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    It's not just phones that have all the smarts

    Companies are releasing smart instruments and smart headphones too

    Are we officially living in the smart era? Some might say yes, because a lot of products are being made that fall under the same category as smartphones.

    Like smart watches for example, that can send emails, update your social page and control your music. Or smart refrigerators that have LCD touch screens that tell you everything from the weather to how to prepare a meal.

    But today, it doesn't stop there, as more and more products are made to make things easier for the consumer and to anticipate what the user is trying to do. 

    Like The g Tar, made by the company Incident Technologies. 

    Not only does it allow you to attach your iPhone directly to the body of the guitar, the strings have built-in sensors to help you learn how to play.

    "It has a multi-touch fretboard that has an embedded LED display, along with an array of string sensors in the strings, so it can detect how you're playing and what you're trying to do," said Idan Beck, CEO of Incident Technologies, who demonstrated the g Tar at one of this year's Maker Faire events.

    Plus, the g Tar comes with an app that lets you choose the level of difficulty that you want to use. And it comes with a bunch of songs that you can pick from and learn how to play.

    "We have three different difficulty modes," said Beck. "In easy mode it doesn't actually care where you put your fingers, so I could be way off and as long as I hit the right strings, it'll play."

    But in medium mode, Beck says you'll have to hit the right notes to play a particular song, and if you don't, the strings won't play at all -- forcing you to play each note correctly.

    In addition, you can use the app to change the sound of your guitar. So if you select piano let's say, the strings will take on a piano sound, which is perfect for the band who may be an instrument or a musician short. 

    Plug it in

    And you can plug the g Tar into your computer too.

    "Its got a USB midi doc, so it plugs in to applications like Ableton, Logic, GarageBand and you can actually use this to trigger samples and DJ and do a lot of things a traditional guitar can't do necessarily," said Beck.

    The smart guitar comes in black and white and goes for $399 and as far as the reviews, they're pretty favorable. But at almost $400, you might be better off learning the guitar the traditional way. Unless you have the money to spare, plus an iPhone.

    Then you have the smart headphones made by the company Muzik, that allows you to post the songs you're listening to on your Facebook and Twitter page.

    Muzik is calling the device the first "socially connected smart headphones," and CEO Jason Hardi said making them made perfect sense. "While the music industry has seen its challenges, technological advances have also created a world of opportunity, which Muzik is seizing to create an entirely new category," said Hardi.

    "Headphones will never again just be for listening to music or talking on the phone. Our headphones will improve the way we socially discover, share, listen and experience music."

    Send a song

    Just like the g Tar, the smart headphones come with an app that's available for iPhones and Androids. And through the app, you can update everyone on what you're listening to. 

    Moreover, the company says the headphones allow you to "send a song anywhere in the world" and they even suggest songs for you to listen to. And Hardi says he's not stopping there, because in the near future, he plans to introduce other smart phone features for the headphones. 

    "In addition to music exploration, I look forward to working with the developer community to create amazing applications leveraging smart headphones space," he said. "So I began to design a headphone that would bring forth real connectivity and feature controls to the consumer."

    There's no release date for the smart headphones yet and for some reason the company is keeping the price under wraps.

    But I wouldn't expect them to be cheap, because once you hear the words "smart," "intelligent" or "intuitive" in the gadget world, you'd better believe you'll be paying a pretty hefty price.

    Are we officially living in the smart era? Some might say yes, because a lot of products are being made that fall under the same category as smartphones....
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    Emotions and social media: a dangerous mix

    A survey finds that folks are getting meaner and meaner online

    You've probably seen it before -- people arguing on social media.

    It usually starts small. An unwanted photo posted or some comment put up that's subtle but still very mean.

    And after that, they're off to the races -- hurling insults at each other, trying to outdo the other in a competition of meanness and trying to think of the harshest thing to say or post. And it's all played out in front of everyone on social media to see and comment on.

    Going public

    It happens with couples too.

    A small tiff starts at home before the couple heads off to work. On the way to work, at least one person thinks of a point or insult he or she should have used during the tiff.

    And by the time that person gets to work, the social media war is launched and the argument that started in the privacy of the bedroom is now on Facebook or Twitter for everyone to witness.

    It happens every day and according to VitalSmarts, a company that provides corporate training, 78% of folks say they've noticed an increase in online meanness and 76% say they've witnessed at least one argument on social media. Another 88% feel that people are meaner on social media than they are face-to-face.

    How come?

    And why is this?

    Some might say the anonymity of social media gives people a certain amount of courage they wouldn't normally have and what they wouldn't say in person, they'll say much easier on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

    Then of course you have folks who aren't able to count to 10 in order to cool off, and with their device being nearby it's very easy to post something in anger.

    Simply put, personal emotions and social media don't mix, so it's best not to post anything if you feel stressed, angry or sad, experts say.

    A new arena

    Joseph Grenny, co-author of the study, said social media has become the official place where people come to have difficult conversations, and those conversations can easily turn into nasty ones.

    "Social media platforms allow us to connect with others and strengthen relationships in ways that weren't possible before," said Grenny. "Sadly, they have also become the default forums for holding high-stakes conversations, blasting polarizing opinions and making statements with little regard for those within screen shot.

    "We struggle to speak candidly and respectfully in person, let alone through a forum that allows no immediate feedback or the opportunity to see how our words will affect each other," Grenny explained.

    VitalSmarts surveyed 2,698 people and 81% said they had interactions online that were either "difficult" or "emotionally-charged." In addition, 19% said they have less face-to-face contact with a friend or follower because that person said something mean to them online. 

    It's everywhere

    But it's not just social media pages where people post cruel and hurtful things.

    Have you ever read the comments on an online news story? No matter what the subject matter is, you're almost guaranteed to read something that's over-the-top-mean, insensitive, racist, homophobic -- or just plain unnecessary.

    When you go to places like YouTube and read some of the comments on a music video or performance, a lot of people go out of their way to say how much they hate the song or video.

    Take a deep breath

    Susan Avello, a blogger for HR Virtual Cafe, says when you find yourself being mean on social media or hating everything online, it might be time to take a break.

    "A good friend once told me 'You seem to be in a place of hating everything. Perhaps you should take a social media break.' I'll never forget that," Avello wrote. "If you find yourself hating everyone on social media and everything that's being put out there perhaps it's time for you to take a social media sabbatical. Go spend time with the family. Take a vacation and leave your devices at home.

    "There's no reason to lash out at others just because you're in a funk," writes Avello.

    Grenny agrees, and says you should ask yourself why you really use social media. Do you use it to have good communication, to get noticed or to get something off your chest that you would never say in person?

    Grenny says the use of  "hot words" should be avoided when communicating online, meaning if you disagree with somebody, don't call the person a jerk or stupid -- just say you disagree.

    Grenny notes that people who argue online often "agree on 80% of the topic but create a false sense of conflict when they spend all their time arguing over the other 20%."

    The best advice: Take the conflict off-line and don't try to settle it through social media because it's too easy for your emotions to take over and cause you to post something that you may regret for a long time.

    You've probably seen it before. Two people arguing on social media.It usually starts small. An unwanted photo posted or some comment put up that's subtle...
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      Are doctors too quick to diagnose cancer?

      Some physicians think so and say that many slow-growing tumors don't need treatment

      While scientists in the laboratory continue to search for a cure for cancer, doctors who treat it have made huge strides in raising cancer awareness. Screening programs now routinely catch the disease in its early stages.

      But have we gone overboard in treating cancer? A panel of scientists convened by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and chaired by a UC San Francisco (UCSF) breast cancer expert believes we have. The group is proposing a major update to the way the U.S. approaches diseases now classified as “cancer.”

      Writing this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the panel points out that, despite the advancements in cancer screening, we still haven't achieved the decline in serious disease and death that you might expect.

      The problem, it seems, is that these screening programs are not just identifying malignant tumors. They also detect what turn out to be slow-growing, low-risk lesions, and sweeping them into the same treatment process.

      Harmless cancer?

      As a result, patients are being diagnosed and treated for forms of cancer that might never do any harm. The phenomenon has been termed “overdiagnosis,” which translates to “too much medicine.”

      “By recognizing that cancer is not one disease, but a number of different diseases, we can individualize our treatment based on biology and avoid overtreatment,” said panel chair Dr. Laura J. Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at UCSF. “The goal going forward is to personalize screening strategies, and focus screening policies on the conditions that are most likely to result in aggressive illness and death.”

      This may strike some patients – and perhaps even some physicians – as a somewhat controversial position. In the mind of the public cancer is a dreaded disease that is not to be taken lightly. The very word “cancer” uttered in a doctor's office is enough to terrify most patients.

      New classification

      For that reason, the panel is recommending that the word be used less often. For example, the authors think there should be a new classification for tumors that are called “indolent,” meaning they aren't likely to cause harm. Under their guidelines ductal carcinoma of the breast -- currently considered the earliest form of breast cancer -- would no longer be called cancer.

      This is not to suggest they think screening should be de-emphasized – just the opposite. Rather, screening strategies should be improved to avoid over-treating tumors that would not be lethal, or that would not even have come to medical attention.

      “Although our understanding of the biology of cancer has changed dramatically, perceptions on the part of the public, and among many physicians, have not yet changed,” Esserman said. “Cancer is still widely perceived as a diagnosis with lethal consequences if left untreated.”

      Other scientists have suggested in the past that some forms of prostate cancer don't always require treatment. Earlier this year UCSF researchers suggested men might need less treatment for prostate cancer unless they happen to harbor the gene for the most aggressive form of the disease.

      They're using a new genomic test for prostate cancer that can help predict a man's genetic risk of the most severe form of the disease. They say some men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer may be able to avoid surgery, and most treatment altogether, if they have what is considered a manageable form of the disease.

      There are other forms of cancer that may also fit into this category. The authors of the NCI report say overdiagnosis is occurring across many medical conditions, but is especially common in breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate, thyroid cancer and melanoma.


      On the other hand, they cite colon and cervical cancer as examples of “effective screening programs in which early detection and removal of precancerous lesions have reduced incidence as well as late-stage disease.”

      Obviously, any suspicion that a condition is cancerous must be taken seriously and be brought to your doctor's attention immediately. However, if the NCI panel is to be believed, not every cancer will require the lengthy, expensive and often grueling treatment cancer normally receives.

      “Although no physician has the intention to overtreat or overdiagnose cancer, screening and patient awareness have increased the chance of identifying a spectrum of cancers, some of which are not life threatening,” the authors wrote. “The ultimate goal is to preferentially detect consequential cancer while avoiding detection of inconsequential disease.”

      While scientists in the laboratory continue to search for a cure for cancer, doctors who treat it have made huge strides in raising cancer awareness. Scree...
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      Southwest fined for violating price advertising rule

      Feds say the airline failed to make enough seats available

      It sounded like a great deal, but there was only one problem: A lot of people couldn't take advantage of it.

      So said the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in levying a $200,000 fine against Southwest Airlines for violating the full-fare advertising rules. DOT also ordered the carrier to cease and desist from further violations.

      “Consumers should be able to trust that the price they see advertised is the price they’ll pay for a seat,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “DOT will continue to take enforcement action against carriers and ticket agents when our price advertising rules are violated.”

      Great fares – few seats

      According to DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office, Southwest advertised one-way, nonstop fares “for $100 or less” for travel on Feb. 14, 2013, but failed to include a reasonable number of seats available in a significant number of city-pair markets in the fare sale.

      In addition, on Jan. 30, 2013, Southwest advertised $66 one-way fares from Dallas Love Field to Branson, Mo., between March 1, 2013, and March 21, 2013. However, there were no seats available at the sale fare on any day during the sale period.

      By advertising fares for which a reasonable number of seats were not available and advertising fares that were not available at all, DOT says Southwest violated the full fare advertising rule and engaged in prohibited unfair and deceptive practices.  

      It sounded like a great deal, but there was only one problem: A lot of people couldn't take advantage of it. So said the U.S. Department of Transportation...
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      Consumers should have a little privacy, New Jersey court holds

      State's high court says cell phone location data should be private

      The New Jersey Supreme Court has become the first in the country to recognize a constitutional right to privacy in cell phone location records.

      The court held earlier this month that that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location data under the New Jersey state constitution.

      In State v. Earls, the New Jersey high court found that "cell-phone location information, which users must provide to receive service, can reveal a great deal of personal information about an individual." 

      Consequently, law enforcement officers in New Jersey will be required to obtain a search warrant to track an individual's location.

      In order to communicate with the telephone network, a cell phone must be in constant contact with nearby cell towers. These connections create a “paper trail” of an individual's phone records. By examining the location of towers to which a phone is connected over a period of time, law enforcement can track a person's movements in great detail. 

      In urban areas where cell phone towers are densely packed, a person's  location can be pinpointed very precisely; tracking the phone is equivalent to tracking the person.

      The decision in State v. Earls is the first state supreme-court case upholding location privacy since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in US v. Jones, a GPS tracking case. The state of Montana has passed a similar statute requiring warrants to track cell phone location.

      The New Jersey Supreme Court has become the first in the country to recognize a constitutional right to privacy in cell phone location records.The court ...
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      Judge: Consumers entitled to more than $9.5 million in refunds

      Scammers were charged with debiting payday loan applicants’ bank accounts without their consent

      A federal judge has come down on the side of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its case against an online operation that the commission charged illegally debited consumers’ bank accounts when they visited the defendants’ websites seeking payday loans. The FTC will now seek a court order requiring the defendants to return more than $9.5 million to consumers.

      In 2011, the FTC charged Direct Benefits Group LLC, Voice Net Global LLC, Solid Core Solutions Inc., WKMS Inc., Kyle Wood, and Mark Berry with illegally debiting consumers’ bank accounts and failing to disclose that they would use their bank account information to charge them for enrollment in unwanted programs and services. The court froze the defendants’ assets pending resolution of the case.

      In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge John Antoon II found that the FTC proved its case, that a permanent injunction to stop the illegal practices is warranted and that consumers are entitled to the return of more than $9.5 million.

      Unwittingly enrolled

      According to the FTC, the defendants’ websites asked for consumers’ personal and financial information, and -- near the end of the loan application form -- offered unrelated programs for food, travel and merchandise discounts, or for long distance calling and Internet access.

      Many consumers who clicked to “submit” an application were enrolled unwittingly into the programs, which initially charged their bank accounts up to $59.90 per month, and later charged up to $99.90 per year.

      According to the complaint, the defendants sent consumers’ bank account information to Landmark Clearing Inc.  and other payment processors to electronically generate remotely created payment orders that debited consumers’ bank accounts.

      A federal judge has come down on the side of the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) in its case against an online operation that the commission charged illeg...
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      Economy gathers momentum in second quarter

      Growth was stronger than in the first quarter and above analysts' projections

      The nation's economy was doing better in the second quarter than it was in the first three months of the year.

      Government figures show real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S -- increased at an annual rate of 1.7% in the second quarter of 2013. During the first quarter, it grew at a revised rate of 1.1%. Economists surveyed by had been looking for a GDP growth rate of 1.1%.

      Keep in mind that this “advance” estimate of GDP growth is subject to further revision. The "second" estimate for the second quarter, based on more complete data, will be released on August 29.

      Consumers contribute

      The second quarter increase was due primarily to positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (consumer spending), exports, nonresidential fixed investment, private inventory investment, and residential investment. Holding growth in check was a drop in federal government spending.

      As positive as the second quarter increase was, GDP growth has not exceeded 2.0% since the third quarter of 2012 or topped 3.0% since the first three months of last year.

      Analysts say these trends are not indicative of an economy that is on a solid and steady upward path.

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

      The nation's economy was doing better in the second quarter than it was in the first three months of the year. Government figures show real gross domestic...
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      Another drop in mortgage applications

      Applications for refinancings are at a 2-year low

      Fewer would-be home buyers are applying for mortgages.

      According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications for the week ending July 26 were down 3.7% from one week earlier. For the prior week, applications slipped 1.2%

      The Refinance Index fell 4% from the previous week, with the refinance share of mortgage activity unchanged at 63% of total applications from the previous week.

      Interest rates a factor

      “Mortgage rates were little changed last week, but remain roughly one percentage point higher than they were three months ago,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s vice president of research and economics. “Refinance application volume continues to decline, with the refinance index now more than 55% lower than its recent peak -- reaching the lowest level in over two years. Applications for home purchases dropped for the fourth time in five weeks, but purchase volume is running about 5% higher than last year at this time.”

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,500 or less) was unchanged at 4.58%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.40 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRM with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,500) decreased to 4.64% from 4.66%, with points decreasing to 0.39 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA increased to 4.30 percent from 4.28 percent, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs increased to 3.67% from 3.63%, with points increasing to 0.40 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 5/1 Adjustable Rate Mortgages increased to 3.39 percent from 3.30 percent, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      Fewer would-be home buyers are applying for mortgages. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applicat...
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      Researcher: Smartphones creating digital zombies

      People's brains are being altered by constant exposure, she claims

      One of author Stephen King's horror novels is called “Cell,” the apocalyptic story of a mysterious pulse broadcast over a global cellular network that turns everyone who is talking on their phone at that instant into murderous zombies.

      King's point was the fact that almost everyone on earth had a cellphone and was thus vulnerable to zombiehood. Just keep in mind that King's cautionary tale appeared in 2006, a year before the first iPhone and the explosion of smartphones that quickly followed.

      Maybe King was onto something. Think of how many people you see walking down the street or in their car, talking – or more likely accessing data. Maybe it doesn't require a mysterious signal to turn us into zombies.

      South Korea sets the pace

      Devra Davis, Ph.D., president of Environmental Health Trust, a nonprofit research and policy organization, is worried that's what's happening – that smartphones are turning us into digital zombies. It's bad in the U.S., she says, but not nearly as bad as in South Korea – at least, not yet. 

      South Koreans have embraced technology with an enthusiasm perhaps unmatched elsewhere in the world. So much so that today, there is a recognized condition of “smartphone addiction” that Davis says is rising to epidemic proportion.

      In a recent report South Korean medical researchers are finding a rise in what they call “digital dementia” -- the tendency of the young to be so obsessed with smartphones that they can't recall phone numbers, write legibly or even look people in the eye. Neuroscientists say those are all signs of a type of brain damage.

      Davis cites data showing that in South Korea, 20% of 10- to 19 year-olds spend seven hours a day on smartphones and tablets, the highest exposure in the world. According to the Korean Ministry of Science, the country has more digital devices than people (as does the United States), with many children beginning to use devices almost before they can walk.

      Left brain – right brain

      "Young people who are heavy technology users are likely to have a properly developed left hemisphere of the brain while the right hemisphere will be unused and underdeveloped,” said Psychiatrist Dr. Byun Gi-Won, of the Balance Brain Center in Seoul.

      Davis says the evidence is all around for anyone looking up from their screen to observe; young parents glued to their phones while strolling with their toddlers – some of whom are also zoned into their own electronic devices. Families seated for a meal, each immersed in their own screen.

      “When we strip away from our lives all the electronified trappings and stuff with which we are so preoccupied; when we throw away all those things we now crave and believe we need, what is left is what essentially makes us human,” Davis said. “The rush to digitize toddlers and young children flies in the face of what developmental psychologists have long understood. Children learn best by direct human touch and eye contact — from real people, not machines.”

      Cancer link?

      And there is another issue. Davis is worried that the expansive growth of wireless communication is taking place without anyone thinking about the long-term impact it can have on developing brains, bodies and babies who are growing up surrounded by radiofrequency radiation – also known as microwave radiation. This, she says, is something very new in human history.

      Her advice to parents? Don't allow children to become fettered to a digital device. If digital devices must be used to distract a toddler on a long car trip, she says, put them on airplane mode and make sure they remain disconnected from Internet or Wi-Fi. Keep calls and connection times as short as possible.

      One of author Stephen King's horror novels is called “Cell,” the apocalyptic story of a mysterious pulse broadcast over a global cellular netwo...
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      Starbucks adds more wireless charging stations

      After Boston test, stations being installed in Silicon Valley

      After what was described as a successful test run in the Boston Area, Starbucks has announced it will begin installing wireless charging stations for smartphones at select California stores in Silicon Valley.

      The charging stations will use Duracell Powermat charging stations, which employ the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) standard. To charge a device, the user just places the phone on a charging pad.

      The process is wireless, in that there are no wires connecting the electric source to the phone. However, the phone must make contact with the pad in order for it to charge.

      "Duracell Powermat offers the cure for dead battery anxiety," said Stassi Anastassov, President of Duracell at Procter & Gamble. "Look around any Starbucks and you will see smartphones being placed on tables. Today these phones are losing power as they sit there -- but once a table is equipped with Powermat technology, simply placing a phone on the table will recharge it."

      For Starbucks, adding a way for customers to easily recharge their mobile devices makes sense. It wants to encourage consumers to spend a lot of time hanging out in its stores, hopefully drinking coffee and eating snacks.

      Home away from home

      "More and more customers are using Starbucks as their home base and they are looking to recharge in a number of ways," said Adam Brotman, chief digital officer at Starbucks. "We have seen positive customer response to wireless charging through our tests in Boston, and are pleased to now extend this experience for our customers in the Silicon Valley area."

      Wireless charging is a response to a need created by the introduction of smartphones. Ordinary cellphones, used only for voice communication, used very little power. A single charge might last several days.

      As soon as smartphones were introduced, however, consumers quickly learned that battery life was much less. That's mainly because downloading and uploading data requires much more energy. Daily recharges are now a routine matter, though it doesn't make them any more convenient.

      In addition to the PMA standard, there is also the Qi standard, also known as the inductive power standard. Established by the Wireless Power Consortium, it works in a similar manner. Some device manufacturers support Qi while some support PMA. A few support both.

      No need for power cords

      While the term “wireless” suggests your phone can charge while it is in your pocket or purse, that's not quite the case. However, both standards remove the need for a power cord with the right type of connector to fit your phone.

      The need for charging stations, whether wireless or like the solar-powered stations being installed in New York City, would be reduced if smartphone batteries simply held a charge for longer periods of time. That's been an active area of research for the last couple of years.

      Results, so far, have been fairly promising. Earlier this year researchers at the University of Illinois reported development of lithium ion microbatteries ten times more powerful than standard cellphone batteries.

      Prof. William King, who led the study, says the microbatteries are simply part of a technological trend. Computers have gotten smaller over the years and so have cellphones. He says it's time for the battery to follow suit.

      In their report, the researchers claim that you could jump-start a car with the power in your cellphone batteries. That's all well and good, but it might be a little scary walking around with that much power in your pocket.

      Meanwhile, researchers at other universities and laboratories are at work on the problem too. In 2011 researchers at the University of Michigan invented what they call a "subconscious mode" for smartphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices that could extend battery life by as much as 54 percent for users on the busiest networks. Work is still underway.

      After what was described as a successful test run in the Boston Area, Starbucks has announced it will begin installing wireless charging stations for smart...
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      Feds asked to investigate privacy issues in rapper app

      Jay-Z's "Magna Carta Holy Grail" collects "massive amounts" of personal data

      You wouldn't think that a Jay-Z app would collect all kinds of personal data about you, but a consumer privacy group says that "Magna Carta Holy Grail" app does just that.

      The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Samsung, the publisher of the app, which it says "collected massive amounts of personal information from users and required substantial user permissions."

      EPIC says Samsung failed to disclose details of the privacy practices of the app, collected user data far beyond what was necessary and failed to give consumers any reasonable choice in the matter.

      Specifically, said EPIC, the Magna Carta app collects user personal information that includes:

      • Approximate user location using cell site locations and Wi-Fi networks;
      • Precise user location using the Global Positioning System (GPS), cell site locations, and Wi-Fi networks;
      • Mobile device identifiers, including the International Mobile Subscriber Identity and International Mobile Station Equipment Identity numbers, both of which are unique identifiers;
      • Time periods during which the phone is active;
      • Telephone numbers dialed; and
      • The identity of other applications installed on the device.

      According to EPIC's complaint, the app can run in the background whenusers switch to other apps on their mobile devices; can continue toconnect to the Internet while running; signs in as soon as users'phones are switched on, and has access to the phones' vibration and"sleep" functions.

      "The number of permissions requested" by the app, EPIC says, "verges on parody."

      EPIC's complaint further alleges that the "Magna Carta" app includes hidden spam techniques that force users to promote the album. The app requires users to log in to their Facebook or Twitter accounts in order to access any of the content:

      "In the run-up to the album's release," EPIC contends, "the Magna Carta App allowed users to view song lyrics, but only if the user posted a tweet or Facebook status update promoting the fact that they had unlocked each lyric."

      EPIC has asked the Commission to investigate Samsung and enjoin the company's unfair and "deceptive data collection practices for any future apps that it may offer." 

      You wouldn't think that a Jay-Z app would collect all kinds of personal data about you, but a consumer privacy group says that "Magna Carta Holy Grail" app...
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      Cyclosporiasis outbreak sickens 372 in 15 states

      The source of the outbreak has not yet been found

      Health officials are trying to pin down the source of an outbreak of Cyclosporiasis, a parasitic infection that causes long-lasting flu-like symptoms.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has been notified of 273 cases of the disease, including 21 hospitalizations, in 15 states. 

      The reports began on June 28, when two Iowa residents became ill. Since then, the CDC, Food and Drug Administration and state health departments have been trying to determine if the illnesses are related and whether there is a single source of infection.

      The count includes laboratory-confirmed infections in people who had no history of recent travel outside the United States and Canada. This CDC map shows the number and location of reported cases.

      Symptoms include sporadic episodes of diarrhea and low-grade fevers as well as weight loss, bloating, fatigue and occasional vomiting. Anyone whose mouth is unusually dry and who has little need to urinate and bouts of dizziness should seek medical attention.

      The infection is generally spread through the feces of infected people, generally via contaminated food or water. Direct person-to-person transmission is unlikely, because the oocysts shed in feces must mature in the environment (outside the host) to become infective to someone else, the CDC said.

      Cyclosporiasis appears to be most common in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Outbreaks in the United States and Canada have been linked to various types of imported fresh produce. People of all ages are at risk for infection, and travelers to developing countries can be at increased risk. 

      Health officials are trying to pin down the source of an outbreak of Cyclosporiasis, a parasitic infection that causes long-lasting flu-like symptoms.The...
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      Car thieves favor Mercedes-Benz

      Financial fraudsters lease luxury models and export them before the tires get dirty

      Criminals may have unorthodox work habits but nobody said they are lacking in taste, as demonstrated by the latest report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

      The insurance agency found that the Mercedes-Benz, a long-recognized symbol of luxury and performance, remains a favorite among car thieves. Three Mercedes-Benz models — the C Class, E Class and S Class — landed in the top 10.

      Overall, 4,384 luxury class vehicles were stolen during the period covered by this report. 

      Within the three sub-classes, compact luxury models had the highest number of thefts at 2,150. They were followed by mid-sized luxury models with 1,734 thefts. Premium luxury thefts totaled 500 units.

      Geographically, California had the most luxury thefts, with 1,063. South Dakota and Wyoming had the fewest -- one each.

      The top 10 states alone accounted for 3,547 luxury vehicle thefts — 81 percent of the total.

      Breaking it down by metro areas, however, puts the New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island area on top, with 806 thefts. The Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area came in second with 491 thefts while third place went to Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Pompano Beach.

      Of the 4,384 luxury vehicles stolen, 713 remain unrecovered at the time of the report. That translates to a recovery rate of 83.7 percent. The Infiniti G Series had the highest number of unrecovered thefts at 83, followed by the Mercedes-Benz E Class with 80, and the Mercedes-Benz C Class with 78.

      Financial fraud

      Not all "hot" cars are boosted in the dead of night. Some are driven right off the showroom floor by people who appear to be legitimate buyers. Those thefts often involve financial fraud and don't wind up in the stolen car reports.

      Many times luxury vehicles are leased or purchased on a payment plan and then the vehicles are quickly exported out of the country, as shown in this NCIB video:

      Stolen cars recovered at the Port of Long BeachCriminals may have unorthodox work habits but nobody said they are lacking in taste, as demonstrated by ...
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      A new tool helps patients stay healthier

      New system allows patients and doctors to share information more easily

      Once upon a time, it was pretty easy to hide things from your doctor. If you didn't tell where you were with your blood pressure, diet and overall health, you could probably keep these things to yourself, which pretty much prevented your doctor from knowing if or how how well you'd been following his instructions.

      You can still keep these kinds of things from your doctor if you want to, and that's why some of them are turning to patient home measuring devices to find out how their patients are doing.

      Do it yourself

      Partners Healthcare, a non-profit that owns several Massachusetts-based hospitals, has released a system that lets patients take readings at home and send the results to their doctor. 

      For now, Partners provides blood pressure cuffs that connect wirelessly to the organization's digital system, but glucometers still need to be attached to a computer for the information to be transferred.

      However, the system will become more advanced and be able to read other monitoring devices in the future, the creators say. 

      The system works by capturing results through short-range signals, explained Dr. Joseph Kvedar, one of the creators of the technology. "We're able to move them over the cellular network to our database in a secure manner," he said.

      Dr. John Halamka, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, wasn't involved in the new system, but he told The Boston Globe that doctors really want to see how well you're living in-between visits.

      "We want to watch how you're living in the home," he said. "We want to make interventions sooner rather than later and we want to keep you out of the hospital."

      Tailor-made care

      Kvedar says having the ability to send your readings digitally, helps doctors create the best care plan for you.

      "It turns out that your interaction with your doctor has two parts," said Kvedar in an interview with Mashable.

      "There's a technical component: Your doctor is gathering information about you to make a diagnoses and recommend a care plan. And then there's the emotional overlay," he said. "We're not taking your doctor's visit away. So much of what we do with patients is the algorithmic information; it's not that emotionally laden piece."

      In addition, Kvedar says that having access to patients' home readings, could motivate them to follow their doctor's advice much better. If patients know their doctor is eying their blood pressure readings, it might prompt them to lower their salt intake a bit. 

      The system works

      The new monitoring system worked that way for Susan Rice, a 61-year-old blood pressure patient, who said monitoring her pressure at home made her more responsible.

      "That little machine is my accountability," she said. "Seeing when it's high makes me want to bring it back to where it should be -- thinking, 'Oh, man, I must have screwed up some place.'"

      "It's clearly the future of where we need to go with healthcare," said Kvedar. '[Patients] will create their own program and move their health to a new level by just watching the numbers and improving them, like a batting average or an ERA."

      Once upon a time, it was pretty easy to hide things from your doctor. If you didn't tell where you were with your blood pressure, diet and overall health, ...
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      A dip in consumer confidence in July

      Economic and job expectations showed a little weakness

      Questions in consumers' minds about the outlook for jobs helped undercut their confidence in the economy in July.

      The Conference Board reports that after improving in June, its Confidence Consumer Index pulled back slightly and now stands at 80.3 -- down 1.8 from its June reading. While the Present Situation Index increased to 73.6 from 68.7, the Expectations Index fell to 84.7 from 91.1 last month.

      Job concerns

      “Consumer Confidence fell slightly in July, precipitated by a weakening in consumers’ economic and job expectations,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “However, confidence remains well above the levels of a year ago.”

      Consumers’ assessment of current conditions continues to gain ground, she added, “and expectations remain in expansionary territory despite the July retreat. Overall, indications are that the economy is strengthening and may even gain some momentum in the months ahead.”

      Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions continues to improve. Those who said business conditions are “good” increased to 20.9% from 19.4%, while those who think they are “bad” decreased to 24.5% from 24.9%. Consumers’ assessment of the job market was also more positive. Those claiming jobs are “plentiful” increased to 12.2% from 11.3%, while those who see jobs as “hard to get” declined to 35.5% from 37.1%.

      Short-term weakness

      Consumers’ expectations regarding the short-term outlook weakened in July. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months decreased to 19.1% from 21.4%. However, those looking for business conditions to worsen remained virtually unchanged at 11.2%.

      Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was less upbeat. Those forecasting more jobs in the months ahead declined to 16.5% from 19.7%, while those anticipating fewer jobs increased to 18.1% from 16.1%. The proportion of consumers who think their their incomes will increase dipped slightly to 15.3% from 15.9%; however those expecting a decrease fell to 13.8% from 14.2%.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was July 18.

      Questions in consumers' minds about the outlook for jobs helped undercut their confidence in the economy in July. The Conference Board reports that after ...
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      Home price surge continues in May

      Some post-meltdown highs were even posted

      Home prices in the U.S. continued to rise during May, with the best news coming for homeowners in Dallas and Denver.

      According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, a leading measure of U.S. home prices, the 10- and 20-City Composites were up 2.5% and 2.4%, respectively in May. Dallas and Denver reached record levels -- surpassing their pre-financial meltdown peaks set in June 2007 and August 2006, the first time any city has made a new all-time high.

      Even more impressive, the 10- and 20-City Composites posted annual increases of 11.8% and 12.2%, respectively -- the best year-over-year gains since March 2006.

      Strong showings

      “Home prices continue to strengthen,” says David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Two cities set new highs, surpassing their pre-crisis levels and five cities -- Atlanta, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle -- posted monthly gains of over three percent, also a first time event.

      The Southwest and the West saw the strongest year-over-year gains as San Francisco home prices rose 24.5% followed by Las Vegas and Phoenix. New York, Cleveland and Washington, DC, were the weakest. Monthly numbers, before seasonal adjustment, showed all 20 cities experienced rising prices. San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta were the leaders, while Cleveland and Minneapolis were down slightly after seasonal adjustment.

      “The overall report points to some shifts among various markets,” said Blitzer. “Washington,DC, is no longer the standout leader and the eastern Sunbelt cities -- Miami and Tampa -- are lagging behind their western counterparts.”

      Cities on the move

      All 20 cities showed positive monthly returns for May. Ten cities -- Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle and Tampa -- showed acceleration.

      Chicago posted an impressive monthly rate of 3.7% in May;, up one percentage point over April. Miami and Seattle had their largest monthly gains since August 2005 and April 1990, respectively.

      On an annual basis, all cities showed gains ranging from 3.3% to 24.5%. Twelve Metropolitan Statistical Areas -- Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Tampa -- posted double-digit growth. Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Francisco were the four cities to post annual increases of over 20%. Las Vegas and San Francisco accelerated as measured by their May versus April year-over-year returns.

      Although Atlanta and Phoenix continue to post impressive gains, their May annual rate decreased to just over 20% compared to April. Detroit showed the most deceleration with a three percentage point decline.  

      Home prices in the U.S. continued to rise during May, with the best news coming for homeowners in Dallas and Denver. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Hom...
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      FDA: Watch out for Healthy Life Chemistry dietary supplement

      Lab tests indicate presence of anabolic steroids

      It's a good idea to stay away from Healthy Life Chemistry By Purity First B-50, marketed as a vitamin B dietary supplement.

      According to a preliminary Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratory analysis, the product contains two potentially harmful anabolic steroids -- methasterone, a controlled substance, and dimethazine. These ingredients are not listed in the label and, FDA says they should not be in a dietary supplement.

      “Products marketed as a vitamin but which contain undisclosed steroids pose a real danger to consumers and are illegal,” said Howard Sklamberg, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The FDA is committed to ensuring that products marketed as vitamins and dietary supplements do not pose harm to consumers.”

      Numerous incident reports

      The FDA has received reports of 29 adverse incidents associated with the use of Healthy Life Chemistry By Purity First B-50. These reports include fatigue, muscle cramping, and myalgia (muscle pain), as well as abnormal laboratory findings for liver and thyroid function, and cholesterol levels.

      Women who used this product reported unusual hair growth and missed menstruation, and men who used the product reported impotence and findings of low testosterone. Consumers using Healthy Life Chemistry By Purity First B-50 who experience any of these symptoms should consult a health care professional and report their experience to the FDA.

      Using anabolic steroid-containing products may cause acute liver injury. Some of the cases reported have resulted in hospitalization, but there were no reports of death or acute liver failure.

      In addition, anabolic steroids may cause other serious long-term consequences in women, men and children. These include adverse effects on blood lipid levels; increased risk of heart attack and stroke; masculinization of women; shrinkage of the testicles; breast enlargement; infertility in men; and short stature in children.

      Failure to act

      Healthy Life Chemistry By Purity First B-50 is manufactured by Mira Health Products Ltd. in Farmingdale, N.Y., and is sold on various websites and in retail stores. The company has declined to recall the product or warn consumers about the potential for injury. Failure to promptly correct violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act may result in legal action including -- without limitation -- seizure, injunction, and/or criminal prosecution.

      Health care professionals are advised to ask their patients about any dietary supplements they may be using, particularly in patients exhibiting warning signs that may be associated with the use of steroids or steroid-like substances.

      These warning signs include liver injury, kidney failure and stroke. They also include hormone-associated adverse effects such as blood clots, including pulmonary embolism (a sudden blockage in a lung artery), and deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot that forms in a vein deep in the body, often in the lower leg or thigh).

      It's a good idea to stay away from Healthy Life Chemistry By Purity First B-50, marketed as a vitamin B dietary supplement. According to a preliminary F...
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      Midwest-CBK recalls bistro chairs

      The chair’s metal frame can bend or break

      Midwest-CBK of Cannon Falls, Minn., is recalling about 550 bistro chairs

      The chair’s metal frame can bend or break, posing a fall hazard to consumers. The firm has received two reports of the chairs breaking. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves distressed gray wash bistro chairs with metal frames, metal scrolling with wooden slats on the seatbacks, and round wooden slat seats. The chairs measure about 36 inches tall by 21 inches wide by 17 inches deep. Item number 304136 and UPC number 7384490413 are printed on a hangtag attached to the chair.

      The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at gift stores nationwide from August 2011, through June 2013, for about $110.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bistro chairs and contact Midwest-CBK for instructions on returning the chairs for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Midwest-CBK at (800) 394-4225 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

      Midwest-CBK of Cannon Falls, Minn., is recalling about 550 bistro chairs The chair’s metal frame can bend or break, posing a fall hazard to consumers. The...
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      Lawsuit: Tracfone's "unlimited" data plans are anything but

      Suit says the company and its partners routinely throttle data usage

      In a class action lawsuit, consumers claim that Tracfone Wireless falsely advertises "unlimited" data plans while clandestinely maintaining monthly data usage limits that are not disclosed to customers.

      Tracfone is the fifth-largest U.S. wireless carrier, with about 23 million subscribers. It also uses the StraightTalk Wireless brand name and sells its prepaid plans through Walmart, which is named in the suit, Courthouse News Service reported.

      The suit charges that the StraightTalk "Unlimited" plan, which costs about $45 per month, is anything but unlimited. 

      "A former Straight Talk employee stated that the monthly data cap in 2012 was between 2GB - 3GB, having been reduced from a prior 5GB limit at the behest of defendants' network carrier partners," the suit alleges. "More recently, the lower bounds of the limit may have been reduced to 1.5GB, based on customer reports. Defendants actively conceal these limits from 'unlimited' data customers."

      "Defendants throttle data speeds or terminate their 'unlimited' customers' data, typically without any notice or warning, when those customers exceed defendants' undisclosed data usage limits. At the direction of defendants' wireless network partners, defendants also regularly and arbitrarily throttle or terminate 'unlimited' customers' data even when a customers' data usage is below defendants' undisclosed limits," the plaintiffs claim.

      This sounds familiar to John of Troy, Mich. 

      "StraightTalk sold by Walmart is sold as having unlimited wireless and data service. Nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to the data portion," he said in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "I use my phone to receive emails - work and personal. I check Facebook and Twitter. This company will make you feel like you're a criminal.

      "Before my first month was over, they told me that I was using the internet too much, that I should look at section 107 in my contract and that they would suspend my service and/or limit the speed in which the service runs. In the second month, they did suspend (cut off my service). I can make calls and text, but anything related to the internet is cut off," John said. 

      Some consumers have also complained that the "unlimited" service they thought they were buying turned out to be geographically limited.

      "Unlimited data? Not so unlimited if you leave your zip code," said Andrea of Appleton, Wis., in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs. "The city in which we live in carries 5 or 6 different zip codes. We would not even have access to the unlimited internet in our own full city! Unbelievable!"

      Blame the customer

      Consumers rate TracFone

      Lead plaintiff David Hansel says Tracfone and Walmart routinely blame customers for "misusing" their accounts or violating its terms and conditions.

      Hansel claims the data limits are the result of Tracfone's deals with other carriers, whose bandwidth it resells. 

      "Defendants terminated customers' data at the behest of their wireless network partners when a particular cell tower is at or near data capacity, regardless of whether that customer's data usage has exceeded defendants' secret data usage limits," the complaint states.

      Hansel's lead counsel is Michael Sobol of the law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein. 

      In a class action lawsuit, consumers claim that Tracfone Wireless falsely advertises "unlimited" data plans while clandestinely maintaining monthly data us...
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      Can you qualify for a mortgage?

      Despite the housing recovery, it isn't getting much easier

      You watched as home prices plunged, along with interest rates. You've continued to watch as home prices have risen, along with interest rates. Is now the time to finally buy a home, before prices and rates rise too much?

      Maybe, but first you have to qualify for a mortgage, and that isn't quite as simple as it once was. Before the housing crash, anyone with a pulse could get a loan. But after wave after wave of foreclosures, lenders have dramatically tightened standards to limit risk.

      If you've never applied for a mortgage, or haven't applied for one in the last five years, you might not know what to expect. Here are some steps to take to find out whether you can get a loan and how much you can borrow.

      Price range

      First, how much house do you think you can afford? Keep in mind what you think you can afford and what you actually can afford may be two different things. So, before you start looking at the real estate ads, you need to get an idea of your price range.

      If you are working with a Realtor, they will help you through the process. But you should know what kind of information will affect affordability.

      First, there's your income – the money you and a spouse or partner earn. That includes both salary as well as income from social security, pensions, alimony or investments.

      Next comes your monthly expenses. Typically a lender will look at your recurring expenses, like car payments and other installment loans. Credit card debt can also be a huge factor, both the total amount and your monthly payments. Other locked-in expenses like alimony are also considered.

      Owning a house will also carry recurring expenses, such as taxes and homeowners insurance. If you happen to buy a condo, the monthly homeowners' fee will also be subtracted from the income side.

      You'll find a number of mortgage pre-qualification calculators online, such as this one at

      Down payment

      An all important question is how much money you have for a down payment. These days banks almost always want to see at least 20% down on a conventional loan. If you have $25,000, that has you looking at homes in the $115,000 to $120,000 range. In addition to the down payment you'll have to pay closing costs, so not all of that $25,000 will go toward the purchase.

      If you're a first-time home buyer and don't have a large amount to put down, you might qualify for an FHA loan. Because the government guarantees the loan, lenders are willing to accept as little as 3.5% down.

      While FHA qualifying requirements aren't as tough as they are for conventional loans, some prospective buyers may still find them challenging. For starters, you need a credit score of 620 of higher. Most conventional lenders want a credit score at least 100 points higher.


      You need two years of steady employment with income the same or rising – a difficult hurdle in this environment. If you've declared bankruptcy, it must be at least two years in the past and properly discharged. Any past foreclosures must be at least three years old with perfect credit since.

      Your mortgage payment should be no more than 30% of your gross monthly income. For example, if the estimated mortgage payment would be $750 and you earned $2,850 a month, your payment would only be 26% of your income. However, there are things that can blow you out of the water.

      Lenders will look at other debt, and if you have a car payment or two, and a large credit card balance, a mortgage underwriter will likely determine that you are not a good risk.

      Where to start

      The National Association of Realtors suggests you start with your credit score. If it isn't high enough, you probably are not going to qualify for a loan. Pull your credit report at – it's the only place to get a free copy with no strings attached – and then get your FICO score. You'll probably have to pay for that, unless you go ahead and apply for a loan – the mortgage company is then obligated to tell you want your score is.

