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Father's Day gifts that are a little left of center

Whether it's a gift to help his golf game or a musical gift, think out of the box this year.

 This year, Father's Day falls on Sunday, June 16, so there's not a lot of time to pick something up for dear old dad.And when you do pick something...

PhotoThis year, Father's Day falls on Sunday, June 16, so there's not a lot of time to pick something up for dad.

And when you do pick something up, try to be a little creative this year, since most dads have all the ties, socks and work shirts they'll ever need.

How about going with the Admetior Digital BBQ Tongs and Thermometer for $29.99 on Amazon? Not only is it a great gift for the dad who loves to grill, but it'll make grilling a lot easier for him.

The tongs have a built-in instant read thermometer that gives you the meat's temperature in about five minutes. Plus, the temperatures of seven different kinds of meat are preset into the tongs, so an alarm goes off once the meat is cooked.

In addition, the tongs have an LED flashlight if dad wants to cook at night, and they measure temps up to 392 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The tongs are easy to clean too. Dad will just have to remove the digital screen and pop it into the dishwasher.

Bottle hat

PhotoAnd if your father likes a cold beer while he's manning the grill, you may want to get him the Guinness Clover Bottle Opener Baseball Hat for $18.99.

That's right; while he's wearing the hat all he has to do is lift the bottle, put it to the hat's brim, insert the cap and pop open the bottle.

The Guinness hat comes in black, dark brown and olive green and has a Velcro strap, so one size fits all.

"The hat is great," wrote a customer who goes by the name of Flavia in an Amazon review.  "The bottle opener works perfectly. And the best part is: I'm in Sao Paulo, Brazil and the product arrived a week before the estimated time."

Golf glove

Then there's the SensoGlove for $89.95. It's a digital golf glove that has a built-in computer that provides feedback on how the club is being gripped.

PhotoAs most golfers probably know already, the way you hold the golf club is of crucial importance, because if you hold it too tightly, it can take away from a smooth swing. If you hold it too loosely, you may not get enough power or worse, the club might fly out of your hands.

The creators of the SensoGlove say not only does the built-in computer provide visual feedback, it provides audio feedback as well, so it's almost like having a golf trainer on the course with dad while he's trying to perfect his swing.

But if you would rather buy a golf glove that's a little less expensive, you may want to go with the Golf Swing Glove by Protech Innovations Inc. It goes for about $35.

The Golf Swing Glove doesn't come with a built-in computer screen like the SensoGlove, but it does have a hinged-plate that keeps dad's hand and wrist in the right position, so he can get the most out of his swing.

And the company says the glove is made out of premium Cabretta leather, so it should be something dad can use for a long time.

Pill speakers

If you'd really like to wow dad this year, there's always the Beats by Dr. Dre Pill speakers for a little under $200.

The Beats by Dre headphones have been a hit with music lovers since they came on to the market, and the Pill speakers are known to work just as well and be just as powerful.

The Pill is pretty small, being only 3.3 inches in length, but it's known to pack a serious musical wallop, just like Dre's headphones.

Another thing that's cool about the portable speakers is it allows dad to take phone calls while he's listening to his favorite tunes. And it runs on Bluetooth so no wires are necessary.

Portable speakers have been pretty trendy as of late, as speakers like the Jambox and the Monster have been purchased by many.

But according to Internet reviews, the other speakers don't even come close to the Pill.

"I owned a Jambox and played around with the Monster, Jabra Solemate and others that are about this size and I'll have to say the Pill has them beat hands down in my opinion," wrote the reviewer Aztec506 after he recently purchased the Pill.

So this year -- just like every other year -- you have a lot of different ways you can go for a Father's Day gift, but you only have a little over two weeks to decide.

That should give you enough time, so you're not waiting for the very last minute.

Because when you shop for dad at the very last minute, you're more likely to settle on that tie or pair of socks, which will probably end up collecting dust in a drawer or closet somewhere. And most dads deserve better than that.

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Netflix wading deeper into original content

Arrested Development is deemed a success, though the reviews are mixed

Viewers once waited anxiously for the season premier of a much-loved TV series. But subscribers to online video streaming services now wait for an entire s...

PhotoViewers once waited anxiously for the season premier of a much-loved TV series. But subscribers to online video streaming services now wait for an entire season, in one gulp.

Such was the case Sunday when Netflix debuted Season Four of the groundbreaking comedy series, "Arrested Development." The series, cancelled by Fox in 2006, was brought back to life by Netflix, which released the entire season instead of dribbling the episodes out one per week, as network television does.

Netflix had been offering the first three seasons for some time, helping to grow the audience for what is becoming a cult classic. Aside from being a risky venture – producing original content – Netflix chose to revive a series that has been dormant for seven years.

White hot hype

The gamble paid off initially. The return of "Arrested Development" generated white hot hype, including a marathon all day Saturday on the cable channel IFC. However, the reviews of season four of the series – and a sizable chunk of viewers has already viewed the entire season – have been lackluster to say the least.

So much so that it affected Netflix stock this week. Shares were pummeled, losing more than six percent of their value. Market analysts were counting on the return of "Arrested Development" to spur sales of Netflix subscriptions. The company may enjoy a pick-up in business but the Street has decided that is far less certain.

But Netflix appears undeterred. In interviews this week, company CEO Reed Hastings opened the door to produce additional seasons of "Arrested Development," but said it will ultimately be up to the cast.

Whether Netflix brings "Arrested Development" back for an encore or not, it appears to be committed to producing original content, with Hastings telling one interviewer that his company could be the next HBO.

Photo

House of Cards

In January, Netflix launched "House of Cards," an original series starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a Washington, D.C., power couple, doing whatever it takes to get to the top. The series appears to have been both a critical and popular success, though Netflix doesn't release viewership data.

Moving into original content is actually a self-preservation move since Netflix faces more competition for content. In 2011 Starz Entertainment announced it was not renewing the lease on its movie catalog because Netflix didn't charge enough for access to its content.

Now, there are more TV shows than movies on Netflix's streaming service and the new content appears to have found a ready audience, though not all viewers are sold. Linda, of Atlanta, Ga., says the movies she wants to watch are not available for streaming.

Not so good reviews

“In fact, all I can find is 2-3 year-old first run movies and occasional newer movies that must have bombed out in theaters before anyone ever heard of them,” she writes. “Sorry. Not worth it.”

“Netflix is affordable and it has many shows and movies for everyone,” writes Dina, of Brooklyn, N.Y. “However, they neglect some of their categories such as Anime. They need to fairly add new shows in all sections.”

“We are so disappointed with the selection of old movies and TV shows available,” Debra, of Minneapolis, Minn., chimed in. “These are not second run in our view, more like fourth, fifth or worse.”

It's not that Netflix is cheap. The company would surely like to purchase access to more movies. But with Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus becoming bigger competitors, and distributors reluctant to provide content for a service that costs just $8 a month, the content is increasingly hard to come by.

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Do the math and lose weight

If you can keep track of calories you have a better chance of controlling your weight

More people are losing weight the old fashioned way. They're simply being more aware and keeping track of what they eat. In the end, it's calories that mak...

PhotoMore people are losing weight the old-fashioned way. They're simply being more aware and keeping track of what they eat. In the end, it's calories that make the difference.

While nutrition is key to good health, it's generally acknowledged that consuming too many calories – hundreds more than you burn each day – is a good way to pack on the pounds. That's one reason that many restaurants are being required to post calorie information on their menus.

A hungry consumer might want a triple burger with a large order of fries until they see how many calories that is. Armed with that information, they may opt for a small, single burger and a side order of fruit.

Increasingly, restaurants are getting on board. The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) recently reported member food and beverage companies have exceeded their goal of reducing 1.5 trillion calories in the marketplace in the United States.

“Our industry has an important role to play in helping people lead healthy lives and our actions are having a positive impact,” said Indra Nooyi, HWCF Chair, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. “We see continued opportunities to give consumers the choices they’re looking for and to work collaboratively with the public and non-profit sectors on initiatives that enable continued progress.”

Food providers under pressure

Restaurants, food processors and beverage companies have been under pressure as America's obesity problem has mushroomed over the last 30 years. McDonald's, for example, has responded with happy meals that include apple slices, salads and wraps, and began posting calorie information on menus before they were required to.

PhotoBut that still hasn't silenced critics, nor did it spare CEO Don Thompson a recent scolding from a nine-year old girl, who stood up at a shareholders' meeting and accused his company of “tricking kids.”

Restaurants that post calorie information on their menus help consumers who want to maintain a limit on the number of calories they consume each day to stay on track. Previously, it has been difficult to know how much a restaurant meal bumped up your calorie intake.

When you eat at home it's much easier. Food nutrition labels state the calories per serving and if you total up the calories per part of a meal, you can keep track of your caloric intake.

More than just cutting calories

Nutritionists stress that restricting calories, while important, is only part of a healthy diet. There are good calories and bad calories, they say. Some foods give you more bang for the buck, when it comes to calories.

For example, foods that are high in fiber are not only good for you, but are more filling. You don't have to eat as much to feel full. Some foods provide what are called “empty” calories.

PhotoAlcohol falls into that category, packing seven calories per gram. Giving up alcohol for a while can definitely make it easier to shed pounds and lower your caloric intake.

There's growing research that suggests reducing your calories can improve your overall health. A 2006 study at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine found that reducing calories was good for your heart. The researchers, however, found increasing calories from vegetables promoted the best health, since vegetables contain a high percentage of nutrients per calorie. 

A 2012 study linked consuming too many calories with memory loss. And of course, consuming too many calories will make you obese, leading to all types of health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.

How many are too many? It will depend on your age, sex and body make-up. Here's a calculator that can help you determine the number that's right for you. 

What to do

To keep track of your daily calories you need to keep a food journal. With the memo functions on most smartphones now, it's easier than it once was.

Eat smaller portions. Americans have increased their portion sizes over the years because calories have become cheap. Eating less food will translate into consuming fewer calories.

Where possible, try pre-packaged meals. These will help get you accustomed to smaller portions and enable you to easily track the number of calories you are consuming.

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Honda drops the price of its Fit EV

Nissan lowered the lease price of its Leaf earlier this month

Pretty soon, automakers will be paying you to go humming off in an all-electric car. Nissan dropped the lease price of its Leaf to $199 a month and now Hon...

PhotoPretty soon, automakers will be paying you to go humming off in an all-electric car. Nissan dropped the lease price of its Leaf to $199 a month and now Honda says it will leave you a Fit EV for $259 a month.

It will cost you $1,999 to drive off in the Leaf, while Honda says it is offering the Fit EV with no down payment. Even more amazing, it's dropping the monthly lease payment to $259 for any existing Fit EV leaseholder.

Honda's offer also includes collision insurance, scheduled maintenance, unlimited mileage and a 240-volt Leviton charger, although you'll have to pay the installation cost for the charger.

Honda says it is also expanding the number of Fit EV dealers from 36 to more than 200 by the end of June. Honda now sells the car in California, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

The Chevrolet Spark EV, meanwhile, will be priced at $27,000 when it goes on sale in California and Oregon this month. That works out to $19,500 after a federal tax credit of $7,500.

 

 

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Starbucks extends smoking ban to store entrances

The coffee chain wants its outside seating areas to be smoke-free

A few generations ago, a cup of coffee and a cigarette just seemed to go together. Those days are long gone, as evidenced by Starbucks' new policy that pro...

PhotoA few generations ago, a cup of coffee and a cigarette just seemed to go together. Those days are long gone, as evidenced by Starbucks' new policy that prohibits smoking within 25 feet of its stores.

Of course, many localities and states already prohibit smoking around building entrances but Starbucks says it wants to make it clear that smoking isn't allowed in its outside seating areas.

OK, but what if it's an electronic cigarette? Starbucks already bans them, so there's nothing new to report on that front.

Ah, but what about drive-through windows? Can you smoke in your car while rolling up to the window? Starbucks is mum on that one.

Obviously, the new rule applies only to Starbucks' own stores, not licensed stores in places like airports and big box stores, which have their own no-smoking rules.

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Google brings it home, will build a smartphone in the U.S.

Google's Motorola will start building the Moto X in Fort Worth, Texas

Americans are pretty accustomed to driving around in German or Japanese cars while yakking on smartphones made in Asia. But Google's Motorola Mobility says...

PhotoAmericans are pretty accustomed to driving around in German or Japanese cars while yakking on smartphones made in Asia. But Google's Motorola Mobility says it will start buiding a new phone, the Moto X, in Fort Worth, Texas, a place you might associate more with steerhorns than with high-tech manufacturing.

"There are more than 130 million smartphones in use in the U.S., but not one of them is made here. That changes with Moto X," Motorola spokesperson Danielle McNally said, according to TechNews/World.

Motorola Mobility CEO Dennis Woodside, speaking at the All Things D conference said Motorola will completely revamp its product line-up by October. 

It's expected the Moto X will compete primarily with Apple's iPhone and the more advanced Samsung models. It's expected to feature what's called "context aware" technology that "knows" where it is -- whether traveling in a car or train or being taken out of the user's pocket at home or at work.  

But can Motorola really build an all-American phone cheaply enough to compete effectively with Samsung and Apple? The answer lies with how consumers respond to the idea of a Made-In-USA phone.

Consumers in the Midwest and Northeast traditionally respond better to products they perceive as being made in the U.S. Motorola says it will also be applying some pretty advanced technology to the manufacturing process, which may help lower the assembly costs. 

Besides, Woodside said, Google and afford to take a smaller profit margin than the other companies. 

And just to be perfectly clear, the Moto X won't be entirely manufactured on these shores. The processors will come from Taiwan and its screens from Korea but the company says 70 percent of the assembly will happen in Fort Worth. Motorola Mobility has said it will hire 2,000 workers at the Moto X plant.

 

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You mean Mini-Wheats don't make you smarter?

Kellogg's settles class-action suit claiming it made false claims for its cereal

Kellogg's will pay $4 million to settle a long-running class-action suit that claimed the cereal maker made false claims that its Frosted Mini-Wheats could...

PhotoKellogg's will pay $4 million to settle a long-running class-action suit that claimed the cereal maker made false claims that its Frosted Mini-Wheats could improve kids' attentiveness, memory and other cognitive functions.

The suit was filed after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a false advertising complaint against Kellogg's in 2009.

While not admitting that it did anything wrong, Kellogg's has agreed to settle the suit and has set up a website where consumers can get claim forms.  

In a statement, Kellogg's said it "has a long history of responsible advertising" and said it "stands by its advertising and denies it did anything wrong." 

 

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SARS-like virus claims another victim

Most victims have been in the Middle East so far

 The Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia has notified WHO of an additional laboratory-confirmed case with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus ...

Photo
The SARS Virus

A 61-year-old Saudi has become the latest fatality attributed to a SARS-like virus that has caused at least 30 deaths in the Middle East, the U.K., France and Germany.

The virus is "a threat to the entire world," the World Health Organizaiton's (WHO) general director said earlier this week. Margaret Chan said it "is not a problem that any single affected country can keep to itself or manage all by itself." 

Known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus  (MERS-CoV), the virus has a high fatality rate, so far killing more than half those it infects.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has received reports of laboratory-confirmed cases originating in the Middle East. The other cases mostly involved patients who had traveled from the Middle East.

In France, Tunisia and the United Kingdom, there has been limited local transmission among patients who had not been to the Middle East but had been in close contact with the laboratory-confirmed or probable cases, the WHO said.

"Based on the current situation and available information, WHO encourages all Member States to continue their surveillance for severe acute respiratory infections (SARI) and to carefully review any unusual patterns," WHO said in an update. "Health care providers are advised to maintain vigilance. ... Clinicians are reminded that MERS-CoV infection should be considered even with atypical signs and symptoms, such as diarrhea, in patients who are immuno-compromised."

WHO said it does not yet advise special screening at points of entry nor does it currently recommend the application of any travel or trade restrictions.

Although the virus is similar to SARS -- Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -- it is not identical. It causes symptoms including fever and a cough and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.

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Allergy meds and driving may not mix

Be sure you know the side effects before getting behind the wheel

That yellowish dust all over the hood of your car can mean only one thing: it’s allergy season again. You know what it does to you --sneezing, itchy eyes...

PhotoThat yellowish dust all over the hood of your car can mean only one thing: it’s allergy season again.

You know what it does to you --sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose, etc., etc. But you may not know why.

Simply put, when your body comes into contact with whatever triggers your allergy -- pollen, ragweed, pet dander, or dust mites, for example -- it produces chemicals called histamines. Histamines cause the tissue in your nose to swell (making it feel stuffy), your nose and eyes to run, and your eyes to itch. Some people even develop itchy skin rashes known as hives.

Fortunately, medications containing antihistamines -- drugs that counteract the effect of histamines -- can help relieve many different types of allergies, including hay fever and food allergies.

User beware

But some antihistamines can make you feel drowsy, unfocused and slow to react. If you don't take them responsibly and according to directions, they can pose a danger to your health and safety. Information about whether an antihistamine medication can make you drowsy can be found in the product’s label. You need to read the Drug Facts label of the medication and understand the warnings before they use it.

“Any of these reactions can negatively interfere with driving or operating heavy machinery,” says Jane Filie, M.D., a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development. Filie says you may experience slower reaction time, haziness, or mild confusion even if you don’t feel drowsy after taking a medication containing antihistamines.

Exercising care

Different antihistamines may be dosed differently. “Don’t assume that when you run out of one antihistamine and happen to buy another, it’s the same dose,” says FDA pharmacist Ayana Rowley, Pharm.D. If one specific antihistamine worked for you before, take note of the dosage and make sure you get the same medication the next time.

It’s also important to avoid taking alcohol, sedatives (sleep medications), or tranquilizers while taking some antihistamines. This information can also be found in the Drug Facts label. Alcohol and sedatives can seriously increase the sedative effects that already may occur when taking antihistamines.

Rowley also cautions against self-medicating. “If the correct dosage isn’t providing you the relief you expect, don’t simply keep taking more and more of that product,” she says, “but instead, consult your health care professional”.

What do do

  • Always follow directions for use and read warnings on the packages of the drug products you purchase.
  • Some antihistamines may cause drowsiness, and you need to exercise caution when driving a motor vehicle or operating machinery. Avoid using alcohol, sedatives, and tranquilizers while taking the product because they may increase drowsiness.
  • Know that some antihistamines take longer to work than others. Recognize that you might feel the sedating effects of these medications for some time after you’ve taken them and possibly even the next day.
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Fixed mortgage rates hit their highest levels in a year

Both Freddie Mac and Bankrate report increases

Fixed mortgage rates are following long-term government bond yields higher. Freddie Mac reports the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.81% this...

PhotoFixed mortgage rates are following long-term government bond yields higher.

Freddie Mac reports the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.81% this week,with an average 0.8 point for the week. Last week, it averaged 3.59% and last year at this time, it averaged 3.75%.

The 30-year FRM is up nearly half a percentage point since the beginning of May when it averaged 3.35 percent. Still, mortgage rates remain low historically helping keep home-buyer affordability high, which should continue to aid home sales and construction as the housing market continues to recover.

The rate for the 15-year FRM averaged 2.98% this week, with an average 0.7 point, up 22 basis points from last week's 2.77%. A year ago, the 15-year FRM averaged 2.97%.

The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.66% this week with an average 0.5 point, compared with 2.63% last week and 2.84% last year.

One-year Treasury-indexed ARM stood at 2.54% this week with an average 0.5 point, dipping one basis point from last week. A year ago at this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.75%.

Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, at Freddie Mac says rates followed long-term government bond yields higher following a growing market sentiment that the Federal Reserve may lessen its accommodative policy stance. “Improving economic data may have encouraged those views,” he said, noting that The Conference Board reported that consumer confidence  rose in May to its highest level since February 2008. Meanwhile, the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city composite index  for March rose to its highest reading since November 2008.

Bankrate.com

Mortgage rates tracked by Bankrate.com also spiked this week, reaching their highest levels in a year.

The benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rose to 3.99% from 3.74% last week, according to the Bankrate's national survey of large lenders. One year ago, that rate stood at 3.94 percent. Four weeks ago, it was 3.52 percent.

The last time the 30-year fixed mortgage was near this level was May 9, 2012, when it reached 4.02 percent. At the time, that was a record low for the fixed rate.

The benchmark 15-year fixed-rate mortgage rose to 3.21%, compared with 2.97% last week, and the benchmark 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage rose to 2.81% from 2.7%.

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Consumer spending dips in April as personal incomes show little change

The rate of personal savings held steady during the month

Consumers were keeping a closer watch on their budgets during April, resulting in a surprising 0.2%, or $5.6 billion decline in personal spending. The cutb...

PhotoConsumers were keeping a closer watch on their budgets during April, resulting in a surprising 0.2%, or $5.6 billion, decline in personal spending. The cutback came as personal incomes decreased $5.6 billion, or less than 0.1 percent.

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had been calling for increases of 0.1% in both spending and incomes.

The decline in spending was particularly disappointing, given the fact that consumer confidence rebounded during April  from a decline in March.

The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal

income -- was 2.5 percent in April, the same as in March.

The full report can be found on the Commerce Department website.

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Your dog can get diabetes too

Learn the symptoms and make sure they get treatment

Diabetes is a disease that increasingly strikes Americans. As it turns out, our dogs also suffer from it in increasing numbers.It's called diabetes melli...

PhotoDiabetes is a disease that increasingly strikes Americans. As it turns out, our dogs also suffer from it in increasing numbers.

It's called diabetes mellitus, or sugar diabetes. Though any dog can have it, it is most commonly found in miniature schnauzers, German shepherds, golden retrievers and poodles. It strikes females more than males and it usually appears in a dog's middle years – age six to nine.

The causes of diabetes in dogs are similar to those in people. The islet cells in the pancreas slow down, failing to produce enough insulin. Without the proper amount of insulin, glucose can't pass into cells and produce energy for metabolism.

The result is high blood sugar as well as too much sugar in the urine.

Symptoms

How do you know your dog is suffering from diabetes? The symptoms are similar to a human's. The glucose in the urine causes them to urinate frequently. Because they are passing so much fluid, they get dehydrated and drink lots of water. Later, they may become lethargic, stop eating and be prone to vomiting.

Often these symptoms are cited by pet owners who blame a particular brand of dog food for their pet's condition. In some cases, these symptoms might have nothing to do with the dog food but the onset of diabetes. Only your vet can tell for sure.

The good news is diabetes in dogs is treatable, just as it is in humans. Many veterinarians prescribe daily insulin injections, along with a strict diet. Your vet will decide how much insulin your dog needs. It's hard to predict and will vary, depending on the level of damage to the pancreas.

Typically, you are your pet will start the treatment at home. After a week or so of proper diet and daily insulin injection, the vet will want to see the dog again to run some blood tests. The goal is to see when glucose levels rise and fall.

How to give an injection

Below is a brief video that demonstrates the way to give your dog an insulin shot.

Left untreated, diabetes will affect all the dog's organs. It will result in enlarged livers and hearts and the dog can become easily infected. Sometimes a dog with advanced diabetes will have major problems with its central nervous system.

Avoid obesity

Just as with humans, avoiding obesity makes it easier to treat diabetes. If the dog is obese, it can reduce its responsiveness to insulin. So when your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, it's important to make sure he or she is at a proper weight.

If your dog is overweight, institute a high-carbohydrate, high-fiber diet. Try to avoid foods that are high in sugar – they include most soft-moist food and doggie treats.

According to the Whole Dog Journal, dogs with diabetes have survival rates similar to those without the disease, as long as they get proper treatment and good care. The greatest risk is early in the treatment and a diabetic dog is more likely to die of complications, like kidney disease, than diabetes itself.

What to do

Take note and act quickly if your dog exhibits symptoms of diabetes. Some may be subtle at first, but uncharacteristic indoor “accidents” may be a sign that your pet is suffering.

Tell your vet exactly what symptoms you have observed. If diabetes is the diagnosis, learn the proper technique for administering insulin shots and commit yourself to it.

Ask your vet to recommend a healthy dog food and make sure your pet gets plenty of exercise.

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The facts and the myths surrounding acne

Most people have it at some point in their life, so what can you do to get rid of it?

For most people, there are some challenges during their teenage years that stop once adulthood hits.Like the social awkwardness a person might have or a...

PhotoMost people have some challenges during their teenage years that stop once adulthood hits.

Social awkwardness is one example. A person might have a lack of self-confidence at one time or another, but in many cases learns how to deal with it as he or she gets older.

But then there are some teenage problems that follow you right into adulthood like acne, which plagues more than 60 million Americans, according to statics gathered by BES Skincare.

Variety of problems

Some of the different types of acne are blackheads, which penetrate the surface of the skin and obviously turn black.

There are whiteheads that remain under the surface of the skin, papules, which are tiny inflamed pink bumps, pustules, which are regular pimples, cysts, that are puss-filled and can cause permanent marks and nodules--which are painful bumps that exist way below the skin.

Is it your diet?

Experts say a diet that's highly glycemic can cause acne to worsen, so foods like rice, pasta, bread and products with a lot of flour can make a person's acne condition worse. In addition, scientists say dairy products can cause a person to breakout, since milk is filled with hormones and hormones can cause acne.

In a 2007 study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers found a definite link between milk and skin outbreaks.

At the conclusion of the study researchers noticed the people who drank skimmed milk had worse acne than the others, and had a 44% chance of the acne scarring their skin.

PhotoA new look

Dr. Jennifer Burris, from the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Steinhardt School of Education and Human Development at New York University, said scientists are taking another look at the link between diet and bad skin.

Before the 1960s, a lot of scientists believed certain foods caused acne, but afterwards, others started to challenge this belief and said acne came from other sources besides diet.

Today that has changed a bit, said Burris.

"More recently, dermatologists and registered dietitians have revisited the diet-acne relationship and become increasingly interested in the role of medical nutritional therapy in acne treatment," she said. "This research is necessary to fully understand the underlying mechanisms linking diet and acne. The medical community should not dismiss the possibility of diet therapy as an adjunct treatment for acne.

"At this time, the best approach is to address each acne patient individually, carefully considering the possibility of dietary counseling,"  Burris added.

Not a 'kid' thing

Jane Liedtka, a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said people of all ages deal with acne, and a good percentage of them aren't going through puberty.

"Many see their acne go away by the time they reach their 30s," she says. "But for some, acne persists into their 40s and 50s."

In addition, Liedtka says that very few people with acne are facing a serious health risk, but the emotional problems it can cause can have long-term effects.

"It can cause significant emotional distress, as well as permanent scarring of skin tissue," she said.

Besides diet, experts say stress can cause a person to have acne, and so can genetics. Many experts believe that certain bacterium species can cause acne.

PhotoAccording to the American Academy of Dermatology, dry skin or dermatitis can cause breakouts too, so moisturizing the skin regularly can be extremely helpful.

Myths

What are some common myths surrounding acne?

There are many, but some include the myth that acne is caused by sweating, not washing your face or bad hygiene.

"These factors do not cause the clogged pores that contribute to acne development," says Liedtka.

In addition, there isn't a definitive way to prevent acne, even though many infomercials and companies will try to convince you that their product is the way  to avoid outbreaks.

Another myth is that a person should let acne disappear on its own, but that's the wrong move, say experts, because it can leave permanent scarring.

According to the statistics released by BES Skincare, 40% don't do anything about their acne, 30% will grab over the counter medicines, 20% will see a dermatologist and 10% will visit a doctor.

What to do

It's important not to squeeze your pimples, as this increases the risk of infection and scarring, say experts. 

In addition, you can get an over-the-counter medication, because some of them do work, but these types of treatments should only be for mild cases.

Over-the-counter medications come in various forms, including creams, lotions and gels, so the FDA says it's extremely important to speak with a physician before using any of these products, to determine which is best for you.

Additionally, it's smart to read the ingredients of the medication so you know how to react if you have any side effects. And if you have severe acne be sure to speak with your dermatologist to see if there is a prescription medication that can help you.

Dr. Susan Evans,  director of Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery and Skin Care, says getting the right medication can be the only thing standing in your way of getting rid of your acne.

"If you are suffering from acne that has not been successfully treated, you may need to seek out acne treatments that are stronger than the average over-the-counter products. There are many different types of acne treatments available," she said.

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Facebook promises to get tougher on hate speech

Advertisers have been pulling their ads rather than offend consumers

Sometimes the free market does what it's supposed to, although not always in the way you might expect. In the latest instance, advertisers are enforcing so...

PhotoSometimes the free market does what it's supposed to, although not always in the way you might expect. In the latest instance, advertisers are enforcing some minimal standards of decency on Facebook.

For some inexplicable reason, perhaps the result of technocrats taking too many science and math courses, there is a currently popular attitude that the publishers of web sites aren't responsible for what they let people say on their sites; acting like a responsible publisher is somehow seen as censoring free speech.

It is, of course, nothing of the kind. Bigots and misogynists are free to say what they like but publishers aren't required to disseminate their comments. Ironically, it is advertisers who have had to conduct Publishing 101 classes in an attempt to explain this to the likes of Facebook.

Money talks

Feminist groups have been pressuring Facebook to ban pages that glorify violence against women but their efforts didn't bear much fruit until advertisers took notice and let their checkbooks do the talking. Yesterday, Nissan U.K. pulled all of its ads from Facebook because of offensive content on the site.

"Working with Facebook, we realized that if an individual goes to a page that may have offensive content on it, our ads could follow them into those pages," Nissan spokesman David Reuter said, according to Advertising Age.

According to Women, Action & the Media (WAM), one of the women's groups leading the campaign, 15 advertisers pulled their ads from Facebook. 

Photo

Message received

Facebook seems to finally be getting the message. 

"We need to do better — and we will," Facebook said in a blog post. It said it has "no tolerance for hate speech or content that is threatening, or incited violence, and we will not tolerate material deemed to be directly harmful to anyone."

"We have been working over the past several months to improve our systems to respond to reports of violations, but the guidelines used by these systems have failed to capture all the content that violates our standards," Facebook said.

It's often forgotten by new media types that advertisers place great value on the environment in which their ads appear. It's the reason that advertisers are still willing to pay more to advertise in, say, Vanity Fair than on web sites that rely on unedited -- or "unmoderated" to use the current patois -- user-generated content that all too often is illiterate, hateful, ill-informed and rife with grammatical and spelling errors that render it all but unreadable.  

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You don't have to be rich to set up a trust fund

More people are using them to control how their assets are distributed

Popular conception of a trust fund beneficiary is the heir to a fortune. Plenty of them do, in fact, have trust funds but you don't have to be rich to set ...

PhotoPopular conception of a trust fund beneficiary is the heir to a fortune. Plenty of them do, in fact, have trust funds but you don't have to be rich to set one up.

The main reason to establish a trust is to ensure assets are transferred to someone else in keeping with your wishes. While a will can do the same thing, a trust can actually do the transfer while you are still living, if the conditions you set out are met.

Even if you aren't rich, if you are contemplating a trust fund you most likely have been able to save some money or produce some significant assets. You may want to set up a trust because the beneficiary isn't quite as financially savvy as you are. You may have made the judgment that it would be a mistake to give them a large sum of money all at once.

People also set up trusts for tax reasons. In some cases, the assets in the trust can grow but the growth does not result in higher taxes for you.

Revocable and irrevocable

There are revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. With a revocable trust, you can change the terms once it has been established. With an irrevocable trust, once it's set up you can't change it. The assets in the trust fall outside your control.

Why would you agree to that? You might because the assets that are in an irrevocable trust are no longer part of your estate. That might be important when you die and your estate is over the now-lower limit for the death tax.

Assets you place in a revocable trust still belong to you and, as such, are part of your estate. If their value nudges you over the limit of a tax-free estate, your heirs will owe death taxes.

But if your estate is well under the limit, you don't have that concern an a revocable trust might be a good option.

Estate tax uncertainty

Attorney John O. McManus, founding principal at McManus & Associates, says there was a rush to create trusts before the end of 2012 because of uncertainly over tax laws. It turned out changes were mostly minor, but McManus says people considering a trust shouldn't delay.

"Less than six months ago, many of our clients put assets into trust and have enjoyed appreciation in the trust assets of 20 percent in cases where they chose the most aggressive portion of their personal portfolio to deposit into trust,” he said. “Now those who funded the trust with $5 million have $6 million, an additional $1 million free of state and federal estate tax."

Naturally, there are costs associated with setting up any kind of trust. The legal assistance required to properly do it is specialized and tends to be expensive. Before heading down that road, it might be wise to first have a conversation with your accountant about whether its needed or not.

Trustees and beneficiaries

As the name implies, a trust is administered by a trustee. A trustee may be an individual or a company. It controls the assets and has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiary.

The beneficiary, the person or entity that will eventually receive the assets, may be entitled to income from the trust for a period of time before they receive all the trust's assets.

If estate taxes are not a concern, a revocable trust gives the grantor the most flexibility. With a revocable trust, you can even cancel the entire arrangement if circumstances change. If you aren't among the super rich but think you could benefit from a trust, this could be the way to go.

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TSA completes removal of "backscatter" x-ray scanners

Machines had been derided as "digital strip searches"

Some of the firearms discovered last week in carry-on baggageThe "backscatter" x-ray body scanners that caused so much consternation in U.S. airports h...

Photo
Some of the firearms discovered last week in carry-on baggage

The "backscatter" x-ray body scanners that caused so much consternation in U.S. airports have been removed. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) says the last of the scanners has been taken out of service.

The TSA was forced to remove the machines after Congress required that the devices produce only generic images. They've been replaced by about 700 body scanners that use what is called Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) software, which display items on a generic body outline.

But TSA says the backscatter machines could return if their manufacturer, Rapiscan, comes up software that would return a more generic image to the TSA screening officers.

Critics of the machines have also objected to the radiation travelers are exposed to when they pass through the scanners.

Record firearms seizure

For its part, TSA notes that it is business as usual, and then some, at the nation's airports. The agency says it discovered 65 firearms being carried by passengers last week, a record number. Of the 65, 54 were loaded and 19 had rounds chambered.

In one case, a passenger with a prosthetic leg got a pat-down at Salt Lake City after passing through the x-ray machine when officers noted something unusual in the image. They found a fully-loaded .22-caliber firearm inside the man's boot, strapped to his prosthetic leg. 

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Target pledges not to sell genetically engineered salmon

It's the latest big retailer to take the pledge as the FDA ponders its decision

Target is the latest large food retailer to pledge that it won't sell genetically engineered salmon. It joins nearly 60 other stores inlcuding Trader Joe's...

PhotoTarget is the latest large food retailer to pledge that it won't sell genetically engineered salmon. It joins nearly 60 other stores inlcuding Trader Joe's, Aldi, Whole Foods, Marsh and Hy-Vee.  

“There’s no room on our plates for genetically engineered seafood. Consumers don’t want it and price-competitive stores across middle America are refusing to sell it,” said Eric Hoffman food & technology policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth. "We need to see more big retailers take this kind of initiative. We're hoping that Safeway, which has become a real leader in seafood sustainability in other ways, and other major grocery stores turn the corner here and pledge to stay away from genetically engineered salmon."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been reviewing a proposal to permit the sale of genetically altered salmon. It has received more than 1.8 million comments from consumers, most of them opposing the proposal.

The FDA had preliminarily determined that the process would have no effect on the environment. But a new peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, found evidence that genetically engineered salmon can breed with wild trout and create offspring that grow even faster, possibly overpowering wild fish in the competition for food. 

Problem or solution?

“Simply put, this genetically engineered fish is a problem masquerading as a solution,” said Heather Whitehead, online campaigns director at Center for Food Safety. “It’s bad for the consumer, bad for the environment, and bad for our native salmon. Since these fish will likely not be labeled, consumers have to rely on retailers like these to reject unwanted and unnecessary GE fish. We will continue to pressure other retailers to side with consumers.”

The FDA has said that it will likely not require labeling genetically engineered salmon, providing consumers no way of knowing if the fish they are feeding their families is genetically engineered.

At least 35 other species of genetically engineered fish are under development, and the FDA's decision on salmon will be seen as a precedent for other fish as well as other food animals, including cows, chickens and pigs.

 

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Dear old dad is about to get his

Survey suggests consumers will increase the Father's Day spending this year

A rebounding economy means consumers will have more discretionary money to spend and that may benefit dads across the country. Industry research firm IBIS...

PhotoA rebounding economy means consumers will have more discretionary money to spend and that may benefit dads across the country.

Industry research firm IBISWorld projects Father’s Day spending will total $13.2 billion this year -- 2.1% more than in 2012. And, in even better news for pop, traditional Father’s Day gifts, such as automotive accessories and clothing, will take a backseat to gift choices reflecting economic recovery, like home-improvement tools. This increase is mainly due to the overall rise in consumer spending during the past year.

How we spend

Special outings, like dining out and watching sporting events, are expected to account for the largest share of Father’s Day spending this year, contributing 18.8% of total holiday sales -- up 3.5% from 2012. Specifically, spending at restaurants is expected to increase on Father’s Day as families go out to eat to celebrate.

Spending on things such as books, CDs, personal care products and sporting goods is expected to account for 18.4% of this holiday’s spending. These gifts are estimated to increase 1.9% from last year as people shift away from more practical gifts like clothing. Because consumers have higher disposable income levels than they did during the recession, they have more flexibility in buying discretionary gifts, such as golf clubs.

Put it in writing

Greeting cards sales are estimated to jump 9.0% from 2012, but will only account for 6.9% of total holiday spending. Higher disposable incomes will lead consumers to be more inclined to buy a card AND a present for dad, instead of just one or the other. Additionally, the growth in popularity of handcrafted greetings cards, driven by a willingness to spend on personalized goods, will help boost spending on this category.

Clothing and electronics, both popular, long-standing choices for dad, are estimated to account for more than one-quarter of Father’s Day spending combined. Spending on clothing, however, is expected to slightly decline as consumers change preferences and increase spending on electronics, such as an iPod touch or Amazon Kindle Fire.

Gift cards will also remain a holiday mainstay this year because of their ease, convenience and their ability to let dad choose his own gift. They are estimated to account for the same amount of Father’s Day spending as they did last year – 13.1%.

Hands-on gifts

Despite strong growth in overall spending on Father’s Day this year, spending on automotive accessories is estimated to drop 3.4% from 2012. Even though the automotive industry is expected to show signs of growth in 2013, consumer preferences for Father’s Day gifts have started to shift from car accessories to home-improvement gifts.

This is because of rises in housing prices and disposable income levels, which have led consumers to put time and money into do-it-yourself home repairs. Homeowners have veered away from hiring outside workers or contractors, as they are still adhering to tight budgets after the recent housing crash. These factors are estimated to boost consumer spending in this gift category in 2013.

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Universal anti-bacterial treatment seen as best answer to hospital infections

Large study finds that treating all patients as though they carry MRSA is most effective antidote

The antiobiotic-resistant staph infection known as MRSA is a huge problem in hospitals but a new study finds a simple solution that reduces bloodstream inf...

PhotoThe antiobiotic-resistant staph infection known as MRSA is a huge problem in hospitals but a new study finds a simple solution that reduces bloodstream infections in intensive care unit patients by up to 44 percent.

The solution: treat every ICU patient as though they carry the infection. In a study involving 74 ICUs and more than 74,000 patients, it was found that providing germ-killing soap and ointment to all ICU patients reduced MRA by 37 percent and bloodstream infections by any germ by 44 percent.

MRSA -- short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus -- is often present on the bodies of incoming patients. Besides infecting those patients when they are exposed to needle sticks and other skin punctures, it can also be spread to other patients in the ICU.

The study, REDUCE MRSA trial, was published in the New England Journal of Medicineand took place in two stages from 2009-2011, involving a multidisciplinary team from the University of California, Irvine, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is the largest study of its kind to date.

Three practices studied

Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of three MRSA prevention practices: routine care, providing germ-killing soap and ointment only to patients with MRSA , and providing germ-killing soap and ointment to all ICU patients.   The study found:

  • Routine care did not significantly reduce MRSA or bloodstream infections.
  • Providing germ-killing soap and ointment only to patients with MRSA reduced bloodstream infections by any germ by 23 percent.
  • Providing germ-killing soap and ointment to all ICU patients reduced MRSA by 37 percent and bloodstream infections by any germ by 44 percent.

"This will save lives, and sets a new standard for preventing bloodstream infections in the intensive-care unit," said Jonathan Perlin, president, clinical and physician services group and chief medical officer at HCA. HCA said it is now implementing the protocol in all of its hospital ICUs. 

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A slightly slower rate of first quarter economic growth

The labor market shows a little slack as well

Economic growth in the first quarter wasn't quite as robust as first estimated. Still it's a lot better than it was in the final three months of last year....

PhotoEconomic growth in the first quarter wasn't quite as robust as first estimated. Still it's a lot better than it was in the final three months of last year.

The Commerce Department today released its second reading of gross domestic product -- the output of goods and services in the United States -- which showed expansion at an annual rate of 2.4%. The initial reading came in at 2.5%, while the growth rate in the fourth quarter of 2012 was a tepid 0.4%.

The second GDP estimate shows that increases in private inventory investment, exports and imports were smaller than first believed. But the general picture of overall economic activity is not greatly changed.

The increase in real GDP in the first quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures, private inventory investment, residential fixed investment, nonresidential fixed investment, and exports that were partly offset by declines in federal government spending and state and local government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

The full GDP report can be found at the Commerce Department website.

Jobless claims

PhotoSome giveback in the weekly jobless claims.

After falling sharply last week, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits shot up by 10,000 in the week ending May 25 -- to 354,000. Turns out the number reported previous week by the Labor Department (DOL) wasn't quite as good as first estimated. The total number of claims was revised upward -- by 4,000 -- to 344,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and consider a more accurate gauge of the job market, rose 6,750 to 347,250.

More information on the jobs picture is available on the DOL website

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Ability-to-Repay mortgage rule ready to roll

The rules set lending guidelines for certain small creditors and community lenders

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has tweaked the Ability-to-Repay rule to make extending and getting credit less of a hassle to get by crea...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has tweaked the Ability-to-Repay rule to make extending and getting credit less of a hassle by creating specific exemptions and modifications.

The revised rule, which governs small creditors, community development lenders and housing stabilization programs, contains specifics on how to calculate loan origination compensation for certain purposes. The CFPB’s Ability-to-Repay rule was finalized in January of this year.

“Our Ability-to-Repay rule was crafted to promote responsible lending practices,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s amendments embody our efforts to make reasonable changes to the rule in order to foster access to responsible credit for consumers.”

Consumer protections

The Ability-to-Repay rule established that most new mortgages must comply with basic requirements that protect consumers from taking on loans they do not have the financial means to pay back. Lenders are presumed to have complied with the Ability-to-Repay rule if they issue “Qualified Mortgages” (QMs).

These loans must meet certain requirements including prohibitions or limitations on the risky features that harmed consumers in the recent mortgage crisis. If a lender makes a Qualified Mortgage, consumers have greater assurance that they can pay back the loan.

What they do

The newly-approved amendments:

  • Exempt certain nonprofit creditors: The final rule exempts some  nonprofit and community-based lenders that work to help low- and moderate-income consumers obtain affordable housing. 
  • Facilitate lending by certain small creditors: This amendment makes several adjustments to the Ability-to-Repay rule in order to facilitate lending by small creditors, including community banks and credit unions that have less than $2 billion in assets and each year make 500 or fewer first-lien mortgages.
  • Establish how to calculate loan origination compensation: The Dodd-Frank Act mandates that Qualified Mortgages have limited points and fees, and that compensation paid to loan originators, such as loan officers and brokers, is included in points and fees. This cap ensures that lenders offering Qualified Mortgages do not charge excessive points and fees. Today’s amendment provides certain exceptions to this Dodd-Frank requirement that loan originator compensation be included in the total permissible points and fees for both Qualified Mortgages and high-cost loans.

Consumer kudos

The final rules "strike the right balance," according to a leading consumer group. "They safeguard consumers from abusive practices while helping lenders comply with new mortgage lending standards," said Kathleen Day of the Center for Responsible Lending  .

"The rules address two key issues related to the Dodd-Frank Act’s mandate that lenders assess a borrower’s ability to repay, particularly the standards a loan must meet to qualify as a 'Qualified Mortgage (QM).' First, they properly prohibit mortgages with higher fees from gaining Qualified Mortgage (QM) status. Second, they tailor the QM standards for small lenders who hold mortgages in portfolio and for other community-based lenders.

The amendments will take effect with the Ability-to-Repay rule next January.

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Summer internships growing in importance, expert says

How you do during that summer stint could have an impact on job offers

The semester is over and it's summer time. How do you spend it? Lounge on the beach maybe. Bum around Europe? Smart students will opt for an internship an...

PhotoThe semester is over and it's summer time. How do you spend it? Lounge on the beach maybe. Bum around Europe?

Smart students will opt for an internship and, according to John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement and business coaching consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, how you handle it could have a big impact on your future.

Not just an option

Employers are becoming more selective in recruiting and now demand that even entry-level candidates have on-the-job experience. That means, says Challenger, that the once optional summer internship has become a requisite component of any young person’s resume.

“Internships are more important than ever, but not all internship programs are created equal,” Challenger explains. “Many employers do not have any type of strategy when it comes to utilizing and educating their interns. In these situations both the employer and the intern lose. It is critical that young people entering an internship program take a proactive approach to managing and maximizing their experience.”

Stronger job market

A recent outlook by Challenger, Gray & Christmas projects a stronger entry-level job market this year. However, the competition for these positions remains fierce and having internship experience can greatly increase the odds of post-graduation job-search success.

A survey of 2012 graduates conducted last August by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 60 percent of those who participated in paid internships received at least one job offer. In contrast, only 36 percent of graduates with no internship experience on their resume had received job offers.

“The classroom is great for developing critical thinking skills, writing and presentation skills, and general knowledge that provide the fundamental building blocks of any viable job candidate,” said Challenger. “However, nothing beats the hands-on practical experience that internships provide. For those who have already graduated, internships are often the stepping stone to a full-time position.”

What to do

Challenger provides the following advice for this year’s crop of summer interns:

Treat your internship as a real job

The best way to prove you are qualified for a permanent position is through action. Think of your internship as a trial period or extended interview for obtaining the position you desire. Always be on time and meet deadlines. Maintain a positive attitude and show that you are eager to learn and succeed by seeking out feedback to improve your performance and develop new skills.

Take initiative and exceed expectations

By taking initiative you can show management what you are capable of. Do not be afraid to voice your own ideas, offer solutions, and ask questions. Show interest in attending meetings and seek out extra work and new projects.

Dress according to company dress codes

While you want to stand out from the pack, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself for the wrong reasons. By dressing professionally you reinforce the impression that you can adapt to and fit in with the company’s culture.

Keep track of your contributions and accomplishments

Keep track of the projects you worked on, your individual contributions, and the results achieved. Having a tangible record of your achievements with the company is a helpful tool in convincing a manager why you should be hired full time.

Network, network, network

Developing contacts inside and outside of your department is extremely important. Schedule lunches or meetings with company managers and executives to give them a better understanding of what you’re about and what you plan on accomplishing. Find a mentor to teach you the ropes of the organization and offer advice on company politics.

Ask about available entry-level positions

Let your employer know that you would like a job with that particular organization. Ask about what positions are available and express your interest in them.

Maintain contact

If you don’t get hired for a position immediately after your internship ends, stay in touch. Check-in with your contacts and provide updates on your progress. This will help to keep you in the forefront for the employer’s mind when a position opens.  

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Pending home sales hit highest level in three years

April's increase was small, but it was enough to continue a trend

The housing market continues to be the economy's bright spot. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports pending home sales, a forward-looking ind...

PhotoThe housing market continues to be the economy's bright spot.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports pending home sales, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, were up 0.3% in April to 106.0 in April and well above the year-ago level.

The uptick put the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) at the highest level since it hit 110.9 in April 2010, immediately before the deadline for the home buyer tax credit. Pending sales, which reflect contracts but not closing, have been above year-ago levels for the past 24 months.

NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun says a familiar pattern has developed. “The housing market continues to squeak out gains from already very positive conditions,” he said. “Pending contracts so far this year easily correspond to higher closed home sales in 2013.” Total existing-home sales are expected to rise just over 7% to about 5 million this year. They were up 0.6% last month.

“Because of inventory shortages, higher home sales will push up home values to the highest level in five years,” Yun said. The national median existing-home price should increase close to 8% and exceed $190,000 in 2013.

Uneven regionally

  • Gains in the Northeast and Midwest were offset largely by declines in the West and South.
  • The PHSI in the Northeast jumped 11.5% to 92.3 in April and is 17.7% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index rose 3.2% to 107.1 in April and is 15.1% above the April 2012 level.
  • Pending home sales in the South slipped 1.1% to an index of 119.2 in April, but are 12.3% above a year ago.
  • Because of inventory constraints, the index in the West fell 7.6% in April to 94.6 and is 2.6% below April 2012.
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What to do? Check an event site

There are plenty of good sites that provide one-stop shopping for local activities

With a little less than a month until summer, many people are making plans to go to concerts, festivals and local outside events.  But with so many ...

PhotoWith a little less than a month until summer, many people are making plans to go to concerts, festivals and local outside events. But with so many activities going on all at once, what's the best way to find out what to do?

Today there are a bunch of apps and websites that let you know what's going on in your area, so we decided to pick out some of the best ones, like Zvents for example.

The company began in 2004 and since then Zvents has been a pretty popular site that tells you what's going on both in and out of your area. It allows you to purchase tickets to events too.

The creators of the site say 10 million people use it each month and 15,000 advertisers promote all kinds of events every month as well.

Whether you're looking to attend a ballgame in your area, some sort of community event or a local play, all you have to do is go to the events page of the site and you'll see a list of things that are up and coming. You can search for events by event type, city or by date.

The site allows you to click on different holidays throughout the year too, just to see what events are taking place on that day. And if you have an event of your own, you can put it on the site and get the word out to millions of users.

And besides clicking on the events tab, you can click on movies, venues, performers and restaurants too. 

In the restaurant section, you can make your selection by cuisine, price, city or user rating and the restaurant page automatically brings up places to eat in your area--without you having to do a search. And by clicking on a particular event, you can buy tickets on the site, but you can't purchase them on the mobile app.

A couple of years back Zvents was purchased by Stubhub, which is a part of eBay.

WikiDo

WikiDo is another good site to search for events and extremely easy to use.

PhotoAll you have to do is enter your town into the search field, type in what you want to do and when you want to do it and the site gives you a list of things to do under a variety of categories.

For example, when I researched the events that were in my town, the site quickly gave me 82 different things to do today, so it really gives you a lot.

Wikido's categories cover many activities, as you can look for social events, religious events, something in the arts, sports, restaurants, fitness activities, you name it.

In addition, the creators of the site encourage users to provide feedback for the events they attend, so other people can know how good a venue, restaurant or sporting event was.

And just like on Zvents, you can add and promote activities of your own.  In fact, all of these sites allow you to add an event if you want to.

CultureMob

The site CultureMob works a bit differently, at least during the sign-up process. When registering for the site, users put checks next to their categories of choice, whether it's books, film, music, theater or food. 

PhotoCultureMob definitely caters to those who are interested in arts and entertainment more than anything else. In addition, the site gathers information about your Netflix and iTunes choices so it can recommend things for you to watch and listen to.

CultureMob uses a bunch of local writers too, who specialize in each category, so you can get first-hand opinions and reviews about the events in your area.

So between finding an array of things for you to do, giving you direct on-the-scene-reviews and having an interactive component, CultureMob is a very cool site to check out if you haven't done so already.

Eventful

Arguably the most popular of the event sites is Eventful.com

The creators of the site say it gives users millions of local events to choose from and it has the most comprehensive selection of things to do than any other event site. 

