Browse by year
 | 

What to look for in a credit card

Don't just apply for the first card solicitation that comes in the mail

What makes a good credit card? Personal finance experts will tell you it all depends on how you plan to use it.Some cards have annual fees, others don't....

PhotoWhat makes a good credit card? Personal finance experts will tell you it all depends on how you plan to use it.

Some cards have annual fees, others don't. Some provide cash back. Others provide rewards points. Some have high interest rates, others have lower rates. You get the picture.

If you are choosing from one of the many card solicitations you have received in recent weeks, it might be wise to first look at the annual fee. Before the 2008 credit crisis, almost no credit card imposed an annual fee. Most still don't but a recent survey from Bankrate.com shows 22% of cash-back cards are now charging an annual fee, up from 18% last year.

The same survey shows that more cards – 55% of the offers – provide some type of bonus for signing up. Even so, the bonuses aren't quite as generous as before and require more spending in order to redeem them.

Get some cash back

More than half the cards in the survey provide 1% cash back on purchases. Almost as many provide higher payout for certain categories of spending. For example, if you need a card to pay for gasoline, choosing a card with the highest cash-back amount for fuel purchases makes the most sense. Other cards may pay more when you charge groceries or restaurant meals.

When considering a rewards card, make sure you check to see how long you have to cash in the rewards. Sixty-five percent of the cards in the survey don't have expiration dates on their rewards, about the same number as last year.

"As long as you pay your balance in full every month, a rewards card is a good way to get some of that money back," said Greg McBride, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst. "Make sure to find the card that offers the best fit for your lifestyle.”

For some, a low rate is important

PhotoIf you pay off your balance every month – and you should – the interest rate might not be that important. But if you carry a balance, a low rate will save you money each month.

Some credit cards give you a low introductory rate for new large purchases. Obviously, the lower the rate and the longer the introductory period, the better.

The lowest rate, of course, is 0%. Fortunately there are several cards that offer an introductory 0% rate on new purchases. You should choose from one of those before considering a card that actually charges interest – even low interest – for the first six months.

Compare fees

With interest rates going up, credit card companies may adjust, not only their rates but their fees as well. Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of Card Hub, a credit card comparison website, says consumers need to look carefully at all fees associated with a credit card.

“The things that consumers care about and look at, like transaction fees, are going down,” he said in a recent interview. “The things that consumers are not paying attention to, like cash advance fees, are going up. When most people apply for a credit card, they don't expect to use it for a cash advance.”

Checking out fees is especially important if you are selecting a card designed to help you rebuild a damaged credit profile. All too often the cards in this category have the worst terms for consumers.

What not to do

The worst way to select a credit card is not to simply select one of the many advertising mailers that land in your mailbox. The best strategy is to think about what you want from a credit card and compare as many options in that category as possible.

Make sure the research material you consult about a particular credit card is up to date, since credit card companies change fees, interest rates and terms and conditions from time to time.

More

How long will folks choose cable over online programming?

With rising costs and sometimes nothing to watch, are the high costs of cable worth it?

Alright, so you've just plopped down on the couch after a hard day, and the only thing you want to do is zone out in front of the television.There really...

Photo
All right, so you've just plopped down on the couch after a hard day, and the only thing you want to do is zone out in front of the television. There really isn't anything specific that you want to watch, but you figure with over 400 channels, you'll be able to find something. But many times that simply isn't the case.

So how much are people really getting from cable television? Especially in these days when you can practically watch anything you want online and on your mobile device.

According to a report released by CouponCabin.com, 45% of people believe cable TV is a total waste of money. In addition, 11% of folks in the U.S. said they used to have satellite or cable TV, but they eventually got rid of it.

In a separate survey conducted by the consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Company, it showed that 20% of consumers have cut down on the number of services they have and chose to spend less money for cable than they did one year prior.

Nothing to watch

PhotoMany experts say it's not just the rising cost of cable television that convinces people to either change or cancel their service, it's the fact that a lot of people just don't watch shows when they actually air on television.

According to findings released by the site Deal.com, 193.1 million people will be watching full length programs online by 2014, which is a substantial increase from 2010 when the number was 147.5 million. 

In fact, since 2009, the number of people choosing online programming over cable has increased quite steadily.

Statistics show that in 2009, 49.6 million people watched online programming instead of television. In 2010, 58.9 million people did the same thing. And in 2011, 72.2 million people chose to stream a program instead of watching one on TV.

And when it comes to the cost between subscribing to online services and paying for cable, the difference is pretty substantial.

Based on a report commissioned by the NPD Group, the average monthly cost for cable is $86, compared to the cost of a monthly Netflix subscription which is $7.99.

And a monthly subscription to Amazon Prime, which allows you to stream online programming and receive free two-day shipping on Amazon products, costs $6.67 a month.

In addition, the CouponCabin report shows that 69% of U.S. adults spend $1 to $100 on either cable or satellite, 16% spend $101 to $149, 10% spend $150 to $199 and 5% spend $200 or more each month.

Despite the cost ...

PhotoBut despite the costs, 81% of folks still subscribe to cable television, and Senior Savings Adviser Jackie Warrick says it'll probably take a while before more people cut their cable chords for good.

"Despite the big bills that arrive month after month for TV services, most Americans continue to subscribe," said Warrick. "In fact, 15% of cable subscribers we surveyed said they would never consider dropping cable TV services. 

"As more viewing options arise at lower price points, though, it's likely more consumers will pull the plug."

But Scott Mirer, Netflix's director of product management, says people shouldn't expect cable TV to go away completely, regardless of how much costs increase.

"Clearly, a lot of people would like this to be a reality, that there's this evolution coming, that everything's going to be different, but that's probably not going to be the reality," said Mirer in an interview with PC Magazine.

Diehard sports fans

And it probably won't be a reality for sports fans either, as 43% said they have no desire to cut their cable services, due to all the live sports they're able to watch.

When sports fans were asked what would make them cancel their cable subscription, 56% said they would do so if there was a cheaper alternative.

Additionally, 55% said they'd cancel cable if they could no longer afford it, 27% would cancel it if they stopped watching the same amount of television and 17% they'd cancel cable if there were other ways to watch live sports broadcasts.

Duncan Stewart, who's the director of research, technology and communications for Deloitte, says the change of seasons is another reason a lot of people can't get rid of their cable service.

"Another thing that happens is that people cancel cable subscriptions and enjoy a month or two of the outdoors, or pursuing other hobbies," he said in a published interview. "And then winter comes, or the new television season, and the show they love isn't available on the Internet, so they sign up again."

Additional research shows that by the year 2014, 77% of Internet users will be watching their programming online instead of on TV, but whether they'll cut their cable services altogether remains to be seen.

More

Olive oil and heat -- not a good combination

Researchers say overheating olive oil destroys its healthful qualities

It is the gourmet staple favoured by celebrity chefs for its health  benefits and distinctive taste.But shoppers who cook with extra virgin olive oi...

PhotoTo hear enthusiastic foodies tell it, olive oil is the nectar of the gods, able to cure what ails you and keep your taste buds working overtime.

Well, OK, extra virgin, first-press olive oil does have a distinctive taste but as for the health benefits, most of them are lost when olive oil is heated and used in cooking. That's according to a new study by researchers from Portugal’s University of Porto.

It's the antioxidants and phenolic compounds in olive oil that are thought to help ward off cancer and other diseases. But it's also those very elements that are degraded when they're heated, the researchers found. 

Too much heat

PhotoWriting in the journal Food Research International, they said their research showed that any kind of heating reduced the power of the phenolic compounds in the oil.

"Virgin olive oil consumption, as final seasoning or within cooked foods, is increasing worldwide, mainly due to its recognized nutritional benefits," the researchers wrote. "However, different cooking practices, from common frying, to boiling and microwave cooking, undoubtedly modify the olive oil chemical profile."

Note that no one is saying you shouldn't use olive oil. Even after it's heated it is still just as healthy as vegetable oil. And using it as salad dressing or adding it to food that has just been served is fine, since it preserves the healthful compounds.

To be a true Italiano, put a small serving of olive oil on the bread plate and dip your bread in it instead of using butter or margarine. Much tastier, and much healthier as well. 

In Italy, some people actually drink olive oil, often with a "chaser" of Chianti. That's fine too but keep an eye on the calories, dieticians caution.   

But as far as saving money, the Portuguese researchers say you might as well use vegetable oil for cooking. It does the job and costs less than olive oil. If you really value the taste of olive oil, just keep adding a dab or two during the cooking process, so it doesn't get too hot for too long. That will help preserve the healthful elements.

More

Four easy steps to a healthier lifestyle

It's all about taking care of your mind and body

You've seen the headlines; Americans are obese, eat the wrong kinds of food, get no exercise, suffer from high blood pressure and stress and generally are ...

PhotoYou've seen the headlines; Americans are obese, eat the wrong kinds of food, get no exercise, suffer from high blood pressure and stress and generally are physical wrecks. Maybe the reality is not as bad as all that, but there's no question there is room for improvement.

But how do you go from an unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy one? It's not as hard as you think, but it requires a little focus and discipline. Here are four steps that can put you on the path to better health.

1. Address unhealthy habits

This one is so obvious and so important that it has to be number one. Many of us do things every day that damage our health. If you smoke, for example, nothing you can do will improve your health more than stopping. If you don't think you can go cold turkey, slowly reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke each day.

Alcohol consumption is another area that may need adjustment. If you are a heavy drinker, reduce the number of alcoholic beverages you drink per week. Keep in mind that most health experts consider someone who has 21 or more alcoholic drinks per week to be a heavy drinker.

When you do drink, do so in moderation. Excessive alcohol use not only makes you more vulnerable to accidents, it can lead to liver disease and high blood pressure.

2. Eat a healthy diet

PhotoIncreasingly consumers eat meals at restaurants or at home, out of a box. As a result, we tend to eat the wrong kinds of food and too much of it.

Over the years serving portions have increased in size, especially at restaurants. Typically, an upscale, gourmet restaurant serves up tiny portions of exquisitely-prepared, and yes, expensive dishes. Your typical franchise restaurant, meanwhile, attracts customers with huge portions of calorie-laden food at a moderate price.

For example, farmers can now grow huge potatoes. Slathered with butter and sour cream, one of these giant potatoes can pack enough calories to last most of the day. Health experts say the proper size for a baked potato is about the same dimensions as a computer mouse.

A healthy diet means choosing a wide variety of food and drink from all the food groups and consuming them in moderation. It doesn't mean depriving yourself of good tasting food, you just shouldn't eat very much of it. Now that you are an adult, no one is forcing you to clean your plate.

Fresh fruit is an easy way to add nutritious food to your diet since it requires little or no preparation. Find some fruit that you enjoy and keep it on hand.

A recent survey conducted on behalf of The Vitamin Shoppe found that 82% of Americans don't eat three balanced meals per day. The most frequent excuses they cite for skimping on healthy eating are “healthy cooking takes too much time” and that “they work too much.” Thirty-five percent of respondents said they have gone one week or longer without eating a single fresh vegetable.

"It can be very difficult to maintain a balanced a diet when they are so consumed with work and family," said Sharon Richter, a Registered Dietician based in New York City.

The survey found that there is a deep lack of knowledge among young Americans. One in four Americans between ages 18-34 are more likely to know the names of the Kardashian sisters than the five food groups.

3. Get plenty of exercise

PhotoThe rise in obesity has coincided with a number of unhealthy trends, chief among them is a lack of exercise. Children no longer clamor to go outside and play if there's something on TV or they have a new video game. Adults also tend to spend too much time in front of TV and their computers.

You don't have to join a health club in order to get healthy amounts of exercise. In fact, sometimes a health club can be an excuse not to exercise since you might not have time to go to the gym that often.

But everyone has time to take a walk, and doing so each day can improve your health. Dr. Edward Laskowski, of the Mayo Clinic, suggests adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity – or 75 minutes of strenuous activity – each week.

Moderate aerobic exercise includes everyday activities like walking or mowing the lawn. Vigorous aerobic exercise includes such activities as running and aerobic dancing. Laskowski says ideally, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of activity each day.

4. Reduce stress

PhotoModern life can be full of stress and not properly dealing with it can be a detriment to your health. Make a list of the stress factors in your life so that you are fully aware of them, then take steps to counter them.

Increasingly, many people are turning to the practice of “mindfulness” to relieve stress and improve both health and productivity. Mindfulness is associated with meditation. It's a spiritual or psychological faculty believed to be an important step on the road to enlightenment. It's reached by establishing a state of calm through meditation and relaxation exercises.

Consider setting aside some time each day to meditate, reflect, listen to soft music, or simply stare at the wall. Your relaxed mental state will also have positive physical repercussions.

How will you know the above steps are working? Chances are you'll feel it, both physically and mentally. You will probably look healthier too, drawing compliments from family and friends.

If you are overweight or obese, be sure to discuss with your health care provider any changes in exercise routine and diet.

More

Feds hammer illegal online pharmacies

The targeted websites sold unapproved prescription medicines

More than 9,600 websites that illegally sell potentially dangerous, unapproved prescription medicines to consumers have found themselves on the receiving e...

PhotoMore than 9,600 websites that illegally sell potentially dangerous, unapproved prescription medicines to consumers have found themselves on the receiving end of actions by U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and international regulatory and law enforcement agencies

Among these actions were the issuance of regulatory warnings, and seizure of offending websites along with $41,104,386 worth of illegal medicines worldwide.

The action occurred as part of a continuing global cooperative effort to combat the online sale and distribution of potentially counterfeit and illegal medical products. As part of this year’s international effort, 1,677 illegal pharmacy websites were seized and shut down from June 18 to June 25.

Slick operations

PhotoMany of these websites appeared to be operating as a part of an organized criminal network that falsely purported its websites to be “Canadian Pharmacies,” officials contend. They displayed fake licenses and certifications to convince U.S. consumers to purchase drugs they advertised as “brand name” and “FDA approved.”

The drugs were not from Canada, and were neither brand name nor FDA approved. These websites also used certain major U.S. pharmacy retailer names to trick U.S. consumers into believing an affiliation existed with these retailers.

The FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations Cybercrime Investigations Unit banner  is now displayed on seized websites to help consumers identify them as illegal.

“Illegal online pharmacies put American consumers’ health at risk by selling potentially dangerous products,” said John Roth, director of the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations. “This is an ongoing battle in the United States and abroad, and the FDA will continue its criminal law enforcement and regulatory efforts.”

Risky business

PhotoDuring the operation, the FDA targeted websites selling unapproved and potentially dangerous prescription medicines that could pose significant public health risks. Products purchased from the targeted websites also bypassed existing safety controls required by the FDA, and the protections provided when used under a doctor’s care. In general, prescription medicines, including those purchased online, should only be used with a valid prescription and under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.

Some of the medicines that were sold illegally by the targeted websites included:

  • Avandaryl: FDA-approved Avandaryl (glimepiride and rosiglitazone) is used to treat type 2 diabetes and to minimize potential associated risks, including edema caused by fluid retention, worsening the condition of the heart, or heart failure. Avandaryl must be prescribed by a certified healthcare provider and dispensed by a certified pharmacy with a medication guide explaining the potential risks.
  • “Generic Celebrex”: “Generic Celebrex” sold online is not an FDA-approved product. FDA-approved Celebrex (celecoxib) is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory product used to treat the signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis and to manage acute pain in adults. To minimize the potential associated risks, including gastrointestinal bleeding, heart attack, or stroke, in some people with long term use, Celebrex must be dispensed with a medication guide explaining the potential risks.
  • “Levitra Super Force” and “Viagra Super Force”: While Levitra (vardenafil) and Viagra (sildenafil) are FDA-approved medicines used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED), Levitra Super Force and Viagra Super Force are not FDA-approved products and claim to contain dapoxetine. The FDA has not determined the safety or efficacy of dapoxetine. People with certain heart conditions should not take ED medicines containing vardenafil or sildenafil. There are also potentially dangerous drug interactions or serious adverse effects with these drugs, such as loss of hearing or vision.
More

Fed remarks cited in surge of mortgage rates

The most common rate is at its highest level in nearly 2 years

Suggestions that the Federal Reserve could begin tapering its bond purchases later this year are being given some of the blame for a spurt in home mortgag...

PhotoSuggestions that the Federal Reserve could begin tapering its bond purchases later this year are being given some of the blame for a spurt in home mortgage rates.

Freddie Mac reports the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 4.46% this week with an average 0.8 point. That's a surge of 53 basis point from last weeks reading of 3.93% -- the largest weekly increase since the week ended April 17, 1987. It's also the highest the average for the 30-year FRM has been since the week of July 28, 2011.

The 15-year FRM averaged 3.50% with an average 0.8 point, up from last week's 3.04% and the year-ago average of 2.94%.

The average for the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) was 3.08% with an average 0.7 point. Last week, it averaged 2.79% and last year at this time it was 2.79%.

The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.66% with an average 0.5 point, up 9 basis points from last week. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.74%.

"Following Fed chief Bernanke's remarks on June 19th about the possible timing of reduced bond purchases, Treasury bond yields jumped over the week and mortgage rates followed,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “He indicated that the Fed may moderate the pace of its buying later this year and end the purchases around the middle of 2014.”

Nothaft expressed concern that higher mortgage rates may dampen some housing market activity, but added, “the effect will be muted by the high level of buyer affordability, and home sales should remain strong.” He points out that existing home sales in May rose to its strongest pace since November 2009 and new home sales were the most seen since July 2008.

Other housing news

PhotoThe National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports pending home sales rose in May to the highest level since late 2006, implying a possible spark as mortgage interest rates began to rise.

The Pending Home Sales Index, which is based on contract signings, increased 6.7% last month -- to 112.3, from a downwardly revised 105.2 in April. The index is 12.1 percent above it's year-ago reading.

The real estate lobbying group also reported that contract activity is at the strongest pace since December 2006 when it reached 112.8; pending sales have been above year-ago levels for the past 25 months.

There may be what's known as a fence-jumping effect. “Even with limited choices,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun, “it appears some of the rise in contract signings could be from buyers wanting to take advantage of current affordability conditions before mortgage interest rates move higher. This implies a continuation of double-digit price increases from a year earlier, with a strong push from pent-up demand.”

Yun upgraded the price forecast for 2013, with the national median existing-home price expected to rise more than 10% -- to nearly $195,000. This would be the strongest increase since 2005 when the median increased 12.4%.

In addition, existing-home sales are projected to increase 8.5 to 9.0%, reaching about 5.07 million in 2013 -- the highest in seven years and the best since 2007.

More

Delta fined for violating bumping compensation rules

It's the airline's second violation in four years

When an airline oversells a flight, Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations require it to seek volunteers willing to give up their seats for compens...

PhotoWhen an airline oversells a flight, Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations require it to seek volunteers willing to give up their seats for compensation. If there aren't enough volunteers, the airline then bumps passengers involuntarily.

Passengers are entitled to a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the airline decides whom it will bump first. In most cases, those bumped involuntarily also are entitled to cash compensation of up to $1,300 depending on the value of their tickets and the length of time they're delayed.

DOT says Delta Air Lines broke rules outlining those passenger rights, and has fined the carrier $750,000. The airline was also ordered to cease and desist from further violations.

“Airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly, especially if they are forced to miss a flight because an airline oversold seats,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Consumers have rights, and we will continue to take enforcement action when airlines violate our rules to protect the traveling public.”

Numerous incidents

PhotoIn March 2012, DOT found that -- in a number of instances -- Delta failed to seek volunteers before bumping passengers involuntarily, or bumped passengers involuntarily without providing them a written notice describing their rights or informing them that they had a right to cash compensation.

In addition, the carrier classified some passengers who were bumped involuntarily as having volunteered to give up their seats, which both violated the passengers’ rights to compensation and resulted in inaccurate bumping reports filed with DOT. Delta also violated its published customer commitment, which included a pledge to obey DOT’s bumping regulations.

Delta may use up to $425,000 of the penalty to buy electronic tablets to record consumers’ decisions on whether they agreed to leave a flight and accept compensation offered by the airline, as well to train its personnel on using the tablets. The data collected can be used to help correct any problems the airline may have in complying with the bumping rules.

This is Delta’s second violation of the bumping rules in the past four years. On July 9, 2009, it was fined $375,000 for violations similar to those included in today’s consent order.

More

Tern folding bicycles recalled

The bike’s frame can crack at the hinge on the top tube

Stile Products is recalling about 175 Tern folding bicycles. The bike’s frame can crack at the hinge on the top tube, posing a fall hazard. The company ha...

PhotoStile Products is recalling about 175 Tern folding bicycles.

The bike’s frame can crack at the hinge on the top tube, posing a fall hazard. The company has received two reports of incidents of the frame hinge cracking, resulting in minor scrapes and bruises.

The recall involves Eclipse S11i and Verge S11i, X10, X20 and X30h models of Tern brand folding bikes. The 24-inch wheel Eclipse model was sold in a silver/black color combination. The 20-inch wheel Verge models were sold in silver/black, orange/white, red/black and yellow/grey color combinations. “Tern” is printed on the front end of the top tube and on portion of the frame. The model name is printed on the middle of the top tube. The frame has a 10-character alphanumeric serial number that begins with AM1A or from AM1102 through AM1207. The serial number is stamped on the bottom bracket shell of the bike. An alphanumeric service tag number located on the front of the seat tube will be requested. .

The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized Stile/Tern dealers nationwide from January 2012, to May 2013, for between $1,800 and $3,000.

Consumers should immediately stop riding the bicycle and contact Stile Products or take the bike to an authorized dealer. Consumers will receive a free frame and have it installed at no cost.

Consumers may contact Stile Products toll-free at (888) 570-8376 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

More

Pre-paid cards: it's not just the fees

The problem with these cards isn't what you think it is

Pre-paid debit cards have always had a bad reputation with consumer advocates who have complained about their numerous and high fees. These cards can be ex...

PhotoPre-paid debit cards have always had a bad reputation with consumer advocates who have complained about their numerous and high fees. These cards can be expensive to use.

But when you ask the consumers who use them, they rarely mention the fees. Perhaps at this point they have become resigned to the cost of using these banking alternatives. But that doesn't mean they don't have complaints. Far from it.

Pre-paid card users posting on ConsumerAffairs often complain about poor customer service and policies that suddenly block them from accessing their money. In fact, it's a constant refrain.

Rhonda, of Janesville, Minn., complains that her Green Dot card was blocked after she spent hours in the emergency room, waiting for her mother to receive treatment.

Excessive use

Green Dot Prepaid Cards June 27, 2013, 3:26 a.m.
Consumers rate Green Dot Prepaid Cards

“While I was sitting in the ER for hours, I started playing games on my phone and buying coins,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “After a few hours of playing, my card was blocked and the account was closed for excessive use.”

The problem, however, was Rhonda still had money on her card that she was no longer able to access.

“It took me from May 15 until June 20 to get refunded with the $300 I had on my card,” she wrote. “From now on I will never use a Green Dot card.”

Another big complaint about all pre-paid cards is customer service. When things go wrong with the card – and they do – consumers complain it's very hard to get help straightening it out. Peter, of Buxton, Me., says he purchased a Green Dot card for $80 and went home to activate it online.

“After completing the information form and selections on the first page I found it would not 'continue' when I pressed the button-link,” Peter writes.

No humans available

When Peter called the customer service number, he hit a dead end.

“There are no options to speak to a customer service representative and any pertinent options require you already be in their system, which is why I was calling them in the first place.” he writes. “I finally got someone in the 'lost and stolen card department' who could not help me and only inform me that it was now three minutes past customer service quitting time.”

Netspend June 27, 2013, 3:27 a.m.
Consumers rate Netspend

Matthew, from Pennsylvania, got his 2012 federal tax refund from TurboTax on a Netspend card. He writes that after he purchased a PlayStation 3, Netspend blocked his account, saying the expensive purchase triggered a fraud alert.

One reason pre-paid card companies say they are quick to freeze accounts is to prevent fraud, which can be a problem with any financial instrument. But despite these security measures, Toni, of Colorado Springs, Colo., said she discovered someone was draining money from her Netspend card. In a panic, she called the customer service number.

Time is money

“While on hold with NetSpend for a total of almost 45 minutes, waiting to speak to a live representative, every last dollar was spent, down to the last penny I had to my name,” Toni writes. “I was hysterical, as you can imagine, and all they did was transfer me to another person, then another, then another. After over three hours on the phone with several different representatives and a mix of misguided information that went against what the last person told me, I still had no answers as to who, how and when my money would be returned. It’s been seven days.”

PhotoEven the Bluebird card from American Express, which generally gets the highest marks among pre-paid cards, can be problematic for some consumers. Maria, of Corona, Calif., writes that she purchased a card for her husband, a truck driver, but something triggered a loss-prevention lock, making the card unusable by her husband, who was already on the road.

“He called American Express the next day, waiting one hour and fifteen minutes, but they did not resolve the problem,” Maria wrote. “They said I need to get another card in order to transfer money to him. I went to Walmart, bought another card, registered and started to transfer money to his card everything was okay. My statement said I transfered money to his account. I called him and he said the card is locked again and has already spent two days with no food.”

The unbanked

For Maria, Rhonda and many others, pre-paid debit cards are about their only option for managing money in an account since they are unable, or can't afford, to open bank accounts. In recent years, monthly bank fees and service charges have priced millions out of the banking system.

In 2011 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) estimated 10 million households in the U.S. – or 8.2% – had no bank accounts. The report found that the highest “unbanked” and “underbanked” rates are found among non-Asian minorities, lower-income households, younger households, and unemployed households. Close to half of all households in these groups are unbanked or underbanked compared to slightly more than one-quarter of all households.

More

Auto lenders to refund $6.5 million to service members

The MILES program engaged in deceptive marketing and lending practices

If you've ever driven through a town that hosts a military base, you can't help but notices the number of used car lots offering “great deals” for G.I.'s w...

PhotoIf you've ever driven through a town that hosts a military base, you can't help but notice the number of used car lots offering “great deals” for G.I.'s who need a vehicle. It's also hard not to have a feeling deep down that something may not be on the up-and-up.

Those feelings are vindicated with today's order by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for U.S. Bank and one of its nonbank partner companies, Dealers’ Financial Services (DFS), to end deceptive marketing and lending practices targeting active-duty military.

The two have to return about $6.5 million to servicemembers for failing to properly disclose all the fees that were charged in the companies’ Military Installment Loans and Educational Services (MILES) auto loans program, and for misrepresenting the true cost and coverage of add-on products financed along with the auto loans.

“The CFPB has a special mission to protect servicemembers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “The MILES program failed to properly disclose costs associated with repaying auto loans through the military allotments system and the expensive auto add-on products sold to active-duty military. We will continue our work to ensure that servicemembers are treated fairly.”

Branching out

PhotoU.S. Bank and DFS created the MILES program to finance subprime auto loans to active-duty military. While U.S. Bank is no longer the program's only lender, it is still responsible for financing the substantial majority of the MILES program loans. DFS is responsible for managing the consumer-facing aspects of the MILES program, which includes marketing the program; recruiting and maintaining the 700 participants in the MILES auto dealer network; managing the MILES website; and processing the loan applications before they are passed on to U.S. Bank.

The MILES program required servicemembers to repay their auto loans using the military allotment system, which deducts payments directly from the paycheck before that salary is deposited in the service member's bank account. The allotment system was created decades ago to help deployed servicemembers send money home to their families and pay their creditors at a time when automatic bank payments and electronic transfers didn't exist.

Vulnerable to abuse

PhotoToday, the military allotment system may be vulnerable to misuse. When servicemembers pay by allotment, the lenders often require servicemembers to use third-party processors that charge one or more fees. If lenders require payments by allotment, military consumers could be left with no choice but to pay this additional processing fee in order to qualify and pay for the loan. This can cost servicemembers more in fees than alternatives like online banking, which are often free.

U.S. Bank violations

CFPB examinations found that U.S. Bank:

  • Failed to inform servicemembers properly about fees associated with the loan: Servicemembers were charged a monthly processing fee for their automatic payroll allotments that was not properly disclosed. Over the life of a typical 60-month MILES loan, a borrower would pay approximately $180 in these fees.
  • Failed to disclose the schedule of payments properly: U.S. Bank should have informed servicemembers that they had to make payments twice per month. However, it told them that payments were due only once a month and only credited their accounts once a month.

DFS violations

CFPB examinations found that DFS:

  • Understated the costs of the vehicle service contract: Marketing materials claimed that the vehicle service contract would add just “a few dollars” to the customer’s monthly payment when it actually added an average of $43 per month.
  • Understated the costs of the insurance: Some customers were told that the insurance policy would cost only a few cents a day, when the true cost averaged 42 cents a day, or more than $100 a year.
  • Misled consumers about product benefits: The MILES marketing materials deceptively suggested that the vehicle service contract would protect servicemembers from all expensive car repairs, when many basic parts were not covered.

PhotoFixing the problem

Under the CFPB orders, the companies have agreed to:

  • Stop deceptive practices: U.S. Bank and DFS must end deceptive marketing and lending practices and will be prohibited from making misleading claims or omissions when marketing add-on products through MILES or similar programs in the future.
  • Pay restitution to servicemembers: U.S. Bank will pay at least $3.2 million and DFS will pay $3.3 million to over 50,000 servicemember victims for violating the Truth in Lending Act and federal laws that prohibit deceptive marketing and lending practices. Servicemembers who had outstanding MILES loans between January 1, 2010 and today may receive restitution.
  • Provide refunds or credits without any further action by consumers: Servicemembers are not required to take any action to receive their reimbursement. Both companies will provide the reimbursements to the victims as an account credit or as a check in the mail.
  • Stop requiring the use of allotments: U.S. Bank and DFS have agreed to modify the MILES program so servicemembers are not required to use allotments in order to participate.
  • Improve disclosures: The companies will take steps to improve their disclosures to servicemembers regarding the cost and other material terms of add-on products.
  • Required reporting: Under the orders, both companies will be required to submit a redress plan that the CFPB must approve. They must also provide reports to the bureau to demonstrate their compliance with the orders.
More

Apple will pay $100 million to parents to settle in-app lawsuit

Action grew out of children racking up thousands in bills

Apple has settled a class action lawsuit over the practice of so-called “in-app purchases,” agreeing to pay a total of $100 million to parents ...

PhotoApple has settled a class action lawsuit over the practice of so-called “in-app purchases,” agreeing to pay a total of $100 million to parents whose children made in-app purchases on games in iTunes.

Under the terms of the settlement, parents whose children charged $30 or less in an app will receive $5 in iTunes Store credit. Parents who don’t have an iTunes account anymore will get $5 cash instead. If a child charged more than $30, the parent must produce documentation showing the amount and date of each purchase.

Claims can be filed online at the settlement website, itunesinapppurchasesettlement.com.

Continuing uproar

The public uproar over in-app purchases began in February 2011, when The Washington Post published a story detailing, among other horrors,  a Rockville, Maryland girl who racked up an eye-popping $1,400 bill while playing the game Smurfs’ Village.

Within weeks, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it was reviewing Apple’s in-app purchase policy. The review came at the request of Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who sent the FTC a letter after reading the story in the Post.

PhotoThen-FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz told Markey in a letter that the FTC “fully share[s] your concern that consumers, particularly children, are unlikely to understand the ramifications of these types of purchases."

"Let me assure you we will look closely at the current industry practice with respect to the marketing and delivery of these types of applications," Leibowitz said.

The month after the Post story was published, Apple announced that it had changed its policy, now requiring passwords for in-app purchases in recently-downloaded apps.

Consumer complaints

ConsumerAffairs has heard from consumers shocked to find the sizable Apple charges on their credit card.

Last year, we detailed the saga of Kristy from Portland, Michigan, whose eight-year-old son racked up over $1,140 in charges while playing the “free” game Dragonvale.

“On March 30, he made 15 purchases totaling $720 in less than one hour,” Kristi wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “On March 31, the charges totaled over $420 in under 20 minutes.”

After investigating, Kristy found that the in-app purchases were for things like sacks of food, dragon treats, and bags of gems to be used in the game.

More

Cellphone spammer faces multi-million-dollar class action

Judge allows case against Wise Media to go forward

A federal judge left the bulk of a class action against a cellphone spammer intact, leaving it to face the music for charging millions of customers for unw...

PhotoA federal judge is allowing a multi-million-dollar class action against an alleged cellphone spammer to go forward. Wise Media is accused of charging millions of consumers for services they didn't want or order.

The plaintiffs filed their case in October 2012, saying they had received unsolicited text messages from Wise offering flirting tips, horoscopes, celebrity gossip and weight loss advice, Courthouse News Service reported. 

The Federal Trade Commission is also on Wise's case. It filed a complaint in April, asking the court to freeze the defendants’ assets immediately and order them to stop their “deceptive and unfair practices.”

It's the first time the FTC has gone after an alleged cellphone crammer.

Flirting tips 

The class action charges that a typical initial text sent to cellphone users by Wise Media stated: "Lovegenietips Flirting Tips; 3msg/week for $9.99/m T&Cs: lovegenietips.com Msg&data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to cancel." 

Then through a process called "cramming," Wise allegedly used middlemen to place charges on millions of consumers' cellphone bills, even when consumers rejected the offers or simply didn't respond. 

The suit also names Mobile Messenger Americas, mBlox Incorporated and Motricity, aggregators that it says acted as Wise's middlemen. Mobile Messenger had moved for dismissal of the claims against it but  U.S. District Judge William Alsup, of the Northern California district, refused and allowed the case to go forward.

Alsup left the class's actions for conversion, negligence -- and the common law counts of unjust enrichment and money had and received -- intact. He found that at this stage of the proceedings, there was sufficient cause to believe that money was taken from cellphone users and restitution must be paid.

Lead plaintiffs in the case are Edward Fields, Cathie O'Hanks, Erik Kristianson, Richard Parmentier, Kimberly Brewster and Kristian Kunder.

Not a new idea

The concept of ‘cramming’ charges on to phone bills is a not a new one,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “As more and more consumers move to mobile phones, scammers have adapted to this new technology, and the commission will continue its efforts to protect consumers from their unlawful practices.”

In many instances, the FTC complaint maintains, Wise Media sent text messages to consumers that suggested they were subscribed to the service, which many consumers dismissed as spam and ignored. Even if consumers responded via text indicating that they did not want the services, they were charged on their mobile phone bills on a continuing basis.

Caught unaware

The commission says Wise Media and its operators took advantage of the fact that consumers may not expect their mobile phone bills to contain charges from third parties and that these charges appear on bills in an abbreviated manner that does not always clearly designate the company as the source of the charge.

As a result, it says, many consumers didn’t notice or understand the charges and paid the bills. To the extent that consumers did notice the charges, the process of obtaining refunds was difficult and often unsuccessful according to the complaint.

Wise Media is accused of going to great lengths to hide its contact information from consumers. And it says, when consumers were finally able to find a phone number for Wise Media, the company's call center employees frequently promised refunds that were never provided.

More

Suit: Teen dies after downing two Monster Energy drinks

19-year-old died of a heart attack while having sex, his mother alleges

A California woman is suing Monster Beverage Corp., claiming her son died of a heart attack brought on by ingesting a "toxic amount of caffeine and other s...

PhotoA California woman is suing Monster Beverage Corp., claiming her son died of a heart attack brought on by ingesting a "toxic amount of caffeine and other stimulants."

Paula Morris says her son, Alex, 19, was having sex with his girlfriend when he went into cardiac arrest and died. He had earlier downed two Monster Energy drinks, the suit alleges, Courthouse News Service reported.

The suit says that the youth had regularly consumed at least two 16-ounce cans of Monster Energy drinks per day for the past three years.  He died during the early morning hours of July 1, 2012, after becoming unresponsive while having a sexual encounter with his girlfriend.

An autopsy report identifies the cause of death as "cardiac arrhythmia due to cardiomyopathy," the complaint states.

"Massive amount"

Morris claims Monster Energy loads its drinks with "massive amounts of caffeine" though it knows that excessive caffeine consumption can cause many health problems, including heart arrhythmia.

"In addition to caffeine, Monster Energy drinks contain guarana and taurine. Guarana is a plant extract that contains caffeine. Taurine has an effect on cardiac muscles similar to that of caffeine. Studies have shown that the synergistic effect of caffeine, guarana, taurine and/or other like substances can produce significant adverse health effects, including cardiac arrest," the complaint states.

Morris claims Monster conceals the risks associated with drinking its products through misleading advertisements, labels and promotions that assure consumers they are safe.

She says her son would not have drunk two Monster Energy drinks a day for three years if Monster had "properly disclosed and warned of the significant risk of suffering adverse cardiac episodes."

The suit, filed in Alameda County, Calif., court, seeks punitive damages for wrongful death, product liability, negligence, fraudulent concealment and other charges. She also seeks medical expenses and funeral costs. She is represented by Alexander Wheeler with the R. Rex Parris Law Firm in Lancaster, Calif., and Kevin Goldberg with Goldberg, Finnegan & Mester of Silver Spring, Md.

More

Supreme Court kills part of Voting Rights Act

Stricken provision leaves future of the law in jeopardy

In a stunning decision Tuesday that shook the legal community and outraged civil rights leaders, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting ...

PhotoIn a stunning decision Tuesday that shook the legal community and outraged civil rights leaders, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Right Act of 1965, leaving the future of the law in jeopardy.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that the formula for “preclearance” -- the process by which the U.S. Department of Justice must approve proposed changes to voting protocol in states with a history of discrimination -- is unconstitutional.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion for the majority, said that “[o]ur country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

As evidence for his proposition that the law is outdated, Roberts pointed to census information showing that, in five of the states originally affected by the law, African-American voters turn out to vote more often than their white counterparts.

Key civil rights legislation

The decision is a major blow to a law passed during the heat of the civil rights movement. Signed in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson -- who had signed the Civil Rights Act the previous year -- the Voting Right Act forbids states from creating a "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Although the law was signed during a tumultuous period in history, it had long been considered uncontroversial. The law has been renewed by Congress four times, most recently in 2006 by margins of 390-33 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate.

Preclearance and formula requirements

The Supreme Court’s decision focused mainly on Section 4 of the Act, which sets forth procedures to minimize discrimination. In its opinion, the majority said that “[t]he conditions that originally justified [the measures in Section 4] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”

Section 4(a) of the Act states that “no citizen shall be denied the right to vote in any Federal, State, or local election because of his failure to comply with any test or device.” This provision was designed to stop practices such as literacy tests that denied swaths of otherwise eligible citizens the ability to vote.

Under Section 5 of the Act, “covered jurisdictions” -- states and counties that have a history of discriminating against minority voters -- must have any proposed changes to voting protocol approved by the U.S. Department of Justice before those changes can be put into effect. This practice is often referred to as “preclearance.” Section 4(b) -- the section that the Court ruled unconstitutional -- laid out a formula to determine which jurisdictions are required to comply with preclearance..

“If Congress had started from scratch in 2006  [when the act was renewed], it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula,” the majority wrote. “It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story.”

The decision does not actually condemn preclearance itself, although Congress would have to draft a new formula in order for the practice to continue.

A dissent written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the majority opinion an act of “hubris.”

Leaders react

In a statement, President Obama said he was “deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision.”

“As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote,” Obama said. “But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists.”

And Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who was beaten by police during the Selma to Montgomery March, told MSNBC that “what the court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart.”

More

How to find a good bail bondsman

Some might say they don't plan on getting arrested, but you never know

A bail bondsman or bail agent is one of those people you hope you never need but if you do, where do look? Well, the Internet of course, right?That's whe...

More

Pumping it up: personal spending, incomes rise in May

And, some good news for the labor market

Cash registers were buzzing, or ringing, or whatever it is they do, a little more during May. The government reports consumer spending rose 0.3% after fa...

PhotoCash registers were buzzing, or ringing, or whatever it is they do, a little more during May.

The government reports consumer spending rose 0.3% after falling that much in April. Personal income, meanwhile was up 0.5% May following a miniscule gain of 0.1% the previous month.

The income increase exceeded the expectation of economists surveyed by Briefing.com , who projected a rise of just 0.2%. However the spending gain fell short of analysts' forecast of a 0.4% advance.

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

Jobless claims

PhotoThe line for state unemployment benefits was a little shorter last week.

First-time jobless claims were down by 9,000 during the week ending June 22, to 346,000. Briefing.com analysts had called for a total of 345,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 345,750 -- a decrease of 2,750 from the previous week's revised average of 348,500.

The complete reports is available at Labor Department website.

More

A growing generation of couch potatoes

An NIH study shows just half of adolescents meet physical activity standards

Things are not looking good for the current crop of American adolescents as far as their health is concerned. Researchers at researchers at the National ...

PhotoThings are not looking good for the current crop of American adolescents as far as their health is concerned.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) say only about half of them are physically active five or more days a week, and less than a-third eat fruits and vegetables every day.

In a 39-state survey, NIH researchers questioned nearly 10,000 students between 11 and 16 years old about their activity levels and eating habits. They also asked them to describe their emotional health, body image and general satisfaction with life.

'Surprising' results

“The students showed a surprising variability in eating patterns,” said lead author Ronald J. Iannotti, Ph.D., of the Prevention Research Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the NIH Institute in which the study was conducted. “But most -- about 74 percent -- did not have a healthy pattern.”

The findings appear in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Wide-ranging study

The researchers found that the adolescents’ diet and activity habits could be classified into three general categories. The first group, described as “unhealthful,” accounted for 26% of participants. The second group, 27%, was classified as “healthful.” Because it was the largest group -- including 47% of participants -- the researchers classified the third group as “typical.”

The researchers surveyed participants about: their daily amount of physical activity, the amount of time they spent in front of a computer screen or other electronic screen, and the amount of healthy and unhealthy foods they consumed. Other questions sought information on symptoms of depression and self-satisfaction with their bodies.

Bad habits abound

PhotoThe analysis of the survey results showed that the “typical” youth were least likely to exercise five or more days each week or to eat fruits and vegetables at least once a day. They were more likely to spend time watching TV, playing video games or on a computer than the healthful group, and less likely to do so than the unhealthful group. They infrequently ate fruits and vegetables but also infrequently ate sweets, chips or fries, or had soft drinks. Youth in this group were more likely than youth in the other two groups to be overweight or obese and to be dissatisfied with the appearance of their bodies.

The “unhealthful” group consumed the most sweets, chips, french fries, and soft drinks. They also were more likely than the other groups to report watching TV, playing video games and using a computer more than two hours a day. Despite the caloric foods they consumed, youth in the unhealthful group were more likely to be underweight and to report needing to put on weight. They also were more likely to report symptoms of depression and of poor physical health, such as backaches, stomachaches, headaches or feeling dizzy.

Nearly 65 percent of students in the group that the researchers termed “healthful” reported exercising five or more days per week -- the highest rate of the three groups. These students were least likely to spend time in front of a screen and were most likely to report eating fruits and vegetables at least once a day. They also were least likely to consume sweets, soft drinks, chips and French fries, and reported the lowest rates of depressive symptoms and the highest life satisfaction ratings.

All three groups could stand to improve their health habits, Dr. Iannotti said, whether walking or biking between home and school or eating more fresh produce each day.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends children and adolescents get one hour or more of moderate or vigorous aerobic physical activity a day, including vigorous intensity physical activity at least three days a week.

More

Supreme Court strikes down key portion of DOMA

Decision based on equal protection grounds

The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that the government’s refusal to recognize ...

PhotoThe Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that the government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages amounted to a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The Act, known colloquially as DOMA, was enacted in 1996 as the gay marriage battle was heating up across the country. The legislation, which easily passed both houses of Congress, provided that states that did not allow same-sex marriage did not have to recognize gay marriages performed legally in other states. Under DOMA, for instance, Texas can refuse to recognize a gay marriage legally performed in New York.

Section 3 of DOMA specified that the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages, and that therefore same-sex couples were ineligible for federal marital benefits. As a result, same-sex couples were unable to obtain marital insurance benefits, survivor’s benefits for Social Security, and could not file joint tax returns.

It was this section of the Act that the Court said failed for want of equal protection.

Close vote

The vote was 5-4, with liberal justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer joining perennial swing vote Anthony Kennedy in voting to strike down the provision.

The majority opinion, written by Kennedy, stressed that “[b]y seeking to … treat[ gay couples] as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

“The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State,” the majority wrote. “DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper … The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”

The majority also stressed that “[t]he avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States."

Dissent by Scalia

A typically feisty Justice Antonin Scalia penned a dissent that was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined in part by Chief Justice John Roberts. Scalia, who is known for the occasional sharp jab at colleagues on the other side of an opinion, lamented that the Court -- in his opinion -- was unable to find common ground, or at least reach a cordial disagreement.

“In the majority's telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us,” Scalia wrote. “The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one's political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today's Court can handle. Too bad.”

The ruling is just the latest step toward equality for same-sex couples. In September 2011, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the law prohibiting gay members of the military from publicly divulging their sexual orientation, was repealed. And the latest polls show that around 55% of Americans support legalizing gay marriage.

More

ECRS recalls blue cheese chicken dip products

The products contain anchovies, an allergen not declared on the label

ECRS of Hollywood, Fla., is recalling 12,560 pounds of chicken dip products. The products contain anchovies, a known allergen which is not declared on th...

PhotoECRS of Hollywood, Fla., is recalling 12,560 pounds of chicken dip products.

The products contain anchovies, a known allergen which is not declared on the label. There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 8-oz. containers with 16 pieces per case of “BUBBA’S Buffalo Blue Cheese Chicken Dip” bearing the establishment number “P-21299” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced and packaged on April 10, 2013.
  • 16-oz. containers with 8 pieces per case of “BUBBA’S Buffalo Blue Cheese Chicken Dip” bearing the establishment number “P-21299” inside the USDA mark of inspection with expiration dates from June 25, 2013, through Sept. 24, 2013. The products were produced and packaged from March 21, 2013, through June 21, 2013.

The products were distributed to retail grocery stores and through Internet/catalog sales in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Charlie Gonzalez, manager, at (954) 965-2480.

More

FTC talks tough to Google about paid search results

Failing to clearly distinguish paid from natural results could be deceptive, agency warns

Google, not exactly known for its journalistic expertise, has lately been lecturing newspapers and other news outlets about its objections to paid content ...

PhotoGoogle, not exactly known for its journalistic expertise, has lately been lecturing newspapers and other news outlets about its objections to paid content on their web pages but now Google and the other big search engines are getting some sterner advice from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

This raises the question of which is scarier -- "advice" from a search engine that could put you out of business by dropping your site to the bottom of its search results or a stiff letter from a federal agency that could spend years investigating your operations.  

Be that as it may, the FTC warns the search engines that they must "clearly and prominently" distinguish paid advertising from "natural" search results, referred to for some reason as "organic" results by the technorati, saying that it is getting harder and harder for consumers to tell the difference.

Failing to do so "could be a deceptive practice," the consumer protection agency said. It called for "visual cues, labels, or other techniques to effectively distinguish advertisements, in order to avoid misleading consumers."

Growing tendency

PhotoThe FTC said that over the last year or so, there has been a growing tendency for search engines to put paid listings above "natural" search results, causing users to think the ads are objective, unpaid search results.

Last year, Google revised its Shopping search service so that it includes only paid listings, thereby making it possible that consumers will not be shown the very best deals on a given item. The only indication that this is the case is a bit of grey text that says "sponsored" at the top right.

No doubt Google would be unhappy if news sites began writing only about politicians who paid to have stories written about them but it does not seem to feel any compunction about presenting only sponsored shopping information to consumers. 

"Consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party," the FTC said in its letter. "Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising. To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers."

Besides Google, the letter went to Yahoo, Bing, AOL, Blekko, DuckDuckGo and 17 specialized search engines. Google dominates search engine advertising with about 74% of the $17 billion spent annually on ads and paid search results.

In January, the FTC wound up a two-year antitrust probe of Google, saying it found no basis for action.

More

Most Americans work on vacation, say researchers

It's a combination of not being able to unplug and having pushy bosses

Summer time is a wonderful season for many reasons, but the fact that it's associated with lighter workloads and taking vacations makes it extra special....

PhotoSummer time is a wonderful season for many reasons, but the fact that it's associated with lighter workloads and taking vacations makes it extra special.

But vacations just aren't what they used to be, in terms of rest and relaxation, many people say.

According to a new study conducted by Harris Interactive and released by Ricoh Americas Corporation, 54% of U.S. workers say their boss expects them to work during their vacation.

And that angers a lot of folks, as 51% of American employees said they'd rather get a root canal than work during a vacation.

So what's changed? Why do some bosses expect you to work while you're away on a solo trip or when you're vacating with your family?

Bad habits

Russell Poldrack, who teaches neurobiology at the University of Texas, says working at any job can become habitual and many people have a hard time breaking their routine.

"Habits of the mind aren't easy to break in a few days," he said in an interview with The New York Times. "Especially if you don't change your context."

PhotoChanging your context will be extremely hard to do if you bring a laptop or tablet with you. Even your smartphone can suck you back into the workplace and throw you back into your daily responsibilities.

Based on findings from a survey released by Neverfail, a company that provides business-related software, 79% of people said they take their work-related device with them on vacations. 

Other statistics show that one-third of people hide from their family or friends when they're on vacation to check their work email. And nearly 50% of those surveyed said they traveled up to 10 miles on vacation to find a place to check emails.

More compartmentalizing

Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research, said people have to do a much better job of compartmentalizing.

"Mobile messaging has become crucial to businesses and employees alike, but constant access to email makes it difficult for some workers to unwind," he said.

"Mobile access to email is certainly a critical aspect of how we do business now, but it is important to remember that there is a time and place for everything."

But it's not just the fact that some find it hard to let go of their responsibilities. A lot of bosses expect people to work during their vacations. This was confirmed in a survey released by the company TeamViewer.

PhotoResearch shows that 30% of folks read their work email while on vacation, 23% take work-related phone calls, 19% pull work-related things off their home computer and 18% of people get text messages that have to do with work.

Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, who led a study that was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, said Americans seem to equate success with constantly working, which is much different from people in other parts of the world.

"Americans maximize their [joy] by working and Europeans maximize their [joy] through leisure," he said. 

Is it that bad, really?

But is working on vacation really that bad? Does achieving work/life balance mean you can't check an email or two? Especially if it'll make you feel better?

A survey by Ricoh Americas Corporation shows that 64% of people say checking their work email on vacation makes returning to work a little easier, because they seem to be less behind.

But Terrie Campbell, VP of Strategic Marketing at Ricoh, says working on vacation doesn't make much sense, for either the worker or the employer.

"It seems employees are actually working harder when they're on vacation than when they're in the office," she said.

"This means both employers and employees end up paying the price of working vacations, and it doesn't have to be this way. It shouldn't be this way. Either we manage our technology or it manages us."

In addition, Campbell says if you're a boss or manager and you're making your employees work on vacation, it could backfire on you and the company.

"Workers absolutely must have a chance to recharge for themselves, their families and their career," she said. "Employers ignore this need at their peril. Workers will choose desirable employers by whether they encourage you to disconnect on vacation or not."

"In these situations where working on vacation is unavoidable, the most-sought-after employers will make mobile access easy," explained Campbell.

More

Social media could be teen suicide prevention tool

Young people are reaching out, researchers say, but someone needs to pay attention

Teen suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 24. Only homicide and accidents claim more lives.The s...

PhotoTeen suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 24. Only homicide and accidents claim more lives.

The statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also show as many as 20% of teens consider suicide at some point during the year.

But help may be available from an unexpected source.

In many instances, young people appear too reliant on digital communication, sending hundreds of texts and spending hours posting on social media sites. Some say it's not healthy. Now, mental health officials say what looks like a negative might actually turn out to be beneficial if it can be harnessed to provide a teen suicide early warning system.

After all, young people tend to be quite revealing when they send out a text or post something online. What if someone just paid closer attention?

Analyzing posts

A research team based at Ohio State University (OSU) began monitoring posts on MySpace. In one month they found 64 comments in which adolescents expressed a wish to die.

The researchers then conducted a follow-up survey of young adults and found that young people were highly likely to use text messages when they felt very depressed, reaching out to family and friends. They were least likely, the researchers found, to call a suicide-prevention hotline, which is probably the most common prevention strategy among existing suicide-prevention initiatives.

