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What is a college degree worth in today's job market?

With jobs harder to find, the debate is heating up

The cost of a four-year college education keeps going up. Over the last four years it seems the number of jobs – at least full time ones – has ...

PhotoThe cost of a four-year college education keeps going up. Over the last four years it seems the number of jobs – at least fulltime ones – has been going down. It's led many, including former Education Secretary William Bennett, to question whether college is worth the cost.

In his book, "Is College Worth It?" Bennett raises a question that a lot of recent graduates may be asking themselves. After getting a bachelors degree and running up thousands of dollars in student loans, they may be working as retail clerks, right alongside their peers who didn't go to college.

Bennett concluded that a degree from some colleges might be worth the cost while degrees from others most definitely are not. And he isn't the only one to weigh in on the topic.

Debate

When U.S. News threw out the question – is college worth it – on its Debate Club website, it drew diverse responses and a two-to-one margin of replies endorsing a college degree. Craig Brandon, author of "The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up On Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It," was among those voting no.

“Four to six years of partying do not equal an education,” he wrote.

But Chris Farrell, Economics Editor of Marketplace Money, was among those voting yes.

“The return on investment in postsecondary education remains compelling,” he wrote.

Salary study

At this point, many career counselors tend to agree with Farrell. A study by the job-matching service TheLadders found that people with a four-year degree earn, on average, $215,000 more than people without college, over a 20-year period.

The study, based on data from its more than six million users, found a graduate degree is even more valuable. Someone with a masters degree or higher earned an average of $440,000 more than non-graduates over the same two-decade span.

The difference, however, may not be evident right away. Graduates could see their compensation grow exponentially as the years pass. While the immediate benefit of a college degree seems nonexistent, the big payoff is typically seen over the course of a long career, the company says.

"TheLadders' study proves that an undergraduate degree is beneficial and promotes growth over time during any career," said Amanda Augustine, job search expert for TheLadders. "If you're wondering whether to go back and finish your four-year degree, this new information encourages you to take the plunge."

Paying for college

First, however, you should probably figure out how you are going to pay for it. In early 2013 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) estimated the outstanding student loan total in the U.S. exceeded $1 trillion. In a more recent report, the CFPB said over seven million borrowers were in default on a federal or private student loans.

The lesson here is to not get over-extended. Know what your costs are going to be, where the money will come from, and if you have to pay it back, how you'll do it.

Finally, there should be a compelling reason to go to college, whether you are going right out of high school or returning after a few years in the military or work force. What are you going to study and how is that going to help you advance in a career?

Without good answers to those questions, experts say you may in fact be wasting money. The job market has changed and doesn't have a rewarding job waiting for everyone who gets a college degree.   

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Aloe vera juice -- is it really a good idea?

Walmart touts its "health benefits" but NIH warns it causes intestinal cancer in rats

One of the latest supposed health crazes is drinks made from aloe vera -- you know, that stuff that's in shampoo and skin cream. But is this really somethi...

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Fat & fit? Study says it's not impossible

Inflammatory markers may more precisely identify those prone to disease

Remember the firestorm of derision New Jersey Gov. Chris Christy brought down on himself when he claimed to be fat but fit? It turns out the governor may h...

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Gov. Christie on NBC's "Tonight" show. (Photo credit: NBC)
Remember the firestorm of derision New Jersey Gov. Chris Christy brought down on himself when he claimed to be fat but fit? It turns out the governor may have been onto something.

"I'm the healthiest fat guy you've ever seen," Christie bristled after former White House physician Connie Mariano publicly voiced concern about his weight. 

And sure enough, a new study accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM) finds that "healthy obesity" does indeed exist and recommends that doctors take the concept more seriously to ensure that those at greatest risk of obesity-related disease get the treatment they need.

While obesity is generally linked to a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, some people who are obese don't develop high blood pressure and unfavorable cholesterol profiles -- factors that increase the risk of metabolic diseases. This phenomenon is described as metabolically healthy obesity. 

The article estimates that as many as 35% of obese people may be metabolically healthy and asserts that a person's "inflammatory profile" is the key.

Inflammatory markers

"In our study, metabolically healthy people -- both obese and non-obese -- had lower levels of a range of inflammatory markers," said the study's lead author, Catherine Phillips, BSc, PhD, of University College Cork in Ireland. "Regardless of their body mass index, people with favorable inflammatory profiles also tended to have healthy metabolic profiles."

The cross-sectional study looked at 2,040 participants an Irish diabetes and heart disease study and examined the subjects' inflammatory markers. People who were metabolically healthy -- a group that included both obese and lean individuals -- had reduced counts of white blood cells and acute-phase response proteins, which proliferate when inflammation occurs. 

The study could help identify those who are likely to develop diabetes and heart disease, researchers said. 

"From a public health standpoint, we need better methods for identifying which obese people face the greatest risk of diabetes and heart disease," Phillips said. "Inflammatory markers offer a potential strategy for pinpointing people who could benefit most from medical interventions."

Besides identifying those at risk, the study of inflammatory markers could also help those who are not at risk avoid expensive and risky surgery and other treatments that they may not need, the researchers said.

But as for Gov. Christie, he may have taken Dr. Mariano's advice to heart, even though he dismissed her as a "hack." The potential GOP presidential candidate underwent lap-band surgery six months ago and, although he won't discuss how much weight he's lost, he is noticeably thinner these days. 

Ah, but how about his inflammation markers? 

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Don't confuse store brands with generics

Both both may offer significant cost savings without sacrificing quality

To save money, more and more grocery shoppers pass up the name brand item for the cheaper name they may never have heard of. Consumers often refer to these...

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Ticket agents fined for code-share disclosure violations

The companies failed to disclose how the flights were being operated

Violation of the Transportation Department’s (DOTs) rules on disclosure of code-share flights is costing three companies nearly $200,00. DOT levied a $10...

PhotoViolation of the Transportation Department’s (DOTs) rules on disclosure of code-share flights is costing three companies nearly $200,00. 

DOT levied a $100,000 fine against Liberty Travel and $40,000 fines against both STA Travel and AAA Mid-Atlantic. In addition, it ordered all three to cease and desist from further violations. The amount of the fines was based on the specific circumstances of the individual cases.

“When passengers buy an airline ticket, they have a right to know which airline will be operating their flight,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “We will continue to make sure that all companies selling air transportation are transparent with consumers and comply with our code-share disclosure rules.”

Seat-selling procedures

Under code-sharing, an airline will sell seats on flights using its designator code but the flights are operated by a separate airline. 

Enforcement action is taken based on consumer complaints and DOT’s own internal investigations. In this case, the Aviation Enforcement Office made telephone calls to a number of agents this past January and February and inquired about booking certain flights.

During these calls, the reservations agents for all three companies failed to disclose that the flights were being operated under code-share arrangements. They identified only the name of the marketing airline and not the corporate name of the airline operating the flight or any other name under which the flight was marketed.

This violated DOT rules requiring airlines and ticket agents to inform consumers if a flight is operated under a code-share arrangement, as well as disclose the corporate name of the transporting airline and any other name under which the flight is offered to the public.

DOT has now issued four fines for code-sharing violations this year, following a $60,000 penalty on May 23 against ticket agent JTB USA .

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Same-sex marriages to get equal federal tax treatment

The decision follows the Supreme Court decision on theDefense of Marriage Act

In the eyes of the federal government, all marriages are created equal when it comes to taxes. Both the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Servic...

PhotoIn the eyes of the federal government, all marriages are created equal when it comes to taxes.

Both the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have ruled that same-sex couples -- legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriages -- will be treated as married for federal tax purposes.

And, it doesn't matter whether the couple lives in a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage or one  that does not.

In line with the high court

The ruling implements federal tax aspects of the June 26 Supreme Court decision invalidating a key provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Under that ruling, same-sex couples will be treated as married for all federal tax purposes, including income and gift and estate taxes. The ruling applies to all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor, including filing status, claiming personal and dependency exemptions, taking the standard deduction, employee benefits, contributing to an IRA and claiming the earned income tax credit or child tax credit.

Exceptions

Any same-sex marriage legally entered into in one of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, a U.S. territory or a foreign country will be covered by the ruling. However, the ruling does not apply to registered domestic partnerships, civil unions or similar formal relationships recognized under state law.

Legally-married same-sex couples generally must file their 2013 federal income tax return using either the married filing jointly or married filing separately filing status.

Individuals who were in same-sex marriages may, but are not required to, file original or amended returns choosing to be treated as married for federal tax purposes for one or more prior tax years still open under the statute of limitations.

An element of time

Generally, the statute of limitations for filing a refund claim is three years from the date the return was filed or two years from the date the tax was paid, whichever is later. As a result, refund claims can still be filed for tax years 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Some taxpayers may have special circumstances, such as signing an agreement with the IRS to keep the statute of limitations open, that permit them to file refund claims for tax years 2009 and earlier.

Additionally, employees who purchased same-sex spouse health insurance coverage from their employers on an after-tax basis may treat the amounts paid for that coverage as pre-tax and excludable from income.

What to do

Taxpayers who want to file a refund claim for income taxes should use Form 1040X, Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.

Taxpayers who wish to file a refund claim for gift or estate taxes should file Form 843, Claim for Refund and Request for Abatement. For information on filing an amended return, see Tax Topic 308, Amended Returns, available on IRS.gov, or the instructions to Forms 1040X and 843. Information on where to file your amended returns is available in the instructions to the form.

Treasury and the IRS will begin applying the terms of Revenue Ruling 2013-17 on Sept. 16, 2013, but taxpayers who wish to rely on the terms of the Revenue Ruling for earlier periods may choose to do so, as long as the statute of limitations for the earlier period has not expired.

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Cycle Gear recalls motorcycle helmets

Some of the headgear does not comply with federal safety standards

Cycle Gear is recalling 222 Street & Steel brand Big Bore model motorcycle helmets, sizes Extra Small and Small, manufactured in December 2012. Durin...

PhotoCycle Gear is recalling 222 Street & Steel brand Big Bore model motorcycle helmets, sizes Extra Small and Small, manufactured in December 2012.

During testing, some of the affected helmets did not comply with the dwell time requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 218, "Motorcycle Helmets." In the event of a crash, the wearer may not be adequately protected, increasing the risk of injury.

Cycle Gear will notify owners and provide a replacement helmet or reimbursement. The recall is expected to begin in September 2013.

Owners may contact Cycle Gear by calling 1-800-292-5343 or emailing at customerservice@cyclegear.com.

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Westlake Foods expands pork product recall

Two more products have been added to an earlier list

Westlake Foods of Santa Ana, Calif., is expanding an earlier recall of cured pork products to include and additional 69,123 pounds products. The...

PhotoWestlake Foods of  Santa Ana, Calif., is expanding an earlier recall of cured pork products to include and additional 69,123 pounds products.

The additional products, like those in the initial recall, contain wheat and soy, allergens which are not declared on the labels.

The expanded recall includes the following products: 

  • 12-lb. blocks of “PATE GAN TAY HO LIVERWURST SPREAD” distributed in cases for restaurant and wholesale use nationwide.
  • 6-oz. cups of “PATE GAN TAY HO LIVERWURST SPREAD” distributed at retail, restaurants and wholesale locations nationwide.

The following products were named in the earlier recall: 

  • 11-lb. to 13-lb. cases of “Tay Ho Cured Pork Artificially Colored.” This product was distributed for institutional use nationwide.     
  • 14-oz. packages of “Tay Ho Cured Pork Sausage With Pork Ears And Snouts.” This product was distributed for retail sales nationwide.
  • 11-lb. to 13-lb. cases of “Don Cafe Cured Pork Meat and Binder Product Pork skin added.” This product was distributed for institutional use in the Houston, Texas area.

All of the products bear the establishment number “EST. 1627A” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. They can be further identified by a case code “213001” through “213234.” All products were produced between Jan. 1, 2013, and Aug. 22, 2013. 

The problem is believed to have occurred due to a change in the company’s spice mix, which was not reflected on the products’ labels.

There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. 

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Thuy Nguyen, Secretary, at (714) 973-2286.

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Beijing Capital Tyre recalls Autoguard tires

The tires contain incorrect maximum load load data on the sidewall

Beijing Capital Tyre Co. (BCT) is recalling 2,711 Autoguard LT245/75R16 tires manufactured June 25th, 2012, through November 11th, 2012. These tires faile...

PhotoBeijing Capital Tyre Co. (BCT) is recalling 2,711 Autoguard LT245/75R16 tires manufactured June 25th, 2012, through November 11th, 2012.

These tires failed the endurance test standards of FMVSS 139 and contain incorrect maximum load load data on the sidewall. Thus, these tires fail to to comply to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 139, "New Pneumatic Radial Tires for Light Vehicles."

During use, the tires may crack in the tread area leading to sudden air loss, and tire failure. Additionally, owners may unknowingly overload the tires which may lead to tire failure. Either condition increases the risk of a crash.

Beijing Capital Tyre will notify owners and dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on September 2, 2013.

Owners may contact Tire & Wheel Master at 1-209-465-9000.

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Lone Star Western Beef recalls beef jerky products

The product was not processed at the correct temperature to ensure safety

Lone Star Western Beef of Fairmont, W.Va., is recalling approximately 109 pounds of beef jerky products due to a processing deviation....

PhotoLone Star Western Beef of Fairmont, W.Va., is recalling approximately 109 pounds of beef jerky products due to a processing deviation.

An inspector reviewing processing records found that the beef jerky was not processed at the correct temperature to ensure that the ready-to-eat product was safe to consume.

There have been no reports of illnesses due to consumption of these products.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 1-oz., 3-oz. and 16-oz. packages of “Lone Star Western Beef Inc. W.V. Original Beef Jerky.” 

The products were produced on Aug. 12, 2013, and bear the establishment number “EST. 19563” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. The 16-oz. package can be further identified by the package code “081213.” The products were shipped to a distributor in North Central West Virginia and sold to retail stores.     

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact John Bachman, Lone Star Western Beef, Inc.’s Owner, at 1-800-332-4305.

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Vitamix recalls 64-ounce low profile blender container

The blade can break, creating a laceration hazard

Vita-Mix Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio, is recalling about 169,000 Vita mix 64-ounce low profile blender containers in the U.S and Canada.The bla...

PhotoVita-Mix Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio, is recalling about 169,000 Vitamix 64-ounce low profile blender containers in the U.S and Canada.

The blade can break, creating a laceration hazard to consumers. The company has received 18 reports of blades breaking.  No injuries have been reported.

The recall involves Vitamix 64-ounce Low-Profile containers with blade part number 103208 A and blade date codes 03-12 (March 2012) through 07-13 (July 2013). The blade part number and date code are laser etched onto the top of the blade at the bottom of the container.  The clear, plastic, 64-ounce container with black plastic handle and lid was sold with Vitamix blender models 7500, Professional Series 300, Professional Series 750 and individually.  Replacement blades with part number 104602 A are not affected.

The containers, manufactured in the U.S, were sold at major retailers nationwide and online at vitamix.com from April 2012, to August 2013, for about $529 to $749 with different model base or $149 for the container alone.  Products were also sold through show demonstrators, who demonstrate products at retail outlets, consumer shows, fairs and other venues.

Consumers should stop using the recalled container immediately and contact Vitamix for instructions on how to send back the container (without the lid or any accessories) to the firm for a free repair.  
Consumers may contact Vitamix toll-free at (888) 350-4386 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. ET on Saturdays.

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Boomers and Gen-Xers: Two different takes on retirement

The generations are at different stages, but both need to have plans

Everyone, if they live long enough, will look forward to retirement but not everyone is at the same place when it comes to building a retirement strategy. ...

PhotoEveryone, if they live long enough, will look forward to retirement but not everyone is at the same place when it comes to building a retirement strategy. What is right for a 60-year old Baby Boomer is probably not right for a 40-year old Gen-Xer.

Even among people the same age group, there is no such things as a one-size-fits-all approach to retirement planning. And it's definitely different for Boomers and Gen-Xers. Michelle Perry Higgins, a principal at Maloon Powers Pitrie & Higgins California Financial Advisors, in San Ramon, Calif., says Boomers should be focused on aligning their financial plans with their retirement plans.

“Having a strong financial plan in place, well in advance of retirement, will answer the questions as to when they will be able to retire and what retirement will look like for them,” Higgins said.

After all, the greatest retirement plan in the world is worthless if there isn't a solid financial plan to back it up. It serves as sort of a reality check.

Shows what you need to do

“For example, if a Boomer’s financial plan shows that they have not saved enough into their retirement plan, then they should decrease current spending and increase retirement savings,” Higgins said. “Similarly, if their financial plan dictates that downsizing their home needs to occur, then they should take action to ease the stress of that transition.”

What should be in the financial plan? For Boomers, it's important to have a well-diversified portfolio at this point. Their time line is much shorter, and shrinking.

“They definitely took the brunt of the Great Recession,” Higgins said. “For those who had strong defensive barriers, bonds and cash equivalents, it was easier to sleep at night when the equity markets were having tantrums. For all Boomers, maxing out their 401(k) pre-tax allowable limit, along with their catch-up is usually a must on my list.”

The oldest Boomers are already at retirement age. The youngest are turning 50. They still have some flexibility in planning their retirement but should take advantage of that extra time.

Gen-X

PhotoGen-Xers, those in their late 40s and younger, have an advantage of even more time. Higgins recommends members of this generation get serious about eliminating debt – paying down credit cards, student loans, car loans and living in a home with a mortgage they can comfortably afford.

Of course, many Gen-Xers still have a lot of family responsibilities that have an impact on finances.

“College costs have increased dramatically and retirement for Gen-Xers will only be attainable by adequately preparing for their children’s higher education expenses,” Higgins said. “Without good preparation, paying those college costs could delay retirement for the parents. Instead of being overwhelmed by college expenditures and ignoring what will be coming, Gen-Xers need to address it head on.”

That means sticking to budgets and putting away money for both retirement and education – sometimes hard to do at the same time. Over the last several years much of the coverage of retirement issues has focused on Boomers, but the generation behind them has quietly been working on a plans of their own, and going about it a little differently.

High on Roth IRAs

“Gen-Xers seem to have latched on to Roth IRAs, which are a wonderful savings vehicle, overall,” Higgins said. “One of the shortcomings of this type of savings plan is that the Roth limits are not as high as the 401(k) federal limits.”

Unlike a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA), contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax deductible when you make them. But unlike a traditional IRA, withdrawals are not taxed when you start making them in retirement. That allows the investments in the account to grow and provide tax-free income in retirement.

Higgins says she also sees Gen-Xers flocking to mutual funds, which offer a variety of investment options. And many are making every penny count.

“Gen-Xers are smart and have gravitated toward no-load funds which, in my opinion, is a prudent move,” she said.  

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DHS cops roust doctors, parents holding news conference at HHS

Public Citizen was airing concerns over ethical standards covering testing on infants

The Department of Homeland Security descended on a press conference being conducted by Public Citizen outside the Washington offices of the U.S. Department...

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Cops stand around after rousting news conference from HHS Hq

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) descended on a press conference being conducted by Public Citizen outside the Washington offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) yesterday.

With sirens blaring, about ten black DHS SUVs raced up to the HHS building, participants in the news conference said.

The end result of all the commotion and disruption? The doctors, scientists, parents and at least one disabled child picked up their belongings and moved about 70 feet from the steps of the HHS building onto the sidewalk as the armed DHS police "guarded" the building. Meanwhile, HHS employees lounged on the steps nearby eating their lunch.

It's OK, apparently, for federal workers to sit on the steps doing nothing but not for others to venture onto public property to air concerns and grievances.

Tests on infants

The news conference involved tests being conducted on premature infants under grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Public Citizens wants the tests halted until it can be determined that parents have been adequately informed of the dangers. The group also wants HHS to strengthen ethical and regulatory standards for research carried out on humans.

HHS convened an unusual public forum on the topic yesterday and Public Citizen says it fears the agency is trying to drum up support for weakening existing standards.

“The fact that HHS is having a public discussion about this indicates that an enormous amount of pressure is being brought to bear by people who are trying to weaken the current standards of research with human subjects,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. 

Publicity generated by Public Citizen over what it says was an unethical trial, known as the SUPPORT study, prompted HHS to convene the unusual public forum at its headquarters. The meeting is designed to solicit comments from experts and the public about what risks should be disclosed to participants when research is focused on the so-called “standard of care” treatment given patients for a particular condition.

Risk of blindness, death

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Carrie Pratt, who was beginning to speak when the DHS police arrived.

In the SUPPORT study, which took place from 2005-2009 and was funded by the NIH, 1,316 premature infants were exposed to an increased risk of blindness, brain injury and death as researchers tested two experimental approaches for managing oxygen therapy, Public Citizen said.

Carrie and Shawn Pratt, parents of a baby enrolled in the trial, came from their home in Kingwood, W.Va. to speak at the HHS meeting. They were accompanied by Dagen, now 6, who required surgery early in life for an eye disease known as retinopathy of prematurity and who now suffers from cerebral palsy.

“The SUPPORT study looked good on paper,” Carrie Pratt said. “We were told that it wouldn’t hurt Dagen in any way. We were shocked to learn that the care she received was based not on what she needed but on what some protocol dictated. Had we known of the risks, we never would have agreed to have her be in the trial.”

“The SUPPORT study may represent the tip of the iceberg with the problems in contemporary medical research,” said Alice Dreger, Ph.D., professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, who spoke at the press conference. “Here, as so many times in the history of American medical research, the consent process failed.”

"It is unclear how much input HHS really wants," Public Citizen said in a statement. "Many people in Washington, D.C., are out of town in August because that is when Congress is out of session. In addition, HHS chose to hold the meeting on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington."

 

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Bedbugs headed back to school too

The pest is expected to show up in dormitories this fall

Bedbugs were once a common problem in the U.S., but after World War II and a public health campaign that included heavy use of pesticides, the problem of t...

PhotoBedbugs were once a common problem in the U.S., but after World War II and a public health campaign that included heavy use of pesticides, the little pests largely disappeared.

Until recently. Over the last decade the bedbug has made a strong rebound in the U.S., with infestations of urban hotel rooms getting the most publicity. And not just the seedy, rundown establishments. In July a California woman sued the Renaissance Marriott Hotel in Palm Springs, claiming she was bitten by bed bugs more than 400 times while sleeping at the hotel.

It's not just hotels that are a favorite gathering place for these creatures. Pest control provider Terminix says students returning to college should be aware that bedbugs are infesting dormitories and apartment buildings, anywhere people are living in close quarters.

'Don't let the bedbugs bite'

Besides being creepy, bedbugs do, in fact, bite. When they bite, they suck human blood, just as mosquitoes do. They're most active at night and are most likely to feast on any exposed areas of skin while someone is asleep. The face, neck, hands, and arms are favorite areas for bedbug bites.

The bite doesn't hurt but can cause itching. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bedbugs are not known to spread disease or present a public health hazard. Still, if you can keep bedbugs out of your living space it's probably highly desirable to do so.

How do you know you have bedbugs? You aren't likely to see them during the day but you may find evidence. There may be brown spots on bedding, tiny blood smears on sheets and – in the case of heavy infestations – a strong, musty odor.

Despite popular belief, Terminix says bedbugs aren't a sign of unsanitary conditions. Instead, they tend to be attracted to places where there are a lot of people who come and go. Dorm rooms and hotels fall into that category. So do libraries.

High-traffic areas

Dorms are vulnerable because a lot of people are in transit over the summer months. They are often used to house students or others who are visiting the campus for a week or two at a time. You may be returning to your same dorm room after the summer break but many others will likely have stayed there over the summer.

Once bedbugs find a spot they like they tend to spread out. They can spread from one room to the next by crawling through wall cracks and under baseboards. This means your neighbor's infestation could end up being your infestation.

"Bedbugs continue to have a significant presence across the country, particularly on college campuses, and pose concern for public health," said Stan Cope, PhD and entomologist with Terminix. "Bedbug infestations can cause emotional stress and irritability, which is the last thing students need to deal with on top of their heavy workloads. If you think you have an issue with bedbugs, you should immediately have the facility manager or resident assistant contact a professional to treat your living space."

What to do

To make your room less inviting to bedbugs, Terminix suggests using zippered encasements on bed mattresses and box springs, since bedbugs particularly like to set up shop in bedding. Keep your clothes off the floor since bedbugs are more likely to climb on things at ground level.

Everyone wants to save money but you might be advised to take a pass on the used mattress and box springs advertised on craigslist. You never know what extras you might be getting with it. That actually goes for all sorts of used items. Be careful about bringing used books, backpacks, bedding and clothing into your apartment or dorm.

The best course of action is to avoid bedbugs in the first place. Once you have them, they are notoriously difficult to get rid of.

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Court boots hotel owner's lawsuit challenging TripAdvisor

Grand Resort Hotel was described as "one of America's dirtiest"

A Tennessee hotel owner who sued TripAdvisor for $10 million has been told there's no room for him in court. A federal judge dismissed the suit filed by Ke...

PhotoA Tennessee hotel owner who sued TripAdvisor for $10 million has been told there's no room for him in court. A federal judge dismissed the suit filed by Kenneth Seaton, owner of the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, who objected to his hotel being described as "one of America's dirtiest."

Seaton filed for defamation after his hotel in the Great Smoky Mountains top TripAdvisor's 2011 list of America's dirtiest hotels. The hotel closed last year and has since reopened under new management, but still ranks poorly on TripAdvisor. It's ranked 89 out of 94 hotels in Pigeon Force, with travelers posting comments including "Absolute dump" and "Dirty room, unsafe pool."

Seaton said the rating was the product of a flawed system dependent on "unsubstantiated rumors" but TripAdvisor said the ranking was based on traveler ratings for cleanliness.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Wednesday said travelers could not reasonably interpret the ranking as a statement that Grand Resort was in fact "America's dirtiest hotel," and that website operators deserve broad protection from lawsuits over reader-generated reviews.

Judge Karen Nelson Moore said "dirtiest" amounted to "rhetorical hyperbole," and that the general tenor of the list showed that it was also meant to entertain.

Comments about other hotels on the list included such snipes as "probably more sanitary to sleep in the bathroom" and "camp out on the beach instead."

The ranking "is not capable of being understood as defamatory," Moore wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. 

Of the 321 reviews on TripAdvisor, 265 rated the hotel as "poor" or "terrible" and many posted unflattering photos of dirty rooms, ripped bedsheets and soiled carpets.

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Toyota developing wireless battery charging system for plug-in Prius

The company says the next Toyota Prius will get even better fuel economy

There are wireless chargers for smartphones, so why not for cars? That seems to be the thinking at Toyota, which will begin testing a wireless battery-char...

PhotoThere are wireless chargers for smartphones, so why not for cars? That seems to be the thinking at Toyota, which will begin testing a wireless battery-charging system for plug-in hybrids next year.

And Toyota executives say that's not all. The next Prius will get significantly better fuel mileage in a package that's described as lighter and more compact.

Company officials held a press briefing in Ypsilanti, Mich., today to give reporters a look at what's on their agenda for the next few years, Automotive News reported.

"The performance of this next generation of powertrains will reflect significant advances in battery, electric motor and gas engine technologies," said Satoshi Ogiso, managing officer of Toyota Motor Corp. But Ogiso said that while the hybrid components will be shrinking, the size of the vehicle itself won't change.

Fuel economy is also expected to improve from its current 50 miles per gallon perhaps reaching 55 mpg, which would be a ten percent improvement.

Ogiso said Toyota's next generation of batteries will have higher energy density. While the next generation is likely to be lithium-ion and nickel-metal-hydride, future batteries will likely be based on solid state, lithium-air and magnesium, he said. 

Prius is the leader in conventional gas-electric hybrids but Toyota trails GM, Nissan and Tesla in fully-electric cars.

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Military retirees sue retirement home chain

The veterans say they were lured into rent they can't afford

A lawsuit charges that a nationwide chain of retirement homes preys on elderly veterans, luring them into expensive housing plans on the promise that their...

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The economy steps it up

Government figures show a solid pickup in growth

Things seem to be going a lot better for the economy than recent reports would indicate. In it's second look at second-quarter gross domestic product (GDP...

PhotoThings seem to be going a lot better for the economy than recent reports would indicate.

In its second look at second-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States -- the Bureau of Economic Analysis says growth was at an annual rate of 2.5%, not the 1.7% estimated a month ago.

In the first quarter, real GDP increased at an anemic rate of 1.1%.

More info

This latest estimate is based on more complete source data than were available last month. With this second estimate for the second quarter, the increase in exports was larger than previously estimated, and the increase in imports was smaller than previously estimated.

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

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

Jobless claims

PhotoSeparately, the government reports first-time applications for jobless benefits fell by 6,000 in the week ending August 24 --to a seasonally adjusted 331,000.

Analysts at Briefing.com say that level suggests a solid improvement in labor conditions and that monthly nonfarm payroll growth should be in the neighborhood of 200,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and seen as a better gauge of the labor market, rose by 750 -- to 331,250.

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

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Southwest agrees to set 'em up

Long-running bar fight over drink coupons is settled for $29 million

Talk about a bar room brawl. You promise to buy somebody a drink sometime and when you don't, they and all their friends pile onto you.That's basically w...

PhotoTalk about a barroom brawl. You promise to buy somebody a drink sometime and when you don't, they and all their friends pile onto you.

That's basically what happened to Southwest Airlines. For years, it handed out free drink coupons that didn't have an expiration date to its Business Select customers. But then, the bean-counters added up what all those coupons were worth and in August 2010, Southwest announced the old coupons were about as worthless as a Confederate dollar in 1866.

Instead, Southwest said free drink coupons would only be good on the travel day for which they were issued. That incensed those left high and dry and they did what any self-respecting, drink-slinging Texan would do: filed a class-action lawsuit.

The courtroom's swinging doors were kept busy for years until January 2013, when Southwest agreed to set up another round, about 5.8 million drinks, for those deprived of alcoholic solace.

Class members will receive a replacement drink voucher for each unredeemed drink coupon, which expires one year after its date of issuance, and they may sell them or give them away if they do not desire to use them.

Final approval

The tab comes to an estimated $29 million, which is a pretty hefty round of drinks any way you look at it. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly granted final approval of the settlement earlier this week, noting that unlike many class actions, this one actually produces something wet and tangible for consumers. 

He said it a bit more grandly, however: "The key factor in this particular case is that the proposed settlement calls for a full-value, one-to-one reimbursement of drink vouchers for class members and allows class members to sell or otherwise transfer the new vouchers should they desire."

"The fact that they (plaintiffs) get back almost exactly what they lost weighs heavily in favor of approval of the proposed settlement," Kennelly wrote. 

If you find yourself with a fistful of free-drink coupons, you can toast Southwest or Juge Kennelly if you like but you might also raise a glass to Adam Levitt and Herbert Malone, the sorehead consumers who were the named plaintiffs in the case.