PhotoIn addition, Eventful tells you about local events on its mobile app. And it can email you the activities too, so you can be alerted through a number of ways.

The site has a "Demand it" feature as well, that lets users choose where they want events to take place. 

So if a certain community wants the Dave Matthews Band to come to their town for example, they could demand it on the site. The creators of Eventful say musicians, comedians and entertainers go to the site to see where people want them to come.

Look, summer time offers a lot of things to do, and sometimes it can be a challenge to figure out where to start looking. 

Sure you can go to one site for movies, another site for restaurants and so on, but you may find it easier to go to a single website, so you can learn about all of the best activities in one shot.

Additionally, these sites and a few others like it are good for those who move to a new town, as they can help you find out what's going on, so you're not just wandering around town aimlessly.

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Can reducing stress help slow cancer?

Some studies suggest positive emotions are helpful; tips from a psychotherapist

According to The World Health Organization more people die from cancer than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria put together.In a study conducted by Wake Fore...

PhotoHaving cancer is stressful enough but add in stress from family, work and other venues and it can be a problem. In a study conducted by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, researchers looked into the possible effects of a patient's stress level on the effectiveness of the drugs that a patient is taking. 

They used mice to determine how big a role stress played in the effectiveness of drugs for prostate cancer. The researchers noticed when mice were kept away from stressful surroundings they responded better to  medication.

When the mice were stressed, their cancer cells remained and their tumors were the same size. In seperate findings, tumors got bigger in the mice that faced continuous stress.

At the conclusion of the study, researchers said a person's body produces a chemical response when he or she becomes stressed or has anxiety. And that chemical response affects how much their cancer cells grow. 

Researchers at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences said the same thing.

Endorphins' effect

In a separate study, researchers said having increased levels of beta-endorphin peptide (BEP) -- the hormone that's associated with pleasure -- can slow the growth of tumors. 

"Our findings show promise for future therapeutic treatments for bolstering the immune function," said Dr. Dipak K. Sarkar, who worked on the study. "We are optimistic that this research can be applied to human medicine. Instead of transplanting cells, we will investigate whether we can increase BEP using a chemical approach."

Niki Barr, Ph.D., author of "Emotional Wellness: The Other Half of Treating Cancer," says if a cancer patient can learn to be emotionally healthy, it's great for that patient. "More than 1.6 million Americans are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year and how they deal with it can have a dramatic effect on their physical and emotional health." 

"So finding ways to ease the stress associated with cancer is vital. And part of what causes that anxiety is the feeling that you've lost all control of your life," said Barr, a psychotherapist who works with cancer patients and their families.

So how do cancer patients get some of that control back?

Emotional wellness

Photo
Niki Barr

Barr created what she calls the "emotional wellness toolbox," which is something tangible a patient can do to stay positive during cancer treatment.

She believes cancer patients should be proactive in their efforts to be emotionally healthy and should start taking those proactive steps as soon as they receive their diagnosis.

Barr says gathering these items will help you relax and deal with stress a little bit better: writing materials, a device to play your favorite music, meditation CDs, and a box to keep all of these items in.

Patients and their loved ones should use this box of items as a psychological boost when they need it and continue to use it throughout their treatment.

Barr says that people should use a breathing exercise too.

"A simple technique for immediate relief from anxiety is triangle breathing," she explains. "Breathe in, breath out, then pause, during which you say a word such as 'calm', 'peace', 'confident.' it's remarkably effective."

In addition, cancer patients can do certain things to battle feelings of depression, like doing their research and having a firm understanding of what their treatment will be. Maintaining a positive and healthy routine is key too.

What patients talk about affects how they feel, says Barr, so it's important for them to create positive affirmations and create moments when they're not talking about cancer at all. Keeping a journal is another way of battling depression.

And getting back to some form of normalcy is important as well.

Barr says the first thing cancer patients should do after receiving a diagnosis is gather all of their treatment records and gather information about future treatments.

Doing this can allow patients to put their entire experience into better perspective. 

Be decisive

The next thing to do is make a decision. Patients should determine what kind of life they want to live during their experience, whether it's a change in their diet or overall lifestyle.

These are just some of the things cancer patients can do to help them deal with their illness, says Barr, as maintaining a positive outlook is crucial.

"These tips are gathered from working with cancer patients and their families, taking what is most effective to share with other cancer patients and their families," said Barr. "Sometimes cancer returns and, sadly, some do not survive cancer."

"Regardless of the severity of a diagnosis, however, there are good and bad ways to navigate this disease -- that should be the primary concern, along with treatment, when you or a loved one are diagnosed."

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Gmail gets a new inbox, with tabs to reduce clutter

Google tries to get out in front of startups offering email management tools

Perhaps feeling pressure from startups like Mailbox and Sparrow, Google is launching a redesigned Gmail today, trying once again to relieve inbox clutter a...

PhotoPerhaps feeling pressure from startups like Mailbox, Google is launching a redesigned Gmail today, trying once again to relieve inbox clutter and, perhaps, to promote Google+, something it now does incessantly.

Three years ago, Google added the Priority Inbox feature, which tried to bring some order to cluttered inboxes by sorting messages based on their perceived importance. How successful that was varies widely from one user to the next, we suspect.

But this time, Google says it has it right.

"We get a lot of different types of email: messages from friends, social notifications, deals and offers, confirmations and receipts, and more," said . "All of these emails can compete for our attention and make it harder to focus on the things we need to get done. Sometimes it feels like our inboxes are controlling us, rather than the other way around."

Photo

"Today, Gmail is getting a brand new inbox on desktop and mobile that puts you back in control using simple, easy organization," Gilad said, explaining that the new interface groups emails into categories that appear as different tabs -- Primary, Social, Promotions and Updates, among others.

On Android phones and on Gmail for iPhone and iPad, the Primary tab will appear as the default.

If you don't like the new options, you can switch back to basic view, or make adjustments when the Configure Inbox option appears in your Settings tab, Gilad said. 

The changes are being rolled out gradually, so it may be a few weeks before all users see the new format. 

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Last of the aerosol asthma inhalers will soon be gone

Asthma, COPD patients sacrificed for environmental preservation

If you use an inhaler to treat your asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) you're going to have to get a new one. The last two inhalers us...

PhotoIf you use an aerosol inhaler to treat your asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) you're going to have to get a new one.

The last two inhalers used in the United States containing ozone-damaging chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) and are being pulled from the market by the end of this year.

If you use one of them, you'll have to talk with your doctor about a prescription for an alternative.

Most people who use inhalers have already made the switch to those that are CFC-free and the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that -- in general -- the transition has gone smoothly. 

Inhaler problems

The transition may have gone smoothly for the FDA but it hasn't been trouble free for patients.

An asthma patient in Virginia voiced harsh concerns about the FDA's comments that patients remember to breathe deep with the new inhalers. The new, non-flurocarbon rescue inhalers require the patient to take a deep breath, whereas the older inhalers aggressively shot the medication into the airways. 

"This is absolutely total ignorance," says Roger M. of Glen Allen, Virginia, in a ConsumerAffairs post. "People having an asthma attack and in a panic state cannot breathe in deeply. People with COPD and limited lung function -- when in need of medication -- cannot breathe in deeply. Recent times have shown the (incompetence-plagued) FDA's inability to properly understand and evaluate these life altering decisions."

"I may die if I cannot have my CFC inhaler," says Paulette B. of Sacramento, California. "I cannot use hydrofluoroalkanes (HFA) albuterol inhalers as I am allergic to the propellants in all of them. I tried two different ones and they made me cough really badly, and my lungs burned awfully. They gave me an awful headache and caused nausea, too." 

The phase-out

But be that as it may, the final two inhalers on the market are going away. 

Combivent Inhalation Aerosol will no longer be available after July 2013. It contains two medicines -- ipratropium bromide and albuterol sulfate. A bronchodialator intended to open airways, it is approved for patients with COPD. An alternative inhaler -- Combivent Respimat -- contains the same two medicines but does not contain CFCs. It was approved by the FDA in 2011.

Maxair Autohaler will not be available after Dec. 31, 2013. This inhaler contains pirbuterol, which is also a bronchodilator and is used for the treatment of bronchial spasms in patients with asthma or COPD. Alternative inhalers are available that contain other bronchodilator medicines, such as albuterol or levalbuterol, but do not use CFCs as a propellant to move the medicine from the inhaler.

CFCs a problem

CFCs damage the ozone, a thin, outer layer in the stratosphere that acts as Earth's shield against the sun's radiation. The U.S. and most other countries signed the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s to phase out the worldwide production and use of CFCs. In this country, CFCs have been removed from such products as hairsprays, deodorants and air conditioning.

CFCs have also been used in medical devices, including as propellants to move medicine out of inhalers so that patients can breathe in the medicine. For more than two decades, FDA has coordinated the phase-out of CFCs in inhalers.

Most inhalers using CFCs have already been phased out. The most widely used -- albuterol CFC inhalers -- were phased out in 2008 and replaced with alternatives that use HFAs. The most recent phase-out was of over-the-counter epinephrine inhalers sold under the brand name Primatene Mist, which were phased out at the end of 2011.

FDA maintains a list of inhalers for asthma and COPD that do not use CFCs, and adds the names of new non-CFC inhalers as they become available.

Used by millions

Millions of people who suffer from asthma, allergies and COPD use inhalers. In the U.S., more than 25 million people suffer from asthma, a disease that affects the airways in the lungs and can cause coughing, trouble breathing, wheezing and tightness or pain in the chest. Attacks can be mild, moderate, severe and even life-threatening.

Another 15 million U.S residents have been diagnosed with COPD, a serious lung disease that usually causes breathing to get worse over time. It can limit airflow, and may include chronic bronchitis, emphysema or both.

While all FDA-approved inhalers currently on the market have been shown to be effective, there are some differences between the products. For example, products propelled by HFA may taste and feel different than the spray from CFC-propelled inhalers.

Although some consumers note that the spray from an HFA inhaler feels less forceful, this does not mean that the medicine is not working. Other alternative medications may use no propellant at all. Your doctor may be able to find the product right for you.

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Owning a green car without spending a lot of green

Chevy, Nissan and Fiat are competing with cheaper electric vehicles

The Chevy Volt runs on battery power but costs around $40,000. The Tesla, which has dazzled the automotive world lately, is even more expensive. The car, c...

 

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Chevy Spark

The Chevy Volt runs on battery power but costs around $40,000. The Tesla, which has dazzled the automotive world lately, is even more expensive. The car, combining style, engineering and energy efficiency, can cost around $90,000.

 

Isn't there an electric car for the consumer who can only afford a Camry? Well, yes there is.

Chevrolet is set to introduce the Chevy Spark EV, a subcompact that runs on a plug-in battery. It goes on sale next month in Oregon and California for around $27,000 – but the price drops to $19,995 after a federal tax credit of $7,500.

Efficient and affordable

"The Chevrolet Spark EV is the most efficient - and now one of the most affordable - EVs you can buy," said Chris Perry, GM's vice president of Chevrolet marketing.

Photo
Nissan Leaf

But the Spark EV isn't the first electric vehicle with a more affordable price tag. The NissanLeaf, introduced in 2011, is also a small, all-electric vehicle. Nissan advertises the Leaf for as low as $21,300 after the tax credit.

The Leaf's mileage is also impressive – 129 city, 109 highway. In early models, however, its range was called into question by at least one formerly enthusiastic owner. 

More recent Leaf owners deliver a mixed verdict. Gerry, of San Marino, Calif., reports leasing a Leaf in 2012.

“Very happy with the car,” he wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

Patrick, of Santa Barbara, Calif., isn't as fortunate. He's having computer problems with his Leaf.

“About 12 days ago the car would not start and the computer told me that my foot was not on the brake, but it was,” he writes. “The computer could not sense that my foot was trying to press the brake (remember that the brakes are computer assisted). I took the car into the dealership, and they have had it for 12 days and still they, and Nissan USA have no idea what the problem is.”

By waiting two years before delivering an all-electric subcompact, GM may hope to avoid some of these glitches. They're starting with a chassis that's been around for a while.

Gas-powered version

GM has produced the Spark in Korea and sold it internationally since 1998. It's the first time the carmaker is equipping it with battery power. The gasoline-powered version of the Spark has a 1.2 liter four-cylinder engine and starts at under $13,000.

 

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Chevrolet Volt

GM says the Spark EV delivers 400 foot-pounds of torque, powered by a lithium-ion battery. It utilizes some of the same electric power technology used in the Chevy Volt, which GM introduced in 2010. Though sales of the Volt have lagged projections, we heard from at least one consumer who loves it.

 

“I purchased a 2013 Chevy Volt in September,” Thomas, of Sunrise, Fla., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Since having this car I am amazed at its efficiency. I plug it in and get 47-49 miles on a charge. It is a very quiet car. I drove from Fort Lauderdale to Naples, Florida on hold which means I was on gas. I used the electric charge running around Naples. My return trip showed only one mile left on the electric before it switched automatically to gas. I put the car in mountain mode and was amazed that this car charged itself. I have only used a tank of gas in seven months.”

Longer payback

But the Volt's price tag means it will take quite a few miles before the gas savings pay for themselves, perhaps one reason the motoring public has been slow to embrace the car. With their less expensive all-electric vehicles, Nissan and GM are betting that more drivers will be willing to give an electric vehicle a shot, especially since the net cost is less than many gasoline-powered vehicles.

Though costing about $10,000 more than the Leaf and Spark, the Fiat 500e also competes for the green consumer on a budget. All three electrics are offering very attractive lease terms – $199 a month with $999 due at signing.

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The new face of retirement

Baby boomers are doing it differently

Every day, more members of the baby boom generation retire. Only they're doing it a lot differently than their parents' generation.They tend to be more a...

PhotoEvery day, more members of the baby boom generation retire. Only they're doing it a lot differently than their parents' generation.

They tend to be more affluent, healthier and still seeking life's spark. Sandra Block, an editor at Kiplinger, talked to a lot of recent retirees, seeking insight into how the latest gray-haired generation is changing the concept of retirement.

"When I talk to people and they say they want to retire, what they really mean is they want to quit the job they have right now,” Block said. “But they don't envision themselves never working again."

Far from it. They feel they have a lot of life left and they want to try something new. Sure, the income from employment is nice but this generation has always been all about the experience.

Unfortunately, people over 60 often find it's hard to get a job. A recent survey by AARP concluded that age discrimination remains a fact of life.

“Just because you want to work doesn't mean you'll get the chance,” Block said. One way baby boomers are getting around this is starting their own businesses.

Franchises

Boomers are among the largest group investing in franchises. A franchise often gives a new business owner a better chance at success because of business planning and marketing support. But some simply start a business from scratch, pursuing a venture that reflects their passion.

Another big difference between boomers and past retirees is purely social. In previous generations couples retired together. It's a lot less common now.

"Divorce is much more accepted now,” Block said. “Sometimes people retire and start spending a lot more time together and realize they aren't that crazy about each other. About a third of adults age 50 to 64 are single. Divorce rates for couples over 50 have doubled over the last 20 years."

As a result, boomers are likely to be into the dating scene, an idea that their children may find creepy. They are increasingly using social media and dating sites to look for romance. And because they're dating, boomers want to look good and be healthy.

Staying fit

"There's a tremendous financial incentive to remain fit because health care costs are going to be such a huge part of their retirement spending," Block said. “If they can work out, walk and get regular exercise they can make a significant dent in the cost of health care, even with Medicare."

Fidelity estimates the average couple spends more than $220,000 on medical expenses in retirement, mostly for chronic illnesses.

While some boomers are struggling to make ends meet in retirement, others have done quite well – but find some of their wealth must be spread around in the family.

"They're helping family members on both sides of their generation, their parents and their children,” Block said.

In many cases a boomer helps an aging parent with medical expenses. Children struggling with underemployment and student loans look to Mom and Dad for a helping hand.

Multi-generational households

"Their has been a huge jump in multi-generational households where several generations are living in one house,” Block said. “At the same time, more than half of people over 55 with children are providing them with financial support."

Retiring boomers are changing the housing industry. Builders are providing more homes with “in-law suites” and single level houses  better suited to aging residents.

The boomers were the generation that wanted to change the world, and while they are a little more realistic about that goal now, they haven't abandoned it completely. As a result, many volunteer their time and skills. The percentage of Peace Corps volunteers over 50 is at an all-time high.

They're even going back to school in increasing numbers. Colleges have increased the number and variety of programs that don't necessarily lead to a degree.

An estimated 8,000 boomers turn 65 every day, swelling the ranks of the retired, or soon to be retired. They aren't looking for a rocking chair or spending all their time on the golf course. They generation that exerted influence on culture, finance and the workplace for the last 50 years has no plans to stop.

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"Tough to see" Google Glass having big impact: Apple CEO

But Tim Cook says "wearable devices" have a big future

People have been wearing wristwatches since, well, forever and we've been strapping on various types of music players ever since the Sony Walkman debuted i...

PhotoPeople have been wearing wristwatches since, well, forever and we've been strapping on various types of music players ever since the Sony Walkman debuted in 1979.  And, of course, some folks wear guns, so really, there's nothing new about "wearable devices," even though the term has only lately come into vogue thanks to Google Glass.

But Apple CEO Tim Cook says it's "tough to see" how Google Glass will gain wide acceptance, given objections about privacy and the risk that wearers will make themselves targets for muggers.

Instead, Cook hinted at the D: All Things Digital Conference yesterday that Apple's still-unannounced wearable devices will get a better reception, the Wall Street Journal reported.

It's been rumored that Apple is developing a wristwatch-like device that functions like a smartphone, sort of a latter-day Dick Tracy gizmo.  Cook wasn't revealing details but said that Apple has "several more game-changers" in development.

Cook also announced that Apple has hired former Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson to oversee the company's environmental activities. 

Perhaps sounding somewhat defensive, Cook turned aside complaints that Android devices have overtaken Apple in the smartphone and tablet market. He said Apple is more concerned with having happy customers than with having the most customers.

 

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Does the world need another LinkedIn?

It may be getting one. The Wall Street Journal is planning a social network

"News Corp poised to challenge LinkedIn," reads the headline in The Times of London. News Corp owns the Times as well as the Wall Street Journal, whic...

Photo"News Corp poised to challenge LinkedIn," reads the headline in The Times of London. News Corp owns the Times as well as the Wall Street Journal, which would reportedly be the brand slapped onto the social network.

It may be a little late to be starting a social network, although perhaps it's still early in newspaper years. Things move slowly over there, you know.

It's one of a number of initiatives being dreamed up as Rupert Murdoch's new News Corp. splits off its marginally profitable newspapers from its highly profitable entertainment, television, cable and and satellite business.

Besides the social network, word is the Journal is setting up an instant messaging service for its readers. The world already has a few of those too, of course, but the thinking apparently is that the Journal's imprimatur is such that no respectable hedge fund manager would think of using Google Chat if he could use RupertSpeak, or whatever it will be called.

Meanwhile, in other News Corp news ...

  • Robert Thomson, News Corp CEO, said there will be "relentless" cost cuts in store for the newspaper business as it prepares to separate from  Murdoch's entertainment empire (maybe News Corp should open a resume-writing business for its employees);
  • The company is getting a new logo (see above). In a 643-word memo, eager employees were told the logo is “based on the writing of Rupert and his father.”
  • No grass will grow under the new News Corp's feet, employees were assured. "We will boldly try new businesses and models, unafraid to learn, confident of overall success together," CEO Thompson said in his memo, which appeared to have been cribbed from a graduation speech.

 

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New Jersey gas stations sued in fuel scam

Motorists were sold leaded aviation fuel instead of unleaded gasoline

You ever feel like you were just flying down the road? That might be understandable had you filled up at at six New Jersey gas stations. State Attorney Ge...

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Mortgage and refinance applications dip, even as home sales rise

Rising interest rates are blamed, may dampen future sales

Even as sales of new and existing homes continue to show strength, mortgage and refinance applications headed downward last week. Figures released by the ...

PhotoEven as sales of new and existing homes continue to show strength, mortgage and refinance applications headed downward last week.

Figures released by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) show mortgage applications were down 8.8% from a week earlier, while refinance applications plunged 12%. The drop in refinance applications this year is largest single week drop this year

"Refinance applications fell for the third straight week bringing the refinance index to its lowest level since December 2012 as mortgage rates increased to their highest level in a year,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s vice president of research and economics. “Rates rose in response to stronger economic data and an increasing chance that the Fed may soon begin to taper their asset purchases."

The refinance share of mortgage activity decreased to 71% of total applications from 74% the previous week to the lowest level since April 2012. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 5% of total applications.

Rising interest rates

PhotoThe average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($417,500 or less) increased to 3.90%, the highest rate since May 2012, from 3.78%, with points unchanged at 0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,500) increased to 4.07%, the highest rate since August 2012, from 3.93%, with points decreasing to 0.27 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages backed by the FHA increased to 3.62%, the highest rate since August 2012, from 3.53%, with points increasing to 0.27 from 0.13 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages increased to 3.10%, the highest rate since August 2012, from 2.96%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was unchanged at 2.60%, with points increasing to 0.24 from 0.23 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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How to get your pet to lose weight

Experts say whatever shape you're in, your pet will be too

Trying to stay fit can be a full time job that often requires a lot of discipline.A lot of people are mindful of what they eat and try their best to get ...

PhotoTrying to stay fit can be a fulltime job that often requires a lot of discipline. But while a lot of people are mindful of what they eat and try their best to get enough exercise, they're not always mindful of keeping their pet physically fit.

According to PetObesityPrevention.com, 88.4 million pets in the United States are overweight. Other statistics show that 53% of dogs and 55% of cats are obese.

And why are so many pets overweight? Experts say it's fairly simple --their owners are feeding them too much.

Statistics show that 95% of pet owners give their pets several treats per day. In addition, 22% of dog owners think their overweight dog isn't overweight. And 15% of cat owners who have obese cats think the same thing.

Setting an example

Richard French, DVM, M.S., Ph.D., Dean of Animal Studies and Allerton Chair of Animal Health Sciences at Becker College, says if a pet owner's household isn't into physical fitness, the pet won't be either.

"When we see dogs that are overweight, we essentially should see a child that's at risk for excess weight," he says. "Think about the lifestyles of many of our young people, and then we can readily see how their pets are emulating those lifestyles.

"If a child is playing video games all day, the dog isn't outside playing," says French. "Rather, the pet is sitting at her feet or on the sofa. If the child is lying around snacking on high-calorie treats, chances are the dog is sharing in those same excess calories -- and is also likely to get something from the dinner table." 

Watch those pet snacks

PhotoOther experts say pet owners have to be more aware of the treats they're giving their pets. A typical dog treat given to a 20-pound dog is the same thing as a human eating two double-stuffed fudge cookies. And one pig's ear given to a 40-pound dog is equivalent to one person drinking a six pack of soda.

Dr. Michael Hutchinson of the veterinarian hospital Animal General says a lot of pet owners just aren't focused on their pets' weight.

"It's a silent epidemic that's killing our pets," Hutchinson said in an interview with CBS News. "Obesity is increasing every year. And that's the sad thing. We would think with education it should be decreasing. The disconnect is that owners don't see them as overweight; even after they're told, they still think they're normal."

Weight creeps higher

Pet owner Kim Stevens said it happened to her. She didn't even notice that her mixed breed dog, Dodger, was packing on the pounds.

"I didn't notice the weight creeping on, it was like all of a sudden he was just this fat dog," she said in an interview with CNN. "His weight is about 82 pounds right now, and he should be 62 pounds. Too much food and not enough exercise [was the reason]."

Dr. Barry Goldberg of EZ VET says that many pet owners don't even know if their pet is obese or not.

"You'd be amazed how many pet parents have no idea that their pet is overweight," he said. "They may guess their nine-pound Chihuahua is two to three pounds overweight and not think it's a big deal. But those three little extra pounds is approximately 33% of their body weight. Can you imagine carrying around 33% extra weight?

"Many pet parents simply don't know what the healthy weight range is for their pet's breed, gender and age or understand why it is so important," Goldberg added.

What to do

PhotoMany of the reasons that people become obese are the same reasons why their pets become obese, so it all starts with diet and exercise, experts say.

For dogs it's best to set-up a workout routine. At first the routine should be for a short period of time and then get longer and more challenging as time passes.

In addition, food shouldn't be left out for your dog to eat whenever he or she wants. Dogs should be fed between two and four times a day.

And when it comes to giving your dog treats, find healthy ones. Baby carrots, sweet potatos and apples make great healthy, non-fattening treats.

Cats should be fed no more than two or three times a day, experts say. And owners shouldn't be feeding them table scraps or extra snacks.

In addition, keep a close eye on your cat and make sure he or she isn't getting food elsewhere, like from that sweet older lady living next door.

And since there isn't one perfect kind of diet for cats or dogs, it's important to take your pet to the veterinarian regularly to see what type of diet is best.

French says if pet owners increase their own level of physical fitness, their pet's physical fitness will often increase too.

"Get outside with your dog," he says. "Go for a walk or play fetch. Run around the house with a feather on the end of a lead with your cat. Take an unflinching look at your lives together.

"Rather than sit together, play together. Exercise together. Eat right together. Picture a healthier you looking fit and trim, and do the same with your dog, cat or other favorite pet," French concludes.

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You may own the car but not its history

When an auto data service gets it wrong, it can cost you when you sell

When you buy a car, whether new or used, you rightfully feel a strong sense of ownership. It's yours, you paid for it.While that's true, the information...

PhotoWhen you buy a car, whether new or used, you rightfully feel a strong sense of ownership. It's yours, you paid for it.

While that's true, the information about your vehicle is beyond your control, and it may be accurate or inaccurate. If it's the latter, that can be a problem when it comes time to trade in or sell your vehicle.

Increasingly, buyers rely on automotive data services such as Carfax to decide whether to purchase a particular car or truck. If they see something in the report they don't like, they may back off or be unwilling to pay anywhere near the asking price.

No damage

“Several years ago, while towing our fifth wheel camper, a car hit our camper while we were stopped at a light,” Lori, of Sebring, Fla., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Our camper and truck received no damage. The lady who hit us received a lot of damage because she ran into the steel frame trunk carrier we had installed at the back of our camper. We went to look at new cars yesterday and were told that the trade-in amount for our F-250 diesel truck would be thousands less because of the accident reported on Carfax.”

It's understandable how this happened. An accident report was filed and an insurance claim paid. Even though Lori didn't file a claim her vehicle was listed as being involved in an accident. The report went no further than that fact.

Sometimes, consumers say they find outright errors on the reports.

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Phantom accident

“When selling my 2008 Jeep, the buyer pulled a Carfax report which showed an accident in Virginia in 2009,” writes Addison, of Greensboro, N.C. “That never happened. AutoCheck, which most reputable dealers are using now had a correct report. I contacted Carfax, by email of course as that's the only way you can, and sent a letter from VA DMV as well as my insurance company. I haven't heard a word from them. Their error cost me $1500 on the sale.”

Richard, of Spokane, Wash., was trying to sell his truck when he said the Carfax report stopped the sale cold.

“It said it was recovered, totaled,” Richard wrote in a post. How can I fix this? The truck has never been stolen and is in near perfect condition.”

There is a way to try to correct what you believe to be errors on a Carfax report. The first step is knowing what is in the report, meaning you'll need to purchase the report. Identify any information that you believe to be incorrect.

Prove it

Next, you need to prove that the information is wrong. Unfortunately, this isn't always easy to do. How, for example, can Lori prove that her truck was not damaged in the accident that showed up on her report? Richard may have a hard time proving his truck was not stolen but perhaps his insurance company could provide a letter stating it never paid a claim. Since the vehicle was listed as “totaled,” that could help.

Once you have gathered your evidence, go to the Carfax Data Correction page. Type in all the requested information, including the vehicle information number (VIN). The form gives you a box in which to go into detail about the error. Be brief and polite. It won't help your case to let off steam and make accusations. You need these people to help you.

Provide a list of supporting documents you have to prove the report is in error. You won't be asked to provide them until later. After you submit the form, you'll have to wait until a Carfax representative contacts you.

Since this may not happen quickly, it's a good idea to pull your Carfax report well before you plan to sell or trade-in your vehicle. That will give you the necessary time to correct any errors before they cost you money.

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Could simple vitamins be a weapon against Alzheimer's?

New research reinforces what some experts have long believed

Pharmaceutical companies invest billions in research on drugs and treatment for Alzheimer's disease, but a British study suggests inexpensive vitamins may ...

PhotoPharmaceutical companies invest billions in research on drugs and treatment for Alzheimer's disease, but a British study suggests inexpensive vitamins may be just as helpful.

A study at the University of Oxford found that B vitamins, in particular, can help reduce brain shrinkage for older people with dementia and other memory ailments. In a 2010 clinical trial, patients taking vitamin B had significantly slower total brain shrinkage.

It's no cure, of course, but the scientists suggest it's a cheap way to slow the onset of the fatal disease that robs its victims of memory function. Some physicians have been recommending vitamin B for older patients for years.

Improves memory

“Vitamin B-12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells,” according to Glen Smith, PhD., of the Mayo Clinic. “A vitamin B-12 deficiency — most common in older adults and vegetarians — can cause various signs and symptoms, including memory loss. In such cases, vitamin B-12 supplements can help improve memory.”

To date there is no evidence to suggest that vitamin B-12 supplements enhance memory if you already have Alzheimer's disease. Vitamin B-12 is found naturally in foods that come from animals, including fish, meat and poultry. In addition, a lot of popular breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin B-12.

If vitamin B does, in fact, prove effective at delaying the onset of Alzheimer's, it could prove to be an inexpensive way to postpone what is expected to be a wave of new cases as the large baby boom generation moves into old age. Meanwhile, research on cure and prevention continues.

Cancer drug

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health say a drug used mostly against cancer has been found to reverse memory deficits in a study using mice.

The researchers studied results of tests on the drug bexarotene, which is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drug for use in treating cutaneous T cell lymphoma. The Pitt Public Health researchers were able to verify that the drug significantly improves memory deficits in mice expressing gene mutations linked to human Alzheimer's disease. However, they say they could not confirm the effect on amyloid plaques, which are believed to be a leading Alzheimer's trigger.

"We believe these findings make a solid case for continued exploration of bexarotene as a therapeutic treatment for Alzheimer's disease," said senior author Dr. Rada Koldamova.

The Pitt study is just the latest in a number of recent research efforts that have reported promising breakthroughs in either treating or preventing the disease, but that have yet to bear any fruit.

Recent research

A 2006 study in the American Journal of Medicine suggested three or more servings of fruit juice per week netted a 76% reduction in Alzheimer's risk.

In 2008 British researchers said they had developed a drug that, taken daily in pill form, stops Alzheimer's disease in its tracks. The drug is known as Rember, and scientists reported it appeared to be twice as effective as current Alzheimer's treatments, reducing the effects of the memory-robbing disease by as much as 81 percent.

In 2012 researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Florida reported discovery of an enzyme that could represent a powerful new tool for combating Alzheimer's disease. The enzyme -- known as BACE2 -- destroyed beta-amyloid, a toxic protein fragment that litters the brains of patients who have the disease, in clinical trials.

Meanwhile, the threat from Alzheimer's disease seems to grow each year as the population ages. According to the Alzheimer's Association Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and more than five million Americans are currently living with the disease.

It says that in 2012, 15.4 million caregivers provided more than 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $216 billion.  

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A closer look at stress

Why some people can deal with it better than others

Although it seems the U.S. economy is improving a bit, people are still stressed out.According to research conducted by Harris Interactive for Everest Co...

PhotoAlthough it seems the U.S. economy is improving a bit, people are still stressed out. According to research conducted by Harris Interactive for Everest College, 83% of U.S. employees said their jobs are causing them stress.

And based on statistics from the American Psychological Association, 54% of Americans say they're worried about the stress they're feeling every day.

What's up?

Why else are people feeling stressed these days?

Psychologist and TV personality Keith Ablow told Fox News that today's kind of stress is different from the stress people faced a few decades ago.

"I think the deployment of technology which makes people available 24/7 [causes stress]," he said. "The amount of focus and the need to keep up with appearances and what seems to be a trading in of some moral values and groundedness for the desire for quick riches."

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Keith Ablow

In addition, Ablow says the high price of items today is another huge cause of stress. And the aggressive way items are branded  contributes to stress too.

"With housing being expensive as it is, with everything in our culture being branded and expensive now and aspirational, people feel stressed that they're not making the money they once did in order to just buy things that were ordinary," he says. "Now everybody is trying to outperform everybody right away."

More than money

And what else besides money is raising people's stress level?

According to a study sponsored by Dearfoams, a company that sells slippers and sleepwear, the top five things people are stressed about are job pressure, money, health, relationships and poor nutrition.

In addition, 77% of people said they feel the symptoms of stress physically and 73% said they feel them psychologically. Moreover, 33% said they feel under "extreme stress."

And the study shows that 48% of folks said their stress has increased in the last five years and 76% believe money and work are the main causes of their stress.

Stress levels

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Redford Williams

But not everyone feels the same level of stress. In fact, some might say there are people who experience very little of it. So what's the difference? Why are some people better at dealing with stress than others?

Redford Williams, M.D., the director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University said some people experience fear during difficult times and some don't.

"Some people seem to be resistant to stress, whereas others are much more sensitive to stress," he said in an interview with ABC News. "At one level, we can look at this at the level of personality. Some of us have a personality which doesn't experience negative emotions like anxiety, fear, anger, sadness as much as others when bad things are happening.

"Others of us have a personality which means that we're very sensitive to experience those emotions when bad things are happening. So there's a personality predisposition to be either stress-prone or stress-resistant," Williams explained.

What to do

To help decrease stress, the Dearfoams study shows that 49% of people listen to music, 48% exercise, 46% spend time with family and friends and 45% choose to read a book.

But what else can you do? Eat healthy, experts say.

Stress can raise your bloodstream's cortisol level, which can make you want fatty and unhealthy foods, the study shows. So not only is it important to remember this fact, but it's important to have healthy foods close by.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the four main things you should do to lower stress are eat a well-balanced meal each day, exercise regularly, get a lot of sleep and take time out from whatever is causing you stress.

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Robert Rosen

Participating in a hobby is good too. Finding time away from the things that cause you stress is important to do on a consistent basis, say experts.

The folks at the National Institutes of Health say some people may have to seek medical help for their stress. If you feel dizziness, have extreme panic, start breathing heavily or your heart begins to race, get medical help as soon as possible.

Psychologist Robert Rosen, chief executive of the Virginia-based consulting practice Healthy Companies International, said people should prepare themselves for adversity.

And they should try to focus harder on the good things in their lives, especially when things aren't looking too bright.

"Change your expectations from idealistic to realistic," said Rosen in an interview with The New York Times"Expect life to be tough sometimes but also expect that you are resilient and will bounce back. Focus on the positives in your life -- like family or hobbies -- because it's rare that everything falls apart at once."

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Pressure grows for cheaper iPhone

Report suggests new iPhone could be offered at lower cost

The iPhone lags Android phones in sales but Apple remains the most profitable smartphone maker. Some Apple fans think that's small consolation, that the co...

PhotoThe iPhone lags Android phones in sales but Apple remains the most profitable smartphone maker. Some Apple fans think that's small consolation, that the company could dominate the smartphone universe if only it would lower the price of its flagship device, the iPhone.

Currently the iPhone 5 sells for $649 through most participating carriers but is $199.99 with a two-year contract. That happens to be the very same price as Samsung's newest smartphone, the Galaxy S4.

However, budget-conscious shoppers can get other Android phones for much less. The Samsung Galaxy Stellar is just $19.99 with a two-year agreement. The LG Lucid 2 at Verizon Wireless is free when you sign on for two years. Some in the tech world think Apple would sell more iPhones if it had a cheaper version that wasn't two generations behind.

Persistent rumor

Last week the buzz about a possible lower-cost iPhone got louder. A technology news site in Japan – Macotakara – has reported that Apple is preparing for trial production of a new device, the iPhone 5S, that will come in a variety of colors. This isn't the first time these kinds of rumors have floated to the surface. In fact, Apple shot down one such report earlier this year.

But it's worth noting that Apple's co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, vowed Apple would never produce a seven-inch iPad. Yet in 2012 it did exactly that, rolling out the popular iPad Mini. One reason for the device's popularity, tech analysts said, was its lower price tag. They suggest the same thing could help iPhone sales. So tech analysts tend to look at Apple's denials with a bit of skepticism.

The Macotakara report suggests the cheaper iPhone would carry an unsubsidized price as low as $350, meaning its subsidized price could fall below $100. The report also said Apple is planning an update of its current iPhone and iPad products, presumably at their present price points.

Repair costs aren't cheap either

Apple iPhone May 27, 2013, 8:21 p.m.
Consumers rate Apple iPhone
The cost of the iPhone isn't the only concern for Michelle, of Lawrenceville, Ga., who spent nearly $700 for an unsubsidized iPhone 5. It was what happened when the phone stopped working that sparked her ire.

“I had to bring it to the Apple store because they couldn't restore it,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “They said they couldn't do anything about it but I must replace the phone for another $250 and another $100 for insurance. One-thousand dollars total that I had to pay for this phone. Arghhhghhhhhh.”

Even when iPhones can be repaired, it's expensive. Marketwatch.com recently reported that the going rate to repair an iPhone 5 with a damaged screen is $229, more than the initial subsidized cost of the device.

More companies turning out Android phones

While Samsung is viewed as Apple's biggest smartphone competitor, it is only one company turning out Android phones. Other companies are increasing their sales at a rapid clip as they, combined, turn out dozens of new model phones in the time it takes Apple to update the iPhone.

LG has announced a doubling of its smartphone sales over the last 12 months. LG credit that growth to the fact that it has produced phones for both the premium and budget markets.

The question is, is Apple about to follow suit?

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Wall Streeters writing the obit for LivingSocial

The daily deals business isn't what it used to be, if it ever was

Soothsayers have been predicting the end of LivingSocial nearly since the daily deals site launched and now finance site 24/7 Wall St. has listed it as No....

PhotoSoothsayers have been predicting the end of LivingSocial nearly since the daily deals site launched and now finance site 24/7 Wall St. has listed it as No. 4 on its list of "Ten Brands That Will Disappear in 2014."

It was just last month that AdWeek predicted the company would be sold or liquidated by next spring.

While online opinion pieces can be easily dismissed, a recent SEC filing by Amazon, which invested $175 million in LivingSocial in 2010, carries a bit more weight. Amazon's filing indicated it was writing down its investment by $169 million after LivingSocial lost $50 million in the first quarter of this year. That's compared to a profit of $156 million in the same period a year ago.

LivingSocial is second only to Groupon in the daily deals sector but that's not saying much. Financial analysts say the whole daily deals concept began falling apart about the time it was launched.

Don't believe it? Consider this: Groupon's share price hit $26.50 a short time after it went public, then plunged to $2.60 last year. It's up a bit now but the company is still unprofitable.

Groupon and LivingSocial share a very serious problem -- they're competing with the likes of eBay, American Express and Amazon’s own AmazonLocal service, companies that are in a totally different league.  

Other brands on the most-likely-to-fail list? Well, it won't surprise you to know the list is headed by JC Penney, Barnes & Noble's Nook,  Martha Stewart Living Magazine and Volvo.

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Feds urged to make window covering cords safer for children

Consumer and safety organizations push for mandatory standards

An umbrella group of consumer and safety organizations, including Parents for Window Blind Safety, Consumer Federation of America and Kids in Danger, is ca...

PhotoAn umbrella group of consumer and safety organizations is calling on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to pass mandatory standards making operating cords for window coverings inaccessible, in an effort to prevent child strangulations, a longtime problem with blinds.

In a petition filed with CSPC, the coalition, including Parents for Window Blind SafetyConsumer Federation of America and Kids in Danger specifically asks the agency to prohibit accessible window covering cords when feasible, and require that all cords be made inaccessible through passive guarding devices when prohibiting them is not possible.

The CPSC, according to the groups, has long recognized window covering cords as a hidden strangulation and asphyxiation hazard to children and continues to identify it on its website as one of the “top five hidden hazards in the home.”

Voluntary standards inadequate

The coalition believes a strong mandatory standard to address the hazards posed by corded window coverings is necessary because -- according to data from the CPSC -- 293 children have been killed or seriously injured by accessible window covering cords between 1996 and 2012. In addition, the rate of injuries and deaths has not been significantly reduced since 1983, despite six industry attempts at developing adequate voluntary standards.

“We urge the CPSC to take strong action to prevent children from being injured or killed as a result of being strangled by the cord of a window covering.” said Linda Kaiser of Parents for Window Blind Safety. “As long as manufacturers are allowed to sell unsafe window coverings, young children will be injured or killed because of the cords of those window coverings.”

Kaiser and her husband Matt formed Parents for Window Blind Safety in 2002, after their daughter, Cheyenne Rose, died as a result of being strangled by a window blind cord.

Strong action needed

The petition says the voluntary standards process, starting from the first standard in 1996 and including the most recent standard in 2012, has failed to eliminate or even reduce the risk of strangulation and asphyxiation by window covering cords to children.

“Every voluntary standards process for window coverings has resulted in a standard that has failed to address approximately 40% of the injuries and deaths caused by window covering cords,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel with Consumer Federation of America. “Feasible and cost-effective designs that eliminate the risk of window cord strangulations already exist, but the voluntary standard does not require their use.”

The petition accuses manufacturers of exploiting weaknesses in the voluntary standard to actually increase the number and types of hazardous cords on window coverings. It also maintains that deaths and injuries can be eliminated by designs that exist:

  • Cordless Technology: Window coverings that eliminate pull cords, thereby addressing both outer and inner cord hazards, are available, add minimum costs to the manufacture, and can be used on the vast majority of blinds and shades.
  • Cord Cover Designs: Designs that render the pull cords of window coverings inaccessible have been available since the 1990’s but were never sold in the marketplace because the CPSC allowed separated cord tassels to serve as a compliant design.

“It is only by designing the window coverings so that cords are not accessible to children that true safety can be achieved,” according to Carol Pollack-Nelson, Ph.D. of Independent Safety Consulting. “Given the failure of the window coverings industry to adopt an effective voluntary standard, a mandatory rule by the CPSC to eliminate accessible cords is necessary.”  

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No end in sight as "swipe fee" fight rages on

U.S. retailers say they pay the highest fees in the world to credit card companies

The fight over "swipe fees" charged to merchants who accept Visa and MasterCard is going into extra rounds. Nineteen large companies have opted out of a pr...

PhotoThe fight over "swipe fees" charged to merchants who accept Visa and MasterCard is going into extra rounds. Nineteen large companies have opted out of a proposed settlement that would have ended a long-running class-action case.

Retailers say they pay the highest fees in the world to credit card companies and banks to swipe their cards because of unfair price-fixing within the industry.

Walmart, Costco, Starbucks and Gap are among the large retailers rejecting the settlement, saying it would not stop swipe fees from rising but would block them from challenging future increase.

"If this settlement is approved, it would allow credit-card companies and big banks to perpetuate an unfair and broken system that costs all consumers, including those who don't even have a credit or debit card," Mike Cook, senior vice president of finance and assistant treasurer for Wal-Mart, said.

The National Retail Federation is also expected to opt out of the settlement this week while the retailers say they are considering  "additional legal action to recover damages from Visa and MasterCard under U.S. antitrust laws."

Europeans crack down

Another retailers' group charged that Visa has offered to reduce its credit card swipe fees on certain transactions in Europe while it "continues to stiff U.S. merchants with soaring fees that have tripled during the past decade."

"Here at home, U.S. merchants and consumers are struggling under the weight of swipe fees up to ten times higher than what Visa Europe is proposing for European transactions," the Merchants Payments Coalition said.  "Credit card swipe fees in the U.S. are up to 4 percent of the transaction value, while the new Visa rate in the EU will be 0.3 percent."

“European regulators are holding Visa’s feet to the fire for their outrageous swipe fees – even though the fees in Europe are a tiny fraction of what they are in the United States,” said Doug Kantor, counsel of the Merchants Payments Coalition. “There is no reason for rates to be as high as they are.  This should be a wake-up call that credit card swipe fee reform is long overdue here.”

Judge John Gleeson of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn granted preliminary approval to the class-action settlement last November and there is a deadline this week for parties wanting to opt out of the settlement. A hearing on final approval is scheduled for Sept. 12. 

MasterCard says it's confident the judge will approve the settlement, the Wall Street Journal reported. Visa did not comment.

A spokesman for the Electronic Payments Coalition, which represents the credit card companies and large banks, said the retailers did not raise any new arguments in their opt-out announcement.

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More homeowners falling behind on mortgages

But foreclosures remain low, at least for now

Despite improvements in the housing market, some homeowners are still having trouble paying their monthly mortgage. The number of foreclosed homes on the m...

PhotoDespite improvements in the housing market, many homeowners are still having trouble paying their monthly mortgage. The number of foreclosed homes on the market has been steadily falling but some of the recent numbers about loan payments are troubling.

The rate of delinquent home loans rose to 7.25% in the first quarter of the year, an increase of 16 basis points from the previous quarter, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). The rate is lower, however, than it was a year ago.

The rate includes mortgage loans that are at least one month behind but does not include any that are in foreclosure. For now, the number of loans in which foreclosure action has started remains low. The share of loans in the foreclosure process was just 3.55% at the end of the first quarter, the lowest it's been since 2008.

Slight increase in late payments

“On a seasonally adjusted basis, the overall delinquency rate increased this quarter, driven by a slight increase in the 30-day delinquency rate,” said Michael Fratantoni, MBA’s VP of Research and Economics. “Normal seasonal patterns are beginning to re-emerge, but as has been true post-crisis, it is still difficult to parse typical seasonal swings from true changes in performance.”

Consumers rate Suntrust Mortgage
In other words, it's not exactly clear what's responsible for the recent uptick in late payments. Employment has been improving and the economy has been getting stronger – at least for some people. Others are still seeking help with their home loans and finding frustration with the modification process. Christine, of Salem, Ore., says she began working with SunTrust in 2010 to modify her mortgage.

“Over the past 2 1/2 years, they have lost my paperwork four times,” Christine wrote to ConsumerAffairs. “The last time it was 'never received.' I took a video of myself filling out all the pages and mailing it certified at the post office. Two months ago, I received notice from a foreclosure attorney telling me they were going to start the process.”

Mixed messages

Maria, of Perth Amboy, N.J., writes that she too has been trying to hold off foreclosure after she and her husband both lost their jobs. She says she keeps getting inconsistent information from HSBC.

HSBC Mortgage May 27, 2013, 8:27 p.m.
Consumers rate HSBC Mortgage
“They told to move out, so I rented an apartment for a year,” she writes. “Next thing I hear I shouldn't leave and I should go back. Now I have foreclosure pending still. I asked HSBC what else can they do. They say send in a check for $35,000 and they can do a modification! Really, you're kidding me. Where do I have that?”

Fratantoni said he is seeing what he calls “substantial improvements” in the overall foreclosure situation. For example, the inventory of foreclosed homes declined in 40 states. That's one reason the overall inventory of homes has fallen and prices have risen lately.

“However, 33 states had increases in foreclosure starts, he said.

Whether this is a blip or a troubling reversal of the recent positive trend will play out in the next few months. Meanwhile, the Center for Responsible Lending and Consumers Union are pushing regulators and lawmakers to take steps to prevent a resurgence of avoidable foreclosures.

Among the proposals is a requirement for lenders to engage in loss mitigation activities to prevent avoidable foreclosures and to refrain from pursuing foreclosure while at the same time processing a request for a loan modification — so-called “dual tracking,” a source of widespread complaints.

The groups say the reforms are needed to prevent a new wave of foreclosures.

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Studies examine the patient's role in healthcare decision-making

One study finds doctors reluctant to discuss long-term life expectancy with dialysis patients

In any discussion of healthcare, there's always a lot of emphasis on empowering patients, making patients active participants in their care and keeping pat...

PhotoIn any discussion of healthcare, there's always a lot of emphasis on empowering patients, making patients active participants in their care and keeping patients fully informed of their situation.

But the reality often doesn't live up to these idealistic notions, as demonstrated in a couple of recent studies. One study looked at seriously ill patients undergoing dialysis treatment because of kidney failure and another examined whether patient participation drives up costs.

Optimistic patients

The dialysis study found that seriously ill dialysis patients were more optimistic about their prognosis and their prospects for transplants than were their nephrologists. Further, the study published online by JAMA Internal Medicine found that the nephrologists had rarely  discussed estimates of life expectancy with their patients.

Melissa W. Wachterman, M.D., M.P.H., from Veterans Affairs Boston Health Care System and her colleagues compared patients’ and physicians’ expectations about one- and five-year survival rates and transplant candidacy among 207 patients undergoing hemodialysis, using medical record reviews in some cases and interviews in others.

“Among the 62 interviewed patients, no patients reported that their nephrologist had discussed an estimated life expectancy with them, and the nephrologists reported that they had done so for only two interviewed patients,” the authors found.

The nephrologists reported that “…for 60 percent of patients, they would not provide any estimate of prognosis even if their patient insisted.”

The authors said that patients’ expectations about one-year survival rates are fairly accurate, but that patients over-estimate their long-term survival rates.

Patient participation drives up costs

While patient participation in decision-making may be desirable, another study found it may drive up costs.

The survey of almost 22,000 admitted patients at the University of Chicago Medical Center found patient preference to participate in decision-making concerning their care was associated with a longer length of stay and higher total hospitalization costs, according to a report published online by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Nearly all of the patients indicated they wanted information about their illnesses and treatment options, but just over 70 percent preferred to leave the medical decisions to their physician.

“Preference to participate in medical decision making increased with educational level and with private health insurance,” the authors note. “…patients who preferred to participate in decision making concerning their care had a 0.26-day longer length of stay and $865 higher total hospitalization costs.”

Hyo Jung Tak, Ph.D., and colleagues studied patients hospitalized between July 1, 2003 and August 31, 2011 by asking patients to complete a survey. The survey data were then linked with administrative data, including length of stay and total hospitalization costs.

Heart attack patients

Yet another study found that two-thirds of heart attack patients wanted to play an active role in making decisions about their care.

In a research letter, Harlan M. Krumholz, M.D., S.M., from Yale University School of Medicine and colleagues combined data from two studies of 6,636 patients who were asked about who should make decisions on treatment options.

“More than two-thirds of patients with AMI (acute myocardial infaraction, or heart attack) indicated a preference to play an active role in the decision-making process, and of those, about a quarter preferred that the decision be theirs alone rather than shared with their physician,” the authors found.

“Our findings indicate that physicians who aspire to provide patient-centered care should assess patients’ decision-making preferences by directly asking each patient.” 

“Our challenge now is to develop systems that fully respect these preferences and ensure that patients who prefer an active role are given that opportunity,” the authors conclude in their study, published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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Home prices continue to show strength

Average home prices are back at their mid-2003 levels

Home prices showed double-digit increases for the month of March after fairly tepid growth during February. According to the S&P Dow Jones Indices for its...

PhotoHome prices showed double-digit increases for the month of March, building on the advances posted during February.

According to the S&P Dow Jones Indices for its S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, the leading measure of U.S. home prices, the 10- and 20-City Composites posted annual increases of 10.3% and 10.9%, respectively, during March.

For the first three months of the year, the 10- and 20-City Composites both posted increases of 1.4%. Charlotte, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Tampa were the five Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) to record their largest month-over-month gains in over seven years. All 20 cities posted positive year-over-year growth. The national composite rose by 1.2% in the first quarter.