      A high score will not only improve your chances of getting a loan, it will get you a lower interest rate. If there are inaccuracies on your credit report, take action to get the information corrected before you go any further. If your score is low, take steps to raise it. Make sure you pay bills on time and pay down debt, for starters.

      Once you are confident that you can afford a home and qualify for a mortgage, approach a loan officer and try to get pre-qualified for a mortgage. After giving them all your financial information, the officer will then tell you how much you may be able to borrow.

      “May,” because nothing is guaranteed. A pre-qualification letter from a mortgage company is the price of admission to go on the great house hunt. These days, most Realtors don't want to begin showing your houses until they know you have completed the first step in getting a mortgage.

      You watched as home prices plunged, along with interest rates. You've continued to watch as home prices have risen, along with interest rates. Is now the t...
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      Online banks may help you boost your savings plan

      They pay higher interest rates and most have no fees

      Putting money away for a rainy day appears to be one of those quaint notions of the past, like Sunday dinner with the family or a hot meal on an airline flight. These days, a growing number of people live paycheck to paycheck. An unexpected expense can be catastrophic.

      According to the U.S. Commerce Department, in 1970 Americans saved around 10% of their disposable income – disposable incoming being what is left after paying taxes, mortgage, insurance and other fixed expenses. In January 2013 the savings rate was down to 2.2%.

      Data compiled by financial website shows the average U.S. household has only $3,800 in savings. More distressing, 25% of households have no savings at all.

      Saving money, of course, starts with a budget. You have to track your income and expenses and end up with a positive balance at the end of the budget period. Cutting expenses and increasing income will increase the amount of money that can go into savings.

      Where to put your money

      But where do you put your savings? Banks now have minimum deposit requirements and a host of fees that have discouraged some from opening savings accounts. The paltry interest paid is not much of an incentive either.

      Polina Polishchuk, an editor at NextAdvisor, suggests looking at opening a savings account in an online bank. Unlike a traditional bank, she says online banks are more consumer-friendly.

      “That's why we were for online savings accounts,” Polishchuk said. “They don't have fees. There's no minimum balance requirement, or requirements for how much money you have to deposit into the account every month. And the interest rates they pay are much higher than regular banks.”

      They do pay a higher interest rate – though it can be considered high only in comparison to what traditional banks pay. The annual percentage yield (APY) is still under 1%. Still, it beats what the big banks are paying.

      “When you choose an online savings account your money, no matter how much you put in there, will go farther if it pays a higher interest rate,” Polishchuk said. “And, it doesn't charge a fee.”

      More valuable than interest

      The absence of fees may be more important than the amount of interest you earn on your savings. A $10 fee here and a $20 fee there quickly wipes out any earnings and actually eats into your savings.

      Online banks typically make it easier to get started with a savings plan. While some traditional banks require you to open an account with a specific minimum amount, online banks usually have no minimum deposit requirement.

      Here are some online banks and what they offer in the way of savings products:

      Ally Bank: Formerly GMAC Financial, Ally's savings account has no minimum deposit to open and no monthly maintenance fees. It currently is paying 0.84% APY.

      Capital One 360: This online bank, part of ING Direct, advertises “no fees, no minimum” for its savings accounts. It currently pays 0.75% APY.

      American Express: The credit card company's online bank features a savings account with “no monthly fees, no minimum balance.” It currently pays a competitive 0.85% APY.

      USAA Bank: The insurance giant's online bank has a savings account with “no monthly service fees, regardless of your balance.” It also features tiered rates, paying higher interest on larger balances. Current savings account rates range from 0.10% to 0.20% APY.

      EVantage Bank: Perhaps the best online savings account isn't even a savings account. EVantage Bank's Rewards Checking is a free checking account that currently pays 2.0% APY on balances up to $10,000. All you are required to do is post and clear 10 Evantage Bank Visa CheckCard sales transactions per cycle and receive all statements electronically. As a bonus, out-of-network ATM fees are refunded, up to $25 per cycle.

      Putting money away for a rainy day appears to be one of those quaint notions of the past, like Sunday dinner with the family or a hot meal on an airline fl...
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      More pregnant moms are getting hand-held assistance

      There are a bunch of useful apps for pregnant mothers. We pulled some of the coolest

      Recently, we mentioned a few apps and websites that help parents document their child's special moments. From Tweekaboo to, a lot of companies are coming up with some pretty cool ways to capture the cute little things that children do every day.

      And now there's an app for soon-to-be-mothers called Pregnancy Companion, made by a team of OB-GYNs who specialize in fertility and high-risk pregnancy.

      Denise Terry, co-founder and CEO of OB-on-the-Go, the makers of the app, says Pregnancy Companion gives pertinent health advice to pregnant mothers  24 hours a day, seven days a week.

      "Pregnancy Companion provides pregnant moms with expert medical and health information and pregnancy tracking tools through a pregnancy mobile application by expert board-certified obstetricians directly on iPhone and Android," said Terry in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. "It provides daily notifications and pregnancy status for every day of pregnancy, giving a pregnant mom relevant health tips and pregnancy health content accessible anytime."

      "She can keep track of her 'To Do' list, her doctor's appointments, her daily water intake, her list of questions for her health provider, and much more," explained Terry.

      Videos too

      Pregnancy Companion comes with videos as well.

      "The app provides pregnancy education videos including baby videos in utero plus wellness tips like prenatal yoga poses, pregnancy nutrition guidelines and even acupressure points to reduce nausea and common pregnancy health complaints," Terry said.

      However, despite all of the pregnancy apps on the market today, experts say you should always speak to your doctor for any questions you have and you shouldn't rely solely on this app or any other for advice.

      But that certainly doesn't mean that pregnancy apps aren't useful. In fact, they can be very useful as long as they're coupled with regular OB-GYN visits.

      So instead of heading to Barnes & Noble to purchase a bunch of cumbersome baby books, you can download any number of apps to help you along the way. Like the pregnancy app I'm ExpectingIt has a pregnancy calendar and tracker, a feature that allows you to track your symptoms, so it'll be easier to tell your doctor what you've been feeling, and it gives you updates about your baby's development and growth. And that's just some of the features.

      Then there's My Pregnancy Today, an app that provides fetal development images so you can see how your baby is changing, a "Kick Tracker" so you can record how your baby is moving around and a nutrition guide to help you eat right.

      Spread the news

      Another cool pregnancy app is Belly Snaps, which allows you to share the announcement of your pregnancy in a fun and unique way through photos.

      In addition, the app gives pregnant mothers the chance to capture photos of their growing baby and they can track that growth either month to month or week to week. It can help mothers announce the baby's arrival too.

      But what Belly Snaps doesn't have are live OB-GYNs who can answer any questions you might have.  Not only does Pregnancy Companion have a human-to-human component to it, it helps with prescription drug safety as well.

      "Pregnant moms can ask the OBs questions using the "Ask the Docs" feature, with a response via email and through the app within 2 to 3 day's time," said Terry. "The comprehensive drug safety checker for pregnancy provides safety recommendations regarding whether a drug is safe, unsafe, or whether a mom should talk to her doctor to get personalized advice for that drug, depending on her health history and condition."

      "Moms no longer need to call their doctor at 3 a.m. if they have a headache and are worried about taking a Tylenol during pregnancy, which is recommended as 'safe' by the app," noted Terry.

      Currently, the app has a 4.5 star rating in the Google App Store and there are a lot of favorable reviews in Apple's app store.

      Recently, we mentioned a few apps and websites that help parents document their child's special moments.From Tweekaboo to, it seems ...
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      Reminder: Smartphone batteries can be dangerous

      Counterfeit batteries, poor handling and damage can all lead to problems

      Batteries are everywhere but, as Boeing's problems with its 787 Dreamliner show, they can be the source of serious safety issues. And the lithium-ion batteries that power our smartphones are no exception.

      Lithium-ion batteries hold a lot of energy in a small package.  They offer numerous advantages over other types of batteries, including the capacity to hold their charge longer and the ability to be recharged numerous times.  Yet, lithium-ion batteries are more sensitive to physical stress than the alkaline batteries found in toys and flashlights and they need to be treated with more care.

      With wireless devices now outnumbering humans in the United States, there are lots of these little powerhouses floating around out there, which has inspired the Consumer Product Safety Commission and CTIA, the trade association that represents the mobile phone industry, to issue some safety guidelines:

      1) Do not use batteries and chargers that are incompatible with your mobile device.  Some websites and secondhand dealers sell incompatible, counterfeit, or poorly manufactured batteries and chargers.  Consumers should buy only manufacturer- or carrier-recommended products and accessories.  
      2) Do not let a loose battery come in contact with metal objects, such as coins, keys, or jewelry.  Metal objects can cross the electrical connections and cause an incident.
      3) Do not crush, puncture or put a high degree of pressure on the battery, as this can cause an internal short-circuit, resulting in overheating.
      4) Do not place the phone or batteries in areas that may get very hot, such as on or near a cooking surface, cooking appliance, iron, or radiator.
      5) Avoid dropping the mobile device.  Dropping it, especially on a hard surface, can potentially cause damage to the device and battery.  If you suspect damage to the device or battery, take it to a service center for inspection.
      6) Do not let your mobile device or battery get wet.  Even though the device will dry out and may appear to operate normally, the battery contacts or circuitry could slowly corrode and pose a safety hazard.
      7) Follow battery usage, storage, and charging guidelines found in the user's guide.

      All this might sound a little alarmist, but there have been a number of incidents over the last decade or so that could easily have turned into major disasters.

      For example, in 2011, an iPhone started to smoke aboard an Australian airliner. In 2004, a California teen suffered burns when her Kyocera cell phone caught fire, bursting into "fist-sized flames." 

      Batteries are everywhere but, as Boeing's problems with its 787 Dreamliner show, they can be the source of serious safety issues. And the lithium-ion batte...
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      How public libraries fit into the digital age

      We picked out a couple of apps that many libraries are using

      The good old public library. Boy, how it used to be a major stop in our weekly runs. 

      Whether it was to pick up or drop off books, research something we were looking for, or just as a quiet place to read or study, the library rivaled places like the bank and the supermarket when it came to frequent visits.

      All of that has changed now.

      People are using their Kindle to access books and there's always the Internet if you want to research something. And when it comes to reading and studying, it seems people are going to places like Starbucks and Panera instead of the library for some reason -- even though these places are anything but quiet. And anything but free.

      So just like a lot of places we used to frequent a lot, before we were sucked into the digital age, the library has become an afterthought to many, which is nothing like it was back in the day. I mean, remember when visiting your local branch at least twice a week was a normal thing to do?

      Hoopla to the rescue

      Certainly it's not like that anymore, but local libraries are taking a defensive swing at the digital age to stay relevant and to hopefully climb back towards the consciousness of consumers. And they're using an app called Hoopla to do it.

      Hoopla allows you to use your library card to access online movies, audio-books, television shows and music, and the creators say you'll be able to access thousands of titles right on the spot.

      And probably the best part of using the app is, there's no going back and forth to the library to pick up or drop off selections. You'll be able to use Hoopla to temporarily download or stream content immediately and access it through your smartphone, tablet or computer.

      Your local library will have to set up an account with Hoopla if it hasn't done so already, and if a staff person isn't aware of the app, you could direct him or her to the website.

      So far, the libraries that have an account with Hoopla include Charlotte Mecklenburg Library; Columbus Metropolitan Library; Edmonton Public Library; Los Angeles Public Library; Orange County Library System in Florida; Salt Lake County Library Services; Seattle Public Library; and Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

      Easy to use

      And what has the feedback on Hoopla been so far?

      Apparently, people like how easy it is to use and how fast it seems to works.

      "Instantly borrowing and streaming content free from a library is great but this being the easiest app I've ever used makes it greater," one user wrote. "Never any waiting for content."

      Other users like the music content, which may be a surprise to some, who might associate the library with having outdated selections. 

      "Love this app," one user wrote. "Really good music content. Macklemore, Rihanna, Muse, Madonna, Prince and so many others."

      However, one user said he had trouble getting the app to work on his device, and when he called his local library, he wasn't given any help.

      Which means it's probably best to contact Hoopla if you're having any trouble instead of contacting the library directly. You would of course contact the library if your card is being rejected by the app or if Hoopla doesn't have any record of your library signing up with it.

      "I can log in via the web, but can't get the app to work on my iPhone or iPad," wrote the user. "Library no help. No settings to check in app. Resetting password doesn't help. Useless if you can't get past the bad URL error."

      Other apps

      But Hoopla isn't the only app that's connected to public libraries. Many branches throughout the U.S. have added a digital component. Some branches are using an app called 3M Cloud Library, which allows you to access fiction and non-fiction eBooks through your library card.

      3M is another app that your local library will have to sign up for, and once it does, you'll be able to borrow thousands of titles instantly.

      There are some who say the app takes a little while to load, but they put up with it because it's the only app their local library uses, which means it might be a good idea to speak to your local branch to see what types of apps and digital services it's using.

      But each branch might be using more than one, as more and more public libraries will be going the digital route to keep up with everything else that has gone digital.

      The good old public library. Boy, how it used to be a major stop in our weekly runs. Whether it was to pick up or drop off books, used to resea...
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      Pending home sales drop in June

      Rising mortgage interest rates are taking a toll

      Mortgage interest rates are on the riser and, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), that's not helpful when it comes to home sales.

      The NAR reports its Pending Home Sales Index (HSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, edged down 0.4% in June -- to 110.9 in June after reaching the highest level in over six years. Still, the index is but is 10.9% higher than it was at the same time a year ago. In fact, pending sales have been above year-ago levels for the past 26 months, and the pace in May was the highest since December 2006.

      The interest rate impact

      Higher home prices and interest rates are beginning to affect affordability, notably in high-cost regions. “Mortgage interest rates began to rise in May, taking some of the momentum out of contract activity in June,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “The persistent lack of inventory also is contributing to lower contract signings.”

      Mortgage rates actually slipped a bit last week. Freddie Mac reports 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.31% with an average 0.8 point for the week ending July 25 -- down 6 basis points from the previous week, when it averaged 4.37%. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.49%.

      Yun notes not all contracts go to closing. “There are some homebuyers who sign contracts with strong lender commitment letters, but have floating mortgage interest rates,” he said. “Those rates can be locked as late as 10 to 14 days before closing, so some homebuyers may change their minds if the rate rises too much, which apparently happened with some sales scheduled to close in June. Closed sales may edge down a bit in the months ahead, but they’ll stay above year-ago levels.”

      Pending sales regionally

      The PHSI in the Northeast was unchanged at 87.2 in June but is 12.2% higher than a year ago. In the Midwest the index slipped 1.0% to 114.3, but is 19.5% above June 2012. Pending home sales in the South fell 2.1% to an index of 118.3 in June, but are 9.5% higher than a year ago. The index in the West rose 3.3% to 114.2, and is 4.4% above June 2012.

      Based on year-to-date sales activity, and stable contract signings expected for the balance of the year, NAR projects existing-home sales to rise more than 8% this year, with inventory leading the median price to rise by nearly 11%.

      Mortgage interest rates are on the riser and, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), that's not helpful when it comes to home sales. The...
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      Delayed stroke treatment costly for women

      Getting to the hospital quickly is key to successful treatment

      Women with strokes caused by clots are less likely than men to arrive at the hospital in time to receive the best treatment, according to a European study.

      In the study that included 5,515 patients at 12 hospitals in the Netherlands, 11% of women with acute ischemic strokes were treated with the clot-dissolving medication alteplase, compared with 14% of men. The study was reported in the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

      Researchers say there was no gender gap when they looked only at patients who arrived at the hospital within four hours of the onset of symptoms. Forty-two percent of both men and women arriving within the four-hour window received alteplase.

      "Our study showed that women in the Netherlands were treated just as often with thrombolytic agents as men once they arrived in time for treatment," said Inger de Ridder, M.D., lead author of the study and AIOS Resident of Neurology at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

      The findings may also apply to patients in the United States, researchers said.

      Delays to blame

      Researchers say the gender gap in treatment may be due to delays in getting to the hospital. Women arrived at the hospital an average 27 minutes later than men, and a smaller percentage of women (27%) than men (33%) arrived at the hospital within the four-hour window.

      Furthermore, women in the study were an average four years older and may consequently have been more likely to live alone, making it more difficult to summon help. The severity of stroke was similar for men and women.

      "More education about stroke symptoms is needed, and also more research to find out why women arrive later at the hospital," de Ridder said.

      Stroke symptoms include: drooping or numbness in the face; weakness or numbness in the arms; and speech difficulty. Stroke is the No. 4 cause of death and the leading preventable cause of disability in the United States.

      Women with strokes caused by clots are less likely than men to arrive at the hospital in time to receive the best treatment, according to a European study....
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      Questionable mattress ads banned

      There was no scientific evidence to back up claims

      Three mattress manufacturers will stop making unsupported claims that the mattresses they sell are free of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

      In addition to challenging the companies’ VOC-free claims, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged that two of the companies made unsupported claims that their mattresses were chemical-free and lacked odor. The agency also challenged one company’s claim that its mattresses are made from 100 percent natural materials, and another's claim that its mattresses were certified by an organic mattress organization.

      In settling the FTC’s charges, the companies have agreed not to make similar claims in the future, unless they have competent and reliable scientific evidence to prove they are true. In addition, one company is barred from making misrepresentations about certifications.

      VOCs are carbon-containing compounds that easily evaporate at room temperature. Some can be harmful to human health and the environment. Last year, the FTC brought a similar set of cases against paint companies that also advertised their products as VOC-free.


      The FTC’s complaint alleges that Relief-Mart, based in Westlake Village, California, did not have and rely upon a reasonable basis to substantiate its claims that its Biogreen memory foam mattresses do not contain VOCs, have no VOC off-gassing, and lack the odors commonly associated with memory foam mattresses.

      Essentia Natural Memory Foam Company

      The FTC alleges that Essentia made unsubstantiated claims that its mattresses do not contain VOCs, are chemical-free, have no chemical off-gassing or odor, and are made from 100 percent natural materials. Moreover, the complaint alleges that Essentia claimed that tests show that its memory foam is free of VOCs and formaldehyde when, in fact, tests do not support these claims.

      Ecobaby Organics

      The complaint against Ecobaby, based in San Diego, California, alleges that Ecobaby made unsubstantiated claims that its mattresses are chemical-free; formaldehyde-free; free of VOCs, such as toluene and benzene; and without toxic substances. The complaint further alleges that the company misrepresented that its mattresses are certified by an independent third-party certifier when, in fact, the certifier is an alter ego of the company that awarded its seal to its own products without applying objective standards. Finally, according to the complaint, Ecobaby Organics claimed that tests show that its mattresses are VOC-free, chemical-free, and Formaldehyde-free when tests do not support these claims.

      The orders

      The proposed orders bar the three companies from making VOC-free claims unless the VOC level is zero micrograms per cubic meter or the company relies upon competent and reliable scientific evidence that its mattresses contain no more than trace levels of VOCs, based on the guidance in the FTC’s Green Guides. The orders also bar environmental benefit or attribute claims, and certain health claims, unless they are true, not misleading, and supported by scientific evidence.

      In addition, the Essentia and Ecobaby orders bar the companies from making chemical-free claims, prohibit any misrepresentations about whether the companies have testing to prove the claims about their mattresses, and bar the companies from making non-toxic claims without scientific support.

      The Relief-Mart and Essentia orders also bar the companies from making certain types of odor claims unless they are true, not misleading, and supported by scientific evidence. The Essentia order also bars the company from making natural claims without scientific support. Finally, the Ecobaby order prohibits the company from making misrepresentations about third-party certifications of its mattresses.

      Three mattress manufacturers will stop making unsupported claims that the mattresses they sell are free of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In a...
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      Credit cards less consumer-friendly in second quarter

      The attractiveness of those 0% balance transfer offers has peaked

      Consumers interested in transferring high-interest credit card balances and taking advantage of a 0% introductory rate should act quickly. A study of credit card rates and offers in the second quarter show these deals aren't getting any better.

      In its review of the credit card landscape in the second quarter, credit card website found the average 0% introductory rate for balance transfers now remains in effect for 9.94 months. That's down 3.40% from the first quarter.

      The average 0% intro rate for new purchases is a bit longer, averaging 10.17 months. CardHub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou says 0% offers are now as good as they're going to get.

      “I think what is important to say here is the 0% offers have peaked and I really think this is the time to take advantage,” he said. “If you have a balance at a high rate, this is the time to go ahead and do a balance transfer.”

      Easy way to save money

      Transferring to a card with a 0% balance, even for a few months, can save hundreds of dollars and allow consumers to make significant reductions in their account balance. Every dollar of their payment during the introductory period goes to paying down the balance.

      Using a credit card calculator, a consumer can devise a budget plan for paying off a credit card balance and get a list of the credit cards with the best 0% transfer offers. 

      Overall, the credit card environment was less friendly to consumers in the second quarter. At least, less friendly to some consumers.

      “Interest rates for consumers who have good to excellent credit seem to be at a stable level,” Papadimitriou said. “But interest rates for consumers with fair credit or bad credit are trending upward.”

      Lack of competition

      One reason for that is a lack of competition. There are simply fewer credit card companies willing to issue cards to people with subprime credit.

      “With HSBC selling the majority of its portfolio to Capital One, there aren't that many issuers in that space,” Papadimitriou said.

      In 2009, in the depths of the credit crisis, ConsumerAffairs received hundreds of complaints from Chase credit card customers when Chase unilaterally closed their accounts. All had been former Washington Mutual customers. Papadimitriou says it's no mystery. Before it got into trouble, Washington Mutual had purchased Providia – at the time a major player in the subprime credit card space.

      “At the height of the recession Washington Mutual failed and Chase absorbed it,” he said. “The last thing Chase wanted was to take on the subprime credit customers it inherited.”


      Fees remained mostly stable in the second quarter. The big exception was the cash advance fee. According to the CardHub report, the average cash advance fee is now $10.88 – up 22.11% year-over-year.

      The average balance transfer fee during the period was 2.88% of the amount transferred. That's 2.86% higher than last quarter but 3.03% lower than during the second quarter of 2012.

      The average foreign transaction fee was 2.22% – the same as it was this time last year.

      There was also a new trend in complaints in the second quarter. Complaints about credit reporting errors dropped out of the top three, replaced by a rise in complaints about fraud and identity theft.

      Consumers interested in transferring high-interest credit card balances and taking advantage of a 0% introductory rate should act quickly. A study of credi...
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      Poll: Trader Joe's meat doesn't always meet customers' expectations

      Petition drive asks the food chain to stop selling meat from animals treated with antibiotics

      Most consumers are pretty satisfied with Trader Joe's, right? Sure there are some who could take or leave the chain, but considering how crowded Trader Joe's is and how long the lines are, it's easy to tell it's a pretty popular place.

      But according to a recently conducted poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, a lot of folks think Trader Joe's should stop selling meat and poultry whose feed contains antibiotics.

      Many health experts are against antibiotics being routinely fed to animals for a variety of reasons, including the potential for bacteria to build up a resistance to the drugs.

      "Once there is a resistance to the drug, it would not be effective in treating an infection," said Dr. Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, a pharmacy professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia.

      Public approval

      However, most of Trader Joe's customers feel good about the efforts the company makes and many believe it's doing a good job of not selling products that are bad for humans or the environment.

      In addition, the poll shows that although customers feel good about many of Trader Joe's practices, plenty of folks still have no idea that it sells meat from animals that have been treated with large doses of antibiotics.

      Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, says although consumers are generally pleased with Trader Joe's, they still want the company to go another route with its meat products.

      "Trader Joe's is clearly not living up to its customers' expectations when it comes to antibiotics and meat," said Halloran. "Trader Joe's customers want the company to take a stand on this critical public health issue by refusing to sell meat from animals routinely fed antibiotics."

      Consumers raise their voices

      Consumers are speaking up about the issue. So far, more than 650,000 consumers have either signed petitions, flyers or postcards and almost 5,000 have voiced their opinion on Trader Joe's customer service line. 

      Of course it's not just Trader Joe's that's selling meat with antibiotics; most other stores do it too, and according to The New York Times, drug makers sold nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics for livestock in 2011, which was around 80% of all antibiotic sales that year.

      But groups like the National Pork Producers Council are giving a lot of pushback and suggest there still isn't enough proof about the supposed dangers of eating meat from animals that have been fed large doses of antibiotics.

      "Not only is there no scientific study linking antibiotic resistance in humans, as the U.S. pork industry has continually pointed out, but there isn't even adequate data to conduct a study," said the group in a 2011 statement.

      How much do they know?

      In the Consumer Reports poll, only 23% of Trader Joe's customers are aware that the company sells meat with antibiotics. And 87% said the grocery chain should work with outside groups to avoid this practice.

      Additionally, 69% of Trader Joe's customers believe all grocery stores selling meat from animals treated with antibiotics are doing a disservice to their customers, while 56% feel the opposite.

      Other findings show that 78% of consumers would rather shop at a store that doesn't sell antibiotic-dosed meat. And when consumers were asked what was more important to them -- non-antibiotic meat or cheaper prices -- only 30% said price was more important.

      But some are confused as to why Trader Joe's can't sell all of its meat without antibiotics, since 80% of its products are private label, which should give the company a little more power with its suppliers.

      Action needed

      Even its critics admit the company is doing more than a lot of chains when it comes to selling natural products. But Halloran says it can still do more.

      "Public health experts agree that we must curb the overuse of antibiotics in livestock to preserve their effectiveness to treat disease," he said.

      Consumers rate Trader Joe's

      "We can't afford to continue wasting vital medications by routinely feeding them to healthy animals. Trader Joe's should use its leverage with suppliers to live up to its customers' expectations and stop selling meat raised on antibiotics."

      On May 3 of this year, Trader Joe's issued a note to customers on its website that lists which items are antibiotic-free. And the company says that based on customers' requests, it's very interested in offering meat and poultry products that are antibiotic-free.

      "We understand the importance of our customers' decisions when it comes to their grocery shopping and do not presume to make choices for them," the company wrote. "We work hard to offer products we think fit our customers needs--covering a range of considerations."

      "When it comes to meat and poultry, Trader Joe's offers items from sources of a conventional nature (where antibiotics are likely used) and sources that do not use antibiotics (organic or explicitly labeled as anti-biotic-free [ABF]."

      You can read the full note here.

      Trader Joe's did not immediately respond to an email seeking further comment.

      Most consumers are pretty satisfied with Trader Joe's, right?Sure there are some who could take or leave the chain, but gauging how crowded Trader Joe's ...
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      American Idol discriminates against black contestants, suit charges

      The 434-page lawsuit charges blacks are more likely to be disqualified for outside activities

      A class action lawsuit claims that American Idol routinely uses background information about black contestants to publicly humiliate them and boot them off the show.

       "Over the course of the show's eleven year history, the adverse action of being 'officially disqualified' from American Idol was reserved exclusively for black contestants, and more specifically, black male contestants," the lawsuit argues, Courthouse News Service reported.

      The plaintiffs are Jaered Andrews, Cory Clark, Donnie Williams, Terrell Brittenum, Derrell Brittenum, Thomas Daniels, Akron Watson, Chris Golightly, Jacob John Smalley and Ju'Not Joyner.

      They claim that the defendants "engaged in a conscious effort to perpetuate false stereotypes about African-Americans" by publicly throwing 15 black contestants off the show compared to no such actions against white contestants. The suit, which seeks damages of $250 million, names  Freemantle N.A., Fox Broadcasting, Ford Motors, Coca-Cola, AT&T, and Nigel Lythgoe.

      One of the plaintiffs, Cory Clark, was disqualified from the second season of American Idol after it was revealed that he had been charged with battery, resisting arrest and other charges in a 2002 incident at his Topeka, Kan., home. 

      Two years later, Clark charged in an e-book, They Told Me to Tell the Truth, So...: The Sex, Lies and Paulatics of One of America's Idols, that he had enjoyed a sexual relationship with singer Paula Abdul, then a judge on the show. 

      In 2003, Jaered Andrews was charged with assault after a bar fight that ended in the death of a 39-year-old man in Farrell, Pa. Reports at the time said that Andrews had been celebrating his selection as a finalist on the talent show. 

      A class action lawsuit claims that American Idol routinely uses background information about black contests to publicly humiliate them and boot them off th...
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      New Beats by Dr. Dre headphones are coming

      How will they measure up to the original model?

      It's been five years since Dr. Dre released his Beats by Dr. Dre studio headphones.

      Along with Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, Dre's headphones have been quite the hit, and in case you didn't notice, just look around.

      From city to city and burb to burb, you'll see the young, the old, the music lover and the occasional music listener, all walking around with headphones that have that lower case "B" on it. And come this August, you'll probably see even more folks walking around with them.

      New and improved

      Beats Electronics, the company behind the headphones, just announced it will release a new and improved version next month.

      And Iovine says the company has taken the original model and made it much better by increasing the level of accuracy and balance.

      "With the original Studio headphone we set out to prove that people all around the world care enough about sound to invest in it, and we did," said Iovine. "Now we are taking it a step further. The new Studio is tuned with balance, accuracy and emotion, has a breathtaking design and truly innovative technology. This is the sound of the future."

      And what will that futuristic sound entail?

      The company says the new headphones will come with new custom-made digital software called Beats Acoustic Engine, which is supposed to provide the ultimate balance in each pair.

      Pricey 'phones

      Now are we telling you to run out and purchase these headphones?

      Absolutely not, because with a starting price of $300, it would be presumptuous of us to think most consumers would pay this kind of money for a pair of headphones. But we do like to introduce products that have a level of coolness and a history of success, and Dre's headphones and his other products certainly fit that bill.

      And besides the accompanying software, the headphones will come with adaptive noise cancellation, which will give users the ability to switch between two different sound modes.

      Plus, the amount of noise cancellation will automatically adjust depending on where you're using the headphones. And when they're unplugged, the noise cancellation will kick up a notch, the company says.

      You won't have to purchase batteries anymore either.

      The new Studio headphones will come with a rechargeable battery instead of the AAA batteries needed before, and the company says you'll be able to get 20 hours of listening time with each new charge.

      In addition, the company says the headphones are lighter and the ear cups will be able to fit your ears much better. But if you ask me, there really isn't much difference in appearance between the new version and the original model.

      Dre alternatives

      If you'd like to get a good pair of headphones for about $100 less, you may want to give the Yamaha EPH-100s a try.

      The EPH 100s are the in-the-ear type of headphones, but general Internet reviews say the ear buds provide almost as good a thump as Dre's headphones.

      "My Yamaha EPH-100 headphones sound better than these," said Shane Scott Williams, who left a comment after reading another report on Dre's headphones. But I'm not sure how he was able to compare the two since Dre's headphones won't be out for another month.

      The "bass isn't fantastic," he added. "They are in-ear, but definitely noticeable and very nice across the mids and highs. For my preference in music, I live [in] my 100s and when I can afford new more expensive headphones, I will probably drop some good money on some Westone 3 on-ears."

      When they first launched, the Beats headphones were owned by the company Monster, but as of 2012 Dre and Iovine started their own company -- Beats Electronics -- and since then, they've seemed to improve on the sound quality with each go around.

      Dre says that's the game plan, because he wants the listener to experience the music in the exact way it was meant to be listened to.

      "Music is my first love," said Dr. Dre. "It's how artists and producers communicate with their fans, but if the sound isn't right then the emotion isn't right and the meaning gets lost in translation."

      It's been five years since Dr. Dre released his Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones.Along with Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, Dre's ...
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      Use caution when seeking online immigration help

      Some sites may not be who or what they seem

      Consumers dealing with immigration issues should use extreme care when dealing with online entities that offer assistance at a price. Many of these operations turn out not to be legitimate.

      In early 2011 a federal judge shut down an operation accused of posing as the U.S. government, then duping consumers into paying fees ranging from $200 to $2,500, claiming the fees would cover processing by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

      A year later the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached settlements with an entity calling itself the Immigration Center, which was accused of tricking people into paying up to $2,500 for immigration forms. The court subsequently shut down the operation, froze the defendants' assets, and appointed a receiver to control the business until the case was resolved.


      But complaints about online companies in the “immigration support” business continue. “Blue,” from Minnesota typed in “immigration renewal” in a search engine. Up popped Blue said it looked like a U.S. government website.

      “Thinking I was dealing direct with immigration website, I started filling the questionnaire, but before I could proceed with name and address, I had to pay upfront,” Blue wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Thinking it was the total fee for the form, I went ahead and gave my information, plus paid the fee of $199. After I finished filling the form, I still owed $420 to immigration.”

      Blue isn't sure what immigration site he was on, but David, of Burnaby, British Columbia, says he landed at and was led to believe it was a Canadian immigration website.

      “Once I realized it was not, I called their number and spoke to Jon and he said I would receive a refund within three days,” David writes. “I called back and said I wanted an email confirming that, which I received within a few minutes.”

      We checked Immigration Direct's website and it did not appear to be a Canadian site. In fact, it displayed the stars and stripes, not the maple leaf.


      Vicky, of Laurel, Md., says she paid Immigration Direct $189 for an application fee and wasn't happy with the refund policy.

      “After a day, I did not see any payment confirmations or notices from Immigration Direct,” she writes.”I asked people around and they told me I should get my money back. I called and they said it would be $29.99 for a cancellation fee. It was a ripoff.”

      It be fair, Immigration Direct does not try to pass itself off as a government agency. Its home page bears this message:

      “Immigration Direct is not affiliated with the United States government, is not a law firm, and is not a substitute for an attorney or law firm. Blank forms can be downloaded for free from the official government site. We help you complete your application quickly and correctly, offer an affordable alternative to attorneys, provide phone support and dynamically add government forms seamlessly.”

      Getting help

      Consumers going online for assistance in immigration matters should always make sure they understand who they are dealing with and what, if any, the terms are. USCIS is the first place to go online to get help. Its web address is That's what should appear in your browser's address bar.

      USCIS points out that not every company offering immigration assistance is trying to rip you off, but many are. That's why you have to be careful. Forms, for example, can be downloaded for free from the USCIS website. Below are links that you may find helpful.

      Consumers dealing with immigration issues should use extreme care when dealing with online entities that offer assistance – at a price. Some of these...
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      FDA issues new rules to strengthen oversight of imported food

      Imported food now makes up about 15% of the U.S. food supply

      It's been a long time coming, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is issuing two new rules today aimed at improving the safety of imported food.

      That's no small matter, because imported food makes up a growing part of the American diet, currently about 15%. Everything from chocolate to meat to strawberries may be from just about anywhere, as a brief persudal of food recalls will demonstrate.

      “We must work toward global solutions to food safety so that whether you serve your family food grown locally or imported you can be confident that it is safe,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “Today’s announcement of these two new proposed rules will help to meet the challenges of our complex global food supply system. Our success will depend in large part on partnerships across nations, industries, and business sectors.”

      The new rules, which are mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), would require food importers to have a clearly defined responsibility to verify that their suppliers produce food to meet U.S. food safety requirements.

      "Adequate assurances"

      In general, importers would be required to have a plan for imported food, including identifying hazards associated with each food that are reasonably likely to occur. Importers would be required to conduct activities that provide adequate assurances that these identified hazards are being adequately controlled.

      “FSMA provides the FDA with a modern tool kit that shifts the paradigm for imports, as well as domestic foods, from a strategy of reaction to one of systematic prevention,” said Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “Rather than relying primarily on FDA investigators at the ports to detect and respond to food safety problems, importers would, for the first time, be held accountable for verifying, in a manner transparent to the FDA, that the food they import is safe."

      FSMA also calls for a program for the Accreditation of Third-Party Auditors for imported food. Under this proposed rule, the FDA would recognize accreditation bodies based on certain criteria such as competency and impartiality.

      The accreditation bodies, which could be foreign government agencies or private companies, would in turn accredit third-party auditors to audit and issue certifications for foreign food facilities and food, under certain circumstances.

      The FSVP proposed rule and the third-party accreditation proposed rule are available for public comment for the next 120 days. 

      It's been a long time coming, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is issuing two new rules today aimed at improving the safety of imported food...
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      Back-to-school shopping expectations drop

      The decline follows the historically high 2012 season

      Compared with 2012, this year's back-to-school shopping season is shaping up to be a disappointment for retailers. 

      According to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2013 Back-to-School Survey, a combination of pent-up demand and a growing population of school children put 2012 back-to-school spending in the history books, leaving parents in 2013 with an array of school supplies that still work, and a significantly shorter shopping list.

      The survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, projects families with school-age children will spend an average $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, compared with $688.62 last year. Total spending on back-to-school is expected to reach $26.7 billion.

      Total back-to-school and back-to-college spending combined is forecast to reach $72.5 billion.

      “The good news is that consumers are spending, but they are doing so with cost and practicality in mind. Having splurged on their growing children’s needs last year, parents will ask their kids to reuse what they can for the upcoming school season.” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “As they continue to grapple with the impact of increased payroll taxes, Americans will look to cut corners where they can, but will buy what their kids need. It’s important to note, however, that spending levels are still well above where they were a few years ago.”

      Apparel and accessories

      The biggest portion of back-to-school shoppers’ budgets will go toward new apparel and accessories: 95.3 percent of those with school-age children will spend an average of $230.85 on fall sweaters, denim and other attire. Additionally, families will spend on shoes ($114.39) and school supplies ($90.49).

      Fewer families with children in grades K-12 will purchase electronics (55.7%), and those that are going to buy a new tablet or smartphone are going to spend slightly less than last year ($199.05 vs. $217.88 in 2012).

      Effect of the economy

      It’s clear that the economy is still weighing heavy on the average family’s mind; the survey this year found eight in 10 school shoppers (80.5%) say economic conditions will change their spending in some way. Turning to the Internet to save money, 36.6% say they will do more comparative shopping online and 18.5% will shop online more often.

      The survey found that families are already out and about shopping for school items: 23.9% of families with children in grades K-12 say they will begin shopping at least two months before school (i.e. right now), compared with 22.3% last year and the highest percentage in the survey’s 11-year history. Half (49%) will shop three weeks to one month before school, 21.8% will shop one to two weeks before school, 2.8% will shop the week school starts, and 2.6% will shop after the start of the season.

      “We continue to see a shift in shopping patterns during big spending ‘events’, where consumers typically head out early to take advantage of fresh inventory options and initial markdowns, then see a lull only to rev back up again when final sales appear,” said Prosper Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “Hoping to spread out their budgets but still reap the benefits of getting the products their children want, parents this back-to-school season will comparison shop online and around town at their child’s favorite stores, potentially even more than once, as they seek to find bargains and products that offer the best value.”

      Department stores still popular

      Though most school shoppers (67.1%) will visit their favorite discount store for school items as they did last year, department stores will be popular with teens and their parents this season as well: 61.7% will shop at department stores, up from 59.9% last year and the highest in the survey’s history. Additionally, 51.5% will shop at a clothing store, 40.6% will shop at an office supply store, 37.3% will shop online and 25.9% will shop at an electronics store. One in five (19.6%) will hit their local drug store and 13.7% will look for goods at thrift/resale stores.

      Stylish teens and tweens know what they want to impress their friends in the new school gear, and this year parents be gearing up for the challenge. According to the survey, 59.6% of parents say their children influence at least half of their back-to-school purchases. And for those extra small purchases, kids plan to chip in some of their own money as well. Teens will dole out $30.13 of their own money, and pre-teens will spend an average $18.45 -- both slightly less than last year.

      Back-to-college spending

      Much like families with children in grades K-12, college students and their parents will trim their budgets this year as well, looking for ways to reuse what they have and spend only on what they need. According to the Back-to-College survey, college students and their families will spend an average $836.83 on apparel, electronics, dorm furnishings and more, down more than $70 from last year. Total spending for back-to-college is expected to reach $45.8 billion.

      “While spending on college is down from last year, it is still higher than what we saw in 2011, indicating that parents this year are simply purchasing only what their college-age children need,” said Shay. “The back-to-college market continues to grow, with specialty, discount, department, office supply and even drug stores luring students and their parents with attractive deals on everything from microwavable food products to personal care items and of course, home furnishings. In such a competitive space, we expect the deals over the next few weeks to really turn some heads.”

      Sprucing up living spaces

      When it comes to where college students plan to live this year, on average, fewer will be in dorms or college housing, and more will live at home. According to the survey, 22.5% will live in dorms, versus 25.9% last year, 24% will reside in off campus housing, compared with 24.8% last year, and 47.7% will commute to campus from home, up from 42.9% last year.

      Though almost every category will see a decrease in spending, there’s one area that will increase for retailers: dorm and apartment furnishings. Two in five (42.0%) families will spend an average $104.76 on new bedding, small refrigerators and microwaves, up just over $4 from last year. Spending on food items is expected to increase as well ($104.44 vs. $100.18 last year).

      The largest portion of college shoppers’ budgets will go toward electronics ($203.28). Other traditional college expenditures will include clothing and accessories ($122.70), shoes ($65.60), gift cards ($65.12), personal care items ($65.08), school supplies ($62.92) and collegiate gear ($42.94).

      “Multiple factors go into a family’s decision on where their child will live during college, and it is likely the economy has something to do with parents wanting to keep their costs down and forgo the traditionally expensive room-and-board route,” said Goodfellow. “That said, we do expect those living on campus this year to do so in style. Millennials are extremely different from previous generations when it comes to personal style and decor, and retailers are answering their call with trendy college-related products that will put a personal touch on their temporary living spaces.”

      Where they shop

      The survey found college shoppers are already getting ready for the school year. Nearly three in 10 (29.8%) students and their parents say they will begin shopping at least two months before school, or right now, up from 29.0% last year and the highest in the survey’s history. More than one-third (34.5%) will begin three weeks to one month before school and 19.9 percent will begin one to two weeks before school.

      Overall, parents and their college-age children will shop around for their needs, but most will look to discount stores (48.3%) and department stores (42.7%). Three in 10 (30.8%) will shop at clothing stores, one-third (33.3%) will head to office supply stores and 37.1% will shop online. The most in the survey’s history -- 17.2% -- will shop at home furnishings or home décor stores, compared with 16.4% last year. Additionally, 20.4% will shop at electronics stores and 18.5% will shop at drug stores.

      Economy still a factor

      Though many economic indicators point to a growing economy, it is clear consumers are still wary about their finances. The survey found more than three-quarters (76.5%) of college shoppers say the economy will affect their spending in some way, compared with 83.5% last year, but still shows caution with spending plans. Specifically, 32% will buy generic or store brand products, and 37.5% will shop for sales more often; 10.1% say the economy is affecting where their student lives for the school year.

      The survey found college seniors and their families will spend slightly more than last year ($702.81 vs. $680.70) but will look for ways to cut corners because of the state of the economy. Specifically, 44.8% plan to make do with last year’s items, versus 38.9% last year, and more than half (51%) will spend less overall on the items they do buy, up from 42.6% last year.  

      Compared with 2012, this year's back-to-school shopping season is shaping up to be a disappointment. According to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2...
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      If you're an independent musician, there might be a new web site for you

      All Def Music says it'll only use YouTube to build its roster

      If you're a musician who's been putting videos and performances up on YouTube, and you feel like you're not getting anywhere, there might be a little help in store for you.

      Music executive Russell Simmons, who introduced the world to acts like Run DMC, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J has teamed up with Steve Rifkind, who founded Loud Records back in the 90s, to create a record label that searches for acts on YouTube.

      The duo, along with Brian Robbins, a TV and film producer and star of the 80s sitcom "Head of the Class," says the label -- called All Def Music -- will be the first of its kind.

      We are, "the first major label-affiliated music company created specifically to sign, develop and promote artists on YouTube," said the group.

      A new outlet

      All Def Music, which will be under the Universal Music Group (UMG) umbrella, will also develop and promote artist through YouTube. The founders say they want to tap into the vast array of artists who have used the popular video site to get their name out.