It should be a happy day aloft as everyone appears infused with bonhomie. Only 13 class members of 2.4 million objected to the settlement, less than 0.01 percent. After all, who in his right mind would turn down a free drink?

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Pride Foods recalls of beef pattie and chub products

The products contain soy, an allergen not declared on the labels.

Pride Foods of, Raiford, Fla., is recalling approximately 116,404 pounds of beef pattie and chub products.The products contain soy, a known allergen...

PhotoPride Foods of, Raiford, Fla., is recalling approximately 116,404 pounds of beef pattie and chub products.

The products contain soy, a known allergen which is not declared on the labels. The problem is believed to have occurred due to an oversight after using a unique label for one customer.  

There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 10-lb. cases of 3, 4, and 6 oz. “Savory Beef Patties.” These products were exported to the Bahamas and distributed throughout the Caribbean.
  • 10-lb. cases of 4 oz. “Beef Patties.” This product was exported to the Bahamas and distributed throughout the Caribbean.
  • 24-lb. cases of 1 lb. “Beef Pattie Mix” chubs. This product was distributed to a food bank in Pennsylvania.

The products bear the establishment number “EST. 18506” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. All products were produced between Dec. 1, 2012, and Aug. 27, 2013. 

Consumers with questions should contact Ryan Yax, Manager, at (813) 890-6541.

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Baby Jogger recalls car seat adaptors

The support bars can fail, posing a fall hazard to children

Baby Jogger of Richmond, Va., is recalling about 30,000 car seat adaptors for strollers on the U.S. and Canada. The car seat adaptor support bars can fail...

PhotoBaby Jogger of Richmond, Va., is recalling about 30,000 car seat adaptors for strollers on the U.S. and Canada.

The car seat adaptor support bars can fail, posing a fall hazard to children.  The company has received 47 reports of the car seat adaptor supports bars failing and car seats falling to the floor. Reports include two injured infants with bruises to the head and toes.

The car seat adaptors come in three models and are used to secure a variety of infant car seats onto Baby Jogger strollers. The “Single” model fits all single strollers, the “Double” works only on double strollers and the “Select/Versa” fits Select and Versa strollers.  The car seat adaptors consist of two U-shaped, black, aluminum support bars and two black plastic adaptors that allow the support bars to attach onto the stroller. Black nylon straps secure the car seat to the adaptor on the stroller. The black support bars are labeled A and B.  The A support bar is the larger of the two U-shaped bars and has a red plastic tip with 10 holes.

Newer models have only four holes and are not being recalled. The model number is located on the lower right hand corner of the original package and the manufacturing date can be found on a sticker on the bottom of the package.

Item Description

Model Numbers

Manufactured Dates

Car Seat Adaptor for 
Single Strollers

BJ90121

Manufactured between April 1,  2012 and Sept 20, 2012; 
dates appear as year, month day, e.g.: “2012.09.20”

Car Seat Adaptor for 
Double Stroller

BJ90221

Car Seat Adaptor for 
Select/Versa Strollers

BJ90321

The adaptors, manufactured in China, were sold at Buy Buy Baby and other juvenile product stores nationwide and at albeebaby.com, amazon.com, buybuybaby.com, diapers.com and other online retailers from June 2012 through June 2013 for about $60 for the single adaptor and $100 for the double adaptor.  

Consumers should immediately stop using their car seat adaptor and contact Baby Jogger for free replacement support bars.   

Consumers may contact Baby Jogger toll-free at (877) 506-2213 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET , or email recall@babyjogger.com.

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Maximizing your points, rewards and other perks

Expert says you should manage them like any other asset

In the competition for customers, banks and credit cards tend to offer their customers incentives that can add up to cash or discounts on purchases. A savv...

PhotoIn the competition for customers, banks and credit cards tend to offer their customers incentives that can add up to cash or discounts on purchases. A savvy consumer should understand how they work and how they can best work for you.

The travel industry pioneered many of these rewards programs. Airlines offer “miles” for each dollar spent. Those miles can eventually add up to a free ticket.

Hotels offer points for nights stayed. Stay enough nights at a particular chain and you could earn a free night.

In the financial services industry credit cards often provide points for purchases. The points can accumulate and eventually be redeemed for products, services and even cash.

Managing your rewards

Whether or not you think much about it, you should be managing these programs to maximize your benefit. So says Alex Matjanec, co-founder of MyBankTracker.com, who points to last week's announcement by PerkStreet Financial that it's closing its doors, as a key lesson for consumers when it comes to managing their rewards.

PerkStreet offered a no-fee debit card – incentive enough for most consumers. But to sweeten the deal further, it also offered rebates on purchases, returning as much as two percent to the purchaser.

When PerkStreet announced it was no longer able to operate, many cardholders were outraged because they lost their rewards. Some had as much as $500 in cash rewards that is now gone.

“My response to them is, why are you treating your rewards program as a savings account? That money should have been moved to another account every month,” Matjanec said.

Beyond that he says consumers should understand what it takes to earn rewards. For example, with credit cards you don't earn your rewards on purchases until you pay the balance.

How you can lose

Photo“If you, for some reason, don't pay your credit card bill for a couple of months and they decide to cut your credit limit and you are no long eligible for this card, they can kick you out of the program and you lose your card,” Matjanec said. “Well, you can lose your points instantly as well. “Just spending money isn't enough. You have to pay off your credit card.”

Matjanec says he expects rewards programs will become more the province of credit card companies rather than banks. Credit card companies have a lot of experience with the concept, more so than banks. Credit card companies offer their perks on purchases, transactions on which they are making money. Banks, on the other hand, have used rewards to attract depositors – and sometimes it has worked too well.

Take the bank that offers three percent on its checking account if you meet a certain number of requirements. It hoped to gain new depositors from competitors but its current customers liquidated their CDs and poured tens of thousands of dollars into their checking accounts.

Unsustainable

“If you compare this rewards system to a high-yield checking account that credit unions and lot of local banks are offering, they have certain requirements to meet in order to get that high interest rate,” Matjanec said. “But as more and more people signed up it became unsustainable at that level.”

After PerkStreet, Matjanec expects to see fewer rewards programs offered by banks, certainly not from start-up banks. Instead, he says banks may return more to the basics.

“They're going to need to focus on consumer attraction and consumer experience,” he said. “Banks will try to help you save money by thinking about money differently and changing your behavior. They don't want to reward you for just spending your money. That's what credit cards are for.”

At the same time, consumers continue to leave banks in droves. The “unbanked” population is growing by leaps and bounds. Matjanec sees two reasons for the exodus.

“The first is they don't want to deal with the banks,” he said. “They are more comfortable with prepaid cards, which are a pay as you go model. The second is, the banking rules have gotten so confusing and there are so many fees that they never know when they are going to get hit.”

Prepaid cards offer more control

A checking account punishes you for not meeting certain requirements. A prepaid card punishes you for using the product too much.

“In people's minds I think they think it is easier for them to control how they use the card and control their fees.”

Consumers who are still doing business with a bank but are sometimes frustrated by the fees may not really understand the ins and outs of the product, Matjanec says. His advice? Take the time to actually read the terms and conditions and understand the rules.

“A bank account is much like an insurance policy or any form of contract,” he said. “You need to read the fine print and understand it.”

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Homeland Security: Android platform attracts the most malware

Syrian attacks on New York Times could have exposed readers to malware

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has released a new report that highlights the fact that Google’s Android platform accounts for the...

PhotoGoogle's Android platform is getting a bad rap from the feds. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says in a new report the Android platform accounts for the majority -- 79% -- of mobile malware and warns government agencies to install antivirus software on their Android devices as a precaution.

Mobile and online security is getting to be serious business, as the Syrian Electronic Army vows to step up its attacks on major American sites if the U.S. takes measures against Syria. The group claimed responsibility for yesterday's attacks on The New York Times site, which experts said could have exposed readers to dangerous malware.  

The DHS report warns federal, state and local authorities about the dangers of security vulnerabilities. The report notes that 44% of Android users are still running an outdated version of the operating system known as “Gingerbread,” which includes a number of security issues.

"The growing use of mobile devices by federal, state, and local authorities makes it more important than ever to keep mobile OS patched and up-to-date," DHS said. 

Syrian attacks

PhotoYesterday's attack on the Times site was particularly vigorous. The site was unavailable for much of the day, as hackers got control of the Domain Name System and redirected the www.nytimes.com URL to servers allegedly controlled by the Syrian Electronic Army.

Would-be readers who landed on the SEA-controlled site could have been exposed to malware, experts warned.

Twitter, the Huffington Post and some other media companies also lost control of their sites during the attacks yesterday.

The Times attack was particularly upsetting to security experts, who said the Times has put a lot of effort into making its system secure. The hackers made their way into Melbourne IT, an Australian company that hosts the Times' DNS servers.

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Facebook releases spy data; ACLU files opening brief

Facebook says it granted about 20,000 data requests from the U.S. in the first half of 2013

Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, now hiding out in Russia, charges that major Internet companies routinely hand over data on millions of thei...

Photo
A Facebook data center (Facebook photo)

Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, now hiding out in Russia, charges that major Internet companies routinely hand over data on millions of their users to the National Security Agency and other governmental spooks.

Internet companies say the claims are inflated. The latest to respond is Facebook, which yesterday issued its first Global Government Requests Report, detailing the information requests it receives from countries around the world.

The ACLU, meanwhile, last night filed the opening brief in its lawsuit challenging the NSA’s ongoing collection of the call records of virtually everyone in the United States.

"We’re asking the court for a preliminary injunction ordering the government to stop collecting our data and to bar any use of the ACLU call records it already has collected," ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo said in a blog posting.

20,000 requests

In its report, Facebook says it responded to about 20,000 requests for information from United States agencies in the first half of 2013, more than half of the total of about 38,000 requests from 74 governments around the world.

"We want to make sure that the people who use our service understand the nature and extent of the requests we receive and the strict policies and processes we have in place to handle them," Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch in a blog post.

Stretch stressed that Facebook doesn't automatically cave in to the requests.

"We scrutinize each request for legal sufficiency under our terms and the strict letter of the law, and require a detailed description of the legal and factual bases for each request," he said. "We fight many of these requests, pushing back when we find legal deficiencies and narrowing the scope of overly broad or vague requests. When we are required to comply with a particular request, we frequently share only basic user information, such as name."

While the U.S. submitted the most requests, about 12,000, India (3,245), the United Kingdom (1,975) and Germany (1,886) were next.

Program is illegal

PhotoIn its suit, the ACLU says flatly that the NSA's electronic surveillance program is illegal.

"The NSA’s program is illegal because it is not authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act as the government claims, because it invades every American’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy, and because it forces ordinary Americans to pause every time they pick up the phone to consider whether they want the NSA to know whom they’re calling – infringing on the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association," Abdo said.

Abdo said the NSA has built an enormous databased filled with information about every American’s associations and affiliations. He quoted from the brief filed last night: 

Each time a resident of the United States makes a phone call, the NSA records whom she called, when the call was placed, and how long the conversation lasted. The NSA keeps track of when she called the doctor, and which doctor she called; which family members she called, and which she didn’t; which pastor she called, and for how long she spoke to him. It keeps track of whether, how often, and precisely when she called the abortion clinic, the support group for alcoholics, the psychiatrist, the ex-girlfriend, the criminal-defense lawyer, the fortune teller, the suicide hotline, the child-services agency, and the shelter for victims of domestic violence. The NSA keeps track of the same information for each of her contacts, and for each of their contacts. The data collected under the program supplies the NSA with a rich profile of every citizen as well as a comprehensive record of citizens’ associations with one another.

In its response, the government said the case should be dismissed because “persons making telephone calls, even from their own homes, lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers they call.” The government also argued that the ACLU does not have standing to challenge the NSA’s program because, although the government may be collecting its phone records, no one can prove anyone has looked at them.

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State actions against payday lenders prove effective

Western Sky to stop funding loans Sept. 3

Both the states and the federal government have jurisdiction when it comes to policing the payday loan industry, to ensure consumers are protected against...

PhotoBoth the states and the federal government have jurisdiction when it comes to policing the payday loan industry, to ensure consumers are protected against predatory lending practices.

So far, it appears the states have been a lot more aggressive on the issue than their federal counterparts. A number of states have taken individual actions against these storefront money stores that make small, short-term loans at an interest rate of about 400% APR. In many cases individual lenders have paid a settlement and moved on, business as usual.

Some states don't allow payday lenders inside their borders. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia ban the practice entirely, and nine states allow some limited form of payday lending. These nine states impose restrictions, such as limits on loan amounts, interest rates, loan terms, and the number of loans. Colorado caps APR at 45 percent and in Washington state, a consumer is limited to eight payday loans per year.

Rate caps

The states where payday lenders don't operate have generally enacted a simple 36% APR cap on loans. Payday lenders say the fee on their short term loans would be so small at that rate that it isn't worth doing business in those states. The cap more or less serves as a ban on payday lending.

The Internet has allowed payday lenders to skirt these bans in some respects. If a consumer in a state where payday lending is banned goes online to take out a loan, the lender is physically outside the state's jurisdiction.

Now there are signs that the states are upping the ante, showing a serious determination to cut off payday lending at its source. In early August Benjamin M. Lawsky, New York's Superintendent of Financial Services, sent letters to 35 payday loan companies directing them to cease and desist offering and making usurious payday loans in New York by the Internet or any other means.

Lawsky said New York's ongoing investigation has shown that these companies have charged New York consumers for payday loans with interest rates many times the legal limit. He further warned debt collectors not to try to collect these loans if consumers refuse to pay them back.

Hitting them where it hurts

PhotoThis hits payday lenders where it hurts. They stand to lose hundreds of thousands in loans illegally made to consumers in New York. And it may not stop there. The state of Maryland's chief financial regulator has served notice he plans to go after the banks that lend money to payday lenders.

"Without the payday lender's bank, the payday lender can't operate in my state," Mark Kaufman, Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation and Labor, told the Baltimore Sun.

Virginia recently sued Jupiter Funding Group, LLC , an Internet payday lender, alleging it is making illegal payday loans to Virginia consumers without having a valid state payday loan license.

Lawsky, too, threatened banks with legal action if they did not shut off the money spigot for payday loans. And it appears to be yielding results. This week Western Sky, a major Internet-based payday lender, announced on its website that it would stop funding loans September 3. The announcement follows a lawsuit against the firm, filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, attacking the company's claim of tribal immunity from state usury laws.

“This is a tremendous victory for families in every state,” said Uriah King, Center for Responsible Lending's (CRL) vice president of state policy. “Contrary to payday lender spin, illegal lending can be stopped—and states are leading the way.”

Other states

In fact, several other states have targeted illegal payday loans in recent months, including Arkansas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. West Virginia has been going after payday lenders for years. In 2009, then-West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw successfully sued 12 Internet payday lenders and their collection agencies, with the aim of preventing them from doing business in the state.

In recent years Native American tribes have gotten into partnerships with payday lenders, who then claimed tribal sovereignty exempted them from state usury laws. Threatened with extinction by the new, tougher crackdown, some of these companies have taken court action against New York.

But CRL, which has campaigned for years against payday loans, says it is clear that the momentum on the issue has shifted, and it is the states, not the federal government, that made it happen. But the group says the feds still have a role to play.

“State laws are working, but all Americans deserve protection from abusive payday loans,” said Gary Kalman, CRL’s executive vice president for federal policy. “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should look to states for tested models of effective laws as they develop rules that will protect families nationwide.”

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First look: Google Glass used in surgery at Ohio State

Surgeon confers with colleague during surgery, students watch on their laptops

Google Glass initially appeared to be just another frivolous, time-wasting, geekish gadget but it may turn out to be quite a few practical applications as ...

PhotoGoogle Glass initially appeared to be just another frivolous, time-wasting, geekish gadget but it may turn out to have quite a few practical applications as well. 

Last week, we reported that police and first responders were taking an interest in the tiny device that includes a camera and the ability to quickly look up data, including maps, on the Internet.

And now a surgeon at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center has become the first in the United States to consult with a distant colleague using live, point-of-view video from the operating room via Google Glass.

“To be honest, once we got into the surgery, I often forgot the device was there. It just seemed very intuitive and fit seamlessly,” said Dr. Christopher Kaeding, the physician who performed the surgery and director of sports medicine at Ohio State.

Story continues below video

Kaeding wore the device as he performed ACL surgery on Paula Kobalka, 47, from Westerville, Ohio, who hurt her knee playing softball.  As he performed her operation at a facility on the east side of Columbus, Google Glass showed his vantage point via the internet to audiences miles away.

Across town, one of Kaeding’s Ohio State colleagues, Dr. Robert Magnussen, watched the surgery his office, while on the main campus, several Ohio State medical students watched on their laptops.

“To have the opportunity to be a medical student and share in this technology is really exciting,” said Ryan Blackwell, a second-year medical student who watched the surgery remotely.   “This could have huge implications, not only from the medical education perspective, but because a doctor can use this technology remotely, it could spread patient care all over the world in places that we don’t have it already.”

Experts have theorized that during surgery doctors could use voice commands to instantly call up x-ray or MRI images of their patient, pathology reports or reference materials.  They could collaborate live and face-to-face with colleagues via the internet, anywhere in the world.

 

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Honda Odyssey makes safety history

It's the first minivan to earn the IIHS "TOP SAFETY PICK+" award

For the first time ever, a minivan has earned the top safety designation given by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The 2014 Honda Odysse...

PhotoFor the first time ever, a minivan has earned the top safety designation given by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The 2014 Honda Odyssey scored well in all five IIHS crash evaluations, including the challenging small overlap front test. Vehicles are rated good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in the moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, rollover and rear crash evaluations.

Structural changes highlighted

The 2014 Odyssey is the first minivan to be evaluated in the small overlap front test. Honda asked the institute to test the vehicle to highlight structural changes the automaker made to improve occupant protection in a small overlap front crash. When tests are conducted at a manufacturer's request, the automaker reimburses IIHS for the cost of the vehicle.

Honda introduced the upgraded Odyssey as a 2014 model. While there are no major styling changes, the new model has advanced high-strength steel in the front door frames, floor pan and front wheel wells for a more rigid occupant compartment.

The side curtain airbags extend farther forward to offer comprehensive head protection in both a side crash and a small overlap front crash. Even with these modifications, the Odyssey's weight didn't change much because Honda engineers were able to reduce it elsewhere to compensate for the strengthened structure.

The test

PhotoThe small overlap test was added to the IIHS 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.

In the Odyssey test, the driver's space was maintained reasonably well. Injury measures on the dummy indicated a low risk of injury in a crash of this severity. Because the structure helped keep the steering column stable, the front airbag stayed in front of the driver dummy during the crash to provide good protection. The side curtain airbag deployed and had sufficient forward coverage to protect the head from contact with the side structure and outside objects.

High priority

"Safety is high on the list for parents when it comes to shopping for a family vehicle," says IIHS President Adrian Lund. "Consumers look for models with the highest safety ratings. Honda is ahead of many of its competitors in building state-of-the-art crashworthiness into its vehicles."

Honda and Acura brands have earned six TOP SAFETY PICK+ awards among 20 current models that the Institute has rated. They are the Honda Accord 2-door and 4-door, Civic 2-door and 4-door, Odyssey and Acura TL. Winners must earn good ratings for occupant protection in 4 of 5 evaluations and no less than acceptable in the fifth test.

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Pending home sales dip in July

But year-over-year, the gauge of home-buying activity is higher

The weight of higher mortgage interest rates is being blamed for a decline in pending home sales during July. Figures released by the National Association...

PhotoThe weight of higher mortgage interest rates is being blamed for a decline in pending home sales during July.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) dropped 1.3% to 109.5 in July from 110.9 in June. Still, the forward-looking indicator, which is based on contract signings, is 6.7% above its year-ago level and has been above year-ago levels for the past 27 months. Pending home sales data reflect contracts but not closings.

The sales patter appears to be uneven around the country. “The modest decline in sales is not yet concerning,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun, “and contract activity remains elevated, with the South and Midwest showing no measurable slowdown.” However, higher mortgage interest rates and rising home prices are affecting monthly contract activity in the high-cost regions of the Northeast and the West. “More homes clearly need to be built in the West to relieve price pressure, or the region could soon face pronounced affordability problems,” he added.

Regional performance

The PHSI in the Northeast plunged 6.5% in July -- to 81.5 -- but is 3.3% higher than it was in July 2012. In the Midwest the index slipped 1.0% and stands at 113.2, but is up 14.5% from a year ago. Pending home sales in the South rose rose 2.6%, putting the index at 121.5, which is 7.7% than in July of last year. The index in the West fell dropped 4.9% last month -- to 108.6, and is 0.4% below its year-ago level.

NAR expects existing-home sales to increase 10 percent for all of 2013, totaling about 5.1 million, and reach approximately 5.2 million next year. With continuing supply imbalances, the national median existing-home price is expected to surge nearly 11% this year, and then slow to a gain of 5 to 6% in 2014, with rising construction taking some of the pressure off prices.

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Mortgage applications drop for third straight week

The refinancing share of the market is down sharply from its recent peak

Applications for mortgages are down again -- the third time in as many weeks. Mortgage applications decreased 2.5 percent from one week earlier, According...

PhotoApplications for mortgages are down again -- the third time in as many weeks.

Mortgage applications decreased 2.5 percent from one week earlier, According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications fell 2.5% for the week ending August 23, 2013.

During the same week, the refinance Index was off 5% and has plunged 64.2% from its recent peak the week of May 3, 2013. The refinance share of mortgage activity is now just 60% of total applications -- the lowest share since April 2011. At the same time,the adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share is 7% of total applications and the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) share of refinance applications increased to 35% from 34% the week prior.

Interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs)with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) increased to 4.80% -- the highest rate since April 2011 -- from 4.68 percent;
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose four basis points -- to 4.78% from 4.74%;
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA increased to 4.52%, the highest rate since July 2011, from 4.40%;
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs jumped to 3.84% -- the highest rate since April 2011 -- from 3.71% percent; and
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.50 %, the highest rate since April 2011, from 3.44 percent%.
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Gas prices below a year ago as Labor Day approaches

Welcome news for 29 million expected weekend travelers

Drivers across the country continue to enjoy discounted pump prices versus a year ago, which is good news for those planning to hit the road for the upcomi...

PhotoDrivers across the country continue to enjoy discounted pump prices versus a year ago, which is good news for those planning to hit the road for the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend.  

The national average price for regular unleaded gasoline was $3.54 per gallon Friday.  While this is the lowest price on this calendar date in three years — in 2012 the average was $3.72 and in 2011 it was $3.57 — it trails the all-time high of $3.69 in 2008 by just 15 cents.  

“The end of the summer is approaching and with it comes lower gas prices – welcome news for the 29 million Americans expected to hit the road for the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend,” said John B. Townsend, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. 

 “AAA travel experts don’t believe pump prices are a major factor for consumers in determining whether they will travel for Labor Day. However, fuel prices falling throughout August is certainly good news for all motorists,” Townsend said.

While gas prices remain seasonally below recent years, crude oil continues to trade at a significant premium in the $103 to $108 per barrel range.  Positive economic data combined with geopolitical tension in the Middle East have boosted oil.  

Manufacturing activity in the U.S. and China is at multi-month highs, the national U.S. unemployment level fell to a four and a half year low of 7.4 percent last month, while business activity in the Eurozone rose more than expected.  

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Back-to-school shoppers hit stores early

Retailers say its all because of promotions

Moms and dads with kids in tow were back at the malls and stores early in search of back-to-school bargains, according to the National Retail Federations (...

PhotoMoms and dads with kids in tow were back at the malls and stores early in search of back-to-school bargains, according to the National Retail Federation's (NRFs) 2013 Back-to-School and Back-to-College Surveys.

The surveys, conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, found the average family with school-age children in grades K-12 has already completed more than half (52.1%) of its shopping, compared with 40.1% the same time last year and the highest percent in the survey’s history. College families have completed nearly half of their shopping as well (49.5%).

NRF estimates school and college spending will reach $72.5 billion.

“Given the historic level of early-bird shoppers we’ve seen this year, it is evident that many families still consider price and value when looking for their back-to-school and college needs,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Shopping early and often has become a sign of the times as budget-conscious consumers aim to ease the brunt of large spending events. In the weeks ahead, last minute shoppers can expect promotions to continue through Labor Day as retailers try to make room for fresh fall merchandise.”

Early shoppers

This year’s back-to-school items began flying off the shelves as summer heat began to set in. The survey found 16.3% of families with children in grades K-12 had already completed their shopping lists as of mid-August -- a significant jump from the 7.8% last year. Fewer back-to-school shoppers say they haven’t started their shopping yet (20.9% vs. 26.9% in 2012).

With seven in 10 consumers (76.9%) saying that the economy is still affecting their school and college spending plans, sales and coupons are growing in popularity. Of those who have already started their shopping, the survey found that 42.8% back-to-school shoppers say retailers’ sales, coupons and promotions influenced at least half of their purchases, versus 38.5% last year.

When asked what payment method back-to-school families used most often to purchase school necessities, 46.2% say they will use their debit cards most often, over cash (31.0%) and credit (19.9%). To wrap up their lists, most will head to their favorite discount (57.6%), department (52.4%) and clothing stores (39.5%) and online (25.1%).

Back-to-college shopping

NRF’s Back-to-College Survey indicates that by mid-August, 20.0%) of college shoppers have already completed their shopping, compared with 16.4% who had wrapped up their shopping by this time last year. Although many families were eager to take advantage of the best deals on everything from TVs to fashionable curtains, 28.8% had not yet started their shopping as of mid-August.

Given the cost of many traditional college necessities, such as dorm furniture and electronics, one-third of back-to-college shoppers say at least half of their purchases were influenced by retailers’ special offers, promotions and coupons. And, when it comes to staying on budget, 44.5% of college shoppers will use debit cards most often for their college purchases, and one-quarter will use cash most often. Nearly 25% say they will use their credit cards.

“The importance of sticking to a budget is all too familiar for families today, especially when it comes to big spending events such as back-to school and back to college,” said Prosper Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “Savvy shoppers are learning that the method of payment is just as significant as spreading out spending when trying to stay within their means.”

In order to check off the last items on their lists, consumers will continue to look for bargains in stores and online. College shoppers and their families will do the remainder of their shopping at discount (50.0%), department (38.2%) and clothing (31.9%) stores. More than one-third (34.8%) will complete their shopping online.  

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How people see their own health in 2013

And what other health issues are people concerned about?

When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, many experts say getting enough sleep is a big part and there have been numerous studies, statistics and findi...

PhotoWhen it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, many experts say getting enough sleep is a big part and there have been numerous studies, statistics and findings to back that up.

So perhaps, one would assume that most people are taking heed of these findings and getting enough sleep, but that's not the case. In actuality, 18% of folks said they'd rather exercise instead of sleep. And about 13% said they'd rather slumber.

The results were found in a new report from Aetna entitled "What's Your Healthy?" which took a look at several aspects of people's health, including how they perceived their own health. 

For example, the creators of the survey asked U.S. residents, aged 25 to 64, what their definition of being healthy was, and their answers were all over the place. 

About 41% said their definition of being healthy is not getting sick and 15% said getting enough exercise, eating well and staying happy is what needs to be done to live a healthy lifestyle.

Moreover, 49% said staying physically active is the way to stay healthy and 43% said you have to eat right.

In addition, 37% said being the right weight is their definition of being healthy and 23% said it's getting enough sleep. And 20% said managing stress is their definition of being healthy.

Boomers score highest

In another part of the survey respondents were asked to give themselves a health score using a scale of 0 to 100.

Baby Boomers scored themselves the highest at 72.3, Millennials were next at 69.9 and GenXers scored slightly lower at 68.7.

And when respondents were asked which 10 celebrities they'd like to be, in terms of health, 11% said Dr. Oz, 10% said Jillian Michaels, 9% said Betty White, 8% said Michael Phelps, another 8% said Michelle Obama and 6% said Jennifer Aniston.

Bobby Flay (2%), Venus Williams (1%), Deepak Chopra (1%), and Oprah Winfrey (1%) were all mentioned as well.

And when respondents were asked about weight loss, the answers differed between men and women, and they also differed between generations. 

For example, Millennials had a bigger interest in gaining weight rather than losing it, and women wanted to lose weight more than men did.

Plus, 47% of respondents said they'd like to look better in a baiting suit, 33% would like to look better in shorts and 27% said they'd like to look better in their underwear.

In addition, 54% said they believe it's possible to be overweight and healthy, but most of the people who shared this opinion were women.

Healthcare costs

PhotoAnd although there were several different opinions on health between the genders and generations, everyone showed concern about rising healthcare costs.

"A substantial 7 in 10 majority of all Americans age 25-64 -- and Baby Boomers most of all -- worry about rising healthcare costs, while 65% agree that being able to afford a healthy lifestyle is increasingly challenging, a belief held at about the same level by all generations," wrote the researchers.

"A majority (74%) believe that having health insurance is very or extremely important to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, with a high 42% saying it is extremely important."

"Baby Boomers are more likely than Millennials or GenXers, and women more likely than men, to feel that health insurance is important to a healthy lifestyle. That said, as many as 21% within the full 25 to 64 range are not currently covered," the researchers wrote.

And there were several different answers when people were asked about how they managed their stress.

On a scale of 0 to 100, men gave themselves a 67.9 when it came to managing stress and women gave themselves a 63.9. Overall, the respondents gave themselves a D+ in their stress management skills, scoring a 65.8.

When respondents were asked what would force them to live healthier lives, 31% said it would take a death or illness of a friend or family member. And 31% said training for a marathon or a fitness event would do the trick.

Additionally, 30% said a wedding or a reunion would force them to live a healthier lifestyle.

Perhaps, some might find it surprising the respondents didn't say trying to live a longer life would make them live healthier. I wonder why that is?

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Hardmenstore.com recalls of 72HP, Evil Root and Pro Power Max

The products are said to contain sildenafil, which is not listed on the labels

Hardmenstore.com is recalling 1000 lots of 72HP, Evil Root and Pro Power Max. According to representatives of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the...

PhotoHardmenstore.com is recalling 1000 lots of 72HP, Evil Root and Pro Power Max.

According to representatives of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the products have reportedly been found to contain amounts of the PDE-5 Inhibitor, sildenafil, which is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug for erectile dysfunction (ED). Sildenafil is not listed on the product labels.

These products are intended to be used as dietary and sexual supplements. 72HP is packaged in a single blister pack containing 1 dose. Evil Root is packaged in box containing a bottle of 6 pills. Pro Power Max is packaged in a single blister pack containing 1 dose.

All lots of the products are included in this recall. 72HP can be identified by the yellow packaging with a black horse insignia. Evil Root can be identified by its orange box with blue Chinese characters. Pro Power Max can be identified by the black and red packaging with flames on the bottom of the packaging.

Hardmenstore.com is now notifying its distributors and customers and is arranging for a return of all recalled products.

Consumers and retailers with the products should stop using them immediately and contact a doctor if there are any side effects.