Obvious tool

Together, the data from the two studies told the researchers that an obvious tool was right in front of them. They conclude that teen suicide-prevention efforts should employ social networking and other types of technology.

“Obviously this is a place where adolescents are expressing their feelings,” said Scottye Cash, associate professor of social work at OSU and lead author of the studies. “It leads me to believe that we need to think about using social media as an intervention and as a way to connect with people.”

The team focused on MySpace and not Facebook because most Facebook profiles are private and not accessible. The challenge was finding expressions that met the test of a real suicide threat, not an easy task considering the age group.

“There’s a lot of drama and angst in teenagers so in a lot of cases, they might say something ‘will kill them’ but not really mean it. Teasing out that hyperbole was an intense process,” Cash said.

Song lyrics often a clue

Sometimes a post would reference a song lyric that was about suicide. According to Cash, the three most common phrases within the final sample were “kill myself,” referenced in 51.6 percent of the posts, “want to die,” mentioned 15.6 percent of the time, and “suicide,” mentioned 14.1 percent of the time.

Cash and her colleagues determined that 42 percent of the posts referred to problems with family or other relationships – including 15.6 percent that were about break-ups – and 6.3 percent were attributable to mental health problems or substance abuse.

A report by the National Institute of Mental Health, issued in 2004, determined that risk factors for suicide include depression and other mental disorders, and substance-abuse disorders. Sometimes these factors combined with other mental disorders. According to the report, more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors.

On top of the risk factors, mental health experts point to additional stressors, such as disciplinary problems, interpersonal losses, family violence, sexual orientation confusion, physical and sexual abuse and being the victim of bullying.

More

Barnes & Noble backing out of the Nook-making business

BN says it will sell "co-branded" devices made by others

Did it ever seem like a good idea for struggling book retailer Barnes & Noble to go head-to-head against Apple, Amazon, Google and other rich and ...

PhotoDid it ever seem like a good idea for struggling book retailer Barnes & Noble to go head-to-head against Apple, Amazon, Google and other rich and powerful technology companies?

Maybe it did to someone but, as Bill Clinton might say, a little arithmetic shows otherwise. So now, BN says it will stop making the color Nook e-reader and will sell co-branded devices made by others while continuing to make its own black-and-white Nook. 

The company says the Nook losses have wiped out the profits the company managed to eke out of its book retailing business. Nooks have been losing ground all around, losing market share while the size of the overall e-reader market declines.

After all, most people who want an e-reader already have one or more. More significantly, most folks are occasional readers who can do all the reading they can stand on their iPad or other tablet or smartphone.

While there will no doubt be those who see this as bad news for the book business, we know of quite a few Nook owners who will not be sorry to learn of the devices' demise. 

"The Nook keeps telling me to go to an area with WiFi when I try to download books in my library but is sufficiently connected to sell me a new book! Weird," said Alan of Crowborough, England in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "I have tried to de-register and reload but now it's completely locked. I am waiting for Nook customer service to suggest what to do. The Nook app on my iPad works fine. It's the Nook that is the problem. Really wish I'd gotten a Kindle instead."

"My Nook Color will not charge past 19%," said Brandy of Charlotte, N.C. "I've replaced the charger twice in less than a year. I was told since it was over one year old, I had to pay $60 for a refurbished Nook or $85 for a new one. I've decided on a new reader from a different manufacturer. My sister had the same problem with her Nook Color. We're both shopping elsewhere."

The Nook news was sort of tucked into Barnes & Noble's financial results, which showed that for the quarter, Nook revenues dropped by 34% to $108 million as device sales fell. And for fiscal 2013, Nook revenues declined by 16.8% to $776 million.

The slow nook sales also dragged down sales of music, books and other digital content, which was down 8.9% for the quarter.

 

More

Big house, big footprint

21% of homes account for 50% of greenhouse gas emissions

Energy hogPeople who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. And environmental activists who live in big houses shouldn't be too quick to condemn ...

Photo
Energy hog

People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. And environmental activists who live in big houses shouldn't be too quick to condemn others for their greenhouse gas emissions, a study finds.

A new study finds that energy conservation in a small number of households could go a long way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Their study, which measured differences in energy demands at the household level, appears in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The researchers note that the energy people use to power their homes and to satisfy their mobility needs accounts for more than 70 percent of emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas involved in global climate change.

Supply side

Environmentalists and policy makers have focused largely on the supply side of the problem -- proposing new restrictions on power plants, heating systems and cars. Dominik Saner and colleagues decided to take a close look at the other end of the equation — how energy consumption for housing and land-based mobility at the household level impacts greenhouse gas emissions.

They studied more than 3,000 households in a Swiss town and found that only 21 percent of the households accounted for almost 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The biggest factors contributing to a few families having a disproportionately large environmental footprint were large living spaces, which use energy for heating, lighting and cooling, and long commutes in private vehicles.

“If their emissions could be halved, the total emissions of the community would be reduced by 25 percent,” the scientists concluded.

It's something to think about the next time you feel like criticizing the guy who drives a gas-guzzling sports car on weekends or dares use an outside gas grill.

More

Crabgrass' secret: It poisons nearby plants

Gardeners have long thought the despised weed crowded out its neighbors; the truth is even worse

Ask your average gardener why the despised weed crabgrass is successful and he'll say it's because it grows fast and crowds out neighboring plants. But t...

PhotoAsk your average gardener why the despised weed crabgrass is successful and he'll say it's because it grows fast and crowds out neighboring plants.

But the truth is even worse:  A new study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry has found that crabgrass actually produces its own herbicides that kill nearby plants.

The weed is not only a headache for lawns and home gardens, but also a major cause of crop loss on farms, so there has long been interest in learning more about how it manages to be so aggressive.

Scientists have long suspected that the weed thrived by allelopathy,  which occurs when one plant restricts the growth of another by releasing toxins.

Chui-Hua Kong and colleagues set out to determine if crabgrass in fact has the ability to poison its neighbors. Kong’s team isolated three chemicals from crabgrass that affect the microbial communities in nearby soil and did indeed inhibit the growth of staple crops wheat, corn and soybeans.

“The chemical-specific changes in [the] soil microbial community generated a negative feedback on crop growth,” the scientists said, noting that the chemicals also would have a direct toxic effect on other plants.  

More

Mortgage applications dip -- again

Rising interest rates are likely responsible

Fewer would-be homeowners applied for mortgages last week. Mortgage applications decreased 3.0% from one week earlier, according to data from The Mortgag...

PhotoFewer would-be homeowners applied for mortgages last week.

Mortgage applications decreased 3.0%, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending June 21, 2013, following a nearly identical drop of 3.3% the previous week.

“Interest rates moved up sharply following the Federal Reserve press conference last Wednesday where it was indicated that the Fed could begin tapering their asset purchases later this year,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s vice president of research and economics. “Mortgage rates increased by the most in a single week since 2011, and refinance application volume dropped to its lowest level in almost two years.”

Other applications

Last week, the MBA's Refinance Index was down 5% from the previous week -- to the lowest level since November 2011. The refinance share of mortgage activity decreased to 67% of total applications, the lowest level since July 2011, from 69% the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7% of total application, the government share of purchase applications dropped to 28% -- the lowest level in the history of this series, and the HARP share of refinance applications fell from 31% the prior week to 30%.

PhotoInterest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRM) with loan balances of $417,500 or less increased to 4.46% -- the highest rate since August 2011 -- from 4.17%;
  • The average contract interest rate for a 30-year FRM with jumbo loan balances of more than $417,500 increased to 4.52%, the highest rate since March 2012, from 4.23%;
  • The average contract interest rate for a 30-year FRM backed by the FHA increased to 4.20% -- the highest rate since August 2011 -- from 3.8%;
  • The average contract interest rate for a 15-year FRM increased to 3.55%, the highest rate since November 2011, from 3.30%; and
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.06% -- the highest rate since October 2011 -- from 2.81%.
More

IRS goes into CYA mode

The tax agency says it wants to 'ensure accountability'

In the wake of the continuing scandal surrounding its handling of reviews of tax-exempt applications, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) -- in the person o...

PhotoIn the wake of the continuing scandal surrounding its handling of reviews of tax-exempt applications, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) -- in the person of Principal Deputy Commissioner Danny Werfel -- has come out with a report that it says is designed to fix the problems.

According to an agency release, the three-part report cites actions to “hold management accountable and identifies immediate steps to help put the process for approving tax-exempt applications back on track.” Also included are actions Werfel says are needed to protect and improve wider IRS operations, ranging from compliance areas to taxpayer service.

“It is critical that the IRS takes steps to ensure accountability, address the problems uncovered in recent weeks and improve the operations of the IRS to continue to carry out our critical mission on behalf of the public,” Werfel said. “We have made a number of changes already, more are in the works and even more will develop as we move forward.”

As might be expected from the agency that maintains the problem stems from a rogue group in the distant outpost of Cincinnati, Ohio, the initial review “shows no signs of intentional wrongdoing by IRS personnel or involvement by parties outside the IRS in the activities described in the recent Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) report.

Still, the report notes that investigations are continuing, and that the IRS “is committed to a full fact-finding effort to provide the public answers to these and other important questions.”

“The IRS is committed to correcting its mistakes, holding people accountable, and establishing control elements that will help us mitigate the risks we face,” Werfel said. “This report is a critical first step in the process of restoring trust in this critical institution. We have more work in front of us, but we believe we are on the right track to move forward.”

Fixes

The report, “Charting a Path Forward at the IRS: Initial Assessment and Plan of Action,” covers three primary areas:

Accountability. This covers the “steps being taken to ensure accountability for the mismanagement” described in last month’s TIGTA report:

  • The report finds that “significant management and judgment failures” occurred, as outlined in the TIGTA report. These contributed to the “inappropriate treatment” of taxpayers applying for tax- exempt status.
  • To address this, new leadership has been installed across all five executive management levels in the chain of command connected to these matters. In addition, the IRS has empaneled an “Accountability Review Board” to provide recommendations within 60 days (and later as needed) on any additional personnel actions that should be taken.

Fixing the Problems with the Review of Applications for Tax-Exempt Status. This part covers several process improvements underway to ensure that taxpayers are treated appropriately and effectively in the review of applications for tax-exempt status:

  • The report outlines a new voluntary process to help certain applicants gain fast-track approval to operate as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt entity if they are being reviewed for advocacy questions and have been in the application backlog for more than 120 days. This self-certification process allows them “a streamlined path” to tax-exempt status if they certify they will operate within specified limits and thresholds of political and social welfare activities. In addition, the IRS has added new technical and program staff to assist with reviewing 501(c)(4) applications.
  • The IRS also suspended the use of any “be-on-the-lookout,” or BOLO lists in the application process for tax-exempt status. This lists had contained such read flag raisers as “liberty,” and “patriot.”

Review of IRS Operations and Risks. The report identifies a series of actions to ensure taxpayers that selection criteria across the IRS are appropriate and that taxpayers are aware of how they can seek assistance if they have concerns about the IRS. The report further outlines steps underway that it says will ensure that critical program or operational risks within the IRS are identified early, raised to the right decision-makers and shared timely with key stakeholders:

  • The report calls for establishing what's termed an Enterprise Risk Management Program to provide a common framework for capturing, reporting and addressing risk areas across the IRS. This is expected to improve timeliness in bringing information to the attention of the IRS commissioner and other leaders as well as key stakeholders to help prevent future instances of inappropriate treatment or mismanagement.
  • Although the agency claims there is no current evidence that selection criteria in other IRS organizations is inappropriate, the nature of the problems identified in the tax-exempt application process warrants a review of certain process controls within the IRS. The IRS will initiate a comprehensive, agency-wide review of compliance selection criteria. Results will be shared with the Department of the Treasury, the IRS Oversight Board, and the Chairpersons of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.
  • The IRS will initiate additional internal and external education and outreach about the role of the National Taxpayer Advocate in assisting taxpayers in resolving problems they encounter with the IRS.
More

Uh-oh. Economy is weaker than we were led to believe

The government has revised its estimate of growth downward

Things aren't perking along so well after all. Turns out real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and prope...

PhotoThings aren't perking along so well after all.

Turns out real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States -- expanded at a 1.8% an annual rate in the first three months of the year.

The government's release of its "third" estimate of economic growth is a downward revision from last month's “second “ estimate of a 2.4% growth rate. The difference is accounted for by a slower rate of consumer spending than first reported and a decline in imports and exports.

As disappointing as the downward revision might be, the rate of growth is considerably better than the 0.4% posted in the fourth quarter of 2012. The “third” estimate came as a surprise to economists surveyed by Briefing.com, who had expected the rate to hold at 2.4%.

The full report is available on the Bureau of Economic Analysis website  .

More

Buying your first home? Here are your tax breaks

The tax code rewards homeowners, so take advantage of it

First-time homeowners often are quickly confronted with the trials and travails of home ownership. When something goes wrong, there is no landlord to call....

PhotoFirst-time homeowners often are quickly confronted with the trials and travails of home ownership. When something goes wrong, there is no landlord to call. It's up to you to fix whatever is broken.

But there are some financial benefits to owning a home that is your principal residence, thanks to the U.S. tax code. The key, though, is living in the house full time. Most of the tax breaks for houses don't apply to investment property or second homes.

The first big tax break is the mortgage interest deduction. The tax law allows you to deduct the interest paid on a mortgage on your primary residence, and even a second home.

Must be secured by the home

Generally, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers home mortgage interest to be any interest you pay on a loan secured by your home. It may be a mortgage to buy your home, a second mortgage, a line of credit, or a home equity loan.

You can deduct home mortgage interest if you file Form 1040 and itemize deductions on Schedule A and the mortgage is a debt, secured by the home.

In most cases, you can deduct all of your home mortgage interest. According to the IRS, how much you can deduct depends on the date of the mortgage, the amount of the mortgage, and how you use the mortgage proceeds. You can even deduct mortgage interest on a second home, as long as you do not rent it out during the tax year. IRS Publication 936 explains it in detail. 

In addition to the mortgage interest, your tax breaks may begin when you buy the home. If you pay points on the loan at closing, the points – or prepaid interest – are deductible. Even if the seller pays your points, you still get to deduct them.

Taxes

PhotoOwning a home means you will be paying property taxes. Under the tax law, taxes paid on personal property are deductible.

Since property taxes are generally rolled into your monthly payment, along with principal, interest and insurance, a significant portion of your monthly house payment is deductible. Here's an example:

Suppose your payment is $1,800 a month. After each payment the principal portion of the payment rises slightly, but in the early years you may be paying approximately $300 in principal, $1,000 in interest, $450 in taxes and $50 in insurance.

Since you can deduct the interest and taxes, $1,450 of your monthly payment is deductible, resulting in a $17,400 annual write off. If you are in the 28% tax bracket, that puts $4,872 back in your pocket. Put another way, that $1,800 house payment is actually about $1,400.

Tax-free capital gain

The biggest tax break, however, comes when you sell your home, providing you have lived in it at least two years as your primary residence. Normally, when you buy an asset and later sell it, you pay a tax on the capital gain – the difference between what you paid and what you sold it for.

Under current tax law, you are exempted from paying a capital gains tax if you have owned your primary residence two years or longer and the gain is $250,000 or less for an individual and $500,000 for a married couple.

This amounts to a sizable windfall and is a major improvement over the previous law, that allowed you to escape the capital gains tax only if you purchased another, more expensive home within two years.

Investment property

Investment property can also provide some tax breaks, but not nearly as generous. If the home is treated as rental property, it can be depreciated on an annual basis. The taxes are deductible, as are the costs of any repairs.

The tax advantages of any investment are largely dependent on the overall income of the property owner. How ownership of investment property will impact your bottom line is something you should discuss – and discuss carefully – with a financial advisor or tax professional.

More

Why certain songs go viral and others don't

Is there a science to it? Is it luck? Or are some songs just that good?

Have you ever wondered what makes a song go viral? Why do some songs get passed around the Internet and some don't, especially when so many songs seem to h...

PhotoHave you ever wondered what makes a song go viral? Why do some songs get passed around the Internet and some don't, especially when so many songs seem to have the same level of quality?

The online music distribution company Indigoboom.com answered this question.

According to research the company conducted, there are several things that can make a song go viral, but it starts with the listener having an emotional response.

"Music is most shareable when it provokes a strong emotional reaction," wrote the researchers. "The most commonly used emotional triggers are funny, sexy, random and shocking."

In addition, researchers said if a song sounds similar to one that's already been released, or if an artist uses a similar approach, the chances of that song going viral will dramatically decrease. 

Imaginative and creative

The researchers said there's a strong correlation between capturing people's imagination with a song, and that song being heavily shared. And once a particular concept, idea or sound seems to borrow from another song, most folks will become far less interested in it.

Fred Santarpia, co-founder of the video site Vevo, says if an independent musician wants his music to catch on, he'd better release a few videos and not just a bunch of songs.

And he says forget about trying to get your video on cable outlets like MTV and BET. You're better off going the Internet route.

Photo"Distribution is going through a massive upheaval," he said in an interview with Mashable. "Cable TV is not the primary paradigm for the format. Rather, tens of millions of fans actively seek out and share their favorite music video online each month, and with the explosion of the video-enabled smartphone market, we at Vevo believe that music videos will go viral even faster than they do today, as more fans turn to the screen in their hand to discover new music."

How do you do it?

But how do you get your music video to go viral? Especially since there are practically just as many videos from independent artists as there are songs on the Internet.

Media consultant Eileen Winnick, told The New York Times that if you want your video to be heavily shared, it needs to convey to the viewer why he should be watching it. And if you can pull that off, you'll have a far better chance of your video and your song going viral.

"Your only concern should be how it's going to benefit who is watching," she said. "When you do that, you take the focus off yourself and put it into what you want to get across, which changes the way you communicate."

The folks at Indigoboom say music that's relatable to a particular memory or situation has a good chance to be highly shared. And even though a lot of music today is made in a cookie-cutter kind of way, quality is still of utter importance.

In other words, if you want your music video to have a lot of YouTube hits, the video just can't be great; the song has to be made well too. So make sure it reaches a certain level of excellence before you decide to shoot your visuals.

Know your audience

PhotoIn addition, industry experts say it's important to know who your audience is if you're looking to go viral -- that trying to create a song or video that appeals to every single taste out there just won't work. 

It's important to determine who your audience is, what they may like or dislike and base your material on that, experts advise.

Stephen Murphy,  founder of Get Busy Media, said making a song, video or any product that you want to go viral is all about sparking curiosity, nothing more.

"Showcase your product in a surreal way by making a video that goes above and beyond your benefits," he said in a published interview. "The point of the video isn't to be realistic, but instead to create curiosity while highlighting your product or service."

Lastly, Indigoboom says if you want your song to be an Internet sensation, it's important to first put in the work. And if you're looking to simply jump in front of a camera and perform something you've created on the fly, it probably won't get much attention.

"Creative and unique ideas often require a great deal of effort to execute," the company wrote. "Do the work. Nothing good ever came from nothing."

More

Home safety tips for seniors

Whether its preventing a fall or a fire, a few changes in your home can go a long way.

Being safe inside our homes should be an important concern for all of us, and it should be even more important for seniors.According to statistics releas...

More

Chantix may be effective against alcohol addiction

But will side effect issues hold up approval?

Chantix is marketed in the U.S. as a drug to help you stop smoking. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health says it may also help alcoholics stop...

Chantix is marketed in the U.S. as a drug to help you stop smoking. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health say it may also help alcoholics stop drinking.

Researchers say the drug, which goes by the generic name varenicline, treats alcoholism in much the same way as it does nicotine addiction. It stimulates an area of the brain that provides the pleasure derived from both drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. No pleasure, no urge to drink.

"Drinking and smoking often co-occur, and given their genetic and neurochemical similarities, it is perhaps unsurprising that a smoking cessation treatment might serve to treat alcohol problems," said Dr. Raye Litten of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) . "Our study is the first multi-site clinical trial to test the effectiveness and safety of varenicline in a population of smokers and nonsmokers with alcohol dependence."

Ziller and colleagues conducted a clinical trial with 200 adults with drinking problems. They say they found the drug reduced the urge to drink.

18 million potential patients

NIH estimates about 18 million people in the U.S. have problems controlling their alcohol consumption. The researchers, writing in the Journal of Addiction Medicines, suggest Chantix should be considered as a tool to combat alcoholism.

Chantix, however, is known to have some side effects which can be severe. Problems reported with the drug have given some consumers pause.

Chantix already carries a “black box” warning on its label. But researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and other institutions, say it might not be enough.

Writing about their study in the journal PloS One in 2011, they said the drug's poor safety profile makes it unsuitable for first-line use among those who want to quit smoking. According to the researchers, Chantix showed a substantially increased risk of reported depression or suicidal behavior compared to other smoking-cessation treatments.

Physical side effects

Justice, of Charlotte, N.C., reports physical side effects from Chantix.

“I would much rather die a slow death from cigs than to die due to side effects of Chantix,” Justice wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I have developed an agoraphobic reaction to all new and many older drugs that I may need for my health. I have an increased heart rate permanently now, too!”

Another patient, Keith, of Boise, Idaho, blames his legal problems on Chantix.

“After chewing for 26 years, I was recommended Chantix by my healthcare provider,” Keith writes. “I was taking Chantix for roughly three weeks when I experienced a blackout and severe memory loss. I woke in jail and was charged with two felonies. Here it is 180 days later, $20,000 plus in attorney fees and medical fees, and I still have no recollection of that night and events prior. Sadly because I didn't kill anyone, my case is not worth a suit against Pfizer according to the class action attorneys.”

Before Chantix can be prescribed for alcohol addiction, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must give its approval. It may well consider side effects before expanding the drug's use.

Adverse effects

A 2008 study by the group Institute for Safe Medication Practices reviewed adverse event reports filed with the FDA. It found that Chantix generated 988 serious incidents in the fourth quarter of 2007, the most of any drug during that period.

“Some people have had changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, and suicidal thoughts or actions while using Chantix to help them quit smoking,” Pfizer, the maker of the drug, said in printed material about Chantix. “Some people had these symptoms when they began taking Chantix, and others developed them after several weeks of treatment, or after stopping Chantix.”

The pharmaceutical company also points out that when you try to quit smoking, with or without Chantix, you may have symptoms attributed to Chantix side effects that may actually be due to nicotine withdrawal.

More

FDA issues its first rulings on new tobacco products

Lorillard gets the OK for two new cigarettes but four other applications are denied

 The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was given the authority to regulate tobacco products back in 2009 and today, it issued its first decisions -- ...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was given the authority to regulate tobacco products back in 2009 and today, it issued its first decisions -- allowing Lorillard to market two new cigarette products and denying two other applications.

Under the law -- the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 -- manufacturers have to establish that a new product is "substantially equivalent to a valid predicate product already on the market."

New products are not supposed to present any more harm to public health than the "predicate" -- or previously existing -- product. Acting on that standard, the agency approved two new Lorillard Tobacco Company products -- Newport Non-Menthol Gold Box 100s and Newport Non-Menthol Gold Box. 

The four products that were not approved fell into the trap called "not substantially equivalent" (NSE). The FDA found that there was a lack of evidence to support the claim that the new product was essentially the same as an existing one.

Not "FDA-approved"

The FDA goes out of its way to note that approving a product as being substantially equivalent does not mean it is safe or less harmful than existing products. In addition the law makes clear that companies cannot say their products are FDA approved.

The tobacco industry, which heavily lobbied the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, has been holding its breath to see what the FDA would do with its new, though severely restricted, authority.

Smokeless tobacco, pipes and cigars could all find themselves facing new regulations, although the hottest issue at the moment is electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs. They're not tobacco products but the FDA has been scrutinizing them and is thought to be rolling up some new regulations.

Britain recently decided to regulate electronic cigarettes, treating them as non-prescription medicine. That means the popular e-cigs will still be widely sold in convenience stores and elsewhere but the government will enforce quality and purity regulations, just as it does with aspirin, sinus remedies and other widely sold products.

“Today’s historic announcement marks an important step toward the FDA’s goal of reducing preventable disease and death caused by tobacco,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “The FDA has unprecedented responsibility to protect public health by not allowing new tobacco products under FDA’s authority to come to market without FDA review.”

“Today’s decisions are just the first of many forthcoming product review actions to be issued,” said Mitch Zeller, J.D., director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products. “The FDA is committed to making science-based decisions on all product applications and providing the agency’s scientific rationale behind its actions to ensure the most transparent and efficient process possible for all involved parties, according to the law.”

More

Delta's CEO does a good deed

He gives up his seat to a traveler trying to get home to Atlanta

Delta CEO Richard AndersonAnyone who's flown Delta in the last few years has seen the welcoming video from CEO Richard Anderson. A few may also have no...

Photo
Delta CEO Richard Anderson

Anyone who's flown Delta in the last few years has seen the welcoming video from CEO Richard Anderson. A few may also have noticed the flight attendants in the galley pantomiming Anderson's speech and imitating his Southern accent.

But one person who didn't recognize Anderson, or make fun of his accent, was Jessie Frank, an Atlanta woman who had been trying to get home from New York last week to pick up her daughter at Camp Kudzu, a summer camp for children with diabetes.

As usual during the summer, thunderstorms along the East Coast had backed up air traffic and snarled schedules. Through various diversions, Ms. Frank wound up at Washington's Reagan National Airport where she was having trouble finding a seat on the next flight to Atlanta.

Things weren't looking good. The flight was filling up and she was number eight on the standby list. She had spoken to a few other travelers and expressed her concern but no one had any ideas. Then, Ms. Frank was told a seat had mysteriously opened up for her and a man wearing a suit helped her with her bag and led her to her seat.

Special guest

Photo
Ms. Frank's open letter

The man then disappeared into the cockpit and Ms. Frank assumed he was an off-duty pilot. Writing on her Facebook page, Ms. Frank told what happened as the flight neared its end.

"As the plane descended into Atlanta, the flight attendant announced that there was a special guest on board," she wrote. "He was riding in a jump seat [in the cockpit], because he had given up his place to allow one more person on that flight."

The "special guest" was Anderson. 

"Suddenly I realized that 'familiar face' was not an off-duty pilot,' Ms. Frank wrote in an open letter to Anderson on her Facebook page. "It was you, the CEO of Delta, vaguely familiar from the safety video. It was you, Richard Anderson, who gave up your seat for me. It was you, the Delta CEO, who helped me with my bag. It was you, acting just like an ordinary Mr. Anderson, who showed me to my seat."

A few days feeling normal

Photo
Jessie Frank (left) (Facebook photo)

Making it to Atlanta on time meant a lot to Ms. Frank and her daughter, who has type 1 diabetes, she said. 

"Camp Kudzu gives my daughter five days a year when she feels 'normal,'" Frank wrote. "Pick-up day gives me a glimpse into that special world where she's just like everyone else, and she's a little bit of a different person for the rest of the day."

"By the next day, it's back to the harsh realities of managing a difficult, deadly, incurable disease that kills one in 20 before the age of 18." 

Delta confirmed the story, which has been shared more than 1,700 times on Facebook. 

More

What about all the white fruits and vegetables?

Researchers say consumers are ignoring them, and missing out on nutrients as a result

Sometimes going to the produce aisle of a supermarket is like going to an art exhibit.Whenever searching for your favorite vegetable or fruit, you'll usu...

PhotoSometimes going to the produce aisle of a supermarket is like going to an art exhibit.

Whenever searching for your favorite vegetable or fruit, you'll usually see an array of reds next to greens and yellows next to purples in a wonderful and edible display of brightly colored produce.

For some, the mere appearance of fruits and vegetables will open up thier eyes and appetites, not to mention their wallets -- so they'll fill their carts with all kinds of pretty-looking plums, carrots, tangerines and broccoli, on a weekly basis.

But it seems that many of us aren't putting white-colored produce into our carts and as a result we're missing out on tons of nutrients.

"Turns out, pale veggies can help make up nutrient shortfalls in our diets," said Phil Lempert, founder of Food Nutrition & Science. "This provides another merchandising opportunity for produce managers at grocery stores who can help customers understand the importance of all the vegetable colors."

A recent report published in the June edition of Food Nutrition & Science stresses the importance of eating white produce, especially white potatoes.

Missing nutrients

And what are some of the other white vegetables that contain vital nutrients?

Onions, parsnips, cauliflower, turnips, rutabagas and mushrooms, experts say, and some good white fruits to eat are bananas, brown pears, white nectarines, white peaches and dates, just to name a few.

Dr. Connie Weaver, a nutrition science professor at Purdue University says white veggies; especially white potatoes contain nutrients that many of us are missing.

"It's recommended that the variety of fruits and vegetables consumed daily should include dark green and orange vegetables, but no such recommendation exists for white vegetables, even though they are rich in fiber, potassium, vitamin C and magnesium," said Weaver.

"Overall, Americans are not eating enough vegetables. Promoting white vegetables, some of which are common and affordable, may be a pathway to increasing vegetable consumption in general."

White fruits and vegetables have other kinds of nutrients too.

Experts say they have Secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG) and Epigallocatechin gallate (ECG), which are both antioxidants. And they have beta-glucans and lignans, which can help strengthen the immune system.

Stroke prevention 

PhotoAdditionally, researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands said eating produce that's white on the inside could help with stroke prevention.

Researchers gathered 20,000 people ages 20 through 65, and for 10 years they monitored each participant's diet.

Unfortunately, 233 of the participants suffered a stroke during the course of the study and researchers learned every time a person raised their intake of white produce by 25 grams, he or she decreased their risk of having a stroke by 9%.

"The findings in this recent study serve to strengthen what is quickly becoming common knowledge to consumers, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is good for overall health and reducing the risk of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, some cancers and other chronic conditions, explained the President and CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation," Elizabeth Pivonka.

"While this particular study focused on white fruits and vegetables, eating a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables provides a natural variety of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber that allow you to be your best every day."

"Consumers are recognizing that making half their plate fruits and vegetables is easy when they include 100% juice, fresh, frozen, canned and dried fruits and vegetables," said Pivonka.

Linda M. Oude Griep, the chief study author of Wageningen University's research said getting more nutrients from white produce can be as simple as eating one apple.

Apple a day 

Photo"To prevent stroke, it may be useful to consume considerable amounts of white fruits and vegetables," she said. "For example, eating one apple a day is an easy way to increase white fruits and vegetable intake."

But consumers should be cautiously optimistic, said Dr. Heike Wersching, a researcher at the Institute of Epidemiology and Social Medicine at the University of Münster in Germany.

He told living LivingScience.com the study failed to recognize the other possible reasons that some of the participants didn't suffer a stroke. 

"The observed reduction in stroke risk might further be due to a generally healthier lifestyle of individuals consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables," he said.

Wersching was not involved in the University of Münster study.

More

Supreme Court overturns award to woman whose skin was burned off

It's "tragic," the Court held, but a narrow majority overturned lower courts' decisions

The Supreme Court has decided that Karen Bartlett won't get the $21 million lower courts awarded her. Bartlett's skin was burned off by a rare side effect ...

PhotoThe Supreme Court has decided that Karen Bartlett won't get the $21 million lower courts awarded her. Bartlett's skin was burned off by a rare side effect of sulindac, a pain reliever her doctor prescribed for shoulder pain.

The New Hampshire woman lost about 65 percent of the outler layer of her skin, spent 70 days in the hospital and lost most of her vision.

A federal jury in New Hampshire ordered Mutual Pharmaceutical, which made the generic version of the drug to pay her $21 million, noting that her injuries were "truly horrific," Courthouse News Service reported.  

But although Bartlett's doctor described her experience as "hell on earth" and although she is unable to eat normally, exercise, have sex or see properly, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the trial court and the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that federal law pre-empts state law.

Stronger warning

New Hampshire law imposes a duty on manufacturers to ensure that the drugs they market are not unreasonably dangerous. Under state law, Mutual would have been required to change the labeling of sulindac to provide stronger warnings but federal law prohibits generic drug manufacturers from making changes to drug labels.   

"Accordingly, state law imposed a duty on Mutual not to comply with federal law. Under the Supremacy Clause, state laws that require a private party to violate federal law are pre-empted and, thus, are 'without effect,'" wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the five-justice majority.

Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

"The court laments her 'tragic' situa­tion, but responsibility for the fact that Karen Bartlett has been deprived of a remedy for her injuries rests with this court," Sotomayor wrote. "If our established pre-emption principles were properly applied in this case, and if New Hampshire law were correctly construed, then federal law would pose no barrier to Karen Bartlett's recovery."

More

Modifications proposed for federal mortgage rules

Better consumer protection is the goal

Some clarifications and revisions are in store for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) January 2013 mortgage rules. “When we published our...

PhotoSome clarifications and revisions are in store for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) January 2013 mortgage rules.

“When we published our mortgage rules, we pledged to be attentive to issues that arose through the implementation process,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s proposal revises and clarifies certain aspects of our rules to ease implementation and to pave the way for more effective consumer protections in the marketplace.”

The proposal is designed to resolve questions identified during the implementation process and to help the rules deliver their intended value for consumers.

Affected rules

The CFPB finalized several mortgage rules in January 2013 that are addressed by the proposal:

  • The Ability-to-Repay rule protects consumers from irresponsible mortgage lending by requiring that lenders make a reasonable, good-faith determination that prospective borrowers have the ability to repay their loans.
  • The mortgage servicing rules established strong protections for homeowners facing foreclosure, and
  • the loan originator compensation rules address certain practices that incentivized steering borrowers into risky and/or high-cost loans.

The CFPB also finalized rules that strengthened consumer protections for high-cost mortgages, and instituted a requirement that escrow accounts be established for a minimum of five years for certain higher-priced mortgage loans.

Reviising the rules

PhotoThis new proposal issued involves clarifications and some narrow revisions to those mortgage rules. Among other things, today’s proposal would:

  • Outline procedures for obtaining follow-up information on loss-mitigation applications. According to the CFPB’s servicing rule, within five days of receipt of a loss mitigation application, a servicer must acknowledge receipt of the application and inform the borrower whether it deems the application complete or incomplete. If incomplete, the servicer must identify for the borrower what is needed to complete it. 
  • Facilitate servicers’ offering of short-term forbearance plans. The proposal would make it easier for servicers to offer short-term forbearance plans for delinquent borrowers who need only temporary relief without going through a full loss mitigation evaluation process. For example, under the proposal, a servicer could provide a two-month forbearance to a borrower who is suffering a short-term hardship.
  • Facilitate lending in rural or underserved areas. Some of the CFPB’s mortgage rules contain provisions applicable to certain small creditors that operate predominantly in “rural” or “underserved” areas. It recently announced that it would reexamine the definitions of rural or underserved over the next two years. 
  • Make clarifications about financing of credit insurance premiums. The Dodd-Frank Act prohibition on creditors financing credit insurance premiums in connection with certain mortgage transactions was adopted in the Bureau’s loan originator compensation rule. Questions have arisen during the regulatory implementation process concerning the application of that prohibition. The proposal seeks to answer those questions. 
  • Clarify the definition of a loan originator. Under the CFPB’s new rules, those classified as loan originators are required to meet qualification requirements, and are also subject to certain restrictions on compensation practices. Creditors and loan originators have expressed concern that tellers or other administrative staff could be unintentionally classified as loan originators for engaging in routine customer service activities. The proposal would clarify the circumstances under which a loan originator’s or creditor’s administrative staff acts as loan originators.
  • Clarify the points and fees thresholds for manufactured housing employees. For retailers of manufactured homes and their employees, the proposal would clarify what compensation must be counted toward certain thresholds for points and fees under the ability-to-repay and high-cost mortgage rules.
  • Revise effective dates of Loan Originator rule and ban on financing of credit insurance. Currently, the 2013 Loan Originator Compensation Final Rule is scheduled to take effect on January 10, 2014.
More

New home sales, prices on the rise

The nation's economic bright spot is growing brighter

The housing market is coming back with a vengeance in terms of sales and prices. Government figures show sales of new single-family houses rose 2.1% in Ma...

PhotoThe housing market is coming back with a vengeance in terms of sales and prices.

Government figures show sales of new single-family houses rose 2.1% in May 2013 to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 476,000. That's well above the 460,00 projected by economists surveyed by Briefing.com and 29% above the May 2012 level of 369,000.

Sales rose in every regions except the South, led by whopping surge of nearly 41%. Sales in the south fell 9%.

Prices

The median sales price of a new house sold in May was $263,900. The median is the point at which half are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $307,800.

PhotoThe full new home sales report for May is available at the Census Bureau website.

Case-Shiller

If you liked the May increase in home prices take a look at a different set of numbers for April.

The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices showed average home prices increased shot up 11.6% and 12.1% for the 10- and 20-City Composites, respectively, in the 12 months ending in April 2013. March to April, the 10- and 20-City Composites rose 2.6% and 2.5%.

All 20 cities and both Composites showed positive year-over-year returns for at least the fourth

straight month, with Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Minneapolis posting their highest annual gains since

the start of their respective indices. On a monthly basis, all cities with the exception of Detroit were higher.

FHFA House Price Index

Finally, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI) reports housing prices were up 0.7% in April, while the previously reported 1.3% increase in March was revised higher -- to a 1.5% increase. This marks the fifteenth consecutive month that the HPI has risen.

For the nine census divisions covered, price changes from March to April ranged from a 0.2% dip in the New England division to a gain of 2.2% in the Mountain division, while the changes over a 12-month period ranged from a gain of 2.9% in the Middle Atlantic division to a 17.1% surge in the Pacific division.

More

A 5-year high for consumer confidence

Optimism about the labor market and business conditions prevails

American consumers are more confident about the economy than they've been in more than five years. The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index...

PhotoAmerican consumers are more confident about the economy than they've been in more than five years.

The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index rose in June for the second straight month. It now stands at 81.4 -- up 7.1 from May and the highest it's been since January 2008, when it clocked in at 87.3.

The Present Situation Index increased to 69.2 from 64.8. The Expectations Index improved to 89.5 from 80.6 last month.

Lynn Franco, the board's director of economic indicators says consumers are considerably more positive about current business and labor market conditions than they were at the beginning of the year. “Expectations,” she adds, “have also improved considerably over the past several months, suggesting that the pace of growth is unlikely to slow in the short-term, and may even moderately pick up.”

How they see it

Consumers’ assessment of current conditions continued to improve in June. Those who said business conditions are “good” held steady at 19.1%, while those saying business conditions are “bad” decreased to 24.9% from 26.0%.

Consumers’ appraisal of the job market was also more positive. Those claiming jobs are “plentiful” increased to 11.7% from 9.9%, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” edged up to 36.9% from 36.4%.

Looking ahead

Consumers’ expectations regarding the short-term outlook improved again in June. Those expecting business conditions to be better over the next six months increased to 20.3% from 18.7%, while those expecting business conditions to worsen decreased to 11.4% from 12.2%.

The outlook for the labor market was also more optimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead improved to 19.6% from 16.3%, while those anticipating fewer jobs decreased to 16.1% from 20.0%. The proportion of consumers expecting to make more money dipped slightly to 15.2% from 15.6%, while those expecting a decrease declined to 14.4% from 15.3%.

The monthly survey is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was June 13.

More

Blue Cross-Blue Shield takes the lead on Obamacare

Other insurers are hedging their bets but the Blues expect to be in nearly every state

We're just 100 days away from the Oct. 1 implementation of the state health insurance exchanges called for by Obamacare but some major insurers, not to men...

More

“Happy Birthday to You” wrongfully copyrighted, suit charges

The 1893 song has been licensed for years

The next time you sing "Happy Birthday," you may want to make sure you aren’t being video recorded, or at least that there aren’t any entertain...

PhotoThe next time you sing "Happy Birthday," you may want to make sure you aren’t being video recorded, or at least that there aren’t any entertainment lawyers nearby.

That’s because the timeless birthday song, which dates back to 1893, is technically copyrighted -- owned by Warner/Chapell Music.

Fortunately for those of us who may have unwittingly infringed the copyright by crooning out the melody at a friend or family member’s birthday party, a production company has filed a lawsuit demanding that the song finally be placed into the public domain, free from legal and proprietary restrictions.

The suit was filed by Good Morning To You Productions, a corporation that is in the process of filming a movie called “Happy Birthday.” The production company was forced to pay a licensing fee to Warner/Chappell and promise to use the song in the film. Violation of the agreement could force Good Morning To You to pay a staggering $150,000 penalty.

Suit: Copyright expired long ago

More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of Happy Birthday to You is set was first published,” the suit says, “defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to Happy Birthday to You."

In its suit, the production company points to evidence suggesting that the copyright to the song expired all the way back in 1921. If Warner/Chappell still holds a valid copyright, the suit says, it’s to a specific piano arrangement of the song from 1935. According to the suit, that narrow copyright doesn’t give Warner/Chappell the rights to every version of the song.

The song originated as “Good Morning to All,” which consisted of the same familiar melody that is used today. That melody was copyrighted in 1893, 1896, 1899, and 1907.

In addition to its demand that Happy Birthday to You be placed into the public domain, Good Morning To You is demanding that Warner/Chappell repay over $5 million that it has collected in licensing fees over the years.

More

Supreme Court upholds American Express arbitration agreement

The ruling against merchants is another blow to class actions

A decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday marked another blow to class action lawsuits -- and the consumers who bring them....

PhotoA decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday marked another blow to class action lawsuits -- and the consumers who bring them.

The Court’s ruling in American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant continued a recent pattern by the Court of upholding arbitration provisions, even when lower courts found them unfair or otherwise invalid.

The case concerned a clause in a contract between American Express and retail merchants prohibiting the merchants from bringing class-action arbitration cases. Instead, the contract required each merchant to bring its own individual arbitration claim. Despite the provision, lower courts had allowed class actions to proceed on the ground that the merchants couldn’t afford to bring their own individual actions.

In a 5-3 ruling, the Court dismissed those concerns, writing that the Federal Arbitration Act “does not permit courts to invalidate a contractual waiver of class arbitration on the ground that the plaintiff’s cost of individually arbitrating a federal statutory claim exceeds the potential recovery.”

The Act, which dates back to 1925, affirmatively requires that parties who have agreed to arbitration honor that agreement rather than taking their complaints to a traditional court.

Arbitration “a matter of contract”

The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said that the Act “reflects the overarching principle that arbitration is a matter of contract. … And consistent with that text, courts must ‘rigorously enforce’ arbitration agreements according to their terms.”

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a blistering dissent, in which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined.

Kagan wrote that “if the arbitration clause is enforceable, Amex has insulated itself from antitrust liability — even if it has in fact violated the law. The monopolist gets to use its monopoly power to insist on a contract effectively depriving its victims of all legal recourse.”

“And here is the nutshell version of today’s opinion, admirably flaunted rather than camouflaged: Too darn bad.”

Another Supreme blow to class actions

The opinion is just the latest in a series of blows that the Supreme Court has issued to the class action as a form of dispute resolution. In 2011, the Court upheld a provision in AT&T’s contracts requiring consumers to submit to individual arbitration.  That provision, like the one in American Express, had been waived by lower courts due to its bar on class actions.

That decision was so sweeping that it prompted law professor Brian Fitzpatrick to tell the ABA Journal that it could "end class-action litigaiton as we know it."

And in 2011, the Supreme Court threw out a high-profile employment discrimination lawsuit against retail giant Wal-Mart, ruling that the case did not meet the requirement that a class action involve “questions of law or fact common to the class.”

More

Georgia Student Sues Over Facebook Photo

School district official uses her bikini-clad image without permission, she says

The fact that Facebook photos are often accessible to the general public has spawned another lawsuit, this time from a Georgia college student who says a s...

PhotoThe fact that Facebook photos are often accessible to the general public has spawned another lawsuit, this time from a Georgia college student who says a school district official swiped a photo of her in a bikini.

Chelsea Chaney, a freshman at the University of Georgia, was horrified to find out that the Director of Technology for Fayette County Schools used a photo of her standing next to a cardboard cutout of rap star Snoop Dog to demonstrate the dangers of posting questionable pictures on social media channels.

The director of technology paired the photo with the warning that, "Once it's there, it's there to stay."

Student “embarrassed,” “horrified”

Chaney told local ABC affiliate WSB-TV that when she was the photo, "I was embarrassed. I was horrified."

"It never crossed my mind that this would ever, ever happen to me," Chaney told the news channel.

Chaney’s lawyer, Pete Wellborn, told the affiliate that the school district “used [the photo] out of context to suggest that Chelsea is a promiscuous  abuser of alcohol.”

"Their idea that putting something on Facebook gives them a license to steal it and Carte blanche to do with it what they did is wrong ethically, it's wrong morally and it's absolutely wrong legally," Wellborn told WSB-TV.

Chaney told WSB-TV that she wishes the photo “was taken more seriously and [I had] gotten a more sincere apology.”

Chaney is seeking $2 million in damages.

Facebook photo litigation nothing new

The suit is just the latest reminder that, yes, photos posted to Facebook can very easily end up plastered all over the Internet. The social media giant has been wrangling with a lawsuit concerning the company’s use of members’ photos to promote “sponsored stories.”

And last year, a Minnesota man sued an uncle for tagging him in a photo that he didn’t want others to see, coupled with a sarcastic caption. Aaron Olson, the aggrieved tagee, said the behavior constituted harassment.

Unfortunately for Olson, the judge hearing his case ruled that “[c]omments that are mean and disrespectful, coupled with innocuous family photos, do not affect a person’s safety, security, or privacy — and certainly not substantially so."

More

Unpaid interns sue Gawker Media

Suit follows ruling setting intern pay guidelines

Three former interns are suing news and gossip website Gawker, claiming that they performed work for the site or its affiliates without compensation.Andr...

PhotoThree former interns are suing news and gossip website Gawker, claiming that they performed work for the site or its affiliates without compensation.

Andrew Hudson, Hanchen Lu, and Aulistar Mark were interns with Gawker Media LLC between 2008 and 2010. They say they worked between 15 and 25 hours per week.

The plaintiffs filed their complaint on behalf of all unpaid interns who worked for Gawker Media, and also named as a defendant Nick Denton, the founder of the media empire.

“Gawker employs numerous other ‘interns’ in the same way, paying them nothing or underpaying them and utilizing their services to publish its content on the Internet, an enterprise that generates significant amounts of revenue for Gawker,” the inters say in their complaint.

Follows Fox Searchlight ruling

The suit comes on the heels of a ruling that, in order for interns to work without pay, or for pay lower than the minimum wage, employers must comply with certain criteria laid out by the United States Department of Labor.

The decision, which was handed down earlier this month, grew out of a suit filed by two interns on the movie “Black Swan” against Fox Searchlight Productions.

In that case, U.S. District Judge William Pauley ruled that interns can only be unpaid or underpaid if they are doing work that is educational and benefits the interns, rather than work that is primarily for the benefit of the employer or displaces paid employees.

Rachel Bien, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the Fox Searchlight case, told The New York Times that “this decision will go far to discourage private companies from having unpaid internship programs.”

Judging from the Gawker case, the Searchlight decision also threatens to spur a flood of lawsuits by unpaid interns from years past.

Earlier Hearst suit

Indeed, even before the decision was handed down, a similar case spurred Time Magazine to write the headline “The Beginning of the End of the Unpaid Internship.”

That case was brought by Diana Wang against the Hearst Corporation, whose magazine Harper’s Bazaar she says forced her to work up to 55 hours per week without pay. The lawsuit was filed as a class action on behalf of any unpaid or underpaid Hearst intern from the last six years.

More

Assessing the genetic risk of breast cancer

Mutant genes can raise the risk but not as much as other factors

There are many risk factors associated with breast cancer, chief among them is being a woman. After that, age is a factor – as you get older your ris...

PhotoThere are many risk factors associated with breast cancer, chief among them is being a woman. After that, age is a factor – as you get older your risk of developing the disease grows.

But since March, when actress Angelina Jolie announced she was undergoing a preventive double mastectomy, the genetic risk factor has gotten a lot of attention. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), about 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child.

In most cases of inherited breast cancer two abnormal genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, are thought to be responsible. The genes themselves aren't abnormal, but can become dangerous when they mutate.

Genes helpful when normal

The function of normal BRCA genes is to repair cell damage and keep breast cells growing normally. But when these genes contain abnormalities or mutations that are passed from generation to generation, the genes don't function normally and breast cancer risk increases.

If testing determines you have an abnormal BRCA gene it doesn't mean you will be diagnosed with breast cancer, though Jolie selected her aggressive option because she was told, in her case, the odds were stacked against her. And just as there are risk factors for cancer itself, there are also risk factors for having a mutant gene. They are:

  • You have blood relatives who were diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50.
  • Someone in your family had both breast and ovarian cancer.
  • Someone in your family had a gland-related cancer, such as pancreatic or colon cancer.
  • There have been women in your family have had cancer in both breasts.
  • You are of Eastern European Jewish heritage.
  • A man in your family had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Genetic testing

According to NCI, risk increases with the number of affected relatives, age at diagnosis, and the number of affected male relatives. Even if you are unsure of your family health history, there are tests that can reveal a genetic risk of breast cancer.

The test will reveal the presence of an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Tests can also reveal the presence of other genes that can predispose you toward the illness. If you think you need these tests, you should discuss it with your health care provider.

Jolie chose to have both healthy breasts removed as a measure to prevent what she felt was an extremely high probability she would get breast cancer. That response is not exactly new but is highly effective.

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.

Other risk factors

While it is important to understand and be aware of genetic risks of breast cancer, some breast cancer specialists stress that other, more common risk factors should not be overlooked. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), being overweight is a common risk factor. Therefore, a proper diet and maintaining a healthy weight is a strong defense against breast cancer.

Other risk factors include alcohol use. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Women who have just one drink a day have a very small increase in risk. Those who have 2 to 5 drinks daily have about 1½ times the risk of women who don’t drink alcohol at all.

Hormone therapy (HT) after menopause has also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. ACS cites studies showing the use of combined hormone therapy after menopause increases the risk of getting breast cancer. It may also increase the chances of dying from breast cancer.

This increase in risk can be seen with as little as two years of use. Combined HT also increases the likelihood that the cancer may be found at a more advanced stage. The increased risk appears to apply only to current and recent users. A woman's breast cancer risk seems to return to that of the general population within five years of stopping combined treatment.

More

Despite increased safety warnings, ATV accidents mount

Sixteen year-olds in Georgia and Alaska die in the last week

All-terrain vehicles (ATV) continue to be popular vehicles in the U.S. but remain dangerous if not operated properly. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Comm...

PhotoAll-terrain vehicles (ATV) continue to be popular vehicles in the U.S. but remain dangerous if not operated properly. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports approximately 135,000 injuries and 800 deaths occur in the U.S. each year from ATV accidents.

One of the most recent victims is a 16-year old Macon, Ga., girl who was a passenger aboard an ATV driven by a 17-year old boy. According to sheriff's deputies, the ATV overturned last week when the driver made a sharp turn.

The accident occurred on city streets and not in rough terrain, where many such accidents happen. According to the deputies' report, neither person was wearing restraints and both were thrown from the vehicle. The driver was seriously injured while his passenger was killed.

No passengers

The CPSC says nearly all ATVs are designed to carry only one person. ATVs are designed for interactive riding – drivers must be able to shift their weight freely in all directions, depending on the situation and terrain.

Interactive riding is critical to maintaining safe control of an ATV, especially on uneven terrain. Having a passenger aboard can make it very difficult for drivers to control the ATV.

A Shelby County, Ohio man, meanwhile, remains in critical condition more than three weeks after he was injured in an ATV accident. According to police reports, the 35-year-old man lost control of the ATV as he was making a turn, causing it to roll over on him. Police reports say the driver was not wearing a helmet.

Many ATV injuries are head injuries. According to the CPSC, wearing a helmet may prevent or reduce the severity of these injuries. ATV drivers should also wear other protective gear, including over-the-ankle boots, goggles, gloves, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt to protect against cuts, abrasions, and other injuries from rocks, trees and other debris.

