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    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 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.”

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

    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.

    “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

    At 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.

    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...
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    Ginkgo biloba linked to cancer in mice and rats

    The supplement is popular for its supposed memory-enhancing effects

    You 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?

    When 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.  

    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...
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      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 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

      And 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.

      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.

      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 ...
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      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 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.

      Medically 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. 

      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...
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      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 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.

      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...
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      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.

      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.

      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....
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      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 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.

      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...
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      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 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.  

      Cervelo Cycles of Toronto, Canada, is recalling nearly 700 Cervelo bicycles with Aura Pro handlebars. The bike's handlebar clamps can detach during riding...
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      No letup in fight against knives on planes

      Flight attendants vow to prevent a change in TSA rules

      Besieged 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.

      “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.

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

      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...
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      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 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

      "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.

      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...
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      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 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.

      "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."

      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...
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      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 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.

      The number of people filling first-time applications for jobless benefits was down sharply last week. Figures released by the Labor Department show there ...
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      Telemarketers banned, ordered to pay millions

      The defendants acted with 'reckless disregard'

      Five 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.

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

      For 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

      For 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.

      In 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.

      According 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.

      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...
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      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 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.

      "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 magazinesaid 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.  

      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...
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