      "The exponential growth of Internet-based video has created a powerful new outlet for music and music-based content, and the launch of All Def Music is a part of our broader strategy to partner with some of the most experienced entrepreneurs in media and technology to identify future stars and develop powerful content on the world's fastest growing media platform," said the CEO of UMG, Lucian Grainge.

      In the last decade or so, the path for musicians to be discovered has changed dramatically. Once, the game plan for most artists was to hone their craft, create a series of demo CDs and then go to every record label, hoping their music wouldn't end up in the demo-junk-drawer.

      But once surfing the Internet became synonymous with searching for new music, places like YouTube became the new radio of sorts, not to mention a place where artists could provide visuals for their music.

      The landscape changes

      In the beginning, the marriage between independent musicians and sites like YouTube was a fruitful one, because both parties in the union gained a lot of attention.

      Unknown artists could instantly promote their music on the site and YouTube benefited as well, because more and more consumers turned to the video site to discover up and coming musicians.

      But then, that particular avenue became saturated and once a few musicians were actually discovered through YouTube, the flood gates opened to the point where posting a video on the site was the same as blindly mailing a demo CD to a record label.

      Breaking new ground

      However, that didn't stop people from posting content to YouTube and it didn't stop record executives from going to the site to look for new talent. But this is the first time a major label is using digital media as its main source to build its roster. 

      Simmons, who has been a fixture in urban music since the early 80s, with his Def Jam label, says he still looks at YouTube as new territory to conquer, although it's been in full swing for quite some time. 

      He compares the relative newness of YouTube to the newness of rap music back in the 80s, when he was trying to get the genre recognized on mainstream levels.

      "I look forward to working with the extraordinary talent from the vastly creative YouTube ecosystem in the same way I've worked with musicians, poets, comedians and designers all my life," said Simmons. "This is the most exciting new terrain for me, to move talent across media platforms."

      All Def Music will be coupled with All Def Digital Management, launched earlier this year, which develops and promotes new shows, comedians and poets, as well as other acts.

      A new management approach

      Simmons says although the Internet is a great place for artists to promote their material, there's really no organization to it and he really wants to change that.

      "In terms of just taking artists and broadening them across different media, I think that there's no one really there managing them properly," said Simmons. "I just think there's a hole in the market."

      The announcement of All Def Music will most likely delight many independent artists, especially the ones who feel like they might be creating and posting videos on YouTube in vain.

      But a word of caution for those who think their chances of being discovered on the video site just became a whole lot easier.

      If record industry history repeats itself, All Def Music will look for artists with the most YouTube popularity instead of the best music, so they'll have to do a lot more than post a good song to be discovered need thousands -- if not millions -- of hits to even get noticed by folks like Simmons and Rifkind.

      Musicians should also take the whole artist-development-thing with a grain of salt as well, because labels don't develop artists anymore. They simply latch on to an already successful person who already has a loyal fan base. But Rifkind says All Def Music will be different and the label will actually nurture talent. 

      "Tapping into YouTube's fertile creative platform, we intend to identify, develop and nurture music's next generation of superstar talent," he said.

      Independent artists shouldn't hold their breath because All Def Music will probably be just like any other record label. It'll only want to work with people who already have some kind of fame or popularity.

      If you're a musician who's been putting videos and performances up on YouTube, and you feel like you're not getting anywhere, there might be a little help ...
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      Chevrolet Impala earns top sedan rating from Consumer Reports

      It's the first time the award has gone to an American brand iin at least 20 years

      The Chevrolet Impala has returned from oblivion to take top spot in Consumer Reports magazine's sedan rankings, beating our Japanese and European models for the first time in a generation.

      The revamped 2014 Impala has gone from the bottom of its class in Consumer Reports ratings, with a mediocre test score of 63 — too low to be CR Recommended — to an “Excellent” 95 that places it not only at the top of its “Large Sedan” category, but also among the top-rated vehicles Consumer Reports has tested.

      Only two vehicles have a higher test score; the Tesla Model S hatchback and the BMW 135i coupe. Overall, Consumer Reports found the Impala is competitive with cars that cost $20,000 more, including the Audi A6 and Lexus LS460L, as well as the recently reviewed Acura RLX and Jaguar XF.

      It's been a good couple of weeks for the Impala, which won a five-star safety rating earlier this mont. 

      “The Impala’s performance is one more indicator of an emerging domestic renaissance,” said Jake Fisher, director of Consumer Reports automotive testing. “We’ve seen a number of redesigned American models — including the Chrysler 300, Ford Escape and Fusion, and Jeep Grand Cherokee —  deliver world-class performance in our tests.”

      Consumer Reports engineers found the Impala "rides like a luxury sedan, with a cushy and controlled demeanor, while delivering surprisingly agile handling, capable acceleration, and excellent braking."

      The reviewers said the Impala "corners quite well for a large car, with prompt turn-in response and controlled body lean." Steering is nicely weighted; it’s light enough for parking maneuvers and provides decent feedback. When pushed to its handling limits, the Impala proved secure, responsive, balanced, and easy to control, they added.

      Safety features

      The top safety rating came as part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s New Car Assessment Program.

      “Safety is a key consideration for all car buyers, and Impala sets a new benchmark for Chevrolet’s flagship sedan,” said Gay Kent, GM general director of Vehicle Safety and Crashworthiness. “The 2014 Chevrolet Impala is designed to provide excellent crash safety, and offers customers several safety technologies not previously available in Chevrolets.” 

       It employs advanced technologies – including radar – to help avoid crashes. Visual and audible alerts, depending on the alert feature, help drivers identify potential crash situations and even intervene when a crash threat appears more imminent. The alerts are designed to identify potential threats with sufficient warning to give the driver time to react and make changes.

      No reliability data

      Consumers rate Chevy Impala

      Despite its high test score, Consumer Reports said the 2014 Impala is too new to have reliability data, so it can’t be "Recommended." To be Recommended, a vehicle must perform well in CR’s battery of tests, have average or better reliability in CR’s Annual Auto Survey, and perform well in government and industry crash tests.

      Complete tests results for the Impala, Acura RLX and Jaguar XF, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Kia Sorrento, appear on today, and in the September issue of Consumer Reports, on newsstands August 1. Updated daily, is the go-to Website for the latest auto reviews, product news, blogs on breaking news, and car-buying information. Check out CR’s ongoing Twitter feed at @CRCars.

      The Chevrolet Impala has returned from oblivion to take top spot in Consumer Reports magazine's sedan rankings, beating our Japanese and European models fo...
      Read lessRead more sues "reputation management" firm

      The auto site says Humankind Design was trying to post fraudulent reviews

      Consumer review sites have empowered consumers to fight back against shoddy business practices and to reward brands and retailers that treat them right.

      But the review sites are locked in a constant battle with so-called "reputation management" companies that often engage in fraudulent methods to sneak positive reviews past the editors and algorithms who try to ensure that reviews are genuine.

      Some companies are reputable and counsel their clients to respond promptly and honestly to consumer complaints and urge them to use the complaints as a way to improve their business processes. But others simply dummy up fake complaints that are little more than spam and bombard review sites, hoping a least a few will make it through.

      The automotive news and review site is taking an aggressive approach towards the problem. It has filed a lawsuit against online reputation management company Humankind Design Ltd. for allegedly attempting to post fraudulent reviews.

      Edmunds filed the suit in Texas after it discovered that Humankind tried to register almost 2,200 fake members on the site, the company said.

      Humankind, based in Friendswood, Texas, claims that it can push negative reviews off of Google's first page and improve the ratings its clients get on third-party review sites.

      "Imagine owning the first page of Google and Bing with only positive information. You work hard on your business and it's important to put your best face forward," Humankind says on its website

      Edmunds said it identified 25 dealers who hired Humankind to make up and submit fake reviews. Justin Anderson, owner of Humankind, disputed the allegations in published reports. 

      "I can say that we completely disagree with the assertion that we are posting fraudulent reviews online," Anderson told one reporter. has filed a lawsuit against online reputation management company Humankind Design Ltd. for attempting to post fraudulent reviews on the si...
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      Know your rights when you fly

      Sometimes it's hard to tell inconvenience from abuse

      No matter what season you're traveling – summer or winter – weather can throw the airlines' schedules into turmoil. When that happens you can easily find yourself stranded in a strange city's airport.

      In recent years airlines have reduced flights and have less capacity than they once did. A few cancelled flights can quickly cause havoc throughout the system.

      Recently a Des Moines, Iowa high school group toured France with no travel-related problems until they returned to the U.S. Then, Marcy Baustain and her French Club students found themselves stranded in Detroit when the flight on their final leg, back to Des Moines, was cancelled due to weather.

      "Getting re-booked was difficult because it's very tough to find 18 seats on a flight – especially to Des Moines, since bigger planes aren't scheduled through there," said Baustian.

      The group spent the night in the Detroit airport before finally getting re-booked on a flight to Kansas City. But then that flight was cancelled because of weather.

      Eventually, the group chartered a bus – at extra expense – to get the rest of the way home. The school filed a claim to be reimbursed by the airline for the cost of the ground transportation. Does it have a case?

      Legal gray area

      "It can be difficult to know when a situation that started as inconvenient has crossed the line into a violation of rights," says Ann Cosimano, General Counsel for ARAG, a company describing itself as a global provider of legal solutions. "Knowing when to be patient – or when to speak up – can take some of the stress out of travel." 

      For air travelers these days, it is important to know your rights when you fly.

      Delayed or cancelled

      Consumers rate Delta Airlines
      Salig, of Walnut Creek, Calif., said he waited through numerous delays at the Atlanta airport on a Delta flight, without receiving any information.

      “Finally, was notified at around 10:00 PM that the flight has been cancelled, due to crew not being available,” Salig posted at ConsumerAffairs. “Was herded into the customer service line. Waited in line for three hours to receive a $25 voucher which was expired, and an amenity kit, and was told that Delta is not booking any hotels. I received my boarding pass for the next day via the automated kiosk). Hence standing in line for 3 hours till 1:30 am was a waste of time. I was able to get my own hotel (out of pocket costs) + pay $1,200 for a ticket for the pleasure of waiting for six hours and cancellations.” .

      ARAG says if your flight is delayed or cancelled for problems beyond anyone's control, like weather or safety issues, most airlines will rebook you on the next available flight at no charge. They may even book you with another airline without charging you extra. However, airlines are not required to provide any amenities, such as meal vouchers or hotel rooms, in this situation.

      At the same time, if your flight is delayed or cancelled for something the airline could control, such as a maintenance issue, the airline will likely re-book you on the next available flight, either theirs or another airline's, at no charge. The airline is still not required to provide amenities, but many will provide meal vouchers and even hotel rooms and grooming kits if your delay causes an unexpected overnight stay.

      When you're bumped

      Consumers rate Copa Airlines
      COPA Airlines bumped us (my wife and myself) off their 11:50 morning flight 472 from Panama City's Tocumen International Airport to LAX ,” an anonymous traveler writes. COPA re-scheduled us to fly on their 6:40 PM evening flight 302 instead. We spent 11 hours at the airport. COPA gave us a lunch certificate and a $300 future travel certificate (which we would never use because of this incident) demonstrating their admission of guilt. In two identical emails, sent January 10 and 13, we requested reimbursement from COPA for $250.80 in out-of-pocket expenses tied directly to arriving at LAX at approximately 11 PM. COPA never replied to these emails. We enlisted the assistance of a consumer advocate who apparently had no better luck than we did.

      Bumping is quite common these days because airlines routinely oversell flights. They usually ask for volunteers to step aside, rewarding them with another flight and other compensation.

      If no one volunteers and you're bumped involuntarily, ARAG says you should receive a written statement from the airline explaining your rights and how the airline decided which passengers were bumped. If you're not re-booked and scheduled to arrive at your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, you are entitled to compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount will vary and you must have a confirmed reservation and have checked-in with the airline within their deadlines.

      On the tarmac

      Tarmac delays can be excruciating but fortunately, in the wake of a new law, they are fewer and shorter. If you are delayed on the tarmac of a domestic flight before taking off or after landing, you have rights if the delay is more than three hours. Federal rules bar most U.S. airlines from sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours unless there are safety or security issues.

      If you find yourself on the tarmac of a domestic flight, ARAG says you are entitled to food and water no later than two hours after the delay begins. Restrooms must remain operable and medical attention must be available if needed.

      No matter what season you're traveling – summer or winter – weather can throw the airlines' schedules into turmoil. When that happens you can e...
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      Google agrees to $8.5 million privacy settlement

      Search giant disclosed users' search queries to third parties

      Google has agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a consolidated class action lawsuit over its alleged disclosure to third parties of users' search queries, a practice Google halted in October 2011 when it began encrypting search queries, Courthouse News Service reported.

      The lawsuit claimed that Google passed on private information through "referrer headers," allowing others to see which websites users were visiting and also displaying the search terms typed in by the user.

      The lead plaintiff, Paloma Gaos, argued that the headers could have revealed confidential information including the users' name, religion, medical conditions and sexual orientation. 

      A similar case was filed in Illinois and the suits were later consolidated.

      The preliminary settlement calls for Google to pay $8.5 million into a settlement fund that will cover administration expenses, incentive awards to the class representatives, attorneys' fees for class counsel and distributions to seven nonprofits that have agreed to use the funds for public awareness and research related to Internet privacy.

      Google would also post disclosures on its website concerning user search queries, including information about whether users' search queries are transmitted to third parties.

      The proposed non-profit recipients are World Privacy Forum, Carnegie-Mellon, Chicago-Kent College of Law Center for Information, Society, and Policy, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Stanford Center for Internet and Society, MacArthur Foundation and AARP Inc.

      Google has agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a consolidated class action lawsuit over its alleged disclosure to third parties of users' search queries, ...
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      Feds find rule violations in undercover inspections of funeral homes

      The Funeral Rule requires price lists for consumers, among other things

      There are fewer things lower than taking advantage of people who are grief-stricken. And, while undercover inspections of funeral homes by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) show that it does happen, fortunately it doesn't happen a lot.

      Investigators working undercover in eight states detected significant violations of FTC consumer protection requirements in 23 of 127 funeral homes they visited during 2012.

      The FTC conducts these inspections every year to make sure funeral homes are complying with its Funeral Rule, which gives consumers important rights when making funeral arrangements. Key provisions of the rule require funeral homes to provide consumers with an itemized price list at the start of an in-person discussion of funeral arrangements, as well as a casket price list before consumers view any caskets. It also prohibits funeral homes from requiring consumers to buy any item, such as a casket, as a condition of obtaining any other funeral good or service. By requiring itemized prices, the Funeral Rule enables consumers to compare prices and buy only the goods and services they want.

      Rule breakers

      Funeral homes with significant violations can enter a training program designed to increase compliance with the Funeral Rule. The three-year program is known as the Funeral Rule Offenders Program (FROP), and is an alternative to an FTC lawsuit that could lead to a federal court order and civil penalties of up to $16,000 per violation.

      It is run by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and provides participants with a legal review of the price disclosures required by the Funeral Rule, and on-going training, testing and monitoring for compliance with the rule. In addition, funeral homes that participate in the program make a voluntary payment to the U.S. Treasury in place of a civil penalty, and pay annual administrative fees to NFDA.

      Recent inspection results

      FTC inspections during 2012 encountered varying levels of compliance:

      • In Everett, Washington, 4 of the 11 funeral homes inspected had significant violations;
      • In Baltimore, Maryland, 1 of the 9 funeral homes inspected had significant violations;
      • In Kansas City, Kansas/Missouri, 1 of 21 funeral homes inspected had significant violations.
      • In Bayonne and Jersey City, New Jersey, 3 of 26 funeral homes inspected had significant violations.
      • In Montgomery and Opelika, Alabama, 2 of 10 funeral homes inspected had significant violations.
      • In the McAllen, Texas, area, 4 of 18 funeral homes inspected had significant violations.
      • In Brownsville and Harlingen, Texas, 8 of 21 funeral homes inspected had significant violations.
      • In Denver, Colorado, 1 of 11 funeral homes inspected had significant violations.

      All but one of the funeral homes with significant violations have entered the NFDA’s FROP program, and the one that has not remains under investigation. The names of homes that have entered FROP are not released under the terms of the FROP program, and the FTC does not identify businesses under investigation.

      In addition, the FTC identified 43 funeral homes, within the eight states, with only minor compliance deficiencies. In such cases, the FTC contacts the funeral home and requires it to provide evidence that it has corrected the problems. Since the FROP program began in 1996, the FTC has inspected nearly 2,700 funeral homes, 427 of which have agreed to enter the compliance program.

      There are fewer things lower than taking advantage of people who are grief-stricken. And, while undercover inspections of funeral homes by the Federal Trad...
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      Beware of illegally sold diabetes treatments

      The dangers range from unsafe drugs to bogus online pharmacies

      As the number of people diagnosed with diabetes continues to grow, so does the number of illegally sold products promising to prevent, treat, and even cure diabetes.

      That's prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to warn consumers against using such products. The agency cites a number of problems with these products: they may contain harmful ingredients or may be otherwise unsafe, or may improperly be marketed as over-the-counter (OTC) products when they should be marketed as prescription products; they carry an additional risk if they cause consumers to delay or discontinue effective treatments for diabetes. Without proper disease management, people with diabetes are at a greater risk for developing serious health complications.

      "People with chronic or incurable diseases may feel desperate and become easy prey,” said Gary Coody, R.Ph., national health fraud coordinator for FDA. “Bogus products for diabetes are particularly troubling because there are effective options available to help manage this serious disease rather than exposing patients to unproven and risky products. Failure to follow well-established treatment plans can lead to, among other things, amputations, kidney disease, blindness and death."

      Warning letters issued

      In July 2013, FDA issued letters warning 15 companies about selling products for diabetes in violation of federal law. These products are sold as dietary supplements; alternative medicines, such as ayurvedics; prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs, including homeopathic products: Examples of claims made by these illegally marketed products include:

      • "Lower your blood sugar naturally."
      • "Lowers A1C levels significantly."
      • "You'll lower your chances of having eye disease, kidney disease, nerve damage and heart disease!"
      • "It can replace medicine in the treatment of diabetes."
      • "For Relief of Diabetic Foot Pain."

      Some of the companies also promote unapproved products for other serious diseases, including cancer, sexually transmitted diseases and macular degeneration.

      FDA tested products marketed as "all natural" treatments for diabetes and discovered some of them contained one or more active ingredients found in prescription drugs to treat type 2 diabetes.

      Undeclared ingredients can cause serious harm. If consumers and their health care professionals are unaware of the actual ingredients in the products they are taking, these products may interact in dangerous ways with other medications. One possible complication: Patients may end up taking a larger combined dose of the diabetic drugs than they intended, and that may cause a significant unsafe drop in blood sugar levels, a condition known as hypoglycemia.

      Online pharmacies

      FDA also looked at sales of prescription drugs from fraudulent online pharmacies. Signs that indicate an online pharmacy is legitimate include: requiring that patients have a valid prescription; providing a physical address in the U.S.; being licensed by a state pharmacy board; and having a state-licensed pharmacist to answer questions.

      Some fraudulent online pharmacies illegally sell drugs that are not approved in the United States, or sell prescription drug products without meeting necessary requirements.

      One website that is subject to a warning letter shipped a prescription diabetes drug without requiring a prescription, and even included an unsolicited free sample of a prescription drug for erectile dysfunction. Moreover, the prescription diabetes drug was dispensed without the medication guide and other precautions required by FDA to ensure the drug is used safely and appropriately.

      Although some of these websites may offer for sale what appear to be FDA-approved prescription drugs, FDA cannot confirm that the manufacture or the handling of these drugs follows U.S. regulations or that the drugs are safe and effective for their intended uses. Also, there is a risk the drugs may be counterfeit, contaminated, expired or otherwise unsafe.

      A major problem

      There are 26 million people in the U.S. with diabetes, including about 7 million who are undiagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Millions more have pre-diabetes, meaning they have higher than normal blood sugar levels and can reduce their risks of developing diabetes through healthy lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise.

      "Products that promise an easy fix might be alluring, but consumers are gambling with their health. In general, diabetes is a chronic disease, but it is manageable and people can lower their risk for developing complications by following treatments prescribed by health care professionals, carefully monitoring blood sugar levels, and sticking to an appropriate diet and exercise program," said Coody.

      As the number of people diagnosed with diabetes continues to grow, so does the number of illegally sold products promising to prevent, treat, and even cure...
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      Google gives TV another try with Chromecast

      Plug this thumb drive into your TV and that's it. Simple enough?

      In some ways, Google is like the young hotshot musician, actor or entrepreneur who peaks too soon. Its search engine and contextual advertising system were such smash hits that everything else seems, well, kind of flat.

      But you have to give them credit, the Googlers keep trying when they could just sit around and clip coupons. One problem Google and other great minds of the modern age have been trying to solve is television -- namely, how to rescue TV from its tower and marry it to the Internet.

      It's not as though anyone else has solved this conundrum. Apple has struck out several times. Now it's starting to look like both Google and Apple may have been guilty of over-engineering. They both came up with set-top boxes that were monuments to complexity -- something that anyone who has ever tried to master his TV, DVR, cable box, DVD player and audio system needs no more of.

      Simple, very simple

      So Google, like Apple, has adopted the KISS protocol (come on, you know what this is -- Keep it simple, stupid) and the result is something called Chromecast -- a little $35 thing that looks sort of like a thumb drive. 

      OK, it is a thumb drive, but instead of plugging it into your laptop, you plug it into your high-def TV and, voilà, you can stream video from the tablet, computer or smartphone that you have paired with the thumb drive.

      If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the way Apple TV works, except that Apple TV costs $99 and restricts you to using Apple-brand devices. Chromecast lets you use Android, Windows, Google's very nifty brower-based Chrome OS and, ahem, Apple. 

      Sound confusing? It's not. Here are the stunningly simple set-up instructions from Google: "Plug Chromecast into any HDTV, connect it to WiFi, then send videos and more from your smartphone, tablet or laptop to your TV with the press of a button."

      Initially, it works with Netflix, YouTube, Google Play and Chrome but you can expect lots more sources to sign on. It's pretty hard, in fact, to see how any major program producer would want to miss sailing on this boat. And it's also hard to see how this doesn't cause major angina for cable TV executives and the folks at Roku, whose neat little devices have previously been the simplest way to get hold of lots of high-def programming.

      To sweeten the deal even further, for the $35 you pay for the Chromecast device, you get three months of free Netflix service -- an offer that applies even to current subscribers. Netflix' most basic plan is $8 per month, so that means Chromecast costs you $11. Cheaper than a Chevy Volt anyday.

      In some ways, Google is like the young hotshot musician, actor or entrepreneur who peaks too soon. Its search engine and contextual advertising system were...
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      E-cigarette 'free trial' offer burns some consumers up

      Very few free trials are really free

      Millions of smokers worldwide have begun to embrace the electronic cigarette – or e-cig – as a way to wean themselves off tobacco. Some who have taken advantage of a “free trial” offer from a website selling the devices have reported bad experiences.

      Free trial offers hardly ever work out well for a consumer. The company entices you with the free sample of their product, but requires you to supply credit card information so that you can pay a small shipping and handling charge. Many consumers see this as a good deal. It isn't.

      Once a company has your credit card information, it can place other charges on your account as well. Free trial offers usually have very stringent terms. By accepting the sample you agree to place a full order – sometimes a full order each month. You can avoid the full charge only by cancelling within the required period of time.

      Free samples rarely turn out well

      In the past this marketing technique has been used on all sorts of products, from dietary supplements to teeth whiteners. Now a company,, is using it to market its e-cigarettes.

      “My husband got their original sample for a S&H charge and now they keep charging my account for $80,” Lorraine, of Westford, Mass., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Tried to talk to someone and could not understand her and she would not give us to someone else. I finally got the return address and she continued to try to sell me the cigarettes. I spent 45 minutes on the phone trying to resolve this. They also did no good for my husband. Frustrated. Still don't know if we are out the money.”

      John, of Bassett, Va., says he was charged $109 after ordering the free trial. He was confused so he called.

      “They said I had 14 days to try product,” John writes. “Their 14 days started from the minute free tryout was ordered, not the five days later when it was received, so over one-third of the free tryout was expired before product was received. I called the company and received a runaround about the 14 days, basically my problem. I tried to go up the food chain and listened again to the canned answers. Finally they agreed to refund me $40.00 of the $109 then hung up. Fifteen minutes later, the original rep called me back and said they would be raising the refund to $59.00. They will still be retaining $50.00 of mine for nothing.”

      Raymond, of Irving, Tex., said he ordered the product and was told he just had to pay the shipping charge. He thought he understood the terms.

      Communication break-down

      “I called to cancel future orders,” he writes. “I told two different people that I wanted to cancel and not receive any other charges. They kept telling me they were extending the trial period to July 2nd, 2013. I kept asking why - no clarity in answering my question. I told them over and over I did not want to be charged. They said they would not charge me. I just looked at my account today and much to my surprise, there is a charge for $19.95.”

      Raymond says he is filing a complaint with the Texas Attorney General.

      Generally, consumers should avoid accepting a free trial offer. In most cases there are just too many strings attached. While many companies comply with the law and post the terms and conditions of the trial, consumers don't always read them and in some cases they can be hard to find.

      What to do

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires companies engaging in “negative option” marketing – in which a sale is presumed to have occurred unless the consumer takes action to cancel it – to state the terms in a “clear and conspicuous” manner. Consumers can avoid many of the hassles and headaches associated with negative option marketing by not accepting any free trial offer.

      Instead, simply purchase the smallest package of the product at the regular price. If you don't like the product, don't buy it again. Simple as that.

      Millions of smokers worldwide have begun to embrace the electronic cigarette – or e-cigarette – as a way to wean themselves off tobacco. Some w...
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      More car shoppers are leasing instead of buying

      Leases are the reason new car sales are rising

      Month after month, new car sales are on the rise. As the economy struggles to recover, car sales remain a major pillar of strength.

      How is it that consumers are buying all these new cars? Because they aren't exactly buying them – they're leasing them.

      Leasing, it turns out, makes a new car look pretty cheap. You may have seen television commercials for a wide range of vehicles that carry an estimated monthly lease payment of $150 to $200. Even at low interest rates a car payment on a purchase would be at least twice that, along with a hefty down payment.

      An analysis conducted by automotive website projects lease sales will rise 27.6% this year over last. According to the analysis, 25% of the cars sold in the first half of 2013 were leased.

      Leases drive sales

      "Lease offers have become more important to automakers' and dealers' sales strategies," said Jessica Caldwell, Senior Analyst. "Luxury brands have for a long time relied on leasing to maximize their sales volumes. Now mainstream brands are riding that wave, drawing buyers with the promise of lower monthly payments through leasing."

      Lease payments are lower than purchase payments because you are basically renting the car for a set period, three to five years. Your payment is based primarily on the price of the car, the estimated value of the car when you turn it in, and the prevailing interest rate.

      While leasing a car may make more economic sense for consumers than in the past, you still have to tread carefully. Earlier this year, a financial website, conducted a study and concluded that most consumers can't afford a new car. But when they focus just on the monthly payment, many consumers conclude that they can afford to lease it.

      Defining affordability

      “Unfortunately, I think most people define affordability by how much the monthly payment is,” said Mike Sante, managing editor of A lot of people think, if the check doesn't bounce I must be able to afford it.”

      An auto lease is, indeed, seductive. It looks much cheaper than buying. The monthly payment is lower and so is the down payment.

      In a typical lease, you return the car at the end of three years. The car still has a lot of its value left, which the lessor recoups when they sell the vehicle on the used-car market. You are only paying for the first three years worth of value.

      For some people, that's fine. They may need a car only for a short period of time or they have a small car payment as a permanent fixture in their budget. For them, the major concern is not overpaying for a leased vehicle. Sante says you should negotiate the best price on a car that you are leasing, just as though you were buying it.

      Cars are better

      One of the reasons lease payments are so low these days is a big improvement in the quality of automobiles. The days of “planned obsolescence” in the auto industry are long gone. Today, vehicles last a decade or more and can easily be driven 200,000 miles before they are replaced.

      That means that after the first three years on the road, your leased vehicle still has a lot of residual value left. Since your payment is based on the price of the car in the showroom and the value when you turn it in, your payment is lower.

      But because cars last for such a long time, purchasing the vehicle might actually make sense. If drivers hope to have a couple years free of car payments and they want a vehicle they can sell or offer as a trade-in someday, then leasing is clearly not for them. They never own the car, so they can't do with it as they please.

      Of course, there are also options for consumers who want a used car. Maybe it makes sense to buy one of those three-year-old vehicles that have been turned in on a lease. Or maybe it makes sense to take over someone's lease through a company like

      There's no hard-and-fast rule that says car shoppers should focus on new or used cars, or if they should buy or lease, says Caldwell. But if a car shopper understands the advantages and disadvantages — as well as the math — behind each option, the choice can be a lot easier.

      Month after month, new car sales are on the rise. As the economy struggles to recover, car sales remain a major pillar of strength.How is it that consume...
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      Trader Joe's, Publix, Whole Foods are most-liked grocers

      What makes for a great shopping experiences? Ask the Trader

      Considering that it doesn't even have stores in much of the country and hardly advertises, it says something that Trader Joe’s is North America’s favorite grocery store based on customer satisfaction, according to a new study.

      The somewhat more traditional Publix and Whole Foods were second and third in the survey of 6,600 consumers conducted by Market Force Information.

      All three received high marks for courteous staff, inviting atmosphere and high-quality produce. Hy-Vee also scored well on those measures. 

      It's hard to describe the appeal of Trader Joe's to those who aren't familiar with it. The stores tend to be small, even cramped. They stock far fewer items than full-fledged supermarkets but feature great deals on organic concoctions, fish, baked goods and wine.

      In fact, one of the founders of Trader Joe's once said that it when it started out in Southern California, it was basically "a 7-Eleven with a great wine selection." It's still sort of like an upscale 7-Eleven, with lots of convenience items and prepared foods and a quirky atmosphere that seems like a throwback to the 60s when everyone grew their hair long and pretended to be friends.

      Regional favorites

      Consumers rate Trader Joe's

      Market Force also looked at which grocery stores consumers frequent the most, asking where they had spent the majority of their money in the previous 30 days. Market Force parsed out the results by four U.S. regions, as well as Canada. 

      • Northeast – Stop & Shop claimed the top spot, garnering 11% of the votes. GIANT (co-owned with Stop & Shop) came in second with 6%, and Wegmans and Market Basket tied for third with 5%.
      • South – Kroger ranked first with 16%, followed closely by Publix with 15% and H-E-B a distant third with 5%.
      • Midwest – Kroger again led the pack in this region with 11%. Meijer ranked second with 9% and Hy-Vee took the third spot with 8%.
      • West – Safeway led by a wide margin with 12%, Kroger earned 9% and Costco received 7%.
      • Canada – Loblaws dominated with 15%, while Sobeys took second with 11%. Costco and Safeway tied for third at 7%.

      Convenience is key, not coupons

      Consumers rate Publix

      Convenient location is the factor that consumers said they like most about their preferred grocery store – in fact, it ranked higher than prices, which was second on the list, while sales & promotions was third. 

      The survey found that although some shoppers are practicing extreme couponing, that doesn’t seem to be a common trend. In fact, the research findings suggest a steady decline in coupon use over the past three years.

      Of those who are redeeming coupons, most are clipping them from a newspaper, magazine or other print media. The second most popular source for coupons is the grocery store.

      Trader Joe’s is Consumers’ Favorite Grocery Chain, According to Market Force Study ALDI and WinCo lead in price, Whole Foods in quali...
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      Bitcoin used in Ponzi scheme, feds charge

      Investors were promised a 7% weekly return on their money

      It's commonly accepted that the early adopters of new technologies are pornographers and scam artists. In that spirit, the Securities and Exchange Commission has filed its first fraud case involving Bitcoin, the virtual currency traded on online exchanges for conventional currencies like the U.S. dollar or used to purchase goods or services online. 

      The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) yesterday charged a Texas man and his company with defrauding investors in a Ponzi scheme involving Bitcoin.

      The SEC alleges that Trendon T. Shavers, the founder and operator of Bitcoin Savings and Trust (BTCST), offered and sold Bitcoin-denominated investments through the Internet using the monikers “Pirate” and “pirateat40.”

      The SEC says that Shavers raised at least 700,000 Bitcoin in BTCST investments, which amounted to more than $4.5 million based on the average price of Bitcoin in 2011 and 2012 when the investments were offered and sold.  Today the value of 700,000 Bitcoin exceeds $60 million.

      “Fraudsters are not beyond the reach of the SEC just because they use Bitcoin or another virtual currency to mislead investors and violate the federal securities laws,” said Andrew M. Calamari, Director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office.  “Shavers preyed on investors in an online forum by claiming his investments carried no risk and huge profits for them while his true intentions were rooted in nothing more than personal greed.”

      7 percent weekly return

      The SEC alleges that Shavers promised investors up to 7 percent weekly interest based on BTCST’s Bitcoin market arbitrage activity, which supposedly included selling to individuals who wished to buy Bitcoin “off the radar” in quick fashion or large quantities. 

      In reality, the SEC says BTCST was a sham and a Ponzi scheme in which Shavers used Bitcoin from new investors to make purported interest payments and cover investor withdrawals on outstanding BTCST investments.  Shavers also diverted investors’ Bitcoin for day trading in his account on a Bitcoin currency exchange, and exchanged investors’ Bitcoin for U.S. dollars to pay his personal expenses, the agency said.

      The SEC issued an investor alert warning investors about the dangers of potential investment scams involving virtual currencies promoted through the Internet. 

      It's commonly accepted that the early adopters of new technologies are pornographers and scam artists. In that spirit, the Securities and Exchange Commissi...
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      American Eagle fined for Christmas 2012 tarmac delays

      Passengers were stuck for hours, apparently for no good reason

      Lengthy tarmac delays by 10 American Eagle Airlines flights last Christmas will cost the carrier a bundle.

      The U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) fined American Eagle $200,000 for delays that took place at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on Dec. 25, 2012, and ordered the airline to cease and desist from future violations of the tarmac delay rule.

      “Airline passengers have rights, and the Department of Transportation has rules in place to protect them from being stuck on a tarmac waiting hours to get off their plane," said DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We will continue to take enforcement action when airlines violate our tarmac delay rules.”

      Waiting too long

      According to an investigation by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office revealed, 10 American Eagle flights experience tarmac delays that exceeded the three-hour limit last Dec. 25 at Dallas-Fort Worth during a snow and ice storm.

      One of the flights, arriving from Sioux Falls, S.D., with 42 passengers landed at 2:48 p.m., but was not assigned a gate until 5:30 p.m.. Passengers were finally allowed to leave the aircraft at 6:36 p.m. after a tarmac delay of three hours, 48 minutes.

      A second flight, carrying 37 passengers from Baton Rouge, La, landed at 3:29 p.m., but the aircraft was not dispatched to an area where passengers could deplane until 6:00 p.m.. The plane parked at 7:00 p.m., but passengers were not able to leave the plane until 8:01 p.m., four hours and 32 minutes after landing.

      Rules violated

      Under DOT rules, U.S. airlines operating aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats cannot keep domestic flights on the tarmac for more than three hours at most U.S. airports without giving passengers an opportunity to leave the plane. Exceptions are allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons. The rules require carriers to include the three-hour provision in their tarmac delay contingency plan commitments to passengers.

      Under an expansion of the tarmac delay rule that took effect Aug. 23, 2011, international flights at covered U.S. airports are now prohibited from remaining on the tarmac for more than four hours without permitting passengers the opportunity to deplane -- subject to the same exceptions as the rule for domestic flights.

      The investigation found that the remaining eight American Eagle flights -- seven domestic flights and one international flight -- experiencing long tarmac delays that day at Dallas-Fort Worth were not violations because they fell under exceptions to the rule.

      This is the second fine against American Eagle for violating the tarmac delay rule. In 2011, the airline was fined $900,000 for lengthy tarmac delays that took place at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on May 29, 2011.

      Lengthy tarmac delays by 10 American Eagle Airlines flights last Christmas will cost the carrier a bundle. The U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) fi...
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      Feds target firm for 'mortgage-steering'

      Employees got bonuses for pushing consumers into expensive loans

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is going after (CFPB) a Utah-based mortgage company that it says gave bonuses to loan officers who steered consumers into mortgages with higher interest rates.

      In a complaint filed in federal district court, the CFPB is asking that Utah-based Castle & Cooke Mortgage LLC be forced to end to “this unlawful practice,” pay restitution restitution to consumers and be assessed civil money penalties.

      “We are taking action against the type of practices that precipitated the financial crisis,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers should be able to get a mortgage without worrying about how the financial incentives of their loan officers may cause them to pay higher rates than they actually qualify for.”

      Castle & Cooke originated approximately $1.3 billion in loans in 2012. The company does business in approximately 22 states and maintains approximately 45 branches across the country.

      Outlawed bonuses paid

      The CFPB contends that Castle & Cooke, through the actions taken by its president, Matthew A. Pineda, and senior vice-president of capital markets, Buck L. Hawkins, violated the Federal Reserve Board’s Loan Originator Compensation Rule banning compensation based on loan terms such as the interest rate.

      It is further alleged that the company violated the rule with its quarterly bonus program, which paid more than 150 Castle & Cooke loan officers greater bonus compensation when they persuaded consumers to take on more expensive loans. The average quarterly bonus ranged from $6,100 to $8,700. By contrast, those loan officers who did not charge consumers higher interest rates did not receive quarterly bonuses.

      The CFPB estimates that more than 1,100 illegal quarterly bonuses were paid and that tens of thousands of customers may have been upsold since April 2011. By tying bonuses to the interest rate of the loans in this manner, the CFPB claims Castle & Cooke was in direct violation of the law.

      The agency also says it believes Castle & Cooke violated laws that require companies to retain their compliance records for a certain period of time. Creditors are required to retain evidence of compliance with the rule. According to the complaint, Castle & Cooke did not record what portion of each loan officer’s quarterly bonus was attributable to a particular loan and did not reference its quarterly bonus program in each loan originator’s compensation agreement, in violation of federal consumer financial law.

      Resolving the complaint

      The CFPB’s complaint seeks to:

      • prohibit Castle & Cooke from continuing its practice of giving loan officers incentives to upcharge consumers by distributing quarterly bonuses based on the interest rates of loans sold.
      • ensure that Castle & Cooke complies with federal law that requires creditors to retain evidence of compliance.
      • secure restitution for consumers of Castle & Cooke who may have been upsold.
      • obtain civil money penalties for each bonus paid out. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act allows civil penalty amounts to be determined under a three-tiered framework: up to $5,000 for any violation; up to $25,000 for reckless violations; and up to $1,000,000 for knowing violations.
      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is going after (CFPB) a Utah-based mortgage company that it says gave bonuses to loan officers who steered consume...
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      New home sales surge in June

      Prices, however, were a bit lower

      Sales of new single-family homes rose in June for a fourth straight month.

      Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show newly-constructed hoses sold at an annual rate of 497,000 -- up 8.3% percent from May's revised rate of 459,000. It's also 38.1% above the 360,000 houses sold in June of last year.

      Prices, on the other hand, suffered some slippage. The median sales price of new houses sold in June was $249,700 -- down $13,100 from May. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $295,000, a loss of $12,400 from the previous month.

      At the end of the month, there were an estimated 161,000 new homes for sale,representing a supply of 3.9 months at the current sales rate.

      Earlier this week, the National Association of Realtors reported that sales of existing homes were down 1.2% in June.

      The full report on new home sales is available on the Census Bureau  website.

      Mortgage applications

      Separately, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports mortgage applications decreased 1.2% during the week ending July 19, while applications for refinancings were down 1% from the previous week driven.

      The MBA's Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications, and has been conducted weekly since 1990. Those surveyed include mortgage bankers, commercial banks and thrifts.

      Sales of new single-family homes rose in June for a fourth straight months. Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housi...
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      Subaru portable gasoline generators recalled

      The fuel tank can leak, posing a fire or burn hazard

      Robin America Inc., of Lake Zurich, Ill., is recalling about 4,500 portable gasoline generators in the U.S and Canada.

      The fuel tank can leak, posing a fire or burn hazard. The company has received four reports of fuel leakage. No injuries or property damage have been reported.

      The recalled portable gasoline generators are Subaru models SGX3500, SGX5000 and SGX7500. They have yellow fuel tanks and black frames with collapsible handles. The word “Subaru” is on the fuel tank and is on the control panel under the Subaru logo. The Product, or Spec number and serial number are on the end of the fuel tank above the wheels. Generators with the following product numbers and serial numbers are being recalled:

      Model No.

      Prod/Spec No.


      Serial No.



      3500-watt generator

      1000243 to 1000481

      1000723 to 1000962

      1000988 to 1001745



      5000-watt generator

      1000665 to 1000875

      1001089 to 1001300

      1001326 to 1002049

      1002506 to 1002929



      7500-watt generator

      1000229 to 1000427

      1000629 to 1000828

      1000889 to 1001937

      1001950 to 1002150

      1002823 to 1003216

      The generators, manufactured in China, were sold at authorized Subaru Power Equipment dealers nationwide, including authorized Internet dealers, between September 2011, and January 2013, for approximately $920 to $1800.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the generators and contact Robin America to schedule a free repair.

      Consumers may contact Robin America toll-free at (866) 664-1363 from 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

      Robin America Inc., of Lake Zurich, Ill., is recalling about 4,500 portable gasoline generators in the U.S and Canada. The fuel tank can leak, posing a f...
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      Rockland Furniture round cribs recalled

      The crib’s drop-side rails can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail

      Nan Far Woodworking is recalling about 3,900 Rockland Furniture round cribs.

      The crib’s drop-side rails can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail. When this happens, the drop-side rail can fall out of position and create a space where an infant or toddler can become wedged or entrapped, posing a risk of strangulation or suffocation. A child can also fall out of the crib. In addition, drop-side related incidents can also occur due to incorrect assembly and with age-related wear and tear.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Rockland Furniture round cribs with model number 343-8314. The model number is printed on a label located on the inner-lower portion of the crib rail. The cribs are 44 ½ inches in diameter and were sold in white, ebony and cherry finishes.

      The cribs, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold exclusively at J.C. Penney stores and online at from January 2005, to December 2008, for about $400.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs and contact Rockland Furniture for a free repair kit that will immobilize the drop-side rail. Until the crib is repaired, consumers should find an alternate, safe sleep environment for the child such as a bassinet, play yard or toddler bed, depending on the child’s age.

      Consumers may contact Rockland Furniture toll-free at (877) 967-5770 anytime.

      Nan Far Woodworking is recalling about 3,900 Rockland Furniture round cribs. The crib’s drop-side rails can malfunction, detach or otherwise fail. When th...
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      Is Big Brother working in brick-and-mortars?

      If so, what methods are being used to track you?

      When shoppers enter a store, most probably assume they're being monitored through in-store cameras. But how many suspect they're being tracked through their smartphone?

      Whether you suspect it or not, it's happening, as retailers like Family Dollar and Philz Coffee use Wi-Fi signals to gauge things like how many times you return to the store and how much time you're spending in each aisle. 

      And in addition, a lot of stores are using video cameras, which makes it seem like every move you make is being documented.

      Nordstrom began tracking its customers using a program called Euclid last year, but after receiving a lot of complaints, the retail chain stopped and said it learned the tracking program wasn't right for the chain or its customers.

      "We'd been testing Euclid since September and have said all along this was a test for us," said a company spokesman. "We had been discussing what made sense in terms of concluding the test; after 8 months we'd felt like we had learned a lot and determined that it was the right time to end it."

      The way it is

      By now, consumers should be pretty used to being tracked in some way or another, especially folks who shop online as online retailers have been documenting everything from the sites you visit to the types of products you buy. It's just the way things work nowadays.

