “Ching Chong”

The photo has gone viral around the web: a CVS receipt listing the customer as “Lee, Ching Chong.”The customer, whose actual name is Hyun Lee...

PhotoThe photo has gone viral around the web: a CVS receipt listing the customer as “Lee, Ching Chong.”

The customer, whose actual name is Hyun Lee, is outraged, and has filed a million-dollar lawsuit over the racially-charged matter.

The saga began on February 7, when Lee arranged for photos to be developed at a CVS in Egg Harbor, N.J. When she went to get the photos, she says, she found the derogatory name on her receipt.

Outraged, Lee emailed CVS customer service.

"Do you think it’s funny?” Lee railed in her email. It’s very disturbing to me!!!!... why doesn’t he just call me Chink! It has the same derogatory meaning!!!!!"

According to the suit, Lee’s email received a reply from “Dee,” who assured Lee that “this incident will be addressed at store level and William [the allegedly offending employee] will be counseled and trained.”

“Horrified”

Photo
Hyun Lee

“Honestly I’m just horrified about this whole thing,” Lee told CBS 2. “It just brought back all the memories of growing up as a minority.”

‘Ching Chong’ is a very pejorative, racial slur meant for Asians,” Lee’s lawyer Susan Chana Lask told all-news 1010 WINS.  “CVS touts that they make $300 billion a year on their filings, then $1 million should be enough to teach them a lesson that their employees should not be getting away with this,” Lask said.

The suit asks for $1 million and cites “injury, mental anguish, severe emotional distress, harm, and damages.”

Wants employee fired

Lask also told ABC News that Lee wants William fired.

“It appears that the employee is still there,” Lask told ABC. “She will not return to that CVS until that employee is removed.”

In a statement, CVS said that "CVS/Pharmacy is committed to treating all of our customers with dignity and respect and we have a firm non-discrimination policy. We take this matter very seriously as the allegations in the complaint describe behavior that is unacceptable and not in keeping with our values or our policies. We are looking into this matter but cannot comment further due to the pending litigation."

More

Suit: McClatchy papers double-bill renewing subscribers

Kansas City Star subscribers say they're being gouged for their loyalty

As everyone knows, the newspaper business is in a ton of trouble. It's not just because advertisers are fleeing to the Internet, although that's a big part...

PhotoAs everyone knows, the newspaper business is in a ton of trouble. It's not just because advertisers are fleeing to the Internet, although that's a big part of it. But besides that, newspapers have a unique knack for alienating their subscribers -- throwing the paper in the ditch being the most oft-cited example.

Subscription policies also cause hard feelings, and in the case of  Elizabeth and Michael O'Shaughnessy, a lot more than hard feelings are involved. They're the named plaintiffs in a class action suit against McClatchy, one of the largest newspaper groups in the country.

In their suit, filed in Jackson County Court in Kansas City, Mo., the O'Shaughnessys say the McClatchy chain double-bills its loyal customers who renew their subscriptions. They claim that when a customer renews his subscription, McClatchy starts the new subscription right away, instead of waiting for the old one to run its course, thereby charging double for the overlapping days.

The O'Shaughnessys, who say the class includes "thousands of members," are seeking actual and punitive damages for breach of contract, breach of implied duty of good faith and fair dealing and violation of consumer protection statutes, Courthouse News Service reported.

Besides the Kansas City Star, which presumably landed on or near the O'Shaughnessys' front door step, the suit names McClatchy papers including the Sacramento Bee and other Bee papers in California, the Charlotte Observer, the Fort Worth Star Telegram and more than 20 others.

More

Existing-home sales dip in March

Prices, on the other hand, continued to rise

The pace of sales of previously-owned homes slipped a bit during March. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports sales of existing single-family...

PhotoThe pace of sales of previously-owned homes slipped a bit during March.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports sales of existing single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops came to a a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.92 million -- a 0.6% decline from February's revised rate of 4.95 million. 

While it was a bit higher than the 4.92 million forecast by Briefing.com and lower than the market's expectation of 5.01 million,  the March rate was still 10.2% ahead of the year-ago pace. Sales have now topped the year-ago levels for 21 consecutive months.

A matter of supply and demand

"Buyer traffic is 25 percent above a year ago when we were already seeing notable gains in shopping activity," said Lawrence Yun , NAR chief economist. "In the same time frame housing inventories have trended much lower, which is continuing to pressure home prices. The good news is home construction is rising and low mortgage rates are continuing to keep affordability conditions at historically favorable levels. The bad news is that underwriting standards remain excessively tight, while renters are getting squeezed by higher rents."

The inventory of homes at the end of March increased to 1.93 million houses available for sale -- a 4.7-month supply. That works out to a decline of 16.8% from a year ago, when there was a 6.2-month supply.

Yun says conditions continue to broadly favor sellers, adding, “we need a housing supply of over 6 months to have a generally balanced market between home buyers and sellers.” But, he says, that's unlikely without greater increases in housing construction.

The national median price for all existing home types was $184,300 in March almost 12% above the March 2012 median. That increase is the strongest since November 2005 when it rose 12.9% from a year earlier and the 13th consecutive month of year-over-year price increases.

Regional sales

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast were unchanged at an annual rate of 630,000 in March, but are 6.8 % above March 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $237,000, up 3% from a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, sales posted a gain of 1.8% to a pace of 1.16 million; that's 14.9% above a year ago. The median price was $141,800, up 7.8% from March 2012.
  • The South posted a sales decline of 1.5% to an annual level of 1.95 million in March, but are still 12.7% higher than a year ago. The South's median price was up 10.4% from last year -- to $161,700.
  • Sales in the West were down 1.7% to a 1.18 million pace last month, but 4.4% higher than the same time last year. Notably constrained inventory conditions sent the median price soaring 26.1% -- to $258,100.
More

Mastercard, Amex step up data sales to marketers

Aggregated data from credit card purchases increasingly being used to target ads, direct marketing

So, are you one of those consumers who get upset about being tracked around the Internet and asked for you ZIP code at check-out? If so, get a load of this...

PhotoSo, are you one of those consumers who gets upset about being tracked around the Internet and being asked for your ZIP code at the check-out counter of a bricks-and-mortar store? If so, get a load of this: MasterCard and American Express are stepping up their efforts to sell data on retail transactions to marketers.

Advertising Age recently revealed that the card issuers have been approaching advertising and marketing firms in an attempt to enlarge their client list.

It's a pretty appealing product they're offering: MasterCard alone has data representing 80 billion consumer purchases. AmEx is slicing and dicing its data, making it easier for marketers to reach consumers who are big spenders in specific retail segments such as automotive, fashion and travel.

Both companies insist that the data is aggregated and made anonymous so that individual consumers' names are not revealed. 

"We have strict policies in place to protect cardmembers’ privacy," Amelia T. Woltering, American Express Director of Corporate Affairs and Communication, told ConsumerAffairs. "American Express does not provide any personally identifiable information or individual transaction information about its cardmembers or a list of its cardmembers to advertisers or business partners."

Further, Woltering said AmEx' practices are not "secret" and have always been fully explained in the company's online privacy statement.

"We provide choices so that consumers and cardmembers can opt-out of targeted advertising or direct marketing." Woltering said. "Cardmembers can also opt-out of sharing their non-personal information with our business partners for their own analysis, research, and marketing purposes."

MasterCard also said it does not disclose personal information. 

“MasterCard is committed to protecting individuals’ privacy and uses only anonymous and aggregated information in producing information insights and other data analytic products and solutions," Andrew Bowins, Senior Vice President of External Communications, MasterCard Worldwide said. "Most importantly, MasterCard never collects, discloses or uses personally identifiable data, such cardholder name and address, in the creation of its information insights products."

Bowins provided this link to a more detailed explanation of MasterCard's privacy policies. 

Nevertheless, increased collection of consumer data -- both online and at bricks-and-mortar stores -- is troubling to many privacy advocates. 

"I think that individuals have a privacy interest in transparency and control regarding the use of their personal data for advertising," David Jacobs, Consumer Protection Counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told ConsumerAffairs. "Unfortunately, there is currently a lack of transparency in the sale and aggregation of consumer information by data brokers and marketing companies."

Jacobs hopes that changes, though. He noted that the White House released a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights last year and is currently working on legislation.

"The legislation hasn't been released yet, but the CPBR includes a comprehensive set of fair information practices such as control, transparency, and accountability that, if faithfully implemented, could improve consumer privacy and help address these practices," he said.

Not really new

Perhaps surprisingly, the sale of credit card data isn't really new. MasterCard Advisors set up its Information Services division more than two years ago and American Express Business Insights has delivered direct mail and online offers for years, although cardmembers have always been able to opt-out. Both firms have reportedly been approaching ad agencies and market research firms in search of more subscribers. It's only recently that the practice has come to public attention as the companies seek to expand their sales. 

Here's how MasterCard Advisors describes the data service it's selling to marketers: 

  • Offer access to relevant and actionable intelligence based on 65 billion anonymized, real transactions from 1.7 billion cardholders in 210 countries worldwide
  • Forecast consumer behavior with proprietary information and expertise only MasterCard can provide
  • Help clients make better decisions with real-time intelligence based on billions of cleansed transactions

 

PhotoTheir efforts are paying off. MasterCard has recently hooked up with Maxpoint, one of the larger digital ad firms, which already compiles all kinds of information about consumers in specific ZIP code regions. The company says the MasterCard info marks the first time it has had access to credit card information.

"We provide online advertising solutions that help multi-location business owners easily and affordably drive local customers to their stores," Maxpoint says on its website. "Reach the neighborhoods most interested in purchasing your products or services with our Digital Zip technology, the only scalable solution that moves shoppers from online to in-store."

What does that mean exactly? Maxpoint says its data can help marketers in "pinpointing qualified neighborhoods at the most granular level." Critics would say this helps the Walmarts of the world "redline" neighborhoods whose residents don't have enough disposable income to be worth fooling with. Others would say it's simply good business to open retail outlets where they've most likely to be successful.

"Black folks don't tip"

Could be, but retail redlining is "one of the most pervasive and insidious forms of racism left in America today," according to David Mekarski, the village administrator for the south Chicago suburb of Olympia Fields.

He was quoted recently by The Atlantic as telling a recent planners conference about his attempt to lure more restaurants to his mixed-race community, where the average household income is $77,000, well above average for the area. Mekarski said he asked an executive of a major restaurant chain why the company wasn't interested in his town.

"Black folks don’t tip, and so managers can’t maintain a quality staff. And if they can’t maintain a quality staff, they can’t maintain a quality restaurant,” the executive told him, Mekarski said.

In a less startling real-life example of how marketers put Maxpoint's data to work, as a gaming industry trade show geared up last month, Maxpoint was promoting its Digital Zip product, which it said "has identified U.S. cities with the neighborhoods most interested in gaming."

"By analyzing billions of in-store purchases and online data points, MaxPoint identified two distinct groups of gamers: early adopters, or those looking for the latest gaming technology, and latecomers, or gamers who prefer time-tested technologies," said Broadway World magazine.

The magazine reported that MaxPoint had found that early adopters tend to be college-educated, single homeowners with an average income of more than $60,000 per year. They purchase the latest gaming equipment and stay informed about the newest gaming trends. They live in cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco and Dallas but not in Bangor, Fargo or Lubbock.

Similarly, a burger of pizza chain could use Maxpoint's data to find neighborhoods whose residents spend more than average on fast food, Advertising Age noted. 

Photo
Exelate's "partners"
MasterCard also sells its data to Exelate, one of the Big Data companies that collects data from partners including Nielsen, Autobytel and Forbes to target ads and direct-marketing appeals to consumers. MasterCard says it now crunches its data into specific segments, identifying consumers likely to be shopping for cars, sporting goods or home furnishings. 

MasterCard and ad agency executives quoted by Advertising Age stressed that the data is "anonymized and provided in aggregate" and doesn't allow marketers to identify individual consumers.

"It's really more of a broad database," said Susan Grossman, group head of media solutions for MasterCard Advisors Information Services in the Advertising Age story.

Facebook gets in on the act

The added data is good news to Facebook, which has been trying to more effectively "monetize" its odd but enormous collection of personal ruminations and  reflections. 

PhotoFacebook has been doing deals with Big Data firms to make it easier for advertisers to target ads to specific segments of Facebook users, based on information from bicks-and-mortar retailers and, perhaps, credit card information.

Woltering said that American Express "does not provide any individual data to Facebook." 

Among Facebook's new allies is Datalogix, which claims to have information on more than 100 million Americans. Its website says the company has "data on  almost every US household and more than $1 trillion in consumer transactions.” 

Facebook dismisses any concern about privacy issues and claims the data actually benefits consumers. 

“It’s ultimately good for the users,” Gokul Rajaram, product director for ads at Facebook, was quoted as telling The New York Times. “They get to see better, more relevant ads from brands and businesses they care about and that they have a prior relationship with.”

More

Why some housing markets are recovering faster than others

The presence of investors makes a huge difference

The old adage that the three most important factors in real estate are location, location and location is true. But not just the location of the street or ...

PhotoThe old adage that the three most important factors in real estate are location, location and location is true. But not just the location of the street or neighborhood, but now more than ever, the location of the city.

Some markets are booming but others are not and there are a number of reasons for that. The Washington, D.C., market recovered quickly from the housing collapse, in part because the region has such stable employment that pays competitive salaries (thank you, taxpayers). There is also strong demand from the constant flow of newcomers.

In other cities the market has slowly recovered over the last two years because a growing number of investors have been buying up distressed properties – short sales and foreclosures. Their activity has led to a draw-down in inventory as fewer and fewer homes have come on the market.

Foreclosures slowing

Before 2011 banks were foreclosing on properties at a red-hot pace, and got into trouble for taking short cuts in the legal process. Now foreclosures advance more slowly and don't spend a lot of time on the market.

"The housing market in many areas has rebounded more quickly due to a shortage of new homes being built and the decline in home prices for existing homes on the supply side," said Tom O'Grady, CEO of Pro Teck Valuation Services, a residential property valuation service. "One of the other catalysts has been large investment funds, which are continuing to purchase REO and other distressed single family homes to rent out. These funds have also been renovating homes, which has helped to improve the overall conditions of the surrounding neighborhoods and provided a positive injection of capital."

Many of the hedge funds that are now buying up foreclosed homes are the very same ones that were buying and selling mortgage-backed securities once upon a time. The collapse of those securities, triggered by rising foreclosures, brought on the housing crisis in the first place.

Lucrative investment

Instead of buying mortgages, the hedge funds are now purchasing the actual houses. The houses are converted to rental property and the income goes to the investors. Unlike mortgage-backed securities, which are pieces of paper that only have value as long as the mortgage holder doesn't default, real estate is a real asset. It can be purchased at a discount, rented for several years and, when value rises, can be sold at a profit.

Photo
It doesn't help when the market is flooded with properties, as some rural communities are.

Markets where investors are active happen to be the markets where the housing market is recovering fastest. Not surprisingly, they tend to be the markets that crashed the hardest, where prices fell the most -- markets like Phoenix, Atlanta, Las Vegas and dozens of California cities.

Pro Tek's latest Home Value Forecast shows these 10 housing markets to be the hottest in April.

  1. Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine, Calif.
  2. Indianapolis-Carmel, Ind.
  3. Oakland-Fremont-Hayward, Calif.
  4. Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Roseville, Calif.
  5. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, Calif.
  6. Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach-Deerfield Beach, Fla.
  7. Stockton, Calif.
  8. Warren-Troy-Farmington Hill, Mich.
  9. Dallas-Plano-Irving, Tex.
  10. Austin-Red Rock-San Marcos, Tex.

While those markets are hot, these are not:

  1. Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla.
  2. Rochester, N.Y.
  3. Baton Rouge, La.
  4. Albany-Schnectady-Troy, N.Y.
  5. Greenville-Maudlin-Easley, S.C.
  6. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla.
  7. Mobile, Ala.
  8. Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, Ark.
  9. Shreveport-Bossier City, La.
  10. Spokane, Wash.

"The bottom ranked metros also represent an interesting mix, with two continuing to be in the upstate New York area and three in the Southeast, said Michael Sklarz, a contributing author to the forecast. "All have double-digit Months of Remaining Inventory, however, many of the indicators are showing positive trends even for the bottom metros area this month."

Rural property

At the same time, most rural real estate markets seriously lag their big city counterparts. Investors, particularly institutional ones, have steered clear of small town property -- at least they have so far.

PhotoSam Khater, Deputy Chief Economist at CoreLogic, has analyzed housing inventory and connected it with investor activity and found uneven results across markets. Northeastern and Midwestern markets have a lot more inventory and less investor activity. Some markets in the south and southwest, he says, have experienced massive declines.

Investors are more active there, most likely, because of the prospects for growth, the demand for rental housing and the huge discounts available for most distressed property.

What to do

Obviously, there's no one answer. If you're looking to buy a home, you'll find cheaper prices in the markets that are suffering but you'll also find little, if any appreciation. You may even encounter depreciation, meaning your property may be worth less than it is now in a few years.

If you must sell, find the most successful Realtor in your area and try to get him or her to represent you, then take the expert advice she offers. 

More

H&R Block faces several lawsuits over filing glitch

Refunds delayed for hundreds of thousands

Tax giant H&R Block has been hit with several lawsuits over allegations that a software problem has delayed refunds for hundreds of thousands of ta...

PhotoTax giant H&R; Block has been hit with several lawsuits over allegations that a software problem has delayed refunds for hundreds of thousands of taxpayers.

The suits, filed in courts in three states, revolve around a seemingly minor problem that has had major implications for taxpayers who filed their returns through H&R; Block. Previously, a tax preparer could answer a question as “No” by simply leaving the field next to it empty; beginning this year, however, preparers must affirmatively enter “N” next to the question. The IRS is processing the returns, but it will take longer than usual because of the issue.

The issue affects taxpayers who filed their returns before February 22.

The IRS says that that at least 600,000 tax returns were affected by the glitch, and that refunds will probably be delayed for about six weeks. H&R; Block received a number of complaints about the issue via its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Michigan complaints

A suit filed in a Michigan federal court points to H&R; Block’s advertised 100 percent accuracy guarantee, and says that H&R; Block has not yet attempted to compensate taxpayers for the error.

“Because of the error in the submission, which appears to be uniform in all of those, it’s their entire return that has been delayed,” California attorney David David Cialkowski told Fox Business. “This has caused a lot of issues.”

Cialkowski said that at least 500 individuals had contacted his firm about the problem.

Mea culpa

Consumers rate H&R; Block
H&R; Block CEO Bill Cobb issued a lengthy apology on the company’s blog, in which he acknowledged that “an apology won’t put your tax refund in your hands right away,” but vowed “to get you that refund.”

“This was our mistake — and I sincerely apologize,” Cobb said in his statement. “I want you to know that we hear the frustration of those impacted by this issue loud and clear, and we’re working every avenue we can to get your refund to you as fast as possible. ... [R]ght now, our singular focus is to get you that refund, and we have all hands on deck to help make this right.”

The company’s blog also offered a “complimentary consultation with a professional student aid advisor” through Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. Students affected by the problem may face complications in filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”), which asks applicants for tax information.

At least 3 suits have been filed to date, including complaints in California, Michigan, and Illinois courts.

 
More

The 'Red Flags' of moving fraud

If you're relocating, here's help in avoiding the slick operators

Americans are a people on the move. According to government figures, 35 million of us relocate every year. And anybody who has been involved in a move can ...

PhotoAmericans are a people on the move. According to government figures, 35 million of us relocate every year. And anybody who has been involved in a move can tell you that it rates high on the stress level index.

A major concern is making sure you don't get cheated.

Complaints about moving -- and movers -- abound. Last year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) received over 3,100 consumer complaints about household goods movers, compared with 2,851 in 2011. Among the most common complaints are shipments being held hostage; loss, damage or delay of shipments; unauthorized movers; and deceptive practices, such as overcharges.

ConsumerAffairs hears its share of complaints as well.

'Terrible, terrible'

John of San Diego, CA, doesn't think much of Bekins Van Lines. "Crew arrived 2 hours late. Stated they were stopped by the CHP. Movers looked like they were picked up at the local Home Depot. Dressed in dirty clothes looked they had slept in. They were supposed to shrink wrap all upholstered furniture. First thing I had to stop them as they started loading my chairs with no protection.," he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. “After filing a claim it took 3 months to get a response and then refused to take responsibility even though we had purchased additional insurance. I would never use this company and would never recommend them to anyone."

"I saw Father and Son movers on the Internet but I didn't take time to read the reviews," writes Kizze of Brooklyn, N.Y. "O my god it was the worst, When I call I ask them if they had a storage in Brooklyn, New York, and they lie to me and told me yes, they took my things all the way to New Jersey plus they told me just to move a bedroom set is going to cost me $350.00 I end up paying $1500.00 for everything because I wanted to bring my stuff back to Brooklyn."

Federal help

To assist consumers in dealing with these and other problems, FMCSA is launching a moving fraud prevention campaign to help spot the “red flags” of fraudulent or dishonest movers.

The idea behind the “Protect Your Move” campaign is to provide consumers with the information they need to protect themselves from unlawful movers.

Nationwide, the top ten cities with the greatest number of consumer complaints in 2012 were Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Austin, Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego.

Red flags

These are among the most common “red flags” of fraudulent or dishonest moving companies:

  • Not providing an in-home estimate,
  • Asking customers to sign incomplete documentation, and
  • A company failing to register with FMCSA.

Consumers can report unsafe and poor performing moving companies by calling FMCSA's nationwide complaint hotline at 1-888-368-7238 (1-888 DOT-SAFT).

More

Nissan recalling Pathfinder and Infiniti JX vehicles

Structural front brake torque weakness increases risk of a crash

Nissan is recalling 19,258 model year 2013 Pathfinder and Infiniti JX vehicles manufactured December 3, 2012, through January 29, 2013. The front brake t...

PhotoNissan is recalling 19,258 model year 2013 Pathfinder and Infiniti JX vehicles manufactured December 3, 2012, through January 29, 2013.

The front brake torque member was improperly cast resulting in structural weakness, which could lead to premature failure and cracking. If the brake torque member fails, the brake caliper may move and contact the inside of the road wheel, resulting in reduced braking, increasing the risk of a crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the manufacturing date of the torque members and replace them, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early May 2013.

Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

More

Honda recalls CR-V, Odyssey and Acura vehicles

The brake-shift interlock blocking mechanism may malfunction, increasing a crash risk

Honda is recalling about 204,000 model year 2012-2013 CR-V, Odyssey, and model year 2013 Acura RDX vehicles. During sub-freezing temperatures, the brake-...

PhotoHonda is recalling about 204,000 model year 2012-2013 CR-V, Odyssey, and model year 2013 Acura RDX vehicles.

During sub-freezing temperatures, the brake-shift interlock blocking mechanism may become slow and allow the gear selector to be moved from the Park position without pressing the brake pedal. If the gear selector is moved from the park position without pressing the brake pedal it can allow the vehicle to roll away, increasing the risk of a crash.

Honda will notify owners and instruct them to take their vehicle to a Honda or Acura dealer, who will install an updated brake shift interlock blocking mechanism free of charge. The recall is expected to begin May 13, 2013.

Owners may contact Honda at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's campaign recall numbers are S96, S97, and S98.

More

Teen drivers tend to text more when they're alone in a car

Survey shows they do it, even though they know they shouldn't

It's hard to turn on TV and not see a public service announcement urging young drivers not to send or read texts while behind the wheel. The message may be...

PhotoIt's hard to turn on TV and not see a public service announcement urging young drivers not to send or read texts while behind the wheel. The message may be getting through but it doesn't seemed to have altered behavior.

Bridgestone America commissioned a survey that found a huge disconnect between what teen drivers know to be responsible behavior and what they actually do. The survey of drivers ages 16-21 found 71% believe reading received emails while driving is unacceptable. But 45% admit to doing it. Eighty percent believe sending texts and emails while driving is unacceptable but 37% say they do it.

Disconnect

The survey uncovered another disconnect that gives safety experts hope that their message is starting to get through. While an overwhelming 95% of the young drivers in the survey admitted to reading texts and emails while driving alone, only 32% said they did when friends or parents were in the car. That suggests the drivers realize what they're doing is socially unacceptable behavior.

"The fact these actions are becoming socially unacceptable shows progress in the effort to raise awareness of the risks and consequences of distracted driving, but with this many teens admitting to engaging in the behavior privately, there is still much work to be done," said Angela Patterson, Manager, Teens Drive Smart Program, Bridgestone Americas.

True. Young drivers may know it's wrong but the fact remains that nearly all of them are texting and emailing while driving, a recipe for disaster. How, then, to get them to stop? No one has quite figured that out yet.

3,300 deaths

Drawing on extensive data, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that at any given “daylight moment” an estimated 660,000 drivers are either using their cell phones or trying to manipulate some kind of electronic device. The agency reports more than 3,300 deaths from distracted driving accidents in 2011 and 387,000 injuries.

“Distracted driving is a serious and deadly epidemic on America’s roadways,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “There is no way to text and drive safely. Powering down your cell phone when you’re behind the wheel can save lives – maybe even your own.”

The Department of Transportation is among the many organizations that have produced public service announcements to warn drivers – particularly young drivers – about the dangers of texting and driving.

States, meanwhile, have been in the forefront of cracking down on distracted driving. Ten states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have laws banning all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving. In most states, the laws are primary enforcement, meaning a police officer may pull you over for using a handheld cell phone without any other traffic offense taking place.

State laws are even stricter when it comes to texting. At least 39 states, plus D.C. and the U.S. territories, ban texting behind the wheel. Again, in most of the states the offense is primary enforcement.

Teen deaths rising

At a time when overall highways deaths are falling, the Governor's Highway Safety Association reported a 19 percent jump in highway deaths of 16- and 17 year-old drivers in the first six months of 2012. The concern is what role texting or other distractions might have played in those accidents.

This seems to be a particularly American problem. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests American young people are much more likely to talk or text while driving than their European peers.

For example, the study noted that 69% of young U.S. drivers admitted to talking on their phones while driving in the 30 days before the survey. That compares to only 21% in the United Kingdom.

The study also found that 31% of drivers in the U.S. reported that they had read or sent text messages or emails while driving, compared to 15% of drivers in Spain.

Fatal distraction

“The cell phone can be a fatal distraction for those who use it while they drive,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. “Driving and dialing or texting don’t mix. If you are driving, pull over to a safe place and stop before you use your cell phone.”

How distracting is it? A 2006 study at the University of Utah found that people talked on a cell phone while driving, they were as impaired as having a blood alcohol level at the legal limit of 0.08%.

So why do we keep doing it? The problem may be the seductive nature of mobile devices. People, especially young people, just can't seem to leave them alone.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland notes that, if you ask most drivers, they will agree that distracted driving is risky – for other drivers. What they lack, he says, is a realistic appreciation for how it puts them at risk when they do it.

What to do

If you are a parent of a teen driver, set a good example by not using your cell phone behind the wheel. Next, have a conversation with your teen about the dangers of distracted driving.

In fact, it's a good idea to require anyone behind the wheel, whether its an adult or a teen, to turn off their cell phone before starting the trip. If you're a passenger in a car and the driver starts to use their cell phone, speak up. Tell them it's a bad idea.

More

Notice all the great web series? Why not watch them on just one site?

BoomTrain.com: The first one-stop viewing site for cool shows on the Internet

Remember the first time you discovered YouTube and toyed around with it?If you’re like many people, then you probably used the search tool to view ...

PhotoRemember the first time you discovered YouTube and toyed around with it?

If you’re like many people, then you probably used the search tool to view everything from the music video you missed -- the one that everyone was talking about -- to that old and rarely shown episode of “All in the Family.” 

You know, the one where Sammy Davis Jr. guest stared, sat in Archie’s beloved chair and kissed him on the cheek just to torture him.

And by the time Hulu rolled around, consumers were pretty much spoiled to the fact that they could view almost anything they wanted at any time, so there was probably no surprise that sites like Hulu and SideReel had thousands of shows people could access and discuss them with other users if they wanted to.

Of course being able to watch shows on mobile devices expanded the online television thing even more and once everybody started socializing through Facebook and Twitter, watching shows would never be the same, to the point where more producers were creating shows solely for the Internet. 

Many of these shows caught on and became popular and many of them fell to the digital wayside.

Not enough promotion

One of the main reasons that many online shows never made it past the first few episodes is that show creators didn't have enough confidence to spend the necessary dollars to market and promote.

Many show creators made their episodes, threw them on YouTube and hoped people would find out about them through tweeting and Facebooking, which sometimes worked, but most times didn't. 

PhotoBut still, there were a few web series that really caught on like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and the hilarious “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” that many people wish they could  go to one site and access, instead of trying to find the best place to watch it.

Somehow the folks at BoomTrain.com sensed this and created a site that only shows web-based series, so people don’t have to go scouring the Internet for their favorite shows.

Search for what you want

You can search for the show you want to watch on the site or the company will recommend shows for you based on your Facebook and Twitter activity as well.

Another way the folks at Boomtrain make recommendations for you is by creating a database of high-quality web content that meets a certain standard within the company.

Here’s what co-founder Nick Edwards told the site Silicon Valley 411 about Boomtrain’s desire to create a database of high quality and creative web content by hand:

Photo“We have three or four people doing this part-time, we probably could use a lot more people,” he said. “We believe curation is vital in this space. Everything in our guide, we have gone through and vetted and approved before we brought it into the platform. We’re trying to ensure that every show has achieved the quality bar that we set for Boomtrain. So it’s curation combined with algorithmic recommendations.”

Along with being able to see what your friends are watching on Boomtrain, you can check out the site’s “boom” blog to learn what the best new shows are.

Edwards, who attended Harvard Business School and used to be a consultant for Microsoft, says up until he and his partner created the site, people weren’t sure where to go to view the buzzed-about web shows, since it was hard to tell which sites had full episodes instead of clips.

Massive influx

“Our approach is that there’s a massive influx of new, really good made-for-web content being created and it’s going over the Internet over connected devices through services such as Netflix and Hulu,” he said.

“The problem is that it’s very fragmented, it’s coming from everywhere, literally hundreds of sites are building entire businesses out of this episodic content.”

“This is understandable because when a producer broadcasts video over their own sites, they are able to make an order of magnitude more money versus sites like YouTube. But at the same time, there’s not yet any place dedicated to watching episodic content, as opposed to one-off videos. That may seem like a small distinction, but it’s actually pretty massive.”

In addition to the search feature and the show recommendations, users can select shows by genre like fashion and beauty shows, educational shows, dramas, sports or animation.

And the more the company discovers what your viewing preferences are, the more specific it’ll make recommendations for you.

“For example, if you decide you want to watch an online news show in a talk format, we can give you a list that shows you the top seven or eight shows that are online now, and give you the option to go deeper to see what else is out there. Once we get a critical mass of lists, we will have a mechanism for exploring list that is even richer,” Edwards said.

Boomtrain is still fairly new and so far, the few reviews the site has received are all favorable, which is a good indication.

More

Foreclosure settlement checks are bouncing, consumers complain

The company handling the $3.6 billion settlement says it can help straighten things out

It was just last week that, with much fanfare, various federal agencies announced that consumers would be getting $3.6 billion in checks from mortgage serv...

PhotoIt was just last week that, with much fanfare, various federal agencies announced that consumers would be getting $3.6 billion in checks from mortgage servicing companies that had taken shortcuts in foreclosure actions.

Well, sure enough, the checks have been arriving but consumers have been having trouble trying to cash them because their banks said funds were not available to cover the checks. Some checks have cleared though. Nearly 50,000 checks totaling nearly $50 million had been cashed or deposited as of close of business on Monday, according to officials at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

It's the latest embarrassment for federal regulators, who have already been criticized for accepting a lower settlement than consumer advocates thought was reasonable.

A company called Rust Consulting Inc. was hired by the 13 mortgage servicers involved in the settlement to process payments to 4 million consumers. But reports say that Rust has been unable to convince banks that they should honor some of the first 1.4 million checks that have gone out.

Rust confirmed today that some early payment recipients were told that their checks could not be cashed due to insufficient funds. Rust says it can verify that $3.6 billion is available to be cashed or deposited.

“We apologize to anyone who experienced problems trying to cash their checks. We are working hard and communicating with the banking regulators, the servicers, and other banks to ensure those issues are not repeated,” Rust Consulting Senior Vice President James Parks said. “We want to assure the public that checks we have mailed under the Independent Foreclosure Review Payment Agreement process are valid.”

What to do

Borrowers with questions regarding payments should contact Rust Consulting at 1-888-952-9105, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. - 10 p.m. ET or Saturday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. ET.

Financial institutions experiencing difficulties cashing payments should call 1-855-460-1528 for assistance. Payments will continue through July 2013. The distribution is the result of an agreement between 13 mortgage servicers, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Some pretty big checks

Although consumer advocates have criticized the feds for not going after a larger settlement, there are some pretty big checks involved. While some borrowers will get as little as $300 from the settlement, others will get as much as $125,000.

The agreement affects borrowers whose homes were in any stage of foreclosure in 2009 or 2010 and whose mortgages were serviced by AuroraBank of AmericaCitibank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JPMorgan ChaseMetLife Bank, Morgan Stanley, PNCSovereignSunTrustUS Bank, and Wells Fargo.

In the initial part of the settlement, payments will not be made to borrowers who were serviced by Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Those payments will be announced later.

The OCC said that checks will be sent in several waves.  The first wave of 1.4 million checks was sent on April 12.  The final wave is expected in mid-July 2013.  More than 90 percent of the total payments to borrowers at those 11 servicers are expected to be sent by the end of April.

More

Credit cards are cheaper if you have good credit

Consumers with less than perfect credit face higher rates and fees

As the economy continued to slowly improve in the first quarter of 2013, some consumers found credit a little cheaper. On the other hand, others didn't.&...