Consumers with questions may contact Howard Andrew by email at info@hardmenstore.com from Monday to Friday, 11am to 5pm, EST.

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What to do when your dog gets arthritis

As dogs age they, like humans, suffer from aches and pains

As your dog ages he or she is subject to many of the same ailments you are. If they live long enough they are likely to suffer from arthritis, a crippling ...

PhotoAs your dog ages, he or she is subject to many of the same ailments you are. If they live long enough they are likely to suffer from arthritis, a crippling and painful condition when it occurs in people. It is no less painful in dogs.

Because of better food and health care our canine friends are living to be senior citizens in dog years. When you observe the signs indicating the onset of arthritis, there are steps you can take to help alleviate their pain and perhaps extend their life. At the very least you can improve the quality of their life.

First, know what to look for. Symptoms of arthritis in your pet include limping, or otherwise favoring a limb. They might have difficulty sitting or standing and spend more time than usual sleeping.

They won't be as active as they once were and will likely put on weight. You may even observe a change in personality and demeanor.

One in five suffer from arthritis

According to the Arthritis Foundation, one in every five adult dogs in the U.S. suffers from arthritis, making it one of the most common sources of chronic pain that veterinarians treat. When you observe arthritis symptoms in your pet that last for two weeks or more, the Foundation suggests taking your dog to veterinarian for an arthritis evaluation. 

The evaluation will likely involve a physical exam and possibly x-rays. The best thing to do for your dog in managing arthritis is to get a diagnosis and start a treatment plan as soon as possible. Treating canine arthritis is somewhat similar to treating osteoarthritis in humans.

Therapies may include a healthy diet and exercise to help maintain a proper weight. Just as in people, when a dog is carrying too much weight it places unhealthy stress on joints. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) canine arthritis can also occur as a result of a joint infection, dislocation, trauma or an inherited condition, such as hip dysplasia. 

Exercise

Exercise is an excellent treatment for dogs with arthritis. In the video below a veterinarian demonstrates effective exercises.

Work with your vet to find a drug treatment that helps alleviate the pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are the most common form of pharmaceutical treatment for arthritis in dogs. Over-the-counter pet treatments, such as pills or food containing either glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate or Omega fatty acids, are sometimes recommended. Both have been shown to help relieve the symptoms of arthritis in dogs.

Dr. Lorie Houston DVM, who writes and blogs extensively on pet-related issues, says NSAIDS commonly prescribed for dogs incude Rimadyl, Estogesic, Deramaxx and Metacam. Non-NSAID medications, she says, include tramadol, buprenorphine, Fentanyl and gabapentin. 

Stem cell therapy

PhotoShe also says stem cell therapy is an emerging treatment option for joint problems in dogs. Because it's a relatively new treatment option you should ask your vet if it is available in your area.

Dr. Marty Becker, DVM, a long-time contributor to ABC's "Good Morning America" and other media outlets, says pet owners should refrain from giving their dogs aspirin or other medication made for humans. He notes that veterinarians advocated aspirin use for dogs in the past, but that it's no longer accepted practice. 

“Recent peer-reviewed studies have linked the use of aspirin in dogs to gastric ulcers,” he writes.

Becker notes that one of the biggest contributors to arthritis in dogs is obesity. It's been a subject vets have been reluctant to bring up with pet owners in the past, he says, because it can be sensitive. But increasingly, he says, obesity is being recognized as a prime contributor to the painful condition.

The Arthritis Foundation suggests dog owners should pay more attention to what their pet eats. Dog owners, the Foundation says, could benefit from the same advice.

“Read the food labels for each of you to make sure that every bite is giving you both good energy and nutrition,” the Foundation says on its website. “Limit your servings and don’t cheat by eating between meals or slipping Fido extra snacks.”

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Foreclosure crisis over? The data is mixed

The trend is encouraging but trouble spots remain

By most accounts, a building wave of foreclosures served as the catalyst for the housing market meltdown and financial crisis of 2008. Five years later the...

PhotoBy most accounts, a building wave of foreclosures served as the catalyst for the housing market meltdown and financial crisis of 2008. Five years later the falling rate of foreclosures suggests the housing market has regained its equilibrium.

A recent report by CoreLogic found about one million U.S. homes in foreclosure inventory at the end of June. That's down about 400,000 from June 2012, a year-over-year decrease of 28%. It also represents a 2.9% drop from the previous month.

That one million homes currently in some stage of foreclosure represent 2.5% of all homes in the U.S. with a mortgage. That compares to 3.4% in June 2012.

Are things back to normal yet? Despite the recent improvement, probably not. With 4.5 million homes lost to foreclosure over the last five years, that works out to 900,000 foreclosures per year, on average. In a typical month before 2007, the number was closer to 250,000.

Subprime time bomb

Many of the foreclosures in 2008 and 2009 were directly linked to subprime loans. Consumers who couldn't really afford the homes they purchased were able to get subprime loans that offered very low “teaser” rates for the first year or two before they adjusted sharply higher.

When the loan rates adjusted, the homeowners, in many cases, couldn't afford the monthly payment. Foreclosures began to build within the market, adversely affecting mortgage-backed securities and setting off the banking crisis.

But unfortunately the foreclosure wave spread beyond the subprime sector. The collapse of the housing market and the onset of the banking crisis turned the recession into the Great Recession, causing unemployment to surge. All of a sudden people with prime loans lost their jobs and were unable to keep making their house payments. In 2010 the foreclosure wave continued to build.

The latest numbers suggest stability is returning but there are still some areas of concern. RealtyTrac, in its report on July foreclosures, found that foreclosure activity increased 2.0% over June, while sharply lower from year-over-year levels. Much of the July jump was caused by a spike in foreclosure starts during the month. In the video below, RealtyTrac's Daren Blomquist provides an overview of the findings.

Other data

Other data may also be cause for concern. According to an August report by PropertyShark.com, foreclosure activity is picking up in the nation's largest real estate market. The report found that 348 New York City properties were scheduled for auction in the second quarter of 2013, a 138% surge from the first quarter. That's up 39% year-over-year, with only Manhattan and Staten Island showing signs of stability.

With data on the issue presenting a mixed picture, the consumer group Center for Responsible Lending is expressing concern about policies it says will likely discourage first-time home buyers and perhaps threaten the housing recovery. In particular, it says a proposal for government-mandated down payment standards would weaken the housing market and overall economy.

“A successful housing market needs new homeowners available to purchase properties,” CRL said in a statement. “If mandated down payment standards went into effect – instead of letting the market determine appropriate down payment standards – then fewer families could become first-time home buyers.”

Using 2010 figures the group said it would take the typical U.S. family 22 years to save for a 10% down payment for the typical home. Closing costs for fees and escrow often require another 3% in savings.

“This decreased demand for housing would result in falling housing prices. In this situation, existing homeowners would lose equity in their homes, possibly pushing them underwater on their mortgage and even into default,” CRL said. “As a result, down payment mandates could undermine the nascent housing market recovery and plunge the economy into turmoil.”

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Facebook settles "sponsored stories" lawsuit for $20 million

Users will get about $15 each, the rest going to non-profit privacy groups

A U.S. district court judge has approved a $20 million settlement to be paid by Facebook to users whose names and likenesses were used in "sponsored s...

PhotoA U.S. district court judge has approved a $20 million settlement to be paid by Facebook to users whose names and likenesses were used in "sponsored story" ads.

Facebook users who complained about their likenesses being used in the so-called sponsored stories will at last be getting a few dollars -- about $15 -- for their trouble.

The "stories" were really ads that showed users that their "friends" had clicked on "like" buttons for various products. Not only were the "stories" not stories, the users featured in the endorsements had not agreed to having their image and name used.

They hadn't been paid anything either. After all, why sell out if you don't get any money for it?

Facebook Aug. 27, 2013, 6:59 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook

Now, $15 may not sound like much but the judge had at times expressed skepticism that anyone had been harmed very much by the unwitting endorsements, sleazy and unethical though it may have been for Facebook to shanghai users' good names.

"We are pleased that the settlement has received final approval," Facebook said in a statement.

Money that's left over will go to a group of non-profits agreed upon by the plaintiffs, including the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Facebook says it doesn't do sponsored stories anymore. Actually, it does. It just calls them something else, but that's another, um, story.

The suit was dragged on since 2011, when it was filed by five plaintiffs. About 7,000 users have opted out of the settlement, leaving them free to file their own lawsuits.

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Rising mercury levels in fish blamed on coal-burning power plants

The coal contains mercury which is released by burning and eventually returns to earth

Mercury levels have been steadily rising in fish and a new study suggests the mercury is coming from coal-burning power plants as far away as China and Ind...

PhotoMercury levels have been steadily rising in fish and a new study suggests the mercury is coming from coal-burning power plants as far away as China and India.

The levels are especially high in shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish have much lower levels.

And, unfortunately, more mercury is falling into the Pacific Ocean, source of much of the seafood eaten by humans, because of the concentration of coal-fired plants in Asia and India.

The rising contamination prompts health officials to warn that pregnant women and young children should avoid eating more than an occasional small serving of the affected fish.

A new study in Nature Geoscience traces the path of the toxins. When coal is burned, tiny amounts of mercury are emitted into the atmosphere, where they can travel thousands of miles before falling back to earth, either on land or sea.

On land, the mercury is not very hazardous but in the sea, microorganisms like planton convert it into another form of mercury, methyl mercury, which health experts say is very hazardous.

Small fish then eat the plankton, bigger fish eat the smaller fish and so on. Eventually, the toxic mercury winds up in the seafood that is eaten by humans.

Methyl mercury is especially harmful when eaten by pregnant women. Scientists say it kills neurons in the developing infant's brain, resulting in babgies that have three to eight points lower IQ than they would otherwise have had. They may also have shorter attention spans and behavioral issues.

 

 

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The climb in home values continues

Cities in the West are leading the advance

There doesn't seem to be an end in sight to the rise in home prices across the nation. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, the National ...

PhotoThere doesn't seem to be an end in sight to the rise in home prices across the nation.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, the National Index grew 7.1% in the second quarter and 10.1% over the last four quarters. The 10-City and 20-City Composites were up 2.2% in June and 11.9% and 12.1% over 12 months.

All 20 cities posted gains on a monthly and annual basis. However, in only six cities were prices rising faster this month than last, compared with ten in May. Dallas and Denver reached new all-time highs as they did last month, with gains of 1.7% each in June. San Francisco’s rebound is the largest -- up 47.0% from its low in March 2009. Phoenix is second -- 37.1% above its September 2011 low.

“National home prices rose more than 10% annually in each of the last two quarters,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “However, the monthly city by city data show the pace of price increases is moderating.

Moderating increases

Overall, the report shows that housing prices are rising but the pace may be slowing, with increases in 13 out of 20 cities weakening from May to June. “As we are in the middle of a seasonal buying period,” Blitzer said, “we should expect to see the most gains. With interest rates rising to almost 4.6%, home buyers may be discouraged and sharp increases may be dampened.”

He notes that other housing news is positive, but not as robust as last spring. “Starts and sales of new homes continue to lag the stronger pace set by existing homes,” he pointed out, adding, “despite recent increases in mortgage interest rates, affordability is still good as credit qualifications have eased somewhat.”

Back on track

As of June 2013, average home prices across the U.S are back to their spring 2004 levels. Measured from their June/July 2006 peaks, the peak-to-current decline for both Composites is approximately 23%. The recovery from the March 2012 lows is 18.4% and 19.0% for the 10-City and 20-City Composites.

All 20 cities showed positive monthly returns for at least the third consecutive month. Six cities -- Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New York and Tampa -- showed acceleration. Atlanta took the lead with a return of 3.4% as San Francisco dropped to +2.7% in June from +4.3% in May. New York posted a gain of 2.1%, its highest since July 2002.

Year-over-year, Las Vegas and San Francisco were the only two Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) to post gains of over 20%; Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix decreased to +19.0%, +16.4% and +19.8%, respectively. Seven cities -- Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Diego and Tampa -- showed improvement in their annual rates. Out of the 13 remaining MSAs, Detroit showed the most deceleration but still posted an impressive 16.4% increase. Despite gaining 35.6% from its post-recession low in April 2011, Detroit remains the only city below its January 2000 level.

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Website makes it easier to check a drug's side effects

"Symptom Checker" compares your symptoms to a drug's known side effects

Unless you haven't noticed, there are a number of websites that allow you to type in a certain symptom to see if you have an illness or not.But there are...

PhotoThere are plenty of websites that allow you to type in a symptom to see what illness you might. But there aren't many sites that tell you if that symptom really results from an illness, or if it's possibly a side effect from a medicine you're taking. That's where eHealthMe.com comes in. 

Johnson Chen, founder and CEO of eHealthMe, added a feature to the site called Symptom Checker, where users can determine if their symptom is possibly a drug side effect or something else.

"The symptom checker uses eHealthMe's healthcare big data analytic algorithms to study FDA data to find out the possible cause of a symptom," said Chen in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. "The results are personalized to the gender and age of the patient. It works in two ways: If only one drug is entered into the checker, two statistically likely results are generated -- a symptom from the drug and one from the condition."

In addition, the Symptom Checker provides a printed report that you can bring to your doctor, so he or she can get to the bottom of your symptom.

"The results are displayed in a way that when patients present them to doctors, doctors find it simple to determine whether the symptom is from a drug, a drug mix, a condition, or neither. The tool demonstrates how healthcare big data can be used to generate new and useful personal health information," Chen said.

Online resources

PhotoEven though you should never rely on a website for diagnosis or treatment, it's obvious an increasing number of people are going online to get medical information.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 81% of adults in the U.S. used the Internet to get health information in the last year. And 35% said they went online to determine if they had a certain illness or not.

However, many folks still prefer to head to a doctor or clinic when they feel a symptom for the first time, as the Pew study shows that 70% of adults go to a health professional when they believe they're sick. And 60% receive support or information from a friend or family member.

The study also shows that 24% got their information from other people with the same condition.

Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, who's a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital, told the Los Angeles Times that patients should print out whatever they see online and bring it to their doctor.

"Many of my patients come in hesitant about vaccines because of something they heard online, but when I ask them who wrote it, they don't really know where they found it," she said. "What I want is families to grab it, print it and then we can look at it together."

Besides eHealthMe's site, there are a lot of others you may find useful. Like MyHealthChecklist.org, that gives you info on health screenings, vaccinations and tests you'll need.

HealthCentral.com, a site that's kind of a one-stop-shop for all sorts of medical information. And of course there's WebMD, probably the most popular of the medical information websites.

Chen says sites like these allow people to be better informed, which can affect the outcome of their treatment.

"Patients, especially those in the U.S., consume a lot of medication and the trend is ever increasing," he said. eHealthMe's symptom checker will complement existing checkers and offer patients new insights about the medication they are taking. 

"In many industries, the more informed the consumers are the more satisfied they will feel for the transactions. In health care, assisted by our new symptom checker, the more informed the patients are, they will achieve better treatment outcomes and have a better overall quality of life."

 

 

 

 

 

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Consumer: Economy looks pretty good

Business, job and earning prospects help boost confidence

Maybe things aren't so bad after all. That seems to be the attitude of consumers, who were a little more upbeat about the economy in August than they were...

PhotoMaybe things aren't so bad after all.

That seems to be the attitude of consumers, who were a little more upbeat about the economy in August than they were in July.

After declining the previous month, The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index increased slightly in August and now stands at 81.5. The July reading was 81.0 in July. While the Present Situation Index fell more than three points (70.7 versus73.6), the Expectations Index increased to 88.7 from 86.0 last month.

The boost in confidence was largely the result of improving short-term expectations. “Consumers were moderately more upbeat about business, job and earning prospects,” said Economic Indicators Director Lynn Franco. “In fact, income expectations, which had declined sharply earlier this year with the payroll tax hike, have rebounded to their highest level in two and a half years.” However, assessment of current business and labor market conditions was somewhat less favorable than last month.

How they see it now

Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was down a bit. Those who think business conditions are “good” decreased to 18.4% from 20.8%, while those who say business conditions are “bad” was virtually unchanged at 24.8%.

Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was mixed. Those claiming jobs are “plentiful” decreased to 11.4% from 12.3%, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” declined to 33.0% from 35.2%.

Looking ahead

Consumers’ expectations, which had dipped in July, increased in August. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months edged up to 20.1% from 19.9%. Those who believe things will get worse slipped to 11.1% from 11.3%.

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market remained upbeat. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 17.6% from 16.7%, while those who see fewer jobs dropped to 17.3% from 17.7%. The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase rose to 17.4% from 15.7%. Those looking for a decrease was down slightly to 13.5% from 13.7%.

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 August 15.

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CDC: U.S. schools are becoming healthier

Improvements are seen in areas including nutrition and PE

A new study released by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the nation's schools are becoming healthier places for the k...

PhotoA new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the nation's schools are becoming healthier places for the kids they educate

According to the 2012 School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS), school districts nationwide are showing improvements in measures related to nutritional policies, physical education and tobacco policies. SHPPS is the largest and most comprehensive survey to assess school health policies.

"Schools play a critical role in the health and well-being of our youth," said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "Good news for students and parents -- more students have access to healthy food, better physical fitness activities through initiatives such as ‘Let’s Move,’ and campuses that are completely tobacco free."

Key findings from SHPPS, the largest and most comprehensive survey to assess school health policies, come in three areas:

Nutrition

  • The percentage of school districts that allowed soft drink companies to advertise soft drinks on school grounds decreased from 46.6% in 2006 to 33.5% in 2012.
  • Between 2006 and 2012, the percentage of districts that required schools to prohibit offering junk food in vending machines increased from 29.8% to 43.4%.
  • Between 2006 and 2012, the percentage of districts with food procurement contracts that addressed nutritional standards for foods that can be purchased separately from the school breakfast or lunch increased from 55.1% to 73.5%.
  • Between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of districts that made information available to families on the nutrition and caloric content of foods available to students increased from 35.3% to 52.7%.

Physical education/physical activity

  • The percentage of school districts that required elementary schools to teach physical education increased from 82.6% in 2000 to 93.6% in 2012.
  • More than half of school districts (61.6%) had a formal agreement, such as a memorandum of agreement or understanding, between the school district and another public or private entity for shared use of school or community property. Among those districts, more than half had agreements with a local youth organization (e.g., the YMCA, Boys or Girls Clubs, or the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts) or a local parks or recreation department.

Tobacco

  • The percentage of districts with policies that prohibited all tobacco use during any school-related activity increased from 46.7% in 2000 to 67.5% in 2012.

The SHPPS national survey assesses the characteristics of eight components of school health: health education, physical education and activity, health services, mental health and social services, nutrition services, healthy and safe school environment, faculty and staff health promotion, and family and community involvement.

The survey was conducted at all levels in 1994, 2000, and 2006. The 2012 study collected data at the state and district levels only. School- and classroom-level data from SHPPS will be collected in 2014 and released in 2015.

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Will you qualify for a subsidy under Obamacare?

If so, your healthcare costs could go down in January

The Affordable Care Act tends to divide people along ideological lines, but come January it will also divide consumers along mostly economic lines.Many p...

PhotoThe Affordable Care Act tends to divide people along ideological lines, but come January it will also divide consumers along mostly economic lines.

Many people who purchase and pay for their own health insurance will get a subsidy from the government to help pay for it. Some won't. Those who get their insurance through their employers or labor union won't either, and in some cases may end up paying more.

Starting in October, consumers who purchase their own health insurance can start signing up for coverage through state health care insurance exchanges or, for those in states that refuse to set up an exchange, through a federal exchange.

Four levels of coverage

The exchanges will offer four levels of coverage, called Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum, with Bronze being the least expensive and Patinum the most expensive. These policies are more comprehensive than the high-deductible plans favored by many who pay for their own insurance. In many cases those who currently pay for their own policies are “grandfathered,” and will not have to switch to a more expensive Obamacare policy. However, it may pay them to switch.

Under the Affordable Care Act, consumers purchasing the more expensive and more comprehensive coverage through the exchanges will get a generous tax credit from the government to offset the cost. The net cost of the better Obamacare policy will likely be significantly less than they are now paying for less coverage.

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), which has conducted an extensive analysis of the impending changes in health care, finds that eliminating premium surcharges based on health conditions and limiting premium variation due to age will tend to lower costs for older and sicker consumers while raising premiums for consumers who are younger and healthier.

How it works

PhotoIt will all depend on your income. The law has limits on the percentage of your income that your health insurance can cost. KFF has broken it down. Here is how it might work for a 40-year-old individual making $30,000 a year (modified adjusted gross income):

  • Estimated benchmark premium for a 40-year old = $3,857 per year (which will vary from area to area)
  • Consumer is responsible for paying 8.37% of their income = $2,512, or $209 per month

The lower premium is derived by subtracting a $1,345 subsidy tax credit from the federal government.

The tax credit can be used in any plan offered in the health insurance marketplace, so the person would end up paying a lower premium for the lowest cost silver plan or a lower cost bronze plan, and more to enroll in a higher cost plan.

The lower your income, the higher your subsidy. The higher your income, however, the less your subsidy. And once your income rises to a certain level, you get no subsidy at all, but must pay the full cost yourself.

Nearly half to get subsidy

“About half -- 48% -- of people now buying their own insurance would be eligible for a tax credit that would offset their premium,” KFF said in its analysis. “This does not include over one million adults buying individual insurance today who will be eligible for Medicaid starting in 2014.”

Assuming all eligible current enrollees applied for a tax credit, KFF estimates the subsidy would reduce the premium for the second-lowest-cost silver plan by an average of 32% across all people now buying insurance in the individual market. If they were to opt for the most expensive plan, they would have to cover more of the cost out of pocket. Choosing a Bronze or Silver plan would lower premiums the most.

KFF has produced this calculator to help consumers estimate the amount of their subsidy, or whether they would qualify for a subsidy. Many will not. 

For example, a family of four earning $47,000 would receive no subsidy at all. According to KFF's calculate, the family's cost for health coverage would be $11,547 a year, or $962.25 a month.

Again, this would be for families purchasing their own health coverage. As long as an employer continued to provide health benefits, that coverage would continue.

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Bed-sharing with baby: fun but not safe

Experts say the safest solution is to bring baby's crib into the parents' bedroom

Things change from one generation to the next. Take dogs. It's become increasingly common for dog owners to share their beds with their dogs. So it's only ...

PhotoThings change from one generation to the next. Take dogs. It's become increasingly common for dog owners to share their beds with their dogs. So it's only logical that babies would be next.

Although statistics are slim, bed-sharing seems to be catching on, driven by celebrities like Angelina Jolie, who said in a recent Redbook article that she and her husband Brad Pitt sleep with all six of their children. One recent study found that 45% of parents had brought their baby into their bed in the previous eight months, even though experts advise against it because it's far too easy for the baby to be squashed or suffocated by its sleeping parents.

A recent victim of the practice was a baby who died in Battle Creek, Mich., last week. Health officials there say it was the 12th bed-sharing death in the county in the past five years -- deaths they say are 100% preventable.

A public health official told Battle Creek's WMMT-TV most parents know better but are just too exhausted to deal with babies who won't go the sleep: "If that's the only way you can get the baby to sleep, holding them and having them in bed, that's what they do to survive," said Michelle Datema, a nursing family partnership manager for the Calhoun County Health Department.

By the way, the term "cosleepiing" is increasingly being thrown around but experts say it can cause misunderstanding. They prefer to use "bed-sharing" and "room-sharing" -- either of which could be called "cosleepiing." One is dangerous, the other is the safest arrangement, pediatricians say. 

SIDS risk rises

Besides the risk of being smothered, researchers say that bed-sharing babies are more prone to SIDS -- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. A recent British study found that babies who share a bed with their mothers are up to five times more likely to die than those who sleep separately.

The comprehensive review by researchers at Birmingham City University compiled data from five previous studies to examine about 1,500 cases of SIDS, and found that an estimated 88% of the deaths would not have happened if the baby had not been in the parents' bed.

Besides the heightened SIDS risk, the study confirmed that bed-sharing babies were likely to be squashed or to wriggle under the covers and die from suffocation or from becoming overheated, said Alison Edwards, a senior lecturer in midwifery at the university

Advocates of the practice say that bed-sharing encourages breastfeeding, helps babies fall asleep more easily and helps parents bond with their new infant.

But those arguments don't outweigh the risks, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which warns against the practice, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Bed-sharing vs. room-sleeping

PhotoInstead of bed-sharing, the AAP recommends room-sharing -- putting the baby's crib in the same room as the parents'.

"The AAP recommends the arrangement of room-sharing without bed-sharing, or having the infant sleep in the parents' room but on a separate sleep surface (crib or similar surface) close to the parents' bed. There is evidence that this arrangement decreases the risk of SIDS by as much as 50% and is safer than bed-sharing or solitary sleeping (when the infant is in a separate room)," an AAP task force said in a research report published in October 2011.

"In addition, this arrangement is most likely to prevent suffocation, strangulation, and entrapment, which may occur when the infant is sleeping in the adult bed. Furthermore, room-sharing without bed-sharing allows close proximity to the infant, which facilitates feeding, comforting, and monitoring of the infant," the researchers said.

Particularly dangerous is bed-sharing with parents who smoke, since exposure to second-hand smoke and tobacco residue is a risk factor for SIDS. Parents who use alcohol or drugs prior to bedtime also make very unsafe sleeping partners as they are less likely to wake up if the infant gets into trouble, the task force said. 

Dangerous gadgets

The AAP also warned against gadgets that claim to make bed-sharing safer.

"There is no evidence that devices marketed to make bed-sharing 'safe' (eg, in-bed cosleepers) reduce the risk of SIDS or suffocation or are safe. Such devices, therefore, are not recommended," AAP said.

 

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Beware of smartphone snatchers

Mobile devices are highly prized by street thieves

Here's something else to worry about when you are out in public. Thieves are increasingly targeting consumers with smartphones in their hands, grabbing the...

PhotoHere's something else to worry about when you are out in public. Thieves are increasingly targeting consumers with smartphones and tablets in their hands, grabbing the devices and sprinting away.

It's a new wrinkle on the old crime of purse-snatching. For years thieves have preyed on women with a pocketbook slung over their shoulder. The thief moves alongside the victim, rips the purse from their grasp and makes a clean getaway before the victim has time to react.

But a purse may or may not have things of value inside it. If there is no cash, the thief has risked capture for very little reward. A smartphone is different. The phone or tablet itself – especially if it is the latest iPhone or Android model, may be worth at least a couple hundred dollars. Beyond that, it might have information on it of even more value to an identity thief.

Often the crime occurs on a subway. Someone standing near the door may be busy texting a friend or reading their email. They aren't paying attention to their surroundings.

Careful timing

The thief times his move very carefully. Just before the door to the car closes, he lunges forward, grabs the smarthphone and jumps through the portal, just as the doors are closing. The shocked victim can only look on in stunned disbelief as the train moves forward and the thief calmly walks toward the exit.

Other means of public transit are equally dangerous. Thieves are also known to target people on buses.

“It’s a crime of opportunity,” Hawthorne, Calif., Police Lt. Scott Swain told KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. “You see a victim walking down the street, talking on the phone, playing on the phone, and it’s just a matter of running up, grabbing the phone, and getting out of there.”

The Washington, D.C., Metro system has seen a big jump in smartphone and tablet thefts.

 “You wouldn’t go around flaunting this $300 in the open. And yet, that’s effectively what you’re doing when you’re not paying attention with your electronic device,” Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik said recently.

Perlik released this video of an actual smartphone crime in progress:

Story continues below video

In Los Angles, police say the crime is growing at a double-digit rate. In San Francisco, police say nearly half of all 2012 robberies included smartphones. According to the National Consumer League, 1.6 million U.S. consumers reported smartphone thefts in 2012. Not all were snatched, but many were. 

Smartphone snatching appears to be a crime with high percentages favoring the thief. If they get away with their heist they can easily find a buyer. Before selling it, however, they may use it to make phone calls, make purchases, and see what kinds of unprotected data are on the device that could lead to an even bigger payday.

Some thieves just want a smartphone without paying for it. They might use it until you get around to suspending your account. After that, they head to a cellphone store and activate the phone on their own account. At any rate, savvy consumers should take steps to avoid being a victim.

What to do

The first step, police say, is to be cautious when you use your smartphone in a public place. Perhaps a subway car is not the best place to be texting. If you have the device in your hand and are preoccupied, you're a pretty easy target.

If you are using your cellphone or a train or bus, don't stand near the door. If you are in the middle of the car, it's much harder for a thief to grab your phone and make a getaway, though it's not impossible. The best course of action may be to keep the phone in your purse or pocket.

Don't walk down the sidewalk using your device. It's probably not safe, to begin with. But you are making yourself a tempting target. Talking on the phone might also make you vulnerable. There have been plenty of reports of thieves snatching a phone away from a victim's ear, in mid-conversation.

With an increasing number of children now using smartphones of their own, this group may be especially vulnerable. After all, you know what they say about taking candy from a baby.

Password protection

This growing crime also underscores the need to employ security safeguards on your phone. At a minimum, you should have password protection on your device, with the ability to lock it. An encryption app could be a good move, along with an app that can track your device if it goes missing.

Some urban police departments have begun registries for smartphones and other mobile devices. Consumers can register their phone's serial number so that if it is lost or stolen, it will trigger an alert if someone later tries to sell it or use it to open a new account.

To combat the problem, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spearheaded a plan to produce a national database. Consumers can now call their carrier to report their stolen smartphone. It will then be blocked from being used again.

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New York sues "Trump University," settles with Career Education Corp.

State goes to war against for-profit schools, says Trump was deceptive "in every stage"

New York's attorney general had no more than arrived at a $10 million settlement with one for-profit school than he was onto the next one, suing Donald Tru...

PhotoNew York's attorney general had no more than arrived at a $10 million settlement with one for-profit school than he was onto the next one, suing Donald Trump for $40 million, claiming his "Trump University" deceived its students and failed to deliver the apprenticeships it promised.

Trump said the suit was politically motivated but in a CNN live television exclusive, Schneiderman shot down Trump's “wild accusations” in an interview with Anchor Chris Cuomo on “New Day.” Schneiderman denied he spoke to President Obama on Thursday about the lawsuit or Donald Trump and believes this case is “pretty straightforward.”

Story continues below video

In the earlier case, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman reached a $10.25 million settlement with Career Education Corporation (“CEC”), a for-profit education company that operates seven career-focused schools in New York.

“Students pay thousands of dollars to for-profit colleges because they rightly believe education is the ticket to success in their careers. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that this company exploited students’ aspirations and published misleading information,” Schneiderman. “Students deserve – and the law requires – accurate data when schools publish it for prospective students.”

"Mostly useless"

Photo
Eric Schneiderman

As for Trump, Schneiderman said that students pay up to $35,000 for courses that they think will enable them to get rich in real estate by sitting through what the suit argues are "expensive and mostly useless seminars."