“Home prices continued to climb,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Home prices in all 20 cities posted annual gains for the third month in a row. Twelve of the 20 saw prices rise at double-digit annual growth. The National Index and the 10- and 20-City Composites posted their highest annual returns since 2006.

Phoenix does it again

Phoenix again had the largest annual increase at 22.5% followed by San Francisco with 22.2% and Las Vegas with 20.6%. Miami and Tampa, the eastern end of the Sunbelt, were softer, but still had annual gains of 10.7% and 11.8%. The weakest annual price gains were seen in New York (+2.6%), Cleveland (+4.8%) and Boston (+6.7%).

“Other housing market data reported in recent weeks confirm these strong trends: housing starts and permits, sales of new home and existing homes continue to trend higher,” said Blitzer. “At the same time, the larger than usual share of multi-family housing, a large number of homes still in some stage of foreclosure and buying-to-rent by investors suggest that the housing recovery is not complete.”

Recouping losses

As of the first quarter of of this year, average home prices across the U.S. are back at their mid-2003 levels. The National Index was up 1.2% over the fourth quarter of 2012 and 10.2% above the first quarter of 2012.

Average home prices across the nation also were back to their late 2003 levels for both the 10-City and 20-City Composites during March. Measured from their June/July 2006 peaks, the peak-to-current decline for both Composites is approximately 28-29%. The recovery from the March 2012 lows is 10.3% and 10.9% for the 10- and 20-City Composites, respectively.

The number of cities that showed monthly gains increased to 15. Denver, Charlotte, Seattle and Washington entered positive territory; Seattle and Charlotte were the most notable with returns of +3.0% and +2.4%. San Francisco posted the highest month-over-month return of 3.9%.

All 20 cities showed increases on an annual basis for at least three consecutive months. Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Tampa all posted double-digit annual returns. Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Francisco were the three MSAs to increase over 20% in March 2013 over March 2012.  

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Consumer confidence posts substantial gain in May

Optimism as at the best level in five years

Things are looking up this month as far as U.S. consumers are concerned The Conference Board says it's Consumer Confidence Index was up for the second tim...

PhotoThings are looking up this month as far as U.S. consumers are concerned

The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index was up for the second time in as many months during May, posting a gain of 7.2 from April -- to 76.2. The May reading surprised economists surveyed by Briefing.com, who were expecting a reading of 72.5.

The Present Situation Index increased to 66.7 from 61.0, while the Expectations Index rose to 82.4 from 74.3 last month.

“Consumer Confidence posted another gain this month and is now at a five-year high (Feb. 2008, Index 76.4),” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers’ assessment of current business and labor-market conditions was more positive and they were considerably more upbeat about future economic and job prospects. Back-to-back monthly gains suggest that consumer confidence is on the mend and may be regaining the traction it lost due to the fiscal cliff, payroll-tax hike, and sequester.”

An upbeat assessment

Consumers saying business conditions currently are “good” increased to 18.8% from 17.5%, while those stating business conditions are “bad” decreased to 26.0% from 27.6%. Their assessment of the labor market was also more positive. Those claiming jobs are “plentiful” increased to 10.8% from 9.7%, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” edged down to 36.1% from 36.9%.

Consumers were considerably more optimistic about the short-term outlook. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased to 19.2% from 17.2%, while those expecting business conditions to worsen decreased to 12.1% from 14.8%.

The outlook for the labor market was also more upbeat. Consumers expecting more jobs in the months ahead improved to 16.8% from 14.3%, while those expecting fewer jobs decreased to 19.7% from 21.8%. The proportion of people expecting their incomes to increase dipped slightly to 16.6% from 16.8%, while those expecting a decrease edged down to 15.3% from 15.9%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was May 15.

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Things to do this summer: Teach your children to swim, fence your pool

An unfenced pool is an accident waiting to happen, and a potential legal nightmare for the homeowner

It won't be long now. If you haven't already opened your pool for the summer season, you almost certainly will this Memorial Day weekend. But along with a...

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Deathtrap: An unfenced pool is an invitation to drowning

It won't be long now.

If you haven't already opened your pool for the summer season, you almost certainly will this Memorial Day weekend. But along with all the fun that can bring, it also means a lot of responsibility.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) children younger than age 5 represent more than 75% all pool and spa submersion deaths and 78% of pool and spa submersion injuries in the United States involving children younger than 15 years of age. Black and Hispanic children between the ages of 5 and 14 are at a higher risk of drowning.

Dangerous waters

Photo“Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children between the ages of 1 and 4 and minority children drown in pools at an alarming rate,” said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. “The lives of countless children can be saved this summer. Take simple safety steps today -- teach all children to swim, put a fence around all pools, and always watch children in and around the water.”

This year, CPSC’s Pool Safely campaign is focusing its attention on populations most at risk of drowning:

Children between the ages of 1 and 3 represented 67 percent of reported fatalities and 64 percent of injuries.

Black children between the ages of 5 and 19 are six times more likely to drown in pools than white and Hispanic children that age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data from USA Swimming indicate that 70 percent of African-American children and 62 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim, making them more likely to drown.

The 2013 report on pool or spa submersions shows that each year there are an average 390 pool or spa-related drownings for children younger than 15 with 76% (296) of the victims being younger than 5. Additionally, there are 5,100 pool or spa-related emergency department-treated submersion injuries for children younger than 15 with 78% (4,000) of the injured being younger than 5.

Layers of protection

The key to preventing drowning tragedies is to have layers of protection. This includes placing barriers around your pool to prevent access, using pool alarms, closely supervising your child and being prepared in case of an emergency. Here are some tips to prevent drowning:

  • Fences and walls should be at least 4 feet high and installed completely around the pool. Fence gates should be self-closing and self-latching. The latch should be out of a small child's reach.
  • If your house forms one side of the barrier to the pool, then doors leading from the house to the pool should be protected with alarms that produce a sound when a door is unexpectedly opened.
  • A power safety cover -- a motor-powered barrier that can be placed over the water area -- should be used when the pool is not in use.
  • Keep rescue equipment by the pool and be sure a phone is poolside with emergency numbers posted. Knowing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can be a lifesaver.
  • For above-ground pools, steps and ladders to the pool should be secured and locked, or removed when the pool is not in use.
  • If a child is missing, always look in the pool first. Seconds count in preventing death or disability.
  • Pool alarms can be used as an added precaution. Underwater pool alarms generally perform better and can be used in conjunction with pool covers. Be sure to include remote alarm receivers so the alarm can be heard inside the house or in other places away from the pool area.

Legal Responsibility

Make no mistake: the pool owner is responsible for what happens in his or her pool. The pool owner has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for children and adults alike and to be pro-active in preventing accidents.

Even if neighborhood children trespass and use your pool without permission, you face ruinous legal action if one of them drowns. A multi-million dollar damage judgment is not something anyone wants to face.

Staying vigilant

Photo
Rep. Wasserman Schultz

“As we head into summer and families across the country are getting ready to take their kids to the pool, we must remind everyone how important it is to keep a careful watch on our children as they swim and ensure that their pools and spas have proper safety equipment,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, (D-Fla.), at an event hosted by Tenenbaum. “Working together, we can improve the safety of all pools and spas by increasing the use of layers of protection and promoting uninterrupted supervision to prevent child drowning and entrapment.”

“Learning how to swim saves lives,” said Suzy DeFrancis, Chief Public Affairs Officer for the American Red Cross. “The American Red Cross encourages all families to enroll in Learn-to-Swim programs by contacting your local pool.”

Families can learn about Red Cross programs and find water safety tips by going to redcross.org.

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Ticketmaster settles “rewards” suit

Customers paid $9 a month but got nothing in return

Ticketmaster has agreed to settle a suit alleging that customers who enrolled in the ticket service’s “rewards” program shelled out $9 a month and got noth...

PhotoTicketmaster has agreed to settle a suit alleging that customers who enrolled in the ticket service’s “rewards” program shelled out $9 a month and got nothing in return.

Judge Dale Fischer, of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, has approved payments totaling up to $23 million.

The settlement covers around a million consumers who enrolled in the rewards program between September 2004 and June 2009. Each class member is eligible to receive up to $30, less than the $75 that the average rewards member lost. The class claims that Ticketmaster made $85 million on the program.

Fully 93% of those who enrolled in the rewards program never took advantage of its purported offers. Ticketmaster denies any wrongdoing, and says it disclosed the monthly fee along with all other terms and conditions.

Settled suits before

Ticketmaster May 24, 2013, 8:47 p.m.
Consumers rate Ticketmaster

The settlement isn’t Ticketmaster’s first rodeo: in 2009, the ticket giant settled a suit brought by the New Jersey attorney general alleging that the company redirected consumers trying to buy Bruce Springsteen tickets to partner site TicketsNow.com, where prices were up to four times higher.

In 2011, the company settled a class action taking issue with its shipping and “order processing” fees. That settlement offered credits to consumers who made a purchase between October 1999 and October 2011.

Ticketmaster has been dubbed “The Most Hated Brand in America,” and has been the target of federal officials including Milgram and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno’s Justice Department led a short-lived antitrust investigation in the 1990s, after iconic ‘90s grunge band Pearl Jam complained about markups that Ticketmaster added to tickets for a concert. Pearl Jam boycotted Ticketmaster until 1996.

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AT&T gives itself a $350 million raise

It dings its subscribers an extra 61 cents per month

AT&T is giving itself a $350 million raise, adding a monthly “administrative fee” of 61 cents to the bills of all its contract wireless lines, retroactive ...

PhotoAT&T is giving itself a $350 million raise, adding a monthly “administrative fee” of 61 cents to the bills of all its contract wireless lines, retroactive to May 1.

Why? Well, because it can. After all, its customers are under contract so it’s not as though they can get mad and go somewhere else. And besides that, it’s an easier way to boost revenue than going out and finding new customers.

After all, AT&T has about 70 million wireless customers and most of them can afford an extra 61 cents per line per month, so why shouldn’t that money go into AT&T’s pocket. What are the consumers going to do with it anyway?

Next year will be even better for the telecom giant, which has never been shy about adding fees, charges and surcharges to everything it reaches out and touches. When applied to its 70 million customers for all of 2014, the new fee will add up to about $518 million next year.

It’s not even $1 billion but when you’re AT&T, every little bit helps.

The others do it ...

AT&T Wireless May 24, 2013, 8:42 p.m.
Consumers rate AT&T Wireless

In its defense, AT&T says other carriers have fees too. Verizon Wireless, for example, charges an administrative fee of 90 cents per line and a “regulatory recovery charge” of 16 cents. AT&T has one of those too, of course. It charges about 50 cents per line. Maybe it has more regulations to comply with than Verizon?

AT&T is very particular about its image, of course, so it doesn’t take kindly to people making snarky comments about its fees, fees and more fees. An AT&T spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that the administrative fee is necessary to cover “certain expenses, such as interconnection and cell-site rents and maintenance.”

Oh well, that explains it then.



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Don't become a Memorial Day weekend statistic

Following some simple rules can keep ATV and ROV riders safe

For millions of Americans, Memorial Day weekend will be a time for barbecues, family and fun. For some, it will be time to take the cover off the recreatio...

PhotoFor millions of Americans, Memorial Day weekend will be a time for barbecues, family and fun. For some, it will be time to take the cover off the recreational ATV for that first ride of the summer. But it can't be stressed too much that safety is the key to having fun.

According to reports analyzed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), during the four days of the 2012 Memorial Day weekend, there were at least 14 deaths and an estimated 2,750 emergency room treated injuries associated with ATV usage. That works out to an average of four deaths and 700 injuries each day. Two of the fourteen fatalities during that weekend involved children under age 16.

"As the temperatures rise around Memorial Day, there is also a disturbing rise in ATV-related deaths and injuries," said CPSC Chairman Tenenbaum. "If you plan to ride an ATV this weekend, ride safe, ride smart, and stay alive."

Deadly product

ATVs are the fourth most deadly product CPSC oversees, with more than 700 ATV-related deaths per year.

The agency's most recent annual report of ATV-related deaths and injuries indicates a decrease in the estimated number of ATV-related injuries in 2011. However, the number of estimated injuries per year remains at more than 107,000, with an increase in estimated injuries to children younger than 16 years of age to 29,000. More than half of these injuries were suffered by kids under 12. The report published in February 2013 contains the most recent data available through 2011.

In addition to a spike in reported deaths and estimated injuries associated with the Memorial Day holiday, CPSC staff's analysis of reported ATV-related fatalities from 2005 through 2007 indicates a springtime surge, as well.

During those years, on average, reported fatalities jumped 55 percent from March to April. In these same years, reported deaths peaked in July with an average of 18 children and 85 adults killed in ATV-related incidents.

What to do

ATV riders -- young and old -- can make this holiday weekend and the rest of the riding season safer by following these basic rules of the trail:

  • Do not allow children younger than 16 to drive or ride on adult ATVs. Always choose an age-appropriate ATV for your child.
  • Never allow a child younger than 6 on an ATV -- either as a driver or passenger.
  • Most ATVs are designed for only one person. Do not ride on a single-rider ATV as a passenger or carry a passenger if you are the driver.
  • Always wear a helmet and protective gear when riding ATVs.
  • Do not drive ATVs on paved roads.
  • Take a hands-on safety training course. This is especially important for young or first-time riders.

ROV safety

PhotoCPSC also urges drivers and passengers of recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs) to keep safety in mind during this riding season. Also known as side-by-sides, ROVs have a steering wheel, bench or bucket seats, seatbelts, foot controls and a rollover protective structure (ROPS).

ROVs have been associated with more than 170 deaths over the past 10 years. Rollovers have caused severe injuries and death, even on flat, open terrain.

What to do

ROV drivers and passengers to follow these guidelines:

  • Always fasten seat belts before moving the vehicle.
  • Never transport passengers who cannot place both feet on the floorboard with their backs against the seat.
  • Never carry more passengers than there are seat belts and never carry passengers in cargo beds.
  • Never drive an ROV unless you have a valid driver's license.
  • Wear a helmet and other protective gear; ensure that your passengers wear theirs.
  • Do not drive ROVs on paved roads; ROVs are designed to be operated off-road.
  • Drive only in designated areas, at a safe speed, and use care when turning and crossing slopes.
  • Keep all parts of your body inside the ROV.
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Report says feds taking another look at Google antitrust issues

This time around, it's Google's advertising dominance that's being scrutinized

Then-FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz says in January 2013 the agency found no compelling antitrust evidence against GoogleReutersis reporting that the Federal Tr...

Photo
Then-FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz says in January 2013 the agency found no compelling antitrust evidence against Google

Reuters is reporting that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may be in the early stages of another antitrust investigation into Google, this time focusing on the search giant's advertising practices.

The news service quotes unnamed sources as saying that the probe involves Google's 2007 purchase of DoubleClick, a purchase that basically provided Google's full-scale entry into display -- or banner --  advertising, supplementing its contextual text-based ads.

Other advertising companies have been complaining to the FTC that Google uses the leverage it gained with the DoubleClick purchase to push advertisers into using some of its other services.

Google is the No. 1 player in the $15 billion U.S. online display ad market with a 15% share. Facebook is close behind with 14%.

The Reuters report said that the supposed investigation is still in its early stages and Google has not been formally notified or asked to produce any documents.

Google is still enmeshed with European regulators and has reportedly offered to modify its search protocols to satisfy some of their concerns.

Earlier FTC probe

It was just four months ago that the FTC wrapped up a long-running antitrust probe of Google, saying that the "facts just weren't there" to support charges that it used its search dominance to display its products at the expense of other companies.

Pressed by reporters at a news conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said that by a 5-0 vote, the bipartisan commission agreed that it had not found evidence that Google search results were purposely biased to unfairly promote its own products.

Leibowitz said the commission had "examined 9 million pages of documents, interviewed numerous industry participants and took sworn testimony of key Google executives." 

Leibowitz conceded that while "some evidence suggested Google was trying to eliminate competition" through changes in the format of its search results and  frequent tweaking of its search algorithms, the commission had concluded that "Google's primary reason for changing the look and feel was to improve the user experience."

"Tellingly, many of Google's rivals engaged in many of the same design changes," Leibowitz noted.

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More money flowing to rural broadband efforts

Telecoms getting infusion of federal cash as an incentive to provide service

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced the second release of federal funds to subsidize broadband infrastructure to serve rural areas of...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced the second release of federal funds to subsidize broadband infrastructure to serve rural areas of the U.S. Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn announced another $485 million is going to the Connect America Fund.

The tax dollars will go to private corporations in the broadband business. In exchange for receiving the money, the companies will provide fixed-line high speed broadband services in areas where it might not make economic sense otherwise. The government is kicking in some money as a way to convince the companies to make the investment.

In rural areas, consumers are few and far between, making it expensive to provide service to them. Many rural consumers get their Internet service through satellite providers or local wireless providers.

15 million still going slow

According to FCC estimates, some 15 million Americans, most of them living in rural areas, lack broadband, creating economic dislocation. Without high-speed Internet, consumers and businesses may find they lack access to jobs, education, and other opportunities.

To show you what broadband services are available at your address, the FCC created this map tool

With so much of commerce now online, businesses without broadband are cut off some significant parts of the economy. So are consumers. The Connect America Fund has the aim of making sure broadband access is available to anyone who wants it by the end of the decade.

The money isn't coming from a new tax but from a very old one. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Congress added a small tax to consumers' telephone bills, called the Universal Service Fund tax, to be used to expand telephone service to rural areas.

Since that need has long been met, the FCC is diverting that money to encourage the build-out of broadband infrastructure. CenturyLink is one of the companies getting the money in this latest phase of the program. It stands to receive $90 million.

CenturyLink subsidy

"CenturyLink and the commission share the same goal of delivering high-speed Internet services to Americans who currently don't have access to them," said Steve Davis, CenturyLink executive vice president for public policy and government relations. "We praise Chairwoman Clyburn for her dedication to communications issues that impact rural Americans and for being a strong proponent that all of the CAF I money left over from the first round be available to rural consumers. Clyburn has been a staunch advocate for consumers and a tireless champion of the economic and educational opportunities that come with broadband."

CenturyLink received $35 million from the Connect America Fund in 2012 to deploy broadband service to 45,000 homes in unserved rural areas. The company said it is also investing hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money to supplement the money from the government.

The FCC says the money for the Connect America Fund is mostly coming from the elimination of waste in the old program, funded by the Universal Service Funds. Through better management, the agency says, it is eliminating wasteful subsidies and targeting them where they are needed most.

The Connect America Fund is a rare Washington initiative that draws support from both Democrats and Republicans. One hundred members of Congress from both sides of the aisle contacted the FCC earlier this year, urging it to speed up distribution of broadband funds.

Some other telecommunications companies have yet to say if they will accept funds. By doing so they would commit themselves to spending a matching amount to carry out the construction. Not all are willing to do that, at least not yet.

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Watch out for summer scammers

The snares and traps are set, but you can avoid them

It's almost summer so you can pretty much count on the bogus home improvement peddlers, vacation rental and timeshare sharks -- along with an assortment of...

PhotoIt's almost summer so you can pretty much count on the bogus home improvement peddlers, vacation rental and timeshare sharks -- along with an assortment of other ne'er-do-wells -- to be on the prowl.

But you don't have to be a victim. In fact, there are many things you can do to prevent yourself from being taken for a ride.

While New York Attorney General Schneiderman is tasked with looking out for the best interest of Empire Staters, his guide to consumer protection applies to residents across the U.S.A. Most important, he says, “Any consumer who has been victimized by a scam should report it to the authorities immediately so that we can hold wrongdoers accountable.”

Home improvement scams

PhotoHow many times have you heard this pitch? "I'm painting a house (or a barn or a garage) in the neighborhood. I am paving a driveway (or patching a roof) around the corner. I have material left over and can do yours for next to nothing."

This kind of offer often results in a watered-down stain instead of paint, inferior shingles on half the roof, and a thin smear of blacktop on the driveway. The scammers typically demand a payment upfront and, if they actually finish the job, it probably won't last through the next rainstorm. Their guarantee? Good luck finding them.

Or this one? “"I was passing by and noticed you had some branches down -- your trees really need a trim." Frequently, the branches are down because the scammer broke them off. If hired, they do work on "unexpected problems" that run up exorbitant charges. Scammers have been known to threaten consumers if the extra charges are disputed, and sometimes follow the owners to the bank for cash payments.

When a community has been hit by a series of rainstorms, you can bet the offers for "free basement inspections" will start rolling in. The proffered solution is usually an expensive pump or excavating the foundation to waterproof, when the problem was really clogged gutters or a drain blocked by root growth.

Free chimney inspections is another common pitch that can have the same results. This “money saving coupon” will usually result in a recommendation for a new chimney or a "cleaning" that involves the sweep spreading soot around to make it look as though the work was done.

What to do

  • Be suspicious of any unsolicited offer to work on your home. Taking the time to do some research now could save you time and money in the long run.
  • Checkout the contractor with the local Better Business Bureau.
  • Get references, particularly about jobs completed a while back.
  • Use local companies whose addresses you can verify.
  • Get more than one written estimate that includes details about the materials to be used.
  • Check with your town or city to see if permits are required. Don't let a contractor work without the necessary permits.
  • Don't assume the lowest estimate is the best deal. Check the quality of the materials.
  • Be clear that you won't pay for any work not included in the estimate, unless it's agreed upon in writing.
  • Always be sure the contractor has valid insurance.
  • Check with your local Department of Consumer Affairs to see if the contractor is licensed.
  • Always report a scam to local law enforcement and the Attorney General's Office.

Vacation scams

PhotoWhether you're trying to escape the heat of summer or the chill of winter, finding a good deal on a vacation is considered a big win -- except when the good deal isn't so good.

Here are some common scams, and what you can do to make sure you're not on the short end of the stick.

It's just what you wanted! A cottage overlooking a quiet lake; a beachfront condo; an apartment in the heart of the city. The problem? It doesn't really exist. Especially prevalent on listing sites like Craigslist, consumers are drawn in by a great deal, they pay upfront and arrive to find that no such address exists.

What to do

  • Make sure the seller has a valid address and phone number.
  • Use a mapping website to verify that the address exists and looks like the photos.
  • Ask for references before signing any agreements or making a payment.
  • Use verified payment sources such as PayPal or a major credit card, which can be traced in the event something goes wrong.
  • NEVER make a payment using a wire transfer service such as Western Union or Money Gram.

Vacation Certificate Scams

You buy a certificate entitling you to deep discounts on flights, hotels or other vacation opportunities. But, if you're paying in advance for a vacation at an unspecified time, the companies may be out of business before you use the voucher, or there are so many restrictions that it is nearly impossible to make reservations. And, use of the certificates is often dependent upon using specific, high-priced facilities that negate any other savings, or the facilities are not the quality they claim to be.

What to do

  • Check online review sites (like this one) and the Better Business Bureau for complaints.
  • Check out reviews of the facilities available to the certificate users.
  • Read the purchase agreement carefully, looking for cancellation policies and making note of blackout dates and other restrictions.

Timeshares and vacation clubs

PhotoAlthough a timeshare or vacation club may be a legitimate enterprise, the marketing techniques frequently involve high-pressure sales that trap people into long term financial commitments they can't afford and may not use.

Firms offer free vacations if you agree to attend a presentation. Or, you're promised "discounts" if you sign up "right now" for a multi-year membership. Frequently, the supposed discounts are cost more than regular offerings, the advantages and protections offered in the pitch are not the same as what's in the contract, and future costs and fees can escalate without notice.

What to do

  • Never consider this an "investment." There is little market demand for resale and you will almost certainly lose money on it. In addition, the resale market place is rife with fraud.
  • Never sign a contract for a multi-year commitment on the day of the pitch. Take the time to read it carefully, perhaps asking a lawyer to review it.
  • Look carefully at how costs can change over the life of the membership or ownership.
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The rise and fall of physical education in schools

Today's educators are dropping programs established during the Kennedy Administration

Today's concern about rising childhood obesity is not the only time health officials and policymakers have fretted about the fitness of American youth. In ...

PhotoToday's concern about rising childhood obesity is not the only time health officials and policymakers have fretted about the fitness of American youth. In the years following World War II, American young people were viewed as soft and out of shape.

The official response was the President's Council on Youth and Fitness, established during the Eisenhower Administration. However, it wasn't until the Kennedy Administration that physical fitness was hammered into the American consciousness as a national goal.

In late 1962, President Kennedy discovered an executive order from Theodore Roosevelt, early in the 20th century, challenging U.S. Marine officers to finish a 50-mile hike in 20 hours. Kennedy sent the document to Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Shoup, suggesting that Shoup bring it up as his own discovery and challenge modern day Marines to duplicate this feat.

But he didn't stop there. The council developed and promoted a curriculum for schools to improve fitness. The council's fitness curriculum was devised with the cooperation of 19 U.S. educational and medical organizations and offered to schools. Very quickly, schools around the nation began providing regularly-scheduled physical education classes for students of all ages.

Baby boomers benefited

Some children in the baby boom generation who were not particularly gifted athletically began to get regular exercise for the first time in their lives as part of their school activities.

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President John F. Kennedy with Executive Director of the President's Council on Youth Fitness, Dr. Shane MacCarthy Photo: Kennedy Library

According to the John F. Kennedy library, the program produced a measurable improvement in fitness nationwide as well as a shift in public attitudes and wider participation. The work of the council also helped shape the American identity in the 1960s with fitness, vigor, and preparedness, coincidentally, goals of the Kennedy Administration's New Frontier.

Over the following decades, however, physical education fell out of favor with school administrators.

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported only 29% of high school students surveyed had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on all 7 days before the survey. It found that only 31% attended a physical education class daily.

Abolishing recess

Despite the research showing the benefits of a physical education curriculum, the University of Michigan reports only 8.0% of elementary schools, 6.4% of middle schools, and 5.8% of high schools provide daily physical education to all of its students. In addition, 20% of all elementary schools in the U.S. have abolished recess in favor of increased classroom time under pressure to improve student achievement.

With schools under increasing pressure to raise academic test scores, school administrators and government policymakers have been quick to cut back physical education. First Lady Michelle Obama has led a private initiative to encourage young people to exercise, called "Let's Move," but it is not part of a regular school curriculum.

Photo
Michelle Obama jumps rope at 2010 event. White House photo.

Only six states -- Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York and Vermont -- require physical education in every grade, K-12. While 74.5% of states mandate physical education in elementary through high school, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), in a report in December 2012, found most still fail to require a specific amount of instructional time and nearly half allow exemptions, waivers and/or substitutions.

Inadequate physical education policies

"While other studies demonstrate the importance of quality physical education in helping students learn the necessary skills, knowledge and experiences they need to be physically active for a lifetime, the Shape of the Nation Report has been disclosing the inadequacies of physical education policies in this country since 1987," said NASPE President Mary Jo Sariscsany, associate professor, California State University, Northridge.

"It is time to eliminate the loopholes. We urge parents to join our efforts to be more proactive and effective advocates for physical education to ensure that their children's schools and school districts are complying with required state physical education policies," she said.

New research is adding to the pressure to bring physical education back to schools. A recent study by Cornell University researchers found that increasing the amount of time that elementary schoolchildren spent in gym class reduces the probability of obesity.

The research serves as ammunition for the CDC, Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, all of which have called for restoring gym class to America's schools. The findings suggest an extra 60 minutes per week of PE time reduces the probability that a fifth-grader is obese by 4.8 percentage points.

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Robocallers scamming seniors with "free" medical alert offers

Callers claim consumers have been approved for free equipment but need to pay for monitoring

"Hey, just calling to confirm you've been approved for your free medical alert equipment," the caller to ConsumerAffairs said the other day. "I just need t...

Photo"Hey, just calling to confirm you've been approved for your free medical alert equipment," the caller to ConsumerAffairs said the other day. "I just need to set up the installation details with you."

We obviously weren't the only ones to get the call. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman says his office has received complaints about similar calls, many of them "robocalls," trying to extract billing information from consumers.

The robocall message uses scare tactics to induce consumers to respond to the offer, warning of a “significant rise in the number of senior citizens suffering death and serious life-threatening injuries from a delay in response times for medical emergencies, fires, burglaries or even a simple fall.”

The caller identifies the business as “Senior Medical Alert” or “Senior Medical Advisors” and attempts to obtain consumers' billing information in order to charge those consumers $35 monthly for supposed  “monitoring” services.

“Unfortunately, the elderly are disproportionately targeted by scam artists and are often the victims of fraud and abuse,” Schneiderman said. “To prevent senior citizens from becoming victimized, we must educate them and their loved ones with information they can use to protect themselves.”

Some consumers have reported receiving subsequent, more aggressive and harassing calls from this organization in an attempt to obtain their billing information.

Anyone who receives such a call should simply hang up. Under no circumstances should seniors or anyone else give out credit card or bank account information over the phone without being absolutely certain of the identity of the caller.

Similarly, consumers should not cash checks from unknown persons. The check will almost certainly be fraudulent. 

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10 tips for a more successful summer vacation

Whether traveling alone or with the family, planning is a key to success

Summer kicks off the start of travel season. It's a time for family vacations and when singles set out on their own for adventure. With the economy showing...

PhotoSummer kicks off the start of travel season. It's a time for family vacations and when singles set out on their own for adventure. With the economy showing signs of improving and increases in the housing and stock markets, this summer's travel season could be a busy one.

A successful trip involves good planning. From working out a schedule to coming up with a budget, planning where you are going, how you will get there and where you will stay will help keep you on track.

Your first step is doing some research and you have come to the right place. ConsumerAffairs has thousands of reviews of businesses involved in all aspects of travel, from airlines, to hotels, to travel agents to rental car agencies. Before booking, check out what your fellow consumers have to say about a particular business.

Democracy rules

If you are traveling with your family, let everyone have a say. The kids will be more on-board with the trip if they have some input on activities and the hotels and restaurants you'll frequent along the way.

If you're traveling by car, find ways to break up the trip with stops. For example, if you are traveling through a particular state, use Internet searches to find interesting things to see along your route.

Before embarking on a long car trip, take your vehicle in for regular service. There's no worse way to start a vacation than to have car trouble about 200 miles from home. Stock the car with emergency equipment and food and beverages to keep the passengers content.

Entertainment on the road can keep the passengers happy too. Games and songs will take you only so far these days, so if the kids have digital devices, make sure they bring them along. There's nothing like a two hour movie to reduce the number of “are we there yet?” inquiries from the back seat.

Document the trip

Encourage everyone to take pictures during the trip, or even write a travel blog about the trip. Just don't post it on a social network site until you get home since you don't want to advertise the fact your home is unattended.

Its easy for some family members to get travel fatigue if they feel they are having to do all the work and assume all the responsibility. Try delegating tasks, letting someone be in charge of navigation, someone else in charge of tracking expenses, and someone else be the official trip photographer. That way you keep everyone engaged.

When traveling with a group space may be at a premium. Keep that in mind when you pack. Buy travel-size toiletries, like toothpaste and shaving cream. If you run out you can always buy more.

Pack just the clothes you think you'll wear, keeping in mind the expected weather conditions at your destination. You can achieve some wardrobe efficiency by choosing items that you can mix and match. Sticking with two or three color schemes will make it easier.

No vacation from health

You need to stay healthy on your trip and one way to do that is to stick to your routine as much as possible. If you're in the habit of walking two miles a day, try to work that into your schedule. Stick to your normal diet as much as possible, even though you're going to be eating in restaurants. When choosing restaurants, look beyond fast food to establishments that serve more healthy meals.

Finally, stay safe. Whether you are traveling along or with a group, staying connected with a smartphone offers a measure of security. Solo travelers should make sure others have your itinerary. When straying from a group, let others know where you are going and how long you will be gone.

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Staying safe during your Memorial Day cookout

Here are some simple ways to reduce foodborne illness

Nobody wants to start the summer with a stomach ache -- or worse. But, it probably will happen as people dust off the grill this memorial day weekend for...

PhotoNobody wants to start the summer with a stomach ache -- or worse. But, it probably will happen as people dust off the grill this Memorial Day weekend for the first cookout of the summer.

"When you fire up the grill to cook out this summer, make sure you are extra vigilant in taking the appropriate safe food handling steps to prevent foodborne illness," says Agriculture Department (USDA) Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. "Foods commonly served at cookouts can carry pathogens that can make people sick -- especially those most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as young children, the elderly and pregnant women."

The most popular picnic items, including prepared salads, chicken, hamburgers or hotdogs, are at risk of contamination with foodborne bacteria. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) reminds says following four basic food safety steps -- clean, separate, cook and chill -- during all cooking practices can help reduce foodborne illness.

Clean

Begin your cookout with a clean slate -- literally. Wash preparation surface areas with warm soapy water, especially after contact with raw foods. Wash your hands with soap under warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Make sure anyone who helps prepare food wash their hands as well.

Separate

Raw meat and juice from raw meat can contain harmful bacteria. To prevent cross-contamination, keep all raw meats and poultry separate from vegetables and cooked foods. Use different cutting boards and knives to prepare meats and vegetables.

Cook

After you've fired up the grill, remember the most important weapon in your food safety toolbox: the food thermometer. Proper heating temperatures kill foodborne bacteria. Despite what many people believe, color is not a reliable indicator of doneness.

Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often brown quickly and may appear done on the outside, but still may not have reached a safe minimum internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. The food thermometer gives you an accurate reading of internal temperature.

Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat to take a temperature reading. After reaching proper internal temperature, thick cuts of lamb, beef, and chicken require a three-minute rest time before carving and consuming.

Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures include:

  • Hot dogs -- 65 degrees F or until steaming hot,
  • Poultry -- 165 degrees F,
  • Ground beef and other ground meat -- 160 degrees F,
  • Whole cuts of pork, lamb, veal and beef -- 145 degrees F (followed by a three-minute rest time), and
  • Fish -- 145 degrees F.

Remember to place cooked meats on a clean platter, not on the dish that held the raw product. The juices left on the plate from raw meat can spread bacteria to safely cooked food.

Chill

The last challenge is keeping hot food hot and cold food cold. Too often, food is left to sit out while guests graze over the course of several hours. Bacteria grow most rapidly between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F. To keep bacterial growth at bay, keep hot food on the grill and place cold food in a cooler or ice bath. Never let perishable food sit out for more than two hours.

If the temperature is higher than 90 degrees F, food should not sit out more than one hour. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly and discard any food that has been sitting out too long.

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GM lowballs pricing on its new Spark

The subcompact electric car will be under $20,000 after tax credits

General Motors is hoping to use aggressive pricing to grab market share for its new subcompact Chevrolet Spark electric car. GM announced today that the st...

PhotoGeneral Motors is hoping to use aggressive pricing to grab market share for its new subcompact Chevrolet Spark electric car. GM announced today that the sticker price of the Spark will be $27,495 including destination charges. After the $7,500 federal tax credit, that puts it under $20,000.

GM is also matching the lease deal offered by the rival Fiat 500e -- a 36-month lease at $199 a month with $999 down.

The marketing strategy for the Spark EV is to portray it as a zippy urban car for drivers who want to stay connected. It will include a Chevy MyLink infotainment system and a "confidence gauge" that estimates how much range is left under real-time conditions.

"The Chevrolet Spark EV is the most efficient -- and now one of the most affordable -- EVs you can buy” said Chris Perry, vice president, Chevrolet Marketing. “Combined with outstanding infotainment and great design, the fun-to-drive Spark EV is engineered to impress.”

The little car will go on sale in selected California and Oregon markets in mid-June, GM said. It's expected to get the equivalent of 119 mpg in combined city and highway driving, with a range of 82 miles.

Crowded market

PhotoThe small electric car market is getting a little crowded. Besides the Spark and the Fiat 500e, there's the Nissan Leaf, which sells for $29,650 and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which goes for $29,975.

California buyers can get additional state and local tax credits of up to $2,500, GM said.

The Spark EV features a combined city/highway EPA estimated range of 82 miles when fully charged and an EPA-estimated combined city/highway 119 MPGe fuel economy equivalent.  

Spark EV will be the first vehicle on the market to offer as an available option compatibility with the recently approved SAE combo charger for DC Fast Charging. The capability, available shortly after launch, will enable the Spark EV to recharge up to 80 percent of its capacity in approximately 20 minutes at select DC Fast Charging stations when they become available.

Charging can be managed and monitored remotely using the Spark EV’s smart phone application, provided by OnStar, which is standard for three years, the company said.

The GM-built electric motor, combined with a 560-pound lithium ion battery pack, will deliver 130 hp and 400 pounds-feet of torque. GM says it will go from 0 to 60 mph in under 8 seconds.

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Applications for jobless claims post sharp decline

The drop in claims follows a surge the week before

More evidence today that the labor market is strengthening. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 340,000 people filed first-time claims for state unempl...

PhotoMore evidence today that the labor market is strengthening.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 340,000 people filed first-time claims for state unemployment benefits during the week ending May 18 -- down 23,000 from the previous week. The consensus of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for initial applications to fall to 348,000.

Analysts say the previous week's increase seems to have been the result of normal week-to-week movements of a highly volatile data series. That jump, which brought the initial claims level to its highest point since February was not a change in trends. In fact, they say, employment conditions have show little -- if any -- change.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the jobs picture was down 500 from the previous week to 339,500.

The full report can be found on the Labor Department website.

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April new-home sales exceed expectations

Prices were on the rise as well, as real estate market continues its rovery

After picking up steam in March, the pace of sales for new, single-family homes continued it's upward momentum last month. Figures released jointly by the...

PhotoAfter picking up steam in March, the pace of sales for new, single-family homes continued its upward momentum last month.

Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales rose 2.3% in April -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 454,000. That strong number follows an upward revision in the March rate to 444,000 from an initially reported 417,000.

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for a pace of 425,000.

New-home inventories remain depressed with the estimate of new houses for sale at the end of April at 156,000. That works out to a supply of 4.1 months at the current sales rate.

The full April new home sales report is available here.

Overall, the housing market was positive in April. Yesterday, the National Association of Realtors reported a small uptick in sales of existing homes.

Home prices increase

Home prices continued to move higher in March. The Federal Housing Finance Agency's (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI) was up was up 1.3% from February. The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

During the first three months of this year, the HPI rose 1.9% from the previous quarter -- the seventh consecutive quarterly price rise in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index.

“The housing market has stabilized in many areas and homebuilding activity has strengthened in recent quarters,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “That said, labor market weakness and still-elevated foreclosure pipelines remain hindrances to a more robust recovery.”

Compared with last year, house prices rose 6.7% the first quarter of 2012 to the first quarter of 2013.  

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Spending on cigarette and smokeless tobacco advertising on the rise

The number of cigarettes sold is down, smokeless sales are up

There's more money going up in smoke these days. The Federal trade Commission (FTC) says in its latest Cigarette Report that the amount spent on cigarette...

PhotoThere's more money going up in smoke these days.

The Federal trade Commission (FTC) says in its latest Cigarette Report that the amount spent on cigarette advertising and promotion by the nation's largest cigarette companies rose from $8.05 billion in 2010 to $8.37 billion in 2011.

The increase was due mainly to an increase in spending on price discounts, or discounts paid to cigarette retailers or wholesalers in order to reduce the price of cigarettes to consumers. Spending on price discounts alone increased from $6.49 billion in 2010 to $7.00 billion in in 2011. That was the largest category in 2011, as it has been each year since 2002.

Meanwhile, the number of cigarettes sold to wholesalers and retailers in the United States declined from 281.6 billion in 2010 to 273.6 billion in 2011.

Smokeless Tobacco Report

At the same time, spending on advertising and promotion by the major manufacturers of smokeless tobacco products was also on the rise, according to the FTC's Smokeless Tobacco Report.

The total rose from $444.2 million in 2010 to $451.7 million in 2011, with price discounts making up the largest spending category and accounting for $168.8 million. And the dollar value of sales by these manufacturers rose from $2.78 billion in 2010 to $2.94 billion in 2011.

The weight of smokeless tobacco sold rose from 120.5 million pounds in 2010 to 122.7 million pounds in 2011.

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Ticket agent fined for violating code-share disclosure rules

Passengers were not told which airline would be operating their flight

The law says ticket agents must adequately disclose to consumers when flights are being operated by a different airline than the one marketing their flight...

PhotoThe law says ticket agents must adequately disclose to consumers when flights are being operated by a different airline than the one marketing their flight through a code-sharing agreement.

Because JTB USA, Inc., didn't do that, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has levied a $60,00 fine against the company and ordered it to cease and desist from further violations.

“When passengers buy an airline ticket, they have a right to know which airline will be operating their flight,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “I hope this penalty sends the message that DOT will continue to take enforcement action when we find violations of our rules.”

Code-sharing

Under code-sharing, an airline can sell tickets on flights that use its designator code but are operated by a separate airline. DOT rules require airlines and ticket agents to disclose to consumers -- before they book a flight -- if the flight is operated under a code-sharing arrangement. The disclosure must include the corporate name of the transporting carrier and any other name under which the flight is offered to the public.

As part of a review of larger ticket agents’ compliance with the code-sharing disclosure rule, DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office staff made a number of test calls during January and February of this year to JTB USA and inquired about booking a flight. During each of the calls, the company's reservations agents failed to disclose the corporate name of the operating carrier.   

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Some new ways to learn a language

Since everybody's busy, companies have made learning a language easier

Let's face it, the world is getting smaller.Through modern technology, the Internet and 24 hour news outlets, a lot of foreign places don't seem that fo...

PhotoLet's face it, the world is getting smaller.

Through modern technology, the Internet and 24-hour news outlets, a lot of foreign places don't seem that foreign these days.

And as time goes on, more and more cultures will continue to live and work closely together, which makes more people want to learn a new language. 

Of course you can take a traditional language course or get an individual tutor, but you may not have the time.

So what else can you do?

You can teach yourself a new language on your home computer or on your smartphone, especially if you don't have a lot of free time.

Lingualia

A good site to use is Lingualia, which combines social networking with learning a new language.

Lingualia teaches users a host of new languages by using audio techniques, visual lessons, virtual flashcards, work exercises and other teaching methods.

The software can be accessed either on your home computer or mobile device and your work will be shared among all your devices, so you can always pick up where you left off.

In addition, Lingualia uses a virtual tutor named Lingu, which gives you step by step instruction and feedback on your progress.

The creators of the software say Lingu is based on artificial intelligence so it can tailor its teaching methods to accommodate each kind of user. So whether you have very little time each week or several hours every day to learn a new language, Lingu is able to adjust its teaching style to each user and that user's lifestyle.

Probably the coolest thing about Lingualia is the ability to connect with other users around the world who speak the language you're trying to learn. 

You'll be able to get tips and practice your new language with them and communicate with other users who are learning a new dialect as well.

Lingualia can be used by people of all ages and the basic service is free. But you'll have to pay if you're interested in using the site's premium service.

Duolingo

PhotoIf you want to learn a new language and don't want to pay anything at all, you can give Duolingo a try. The creators say the site is completely free and there are no hidden fees or charges.

How can that be?

Well, Duolingo uses a bartering system of sorts. Meaning, the site will help you practice a new language by giving you documents to translate.  Specifically, Duolingo finds someone who needs a webpage translated. The page is uploaded to the site and you translate it.

In theory, this method allows users to get real-life practice with their new language and get more ownership of it.

Of course the site is for people who are much further along in their new language and are already comfortable writing and speaking it.

Busuu.com

PhotoAnother good app for learning a new language is Busuu.com.

The difference with Busuu is you can access a live tutor who speaks the language you're trying to learn. So instead of accessing virtual tutors and work exercises, you get to speak to a real person from the Busuu community. 

The creators of the app say it has over 150 learning units that teach a broad range of topics. The company uses both image and sound along with the live tutor, so you get one-on-one training and get to learn on your own too.

Basic features of the app are free to use, but premium access will cost.  Busuu is available for both Apple devices and Androids.

Look, many of us are busy these days and taking the time out to learn a new language could be extremely challenging, which is why using a website or an app may be better.

Plus, a lot of people have most of their free time when they're commuting or traveling, which is another reason why learning a language on an app or website seems to make sense.

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Is social media lowering our desire for face time?

Some say yes and think it's even worse for the younger generation

When it comes to social media, there are people who have signed up but never use it. Then there are people who use social media once in a while just...

PhotoWhen it comes to social media, there are some people who have signed up for it but never use it and those who use social media once in a while just because it's there. And then you have folks who constantly use it and would rather "tweet" someone than pay them a visit.

Some might say that social media has been a great addition to our culture because it makes keeping up with people so easy. But others  think it has removed our desire to connect with people face-to-face.

Michael Houlihan, co-founder of Barefoot Cellars says social media is a wonderful thing to have in our society, but it should never replace human interaction.

Up close and personal

"Social media and technology do have their place, but they are not, and never will be, a substitute for in-person interaction," he says.

Houlihan, whose company produces the popular Barefoot Wine, says he would have never achieved the same kind of success through social media. He says meeting with people in person allowed him to establish stronger relationships.

"I can't tell you how many retailers, suppliers, and potential customers I visited in person during those early years," says Houlihan. "What I can tell you is that I would have never gotten satisfactory results if I had tried to build those relationships via email and social media. People don't just buy your product; they buy you."

Houlihan believes that face-to-face contact is the best way to build business relationships. Others feel it's the best way to build relationships overall.

Turning inward

Andrew Keen, author of Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us, told WebProNews that social media has made a lot of people self-absorbed.

"As we retreat from real social things, and as we retreat from readily watching or listening to other people's ideas -- music, movies, books -- we seem to be more and more preoccupied with broadcasting ourselves, "says Keen. And that, I think is deeply narcissistic and ultimately doesn't reflect well on ourselves as individuals or collectively as a species."

Social media explosion

PhotoAnd just how many people are using social media these days? 

Well, Facebook has over 1.1 billion users. Twitter has 500 million, Pinterest over 48 million and Google + has 343 million users.

And these are just four of the social media sites

A good portion of users admit to using social media sites to keep in touch with their family and friends, which suggests many aren't keeping in touch through face-to-face contact.

According to statistics released by the company NM Incite, 89% of social media users say keeping up with family and friends is the main reason they use sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Making new friends is the second most popular reason, as 70% of users admit to using their keyboard to meet somebody new, which means that a lot of folks aren't meeting people the old fashioned way. 

Younger users

PhotoAnd what about the younger ones? 

Most young kids have never lived in a world that doesn't involve social media, so will their face-to-face communication skills suffer for it?

Yes, said educational psychologist Dr. Kairen Cullen in an interview with The Evening Standard

"New media increases access for lots of children, but on the other hand it doesn't give them experience of face-to-face contact. We only get good at this with lots of practice," she said. "There is this immediate gratification element to new media -- it doesn't allow children to build up patience and time-keeping. It's a mixed picture."

Houlihan agrees and says practice is the only thing that will make a person a good communicator. 

"Like any skill, becoming personable takes practice," he says. "A good way to start is to eliminate virtual communication when in-person communication is possible or more effective. "So shake hands and come out a winner. Remember, genuine, lasting and dependable relationships take time and physical presence. High touch beats high tech every time."

True impact

However there are others who believe that social media isn't as bad as some people may think.

Dr. Megan Moreno, who specializes in adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said when there's a big shift in technology some people get worried that society will be affected negatively.

"When a new technology comes out that is something so important, there is this initial alarmist reaction," said Moreno in an interview with the  The New York Times.

Houlihan says social media is a good thing for our culture, but says it should be used to start a relationship, not maintain one.

"A relationship can start through text, email, or social media; in fact, I encourage entrepreneurs and other businesspeople to utilize those resources," he says. "But in order to be lasting and dependable, a relationship has to grow in person. Yes, developing your face-to-face social skills will make you feel vulnerable at times. As is the case with learning to walk, though feeling vulnerable is why we get so good at it."

Here are Houlihan's reasons why people should use face-to-face contact instead of social media.

  • You're better able to give personalized attention.
  • You're more effective in general.
  • Facial expressions help get your message across, along with your body language and tonality.
  • Your vulnerability shows, which is a good thing.
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Home buyers finding fewer choices and higher prices

Where are all those predicted foreclosures?

The housing recovery has proceeded to a point where there are plenty of buyers but fewer houses for sale. As a result, the price buyers have to pay continu...

Photo
Real estate listings in the D.C. area
The housing recovery has proceeded to a point where there are plenty of buyers but fewer houses for sale. As a result, the price buyers have to pay continues to go up.

On its face it appears counter-intuitive. Home sales are actually falling but prices are rising. How can that be? Simple -- supply and demand.

In March, sales of existing homes fell 0.6%, a significant drop not unlike what we experienced at the height of the Great Recession. Then the market was flooded with homes for sale but no one was buying. It was very hard to get a mortgage. Consumers were frightened.

But now, banks are lending again and prospective buyers have less fear about the future, but the market is remarkably thin when it comes to available homes.

Heavy traffic

"Buyer traffic is 25% above a year ago when we were already seeing notable gains in shopping activity," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors (NAR). "In the same time frame housing inventories have trended much lower, which is continuing to pressure home prices."

Listed inventory remains 16.8% below a year ago when there was a 6.2-month supply. So where are the houses?

A year ago, after major lenders settled charges of abusive foreclosure practices with the states and federal government, housing analysts predicted the market would be flooded with long-delayed foreclosures, putting downward pressure on home prices. But the flood was more of a trickle.

“While many were predicting that REO and the ‘shadow inventory’ would keep real estate markets depressed, in reality the shortage of housing inventory has led buyers to bid more competitively against one another, leading to significant home price increases and tighter housing conditions,” said Tom O’Grady, CEO of Pro Teck Valuation Services, a company assessing home values. “Aside from anecdotal stories, Home Value Forecast shows that one of the most reliable leading indicators to support this theory is the Sold-To-List Price ratio.”

Sellers getting their price

When the Sold-To-List Price ratio is high it means consumers are willing to meet the asking price or get very near it. In the hottest market, consumers will even bid over the asking price if there is a competing buyer. That happened quite a bit during the housing bubble, so should we be worried that it's happening again in some markets?

Not really, because the reasons for the high ratio are different. Then, there were plenty of homes -- too many as it turned out -- but there was also easy money for consumers, even those who really couldn't afford to buy a home.

Today, money is anything but easy and there aren't enough houses to meet current demand, even at reduced levels. As a result, some metro areas hardest hit by the housing collapse are among those showing the best overall performance. Pro Teck lists both the top 10 best performing markets and the 10 worst performing markets. Among the best are:

  1. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, Tenn.
  2. Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Roseville, Calif.
  3. Oakland-Fremont-Hayward, Calif.
  4. Reno-Sparks, Nev.
  5. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minn.-Wis.
  6. Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev.
  7. Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, Mich.
  8. Salt Lake City, Utah
  9. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, Calif.
  10. Dallas-Plano-Irving, Tex.

The bottom ranked metros are:

  1. El Paso, Tex.
  2. Shreveport-Bossier City, La.
  3. Akron, Ohio
  4. Spokane, Wash.
  5. Chattanooga, Tenn.
  6. Dayton, Ohio
  7. Peoria, Ill.
  8. Baltimore-Towson, Md.
  9. Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, Ark.
  10. Rochester, N.Y.

Finally above water

While rising home prices might make it harder for first time home buyers to get into the market, it might provide welcome relief for consumers who purchased homes at the top of the market and, as a result, have not been able to sell their homes.

“Higher home prices will unlock a large number of households with negative or low equity and incentivize them to get off the sidelines and into the housing market," said James D. Shilling, of DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies. "However, combined with future increases in interest rates, the net effect is likely an overall reduction in residential real estate transactions and household mobility.”