Stay off streets

PhotoIn both of these recent cases, the accidents occurred on paved streets, not off-road terrain. However, ATVs are designed to operate on soft ground, not hard pavement. The CPSC says these vehicles are actually hard to control on pavement. In addition, collisions with cars and other vehicles have also led to many fatalities involving ATVs operated on paved roads.

Also last week a 16-year old Alaska girl was killed in an ATV crash when the vehicle flipped over and rolled down a 25-foot embankment. According to a state police report, the girl was driving the vehicle. Her passenger survived but was injured. Police say neither was wearing protective gear.

One state is considering tightening restrictions on ATV use while another is encouraging their safe and responsible use. In Connecticut, state lawmakers have drafted a measure to increase penalties for illegal use of ATVs on public streets. However, the bill was amended at the last minute to open up access to state land for ATVs. Some environmental groups have urged the governor to veto it.

In nearby New Hampshire, the state has opened 1,000 miles of interconnected trails for ATV riders. Backers of the project say the trails constitute a safe environment for ATV use and will attract riders from across the Northeast, providing a lift to New Hampshire tourism.

Safety tips

ATV enthusiasts say the vehicles are safe as long as they are operated responsibly. Here are some ATV safety tips from the ATV Safety Institute.

  • Always wear a DOT-compliant helmet, goggles, long sleeves, long pants, over-the-ankle boots, and gloves.
  • Never ride on paved roads except to cross when done safely and permitted by law - another vehicle could hit you. ATVs are designed to be operated off-highway.
  • Never ride under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Never carry a passenger on a single-rider ATV, and no more than one passenger on an ATV specifically designed for two people.
  • Ride an ATV that’s right for your age.
  • Supervise riders younger than 16; ATVs are not toys

A group called Concerned Families for ATV Safety is urging parents to prevent their children from riding ATVs, or closely supervise their use. The group cites a reports on ATV accidents showing a 150% increase in injuries to children under 19 between 1997 and 2006.

More

Suit: Time Warner’s sports offerings inflate cable costs

It's just the latest complaint against cable bundling

Complaining about the cost of cable is a popular American pastime. But four California consumers have decided to stop talking and do something about it, fi...

PhotoComplaining about the cost of cable is a popular American pastime. But four California consumers have decided to stop talking and do something about it, filing suit against Time Warner for anticipated costs due to the provider’s recent acquisition of Lakers and Dodgers rights.

The suit focuses on two separate acquisitions made by Time Warner. In 2011, the cable provider gained a 20-year-long right to broadcast Los Angeles Lakers basketball games. Then, in January, Time Warner acquired a 25-year-long right to air Los Angeles Dodgers games.

According to the suit, the Lakers deal, which cost Time Warner $3 billion, will add $4 to every customer’s monthly bill; the Dodgers deal, which ran $8 billion, will cost consumers $4 or $5 extra per month, the suit claims.

“There is no legitimate business, legal, technological, or economic reason why TWC cannot offer these Lakers and Dodgers games on a standalone channel basis so that only those subscribers who want and are willing to pay for them would do so and those who did not want these channels could ‘opt out,’” the complaint says.

The suit also names the Dodgers and the Lakers as defendants.

A popular complaint of late

This isn’t the first uproar over “bundling,” the practice of only offering content and channels as part of a larger group. (Bundling is the reason that you can’t, say, subscribe only to HBO and ESPN, while avoiding The Food Network and Lifetime.) In February, cable provider Cablevision sued media conglomerate Viacom, claiming that Viacom only offered popular networks like Nickelodeon and MTV if Cablevision also accepted a slew of less-demanded networks. Cablevision claimed that that practice, knowing as “tying,” violates antitrust laws.

And in May, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013, which would allow consumers to choose the channels they wanted, and eschew the ones they didn’t.

More

Hostess Twinkies return to store shelves next month

The gooey, sugary snacks have been doing a slow bake in bankruptcy

How sweet it is -- Hostess Twinkies are returning to store shelves after a brief stopover in bankruptcy.New owners have taken over Hostess and say they'l...

PhotoHow sweet it is -- Hostess Twinkies are returning to store shelves after a brief stopover in bankruptcy.

New owners have taken over Hostess and say they'll have Twinkies and other snack products back on store shelves by July 15.

In March, bankrupt Hostess Brands Inc. agreed to sell the snack cake brands to Apollo Global Management, which had offered $410 million and the deal was approved by the bankruptcy court, putting a merciful end to the panic that had overtaken Twinkies groupies.

"A lot of impostor products have come to the market while Hostess has been off the shelves," said Daren Metropoulos, a principal of the investment firm Metropoulos & Co., which teamed up with Apollo Global Management to buy a variety of Hostess snacks.

Among the impostors was Safeway which in February introduced a Twinkies wannabe product.  “It looks like a Twinkie. It tastes like a Twinkie. But this is no dream,” Safeway burbled on its Facebook page“Snack Artist's delicious snack cakes are real.” 

Hostess shut down late last year after a long-running labor dispute. 

 

More

Got savings? Not enough, according to a new survey

Most folks can't cover six months worth of emergencies

Laconic standup comic Rodney Dangerfield used to quip. “I have enough money the last me the rest of my life as -- long as I don't buy anything.” The man wh...

PhotoLaconic standup comic Rodney Dangerfield used to quip, “I have enough money to last me the rest of my life as -- long as I don't buy anything.” The man whose constant lament was, “I don't get no respect,” has a lot of company these days.

New research from Bankrate.com finds that fewer than one in four Americans have enough savings to cover at least six months’ expenses. In addition, exactly half have less than three months’ expenses saved up, and 27% have no emergency savings whatsoever. And it's pretty much been that way for the past three years.

Still, things have improved a bit from the pre-recession days of 2006, when only 39% of people had at least three months’ expenses saved up. But that modest progress isn’t nearly enough, according to Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com’s senior financial analyst.

Lagging savings

Photo“We measure five key components of Americans’ financial security each month, and we routinely find that savings is the weakest area,” he said. “People who are less comfortable with their savings now versus a year ago outnumber people who are more comfortable by a margin of nearly two-to-one. That’s especially jarring since people are feeling much more optimistic about other aspects of their finances.”

Bankrate.com’s Financial Security Index reached a new high of 102.7 in June -- the fourth consecutive month in which consumers have indicated improved financial security compared to the previous year. Specifically, consumers currently say their net worth is higher, they feel more secure in their jobs, they’re more comfortable with their debt and their overall financial situations are better.

  • Only 17% report lower net worth than last year, the lowest since polling began in Dec. 2010.
  • Those feeling more secure in their jobs outnumber those feeling less secure by a two-to-one margin. Merely 13% of employed Americans feel less secure in their jobs compared to one year ago, a new low.
  • Thirty percent of Americans feel more comfortable with their debt compared to one year ago, a new high.
  • And just one in five Americans feel their overall financial situation is worse now than one year ago, tying the lowest reading.

The entire survey, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, can be seen here.

More

Beta Labs recalls dietary supplements

The products contain DMAA, which can elevate blood pressure

Beta Labs, a retailer of dietary supplements, is recalling Oxyphen XR Lot #s 200910 and 200911, Phentalene Lot # 58800512, Phen FX Lot # 1205129, and Red V...

PhotoBeta Labs, a retailer of dietary supplements, is recalling Oxyphen XR Lot #s 200910 and 200911, Phentalene Lot # 58800512, Phen FX Lot # 1205129, and Red Vipers Lot # 1205128.

The products contain1,3 dimethylamylamine (DMAA), which is commonly used as a stimulant, pre-workout, and weight loss ingredient in dietary supplement products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that ingestion of DMAA can elevate blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems. A number of adverse effects associated with DMAA containing dietary supplements have been reported to the FDA. The agency has also warned that DMAA is not a dietary ingredient and thus, is not Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) compliant.

The UPC codes for each of the products are:

  • Oxyphen XR, 70541 59974;
  • Phentalene, 70541 59982;
  • Phen FX, 29882 55980; and
  • Red Vipers, 29882 55981.

The products are all in capsule form.

The products were sold via telephone in all 50 states. There have been no reports of adverse events related to the Beta products to date and no other products distributed by Beta are subject to recall.

Consumers who may have purchased the affected lot numbers should immediately discontinue using the products and contact their health care professional if they experience any adverse effects.

Consumers can contact Beta at accounting@)betalabs.net or by calling 1- 877-283-1742, Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. CST to receive further instructions for returning the product(s), refunds, or with any questions.  

More

Ross Stores to pay multi-million dollar civil penalty

The firm failed to report drawstrings in children's upper outerwear

Ross Stores will pay a $3.9 million civil penalty, resolving Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff charges that from January 2009 to February 201...

PhotoRoss Stores will pay a $3.9 million civil penalty, resolving Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff charges that from January 2009 to February 2012, the company failed to report immediately -- as required by federal law -- that it sold about 23,000 children's upper outerwear garments with drawstrings at the neck or waist.

The commission issued guidelines in February 1996 (which later became part of a consensus industry voluntary standard) to help prevent children from strangling or getting entangled on neck and waist drawstrings in upper garments, such as sweatshirts and jackets.

In July 2011, based on the foregoing, CPSC issued a final rule which designates the hazards presented by drawstrings in children's upper outerwear as substantial product hazards.

Ross's distribution of some children's garments occurred during the same period of time as CPSC investigation and negotiation of a $500,000 penalty that Ross paid in 2009 to settle charges that it failed to report four series of children's upper outerwear drawstring garments distributed between 2006 and 2008. Ross's distribution of the other garments in this matter occurred either partially or entirely after the effective date of CPSC's Final Rule. There have been no reported injuries associated with the recalled garments.

Settlement terms

PhotoIn addition to paying a monetary penalty, Ross has agreed to implement and maintain a compliance program designed to ensure compliance with the reporting requirements of Section 15(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act and the Final Rule. Ross also agreed to enhance its existing compliance policies by ensuring that its ongoing program contains written standards and policies, a mechanism for confidential employee reporting of compliance-related questions or concerns, and appropriate communication of company compliance policies to all employees through training programs.

Ross has designed and implemented a system of internal controls and procedures to ensure that the firm's reporting to the Commission is timely, truthful, complete, accurate, and in accordance with applicable law. The company will also take steps to ensure that prompt disclosure is made to management of any significant deficiencies or material weaknesses in the design or operation of such internal controls.

More

Online thieves love your social media page

Here are a few tips so your information doesn't get hacked.

Here's a question for you: When's the last time you put a new photo in a photo album? Remember those?Remember when most of us only took pictures once in...

PhotoHere's a question for you: When's the last time you put a new photo in a photo album? Remember those? Remember when most of us only took pictures once in a while, and we left the daily photo taking to professionals or folks who considered it a hobby.

Today that's changed, as most people snap pics of everything in sight all day long. Whether it's a plate of food, a picture of a friend or the overly taken one-handed-self-photo, folks love capturing all the images they can. Then they'll stick those photos on their social media pages for all to see.

But what are the safety risks of posting pics of yourself, your friends and your family members?

Stephen Ebbett, president of Protect Your Bubble, a company that offers ID theft insurance and other types of coverage, says bad guys can use your social media photos for all kinds of nasty little schemes.

"Photos can be stolen and used by strangers to create new social media profiles," said Ebbett in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

"A geo-tagged photo contains specific details like the time and date the photo was taken, along with the exact location where it was taken. For example, if someone takes a photo of their friend at their house, it becomes possible for strangers to know exactly where that person lives. Every smartphone has GPS built into it," he said.

Puzzle palace

But smartphones aren't the only concern when it comes to having your identity stolen. There are people who sit around all day, every day, trying to put together the small pieces of information that float around cyberspace.

In fact, people use social media so much these days, they sometimes forget how much of their personal info is really out there.

According to a study conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research, 68% of people who use social media gave their birthdate and 63% posted where they went to high school.

In addition, the survey showed that 18% of users listed their phone number on their social media page and 12% told followers the names of their pets.

And because of this, all a shady person has to do is connect each dot, and presto, he has enough information to carry out his evil deed.

It happened to Michael Benz of Virginia, a Facebook user whose online identity was stolen.

In 2008, Benz cancelled his Facebook account and five years later he noticed it was mysteriously back up and running.

Not only did someone hack his identity and reopen his Facebook page, the thief started giving "likes" to things posted by anti-American and terrorist groups. And even worse, Benz needed a special kind of security clearance for a job he was involved with, so having his identity stolen couldn't have come at a worse time.

"I was horrified," said Benz in an interview with a local news outlet. "I felt sick to my stomach."

"A friend of mine asked me, 'Why didn't you let me know you're back on Facebook?' And I said 'I'm not on Facebook, I closed it in 2008.' I immediately realized that my online identity had been hijacked."

"The bottom line is that someone really could destroy your life breaking into your Facebook account and pretending to be you," he said.

Guard down

PhotoJames Kerr, from the company Super Geeks, says social media is an ideal place for identity thieves to steal information, because many users let their guard down when using pages like Facebook.

"We don't have our guard up," said Kerr in a televised interview. We still have a feeling of safety and comfort, because we're surrounded by people we know."

"So typically [identity thieves] will hijack somebody's account, and they'll look for the friends in that account and they'll post a message on those friend's pages. And those messages will have some kind of call to action."

Experts say not to post too much information on your social media page and make sure photos don't reveal anything personal like where you live, where you went to school and so on. The harder you make it for an identity thief to connect the dots the better off you'll be.

Plus, be sure to stay on top of all your social media's privacy settings.

And when it comes to your smartphone, Ebbett says you really shouldn't use location services at all.

"It is best to disable location services to keep your whereabouts private since strangers can easily figure out your location, which can lead to ID theft, robberies, stalking or domestic violence," he advised.

"To turn location services off on an iPhone, for example, you would need to go to your settings >privacy >location services and swipe it so it goes from on to off."

Be vigilant

In addition, Ebbett says you have to be vigilant when it comes to guarding your personal info, because thieves are constantly on the hunt and they're always coming up with new schemes.

Here are the key things to remember when it comes to using your social media page and your smartphone, Ebbett says:

  • Know what is visible to others. Check your privacy settings and set them to private so only your friends can see your photos.
  • Make sure you know who your friends are and do not accept friend requests from people you don't know.
  • Never post your whereabouts on social media. Alerting people when you're not home is just asking for trouble.
  • A common mistake that people make is to post their address and/or phone number on their social site.  Don't do it.
More

Things to do on a summer 'staycation'

Staying home this summer doesn't have to be a drag

Even though the economy has shown signs of recovery and reports of summer travel have ticked higher, there are still indications the economy may prevent a...

Even though the economy has shown signs of recovery and reports of summer travel have ticked higher, there are still indications the economy may prevent a number of people from taking a summer vacation.

A Harris Poll finds that just 43% of consumers say the economy has no impact on their travel plans. However, 36% admit they will be less likely to travel this year because of economic conditions.

For those who feel they can't afford to hit the road this summer, a vacation at home, or “staycation,” may be their only alternative. So what do you do for a week when you don't have to get up and go to work every day?

Having something to do every day will keep the entire family engaged and make it feel more like a vacation. The key is planning.

Your options, of course, are going to depend in large part on where you live and what resources are close at hand. If you live within driving distance of a lake or beach, then a day on the water is a good option. If you live in or near a city, cultural opportunities abound.

Here are a few ideas.

Back to nature

Nearly everyone lives near a state or county park. Chances are you have driven past it on numerous occasions without giving it much thought. See what resources it offers and take advantage of them.

Spend a day hiking, picnicking or even camping overnight. If the park offers horseback riding, it might be a good opportunity to introduce your children to the pleasures of riding.

A little culture

If you live in a city, spend a day visiting a museum. Even if you live in a rural area, chances are there is a city within driving distance. If you have children and the city has some type of children's museum, so much the better.

For the grown-ups, take the opportunity to attend a play. There are probably community theater groups not far from where you live.

A change of scenery

Maybe you can't afford to spend a week away from home but what about one night? Find a nice motel nearby that offers amenities like a swimming pool, fitness center and spa. Treat the family to a night away from home.

Epicurean tour

Splurge on dinner out all week, going to a different restaurant each night. Yes, it can get a little expensive but if that's the only thing you are doing all week, it might fit into your budget. Let each family member choose a restaurant.

If a week of restaurant meals isn't in the budget, do take-out or eat at home, letting each family member choose a meal and take the lead in its preparation.

Wet and wild

Create a backyard water park to keep kids cool on a hot day. Buy a couple of elaborate lawn sprinkler that throw up wild water patterns that kids can run through. Go to a home center and purchase a long sheet of heavy plastic that you can wet down and create your own “slip-and-slide.”

Movie night

Make every night movie night. Take the family to see the latest blockbuster at a local theater. The rest of the nights make it movie night at home. Let every family member choose a film for the whole family and pop plenty of pop corn.

Vacations can be pretty expensive for a family on a tight budget. A staycation doesn't have to be and, in some cases, might be just as fun.

More

FAA may change rules covering electronic devices

Current rules date back to the 1960s and an advisory panel says it's time for a change

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is said to be about to relax the ban on some types of personal electronic devices aboard commercial airliners at ...

PhotoThe Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is said to be about to relax the ban on some types of personal electronic devices aboard commercial airliners at low altitudes, maybe even during landing and take-off.

The Wall Street Journal says the details are still being debated within the FAA but says there's an emerging consensus that the rules now in effect are out of touch with the times.

The rules prohibiting the use of cell phones and other devices that emit radio signals go back to the 1960s, when practically no one had such a thing. The few portable radio transmitters that did exist tended to use much higher power, making them more likely to interfere with aircraft navigation and communications systems.

Airlines are currently allowed to set their own rules but most have chosen to simply follow the FAA's guidance and have prohibited the use of all devices at altitudes of less than 10,000 feet.

An FAA advisory group has warned the agency that unless it updates its rules, airlines may adopt a "nonstandard system" of patchwork rules that "could further confuse the public."

If the FAA sticks with the current draft version of the new rules, devices like Kindles and other e-readers could be used during all phases of flight while others, like tablets and laptops, might still be restricted to 10,000 feet.

The current draft doesn't propose any changes to cellphone usage, which isn't allowed at anytime on U.S. flights, although some international carriers allow it.

The advisory panel said it will provide a separate draft on that topic that the FAA can address if it feels it can withstand the turbulence that could result. 

More

Feds approve Plan B One-Step contraceptive for use without a prescription

The pill would be available over the counter for all women of child-bearing potential

Plan B One-Step (levonorgestrel) is now available as a nonprescription product for all women of child-bearing potential. The approval by the U.S. Food and...

PhotoPlan B One-Step (levonorgestrel) is now available as a nonprescription product for all women of child-bearing potential.

The approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) complies with the April 5, 2013, order of a federal court in New York to make levonorgestrel-containing emergency contraceptives available without age or point-of-sale restrictions.

Plan B One-Step, according to the FDA, is intended to reduce the chance of pregnancy following unprotected sexual intercourse or a known or suspected contraceptive failure (e.g., condom). The single-dose pill (1.5 mg tablet) was found to be effective in decreasing the chance of pregnancy and is meant to be taken as soon as possible within three days after unprotected sex.

“Over-the-counter access to emergency contraceptive products has the potential to further decrease the rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Plan B One-Step was first approved  in July 2009 for use without a prescription for women age 17 and older and as a prescription-only option for women younger than age 17. In April 2013, the product was approved. With this latest approval, the product is now available without a prescription for use by all women of reproductive potential.

What it does

The product contains higher levels of a hormone found in some types of daily use oral hormonal contraceptive pills and works in a similar way to these contraceptive pills by stopping ovulation and therefore preventing pregnancy.

Plan B One-Step will not stop a pregnancy when a woman is already pregnant and there is no medical evidence that the product will harm a developing fetus.

Some women taking Plan B One-Step have reported experiencing the following side effects: nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, headache, dizziness and breast tenderness. These are similar to the side effects of regular prescription-only birth control pills.

More

Feds delay backup camera rule ... again

Cost analysis shows the cameras would cost $18 million per life saved

Ellen Adams speaking in AprilWhat's a human life worth? That's the question that is now holding up adoption of a rule that would require backup cameras...

Photo
Ellen Adams speaking in April

What's a human life worth? That's the question that is now holding up adoption of a rule that would require backup cameras on new cars and trucks sold in the U.S.

Car manufacturers have been complaining that the devices are too expensive. Now an analysis of the rule's cost pegs it at $2.7 billion, which works out to about $18 million per life saved, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.

This is the fourth time the feds have delayed implementing the rule. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says more analysis of the cost is needed.

Advocates miffed

The latest delay is not likely to be welcomed by child safety advocates, who held a rally in April urging the Obama Administration to take its foot off the brake and implement the rule. 

“If there was a camera on my car [my daughter] wouldn’t have died,” said Ellen Adams, one of the speakers at the rally. On September 9, 2003, Adams' husband accidentally backed over their one-year-old daughter Ashleigh when she wandered behind his car as he backed out of the family driveway.

 “I don’t want anyone else to go through what we went through and the numbers are rising. There are 50 a week injured and two die a week," she said. 

Katherine McFate, president and CEO of the Center for Effective Government, said, “Congress passed this law to ensure children would not be needlessly killed. Five years after Congress ordered the Transportation Department to issue the rule, the administration is still stalling and American families are paying the price for this delay.”

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said, “The administration is making a mockery of the will of Congress. The Transportation Department sent its draft final rule to the White House more than a year and a half ago, and then it just disappeared.

"The so-called most transparent administration in history has held this rule in an obscure White House office for a year and a half, where the public can’t see what’s going on. Today’s announcement means that more children will be needlessly killed as we wait for the administration to finally comply with Congressional will,” Weissman said.

Automakers object

Automakers say it's not necessary to require the cameras on all cars, only on bigger ones. They say consumers should decide how to spend their money.

The rule is part of a 2008 auto-safety bill signed into law by President George W. Bush, the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act. It is named after a New York boy who died after his father accidentally backed over him.

The question LaHood's department is now debating is whether consumers who opt for the cameras should get a tax break or other incentive.

It is estimated that 292 people die each year in backover accidents. Half of the accidents could be prevented by requiring the cameras in every vehicle, safety regulators say.

Bottleneck

The backup camera rule is one of dozens that are "stuck" in various stages of the review process at the Obama White House 

The Department of Transportation sent a draft final “rear visibility” rule to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs on November 16, 2011, and it has remained under OIRA review since, according to OIRA’s website.

President Obama reaffirmed President Clinton’s Executive Order 12,866, which limits OIRA review to 90 days, with a single 30-day extension possible, Weisman noted.

Presently, the White House is reviewing dozens of draft or final rules from federal agencies for more than the allowed 120 days.

The rear visibility rule was examined in a recent report by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards (CSS) on eight stalled rules, Down the Regulatory Rabbit Hole: How Corporate Influence, Judicial Review and a Lack of Transparency Delay Crucial Rules and Harm the Public. The report is available here.

More

USDA approves labeling non-genetically-engineered meat and liquid eggs

Meanwhile, a study finds that pigs fed a natural diet were healthier than those given modified foods

The U.S. Agriculture Department has approved a label for meat and liquid eggs that have not been produced with genetically-modified feed. To be eligible, t...

PhotoThe U.S. Agriculture Department has approved a label for meat and liquid eggs that have not been produced with genetically-modified feed. To be eligible, the meat and eggs will have to be certified by the the Non-GMO Project.

The USDA says it's not a new policy and notes that it has previously allowed companies to say on their labels that their products have been certified by a recognized third party.

The USDA regulates meat and poultry products. Other foods are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Does it matter what animals eat? Well, it might. A new study finds that pigs fed genetically-modified feed were less healthy than pigs that ate non-modified feed. 

The study was published in the June issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Organic Systems. Australian researchers studied 168 U.S. pigs over 22 weeks. Half ate a diet that included genetically-modified soybeans and corn while the other half ate a similar diet that had not been genetically engineered.

While the pigs gained about the same amount of weight, the ones eating the genetically-modified diet had a higher rate of severe stomach inflamation -- 42 percent versus 12 percent.

Does it matter?

Does this have any implications for humans who eat the pork from the pigs who were fed the genetically-modified diet? No one is quite sure and researchers say more studies are needed to answer that question.

Meanwhile, food safety advocates say that consumers have a right to know whether they're eating food that has been produced with genetic engineering or whether it is natural, more or less.

It's a controversial issue in the food business. Several states are considering legislation of one sort or another and the USDA and FDA are pondering what else, if anything, they should do about it.

Connecticut just a few weeks ago passed a bill that would require food manufacturers to label food that has been genetically modified, although the measure doesn't become effective until four other states adopt similar laws.

More

Sex offender "registry" named in class-action suit

The site charges a fee to remove inaccurate information, the suit alleges

A lawsuit charges that a website claiming to be a national sex offender registry is really in a different business, one that involves shaking people down f...

PhotoA lawsuit charges that a website claiming to be a national sex offender registry is really in a different business, one that involves shaking people down for money.

The class action charges that Sexoffenderin.com refuses to remove information, even when it's inaccurate, without a payment of up to $299, Courthouse News Service reported.

Lead plaintiff Terracazeno Talbert filed the suit in Jackson County, Missouri, claiming that the website had a profile of him containing his date of birth, address, a Google Map pinpointing his home and a photo of him with the words "sex offender" plastered across it.

Talbert says he has never been convicted of a sex offense but said that when he tried to have the profile removed, he was told he would have to pay.

Talbert claims the website has a link to request removal of information, but to do so costs $79 to $299. For $79 the information will be removed within 45 days; for $99 within 25 days; for $199 within six days; and for $299 within 24 hours, according to the complaint.

The owners of the site can't be identified because they have a "secret" domain registration that blocks their identity. Besides the site, the lawsuit names Special Domain Services, Go Daddy Operating Co. and Domains by Proxy, which the lawsuit says allow the defendants to register websites through them anonymously.

Sexoffenderin.com is a self-proclaimed national sex offender registry. It is not affiliated with federal government or any other agency. Users can search by name or by state and see photos and profile pages which publish alleged sex offenders' addresses, birth date and offenses, Talbert says.

When we visited the site, the "Record Removal" and "Removal Request" pages were inoperable. The rest of the site seemed to be functioning normally.

More

ATG replacement batteries for MacBook Pro recalled

The battery can catch fire while charging

Best Buy is recalling about 5,100 ATG lithium-ion batteries. The battery can catch fire while charging. The firm has received 13 reports that the battery...

PhotoBest Buy is recalling about 5,100 ATG lithium-ion batteries.

The battery can catch fire while charging. The firm has received 13 reports that the battery caught fire, including one report of a serious burn to a consumer’s leg.

This recall involves both black and white ATG lithium-ion replacement batteries for MacBook Pro notebook computers. Model number “MC-MBOOK13B” is on the label of the black battery and model number “MC-BOOK13W” is on the label of the white battery. The ATG logo is on both batteries.

The batteries, manufactured in China, were sold at Bestbuy.com and Partstore.com, or shipped to customers through the Geek Squad Protection fulfillment at Best Buy from September 2008, through June 2012, for about $50.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled battery, remove it from the computer and contact Best Buy for a replacement Apple brand battery or a $50 Best Buy gift card as a full refund. Best Buy is contacting its customers directly.

Consumers may contact Best Buy toll-free at (888) 737-6954 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. CT daily or e-mail bestbuypartexchange@decisionone.com.

More

Polaris recalls Ranger off-highway vehicles

The firewall behind the driver and passenger seats can overheat and melt

Polaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 4.500 Polaris 900 EFI RZR recreational off-highway vehicles. The firewall behind the driver and pa...

PhotoPolaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 4.500 Polaris 900 EFI RZR recreational off-highway vehicles.

The firewall behind the driver and passenger seats can overheat and melt, posing a burn hazard to consumers. The firm has received one report of an incident involving a consumer who received burn injuries to a finger.

This recall involves 2011 model Polaris Ranger RZR XP 900 recreational off-highway vehicles. The machines are either white or red and have a “RZR XP” decal on the right and left rear side panels. The right and left of the hood have “Dual Overhead Cam” decals. There are also “900 EFI” decals on the front right and left of the machine.

The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Polaris dealers nationwide from May 2012, through February 2013, for between $16,000 and $16,600.

Consumers should immediately stop using the vehicles and contact Polaris to schedule a free repair. Polaris is contacting its known customers directly.

Consumers may contact Polaris toll-free at (888) 704-5290, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

More

Enteric Coated Aspirin Tablets recalled

The dosage may be higher than what is indicated on the package

Advance Pharmaceutical is recalling to the user level of the over-the-counter drug product, Rugby label Enteric Coated Aspirin Tablets, 81 mg, Lot 13A026....

PhotoAdvance Pharmaceutical is recalling the over-the-counter drug product, Rugby label Enteric Coated Aspirin Tablets, 81 mg, Lot 13A026.

The company has received a complaint about a bottle labeled as Enteric Coated Aspirin Tablets, 81 mg, actually containing Acetaminophen 500 mg tablets.

The product is indicated for the temporary relief of minor aches and pains and is packaged in bottles of 120 tablet with NDC 0536-3086-41 and UPC 3 0536-3086-41 9. The affected lot of Enteric Coated Aspirin Tablets is Lot 13A026 with Expiration Date 01-2015. The lot was manufactured and packaged under the label of Rugby Laboratories, which distributed the product nationwide to wholesalers and retailers.

Consumers may be inadvertently taking Acetaminophen 500 mg instead of Enteric Coated Aspirin 81 mg, which may cause severe liver damage to those who take other drugs containing acetaminophen, consumers who take 3 or more alcoholic drinks every day, or those who have liver disease.

The labeled directions instructs patients to take 4-8 tablets every 4 hours, but not more than 48 tablets in 24 hours. Consumers who take 48 tablets daily of the defective product may be ingesting up to 24,000 mg of Acetaminophen, which is about six times the maximum recommended daily dose of acetaminophen (4,000 mg).

Consumers who have the affected lot should immediately discontinue its use and return it to the pharmacy or store where it was purchased.

Anyone with questions about the recall may contact Advance Pharmaceutical, Monday-Friday, 9 am- 5 pm EST.  

More

Lyme disease not the only threat from ticks

Lone star tick is spreading out, carrying even worse diseases

As predicted, Lyme disease cases are increasing in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25,000 Americans will ge...

Photo
Lone star tick Photo credit: University of Iowa

As predicted, Lyme disease cases are increasing in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25,000 Americans will get the disease this year.

If you live in or visit New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the upper Midwest, your risk of the disease is greatest. If you live in rural or suburban areas with high concentrations of deer, the risk is even more severe.

That's because Lyme disease is spread primarily through bites by blacklegged ticks whose favorite food is the blood of deer. A close second is your or your pet's blood.

But Lyme disease is not the only threat you have to worry about from ticks. Another type of tick, the lone star tick, can spread infectious diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Unfortunately, the lone star tick has been on the move recently, spreading out from its native south and southwestern environs.

Ticks on the move

"Lone star ticks become more and more widespread every year, as they continue to infiltrate states where they have never before been present," said Dr. Michael Dryden, distinguished professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

The latest data reveals lone star tick populations today as far north as New York, Maine – even Ontario, Canada – and as far west as Nebraska. In fact, they now share much the same turf as their Lyme disease-carrying brethren. Both are very bad news.

"The lone star tick is a very aggressive tick, and it actively seeks out people and pets to feed on," said Dr. Michael J. Yabsley, associate professor at the University of Georgia. "It's one of the most common ticks that people find on themselves and their dogs, so everyone should take precautions – especially in the new areas of invasion."

Know where they hide

To avoid the diseases ticks carry you need to know where to find these tiny insects. Ticks generally like moist, humid environments in or near grassy or wooded areas. You may come into contact with ticks during outdoor activities around your home or when walking through vegetation. On nature hikes, walk in the center of trails and avoid tall vegetation.

Experts at the CDC also advise using a repellent with DEET on skin or clothing. Repellents containing 20% or more DEET can be applied to the skin and they can protect up to several hours. Always follow product instructions.

Parents should apply repellents to their children, making sure you don't get it on hands, eyes and mouth. Products containing permethrin can be used to treat boots, clothing, and camping gear. Treated items can remain protective through several washings.

Symptoms

PhotoLyme disease infection is usually marked by a large, red bulls-eye rash around the bite, but not always. Sometimes the first sign that you are infected is when you observed the symptoms; fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes.

The symptoms for Rocky Mountain spotted fever are similar to those of Lyme disease but the infection is more lethal. Last week a six-year-old North Carolina girl died from Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Doctors say the child was bitten by a tick when the family visited Texas over the Memorial Day weekend.

To reduce the risk of disease from ticks, keep pets inoculated with an effective flea and tick preventive, since pets often bring ticks into contact with humans.

"By the time you notice ticks on dogs, it's often too late," said Dryden. "All it takes is one bite."

What to do

If you find a tick on your body, remove it as quickly as possible, but using care. The CDC provides these instructions:

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible.
  • Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don't twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
  • After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
More

Article traces ties between NSA, Silicon Valley

Government and business work together to learn all about you

If anyone needed to be convinced that the publishing business has been turned inside out, the news that Facebook's security chief quit to take a job with t...

PhotoIf anyone needed to be convinced that the publishing business has been turned inside out, the news that Facebook's security chief quit to take a job with the National Security Agency should do the trick.

Max Kelly left Facebook to join the NSA in 2010 but it remained, well, secret, until The New York Times broke the news today.

Publishing used to be pretty much a one-way business. Writers and editors assembled information from their news sources, slapped it onto newsprint or glossy paper and trucked it over to the Post Office or newsstand. Advertisers who thought their potential customers might read the publication in question paid to insert their ads.

These days, the publisher operates the "platform" and assembles information about its readers -- or "users," as they're now called -- and sells that to advertisers and marketing researchers. Readers supply the content free of charge, giving up information they would never dream of giving to the government. Advertisers pay for access to the data and then pay again to display their ads on the platform. 

Nice work if you can get it.

Huge databases

What's really quite amazing is how much information is being gathered about the hundreds of millions of people who use Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter and so forth. Despite all the uproar about the NSA's Prism program, which tracks phone calls and emails, the program comes nowhere near equalling the huge datasets assembled by private publishers.

The NSA, of course, always knows more than it admits to knowing but Big Data -- the huge databases being constantly updated by the marketers of the world -- puts it to shame, collecting demographic and financial information about Internet users and marrying it to data about our online activities, our online and brick-and-mortar purchases, our travel, the books we read and the movies we watch.

You don't have to have a doctorate in history to know what happens when private companies amass huge troves of information the government doesn't have. That's right -- the government finds a way to sneak a hose into the warehouse and suck out the data.

Not that Max Kelly would be involved in anything like that, of course. Just saying -- a huge dataset is like a loaded gun. Sooner or later somebody is going to use it. Or steal it.

Or as the Times put it: Kelly's move underscores the degree to which Silicon Valley and the NSA are in the same business: "Both hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans."

Who penetrates whom

PhotoBack to our comparison of publishing past and present: In the Watergate era, reporters penetrated government and revealed its secrets to the public. Now publishers penetrate their users, so to speak, and reveal their secrets to marketers and the government.

Now of course, the darlings of Silicon Valley will tell you they don't give much data to the government and deny the NSA has a "back door" to their servers. This is another way in which business and government now resemble each other: No one believes anything they say.

As the Times notes in its story, the NSA and other government agencies have become some of Silicon Valley's biggest customers for data analytics, the software that's used to collate, translate and correlate the enormous datasets government and industry pore over daily.

Government and what used to be called the press have always had back-door arrangements, of course. When I was an Associated Press executive in Washington, certain government agencies would occasionally call to let us know which of our circuits they were monitoring at how many locations so that we could bill them.

No delivery was necessary. They had already intercepted the transmissions.

Similarly, we were once working with a local broadcaster to demonstrate how data could be encrypted in a broadcast signal. But on the day when we were to turn on the data feed for the demonstration, the engineers were perplexed to discover there was already heavily-encrypted data multiplexed into the signal.

No one would admit knowing how it got there or where it came from but the military-style encryption didn't leave much room for doubt about what it was.

Kind of quaint

This kind of clandestine activity seems almost quaint today. After all, it amounted to nothing much more than moving around information that had already been collected; no one was tapping into private citizens' brains to see what they had on their minds.

Wire-tapping and steaming open letters used to be about all the government had at its disposal.  Now, in a digital world, just about everything that doesn't have skin wrapped around it can be detected, collected and accepted.

Even Skype, the seemingly innocuous Internet telephone service, has been part of the Prism operation since 2011, according to the Times article.

What's it all mean? That's up to you but one thing it probably means is that if you're worried about your secrets, you can stop worrying. They've already been stolen.  

More

It's a jungle out there: how to avoid animal attacks

Whether you're confronted by a vicious dog or a pesky bee, there are things you can do

A lot of people love animals. They love visiting them at zoos, coming home to them as pets, and viewing them in their natural habitats.But sometimes things...

PhotoA lot of  people love animals. They love visiting them at zoos, coming home to them as pets and viewing them in their natural habitats.

But sometimes things can go awry between animal and human. Dogs can attack, things in the ocean can bite you, and there are all kinds of things flying around that can give you a nasty sting.

So what are the best ways to avoid animal attacks? 

Dog Bites

According to the American Humane Association, about 4.7 million people in the United States are bitten by a dog each year and 71% of those bites are on the extremities (legs, hands, arms and feet).

Jeremy Talamantes, dog trainer and owner of K-9 Behavior Services, says when you're confronted by a vicious dog, you might be bitten or you might be attacked. And for your own safety, it's important to recognize the difference. 

"You have bites and you have attacks. So the bites happen very often, but the attacks are 'I'm not letting go. I'm going back and forth on you.' And those are the ones that are serious and they can be life threatening situations," said Talamantes in a TV interview.

A lot of experts say not to panic if you're confronted by a mean dog, but that's clearly a difficult thing to do, especially if you have a slight fear or  a full-on phobia. 

But Talamantes says staying calm is the best thing you can do in most cases, because running will set off a natural instinct in the dog and tell him to give chase.

"If you find yourself in a situation where you come around a corner and a dog comes up and he's staring at you, he's sizing you up and at that same moment you need to do the same thing," advised Talamantes.

"You need to stop. Don't move. Don't take off running. If you take off running, you're prey. It's a prey-driven instinct that a dog has. He's going to chase you and he's going to take you down."

In addition, Talamantes says if a dog is biting you for more than three seconds -- it's not a just a bite, it's an attack -- and you'll have to do whatever you can to protect yourself.

He suggests to start screaming to get someone's attention, which probably won't be too hard for you to do considering the circumstances. After that, try to find something to put  in between yourself and the dog, like a garbage can lid, stick or broom.

And just as important, go to the emergency room if you're ever bitten, since the bacteria in a dog's mouth can cause infection, experts say.

Bee Stings

PhotoWhen it comes to avoiding a bee sting, experts say to think about where you're going and plan accordingly.

Researchers at the University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources say to avoid wearing colognes, perfumes or scented soaps if you're going to be in a place that has a lot of bees or wasps.

Additionally, they say not to wear bright or heavily patterned clothing or walk barefoot in areas with a lot of foliage. And if a bee or wasp does land on you, most times it's not looking to sting; it's just looking for water.

"If you remain calm when a bee or wasp lands on your skin to inspect a smell or to get water if you are sweating heavily, the insect eventually will leave of its own accord," wrote the researchers. "If you don't want to wait for it to leave, gently and slowly brush it away with a piece of paper."

Most experts say unless you're disturbing a nest, the chances are high you won't be stung. But if a bee lands on you, you increase those chances if you swat at it or try to hit it.

And after you decide whether you're going to brush the bee off or wait for it to leave, you should slowly back away and go to another area, experts advise.

If you're allergic to bee or wasp stings, get emergency medical treatment immediately. And wearing a Medic-alert bracelet if you're allergic to stings is another smart move.

Bear Attacks

PhotoAs for bear attacks, you're more likely to be bitten by a dog or stung by a bee, but they still happen.

And just because the chances of something bad occurring are low, it doesn't mean that you don't prepare for it in some way, right? 

Like getting struck by lightning. Even though the chances are low, you still take the necessary precautions during a thunderstorm. You don't go walking under a tall tree, for Pete's sake.

According to safety tips provided by various sources, including Hinterland Who's Who and Parks Canada, it's best to make a lot of noise if you're walking through the woods, or in an area that's known to have bears.

Making noise as you walk will alert a bear to your presence, because if it becomes alarmed, you'll increase your chances of being confronted. Generally, bears will try to avoid a confrontation, so if they hear you coming they'll go someplace else, experts say.

If you do run into a bear or one runs into you, slowly back way. Running will only increase the chances of an attack occurring.

And experts say if you plan to be in an area that's known to have bears, you should keep bear spray handy, and have it in a place where you can grab it quickly.

If the bear isn't retreating, hold your arms high above your head. This will make you appear bigger in size to the bear, and it might back off. 

Obviously, these tips will be difficult to follow in the heat of an attack, but you'll still need to be prepared nonetheless. A recent study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management showed that attacks by North American black bears are happening more frequently, as population in the United States and Canada continues to grow.

"We didn't demonstrate why population growth is correlated with more bear attacks," explained Stephen Herrero, a professor at the University of Calgary and one of the study authors. "But we speculate that it could be because bears in those areas are living in less productive habitat with periodic food stress, which may predispose some bears to consider people as prey. 

"With training, people can learn to recognize the behavior of a bear that is considering them as prey and deter an attack by taking aggressive action such as fighting back," he said.

More

Researchers develop new leukemia treatment

Survival rate above 80% in clinical trials

A new form of leukemia treatment may be available in the future, according to two recent studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Research...

PhotoA new form of leukemia treatment may be available in the future, according to two recent studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC) say a recently tested drug called ibrutinib could be an effective form of treatment for adults with either chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or mantle cell lymphoma (MCL).

Two-phase testing

Researchers came to this conclusion after examining the drug in two phases of testing and saw that 71% of patients had a response to it. After ibrutinib was taken for 26 months, there was no progression of the disease in 75% of the patients who had CLL. And the overall survival rate for these patients was 83%.

The researchers said ibrutinib could be an effective and safe alternative to chemotherapy.

"Essentially all CLL patients respond well to ibrutinib, which lacks many of the side effects of chemotherapy and frequently produces long-lasting remissions, even in patients with high-risk genetic lesions," said John C. Byrd, one of the study's co-authors and director of the division of hematology at OSUCCC.

In addition, Byrd said patients taking ibrutinib could be free of CLL in two years' time. 

"Approximately 75% of people of all types of relapse CLL will be disease-free at two years," he said.

According to the Leukemia Research Foundation, there have been 126,340 new cases of leukemia in 2012 and 43,670 people have died from the disease, which is why places like OSUCCC have been researching alternative treatments so vigorously.

Attack of the T cells

PhotoAnother place that's been busy in the fight against cancer is Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where researchers have been testing a new leukemia treatment for quite some time. 

The Sloan-Kettering scientists gathered five adult patients, all with lymphoblastic leukemia, and removed each patient's T cells. From there, scientists modified those T cells so they would be able to attack other cells that are tumorous.

Isabelle Riviere, director of Memorial Sloan-Kettering's Cell Therapy and Cell Engineering Facility, said more and more scientists are beginning to take another look at cell therapy as an effective cancer treatment. 

"We are at a critical time when a number of cell therapies are starting to demonstrate some therapeutic benefits," said Riviere in an interview posted on the Sloan-Kettering website.

"There are still a number of hurdles to overcome from the processing and manufacturing point of view, but we are now at a stage where the scientific and medical communities believe it's worthwhile to move forward and test these new treatments."

Effective treatment

Back in Ohio, the OSUCCC researchers found that ibrutinib could be an effective treatment for Mantle Cell Lymphoma, as 68% of the patients who took the drug had a response to it.

In addition, 47% had partial response to the drug and the survival rate was 58% after 18 months.

Kristie Blum, MD, who leads OSUCCC's James lymphoma program, says patients responded better to ibrutinib compared to a lot of other treatments.

"This is remarkable because the last agent approved by the Food and Drug Administration for MCL had a 30% response rate," she said. "This trial suggests that ibrutinib could significantly improve the landscape of therapy options for MCL."

In addition, researchers say that ibrutinib could be a good alternative to chemotherapy since the side-effects are a lot milder.

Photo
Dennis Hickey

CLL survivor Dennis Hickey agrees. He's been taking ibrutinib three times a day and says it's far better than going through chemotherapy. 

"[Chemotherapy] would work for about six months. It would shrink the tumor," he said. 

But it would also put Hickey's body through some very harsh changes. "To make a long story short, I was a mess," he recalled.

And a decade after he was diagnosed with CLL, Hickey has been cancer free since taking ibrutinib, and he says he couldn't be happier.

"Ten years later I sit here before you truly blessed," he said.

More

What time is it? Ask your lettuce

Fruits, vegetables may be healthier if they remain exposed to night and day

Although fruits and vegetables are now sporting bar codes at some supermarkets, they don't come with built-in clocks. Or do they?In a new study this...

PhotoAlthough fruits and vegetables are now sporting bar codes at some supermarkets, they don't come with built-in clocks. Or do they?

In a new study this week in Current Biology, researchers at Rice University and the University of California at Davis say that produce continues responding to the environment for days after being harvested.

"Vegetables and fruits don't die the moment they are harvested," said Rice biologist Janet Braam, the lead researcher. "They respond to their environment for days, and we found we could use light to coax them to make more cancer-fighting antioxidants at certain times of day." 

Braam's team simulated day-night cycles of light and dark to control the internal clocks of fruits and vegetables, including cabbage, carrots, squash and blueberries.

Circadian rhythm

The research is a follow-up to her team's 2012 study of the ways that plants use their internal circadian clocks to defend themselves from hungry insects. That study found that Arabidopsis thaliana -- an  organism that's similar to cabbage and is often used for plant studies -- begins ramping up production of insect-fighting chemicals a few hours before sunrise, the time that hungry insects begin to feed.

Some of those chemicals are known to be valuable to human health, so Braam's team decided to study whether they were affected by the time of day.

Braam's team began their research by attempting to "entrain" the clocks of cabbage in the same way they had Arabidopsis. Entrainment is akin to the process that international travelers go through as they recover from jet lag. After flying to the other side of the globe, travelers often have trouble sleeping until their internal circadian clock resets itself to the day-night cycle in their new locale.

Using controlled lighting in a sealed chamber, Rice graduate student and study lead author Danielle Goodspeed found she could entrain the circadian clocks of postharvest cabbage just as she had those of Arabidopsis in the 2012 study. Following the success with cabbage, Goodspeed and co-authors John Liu and Zhengji Sheng studied spinach, lettuce, zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes and blueberries.

"We were able to entrain each of them, even the root vegetables," Goodspeed said. She and Braam said the findings suggest that storing fruits and vegetables in dark trucks, boxes and refrigerators may reduce their ability to keep daily rhythms.

"We cannot yet say whether all-dark or all-light conditions shorten the shelf life of fruits and vegetables," Braam said. "What we have shown is that keeping the internal clock ticking is advantageous with respect to insect resistance and could also yield health benefits."

"It's exciting to think that we may be able to boost the health benefits of our produce simply by changing the way we store it," Goodspeed said.

More

New silicone gel-filled breast implant wins federal approval

Post-approval safety studies are required to assess rare events

The MemoryShape Breast Implant, which is used to increase breast size (augmentation) for use in women at least 22 years old and to rebuild breast tissue (r...

PhotoThe MemoryShape Breast Implant, which is used to increase breast size (augmentation) for use in women at least 22 years old and to rebuild breast tissue (reconstruction) in women of any age, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Approval of the implant, manufactured by Mentor Worldwide LLC, is based on six years of data from 955 women demonstrating that the implant is reasonably safe and effective. The implant showed basically the same rates of complications and outcomes as previously approved devices.

These include tightening of the area around the implant (capsular contracture), re-operation, implant removal, an uneven appearance (asymmetry), and wrinkling. Fissures or cracks were observed in the gel of some MemoryShape Breast Implants, a characteristic called gel fracture.

“It’s important to remember that breast implants are not lifetime devices,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Women should fully understand the risks associated with breast implants before considering augmentation or reconstruction surgery, and they should recognize that long-term monitoring is essential.”

Post-approval studies needed

Shuren says that while the data that were reviewed showed a “reasonable assurance” of safety and effectiveness, “We will be looking at the results from post-approval studies that will focus on the implants’ long-term safety and effectiveness.”

The silicone gel in the MemoryShape Breast Implant contains more cross-linking compared to the silicone gel used in Mentor’s previously approved implant. Cross-linking refers to the bonds that link one silicone chain to another. This increased cross-linking results in a silicone gel that is firmer. The clinical significance of this type of silicone gel is not known.

The FDA requires that Mentor conduct a series of post-approval studies to assess long-term safety and effectiveness outcomes and the risks of rare disease. Lessons learned from previous post-approval studies on silicone gel-filled breast implants informed the design of post-approval studies for Mentor’s MemoryShape Breast Implant.

FDA requirements

As a condition of approval for the MemoryShape Breast Implants, Mentor must:

  • Continue to follow 955 women who received the implants as part of the pre-market core study that provided safety and effectiveness data for the device approval. These patients will be followed until they have completed their 10-year evaluations for long-term device performance;
  • Continue to follow approximately 350 patients who were implanted with the MemoryShape Medium Height Moderate Profile (CPG Style 321) Breast Implants as part of a pre-market continued access study (not part of the pre-market core study). They will be followed until they have completed their 5-year evaluations;
  • Conduct a new study of approximately 2,500 women receiving MemoryShape Breast Implants to collect information on long-term local complications (e.g., capsular contracture, re-operation, removal of implant, implant rupture) and less common potential disease outcomes (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, breast and lung cancer, reproductive complications). They will be followed for 10 years;
  • Conduct five case control studies by enrolling 10,750 women to evaluate the potential association between any silicone gel-filled breast implant (including MemoryShape Breast Implants) and five rare diseases: rare connective tissue disease, neurological disease, brain cancer, cervical/vulvar cancer and lymphoma;
  • Evaluate women’s perceptions of the patient labeling; and
  • Analyze the MemoryShape Breast Implants that are removed from patients and returned to the manufacturer.

With this latest approval, there are now five FDA-approved silicone gel-filled breast implant products available in the U.S. manufactured by three companies: Allergan, Mentor and Sientra.

More

Spring brings out the buyers as existing-home sales surge in May

Not only are they buying more, they're paying more

Buyer's market or seller's market, there's no escaping the fact that homes are selling -- and for more money. From the National Association of Realtors (N...

PhotoBuyer's market or seller's market, there's no escaping the fact that homes are selling -- and for more money.

From the National Association of Realtors (NAR) word that comes Existing-home sales improved in May and remain solidly above a year ago, while the median price continued to rise by double-digit rates from a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Sales of previously owned homes, which includes single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 4.2% in May -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.18 million. That's 12.9% above the pace in May 2012.

NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun says the recovery is strengthening and that he expects limited housing supplies in much of the country for the rest of the year. “The housing numbers are overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “However, the number of available homes is unlikely to grow, despite a nice gain in May, unless new home construction ramps up quickly by an additional 50 percent. The home price growth is too fast, and only additional supply from new home building can moderate future price growth.”

Existing-home sales are at the highest level since November 2009 when the market jumped to 5.44 million as buyers took advantage of tax stimulus. Sales have stayed above year-ago levels for 23 months.

Prices surge

The national median price for all types of existing homes was $208,000 in May -- up 15.4% from a year ago. The median is the point at which half are higher and half are lower. This marks six straight months of double-digit increases and is the strongest price gain since October 2005, which jumped a record 16.6 percent from a year earlier.

Additionally, the national median price has shown 15 consecutive months of year-over-year increases. The last time that happened was from March 2005 to May 2006.

Where they're selling

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 1.6% to an annual rate of 650,000 in May and are 8.3% above May 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $269,600, up 12.3% from a year ago.
  • Sales jumped 8.0% in the Midwest to a pace of 1.21 million, and are 16.3% higher than a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $159,800 -- 8.2% higher than in May 2012.
  • In the South, existing-home sales rose 4.0% to an annual level of 2.09 million in May and are 16.1% above the same time last year. The median price was $183,300, which is 15.0% above a year ago.
  • Existing-home sales in the West increased 2.5% to 1.23 million pace in May -- 7.0% above May of last year. With the tightest regional supply, the median price in the West was $276,400 -- up 19.9% from May 2012.
More

Tip Top Poultry recalls mechanically separated chicken product

The product may contain pieces of plastic

Tip Top Poultry of Rockmart, Ga., is recalling approximately 18,000 pounds of mechanically separated chicken product that may contain pieces of plastic, ac...