Schneiderman said students are promised they will get apprenticeships with accomplished entrepreneurs and get to meet Trump. Neither happens, the suit charges.

"Trump University engaged in deception at every stage of consumers' advancement through costly programs and caused real financial harm," Schneiderman said. "Trump University, with Donald Trump's knowledge and participation, relied on Trump's name recognition and celebrity status to take advantage of consumers who believed in the Trump brand."

The state Education Department several years ago ordered Trump to stop calling the seminar a "university," noting it didn't have a license and didn't meet the requirements of a university. The name was changed to "Trump Entrepreneur Institute" in 2011.

Trump said the suit was politically motivated.

PhotoBut Scheiderman's lawsuit catalogs complaints that date back to 2005 and involve consumers who paid as much as $35,000 to sit at Trump's right hand, hoping to learn how to pull off profitable real estate deals.

Instead, said Schneiderman, Trump seldom appears at the three-day seminars, where instructors try to sell consumers "Trump Elite" memberships that cost up to $35,000, urging the students to extend the limit on their credit cards to pay for the "Elite" program.
 
Many of the students, the lawsuit charges, never manage to do a single real estate deal and wind up deeply in debt.

CEC job placement rates

In the CEC case, the state charged that CEC inflated its job placement rates from at least 2009 through spring 2011 and used the inflated placement data to lure prospective students to attend their schools.

Students invested thousands of dollars and months or even years of study in CEC’s programs because they were confident that completing CEC’s programs would lead to job opportunities in their chosen field, Schneiderman's suit charged. The inflated job placement rates misled students about the real chances that CEC’s programs would result in employment in their field.

CEC will pay $9.25 million in restitution to students, a $1 million penalty, and has agreed to substantial changes in how the company calculates and verifies placement rates.

CEC is headquartered in Illinois and operates seven career-focused schools in New York: Sanford-Brown Institute campuses in Garden City, Melville, White Plains and New York City; and Briarcliffe campuses in Bethpage, Patchogue, and New York City.

CEC also operates several on-line schools, including American InterContinental University and Colorado Technical University. CEC currently enrolls 75,000 students worldwide.

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New drinkware hopes to reduce date rapes

When glass and straw detect common date-rape drugs, they turn red

It's a difficult truth to swallow, but the possibility of someone getting date raped is relatively high.According to statistics released by the Universit...

PhotoThe date-rape risk is a lot higher than you might think. According to the University of the Sciences, one in four college-aged women have been the victim of an actual or attempted date rape.

The Florida Institute of Technology found that 84% of rape victims knew their attacker and 57% of rapes happened on a date. One in four college men admitted to using sexual aggression with women. And, not surprisingly, 90% of date rapes involve alcohol, often including spiked drinks.

To help alert potential date-rape victims, a company called DrinkSavvy has created 16-ounce cups and straws that change colors if they detect that a drink has been spiked. They look for GHB, ketamine or rohypnol, three commonly-used date rape drugs.

Mike Abramson, the founder of DrinkSavvy and John MacDonald, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, came up with the new drinkware. Abramson said he was the victim of someone spiking his drink, which was unpleasant at the time at least gave him a new-business idea.

"Within the past three years, three of my close friends, and myself have been unwitting victims of consuming an odorless, colorless and tasteless drug slipped into our drink," wrote Abramson"That is why it is our goal to have as many bars and clubs as possible to simply swap out their current drinkware for DrinkSavvy, making it the new safety standard."

If a drink contains either GHB, ketamine or rohypnol and it's in a DrinkSavvy cup, red stripes will appear on the cup, telling you something is wrong. If the drink is safe, the glass remains clear. Ditto with the straws.

Boot-strapping

PhotoTo get this project off the ground, Abramson went to the crowd-funding site Indiegogo and raised $52,089. And he says that in the near future, his company will roll out a full line of products that can detect if a drink has been spiked. The company plans to release stirrers, glass ware, bottles and cans, in addition to the cups and straws.

"That means discrete effortless and continuous drink monitoring throughout the night," said Abramson. "Because the same drinkware that you're drinking with, is also the color-changing indicator that makes invisible drugs visible."

Another part of Abramson's goal is to give these cups and straws to rape crisis centers for free while retailing them online. Not surprisingly, he wants to encourage colleges, bars, clubs, lounges and other places to use his stuff.

Lots of fans

Abramson may not have much money but he does have a lot of fans.

"As a career prosecutor, I know the value of this product," wrote district attorney Stephanie Anderson, who gave money for this project. "It's the most effective sexual assault prevention strategy."

PhotoAnother financial contributor said, "If widely distributed, the technology could provide a significant safety measure."

Abramson said a full line of products could be rolled out as early as 2014. But until then, there are some safety measures people can take when they're out drinking and having fun. And these safety measures should still be followed once the DrinkSavvy products are available.

For one, don't let anyone bring you a drink. Get it yourself.

If someone offers to buy you a drink, go to the bar with him, because it only takes a second to put something in your glass. Most experts would probably say only use these rules if a stranger buys you a drink, but it wouldn't hurt to get your own drink all of the time.

And two: Never leave your drink unattended, because again, something can be added to your glass in the blink of an eye.

Plus, trust your instincts. If you feel strange after one drink or you feel more intoxicated than you think you should be, go the hospital and have a friend accompany you. 

 

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Chrysler recalls Fiat 500e electric vehicles

The half shaft joints may loosen and separate, increasing the risk of a crash

Chrysler is recalling 491 model year 2013 Fiat 500e electric vehicles manufactured December 16, 2012, through August 13, 2013. The half shaft joints may ...

PhotoChrysler is recalling 491 model year 2013 Fiat 500e electric vehicles manufactured December 16, 2012, through August 13, 2013.

The half shaft joints may loosen and separate causing noise and a loss of driving capability. A loss of driving capability increases the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners and Fiat dealers will replace the fasteners attaching the half shaft inboard joints, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2013.

Owners may contact Fiat at 1-888-242-6342. Chrysler's recall number is N51.

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Better understanding pet food contamination

Expert says Salmonella can occur between the factory and the food bowl

Pet food recalls seem to be on the increase. A number of brands from different manufacturers have been recalled this year because of a risk of foodborne il...

PhotoPet food recalls seem to be on the increase. A number of brands from different manufacturers have been recalled this year because of a risk of foodborne illness, primarily Salmonella.

Consumers who complain that a particular brand of pet food has sickened their dog or cat may have acquired a small quantity of contaminated product, or even contaminated it themselves, according to Dr. Mian Riaz, director of Texas A&M's Food Protein R&D Center. Recent recalls, he says, have come in spite of what are mostly strict precautions.

“The pet food manufacturers buy their ingredients based on the understanding that they are toxin-free,” Riaz said. “But in the truck one grain might be contaminated with a toxin and that one grain has the ability to spread the toxin throughout the whole truck.”

Sometimes the ingredients are fine but get contaminated once they arrive at the plant. During one small part of the manufacturing process, for example, the ingredients might come in contact with a contaminated piece of equipment, such as a mixer. The entire batch is then compromised.

Common bacteria

Salmonella is a bacteria that is a common cause of food poisoning in humans. In the U.S. there have been a number of recent Salmonella poisonings that have killed of sickened the human population, such as the widespread 2007 contamination of peanuts. In addition to harming humans this bacteria can take a deadly toll on animals.

In recent years manufacturers have stepped up internal controls to keep outbreaks to a minimum, including product tests.

“They are responsible for that and most of them do test, not every single batch but I'm sure they do it internally,” Riaz said. “If I'm running a chart I have a print-out showing I hit my required temperatures and I can prove that.”

Temperature is important because heat at a certain level will kill Salmonella and render it harmless. By ensuring that pet food ingredients are subjected to the required level of heat during the process, manufacturers are better able to control toxins and reduce the instances of food poisoning.

Post-production contamination

PhotoBut once the product leaves the factory the manufacturer loses control, and it turns out that some of the contamination – perhaps a lot – occurs after the finished product is shipped out.

“If you go to the grocery store most of the dog food is stored at a controlled and proper temperature,” Riaz said. “If you buy a large supply at one time, you need to make sure you also store it properly when you get home. Read the instructions on the back. It will tell you exactly how you should store it.”

In some respects, pet food is a lot like people food. The container should be properly closed after use and stored in a cool, dry place not subject to humidity. Pet food, like people food, is subject to spoilage.

While manufacturers have a responsibility to prevent contamination of pet food before it leaves the factory, Riaz suggests consumers also have a responsibility to make sure the food is free of toxins once it is in the home. It's very possible, he says, that consumers themselves are responsible for some of the salmonella poisonings that have been reported.

Consumer responsibility

Photo“It's definitely true,” he said. “Let me give you an example. Sometimes it is the children in the household who feed the dog. Their hands have been everywhere and can be covered with germs. Those germs can then get on the food.”

Just as you wash your hands before preparing food for people, Riaz says consumers should have clean hands when they handle their pet's food. It's a two-way street. After handling pet food you should wash your hands. If there is salmonella on the pet food, that prevents its spread elsewhere.

Unfortunately there is no easy way to tell if pet food is contaminated. However, extreme cases may be visible to a keen eye.

“Some of the toxin can be identifiable,” Riaz said. “It might be a green fungus that forms on it if the food is not properly stored. If it's very humid and not properly stored you could see a lot of fungus grow on it. Obviously you don't want to feed that to your pet.”

Another way to avoid coming in contact with contaminated food is to carefully inspect the package. In the store if you see a bag that is damaged or has a small tear, its contents could easily be contaminated. Not only should you not buy it, you should bring it to the attention of store managers so they can remove it from the shelves.

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Paper or plastic? Activists say it's the wrong question

More cities are taking steps to encourage reusable grocery bags

When you go grocery shopping, the person bagging your groceries will normally ask, “Paper or plastic?” Many consumers don't give it much though...

PhotoWhen you go grocery shopping, the person bagging your groceries will normally ask, “Paper or plastic?” Many consumers don't give it much thought, and without a stated preference, the bagger is likely to use plastic, since it's cheaper.

But environmental activists are stepping up their campaign to urge consumers to always choose an alternative. The reason? Billions of those plastic bags eventually end up in landfills.

In 2008 Whole Foods banned plastic bags from its stores. Since then, some cities like San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., have passed ordinances heavily restricting the use of plastic bags. Other cities are adopting recycling programs, taxes on single-use plastic bags and incentives for shoppers who bring a reusable bag with them when they go to the store.

Worldwide problem

While the U.S. produces and consumes mountains of plastic bags, it's nothing compared to the rest of the world. According to Reusit.com, a recycling advocacy website, as many as one trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide. China, a country of 1.3 billion people, uses three billion plastic bags daily, according to China Trade News.

But switching completely to paper bags isn't a whole lot better, Reuseit.com says. The site notes that paper bags have huge resource requirements for the manufacturing process. It says a plastic bag ban, by itself is “an emotional response” that doesn't address the main issue. 

The U.S. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) agrees. Institute President Robin Wiener recently opposed a single-use plastic bag ban, contending that recycling bags creates jobs—currently employing more than 30,000 people—and brings many other benefits to the struggling U.S. economy.

Instead of bag bans or fees, ISRI says more retailers should offer increased plastic bag collection facilities, since fewer than one percent of plastic bags used each year are recycled. Even so, the rate appears to be rising; ISRI cites 151 million pounds of bags recovered in 2011, up 19% from 2010.

Plastic bag tax

PhotoISRI splits from the activists who favor a tax or fee on plastic bags but that idea seems to be gaining momentum nationwide. A Denver city councilwoman has proposed a five-cent fee on plastic bags used in the city. Elsewhere in the state there is a plastic bag fee already in place in Aspen, Carbondale, Breckenridge and Boulder.

Some manufacturers have begun efforts to produce biodegradable plastic bags as a greener alternative to existing plastic bags. Metabolix, a company that says it is focused on producing products made from renewable resources, manufacturers a line of compostable plastic bags. Metabolix Vice President of Business and Commercial Development Bob Engle says the bags can be reused to line kitchen wastebaskets, replacing the plastic garbage bags consumers normally purchase. 

“They can then be collected in curbside municipal waste collection systems that pick up for industrial composting throughout residential communities,” Engle writes in his latest blog entry. “Furthermore, this mode encourages diversion of food waste from landfills to composters – an additional policy concern in these communities.”

Reusable bags

But activists like those at Reuseit.com are skeptical. They say they oppose biodegradable plastic for the same reason they oppose paper. They, and others, advocate a tax on plastic bags. You can still use one, but it will cost you.

“This market-based solution discourages daily, thoughtless use of plastic bags,” the site says.

If you aren't using plastic, compostable plastic or paper bags, how then are you getting your groceries home. The most common answer is a reusable bag. For more than a decade supermarket chains have encouraged their use since they save the store money on bags.

While these bags can be good for the environment, they could be harmful to you if you don't wash them after each use. An April 2012 survey by the the Home Food Safety program, a collaboration between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and ConAgra Foods, found only 15% of Americans regularly wash their bags, creating a breeding zone for harmful bacteria.

"Cross-contamination occurs when juices from raw meats or germs from unclean objects come in contact with cooked or ready-to-eat foods like breads or produce," registered dietitian and Academy spokesperson Ruth Frechman said at the time. "Unwashed grocery bags are lingering with bacteria which can easily contaminate your foods."

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Feds probe ceiling fires in 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokees

Consumers say the fires started in the headliner near the right-side sun visor

Safety regulators have opened an investigation into reports that the ceilings can catch fire in 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs. The National Highway Traffic...

PhotoSafety regulators have opened an investigation into reports that the ceilings can catch fire in 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probe covers an estimated 146,000 SUVs.

The agency said it has received three reports froom consumers who said the headliner caught fire near the passenger-side sun visor. The investigation could eventually lead to a recall.

"The customers reported a burning odor and visible smoke coming from the headliner while the vehicle was being driven. This was followed by flames from the headliner itself," NHTSA said. "Customers lowered the windows in an effort to clear the smoke but this increased the fire's intensity. All three vehicles had to be extinguished with a fire extinguisher or by the fire department as they continued to burn after the vehicle was turned off."

Burning visor fell off

In one case, the sunroof shattered from the heat and in another the fire spread to the passenger seat when the burning sun visor fell off.

"My son was driving my 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee," said one consumer who complained to NHTSA. "When he was close to my home, he noticed an acrid smell and saw a small amount of smoke coming from the area around the control panel, near the rear view mirror, on the ceiling."

The Jeep was shut down immediately but by the time the fire department arrived, the car had burst into flames, the complaint states.

There have been no reports of injuries, unlike the many deaths attributed to older Jeep Grand Cherokees that critics say have a tendency to burst into flames after rear-end accidents because the gas tank is mounted behind the rear axle in an unprotected position. The exact fatality count is in dispute.  

"The known toll now stands at 185 fatal fire crashes with 270 deaths and numerous burn injuries," Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety said in a 2011 letter to Chrysler Group LLC Chairman Sergio Marchionne.

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Lyme disease may be more prevalent than we think

The CDC says the number of reported cases may not even be close

Each year, more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention )CDC), making it the most commonly reported ti...

PhotoEach year, more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), making it the most commonly reported tick-borne illness in the United States.

But that number could be off by a country mile.

A preliminary estimate released recently by the CDC indicates that the number of Americans diagnosed with Lyme disease each year is actually around 300,000 -- roughly 10 times higher than the yearly reported number. That estimate was presented recently in Boston at the 2013 International Conference on Lyme Borreliosis and Other Tick-Borne Diseases. 

Lyme disease studies

The early estimate is based on findings from three CDC studies that use different methods, but all aim to define the approximate number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease each year.

The first project analyzes medical claims information for approximately 22 million insured people annually for six years, the second project is based on a survey of clinical laboratories and the third project analyzes self-reported Lyme disease cases from a survey of the general public.

The new estimate supports studies published in the 1990s indicating that the true number of cases is between 3- and 12-fold higher than the number of reported cases.

“We know that routine surveillance only gives us part of the picture, and that the true number of illnesses is much greater,” said Paul Mead, M.D., M.P.H, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for CDC’s Lyme disease program. “This new preliminary estimate confirms that Lyme disease is a tremendous public health problem in the United States, and clearly highlights the urgent need for prevention.”

Prevention

CDC continues to analyze the data in the three studies to refine the estimates and better understand the overall burden of Lyme disease in the United States and will publish finalized estimates when the studies are complete. Efforts are also underway at CDC and by other researchers to identify novel methods to kill ticks and prevent illness in people.

“We know people can prevent tick bites through steps like using repellents and tick checks. Although these measures are effective, they aren’t fail-proof and people don’t always use them,” said Lyle R. Petersen, M.D., M.P.H, director of CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. “We need to move to a broader approach to tick reduction, involving entire communities, to combat this public health problem.”

This community approach would involve homeowners trying to kill ticks in their own yards, and communities addressing a variety of issues. Among these issues are rodents that carry the Lyme disease bacteria, deer that play a key role in the ticks’ lifecycle, suburban planning and the interaction between deer, rodents, ticks, and humans. All must be addressed to fight Lyme disease effectively.

Most Lyme disease cases reported to CDC through national surveillance are concentrated heavily in the Northeast and upper Midwest, with 96% of cases in 13 states. Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

What to do

CDC recommends people take steps to help prevent Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases:

  • Wear repellent
  • Check for ticks daily
  • Shower soon after being outdoors
  • Call your doctor if you get a fever or rash
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Feds issue new standards for baby cribs with play yards

New rules aim to prevent improper assembly, which can cause catastrophic collapse

Baby Trend play yard recalled in 2001The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued new construction and testing standards for baby c...

Photo
Baby Trend play yard recalled in 2001

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued new construction and testing standards for baby cribs with play yards, hoping to prevent serious injuries and fatalities caused by assembly errors.

The new rules grow out of an incident in which an infant died when her mattress tilted, causing her to roll into a corner of the crib and suffocate.

The agency said the crib's assembler did not notice that vital supporting rods were missing and that the product might partially collapse without them.

"End supported rods, which attached two of the bassinet accessory's four sides to the play yard rails, were omitted during assembly. The other two sides were attached with plastic clips. After the infant was left to sleep, one of the plastic clips that attached the bassinet accessory to the play yard detached," the CPSC said in publishing the new rules in the Federal Register.

"Because the support rods were not in place to secure the bassinet accessory, the bassinet sleep surface tilted, and the infant slid into the corner of the tilted bassinet accessory and suffocated," the CPSC said.

The new standards require baby cribs and play yards to be permanently attached to one another, or that the bassinet accessory pass a battery of "catastrophic failure" tests meant to make misassembly obvious.

The new rule becomes effective Feb. 29, 2014 and will apply to all play yards manufactured in the U.S. and to all imported play yards.

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Precious metal marketers settle FTC charges

Consumers allegedly were not given the full story on their “investment”

Telemarketers who allegedly conned older consumers out of nearly $5 million have been ordered to knock it off. The settlement with the Federal Trade Commi...

PhotoTelemarketers who allegedly conned older consumers out of nearly $5 million have been ordered to knock it off.

The settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) resolves charges against Sterling Precious Metals LLC, Matthew Meyer and Francis Ryan Zofay for promising consumers they could profit by investing in precious metals with little risk of loss, without telling them they probably would have to pay more money later or lose their investment.

Settlement terms

In addition to the ban against selling precious metals, the settlement order permanently prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting material facts about any products and services, selling or otherwise benefiting from consumers’ personal information, failing to dispose properly of customer information, and failing to provide consumer information to the FTC so it can administer consumer redress. The order also requires them to record all of their telemarketing calls for seven years.

In addition, the order imposes a judgment of more than $4.7 million against Meyer and Zofay, which will be partially suspended based on their ability to pay and the surrender of Meyer’s leased cars -- a 2013 Bentley Continental and a 2012 Land Rover. The full judgment will become due immediately if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

The Commission will also seek to dismiss Kerry Marshall as a defendant.

What to do

If you are considering investing in precious metals, you might want to check out these FTC publications: Investing in Gold, Investing in Bullion and Bullion Coins, and Investing in Collectible Coins.

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Study: If you had siblings growing up, you'll have a stronger marriage

And researchers explain why that is. Well, sort of

If you grew up with siblings, you have a lower chance of getting divorced as an adult. At least that's what researchers from Ohio State University say.Do...

PhotoIf you grew up with a bunch of siblings, you have a lower chance of getting divorced as an adult. At least that's what researchers at Ohio State University say.

Doug Downey, professor of sociology at the university, said there isn't a vast difference between people who grew up an only child and people who had one or two siblings. But that's where the similarity ends. 

"When you compare children from large families to those with only one child, there is a meaningful gap in the probability of divorce," said Downey.

The study's co-author, Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, said the research team wasn't surprised by the findings, because they figured growing up with siblings gave people an advantage in marriage -- since they had to learn things like sharing and proper communication when they were children. 

But the researchers were surprised by how significant the effects were. 

"We found that the real story appears to be how family dynamics change incrementally with the addition of each sibling," she said. "More siblings means more experience dealing with others and that seems to provide additional help in dealing with a marriage relationship as an adult."

Findings were consistent

In the study, the research team interviewed nearly 57,000 adults in the U.S. and found that the more brothers and sisters a person had growing up, the better equipped that person would be in handling certain marital situations. And these findings were consistent among various age groups.

"Siblings help protect against divorce among adults now just as much as they did 50 years ago," said Bobbitt-Zeher. In addition, she said regardless of how a person grew up, in terms of things like socioeconomic status, religious affiliation or family structure, the number of siblings that person had still makes a huge difference when it comes to marriage.

"When we added in all of these controls, nothing took away the relationship we saw between siblings and later divorce," said Bobbitt-Zeher. "None of these other factors explained it away."

But Downey and his team still looked at other reasons why kids in larger families seem to be more successful in the marriage department.

"One argument might be that it isn't siblings that matter, but some other difference between large families and small families," said Downey. "It could have been that small families are more likely to have a single parent, or have some other issue that may hurt children in their future marriage relationship."

But why?

Although the researchers found this particular correlation between siblings and a lower chance of divorce to be consistent, they still haven't carved out an exact reason why. Downey did say he believed it had a lot to do with communication and learning, plus getting to practice how to discuss things and be patient.

"Growing up in a family with siblings, you develop a set of skills for negotiation both negative and positive interactions," he said. "You have to consider other people's points of view, learn how to talk through problems. The more siblings you have, the more opportunities you have to practice those skills." 

According to the American Psychological Association, 40% to 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, and based on several studies, things like money and bad communication are the primary reasons. 

"Which means a person shouldn't be worried if he or she didn't grow up with brother or sisters, because divorces usually  happen for a number of reasons," said Bobbitt-Zeher. "There are so many factors that are related to divorce, and the number of siblings you have is just one of them," she said. 

"There is a relationship between the number of siblings and divorce, but it is not something that is going to doom your marriage if you don't have a brother or sister."

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Back to school is more than the three Rs

Here are some tips for a safer and healthier year

If you have kids, you have either sent them off to school for the new year or are preparing to do so. But heading back to class involves more than schedul...

PhotoIf you have kids, you have probably either sent them off to school for the new year or are preparing to do so.

But heading back to class involves more than schedules, books, new clothes and the like. There is also the health aspect -- things like eating healthy and staying active, being up to date on immunizations and knowing the signs of bullying.

The experts at the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  offer the following tips for ensuring healthy and safe school experience.

Eat healthy and stay active

Because kids spend the vast majority of their day at school, it’s a place that can have a big impact in all aspects of their lives. Schools can help students learn about the importance of eating healthier and being more physically active, which can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases.

The health of students -- what they eat and how much physical activity they get -- is linked to their academic success. Early research is also starting to show that healthy school lunches may help to lower obesity rates. Health and academics are linked – so time spent for health is also time spent for learning.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that children and adolescents limit their intake of solid fats, cholesterol, sodium, added sugars, and refined grains. Eating a healthy breakfast is associated with improved cognitive function. Young people aged 6-17 should participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Research shows that physical activity can help cognitive skills, attitudes, concentration, attention and improve classroom behavior -- so students are ready to learn.

Get vaccinated

Getting your children and teens ready to go back to school is the perfect time to make sure they are up-to-date with their immunizations. Vaccination protects students from diseases and keeps them healthy. The recommended immunizations for children birth through 18 years old can be found here. If you don’t have health insurance, or if it does not cover vaccines, the Vaccines for Children program may be able to help.

Heads up: concussions

Each year, emergency departments around the country treat an estimated 173,285 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs -- including concussions -- among children and teens, from birth to 19 years. A concussion is a type of TBI, caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that can change the way your brain normally works. Concussions can also occur from a fall or a blow to the body that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth.

Children and teens are more likely to get a concussion and take longer to recover than adults. Concussion symptoms may appear mild, but the injury can lead to problems affecting how a person thinks, learns, acts, and/or feels. Concussions can occur outside of sports or during any sport or recreation activity, so all parents need to learn the signs and know what to do if a concussion occurs with the ABC’s of concussions: Assess the situation, Be alert for signs and symptoms, and Contact a healthcare professional.

Bullying

Bullying is a form of youth violence and can result in physical injury and social and emotional distress. In 2011, 20% of high school students reported being bullied on school property and 16% reported being bullied electronically through technology, also known as electronic aggression (bullying that occurs through e-mail, a chat room, instant messaging, a website, text messaging, or videos or pictures posted on websites or sent through cell phones) or cyberbullying.

Kids who are victimized are at increased risk for mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, psychosomatic complaints such as headaches, and poor school adjustment. Those who bully others are at increased risk for substance use, academic problems, and violence later in adolescence and adulthood. The ultimate goal is to stop bullying before it starts.

Some school-based prevention methods include a whole school anti-bullying policy, promoting cooperation, improving supervision of students, and using school rules and behavior management techniques in the classroom and throughout the school to detect and address bullying and providing consequences for bullying.

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New home sales collapse in July

Home prices, meanwhile, head higher

After a strong surge in June, sales of new single-family houses plunged 13 .4% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 394,000. That's the largest...

PhotoAfter a strong surge in June, sales of new single-family houses plunged 13.4% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 394,000. That's the largest percentage decline in more than three years and brings the sales total to its lowest level since last October.

Analysts surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for July sales of 485,000 new homes.

Adding to the disappointment was the government's downward revision of the June total to 455,000 from the 497,000 initially reported. Still, the July total is 6.8% above the estimate of 369,000 a year earlier.

A silver lining

There was some good news in the joint report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The median sales price of new houses was $257,200 -- a gain of 8.3%, while the average sales price was $322,700, up $27,700 from the previous month.

However, inventories were higher at the end of July, with an estimated 171,000 new houses for sale, versus 161,000 at the end of June. That represents a supply of 5.2 months at the current sales rate.

The decline in new home sales comes in stark contrast to the existing-home market. Earlier this week, the National Association of Realtors reported sales of previously-owned houses surged 6.5% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.39 million homes -- their highest point since November 2009.

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Cancer researchers want more e-cigarette study

But some concede this smoking substitute could prove beneficial

Major tobacco companies are showing enthusiastic interest in electronic, or e-cigarettes. And why not? These devices deliver the nicotine in a flavored vap...

PhotoMajor tobacco companies are showing enthusiastic interest in electronic, or e-cigarettes. And why not? These devices deliver the nicotine in a flavored vapor instead of smoke. To a large extent they are unregulated and untaxed.

Tobacco, on the other hand, is both highly regulated and heavily taxed. Most public areas now forbid cigarette smoking. That's not true, however, for e-cigarettes and may be one reasons smokers have been spending billions of dollars to buy them. It allows them to enjoy many of the pleasures of smoking in places where they can't light up a cigarette.

In June, Altria Group announced plans to introduce an e-cigarette called the Mark Ten. Reynolds American has already developed its line of e-cigarettes while Lorillard got into the business by acquiring an existing brand of e-cigarettes, Blu.

Increasing scrutiny

With the nation's three largest tobacco companies getting into the business of e-cigarettes, regulators and health researchers are taking a closer look. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is said to be preparing regulations for this new product, a move welcomed by some in the industry.

Meanwhile, the public interest health groups that have waged a long, hard war against tobacco are now viewing the booming sale of e-cigarettes with growing unease.

“The growing use of e-cigarettes and the unproven health claims being made about them underscore the need for the Food and Drug Administration to quickly assert authority over all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes,” Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a February 2013 statement. “The FDA announced in December 2010 that it intended to do so, but over two years later, it has yet to act.”

It takes time to draft regulations, as well as conduct comprehensive health studies on these products. To date, that data isn't available. At the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, cancer prevention experts Paul Cinciripini, Ph.D., director of the Tobacco Treatment Program, and Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Tobacco Outreach Education Program, caution that more research is needed to understand the potential role of e-cigarettes in smoking cessation.

Potential benefit

Photo“Independent studies must rigorously investigate e-cigarettes, as there’s considerable potential benefit in these products if they’re regulated and their safety is ensured,” Cinciripini said. “But promoting the e-cigarettes already on the shelves as ‘safe’ is misleading and, if looked at as a harmless alternative to cigarettes, could potentially lead to a new generation of smokers more likely to become tobacco dependent.”

E-cigarettes are nicotine delivery vehicles, pure and simple. If a consumer is already hooked on nicotine, makers of e-cigarettes say their product is a safer way to get that nicotine fix than lighting up a cigarettes, which contains about 6,000 other chemicals besides nicotine.

Unlike anti-tobacco activists who pretty much view e-cigarettes as a threat, Cinciripini and Prokhorov don't rule out e-cigarettes as an effective and valuable tool to help people give up tobacco. But the problem, they say, is the unknowns. E-cigarettes might be safe, but no one really knows.

What users should know

Before using an e-cigarette, these researchers say consumers should understand that they are not yet regulated and there has been little research done on their effectiveness as a smoking-cessation tool. Consumers might be better off, they say, sticking to approved methods to quit smoking.

EPhotoven so, they say e-cigarettes might eventually prove to be a safe and effective alternatives to smoking.

“Reduced exposure to harmful chemicals warrants research of these products as a smoking cessation vehicle,” Cinciripini said.

But there could also be a downside. Branded as “safer,” marketed in a variety of colors and flavors and promoted by celebrities, Prokhorov and Cinciripini worry that e-cigarettes could become a hook for future smokers.

“E-cigarettes are a novel way to introduce tobacco smoking to young people, and their potential ‘gateway’ role should be a concern for parents and health officials alike,” Prokhorov said.

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UPS loses priest's clothes, seeks absolution

UPS blames the UPS Store for misaddressing the package and refusing to help the consumer

It’s a common trick among cross-country travelers to avoid the burden of heavy packages or high baggage fees by sending items to yourself rather than...

PhotoIt’s a common trick among cross-country travelers to avoid the burden of heavy packages or high baggage fees by sending items to yourself rather than carrying them with you on a plane or train.

But this only works if the shipping company actually follows through on its job of delivering your package to you, which often isn't the case.