Shilling said he believes the Federal Reserve will keep mortgage rates low through 2013 and most likely into 2014. When rates begin to rise, he predicts homeowners with near record low interest rates will be reluctant to give up those rates by selling their homes, suggesting an increase in housing inventory won't occur anytime soon.

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Penguin settles e-book price-fixing suit for $75 million

Apple, which led the alleged conspiracy, faces trial this summer

Penguin is the latest publisher to settle price-fixing allegations. The company has agreed to pay $75 million to resolve complaints by 33 states accusing i...

PhotoPenguin is the latest publisher to settle price-fixing allegations. The company has agreed to pay $75 million to resolve complaints by 33 states accusing it of price-fixing and collusion in the market for electronic books, or e-books, a conspiracy allegedly orchestrated by Apple.

It's the fifth settlement growing out of investigations conducted by Connecticut and Texas that so far have paved the way for recovery of approximately $164 million for consumers nationwide. The settlement also applies to private class-action lawsuits filed by consumers alleging that the company’s behavior violated unfair competition laws, causing consumers to overpay for e-books.

Apple is the only remaining defendant and is currently scheduled to go to trial in the Southern District of New York on June 3, 2013.

“Consumers are entitled to a fair, open and competitive marketplace,” said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. “This agreement is yet another step toward providing restitution to those consumers who were harmed by alleged price-fixing within the e-book market and will further ensure that, going forward, consumers benefit from fair competition in the sale of e-books.”

If approved by the court, the settlement with Penguin will provide significant consumer restitution and should result in greater competition in e-book sales in the future. The agreement grants e-book retailers greater freedom to reduce the prices of e-book titles and provides $75 million to compensate affected consumers nationwide.

Apple's day in court

Jepsen said he is looking forward to seeing Apple in court.

"Connecticut, along with Texas, is leading the upcoming trial effort against the remaining defendant, Apple, on behalf of our partner states, and we will aggressively seek to obtain additional compensation for consumers in our respective states who have been injured by the illegal conspiracy we allege in our complaint,” he said.

Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, a consumer-rights law firm in Seattle, has represented consumers in the class action cases that are being litigated in conjunction with the case brought by the states.

“This proposed settlement is a powerful demonstration of what is possible when federal, state and private class antitrust enforcement lawyers work together,” said Steve W. Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman. “In this case, the level of cooperation was unprecedented, and the results that we were able to deliver to the states and consumers demonstrate that.”

Late last year, Penguin settled similar claims with the Department of Justice. Under that settlement, Penguin agreed to end its allegedly anticompetitive agreements with Apple and other retailers for a period of two years.

Agency model

In December, Berman was appointed lead counsel to represent the rights of consumers in the consolidated class-action lawsuit first filed on Aug. 9, 2011.

It alleges that the defendants coordinated a switch to an agency model, where publishers would set the price, rather than retailers. The result, the lawsuit claims, was a dramatic increase in the price of many e-books as retailers were contractually forbidden from competing on price. The suit sought to compensate consumers for overpayment as a result of the pricing agreement.  

“Penguin's senior management deserves credit for working with us and the attorneys general to reach a comprehensive agreement in such a hotly contested case,” said Jeff D. Friedman, Hagens Berman partner. “They’ve agreed to a settlement that will go a long way toward making e-book consumers whole and restoring a thriving, again-competitive e-book marketplace.”

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Appeals court OK's class action against Kohl's

Consumer alleges the "sale price" was, in fact, the regular price

When is a "sale" price not really a sale price? Antonio Hinojos thinks it's when the price is the same as the "original" price -- and that's the basis of a...

PhotoWhen is a "sale" price not really a sale price? Antonio Hinojos thinks it's when the price is the same as the "original" price -- and that's the basis of a class action lawsuit he has brought against Kohl's Department Stores.

Hinojos bought a Samsonite suitcase from Kohl's that was advertised as 50% off its "original" price of $299.99. While he was at it, he bought some shirts that were supposedly marked down from 32% to 40% off their "original" prices.

But in fact, Hinojos' suit claims, the items were not marked down at all and the supposed "sale" prices were the same prices the items routinely sold for. Had he known that, Hinojos says he never would have purchased the products.

The case is taking on a life of its own. A district court originally dismissed it, saying Hinojos had not shown that he had lost any money as a result of the alleged false advertising, since he got the goods he wanted.

Kohl's  May 22, 2013, 2:08 p.m.
Consumers rate Kohl's
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision Tuesday, Courthouse News Service reported, clearing the way for the suit to proceed.

The court said that Hinojos had shown that he suffered an economic injury under the Unfair Competition Law and the False Advertising Law.

"He alleges that the advertised discounts conveyed false information about the goods he purchased, i.e., that the goods he purchased sold at a substantially higher price at Kohl's in the recent past and/or in the prevailing market. He also alleges that he would not have purchased the goods in question absent this misrepresentation,'" Judge Stephen Reinhardt said, writing for the three-judge panel.

 

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Beware of post-disaster charity scams

Oklahoma tragedy likely to draw out fake charities

Following disasters like the Oklahoma tornado, scam charities are quick to exploit the tragedy and misery, cynically tugging on heartstrings to line their ...

PhotoFollowing disasters like the Oklahoma tornado, scam charities are quick to exploit the tragedy and misery, cynically tugging on heartstrings to line their own pockets. Consumers everywhere should be on guard.

“For those folks around the country who want to donate funds to help families in Oklahoma, please be alert and only donate to reputable relief charities such as the Salvation Army or the Red Cross," said Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. "The first scam we typically see after devastation like this is charity fraud."

Scam operators may come at you a number of different ways. They may operate bogus charities that contact people by telephone to solicit money or financial information. Potential victims might receive an email to steer them to bogus websites to solicit funds, allegedly for the benefit of tragedy victims.

Sometimes these fraudulent websites are hard to distinguish from those of of legitimate charities. Sometimes they adopt a name that sounds familiar, similar to a charity you've heard of.

Identity theft

Sometimes they're after more than a simple donation. Sometimes they want your identity. After obtaining your personal information, they may clean out your bank account or open credit accounts in your name.

On its website the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has an Exempt Organizations Select Check tool. You can use it to identify qualified charities. Only donations to qualified charitable organizations are tax-deductible. 

You can also find legitimate charities on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Web site.

Iowa sting

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has waged a lengthy and successful campaign against questionable charity fundraisers who call residents of his state. He recently obtained a court order barring a Florida telemarketer from operating in Iowa.

In an ongoing sting operation, Miller obtained the Des Moines telephone number of an elderly resident and set it up with a recorder and one of his officers. When the telemarketer, claiming to be from A Child's Dream Foundation, called with its pitch, Miller recorded it and presented it as evidence. The audio of the call, posted on Miller's website, serves as a good example of how these pitches work. 

The telemarketer was Telequal LLC. Its representative “outright lied” in the call, Miller said.

“She said she was calling from the charity, claimed that the charity focused primarily on sick Iowa kids, and also claimed that a lot of each donation went to the kids,” Miller said. “In truth, the call was coming from Telequal. They were asking for money for an out of state charity that has no special Iowa focus, and 85% of every dollar donated went to the telemarketer, not to sick kids.”

What to do

Never respond to charity appeals from telemarketers. Legitimate charities don't work that way.

Contribute only to established, reputable charities. In the case of the Oklahoma disaster, the state's attorney general has suggested the Red Cross or Salvation Army.

Never contribute cash. For security and tax record purposes, contribute by check or credit card or another way that provides documentation of the donation.

If you suspect fraud, report it to you state attorney general's office.

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A slight uptick in existing-home sales during April

Prices, though, continue their march higher

Limited inventory and tight credit are being blamed for a smaller-than-expected increase in sales of existing homes during April. Figures released by the...

PhotoLimited inventory and tight credit are being blamed for a smaller-than-expected increase in sales of existing homes during April.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show total existing-home sales, which include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose just 0.6% last month -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.97 million. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had projected an annual sales rare of 5.05 million.

The recovery continues

Still, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun believes market is solidly recovering. “The robust housing market recovery is occurring in spite of tight access to credit and limited inventory. Without these frictions, existing-home sales easily would be well above the 5-million unit pace,” he said. “Buyer traffic is 31 percent stronger than a year ago, but sales are running only about 10 percent higher. It’s become quite clear that the only way to tame price growth to a manageable, healthy pace is higher levels of new home construction.”

Sales of existing-home are at the highest pace since November 2009 when the market spiked to 5.44 million in response to the home buyer tax credit. Total sales have been above year-ago levels for 22 months in a row.

Regional breakdown

Three of four regions of the U.S. posted sales gains during April.

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 1.6% to an annual rate of 640,000 in April and are 4.9% above April 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $245,100, up 5.1% from a year ago.
  • In the South, sales rose 2.0% to an annual level of 2.01 million in April and are 14.9% above April 2012. The median price was $168,700 -- 10.6%.
  • Existing-home sales in the West were up 1.7% to a pace of 1.20 million in April and are 4.3% than in April of 2012. Given limited choices and multiple bidding, the median price in the West was $263,600, up 17.5% from the same month last year.
  • The Midwest was the only area to post a decline. Sales were down 3.4% in April to a rate of 1.12 million but are 9.8% above a year ago. The median price was $149,300, up 6.7% from April 2012.

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $192,800 in April -- up 11.0% from a year ago and the 14th consecutive month of year-over-year price increases. The last time there were 14 consecutive months of year-over-year price increases was from April 2005 to May 2006.

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The soaring cost of stroke treatment

Treatment costs in America may double by 2030

We're getting older as a nation and that's costing money -- lots of it According to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, the cost o...

PhotoWe're getting older as a nation and that's costing money -- lots of it

According to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, the cost of treating stroke could more than double in 2030 as the number of people having strokes increases by 20%.

The association, in a statement published in Stroke, an American Heart Association journal, cites the aging U.S. population as the main reason for the increases. It also projects that by 2030:

  • Almost 4% of U.S. adults -- nearly one in 25 -- will have a stroke. This translates into an additional 3.4 million people with stroke in 2030.
  • Costs to treat stroke may increase from $71.55 billion in 2010 to $183.13 billion.
  • Annual costs due to lost productivity could rise from $33.65 billion to $56.54 billion.
  • People currently 45-64 years old are expected to have the highest increase in stroke at 5.1%.
  • Stroke prevalence is projected to increase the most among Hispanic men between now and 2030, and the cost of treating stroke in Hispanic women is expected to triple.

"Strokes will absolutely strain the healthcare system," said Bruce Ovbiagele, M.D., M.Sc., professor and chairman of the Department of Neurology at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston.

Post-stroke care

Caring for survivors is expensive because stroke can cause long-term disability, he said.

"Ninety% of stroke patients have residual disability and only 10% recover completely after a stroke," Ovbiagele said. "Policy makers at all levels of governance should be aware of this looming crisis so that we can consider practical ways to avert it."

Stroke, the fourth leading cause of death and one of the top causes of preventable disability in the United States, occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted by a blood clot or a bleeding vessel. Without oxygen-rich blood, brain cells die.

"Getting patients specialized acute stroke care as soon as possible is critical,” Ovbiagele said. “During every minute of delayed treatment, brain cells are dying. EMS systems nationwide should take patients directly to a designated stroke center equipped to quickly diagnose and administer drugs to restore blood flow to the brain."

High incidence of stroke

Hispanics and blacks have a higher rate of stroke and worse outcomes, and individuals without insurance have a 24% to 56% higher risk of death from stroke than those with insurance coverage, the statement said.

Stroke rates are particularly high among people 45-64, who are too young to receive Medicare, less able to afford medications and more likely to have diabetes and obesity, compared to older stroke survivors, Ovbiagele said.

Obamacare factor

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is expected to expand insurance coverage to an additional 32 million Americans and to increase emphasis on prevention and wellness, according to the association. These types of policy changes should help reduce the number of strokes, deaths and related costs when the law is fully implemented in 2014. For example:

86 million people have already gained access to free preventive screenings and services, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol screening and tobacco cessation services, through Medicare and most private health plans.

Expanding access to insurance coverage should improve access to primary care and the medications needed to control risk factors and help prevent stroke and to improve access to acute stroke treatment for those who were previously uninsured.

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Foster Farms recalls ready-to-eat grilled chicken strips

The product contains known allergens not declared on the label

Foster Farms of Porterville, Calif., is recalling approximately 6,165 pounds of ready-to-eat grilled chicken breast strips. The product contains wheat and...

PhotoFoster Farms of Porterville, Calif., is recalling approximately 6,165 pounds of ready-to-eat grilled chicken breast strips.

The product contains wheat and soy -- known allergens -- that are not declared on the product label. There have been no reports of adverse reactions associated with consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 4.5 lb. cases containing 12, 6-oz. trays of "FOSTER FARMS GRILLED CHICKEN BREAST STRIPS BONELESS & SKINLESS WITH RIB MEAT 97% FAT FREE," with an identifying case code of "000606."

The recalled product bears the establishment number "P-20923" inside the USDA mark of inspection and a use-by date of "JUN 22 2013" printed on each tray. The product was produced on April 23, 2013, and was distributed to retail establishments in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Teresa Lenz, the company's consumer affairs manager, at 209-394-6914.  

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Women more receptive to preemptive cancer surgery than men

But genetic testing is increasingly important to both sexes

Actress Angelina Jolie's decision to undergo a double mastectomy and have her overies removed made headlines for one simple fact. She is perfectly healthy....

PhotoActress Angelina Jolie's decision to undergo a double mastectomy and have her overies removed made headlines for one simple fact: she is perfectly healthy.

However, she decided to engage in what is called aggressive prevention because she tested positive for a high genetic risk for cancer. Jolie's mother died of breast cancer in her 50s.

This type of preemptive therapy is not exactly new. In 2010 Dr. Susan Domchek of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine conducted a large study of women whose genetic make-up -- the presence of what are called BRCA 1 and 2 mutations -- put them at very high risk of cancer.

Domchek found that removing ovaries and breasts not only significantly reduces cancer risks but also increases the odds women will live longer. But she notes this preemptive surgery is not the ideal solution, just a temporary one.

Not a fix

"We shouldn't think these surgical preventions have fixed the problem," she said.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that belong to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors. Research has shown that the mutation of these genes is linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Inheriting the genes can significantly increase the risk of cancer.

A recent study found that a preemptive mastectomy may reduce breast cancer risk up to 100% if the patient has a strong genetic history of breast cancer or a BRCA mutation. But the level of risk reduction will vary, patient to patient.

Even removing both healthy breasts doesn't always eliminate the risk fully. It is not unheard of for a woman who has undergone a double mastectomy to still develop breast cancer, though it's very rare.

Prostate cancer

While men have been known to get breast cancer, a bigger threat to men is prostate cancer. With the headlines full of Jolie's decision, some men took to online health forums to discuss whether men should opt for preemptive prostate removal.

Photo"Since so many men develop this disease at advanced ages why not just remove the prostate as a standard procedure at around the age of sixty?" asked a poster named Roland, at Straightdope.com.

Judging by the replies, that isn't going to happen. In fact, the latest prostate cancer research suggests men might need less treatment for prostate cancer unless they happen to harbor the gene for the most aggressive form of the disease.

Also, removing the prostate gland can have serious and permanent side effects, whereas breast removal seldom causes complications. 

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco are using a new genomic test for prostate cancer that can help predict a man's genetic risk of the most severe form of the disease. But instead of preemptive surgery, they say some men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer may be able to avoid surgery, and most treatment altogether, if they have what is considered a manageable form of the disease.

Better risk assessment

The test, which improves risk assessment when patients are first diagnosed, can also help in identifying which men are right for active surveillance, which is a way of managing the disease without direct treatment.

An advantage men have is that prostate cancer often grows slowly. Even now, many of the quarter-million patients diagnosed each year in the U.S. never need treatment. Even so, most patients with low-risk prostate cancer immediately undergo treatment, including surgery.

“With the new test, we can more confidently recommend active surveillance when it is appropriate,’’ said the study’s lead author Matthew R. Cooperberg, MD, a UCSF assistant professor of urology and epidemiology & biostatistics. “And patients through active surveillance can avoid or delay surgery or radiation for their condition."

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Cool gadgets for the swimming pool

IPool toys and gadgets have come a long way.

There's just a little time to go until summer hits, which means families will be opening their home swimming pools throughout most of the United States.A...

PhotoThere's just a little time to go until summer hits, which means families will be opening their home swimming pools throughout most of the United States.

And more families using their swimming pools usually means they'll be using toys for their pools too, as kids love to play with things that inflate and use items that are specifically designed for the water.

But today's pool toys have come a long way from the boring inflatable beach ball or the toy snorkel set. Now you can get a host of cool and unique gadgets for the pool that could make swimming that much better.

Pool-sized motor boat

Like what? Well, there's the Motorized Bumper Boat made by the company Banzai.

It allows kids to travel up to two feet per second and they can battle and bump each other all day long. It comes with a motorized water blaster too, so kids can spray their friends while they steer the inflatable boat around the water.

The Motorized Bumper Boat is battery-powered and recommended for children between the ages of 5 through 10. Amazon currently sells it for around $50 and based on reviews, the bumper boat is safe to use and seems pretty durable -- at least for something that's inflatable.

Cleaning your pool

PhotoAlthough the Jet Net Boat Pool Skimmer isn't really a toy, it's a cool gadget for the pool nonetheless.

It gathers and collects all of those things in the pool that you want to get rid of like leaves, bugs and other small items for which people typically use a net.

By remote control you can steer the boat where you want it to go and pick up the debris; everything is collected in the gadget's built-in net. From there you take the net out, empty it and put it back in for another cleaning.

The Jet Net Boat Pool Skimmer goes for a little over $140 on Amazon and it's a great gadget for kids to use. You can get your children to clean the pool and they'll think they're just playing with a remote control boat. It's a win-win for everybody.

For kids of all ages

PhotoThen there's the Excalibur Blue Jet Racer for a little under $80. It's an inflatable jet ski for kids, made for the pool.

It's designed for children ages 5 through 15 and there weren't any reviews from parents about their kids getting hurt on it. Apparently, the motor allows kids to move pretty slowly, so they won't be whipping around the pool, which would probably be bad. Still, some reviews say the inflatable jet ski should only be used for kids with good balance.

Just like a real jet ski, the Blue Jet Racer can be difficult to stay on at first and it's not recommended for small children or those who aren't good swimmers.

It's inflatable too, so consumers probably shouldn't expect it to last a lifetime. But kids should still be able to get a lot of use from it.

For gamers

Last on the list is the Floating Pool Pong Table for about $75, letting you and a friend have a serious Ping-Pong tournament without ever getting out of the pool.

PhotoThe creators of the table say the surface is hard, so you can do a slap-shot successfully. But the edges are soft and won't hurt the user or other swimmers who may run into it.

It can be used outside the pool too, so if you want to move the game onto the deck of the pool or inside the house, you can. A multi-use table, if you will. The table is 27 inches wide and 54 high and recommended for children ages five and up.

Getting new gadgets for the pool doesn't have to break the bank, and the kids should be able to get a lot of enjoyment out of them. 

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Kids' media consumption not tied to criminal behavior, study finds

Treat your children well, seems to be the best all-around answer

Politicians and activists of various stripes frequently claim that watching violent movies and TV shows contributes to criminal behavior in adulthood, but ...

PhotoPoliticians and activists of various stripes frequently claim that watching violent movies and TV shows contributes to criminal behavior in adulthood, but a study by a Texas professor finds it's not so.

“We basically find that genetics and some social issues combine to predict later adult arrests,” said Texas A&M International University chair and associate professor of psychology Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson. “Despite ongoing concerns about media influences, media exposure does not seem to function as a risk factor for adult criminality.”

Being raised in a loving and supportive environment may be the best way to decrease the odds that children will grow up to be crooks. Or as Ferguson's report put it: "Results demonstrate that exposure to maternal affection can have the potential to decrease criminal behaviors in those who might otherwise be at risk."

In the study, genetics accounted for more variance in criminal behavior among women, 58 percent, than men, 20 percent, although for both sexes, the genetic contribution was significant.

“Genetics was overall one of the strongest predictors of adult criminality among variables we considered in our analysis,” Ferguson said.

No one cause

Other factors such as family environment, peers and socioeconomic status can also be predictors of adult criminality. He explained that no one thing by itself determines negative outcomes, but rather a confluence of unfortunate factors.

Photo
Prof. Ferguson

“Genetics alone don’t seem to trigger criminal behavior, but in combination with harsh upbringing, you can see negative outcomes. In our sample, experiencing maternal warmth seemed to reduce the impact of genetics on adult criminality,” Ferguson said.

He added that this research can help focus on issues which really matter, such as family environment, and those that don’t — like media consumption.

“People may object morally to some of the content that exists in the media, but the question is whether the media can predict criminal behavior. The answer seems to be no,” Ferguson said.

The study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which included a representative sample of U.S. adolescents.

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Choosing a good boarding facility for your pet

How do you distinguish the good ones from the bad ones?

If you're a pet owner and you have to go out of town or on vacation, what do you do? Sure you can ask a family member or close friend to take care o...

PhotoIf you're a pet owner and you have to go out of town or on vacation, what do you do? 

Sure you can ask a family member or close friend to take care of your pet, but they may not know how to do it or may not want to. Plus, most people are busy and may not have the time to properly care for your dog or cat.

So some people will use a boarding kennel to watch their pet. But is that such a great idea? The folks at The Humane Society say yes and they give a few reasons why -- most importantly, a professional can give your pet the attention he or she needs, which might not be the case if you take your pet out of town with you.

A trained professional should be able to spot any health issues too.

This is a huge benefit, especially for pet owners who plan to be out of town for an extended period of time. Although a friend or family member may be good with animals, he or she probably isn't trained to notice any health problems.

Of course another benefit of using a boarding facility is that you don't have to take your pet on a long car or airplane trip, which can be stressful for both you and your pet.

According to advice from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, you should visit the boarding facility that you're planning to use. This will allow you to have an image of where your dog is staying, which can make you feel more at ease while you're away.

Additionally, visiting a boarding kennel beforehand allows you to ask all the questions you want and it gives you the chance to go over any special needs your pet may have.

Know what you want

Dianna Young, co-owner of Stella Ruffington's Doggy Daycare, a Seattle based facility that provides overnight and day care for dogs, says pet owners have to decide exactly what type of facility they're looking for.

Photo"There are various types of boarding facilities; some offer only individual walks two or three times a day, others offer group settings," Young says on the company's website. "Do you want your dog to be able to play with others while he is boarding? Or is he a little antisocial and would prefer to be in a den of his own with private walks and play times?"

"Do you want him to have his own den and belongings or do you prefer an open plan environment? Does your dog need a quiet room? These are factors you must keep in mind when deciding on the best boarding facility for your best friend," she says.

However, pet owners should consider the cons of using boarding facilities as well. 

Experts say that a lot of pets can become stressed while being in a new environment, especially if the facility is overcrowded. Pets can be more exposed to health issues as well, since they'll be living closely with other animals.

It's important to visit a facility to ensure it smells and looks clean. You want to make sure it maintains the proper temperature and has enough ventilation for your pet as well.

In addition, it's good to ask the staff what they do about bathing and grooming for your pet and what type of veterinarian services they provide. And ask how much space there is between the dogs and the cats in the facility.

Trial run

Another good idea is to let your pet stay overnight before you leave for your trip. This will allow you and your pet to have a test run to see how everything goes. Any good kennel should be happy to arrange a trial overnight. If not, look elsewhere.

The San Francisco SPCA says a good boarding kennel will have a private and spacious place for your dog to stay. And that area should always be cleaned and properly maintained.

A good boarding kennel will ask for proof of your dog's vaccinations as well.

Lastly, the non-profit organization says boarding facilities are best suited for dogs, because dogs are social animals and suffer more when they're alone.

Cats, on the other hand, find it more difficult to adapt to new environments and have a greater chance of experiencing stress. Experts suggest using a professional sitter for cats if possible, but it obviously depends on the cat's temperament.

More about pets

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Feds propose ban on payment methods used in telemarketing scams

The proposal would strengthen protections against bogus charges and services

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to take away some of the favorite tools that fraudulent telemarketers use to separate consumers from their money. ...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to take away some of the favorite tools that fraudulent telemarketers use to separate consumers from their money.

The proposed amendments to the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) would strengthen the protections against bogus charges and services. Specifically, they would curtail the use of four payment methods favored by con artists and scammers. The proposed changes would:

  • Stop telemarketers from dipping directly into consumer bank accounts by using unsigned checks and “payment orders” that have been “remotely created.” These instruments can make it easy for unscrupulous telemarketers to debit bank accounts without permission, according to the FTC.
  • Bar telemarketers from getting paid with traditional “cash-to-cash” money transfers, as well as “cash reload” mechanisms, that scammers rely on to get money quickly and anonymously from consumer victims.

Unscrupulous telemarketers rely on these payment methods, according to the agency, because they are largely unmonitored and provide consumers with fewer protections against fraud. The FTC’s proposed changes would make it a violation for telemarketers and sellers to accept any of these payment methods in any telemarketing transaction.

Consumer protections

The proposed changes also would expand the TSR’s ban on telemarketing “recovery services” in exchange for an advance fee. The commission found that telemarketers who call consumers offering to help recover losses they suffered through an earlier fraud are often engaged in deceptive practices. The ban, which is currently limited to offers to recoup losses suffered in a prior telemarketing transaction, would be expanded to include offers to recoup losses suffered in any prior transaction.

Other proposed amendments to the Rule would clarify and improve various provisions of the TSR, which requires certain disclosures and prohibits misrepresentations during telemarketing calls. It also bars abusive practices, including charging up-front fees for certain services such as credit repair, recovery services, and loan or credit offers presented as “guaranteed” or having a high likelihood of success.

Previous amendments to the TSR created the National Do Not Call Registry, curtailed telemarketing calls that deliver prerecorded messages, and combated deceptive and abusive telemarketing of debt relief services.

If you would like to comment on the proposal, you may do so using this form.   

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Samsung, Apple smartphones both draw their fair share of complaints

Who will win the battle for the consumer?

Samsung remains the number one selling mobile phone in the world, according to the latest figures from Gartner, a technology research firm. Sales grew 13 p...

PhotoSamsung remains the top-selling mobile phone in the world, according to the latest figures from Gartner, a technology research firm. Sales grew 13% in the first quarter of 2013 with its market share of smartphones reaching 30.8%.

Apple, meanwhile, sold 38.3 million iPhones in the first quarter, which only put it in third place, behind Nokia. Nokia, however, continues to lose ground because most of its sales continue to be for so-called feature phones, not smartphones. In the smartphone world, the race seems to be between Samsung and Apple.

We wondered which company is doing better among consumers. Any product will draw consumer complaints, but what kind of complaints does each product draw? Are consumers less satisfied with one over the other?

First, let's take a look at what consumers are saying about the iPhone. Dana, of Gardena, Calif., has a complaint about his older iPhone, the 3GS he purchased more than two years ago.

Exploding battery

Apple iPhone May 21, 2013, 5:12 p.m.
Consumers rate Apple iPhone

"Last week, the phone imploded from a faulty battery while it was sitting on my desk," Dana wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I watched the phone expand and bust open. When contacting Apple, they said the phone was out of warranty and I would have to buy a new phone. When I went to their support site, I found hundreds of people with the same complaint and Apple is doing nothing about it."

Shirley of Bellflower, Calif., also has an older iPhone, a 4S purchased about a year and a half ago. She says she was trying to update to iOS 6.3 when it froze.

"The music updated perfectly; however, when it was time for my 2,800 photos to sync, I received an iTunes image with a plug," she writes. "We tried everything to no avail. After visiting an Apple store in Las Vegas, the technician informed me it had to be reset to factory settings. My head and heart began to hurt; after all, I have photos that are irreplaceable."

And then there's this from Jeff, in Santa Fe, N.M.

Disillusioned Apple fan

"I have been a loyal Apple customer since 1984," Jeff wrote in a post. "I have bought hundreds of desktops, laptops, peripherals, iPods, iTouches, and iPhones over the years. iPhone 4S doesn't maintain battery charge, Siri is 99.9% useless."

He's also upset that customer service leaves him on hold for long periods of time and failed to return promised phone calls.

"Apple has clearly gotten too big to be responsive any longer," he writes. "They were so good for so long, then something changed. I am seriously looking, for the first time, for a better customer service experience."

If he looks toward Samsung, operating on the Android platform, he may or may not find what he's looking for. For Samsung draws consumer complaints as well.

Lots of issues

Samsung Cell Phones May 21, 2013, 5:12 p.m.
Consumers rate Samsung Cell Phones

"The Galaxy S3 and Note 2 - There are a lot of issues. Where should I start?" asks M, of Springfield, Ill. "The Bluetooth does not work when third party app, like Skype, is on. If call was received, it will disconnect. Third party app is unresponsive. There is color saturation change issue. There's a battery draining problem. Battery only works only 4-5 hours a day. Data keeps on collecting. All apps do not close on force shut. If Wi-Fi is turned off, it automatically turns on."

Many of the Samsung complaints have to do with software issues. But Priya, of Mumbai, India, is among those reporting battery problems.

"I bought a Samsung Galaxy S2 in November 2012," Priya writes. "Within days, the battery started draining out - sometimes from 75% to 30% within a few minutes, even when the cell phone is not in use. The instrument shuts down too."

Disillusioned Samsung fan

Dhrupad, of Ahmedabad, India, is the Samsung equivalent of Jeff, of Santa Fe, the long-time Apple fan.

"I have been a great fan of Samsung Mobile since the beginning," Dhrupad writes. "I purchased Galaxy SIII on 18th of June 2012. Everything was running smooth until 4th of September. The phone started rebooting from the welcome screen itself. Upon contacting the service center, I was informed that it is a software issue and they reinstalled the software. Still, the problem persisted."

Dhrupad's experience notwithstanding, most of the Samsung and Apple reviews from ConsumerAffairs readers concern older models. Samsung's latest offering is the Galaxy S4. Apple's latest is the iPhone 5. There are fewer reports of problems with these flagship products.

In fact, there is no consistent pattern of complaints about either manufacturer, other than the perception that some of Apple's earlier magic may be wearing off. But when choosing between these companies, extensive reading of reviews may provide consumers some solid insight into which way they should go.

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What does Yahoo's purchase of Tumblr mean? Ads

Advertisers may balk, however, at displaying ads on porn and near-porn

When she plunked down $1.1 billion for Tumblr, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promised Tumblr's users that she would try not to "screw it up."A day or two later...

PhotoWhen she plunked down $1.1 billion for Tumblr, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promised Tumblr's users that she would try not to "screw it up."

A day or two later, she had a conference call with investors and was at pains to assure them that she would find a way to "monetize" the popular site. How? Why, with ads of course, a resource the site now lacks but which Yahoo has in abundance.

Mayer said that Yahoo, which operates one of the largest ad networks in the known universe, might find a way to display ads only to users who asked for them. Which probably translates to users who don't find the little opt-out box.

Ads and more ads

This is hardly outrageous though. After all, if you paid $1.1 billion in cash for something, you'd want it to at least try to make a few bucks, wouldn't you?

After all, the defense for all those ads you see everywhere is that they pay for all the great content you wouldn't get otherwise. This argument is OK if we're talking about news, sterling entertainment or even well-organized drivel but in the case of blogging sites, billboards and the junk that clutters everybody's mailbox, the argument maybe gets a little weak.

It's not as though Tumblr -- an admittedly beautiful site that exists on a plane seemingly a few notches above the rest of the web -- supplies anyone with anything they really, really need to know. And even if it did, the creators of Tumblr's content are its users, who don't get a penny for their efforts. (That may be too much in some cases, but that's another story). 

Hey Marissa, have you thought about charging users to post stuff? 

Precious brands

PhotoFor their part, advertisers are not crazy about displaying their ads on sites that consist largely or solely of user-generated content -- you know, pictures of cats, your yoga schedule for the day and condolences on your high school classmate's loss of his trusted Harley.

It's not just a question of effectiveness, it's a control thing. If you buy an ad on "Mad Men," you know what you're getting. Buy an ad on Tumblr or Facebook and you could be putting your cherished brand next to a shot of someone's private parts. Or worse.

And speaking of content, it took only minutes after the deal was announced for skeptics, critics and passersby to note that a great deal of Tumblr's content is pornography, or something awfully close to it. 

Inquiring minds have now put numbers next to that observation. TechCrunch reports that an analysis of Tumblr's 200,000 most-visited domains finds that 22,775 of them are "adult" -- 11.4 percent.

If nothing else, the deal has cheered up the New York City tech world, where Tumblr took root. It's the first venture-backed web property to sell for north of $1 billion. They didn't exactly have a ticker-tape parade but there was still muted rejoicing among the venturati and their hangers-on.

What all this means for Tumblr users remains to be seen, but for now at least the answer is probably: not much.

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Study answers questions about fertility declining as women age

The findings may lead to new therapies that could extend the child-bearing age for many women

It's generally accepted that we wear out as we get older and that, in particular, it becomes harder for women to conceive after their mid-30s. But why, exa...

PhotoIt's generally accepted that we wear out as we get older and that, in particular, it becomes harder for women to conceive after their mid-30s. But why, exactly? Scientists have come up with a new theory that suggests an approach that might help slow the process and thereby enhance and prolong fertility.

In the study, supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health and published in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers found that, as women age, their egg cells become riddled with DNA damage and die off because their DNA repair systems wear out.

Defects in one of the DNA repair genes -- BRCA1 -- have long been linked with breast cancer, and now also appear to cause early menopause.

“We all know that a woman’s fertility declines in her 40s. This study provides a molecular explanation for why that happens,” said Dr. Susan Taymans, Ph.D., of the Fertility and Infertility Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the NIH institute that funded the study. “Eventually, such insights might help us find ways to improve and extend a woman’s reproductive life.”

In general, a woman’s ability to conceive and maintain a pregnancy is linked to the number and health of her egg cells. Before a baby girl is born, her ovaries contain her lifetime supply of egg cells until they are more mature. As she enters her late 30s, the number of eggs cells dips precipitously. By the time she reaches her early 50s, her original ovarian supply of about 1 million cells drops virtually to zero.

Cellular suicide

Only a small proportion of egg cells, about 500, are released via ovulation during the woman’s reproductive life. The remaining 99.9 percent are eliminated by the woman’s body, primarily through cellular suicide, a normal process that prevents the spread or inheritance of damaged cells.

The scientists now suspect that most of the aging cells self-destruct because they have accumulated a dangerous type of DNA damage called double-stranded breaks. The researchers found that the activity of four DNA repair genes (BRCA1, MRE11, Rad51 and ATM) declined with age, making it harder for the body to repair the DNA damage. 

BRCA1 has been closely studied for nearly 20 years because defective versions of it dramatically increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. The researchers now say that if a woman's egg cells contain mutant versions of BRCA1, she will exhaust her ovarian supply sooner than women whose oocytes carry the healthy version of BRCA1.

This molecular-level understanding may lead the way to new reproductive therapies that could bolster the DNA repair systems and lead to a longer reproductive life for many women.

Senior author Kutluk Oktay, M.D., of New York Medical College (NYMC), in Rye and Valhalla, collaborated with colleagues at NYMC and researchers at Istanbul Bilim University, Turkey; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York; and Yeshiva University, New York.

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Kubota recalls riding mowers

The fuel tank’s pressure relief valve can malfunction, posing a fire hazard

Kubota Manufacturing of America of Gainesville, Ga., is recalling about 8,600 ZG100 Series Zero Turn riding mowers. The fuel tank’s pressure relief valve...

PhotoKubota Manufacturing of America of Gainesville, Ga., is recalling about 8,600 ZG100 Series Zero Turn riding mowers.

The fuel tank’s pressure relief valve can malfunction, causing the tank to expand and rub against the transmission drive belt and drive cooling fan. This can wear a hole in the fuel tank and cause a fuel leak, posing a fire hazard. The firm has received 56 reports of mowers’ fuel tanks leaking. No injuries or property damage have been reported.

This recall involves orange-colored Kubota ZG100 Series Zero Turn riding mowers with the following model and serial numbers:

  • Model ZG124E with serial numbers between 10002 and 12179,
  • Model ZG123S with serial numbers between 10002 and 12505,
  • Model ZG127E with serial numbers between 10002 and 11574, and
  • Model ZG127S with serial numbers between 10003 and 12959.

Kubota is printed on the front of the mower and on the side. The model and serial numbers are printed on the data plate on the left part of the frame near the operator’s foot area.

The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at authorized Kubota dealers nationwide from December 2012 through April 2013 for between $5,000 and $6,300.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact Kubota for a free repair. Kubota is contacting its customers directly.

Customers may contact Kubota at (800) 752-0290; from 8:30 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Lea Industries recalls children’s beds

The side mattress support rails can break, posing a fall hazard

Lea Industries of High Point, N.C., is recalling about 63,000 panel, loft and bunk beds. The bed’s side mattress support rails can break, posing a fall ha...

PhotoLea Industries of High Point, N.C., is recalling about 63,000 panel, loft and bunk beds.

The bed’s side mattress support rails can break, posing a fall hazard. There have been 22 reports of incidents involving the recalled beds in the U.S. since 2009 and one in Canada. Two injuries were reported. In a 2009 incident in Madison, Wis., an 11-year-old girl was placing a fitted sheet on the top bunk when the child, mattress and bed supports collapsed on her 6-year-old sister in the bed below. The 6-year-old was treated at a hospital emergency department for a head injury involving a cut to her face.

This recall involves the side rails on 34 different Lea children’s bed collections, including loft, bunk and panel styles in twin, full and queen sizes. The wooden beds were sold in various wood finishes and paint colors, including black or white. The beds have two side mattress support rails connecting the headboard to the footboard and slats or a Bunkie board to support the mattress. Item numbers and purchase order numbers included in this recall are listed below. The date code, rail item number and purchase order number are located on a white label on the inside of one of the side rails. Date codes between August 2008, and March 2013, shown as 8-2008 through 3-2013, are included in this recall. Platform beds manufactured since 2010 are not included in this recall. Recalled bed names, item numbers and purchase order numbers include:

Item Number on Bed Rail

Bed Collection Name

Purchase Order Numbers

012-023, 012-024

Haley

IM92784 through IM94038 for all beds, except platform beds made since 2010

060-099, 060-975

Sponge Bob Surf Club

 

070-099

Lea Elite Zoe

 

 

 

 

085-076

Home Town

 

 

 

 

134-099

Lea Elite Boutique

 

139-076, 139-099

Lea Elite Logan County

 

145-076, 145-099

Lea Elite Covington

 

147-076, 147-099

Lea Elite Hannah

 

148-076, 148-097, 148-099

149-076, 149-097, 149-099

Lea Elite Retreat

 

 

 

 

203-091, 203-094, 203-097

Jessica McClintock

 

207-963C, 207-963W

Bunks and Lofts

 

207-965C, 207-965W

Bunks and Lofts

 

228-091, 228-094, 228-097

Jessica McClintock-Cherry

 

237-076, 237-097, 237-099

Americana

 

 

 

 

302-076, 302-09C

Jackson Creek

 

342-064N, 342-076N

My Place-Maple

 

343-064N, 343-076N

The Getaway-White

 

 

 

 

505-09L

Elation

 

590-076, 590-076B,               

590-076C, 590-076M,

590-076W, 590-088B,

590-088C, 590-088M,

590-088W

My Style

 

 

 

 

606-091 

Emma’s Treasures

 

618-076, 618-975

Austin

 

625-076

Deer Run

 

 

 

 

711-076, 711-091, 711-097

Freetime

 

 

 

 

816-076, 816-091, 816-094,  

816-097, 816-975

Lea Elite Classics

 

826-076, 826-091, 826-094,  

826-097, 826-975

Lea Elite Crossover

 

846-091, 846-094, 846-097

Lea Elite Rhapsody

 

856-076, 856-091, 856-094,  

856-097, 856-923, 856-924

Lea Elite Expressions

 

876-076, 876-091, 876-094,  

876-097, 876-923, 876-924

Lea Elite Reflections

 

 

 

 

906-076, 906-975

Dillon

 

917-024

Midtown

 

950-099, 950-939

Nick and Funtime

 

960-097, 960-099, 960-923, 960-924

Tweennick

 

970-091, 970-094

Teennick

The beds, manufactured in China and Vietnam, were sold at Direct Buy stores and furniture stores nationwide, and online at Amazon.com and various other websites from August 2008 through March 2013 for between $400 and $3,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the beds and contact Lea Industries to receive free replacement side rails for the beds.

Consumers may contact Lea Industries toll-free at (888) 770-7116, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Privacy, safety questions about Google Glass

It's not just walking into a glass door you need to worry aboutd

Several members of Congress have submitted a letter to Google CEO Larry Page (pdf) asking about privacy concerns related to Google Glass and its ...

PhotoIf it lives up to Google's expectations, Google Glass may turn out to be the next big thing. But besides winning public acceptance, the odd new device has to face some very real hurdles, including possible restrictions by regulatory agencies and, of course, Congress.

There are also growing warnings that wearing the device may be an invitation to crime, just as smartphones, iPads and laptops are frequent targets of criminals who not only make off with an expensive device but also with quite a bit of the victim's personal information -- a practice known as "Apple-picking."

On the legislative front, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and seven other members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus are asking Google CEO Larry Page for more information about Google Glass, saying they're concerned about possible misuse of information gathered by consumers wearing the miniature computer.

“As members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we are curious whether this new technology could infringe on the privacy of the average American,” the letter says.

The letter also poses several questions aimed at making sure consumers' rights are protected, including:

  • When using Google Glass, is it true that this product would be able to use Facial Recognition Technology to unveil personal information about whomever and even some inanimate objects that the user is viewing? Would a user be able to request such information? Can a non-user or human subject opt out of this collection of personal data? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • In Google’s privacy policy, it states that the company “may collect device-specific information (such as your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including phone number).” Would Google Glass collect any data about the user without the user’s knowledge and consent? If so, why? If not, please explain.
  • Will Google Glass have the capacity to store any data on the device itself? If so, will Google Glass implement some sort of user authentication system to safeguard stored data? If not, why not? If so, please explain.

The letter asks Page to respond no later than Friday, June 14, 2013. A complete copy of the letter to Google can be found here (pdf).

Others signing the letter include, Rep. John Barrow (D-GA), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), Rep. Henry C. "Hank" Johnson Jr. (D-GA), Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL), Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA).

Risk of theft

Photo
Rep. Joe Barton
And then there's the little problem of crime. Google Glass is not exactly something you can hide in your briefcase, backpack or jacket pocket. It sits right there on your face in plain view. 

It's now quite commonplace for smartphones, iPads and similar devices to be yanked right out of the user's hand by street thugs who roam the subways, cafes and coffee shops. 

Besides their monetary value, portable computing devices increasingly have a lot of very valuable and sensitive personal information stored on them, or contain code that will connect you to the user's info online.

It's not hard to foresee this becoming a major problem. While admittedly, Google Glass would capture an image of the crook approaching the victim, that's not likely to be much consolation.

While companies always assure us they have thought of everything, it often turns out not to be the case, as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has noted in letters to the CEOs of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung, requesting that they make changes to their devices that would make it harder for crooks to wipe out the previous user's info in preparation for selling the loot.

In New York City alone, a total of 11,447 cases of stolen “iDevices” (iPhones and other iOS devices) were reported to the New York City Police Department (NYPD) between January 1 and September 23, 2012, a rise of 3,280 over 2011, Schneiderman noted.

“The companies that dominate this industry have a responsibility to their customers to fulfill their promises to ensure safety and security," Schneiderman said. "This is a multi-billion dollar industry that produces some of the most popular and technologically advanced consumer electronic products in the world.  Surely we can work together to find solutions that lead to a reduction in violent street crime targeting consumers.”

Incidents turn violent

Photo
Eric Schneiderman
Schneiderman listed some recent cases of Apple-picking that have turned violent, including:
  • On April 19, 2012, a 26-year-old chef at the Museum of Modern Art was killed for his iPhone on his way home to the Bronx.
  • On April 2012, twenty-year-old Alex Herald was stabbed during an iPhone theft.
  • In September 2012, in three separate incidents, women were violently attacked for Apple and Samsung devices.
  • In February 2013, three people were stabbed on a subway platform in Queens in a fight over an iPhone.
  • Earlier this month, a woman was mugged at gunpoint in Crown Heights for her Android device.
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More pedestrians getting into accidents with vehicles

According to statistics thousands of people are killed each year

Whether you live in a city or subsurb or just taking a stroll downtown, going for a nice walk can really add to your day.But what happens ...

PhotoWhether you live in a city or suburb, just going for a nice walk can really add to your day. But all too often these days that nice walk turns into a bad accident.

In 2010 alone 4,280 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents and 70,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

In 2009, 11 pedestrians died every day in traffic accidents, while 162 pedestrians were injured each day throughout the U.S.

Engineering flaw?

Erin Breen, director of the Safe Community Partnership Program at the University of Nevada, told a local news outlet that a lot of U.S. roads are designed for cars to go over the speed limit.

Breen, who knows a lot about the pedestrian laws in Nevada, says it's difficult for drivers to slow down in certain areas.

"If you engineer a road to be fast, you can't be surprised that people speed on the road," she said. "We can't look at engineering roads just for cars. We need to engineer roads for all road users."

Capt. Victor White of the Lakeland, Fla., police department says pedestrians have to take responsibility and make sure they're always aware of what traffic is doing.

"Always be aware of traffic around you," he said in an informational video. "Don't suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into an oncoming vehicle."

And pedestrians should always use the crosswalk, no matter how inconvenient it may be to walk there. White says even if there isn't a crosswalk, certain rules should still be followed.

"If there is no crosswalk in sight, cross the road using a route that is the shortest distance to the opposite side. When crossing a roadway at any point other than a marked crosswalk or at an intersection, you must yield the right of way to all vehicles."

Paying attention

Photo

Statistics show that out of all the pedestrian accidents in 2010, 1,289   happened because the pedestrian didn't yield, so experts say to always wait for a vehicle to completely pass before you proceed. 

And turn down the music. Many of us walk around town with our headphones blaring and it's easy to get lost in our own worlds and forget about safety. When using your headphones outside, you should still be able to hear all of the sounds around you; if you can't, the music is too loud. When crossing the street remove yourself from the song you're listening to. 

You should always look at the crossing signal to find out how long you have left to cross over.

In addition, texting or talking while crossing the street can be almost as dangerous as texting while you're driving, so put down the smartphone  for a second.

If there isn't a sidewalk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you should walk on the shoulder of the street facing traffic. 

Driver checklist

And of course there are things drivers should do.

The folks at the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center say drivers should immediately slow down anytime they see a crosswalk, whether a person is visible or not.

In areas where there are a lot of pedestrians, drivers should always be prepared to stop, instead of trying to get through a crowded area quickly.

And drivers shouldn't only be looking out for people walking at intersections and crosswalks. Experts say drivers should expect pedestrians to be anywhere at any time -- even at places pedestrians really aren't supposed to be.

It's always smart to scan the area where you're driving and anticipate a person crossing the street or walking on the side of the road.

Furthermore, drivers should always yield to pedestrians when they're making a right or left turn at intersections, something that's easy to forget when you're in a hurry.

Being safe on the roads and sidewalks is truly a shared responsibility between the pedestrian and driver and both parties should be patient. But probably the most important thing to remember -- for both the waler and the driver -- is to never assume the other will yield.

It's always best to let the other person pass first, experts say.

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The Trouble With Home Alarms

Consumers find many home alarms unreliable and expensive

Home alarm systems have been around a long time but are only beginning to take advantage of the new technologies that can make them more reliable, less exp...

PhotoHome alarm systems have been around a long time but are only beginning to take advantage of the new technologies that can make them more reliable, less expensive and easier to use.

The traditional home alarm, from companies like ADT, requires running wires all over your house, hooking up to the telephone line and signing a contract that obligates you to pay for the service over a period as long as five years, even if you move away.

"I was not allowed to cancel my account without a notarized letter. What a scam. This is unfair and unrealistic," said former ADT customer Nancy of Murrieta, Calif., in a posting to ConsumerAffairs. "I paid my bill for over 10 years now. I closed down my business and have to pay $25 to a notary to cancel my alarm service. Unfair and unjust."

“I started with ADT years ago. When I initially started, they told me it was a 3-year contract. Within a year, I decided to move with my fiance and transfer the service. What they failed to inform me of was when I transfer, it's going to renew my contract and start the 3 years over,” said a South Carolina consumer in another ConsumerAffairs posting.

There’s also the little matter of what happens to the components of your system when the contract expires, as Brinks customer John of Ft. Worth, Texas, found out.

“They told me I will own the system but someone from Brinks called me and ask me to key in a code that would disconnect me from their monitoring system. What it did was to disarm my system altogether,” John said. “Now, none of my 4 key fobs do not work, my alarm does not work and my garage door opener does not work. The system will beep each day at the same time until I disconnect the battery.”

Homeowners who have paid a hefty installation fee, paid for the system components and paid a monthly monitoring charge can at least rest easily, knowing they are protected. Or can they?

“The system failed to go off, when a prowler was tampering with my window (One of my pets woke me and I called the police). I triggered the alarm manually, but this did nothing to either dissuade the prowler, or to wake my neighbors,” said former Brinks customer Madelyn of Escondido, Calif., in another ConsumerAffairs posting.

Fortunately, as in so many other industries, digital technology and the Internet are breaking the stranglehold that traditional alarm companies have long had. Newer companies like LifeShield have created systems that are more reliable, more flexible and less expensive.

First created to solve the problem of traditional hard-wired security systems that were defeatable - LifeShield created a virtually undefeatable system. LifeShield is a security company and not a dealer. You buy direct from LifeShield and save up to 40% per month on your home security with one of the safest security systems and one of the fastest responses.

With LifeShield, the company provides the monitoring service while you own the equipment and can take it with you if you move or reconfigure it as your needs change. You can add video monitoring, temperature monitoring and other specialized services as your lifestyle requires. See http://www.lifeshield.com/ca/ or call 877-570-4581 to learn more.

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Choosing a new family car

There are more sizes, styles and safety features in 2013

Throughout the decades, the family car has gone through quite a few changes. In the 1960s, it was often a station wagon or a sedan the size and weight of a...

Photo
Nissan Pathfinder

Throughout the decades, the family car has gone through quite a few changes. In the 1960s, it was often a station wagon or a sedan the size and weight of a small tank.

In the 1980s it morphed into the mini-van, a vehicle forever associated with suburban soccer moms. In the 90s it was symbolized by the SUV. Today, it can be a variety of different vehicle types, offering wider choices that meet the different needs of a particular family.

“Show us 10 families and we’ll suggest a different car for each, but all of those vehicles will score high in areas like safety, roominess, comfort and value,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com. “Our annual list is aimed at helping families find the right ride and always includes something for everyone, with a special nod to the best of what’s new.”

Nissan Pathfinder

Kelley Blue Book names the Nissan Pathfinder as its top choice for a family car. It's classified as an SUV and was chosen for its new design, which is less truck-like and offers a more comfortable ride, easier handling and better gas mileage.

A Pathfinder carries an average transaction price of nearly $33,000 but can cost more. According to Kelley Blue Book, it should retain 39% of its value after five years of hauling around the kids.

Cars.com has broken down its list of the best family cars into vehicles for small families and family cars for large families. For small families, its top choice is the Honda CR-V, a small SUV starting at under $24,000.

The CR-V was cited for its roomy cabin space, versatile cargo area and stylish design. It comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a suspension that provides a smooth ride. For most uses the cargo space is large enough, but it can be expanded significantly by folding down the rear seats.