PhotoTip Top Poultry of Rockmart, Ga., is recalling approximately 18,000 pounds of mechanically separated chicken product that may contain pieces of plastic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 250 – lb. drums of Tip Top roasted mechanically separated chicken.

The product was packaged on April 29, 2013, and distributed to one establishment for further processing for institutional use. Cases can be identified by the case code 55252, pack date 04/29/13, and the establishment number P-17453 within the mark of inspection.

The pieces of plastic are from a washer that broke. The problem was discovered at the further processing establishment as they were using the product to formulate a soup base. There have been no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall can contact Laura Holder, Public Relations, at (770) 579-4289.

More

Kolcraft recalls strollers

The wheel rim can fracture and fly off as a projectile

Kolcraft Enterprises, of Chicago, Ill., is recalling more than 96,000 Kolcraft Jeep Liberty strollers The inner tube of the tire on the stroller can ruptu...

PhotoKolcraft Enterprises, of Chicago, Ill., is recalling more than 96,000 Kolcraft Jeep Liberty strollers

The inner tube of the tire on the stroller can rupture causing the wheel rim to fracture and fly off as a projectile, posing a risk of bodily injury and property damage.

There have been 39 reports of inner tube ruptures causing the wheel rim to fracture and fly off as a projectile. Of these, 18 included reports of injury, with 14 occurring while adult caregivers were filling the tire with air. Two children received lacerations to their chin or leg while standing near the stroller and 16 adults received abrasions, contusions and/or lacerations to their arms, legs, stomach or head/face. Two of the reports included property damage.

The recall includes Jeep Liberty branded strollers with model numbers starting with JL031, JL032, JL034, JL035 or JL036 manufactured between June 2010, and September 2011. The model number and date of manufacture are printed on a white tag on the rear upper center of each seatback pad.

The three-wheeled strollers were sold in different color fabric combinations with a metal black and silver frame including: green seat and canopy; gray seat and canopy with a teal blue stripe across the center of the canopy; orange seat and canopy with a tan stripe; tan seat and canopy with yellow stripe across the center top of the canopy; and tan seat and canopy with an orange canopy rim.

“Jeep” is printed on the side of the stroller and on the front of the stroller tray. There is a plastic red toy steering wheel, ignition key and orange shift lever mounted on a yellow base attached to the stroller tray. If your stroller wheels have a gray triangle located on the rim at the valve stem, they are NOT included in this recall.

The strollers, manufactured in China, were sold at Burlington Coat Factory, Sears and Toys R Us nationwide, online and at other mass market and independent juvenile specialty stores from June 2010, through June 2013, for between $150 and $180.

Consumers should immediately stop using the product and contact the company to receive free replacement wheels. Consumers should use a manual bicycle pump to inflate stroller tires to a maximum of 30 p.s.i. Do not use gas station air pumps to inflate stroller tires.

Consumers may contact Kolcraft at (800) 453-7673 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.  

More

New York installing free mobile device charging stations

Move is a response to dead cell phone batteries after Sandy

In less than five years time, smart phones have become a critical part of modern life. That point was driven home last fall when Hurricane Sandy slammed in...

PhotoIn less than five years time, smart phones have become a critical part of modern life. That point was driven home last fall when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the northeast corridor, knocking out power to wide areas of the New York City metro.

The result was communication chaos. Millions of people now have no wired telephone account, relying solely on their cell phones for contact with family, friends and work.

The cell phone providers quickly restored power to their networks through emergency generators, but it turned out to be of little use to customers after a day or two. With no electricity, smart phone batteries quickly ran down. Sandy, it seems, exposed the Achilles heel of wireless communication in a blackout.

Now, less than a year after the storm, New York City and AT&T are embarking on an ambitious program to provide free cell phone charging stations around the city. They will be there in an emergency, or when you are on the go and discover your phone's battery needs a charge.

Street Charge

AT&T calls the pilot project “Street Charge” and is basing it on the temporary charging stations it set up in Sandy's aftermath. But instead of the generators it brought in to provide power, these new permanent charging stations will be powered by solar energy.

PhotoBefore the end of the summer AT&T expects to deploy some 25 charging stations across the city's five boroughs. There are two solar mobile charging units now live at Fort Greene Park. Charging stations will next come online at Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier I, Governor's Island, and Pier 1 at Riverside Park and Union Square Park.

"Thanks to AT&T, more New Yorkers will have improved connectivity and access to the wireless technology that has become such an important part of our daily lives," said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. "After Hurricane Sandy, I asked our private sector partners to step up and help improve the resiliency of New York City. AT&T is doing just that, and we're grateful for their efforts."

Where to find charging stations

Once the project is complete, charging stations for cell phones and tablets will be available in these locations:

Manhattan:

  • Riverside Park, Pier I
  • Union Square Park, North Plaza
  • Rumsey Playfield, Central Park Summerstage
  • Hudson River Park Pier 59
  • Randall's Island

Brooklyn:

  • Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier I
  • Fort Greene Park
  • Coney Island
  • Metrotech Plaza
  • The Dumbo Arts Festival
  • The Brooklyn Book Festival

Queens:

  • Rockaway Beach
  • Clearview Golf Course
  • Socrates Sculpture Park

Bronx:

  • Orchard Beach
  • Staten Island:
  • Governor's Island
  • La Tourette Golf Course
  • Staten Island Zoo

Keeping a smart phone charged is a bigger issue than with the previous generation of cell phones. Accessing data and running apps provides a much faster battery drain than simple voice communication.

What to do

A number of manufacturers are at work to find ways to extend battery life, or produce smart phone batteries that will hold a charge longer. In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to go longer between charges.

The first is obvious – turn off the phone when you are asleep or in an area where there is weak or no cell signal. If the phone is constantly searching for a signal, it can quickly drain the battery.

When you are in a meeting and don't want to be disturbed, turn the phone off instead of switching to “vibrate.” The vibrate mode uses extra power.

Turn down the brightness. Yes, you need to be able to see the screen when you are outside in the sunlight but the backlight feature on smart phones is an energy hog.

Don't let the battery drain completely. The lithium-based batteries in mobile devices are designed to operate best when they don't run all the way down. Charge it up whenever you have the chance.

More

How to deal with a horrible neighbor

Things to do, things not to do and how long to cool down before you do anything

Whether you live in a city with millions of people or in a nice quiet suburb, the world can really feel like a crowded place sometimes.It's easy to feel ...

More

Handling dog and cat emergencies

How prepared are you? Do you know how to do CPR for your pet?

Completing any type of course feels good, but there's something about finishing a CPR class that gives you an extra special feeling.Knowing that you coul...

PhotoCompleting any type of course feels good, but there's something about finishing a CPR class that gives you an extra special feeling.

But how many people feel that same level of preparedness when it comes to saving their pet's lives.

According to statistics and rescue advice released by Carrington College, 63% of dog owners are somewhat likely or likely to give CPR to their dog at some point.

And when it comes to being ready for an emergency, 54% of dog owners said they don't have an evacuation plan for their pet and only 20% of owners said they keep an animal first aid kit around.

Get ready

So how can you be better prepared?

The ASPCA says every animal emergency kit should include pet first-aid supplies, three to seven days' worth of pop-top canned dog food, disposable litter trays, litter or paper toweling, disinfectant and disposable garbage bags. And that's just for starters.

For a complete list of what you'll need for a pet emergency, you can speak to your veterinarian or visit the ASPCA website.

In addition, the ASPCA says pet owners should put a rescue alert sticker on the windows of their home, so rescue workers know there's a pet inside. On the sticker itself, you'll be able to list what kind of pet you have, how many you have and the name and number of your vet.

If you have to leave your home during an emergency, create a safe haven for your pet, and if necessary contact your veterinarian to learn where the nearest boarding kennels and emergency shelters are.

Plan out your evacuation route before an emergency hits, so you'll have an idea of where to go and what to do. And never leave your pet behind and assume he'll survive a disaster. If it's not safe for you, it won't be safe for your pet, says the ASPCA.

Puppy CPR

PhotoIf your puppy or dog has a CPR emergency, the first thing you want to do is check his heartbeat and breathing. If you don't feel a pulse, start doing CPR immediately and have someone call your vet while you begin the resuscitation process.

If you feel a pulse but no breath, start doing artificial respiration by clearing blood or mucus from the dog's air passage. You may need to remove your dog's tongue as well. Just pull it forward so that it is not blocking the air passage.

If the air passage is blocked by an object of some sort, remove it also. 

Once the object is removed, shut your dog's mouth and close his lips by placing your hand under his chin. You'll then take your other hand to seal off his mouth and nose, so you can start breathing into his nostrils.

Experts say you should gently exhale through your hands and into the dog's nostrils every five or six seconds, and you should repeat this process until your puppy or dog is able to breathe on his own.

If you don't feel a heartbeat, keep doing CPR.

For bigger puppies, you'll start by laying him on his right side. For smaller puppies use your thumbs and forefingers on both hands and place them around the puppy's chest.

From that point, you'll do chest compressions one time per second, while breathing into the nose every six seconds. You'll continue this process until help comes or the puppy or dog begins to breathe again. 

Helping kitty

If your cat isn't breathing, use your finger to clear out any objects, mucus or blood from the mouth and tilt the head back so she'll have a straightened air passage, say the experts at the Pet Guardian Angels of America (PGAA).

PhotoSimilar to giving your dog CPR, you would use one hand to close the cat's mouth and breathe into its nose and mouth, without letting air escape. If you see your cat's chest expand, you'll know your breaths are reaching the lungs.

If the chest isn't moving, begin the process all over again. Clear your cat's mouth and start breathing.

If you don't feel a heartbeat, place your cat on its right side, put your fingers on the ribcage and place the fingers from your other hand on top of your first hand.

Then in a steady manner, you would press down on the ribcage in rapid succession using both hands, pressing about three to four inches down. This should be repeated about 10 times, advises the PGAA.

Newborn pets

If you have a newborn puppy in the litter that's not breathing, experts say to remove any extra fluid that might be around the puppy's throat, nose or mouth, and lower the head so the fluid can come out by itself.

Once you clear the air passage, place your mouth around the nose of the puppy and give two to three small breaths. But be sure not to breathe fully or too hard, as a newborn puppy's lungs are still small and not very strong.

To check for a heartbeat, use two fingers to feel the chest. If you don't feel a heartbeat, place either hand around the puppy's chest and do rapid compressions. 

You'll then continue to press down, while you're breathing into the mouth and nose of the puppy every 15 to 20 seconds and repeat this step until you start seeing results or until help arrives.

It's always important to make sure someone is calling your vet, while you're doing the CPR treatment, experts say. 

More

AMA officially declares obesity a disease

Will the classification will change the way the disease is treated or further stigmatize patients?

With one-third of Americans being obese, members of the American Medical Association (AMA) have voted to recognize obesity as a medical condition that requ...

PhotoWith one-third of Americans being obese, members of the American Medical Association (AMA) have voted to recognize obesity as a medical condition that requires treatment.

The vote by the AMA's House of Delegates followed a debate about whether the new classification would create more help for patients or simply add to the stigma many obese people already feel. 

If nothing else, the vote puts pressure on insurance companies to reimburse doctors for the time they spend urging their patients to pay a little more attention to the scale. It also makes it part of a physician's professional obligation to raise the subject, even if it makes the doctor and patient uncomfortable.

The Medicare program, which covers about 13 million obese Americans, already covers the cost of behavioral therapy as well as bariatric surgery, but coverage is spotty among private insurers.

Based on BMI

The decision was controversial and went against the conclusion of the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health, which concluded that the new classification is problematic because the measure used to define obesity -- the body mass index (BMI) -- is flawed. 

"Given the existing limitations of BMI to diagnose obesity in clinical practice, it is unclear that recognizing obesity as a disease, as opposed to a 'condition' or 'disorder,' will result in improved health outcomes," the council wrote in its conclusion.

Obesity is defined by the National Institutes of Health as having a BMI of 30 and above. BMI describes the body weight relative to height. Although very muscular people may have a BMI of 30 or more without being obese, for the rest of us it probably means we're lugging around too much fat.

In its report opposing the reclassification, the Council on Science and Public Health said it feared that defining obesity as a disease would result in "greater investments by government and the private sector to develop and reimburse obesity treatments."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved just two new prescription weight-loss drugs since 1999 and is likely to face pressure to approve more drugs, leading to higher spending and exposing patients to unforeseen risks and side effects that often accompany newer drugs. 

More

Top 10 considerations when buying a house

Let pragmatism overrule emotion during your search

It's easy to fall in love at first sight with a house when you are looking for a new place to live, but letting your emotions enter the equation can spell ...

More

Drivers find that GPS systems are not foolproof

The turn-by-turn directions aren't always accurate, motorists say

It's an old joke that men won't stop and ask for directions. But with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) devices in so many cars today, they don't have to....

PhotoIt's an old joke that men won't stop and ask for directions. But with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) devices in so many cars today, they don't have to.

GPS devices, as well as smartphone apps, have made it easier to get where you are going. But these systems are not foolproof. Sometimes they can make mistakes.

In fact, 63 percent of U.S. drivers who have used GPS say the technology has given them bad information at least once. In the survey by Harris Interactive for Michelin Travel and Lifestyle, respondents complained of directions that were wrong, as well as complex and confusing routes.

Lost and confused

James, of Portland, Ore., reported one such problem with his Garmin navigation system.

“We have used a Garmin Nuvi 360 GPS for many years with no significant problems,” he wrote in a 2011 ConsumerAffairs post. “But today, as we drove down Arizona Highway 67 to the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park, we encountered problems with the GPS routing that make us wonder how much to trust Garmin. For about 46 miles, we got at least 20 route misdirections, some to the left, some to the right, that tried to put us onto unpaved National Forest roads, such as NF 610, leading from the highway. If we didn't make the turns, we received several 'make a U-turn' instructions.”

Deborah, of Glenburn, Me., complained about her Tom Tom – not for providing wrong data but providing no data at all.

Loss of signal

“It's very difficult to arrive at a destination when the receiver doesn't receive a signal 80% of the time,” Deborah writes. “I guess I'm forced to take legal action, if just for the purpose of helping all of those consumers who are in the same position as I am. I've gotten very upset with the poor employees doing their job, as they didn't make the rules of the game!”

The Michelin survey of 2,200 adult drivers who use GPS found that users report the GPS systems have steered them off-course an average of 4.4 times. The average jumps to 6.3 times when you exclude older drivers and focus just on drivers 18-34.

Despite the errors, consumers increasingly rely on their GPS devices. In the survey 30% said they use them. However, GPS still ranks second to the old school travel aids of maps, printed directions and guidebooks.

Older drivers like maps

Not surprisingly, drivers who are age 55 and over are more likely than those in any other age group to carry maps or atlases when they travel. Fifty-seven percent of drivers in that age group say they travel with maps. The number falls to 34% for drivers age 18 to 34.

While men don't like to ask direction, the survey found that male drivers were more likely to rely on GPS than their female counterparts – 35% to 26%. Drivers in the northeast are most likely to use GPS, drivers in the west are least likely.

"Technology is great, but a printed map is one of the most important tools a traveler in an unfamiliar setting can have — the battery doesn't die, it is easy to use, and it allows you to make decisions on route changes if necessary," said Cynthia Ochterbeck, editorial director of Michelin Travel Partners.

In the last couple of years more drivers have come to rely on the GPS capabilities of their smartphones or tablets. In the survey, 19 percent of respondents said they used those devices for navigation at least once.

More

Study: Colonoscopy screening boosts survival rates

Routine screenings appear to have reduced overall rates of colorectal cancer

Routine screening colonoscopies have lately been criticized for their expense but a new study finds that patients whose colon cancer was identified during ...

PhotoRoutine screening colonoscopies have lately been criticized for their expense but a new study finds that patients whose colon cancer was identified during such screenings appear to have lower-stage disease on presentation and better outcomes.

Since their introduction in 2000, the National Institutes of Health-recommended screening seemingly have consistently decreased overall rates of colorectal cancer in the United States, according to a report published Online First by JAMA Surgery, a JAMA Network publication.

“Compliance to screening colonoscopy guidelines can play an important role in prolonging longevity, improving quality of life, and reducing health care costs through early detection of colon cancer,” the study's authors concluded.

Ramzi Amri, M.Sc., and colleagues of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, examined the association of screening colonoscopy with outcomes of colon cancer surgery by reviewing differences in staging, disease-free interval, risk of recurrence, and survival and to identify whether diagnosis through screening was associated with long-term outcomes independent of staging.

 Patients not diagnosed through screening were at risk for having more invasive tumors, nodal disease, and metastatic disease on presentation. In follow-up, these patients had higher death rates, and recurrence rates as well as shorter survival and disease-free intervals.

After controlling for staging and baseline characteristics, the authors found that death rate and survival duration were better stage for stage with diagnosis through screening. Death and metastasis rates also remained lower among patients with tumors without nodal or metastatic spread.

More

Consumers loosen the purse strings

Analysts see 'moderate and steady' improvement

An improvement in real home prices, initial unemployment claims and real wages put consumers in a spending mood during May, pushing the Deloitte Consumer S...

PhotoAn improvement in real home prices, initial unemployment claims and real wages put consumers in a spending mood during May, pushing the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index higher.

The index, which comprises four components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- rose slightly to 4.27 from 4.12 in April. It tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending.

"Three out of the four components of the index contributed to an uptick in May and have stayed on a moderate and steady track of improvement over the past several months," said Daniel Bachman, Deloitte's senior U.S. economist. "The labor market has stabilized, and initial unemployment claims fell nearly six% since this time last year, while real home prices continued to climb and real wages crept up."

Weather a factor

"Mother nature -- rather than the economy or consumers -- dealt retailers a wild card this spring," said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and retail & distribution sector leader. "Retailers should take a cue from the past year's weather as a reminder of the many volatile and unforeseen factors that may affect their sales. Predictive modeling and scenario planning can help retailers prepare for potential business disruptions, which can have a profound impact as they head into their busy and profitable back-to-school and holiday seasons."

Index highlights

  • Tax burden: The tax burden remained in May, but was up 2.26% from last year.
  • Initial unemployment claims: Claims fell to 343,000 in April, nearly a six percentage point decrease from May 2012.
  • Real wages: Hourly real wages inched up 0.4% from the same period a year ago -- reaching $8.81.
  • Real new home prices: Real new home prices climbed to $117,329, an 8.5% increase from this time last year.
More

National Beef Packing recalls ground beef products

The products may be contaminated with E. coli o157:h7

National Beef Packing of Liberal, Kan., is recalling approximately 22,737 pounds of raw ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7....

PhotoNational Beef Packing of Liberal, Kan., is recalling approximately 22,737 pounds of raw ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

There are no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 10 lb. packages of “National Beef” 80/20 Coarse Ground Chuck, package code “0481.”
  • 10 lb. packages of “National Beef” 81/19 Coarse Ground Beef, package code “0421.”
  • 10 lb. packages of “National Beef” 80/20 Fine Ground Chuck, package code “0484.”

The products have a “USE BY/SELL BY DATE” of June 14, 2013. They were produced on May 25, 2013, and shipped to various institutions and retail establishments. The is concern that some products may be frozen and in shoppers’ freezers.

Consumers with questions should contact the company at (877) 857-4143 for details about the recall and their return and reimbursement policy.   

More

Chrysler agrees to inspect -- but not recall -- Jeep SUVs

Critics say the Jeeps are prone to deadly fires in rear-end collisions

Chrysler Group says it has resolved its difference and will inspect as many as 2.7 million older-model Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs that critics sa...

PhotoChrysler Group says it has resolved its differences with federal safety regulators and will inspect as many as 2.7 million older-model Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs that critics say are prone to burst into flames after rear-end impacts. Chrysler had initially refused safety regulators' request that it recall the Jeeps -- an action that enraged consumer advocates and electrified the auto industry, which nearly always goes along with the government's recall requests.

In a brief statement today, the automaker said: "Chrysler Group recognizes that this matter has raised concerns for its customers and wants to take further steps, in coordination with NHTSA, to provide additional measures to supplement the safety of its vehicles.

"Chrysler Group regards safety as a paramount concern and does not compromise on the safety of our customers and their families."

The vehicles in question are 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Libertys. 

Chrysler later said the inspections would cover 1.56 million 1993-98 Grand Cherokee and 2002-07 Jeep Liberty models. Owners of 1999-2004 Grand Cherokee models will receive a letter informing them to have their vehicles inspected, but only if they have an aftermarket rear hitch installed. 

Chrysler says that it will, if necessary, install a trailer hitch assembly along the rear of the vehicle to "better manage crash forces in low-speed impacts." The hitch would help deflect damage to the gas tank. 

Whether that's adequate is open to question, critics said.

"We call on NHTSA to do crash tests of Chrysler's proposed remedy, just as it did with Ford's proposed remedy for the Pinto in 1978, to determine that the modified Jeeps meet the present Safety Standard just as the Pinto's had to the meet the new Safety Standard in 1978," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "If the modified Jeeps do not pass, we call on NHTSA to require Chrysler to develop a more effective remedy just as NHTSA did with the Pinto when it failed the first round of tests."

Ditlow also noted that Chrysler's "inspection" plan did not include older Grand Cherokees.

"In view of Chrysler's refusal to recall 1999-04 Grand Cherokees, we call on NHTSA to move to an initial determination of a defect in order to force their recall as well," he said.

Critics say that the location of the gas tank behind the rear axle of the SUVs makes them dangerously prone to deadly fires in rear-end collisions. But Chrysler has argued that the vehicles met all applicable safety regulations at the time they were manufactured. It has since changed the design and newer models have the gas tanks ahead of the rear axle.

In its agreement with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Chrysler is not admitting that the vehicles were defective, since to do so would make it more difficult to defend against lawsuits filed by accident victims and their survivors.

"Chrysler Group’s analysis of the data confirms that these vehicles are not defective and are among the safest in the peer group," the company said. "Nonetheless, Chrysler Group recognizes that this matter has raised concerns for its customers and wants to take further steps, in coordination with NHTSA, to provide additional measures to supplement the safety of its vehicles."

Long history

Photo
Janelle Embrey

The dispute over the SUVs' safety has been dragging on for years. 

In 2011, consumer crusader Ralph Nader called on the company to recall the vehicles, calling them "a modern day Pinto for soccer moms with a fuel tank located dangerously behind the rear axle in the crush zone of an impact. "

"Now that Fiat has purchased Chrysler, it has the moral obligation to remedy the deadly fuel tank design in the Jeep Grand Cherokee before more innocent victims are burned today, not only in the United States, but also in Europe,” Nader said in a speech in Milan, Italy, where he had received an award from an automotive magazine.

The consumer push heated up in January 2013 when a Virginia woman who stood by helplessly as two people burned to death in their Jeep Grand Cherokee launched an online petition, hoping to motivate federal safety officials to order a recall. The petition has gathered nearly 128,000 signatures.

Jenelle Embrey of Linden, Va., was riding with her father on Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley when traffic slowed to a halt on the chronically-congested highway.

Suddenly, they were hit from the rear by a Jeep that in turn had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer truck that failed to stop. As flames began licking at the back of the Jeep, Embrey's father smashed the window and rescued a teen-aged boy but was driven back by flames before he could rescue another teen and their mother.

"Dad and I stood in front of the Jeep and watched in horror as the mom and teen burned to death. The saved teen watched the burning Jeep too as he tearfully screamed, 'Mom! Mom!'”

That accident happened near Winchester, Va., where iin 2011, another Jeep Grand Cherokee exploded into flames after being rear-ended by a pick-up truck at a stop light. Mark and Amanda Roe and their sons Caleb, 11, and Tyler, 4 died in that accident. The boys were killed by the impact. Their parents burned to death when the Jeep's gas tank burst into flames. 

After the accident involving Embrey's car on I-81, she 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?"

Besides the online petition, Embrey purchased space on several billboards in the Winchester area urging consumers to sign her petition.

Photo
Embrey's billboard

Fatality count 

Jeep June 18, 2013, 7:40 p.m.
Consumers rate Jeep

Consumer advocates, Chrysler and NHTSA don't agree on how many fire deaths have occurred in the vehicles. 

"The known toll now stands at 185 fatal fire crashes with 270 deaths and numerous burn injuries," Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety said in a 2011 letter to Chrysler Group LLC Chairman Sergio Marchionne.

Embrey says the current count is 287 deaths in 202 fiery crashes.

Both Chrysler and NHTSA cited lower figures and claim the Jeeps have a safety record comparable to similar vehicles of the same age, assertion Ditlow disputes.

"The 1993-04 Grand Cherokee has a fatal crash fire occurrence rate that is about four times higher than SUVs made by other companies," Ditlow said in an October 2, 2009 petition to NHTSA asking for an immediate safety recall. "Comparing the 1993-04 Grand Cherokee with the exposed rear fuel tank to the 2005 and later Grand Cherokee with the shielded fuel tank in front of rear axle in the first five years of use for both vehicles so that it’s an apples to apples comparison, the defective old Grand Cherokee has a fatal fire rate six times higher than the new Grand Cherokee."

NHTSA "pleased"

NHTSA issued a statement saying it was "pleased that Chrysler has agreed to take action to protect its customers and the driving public" but said it would "continue our investigation into this issue, pending the agency’s review of the documents provided by Chrysler in its recall action."

Consumers impacted by the safety recall and customer satisfaction campaign should have their vehicles serviced promptly once they receive notification from Chrysler, NHTSA added. 

More

How our body image relates to our self-esteem

Experts say many of us don't like our bodies, but we should lighten up a bit.

You've probably noticed that more and more reality shows are being added to television these days. On just about every channel you'll see folks of all ages...

More

More companies advertising to gay consumers

And more efforts are being made to reach the friends and families of LGBT consumers

Research conducted by Witeck Communications shows the buying power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the United States is a...

PhotoIn the end, acceptance in modern society is governed by how much money you have.

Gay people, it turns out, have a lot, collectively at least. Research conducted by Witeck Communications shows the buying power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the United States is around $790 billion.

And over time, more and more companies are reaching out to LGBT consumers through advertising and letting the general public know they support same-sex causes.

Where the money is

Witeck president Bob Witeck says although the LGBT community has tremendous buying power, a lot of companies still need to do a better of marketing to gay consumers.

Companies will also have to remember that buying power isn't synonymous with having a lot of money, Witeck explained.

Photo"Buying power is not the same as affluence or wealth," he said in a statement. "There is no hint that same-sex households are more affluent than others, which is little more than a stereotype. We have seen research from economic research that strongly suggests that gay men may earn slightly less than their heterosexual counterparts, for instance."

But researchers at Experian Marketing Services have released statistics that show otherwise. A recent study reveals that gay men earn $800 more than heterosexual men, as the average income for gay men is $60,800. Heterosexual men make about $60,000 on average.

Additionally, gay men who are married or live with their partner have a household income of $115,500. on average, compared with married heterosexual men who have a household income of $102,100.

However it's different for gay women.

According to Experian, lesbian women earn 8% less than heterosexual women at $38,000 a year and heterosexual women make about $42,000.

And when it comes to discretionary spending, gay men spend the most out of all consumers, at $6,794 a year. Heterosexual men spend about $6,041 on average.

More inclusion

PhotoJody Huckaby, executive director of the non-profit organization PFLAG, says we'll be seeing more companies reach out to the LGBT community and their extended families.

"Equality in corporate America is more than just a trend," said Huckaby in a published interview. "It is a reality that companies both large and small need to support in order to remain competitive. This is about much more than just LGBT people themselves.

"This is about the families, friends, co-workers and other supporters who will be loyal to companies who invest in fairness for their LGBT loved ones," Huckaby maintains. "And that translates into employee loyalty, consumer base expansion and big economic gains today and in the years to come."

Companies are driven

Some automobile companies are making efforts to reach the LGBT community too.

Rob Wilson, director for diversity and inclusion at Nissan, said companies need to recognize how strong the LGBTs' buying power really is.

"The LGBT market is a key demographic with both population numbers and buying power that are considerable, even when compared to other diversity segments," said Wilson in an interview with The Tennessean.

Founder of the company Out Now Consulting, Ian Johnson, agrees with Wilson and says families and friends of the LGBT community need to be marketed to as well, which many companies are just now figure out.

"They're not just marketing to the 15 million Americans who identify as gay or lesbian," said Johnson in a published interview. "They're marketing to the millions of people who support their work colleagues, their friends, their family. As American is aging and Gen X and Y are moving into middle management, this is the core market. It is a very strong statement for brand positioning."

Off the fence

Advertising efforts aren't just being increased for the LGBT community and their families, experts say. Some companies are letting other consumers know where they stand on same-sex issues.

Witeck says it's important for a company to do this, so it doesn't appear to be on the fence.

"Any signal that leadership is waffling on their core beliefs is a problem. Companies today are being judged by a lot of executive behaviors," said Witeck. "There's a halo effect. Whether or not you have strong or no or negative feelings about gay issues, you still want to hear leaders stand up for what they believe in."

More

Shopping for life insurance

Make sure you understand what you are buying

It's not a subject we like to think about, but it's prudent to plan for your death. Usually, part of that plan will include a life insurance policy.Life ...

PhotoIt's not a subject we like to think about, but it's prudent to plan for your death. Usually, part of that plan will include a life insurance policy.

Life insurance is most important when a family is young. In previous generations a husband took out a policy to provide for his wife and children should something happen to him. Today, it's usually important for both husband and wife to be covered since the family may depend on both their incomes.

Buying life insurance is an important financial decision and shouldn't be taken lightly. Christine, of Old Lyme, Conn., realizes she needed to ask more questions when a Colonial Life and Accident agent signed her up at work.

Miscommunication

“He told me this 'term' policy was what I needed,” Christine wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Seven years later, when I was cut back on my hours and needed to re-think the deduction, I contacted the new agent and she told me that all the money I had contributed in this term policy would be gone! I could not change policy, I could not touch the money I contributed, and she was very sorry. Seems that the previous agent did not explain things to me, and I did not ask questions.”

Christine admits that she was naive when she signed up for the policy but her real problem is that she did not understand what she was buying. She purchased a “term” policy and not permanent insurance. Term insurance is in force only as long as you continue to make the payments. Once you stop the payments, the coverage ends. It's like renting your insurance.

The advantage to term life is that it costs much less than other types of policies. If you only want insurance coverage over the 25-year period that your children are being born and growing up, then a term policy may be just what you need. Once the last child graduates and gets a job, you let the policy lapse.

Christine apparently believed she was getting a policy that would eventually be paid up, or have a cash value that she could redeem should she cancel. These policies typically cost more and may or may not be a good use of your money.

Not always good investments

Whole life policies, for example, are more expensive because it is generally assumed they will be in effect longer than term policies and therefore, the odds the company may have to pay off are greater. Many financial advisers caution that non-term policies are generally not a good place to put your money. And because the products are so costly, a consumer typically under-insures, buying less coverage than they need.

A term policy, on the other hand, provides more coverage per dollar, allowing you to put the savings into more productive investments. The key, of course, is actually investing your savings. If you do, you should have a significant nest egg by the time you discontinue your term policy and can, in effect, self-insure.

Before considering the purchase of a life insurance product, learn the basics. Make sure you understand the difference between term insurance and permanent insurance.

When it comes time to purchase an insurance policy, make sure you buy the right kind for your needs. Once you understand the differences in policies it will be easier to avoid these mistakes.

How much?

How much insurance do you need? You need to answer this question before making a final decision. If you have a young family, both spouses need a policy that will provide enough money to help meet the family's needs for several years.

Buy insurance when you are young. Insurance is all about odds, with the company betting you won't die and you betting you will. The numbers suggest a 25-year old has a better chance of staying alive than a 45-year old. When you purchase life insurance when you are young and in good health, you'll get a better deal.

More

Judge ponders Facebook 'sponsored story' settlement

Consumers who objected to their photos being used without permission would get $10

Facebook is asking a federal judge to grant final approval to a $20 million deal that would resolve litigation about “sponsored stories” ads....

PhotoConsumers have long been aware that celebrity endorsements mean less than nothing. But what about endorsements from "friends" and other non-celebrities? Are they any more valid?

Not according to 600,000 people featured in "sponsored story" ads on Facebook. They're not contesting the validity of the endorsements, mind you, just complaining that they didn't get paid and didn't give their permission to allow the use of their images.

Facebook is proposing to pay each of the unwitting endorsers a big $10, an amount it says should be considered a "windfall."

“They paid Facebook no money at all and suffered no actual economic damages, much less injury. Yet they are being paid an amount that far exceeds any profit Facebook allegedly earned by using their names and likenesses,” the company says in a motion asking U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg in the Northern District of California to approve the settlement.

Facebook says the settlement is “fair, reasonable, and adequate and should be finally approved.”

The class action lawsuit alleges that Facebook violated a California law that says companies need people's permission before using their names or images in ads. In the case of minors, companies need parental consent.

The agreement proposes to take care of that little problem by amending Facebook's terms of service to provide that users give permission for their names and photos to be shown in ads when they sign up to use Facebook.

What about children?

Nobody, except maybe Facebook, is very enthused about the settlement and consumers' groups are downright upset about a provision that would let Facebook use children's photos as long as users under 18 said that one of their parents approved.

Public Citizen has objected to that provision, saying that Facebook shouldn't be permitted to use children's names in ads, even if they can opt out, without more proof that their parents have consented.

Public Citizen argues that the deal effectively authorizes Facebook to continue using minors' names and images in ads without parental permission -- despite the fact that seven states explicitly prohibit companies from doing so.

“The proposed settlement authorizes Facebook to violate the law of at least seven states,” the advocacy organization argued in recent court papers.

More

Lifestyle Lift will present a new face in Florida

The company has reached agreement with the Florida Attorney General

Before & after photos from Lifestyle LiftLifestyle Lift advertises that it can "turn the clock back by tightening and smoothing your face and neck"...

Photo
Before & after photos from Lifestyle Lift

Lifestyle Liftadvertises that it can "turn the clock back by tightening and smoothing your face and neck" but it's going to have to tighten up the face it presents to the public through its advertising under an agreement with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

“Lifestyle Lift has agreed to change its marketing materials and practices to eliminate any possible consumer confusion about its services,” Bondi said. The settlement follows an investigation of allegations surrounding the accuracy and fairness of claims made to consumers about the facial rejuvenation services provided at Lifestyle Lift medical centers.

In its infomercials and web ads, some narrated by songstress Debby Boone, Lifestyle Lift has promised it "turns the clock back by tightening and smoothing your face and neck to create a more youthful appearance."

Under the Florida settlement, Lifestyle Lift must disclose any compensation made to the models used in its advertisements and its materials, disclose what facial rejuvenation services were performed on models appearing in the company's marketing materials, and comply with Federal Trade Commission guidelines concerning the use of before and after photographs of models in endorsements and testimonials in marketing materials.

The company has also agreed not to use the term “revolutionary procedure” in its advertising to describe the basic Lifestyle Lift surgical procedure.

Florida consumers who purchased services between June 1, 2009 and June 10, 2013 may be entitled to obtain a refund. Eligible consumers are required to submit a claim form to the company postmarked no later than Sept. 8, 2013. Claim forms are available here (pdf file). 

Lifestyle Lift June 18, 2013, 6:23 p.m.
Consumers rate Lifestyle Lift

Mary of Modesto, Calif., is one of many consumers who've posted negative ConsumerAffairs reviews about their experience with Lifestyle Lift.

"My neck feels like I have a choker on that is too tight. Every time I turn my head, I get a new bruise under my chin," she said. "It has been 5 weeks, and the back of my ears still hurt. I get pinching pains in my chin area that are strong and uncomfortable. My cheeks are still bloated."

Astroturfing

It's not always easy to find honest reviews about the process. In 2009, Lifestyle Lift settled a lawsuit with New York's attorney general over its attempts to file false reviews on popular websites.

Under the settlement, Lifestyle Lift agreed to stop publishing anonymous positive reviews about the company to Internet message boards and other Web sites, and paid $300,000 in penalties and costs. The case was believed to be the first in the nation aimed at combating "astroturfing," a growing problem on the Internet.

Photo
Debby Boone

“This company’s attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative, and illegal,” said then-Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. “My office has and will continue to be on the forefront in protecting consumers against emerging fraud and deception, including ‘astroturfing,’ on the Internet.”

Internal emails discovered by Cuomo’s investigation showed that Lifestyle Lift employees were given specific instructions to engage in the illegal activity. One e-mail to employees said: “Friday is going to be a slow day - I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the web as a satisfied client.” Another internal email directed a Lifestyle Lift employee to “Put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had.”

More

Five reliable late-model used cars

These 2010 models should give you trouble-free performance, according to J.D. Power

When shopping for a late model used car, many consumers these days focus on fuel economy. But a close second criteria is reliability. No one wants to pay a...

PhotoWhen shopping for a late-model used car, many consumers these days focus on fuel economy. But a close second criteria is reliability. No one wants to pay a lot of money for a vehicle that is going to spend excessive time in the repair shop.

When J.D. Power & Associates selected its most reliable used cars of 2013, we reviewed the list and highlighted five that may be worth special consideration. They are all three years old and represent different styles and price ranges. Even though these vehicles earn overall high marks for reliability, keep in mind not everyone has the same experience.

2010 Toyota Prius

The 2010 Toyota Prius is a standout in the compact category. Toyota has had plenty of time to improve its hybrid technology and the results are impressive. But when things do break and they are no longer covered by warranty, they can be pricey to repair, as Charles, of Washington state discovered with his 2010 Prius IV.

Toyota Prius June 18, 2013, 2:14 p.m.
Consumers rate Toyota Prius

“The car decided to not let us have full functionality via the navigation feature,” Charles wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Toyota said, sorry, it’s not covered by warranty. But for $2,600 (plus 9.8% tax), 10% of the cost of the new car, they said that they would replace the module.”

Charles writes that he plans to try his luck with a Ford Fusion. The 2010 Prius comes in four trim levels and prices start around $16,000.

2010 Buick Lucerne

For a roomy ride you might consider the 2010 Buick Lucerne. It's a full-sized sedan that shares the same platform as the Cadillac DTS. Base models are available in the mid teens.

While the car enjoys a good reputation for reliability, Terry, of Aurora, Ontario, is among the owners who experienced an unpleasant surprise. He writes that after hearing a grinding noise, he took it to the dealer, who could find nothing wrong.

“Four days later, I took the car back to the dealership complaining about the same noise,” he writes. "Later on that day, they called me to let me know that the transmission broke down while they were test driving it. Again, the car was maintained regularly as per the maintenance manual at the GM dealership and they had flushed the transmission at 65,000. The transmission broke down at 124,000.

"I was surprised, called in to GM Canada customer service to complain and was told by a manager that regular car maintenance at the dealership means nothing and will not elongate the life of the car. What had happened was a mechanical failure and is due to bad luck!”

2010 Hyundai Sonota

Hyundai  June 18, 2013, 2:15 p.m.
Consumers rate Hyundai

In the mid-size sedan category, the 2010 Hyundai Sonotais an increasingly popular choice. The car is available in both four-cylinder and six-cylinder models and, in 2010, the carmaker added USB and mini jack inputs to the sound systems on all models.

Fred, of Clermont, Fla., reports that he's completely happy with his Sonota.

“It turned out to be a great car,” Fred writes. “We had the V6 Limited but no sunroof or top of the line radio. MPG was as high as 24.8 because we did highway miles. Repairs were few and infrequent. We did regular fluid changes as recommended by the dealer; but as far as repairs, we did very few.”

You should be able to find a 2010 Sonota for around $11,000.

2010 Toyota Rav4

The 2010 Toyota Rav4 is popular with consumers because of its versatility. It's a crossover SUV in a small, economical package. In fact, the Rav4 was one of the first crossover SUVs on the highway.

In 2010 the base model began offering a back-up monitor system. The Sport models added Bluetooth and a JBL audio system. Despite its size, it's still roomy enough for five.

You should be able to find a low mileage, base model 2010 Rav4 for around $16,000.

2010 Honda Crosstour

Honda is prized for reliability and the 2010 Honda Crosstour earns high marks among the mid-size crossover SUV class. Part of the Accord family, the 2010 Crosstour comes with a standard V-6 and available all-wheel-drive.

It offers more cargo space than the Accord and gets 27 miles per gallon highway with front-wheel drive. You can probably find a low-mileage EX model from around $19,000 or less.

More

Ad-blocking company sells data to ... that's right, advertisers

The Ghostery ad blocker blocks ads but collects data

You don't get something for nothing. Trite but true. Yet millions of consumers use ad-blockers hoping to get useful and entertaining content without paying...

PhotoYou don't get something for nothing. Trite but true. Yet millions of consumers use ad-blockers hoping to get useful and entertaining content without paying for it by looking at the ads that pay the freight. Hoping to steal it, in other words.

Sometimes it works, or seems to. But a report today says that one of the most popular ad-blocking services, Ghostery, is collecting data about your browsing habits all the time it's blocking ads, allowing its parent company, Evidon, to sell that data to advertisers.

The MIT Techology Review says Evidon sells data collected from its 8 million Ghostery users to companies who want to improve their use of tracking code.

"This is not a scheme," MIT quotes Scott Meyer, Evidon's CEO, as saying. It's helpful to give advertisers Ghostery's data because advertisers don't generally want to target people who have opted out of advertising, he says.

It's a little hard to discern exactly what Ghostery and Evidon do and even a careful reading of their respective sites can leave one flummoxed.

"The Ghostery community is one of the strongest and most sophisticated on the web," Evidon says in a typical entry on its site. "More than ten million users have opted in to the 'GhostRank' panel, anonymously supplying tracker information back to Ghostery to help improve the service and foster a more transparent Internet."

Perhaps the takeaway for consumers who don't have the knack or the need to study the issue in depth is that those who use services should expect to pay for them one way or another.

More

Consumer prices, new home construction rise in May

Gasoline prices held the line, while the cost of food fell

Higher costs for housing and energy products sent prices on the consumer level slightly higher in May. Government figures show the Consumer Price Index (C...

PhotoHigher costs for housing and energy products sent prices on the consumer level slightly higher in May.

Government figures show the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inched up 0.% last month, bring the rate of inflation over the last 12 months to 1.4%. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had expected the CPI to show a gain of 0.2% following an 0.4% decline in April

The cost of housing, which rose 0.3% accounted for more than half of the increase in May. Energy prices were up modes modestly, with gasoline prices unchanged but increases showing up in the cost of electricity and natural gas. Higher prices for airline fares, recreation and apparel also contributed to the rise.

Food prices were lower in May index, however, turned down in May, with the food at home index falling 0.3 percent. Nonalcoholic beverages, dairy and related products, and cereals and bakery products posted declines, while meats, poultry, fish and eggs, which increased in April, were was unchanged in May. The only increase was for fruits and vegetables (0.4%) after a 1.4% decline in April.

The “core rate” of inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy sectors, was up 0.2%.

The full CPI report is available at the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

New home construction

PhotoHome builders were hard at work last month as housing starts jumped 6.8% in May to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 914,000. That's 28.6% the rate of 711,000 a year ago. Ground was broken for single-family homes at a rate of 599,000 in May -- 0.3% above the revised April figure of 597,000. The May rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 306,000.

Looking ahead, meanwhile. Things aren't quite so rosy.

Building permits for privately-owned housing units, an indicator of builders' plans for construction in the months ahead, totaled 974,000 -- down 3.1% from the revised April rate of 1,005,000. Still, that's 20.8% above the May 2012 estimate of 806,000.

Permits for single-family homes were up 1.3% to 622,000. Authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 325,000 in May.

More

Consumers Discuss Their Experiences with LifeShield Security

Peer reviews tell the real story about which company provides the best service

You can read a lot of articles and find a lot of advertisements for different home security systems but in the end, it’s the experiences of other consumers...

You can read a lot of articles and find a lot of advertisements for different home security systems but in the end, it’s the experiences of other consumers that are the most helpful in choosing a system for your home.

Roberta is a single mom from Dallas. After her home was broken into, Roberta started researching the various systems out there.home alark user

“I did some pretty intense online shopping and LifeShield definitely had the best incentives and the most features,” she said. “I really needed full home protection ­ not just my front and back doors. In comparing LifeShield's Home Kit to other home security systems on the market, LifeShield was the only one that would protect my whole home including windows and other entryways.

“My LifeShield Security Advisor, Jackie, was very knowledgeable and walked me through all the cool differentiating features of the product,” Roberta said.

Homeowners posting to ConsumerAffairs have also praised LifeShield’s customer service.

“I have over 25 years of experience in training inbound and outbound customer service agents for Fortune 50 companies,” said Patrick of Yukon, Okla. “It's an elite group known for its excellence in the marketplace, with most having been in business for over 50 years. LifeShield belongs in this elite group! Knowing my background and understanding that I seek perfection in attitude and expertise when recruiting and training new agents to handle both inbound and outbound calls, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being superior, LifeShield earns a 15!”

“What is amazing to me is that every person I have worked with at LifeShield has been superior in knowledge, customer service expertise, courtesy, explaining things in laymen's terms, and doing everything possible to ensure a ‘one call resolution,’” Patrick said.

Sarah of Libertyville, Ill., wrote to compliment LifeShield’s handling of a minor problem she had encountered.

“We were having trouble with one of the window sensors going offline, but it is now working,” she said. “We just started monitoring and everything is running well. Every time we have had to call our sales rep Scott, he has been very helpful and quick to solve our issue. Tech support has had the same quick helpful response too.”

It’s an understatement to say that compliments like these are unusual in the home security business. Most security companies sell you and never want to hear from you but LS is different based on consumer reviews. They actually call you to make sure you are using your system and answer any questions you might have.

Check the reviews in the ConsumerAffairs Home Security Alarm Section and you’ll find comments like this about other companies:

 

  • Ara of Pasadena, Calif.: “Monitronics does a credit inquiry after stating that they don't check your credit. The place is run by high school dropouts. Customer service... there is none. If your equipment breaks, you have to pay for them to come out and look at it.”
  • Joshua of Milton, W. Va.: “No help at all [from ADT]. Supposed to be an appointment. No one showed and gave us the usual runaround story. Service is not good at all. Go with someone else.”
  • Liz of Baytown, Texas: “I’ve had this company [APX Alarm] for three months and it’s been a nightmare. I would not recommend them to anyone. Their cameras never work and their smoke detector didn’t go off when needed, which was the last straw for me. They replaced cameras once for being faulty. Their supervisor had the nerve to call me a liar when I complained about the smoke detector.”

 

See http://www.lifeshield.com/ca/ or call 877-570-4581 to learn more.

More

Mitsubishi recalls batteries used in 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV vehicles

Reduced voltage in the batteries could increase the risk of a crash

Mitsubishi Motors North America is recalling replacement lithium-ion batteries installed on certain 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV vehicles. The batteries were man...

PhotoMitsubishi Motors North America is recalling replacement lithium-ion batteries installed on certain 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV vehicles. The batteries were manufactured December 18, 2012, through December 21, 2012.

The batteries may have internal contamination possibly causing reduced voltage. Also, the batteries may also develop a short-circuit during charging. Internal contamination of the battery may cause reduced voltage resulting in a stall-like condition, increasing the risk of a crash.

Mitsubishi will notify the owners instructing them to take their vehicle to a dealer where the batteries will be replaced free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Mitsubishi at 1-800-222-0307. Mitsubishi's recall number is SR-13-006.

More

The total cost of owning a dog

It's high but there are some very real benefits

There's no doubt that a lot of people love having dogs around.According to statistics released by DogHQ, a site that gives pet advice, 39% of U.S. househ...

More

Bank of America lied to homeowners, former employees charge

Statements filed in class action case say the bank rewarded employees for foreclosures

Hardly anyone has had a good word to say about how Bank of America conducted itself during the housing meltdown. In fact, the situation just seems to keep...

PhotoHardly anyone has had a good word to say about how Bank of America conducted itself during the housing meltdown. In fact, the situation just seems to keep getting worse.

In the latest series of damaging accusations, a group of Bank of America employees say in court documents filed in Boston that they regularly lied to homeowners seeking loan modifications and were rewarded for shunting homeowners into foreclosure, the non-profit news service Pro Publica reports.

A Bank of America spokesman denied the allegations, which he said were "rife with factual inaccuracies" and said the bank would respond more fully in court next month.

In sworn statements, six former employees described how they allegedly helped to trick and deceive homeowners. Five worked for the bank and one was employed by a contractor.

The statements were made in connection with a multi-state class action lawsuit by homeowners who say the bank mishandled their applications for refinancing under the Obama administration's Home Affordable Mortgage Program (HAMP).

Customers "blitzed" 

Bank of America Mortgages  June 17, 2013, 7:56 p.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America Mortgages

One of the former employees, William Wilson Jr., says in his statement that his unit sometimes denied refinances en masse in a procedure they called a "blitz."

"During a blitz, a single team would decline between 600 and 1,500 modification files at a time," he said. To justify the action, he said the employees would simply make up reasons, often saying the homeowner had not sent in the required documents, when in fact they had done so.

"We were told to lie to customers and claim that Bank of America had no received documents it had requested," another employee said, according to the Pro Publica report. Homeowners who called in were routinely told their applications were "under review" when in fact nothing had been done or they had already been denied, one of the former employees said.

The testimony is similar to the hundreds of complaints posted to ConsumerAffairs, like this one from Patricia of LaPorte, Indiana:

"I would like to tell everyone who has a home loan through Bank of America to make sure you never try to file for a loan modification and expect to get one. My husband and I tried for several months and did everything Bank of America asked us to.

"We faxed documents one right after another. Our case manager who was assigned to us told us we were approved, only to then get the call a few days later and told we did not get it."

 When the HAMP program was launched in 2009 to help homeowners get mortgage modifications, Bank of America was by far the largest mortgage service in the program, with twice as many eligible loans as the next-largest bank. 

The former employees say they were simply unable to deal with the huge crush of applications from customers and, rather than staff up to handle the applications, the bank simply lied to its customers.

More

Food composting next on Mayor Bloomberg's to-do list

The mayor thinks New Yorkers will be enthusiastic about high-rise composting

Residents of New York City don't know what they've been missing all these years, and if Mayor Michael Bloomberg has his way, they never will. No, we're not...

PhotoResidents of New York City don't know what they've been missing all these years, and if Mayor Michael Bloomberg has his way, they never will. No, we're not talking about smoking in the park, jay-walking, drinking Big Gulps or refusing to risk one's neck by riding a bike on 6th Avenue. We're talking garbage.

For reasons lost in the mists of antiquity, they don't have garbage disposals in New York. Gothamites must scrape their food scraps into the garbage pail and lug it to the curb or, in the case of high-rise dwellers, down the hall to the garbage chute.

When traveling abroad, to places like Los Angeles, New Yorkers are amazed to see table scraps disappear into the kitchen sink amid a loud grinding sound. They must sometimes be cautioned against putting their hand into the grinder to see what all the fuss is about -- sort of the way visiting Angelenos must be cautioned against thinking a crosswalk means anything in NYC.

Not high-tech

The garbage grinder is not exactly high-tech. It's a bunch of blades that whir around under the sink and grind stuff up. The devices have been in general use just about everywhere since 1940 or so. They were, however, illegal in New York City for many years because of fears they would somehow damage the city's sewer system. They became legal in 1997 but are still rare in a city that until recently feared nothing. 

And now, having missed out on the last 70 years or so of garbage-grinding, New Yorkers are being asked to forsake it forever, in favor of composting.

How in the world can you build a compost heap in a 50-story building? Well, you could do it on the roof, perhaps, but there are -- pardon us for mentioning this, Mr. Mayor -- the rats to worry about. Leave food lying around outside and you will soon have rats the size of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade floats climbing up the back stairs.

But undissuaded, His Honor is pressing ahead with a plan to require his long-suffering subjects to separate food scraps from other types of waste and put them in special waste bins that will be dispersed throughout his realm. 