Last March, a Long Island, N.Y., priest -- we'll call him Father Jim -- learned the hard way not to make this assumption with UPS — or at least not with its independent franchisees. 

On March 6, during a trip to California, Father Jim visited a UPS Store in the town of American Canyon, at  101 W. American Canyon Road, to ship about $500 worth of new clothes and shoes to his home in Massapequa Park, N.Y. The package never arrived. UPS tracking information showed that by March 12, Father Jim’s clothes had made it as far as a shipping dock in Plainfield, Indiana. 

 

And then — nothing. Back home on Long Island, Father Jim called UPS customer service, which told him to call the UPS Store in American Canyon, which did not return his calls. Nor did the UPS Store in American Canyon return messages from ConsumerAffairs. 

On April 11, more than five weeks after Father Jim shipped the package, his assistant Patricia called UPS customer service on Father Jim’s behalf and was told again to direct her complaints to the American Canyon store, since it was “sort of” a franchise. 

After an inquiry from ConsumerAffairs, the UPS Store headquarters looked into the situation and found that the problem seems to have originated with the local store.

"It appears this is a case of a mislabeled package, not a lost or misdirected package. We have discovered that The UPS Store incorrectly labeled the package with the wrong address," said spokesman Brandon Olson. 

"We take full responsibility for the mistake and will be contacting [Father Jim] today to issue a reimbursement check for $125.95 ($25.95 for shipping charges and $100 for declared value coverage). Unfortunately, it appears [Father Jim] did not purchase additional declared value coverage, so UPS's maximum liability for the loss is $100," Olson added.

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United Parcel Service (ups) Aug. 22, 2013, 6:04 p.m.
Consumers rate United Parcel Service (ups)

Olson said it's important for consumers who ship a package through a UPS Store to deal with the store when problems arise.

"When consumers ship a package through The UPS Store, any questions concerning the shipment must be directed to The UPS Store, as The UPS Store is the shipper of record. UPS will only work with the shipper of record," he said. "This why UPS continued to direct [Father Jim] to contact The UPS Store.

"One of the benefits of using The UPS Store is that the consumer doesn't have to sit on the phone with UPS when addressing a claim. We can facilitate the claims process, saving the consumer time," Olson said, while admitting the process didn't work so well in this case.

"Normally, our franchise owners and their staffs are very good at communicating with customers and facilitating claims. Unfortunately, in this case, the store was not as responsive, and we will be addressing this with the owner and providing him with additional training," he said.

Not unusual

While Father Jim gets at least a little satisfaction at last, incidents involving lost packages aren't as uncommon as one might hope. At least 115 consumers have complained to ConsumerAffairs about UPS losing their shipments. In Tennessee, a consumer named Harrison said he shipped a box full of machine parts.

"The package was scanned in at the Memphis hub on 2/20/2013. On 2/21/2013, the parts were missing and the box was discarded. Someone working the night shift on 2/20/2013 stole $7,000 worth of gun parts," Harrison said. "After talking to 8 different 'customer service' reps, they are not looking for the lost parts and will not pay for the stolen shipment."

Lynn of Woodstock, Ga., said she was a regular customer at the UPS Store in her town until earlier this year, when she paid $12.93 to ship a $10.50 box of candy to her son. When the candy didn't show up, Lynn called and UPS said it would investige.

"Weeks later, I received a call that it was officially lost and they would reimburse me the shipping charge and the cost of the item. I did not have the candy receipt so I found the item online for $9.00 and emailed this to the store. On Feb. 25, they called and said my check was at the store. It was for $16.90."

Lynn thinks this is outrageous.

"So not only did they not provide the service I paid them for or catch their own mistake, they could not even reimburse me the full (very modest) $9.00. When I asked for a complaint form, they said, 'There isn't one.'"

Read more consumers' experiences with UPS.

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CBS signs with Verizon, offering consumers an alternative to Time Warner

Time Warner has blacked out CBS in major markets in a contract dispute

While the struggle between CBS and Time Warner over license fees is an inconvenience for millions of consumers, it's turning into an attractive opportunity...

PhotoWhile the struggle between CBS and Time Warner Cable over license fees is an inconvenience for millions of consumers, it's turning into an attractive opportunity for Time Warner's competitors.

Meanwhile, in a gesture that gives new meaning to the word "token," Time Warner said it would give its customers free TV antennas so they can try to pull in a CBS signal while the dispute drags on. Of course, some of those customers just may discover the antenna works so well they don't need Time Warner anymore, but who cares about them anyway?

Verizon is the latest to take advantage of the situation, signing a three-year deal that will provide carriage of CBS stations to FiOS customers in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas, where about 3.5 million Time Warner subscribers have been unable to get CBS programming through their cable service since the dispute began.

CBS President Les Moonves said the deal snapped up by Verizon was "almost exactly the same" as the one rejected by Time Warner.

“We’ve reached this agreement in partnership with CBS for our customers, so that they may continue to enjoy CBS content on FiOS,” said Terry Denson, Vice President of Video Content and Strategy at Verizon. “Verizon continues to address areas of change where necessary in current policies to better reflect the interests of consumers.”

Streaming rights

Time Warner Aug. 22, 2013, 5:03 p.m.
Consumers rate Time Warner

The agreement allows CBS to retain its digital streaming rights, something that's been an issue in the Time Warner talks.  “FiOS TV will also continue to provide – free to the viewer – CBS programming via Verizon’s industry-leading video on demand services to all subscribers,” Moonves said in a statement.

In addition, CBS said the CBS Sports Network will "dramatically increase its distribution with FiOS." Separately, CBS and Verizon have an existing agreement for FiOS to carry Showtime Networks and Smithsonian that will continue in the years to come as well, the companies said.

CBS has also reached agreement for Dish Network to carry its programming and Radio Shack and other electronics retailers report growing demand for TV antennas while Aereo, which distributes broadcast TV over the Internet, has been quickly expanding the list of cities it serves, including many affected by the Time Warner dispute.

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Mortgage servicing problems turn up at banks

Federal examiners also find lack of “robust compliance systems”

Banks and nonbanks just aren't getting it done when it comes to mortgage servicing and following federal laws. That's the conclusion drawn by a report issu...

PhotoBanks and nonbanks just aren't getting it done when it comes to mortgage servicing and following federal laws. That's the conclusion drawn by a report  issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

“Our examinations of banks and nonbanks allow us to correct problems before more consumers are affected,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s report highlights both the mortgage servicing problems throughout the industry and the challenges of making sure that nonbanks are following federal law. Fixing both is a priority for us.”

Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the CFPB supervises depository institutions and credit unions with total assets of more than $10 billion, and their affiliates. It also has authority to supervise nonbanks regardless of size in certain specific markets: payday lenders, private education lenders, and mortgage companies including originators, brokers, and servicers. For other nonbank markets for consumer financial products or services, the CFPB has the authority to supervise “larger participants.”

The report is part of a series of supervision reports that the CFPB issues regularly. It highlights examination work completed between November 2012 and June 2013.

Mortgage servicing problems

Mortgage servicers are responsible for collecting payments from mortgage borrowers on behalf of loan owners. They also typically handle customer service, escrow accounts, collections, loan modifications and foreclosures. In supervising both bank and nonbank servicers, CFPB examiners have uncovered problems that can be harmful to consumers. These include:

Sloppy account transfers: The rights to manage a loan are frequently bought and sold among servicers. With these transfers among institutions, the CFPB discovered several risks that can cause consumers to miss payments, delay important processes, or affect the good standing of a mortgage borrower’s loan. For example, examiners found:

  • Disorganized and unlabeled paperwork, including important loss mitigation documents

  • Failures by mortgage servicers to tell consumers when the servicing of the loan is transferred to another company; and

  • A lack of protocols related to the handling of key documents, such as trial modification agreements.

Poor payment processing: Servicers are responsible for processing loan payments and handling tax and insurance payments through escrow accounts. If they do not perform their duties correctly, it can result in extra costs and hassles for the consumer. In its exams, the CFPB found:

  • Inadequate notice to borrowers of a change in address to send payments, resulting in late payments;

  • Excessive delays in handling the cancellation of private mortgage insurance payments, resulting in late fees; and

  • Property taxes being paid later than expected, resulting in borrowers’ inability to claim a tax deduction for the year they planned.

Loss mitigation mistakes: Servicers are also responsible for helping qualified struggling borrowers with alternative plans for repayments, if such plans are available. So when they fall short of their responsibilities, consumers can be sent to foreclosure unnecessarily. CFPB examiners discovered several problems, including:

  • Inconsistent communications with borrowers, giving them conflicting instructions for loss mitigation processes;

  • Inconsistent loss mitigation underwriting, waiving certain fees and interest charges for some borrowers but not others;

  • Long application review periods, making the loss mitigation process especially hard on consumers whose accounts are also dual-tracked for foreclosure;

  • Incomplete loan files, making it challenging for consumers to find out about their loan modification applications when they call the servicer for help;

  • Poor procedures for requesting missing or incomplete information from consumers, making it difficult for consumers to provide the correct documentation; and

  • Deceptive communications to borrowers about the status of loan modification applications, leading some consumers to faster foreclosure.

In all cases where the CFPB found mortgage servicing problems, examiners alerted the company to its concerns, specified necessary remedial measures, and, when appropriate, opened CFPB investigations for potential enforcement actions. Corrective measures included making sure that important papers were filed appropriately, that servicers improved their policies and procedures governing the handling of loans in loss mitigation, and that consumers were treated according to the law.

The CFPB has also directed servicers to engage in specific corrective actions appropriate to the circumstances, such as: reviewing loss mitigation decisions and related fees or charges to borrowers to determine whether any reimbursement was appropriate; conducting periodic testing to monitor areas of concern; and providing reports to the CFPB on their progress completing the corrective actions.

Nonbanks lack compliance management systems

The CFPB expects the companies it supervises -- regardless of size -- to have fully developed compliance management systems to ensure all federal consumer financial protection laws are followed.

Prior to the CFPB’s existence, many supervised nonbanks had not been subject to federal or even state examinations. CFPB examiners found that many nonbanks are more likely to lack robust compliance management systems. The investigation found that many nonbank institutions are:

  • Missing a comprehensive consumer compliance program: The CFPB found that often individual branches of a business were looking out for relevant federal laws without an overarching system in place at the company. This creates a lack of consistency in following the laws across products and across locations. The result can be erratic treatment of consumer problems. It can also mean that root causes of regulatory violations go undetected.
  • Lacking formal policies and procedures: Not having formal, written documents that both detail consumer compliance responsibilities and instruct employees on the appropriate methods for executing these responsibilities can lead to inconsistencies, sloppy recordkeeping, and ultimately, consumer harm because nobody at the institution is clearly responsible to make sure laws are being followed.
  • Forgoing independent consumer compliance audits: Independent audits are a good way for a company to routinely conduct quality-control checks on its operations. A compliance audit program provides a board of directors or its designated committees with information about whether policies and standards are being implemented. Without such a program, it is difficult to recognize any significant deficiencies in an institution’s compliance management system.
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Survey: Americans not as concerned about drunken, aggressive driving

New carefree attitude coincides with a 5.3% increase in traffic fatalities

Cars may be getting safer but could it be that drivers are getting more careless? That seems to be the message behind a new AAA survey that finds Amer...

PhotoCars may be getting safer but could it be that drivers are getting more careless? That seems to be the message behind a new AAA survey that finds Americans are less likely to perceive a serious threat from dangerous driving behaviors such as drunk, aggressive or drowsy driving.

The study looked at four years of public surveys conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The decreased concern is accompanied by an estimated 5.3 percent increase in annual traffic fatalities, totaling more than 34,000 in 2012. This is the first annual increase in seven years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Motorists may be growing more complacent about potential safety risks behind the wheel,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “A ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude remains common with many motorists consistently admitting to engaging in the same dangerous behaviors for which they would condemn other drivers.”

Survey results

Survey results during the previous four years show decreasing concern for dangerous driving behaviors:

  • The number of people who believe driving after drinking is a serious threat declined from a near universal 90 percent in 2009 to 69 percent in 2012.
  • The number of people who consider drowsy driving a very serious threat declined from 71 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2012.
  • The number of people who believe that texting or emailing while driving is a very serious threat declined from 87 percent in 2009 to 81 percent in 2012. The number of people who admit to texting while driving increased from 21 percent to 26 percent during the same period.
  • The number of people who consider red-light running to be completely unacceptable declined from 77 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2012. More than one-third (38 percent) admitted to running a red light within the previous month.

“We have made great strides in recent years to reduce road deaths, but there are still too many needless fatalities caused by dangerous driving,” said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “It is clear that more must be done to address the dangers of drunk, aggressive and drowsy driving to stem this concerning trend.”

Someone dies on America’s roadways every 15 minutes.  Fatalities include drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists and every other kind of road user. Car crashes affect young people disproportionately by killing more people aged 5-34 than any other cause of death.  More than 2.3 million people annually also suffer serious injuries from crashes.

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Mortgage rates surge to 2013's highest levels

The Federal Reserve's bond purchase program is cited

Average rates for fixed mortgage rates (FRMs) shot to their highest levels of the year this week as the market focused on the the expectant release of the...

PhotoAverage rates for fixed mortgage rates (FRMs) shot to their highest levels of the year this week as the market focused on the the expectant release of the Federal Reserve's comments around taper timing of its bond purchase program.

According to Freddie Mac, the 30-year (FRM) averaged4.58% with an average 0.8 point for the week ending August 22, 2013, up from 18 basis points from last week's average of 4.40%. A year ago at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.66%.

The 15-year FRM averaged 3.60% this week with an average 0.7 point, compared with last week when it averaged 3.44% and a year ago when it was 2.89%.

The average for the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 3.21% with an average 0.5 point, versus 3.23% a week ago and 2.80% a year ago.

One-year Treasury-indexed ARMs averaged 2.67% with an average 0.5 point -- unchanged from last week. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.66%.

"Fixed mortgage rates continued to follow bond yields higher leading up to the August 21st release of the Federal Reserve monetary policy committee's minutes for July,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac. “In its July 30th and 31st meetings, the committee members were broadly comfortable with a plan to start reducing its bond purchases later this year, although a few emphasized the importance of being patient.”

Meeting participants acknowledged mortgage rate increases might restrain housing market activity, but several members expressed confidence the housing recovery would be resilient in the face of higher rates. Existing-home sales increased in July to the strongest pace since November 2009 and homebuilder confidence in August rose to its highest reading since November 2005. Both increases, Nothaft points out, occurred after mortgage rates had risen from their spring-time lows.

Bankrate mortgage survey

Fixed mortgage rates, as tracked by Bankrate.com, also were higher, with with the rate for the 30-year FRM climbing to the highest point in more than two years at 4.74%.

The average 15-year FRM also surged, rising to 3.75%, while the larger jumbo 30-year FRM hit 4.88%. ARMs were mostly higher, reaching levels not seen since April 2011. The popular 5-year ARM is now 3.69%, while the 7-year ARM stands at 4.04%.

As recently as May 1, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate 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 4.74%, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $1,042.09 -- a difference of almost $142 per month for anyone who waited.

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Chicago hospital accidentally destroyed frozen sperm

Dozens of patients lost their chance to reproduce, they charge in a class action lawsuit

Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital negligently destroyed frozen sperm samples, costing dozens of men and women their chance to have children, a serie...

PhotoChicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital negligently destroyed frozen sperm samples, costing dozens of men and women their chance to have children, a series of 40 lawsuit charges.

All of the 40 plaintiffs say they have medical conditions that threaten or have already destroyed their fertility. The frozen sperm represented their only chance to reproduce, Courthouse News Service reported.

"Three of the plaintiffs were minors at the time, the youngest was just 14 years old with a rare form of cancer," said attorney Matthew T. Jenkins in a statement. "Other plaintiffs include a 33-year-old man who has leukemia and was told that his radical chemotherapy treatments would likely make him infertile; a 26-year-old man who suffers from an illness that could render him infertile; and a 48-year-old man who had his sperm preserved because he too suffers from an illness that could render him infertile."

But in April 2012, the cryopreservation and storage procedure at the hospital failed, allowing the frozen specimens to melt, the suits charge. The plaintiffs claim the hospital "failed to adequately respond when it knew, or should have known, that its cryopreservation and storage system failed."

A Cook County judge has granted an emergency bill of discovery ordering Northwestern to turn over documents relating to the cryopreservation system, and permitting experts to inspect the storage facility, Jenkins said.

The hospital has acknowledged that the cryogenic storage tank "malfunctioned," and that a round-the-clock alarm system failed to alert employees of the failure, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

"We deeply regret that this occurred, and understand how upsetting this can be to our patients," the foundation that operates the hospital said in the statement. 

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The economy: home prices, jobless claims rise

Yet another indication that the housing comeback is for real

The value of what is probably your largest asset continues to rise. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) says its House Price Index (HPI) was up was ...

PhotoThe value of what is probably your largest asset continues to rise.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) says its House Price Index (HPI) was up was up 0.7% in June, and that prices in the second quarter were up 7.2% from the same period a year earlier. The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“The housing market experienced one of its strongest quarters since the boom in the middle of the last decade,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis.

Of the nine census divisions, the Pacific division experienced the strongest increase in the latest quarter, posting a 4.6% increase and a 16.2% increase since last year. House prices were weakest in the East South Central division, where prices increased 0.9% from the prior quarter.

The full report is available on the FHFA website.

Jobless claims

PhotoSeparately, the government reported first time applications for state jobless benefits rose by 13,000 in the week ending August 17 -- to a seasonally adjusted total of 336,000.

Analysts surveyed by Briefing.com, who were projecting a larger increase, say the current level of suggests a gain in payrolls of about 200,000 per month.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate picture of the labor market, was down 2,250 to 330,500. During the past four weeks, the moving average has dropped to its lowest level since November 2007, which analysts take as a sign that labor market conditions are improving.

The complete weekly jobless claims report can be found on the Labor Department website

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Debt "relief" company draws fire from the feds

Morgan Drexen is accused of charging illegal fees and lying to consumers

Charging illegal upfront fees and deceiving consumers are among the charges facing Morgan Drexen, Inc., in a lawsuit filed by the Consumer Financial Protec...

PhotoCharging illegal upfront fees and deceiving consumers are among the charges facing Morgan Drexen, Inc., in a lawsuit filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The agency accuses the Nevada corporation of falsely claiming that it does not charge consumers upfront fees for debt-relief services and falsely representing to consumers that they will become debt free in months if they work with Morgan Drexen.

“This company took advantage of people who were struggling,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “The company charged consumers illegal fees and deceived them about the services provided. We will hold them accountable for these actions.”

Morgan Drexen is a nationwide debt-settlement company that was founded by its its president and chief executive officer, Walter Ledda, in 2007. Ledda, who is also named in the suit, maintains a 93% stake in the company and plays an active role in the company’s business strategies and practices.

Rules violations alleged

The CFPB contends the defendants have violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The TSR prohibits deception in telemarketing and generally bars debt-relief providers from charging a fee for any debt-relief service until it has actually settled, reduced, or otherwise altered the terms of at least one of the consumer’s debts. Dodd-Frank prohibits deceptive acts or practices in the consumer financial marketplace.

When consumers sign up for Morgan Drexen’s services, the company presents them with two contracts -- one for debt-settlement services, and the other for bankruptcy-related services. Based on its investigation, however, CFPB believes that little to no bankruptcy work is actually performed for consumers, who are are nevertheless charged fees.

According to the bureau, the bankruptcy-related contract is a ruse designed to disguise the illegal upfront fees the company is charging for debt-relief services as bankruptcy-related fees. The investigation has revealed that, since October 2010, more than 22,000 Morgan Drexen consumers have enrolled in this program and have been charged millions of dollars in upfront fees for debt-relief services.

Misleading claims

The CFPB also claims Morgan Drexen has violated both the Dodd-Frank Act and the TSR by making the following false and misleading claims in its advertisements:

  • No upfront fees: The company claims consumers will not pay upfront fees for debt-relief services, when, in reality, they typically pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in upfront fees.
  • Debt free in months: Morgan Drexen says consumers will be “debt free in months” when, in fact, only a tiny fraction of consumers who work with the company ever become debt free.

Through the lawsuit, the CFPB seeks to stop the unlawful practices of Morgan Drexen and Ledda. The bureau has asked the court to impose penalties on the company and Ledda for their conduct and require that restitution be paid to consumers who have been harmed.

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Hoarding: how your possessions can take control

It's a serious problem for a growing number of people

One aspect of our consumer society is that we are always buying things. Some things, like food and beverages, we consume and replace. But other things are ...

PhotoOne aspect of our consumer society is that we are always buying things. Some things, like food and beverages, we consume and replace. But other things are possessions that tend to accumulate.

Every once in a while, when the clutter gets too great, we gather up things to take to the thrift store or hold a yard sale. At least, that's what most people do.

But some just can't seem to part with something once they've owned it. The possessions, unused and often forgotten, just pile up. These people eventually are surrounded by their “things,” to the point that friends and family members can't help but notice.

Real and serious

These people are called “hoarders,” and psychologists say it's a very real and serious emotional impairment.

“Hoarding, also called compulsive hoarding and compulsive hoarding syndrome, may be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),” the Mayo Clinic says on its website. “But many people who hoard don't have other OCD-related symptoms.” 

What is obvious to everyone else is often lost on the person who hoards. If they don't see it as a problem it makes changing their behavior all the more difficult. But doctors say treatment can help hoarders to live safer, more enjoyable lives.

What problem?

But what's behind this compulsive behavior? Because hoarders don't really consider it a problem, it's hard for clinicians to get a lot of insight into what's going on. A 2007 study found some common symptoms.

For example, hoarders might collect things others might consider worthless, such as old newspapers and junk mail. They might collect consumer items that no longer work and have piles of clothes they could not possibly wear.

The home is likely so full of clutter that large areas of it cannot be used for their intended purpose. Kitchens may be crammed with so much stuff they aren't usable for food preparation. Bathtubs may be so filled with items  the hoarder simply doesn't bathe.

Buried Alive

While they don't recognize a problem, hoarders might feel embarrassed by the clutter and not allow visitors, closing themselves off to social interaction. The condition of common enough that the TLC cable network airs a series called “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” The series showcases bizarre examples of hoarding and tries to explore the psychology behind it.

The International OCD Foundation has set up a special Hoarding Center to deal with the problem. The Center provides help for hoarders and their families, including links to self-help and support groups, therapy and a treatment provider list. 

The Foundation notes that hoarding often begins with too much shopping. It also reports that roughly one in two hoarders excessively correct free things.

The problem has become so widespread that a national cleaning service has begun specializing in helping hoarders and their families clean up. The company, Address Our Mess, has developed a series of interactive guides to help hoarders get started on their road to recovery. Their latest publication entitled Impacts of Hoarding Cleaning for Hoarders and their Helpers, outlines the stressors associated with the hoarding condition and the ways in which finding the right expert can help relieve those stressors.

While it acknowledges that it is no substitute for therapy, the company says calling in a specialized cleaning service can be a first step on the road to recovery. For example, people living among clutter may simply feel overwhelmed with where to begin and how to follow through.

“Hoarding specialists possess the expertise, equipment, patience, and knowledge to get the job done right the very first time,” the company says.

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What to look for in a pet-friendly hotel

Cheaper hotels let your pet stay free, posher properties usually charge a fee

Increasingly, when America hits the road, pets go along for the ride. While consumers have always traveled with their dogs and cats, finding a hotel to acc...

PhotoIncreasingly, when America hits the road, pets go along for the ride. While consumers have always traveled with their dogs and cats, finding a hotel to accommodate everyone is now a lot easier than it once was.

Pet-friendly is now pretty much the rule, especially when it comes to popularly-priced chains. Motel 6 claims to be the first to put out the welcome mat for pets. They still welcome pets and don't charge an extra fee.

Red Roof Inn was also an early pioneer when it comes to pet-friendliness. The chain operates 435 hotels, coast-to-coast, where pets stay free. LaQuinta Inns & Suites and Kimpton Hotels also let pets stay without any kind of deposit or extra fee.

Check before you leave

Finding out whether your pet can stay for free may be the first thing you should do when selecting a hotel. Some hotels will let your dog or cat stay but will charge extra.

Besides waiving a pet fee, pet-friendly hotels are sometimes known to offer some amenities strictly for their four-legged guests. For example, some hotels will offer a pet bed, along with food and water bowls. Some have been known to leave a doggie treat in the room, much like they might leave a mint on the pillow for the human guests.

Still not that easy

PhotoBut despite the recent changes in the hospitality industry, many pet owners say they still have difficulty finding pet-friendly lodging. In a survey of more than 1,100 respondents, TripAdvisor found that 51% of pet owners say they left their pet at home on the last trip because it was difficult to find a pet-friendly accommodation. Seventeen percent said it was “expensive” to take a pet along on a trip.

“While most pet owners are passionate about their furry companions and prefer to take them along for the ride, they feel like they’re barking up the wrong tree when it comes to finding pet-friendly properties,” said Brooke Ferencsik, director of communications at TripAdvisor. “TripAdvisor travelers have helped throw pet owners a bone by identifying some great animal-friendly accommodations, with many of the best in show on the West Coast.”

While the chains mentioned above welcome pets and waive any extra fees, a select number of boutique properties also go out of their way to make pets feel at home. Most, however, charge extra for pets and some of these fees may be quite high. Trip Advisor rated them and came up with what it says are the top 10 in the U.S.

Putting on the dog

1. Beachside Village Resort, Lauderdale by the Sea, Florida – Average Nightly Rate: $205+

The resort offers standard rooms, studios or suites by the ocean. The hotel will even walk your dog for you, upon request. The hotel welcomes pets weighing 35 pounds or less, but it's not free. There is a fee of $25 per night for pets.

2. Olea Hotel, Glen Ellen, California – Average Nightly Rate: $260+

This property in Sonoma County allows pets in the Hillside Queen Rooms and dogs will even receive a special welcome basket which includes treats, bowls and towels. It charges a nightly pet fee of $25.

3. Bardessono, Yountville, California – Average Nightly Rate: $650+

This boutique hotel says it pampers both its human and pet guests, featuring organic cotton bed linens and hand-crafted bath products. Pups will be given plush dog beds and bowls to enjoy their supper. Just as the cost for humans is a bit pricey, so is the pet fee – $150 a night.

4. Inn of the Five Graces, Santa Fe, New Mexico – Average Nightly Rate: $650+

This is another upscale pet-friendly hotel in a historic neighborhood. Five rooms are set aside for guests traveling with pets weighing 50 pounds or less. The nightly pet fee is $75.

Photo5. Five Pine Lodge & Spa, Sisters, Oregon – Average Nightly Rate: $235+

Three cabins on this property are reserved for pets and their owners. The rooms are plush for the humans' enjoyment while nearby hiking trails offer a romp in the woods for traveling dogs, to burn off excess energy. There is a fee of $25 per night for pets.

6. The Grand Del Mar, San Diego, California – Average Nightly Rate: $595+ 

This Mediterranean-style property rolls out the welcome mat for pets, providing their own beds, bowls and toys. The dogs have to be small, however – 25 pounds or less. The one-time pet fee is $100.

7. Sunglow Ranch – Arizona Guest Ranch and Resort, Pearce, Arizona – Average Nightly Rate: $299+

Situated on 475 acres, pets might enjoy this resort as much as humans. Again, pets need to be small, weighing 25 pounds or less. There is a fee of $25 per night for pets.

8. Allison Inn & Spa, Newberg, Oregon – Average Nightly Rate: $330+

Animals are welcome in terrace-level rooms where dogs will be pampered with treats and kibble. There is a one-time fee of $50 for pets.

9. Low-Key Hideaway, Cedar Key, Florida – Average Nightly Rate: $90+

The least expensive hotel on Trip Advisor's list, Low-Key Hideaway limits bookings to adults but allows up to two “well-behaved” pets. The pet fee is also among the lowest – $10 per night.

1o. The Oxford Hotel, Bend, Oregon – Average Nightly Rate: $299+

This boutique hotel says it strives to provide a memorable stay for travelers and pets alike. It offers pet amenities like a bed, travel-size dog bowls, pet salve, organic dog treats, and a map of nearby parks and trails. There is a one-time fee of $55 for the pet package.

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Is Internet access and smartphones really what Third World countries need?

Critics see a certain amount of self-interest behind Zuckerberg and Google's grand plans

Zuckerberg discusses his idea in this worshipful CNN pieceFirst it was Google with its idea of floating antenna-equipped balloons over impoverished are...

Photo
Zuckerberg discusses his idea in this worshipful CNN piece

First it was Google with its idea of floating antenna-equipped balloons over impoverished areas of the world. The balloons, part of something interestingly called "Project Loon," would beam down the Internet to the huddled masses below.

Now it's Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame and fortune. He and a small group of philanthropic companies like Samsung, Qualcomm and Nokia have a plan labeled Internet.org to extend broadband coverage -- and smartphone access -- to those same impoverished areas.

"Everything Facebook has done has been about giving all people around the world the power to connect,” Zuckerberg said in prepared remarks yesterday. “There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.”

After all, studies have shown that Internet access improves the economy, creates jobs and boosts the fates of pornographers, slave traders and terrorists, so these are probably really great ideas.

Photo
Bill Gates

Bill Gates doesn't think much of these high-flying ideas though. Asked about the Google balloons a few weeks ago, he said:  "When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you."

Gates, who with his wife Melinda, has contributed billions of dollars to rid developing nations of malaria, found the idea disappointing. "When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there's no website that relieves that," he said.

Billions of new friends

Zuckerberg's idea also is getting a chilly reception in some quarters. While it would probably add billions of "friends" to Facebook and sell billions of Nokia phones, it's not immediately apparent how it solves the severe health crisis that holds impoverished nations back. 

It's not entirely without redeeming benefits though. The National Security Agency (NSA) would no doubt be delighted to have billions of more people to spy on, said Erik Sass, who writes The Social Graf blog at MediaPost. 

"Among those billions of currently unconnected folks are doubtless some very angry people who will use the Internet to connect with likeminded individuals and possibly join a terrorist organization -- and the NSA will be watching," he said. The problem, Sass said, is that "NSA’s process for doing so is, shall we say, 'data intensive,' as you have to collect a lot of information on a lot of people to catch the ones you’re looking for.

He recalled the recent statement of the NSA director, General Keith Alexander: “You need the haystack to find the needle.” Zuckerberg and Google would be making the haystack a lot bigger.

Here's the syrupy video that the Internet.org promoters released yesterday:

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Apple iTunes Radio debuts next month; Google talking with NFL

Apple has a lot of top-drawer advertisers lined up for its version of Pandora

Pandora may be feeling about the way Borders did a few years ago, although it insists things are just fine, thanks.Apple iTunes Radio is about to take to...

PhotoPandora may be feeling about the way Borders did a few years ago, although it insists things are just fine, thanks.

Apple iTunes Radio is about to take to the airwaves, or whatever you want to call the broadband universe.