      Guido Jouret of Cisco's Emerging Technologies says consumers should get used to being tracked in physical stores, because physical stores are having a difficult time keeping up with online retailers when it comes to gauging customer interest.

      "Brick-and-mortar stores have been disadvantaged compared with online retailers, which get people's digital crumbs," said Jouret.

      Why should physical locations not "be able to tell if someone who didn't buy was put off by prices, or was just coming in from the cold?"

      Adam Levin, the founder of Identity Theft 911 and, says physical stores will continue to follow the ways of online retailers, by finding new ways to track all of your movements and purchases.

      Tracking you in a brick-and-mortar could be even more invasive, because most use in-store cameras along with your smartphone to see what you're doing and buying.

      Trading privacy for deals

      And Levin says this will continue if consumers expect to get custom-made deals on a regular basis. It's a trade-off, he says. You'll have to hand in some of your privacy to get special offers.

      "They are just incorporating what exists in the online world into the brick-and-mortar world," said Levin in an interview with Fox News. "My thing is you don't have cameras in the online world.

      "This is the future. I think they will do facial recognition, retinal exams to do things to accommodate you. This is the price we are paying and privacy is eroding."

      One retail worker, who goes by the name of Sigh Borg, said physical stores are doing way more than just tracking your smartphone.

      "We can put an RFID tag in the lining of your new jacket," explained the worker in a posted comment about consumers being tracked. And we can correlate that with your credit card purchase. And we can correlate that with your surveillance photo taken as you leave the store. And we can watch you go to your car and take a picture of your license plate."

      In addition, Sigh Borg notes, "We can scan all parked cars in your neighborhood. And if you post a picture from your new camera, we can exploit the geo-tagging information."

      The comfort zone

      Many experts believe a lot of people are fine with sacrificing some of their privacy when they shop online, because they associate using the Internet with sharing information.

      But when it comes to being followed in physical stores, folks aren't as comfortable. But Linda Vertlieb, a Philadelphia blogger, said she's okay with being followed in physical stores, because that's the way things work today.

      "I would just love it if a coupon pops up on my phone," said Vertlieb. "Stores are trying to sell, so that makes sense."

      However, others consumers don't feel the same way and they refuse to walk into a store if they know they're being followed.

      "I definitely don't like the idea of being tracked," said one consumer who posted a comment on "Fortunately, my cell phone is a cheap, lower-end, pre-paid phone, so it doesn't broadcast or receive Wi-Fi signals. Unfortunately, my iPod does. Now, if the store tracked me with my permission, for example, if it was a really large store that had an app with a store map that could track my position within the store and show me where various items were located, I would be okay with that.

      "But, if I knew a store was tracking me without my permission, especially for the purpose of sending me targeted ads and the like, I'd be sure to turn off the Wi-Fi on my iPod," wrote the consumer.

      When shoppers enter a store, most probably assume they're being monitored through in-store cameras. But how many suspect they're being tracked through thei...
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      'Old school' scams still going strong

      They have a little moss on them but they still claim victims

      “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” might as well be the motto of traditional scammers who are sticking with tried and true schemes to defraud consumers.

      While many fraudsters keep dreaming up technology-related cons, a few are going with what seems to work – the sweepstakes and government grant scams. Over the years these schemes have stolen millions from unsuspecting people.

      With the sweepstakes scam, the victim receives a letter, email or phone call with great news! They have won a huge cash prize in a sweepstakes! Sometimes the victim is so excited they fail to realize that they haven't registered for any sweepstakes.

      To receive the prize, of course, the victim has to pay a fee or tax – usually a few thousand dollars – in order to receive the huge cash prize. That, of course, is the scam.

      Winners International Sweepstakes

      John, of Ordway, Colo., is a little different from victims picked at random. He says he enters hundreds of sweepstakes each year. Last week he says he got a call from a “Mr. Miller,” who said he was from UPS, telling him there was a package from Winners International Sweepstakes containing $25,000.

      “He wanted $499.00 for this $25,000.00,” John wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “It was less than an hour later he calls back telling me 'I've talked to my supervisor and he's agreed that if you send us $250.00 now we can hang on to your $250,000.00;" (yes from $25,000.00 to $250.000), prize until you get us the rest the first of next month.'"

      John points out this supposed UPS representative couldn't give him a tracking number. Larry, of Corpus Cristi, Tex., also had a brush with someone who said they were from Winners International Sweepstakes. Larry, the caller said, had won $2.5 million plus a brand new Mercedes Benz.

      “He then stated that I would need to go to the Walgreens or CVS and get a Green Dot card and get $1,500.00 and put on the card and call him back and give him the number off the card then I could receive the sweepstakes money and the delivery of my car to my house,” Larry writes. “He said the $1,500.00 was for a government approved stamp to be put on the check. He also said when they deliver the check and car they would escort me to the bank so I could safely make the deposit. He wanted to know how quick I could do that and why I couldn't do it now. I told him I could do it tomorrow morning.”

      Prepaid cards

      Fortunately Larry recognized it as a scam and didn't send the man any money. In the past scammers favored Western Union or other wire transactions to receive money, but that industry has recently adopted some scam safeguards. Scammers now favor prepaid money cards like Green Dot.

      Another old school scam is the government grant scam. It is very similar to the sweepstakes scam. Valerie, of Baltimore, Md., was a recent target.

      “On July 17 I received a phone call stating that at random my name was picked from U.S Federal Government grant services to receive $9,000.00 dollars because I did have a criminal record,” she wrote.

      Valerie said the caller had a foreign accent, suggesting she might be calling off-shore. She hung up and reported the call to law enforcement.

      Melissa, of Wilmington, N.C., said she also got a call from a young male claiming to work for the “Federal Grant Program” in Washington, DC. There is, of course, no such program.

      “He claimed I was selected to receive $7000.00 dollars as a reward for being a good citizen and paying my bills on time!” Melissa wrote. “Anyway he gave me three choices of receiving the money. By electronic deposit to my bank account, my bank card, or Western Union! I knew it was a scam, I gave him no personal info, and he kept repeating himself.”

      Googled phone number

      Melissa Googled the Washington, DC telephone number the caller gave her and found many entries warning it was associated with a scam.

      Erin, of Avon, Ind., also reports getting a call from the phony “Government Grant Department” in DC. Her caller ID told her the call originated from a cell phone in North Carolina.

      “The man told me I qualified for a grant of $8,500 that I could use towards anything, except alcohol or drugs,” Erin wrote. “I would never have to pay it back. He needed my bank account information or a credit card to place the funds in my account in the next 40 minutes. I asked why he couldn't send me a check. He said that they used to send checks, but some of the people weren't receiving them and got angry so they don't mail checks anymore. He said I had been chosen because I have a clean criminal background (I got an OWI in 2006), never filed bankruptcy (I did in 2011) and some other reason.”

      What both of these scams have in common is an “advance fee.” In other words, the victim is enticed to pay an advance fee in order to reap a greater reward.

      Fortunately, none of our five readers fell for these old school scams. Unfortunately, thousands still do, which is why they are still around.

      “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” might as well be the motto of traditional scammers who are sticking with tried and true schemes to defraud co...
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      Consumers getting fed up with Internet ads

      Search engines get much of the blame for advertising overload

      Remember how annoying all thosee radio and TV ads used to be? Pandora, HBO and so forth have helped cut down the irritation factor but now it's the Internet that's starting to really annoy consumers.

      The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index E-Business ranking reports that major declines in satisfaction in search engines such as Google -- and social media sites, including YouTube -- have dragged the overall score to its lowest level in more than 10 years.

      The overall score for e-business fell 3.9% to 71.3 on ACSI’s 100-point scale -- the lowest since 2002. Search engine and portal satisfaction slid 3.8% to 76, its lowest score since 2007, with every measured site in the category falling. 

      “The crux of that change is the increasing encroachment of advertisements,” said Eric Feinberg, senior director of mobile, media and entertainment at ForeSee, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company that compiles the index, according to Marketing Daily. “It’s not that the experience has become terrible. It hasn’t changed much. It’s that consumer expectations continue to rise and companies don’t meet that challenge.”

      The search engines -- and Google in particular -- are taking a lot of the blame, as they try to jam as many ads as possible into a relatively small space and still deliver at least a few search results. Google's score in the index declined 6% to 77. 

      Some 22% of all search engine users say the ads are what they like least. 

      “There hasn’t been tremendous innovation on the search space for a period of time,” Feinberg said. “And that leaves the door open for someone to come in with big changes, especially as we see such a sizable shift to the mobile market.”

      Social media

      Social media sites are wearing out their welcome as well, declining 1.4% to 68 overall, the lowest score of any category in the index.

      Wikipedia, with a score of 78, is the category’s most satisfying site, “because it has maintained its purity as an information source,” he says. Pinterest’s scores increased enough to move it into second place. YouTube satisfaction falls 3%, Twitter rises 2% to 65, and LinkedIn slips 2% to 62. While Facebook gains 2% to 62, it still remains at the bottom of the satisfaction heap.

      “Consumers continue to go to Facebook because all their friends are there,” he says, “but their perception is that the newsfeed approach to advertising is encroaching on what was once a more pure, person-to-person or one-to-many experience.” 

      As is usually the case, it's not all ads that enrage consumers. It's the ones they feel have the least to do with them. In that vein, Fox News earns the highest marks from users who say the ads Fox feeds up are relevant to them.

      Index scores for news and information sites came in at 73, unchanged for the third year in a row.

      Remember how annoying all thosee radio and TV ads used to be? Pandora, HBO and so forth have helped cut down the irritation factor but now it's the Interne...
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      TSA launches new process for its Pre-Check program

      For some, no more shoes off or laptop inspection

      Boarding an airliner will soon be less of a hassle for a lot of people.

      The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says a new process it's adding will let more U.S. citizens enroll in TSA PreCheck, an expedited screening program.

      Being signed up for the program allows pre-approved airline travelers to leave on their shoes, light outerwear and belt, keep their laptop in its case and their 3-1-1 compliant liquids/gels bag in a carry-on in select screening lanes.

      To be eligible for TSA PreCheck, travelers had to opt-in through an airline’s frequent flier program, or be enrolled in one of CBP’s Global Entry, SENTRI or NEXUS Trusted Traveler programs. As a result, more than 12 million travelers have experienced TSA Pre-Check at 40 airports nationwide. This action will expand the availability of the program to a larger portion of traveling U.S. citizens.

      The National Air Transportation Association  (NATA), an aviation lobbying organization, says the new process is a step in the right direction.

      “NATA welcomes the expansion of the PreCheck program and TSA’s continuing efforts towards developing a more risk-based solution to aviation security,” said Thomas L. Hendricks, the group's president and CEO.

      Online application

      Starting later this year, U.S. citizens will be able to apply online and visit an enrollment site to provide identification and fingerprints. TSA will start the program at two initial enrollment sites -- Washington Dulles International Airport and Indianapolis International Airport -- with plans to expand to additional enrollment sites nationwide.

      “This initiative will increase the number of U.S. citizens eligible to receive expedited screening, through TSA PreCheck,” said TSA Administrator John S. Pistole. “TSA Pre-Check enables us to focus on the travelers we know the least about, adding efficiency and effectiveness to the screening process.”

      Not a freebie

      The TSA Pre-Check application program requires a background check, fingerprints, and an anticipated enrollment fee of $85 for a five-year membership. Once approved, travelers will receive a Known Traveler Number (KTN) and the opportunity to go through TSA Pre-Check lanes at security checkpoints at participating airports.

      That doesn't mean the end of pat-downs, though. TSA says it will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening.

      Boarding an airliner will soon be less of a hassle for a lot of people. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says a new p...
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      Breakfast appears to be good for the heart

      Skipping it may increase coronary heart disease risk

      When you were growing up, you probably heard over and over that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

      This may be why: According to a study reported in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, men who reported that they regularly skipped breakfast had a higher risk of a heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease.

      Bad news for skippers

      Researchers analyzed food frequency questionnaire data and tracked health outcomes for 16 years (1992-2008) on 26,902 male health professionals ages 45-82. Among the findings:

      • Men who reported they skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of heart attack or death from coronary heart disease than those who reported they didn't.
      • The men who reported not eating breakfast were younger than those who did, and were more likely to be smokers, employed full time, unmarried, less physically active and drank more alcohol.
      • Men who reported eating late at night (eating after going to bed) had a 55% higher coronary heart disease risk than those who didn't. But researchers were less convinced this was a major public health concern because few men in the study reported this behavior.
      • During the study, 1,572 of the men had first-time cardiac events.

      "Skipping breakfast may lead to one or more risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, which may in turn lead to a heart attack over time," said Leah E. Cahill, Ph.D., study lead author and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Mass.

      "Our study group has spent decades studying the health effects of diet quality and composition, and now this new data also suggests overall dietary habits can be important to lower risk of coronary heart disease," said Eric Rimm, Sc.D., senior author and Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health and Associate Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School.

      Breakfast benefits

      Men who reported eating breakfast ate on average one more time per day than those who skipped breakfast, implying that those who abstained from breakfast were not eating additional make-up meals later in the day. Although there was some overlap between those who skipped breakfast and those who ate late at night, 76% of late-night eaters also ate breakfast, researchers said.

      The study collected comprehensive questionnaire data from the participants and accounted for many important factors such as TV watching, physical activity, sleep, diet quality, alcohol intake, medical history, BMI, and social factors like whether the men worked full-time, were married, saw their doctor regularly for physical exams or smoked currently or in the past.

      While the current study group was composed of men who were of 97% white European descent, the results should also apply to women and other ethnic groups, but this should be tested in additional studies, researchers said.

      "Don't skip breakfast," Cahill said. "Eating breakfast is associated with a decreased risk of heart attacks. Incorporating many types of healthy foods into your breakfast is an easy way to ensure your meal provides adequate energy and a healthy balance of nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. For example, adding nuts and chopped fruit to a bowl of whole grain cereal or steel-cut oatmeal in the morning is a great way to start the day."

      When you were growing up, you probably heard over and over that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This may be why: According to a study re...
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      Home prices continue their climb

      But they have a long way to go to hit their peak

      Your home continues to rise in value.

      The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) says its monthly House Price Index (HPI) rose 0.7% in May, marking the sixteenth consecutive monthly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index.

      While the increase puts house prices up 7.3% from May of last year, the HPI is still 11.2% below its April 2007 peak and roughly the same as the January 2005 index level.

      The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages either sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

      For the nine census divisions, monthly price changes from April to May ranged from -1.5% in the East South Central division to +1.8% in the South Atlantic division, while the 12-month changes ranged from +2.7% in the East South Central division to +15.8% in the Pacific division.

      Looking ahead

      The government is scheduled to release its new-home sales report for June on Wednesday morning. Analysts surveyed by are forecasting sales will have risen to 483,000 homes from May's total of 476,000. The report will contain the latest figures on prices as well.

      Earlier this week, the National Association of Realtors reported the median price for existing homes rose in June for a sixteenth straight month.

      Your home continues to rise in value. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) says its monthly House Price Index (HPI) rose 0.7% in May, marking the six...
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      Online dating site reveals HIV/STD status, suit charges violates its privacy pledge, two women allege

      So let's say just for argument's sake that you are HIV-positive, or perhaps you have a sexually-transmitted disease. Makes it kind of hard to find a date, no?

      Ah, but there's an online dating site that caters to folks in your situation. It's called and it lures clients by painting itself as a "warm-hearted and exclusive community for singles and friends with STDS." It also promises confidentiality.

      And therein lies the problem, a class action lawsuit claims. The suit charges that is in fact part of a vast miasma of dating sites run by

      That would perhaps by OK except that user profiles are shared among the many SuccessfulMatch-affiliated sites, the suit charges, according to Courthouse News Service.

      When the profiles of users from PositiveSingles show up on the other dating sites, their HIV and STD status is there for all to see, say the two plaintiffs, unidentified women from Canada and Washington state.

      The PositiveSingles site promised a free -- and "fully anonymous" -- profile in a "100 percent confidential and comfortable community," according to the complaint. And the registration page assured that it would not disclose, rent or sell personally identifiable information to third parties.

      The lawsuit seeks class action status. The attorney for the plaintiffs is Robert Green, of Green & Noblin, Larkspur, Calif.

      So let's say just for argument's sake that you are HIV-positive, or perhaps you have a sexually-transmitted disease. Makes it kind of hard to find a date, ...
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      Virginia shuts down private university catering to foreign nationals

      Critics said the school was little more than a way to get a visa

      Private, for-profit schools have been criticized in recent years for taking students' money and giving them a degree that has little or no value. But you can't say that about the University of Northern Virginia.

      It took students' money and enabled them to get a visa that allowed them to stay in the U.S. while they got a degree in some high-tech field that would perhaps make it possible for them to get a job with the federal government or, you know, as an Edward Snowden-style federal contractor, which is what most people in Northern Virginia seem to be.

      The school, home of the Fighting Commuters, had a lot of spirit but, according to state education officials, not much else. It only had four classrooms on the ground floor of an obscure office building but it managed to crank out 198 degrees over the last 15 years.

      Things began to unravel when state education officials started taking a closer look at UNVA. You had to look closely, after all, since there wasn't much there, according to published reports. It failed four state inspections and lost its accreditation several years ago.

      Last week, the State Council of Higher Education ordered the school to close and advised students to check with the Department of Homeland Security, which is likely to have some bad news about their visas.

      Northern Virginia has a number of obscure for-profit universities that critics say make it easy for foreign nationals to get education visas and then either stay in the country illegally or pursue legal residency after getting an information technology job with a government agency or contractor.

      Private, for-profit schools have been criticized in recent years for taking students' money and giving them a degree that has little or no value. But you c...
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      Less education equals higher insurance premiums, study finds

      High premiums force many lower-income workers to drive without insurance

      Much has been written in recent years about the decline of the middle class in America. Another chapter was added today as the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) documented the unfair and discriminatory treatment working families receive at the hands of some major insurance companies.

      The non-profit consumer organization released an analysis showing that many major auto insurers -- including GEICO, Progressive, Liberty Mutual, Farmers and American Family -- charge much higher rates to drivers with less education and lower-status jobs, even those with perfect driving records. 

       “In effect, auto insurers are discriminating on the basis of income and race.  States should prohibit the use of these demographic factors that bear no logical relation to insurer risk,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s Director of Insurance, a former Texas Insurance Commissioner, and a former Federal Insurance Administrator.

      Findings released

      Consumers rate GEICO

      Among the findings released today by CFA:

      • GEICO often charges a factory worker with a high school degree far higher annual premiums than a plant supervisor with a college degree – 45% more in Seattle ($870 vs. $599), 40% more in Hartford ($1299 vs. $926), 33% more in Oakland ($922 vs. $693), 23% more in Louisville ($2200 vs. $1791), 21% more in Chicago ($1013 vs. $840), and 20% more in Baltimore ($1971 vs. $1647).
      • At GEICO, these differences would be even greater if, for education, the comparisons also included no high school degree and a graduate degree.  For example, the Baltimore factory worker would pay an annual premium of $2061 with no high school degree, an annual premium of $1971 with a high school degree, an annual premium of $1801 with a college degree, and an annual premium of $1722 with a graduate degree.
      • Progressive also often charges a factory worker with a high school degree higher annual premiums than a plant supervisor with a college degree – 33% more in Baltimore ($1818 vs. $1362), 14% more in Houston ($1406 vs. $1236), 9% more in Louisville ($2390 vs. $2185), 9% more in Denver ($995 vs. $911), and 8% more in Oakland ($736 vs. $684).
      • Liberty Mutual charges a high school graduate higher annual premiums than a college graduate – 13% more in Baltimore ($2116 vs. $1877), 13% more in Houston ($1373 vs. $1216), 12% more in Phoenix ($1592 vs. $1418), and 10% more in Hartford ($1913 vs. $1735).  In five other cities studied – Atlanta, Louisville, Chicago, Denver, and Seattle – Liberty’s website quoted rates for a college graduate but not for a high school graduate.
      • In many cities, Farmers charges those who are neither professionals nor certain government workers five percent higher premiums.
      Consumers rate Progressive Insurance

      In all of the cases cited, all factors except education and income were constant. 

      “Auto insurers charge high premiums for minimal coverage to most working people, even those with perfect driving records, who live in urban areas,” said Stephen Brobeck, CFA’s Executive Director.  “Since most Americans need a car and almost all states require the purchase of auto insurance, many lower-income workers are faced with the choice of paying these high, and often unaffordable prices, or breaking the law by driving without insurance,” he added. 

      CFA estimates that one-quarter to one-third of drivers with household incomes under $36,000 – 40 percent of all households – are uninsured.

      There are exceptions

      State Farm, Allstate, USAA, Nationwide, and Travelers apparently do not use education or occupation in their rate-making, at least in the ten states studied, CFA said.

      “We commend auto insurers who are not using education and occupation in their rate-making,” said Brobeck.  “One reason insurance commissioners should address this issue is because these insurers may well feel pressured to adopt the discriminatory practices of GEICO and Progressive,” he added.

      Allstate’s website did not ask for specific information about occupation but did require one to indicate whether one was employed or unemployed in many states, and in some states, to identify certain occupations such as firefighter or policeman, though it is not clear how Allstate used any of this information in rate-making.

      Only in California did Travelers’ website ask for specific information about occupation, though it is not clear how the insurer uses this information in rate-making in that state.

      Much has been written in recent years about the decline of the middle class in America. Another chapter was added today as the Consumer Federation of...
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      Virgin, JetBlue, Southwest first in their customers' hearts

      Virgin America holds a 41-point spread over United in customer "likes"

      Americans love to complain about their airlines but, believe it or not, there is some unanimity in choosing the airlines they dislike the least, if we may put it that way.

      Virgin America, JetBlue and Southwest leave their old-line competitors sitting at the gate when it comes to consumer affection and loyalty, although they're not necessarily seen as more reliable -- with the notable exception of Southwest.

      Fully 44% of those surveyed by E-Score said Southwest was reliable, more than twice as many as said the same for American or United. Southwest was also ranked as the most family-friendly, perhaps because of its open-seating policy, which makes it easier for families to travel together.

      "The survey suggests the relatively solid loyalty scores for Virgin, JetBlue and Southwest are reflective of consumers not being nickel-and-dimed for things like bags and meals,” said Gerry Philpott, president of E-Poll Market Research.

      “While only a handful of consumers feel the airlines are reliable and trustworthy, the higher scores for appeal would seem to indicate a price and convenience sensitivity,” Philpott noted.

      Overall, a majority of consumers gave the U.S. airline industry a big thumbs-up on overall appeal and brand loyalty,but not for attributes such as reliability or trustworthiness.

      Americans love to complain about their airlines but, believe it or not, there is some unanimity in choosing the airlines they dislike the least, if we may...
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      Sales of existing homes dip in June

      Prices are still on a roll, though

      A setback for sales of previously-owned homes in June.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports sales of existing homes, which includes single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, were down 1.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.08 million.

      That's about the extent of the bad news though, as sales were still 15.2% higher than the 4.41 million-unit level posted a year ago. And we haven't even gotten to prices yet.

      “Affordability conditions remain favorable in most of the country, and we’re still dealing with a large pent-up demand,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “However, higher mortgage interest rates will bite into high-cost regions of California, Hawaii and the New York City metro area market.”

      The national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage, according to Freddie Mac, rose to 4.07% in June from 3.54% in May, and is the highest since October 2011 when it was also 4.07%; the rate was 3.68% in June 2012.

      Total housing inventory at the end of June rose 1.9% to 2.19 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 5.2-month supply at the current sales pace. In May, it was 5.0 months. Listed inventory remains 7.6% below a year ago, when there was a 6.4-month supply. “Inventory conditions will continue to broadly favor sellers and contribute to above-normal price growth,” Yun noted.

      Home prices

      The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $214,200 in June, 13.5% higher than a year ago. This marks 16 consecutive months of year-over-year price increases, which last occurred from February 2005 to May 2006.

      Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- made up 15% of June sales, versus 18% in May, and are the lowest share since monthly tracking began in October 2008; they were 26% in June 2012. The decline in sales of distressed homes, which typically sell at a reduced price, accounts for some of the price growth.

      Eight percent of June sales were foreclosures, and 7% were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 16% below market value in June, while short sales were discounted 13%.

      Where they're selling

      Existing-home sales in the Northeast declined 1.6% to an annual rate of 630,000 in June but are 16.7% above June 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $270,400, which is 6.8% above a year ago.

      Sales in the Midwest were unchanged at a pace of 1.21 million, but are 17.5% higher than last year at the same time. The median price was $170,100, up 8.9% from June 2012.

      In the South, existing-home sales slipped 1.5% to an annual level of 2.03 million in June but are 16.0% above June 2012. The median price in the South was $186,300, which is 13.7 percent above a year ago.

      Existing-home sales in the West dipped 1.6% to a pace of 1.21 million, but are 11.0% above a year ago. With continuing supply constraints, the median price in the West was $282,000, a jump of 19.9% from June 2012.

      A setback for sales of previously-owned homes in June. Existing-home sales declined in June but have stayed well above year-ago levels for the past two ye...
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      Want to reduce your stroke risk?

      Breaking a sweat during regular exercise may help

      There's nothing like a good, brisk workout to get the heart pumping. In fact, it may help it keep on pumping.

      New research in the American Heart Association journal Stroke says breaking a sweat while working out regularly may reduce your risk of stroke.

      Researchers followed more than 27,000 Americans -- 45 years and older -- for an average of 5.7 years. Here's what they found:

      • One-third of participants reported being inactive, exercising less than once a week.
      • Inactive people were 20 percent more likely to experience a stroke or mini-stroke than those who exercised at moderate to vigorous intensity (enough to break a sweat) at least four times a week.
      • Among men, only those who exercised at moderate or vigorous intensity four or more times a week had a lowered stroke risk.
      • Among women, the relationship between stroke and frequency of activity was less clear.

      "The stroke-lowering benefits of physical activity are related to its impact on other risk factors," said Michelle McDonnell, Ph.D., study author and Lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the International Centre for Allied Health Evidence, University of South Australia. "Exercise reduces blood pressure, weight and diabetes. If exercise was a pill, you'd be taking one pill to treat four or five different conditions."

      The study is the first to quantify protective effects of physical activity on stroke in a large multiracial group of men and women in the United States. And, it supports previous findings that physical inactivity is second only to high blood pressure as a risk factor for stroke.

      Who they studied

      Study participants were part of the Reasons for Geographic and Ethnic Differences in Stroke (the REGARDS study). They were divided relatively equally between black and white and male and female, with more people from the "Stroke Belt" states in the southeast.

      The stroke belt is an area of the country where strokes are more common (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia).

      The study included self-reported data on the frequency of exercise, but not how long people were physically active each day.

      "We can tell you how much your stroke risk improves for each cigarette you cut out or every point you reduce your blood pressure, but we still need good studies on the amount you can reduce your risk of stroke by taking up exercise," McDonnell said.

      McDonnell also noted that the weak relationship with physical activity and women observed in this study may be because women can get the benefit with less vigorous exercise such as walking, which was not the focus of this analysis.

      What to do

      The American Heart Association recommends healthy adults (ages 18-65) get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity at least five days a week, or at least 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity at least three days a week, for a total of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity.

      Adults should also get at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities that involve all the major muscle groups.

      There's nothing like a good, brisk workout to get the heart pumping. In fact, it may help it keep on pumping. New research in the American Heart Associati...
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      Volcano male enhancement liquid, capsules recalled

      The products contain undeclared active ingredients

      Volcano Company is recalling all lots of Volcano Male Enhancement Liquid and Volcano Male Enhancement Capsules.

      Test results revealed the Volcano Male Enhancement Liquid has been found to contain undeclared drugs used to treat male erectile dysfunction, making these products unapproved new drugs.

      Volcano Company says it has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall.

      Volcano Male Enhancement Liquid is marketed as a dietary supplement for male sexual enhancement to increase desire and sexual performance and is packaged in a 2 oz. Bottle, UPC 609613859960, LOT 301, distributed from January 1, 2013, to July 2013.

      Volcano Male Enhancement Capsules is packaged in a black or white round plastic pop top container with 1 capsule inside, UPC 609613859977, LOT 7455, distributed from January 1, 2013, to July 2013.

      The products, distributed through the Internet, can be identified by the Volcano Male Enhancement logo displayed on the front side of product package.

      Volcano Company is notifying its distributors and customers by telephone and email and is arranging for return/replacement etc. of all recalled products. Consumers/distributors/retailers who have the recalled products should stop using them and return them to place of purchase or directly to Volcano Company P.O. Box 90277, Long Beach CA, 90809. Consumers are asked to have order number or proof of purchase.

      Consumers with questions can contact Volcano Company at (562) 363-5362, Monday thru Friday, from 10 am to 3 pm, PST.  

      Volcano Company is recalling all lots of Volcano Male Enhancement Liquid and Volcano Male Enhancement Capsules. Test results revealed the Volcano Male Enh...
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      Watch out for travel deal scams

      Scammers are counting on your eagerness for a bargain to lead you into a trap.

      Everyone is looking for a travel deal, whether it's a cheap air fare or half-price on a four-star hotel. But don't let your search of a bargain blind you to the growing number of travel scams.

      The travel industry pulls in billions of dollars each year and the cost of everything travel-associated is going up. That's a big advantage to a scammer, who knows consumers are more motivated than ever to save on a vacation.

      MarkMonitor, a company that protects businesses from cyber-criminals, says the scams are growing day by day. Consumers, the company says, need to be able to recognize a bogus travel offer when and if it comes their way.

      The phony ticket voucher

      For example, you might be offered an airline ticket voucher – particularly a non-refundable voucher – at an unbelievably low price. But when you arrive at the airport to board your flight, you find out the voucher is a fake. Not only is your trip ruined, you're out the money you spent on your “bargain.”

      Sometimes the scammer just wants your user name, password and credit card information. They use the tried and true method of phishing – sending you an email that appears to be from a legitimate travel site.

      It just requires you to log in and provide your credit card information, which the scammer steals. The site might also download malicious code to your computer.

      Association that doesn't exist

      Watch out for this one: a website displays a well-known company logo, suggesting a corporate relationship with a brand you know and trust. It makes you less skeptical of this new company you've never heard of.

      But there is no association with the well-known company. MarkMonitor says these sites could be selling anything from counterfeit luggage to tours that lead nowhere.

      “Cybersquatting” is a common way of tricking consumers in search of a deal. The scammer registers a domain name that is almost identical to a well-known site, but just misspells it slightly. The consumer who misspells the domain name gets diverted to an illegitimate website.

      Cybersquatted sites can post a wide variety of threats, from counterfeit products to phishing sites. They all have one goal, however, and that is to scam consumers.

      What to do

      MarkMonitor CEO Frederick Felman says there are a number of ways consumers can protect themselves from these schemes. For starters, pay attention to the domain name that appears in your address bar. Make sure it reflects the site you are seeking.

      The site itself can be a dead give-away. Scammers aren't always good web designers. The bogus site might look professional at first glance, but look closely. A misspelled word or typo or two could identify it as a fraudulent copy. Also, a fraudster probably isn't going to bother having a privacy policy. Any legitimate site will.

      Finally, be skeptical of really low prices. Yes, travel businesses do offer discounts but they don't give away the store. The old adage “if it sounds too good to be true it probably is” holds true in these cases.

      Consumers spend $855 billion a year on travel and scammers are working hard to get a slice of that market. Don't let them do it at your expense.

      Everyone is looking for a travel deal, whether it's a cheap air fare or half-price on a four-star hotel. But don't let your search of a bargain blind you t...
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      Are we close to a cure for cancer?

      Researchers around the world appear to be making progress

      For decades medical researchers have embarked on what seemed an impossible mission – to find a cure for cancer. In recent months the mission has appeared a bit more realistic.

      Scientists say the breakthrough has come about because of an entirely new approach to battling the dread disease. For years, physicians have treated cancer externally. They've bombarded cancer cells with radiation, poisoned them with chemicals and cut them away from the body with surgery.

      The results have been mixed, at best. Cancer isn't as lethal as it once was but thousands of U.S. residents die from it each year. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates there were 1.6 million new cancer cases in the U.S. in 2012 with 577,000 cancer deaths.

      Arming the body's own defenses

      The new approach uses the body's own immune system to attack and kill cancer cells.

      Private researchers in Cambridge, England have been working with immunotherapy to treat cancer and say, to date, the results have been promising. Researchers working for Immunocore designed a therapy using the body's 'T-cells to find cancer cells and destroy them. 

      T-cells are a type of lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell – that plays a key role in regulating the body's immune system. On their own T-cells don't do a very good job of distinguishing between healthy or cancerous cells. The Immunocore system basically arms the body's T-cells with a guidance system that helps them target the cancer cells.

      Other cancer research is being done at Stanford Medical Center, again focusing on using the body's own tools to destroy cancer. In this case it's a protein called CD47.

      An override system

      Actually, CD47 is the problem. It prevents the body from destroying cancer cells. Stanford scientists, however, have discovered an antibody that acts as an override, preventing the CD47 from protecting cancer cells.

      The antibody allows immune cells within the body to hunt down and kill cancer cells. Researchers say not only is it effective, it is gentler on the patient than some of the current cancer therapies.

      Stanford scientists say they plan to begin clinical trials involving cancer patients next years. In the video below, the researchers elaborate on their findings so far.

      A decade of work

      The Stanford researchers say they have been working on this approach to cancer treatment for at least a decade, after discovering a link between cancer cells and CD47 during a study of leukemia.

      In fact, this approach is already being applied to leukemia treatment. ConsumerAffairs reported last December on an experimental treatment carried out at the University of Pennsylvania.

      Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania medical school extracted T-cells from 12 leukemia patients, genetically engineered them to attack cancer cells, and injected them back into the patients. The clinical trial participants, all of whom had advanced cancers, included 10 adult patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and two children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

      Two of the first three patients treated with the protocol remained healthy and in full remissions more than two years after their treatment, with the engineered cells still circulating in their bodies.

      Will this kind of approach to treating leukemia prove effective with other types of cancers? Researchers at Immunocore believe it will. More importantly, so do some major drug companies, which have already signed on to support development of these treatments.

      For decades medical researchers have embarked on what seemed an impossible mission – to find a cure for cancer. In recent months the mission has appe...
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      Toyota to pay $1.63 billion to settle unintended-acceleration class actions

      Consumers claimed the value of their cars was trashed by the safety problems

      Who was it who said, "Our long national nightmare is over? Toyota? No, but that may be how Toyota is feeling today. 

      A federal district judge in California has given tentative final approval to a settlement valued at as much as $1.63 billion in the long- but not fast-running class action lawsuit claiming that recalls related to unintended sudden acceleration hurt the resale value of consumers' cars.

      This is surely the first time a company has been sued for doing safety recalls instead of not doing them. It's sort of the reverse of the situation the company faced with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In December 2012, NHTSA fined Toyota $17.35 million for not reporting the safety defect soon enough. 

      That $17.35 million doesn't sound like much next to $1.63 billion but it was then and still is the single highest civil penalty amount ever paid to NHTSA for violations stemming from a recall.

      Massive recalls

      As everyone knows by now, Toyota staged several massive recalls of about 10 million of its most popular models after consumers said the cars surged forward suddenly, sometimes resulting in accidents. Sticky accelerator pedals and misplaced floor mats were blamed.

      Toyota drivers -- or, more precisely, their lawyers -- said the recalls and the problems that caused them made their cars less attractive to purchasers.

      U.S. District Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., posted his tentative decision earlier this week, saying the settlement was "fair, adequate, and reasonable" and is expected to give final approval to the settlement as early as today.

      The settlement calls for cash payments of $757 million to Toyota owners whose models were affected by the safety allegations and recalls. Another $227 million is slated to slide into lawyers' bank accounts. And $875 million will go to finance free installation of a brake-override system on many of the vehicles included in the recalls.

      Not over yet

      Although this is the latest, and one of the largest, settlements to come out of the Toyota saga, it is not necessarily the last.

      Toyota still faces a raft of personal injury cases filed by individual consumers and their survivors, seeking compensation for the injuries they allegedly suffered because of the acceleration problem.

      In an example cited by Bloomberg, trial is set to open later this month in Los Angeles in the case of a 66-year-old woan whose Toyota Camry crashed into a tree in 2009. Her family blames Toyota for the crash.

      Who was it who said, "Our long national nightmare is over? Toyota? No, but that may be how Toyota is feeling today. A federal district judge in Cali...
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      How to get a cheaper air fare

      An industry insider shares some secrets

      The airline industry has dramatically changed over the last couple of decades. There's more competition but fewer flights. Published fares have remained stable but a myriad of fees can quickly raise the cost of flying.

      To maximize profitability airlines try to fly with every seat sold and to do that, they offer tickets at different prices at different times. Knowing how the system works can give consumers an edge when it comes to buying a ticket. Not knowing how the system works, on the other hand, can end up costing you money.

      The first thing to know is that there is an optimal day to buy your ticket. According to a study by, an online airline booking site, the fare difference between the best day to buy your airline ticket and the worst is $236. If you wait to book within seven days of the flight the spread is even wider.

      The study looked at 25 million fares and determined that, on average, the best time to buy an airline ticket is 49 days in advance. However, that's just the average. There can be a huge variance depending on where you are going and when.

      Like the stock market

      Jeff Klee, CEO of, likens buying an airline ticket to investing in the stock market. You have to follow the market by checking air fares on a regular basis. Timing is everything.

      “It's crazy, it's unpredictable and if you are checking frequently you are much more likely to catch it when suddenly there's a sale,” Klee said.

      Airline tickets are very sensitive to supply and demand. Each flight has a finite supply of seats. The variable is the demand. When there is less demand the fares are lower. When demand goes up, so do the fares.

      “Every flight probably has 10 to 15 different fares,” Klee said. “The first tickets sold are at the lowest fare and it goes up from there.”

      While buying your ticket far enough in advance – but not too far – will save you money, so will flying on the right day.

      When you fly matters

      “Airlines generally fly the same schedules every day but there are obviously going to be some days that are more popular to fly, like Fridays and Sundays,” Klee said. “When airlines discount fares they normally target the flights that are toughest to fill up.”

      Tuesdays and Wednesdays are generally the least expensive days for domestic flights and Friday and Sunday are the most expensive. Monday, Thursday, and Saturday are somewhere in the middle. According to CheapAir's study, the difference between a Tuesday flight and a Sunday flight is $29 each way on average, or $58 round trip.

      When flying during the holidays, says Klee, “all bets are off.” Cheap fares are going to be almost impossible to find. It will pay to book as early as possible since the airlines will be confident they can sell every seat.

      Don't forget fees

      When looking at an airline's published fare, make sure you also know its fee structure. These days airlines tack on fees for bags, seat assignments and other things passengers took for granted in the past.

      “For the airlines it's great because there are no taxes on them, it all goes into the airline's pocket,” Klee said.

      If you are flying to or from a major city, make sure you consider flights from all area airports. Generally that will pay off by having more flights to choose from. That raises the level of competition for your ticket dollars among the airlines and can generally result in a deal. For example, when checking for flights from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, shows flights leaving from all three DC area airports to the airports in the Los Angeles area.

      When traveling with your family or a large group, don't expect to get a group discount. In fact, you could easily end up paying the highest fares. That's because the flight probably has a limited number of cheap tickets, which you won't get if you try to buy four or five at a time.

      Klee suggests first seeking fares for the whole group to make sure the flight still has enough seats to accommodate all travelers. Next, search for tickets for just two people. If the flight still has two low-price fares left, you'll get them. Book the tickets two at a time until you the group completely booked.

      “It can be tricky and it's not necessarily easy to do but it's valid, though very counter-intuitive,” Klee said.

      Mix and match

      Finally, don't be afraid to “mix and match” airlines. For example one airline might have the best fare going to your destination while a competitor might have the best fare on the return flight.

      “You once had to buy a round-trip ticket to get any kind of a good deal,” Klee said. “Over the last five years or so airlines have gone more and more to one-way fares. The Internet has really encouraged this. That gives you the ability to book on one airline going and another coming back and not be penalized for it. In fact, to the contrary, you can often benefit from that.”

      To get a good airfare Klee said it helps to stay in touch with what the airlines are charging. One way to do that is to sign up for airfare alerts. Just remember that these alerts will mostly present the cheapest fares that often come with plenty of restrictions and won't be practical in most cases.

      However, they can give you an idea of what the base fare is going to be. When choosing a flight, realize that in most cases, you aren't going to get the lowest fare offered. In other words, don't be overly picky.

      “If you're dead set on getting the absolute lowest possible fare you're probably not going to get it right,” Klee said.

      The airline industry has dramatically changed over the last couple of decades. There's more competition but fewer flights. Published fares have remained st...
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      Judge green lights Vitaminwater class action

      Suit challenges water’s nutritional claims

      A lawsuit accusing Vitaminwater of misleading customers as to its nutritional value moved forward on Thursday, with a federal magistrate judge giving his seal of approval to the case proceeding as a class action.

      Judge Robert Levy, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, ruled out financial damages in the case, but said that the plaintiffs are allowed to pursue an injunction against Vitaminwater’s parent company Coca-Cola. Were such an injunction successful, it could limit the claims that Coca-Cola is allowed to make about the water in the future.

      Judge Dora Irizarry, also of the Eastern District, had asked for Levy’s input, and will now rule on the magistrate’s opinion.

      The suit was first filed in 2009 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In a statement issued at the time the suit was filed, the CSPI said that, “Coke markets VitaminWater as a healthful alternative to soda by labeling its several flavors with such health buzz words as ‘defense,’ ‘rescue,’ ‘energy,’ and ‘endurance.’”

      “The company makes a wide range of dramatic claims, including that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function,” the CSPI said.

      “No more than non-carbonated soda”

      In 2010, Judge John Gleeson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York refused to dismiss the suit, writing in an opinion that the water’s name potentially "reinforce[s] a consumer's mistaken belief that the product is comprised of only vitamins and water," and ignores "the fact that there is a key, unnamed ingredient [sugar] in the product."

      After Gleeson’s ruling, the CSPI issued a statement calling Vitaminwater “no more than non-carbonated soda, providing unnecessary added sugar and contributing to weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.”

      Vitaminwater burst onto the drink scene in 2000, when it was introduced by Glacéau (also known as Energy Brands). It followed Smartwater and Fruitwater, which were introduced, respectively, in 1996 and 1998. Coca-Cola purchased Glacéau in 2007 for $4.1 billion.

      A lawsuit accusing Vitaminwater of misleading customers as to its nutritional value moved forward on Thursday, with a federal magistrate judge giving ...
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      A cool-down in mortgage rates

      A lack of steam in the economy may be a factor

      Market concerns over the Federal Reserve's bond purchase program is cited as a possible factor in a dip in mortgage rates this week.

      Freddie Mac reports the average for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) was down 14 basis points from the week before -- to 4.37% percent with an average 0.7 point. Last year at this time, it averaged 3.53%.

      The 15-year FRM averaged 3.41% with an average 0.7 point, down from last week's 3.53%. A year ago, the 15-year FRM averaged 2.83%.

      The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 3.17% this week with an average 0.6 point. Last week it averaged 3.26%. at this time last year, it averaged 2.69%.

      The average this week for the 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM was 2.66% this week with an average 0.4 point -- the same as last week. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.69%.

      "Fixed mortgage rates fell as Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke helped ease market concerns about the Fed reducing its bond purchases,” according to Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. During a question and answer session following a speech on July 10th, Bernanke indicated that a highly accommodative monetary policy is what's needed in the U.S. economy.

      "Indications of a slowing in the economic recovery also placed downward pressure on mortgage rates,” Nothaft added. “Consumer sentiment fell to a three month low in July while retail sales in June grew by only 0.4 percent, which was half of the market consensus forecast. In addition, housing starts fell in June to the slowest pace since August 2012."