PhotoAs the economy continued to slowly improve in the first quarter of 2013, some consumers found credit a little cheaper. On the other hand, others didn't.

“The interesting thing that jumped out at me was interest rates for people with good credit went down but rates for people with poor credit went up,” said Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of Card Hub, which conducts a quarterly analysis of credit card rates.

The average interest rate for people with good credit was 12.79%, down 1.69% from the fourth quarter of 2012. But rates for people with average or below-average credit were up anywhere from 1.7% to 3.0%. Those in the subprime category are paying more to carry a credit card balance.

Competition for good credit customers

“I think its because of the lack of competition in that space, especially coming out of the great recession,” Papadimitriou said. “Some credit card companies got burned by lending in that space so there's not much competition.”

Some lenders have simply stopped issuing subprime cards. Two that still were have joined forces. Capital One's acquisition of HSBC has created what Papadimitriou calls a “competition vacuum” at the lower end of the credit card spectrum. That allows companies still in the space to raise rates at will.

Instead, the real competition is for consumers with good credit, and more consumers fit into this category than you might think. According to Papadimitriou, about 50% of credit card holders fall into that group. Credit card companies are willing to compete, and offer some attractive perks, to reach these consumers.

Longer periods for 0% interest

For example, the average 0% introductory rate for balance transfers now remains in effect for 10.29 months, 2.39% longer than the previous quarter. The 0% rate for new purchases now remains in effect for about the same period, also an increase over the previous quarter.

Rewards perks also rose for credit card customers with good credit. At $76.81, the average cash back initial rewards bonus is 15.4% more valuable than last quarter and 33.77% more valuable than this time last year. The average points/miles initial rewards bonus is 10.74% higher than last quarter and 13.89% higher than this time last year.

Consumers with good credit also benefited when it comes to fees. Foreign transaction fees, which averaged 2.24% in the first quarter, were down a fraction from the previous quarter but 5.88% from a year ago. Balance transfer fees were unchanged but cash advance fees – mostly affecting subprime borrowers – were up 23.02% from the previous quarter.

“The things consumers care about and look at closely are going down, things like transaction fees," Papadimitriou said. “The things that consumers are not paying attention to, like cash advance fees – they're going up. Most people, when they sign up for a credit card, don't expect to use it for a cash advance, so they don't care what the fee is. But when they need a cash advance, it's too late.”

Complaints

Papadimitriou also analyzed credit card complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. There appeared to be one overriding concern.

“Billing continues to be the number one type of complaint,” Papadimitriou said. “People are complaining about past due fees, finance charges, a payment not posting on time. It's almost a quarter of all complaints.”

There were also a lot of consumer complaints about erroneous items on credit reports and debt collection practices.

What to do

Papadimitriou suggests consumers take full advantage of credit card companies' competition for good credit customers by enrolling in rewards programs, where available. Rewards are getting better, he says, especially for initial bonuses.

More

Why gold has lost its luster

Will the precious metal bounce back or has the rally ended?

If you hold investments in gold, you're a bit poorer this week. Even if you don't invest in the precious metal, you may be aware that the price has plunged...

PhotoIf you hold investments in gold, you're a bit poorer this week. Even if you don't invest in the precious metal, you may be aware that the price has plunged, down about 26% from its all-time high. Thirteen percent of that decline came in just two days this week.

What's behind the steep sell-off and should you be concerned? If you listen to market and financial analysts, there are a number of reasons for gold's decline.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the seeds of the sell-off were sown in the previous week, when the meetings of the latest Federal Reserve Open Market Committee meeting contained hints the Fed might soon ease up on its stimulative action. The Fed's bond-buying activity has been viewed as weakening the dollar, causing gold prices – along with other commodity prices – to rise.

Cyprus selling

Adding to the negative sentiment was a report that Cyprus would sell gold to help finance its debt, a sell recommendation from Goldman Sachs, and a report from China that its economy grew at a slower than expected pace in the first quarter. All of that suggested to gold investors that the prospects for inflation were declining and, without some inflation, there would be little to push gold prices higher.

Once institutional investors started selling and the price started falling, it triggered stop/loss orders from investors who programmed a sale when the value hit a certain price. That just added to the price decline and the vicious cycle of more selling.

Many small investors have purchased gold over the last few years, sometimes banking on its ever-rising price, but often out of fear. Commercials on radio and television continue to warn of economic collapse and chaos, advising that owning gold is the only sure way to preserve wealth. Most reputable companies selling gold to the public have advised that it should be part of a diversified portfolio.

Don't panic

For those who own gold, the overriding question is what to do now. Most counsel not to panic. In fact, stock picker Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's Mad Money, likens owning gold to having an insurance policy. You pay something for insurance and if you've lost money on gold, Cramer still thinks it's worth having.

Photo
Jim Cramer

“I have liked gold since $800 and I continue to like it if you don't have any,” he said on a broadcast this week.

Despite April's harsh sell-off, Cramer said he still sees gold as a realistic hedge against inflation. But at what level do you buy, if at all? After all, there is an old Wall Street saying, “never try to catch a falling knife.”

Stephen Loeb, a contributor to Forbes, suggests Western nation central banks have helped push gold prices lower but that these effects will be short-lived. He writes that “eventually gold will migrate into a reserve currency basket.” Bottom line, he writes, the price goes much higher.

An unscientific poll conducted by the London Telegraph shows the public has a mixed view of gold's future. In the online survey, 38% said they believed gold prices will rebound to above $1,750 an ounce. But 35% said they thought the precious metal would fall to $1,000 before moving higher. Thirteen percent thought the price would plunge below $750 an ounce.

What to do

In financial matters it is never a good idea to panic. Bad decisions almost always are made in desperation. If you own gold holdings, seek advice from a trusted financial advisor. If you have been considering investing in gold this may – or may not – be a good opportunity. Again, you should seek trusted counsel before making any decision.

Whatever you do, don't put all your money in gold. Or anyting else, for that matter. 

When watching business news on TV or reading business articles on the Internet, try not to be overly swayed by a talking head's argument for or against gold. Remember, the person talking may have something to gain by gold moving in one direction or the other.

If you have a balanced portfolio containing stocks, bonds, gold and other assets, chances are you'll be fine. Or as fine as everyone else, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. 

More

Flashing headlights to warn of speed trap ahead can be expensive

Missouri man sues, claiming the ticket he got infringes his Free Speech rights

View Larger MapHave you ever flashed your headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a speed trap? Michael Elli did it and got a ticket from a police officer...

PhotoHave you ever flashed your headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a speed trap? Michael Elli did it and got a ticket from a police officer in Ellisville, Mo., a St. Louis suburb.

Now Elli, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a federal class action lawsuit claiming that Ellisville is violating drivers' First Amendment rights when it tickets them for flashing their headlights.

Elli claims it is the first ticket he has gotten in 35 years of driving. He was cited for violating an Ellisville ordinance that limits flashing lights on vehicles.

Elli said Ellisville Police Chief Tom Felgate told him it's a moving violation and said points would be assessed against him if he was found guilty. He said a municipal judge in Ellisville, population 9,200, told him the fine would be $1,000. Elli then entered a plea of not guilty.

His suit seeks an injunction against the city, even though the charges were dropped before the case came to trial.

Ellisville, which in 2009, was ranked #25 by Money magazine on its annual Best Places to Live in America list, is in western St. Louis County, near Interstates 64, 70 and 55. That section of the county is well-known to motorists for enthusiastic speed enforcement by small-town police.


View Larger Map

More

Duplicate downloads from iTunes? Pay up, the judge orders

Court dismisses suit that claims Apple's policies are deceptive

Apple's stock price is down and there are fears that sales of iPhones and other iStuff may be slumping but you've got to give Apple credit for one thing: t...

PhotoApple's stock price is down and there are fears that sales of iPhones and other iStuff may be slumping but you've got to give Apple credit for one thing: the company has good lawyers.

Just the other day, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that claimed the MacBook Pro drains its battery even when it's plugged in. The judge said Apple's promotional literature had never claimed the battery wouldn't go dead. Case dismissed.

And now, another judge has dismissed claims that Apple deceptively charges consumers for downloading the same song more than once. The judge said -- guess what? -- it's not deceptive because Apple discloses that multiple charges accompany multiple downloads.

Robert Herskowitz and Phoebe Juel had hoped to represent a class of customers who were charged for multiple downloads of the same song from iTunes.

Apple argued that the plaintiffs "do not and cannot point to any legal obligation requiring Apple to provide them with a second download of the same song free of charge. To the contrary, their agreement with Apple expressly bars that claim, and provided an express and exclusive remedy that plaintiffs ignore." That remedy is to contact Apple for assistance, Courthouse News Service reported.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh agreed with Apple, noting that "the agreement in effect at the time of Juel's purchase contained an express provision that purchasers were not entitled to re-download a song free of charge."

The judge noted that Apple's Terms and Conditions state that "products may be downloaded only once and cannot be replaced if lost for any reason." 

In both cases, the plaintiffs have the opportunity to amend their original complaints.

New computer, no songs

Apple iTunes April 18, 2013, 4:40 p.m.
Consumers rate Apple iTunes

Sometimes, of course, hanging onto your iTunes titles is easier said than done. Ellen of Grand Island, N.Y., said in a ConsumerAffairs postingthat she bought a new desktop computer last November.

"When I went to transfer the 30-plus songs I had purchased on iTunes, the songs disappeared," she said. "Thus began the saga of over 10 hours spent  responding to emails, over 3 hrs on the phone with their support team. None of their steps worked to retrieve my already paid for songs!"

"I believe this is a ruse to get customers to buy songs over and over to increase their revenue," Ellen groused. "This borders on greed to me."

It's not just music that sometimes strikes a sour note wit Apple customers. Lynn of Hot Springs, Ark., tried to buy two audio books that she could listen to during an upcoming road trip. But Lynn, who said she has limited vision and is not very computer-savvy, soon found that only one of the books would play.

"After hours of searching and struggling to read and understand all the help webpages, I finally managed to speak directly to an Itunes customer service person. They were unable to figure out the problem and furnished phone number for Apple," Lynn said. "The Apple rep immediately told me that I had purchased an "iBook", not an audio book. They suggested I contact iTunes for solution."

Lynn did that, but didn't get much in the way of results. iTunes refused to credit her for the mistaken purchase.

"They did not care about honest mistakes, being blind in one eye, being over 65 and not the best on a computer. Their customer support was not to soothe or assist the customer," she said.  "I may have only spent a few hundred a year with iTunes and they won't miss my business, all over a $12.00 book."

More

Latest economic numbers suggest the recovery remains sluggish

Both the Leading Economic Index and weekly jobless numbers show weakness

Two steps forward, one step back. That's the pattern we're seeing in The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI). The forecasting gauge dipped 0.1%...

PhotoTwo steps forward, one step back. That's the pattern we're seeing in The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI). The forecasting gauge dipped 0.1% in March after rising 0.5% in both February and January. Both the market and economists at Briefing.com had been looking for a flat reading

“The leading indicator still points to a continuing but slow growth environment,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, economist at The Conference Board. “Weakness in consumer expectations and housing permits was offset by the positive interest rate spread and other financial components. Meanwhile, the coincident economic index, a measure of current conditions, is down since December due to a large decline in personal income.”

Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein believes the economy has clearly lost some steam. “In addition to headwinds from government spending cuts,” he said, “the private sector economy may struggle to maintain its momentum. The biggest challenge remains weak demand, due to nervous consumer sentiment and slow income growth.”

The full LEI report can be seen at The Conference Board's website.

Jobless claims

From the Labor Department comes word that first-time claims for state unemployment benefits rose 4,000 in the week ending April 13 to 352,000. At the same time, the previous week's total was revised upward by 2,000 -- to 348,000.

The four-week moving average, which is less volatile and thus considered a more accurate barometer of the labor market, was up 2,750 to 361,250.

More on the labor picture can be found on the Labor Department website.

More

Boston-area taxpayers get relief

The IRS is granting a filing and payment extension following the marathon explosions

Boston area taxpayers and others affected by Monday’s explosions are being granted a three-month tax filing and payment extension. The The Internal Revenu...

PhotoBoston area taxpayers and others affected by Monday’s explosions are being granted a three-month tax filing and payment extension.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says this relief applies to all individual taxpayers who live in Suffolk County, Mass., including the city of Boston. Also included are victims, their families, first responders, others affected by the attack who live outside Suffolk County and taxpayers whose tax preparers were adversely affected.

“Our hearts go out to the people affected by this tragic event,” said IRS Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller. “We want victims and others affected by this terrible tragedy to have the time they need to finish their individual tax returns.”

Deadline moved to July

Under the relief, eligible taxpayers have until July 15, 2013, to file their 2012 returns and pay any taxes normally due April 15. No filing and payment penalties will be due as long as returns are filed and payments are made by July 15, 2013. By law, interest -- currently at the annual rate of 3% compounded daily -- will still apply to any payments made after the April deadline.

The extension is automatic for anyone living in Suffolk County and no action is necessary to obtain relief. However, eligible taxpayers living outside Suffolk County can claim this relief by calling 1-866-562-5227 starting Tuesday, April 23, and identifying themselves to the IRS before filing a return or making a payment. Eligible taxpayers who receive penalty notices from the IRS can also call this number to have these penalties abated.

Eligible taxpayers who need more time to file their returns may receive an additional extension to Oct. 15, 2013, by filing Form 4868 by July 15, 2013.

More

Seniors face a bewildering array of financial advisor credentials

Already vulnerable to fraud, seniors are further confused by the many different credentials

Today the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) published a report highlighting problems with so-called “senior designation” credentials ...

PhotoSeniors looking for reliable, knowledgeable financial advisors tend to gravitate towards those who have credentials that certified they know what they're doing.

But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) says in a report published today that there are more than 50 so-called “senior designation” credentials that  financial advisers use to indicate that they have advanced training or expertise in the financial needs of older consumers 

“With such a bewildering array of titles and acronyms, it is no wonder that older Americans are confused and misled by these titles,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s report underscores the need for consistent high-level standards of training and conduct for those advisers who want to acquire a bona fide senior designation.” 

The report highlights the challenges that the nation’s 50 million seniors face as they try to navigate the complex world of financial advice and services. Older consumers have unique vulnerabilities, and are often the targets of fraud, Cordray noted.

The report found that:

  • The names and acronyms of senior designations confuse consumers.  Titles and acronyms for the numerous designations can appear quite similar, and consumers have no simple, clear means to distinguish among them .
  • There is a wide variety of required training, qualifying exams, and oversight associated with different designations. Some senior designations may require rigorous college-level coursework while others may be acquired by attending a weekend seminar.
  • There is a lack of comprehensive supervision and enforcement. No single authority is responsible for ensuring that those who use senior designations do not mislead or harm consumers.

Vulernable to fraud 

Older consumers are already vulernable to fraud. They tend to have higher net worth than younger consumers and are more likely to experience cognitive decline and other healthproblems.

A particular problem associated with senior designations is the participation of some designees in “free lunch seminars.” These events are often marketed as educational seminars, when in fact they are staged sales events to sell investment and other financial products.

The complete report on senior designations is available at: http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201304_CFPB_OlderAmericans_Report.pdf

 

 

 

 

More

Southeast Toyota recalls variety of vehicles

The vehicles contain an inaccurate weight label

Southeast Toyota Distributors is recalling a total of 7,389 of the following vehicles: 2008 and 2010-2013 Toyota Tundra, 2010-2012 Rav4, 2012 Toyota Sequo...

PhotoSoutheast Toyota Distributors is recalling a total of 7,389 of the following vehicles:

  • 2008 and 2010-2013 Toyota Tundra,
  • 2010-2012 Rav4,
  • 2012 Toyota Sequoia,
  • 2010-2011 Toyota Corolla,
  • 2010-2011 Toyota Camry and Camry Hybrid,
  • 2010-2013 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid,
  • 2010-2013 Toyota FJ Cruiser,
  • 2011 Toyota Land Cruiser,
  • 2010-2013 Toyota Venza,
  • 2010-2011 Toyota 4Runner,
  • 2010-2013 Toyota Tacoma,
  • 2011-2012 Toyota Sienna,
  • 2012 Toyota Prius,
  • 2013 Scion FR-S,
  • 2011 Scion XD,
  • 2011 Scion XB, and
  • 2012 Scion TC .

These vehicles were sold with labels that were outside the allowable one percent of accuracy of actual weight added, failing to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) Number 110, "Tire Selection and Rims." An inaccurate label could lead to owners overloading their vehicles and tires. An overloaded vehicle can result in a tire failure which may result in a vehicle crash, personal injury, or property damage.

Southeast Toyota will notify owners and provide a corrected label with instructions concerning its installation. A small group of the affected vehicles will need additional remedies which are still being developed. The recall is planned to begin on, or about, May 7, 2013.

Owners may contact Southeast Toyota at 1-800-301-6859.

More

Still searching for the best laptop, we pick the Pixel

The Pixel trounces several leading contenders for those who spend their days pounding out copy

Finalists - the Chromebook Pixel (left) and Zareason Ultrabook. Consumers who mostly use their computers for email, social media, games and web browsing ha...

Photo
Finalists - the Chromebook Pixel (left) and Zareason Ultrabook

Consumers who mostly use their computers for email, social media, games and web browsing have been migrating to tablets lately, which is understandable.

But for the working stiffs who use laptops for professional purposes -- writing, editing, programming, moderating and so forth -- a tablet doesn't really do the job.

Fortunately, there is the Ultrabook -- the super-thin, super-powerful laptop developed by Intel and now being produced under all the usual computer brand names.  The Ultrabooks feature a slimmed-down physical profile, super-sharp displays, fast processors and long battery life. Most are powered primarily by solid-state drives instead of the clunky old hard drives, which makes them boot up lightning fast and load programs in the blink of an eye.

But let's face it -- you still have to be able to type on them. And if you use your Ultrabook for work, you have to be able to type quickly and accurately. Unfortunately, this is a little something that has evaded the notice of many of the biggest names in computerdom.

Worst ever ...

Photo
The Zenbook

A few months back, I tested Asus' take on the ultrabook, dubbed the Asus Zenbook. It was gorgeous. Clad in a shiny metal case with a stunning display and superquick solid-state drive, it was a marvel to behold.

But it was hell to type on. It was about as much fun as a 1949 Royal typewriter that someone had spilled maple syrup into. As I said in our review, generously titled Worst Laptop Ever, it might be great for lots of things but for typing -- forget it. 

I was overjoyed to see the end of the Asus and gleefully dropped it off at the Federal Express office..

We then spent some time doing what Best Buy hates more than anything. We wandered around their stores "showrooming" other Ultrabooks. Many were attractive, some were affordable but none really seemed up to the task of having someone pound on their keyboard 10 or 12 hours per day.

Photo
A most annoying instrument

Off the beaten path ...

So I decided to try the road less traveled and wandered over to Zareason.com, a small California company that builds Linux machines. I've used Linux for years and found it far superior to Windows and Apple's various OS versions.

It's not really necessary to buy a machine with Linux pre-installed, as it's quite easy to install it yourself on nearly any machine. But I wanted to test Zareason's "It just works" motto, so took the plunge and ordered the $899 UltraLap -- basically the same hardware as other Ultrabooks but with a Linux operating system.

Upon arrival, it had a somewhat pedestrian appearance -- a metal case on top but plastic elsewhere. I fired it up and, as expected, it booted swiftly into Linux, being fully up and operational from a cold start in 13 seconds.

Technically, it was superb. The combination of the solid state drive, the Ubuntu Linux OS and 8 gigs of memory made it a blazing-hot contender. Ah, but the keyboard. It was mediocre for the first few days but quickly turned unusable.

The touchpad also left a lot to be desired.  Trying to left-click with the keypad was impossible. The cursor invariably jumped up just enough to miss whatever it was you were trying to click on, requiring a two-handed maneuver to hold down the Control button while clicking. The sound stank and the built-in camera produced upside-down video.

I complained about the keyboard, not revealing my ConsumerAffairs affiliation, and Zareason sent me a new one, although it took them more than a week to do so. It wasn't a better keyboard, mind you, just a newer one. In a few weeks, it was close to unusable as well. 

Battery life on the Zareason was good, hitting five hours without difficulty. 

But between the keyboard and the touchpad, I found myself lugging an external mouse, keyboard and headset (to make up for the inaudible audio) around with me, which is not exactly the idea behind the laptop concept.

Great machine, bad ergonomics. So earlier today, I said farewell to the Zareason and once again motored happily away from the FedEx office. 

Pixelated 

In its place on the hotseat at the moment is a Google Chromebook Pixel -- Google's attempt to show that it can build hardware that rivals anything from Apple or anyone else.

PhotoAfter a week of mistreating the Pixel, I have to say it is the finest piece of portable computer hardware I've encountered. If the Asus was a Toyota and the Zareason a Fiat, the Pixel is a Porsche Carrera. It is such a thing of beauty that I have been using it exclusively, letting my ridiculously powerful and over-monitored desktop sit idle.

The keyboard is solid and precise and despite my apparent tendency to pound mercilessly on it, it produces almost perfect results. More importantly, I can type at my usual 80 or so words per minute instead of the 20 or so I was reduced to with the other machines.

The touchpad uses the one- and two-finger motions becoming popular on high-end machines and does it so well that I find I don't need or miss an external mouse.

The display, which Google says has even more pixels (239 per inch) than the MacBook Pro Retina (227), is stunning -- very bright and sharp, another important consideration for content slaves who are stuck looking at their screen all day. The Pixel also looks good, with an anodized aluminum case that acts as a heat sink, eliminating the need for air vents and noisy fans. 

Battery life is outstanding. I have gotten six hours out of it and there were still some fumes in the tank when I decided to plug it in.  

The sound is startling -- loud and crisp with a very pronounced stereo effect. The onboard video camera produces a big clear image, and it's even right-side-up.

Webcentric

Many reviewers have trashed the Pixel, and other Chromebooks, because they are "webcentric," meaning they run apps from the web rather than programs stored on the machine. OK, that's true, but so what? Google Docs is not all that different from Microsoft Word, other than being free.

I was a little concerned about finding a decent online graphics program but it turns out there are several good ones, my favorite at the moment being Sumopaint. It's not Photoshop but it is, as we say here in the D.C. area, good enough for government work. 

I had no set-up problems with the Pixel. It started up out of the box in 14 seconds and I was tapping away happily in no time.  Whether this would be true for everyone, I'm not sure. I have used Chromebooks before and have been using Linux for a decade or two (the Chrome OS is based on Linux) so nothing about the Pixel was unfamiliar to me. Others might need a little more break-in time.

It's true that, at around $1,500, the Pixel is expensive, a few hundred more than the Zareason, about the same as the Zenbook and in the same ballpark as a Macbook. However, it's really aimed, I think, at users for whom it is the tool of their trade and who therefore don't mind spending a few extra bucks upfront to keep their productivity and sanity at acceptable levels.

As far as comparing it to a MacBook, I wouldn't be so presumptuous. The MacBooks are made with graphic designers and video editors in mind, as far as I can tell. They can run specialized software the Chromebook can't, so if that's something you need, then you're at Apple's mercy, at least for now.

I haven't mentioned the Pixel's touchscreen. To me, it's like the Porsche Carerra speedometer that goes up to 175 miles per hour. Nice to have but not often used. Critics have said the Pixel touchscreen doesn't do much and they're right. But I suspect that it will pick up new capabilities as Google continues to fool with the operating system, which is automatically updated on a regular basis.

Check back in a year or two and I predict the Pixel's touch screen will be doing all kinds of things we haven't thought of yet.

So, the verdict? The contest never really ends but for me at this particular moment, the Chromebook Pixel wins hands-down. For those who aren't chained to their keyboard all day, a plain old Chromebook for $300 or so would probably suffice.

---

Disclosure: Everything reviewed in this article was purchased at full retail price. No promotional considerations or freebies changed hands.  

More

Girls are thrashing boys in academic achievement. How come?

it's not just grades, boys are enrolling in college in smaller numbers too

Are girls smarter than boys?That’s what some people may ask since many studies have found that girls outperform boys in academics.And the gender ...

PhotoAre girls smarter than boys?

That’s what some people may ask since many studies have found that girls outperform boys in academics.

And the gender gap doesn’t only exist in terms of grades, as studies show that girls are enrolling in college in higher number these days, and boys are falling behind.

“The world has changed around boys, and they have not adapted as well as girls, said Claudia Buchmannn, professor of sociology at Ohio State University and co-author of the book The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools. 

Buchmannn says not being able to adapt to school is just one of the reasons that boys aren’t doing as well as girls, and reasons often simply include a lack of motivation, not a lack of intellect.

“But what is striking is that at every level of cognitive ability, boys are getting lower grades than girls," she said. "It’s not about ability; it’s about effort and engagement. Success in academics, like success in sports, requires time and effort. Because boys put forth less effort and are less engaged, they get lower grades and are less likely to get through college.”

Singing in the choir

Buchmannn says boys who are known to be more engaged in school are typically the ones who involve themselves in extracurricular activities that are somehow connected to the arts, like music or choir, being in a foreign language club or in a drama group.

Photo
Claudia Buchmannn

But unfortunately, many boys face ridicule for joining these activities, either from male peers or from their dads at home, as some males perceive things like singing or acting to be, well, girly.

Buchmannn says this sour attitude towards art-related school activities is more prevalent in working-class households. And perhaps surprisingly, even doing well in school could be looked at as a female thing among some males.

And schools need to do a better job reversing this harmful stereotype, Buchmannn says.

“This taps into those narrow notions of what boys and men are like, that is going to backfire,” she said. “Instead, we need schools to expect high levels of effort and academic achievement of all students, including boys. Schools need to break down the gender stereotypes that say that real men don’t work hard in school.”

But to reverse this stereotype will be challenging, especially if fathers don’t do their part to eliminate it, since many dads who may be successful without college, may think higher education isn’t necessary, as opposed to the dad who went to college, became successful and wants their sons to follow in the same path.

Times have changed

The main difference between the present and the past, when it comes to girls outperforming boys academically, is that many years ago a boy not doing well in school didn’t suffer huge consequences, due to the large number of well-paying blue collar jobs.

PhotoBut today, as those jobs have diminished, boys doing poorly in school have a greater effect on their future, so their poor academic performance is finally coming to the surface as a huge problem that both educators and parents have to fix.

“Schools haven’t changed that much,” said Buchmannn. “Boys have long underachieved in school compared to girls, but it mattered less when they could get good blue-collar jobs without a college degree. In the last few decades, as those good blue-collar jobs have declined, boys' performance in school has become a bigger issue.”

To help boys perform better, Buchmann and her co-author Thomas A. DiPrete say administrators have to do a better job at making schools more “boy friendly,” which may include all-guy classrooms with male teachers giving the lessons.

By making these changes, teachers may not only be able to reach male students better, but they can attempt — on a consistent level — to teach boys that being smart, getting good grades and joining an extracurricular activity related to the arts, isn’t just for girls. 

And since Buchmannn says that many boys thrive in competitive environments, administrators need to create an attitude in schools that all male students can buy into, which says good grades are expected and extremely valued, which could make some boys look at doing well in school as a competition and not just something their mom and dad want them to do.

In addition, parents — especially dads or other male figures — should do their best to dispel any negative stereotypes associated with performing well in school or being intelligent.

Combined effort

To do this, it’ll take a combined effort from school administrators and parents alike to drill it into boys’ heads that running away from academic achievement isn’t a manly thing to do, it’s just plain dumb.

“We need schools to expect high level of effort and academic achievement of all students including boys,” said Buchmannn. “Schools need to break down the gendered stereotypes that say that real men don’t work hard in school."

"Many boys say they expect to go to college, and many will enroll, but their expectations about what it will take to succeed are way off. They underestimate the work and effort they need to put forth,” she said.

More

Be careful about charitable appeals tied to the Boston Marathon bombing

Bogus requests following tragedies spring up like dandelions in the spring

Tragedy often brings out the best in people. As we saw in Boston earlier this week, people ran toward the blast site, trying to help bombing victims in an...

PhotoTragedy often brings out the best in people.

As we saw in Boston earlier this week, people ran toward the blast site, putting themselves at risk, trying to help bombing victims in any way they could.

Unfortunately, it also brings out the worst, with the scammers crawling out from under their rocks to take advantage of the situation.

This is prompting numerous warnings, including one from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, to watch out for phony charities soliciting funds for the victims.

Exploiting disasters

The lowlifes employ many tools to exploit disasters for personal gain. News accounts note that a fake Twitter account appeared almost immediately after the bombings in Boston. This scam, called @_BostonMarathon, offered to donate $1 for every retweet. It was quickly suspended after users warned the account was fake.

“Scammers came out in force after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, after Hurricane Katrina, and after Superstorm Sandy,” said Ellen Klem, director of consumer outreach and education in the Oregon AG's office. “They’ll try once again after Monday’s senseless bombing. Don’t let them prosper off the tragedy. Be generous, but skeptical.”

Tips for charitable giving

When considering a donation, consumers should keep the following in mind:

  • Do not give out personal information such as credit card or bank account numbers over the phone.
  • Checks should always be made payable to the organization not the person collecting the donation.
  • Beware of callers who want your money fast. When solicited by phone, always ask the caller to send you written materials about the charity. No legitimate organization will insist that you donate immediately
  • Do not donate cash. Legitimate charities will be pleased to receive a contribution by check. Don’t send contributions with a “runner,” by wire or overnight parcel pick-up service.
  • Be sure you are contributing to a legitimate organization. You can do this by visiting www.guidestar.org, a national clearinghouse of information about charities and their performance.
More

How social media can benefit seniors

As young people are turning away from Facebook, older adults are logging on.

Last week my colleague Truman Lewis wrote about how Facebook is losing some of its popularity among teens, which if you think about it, is consistent with ...

More

Alleged mobile phone crammer slammed by Feds

The FTC complaint alleging unauthorized charges is the first of its kind

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is going after operation that allegedly placed unauthorized charges on consumers’ mobile phone bills, taking in millions...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is going after a company that allegedly placed unauthorized charges on consumers’ mobile phone bills, taking in millions of dollars.

The complaint against Wise Media, LLC, Brian M. Buckley and Winston J. Deloney is the first time the agency has gone after so-called mobile “crammers.” It asks the court to freeze the defendants’ assets immediately and order them to stop their “deceptive and unfair practices.”

The FTC also wants a permanent injunction that would force the defendants to give up their ill-gotten gains so they can be used to provide refunds to victims of the scam.

“The concept of ‘cramming’ charges on to phone bills is a not a new one,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “As more and more consumers move to mobile phones, scammers have adapted to this new technology, and the commission will continue its efforts to protect consumers from their unlawful practices.”

'Premium service' charges

According to the FTC, the defendants allegedly billed consumers for “premium services” that sent text messages with horoscopes, flirting, love tips and other information. The complaint contend that consumers across the country were signed up for these services seemingly at random, and that the charges of $9.99 per month were repeatedly placed on mobile phone bills -- without consumer knowledge or permission.

In many instances, the complaint maintains, Wise Media sent text messages to consumers that suggested they were subscribed to the service, which many consumers dismissed as spam and ignored. Even if consumers responded via text indicating that they did not want the services, they were charged on their mobile phone bills on a continuing basis.

Caught unaware

The commission says Wise Media and its operators took advantage of the fact that consumers may not expect their mobile phone bills to contain charges from third parties and that these charges appear on bills in an abbreviated manner that does not always clearly designate the company as the source of the charge.

As a result, it says, many consumers didn’t notice or understand the charges and paid the bills. To the extent that consumers did notice the charges, the process of obtaining refunds was difficult and often unsuccessful according to the complaint.

Wise Media is accused of going to great lengths to hide its contact information from consumers. And it says, when consumers were finally able to find a phone number for Wise Media, the company's call center employees frequently promised refunds that were never provided.

In addition to Wise Media, Buckley and Deloney, the FTC complaint names Concrete Marketing Research, LLC, alleging that it received ill-gotten funds from the operation.

Common practice

Just because you haven't had any dealings with Wise Media, don't think you can't be affected. Complaints about cramming -- from many sources -- are not unusual.

"T-Mobile keeps billing me for incoming text messages," William of Mt. Morris, Mich., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I have no control over these and shouldn't be billed for them. One message was from a third party selling something. Another was from T-Mobile. I called, but they won't take the charges off. Furthermore, they refused to block text messaging on my account."

Many of the complaints ConsumerAffairs receives are from parents whose children decided to use text messaging or scour the Internet from their cell phone.

"We purchased a plan for our daughter who was entering college," Charlene of Greenville, Miss. wrote. "When the first bill came it was for over $600. The text messaging option is the main means of communication for my daughter. We had been charged for each incoming and outgoing text message -- 10 cents per message."

Belkis of New York is a single mother with two children. When her children surfed the Internet and downloaded a ringtone with her cell phone, her bill was $80 higher than normal that month.

More

Judge dismisses suit claiming Apple misled MacBook Pro purchasers

Users say the battery runs down even when the machine is plugged in

Though so far unsuccessful in court, disgruntled owners of 15-inch MacBook Pro laptops continue to flood social media with their expressions of outrage abo...

PhotoThough so far unsuccessful in court, disgruntled owners of  MacBook Pro laptops continue to flood social media with their expressions of outrage about what they regard as the expensive machines' substandard performance.

"I have the new 13" MacPro and even when it's plugged in, if you are using a site that is graphic intensive, it starts to drain battery power," a consumer named Sharon said in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

Earlier this year, a federal judge in California dismissed a suit filed by Alex Tomek, who alleged that in 2011, he bought a MacBook Pro based on Apple's claims of "huge leaps in performance."

But Tomek, whose suit sought class-action status, said he soon found the battery was not charging under certain conditions and that sometimes the machine was draining power from the battery even when it was plugged in. Eventually, it go so bad that Tomek said he had to stop working and turn the machine off to let it recharge.