There'll be no shortage of commercials. Apple has a handful of top-drawer sponsors ready to go, including McDonald's, Nissan, Pepsi and Procter & Gamble.

So is Pandora worried? Quite the opposite, if you can believe Chief Financial Officer Mike Herring, who told analysts recently that iTunes Radio will be good for Pandora and other streaming music services. 

It will bolster the exposure of digital radio and accelerate the move to it from traditional broadcast radio, he said. He recalled the entry of iHeartRadio from Clear Channel, the nation's biggest radio chain, a year or two ago.

"When iHeartRadio launched a couple years ago, we had the same questions," he said. "We've gone from 50 percent market share to 70 percent market share, and they've stayed flat. ... We won't do much different."

YouTube-NFL

Google has some big dreams as well. It's holding formal talks with the National Football League about broadcasting NFL games on YouTube.

Google would get the NFL's "Sunday Ticket" package, which consists of all the out-of-town games. DirecTV currently has that package at a reported price of $1 billion a year, but the deal expires next year so potential bidders are starting to put on their helmets and shoulder pads. 

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Windows 8 antivirus software scores dead last in German tests

The free software from Microsoft was outperformed by every other suite tested

By nearly any measure, Windows 8 has been a bust. Its truly bizarre desktop has gotten the most criticism but unnoticed until now has been the performance...

PhotoBy nearly any measure, Windows 8 has been a bust. Its truly bizarre desktop has gotten the most criticism but unnoticed until now has been the performance of the free antivirus software that is included in the operating system.

Now that someone has taken the trouble to put the system, called Microsoft Defender, through its paces, you can add it to the list of Windows 8 shortcomings. 

Independent German lab AV-Test evaluated 28 antivirus products, grading them for protection, repair and usability -- each worth six points for a possible total of 18 points.

"Bitdefender, Kaspersky Lab and Symantec lead the field while the protection packages from Avast, F-Secure and GData share fourth place," AV-Test said. 

Who was in last place? Yep, Windows Defender, which was five points behind everyone else.

Nevertheless, AV-Test says its tests at least prove that Windows 8 can be secured, as long as the user is willing to pay for an external security program.  

Malware results

When it comes to malware, the results were similar. 

"The suites from Bitdefender, F-Secure and Kaspersky all did the best job in this category, achieving detection rates of 100%, while the best free programs, namely those from Avast and AVG, were only able to make it to eighth and twelfth place respectively," said AV-Test. "The Windows Defender provided by Microsoft in its operating system set a very low benchmark value with a detection rate of just 79%."

AV-Test also confirmed what no one likes to admit -- namely, that stopping malware comes at the cost of impaired system performance.

"Although the best programs in the 'Protection' category also achieved excellent results in this 'System Load' category, none of them were able to score the maximum total of six points," AV-Test said. "This test category is proof that high security comes at the expense of a certain amount of system performance."

On average, the top 10 products earned an average of 4.0 points (out of 6.0) for system load, while the top-ranked product, from Bitdefender, earned 5.2.

What to do 

PhotoThe takeaway for consumers is pretty obvious. If you're going to run any version of Windows, you need a strong antivirus and malware protection software suite. Any of the top three named above should do the trick.

Don't want to buy antivirus programs? OK, fine. That leaves you with these options:

  • Get a Mac. Although Macs are not immune to viruses and malware, they are much more resistant than Windows and also are not attacked as often.
  • Get a Chromebook. Google's Chromebook relieves you of having to worry about security. It also relieves you of having to buy Microsoft Office, since it works with Google's office suite, which runs in the cloud and is, we should mention, free.
  • Switch to Linux. The Chromebook locks you into Google and doesn't give you the opportunity to run programs from your hard drive. If this matters to you, or if you just like to play around under the hood now and then, download a copy of Linux Mint, the best desktop program out there bar none. It's secure, free and rock solid and comes with its own suite of office programs, combining the benefits of the Mac and the Chromebook.
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July brings a rebound in existing-home sales

Prices continue their increases

It's hard to keep the market for previously-owned homes down. After declining to an annual rate of 5.06 million in June, sales of existing homes -- which ...

PhotoIt's hard to keep the market for previously-owned homes down.

After declining to an annual rate of 5.06 million in June, sales of existing homes -- which include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- shot up 6.5% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.39 million.

Figures from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show sales are 17.2% above the 4.60 million-unit pace of a year ago and have remained above year-ago levels for 25 months.

Impact of interest rates

Changes in affordability are affecting the market -- positively -- for the time being. “Mortgage interest rates are at the highest level in two years, pushing some buyers off the sidelines,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, adding. “The initial rise in interest rates provided strong incentive for closing deals. However, further rate increases will diminish the pool of eligible buyers.”

Despite higher mortgage interest rates, Yun identified compensating factors that can sustain a continued recovery. “Although housing affordability conditions will become less attractive, jobs are being added to the economy, and mortgage underwriting standards should normalize over time from current stringent conditions as default rates fall.”

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) rose to 4.37% in July from 4.07% in June, and is the highest since July 2011 when it was 4.55%; the rate was 3.55% in July of last year.

Home values increase

PhotoThe NAR report contained more good news, at least from a seller's standpoint, as the median price maintained its series of double-digit year-over-year increases.

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $213,500 in July, which is 13.7% above July 2012. This marks 17 consecutive months of year-over-year price increases, which last occurred from January 2005 to May 2006.

The median price has risen at double-digit rates for the past eight months, and is now just 7.3% below the record of $230,400 in July 2006. Two years ago, the median price was 25.7% below the peak.

Where they're selling

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast surged 12.7% to an annual rate of 710,000 in July and are 20.3% above July 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $271,200, up 6.7% from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the Midwest rose 5.8% to a pace of 1.28 million, and are 20.8% higher than a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $168,300 -- 9.5% percent above July 2012.

In the South, existing-home sales increased 5.0% to an annual level of 2.11 million in July and are 16.6% above July 2012. The median price in the South was $183,400, up 13.6% from a year ago.

Sales of previously-owned homes rose 6.6% in the West to a pace of 1.29 million in July and are 13.2% higher than a year ago. The median price in the West, driven the most by a supply imbalance, was $287,500, which is 19.2% above July 2012.

Mortgage applications

PhotoEven as sales of previously owned homes were on the rise in July, mortgage applications were down during the week ending August 16.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications fell 4.6% from the previous week. The Refinance Index decreased 8% from the previous week and has plunged 62.1% from the recent peak reached during the week of May 3.

Once again, interest rates seem to be a major factor.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased to 4.74% from 4.57% for 80% loan-to-value (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA jumped to 4.40$ from 4.25% for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs, popular in refinancing, rose to 3.71% from 3.60% for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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Colleges too expensive and selective? Try Europe

Export yourself! Americans can save time and money at European universities

Wikipedia photoIt's getting harder and harder for students to get into the college of their choice, not to mention the difficulty of paying $50,000 or ...

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Wikipedia photo

It's getting harder and harder for students to get into the college of their choice, not to mention the difficulty of paying $50,000 or more in tuition and other costs at a top-rated school.

One reason it's hard to gain admission to top schools is that they're admitting increasing numbers of international students. Why? Well, sure, they spice the place up but more importantly, at state schools they pay more than in-state students and are thus more lucrative while occupying only as much space as an American.

So why not turn the tables and export yourself? Writing in the Los Angeles Times today, Aaron Rosen, a lecturer in theology and the arts at King's College London, says it's gotten easier for American students to win admission to European Union schools, as the value of American students -- both cultural and fiscal -- has become more widely recognized.

Easier to apply

Rosen writes that British universities have made it particularly easy to apply and, while Oxford and Cambridge are still in their own universe, other top-ranked British universities now accept advanced placement tests or a combination of SATs and SAT subject exams, along with a standardized national application form.

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Aaron Rosen

Besides relieving some of the pressure on high school students to bulk up their résumé, Rosen notes that European universities tend to be considerably less expensive than their American cousins. He says American students would pay about $25,000 less per year to study at a British university that's comparable to a $50,000-$60,000 American school.

And, students who study abroad are still eligible for U.S. student loans, he notes. 

But Rosen saves the best part for last: Most British bachelor's degrees require only three years instead of four, saving both time and money.

To relieve any lingering apprehension, it's worth noting -- although Rosen was too polite to do so -- that the Brits are increasingly adopting the Yankee habit of drinking their beer cold. Or at least chilled.

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Cool gadgets for the physically active

Whether you love to swim, golf or play tennis, there's a gadget out there for you

Unless you haven't noticed, summertime will be done in a little over a month, which means now is a fine time to get outside and participate in all of the s...

PhotoSummertime will be over in a little over a month, which means now is a fine time to get outside and participate in all of the sports you like to play.

Of course you can still enjoy a lot of sports during the fall and winter months, but there's something about warm and sunny weather that can give you a lot of energy. In addition, it's just nicer to spend time outdoors when the sun is shining. 

And though most people who are physically active don't rely on gadgets to assist them, some folks don't mind buying an electronic or two. Plus, some gadgets are just fun to have when you're playing a sport. At times they can make playing something that much more fun. 

Take the GameDay Basketball Scoreboard for $34.95 on Amazon for example. It attaches to the pole of your driveway basketball hoop so you can keep score from 0 to 99. And it has a countdown clock so kids don't have to yell, "3, 2, 1" when they're pretending to make a last-second shot.

PhotoPlayers can either set the clock for a six-minute game, a 12-minute game or an 18-minute game, and it keeps score for games like Horse, Pig and free throw contests. 

Plus, the scoreboard comes with a referee button that you can hit when you get fouled. Once you hit the button, a ref's voice will yell out a call, bringing a little NBA reality to a driveway pickup game. But the younger ones will probably use this feature more than adults will.

Camera snorkel

And for amateur divers, there's the hands-free Liquid Image Explorer Series Mask for $98.95, on the site Scuba.com. The half-camera half-snorkel lets you take stills and videos underwater up to 15-feet deep, and it comes with a USB cable so you can watch the footage on TV.

The makers of the camera say it can hold more than 1,000 photos and can capture about 40 minutes of video per 1GB of memory.

But the main thing folks will probably want to know is if the camera takes good photos and videos. Here's what one user had to say:

Photo"The pictures taken from the camera are decent (and some were great) and the videos taken provide good memories," the user wrote.

"I suggest taking 30 second or longer videos. The film camera pictures were grainer and had a lower percentage worth saving. Before using the mask in the water, I would tinker around with the buttons so you know what you're hitting so you can snap away underwater."

"But keep in mind also that it's digital, so snap away to your heart's content, and then go back to the surface and make sure you're on the setting you want," wrote the user.

Wet balls

Now fortunately, there are several cameras on the market that work well in water, but you can't say the same thing about tennis balls. Once they're wet, they're pretty much useless until they're able to dry. And even then they can remain heavy and lose a lot of bounce.

Photo

So to help speed up the drying process, you can look into the Tennis Ball Dryer, made in England. It dries your tennis balls in a few hours and restores them back to almost new, saving you money and the trouble of buying new tennis balls every time they get wet.

The dryer comes in the form of a small carrying strap with four tennis ball compartments, and the company says it's created a special 3-layer drying system that extracts moisture from each ball. 

And the carrying bag has a built-in net measure so you can make sure the height of the net is accurate. And the company says it has a cooling agent inside, so you can store drinks and keep them chilled.

The Tennis Ball Dryer goes for about £15, which is a little over $23 at the moment, and the shipping will cost you an additional $10 or so, which isn't that bad for an overseas mailing.

So before the weather gets a little cooler and tennis courts and golf courses get a little less enticing, you might want to look into a few of these gadgets. They just might make your sport or activity a little more enjoyable. 

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Jesta Digital/Jamster settles FTC cramming charges

The settlement includes consumer refunds and a hefty fine

Consumers whose cell phone bills were allegedly crammed by Jesta Digital are in for a refund. In addition to the refunds, Jesta -- which also does business...

PhotoConsumers whose cell phone bills were allegedly crammed by Jesta Digital are in for a refund. In addition to the refunds, Jesta -- which also does business as Jamster -- will pay $1.2 million to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The commission’s complaint claims the global mobile marketer also ran phony virus-scan ads on consumers’ Android mobile devices while they played the Angry Birds mobile app. The ads, which falsely claimed that a virus was detected on the consumer’s mobile device, incorporated an image of a robot designed to look similar to the Android operating system’s robot logo:

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When consumers clicked on the ads, Jesta presented them with a series of screens or landing pages that included bold and prominent language and visuals about protecting Android mobile devices from viruses. While a screen contained a subscriber button, the FTC maintains that if consumers clicked anywhere on the screens or landing pages, Jesta charged them $9.99 per month directly on their mobile bill for ringtones and other mobile content.

If consumers actually attempted to subscribe and download Jesta’s so-called anti-virus software to their mobile devices, the download often failed, according to the FTC complaint. Jesta’s internal emails quoted in the FTC’s complaint are particularly illustrative. In one email, a Jesta official was “anxious to move [Jesta’s] business out of being a scam and more into a valued service.”

Novel billing method

Jesta charged unsuspecting consumers through a novel, little-used billing method known as Wireless Access Protocol, or WAP, billing. WAP billing captures a consumer’s mobile phone number from the mobile device, which is used to place charges on their mobile phone bill without the need to obtain the information manually from the consumer.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Jesta is prohibited from making deceptive statements about viruses and anti-virus software, the cost of goods or services, or the conditions of a purchase. Jesta must also receive express verifiable authorization from a consumer before placing any charges on a consumer’s mobile phone bill.

Refunds ordered

Jesta is required to automatically provide full refunds to consumers who were billed between Dec. 8, 2011, and the date of entry of the order for any good or service that involved the company claiming the consumer’s device was infected with malware or that the Jesta would provide purchasers with software to protect their mobile device from malware.

For those consumers Jesta charged between Aug. 1 and Dec. 7, 2011, under short code 75555 (which includes the marketing campaign challenged in the complaint), Jesta is required to notify those consumers of their ability to obtain a refund. Consumers will have to contact Jesta at 866-856-5267 or by e-mail at info@jamster.com and make a refund request. Jesta is obligated to pay a refund to consumers who did not use the service offered by Jesta or where the charges were incurred by a child under the age of 18.

In addition to providing timely refunds directly to consumers, Jesta will pay $1.2 million directly to the Commission.

Consumers with questions about the case or the refund process may contact the FTC for more information at 202-326-3523.

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Jack Rabbit dietary supplement recalled

The product contains Sildenafil and Tadalafil making it an unapproved drug

Jack Rabbit Inc., has launched a nationwide recall of one lot of its dietary supplement product sold under the name, Jack Rabbit. The product was found t...

PhotoJack Rabbit Inc., has launched a nationwide recall of one lot of its dietary supplement product sold under the name, Jack Rabbit.

The product was found to contain Sildenafil and Tadalafil, active ingredients of FDA-approved drugs for erectile dysfunction (ED), making Jack Rabbit pack dietary supplement an unapproved drug. No illnesses have been reported to the company to date in connection with this product.

Jack Rabbit Pack, marketed as a dietary supplement for sexual “enhancement,” is packaged in 4-count blister packs and distributed online and through retail stores nationwide.

Customers who have this product in their possession should stop using it immediately and return any unused product to the point of purchase or email Jack Rabbit, Inc. at JackRabbit4pack.com Monday-Friday, 9 am to 5 pm EDT for a return address.

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Selling your used car

Just as in buying a car, there are things you should know

It's time to get another car. You have your eye on a new one or a late model used car to replace your current set of wheels. First, however, you have to do...

PhotoIt's time to get another car. You have your eye on a new one or a late-model used car to replace your current set of wheels. First, however, you have to do something with the car you're driving.

If you are buying from a dealer you could trade it in, but it's generally acknowledged that you will get more for it in a private sale. So you wash it, detail it and place an ad on Craigslist.

But is that all there is to it? There seems to be plenty of advice for consumers who are buying a car but very little for those who are trying to sell one.

Get your ducks in a row

Before placing your ad, the first thing you should do is gather up all the information and paperwork you have on your car. The title is most important, but after that any service records and any paperwork you got from the dealer when you purchased it will prove helpful.

If you purchased the car new, Kelly Blue Book (KBB) says having the car's original window sticker will be valuable. It will show the exact trim level of the car and all the optional equipment.

You paid extra for those options when you bought the car and you should get something in return when you sell. If you held onto service records and receipts, they can also be a selling point.

"These days, regular oil changes are an even better indication of good upkeep than tune-ups," said Dan Ingle, KBB's Vice President of Vehicle Valuations and Industry Products. "If you changed your oil every 3,000-8,000 miles, in keeping with the manufacturer's recommendations, that's a good signal to a buyer that the car has been cared for."

If you didn't hold onto those service records, but have used the same service center or repair shop for your regular maintenance, you may be in luck. Chances are they can print out copies of your records for you.

Know the market

To save time during the sales process, know the real market value of your car before you put it up for sale. If you have over-priced it you are likely to spend a lot of time showing it to would-be buyers who won't call you back.

PhotoDon't describe it as in “excellent condition” if the body has a dent or two and there's a faded stain on the back seat. If you have a hard time being objective, ask your mechanic for an assessment.

Before pricing the car you should have a feel for the used car market in your area. Check to see what cars like yours are selling for. Thanks to the Internet, that's fairly easy to do now.

According to Edmunds.com, the automotive site, there are a few factors in the market that usually remain constant. For example, there's usually a demand for boring family sedans. There are lots of families and, these days especially, they are usually looking for inexpensive, basic transportation.

On the other hand, if you have a convertible, don't try to sell it in the dead of winter. It's just common sense. But the first beautiful spring day might be the ideal time to run your ad.

Online pricing help

Both Edmunds and KBB have areas on their websites where you can enter the description of your car and get an estimated value. Edmunds breaks it down three ways: what a dealer is likely to give you on a trade-in, what the estimated retail value would be if the dealer were selling it, and what the final price is likely to be in a private party sale.

In a private sale – consumer to consumer – the buyer is expecting to pay less than they would at a used car dealer. Remember that few buyers will offer the asking price, so if you hope to get $12,000 for your car you should price it higher – perhaps $13,500.

Not long ago the best way to sell a used car was to place a classified ad in the local newspaper. Today, the Internet is most likely going to be the fastest, cheapest and most direct way.

In the case of Craigslist, there is no cost and the site has proved effective in moving all types of merchandise, including cars and trucks. AutoTrader.com charges a fee but is also a popular way to buy and sell vehicles.

More competition

PhotoJuan Flores, director of operations for the Trade-In Marketplace at AutoTrader.com, foresees a rising trend of used car sales by owners.

"New vehicle retail sales reached double-digit gains for both June and July when compared to the same time last year, and this increase in demand for new vehicles translates into more people who need to dispose of their current vehicles,” he said.

The Trade-In Marketplace is another way consumers can sell their cars. According to AutoTrader, it enables consumers to get an instant offer on their used cars, sight unseen, and those offers are backed by AutoTrader.com. KBB, Edmunds and some other automotive sites also have ways to market your car directly to consumers.

The offers generated through these interfaces are usually based on specific parameters, including documented data about both the make, model year, trim level and the specific vehicle.

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Judge orders FDA to pick up the pace on food safety

Two years after Congress ordered it to do so, the agency has not implemented the new food safety law

After listening to lengthy arguments from the Food and Drug Administration, a federal judge has reached the same conclusion as the General Accounting Offic...

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Middle class caught in a wage-price squeeze

Health care, education, housing and gasoline depleting net worth

Suddenly, it seems everyone is talking about the middle class, that group of Americans that once earned a comfortable living, lived in a comfortable home a...

PhotoSuddenly, it seems everyone is talking about the middle class, that group of Americans who once earned a comfortable living, lived in a comfortable home and pursued the American Dream.

Today there's concern that the middle class is shrinking, bookended by an affluent elite and the struggling poor. Rising debt and falling incomes, it seems, are taking their toll.

Media on both the left and the right – from Breitbart.com to the Huffington Post, have reported the same dismal statistic – nearly three-quarters of the jobs created so far in 2013 have been part-time jobs. While President Obama vacationed on upscale Martha's Vineyard last week, the Washington Post reported on the island's residents who are served by the community's two food banks. 

'Losing our middle class'

“We’re losing our middle class and we’re losing our young people because the jobs aren’t there and because of the cost of living and housing,” Peter Temple, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative, which encourages island philanthropy, told the Post.

So why does the American middle class continue to struggle financially? Joseph Nathan Cohen, a Queens College sociologist, says unrestrained household spending has damaged consumer finances, despite the fact that globalization and technological innovation have caused consumer prices to fall. 

But the increase in household spending is not some hedonistic splurge, he says. He cites statistics that show spending on goods that fulfill pleasure, self-esteem, or social status needs have generally been falling, including personal care items, apparel, home furnishings, and automobiles.

So what is the middle class over-spending on? Four product categories, Cohen says. Health care, education, housing, and commuting costs, the last item primarily being gasoline.

Big four factors

PhotoLet's take a closer look at Cohen's “big four” factors, starting with health care. The cost of medical care keeps rising two ways, with only one being directly felt by consumers. Consumers who have a medical benefits policy don't pay the huge costs of their health care – the benefits provider, or insurance company, does.

What the consumer pays are the premiums for the policy, and those premiums are rapidly climbing. According to the latest Milliman Medical Index (MMI), a family of four covered through a typical employer health plan will pay out $9,144 this year in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. It increased over six percent 2012 to 2013 and over seven percent from 2011 to 2012. 

Consumers not covered by an employer's plan have to pay the full premium. However, with the start of the Affordable Care Act in January, many lower income families and individuals will qualify for government subsidies to help pay the premiums. But many middle class families won't qualify and could face higher costs.

Education costs also continue to climb, making it difficult for many middle class families to send their children to college without going into debt. Ironically, the Great Recession and its resulting unemployment spurred many people to go back to school to better their chances of finding a job. With so many students seeking enrollment, colleges have no incentive to reduce their tuition costs.

Rents are climbing

Housing costs should be going down, and for a while they were – if you were buying a house. After being grossly over-inflated during the housing bubble, home values plunged in some areas.

But because of the new, tougher standards lenders imposed it was much harder to qualify for a mortgage to buy one of these newly affordable homes. Instead, the young families who would normally be shopping for their first home had to keep renting and that demand for rental housing has pushed rents higher and higher.

Finally, there's the price of gasoline. Since 2005, when hurricane Katrina caused a widespread disruption of refining and exploration activity, commodity traders have found oil to be a volatile and profitable trading vehicle. While it is true that the developing world now competes for a bigger share of the world's petroleum, driving up prices, it is also true that billions of hedge fund dollars have competed in the futures markets with businesses that actually use the oil.

Higher gasoline prices

PhotoOf the four areas, gasoline prices is the one that consumers may feel most deeply. Cohen says soaring tuition and health care costs are not the principal drivers of household financial distress, but they constitute the fastest-growing problem.

While these costs are rapidly rising, job growth has slowed to a trickle. Jobs are harder to come by and don't pay as much. Declining incomes make rising costs of health care, education, housing and transportation harder to bear.

The middle class hasn't wasted its wealth, Cohen insists. But they now face a lose-lose choice between sustainable finances and access to quality schools, child care, medical care, public safety, and employment opportunities.

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Google Glass could play a big role in public safety applications

Glass doesn't have to be just the plaything of frivolous nerds, technology group argues

Mutualink's Michael Wengrovitz demonstrates Google Glass public safety applicationsEven before its widespread availability, Google Glass has been the but...

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Mutualink's Michael Wengrovitz demonstrates Google Glass public safety applications

Even before its widespread availability, Google Glass has been the butt of many jokes and derisive comments. It's been called frivolous, too nerdy and, perhaps most damning, a privacy invader.

But at least one sector of society -- police and rescue workers -- see some redeeming values in the face-mounted device that's sort of a cross between a smartphone, a computer and a dashboard camera.

Cops like their dashboard cameras, after all, so why wouldn't they like a camera that's attached to their head?

A company called Mutualink, which provides communications systems for police,  first responders and the military, is planning a demonstration of how it proposes to integrate Google Glass into what it calls its "multimedia interoperability platform" at an upcoming trade show.

Joe Mazzarella, senior vice president and chief legal counsel of Mutualink, said he expects to see police and firefighters using Google Glass soon, possibly as early as next year at the World Cup in Brazil.

Michael Wengrovitz, VP of innovation at Mutualink, said Google Glass could be a way to  "enable anywhere, anytime communications and information sharing" using a hands-free device, while avoiding technical incompatibilities between different systems.

For example, he said firefighters could review building plans before entering a burning structure, EMTs could view a patient's medical records while on the scene and police could conceivably view images from security cameras in remote locations.

The Mutualink folks think public safety uses of Google Glass would silence much of the carping about privacy, since government agencies already have broad powers to use surveillance technology -- and such systems are sometimes seen as protecting citizens who might otherwise fear mistreatment at the hands of police. 

It's been suggested that New York City Police be fitted with personal cameras to discourage them from needlessly roughinig up the taxpayers. Google Glass might be just what generations of hoody-wearing teen-aged males have been waiting for.

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It's turning into a bad week online

First Google, now Amazon run into problems that leave their users high and dry

You've heard the phrase "bad technology day." Nearly everyone has them now and then, but not on the scale we've seen the last few days.On Friday, Google ...

PhotoYou've heard the phrase "bad technology day." Nearly everyone has them now and then, but not on the scale we've seen the last few days.

On Friday, Google went dark just about everywhere in the U.S. causing a 40 percent drop in web traffic. And today, Amazon.com went down for about 30 minutes.

No one has calculated the cost of the Google outage or thought much about possible consequences other than lost business. Maybe it will be like those big blizzards or black-outs that hit the East Coast every now and then? They're often followed by a baby boomlet nine months later. But just 30 minutes? Well, maybe not.

Back in June 2008, Amazon had a big outage that cost it about $31,000 per minute. Forbes calculates today's outage at $66,240 per minute, or nearly $2 million.

AWS affected too

Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company's giant web hosting and data storage cloud business,  was also affected by the outage. Advisories to customers said "increased latency" affected some services for about an hour around noon Eastern time.

 

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Ready for retirement? If not, you're not alone

A new survey says most people have not stepped up their savings

With each passing year you get closer to retirement. So, it would make sense that each year you squirrel away a little more as that time approaches, right?...

PhotoWith each passing year you get closer to retirement. So, it would make sense that each year you squirrel away a little more as that time approaches, right?

You would think so, but a new report from Bankrate.com says just 18% of working Americans are saving more for retirement now than they were a year ago. Additionally, 17% are actually saving less and 54% are saving about the same amount.

Bankrate commissioned similar surveys in August 2011 and August 2012. The results this year are virtually identical to last year's. But, there has been some improvement since 2011, when 29% of working Americans were saving less for retirement than they were in 2010.

Employed Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 are the most likely of all age brackets to be saving less this year than last.

"This is troubling considering the availability of catch-up contributions for those 50 and up, as well as the higher 2013 contribution limits for all eligible IRA and 401(k) contributors," said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst.

Trouble at the higher levels

PhotoUpper-middle-income households are another trouble spot, according to the report with 21% saving less for retirement than they were last year and only 14% saving more.

Overall, the Bankrate.com Financial Security Index is down for a second straight month, but at 100.5, it is clinging to a level above 100 that indicates financial security has improved from a year ago. The Index has been above 100 for six consecutive months.

Across the board declines

Readings slipped on all five components in August (job security, net worth, debt, savings and overall financial situation). Still, four of the five are still showing improvement over the past year. Savings remains the weak link, with those saying they're less comfortable outnumbering those that are more comfortable by a margin of nearly two-to-one. Consumers have voiced negative sentiment on savings in every month since polling began in Dec. 2010.

Following the disappointing unemployment report for July, job security among the highest-income households (annual income greater than $75,000) turned negative compared with a year ago.

The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI).

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Certegy to pay multi-million dollar fine

The consumer reporting agency is accused of numerous credit reporting violations

One of the nation’s largest check authorization service companies will pony up $3.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated the...

PhotoOne of the nation’s largest check authorization service companies will pony up $3.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Certegy Check Services, Inc., based in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a consumer reporting agency (CRA) that compiles consumers’ personal information and uses it to help retail merchants determine whether to accept consumers’ checks. Under the FCRA, consumers whose checks are denied based on information Certegy provides the merchant, have the right to dispute that information and have Certegy correct any inaccuracies.

Improper dispute handling

The FTC’s complaint claims, among other things, that Certegy did not follow proper dispute procedures. The complaint further alleges that Certegy failed to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information it provided to its merchant clients, as required by the FCRA.

The settlement requires the company to make improvements in these areas. The case is part of a broader initiative to target the practices of data brokers, which often compile, maintain and sell sensitive consumer information. Consumer reporting agencies like Certegy are data brokers that sell information to companies making important decisions about consumers, such as their ability to get credit or pay for goods and services by check.

“Inaccurate information in a consumer reporting agency’s file can have a huge impact on a person’s everyday life, starting with their check being denied at the grocery store,” said Jessica L. Rich, Director of FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “In this case, we alleged that Certegy delivered a one-two punch: the company not only failed to assure that the information it provided to retailers was accurate, but it also failed to follow proper dispute procedures.” The settlement, she said, “will benefit consumers who use checks to pay for essential goods and services, including many older consumers and people without alternate means of payment, such as credit cards.”

Other violations

In addition to the allegations described above, the complaint alleges that Certegy violated the FCRA by failing to create a streamlined process for consumers to obtain free annual reports that they are entitled to; and establish and implement reasonable written policies and procedures regarding the accuracy and integrity of information it furnishes to other CRAs.

This is the first FTC action alleging violations of the Furnisher Rule, which went into effect on July 1, 2010. The settlement requires Certegy to comply with the Furnisher Rule, as well as the requirement to maintain a streamlined process so that consumers can request their free annual reports.

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Herbal Give Care recalls Esbelder capsules

The vitamin supplements contain undeclared ingredients makes them unapproved drugs

Herbal Give Care is recalling all lots of Esbelder man (30 capsules), Esbelder fem (30 capsules) and Esbelder siloutte (30 capsules). The products have b...

PhotoHerbal Give Care is recalling all lots of Esbelder man (30 capsules), Esbelder fem (30 capsules) and Esbelder siloutte (30 capsules).

The products have been found to contain undeclared Sibutramine, N-Desmethylsibutramine, and N-di-Desmethylsibutramine, making them unapproved drugs.

The products may pose a threat to consumers because sibutramine is known to substantially increase blood pressure and/or pulse rate in some patients and may present a significant risk for patients with a history of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias or stroke.

The company says it has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall.

  • The Esbelder fem (30 capsules) is packaged in a white plastic bottle with a screw cap containing 30 capsules per bottle. All lots of this product are being recalled. The product was distributed nationwide to retail customers and via the internet. UPC code for this product is 7502011000251.
  • The Esbelder man (30 capsules) is packaged in a white plastic bottle with a screw cap containing 30 capsules per bottle. The product was distributed nationwide to retail customers and via the internet. UPC code for this product is 7502011000275.
  • The Esbelder Siloutte (30 capsules) is packaged in a white plastic bottle with a screw cap containing 30 capsules per bottle. The product was distributed nationwide to retail customers and via internet. UPC code for this product is 7502011000268.