      Bankrate says disappointing reports on retail sales and housing starts resulted in mortgage rates pulling back from last week's 2-year high.

      As tracked by Bankrate, the benchmark 30-year FRM, which has an average of 0.31 discount and origination points, slid to 4.56%.

      The average 15-year FRM fell to 3.65%, while the larger jumbo 30-year FRM declined to 4.71%. Adjustable rate mortgages were mostly lower, with the popular 5-year ARM retreating to 3.56% and the 7-year rate falling to 3.87%. The 10-year ARM was the exception -- moving a touch higher to 4.08%.

      Weaker economic data increases the odds the Fed holds off tapering its bond-buying stimulus. And further easing the upward pressure on interest rates this week were comments from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who emphasized in an appearance before Congress that the tapering is not set in stone and the Fed is very adaptable to incoming economic data.

      As recently as May 1, the average 30-year FREM was 3.52%. At that time, a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $900.32. With the average rate currently at 4.56%, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $1,020.51, a difference of $120 per month for anyone who waited just a little too long.

      Market concerns over the Federal Reserve's bond purchase program is cited as a possible factor in a dip in mortgage rates this week. Freddie Mac reports t...
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      Lucasfilm, Pixar reportedly settle anti-poaching case

      Several companies agreed not to poach, suit says

      Lucasfilm and Pixar have settled an anti-poaching suit, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News.

      The Mercury News says that the judge in the case “indicated she has received a letter from lawyers in the case disclosing the two companies have settled their part of the hotly contested case, leaving five companies in the litigation.”

      “The order did not disclose the terms of the settlement,” the story says.

      The settlement is part of an ongoing legal battle in which the software engineer plaintiffs claim that a number of companies agreed not to recruit -- or “poach” -- each other’s employees, thereby foreclosing job opportunities and also deflating salaries.

      The original complaint, which alleged violations of the federal Sherman Antitrust Act and California’s Cartwright Act, claimed that Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Intuit were all privy to the agreement.

      Class action status denied

      In April, Judge Lucy Koh, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, denied class action status to the suit, writing that the proposed class definition was too broad.

      “The court is most concerned about whether the evidence will be able to show that the defendants maintained such rigid compensation structures that a suppression of wages to some employees would have affected all or nearly all class members,” Koh wrote.

      "The court is also concerned that plaintiffs' proposed classes may be defined so broadly as to include large numbers of people who were not necessarily harmed by defendants' allegedly unlawful conduct.”

      During the course of the litigation, it was revealed that Steve Jobs, Apple’s late CEO, wrote an email to Google’s Eric Schmidt in March 2007 asking that his company to stop recruiting Apple employees.

      "I would be very pleased if [Google’s] recruiting department would stop doing this,” Jobs’s email said.

      Lucasfilm and Pixar have apparently settled an anti-poaching suit, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News<
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      System alerts police to unseen threats behind them

      "Surveillance Mode" protects officers from ambush in the field

      Everybody's watching everybody these days, which can be a good thing. Many new cars are equipped with backup cameras and lane-intrusion detectors that warn you if you're about to back over somebody or change into an occupied lane.

      But what if someone is creeping up on you from behind?

      This isn't a situation most of us encounter very often but police run into every now and then. While working surveillance or simply sitting at the curb watching traffic, cops are sometimes assaulted and even killed by bad guys who sneak up on them from behind.

      Intermotive, a company that makes specialized equipment for public safety clients has come up with a solution. It's called Surveillance Mode and it uses the police car's backup camera and sensors to warn officers when someone is creeping up on them from behind.

      When it detects a threat, the system raises the car windows, locks the doors and sounds an alarm. For now, it works only on Ford Police Interceptors. It also shows an image in the rearview mirror, allowing officers to keep an eye on what may be happening behind them.

      Everybody's watching everybody these days, which can be a good thing. Many new cars are equipped with backup cameras and lane-intrusion detectors that warn...
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      Skeptical about organic food? You're not alone

      Critic says organic and local foods could use closer scrutiny

      A recent Harris poll found that, by and large, consumers were skeptical about the benefits of organic food and not eager to pay more for it.  In fact, the survey found that 59% of consumers believe labeling a food as “organic” is simply an excuse to charge more for it.

      While that survey mostly measured attitudes about food and the environment, it turns out there may be reasons to be skeptical about the supposed health benefits of organic and locally-grown food as well.

      A widely publicized 2012 Stanford University study concluded that organic food doesn't provide any health benefits over conventionally-produced food. The question that is seldom asked is whether organic food is as safe as conventional foods.

      The answer, according to one critic of federal food safety efforts, is that it may not be. 

      "The system lets so many foreign products in, organic consumers might as well save their money," said Mischa Popoff, a former organic food inspector, advisor to the Heartland Institute and author of "Is It Organic?" a self-published book that explores what Popoff says are shortcomings in organic food inspection and production.

      Find a farmer

      "It’s one thing to go out and find a farmer and buy directly but if you go to Whole Foods and buy something that's certified organic, it could be from Turkey," he said, noting the recent recall of pomegranate seeds grown in Turkey.

      "You don’t know if it's safe. How do you know that the farmer didn’t use Round-Up, that he didn’t cheat, that there weren't human feces in his fields? There’s only a once-annual, announced inspection by agents of the USDA."

      Since the USDA "outsources" inspection duties to independent contractors, there is no assurance that those inspectors are qualified, thorough or even honest, Popoff told ConsumerAffairs. Complicating matters further is that in countries that are part of the European Union (EU), the USDA accepts EU inspections on an "equivalency" basis, he said.

      Farmers markets

       So should health-conscious consumers do all their shopping at local farmers' markets? Not according to Popoff. 

      "The best thing about the farmers' market is that it provides you a chance to meet the farmers. Then you can go out to their farm and be your own eyes and ears," he said. "But beyond that, it's a hornet's nest. 

      "You see a lot of reselling going on," Popoff said. "A farmer used to pay $50 a year for his table but now a lot of farmers' markets are like little strip malls. The farmer could be paying thousands of dollars a year for his table. So if he runs out of carrots, guess what? He's going to find carrots somewhere."

      In fact, farmers' markets in most areas are the most unregulated part of the supply chain, Popoff argues: "There's no way to verify the food was really grown locally or that it's really organic. You're just taking the word of the guy who says he's a farmer."

      Who's responsible?

      Who's to blame? As usual, Congress gets much of the blame but Popoff says the USDA also needs to take a stronger hand and put its own inspectors into the field instead of relying on independent contractors.

      The people in the USDA's national organic program offices have never gone out to do an actual inspection. "They've lost their connection to the world," Popoff said.

      At its most basic level, inspection of food crops by USDA is supposed to make sure there are no uncomposted fecal matter -- human or animal -- in the food. That's because feces is at the root of many Salmonella, E. coli and other common contaminants yet he claimed USDA does not test as often as it should for fecal matter, choosing instead to run more expensive tests for Round-Up and other prohibited substances.

      Popoff not popular

      Not surprisingly, Popoff's view is not exactly popular in the organic movement. 

      "Popoff is a conservative ideologue, a global warming denier, an ardent critic of hybrid automobiles, and has suggested that the American mortgage crisis that precipitated the financial meltdown was caused by 'overregulation,'" said Mark A. Kastel, codirector at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.  

      But Cornucopia stops short of dismissing everything Popoff says. Popoff suggests that the entire certification process is without merit and should be replaced with a testing protocol for prohibited toxic chemicals. 

      “We think there is great merit in doing spot testing, as Congress required, and we have criticized the USDA for not having implemented testing until now, but it would be prohibitively expensive to test all farms and crops and would not substitute for other careful oversight protocols,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia's research director.

      The organic movement is at the moment sort of like the electric-car or open source software movements -- a relatively small group of ardent enthusiasts arguing over details that are at best obscure and at worst stultifying to the outside observer.

      While Popoff may be seen as extreme by some, there is general agreement that -- with more than 8 million cases of food poisoning per year, according to federal health statistics -- food safety in the United States is embarrassingly inadequate.   

      FDA catches flak

      It's the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that is in charge of ensuring the safety of most food once it leaves the farm, and is therefore the agency that's on the receiving end of a lot of criticism whenever a major food contamination crisis erupts.

      "The FDA is picking up the flack because the USDA doesn’t do its job," Popoff said. "Once it leaves a farm, it’s food not a crop or an animal. Once it's harvested it becomes an FDA problem. The FDA can't go back and fix everything the USDA should have caught in the first place."

      A recent Harris poll found that, by and large, consumers were skeptical about the benefits of organic food and not eager to pay more for it.  In fact,...
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      Ford plans software upgrade to improve mileage in C-Max, Fusion, MKZ hybrids

      Consumers have complained they get nowhere near the advertised mileage

      Stung by consumer complaints about mileage that didn't come close to its claims, Ford is rolling out a series of software changes to its 2013 Ford C-Max, Fusion and Lincoln MKZ hybrids.

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

      The company said letters will be going out by the end of the month to about 77,000 owners asking them to make an appointment with their dealer for a half-day of work updating the software.

      Ford and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have claimed the cars can achieve 47 miles per gallon in combined highway and city driving but consumers say they haven't even come close to that lofty figure.

      It will be better

      Ford isn't saying what the mileage should be after the software upgrade but promises it will be better. Among the changes, which don't apply to plug-in hybrids, are these:

      • The hybrids will automatically remain in electric-only mode to a top speed of 85 m.p.h., up from 62 m.p.h. now.
      • Active grille shutters will close in cold weather or when the air conditioner is running to warm or cool the cabin faster, allowing the batteries to kick in sooner to run in electric mode.
      • Fan speed will be reduced, requiring less fuel to operate.
      • The engine will warm up 50% faster, which allows stop-start technology to work faster, saving fuel when the vehicle turns itself off when idled.

      “Just as individual mileage can vary based on driving styles and environmental conditions, we expect fuel economy improvements will differ from customer to customer depending on individual driving habits,” said Raj Nair, group vice president, Global Product Development. “Customers should see the most improvement at highway speeds, during air conditioner use and operation in colder climates.”

      Nair said the upgrade was not a direct result of the class-action lawsuits and consumer complaints.

      "We are committed to continuously improving the fuel economy of our vehicles,” said Nair. “We believe these actions will provide our customers enhanced on-road fuel economy satisfaction.”

      Sales surging

      Despite the complaints about mileage, the Ford hybrids have been selling well. 

      Ford reported electrified vehicle sales of 46,197 units through June – up more than 400 percent from the same period a year ago. Ford said the C-MAX is drawing new buyers in coastal markets and in Florida and Texas, as Toyota Prius U.S. sales have declined 5 percent.
      Meanwhile, the Ford brand had the largest retail share increase in California of any brand during the first five months of 2013, based on the latest Polk retail registration data.
      Last month, 64 percent of C-MAX Hybrid buyers came from non-Ford brands. In fact, the vehicle most traded in for a Ford C-MAX is Toyota Prius, Ford said.
      Stung by consumer complaints about mileage that didn't come close to its claims, Ford is rolling out a series of software changes to its 2013 Ford C-Max, F...
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      Lawsuit claims Ford infotainment system is defective and dangerous

      Ford knows of the problems but hasn't warned customers, the suit charges

      A safe-driving group has filed a 41-page lawsuit against Ford Motor Co., claiming that the MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems are defective and dangerous.

      The Center for Defensive Driving (CDD) says that Ford knows about the defects but has not alerted potential customers. It also charges that the company has issued several technical service bulletins and extended the warranty on the system but has not launched a recall.

      The Los Angeles-based organization is a not-for-profit educational group that offers free classes in defensive driving. It has no paid staff, according to its website. 

      Frequent freeze-ups

      In its suit, which seeks class action status, CDD says that it leased a 2013 F-150 Lariat pickup to document the problems, which included frequent freeze-ups, failure to respond to commands and poor connections with mobile phones and MP3 players.

      The suit cites several complaints on file with the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) and notes that a J.D. Power and Associates official has said that problems with the infotainment system contributed to Ford's decline in the firm's customer satisfaction ratings.

      The systems, introduced by Ford in 2011, promised owners of Ford and Lincoln vehicles that they would have the ability to seamlessly operate audio controls, use a GPS navigation system, control climate systems and operate a Bluetooth-enabled device through the system.

      “In theory, MyFord Touch is a brilliant idea and worth the premium that Ford charged its customers for the system,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, the Seattle firm filing the suit. “In reality, the system is fundamentally flawed, failing to reliably provide functionality, amounting to an inconvenience at best, and a serious safety issue at worst.”

      According to the suit, the system fails even while controlling crucial vehicle functions, such as the defroster and rear-view camera, which are controlled through the system, putting drivers and passengers at risk.

      A safe-driving group has filed a 41-page lawsuit against Ford Motor Co., claiming that the MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems are d...
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      ACLU wants limits on license-plate data collected by cameras

      There is no need to store the information indefinitely, the civil liberties group argues

      By now, you've probably noticed the license plate readers mounted on police cars. They're cameras, usually on the rear fenders of the police car, giving them a clear view of the license plates of cars in adjacent lanes.

      Initially, the devices were used mostly to check against lists of stolen cars, those registered to wanted persons and, perhaps, parking ticket scofflaws.

      But increasingly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says, the data gathered by the cameras is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years.

      "This is what we have found after analyzing more than 26,000 pages of documents from police departments in cities and towns across the country, obtained through freedom of information requests by ACLU affiliates in 38 states and Washington, D.C.," the ACLU said in a statement. "License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever – providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will."

      The ACLU has published a report on its findings is now releasing all of the documents it has gathered and making it available through an interactive map, so that citizens can see what information their local police department has on them. 

      Some uses are beneficial

      The ACLU concedes that there are no doubt beneficial uses of the technology.

      "We don’t object when they’re used to identify people who are driving stolen cars or are subject to an arrest warrant. But they should not become tools for tracking where each of us has driven," the civil-liberties group said.

      But since the cameras take photos of every passing car, they gather information on people who are completely innocent, as this sample data from the ACLU studies show:

      While one or two photos don't amount to much, over time the government is collecting a massive amount of information about Americans as they go about their daily chores. It would not be hard to imagine scenarios in which this data could be used improperly.

      "The government doesn’t have a great track record of using this kind of information responsibly," the ACLU said in its report. "[T]he data can be abused for official purposes, like spying on protesters merely because they are exercising their constitutionally protected right to petition the government, or unofficial ones, like tracking an ex-spouse."

      Limit retention time

      What's the solution? The ACLU suggests that data not be saved unless it generates a "hit." In other words, if a license plate number is on a "hot list," any sighting of that plate should be retained while all other data should be promptly discarded.

      "There is no need to store plates for months or years," ACLU argued.

      By now, you've probably noticed the license plate readers mounted on police cars. They're cameras, usually on the rear fenders of the police car, giving th...
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      Fat-free doesn't mean calorie-free

      Calories are what counts when it comes to weight control

      Very few things you consume are calorie-free. Water is one. Many diet beverages also fall into that group. But when you see food packages labeled “fat-free,” remember that the product inside does have calories. In fact, chances are it also has some fat.

      For a product to meet the guidelines to be labeled fat-free, it must contain less than 0.5g of fat per serving. True, that's not very much fat but if you ignore the serving size and end up eating several servings, the product is no longer even close to being fat-free.

      “Reducing the amount of fat and saturated fat that you eat is one easy way to limit your overall calorie intake,” the NAtional Institutes of Health (NIH) says on its website. “However, eating fat-free or reduced-fat foods isn't always the answer to weight loss. This is especially true when you eat more of the reduced-fat food than you would of the regular item.”

      Peanut butter comparison

      If you need to reduce fat from your diet for health reasons, that's one thing. But thinking the reduced-fat food will help you lose weight is probably misguided. Food manufacturers make up for the lack of fat by adding flavor-enhancing sweetners and salt.

      Consider this: two tablespoons of reduced fat peanut butter contain 187 calories. Two tablespoons of regular peanut butter contain 191 calories. When it comes to controlling your weight, it's the calories that matter.

      For consumers who want to cut down on both fat and calories, nutritionists have begun promoting the creative use of herbs and spices. These flavor-enhancing additives can allow you to cut down on sugar, which adds calories, and sodium, which can raise blood pressure.

      John Peters, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, recently presented results from an experiment he conducted using meatloaf, vegetables and creamy pasta.

      He concluded that adding just a small amount of everyday herbs and spices to vegetables and reduced-calorie meals may make those foods more appetizing to consumers. That, he told the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo, could ultimately help consumers cut down on dietary fat and select more foods in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

      In Peters' study the test group of 150 subjects tasted the meal with full fat, which contained 610 calories, one with reduced fat, and one with reduced fat using everyday spices added such as onion, oregano, paprika and garlic. Both alternatives clocked in at 395 calories.

      Putting it to the taste

      How did they taste? The experiment rated the meals using a nine-point Likert scale. The meals were randomized so nobody knew which of the three they were eating.

      The analysis of the experiment found the test subjects could not tell the difference between the full-fat meal and the reduced-fat meal with spices. Both scored about a 7.0 on the scale.

      When subjects tasted just the meatloaf, they picked the reduced-fat version with herbs and spices, giving it a slight edge over the meatloaf with full fat. The same held true for the vegetables.

      Only the creamy pasta tasted better with its full complement of fat. Peters urged the food industry to continue studying the relationship between herbs and spices and dietary satisfaction.

      “Substituting herbs and spices for fat may be a promising strategy for helping people meet the Dietary Guidelines, especially if it’s simple stuff you can buy in the store that doesn’t require any exotic training,” Peters said.

      Very few things you consume are calorie-free. Water is one. Many diet beverages also fall into that group.When you see food packages labeled “fat-f...
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      Prices of used pickup trucks are rising

      It could be good news if you are thinking about trading yours in

      Industry sources report strong sales of used light trucks through the first six months of 2013, resulting in fewer bargains on the used car lot.

      "June closed out the first half of the year with average auction prices of used vehicles up to eight years in age nearly equal to last year's level," said Jonathan Banks, executive automotive analyst with the NADA Used Car Guide. "Given the stability observed in used-vehicle prices year-to-date, we expect to close out the year with prices essentially unchanged from the historically high average of $15,664 in 2012."

      While average prices of some used car classes dipped or stayed the same, full-sized pickups and SUVs saw a substantial 7.7% price hike. If you are in the market for a used pickup, it might be helpful to read what other owners have to saw about a particular model. Keep in mind that complaints are often anecdotal, but sometimes they can suggest areas for further research before signing on the dotted line.

      Positive report

      Keith, of Sussex, N.J., reports his 2010 GMC 3500HD SLE-2 4WD 6.0L has held up well, despite the fact that he's put lots of miles on it in a short period of time.

      “Carry two tons in the bed more than once a month,” Keith writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Added an extra trans cooler. Nothing but good things to say.”

      It's his second GMC and he says he's had good luck with both.

      “The only issue is brake pad chatter over bumpy conditions,” he reports. “Slight touch of the brake pad make it go away.”

      Christopher, of Rockaway, N.J., reports brake problems with his Chevy Silverado. He says his wife was driving the truck, which had 92,000 miles, when the brakes failed at a stop sign.

      Rusted brake lines

      “When I checked the truck, I saw a leak from one of the rear brake lines and noted that all the other brake lines had severe rust too,” he writes. “Additionally, the brake warning light did not come on before this incident and only came on later as I transported the truck to a repair facility, after filling up the brake reservoir. There was absolutely no warning of any incident with the brakes before they failed and from what I have found out, this is a known issue to Chevrolet and there is an engineering investigation going on through the NHTSA but no recall has been issued yet.”

      Christopher said he finds it odd that Chevrolet used stainless steel in the exhaust system to avoid rust issues but did not use the same material for an important system like brake lines.

      Some automotive complaints center, not so much on the vehicle's systems, but on cosmetics. Larry, of Bonne Terre, Mo., reports his recent vintage Nissan extended cab has a passenger door that won't open.

      'Cheap plastic'

      “I have the door panel off and can see everything seems to be working just stuck, so I pulled hard on the outside handle, it came off,” Larry writes. “Cheap plastic! How do you get these things open without using the jaws of life?”

      Brian, of Rio Rancho. N.M., has a 2006 Ford F150 and was relatively pleased until the engine started running rough and the check engine light came on.

      “Took it to my buddy's shop where he ran a check and told me three spark plugs are bad and that happens when it goes over 100,000 miles,” he writes. “The bad part is I only have 92,000 miles.”

      You may recall that Ford had a problem with its 1997 to 2002 model trucks spitting out spark plugs, resulting in costly repairs. Meanwhile, the apparent demand for used full-sized pickups could mean your wheels are worth more in a trade-in.

      "Seasonal effects aside, consumers should expect trade-in prices to remain high through at least the end of the year, especially for full-size pickups and SUVs because of lower supply and increased demand from a recovery in construction," Banks said.

      Industry sources report strong sales of used light trucks through the first six months of the 2013, resulting in fewer bargains on the used car lot."June...
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      Weekly jobless claims down sharply

      A lack of auto plant shutdowns was a factor

      First-time claims for state unemployment benefits posted a big decline in the week ending July 13.

      Government figures show there were 334,000 initial applications -- a drop 24,000 from the previous week's 358,000. Economists surveyed by had been expecting 348,000 filings.

      Analysts say the big drop is likely due to seasonal adjustment problems related to auto plant shutdowns for retooling that are not occurring in their usual fashion this year.

      The 4-week moving average, which is not as volatile as the weekly numbers and is considered a better gauge of the labor market, fell by 5,259 from last week to 346,000.

      The complete report is available on the Department of Labor website.

      First-time claims for state unemployment benefits posted a big decline in the week ending July 13. Government figures show there were 334,000 initial appl...
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      Chrysler recalls T & C, Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles

      Incorrect software may affect air bag deployments

      Chrysler is recalling 184 model year 2013 Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured June 11, 2013, through June 12, 2013.

      The occupant restraint control module (ORC) has incorrect software installed which may adversely affect air bag deployments in collisions. An air bag that does not deploy, or deploys improperly, may increase the risk of injury.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the ORC module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2013.

      Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N48.

      Chrysler is recalling 184 model year 2013 Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured June 11, 2013, through June 12, 2013. The occupant...
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      Toyota recalls Yaris vehicles

      A short circuit in the relay could disable power steering assistance

      Toyota is recalling 74 model year 2012 Yaris vehicles manufactured August 21, 2011, through August 31, 2011.

      A relay in the Power Steering Control Module of the electronic power steering system could experience a short circuit due to insufficient distance between terminals in the relay and moisture contamination of relay coil windings. A short circuit in the relay could disable power steering assistance, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the power steering control module. The recall is expected to begin in late July 2013.

      Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

      Toyota is recalling 74 model year 2012 Yaris vehicles manufactured August 21, 2011, through August 31, 2011. A relay in the Power Steering Control Module...
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      New York health insurance rates will plummet next year

      Obamacare's marriage of regulation and competition appears to be getting results

      "From Bergdorf's to Filene's" is how one official described the cost of health insurance in New York under Obamacare. New Yorkers, traditionally hard to shock, are still assimilating the news that the average individual health insurance premium will fall 50 percent next year when the Affordable Care Act takes effect.

      "Health insurance has suddenly become affordable in New York,” said Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president for health initiatives with the Community Service Society of New York, according to The New York Times

      Gov. Mario M. Cuomo broke the news, as he announced that state insurance regulators have approved rates for 2014 that are at least 50 percent lower on average than those currently available. 

      “New York’s health benefits exchange will offer the type of real competition that helps drive down health insurance costs for consumers and businesses,” said Cuomo. “The opportunity to choose among affordable, quality health insurance options will mean improved health outcomes, stronger economic security, and better peace of mind for New York families.”

      New Yorkers who now pay $1,000 a month or more for insurance will be able to find policies for as little as $308 per month. Federal subsidies for low-income people will drive their out-of-pocket cost down ever further.

      “In setting these rates, we worked hard to do right by consumers and small businesses so they have access to affordable, quality health insurance," said Benjamin M. Lawsky, Superintendent of Financial Services. "Moreover, where New York previously had a dizzying array of thousands upon thousands of plans, small businesses will now be able to truly comparison shop for the best prices. New York will continue to move ahead rapidly so the exchange is up and running for 2014.”

      Invisible hand or iron fist?

      How can this be? Is it that fabled invisible hand of the marketplace? Or is the iron fist of the state?

      Well, it's actually a little of each. It's competition, something that has been sadly lacking in health insurance recently, and it's being stimulated by the state health insurance exchanges established under Obamacare, as it's widely known.

      The New York situation mirrors that in the biggest megastate of all -- California, which was quick to set up its health insurance exchanges. In the most competitive markets, like Los Angeles, a 25-year-old could pay as little as $190 per month for a basic plan, much less than had been expected.

      Insurers have been rushing to get in on the action, not wanting to see Blue Cross Blue Shield and other big players wrap up the market. New York says it has approved 17 insurers to sell individual policies in the state, eight of them new to New York.

      Small-business premiums will not fall as sharply as individual premiums but they are much lower to start with, insurance experts note.

      Gov. Cuomo"From Bergdorf's to Filene's" is how one official described the cost of health insurance in New York under Obamacare. New Yorkers, traditiona...
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      Advice for living with a boomerang kid

      What to do when an adult child moves back home

      When the World War II generation returned from war after 1945 America faced a housing shortage. Many ex-GIs and their wives moved in with parents or in-laws out of necessity. It wasn't until housing developments like Levittown, N.Y., sprang up that they began to move out and into homes of their own.

      Their children, the Baby Boomers, couldn't wait to get out of the house and out from beneath their authoritarian parents. As soon they could they left home and returned only for visits.

      For Boomers' kids, however, things are a little different. Good jobs are fewer than in years past and the cost of living is high. The Millennial generation has more in common with their Boomer parents and the two generations seem to get along. In a word, for an adult child moving back home it is comfortable. Maybe too comfortable.

      “What I find in talking to my friends with children of this age, parents really are willing to help their kids out as far as they can,” said Janet Bodnar, an editor at Kiplinger who writes about families' financial matters. “Starting out, it looks like a win-win situation.”

      Set expectations

      Yes, the kids return to the comfort of home. And Mom and Dad, truth be told, actually like having them around, at least for a while. But the secret to making this arrangement work, says Bodnar, is making it clear from the get-go that it's temporary. It's part of the process of setting out expectations and that requires answers to a few questions.

      “How is this relationship going to work?” Bodnar said. “What do you expect the kids to do and what are you willing to do in return?”

      For example, if the kids are working are they going to pay rent or contribute financially to the household? If they're not working do you expect them to contribute any services in-kind? In Bodnar's case her youngest son has moved back home while attending graduate school. He earns his keep by performing household chores and providing on-site tech support for his parents.

      Helping with the job search

      Some kids move back home when they start a job search. Bodnar says parents can be helpful but should be careful not to overdo it. She recalls an incident in which one parent actually accompanied her adult child to a job interview.

      If you have counseled your children about job-hunting skills in the past, it doesn't hurt to remind them of it, even if they seemed to reject your advice when they were younger.

      “When they get out into the real world, suddenly all this advice begins to make sense to them,” she said.

      If an adult child has returned home and is unemployed, parents might feel like they need to provide financial support, in addition to putting a roof over their head. If so, they are not alone. A Pew Research study on intergenerational living found that 48% of parents of adult children had helped their children financially in the previous year.

      Skin in the game

      But here it's especially important to have clear ground rules.

      “Kids always have to have some skin in the game,” Bodnar said. “You don't want to give them carte blanche and pay for everything.”

      This should be negotiated upfront. For example, Bodnar says her son is on her family cell phone plan but when it's time to upgrade a phone, he pays for it. If a child isn't paying rent, she suggests having them pick up one of the household expenses, like the cable bill.

      Having an adult child move back home can be nice for parents, as long as it's temporary and it doesn't strain finances. After all, the parents may have economic problems of their own and other family pressures.

      “You can not jeopardize your own retirement or, if you have younger kids still in school, you can't be expected to support them in the way in which they've become accustomed forever,” Bodnar said.

      That's why when a boomerang kid returns, a frank and open discussion should be the first order of business.

      When the World War II generation returned from war after 1945 America faced a housing shortage. Many ex-GIs and their wives moved in with parents or in-law...
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      More kids run the risk of high blood pressure

      Obesity and poor eating habits are likely responsible

      It isn't just older folks who should be worried.

      New research in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension finds the risk of elevated blood pressure among children and adolescents rose 27 percent during a thirteen-year period.

      The culprits may be higher body mass, larger waistlines and eating too much sodium or salt.

      High blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke, heart disease and kidney failure and accounts for about 350,000 preventable deaths a year in the U.S.

      "High blood pressure is dangerous in part because many people don't know they have it," said Bernard Rosner, Ph.D., lead author of the study and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "It's a very sneaky thing. Blood pressure has to be measured regularly to keep on top of it."

      What's 'normal?'

      In adults age 20 and older, blood pressure should normally be less than 120/80 mm Hg. However, among children and teens blood pressure norms vary according to age, sex and height.

      While the researchers noted "elevated" readings, the children could not be called hypertensive because blood pressure readings must be high three times in a row for an official diagnosis.

      Researchers compared more than 3,200 children ages 8-17 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III in 1988-1994 with more than 8,300 in NHANES in 1999-2008. They accounted for differences between the two groups in age, sex, race/ethnicity, body mass, waistline and sodium intake.

      The findings

      Researchers found:

      • Boys were more likely to have elevated blood pressure, but the rate increased more markedly in girls from the first study to the second.
      • More children were overweight in the second study, and both sexes -- especially girls -- had bigger waistlines.
      • Children whose body mass or waistline measurements were in the top 25 percent for their age group were about twice as likely to have elevated blood pressure as children with measurements in the bottom 25 percent.
      • Black children had a 28 percent higher risk of elevated blood pressure than non-Hispanic white kids.
      • In both studies, children with the greatest sodium intake were 36 percent more likely than those with the lowest intake to have elevated blood pressure.
      • More than 80 percent of children in both studies had a daily sodium intake above 2,300 milligrams; however, fewer children in the later study had an intake above 3,450 milligrams.

      "Everyone expects sodium intake will continue to go up," Rosner said. "It seems there's been a little bit of listening to dietary recommendations, but not a lot."

      What to do

      Americans eat an average 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily -- more than twice the 1,500 or less that the American Heart Association recommends. Two-thirds of sodium intake is from store-bought foods and one-quarter from restaurant offerings.

      Studies have linked excessive sodium in the diet to high blood pressure, and have suggested reducing sodium intake in children's and adolescents' can lower average systolic (top number) blood pressure by 1.2 mm Hg and average diastolic (bottom number) pressure 1.3 mm Hg.

      It isn't just older folks who should be worried. New research in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension finds the risk of elevated blood pres...
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      The total cost of going to college

      With a new semester approaching, moms and dads will really have to shell out the bucks

      With the end of July fast approaching, there's only a little time left before college freshmen start heading off to campus.

      So right now a lot of students are walking the aisles of department stores and gathering all they'll need to face their first semester away from home. And many times, Mom and Dad will be footing the bill.

      Whether they spend money on knickknacks for their child's dorm room, on footlockers to pack a lot of stuff or a bunch of new clothes, parents will definitely shell out some major bucks for the college experience. And that's before the student sets foot on campus.

      How much?

      But what will the costs be after that?

      According to, the average yearly cost for a public four-year college in the United States is $25,892, if the student is from out of state. A private four-year school runs about $31,915 a year.

      If you choose to go in-state, a public four-year school will cost $17,227 on average and a public two-year in state school will run $9,541 -- but only if you choose to live off-campus.

      Just the start

      But tuition is just one of the expenses that parents and students will face.

      Yearly health costs for one student will run $2,200. Books will cost $1,137. A computer will run about $1,000. Clothing and other items from the book store will cost $826 and having a social life will set each student back about $520 a year.

      Got a car? Add about $500 each year. And attending sporting events will cost about $230, so there will be costs coming for parents and students from all directions.

      Show me the money

      Research shows there are currently 19.7 million students in the United States attending college -- 11.2 million women and 8.5 million men. And most of them will have to find ways to come up with the money they'll need.

      Student borrowing is the most popular way of paying tuition; the average amount a student will borrow is $5,692 a year. Separately, parents will borrow about $3,396 a year and through savings and their personal income, parents will contribute an additional $2,261 yearly.

      A good number of students will use their own income to help pay for school; the average amount they'll pay is $8,752 a year. Some will get help from their relatives ($2,314 a year). Others will use grants and scholarships ($1,682 a year) to get the money they need.

      So from various sources, a lot of students will be able to gather the funds to pay for school, but for most folks, that's where the financial fun just begins.

      Student debt

      During the course of four years, many students will think about the debt they'll eventually have to pay off, but they'll probably put those thoughts on mental back burners. 

      But somewhere between the graduation ceremony ending and the real world beginning, paying off that debt will be moved to the front burner. Researchers say the average amount of debt a student graduates with is about $25,250 -- an increas of 50% over the past 10 years.

      Moreover, 45% of students fail to graduate but are still left with huge loans to pay back.

      Out of all students who attended a 4-year school in 2010, two-thirds were left with a student debt, and since 1999 student debt has gone up by 511%.

      Paying off debt

      Just how are graduates paying off their debt? A lot of them are moving back home to make payments easier.

      Statistics show that 85% of college grads move back in with their parents, becoming boomerang kids; in 2010 the unemployment rate for new college graduates was 9.1%.

      However, many people will say the high cost of college is worth it, as statistics show that college graduates will earn about 85% more than high school graduates. But some  will have it better than others.

      Currently, the college majors with the highest unemployment rate are, clinical psychology, fine arts, U.S. history, library science, military technologies, educational psychology, architecture, industrial and organizational psychology, linguistics and comparative literature.

      As far as master's degrees are concerned, geology, nursing, public health, business administration, biology, medicine, physical therapy, economics and civil engineering are some of the highest-paying majors.

      Lowering costs

      Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia of Colorado says it'll take the efforts of Washington and local communities to get schools to lower tuition.

      "One thing we need to do is avoid placing blame and figure out how to find a solution, because it's in our shared interest to do so" said Garcia in a published interview. "We do have to control costs and provide more state resources to the schools so they don't have to raise tuition, and we have to pressure schools to be innovative, to look for ways to provide education at a lower cost to students while not compromising their quality."

      In addition, Garcia says we'll all have to view higher education differently from here on in, and solve the problem of high tuition costs together, not individually.

      "We have to convince voters that it's an investment that's worth making, and I don't think most voters are buying that just yet," he said. "They view Higher Ed as an individual responsibility; they don't see the collective community benefit that we all get when and individual receives and education."

      With the end of July fast approaching, there's only a little time left before college freshmen start heading off to campus.So right now a lot of student...
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      Study: Brand name health insurance not always better

      One of the best-known brands rated in the middle of the pack

      Companies advertise in order to build brand awareness with consumers. When it's decision time, the company is hoping the consumer will pick its brand.

      That's how companies sell everything from beans to automobiles and yes, even health benefit policies. A study by HealthPocket, a company that rates health care policies, has completed a study of how individual policies stack up in the the government's Medicare plan quality star system. In particular, it focused on one well-known and widely-used branded Medicare Advantage program. 

      “We found that plans bearing the AARP brand in the Medicare Advantage market on average fall short of the industry in two measures of plan quality,” the study said.

      More than 14 million Americans have Medicare Advantage plans, which supplement coverage under traditional Medicare. The plans are growing in popularity compared to traditional Medicare, and consumers who choose Medicare Advantage coverage have a variety of plan options to compare before making a final decision.

      According to HealthPocket, consumers usually base their choices on multiple factors, including premium cost and finding their physician in a plan network. The Medicare plan quality star rating system ranks plans by assigning them a number of stars.

      In the middle of the bunch

      Out of five possible stars, HealthPocket says 85 percent of AARP's plans fell into the 3.0-3.5 range, with 8.7 percent in the 4.0 range and no plans achieving an excellent 4.5 or 5.0 score. At the same time, 31 percent of non-AARP plans achieved a score of 4.0 or higher.

      Sheila, of Boynton Beach, Fla., signed up with AARP's United Healthcare Medicare Advantage and finds the requirement of pre-authorization for drug approval, which can take up to 72 hours, doesn't work well in her case.

      “I am suffering with blood clots, which can be very dangerous,” she writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. “If I don't take the drug, I could easily suffer an embolism that will end my life. I can understand the need for an authorization on a controlled substance. They insist that a prescription from my doctor will not suffice as authorization. I do not write my own prescriptions. If a doctor does, why is this not considered authorization?”

      Bill, of Livonia, Mich., says his doctor hates his AARP policy and he is coming to share that view.

      'Polite but incompetent'

      “I find their telephone customer service to be very polite but incompetent,” Bill writes. “I've called five times over the last five weeks to check on my application and on the fifth call, they said they have never received a completed application. All other calls they said it was in progress. Also, I tried to apply using their website but it wouldn't work. So I faxed my application and they lost it. I will seek insurance elsewhere.”

      According to the HealthPocket study, the highest-performing competitors  were nonprofit health plans, including Kaiser; Gunderson Lutheran Health System; Baystate Health; and HealthPartners, Inc. Certain for-profit plans also had higher average contract scores than AARP, including Humana and Aetna, the report said.

      "Having health plan options can save money and improve quality of care, but it can also make decisions tough for consumers," said Steve Zaleznick, Executive Director for Consumer Strategy and Development at HealthPocket. "While going with a well-known brand can bring peace of mind, consumers also have tools they can use to help weigh costs and quality objectively, including for plans with less familiar names."

      The Medicare plan star-rating system is a tool consumers can use to compare plans. The rating provides a one to five – actual results start at two stars -- scoring system for Medicare Advantage Plans. The overall rating reflects treatment, preventive care, and customer satisfaction collected on the Medicare Advantage plan.  

      Companies advertise in order to build brand awareness with consumers. When it's decision time, the company is hoping the consumer will pick its brand.Tha...
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      TV business sweats as Internet giants stoke the flames

      Google, Apple, Aereo, Dish -- they're all hungry for a bite of TV's hide

      It wasn't long ago that the TV business was so simple. A handful of networks bought shows, sold ads and kept the local stations fed and watered.

      Times have changed and it won't be long before the TV business is as upended as newspapers and magazines. 

      Google is trying to line up shows for a new TV service, Apple is working on an ad-skipping service similar to Dish Network's Hopper and cable-bypass service Aereo has won another court challenge, all part of the frenzied state of affairs that typifies the TV business today.

      Here are the gory details:

      Unoriginal original programming

      Google has been approaching media companies about licensing their content for an Internet TV service that would stream traditional TV and cable programming. It might be a great idea but it's not particularly unique; Intel, Sony and Apple are all working on similar schemes. Broadcasters and program producers are wary, however.

      Google has also started underwriting some original (though pretty pedestrian) programming on its YouTube channel and is launching traditional cable service on its Google Fiber network in Kansas City. And for years, it's been fooling around trying to develop a cable-TV-style set-top box.

      A bite of the Apple

      Apple reportedly is developing technology that would let viewers skip commercials in TV shows but, unlike Dish Network, would pay the media companies for the skipped spots. Who would pay Apple? Viewers? It's not yet clear.

      The networks sued Dish when it came out with the Hopper but if Apple's checkbook is fat enough, it may get a better reception. After all, it's no secret that many -- maybe most -- consumers use their DVRs to skip commercials. That has been slowly but steadily eroding the whole TV business model, so Apple might be seen as savior rather than villain.

      Aereo still airborne

      Aereo's antennas

      Aereo, on the other hand, has broadcasters absolutely foaming at the mouth, pounding the table and circling the wagons. It's the upstart service that delivers local broadcast signals over the Internet, bypassing cable systems and depriving broadcasters of the licensing fees the cable systems pay them for each subscriber.

      In the latest development, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has denied a broadcaster's request that the full court review a three-judge panel's April decision that Aereo could continue operating while a lower court considers further appeals.

      And don't even mention Netflix and Amazon, which are producing high-quality original programming on a par with HBO in its prime.  

      Yoo-hoo Yahoo!

      Oh, and then there's Yahoo, which is still kind of nowhere, one of the few Internet titans not visibly seeking to pull the blocks out from under the TV game. Marissa Mayer has been the CEO for a year now and has managed to stop the decline in traffic but ad sales are still anemic and revenue for the last quarter disappointed Wall Street. There may be a lot going on there but if so, it's beneath the surface, which isn't necessarily the same as underwater.

      It wasn't long ago that the TV business was so simple. A handful of networks bought shows, sold ads and kept the local stations fed and watered.Times hav...
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      New home construction plunges in June

      Meanwhile, builder confidence is on the rise

      New home construction hit the skids last month.

      According to government figures, housing starts in June were down 9.9% from May at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 836,000. As disappointing as that is, construction during the month was still 10.4% above the pace recorded the year before.

      Construction of single-family homes was down 0.8% from the month before.

      Looking ahead, things aren't likely to get much better. Building permits for privately-owned housing units dropped 7.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 911,000.

      Mortgage applications

      Separately, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports mortgage applications were down 2.6% for the week ending July 12. Refinancings dipped 4% from the previous to the lowest level since July 2011.

      In addition, the refinance share of mortgage activity decreased to 63% of total applications -- down 1% from the previous week to the lowest level since April 2011.

      Builder confidence

      Earlier this week, the National Association of Home Builders  (NAHB) reported builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes rose six points -- to 57, the third consecutive monthly gain and the strongest reading since January of 2006.

      “Builders are seeing more motivated buyers coming through their doors as the inventory of existing homes for sale continues to tighten,” noted NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Meanwhile, as the infrastructure that supplies home building returns, some previously skyrocketing building material costs have begun to soften.”

      All four regions of the country posted gains, with the Midwest leading the way with an advance of 8 points. The South reported a 5-point gain, the Northeast was up 4 points and the West picked up 3 points.

      New home construction hit the skids last month. According to government figures, housing starts in June were down 9.9% from May at a seasonally adjusted a...
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      New test helps diagnose ADHD

      Brain wave levels help in making a determination

      A new test for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is about to hit the market.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to allow marketing of the Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA) System for use in children and adolescents 6 to 17 years old.

      The agency says that when used as part of a complete medical and psychological examination, the NEBA System can help confirm an ADHD diagnosis or a clinician’s decision that further diagnostic testing should focus on ADHD or other medical or behavioral conditions that produce symptoms similar to ADHD.

      The device is based on electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, which records different kinds of electrical impulses (waves) given off by neurons (nerve cells) in the brain and the number of times (frequency) the impulses are given off each second.

      How it works

      The NEBA System is a 15- to 20-minute non-invasive test that calculates the ratio of two standard brain wave frequencies, known as theta and beta waves. The theta/beta ratio has been shown to be higher in children and adolescents with ADHD than in children without it.

      “Diagnosing ADHD is a multistep process based on a complete medical and psychiatric exam,” said Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “The NEBA System along with other clinical information may help health care providers more accurately determine if ADHD is the cause of a behavioral problem.”

      ADHD is one of the most common neurobehavioral disorders in childhood. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 9% of U.S. adolescents have ADHD and the average age of diagnosis is 7 years old. Children with ADHD have difficulty with attention, hyperactivity, impulsivity and behavioral problems.

      NEBA Health of Augusta, Ga., manufactures the NEBA System.

      A new test for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is about to hit the market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to allo...
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      Sears reissues recall of Kenmore dehumidifiers

      A low consumer response rate is one of the factors in the decision

      Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Kmart Corporation, of Hoffman Estates, Ill are reissuing a recall first published in August 2012 for about 795,000 Kenmore dehumidifiers.

      The dehumidifiers can overheat, smoke, melt and catch fire, posing fire and burn hazards to consumers.

      In addition to a low consumer response rate, Sears says there have been seven additional incident reports of shorting and fire associated with the dehumidifiers. Incidents involved a severe burn to a consumer’s foot, and three fires resulting in more than $300,000 of property damage.