Not enough power

Tomek's suit alleges that the 85-watt power adapter supplied with the machines is not up to the job of powering the the 2.3 gHz Intel Core 17 processor and its accompanying AMD Radeon graphics processor, despite Apple's advertising which promised that users would be able to "surf the web wirelessly for up to 7 hours on a single charge."

Tomek said consumers were complaining about the problem since the machines were released but received no satisfaction from Apple, which the suit alleges has "failed and refused and continues to faill and refuse to provide adequate customers service ... to cope with this defect."

In its defense, Apple argued that Tomek had failed to build a strong case for his assertion that Apple had intentionally misled purchasers. 

In dismissing the case, the judge wrote that the suit was "devoid of any facts demonstrating that Defendant ever represented to Plaintiff that the MacBook Pro's battery would not drain under certain circumstances, even if plugged into an external power source, resulting in a shutdown. In fact, Defendant's support representative told Plaintiff the battery drain was 'expected behavior.'"

Also, the judge noted, Apple claimed battery life would be "up to" seven hours, thus leaving itself considerable wiggle room. Tomek has the option to amend certain provisions of the suit and refile it.

 

More

Cost of owning a car rose 1.96% last year, AAA finds

Maintenance and insurance costs showed the biggest increase

Like everything else, the cost of owning and driving your car is higher this year. In its annual study of driving costs, AAA found a 1.96% increase, a whop...

Like everything else, the cost of owning and driving your car is higher this year. In its annual study of driving costs, AAA found a 1.96% increase, a whopping 1.17 cents.

That puts the total cost at 60.8 cents per mile, including maintenance, fuel and insurance costs. If you drive somewhere around the national average of 15,000 miles per year, that comes to $9,122 per year.

Photo

The biggest increase comes not from gas but from maintenance. According to AAA, the cost of maintaining the average car rose 11.26% over the last year. That includes labor, parts and the purchase of an extended warranty.

Does that mean mechanics are getting rich? No, it means that modern cars keep getting more complex and, therefore, more expensive to maintain. Parts are more expensive and mechanics -- or technicians, as they're now called -- require more training, which equates to higher hourly rates.

Fuel costs were up only 1.93% to 14.5 cents per mile on average. That's less than the 3.84% increase in the price of gas, thanks to improved fuel mileage for most newer cars.

Insurance costs were up 2.76% and tire costs remained unchanged, coming in at one cent per mile on average. 

“Many factors go into the cost calculation of owning and operating a vehicle,” said John Nielsen, AAA Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. “Before you make any vehicle purchase, it is important to determine ownership and operational costs and compare them to your current and future financial situation.” 

What to do

What can you do to keep costs down? 

The easiest way to save money is to buy a compact car with a gas engine, stick shift and the bare minimum of accessories. This will reduce the purchase price, maintenance and insurance costs and help you save on fuel. 

Remember that while a hybrid or diesel-powered car may get more miles per gallon, it will cost a lot more to buy and, possibly, to maintain. Unless you do a lot of driving, the math may not work for you.

And finally, drive moderately. Speeding away from one stoplight only to race up to the next one and slam on the brakes is self-defeating. It wastes gas, wears out the brakes and, should you manage to cleverly slam into the car in front of you, raise your insurance rates. 

More

Web tools to help you plan for death

From disposing of digital files to making out your will, there's an app for your final exit

Two things in life are certain, death and taxes. Having just paid your taxes you might want to spend a little time planning for the other certainty. Fortun...

PhotoTwo things in life are certain, death and taxes. Having just paid your taxes you might want to spend a little time planning for the other certainty. Fortunately, the Internet offers a growing number of handy tools to help.

As we recently reported, Google has announced a new feature that allows you to tell Google now what to do with your digital assets, such as Gmail folders, if you die or become incapacitated. It's a way around the problem of most online services refusing to release user IDs and passwords to survivors without making them jump through various hoops.

Do your own eulogy

Meanwhile, two St. Louis women have founded a website where you can record and upload a video eulogy to one day be played at your funeral. Alba Carrico, co-founder of myowneulogy.com, said the idea for the site came after attending funerals of friends' parents and noticing the eulogies were fairly generic, almost like obituaries.

“Sometimes the priest doing the funeral knows who you are but doesn't really know you,” Carrico said. “We felt people should be able to leave their own eulogy and tell it the way you want to be remembered.”

You could have your best friend or an older relative record your eulogy. But Carrico says most people record their own closing remarks.

“For example, I would be addressing the crowd at my funeral,” she said. That's what we're trying to make people understand. That it's easier to say good-bye when you're healthy and you aren't really thinking about dying. We want people to feel comfortable when they say good-bye and tell people they love them.”

Accessible through QR code

PhotoTo make your eulogy accessible long after your funeral, you can link your video to a QR code that you can have placed on your headstone or urn so people can scan it and see your eulogy years after you're gone.

“We wanted to make our website like a YouTube for the afterlife, now,” Carrico said.

The site has rapidly grown in less than a year of operation and Carrico and her partner are currently seeking crowdfunding through indiegogo.com to expand it.

Another site, DeathClock.com, tries to help you plan for the post-life experience by predicting the exact day you'll depart this earth. The site features a “death calculator,” into which you enter your birth date, your sex, and “mode.” That's a description of your outlook, whether you tend to be an optimist or pessimist.

It also asks whether you are a smoker and asks you to enter your body mass index (BMI). If you aren't sure, it provides another calculator to help you determine that.

Final departure date

With all that information, the calculator predicts your precise date of departure. In the case of your writer, it's July 15, 2041.

Before dying it's a good idea to make out a will. There are a number of online legal sites than can help you prepare a last will and testament. But if you're always on the go, you can even take care of it on your mobile device, using the MyWill app.

The 99-cent app, according to its developers, allows you to quickly make these final arrangements on your iPhone or iPad. It can be used in all states except Louisiana.

We do not, however, recommend do-it-yourself wills if you have assets beyond a few thousand dollars. You should consult an attorney to discuss the variables that affect your estate.

More

Drawing Social Security at age 62: things to consider

You probably shouldn't start early, unless you have to

Social Security was established to provide supplemental support for people when they reached retirement age, now set at between age 66 and 70. But the law ...

Social Security was established to provide supplemental support for people when they reached retirement age, now set at between age 66 and 70. But the law also allows recipients to begin drawing benefits early, at age 62.

While this might sound attractive, doing so significantly reduces the monthly benefit you are entitled to. Most financial planners suggest it is better to put off drawing benefits as long as possible. Unfortunately, it isn't always possible.

The Great Recession came along at the worst possible moment for America's baby boomers, who are entering their retirement and pre-retirement years. The stubbornly high unemployment of the last four years has meant many are out of jobs, or forced into part-time positions. Some see drawing Social Security at age 62 as a necessity. Before starting your benefits, here are some things to consider.

First, the total amount of your benefit, over your lifetime, doesn't change by starting your draw at age 62. The Social Security Administration simply reduces your monthly benefit to account for the four extra years that you will be getting monthly benefits. In most cases, starting your draw at age 62 instead of 66 will result in a reduction of 25% from what you would get at 66.

Example

For example, a 62 year old male might be due a benefit of $2,000 a month at age 66. However, if he began drawing benefits at 62, his payment would be only $1,500.

On the one hand, waiting four years will yield an extra $500 a month, or $6,000 a year. On the other, drawing at 62 would yield $18,000 a year for four years – a total of $72,000 – that he would not have received during that time.

At age 66, he would still be drawing the $1,500 instead of the $2,000 he would ordinarily have been entitled to. At a net loss of $500 a month, or $6,000 a year, it would take 12 years before the imbalance started running the other way. In other words, age 78 is his break-even point.

If he lives to be 90, he'll receive $72,000 less in benefits than he might otherwise have. If he lives to only 81, the imbalance is significantly less. So the first question you have to answer is how long do you expect to live, and will you need that extra 25% of your benefits in old age more than you will when you are in your 60s and 70s? For most people the answer is yes. But if you are scrambling for income now, the answer is less clear.

Additional penalty

PhotoBut this might add some clarity. In addition to the penalty of reduced benefits, there is another significant downside to drawing Social Security benefits at age 62. You aren't allowed to earn very much additional income. For example, if you plan to start drawing at 62 but remain in a job paying more than $15,120 a year, your already-reduced benefits will be reduced some more.

If you are drawing Social Security benefits before your full retirement age of 66, your benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 over your annual limit – $15,120 for 2013. So if you are considering an early draw on Social Security because you can't find a job, keep in mind that any extra income must be limited to $15,120 a year, or you will see a reduction in benefits.

Once you reach full retirement age of 66, you can earn an unlimited amount of income without affecting your benefits, whether you began drawing at 62 or at some point later.

If you can wait until age 67 to 70 to start drawing Social Security, you get an added bonus. You would be eligible for delayed retirement credits, which increases your monthly benefit. If you have good genes and have a reasonable chance of living into your 90s, that could come in handy.

While it is a good idea to carefully consider all the consequences of drawing Social Security at 62, you should know that the decision is not irrevocable. You have up to a year to change your mind if you start drawing at 62. However, you would be required to repay the Social Security Administration everything you had received in benefits to that point.

Everyone's situation is unique so there is no one-size-fits-all kind of advice. The best course of action is to consult with a trusted financial advisor who can give advice based on your set of circumstances.

More

Spin-A-Mals farm and safari puzzles recalled

The puzzles' small pegs can pose a choking hazard

Small World Toys Enterprises, of Torrance, Calif., is recalling about 4,000 Ryan’s Room brand Spin-A-Mals Farm and Spin-A-Mals Safari puzzles. Small pegs ...

PhotoSmall World Toys Enterprises, of Torrance, Calif., is recalling about 4,000 Ryan’s Room brand Spin-A-Mals Farm and Spin-A-Mals Safari puzzles.

Small pegs on the puzzle boards can loosen and separate from the boards, posing a choking hazard to children. The firm has received four reports of pegs separating from puzzle boards. No injuries have been reported.

The recalled products are Ryan’s Room brand Spin-A-Mals Farm and Spin-A-Mals Safari puzzles intended for children over 12 months of age. Both toys are made of wood. The puzzles consist of a painted, rectangular board with pegs mounted to it and removable gear and animal-shaped pieces. The farm puzzle has 14 puzzle pieces including three animal pieces: a cow, a dog and a sheep. The safari puzzle has 11 puzzle pieces. Children place the pieces onto the pegs and use the knob on one of the pieces or insert an animal figure into other pieces to rotate all of the gears. The puzzle boards have “2012 Small World Toys” on the bottom right.

The puzzles, manufactured in China, were sold at Toy stores nationwide and catalogs from May 2012 through October 2012 for about $25.

Consumers should immediately take the puzzles away from children and contact Small World Toys for a free replacement toy. After contacting Small World Toys, the recalled toys should be destroyed and disposed of in a manner to prevent future use.

Consumers may contact Small World Toys at (800) 421-4153 from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or by e-mail at recall@smallworldtoys.com.  

More

American Airlines struggling to resume service after computer issues

Massive disruption in store as the carrier tries to get back on schedule

American Airlines has grounded all of its flights while it tries to resolve a problem with its computer network. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ...

PhotoAmerican Airlines said late this afternoon that it had resolved the computer issues that had  grounded all of its flights today.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a "ground stop" for all American and American Eagle flights at the airline's request earlier Tuesday.

American, which operates about 3,300 flights a day, managed to resolve the unspecified problem around 5 p.m. Eastern time but by then, hundreds of flights had been canceled and countless others were in doubt as crews and equipment were scattered around the country far from where they were supposed to be.

The computer system, which is operated by SABRE Holdings, is at the heart of the airline's operations. It not only handles reservations but also crew scheduling, flight manifests and other crucial information.

American said the problem was not with the computer system itself but rather with its ability to access the network.

Currently operating in bankruptcy, American is in the process of merging with US Airways to create what the companies say will be a "premier global carrier." Today's incident does little to burnish the new image the companies hope to build. 

Nor does a recent lawsuit that accuses US Airways of racial discrimination for forcing two African-American men to change clothes if they wanted to fly in first class. 

More

Fashion and technology are pretty much one these days

Many consumers are using apps to stay in the fashion know. But which ones are the best?

For some people fashion is everything to the point where new designers and styles are anticipated like summer time in mid-January.To others, fashion has ...

PhotoFor some people fashion is everything to the point where new designs and styles are anticipated like summer time in mid-January.

To others, fashion has nothing to do with clothes; it’s something that fancy people are into, and for a good portion of folks their extent of being fashionable is maybe buying a new pair of shoes once the old ones are too mangled to wear.

With some men it’s even worse.

Somewhere between buying a bunch of new clothes for that first “real” job they get and working at that same job for years, the normal uniform becomes a white shirt and khakis or slacks.

So much so that these items go from work clothes to everyday clothes and there seems to be no effort to changing attires or adjusting looks to fit specific events.

A clear sign that a guy is completely unconcerned with what he's wearing is when you see him at each social event dressed “office casual” instead of dressing for the occasion at hand, because let’s face it, a white button up and khakis isn’t the best way to go for every social situation.

In the know

But for those people who are into fashion, now is truly a great time, because not only has higher-end fashion become more accessible to average consumers through technology, that same technology has allowed people to join communities of fashionistas, designers and retailers to stay in the know of different styles and exchange fashion ideas.

And just as in many industries today, consumers are staying tuned-in through smartphone applications, as there seem to be a million of them on the market right now.

PhotoBut which apps are the best? Which apps are able to keep consumers abreast of different designs around the world and which ones are able to keep up in a technological sense with the extremely fast pace of fashion? After all, we all know how ever-changing the trends in clothes, shoes and apparel can be.

Right now, Pose is a pretty hot app in the tech world, as it currently has millions of devoted users, reports show.

Have you ever known someone who had a fashion sense that you liked or admired and wished you could regularly communicate with that person for inspiration and ideas?

If you have, then Pose might be the app for you, as it lets you view a feed of people you're following, and you can see posted photos of their fashion  items.

Once you click on an item, you can “love” it, which is similar to a Facebook “like” and choose to comment on that photo, discuss it with others and find out where you might be able to purchase that item.

In addition, Pose handpicks a group of fashion tastemakers people can follow to discuss style ideas with and stay properly informed. The app lets you post your own photos of fashion ideas to inspire somebody else if you choose as well.

A matter of style

And speaking of inspiration, Style.com has been giving fashion and design news since the website launched back in 2000.

PhotoJust like the site, the Style.com app is pretty much a hub for everything fashion--from style and trend updates from places like London, Milan, New York and Paris, to being able to view live runway shows from different cities around the globe. And just like any decent fashion app worth its weight, the Style app will keep you up to date with all of the celebrity fashions worn on red carpets and star studded events

Basically, if you’re a person who likes to get fashion updates up to the minute, the Style app should definitely be downloaded.

 The TrendTracker app from the fashion site TrendStop.com works in a similar way, as it gives users constant updates on various areas of fashion, whether it’s high-end catwalk styles to those highly coveted fashion items that you see people wearing on the street.

In addition, the TrendStop app keeps users in the loop with fashion news and design updates and allows them to share whatever they find with Facebook and Twitter friends.

The creators of the app say they just added over 80 high resolution videos of the latest fashion shows from different parts of the world, and you access about 3500 fashion photos to give you all the creative motivation you’ll need, whether you’re a designer yourself or you just like to dress in the latest and trendiest get-ups.

Whole cloth

The app called Cloth allows you to post, share and save fashion photos as well, but what’s different about this app is its weather component that lets users tag their outfits according to the current climate or weather forecast.

Photo

So if it’s raining one day and you need an idea of what to wear to keep warm and dry but still fashionable, you can digitally search through your wardrobe by the tags you created, so there’s no guesswork involved in either dressing for the weather or looking good.

Cloth is really for those people who tend to pre-organize their outfits for the upcoming day or week, as the app will allow you to see everything you have through your phone and organize outfits according to the forecast, which is great if you have a closet full of clothes and  can't remember everything you have. 

More

Comcast starts encrypting basic cable

It means some consumers will have to get a set-top box to keep watching "free TV"

There's an entire generation of consumers to whom the phrase "free TV" doesn't have much meaning. But believe it or not, it's still possible to watch over-...

PhotoThere's an entire generation of consumers to whom the phrase "free TV" doesn't have much meaning. But believe it or not, it's still possible to watch over-the-air TV channels -- assuming you don't live 800 miles from anywhere -- just by hanging an antenna out the window.

Of course, most of us don't do that. The local over-the-air stations are just mixed in with all the entertainment, news and general drivel from cable channels like HBO, Discovery and TLC. 

These days, anybody who watches TV straight off the air is in danger of being lumped in with survivalists and other far-out types whose dream is to live off the grid. A notch above that are the hold-outs who have nothing but basic cable -- no DVR, not even a set-top box. They just watch the local channels and maybe a few freebies like the Weather Channel and CNN. 

But not for much longer, at least for Comcast customers. The company last year got permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin encrypting local channels -- turning them from analog into digital signals.

Set-top box

This means that basic cable subscribers will need to get a set-top box to keep watching those channels, just as some consumers had to get a digital converter a year or two ago when over-the-air signals went digital. Customers who use certain types of DVRs not provided by Comcast may also need to get a converter.

This is not going over well with some of Comcast's customers.

"I cannot believe that Comcast is forcing us to purchase HD Converter Boxes for $9.99 per month per box in order to continue receiving HD quality TV on our brand new TVs," said Debbie of Manchester, NH. "I do not have the room to place a big box on my kitchen counter, nor do I want to pay an additional $20 per month in order that I may even watch TV on my two new TVs! This is outrageous!"

Comcast Cable Service April 16, 2013, 6:57 p.m.
Consumers rate Comcast Cable Service

Comcast and other cable providers have been lusting to do this for quite some time, ostensibly to cut down on cable theft. Currently, anyone who can find a live cable feed can splice into it and start watching News at 5 for free. It's illegal but so is speeding.

Of course, it goes without saying that over time this will turn into another revenue stream for cable. While set-top boxes may be provided free initially, you can bet there'll be a charge for them in the future. Adding the digital box is also the fox's first step into the henhouse; once the box is there, the cable company has a lot more control over what consumers can -- and can't -- see. 

The roll-out is just getting started and the company hasn't said exactly when each of its markets will be affected. It does say that customers who don't currently have set-top boxes will be eligible to get two adapters at no charge for two years -- five years if they receive Medicaid.  

Customers who get premium channels on one set but just basic on another set will be eligible for one device at no charge for one year. 

Boxee Cloud

Also affected by the switch will be customers who use some versions of Boxee, which the company calls a "cloud-based DVR."   Comcast said it will provide an "Eternet DTA" box that will work with the Boxee Cloud DVR but not the original Boxee Box. Don't ask us what the difference is; everytime we write about Boxee, the company's mouthpieces take issue with our description. 

We suspect this is what has Lisa of Tamarac, Fla., upset.

"Comcast does not allow us to use the DVR we purchased a couple of years ago because of a new little box they said we had to have in order to continue service with them," she said in a recent ConsumerAffairs posting. "The DVR cost around $300 and is not compatible with this little box. They offered no solution and now I can't record shows that I might miss and want to watch later. I would have never purchased a $300 DVR if I knew this was going to happen."

"We are beginning to proactively notify customers in select markets that we will begin to encrypt limited basic channels as now permitted by last year's FCC B1 Encryption Order," Comcast said,in a statement. "While the vast majority of our customers won't be impacted because they already have digital equipment connected to their TVs, we understand this will be a change for a small number of customers and will be making it as convenient as possible for them to get the digital equipment they may need to continue watching limited basic channels."

Other cable companies haven't announced their plans yet.

More

Consumers appear skeptical of organic food

A growing number think it's just an excuse to charge more

There is a growing passion for food and the debate over different types of food tends to be passionate as well. Despite that, consumers have yet to be sway...

PhotoThere is a growing passion for food and the debate over different types of food tends to be passionate as well. Despite that, consumers have yet to be swayed by arguments for organically-grown food, according to a Harris Poll.

The survey, conducted in March 2013, found that despite professed desires to support beneficial environmental policies, many consumers are skeptical of food products that are labeled organic. In fact, the survey found that 59% of consumers believe labeling a food as “organic” is simply an excuse to charge more for it.

"What surprised us most was that while Americans are showing more concern for the environment, they aren't necessarily willing to pay more to do anything about it," said Mike de Vere, President of the Harris Poll. "While Americans feel better about the economy, many are wary of the 'greenwashing' concept that gives companies a chance to cash in on consumers who want to help the planet but are confused by all the eco-friendly jargon."

Strict standards

In fact, organically-grown food must meet a set of strict standards or it can't be labeled as organic. According to Local Harvest, a group advocating Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), to be “certified organic” food must be “grown in a manner that does not harm the environment and that preserves or improves soil fertility, soil structure, and farm sustainability.”

Organic food tends to cost more because of the cost of meeting those standards, and because organic food is usually produced on a much smaller scale than commercial food production. People who buy organic usually do so because they want to support more environmentally friendly food production practices and value food grown without pesticides or other chemicals.

Consumers may also be aware of a widely publicized 2012 Stanford University study that concluded organic food doesn't provide any health benefits over conventionally-produced food. The four-year study examined 240 other studies on organic foods that were previously conducted between 1996 and 2011. The team of researchers wanted to determine the true differences between conventional foods and organic, in terms of nutrient levels and the amount of contaminants.

“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health," Dena Bravata, one of the study authors, said at the time.

A different view

PhotoResearchers at Southern Methodist University thought the Stanford researchers were going at the question backwards. Instead of asking if one type of food was better for you, they suggested asking if one type was worse.

They set up an experiment in which one group of fruit flies feasted on organic fruits and vegetables and one group solely on conventionally-produced produce. Despite the relatively poor health of both groups, they said the flies that only ate organic performed better on a number of health measures. Their conclusion? Organic food is actually healthier.

Here are some principal differences between conventional and organic agriculture:

  • Conventional growers use chemical fertilizers but organic one use natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost;
  • Conventional growers used synthetic insecticides while organic growers use pesticides from natural sources or enlist birds or other insects to control harmful bugs;
  • Conventional producers give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications. Organic producers use organic feed and allow livestock access to the outdoors.

Confusion

Part of consumer resistance to buying organic may have to do with the exacting standards of organic food and the numerous classifications of non-conventional food that doesn't quite meet those standards but gets close. For example, “organic” and “natural” are not the same thing. “Natural” is much less specific than “organic.”

Some farmers may choose not to strictly adhere to organic requirements but follow many of organic's practices. They might call their products “natural” or “hormone-free” on labels.

Products that meet 95% of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's standards for organic are allowed to bear the USDA Organic label.

The Harris Poll, meanwhile, found that men are more skeptical of the benefits of organic food than women and both have some confusion when it comes to environmentally-friendly practices.

Forty-eight percent of those surveyed washed dishes by hand because they believed it to be a “greener” practice. In fact, a German study recently found that the dishwasher uses only half the energy, one-sixth of the water, and less soap than hand-washing an identical set of dirty dishes.

More

Determining the real cost of college

Increasingly, it depends on getting scholarships and other aid

When parents and their children start shopping for colleges, a lot of factors come into play in making the final choice. One of those factors is – or...

PhotoWhen parents and their children start shopping for colleges, a lot of factors come into play in making the final choice. One of those factors is – or should be – the cost of a four-year education.

On the typical college's website you'll find a current estimate for tuition and fees for a semester or year, plus estimated costs of room and board and books. But that's just the sticker price. The actual cost may be higher or lower.

The choice of a school doesn't always come down to cost but increasingly it does. So being able to find the real cost of college can help you make the right decision.

Online tool

One tool that can help is the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, a calculator that lets you determine the cost of attending some 600 institutions of higher learning in the U.S.

It works by adding up the tuition and fees the school charges, then subtracting the average aid a student receives. However, it also assumes the average student will have to take out loans, so the payments on those loans are also figured into the mix.

The actual cost can be very different from the sticker price. The University of Wisconsin (UW) at Madison is a prime example.

UW's website lists in-state tuition at $10,609. When you add in books, room and board and miscellaneous other costs, it adds up to $24,204 – as expensive as some private universities. But, it turns out, the actual cost is much lower, at least according to the Scorecard.

Takes financial aid into account

When you enter UW into the calculator, you find the net cost is just under $15,000. The net price is what undergraduate students pay after grants and scholarships – financial aid you don’t have to pay back -- are subtracted from the institution’s cost of attendance.

PhotoThe tool also reveals that UW students borrow, on average, $19,897 to pay for a four-year education. The federal loan payment over 10 years for this amount is approximately $228.98 per month. That has to be figured into the real cost of an education.

The scorecard provides other information that might be useful when picking a college. Again, in UW's case, it shows an 82% graduation rate and a 1.4% student loan default rate, well below the national average.

If students do not apply for or receive grants or aid, and are forced to take out larger loans, the real, or net, cost of attending college and receiving an undergraduate degree can be much higher than the Scorecard price.

Growing awareness of costs

"Now more than ever, it's crucial that parents and students are aware of the total cost of a degree," said Chuck Cohn, CEO of Varsity Tutors, a private academic tutoring and test prep company. " As the cost of tuition continues to rise, students need to be vigilant about planning ahead and finding the best options for funding their education, not only to attend college in the first place, but also to graduate with an amount of debt they can manage."

College debt is a growing concern. In the U.S., there is now a larger balance of student loan debt than credit card debt. In 2012 students ended their education owing an average $27,000. Some had degrees, some didn't. Not surprisingly, 67% of students who graduated in 2009 are still paying on their student loans.

The College Scorecard hasn't been in operation all that long and some early critics have said it lacks specifics to help parents and students gauge the real costs of college, which more often than not involve student loans. While it might not provide the complete picture, it does underscore the need for students of limited means to obtain scholarships and grants to pay the rising costs of education, or otherwise be saddled with significant debt.  

More

Here's how to block out office distractions

Why is it that you get the least work done when you actually go to work?

Working in an office can be a strange thing and full of many annoying little rituals. Like the obligatory how-was-your-weekend-question-session that happen...

PhotoWorking in an office can be a strange thing and full of many annoying little rituals. Like the obligatory how-was-your-weekend-question-session that happens every Monday morning.

It’s safe to assume that most people don’t really care about what you did in the last 48 hours since they saw you last, but they feel compelled to ask, to either be polite or because they really want to tell you about their weekend.

Then of course there are the meetings.

First there’s the brainstorming meeting. Then there’s the follow-up meeting. After that, the discussion goes virtual and everyone meets on email to talk about the meeting. Then you email more to discuss when the next meeting will be. It can get truly ridiculous.

Then there’s the whole always-trying-to-save-your-butt component to working in many offices, where bosses are blindly cc’d, blame is continually passed back and forth, all while your whole department is secretly competing with you for that one higher position.

And if you want to get some uninterrupted work done, good luck, because between shoveling off to meetings, spending much of the day answering emails and being disrupted by that annoyingly chatty co-worker, you’re more likely to get more work done at home or on your public transportation commute than you will at the office.

New ways of working

Jason Fried, who’s the co-founder and president of the Chicago-based company 37 signals, believes the office is probably the last place you’ll be able to be productive, and along with his co-author David Heinemeier, he wrote Rework, a book that talks about new ways of working outside the office.

PhotoWhile speaking at one of his lectures, Fried said the traditional “work day” no longer exists in office settings anymore.

“People go to work and they’re basically trading in their work day for a series of work moments,” he said.

“It’s like the front door of the office is like a Cuisinart and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits, because you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there and then something else happens and you're pulled off your work and you’ve got to do something else, then you have 20 minutes, then it’s lunch.”

“Then you have something else to do, then you’ve got 15 minutes and someone pulls you aside, asks you this question, and before you know it, it's 5 pm and you look back on your day and realize that you didn’t get anything done.”

Alone time

Fried says that with his company, he makes sure no one physically works together unless they have to, which just about eliminates distractions and allows people to stay within their work zone and be more productive.

So if you can, speak to your boss about having the chance to have a little more "alone time" and say it'll allow you to get more done.

PhotoBut most of us will undoubtedly have to learn how to be more productive at the office and learn how to navigate with a bunch of people around, so here are a few tips.

Be sure not to let others control how much work you’re going to get done, says Gina Trapini, author of the books Upgrade Your Life and The Complete Guide to Google Wave.

And don’t feel you have to carve out time to answer every voicemail or engage in those time-wastinggossipy conversations.

“In an interrupt-driven culture it’s just too easy to let other people decide how you’re going to spend your next 10 minutes,” she said in a series of informational videos, entitled “Work Smart.”

“If you jump every single time a new email arrives or your BlackBerry buzzes or your phone rings, you’re undermining your most important work and you could be costing your company money. Recent studies show that unnecessary interruptions cost the U.S. economy $650 billion in lost productivity.”

In addition, Trapini says on average, your brain needs at least 15 minutes to really get into your task and properly focus, and once you're interrupted, many times you'll have to start that 15 minutes all over again.

Reserve an hour

She says it’s important to reserve an hour of time for each task where you’re not interrupted, and asking your boss for alone time in a secluded part of the building or in an empty conference room is your best bet to complete your assignment to the best of your ability.

“Even an employee really low on the totem pole can do this,” she said.

Another common mistake people make in the office is trying to multitask too often, says Trapini, and just because we can do it, it doesn’t mean it’s the best for work productivity.

“When you juggle tasks your work suffers and it takes longer, because switching tasks takes time," she said. 

"When your brain switches from one task to another, it takes up a whole new train of thought and you lose any momentum you had on the first task, which costs on the next switch.”

Trapini pointed to a study that showed it usually takes people 25 minutes on average to get back into a task once they’ve left it for a moment, so try to focus on one thing at a time.

“Stop juggling and start single-tasking,” she says.

First thing in the morning

Furthermore, Trapini says to do your most difficult or highest priority assignment in the morning when you get to work, as this will prevent you from thinking about it too much, which we all know can lead to procrastination.

The fact that the office will most likely be quieter and not yet filled with the typical distractions of the day means you’ll be able to get more done. Plus, you’re usually most alert in the morning and you’ll be able to stay better engaged, which can set the tone for your whole day, says Trapini.

“By knocking something important off your to-do list, first thing in the morning, you get both momentum and a sense of accomplishment before 10am,” she advises.

And here’s one more tip:

Try not eating your lunch at your desk or even in the building or on the property if you can.

Although many companies today provide cafeterias and other little things to keep you on the grounds during lunch, be sure to get out and do something completely unrelated to work.

In fact, scientists from the University of Sussex did a study about employees’ happiness about their job and found a definite correlation between discontentment at work and not going to another location during lunch, so it’s wise to always go for a walk, take a drive or just go to a nearby park with your lunch.

Either way, you’ll need all the help you can get to survive the office, because many are just full of people who’ve mastered the art of looking productive, but who are really more productive at distracting you and taking you away from your assignment.   

More

Movie producers react to Connecticut school massacre

New campaign adds descriptive content to movie ratings to alert parents to sex, violence

Reacting to the massacre of school children in Connecticut, the Motion Picture Association of America has announced some changes to its movie rating system...

PhotoReacting to the massacre of school children in Connecticut, the Motion Picture Association of America has announced some changes to its movie rating system, saying it wants to help parents know which films contain excessive violence or sexual content. 

The new campaign, called "Check the Box" will add a more detailed description explaning why a particular movie got the rating it did. It urges parents to “Check the Box” (the ratings box) so they can learn more about the content of a movie before determining if it is appropriate for their children.

The campaign was unveiled by MPAA President Christopher Dodd, who for many years was a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Dodd did not mention the Newtown shootings but he didn't really have to. The theater owners he was addressing were well aware that President Obama had called on the movie industry to do more to alert parents to excessive scenes of violence.

Remind parents

He said the new system was "intended to remind parents about the important tools at their disposal which allow them to make educated decisions about content appropriate for their children."

"Throughout its existence, the goal of the rating system has never changed: to inform parents and allow them to make their own decisions, considering their children’s sensibilities and unique sensitivities," Dodd said. "In 1990, we took a significant step to advance that goal, introducing rating descriptors for every film that is rated PG or higher, giving parents a snapshot of the content in each movie that leads to its rating."

Dodd said the changes announced today expand on that system, "giving parents the information they need to navigate the rating system and movies coming to their theaters."

Dodd was speaking to MPAA's annual convention at Caesar's Palace. A PSA describing the new campaign is available here

More

Even as the economy shows improvement, consumers remain tight-fisted

A new survey suggests the economic meltdown has instilled a new sense of caution

It's not business as usual for the vast majority of consumers these days. Ever mindful of the Great Recession of 2008, 94% of consumers plan to hold the ...

PhotoIt's not business as usual for the vast majority of consumers these days.

Ever mindful of the Great Recession of 2008, 94% of consumers plan to hold the line on spending for food, beverage and household goods, according to Deloitte's 2013 American Pantry Study.

Indeed, Deloitte found that 92% of those surveyed say they have become more resourceful, with 86% getting more precise in what they buy. Those attitudes have shown little change in the three years the study has been conducted.

What sacrifice?

Even though they have become more frugal, 72% of consumers indicate that it doesn't feel like they are sacrificing much -- even though they are spending less on household and grocery items. That's up 7% in two years.

Another 88% claim to have found store brands that are as good as national brands, and just 27% say they plan to switch back to national brands once the economy rebounds -- an 8% decline from the previous year.

"One of the most notable year-over-year trends in the study is how embedded frugality has become due to the recession," said Pat Conroy, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and consumer products sector leader. "Prudent consumers and improving perceptions about store brands are squeezing national brands' position. The gap between the few 'must have' brands on shoppers' lists and others on the shelf may be widening, making it more important for brands to differentiate through innovation, quality and performance. Consumer product companies may also consolidate low and mid-level performers and shift investment to the category leaders."