Consumers who have the affected product(s) should immediately stop using them and return them to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall can contact Herbal Give Care by calling to (972) 602-6850 Monday- Friday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm CDT, or by email at hgc-usa@hotmail.com.

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Exercise not a quick fix for insomnia

You'll have to be a little patient if you want a good night's sleep

Okay, so you've been struggling with insomnia for the past several months, and you've finally decided to do something about it.First you hit the Internet...

PhotoOkay, so you've been struggling with insomnia for the past several months, and you've finally decided to do something about it.

First you hit the Internet to see what steps you can take. Then you talk to your family and friends about your problem and they give you all kinds of advice.

After that, you head to your doctor and he tells you the same thing the Internet and your family said. "Start to exercise, and once you begin, it'll help you with your insomnia tremendously."

So you wake up the next day and go for a jog. The day after that, you do a little aerobics from an old DVD you found. And on day three, you go for a brisk walk.

You continue these exercises for the rest of the week and you do the same the following week. And what happens after that? Absolutely nothing. You still haven't gotten one wink of sleep.

And why is that?

According to researchers from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, it'll take at least four months of exercise before it helps your insomnia.

Not a quick solution

Kelly Glazer Baron, director of Northwestern University's behavioral sleep program, and lead author of the study, said using exercise as a fast solution to a health problem isn't the answer. You'll have to be more patient.

"The message here is that exercise is not a quick fix, which I don't really think is discouraging at all," she said. "Our previous work found that exercise over a 16-week period is very effective in promoting sleep, on par with any kind of medication. But like with weight loss or any sort of behavioral chance, it doesn't happen immediately. You have to measure progress over months, not day-to-day."

Which is why Baron and her team began this study. She said many of her patients were coming back discouraged after they started to exercise but still couldn't sleep. 

"Where the idea to explore this came from is that my patients were coming in and saying that they heard that exercise is good for sleep," explained Baron. "But people generally want a quick fix. And they weren't seeing improvements right away. So they were getting discouraged."

Plan ahead

In addition, researchers found that many people with insomnia go through a bad cycle of not being able to sleep and being too tired to work out the next day. So Baron said insomniacs will really have to fight through those tired feelings if they expect to turn their condition around. 

"So, what this means is that patients need to plan ahead," she said.

"They need to schedule exercise. Make it premeditated and part of one's routine, especially on those days when they feel tired or fatigued or didn't sleep well, because even if the sleep benefit doesn't come quickly, with time and commitment it may eventually come."

Phyllis Zee a neurology professor, who also worked on the study, said people with insomnia are completely removed from their normal routine and getting back that routine doesn't happen in a day or two.

"And although exercise is more of a long-term solution for insomnia, it's still healthier than taking medication," she said. "Patients with insomnia have a heightened level of brain activity, and it takes time to reestablish a more normal level that can facilitate sleep."  

"Rather than medication, which can induce sleep quickly, exercise may be a healthier way to improve sleep because it could address the underlying problem," Zee said.

Dr. James Pagel, director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Southern Colorado in Pueblo, said for many people with insomnia, exercising won't do any good, because folks have to learn how to take their minds off of overdrive.

"I have a large group of patients who run marathons," he said.

"I have people who are insomniacs and run many miles a week. And they still can't sleep, because insomnia is an abnormality of arousal, and for some people you're not just unable to sleep, but you're also hyper-aroused during the day and often committed to a very intense exercise pattern."

"And for these individuals, and those with a genetic form of insomnia, for example, exhausting themselves with exercise will not induce sleep," Pagel said.

 

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What's behind America's obesity problem?

Maybe it's the economics of food, not just the food itself

Except for Arkansas, no state saw an increase in obesity rates in the past year, according to the latest report from the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) ...

PhotoExcept for Arkansas, no state saw an increase in obesity rates in the past year, according to the latest report from the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

But it's small consolation. Thirteen states now have adult obesity rates above 30%, 41 states have rates of at least 25%, and every state is above 20%.

Three decades ago, in 1980, no state had an obesity rate above 15%. Two decades ago, in 1991, no state was above 20%. In fact, the trend appears to be climbing higher, faster. In 2007, just six years ago, only Mississippi was above 30%.

The question is why. What is causing America – and indeed much of the world – to pack on the pounds? Is it something in the food? Too much food and not enough exercise? Or some combination of factors?

Modern life

A 2003 study (pdf file) by Harvard economists David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser and Jesse M. Shapiro placed much of the blame on changes in the way we prepare and consume food. The new ways make it faster, easier and cheaper to prepare food and the results are not always healthier. They say the potato provides a good illustration. 

“Before World War II, Americans ate massive amounts of potatoes, largely baked, boiled or mashed,” the economists write. “They were generally consumed at home. French fries were rare, both at home and in restaurants, because the preparation of French fries requires significant peeling, cutting and cooking.”

Then along came technology. French fries are now typically peeled, cut and cooked in a few central locations using sophisticated new technologies. They are then frozen and shipped to restaurants and supermarkets. Today, the French fry is the dominant form of potato and America’s favorite vegetable.

Baked potato vs. French fries

PhotoNow, let's compare the calories in a baked potato and French fries. A medium-sized baked potato has 129 calories before you add butter or sour cream. A medium order of McDonald's French fries contains around 380 calories. According to Cutler, Glasser and Shapiro total potato consumption increased by about 30% between 1977 and 1995, accounted for almost exclusively by increased consumption of potato chips and French fries.

The bottom line, according to the economists, is the technological advances of modern life have made calories cheaper to buy and easier to prepare. Our self-control, they say, hasn't kept up with these advances.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has cited the environment as a contributing factor that increases the obesity trend. Fewer jobs involve manual labor and more require sitting at desks. There are a lot more automobiles than there used to be and we spent a lot of time sitting in them. Then, there's Madison Avenue.

“Food is everywhere, and so are messages telling us to eat and drink,” the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a division of NIH, says on its website. We can get something to eat in places where it was never available before—like the gas station. “Going out to eat or getting carryout is easy.”

Obese Baby Boomers

PhotoAnd what about demographics? It's no secret that you tend to become heavier as you get older. Members of the huge Baby Boom generation, active, lean and trim in their 20s and 30s, are a lot less active in their 50s and 60s and account for a significant number of obese Americans. But it may be more than just numbers.

A 2011 AP-Life Goes Strong poll found that higher percentage of Baby Boomers are obese than any other group in the U.S. While the poll showed that 36% of Baby Boomers were obese, only 25% of the generations directly above and below them were.

For Boomers, the news is getting worse. While the AP-Life Goes Strong poll found 36% of Boomers were obese in 2011, this latest survey finds the percentage has climbed to 40% in just two years.

"While stable rates of adult obesity may signal prevention efforts are starting to yield some results, the rates remain extremely high," said Jeffrey Levi, Ph.D., executive director of TFAH. "Even if the nation holds steady at the current rates, Baby Boomers—who are aging into obesity-related illnesses—and the rapidly rising numbers of extremely obese Americans are already translating into a cost crisis for the healthcare system and Medicare."

The report makes a number of policy recommendations to reduce obesity. They include many that are already being implemented in some areas – serving only healthy food in schools, posting calorie information on restaurant menus and encouraging people to walk and bike, rather than ride in cars.

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Petition seeks end to NSA's domestic spying

Privacy group says the spying program is illegal and unconstitutional

EPIC, joined by over 3,000 members of the public, leading privacy experts, and journalists, has petitioned the National Security Agency for the n...

PhotoSkeptics might say that intelligence agencies aren't likely to respond to petitions, but that's not stopping the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) from trying.

EPIC, joined by over 3,000 members of the public, privacy experts, and journalists, has petitioned the National Security Agency for the ninth time, urging the suspension of the NSA domestic surveillance program pending public comments.

EPIC first petitioned the agency on June 17, 2013. When the agency didn't respond, EPIC renewed the petition and has been doing so on a weekly basis since then.

"NSA's collection of domestic communications contravenes the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and violates several federal privacy laws, including the Privacy Act of 1974, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 as amended," the petition states.

By law, the NSA is required to respond to the petition, EPIC said, noting that General Keith Alexander, NSA Director, has publicly stated that the agency is interested in receiving public comments.

"Help us defend this country and protect our civil liberties and privacy. And if anybody has a better way to do it than what we are doing today, we want to hear that," he said recently.

EPIC said it intends to renew its request for a public rulemaking each week until the NSA responds. 

Earlier, EPIC charged that an internal audit revealed that the NSA violated both legal rules and privacy restrictions thousands of times each year since 2008, leading to the unauthorized surveillance of American communications. According to the 2012 report, there were 2,776 violations in the previous 12 months alone.

The audit also found that a "large number" of calls placed from Washington DC were intercepted when its area code was confused with that of Egypt.

 

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Samsung's watch-like phone to be unveiled next month

Apple reportedly still plans to introduce its device later this year

Google Glass, who needs it? Samsung will introduce a wristwatch-like device named the Galaxy Gear next month that can make phone calls, surf the Web a...

PhotoGoogle Glass, who needs it? Samsung will introduce a wristwatch-like device named the Galaxy Gear next month that can make phone calls, surf the Web and handle e-mails, reports today say. 

The Galaxy Gear will be powered by Google's Android operating system and go on sale this year to beat a potentially competing product from Apple Inc, the sources said, according to Bloomberg.

The device will be unveiled Sept. 4, two days before the IFA consumer electronics show begins in Berlin, one of the sources quoted by the news service said. 

Does this mean that Samsung will beat arch-rival Apple to market with a watch-like device? It looks that way. Apple has been said to have a team of about 100 designers working on a device that's expected to be introduced later this year.

Samsung overtook Apple last year to become the world's largest smartphone maker.  

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Specialty Compounding clarifies sterile medications recall

The company says the recall applies to all unexpired products

Specialty Compounding has issued a clarification to its August 12 recall of sterile medications. The company previously said the recall applied to all une...

PhotoSpecialty Compounding has issued a clarification to its August 12 recall of sterile medications.

The company previously said the recall applied to all unexpired sterile compounded products dispensed since May 9, 2013. In fact, it applies to ANY sterile medication that has not reached its expiration date -- including all strengths and dosage forms.

The recall was issued following reports of bacterial infection affecting 15 patients at two Texas hospitals: Corpus Christi Medical Center Doctors Regional and Corpus Christi Medical Center Bay Area: Treatment of those patients included IV infusions of calcium gluconate from Specialty Compounding. There is a potential association between the infections and the medication. No calcium gluconate was shipped outside of the State of Texas.

If there is microbial contamination in products intended to be sterile, patients are at risk of serious infections which may be life threatening.

“Because of the potential association between the hospital-based infections and sterile compounded medications produced by Specialty Compounding, we are voluntarily recalling all sterile products out of an abundance of caution,” said Ray Solano, R.Ph., pharmacist in charge at Specialty Compounding.

Recalled products were distributed directly to hospitals and physician offices in Texas. They also were sent directly to patients located nationwide with the exception of North Carolina.

Users or recipients of these products should immediately discontinue use and return the recalled unexpired products to Specialty Compounding.

To return product or request assistance related to this recall, users should contact Specialty Compounding at 512-219-0724, Monday through Friday, between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. CDT.  

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Hyundai Santa Fe Sport vehicles recalled

The right front axle shaft may fracture

Hyundai is recalling 20,300 model year 2013 Santa Fe Sport vehicles manufactured July 13, 2012, through March 12, 2013; and equipped with 2.4 liter engines...

PhotoHyundai is recalling 20,300 model year 2013 Santa Fe Sport vehicles manufactured July 13, 2012, through March 12, 2013; and equipped with 2.4 liter engines.

Due to a manufacturing issue, the right front axle shaft may fracture. A fractured front axle may result in a loss of power to the wheels. Additionally, if the vehicle is parked without the parking brake applied, it may roll away. Either condition increases the risk of a crash.

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front axle shaft assembly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2013.

Owners may contact Hyundai at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's recall number is 112.

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Ford revises C-Max mileage estimates, plans $550 refunds for customers

The automaker insists it did nothing wrong and the EPA, which is revising its rules, agrees

Owners of the Ford C-Max hybrid will be getting a check for $550 from Ford, as compensation for what the company now concedes was a mileage estimate that d...

PhotoOwners of the Ford C-Max hybrid will be getting a check for $550 from Ford, as compensation for what the company now concedes was a mileage estimate that didn't live up to consumers' real-world experience.

Ford said late Friday that it would reduce the fuel-economy rating for the C-Max to 43 miles per gallon from the 47 mpg that it had widely advertised in its quest to produce a Prius-killer. Customers who leased their C-Max will get $325.

Eligible customers, about 32,000 of them, will be notified by mail. Dealers will be attaching new mileage labels to cars on their lots.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it did not plan to take any action against Ford, saying the automaker did not do anything illegal. "Ford did not do anything illegal," EPA official Christopher Grundler told Automotive News

Ford has long contended that it arrived at its 47 mpg estimate by following the EPA's rules, an assertion the agency has not disputed. Grundler said the EPA will be updating the rules that automakers follow in arriving at mileage estimates.

Angry owners

Ford has faced withering criticism and lawsuits challenging its claimed 47 mpg rating, which is expected to be lowered to 43 mpg. The ratings are based on data gathered under (EPA) Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. 

In an initial attempt to quell the clamor, Ford said in July that it would recalibrate the software on the C-Max to deliver better fuel economy. 

PhotoThe Ford Fusion hybrid uses the same technology but has not been the subject of widespread complaints. Many C-Max owners, on the other hand, have been vocal about their displeasure. 

"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. "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 Toyota Prius, which is smaller and lighter than the C-Max, has a combined rating of 50 mpg, making it the only non-plug-in nameplate with higher EPA fuel-economy than the C-Max.

Hybrid ratings difficult

Toyota Prius Aug. 18, 2013, 3:36 p.m.
Consumers rate Toyota Prius

Although the C-Max episode is a serious blow to its image as an emerging leader in fuel economy, Ford is not alone in tripping over attempts to wring the highest possible mpg ratings out of its hybrids and other high-mileage vehicles.

Hyundai and Kia backed down on lofty fuel claims earlier this year, retreating from their 40 mpg claim and modifying it to values ranging from 36 to 38 mpg, depending on the model.

That move came about under pressure from the EPA, which said the ratings had been based on flawed test results. The companies offered about 900,000 customers prepaid fuel cards as compensation for the error.

Toyota's Prius has also come in for heavy criticism from many of its owners, although it also has a large band of loyalists.

All manufacturers and the EPA are battling a number of variables that make it harder to accurately predict the real-world fuel economy of hybrids as compared to gas- and diesel-powered models.

Perhaps the biggest variable is speed. Most hybrids beat internal combustion engines hands-down in stop-and-go urban driving, since the electric motor does most of the work. But it's a different story on the highway, where the often-small gas engine takes over.

While hybrids may turn in respectable mileage at 55 miles per hour or so, their performance suffers at higher speeds. It takes a lot more energy -- and, therefore, fuel -- to push a car along at 70 than at 55, perhaps 25% more in cars with smaller engines.

While 55 may be the speed limit on many Interstates, it's downright dangerous to drive that slowly, a circumstance government regulators don't seem eager to address.

Weather can also be a factor. Drivers who live in cold climates can expect worse mileasge in the winter, regardless of what kind of car they're driving. Vehicle condition is also a factor. New cars tend to get poorer mileage until they are "broken in" and all cars deliver poorer mileage with worn tires and engines in need of maintenance.

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Diesel: A high-mileage alternative to hybrids

This new breed of diesel is also a lot cleaner

Automakers have made great strides in increasing fuel efficiency of all manner of cars and trucks. Not only are electrics and hybrids beginning to change t...

PhotoAutomakers have made great strides in increasing fuel efficiency of all manner of cars and trucks. Not only are electrics and hybrids beginning to change the way consumers think about fuel efficiency, even four-cylinder gasoline-powered cars can get eye-popping MPG.

But an often-overlooked alternative is the diesel engine – which is much more common internationally than in the U.S. If you haven't considered diesel because it's smelly and dirty, you may not have been following the recent developments in technology that have led to what is known as “clean diesel.”

Automotive engineers have developed engines that burn the fuel cleaner and more efficiently, getting some of the best fuel economy on the road. Using urea exhaust-stream injections and a few other bells and whistles, engineers have designed engines with emissions that are a far cry from what they were just a few years ago.

Better mileage

They get better mileage too. Diesel engines have always given drivers more bang for the buck but modern turbocharging technology has boosted the advantage. Last week two popular clean-diesel vehicles were on display – not at an auto show where you would expect them, but at the 2013 National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) summit, attended by legislators and policymakers from around the U.S.

On display were the newly introduced 2014 Chevy Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel  and the 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDI clean diesel, which recently set a mileage record.

In June, the 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDI set a new Guinness World Record  for the lowest fuel consumption in the 48 contiguous U.S. states in the non-hybrid car category. It averaged a jaw-dropping 77.99 miles per gallon during a 14-day trip that covered 8,122 miles.

Beat hybrids hands down

PhotoHow does that compare to hybrids? The Passat TDI mileage mark also beat the hybrid vehicle U.S. record of 64.6 miles per gallon by more than 13 MPG.

The 2014 Chevy Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel earned an EPA 46 MPG highway ratings – an impressive performance that suffers only in comparison to the Passat TDI. The 2014 Cruze has gotten good initial reviews and reduces emissions without sacrificing power.

Mercedes Benz has also been pushing the envelope of clean diesel technology. The German carmaker offers diesel versions of both the M-Class and GL-Class crossovers. Now, the E350 BlueTEC is also offering clean diesel mileage in a stylish, luxury package. Despite its 210 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, it serves up an EPA 32 MPG highway rating.

Volkswagen is also putting its TDI engine in its Beetle, which is a far cry from the horsepower-challenged “bugs” that were popular with Baby Boomers in the 1960s. Back then the Beetle's stingy fuel economy stood in stark contrast to the prevalent V-8s that powered most cars, but even the Beetle of old couldn't match its offspring. The clean diesel Beetle is expected to crack the 40 MPG highway barrier.

'Tremendous advancements'

Photo"Diesel technology has made tremendous advancements in recent years as manufacturers have invested billions of dollars in new research and development,” said Allen Schaeffer, the Executive Director of the Diesel Technology Forum, part of the NCSL summit. The NCSL summit provides us an excellent opportunity to showcase the latest in clean diesel technology to policy makers from all 50 states.”

Policymakers are interested in clean-diesel technology for two reasons. It reduces air pollution while it reduces the demand for energy. That's important for consumers, of course, but also governments, who operate huge motor vehicle fleets. Shaeffer cites a study from ExxonMobil that predicts diesel will surpass gasoline as the number one global transportation fuel by 2020.

The same report suggests natural gas will retain only a small share of the transportation fuel mix, despite predictions of large scale conversions to the plentiful fuel. Some transportation analysts have suggested natural gas may play a more important role in transportation by firing electric plants.

After all, those electric cars are going to require a lot of electricity to recharge.

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Are governments trying to make you run a red light?

Critics charge some governments are trying to rig the odds to maximize revenue

Cameras at traffic signals, known to drivers as “red light cameras,” are there to catch you if you blow through a red light. The chances of a p...

PhotoCameras at traffic signals, known to drivers as “red light cameras,” are there to catch you if you blow through a red light. The chances of a police officer being at the intersection to nab you are pretty remote. But the camera is always there.

When a car runs a red light the camera captures the license plate number. A few days later, the driver receives a picture of their car going through an intersection, along with a ticket.

But these cameras have become increasingly controversial, and not just because people object to being under surveillance. There have been a number of lawsuits against municipalities that employ them -- Rochester, N.Y., is among the latest -- by drivers who have challenged the legality or validity of their tickets.

And there is a larger issue. Municipalities that install these cameras have discovered they are a lucrative source of revenue at a time of shrinking budgets. There is a growing suspicion that cities and towns are adjusting the timing of the lights to write more tickets.

Money generator

“When red light cameras are used to make money for local governments, these governments are unlikely to jeopardize this income source,” the National Motorists Association says in a statement on its website. “This includes traffic-light synchronization, which is the elimination of unneeded lights and partial deactivation of other traffic lights during periods of low traffic.”

If governments are adjusting lights to increase tickets -- shortening the period the light remains yellow, for example -- it is not just an ethical issue, critics say, but one that centers squarely on safety. The controversy attracted the interest of traffic engineering professors at the University of Tennessee, who analyzed the issue to determine if traffic control measures intended to boost red light revenue -- such as shortening yellow light time or increasing the speed limit on a street -- compromise safety.

The study by professors Lee Han, Chris Cherry and Qiang Yang, in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, is published in the August issue of Transport Policy Journal

Cherry, who says the proper use of red light cameras can promote safety, believes the vast majority of traffic engineers would not yield to the pressure to rig the lights in an effort to trap motorists.

Anecdotal reports

Photo“That said, there's been plenty of anecdotal reports and lawsuits that suggest that some traffic engineers have used red light camera revenue generation as one of the criteria that they consider when they time traffic signals,” Cherry said.

The authors analyzed previous research related to four traffic signal measures: shortening yellow duration and/or lengthening all-red duration, shortening cycle length, increasing the speed limit and increasing high volume-to-capacity conditions such as with an unwarranted turn signal—and their impacts on red light running, safety and efficiency.

Among their findings, shortening the yellow and/or lengthening the all-red, shortening the cycle length, and increasing the speed limit increased the chance of drivers running a red light. Shortening the yellow and increasing the speed limit increased the chance of a crash. So, if a municipality is doing that, it stands to reason they aren't doing it to promote safety, but for some other reason.

Hazardous at best

The timing of yellow lights is a significant issue for drivers under the best of circumstances. For drivers, it requires a judgment call, unlike the unambiguous red and green signals.

"There are circumstances, as you approach a yellow light, where the decision is easy," said Hesham Rakha, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, who conducted a 2012 study of yellow light timing. "If you are close to the intersection, you keep going. If you are far away, you stop. If you are almost at the intersection, you have to keep going because if you try to stop, you could cause a rear-end crash with the vehicle behind you and would be in the middle of the intersection anyway."

If some in authority are tweaking the time the signal remains yellow, shortening it in hopes of forcing a motorist to run a red light, it can make an intersection more dangerous.

Cherry says part of the problem stems from the cost of installing and operating these systems. He says it can provide added pressure to make the system at least pay for itself, even if it doesn't generate revenue.

Shouldn't pay for themselves

“The most effective red light camera is one that doesn't produce any revenue, that doesn't pay for itself,” he said. “They deter red light running so much that the municipality can't issue citations.”

According to various media reports a record number of tickets were issued by cameras in the District of Columbia in 2012, pulling in nearly $13 million for the city government. In June Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) drafted a bill that would ban red light cameras in the nation's capital -- suggesting the issue of ticket-writing cameras at intersections and whether governments are gaming the system -- could spill over into the political arena.

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Can you really be addicted to your smartphone?

It could be taking its place alongside drugs and alcohol

Addiction is a powerful word that gets thrown around a lot these days. There's drug addiction and alcohol addiction – we're all familiar with that. T...

PhotoAddiction is a powerful word that gets thrown around a lot these days. There's drug addiction and alcohol addiction – we're all familiar with that. There's also sex addiction and gambling addiction.

But can we be addicted to our smartphones? Increasingly psychologists are saying yes we can.

Dr. Ira E. Hyman, Jr., a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, says there's a difference between addiction and dependence. Writing in Psychology Today, Hyman admits to being dependent on his cellphone but not to the extent of not being able to control his use. When you arrive at that point, he writes, you're looking at addiction. 

He isn't alone in drawing that conclusion. Experiments have shown that some users, especially young users, will pass up money offered in exchange for waiting to reply to a text message from a friend and instead will reply immediately.

And it's not just texting. Some people will take a call in a crowded restaurant -- even in a movie theater.

TMI

"Cell phones have become a necessary part of our daily lives. Still, it is important to remember when to silence or turn them off -- like during meals and while studying or on the Internet," said Courtney Stewart, research associate at the Indiana Prevention Resource Center, an organization originally established to deal with drug addiction. "Too much information can overwhelm our senses and leave us feeling depleted. So put the phone down and spend some time talking with your friends face to face or better yet, take a walk with your friends if you want to connect and get some mood-boosting exercise."

Stewart says cellphone addiction may be hard to identify because, unlike drug and gambling addition, it can be hard to define. Feelings of withdrawal if you don't have your phone, compulsive checking of the phone, and using it to feel good characterize cell phone addiction, she says. And the consequences can be real, just like with other more-recognized additions.

"Students and others could experience the inability to concentrate on the task at hand, be it school work, your job or an important conversation," Stewart said. "School work may suffer, deadlines are not met, and many instructors and employers now ban the use of cell phones while in class or on the job. Failure to comply with these rules can result in declining grades, removal from the classroom and losing your job."

Life and death

PhotoIt can also be a matter of life and death. Using your mobile device when you should be placing your undivided attention elsewhere can lead to accidents. In 2011, about 1.3 million automobile accidents involved cell phone use, although a recent study calls into question the link between accidents and talking on a cellphone. 

There are even some humorous accessories to help cellphone users control their habit. One is a pouch for your phone that blocks the signal – for those who can't bring themselves to turn off their devices. Another is a cage in which you can lock up your phone. Stewart, however, suggests just confronting your cellphone demons.

Her advice? Make a habit of turning off your phone. When you go to a movie, go out to dinner with friends or doing work that requires concentration, turn it off.

If you are unsure if you are really addicted to your phone, you can take this test.

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Lawsuit challenges "Heart-Check" endorsement for Campbell's soup

The suit charges the American Heart Association of selling its "Heart-Check" indiscriminately

A lawsuit charges that the American Heart Association (AHA) defrauds consumers by selling its "Heart Check Mark" to Campbell Soup and other processed-...

PhotoA lawsuit charges that the American Heart Association (AHA) defrauds consumers by selling its "Heart-Check" logo to Campbell Soup and other processed-food manufacturers.

In the suit, which seeks class action status, lead plaintiff Kerry O'Shea says Campbell's motto should be: "Unhealthy, but maybe not as bad for you as other products."

On its website, the AHA boasts that the Heart-Check mark "has the strongest aided brand awareness and trust among leading on-package nutrition icons."

"Since its creation in 1995, the Heart-Check Food Certification Program has helped consumers eat healthier and lead by example for friends and family. Identifying heart-healthy foods is a solid first step in building a heart-healthy lifestyle," according to the AHA. 

But O'Shea's suit says the Heart-Check is for sale to food manufacturers whose products are not exactly health food. Campbell pays an annual licensing fee for at least 97 of its products that the suit says "run directly counter to the AHA's stated mission," which is to eliminate cardiovascular diseases and stroke, Courthouse News Service reports.

"The AHA, for a fee, abandons its general, noncommercial dietary and nutritional guidelines -- which categorically rule out unhealthy processed products, including Campbell's soups ... and agrees to certify as heart-healthy products that merely meet the minimum criteria for certain FDA-regulated health claims, rather than the AHA's own more demanding standards."

"When you spot the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark, you'll instantly know the food has been certified to meet the American Heart Association's guidelines for a heart-healthy food," AHA says in a section of its website aimed at consumers.  

PhotoThe suit charges that the practice "not only causes consumers to overpay for Campbell's AHA-certified soups, but also presents substantial health risks to all consumers, including the more than five million American consumers suffering from congestive heart failure."

A single serving of Campbell's AHA-certified soups contains nearly three times the amount of sodium permitted by the AHA's noncommercial nutritional guidelines, while a full can contains between six and seven times that amount, the lawsuit alleges.

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Coffee consumption linked to early death in under-55 drinkers

New study contradicts findings that coffee may be beneficial

You can find all kinds of studies claiming beneficial effects from coffee but a new study finds that drinking four cups a day raises your risk of dying pre...

PhotoYou can find all kinds of studies claiming beneficial effects from coffee but a new study finds that drinking four cups a day raises your risk of dying prematurely if you're under 55.

The findings come from a large-scale University of South Carolina study of 43,727 individuals aged 20 to 87. Researchers said they suspect excessive coffee consumption may somehow adversely affect the body’s metabolism.

"The exact mechanism between coffee and mortality still needs clarification. Coffee is high in caffeine, which has the potential to stimulate the release of epinephrine, inhibit insulin activity, and increase blood pressure," said Xuemei Sui, a co-author of the study.

The reason younger consumers are more at risk isn't clear but Sui said coffee consumption could be related to other unhealthful activities, including heavy drinking and smoking.

"Heavy coffee consumption behavior might cluster with other unhealthy behaviours such as sleeping late, and eating a poor diet," he said.

43,000 studied

The study, published online at Science Direct, used data from the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study representing 43,727 participants. Baseline data were collected by an in-person interview on the basis of a standardized questionnaires and a medical examination, including fasting blood chemistry analysis, anthropometry, blood pressure, electrocardiography, and a maximal graded exercise test.

There were 2,500 deaths during the 16-year study, about a third of them because of heart and artery disease. The study found that people who drank more coffee were also more likely to smoke and had less healthy hearts and lungs than other participants.

The risk of death from all causes rose by 56 per cent for men and women younger than 55 who drank more than 28 cups of coffee a week, according to a report in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

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Study: Craigslist took $5 billion bite out of newspapers

It's not the "free news" on the Internet that's killing newspapers

By offering buyers and sellers a free alternative to paid listings in newspapers, online classifieds site Craigslist saved users about $5 billion from 2000...

PhotoNearly everything you read about the cratering American newspaper industry blames the "free news" that readers are able to find on the Internet. Newspapers have responded with paywalls that bring in pocket change but mostly chase away readers.

But in fact, the most catastrophic impact of the Internet on newspapers has nothing at all to do with news. Rather, it's the dowdy but powerful site called Craigslist, which took about $5 billion away from newspapers during the period from 2000-2007, according to a new study.

How? Simple. Craigslist offers free classified ads, enabling consumers to sell their old exercise machines, auto parts and attic fans without shelling out the $50 or so most newspapers would have charged them. Equally important, it made it possible for employers to advertise jobs for as little as $25 instead of the hundreds of dollars big-city dailies charge.

Point of view

PhotoWhether this is a bad thing depends on your point of view. If you own a newspaper, it's bad. But it has saved consumers billions and has probably expanded economic activity by making it easier to buy and sell goods and find jobs. It has certainly made it easier for free lance writers, designers, programmers and others to find part-time gigs or even open their own businesses, although we're not aware of any rigorous research on the topic. 

The professors found that local newspapers that relied heavily on classifieds suffered an average 20.7% drop in classified advertising rates after the entry of Craigslist in their markets, according to the study by professors at the NYU Stern School of Business and Harvard Business School.