The city's bean-counters figure it will amount to about 100 tons a year of food scraps and, yes, this will be another reason not to hang around NYC in the summer. 

“This is going to be really transformative,” said Charles F. Holloway IV, a deputy mayor. “You want to get on a trajectory where you’re not sending anything to landfills.”

Fuel from food!

Photo
An incinerator in Harrisburg, Pa.
Instead, the city is dreaming of building a composting plant that will magically transform left-over meat and potato scraps into bio-gas, which in turn will be burned to generate electricity. The program will be voluntary for now but city officials expect New Yorkers to be so eager to get on board that it may become mandatory within a few years.

This all sounds peachy, of course, just another day in Camelot. However, anyone with a long memory might suggest that the mayor and his deputies look into the history of the five incinerators that once graced Long Island, the long and narrow island that juts out into the Atlantic east of Mayor Bloomberg's turf.

Back in the day, environmentalists thought that operating landfills on Long Island was dangerous from a pollution standpoint so local politicos built some very expensive incinerators. But then, residents complained about smoke, foul odors and toxic emissions from the incinerators which -- many millions of dollars later -- were closed.

Even former Republican Senator Al D'Amato, who had enthusiastically supported building the incinerators when he was a local Long Island politician, jumped on the bandwagon and insisted the incinerators be closed, even as his faithful brother Armand continued working as a lobbyist for incinerator interests.  

Now, many communities on Long Island and elsewhere in the NYC area just ship their garbage to Virginia and forget about it.

Sounds like a plan. 

More

Avoiding home buyer's remorse

The excitement of purchasing a home sometimes gives way to second guessing

It's one thing when you order an exotic kitchen gadget you saw on a TV infomercial and later ask, “what was I thinking?” It's quite another whe...

Photo
Trulia.com

It's one thing when you order an exotic kitchen gadget you saw on a TV infomercial and later ask, “what was I thinking?” It's quite another when you buy a home and, months down the road, have a case of buyer's remorse. But it happens all the time.

With a home, there are no returns so you had better be prepared to stick with your purchase for a few years. That puts a lot of pressure on a home purchase decision, especially if it has to be made on a tight deadline.

Real estate site Trulia surveyed users and found that 52% expressed at least one regret about their current home, or the way they went about selecting it. Learning from previous buyers' mistakes may help you avoid a case of home buyer's remorse of your own.

Need more room

For example, 17% of those in the survey said they wished they had purchased a larger home. When looking at houses, it is easy to be attracted to a “cute” bungalow, especially if it is uncluttered and tastefully decorated.

But keep in mind it is being “staged” for sale. Half the owner's belongings could be in a storage unit, for all you know. That's why you should pay attention to the home's square footage and compare it to the space you are occupying now, or how much you think you will need in the future.

Does the home have a basement or attic? How many and what size are the closets? These could be important questions if you have a lot of belongings that need to be stored.

Fourteen percent of respondents said they wished they had done more remodeling before they moved in. Once you move in, painting, knocking out walls and tearing out a kitchen or bathroom is very disruptive. If you have the time, doing remodeling before you move in can make life a little easier.

Another common regret among home buyers is failure to learn more about the home before buying it. That's why you do home inspections but these inspections don't always pick up every problem.

Other second thoughts

Photo
DCInsider.com

Other homeowners said they wished they had put more money down at purchase and some said they wished they had waited to buy a home until they were more financially secure. Taken together, these second thoughts provide good reasons to take your time in the home purchase process.

“Many homes don’t stay on the market for long, so buyers will have to move fast,” said Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist. “But when it comes to searching for a home, as with everything else, moving too fast leads to mistakes and regrets.”

Besides taking your time, there are some other things you can do to avoid second-guessing yourself later. Before starting your search, make a list of all the things that you think are important in your new home. Then, when you find a house that you think fits the bill, review it against that list.

If you decided you want a house with a garage and the house you are considering doesn't have one, ask yourself how important that criteria is. You may find that you love the home's architecture, the landscaping and the French doors, but in all the practical requirements you set out, it comes up short.

Location

It's true what they say about real estate and location, so give the home's location some serious thought. It's not uncommon for first time home buyers to be seduced by the idea of purchasing a brand-new home. But to find a new home in their price range they may have to go to the outer suburbs.

If you have jobs in the city center, think about the commute. Not just the gasoline you'll need but the time you'll spend in a car each day. Good advice from Realtors is to buy the location, not the house.

Purchasing a home is stressful and most mistakes occur when you feel rushed. Take your time and realize that, if one house gets away from you, another will come along.  

More

Eating red meat linked to diabetes, study finds

Study of 149,000 Americans looked at eating habits over time

Eating more red meat over time is associated with an increased risk of type-2 diabetes in a follow-up of three studies of about 149,000 U.S. men and women,...

PhotoEating more red meat over time is associated with an increased risk of type-2 diabetes in a follow-up of three studies of about 149,000 U.S. men and women, according to a report published Online First byJAMA Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication.

“Our results confirm the robustness of the association between red meat and type-2 diabetes and add further evidence that limiting red meat consumption over time confers benefits for diabetes prevention,” the researchers concluded.

But a commentary accompanying the study noted that the emphasis might be better placed on limiting saturated fat.

“A recommendation to consume less red meat may help to reduce the epidemic of type-2 diabetes. However, the overwhelming preponderance of molecular, cellular, clinical and epidemiological evidence suggests that public health messages should be directed toward the consumption of high-quality protein that is low in total and saturated fat," said William J. Evans, Ph.D., of GlaxoSmithKline and Duke University, Durham, N.C.

"These public health recommendations should include cuts of red meat that are also low in fat, along with fish, poultry and low-fat dairy products. It is not the type of protein (or meat) that is the problem: it is the type of fat,” Evans concludes.

Previous studies

Red meat consumption has been consistently related to an increased risk of type-2 diabetes, but previous studies measured red meat consumption at a baseline with limited follow-up information. However, a person’s eating behavior changes over time and measurement of consumption at a single point in time does not capture the variability of intake during follow-up, the authors note in the study background.

An Pan, Ph.D., of the National University of Singapore, and colleagues analyzed data from three Harvard group studies and followed up 26,357 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study; 48,709 women in the Nurses’ Health Study; and 74,077 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II. Diets were assessed using food frequency questionnaires.

During more than 1.9 million person-years of follow-up, researchers documented 7,540 incident cases of type-2 diabetes. 

The results indicate that compared with a group with no change in red meat intake, increasing red meat intake of more than 0.50 servings per day was associated with a 48 percent elevated risk in the subsequent four-year period.

Reducing red meat consumption by more than 0.50 servings per day from baseline to the first four years of follow-up was associated with a 14 percent lower risk during the subsequent entire follow-up.

More

Car insurance rates decline in California, rise everywhere else

How's that possible? Strong oversight established by voters, that's how

The average California auto insurance expenditure declined between 1989 and 2010, while every other state in the nation saw substantial increases over that...

PhotoHave your car insurance rates gone up? Unless you live in California, the answer is almost surely yes.  

You might wonder how that's possible. Surely the loss rate from thefts, accidents and so forth is higher in Los Angeles and San Francisco than in Wichita or Rapid City.

Well, the answer is that California voters, using their powerful initiative process, decided in 1988 that they had had enough of constantly rising auto insurance premiums and enacted tough new regulation of the insurance industry.

As a result, a Consumer Federation of America analysis finds, average California auto insurance expenditure declined between 1989 and 2010, while every other state in the nation saw substantial increases over that same period.

Not only have rates gone up more slowly in California than elsewhere, but auto insurance expenditures are now six percent lower in California than the national average and have declined steadily since 1989. 

Nationally, Americans spent $791 for auto insurance coverage in 2010, $240, or 43 percent, more than they did in 1989, according to the CFA analysis based on data collected by the National Association of
Insurance Commissioners.

Californians spent an average of $746 per year for auto insurance coverage in 2010, $2, or 0.3 percent less per year was spent in1989 without adjusting for inflation.

The analysis shows that, more than two decades later, California insurance costs are lower than twenty states and six percent lower than the national average, with California the only state to post a decline in auto insurance expenditures. 

Regulatory reforms

Photo
J. Robert Hunter

The savings in California are directly linked to the regulatory reforms of Proposition 103, approved by California voters in 1988, said J. Robert Hunter, Insurance Director for Consumer Federation of America. At that time, California insurance rates were the third highest in the nation and 36 percent higher than the national average. 

“No other state has put in place the kind of strong oversight that California voters created in 1988, and no other state has seen auto insurance prices decline,” Hunter said. “In California, as a result, Proposition 103 drivers are paying less for car insurance today than they were 25 years ago.”

Proposition 103, which took effect in 1989, created a “prior approval” system of regulation for most lines of insurance in California, including auto, homeowners, commercial and medical malpractice insurance. 

Under a prior approval system, insurance companies must present any rate change plan to the Department of Insurance and cannot implement any rate hikes or other changes without authorization from the Insurance Commissioner. 

“California’s version of prior approval regulation includes additional protections that have made the state’s insurance system much more effective than any other states’ systems,” said Hunter.

 

More

Baby Matters recalls Nap Nanny and Chill Infant Recliners

The recall resolves a complaint filed after the deaths of 5 babies

Baby Matters of Berwyn, Pa., is recalling all models of its Nap Nanny and Nap Nanny Chill infant recliners and covers as part of the settlement of a case f...

PhotoBaby Matters of Berwyn, Pa., is recalling all models of its Nap Nanny and Nap Nanny Chill infant recliners and covers as part of the settlement of a case filed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in December 2012, which sought such a recall.

From 2009 to the present, CPSC staff has received at least 92 incident reports involving the products, including five infant deaths. The commission says it is aware of four infants who died in Nap Nanny Generation Two recliners and a fifth death involved in the Chill model. In the incident reports, there were 92 reports of infants hanging or falling over the side of the products -- including some infants who were restrained in the product’s harness.

Stop using!

Consumers should immediately stop using all Nap Nanny and Nap Nanny Chill recliners, according to CPSC. Baby Matters is no longer in business and is not accepting returns. In December 2012, four major retailers -- Amazon.com, Buy Buy Baby, Diapers.com, and Toys R Us/Babies R Us -- announced a recall of Nap Nanny and Chill models sold in their stores. Consumers who purchased a Nap Nanny from one of these retailers should contact it for instructions on obtaining a refund.

Other consumers should immediately dispose of the products to ensure that they are not used again.

About 165,000 of the Nap Nanny and Chill products were sold between 2009 and 2012 for about $130. at toy and children's retail stores nationwide and online, including at www.napnanny.com.

The settlement resolves CPSC staff’s allegations that the Nap Nanny and Chill products create a substantial product hazard. CPSC alleged that the products contain a design defect, their use presents a risk of injury to infants, and the instructions and warnings are inadequate. Baby Matters disputed these allegations but has agreed to the recall in consideration for dismissal of the CPSC lawsuit.

It is illegal under federal law for any person to sell, offer for sale, manufacture, distribute in commerce, or import into the United States any model of the Nap Nanny or Chill recliner or the covers.

More

Restless legs syndrome tied to early death

Study finds a strong association but doesn't identify a common cause

Some of the scare headlines read: "Restless leg syndrome can kill you." But in fact, a recent study merely links the syndrome with a higher risk of death. ...

More

Home builder confidence soars in June

Optimism is at a level unseen in 7 years

Confidence among the nation's home builders hit a level in June not seen since April 2006. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Ho...

PhotoConfidence among the nation's home builders hit a level in June not seen since April 2006.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) is up eight points this month to a reading of 52. Any reading over 50 indicates that more builders view sales conditions as good than poor.

“This is the first time the HMI has been above 50 since April 2006, and surpassing this important benchmark reflects the fact that builders are seeing better market conditions as demand for new homes increases,” said NAHB Chairman Rick Judson, a home builder and developer from Charlotte, N.C. “With the low inventory of existing homes, an increasing number of buyers are gravitating toward new homes.”

The eight-point jump was the biggest one-month gain since August and September of 2002, when the HMI recorded a similar increase of eight points.

“Builders are experiencing some relief in the headwinds that are holding back a more robust recovery,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. He calls the report “consistent with our forecast for a 29 percent increase in total housing starts this year, which would mark the first time since 2007 that starts have topped the 1 million mark.”

Things are looking up

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.” The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores from each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

All three components posted gains in June. The index gauging current sales conditions increased eight points to 56, while the index measuring expectations for future sales rose nine points to 61 -- its highest level since March 2006. The index gauging traffic of prospective buyers rose seven points to 40.

The HMI three-month moving average was up in three of the four regions, with the Northeast and Midwest posting a one-point and three-point gain to 37 and 47, respectively. The South registered a four point gain to 46 while the West fell one point to 48.

More

Tarmac delays minimal for domestic flights in April

For international flights, it was clear skies

If you were took an international flight from the U.S in April, getting away on time was not problem. For domestic flights, though, there were a few dela. ...

PhotoIf you were took an international flight from the U.S in April, getting away on time was no problem. For domestic flights, though, there were a few delays.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report says there were two tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights, but no tarmac delays of more than four hours on an international flights.

The 16 carriers that file their on-time performance data with the Department reported that 77.3% of their flights arrived on time in April, compared with an on-time rate of 79.8% in March and 86.3% a year earlier.

The report also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, along with information on mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers, and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints. Reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air are included as well

The full report is available on the Department of Transportation website.

More

GITI recalls Runway Enduro tires

A mold issue could cause the tires to develop splits

GITI Tire Company is recalling 218 Runway P235/60 R16 Enduro 816 tires manufactured in the second week of 2013 (DOT code 0213). Due to a tire mold issue,...

PhotoGITI Tire Company is recalling 218 Runway P235/60 R16 Enduro 816 tires manufactured in the second week of 2013 (DOT code 0213).

Due to a tire mold issue, the tires may develop splits in the shoulder. As a result, the tires may experience rapid air loss while driving, possibly resulting in tire failure and increasing the risk of a crash.

GITI will notify owners and dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact GITI Tire at 1-866-488-4737.

More

GM recalls SUVs with door lock problems

A short circuit could cause malfunctioning, smoke or fire

General Motors is recalling193,652 model year 2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL and 2006-2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling193,652 model year 2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT, GMC Envoy XL, and 2006-2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, SAAB 9-7x and Isuzu Ascender vehicles.

Fluid may enter the driver's door module, causing corrosion that could result in a short in the circuit board. That, in turn, could cause the power door lock and power window switches to function intermittently or become inoperative. It might also cause overheating, which could melt components of the door module, producing odor, smoke, or a fire.

A short in the circuit board could lead to a fire, increasing the risk of personal injury. A fire could occur even while the vehicle is not in use. As a precaution, owners are advised to park outside until the remedy has been made.

Owners will be contacted and dealers will test the driver's door module. If the module is functioning properly, a protective coating will be applied. If it is not functioning properly, it will be replaced. These repairs will be done free of charge. GM will notify Buick, Chevrolet, and GMC owners, Isuzu and Saab will contact their respective owners. The recall is expected to begin July 24, 2013.

Buick owners may contact the owner center at 1-800-521-7300, Chevrolet owners at 1-866-694-6546, GMC owners at 1-866-996-9463, Isuzu owners at 1-800-255-6727, and SAAB owners at 1-855-880-0808. GM's campaign number is 12180.  

More

How not to look like a tourist

Besides not wearing a camera around your neck, what are the other no-nos?

If you've ever lived in New York City for a period of time, you learn pretty quickly how to spot tourists.New York tourists are constantly looking up at ...

PhotoIf you happen to live in a place that gets a lot of tourists,  you learn how to spot them pretty quickly.

New York tourists, for example, are constantly looking up at skyscrapers or they'll walk way too slowly, forcing you to alter your usual pace. Or, they'll wear those darn "I Love New York" t-shirts, which might as well say "I love to be mugged." 

Simply put, no matter where you live in the United States, you've probably seen a tourist who did a horrible job of blending in.

But it happens when Americans travel out of the country too.

Learning to blend

Many of us will travel to a foreign country and act like it's not foreign, by wearing the things we usually wear, doing the things we usually do and so on.

Ruth Yunker, frequent traveler and author of the book "Paris, I've Grown Accustomed to Your Ways," says blending in with the locals isn't just about safety; it's about getting the best travel experience too.

"When I travel to a foreign country I automatically strive to be the best American I can be, an American who is willing to learn to do things the local's way," she said.  "This will always make for a more rewarding experience. You'll find the people are friendlier [and] the vibe is positive. You are trying to live the culture instead of simply viewing it as a spectator."

 Travel Editor for CBS's The Early Show, Peter Greenburg agrees.

He says learning to speak a little bit of the local language will add to your experience and dressing like the locals do will help you out as well.

"Where is it in a manual that you have to wear the ugliest pair of plaid golf pants that somebody gave you he said," in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.

Greenburg was speaking about what to do when traveling to Mexico, but he gave advice about traveling to other countries too.

"Go down there, learn a little Spanish," he says. "As I would expect you to do if you're going to Paris -- learn a little bit of French. Or a little Italian if you're going to Rome. Immerse yourself in the neighborhoods and the culture, and you'll find that people are open, warm and welcoming and you'll have a great time."

You're wearing THAT?

PhotoA good way to immerse yourself, according to the site TheSavvyBackPacker.com, is to get a sense of how people dress in the country you're visiting.

For example, when traveling to Europe avoid wearing American style clothing, namely athletic wear or sneakers.

"Unless they're doing something athletic, most Europeans don't wear athletic shoes," wrote the Savvy Backpacker, who only goes by James. "This doesn't mean you have to wear nice dress shoes, but you should avoid the solely athletic style shoes. If nothing else, avoid white shoes. White shoes are the calling card for American tourists."

In addition, experts say that not everyone dresses in t-shirts and jeans, so if you're going to Paris, let's say, dress sort of business casual. This will allow you to blend in with the locals much better.

Plus, avoid wearing things like New York Yankee caps and football jerseys. Wearing these things will only make you stand out that much more.

Behave yourself

But it's not only how you dress that can make you stand out in a foreign country, it's how you act too.

Experts say it's important not to get annoyed or show frustration once you notice things work differently. This means, be patient if the restaurant staff doesn't jump to attention when you walk through the door.

And you certainly shouldn't make any comments about how America is better at this or that and avoid asking the locals a bunch of annoying questions. If you need directions or other information, speak to an officer or place that deals with tourists.

Yunker says it's important to learn at least some of the local ways when you travel.

"Learn what you can about a country's habits, pet peeves, ingrained ways of being, before you go," she advises. 

What to do

PhotoYunker says to follow these tips as well:

Leave the fanny packs at home, she says. Being concerned about carrying  around a wallet isn't a good reason to ever wear one of those things. 

"I always carry a large shoulder purse, because it fits everything I'll need during the day, including whatever valuables I want to keep close," she says. "I carry it clutched tightly to my body. I observe the local women, and carry my purse like they carry theirs."

Don't be so loud when you're in a foreign country, says Yunker. In many places people speak quietly, so be mindful of how loud you're talking. Plus, you don't always want the locals to know that you're a foreigner and a loud conversation in English will certainly give that away.

Even learning things like how people tip in a particular country will allow you to blend in better.

"Look up the customs on tipping in the country you're visiting," she says. "For instance, tips are not expected in Parisian restaurants. In fact, tipping a waiter there simply brands the unaware tourist as a stupid one."

And Yunker agrees with the Savvy Backpacker about wearing white sneakers in places like Europe. It's a big no-no, she says.

"If you must wear sneakers, wear dark ones that will attempt to masquerade as regular closed-toed shoes. Try to find comfortable walking shoes with a little bit of style and your feet will announce you as the polite, indeed savvy, visitor."

More

The WaxVac: We give it a test whirl

The company says it removes the excess wax from your ears. But does it really?

If you're a person who has a problem with excessive wax in your ears, then you know it can be annoying and sometimes a little painful.And using a Q-tip c...

More

Forget NSA. AOL may be watching you too

New AOL unit uses your webcam to monitor your facial expressions

It's been kind of amazing to longtime Washington operatives to see the response to the news that the National Security Agency has been monitoring telephone...

PhotoIt's been kind of amazing to longtime Washington operatives to see the response to the news that the National Security Agency has been monitoring telephone and email traffic. You call that news? NSA and other agencies have been doing that for years in one way or another. Everybody knows about it. 

What nobody in taxpayerland seemed to remark on was how the most sensitive tasks imaginable had been outsourced to an independent contractor with a GED. This, after all, is the real secret of Washington -- the government itself doesn't do a whole lot, it just farms stuff out and then sits back and "manages." Or tries to.

But forget that for a minute. Here's something that will send you seeking a piece of gauze to tape over your computer's webcam: An advertising unit set up by AOL says it can monitor how you feel about the ads the Web constantly throws at you by watching your facial expressions.

Heh, and you thought that camera only worked when you asked it to.

Watching you watching us

Turns out AOL's "Be On" platform watches you watch the Web and measures your response to what you see by tracking your eye movements and other facial responses.

The platform is powered by Realeyes, a tech firm that says it has figured out how to control the cameras built into your laptop, desktop, tablet and smartphone to "read faces and measure human emotion." 

But don't worry. The company says that at the moment it is only spying on consumers who have opted in to tests being organized by a couple of market research firms.

Photo
Photo credit: Realeyes

But that, of course, is only the beginning. Be On CEO René Rechtman says AOL is already considering ways it could deploy the technology to track the emotional sentiment of its general users who want to opt into it, Online Media Dailyreported.

“It has always been very clear that content that has a strong emotional component has a much greater engagement and consumer response. We always knew that, but we didn’t have the science to execute it,” Rechtman said. “Now we have the technology and the science to measure how content affects people emotionally.”

Content, in this instance, is presumably ads. But then again, not necessarily. Perhaps the next step in the "happy talk" that infects TV news is to use Be On's technology to weed out stories that upset viewers, concentrating instead on stories about cute kittens and brave children who overcome adversity.

Politicians could make good use of it too. Although, come to think of it, if we knew they were watching us while we were watching them, there could be interesting consequences, not all of them necessarily tasteful.

More

Primary care doctors needed – STAT!

Despite federal subsidies, med schools turning out fewer primary care doctors

They once were called family doctors. Now they are called primary care specialists and they are the doctors you see for aches and pains, fevers, rashes and...

PhotoThey once were called family doctors. Now they are called primary care specialists and they are the doctors you see for aches and pains, fevers, rashes and other routine ailments.

Finding one is getting harder and harder. For years medical associations have been sounding the alarm over a growing doctor shortage, mainly primary care physicians working in rural and inner city areas.

Researchers at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) have just completed a study showing that this shortage is getting worse. The study found that fewer than 25 percent of new doctors go into primary care and only a small fraction, 4.8 percent, set up shop in rural areas of the U.S.

"If residency programs do not ramp up the training of these physicians the shortage in primary care, especially in remote areas, will get worse," said lead study author Candice Chen, an Assistant Research Professor of Health Policy at SPHHS. "The study's findings raise questions about whether federally funded graduate medical education institutions are meeting the nation's need for more primary care physicians."

Where's the accountability?

PhotoYes, federal tax dollars go to programs that are supposed to be producing these needed doctors. A combined $13 billion a year is carved from the Medicare and Medicaid budgets to support the graduate medical education system. But with the declining numbers of primary care doctors graduating from medical schools, some experts say the U.S. government is not holding residency programs receiving this money accountable.

Medicaid and Medicare invest in these programs because their recipients – seniors and the poor – depend most on primary care physicians. The SPHHS study followed the career paths of 8,977 physicians who had graduated from 759 medical residency sites from 2006 to 2008, looking at where they ended up practicing three to five years later. Only 25% of the graduates were in primary care, the study found. In addition, nearly 200 of the 798 institutions receiving money to produce primary care doctors produced none at all.

Demand about to increase

This shortfall of primary care physicians is occurring at just the time they are most needed. The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” goes into effect in January, with estimates of millions of additional people looking for a doctor. These new patients who live in rural areas may have a particularly hard time finding a health care provider.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has estimated that the U.S. needs about 20,000 more physicians and that the shortfall will increase to 100,000 in the next decade. One solution, it says, is to turn over some primary care responsibilities to other health care professions.

AAMC commissioned a poll of patients and found that, while about half of Americans prefer physicians as primary care providers, they are willing to be treated by nurse practitioners and physician assistants if it means getting faster treatment.

Alternative

“As this nation faces a critical doctor shortage – 90,000 by the year 2020 – we must find ways to be certain patients have access to the care they need,” said Darrell G. Kirch, M.D., president and CEO of the AAMC. “By our estimate, training 4,000 more doctors a year is a critically important part of the solution. But medical schools and teaching hospitals also are exploring innovative methods of care delivery that involve all members of the team to address patient needs when appropriate.”

Kirch said the study shows that Americans are open to the possibility of being treated by someone other than a doctor. While it's not a complete solution, he said allowing other professionals to make bigger contributions could help meet critical needs.

More

Housing market continues to find stability

Indicators are promising but we aren't out of the woods yet

When home prices plunged in 2009 and 2010, millions of homeowners were stuck in place. They couldn't sell their homes or, when interest rates plunged, they...

PhotoWhen home prices plunged in 2009 and 2010, millions of homeowners were stuck in place. They couldn't sell their homes or, when interest rates plunged, they couldn't refinance because their homes were worth less than the mortgage balance.

It's a condition known as “being underwater,” and these millions of homeowners have spent the last four years fighting to keep their heads above water. But as the housing market has recovered, there are beginning to be signs that the market is regaining some stability.

One indicator is a drop in homeowners with negative equity. CoreLogic, a residential property data firm, reports nearly a million mortgages returned to a positive equity balance in the first quarter of the year. So far so good.

Don't pop the Champagne just yet

While the trend is encouraging, it probably isn't cause for celebration, as many of these homeowners with newly-gained home equity still can't refinance – at least not yet. That's because of the 39 million U.S. residential properties with positive equity, 11.2 million have less than 20 percent equity. Borrowers with less than 20 percent equity usually have a very difficult time getting new financing for their homes because underwriters have vastly increased their standards.

But for housing market analysts, the good news is that the trend is running in a positive direction.

Another trend that might slow the rise in home prices is an increase in bank repossessions of foreclosed homes. Repossessions slowed to a crawl last year and those that did make it to the marketplace were quickly snapped up by investors. It was one reason for a big drop in available homes for sales and that decline in inventory helped push prices higher.

RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure marketer, reports bank repossessions jumped 11% in May, suggesting banks have been sitting on troubled mortgages, waiting for market conditions to improve before foreclosing. A rise in REOs may mean banks see a ripening market.

More foreclosures to come

While foreclosure sales and repossessions are on the rise again, a report from Lender Processing Services (LPS) finds there are still plenty of distressed properties still in the pipeline.

"The situation is far from resolved," LPS Applied Analytics Senior Vice President Herb Blecher said. "Foreclosure inventories in judicial states are still more than three times the size of those in non-judicial states, and national inventories are still more than seven times pre-crisis levels.”

Banks appear to be controlling how quickly foreclosures come to the market, which may have prevented the market from becoming over saturated. The resulting shortage of homes for sales in many areas has caused long-dormant home builders to go back to work, constructing new homes.

Fannie Mae's Economic & Strategic Research Group says housing has helped the U.S. enter a prolonged period of steady economic growth which  has yet to reach its full potential.

Below-par growth

"At the outset of the year, we forecast that 2013 would witness sustainable but below-par growth as the economy begins its transition to more normal levels. Halfway through the year, our view is little changed," said Fannie Mae Chief Economist Doug Duncan. "We expect approximately 2.1 percent growth over the course of 2013, up from the anemic pace of 1.7 percent in 2012. This is consistent with the incremental improvement seen over the past few years but still below the economy's potential. Our forecast calls for growth to push past 2.5 percent in 2014, boosted largely by tailwinds from the strengthening housing market."

Duncan says housing was a mostly positive force entering the spring and summer season, with important indicators like home prices, home sales, and homebuilding activity showing signs of long-term improvement toward normal levels. The outlook? In spite of rising mortgage rates, Duncan says housing market conditions remain favorable and should not present a significant obstacle to potential home buyers.

More

Rising gasoline costs send wholesale prices higher in May

It's the first increase in three months

The cost of living on the wholesale level moved higher in May after posting declines in the two previous months. Government figures show the Producer Pric...

PhotoThe cost of living on the wholesale level moved higher in May after posting declines in the two previous months.

Government figures show the Producer Price Index (PPI) for finished goods rose 0.5% last month, surprising economists surveyed by Briefing.com, who were calling for a gain of just 0.1%. The PPI had fallen 0.7% in April and 0.6% in March. For the 12 months ended May in May, wholesale prices are up 1.7%.

Contributing factors

More than 60% of the May PPI increase was due to energy costs, which advanced 1.3%. Forty percent of that was due to a 1.5% increase in gasoline prices. Prices for residential natural gas and residential electric power were also higher.

Food prices were up 0.6%, thanks to a surge of 41.6% in the cost of eggs. Prices for natural, processed, and imitation cheese were also higher.

The “core rate” of inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy segments, was up just 0.1%, in line with analysts expectations.

More information on the rise in producer prices is available on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

More

Ram trucks with lighting problems recalled

The trucks have turn signal indicator and headlamp glitches

Chrysler is recalling several Ram trucks because of problems in their lighting systems. The first involves 30,197 model year 2013 Ram 1500, 2500, and 3500 ...

PhotoChrysler is recalling several Ram trucks because of problems in their lighting systems.

The first involves 30,197 model year 2013 Ram 1500, 2500, and 3500 trucks manufactured September 9, 2012, through March 5, 2013, and equipped with optional premium tail lamps.

The turn signal indicator in the affected vehicles may not flash at a double rate to give a notification to the driver of a turn signal malfunction. Without a warning that the turn signal is malfunctioning, the driver would continue to use the vehicle, unaware that other drivers on the road are not being notified that the vehicle is turning, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the Central Body Controller software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in July 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N35.

Second recall

The second recall is for 1,253 model year 2013 Ram 2500 and 3500 trucks manufactured January 7, 2013, through February 28, 2013, and equipped with optional premium headlamps.

The headlamp shutters may function improperly when in high-beam mode. Improper headlight shutter function during high beam use may reduce the drivers visibility and possibly blind oncoming traffic. Either condition may increase the risk of crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will reconfigure the Central Body Controller, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in July 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N33.

More

Stride Rite recalls girl’s sandals

The metal flower on the shoe can detach

Stride Rite Children’s Group of Lexington, Mass., is recalling about 7,500 pairs of “Joanna” girl’s sandals. The metal flower on the shoe can detach, posi...

PhotoStride Rite Children’s Group of Lexington, Mass., is recalling about 7,500 pairs of “Joanna” girl’s sandals.

The metal flower on the shoe can detach, posing a choking hazard. The firm has received six reports of the flowers detaching and eleven reports of flowers loosening. No injuries have been reported.

The “Joanna” girl’s sandals have an ankle strap, three bands and a flower on top. They were sold in white with a silver-colored metal flower and brown with a copper-colored metal flower in girl’s sizes 8.5 through 10. The name “Joanna,” the style number CG40723 (white shoe) or CG40725 (brown shoe) and the size are printed on the underside of the front shoe strap. “StrideRite” appears on the bottom of the shoe.

The sandals, manufactured in China, were sold at Stride Rite stores and other department stores nationwide and at various online retailers from December 2011 through May 2013 for between $30 and $42.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled shoes away from children and contact Stride Rite to receive a prepaid envelope for the return of the shoes. Upon return, customers will receive a voucher for the purchase price redeemable at Stride Rite stores or striderite.com.

Consumers may contact Stride Rite at (800) 365-4933, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by e-mail at JoannaReturns@striderite.com.

More

Survey: Distracted walking problem getting worse

People know they shouldn't, but do it anyway

Think about it. Five years ago smartphones were a rarity. People did not walk while texting, emailing or surfing the Internet.Now, of course, they do and...

PhotoThink about it. Five years ago smartphones were a rarity. People did not walk while texting, emailing or surfing the Internet.

Now, of course, they do and “distracted walking” may be as big a safety issue as distracted driving. In a new survey conducted by Liberty Mutual Insurance 60% of pedestrians admit they walk while texting, emailing, talking on the phone, or listening to music. Seventy percent said they consider those behaviors to be dangerous. Yet they do it anyway.

Liberty Mutual says these distractions may have been a contributing factor in the 4,280 pedestrian deaths in traffic accidents in 2010, a four percent increase from the previous year, as reported in the latest data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Forgetting what we learned as kids

"So much attention has been paid, and rightly so, to distracted driving that we have ignored the fact that distracted walking and crossing can be just as risky," said David Melton, a driving safety expert with Liberty Mutual Insurance and managing director of global safety. "From an early age, we all learn how to safely cross the street – look both ways, wait for the walk sign – but as adults many of us seem to forget those simple rules."

It's easy to forget when you are reading an email or trying to concentrate on sending a text. Why do pedestrians engage in activity they know to be dangerous to themselves and others?

Technology has granted us the ability to communicate instantly, no matter where we are. This didn't exist just a decade ago. But just because we can communicate instantly doesn't mean we should.

Extension of our brains

PhotoSome think that smartphones have become extensions of our brains. When we receive a message from a friend, we just naturally want to respond immediately. It is as though the person was walking down the street with us. If they ask a question, we don't wait until we reach our destination to reply. But in this case, we should.

A 2012 observational study published in the journal Injury Prevention found that nearly one in three pedestrians is distracted by their mobile phone or other electronic device while crossing busy intersections. Texting was judged most distracting but other non-electronic distractions were also noted.

Those classified as distracted took significantly longer to cross the road – as much as 1.3 seconds longer. Texting was judged the riskiest behavior. The researchers said people who were texting took almost two seconds longer to cross the average intersection of three to four lanes than those who weren't texting at the time.

In 2011 a Pennsylvania woman sued a Reading, Pa., shopping mall after an accident. According to police reports she was texting while walking through the shopping center when she tripped and fell into a fountain. Video of the mishap went viral on YouTube, but safety officials say there is no humor in the problem. People who aren't paying attention while they walk are a danger to themselves and others, they say.

ER personnel see the results

In 2011 about 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. for injuries suffered while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It was a 400% increase over the past seven years and coincided, not surprisingly, with the explosive growth in smartphones.

PhotoAccording to the Liberty Mutual Insurance Pedestrian Safety Survey findings, both pedestrians and drivers say they realize the dangers of their actions, but they don't change their behavior.

"The reality is that neither drivers nor pedestrians seem to actually realize the dangers of their distracted behaviors," said Melton. "The fact that drivers and pedestrians continue to engage in dangerous habits, despite claiming to recognize the risk, suggests that the majority of Americans are taking a cavalier, 'it won't happen to me' attitude. As the weather warms up and we head into the summer driving season, pedestrians and drivers need to take extra precautions to ensure the safety of everyone on the roads, whether on foot or behind the wheel."

More

Government spying revelations spur lawsuits

Tech companies named in class action, ACLU sues the feds

The furor that has erupted over PRISM -- the sweeping government surveillance program leaked to the public last week -- has now found its way into the cour...

PhotoThe furor that has erupted over PRISM -- the sweeping government surveillance program leaked to the public last week -- has now found its way into the courts. On Wednesday, a former prosecutor for the Justice Department filed a class action lawsuit against nine companies that have been identified as partners in the program.

PRISM, which burst into the spotlight after being unveiled by Booz Allen contractor Edward Snowden, allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to perform surveillance on communications and stored information transmitted via email, voice and video chat, and social networking.

The suit, filed by Larry Klayman, is being brought on behalf of plaintiffs Michael Ferrari and Matt Garrison -- both private investigators -- and Charles Strange, the father of a Navy SEAL who died in Afghanistan in 2011.

The complaint names as defendants AOL, Apple, AT&T, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Sprint, Yahoo! and YouTube. The complaint also targets the CEOs of AT&T and Sprint, as well as President Obama, the Department of Justice, the National Security Agency (NSA), Attorney General Eric Holder, and NSA Director Keith Alexander.

“Rights are being surrendered”

Photo
Larry Klayman

"Defendants' willful acts constitute outrageous conduct insofar as they violated Plaintiffs' and Class members' basic democratic rights, constitutional rights, and exposed them to beyond an 'Orwellian regime of totalitarianism,'" the complaint says. "Plaintiffs' and Class members' rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of unaccountable intelligence and other government agencies, as well as all of the Defendants."

Klayman hopes to ultimately join the suit with another on he filed on Monday. That suit focused on a top-secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over phone data to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis.”

ACLU also files suit

Klayman isn’t the only one using the courts to fight the program. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit alleging that PRISM violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, as well as the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and free association. That suit also names Holder and Alexander, as well as Defense Secretary Charles Hagel, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence.

And on Sunday, Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who made headlines in March with an impassioned filibuster focusing on the Obama Administration’s drone policy, told Fox News that he plans to file his own lawsuit over the program.

"I'm going to be asking all the Internet providers and all of the phone companies: Ask your customers to join me in a class action lawsuit," Paul told Fox. "If we get 10 million Americans saying we don't want our phone records looked at, then maybe someone will wake up and something will change in Washington."

Both Klayman and the ACLU are seeking an end to the program, and Klayman’s suit also demands $20 billion in damages.

More

Eyeball-licking craze blamed for eye infections

Japanese students succumb to blinding desire to lick their lovers' eyeballs

YouTubeEyeball-licking doesn't sound like much fun but it's apparently the latest odd fetish among young Japanese lovers. And like other sexual practic...

Photo
YouTube

Eyeball-licking doesn't sound like much fun but it's apparently the latest odd fetish among young Japanese lovers. And like other sexual practices, it can have unintended consequences, including eye infections and blindness. 

Called "oculolinctus," the seemingly strange practice has apparently been around awhile, judging from a series of five- and six-year-old YouTube videos that show young lovers doing more than just gazing into each other's eyes. 

Besides grossing out any onlookers unlucky enough to be around, eye-licking can also transmit the bacteria which causes conjunctivitis, or "pink eye," an eye infection that can have serious repercussions including blindness.

The Japanese web site Naver Matome reported that the craze was discovered at one school when teachers noticed that up to ten children in a single class showed up wearing eye patches.

‘Nothing good can come of this,’ Dr. David Granet, a San Diego ophthalmologist, told The Huffington Post. ‘There are ridges on the tongue that can cause a corneal abrasion. And if a person hasn't washed out their mouth, they might put acid from citrus products or spices into the eye.’

 

More

Life in LEGOland isn't what it used to be

LEGO characters are getting angry, raising questions about the impact on children

Lego seems harmless enough, right? Little pieces of plastic that kids can use to build things Next time you settle down for a spot of Lego with yo...

PhotoLEGO seems harmless enough, right? Little pieces of plastic that kids can use to build things. You probably remember playing with the little smiley faces when you were small.

But wait. Something has changed in LEGOland. The little plastic faces aren't as smiley as they used to be. In fact, some are downright angry-looking, and that may be having a negative effect on children, according to a new study.

A researcher at New Zealand's University of Canterbury, Christoph  Bartneck, has published a research study that found the LEGO characters are becoming more conflict-oriented, and that human figures featured in LEGO sets are getting angrier.

Bartneck is something of an expert on LEGO figures. He has photographed and cataloged all the 3,655 Mininfigures that LEGO released between 1975 and 2010, forming the basis of his research into the facial expressions of LEGO characters. The collection is available as an eBook.

Photo

Based on his collection, Bartneck says LEGO sets are increasingly designed to tie in with films, which often feature battles between good and evil, with a growing number of faces showing emotions including digusts, happiness, sadness, fear, anger and surprise.  

Photo
Christoph Bartneck

"Analysis shows that toy design has become a more complex design space in which the imaginary world of play does not only consist of a simple division of good versus evil, but a world in which heroes are scared and villains can have superior smile," Bartneck said.

"LEGO themes have been increasingly based on conflicts. Often a good force is struggling with a bad one," says Bartneck, citing the Harry Potter saga as an example.

While there are still happy faces in LEGOland, they frequently belong to villains, he said. The villains often look smug or disdainful while the "good guys" look fearful or apprehensive. 

Bartneck said the negative faces could be having an impact on how children play. 

"Designers of agent faces should take great care to design the expressions and to test their effect since toys play an important role in the development of children," he said.

"Instead of focusing on highly realistic expressions, it may be worthwhile to increase the variability of expressions. A comic style expression is sufficient to convey a full spectrum of emotions and intensities."

The paper is to be presented at the First International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction in Sapporo, Japan, in August.

LEGO, a Danish company, is one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the world. It's estimated there are 75 LEGO pieces for each person on the planet.

More

Controlling your brain to control weight

Over eating could be a product of how we are wired

There are many ways to lose or control weight. There are commercial diet programs, diet pills and old fashioned calorie counting.But taking neurological...

PhotoThere are many ways to lose or control weight. There are commercial diet programs, diet pills and old fashioned calorie counting.

But taking neurological steps to control behavior? Could that be the new frontier in weight loss?

Researchers at the University of Iowa are just the latest to suggest that controlling brain impulses may be a key step in controlling diet. The team bred mice that were missing a gene known to cause obesity, and suspected to also be involved in compulsive behavior, with a genetic mouse that was compulsive about grooming. The researchers were surprised when the offspring had neither trait. They weren't compulsive about grooming and they weren't obese.

Unrelated behavior?

Obesity and obsessive-compulsive behavior may seem to be unrelated. But Iowa researcher Dr. Michael Lutter thinks this brain wiring goes back to an evolutionary process when man binged on safe, clean food in times when food was abundant, saving up, in effect, for times when it was scarce.

"Food safety has been an issue through the entire course of human evolution – refrigeration is a relatively recent invention," Lutter said. "Obsessive behavior, or fear of contamination, may be an evolutionary protection against eating rotten food."

Could the researchers be onto something? They aren't the first to recognize the compulsion that causes some people to overeat. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler wrote a book about it, suggesting that eating too much fat, salt and sugar can alter your brain chemistry, leading to compulsive eating habits.

Overpowering forces

Photo
David Kessler
Kessler speaks from experience. He says he has struggled throughout his life to control his own weight, often succumbing to what he felt were overpowering forces.

"For much of my life, sugar, fat, and salt held remarkable sway over my behavior," he writes.

Kessler and the Iowa researchers agree that brain circuitry is part of the problem. But while Kessler sees the influences as controlled by outside influences – the content of the food we eat – the Iowa researchers see it as a deeper problem, a hardwiring of our brains.

External cues

Some nutritionists believe that external cues can trigger impulses in our brains that can send us on a food bender. Sometimes it is the mere sight of a buffet. Even a large plate, piled high with delicious food that you find at many chain restaurants, may give our brains a green light to chow down.

Then there are activities like watching hour after hour of television. Some believe this cues us to eat, while making us less responsive to our body's signals that we aren't really hungry and don't need food. We eat because it is a programmed response to what we are doing, not because our bodies are requesting to be fed.

In a 2003 study of childhood obesity, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that, when subjected to a number of eating cues, obese children failed to regulate their eating. Normal weight children, the study found, did not have the same response to the cues.

This is not to suggest that overeating is all in your head. However it does raise the possibility that solving the obesity problem requires a complex solution that involves a regulation of brain circuitry. The Iowa researchers say the next step is development of drugs that can achieve that result.

More

Ace Hardware takes top spot in J.D. Power study

It's the seventh consecutive year the chain has been No. 1 in home improvement

For the seventh year in a row, Ace Hardware has taken the No. 1 ranking in J.D. Power & Assoc.'s Home Improvement Retailer Satisfaction Study. T...

PhotoFor the seventh year in a row, Ace Hardware has taken the No. 1 ranking in J.D. Power & Assoc.'s Home Improvement Retailer Satisfaction Study. 

The chain scored 803 out of 1,000 and did especially well in staff and service and store facility.  Menards ranks second with a score of 770, and performs particularly well in the price and sales and promotions factors. 

"By remaining focused on meeting customer needs through superior sales staff and service, home improvement retailers have the opportunity to leverage a positive customer experience into an increased share of wallet and more customer advocates," said Christina Cooley, director of the home improvement industries practice at J.D. Power.

According to the study, on average 27 percent of customers say they "definitely will" purchase at their primary retailer  again, and 30 percent "definitely will" recommend the retailer to others.  However, among the highest ranked retailers these percentages go as high as 32 percent and 43 percent, respectively.   

Ace is a retailer-owned co-op, a relatively rare business structure for a nationwide chain. 

The study

The study, now in its seventh year, measures customer satisfaction with home improvement retail stores based on performance in five factors: staff and service; store facility; merchandise; price; and sales and promotions.

Staff and service is the most influential factor on customer satisfaction. For example, the average wait time for assistance at retail remains at about four minutes. However, the wait time for help varies by retailer from less than two minutes to nearly six minutes.

More than 80 percent of customers request help locating a product in the store, reinforcing the importance of having a knowledgeable sales person readily available.

Overall, only 5 percent of customers experience a problem while shopping at their primary retailer; however, this varies by retailer, with the highest incidence of problems experienced at 12 percent. 

More

Truckers win "How am I driving?" suit

Port of Los Angeles sought to require the stickers on trucks using the port

The Port of Los Angeles cannot force trucks to bear signs asking fellow commuters "How am I driving," the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.   &n...

PhotoIt might not seem like a case that would make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it did and the court has ruled unanimously that the Port of Los Angeles cannot force trucks to bear those ubiquitous "How am I driving?" stickers.

The port, the largest in the nation, has been trying to expand with limited environmental impact after a study found that people living near the port had a 60 percent greater risk of developing cancer than other Southern Californians.

As part of its "Cleaner Port" program, the port came up with a Clean Truck Program that limits emissions, prohibits excessive idling and regulates where trucks may park when not loading or unloading.

The program has not been without controversy, with complaints from residents who said the port wasn't doing enough and truckers who said it was going too far. 

The American Trucking Association, in particular, had challenged the "How's my driving" sticker requirement and the parking restrictions.

PhotoIn a partial reversal of the 9th Circuit's ruling last year, the court agreed with the truckers that the provisions are pre-empted by the Federal Aviation Admin­istration Authorization Act. 

"The port here has not acted as a private party, contracting in a way that the owner of an ordinary commercial enterprise could mimic," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the unanimous court, Courthouse News Service reported. "Rather, it has forced terminal operators -- and through them, truck­ing companies -- to alter their conduct by implementing a criminal prohibition punishable by time in prison."

That ripping sound you hear? It's truck drivers ripping those "How's my driving?" stickers off their trucks.

More

More homeowners coming up for air

850,000 fewer homes were under water in the first quarter

Things are looking better for homeowners who are underwater, keeping in mind that “better” is a relative term. According to property information, analytic...

PhotoThings are looking better for homeowners who are underwater, keeping in mind that “better” is a relative term.

According to property information, analytics and services provider CoreLogic, approximately 850,000 more residential properties returned to a state of positive equity during the first quarter of 2013. That brings the total number of mortgaged residential properties with equity to 39 million.

The firm's analysis also shows that 9.7 million -- or 19.8% of all residential properties with a mortgage -- were still in negative equity at the end of the first quarter, with a total value of $580 billion. That's down 21.7%, or 10.5 million, of all residential properties with a mortgage, at the end of the fourth quarter of 2012.

Negative equity, often referred to as “underwater” or “upside down,” means borrowers owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Negative equity can occur because of a decline in value, an increase in mortgage debt or a combination of both.

Rising home prices credited

The national aggregate value of negative equity decreased more than $50 billion -- to $580 billion at the end of the first quarter from $631 billion at the end of the fourth quarter of 2012. The drop was driven in large part by an improvement in home prices.

Of the 39 million residential properties with positive equity, 11.2 million have less than 20% equity. Borrowers with less than 20% equity, referred to as “under-equitied,” may have a harder time getting new financing for their homes due to underwriting constraints. At the end of the first quarter of 2013, 2.1 million residential properties had less than 5% equity, referred to as near-negative equity. Properties that are near negative equity are at risk should home prices fall.

Under-equitied mortgages accounted for 23% of all residential properties with a mortgage nationwide in the first quarter of 2013. The average amount of equity for all properties with a mortgage is 32.8%.

“The impressive home price gains of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 have had a big impact on the distribution of residential home equity,” said Dr. Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. “During the past year, 1.7 million borrowers have regained positive equity. We expect the pent-up supply that falling negative equity releases will moderate price gains in many of the fast-appreciating markets this spring.”

“We are still far below peak home price levels,” notes Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic, “but tight supplies in many areas coupled with continued demand for single family homes should help us close the gap.”

Other findings

  • Nevada had the highest percentage of underwater mortgages at 45.4%, followed by Florida (38.1%), Michigan (32%), Arizona (31.3%) and Georgia (30.5%). These five states combined account for 32.8% of negative equity in the U.S.
  • Of the largest 25 metropolitan areas, Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla., had the highest percentage of mortgaged properties in negative equity at 41.1%, followed by Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall, Fla., (40.7%), Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, Ga. (34.5%), Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, Ill. (34.2%), and Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, Mich (33.6%).
  • Of the total $580 billion in upside down mortgages, first liens without home equity loans accounted for one-half, or $290 billion aggregate negative equity, while first liens with home equity loans accounted for the remaining half at $290 billion.
  • 6.0 million upside-down borrowers hold first liens without home equity loans. The average mortgage balance for this group of borrowers is $211,000. The average underwater amount is $48,000.
  • 3.7 million upside-down borrowers hold both first and second liens. The average mortgage balance for this group of borrowers is $294,000.The average underwater amount is $79,000.
  • The bulk of home equity for mortgaged properties is concentrated at the high end of the housing market. For example, 88% of homes valued at over $200,000 have equity compared with 73% of homes valued under $200,000.
More

May retail sales post best gain in three months

Weekly jobless claims, meanwhile, suggest a strengthening labor market

Retail sales posted their best advance in three months during May, rising 0.6% from the previous month, and are 4.3% above the same period a year ago. Sal...

PhotoRetail sales posted their best advance in three months during May, rising 0.6% from the previous month, and are 4.3% above the same period a year ago. Sales were up just 0.1% in April and fell 0.5% in March. The consensus of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for a rise of 0.3%.

Figures released by the government show the May increase was fueled by a 1.8% surge in auto sales. Excluding that volatile category, sales were up just 0.3%. Gasoline slipped 0.2%, the result of lower prices, while restaurants and bars posted a decline of 0.4%.

The full report is available at the U.S. Census Bureau website.

Jobless claims

PhotoThe nation's labor market was showing a little starch last week as first-time claims for state unemployment benefits dropped by 12,000 from the previous week -- to 334,000. The number was considerably lower than the 350,000 projected by economists surveyed by Briefing.

The 4-week moving average, considered a better gauge of the labor picture because of its lack of volatility, was 345,250 -- down 7,250 from the week before.

You can find more information on the Labor Department website.

More

How to select a pest control company

A big part of the process is asking questions

Whether it's rodents or insects, controlling pests can be one of the unpleasant tasks of home ownership. Not only do pests raise health issues, but also ca...

PhotoWhether it's rodents or insects, controlling pests can be one of the more unpleasant tasks of home ownership. Not only do pests raise health issues, but they also can affect the structural integrity of your home.

What are some important considerations in choosing a pest control company?

First, you should pick a company with qualified technicians. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Do the technicians who work for the company have current licenses?
  • Is the license the correct classification for the job?

You can verify licensing by calling your state pesticide regulatory office. Most states have a department that regulates pest control companies and they can be the source of helpful information, including any unresolved complaints about a particular company.

When vetting a pest control company, it is completely appropriate to ask how it keeps its staff informed of changes in regulations, products, techniques and safety.

Look for a long track record

Orkin Pest Control June 12, 2013, 1:10 a.m.
Consumers rate Orkin Pest Control

You should also ask how many years has the company been in business. The longer its track record the easier it should be to judge its performance.

How are employees trained? That's important because they need to be skilled at what they do, as well as interacting with the customer – you.

Make sure you understand the terms of the contract. What exactly are you buying?

“I paid Orkin $500 to remove a mole infestation and Andy came out a few times, but when moles came back, he refused to come back unless I signed a new contract,” writes David, of Powell, Ohio.