Brand loyalty slides

Brand loyalty continues to slide as store brands become more entrenched in the pantry. Still, consumers appear to be selectively loyal to certain brands.

When questioned about their decisions to stop buying certain brands, the No. 1 reason was "other brands are available on sale." At the same time, brands to which consumers are most loyal significantly outpace their lower performing counterparts by 20 or more percentage points on things like performance, experience and trust.

There has also been a winnowing of brands consumers will consider. Eighty-four percent say they have a specific set of brands in mind, and will purchase whichever one is on sale. When it comes to coupons, 71% say they will use them only for items they would have purchased anyway.

Online shopping

There's an unmet demand for online shopping options -- particularly for in-store pickup and at-home delivery, according to the 2013 American Pantry Study. Fourteen percent of those asked currently buy consumer products online and pick them up in the store. But, 43% indicate they would like to do so, with strongest demand appearing in food and beverage categories for in-store pickup.

Just 11% purchase online with home delivery, with the number shooting to 34% among those who would like to do so, primarily for household goods such as laundry soaps and tabletop disposable paper products.

"Consumers are drawn to the convenience of purchasing frequently-used food, beverage and household items online, and brand preferences will likely extend into their online buying habits," added Conroy. "Consumer product companies can use mobile and online channels to strengthen the functional and experiential brand attributes that translate into conversion and loyalty.”

More

Consumer prices fall in March as new home construction surges

The upbeat news sent stocks higher in the early going

Overall inflation in March was nowhere to be found. The Labor Department reports its Consumer Price Index (CPI) dipped 0.2%, bringing the inflation rate f...

PhotoOverall inflation in March was nowhere to be found.

The Labor Department reports its Consumer Price Index (CPI) dipped 0.2%, bringing the inflation rate for the past 12 months down to a tame 1.5%. The March number was better that the 0.1% decline forecast by Briefing.com and the market.

The decline was led by a 4.4% plunge in the cost of gasoline, along with drops in the prices of electricity and fuel oil. In total, energy prices were down 2.6%. Food prices were unchanged in March.

Stripping out those two volatile categories, the “core rate” of inflation was up 0.1%

Outside the core items, costs for shelter, used cars and trucks, medical care, personal care and airline fares were higher in March, while prices for apparel, household furnishings and operations, and tobacco were lower.

The full CPI report can be found at the Labor Department website.

Housing starts

In a separate report, the Commerce Department says housing starts shot up 7.0% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,036,000 homes. That came as something of a surprise to analysts, who were expecting a rate of 935,000.

Ground-breaking for single-family homes were at a rate of 619,000 -- 4.8% below the revised February figure of 650,000. Apartment units were at an annual rate of 392,000.

Applications for building permits, an indication of plans for future construction, were down 3.9% to an annual rate of 902,000.

More on the March construction report is available on the Commerce Department website.

More

It's time to get rid of Windows XP

Support ends next year and anyone still running it will be playing with fire

Although it is far and away the most successful operating system Microsoft has ever produced, Windows XP is finally fading to black. The company will stop...

PhotoAlthough it is far and away the most successful operating system Microsoft has ever produced, Windows XP is finally fading to black. The company will stop supporting it one year from today -- no more patches, bug fixes or support of any kind.

Even though 500 million people are still running XP, Microsoft says it will stand firm in its determination to see its tail lights go down the driveway for good.

If you are among those still running XP, it's time to swallow hard and begin to lay the groundwork for whatever comes next for you.

Here are the options:

1. Stick with Windows.  Sure, go ahead, spend a bundle on Windows 7 or even Windows 8. Windows 7 runs well and is a worthy successor to XP, although the whole concept of a hoggish, bloated proprietary operating system has pretty much had its day. Don't forget to have your credit card ready. You'll want to pick up Windows Office and a good anti-virus program. And be sure to install the updates and fixes that are issued constantly.

Photo2. Get a Chromebook. For the average user who doesn't do much except roam around the Web, send email and maybe play a game or two, a Google Chromebook is an easy, inexpensive solution. Prices start at $199 -- for everything, laptop, the Chrome operating system and the Google Docs online programs that do everything Microsoft Office does, for free.

You don't need an anti-virus program and you don't need to be constantly installing patches. Google does it all invisibly online.

3. Switch to Linux Ubuntu. Linux is the operating system that runs the Internet and just about every other industrial-strength system. The excellent Ubuntu flavor is ideal for casual users. It's free and it will run on just about anything. Any computer that is running XP will run Ubuntu, which comes with an open-source program of office apps that do everything Microsoft Office does, only for free. Basically, this is pretty much the same solution as getting a Chromebook (which also runs on what is basically a Google flavor of Linux), except you don't have to buy anything.

PhotoJust download and install Ubuntu. Your neighborhood computer repair shop will do it for you if you don't feel up to it. Again, no anti-virus needed.

4. Throw money away on a Mac. Feeling flush? Go ahead, buy an Apple machine. They're beautiful and run splendidly but they are too expensive for the casual user. If you're heading for the Apple Store, pick up a Maserati for me on your way, would you?

Time to decide

That's it, those are the options. You can see where my prejudices lie. I'm writing this on a Chrombook Pixel and have assorted Ubuntu-powered machines blowing hot air around me. They all work great. Don't believe those who tell you open source software is unreliable, illegal or troublesome. That's simply not true.

Just to say it again, you can't keep running Windows XP after April 15, 2014. To do so ensures that your machine will be taken over by malware, endangering you and everyone else on the Internet. Microsoft is holding a gun to your head: upgrade or die.

More

Apple paying $53 million to settle 'water damage' claims

Customers' iPhone warranty claims were denied because of supposed water damage

Make no mistake, if you get your iPhone or other sensitive electronic device wet, you will likely cause irreparable, or at least expensive, damag...

PhotoMake no mistake, if you get your iPhone or other sensitive electronic device wet, you will likely cause irreparable, or at least expensive, damage. Over the years, however, many Apple iPod and iPhone owners have claimed that Apple used "phantom" water damage as an excuse not to honor claims for other damage and defects.

Apple has now agreed to a $53 million class action settlement with some of its customers whose claims were denied because of Apple's assessment that the devices were exposed to water, thus voiding the warranty.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers would be eligible for cash payments under terms of the settlement. The payouts are expected to amount to a few hundred dollars per person.

The proposed settlement, which will not be final until it is approved by the court, doesn't affect everyone who owns an iPhone or iPod. Only consumers with the iPhone 3G and 3GS or iPod Touch will be eligible to receive compensation.

Robert, of Slidell, La., is one of many consumers who've written to ConsumerAffairs about the problem. Robert writes that his iPhone 4 stopped working a month after he purchased it. He took it to the Apple Store to have it evaluated.

“The Apple Store took the phone in the back room, came out several minutes later and said the phone is not warranted because of liquid,” he writes. “The phone was not wet. I believe the Apple Rep wet my phone and thus I had to purchase another phone for more than the first one cost me at AT&T.”

Honest mistake

More likely, it was an honest error. According to court documents, a moisture-sensing tape made by 3M has been shown to be affected by humidity, and can thus indicate false positives. The paper tape is attached near the headphone jack of the devices, allowing technicians to quickly determine if moisture had gotten inside. In the documents, Apple has admitted no wrongdoing.

Whatever the reason, the issue of water damage has been a hot one over the years. Jeff, of Minnetonka, Minn., reported in February that his iPod Nano claim was denied – wrongly, in his opinion.

Kept in a baggie

“Only use the Nano when running,” Jeff wrote. “It went dead, so I went into the Apple Genius Bar and they said dead due to water damage. Told him only use it when I run and it's in a baggie. He said 'sorry it's water damage.'”

Johanna, of Castlerock, Colo., got the same story when she filed a claim on her iPod Nano.

“I brought it in to an Apple store to find out what's going on and they said there was water damage,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “What? I have never gotten the device wet. My husband and I used it for running, so the only thing that makes sense is sweat."

Non-working iPhones

There have been more complaints about denied claims for non-working iPhones. Last September Jean, of Milford, Pa., contacted us about her daughter's iPhone 4S. As soon as she loaded IOS 6.0, she said she lost wi-fi capability.

“We tried everything, but all failed,” Jean writes. "So we were supposed to get a replacement, unfortunately Apple pulled the water damage scam on us.”

Consumers whose names and addresses are on file will be notified by mail of their eligibility for payment when the settlement is approved. Notices will also be placed in USA Today and MacWorld.

The lead attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Jeffrey Fazio of Fazio Micheletti LLC, San Ramon, Calif., and Steve A. Schwartz of Chimicles & Tikellis LLP, Haverford, Pa. 

More

Dish strikes again -- this time trying to steal Sprint from under Softbank's nose

Dish already has TV producers spitting nails. Now it's going after Verizon and AT&T

Things are starting to get interesting in the wireless business. Long an oligopoly dominated by Verizon, AT&T and Sprint and characterized by high rate...

PhotoThings are starting to get interesting in the wireless business. Long an oligopoly dominated by Verizon, AT&T and Sprint and characterized by high rates and two-year contracts, the creaky old ship is starting to come apart at the seams.

Just a few weeks ago, T-Mobile announced it was scrapping the two-year contract and offering customers a two-tier plan consisting of a monthly charge for equipment (the phone) and another for airtime.

And now Dish, which has already won FCC approval to enter the wireless business, has launched a campaign to buy Sprint, hoping to snatch it from the hands of Softbank, the Japanese wireless carrier that last October agreed to pay $20 billion for the No. 3 U.S. carrier.

Troublemaker

Is there no apple cart Dish doesn't want to upset? It already has network and cable companies in an uproar with its Hopper DVRs that let viewers choose to eliminate the commercials that program producers need to finance all those shows about vampires, walking dead people and frustrated LA cops.

Photo
Charlie Ergen

Dish went public with its $25.5 billion offer for Sprint over the weekend when it released a letter from Dish Chairman Charles Ergen to Sprint's board of directors, arguing that a Dish-Sprint last-up would produce a stronger competitive presence than Softbank can provide. 

"Our proposal provides Sprint shareholders with a superior alternative to the pending SoftBank Corporation proposal," Ergen said. "A transformative DISH/Sprint merger will create the only company that can offer customers a convenient, fully-integrated, nationwide bundle of in- and out-of-home video, broadband and voice services."

Ergen is also pitching his scheme as a solution for rural and other underserved areas that now have a hard time getting any kind of decent broadband, a pitch that's likely to sound good to the regulators who would have to sign off on the plan.

"Additionally, the combined national footprints and scale will allow DISH/Sprint to bring improved broadband services to millions of homes with inferior or no access to competitive broadband services. This unique, combined company will have a leadership position in video, data and voice and the necessary broadband spectrum to provide customers with rich content everywhere, all the time," Ergen said.

A better bundle

You can sort of see where Ergen is going with all this. Consumers are increasingly looking to wireless for their in-home entertainment and communications services. It was just a few years ago that Verizon and its competitors were digging up the neighborhoods of America to lay fiber optic cable that would provide cable, Internet and landline services.

DISH Network  April 15, 2013, 6:42 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network

But now, those services are merging at breakneck speed into a single stream of data carrying everything from network and cable TV shows to Twitter tweets, Facebook postings and everything in between.

Ergen, who has been assembling spectrum for years, looks to be in a pretty good place strategically. If he can pull off the Sprint purchase and combine Sprint's network with his spare satellite spectrum, Dish could emerge as a force to contend with.

Providing wireless service certainly isn't free but the incremental cost of serving a single subscriber is a lot less than it is for the ground-based telco and cable companies, who have to send out trucks, backhoes and men in boots to install new service.

If Ergen's grand scheme works out, it could mean that consumers would be offered a different kind of bundle. Instead of having to bundle a bunch of cable channels they will never watch just to get the two or three they want, consumers could sign up for high-speed wireless service that delivers entertainment on demand as well as cell phone and Internet access.

But don't take our word for it. Here's how Dish describes the benefits it sees from a Sprint acquisition:

"[It] creates an industry-leading spectrum portfolio and the only company that can offer customers a fully-integrated, nationwide bundle of in- and out-of-home video, broadband and voice services."

It's an intriguing scheme and it could just rocket Dish right past Verizon and AT&T in the race to be the One Big Pipe in the sky. 

More

How do you know you're being prescribed the right medicine?

Researchers say that medication errors are more common than you may think.

If you’re currently on prescription medication, you can’t just assume you’re always getting the correct refills. In fact, you can’t...

PhotoIf you’re currently on prescription medication, you can’t just assume you’re always getting the correct refills. In fact, you can’t even assume that you’re given the proper type of medication when it’s prescribed in the first place.

That’s what public health researchers at Brown University suggest, as they found that one in five seniors on Medicare Advantage plans are prescribed  “high risk medications” by their physicians, instead of being given a safer substitute medication.

In addition, study Danya Qato and Dr. Amal Trivedi found that residents living in the South are more likely to be prescribed medications that could be potentially harmful.

“At the population level it is clear that there is a unique phenomenon occurring,” Qato stated.

“While one can reason that it might be appropriate for a particular patient to be on a particular medication, with such a preponderance of use of high-risk medications in some locations versus others, our results suggest that we cannot attribute this variation wholly to patient characteristics.”

New England safest

After examining a total of 6 million senior patients, researchers found that 21.4% were given at least one high-risk medication and 4.8% said they were given at least two; and the study showed that residents in New England were the least likeliest to be given these medicines.

Some of the cities that showed the greatest percentages of senior patients receiving high-risk medications were Albany, Ga. at 38.2% and Mason City, Iowa at 9.6%, and researchers found that Alexandria, La., was No. 1 in the nation when it came to seniors receiving at least two potentially harmful medications.

Additionally, results showed those living in the East South Central, West South Central and South Atlantic parts of the country had a 10 to 12% greater chance of receiving a high-risk medication than people living in states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In other findings, researchers said that women in every state had a 10% higher chance of being prescribed a harmful medication than men, since there are more medicines that are considered high risk that are specifically made for female conditions.

Why the difference?

And why do different parts of the country have such disparities in receiving high-risk medicines?

There are many reasons, researchers say, but some factors include a possible difference in the way medicines are prescribed between the North and the South, which may have something to do with a slight cultural difference and possibly because different areas of the country have more residents with chronic conditions.

Researchers say their findings should be an action call for physicians and the rest of the healthcare community, to make sure the absolute best medication is being prescribed.

“Clinicians and policymakers should work to reduce the use of these potentially inappropriate medications in older patients, because their risks outweigh their benefits and safer alternatives exist,” said Trivedi.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it received about 30,000 reports of patients receiving the wrong medication since 1992, and it says that many people tend to be at fault, including health professionals, pharmacies, patients and their families.

Some of the main reasons people are prescribed the wrong medicine or given the wrong medication during refills, include drug labeling errors and patients, physicians and pharmacies being confused about the correct name of a drug. Drugs not being properly classified by the manufacturer is also a problem. 

What to do

The FDA encourages you to learn everything about a drug you’re prescribed, in terms of the correct name and what it actually does. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to write down important things about the medicine, including why it’s being given to you.

And don’t refill your prescription without doing a little detective work; says the FDA, meaning take a look at your pills and make sure they look as they usually do. If they don’t, be sure to ask the pharmacist about it. The look of generic pills may differ sometimes, but confirming that you were given the right medication could never hurt.

Furthermore, research the type of problems and side effects a drug may give you, which may help if you’re ever given an improper dose, as the FDA found that 44% of the deaths that occurred from a medication error had to do with the patient not knowing anything about the drug and what that drug was supposed to do.

Michael Cohen, R.Ph., Sc.D., president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, told the FDA that it’s the consumer’s responsibility to make sure they’re fully in-the-know about their medicine, from when it’s given to when it’s taken and even after that.

“You should expect to count on the health system to keep you safe, but there are also steps you can take to look out for yourself and your family,” he said.

More

Your old smartphone may be worth real money

Online sites match sellers of used phones with buyers

Just about everyone now has a cellphone. In fact, a recent report on U.S. cellphone ownership showed there are more cellphones than people in the U.S.New...

PhotoJust about everyone now has a cellphone. In fact, a recent report on U.S. cellphone ownership showed there are more cellphones than people in the U.S.

New product launches become events, with consumers eagerly lining up to purchase the latest iPhone or Android device. Which raises the question – what do you do with your old phone when you update to the latest model?

When you activate your new phone, your old phone is deactivated. While it no longer works as anything more than a paperweight, it contains your sensitive data on its hard drive, so the last thing your want to do is throw it away. Besides, throwing your old phone into a landfill can harm the environment.

Another good reason not to dispose of your phone is it probably retains some residual value, depending on its age, model and condition. There are a growing under of companies that bring together consumers who have old cell phones and companies that want to buy them. One of them is uSell.

Sell with a few clicks

“Let's say a consumer has an iPhone 4 they are no longer using because they upgraded to the iPhone 5,” said Dan Brauser, President of uSell. “They could go onto our site and in a few easy clicks search for that device, select the carrier, the specific make and model, and give the condition of the device.”

PhotoWhen judging the condition of the device, there are only three choices; it's either “broken,” in “good” condition – meaning it has normal wear and tear – or it's in “perfect” condition, meaning it looks and works like it's new.

Once you have entered all the information about your old phone, uSell shops it around on your behalf, acting as a broker.

“Based on the information the consumer provides, we go out and ping our network of buyers and return the price quotes those buyers have offered,” Brauser said.

In some cases a device that's in heavy demand might draw 15 or more offers. In addition to the offer price, consumer reviews provide some information about prospective buyers that can help a seller choose one.

Consumer reviews

“We display the offers on a ranked basis that takes into consideration both the reviews and the offer price,” Brauser said. “It's possible the offer that shows up at the top in our Best Match system may not be the best price. The offering company with the lower price might have a couple hundred more reviews and have a five star average.”

If this sounds a bit like the eBay model, it's close but with a difference. The sellers on uSell just want to sell electronic devices and the buyers – many of whom you will find on eBay – just want electronic devices. Brauser says some of the purchased devices might actually later be sold on eBay.

“A lot of our buyers are eBay power sellers and they're using our platform to actually acquire their inventory,” he said.

Once a consumer accepts an offer, the purchaser mails a packing kit with pre-paid postage, so that the consumer can ship the device at no cost and with minimal effort. Once it's received, any remaining data on the phone is wiped and the consumer is paid, either by check or through Paypal.

Replacement phones

Besides being sold on eBay, the used phones are sold to warranty providers, who often fill claims with refurbished models. Many are also sold overseas, where a particular phone might not be available from the manufacturer. The iPhone, for example, isn't available in some Latin American markets.

“In South Florida, if you go into the Apple Store, you're going to find a lot of Latin American tourists who are buying iPhones while on vacation and taking them home, where they aren't available,” Brauser said.

Phones are also sold to consumers who will buy a second-hand iPhone or Galaxy S II if it means they don't have to sign up for a new contract.

Even if your phone is broken, it might be worth something because of the materials inside it. For example, some manufacturers use small amounts of gold and silver to produce smartphones – materials that can be extracted and sold or reused.

With consumers buying new cellphones every two years – sometimes even sooner – it's easy to acquire a collection of old smartphones. Sites like uSell are a way to recycle them, maybe picking up a few bucks for your effort.

More

Six retailers recall Buckyballs and Buckycubes

These products contain defects that pose a substantial risk of injury and death

Six retailers are recalling all Buckyballs and Buckycubes high-powered magnet sets, as they contain defects in the design, warnings and instructions that p...

PhotoSix retailers are recalling all Buckyballs and Buckycubes high-powered magnet sets, as they contain defects in the design, warnings and instructions that pose a substantial risk of injury and death to children and teenagers.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has received 54 reports of children and teens ingesting this product, with 53 of these requiring medical interventions.

Imported by Maxfield & Oberton LLC, of New York, Buckyballs and Buckycubes consist of sets of numerous, small, high-powered magnets. These sets vary in the number of magnets included and come in a variety of colors. Individual magnets in the set are about 5 millimeters in diameter. Individual magnets in Buckyballs are spherical and individual magnets in Buckycubes are cube-shaped.

About three million sets of Buckyballs and Buckycubes have been sold in U.S. retail stores nationwide and online since 2010 for between $5 and $100.

What to do

Consumers should take the high-powered magnet sets and all associated individual magnets away from children and teenagers and contact the retailer from which they purchased the product to obtain instructions for their remedy:

Legal action

These retailers have agreed to participate because Maxfield & Oberton has refused to participate in the recall of all Buckyballs and Buckycubes.

In July 2012, CPSC staff filed an administrative complaint against Maxfield & Oberton Holdings LLC, of New York, N.Y., after discussions with the company and its representatives failed to result in a voluntary recall plan that CPSC staff considered to be adequate to address the very serious hazard posed by these products. This type of legal action against a company is rare, as CPSC has filed only four administrative complaints in the past 11 years.

More

FAA orders special inspections of 737s

Potentially defective parts could cause pilots to lose control of the airplane

An Alaska Air 737-800The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is ordering special inspections of potentially defective parts on the Boeing 737, the mo...

Photo
An Alaska Air 737-800

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is ordering special inspections of potentially defective parts on the Boeing 737, the most widely-used jetliner in the world.

The agency said more than 1,000 of the medium-range jets could have improperly manufactured parts that could cause pilots to lose control.

The FAA directive, as published in the Federal Register, was prompted by "reports of an incorrect procedure used to apply the wear and corrosion protective surface coating to attach pins of the horizontal stabilizer rear spar," the agency said.

"We are issuing this AD to prevent premature failure of the attach pins, which could cause reduced structural integrity of the horizontal stabilizer to fuselage attachment, resulting in loss of control of the airplane," the directive continued.

The directive applies to relatively recent models of the workhorse airplane, including the 737-600, -700, -700C, -800, -900, and -900ER series.  

The potentially defective parts secure the horizontal stabilizers that control the up and down movement of the nose. 

Delta Airlines April 15, 2013, 1:34 a.m.
Consumers rate Delta Airlines

The FAA noted that Delta Airlines had asked that some of its airplanes be excluded from the directive, saying that they were not delivered during the time when the suspect parts were being installed.

"We disagree with the request," the agency said.

Although the directive technically applies only to U.S. carriers, it's expected that airlines around the world will perform the inspections.

More

What happens when you die? Google will help you decide

The Mean Time Between Failure awaits us all; Google helps us prepare for it

What happens when you die? We're not talking theology here or trying to sell you life insurance. No, the question -- a thorny one, you must admit -- is wha...

PhotoWhat happens when you die? We're not talking theology here or trying to sell you life insurance. No, the question -- a thorny one, you must admit -- is what happens to your computer files and accounts when you leave the bricks-and-mortar world.

Actually, we're supposed to call them your "digital assets." It sounds better and it is more descriptive (kind of like "cremains"), since most of us store a lot of stuff in the cloud as well as on our hard drives.

In the event of your demise, figuring out what happens to all that information can be a huge headache for your heirs. Many, if not most, online services will not release user IDs and passwords to your survivors without making them jump through various hoops. At the very least, they will probably have to supply a copy of your death certificate. 

To the rescue comes Google, which has been known to have a few other good ideas. It is launching a new feature that makes it easier for you to instruct Google on what should happen to your digital assets when you die or become incapacitated.

The feature is called Inactive Account Manager and it is now available on  your Google Account settings page.

"You can tell us what to do with your Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if your account becomes inactive for any reason," said Andreas Tuerk, Google Product Manager on the company's blog.

"For example, you can choose to have your data deleted — after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity," Tuerk wrote. "Or you can select trusted contacts to receive data from some or all of the following services: +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube."

Tuerk said that before Google takes any action, it will send a text message to your cellphone and an email to the secondary address you’ve provided.

So keep those smartphone batteries charged and keep your email addresses up to date. You don't want your stuff to be deleted before you are.

More

No job security in a New York security guard school

The company allegedly posted bogus job listings and made false employment promises

Being out of work is bad enough, but having it stuck to you when you're trying to find a job just pours salt into the wound. But New York City-based 1st S...

Photo
1st Security's home page
Being out of work is bad enough, but having it stuck to you when you're trying to find a job just pours salt into the wound.

But New York City-based 1st Security Preparation & Placement, Inc. and its owner, Allen Haft, are accused of doing just that.

In a lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman charges the company and its owner used phony job listings and false promises of employment to con consumers into paying for expensive security guard training courses. In fact, he says more than 15,000 consumers may have been scammed since 2008.

In addition to filing the lawsuit, the AG's office also obtained a temporary restraining order freezing any assets the company or Haft may have. It also bars them temporarily from advertising job openings or selling security guard training courses.

“My office will not tolerate companies that break the law to take advantage of vulnerable, unemployed consumers,” Schneiderman said. “Posting phony job listings during an economic crisis is a particularly cynical effort to prey on the hopes of struggling workers and families.”

How it allegedly worked

The Attorney General’s undercover investigation revealed that the company has posted hundreds of fake security guard job listings on Craigslist and in newspapers, including amNewYork, the Daily News, the New York Post and Metro. The ads make it seem like the company is hiring employees at high hourly wages when in fact the company is selling its courses, according to investigators.

1st Security is accused of falsely promising those who answer the ads that they have been selected for a position and says they must complete a series of security guard training courses, typically at a cost of $449 to $667.

After they pay for and complete the training courses, the consumers meet with 1st Security’s placement office and -- instead of the promised jobs -- are given worthless “referrals” to security guard companies. When they follow up on the referrals, investigators say, the consumers are not hired for any position usually because the companies are either not hiring or not interested in hiring individuals with no experience. In fact, they find that the companies that they were referred to have no knowledge of 1st Security and are not expecting the consumer for an interview.

Other instances

1st Security isn't the only firm accused of such dealings. In 2011, Schneiderman's office brought charges  against a company, known as both C.P. International Security, Inc. (C.P.I.) and Gateway Production Security, Inc.

Randolph of Pearl River, NY, has first-hand experience dealing with these kinds of companies. "I took two classes at Blue Steel Security school in Brooklyn, New York," he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "When I arrived there, they looked at my license and told me I had to take the 8-hour pre-assignment class and 16-hour on the job, instead of the 8-hour annual and a fireguard training class. When I sent in my license renewal, the state told me I had to take 8-hour annual. Now I am screwed because I can't get my license renewed, thanks to this school."

What to do

Anyone looking for work as a security guard should be careful about any training school that claims to be an employer or promises to place security guard positions for students. Be sure to read any contract with the security guard company carefully and -- before signing any contract -- check to see if the school is properly accredited.

Consumers should also keep in mind that low-cost and even free security guard training courses may be available. In New York, for example, the State University of New York’s Manhattan Educational Opportunity Center offers free security guard training courses for individuals who meet certain income guidelines and many community colleges offer low-cost security guard training courses.  

More

Federal Corporation recalls Couragia A/T tires

Tire shoulder tread chunking could cause a tire failure and increase the risk of a crash

Federal Corporation is recalling 8,513 Couragia A/T tires, size P265/75R16 116S, DOT Serial Numbers UX77 3210-UX770813. Excessive heat in the affected ti...

PhotoFederal Corporation is recalling 8,513 Couragia A/T tires, size P265/75R16 116S, DOT Serial Numbers UX77 3210-UX770813.

Excessive heat in the affected tires causes tread shoulder chunking. Thus, these tires fail to conform to the durability test requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 139, "New Pneumatic Radial Tires for Light Vehicles."

Tire shoulder tread chunking could cause a tire failure and increase the risk of a crash.

Federal Corporation will notify owners and will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin at the end of April.

More

Manda Packing expands recall of cooked meat, poultry and deli products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Manda Packing Company of Baker, La., is expanding its recall to include approximately 468,000 pounds of roast beef, ham, turkey breast, tasso pork, ham sha...

PhotoManda Packing Company of Baker, La., is expanding its recall to include approximately 468,000 pounds of roast beef, ham, turkey breast, tasso pork, ham shanks, hog head cheese, corned beef, and pastrami due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

The recall is being expanded because samples from additional production dates tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. There have been no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

Various weights of the following products are subject to recall:

Roast Beef:

  • Manda Supreme Roast Beef
  • Four Star Cajun Roast Beef
  • Four Star Roast Beef
  • Cajun Prize Roast Beef
  • Manda Supreme Natural Roast Beef
  • Manda Natural Roast Beef
  • Manda New Orleans Style Roast Beef
  • Manda Whole Wet Pack Roast Beef
  • Manda Roast Beef
  • S&W Roast Beef
  • LA Pride Roast Beef
  • Leblancs Roast Beef
  • Thompsons Roast Beef
  • Christiana Roast Beef
  • Manda Italian Roast Beef
  • Deli Pride Roast Beef
  • Chef Master Roast Beef
  • Scariano Roast Beef
  • Marques Roast Beef
  • Cajun Rite Roast Beef

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13-June 22, 2013, and bears the establishment number “EST. 8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection. 

Ham

  • Manda Ham
  • Cajun Prize Ham
  • Leblancs Ham
  • Four Star Ham
  • Christiana Ham
  • S&W Ham
  • Thompsons Ham
  • Chef Master Ham
  • Rouses Ham

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13-July 1, 2013, and bears the establishment number “EST. 8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection. 

Turkey

  • Leblancs Turkey Breast
  • Manda Turkey Breast
  • Cajun Prize Turkey Breast
  • Christiana Turkey Breast

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13-June 22, 2013, and bears the establishment number “P-8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection. 

Corned Beef

  • Manda Corned Beef
  • Four Star Corned Beef

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13-June 22, 2013, and bears the establishment number “EST. 8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

Pastrami

  • Manda Pastrami
  • Four Star Pastrami

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13-June 22, 2013, and bears the establishment number “EST. 8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

Hog Head Cheese

  • Manda Hog Head Cheese
  • S&W Hog Head Cheese
  • Rouses Hog Head Cheese
  • Big Cajun Hog Head Cheese

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13-June 22, 2013, and bears the establishment number “EST. 8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection. 

Tasso Pork

  • Manda Tasso
  • Diversified Tasso
  • Rouses Tasso

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13-July 2, 2013, and bears the establishment number “EST. 8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection. 

Ham Shanks

  • Manda Ham Shanks

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13-June 9, 2013, and bears the establishment number “EST. 8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

These products may have been sliced at retail delis, and if so will not bear this packaging information. The products were shipped for further distribution, for sale at retail, and to retail deli stores in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Josh Yarborough, director of quality assurance and food safety, at (225) 344-7636, ext. 59.  

More

Latest study finds no harm from BPA in women and children

The chemical is effectively deactivated by the body, researchers find

The latest chapter in the debate over bisphenol-A, or BPA, is that the chemical does not pose a risk to fetuses when it’s ingested by pregnant women....

PhotoThe latest chapter in the debate over bisphenol-A, or BPA, is that the chemical does not pose a risk to fetuses when it’s ingested by pregnant women. BPA is used in the linings of food and beverage containers and food safety advocates have long argued that it  should be more tightly regulated and that it poses special dangers to fetuses and infants.

But a new government study has produced strong evidence that the chemical is effectively metabolized by the mother and the fetus -- meaning essentially that the body processes the chemical completely, leaving no significant residue behind.

A study released in February also found no significant health effects from BPA. In that study,  a toxicologist examined 150 previous studies involving 30,000 people in 19 countries and found the exposure levels generally much too low to have any impact. 

The latest study was conducted by a team of researchers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Toxicology Program. It first looked at BPA as it was metabolized in pregnant mice and rats.

The researchers found that the mice and rats had no trouble metabolizing the chemical. They then turned to monkeys, who more closely resemble humans and found that they, too, deactivated the BPA effectively, even when it was injected directly into their bloodstream, at much higher concentrations than normal.

When BPA is ingested normally, through the digestive tract, it is reduced to undetectable levels in the fetus, the study found.

How it's processed

PhotoThe latest study is what is called a pharmocokinetics study, one that traces how a chemical is ingested and processed by the body. Such a study does not determine whether or not a chemical is harmful -- only whether it is retained in the body in significant quantities.

At harmful levels, BPA is thought to be an endocrine disruptor, which mimics the effects of hormones in the body, leading to fears that it could cause developmental and behavioral problems. But there have been 10 pharmocokentics studies in recent years that have found that BPA is effectively deactivated by the body, researchers said.

“The net result is that more than 99% of dietary BPA is detoxified by conversion to BPA-G before it enters the bloodstream for delivery into the tissues where even more metabolism can occur,” said Daniel Doerge, an FDA chemist who was the lead researcher in the latest study. He was quoted by Food Safety News http://www.foodsafetynews.com.

Californians' fears

The latest studies haven't done much to quell the clamor over BPA among activist groups, however. In San Francisco, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sarah Janssen, said recently that there's "a ton of new science that has come out that further supports BPA's being a reproductive and developmental toxicant." 

Her group group has petitioned California's Environmental Protection Agency to add BPA to the state's annual list of suspect chemicals under the consumer-safety law Proposition 65. That would mean that manufacturers would have to put warning labels on anything containing the chemical. Because California is such a huge market, manufacturers usually affix the warning labels nationwide, leading to lost sales and consumer angst.

Chemical industry representatives sued the state last month, hoping to keep BPA off the toxin list, saying the state had not proven its case.

More

Facebook gets new consumer-tracking tools

Datalogix deal gives the online site access to data about offline consumer behavior

Facebook has been generating a lot of publicity about its new Facebook Home app for Android phones but it's being a lot quieter about another big change --...

PhotoFacebook has been generating a lot of publicity about its new Facebook Home app for Android phones but it's being a lot quieter about another big change -- its lash-up with Datalogix, a marketing research firm that maintains huge databases tracking consumers' online and offline activities.

Facebook's new deal with Datalogix lets it show ads to people who have purchased or shown interest in all kinds of products offline, everything from packaged goods to cars, as well as online.

Datalogix is one of those "big data" firms that constantly collects information from all kinds of sources, including loyalty cards in brick-and-mortar establishments.