      This recall involves Kenmore brand 35-, 50- and 70-pint dehumidifiers made by LG and manufactured between 2003 and 2005. The dehumidifiers are made of white plastic and are between 21 and 24 inches tall, about 15 inches wide and about 13.5 inches deep. They have a fan, humidity controls and a Kenmore logo on their top front panels. They come with front-loading water buckets. Some models include remote controls. The model number can be found on the right side of the interior of the unit once the bucket has been removed. Recalled units have the following model numbers:

      • 35-pint (2004) - 580.54351400
      • 50-pint (2003) - 580.53509300
      • 70-pint (2003) - 580.53701300
      • 70-pint (2004) - 580.54701400
      • 70-pint (2005) - 580.54701500

      The dehumidifiers, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Sears and Kmart stores nationwide and and from 2003 to 2009 for between $140 and $220.

      Consumers should immediately turn off and unplug the dehumidifiers and contact the Recall Fulfillment Center to receive a Sears gift card for either $75, $80, $90 or $100, which may be used at any Sears or Kmart store or at or The gift card amount will depend on the capacity and year of the dehumidifier. In lieu of a gift card, consumers may request a check for the refund amount. All consumers with recalled units will also receive a $25 coupon that may be used at Sears Department Stores or toward the purchase of a new Kenmore dehumidifier.

      Consumers may contact the LG Recall Fulfillment Center, toll-free, at (855) 400-4641 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday and between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. CT Saturday.   

      Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Kmart Corporation, of Hoffman Estates, Ill are reissuing a recall first published in August 2012 for about 795,000 Kenmore dehu...
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      Lack of sleep may be linked to depression

      What can you do to get a better night's sleep?

      Have you ever felt sad or depressed during the day and weren't sure why?

      The next time that happens ask yourself how much sleep you got the night before. Better yet, ask yourself how much sleep you've been getting overall.

      And if you suffer from sleep apnea, you really want to ask yourself these questions.

      Exploring the link

      Researchers at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center recently took a closer look at the link between sleep apnea and depression and looked into how even small amounts of light can throw off a good night's sleep a great deal.

      Dr. Ulysses Magalang, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Wexner Medical System, said nearly 50% of folks with sleep apnea live with depression.

      "We know that approximately half of all patients with obstructive sleep apnea also suffer from depression and anxiety," he said. "And we aren't exactly sure why."

      Magalang and his research team conducted an experiment using lab mice, to get a better understanding of how sleep apnea patients can sleep better.

      At the conclusion of the experiment the researchers said even the dimmest of lights can cause a sleep apnea patient to suffer. And they're not just talking about the TV and laptop being kept on.

      Magalang and his team said even the small dots of light on your cable box or other electronics can throw off sleep and cause depression.

      In addition, people with sleep apnea should avoid using digital alarm clocks, since most give off light and can cause a distraction. In fact, anyone who wants a good night's sleep should follow these instructions.

      "Light at night -- even low levels of light -- might actually suppress the secretion of melatonin," said Magalang.

      Sleep preparation 

      Dr. Shelby Freedman Harris, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, says in order for your brain to release melatonin, you'll have to make some preparations.

      "In the sleep field we like to call [melatonin] the 'hormone of darkness,' " said Harris in an informational video. "Melatonin helps us to get sleepy and fall asleep at night. So when the sun goes down and it gets dark, melatonin starts to come out and we start to get sleepy."

      And there are a lot of things that can disrupt that sleepy feeling, she says.

      "If you are sitting in bright light in your bedroom or you're just playing with a computer or an iPad or you're watching TV, all those things can inhibit the ability for melatonin to come out and therefore make you not as sleepy when you want to go to bed at night," Harris explained.

      The seriousness of apnea

      According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, there are more than 20 million adults who are living with sleep apnea but don't know it, and besides depression, sleep apnea can lead to diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and other serious conditions.

      If you're not sure if you have sleep apnea, Dr. Rod Willey, of the Illinois Institute of Dental Sleep Medicine, says getting someone to monitor your sleep is your best bet.

      Wiley says that it's often a family member who observes that a spouse or partner stops breathing or snores loudly. Both can be signs of apnea.

      In addition, Willey says it's not the snoring that people should be concerned about when it comes to sleep apnea, they should be worried about what happens after the snoring.

      "Snoring is usually followed by a moment of silence," he said. "It's that moment of silence that we have to worry about, because that's when you actually must start breathing again. And after that moment of silence is over, that's usually followed by a cough or a gasp or a snorting or something -- or more snoring."

      Willey says the snoring, followed by the silence and coughing can happen hundreds of times throughout the night for a person with sleep apnea, so grabbing a family member to watch you sleep is the best route that you can take. If you live alone, recording yourself sleeping might not be a bad idea.

      Magalang says his team isn't 100% sure of how strong the link is between sleep apnea and depression, but the link does exist.

      A good night's sleep

      By just removing some of the small and subtle lights in a room, sleep apnea patients, and other folks, will be able to sleep better and lower the chances of depression setting in.

      "Although it is unclear at the present time whether sleep apnea causes depression, both conditions are commonly seen together in patients," said Magalang. "Our research suggests that sleeping even with a minimum amount of light may increase symptoms of depression in those with sleep apnea.

      "The combination of dim light exposure and sleep apnea appears to result in increased depressive and anxiety-like behaviors in mice, so limiting exposure to light at night could be a very simple strategy to help patients with sleep apnea. We're currently exploring further testing."

      In addition, Magalang says for the best sleep, use drapes that will completely darken the room, as some drapes still allow a little light to get through. And obviously, all electronics should be turned off as you're getting ready to shut down for the night.

      Lastly, Magalang says to choose clocks or night lights with red lighting instead of blue or green lighting, since blue and green lights can cause more distraction.

      Have you ever felt sad or depressed during the day and weren't sure why?The next time that happens ask yourself how much sleep you got the night before. Be...
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      AT&T finds a way to cut subsidies on wireless devices

      The wireless giant is offering a no-contract contract if you pay full price. Is this a deal or what?

      Don't like those lengthy cell phone contracts? AT&T is giving you a chance to cut the cord, or at least snip it a little bit -- but it comes at a price.

      AT&T calls its new program "AT&T Next." Simply put, it lets you buy any phone or tablet you want at full price without signing up for a two- or three-year network service contract. Instead, you have to sign up for an AT&T Next service contract, which as we interpret AT&Tspeak does not have a fixed term.

      What's so great about that? Well, not too much except for the no-long-term contract part. The rub is that you'll be paying full price for the phone you select instead of having AT&T subsidize the device in exchange for a multi-year contract.

      Of course, while there's no contract, you'll be signing an interest-free financing plan (i.e., a contract) that lets you pay for the phone in 20 monthly payments. After 12 payments, you can trade the device in on a new one; after 20 payments, the phone or tablet is yours and you can keep it, sell it or give it away. 

      Of course, if you lose the phone or it gets damaged or stolen, you'll still have to make the payments, so if you're one of those people who tends to drop the phone into the toilet or back over it with your Hummer, it might be a good idea to look into insurance. 

      To hear AT&T tell it, this is the greatest thing since unsliced bread. 

      “With AT&T Next, customers can get the newest smartphone or tablet every year with no down payment. That’s hard to beat, and it’s an incredible value for customers who want the latest and greatest every year,” said Ralph de la Vega, president and chief executive officer of AT&T Mobility.


      Consumers rate AT&T Wireless

      Why is this such a great deal? Well, it depends on a lot of things -- like what AT&T will be charging you for network service and how much you wind up spending for the phone or tablet. See AT&T's website for more information on network plan pricing (we couldn't find it but maybe you can).

      Phones and tablets aren't cheap, you know. Consumers who've gotten used to getting a new phone every few years for $100 or so will be shocked to learn that new iPhones, Droids and so forth can easily top the $500 mark -- a cool $25 or so per month just to pay for the phone plus the monthly network charge.

      Oh, and about that "no-contract" network agreement, you can cancel it at any time but if you do -- guess what -- the full amount of your installment contract on the device becomes immediately payable. 

      So, yes, you can quit anytime you want. But it will cost you.

      Freedom, as they say, isn't free.

      Don't like those lengthy cell phone contracts? AT&T is giving you a chance to cut the cord, or at least snip it a little bit -- but it comes at a price...
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      Money; the root of most break-ups

      Arguments over finances are the biggest predictor of divorce

      What do you and your significant other argue about? Which team to root for, what color to paint the living room, whether to serve Coke or Pepsi?

      If you mostly argue about money, chances are your relationship could be headed for the rocks.

      "Argument about money is by far the top predictor of divorce," said Sonya Britt, assistant professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University. "It's not children, sex, in-laws or anything else. It's money -- for both men and women."

      Britt reached her conclusion after studying data collected from more than 4,500 couples who were part of the National Survey of Families and Households. The study controlled for some obvious factors, like income, debt and net worth. After all, wouldn't people who have less be more likely to fight about money? Not really.

      Even the rich fight over money

      "Results revealed it didn't matter how much you made or how much you were worth,” Britt said. “Arguments about money are the top predictor for divorce because it happens at all levels."

      Britt also found that it takes longer to get over money arguments than squabbles about other issues. The words are often nastier and the arguments last longer.

      Mindy Crary, a financial coach and Forbes contributor, says many couples stumble into arguments about money when they first begin to merge their finances. When two singles become a couple and pool their assets, it's often akin to a corporate merger.

      Her advice? Don't expect the merger to become an instant success financially. It took a while to become a couple, she points out, and it will take a while for two income streams to become a single pool.

      The debt trap

      If one of the partners brings more debt to the union, that can also be a source of friction. If one of the partners enters couplehood debt-free, that person should show some sensitivity to the other. It's often hard because people disciplined about money seem to have little patience with people who are not.

      Spending can be another source of friction in a relationship. Both parties should have similar approaches to spending and similar goals. Otherwise, there's likely to be some arguments.

      Avoiding money fights

      Those are some of the problems. Now, are there any solutions? Many experts say there are.

      The first piece of advice is to talk about money before the subject comes up in a heated argument. And perhaps the best time to talk about money is before the relationship gets serious.

      For example, if you have dreams of an early and independent retirement while your would-be partner tends to live for today, it might be good to know that before you contemplate a merger. Prospective couples often feel each other out on important life decisions like children. It would be wise to work money into that conversation as well.

      Financial plan

      Once you take the plunge into couplehood, formalize your agreements into a financial plan. Any organization needs a budget and a household is no exception. Come up with a spending plan that balances with income and leaves some room for savings and investment.

      Britt says financial arguments don't always end in divorce but they almost always make both parties miserable. They increase stress and suck all the satisfaction out of the relationship.

      "We, as financial planners, can help clients reduce their stress through education," Britt said. "This is important because people who are stressed are very short-term focused. They don't plan for the future. If you can reduce stress, you can increase planning."

      Couples who agree to tie the knot often seek premarital counseling. A good opportunity, Britt says, to pull each other's credit reports and talk through how to handle finances fairly for both individuals.

      What do you and your significant other argue about? Which team to root for, what color to paint the living room, whether to serve Coke or Pepsi?If you mo...
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      Rising gasoline costs send consumer prices higher in June

      Food prices posted a modest increase

      A sharp increase in gasoline prices sent the government's consumer price index (CPI) up 0.5% in June following a miniscule 0.1% advance the month before.

      The June increase came as a surprise to economists surveyed by, who had forecast a gain of 0.3%. For the 12 months ending in June, inflation is running at an annual rate of 1.8%

      Energy and food

      Energy costs were up 3.4% last month after increasing just 0.4% in May. Almost all of that was due to a jump of 6.3% in the price of gasoline, which was unchanged in May. In fact, the gasoline price surge accounted for about two- thirds of the rise in the overall CPI. Other energy categories were mixed, with electricity rising, but natural gas and fuel oil declining.

      Food prices rose 0.2% in June following a 0.1% dip in May. Costs for cereals and bakery products, and for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs all increased 0.4%. The costs of fruits and vegetables, and for dairy and related products fell 0.1%.

      The “core rate” of inflation, which strips out the volatile energy and categories, increased 0.2% -- the same increase as in May.

      The full June CIP report is available on the Labor Department website

      A sharp increase in gasoline prices sent the government's consumer price index (CPI) up 0.5% in June following a miniscule 0.1% advance the month before. ...
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      Suit: deputies killed dog for no reason

      California man says his dog was shot and bled to death

      A California resident claims in a lawsuit that police responding to a shooting killed his dog for no apparent reason. The suit, filed on July 10, alleges that Chico Blue, a 5-year-old pit bull, died a gruesome death, bleeding out after being shot twice.

      According to the suit, plaintiff Arturo Gonzalez was home with Chico when officers with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department responded to a report of a nearby shooting. Gonzalez, who according to the suit was not connected with the shooting, was held in a police car while Chico stayed in the yard.

      Suit: Cop tormented dog

      The suit claims that “one of the officers, apparently for his own amusement, picked up a lounge chair and threw it over the fence at Chico ... Shortly after, another officer opened the gate to the area where the dog was securely enclosed and tasered him twice in the face.”

      “After being tasered, Chico Blue staggered through the gate an officer had left opened,” the complaint says. “Even though the dog was already dazed and injured, an officer near the sidewalk drew his gun and shot Chico Blue twice.”

      “The dog attempted to flee by jumping into an officer's open car door, where an officer kicked the door closed and allowed Chico Blue to bleed to death.”

      According to the suit, Gonzalez repeatedly begged the officers to let him bring Chico inside, but the police ignored his pleas. The suit names as defendants the City of Pico Rivera and the County of Los Angeles.

      Lawyer: “One of the worst” 

      "My office unfortunately receives many calls from people who have lost a family companion due to an unnecessary and excessive shooting by police officers," the plaintiff’s lawyer, Jill Ryther told the Huffington Post. "Despite the many horrific stories I have heard, the shooting of Chico Blue is one of the worst I've encountered."

      Ryther founded Expand Animal Rights Now (EARN), a group whose “primary objective is to use the legal system, education and outreach to end the exploitation of all animals.”

      In a press release issued the day the suit was filed, Ryther says that “Chico Blue’s tragic death is part of a larger trend in which numerous animals have been harmed or killed by careless law enforcement officials.”

      “Just last week a video published on YouTube showed Max, a Rottweiler, being gunned down by police in Hawthorne, prompting protests and outrage from countless citizens,” the press release says.

      A California resident claims in a lawsuit that police responding to a shooting killed his dog for no apparent reason. The suit, filed on July 10, alle...
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      Ram pickup wins top rating from Consumer Reports

      It's the first time a Chrysler-made pickup has taken top marks

      Chrysler has been having its share of setbacks lately, including a nasty fight with consumers and regulators over fires in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but the company also got some good news this week: it's 2013 Ram 1500 pickup has come out on top of the Consumer Reports ratings.

      Coincidentally, the truck was recalled today because of a problem with the electronic stability control system. 

      The 2013 Chrysler 300 tied the Nissan Maxima in the magazine's test scores for large sedans earlier this year. The test scores are widely used by consumers considering new car and trucks purchases.

      The re-engineered half-ton pickup scored a 78 in the magazine's road testing, nine points ahead of the second-place Toyota Tundra and 10 points higher than the Ford F-150.

      "Continued interior and powertrain improvements make the Ram a particularly well-rounded choice," said Jake Fisher, director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center.

      The top score for the Ram comes just as large pickups are seeing a sales surge, due mostly to the uptick in the housing and construction trades. All of the major manufacturers have been retooling their pickups to get in on the action.

      In its testing, Consumer Reports used a 2013 Ram with the 5.7-liter Hemi engine and the eight-speed automatic transmission, running up a 15 miles per gallon rating, the highest among those tested.

      The truck also got the magazine's "recommended" badge because earlier models have achieved a good reliability rating.

      Chrysler has been having its share of setbacks lately, including a nasty fight with consumers and regulators over fires in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but the...
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      Bed bug remedies don't meet the test, feds charge

      FTC: BEST Yet! line of cedar-based products can't support its claims

      The marketers of unproven cedar oil-based remedies for bed bugs and head lice have agreed to soft-pedal their claims.

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged that Chemical Free Solutions, LLC, had made unsupported and over-hyped claims for its BEST Yet! line of cedar-oil-based liquid products that it said would treat and prevent bed bug and head liceinfestations.

      According to the FTC, the defendants falsely claimed that their natural, BEST Yet! bed bug and head lice products were invented for the U.S. Army, that their bed bug product was acknowledged by the USDA as the No. 1 choice of bio-based pesticides, and that the Environmental Protection Agency had warned consumers to avoid chemical solutions for treating bed bug infestations.

      Under the agreed-upon settlement orders, the defendants are prohibited from claiming that their BEST Yet! products by themselves can stop or prevent a bed bug infestation, or are more effective at doing so than other products, unless they have competent and scientific evidence to make the claims. 

      The defendants also are barred from claiming that their products can effectively treat head lice infestations unless those claims are non-misleading and they obtain FDA approval prior to making those claims. 

      The defendants are further prohibited from misrepresenting the results of scientific tests or studies, and from claiming that a product or service they sell is endorsed by a government agency or by any other third-party entity when it is not.

      The orders impose a $4.6 million judgment against company owner Dave Glassel who is facing bankruptcy, and a $185,206 judgment against Chemical Free Solutions, LLC, which will be suspended due to the company’s inability to pay.  

      Consumers concerned about bed bugs also should see the FTC publication,  “Battling Bed Bugs,” which urges caution about advertisements that offer quick solutions, and provides other related advice to consumers.

      Two marketers of unproven cedar oil-based remedies for bed bugs and head lice have agreed to soft-pedal their claims.The Federal Trade Commission ch...
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      RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks recalled

      A potential steering problem could increase the risk of a crash

      Chrysler is recalling 1,058 model year 2013 RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks manufactured January 22, 2013, through March 8, 2013.

      An incorrect bolt may have been used to attach the track bar to the frame. The incorrect attaching bolt may break or fall out, resulting in the vehicle suddenly pulling to one side, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the track bar fasteners, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2013.

      Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N41.

      Chrysler is recalling 1,058 model year 2013 RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks manufactured January 22, 2013, through March 8, 2013. An incorrect bolt may have bee...
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      Grand Cherokees recalled

      Electrical spikes may cause the parking lamps to turn off

      Chrysler is recalling 4,458 model year 2014, non-SRT trimmed, Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured January 14, 2013, through March 20, 2013 equipped with premium headlamps.

      When switching between daytime running lights and parking lights, electrical spikes may cause the parking lamps to turn off. Without parking lamps, the vehicle may not be as visible to other vehicles, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will update the Central Body Controller software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2013.

      Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N42.

      Chrysler is recalling 4,458 model year 2014, non-SRT trimmed, Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured January 14, 2013, through March 20, 2013 equipped with p...
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      Ram 1500 trucks recalled

      There may be a problem with the Electronic Stability Control system

      Chrysler is recalling 45,961 model year 2013 RAM 1500 4x4 trucks manufactured June 26, 2012, through February 5, 2013.

      Due to a software issue with the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) module, the ESC system may be disabled when the vehicle is started. A disabled ESC system may result in loss of directional control, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will update the ESC module software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2013.

      Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N37.

      Chrysler is recalling 45,961 model year 2013 RAM 1500 4x4 trucks manufactured June 26, 2012, through February 5, 2013. Due to a software issue with the E...
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      Sometimes it's better not to file an insurance claim

      You might find yourself without insurance coverage

      Consumers spend hundreds of dollars a month for insurance coverage for their home and automobiles, so when damage occurs the first thought is to file a claim. That's why you pay those premiums each month, right?

      However, in the real world that's not always the best course of action. Consider what happened to Ellen, a Farmers auto policyholder from West Bend, Wis.

      “We have been paying for several years to insure a 2003 Mini Cooper and a 2010 BMW,” Ellen writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I recently backed into a car. The damage was not that great. In fact I paid out of pocket to repair my car.”

      But the person she backed into filed a claim to have their car repaired. Ellen would have been better off paying for that damage herself too.

      “Within a month of the incident our rate increased by $983 a year,” Ellen writes. “This was my first claim. I have not had any claims for over 10 years with any company. The increase was greater than the claim made by the car owner I hit. How can this be fair?”

      Frank, an Allstate customer from New Jersey, says his auto policy was canceled after a minor at-fault claim and two non-fault claims.

      “For six years I never was late on a payment, so total premiums paid for six years comes to about $25,000,” Frank writes. “Now I know they did pay almost $4,000 for my at-fault accident that I can't believe, because I backed up into someone who was five feet behind me and I had nothing but a scratch on my bumper. But because I had a little bad luck and someone else hit my wife's car and my son's car, that's reason enough to kick me to the curb.”

      How it works

      It doesn't seem fair, but unfortunately that's how the insurance industry works, especially now when publicly-traded insurance corporations seek to enhance their profitability by minimizing risk. By and large insurance companies don't bother to explain to consumers how their business works, so credit Most Insurance, an independent broker in Tampa, Fla., for making the effort.

      “Insurance, and the price you pay for it, is based on risk – the risk of a loss occurring,” the company says on its website. “High risk of loss means higher prices are necessary to pay for those increased losses. And low risk of loss means lower prices. Now, what determines the level of risk? Lots of things. But claims experience is one of the most important.”

      The company says that the numbers show that people who have made a claim are more likely to have another claim in the future. If you have a claim on your record, you're going to look like a bigger risk compared to a consumer with no claims.

      Avoiding claims will probably pay off

      If you have an accident and can avoid filing a claim, it just might pay off in the long run. But how do you know when you really should file a claim and when you should just pay for the damage out of pocket? Some industry experts suggest keeping the damage repair off the insurance company's record books if the damage is under $1,000. However, if you can afford to pay more out of pocket, that number should probably be a bit higher.

      It's useful to remember that the real purpose of an insurance policy is to protect you from catastrophic loss – the kind that could force you into bankruptcy. If you can afford to cover your own damage, and damage to the other party, it might be the smart thing to do.

      Consider covering the cost yourself if there is no other party involved. Asking your insurance company to pay for the repair to your car when you backed into a telephone pole will probably cost you in the long run. Yes, they may pay your claim but you may find yourself dropped as a client when the policy comes up for renewal or paying a higher rate.

      Don't ask, don't tell

      If your are uncertain about whether or not to file a claim, your insurance agent may be the wrong person to ask. It's quite possible that the agent will be required to note in your file that you had an accident, even if you don't file a claim.

      While all of this seems vastly unfair to consumers who are required by law to pay monthly premiums for the privilege of operating a vehicle, deciding to “self-insure” for all but the most serious accidents can work in your favor. Insurance policies carry “deductibles,” the amount of damage the client agrees to pay before the insurance company begins to pay. The higher the deductible the lower the premium.

      If you have already decided that you are going to file a claim only for major damage, it makes financial sense to take the largest deductible the company provides. That way you save on the monthly premium and can apply the savings toward covering damages, when or if you get in a fender-bender.

      Consumers often spend hundreds of dollars a month for insurance coverage for their home and automobiles, so when damage occurs the first thought is to file...
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      Gasoline prices are surging; here's why

      Oil prices are rising and U.S. refineries are suffering breakdowns

      You may have noticed that, all of a sudden, gasoline is getting more expensive. It's not your imagination. Prices at the pump began surging since late last week.

      Here's what gas prices have done over the last few days. On Thursday, the national average price of self-serve regular was $3.518 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. On Friday it was $3.550. By Saturday the price had jumped to $3.582 and on Sunday it was $3.60, a rise of more than eight cents in four days.

      What's behind the dramatic move higher in the middle of the summer driving season? Two reasons.

      First, the price of crude oil has suddenly escalated on world markets. Since the beginning of July oil prices have surged – primarily oil produced in the U.S. Since the beginning of the year U.S. crude has been selling about $20 a barrel less than Brent Crude, produced primarily in the Middle East.

      U.S. oil prices rising

      Now those prices have narrowed, with West Texas Intermediate (WTI) selling about $3 a barrel less than Brent. Both prices are over $100 a barrel. That means refiners have to pay more for the oil they turn into gasoline.

      Adding to the price pressure, some refineries have reported problems that have curtailed production, so that they are suppling less gasoline. The price of Reformulated Blended with Onygenated Blendstock (RBOB), the blend of fuel that influences U.S. service station prices, has jumped 14% on the August futures market so far this month.

      In the east, major refineries in Philadelphia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland were affected by unanticipated problems that slowed or shut off completely the output of refined product. Valero Energy reported problems at its Port Arthur, Tex., refinery would affect output starting this week.

      More oil but not more refineries

      While the U.S. has been producing more oil in recent years, it has not increased, to the same extent, its capacity to refine oil into gasoline. There were a total of 144 operable petroleum refineries in the United States as of January 1, 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

      The last U.S. refinery was built in 2008 in Douglas, Wyo., but it produces a paltry 3,600 barrels per day. In fact, most recently-built U.S. refineries only produce between 3,600 and 23,000 barrels.

      The last major U.S. refinery was built in 1977 in Garyville, La. It produces more than 400,000 barrels a day. While the U.S. increase in demand for gasoline has tapered in recent years, problems at refineries can cause supply problems and, more importantly, send prices soaring.

      Market forces

      These days gasoline prices are set by commodities traders on the futures market. While previous price hikes have often been blamed on speculators, in this case gasoline wholesalers appear to be doing their part as well. Various industry reports have cited what they call “panic buying” by wholesalers trying to get ahead of the anticipated price surge.

      While shortages of gasoline from refineries are pushing prices higher, those same refineries have increased their export of refined gasoline to other countries. In the first three months of 2013 the U.S. became a net exporter of gasoline. While the oil industry denies this has had any impact on domestic pump prices, the consumer group Public Citizen estimates it had added as much as 12 cents a gallon to what consumers pay.

      At the beginning of this week Hawaii, Alaska and California all had statewide average gas prices over $4 a gallon. The average price in Santa Barbara was $4.11 while both Los Angeles and San Francisco stations averaged $4.08 a gallon.

      On the East Coast, meanwhile, New York had the highest average gas prices – $3.814 a gallon. Within the state the New York City metro had the highest prices, averaging $3.917 a gallon.

      You may have noticed that, all of a sudden, gasoline is getting more expensive. It's not your imagination. Prices at the pump began surging higher late las...
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      NIssan's latest Leaf problem: not enough cars

      After a slow start, the electric cars are

      The all-electric Leaf has just been one headache after another for Nissan. First, everybody laughed at the idea. Then nobody bought the cars. Now Nissan can't make them fast enough. 

      "We're going to be short on inventory all through the summer," Erik Gottfried, director of electric vehicle sales for Nissan, says he has been telling dealers, according to Automotive News. "It will be late fall before we can produce enough to satisfy everybody."

      Nissan says it is now selling more than 2,000 Leafs a month, quadruple its volume of a year ago. It's ramping up production at its Smyrna, Tenn., plant as fast as it can.

      One big -- and largely unexpected change -- is that the car is selling in parts of the country far from its expected demand centers of San Francisco, Seattle and other environmentally-conscious markets.

      Gotfried says dealers in places like Dallas, St. Louis and Atlanta are now asking for the cars, saying that consumers have been coming into their showrooms asking for them.

      Tipping point

      Why the sudden demand? Well, gas prices are rising again and many consumers are starting to realize that they can do their daily commute and maybe work in a quick stop at the supermarket on a single charge. The dread "range anxiety" is starting to fade, in other words.

      After all, some of these cities -- St. Louis, for example -- are a lot more compact than Los Angeles or Seattle. Where a Los Angeleno may think nothing of driving 40 miles to work, most St. Louisans probably drive half that far, or less. And the fear of an unexpected errand is less ominous in the East and Midwest.

      After all, it's one thing to make an unexpected trip from Santa Ana to Santa Clarita (65 miles or so)  and quite another to work in a quick jaunt from St. Louis to University City, Mo. (10 miles). 

      It doesn't hurt that Nissan came out with a cheaper model. The new, more basic trim line cut the price by about $6,000 to $29,750, including shipping. Subtract a $7,500 federal tax credit and throw away your Exxon credit card and, well, it adds up. 

      It also helps that charging stations are becoming more common. Nissan is installing more than 100 public quick chargers at dealerships. They can get a Leaf charged from depleted to 80 percent in about 30 minutes, the company says.

      Public chargers are also popping up around the country at airports, government buildings and random shopping and office centers. 

      Add all this together and you may just have a tipping point -- the place in time when a novel idea that has been embraced by radicals or early adopters bursts out into general acceptance. We've seen it happen most recently with gay marriage. Maybe electric vehicles are next?

      The all-electric Leaf has just been one headache after another for Nissan. First, everybody laughed at the idea. Then nobody bought the cars. Now Nissan ca...
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      Suit wants Apple to protect consumers from porn

      Lawyer wants company to install controls on all devices

      Apple has seen its share of litigation, but this may be the most interesting suit yet.

      Chris Sevier, 36 a Nashville lawyer and model, wants “all [of Apple’s] devices,” including the iPhone, sold “in 'safe mode,' with software preset to filter out pornographic content."

      Sevier’s trail of tears began when he bought a MacBook Pro, which came with the web browser Safari already installed. Sevier “accidentally misspelled ‘,’” according to the complaint, “which lead [sic] him to ‘fuc[*]’ and a host of websites that caused him to see pornographic images that appealed to his biological sensibilities as a male and lead [sic] to an unwanted addiction with adverse consequences.”

      Sevier admits in the complaint that he “ loves Apple ... and knows that it has good intent,” and is certain that the company is concerned with the welfare of our Nation's children, while furthering pro-American values."

      Nevertheless, Sevier wants Apple to “set the example for all device makers” and equip all of its devices with strict controls on access to porn, requiring the user to “take proactive steps to block pornographic images.”

      “Apple is hijacking great sex”

      Among the reasons Sevier gives for his request are “patriotism” (“American [sic] is in many respect [sic] a lighthouse for the rest of the world to follow, arguably because it was formed on Judeo-Christian values ... Apple should set the example for device makers all over the world...”); “knowledge” (“the burden to safe guard [sic] its consumers should fall on Apple, not the purchasers who would otherwise not like to be inflicted with the myriad of problems that stem from viewing porn”); and that “Apple is hijacking great sex by failing to sell its products in safe mode” (“pornography ... obviously encourages lust, which hijacks great sex, making the thrill of engaging in deviant behavior the primary objective of intercourse”).

      Whether any of these colorful opinions constitutes a legal cause of action remains to be seen.

      In his complaint, Sevier suggests that there will be a groundswell of outrage if Apple does not comply with his suggestion, writing that “Apple should see this lawsuit as a warning sign of the class action lawsuits to follow in the event Apple elects to resist the Plaintiff’s reasonable request.”

      “Save ... countless marriages”

      Sevier insists in his complaint that he “is not a proponent of legislating morality in the extreme,” writing that “members of society should not be prosecuted for ‘being human.’” Nevertheless, he says that porn controls on Mac devices could “save ... countless marriages [and] impact generations to come.”

      The complaint, filed in federal court in Tennessee, alleges fraudulent misrepresentation, products liability, outrageous conduct and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

      Apple has seen its share of litigation, but this may be the most interesting suit yet.Chris Sevier, a Nashville lawyer, wants “all [of Ap...
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      Homeowners claim spray-in insulation "remains toxic"

      Pennsylvania couple's lawsuit claims SPF insulation is carcinogenic

      A Pennsylvania couple claims that the spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation in their home is carcinogenic. In a lawsuit that seeks class-action status, they say the insulation remains toxic after insulation and poses health hazards to occupants of the homes where it is used.

      Daniel and Paula Slemmer are suing the company that installed the foam insulation in their home and its manufacturer, Barnhardt Manufacturing Co., Courthouse News Service reported.

      The companies moved to dismiss the complaint but a federal district court judge in Pennsylvania denied the motion.

      Risk of disease

      In the suit, the Slemmers charge that they "have developed a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease" due to the insulation, which has resulted in "off-gassing, damaging the real and personal property of plaintiffs and class members and/or caused personal injuries resulting in eye irritations, sore throats and cough, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, and/or neurological harm."

      They say the only remedy is to completely remove the "highly toxic" insulation.

      Charlotte-based Barnhardt Manufacturing Company and research chemist Dr. H. W. Bradley formed NCFI Polyurethanes in 1964 to manufacture a full line of SPF products, including those used in furniture, bedding, carpet padding, marine, medical and aerospace industries, the company says on its website.

      The Slemmers say that all outstanding SPF should be recalled and homeowners should be compensated for having it removed from their homes.

      They claim that SPF was advertised and sold as a "safe, green and non-toxic product" and say they would not have purchased it had they known of its alleged shortcomings.

      Ingredients can be hazardous

      SPF is widely used but, like many products in general use, contains ingredients that can be hazardous if not handled properly. Isocyanates, a key ingredient, "can cause asthma, sensitization, lung damage, other respiratory and breathing problems, and skin and eye irritation," according to the Environmental Protection Agency

      The EPA and other agencies caution that workers should use prescribed precautions when installing the material.

       "There is no recognized safe level of exposure to isocyanates for sensitized individuals. Isocyanates have been reported to be the leading attributable chemical cause of work-related asthma. Both dermal and respiratory exposures can trigger adverse health responses," the agency cautions.

      The agency's warnings deal with exposure to chemicals in SPF that are activated during installation and do not suggest any continued toxicity once the product has been installed. 

      A Pennsylvania couple claims that the spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation in their home is carcinogenic. In a lawsuit that seeks class-action s...
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      Randy Travis case highlights cardiomyopathy

      The cause isn't always easy to pin down and treatment isn't always effective

      By now, you've probably heard about Randy Travis' condition. 

      The 54-year-old country singer was admitted to a hospital for an illness called viral cardiomyopathy, which happens when a virus attacks the heart muscle and causes the heart to become enlarged and weakened.

      Oftentimes the condition, which can lead to heart failure, is associated with things like high blood pressure and diabetes rather than a virus, medical authorities say.

      "The most common cause of cardiomyopathy is coronary artery disease, but this can also be caused by things like hypertension, valvular heart disease, alcohol abuse, thyroid disease and numerous other causes" said Dr. Martha Gulati, a cardiologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. Gulati is not involved in Travis' treatment procedures.

      If these other causes aren't found and if the patient recalls having an infection or fever preceding the onset of symptoms, "we usually then presume it is a viral cardiomyopathy. This is an infection of the heart, which ultimately weakens the heart."  

      Viral cause

      The flu can cause viral cardiomyopathy but the most common virus is  adenovirus, Gulati said. 

      "Usually once it has affected the heart, symptoms will be shortness of breath, leg swelling and often have palpitations and fever and even chest pain. Some patients present with sudden cardiac death and then this diagnosis is made," she said.

      Dr. Randall Starling, of the cardiovascular medicine department at the Cleveland Clinic, said although viral cardiomyopathy is fairly common, it can sometimes be hard to diagnose.

      Additionally, Starling says that many times viral cardiomyopathy is given as a broad diagnosis if doctors aren't able to determine what's causing the size of the heart to increase.  

      "Even if we took a biopsy of the heart or cultured it, we rarely make a 100% certain diagnosis that a virus caused it," said Starling in an interview with CBS News.

      "In our world, this is one of the more common things we deal with. For the patient and the family, it's devastating, but it's a common scenario we deal with on a daily basis."

      Experts say other symptoms of viral cardiomyopathy include parts of the body not getting enough blood and the lungs becoming filled with fluid. 

      If the heart doesn't begin to function properly, long-lasting therapy and treatment will be needed. The odds?

      "[It's] really hard to say at this point," she says. "It depends on whether his heart function recovers. But about 58% of people do recover spontaneously so this is encouraging."

      The Travis case

      As for Travis, doctors have yet to say whether his condition was caused by a virus something else. 

      "Based on reports, which don't say much, we don't know if this is just viral or if alcohol could contribute in some way to his heart failure," said Gulati. "That is really the unknown part of this.

      "Second, there is really no direct therapy for viral myocarditis aside from supportive care with medications we use for any cause of heart failure. Sometimes patients who don't recover from this will need a left ventricular assist device implanted into them or even need a heart transplant."

      According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart failure is the main cause of over 55,000 deaths each year in the United States. Currently, there are 5.7 million people in the U.S. living with the disorder.

      By now, you've probably heard about Randy Travis' condition. The 54 year old country singer was admitted to a hospital for an illness called viral c...
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      Feds propose standards for arsenic in apple juice

      Agency testing and analysis confirm overall safety of apple juice

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing what's called an “action level” of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in apple juice -- the same level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for arsenic in drinking water.

      “We have been studying this issue comprehensively,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.. “and based on the agency’s data and analytical work, the FDA is confident in the overall safety of apple juice for children and adults.”

      “While the levels of arsenic in apple juice are very low, the FDA is proposing an action level to help prevent public exposure to the occasional lots of apple juice with arsenic levels above those permitted in drinking water,” said Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.

      The threshold is designed to provide guidance to industry. The agency takes the action level into account when considering an enforcement action, if it finds a food product exceeds the threshold.

      Twenty years of monitoring

      The FDA has been monitoring the presence of arsenic in apple juice for the past 20 years and has consistently found that samples contain levels of arsenic that are low, with few exceptions. New tools, however, have allowed the agency to better understand the breakdown between organic and inorganic arsenic levels.

      Last year the agency released findings from its latest data collection and analysis of 94 samples of arsenic in apple juice. The analysis showed that 95 percent of the apple juice samples tested were below 10 ppb total arsenic; 100 percent of the samples were below 10 ppb for inorganic arsenic -- the carcinogenic form of arsenic.

      The proposed level of 10 ppb takes into account this sampling data plus a recently completed, peer-reviewed risk assessment of inorganic arsenic in apple juice conducted by FDA scientists. The assessment is based on lifetime exposure.

      Arsenic in nature

      Inorganic arsenic may be found in foods because it is present in the environment, both as a naturally occurring mineral and because of activity such as past use of arsenic-containing pesticides. A known carcinogen, inorganic arsenic also has been associated with skin lesions, developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, and diabetes.

      In conducting its new assessment on apple juice, the FDA was able to use data from two studies published in 2010, as well as a 2011 evaluation by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants of the Food and Agriculture Organization, part of the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing what's called an “action level” of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in apple juice – the...
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      FAA sets new pilot qualification standards

      More flight time and aircraft type ratings will be required

      First officers, widely known incorrectly as "co-pilots," who fly for U.S. passenger and cargo airlines, will soon have to meet stiffer qualification standards.

      A new rule from by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), will require first officers to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, requiring 1,500 hours total time as a pilot. They previously, were required to have only a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 hours of flight time.

      The rule also requires first officers to have an aircraft type rating, which involves additional training and testing specific to the airplanes they fly.

      "Safety will be my overriding priority as Secretary, so I am especially pleased to mark my first week by announcing a rule that will help us maintain our unparalleled safety record,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We owe it to the traveling public to have only the most qualified and best trained pilots."

      Colgan Air crash

      The new regulations stem -- in part -- from the tragic crash of Colgan Air 3407 in February 2009, and address a Congressional mandate in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 to ensure that both pilots and co-pilots receive the ATP certification.

      The new rule is one of several rulemakings required by the act, including the new flight duty and rest requirements for pilots that were completed in December 2011, and new training requirements expected this fall for air carrier training programs to ensure pilots know how to react properly in difficult operating environments.

      "The rule gives first officers a stronger foundation of aeronautical knowledge and experience before they fly for an air carrier,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “With this rule and our efforts to address pilot fatigue -- both initiatives championed by the families of Colgan flight 3407 -- we're making a safe system even safer."

      Rule highlights

      The rule also includes:

      • A requirement for a pilot to have a minimum of 1,000 flight hours as a co-pilot in air carrier operations prior to serving as a captain for a U.S. airline.
      • Enhanced training requirements for an ATP certificate, including 50 hours of multi-engine flight experience and completion of a new FAA-approved training program.
      • An allowance for pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours of flight time or who have not reached the minimum age of 23 to obtain a “restricted privileges” ATP certificate. A restricted privileges ATP certificate allows a pilot to serve as a co-pilot until he or she obtains the necessary 1,500 hours. The options are:
        • Military pilots with 750 hours total time as a pilot;
        • Graduates holding a Bachelor’s degree with an aviation major with 1,000 hours total time as a pilot;
        • Graduates holding an Associate’s degree with an aviation major with 1,250 hours;
        • Pilots who are at least 21 years old with 1,500 flight hours.
      First officers, also known as co-pilots, who fly for U.S. passenger and cargo airlines, will soon have to meet stiffer qualification standards. A new rule...
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      Michelin recalls light truck replacement tires

      The tires may have partial or full sidewall perforations

      Michelin North America is recalling approximately 100,000 tires in order to retrieve an estimated 2,500 tires -- about 2.5 percent of the recalled population -- that could have partial or full sidewall perforations that could cause them to experience loss of air pressure.

      No deaths, injuries or accidents have been reported in connection with these recalled tires.

      The recall involves certain sizes of the MICHELIN LTX M/S2, MICHELIN X Radial LT2 and MICHELIN Latitude Tour tires sold primarily in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The tires are typically found on light trucks and SUVs.

      Owners of the affected tires (listed below) should visit an authorized Michelin retail location as soon as possible to have the tires replaced at no charge.

      Tire Description


      DOT Sequence

      DOT Production Periods (Inclusive)

      MICHELIN LTX M/S2  P275/55R20 111T  RBL 



      3812 to 2113

      MICHELIN LTX M/S2  P265/65R18 112T



      0513 to 2113

      MICHELIN LTX M/S2  P265/60R18 109T  ORWL 



      1513 to 2113

      MICHELIN X Radial LT2  P265/65R18 112T



      0513 to 2113

      MICHELIN X Radial LT2  P275/55R20 111T



      0513 to 2113

      MICHELIN Latitude Tour  P255/60R19 108S



      1913 to 2113

      MICHELIN Latitude Tour  P255/70R18 112T



      1313 to 2113

      The tires being recalled are contained within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) date ranges that appear on the tire sidewalls. The date range is represented by the four digit number to the far right in the sequence, with the first two digits denoting the week, and the last two digits representing the year.

      For additional information or call Michelin Consumer Care, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST Monday – Friday at:

      • USA: 855-851-4951 (language options: English and Spanish)
      • Canada: 866-424-2638 (language options: English and French)
      • Mexico: 01-800-062-0868 (language options: Spanish and English)
      Michelin North America is recalling approximately 100,000 tires in order to retrieve an estimated 2,500 tires -- about 2.5 percent of the recalled populat...
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      The best tablets and where to buy them

      First, you have to decide which tablet best meets your needs

      Competition is almost always good for consumers and that's especially true when it comes to tablet computers. Manufacturers continue to put out new models with improved features and functions.

      But what's the best kind of tablet to buy, and what size? Apple created the category with its full-sized iPad but last year was forced to put out a seven-inch tablet to compete with a number of very good smaller devices.

      Which model is the best? It depends on what you want to do with it and how much you want to spend. It also depends on who you ask.

      Best all-around

      Technology site CNET ranks the fourth-generation iPad, which retails for around $500, as the all-around first choice in tablets. If you are new to tablets this should be your first choice, the CNET editors say.

      The site is also very high on the Google Nexus 7, with a seven-inch screen, as the best small tablet. It retails for around $200.

      For consuming media the CNET editors choose the Kindle Fire HD, a middle ground between the iPad and Nexus 7 in both size and price. The Kindle Fire HD sports an 8.9 inch screen and retails for $269.

      Consumer Reports has also rated tablets, suggesting your choice should reflect your priorities. If price and portability are tops, it says you should consider the Samsung Galaxy Tab with Wi-Fi. If access to the largest selection of apps is high on your list, it recommends the iPad.