Rats!

Marsha, from California, writes that she had a bad experience with Terminix. She says she had a serious rat problem but the inspector who came to her home was rude and didn't seem to know what he was doing.

“Twenty-eight days later and I have multiple nests and rat droppings,” Marsha writes. “Guess who I am hiring to do the job of a pest control company? A handy man.”

Scotty, from Maine, claims to work for Terminix and isn't pleased with the changes he says he has observed.

“This is not the same company it once was,” Scotty writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Customers are now a number. Technicians are now a number. I personally feel bad for these customers knowing what goes on from the inside. Not being supplied with the proper chemicals because the branch is too cheap (hurts their bonus). Being over scheduled and not being provided enough time to do a thorough job. Now big business and big corporations run the show.”

Do your homework

Terminix  June 12, 2013, 1:11 a.m.
Consumers rate Terminix

But consumers who need professional pest control services can improve their chances of finding a reliable company by doing proper research. Don't just choose the first company in the phone book or the company that advertises on TV.

As with any business, a pest control company lives and dies by its reputation. Ask family members, friends, coworkers, or neighbors for a recommendation. The experience of other consumers will be your best way to find a company that will provide the services you are paying for. If you don't know anyone who has used a pest control company recently, ask the company to provide references.

Make sure you understand what services you are buying and what it costs. Can the company offer an estimate for services in writing? Many offer free estimates. It's a good idea to get estimates from more than one company.

Will the company require you to sign up for a long-term contract? If so, what is that going to cost?

Finally, make sure the company offers a guarantee of its work and that you understand the terms.

More

Race to slaughter horses is stuck at the gate

Animal welfare groups object and states pull back on the reins

Photo credit: HorseFund.orgIt's been awhile since the U.S. Agriculture Department lifted its ban on slaughtering horses for their human consumption but...

Photo
Photo credit: HorseFund.org

It's been awhile since the U.S. Agriculture Department lifted its ban on slaughtering horses for their human consumption but you still won't find horse meat at your neighborhood supermarket.

Animal rights groups are pressuring Congress to reimpose the ban and various problems are cropping up at the state level. In Maine, the House voted Tuesday to ban commercial horse slaughter to produce meat for human consumption. And in New Mexico, the state attorney general has delivered an opinion that horse meat is adulterated under state law.

The ban, imposed in 2007, was lifted in 2011 after the USDA's Inspector General found it was contributing to inhumane treatment of horses. Owners hard hit by the recession and the high cost of grain were abandoning their horses, letting them starve to death, the IG's report said.

But now that the ban has been lifted, animal welfare groups are protesting and there's concern that the antibiotics and other drugs pumped into horses could leave dangerous residues in the meat.

"Adulterated food"

There are strict limits on the drugs that can be used in cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals that are routinely raised as food, although critics say the limits are not strict enough and are not adequately enforced.

Cantering into the dispute is New Mexico Attorney General Gary K. King, who issued an opinion saying that horse meat "fits the legal definition of an adulterated food product." 

“Our legal analysis concludes that state law does not allow for production of meat that is chemically tainted under federal regulations,” said King.  “New Mexico law is very clear that it would be prohibited and illegal.”

That dashed the hopes of Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, N.M., which had been hoping to be the first USDA-inspected horse slaughter facility since 2007. 

A Valley Meat employee didn't do much to help his employer's cause when he shot a horse to death in March and posted it on YouTube, expressing his disdain for animal welfare advocates.

"To all you animal activists, f*** you," Tim Sappington says in the video, NBC News reported. He then shoots the horse in the head. The video was later removed by YouTube because it violated the video site's terms of service, a notice posted on the site said.

A television news report quoted Ricardo De Los Santos, owner of Valley Meat, as saying he didn't mind Sappington shooting the horse but didn't think he should have put it on YouTube.

Maine invokes Paul Revere

Photo
Photo credit: HorseFund.org

In Maine, lawmakers voted 94-49 in favor of a bill that would ban slaughtering horses for human consumption and would also make it illegal to transport horses through the state for that purpose. Animal welfare groups have charged that American horses are sometimes shipped to Canada for slaughter, possibly passing through Maine. 

“If not for a horse, would Alexander have been the Great? Would Paul Revere had spread the word? Can you imagine the Lone Ranger on the back of a cow?” said Rep. Lisa Villa, D-Harrison, the Bangor Daily News reported. “I would dare say they are very different from your average livestock.”

California, Texas, Illinois and several other states also ban slaughtering horses for food.

Would-be butchers say slaughter is more humane than letting horses starve to death or be subject to mistreatment, which animal groups note is illegal under animal cruelty statutes. They also contend that the USDA's National Residue Program, which tests newly slaughtered meat for illegal drug residues, pesiticides, hormones and contaminants would protect horse meat just as it now protects beef, pork and other food products.

The Animal Welfare Institute disputes the claim that slaughtering horses is sometimes a humane option and quotes federal statistics which found that 92.3 percent of horses slaughtered before the ban took effect were in good condition and were being slaughtered for profit, not for humane reasons. 

The organization also quotes surveys showing that nearly 70 percent of Americans support a federal ban on slaughtering horses. 

More

Britain will enforce quality and purity of e-cigarettes

The popular nicotine delivery devices will be treated as over-the-counter drug products

Britain has decided to regulate electronic cigarettes, treating them as non-prescription medicine. That means the popular e-cigs will still be widely sold ...

PhotoBritain has decided to regulate electronic cigarettes, treating them as non-prescription medicine. That means the popular e-cigs will still be widely sold in convenience stores and elsewhere but the government will enforce quality and purity regulations, just as it does with aspirin, sinus remedies and other widely sold products.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been studying the matter and is expected to issue regulations one of these days, but more than 300 years after the Revolution, things move a bit more slowly on this side of the pond.

The decision was announced today by the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which said it wanted to ensure that e-cigs "are safe, are of the right quality and work."  

Consistent quality

"Reducing the harms of smoking to smokers and those around them is a key government health priority. Our research has shown that existing electronic cigarettes and other nicotine containing products on the market are not good enough to meet this public health priority," Jeremy Mean, the MHRA’s Group Manager of Vigilance and Risk Management of Medicines, said.

“The decision announced today provides a framework that will enable good quality products to be widely available. It’s not about banning products that some people find useful, it’s about making sure that smokers have an effective alternative that they can rely on to meet their needs," Mean said.

The FDA's efforts to regulate e-cigarettes have bean hampered by a court decision that grew out of a 2010 effort by the agency to ban the devices, which deliver nicotine vapor without using tobacco.

In December 2010 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled the FDA's attempt to classify e-cigarettes as drug delivery systems was incorrect. Instead, the court found that e-cigarettes were tobacco products, even though they contain no tobacco.

The FDA declined to appeal the ruling but has served notice that it might propose rules that would, in fact, regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products. 

Howls of protest

Any talk of banning or regulating the use of the devices brings howls of protest from their users and manufacturers, who say the products are safe and do not emit fumes harmful to bystanders, unlike cigarettes.

Just a few days ago, R.J. Reynolds Co. jumped into the fray and announced it would launch a TV advertising campaign for its new e-cig brand, Vuse. TV ads for cigarettes have not been seen since 1971, when they were banned by Congress. Other large tobacco companies are also getting into the business in other countries and are expected to do so here, if the FDA permits it.

They're not cigarettes and they don't contain tobacco, so the ban shouldn't be a problem, is essentially the message R.J. Reynolds seems to be sending. Its initial marketing effort is restricted to Colorado.

It's not just the U.S. and Britain that have been trying to figure out what to do about the devices.  Brazil, Norway and Singapore have banned them outright while others have limited advertising and curbed the practice of "vaping" -- as adherents call it -- in public places.

Much safer

Photo
Dame Sally Davies

While some health authorities are dubious about the safety of e-cigs, the  MHRA's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, made it clear she regards them as much safer than cigarettes.

“Smokers are harmed by the deadly tar and toxins in tobacco smoke, not the nicotine," she said. “While it’s best to quit completely, I realize that not every smoker can and it is much better to get nicotine from safer sources such as nicotine replacement therapy.

“More and more people are using e-cigarettes, so it’s only right these products are properly regulated to be safe and work effectively,” Dame Sallay said.

Unlike the U.S., where health and consumer advocates generally oppose wider use of e-cigs, the MHRA's decision is being greeted positively in the U.K. 

The non-profit public health group ASH said it "strong supports" the decision. 

"We think this is both proportionate and necessary," said Deborah Arnott, the group's chief executive. "Regulation will ensure that e-cigarettes meet the same standards for quality, safety and efficacy as medicines while remaining as readily available to smokers as they are today."

A physician's group, the General Council at the Royal College of General Practitioners, also said it was on board with the plan.

"The RCGP supports MHRA regulation of novel nicotine products such as e-cigarettes as this will ensure that they are of good quality and reliability and are effective in helping smokers who want to use them to cut down and quit,” Dr. Clare Gerada, the group's chair, said.

The MHRA's new rules don't go fully into effect until 2016.

More

Useful apps for the film buff

If you really like movies, there are some pretty cool ways to discover them

Every summer there's usually at least one movie for every type of film fan.This summer, "Iron Man 3" will probably satisfy those who like action and adve...

PhotoEvery summer there's usually at least one movie for every type of film fan.

This summer, "Man of Steel" will probably satisfy those who like action and adventure. And the film "Before Midnight" -- with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy -- will most likely draw in a good number of indie film fans.

But what can you do to find out what else is playing? While there are millions of ways to do a search, the most convenient is probably to search with an app. There are a few good ones out there that can assist the hardcore film buff and tell the occasional moviegoer what's playing around town.

Get Glue

Take Get Glue. It started as a social networking site for TV shows, but now includes music, books, sports and yes, movies, and it tells you what's playing in theaters and what's being streamed.

Although Get Glue has added other features since it launched, the creators still kept the social networking parts of the app, so you can communicate with other fans once a film ends or while it's still playing.

Plus the app gives you movie recommendations, lets you watch clips and gives you behind the scenes info. And you can win prizes and special perks for using the app, too.

Movie vault

PhotoMovie Vault is another great app mainly for its wide variety of content and for having a collection of obscure movies that would be hard to locate on other apps.

The creators claim Movie Vault has well over a thousand movies from the last hundred years and that new content is being added all the time.

You can use the site's search bar to look for movies by title, actor, director or in other ways. You can search by genre, too. In addition, Movie Vault gives you all of the film's background information as well as the cover art.

All the background info comes from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). And like Netflix's site and phone app, you can either stream movies on the spot or save them to your queue for another time.

Movie Vault's boosters say it's extremely easy to use and that you'll be able to navigate through it very easily. It'll cost you $1.99 to download the app, but there are no charges afterwards.

RunPee

Then there's RunPee, a good app with a bad name. You'd think the creators could have come up with a name that's a little less descriptive, but the app is still pretty useful.

Simply put, RunPee tells you when it's okay to take a bathroom break without missing a crucial part of the movie. 

They choose these times based on parts of the movie where nothing much is going on. And when you return to your seat, the app tells you what you've missed.

The app lets you know other things too. It gives you a brief synopsis of the first few minutes of a film, in case you're running late, and it lets you know if there's something coming after or during the final credits -- because sometimes it's hard to decide whether to stay or leave.

PhotoLocation Scout

Location Scout is another movie app for film lovers, but it works much differently than the rest of the apps mentioned here. It doesn't show movies or tell you where the nearest one is playing; it directs you to  famous film locations instead.

So if you're in Miami and you want to get a peak of Tony Montana's house in the movie "Scarface," the app will help you find it.

Location Scout pulls the information from IMDb and brings it up on a map to direct you to the exact spot. And whether you use the app to discover filming locations in your area or while you're on vacation, it could be a fun thing to have -- especially if you like visiting places where the rich and famous have roamed.

More

The benefits of attending community college

Lower tuition and less debt are just some of the reasons a community college might work

With the month of June now here, high school seniors from all around the country are getting ready to graduate.Many of them are slipping on their caps an...

PhotoWith the month of June now here, high school seniors from all around the country are slipping on their caps and gowns, walking across stages to receive diplomas and starting whole new lives. 

Once September rolls around, some will be in a new job, while others will go to a four-year school or a community college. 

But what are the benefits of going to a community college and getting an associate's degree? Is going to a four-year school better?

Some might say a two-year degree won't get you much these days.

The value of a degree

But that's wrong, says Shandon Guthrie, a Nevada philosophy professor. He received his associate's degree and said community college put him on a great path.

"It's my only degree I possess outside of my primary field of philosophy," said Guthrie in a published interview. "It helped me tremendously in advancing my knowledge of science and has served as a backdrop for my avocation in science as I steered into using physics and engineering as factors in my study."

Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce, believes a person with an associate's degree can compete quite well in today's job market, but it's all about choosing the right course of study.

"It's a system in which you can't just have an ambition to go to college and get a degree," said Carnevale in an interview with TheHuffington Post. "You have to pay attention to the courses and the content of your degree.

"The degree level matters, but a lot less than it used to. What matters is what you take. Thinking about it as a hierarchy of degrees isn't the way to think about it anymore," he said.

Choosing your field

According to NerdScholar, a site that helps parents and students with the college process, getting an associate's degree in the right field can lead to some pretty decent pay. 

In 2010, the average pay for a radiation therapist was $74,980. Nuclear medicine technologists earned $68,560 and dental hygienists earned $68,250 on average.

There are good paying jobs in other fields too. 

PhotoAir traffic controllers earned $108,040 in 2010, construction managers $83,860 and electrical and electronic engineering technicians earned $56,040 -- and all of these jobs only required a two year degree.

Avoiding debt

But it's not only what community college graduates can earn that may be surprising, it's how much of that pay they can actually keep.

According to the site CampusExplorer.com, the average debt for a person receiving a bachelor's degree is $20,000, compared to just a few thousand dollars at a community college.

And based on figures from CollegeBoard.org, the average cost for a two-year college was $2,713 in 2010, compared to $7,605 at a public four-year institution.

Ashley Johnson, recruiter for Schneider Electric, said her company looks for people with associate's degrees, because they seem to have a tremendous amount of hands on experience.

"An associate's degree is great for us," she said while speaking at a job fair. "We have a lot of hands on positions for building automation, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), network specialists and now on the security and IT side.

"There are great positions that allow you to get in the field, start working, [while] working with people that are more senior in their career," noted Johnson.

Is more better?

Of course there have been several studies that show more education means higher pay, so going to a four-year school certainly isn't bad. But experts say more people should consider going to a community college, especially those families who may need to take out a big loan for a four year institution.

Guthrie says getting his associate's degree before going to a four year school worked in his favor when it came to finding a job, because it looked like he had extra schooling.

"Getting a dual major can accomplish the same thing," he said. "But I do believe that on paper when people examine your resume, they will see the associate's degree as a separate emphasis, having been studied in its own right. It proves stability and independent accomplishment -- something the dual major might not necessarily accomplish."

More

What you need to know about a reverse mortgage

It's a costly loan and you might not get as much out of it as you think

If you watch cable TV you have undoubtedly seen commercials for reverse mortgages. They're pitched as a convenient way to take money out of your home while...

PhotoIf you watch cable TV you have undoubtedly seen commercials for reverse mortgages. They're pitched as a convenient way to take money out of your home while you are still living in it.

It sounds complicated and in some respects it is. And while it sounds appealing, it can have some drawbacks, depending on your circumstances. Before moving forward you need to make sure you understand how the program works. It might be just what you need. Then again, it might not.

A reverse mortgage is actually called a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM). It's a government program that allows seniors to remain in their homes while taking out some of their equity. If you are still making payments on a mortgage, the payments stop. It sounds a little like having your cake and eating it too.

Let's assume a couple in their early 70s have a home that appraises for $200,000 and they still owe $65,000 on their current mortgage, making principal and interest payments of $1,000 a month. They have a number of options.

Options

First, they could sell their home and retrieve the equity. But there are costs associated with selling, not least of which is an average six percent real estate sales commission. Then, there's the matter of moving and paying rent or making a mortgage payment on your new home.

Some seniors find a reverse mortgage attractive because they don't have to move. And if they are currently making mortgage payments, those payments stop. Many find that, alone, is enough reason to go for a reverse mortgage. They might even receive a lump sum of cash, or regular payments to them, depending on how much equity they have.

It all sounds pretty good, but what are they giving up? First and foremost, they are spending that equity in the present, which is fine if needs require it. But if seniors aren't really pressed financially and hope to leave something for their children and grandchildren, equity in a home normally makes up the bulk of an estate.

When you sign a reverse mortgage, an individual or couple may remain in the house as long as it is their permanent residence. Once they die, or move into a nursing home, the house reverts to the lender, who sells it to retrieve the money it paid out.

Not always a good deal

PhotoBecause there is an element of uncertainty about how long the homeowner will remain in the home, the lender must be conservative in its estimates. In all likelihood, the amount of money the homeowner receives will be significantly less than the equity they believe they hold in the home.

Why not just take out a home equity line of credit? That's another way to tap into your home's credit. However, you must have adequate income to qualify for an equity line and that loan does nothing to stop your payments if you are still paying on your mortgage.

To qualify for a reverse mortgage you must be 62 or older and either own your home outright or have a significant amount of equity. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) you can get money from a reverse mortgage five ways:

  • Tenure: equal monthly payments as long as at least one borrower lives and continues to occupy the property as a principal residence.
  • Term: equal monthly payments for a fixed period of months selected.
  • Line of Credit: unscheduled payments or in installments, at times and in an amount of your choosing until the line of credit is exhausted.
  • Modified Tenure: combination of line of credit and scheduled monthly payments for as long as you remain in the home.
  • Modified Term: combination of line of credit plus monthly payments for a fixed period of months selected by the borrower.

Pushing reverse mortgages

Because of the high fees associated with reverse mortgages, they are lucrative for lenders. Seniors who are considering such a loan should guard against heavy-handed sales tactics and avoid being swayed by celebrity endorsements.

Remember, the only reason celebrities do endorsements is that they get paid for them. Simple as that.

Late last year a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) warned that consumers have a poor understanding of reverse mortgages and are in danger of making costly mistakes.

“Reverse mortgages are complex and have the potential to become a much more pervasive product in the coming years as the baby boomer generation enters retirement,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said at the time. “With one in ten reverse mortgages already in default, it is important that consumers understand what they are signing up for and that it is the right product for them.”

Foreclosures are a possibility

That's right. A reverse mortgage can go into default. While the homeowner no longer has to pay a mortgage, they still must pay the taxes and insurance on the property. A distressingly large number apparently haven't taken that into consideration. The report found nearly 10 percent of reverse mortgage borrowers are at risk of foreclosure because of this.

Many homeowners don't realize how much they're paying in property taxes because the amount is built into their monthly mortgage payment. In a high-tax state like New York or Illinois, taxes on a modest home can easily be $6,000 or  more a year -- nothing to sneeze at.

Before taking any action on a reverse mortgage, speak with family members and a trusted financial advisor or lawyer and -- as always -- don't sign anything you don't fully understand.

More

AAA study warns car-based infotainment devices are a "looming public safety crisis"

Even hands-free devices create dangerous distractions that can slow reaction time, study confirms

Automakers are stuffing cars with "infotainment" systems that include everything from GPS to Facebook. But a new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic ...

PhotoAutomakers are stuffing cars with "infotainment" systems that include everything from GPS to Facebook. But a new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests this may be a dangerous detour along the road to safer cars.

Even hands-free devices are dangerous, AAA said. The research found that as mental workload and distractions increase reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in drivers not seeing items right in front of them including stop signs and pedestrians.

AAA said the study is the most comprehensive of its kind and arms it with evidence to appeal to the public to not use these voice-to-text features while their vehicle is in motion.

“There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” said AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental  distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”

Mental workload

Cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and his research team at the University of Utah measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers’ mental workload when they attempt to do multiple things at once, building upon decades of research in the aerospace and automotive industries. 

PhotoUsing established research protocols borrowed from aviation psychology and a variety of performance metrics, drivers engaged in common tasks, from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel.

Researchers used the results to rate the levels of mental distraction drivers experienced while performing each of the tasks. Similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale used for hurricanes, the levels of mental distraction are represented on a scale:

  • Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category “1” level of distraction or a minimal risk.
  • Talking on a cell-phone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a “2” or a moderate risk.
  • Listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to a “3” rating or one of extensive risk.

“These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. “Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.” 

AAA said it will be using the findings to promote dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and industry to ensure that these emerging in-vehicle technologies won’t lead to unintentional compromises in public safety.  As part of this effort, AAA has already met with safety advocates and provided copies of the report to CEOs of all major U.S. automakers.

More

Docs find a new path for unclogging heart arteries

The new procedure reduces bleeding complications dramatically

There's an old saying that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. It appears there's a better route. New research published in the American Hear...

PhotoThere's an old saying that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. It appears there's a better route.

New research published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation shows more doctors in the U.S. are unclogging heart arteries -- in both men and women -- by entering through the radial artery in the wrist.

That means, in turn, means fewer bleeding complications than the traditional route through the groin. The blocked arteries are reopened by threading a catheter through the femoral artery in the groin or the radial artery in the wrist in a procedure called percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI).

Course of the study

For the study, researchers examined data of almost 3 million artery-opening procedures in 1,381 centers in 2007-12. They found:

In 2004-07, doctors used the radial artery to reach the heart in fewer than one out of every 50 PCI procedures.

By the study's end in 2012, nearly one out of every six PCIs was performed through a radial artery in the wrist -- a 13-fold increase.

"Traditionally, femoral access has been taught and used in the United States for PCI, whereas the radial approach is frequently used in Europe," said Dmitriy N. Feldman, M.D., the study's lead author and assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, New York Presbyterian Hospital Department of Medicine, Greenberg Division of Cardiology.

Wider use of the wrist-route procedure, particularly in high-risk patients, could improve PCI safety, researchers said.

Stopping the bleeding

Bleeding complications are an important concern in PCI because patients are often treated with blood-thinning medications that make it harder to stop bleeding after the procedure. The radial artery is smaller and located closer to the skin's surface compared with the femoral artery, which is why it is easier to compress manually, Feldman said. This makes it easier to prevent or stop internal and external bleeding.

Researchers found:

  • Bleeding complications occurred in 2.67% of the radial artery procedures, versus 6.08% of the femoral artery.
  • Fewer vascular complications occurred in the radial artery group: 0.16% compared with 0.45%.

High-risk patients -- those over age 75, women and people with acute coronary syndromes -- benefited most from radial PCI. However, its use and growth of use is lowest in those patients, researchers noted.

A "learning curve" is important in developing proficiency in radial PCI procedures, particularly in high-risk patients, Feldman said.

Doctors in academic institutions and centers in the New England area are using radial PCI at a much higher rate than other centers in the United States, researchers found.

More

Salsa Cycles recalls bicycle forks

The bicycle fork can bend above the disc brake mount, posing a fall hazard

Salsa Cycles of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 1,700 Salsa bicycle forks. The bicycle fork can bend above the disc brake mount, posing a fall haza...

PhotoSalsa Cycles of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 1,700 Salsa bicycle forks.

The bicycle fork can bend above the disc brake mount, posing a fall hazard to the rider. The company has received eight reports of forks bending above the disc brake mount. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves all Salsa Vaya bicycle forks stamped with the batch codes 2011 02 21, 2011 04 11, 2011 06 14 and 2011 09 09 and all Salsa La Cruz bicycle forks stamped with the batch codes 2011 03 01, 2011 04 08, 2011 05 30 and 2011 09 09. The batch code is stamped on the steerer tube.

The forks are made of tubular chromoly steel and can be installed on any bicycle that takes a threadless 1 1/8 inch steerer tube. They were sold individually and as original equipment on Salsa Vaya bicycles and framesets. Salsa Vaya bicycle forks are orange or dark gray. La Cruz bicycle forks are black. The manufacturer’s insignia “CWI” is stamped on the steerer tube. “Salsa” is printed on the bicycle’s frame.

The forks, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at bicycle stores nationwide and on various websites from February 2011, through June 2012 for about $100 individually for La Cruz forks and on Salsa Vaya bicycles for between $1,300 and $1,600.

Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles equipped with the recalled Salsa Vaya and La Cruz bicycle forks and contact a Salsa dealer for a free inspection, replacement fork or a full refund.

Consumers may contact Salsa Cycles toll-free at (877) 774-6208 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

More

Chrysler recalls Dodge Darts

The vehicles may experience an engine stall

Chrysler is recalling 12,907 model year 2013 Dodge Dart vehicles manufactured March 1, 2012, through February 28, 2013 and equipped with a 1.4L MultiAir tu...

PhotoChrysler is recalling 12,907 model year 2013 Dodge Dart vehicles manufactured March 1, 2012, through February 28, 2013 and equipped with a 1.4L MultiAir turbo engine and dual dry clutch transmission.

The vehicles may experience an engine stall when the temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. An engine stall when the vehicle is being driven could increase the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the powertrain control module, 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 N32.

More

Consumers' hunger for local and organic food is driving online grocery business

Younger, time-pressed families are turning to online food shopping

Technology makes strange bedfellows. Just a few years ago, consumers who were fervent about eating locally-grown and organic foods had to get out their Bir...

PhotoTechnology makes strange bedfellows. Just a few years ago, consumers who were fervent about eating locally-grown and organic foods had to get out their Birkenstocks, pile into the Prius and head for the nearest Whole Foods or farmers market.

Now all it takes is a few swipes of the mouse at an online grocer like Door to Door Organics, Relay Foods or AmazonFresh, which last week confirmed it was beginning to roll out its online shopping product beyond its home base of Seattle, opening operations in Los Angeles.

"Quick, easy and affordable doesn't have to mean highly processed," said Cambria Vaccaro, vice president of marketing for Colorado-based Door to Door Organics. "Every family can start making good food choices -- easily. In fact, 90% of the people who shop with us, say they eat more fruits and veggies, 88% say they’re doing a better job of supporting local, 88% say they feel healthier and 83% say it’s more convenient that other shopping options."

Like a subway train rumbling along deep underground, the boom in online grocery shopping has gone largely unnoticed by most consumers and the press. That changes quickly, however, as entrepreneurial vendors spring up in new markets and word-of-mouth promotion attracts new shoppers.

In interviews with ConsumerAffairs, Vaccaro said her company has grown more than 800% in the last four years and expects to exceed that growth rate as it opens new markets and more fully develops existing ones while  RelayFoods president and co-founder Arnie Katz is equally bullish about his firm's prospects.

"Our view is that in a decade over 25 to 50% of grocery purchases will be done online," Katz said. "The future doesn’t happen, doesn't happen, doesn't happen ... then it happens all at once. We are approaching that day. We think it will happen within the next two years."

Both agree that online grocers aren't expecting to completely eliminate traditional brick-and-mortar stores, although even shoppers who continue to travel to physical stores are increasingly using technology to improve the process. A new study from KSC Kreate finds that more than half (52%) of grocery shoppers visit a store's web or mobile site prior to shopping; in addition one-third are using mobile devices while in-store. It's not a stretch to say those shoppers are one click away from moving the entire experience online.

Photo
A Door to Door Organics delivery (Company-supplied photo)


Business models vary

"What we continue to see are varying business models -- everything from natural and organic to conventional, door to door delivery, centralized pick-up,  bulk shopping and prepared meals," she said. "Door to Door isn’t trying to completely replace or eliminate traditional grocery shopping.   We focus on helping people feed their families good food and becoming the place where a family begins their routine, weekly shop -- much more like your virtual neighborhood grocery or an online Trader Joe's."

There is as yet no standard model. Some online grocers, like Door to Door Organics, deal primarily with organic and locally-grown foods while others, like Relay, also offer canned goods, cereal and other packaged products. Door to Door, as its name implies, delivers directly to homes. Relay uses mostly pick-up locations, parking a truck in a heavily-traveled area where consumers can pick up their order on the way home. Home delivery is available for a $20 monthly fee.

Photo
Customer picks up her order from a Relay Foods truck (Company-supplied photo) 

Peapod, supermarket giant Ahold's service, eschews the emphasis on local and organic products and gears itself more to convenience, offering everything a shopper would find at the local Giant or Stop & Shop. AmazonFresh offers a full range of products but emphasizes organic and locally-grown foods. 

This kind of experimentation is good, Vaccaro and Katz agree.

"With only around 2% of a $600 billion food-at-home market happening online, competition is a good thing for expanding market awareness and driving innovation in quality, service, price and service expectations.  Awareness and demand is great for us all," Vaccaro said.

For now, customers are primarily younger time-pressured families struggling to deal with work, commuting, childcare and serving fresh, healthful food.

A recent study by FGI Research found that more than half of digital shoppers were either young urban professionals and early tech adopters or what market researchers call "passionate planners," shoppers who put a lot of effort into planning their grocery purchases. Vaccaro says 95% of Door to Door's customers are women 25-45.

"They're the people who are the CEO of the home," she said. "It's a source of guilt for some -- that they're so busy they barely have time to get anything done and still have time to prepare and serve good food."

Jostling for position

PhotoFor the moment, competition in the online grocery business is actually rather slight, as companies stay within their chosen market boundaries. But that situation is bound to change as the more successful start-ups seek new markets to counquer and as Amazon and other large players get serious about protecting and expanding their turf.

At the moment, Door to Door has operations in Colorado, Kansas City, Chicago, Michigan and the Greater New York area, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, Vaccaro said.

Relay operates in Charlottesville and Richmond, Va. and in the Northern Virginia/Washington D.C. area, with plans to expand to Charlotte, N.C., Florida and the Midwest, according to Katz.

AmazonFresh so far serves only Seattle and Los Angeles but if things go well in Southern California, it is expected to quickly expand into other West Coast markets.

Peapod operates in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions as well as Chicago and is thought to be by far the largest online grocer at the moment. It reports filling 23 million orders last year. Door to Door and Relay, both privately-held venture-backed firms, don't reveal their sales or revenue figures.

Last to budge

Ironically, the slowest to adapt to online grocery shopping may turn out to be the men who are generally early adopters of technology. Most of us have perfected a shopping methodology that consists of roaming the supermarket aisles and grabbing whatever looks edible, then hauling it home like the triumphal hunter-gatherers we see ourselves as.

Shopping online takes more planning than we're accustomed to devoting to something as seemingly simple as food, as I discovered when I tried to conduct a couple of sample online shopping trips. I quickly gave up and said, "Oh hell, I'll just go to the store and find something."

But, like most things, it probably gets better with practice.

More

Online dating produces better marriages?

Critics assail eHarmony-funded study. "They got their money's worth," one sniffs.

How did you meet your spouse or significant other? It's increasingly likely it wasn't in a bar, at your church's ice cream social or on a safari to Outer B...

PhotoHow did you meet your spouse or significant other? It's increasingly likely it wasn't in a bar, at your church's ice cream social or on a safari to Outer Burundi. 

These days, folks are increasingly hooking up online, and a sizeable percentage of them are staying hooked. In fact, a new study claims that marriages between people who met online are at least as stable and satisfying as those who met in more physical venues -- and perhaps more so. Critics were quick to question the findings, however.

Imagine a study that said couples who first met at the theater had better marriages than couples who met at a rodeo, UCLA social psychologist Benjamin Karney told the Los Angeles Times.

"Would you then conclude that meeting at the theater leads to better marriages? I think not," Karney said. "You might conclude that couples who go to the theater are different from couples who go to the rodeo in ways that also happen to be associated with marital success."

The study of 20,000 people was organized by John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and scientific adviser to eHarmony.com, which paid for the study and was quick to begin cranking out publicity touting its results.

PhotoParticipants had all gotten married between 2005 and 2012. A third had met their spouse online, about half through online dating, the rest through chat rooms, gaming and so forth.

Researchers who analyzed the results said the online marriages were not only "durable" but were slightly more so than marriages that happened through more traditional means. In other words, those who met online were less likely to be divorced.

Those who were still married were asked to rate the happiness of their union and, again, those who had met online were slightly happier than the others.

The results were analyzed by statisticians Elizabeth Ogburn and Tyler VanderWeele of the Harvard School of Public Health, who had no monetary interest in the outcome. The researchers' findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Not left to chance"

eHarmony was quick to trumpet the findings, saying they showed  eHarmony ranks first in creating more online marriages than any other online site, ranked eHarmony first in its measures of marital satisfaction and showed eHarmony has the lowest rates of divorce and separation than couples who met through other online and offline meeting places.

“The overarching goal of eHarmony has always been to reduce the divorce rate by helping build quality relationships that are based on compatibility and not left to chance," said Dr. Neil Clark Warren, founder and CEO of eHarmony. "To have consistently the happiest marriages with the lowest divorce rate, we now have the foundation in place that will enable the addition of new services as we transform into a more general relationship site.”

Warren claimed that eHarmony was on the road to "change a whole generation and countless other generations to follow.”

Critics pounce

eHarmony June 11, 2013, 3:53 p.m.
Consumers rate eHarmony

That might be going a little far, some skeptics cautioned.

UCLA's Karney said the study appears to have been well designed and conducted. But the suggestion that match-making websites produce more successful marriages is misleading, he said.

"The authors allude to the possibility that the Internet is changing relationships and making them better," said Karney, who has studied the dynamics of long-term relationships extensively. "These data cannot support those conclusions."

Harry Reis, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, said the study took demographic factors into account but did not control for "personality, mental health status, drug and alcohol use, history of domestic violence, and motivation to form a relationship,” according to the Washington Post. Yet all of these factors are known to affect marital outcomes, he said.

“It is entirely possible that when these factors are taken into account, online meeting may have worse outcomes than offline meeting,” Reis told the Post.

Writing at Forbes.com, columnist Steven Salzberg said eHarmony got the results it paid for. "I think they got their money’s worth," he sniffed.

More

Student loan rates set to double

There's little prospect Congress will extend the lower, subsidized rate

There's a lot of hand-wringing over rising levels of student debt but Congress, so far, has been unable to figure out a way to keep new loans from becoming...

PhotoThere's a lot of hand-wringing over rising levels of student debt but Congress, so far, has been unable to figure out a way to keep new loans from becoming more expensive.

A law subsidizing the Stafford Loan rate at 3.4% expires at the end of June. Starting July 1, 2013 the rate jumps to 6.8% on new loans – much higher than the interest rate on a home or car purchase. There's a measure in Congress to extend the subsidized rate for two years. Democrats generally support it but Republicans generally oppose it as too costly. Its backers concede the stalemate.

“The federal government provides subsidized student loans to increase the number of Americans who can attain a college degree -- not to generate revenue,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), a co-sponsor of legislation to extend the lower rate. “We do this because a college education is a means of empowerment. It helps individuals build a better life and helps our nation build a stronger economy -- generating more jobs and opportunity and strengthening the middle class.”

Stafford Loans

Stafford Loans are federal student loans to college students pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree. They are intended to supplement personal and family resources, as well as aid from scholarships, grants and work-study. With the expiration of the law, the Stafford Loan will go from one of the cheaper college loans to one of the more expensive ones.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has recently focused attention on the issue of student loans, warning they are burdening a generation with oppresive debt. The agency provides an online tool to help prospective students compare loans and find the best deal.

According to CFPB, most students will find federal loans to be the best option. When it comes time to pay back federal loans, the interest rate will be fixed, which will help you predict your payments after graduation. In some cases, the federal government will pay the interest on your loans while you are in school, with subsidized loans.

Private student loans

Other student loans are generally offered by private companies or entities. The most common private student loans are offered by banks. Their interest rates are often variable, which means it's hard to know what your interest rates and payments will be.

Private loans can also be more expensive. According to a report by CFPB, private loan rates have been as high as 16% over the past couple of years. When it is time to repay, private loans often don’t offer as many options to reduce or postpone payments.

Natasha, of Austin, Tex., completed work on her undergraduate degree in four years with the help of a $25,000 student loan from Wells Fargo. She says she was shocked by the interest charges.

“Today I call for my payoff amount and it is $29,300,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I'm paying 17.2% more money than I borrowed. If I paid it off over the next 20 years I would only have paid interest and still owe the entire loan when I'm 42 years old.”

Adds up fast

Chrystal, of Florence, S.C., says she got an associates degree from Strayer University that turned out to be much more costly than she thought.

“The only thing I’m not happy about is the amount of student loans I have racked up,” Chrystal writes. “In the five years since graduating I hadn’t put much of a dent in my student loans and the monthly payment is not small. Now, due to the economy I am being laid off from my job and as of June 4th will be unemployed. This is in no way Strayer University’s fault but just be careful when taking out student loans because they add up fast!”

They do, indeed, add up fast. The total student debt total in the U.S. is now well in excess of $1 trillion.  

More

Can the Apple brand regain some of its coolness?

The company will try with iRadio and iOS 7

It seems that Apple's music streaming service iRadio will be launched pretty soon, as the company just secured a deal with Sony/ATV.Finalizing the Sony a...

PhotoSo, as predicted, Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled Apple iRadio and iOS 7 Monday and, believe it or not, the earth just kept on spinning. Crowds did not run into the street in shock and awe.

Of course, iRadio is not exactly an earth-stopping idea. I mean, we already have Pandora, Spotify, MOG, Google Play whatever and so forth and so on. Come on guys, what took you so long?

And iOS is a reworking of the Apple's mobile software that looks an awful lot like that weird Microsoft Phone thing -- you know, with the buttons and all. 

It was  just a couple of years ago that Apple was seen to be on a higher plane than the rest of us mortals and its iPhone satisfied both hard-core techies and people who just wanted a cool phone.

But now, iPhones are slowly becoming uncool, and teens and preteens are flocking to Google's Android system on Samsung, HTC and Motorola smartphones. 

iPhones taking a hit in the cool department may have something to do with the short lifespan of electronic gadgets in general, especially among younger folks.

Because in most cases, once kids start using a mobile device for the first time, they want something different from what their parents are using.

Kind of old ...

Plus, there have been a few commercials by Samsung that have made fun of Apple and made the iPhone seem stodgy and old-fashioned -- kind of like, well, Microsoft. And once you besmirch a company's cool futuristic image, younger consumers will usually head someplace else.

For example, look at iTunes. The music service used to be the go-to destination for downloading, but since streaming has become today's new craze, folks are heading to sites like Pandora and Spotify instead.

Additionally, there seems to be a new streaming site popping up everyday, which is probably why Apple was eager to secure its deal with Sony/ATV and get iRadio out to consumers as soon as possible.

But will iRadio really give Apple the shot of coolness it needs? Will iOS 7 satisfy the many critics who have complained about the company's previous operating systems?

If not, it'll be back to the drawing board for Cook and his team, in order to come up with something that sets Apple apart from its competitors.

Gone for good

Bob O'Donnell, vice president of the market research firm IDC, said it's almost impossible for Apple to reclaim the stronghold it once had. 

Photo
Jay-Z
"I'm not sure if [Apple] can be as dominant as they once were," he said in an interview with CNN. "I don't think anybody can be quite as dominate as Apple once was. I think we see the pie of influence spreading."

"So the things that they innovated on are now standard and commonplace. The trick is can they come up with new things or continue to evolve their existing products in ways that continue to completely set them apart," O'Donnell asked.  

Whatever Apple can do to improve its image better be done fast, because Samsung is fast on its tail with its increasingly popular smartphones and  its new streaming service. According to several reports, Samsung has teamed with rapper and business mogul Jay-Z for its streaming site, which has many in the tech world buzzing.

The company hasn't made an official announcement of the streaming service yet, but experts say partnering with Jay-Z can only be a good thing. 

"Jay-Z has demonstrated a particularly good ability to identify what audiences want or to create a demand for something that they didn't even know they wanted," said attorney Lori Landew in an interview with Forbes"And it seems likely that he will be able to use these instincts in designing a streaming service that will appeal to a variety of audiences."

Reports indicate the Brooklyn rapper will be paid a cool $20 million for partnering with Samsung.

David Barnard, who founded App Cubby, said iPhones are still the most popular, but the company has taken a big hit in the area of hipness. "Painting the iPhone as a passé thing is such a perfect marketing message to counteract its coolness," he said.

So Apple has its work cut out for it, as it tries to wow consumers with iRadio and iOS 7. Whether folks will be truly wowed remains to be seen.

Some might say 2013 will be a crucial year for the company, because if it slips out of the coolness zone any farther, it may not recover. 

Isn't that what happened to the BlackBerry?

 

More

Inventive ways for kids to manage their diabetes

These tools are good for the parents and families of diabetic children as well

According to the American Diabetes Association there are 25.8 million people in the United States who live with diabetes and about 215,000 of those patient...

PhotoAccording to the American Diabetes Association there are 25.8 million people in the United States with diabetes -- about 215,000 of them children.

One child living with diabetes is 11-year old Isaac Hedrick, who like other patients, has to make sure he receives the right amount of insulin according to the amount of carbohydrates he eats.

Fortunately, he has a calculator to tally everything, but what happens if the calculator gets lost or damaged? What if he's at a friend's house or away at camp and the person watching him doesn't know anything about insulin?

Dr. David Repaske, chief of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes at Nationwide Children's Hospital, apparently thought the same thing, so he developed the first online diabetes calculator specifically for kids.

The calculator

Here's how it works: The user just has to go to the site, plug in some information about the patient's diabetic condition and the site provides a customized chart that lets him know how much insulin is needed before meals.

The chart can be printed so children can carry it around and give it to whomever is taking care of them. Repaske says having a chart like this makes things easier for everyone involved.

"The goal is to provide an additional tool to empower families to successfully manage their child's diabetes at home in order to provide as normal a life as possible for that child," he said. "The chart can also be printed out and taken to school or given to a sitter to ensure accurate insulin dosing without the need to learn the formula and do the math for each dose."

In addition, Repaske says always maintaining the right balance of carbohydrates and insulin can be challenging for anybody, but especially for a child. And others seem to agree.

Diabetes app

Panarea Digital has come up with an app that teaches kids how to manage their Type 1 diabetes. The app is a great tool for parents to learn more about their child's condition too.

PhotoIt's called Managing Type 1 diabetes: A guide for kids and their families and uses animation to teach kids about their condition and follows a character by the name of Max -- an 8-year-old boy living with Type 1 diabetes.

In a series of interactive guides, users can watch Max manage his own condition while experiencing different adventures, so kids will be able to learn about their condition and be entertained at the same time.

There are other characters too. Like Dr. Phil Good, Max's healthcare specialist and Parrot, Max's sidekick. All the characters in the app are supposed to make learning about diabetes fun and easy.

There are eight different sections the app goes through: The real symptoms, facts and myths about diabetes, the food trip, what is Type 1 diabetes? Food and insulin, keeping the balance, getting control and a glossary.

What to do

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each parent of a diabetic child should do the following at the beginning of every school year:

  • Make sure you create a diabetic management plan with the school and make sure the school has all of the necessary supplies like testing strips, lancets and ketone testing supplies. And that's just some of the supplies schools should have.
  • Plus, schools should have glucose tablets on hand or snacks that can raise blood glucose levels quickly if necessary.
  • The CDC says each school should have three to five pieces of hard candy on hand for each diabetic student, four to six ounces of regular non-diet soda, four to six ounces of orange juice, two tablespoons of raisins and eight ounces of nonfat or low-fat milk.
  • Each school should have a glucagon emergency kit as well.

Repaske says diabetic patients need all the help they can get when it comes to managing their condition, because it's easy for a person to get tired and not do everything they should.

"There's no weekend off, there's no summer vacation from diabetes. It's something you've got to deal with every single day," he says. And that makes it really tough, because you just get tired of it."

"Having something printed out that is not just for one time, but it's useful for a month or six months or a year, no matter what the conditions are [helps]," said Repaske.

More

Overdraft charges a minefield for consumers, government study finds

Banks' policies are complex and vary so widely that consumers have trouble navigating them

It's no secret that trying to predict overdraft charges is about as simple as charting the orbits of the various comets and meteors that occasionally go ro...

PhotoIt's no secret that trying to predict overdraft charges is about as simple as charting the orbits of the various comets and meteors that occasionally go rocketing past the earth.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has been looking into the situation and is today releasing a report that raises concerns about the ability of consumers to anticipate and avoid overdraft costs on their checking accounts.

The report finds wide variations across financial institutions when it comes to the costs and risks of opting in to overdraft coverage on debit card transactions and ATM withdrawals. The report also finds that consumers who opt in for overdraft coverage end up with higher account fees and more involuntary account closures than consumers who decline to opt in.

“Consumers need to be able to anticipate and avoid unnecessary fees on their checking accounts. But we are concerned that some overdraft practices may increase consumer costs beyond reasonable expectations,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “What is marketed as overdraft protection can, in some instances, create greater risk of consumer harm.”

When consumers try to withdraw more money from their checking accounts than is available, the financial institution can reject the transaction. For certain types of transactions, like checks, the institution generally charges a non-sufficient funds fee. The financial institution can also choose to cover the payment by advancing funds on the consumer’s behalf, and generally charges a fixed overdraft fee for doing so.

Automated systems 

In recent years, most banks have adopted automated systems for making these decisions. These systems have contributed to the evolution of overdraft from an occasional courtesy to a significant source of industry revenues. The CFPB estimates that overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees represent 60 percent or more of the fee income on consumer checking accounts.

The CFPB conducted this overdraft study, which reflects a significant portion of U.S. consumer checking accounts, after initial market research raised concerns about overdraft practices.

Many of these concerns are not new. Over the past decade, federal regulators have taken a number of different steps in an effort to address them. The CFPB report is intended to provide the factual basis to develop more uniform treatment of these issues across financial institutions.

Opting-in is risky

In 2010, a new federal government regulation took effect requiring that banks obtain a consumer’s consent (opt-in) before charging fees for allowing overdrafts on ATM withdrawals and most debit card transactions.

Today’s CFPB report found that new customer opt-in rates varied substantially across institutions. At some banks in 2011, more than 40 percent of all new customers opted in while other banks saw opt-in rates of less than 10 percent. The report also found that a consumer’s decision to opt in may have significant ramifications: 

  • Consumers who opt in end up paying higher fees: The CFPB report looked at previous heavy overdrafters who declined to opt in when the new federal requirements were implemented in 2010. It found that by not opting in these accountholders reduced their overdraft and non-sufficient fund fees, on average, by more than $450 during the second half of 2010. 
  • Consumers who opt in to overdraft coverage are more likely to end up with involuntary account closures: Negative account balances are a significant contributor to involuntary account closures, which can leave a black mark on a consumer’s record and make it difficult to open an account elsewhere. The CFPB report found that involuntary closure rates at some banks in the study were more than 2.5 times higher for accountholders who had opted in to debit and ATM overdraft coverage.

Highly complex

The CFPB report raises questions about the ability of consumers to anticipate and avoid overdraft costs. Each institution’s overdraft policies, procedures, and practices are highly complex and can be difficult for a consumer to navigate, yet greatly affect whether and how often they will incur overdraft fees. These complexities include:

  • Complicated fee structures: Banks have different fee structures when it comes to the number of overdrafts that can be incurred in a single day. Some, for example, limit the number of overdraft charges in a day to two; others have no cap on fees or caps that allow as many as 12 overdrafts and non-sufficient fund fees in a day.  
  • Overdraft coverage limits often depend on many factors: Some institutions have fixed limits on how much they will advance an accountholder; others vary the limits based on the accountholder’s individual circumstances, such as his or her balance, overdraft history, or deposit patterns.
  • Complex transaction postings: The order in which check, debit card, and other transactions are posted to an account can influence the number of overdraft fees. The report found wide variation in posting practices, from institutions debiting transactions at periodic intervals throughout the day to debiting them in nightly batches.
More

How much money do you need for retirement?

Experts say you need 70% of your working life salary, but is that practical?

It's a question that has been asked for years but seems to gain more urgency as the second wave of the baby boom generation approaches retirement. Exactly ...

PhotoIt's a question that has been asked for years but seems to gain more urgency as the second wave of the baby boom generation approaches retirement. Exactly how much money will you need?

There is no simple answer. In fact, the most common answer is “it depends,” which is of little or no use. Some retirement planners say you need 70% of the annual income you earned during your working years.

This is a pretty tall order, unless you have a generous pension and a fat investment portfolio. Without either, you are pretty much dependent on Social Security, which is not something you want to be. After all, the average Social Security payment for a retired worker at the start of 2012 was $14,760 a year.

Where you live is important

So if you are not anywhere near the 70% level of previous income, you may need to take steps in retirement to reduce your expenses. Where you live can have a big influence.

"People who live in a given area are competing with each other for the same goods and services, including housing, cars and groceries," said Mike Sante, managing editor of Interest.com. "This is why we thought it would be useful to compare younger and older adults' incomes in each state. We found that many senior citizens are significantly underfunded and risk running out of money, especially since people are living longer than they used to and may need to support a two or three decade retirement."

Besides Social Security, retirees can generate income from their savings – but not by keeping their money in a bank account earning less than 1% interest. The Federal Reserve's monetary policy of near 0% interest rates to stimulate the economy has hit cautious savers particularly hard.

Meaning, if you want to generate serious income from your money it needs to be invested in something with a higher return. For most people that's the stock market.

Wall Street

Money invested in stocks can generate returns in two ways. It can generate quarterly dividends, which are like interest payments. The value of the securities can also go up, allowing you to sell shares periodically to generate cash.

But the stock market carries risks bank deposits do not. The value of the securities can also go down, meaning you would lose money if you were forced to sell the stocks in order to raise cash during a down period in the market.

Companies that pay a nice dividend one year might reduce it the next if business takes a turn for the worse. That means you can't put your money in a set of stocks and forget about it.

Despite these risks, some experts say you can't avoid Wall Street. According to Kiplinger personal finance, one of the biggest mistakes retirees – and those planning for retirement – make is shying away from stocks.

After the recession and the stock market crash, many consumers fled the market. Those who did, however, missed a huge bull market rally that began in March 2009. According to Kiplinger, you can get back in by investing in stocks or stock mutual funds in set amounts on a regular basis. With this strategy, you automatically buy more shares at lower prices and fewer shares at higher prices. Avoid investing large blocks of cash at one time.

Keep working

Another way to maintain a necessary income level in retirement is to have a job, even a part-time job. But instead of the job you held for most of your career – and perhaps hated toward the end – find a job that lets you do something you enjoy, and provides the flexibility you want and need at this stage of your life.

Meanwhile, if you aren't pulling in 75% of your former income in retirement, don't feel bad because you have plenty of company. Nationally, the average income for those who are 65 and older equals just 57% of the average income for 45 to 64 year-olds.

And according to Interest.com, the fact that seniors overly rely on Social Security – not pensions or retirement savings – goes a long way toward explaining why so many seniors have so little money.  

More

Are happy days here again?

Consumer Reports says Americans are shaking off their financial woes

According to at least one measure, people are feeling better about their financial condition than they have in several years. The Consumer Reports (CR) In...

PhotoAccording to at least one measure, people are feeling better about their financial condition than they have in several years.

The Consumer Reports (CR) Index trouble tracker is down sharply -- to 34.0 from 41.7 a month earlier -- the lowest level since April 2009. The trouble tracker measure focuses on both the proportion of consumers that have faced difficulties as well as the number of negative events they have encountered.

Negative events include: the inability to pay medical bills or afford medication; missed mortgage payment; home foreclosure; interest-rate increase, penalty fees, reduced lines of credit or other changes in credit-card terms; job loss; reduced health-care coverage; and, the denial of personal loans.

The trouble tracker has dropped more than 50 percent from its high-water mark in September 2009, when it hit 68.7. The greatest drop in financial difficulties over the past 30 days was among those in households earning less than $50,000, followed by the most affluent in homes -- those earning $100,000 or more. Amidst this general drop in financial difficulties, middle-income Americans experienced a slight rise in financial troubles.