In some ways, Datalogix goes Google one better. Google sells "contextual" advertising, based on the content of the web page you're viewing, and "behavioral" advertising based on your general online behavior.

But with the data from Datalogix, Facebook will be able to show you ads based on what you are doing in the physical world as well as online. This is creating a lot of buzz in the advertising world and is likely to generate a bumper crop of revenue for Facebook.

Audience segments

The Datalogix-Facebook deal involves the launch of over 300 audience segments, called “Partner Categories.”

“With Datalogix Partner Categories, Facebook becomes a verifiable sales driver as well as a brand builder for Pepsi,” said Shiv Singh, Global Head of Digital for Pepsico Beverages, in a news release. “Datalogix helps us reach the right consumers on Facebook and measure the offline sales impact with confidence.”

Marketing types say this is good for everybody: it helps companies sell their stuff, which creates jobs, moves the economy, etc.; it helps online sites keep the lights on; and it benefits consumers by reducing clutter and showing them targeted advertising that more closely meets their needs.

“What makes Datalogix audiences unique is both the quality of the data and the scale with which they deliver,” said Erica Bigley, Digital Media Manager for Ford Motor Company. “We’re excited to expand our use of Datalogix Data and Measurement services from the Open Web to the full scale of Facebook media."

How do privacy advocates feel about all this? They don't like it, although they tend to focus on the potential for information in marketing databases finding its way into the hands of the government. 

Consumer advocates express fears that the information can be used to affect credit ratings, insurance premiums and even employment prospects but attempts to outlaw such tracking are hampered by the often-overlooked fact that there is no guarantee of privacy in the U.S. Constitution. 

New legislation is always being proposed but tends to run into overwhelming opposition from marketers' well-funded lobbying.

More

Facebook losing some of its luster with teens

Will Facebook's new "Home" app bring teens back or is it too late?

Facebook has been generating a lot of hype around its Facebook Home app for Android phones, being released today, but a new study from Piper Jaffray may be...

PhotoFacebook has been generating a lot of hype around its Facebook Home app for Android phones, being released today, but a new study from Piper Jaffray may be more telling.

The investment bank says teens are drifting away from Facebook and  YouTube. This should come as no surprise, since teens get quickly bored with just about everything, although they may now be doing so at an increasing rate.

The Piper Jaffray study found that while Facebook is still the most important social network for teens, usage is down nine percent since last year.

One thing that may be creeping out teens is the flood of parents and grandparents who have gravitated to Facebook. After all, who wants to hang out with a bunch of old people?

So where are kids congregating these days? Jaffray's report says Reddit, Vine, Snapchat, Kik, and 4chan are trending up, as they say, these days.

Shopping online

Other findings from the Piper Jaffray study:

  • Teens are shopping more online. Approximately 79% of females and 76% of males shop online, and respondents indicated that roughly 18% of their spending is online. Nearly 70% of teens indicate they prefer to shop the Web sites of their favorite stores-based retailers.
  • Teens are increasingly choosing organic food options, with 42% eating organics versus just 33% two years ago. When eating out, 57% of teens prefer limited service restaurants, up steadily from 43% four years ago. 
  • Mobility and connectedness are driving nearly 91% of teens to purchase a smartphone for their next wireless device, with approximately 60% biased toward Apple and 21% likely to buy an Android device.
More

OMG! My taxes are due

Don't make a mistake that could make things worse

Your taxes are due in a couple of days and you're in a panic. Be very careful. In your haste to meet the deadline, you could make a mistake that could del...

PhotoYour taxes are due in a couple of days and you're in a panic. Be very careful.

In your haste to meet the deadline, you could make a mistake that could delay the processing of your return and your refund, if you have one coming.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers these tips for avoiding some common errors:

  • File electronically. When you use e-file or IRS Free File the tax software does the calculations, flags common errors and prompts taxpayers for missing information. And best of all, there is a free option for everyone.
  • Mail a paper return to the right address. Be sure to check the appropriate mailing address at the IRS website  or your form instructions to avoid processing delays.
  • Take a close look at the tax tables. When figuring tax using the tax tables, make sure you're using the correct column for the filing status claimed.
  • Fill in all requested information clearly. Double-check any information you enter on the tax return -- including Social Security numbers, taking the time to be sure it is correct and easy to read. Also, check only one filing status and the appropriate exemption boxes.
  • Review all figures. Software catches and prevents many errors on e-file returns, but math errors are common on paper returns.
  • Get the right routing and account numbers. Direct deposit of a federal refund into one, two or even three accounts is convenient and allows faster access to your money. Be sure the financial institution routing and account numbers entered on the return are accurate. Wrong numbers can hold up a refund or cause it to be deposited into the wrong account.
  • Sign and date the return. Both spouses must sign and date a joint return. E-filers can sign using a self-selected personal identification number (PIN).
  • Attach all required forms. Paper filers need to attach forms -- including the W-2 -- that reflect tax withholding, to the front of their returns. If requesting a payment agreement with the IRS, also attach Form 9465 or Form 9465-FS to the front of the return. All other necessary schedules and forms should be attached in sequence number order shown in the upper right-hand corner.
  • Keep a copy of the return. Be sure to make a copy of your signed return and all schedules for your records.
  • Request a Filing Extension. If you can't meet the April 15 deadline, request a filing extension. It's is easy and will prevent late filing penalties. Either use Free File or Form 4868. But remember that while an extension gives you extra time to file, tax payments are still due April 15.
  • Owe tax? If so, there are a number of e-payment options. Or just send a check or money order payable to the “United States Treasury.”
More

US Airways accused of racial discrimination in federal court suit

Two black men were told they had to change clothes if they wanted to ride up front

Two black men say US Airways told them they had to remove their baseball caps, change from jeans to slacks and put on button-up shirts if they wanted the a...

Photo

Editor's note: We are aware of unconfirmed reports that the plaintiffs in this case were flying as non-revenue passengers. However, the lawsuit, which is the basis of our story, alleges that they "purchased" their tickets. The facts will be sorted out by the court, not by uninformed rumors and third-hand comments on social media. We report, the court decides.

Two black men say US Airways told them they had to remove their baseball caps, change from jeans to slacks and put on button-up shirts if they wanted the airline to honor their first-class tickets.

Not wanting to be sent to the back of the plane for the Denver-to-Los Angeles via Phoenix flight, MacCraig Warren of Compton and Miles Warren of Long Beach agreed to change.

But while Miles Warren was in the men's room changing, he says he spoke to a white passenger, Michael Heffernan, who was also wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Heffernan expressed fear that he would also be denied his seat in first class.

Photo
Excerpt of the complaint filed by the Warrens

It's OK for whites?

Consumers rate US Airways

But when the Warrens boarded, there sat Heffernan. In first. Wearing jeans and a hoody.

"Much to plaintiffs' amazement, Heffernan was sitting in first class wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, not the 'required' slacks and button up shirt," according to the complaint.

Heffernan was traveling with his Filipino friend,  Edward DeLeon, who was dressed in rolled-up jeans, no socks and a hooded sweatshirt, according to the complaint.

In a federal court lawsuit, the Warrens charge that US Airways unlawfully discriminated against them because of their race in the August 2012 incident, Courthouse News Service reported.

Besides legal costs and damages, the Warrens want US Airways enjoined from hounding blacks out of first in the future.

More

'Chained CPI,' and what it means to you

It could mean lower cost of living adjustments in Social Security benefits

When President Obama proposed a new budget, he managed to upset just about everyone, including members of his own party.Republicans attacked the proposal...

More

Judge denies class-action status to Google-Apple anti-poaching suit

Companies allegedly agreed not to steal employees from each other

A federal judge has denied class action status to a suit claiming that Google and Apple, along with several other high-profile companies, surreptitio...

PhotoA federal judge has denied class action status to a suit claiming that Google and Apple, along with several other high-profile companies, surreptitiously agreed not to poach one another’s employees.

Also named as defendants in the suit are Intel, Adobe, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Intuit.

The plaintiffs, software engineers at the defendant companies, claim that the companies agreed not to recruit one another’s employees. The plaintiffs claim that the alleged agreements foreclosed job opportunities and made it more difficult for them to engage in employment negotiations, which in turn deflated their salaries.

The plaintiffs claim that the alleged anti-poaching agreements violate the federal Sherman Antitrust Act, as well as California’s Cartwright Act.

In a lengthy ruling, Judge Lucy Koh, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, suggested that the plaintiffs’ suggested class structure was too broad.

“The court is most concerned about whether the evidence will be able to show that the defendants maintained such rigid compensation structures that a suppression of wages to some employees would have affected all or nearly all class members,” Koh wrote.

"The court is also concerned that plaintiffs' proposed classes may be defined so broadly as to include large numbers of people who were not necessarily harmed by defendants' allegedly unlawful conduct.”

Judge Koh left gave the plaintiffs leave to amend; she left open the possibility that the plaintiffs could refile the suit with a more tightly-defined class. The plaintiffs could also opt to file several smaller class actions, or individual lawsuits.

Jobs wrote to Schmidt

Court papers in the case revealed that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs wrote an email to Google’s Eric Schmidt in March 2007 asking his company to stop recruiting Apple employees.

"I would be very pleased if [Google’s] recruiting department would stop doing this," Jobs said in the email.

In January, Koh ordered Apple CEO Tim Cook to submit to four hours of questioning. In that order, Koh dismissed Apple’s assertion that Cook -- who was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the time the agreement was allegedly made -- was not involved in the matter.

"I find it hard to believe a COO would have no say over salary and compensation for all employees," Koh said at the time.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini and Google CEO Eric Schmidt were also scheduled for questioning in the case.
 
More

High lead levels found in imported rice

Lead and other pollutants can pose serious health risks, especially for children

A study finds high levels of lead and other heavy metals in imported rice, posing a potentially serious health threat, especially to infants and children....

PhotoA study finds high levels of lead and other heavy metals in imported rice, posing a potentially serious health threat, especially to infants and children.

The same study, presented at the American Chemical Society annual meeting in New Orleans, also found high lead levels in some baby food. 

The good news is that most rice consumed in the United States is grown here, but  Tsanangurayi Tongesayi, Ph.D., who headed the analysis of rice imported from Asia, Europe and South America, said that imports of rice and flour are increasing despite the vast rice fields in Louisiana, California, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi.

“Such findings present a situation that is particularly worrisome given that infants and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning,” Tongesayi said. “For infants and children, the daily exposure levels from eating the rice products analyzed in this study would be 30-60 times higher than the FDA’s provisional total tolerable intake (PTTI) levels.”

Tongesayi’s team, which is with Monmouth University in N.J., detected the highest amounts of lead in rice from Taiwan and China. Samples from the Czech Republic, Bhutan, Italy, India and Thailand had significantly high levels of lead as well. 

Because of the increase in rice imports into the United States, Tongesayi said that rice from other nations has made its way into a wide variety of grocery stores, large supermarket chains and restaurants, as well as ethnic specialty markets and restaurants.

More

Wholesale prices, retail sales down in March

Sales decline raises questions about consumers' willingness to spend

After rising in the first two months of the year, the Producer Price Index (PPI), for finished goods fell a sharp 0.6%. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com...

PhotoAfter rising in the first two months of the year, the Producer Price Index (PPI), for finished goods fell a sharp 0.6%. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for an increase of 0.1%

Figures released by the Labor Department show the decline was led by a 3.4% plunge in energy costs, thanks largely to a 6.8% drop in the prices of gasoline. Lower prices for diesel fuel and home heating oil also played a part.

Food prices -- on the other hand -- rose 0.8%, the sharpest advance since a 1.1-percent rise in November 2012. Costs for fresh and dry vegetables were major factors with a surge of 21.5%. Higher prices for strawberries also contributed to the overall increase in food prices.

The core rate of inflation, which strips out the volatile energy and food components,rose 0.2% for the third consecutive month.

The full PPI report can be found on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. 

Retail sales

In a separate report, the Commerce Department said retail sales were down 0.4% in March, surprising analysts who had expected sales to be flat. At the same time, the government made a slight downward revision in it's February estimated -- to an advance of 1.0% from its previous report of a gain of 1.1%.

The biggest sales decline last month -- 2.2% was at gasoline stations, followed by dips of 1.6% at electronics and appliance stores and 1.2% at department stores. Grocery store sales were unchanged.

For more information, check the Commerce Department website.

More

Tarmac delays galore during February

But the travel nightmare involved just one U.S. airport

If you happened to be flying in or out of Charlotte, N.C, in mid-February, it's probably an experience you won't want to repeat any time soon, According t...

PhotoIf you happened to be flying in or out of Charlotte, N.C, in mid-February, it's probably an experience you won't want to repeat any time soon,

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), there were 34 tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights. All of them occurred on February 16 and involved flights departing from or arriving at Charlotte International Airport, where a snowstorm pounded the area.

Additionally, the delays involved US Airways or its code share partners and are under investigation by the Department.

Meanwhile, DOT reports there were no tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights in February.

The DOT's ’s Air Travel Consumer Report, which also includes data on on-time performance, cancellations, chronically delayed flights and the causes of flight delays, can be found here.

More

Amid controversy, solar engineers seem to be making progress

Researchers say an important threshold may have been crossed

Solar energy as a power source has become controversial in recent years. In the 1970s it had something of a “hippie” reputation. More recently,...

PhotoSolar energy as a power source has become controversial in recent years. In the 1970s it had something of a “hippie” reputation. More recently, it has actually become a partisan issue.

Republicans have accused the Obama Administration of "crony capitalism" for backing government loans to solar company Solyndra, which later went bankrupt, owing the taxpayers millions. The GOP has consistently hammered Obama for favoring solar and other renewable energy enterprises over more traditional fossil fuels.

But the U.S. isn't alone in pushing energy from the sun. Germany, China and Japan have been leaders in backing solar as well. Is it a good bet or simply a pipe dream?

Rugged individualists

There is no question that the idea of solar energy has a lot of appeal, especially to individualists. If you want to unhook from the grid or simply live in a country less dependent on hostile energy sources, you probably look forward to a day when solar is a viable, mainstream energy source. Debates over the government's role in its development aside, the solar industry appears to be making some progress.

Though the company is still losing money, First Solar is a popular stock on Wall Street. It's had its ups and downs but Susquehanna Financial Group recently increased its price target from $28 to $40, based on the company's book value and future earnings potential.

First Solar provides solar energy components as well as complete solar systems. It sells products to investor-owned utilities, independent power developers and producers, commercial and industrial companies, and other system owners.

First Solar and its competitors produce photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight into electricity, collecting sunlight with large panels made up of hundreds of cells. The problem with that, of course, is that it takes a lot of cells, collecting a lot of sunlight, to produce meaningful amounts of electricity.

Too much cost, too little power

Critics complain that solar will never be practical because it simply costs too much to produce the systems and that they will never pay for themselves. They also point out that it requires a lot of energy, usually from fossil fuel, to produce the photovoltaic cells.

But researchers at Stanford University, not known as a haven for hippies or malingerers, point out that solar production has recently made strides in that area. They estimate that, for the first time since solar production kicked into high gear, the electricity generated by all of the world's installed solar photovoltaic panels probably eclipsed the amount of energy needed to make the cells, sometime in 2012.

That might seem a small accomplishment, but it has been a major threshold that some believe has been holding the industry back.

"This analysis shows that the industry is making positive strides," said Michael Dale, a Stanford researcher. "Despite its fantastically fast growth rate, photovoltaic is producing – or just about to start producing – a net energy benefit to society."

Huge energy requirements

Part of the problem with making solar practical is the intense energy needed to produce solar panels. For example, silica rock must be melted at about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That's a lot of energy.

But producers continue to find more efficient ways to produce solar cells. The silicon wafers are now thinner and the process uses less highly refined materials.

Passionate debate

Still, the energy source remains a subject of passionate debate, even in forums and comments sections on news stories on the subject. In comments about one recent solar story a poster going by “Bannor” answered critics who doubted solar's value by pointing to what he sees as a distinct advantage.

“In many places, daytime energy costs are MUCH higher, where the afternoon peak demand might drive utility prices up five or 10 times above normal,” he wrote. “This is usually when solar produces best so it very effectively reduces the need for expensive peaker plants, which typically create the most emissions per unit energy.”

And to solar advocates, that remains its enduring appeal. It's the Holy Grail of power sources – clean, natural and there day after day. And even if it never provides a major portion of an area's power needs, if it can cost-effectively provide a portion, that may be enough.

According to the New York Times, some energy producers have taken that approach. They've incorporated solar into the production of traditional energy sources, using it to increase the energy content of natural gas, and boil water to power steam turbines, a task once performed by coal.

More

Dodge recalls Ram 2500 and 3500 trucks

Excessive heat under the engine cover may result in an under hood fire

Chrysler is recalling 6.143 model year 2013 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 trucks manufactured January 7, 2013, through March 6, 2013. The engine cover may trap...

PhotoChrysler is recalling 6.143 model year 2013 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 trucks manufactured January 7, 2013, through March 6, 2013.

The engine cover may trap an excessive amount of heat under the cover, which could result in an under hood fire.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the existing engine cover with one that is a different design, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during May 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N19.

More

Does your child have a coach like Rutgers' Mike Rice?

Verbal and physical abuse doesn't happen just in college sports

By now you’ve probably seen the footage.It shows Coach Mike Rice— Rutgers head basketball coach—shove his players, kick them, yank thei...

PhotoBy now you’ve probably seen the footage.

It shows Coach Mike Rice—Rutgers head basketball coach—shove his players, kick them, yank their jerseys and throw basketballs at their heads at close range.

As a result, Rice was eventually fired and Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti resigned a little after the scandal went national.

Upon viewing the disturbing footage, it was apparent that Rice went way beyond a coach’s normal level of yelling and screaming, but that’s just the beginning.

It was also clear that Rice committed the ultimate betrayal between player and coach, teacher and student and trainer and trainee, by using his power to get the players to buy into a system of abuse and mistreatment.

By using both physical and verbal abuse, Rice wasn’t only able to control his players, but he used that control to make sure the abuse was kept behind gym doors for years, as it wasn’t until recently that Rutgers President Robert Barchi said he saw the actual footage.

Through Barchi’s own admission, he decided to view the tape for the first time after the scandal went national, although he heard of the abuse much earlier.

Why Barchi simply didn’t pop in a DVD of Rice abusing his players when he first learned of the abuse is beyond understanding, many say, as one would assume a claim so serious would warrant at least 15 minutes of Barchi’s time to view the details of what happened.

Makes parents wonder

Perhaps another thing the Rutgers scandal did was it made parents think about their own children and the coaches they deal with, because according to Craig Sigl, expert sports trainer for youth and adult athletes at Mental Toughness Academy, this type of abuse happens with kids of all ages, not just the older ones.

Photo
Craig Sigl

“Parents need to get the lesson that this kind of derogatory behavior happens at all levels of sports and that they need to ask their kids directly if they experience it and take action if they do,” said Sigl in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

“Too many parents put their head in the sand about it thinking, ‘Well, it’s toughening him or her up for the real world.’ "

"I work daily with kids who have experienced this kind of emotional abuse and it affects them tremendously. To be sure, some kids are not affected and handle such coaches just fine, but you can’t know if your kid's one of those or not,” he said.

“Parents often make the logical mistake of thinking that a tough coach or parent worked for them and so it should be good for their kids just the same," Sigl adds. "But kids are not miniature versions of their parents; they are unique individuals with a completely different makeup than anyone else.”

How to tell

But how can parents differentiate between the coach who’s tough and may yell a little and the coach who steps over the line? There’s a clear way to tell, Sigl says.

“Coaches can be aggressive, loud and tough and be very effective without being emotionally abusive,” he explains.

Photo“For example, an abusive coach tears down a player with yelling and screaming. A coach interested in getting more effort and attention from a player could yell or scream or be aggressive with words like these: ‘Jones, I know you are a great player and you are so close to your greatness and I know you want to see that.’ "

Or, ‘There is more hustle in you right now than you are giving. Show the team how bad you want your success.”

In addition, Sigl says coaches should place a focus on hard work and getting their athletes to perform to maximum potential. Letting players know they’ll sit on the bench and be replaced by a harder worker if they’re not trying, is often all the encouragement they need.

Obviously, this brand of toughness in a coach is vastly different from showing aggression just to prove authority.

“It’s totally fine for a coach to be passionate and raise a voice if that’s the style,” says Sigl. "It’s the intention behind yelling and screaming that matters. Coaches will get more out of their athletes by inspiring them than tearing them down.”

Sigl pointed to a quote from the legendary former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden about using yelling as a coaching technique: “I never yelled at my players much,” Wooden was quoted saying. “That would have been artificial stimulation which doesn’t last very long. I think it’s like love and passion. Passion won’t last as long as love. When you are dependent on passion, you need more and more of it to make it work. It’s the same with yelling.”

But sometimes, abuse of players by a coach doesn’t always come in the obvious form of verbal or physical abuse, so both parents and athletes need to be aware of other signs too, says Sigl.

 Like “When a coach shows bias toward the better players with regards to praise and encouragement,” he says.

“A smart coach works to boost up his weakest players. A coach who shows with words or body language approval or disapproval based on performance in the games is a coach who does that even more in practice when the parents aren’t looking.”

Another attribute of a good coach Sigl notes, is one who has the people skills and interest to learn their players' personalities, because by doing so, they’ll know how to reach the entire team and each individual member of the team at the same time.

Flexibility is key

“Athletes have told me consistently that knowledge of the game gains the most respect from them. I would say that flexibility is the most important attribute of a coach,” says Sigl.

“Meaning, one-size-fits-all coaching method on every player ends up wasting talent. Each player is different and responds to different motivation. The best coaches learn about people and continually seek to understand the personalities of the players."

"They know that the athlete isn’t just a sports machine and what happens to them off the court or field affects their play on the field. A great coach supports the player in all areas of performance.”

And for those parents wondering how they can provide tips for their child without interfering with what the coach is teaching, Sigl says to first speak to the coach.

Furthermore, parents should ask their child if they even want to be instructed outside of practice and games, because they may not want to and that’s okay, Sigl writes in a free ebook, “The 10 commandments for a great sports parent.”

“Basically, parents need to ask the child if he or she would like tips on their sport and when they would like them,” Sigl advises. “When giving tips, the parent should just ask the child if this is any different than what the coach teaches and how it’s different.”

“The parent can certainly go to the coach and ask about the methodology," Sigl adds. 

"Then make a decision on whether or not to go forward. There is plenty of coaches teaching methods that don’t work for every athlete and it’s the parent’s right to decide what they want their child to learn.”

“Parents need to be in charge of their child’s upbringing but also need to be self-aware that they don’t have all the answers either. In other words make informed decision about your child’s sports participation and don’t just assume you know best without knowing all of the facts,” Sigl concludes.

More

Judge approves comScore class action

Could be the "largest privacy case ever tried," lawyer predicts

A federal judge has green-lighted a class action lawsuit against comScore, the internet data measuring company that tracks consumers’ web activit...

PhotoA federal judge has green-lighted a class action lawsuit against comScore, the internet data measuring company that tracks consumers’ web activity and then provides analytics and other data to companies.

The suit, filed in 2011, alleges that comScore entices web surfers with screensavers and offers of prizes, then collects sensitive personal information including social security numbers, usernames and passwords, and credit card data.

James Holderman, a U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of Illinois, granted class status to the lawsuit. Under Holderman’s order, the plaintiffs will represent “all individuals who have had, at any time since 2005, downloaded and installed comScore’s tracking software onto their computers via one of comScore’s third party bundling partners.”

The judge also certified a smaller subclass consisting of “all class members not presented with a functional hyperlink to an end-user license agreement before installing comScore’s software onto their computers”.

The action was filed on behalf of Mike Harris of Illinois and Jeff Dunstan of California.

comScore takes aim at law firm

In a statement on its website, comScore cited a Business Insider article that it says “suggests that [plaintiff firm Edelson McGuire’s] modus operandi appears to be to ‘target large and growing companies with deep pockets, find something nitpicky to sue them over’ then garner a ‘settlement from the accused company who is willing to pay just to make the litigation go away.’”

comScore lists several other companies that it says “have been targeted by Edelson,” including “Groupon, Facebook, Zynga, TimeWarner, Yahoo!, Grubhub, RockYou, Match.com, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase.”

Could be, but Jay Edelson, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, told NBC via email that he expects the case “will be the largest privacy case ever to be tried."

The plaintiffs allege violations of several federal statutes, including the Electronic Privacy Communication Act (ECPA), the Stored Communication Act (SCA), and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

 
More

Japanese automakers recall millions of vehicles

Problems with airbag inflators pose an injury hazard

Four Japanese automakers are reportedly recalling more than 3 million vehicles to deal with problems involving airbags. Honda says it's recalling approxim...

PhotoFour Japanese automakers are reportedly recalling more than 3 million vehicles to deal with problems involving airbags.

Honda says it's recalling approximately 426,000 model-year 2001-2003 Civic vehicles, 43,000 CR-V vehicles from the 2002-2003 model years and about 92,000 model-year 2002 Odyssey vehicles in the United States to replace the passenger front airbag inflator.

It's possible that the inflators in the vehicles may deploy with too much pressure, which may cause the inflator casing to rupture and could result in injury. Honda says there has been one crash in which a passenger front airbag deployed with too much pressure, causing the casing to rupture, but the company says it is not aware of any injuries or deaths related to the issue.

The company is encouraging owners of the affected vehicles to take them to an authorized dealer as soon as they receive the recall notification, which will be mailed to customers will begin in late May.

Owners will be able to determine if their vehicles require repair by going to www.recalls.honda.com or by calling (800) 999-1009, and selecting option 4.

Toyota

Toyota is recalling approximately 170,000 front passenger airbag inflators installed in several vehicle models.

The vehicles involved include certain Toyota Corolla, Corolla Matrix, Sequoia, and Tundra, and Lexus SC 430 models manufactured from 2001 – 2003. More precise vehicle information is being developed, but about 510,000 vehicles may have to be inspected to locate the suspect inflators.

Owners will receive an owner notification letter by first class mail. The remedy will involve inspection of the front passenger air bag, and, if it is equipped with an affected inflator, the inflator will be replaced with a newly manufactured one at no charge to the owner.

For more information customers should go to www.toyota.com/recall, or  1 800-331-4331, www.lexus.com/recall or 1 800-255-3987).

Nissan and Mazda

Two other companies -- Nissan and Mazda -- are also recalling models for the same reason but details have not yet been released by the companies.

The New York Times reports Nissan is recalling 480,000 vehicles and that 45,000 Mazdas are involved.

There has been no comment at this point from the latter two automakers.

More

Online privacy advocates make their move

Privacy legislation proposed at both the state and federal levels

If you are worried about online marketers gathering and selling your personal data, so they can more effectively sell you things, you might be pleased to k...

PhotoIf you are worried about online marketers gathering and selling your personal data, so they can more effectively sell you things, you might be pleased to know that there are federal and state efforts underway to rein in the process.

Previous efforts have fallen fall short. Advocates think growing awareness among consumers of privacy issues now strengthens their hand.

In Congress, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, is pushing a measure that would give consumers the power to control their personal information and allow them to block online companies from collecting the data and selling it.

Rockefeller tried the same thing in 2011 but the measure died from a lack of support and effective lobbying by the Internet and advertising industries. He reintroduced it in February, believing there is a growing consumer backlash against data collection efforts.

Do Not Track

Photo
Sen. Jay Rockefeller

Rockefeller's Do Not Track Online Act would provide consumers the ability to opt out of having their online activities tracked by Internet companies. It would be the online equivalent to the Do Not Call list, that has effectively stopped telemarketers from interrupting the dinner hour.

In California, a Democratic Assemblywoman, Bonnie Lowenthal of Long Beach, has introduced a similar privacy measure. It would update California's laws covering the collection of data and privacy issues to include a broader definition of personal data. Her proposed legislation would also make it easier for consumers to prevent Internet companies from collecting personal data.

"Today, our personal data is everywhere – we share it when using mobile phone apps, search engines and websites like Facebook and Twitter,” Lowenthal said. “Companies buy and sell it for profit. As technology advances, so should our consumer protections."

Lowenthal's Right To Know Act would require Internet companies to tell consumers what information they have collected and who they've shared it with.

Under current California law, consumers have the right to ask businesses how they are using their personal information and what data they have collected. But there are limits – consumers may only learn how the information is being used for direct marketing purposes.

What's at stake

Privacy advocates say there is more than a creepy invasion of privacy at stake here. They say some people have lost jobs and been denied mortgages when businesses shared information that turned out to be wrong.

Lowenthal's bill would expand definitions, including sensitive data, location, buying habits and sexual orientation among the information that could not be collected or shared without the consent of the consumer.

PhotoCalifornia is home to a number of large Internet companies and it can be assumed they are viewing this legislative trend with growing alarm. The Wall Street Journal reports an Internet industry coalition, including the trade groups Internet Alliance, TechNet and TechAmerica, are lining up in opposition to Lowenthal's bill.

If California were to adopt tough privacy standards, it's likely Internet companies would have to implement them nationwide. Rockefeller's bill, assuming it is eventually passed into law, would actually implement an even tougher set of requirements, allowing consumers to opt out of data collection in the first place.

If consumers ask not to be tracked, Rockefeller's measure would severely limit what information could be collected. Companies could only gather data necessary for the site to function properly. Then, they would be required to destroy the data once it isn't needed any more.

Industry on defense

Ad Week, a trade publication for the advertising industry, reports marketers are taking nothing for granted, even though they have successfully beaten back consumer privacy attempts over the last two years. The Direct Marketing Association, a trade group that represents some online advertisers, says Online Behavioral Advertising (OBA), which collects anonymous user data, is a benign practice that helps the consumer.

“Imagine that you are online and you visit five different sports websites and then a news website,” the group said in an explanation on its website. “You might see a sports ad on the news site, even though you’re reading about fashion. You’re served that ad because your online behavior suggests you’re interested in sports.”

But these arguments may not sway Rockefeller, who is not running for re-election and doesn't have to worry about stepping on toes on his way to retirement. Whether enough other lawmakers feel the same remains to be seen.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), meanwhile, continues to enforce existing laws governing online data collection. In March the FTC reached a settlement with Compete, Inc., over charges the company failed to adopt reasonable data security practices and deceived consumers about the personal data its toolbar and survey panel collected.

The agency charged Compete with deceptive practices for claiming that the data it kept was anonymous when in reality it was not. Compete has agreed to obtain consumers' consent before collecting any data through its software, to delete personal information already collected, and to provide directions for uninstalling its software – in effect following practices called for in proposed legislation in Washington and Sacramento.

More

Green coffee beans can help control blood sugar and promote weight loss

Scientists say the findings could help in prevention of type 2 diabetes

Coffee does a lot of good things, starting with keeping us awake. But scientists at an American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans say coffee, especia...

PhotoCoffee does a lot of good things, starting with keeping us awake. But scientists at an American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans say coffee, especially unroasted coffee, may also help us prevent type 2 diabetes and even help us lose weight.

That's because coffee contains high leels of chlorogenic acids, a family of substances that occur naturally in apples, cherries, plums, dried plums and other fruits and vegetables. Roasting reduces the effectiveness of the substances but Joe Vinson, Ph.D., said the chlorogenics could be extracted and taken as a supplement.

“A simple natural pill or capsule that would both help control blood sugar and foster weight loss at the same time would be a major advance in the treatment of type 2 diabetes,” Vinson said. “Our own research and studies published by other scientists suggest that such a treatment may, indeed, exist. There is significant epidemiological and other evidence that coffee consumption reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes."

Photo
Joe Vinson

“One large study indicated a 50 percent risk reduction for people who drank seven cups of coffee a day compared to those who drank only two cups a day," he said. "I am trying to make the coffee and diabetes story as clear as possible for the public. The evidence points to chlorogenic acids as the active ingredients in coffee that both prevent diabetes and improve glucose control in normal, pre-diabetic and diabetic people.”

Major health problem

Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes, is an increasing global health problem. In the United States alone, almost 26 million have the disease.

Vinson, who is with the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, pointed out that coffee ― due to its popularity as a beverage ― is a major dietary source of these substances. Large amounts of chlorogenic acids exist in green, or unroasted, coffee beans but the high temperatures used in roasting breaks down much of the chlorogenic acids.

Thus, Vinson's focus has been on using concentrated extracts of green coffee beans, which contain higher amounts of chlorogenic acids.

In a previous study, Vinson found that overweight or obese people who took such an extract lost about 10 percent of their body weight in 22 weeks. A follow-up study involving 56 men and women found the coffee extract "produced a significant reduction in blood sugar relative to the original blank glucose challenge."

Vinson acknowledged funding from Applied Food Sciences, Inc., which markets a green coffee antioxidant product.

More

Leasing a vehicle has some tax advantages

There could be benefits for consumers as well as businesses

Businesses that use vehicles, or provide them for employees, often lease them instead of buying them. There are some tax advantages to doing that and often...

More

Weekly jobless claims fall

The number of applications came in well below economists' forecasts

A surprising drop in the number of people applying for first-time state unemployment benefits last week. The Labor Department reports there were 346,000 ...

PhotoA surprising drop in the number of people applying for first-time state unemployment benefits last week.

The Labor Department reports there were 346,000 initial claims on a seasonally-adjusted basis in the week ending April 6 -- down 42,000 from the previous week's figure of 388,000, which was revised upward by 3,000.

Economists at Briefing.com were calling for a total of 355,000, while the market expectation was 365,000.

Welcome news

Mark Hamrick, the Washington bureau chief at Bankrate.com, calls the news that new claims for unemployment insurance dropped sharply, "welcome, particularly after the worrisome monthly jobs report released last week by the Labor Department." Hamrick says the claims report helps allay fears that the job market is slowing abruptly, but adds, "we need to see more information."

