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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...

    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 LoanLove.com

      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 www.annualcreditreport.com – 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...

      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 NextAdvisor.com 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...

      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 MyOwnLittleStory.com, 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 MyOwnLittleStory.com, it seems ...

      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...

      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...

      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...

      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....

      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...

      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 CardHub.com 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...

      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 ...

      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...

      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 ...

      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 www.us-immigration.com. 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 ImmigrationDirect.com 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 www.uscis.gov. 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...

      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...

      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...