“The data offer a glimpse that consumers may be starting to see and feel the progress of the economic recovery,” said Ed Farrell, director of consumer insight at the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

Other measures

  • The index’s sentiment measure declined 1.9 points to 52.6 from its high point of 54.5 last month, but overall remains in positive territory. The drop was attributable to a drop in two segments: consumers in households earning less than $50,000 (-2.8), and those with a high school education or less (-4.7).
  • The CR index’s employment measure showed that job gains outpaced job losses for the third straight month. The employment measure was little changed this month, rising slightly to 50.6 from 50.3 a month earlier. The uptick was attributed to an increase in the proportion of people starting a new job in the past 30 days, and job gains outpacing job losses by a widening margin. The only group that lost more jobs than it gained was among those with a high school education or less. “Despite the improvements, consumers are still frigid about robust spending,” Farrell said. “We are watching closely waiting to see how long it will take them to thaw out from the mindset created by the conditions of the past five years.”
  • The past 30-day retail measure halted four straight months of decline, ticking upward to 9.2 from 8.7 a month earlier. Among the retail categories the index tracks, the gain was driven primarily by a large seasonal rise in the major lawn and garden equipment category, and a small uptick in major appliances. The Index also shows that consumers are still not comfortable with robust spending. Planned spending for the next 30 days, reflecting potential June activity, is at 6.0, its lowest level since first measured in April 2009.
  • The level of stress that consumers felt was up slightly to 55.2 from 53.8 last month. The most stressed Americans: women (55.8), those in households earning under $50,000 (57.1), aged 18-34 (56.6), and those in the North East (57.6).
More

Small-business confidence picks up steam in May

Job creation lags, though, raising questions about economic recovery

Owners of the businesses responsible for much of the job creation in this country were a more confident lot last month. But there seems to be something of ...

PhotoOwners of the businesses responsible for much of the job creation in this country were a more confident lot last month. But there seems to be something of a disconnect.

According to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) its index of small business optimism increased by 2.3 points -- to a final reading of 94.4 in May. While that's the second gain in a row and the second highest reading since the recession started in December 2007, the index does not signal strong economic growth for the sector.

Eight of 10 index components gained momentum, showing some moderation in pessimism about the economy and future sales, but planned job creation fell 1 point and reported job creation stalled after five months of gains.

What about jobs?

“Small-business confidence rising is always a good thing, but it’s tough to be excited by meager growth in an otherwise tepid economy,” said NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg. “Washington remains in a state of policy paralysis, and while the stock market sets records, GDP posts mediocre growth.”

The unemployment rate remains in the mid-7s and it is departures from the labor force -- not job creation -- that is contributing to its decline when it does fall, he points out. “It’s nice to see confidence not shrinking, but there isn’t much to hang your hat on in this report,” Dunkelberg added. “We are back to where we were in May 2012. Two good months don’t make a trend, but we can’t have a trend without them, so it’s a start.”

Not much growth

The small business half of GDP is not generating growth beyond population gains. More businesses are being formed than lost, but too many existing firms have not yet started to replace the workers shed during the recession. The optimism index is at its May 2012 level, which is identical to the November 2007 level. Since then, the index has been higher in only three months, each time by less than 2 points.

Owners were asked to identify their top business problem: 24% cited taxes, 23% cited regulations and red tape, 16% cited weak sales and 2% reported financing/access to credit.

Index components

  • Job creation. Jobs creation fell for the first time since November 2012. Small employers reported an average gain of negative 0.04 workers per firm -- essentially zero.
  • Hard to fill job openings. Forty-seven percent of owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 38% (81% of those trying to hire or hiring) reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions.
  • Sales. The net percent of all owners reporting higher nominal sales in the past three months compared with the prior three months was unchanged at a negative 4%. While this is the best reading in nearly a year, there are still more firms reporting declines than gains.
  • Earnings and wages. Earnings trends improved 1 point over April’s reading, landing at a negative 22%. Three percent of small employers reduced worker compensation and 20% raised compensation, yielding a net 16% who reported higher worker compensation (up 1 point). A net 9% of owners plan to raise compensation in the coming months.
  • Credit markets. Credit continues to be a non-issue for small employers, only 5% of whom say that all their credit needs were not met in May. This is down 1 point from April and the lowest reading since February 2008.
  • Capital outlays. Owners put a few more dollars into capital expenditures in May; the frequency of reported capital outlays over the past six months rose 1 point to 57 percent in May. However, this is still 8 points below the average spending rate through 2007.
  • Good time to expand. In May, only 8% of owners characterized the current period as a good time to expand. This is up 4 points from a very weak reading in April, but still a poor showing when compared with an average value of 16% pre-recession.
  • Inventories. In May, a net negative 7% of all owners surveyed reported growth in inventories -- one point below that reported in April. Plans to add to inventories gained 3 points, rising to a net 3% of all firms.
  • Inflation. The net percent of owners raising selling prices in May was 2%, down 1 point from April. Sixteen percent of NFIB owners reported reducing their average selling prices in the past three months, an increase of 1 point, and 19% of owners surveyed reported price increases (down 1 point). As for prospective price increases, 17% of small employers plan to raise average prices in the next few months.
More

Preventing Burglaries: It’s Not Just Location, Location

Burglaries happen in all neighborhoods. The best prevention is a good alarm system.

Homeowners also need to beware of “smash and grab” thefts -- when criminals smash a window or door, grab a valuable item or two and make a quick escape. ...

It’s easy to think that if we live in a good neighborhood, we don’t have to worry about burglaries but that’s really not the case. After all, like legendary famed bank robber Willie Sutton, criminals “follow the money” and home in better neighborhoods have more valuable loot.Home burglary

So what’s the best way to prevent burglary? We asked Albert Gumbs, a retired Police Sergeant from Ramapo, an upscale town in Rockland County, north of New York City. His advice: “Use a wireless security system with a reputable national monitoring service, and be sure it’s always activated, whether you’re at home or not. Most residential burglaries occur during daytime hours when homeowners are at work.”

Gumbs also recommends making your home look occupied at all times. Burglars are looking for easy targets and the last thing they want is to trip an alarm or confront a home’s occupant.

Gumbs advises that the most common points of entry are the front and back doors. Often, all it takes is a good kick to splinter the door frame and gain entry.  Burglars may also pry the door open or strip the lock. A sturdy door and a high-strength deadbolt lock will foil most of these attempts.

Homeowners also need to beware of “smash and grab” thefts -- when criminals smash a window or door, grab a valuable item or two and make a quick escape. It’s important to keep doors and windows locked at all hours and to avoid placing jewelry, small electronics or other valuables within easy reach of doors and windows.

Good neighbors are a factor too. Gumbs advises working with your neighbors to pick up newspapers and bring in trash cans to keep your home looking lived-in when you’re at work or out of town.  If everyone keeps an eye out for their neighbors, it goes a long way towards reducing residential break-ins.

And while it’s important to have a good alarm system, Gumbs says it’s also essential to set it up properly and learn how to use it. False alarms are annoying to neighbors and the police and can get expensive, since many cities and towns will levy a fee when police respond to a false alarm.

It’s also important to have a wireless alarm since it’s much harder for criminals to defeat them by cutting the wires.

LifeShield Security is a high-tech digital home security system that can be customized to fit your home and your lifestyle, providing not only protection against burglaries and home invasions but also fire protection and all kinds of video and audio monitoring of your home.

For more information on wireless home security options call LifeShield today: 877.987.4435.

More

Ford recalls small number of 2013 Fusions

A steering problem increases the risk of a crash

Ford is recalling 20 model year 2013 Fusion vehicles manufactured April 19, 2013, through April 23, 2013. The steering gears may be missing an internal r...

PhotoFord is recalling 20 model year 2013 Fusion vehicles manufactured April 19, 2013, through April 23, 2013.

The steering gears may be missing an internal retaining clip. If the clip is missing, components inside the steering gear may become dislodged inside the gear assembly. That could cause the loss of steering control, increasing the risk of a crash.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the steering gear, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in mid-June 2013. Ford's recall number is 13S06.

Owners may contact the Ford customer relationship center at 1-866-436-7332.

More

Does marriage counseling really work?

A lot of experts say no. Here's why

There are some things in life that can be difficult but beautiful, like raising a child. The joys certainly outweigh the challenges in most cases, but...

More

The way you watch TV affects how your child eats, say researchers

Other statistics show Latino children are exposed to junk food commercials the most

If you want your child to crave less junk food, you should watch your favorite shows in a different way.According to researchers at the University of Mic...

PhotoIf you want your child to crave less junk food, it might be best to watch your favorite shows in a different way.

According to researchers at the University of Michigan, watching programs that don't have food commercials will lower your child's desire to want unhealthy foods.

So it's best to view programs by streaming them or by using cable TV's On-Demand feature -- or any other way that doesn't include food commercials.

Media exposure

Researchers Kristen Harrison and Mericarmen Peralta spoke to 100 parents and asked them about their household routines, including how much their children were exposed to media.

Many of the parents who watched programing that included junk food commercials had children who couldn't distinguish a healthy food item from an unhealthy one.

In addition, Harrison and Peralta found children whose families had higher incomes were more likely to consume junk food as they got older because their families could afford it. And those families with limited incomes were less able to purchase all the junk food they saw on TV.

The role of advertising

PhotoAlthough there have been numerous studies on the relationship between junk food advertising and childhood obesity, Harrison and Peralta said there aren't any studies on the difference between watching regular TV and watching digitally-recorded TV with no food commercials.

The researchers wanted to take a look at the relationship between TV commercials and preschool-aged children as well. 

"Even though parents and other caregivers are the primary gatekeepers regarding your children's food intake, children are still learning about food as it relates to health from family, media, and other sources, and may use this knowledge later on to inform their decisions when parents or other adults aren't there to supervise them," explained Harrison.

In addition, the researchers said parents should be instilling healthy food habits in their children during preschool years, as waiting until children get older could be too late.

"The preschool years are especially important," said Harrison. "Because the adiposity rebound in kids who grow up to be normal weight tends to be around age 5 or 6, whereas for kids to grow up to be obese, it happens closer to 3. "We need to know as much as we can about the factors that encourage obesogenic eating during the preschool years, even if that eating doesn't manifest as obesity until the child is older."

Effect on Hispanics

A separate study called "Food Marketing to Children on U.S. Spanish-Language Television" reveals that Spanish-language television has a disproportionate number of junk food commercials compared with English-language TV.

Statistics show that more than 84% of all foods and beverages promoted on Spanish-language television are unhealthy, compared with 74% of the commercials on English programing.

Cause for concern

Dale Kunkel, lead study author and professor of communication at the University of Arizona, says the recent findings really have him concerned.

"All children and especially Latinos are bombarded with television ads that sell junk food and sugary drinks," he said. "These findings are particularly concerning given the high rates of obesity among Latino youths."

Other findings of the study show that 78% of food commercials that target children use well-known cartoon characters to promote products, while 49% of the commercials on English-language television do the same thing.

Kunkel says the promise by companies to change how they advertise isn't working, especially in the Latino community.

"Our findings suggest that the food and beverage industry pledge to self-regulate is not effective, especially on Spanish-language television," he said. "Most of the ads aimed at kids feature Whoa products, so clearly there's a big gap between the industry's definition of healthy and what nutrition experts say."

More

Should you take on a handyman special?

An FHA loan program might give you a hand

Over the last 18 months home prices have gained momentum to the point that some areas of the country have almost completely recovered from the 2009 housing...

PhotoOver the last 18 months home prices have gained momentum to the point that some areas of the country have almost completely recovered from the 2009 housing crash.

Low interest rates and low prices have attracted investors, who are partly responsible for rising prices in some areas, as well as a sharp drop in available homes for sale.

Consumers who want to purchase a home still have an opportunity but are finding higher prices and fewer choices. That's leading some to take a look at so-called “handyman specials,” homes that need either cosmetic or structural repairs.

These homes are often available at well below the market price, and for good reason. It's going to cost something – either in money, sweat or both – to restore value to the property.

Do you have what it takes?

Should you take on one of these “project” properties? If you have the skill set, it might be a good opportunity. If you aren't very handy with a hammer, the risks are much higher. Still, it might be worth exploring.

There is a very good reason why a home in need of a lot of repair is priced lower. It's not just the work and the expense it requires, but the difficulty in obtaining financing. Lenders ordinarily avoid financing property that needs major work.

Since the foreclosure crisis – when many homes needing repairs were abandoned – the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) 203(k) renovation loan has become very popular. It's one way that a consumer without any handyman skills can pick up a handyman special.

"With a 203(k) loan, the lender looks at the home as though the improvements needed are already completed,” said Brandon Davis, branch manager at Residential Finance, a lender based in Columbus, Ohio. “For example, if a buyer is looking to purchase a home that has a leaking roof, the 203(k) loan amount is based on the value of the home as if the roof had been repaired."

Loan covers repair costs

Before the loan closes the lender obtains estimates to complete the repairs. The loan includes the repair money, which is set aside to pay for the repairs, which must be completed in a specified time. In that way, FHA is assured that it is financing a house that has the stated value.

The consumer wins because she ends up with a nice house that she can afford. The lender wins because they are able to move a house they might otherwise couldn't. The neighborhood wins because an empty, run-down house has new occupants who will probably take care of their new home.

Ohio is handyman heaven

Where can you find a handyman special? Your chances are better if you happen to live in Ohio. A new report from RealtyTrac, a foreclosure marketing company, found that five Ohio cities made the "Top 15 List" of cities where homebuyers can find fixer-upper bargains.

In fact, the list is dominated by Midwestern cities, claiming 10 of the top 15 spots. Detroit came in first and Chicago ranked second for cities where homebuyers can find the best deals on fixer-uppers. The state of Ohio had the most cities – Cleveland ranked at number three, Cincinnati at number five, Toledo at number nine, Dayton at number 11 and Columbus at number 12.

Investors need not apply

These cities continue to offer opportunity for real estate investors, but keep in mind if you are buying homes as rental property, you cannot use the FHA 203 (k) program. That's only for owner occupants and its one place where consumers have an advantage over investors.

Many investors purchase distressed property for cash because lenders have very tough standards for investors, who are usually required to put 25% or more down and pay higher interest rates.

What about getting a loan and living in the house for a few months before renting it out? Not a good idea.

The law allows someone to convert a property to rental after living in it for one year without losing their consumer financing, but lenders are very leery of this practice and may reject you if they think that's what you are doing. Allison Clark, a mortgage broker in Richmond, Va., told us that some investors engaging in this practice could face fraud prosecution if it can be shown their intent, all along, was to use the mortgaged property to produce income.

But if you are looking for a place to live – whether you are good with tools or not – a handyman special could be your entry into home ownership.

More

Five used cars that offer good fuel economy

Hybrids and four-cylinders give used car buyers access to great gas mileage

New cars continue to offer improved gas mileage as carmakers respond to rising CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards. But what about consumers wh...

PhotoNew cars continue to offer improved gas mileage as carmakers respond to rising CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards. But what about consumers who are shopping for a used car? Are they stuck with gas hogs? Not at all.

As it turns out, there are plenty of high-mpg used cars in the $10,000 to $20,000 price range as well as below $10,000. Most are either hybrids or models equipped with standard transmissions. We're highlighting five of them and telling you what our readers say about them.

Toyota Prius

On all the high-mpg lists we reviewed, the Toyota Prius hybrid holds a very lofty position, particularly its 2004 through 2008 models. The car was redesigned in 2004, when it topped out at an estimated 45 mpg.

Toyota Prius June 10, 2013, 1:54 p.m.
Consumers rate Toyota Prius

A clean base 2004 model, with 120,000 miles, can probably be purchased for under $10,000. A clean base 2008 model with 80,000 miles would probably sell for $12,000 to $15,000, according to Edmunds.com.

Cindy, of Ocean Springs, Miss., says she loves her 2006 Prius but has experienced headlight problems since it was new.

“I have received two warning tickets from the police over the years,” she writes in a ConsumerAfffairs posting. “The funny thing is that one light will be out, and I turn the lights off and on again, and amazingly, the light bulb is back on. The police are surprised because they thought the headlight was burnt out.”

A bigger concern for consumers purchasing a used Prius, however, may be the battery itself.

“I have a 2005, 110,000-mile Prius and my HV battery just died,” writes Danielle, of Upper Marlboro, Md. “Toyota wants me to buy a new battery for $5,000! My car is only worth $5,000!”

Another reader, Eric, of Spring Tex., reports the battery on his 2007 Prius died at 134,000 miles.

Honda Civic Hybrid

Another used hybrid, the Honda Civic Hybrid, makes our list. Like the Prius, you can find its 2004 base model below $10,000 while its base 2008 model will sell for well under $20,000. Both get an estimated 42 to 45 mpg.

Since the Civic Hybrid carries an eight-year, 80,000-mile warranty, many of the vehicles in the 2006-2008 model years may still have some warranty left.

Honda Civic

Plenty of four-cylinder used cars also offer impressive fuel economy without the concern about complex hybrid technology. The Honda Civic remains one of the most sought-after used cars because of both its fuel economy and its reliability.

Consumers rate Honda - Paint

The 2004-2008 Honda Civic's EPA mileage rating clocks in at between 34 and 39 MPG. The '04 base model with 120,000 miles can be purchased at a dealer for under $7,000 while the similar '08 with 80,000 miles can be found at just above or just below $10,000.

While the used Civic earns high marks for performance and reliability, there have been a few complaints about the paint job.

“Bought brand new 2007 civic, took very good care of the car which is obvious inside and out,” Krista, of San Francisco, Calif., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs posting. “Paint on the hood and front fenders crackled, Honda repainted it, paying 80% of the cost. Paint on the roof and top of the trunk started fading about a year and a half ago, it looks awful, and is causing the value to drop dramatically, which completely negates the reason I purchased the car. My family has had eight Hondas (Accords and Civics) and not one has had this issue previously.”

Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla has been a leader in gas mileage and reliable transportation since the 1970s. With its four-cylinder engine, the Corolla sedan gives consumers good gas mileage on a budget.

The 2004 Corolla, clean and in a base trim with 120,000 miles, costs around $6,000 at a dealer. The 2008 model, with 80,000 miles, is around $8,000. Both get a combined 31 MPG.

Complaints about Corollas seem to be few and far between. Most have to do with airbag deployment and oil leaks.

Mini Cooper

Finally, the Mini Cooper offers value and efficiency, along with a healthy dose of fun and style. The 2004 base model hatchback, in clean condition with 120,000 miles, is well under $10,000 at a dealer and gets 28 mpg. The 2008 model, with 80,000 miles, will sell for around $12,000 and gets even better mileage, clocking in at 32 mpg.

Mini Cooper June 10, 2013, 1:58 p.m.
Consumers rate Mini Cooper

While many people love their Minis, we've heard from consumers who have experienced transmission problems.

“As mentioned by thousands of other unsatisfied owners of Mini Cooper, I am also a victim of the dreaded CVT transmission,” writes Margaret, of Greenwich, Conn. “Had I known about the unreliability and short term of CVT transmission in ’06 (apparently BMW did), I would not have wasted my money on a Mini.”

A used car is, after all, a used car and buying one can be something of a crap shoot. But there are plenty of choices for the consumer looking to save both money on the purchase and on fuel.

Keep in mind the models reviewed here are base modes, which are typically hard to find. Available models may come with more options and cost more.

More

Experts recommend fewer restrictions on Avandia

The controversial diabetes drug is banned in Europe

Over the objections of consumer and drug safety advocates, a panel of experts has recommended that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ease restrictio...

Photo

Over the objections of consumer and drug safety advocates, a panel of experts has recommended that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ease restrictions on GlaxoSmithKline's controversial diabetes drug Avandia.

Thirteen members of the 26-member FDA panel said the restrictions should be eased. Seven voted to lift them entirely, five said they should remain in place and one said the drug should be taken off the market, as it has been in most of Europe.

Critics say the drug carries an unacceptably high risk of heart attack and stroke while conveying no unique benefit.

Last November, GlaxoSmithKline agreed to pay $90 million to 38 states to settle claims that it unlawfully promoted Avandia and misrepresented the cardiovascular risks posed by the drug.

“It's fine to promote a product; it's not fine to misrepresent a drug's potential health risks,” said Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. “When pharmaceutical companies cross the line, the Oregon Department of Justice will hold them accountable.”

Blockbuster

Avandia was a blockbuster drug for GlaxoSmithKline before second thoughts arose. First approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1999, annual sales peaked at more than $2.5 billion in 2006.

The FDA issued a safety alert in 2006 and withdrew it from retail sale in November 2011, ordering the drug out of retail pharmacies and making it available only to patients who have been using it without complications, patients who have had no luck with drugs and those who choose to continue taking the drug after being informed of the risks.

Whether the FDA goes along with the expert panel's recommendation remains to be seen. The panel voted after two days of meetings on a new review of the drug, conducted by Duke University, which confirmed GSK's initial finding that Avandia does not raise cardiac risks more than other diabetes drugs.

"Reckless" decision

Among those urging the panel to ban the drug completely was Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen.

"[S]ince late 2010, when the diabetes drug Avandia was removed from the market in Europe because of its cardiovascular risks, approximately 132,000 Americans have been prescribed this dangerous drug, likely resulting in hundreds, or more, serious – and sometimes fatal – adverse reactions, including heart failure and heart attacks," Wolfe said.

Wolfe noted that in September 2010, the FDA and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reached very different conclusions about the fate of Avandia, even though they were working from the same set of safety studies.

"Since its first authorisation, rosiglitazone has been recognised to be associated with fluid retention and increased risk of heart failure and its cardiovascular safety has always been kept under close review," thre EMA said in its September 2010 announcement that the drug was being withdrawn from sale in Europe. "Consequently, the use of rosiglitazone was restricted to a second-line treatment and contra-indicated in patients with heart failure or a history of heart failure when it was first granted a marketing authorisation as Avandia in 2000."

"The EMA concluded that new data support an increased cardiovascular risk associated with Avandia, also known as rosiglitazone," Wolfe said. "Since they 'could not identify additional measures that would reduce the cardiovascular risk,' they 'therefore concluded that the benefits of rosiglitazone no longer outweigh its risks and recommended the suspension of the marketing authorisation of the medicine.'”

"The FDA, in contrast, decided in September 2010, after a July 2010 advisory committee meeting, not to ban the drug but instead to institute a risk evaluation and management strategy (REMS) to limit the use of the drug to those they believed could benefit from it," he said.

Wolfe said the FDA was "reckless" in deciding to defer action pending more study "although there has never been any evidence that those getting the drug were patients for whom its benefits outweighed the risks." 

More

CT scans in childhood raise cancer risk in adulthood

"No harm in looking" doesn't always hold true

CT scans can be lifesavers when a diagnosis is in doubt. But a new study suggests that their growing use in children poses an increased risk of cancer late...

PhotoCT scans can be lifesavers when a diagnosis is in doubt. But a new study suggests that their growing use in children poses an increased risk of cancer later in life, estimating that 4,870 future cancers could be caused by the 4 million pediatric CT scans performed each year.

“The increased use of CT in pediatrics, combined with the wide variability in radiation doses, has resulted in many children receiving a high-dose examination,” the study notes.

In an accompanying editorial, researchers said minimizing unnecessary scans and using the lowest possible dose of radiation should be high priorities. “Uncertainty can be unsettling, but it is a small price to pay for protecting ourselves and our children from thousands of preventable cancers,” the editorial concluded.

Noting that the use of CT -- or computed tomography -- scans involving children more than doubled during the years from 1996 to 2005, researchers said the radiation associated with the scans is likely to increase the risk of radiation-induced cancer in these children in the future. The study was published Online First by JAMA Pediatrics, a JAMA Network publication.

Increased risk

The radiation doses delivered by the CT scans are in ranges that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, the researchers noted. And they said children are more sensitive to radiation-induced cancers and also have many years of life left for cancer to develop.

“[M]ore research is urgently needed to determine when CT in pediatrics can lead to improved health outcomes and whether other imaging methods (or no imaging) could be as effective. For now, it is important for both the referring physician and the radiologist to consider whether the risks of CT exceed the diagnostic value it provides over other tests, based on current evidence,” the study concludes.

Diana L. Miglioretti, Ph.D., of the Group Health Research Institute and University of California, Davis, and colleagues conducted the study, using data from seven U.S. health care systems.

CTs doubled 

The authors note the use of CT doubled for children younger than 5 years old and tripled for children 5 to 14 years of age between 1996 and 2005 before remaining stable between 2006 and 2007 and then beginning to decline.

The projected lifetime attributable risks of solid cancer were higher for younger patients and girls than for older patients and boys. The risks were also higher for patients who underwent CT scans of the abdomen/pelvis or spine than for patients who underwent other types of CT scans, according to the results. 

The estimates also suggest that for girls, a radiation-induced solid cancer is projected to potentially result from every 300 to 390 abdomen/pelvis scans, 330 to 480 chest scans, and 270 to 800 spine scans, depending on age. The potential risk of leukemia was highest from head scans for children younger than 5 years of age at a rate of 1.9 cases per 10,000 CT scans, the results show.

The Harm in Looking

In a related editorial, Alan R. Schroeder, M.D., of the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, San Jose, and Rita F. Redberg, M.D., editor of JAMA Internal Medicine and of the University of California, San Francisco, write: “Thus, minimizing radiation exposure by eliminating unnecessary scans and by using the minimal dose necessary to achieve a satisfactory image for necessary scans is a high priority.”

“But we can still do more to decrease the use of unnecessary scans (for which the benefit does not outweigh the risk) and to decrease the level of radiation exposure from necessary scans. This will require a shift in our culture to become more tolerant of clinical diagnoses without confirmatory imaging, more accepting of ‘watch and wait’ approaches and less accepting of the ‘another test can’t hurt’ mentality,” said.

More

California goes to bat for chickens, ruffling Iowa's feathers

Can California dictate how other states treat their hens? Congress will decide

As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to keep Congress out of the henhouse whenever possible but a dispute over the working conditions of egg-laying hens ha...

PhotoAs a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to keep Congress out of the henhouse whenever possible but a dispute over the working conditions of egg-laying hens has roosted in Congress' lap.

The dust-up concerns the working conditions of hens, specifically whether California can block the import of eggs from states that don't allow hens sufficient room to spread their wings.

You can thank California voters for putting the wind beneath the wings of this barnyard dispute. Back in 2008, they passed Proposition 2, an initiative that requires California farmers to give hens enough room to stand up and spread their wings.

Two years later, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation to that effect. When the measure takes effect in 2015, it will require that all eggs sold in California come from farms that meet the California standard.

Feathers ruffled

Chicken ranchers in Iowa and other egg-producing states are madder than the proverbial little wet hen. Egged on by his constituents, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has taken up the battle on their behalf. He has added a section to the farm bill that would prohibit states from imposing how other states produce their agricultural products. The measure is expected to come before the full House later this month.

This is not just chicken feed we're talking about here. The stakes are huge. California is the nation's most populous state and its inhabitants wolf down more than 9 billion eggs each year, slightly more than half of them produced in California, the rest coming from Iowa and other states that are net egg exporters, the Los Angeles Times reports. 

The discussion in Congress has gotten messy, with arguments about states' rights, Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce and warnings that unless it's handled carefully, the entire affair could scramble the egg market as we know it.

But some spillage is to be expected. After all, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

More

Study finds severe morning sickness, antihistamines not a good mix

Women who use them are “significantly more likely" to have problems

Ask any woman who has ever experienced morning sickness and she'll tell you it is a hideous experience that she'd do nearly anything to avoid. But “anythi...

PhotoAsk any woman who has ever experienced morning sickness and she'll tell you it is a hideous experience that she'd do nearly anything to avoid.

But “anything” can be very dangerous, according to a UCLA study. Researchers have found that women with a severe form of morning sickness who take antihistamines to help them sleep through the debilitating nausea are significantly more likely to experience adverse pregnancy outcomes, including low-birth-weight babies and premature births.

This is an important finding as babies born before 37 weeks often stay in the hospital longer than full-term babies, can experience problems breathing and feeding, are more prone to infection and can suffer from developmental problems. Women with this condition considering taking such medications should know the risks, said study lead author Marlena Fejzo, an assistant professor of research in obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA.

Violently ill

This severe morning sickness, called hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), is the same condition that Kate Middleton, wife of Britain's Prince William, recently experienced. Its cause is unknown and the symptoms are intense -- the continuous nausea and vomiting can be so violent that women in the study reported suffering from detached retinas, blown eardrums, cracked ribs and torn esophagi, Fejzo said. The symptoms can last for several months or the entire pregnancy.

“It was surprising to find the link between antihistamines and adverse outcomes as these are over-the-counter medications that are used commonly by women with HG during pregnancy,” said Fejzo, who had undiagnosed HG during her first pregnancy and nearly died during her second, losing the baby at 15 weeks gestation. “Women and their healthcare providers should be aware of the risk for adverse outcomes when deciding which medications to take to treat their HG symptoms.”

The study appears June 10, 2013 in the European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology.

Outcomes compared

The six-year study compared pregnancy outcomes in 254 women with HG who were sick enough that they needed treatment for dehydration with intravenous fluids, with 308 women who had normal or no morning sickness during pregnancy. Fejzo said they found women with HG had four times the risk of adverse outcomes. The link between HG and adverse outcomes has been shown in several previous studies.

Fejzo took it a step further, comparing women with HG who suffered adverse outcomes to women with HG who had good outcomes. They then looked at more than 35 medications and treatments commonly used by women with HG to determine if any were linked to bad outcomes. She found that antihistamines, like those found in Unisom and Benadryl, were taken by more than 50% of HG patients who experienced adverse outcomes.

Fejzo also found that the medications were reportedly effective in less than 20% of the women who took them.

Photo“Some doctors will suggest that their HG patients take Unisom to help them sleep through their nausea,” Fejzo said. “Our findings show not only that the use of antihistamines is linked with adverse outcomes, but also that they’re not that effective. Women with HG should be aware of that so they can make educated decisions on how to treat their HG symptoms.”

Horrible experience

Adrienne Downs of Culver City, Calif., experienced some nausea and vomiting during her first two pregnancies, but nothing out of the ordinary. In her third pregnancy, she soon began suffering from constant nausea, vomiting around the clock every 20 minutes or so. She was hospitalized twice, five days each time, to get intravenous fluids to treat her severe dehydration and malnutrition.

“I literally could keep nothing down for months,” said Downs. “I couldn’t even get up out of bed and take care of my family. It was horrible. I was very scared for my baby. How would it get any nutrition if I couldn’t eat or drink?”

Downs lost 12 pounds in three weeks early in her pregnancy. Her mother had to move in to take care of Downs’ sons, 4 and 2, and try to find something her daughter could keep in her system. Now at 21 weeks gestation, Downs’ symptoms have subsided somewhat, although she still can only keep down fluids. She had gained back some of the weight she lost.

Downs said she did not take antihistamines to treat her HG symptoms, but she said the findings are important.

“As pregnant moms, we want to be the best ‘house’ for our babies that we can,” she said. “I had never heard of this condition before I got it, so I’m glad that UCLA researchers are studying HG and may one day find the cause.”

Rarely diagnosed

Fejzo said HG is diagnosed in 0.2 to 2 percent of pregnant women, although rates are higher in China. She said much more work needs to be done to study the short- and long-term outcomes of medication use during pregnancy.

She and her team currently are studying outcomes in HG pregnancies to determine if the violent nausea and vomiting have any effects on the children later in life.

“We desperately need support for research into HG to determine its cause so that medications can be designed that are safe and effective,” Fejzo said. “The greatest risk factor for HG other than a previous HG pregnancy is having a sister who had HG, which increases the risk by 17-fold. This suggests a genetic component is at work.”

More

Are you sure about your designated driver?

A study finds they aren't always on the wagon

No problem. One of the guys you've been out on the prowl with has said he'll be the designated driver tonight. But are you sure? A new study by researcher...

PhotoNo problem. One of the guys you've been out on the prowl with has said he'll be the designated driver tonight. But are you sure?

A new study by researchers at the University of Florida found that 35% of designated drivers had been boozing and most had blood-alcohol levels high enough to impair their driving.

Adam Barry, an assistant professor of health education and behavior at UF, and his team interviewed and breath-tested more than 1,000 bar patrons in the downtown restaurant and bar district of a major university town in the Southeast. Of the designated drivers who had consumed alcohol, half recorded a blood-alcohol level higher than .05 -- a recently recommended new threshold for drunken driving.

"If you look at how people choose their designated drivers,” Barry said, “oftentimes they're chosen by who is least drunk or who has successfully driven intoxicated in the past -- successful meaning got home in one piece ... that's disconcerting."

Results of the study are published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

College students studied

The researchers recruited patrons as they left bars between 10 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. across six Friday nights before home football games in fall 2011. The mean age of the 1,071 people who agreed to be tested was 28. Most were white male college students, while 10% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian and 4% were black.

After completing a 3-5 minute interview about demographic data and alcohol-related behaviors, participants had their blood-alcohol content tested with a hand-held breath-testing instrument.

The non-driving participants had significantly higher levels than the designated drivers, but 35% of the 165 self-identified designated drivers had been drinking. Seventeen percent of all those drivers tested had blood-alcohol levels between .02 and .049, while 18% were at .05 or higher.

The National Transportation Safety Board last month recommended all 50 states adopt a blood-alcohol content cutoff of .05 compared with the .08 standard now used to prosecute drunken driving. The American Medical Association made the same recommendation in the 1980s, Barry said.

Why do they drink?

Barry said he doesn't know why a designated driver would consume alcohol, but factors could include group dynamics or the driver's belief that one or two drinks won't impair his skills if he is an experienced drinker.

Some field-based research suggests designated drivers might drink because the group did not consider who would drive before they started drinking. Barry also suggested that it's tricky for anyone to accurately evaluate his own sobriety.

"That's the insidious nature of alcohol -- when you feel buzzed, you're drunk," he said.

There is no universally accepted definition of a designated driver, according to the research. Although most U.S. researchers say drivers should abstain completely, international researchers believe they can drink as long as his or her blood-alcohol level remains below the legal limit. However, the U.S. limit is much higher than in most other countries.

At .08, the U.S. has one of the highest allowable legal limits of any developed country. Countries such as Denmark, Finland and Greece use the .05 level; Russia and Sweden are at .02; and Japan has a zero tolerance.

More

Adobe recalls high-powered magnets

When two or more magnets are swallowed, they can link together inside the intestines

Adobe of San Jose, Calif., is recalling about 500 high-powered magnets distributed with Adobe Connect “Effective Collaboration is Magnetic” promotional mat...

PhotoAdobe of San Jose, Calif., is recalling about 500 high-powered magnets distributed with Adobe Connect “Effective Collaboration is Magnetic” promotional materials packages.

When two or more magnets are swallowed, they can link together inside the intestines and clamp onto body tissues, causing intestinal obstructions, perforations, sepsis and death. Internal injury from magnets can pose serious lifelong health effects.

The firm has received no reports of incidents or injuries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has received 80 reports of incidents involving ingestion of other high powered magnets, resulting in 79 reports seeking medical intervention.

This recall involves high-powered magnet sets distributed with Adobe “Effective Collaboration is Magnetic” promotional materials. The promotional materials were distributed in a green box with a black lid and contain 12 high-powered magnets which are magnetically affixed to a laminated green cardboard sheet. The spherical silver magnets are about 5 millimeter in diameter. The text “With Adobe Connect it all just clicks” is printed in a circular shape around the magnets.

The magnets, manufactured in China, were distributed nationwide by Adobe as part of a promotional package for its “Adobe Connect” product during November 2012 at no cost to consumers.

Consumers should immediately stop using the magnets and either discard them or contact Adobe for instructions on returning the magnets.

Consumers may contact Adobe Recall collect at (503) 382-8500 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, ET.

More

Online grocery business heats up but does anyone care?

Grocers think consumers are apathetic. Are they asleep at the wheel?

or all of America’s enthusiasm for e-commerce, when it comes to groceries, most U.S. consumers still shop in the Stone Age. And while many exper...

PhotoThe news that Amazon is about to spring its online grocery service, AmazonFresh, on a waiting world may not have sent consumers dashing to their keyboards to order a quart of milk but it certainly got the attention of supermarkets and big box retailers.

Costco and Walmart both said they'll be watching how the AmazonFresh roll-out progresses but claimed to find little consumer interest in online grocery shopping. But Relay Foods, a small, Virginia-based online grocery service said Amazon's rising tide would lift all boats.

"We're in the forefront of a movement that has not even really begun," said Arnie Katz, Relay Foods president and co-founder. "Relay has been fighting in the online grocery space for over five years now, is already using technology to change the way people eat for the better, improving local economies by linking people to local food, and building a model company." 

Whether Relay Foods is the next Netflix that destroys Blockbuster remains to be seen and is something we'll explore next week. 

Costco, Walmart and Target, on the other hand, have a much bigger stake in the game, at least for now. Amazon has already taken a big bite out of the apparel and general merchandise market. If it can awaken consumer demand for online groceries and grab a big piece of the market, it could be a headache for the big box stores.

A skeptic

PhotoBut Jeff Brotman, Costco’s co-founder and chairman, said in a Bloomberg article that he's skeptical home grocery delivery can ever be profitable, but he said Amazon doesn’t really have to make it work perfectly in the short term: “He can spend a billion dollars experimenting and putting televisions on a truck and delivering them the same day with apples and oranges. That’s a research and development experiment that competitors and normal online businesses can’t do.” 

Walmart, the largest grocer in the United States, is also taking a wait-and-see attitude about AmazonFresh, although it is conducting its own online grocery delivery service in a test market in California. Perhaps surprisingly, Walmart's Asda subsidiary is the seconed-largest grocery delivery business in the United Kingdom and also delivers groceries to customers in China.

But other than its test in San Francisco and San Jose, Walmart is "not  making any announcements about other markets for grocery delivery in the U.S. right now," Neil Ashe, the president and chief executive officer of Walmart Global eCommerce, told reporters on Thursday afternoon, a day before the company's annual shareholder meeting, Reuters reported.

He said the test in San Jose and San Francisco has proven that the company "can serve a market effectively from our existing supercenters ... we'll have to wait and see whether the customer wants it," he said, according to the Reuters report.

Does anyone care?

PhotoAnd that, of course, is the $64 billion question: do consumers want to routinely order their groceries online?  

Those who are already in the space, like Relay Foods and Peapod, say it's clear that consumers want the convenience of online ordering and home delivery. 

Peapod, founded way back in 1989, is now wholly-owned by Royal Ahold, the worldwide grocery giant that owns Stop & Shop and Giant supermarkets on the East Coast. Its finance aren't known but Peapod is generally regarded as a successful strategic asset for Ahold, giving its supermarkets a leg up on the Safeways and Harris Teeters of the world. 

Rick Tarrant, CEO of MyWebGrocer, a company that manages digital connections for retailers, says it's more a question of availability than lack of demand that is holding back online grocery shopping.

“The issue is not consumer demand,” Tarrant told Marketing Daily. “We know through the success of businesses like drugstore.com and diapers.com that people want to shop this way. It’s about access. Unless you live in a market with ShopRite, Ahold’s Peapod or Fresh Direct, you just don’t have access to online groceries.” 

Tarrant's company and FGI Research recently surveyed 30,000 consumers and found five distinct kinds of digital shoppers:

  • New Digital Shoppers (35%)  Younger urban professionals and early tech adopters, they prefer shopping for groceries in stores but are open to online ordering.
  • Traditioanal (24%) An older group, 63% of them Baby Boomers. They may look at specials online but are less interested in shopping online.
  • Passionate Planners (17%) They earn the least and live the farthest from stores. They research prices online and are more likely to use a mobile phone to help when shopping.
  • Affluent Shoppers (12%)  A combination of young professionals and urban retirees. They're not particularly budget conscious and prefer online ordering options.
  • Reluctant Shoppers (12%) They dislike shopping and wish they didn't have to do it.   

More competition coming

Tarrant says he expects to see more competition and innovation as companies size each other up and consumers become more aware of the advantages of shopping online. 

Peapod has put together some interesting applications aimed at commuters. In the Philadelphia area, it has installed large menus at commuter rail stations, allowing customers to use their smartphones to scan barcodes of the items they want, which are then delivered to their homes later in the day.

In London, Tesco operates a similar service at Gatwick Airport. Consumers can scan the items they want and have them delivered on the date they return from their trip. In South Korea, Tesco operates at commuter rail stations, much as Peapod does in Phialdelphia. 

Relay has set up a series of pick-up stations throughout its service areas. It parks its trucks near major schools, offices and transit points and customers stop by and pick up their orders on the way home.

More

Consumers turning tables on payday lenders

Some are stiffing their lenders, claiming loans were illegal in their state

For years consumers have complained about abusive treatment at the hands of payday lenders. Triple-digit interest rates is just one area of complaint.Jen...

PhotoFor years consumers have complained about abusive treatment at the hands of payday lenders. Triple-digit interest is just one area of complaint.

Jenna, of Phoenix, Ariz., who discovered her identity had been stolen, said the first question the investigating police officer asked her was if she had taken out any loans recently.

“I replied with, 'Well yes, of course, with Speedy Cash,'” Jenna wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “As the officer sighed in disgust, he said, 'We're basically having an epidemic with these companies as well as the one you're speaking of not keeping people's identification secret or even protected.'"

The Center for Responsible Lending says the typical payday loan borrower is indebted for more than half of the year with an average of nine payday loan transactions at annual interest rates over 400%. It notes that since 2005, no state has authorized this high-cost loan product.

“Additionally, the District of Columbia and six states - Arkansas, Arizona, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon and Montana – have all enacted meaningful reforms,” CRL says.

Stiffing the lenders

Because payday loans – particularly online payday loans – are illegal in a number of states, consumers who have taken out these loans have begun to defy payday lenders by basically telling them, “tough luck.”

John, of Bronx, N.Y., applied for an online payday loan from Cash Jar, borrowing $1,000 and agreeing to pay back $1,300. But when he said the company didn't live up to its end of the deal, taking money from his account before it had agreed to, he got angry and decided that, since the loan was illegal to begin with, he wouldn't pay it back.

“They lied to me and so I stiffed those idiots,” he writes. “They shouldn't be offering payday loans in New York anyway. They're illegal in New York and not enforceable. They should have played fair and they may have made $300 off of me rather than lose $470.00. They keep calling, but because of New York law, I highly doubt I will ever see them in court."

Amy of Seward, Neb., said she went through a similar experience with Cash Call. She said she took out a loan for $2,500, paying a stiff fee up-front. Then, she said, she called the state attorney general's office.

Sue me!

“I found out after a call to my state's attorney general that Cash Call is not even licensed in the state I live in,” Amy writes. “I filed a complaint with the banking and finance commission for my state. I was informed by the state to close my account ASAP so that they can't withdraw any additional funds from my account. I've been harassed multiple times by this company. I've been reminded that I signed an agreement and that they gave me funds and that I owe them. I said that I understand that and if they want their money, they can take me to small claims court. If a judge says that I must pay then I will, but until that time I will not be paying another dime to these people.”

Are John and Amy on solid legal ground? It may be up for the courts to decide but they obviously feel confident the lenders aren't going to take them to court over what they see as an illegal loan. 

What an attorney says

Robert Weed, a bankruptcy attorney in Alexandria, Va., tells his clients that online payday loans are illegal in Virginia and that any firm making a payday loan must have a licensed office within the borders of the state. 

“Since the people behind the Internet payday loans could be sent to jail in Virginia, the Internet payday loan companies are careful to stay beyond the limits of Virginia law,” he wrote on his blog last December.

And Weed maintains that any legitimate debt collector who tries to collect an illegal payday loan opens themselves to a lawsuit.

Still, before blowing off a payday loan you consider illegal, make sure you are on firm legal footing. Start with your state attorney general's office, finding out whether the company is licensed to do business in the state. It may also be advisable to speak with an attorney. Many attorneys offer a free or reduced-cost initial consultaiton. 

More

We take X8 Energy Gum out for a chew

Alert Energy Gum tasted horrible. Will X8 be any better?

Over the past couple of months, there sure has been a lot of talk about caffeinated gum. And at the center of that talk has been Wrigley's Alert Energ...

PhotoOver the past couple of months, there's been a lot of talk about caffeinated gum. And at the center of that talk has been Wrigley's Alert Energy Caffeine Gum.

The Food and Drug Administration expressed concern and planned to  investigate whether caffeinated gum is safe, especially since kids love gum and they can easily get their hands on it. It turns out that no investigation wasn't necessary, as Wrigley pulled the gum off shelves, as we reported last month. 

But that's not the end of the story. There's plenty of other caffeinated gums out there and they show no signs of following Wrigley out of the retail market. 

Rob Di Marco, co-founder of X8 Energy Gum, says he doesn't understand what all of the controversy is about, and thinks people should be able to decide whether they'll use a product or not.

"Let's be real here, caffeine products have been safely consumed by adults for hundreds of years," said Di Marco in a statement. "Our product and the likes of Red Bull, Monster and so many others are not made for kids. Parents need to parent and this nanny-state mentality must stop infringing on the choices Americans can freely make."

Based on Marco's statement, it doesn't seem like he'll be removing X8 from shelves anytime soon.

Give it a try

So since it's still on the market, I figured I'd give X8 a try, especially since I recently reviewed Alert Energy Gum, which I found hard to keep in my mouth. It gave me the jolt that caffeine usually gives, but it tasted horrible.

I popped in a piece of X8 during the afternoon, since that's when I'll sometimes make a Crystal Light energy drink, which comes in different flavors, is sugar-free and tastes darn good. 

Right away I noticed the taste of X8 was far better than the Alert gum. Not only did it have a minty, sweet taste when I first popped it in, the taste remained longer than I expected.

You can get a pack of X8 with a minimum of six pieces for about $5 on the company's websiteAnd the gum has no sugar, only 2.5 calories per piece and it's supposed to be long lasting, so you won't have to keep chewing piece after piece, says the company.

As far as how well the gum worked in the energy department, it worked just fine. It didn't give me a rush of energy like the Crystal Light Energy drink usually does, it gave me a boost that was gradual and not overpowering, which I liked.

But I didn't want to give X8 a good grade too quickly. It was important for me to see how the taste held up as I continued to chew it. Plus, I needed to see if the energy it gave me lasted a long time.

On both fronts, X8 did well. The one piece I chewed kept me going for the remainder of the afternoon and I was able to forge through my workday without feeling a crash, which was great.

As far as the taste, the gum lost its minty flavor in about 10 minutes or so, but afterwards it still tasted pretty decent.

The biggest challenge with the Alert gum was keeping it in my mouth. But that wasn't the case with X8. Although it lost its flavor after a while, like most gums do, I was still able to chew it. And it left me with minty breath when I spit it out, which was a definite plus.

So it seems X8 can be used to freshen your breath a little too. Who would have thought?

The size of each piece of gum is pretty much the same size as the Alert gum, which is slightly bigger than an Altoid mint. Gum size is important, because most adults don't want to chew a big wad. For most of us, that desire went away with junior high.

Caffeine is caffeine

Look, caffeine is caffeine, and whether it's in a cup of coffee, a bottle of juice or a piece of gum, it'll definitely give you an energy boost.

But what separates caffeinated products from each other is how they taste. Yes, a strong cup of coffee will get you through the morning, but no one wants to sacrifice taste to feel more awake.

It seems the folks at X8 understand this, as they've made a brand of gum that doesn't taste bad and gives you a bit of a lift with no crash.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying X8 will win any flavor contests any time soon, but I was able to chew it and I wasn't put off by the taste. And that's way more than I could say about the Alert gum.

The downside of X8 tasting pretty decent is that kids may not be put off by the flavor. Maybe part of the reason Alert tasted so bitter is that the company didn't want children to take a liking to it?

So parents will have to make sure to keep X8 out of children's reach, because if kids start chewing it, they probably won't mind the taste. And next thing you know you'll have a caffeinated child bouncing around the room or worse, which of course isn't any good.

 

 

More

Online threats increase, get more serious

MacAfee report reports "hacker economy" thriving

While the world economy mostly just marked time in the first quarter of 2013, the “hacker economy,” populated by operators who use a large numb...

PhotoWhile the world economy mostly just marked time in the first quarter of 2013, the “hacker economy,” populated by operators who use a large number of threats to compromise corporate and consumer computers, did quite well.

Security software maker McAfee reports hackers continued to make inroads in their increasingly sophisticated efforts to gain access to everything from your online banking account to the space on your hard drive. It all makes today's computing environment very different from the late 1990s, when most of the threats were of a more benign nature.

“Ten years ago we were still at that transitional point, transitioning from geeks trying to prove a geeky point to a Mafia-dominated black market trying to infect people in order to get their information,” said Adam Wosotowsky, Messaging Data Architect at McAfee.

While it is true that today's protections are better and more robust, the threat is even more dangerous. The stakes are higher. After all, ten years ago almost no one used online banking.

“The targeting level, the amount of information and their willingness to try financial fraud to get money out of you is much more aggressive and dangerous today,” Wosotowsky said.

Koobface

In the first quarter of 2013 MacAfee found a big spike in the presence of a social networking worm called Koobface. In fact, it found almost three times as many samples of Koobface as it found in the previous quarter. Almost anyone who has spent much time on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter has seen examples of Koobface.

“It's something that works very well in a social networking environment,” Wosotowsky said. “They put up a message that says something like 'hey, I found naked pictures of you on the Internet, click here.' Someone clicks on that and they try to do a drive-by download or some sort of Javascript that either infects their machine or tries to do something with their account in order to send the same message to more of their friends and then more of their friends.”

If you haven't come across a message like that, it's because the social networking companies monitor what's in their system. When they see something like that, they remove it. But they can't be everywhere at once and many of these bogus messages manage stay up for a while.

“As a way to distribute malware, it's a pretty good one,” Wosotowsky said.

When you see messages that make you feel even slightly nervous or uncomfortable, Wosotowsky said the best course of action is to simply ignore them. If they are malware the social networking site will at some point remove them.

Low profile

Photo
Adam Wosotowsky

With organized crime more heavily involved in today's malware, the hackers' footprints are harder to detect. In the past many viruses and malware might “brick” a machine. In other words, it might make your machine run slower or grind to a halt altogether. It was a dead giveaway that your computer had been infected. But times have changed.

“Operators in the Mafia-dominated malware area don't want to brick a machine,” Wosotowsky said. “They want to make money off those machines, whether it's sending spam, doing denial-of-service attacks or engaging in financial fraud. “If you've been infected with a really professionally-made virus, your computer might even run better afterward.”

In spite of early predictions that 2013 would be the year of mobile malware, MacAfee reports the evidence has yet to emerge. In fact, growth of mobile malware declined slightly during the period. However, there was an alarming 40% increase in Android malware.

“What we've started to see are attempts to do drive-by downloads on the Android operating system itself,” Wosotowsky said.

That means the threat isn't just from downloading a suspect app, as it was in the past. It all points to the need to be more careful online, whether you are at your desk or on the go, and taking advantage of every security measure available.

“Having up-to-date anti-virus on you system is important but people should understand that it is your last line of defense,” Wosotowsky said. “Once hackers get past your anti-virus, they're going to have their way with your machine.”

More

New rule would require labeling mechanically tenderized meat

The tenderizing process can drive toxins deep into the meat, contributing to food poisoning

"Mechanically tenderized" meat will have to be clearly labeled if a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule goes into effect.Why? Well, it turns out...

Photo"Mechanically tenderized" meat will have to be clearly labeled if a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule goes into effect.

Why? Well, it turns out that the process of tenderizing meat by using needles or sharp blades to break up muscle fiber not only makes it more tender. It can also push any germs or toxic substances that are on the meat's surface into its interior, where it won't be removed by washing and where it may survive high cooking temperatures, since the inside of meat doesn't get as hot as the outside while it's cooking.

“Ensuring that consumers have effective tools and information is important in helping them protect their families against foodborne illness,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety. “This proposed rule would enhance food safety by providing clear labeling of mechanically-tenderized beef products and outlining new cooking instructions so that consumers and restaurants can safely prepare these products.”

The proposal is being praised by food safety and consumer advocates, including Sarah Klein, senior food safety attorney at the Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). She called it "a common sense remedy that can protect consumers."

Klein said most consumers don't realize the meat industry uses mechanical means to tenderize meat.

"This little-known but widespread industry practice can push surface pathogens to the interior of the meat, making those bacteria much harder to kill unless a consumer cooks the meat to well done." she said. "Consumers and restaurants should exercise more care when cooking these products and use a meat thermometer to ensure an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees, plus a three-minute rest period, or even 160 degrees."