Honda Odyssey

For large families, Cars.com lists the Honda Odyssey mini-van as its top choice, with a $29,400 base price. It has seating for up to eight, making it one of the roomiest vehicles on the list. It also won high marks for its intuitive technology and versatile three rows of seats. It's powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, giving it more than enough juice to handle freeway driving.

Parenting.com stresses safety as well as style in its best family car picks. It give high marks to the Jeep Compass, which lists at under $20,000. Besides safety, Parenting.com likes the technology on board the Compass.

Which brings us to features. What optional equipment should you expect to find in a good family car? Some basics include side airbags, anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC).

Rear view camera

Photo
Honda CR-V

Many new cars now offer a rear view camera that gives the driver an unfettered view of what's behind the vehicle, displayed on a dashboard monitor. It's also helpful when parallel parking. The cameras are usually mounted on the rear bumper or tailgate.

These systems also use radar sensors in the rear bumper to detect how close objects are to the vehicle. They typically warn the driver with a sound that gets louder as the rear of the vehicle gets closer to the object.

The rear view camera is usually part of a package, such as an in-dash navigation system. These systems usually bump up the cost by $2,000 or so but you might be able to get the camera only for as little as $500.

Third row seating

Third row seating is also a popular family car option. A third row gives large families more room and allows smaller families the option of spreading out, which can go a long way toward keeping the peace on a long trip.

Speaking of keeping the kids occupied, an on-board DVD video system in the back seat can keep the little ones entertained while the adults in the front seat can concentrate on the road. These systems generally add $2000 or more to the cost of the vehicle. That has to be measured against the cost of a tablet, which can also provide entertainment on a long trip for a lot less.

Whatever car you choose, the 2013 model year appears to offer plenty of choices across a wide spectrum of style and price.

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Music is relaxing, even in the ICU

Study finds reduced anxiety levels in ICU when patients can listen to music

Music makes people feel better -- including people unfortunate enough to be in an intensive care unit, according to a new study.Researchers found that pa...

PhotoMusic makes people feel better -- including people unfortunate enough to be in an intensive care unit, according to a new study.

Researchers found that patients on a ventilator because of respiratory failure were less anxious and needed less sedation when they were able to listen to their favorite music.

The study, published online by JAMA, is being presented today at the American Thoracic Society international conference.

In the study, Linda L. Chlan, Ph.D., R.N., of Ohio State University, Columbus, and colleagues conducted a trial using 373 patients from 12 ICUs at five hospitals in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Patients were organized into three groups -- those listening to music tailored by a music therapist on request; those provided with noise-canceling headphones; and the control group, who received normal care without music.

The first gorup listened to music for an average of 80 minutes per day; the headphone-only patients wore the noise-abating units for an average of 34 minutes per day.

Analysis showed that patients in the group that listened to music had an anxiety score that was 19.5 points lower than patients in the usual care group.

On an average day, the patients who received usual care got five doses of sedatives while patients listening to music got three doses -- a 38% reduction. Results were similar for the noise-canceling headphones. 

“Music provides patients with a comforting and familiar stimulus and the [music] intervention empowers patients in their own anxiety management; it is an inexpensive, easily implemented nonpharmacological intervention that can reduce anxiety, reduce sedative medication exposure, and potentially associated adverse effects," the researcher said. "The PDM patients received less frequent and less intense sedative regimens while reporting decreased anxiety levels.” 

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Here comes summer -- and all the problems that too much sun can bring

Here's how you can protect yourself against sunburn -- and worse

Just days now until Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of summer. For a lot of people that means time out in the blazing sun -- for some people...

PhotoJust days now until Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of summer. For a lot of people that means time out in the blazing sun -- for some people, too much sun

And while almost everyone is aware of skin cancer and the role of sunscreen in helping to prevent it, not everyone pays attention to it the way they should.

For example, did you know that some sunscreens protect against only the sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) rays and not its ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which also contribute to skin cancer? That no sunscreen completely blocks UV radiation, and that other protections are needed too? That no sunscreens are waterproof?

Thought so.

Well, with the approach of summer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking steps to help you protect yourself from the skin damage that can be caused by too much exposure to the sun.

New sunscreen labels

FDA's new rules governing sunscreen labeling are in effect for the first time this summer. Using the latest available science, the agency has established testing and labeling requirements, which became final in December 2012.

One of the most important requirements: Testing and labeling that identifies sunscreens that are "broad spectrum," meaning they offer protection against both UVB and UVA rays. All sunscreen products offer protection against UVB rays, which are the primary cause of sunburn. But both UVB and UVA rays contribute to sun-induced skin cancer and premature skin aging.

"Based on scientific studies, we have determined that broad spectrum sunscreens with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 can help reduce the risk of sun-induced skin cancer and premature skin aging when used with sun protective measures, as directed," said Reynold Tan, Ph.D., a scientist in FDA's Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development. "We hope consumers use the information to make good choices."

Under FDA regulations, products that pass a broad spectrum test can be labeled "broad spectrum" on the front of the product.

Those that are not broad spectrum or that lack an SPF of at least 15 must now carry a warning: "Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging."

And it's now require that if a product's front label makes claims of being water resistant, it must designate whether it's protective for 40 or for 80 minutes while swimming or sweating. Additionally, manufacturers may no longer make claims that their sunscreens are "waterproof" or "sweatproof."

Products may no longer be identified as "sunblocks" or claim instant protection or protection for more than two hours without reapplying.

Don't Fry Day

FDA is supporting "Don't Fry Day," the awareness campaign is sponsored every year on the Friday before Memorial Day by the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also supports the effort.

The message is simple:

  • Slip on a shirt.
  • Slop on broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher.
  • Slap on a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Wrap on sunglasses.

What to do

Here are some other sun-safety tips from FDA:

  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Keep infants under six months out of the sun.
  • Limit sun exposure, particularly between 10 a.m. and 2 pm., when the sun's rays are strongest
  • Maintain caution on overcast days because UV rays can penetrate cloud cover.
  • UV radiation reaches different parts of the Earth at any given time. You can find the strength of solar
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours; more often if you are swimming or sweating.
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Feds bust alleged real estate kickback scheme

Prosecuters say payments to a Texas homebuilder were funneled through sham mortgage companies

A Texas homebuilder who received kickbacks for referring mortgage origination business to Benchmark Bank and to Willow Bend Mortgage Company has been put o...

PhotoA Texas homebuilder who allegedly received kickbacks for referring mortgage origination business to Benchmark Bank and to Willow Bend Mortgage Company has been put out of business.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has ordered Paul Taylor to surrender more than $100,000 in ill-gotten gains and he is prohibiting him from engaging in future real estate settlement services -- including mortgage origination.

“Kickbacks harm consumers by hampering fair market competition and by unnecessarily increasing the costs of getting a mortgage,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “The CFPB will continue to take action against schemes designed to let service providers profit through unscrupulous and illegal business practices.”

Sham companies

Taylor, CFPB says, received illegal referral fees through partnerships with Benchmark Bank and Willow Bend. He and the bank created and jointly owned Stratford Mortgage Services, LC, which claimed to be a mortgage originator. Similarly, Taylor and Willow Bend created and jointly owned PTH Mortgage Company. In reality both entities were shams designed to allow Taylor to receive the kickbacks.

His homebuilding company, Paul Taylor Homes, then referred mortgage origination business to the sham entities. However, the work was actually performed by the Bank and Willow Bend. The kickbacks were passed through the sham entities back to Taylor through profit distributions and as a payment through a “service agreement.”

Settlement terms

The settlement resolves violations of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), which prohibits giving and receiving kickbacks for services involving federally related mortgages. Kickbacks can hurt competition when customers are redirected from law-abiding businesses and can raise prices for consumers by inflating the costs of real estate settlement. The CFPB has the authority to enforce RESPA.

Under the terms of the settlement, Taylor will pay $118,194.20, the full amount of money he received since early 2010 from the kickback schemes. The payment will be deposited in the United States Treasury.

The CFPB became aware of Taylor’s conduct related to Benchmark Bank and Stratford through a referral from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which fined Benchmark for its role in the RESPA violations.  

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New York fish company accused of operating in unsanitary conditions

Feds want to put a stop to it

A company that processes smoked and cured fish products, including salmon and mackerel, is accused of doing so under unsanitary conditions, causing the pr...

PhotoA company that processes smoked and cured fish products, including salmon and mackerel, is accused of doing so under unsanitary conditions, causing the products to become adulterated.

At the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Justice Department has asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York for an injunction against New York City Fish and several key employees. The idea is to keep them from distributing these products into interstate commerce until they comply with the requirements of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (Act).

“These companies have ignored previous warnings by the FDA and have continued to produce and distribute products in violation of federal law,” said Melinda Plaisier, the FDA’s acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “This lawsuit shows that the FDA will aim to protect public health by seeking enforcement action against companies that are identified as violating federal requirements.”

Inspection failures

The government’s complaint contends that the FDA has conducted a total of seven inspections between 2006-2013, and, during six of these inspections, inspectors collected samples that were later revealed to have Listeria monocytogenes (”L. mono”). L. mono is the bacterium that causes the disease Listeriosis, which can be serious, even fatal, for vulnerable groups such as unborn babies, newborns and those with impaired immune systems.

Inspectors also found the New York Fish repeatedly failed to: have and implement a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan for their seafood products; verify required records in a timely manner; and implement required corrective actions.

Seafood product manufacturers are required to have and implement a HACCP plan for each of its locations that address each process and kind of product processed at the facility and associated food safety hazards that are reasonably likely to occur.

The company's products are sold to stores in Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  

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Water is becoming a more precious resource

As the population grows, there is less of the once-plentiful liquid to go around

Viewed from space, Earth appears to be a watery planet. In fact it is, with water covering 70% of the planet's surface.But in a cruel irony, most of the...

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NASA Photo

Viewed from space, Earth appears to be a watery planet and in fact it is, with water covering 70% of the planet's surface.

But in a cruel irony, most of the water is not the kind people or animals can drink. We require fresh water, which makes up only about 1% of the earth's water, while the vast oceans are filled with undrinkable salt water.

For most of our existence it hasn't been an issue. But in recent years, rapid population growth has begun to place a severe strain on water supplies – more severe in some areas than others.

For example, the arid Middle East, with plentiful supplies of oil, has always had difficulty finding enough fresh water. Saudi Arabia has spent billions trying to develop new water supplies.

More people, less water

In the U.S., water has always been a hot issue in the arid Southwest but is lately become a growing concern in a broader swath of the countrym, as a rapidly-growing population has placed increasing demands on reservoirs and aquifers.

Policymakers have launched campaigns in recent years to encourage people to think more about the water they use. The United Nations has designated 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation, with a number of water-focused projects around the globe.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun efforts to manage the supply of drinkable water in the U.S. It is focusing mainly on homes, which use more than half of the country's publicly supplied water. According to the EPA a family of four can use approximately 400 gallons of water every day.

Widespread shortages

PhotoWith water use increasing every year, many regions of the U.S. are starting to feel the pressure. During especially hot, dry stretches some areas have actually experienced shortages. According to EPA, nearly every region of the country has experienced water shortages at one point during the last five years.

At least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or statewide water shortages at some point this year, even under non-drought conditions. To help American homes and business make more efficient use of their water, EPA developed WaterSense, a program to encourage development and use of water-efficient products.

Qualifying products bear the WaterSense label and are vetted by independent third party certification. Examples are low-flow shower heads and toilets that are designed to use much less water per flush.

Most cities get their water supplies from rivers, reservoirs or underground aquifers. The first two are replenished by rainfall, the last by underground streams.

While rainfall tends to remain fairly constant, the populations in these areas have been growing. More people means more demand for water.

Dry southwest

This has been a particularly thorny problem in the southwestern U.S., which tends to be dry anyway, but suffered a significant drought over the last two summers.

States like California, Texas and New Mexico continue to struggle to meet water demand. Some municipalities have to import water from other areas, an expensive proposition.

In Texas, the director of the state Water Development Board predicts the water shortage could ding Texas' booming economy by $12 billion a year. A lack of water, he says, translates into lost agriculture, manufacturing and employment.

What to do

PhotoPolicymakers stress that consumers can take simple steps to relieve some of the pressure on the nation's water supplies, but it requires some changes in behavior.

A dripping faucet is not only annoying but wastes gallons of water. When you have a leak, get it fixed.

Half of all water use in the average home takes place in the bathroom. Showers use less water than baths. Remember to turn off the tap when shaving or brushing your teeth.

When cleaning up in the kitchen, use your dishwasher if you have one. It will consume less water than washing dishes by hand.

When doing laundry, don't start a wash until you have a full load.  

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Cheap airfares may be harder to come by this summer

More people are traveling and fewer seats are available

From all indications, an improving economy will prompt more people to travel this summer. That means more competition for the best seats and the best fares...

PhotoFrom all indications, an improving economy will prompt more people to travel this summer. That means more competition for the best seats and the best fares.

Consumers who want to save money will have to be more creative and perhaps work a little harder. That means building travel plans around the cheapest days and times to fly.

It's no secret that Tuesday afternoon is the cheapest time to fly, for some reason. Wednesday and Saturday are also cheap days. If you can plan to come and go on those days, you have a better chance of flying for less.

Fly into large airports

Flights to bigger airports are generally cheaper than flying to a smaller airport. If the airline you are using has a hub at the airport, so much the better. It will often be cost effective to fly to a major city and rent a car to drive to your final destination, especially if you had planned to rent a car anyway.

Most of us prefer a direct flight to our destination but non-stops are becoming a very rare thing these days. Opting for a flight that makes a couple of stops, even traveling hundreds of miles out of your way, can save money.

Most of the time it will pay to book as far in advance as possible. But sometimes the price will drop as the departure date approaches. Discount travel site Hotwire.com recently launched TripWatcher.com, a new stand-alone site offering real-time alerts for airfare price drops. It covers thousands of flight routes in the U.S. every day. A tool like that can help you stay on top of unadvertised deals.

Trip Watcher

Photo"We've all experienced it, we look and look for low fares and the day we decide to take a rest, we hear about a lower-priced ticket after it's already gone, said Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group.

"So a couple of years ago, Hotwire developed the Trip Watcher tool to alleviate some of the guess work from getting a great deal," "The tool quickly gained popularity, and we realized it was an increasingly valuable resource, which is why we decided to launch Trip Watcher as a separate, more sophisticated, flexible and fast-performing site."

In a trend being adopted by a growing number of businesses, a consumer can be notified of the deal through social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, as well as traditional email.

One of the reasons low fares are harder to find is the shrinking capacity of domestic airlines. When carriers struggled financially during the last decade, one response was to eliminate flights.

Advantage, airlines

That move helped control costs and it further shifted the supply and demand equation in favor of the airlines. Now, passengers have fewer flights to choose from and must compete for empty seats on the flights that remain. That returns a lot of the pricing power to the airlines.

Because they are selling fewer seats, however, the airlines have had to look for new ways to be profitable. Over the last few years they've helped their bottom lines by adding fees for checked bags and other courtesies that were provided at no charge in the past.

In spite of that consumers seem to have come to terms with fewer flights, crowded cabins and numerous fees. J.D. Power & Associates reports customer satisfaction with airlines has reached its highest level since 2006.

The study looks at passenger satisfaction with North American airlines based on performance in seven factors: cost & fees; in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservation.

Less dissatisfaction with fees

Costs and fees continue to be the biggest source of passenger dissatisfaction, according to the study. But the dissatisfaction appeared to be less this year than last.

"Charging for bags still has a pronounced negative impact on passenger satisfaction, but with each year, passengers are increasingly more accepting of carriers unbundling baggage and other fees," said Ramez Faza, senior manager of the travel practice at J.D. Power & Associates.

So where is the increase in satisfaction with airlines coming from? Maybe from technology. Thirty-six percent of passengers check in to their flights online, and 15 percent use a mobile device—more than double the six percent who used mobile devices two years ago.

The addition of Wi-Fi on more flights is also enhancing the passenger experience. Overall satisfaction among passengers who use Wi-Fi during their flight is 39 points higher than among those who don't use it.

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Will the new healthcare law raise hospital use and costs?

One study says it didn't happen in a state that implemented its own version

It's been more than three years since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was signed into law, and still the debate ra...

PhotoIt's been more than three years since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was signed into law, and nearly a year since it was upheld by the Supreme Court and still the debate rages: “Will it increase costs or won't it?”

In 2006, Massachusetts reformed its healthcare system and, according to data presented at the American Heart Association's Quality of Care and Outcomes Research Scientific Sessions 2013, there was no substantial increase in hospital use or costs. The reforms increased the number of people insured by 300,000.

And, the findings were true even among safety-net hospitals, which often have an open-door policy to accept patients regardless of the ability to pay. These hospitals are most likely to care for people who need free services, use Medicaid or must pay their own hospital bills.

Little difference

"In light of the Affordable Healthcare Act, we wanted to validate concerns that insurance reform would lead to dramatic increases in healthcare use and costs," said Amresh D. Hanchate, Ph.D., the study's lead author, an economist at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System and assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine. "We were surprised to find little impact on healthcare use. Changes we saw in Massachusetts are very similar to those we saw in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — states without reform."

The study analyzed information on more than 2.6 million patients ages 18-64 discharged from 66 short-term acute care hospitals in Massachusetts in 2004-2010.

Prior to reform, in 2004-2006, the number of average quarterly admissions for each hospital was 1,502. After reform, in 2008 -2010, the average was 1,557 -- a 3.6% increase versus a 3.3% increase in the comparison states.

Further findings

The researchers also found:

  • The total days of inpatient care increased by 0.94% in Massachusetts, compared with 0.80% in the comparison states.
  • Hospital charges per quarter rose 1.1% more in Massachusetts than in the comparison states.
  • Hospital use increased among previously high uninsured groups; the number of hospitalizations increased by 2.8% among blacks and by 4.5% among Hispanics.
  • The results were similar to those of safety-net hospitals and Medicare patients.

"These results are more applicable for states similar to Massachusetts in terms of the current healthcare system and government policy," Hanchate said. "Because states vary a lot, it's hard to say how this would compare for the rest of the country."

Further study is needed to determine if the delivery of services changed, including whether inpatient services being moved to an outpatient setting, he said.

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Airline flights are likely to be crowded this summer

An airline group expects record numbers of customers to fly internationally

Have you booked your airline yet for your summer vacation? If not, it's probably a good idea to do it sooner rather than later. Airlines for America (A4A)...

PhotoHave you booked your airline yet for your summer vacation? If not, it's probably a good idea to do it sooner rather than later.

Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade organization is forecasting that more people will fly this summer than a year ago -- and that a record number of those passengers will fly internationally. A4A expects U.S. airlines will carry close to 209 million passengers globally from June through August -- a 1% jump from the same period in last year. That includes 27 million international passengers, a record number for U.S. airlines.

This would be the largest summer volume for U.S. airlines since 2008, when more than 210 million traveled. The all-time high was summer 2007, when U.S. Airlines carried more than 217 million people. When you book, keep in mind that A4A expects the busiest travel days to be Thursdays and Fridays between the middle of June and the first week of August.

The cost of flying

A4A attributes the increase to rising household net worth and corporate profits, strong airline operational performance and recent relief in energy prices. Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) indicate that airfares remain a bargain, with the average inflation-adjusted domestic airfare (including taxes) down 0.2% to $374 in the fourth quarter of 2012, compared with the average fare of $375 in the fourth quarter of 2011. BTS further reported that since 1995 inflation-adjusted domestic airfares have declined 13.1% versus a 49.6% increase in overall consumer prices.

“As we enter the peak summer travel season, Airlines for America expects U.S. airlines to see modest year-over-year growth in both domestic and international travel, including an all-time high for passengers traveling internationally,” said A4A Vice President and Chief Economist John Heimlich. “It’s a great time to fly as airfares remain a bargain and airlines are delivering strong on-time performance.”

But, the improving economy cuts both ways. As ConsumerAffairs recently reported, more people flying means more competition for cheap fares. And that could make them hard to find.

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Thinking about relocating after retirement? Here's some advice

It's not always easy to decide whether to stay or move after retiring, but planning is the key

When folks get near retirement age, some consider whether they should move to another state after working or stay where they are.For those who decide to re...

PhotoWhen folks get near retirement age, some consider whether they should move to another state or stay where they are.

Those who decide to relocate may want to know how to go about it.

"Certainly the main things to consider as far as I'm concerned is weather," said Arthur Gladstone in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. Gladstone is the president of the Lakes of Environ Condominium Association, an adult community in Southern Florida. 

"Number two would be an ambiance that would suit them in terms of the people they're moving in with and the area that they're going to live in and whether or not they can afford it. There are a number of factors I think that would have to be taken into account," he said.

Numerous considerations

But it's not just weather and ambiance that folks will have to consider when they're thinking about retiring in another state. 

Access to medical care, learning what the local crime rates are, how much the overall cost of living is and what the state and local taxes will look like should be researched too.

 PhotoAccording to research conducted by the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C., and CCH, a company that provides tax assistance and builds tax related software, the 10 states that impose the lowest taxes on retirees are: Alaska, Nevada, Wyoming, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Simply put, some states just aren't good for people to retire in so they should look elsewhere, said Andrew Tignanelli, president of The Financial Consulatebased in Hunt Valley, Md.

"We often talk to our clients and in seminars about getting out of Maryland which is a high cost-of-living and a high-tax state for retirees," said Tignanelli in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

In addition to researching local and state taxes, people should visit a new state at least once a month before deciding to move there after retirement. Renting before buying is another great way to learn an area, experts say.

And requesting information from the Chamber of Commerce about property and sales tax differences is another smart move.

Based on advice from the Professional Educators Benefits Company, a which provides financial services for people in the educational community, moving to another state should be a very slow process, not a fast one.

Easy does it

The company says you should avoid moving after a dramatic change in your life, because too much change at once could be overwhelming. So if you've just lost your spouse or just sold your home for example, you may want to put off moving for a while. 

As far as your medical and dental needs, it's essential to verify that your health insurance policy or your Medigap plan will be accepted where you're moving.

And what are some of the best ways to meet new people once you do move to a new state after retirement?

It's always best to seek out communities that offer a lot of activities and social clubs, as experts say it's the best way to meet a lot of people in one fell swoop.

PhotoBeing active in your local community is another good move, especially for those people who are used to being busy. Not only will attending community meetings allow you to make new friends, it will allow you to stay involved in any future changes in the community.  

Don't forget family

In addition, many retirees like to go visit their families on occasion, so it's good to keep in mind how easy it will be to get where your loved ones are.

"Another thing that's very important, that I'm becoming more and more aware of as the years go by, is that a lot of people wind up going back to where their family is, even if it's not a retirement area," said Gladstone. "Either on a regular basis like for the summertime or to visit. Or when they get to the point when they can no longer be alone, like when they lose their spouse for example.

"The kids come and collect them and take them back north so that their with the bulk of their family and finish out their years that way. So that's something else to be considered," he said.

In other words, nothing lasts forever so plan accordingly.

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Starting over after bankruptcy

If you have a plan, you can put your financial life back together

Since the Great Recession millions of Americans have found themselves in dire financial straits. While filing bankruptcy is often the last resort, many hav...

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Gas prices rising as crude prices, tight supplies put pressure on retailers

More increases likely if wholesale costs remain high

Gas prices are drifting up again. Today's national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is $3.61 -- five cents more than a week ago. Nat...

Gas prices are drifting up again. Today's national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is $3.61 -- five cents more than a week ago. National average prices have been rising steadily over the last few weeks.

Gas prices at this time last year were falling consistently and would eventually decline 82 out of 87 days for a total of 61 cents from April 6 to July 2, AAA notes. By comparison, the national average this year has increased for 12 straight days to the highest price in more than a month. 

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The recent trend of higher prices at the pump has been nearly universal with only motorists in West Virginia and Ohio paying less at the pump than a week ago, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. Six states (Ore., Minn., Wash., Okla., Neb. and Iowa) have seen prices surge by more than 20 cents and 13 states have seen prices jump by at least a dime.

While higher crude oil prices have put upward pressure on retail gasoline prices across the country, it has been tight supplies and refinery maintenance - both planned and unplanned - in the Midwest and West Coast that have pushed prices substantially higher for drivers in those regions.

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Source: AAA Fuel Gauge

 

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Feds crack down on bogus tech support schemers

Consumers forked over nearly a million dollars to 'fix' nonexistent problems

Few things strike more fear into the heart than being told that your computer is riddled with viruses, spyware and other malware. Your first impulse is to ...

PhotoFew things strike more fear into the heart than being told that your computer is riddled with viruses, spyware and other malware. Your first impulse is to get the problem fixed and that's where the scammers come in.

Mikael Marczak, doing business as Virtual PC Solutions, and Sanjay Agarwalla were accused of posing as major computer security and manufacturing companies to deceive consumers that their computers had the problems mentioned above.

Complaints filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) contend the two were not actually affiliated with major computer security or manufacturing companies and they had not detected viruses, spyware or other security or performance issues on the consumers’ computers.

As part of the scheme, the defendants charged consumers hundreds of dollars to remotely access and “fix” their computers.

Settling charges

As part of the agreement to settle the FTC charges, Agarwalla and Marczak are prohibited from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale or selling any computer security or computer related technical support service and from assisting others in doing so. The final order against Agarwalla requires him to pay $3,000 -- the total amount of funds he received for his role in the alleged scam operation.

While the stipulated final orders announced today resolve the FTC’s claims against Agarwalla, Marczak and Conquest Audit, litigation continues against the remaining defendants in each of these actions.

A separate scheme

PhotoAdditionally, as part of its investigation into one of the schemes operated by Marczak, FTC staff discovered he was also telemarketing a debt relief program that the agency claimed violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule. These alleged violations were added, along with an additional defendant, Marczak’s corporation Conquest Audit, to the complaint against him in April.

In that settlement, Marczak and Conquest Audit are prohibited from marketing or selling debt relief services and were assessed a $984,721 judgment, which is the total amount of money lost by consumers in the scams.

Although the judgment will be stayed due to their inability to pay the full amount, Marczak and Conquest Audit will surrender almost all of their existing assets.  

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Anywhere Lounger bean bag chairs recalled

Exposure to small beads inside the chair poses a suffocation and strangulation hazard

Powell Company of Culver City, Calif., is recalling about 6,300 Anywhere Lounger bean bag chairs. Bean bag chairs without a permanent zipper closure allow...

PhotoPowell Company of Culver City, Calif., is recalling about 6,300 Anywhere Lounger bean bag chairs.

Bean bag chairs without a permanent zipper closure allow young children to unzip them and ingest or inhale the small beads inside of the bean bag chair, posing a suffocation and strangulation hazard. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recalled Anywhere Lounger bean bag chairs are 100% polyester or 100% cotton and measure about 51 inches in height with a 43 inch wide base. Recalled colors include purple (item 199-B004), chocolate (item 199-B005), bayou blue (item 199-B006), pink (item 199-B007), lime green (item 199-B008), denim (item 199-B009), black and white (item 199-B012), striped black and white (item 199-B014), natural (item 199-B016) and camo (item 199-B017). The item number is printed on the product packaging and Powell Company is printed on the label on the bean bag chairs.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at furniture stores nationwide including W.S. Badcock, Value City Furniture, Nebraska Furniture Mart and online at www.Groupon.com from June 2012 to February 2013 for about $100.

Consumers should immediately take the Anywhere Lounger away from young children, inspect the bean bag chair to see if the exterior zipper can be opened. If it can, contact Powell Company to receive a free Safety Enhancement Repair Kit.

Consumers with questions should contact Powell Company at (800) 622-4456 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT.

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Malware protection for your smartphone

A growing number of products can help keep your mobile device secure

Security experts are constantly telling us that we should have some kind of software protection for our mobile devices. Hackers and scammers are increasing...

PhotoSecurity experts are constantly telling us that we should have some kind of software protection for our mobile devices. Hackers and scammers are increasingly targeting the mobile world because it's a huge and growing target and it's mostly unprotected.

Fortunately there's a wide range of security software and apps that can provide protection and peace of mind, usually for less than what you pay to protect your PC. Here are a few products to consider if you are concerned about the security of your mobile device.

BullGuard Mobile Security

BullGuard Mobile Security 10 runs on Android, Symbian, Blackberry and Windows Mobile phones. In addition to providing antivirus protection, BullGuard scans all your apps, filters spam, blocks malicious code and offers a SIM card lock.

When you open an online account you have the ability to back up your smartphone data as well as lock and wipe your phone remotely, should it be lost or stolen. With a remote wipe, all you have to do is go to your PC, access your remote wipe settings and wipe. The software will access your phone and return the device to its factory settings, erasing your personal information and data.

BullGuard Mobile Security 10 costs around $21 and, while it doesn't provide protection for the iPhone, another product – Lookout Premium – does.

Lookout Premium

It offers a robust antivirus protection, scans apps, filters annoying spam, is able to lock the SIM Card and blocks malicious code. If you misplace your phone you can activate an alarm that will help you located the device or see its location using GPS.

If you suspect it has been stolen you can wipe the data using your PC and erase the data saved on the device. It allows you to back up your data to a cloud-based account so you can restore it if the device turns up. Lookout Premium costs about $30.

McAfee Mobile Security

McAfee is a familiar name in security software, having provided antivirus products for PCs for years. McAfee Mobile Security also provides real-time protection, scans files, downloads, apps and the SD card for dangerous content. An antivirus shield keeps spyware and phishing sites at bay.

The McAfee product offers unlimited cloud storage for your data, as well as videos and photographs. If a phone is lost or stolen, you can restore your data from your cloud account to a new phone.

Like other products McAfee Mobile Security allows you to lock and wipe the device, using your online account. The package costs around $30.

Norton Smartphone Security

Norton is another name from the PC security past. Norton Smartphone Security 5.0 offers antivirus, antispam and firewall protection. With the firewall, you can enable or limit access by setting the appropriate level of protection you want. This package can also reduce annoying spam in both text and multimedia formats.

Among its features, Norton Smartphone Security incorporates automatic scanning. When it detects a potentially infected file, it is placed in quarantine where it can do no harm. If your phone is lost or stolen, you can lock or wipe it by simply sending a text message to the phone with the correct command and password.

Businesses that allow their employees to use their personal smartphones to access the corporate network have a big concern. They have to ensure that an employee's tainted smartphone doesn't compromise the network.

Sophos Mobile Device Management

Sophos, an enterprise security software company, offers Mobile Device Management, which supports a number of platforms, lets companies manage and control mobile devices accessing the network – both company-owned devices and those owned by employees.

Using a web-based admin console, you can manage apps and control access to company resources such as email.

As smartphone have proliferated there has been a debate about the need for and effectiveness of mobile security apps. Lately, many experts are arguing they are well worth the investment.

Popular Mechanics recently suggested that skipping security software was high among "The 10 Worst Things You're Doing With Your Smartphone." The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says fewer than one in 20 smartphones and tablets are equipped with security software and less than 50% of smartphone owners use password protection on their devices.

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Suit alleges defects in Ford's six-cylinder EcoBoost engine

Engine can stall at highway speeds, Ford owners say, echoing complaints filed with feds

Three Ford owners are suing Ford Motor Co., claiming the company's 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine is defective and can shake, misfire and lose power at high...

PhotoThree Ford owners are suing Ford Motor Co., claiming the company's 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine is defective and can shake, misfire and lose power at highway speeds.

The suit charges that the defect can cause moisture to build up in the enginer's intercooler, which can cause the engine to run poorly under acceleration, when the moisture is sucked into the engine. In February, Consumer Reports magazine was highly critical of turbo-charged engines, including the EcoBoost, saying they often fail to return the acceleration and fuel economy. 

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Eastern Division in Columbus, charges that Ford has known of the problem for some time because it has published several technical service bulletins about the problem, Automotive News reported.

Vehicles affected by the alleged defect include the popular F-150 pickup, the Ford Flex crossover, Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKT and MKS sedan from various model years. The engine was introduced in 2009  

Two of the plaintiffs in the suit say their 2010 Ford Taurus SHO lost power and stalled several times. Another plaintiff says his F-150 pickup lost power while accelerating.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received nearly 100 complaints about the engine, the lawsuit states.

NHTSA complaints

In one complaint filed with NHTSA in April, the owner of an F-150 pickup reported problems similar to those alleged in the lawsuit.

"I have a Ford 2011 FX4 EcoBoost," the consumer wrote in his NHTSA complaint. "Whole truck started shuddering as I was getting onto the freeway. Check engine light was flashing and vehicle had loss of power."

The dealer replaced the catalytic converter but the consumer said the same thing happened again on March 4, 2013, when the truck had about 30,000 miles on it. The dealer replace the ignition coil and spark plug. But the truck stalled again on April 27 with 34,000 miles on the odometer.

"It is very dangeorus driving on the freeway when you cannot get the truck to drive without shuddering and jerking anytime you give it gas," the F-150 owner said. "The dealer has been fixing whatever the code states. However, there is an underlying condition that is causing this to happen that needs to be addressed."

In another complaint, filed May 15,  the owner of a 2011 Taurus SHO described a similar problem. 

"I have the Taurus SHO with the EcoBoost engine. The vehicle occasionally shudders when accelerating. ... It will 'miss' and then 'catch' and accelerate when pressing the gas pedal," the Ford owner said. "I took the vehicle to the dealer in December 2012 and they claimed they could not replicate the issue. They indicated no awareness that this was a 'known issue' with the car."

NHTSA has not opened a defect investigation and Ford has not issued a recall. 

The lawsuit does not apply to vehicles with the three- and four-cylinder EcoBoost engines.

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Subaru Forester gets top marks in tough new crash test

Only two SUVs earned an IIHS top honor

It's the first time it has happened: One vehicle -- the 2014 Subaru Forester -- has aced every aspect of the challenging small overlap front crash test con...

PhotoIt's the first time it has happened: One vehicle -- the 2014 Subaru Forester -- has aced every aspect of the challenging small overlap front crash test conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In fact, it was the only one of 13 small SUVs to earn an overall rating of good in the test.

The Forester and the 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, which earned acceptable, are the latest vehicles to qualify for the Institute’s recently inaugurated top honor, "Top Safety Pick+." Each of the other 11 SUVs tested earned either a poor or marginal rating.

“With the redesigned Forester, Subaru’s engineers set out to do well in our new test, and they succeeded,” says Joe Nolan, the Institute’s vice president for vehicle research. “This is exactly how we hoped manufacturers would respond to improve protection for people in these kinds of serious frontal crashes.”

This is not the first time that the Forester has stood out in a new IIHS crash test. When the Institute first rated small SUVs for side protection in 2003, the Subaru model performed the best and was one of only two to earn good ratings.

Small overlap test

PhotoIIHS added the small overlap test to its lineup of vehicle safety evaluations last year. It replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle strikes another vehicle or an object like a tree or a utility pole. In the test, 25 percent of a vehicle’s front end on the driver side strikes a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. A 50th percentile male Hybrid III dummy is belted in the driver seat.

Most vehicles today are designed to do well in the government’s full-width front crash test and in the Institute’s moderate overlap front test, but that is no guarantee of good performance in a small overlap crash. In a 2009 IIHS study of vehicles with good ratings for frontal crash protection, small overlap crashes accounted for nearly a quarter of the frontal crashes involving serious or fatal injury to front seat occupants.

In many vehicles the impact at a 25 percent overlap misses the primary structures designed to manage crash energy. That increases the risk of severe damage to or collapse of the occupant compartment structure. Also, vehicles tend to rotate and slide sideways during this type of collision, and that can move the driver’s head outboard, away from the protection of the frontal airbag.

Small SUV susceptibility

Those difficulties were apparent in the small SUV group. Two-thirds of the vehicles had poor ratings for structure, and about half of them were poor or marginal for restraints and kinematics, meaning the dummy’s movements weren’t well-controlled to prevent contact with hard surfaces.

In one example of poor structure, the front pillar of the Nissan Rogue’s door frame was pushed far inside the occupant compartment and after the crash was almost touching the driver seat. The Jeep Patriot was among the worst for restraints and kinematics.

The dummy’s head slid off the frontal airbag as the steering wheel moved 8 inches up and nearly 6 inches to the right. The side curtain airbag didn’t deploy, and the safety belt allowed the dummy’s head and torso to move too far forward.

In contrast, the Forester had good ratings for structure, restraints and kinematics, and all four injury measures on the dummy. The airbags worked as intended, and the space around the dummy was well-maintained. The Outlander Sport was acceptable for structure and restraints and kinematics and also had good injury measures.

IIHS ratings

The Forester and the Outlander Sport bring the number of Top Safety Pick+ winners to 20. The award is based on performance in the small overlap front test, as well as in the moderate overlap front, side, rollover and rear tests. To qualify, a vehicle must earn good ratings in 4 of the 5 tests and no less than acceptable in the fifth.

IIHS continues to award Top Safety Pick (without the “+”) to vehicles with good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, rollover and rear tests, regardless of their small overlap ratings. Of the small SUV test group, nine earn Top Safety Pick, including the BMW X1 and the Buick Encore, which are new to the U.S. market for 2013.

The others are the Ford Escape, the Honda CR-V, the Hyundai Tucson and its twin, the Kia Sportage, the Mazda CX-5, the Volkswagen Tiguan and the 2014 Patriot. The 2013 Patriot also qualifies for Top Safety Pick when equipped with optional side torso airbags. Another small SUV, the 2013 Toyota RAV4, earns Top Safety Pick, but it won’t be put through the small overlap test until later this year. Toyota asked for the delay so it could make changes to the RAV4 to improve performance in the test.

The test group also includes the Rogue and the Jeep Wrangler 2-door. Aside from the Forester, all small SUVs tested are 2013 or 2012 models. The small overlap ratings of the 2012 vehicles carry over to 2013 models because no significant design changes were made.  

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More vitamin D may lower high blood pressure

Research continues to suggest its importance to a healthy circulatory system

Consumers spend billions of dollars on medication to control high blood pressure but getting plenty of vitamin D might help too. Research continues to sugg...

PhotoConsumers spend billions of dollars on medication to control high blood pressure but getting plenty of vitamin D might help too. Research continues to suggest that the vitamin, present in dairy foods and sunlight, has benefits for the circulatory system.

In March researchers at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital conducted a study that suggested moderate amounts of vitamin D supplements could reduce high blood pressure. Since African Americans tend to have high higher incidence of hypertension, the study followed 250 African American adults.

"We found that vitamin D supplementation modestly but effectively lowered blood pressure," said Dr. John Forman, who led the research team. "And people who were taking a placebo had a slight increase in their blood pressure."

Vitamin D has long been thought to have some benefits when it comes to blood pressure. Some previous students on animals achieved that result, though the findings have not been universally accepted.

No proof

“In population studies, people with low levels of vitamin D seem to have a high risk of developing high blood pressure than those with higher levels of vitamin D,” according to researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “However, there's no proof that low levels of vitamin D cause high blood pressure in healthy people.”

Dr. Sheldon G. Sheps, of the Mayo Clinic, agrees that the role too little vitamin D plays in developing high blood pressure is not exactly clear. But he says a vitamin D deficiency may be linked to heart disease and a higher risk of high blood pressure. It's too early to know, he says. More research is needed.

However, there appears to be a growing consensus that it could be beneficial. Researchers at Edinburgh University in the UK are so convinced that vitamin D is effective in reducing high blood pressure, as well as heart attack and stroke risk, that they suggest getting vitamin D from sunlight has benefits that may far outweigh skin cancer risks. Their research focuses on ultra violet (UV) rays, which reportedly release a compound in the body that lowers blood pressure.

Growing threat

PhotoHigh blood pressure is a growing threat, especially to the aging population. While being overweight, getting little exercise and consuming excessive levels of sodium are all contributors, not all of its causes are understood.

High blood pressure occurs when the heart has to work harder to move blood through veins and arteries, usually because of rigidity in the blood vessels. Prolonged high blood pressure can cause the heart to enlarge. The high pressure of the blood flowing through the veins can eventually cause a blood vessel to break, causing a stroke.

If increasing vitamin D intake can be shown to prevent high blood pressure, it could provide an easy and effective treatment. It might also save money on prescription medications.

What to do

There are many sources of vitamin D that could probe healthy in other ways, even if it doesn't reduce high blood pressure. Spending time outdoors, with exposure to the sun, is one way but should be measured against the risk of skin cancer.

Some foods also are rich sources of vitamin D. Dairy products, like milk, cheese and yogurt are good sources. You can also get vitamin D from salmon, tuna, flounder, cereal, pork, eggs, mushrooms and liver.

Vitamin D is also available in supplements. Popular brands cost about $25 for 120 capsules, a four month supply. As with any health or diet issue, discuss the role of vitamin D in your diet, and as a tool to control blood pressure, with your physician.

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Too much salt is bad but too little may not be good either

Institute of Medicine warns against going too far in salt reduction intake

There's been a major push the last few years to get Americans to consumer less salt in their but a new report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) say...

PhotoThere's been a major push the last few years to get Americans to consumer less salt in their but a new report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) says it's important to not go too far in salt reduction efforts.

“[N]ew studies support previous findings that reducing sodium from very high intake levels to moderate levels improves health,” said Brian Strom, George S. Pepper Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, who chaired the IOM committee studying the matter. “But they also suggest that lowering sodium intake too much may actually increase a person’s risk of some health problems.”

While it's true that many Americans consumer too much salt, evidence from the new studies reviewed by the IOM committee do not support reduction in sodium intake to below 2,300 mg per day, the IOM committee concluded.

That finding is not going down too well with some health advocates. 

"What the committee failed to emphasize is that most Americans are deep in the red zone, consuming 3,500 to 4,000 milligrams of sodium a day," said Bonnie Liebman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It's clear that those excessive levels increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. Whether we aim for 2,300 or 1,500 milligrams a day is irrelevant until we move down out of the red zone."

Whether the report emphasized it or not, the IOM committee did find that the average American consumes 3,400 mg or more of sodium a day – equivalent to about 1 ½ teaspoons of salt. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans urge most people ages 14 to 50 to limit their sodium intake to 2,300 mg daily.

Subgroup issues

People ages 51 or older, African Americans, and people with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease – groups that together make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. population – are advised to follow an even stricter limit of 1,500 mg per day, the IOM committee said.

These recommendations are based largely on a body of research that links higher sodium intakes to certain “surrogate markers” such as high blood pressure, an established risk factor for heart disease. 

After reviewing the new studies, the IOM committee, while cautioning that numbers in the studies were small, concluded that: 

  • evidence supports a positive relationship between higher levels of sodium intake and risk of heart disease;
  • studies on health outcomes are inconsistent in quality and insufficient in quantity to conclude that lowering sodium intake levels below 2,300 mg/day either increases or decreases the risk of heart disease, stroke, or all-cause mortality in the general U.S. population; and
  • evidence indicates that low sodium intake may lead to risk of adverse health effects among those with mid- to late-stage heart failure who are receiving aggressive treatment for their disease.

The committee found limited evidence addressing the association between low sodium intake and health outcomes in population subgroups, such as  those with diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, hypertension or borderline hypertension; those 51 years of age and older; and African Americans).

On balance, the report said that the evidence does not support recommendations to lower sodium intake within these subgroups to or even below 1,500 mg daily.

The report was sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

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No change in routine mammogram rate despite new guidance

Insurance coverage for annual screenings could be a factor

It appears women in their 40s aren't paying a lot of attention to the new recommendations for breast cancer screenings. New research by John Hopkins shows...

PhotoIt appears women in their 40s aren't paying a lot of attention to the latest recommendations for breast cancer screenings.

New research by Johns Hopkins shows they continue to to get mammograms routinely despite national guidelines recommending otherwise.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) sifted through the evidence in 2009 and recommended that women ages 50-74 should continue to undergo mammograms every two years, but that those between 40 and 49 without a family history of breast cancer should discuss the risks and benefits of routine screening mammography with their physicians to make individual decisions.

No changes

Lauren D. Block, M.D., M.P.H., a clinical fellow in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and her colleagues expected to find fewer women in their 40s getting routine mammograms. Instead, they found no impact.

"Patients -- and likely their providers -- appear hesitant to change their behavior, even in light of evidence that routine screening in younger women carries substantial risk of false positives and unnecessary further imaging and biopsies," says Block, leader of a study published online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. "Women have been bombarded with the message 'mammograms save lives,' so they want them no matter what."

Necessary vs. unnecessary

That research has shown that mammography's impact on younger women is mixed at best: routine screening increases rates of detecting cancer in young women, but doesn't reduce mortality risk by all that much.

In fact, studies show it's more likely to result in over-diagnosis, and unnecessary treatment, including biopsies, lumpectomies and mastectomies, and weeks of radiation and potentially toxic drugs. In addition, false positives result in avoidable procedures and psychological trauma, and many of the cancers detected will probably never be dangerous, but are aggressively treated.

Among older women, screening mammograms are recommended because breast cancer -- like most cancer -- is a disease of aging, and a woman's risk of breast cancer increases as she grows older.

Divergence of opinion

The original USPSTF guideline change recommended more forcefully against routine screening for women in their 40s, but a political and advocacy group backlash resulted in compromise language that counseled individual decision-making by patients and physicians. The American Cancer Society still recommends yearly mammography for women starting at age 40.

Moreover, Block says, insurance companies continue to pay for routine mammograms for women in their 40s -- a likely reason for the persistently high rate of screening.

"Breast cancer gets so much attention in the media and in society in general, despite cardiovascular disease being by far the number one killer in women. Everyone wants to feel as though they are preventing breast cancer," Block says. "You hear one anecdotal story about someone in their 40s who found cancer during a mammogram and did really well with treatment and that's enough to fly in the face of any other facts that are out there. Women want the test."  

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New type of flame retardant may resolve environmental fears

Scientists develop "nanocoating" that safely inhibits fire in furniture and mattresses

There's been a lot of concern about the potential health effects of existing flame retardants for  furniture, fabrics and other material but now &nbsp...

PhotoThere's been a lot of concern about the potential health effects of existing flame retardants for  furniture, fabrics and other material but now  scientists are reporting development of an “exceptionally effective" new retardant that appears safer and more environmentally friendly.

The problem is that the polyurethane foam in these items is highly flammable; upholstery furniture and mattresses are the items that ignite in about 17,000 fires each year, causing more than 870 deaths, thousands of injuries and millions of dollars in property loss.

That has caused consumer protection agencies to issue stringent safety standards to reduce flammability. 

But writing in ACS Macro Letters, researchers discuss a first-of-its-kind coating that's ideal for the polyurethane foam in couches and bedding. Jaime Grunlan and colleagues describe successful development and laboratory testing of a new flame retardant coating for polyurethane foam.

Gas blanket

The “nanocoating” is so thin that 1,000 layers of it would fit across the width of a human hair, and it is made with a relatively benign polymer that creates a “gas blanket,” preventing oxygen from fueling a fire. It is the first flame retardant that both reduces the heat released from fire and prevents the foam from dripping and spreading flames to the rest of the room or house.

“The heat release reductions are significant and likely would slow fire growth in real world fire scenarios, giving people more time to escape or to put out the foam, thus, preventing flashover events,” the report says.

ACS Macro Letters is a publication of the American Chemical Society.

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No lengthy tarmac delays for domestic flights during March

And, there was only one delay longer than four hours for international flights

March was a good month for taking a commercial flight, whether it was domestic or international. The Transportation Department (DOT) says airlines reporte...

PhotoMarch was a good month for taking a commercial flight, whether it was domestic or international.

The Transportation Department (DOT) says airlines reported no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights, and just one exceeding four hours on an international flight during the month. The long tarmac delay involved a flight from Bogota, Colombia to Orlando, Fla., that diverted to Miami on March 24. DOT is investigating.

That represents a big improvement from February, when there were 34 domestic flights with delays of three hours or more.

Under a rule that took effect Aug. 23, 2011, all U.S. and foreign airlines operating at least one aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats must report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports. Exceptions to the time limits for both domestic and international flights are allowed only for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons. Severe weather could cause or worsen such situations.

The full report, which includes data on on-time performance, cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, among other things, can found here.

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Are electronic gadgets cheaper now than ever before?

If you think that a computer costs a lot now, you should have seen the price 30 years ago

As most people probably know, once May and June hits we're in the thick of graduation season. That usually means many of us will be signing graduati...

PhotoAs most people probably know, once May and June hit, we're in the thick of graduation season. That usually means many of us will be signing graduation cards, heading to ceremonies and searching for the right gift for the graduate we know.

Some folks will just buy balloons for the graduate or stuff some cash inside a card. Others will try to buy something the graduates will need in their next phase of life.

Whether a person is graduating from middle school, high school or college, he or she will probably be looking for some sort of electronic gadget as a gift, as smartphones, tablets and other electronics are what many folks want these days.

But will buying one of these items for a graduate break the bank for you or even put a dent in it?

Flashback

PhotoAccording to the folks at Ben's Bargain, a website that features daily deals each week, buying a popular electronic device is cheaper now than it was in the 1980s.

For example, the Motorola DynaTAC 800x mobile phone, released in 1983, costs $3,995 at the time. In 2013 that equates to $9,312.

Ten years later the Bellsouth/IBM Simon Personal Communicator was released. The clunky 18 ounce mobile phone cost $900 at the time, which is $2,098 in today's dollars.

How times have changed

Now let's look at how much some of today's smartphones cost.

On the lower-end, there's the HTC One Android Quad-Core Smartphone that can be purchased on HSN's website for about $200.

On the higher-end, there's the Samsung Galaxy S III I9300 Smartphone that costs $629.99 on Walmart's site.

Both of these phones are far less expensive than the phones from back in the day and they obviously do way more.

PhotoThe 1983 Motorola Dyna weighed 28 ounces and only offered 30 minutes of talk time before it had to be recharged. The 1993 Bellsouth phone weighed 18 ounces and offered just an hour of talk time before it needed  to be charged again.

Simply put, buying a smartphone for a graduate these days doesn't have to break the bank and may not require a lot of saving, which is probably a big relief for most parents.

But in the 80s and 90s a personal loan might have been needed to buy a mobile phone and that phone only allowed you to talk for a very short time.

The world of computers

And it's the same for computers.

In 1983 the IBM PC/XT 5160, which was a desktop that had only 128 kilobytes of RAM, was releasedThe cost in 1983 was $8,000 which equates to $18,648 today.

PhotoFlash to 2013 where you can purchase the Lenovo IdeaPad Yogo. It's a laptop and tablet in one and has 8 gigabytes of RAM, which pretty much allows you to do anything you want on it.

The Lenovo costs $1,099, a far cry from the IBM PC which was a whopping $6,091 more.

And if you like Lenovo tablets you can get one even cheaper.

On Best Buy's site, you can get the Lenovo Idea Tablet, with 8 gigabytes of memory for about $130, which might be another cool gift for a person graduating this year.

Tube time

Televisions have come a long way too. 

In 1993, there was the RCA 31-inch, which was one of the first TVs that came with an on-screen menu. Back then you could purchase one for $1,200.

Today you can buy an LG 39-inch LED TV for just $430. It gives you a better picture, better sound and has a much sleeker appearance. 

TVs have really come down in price from a decade ago.

The Toshiba HDTV 34-inch went for $2,699 in 2003 and didn't provide half of the good picture and sound that some of today's flat screens do.

Timing the market

One thing that's tricky about purchasing a new electronic device is knowing exactly when the price will drop. For example, some may wonder if they should buy that new laptop when it first hits the shelf or if they should wait for the cost to go down.

Rojeh Avanesian, the vice president of marketing at PriceGrabber said as long as consumers keep buying a particular gadget, the price of it won't come down.

He says this happened recently with some of today's high-end digital cameras.

"We are seeing a lot of people trading up their camera gear to something better. They are looking for advanced features and more megapixels and are willing to pay more," said Avanesian in an interview with TechHive.