      Listen to consumers

      While we won't quibble with these tech experts, you might also peruse consumer reviews of the models you are considering. Sandy, of Strathmore, Alberta, purchased a Google Nexus 7 tablet last December and started having problems with it six months later.

      “During week of June 9-15, I could only open it with on button held for at least two minutes several times,” Sandy wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “From June 16-19, it would not open at all, I returned it to Best Buy to be informed their return policy is 14 days only and it shows nowhere on our receipt. I was told to contact the manufacturer. I tried to contact Asus and cannot reach anyone there,.It has become a nightmare.”

      Dale, of Sweeny, Tex., is not all that impressed with his Asus Vivo Tab TF810C.

      “I've had it about six months and it keeps breaking down,” Dale writes. “The system, with Microsoft Office and two-year protection plan, is well over $1,000.The system keeps losing Microsoft Office. Now I am sending it in to Asus (AGAIN) to have the second Atom Processor installed.”

      Best places to buy

      Once you've done your research and settled on the tablet that best meets your needs, you next have to decide where to buy it. Some people like to purchase from a brick and mortar store, giving them the opportunity to see and handle exactly what they are getting. There's a lot to be said for that but increasingly, tablets are being sold online.

      Change Sciences Group, an Internet research company, recently ranked, not the tablets, but the companies selling them. For criteria it selected usability, engagement, and conversion. The results were a little surprising.

      High marks for Amazon and Walmart

      Despite Apple's sleek and simple approach to design, the researchers found people were 20% less successful finding and buying a tablet on its site compared to top performer Amazon, and 18% less successful than on

      But not all general merchandisers fared as well as Walmart and Amazon. For example, people shopping for tablets on Target were 10% less successful than Walmart, and 12% less successful than Amazon.

      "In e-commerce, small differences in usability can have a huge impact on the bottom line,” said Pamela Pavliscak, a Change Sciences founder. “This research shows that although finding and purchasing a product is one of the most common consumer activities online, there are still significant differences in how the shopping experience is supported by major retailers."  

      Competition is almost always good for consumers and that's especially true when it comes to tablet computers. Manufacturers continue to put out new models...
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      Gentlemen, charge your engines!

      Prius Plug-ins compete to see who can wring the most miles from their batteries

      It's not exactly the Indy 500 but Toyota has been staging an automotive competition this summer, pitting eco-conscious drivers against each other to see who can wring the best mileage from their electric vehicles.

      Called the Prius Plug-In MPG Challenge, it's a 30-day contest among seven eco-friendly groups and individuals. The goal is to raise awareness of the efficiency of electric vehicles in general and plug-in hybrids in particular.

      Toyota is perhaps also hoping to energize sales of the Prius, which have slipped 5% through June. Sales of the Chevrolet Volt, by contrast, are up 12% and sales of Nissan's all-electric Leaf have tripled through June, according to Automotive News.

      95 MPGe

      The Prius Plug-in hybrid claims an EPA rating of 95 MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent, an attempt to measure the average distance traveled per unit of energy consumer. It doesn't translate directly to the MPG that's normally applied to internal combustion engines but provides at least some comparison.

      One way to wring the highest mileage out of a plug-in hybrid is to plan your trips and drive so that the car stays in the electric mode as much as possible, without switching to the gas engine, which is basically what the competitors in the Toyota contest are trying to do.

      In the first phase of the competition, the Helping Hands Food Pantry, a donation-run group established by a local councilman and minister in Teaneck, N.J., that provides free, supplemental groceries to needy residents, claimed the top spot with an average of 356 MPGe over 506 total miles driven – 261 MPGe more than the vehicle’s official estimated average in EV Mode. As a reward, the Helping Hands Food Pantry will receive a $2,500 contribution.

      Participants in the second wave of the Toyota Prius Plug-In MPG Challenge include various charities and eco-friendly activists from the New York area. 

      To be eligible to win, participants must drive a minimum of 300 miles total and 75 miles each week. The highest overall MPG according to the Prius’ trip computer per 30-day challenge wins a $2,500 donation to the charity of their choice. Second and third place winners also receive charitable donations of $1,000 and $500. All participants will also receive a $200 gas card.

      “The Prius Plug-In MPG Challenge is yet another opportunity for Toyota to demonstrate its commitment to educating drivers on how they can make an ecological difference in this world,” said David Christ, general manager of Toyota’s New York Region.

      2013 Toyota Prius Plug-inIt's not exactly the Indy 500 but Toyota has been staging an automotive competition this summer, pitting eco-conscious drivers...
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      Helping your child with the back-to-school jitters

      The first day of anything can be scary for anyone, but especially for children

      At this very moment, most kids in the U.S. are probably enjoying their summer vacation and thinking very little about the upcoming school year.

      In fact, it may be safe to say that a lot of kids haven't thought about their school, textbooks or teachers since the last bell rang.

      For the younger kids, it'll be their first time attending school, which can easily make them nervous.

      Causes for concern

      According to a 2011 survey conducted by Angus Reid, a Canadian public opinion polling firm, 42% of parents say their kids show signs of increased anxiety right before the new school year starts.

      In addition, 54% said their child's anxiety comes from having a new teacher, 48% said their child is nervous about having a new class schedule and 40% said their child worries about getting too much homework.

      It's not unusual

      Dr. Stephen Whiteside, a child psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, says parents should tell their children it's okay to feel nervous about the first day of school.

      "Most people get nervous when they face change, so it's normal for many kids to feel anxious about going back to school," he said. "One of the most helpful things you can do is reassure your children what they're feeling is normal."

      Dr. Brad Schwall, a family counselor in Texas agrees, and says trying to convince a child that he shouldn't be nervous is the wrong thing to do.

      "We have to understand that it's natural for our kids to be nervous, so denying and telling them they shouldn't be nervous doesn't help," said Schwall in an interview with a local news outlet.

      In addition, he says it's important to prepare your child for the first day of school ahead of time. And it's essential to have conversations with her so she'll know what to expect.

      Tell her who her teacher will be and explain things to her about school work and recess. Let know what time she'll be picked up. Explaining these things can help lower your child's anxiety level tremendously, says Schwall.

      A clean break

      When you drop your child off, it's important not to hang around, because it'll only make things tougher for both of you.

      "Make a clean getaway," says Schwall. "Because if we're lingering in the classroom or we go back in and peek in the door [it's bad]. We need to show our child that the teacher is now there to care for him or her."

      But be sure to say goodbye and don't just sneak out, say experts. You certainly want to leave quickly, but you don't want to dart out without your child knowing.

      Saying the right thing

      Schwall says talking to your children about the school day when it's over will only make them feel more secure.

      Saying things like, "I told you there was no reason to be nervous," is the wrong thing to say, because it could make your child feel like he did something wrong by feeling nervous.

      In addition, Whiteside says you should get a strong sense of what makes your child feel nervous about school. This will allow you to tailor your conversations accordingly, so you can help your child get rid of his fears.

      Back to school routine

      For older children who have already been to school, Whiteside says you should start getting them back to their school routine ahead of time. 

      One thing he suggests is contacting your child's school friends, so everyone can hang out, which can help your child feel much better about his first day. 

      Having a conversation with your child's teacher can help, too. If your child knows what to expect at the beginning of the school year, he'll be able to prepare both mentally and academically. 

      If your child continues to have anxiety, you should talk with your family doctor or your child's pediatrician, says Whiteside.

      Confidence building

      Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child and adolescent development expert, said putting children in activities like sports can help build their confidence, which can help them with their fears about school. She calls these activities "positive risk taking."

      "Positive risk taking happens when you are involved with sports or martial arts or drama classes. When you know that you can get up in front of other people, and you can do something that makes you feel successful--that you're getting rewarded for," said Silverman in a TV interview.

      "But you're also doing something that lets you know you can be successful but you can also fail. You can fail, you can get up and you can dust yourself off and then you can be successful again."

      At this very moment, most kids in the U.S. are probably enjoying their summer vacation and thinking very little about the up and coming school year.In fa...
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      NFL concussion suit goes to mediation

      Judge orders mediation in hopes of settlement

      A judge presiding over a suit against the National Football League (NFL) focusing on players’ concussions has ordered lawyers for both sides into mediation in the hopes of reaching a settlement. The order was handed down by Judge Anita Brody of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

      The suit, originally filed in 2011, was brought on behalf of 4,200 former NFL players who say concussions they suffered while playing football have led to a number of serious brain-related medical issues.

      The NFL says that, under the terms of the Labor Management Relations Act, the case cannot be litigated in court, but rather must be handled in arbitration.

      Brody’s order names Layn Phillips, a retired judge from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, as the mediator.

      Prospects unclear

      Gabriel Feldman, who directs Tulane Law School’s Sports Law Program, told The New York Times that he doubted the mediation would produce a settlement.

      “[Phillips] might bring them closer, but to what? This is complex litigation," Feldman told the Times. "A settlement here would be dollars going to the plaintiffs, and I'd be surprised at this early a stage for the NFL to give a large settlement."

      The plaintiff’s complaint alleges that the NFL “continuously and vehemently denied that it knew, should have known or believed that there is any relationship between NFL players suffering concussions while playing ... and long-term problems such as headaches, dizziness, dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease that many retired players have experienced."

      Physical and emotional suffering

      The case has been explosive from the start, involving tales of physical suffering and emotional heartache for former NFL players and their families.

      The players’ injuries range from Alzheimer’s and dementia to depression to Lou Gehrig's Disease to kidney disorders to recurring seizures.

      Lead plaintiff Ray Easterling, whose lawyer filed the suit in August 2011, killed himself the following year. Easterling had struggled with insomnia and depression and, ultimately, increasing memory loss. In 2011, he was diagnosed with dementia.

      A judge presiding over a suit against the National Football League (NFL) focusing on players’ concussions has ordered lawyers for both sides into med...
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      The checks are in the mail

      Refunds are on the way to consumers who bought Skechers

      Consumers who bought from Skechers toning shoes that the company promoted through allegedly deceptive advertisements will be getting some of their money back.

      An administrator working for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in the process of mailing out 509,175 checks. The amount consumers will receive is based on the portion of their claims that was approved. The checks must be cashed on or before October 10, 2013.

      As part of its efforts to put a halt to overhyped health claims, the FTC alleged that Skechers deceptively advertised its toning shoes -- including making unfounded claims that its Shape-ups shoes would help people lose weight, and strengthen and tone their buttocks, legs and abdominal muscles. The FTC claimed that in addition to Shape-ups, Skechers made deceptive claims about its Resistance Runner, Toners and Tone-ups shoes.

      Under the terms of the FTC settlement, the funds were distributed through a court-approved class action lawsuit.

      Consumers with questions may call 1-888-325-4186.   

      Consumers who bought from Skechers toning shoes that the company promoted through allegedly deceptive advertisements will be getting some of their money ba...
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      Texas sues senior dating service

      "Matchmaker Matchmaker" uses high-pressure tactics to intimidate members, state charges

      Texas has sued a Beaumont senior dating service, Matchmaker Matchmaker, charging it uses "high pressure sales tactics" to sign up customers at prices as high as $10,000.

      It says the company uses "coercive and at times physically intimidating tactics to convince prospective senior citizen clients and others to sign expensive 'membership agreements' for their services, costing $3,000 to $10,000."

      Luna has operated dating services under various names, including Matchmaker, Two of Us, 2 of a Kind, and Together Dating.

      In his lawsuit, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says Luna uses "dating mining" to find potential customers and also sells leads and customer contact information to other businesses and also uses the information for telemarketing calls, even though the company is not a registered telemarketer in Texas, Courthouse News Service reports.

      The lawsuits charges that Matchmaker's sales staff is "trained in dubious and aggressive recruitment practices," including false claims that Matchmaker has a database of thousands of potential dates, is affiliated with the Better Business Bureau and does psychological evaluations of all its potential members.

      "Customers, mostly senior citizens, complain that they are kept in a room at Matchmaker defendants' business for hours to listen to high pressure sales tactics until they agreed to sign a 'membership agreement.' Consumers report that defendant Luna has physically placed himself between the consumer and an exit and even placed his hands on a 65-year-old female customer and told her that he would not let her leave until she signed up for the program," the lawsuit states.

      Texas has sued a Beaumont senior dating service, Matchmaker Matchmaker, charging it uses "high pressure sales tactics" to sign up customers at prices as hi...
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      Rising energy costs send wholesale prices surging in June

      The price of gasoline is leading the charge

      Prices one step shy of the consumer level shot higher in June, do largely to a surge in energy costs.

      The Labor Department reports its Producer Price Index (PPI) was up 0.8% last month, following a gain of 0.5% in May and a drop of 0.7% in April. Analysts had been calling for a more modest June advance of 0.3%

      Energy and food on the rise

      A 2.9% rise in energy costs was a major factor in the overall PPI surge. That constituted the the largest advance rise since a 3.2% increase in February 2013. The June was largely due to 7.2% in gasoline costs. Prices for home heating oil and diesel fuel were higher as well.

      Food prices were higher in June, rising 0.2% following a 0.6% increase in May. The June rise was led by a 4.2% jump in the cost of meat.

      The core rate of inflation, which strips out the volatile energy and food sectors, move up 0.2% -- the straight monthly advance.

      The full PPI report for June is available at the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

      Prices one step shy of the consumer level shot higher in June, do largely to a surge in energy costs. The Labor Department reports its Producer Price Inde...
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      Domestic flight tarmac delays rise in May

      But on-time performance improves from the month before

      Commercial airlines flying within the U.S. had a little trouble getting off the ground during May.

      According to the Transportation Department’s Air Travel Consumer Report, carriers reported five tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights. However, there were no tarmac delays of more than four hours on an international flight during the month.

      The 16 airlines that file on-time performance data say 79.4% of their flights arrived on time in May, compared with the 83.4% on-time rate from May 2012 and the 77.3% mark posted a month earlier.

      The report also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays. In addition, there is information on mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers, and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints.

      The complete report can be found on the Department of Transportation website.

      Commercial airlines flying within the U.S. had a little trouble getting off the ground during May. According to the Transportation Department’s Air Travel...
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      Staples recalls office chairs

      The base of the chair can break, posing a fall hazard

      Staples the Office Superstore LLC, of Framingham, Mass., is recalling about 3,350 Bermond fabric manager's chairs.

      The base of the chair can break, posing a fall hazard. The company has received 41 reports of the chairs’ base breaking, including three from consumers who reported falling out of the chairs with one receiving a scratched leg and bump to the back of the head.

      The office chairs with unpadded arms have a five-wheel base and come in two colors: gray and burgundy. A tag on the bottom of the seat cushion has the SKU and item numbers printed on it: the gray SKU is 924204 with item number 21084; and the burgundy SKU is 924203 with item number 21083.

      The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at and online via Staples’ in-store kiosks, Staples Advantage, and Medical Arts Press between July 2011, and May 2013, for about $50 to $100.

      Consumers should stop using the chairs immediately and contact the firm for instructions on returning them for a full refund. Staples is contacting all known customers directly to provide this information.

      Consumers may contact Staples toll free at (888) 577-9824 from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

      Staples the Office Superstore LLC, of Framingham, Mass., is recalling about 3,350 Bermond fabric manager's chairs. The base of the chair can break, posing...
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      Looking for a job? Here's where to look

      In this economy your best chance may be with a temporary job

      There's growing optimism about the job market. The June employment report showed the economy produced nearly 200,000 jobs during the month. Sustained job growth at that level, experts say, will speed economic recovery.

      But if you are out of work and looking for the kind of job you might have had five or 10 years ago, it might be harder to find a job than the numbers suggest. Unemployment is still at 7.6% and has been over 7.3% since the end of 2008. The number of people out of work remains at 11.8 million – the same number as in February. More than 4.3 million people have been out of work for at least six months.

      If you need a job you might be best served by looking for a part-time job or signing up with a temporary agency. The employment report shows 28 million Americans were working part-time in June, suggesting employers might be more likely to bring you on part-time than full-time.

      Growing trend

      In addition, Kelly Services, a temp agency, is growing as a supplier of temporary employees. Some recent press reports in the wake of the latest employment report called Kelly America's second-largest employer, after Walmart, but in a Tweet, the company said that is not true. However, a record 2.7 million Americans are now temporary employees and the trend appears to be growing.

      Why would you consider a temporary job? Because it might be your best chance of producing an income stream in the near future. True, you might need the benefits that a full-time position would offer, but those jobs are increasingly hard to find. There's also the fact that many former temp workers say they ended up with full-time job offers after a company saw what they could do as a temp.

      Where do you find temporary jobs? In addition to Kelly Services, there are a number of other national and local temporary employment agencies. A few specialize. Express Employment Professionals, for example, specializes in placing candidates with experience in accounting, engineering, information technology, and other professional fields in short- or long-term contract work or full-time positions.

      Temp staffing a growth business

      Express also happens to be a franchise, meaning individual staffing centers are independently owned. Because of its business model, its corporate growth is an easy way to track the growing demand for temporary employees. The company reported record growth in the first quarter of 2013, awarding 24 new franchises for a total of 629 locations.

      “This was the best quarter for franchise sales in company history,” said Bob Funk, Chairman and CEO of Express.

      Funk said the company had screened more than 2,000 potential franchisees in the first three and a half months of the year.

      Traditional employment websites also have plenty of temporary work. A recent check of showed nearly 20,000 temporary positions available. They range from a temporary medical assistant earning $13 to $15 an hour to a senior accountant, earning $17 to $25 an hour.

      Not exactly what you had in mind? Well, consider the latest data on U.S. job openings, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There were 3.8 million job openings on the last business day of May, little changed from April. The biggest increase in job openings? Retail trade.

      The government data also shows that staffing firms added 9,500 new jobs from May to June, rising 0.4%. In a year-to-year comparison, temporary help employment for the month was 6.7% higher than in June 2012.

      "In this slowly growing economy, businesses continue to strategically increase the size of their permanent and flexible work forces," said Richard Wahlquist, president and CEO of the American Staffing Association, a trade group representing temporary staffing businesses.  

      There's growing optimism about the job market. The June employment report showed the economy produced nearly 200,000 jobs during the month. Sustained job g...
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      iPhone app tracks menstrual cycle

      Entrepreneur says the app could help prevent -- or promote -- pregnancy

      Just when you thought there were no new ideas, along comes Ida Tin, the founder of Clue, a new iPhone app that tracks women's menstrual cycles and could help prevent inadvertent pregnancies. It could also help women become pregnant, Tin thinks.

      "Our ultimate aim is to replace the birth control pill, or at least give an alternative," Tin said in published reports. 

      The app basically tracks women's menstrual cycles and tells them when they are most fertile. What an individual woman does with that information is up to her.

      Women enter data about their mood, pain levels and other factors, which help the app learn and predict their cycles. There are plenty of apps out there that already do this but Tin says they're not very accurate.

      Clue designer Mike Lavigne, formerly with Frog Design, said at a recent venture forum that many of the other apps are more like party favors than actual tools that can be used to make important life choices. Clue is built around an algorithm that takes many factors into account, he said.

      “We’ve had a lot of doctors involved from engineering backgrounds, model experts, and also fertility experts as well,” Lavigne said, according to VentureVillage.

      Tin and her team are also working on a hardware version of Clue, something that would be much more detailed than the iPhone app, a tool that could build a long-term relationship with its users.

      "The market for women desperately trying for a child, that’s a very lucrative market. But really what we want to do is take women by the hand, from the onset of their journey, and all the way through,” Tin said.

      More details in this company-produced video:

      Just when you thought there were no new ideas, along comes Ida Tin, the founder of Clue, a new iPhone app that tracks women's menstrual cycles and could he...
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      A poor rating for the Toyota RAV4 in small overlap front crash test

      Design changes for the 2013 model year weren't enough to lift performance

      The changes just weren't enough.

      That's the verdict from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) on the 2013 Toyota RAV4.

      Even though the automaker made additional changes to models of the small SUV built after April to better control the stability of the steering column and to provide extra padding under the footwell carpeting, the RAV4 earned a poor rating for its performance in the IIHS small overlap front crash test.

      IIHS determined that the changes weren't enough to lift the vehicle's performance, saying that a combination of poor structure and inadequate control of the dummy's movement prevented the RAV4 from earning better than a poor rating overall.

      Missing the mark

      The driver's space was seriously compromised by intruding structure, according to the testers, and the dummy's left foot was trapped by crushed and buckled sheet metal in the footwell. Injury measures on the dummy indicated a high risk of injury to the lower left leg.

      The dummy's head barely contacted the frontal airbag before sliding off the left side as the steering column moved more than 7 inches to the right, resulting in little airbag cushioning for the chest.

      Additionally, the safety belt allowed excessive forward movement of the dummy's head and torso, contributing to the head hitting the instrument panel.

      Testing delay

      IIHS released results for 13 other small SUVs in May, but delayed testing the RAV4 because Toyota was making changes to the redesigned model. If design changes are imminent, the institute delays tests to ensure that ratings don't soon become obsolete. The practice also encourages automakers to improve designs more quickly.

      In the earlier tests of small SUVs, only the Subaru Forester and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport earned a good or acceptable rating for occupant protection in a small overlap crash and qualified for the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ designation. Eleven other small SUVs are rated marginal or poor.

      "This is a challenging test," says IIHS President Adrian Lund. "Most manufacturers are going to need to make significant changes to their vehicles in order to improve protection in these kinds of serious frontal crashes."

      Test added

      The institute added the small overlap test to its lineup of vehicle safety evaluations last year. It replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle strikes another vehicle or an object like a tree or a utility pole. In the test, 25 percent of a vehicle's front end on the driver side strikes a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. A 50th percentile male Hybrid III dummy is belted in the driver seat.

      The 2013 RAV4 previously earned the Top Safety Pick award for good ratings in the Institute's four other tests -- moderate overlap front, side, rollover and rear.

      The changes just weren't enough. That's the verdict from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) on the 2013 Toyota RAV4. Even though the autom...
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      Apple, Amazon drop “App Store” suit

      Both companies will continue to use the term

      Yesterday was the fifth birthday of Apple’s App Store, the (in Apple’s words) “revolutionary” marketplace where consumers can buy apps ranging from Angry Birds to The Weather Channel.

      And perhaps as a result of birthday cheer -- or, more likely, a coincidence -- Apple and Amazon have agreed to end their litigation over which company has the right to use the term “App Store.”

      The issue, which was to be resolved at a trial slated for August 19, was voluntarily abandoned by both companies, with the blessing of Judge Phyllis Hamilton, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

      “No longer see a need” for litigation

      Representatives for both companies said the issue no longer seemed worth litigating.

      “We no longer see a need to pursue our case,” Apple spokesperson Kristin Huguet told Reuters. “With more than 900,000 apps and 50 billion downloads, customers know where they can purchase their favorite apps.”

      And Amazon lawyer Martin Glick told Reuters that “[t]his was a decision by Apple to unilaterally abandon the case, and leave Amazon free to use 'appstore.”'

      The suit stemmed from Amazon’s March 2011 decision to name its marketplace the “Appstore for Android.”

      “Amazon has begun improperly using Apple’s App Store mark in connection with Amazon’s mobile-software developer program,” Apple said in its complaint at the time.

      Apple said that, before it filed suit, it asked Amazon three times to change the name of its marketplace, but never received a “substantive response.”

      Confusion, generic name were issues

      While Amazon and Apple are both surely glad to avoid a trial (Apple CEO Tim Cook famously said last year that “I’ve always hated litigation, and I continue to hate it”), hardcore techies and legal junkies may be disappointed by the fact that there won’t be a trial.

      Already, the case had presented several interesting twists, including a June 2011 observation by the judge that Apple hadn’t shown sufficient “real evidence of actual confusion” between the two app stores.

      And Amazon had made the argument that “App Store” was too generic a term to be subject to a valid trademark.

      Yesterday was the fifth birthday of Apple’s App Store, the (in Apple’s words) “revolutionary” marketplace where consumers can buy a...
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      Mortgage rates continue their climb

      Some are now at 2-year highs

      Market speculation that the Federal Reserve will reduce future bond purchases is sending home mortgage rates higher.

      Freddie Mac reports the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 4.51% with an average 0.8 point for the week ending July 11, 2013 -- up 22 basis points from last week's 4.29%. Last year at this time, the average for the 30-year FRM was 3.56%.

      This week's 15-year FRM averaged 3.53 percent with an average 0.8 point, compared with 3.39% last week and 2.86% a year ago.

      The average for the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) was 3.26% this week with an average 0.7 point, 16 basis points higher than a week ago. This same week in 2012, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.74%.

      The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.66% this week with an average 0.5 point, the same as last week. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.69%.

      "June's strong employment led to more market speculation that the Federal Reserve will reduce future bond purchases causing bond yields to rise and mortgage rates followed,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist at Freddie Mac. He points out, though, that such a reduction in bond purchases is not a given. “The minutes of the June 18th and 19th Federal Reserve's monetary policy committee meeting stated that many members indicated further improvement in the outlook for the labor market would be required before it would be appropriate to slow the pace of bond purchases.” In other words, the economy needs to crank out more jobs.


      Mortgage rates as tracked by hit a 2-year high this week on the strength of the June jobs report.

      The rate for the benchmark 30-year FRM rose to 4.66% from 4.48% last week, with an average of 0.28 discount and origination points.

      The average 15-year FRM increased to 3.75% from 3.62%, while the larger jumbo 30-year rate climbed to 4.82%.

      Adjustable rate mortgages moved higher as well. The popular 5-year ARM was at its highest level in more than 2 years -- 3.63%, while the 10-year ARM hit 4.07%.

      As recently as May 1, the average 30-year FRM was 3.52%. At that time, a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $900.32. With the average rate now at 4.66%, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $1,032.47. That's a difference of $132 per month for anyone who waited just a little too long.

      Market speculation that the Federal Reserve will reduce future bond purchases is sending home mortgage rates higher. Freddie Mac reports the 30-year fixed...
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      Feds clarify mortgage rules

      Improvements expected in consumer protections

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) corrections, clarifications and amendments to its Ability-to-Repay and mortgage servicing rules are now in place. The clarifications, first proposed in April, are designed to facilitating implementation in order to better protect consumers.

      “We know that effective implementation helps our rules deliver their intended value to consumers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We are listening closely to feedback on our rules, and today’s clarifications show our willingness to make appropriate adjustments to achieve that goal.”

      The CFPB finalized several mortgage rules in January 2013. Of those, this latest rule focuses on the Ability-to-Repay and Servicing rules. 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 establish strong protections for homeowners as they repay their loans, and especially for those facing foreclosure.

      The tweaks

      The final rule:

      • clarifies how to determine a consumer’s debt-to-income (DTI) ratio: Under the Ability-to-Repay rule, a lender may make a Qualified Mortgage (QM), a loan for which certain features are prohibited and fees that can be charged are limited. The main type of Qualified Mortgage requires that a consumer’s monthly debt payments -- including the mortgage -- will not be more than 43% of the consumer’s monthly income. The rule clarifies and amends how several factors can be used to calculate a consumer’s DTI ratio. Such factors include a consumer’s employment record and income, business credit reports and other documents relating to self-employed consumers, Social Security income, and non-employment related income such as from a trust or rental property.
      • explains that CFPB’s Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) rule does not preempt the field of servicing regulation by states: The preamble to the final mortgage servicing rules made clear that CFPB authority on servicing, from the RESPA, does not preempt the field of possible mortgage servicing regulation by states. In the final rule, the bureau is adding a comment to expressly state this point and explain how RESPA preemption works.
      • establishes which mortgage loans to consider in determining small servicer status: The servicing rules issued in January included an exemption from some requirements for small servicers. The changes clarify which mortgage loans will be considered in determining whether a servicer qualifies as small. For example, loans serviced on a charitable basis will not be considered in making that determination.
      • clarifies the eligibility standard of the temporary QM provision: Under the Ability-to-Repay rule, a loan can be a Qualified Mortgage if it is eligible for purchase, guarantee, or insurance by government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) or by certain federal agencies, provided the loan does not contain certain risky loan features and meets certain limitations on points and fees. The rule clarifies the standards that a loan must meet if the creditor is underwriting it based on GSE or agency guidelines. For example, where a loan is eligible for GSE or agency purchase, guarantee, or insurance, creditors do not need to satisfy the types of procedural and technical requirements that are completely unrelated to the consumer’s ability to repay.
      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) corrections, clarifications and amendments to its Ability-to-Repay and mortgage servicing rules are now i...
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      An unexpected jump in jobless claims

      Feds say it may have to do with the July 4 holiday

      First-time applications for state unemployment benefits shot higher last week, but it may be some sort of statistical anomaly.

      Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show initial claims rose 16,000 in the week ending July 6 -- to 360,000. Economists surveyed by has projected claims would come in at 345,000 -- little-changed from the previous week.

      Analysts say what are called “seasonal adjustment biases” from the July 4 holiday may have played a role in the increase. If that's the case the initial claims level should fall back below 350,000 next week.

      Overall, they say, labor market conditions have not materially changed.

      The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate measure of the labor market, totaled 351,750, an increase of 6,000 from the previous week

      The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

      First-time applications for state unemployment benefits shot higher last week, but it may be some sort of statistical anomaly. Figures released by the Bur...
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      Apple loses e-book antitrust case

      Judge finds Apple conspired to eliminate price competition

      A U.S. District Court judge has ruled against Apple, finding it liable for violating the antitrust laws by conspiring with major U.S. publishers to fix the prices of electronic books. A Seattle attorney representing consumers in a class-action lawsuit said the court's ruling should hasten the progress of the consumer case. 

      That case, filed on Aug. 9, 2011, seeks damages for millions of e-book purchasers to compensate them for higher e-book prices resulting from Apple and the publishers’ alleged price-fixing scheme. 

      “Judge [Denise] Cote ruled definitively that Apple was guilty of conspiring to fix prices for e-books, and we believe this ruling is binding on the consumer case, meaning we do not need to again prove Apple’s culpability in the price-fixing scheme,” attorney Steve Berman said. “Once we receive class certification, the only issue that will remain is for a jury to assess damages, which under federal law are trebled, or tripled.”

      Three-week trial 

      The judge’s opinion comes after a three-week bench trial in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York that ended June 20. The court found the federal and state government plaintiffs demonstrated that five major publishers “conspired with each other to eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices, and that Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy.” 

      “The publishers and Apple manipulated the marketplace by artificially increasing prices,” said Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden said, one of 33 state AGs joining in the action. “As confirmed by the Court today, that is against the law and it is wrong.”

      The court’s order and opinion only addressed the issue of Apple’s liability under federal and state antitrust law. Issues involving damages and other remedies are still to be decided. 

      The publishers -- Hachette Book Group Inc.; Harper Collins Publishers L.L.C.; Simon & Schuster Inc.; Holtzbrinck Publishers LLC d/b/a/ Macmillan; and Penguin Group (USA), Inc. -- had settled lawsuits filed by states and others against them prior to trial, which will result in consumers nationwide receiving more than $166 million in compensation provided the court approves all of the settlements.

      "Masterfully prosecuted"

      Berman said the ruling didn't surprise him.

      “When we filed the original consumer case, we were certain that e-book purchasers across the country were victims of a well-organized price-fixing scheme organized largely by Apple,” said Berman. “We were heartened when the Department of Justice and the states filed their own anti-trust cases. Those cases were masterfully prosecuted, culminating in today’s ruling.”

      A U.S. District Court Judge has ruled against Apple, finding it liable for violating the antitrust laws by conspiring with major U.S. publishers to fix the...
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      Consumers vent about big chain pharmacies

      It seems every brand draws its share of complaints

      While there may still be a corner drug store where you live, more often than not consumers are getting their prescriptions filled at one of the nationwide pharmacy chains. While the operation of these stores tends to vary store to store, city to city, there are some common complaints.

      For example, one of the biggest complaints about Walgreens has to do with its prices. Karen, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., reports picking up a week's worth of prescription medicine for $60.

      “I just picked up a month's worth of the same meds for 25% less,” Karen wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I got a week's worth of my medicine at Walgreens at the same price [I paid] for a month's supply at the neighborhood pharmacy! How is this legal? Pharmacies can charge whatever they want?"

      Well, yes they can. Generally they try to match their competitors, but not always. Chris, of West Lafayette, Ind., noticed that he paid over $300 each for two prescriptions for levofloxacin 750 mg 10 tabs at Walgreens.

      “While at another pharmacy, I asked the pharmacist about the price for this drug in this amount,” Chris writes. “Imagine my surprise when she told me it ranged from $79 to $89. I went to Walgreens and asked if they had made a mistake in charging me over $600 for a prescription that should have cost me around $200. I was told by Walgreens that this was their 'cash' price for these drugs. I asked why such a discriminatory practice was in force, cash vs. insurance price, no answer.”

      Prices vary

      Consumers rate Walgreens

      A price discrepancy of that amount seems unusual since pharmacies are in close competition with one another, however there are cases where one chain will charge significantly more than another. A recent Consumer Reports study found Costco offered the lowest retail drug prices and CVSthe highest. The study concluded that failing to shop around for the best price could cost consumers $100 or more each month.

      The biggest knock on CVS pharmacies appears to be the competence level of employees. Again, situations may differ store to store, but an anonymous poster from Lighthouse Point, Fla., who said he is a retired doctor, wrote a scathing review of his local CVS store.

      “The customer service representatives are very often incompetent; often, I will call back several times in one day getting completely contradictory information from separate representatives,” he writes. “I am required to spend excessive amounts of time on the phone to get anything done. This is truly upsetting. They lose prescriptions, cancel orders, forget to auto-refill, change credit cards, overcharge, etc. I am a physician having these difficulties getting my own prescriptions filled. I cannot imagine how the elderly, less educated, less motivated, less computer-savvy, or persons with other difficulties can even begin to manage the monstrous system.”

      Getting frustrated

      Jennifer, of Weymouth, Mass., says she is a longtime CVS customer who is also getting frustrated.

      “It seems to be that every time I go to get a prescription, there seems to be a problem,” Jennifer writes. “Last Sunday my prescription was supposed to be ready. I have been back to the pharmacy three times within this week. I contacted my doctor and told her they don't have my prescription. She has called two times to check to see if my prescription was ready and a CVS rep has said it was 'all set'. I've called and went to the CVS to get the prescription and it's not there.”

      Not getting a prescription filled in a timely manner can be a serious problem for patients dependent on their medicine. Jennifer should have cancelled her order and placed it at another store at the first sign of trouble.

      Privacy concern

      Consumers rate CVS Pharmacy

      Kathy, of Clarence, N.Y., uses a Rite Aidpharmacy. Or rather, she did until she discovered that she had been enrolled in a Prescription Advisor program without her knowledge.

      “When I asked what this is about, I was told that according to my 'score,' I was not taking the medication correctly,” Kathy wrote in a post. “I told the pharmacist I did not authorize participation in the program and wanted to 'opt out.' I was told that was not possible. I researched this program and found that in a press release date April 10, 2012, it was clearly stated that, 'participation in the program is optional.' When I re-contacted the store, I was told I could not opt out. So much for privacy!”

      Another complaint that seems to be common among all the big chain pharmacies is that sometimes consumers report getting shortchanged on their prescriptions, reporting anywhere from two to 30 fewer pills in the order than prescribed. This is especially troubling if the prescription is for a narcotic.


      “Almost every time I've gone to Rite Aid Pharmacy to fill a controlled substance prescription, I was given a lesser amount of pills than prescribed,” writes Kenneth, of Hoboken, N.J. “When I complained to the pharmacy manager about this issue, I was rebuked and they denied ever having been responsible.”

      Tina, of West Columbia, S.C., reports picking up a prescription at Walmart and finding the order was 30 pills short.

      “I will be going to Walmart today where I will meet with a county officer to fill out a report,” Tina writes. “I have also called and left a message with Drug Control but I am still waiting for them to return my call. I will go on every site I can find to make other people aware.”

      Consumers rate Wal-Mart Pharmacy

      Thomas, of Coatsville, Pa., reports a similar experience with CVS when he picked up his wife's prescription for oxycodone, a narcotic painkiller favored by some prescription drug abusers.

      “She counted the tablets and got 38, so I counted the tablets twice and got 38, not 40,” he writes. “Is there someone I can contact about these missing narcotic tablets?”

      Yes. If you suspect that a pharmacy is deliberately shorting a prescription for a narcotic drug, law enforcement officials would probably like to know about it. If your local police department has a narcotics bureau, that's a place to start. Otherwise, you could contact the state police.

      While there may still be a corner drug store where you live, more often than not consumers are getting their prescriptions filled at one of the nationwide ...
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      CFPB cracks down on debt collectors

      Issues information and resources for consumers facing collection activities

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is putting debt collection companies on notice that they will be held accountable for unlawful conduct.

      The CFPB also announced that it is now accepting debt collection complaints and is publishing action letters for consumers to consider using in corresponding with debt collectors.

      “These bulletins make clear that it doesn’t matter who is collecting the debt—unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices are illegal,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray at a field hearing in Portland, Maine. “Consumers need options to help them secure fair and respectful treatment from those debt collectors that fail to abide by the law. They can protect themselves by using our action letters to communicate with debt collectors and by submitting a complaint to us if they believe they are harmed by illegal conduct.”

      Action letters

      The sample action letters are for use by consumers when corresponding with debt collectors. They're intended to help consumers obtain valuable information about claims being made against them and may help consumers protect themselves.

      The letters address situations when the consumer:

      • is seeking more information on the debt;
      • is disputing the debt;
      • wants to restrict how the debt collector can contact them;
      • has hired a lawyer to handle the case; and 
      • wants the collector to stop all contact.

      More information is available on the CFPB website

      The CFPB is also releasing a second bulletin today that warns companies about statements they make about how paying a debt will affect a consumer’s credit score, credit report, or creditworthiness.

      The Bureau is concerned that some of these statements – like telling consumers that paying a debt would improve their credit score – may be deceptive. The bulletin highlights examples of potentially deceptive claims debt collectors may be making to consumers about their credit reports and credit scores. The complete bulletin is available online

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is putting debt collection companies on notice that they will be held accountable for unlawful conduct.Th...
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      Twinkies or kalepops? Choose your summer food trend

      Specialty food makers hope to expand your horizons

      Junk food addicts are no doubt celebrating the return of the Hostess Twinkie to store shelves. As predicted last fall when baked goods manufacturer Hostess Brands announced it was going out of business, another baker has stepped in to make the spongy delight.

      But will the Twinkie become a major summer food trend? Don't count on it. Industry analysts say the Twinkie means nothing to today's young consumer, while the consumer who might be nostalgic about the treat is getting older and more health-conscious. Just half a package of Twinkies contains 220 mg of sodium, after all.

      Tending toward the exotic

      Instead, this summer's trendy food items may tend toward the exotic. According to the Specialty Food Association, a number of small, niche manufacturers have come up with food items that put an emphasis on health, even if they are being marketed as treats.

      For example, Green Wave Smoothies offers a frozen treat made from green vegetables. That's right, things like spinach and kale. According to the company, its smoothie pops are the first popsicles to incorporate nutrient-dense, dark-green leafy vegetables. It's naturally sweet, with no added sugar, and is gluten-free.

      “Parents, grandparents, schools, athletic organizations, special needs children to name a few are all looking for something healthy that kids will eat and enjoy,” the company says. “Green Wave is dedicated to offering alternatives to sugary treats along with nutrition education through marketing in an effort to help combat the epidemic of childhood obesity.”

      Chia Pods

      La Pasta has introduced Sweet Potato, Quinoa and Kale Ravioli while the Chia Company is offering up a product called Chia Pods. The later is a product made with sun-ripened Chia seeds mixed with coconut milk and real fruit.

      “We've responded with the Chia Pod, a world first innovation,” the company says. “Dairy free and vegan, each six ounce Chia Pod has been cold processed to retain the raw nutrition, taste and color of the fruit.”

      The single serve pack contains a custom designed spoon inside the lid. The lid, spoon and cup are, or course, 100% recyclable.

      Seattle Chocolates, as the name implies, specialized in candy – but not just any candy. For example, as part of its Summer Essentials line, the company offers all-natural truffles patterned after favorite cocktails, to help celebrate the sun.

      “Or opt for whimsical truffle bars reminiscent of carefree days filled with campfires and lemonade stands,” the company's marketing material says.

      Southern cooking

      Callie's Charleston Biscuits conjures up the aroma of fresh bread in a southern kitchen. Its product line up ranges from country ham biscuits to shortcakes.

      “Our biscuits are made by hand with the recipe of celebrated Charleston caterer Callie White,” the company says. “Using no machinery whatsoever and with only the finest ingredients, our small team of bakers are keeping the tradition of Southern biscuit making alive.”

      These and other food offerings were on display at the Specialty Food Association's 59th Summer Fancy Food Show in New York in early July. The association calls it the largest marketplace in North America for specialty foods and beverages, with 180,000 products from more than 2,400 food manufacturers, importers and entrepreneurs on display, including the latest artisan cheeses, chocolates, vinegars, grilling sauces and natural and organic products.

      When it comes to most of these products, don't expect to find them in your neighborhood supermarket next to the Twinkies. Instead, most of these companies sell in specialty food boutiques and online.

      Junk food addicts are no doubt celebrating the return of the Hostess Twinkie to store shelves. As predicted last fall when baked goods manufacturer Hostess...
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      Have you ever received an item with bad packaging?

      If so, here's what you should do

      Has this ever happened to you?

      You just purchased a Snickers bar, and since you haven't had one in quite some time, you tear open the wrapper and anticipate the first chocolaty bite. But then you notice something is incredibly wrong and for some reason the Snickers bar looks shorter in length.

      "Maybe the company just made it smaller," you think to yourself. "Or maybe it's been so long since I had a Snickers bar, I forgot its actual size."

      But then you take a closer look and realize the Snickers bar wasn't made smaller, a piece of it was actually chewed off and eaten. 

      And after doing a little detective work and speaking to a few people, you realize that a worm or a bunch of bugs got into the candy's packaging, which grosses you out even further. 

      Happens a lot

      It may surprise some, but packing mishaps happen all the time. From candy bars being eaten before you open them, to dog food having ants in the package, to items having a moldy or a bad smell once they're opened.

      It happened to Judy of Burlington, Wis. She made soup for her son, but something went very wrong.

      "I made my 38-year old son a bowl of soup last week," wrote Judy in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "He crushed up the crackers, put them in his soup and took a spoonful. He had to spit it out in the wastebasket. He said, 'Ma, are you trying to kill me?' I took the package and then smelled them. It was horrible. It smelled like kerosene or something."

      "Maybe there was a problem with the packaging material, but I had to throw away two boxes that smelled the same way. I think I will be changing brands also," wrote Judy.

      Val of Evansville, Ind. experienced a packaging nightmare too, when her son opened a box of Pop Tarts.

      S'more bugs

      "My son opened a new package of S'mores Pop Tarts and found bugs on them," she wrote.

      "The bugs are exactly like those pictured on Pop Tarts in another recent review. We have contacted Kellogg's to notify them, but have not had a response. We will not be purchasing more Pop Tarts and likely will not purchase Kellogg's products if we do not get a response from the company.

      But what's the best way to get that response if you received an item with bad packaging? And what's the first thing you should do?

      What to do

      "You want to call the consumer complaint coordinator in your state," said Stephanie of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. You can find a list of regional offices here.

      "The district office will let you know what the process is to file a complaint and tell you what else to do, but they're the ones who are best equipped to tell you how to handle those complaints."

      "If you find a foreign object in your product, they'll take that and enter it into the system and take action from there," said Stephanie. 

      Jenny, who is a consumer complaint coordinator with the FDA, in Baltimore, Md., said calling your local coordinator is important so a file can be opened.

      "You could either record the incident with us [by phone] or send an email to us," she explained. "You would need to include the location where you purchased the product, the product code, the expiration date and the problem that you had with the problem and what you witnessed when you received it."