Klein said USDA should accelerate the requirement and make labels mandatory by January 2014. In the meantime, she said, consumers should ask at the meat counter if the products they are buying have been mechanically tenderized and select intact cuts if they prefer meat rare or medium rare.

There have been at least a half dozen food poisoning outbreaks since 2003 that are believed to have occurred because tenderized beef was not cooked to a high enough temperature for a long enough period of time.

The USDA hopes to phase in the rule after a 60-day comment period that begins with the proposals publication in the Federal Register.

More

GM includes free remote start on 2014 models

The service is provided through OnStar, even if customers don't buy the OnStar package

General Motors has been pulling out all the stops to promote its OnStar wireless communications service. The latest feature is free remote-start service fo...

PhotoGeneral Motors has been pulling out all the stops to promote its OnStar wireless communications service. The latest feature is free remote-start service for buyers of 2014 models.

“We know our customers value remote services,” said Mary Chan, president GM Global Connected Consumer. “GM owners request remote door unlock assistance through OnStar more than 60,000 times each month, so it makes sense for us to offer RemoteLink Key Fob Services to enable customers to lock, unlock or start their vehicle from anywhere they have a wireless or cellular connection.”

GM announced the new RemoteLink Key Fob Services program for OnStar-equipped 2014 Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac models – even if the owner declines to pay for other OnStar services. Thirty-six 2014 model year GM vehicles are compatible with the RemoteLink mobile app.

An OnStar subscription runs from $18.95 to $27.95 per month. 

Remote start is the most popular remote service by current users of the RemoteLink Mobile App, the company said.

Once a customer takes delivery of an eligible 2014 GM vehicle, he or she can  download the free application to a compatible smartphone and agree to terms. The five-year free period runs from the vehicle delivery date.

OnStar also provides a monitoring service that checks oil and gas levels, tire pressure and miles per gallon. It also includes a one-touch connection to an OnStar Advisor for a simple request or emergency help.

More

If it isn't hot yet where you are, it will be soon

Here are some tips to help you keep your cool

Here's a basic fact of life: It gets hot in the summer. But even though everyone knows that, people by the thousands suffer heat-related injuries and illne...

PhotoHere's a basic fact of life: It gets hot in the summer. But even though everyone knows that, people by the thousands suffer heat-related injuries and illnesses every year.

Extreme heat can lead to very high body temperatures, brain and organ damage, and even death. Heat-related illness occurs when our bodies are unable to compensate and cool themselves properly. And, while extreme heat affects everyone, the elderly, children, the poor or homeless, people who work or exercise outdoors, and those with chronic medical conditions are most at risk.

“No one should die from a heat wave, but every year on average, extreme heat causes 658 deaths in the United States -- more than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and lightning combined,” said Robin Ikea, MD, MPH, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “Taking common sense steps in extreme temperatures can prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths.”

Rising death toll

A study released in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that 7,233 heat-related deaths occurred in the United States from 1999 to 2009. An analysis of 2012 data indicates that deaths are on the rise.

In a 2-week period in 2012, excessive heat exposure resulted in 32 deaths in four states, four times the typical average for those states for the same 2-week period from 1999-2009. More than two thirds of the deaths occurred at home, and 91% of those homes lacked air conditioning. Most of those who died were unmarried or living alone, and 72% were male.

According to CDC’s Environmental Tracking Network from 1999 to 2009 three states -- Arizona, California and Texas -- accounted for approximately 40 percent of all heat-related deaths in the U.S. Across the nation, heat-related deaths occur more frequently among males and among adults aged 65 and older.

“Heat-related illnesses and deaths are preventable. Taking steps to stay cool, hydrated and informed in extreme temperatures can prevent serious health effects like heat exhaustion and heat stroke,” said Ethel Taylor, DVM, MPH, the study’s lead author.

What to do

Here are sources of information to help you protect yourself when the weather becomes sweltering:

  • Extreme Heat and Your Health Website: This new page collects CDC resources on extreme heat in one place and provides information on how to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths for a variety of audiences. 
  • Environmental Public Health Tracking Data: CDC’s Environmental Public Health Tracking Network introduces new data on heat-stress hospitalizations and emergency room visits from 2000-2011. This adds to the records already available on extreme temperatures, heat-related deaths, and social and environmental conditions that make people vulnerable to extreme heat. Decision makers can use these data to plan how and where to focus efforts to protect the public from extreme heat. 
  • Climate Change and Extreme Heat Events Guidebook: This recently released guidebook for state and local health departments describes how to prepare for and respond to extreme heat events and explains how the frequency, duration, and severity of these events are increasing as a result of climate change. 
  • Workplace Solutions Bulletin: This recently released NIOSH bulletin provides updated statistics, case studies and recommendations for workers and employers to follow in order to reduce the risk of heat-related illness when working outdoors. The report provides specific guidance, examples and it adds to the available resources that illustrate how extreme heat exposures can lead to occupational illnesses and injuries and possible death. 
More

Importer of banned children’s products draws prison time

Risks of choking, aspiration and ingestion were alleged

The president of LM Import-Export Inc., of Miami, Fla., has been sentenced to 22 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to traffic in...

PhotoThe president of LM Import-Export Inc., of Miami, Fla., has been sentenced to 22 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to traffic in and smuggle banned children’s products.

In addition to the jail time, Hung Lam was ordered to three years of supervised release and a $10,000 fine.

“The sentences handed down by the court against these repeat violators are a victory for consumers and the rule of law,” said Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. “This result demonstrates how serious we are about protecting American consumers from dangerous products and defending our consumer product safety laws.”

Dangerous products

According to documents filed with and statements made in court, defendants Lam and his related corporations -- LM Import-Export Inc., Lam’s Investment Corp., and LK Toys Corporation -- conspired to sell and distribute in commerce children’s products imported from China from about April 2000 through May 2011 in violation of the Consumer Product Safety Act and the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.

These products allegedly presented the risk of choking, aspiration, and ingestion, and some contained lead above the allowed statutory limits. The defendants imported these products by means of false statements on custom declaration forms.  

More

Economy adds jobs in May, outstrips expectations

The unemployment rate, meanwhile, inched higher

A pleasant surprise in the May employment report as the economy added 175,000 jobs. The biggest increases in nonfarm payrolls came professional and busine...

PhotoA pleasant surprise in the May employment report as the economy added 175,000 jobs. The biggest increases in nonfarm payrolls came in professional and business services, food services and drinking places, and retail trade. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for the addition of 159,000 positions.

At the same time, the government reports the unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 7.6%, with 11.8 million out of work.

Who's not working

The jobless rates for adult men (7.2%), adult women (6.5%), teenagers (24.5%), whites (6.7%), blacks (13.5%) and Hispanics (9.1%) showed little or no change in May. The unemployment rate for Asians was 4.3%, little changed from a year earlier.

While the civilian labor force rose by 420,000 -- to 155.7 million in May -- the labor force participation rate was little changed at 63.4%. Over the year, the labor force participation rate has declined by 0.4 percentage point.

Where the jobs are

Professional and business services added 57,000 jobs last month, including 26,000 in temporary help services, 6,000 in computer systems design and related services and 5,000 in architectural and engineering services. Employment in the sector has grown by 589,000 over the past year.

In the leisure and hospitality category, employment in food services and drinking places increased by 38,000 in May and 337,000 over the past year.

Retail trade added 28,000 positions in May and has added an average of 20,000 jobs per month over the prior 12 months. The big jump in May came in general merchandise stores with 10,000 new jobs.

Health care hired 11,000 people in May. Gains in home health care services (7,000) and outpatient care centers (4,000) more than offset a loss of 6,000 in hospitals. During the past year, job growth in health care averaged 24,000 per month.

Losses and little change

Federal government employment declined by 14,000 in May. Over the past three months, it has decreased by 45,000.

Employment in other major industries, including mining and logging, construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, and financial activities, showed little or no change over the month.

The full report can is available on the Labor Department website.  

More

Seven simple ways to reduce your stroke risk

Exercise, weight control and not smoking will help get you there

While much of our health is out of our control -- due to things like heredity -- there is a lot we can do to make things better. Take stroke prevention fo...

PhotoWhile much of our health is out of our control -- due to things like heredity -- there is a lot we can do to make things better. Take stroke prevention for example.

According to a new study in the American Heart Association journal Stroke, making small lifestyle changes could reduce your risk.

Researchers assessed stroke risk using the American Heart Association's Life's Simple 7 health factors: be active, control cholesterol, eat a healthy diet, manage blood pressure, maintain a healthy weight, control blood sugar and don't smoke.

"We used the assessment tool to look at stroke risk,” said Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., senior author and professor of medicine at the University of Vermont in Burlington, “and found that small differences in health status were associated with large reductions in stroke risk."

Keeping score

PhotoResearchers divided the Life's Simple 7 scores into three categories: zero to four points for inadequate, five to nine points for average, and 10 to 14 points for optimum cardiovascular health.

Researchers found:

  • Every one-point increase toward a better score was associated with an 8 percent lower stroke risk.
  • Compared to those with inadequate scores, people with optimum scores had a 48 percent lower stroke risk and those with average scores had a 27 percent lower stroke risk.
  • A better score was associated with a similar reduced stroke risk in blacks and whites.

While black participants had worse scores than whites, the association of the Life's Simple 7 score with stroke risk was similar in black and white participants. "This highlights the critical importance of improving these health factors since blacks have nearly twice the stroke mortality rates as whites," Cushman said.

The researchers reviewed information on 22,914 black and white Americans age 45 and older who are participating in a nationwide population-based study called the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS).

They collected data in 2003-07 by telephone, self-administered questionnaires and at-home exams. Participants were followed for five years for stroke. Many of them live in the Southeast region of the United States where death rates from stroke are the highest.

Blood pressure is key

During the study, 432 strokes occurred. All seven health factors in Life's Simple 7 played an important role in predicting the risk for stroke, but having ideal blood pressure was the most important indicator of stroke risk, researchers said.

"Compared to those with poor blood pressure status, those who were ideal had a 60 percent lower risk of future stroke," Cushman said.

Researchers also found that those who didn't smoke or quit smoking more than one year prior to the beginning of the study had a 40 percent lower stroke risk.

Each year, about 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke -- the No. 4 killer and a leading cause of long-term disability. Every four minutes, an American dies from stroke.

You can check your health status at http://www.mylifecheck.org.

More

CODA vehicles recalled

The airbags may not deploy as intended

CODA Automotive is recalling 117 model year 2012 CODA vehicles. The side curtain airbags may have been improperly rolled during production which could ca...

PhotoCODA Automotive is recalling 117 model year 2012 CODA vehicles.

The side curtain airbags may have been improperly rolled during production which could cause the airbag to not deploy as intended, increasing the risk of injury.

This recall supersedes a previous recall conducted by CODA, 12V-409. All owners, including owners involved in the previous campaign, will be notified and instructed to go to CODA dealers to have both side curtain airbags replaced free of charge. The safety recall is expected to begin on, or about, June 11, 2013.

Owners should contact their dealer for more information. CODA Automotive's recall campaign number is R84002.

More

Chrysler recalls Jeep models with seat belt, transmission fluid problems

But the company, which was bailed out by taxpayers, still refuses to recall Jeeps said to be fire-prone

Although it is refusing to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees that critics say are a fire hazard, Chrysler has announced two other Jeep recalls involv...

PhotoAlthough it is refusing to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees that critics say are a fire hazard, Chrysler has announced two other Jeep recalls involving problems that are much easier -- and less expensive -- to fix.

The company said it is recalling more than 409,000 Jeep Patriot and Compass SUVs worldwide from the 2010 and 2012 model years that have seat belt issues, as well as 221,000 Jeep Wranglers worldwide from the 2012 and 2013 model years to fix transmission fluid leaks.

After more than three years of studying complaints of fire deaths and injuries in Grand Cherokees involved in rear-end collisions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said its investigation "revealed numerous fire-related deaths and injuries," and the agency's defect investigation office believes that the vehicles "contain defects related to motor vehicle safety."

Profits before human life

Auto safety advocate Clearence Ditlow, whose tabulations show 270 deaths in burning Grand Cherokees, issued a scathing statement accusing Chrysler of putting profits before human life.

"When you get right down to it, the U.S. government bailed out Chrysler. Chrysler's since paid the money back, but there would be no Chrysler but for the U.S. government," he said. "The way I look at it is, Chrysler owes the American public a recall."

More than 125,000 consumers have signed a petition at DangerousJeeps.com demanding a recall. 

Chrysler disputes the 270 deaths figure and insists says the number of fire deaths in the Jeep Grand Cherokee is comparable to similar vehicles made by other manufacturers.

Chrysler said the Patriot and Compass recalls were "deemed necessary after it was discovered that seatbelt pre-tensioners and side-curtain airbags may not function properly during slow-developing rollovers."

The affected models, 2010-2012 Jeep Patriot and Compass SUVs, are equipped with sensor-activated restraint systems that deploy when a rollover appears imminent. The company said it doesn't know of any injuries associated with the issue. 

In the Wrangler recalls, Chrysler said a power-steering component may rub against the line and compromise transmission function. The issue was discovered during routine testing.

The repair will involve installation of a newly-designed power-steering component that affords separation from the transmission oil cooler line. 
If the line shows no signs of damage, it will be fitted with a protective sleeve as an additional precaution. If there is evidence of wear, the line will be replaced.

Concerned customers in either case can call Chrysler at (800) 853-1403.

More

Identity stolen? Here's what to do

You must act quickly to minimize the damage

It's a sick feeling. You check your bank balance and find it at $0. Or you apply for a charge card at a retail store and are turned down because of bad deb...

PhotoIt's a sick feeling. You check your bank balance and find it at $0. Or you apply for a charge card at a retail store and are turned down because of bad debt – debt that you don't owe.

Just two of the signs that your identity has been stolen.

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes, yet most consumers don't think about it very much, assuming it won't happen to them. But when it does happen, the consequences are often severe and expensive to rectify.

Get on the record

The first thing you should do is get on the record that your identity has been stolen and that the people who are running up credit charges in your name are not you. One way to do that is file a report with your local police department so they can begin an investigation. But don't start with the police just yet.

Instead, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests you first contact one of the three credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. Ask them to place a fraud alert on your account so that no one can take out any more credit in your name. The agency you notify is required to notify the other two. Also, notify the fraud departments of banks where you have accounts.

After placing a fraud alert on your report, a business must verify your identity before it issues credit in your name, so it may try to contact you every time the fraudster tries to open an account. After they have been denied a couple of times the scammer will figure out you are wise to them, but you can't relax. They may sell your information to other criminals.

The initial fraud alert stays on your report for at least 90 days. You can renew it after 90 days. It allows you to order one free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting companies. Be sure the credit reporting companies have your current contact information so they can get in touch with you.

Tell the FTC

PhotoYou should also report the theft to the FTC because this will help you as you begin to repair the damage. This report will help you deal with the three credit reporting companies, debt collectors, and businesses that gave the identity thief credit or opened new accounts in your name. You are creating a paper trail of your efforts to undo the damage.

Write out a detailed report of the identity theft, including all relevant information, and submit it to the FTC. But also print out a copy and take it with you when you file your police report. When you file the police report, get a copy of it, along with the report number. The report you compiled for the FTC and the one you submitted to the police will comprise your identity theft report.

So far, you have taken steps preventing the further theft of your identity. Now, you need to clean up the mess.

Cleaning up

You need to contact the businesses where the fraudster has used your identity. You may call, write letters or both. Just do so in an organized way, keeping a log of all calls and copies of all letters, which should be sent certified mail.

Keep track of the deadlines when you must file requests or send follow-ups.

Once all the fraudulent charges have been resolved, you should review your credit report to make sure all the information it contains is accurate. If you find errors, dispute them quickly with the credit reporting agencies and the fraud departments of each business that reported the disputed information.

More help

Here is the FTC's Guidebook for Assisting Identity Theft Victims. The following are the names of the credit reporting agencies and their contact numbers: Equifax, 1-800-525-6285; Experian, 1-888-397-3742; TransUnion, 1-800-680-7289.

More

Tips on saving money at theme parks this summer

Roller coasters are getting bigger, more attractions are being built, but it'll cost you.

If you and the family were planning to head to Disney World this year, you might want to save a few extra bucks.Ticket prices for the Florida based theme...

PhotoIf you and the family are planning to head to Walt Disney World this year, you might want to save a few extra bucks.

Ticket prices for the Florida-based theme park just went from $89 to $95, so if you have a family of four, let's say, you're looking at spending nearly $400 -- and that's just to enter.

And if you happen to be a family of five or six, you're really going to be spending some major cash. Some might say it's time for Mickey to get a salary cap.

So what can you do to save money at a theme park this summer?

Plan ahead

The last thing you want to do is buy tickets at the gate, say experts. You're much more likely to find better deals either online or through special coupons or promotions.

Check social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as well, as a lot of amusement parks announce special prices throughout the summer.

Sometimes supermarkets and fast food chains will carry coupons and promotions. Or you can call the amusement park directly and ask what types of special offers are going on. And you always want to buy your tickets ahead of time, experts advise.

According to the folks at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), consumers should look for bundle packages that include general admission, lodging, meals and access to special attractions.

If you're planning to attend a theme park more than once during the summer, you should consider buying a season pass, as it will pay itself off in about three visits, says the IAAPA.

Another way to get cheaper theme park tickets is by being a member of an organization like AARP or AAA. A lot of companies have access to coupons and discounted tickets as well, so you may want to check with your job. Your credit card company may offer some discounts too.

Buy now

PhotoJennie Sanford of Savings.com and BargainBlessings.com, told Fox News that consumers should purchase everything they need before hitting the amusement park. And she wasn't just talking about buying food to eat in the parking lot.

"Anything you forget last minute will be outrageously priced anywhere in the theme park or hotel," she said. "Sunscreen, hats, raingear and emergency medicine should all be purchased and brought with you -- don't be worried about purchasing when you get here."

Plan ahead

And when it comes to getting the most out of your amusement park trip, it's best to plan ahead.

Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, says avoid going to theme parks during the weekend, as it'll be hard for you to do everything you want to do.

"Avoid Saturdays and Mondays," he said in an interview with ABC News. "Saturdays are the busiest day of the week at a park. Mondays are often the second busiest and busier than Sundays since many others thought Sunday would be worse. The least crowded days to visit are Tuesdays and Wednesdays." 

PhotoCorinne McDermott, of HaveBabyWillTravel.com, said to bring a few healthy snacks with you to keep you and the kids naturally energized.

"Theme park food can be surprisingly good, but most of the snacks are of the salty or sugary variety," she says. "Having healthy snacks on hand helps make sure that everyone's fueled up and ready to play."

Additionally, McDermott says try not to do everything in one day. Trying to do too much could backfire and ruin the whole experience for both you and the children.

"Probably the worst mistake a parent can make in planning a day at the amusement park, is trying to cram too much in, especially if your kids are little," she says.

More

Could working for a small business be in your future?

Small businesses hold many opportunities but require some adjustments

It's an often cited statistic that small businesses in the U.S. hire the most people and create the most jobs. So if you are coming out of college or conte...

PhotoIt's an often cited-statistic that small businesses in the U.S. hire the most people and create the most jobs. So if you are coming out of college or contemplating a job change, does it make sense to actively pursue a small company rather than a large one?

It might, but there are differences in the two types of enterprises and you need to be aware of them. According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses – generally defined as having 250 or fewer employees – are America's largest employment category, employing half the private work force.

While working for a large firm might pay a higher starting salary and have some nice perks, a small business job may carry the potential for long-term financial benefits that working for a big firm doesn't. If you are just starting a career, there may be other opportunities as well.

Stretch yourself

“When you're working for a small business you're probably going to be asked to do more varied things than someone working for a larger company,” said John Kiernan, senior analyst for CardHub, which just completed a ranking of the best small job markets in the U.S. “You'll be able to get experience with a lot of different things and see what you like and don't like.”

In the process, people working for small firms – especially if they are early in their careers -- will get the chance to gain new skills and insights into their abilities, learning what they are good at and what they aren't.

To rank the markets, Kiernan and his team looked at a lot of factors, such as the number of small businesses per capita. They gave added weight if a market had a wide variety of industries in which there were small business opportunities.

Where the opportunities are

“We wanted to reward the cities that offered a lot of different types of opportunities for different types of people,” he said. “We also looked at small business job growth over the last few years to see if the opportunities are growing or contracting.”

They also considered stress levels and average wages. Denver came out on top in the rankings, followed by Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle and San Francisco. What they all have in common is they are pretty nice cities to live in, regardless of why you're living there.

At the bottom of the list are Sacramento and Riverside, Calif., and Detroit. All three cities were hit hard by the housing crash and the Great Recession. A high unemployment rate makes any city a more difficult place to get a job because there will be a lot more competition.

If you've decided that working for a small company is a good move, Kiernan has some advice. The first step is to be flexible when it comes to what you will earn.

Delay gratification

“Job-seekers shouldn't be overly concerned with immediate compensation,” he said. “You need to look at prospects for the future.”

You also need to think about your comfort zone. Can you handle being asked to constantly attempt new things and develop new skills?

“A lot of people box themselves in, deciding they need a particular type of job doing a particular thing,” Kiernan said. “That's not always the best course of action when you are considering a small company.”

Unless you happen to be in one of these small business Meccas, you will probably have to go visit them. They are not likely to come knocking on your door.

“It's easier to look at local talent pools so if you are outside the area, they aren't likely to bring you in for a job interview,” Kiernan said. "You need to be there.”

His other advice works for just about any kind of job you are seeking. Customize your approach, avoiding generic, cookie-cutter packages that don't address how you would add value to a specific company.

Having a positive attitude is also important. In a small company, chances are an abrasive personality will stand out, and not in a good way.

More

FTC cracks down on timeshare resale, travel scams

Feds and states launch takedown of schemes; 184 face criminal prosecution

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state agencies today announced a major takedown of timeshare property resale scams and phony or misleading travel pr...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state agencies today announced a major takedown of timeshare property resale scams and phony or misleading travel prizes used to rope in unsuspecting consumers.

The agency announced 191 separate actions, including three FTC cases, 83 civil actions filed by 28 states and 25 actions taken by law enforcement in 10 other countries. Also, 184 individuals are facing criminal prosecution by federal and state prosecutors.

“Con artists take advantage of timeshare owners who have been in tough financial straits and are desperate to sell their timeshares,” Charles A. Harwood, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said during a press conference in Miami.  “They persuade owners to pay fat up-front fees by saying they have someone ready to buy the property, but that’s a lie."

Harwood had this advice for timeshare owners: "Never pay for a promise, get everything in writing first, and pay only after your unit is sold."

Harwood was joined by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi; Wifredo A. Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida; Jay Levenstein, Deputy Commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services; and a victim of an unscrupulous timeshare resale operation.

“We cannot allow our elderly and vulnerable real property owners to continue to be the target of fraud schemes,” Ferrer said. “These victims, many of them elderly or in financial distress, looked to sell their units to help make ends meet or pay other bills.  Instead, they were defrauded out of more than $14 million in total.  Such fraud will not be tolerated.”

How it works

PhotoFraudulent timeshare resellers lure consumers into paying hefty upfront fees, falsely claiming to have interested buyers ready to pay top dollar for the properties.  They claim sales are about to happen, but there are no buyers, and consumers lose hundreds or thousands of dollars. 

Deceptive travel prize promoters trick consumers into paying for discounted or “free” vacation packages supposedly worth thousands of dollars, but most people get nothing of value or have to attend high-pressure timeshare sales presentations.  All of these scams reach consumers via unsolicited email, mailed travel vouchers, and radio, TV and online advertising.

To help people avoid these kinds of scams, the FTC has updated its consumer education materials on new and emerging travel and timeshare resale frauds at ftc.gov/travel.

More

Canada plans warnings on sunscreen containing vitamin A

The chemical has been linked to tumors and increased skin sensitivity

Just a few days ago, a study found that regular sunscreen use can keep skin looking younger. While that may be true, sunscreens containing retinyl palmitat...

PhotoJust a few days ago, a study found that regular sunscreen use can keep skin looking younger. While that may be true, sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, can irritate the skin and increase sensitivity to sunlight, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) cautions.

Canadian health authorities are proposing to require sunscreens containing the chemical to carry a stark warning label:

This product contains [retinyl palmitate] that may increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun and particularly the possibility of sunburn. Please limit sun exposure while using this product and for a week afterwards.

The label would be required on sunscreens containing more than a tenth of one percent retinyl palmitate, a powerful anti-aging chemical.  EWG notes that an FDA-sponsored study has linked this chemical to skin tumors and lesions in laboratory animals treated with the chemical, then exposed to sunlight. 

Also, products containing vitamin A can irritate the skin and increase photosensitivity, as indicated by Canada’s proposed warning label. For the past 5 years, EWG has cautioned consumers to avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate and other forms of vitamin A.

If the Health Canada proposal is adopted, Canada's regulations would be considerably stronger than U.S. rules enforced by the federal Food and Drug Administration. 

Consumer confusion

PhotoConsumers in both countries confront a similar dilemma.  The sunscreen market is confusing and, according to EWG, regulators have not issued rules that are up to date with the latest science on skin cancer and other disorders caused by excessive sun exposure. 

Melanoma rates are rising.  Poor quality products abound, as do misleading labels and advertisements, EWG said.

"The rules the Canadian government is considering would end some of the worst hype on sunscreen.  They would bar SPF values greater than 50+ and wet skin sprays, neither of which live up to their billing," EWG said.  "Products that offer better protection from the subtle damage of ultraviolet A rays would be labeled clearly."

More

Job cutting tapers off in May

So far this year, cuts are down 11% from 2012

Employers cut more jobs during May, but the pace of reductions is down considerably. According to outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, U...

PhotoEmployers cut more jobs during May, but the pace of reductions is down considerably.

According to outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, U.S.-based employers announced plans to trim payrolls by 36,398 during the month. That's down 4.5% from the 38,121 cuts in April and the third straight decline. The May total also was 41% lower a year ago, when employers slashed payrolls by 61,887.

So far in 2013, employers have announced 219,560 planned job cuts -- down 11% from the 245,540 planned cuts announced in the first five months of last year. It is not unusual to see job cuts decline during the summer months, according to Challenger records. In fact, May is historically the slowest job-cut month of the year, averaging 57,688 since 1993. The next lowest is June, averaging 59,887 since 1993. The overall average monthly total across all months since 1993 is 70,288.

Health care takes a hit

The heaviest job-cutting last month was in the health care sector, where 4,886 jobs disappeared -- slightly more than the 4,268 cuts in April, but more than double the 2,353 announced in May 2012. Overall, terminations in health care are up 71% in 2013 -- to 20,867.

Only two other sectors have seen bigger gains: media, where job cuts have increased 249% from 1,829 in the first five months of 2012 to 6,388 as of May; and the financial sector, which has seen job cuts increase by 103% to 35,091 this year.

The 35,091 job cuts announced by financial firms this year make this the sector with the highest number of firings to date. Retail ranks a close second, with 32,683 job cuts this year, including 1,386 last month.

Good news for the labor market

“Despite the increases in some sectors, the overall pace of downsizing has slowed from 2012 levels,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “That is particularly good news in light of the fact that 2012 saw the fewest annual job cuts since 1997. Job cuts have been on the decline since reaching 55,356 in February and we are heading into the summer, which is the time of year when all business activity, including layoff activity, tends to slow.”

Challenger points out that the threat of massive job cuts related to federal spending cuts has failed to materialize. “There were fewer than 1,500 job cuts directly attributed to federal cutbacks and sequestration,” he said, adding “Of course, we are not out of the woods when it comes to government downsizing, but an improving economy is helping to bring in more tax revenue and lower the deficit. This may delay and/or minimize the impact of cutbacks on workforce levels.”

Hiring offsets

Even in areas with increased job cutting, such as health care, simultaneous hiring is offsetting the impact on the economy. In health care, for example, the nearly 21,000 planned job cuts tracked this year are far outweighed by job gains.

According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) job report, the sector experienced a net gain of 19,000 jobs in April, marking a monthly average of 24,000 jobs per month over the past year. Meanwhile, a recent tally of online help-wanted ads by job search website Granted.com turned up more than 521,000 health care jobs on the site.

In retail, where job cuts are up 56 percent this year to 32,683, more than 550,000 were hired in March and there were still 424,000 openings at the end of the month, according to the BLS job openings and labor turnover survey.

“Home sales and prices are starting to see much better improvements each month,” said Challenger. “If these gains continue, it is going to drive up consumer confidence and spending through the summer, which should help the economy withstand the typical summer slowdown. We expect layoffs to remain muted through the third quarter. Hopefully, the housing recovery will be strong enough to finally kick hiring into high gear.”  

More

Mortgage rates climb to benchmark highs, while jobless claims dip

Concern about Federal Reserve bond purchases is cited

Mortgage rates continue to move to higher ground, with the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) -- popular in refinancing -- above 3% for the first time in mo...

PhotoMortgage rates continue to move to higher ground this week, with the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) -- popular in refinancing -- above 3% for the first time in more than a year.

Freddie Mac reports the 15-year FRM averaged 3.03% with an average 0.7 point. Last week it averaged 2.98% and a year ago it stood at 2.94%. This marks the first time the average 15-year FRM has topped 3% since the week of May 24, 2012.

The 30-year FRM averaged 3.91% with an average 0.7 point, up 10 basis points from last week when it averaged 3.81%. Last year at this time, it averaged 3.67%.

This week, the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 2.74% with an average 0.5 point, compared with 2.66% last week and 2.84% a year ago. The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.58% with an average 0.4 point, up from last week's average of 2.54%. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.79%.

"Continuing market concerns that the Federal Reserve may slow its bond purchases amid a strengthening economy added upward pressure on mortgage rates this week,” according to Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “In its June 5th regional economic conditions report, known as the Beige Book, the Federal Reserve noted that overall economic activity increased at a modest to moderate pace over April and May in all its districts except for Dallas which indicated strong economic growth. In addition, pending home sales rose in April to its fastest pace since April 2010 and May's consumer sentiment was revised upwards to its highest reading since July 2007."

Bankrate

Bankrate.com, meanwhile, reports rates are at 14-month highs.

The 30-year FRM was up two basis points from last week -- to 4.1%. The mortgages in this week's survey had an average total of 0.3 discount and origination points. The last time it was this high was April 18, 2012, when it averaged the same 4.1%.

The 15-year FRM hit 3.28% this week, compared with 3.21% a week ago -- the highest since April 25, 2012. The benchmark 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage rose to 2.93% from 2.81% and the 30-year fixed-rate jumbo mortgage rose seven basis points -- to 4.27%.

Jobless claims

PhotoThe unemployment line was a bit shorter last week.

The government reports there were 346,000 first-time applications for state unemployment benefits in the week ending June 1. That's a drop of 11,000 from the week before, which had been revised up by 3,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was up 4,500 from the week before -- to 352,500.

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

More

Gerber recalls machetes with stitched sheaths

The machete can cut through the stitching of the sheaths, posing a laceration hazard

Gerber Legendary Blades of Portland, Ore., is recalling about 91,000 Gerber Bear Grylls Parang Machetes with stitched sheaths The machete can cut through ...

PhotoGerber Legendary Blades of Portland, Ore., is recalling about 91,000 Gerber Bear Grylls Parang Machetes with stitched sheaths

The machete can cut through the stitching of the sheaths when the blade is taken from or replaced in the sheath, posing a laceration hazard. The company has received eight reports of lacerations to the user’s hands or fingers, including three injuries that required stitches.

This recall involves stitched sheaths sold with curved blade Parang machetes. The stitched sheath is made of black nylon, with only stitching on the curved side. There are five rivets on the bottom of the sheath and two rivets bordering the strap on top. The machete measures 19.5 inches with a blade length of 13.5 inches. The sheath measures 16 inches long and 3.5 inches wide and has “GERBER” printed in gray and two Bear Grylls logos in orange.

The machetes with sheaths were sold as a set or as part of Gerber's Apocalypse Survival Kit, which includes a Parang machete among other items in a foldable black cloth case with “GERBER” printed on the inside right. The model numbers are on the package. Model numbers are: 31-000698, 31-001507 and 31-002289. Model number 30-000601 is on the package for the Apocalypse Survival Kit. The stitched sheath is the only one of three styles of sheaths sold with the Parang machete included in this recall.

The machetes and sheaths, manufactured in China, were sold at sporting goods stores nationwide and online from February 2012 through February 2013 for about $43 for the machete and sheath set, and $349 for the Survival Kit.

Consumers should immediately store the covered Parang machete in a safe area away from children. Contact Gerber Legendary Blades to receive a free replacement fully-riveted sheath.

Consumers may contact Gerber Legendary Blades toll-free at (877) 314-9130 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

More

Feds back down on 'knives on board ruling'

An outcry by unions, law enforcement and the traveling public hit home

You won't be seeing people lugging knives, golf clubs, pool cues or baseball bats onto airliners after all. The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA)...

PhotoYou won't be seeing people lugging knives, golf clubs, pool cues or baseball bats onto airliners after all.

The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has had second thoughts about a new policy it announced three months ago that would have allowed passengers to carry those items -- and more -- on board.

In a statement released earlier today, the agency said it “will continue to enforce the current prohibited items list,” acknowledging that the earlier announcement had unleashed a storm of criticism from law enforcement officials, passenger advocates and the traveling public.

Union uproar

Among those making the most noise about the policy were the unions representing airline employees.

The Association of Flight Attendants CWA (AFA), which represents about 90,000 flight attendants, is pressing to not only delay the rule, but to prevent it from ever going into effect. 

TWU Local 556, the Southwest Airlines’ Flight Attendants Union, called the decision "outrageous... dangerous, shortsighted,” adding that it “should be immediately rescinded."

Following today's TSA announcement, Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) President James C. Little said it is “the right call,” adding that the TSA leadership “should be commended for taking the advice of flight attendants and other workers at commercial airlines charged with passenger safety.

More

Keeping air conditioning costs under control

Reducing cooling costs will help you control your summer electricity bills

In many areas of the U.S. the months of March, April and May bring more moderate temperatures and lower heating and cooling costs.But the arrival of June...

PhotoIn many areas of the U.S. the months of March, April and May bring more moderate temperatures and lower heating and cooling costs.

But the arrival of June, July and August can mean sharply rising electric bills, primarily because of increased use of air conditioning. However, there are ways to make these summer months easier on your budget without sacrificing comfort.

For starters, air conditioning accounts for more than eight percent of all the electricity produced in the U.S., according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). In most parts of the country, that cost is concentrated during the summer months, costing consumers an estimated $15 billion a year.

Regular maintenance

You can reduce costs by making sure your equipment is in good repair and running efficiently. Sometimes this can be as simple as replacing the air intake filter on a regular basis.

It can also mean investing in a new system when your current one gets old and in frequent need of repair. In the short run it will be less expensive to keep having the service company come out and repair it but installing a new system will not only reduce those inconvenient breakdowns – they normally occur on the hottest days of the year – but will also cut electricity costs. New air conditioning equipment is much more efficient than equipment that's eight to 10 years old.

ACEEE stresses efficiency as the primary way to cut cost. Using the air conditioner less saves money, as well as wear and tear on the equipment.

Keep the cold air in

PhotoA place to start is with insulation. How tight is your home against the elements? A simple thing like adding insulation and plugging up holes around doors and windows can keep cool air inside.

Keeping heat from entering your home in the first place is another important way to reduce the need for air conditioning. To keep high-angle summer sun out, consider horizontal trellises for your east- and west-facing windows.

Protect south-facing windows with leafy trees or climbing foliage so you can take advantage of low-angle sun in the winter, when the leaves fall. If you replace windows on the walls that get the most summer sun, they should have low-e glazings to block unwanted heat gain.

Having “cool” exterior finishes on your house can also help. When replacing your roof or painting your house, using light-colored or other cool roofing and siding products can reduce your peak cooling demand by 10-15%, according to ACEEE.

Update old appliances

Take a look around your home at other appliances. Things that run on electricity tend to put off heat. Not only are they probably using more electricity than necessary, they're making your air conditioner work harder.

Incandescent light bulbs, for example, generate lots of heat and require significant amounts of electricity to generate light. Florescent bulbs are cooler and cheaper to operate -- and LEDs are better yet.

If you use external hard drives for your computer, the large brick-sized drives you bought five or ten years ago produce lots of heat. In many cases, they can be replaced with high-density flash drives that generate almost no heat.

Evaporative coolers

PhotoA recent innovation -- actually, an improved version of old technology -- is the evaporative cooler, which the Department of Energy reports can be very effective in areas with low humidity. They work by evaporating water into the air, providing a natural and energy-efficient means of cooling.

Evaporative coolers, also called swamp coolers, have been used for decades in Arizona and other low-humidity states. But newer versions are much more efficient. They work by cooling outdoor air by passing it over water-saturated pads, causing the water to evaporate into it. The 15°- to 40°F-cooler air is then directed into the home, and pushes warmer air out through windows and vents.

Consider adding ceiling fans to several rooms throughout the house. They can help keep things cool by creating a low-level “wind chill” effect throughout a room. As long as indoor humidity isn’t stifling, they can be quite effective. Just remember that a fan cools people — it doesn’t actually reduce room temperature — so turn it off when you leave the room.

Things like programmable thermostats are also effective at reducing costs, in both summer and winter. If the home is unoccupied for several hours during the day, there's no reason to keep it cool.

Taking just a few simple steps might keep you more comfortable during weather and make your electric bill more manageable.

More

Supermarkets shiver as AmazonFresh gets rolling

Will Kroger be the next Borders?

It's kind of a sad sight, actually. Watch carefully next time you're at the supermarket and chances are you'll find an employee trudging up and down the ai...

PhotoIt's kind of a sad sight, actually. Watch carefully next time you're at the supermarket and chances are you'll find an employee trudging up and down the aisles filling a shopping cart from a list.

Is the employee stocking up before heading home after his or her shift? Maybe, but it's more likely they're filling an order that's been placed through the supermarket's web site.

Supermarkets, like the Giant/Stop & Shop chain on the East Coast have been trying to edge into the digital age with services like Peapod, which lets consumers order groceries online. But on the fulfillment end, we leave the Information Age behind and revert to an hourly worker pushing a cart around, then loading the stuff onto a truck.

Remember Borders?

It's this rather down-at-the-heels operation that Amazon is planning to split wide open. The online giant is reported to be planning a major roll-out of AmazonFresh, an online grocery business that it has been quietly developing for years. Observers expect Amazon to do to the grocery business what it did to the bookstore business. Namely: decimate it.

Think about it for a minute. Amazon's brand of online shopping, combining a huge selection, highly competitive pricing and almost instant gratification, has thrived even among consumers who enjoy roaming the mall in search of cool clothing, household accessories or books. Think what it will do to the chore nearly no one enjoys -- shopping for groceries. 

Amazon's development efforts have been most evident in its hometown of Seattle, where for the last five years it has been delivering fresh produce such as eggs, strawberries and meat with its own fleet of trucks.

Today Seattle, tomorrow ...

PhotoReports say Amazon is now ready to spring AmazonFresh on a wider universe, starting with Los Angeles and the San Francisco area later this year. If things go well there, at least 20 more cities are said to be on the list in 2014. 

Amazon has been building huge warehouses close to major urban areas over the last few years, after it made a strategic decision to start charging sales tax. The company had previously located its warehouses outside populous states as a tax-avoidance measure.

Moving the warehouses closer to end users in big cities and fielding its own fleet of trucks puts Amazon in a position to challenge not only supermarkets but general retailers of all kinds by combining same-day delivery with the convenience of online ordering through its highly sophisticated network.

It's a combination that strikes fear into the hearts not only of supermarket executives. Stores like Walmart and Target could feel the bite, as could UPS and FedEx, which now deliver the majority of Amazon's orders in most areas.

 

More

Edmunds.com unveils "Price Promise" program

Shoppers can get a guaranteed price online before they go to the dealer

Edmunds.com photoOne of the things car-buyers hate  is trying to pin down the price of the car they're interested in. The online car site Edmunds....

Photo
Edmunds.com photo

One of the things car-buyers hate  is trying to pin down the price of the car they're interested in. The online car site Edmunds.com is launching a program that it says will solve that problem.

It's called Price Promise and it's billed as giving shoppers a convenient and reliable way to know exactly what price they'll pay at the dealership.

"According to our research, which included talking with over 10,000 car shoppers, the biggest unmet need of car shoppers has been getting an actual price for a car. Edmunds.com's Price Promise resolves that issue by offering an instant, locked-in price that the dealer will honor," said  Edmunds.com President and Chief Operating Officer Seth Berkowitz.

"Feel-good" experience

Berkowitz said a car shopper who is interested in a car listed on the Edmunds.com web site can instantly receive the dealer's guaranteed price for that car by simply entering three basic pieces of information: name, phone number and email address.

"This is about a feel-good car shopper experience. It's about high satisfaction, no stress -- making things smoother at the dealership for both shopper and salesperson," said Berkowitz.

Berkowitz says dealers like the program too, because it gets consumers focused on closing the deal instead of haggling over the price.

"Since signing up for the Edmunds Price Promise program I have received 10 times the number of [inventory] prospects and have closed them twice as often as other prospects," said Michael Bailey, E-Commerce Director at Portland, Oregon's Town & Country Auto Group, in an Edmunds press release.

So far, about 600 dealers have signed up for the service, Edmunds said. 

More

Connecticut out in front -- sort of -- on genetically modified food

A new law requires the labeling of genetically modified food, but only after four other states do the same

Monsanto "Roundup Ready" soybean plantsConnecticut's lawmakers are decisive, but only up to a point. The state's legislature has passed a bill that wou...

Photo
Monsanto "Roundup Ready" soybean plants

Connecticut's lawmakers are decisive, but only up to a point. The state's legislature has passed a bill that would require food manufacturers to label food that has been genetically modified. Gov. Danile Mallow says he'll sign it.

But there's a catch: The measure only becomes effective after four other states adopt a similar requirement and, just to narrow things down a bit more, one of those states must border Connecticut. That leaves Pennsylvania out of the running but New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are still in contention.

While it may seem like a half-hearted victory, backers of food labeling are hailing it as a big win. 

“Connecticut’s victory marks an important step in the national movement for GE labeling, and signifies growing support for the consumer right-to-know,” said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It.

More than 20 other states are considering similar legislation this year, including Washington, Vermont and Maine. A federal labeling bill was recently introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR).

Faber's group claims that polls show that more than 90% of American consumers "want to know about the food they’re eating, a right held by citizens in 64 countries around the world that already require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods."

Could be, but polling on the issue is far from unanimous and consumers have not been storming the aisles of supermarkets demanding better food labeling. 

A survey conducted last year by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that only 24% of the respondents said they required additional information on food packaging; 69% said they were somewhat or very confident in the level of safety in today's foods, compared to merely 18% that said they wanted better labeling.

Even more daunting, California voters last November defeated 53%-47% a measure that would have required labeling of genetically-modified foods. Of course, the food industry spent $47 million in advertising to inform -- or mislead, depending on your point of view -- the voters.

Voters in Washington state will get their chance to vote on a similar measure this November, after state lawmakers decided not to take a stand on the issue and instead punted it to voters.

More

How to find a good roommate

Whether you're just leaving college or you're in your 40s, finding a roommate can be tricky

Okay, so you've finished college and now you're ready to give the real world a go.Before you dive in there will be a lot of things to consider. Like wher...

PhotoOkay, so you've finished college and now you're ready to give the real world a go. Before you dive in, there will be a lot of things to consider. Like where will you live? Are you going to remain in your college town or will you go back home or somewhere else? 

And if you do go back to your hometown, will you move back in with your folks for a while or get a place of your own? 

After asking these questions and a whole lot more, many will go the roommate route and either share a place with someone they know or live with a complete stranger and hope he or she doesn't display any creepiness.

An important decision

But what's the best way to choose a roommate? Because whether you're in or out of college, finding the right person to share your living space with can be just as tricky as finding the right person to date or marry.

Amy Zalneraitis, the author of "Room for Improvement: The Post-College Girl's Guide to Roommate Living," says finding a good roommate after college can be even harder because most people become a little set in their ways when they get older.

"It's not easy at all, especially after college," said Zalneraitis in a TV interview.

Additionally, she said it's important to have more than a conversation or two when choosing a roommate. You should spend actual time together and really try to get to know each other beforehand.

"Getting to know someone before moving in with them [is important]. Hanging out with them, not just having a question and answer session, but really hanging out in social situations," Zalneraitis advised. 

A lot of sharing

Photo
Amy Zalneraitis

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 15,000 homes in New York City that had three or more roommates in 2008, just to give you an idea of how many people are sharing their living expenses and their overall space.

But it's not just people living in big cities who decide to get a roommate, it happens everywhere -- smaller towns, the suburbs, rural areas, you name it.

And people just out of college aren't the only ones who want or need to live with a roommate; people in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s find it easier to split their living expenses too.

Take Luke Crane, Rick Brown, Danaher Dempsey and Shyaporn Theerakulstit for example -- four men close to their 40s who decided to cohabit.

Remarkably, they all lived together for a total of 18 years and they told a reporter from The New York Times how living together helped them save money and fund their individual pursuits.

"The freedom this has allowed me to have -- to figure out my own quirks and foibles -- has been much more important than investing in things that might have tied me down to something that would have kept me figuring those other things out," said Dempsey. 

Roommate hunting strategy

Dan Ross, manager of the roommate pairing site Roommate Express, told MSN that when you're looking for a good roommate, you should take a peek into a person's living and employment history.

Photo"You need to know what you can live with and what you can't," said Ross. "The compatibility issue outweighs everything. The future will be dictated by the past. Look at their work history for the last year. If they bounce from job to job, that's bad. If they've lived in four or five places in the last year, that's bad," he said.

When you do find a roommate, experts say to discuss the big and important things right off the bat. Like when and how everyone will pay the rent and their portion of the bills.

You'll have to organize a cleaning schedule too, and figure out who will clean what and exactly when cleaning time will be.

In addition, it's always good to lay out what the rules will be for sharing things like food, each other's appliances and other things in the home. Plus, what will the rules be for overnight boyfriends and girlfriends? And if you have a friend visiting from out of town, will it be okay if he or she stays for a week or will this kind of visit annoy your roommate.

It's best to iron out all of these things before you and your roommate start living together, since you'll probably be able to have a better conversation about what's expected from each other beforehand.

Know yourself

Amy Canevello, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte says knowing what your likes and dislikes are will be of great importance before you start looking for a roommate.

And just because you may have similar personalities or like the same things, doesn't mean that you and that person will be compatible as roommates. Finding someone who you'll be able to easily communicate with should be one of the main things you look for in a potential roommate.

"You're going to be spending at least some amount of time with this person, so it requires communication skills and self-awareness to make it go well," said Canevello. "You want to know what the other person's like, but you have to have at least equal concern about what you're like."

And when it comes to bringing pets into a new roommate situation, Zalneraitis says it's never a good idea.

"It's never a good idea to have pets, because inevitably the roommate ends up taking care of it at one time or another," she says.

And getting a new roommate takes time, explained Zalneraitis, so you never want to make a quick decision, no matter how great that initial meeting or interview might be.

"You have to meet a lot of different people and really get to know them," she says. "It's like a marriage, you have to date first. If you're moving in with someone it's a huge commitment."

Lastly, Zalneraitis says sharing a place with a best friend isn't necessarily the best idea, because again, it's not about finding a person who you have a lot in common with, it's about finding a person who best matches your living style.

More

Protecting your personal info while on vacation

Experts say when you leave town, your guard is very low

There's nothing like taking a trip somewhere. Whether you're traveling for business or pleasure,  getting on a plane, train or on a road trip c...

PhotoThere's nothing like taking a trip.

Whether folks are traveling for business or pleasure in 2013, leaving town could end up being the most excitement they'll see all year. 

So a lot of people are making their travel plans, buying their tickets and requesting time off from work. But one thing a lot of people won't do is take the necessary steps to ensure their personal information is secure while they travel.

Beware the ID thieves

Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Identity Theft 911, says identity thieves love stealing data from people who are traveling.

"Identity thieves, pickpockets and burglars (cat and otherwise) are looking to strike during moments of distraction, because distraction equals vulnerability," said Levin in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. "When we travel for business or pleasure, we are distracted because we are thinking about the deal or the beach, the pool or the golf course. This is why travelers are the perfect target."

According to statistics by research company Javelin Strategy & Research, cases of identity theft increased by 13% between 2011 and 2012.

Other statistics confirm that business travelers are particularly vulnerable to identity theft, since they're more likely to carry a lot of devices.

Based on figures released by data security company Credant Technologies -- now owned by Dell -- 11,000 mobile devices were lost in airports in 2011; 37.5% of those devices were laptops and 37.2% were smartphones or tablets.

Of course it's not only business travelers who leave themselves open to identity theft, vacationers are just as guilty.

Too much info

Jennifer Leuer of ProtectMyID.com says people should stop using social media to tell everyone they're leaving town.

"The challenge with social networking, that's 500 of your nearest and dearest friends," she said in a TV interview. "And you might not want all of them to know that you're not at home, that you're not checking your online accounts and that you're out spending a lot of money."

And when it comes to who's being more vigilant about protecting their identity, the sexes aren't equal, research shows.

According to Identity Theft 911, 72.1% of females polled said they were very or somewhat concerned about guarding their identity while traveling while 66.8% of men said the same thing.

In addition, the surveyed showed that people in the Northeast section of the U.S. were the most concerned about protecting their identity while traveling.

Surreptitious stealing

PhotoRuth from Texas complained to Amarillo.com that her friends had their information stolen from their devices without the thieves taking their phones, laptops or tablets.

"My friends took a trip to South America. They stayed at several different resorts and visited many parks and other interesting places," wrote Ruth. "Once they returned back home, they found that their phones had been stolen. Not the actual phones, but their account. Someone was able to make changes to the account, adding international features that added large charges onto their bill.

"They also found that their credit-card number had been stolen and used to make large purchases. Since they had stayed at several different resorts, it was impossible to determine where or when their information was stolen."

What to do

Levin says travelers should only take what they absolutely need on their trip and nothing else.

"Chances are that you will not be writing checks, so leave these and any extra debit cards or credit cards that you will not be using at home," he advised. "This will decrease the amount of institutions you will need to contact if they are lost and limits the damage criminals can wreak on your accounts."

In addition, Levin says to make your home looked lived in while you're away, put your mail on postal hold and register for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This program gives you travel alerts,  travel restrictions and a lot of other useful information.

Plus, don't carry your Social Security cards with you when you travel, or any other documents that have your social security number on it.

And most of all, use common sense, says Levin.

"Always be alert and aware of your surroundings, what you are doing, posting or saying, and how it could negatively affect your identity and privacy," he cautions. "Always check your privacy settings on your smartphone and always lock and protect it as well as your tablet, computer and other electronics."

You've been robbed

If you do experience identity theft while on vacation, Levin says there are a few things you can do immediately.

"Check with your financial institution, insurance company, employer, or health insurance provider to see if you have access to low or no-cost identity theft services," he says.

If you're vacationing, really take a vacation, says Levin and leave all of the devices at home. And if you're on a business trip be sure to guard your company's data.

"Use a vacation for what it's for -- relaxing, rejuvenating and unplugging," he says. "If it's a business trip, always guard your employers (and your own) electronic devices and valuables with your life."

Don't be vulnerable

Levin says these are the most common mistakes people make when their traveling:

  • Using "free" Wi-Fi: In general, avoid using a free wireless connection for surfing and opt for a paid connection like 3G or 4G instead. You can also count on a virtual private network, which works like a tunnel to encrypt your data.
  • Answering phony concierge calls: With these scams, the thief masquerades as a hotel employee -- often as someone from the front desk or the concierge. He or she will ask for your credit card info under the guise that there's an issue with check-out, or a restaurant requires the credit card to guarantee your reservation. In the event you receive such a call, go downstairs to the front desk or the concierge -- in person -- to confirm such a call was official and work out any issue there might be with your credit card.
  • Broadcasting travel plans on social networking sites: Don't spread the news of your impending trip or share the highlights o