And that means prices won't budge anytime soon. So you may want to wait until the mad rush for a product ends, if you want to pay less. 

For gamers

The gadget that has remained close in price over the years is video game consoles. 

PhotoIn 1983 the Atari 2600 went for $125 and in 2013 the Sony PlayStation 3 Super Slim game console goes for $250. That's only a $125 difference over the last 30 years.

Of course the differences between the Atari 2600 and the Sony Play Station are night and day in terms of functionality. Perhaps some may be surprised that the price difference is so low.

When it comes to buying one of today's game consoles for a low price, you might have to wait until the holiday season, says gaming expert Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities.

"All of the price cuts for game consoles are for holiday only," he said.

So if you're looking to purchase a gadget for a graduation gift this year, it'll be far less expensive than buying a gadget that was made in 1983, which may not be that surprising, but it might be good to know.

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Economy flashing mixed signals

Initial jobless claims were up, consumer prices fell and new home construction lagged

The labor market is continuing to struggle, with more people than expected filing for first-time jobless benefits last month. The government reports ther...

PhotoThe labor market is continuing to struggle, with more people than expected filing for first-time jobless benefits last month.

The government reports there were 360,000 initial applications for benefits in the week ending May 11 -- an increase of 32,000 from the revised figure of 328,000 the week before. The consensus estimate from Briefing.com was for 330,000 new claims.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and consider a more accurate reading of the labor market, was 339,250 -- an increase of 1,250 from the previous week., a decrease of 21,000 from the preceding week's revised average of 3,036,250.

The full report can be found on the Labor Department's website.

Inflation

Much like inflation on the wholesale level, consumer prices were on the decline in April.

According to the Labor Department, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) fell 0.4% -- the second decline in as many months and twice the decline expected by Briefing.com.

A sharp drop in gasoline prices was major factor. The energy sector overall was down 4.3%, even though electricity and natural gas costs were up decrease in the energy index. Food prices, after showing no change in March, rose 0.2%.

After stripping out food and energy because of their volatility, the “core rate” of inflation was up 0.1% -- the same as in March.

Prices for shelter, used cars and trucks, new vehicles and tobacco all increased in April, while apparel, airline fares and recreation were lower.

The full CPI report is on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

Housing starts

The pace of new home construction slowed last month.

Housing starts plunged 16.5% in April to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 853,000, according to the Commerce Department -- well shy of the consensus estimate of 970,000 from Briefing.com, but more than 12% above the rate posted a year ago.

A breakdown of the figures show construction was started on 610,000 single-family homes and 234,000 for units in buildings with five units or more.

Building permits, an indicator of what developers and considering in the months ahead, shot up 14.3% to 1,017,000.  

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Can you stay slim and still eat at restaurants?

Studies find restaurant food high in calories

The dramatic rise in obesity has health officials searching for answers. While there may be many contributing factors, there's no question Americans are co...

PhotoThe dramatic rise in obesity has health officials searching for answers. While there may be many contributing factors, there's no question Americans are consuming more daily calories than they did in previous generations.

Food is plentiful, relatively cheap, and packed with calories. When you prepare food at home you can carefully control your caloric intake, but it's harder to do when you dine out.

Restaurants are very competitive and they draw customers with good-tasting fare, served in large portions. The Keystone Forum, funded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recently studied the association between food consumed away from home and Americans' tendency to put on weight. It found that the average American now eats at least four meals a week somewhere other than home.

Again, that's a change from 50 years ago when restaurants were less numerous and people ate more meals at home.

More recent changes

Even as recently as 1978 Americans only got about 18% of their calories from restaurants. By 1995 that percentage had jumped to 34%.

PhotoThe Keystone Forum concluded that regularly consuming food prepared away from home is associated with obesity, higher body fat and a higher body mass index (BMI). Women who eat at restaurants more than five times per week end up with 290 more calories per week than women who dine out less often.

A number of restaurant chains, including Subway and McDonald's, post calories on their menus, to help consumers understand how many calories they are consuming when they order a triple-decker hamburger and fries.

In 2010, Congress passed a law requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to post calories and other nutrition information on menus and menu boards. But some nutrition and health researchers suggest that may not be enough.

Studying small restaurant calories

Researchers at Tufts University analyzed meals from independent and small-chain restaurants, which they say account for approximately 50% of the nation's restaurant locations and are exempt from the new federal rules. They discovered the average single meal was also high in calories – two to three times the estimated calorie needs of an individual adult at a single meal. In fact, the average meal, they say, had 66% of of the calories most people need in a 24-hour period.

"On average, the meals studied contained 1,327 calories, which significantly exceeds the estimated energy needs of an individual adult at a single meal," said Susan B. Roberts, the study's senior author. "Meals from all restaurant types provided substantially more energy than is needed for weight maintenance."

She said nearly three-quarters of the meals analyzed contained more than half of the FDA's daily energy recommendation of 2,000 calories, and 12 meals contained more than the entire recommended daily energy intake.

The study looked at the food typical of small, independent restaurants – Italian, American, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese. It found Italian had the highest average calories – 1,755 – and Vietnamese the lowest – 922. It's conclusion? All restaurants should be covered under the new law.

Promoting healthier choices

PhotoThe National Restaurant Association, a trade group representing the nation's restaurants, has opposed regulations requiring restaurants to post calorie information. It had pushed voluntary efforts, such as 2011's Kids LiveWell program, to encourage children to choose a restaurant's healthier selections when eating out.

“We are educating consumers and their children in how to dine outside of their homes in more healthful ways and that is a great thing,” said Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association. “As consumers ask for more healthful foods, the industry will provide it. We are one of the quickest industries to respond to our customers’ needs.”

Federal statistics show more than 19% of children ages six to 11 are considered obese, as are 18% of teens ages 12 to 19. The numbers are worse for adults – about 68% are overweight or obese.

So whiile restaurants may be responding to customers' desires, it's entirely possible they are not responding to their needs. 

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Google releasing new music service

How will the new music site compete with the Spotify and the Groovesharks of the world?

By the close of this week, music lovers may have a new way to access their favorite tunes online.It's rumored that Google will be launching a new music s...

PhotoMusic lovers are getting a new way to access their favorite tunes online. Google is launching a new music service, to supplement its current music site that's associated with the Google Play digital media store.

It's priced at $9.99 a month after a free one-month introductory trial, about the same as other streaming services.

The new service, Google All Access, will differ from Google's current music store, as it will allow users to stream music to their MP3 players, smartphones, computers and so forth, just like Spotify, MOG, Pandora and other streaming services. 

Things have gotten a bit crowded in the world of online music stores, which is different from just a few years ago when people were still skeptical about paying for music online.

After downloading songs for free on sites like Napster and Limewire was halted for legal reasons, people were still used to either downloading songs for no cost or just streaming them. But as laws clamped down on illegal downloading, many people waved their white flags and just started paying for their music again.

24 million 

Since then Spotify has been the go-to site for music lovers, as the company currently has about 24 million users and 6 million of those users pay for extra features.

Just last month Spotify announced a collection of new tabs that adds a social component to the site and allows users to get recommendations on new music and new artists.

The site's new "follow tab" allows users to connect with their favorite artists and get an idea of what music that artist is listening to.

So if you're a Shakira fan let's say, you can get a basic idea of what music she's loving at the moment and get information on things like future album release dates or new songs that she's working on.

And even though the streaming site Grooveshark is still dealing with its fair share of legal battles against record companies, the company is still trying to spruce up its site.

Recently, Grooveshark announced the release of its "Broadcast" feature that allows you to send music to all of your friends and followers in one quick shot.

The feature does other things too.

Be a broadcaster

By selecting the "Start Broadcasting" option users can actually become a virtual DJ by putting together playlists, recording their voice in-between songs and being able send out those playlists to all of their followers.

Many critics and reviewers think that the-adding-your-voice-feature is extremely cool and separates Grooveshark from its competitors a bit.

Apparently, the company is aware that many music lovers want other people to listen to what they're listening to. And the broadcast feature allows them to do that quickly and easily.

And of course we can't talk about online music stores without mentioning Apple. 

The company just inked a deal with Universal Music Group to offer a free online radio service.

Although Apple is still waiting for Sony Music and Warner Music Group to jump onboard, it looks like the company's radio feature will eventually happen, but no word yet as to when.

However, Sony and Warner have signed deals with Google.  The record label giants will be a part of Google All Access.

Jim Cady, CEO of Slacker, which is another music site, believes that Google's new music service will be good but not perfect, since there's a chance you won't be able to access it on multiple devices.

"We expect that it's going to be platform-specific and focused on the Google ecosystem," said Cady in an interview with Mashable

"We're huge supporters of Netflix's belief in the power of ubiquity and we think it's incredibly important for consumers to have access to their music across a variety of platforms and devices, whether it's in the car, on their Sonos, Roku or iPhone."

In addition, Cady says the fact that more online music stores are popping up and existing stores are adding new features, only proves how much the industry of online music is growing.

"We've seen several new players enter the space recently and we believe the growth and competition only validates the industry that we're in," he said.

"While there's a lot of attention on on-demand listening, we're seeing our users spending the majority of their listening time with our curated radio experience, which is a major differentiating factor for Slacker."

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Five signs the economy is improving

This time, could the economy finally be turning the corner?

Since 2010, we've been down this road several times. The economy shows signs of finally turning the corner, only to fall back to an anemic growth rate.Th...

PhotoSince 2010, we've been down this road several times. The economy shows signs of finally turning the corner, only to fall back to an anemic growth rate.

That could be the case again, but there seem to be five indicators that – in spite of the end of the payroll tax holiday and the federal budget sequester -- the economy is showing real signs of life.

Let's start on Wall Street. The stock market has rallied strongly since January with both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 both hitting all time highs in May.

Much of the rally can be attributed to the Federal Reserve's policy of pumping money into the economy. But the Fed policy has been consistent for some time now. It's only been this year that stocks have taken off.

Why is this important? Because in past recessions, stocks have been a leading indicator for the overall economy. Investors seem to sense when things are turning around and the market surges about six months before the economy takes off.

Housing market

One of the more impressive recoveries has been in the housing market, which was devastated by the credit crisis, wave of foreclosures and Great Recession. In many housing markets in the U.S., home sales are rapidly rising and so are prices.

In its most recent MarketPulse report, CoreLogic found that the housing market is recovering, but doing so unevenly. The over-bought and beaten-down markets are recovering the fastest.

Most markets have reached consistent price recoveries in only the last year or two, the report finds. But the real estate recovery remains a local event and a shift is occurring.

Previously, it was the low prices of foreclosures and short sales that drove the market. Now it's new home sales. The recovery in that area, the report notes, is acting like a targeted economic stimulus package because it's leading to more construction jobs and sales of building materials.

Auto Sales

PhotoThe mini-boom in new home construction has led to increased sales of trucks, helping the automotive industry enjoy an even stronger recovery. Auction prices for full-size pickup trucks are up nearly seven percent through the first four months of 2013, according to the NADA Used Car Guide.

"The recovery of home values and increased residential construction, stabilizing gasoline prices and a decline in late-model supply have resulted in higher trade-in values for full-size pickups," said Jonathan Banks, executive automotive analyst for the Guide.

New trucks are also selling well. Sales of the Dodge Ram helped boost Chrysler's April sales 11 percent higher. Ford and GM also had strong April sales. Sales of the Ford Escape rose 52% while GM saw a 28% rise in sales of its Silverado pick-up.

Auto sales have remained consistently strong since the end of the Great Recession, thanks mainly to low interest rates. It's also easier for consumers to borrow money for a car or truck – something that hasn't been true for housing.

Retail Sales

Make no mistake, retail sales – a measure of consumer activity – are  nothing to celebrate. Sales fell in March, with economists chalking it up to the sequester and higher taxes.

But in April, when more of the same was expected, the nation's retailers actually eked out a 0.1% gain. Core retail sales, which exclude cars, gasoline and building materials, were up a much stronger 0.5%.

Since retail sales account for about 30% of what consumers spend, the increase – small as it is – is being viewed as a hopeful sign.

Summer travel

Consumers may be spending more money on vacations this summer. TripAdvisor, a travel site, surveyed 1,200 U.S. consumers and predicts a 30% are planning to travel over the Memorial Day weekend. It also found 86% plan to take a trip during the summer.

Fifty-three percent of those who plan to travel this summer plan to spend the same on their trip this year, while 25% expect to spend more. Travelers are also looking for savings – 71% said they would take a spontaneous trip if they find a last-minute deal.

Despite these positive indicators, not all economists are sold on the idea of a recovery that has finally taken hold. Kathy Bostjancic, Director of Macroeconomic Analysis at The Conference Board, doesn't see a lot of optimism in recent indicators, especially retail sales.

“The combined fiscal drag from the increased payroll tax rate and sequester spending cuts total $225 billion for this year, which offsets the positive wealth effect created by the rise in equity prices and appreciation in home prices over the past year,” she said. “The spring swoon comes after a winter spending spree of which the window of retail opportunity has apparently closed.”

Bostjancic said she wants to see a pick-up of job and income growth in the second half of 2013 before declaring that things are finally getting better.

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Los Angeles dogs tops in postal attacks

Letter carriers growl back at vicious dogs and their owners

The days of enemy lists seem to be coming back and the Postal Service is taking the lead. Tired of being gnawed on by maddened mutts, the nation's letter c...

PhotoThe days of enemy lists seem to be coming back and the Postal Service is taking the lead. Tired of being gnawed on by maddened mutts, the nation's letter carriers have been keeping a list of the cities that are the most inhospitable.

At the top of the list is Los Angeles, a city where pedestrians of any kind are regarded with suspicion. San Antonio, Seattle and Chicago are also cities where there's little love lost between mailpersons and pooches.

You might think the sorry state of its finances would keep the USPS awake at night, but no, it's those darned dogs. 

“If our letter carriers deem your loose dog to be a threat, you’ll be asked to pick up your mail at the Post Office until it’s safe to deliver,” said Ken Snavely, acting postmaster of Los Angeles, where 69 postal employees were attacked last year, placing the city as the most vicious for dog attacks. Nationwide, 5,879 postal employees were attacked.

Snavely noted that in situations where a dog roams the neighborhood, delivery to the owner’s neighbors could be curtailed as well.

Snavely also makes it known that letter carriers would like it known that when they must come to a customer's door, they would appreciate having the hounds locked up somewhere, as there have been many cases where dogs found the sight of the postal carrier so infuriating that they jumped right through screen and glass doors. 

Of course, dog attacks aren't just a postal problem. Nearly 5,900 letter carriers were attacked last year, but that pales in comparison to the 4.7 million Americans annually bitten by dogs — more than half of whom are children — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The U.S. Postal Service, the medical community, veterinarians and the insurance industry are working together to educate the public that dog bites are avoidable by declaring May 19-25 as National Dog Bite Prevention Week. They're not issuing a commemorative stamp though.

“Many dogs are cherished members of their family and people believe their dog won’t bite, but given the right circumstances, any dog can attack," said Snavely. “Dogs do not reason like people do and they will react to their instinct to protect their family and territory."

Fiscal Year 2012 U.S. Postal Service Dog Attack City Ranking

Ranking

City, State

Attacks

1

Los Angeles, CA

69

2

San Antonio, TX and Seattle, WA

42

3

Chicago, IL

41

4

San Francisco, CA

38

5

Philadelphia, PA

34

6

Detroit, MI

33

7

St. Louis, MO

32

8

Baltimore, MD and Sacramento, CA

29

9

Houston, TX and Minneapolis, MN

27

10

Cleveland and Dayton, OH

26

11

Buffalo and Brooklyn, NY

24

12

Denver, CO

23

13

Dallas, TX and Tacoma, WA

21

14

Wichita, KS

20

Avoiding Attacks

  • Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
  • Don’t run past a dog. The dog’s natural instinct is to chase and catch you.
  • If a dog threatens you, don’t scream. Avoid eye contact. Try to remain motionless until the dog leaves, then back away slowly until the dog is out of sight.
  • Never approach a strange dog, especially one that’s tethered or confined.
  • Don’t disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.
  • Anyone wanting to pet a dog should first obtain permission from the owner.
  • Always let a dog see and sniff you before petting the animal.
  • If you believe a dog is about to attack you, try to place something between yourself and the dog, such as a backpack or a bicycle.
  • If you are knocked down by a dog, curl into a ball and protect your face with your hands.

 

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Optimus recalls portable electric heaters

The heater design could allow ignition of nearby combustible materials

Optimus Enterprise of Anaheim, Calif., is recalling about 355,000 portable Infrared Radiant Quartz electric space heaters. The heater design can fail to ...

PhotoOptimus Enterprise of Anaheim, Calif., is recalling about 355,000 portable Infrared Radiant Quartz electric space heaters.

The heater design can fail to prevent ignition of nearby combustible materials that come in contact with the unit, posing a fire hazard to the consumer. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves two models of Optimus Infrared Quartz Radiant heaters with model numbers H-5210, produced in 2011 and H-5211, produced in 2012. The model number and the year of production appear on a label on the back of the heater. The recalled heaters are white and are approximately 12-inches wide by 13-inches tall by 6-inches deep. “Optimus” is printed on the top left of the heater. The control knob is located on the top right side of the heater.

The heaters, manufactured in China, were sold at Best Buy Market Place, Family Dollar, Heartland, Northern Tool, Rite Aid and other stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, ebay.com and Walmart.com from October 2011 through December 2012 for between $25 and $30.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled heaters and contact Optimus to request a free replacement heater. Consumers have the option of a comparable ceramic heater or new model quartz radiant heater, model H-5510, which will be available after August 2013.

Consumers may contact: Optimus Enterprise toll-free at (888) 672-5832 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or by email at return.optimus@gmail.com.

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New drug approved for advanced prostate cancer treatment

Xofigo got the green light three months ahead of schedule

Men whose prostate cancer has spread after receiving medical or surgical therapy to lower testosterone have a new option for treatment. The U.S. Food and...

PhotoMen whose prostate cancer has spread after receiving medical or surgical therapy to lower testosterone have a new option for treatment.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Xofigo (radium Ra 223 dichloride) to treat men with symptomatic late-stage (metastatic) castration-resistant prostate cancer that has spread to bones but not to other organs.

Ahead of schedule

Xofigo was approved more than three months ahead of its goal date of Aug. 14, 2013, when the agency was scheduled to complete review of the drug application. It was reviewed under FDA's priority review program, which provides for an expedited review of drugs that appear to provide safe and effective therapy when no satisfactory alternative therapy exists, or offer significant improvement compared to marketed products.

“Xofigo binds with minerals in the bone to deliver radiation directly to bone tumors, limiting the damage to the surrounding normal tissues,” said Richard Pazdur, M.D., director of the Office of Hematology and Oncology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Xofigo is the second prostate cancer drug approved by the FDA in the past year that demonstrates an ability to extend the survival of men with metastatic prostate cancer.”

In August 2012, the FDA approved Xtandi to treat men with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer that has spread or recurred, even with medical or surgical therapy to minimize testosterone. Xtandi is approved for patients who have previously been treated the chemotherapy drug docetaxel.

Extending life

Xofigo’s safety and effectiveness were evaluated in a single clinical trial of 809 men randomly assigned to receive Xofigo or a placebo plus best standard of care.

Results from a pre-planned interim analysis showed men receiving Xofigo lived a median of 14 months compared to a median of 11.2 months for men receiving placebo. An exploratory updated analysis conducted later in the trial confirmed Xofigo’s ability to extend overall survival.

The most common side effects reported were nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and swelling of the leg, ankle or foot. The most common abnormalities detected during blood testing included low levels of red blood cells (anemia), lymphocytes, white blood cells, platelets and infection-fighting white blood cells.

Xofigo is marketed by Wayne, N.J.-based Bayer Pharmaceuticals. Xtandi is co-marketed by Astellas Pharma U.S., Inc. of Northbrook, Ill., and Medivation, Inc. of San Francisco, Calif.

Prostate cancer forms in a gland in the male reproductive system found below the bladder and in front of the rectum. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 238,590 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer and 29,720 will die from the disease this year.

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Wholesale inflation hits the skids -- again

Lower energy prices led the move downward

Inflation on the wholesale level was pretty much absent in April, just as it was in March. Figures released by the Labor Department show the producer pric...

PhotoInflation on the wholesale level was pretty much absent in April, just as it was in March.

Figures released by the Labor Department show the producer price index (PPI) plunged 0,7% last month, following a slide of 0.6% the month before.

Over 80% percent of the decrease was due to a drop of 2.5% in the price of energy products -- mostly gasoline, which was down 6%. Lower prices for home heating oil and residential electric power also were factors.

Also contributing to the decline was a dip of 0.8% percent in food prices.

The “core rate” of inflation, which strips out the food and energy components, inched up 0.1% after rising 0.2% in March.

The complete PPI report can be found on the Bureau of Labor Statistics web page.

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Is college worth it?

A new book suggests that in most cases, it isn't

Former Education Secretary William Bennett has never shied away from controversy and has now waded into the debate over the cost of higher education with a...

PhotoFormer Education Secretary William Bennett has never shied away from controversy and has now waded into the debate over the cost of higher education with a new book with the provocative title, "Is College Worth It?" 

In it, Bennett argues that only 150 out of 3,500 U.S. colleges and universities provide an education that is worth the investment it requires. He points out that nearly half of those who start a four-year education drop out.

Among 2011 graduates, he says half are unemployed or significantly underemployed. If you aren't attending a handful of colleges, including California's Harvey Mudd College, MIT, the California Institute of Technology, Stanford, Harvard or Princeton, it's not worth the money, he argues.

Another view

Blogger Zac Bissonette, writing at Yahoo Finance, argues that Bennett is wrong – that most of the time getting a college education will pay off. He agrees that college may not be right for students who didn't perform well in high school. However, he says college is worth it if you opt for a lower-cost in-state public college, minimize debt, study hard and make connections. 

At ConsumerAffairs we have heard from a number of students who don't think college was worth the cost. By and large, these students have attended one of the growing number of for-profit colleges.

“I had attended the University of Phoenix and graduated only to learn that I had over $7,000 in student loans - half what the school advisor had explained to me,” Bob, of Portland, Ore., posted at ConsumerAffairs.

Gail, of Mason City, Iowa, writes that she incurred more student debt to attend Kaplan University than she can pay back.

“The student loans were consolidated and I was on the income-based plan,” she reports. “Now I need to contact legal aid to get help, because they put me on a standard plan. I was never given any help in finding a job, so I'm working for two temp services.”

Can't make the payments

Sarah, of New Oxford, Pa., writes that her husband is unable to make his student loan payments to Sallie Mae.

“They will allow him to defer the loan for $150 for three months, but the $150 does not go towards paying off his loan,” Sarah wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “We have told them we could squeeze $300, but they will not lower to that amount, and will not accept partial payments."

Lori, of Colver, Pa., attended DeVry University, another for-profit school catering to mostly adult students, and writes that she spent a lot of money without getting a degree.

“This past July I was informed that I no longer had enough in loans to finish my degree,” she write. “My entire degree as a part-time online student was to cost $58,000 and as of July DeVry had billed me over $73,000. That is with 28 credits still remaining and 8 transferred credits.”

Public colleges cost much less

The cost of a for-profit school is similar to that of an established private, non-profit institution and almost everyone who attends one pays for it with student loans. State-supported schools – particularly community colleges -- cost much less and can often be paid for by working a part-time job.

Even so, getting a degree won't guarantee a job, at least not right away. A new study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., along with the online student hub Chegg, finds that many young people coming out of college are overqualified for today's job market, yet are completely unprepared for its challenges.

More than half the graduates in the survey said they would do things differently if they had it to do over again.

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GM sees revenue potential in "connected cars"

It's hoping consumers will pay up to stream music, video and data as they drive

Are you willing to spend $20 a month to turn your car into a rolling hotspot and mobile communications and entertainment center? General Motors CEO Dan Ake...

PhotoAre you willing to spend $20 a month to turn your car into a rolling hotspot and mobile communications and entertainment center? General Motors CEO Dan Akerson is hoping you are.

Akerson's optimism is understandable. He was, after all, a telecommunications executive before coming to GM in 2010 and he has been turning up the heat on GM's engineers to boost the connectivity of the company's cars. 

GM built an early lead in the telecom business with its OnStar, a relatively primitive 2G tool that provides safety, diagnostic and directional services to its 6 million subscribers.

Now, Akerson wants to see OnStar morphed into a 4G LTE service that provides all kinds of mobile telecom services, including some that nobody's thought of yet.

LTE is fourth-generation high-speed wireless service being rolled out by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. It makes it possible to stream video and music while also providing enhanced GPS, voice and text services. Oh, and advertising as well.

Advertising opportunities

If you think about it, the opportunities for advertising to people in their cars can get pretty exciting, if you're into that kind of thing. Instead of hiring an out-of-work English major to stand outside your business spinning a sign around, you could create an ad that would, to paraphrase an old AT&T ad, reach out and grab someone.

"Hey, looking for a great pedicure? Turn right now!"  Or something like that. We're not sure this is what Akerson has in mind but something along those lines will not doubt be haranguing tomorrow's drivers. 

His thinking seems to be of the "If you built it, they will come" school. Or as he put it in a Bloomberg interview: “The bigger the pipe, the more you’re rewarded into the future.”

“So, when we look at what we can do with a 4G pipe into a car, you can change the business model almost entirely. You may be able to have a real revenue-generating opportunity,” Akerson said.

GM is not the only company traveling down this road but not everyone is in the same lane. Ford is concentrating on providing an infrastructure that will connect its cars to the Internet through a user's smartphone while Akerson seems to want the car itself to provide the processing power of a smatphone. In effect, the car will be a big smartphone with wheels.

The thinking is that younger drivers have grown up staring endlessly at screens and don't want to be locked in a hurtling pile of metal with nothing to play with but the radio.

The days of hanging your head out the window to listen to the burble of your V-6 engine and straight-through stainless steel exhaust are pretty much history, it appears.

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Get ready for new web browsers

New browsers are popping up and the mouse may be headed for extinction

Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are just some of today's popular web browsers.But as technology changes, web browsers wi...

PhotoMicrosoft's Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are instantly recognizable as today's top web browsers. But for how long?

As technology changes, web browsers will have to change too, as people don't use the Internet in the same way as they did even 10 years ago. Many people are constantly online or they're using smartphone apps, but web browsers have stayed more or less the same.

Take Internet Explorer for example. It hasn't changed that much at all over the years, but now according to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft is going the touch-screen route and creating a web browser that can be manipulated by a press or a swipe.

Since a lot of folks are using apps today almost as much as they're using the web, companies are attempting to make web browsers just as fast and easy to use as today's apps.

Just this past April, Google released its updated version of Google Chrome which includes a voice feature so you can surf the web by talking instead of typing. The new Google Chrome is still in beta.

Mitchell Baker, Chairperson of the Mozilla Foundation and former CEO of Mozilla Corporation, said web browsers have to be updated to meet the ever-changing ways that people are using the Internet.

Consumers no longer browse, Baker says says. They have specific destinations they like to visit and most times they know what pages they want to go to. Browsers should accommodate that. 

"The way we think about it is much too concrete. We don't browse anymore for sure," said Baker at the LeWeb conference in Paris.

No longer mysterious

And it's true. The web is no longer this new and mysterious thing that we want to explore. Most of us know which pages we want to visit and we visit these same pages every day.

Then there's the touch-screen, which seems bound to replace the mouse. In February, Microsoft released a new browser for Windows 7 and 8 called Internet Explorer 10, which takes the touch-screen concept and completely runs with it. 

Instead of clicking on different icons to access the site you want, all you have to do is touch a page to open it. Microsoft says Internet Explorer 10 is the first browser that's perfect for touch.

Cloud browsers

Photo
Maxthon

With most people having multiple devices, many want to be able to access their files, sites, apps and messages whether they're on their computer, smartphone or tablet. So companies like Maxthon Ltd.are creating browsers that allow them to do that.

Similar to Dropbox, the Maxthon "cloud browser" lets users send or download information to a cloud-based account and access that information on multiple devices.

Right now Maxthon customizes its browsers for whatever device you're using, whether it's your smartphone, home computer or tablet. 

In addition, Maxthon announced a deal with Pioneer Electronics to create touch screens in cars. That's not popular with safety advocates but there may be ways to reduce the risks from driving while browsing or texting. Maybe a new kind of browser could do that somehow.

Then there's Servo, a relatively new project created by Mozilla and Samsung that's supposed to reinvent how web browsers function as well.

Photo"Servo is a research project to develop a new web browser engine," said a Mozilla employee during an interview with NetMagazine"Our goal is to create an architecture that takes advantage of parallelism at many levels, both on the CPU and GPU, while eliminating common sources of bugs and security vulnerabilities associated with incorrect memory management and data races."

"With Servo, we aim to take the kinds of fluid, richer multimedia experiences expected in today's smartphone and tablet applications to the next level on tomorrow's web and tomorrow's hardware," the Mozilla worker said.

Internet Explorer may even have to come up with a new name eventually, because we don't explore the Internet anymore. We quickly grab our devices, visit a page, then move on.

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Feds look at ways to make delis safer

Listeria, salmonella can be problems in both large and small delis

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have released a detailed draft risk...

PhotoYou might not think of delis as dangerous places but they can be a source of food-borne diseases. Listeria contamination is one of the trickiest problems to manage and two federal agencies have teamed up to study the problem.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a 179-page document last week that outlines steps to reduce the risk of Listeria monocytogenes in deli products reaching consumers’ plates.

Listeriosis, the disease caused by Listeria, is rare but has a high fatality rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1,500 people fall ill with listeriosis each year and about 260 of them -- or 16% -- die.

Salmonellosis is far more common but far less serious, with a fatality rate of about half of one percent.

The study released last week, formally known as a risk assessment, links certain deli practices to potential public health risks. It's intended to apply to all kinds of retail delis, from the mom-and-pop deli on the corner to large deli departments in supermarkets.

“The risk assessment will be a tremendous asset in our efforts to reduce the 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths attributed to this pathogen annually,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. “Essential information has been gained from these findings, including the fact that once Listeria monocytogenes enters a retail environment, it has the potential to spread due to cross contamination."

The study found that a combination of several best practices can significantly reduce the risk of contamination:

  • Storage temperature. If all refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods are stored at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below at least 9 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented.
  • Growth inhibitors. If all deli products that support Listeria growth were reformulated to include growth inhibitor, 96 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented. 
  • Cross contamination. Slicers and other machines play a big role in cross contamination. Proper cleaning and personal hygiene can make a difference.
  • Contamination of incoming product. If current levels of Listeria in ready-to-eat foods received by the retail deli from processing establishments were reduced by half, 22 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented.

FDA offers a number of food safety resources for retail delis online.

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Flu in pregnancy raises child's risk of bipolar disorder

Schizophrenia, autism also linked to flu in pregnant women

Flu in pregnancy may quadruple child’s risk for bipolar disorderNIH-funded study adds to evidence of overlap with SchizophreniaShare on emailShar...

PhotoThe children of pregnant women exposed to the flu have four times the risk of developing bipolar disorder in adulthood, according to a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health.  

The findings add to mounting evidence of possible shared underlying causes and illness processes with schizophrenia, which some studies have also linked to prenatal exposure to influenza. Similar processes may influence develop of autism, some researchers think.

“Prospective mothers should take common sense preventive measures, such as getting flu shots prior to and in the early stages of pregnancy and avoiding contact with people who are symptomatic,” said Alan Brown, M.D., M.P.H, of Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Flu shots are best prevention

“In spite of public health recommendations, only a relatively small fraction of such women get immunized. The weight of evidence now suggests that benefits of the vaccine likely outweigh any possible risk to the mother or newborn,” Brown said. He and colleagues reported their findings online May 8, 2013 in JAMA Psychiatry.

Although there have been hints of a maternal influenza/bipolar disorder connection, the new study is the first to follow families in the same HMO, using physician-based diagnoses and structured standardized psychiatric measures.

Among nearly a third of all children born in a northern California county during 1959-1966, researchers followed 92 who developed bipolar disorder, comparing rates of maternal flu diagnoses during pregnancy with 722 matched controls.

The nearly fourfold increased risk implicated influenza infection at any time during pregnancy, but there was evidence suggesting slightly higher risk if the flu occurred during the second or third trimesters. 

Schizophrenia link

A previous study, by Brown and colleagues, in a related northern California sample, found a threefold increased risk for schizophrenia associated with maternal influenza during the first half of pregnancy.

Autism has also been linked to first trimester maternal viral infections and to possibly related increases in inflammatory molecules.

“Future research might investigate whether this same environmental risk factor might give rise to different disorders, depending on how the timing of the prenatal insult affects the developing fetal brain,” suggested Brown.

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Robocaller agrees to stop blasting consumers

Calls went to consumers who hadn't agreed to be blasted

A California company that calls itself CallFire has agreed to stop blasting illegal robocalls to consumers and pay a $75,000 fine.The Federal Trade Commi...

PhotoA California company that calls itself CallFire has agreed to stop blasting illegal robocalls to consumers and pay a $75,000 fine.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said the Santa Monica company helped its clients place illegal outbound pre-recorded telemarketing calls to consumers.

Such calls have been illegal since September 2009 and the FTC said that CallFire either knew or purposely avoided knowing that its clients were breaking the law.

The settlement agreement requires CallFire, whose official corporate name is Skyy Consulting Inc., to review all pre-recorded messages it delivers from now on and to terminate its contracts with clients who are breaking the law.

The company also has 120 days to review all of the existing messages on its platform to be sure they're in compliance with the law.

The company's website says it's the "safe way to send text and voice messages to your customers."

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Breo Ellipta approved for treatment of COPD

The drug decreases lung inflammation, but carries serious warnings

There's a new product on the market for the long-term, once-daily, maintenance treatment of airflow obstruction in patients with chronic obstructive pul...

PhotoThere's a new product on the market for the long-term, once-daily, maintenance treatment of airflow obstruction in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and or emphysema.

Breo Ellipta (fluticasone furoate and vilanterol inhalation powder), which has been okayed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is also approved to reduce exacerbations of COPD in patients with a history of exacerbations.

Symptoms of COPD, a serious lung disease that worsens over time, can include chest tightness, chronic cough and excessive phlegm. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD which, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Breo Ellipta, a combination of fluticasone furoate, an inhaled corticosteroid, and vilanterol, a long-acting beta2-adrenergic agonist (LABA), works by decreasing inflammation in the lungs and helping the muscles around the airways of the lungs stay relaxed to increase airflow and reduce exacerbations in patients with COPD.

A serious problem

“COPD is a serious disease that makes breathing difficult,” said Curtis Rosebraugh, M.D., M.P.H., director, Office of Drug Evaluation II, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, FDA. “The availability of new long-term maintenance medications provides additional treatment options for the millions of Americans who suffer with COPD.”

The safety and efficacy of Breo Ellipta were evaluated in 7,700 patients with a clinical diagnosis of COPD. Those treated showed improved lung function and reduced exacerbations compared with those who used a placebo.

Asthma warning

The drug carries a boxed warning that LABAs increase the risk of asthma-related death. The safety and efficacy of Breo Ellipta in patients with asthma have not been established, and it is not approved for the treatment of asthma.

Breo Ellipta carries a patient medication guide that includes instructions for use and information about the potential risks of taking the drug. It should not be used as a rescue therapy to treat sudden breathing problems (acute bronchospasm) and is not recommended for people younger than 18 years.

Serious side effects include increased risks of pneumonia and bone fractures. Among the most common side effects are inflammation of the nasal passage (nasopharyngitis), upper respiratory tract infection, headache and oral candidiasis (thrush).

Breo Ellipta was developed by GlaxoSmithKline in collaboration with Theravance.

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Feds: Juices Incorporated juice products may do you more harm than good

The juices could cause botulism, a sometimes fatal disease

Watch out for juice products or other beverages from Juices Incorporated (aka Juices International and Juices Enterprises) of Brooklyn, N.Y. The U.S. Foo...

Watch out for juice products or other beverages from Juices Incorporated (aka Juices International and Juices Enterprises) of Brooklyn, N.Y.

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning that the company's carrot and beet juice products have the potential to be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium which can cause botulism, a serious and potentially fatal foodborne illness. FDA says you shouldn't drink them -- even if they don't look or smell spoiled.

Symptoms of illness

Botulism can cause a variety of symptoms including: general weakness, dizziness, double-vision, trouble with speaking or swallowing, difficulty in breathing, weakness of other muscles, abdominal distension and constipation. Anyone who has these symptoms after drinking these products should seek immediate medical attention.

Although previously distributed in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Juices Incorporated products were recently found in retail establishments and restaurants in the New York City area, and consumers may have moved the products beyond this region.

Affected products

The following Juices Incorporated juice products pose a particular concern for Clostridium botulinum contamination:

  • Carrot Juice Drink
  • Carrot & Beet Juice Drink
  • Carrot & Ginger Drink
  • Double Trouble Carrot Punch
  • Ginger Beet Juice
  • Beet Juice Drink

The products are packaged under the brand names Juices Incorporated, Juices International and Juices Enterprises.

A history of legal action

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint for permanent injunction against the owners of Juices Incorporated back in 2010 after FDA inspections revealed continuing violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, including insanitary conditions at the Juices Incorporated facility.

Under a January 3, 2011 Consent Decree, the company's owners are required to stop manufacturing and distributing any articles of food, including all juice products and other beverages, until they correct the food safety deficiencies and insanitary conditions at their facility.

On June 21, 2012, an Order to Enforce Consent Decree was issued after the owners failed to comply with the requirements of the Consent Decree.

FDA investigators recently confirmed that Juices Incorporated and its owners continue to manufacture and distribute juice products and other beverages in violation of the Consent Decree and the Court's Order to Enforce Consent Decree.  

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Measuring inflation by the Big Mac

By following the cost of the iconic burger you can keep track of real prices

If you follow the monthly reports from the Labor Department, you know that inflation has all but disappeared from the U.S. economy. Despite the Federal Res...

PhotoIf you follow the monthly reports from the Labor Department, you know that inflation has all but disappeared from the U.S. economy. Despite the Federal Reserve pumping money into the economy for years, prices have hardly risen.

In fact, the government's inflation report for March 2013 showed that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) actually went down 0.2%. Over the last 12 months the inflation rate has been a feeble 1.5%.

A big reason for this is the absence of demand in the economy. Since the Great Recession, businesses and consumers have reduced their spending. If there isn't increased demand for goods and services, it's hard to raise prices. But as any consumer will tell you, the cost of many things still seems to be going up.

For consumers who want a more accurate reading on prices, they need look no further than their neighborhood McDonald's. Just keep an eye on the price of a Big Mac.

The Big Mac Index

In 1986 The Economist devised what it called The Big Mac Index as a way to track relative currency values. By monitoring what a Big Mac cost in yen, Swiss francs or dollars, you could see how currencies were fluctuating in relation to each other. 

But investment broker Peter Schiff, author of The Real Crash, says you can also use The Big Mac Index to measure real inflation in the U.S. He says over the last decade the Big Mac, McDonald's iconic burger, has gone up in price almost three times as fast as the official rate of inflation. 

Schiff and others claim that the government's official inflation statistics mask the true nature of inflation. Consumers suggest the same thing from time to time. William, of Conroe, Tex., complained recently about the new packaging of Nabisco crackers.

Smaller boxes

“Quite frankly, you are now selling 10 oz. boxes instead of 16 oz. boxes for the same price,” William wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I will go to another brand if you don't bring back the multi-grain wheat crackers with sea salt. Are you looking to go away like Hostess did?”

It can also show up in more subtle ways. You book a flight on an airline, choosing what appears to be a competitive fare. But when you actually take the flight you pay fees for luggage, food and desirable seats and enjoy less and less service.

Both the airline and the cracker company are faced with the same problem. Their costs are rising but they don't want to raise the cost of their product for fear they will lose business to their competitors. So the cracker company sells fewer crackers for the same price and the airline adds fees and reduces service to keep its fares low.

Common trend

PhotoA 2011 report by Consumer Reports found the downsizing of products was a trend that spread across a number of industries.

“Higher commodity and fuel costs are expected to spike in food prices by as much as three percent,” Todd Marks, senior editor and resident shopping expert at CR said at the time of the report. “But if manufacturers are skimping when costs go up, why aren’t they more generous when costs hold steady or fall?”

Companies sometimes go to great lengths to disguise their price hikes. They indent the bottom of containers, make plastic wraps thinner or whip air into ice cream, just to name a few tricks.

For consumers who want to stay focused on the true cost of things, however, watching the price of McDonald's double-deck hamburger may provide the best clue.

To form its index The Economist averages the price of a Big Mac in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco. In 1986 the cost of a U.S. Big Mac was $1.60. In 2011 it was $3.80. Between 2001 and 2011, when inflation barely rose, the price of a Big Mac increased $1.28.

That works our to 33%, or 3.3% per year.

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Congressional bill seeks safer cosmetics

Companies currently do not have to demonstrate new products are safe

A measure that's pending in Congress would require cosmetics manufacturers to certify that new products are safe before they begin selling them.What's th...

PhotoA measure that's pending in Congress would require cosmetics manufacturers to certify that new products are safe before they begin selling them.

What's that, you say? You thought there was already such a law on the books. Sorry, there's not. Under current law, companies do not have to show that cosmetic ingredients are safe before they go on the market.

Since substances we smear on our skin are often quickly absorbed into our bodies, this is no small oversight, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has started a campaign to support the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2013, introduced by Reps. Jan Schwakosky (D-Ill.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

13 chemicals

EWG’s 2008 teen body burden study found an average of 13 cosmetics chemicals in the bodies of teenage girls.  Among them were phthalates, triclosan, parabens and musks – all of which have been found to alter the hormonal system.  Other EWG tests have found the same hormone-disrupting cosmetics ingredients in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.  This research clearly documented in utero exposure to these cosmetic ingredients, EWG said.

The law that governs cosmetics has not been updated since its enactment in 1938, EWG noted. Under the current system, the industry mostly regulates itself.  

The Safe Cosmetics Act  would:

1) require pre-market safety assessment of cosmetics to the gold standard of “reasonability of no harm ” to protect vulnerable populations like children and the elderly;

2) establish a list of ingredients, such as carcinogens and reproductive toxins, that could never be used in cosmetics;

3) authorize the federal Food and Drug Administration to move swiftly to take unsafe products ingredients off the market; and

4) require full disclosure of ingredients used in cosmetics.  

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ABC-TV goes live on the Internet ... sort of

The network will start live-streaming in some cities

ABC is becoming the first over-the-air TV network to start live-streaming its programming on the Internet, but it's starting out with baby steps. Th...

PhotoABC is becoming the first over-the-air TV network to start live-streaming its programming on the Internet, but it's starting out with baby steps. 

The New York Times is reporting that ABC will quietly add a button to its iPhone and iPad apps this week that will let users around New York and Philadelphia begin live-streaming all ABC programming -- the first time any network has gone live on the web.

But wait, there's a catch: the live stream will only be available to paying customers of cable and satellite systems in the New York and Philadelphia markets. The six other cities where ABC owns TV stations will be added later this summer, the company said.

The network will have to negotiate with its more than 200 affiliates in other markets to clear the way for live-streaming outside the major cities where it owns stations.

The Times said ABC has already completed negotiations with Hearst Television, which owns stations in 13 markets, including Boston and Pittsburgh.

Could catch on

It may start a trend. Seven years ago, ABC became the first network to stream full episodes of its shows the day after they were broadcast and other networks quickly followed.

The broadcast and cable business is being broken open by pressure from consumers, lawmakers and regulators. The latest volley was fired last week by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who introduced a bill that would open up "a la carte" cable programming -- allowing subscribers to order only the channels they want to watch instead of being forced to pay for large tiers of channels they seldom or never watch.

The companies that produce shows for cable -- like AMC and HBO -- already distribute much of their programming via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other Internet channels, putting additional pressure on over-the-air broadcasters to do the same. 

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AT&T launches Aio Wireless, a new prepaid brand

Unlimited voice, text and data but not on the LTE network

AT&T  is launching a new brand, Aio (pronounced “A-O”) Wireless, a data-centric prepaid wireless service that AT&T says will ...

PhotoAT&T  is launching a new brand, Aio (pronounced “A-O”) Wireless, a data-centric prepaid wireless service that AT&T says will provide "a first-class wireless experience at a value price, without an annual contract."

Aio will run on AT&T's network but will not have access to its highest-speed LTE network, meaning that while customers may be getting unlimited data, they may have to be a little patient when downloading large files. Network speed isn't as much of a factor in text and voice communications.

So is Aio a response to T-Mobile's recent removal of long-term contracts from some of its service brands? AT&T says it's not. 

“We talked with no-annual-contract customers and created our service around what they want.  They want simple, easy plan choices with unlimited offers; first-class service at affordable prices; great devices; nationwide voice and data coverage; and no annual contracts. Today’s wireless customers don't want to compromise,” said Jennifer Van Buskirk, president of Aio Wireless. “We are set up to win over value-conscious customers who are increasingly moving towards smartphones and mobile broadband.” 

Florida & Texas

Aio debuted in Houston, Orlando and Tampa and will be rolling out to other cities over the coming months, AT&T said.

Aio will have its own dedicated stores and will be sold with three rate plans to choose from. Aio’s unlimited talk, text, and data rate plans range from $35 to $70 per month, with pricing varying by market, and will offer 4G download speeds of up to 4Mbs per second.

The company insists there will be no hidden charges. "The price you see is the price you pay," AT&T said. Customers can bring a compatible, unlocked device for activation on the Aio network. 

AT&T already has a prepaid service, called Go Phone but Aio is targeted more at data-centric users, the company said. Smaller wireless carriers have traditionally done well with prepaid services, which have been mostly shunned by the bigger carriers.

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San Francisco sues Monster Beverage

Energy drinks target kids, suit claims; company denies it, sues the city

A high-energy legal battle is shaping up in San Francisco, where the city has sued Monster Beverage and Monster Beverage has sued San Francisco. The disput...

PhotoA high-energy legal battle is shaping up in San Francisco, where the city has sued Monster Beverage and Monster Beverage has sued San Francisco. The dispute revolves around the city's claims that Monster targets its advertising to kids.

It's the latest round in a nationwide tussle over energy drinks and other caffeinated products. On Friday, Wrigley withdrew its Alert Energy caffeinated chewing gum saying it was responding to concerns expressed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Monster, the largest maker of energy drinks in the U.S., claims in its suit that San Francisco District Attorney Dennis Herrera is overstepping his authority by trying to require it to curb its advertising and serving sizes.

But Herrera's not buying it.

"Monster Energy is unique among energy drink makers for the extent to which it targets children and youth in its marketing, despite the known risks its products pose to young people's health and safety," he said. "Consumption of highly caffeinated energy drinks by children has been widely condemned by pediatricians and scientists, and the NCAA has banned its member institutions from providing these products even to college athletes because of the grave safety risks."

Remains defiant

Herrera said Monster Energy has remained defiant even in the face of the FDA's expressions of concern.

"As the industry's worst offender, Monster Energy should reform its irresponsible and illegal marketing practices before they're forced to by regulators or courts," Herrera said in a prepared statement.

Herrera's lawsuit came one week after Monster pre-emptively sued Herrera in an legal attempt to halt his office's months-long investigation into Monster's marketing and sales practices.

"Mr. Herrera appears to be motivated by publicity rather than fact or science," a Monster spokesman said.

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Chrysler Recalls Jeeps to Fix Transmission Problem

The transmission can shift from park into neutral, the company reports

Chrysler is recalling nearly 300,000 Jeep Commanders and Jeep Grand Cherokees because the automatic transmission can shift from park into neutral without...

PhotoChrysler is recalling nearly 300,000 Jeep Commanders and Jeep Grand Cherokees because the automatic transmission can shift from park into neutral without warning.
Chrysler said it first learned of the issue almost 16 months ago when the owner of a Grand Cherokee complained. It didn't explain why it took so long for it to report the problem. Federal law gives manufacturers five days to report a safety problem once they become aware of it.
Safety advocates have been pressing Chrysler and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administraiton (NHTSA) to recall 1993 through 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees that they say have burst into flames in rear-end accidents, contributing to at least 270 deaths but no action has been taken.  

In the transmission recall, Chrysler said it knows of 26 accidents and two injuries related to the problem but said there were no fatalities. The recall affects Jeep Commanders from the 2006 to 2010 model years and Grand Cherokees from the 2005 to 2010 model years.

Chrysler said the transmission glitch is the result of a software problem which it said it has remedied. 

 

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DTOX: A new way to help beat addiction

Getting help for an addiction may include your smartphone

According to statistics from the American Council for Drug Education, 10 to 15 million people in The U.S. are addicted to alcohol.And based on figures re...

PhotoAlcohol and drug abuse are huge problems in this country. According to statistics from the American Council for Drug Education, 10 to 15 million people in The U.S. are addicted to alcohol.

And based on figures released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2.1 million people in the United States had to seek emergency treatment for drug abuse and that was just in the year 2009.

Perhaps it's not surprising that these and other forms of addiction are huge problems in the U.S. and all around the world.

High-tech help

But what may be surprising is how today's technology is helping people overcome their addiction.

Take the smartphone app DTOX for example. It has all kinds of helpful features to assist a person going through the recovery process.

"DTOX is a recovery app for your smartphone that helps you overcome addiction," said Rae Dylan, an interventionist and the creator of DTOX, in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. "DTOX not only tracks your daily progress but also helps you build the support structure that everyone needs when trying to change their life. By incorporating DTOX into your daily routine, you will be taking an important first step on the road to recovery."

Dylan says DTOX assists families of addicted patients too. 

"DTOX connects users together," she says. "It helps to show how others are feeling in their moods based on their days off their dependency. It provides inspiration and evidence that people are able to get clean and stay off their substances with each other, with work and dedication." 

The app is also able to track a person's detox history, document a particular feeling or craving and send daily motivational messages.

Part of the solution

Right off the bat, some people may be skeptical about using an app to help beat their addiction, but Dylan says DTOX should be used along with other types of assistance.

"The app is a tool to be used in conjunction with other elements of recovery," she said. "You can use it to be connected to others; you can use it to provide a sense of anonymity. You can use it to find your way in what you might not know you need yet to get sober."

"Many addicts are skeptical in general and that is why they continue to think that they cannot get clean," Dylan points out. "If you cannot fathom it then you can't start to open yourself to the awareness that people all around you have been addicted once and are recovering."

Dylan has been coaching addiction patients for 10 years and has worked with rehab facilities, psychiatrists, doctors and 12- step program coordinators as well.

She says working with people suffering from a dependency and the professionals who try to assist them gave her the perfect kind of experience to create DTOX.

"There are all kinds of people and there are many facets of addiction," she says. "Addiction is the aftermath of an emotional disturbance and/or genetic disposition. Working with people who are in recovery themselves has proven to be extremely successful because it helps one to realize that it takes understanding, knowledge and experience. You will be able to accept help like that as an addict, when you are getting help from someone who has been there."

Help at your fingertips

PhotoThe benefit of using an app during the recovery process is that your smartphone is always with you, says Dylan, adding that with the support the app gives, DTOX serves as a constant teacher and helps to remove some of the fears that are associated with starting recovery.

"Because of technology today, privacy for many addicts seems so terrifying," Dylan said.  "The phone is our constant companion. If we could turn our phone into a tool for recovery, then we could perhaps see that what we think we know -- we do not know how to do."

In addition, Dylan says helping people overcome their addiction and making them feel more confident about beginning recovery is really why she created DTOX.