      In addition, Jenny says a consumer complaint coordinator will always follow up with the manufacturer to see if the packaging problems stem from where the item was kept or if something went wrong while it was being distributed from the warehouse to the store.

      And Jenny says contacting a consumer complaint coordinator, instead of just contacting the place you purchased the item, will help the FDA stay on top of manufacturers in the area, to ensure packaging problems get fixed.

      In most cases, an online or physical store will simply replace the product for you if it has bad packaging, says Jenny, but it's still very important to file a complaint.

      Has this ever happened to you?You just purchased a Snickers bar, since you hadn't had one in quite some time, and you rip open the package and anticipate...
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      Court denies class action status to Super Bowl lawsuit

      The suit concerned last-minute seat shortages

      A federal court has denied class certification in a suit involving a last-minute seat shortage at the 2011 Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

      The suit stemmed from a decision mere hours before the big game, held at Cowboys Stadium, that over 1,000 temporary seats were unsafe and couldn’t be used.

      The suit, filed within a week of the February 6, 2011 game, alleged breach of contract, fraud, and deceptive sales practices. The action, which sought compensatory damages exceeding $5 million, named as defendants the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys, and team owner Jerry Jones.

      According to the suit, the defendants’ unlawful actions meant that around 850 fans were displaced from their original seats, and 400 had to stand through the hours-long game. This was especially disappointing given the time and money that fans had spent in order to attend the game.

      Judge: Too many individual issues

      U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, ruled that the plaintiffs hadn’t sufficiently shown that there were common issues making a class action preferable to individual suits. Lynn also noted that monetary damages varied among the class members, making a joint action inappropriate.

      "The Court … concludes that the variation in the materiality of the omissions combined with the individual questions of reliance and damages predominate over common issues," Lynn wrote in her opinion.

      "[T]he burdens and costs associated with proceeding as a class action outweigh potential benefits,” Lynn’s ruling said.

      In a statement, the NFL said it was “pleased with the court’s decision refusing to certify any class in this case.”

      Plaintiffs’ lawyer vows to fight on

      Michael Avenatti, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was “disappointed with the court's ruling but look forward to representing hundreds of our clients this year in the trials against the NFL,” indicating that he may file individual suits on behalf of his clients.

      Avenatti has been fierce in his prosecution of the case since the start, demanding that the defendants “reimburse fans one hundred percent for their expenses and damages” at the time the case was filed.

      “You don’t have to own the Cowboys or run the NFL to know that you cannot lawfully treat people like this,” Avenatti said at the time. “At an absolute minimum, Jones, the Cowboys and the NFL need to accept full responsibility and reimburse fans one hundred percent for their expenses and damages. Anything short of that is a slap in the face to the fans of the NFL and the Cowboys.”

      A federal court has denied class certification in a suit involving a last-minute seat shortage at the 2011 Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the...
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      Meat industry sues to stop country-of-origin labeling

      American Meat Institute says USDA is overstepping its authority

      The meat and livestock industry is taking exception to country-of-origin labeling rules -- known as COOL -- finalized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year.

      Previously, meat labels only had to say where meat came from. Under the new rule, they must say where the meat was born, raised and slaughtered. The American Meat Institute says the rule is unconstitutional and has filed suit in D.C. federal court.

      The suit charges that the rule "compels speech in the form of costly and detailed labels on meat products that do not directly advance a government interest."  It charges the rule is "arbitrary and capricious, because it imposes vast burdens on the industry with little to no countervailing benefit."

      Currently, a slab of meat may be identified as "Product of U.S. and Canada." Under the new rules, it would have to say, "Born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States."

      Lifetime itinerary

      “Congress mandated country-of-origin labeling for meat and poultry -- not lifetime itinerary labeling,” AMI said in a prepared statement.  “Segregating and tracking animals according to the countries where production steps occurred and detailing that information on a label may be a bureaucrat’s paperwork fantasy, but the labels that result will serve only to confuse consumers, raise the prices they pay, and put some producers and meat and poultry companies out of business in the process.  Everyone loses under this rule.”

      Consumer groups, however, have long supported the type of labeling COOL would require. A nationally representative telephone poll of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center in October 2010 found that most consumers (93%) would prefer to have a country of origin label on the meat that they buy.

      "These results underscore our previous poll findings from 2008 indicating that 95% of US adults agree that country-of-origin labeling for products should always be available at the point of purchase," Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., of Consumers Union said at the time the surbey results were released.

      The rules also have had support from other farmers' organizations and from many environmental groups.

      USDA said it "remains confident that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations." 

      The meat and livestock industry is taking exception to country-of-origin labeling rules -- known as COOL -- finalized by the U.S. Department of Agricu...
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      Researchers find few side effects linked to statin use

      Benefits generally outweigh any risks, new findings indicate

      You see them advertised all the time -- Crestor, Zocor and all the rest. They’re statins -- the popular class of cholesterol-lowering drugs used widely to prevent recurrent heart disease or even a first cardiac or stroke event. But how safe are they?

      Well, according to new research reported in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, there are few side effects linked to them.

      Researchers conducted the largest meta-analysis on statin side effects to date. After reviewing data from 135 previous drug studies to evaluate the safety of the seven statins on the market, they concluded "as a class, adverse events associated with statin therapy are not common."

      The scientists noted that simvastatin and pravastatin -- the generic names of the brands Zocor and Pravachol -- were found to have the best safety profile in the class. This is particularly true when patients were prescribed low to moderate doses of those statins, said Huseyin Naci, M.H.S., the study's lead author and a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science and research fellow at Harvard Medical School's Department of Population Medicine.

      A caveat

      Researchers also noted a 9% increased risk of diabetes among statin users. But according to a previous landmark study, 250 patients need to be treated with a statin for one case of diabetes to be diagnosed.

      "I am concerned that patients may misunderstand this small increase in risk and stop adhering to their medications," Naci said. The proven ability of statins to significantly cut the rate of death and hospitalization in patients who have heart disease outweighs the "small increase in diabetes risk," he said.

      Researchers reviewed trials published between 1985 and early 2013, which included almost 250,000 patients. On average, the trials lasted a bit longer than a year. Some compared one statin with  another, while others compared a statin to an inactive placebo, which is often called a sugar pill or dummy pill.

      Some risks

      The study also found that statins were not linked to an increase in cancer risk. However, the drugs were associated with a typically reversible increase in liver enzymes, which Naci said still resulted in a very low rate of actual liver toxicity in statin patients.

      "Although the benefits of statins clearly outweigh risks at the population level, individualizing such benefits and risks is more difficult," he said. "This brings into sharp focus the importance of identifying the individuals who stand to benefit the most from statin therapy.

      Although the risk of developing diabetes is low, what this risk would amount to over time is simply not known based on the existing evidence," Naci said.

      You see them advertised all the time -- Crestor, Zocor and all the rest. They’re statins -- the popular class of cholesterol-lowering drugs used widely to ...
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      Traveling and Allergies: Unfortunately, the two can go hand in hand

      So is getting a hypoallergenic room even worth it?

      Who doesn't like to travel? Most people do, right? 

      Of course there are some who would rather skip the airport lines, highway traffic and high gas prices, but for the most part people like to see new places, people and things as much as they can, especially during the summer months.

      But a lot of people are concerned about their allergies flaring up when they travel. So much so that some folks won't even go to certain places because those places are known to make eyes water, noses sneeze and worse. 

      Allergic nation

      According to a study released by Sylvane, a company that sells air treatment products, and AllerPassMD, which provides travelers with listings of hypoallergenic hotel rooms, one in five Americans lives with an allergy -- and that includes people living with allergic asthma.

      In addition, 17.9 million adults and 7.1 million children have hay fever and 8.6 million children have respiratory allergies. Overall, between 12 and 14 million people in the United States live with allergic asthma, researchers say.

      And when you combine those numbers with the number of people vacationing this summer season, there are sure to be a lot of unhappy travelers.

      On the move

      According to the study, 57% of travelers will hit the beach this summer and 39% will be traveling to a major city. Additionally, 23% will visit amusement parks, 21% will take a cultural trip and 17% will go on a camping trip. 

      But be choosey on where you travel within the U.S., because some states have a higher pollen count than others, experts say.

      Based on findings, St. Louis, Mo. has the highest pollen count. Itd's followed by College Station, Texas, Cherry Hill, N.J., Rochester, N.Y., Kansas City, Mo., Dallas, Texas, Tulsa, Okla., Lafayette, La., and Indianapolis, Ind.

      Where you stay

      However, it's not just certain states people with allergies should be mindful of. The hotel counts too.

      Researchers say that after two years, 10% of a pillow's weight can be made up of dead dust mites and dust mite droppings, so you may want to ask the hotel how often it changes the bed and couch pillows.

      And a mattress that's even just a little bit used can contain somewhere between 100,000 to 10 million mites inside, say researchers.

      Brian Brault, CEO of Pure Solutions in New York, who wasn't involved in the study, says it's hard for people with allergies to be totally comfortable when they travel.

      "When you travel, you don't know what you're walking into. You don't know the environment and you can't tweak it to make yourself comfortable like you can at home," said Brault in a published interview. "Any new living space will create problems for people with allergies."

      Choosing wisely

      Of course there are some travelers who will pay more money to stay in a hypoallergenic room, but Dr. Paul Williams, an allergy specialist at NorthWest Allergy & Asthma Center in Washington State, says getting such rooms isn't worth the money

      "There really isn't any scientific evidence to support some of those [hypoallergenic rooms]," said Williams an interview with USA Today. "People are paying money they don't need to pay, but it's their choice."

      There are many people who would probably disagree with Williams. In fact, creating hypoallergenic rooms has become big business in the hotel industry and experts say it'll become even bigger business in the future.

      Based on the survey's findings, Denver is No. 1 when it comes to having the most allergy-friendly hotels. Denver is also a refuge for allergy sufferers, Its high, dry climate is remarkably friendly to those who find nearly everyplace else unbearable.

      Washington state came in second, Tampa third and the cities that rounded out the top 15 were Albuquerque, Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, New York, Miami and San Francisco.

      Looking out for you

      When it comes to which hotel chains do the most for people with allergies, Hyatt came in first, Westin second and Residence Inn came in third.

      In addition, Four Seasons came in fourth and Doubletree, Marriott, Hilton, Embassy Suites, Wyndham and Courtyard by Marriott closed out the top ten.

      What are some of these chains doing to make hotel rooms more comfortable for people with allergies?

      It varies, but Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean at the Tisch Center for Hospitality, says creating allergy friendly rooms are pretty much the hotel standard these days. And these rooms aren't just for people with allergies, they're for all customers.

      "There are many people who request special rooms, not because they have allergies but because they believe those rooms will have a higher degree of sanitation and cleanliness," said Hanson in a published interview. "It's a way for hotels to invest a little bit more for a room but get a premium for both occupancy and rate."

      Who doesn't like to travel? Most people do, right? Of course there are some who would rather skip the airport lines, highway traffic and high gas pr...
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      Former cheerleader waits on defamation verdict

      Alleged that gossip site posted false posts

      A former cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals has trudged a long road in her defamation case against gossip site, but now a verdict could be just days or even hours away.

      Sarah Jones, who is also a former teacher, sued the website over two posts it published in 2009. Both posts were written anonymously to one of the website’s operators.

      The first post, published on October 27, 2009, claimed that Jones had “been spotted around town lately with the infamous Shayne Graham. She also has slept with every other Bengal Football player. This girl is a teacher too!”

      The second post, published on December 7, 2009, claimed that Jones’s ex-husband Nathan Wilburn “cheated on her with over 50 girls in 4 yrs,” and that “in that time he tested positive for Chlamydia Infection and Gonorrhea ... so im sure Sarah also has both.”

      Jones: Conduct was “cyberbullying”

      Jones says both posts were false, and in testimony on Monday she called TheDirty’s conduct “cyberbullying.”

      "I don't believe what the website does is fair. I don't believe it is right," Jones said.

      This is the not the first time the case has gone to trial. In January, a judge declared a mistrial after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict regarding whether the posts in question were substantially false.

      And before that, Jones won an $11 million default judgment in 2010 after the named defendant failed to respond to her complaint. Unfortunately, Jones and her lawyer later learned that they had sued the wrong defendant, serving Dirty World Entertainment Recordings LLC (owner of, rather than Dirty World LLC (owner of

      Engaged to formerly underaged student

      Jones has also had her day in criminal court. In October, she pled guilty to charges that she slept with one of her former students. The student, Cody York, was underaged at the time their relationship began.

      In June, Jones and York, now 19, announced they are engaged.

      Despite her criminal conviction and the complications that have arisen in her civil case, Jones is considering entering the legal profession herself. Last fall, The Washington Post reported that Jones was “working as a legal assistant in [her lawyer Eric Deters’s] office.”

      “Jones has expressed interest in becoming a lawyer and is studying to take the Law School Admission Test [LSAT],” the Post said.

      A former cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals has trudged a long road in her defamation case against gossip site, but now a verdict could be...
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      Hotel guest claims she was bitten 400 times by bed bugs

      The hotel destroyed the evidence by disinfecting the room, lawsuit charges

      A California woman is suing the Renaissance Marriott Hotel in Palm Springs, claiming she was bitten by bed bugs more than 400 times while sleeping at the hotel.

      Kerstin Minass, 26, said she faces permanent scarring to her face, body and hands and said her social life has been marred because of fears that she may be carrying the blood-sucking anthropods on her person or clothing, Courthouse News Service reported.

      Minass said that after the bed bug attacks on May 5, she notified the hotel management, which immediately began cleaning and disinfecting the room, thereby destroying key evidence, to wit the bed bugs.

      The suit says the hotel breached its obligation to protect its guests from harm by allowing the bed bugs to take up residence in the hotel. 

      In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in California, Minass notes that the bed bug is "most often associated with substandard housing, filthy conditions and poor hygiene." 

      "Typically feeding every four days, [the bed bug] sucks blood from its hosts with piercing mouthparts," as Minass contends the hotel's bed bugs did to her.

      A California woman is suing the Renaissance Marriott Hotel in Palm Springs, claiming she was bitten by bed bugs more than 400 times while sleeping at the h...
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      American teens are on the job

      Hiring during May was the strongest since 2006

      Teen hiring may have gotten off to its strongest start in seven years in 2013, but heavy employment gains in May appear to have caused employers to pull back slightly in June.  Still, with 994,000 16- to 19-year-olds finding seasonal positions so far this summer, John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says teen hiring could outpace 2012.

      A Challenger analysis of just-released government employment data found that employers added 215,000 teenagers to their payrolls in May -- the largest number of teens hired in May since 2006, when employment among 16- to 19-year-olds expanded by 230,000 in the first month of the summer hiring season.

      Strong numbers

      The latest non-seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that another 779,000 teens found employment in June compared with employment growth of 858,000 in  June 2012.  Overall, the 994,000 teens finding jobs so far this summer is down 2.1% from the 1,015,000 teen job winners in May and June of last year.

      “While teen hiring is down slightly from a year ago, these remain some of the strongest summer employment figures we have seen since the recession began in 2008,” said Challenger. “In 2010, employers added just 960,000 16- to 19-year-olds over the entire summer hiring period from May through July.  Hiring has already surpassed that level this year and, if history is any indication, teen employment is likely to grow by another 300,000 to 400,000 in July.”

      Increasing competition

      Challenger points out that one of the biggest obstacles teenagers face in today’s job market is the fact that there is more competition from older job seekers, such as recent college graduates as well as retirees.  

      “Another trend that may keep teen summer employment in the years to come is the decline of the American mall, which has long been a traditional employer of teenaged summer job seekers,” he noted. “As more and more Americans flock to the internet for their shopping needs, traditional brick and mortar stores are seeing traffic decline along with the need for extra summer employees.”

      The retail factor

      According to data from the National Retail Federation (NRF), retail sales were up 4.2% in 2012.  However, retail research firm ShopperTrack found that enclosed mall traffic was down 1.1% last year.  In its annual forecast, the NRF predicts 2013 retail sales (excluding auto, gas and restaurant) will increase by 3.4%.  Meanwhile, online sales are expected to grow between 9.0% and 12.0%.

      “Despite fewer opportunities in traditional retail settings, there are more non-traditional settings where teens can find employment.  Over the past few years, nearly 150 trampoline centers have opened across the country.  Traditional pools are being supplemented with water slide parks.  Traditional bowling alleys are being replaced by massive bowling centers that also feature arcades, laser tag and other activities.  We are seeing more movie theaters offer full-service dining.  All of these new entertainment venues require more workers, making them the ideal target for teen job seekers,” noted Challenger.

      Teen hiring may have gotten off to its strongest start in seven years in 2013, but heavy employment gains in May appear to have caused employers to pull ba...
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      Is your smartphone camera good enough?

      It might not be yet, but experts say they're getting better

      Smartphones perform so many functions they've actually eliminated some products from the market. Remember the Flip video camera? It was all the rage in 2008. By 2011 it was gone.

      Cisco Systems, parent to the company that developed the pocket-sized video recorder, suspended operations, bowing to the inevitable. Consumers had begun to ask themselves, "Why do I need another device that just shoots video, when my phone can do it?"

      Not only did smartphones shoot high-def video, many phones came with video editing software, so you could produce a movie right on your phone. All of a sudden, the Flip didn't look so revolutionary.

      Is the same thing happening now with digital cameras? Not if digital camera-makers have anything to say about it.

      Fighting back

      While it is true your smartphone might take some great pictures, it isn't designed specifically to be a camera, a point driven home by camera-makers. Olympus has run ad campaigns that specifically attack the idea that your smartphone camera is good as a digital point-and-shoot. "A camera phone is to photography what two-minute noodles are to cooking," one ad declared.

      Joshua Goldman, a senior editor at CNET, says the digital camera is not dead yet. Even though the top three cameras used for Flickr submissions are all iPhone models, Goldman writes that there's still plenty of interest in digital cameras from consumers serious about photography. He says a dedicated camera is going to bring more to the table than a smartphone camera, starting with a better lens and better controls.

      But we're heard from a number of consumers who have invested in stand-alone cameras, some high-end models and others inexpensive point-and-shoot devices – who wish they hadn't. For example, Arun of Davangere, India, purchased an inexpensive Samsung L201 point-and-shoot camera.

      Jammed lens

      “After taking 40-50 photos, the lens jammed outside, and the back side of the camera became hot,” Arun writes. “There was also a buzzing sound from the inside of the camera. This all happened for the second time in three years.”

      Linda, of Cranberry Township, Pa., reports a problem with the anti-reflective coating peeling off the LCD screen of her Sony NEX3.

      “I was fortunate enough that I returned it to Sony days before the one-year warranty expired, and it was replaced free of charge and returned to me,” she writes. “Lo and behold, just about a year later (this past winter), I started experiencing the same exact problem. I have been battling with Sony regarding the fact that I am experiencing a problem with not only one, but two defective screens on my camera. I have had at least four conversations with two different people at Sony.”

      If you want to take pictures under water, your smartphone is not going to be much help. But while you can purchase a waterproof camera for use below the surface, consumers have reported problems with some models.

      “After researching water-proof cameras, I bought the Olympus Stylus Tough 8010,” writes Tommy, of Seattle, Wash. “The Olympus website shows it's water-proof to 33 feet. After I purchased the camera, the manual states it's only water-proof if I send it in at least every 12 months to an authorized Olympus service center. The cost would be postage there and return with FedEx or UPS and the cost for replacing the rubber seals which the company told me is $59.95! This comes to close to $100 every 12 months and no camera while it sits waiting its turn to get new seals.”

      'Common problem'

      “I bought a Canon Powershot SD790IS and the lens will not close,” writes Anne, of Los Angeles. “I have looked up the issue to find this is a common problem with this camera.”

      In fact, we've found that nearly every digital camera manufacturer has problems of some type, as reported by some of the consumers using the products. Despite that, however, serious photographers are likely to stick with a stand-alone unit rather than their smartphone. Of course, they're likely to choose something a bit sturdier and more expensive than the models we've mentioned.

      What about the casual photographer? Depending on the smartphone, the onboard camera can be more than adequate. Bloomberg reports sales of point-and-shoot cameras fell 46% in 2012, mainly because so many consumers liked the convenience of always having a camera at hand in their ever-present smartphone.

      DxOMark, a company that rates camera equipment, recently rated some smartphone cameras as better than some five-year-old point-and-shoot cameras. And, the company said, smartphone cameras are getting better all the time.

      Smartphones perform so many functions they've actually eliminated some products from the market. Remember the Flip video camera? It was all the rage in 200...
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      What to know before ordering Internet diet pills

      Some may result in unauthorized charges, some might not work

      Taking a pill to help you lose weight sounds attractive. It's simple and easy, with less effort required than counting calories and exercising. But the results are what matters and they tend to be elusive.

      First, there's the matter of obtaining the diet pills. Many of these products are marketed with a “free sample,” requiring the consumer to pay a small shipping and handling charge – charged to their credit card – to receive the sample.

      It sounds easy and painless, kind of like losing weight by taking a pill. But many consumers reported that, once they received the sample, their accounts were charged for a full month's supply of pills.

      Several years ago diet pills made with acai berry extract were marketed in this manner, resulting in hundreds of complaints to state and federal authorities. In 2009 Florida sued one distributor, claiming it failed to mention that customers would be charged approximately $80 on a monthly basis for products they did not intend to purchase.

      Online conspiracy

      In 2011, a federal court, acting on a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), halted what it termed “an online conspiracy” that allegedly took in more than $450 million from consumers in the United States and several other countries. In this case, the scheme allegedly lured consumers into “free” or “risk-free” offers for weight-loss pills and tooth whiteners, and then billed them for things they did not want or agree to purchase, providing false or misleading information to merchant banks in order to acquire credit and debit card processing services.

      While those particular products are no longer being marketed with free samples, some diet pills are. Heather, of Glendale, Calif., said she ordered Lichi Super Fruit diet pills, manufactured by Bainbridge and Knight Labs. Her account may sound familiar to some past diet pill consumers.

      “I ordered what I thought was a free trial of the Lichi diet pills,” Heather wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “It said I pay the $7 shipping charge for my free trial. I got my trial and all of a sudden more product was coming to my house. My credit card company alerted me as they said it looked like a suspicious charge.”

      Read the fine print

      Heather said she called the company to tell them there has been a mistake, that she had only ordered the free trial.

      “They said no, I should have read the fine print, that I was actually signing up for a automatic monthly supply.”

      Heather says, with the help of her credit card company, she was able to reverse all the charges except for the first $99.99 charge.

      Consumers outside the U.S. have reported similar experiences with a weight loss product called Bioslim.

      “I accepted a trial product offer for BioSlim mango extract that firstly stated "free trial" pay postage only, but the advertising was very misleading, as the terms and conditions with the long postage elapsed time made it impossible to return the product and stop the first or second payment of approx $100 per bottle,” writes Cesare, of Victoria, Australia. “I had to cancel my credit card to make sure no further money was extracted from my card.”

      Do they work?

      Aside from the consumer issues of obtaining these kinds of “all-natural” diet pills, the larger questions is do they even work? That's hard to say since they do not come under the jurisdiction of the FDA. In the case of the Lichi diet pills, Beth Sanders, an editor at ConsumerHealth Answers, found not all the ingredients are listed.

      “It is difficult to fully evaluate this product without a complete ingredient list, or an idea of how much of each ingredient is included in the formula,” she wrote in a review of the product.

      Taking any kind of pill without knowing the ingredients can be risky business. Last year the FDA advised consumers not to use Japan Rapid Weight Loss diet Pills Yellow, which was being sold mostly online. The agency said its analysis confirmed the product contained sibutramine and phenolphthalein. Sibutramine is a controlled substance that was removed from the market in October 2010 for safety reasons.

      Just last week the FDA recalled JaDera and Xiyouji Qingzhi weight loss supplement, finding the products also contained undeclared Sibutramine.

      If you are going to take a pill to lose weight, you may be better off taking something prescribed by your doctor. That said, health experts say prescription weight-loss drugs don't replace the need to make healthy changes in your eating habits and activity level.  

      Taking a pill to help you lose weight sounds attractive. It's simple and easy, with less effort required than counting calories and exercising. But the res...
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      Kroger buys Harris Teeter Supermarkets

      Harris Teeter will continue to operate under its brand

      Kroger Company is buying regional supermarket chain Harris Teeter for $2.44 billion, but says it will continue to operate the stores under the Harris Teeter brand and doesn't plan to close any stores as a result of the purchase.

      The news got a mixed reception on Facebook. "A lot of unhappy people this morning, A LOT," said a poster named Julie. 

      "The way I understand it is that HT will remain HT, but owned by the Kroger chain. Kroger owns a handful of different grocery chains across the nation. I only hope HT keeps their coupon policy and not adopt Kroger's (which recently stopped having daily double coupons in VA)," a consumer named Lynda said.

      "We are excited to welcome Harris Teeter to the Kroger family," said David B. Dillon, Kroger's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.  "Harris Teeter is an exceptional company with a great brand, friendly and talented associates, and attractive store formats in vibrant markets run by a first-class management team.  They share our customer-centric approach to everything we do – from store format and merchandising to innovative loyalty programs."

      Consumers rate Kroger

      Kroger said it expects to save $40 million to $50 million over the next three to four years as a result of the purchase, mostly through benefits of scale. 

      "We are excited about becoming part of The Kroger Co., one of the best food retailers in the U.S. while maintaining the Harris Teeter banner, our management teams, our new store growth plan, our distribution and manufacturing facilities in North Carolina as well as our headquarters in Matthews, NC," said Thomas W. Dickson, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Harris Teeter.  "As part of Kroger, Harris Teeter will be well equipped to continue to provide our customers outstanding quality and customer service as well as excellent value in an increasingly competitive market."

      Kroger Company is buying regional supermarket chain Harris Teeter for $2.44 billion, but says it will continue to operate the stores under the Harris Teete...
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      World's biggest debt collector hit with $3.2 million penalty

      Expert Global Solutions agrees to stop harassing consumers

      The world’s largest debt collection agench, Expert Global Solutions, has agreed to stop harassing consumers and will pay a $3.2 million civil penalty, the largest ever obtained by the Federal Trade Commission against a third-party debt collector.

      In its complaint, the FTC charged that the Expert Global and its subsidiaries used illegal tactics such as calling consumers multiple times per day, calling even after being asked to stop, calling early in the morning or late at night, calling consumers’ workplaces despite knowing that the employers prohibited such calls, and leaving phone messages that disclosed the debtor’s name, and the existence of the debt, to third parties. 

      According to the FTC’s complaint, the companies also continued collection efforts without verifying the debt, even after consumers said they did not owe it, a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

      Helen of Bisbee, AZ, recently wrote to ConsumerAffairs about her experience with NCO.

      "I do not owe any money and have no debts. This company uses an automated phone system to call me at least once a day, sometimes twice, to request from me a return call," she said. "I attempted once to do this -- to request they stop calling or an option to contact me in writing only. I only got an automated system. So I did not get anywhere." 

      With more than 32,000 employees and revenues in 2011 of more than $1.2 billion, the Texas-based Expert Global Solutions and its subsidiaries – ALW Sourcing, LLC; NCO Financial Systems, Inc.; and Transworld Systems, Inc., which also does business as North Shore Agency, Inc. – collectively are the largest debt collector in the world.  In addition to their U.S. offices, the companies operate in Canada, Barbados, India, the Philippines, and Panama.

      Must verify the debt

      Under the proposed settlement, whenever a consumer disputes the validity or the amount of the debt, the defendants must either close the account and end collection efforts, or suspend collection until they have conducted a reasonable investigation and verified that their information about the debt is accurate and complete.  

      Juan of China, CA, is one of many consumers who've complained about  NCO refusing to verify the amount of the alleged debt. Jua said he received a bill for $389.76 but had no clue what it was for.

      "They proceeded to [say] you do owe this money with an angry tone and that it was from a hospital bill. I mentioned to them I received one bill only from the hospital and never an additional one. They argumentatively wanted me to accept these charges," Juan said.

      "I never did receive a bill for any other charges. I had received one and has been paid for. I have proof of a zero dollar balance. They push it to the limit where I asked to speak to a supervisor and they didn't have anyone to which to speak to only other sales rep. I had also called the hospital asking if I had ever sent any bill to collection. I received a no from the accounts payable personnel named Julie."

      The proposed FTC order also restricts situations in which the defendants can leave voicemails that disclose the alleged debtor’s name and the fact that he or she may owe a debt. 

      The world’s largest debt collection agench, Expert Global Solutions, has agreed to stop harassing consumers and will pay a $3.2 million civil pe...
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      Feds probe loss of steering in Hyundai Santa Fe SUVs

      Right-front axle shaft may fail, consumer complaints indicate

      The Hyundai Santa Fe is not without its peculiarities. Consumers complain of everything from the sunroof flying off to sudden suspension failure.

      This time around, it's failure of the right-front axle shaft that's drawing consumer complaints and regulators' attention. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it has opened a preliminary investigation into the problem, which was reported by two Santa Fe owners who had less than 5,000 miles on their SUVs at the time of the incidents.

      Besides the complaints from consumers, NHTSA said its review of information submitted by Hyundai found field report data connected to the alleged defect. 

      The investigation could affect an estimated 50,000 Santa Fe SUVs. 

      Last October, NHTSA began investigating a "complete loss of steering" in the Santa Fe, a problem apparently caused by a loose bolt. The agency said it received a complaint from a driver about the problem and Hyundai said it had received a similar complaint.

      At last word, that investigation was still underway. It's not unusual for preliminary investigations, which can eventually lead to a recall, to continue for months. 

      More than 200,000 Santa Fes were recalled in July 2012 to fix an airbag problem. 

      "Hyundai will, of course, take any actions necessary to ensure the safety of our customers if the information gathered during the investigation indicates that action is appropriate," a Hyundai spokesman said, according to Reuters. 

      The flying sunroof was reported by Nicole of Columbia, SC.

      "I have an 07 Hyundai Santa Fe and the sunroof piece completly flew off the car on the highway," she said in a report to ConsumerAffairs last month. "[The] rim around the roof opening had water damage and rust."

      She said Hyundai was refusing to cover the problem since she had over 60,000 miles on the car when the incident happened.

      Problems don't affect sales

      The safety problems don't seem to have much effect on sales of the popular South Korean brand. Hyundai said last week said it had sold 65,007 units, up two percent versus the same period in 2012 and up one percent the first six months of the year.

      “June was another record-breaking sales month for us in what has been a strong first half of the year,” said Dave Zuchowski, executive vice president of national sales. “We clearly felt the impact of the summer selling surge and our improved availability of award-winning vehicles was perfectly timed. Important third-party accolades, such as Genesis taking J.D. Power’s trophy for highest initial quality in the midsize premium car segment and the all-new Santa Fe being named Automobile Magazine’s Family Crossover for 2013, also continue to build strong momentum for our brand.”

      “With all of our plants continuing to operate at maximum capacity, sales of the U.S.-built Elantra soared 26 percent over June 2012,” said John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America. “Our Hyundai Assurance Connected Care program, now free for three years on most Hyundai models, continues to draw customers to our website and showrooms.”

      2013 Santa FeThe Hyundai Santa Fe is not without its peculiarities. Consumers complain of everything from the sunroof flying off to sudden suspension f...
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      Inventory of foreclosed homes down sharply

      The numbers are at a 5-year low in some cases

      If you’re looking to buy a home that’s going through foreclosure, your choices are a little more limited these days.

      CoreLogic,which provides property information and services provider, says there were 52,000 completed foreclosures in the U.S. in May -- down 27% from the same time a year ago. On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures increased 3.5 percent, from 50,000 in April -- to 52,000 in May.

      Residential shadow inventory, or pending homes, as of April 2013 was under 2 million units -- a supply of 5.3 months. That’s down 34% from its peak in 2010, when it reached 3 million homes, and down 18% from a year ago, when it was at 2.4 million.

      Foreclosures continue

      As a basis of comparison to the 52,000 completed foreclosures reported for May 2013, prior to the decline in the housing market in 2007, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006. Completed foreclosures are an indication of the total number of homes actually lost to foreclosure. Since the financial meltdown began in September 2008, there have been approximately 4.4 million completed foreclosures across the country.

      As of this past May, approximately 1.0 million homes in the U.S. were in some stage of foreclosure, known as the foreclosure inventory, versus 1.4 million in May 2012, a year-over-year decrease of 29%.

      Month over month, the foreclosure inventory was down 3.3% from April 2013 to May 2013. The foreclosure inventory as of May 2013 represented 2.6% of all homes with a mortgage compared with 3.5% in May 2012.

      At the end of May 2013, there are fewer than 2.3 million mortgages, or 5.6%, in serious delinquency (SDQ, defined as 90 days or more past due, including those loans in foreclosure or REO). The rate of seriously delinquent mortgages is at its lowest level since December 2008.

      "The stock of seriously delinquent homes, which is the main driver of shadow inventory, is at the lowest level since December 2008," said Dr. Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. "Over the last year it has decreased in 42 states by double-digit figures, resulting in rapid declines in shadow inventory for the first quarter of 2013."

      "We continue to see a sharp drop in foreclosures around the country and with it a decrease in the size of the shadow inventory. Affordability, despite the rise in home prices over the past year, and consumer confidence are big contributors to these positive trends," said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. "We are particularly encouraged by the broad-based nature of the housing market recovery so far in 2013."

      Foreclosure highlights

      • The five states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in May 2013 were: Florida (103,000), California (76,000), Michigan (64,000), Texas (51,000) and Georgia(47,000). These five states account for almost half of all completed foreclosures nationally.
      • The five states with the lowest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in May 2013 were: District of Columbia (108), Hawaii (453), North Dakota (467), West Virginia (517) andMaine (644).
      • The five states with the highest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes were:Florida (8.8%), New Jersey (6.0%), New York (4.8%), Maine (4.1%) and Connecticut (4.1%).
      • The five states with the lowest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes were:Wyoming (0.5%), Alaska (0.6%), North Dakota (0.6%), Nebraska (0.8%) and Virginia (0.8%).
      If you’re looking to buy a home that’s going through foreclosure, your choices are a little more limited these days. CoreLogic,which provides property inf...
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      Allegedly phony mortgage relief scheme halted

      Legal assistance and "forensic audits" touted for distressed homeowners

      A mortgage relief scheme that allegedly deceived and preyed on distressed homeowners by charging them $2,000 to $4,000 based on bogus foreclosure rescue claims has been brought to a halt.

      According to a lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the defendants allegedly falsely claimed they would provide legal help to save consumers’ homes from foreclosure and lower their mortgage payments. Then, says the FTC, they charged them up-front fees in violation of federal law, delivering little or no help, and driving them deeper into debt.

      The temporary restraining order obtained by the commission signed shuts down the defendants’ websites, freezes their assets, and provides for appointment of a receiver pending trial.

      Marketing ploys

      The defendants marketed their scheme in a variety of ways, which included using an official looking mailer that implores consumers to act quickly before they “FORFEIT LEGAL RIGHTS,” or face a “statute of limitations and government program deadlines,” according to the FTC.

      Three individuals -- Ratan Baid, Madhulika Baid, and William D. Goodrich -- and seven companies falsely promised lower monthly payments and interest rates, and conversion of adjustable-rate mortgages to fixed ones, the complaint contends. Many consumers who called the toll-free numbers were falsely guaranteed a loan modification that supposedly would make their payments more affordable, that they would get results within 60 to 90 days, or that Goodrich, an attorney, would use his impressive legal experience on their behalf, according to the complaint.

      The defendants also marketed their scheme online, through telemarketing calls and with television and radio ads, according to the complaint. The defendants’ websites touted a range of financial services, including bankruptcy advice, credit counseling, and “forensic mortgage audits.”

      One of the sites described how these “audits” can help consumers hold onto their homes or lower their mortgage payments. It falsely claimed that the “audits” could uncover any “lending violations” committed by lenders, and that the information could be used “to gain leverage in a successful loan modification,” the complaint stated.

      In reality, however, the defendants generally did not provide the promised loan modification or help consumers avoid foreclosure, either directly or through the “forensic mortgage audits.”

      The complaint charges the defendants with violating the Federal Trade Commission Act and with violating the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule, which bans mortgage foreclosure rescue and loan modification services from collecting fees until homeowners have a written offer from their lender or servicer that they deem acceptable.

      The complaint also names as defendants Apex Solutions, Inc.; William D. Goodrich, Attorney, Inc.; A to Z Marketing, Inc.; Apex Members, LLC; Backend Inc.; Expert Processing Center, Inc.; and Smart Funding Corp.

      A mortgage relief scheme that allegedly deceived and preyed on distressed homeowners by charging them $2,000 to $4,000 based on bogus foreclosure rescue cl...
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      Ford recalls vehicles with child safety lock problems

      Deactivation of the safety lock could lead to an unintended opening of the door

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 12,569 model year 2013 Ford Explorer, Taurus and Lincoln MKS vehicles manufactured November 29, 2012, through December 12, 2012.

      In the affected vehicles, with sufficient door openings and closings, the child safety locks may change from an activated position to a deactivated position without notice. If the child lock is deactivated, the door could be unlocked and opened from the inside which could lead to personal injury to an unrestrained child.

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will test the safety locks. If necessary, the locks will be replaced free of charge. The recall is expected to begin August 5, 2013. Ford's recall number is 13S07.

      Owners may contact the Ford customer relationship center at 1-866-436-7332.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 12,569 model year 2013 Ford Explorer, Taurus and Lincoln MKS vehicles manufactured November 29, 2012, through December 12, ...
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      The return of the adjustable rate mortgage

      With fixed rates rising, an ARM may look attractive -- but be careful

      Mortgage rates are on the rise once again, but remain near historic lows. Since rates plunged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, almost anyone who could qualify for a mortgage has opted for a 30-year fixed rate loan.

      And why not lock in a rock-bottom interest rate for the 30-year term of the loan? The alternative, an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM), got a pretty nasty reputation a few years back, associated with predatory, sub-prime loans.

      But now that rates are rising again, the ARM is earning some new respect. Consumers are looking at ARMs now for the same reason they did in the past – they tend to offer lower interest rates than fixed-rate loans.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) recently reported the ARM share of mortgage loan activity increased to seven percent of total applications as consumers bet rates wouldn't go much higher, or stay high for very long.

      What to know

      When considering an ARM, it's important to know exactly what kind of loan you are getting. Steve, of Jackson, Ohio, said he had an ARM with Chase that was based on the LIBOR rate and adjusted every six months.

      “The first adjustment raised my monthly payment by around $300 and it got worse from there,” Steve wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I want to know if there is actionable wrongdoing by those that conspired to set this rate excessively high.”

      Probably not. The LIBOR – the average of London inter-bank rates – is among the most common of benchmark interest rate indexes used to make adjustments to adjustable rate mortgages. But some ARMs will reset to a higher rate than others. Choosing an ARM means you should be comfortable with the risk.

      Rick, of Folsom, Calif., considered several ARM offers to refinance his VA loan, but ultimately decided he was happy with his fixed-rate of 3.75%.

      Not worth the risk?

      “The savings Mortgage Investors Corp. offered over the short term wasn't worth the risk of a rate increase in the long run,” Rick wrote. “I said that I was willing to pay a bit more per month in order to sleep well.”

      Vernon, of Sunbury, Ohio, said he pursued a loan modification with Wells Fargo because he said his ARM was simply unaffordable.

      “Our mortgage with Wells Fargo is $1,641.47 with an interest rate of 11.750% and $2,009.32 when the rate adjusts to 12.250%, Vernon writes.

      Those rates are extremely high, even for ARMs. The current average for the 5/1 ARM is around 3.5%.

      Structural differences

      To compare ARMs to other loans, you need to know how they are structured. What are the indexes, margins, discounts, and caps on rates and payments attached to the loan?

      Also make sure you are clear on the adjustment period. An ARM can change the interest rate and monthly payment once a month, once a quarter or once a year or longer. A loan with a one-year adjustment period is called a 1-year ARM, with the rate and payment changing annually. A loan with a three-year adjustment is called a 3-year ARM.

      Remember that lenders usually start off charging lower interest rates for ARMs than they do for fixed rate loans. The ARM rate changes after a set period of time and several years ago, that landed many homeowners in trouble. Because they were in a subprime category, their adjusted rate was often much higher than the introductory one, making their new payment unaffordable.

      But in recent years, some ARM customers actually saw their rates go down, since prevailing rates have been falling for the last four years.

      What to do

      According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, here are some questions you should ask before taking out an ARM:

      • Is my income sufficient to cover a higher payment if rates go up?
      • Will I have other debts in the near future, like a car note or student tuition, that will add to my financial burden?
      • How long before I sell this home? The longer you have the ARM, the greater the risk that your rate will rise.
      • Do I plan to pay the loan off early?
      Mortgage rates are on the rise once again, but remain near historic lows. Since rates plunged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, almost anyone who c...
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      Federal sting closes 1,600 illegal pharmacy websites

      Sites claimed to be in Canada, sold counterfeit drugs, feds charge

      A massive federal sting operation has closed down more than 1,600 illegal pharmacy websites that claimed to be based in Canada but were allegedly in the U.S. and were selling counterfeit drugs, according to federal officials.

      Dubbed Operation Pangea VI, the sting was said to be the largest Internet-based action of its kind in the United States. It was conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Attorneys in Colorado and elsewhere.

      John Walsh, the U.S. Attorney for Colorado, said the action targeted websites selling unapproved and potentially dangerous prescription medicines that could pose significant public health risks. 

      "These medicines should only be used with a valid prescription and under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.  In addition, these online-purchased products bypass existing safety controls required by the FDA, and protections provided when used under a doctor’s care," Walsh said.

      Many were counterfeit

      The FDA said it checked the true makeup of the various drugs after repeatedly purchasing the pharmaceuticals from the websites claiming to be associated with Canadian pharmacies and found that many were counterfeit.

      Much of the illegal distribution was reportedly based around a network called EvaPharmacy, which takes in about $2.7 million per month through 30,000 orders.

      An affidavit filed in connection with the case shows how easy it was for the FDA agents to buy drugs that they presented as coming from reputable manufacturers. In one instance, the agent was never asked for a prescription or doctor's note before placing an order for diabetes drug Actos or Celebrex, an arthritis medication.

      A report in Scientific American said the site rewarded the purchase with four "bonus" pills of Viagra. The agent received the drugs two weeks later, with a postmark from India. But when the drugs were tested, the FDA said they were not Celebrex or Actos or even Viagra. Instead they were drugs that are illegal to sell in the United States in any form.

      Not in Canada

      "Many of these websites operated as a part of an online network of pharmaceutical sites, which falsely purported that its websites were legitimate online pharmacies," Walsh said in a news release. "Many of these sites falsely claimed to be hosted in Canada, while others falsely claimed to be affiliated with major U.S. pharmacy retailers by using the names of those retailers in the website names."

      Website names cited as examples included, and Investigators said that most of the shipments originated from either India or Singapore. 

      The FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations Cybercrime Investigations Unit banner is now displayed on all seized 1,677 websites to alert consumers that the sites were identified as engaging in illegal activity. Consumers who bought drugs from those sites should not take any of the drugs and should be alert for unauthorized charges on their credit cards.

      Medications offered and sold by the websites included: Avandaryl (a diabetes and heart drug), Celebrex (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory product used to treat arthritis and to manage pain), Levitra and Viagra (erectile dysfunction drugs), and Clozapine (a severe schizophrenia medication), Walsh said.

      “The sites seized as a part of this important operation were selling drugs manufactured overseas without FDA supervision to people who didn’t necessarily have prescriptions, and who can’t be sure they are actually receiving the drug they thought they were ordering," Walsh said.  "Over 1,600 websites have been shut down ensuring that the public does not accidentally purchase a counterfeit or misbranded drug.”

      A massive federal sting operation has closed down more than 1,600 illegal pharmacy websites that claimed to be based in Canada but were allegedly in the U....
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