While it's encouraging that layoffs are not accelerating, Hamrick says, "it would be more welcome for jobseekers and others if we see a signal that hiring is picking up more briskly."  

The 4-week moving average, which many economists consider a more accurate gauge of the labor market, rose 3,000 -- to 358,000. At the same time, the previous week's average was revised slightly higher -- to 355,000.

The full report is available at the Labor Department website

More

Home affordability may be in jeopardy

Rising home prices and stagnating wages are not a good combination

Just when you thought you might finally be able to buy that new home, here comes a dose of reality With wages dropping or stagnating, homes have gotten mo...

PhotoJust when you thought you might finally be able to buy that new home, or sell your old one, here comes a dose of reality

With wages dropping or stagnating, homes have gotten more expensive in many areas -- a result of the rebounding real estate market, according to Zillow, an online real estate marketplace.

Before the housing bubble, home buyers spent 2.6 times their median annual income -- on average -- on the purchase price of a typical home. However, through the end of last year, buyers across the country were spending three times their annual incomes. In other words, consumers bought homes that were 14.5% more expensive relative to their incomes than during the pre-bubble period.

Shelling out more

Homeowners in 24 of the 30 largest metros covered by Zillow were paying more for homes in the fourth quarter of 2012 relative to their region's median income than they were from 1985 through 1999. Metros with the largest difference between their pre-bubble and fourth quarter 2012 price-income ratios included San Jose (52.1% more), Los Angeles (48.8% more), Portland, Ore., (45.4% more), San Diego (44.6% more) and Denver (40.8% more).

Of the 30 largest metros covered by Zillow, only Cincinnati (3.1% less), Chicago (3.9% less), Cleveland (6.7% less), Atlanta (13.9% less), Las Vegas (14.6% less) and Detroit (25.5% less) posted price-income ratios in the fourth quarter of 2012 that were less than historic norms.

Rate-dependent

"The days of historically high levels of housing affordability are numbered," said Zillow Chief Economist Stan Humphries. "Current affordability is almost entirely dependent on low interest rates, and there's no doubt that rates will begin to rise in the next few years. This will have an undeniable effect on demand for housing, as home buyers will have to spend more of their incomes to buy a home.

Humphries says home values will have to either remain stagnant while incomes catch up or -- quite possibly -- home values will have to fall in some markets. “This will especially be the case,” he adds, “in some markets that have seen strong home value appreciation.”

More

Bank of America settles Merrill Lynch acquisition suit

Largest class-action settlement from financial crash

Bank of America has settled a long-simmering lawsuit focusing on its 2008 acquisition of Merrill Lynch, closing another chapter in the infamous financi...

PhotoBank of America has settled a long-simmering lawsuit focusing on its 2008 acquisition of Merrill Lynch, closing another chapter in the infamous financial collapse that rocked the nation that year.

According to the suit, when Bank of America announced on September 14, 2008 that it planned to buy Merrill Lynch, it failed to disclose the dire financial situation at Merrill Lynch, which would end up suffering over $27 billion in losses that year. Ultimately, Bank of America -- which had already been awarded $25 billion of bailout money -- requested another $20 billion.

According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Bank of America gave Merrill Lynch permission to pay out bonuses totaling as much as $5.8 billion before Bank of America shareholders voted on whether to acquire the ailing bank.

Dramatic period

The planned sale was announced during one of the most dramatic weekends of the prolonged financial crisis, with banking giant Lehman Brothers declaring bankruptcy the very next day. The acquisition was finalized on January 1, 2009.

Bank of America  April 11, 2013, 2:06 a.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America
According to a Wall Street Journal reportat the time, Bank of America gave up 0.8595 shares of its own stock for every Merrill Lynch common share, representing around $29 for each share.

In an opinion, Judge Kevin Castel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Manhattan said that the settlement was "fair, reasonable and adequate," and followed a case that was "hard fought." The judge's approval formalized the settlement, which was initially proposed by Bank of America in September of last year.

In a statement in September, Bank of America maintained that it was not liable. CEO Brian Moynihan said that the settlement "removes uncertainty and risk and is in the best interests of our shareholders," and on Friday Moynihan said that his company's "primary focus is on the future."

The $2.4 billion agreement holds the distinction of being the largest settlement of a securities class-action growing out of the 2008 financial collapse.

The case is one of several growing out of what the Wall Street Journal in 2009 called the "$50 Billion Deal From Hell." New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pursuing another case focused on the acquisition.

 
More

Formosa Food recalls pork jerky product

The product contains an undeclared allergen -- wheat

Formosa Food Company of Hull, Iowa, is recalling approximately 1,133 pounds of a pork jerky product because of misbranding and an undeclared allergen -- wh...

PhotoFormosa Food Company of Hull, Iowa, is recalling approximately 1,133 pounds of a pork jerky product because of misbranding and an undeclared allergen -- wheat -- which is not declared on the label. There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of this product.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 16-oz. individual packages of “Formosa Brand Pork Szu (Cooked Seasoned Dried Pork Product)”

The product bears the establishment number “EST. 2446” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the label and was produced on various dates through Nov. 29, 2012. There is no expiration date on the product, which was distributed via Internet and direct sales nationwide.

Anyone with questions should contact Plant Supervisor Jennifer Shih at (712) 439-1065.

More

Manda Packing recalls roast beef deli meat

The meat may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Manda Packing Company of Baker, La., is recalling approximately 20,166 pounds of cooked roast beef deli meat due to possible contamination with Listeria mo...

PhotoManda Packing Company of Baker, La., is recalling approximately 20,166 pounds of cooked roast beef deli meat due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes. Consumption of food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, an uncommon but potentially fatal disease.

Various weights of the following products are subject to recall:

  • Manda Supreme Roast Beef
  • Four Star Cajun Roast Beef
  • Four Star Roast Beef
  • Cajun Prize Roast Beef
  • Manda Supreme Natural Roast Beef
  • Manda Natural Roast Beef
  • Manda New Orleans Style Roast Beef
  • Manda Whole Wet Pack Roast Beef

Each package has a “Sell by” date of May 13, 2013, and bears the establishment number “EST. 8746A” inside the USDA mark of inspection. These products may have been sliced at retail delis, and if so will not bear this packaging information. The products were packed on February 27, 2013, and shipped for further distribution and to retail deli stores in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Illinois and Tennessee.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Josh Yarborough, director of quality assurance and food safety, at (225) 344-7636, ext. 55.  

More

Making bathrooms safe for seniors

Just sticking up a grab bar or two doesn't do the trick

Is Your Bathroom Safe or Dangerous for Elders? More than one in three persons over age 65 fall each year. Many falls occur in the safe confines of one&...

More

How to detect malware on your PC

Malware can just be annoying or something very serious

There is growing concern about cyber security, especially among businesses and organizations that maintain vast networks. But consumers have to be aware of...

PhotoThere is growing concern about cyber security, especially among businesses and organizations that maintain vast networks. But consumers have to be aware of any threats to their personal computers and mobile devices. These threats are usually in the form of malware.

Malware is a general term to describe software you did not knowingly install and that disrupts the normal operation of your machine. It can simply be annoying or a serious threat. Your anti-virus software is supposed to detect and deflect these programs but, for a number of reasons, some can slip by.

Here are some signs that your PC might be compromised:

The machine runs at a slower than usual speed. We're not talking about your Internet speed, necessarily, but the speed in which your computer operates software programs and performs tasks.

If you find that your browser is taking you to a different site than the one you selected from your bookmarks, or a search engine gives you odd, unpredictable results, it's a sure sign your computer is infected with malware. After all, the main purpose of malware is to give someone else control over your machine.

Use care in downloading fixes

There are a number of free programs that will scan your system in search of malware, but be very careful, checking out any program before you download it. Michael, of Plano, Tex., downloaded MyCleanPC, which is advertised on TV, and now wishes he had not.

“Almost immediately I began noticing an unbelievable number of advertisements of all kinds on my laptop, making my laptop run even slower,” Michael wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I have so far uninstalled all traces of MyCleanPC from my laptop, and the effect is spectacular. No more silly and annoying ads and my laptop is a bit faster.”

Malware is sometimes enabled by a rootkit, which is a type of software that can disguise what your computer is doing. Sometimes, it can even fool your anti-virus software. Once an attacker gains access to a compromised computer, it can perform just about any tasks you can, including changing settings.

Some may recall the 2005 scandal involving Sony BMG Music, which was accused of secretly including a rootkit in music player software that came with music CDs. The rootkit was designed to protect the copyright by limiting the consumers' access to the CD but it also amounted to a major security breach.

A nasty threat

While a rootkit is very hard to detect, it may be even harder to remove. In some cases it requires the replacement of hardware. Fortunately, rootkits are not as common as run-of-the-mill malware. In most cases, malware is used to direct your attention from what you are looking for and toward something that the attacker wants to sell.

To do this malware often attacks and changes your DNS server settings. Internet addresses are not words, like ConsumerAffairs.com, but a series of numbers, punctuated by periods. DNS servers provide the translation from the name you typed into your browser's address line to the numbers, which identify the site's real address.

Hackers have learned that if they can control a user’s DNS servers, they can control what sites the user connects to on the Internet. A malware called DNSChanger performs that task. By using malware to change the user’s DNS server settings, the criminal can force the user to go to a different site than the one the user actually wants.

Last July the FBI found and disabled a number of rogue DNS servers operated by malware hackers. As a result, the consumers whose machines were infected with DNSChanger found their machines would no longer connect to the Internet.

What to do

If you suspect your machine is infected with malware, you could troubleshoot the problem yourself, but you are probably better off seeking professional help. Seek an independent computer repair shop that has a good reputation. That will usually yield better results that using repair services operated by big box retailers.

Once your machine is cleaned and repaired, make sure you keep your anti-virus software and computer operating system updated. It's probably not a bad idea to take your computer to a repair shop for a diagnostic tune-up once a year anyway, just as you would get regular service for your car.

All this assumes you are running Windows. If you are using an Apple machine or a Chromebook or running Linux on your computer, you're most likely home free. 

More

Texas veterinarian sues state board that suspended him for helping pet owners

The state suspended Ron Hines for giving advice to pet owners on his web site

The Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners unconstitutionally suspended a 69-year-old veterinarian for giving free advice on the Internet, the longtim...

PhotoDoctors, lawyers, accountants, financial advisors and every other kind of expert imaginable routinely appear on television, write guest columns for newspapers, pen magazine articles and even run their own websites.

Their goal? Well, maybe it's partly to garner new patients and clients but it's also part of the pro bono public service that professionals are expected to provide. For decades, it has been accepted practice for such professionals to offer general consumer advice through media outlets, always noting that their advice is just that -- general information, not a replacement for a visit to one's own doctor, lawyer, etc.

Veterinarians and their professional associations don't seem to subscribe to this notion, however. Trying to get any kind of expert opinion from veterinarians' professional associations or from individual practitioners, other than academicians, is very difficult. Vets complain bitterly among themselves about news stories and social media content and send amazingly vile and obscene emails to reporters but seem to feel no obligation to lift a finger to inform public opinion.

Pig-headed

ConsumerAffairs' queries to professional and trade veterinary associations, for example, often go unanswered. Ignoring press calls is something that is practically unheard of in the association world.

It is, to borrow a phrase, a pig-headed approach. One vet who does not buy into it is Ronald V. Hines, a 69-year-old Texan whose website is frequently cited in news reports, including a recent ConsumerAffairs story on diabetes in dogs. 

PhotoThis one-vet attempt at consumer education rubs the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners the wrong way. The board's rules prohibit a veterinarian from giving advice unless he or she has first physically examined the animal and the board suspended Hines' license as a result of his giving advice to pet owners via the Internet. Now Hines has sued the board in federal court, alleging the board's action infringes his First Amendment rights.

"It should not be illegal for veterinarians to give veterinary advice," Hines says in the complaint, Courthouse News Service reported. His suit charges that for many pet owners, the advice he dispenses is their only realistic option and notes there has not been "even an allegation that his advice has harmed any animal."

Hines has been running his non-commercial website -- www.2ndchance.info -- since 2002. It includes hundreds of articles, covering just about every dog and cat health problem imaginable. 

In an article on hip dysplasia in dogs, for example, Hines explains what hip dysplasia is, how it develops, what treatments are available and what dog owners can do to try to prevent it. Although it is very detailed, the article also recommends repeatedly that dog owners consult their veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.

Advice for a fee

What particularly irks the veterinary board, apparently, is a service Hines added to his site to try to help individual pet owners. Like anyone who writes about pet health or any consumer topic, Hines found himself flooded with emails seeking advice, so he began offering individual advice for a $58 fee, although Hines said he waives the fee for pet owners who can't pay.

Besides helping the pet owners, Hines said the feedback from readers helps him improve and update his general articles and the income helps pay the costs of keeping the site up and running. He said he made $ $2,797.24 in 2011.

In his lawsuit, Hines said he immediately stopped giving advice when the state board challenged him. 

 "Dr. Hines was astonished to learn that he had been breaking the law by helping hundreds of pet owners across the country and around the world through his website," the complaint states. "Dr. Hines immediately stopped providing veterinary advice via electronic means because he feared punishment."

Hines estimated that only five percent of the pet owners with whom he has communicated are residents of Texas. The rest are from other states and countries.

Hines says the Texas law is unfair to sick animals and their desperate owners, especially those who live in countries where competent veterinary care is not easy to come by.

"For example, if a pet owner in Africa asks Dr. Hines for advice via the Internet because there is no ability to obtain qualified veterinary advice locally, the Texas Veterinary Licensing Act requires that pet owner and that pet to go entirely without veterinary care rather than be able to consult Dr. Hines."

The complaint notes that Hines is not the only public-spirited veterinarian: the Fox television station in Austin, where the state board is located, has a regular segment featuring a Texas-licensed vet answering questions from viewers.

More

Four million consumers getting checks in latest foreclosure settlement

The foreclosure issue hasn't gone away, and neither have the settlements

Since the foreclosure crisis peaked there have been several settlements between mortgage servicers and borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure. The o...

PhotoSince the foreclosure crisis peaked there have been several settlements between mortgage servicers and borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure. The one getting the most attention was the 2012 settlement involving 49 states and the U.S. government for $25 billion.

Payments begin this month to borrowers involved in another, smaller settlement with 13 mortgage servicers. But even though the settlement amount is $3.6 billion as opposed to $25 billion, the 4.2 million borrowers may stand to get a much larger check than those in the previous settlement.

In the $25 billion settlement with five loan servicers over illegal “robo-signing” of foreclosure documents, borrowers received only $1.5 billion of the $25 billion settlement. Most of the rest went to federal and state governments.

Larger payments

In this latest settlement, between the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Reserve and 13 loan servicers, payments are likely to be more generous. While some borrowers will get as little as $300 from the settlement, others will get as much as $125,000.

The agreement affects borrowers whose homes were in any stage of foreclosure in 2009 or 2010 and whose mortgages were serviced by Aurora, Bank of America, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, MetLife Bank, Morgan Stanley, PNC, Sovereign, SunTrust, US Bank, and Wells Fargo.

In the initial part of the settlement, payments will not be made to borrowers who were served by Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Those payments will be announced later.

'Deficient practices'

The 13 mortgage servicers had been cited for “deficient practices in mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure processing.” The settlement resolves enforcement action brought by the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve.

George, of Friendswood, Tex., could be among those receiving a check.

“Chase wrongfully foreclosed on me after I won free and clear title in a lawsuit and they tied up my title,” he wrote at ConsumerAffairs. “Chase recorded the alleged foreclosure sale while a restraining order was in place preventing them from doing so. Chase attorneys have argued that they don't have to provide payoff information if they choose not to do so. Chase attorneys have also argued that they do not have any responsibility to deal in good faith.”

Carlton, of Rochester, N.H., found himself in a foreclosure battle with US Bank when he and his wife tried to modify their loan.

“We sent certified copies of what they asked for,” he wrote. “They received and signed for it then we were told we never sent it even though we had copies of signatures. We kept getting bounced around from one operator to the next, had to re-tell our story, called liars and so on. Even though we were trying to get modification we were told that we were going into foreclosure. We also found out the the gentleman my wife was speaking with about the modification had his name forged on documents they sent us.”

In a bit of irony, Melissa, of Keller, Tex., says she used to work in Bank of America's mortgage department.

“I was always shocked to be processing loans that were in the foreclosure process for years,” Melissa wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I left Bank of America and two months later my husband was laid off. I tried to get a modification and was told I had too much debt for Bank of America to help me.”

Check's in the mail

If Melissa, Carlton and George are eligible for a payment under the settlement, they and others like them will receive a check from RUST, the settlement agent. According to the Comptroller of the Currency, accepting a settlement check does not prevent any borrower from taking independent legal action against a loan servicer.

What to do

If you are scheduled to receive a payment, you do not have to take any action. If you have questions, you can contact RUST at 1-888-952-9105, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. - 10 p.m. ET or Saturday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. ET.  

More

Researchers use genetically engineered lab rats in Alzheimer’s studies

The rodents serve as models in researching the cause of the disease

Rats engineered to have the mutant genes that are known to play a role in the rare, early-onset form of Alzheimer’s are being used to determine the cause o...

PhotoRats engineered to have the mutant genes that are known to play a role in the rare, early-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease are being used in the effort to determine the cause of the disabling disease.

A study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, says rodents that have the full array of brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease supports the idea that increases in a molecule called beta-amyloid in the brain causes the disease.

“We believe the rats will be an excellent, stringent pre-clinical model for testing experimental Alzheimer’s disease therapeutics,” said Terrence Town, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and a professor in the Department of Physiology & Biophysics in the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles.

An age-related brain disorder that gradually destroys a person’s memory, thinking, and the ability to carry out even the simplest tasks, Alzheimer's affects at least 5.1 million Americans and is the most common form of dementia in the United States.

A new breed

Researchers often use rodents to study diseases. However, previous studies on transgenic mice and rats that have the gene mutations only partially reproduce the problems caused by Alzheimer’s. The animals have memory problems and many plaques but none of the other hallmarks, especially neurofibrillary tangles and neuron loss.

To address this issue, Dr. Town and his colleagues decided to work with a certain strain of rats.“We focused on Fischer 344 rats,” he said, “because their brains develop many of the age-related features seen in humans.”

“This new rat model more closely represents the brain changes that take place in humans with Alzheimer’s, including tau pathology and extensive neuronal cell death,” said Roderick Corriveau, Ph.D., a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The model, he said, “will help advance our understanding of the various disease pathways involved in Alzheimer’s onset and progression and assist us in testing promising interventions.”

More

Feds move to shut down Mo’ Money Taxes

The firm allegedly prepares phony tax returns

If the Justice Department gets its way, Mo’ Money Taxes, a Memphis, Tenn., based tax-preparation chain, will soon be out of business. The government has ...

PhotoIf the Justice Department gets its way, Mo’ Money Taxes, a Memphis-based tax-preparation chain, will soon be out of business.

The government has filed a civil injunction lawsuit seeking to shut down the company, which at one time operated as many as 300 offices in 18 states. The company and its owners -- Markey Granberry and Derrick Robinson, and store manager Eumora Reese -- are accused of creating and maintaining a business environment that encourages the preparation of fraudulent federal income tax returns.

Fraudulent tax prep

According to the suit, Mo’ Money Taxes’ managers, licensees and employees prepare fraudulent returns that cause their customers to incorrectly report their federal tax liabilities and underpay their taxes and charge customers bogus and unconscionably high fees.

The complaint contends the defendants encourage Mo’ Money preparers to:

  • Falsely claim the earned-income credit;
  • Claim improper filing status;
  • Claim bogus education credits;
  • Improperly prepare returns using paystubs rather than employer-issued W-2 forms;
  • Fabricate bogus W-2 forms;
  • File tax returns without customers’ consent;
  • Sell false and deceptive loan products; and
  • Charge deceptive and unconscionable fees.

“The nation’s tax system relies on the integrity of tax preparers,” said Kathryn Keneally, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Tax Division. “Most tax preparers are honest. We owe it to them and to all American taxpayers to use appropriate law enforcement tools to stop those who prepare fraudulent tax returns or who lure customers with deceptive loan products.”

The United States previously obtained a permanent injunction against Toney Fields and Trumekia Shaw, who operated a Mo’ Money Taxes location in Nashville.   

More

Federal judge shuts down Chung's, an Asian food producer

Company produced food under unsanitary conditions, feds alleged

A U.S. District Court judge has ordered Chung's Products to close down. The compay, which sells packaged Asian food products in all 50 states, was accused...

PhotoA U.S. District Court judge has ordered Chung's Products to close down. The compay, which sells packaged Asian food products in all 50 states, was accused of producing food under unsanitary conditions.

The company's plants will remain closed until they meet a number of requirements imposed by the Food and Drug Administration, including developing a seafood hazard analysis plan, training employees on proper sanitation, and repaying the FDA for multiple investigations at the company’s Houston facility between 2005 and 2009.

The company's products, including egg rolls, spring rolls and pot stickers, are sold at a variety of retailers, including Walmart, Target and Kroger.

Although there have been reports of illnesses associated with the products, the FDA has had concerns about the company's safety practices since 2007, when it issued a warning letter to Chung's about coniditions found during routine inspections.

More

You met him on the Internet? Check your bank account

That online romance tease may be a con job

Looking for love in all the right places? The Internet may not be one of them. That guy or gal who professes to be your soul mate or the love of your live...

PhotoLooking for love in all the right places? The Internet may not be one of them.

That guy or gal who professes to be your soul mate or the love of your life may, according to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, be a con artist on the make for cash.

One popular scam involves supposed romantically minded members of the U.S. military. In one recent case, a Hillsboro, Ore., woman lost more than $750,000 to someone she thought was a lonely soldier.

And the G.I. con job is just one of many scams out there. Over the years ConsumerAffairs has received a large number of reports from dating site users who became emotionally involved with someone online, only to find out they were being scammed.

David, of Loveland, Colo., said he fell for a romance scam when he thought he was helping a young Russian woman stranded in a foreign country.

"Since then I have been approached on every dating site I have joined by supposed women who are stranded in Nigeria or Ghana," David wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "When the dating sites are notified they are scammers they do nothing about it."

What to do

Rosenblum advises consumers to be skeptical of any Internet claim. The web's anonymity means that you cannot be sure of the real name, age, marital status, nationality or even gender of your new “paramour.”

Many times these con artists are in foreign countries using untraceable email addresses. Once a connection is made, they begin asking for money for any number of things ranging from medical bills to the cost of a wedding.

Accounts are routed through numerous locations utilizing pay-per-hour Internet cyber cafes, which makes finding the crook and getting money back difficult, if not impossible.

Safety tips

Here are a few tips to help you stay safe:

  • Do not wire money to someone you have not met in person. Be wary of warp-speed proclamations of love, particularly if they are accompanied by pleas for cash.
  • Be suspicious if you never get to actually speak with the person on the phone or are told they will not receive letters in the mail. Legitimate servicemen and women serving overseas will often have an APO or FPO in their mailing address.
  • Do not send money or ship property to a third party or company, especially to parties or companies in an African country.
  • If you think you have been scammed by an individual claiming to be a member of the U.S. military, contact your local law enforcement agency or the FBI.
More

Chrysler 300s, Dodge Challengers and Dodge Chargers recalled

Seat side-airbags may malfunction

Chrysler is recalling as many as 119,497 model year 2011-2012 Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger vehicles manufactured April 11, 2011, throug...

PhotoChrysler is recalling as many as 119,497 model year 2011-2012 Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger vehicles manufactured April 11, 2011, through December 14, 2011.

The vehicles may have improperly sized terminal crimps on the seat side-airbag wiring harness which may cause the seat side-airbags to malfunction and illuminate the airbag warning light. In the event of a crash necessitating airbag deployment the airbags may not operate as designed, increasing the risk of injury.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace both driver and passenger seat airbag wiring harnesses, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during April 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N07.

More

Jeep Patriots and Compasses recalled

A fuel transfer issue could cause the vehicle to stall

Chrysler is recalling about 20,532 model year 2012 Jeep Patriot and Compass vehicles manufactured October 18, 2011, through May 7, 2012. Due to an incor...

PhotoChrysler is recalling about 20,532 model year 2012 Jeep Patriot and Compass vehicles manufactured October 18, 2011, through May 7, 2012.

Due to an incorrectly manufactured transfer tube, the transfer of fuel from the secondary side to the primary side of the fuel tank may be interrupted, causing the engine to stall. If the engine stalls while the vehicle is being driven, the risk of a crash may be increased.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel tank transfer tube free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during May 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N17.

More

Dodge Nitro and Jeep Liberty vehicles recalled

A potential drive shaft problem increases the risk of a crash

Chrysler is recalling about 61,400 model year 2007-2008 Dodge Nitro 4X2 vehicles manufactured March 21, 2006, through March 1, 2008; and 2008 Jeep Liberty...

PhotoChrysler is recalling about 61,400 model year 2007-2008 Dodge Nitro 4X2 vehicles manufactured March 21, 2006, through March 1, 2008; and 2008 Jeep Liberty 4X2 vehicles manufactured February 15, 2007, through March 1, 2008.

The transfer case heat shield may drop down and rub on the drive shaft, weakening it and potentially causing the drive shaft to break. That could cause a section of it to strike the transfer case tunnel with enough force that the airbag computer will believe the vehicle is in a crash and thus deploy the airbags. Additionally, the drive shaft failure will result in a loss of motive power. Either condition may increase the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will add a bracket to support the rear of the heat shield, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during May 2013.

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

More

Booking a hotel room: do it yourself or use a travel site?

Sometimes help from a third party can get you a better deal and help resolve disputes

Things change quickly, including the common wisdom. Sometimes things just go in a circle. Example: For a long time, the common wisdom was that you could ge...

PhotoThings change quickly, including the common wisdom. Sometimes things just go in a circle. Example: For a long time, the common wisdom was that you could get a better deal on hotel rooms by booking online through sites like Hotels.com, Priceline and Expedia.

Lately, the common wisdom seems to be shifting, as consumers run into problems with the online sites. Many consumer advisors lately seem to be recommending that customers book directly with the hotel. Our own Mark Huffman, in a recent story, recommended that consumers who want to avoid unexpected hassles book directly with the hotel.

Well, could be, but Bob Diener, co-founder of Hotels.com and co-founder and CEO of Getaroom.com begs to differ. Diener, a travel industry veteran, says he will compare the results his clients get with any other source, especially dealing directly with the hotel.

"When consumers deal directly, they're dealing with just one hotel or one hotel group," Diener said in a ConsumerAffairs interview. "It's a lot of work to shop hotels directly. For consumers who aren't brand-specific, they're better off with us because they can shop a wide variety of hotels."

 

After selling Hotels.com, Diener co-founded Getaroom.com as a niche site offering high-value deals and superior customer service and support, he said. Besides offering discounted rates -- generally 10%-20% below the hotel's public  rates -- on its website, Getaroom invites customers to call to see if there is a rate even lower than the one published on the site. Discounts on such unpublished rates can be as much as 65%, he said.

The site also offers "flash sales" -- super-low fares that are offered for a short period of time. The customer can pick any reservation date but must make the reservation before the flash sale expires, generally within 12 to 24 hours. A clock on the site shows how much time is left.

We haven't had a chance to conduct an acid test by making an actual booking through the site but we did compare rates at the Luxor Las Vegas, using Getaroom.com and the hotel's website.  

Photo

The Luxor's site offers a $110 fare for a basic "Pyramid" room for a two-night stay  April 22-24.  You don't have to be a dead Pharaoh to get in. Anyone can stay there.

Photo

Getaroom.com's price is $54.99. We found Expedia, Hotels.com and Orbitz with $55 rates but a call to Getaroom.com got us an unpublished rate of $51.10, a savings of nearly $4, which translates to about 30 seconds at the dollar slots. When we called Getaroom, our call was answered in about 10 seconds by Jacques, who was helpful and polite. 

By the way, there is an $18 per night "resort fee," which is charged by the hotel and is fully disclosed on the Getaroom site. 

Disruptions and disputes

The beef many consumers have with online hotel reservations is that prepaid reservations are often non-refundable, so if last-minute disruptions occur, they're out of luck.  This, however, is at the option of the hotel and should be disclosed on online sites when the reservation is made, although consumers may not read the disclosure.

When we checked out the Luxor on the Getaroom site, we found a "Cancellation Policy" link on the reservation form, clicked it and found this:

Your credit card is charged in full at the time you book a reservation.

Each room in this reservation is subject to the hotel's cancellation policy which is: Cancellations before 04/20/2013, 10:00 AM (America/Los Angeles) are fully refundable. Bookings cancelled after 04/20/2013, 10:00 AM (America/Los Angeles) are subject to a fee of 1 night's room and tax. There is no refund for no-shows or early checkouts.

That's pretty clear. There are, of course, instances when a refund certainly seems in order.

Hotels.com April 9, 2013, 6:01 p.m.
Consumers rate Hotels.com

"We made a reservation through Hotels.com at Budget Inn of Hayward. We showed up at the hotel [and] the manager told us that the hotel is sold out," said Ravi of California. "We called Hotels.com to refund our money and they refused! So we did not get the hotel room, suffered the inconvienience of searching for a new hotel room in an unknown city and also had to pay for the room as well."

Diener says this would not happen with his company. 

"We have much stronger call center capability than our competitors and, for that matter, than most hotel groups," Diener said. "We approach the business as consumer advocates. We will intermediate to resolve issues, and we have more clout with the hotels because we book thousands of room nights."

"Lots of consumers still want to be able to pick up the phone. So it's a hybrid between call center and web. Just the web with no support is not a great consumer experience," Diener said.

Honest reviews

Another frequent beef from consumers who use booking sites is that the hotel that's described glowingly on the site and in accompanying reviews turns out to be a roach motel. 

Photo
Bob Diener

That's what happened to Ashley of Chesapeake, Va., when she headed over to Virginia Beach for a beach break at the Travelodge.

"Both rooms I was offered were filthy, food was on the floor and couch, trash in the corners and behind the couch, deadbolt was broken, several other issues. I asked the manager for a refund because the second room was even worse than the first and he told me no. I left," Ashley said. "I then called hotels.com and they told me there was nothing they could do. I left a review of the hotel on Hotels.com and I just received an email saying that they wouldn't take my review. Why?"

To avoid this perceived conflict of interest, Diener's site publishes reviews from TripAdvisor.com, an independent third party.

What to do

What's a traveler to do? Unless you're a veteran road warrior with 1 million nights in Marriott's Frequent Guest program or something similar, chances are you can get a better rate by booking through nearly any of the major online sites. But, just as with everything else, you have to be careful and be sure you understand the terms.

Pay upfront. The price you pay for getting the discounted rate is that you are charged for the room when you make the reservation, not when you check in. There may be additional fees, which by law must be disclosed in advance.

Cancellations. Again, by law, the cancellation policy must be disclosed in advance. If you don't see it, look around. It's essential that you read and understand it. 

Check multiple sources. It pays to shop around. Check a couple of sites to see what the going rate is, so you'll have a better idea of how much you can realistically shave off that. Also, check a couple of review sites to see if the hotel gets a black eye from recent guests.

Be realistic.  Everything's expensive. You've not going to get a five-star hotel room in Midtown Manhattan for $55. Whippany, N.J. is another story though. We found the America's Best Value Inn for $59.99 on Getaroom.com, and that's without calling to check for an unpublished rate. It doesn't get great reviews but it's close to I-287 which will get you into New York City or to Newark Liberty Airport if you're careful.

Have a nice trip.   

More

The creators of Shazam add a TV component

Is it possible Shazam will be the way we search for everything in the future?

If you’ve been using the artist and music app Shazam that allows you to identify a certain a song that’s playing and who the artist is, you mig...

PhotoIf you’ve been using the artist and music app Shazam that allows you to identify a certain a song that’s playing and who the artist is, you might find its new TV feature appealing.

Let’s say you’re watching the HBO comedy series "Girls" and you want to know exactly what Marnie—one of the main characters—is wearing.

Or let’s say you’re viewing the “Today Show” and you’re dying to know the designer behind Matt Lauer’s suit. You can use Shazam and it will tell you who the designer is and other important information that will help you locate the suit and buy it.

The creators of Shazam say the new feature will work in the same way the music component does, by allowing you to “tag” a TV show so you can get information on what that product is and how to get it.

A little ways back, the creators of Shazam added the TV feature after a countless number of users were using the app to learn which songs they were hearing, no matter how old or obscure the songs were, and once that new feature was added, users of the app could tag a program and receive fan information like how to get merchandise and other details of a show a fan may want.

Media engagement

Andrew Fisher, CEO of Shazam, said the company is calling this added TV feature “media engagement,” and he expects it to make some pretty big waves in the market.

“We have the ability to identify the product in a TV show, so that when somebody Shazams it, they could find out where a presenter’s dress is from in one click,” said Fisher in an interview with The Guardian. “We are focused on creating a new category, which we call media engagement.”

“We make it easier for consumers to engage with a brand of a piece of content they are interested in, without having to go through search engines, then mining the results," he said. "That works with both TV programming and advertising: a 30-second slot can be turned into a three-minute brand engagement and more.”

Photo

The way the music and TV features of the app work, is by the company creating an extremely large database of content, so when users tag something, it takes that particular snippet of what's being tagged and matches it to the content in the database.

In addition, Fisher says that getting background information on TV programs through Shazam is much better than simply hitting the info button on your cable remote, because doing it that way makes everyone watching the show with you have to view the background information too.

More control

Shazam allows each individual viewer to have more control over researching a particular program while it's playing.

“With Shazam, individuals can access a cast list, details of the soundtrack, read tweets from the actors, check out the script, buy onscreen product and a whole lot more on their individual mobile devices without disrupting anyone else’s viewing,” explained Fisher.

With the music component of Shazam already being used by people all over the world and the TV feature just starting to make a splash among users, Shazam could be the new way we search for most things in the future.