"There are people that are on the recovery road that have lived miracles along their journey and can help others have hope," she said.  "If we see evidence that we can do something about addiction and all the fear that surrounds it, then we are sure to see that DTOX is another way to get connected."

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IGA Brand of vanilla & chocolate ice cream recalled

The ice cream may contain allergens -- Almonds, Coconut, Soy -- that are not on the label

Dairy Fresh is recalling a specific batch of IGA Brand “Vanilla & Chocolate” Ice Cream (1.75 quart, 1.66L) with the plant code “3783” and a SELL BY date of...

PhotoDairy Fresh is recalling a specific batch of IGA Brand “Vanilla & Chocolate” Ice Cream (1.75 quart, 1.66L) with the plant code “3783” and a SELL BY date of 08-13-13.  The company is also recalling packages with a sell date between 06-08-13 and 08-27-13.

SizeNameFlavorUPC #DatesPlant code
1.75 quart(1.66L)IGA BrandVanilla & Chocolate4127046131Sell by: 06-08-13
07-19-13
08-02-13
08-13-13
08-27-13
3783

The package incorrectly contains Heavenly Hash ice cream, which contains almonds, coconut, and soy, which are allergens not declared on the carton. The company says it is not aware of any other complaint or illness to date related to this issue.

A small number of Vanilla & Chocolate packages were inadvertently used when the company was producing Heavenly Hash ice cream. As a result, a consumer may purchase a Vanilla & Chocolate package that contains Heavenly Hash ice cream.

This product is produced by the Dairy Fresh processing facility in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and is sold at IGA stores.

Consumers who purchased the product may discard it and return the product package to the place of purchase for a full refund or exchange.

Consumers with questions can contact Dairy Fresh 1-800-587-2259 between 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Central Time, Monday through Friday, excluding holidays.

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Buick LaCrosse and Regal, and Chevrolet Malibu vehicles recalled

The autos' batteries may not hold a charge

General Motors is recalling 42,904 model year 2012 and 2013 Buick LaCrosse and Regal, and model year 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco vehicles equipped with eAssi...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 42,904 model year 2012 and 2013 Buick LaCrosse and Regal, and model year 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco vehicles equipped with eAssist.

These vehicles may have a condition in which the Generator Control Module (GCM) may not function properly. This could cause a gradual loss of battery charge and the illumination of the malfunction indicator light. If the vehicle continues to be driven, the engine may stall and/or the vehicle may not start. In addition, there may be a burning or melting odor, smoke, and possibly a fire in the trunk.

GM will notify owners and dealers will test the GCM and replace it, as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact GM at 1-800-521-7300. GM's recall campaign number is 13136.

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Acadian Fine Foods recalls stew products

The products contain whey and soy, allergens not declared on the label

Acadian Fine Foods of Church Point, La., is recalling approximately 17,037 pounds of pork stew and chicken stew products because of misbranding and undecla...

PhotoAcadian Fine Foods of Church Point, La., is recalling approximately 17,037 pounds of pork stew and chicken stew products because of misbranding and undeclared allergens. The products contain whey and soy, allergens that are not declared on the product label.

There have been no reports of adverse reactions associated with consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 12-oz. single-serve bowls of "Savoie's Cajun Singles Louisiana Pork Stew" bearing the establishment number "Est. 13587" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced on various dates from May 24, 2012 through March 21, 2013. The product packages bear "Use By" dates from May 24, 2013 through March 21, 2014.
  • 12-oz. single-serve bowls of "Savoie's Cajun Singles Louisiana Chicken Stew" bearing the establishment number "P-13587" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced on various dates from June 6, 2012 through Feb. 25, 2013. The product packages bear "Use By" dates from June 6, 2013 through Feb. 25, 2014.

The products were distributed for retail sale in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Jim Miller, Acadian Fine Foods' Plant Manager, at (337) 684-6933.  

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Chrysler recalls 2012 Jeep Wranglers with right-hand drive

A broken electrical circuit could keep an airbag from deploying

Chrysler Group is recalling 5,440 model year 2008-2012 Jeep Wrangler right-hand drive vehicles manufactured February 1, 2007, through October 10, 2011. T...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 5,440 model year 2008-2012 Jeep Wrangler right-hand drive vehicles manufactured February 1, 2007, through October 10, 2011.

The affected vehicles have airbag clockspring assemblies that could experience broken airbag circuits. In the event of a crash necessitating airbag deployment, a broken electrical circuit in the airbag clockspring wiring assembly can lead to non-deployment of the driver-side frontal airbag and will not be able to properly protect the driver, increasing the risk of injuries.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the clockspring and add a steering wheel dust shield, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin May 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is M31.

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Meijer Distribution recalls Touch Point baseboard convection heaters

The heaters can overheat, posing a fire hazard

Meijer Distribution of Grand Rapids, Mich., is recalling about 4,560 Touch Point portable baseboard convection heaters. The heaters can overheat, posing a...

PhotoMeijer Distribution of Grand Rapids, Mich., is recalling about 4,560 Touch Point portable baseboard convection heaters.

The heaters can overheat, posing a fire hazard to consumers. The company has received two reports of overheating incidents, including one report of a fire that resulted in minor property damage. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Touch Point brand portable, electric baseboard convection heaters with model BBC-1500 and date code 0611. “Touch Point” can be found on the front of the product and the model and date code can be found on a silver sticker on the back side of the product. The heaters, manufactured in June 2011, are black and measure approximately 30-inches long by 6-inches deep by 12-inches high.

The heaters, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Meijer stores from September 2011, through February 2013, for about $50.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled heaters and return them to a Meijer customer service desk for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Meijer at (800) 927-8699 anytime.

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Feds sign off on new stroller safety rule

The new regs deal with hazards posed by folding or foldable strollers

You wouldn't think that that a baby stroller would be all that dangerous, would you? They are though. In fact, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ...

PhotoYou wouldn't think that that a baby stroller would be all that dangerous, would you? They are though.

In fact, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says that from 2008 through 2012, there were 1,200 stroller-related incidents, including four fatalities and nearly 360 injuries.

After reviewing these figures, CPSC staff recommended a new rule to create a federal safety standard for strollers -- a rule that commission has approved unanimously.

The proposed standard incorporates the published voluntary ASTM F833-13 standard, Standard Consumer Safety Specification for Carriages and Strollers, with one modification. The modification would require the addition of language in the standard to address scissoring, shearing, and pinching hazards associated with folding or foldable strollers.

CPSC staff believes that the standard, the be published in the Federal Resgister, will help reduce the risks associated with the majority of the hazard patterns identified in reviewing the stroller incidents.

Incidents and injuries

Hazard patterns found in strollers include:

  • wheel breakage and detachment;
  • parking brake and lock mechanism failures;
  • hinge issues;
  • structural integrity issues;
  • entrapment;
  • car seat attachment;
  • canopy issues; and
  • handlebar failures.

Reported injuries include:

  • finger amputations on folding hinges and canopy hinges;
  • falls due to wheel detachment or parking brake issues;
  • injuries due to stroller collapse;
  • head entrapment in openings of travel systems; and
  • falls due to a child unbuckling the restraint harnesses.

The proposed rule would also help address finger injuries associated with the folding hinges on folding or foldable strollers. Various stroller types, such as travel systems, carriages, tandem, side-by-side, multi-occupant, and jogging strollers would be covered by the standard.

CPSC staff is recommending that the mandatory standard for strollers become effective 18 months following publication of the final rule in the Federal Register.

The proposed rule has a 75-day public comment period. Comments will be able to be posted directly on www.Regulations.gov.

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Chrysler recalls model year 2013 RAM 1500 trucks

The windshield defrosting system could malfunction

Chrysler Group is recalling 498 model year 2013 RAM 1500 trucks manufactured June 25, 2012, through December 12, 2012. The coolant bypass valve in the af...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 498 model year 2013 RAM 1500 trucks manufactured June 25, 2012, through December 12, 2012.

The coolant bypass valve in the affected vehicles may stick in a position that does not allow coolant to flow into the heater core. Thus, these vehicles fail to conform to the requirements of Federal Vehicle Motor Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 103, "Windshield Defrosting and Defogging Systems."

Without a properly working windshield defrosting system, a buildup of moisture or ice could limit the driver's ability to see, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace replace the suspect coolant valves along with an updated calibration, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in June 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N25.

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McCain introduces 'a la carte' TV satellite-cable bill

The measure would require the unbundling of programming

How would you like to be able to select only the channels you want when you sign up for cable or satellite TV service? Under a bill introduced by Senator J...

PhotoHow would you like to be able to select only the channels you want when you sign up for cable or satellite TV service? Under a bill introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), you would be able to do exactly that. No more shopping, kid or other channels that you never watch.

According to McCain, his Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013, would give consumers the ability to buy cable channels individually -- also known as “a la carte” -- giving them more control over their viewing options and, as a result, their monthly cable bill.

Three objectives

In a floor speech in which he introduced his plan, McCain said the bill has three major objectives:

  • encourage the wholesale and retail ‘unbundling’ of programming by distributors and programmers;
  • establish consequences if broadcasters choose to ‘downgrade’ their over-the-air service; and
  • eliminate the sports blackout rule for events held in publicly-financed stadiums.

Take it or leave it

PhotoMcCain says the take it or leave it policy of the video industry, principally cable companies and satellite companies and the programmers that sell channels, “is unfair and wrong -- especially when you consider how the regulatory deck is stacked in favor of industry and against the American consumer.”

This becomes clear, he said, when considering how cable prices have gone up over the last 15 years. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the average monthly price of expanded basic service for all communities surveyed increased 5.4% over 12 months ending January 1, 2011 -- to $54.46. Over the same period, the Consumer Price Index has gone up 1.6%.

In the last 15 years, the price of expanded basic cable has gone up at a compound average annual growth rate of 6.1%. That works out to an average annual cable price increase from about $25 a month in 1995, to over $54 today -- a 100% price increase.

A stop sign

McCain says his bill would knock down the regulatory barriers to a la carte by freeing-up multichannel video programming distributors -- cable, satellite and others offering video services -- to offer any video programming service on an a la carte basis. If a cable operator doesn’t want to carry channels like MTV, it would have the option of not doing so and only buying, and carrying, the channels it thinks its consumers want to watch.

Another area the bill addresses is “sports blackout” rules that can limit the ability of subscribers to see sporting events when they take place in their local community but are not broadcast on a local station. The bill would repeal these rules insofar as they apply to events taking place in taxpayer-financed venues and/or involve a publicly financed local sports team.

“It’s time for us to help shift the landscape,” McClain concludes, “to benefit television consumers.”

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Outlook for electric cars remains hazy

The Tesla gets charged up but consumers remain skeptical

So, are electric cars the next big thing or are they doomed to be the playthings of gadgeteers and green consumers? As with many things, it depends what da...

Photo
Nissan Leaf

So, are electric and hybrid cars the next big thing or are they doomed to be the playthings of affluent gadgeteers and green consumers? As with many things, it depends what dataset you want to look at.

Look at the conflicting evidence from just the last few days:

  • Tesla amazed its critics, reporting a first-quarter profit of $11 million and upped its sales projections to 21,000 for the year;
  • Perhaps even more amazing, Consumer Reports gave the $90,000 Tesla S a score of 99 out of 100 -- the highest score it's ever given;
  • But Swapalease.com reported that Chevy Volt drivers are trying to get out of their leases after less than 12 months while Prius drivers are trying to escape their leases even earlier, after only 9 months;
  • An AAA survey finds that nearly 80% of American consumers say they are "unsure or unlikely" to buy an electric vehicle.  

It may be that the Tesla results are an exception to overall electric vehicle trends. The sleek, fast and expensive sedan has a range of up to 225 miles, about twice what other all-electric cars can achieve. Given its luxury status, it's likely it is not the only car for most of its purchasers.

Volt drivers bolt?

Photo
Dennis Dineen (left) displays the features of his Chevy Volt to environmental activist John Cross

The Chevrolet Volt, on the other hand is targeted to a mainstream market of middle-income buyers and is priced, after government rebates, to compete with the likes of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. It's also not a "pure" electric, since the Volt has a small gasoline engine that kicks in when the battery runs low, thus extending the car's range to match most gas-powered cars.

Nevertheless, Swapalease reports that the Volt is now regularly appearing in its transfer marketplace, as leasees seek to get out of their leases despite the enthusiastic reviews of drivers like Dennis Dineen, who in 2012 reported getting 203 miles per gallon in his Volt. Drivers are  listing the vehicle for an average of $384.86 in monthly payments. What’s more, drivers are listing their Volt leases for transfer just under 12 months into their 36-month lease term. 

In comparison, the Toyota Prius hybrid shows list prices averaging $432.00 monthly according to April data. Drivers are looking to escape their Prius leases even earlier, with the average Prius lease getting listed less than nine months into the contract.

“The falling gas prices may be having an effect on lease drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles,” said Scot Hall, Executive Vice President of Swapalease.com. “Most drivers look to exit their lease between 14-16 months into their lease, but we’re seeing a much shorter period for people exiting their Volt and Prius. The falling price of gas may be causing people to re-evaluate their decision to lease a hybrid or EV vehicle.”

No place to plug in

PhotoRapid adoption of all-electric vehicles has, of course, been hampered by the lack of charging stations. While cars can be charged overnight at the driver's home, consumers are still nervous about driving a car that has a range of only 100 or so miles. Just one unexpected errand or surprise detour can throw off even the most cautious driver's energy budget for the day, as Los Angeles Leaf owner Rob Eshman has learned.

This anxiety perhaps explains the AAA survey finding that 80% of Americans are unlikely to buy an electric car anytime soon, even though the  number of charging stations has increased 959% since the debut of the Nissan Leaf in 2010.

“There have been major advancements in electric vehicle technology and the supporting infrastructure,” said John Nielsen, AAA Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair, “However, it will take time and education for the general motoring public to understand just how far these vehicles have come, and recognize the many resources available to those who drive them.”

Modern EVs typically have a range of 60-100 miles, more than enough for the average driver’s daily commute which the U.S. Department of Transportation says is around 16 miles one way, Nielsen said. 

The AAA survey also finds many consumers citing the higher cost in general of an electric vehicle as a reason they would be unlikely to make such a purchase, although Nielsen says electric cars are actually cheaper to maintain.

Lower maintenance costs?

Toyota Prius May 10, 2013, 12:40 a.m.
Consumers rate Toyota Prius

“Battery improvements, increased competition, and economies of scale are all likely to drive down costs associated with buying an EV,” Nielsen continued. “With no need to change oil or filters and less brake system wear and tear, maintaining an EV is actually more affordable than a conventional vehicle.”

While that may be true of pure electric vehicles, it's not what some Toyota Prius owners have experienced.

"My battery on my 2007 Prius (134k miles) just died and it would cost $3,000 to replace," said Eric of Spring, Texas, in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "The dealer was shocked and said it was one of the few times he has seen this happen. Is that true or is this a more regular occurrence?"

Mike of San Francisco might take issue with AAA's assertion that oil changes and other regular maintenance are less costly and less frequent in electric vehicles.

" Most of the time, when I go to a dealership to get scheduled service, I wind up having to take about three hours out of my day. This is for an oil change and regular service. Given that I commute over 100 miles per day, this means that I have to do this every couple of months and it gets really annoying," Mike said. 

AAA says it's gearing up to support electric cars, developing specially equipped road service trucks that can charge an electric vehicle in about 15 minutes with enough energy for about 10 miles of driving.

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"Dr. Phil" producer sues Gawker Media

Deadspin gave away a show episode's ending

One of the producers of the “Dr. Phil” TV show has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against online media company Gawker Media, basically ...

PhotoOne of the producers of the “Dr. Phil” TV show has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against online media company Gawker Media, basically claiming Gawker's Deadspin blog acted as a spoiler.

Peteski Productions claims that Gawker’s sports blog Deadspin infringed Peteski’s copyright by airing parts of Dr. Phil’s interview with Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the man at the center of the scandal that humiliated Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o earlier this year.

Peteski, based in Texas, filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. The complaint, filed on Tuesday, says that Deadspin hatched “a pre-meditated plan to steal Peteski’s copyrighted material.”

Because Deadspin aired parts of the interview ahead of schedule, the suit alleges, the show attracted fewer viewers than it otherwise would have.

Interview came after Te’o “hoax”

The interview was explosive in and of itself. Tuiasosopo was the man who pretended to be Lennay Kekua, Te’o’s “girlfriend.” Kekua, who had supposedly died in September 2012, was often cited as a tragic part of Te’o’s personal background, and one that motivated him to throw all his effort into playing football.

Ironically, it was Deadspin that broke the news that Kekua didn’t actually exist, and was instead an elaborate “hoax” perpetuated by Tuiasosopo. The article, published on January 16, 2013, was entitled “Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax.”

After Deadspin discovered that Kekua never existed, Te’o said that he had “developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online.”

Gave away the ending

The interview with Tuiasosopo was aired in two sections -- one on January 31, 2013, and the next on February 1. The January 31 show ended with a suggestion that Tuiasosopo might, on the following show, use the same voice that he used when he pretended to be Kekua. The cliffhanger was ruined, the suit alleges, by the fact that Deadspin had already posted the footage on its site.

“Although the second show was expected to exceed the ratings number of the first show, in fact, the ratings declined substantially because the result of the 'cliffhanger' was no longer in doubt. It had been misappropriated by Deadspin,” the complaint alleges.

“Gawker deliberately set out to get 'the jump' on the rest of the country and 'scoop' Dr. Phil with his own content. They did not earn that right, they stole it.”

Peteski is seeking an injunction preventing Gawker from using additional copyrighted material from the “Dr. Phil” show, as well as damages.

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Once-a-day pill relieves ragweed allergy symptoms

You may be able to get away from the antihistamines and nasal steroids

If you talk to people with allergies (full disclosure: I'm allergic to pretty much everything), they'll tell you that this is pretty much the worst year th...

PhotoIf you talk to people with allergies (full disclosure: I'm allergic to pretty much everything), they'll tell you that this is just about the worst year they've ever seen when it comes to sneezing, itching eyes and the like.

But there is hope for sufferers.

According to an international team of researchers, led by physician-scientists at Johns Hopkins, a pill you only have to take once each day blocks the runny noses, sneezes, nasal congestion and itchy eyes that plagues ragweed allergy sufferers.

Help for the millions

Tests showed that treatment with the pill, which contains the protein Ambrosia artemisiifolia major allergen 1, and is placed under the tongue to be absorbed, reduced the need for anti-allergy drugs to get relief. That's good news for the more than 80 million people in the U.S. who are allergic to ragweed.

The study is believed to be the first and largest trial of its kind to investigate the use of sublingual immunotherapy against ragweed allergy. Begun in April 2010, it was funded by the drug's manufacturer, Merck of Whitehouse Station, N.J.

Solid results

Results of the trial, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, showed that overall symptoms and need for such allergy medications as antihistamines and nasal steroids fell by 27 percent in people who took a pill containing 12 units of the allergen. During peak ragweed season, the roughly two-week period between August and October when pollen counts are highest, symptoms and medication use dropped 24 percent.

Nearly 800 people from the United States, Canada, Hungary, Russia and the Ukraine took part in the year-long study, in which they were randomly assigned to take either a high-, medium-, or low-dose tablet, or placebo.

Neither researchers nor study participants were aware of which dose of the pill or placebo they were taking. Patients kept track of their symptoms and medication use through detailed and daily diaries, which were later scored by researchers for analysis.

Researchers say that if the pill wins approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it could serve as a more convenient, less painful option than weekly or monthly allergy shots. There also are fewer potential side effects than allergen injections.

"Our results show this oral tablet for ragweed allergy is highly effective and well-tolerated, and offers considerable relief from what many allergy sufferers consider the most agonizing part of the year," says allergist and lead study investigator Peter Creticos, M.D.

Alternative treatment

"Physicians treating ragweed allergy sufferers may soon have an alternative to the current approach to managing ragweed allergy, which usually involves weekly or monthly visits to the doctor's office for allergy shots and carries the risk of swelling and pain at the injection site, plus risk of anaphylactic shock," says Creticos, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Creticos says no adverse events occurred during the study -- that the only side effects observed were mild throat irritation, itchy tongue and swollen lips.

Creticos says his team is also looking into other non-injectible forms of immunotherapy, including ragweed allergy drops, and treatment applications where the allergen is lightly pricked or inserted into the middle layers of the skin.

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Senator rocks the boat on cruise line safety

Asks cruise lines for increased commitment to passenger comfort and safety

Most pleasure cruises are filled with pleasure but some aren't. In recent months cruise lines have made news with accidents and mishaps.In February fire...

PhotoMost pleasure cruises are filled with pleasure but some aren't. In recent months cruise lines have made news with accidents and mishaps.

In February fire struck the Carnival cruise ship Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving it largely without power or flushing toilets as the ship was slowly towed to port.

Ed, of Jonesboro, Ga., says he experienced similar unpleasantness in March aboard Carnival's Dream.

"I got stranded in St. Maarten -- no toilets, elevators, stagnated air and terrible service," Ed writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I contacted them about the problems I have had and the lady said 'tough luck, if you're not happy go somewhere else.'"

Taking notice

All of this has caught the attention of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Rockefeller has fired off letters to the CEOs of the three largest cruise line companies operating from U.S. ports, requesting information about passenger safety.

“The cruise industry enjoys many advantages operating out of the United States but the advantages to American consumers and taxpayers are less clear,” said Rockefeller. “Recent cruise ship incidents underscore the need for a strong commitment to passenger safety and security from the entire cruise industry, not just those that wind up on the news most frequently."

Rockefeller is getting support for his accountability push from a major maritime group. The American Maritime Officers Association (AMO), a merchant marine union, praised the senator for calling attention to safety issues.

Foreign officers and crews

Photo"Although the best-known cruise lines are publicly-traded U.S. corporations, these companies register their ships to foreign nations and, rather than employ American officers, the vast majority of captains, deck and engineering officers are from other countries," said AMO President Tom Bethel.

Bethel said these crewmen are paid less and have fewer benefits than American officers and crew, suggesting it saves the cruise lines money but leads to poorer job performance.

"As Senator Rockefeller detailed in his letter, since the deadly grounding and partial sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship (off the coast of Italy) in January 2012, there has been a rising tide of marine mishaps involving cargo and passenger vessel collisions, life boat drill fatalities, sanitary system breakdowns, steering failures, propulsion problems and engine room fires, all of which underscores the need for increased safety, emergency response, navigational and engineer training – training that all AMO members have," Bethel said.

Bethel says none of the recent nautical mishaps involved AMO-member officers or American-flagged ships. Bethel also raised the specter of the Titanic disaster, claiming that some modern-day cruise ships fail to carry the required number of lifeboats, an omission that doomed 1,500 passengers on the ill-fated liner 101 years ago.

Avoiding U.S. taxes

Rockefeller sent letters to the heads of Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival cruise lines. In the letters, he noted that many cruise ships are registered in foreign countries but benefit from access to American ports, waters and consumers.

"This means companies enjoy substantial support from U.S. government agencies; they avoid paying U.S. corporate income tax under a loophole exempting foreign-incorporated shipping companies; and many members of the cruise workforce are beyond the reach of basic labor standards available under U.S. law," he writes.

Rockefeller said he's looking forward to the responses from the cruise industry since they will help Congress improve rules to provide passengers with safe and comfortable cruising experiences.

The senator, who is not seeking another term, has made cruise ship safety and performance a major issue. He has pressed Carnival to reimburse the Coast Guard for the cost of the February rescue of Triumph and held hearings last year on cruise ship regulations.

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Helping your kids learn about money

There are lots of resources to aid financial literacy

What do sex and financial literacy have in common? Parents rarely talk about either of them with their children. But while sex education is now the norm in...

What do sex and financial literacy have in common? Parents rarely talk about either of them with their children. But while sex education is now the norm in schools, many kids remain in the dark about money matters.

"It would be great if school started offering some kind of financial class for students," said Jeff Hindenach, director of content for NextAdvisor.com. "Something that we advocate is parents talking to their kids about credit at an early age. In my research I found an interesting statistic showing 60 percent of parents would rather talk to their children about sex that talk about money."

A child who grows up understanding money and the responsible use of it will not only be a more savvy consumer, they are less likely to get over-extended on debt, like credit cards and college loans. And while most schools have yet to jump on the financial literacy bandwagon, plenty of other organizations have, offering games, curriculum guides and suggestions for parents and teachers who want to help give kids a solid financial foundation.

Practical understanding of money

TheMint.org is an organization with the goal of helping parents impart a real and practical understanding of money to their children. It's advice? Start with the basics and make it fun. Focus on saving, investing, debt and risk.

For example, if you are in the habit of giving your child money every time they ask for it, cut it out. Instead, give them a regular allowance for them to manage. When it's gone, don't give them any more money until next allowance day. It's a simple, practical way for children to learn how to manage money and the consequences of over-spending.

The real mint -- the U.S. Mint -- also has a program for financial literacy. Aimed at teachers, it offers lesson plans centered around money, such as "Do you like to spend or save?" "Common Cents" is a first and second grade lesson plan that uses money to teach math. Using coins, children learn to add and subtract.

Turnkey financial education solutions

The National Financial Educators Council  is a financial literacy resource provider that delivers turnkey financial education solutions. It provides education packages for students, from pre-kindergarten through college.

Jump$tart is a coalition of financial literacy education advocates and providers. It offers a number of resources, including Jump$tart Clearinghouse an online library of financial literacy material, including lessons and games that can be downloaded for free.

Among the resources is AdMongo, an online video game produced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). It teaches students about advertisements, what marketers are saying in their ads and what they ultimately want from the consumer. In short, it's a resource to help young consumers understand and resist Madison Avenue's slickest pitches. 

Monopoly Jr.

Toymaker Hasbro has produced a kids' version of the popular board game Monopoly, called Monopoly Jr. It's a faster version of the adult game but still has the math and money-management requirements of the adult version.

A recent study suggests American parents have a long way to go in helping their children get a grasp on money issues. The survey, conducted for the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) by Harris Interactive, found that 61 percent of parents give their children a generous allowance but only one percent say their kids save any of their money.

“As parents, we feel a strong commitment to our children and ensuring they have all that they need to succeed,” said Jordan Amin, CPA, chair of the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. “One of the best gifts we can give them is a solid education on managing money.”

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License plate readers raise privacy concerns

Police departments stiff-arm requests for information on how they use the data

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have filed suit against the Los Angeles Po...

PhotoThe American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have filed suit against the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, alleging that the departments are withholding data gathered from license-plate readers.

The plate readers are described by the ACLU of Southern California  as “sophisticated camera systems mounted on squad cars and telephone poles that read license plates and record the time, date, and location a particular car was encountered.”

The readers, which can record up to 14,000 license plates per session, are intended to help locate stolen cars. However, the ACLU/SC says that the readers “keep information on every car — even where there’s no reason to think the car is connected to any crime.”

Data not provided

According to the ACLU/SC, the organization previously filed requests with the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department requesting one week’s worth of data collected last year, along with documents detailing plate-reader training. The organization says that the agencies failed to produce the  data, and also have not handed over data on information they shared with outside agencies.

“Location-based information like license plate data can be very revealing,” EFF attorney Jennifer Lynch said an ACLU press release.  “By matching your car to a particular time, date and location, and then building a database of that information over time, law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are. The public needs access to the data the police actually collected to be able to make informed decisions about how ALPR systems can and can’t be used.”

Many requests, not much response

Last July, ACLU affiliates in 38 states, as well as Washington, D.C., requested information on how license plate readers were used by various police departments and other agencies. The ACLU also filed Freedom of Information Act (or “FOIL”) requests with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, and Department of Justice regarding their use of license plate readers.

In a press release announcing those requests, the ACLU asserted that “[t]he biggest problem with [license plate reader] systems is the creation of databases with location information on every motorist who encounters the system, not just those whom the government suspects of criminal activity.”

As license plate location data accumulates, the system ceases to be simply a mechanism enabling efficient police work and becomes a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people,” the release said.

Becoming more common

License plate readers join red-light cameras, speeding cameras, and surveillance video on the list of automated, sometimes eerie technology purportedly used to deter crime and track down criminal suspects. And the technology is becoming more commonplace; an ACLU blog post from January 2013 reveals that a 2011 survey showed that 71 percent of agencies that responded had plate-reading technology.

Even more eye-popping, the “survey found that almost every police agency expects to acquire or increase their use of LPRs in coming years, and that five years from now, on average they expect to have 25 percent of their cars equipped with LPRs,” and that “[a] large majority of agencies (85 percent) plan to acquire or increase their use of LPRs during the next five years.”

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Want to cut your risk of heart disease? Get a dog

Man's best friend -- or any pet -- could make a difference

The meds are great, but you can't take a pill for a walk. A pet, on the other hand, is a whole different matter -- and it could make a big difference in yo...

PhotoThe meds are great, but you can't take a pill for a walk. A pet, on the other hand, is a whole different matter -- and it could make a big difference in your physical well being

According to a new American Heart Association scientific statement, published in the association's journal Circulation, having a pet might lower your risk of heart disease.

"Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease" said Glenn N. Levine, M.D., professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and chair of the committee that wrote the statement after reviewing previous studies of the influence of pets.

Still some questions

Pet ownership is probably associated with a reduction in heart disease risk factors and increased survival among patients. But the studies aren't definitive and do not necessarily prove that owning a pet directly causes a reduction in heart disease risk. "It may be simply that healthier people are the ones that have pets, not that having a pet actually leads to or causes reduction in cardiovascular risk," Levine said.

Dog ownership in particular may help reduce cardiovascular risk. People with dogs may engage in more physical activity because they walk them. A study of more than 5,200 adults showed dog owners walked more and were generally more physically activity than non-dog owners. They were also 54% more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity.

Research also shows that owning pets may be associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of obesity and can have a positive effect on the body's reactions to stress.

"In essence, data suggest that there probably is an association between pet ownership and decreased cardiovascular risk," Levine said. "What's less clear is whether the act of adopting or acquiring a pet could lead to a reduction in cardiovascular risk in those with pre-existing disease. Further research, including better quality studies, is needed to more definitively answer this question."

Even with a likely link, Levine said, people shouldn't adopt, rescue or buy a pet solely to reduce cardiovascular risk.

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How much is your home contributing to your bad diet?

Researchers at Wexner Medical Center are trying to find out.

When it comes to being fit and remaining healthy, a consistent level of exercise and proper diet are needed.But researchers say most people don't think a...

PhotoWhen it comes to being fit and remaining healthy, a consistent level of exercise and proper diet is needed. But researchers say most people don't think about how their home affects their health. 

Charles Emery, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, is leading a study on the link between a person's home and their health and said the study is the first of its kind.

"We're really trying to create a picture of what that home environment is in relation to food," he said. 

"There have been a number of studies that have looked at the more cognitive aspects of food choices and eating. But no one to date has looked closely at the home environment that people create for themselves and how that may be related to food availability and food choices," Emery said.

The study will take several weeks and researchers will take a look at 100 homes to see what kinds of foods are in the cabinets and see how each home is set up.

In addition, researchers will look at how food is stored, how easily accessible it is throughout the home and where it's usually eaten.

They'll document each participant's height, weight, cholesterol and stress levels as well.

Making healthy choices

By the end of the study, Emery and his team hope to determine how much the overall set-up of a person's house affects their health each day.

PhotoIt's safe to say that most people believe it's harder to make healthier food choices when they eat out, but Emery says it's just as hard to make healthy food choices at home.

"For example, the environment may be more compact in homes where people are making less healthy choices," he says. "And part of that is reinforced by our society. We're always being told to find the easiest and quickest way to do something and yet in terms of our health and well-being, that may not always be the best route to take." 

Each participant will be involved in the study for two weeks and a researcher will interview each person for 2 1/2 hours.

In the interview, researchers will ask about each person's usual food choices and how much exercise they get. Additionally, each participant will undergo a health screening and have their blood sugar measured. 

Researchers will even take photographs of how food is stored in each home and ask all the participants to keep their food receipts.

Emery says he wants to gather all of this information and determine how much one's life at home relates to their health choices. Emery and his team will see how much a person's stress level relates to their health too.

"We want to be able to look at the degree to which stress may be a factor influencing people's food choices or influencing their health outcomes related to food," he said. "I'm also interested in relating all of this to psychological factors. Participants will be asked to complete questionnaires that assess stress and distress, depression, anxiety, quality of life and social support."

At the end of the study each participant will receive a report that tells that person how their home, the homes' setup and their overall life choices affect their health.

Scientists will let each person know how their health matches up to average health statistics as well.

Another set of eyes

Photo
Charles Emery

Monique Payne is one of the participants in the study and she said it was good to have one of the researchers in her home, because it gave her another set of eyes to tell her how she was doing.

"It was funny to see it through her eyes, versus just my eyes," Payne said  about one of the researchers. "She would observe things differently than I did. So it's more than just what you have in the house, but how do you get to it."

Emery says he and his team will look at many places throughout the home to see how they contribute to each person's health.

"We'll look not just at distances from one place to another but also architectural features that may influence a person's perspective on distance. The number of doorways and steps may be influential in the way people perceive and use their home space."   

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Toro recalls Zero Turn riding mowers

The idler pulley can rub against the mower's fuel tank, posing a fire hazard

The Toro Co., of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 37,000 Z Master Riding Mowers (about 2,600 units were previously recalled in the U.S. and 30 in Can...

PhotoThe Toro Co., of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 37,000 Z Master Riding Mowers (about 2,600 units were previously recalled in November 2012).

The idler pulley can rub against the mower's fuel tank, posing a fire hazard. Toro has received six reports of incidents. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 2012 and 2013 Toro Z Master Commercial 2000 Series ZRT riding mowers. The mowers are red and black. "Toro" and "2000 Series" are printed on the side and "Z Master Commercial" on the front of the mowers. When viewed from the operator's seat, the model and serial numbers are on a metal plate located at the front of the mower, below the seat, on the right-hand side.

The following models and corresponding serial numbers are included in this recall:

  • model number 74141 with serial numbers ranging from 312000101 to 312000784 and 313000101 to 313000364;
  • model number 74143 with serial numbers ranging from 312000101 to 312000881 and 313000101 to 313000432; and
  • model number 74145 with serial numbers ranging from 312000101 to 312001178 and 313000101 to 313000443.

The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Toro dealers nationwide from January 2012, through April 2013, for between $7,700 and $8,700.

Consumers should stop using the recalled mowers immediately and contact a Toro dealer to schedule a free repair and/or to check if the repair has already been made to the mower. Toro has contacted registered owners of the recalled mowers.

Consumers may contact Toro toll-free at (855) 493-0090, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Safety advocates urge Congress to regulate the size of trucks

Trucks have been causing a lot of injuries and deaths on U.S. highways, safety advocates say

When driving on U.S. highways, there aren't many things that can distract you like a semi-trailer truck.No matter how big or small your vehicle is drivin...

PhotoWhen driving on U.S. highways, there are few things that can distract you like a big semi-trailer truck. No matter how big or small your vehicle is, driving next to an 18-wheeler can make you feel tiny -- like you're being swallowed by it.

And trucks don't just make some people feel uncomfortable, they can pose serious dangers too.

Trucking tragedy

Just ask Wanda Lindsay of Texas, who lost her husband John after he  was rear-ended by a truck. She says the driver had sleep apnea, but was allowed to drive the truck anyway.

"Truck drivers are allowed to work 11 hours a shift behind the wheel so it is no wonder that nearly half of truck drivers admit they have fallen asleep while driving," said Wanda in a statement. "Last year, legislation requiring electronic logging devices in trucks passed Congress. I call on the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue the final rule for these lifesaving devices."

Lindsay, of New Braunsfel, Texas, was one of the speakers at a Capitol Hill news conference sponsored by the Truck Safety Coalition (TSC), a safety advocacy group. She tells her story in this video, supplied by TSC:

A call for better regulation 

According to a national poll put together by Lake Research Partners and released by the TSC, a good number of U.S. taxpayers want the government to do a better job when it comes to regulating the size of today's trucks.

Results show that 68% of people are opposed to heavier trucks being on the road and 47% are strongly opposed. In addition, 88% of Americans said they don't want to pay higher taxes for damages caused by heavier trucks.

Photo
TSC photo

Joan Claybrook, chairwoman of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), says heavy trucks are causing a growing number of injuries and deaths.

"Every year more than 4,000 people are slaughtered on our nation's highways while corporate trucking and shipping interests continue to push Congress for heavier trucks," said Claybrook, the retired head of Public Citizen and former administration of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Heavy trucks are deadly, dangerous and destructive. Families are paying with their lives and with their wallets."

According to the TSC, the 15 states that had the most truck crash fatalities in 2011 were: North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, New Mexico, Kansas, Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Iowa, South Carolina, West Virginia and Georgia.

Emphasis on safety lacking

Pina Arrington of South Carolina, who lost her husband in a truck crash, says the entire trucking industry seems to be putting dollars over safety.

"What happened to my husband was not an accident," she said. "The unacceptably high numbers of truck crash deaths like Scott's are the result of bad actors in an industry choosing profit over safety, and adding more size and weight to trucks will only result in greater loss of life."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) sponsored the Safe Highways and Infrastructure Preservation Act (SHIPA), which if enacted would place tighter restrictions on  trucks, including weight and size limits. In addition, SHIPA would pull the trucks that are currently overweight off the roads.

Raising the insurance bar

PhotoAnother thing safety advocates want to do is raise the minimum insurance level for trucks.

Kate Brown of Gurnee, Ill. has a son who was permanently injured by a truck crash, and the truck company that was responsible couldn't pay off the high medical costs.

"My son Graham was hit by a drunk and drugged truck driver in 2005 and 22 surgeries later he is permanently partially disabled," said Kate. "In the first three years after the crash, Graham's health care costs exceeded $1.3 million and exhausted the truck company's insurance policy."

"Trucks have gotten bigger and inflation has gone up, but the minimum amount of insurance coverage required for trucks has remained the same for the past 30 years," she explains. "Congress must resist the corporate trucking and shipping interest's push for bigger, heavier trucks, and they must increase the minimum insurance level for trucks."

Vickie Johnson of Georgia, who lost her husband and step-daughter in a truck crash agrees and says government officials have to do a far better job of making sure trucks aren't getting bigger and heavier.

"Families like mine get torn apart by big trucks every day," she said. "Three in my family survived, but I don't know if any of us would have if the truck that hit us was significantly heavier. It is bad enough that truck crash fatalities are on the rise; truck size and weight increases will only make matters worse." 

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Consumers are finding good alternatives to banks

Innovative companies have filled the gap left by bank practices

Four years ago, when banks were in the midst of the Great Recession, many ofthem changed the way they do business. The result was not so good for consumers...

PhotoFour years ago, when banks were in the midst of the Great Recession, many of them changed the way they do business. The result was not so good for consumers.

Checking accounts cost more and were harder for some consumers to get. There were more fees, higher fees and higher minimum balance requirements. The message to consumers seemed to be, “see if you can find an alternative.”

With so many consumers in play, the market has responded with alternatives to checking accounts, mobile banking and loans. Today there are, in fact, alterntives to doing business with a bank. The main alternative to a checking account to emerge in the last few years is the prepaid debit card.

“They can be good for people who have trouble keeping their spending in check, said Lisa Gerstner, who covers banking issues for Kiplinger. “Usually you can't overdraw your prepaid card. There's also a lot to watch out for with prepaid cards.”

Watch out for fees

PhotoThe main thing to watch out for is fees. Some prepaid cards, especially the ones that have been around a long time, are really heavy on fees. There's a monthly service charge and fees for different types of transactions.

But some of the newer cards are more consumer-friendly with fewer and lower fees, making them an attractive alternative to a bank. Gerstner recommends the Bluebird Card from American Express and Walmart.

“It's low on fees,” she said. “You can do a lot with it, like direct deposit your paycheck, pay bills on line, things like that.”

In spite of their fees, prepaid cards pioneered some consumer-friendly features that banks ignored until recently. For example, if you made a debit card purchase that overdrew your account, the bank would let the purchase go through, then assess you a $30 fee for the overdraft. It wasn't uncommon for consumers to pile up $150 in overdraft fees on a single shopping trip.

Nice features

Most prepaid cards have always had a policy of denying the transaction if you had insufficient funds on the card. Some even send the user an email after every purchase, showing the new balance on the card. And the Bluebird Card recently added the same FDIC protection banks provide. The secret to prepaid cards is to research how each card works and total up the fees.

“You should definitely look at the fees and find a card that's good for you,” Gerstner said. It's probably best to do that online, rather than buying a card off the rack in a store.

More people prefer to manage their financial services on the go and a savvy bank, Bancorp Bank, is taking full advantage with its Simple service. Simple is a smartphone app in which the bank remains mostly invisible. You get a debit card, direct deposit and the other trappings of a bank account, but aren't saddled with monthly service and overdraft fees.

Anti-bank sentiment

“I think they're really trying to tap into this anti-bank sentiment that's going on,” Gerstner said. “They make a point that they're really light on fees. People who are mobile and really tech savvy are more likely to be interested.”

Since the banking crisis of 2009 banks have been less likely to lend money. That's led to the creation of several peer-to-peer lending sites that match up creditworthy borrowers with people looking for a good return on their investment.

PhotoLending Club is one such site. Borrowers can get money for three to five years at rates below seven percent. Prosper.com operates on a similar business model.

“They're interesting on both sides of the equation because, as a borrower you go there to see if you can get credit,” Gerstner said. “I talked to two or three people who were able to get loans from these sites and they had stories about how they were able to get a better rate or get credit they couldn't have gotten from a bank.”

Win-win

On the other hand, people who are starved for yield on their money are looking at investing in those loans and sometimes getting returns in the double-digits. It can often be a win-win proposition.

Do banks care that they are losing business to these upstart alternatives? Some may but others might not. And Gerstner says consumers shouldn't give up on banks entirely.

“I don't think banks are going away and you can still find good deals if you'll willing to look at more local and Internet options,” she said.

But it's nice to know there are starting to be some alternatives.  

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Wrigley pulls its Alert caffeinated gum under FDA pressure

The company says the move is temporary pending further FDA action

Bowing to FDA pressure, Wrigley is suspending production of its new Alert caffeinated gum but insists the suspension is only temporary.The Food and Drug ...

PhotoBowing to FDA pressure, Wrigley is suspending production of its new Alert caffeinated gum but insists the suspension is only temporary.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expressed concerns about the addition of caffeine to gum, energy drinks and other food and snacks that are attractive to children.

In a statement yesterday, Wrigley said it had gained a "greater appreciation for [the FDA's] concern about the proliferation of caffeine in the nation's food supply" and would withdraw the gum pending further action by the FDA.

"There is a need for changes in the regulatory framework to better guide the consumers and the industry about the appropriate level and use of caffeinated products," Wrigley North America President Casey Keller said.

The FDA has been under pressure from lawmakers to get a tighter grip on caffeine-laden drinks and snacks.

"Consuming large quantities of caffeine can have serious health consequences, including caffeine toxicity, stroke, anxiety, arrhythmia, and in some cases death," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) 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.

"FDA is taking a fresh look at the potential impact that the totality of new and easy sources of caffeine may have on the health of children and adolescents, and if necessary, will take appropriate action," the agency said last week.

"Tasted horrible"

In its defense, Wrigley said early on that the gum had a somewhat bitter taste that would dissuade adolescent from abusing it, a contention our Daryl Nelson found to be something of an understatement.

"I must say, right off the bat, the gum tasted horrible," Nelson said in his review. "Within the first couple of chews, I was instantly hit with an intensely bitter flavor that seemed to be part stale cup of black coffee, part licorice. The two flavors definitely didn't make for a winning taste combination."

Believe it or not, the chewing gum business isn't what it used to be. Sales have been suffering as consumers increasingly lug around bottles of water, juice and energy drinks as though they were setting off an a Saharan trek.

Snack bars may also be elbowing gum out of consumers' pockets.

Earlier this week, Mondelez International, whose gum line-up includes Trident, said it would start emphasizing function over taste, Advertising Age reported, promoting the oral and dental health benefits of chewing gum. 

"We are not counting on a significant turnaround in gum this year," Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld told analysts, according to the trade magazine. "But let me assure you we are not sitting idly by and accepting these trends."

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Breakfast for kids and academic performance: A closer look

Researchers delve deeper to find the true link between hunger and academic achievement.

Through past studies, many of us have probably heard that it's hard for children to pay attention in school without eating breakfast, but now a team of res...

PhotoMany people probably know that it's hard for children to pay attention in school without eating breakfast. But now a team of researchers has found out why that is.

Researchers from Ohio State University took brain scans of students and found those who ate a nutritious breakfast and were physically active every day achieved higher test scores and had more focus in class.

"Hungry kids can't learn and we've known that for a long time," said Ohio State Professor Bob Murray, M.D. "But now we know why they are not learning and what areas of the brain are really hindering that."

The skippers

According to statistics, 62% of teenagers skip breakfast once a week.

And based on figures released by The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academic Success Through Healthy School Environments, only 38% of teens eat breakfast every day.

Unfortunately, many schools don't offer breakfast because of budgetary cutbacks, but Duke Storen, director of Partner Impact at Share Our Strength says it's still the school's responsibility to provide certain meals.

Storen believes schools providing breakfast not only help kids in the classroom, but it will help them in adulthood as well.

"Schools play a critical role in ending childhood hunger by connecting kids with healthy meals that do much more than provide essential nutrition. They improve a student's ability to focus and thrive in the classroom," said Storen.

"For example, research shows that the seemingly simple act of ensuring that children get school breakfast offers the potential for students to experience greater academic achievement, increased job readiness and ultimately more economic prosperity for our nation. Stronger, better nourished kids mean a stronger America," he said.

The evidence

Share Our Strength revealed these statistics:

  • Kids who regularly ate breakfast attended school 1.5 more days than kids who didn't. And children who ate breakfast every morning scored 17.5% higher than children who didn't.
  • In a recent case study, researchers learned there are about 81,000 low-income elementary and middle school students in Maryland who receive lunch at school -- but not breakfast.
  • According to estimates, if Maryland schools gave breakfast to 70% of  these kids, 56,000 additional students could achieve math proficiency and 14,000 more students would graduate high school. And schools would see 84,890 fewer absences among students as well.

Physical activity a factor

PhotoBut it's not just missing breakfast that causes students to lose focus. Missing recess is a part of it, too.

According to figures released by the National Center for Education Statistics, 7% of first-graders and 8% of third-graders never had recess.

In addition, 14% of first-graders and 15% of third graders had recess for only one to 15 minutes a day. And 20% of U.S. school systems have decreased recess time by an average of 50 minutes per week.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says teachers shouldn't take away recess for disciplinary reasons, because it's just too important.

"Recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child's development,"  said the Academy in a statement. "It should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons."

Sara Burie, an Exercise Physiologist at St. Mary's Hospital in Wisconsin says recess might be the only exercise kids are getting these days.

"I think that if you take away that recess, that's all the exercise activity they're going to get, especially with all the technology," she said in an interview with a local news outlet. "Kids especially just don't move anymore."

Cooperative effort

Recently, several organizations including the American Dairy Association Mideast and Ohio Action for Healthy Kids, hosted a statewide summit to discuss the link between nutrition, recess and academic performance.

Among the speakers was Audrey Rowe from the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service. Rowe said the USDA is doing its part to make sure more kids are getting healthy meals at school.

"USDA is focused on improving childhood nutrition through healthier school meals and greater access to school breakfast and summer meals," she said. "Through the leadership and hard work of Ohio Action for Healthy Kids, the American Dairy Association Mideast, Children's Hunger Alliance and our other dedicated partners, we are beginning to see progress and improvements in the health of our nation's children, ensuring that America's next generation is healthy, well-nourished and able to achieve great things."

According to a separate 2011 study, 17 million children in the U.S. don't have access to nutritious food, which is one child out of every four.

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Tips on choosing an engagement ring

A good decision gets things off on the right foot

You're working up your courage to pop the question. Presenting just the right engagement ring during the proposal can't hurt your chances.But as we've pr...

PhotoYou're working up your courage to pop the question. Presenting just the right engagement ring during the proposal can't hurt your chances.

But as we've previously reported, buying jewelry can be a complicated and intimidating process. When the rest of your life may be riding on your purchase, it is even more so.

First, know your terminology. When you talk with a sale representative, he or she will use various terms to describe aspects of the ring. You need to know what they are and their importance to your ultimate decision.

The band is just what you think it is – the round part of the ring, made from a precious metal like gold, silver or platinum, that slides on the finger. Color is one of your choices. Gold can either come in the yellowish color of its natural state or white gold, which is a gold alloy that is normally coated with another metal to give it a silver color.

Plating doesn't last forever

Keep in mind that plating wears off and replating must be done from time to time. Both platinum and silver have a silvery color naturally. The band you choose will affect the color of the diamond. but before you get to the stone you need to consider the setting.

The setting refers to the piece that holds the diamond in place. As you can imagine, it's a very important part of the ring.

“I have had my two-piece wedding ring set for 11 years now,” Lisa of Belvedere, Ill., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "I have had to have the prongs tightened on a regular basis and I even lost the diamond once. My diamond was loose again so I took it in again. The company said they could not tighten it and that I needed to replace the entire head which will be $210.”

Lisa's experience underscores the need to get a good, strong setting to start with. Jewelry experts say platinum works well, and combining a platinum setting with a gold band can provide a nice contrast. Usually, the more prongs holding the diamond in place, the better. A ring with a strong, durable setting will give the wearer added peace of mind through decades of use. And jewelry artisans are quite adept at combining durability and beauty.

The third part of the ring is the stone – in the case of an engagement ring it's usually a diamond. Keep in mind that bigger isn't always better. Diamonds are valued more for the quality of their cut than their size. While a huge rock might look impressive on her finger, people who really know jewelry will be more impressed by a perfectly cut smaller stone.

Look for sparkle

You can usually tell a nicely cut diamond by the way it sparkles. Place it next to a larger stone and see which one appears brighter.

Diamonds are measured in carats, which is not to be confused with karats – a term that measures the purity of gold. Carat refers to the weight of a diamond and the larger the number, the bigger the stone.

You'll also hear a reference to clarity. Clarity in a diamond describes the appearance of internal characteristics called inclusions and surface defects called blemishes. The fewer inclusions and blemishes, the better the clarity.

A perfect diamond is transparent but in the real world, all diamonds have some color, attributable to chemical impurities or structural defects. White diamonds tend to be valued less while those with a pink or blue tint can be very expensive. The color of the stone should play a role when you select the band and the setting, so that they go together in harmony and don't clash.

The diamond's cut doesn't refer to its shape but rather its symmetry. A diamond cutter will select a cut that takes advantage of the stone's material properties. An expertly cut diamond will be brighter. If the stone is poorly cut it might appear dull.

The four Cs

Together, carat, clarity, color and cut are known as “the four Cs” of diamonds and are things to consider when choosing a ring.

Where you buy the ring is also important. Jewelry store chains sell lots of engagement rings but some of the individual stores may be better than others. Mariana, of Washington, DC, writes that her fiance expressly ordered a platinum band for her engagement ring at Zales.

“However, a professional, independent appraisal revealed that the ring was actually white gold, not palladium,” Mariana writes. “I contacted Zales to see what they would do to fix it. They offered to get the original in palladium or upgrade to platinum. That sounded good, but after the jeweler told them he couldn't do it in palladium, Zales said my only option was to allow the jeweler to choose a different ring with a cathedral setting and reset the ring in that setting.”

To avoid unpleasant surprises, ask friends who have purchased jewelry which store they would recommend. Also, read online reviews at sites like ConsumerAffairs.