Of course now, one needs to use a search engine like Google to research something and after typing or speaking what you want to search, information pops up, which is fast, but still takes a little time.

But imagine a service like Shazam where all you had to do was allow your phone to touch something or tag it, and afterwards, you’d immediately know everything you wanted to know about the item you searched.

It’s clear to see Shazam’s creators have grasped the fact that many consumers are all about obtaining background information to the things they’re interested in these days, and it’s just not good enough to watch, listen or buy something without doing a fair share of investigating first.

So in the future, Shazam being used to tell a person what type of car that’s driving down the road may be possible or tagging what a person is eating or wearing in person could be possible too.

And Shazam isn’t only benefitting consumers, says Fisher, because companies are taking advantage of the app too, which makes sense, because if you’re a brand that wants to capture a particular audience, why not work with one of the hottest apps on the market to reach them.

“Global brand advertising is worth about $1 trillion, so anyone who can tap into that is going to be richly rewarded, said Fisher. “We want Shazam to be that company. There are 5 billion mobile phones in the world, so we are only at 5% of the market opportunity: that’s a lot of growth and development potential.” 

More

Analysis: J.C. Penney finally cuts its losses

The brand had low customer engagement to start with now it's even worse

Robert PassikoffIn 2000 the average tenure of a CEO was 10 years. In 2008 it was down to 8 ½, signaling a slightly higher degree of corporate an...

Photo
Robert Passikoff

In 2000 the average tenure of a CEO was 10 years. In 2008 it was down to 8 ½, signaling a slightly higher degree of corporate and brand accountability by boards and shareholders. Bet you Ron Johnson, the now former CEO of JCPenney wishes the retailer had a Time Machine Department about now. He only lasted 17 months.

We can'’t imagine that anyone is surprised. The results of his efforts were dismal. Grim. jcp (Mr. Johnson “modernized” the name and logo) lost $552 million in the 4th Quarter, nearly a billion dollars for the year, and sales fell nearly 29% versus a year ago. Oh, and JCPenney shares lost half their value during Mr. Johnson’s tenure. So really, really grim.

Mr. Johnson got rid of sales, instituted low-price guarantees, got rid of brands, got rid of “fake prices,” negotiated for new brands, brought back sales and coupons, planned to redesign stores, and then brought back “fake prices.” None of which worked. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, who apparently knew as much about department store retailing as Mr. Johnson, “if the customers don'’t want to come to the store, you can'’t stop ‘em.” 

A tough business

Nobody would deny that retailing has gotten tougher in the past few years, but equally so, brands have learned that if they can create some degree of emotional engagement (in addition to the rational stuff like Merchandise Range, Fair Pricing Strategies, and Customer Service), they are bound to see positive behavior toward the brand. And yes, it'’s gotten harder for retailers to provide meaningful and engaging differentiation as regards their brands.

But equally so, it'’s axiomatic that if customers behave more positively towards you, you ought to see positive results to your bottom line. But to do that you need to have something that customers can engage with. We won’t go into all the reasons consumers engage with Apple. That would be preaching to the choir. Mr. Johnson apparently thought JCPenney and Apple were on equal planes when it came to emotional engagement, and boy, was he wrong!


Customer engagement

According to our 2013 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, when it came to Department Stores, overall engagement levels (versus a category Ideal, calculated to be 100%) were pretty close:

Kohl’s: 84%
Macy’s: 82%
Marshall’s: 81%
T.J. Maxx: 80%
Dillard’s/Sears: 79%

But not for JCPenney. Their engagement rating – according to their own customers – was 70%, which is low in any category, but very low in Department Store Retailing.

Anyway, JCPenny announced that Myron Ullman, who had been CEO until Mr. Johnson was brought in will be coming back. In a seven year period when Mr. Ullman was in charge shares were down 15%, so about 2% a year, which is a lot better than 50%. 

Talk about cutting your losses!
---
Robert Passikoff is President of Brand Keys, a research consultancy.

More

J.C. Penney ousts CEO, brings back his predecessor

New strategy successfully chased away old customers but didn't attract new ones

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. J.C. Penney was a respected brand with millions of loyal customers but, like every company, it was hoping to ...

PhotoWell, it seemed like a good idea at the time. J.C. Penney was a respected brand with millions of loyal customers but, like every company, it was hoping to find a way to jazz up its image and grow a little bit.

So it looked to one of the world's most successful companies -- Apple -- and poached Ron Johnson, who had built Apple's successful chain of retail stores.

Johnson promptly embarked on a drive to rid Penney of its old customers by getting rid of the sales and coupons they had come to expect. He also jettisoned many of the brands and lines of merchandise Penney's customers were accustomed to. Instead he imposed a new pricing strategy no one quite understood and introduced hip new lines of merchandise.

Partly successful

The strategy was at least partly successful. The old customers went away. Angrily. But the new, hip consumers? Judging from the empty stores, they failed to get the message.

"Today I went to the Mall, straight to Penney's. It's been a while since I've been there. I usuallly buy bagfuls of clothes there. First the store was bare. I'm 58 yrs old and all I see is Junior stuff," said Bonnie of Chesapeake, Va., a few days ago, in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "There is no more Worthington, no more St Johns Bay, and the aisles have mannequins with tiny dresses on.

"All I can say is I will never return. The clothes look small, ugly and cheap. What a shame. I'm so sorry the old J.C. Penney's is gone," Bonnie said.

And so, after a stunning quarterly loss of half a billion dollars, the J.C. Penney board undertook a review of its new CEO's innovative policies, and did not like what it saw.

After 17 months of declining sales and punishing losses, the board ousted Johnson and brought back his predecessor, Myron Ullman.

So everything will be fine now? Don't count on it. A lot of damage has been done and hundreds of millions of dollars thrown away. Whether Ullman or anyone else can get J.C. Penney back on its feet is anyone's guess.

Too little, too late

J.C. Penney April 9, 2013, 1:38 a.m.
Consumers rate J.C. Penney

To his credit, Johnson recognized that his strategy was not taking hold but by then it was too late. "It was clear that withdrawing from our promotional model to a more everyday model has been harder than we anticipated," he admitted a few weeks ago.

Johnson embarked on a desperate attempt to turn things around by laying plans to revert to the old pricing policy, a move that brought harsh condemnation from marketing gurus, including branding consultant Robert Passikoff. Writing recently for ConsumerAffairs, Passikoff  put it this way:

"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."

For this part, Ullman said he had not yet worked out what his recovery strategy would be. ""I wouldn't recommend that we go back to the way J.C. Penney was when I left. Things change," he said, according to the Wall Street Journal. But, he added, "There's no reason to try and alienate customers who want to try and shop at J.C. Penney."

 

More

Never mind a string around your finger; try rosemary to improve your memory

A chemical in the fragrant perennial herb can help you remember things

Say the word “rosemary.” What does it bring to mind -- the girl that got away, a fragrant food seasoning, a Simon and Garfunkel song? The whole point is --...

PhotoSay the word “rosemary.” What does it bring to mind -- the girl that got away, a fragrant food seasoning, a Simon and Garfunkel song? The whole point is -- bringing something to mind.

A new study finds that essential oil of rosemary has an effect on the ability of healthy adults to remember things in the past and even to do things in the future, like taking medication at the right time.

In addition the study, being presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conference, found the improvement in memory had nothing to do with the participants' mood. That suggests a chemical influence was responsible. The researchers think this could improve the everyday lives of people with age-related memory loss.

Lengthy track record

The ties between rosemary and memory and fidelity are well documented. Ancient Egyptians used it in weddings and funeral rituals. Shakespeare knew, too. In "Hamlet," Ophelia points out that rosemary is for “remembrance: pray you, love, remember."

Other studies had already suggested that compounds in rosemary aroma could improve long-term memory and mental arithmetic, by inhibiting enzymes which block normal brain functioning.

"We wanted to build on our previous research that indicated rosemary aroma improved long-term memory and mental arithmetic,” said Dr. Mark Moss, who led the study. "We focused on prospective memory, which involves the ability to remember events that will occur in the future and to remember to complete tasks at particular times [which] is critical for everyday functioning."

Conducting the study

The researchers divided the 66 participants into two groups and asked them to wait in different rooms -- one of which had been scented with rosemary essential oil.

The volunteers then completed a series of memory tests -- such things as hiding objects and finding them again later, or passing a specified object to a researcher at a time which had been specified earlier.

Those assigned to the rosemary-scented room performed better at both types of test. They were also found to have higher levels of 1,8-cineole, a compound found in rosemary oil, in their blood. The compound has previously been shown to influence chemical systems in the body which have an impact on memory.

"These findings may have implications for treating individuals with memory impairments,” said Jemma McCready, a research intern who carried out the study."Remembering when and where to go and for what reasons underpins everything we do, and we all suffer minor failings that can be frustrating and sometimes dangerous. Further research is needed to investigate if this treatment is useful for older adults who have experienced memory decline.”

More

Birth control for house flies

Researchers have found a virus that keeps the pests from reproducing

Is there anything nastier than the common house fly. Not really, when you think about where they hang out. And, while it's nice that warmer weather is arr...

PhotoIs there anything nastier than the common house fly? Not really, when you think about where they hang out.

And, while it's nice that warmer weather is arriving (at least it some parts of the U.S.), the balmier temperatures bring -- that's right -- flies. Dealing with these pests usually means swatters, sprays and other fairly primitive measures.

But now, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is working with a virus that can prevent them from reproducing. And, birth control for flies means fewer of them to spread harmful pathogens such as Salmonella or E. coli, which are harbored in animal feces, to human food sources..

How it works

When house flies are infected with the salivary gland hypertrophy virus, researchers have discovered, females stop producing eggs and males no longer mate.

“It’s a way of managing the fly population at the adult level by limiting its ability to reproduce,” said Entomologist Chris Geden of the Mosquito and Fly Unit at ARS’ Center for Medical, Agricultural and Veterinary Entomology (CMAVE).

Researchers are now trying to figure out how to make sure more of the flies exposed to the virus are infected. The normal infection rate is low -- at about 0.5 to 1%.

The CMAVE team has partnered with researchers at the University of Florida and Aarhus University in Denmark to study two populations of house flies -- one in Florida and one in Denmark.

Both teams found that exposure to a combination of infected flies and water produced the highest infection rate: 56% in the Denmark study and 50% in Florida compared with a rate of 37% at a SGHV “hot spot” at a dairy farm in Gilchrist, Florida.

Practical application

“This is not an insecticide. It’s not something you would put out when people are complaining about flies at picnics and expect to get a fast reduction,” Geden told Agricultural Research magazine. “This would be part of an integrated management program in which you would go out early in the year when natural fly populations are just beginning to increase, hit them with the virus to knock down their reproductive ability, and come back 2 to 3 weeks later and do it again.”

This is one of several interventions being explored by scientists at CMAVE in Gainesville.

Last November, Food Safety News reported on another technique being explored by the team -- one involving the use of a chemical that inhibits fly larvae from growing to adulthood.

More

Flu season drawing to a close

It was a tough one -- especially for seniors

It's almost over. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza-like-illness (ILI) is below baseline for the first time since ear...

PhotoIt's almost over.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza-like-illness is below baseline for the first time since early December. Other indicators are declining as well, signaling that the flu season is drawing to a close.

The 2012-2013 flu season kicked off about 4 weeks early, with flu-like illnesses elevated for 15 consecutive weeks, making for a longer-than-average season. For the past 10 seasons, the flu has remained above baseline an average of 12 consecutive weeks with a range of one week to 16 weeks.

Hospitalizations among people 65 years and older with flu-like symptoms were the highest for that age group since record-keeping began during the 2005-2006 season. Seniors accounted for half of all reported hospitalizations. The cumulative influenza-related hospitalization rate across all age groups is

More information about the recent flu season -- and influenza in general -- is available at Flu.gov.

More

ROCK-IT MAN Male Supplement Products recalled

The dietary supplement contains an undeclared active ingredient

Consumer Concepts is recalling of all ROCK-It MAN male enhancement capsules sold between October, 2012, and April, 2013. Analytical tests conducted by th...

PhotoConsumer Concepts is recalling all ROCK-It MAN male enhancement capsules sold between October, 2012, and April, 2013.

Analytical tests conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that the products contained hydroxythiohomosildenafil. Hydroxythiohomosildenafil is an analogue of sildenafil and is close in structure to sildenafil and is expected to possess a similar pharmacological and adverse event profile. Sildenafil is the active pharmaceutical ingredient in a FDA approved drug that is used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED) making these products unapproved new drugs.

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

Consumer Concepts says it has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall.

The products are blue capsules individually packaged on a cardboard blister card (1 capsule per blister card) and blister double pack (2 capsules per blister card). They were sold as wholesale in the US to distributors who further distributed them nationwide through internet sales and at retail.

The ROCK-It MAN male enhancement capsules back panel reads "Distributed by Consumer Concepts".

Customers who have these products in their possession should stop using them immediately and contact their physician if they have experienced any problems that may be related to taking this product.

Consumers should return any unused products for a refund of the full purchase price to the retailer from which it was purchased.

Customers can call 310-228-8965 Monday – Friday between the hours of 9am-4pm Central Time for more information.

More

What you should know about the new bird flu

At this point, ordinary seasonal flu is a greater threat

Bird flu is back in the headlines, with a new strain showing up in China. Should you be concerned? At this point, probably not. But as always, that could b...

PhotoBird flu is back in the headlines, with a new strain showing up in China. Should you be concerned? At this point, probably not. But as always, that could be subject to change.

In 2006 the media was full of scary scenarios about bird flu. For example, there were fears of panic and chaos if a strain of avian, or bird, flu spread around the world, creating a pandemic.

Bird flu did kill some people who were infected with it but the disease was fairly isolated and never got close to the pandemic proportions some health officials feared. The virus spreads easily among birds, such as ducks and chickens, and from birds to humans. But to date it has been unable to spread from human to human. Those who were infected with the virus got it from exposure to sick birds.

H7N9

Now there is a new strain of bird flu, called H7N9. For the first time it has shown up in humans, infecting 16 people and killing six of them in China. All of the victims had direct exposure to birds before getting sick.

Health officials in China have carefully monitored more than 100 family members of the victims and so far, not one has gotten sick. That's very good news, since it suggests that like the previous strain of bird flu, H7N9 cannot be spread from human to human.

International health officials are hoping it stays that way. The danger is the possibility that the virus mutates to a form that can be spread among humans. Since other family members of someone with ordinary seasonal flu get sick as much as 30% of the time, a virus that was transmitted from human to human could be very dangerous.

The H7N9 virus is a lot like regular flu, affecting the respiratory system, only it's more severe. Not everyone who gets it dies, but if you are in advanced years or poor health generally, the risks are greater.

All flu can kill

People die from seasonal flu all the time, it just doesn't make news. For example, in the week ending March 23, 2013 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported five children in the U.S. died from the flu. The agency said the proportion of U.S. deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza was “at the epidemic threshold” that week.

While H7N9 bears watching, it isn't considered a danger at the moment, except for people in China involved in the poultry industry in one form or another. The Chinese government notified the World Health Organization (WHO) last week of the steps it is taking to monitor the situation.

In the U.S. the CDC said it is following the situation in China closely and is coordinating with U.S. and international partners to gather more information for development of a vaccine. CDC said that among the steps it is taking, it is studying the genetic sequencing of the new H7N9 virus and assessing the possible risk in terms of its spread.

Chances are, the next seasonal flu vaccine will contain protections against H7N9. The CDC calls these steps “routine.”

“This is an evolving situation and there is still much to learn,” the agency said in a statement over the weekend. “It is too soon to speculate regarding the significance of these cases/viruses, however, CDC will provide updated information as it becomes available.”

It's also too early to know how similar H7N9 is to previous avian flu strains. The uncertainly is what makes health officials nervous.

What you should do

At the moment, you should worry more about ordinary, seasonal flu than the new strain of bird flu. To date, no cases of H7N9 have shown up outside China. People who work in the poultry industry, however, should probably exercise even greater caution.

H7N9 symptoms are a lot like seasonal flu symptoms, only more severe. They include high fever, cough and respiratory tract infection at the early stage. About a week after the disease begins, patients develop pneumonia and have trouble breathing.

To avoid getting sick with any kind of flu, practice good hand hygiene.

More

Are hamburgers dying a slow death?

A recent report shows more consumers are ordering chicken sandwiches

Most likely, it won’t sway beef lovers to make a switch, which probably isn’t the goal of some fast-food restaurants, but the traditional hambu...

PhotoMost likely, it won’t sway beef lovers to make a switch but the traditional hamburger has some pretty stiff competition these days, especially with more and more veggie and turkey burgers showing up on menus.

And although chicken sandwiches have been next to hamburgers on fast-food menus for quite some time, even they’re getting some newfound love and rivaling burgers in both sales and consumer interest.

In some places, chicken sandwiches are even doing more than just rivaling burgers, as data has been gathered by the research firm Mintel and released by the site BurgerBusiness.com that shows chicken sandwiches are replacing beef hamburgers as the best sellers in a lot of fast-food places.

Researchers point to the sandwich shift taking place around 2010, when lean boneless beef costs were up by 32%, which of course pushed stores to buy other products besides traditional burgers.

And the survey shows other reasons for the change.

A couple of years back, McDonald’s released its Zesty BBQ Cruncher and gave consumers the option to make it a beef or chicken burger, which was a telling sign of just how popular fried and grilled chicken sandwiches were becoming and how confident restaurants were that they could move them.

And if you’ll notice, there seems to be a new chicken sandwich being released every week, either in some newly-shaped bun or in a wrap, and according to Mintel, chicken sandwiches and other chicken selections, like those strange-looking McDonald’s Chicken McBites, are on more menus in fast-food places than burgers these days, so it seems the tides have officially changed.

Turkey burgers

PhotoAnd turkey burgers are being reintroduced through fast-food restaurants too, namely Burger King, since the chain released a version of its turkey burger last month, which pretty much means two things:

First, the global fast-food franchise recognizes a yearning among consumers for beef burger alternatives and second, it allows Burger King to appear a bit more health-conscious and willing to bend itself to customer wants, which is a very important reputation for companies to develop.

Burger King’s turkey burger will cost a little over $4 in most places and according to Erich Hirschhorn, who is the director of the chain’s global innovation department, turkey burgers are ending up on many fast-food menus these days and the trend will most likely continue.

“Turkey burgers as a category is growing pretty rapidly in the restaurant space,” he said.

Veggie burgers

PhotoVeggie burgers seem to be making another splash among consumers and fast-food places as well, and what was once something only the strictest of vegans would order, is now being consumed by veteran meat eaters, who will occasionally turn to veggie burgers, even giving them to their children as a healthier alternative.

Along with the turkey burger, Burger King has reintroduced a veggie burger selection as well, which isn’t the first time the restaurant tried to get the healthier sandwich to be a menu mainstay.

However this time, the chain has partnered with well-known veggie burger makers Morning Star, which could make the sandwich seem less foreign to meat-eaters and those vegetarians who would rather eat a soy-based burger from a renowned company.

And Burger King certainly isn’t the only chain that’s selling veggie burgers these days, as Bennigan’s offers a version, along with the throwback themed diner Johnny Rockets and so does Five Guys, although its burger is a bun with all of the menu’s vegetables inside rather than a garden patty.

During the course of the year, we'll see just how well Burger King’s turkey and veggie burgers will be received by consumers, but some customers would probably say the company needs to improve on its existing menu items.

PhotoJust ask Karen of Franklin, Ky., who ordered a couple of chicken sandwiches from the burger chain, and had a less than pleasing experience.

“We got two original chicken sandwiches -- one with cheese, two onion rings crispy and two drinks,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

“We sat down to eat, opened our sandwiches. There was no cheese. Bread was burnt, one dot of mayo, maybe three shreds of lettuce and onion rings were old and soggy. I took the food back up to the manager, told her it was supposed to be hot and fresh. She said it is because of the baseball team.”

Karen says there were up to 25 members of an Indiana baseball team in line before her, which was the cashier’s reason the chicken sandwiches were rushed and turned out bad. At least that’s what I think her reasoning was.

From there, things went further south.

“She grabbed it out of my hands, gave me a dirty look,” wrote Karen. “So I stood there, waiting for my food. She handed it to me. I went back to sit down, opened up my sandwich and it was the same one, only difference was they took a piece of cheese and halved it, laid it on my chicken, not even melted.”

Whether Burger King’s new sandwich offerings will hit big obviously remains to be determined, but it’s clear that consumers are expecting to see other items on fast-food menus these days, but that doesn’t mean they want to see beef hamburgers disappear completely or become a second priority for chains.

That would be a true crime to many.

More

Are retail clinics the future of health care?

They're cheaper, open seven days a week and they're expanding the services they offer

You may know that health care in the U.S. is making some big changes as the Affordable Care Act goes into effect next January. But where you get your healt...

PhotoYou may know that health care in the U.S. is making some big changes as the Affordable Care Act goes into effect next January. But where you get your health care may also be changing.

As many as 30 million people who do not have health coverage are about to get it. Private practices already have full patient loads and fewer new doctors are coming on board to replace those who are retiring.

Many patients, especially those who find they have little time to plan doctor appointments around busy work and home schedules, may turn to the same place they buy their prescriptions for routine health care needs.

Walk-in health clinics are springing up everywhere, often inside a drug store. Three of the major players in retail pharmacies – Walmart, CVS and Walgreens – have walk-in health clinics at select stores. Staffed by a nurse practitioner, these clinics usually treat minor ailments and offer preventive care.

Open seven days a week

In Walmart's case, the clinics are independently owned by medical providers who agree to operate under Walmart's terms. The services have to be provided on a walk-in basis, seven days a week. The treatments must be reasonably priced and, unlike your doctor's office, the fees must be clearly posted.

PhotoCVS operates MinuteClinic, a walk-in medical service provided at some stores since 2000. According to CVS, it has some 650 locations in 25 states. CVS says its health care providers have carried out more than 15 million patient visits and boasts of a high customer satisfaction rating.

Walgreens operates Take Care Clinics, located inside select Walgreens stores. It, and its competitors, treat coughs and colds, flu and other routine illnesses. But the scope of care at these walk-in clinics appears to be growing.

Walgreens has just announced that it is going to treat chronic conditions at its more than 350 walk-in clinics. In addition to a runny nose, you can be treated for high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, asthma and even diabetes. It's possible other walk-in clinics will follow suit as the Affordable Care Act takes effect.

Filling the gap?

“The existing gaps in patient care and demands on an already overburdened health care system are all projected to worsen with an influx of new patients under health care reform,” said Heather Helle, divisional vice president, consumer solutions group, Walgreens. “Walgreens is stepping up to be part of the solution.”

PhotoWhile some patients will continue to find comfort in receiving all their health care needs from their family physician, others undoubtedly will be drawn to the idea of walking into a clinic and receiving treatment, without having to make an appointment. The growth of these clinics, a study suggests, could interfere with the existing relationship between a patient and her primary care provider.

In October 2012, Rand Corporation researchers found mixed evidence on the question. They discovered that the consumers who use retail walk-in clinics are less likely to go back to their family doctor, resulting in a disruption in the continuity of their health care. But they didn't find that necessarily to be a bad thing.

Quality of care

While the patients might see a different provider on each visit, and might be less likely to return to their family doctors as often, the researchers said they didn't find evidence that the walk-in clinic patients got worse care than they would have otherwise.

"The interpretation of our findings depends on one's view about the relative importance of different aspects of primary care," said study author Rachel Reid, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "Retail clinics are still in their infancy and over time we may or may not observe a more negative impact of retail clinics on preventive care or continuity of medical care."

The researchers also found the number of these retail health clinics is growing. Last October researchers counted more than 1,300 in the U.S. The growth of these clinics will only increase, they predicted, with the expansion of health care to every person in the U.S.

More

Martha Stewart's back in court; what's that do to her brand?

Her first court saga was personal but this one strikes closer to home

My company, Brand Keys, is pretty much the worlds expert when it comes to the Martha Stewart brand. This isn'’t braggadocio. It’'s true. It all came about ...

PhotoMy company, Brand Keys, is pretty much the worlds expert when it comes to the Martha Stewart brand. This isn'’t braggadocio. It’'s true. It all came about back in 1998. 

At the time we weren’'t focused on the Stewart brand, but the Kmart brand. Back then we (along with most market analysts) observed that Kmart was having difficulties establishing any real brand equity and differentiation and profits in the marketplace.

Competitors like Wal-Mart and Target were putting stress on a Kmart brand structure that pretty much wasn’'t up to code in the first place and, the more we looked for something – -- anything --– that Kmart might leverage in the marketplace, what revealed itself was the Martha Stewart brand. And the fact that the Martha Stewart brand was essentially the only thing bolstering the Kmart brand at that time. That’'s when we started tracking the Stewart brand – which was riding very high, seriously and regularly.

In 2002 Ms. Stewart and her brand ran into their own problems that ultimately led to court and then to a prison term for the human brand. By then we had tracked the brand through its highs, lows, very very lows, and its slow return to a reasonable, albeit weaker, brand and financial health. 

Consumers trusted her

PhotoMs. Stewart was always creative and entrepreneurial and consumers trusted her opinions and vision. When her legal problems hit the front pages of every newspaper in the world, Ms. Stewart characterized it as a personal problem, separate and apart from the brand.

But as Ms. Stewart was the brand, consumers had a hard time separating the two. And, when trust in the human brand eroded, so did trust in the products and service that bore her name, and the company ran into financial difficulties of its own. 

But that'’s marketing history. Today, Ms. Stewart and the brand are alive and well.
In fact, we’'d go so far as to say that “Martha Stewart” has, in the most positive sense, become a “default brand.” By that we mean that it is imbued with enough meaning and enough value to provide more than an adequate foundation for virtually any product or service that would avail themselves of the name. 

And with a default brand it'’s easier and more profitable for retailers to rely upon and/or franchise the “Martha Stewart” name than to try and establish a new brand or leverage a store brand for precisely the same products or services. That is, after all the raison d’'etre of brand --– to act as a surrogate for added-value and differentiation, either for the product or the retailer, or both, depending upon the circumstances. All this came to mind as the new lawsuit regarding Ms. Stewart seems to be coming to a head. 

J.C. Penney April 8, 2013, 7:23 p.m.
Consumers rate J.C. Penney

Macy’'s has accused J.C. Penney of entering into an illegal licensing agreement with Stewart'’s company and wants J.C. Penney stopped from selling a line of Stewart-designed home goods like linens and kitchenware and bath products, which have already been manufactured and are wending their way to J.C. Penney shelves as you read this. Now if the case goes against them, J.C. Penney will have to come up with substitutes for those products. And those substitutes would have to be sold under J.C. Penney store private labels. 

Which brings us back to the issue of brands and added-value. Which would you pay more for -- a Martha Stewart set of bedding, or a JCP Home set of bedding? But it'’s also been reported that, trying to circumvent any previous licensing agreements with Macy'’s, J.C. Penney has kept the Stewart name off most of the products and those will be sold under the aegis of JCP Everyday.

So how would you know that it’s actually something from Martha Stewart? Doesn’'t the label count for something? Given two sets of 400-thread count sheets available in a palate of spring colors, would you be able to identify which set had been “designed” by Martha Stewart? And if you couldn'’t, would it matter?

It was Mark Twain who noted, “He goes by the brand, yet imagines he goes by the flavor.” What flavors do you think Martha Stewart comes in?

---

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

More

In the game of work-life balance, Americans are losing

According to a report Americans are all about work, work, work

“In America, it’s all about work”That’s what a relative of mines said who had the chance to live in both Central America and the ...

Photo“In America, it’s all about work.” That’s what a relative of mine said who had the chance to live in both Central America and the United States.

He was explaining to me the main differences about how people live and work outside of the States. He said when he lived in America, he didn’t even think about taking time off of work, because it was all about finishing a project, creating new ones to make strides in his company and spending a lot of time thinking about bills and upward mobility.

But in Panama, he said, more importance was placed on other things like family, being away from work and enjoying the life that work provides.

Sure, folks still worked hard to reach whatever goals they’d set for themselves, but the balancing act of work and home life were done way better, and he thought that in the States a lot of people either didn’t want balance or they didn't know how to acheive it.

My cousin said he felt guilty when he took off from work when living in the U.S., but in Panama he felt guilty if he worked too much, which was a huge difference. 

Well, recent studies by American Express and the Bureau of Labor Statistics  confirm that huge difference in work styles my cousin was talking about, as Americans only take 12 vacation days out of the year, compared to people in Spain, Denmark, Brazil and France who take 30 vacation days a year.

It's a challenge

Experts point out two main reasons that make work-life balance so challenging for Americans.

PhotoFirst, U.S. companies offer employees are far fewer vacation days compared to some other countries. In Brazil and Denmark workers get 30 days off a year. Employers don't necessarily think they're being generous, they think 30 days off is what's needed so people can stay productive, happy and engaged in their work and personal lives.

Another reason Americans are taking fewer vacation days is that many are struggling with being able to pull themselves away from work. A separate report shows that 56% of working moms said it’s “very” or “somewhat” difficult to balance their work and their personal lives, and as a result one area of life doesn’t get the attention it needs much of the time.

“Stress and work life balance issues are just as challenging for fathers as they are for mothers,” said Kim Parker of the Pew Foundation’s Social and Demographic Trends Project in a published interview. “We found that an equal share of [dads] said they were having a hard time balancing work and family life as moms did.”

Teresa Taylor, who wrote the book “The Balance Myth: Rethinking Work-Life Success," told Forbes that putting your home life over your work life is the best thing you can do to achieve proper balance, and being all the way present, no matter where you are in your day, is essential.

Be there

“Stay in the moment,” she said.

“When you’re at work in a meeting, be there. When you’re at home, be there. If you’re in a business meeting, don’t be wishing to be somewhere else. Be present where you are, and don’t feel guilty.

Photo“If there is something wrong at home, you need to work it out. It will always be nagging at you at the office. At the end of the day, work is work. You might change jobs, companies; you may not even work at all. But your cornerstone is your home life. It’s a grounding point you can always come back to,” said Taylor.

In addition, the American Express report shows that out of the 140 million Americans who took summer vacation in 2012, two thirds chose to stay home during their break, making "staycations" a pretty popular way of taking time off.

The average cost of going on a vacation and remaining in the States is $1,180, according to the report and an average gas price of $3.38 per gallon in 2012 was a significant reason people chose to stay put this year.

And of the people who will actually take a vacation in 2013, 44% said they would reconsider if gas prices go up over the summer, as finances seem to be a big reason why people aren’t traveling.

Staycations

The report finds that over 60% of people will have a "staycation" to save money, 48% said staying at home during a vacation is just “less hassle” and 47% said they don’t travel during vacations, because they’re able to have “more quality time” with their families--which can be true, because we all know certain vacations that include flying, renting cars and a lot of walking can be more of a job than your 9 to 5 is.

But actually taking the necessary time out from work is crucial for reprioritizing all of your responsibilities and if you don’t do that, you’ll always be creating new tasks for yourself, since you’ll always be in work mode, and that happens all the time, says Taylor.

She says people need to do a better job of letting go of certain tasks.

“Some things are not going to happen,” she says. “But there are usually multiple ways to get things done, if you just pause to think about it. Can you do it differently? Can you task it out to someone else? Does this really need to get done at all? Sometimes we create work for ourselves.”

“My biggest pet peeve is people who create reports,” adds Taylor. “I tell people, ‘Try not creating it this week and see if anyone calls you.’”

More

Those liquid laundry packets can be dangerous for little ones

The U.S. and Australia are working together on the problem

Those little liquid laundry packets or capsules are really convenient. No measuring -- just toss one into the washing machine the washer does the rest. Bu...

PhotoThose little liquid laundry packets or capsules are really convenient. No measuring -- just toss one into the washing machine and the washer does the rest.

But if you have small children around, you have to be careful.

Kids have swallowed the detergent in the packets with some serious consequences including loss of consciousness, throat swelling, and difficulty breathing. Those who get it in their eyes have suffered severe irritation and temporary loss of vision.

In fact, the hazard is serious enough that both the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) are alerting parents to take precautions.

“A product intended to make your clothes clean and bright should not lead to a parent having to call the poison help line because their child is in distress,” said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. “CPSC has played a leading role in addressing this emerging hazard. We are conducting an investigation, we are educating consumers, and we are urging that changes be made that will reduce incidents and injuries.”

“Poison call centers across Australia have received more than 85 calls in the last 18 months relating to exposure to these laundry capsules,” said ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard. “The experience in Australia is consistent with an international trend, where most cases have involved a child aged five years or younger.”

You can read more about how both agencies are dealing with the problem on the CPSC website.

More

Virgin America ranks first, United last in airline quality ratings

On-time performance and bag handling generally improved in the latest study

There's nothing quite like knocking it out of the park on your first time at bat.  That's what Virgin America Airlines has accomplished, taking first ...

PhotoThere's nothing quite like knocking it out of the park on your first time at bat.  That's what Virgin America Airlines has accomplished, taking first place in the latest national Airline Quality Rating, released today. United was last. 

Although passengers are still grumpy and complaining more than ever, overall airline performance in 2012 was the second highest in the 23 years that researchers from Wichita State and Pursdue have conducted the study. Overall, seven airlines improved and five declined in 2012.

Here's the complete report for 2012, with the previous year's rating showed in parenthesis. 

 

1. Virgin America (new to the ranking this year)
2. JetBlue (3)
3. AirTran (1)
4. Delta (6)
5. Hawaiian (2)
6. Alaska (5)
7. Frontier (4)
8. Southwest (7)
9. US Airways (8)
10. American (10)
11. American Eagle (15)
12. SkyWest (9)
13. ExpressJet (not rated in 2011)
14. United (12)Business is too good?

Although on-time performance and bag handling improved in 2012, denied boardings and the customer complaint rates were higher for the year. Researchers say that's partly the result of improving business and high passenger loads. Crowded planes, in other words.

"When you look at the past 13 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air. Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers," said Headley. Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.

United Airlines April 8, 2013, 4:22 p.m.
Consumers rate United Airlines

The challenge is whether airline performance quality improvements can be maintained as more people choose to fly. Or does the infrastructure and air traffic control technology limit what the airlines can do?

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (93.4 percent) for 2012, and ExpressJet and American had the worst (76.9 percent).

JetBlue had the lowest involuntary denied boardings at 0.01 per 10,000 passengers. SkyWest had the highest involuntary denied boarding rate at 2.32 per 10,000 passengers.

Virgin America had the best baggage handling rate (0.87 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all airlines, and American Eagle had the worst baggage handling rate (5.80 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all the airlines.

Southwest again had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.25 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines. United had the highest consumer complaint rate (4.24 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines rated.

The majority of complaints were for flight problems (32.7 percent), reservations, ticketing and boarding (14.6 percent), customer service (14.3 percent) and baggage (12.4 percent).

 

More

Fruit juice additive reduces fat in chocolate

British researchers come up with a novel way to make chocolate healthier

It's pretty well established that chocolate, especially dark chocolate, has health benefits. The problem is that chocolate is often loaded with fat. ...

PhotoIt's pretty well established that chocolate, especially dark chocolate, has health benefits. The problem is that chocolate is loaded with fat. 

But now British scientists have come up with a way to cut the fat content by adding tiny droplets of apple, orange and cranberry juice, using it to replace about half the fat.

The only potential problem is that it makes the chocolate taste kind of, well, fruity. That might not be a bad thing, depending on your individual tastes, but it might be offputting to some. The researchers are hoping they can use the same technique to substitute water and vitamin C for the fruit juice

Photo
Dr. Stefan Bon University of Warwick photo

The technique was developed by researchers at the University of Warwick and presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans.

Bon said he and his team are hoping candy companies will use the discovery to start making healthier, lower-fat chocolate. 
"Everyone loves chocolate, but unfortunately we all know that many chocolate bars are high in fat," said lead researcher Dr. Stefan Bon. "However it's the fat that gives chocolate all the indulgent sensations that people crave -- the silky smooth texture and the way it melts in the mouth but still has a 'snap' to it when you break it with your hand."

Currently, a two-ounce serving of dark chocolate may contain up to 13 grams of fat, about 20% of the daily recommended fat intake. There's also a lot of sugar in chocolate but the saving grace for chocolate is that it's rich in healthful plant-based substances known as antioxidants or flavonoids.

Bon's breakthrough is a good start. Now if someone can figure out to get rid of all that sugar ...

More

Drivers still talking and texting

The risky conduct causes hundreds of thousand of injuries and deaths

You would think that with all the news stories about traffic accidents due to driver cell phone use and texting that people would finally figure out that i...

PhotoYou would think that with all the news stories about traffic accidents due to driver cell phone use and texting that people would finally figure out that it's not a particularly good idea. That doesn't seem to be happening.

According to the 2011 National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS), approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or some kind of electronic device while driving -- about the same as in 2010.

Separate NHTSA data show more than 3,300 people were killed in 2011 and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.

A recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that most U.S. drivers say they talk on their cell phones and smartphones while driving, even though it isn't very smart. And a third of them also admit to texting while driving.

That's a higher figure than in comparable countries. CDC researchers found that 69 percent of U.S. drivers talked on their cell phone while driving within the 30 days before they were surveyed compared to 21 percent of drivers from the United Kingdom. The study also found that 31 percent of drivers in the United States reported that they had read or sent text messages or emails while driving, compared  to 15 percent of drivers in Spain.

“Distracted driving is a serious and deadly epidemic on America’s roadways,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “There is no way to text and drive safely. Powering down your cell phone when you’re behind the wheel can save lives -- maybe even your own.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website has more on the survey.

More

Remember last summer's drought? This summer may not be any better

USDA is providing grants to help farms and ranches prepare for another one

With memories of last summer's drought and the economic cost to farmers and consumers still vivid, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) is making milli...

PhotoWith memories of last summer's drought and the economic cost to farmers and consumers still vivid, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) is making millions of dollars available to states that were hit particularly hard.

Issues to be addressed by the $5.3 million in Conservation Innovation Grants include grazing management, warm season forage systems, irrigation strategies and innovative cropping systems.

"USDA is working diligently to help American farmers and ranchers rebound from last year's drought and prepare for future times of climatic extremes," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Conservation Innovation Grants are an excellent way to invest in new technology and approaches that will help our farmers, ranchers and rural communities be more resilient in the future."

Just last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said its long-term forecast calls for continued drought in the Great Plains and Southwest, warmer than average temperatures nationwide and a high potential for floods.

The agency’s “U.S. Spring Outlook” is based on “current conditions of snowpack, drought, soil moisture, stream flow, precipitation, Pacific Ocean temperatures and consensus among climate forecast models,” among other things.

The continued drought is bad news not only for farmers but also for consumers, as it is likely to once again drive food prices higher, as happened last summer.

Details of the program are available on the USDA website.

More

Tide shifts in favor of legalizing marijuana, study finds

Pew survey finds a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana

When it comes to the discussion of drug use in the United States, the conversation can go in about a million different places all at the same time.First,...

PhotoWhen it comes to the discussion of drug use in the United States, the conversation can go in about a million different ways all at the same time.

First, there are some people in the discussion who tend to put all illegal drugs in the same category, and make the point that the war on drugs doesn’t only need to continue, it needs to be stepped up.

Then you have those in the conversation who see a need for a completely new outlook on certain drugs, specifically marijuana, and according to the Pew Research Center, the majority (52%) of U.S. residents believe marijuana should be legal, which is the highest percentage of people sharing that belief in 40 years.

As has happened recently with gay marriage, public opinion seems to have reached a "tipping point," and, after years of slow change, now appears to be moving rapidly.

Photo

Time to catch up?

The research is providing added ammunition to proponents of legalized marijuana.

"It's time for politicians to catch up to the voters on this issue. Not too long ago, it was widely accepted in political circles that elected officials who wanted to get re-elected needed to act 'tough' on drugs and go out of their way to support the continued criminalization of marijuana. The opposite is quickly becoming true," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. "A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and you're going to start seeing more politicians running toward our movement instead of away from it, just as we've seen happen with marriage equality recently." 

In fact, it does seem the tide is changing in the favor of those who support legal marijuana use, as there are currently 14 U.S. states that have lowered the penalty for a person carrying small amounts.

In Rhode Island, for example, officials have decriminalized amounts that seem to be for personal use, so someone carrying less than an ounce of marijuana will be subject to a $150 ticket with no jail time.

PhotoJohn G. Edwards, a Rhode Island state representative, feels that decriminalizing small amounts of pot is a move towards a sensible solution to the nation’s drug problem.

“I am very proud that Rhode Island will be able to begin a new chapter in sensible drug policy today,” said Edwards in a press conference.

“As I have said many times before, I firmly believe that people should be able to work, volunteer and live their lives after being caught for a youthful indiscretion or two. What we have been able to do with this law is effectively punish those in possession of small quantities of marijuana while giving people opportunities to redeem themselves by allowing them to be productive members of society.”

Throwing kids in jail

And as far as teen marijuana use is concerned, Sen. Josh Mille of Rhode Island—like other state officials on his side of the argument—says proper education instead of throwing kids in jail may be the right move to get them to stop or at least remove the forbidden fruit aspects of smoking the controversial green stuff.

“It’s clear from what we’ve been able to glean from the Special Senate Commission to study the prohibition of marijuana that education and treatment are better for addressing teen marijuana use than incarceration,” he said.

“We’re also saving money by keeping people out of jail for minor marijuana infractions and putting money where it can best serve our communities: drug education programs for young violators.”

Surf's not up everywhere

Photo
Patrick Kennedy

However, a bill in Hawaii over the decriminalization of marijuana didn’t go quite the same way. State lawmakers there defeated a bill that would have followed in the footsteps of places like Rhode Island.

Those concerned about decriminalizing pot in the Aloha State, like former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, say lightening marijuana laws will only increase people’s dependence on it.

“Hawaii’s rates of marijuana use are significantly higher than in the rest of the country,” said Kennedy, chairman of SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), an organization that considers itself bipartisan in the marijuana debate.

SAM wants the U.S. to shift towards laws that will neither criminalize low-level users, nor create policies that will increase people’s dependence on marijuana.

“Fewer kids in Hawaii think smoking marijuana is harmful compared to kids in the United States as a whole," added Kennedy. "I have seen firsthand the debilitating effects of marijuana addiction. It’s more than just the addict, it’s the families who suffer too.”

Advocates of legalizing marijuana note that the Pew Research survey does not support Kennedy's position.

"There is no significant difference in lifetime or recent use between people in states with some form of legalized marijuana and those in other states," the Pew researchers found.
"Opinions about legalizing marijuana vary little among states that have more permissive marijuana laws and those that do not. A majority (55%) of those in states that have legalized medical marijuana or have decriminalized (or legalized) marijuana for personal use favor legalizing marijuana. Yet 50% of those in states in which marijuana is not decriminalized (or legal for any purpose) also favor its legalization," the study found.

Obviously the debate on marijuana use will continue, as more states are tweaking some of their laws, some aren’t changing them at all, and others like New Hampshire are considering legal recreational use, so the conversation is likely to go in a million more places before all is said and done.

In Vermont, Attorney General Bill Sorrel said he’s in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana, and says it’ll lower those crimes that are attached to people seeking out dealers.  Sorrel even said he’s in favor of Vermont residents growing their own marijuana plants for the same reason.

“This might be a surprise to some,” he said in a hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee.

“But the reality is possession of small amounts of marijuana has in effect been decriminalized for quite some time in this state. If you take away the ability to grow your own, you’re pushing someone who wants to possess and use marijuana into the marketplace of having to deal with marijuana dealers. And is that the behavior you essentially want to require and foster?”

It’ll be interesting to see where the nation is on marijuana laws at the close of this year. It’s likely that states as well as public opinion will be split for a long time to come.

More

Candy makers circling the wagons against sugar sanctions

Mars, Nestle, Hershey, Mondelez follow the path blazed by other embattled industries

First, it was tobacco. Decades ago, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report documenting the health risks associated with smoking. Slowly but surely, laws...

PhotoFirst, it was tobacco. Decades ago, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report documenting the health risks associated with smoking. Slowly but surely, laws were passed and regulations were issued, discouraging and taxing smoking. 

But the tobacco industry fought back. It commissioned its own studies, which not surprisingly found that smoking wasn't all that bad. It worked to present smoking as an individual decision and encouraged smokers to resist government intrusion. It also opened a lobbying and public relations office in Washington, hoping to sway lawmakers, regulators and the press. Years later, most would say it was more successful than anyone had dared hope: Americans still smoke.

The process -- generously funded and meticulously research-driven -- became the blueprint for how an industry under siege should respond. It is hilariously described in Christopher Buckley's novel, "Thank You For Smoking," which was to the Washington communications game what "Mad Men" is to advertising. 

The process has since been adopted by interests as diverse as veal packers and the cell phone industry, as they fight back against allegations ranging from animal cruelty to a possible link between cell phones and cancer.

Now it is sugar's turn.

Everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to such tenacious, science-based health advocates as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been lambasting sugar as the cause of the nation's epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other assorted ills.

Battle plan

PhotoNow girding its loins for battle, the National Confectioners Association is reportedly talking with leading Washington, D.C., communications firms, preparing to pick one to devise and implement its strategy.

Advertising Age reports the confectioners have an initial budget of about $2 million. This might sound like a lot of money for some chubby little candy men to put together but these confectioners are not the mom-and-pop bodega on the corner. They are Mars, Nestle, Hershey and Mondelez, global giants whose corporate revenues dwarf the national budget of many countries.

Over at Advertising Age, they seem to think this is a big budget, referring to it as "sizeable for a PR assignment," thus betraying once again the ad business' myopic view that anything that is not advertising doesn't amount to much of anything.

In fact, a fully integrated strategic campaign on a topic this volatile -- and this vital to a huge and well-heeled industry -- needs to include everything from lavishly-funded research to social media campaigns to traditional media outreach and, most important, to a "grass-tops" organizing effort that brings together parents, educators, healthcare professionals and lawmakers to do the industry's bidding and give it a sheen of respectability.

Read the tea leaves

Such an effort, understood by Chris Buckley but seemingly no one else, organizes an industry's enemies and essentially co-opts them. Those who can truly read the tea leaves in Washington know that "Mothers for Sparkling Clean Water" is probably backed by the arsenic industry while "Citizens for Absolutely Ferocious Competition" would probably be backed by AT&T and Verizon. 

PhotoAlready, the confectioners have a campaign called "Treat Right," which encourages candymakers to put calorie counts on the front of their wrappers, thus allowing them to don the cloak of health advocate. 

Prominent figures will be recruited for the campaign, many of them out-of-work politicians, former ambassadors, retired educators and doctors whose Aspen ski condo is beginning to feel a bit cramped. It's not easy to recruit these people but having a big checkbook helps.

Actual conversation with a "retired" (i.e., defeated) politician from my checkered past:

Politico: "God bless you son, you're doing the Lord's work here and I wish I could help you but I'm completely over-committed already."

Me: "Well, we are in a position to offer an appropriate honorarium."

Politico: "Oh well, let me see here. Maybe I could work it in ..."

 

Not small change

As becomes quickly evident, this will not be a small or short-term campaign. It will go on for years until, in the immortal words of Bill Clinton, "the last dog dies." Children will be put through high school and college on this campaign. Sailboats and Porsches will be christened and lovingly maintained. McLean homes will be abandoned for finer digs in Great Falls.

While there may be one or more public organizations created as part of the campaign -- Doctors for Healthy Kids, let's say -- the real work will be performed in the skunkworks, offices secreted in marble and teak splendor somewhere along K Street. 

So if, in a year or two, you hear someone prominent suggesting that candy makers really have children's best interests at heart, you will know that Operation Candyman is up and running and doing tricks for its masters.

---

(Disclosure: I labored in the D.C. vineyards for years designing and implementing strategies similar to those described here on behalf of major industry groups. Some would say my work at ConsumerAffairs is my penance. I do not have a sailboat).

More

Things to consider when booking travel online

Sometimes it's better to avoid third-party sites and book directly with the hotel or airline

Gone are the days when you would call a hotel's toll-free number to make a reservation, or call an airline's reservation center to book a flight. It's stil...

PhotoGone are the days when you would call a hotel's toll-free number to make a reservation, or call an airline's reservation center to book a flight. It's still possible to do it, but it's easier to do it online and, truth be told, the airlines and hotels would prefer you do it that way.

And along with online booking, there are more choices. Third-party booking sites promise to get you deep discounts on hotel rooms. Priceline.com lets you bid for unsold airline seats and hotel rooms by “naming your own price.”

But when booking travel online, it's important that you know whether you are dealing directly with the hotel or airline or with a third-party site. Sometimes it is hard to tell, especially if you are using a search engine. You can end up at a third party site while thinking you are booking through the hotel's website.

Consumers rate Priceline - Hotels

Fred, of San Diego, Calif., recently alerted us to a problem he found when booking with Priceline. You know what the room will cost but often there are extras. In Fred's case there were a lot of extras.

“They do warn you that the hotel may charge extra for items such as parking and Internet, but because a bidder doesn't know the cost of the extras, the ultimate cost may be no deal at all--just what you might have paid anyway had you gone directly to the hotel and may often be quite a bit more even though your bid seems to be a great deal,” Fred wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

Fred says he got a good deal on a hotel in Washington, D.C., but ended up paying $40 a day for parking. The hotel charged $20 a day for Internet. All told, not such a good deal.

Be mindful of security checks

In this era of heightened security, booking online gets closer scrutiny. Don, of Hazel Park, Mich., writes that he purchased an airline ticket for a colleague through Travelocity, using his American Express Card.

Travelocity April 5, 2013, 11:32 a.m.
Consumers rate Travelocity

“They accepted my purchase and issued an E-Ticket which was sent to my browser, my email and to the colleague's email address,” Don writes.

So far, so good. But Don says 30 hours later, while he was out, the transaction tripped a security red flag, because he had purchased the ticket for someone else. They called his home.

“When I did not answer their call, they cancelled the tickets with no warning, and a terse email explaining that they had cancelled this ticket,” Don writes.

Don was able to rebook the flight in time, but was completely unaware that his innocent act of purchasing the airline ticket for his friend would set off alarm bells.

“Nowhere on any of the previous ticket was there any warning that they would call for confirmation, nor did they warn me that they could still cancel the ticket,” Don writes. “It was to me an obvious poor business practice with my money.”

Take-home lesson

The lesson for consumers is this; you can purchase a ticket for a third party but be available to explain it if the airline, booking agent or credit card company questions it.

Ravi, of Hayward, Calif., booked a room at Budget Inn through Hotels.com but says, when he showed up the hotel manager told him the hotel was sold out.

Hotels.com April 5, 2013, 11:33 a.m.
Consumers rate Hotels.com

“How does Hotels.comallow the reservation then?” Ravi asked. “We called Hotels.com to refund our money and they refused!”

There could be more to this story but this isn't the first time we've heard from travelers about a mix-up when they used a third-party travel site. There seems to be a better chance of avoiding these costly snafus when you deal directly with the hotel's website.

Many people use third-party sites in the belief that they'll save money. In many cases they might, but as Fred and Ravi will attest, you don't always.

Major hotels now will usually offer some kind of discount if you pay in advance for a non-refundable room, just as you do with third-party sites. For example, we checked Hilton Indianapolis Hotel & Suites and found the fully changeable and refundable nightly rate was $249. However, the same room costs just $219 if you pay in advance for a non-refundable reservation.

That's what you agree to when you use a third-party site to book your reservation and sometimes the discount may be greater, but not always. Getting a smaller discount might end up being a better deal, and give you more peace of mind if you do your online booking directly with the hotel.

More

Latest blow to collecting Zip codes at check-out

Massachusetts Supreme Court rules it's illegal in case against Michaels Stores

A ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court is the latest obstacle to the commonplace practice of retailers asking consumers for their Zip Codes at ch...

PhotoA ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court is the latest obstacle to the commonplace practice of retailers asking consumers for their Zip codes at check-out.

In a case against Michaels Stores, the court ruled that Zip codes are personally-identifiable information. Similar rulings in California and elsewhere may soon make retailers think twice about the practice, since this could easily be the first of an endless series of expensive lawsuits filed by consumers.

The court's ruling came in a class action case on behalf of plaintiff Melissa Tyler, who charged that by collecting her Zip code when she paid with a credit card, the crafts store was violating a state law that prohibits merchants from requiring personal information when paying with a credit card.

Consumers and privacy advocates have recently become energized about the widespread practice, which many had previously assumed was part of the credit card authorization process. In fact, it is usually a market research effort.

By getting the consumer's Zip code and combining it with the name, credit card and purchase data from a single transaction, a retailer or database marketer can in many cases find the consumer's address and phone number and, often, a wealth of other information that is already in the massive marketing databases that retailers both subscribe and sell to.

In many cases, the retailers are actually being paid for the data they gather from their customers.

Online merchants, of course, already gather all this information. It's pretty hard to ship a package with having the Zip code, after all.

Attended vs. Unattended

Many consumers have come to accept the practice because they are routinely asked for their Zip code when buying gas from an automated pump. However, the two cases are entirely different.

Buying gas from an automated pump is regarded by credit card companies as an "unattended" purchase, meaning you don't actually hand your card to anyone. It's similar to entering a PIN when you use your debit card to withdraw money from an ATM -- or to buy gas, for that matter. If you use a debit card for a gas purchase, the system will usually ask for your PIN.

But buying an item at a bricks-and-mortar retailer is an entirely different matter, since you physically hand your card to the cashier or swipe it on a terminal at the check-out desk in the presence of the clerk. This is regarded as an "attended" transaction and as long as the card is valid and there is no trouble with the account, it should be approved by the credit card company without requiring any other information.

What to do

 A few years ago, bricks-and-mortar stores were routinely asking consumers for their phone numbers but most stopped when consumers and privacy advocates complained.

As for Zip codes, consumers should expect to provide them for automated purchases like the gas example discussed above but otherwise, there should be no reason for a merchant to collect the information and consumers are well within their rights to refuse.

If asked for your Zip code, the simplest response is to politely ask if it is required. If the clerk says it is, you can politely ask him or her to confirm that with the store management.

Better yet, you can put your merchandise down and politely walk away. Consumers have the ultimate power in nearly every transaction, after all. You are always free to take your business elsewhere and then post about it on Facebook, ConsumerAffairs and everywhere else.

More

Believe it or not, customer service reps are people too

If you treat them that way, you have a better chance of getting results

It's no secret that a lot of consumer complaints have to do with the way customers feel they are treated when they call a company to resolve a problem. Oft...

PhotoIt's no secret that a lot of consumer complaints have to do with the way customers feel they are treated when they call a company to resolve a problem. Often, the problem gets worse and the consumer takes it out on the customer service rep.

When that happens, it almost never ends well for the consumer, who is not only angry and upset, but has not resolved the problem they were calling about in the first place. Erika, of Richmond, Va., complained about Travelocity's customer service agents when she tried to change a flight that had been canceled.

“The first line customer service reps were all rude and either hung up on us or transferred us to someone else before listening to what we had to say,” Erika reports. “I finally reached the supervisor in customer service, and although he was nice, he could not answer my questions and kept reverting back to the script.”

Then there is Amy, of Chesterfield, Mich., frustrated that Ally Bank could not more quickly release the title to her Jeep she had just paid off.

“I called over 16 times and every time, I got a different answer and excuse as to why I can't get a lien release,” Amy wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I was promised a lien release fax to the dealership that bought my Jeep multiple times but it never came through. When I followed up with yet another phone call, I was provided another excuse and then another promise that the fax is on the way. The customer service people don't tell you the truth and every single person you speak to will tell you something different and none of it will be accurate.”

An objective view

These and other consumers are quick to suggest that customer service representatives are both rude and unhelpful but let's step back and view these encounters objectively. It's very possible that consumers are pretty worked up when they call, or get that way after waiting on hold.

It's also very possible that the customer service rep has just gotten off the line with another angry customer, and maybe a few more before that. In fact, that could be what their entire day is like.

Sirius Satellite Radio April 5, 2013, 11:25 a.m.
Consumers rate Sirius Satellite Radio
If you'll indulge me, let me relate a personal experience. A year or so ago I had the occasion to call Sirius XM customer service, which has been a source of frequent complaints by consumers posting at ConsumerAffairs. I was an XM subscriber and had just gotten another car with a factory installed satellite radio. I thought it would be a simple matter of activating it with my XM account, but it wasn't.

The radio in the new car was set for Sirius, and though the two services are owned by one company, the hardware is incompatible. XM radios work for XM, Sirius radio for Sirius – at least that was how it was explained to me.

It looked like I was going to have to buy a new car radio that would receive XM, though I was more than happy to get Sirius, since both services are pretty much the same. I really didn't care. The customer service rep really didn't know how to resolve the issue but at least she was trying.

Help from a furry friend

At about that time our cat wandered in and started crying, her signal that she wanted to go outside. I asked the rep if she would excuse me for a moment while I let the cat out.

“You have a cat?” she asked. “What kind?”

It turned out my customer service rep was a cat lady, having three of them at home. Suddenly I saw my way to her heart. We started talking cats. It was like we were best friends, all of a sudden.

“I know what we can do,” the rep finally said. “We'll put in a cancellation order for your XM account and activate a new Sirius account for you.”

In minutes it was done. This is not to suggest that every customer service encounter can be improved by a discussion of cats, but when a consumer can relate to a customer service rep as a human being their chances of getting the assistance they need probably will improve.

What not to say

Demanding to speak to a supervisor is almost always a bad idea. When you do that you are telling the person most able to help you, if they so choose, that you're done with them.

Like it or not, customer service reps hold your fate in their hands. They can either help you or put the screws to you. In many cases, you attitude can influence which way they'll go.

Instead of griping about the long hold time when the rep picks up, try something like “wow, it must be really crazy there today.” Being pleasant and empathetic will certainly set you apart from the last angry consumer they just hung up on.

As for my Sirius XM customer service rep, I continue to believe her suggested fix was somewhat unique and rare that she came up with for a fellow cat person. That's because the company clearly doesn't understand it. Every few months I get a communication from XM, pleading with me to come back. They seem totally oblivious to the fact that I haven't gone anywhere, but am now subscribing to Sirius.

More

Married? If so, you're probably gaining weight

According to a study, marriage can lead to more pounds and new health problems.

Among your average circle of guy friends—around the time everyone hits their late-20s, mid-30s—a noticeable divide begins to take place within ...

PhotoAmong your average circle of guy friends—around the time everyone hits their late-20s, mid-30s—a noticeable divide begins to take place within the group.

A portion of your buddies will remain as you’ve always known them—single, free-spirited and experts at dodging any real commitment in a relationship.

But the other half of your group will start to change, slowly, without you even knowing it, because one day you’re going to their house and you’re greeted with loud music, a messy apartment and utter bachelordom and the next time you visit, the loud music is off, the untidy apartment is cleaned and their single status has evaporated only to be replaced by a new girlfriend.

And it’s a serious girlfriend too. One he’s now living with, which in many cases signifies the beginning of the end for that circle of guy friends, who stayed out late, didn’t have to check in with anyone and navigated their days in more carefree fashion.

I mean, the guy circle may not be totally broken, because you’ll probably still see each other from time to time, but things will never be the same.

Piling on pounds

Another change that happens to some guys in a circle of friends, once they're in a new relationship, is they’ll start to put on weight, which is most times a clear sign of improved living, since many guys go from pizza dinners in front of the Laker game, to having actual meals on an actual tables, with vegetables even. And several times a day at that.

Clearly, there’s something about being in a relationship and living with a woman that adds a higher level of quality to a guy’s life sometimes, since many women tend to master the art of good living far earlier than guys do, which is probably related to the whole women mature earlier than men thing.

And according to a new study released by an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, cohabitation—particularly through marriage—can cause spouses to gain weight and open themselves up to new health risks, which dispels the common belief that married couples are generally healthier than single people.

Andrea L. Meltzer, who led the study, attributed the weight gain and the potential drop in health to happy newlyweds, suggesting that a blissful union often includes blissful meals and many times a person’s level of contentment in a relationship has a lot to do with how comfortable their home life is, and that feeling of comfort is often attached to a lot of good food.

“On average, spouses who were more satisfied with their marriage were less likely to consider leaving their marriage, and they gained more weight over time,” said Meltzer. “In contrast, couples who were less satisfied in their relationship tended to gain less weight over time.”

Physical appearance

PhotoIn addition, Meltzer says that many times, satisfied married couples aren’t as concerned with their physical appearance—since they’re not looking for anyone else—which leads to not only weight gain but an overall drop in their concern for healthy living and daily exercise.

And although married couples tend to encourage each other to do things like take medications on time and keep up with doctor visits, their personal health choices at home aren’t that great.

Again, Meltzer says this is due to marital satisfaction, which is different from unhappy couples who may ponder leaving a marriage. These types of couples are more likely to stay fit and be more mindful of not gaining weight, just in case they meet somebody else, say researchers.

“So these findings suggest that people perhaps are thinking about their weight in terms of appearance rather than health,” said Meltzer, which can certainly lead to a bunch of problems for both people in the relationship down the marital road.

“We know that weight gain can be associated with a variety of negative health consequences, for example diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” Meltzer noted. “By focusing more on weight in terms of health implications as opposed to appearance implications, satisfied couples may be able to avoid potentially unhealthy weight gain over time in their marriage,” she said.

Meltzer and her team learned of these findings in a four-year study that included 169 happy married couples, all newlyweds and married for the first time.

Extra effort needed

The results of the study suggest that newly-married couples, as well as couples who’ve been married for a long time, should put a little extra effort in trying to stay healthy, because as many of us know, there’s a fine line between marital comfort and inactivity, and that same line exists between relaxing at home with your partner and piling on the food.

And for those people who aren’t married and are merely living together, these findings can certainly apply to you too, because being comfortable in a relationship and not recognizing that you’re gaining weight could easily happen while you’re cohabiting before marriage, especially since more and more people are doing it these days. 

According to the CDC, 48% of women between the years of 2006 and 2010 said they lived with their mate before marriage, compared to 34% who said the same thing in 1995.

Additionally, 40% of those women between 2006 and 2010 said they were married within three years of moving in with their mate, 32% said their relationship remained strong and 27% said their relationships ended.

In addition, 20% of women who said they lived with their partner before marriage became pregnant within the first year, which certainly adds even more change to that circle of guy friends you’ve grown to love, because kids change things up immediately.

And there’s no doubt that women experience that same shift in their group of friends too—probably in more dramatic fashion—but either way most would say moving in with someone, getting married and having a baby are just parts of growing up.

And even if you decide not to do those things, your life is going to change anyway, because late nights, fast-food and fast relationships can only take you so far, and after that, it doesn’t become just a fun period in your 20-something life, it becomes a permanent lifestyle.

More

Price tag for dementia care on the rise

Dementia care can cost as much -- if not more -- as heart disease and cancer care

We're living longer -- no doubt about that. But it comes with a cost, especially when you consider mental health. Researchers say the costs of caring for ...

PhotoWe're living longer -- no doubt about that. But it comes with a cost, especially when you consider mental health.

Researchers say the costs of caring for people with dementia in the United States ran as high as $215 billion in 2010 and -- with the increase in the elderly population in the years ahead -- is likely to rise even more.

In comparison, in the same year it cost $102 billion to care for those with heart disease$77 billion for cancer care.

You can find more information at the website of the National Institutes of Health.

More

Unemployment rate dips as economy adds jobs

More Americans have dropped out of the work force

The nation's economy added a tepid 88,000 jobs in March, falling well below the expectations of economists. At the same time, the jobless rate inched lower...

PhotoThe nation's economy added a tepid 88,000 jobs in March, falling well below the expectations of economists. At the same time, the jobless rate inched lower.

Figures released by the Labor Department show job creation plunged from the 268,000 non-farm positions added the month before and missed by a huge margin the forecast of 185,000 new jobs from Briefing.com.

While the jobless rate slipped to 7.7% from the February reading of 7.8%, the government reports the civilian labor force declined by 496,000.

The full unemployment report for March can be seen at the Bureeau of Labor Statistics website. 

More

Little Mermaid Smoke House recalls smoked herring and pickled herring

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum

Little Mermaid Smoke House is recalling smoked herring and pickled herring fish because the products were found to be uneviscerated, and have the potential...

PhotoLittle Mermaid Smoke House is recalling smoked herring and pickled herring fish because the products were found to be uneviscerated, and have the potential to be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium which can cause life-threatening illness or death.

Consumers are warned not to use the product even if it does not look or smell spoiled.

Botulism, a potentially fatal form of food poisoning, can cause the following symptoms: general weakness, dizziness, double-vision and trouble with speaking or swallowing. Difficulty in breathing, weakness of other muscles, abdominal distension and constipation may also be common symptoms.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The following products are recalled:

  • Little Mermaid Smoked Herring fish Sold prior to 04/04/2013
  • Little Mermaid Pickled Herring fish Sold prior to 04/04/2013

The recalled products were manufactured by Little Mermaid Smoke House and distributed in California. They are sold as whole fish, packaged in vacuum sealed packaging, and labeled “Little Mermaid Smoke House” which varies in weight and size. There are no codes listed on the products. The recall includes products sold prior to 04/03/2013.

Products were found to be uneviscerated during an inspection by the Food and Drug Administration.

Consumers who have purchased the product should return it to the place of purchase or discard for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company Little Mermaid Smoke House at (818)764-0005 Monday-Friday 9:00am to 4:00pm, Pacific Time Zone.

More

Urban Shredder ride-on toys recalled

Unexpected acceleration poses a fall hazard.

Dynacraft BSC of American Canyon, Calif., is recalling about 8,900 Urban Shredder ride-on toys. The toys can unexpectedly accelerate and cause the rider t...

PhotoDynacraft BSC of American Canyon, Calif., is recalling about 8,900 Urban Shredder ride-on toys.

The toys can unexpectedly accelerate and cause the rider to lose control, posing a fall hazard. The company has received 17 reports of the Urban Shredder toys accelerating. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves battery-operated Hot Wheels branded Urban Shredder ride-on toys. The toys were sold in green and black (Model Nos. 8801-05 and 8801-05com) or red and black (Model No. 8801-15) and have Hot Wheels graphics. Recalled models were manufactured on September 15, 2012, October 15, 2012, or December 1, 2012. Model number 8801-15 or 8801-05 or 8801-05com and the date of manufacture, formatted as “YYYY/MM/DD,” are printed on a data label on the underside of the Urban Shredder. The serial number can be found etched or printed on the underside of the Urban Shredder near the data label. Serial numbers included in the recall have:

  • letters “CT-EEI” followed by a six-digit number in the range of 000001 through 003075 and 010759 through 011075;
  • letters “CT-EEJ” followed by a six digit number in the range of 003076 through 010758;
  • letters “CT-CEJ” followed by a six digit number in the range of 003000 through 005000.

The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at Target, Toys R Us and Walmart stores and online at Amazon.com, Target.com, ToysRUs.com and Walmart.com from November 2012 to February 2013 for between $270 and $350.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled toy, disconnect the battery and return the shredder to the store where purchased for a refund or store credit.

Consumers may contact Dynacraft at (800) 551-0032 from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

More

Tax return red flags that may result in an audit

Even if you can't avoid them, you can be prepared if the IRS comes calling

There are usually two things people hope for when they prepare their federal income tax return. They hope for a nice refund and they hope not to get audite...

PhotoThere are usually two