Finally, try to make sure the ring fits. If possible, take one of her rings and trace the outline of the inside of the band on a piece of paper. If you give the paper to a jeweler, he or she will be able to determine the proper size.

True, a ring that doesn't fit can be resized, but having to do that can dampen the big moment. The perfect ring she can slip on her finger and wear forever can help you seal the deal.

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Tesla gets best-ever rating from Consumer Reports

The magazine gives the $90,000 all-electric car a score of 99 out of 100

Things have been looking up for Tesla the last few days. The expensive all-electric luxury carmaker reported its first profitable quarter yesterday. But pe...

PhotoThings have been looking up for Tesla the last few days. The expensive all-electric luxury carmaker reported its first profitable quarter yesterday. But perhaps more surprising is that Consumer Reports magazine has given the Tesla Model S the highest score it's ever awarded a car -- 99 out of 100.

"The Tesla Model S takes everything you know about cars and stands it on its head," the magazine said. "It's a very agile, super-quick electric luxury sedan (with a hatchback!) that seats seven and gets the equivalent of 84 mpg."

While it's true that, like other all-electric cars, the Tesla S has a range limited by its battery. But the CR editors found that with the optional 85 kWh battery, the Tesla S can go between 180 and 225 miles on a charge, depending on the weather, about twice as far as any other electric car.

"Performance all-around is exceptional, with short stops, a superb ride, and an eerily hushed cabin. Almost all controls are done through a quick and capable iPad-like center screen," the magazine gushed, calling it "truly a remarkable car."

You night find it remarkable that anyone would give an almost-perfect score to a car that at best will go 225 miles without pausing for five hours or more to recharge. But when you consider the thing also costs $89,650, it's even more surprising.

Sales spurt

But it's not only CR's editors who are gaga over the car. Consumers like it too. Sales have been steadily rising and the company says it now expects to deliver 21,000 cars in 2013, up from a previous target of 20,000.

While you still might not want to invest $90,000 in a Tesla, investors have been rushing to buy the company's stock following yesterday's report of a first-quarter profit of $11 million on revenue of $562 million. The company's stock price was at $66.81 late this morning, up about 20%.

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Strong April jobs report pushes mortgage rates higher

Both Freddie Mac and Bankrate are reporting increases

Average fixed mortgage rates as tracked by Freddie Mac and Bankrate pushed higher this week, thanks largely to April's better than expected employment repo...

PhotoAverage fixed mortgage rates as tracked by Freddie Mac and Bankrate pushed higher this week, thanks largely to April's better than expected employment report.

Freddie Mac says its Primary Mortgage Market Survey  shows fixed rates reversed their recent trend and moved higher for the first time in six weeks.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 3.42% with an average 0.7 point for the week ending May 9, 2013 -- an increase of seven basis points from last week. At this time last year it averaged 3.83%.

The average for the 15-year FRM averaged 2.61% with an average 0.7 point. Last week, it averaged 2.56% and a year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.05%.

Five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.58% this week with an average 0.5 point -- up from last week when it averaged 2.56%. The 5-year ARM averaged 2.81% a year got.

The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.53% this week with an average 0.4 point, down three basis points from last week when it averaged 2.56%. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.73 percent.

Stronger jobs numbers

Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist at Freddie Mac, credits the “strong April employment report” for the increase. “The economy gained 165,000 new jobs on net last month, more than the market consensus forecast and the largest monthly increase this year,” he noted. “On top of that, revisions added 114,000 more jobs to February and March as well. All of these factors allowed the unemployment rate to fall to 7.5 percent in April, the lowest since December 2008."

Bankrate

After seven straight weeks of declines, mortgage rates moved higher following better than expected news about jobs, according to Bankrate.com.

The benchmark 30-year fixed mortgage rate increasing to 3.6%, with an average of 0.31 discount and origination points.

The average 15-year fixed mortgage jumped to 2.82%, while the larger jumbo 30-year fixed mortgage rate settled at the 4% mark. Adjustable rate mortgages were mostly higher, with the 5-year inching up to 2.64% and the 10-year ARM climbing to 3.2%.

Labor market gets the credit

After mortgage rates had fallen to levels that were at, or near, record lows, the better-than expected April jobs report swayed sentiment about the economy, Bankrate analysts said. Both bond yields and mortgage rates increased, as mortgage rates are closely related to yields on long-term government bonds.

So much of the economy's health is gauged by job growth, and, and according to Bankrate, “this month's report came on the heels of a lousy March jobs report and some other soft economic data in recent weeks. In particular, the number of new jobs was revised upward for each of the two previous months.”

The last time mortgage rates were above 5% percent was April 2011, when the average 30-year fixed rate was 5.07%. That means a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,082.22. With the average rate currently at 3.6 percent, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $909.29 for anyone refinancing now.

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Surprising strength in the job market

The weekly jobless claims came in under analysts' expectations

There were fewer people in line during the week ended May 4 to file for first-time state unemployment benefits. According to government figures, there wer...

PhotoThere were fewer people in line during the week ended May 4 to file for first-time state unemployment benefits.

According to government figures, there were 323,000 initial -- down 4,000 from the revised figure of 327,000 from the previous week and the lowest level since January 2008. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had expected as many as 340,000 new applications. The initial figure report for the week of April 27 was 324,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered by economists to be a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 336,750 -- a decrease of 6,250 from the previous week's revised average of 343,000.

The full report can be found on the Labor Department website.

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Optimus Tower Quartz Heaters recalled

The devices can overheat, posing a fire hazard

Family Dollar Services of Matthews, N.C., is recalling about 19,640 Optimus Tower Quartz Heaters. The heaters can overheat, posing a fire hazard. The comp...

PhotoFamily Dollar Services of Matthews, N.C., is recalling about 19,640 Optimus Tower Quartz Heaters.

The heaters can overheat, posing a fire hazard. The company says it has received 10 reports of overheating, including some reports of temperature knobs melting, but no reports of injury, fire or property damage.

Optimus Tower Quartz Heaters are portable electric tower heaters that are about 10 inches wide, 25 inches tall and 9 inches deep. The heaters have a white metal casing with a white plastic top, a wire cage protecting the heating elements and vent slits at the bottom.

The front section of the top has the brand name Optimus, a power light, a caution light and two dials. One dial turns the heater on or off and selects the power of either 750 watts or 1500 watts. The other control knob selects the heat range between high and low.

The rear section of the top has fire, high temperature and shock warnings and diagrams of the heater being used in 750 watt mode and 1500 watt mode. Model number “H-5232” is on a silver sticker on the bottom of the heater below the words “Optimus” and “Quartz Heater.”

The heaters, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Family Dollar Stores from September 2012 ,through December 2012, for about $35.

Consumers should immediately unplug and stop using the heaters and return the product to any Family Dollar Stores location for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Family Dollar Stores at (800) 547-0359 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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XYMOGEN recalls artriphen

The joint function treatment contains traces of the undeclared allergens soy and milk

XYMOGEN of Orlando, Fla., is recalling artriphen, a product recommended for the support of healthy joint function, because it contains traces of the undecl...

PhotoXYMOGEN of Orlando, Fla., is recalling artriphen, a product recommended for the support of healthy joint function, because it contains traces of the undeclared allergens soy and milk.

People who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to either allergen run the risk of serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they consume this product. There have been no reported allergic reactions or any adverse events in connection with the product to date.

Consumers may return the product for a full refund

The maker of dietary supplements says it learned that artriphen might contain the two allergens and immediately discontinued sale of the product.

XYMOGEN says it discovered the allergens were not included in the product’s labeling while preparing to buy artriphen in bulk and then label and package it for the first time.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations on dietary manufacturing, packaging and distribution require manufactures to disclose any of eight identified allergens in the labeling and marketing of products.

In addition to discontinuing the sale of artriphen, XYMOGEN is phasing out two other products, coolsens and dolorox, provided by the same company, neither of which has any known safety concerns.

Artriphen was available in quantities of either 90 or 180 capsules.

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Crusade to corral fire-prone Jeeps drags on

At least 270 people have burned to death in rear-end accidents involving Grand Cherokees

When bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, police and rescue personnel rushed to the scene to aid the victims and investigators began l...

PhotoWhen bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, police and rescue personnel rushed to the scene to aid the victims and investigators began looking for the perpetrators. In a matter of days, one suspect was dead and another was in custody after a massive investigation and manhunt.

But things don't always happen that quickly.

When a Jeep Grand Cherokee exploded into flames after being rear-ended by a pick-up truck at a stop light in Winchester, Va., in 2011, police and rescue personnel rushed to the scene to aid the four occupants -- Mark and Amanda Roe and their sons Caleb, 11, and Tyler, 4. The boys were killed by the impact. Their parents burned to death when the Jeep's gas tank burst into flames. 

The driver who rear-ended the Roe family got a ticket, but years later, not much else has happened.

In the Boston Marathon case, four people were killed and 264 were injured. In a series of Jeep Grand Cherokee accidents similar to the one in Winchester, 270 people had burned to death as of late last year and hundreds more have been injured, according to figures compiled by the Center for Auto Safety.

Unlike the Boston bombings and the more recent deaths of five women who burned to death when their stretch limousine caught near San Francisco, the Jeep deaths have attracted little attention and not much is being done to prevent similar deaths from the thousands of at-risk Jeeps still on the road.

Photo
Cassidy Jamon (left) and Remington Cole Walden, both 4, were killed when the Jeep Grand Cherokees they were riding in, securely strapped into their car seats, burst into flames after being rear-ended.

NHTSA proceeds cautiously

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been slowly sifting through data but has done nothing to warn taxpayers whose lives are at risk every time they get in their cars.

Photo
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland

As is so often the case, investigators on the front line have no trouble identifying the problem -- the fuel tank on 1993 through 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees is mounted behind the axle and hangs down below the SUV's rear bumper, making it vulnerable to being ruptured and catching fire in a rear-end accident.

Safety advocates have been pressing NHTSA to act and lawyers have been filing lawsuits on behalf of consumers injured and burned to death in their Jeeps. But the plodding pace is more than Janelle R. Embrey, a Virginia mother of two, can stand.

Embrey, a 46-year-old medical transcriptionist, was riding with her father on I-81 near Winchester just 15 months after the Roe family had been killed.  When  traffic on the heavily-congested highway slowed suddenly, a tractor-trailer truck rammed the line of stopped cars, pushing a Jeep Grand Cherokee into Embrey's car, an incident she recounted in an earlier ConsumerAffairs story.

Embrey stood by in horror when flames began licking at the back of the Jeep as its stunned occupants tried to free themselves from their seat belts and escape. Her  father, Harry Hamilton, 66, ran to the Jeep, broke a window with his fist and managed to pull a teen-aged boy to safety but he was driven back by flames before he could rescue another teen and the boy's mother.

Photo
Janelle Embrey

"The entire vehicle was swallowed up by flames. In that instant, they burned to death," Embrey said. Later, Embrey was sitting in a patrol car with the state trooper leading the investigation as he wrote up his report.

"The officer shook his head and said, 'That's the same vehicle that killed the Roe family,'" Embrey said. "He just sat and stared into the burned-out Jeep. Everybody knows this is happening. Why can't we do something about it?"

Embrey's father has been nominated for a Carnegie Hero's Medal for his efforts but Embrey remains haunted by the incident and has launched a one-woman crusade to light a fire under NHTSA and Chrysler, which owns Jeep.

Petition drive

A few months ago, Embrey launched a petition drive on Change.org urging NHTSA to take action. She wrote to her Congressional representatives and to  President Obama, who forwarded her letter to NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland, who sent her a two-page response that she described as "mumbo jumbo."

Frustrated, Embrey began saving her earnings from a part-time bookkeeping job and, in late April, launched a billboard campaign on I-81 and other highways around the Winchester area.

The billboards, which she said cost several thousand dollars a month show a stylized burning Jeep with a skeleton at the wheel and asks consumers to sign her  petition. She also plans to launch a website at dangerousjeeps.com soon.

Photo
The image on Embrey's billboards

Embrey said she was so horrified by the accident she witnessed and the earlier accident involving the Roe family that she felt she had to do something, even though friends and advisors told her it was futile.

"It took me a couple of months to start taking action. I cried every day and it took me some time to get it together," Embrey told me as we sat in a snack shop at the intersection where the Roe family died. "A lot of people have told me to give up but I have to do it."

Besides the billboards, Embrey has passed out bumper stickers and pocket-sized cards at businesses throughout Winchester and has spoken with safety advocates, attorneys and reporters, trying to generate action.

Probe expanded a year ago

Among those lending a sympathetic ear was Clarence Ditlow at the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. Ditlow has been trying for years to spur NHTSA to action.

In a letter to Strickland in May 2012, Ditlow noted that Chrysler, which makes Jeeps, had finally conceded that the "the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee far exceeds its top competitor, the 1993-2004 Ford Explorer in ... rear impact fire crashes."

Photo
Sergio Merchionne

"If Chrysler does not voluntarily recall these deadly vehicles that kill children secured in child restraints as the [Center for Auto Safety] has asked [Chrysler Group] Chairman Sergio Merchionne, then the only way to prevent more fire deaths is for NHTSA to order a mandatory safety recall."

One month later, in June, NHTSA expanded its probe into the Jeep fires but today, nearly a year later, thousands of the Jeeps remain on the road every day, carrying children -- most of them securely strapped into their car seats -- to school, play dates and other activities. 

Embrey thinks it's shameful that the government that is supposed to protect its citizens moves so slowly and deliberately, leaving innocent lives at risk. She admits to being discouraged but says she won't give up, even though the financial and emotional pressures are intense.

"A lot of people have told me to give up -- you're fighting Chrysler," she said. "But I have to do it. Everyone says I have to face the reality that this could just go nowhere. But I'm not ready to do that."

For now, Embrey says she will keep fighting and hopes others will join her or, at least, sign her Change.org petition.

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Hydrocarbons a major household danger for children

As summer approaches, parents should take an inventory of their household products

With summer time approaching, there are a few extra things that parents will have to keep an eye out for.Like making sure they're keeping a close eye on ...

PhotoWith summer time approaching, there are a few extra things that parents will have to keep an eye out for, like making sure they're keeping a close eye on their children around swimming pools and beaches. And making sure products like suntan lotion are being used regularly.

But there are other things parents will have to look out for as the weather starts to get warmer like making sure their kids aren't ingesting hydrocarbons.

What are hydrocarbons and what do they have to do with summer time?

A hydrocarbon is a liquid that evaporates when poured out and it's often used in everyday household items like cleaning products. It's also in fuel for the lawnmower and lighter fluid for the grill, which tend to be used more often during summer, making it easier for children to get their hands on it.

Lung damage

Dr. Heath Jolliff, D.O., of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital said that even if children don't swallow products containing hydrocarbon, once the liquid turns into gas it can still damage their lungs.

"These things evaporate and that's part of the danger," he said.

"A child will place that in their mouth and even if they don't intend to swallow it, it turns into a gas and goes into their lungs and that's when it causes the big problem."

According to the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, hydrocarbons are the third-leading cause of poisoning deaths in children under 5 years of age. In addition, the study shows that more children are injured during the summer months from hydrocarbons and boys ages 1 and 2 have the highest chances of being injured. 

Between the year 2000 and 2009, more than 100,000 hydrocarbon-related injuries were reported, which equates to one injury every hour, the study found. 

This study on hydrocarbons and the injuries they cause to children is the first of its kind, the researchers say.

Take stock 

PhotoLara McKenzie, Ph.D., of the Center for Injury Research and Policy says summer is the ideal time for parents to take another look at the products in the home to make sure they're being kept away from children.

"More of these cases occurred in the summer months," she said. "So the change of seasons is a really good time for parents to sort of take stock and evaluate what kind of products they have and how they're stored."

Although children continue to be poisoned from hydrocarbons in household products, Jolliff says the number of cases have been going down.

"The good news is that the number of injuries has declined significantly between 2000 and 2009 because of changes in packaging laws and public awareness," he said. "Unfortunately, more children are poisoned from hydrocarbons because of incidents at home, demonstrating a greater need for preventive education for parents."

McKenzie says that parents should be extremely mindful of keeping household products in the original packaging, so it's harder for children to confuse liquids with a food or drink.

"Inquisitive children mistakenly identify hydrocarbons as a food or beverage and attempt to ingest the poison, which is the most common way children are exposed to the chemical," she said. "The changing seasons should remind parents to ensure proper storage of hydrocarbons in their original containers."

In addition, researchers say parents should be sure their children aren't in reach of household products as they're being used, since it's easy for a child to get his or her hands on a container while a parent is doing chores.

Parents should use a combination or a key lock to secure hydrocarbon-based products and they should never underestimate how high a child can climb to reach them, McKenzie concluded.

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New federal tanning regs are on the way

Using a sunlamp or tanning bed can raise your skin cancer risk

Summer is just around the corner and warmer weather means millions of people will be hitting the beaches. Now, nobody wants to look like the underbelly of...

PhotoSummer is just around the corner and warmer weather means millions of people will be hitting the beaches. Now, nobody wants to look like the underbelly of a fish in those early days so, what's the solution? For a lot of people, it's indoor tanning. And that means sunlamps and tanning bed.

But, is that a good idea?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), using ultraviolet (UV) tanning lamps, like those used in indoor tanning beds, increases the risk of skin damage, skin cancer and eye injury. The American Cancer Society notes that melanoma -- the deadliest form of skin cancer -- accounted for 75,000 cases of skin cancer in 2012. And the American Academy of Dermatology says indoor tanners are 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors -- and the risk increases with use.

Restrictions on use

In an effort to help consumers protect themselves from the risks of indoor tanning, FDA is proposing changes in its regulation of sunlamps. The changes would strengthen the oversight of these devices, and require labeling to include a recommendation that people under the age of 18 not use them.

PhotoYounger people are particularly vulnerable to exposure to UV rays. The effects add up over a lifetime, thus UV exposure puts children and teenagers at greater risk for skin and eye damage later in life.

"There is increasing evidence that tanning in childhood to early adult life increases the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma," says FDA dermatologist Markham Luke, M.D. In fact, according to an overview of studies recently published in the journal Pediatrics, melanoma is the second most common cancer in women in their 20s and the third most common cancer in men in their 20s in the U.S. Luke adds that many experts believe that at least one cause is the increased use of sunlamp products by U.S. teenagers and young adults.

The changes

Sunlamp products (including tanning beds and booths) are regulated by the FDA both as medical devices and radiation-emitting products, requiring compliance by manufacturers with FDA regulations.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Sunlamps would have to undergo premarket review and comply with requirements relating to performance testing, software validation and biocompatibility.
  • Manufacturers would have to add a label to the sunlamp warning young people not to use these devices.
  • Sunlamp product labeling would include a warning that people who are repeatedly exposed to sunlamp products see their health care professional on a regular basis to check for possible skin cancer.

Other problem areas

It should be noted that skin cancer is not the only problem that could crop up in the use of a public tanning parlor.

Alli of Akron, Ohio, says she paid for a week of tanning at Darque Zone Tanning. "The second day I went to tan," she writes in a ConsumerAffairs post, "I laid in a bed that had busted and broken plexiglass and scratched up my entire bottom area and my back when I went to get out of the tanning bed. I had no idea it was like that at the bottom too before I got in! While I was in the bed, I noticed the entire top part of the inside was all busted and cracked also!"

Becky of Arlington, Va., had a different type of problem. "I caught HPV/genital warts from the tanning bed at the Largo, Md., World Gym location," she tells ConsumerAffairs. "Please be advised NOT to use their tanning beds & always always, always keep underpants on as this has completely ruined a part of my sex life."

What NOT to do

If you insist on using a sunlamp or a tanning bed, FDA says there are certain practices that are especially dangerous. Among them:

  • failing to wear goggles, which can lead to short- and long-term eye injury.
  • starting with long exposures (close to the maximum time for the particular sunlamp), which can lead to burning. Because sunburn takes 6 to 48 hours to develop, you may not realize your skin is burned until it's too late.
  • failing to follow manufacturer-recommended exposure times on the label for your skin type (some skin types should not tan with UV radiation at all, for example those with skin that burns easily and doesn't readily tan).
  • tanning while using certain medications or cosmetics that may make you more sensitive to UV rays. When in doubt, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
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Report warns student loan debt burden could have domino effect

Graduates struggling to pay off loans could contribute to broader economic weakness

College graduates don't have long to celebrate before their student loans come due, and a report released today warns that it's not just the graduates whos...

PhotoCollege graduates don't have long to celebrate before their student loans come due, and a report released today warns that it's not just the graduates whose economic progress is being held back. The broader economy could be affected as well, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found.

“College can open up many opportunities, and we do not want that college degree to become more of a burden than a blessing for those saddled with unmanageable debt in a tough employment market,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s report warns of the potential domino effects on the economy of high student debt. It also identifies policy and market-based solutions based on the public’s comments that would help borrowers manage their private student loan burden.” 

The report summarizes more than 28,000 comments received over the last few months. Many of those who commented were concerned about the potential domino effect of student loan debt on the economy.

Several comments described how monthly student loan payments can deplete consumers’ personal savings, may crowd out other types of consumer spending, and may shape the choices young graduates make about their careers and the communities in which they live. 

Sectors affected

Other comments centered around specific economic sectors, including: 

  • Housing: The current generation of first-time homebuyers is inhibited by a heavy student debt burden that may hurt their ability to qualify for a mortgage or to save for a down payment.
  • Small Business Development: Student debt may limit consumers’ ability to access small business credit and to save capital. 
  • Retirement Savings: Those with student debt may be unable to save for retirement or may have to rely on their parents, who are nearing retirement, to help pay their debt.  
  • Rural Communities: Rural areas in particular struggle to attract and retain young professionals. Car ownership may be a prerequisite for employment and rental housing may be scarce. For cash-strapped student borrowers, the need to buy a car or a house may deter them from moving to a rural area.

Proposed solutions

The report also outlines a number of proposed solutions, including:

  • “Refi relief” for borrowers who pay on time:  Comments from market participants, policy experts, and individual borrowers suggest that refinance options on private student loans could offer relief for responsible borrowers. If borrowers were eligible to refinance their debt at lower interest rates, they could potentially save thousands of dollars in the process. 
  • A “road to recovery” for borrowers in distress: Other comments suggest that a “road to recovery” could be a solution for struggling borrowers trapped in the terms of their private student loans. This could be a  negotiable, transparent, step-by-step process where monthly payments are lowered to match a reasonable debt-to-income ratio. 
  • A “credit clean slate” for borrowers in default:  A number of comments propose that a “credit clean slate” option would be appropriate for borrowers who need a way to repair their credit and get out of default. 
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How to choose a health club

And when you join, read the contract carefully

There are many ways to get exercise but some people like the idea of getting theirs at a health club. While memberships can be pricey, these facilities usu...

PhotoThere are many ways to get exercise but some people like the idea of getting theirs at a health club. While memberships can be pricey, these facilities usually offer high-end exercise equipment and the option of personal instruction.

If you've decided that a health club membership is for you, choosing the right one is important. If you aren't happy with your choice, chances are your visits will be infrequent, resulting in wasted money.

First, think about why you're joining a health club and what you want to achieve. The heart of most health clubs is the fitness room, containing weights and cardiovascular equipment.

Out of order a bad sign

Check out the cleanliness of the room and the condition of the equipment. If the room is messy or dirty and the equipment is old, it's not a good sign.

Specifically, check for the number of machines that have “out of order” signs on them. That's usually a good sign that you should keep looking.

Denesh, of Valley Stream, N.Y., is unhappy with the state of the LA Fitness gym she uses.

“It is a constant recurring thing with this gym,” Denesh wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Nothing is maintained correctly. The spa, sauna and steam room don't work. The hooks are broken in the shower stalls. There are sewer flies everywhere. I don't want to waste my energy. I just want a gym that functions.”

When checking out a gym, don't just look at the fitness center. If there is a pool or whirlpool spa, check those areas for maintenance and cleanliness. If you have children and the gym provides child care, ask to see that area too.

Location, location, location

Location is another extremely important consideration. Your health club should be near your home or on your commute to and from work. Otherwise, you will probably go less and less.

And just because there's a health club right around the corner, it doesn't mean it will always be there. Read the contract carefully to make sure you have the option of canceling your membership if the facility closes. It happens more than you think.

In 2009 that became an issue in North Carolina when Peak Fitness began closing facilities due to the economy. Many members had purchased pre-paid memberships and were left without their gym or their money.

It took intervention by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper to secure refunds and require the company to post bonds for any clubs that sold pre-paid membership. If you are asked to pay in advance, you should receive some kind of discount and get assurances that you will get your money back if the facility closes. Otherwise, keep looking. 

Getting out of the contract

And that brings us to another point. How easy is it to cancel your gym membership? Health clubs are high overhead operations and these companies, in general, do all they can to discourage you from canceling.

“My daughter opened a membership at Gold's Gym in Medford, Mass., and couldn't go anymore,” writes Fabio, of Malden, Mass. “I asked to cancel the account and many excuses were given to me. The customer service on the phone only takes your call after you wait 25 minutes or more. I was told that I have to pay the one-year membership because I cannot cancel before one year. Whatever they tell you in reality doesn't work.”

That's correct. Whatever the person trying to sell you a gym membership tells you, verbally, doesn't matter. All that matters is what is written in the contract. Read it carefully

Comfortable feeling

A final consideration is an emotional one. What kind of feel does the health club have? You might visit at a couple of different times, during the day and in the evening. Some health clubs are havens for “gym rats” who are hyper-enthusiastic about pumping iron. Others draw people who just want an occasional workout.

What type of health club member are you? Choose a facility where you think you will fit in and be most comfortable.

Some health clubs try to serve niche groups. Curves is a health club that only accepts female members and makes a point of not having mirrors in its fitness centers. It's among the highest rated among consumers posting reviews at ConsumerAffairs.

Earlier this year Downsize Fitness opened as a health club whose members must be at least 50 pounds overweight. It not only makes members feel less self-conscious, it provides personal instruction for every member. 

Whatever health club you choose, it should be a place where you feel comfortable -- with the surroundings, the price, location and with the terms in the contract.

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Amid complaints, Microsoft is retooling Windows 8

Windows Blue debuts later this year as Microsoft tries to get it right this time

Windows 8, Microsoft's latest version of its operating system, was supposed to be its most versatile and seamless yet. It was designed to run on PCs, table...

PhotoWindows 8, Microsoft's latest version of its operating system, was supposed to be its most versatile and seamless yet. It was designed to run on PCs, tablets and other devices, incorporating the tablet's touchscreen interface in the PC for the first time.

Microsoft reports more than 100 million copies of Windows 8 have been sold, including the ones installed on all new PCs sold since last fall. The reviews have not been all that kind and sales have been below expectations, and it now appears Microsoft is making some changes.

In a chat published on the Microsoft website, Tami Reller, Microsoft's Chief Marketing Officer, says the update is code named Windows Blue and will be available later this year.

“The Windows Blue update is also an opportunity for us to respond to the customer feedback that we’ve been closely listening to since the launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT.,” Reller said. “From a company-wide perspective, Windows Blue is part of a broader effort to advance our devices and services for Microsoft.”

Buyer's remorse

For months, some Windows 8 users have been making their views known on the pages of ConsumerAffairs. Louise, a consumer in the United Kingdom, is definitely sorry she upgraded.

Photo“After some thought I decided to go ahead and purchased the upgrade,” she writes. “Approximately six weeks after the upgrade my computer completely crashed, blue screen of death, cannot reset to factory default. I have spoken with Microsoft, Windows, Arvento and Toshiba to no avail. I am going to continue to keep writing, e-mailing and telephoning everyone until somebody does something about it. Meantime I'm left with an unusable laptop and relying on my ancient HP.”

Al, of Minneapolis, Minn., was very specific in his complaint about Windows 8.

“Working in File Manager, it repeatedly locks up,” he wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I have to use Task Manager to repeatedly close & restart. Working with Open Office, screens just lock up and have to use Task Manager to close and re-open.”

Where's the Start menu?

He also recounts stability problems when using the Chrome browser. He says he has trouble accessing the Start menu.

“Most of the new design is pointless to me as user,” Al writes. “I value having an OS that improves the functions I use, not creating tons of new functions I never use, and then putting the functions I do use in totally different places, like shutting down computer. Stupid. If I wanted a Macintosh, I'd buy one. I bought Windows, not some Mac wannabe. And I got an inferior product.”

Mark, of Seattle, Wash., reports Windows 8 disabled his anti-virus protection.

“I can now get Windows protection for one year for $200.00,” he writes. “I will change to Apple in future.”

Christine, of Trescott, Maine assures us she isn't new to computers, and has operated one for years, never experiencing problems navigating through an operating system. Windows 8, she declares, is the worst.

Wistful look back

“I don't see myself keeping this system,” Christine wrote. “If I had my way I would go right back to Windows XP. Just because it is a new system, doesn't mean it is better and as far as I am concerned it is not.”

One anonymous consumer wrote that they paid a fee in order to downgrade to the Windows 7 operating system.

In her live chat, Reller said the Windows Blue upgrade will provide more innovations for both business and consumer users. No date for Blue's release has been announced.

However, those who continue to rely on Windows XP got some bad news last month. Microsoft announced it will end support for the venerable operating system April 15, 2014.

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Popular privacy protection plan? It's called lying

Survey finds consumers lie about personal details when asked by websites, mobile apps, etc.

Consumers frequently complain that they're always being asked for personal information they'd rather not disclose -- like their phone number, email address...

PhotoConsumers frequently complain that they're always being asked for personal information they'd rather not disclose -- like their phone number, email address or birthdate.

Well, there's a simple way to deal with that. It's called lying and a survey finds it's also a very popular strategy. Researchers said Americans routinely hide their personal details and intentionally falsify information when asked for it by websites, services and mobile app providers.

The findings suggest that many people are skeptical of the need for services to collect personal data, leading people to lie, click away or decline app downloads. According to the survey, people engage in these behaviors to create a sense of privacy and control over their personal information.

Afraid and angry

“Before we did the survey, we’d heard from data aggregators that something like 50% of their data might be incorrect. The survey showed that much higher rates of obscuring data is happening," said study co-author Mary Hodder. "People are afraid and angry, as reflected in their comments to the survey, and they are doing the only thing they can to protect themselves: hiding, lying or withdrawing."

Hodder is on the board of directors of Customer Commons, the California-based non-profit that conducted the study.

The study found that some people will accurately represent themselves only when online services show a clear upside. Otherwise, people don’t want to reveal more than is necessary when all they want to do is download apps, watch videos, shop or engage in social networking.

Key findings in the report include:

  • Only 8.5 percent of respondents always accurately disclose personal information.

  • As many as 70% of respondents regularly withhold at least some personal data.

  • Many respondents lie about various line items as a strategy to protect their privacy. For example, 34.2% intentionally provided an incorrect phone number, and 13.8% provided incorrect employment information.

The concept of trust was raised in 22% of the written responses explaining why people hide their information. Some examples include:

  • “I cannot trust a random website”

  • “I do not want spam and do not want to expose others to spam. I also don't know how that information could be used or if the people running the site are trustworthy.”

  • “If I know why info is needed then I might provide, otherwise no way”   

People are afraid or distrustful of sites, services and phone apps that request their personal data. They withhold or falsify information because they do not believe the sites need their data, and because they do not want to disclose information that might lead to spamming or other intrusions. Moreover, the techniques that people employ to preserve their sense of privacy online are largely improvised, informed by fear, and based on their subjective evaluation of entities that solicit personal information.

Customer Commons describes itself as "a not-for-profit working to restore the balance of power, respect and trust between individuals and the organizations that serve them, especially in the online world." Funding for the study came from CommerceNet, a not-for-profit research institute.

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Texas finds unsafe mercury levels in Gulf seafood

Blue marlin, blackfin tuna, shark and swordfish among the affected fish

It's not news that the Gulf of Mexico has high levels of mercury, but the levels have gotten so high that the state is warning consumers to avoid blue marl...

PhotoIt's not news that the Gulf of Mexico has high levels of mercury, but the levels have gotten so high that the state is warning consumers to avoid blue marlin entirely amd to limit their consumption of several species including blackfin tuna and swordfish.

The Gulf has long had high mercury levels, much of it coming from coal-burning power plants in locations whose water drains into the Gulf. Besides the states bordering the Gulf, the Mississippi and other rivers carry industrial pollution into Gulf waters. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services issued an advisory Tuesday saying it had found unsafe levels of mercury in waters off the state's coast,  the first such advisory since last September.

Women of childbearing age, including women who are nursing, and children under 12 years old should not consume certain fish off the Texas coast. The advisory recommends that women past childbearing age and adult men limit their consumption of fish from this area to no more than one or two meals per month. A meal is 8 ounces of fish. 

Species Affected

Women of Childbearing Age and Children < 12

Women Past Childbearing Age and Adult Men

Blackfin tuna

DO NOT EAT

2 meals/month

Blue marlin

DO NOT EAT

DO NOT EAT

Little tunny (Bonito)

DO NOT EAT

2 meals/month

Crevalle jack

DO NOT EAT

2 meals/month

King mackerel < 35 inches

DO NOT EAT

1 meal/week

King mackerel > 35 inches

DO NOT EAT

2 meals/month

Shark (all species)

DO NOT EAT

2 meals/month

Swordfish

DO NOT EAT

2 meals/month

Wahoo

DO NOT EAT

2 meals/month

 

High levels

The advisory was issued after testing revealed that fish examined from the northwestern Gulf of Mexico contained mercury at concentrations that exceed DSHS health guidelines of 0.7 mg/kg in the listed species. It warned that regular or long-term consumption of the contaminated fish could result in serious health effects.

If consumed regularly, mercury can cause harmful effects to the central nervous system, particularly in children including those exposed before birth. Symptoms of prolonged exposure include liver damage, tingling of the skin, loss of coordination, visual and hearing impairment, slurred speech and other damage to the brain and nervous system.

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Surly Bikes recalls bicycle forks

The bicycle fork can bend above the disc brake mount, posing a fall hazard

Surly Bikes of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 975 bicycle forks. The bicycle fork can bend above the disc brake mount, posing a fall hazard to the...

PhotoSurly Bikes of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 975 bicycle forks.

The bicycle fork can bend above the disc brake mount, posing a fall hazard to the rider. The company has received one report of a fork bending above the disc brake mount. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves:

  • Surly Pugsley 100mm and 135mm bicycle forks made of tubular chromoly steel. “Surly” is printed on both legs of the fork. “Pugsley” is printed on the fork’s packaging and on the frame of bikes with the recalled forks.
  • Surly Pugsley 100mm bicycle forks were sold individually only. They are black, have triple water bottle mounts on each side, rack/fender mounts on the top and bottom and have date code 2012 03 20 stamped on the steerer tube.
  • Surly Pugsley 135mm bicycle forks were sold individually and as part of 2013 model year complete bicycles. The 135mm forks are black, yellow or red and are stamped with date code 2012 06 19 on the steerer tube. Model number FK3175, FK3181 or FK0706 is printed on the packaging for forks sold individually.
  • Surly Pugsley bicycle models FM3110-3114, FM3175-79, BK3110-14 and BK3175-79 were sold with the recalled forks as original equipment. The bicycle’s model number is printed on the bicycle’s packaging.

The bike forks, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at bicycle stores nationwide and on various websites from May 2012 through February 2013 for about $100 individually or on Surly Pugsley bicycles for about $1,750.

Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles equipped with the recalled Surly bicycle fork and contact a Surly dealer for a free inspection and replacement or a full refund.

Consumers may contact Surly Bikes toll-free at (877) 946-9333 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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SexVoltz, Velextra, and Amerect recalled

The dietary supplements are sold as a treatments for erectile dysfunction

BeaMonstar Products is recalling a number of sexual enhancement products, including: SexVoltz brand SKU’s 626570609490, 827912089028, 626570617877, 626570...

PhotoBeaMonstar Products is recalling a number of sexual enhancement products, including:

  • SexVoltz brand SKU’s 626570609490, 827912089028, 626570617877, 626570615316;
  • Velextra brand SKU’s 626570619475, 626570619475, 626570619475, 626570619475; and
  • Amerect SKU’s 626570619031, 626570619598

Laboratory analysis conducted on SexVoltz and Velextra has determined they contain undeclared tadalafil. Amerect has the potential to contain the ingredient. Tadalafil is an FDA-Approved drug used to treat male erectile dysfunction (ED), making the products unapproved new drugs.

Tadalafil may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs such as nitroglycerin and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease often take nitrates.

The company has not received any reports of adverse events to date related to this recall.

The product is used as a sexual enhancement product and all 3 products are packaged in blister type packaging in 1 & 2 caps, and in 4 capsule and 10 capsule bottles. All lots were distributed and sold nationwide to wholesalers, retail and via internet from January of 2012, to May 7, 2013, and contain various expiration dates.

BeaMonstar is notifying its distributors and customers by email and phone, and is arranging for credit of all recalled products. Consumers/distributors/retailers that have the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall can contact BeaMonstar Products by 480-735-1424 or info@beamonstar.com Mon-Friday from 8am-1pm (MST).  

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Tibor’s Gourmet recalls ready-to-eat smoked pork sausage products

The products were produced without being inspected

Tibor’s Gourmet of Palmdale, Calif., is recalling approximately 200 pounds of ready-to-eat smoked pork sausage products because they were produced without ...

PhotoTibor’s Gourmet of Palmdale, Calif., is recalling approximately 200 pounds of ready-to-eat smoked pork sausage products because they were produced without the benefit of federal inspection.

There have been no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

The following Tibor’s Gourmet products are subject to recall:

  • “Ready To Eat” Gourmet Hungarian Brand Mild Smoked Sausage
  • "Ready To Eat” Gourmet Hungarian Brand Spicy Smoked Sausage

Each package bears the establishment number “EST. 44866” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced between Mar. 25, 2013, and May 2, 2013, and shipped to a retail chain in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Consumers with questions about the recall can contact the company’s owner, Tibor Robert Petho, at (661) 339-3210.

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Lightning Rod capsules recalled

The dietary supplement is sold as a treatment of erectile dysfunction

Chang Kwung is recalling a dietary supplements sold under the brand name Lightning Rod 500 mg per capsule packaged in 3-count, UPC 6 89076 20257 2 and 12-c...

PhotoChang Kwung is recalling a dietary supplements sold under the brand name Lightning Rod 500 mg per capsule packaged in 3-count, UPC 6 89076 20257 2 and 12-count bottles, UPC 6 89076 20297 8.

The company was notified that the product contains an analogue of Sildenafil, the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug used for the treatment of male erectile dysfunction (ED), making it an unapproved new drug. The active drug ingredient is not listed on the label for this product.

Use of this product may pose a threat to consumers because the analogue may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs (such as nitroglycerin) and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels.

The firm says it has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall or is aware of any illnesses associated with this product.

Lightning Rod capsules are sold nationwide via internet in 3 capsule count and 12 capsule count bottles between August 2012, and May 3, 2013.

Customers who have purchased the product in question should return any unused product for a full refund, to the company directly.

Consumers with questions can call 747-444-1843, Monday through Friday 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM PST, for instructions on the return and refund process.  

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VA promises to speed up veterans' claims processing

But after years of inaction, skeptics doubt much progress will be made

According to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, one in eight troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan were referred to counseling for alcohol...



PhotoAccording to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, one in eight troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan were referred to counseling for alcohol dependency. One in four had a substance abuse disorder.

But when it comes to receiving help for their addictions and other needs, many veterans are put on long waiting lists and aren't getting the quick help they need.

Yesterday, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said it would finally try to clean up some of its claims backlog (story). 

Veterans who have been waiting one year or more for their benefits will have their cases expedited so they can receive things like compensation, educational reimbursement and help with alcohol or substance abuse, the VA said.

Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said officials on both sides of the political aisle have come together to solve this issue.

"The growing impatience over the VA disabilities backlog is one of the few genuine bipartisan issues in Washington today," he said. "IAVA thanks leaders in the Senate for their bipartisan efforts to help end the backlog and ensure that veterans get the care they need. Our veterans now need to hear from the President about how he plans to bring the number of veterans in the backlog to zero."

Letter to Obama

In a letter to President Obama, a number of senators specified just how bad the backlog is. They wrote:

"In the last four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by over 2000% despite a 40% increase in the VA's budget.

As a reminder, during this same time period, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however, this has not eliminated the backlog of claims. Solving this problem is critical for veterans of all generations.

We need direct and public involvement from you to establish a clear plan to end the backlog once and for all."

The promise to clean up some of the backlog is great news for people like Army veteran Paul Barron, who has been waiting a ridiculous amount of time to receive his benefits.

"I've been waiting three years for disability," he told a Connecticut news outlet. "I got Hepatitis C from the shots they give you in the Army."

Many times veterans pass away before every getting to see their benefits.

Dramatic increase

Photo
Paul Rieckhoff

During President Obama's first term in office the number of surviving families waiting for burial benefits has dramatically increased.

Before Obama took office the number of people waiting for burial benefits was 23,000 and now it's swelled to 65,000. And the dollar amount that families are waiting for is somewhere between $600 and $2,000, reports show.

But veterans and their families finally receiving benefits isn't all about money, said Sheryl Ann Cornelius.

She is the widow of Jack Cornelius, who committed suicide in 2009 after  suffering from alcoholism, depression and post-traumatic stress. Sheryl was initially denied burial benefits after her husband killed himself and it took a whole year for the VA to reverse its decision.

In the amount of time that Sheryl had to wait for an appeal decision, she lost her home through foreclosure and accumulated even more debt as she tried to pay off a loan that she took out for the funeral.

But receiving money from the VA was only part of what Sheryl needed: "I needed the money," she said in an interview with The Daily Beast"But it was more important to me that the government admit that his death was caused by the war, that someone take responsibility for it."

More can be done

Photo
Rep. Tom Graves

Although the VA is trying to clear out some of its backlog by making provisional decisions on its most outstanding claims, many believe a lot more can be done. Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) said the VA should bring in outside companies to help with the backlog.

"It's also time to think outside the box when it comes to fixing the VA," he wrote in a recent op-ed piece. "In a digital age, they are under a crush of paper files -- literally. An inspector general report on the Winston-Salem VA office found that 37,000 claims folders were stacked on top of file cabinets."

"Why don't we ask tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook to help?"

"Our veterans deserve the best system, and it makes sense to ask some of the most innovative companies of our time to either collaborate, or bid for a contract, to create a paperless claims system of ease and efficiency for veterans and the employees at the VA," Graves said.

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Survey: Peace of mind is top retirement goal

Retirees want enough money to live comfortably and help family members

Most people have some sort of goal in mind when they think about retirement. Financial planners have always thought of it as a number &ndash; an amount of ...

PhotoMost people have some sort of goal in mind when they think about retirement. Financial planners have always thought of it as a number – an amount of money someone needs to live after they stop working.

It turns out consumers don't really think of it that way. Bank of America Merrill Lynch was astounded by a survey it commissioned of people getting ready to retire and those who had already retired.

The No. 1 goal for retirement was not building wealth but achieving peace of mind. And for many who are approaching their retirement years, that translates into remaining in the labor force.

“The idea of working a few extra years, cycling between work and leisure, has gone from being an outlier to being a core assumption in terms of how pre-retirees expect to spend their later lives,” said Andy Sieg, Merrill's head of Global Wealth and Retirement Solutions, in a conference call with reporters.

Charting a new course

Baby boomers, of course, are the ones charting this new course in retirement planning. The survey shows that not only do they expect to keep working, they also plan to do something different.

“When we drill down a little bit with pre-retirees we see that 51% are actually looking to reinvent themselves and try a whole new career in retirement,” Sieg said. “To them, retirement represents freedom and a flexibility to re-envision their lives and the boomers intend to grab that with both hands.”

As you might expect from boomers, retirees and those preparing to retire aren't defining their happiness in terms of money but instead value new experiences, peace of mind, making a difference and helping family members.

“Americans are trying to create their own safety net,” said David Tyrie, Merrill's head of personal wealth and retirement. “What they are seeking is guaranteed income, guaranteed principal value, protection against the curve ball of long-term care and a drive toward security.”

Reducing living expenses

For many retirees, part of that security and peace of mind could come from downsizing and reducing living expenses. If you aren't commuting to a job every day, it probably doesn't matter where you live. After all, some places are cheaper to live than others.

Bankrate.com has compiled a list of what it considers the top 10 states for retirement, based on the cost of living. The list includes, surprisingly, North Dakota. While many retirees seek the sun of Florida or Arizona, Bankrate says the frigid state of North Dakota offers good health care, low crime and a mild tax rate.

Other states of the list include places not normally thought of as retirement Meccas; Nebraska, Alabama, West Virginia, Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, South Dakota, Louisiana and – topping the list – Tennessee. The Volunteer State offers affordable housing and the second lowest overall cost of living in the nation.

Since a mortgage payment is most families' biggest expense, being able to purchase a home for cash can go a long way in the peace of mind department. Retirees in expensive housing states, like New Jersey, New York, Maryland and California can sell homes they've owned for a long time and use the equity to purchase a home in a less expensive state.

Benefits of no mortgage

The retired homeowner who pays cash for a house will still have to pay taxes and insurance on the property but will not have the principal and interest payment each month. It can make a big difference in a monthly budget and allow retirees to live on less income, or use more of their income to help family members – which the Merrill survey found to be a large motivating factor.

“We're heard talk of the sandwich generation, with an adult providing support for a parent and an adult child,” said Dr. Ken Dychtwald, CEO of Age Wave, which conducted the Merrill survey. “This looks more like a Rubik's Cube in a way.”

The survey found over half of those questioned expected to dip into their retirement savings to help out one or more family members. While it might place more pressure on the retiree, it might also be a source of their ultimate goal of achieving peace of mind if they are able to do it.

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FTC warns data brokers they may be selling consumer information illegally

Warning letters issued after the agency conducted a test shopping operation

Data brokers are also assuring consumers that their data is never misused, always handled with care and so forth. But the reality doesn't always measure up...

PhotoData brokers are always assuring consumers that their data is never misused, always handled with care and so forth. But the reality doesn't always measure up to the promises, as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found when it conducted what amounted to a sting operation.

FTC staff members posed as individuals or representatives of companies seeking information about consumers to make decisions related to their creditworthiness, eligibility for insurance or suitability for employment.

As a result, the agency has sent warning letters to ten data broker companies warning that their practices could violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Data broker companies are considered consumer reporting agencies under the FCRA, meaning they must reasonably verify the identities of their customers and make sure that these customers have a legitimate purpose for receiving the information.

Of the 45 companies contacted by FTC staff in the test-shopper operation, ten appeared to violate the FCRA by offering to provide the information without complying with the law’s requirements.

The ten companies receiving the warning letters from the FTC include:

The letters are meant to remind the companies to evaluate their practices to determine whether they are consumer reporting agencies, and if so, how to comply with that law.

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Feds land hard on debt-relief firm; criminal charges filed

Consumers lost millions and went deeper into debt, prosecutors charge

Debt-relief services that charge illegal advance fees typically are the subjects of civil complaints and usually manage to settle the charges before things...

PhotoDebt-relief services that charge illegal advance fees typically are the subjects of civil complaints and usually manage to settle the charges before things go too far but one New York area company isn't so lucky.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today filed a complaint in a federal district court in New York against two debt-relief service providers and the U.S. Attorney promptly indicted one of them on criminal charges.

“Today’s action takes aim at two operations we believe are designed to profit through unscrupulous and illegal business practices,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers deserve better and we are proud of this coordinated effort with the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to crack down on harmful behavior.” 

According to the CFPB complaint, the defendants, Mission Settlement Agency of New York and Premier Consultant Group LLC of New Jersey routinely charged consumers upfront fees prior to settling the consumers’ debts. As a result of the fees and the companies' alleged failure to do anything about their customers' debts, many consumers fell further into debt and damage their credit history.

Indictments issued

Bharara, meanwhile, announced that Mission and its owner and three employees have been indicted on criminal charges of mail and wire fraud in what he said was a multi-million dollar scheme that victimized more than 1,200 debt-ridden individuals across the country.

The defendants allegedly tricked people into paying for debt settlement services by lying to prospective customers about their fees, and their purported affiliation with the federal government and one of the three leading credit bureaus in the U.S., as well as the results they supposedly achieved for their customers.

In connection with the scheme, Mission allegedly took in over $6.6 million in fees. For over 1200 of its customers, Mission took fees totaling nearly $2.2 million and has never paid a penny to the customers’ creditors, Bharara said. 

 “As alleged, Mission preyed upon the financial desperation of people around the country who – like so many ordinary Americans – were simply struggling to pay down their debts after the financial downturn," Bharara said. "But the true mission of Mission turned out to be fraud and deceit, and for more than 1,200 consumers, the dream of debt relief turned into a nightmare of deeper debt trouble."

Besides the criminal charges in the indictment, the CFPB alleges that all of the defendants violated the Federal Trade Commission’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR).  In addition, the Bureau alleges that Mission and its principal, Michael Levitis, engaged in deceptive and unfair practices in violation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

The CFPB said today's action is part of a comprehensive effort to prevent consumer harm in the debt-relief industry.

"The Bureau is working to ensure federal consumer laws are being followed at every stage of the process and is focusing not only on debt-relief service providers, but also on those who facilitate their unlawful conduct and who may also violate federal consumer financial laws," it said in a statement.

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Keeping up with changes in washers and dryers

These appliances are a lot more sophisticated than they used to be

Shopping for a new washer and dryer is a bit more complicated than it once was because manufacturers update their products a lot more often. There are new...

PhotoShopping for a new washer and dryer is a bit more complicated than it once was because manufacturers update their products a lot more often. There are new washers and dryers hitting the market almost as often as there are new smartphones and flat-screen TVs.

The analogy is not all that far-fetched. Washers and dryers aren't the clunky old appliances of yesteryear but today are driven by technology and sophisticated electronics.

Today, most consumers shop for these appliances at big box stores – home improvement centers like Lowes and Home Depot and electronics chains like Best Buy and HHGregg.

New features

Just as each generation of smartphone has new capabilities, appliance manufacturers are also constantly adding new features. Since the last time you bought a washing machine, for example, manufacturers have added heat and steam functions to washers to remove dust mites and pet dander.

The new machines are also quieter. Many use advanced sound-reducing material to dampen the noise. Some have a feature to reduce the vibration during the spin cycle.

Have you ever washed a load of clothes and forgotten about it until several hours later? Some new washers take that into consideration, venting in fresh air and occasionally tumbling the clothes to prevent the kind of odors that can develop when wet clothes sit for hours.

Over the last few years many washer manufacturers have added steam capability that can help root out tough stains. Some use oxygen-based cleaners to brighten clothes without bleach.

Dryers

Dryers have also added features, including sensors to automatically shut down when the clothes are dry. That helps prevent over-drying and shrinkage and can extend the life of the fabric.

Whirlpool Washing Machines May 7, 2013, 11:27 a.m.
Consumers rate Whirlpool Washing Machines

Sometimes you don't really need to wash an item of clothing, you just need to freshen it up a bit. Some dryers come with a steam feature that allows you to relax wrinkles and remove odors, saving a rewash.

Need to dry something in a hurry? You can if your new dryer has an express cycle that uses a large blower to increase the airflow, drying the clothing faster.

These features appear on a wide array of washers and dryers from major manufacturers. Among the largest companies making these appliances are GE, LG, Whirlpool,Samsung, Electrolux, Frigidaire, Bosch, and Maytag.

It's a good idea to read consumer reviews for all the brands you're considering because, in the past at least, some models have drawn a large number of complaints. In 2005 Maytag settled a class action suit over its Neptune washers.

Mold problems

According to documents filed