The study, titled “Responses to Entry in Multi-Sided Markets: The Impact of Craigslist on Local Newspapers,” found that newspapers that were more reliant on classified revenues saw a bigger drop-off after Craiglist entered their markets.

Besides cleverly walling off their newspaper content online, many newspapers responded to falling classified revenue by raising their home-delivery subscription prices, thus chasing off even more business. 

The NYU-Harvard study found that, sure enough, the migration of their classifieds business to Craigslist had secondary impacts on local newspapers. They found subscription prices rose an average 3.3% while circulation fell an average 4.4% and display advertising rates fell 3.1%.

The authors note that these results are still relevant today -- and not just to newspaper publishers -- as “the boundaries between media industries are blurred and advertisers are able to reach relevant consumers through a variety of platforms, such as TV, the Internet and mobile devices.”

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JetBlue hooks up with British Airways

The carriers will connect their routes at JFK, IAD, BOS and MCO

JetBlue Airways and British Airways today announced an "interline" agreement, meaning they will marry their reservations and ticketing systems so that a pa...

PhotoJetBlue Airways and British Airways today announced an "interline" agreement, meaning they will marry their reservations and ticketing systems so that a passenger can check in on a JetBlue flight and transfer seamlessly onto a BA flight, and vice versa.

The carriers initially plan to interline on 18 daily transatlantic British Airways flights, more than 50 U.S routes on the JetBlue network and more than 100 British Airways routes beyond London.

"This partnership provides our customers with even more possibilities to travel smoothly across Europe and other destinations in BA's extensive route network," said Scott Laurence, JetBlue's vice president of network planning and partnerships. "With 18 daily British Airways flights to our key East Coast gateways, their customers will now be able to enjoy the award-winning JetBlue experience to more than 50 U.S. destinations."

The agreement will connect the carriers' routes at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD).

British Airways' intercontinental routes that are part of the interline agreement include Boston-London Heathrow (LHR), New York/JFK-London City Airport (LCY), New York/JFK- London Heathrow (LHR), New York/JFK-Paris Orly (ORY), Orlando-London Gatwick (LGW) and Washington/Dulles-London Heathrow (LHR). Tickets can be purchased through British Airways.

"JetBlue is a well-respected, modern airline and we are delighted to be working with the carrier to offer our customers smooth connections to an even greater choice of destinations in the US," saidSteve Ronald, head of alliances at British Airways. 

At JFK Airport British Airways operates from Terminal 7, while JetBlue operates from nearby Terminal 5, a quick ride away on the airport's free AirTrain service. 

At Boston Airport, where JetBlue is the largest carrier and offers nonstop service to 49 cities, more than any other airline, British Airways operates from Terminal E, while JetBlue operates from nearby Terminal C. 

At Orlando, where JetBlue operates numerous routes to the Caribbean and Latin America, British Airways operates from Terminal B and JetBlue from Terminal A.

At Washington/Dulles, the carriers are co-located on Concourse B.

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New home construction surges in July

Multi-family units accounted for all of the gain

Construction of new homes shot higher last month, rebounding from June's big decline. Government figures show housing totaled an annual rate 896,000 in Ju...

PhotoConstruction of new homes shot higher last month, rebounding from June's big decline.

Commerce Department figures show housing totaled an annual rate 896,000 in July, a jump of 5.9% the revised June estimate of 846,000. It's also 20.9% above the year-ago rate of 741,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for a rate of 895,000.

The star performer in July was the multi-family sector, where construction rose to 290,000 units. Construction of single-family homes fell 2.2% to an annual rate rate of 591,000.

Building permits

Looking to future construction, applications for building permits rose 2.7% in July to an annual rate of 943,000. However, authorizations for single-family construction dropped 1.2% to 613,000, while permits for buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 303,000.

Interest rates

PhotoNo discussion of housing is complete without a look at the cost of financing a home loan.

Earlier this week, Freddie Mac reported average fixed mortgage rates were largely unchanged from the previous week.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 4.40% for the week ending August 15, with an average 0.7 point -- unchanged from last week. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.62 percent.

The rate for the 15-year FRM was up 1 basis point to 3.44% with an average 0.6 point. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 2.88 percent.

The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 3.23% with an average 0.5 point, Last week it averaged 3.19% and a year ago it was 2.76%.

The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.67 percent this week with an average 0.4 point, versus 2.62% this week and 2.69% last year.

Market speculation that the Fed will taper some of its monetary stimulus has had the fixed mortgage rates around over the past few weeks. “In fact,” says Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist at Freddie Mac, “65% of economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect the Fed to reduce the amount of bond purchases at its September 17th and 18th monetary policy committee meetings.”

Nothaft points out that mortgage rates on 30-year fixed mortgages currently are 1.1 percentage points above their all-time low set on November 21, 2012, which translates into $125 more per month in mortgage payments on a $200,000 loan.

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Samsung is first company to get UL safety certificate for new printer

The new safety standard covers a broad range of high-tech products

Samsung is the first company to be awarded a new safety certificate from Underwriters Laboratories (UL) covering high-tech products.The award is for Sams...

PhotoSamsung is the first company to be awarded a new safety certificate from Underwriters Laboratories (UL) covering high-tech products.

The award is for Samsung's new A3 Mono Multifunction printer, similar to the one shown here. 

UL said Samsung Electronics "was able to identify safety hazards early in the product development phase and therefore design products more efficiently – shortening products’ time to market and providing more performance options to demonstrate compliance."

The new UL safety performance standard -- known as IEC 62368-1 -- is "a shift from the traditional prescriptive standards to a new hazard-based concept, with more performance-based options," UL said.

The standard requires companies to use Hazard-Based Safety Engineering (HBSE) in product development.

Wide range of products

It covers a wide range of high-tech products including computing and networking products, consumer electronics, displays and display units, telecommunication products, office appliances including printers, musical instruments, and similar varieties of audio/video, information and communication technology equipment.

"This world’s first certification reflects our commitment to hazard-free products that meet customer demands for both performance and safety," said Wooseog Kim, Vice President of R&D team at Samsung Electronics. "We are honored by the certification from UL and we consider this excellent recognition for our continued effort in discovering new possibilities in printing innovation."

"Samsung Electronics receiving the first-ever IEC 62368-1 certificate for its printer will have a great influence in future safety design and product development in the ever-changing world of technology," said Stephen Hwang, vice president and general manager of UL Korea.

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Feds expand Chilean chicken recall

Risk of illness is said to be 'negligible'

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has expanded the amount of product being recalled by the Chilean Ministry of Health. After official notificat...

PhotoThe Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has expanded the amount of product being recalled by the Chilean Ministry of Health. After official notification from the government of Chile of the positive result for dioxin, FSIS instructed importers to hold chicken products, which were presented for re-inspection.

FSIS has determined that 343,637 lbs of chicken may be affected and 155,595 lbs is currently being held. Through effectiveness checks, it has determined that 188,042 lbs was distributed to federal establishments for further processing, a distributor and retail locations in Florida, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico.

FSIS conducted an analysis of the Chilean test results and determined that the risk to consumers is negligible. The agency continues to investigate distribution of the product and will take immediate action on new information.

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IKEA Recalls junior beds

The metal rod connecting the guard rail to the bed frame can break

IKEA North America Services of Conshohocken, Pa., is recalling about 40,000 KRITTER and SNIGLAR junior beds. The metal rod connecting the guard rail to th...

PhotoIKEA North America Services of Conshohocken, Pa., is recalling about 40,000 KRITTER and SNIGLAR junior beds.

The metal rod connecting the guard rail to the bed frame can break, posing a laceration hazard. There has been one report in the U.S. and one report in Canada of the metal rod on the beds breaking. No injuries have been reported.

These recalled IKEA junior beds include the KRITTER and SNIGLAR models with a guard rail on one side. The pine wood KRITTER beds have animal cut-outs, such as a dog and cat on the headboard and a date stamp of 1114 to 1322 representing the year and week of production (YYWW). The SNIGLAR natural beech wood beds have a white painted fiberboard insert on the headboard and footboard of the bed and a date stamp of 1114 to 1318.

The beds measure about 65 inches long by 30 inches wide with a 22 to 26 inch high headboard. The date stamp appears on a label attached to either the headboard or the underside of the bed. Model numbers included in the recall are 600.904.70 for the KRITTER and 500.871.66 for the SNIGLAR, supplier number 15361 (KRITTER) and 19740 or 18157 (SNIGLAR) printed on the same label as the date stamp.

The beds, manufactured in Poland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania, were sold exclusively at IKEA stores nationwide and online at www.ikea-usa.com from July 2005, through May 2013, for between $60 and $90.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled KRITTER and SNIGLAR junior beds and contact IKEA to receive a free repair kit.

Consumers may contact IKEA toll-free at (888) 966-4532 anytime for more information.  

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Char-Broil recalls Patio Bistro Gas Grills

The electronic ignition on the grill can ignite unexpectedly

Char-Broil of Columbus, Ga., is recalling about 71,200 Char-Broil Gas Patio Bistro Grills. The electronic ignition on the grill can ignite unexpectedly, p...

PhotoChar-Broil of Columbus, Ga., is recalling about 71,200 Char-Broil Gas Patio Bistro Grills.

The electronic ignition on the grill can ignite unexpectedly, posing a burn hazard. The company has received 26 reports of the burner flame going out and then unexpectedly reigniting when the consumer turned the control knob to “OFF.” The 26 reports include four reports of burns, including one with burns to the nose, chin and hair, and seven other reports of “burned” or “singed” hair.

The recall involves two Char-Broil Gas Patio Bistro Grills: the model 240 Full Size grill and the model 180 Table Top grill. Both are single-burner propane gas grills equipped with a battery-operated integrated electronic ignition and intended only for outdoor use. The grills have round black bodies with silver/aluminum trim. The words “Char-Broil” and “Patio Bistro” are printed near the thermometer on the grill’s lid and near the control knob on the front of the grill. The grills have a rating label on the bottom support on the back of the unit that states “Char-Broil, LLC,” the model number and other information. The grills were sold with the following model numbers: 

Model Name

Model Number(s)

Char-Broil® Gas Patio Bistro® 240 Full Size

11601558, 11601558-A1, 
12601558 and 12601558-A2

Char-Broil® Gas Patio Bistro® 180 Table Top

12601713

The grills, manufactured in China, were sold at hardware stores and other retailers nationwide, including Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Sears, Target, True Value and online from Amazon.com from September 2010, to June 2013, for about for about $175 for the full size grill and $135 for the table top grill.

Consumers should immediately stop using the grills and contact Char-Broil for instructions on how to order and install a free repair kit.

Consumers may contact Char-Broil toll free at (866) 671-7988 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET.

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You don't have to go to a warehouse to buy in bulk

Spokane start-up gives new meaning to 'food truck'

Warehouse clubs like Sam's Club, BJ's Wholesale Club and Costco have become fixtures in the retail universe with their ability to sell huge packages of foo...

PhotoWarehouse clubs like Sam's Club, BJ's Wholesale Club and Costco have become fixtures in the retail universe with their ability to sell huge packages of food and other products at a discount. Consumers like it because they don't have to shop as often and they usually end up saving money.

The chains keep prices low by cutting deals with suppliers and moving massive quantities in just a few transactions. Consumers, of course, have to be careful. It's one thing to purchase a crate of paper towels – they don't go bad and eventually you'll use them all.

Food items, however, can present challenges since almost everything has an expiration date. Selling meat in large quantities is even trickier. But a Spokane, Wash., start-up – Zaycon Foods – is doing it, and doing it in a most unusual way.

The company started in 2009 when Mike Conrad's brother brought him the idea.

The idea

“He was the meat manager at a grocery store,” said Conrad, the co-founder of Zaycon Foods. “And he thought, 'Every day I get in these cases of chicken. I wonder if I can sell a whole case to the customer if I gave them a really good deal, instead of putting it on a foam tray, wrapping it and selling it for two bucks more a pound.'”

In the initial marketing effort, the brothers sold three truckloads of chicken. In four short years Zaycon Foods has become a nationwide firm, selling cases of fresh meat, out of the back of a truck, directly to consumers, in every state except Hawaii.

“Our business wouldn't exist if the Internet didn't exist, because everything we deliver is pre-sold. When we go to event or location, all we are doing is delivering a pre-sold product,” Conrad said.

How it works

PhotoBut first it's got to get sold. To make a purchase, a consumer registers at the company's website and states a preference for the types of meat they want to buy. The company then sends an email when a truck is going to be passing through the customer's town. The consumer makes the purchase online and picks up the case of meat at the appointed place and time.

To create such a large national footprint in such a short period of time, Conrad and a cousin looked up 450 food blogs and called each of the bloggers. They asked if they would write a review of their chicken if they received a free package.

Then Conrad and his cousin divided up the country and drove the free chicken to each of the bloggers' homes, personally delivering it.

Power of the Internet

“That was the launch of doing it nationwide,” Conrad said. “All the bloggers tried the chicken, did the review, and we started getting a whole bunch of people registering on our site.”

The mostly favorable reviews stemmed in part, no doubt, from the personal delivery as much as the quality of the product. The end result is that Zaycon Foods has become a player in the bulk food sector, doing the warehouse chains one better on trimming overhead. The company serves 49 states with 25 employees and no stores and has given new meaning to the term "food truck." Their trucks simply show up in towns across America and start unloading meat.

“Most of our locations are churches because churches have big parking lots that aren't being used, except on Sunday,” Conrad said.

The company gives the church a case of meat in return for the use of its parking lot. The churches like that arrangement, Conrad says, because it can then distribute the meat to members in need.

Amazon.com of meat?

It's too early to tell if Zaycon Foods is going to become the Amazon.com of meat, but Conrad says the company has expansion plans. It has already added non-meat food items – like honey and blueberries – to its offerings. It hopes to develop relationships with small farmers and processing plants so that it can support local agriculture while enhancing freshness even more.

“Generally the price is what brings people in,” Conrad said. “Beyond the price, the freshness keeps them. We're trying to get the meat to them in less than five days. If you look at a large chain store, it goes from the warehouse to the distribution center, to the store's distribution center, to the store. It could take 15 days before it's actually on the shelf to sell.”

How much can consumers save buying in bulk, off the back of a truck? Conrad says it's about 50%.

“If you go to a store now I bet you'll find chicken at $2.49 to $3.99 a pound,” he said. “If you're in New York it's $4.99 to $5.99 a pound. Right now I'll selling boneless, skinless chicken, fresh, in New York for $1.84 a pound.”

It's easy to get carried away with the savings, whether you are buying from a warehouse or from a truck. When buying meat, especially, make sure you have the freezer space to store it.

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Ford will lower mpg ratings of the C-Max Hybrid

The car had been billed as Ford's Prius-killer but didn't live up to initial claims

In a blow to its corporate pride, Ford is reducing the fuel-economy rating of its C-Max Hybrid, a car the automaker had touted as a Prius-killer, according...

PhotoIn a blow to its corporate pride, Ford is reducing the fuel-economy rating of its C-Max Hybrid, a car the automaker had touted as a Prius-killer, according to Automotive News, which said the announcement is planned for later today.

Ford has faced withering criticism and lawsuits challenging its claimed 47 mpg rating, which is expected to be lowered to 43 mpg. The ratings are based on data gathered under (EPA) Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. 

Ford said in July that it would recalibrate the software on the C-Max to deliver better fuel economy. 

The Toyota Prius, which is smaller and lighter than the C-Max, has a combined rating of 50 mpg, making it the only non-plug-in nameplate with higher EPA fuel-economy than the C-Max.

PhotoHyundai and Kia also backed down on lofty fuel claims earlier this year, retreating from their 40 mpg claim and modifying it to values ranging from 36 to 38 mpg, depending on the model.

That move came about under pressure from the EPA, which said the ratings had been based on flawed test results. The companies offered about 900,000 customers prepaid fuel cards as compensation for the error.

The Detroit News is reporting today that the EPA is expected to announce Friday that it will revise test procedures for how hybrid vehicles are assigned fuel economy ratings and labels.

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So is Gmail private or not?

Consumer group says Google speaks with forked tongue

Google and a California non-profit, Consumer Watchdog, are hurling accusations and insults today over whether consumers should really expect their emails t...

PhotoGoogle and a California non-profit, Consumer Watchdog, are hurling accusations and insults today over whether consumers should really expect their emails to be private.

The dispute grows out of a class action lawsuit that charged Google was violating federal and state wiretap laws by analyzing its 425 million users' emails. In a court filing, Google said that people can’t expect privacy when sending a message to a Gmail address.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Google said there is no reasonable expectation of total privacy when sending an email through the public Internet:

“Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient’s [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’"

 

Consumer Watchdog jumped on the motion and called on Google to "stop reading and analyzing the content of emails sent to its system."

In response, Google seemed to backtrack from the message in its court filing, saying: 

“We take our users’ privacy and security very seriously; recent reports claiming otherwise are simply untrue. We have built industry-leading security and privacy features into Gmail — and no matter who sends an email to a Gmail user, those protections apply.”

Which is it?

Photo
John M. Simpson

Google can't have it both ways, Consumer Watchdog said, alleging that "Google is either lying to the court or lying to the public."

“If they take privacy seriously, then they must amend their brief and stop reading and analyzing the content of email we send to their system,” said Consumer Watchdog's John M. Simpson. “If Google stands by the claim of no expectation of privacy it asserted in the court filing, they cannot claim to respect users’ privacy. These two claims are obviously incompatible.”

Google has always insisted that the "processing" to which emails are subjected is automated and intended only to match advertising to the general context of the email or to sort emails into appropriate folders or categories.

In its motion, Google said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were trying to "criminalise ordinary business practices" that have been part of Gmail's service since it was introduced.

 The class action lawsuit, filed in San Jose U.S. District Court in May, charges that Google "unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people's private email messages." It quotes Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman as saying: "Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it."

The suit claims that "on a daily basis and for years, Google has systematically and intentionally crossed the 'creepy line' to read private email messages containing information you don't want anyone to know, and to acquire, collect, or mine valuable information from that mail."

The full text of the lawsuit was filed under seal because it details many of Google's confidential and proprietary business practices. A hearing in the case is set for Sept. 5 before Judge Lucy H. Koh.

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Why you really should test drive a car before you buy it

How you fit into the car is very important

With automotive websites, it's possible to shop for a car and negotiate a deal without setting foot inside the showroom. While some consumers may like the ...

PhotoWith automotive websites, it's possible to shop for a car and negotiate a deal without setting foot inside the showroom. While some consumers may like the convenience of not having to kill an entire day at a car dealer, there is something to be said for the direct, in-person approach.

For one thing, it gives you a chance to inspect the vehicle you are buying and, more importantly, take a test drive. The test drive allows you to assess a number of important factors about the vehicle.

For example, what is the visibility like? If you don't like the placement of the windows, you want to find out before you buy the car. And what's good visibility for some drivers may not be for others – especially short drivers.

Harder to see

It's become more of an issue lately. According to an editor at the automotive site Edmunds.com, many late model cars have a higher "beltline" — the horizontal line where the window glass meets sheet metal. For some, it make it more difficult to see.

"This can give the vehicle a more assertive look, but it does little to improve sight lines, and can even make a vehicle feel claustrophobic for smaller drivers," said Edmunds.com editor Warren Clarke. "As a result, short car shoppers making such a big purchase might have trouble getting comfortable with a lot of the new car choices available on the market."

Short drivers may be able to compensate for this by adjusting their seats. But you won't really know if you can until you sit in the seat, make the adjustment, and take the car for a spin.

Visibility often comes into play when it's time to find a parking place. If you think visibility may be an issue, maybe you should try to parallel park it as part of the test drive.

Tall people may also have issues

By the same token, some cars might be uncomfortable for drivers who are taller than average. Vehicles that are low to the ground or that have limited head room can be a challenge if the driver is 6'2” or taller.

Some auto experts point out that certain powertrain options can alter the feel of a vehicle. They recommend that when you ask for a test drive, make sure you are driving the same model and trim level that you intend to purchase.

And don't just focus your attention on the driver's comfort. If there are rear doors, how easy will it be for children to get in and out, as well as other adult passengers? Will a child safety seat easily fit in the back seat and how easy will it be to install it?

Check out the interior

Once behind the wheel, look closely at the dashboard. Are the controls laid out in a way that makes sense to you? What about the comfort of the seat? Ergonomics is a very important consideration since most of us spend a lot of time in our vehicles.

What's a great set of wheels for one consumer may not be for another. Edmunds has compiled a list of new cars that it says are great for short drivers. They include the BMW 3 Series, Honda Accord, Kia Soul, Mazda 3 and Subaru Forester. They may, or may not be such a good fit for a a tall driver.

A test drive is the only way to find out for sure. When taking the vehicle for a spin, make sure it's on your terms. If possible, drive on streets and highways of your choosing. Some dealers even let you take a test drive car home overnight. The more time you can spend in it before committing to buying it, the better.

Do your research on a car before you test drive it. If reviews from both drivers and automotive experts raise issues that might affect you – a lack of headroom, for example – maybe you cross that car off the list.

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Hackers branching out to newly-networked smart devices

Baby monitors, home security systems, smart cars, medical equipment -- all are vulnerable

It took awhile but consumers are becoming more vigilant about protecting their computers and smartphones against hacking and malware. Unfortunately, hacker...

PhotoIt took awhile but consumers are becoming more vigilant about protecting their computers and smartphones against hacking and malware. Unfortunately, hackers are now turning their attention to fertile new fields -- including cars and homes, which are increasingly controlled by microprocessors that are vulnerable to intruders.

In one particularly frightening case, a Texas family says its baby monitor was hacked. Marc Gilbert said a hacker took control of the camera on the device and heckled his deaf daughter, 

Upon discovering the intrusion, Gilbert said he disconnected the Foscam IP camera from his Comcast router and connected it directly to his computer, enabling him to discover that someone had set up a new user account for the camera and changed the password.

Gilbert said he had strong passwords on the router and camera and had enabled the internal firewall on the router, though on its lowest setting.

It's not quite clear how the intruder got into the system but if it was not through the Internet, then it must have been a local job -- meaning someone within range of the Gilbert family's router must have infiltrated their WiFi network.

Not an isolated problem

While perhaps a little more dramatic than similar incidents, the Gilbert case illustrates the risks affecting a long list of "smart" devices -- insulin pumps, heart monitors, HVAC systems, home automation systems, and cars.

Security researchers are regularly discovering dangerous -- even life-threatening -- security flaws in networked consumer devices and those in hospitals, offices and institutions. 

But the warnings from security experts are often ignored or -- even worse -- used to demonize the white-hat experts who are trying to alert the unsuspecting, DarkReading.com recently reported. 

Security experts are often viewed as the black-hat hackers they are trying to expose, as networked equipment spreads far beyond the world of information technology, where security has been a top priority for decades.

"If you have a hacker who's an expert on a flaw [in a consumer device] and you put him in front of a policymaker, they see a hacker, someone who can't be 100 percent trusted," said Nicholas Percoco, a researcher and senior vice president of Trustwave's SpiderLabs quoted by DarkReading, an infotech security site.

Percoco says there's an urgent need for trusted "white hats" who can bridge the gap between those who are unaware of the risks they're facing and those who are trying to educate them.

"We need ... to find spokespeople for our industry who have a knowledge of the hacking and security community, but are well-seated in the medical device or automotive industries," he said.

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The high cost of excessive drinking

Billions of dollars are lost -- and that may be a low-ball estimate

Time is money. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), so is booze. According to a new study released by the CDC, excessi...

PhotoTime is money. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), so is booze.

According to a new study released by the CDC, excessive alcohol use causes a large economic burden to states and the District of Columbia -- a median of $2.9 billion in 2006 to put it dollar-terms. That ranges from $420 million in North Dakota to $32 billion in California. And it works out to a median cost of $1.91 per state for each alcoholic drink consumed.

Binge drinking -- consuming five or more drinks on an occasion for men or four or more drinks on an occasion for women -- was responsible for more than 70% of excessive alcohol use related costs in all states and D.C. The District had the highest per-person cost ($1,662), while Utah had the highest cost per drink ($2.74). Furthermore, about $2 of every $5 in state costs were paid by government, ranging from 37% of the costs in Mississippi to 45% of the total costs in Utah.

Wide-ranging costs

Study authors found that costs due to excessive drinking largely resulted from losses in workplace productivity, health care expenses, and other costs due to a combination of criminal justice expenses, motor vehicle crash costs, and property damage.

Across all states and D.C., excessive drinking costs due to productivity losses ranged from 61% in Wyoming to 82% in D.C., and the share of costs due to health care expenses ranged from 8% in Texas to 16% in Vermont.

Photo
Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention

“This study alerts states to the huge economic impact of excessive alcohol use, and shows how it affects all of us by reducing productivity, increasing criminal justice expenses, and increasing healthcare costs,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Effective prevention programs can support people in making wise choices about drinking alcohol, and help reduce the huge personal and social costs of excessive drinking.”

May be low-balling

Economic cost estimates for states and D.C. were based on a previous CDC study that found that excessive drinking cost the United States $223.5 billion in 2006. Costs were assessed across 26 cost categories using data from several sources, including the Alcohol-Related Disease Impact Application, the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol-Related Conditions, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Researchers believe that the study’s findings are underestimated because it did not consider a number of other costs, such as those due to pain and suffering by the excessive drinker or others who were affected by the drinking.

“It is striking to see most of the costs of excessive drinking in states and D.C. are due to binge drinking, which is reported by about 18% of U.S. adults,” said Robert D. Brewer, M.D., M.S.P.H., Alcohol Program Lead at CDC and one of the authors of the report. “Fortunately, the Community Guide includes a number of effective strategies that states and localities can use to prevent binge drinking and the costs related to it.”

Excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for an average of 80,000 deaths and 2.3 million years of potential life lost in the United States each year. Binge drinking is responsible for over half of these deaths and two-thirds of the years of life lost.   

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Consumer prices edge higher in July

Shelter, gasoline and food costs led the advance

Consumer prices edged higher in July as Americans shelled out more for food, gasoline and shelter. Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show...

PhotoConsumer prices edged higher in July as Americans shelled out more for food, gasoline and shelter.

Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 0.2% last month, in line with forecasts of economists surveyed by Briefing.com. For the 12 months ending in July, the CPI is up a modest 2.0%.

Increases in prices came in a broad range of sectors including including gasoline and food.

Despite a 1.0% rise in gasoline prices, overall energy costs were up just 0.2%, thanks to declines of 2.8% and and 0.3% in the prices of natural gas and electricity, respectively.

Food prices were up a miniscule 0.1% with only two of the six major grocery store food group increasing: fruits and vegetables up 1.5% and meats, poultry, fish and eggs rising 0.2%.

The “core” rate of inflation on the consumer level, which excludes food and energy because of their volatility, was up 0.2% -- the third straight such increase. Over the last year, the core rate of inflation is up 1.7%

Analysts expect inflation will remain tame as long as the economy continues to limp along. The annual rate of growth in the second quarter was 1.7%.

The complete CPI report for July is available on the Labor Department website.

Jobless claims


Separately, the government reports first-time applications for unemployment benefits dipped by 15,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 320,000. At the same time, the total number of initial claims for the week ending August 3 was revised to 335,000 -- 2,000 more than previously reported.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, totaled 332,000, a drop of 4,000 from the previous week'.

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

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Chrysler recalls RAM 3500 trucks

There may be a loss of power transfer through the transmission to the wheels

Chrysler is recalling 85 model year 2012 RAM 3500 trucks manufactured May 4, 2012, through August 7, 2012; and model year 2012 RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks man...

PhotoChrysler is recalling 85 model year 2012 RAM 3500 trucks manufactured May 4, 2012, through August 7, 2012; and model year 2012 RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks manufactured May 3, 2012, through August 7, 2012.

Due to a loose snap ring inside the transmission, there may be a loss of power transfer through the transmission to the wheels which could increase the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the transmission assembly free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in September 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N50.

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John Deere recalls compact utility tractors

The spring locking pins in the rollover protective system (ROPS) can break

Deere & Company of Moline, Ill., is recalling about 7,000 compact utility tractors. The spring locking pins in the rollover protective system (ROPS) can b...

PhotoDeere & Company of Moline, Ill., is recalling about 7,000 compact utility tractors.

The spring locking pins in the rollover protective system (ROPS) can break and cause the ROPs to fail in the event of a rollover. This presents a risk of serious injury or death to the operator. The company has received three reports of broken spring locking pins and identified two failed spring locking pins in the manufacturing assembly process. There are no reports of injuries.

This recall involves 19 models of John Deere 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000 series compact utility tractors manufactured between February 2013 and July 2013. The tractors are green and yellow with a foldable black, metal rollover protection bar that extends above the operator’s head. The model number is on the hood. The serial number is located on the right hand side of the frame above the front axle. Compact utility tractors with serial numbers in the following ranges are included in this recall:

Model NumberVehicle Identification Number Ranges
1023E1LV1023EXXX310006 to 1LV1023EXXX310083
1025R1LV1025RXXX111788 to 1LV1025RXXX116214
2025R1LV2025RXXX110121 to 1LV2025RXXX110202
2032R1LV2032RXXX110008 to 1LV2032RXXX110283
2320H1LV2320HXXX712151 to 1LV2320HXXX712593
2520H1LV2520HXXX811702 to 1LV2520HXXX811703
2720H1LV2720HLCH511543 (Only)
3320H1LV3320HXXX910198 to 1LV3320HXXX910700
3320P1LV3320PXXX910129 to 1LV3320PXXX910299
3520H1LV3520HXXX910239 to 1LV3520HXXX910579
3520P1LV3520PXXX910098 to 1LV3520PXXX910188
3720H1LV3720HXXX910181 to 1LV3720HXXX910429
4120H1LV4120HXXX916152 to 1LV4120HXXX916350
4120P1LV4120PXXX916013 to 1LV4120PXXX916014
4320H1LV4320HXXX916166 to 1LV4320HXXX916420
4320P1LV4320PXXX916036 to 1LV4320PXXX916112
4520H1LV4520HXXX916127 to 1LV4520HXXX916276
4520P1LV4520PXXX916034 to 1LV4520PXXX916135
4720H1LV4720HXXX916129 to 1LV4720HXXX916919

The tractors, manufactured in the U.S, were sold at John Deere dealers nationwide from February 2013, through July 2013, for between $11,500 and $35,700.

Consumers should immediately stop using the compact utility vehicles and contact a John Deere dealer for a free repair. John Deere is contacting all registered owners of the recalled compact utility tractors directly.

Consumers may contact Deere and Company at (800) 537-8233, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET.   

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Can you cash in on the housing rebound?

Maybe, but not the way you did before the Great Recession

The real estate market has come a long way from the depths of the Great Recession, which froze sales and sent home values plunging. Now, both sales and pri...

PhotoThe real estate market has come a long way from the depths of the Great Recession, which froze sales and sent home values plunging. Now, both sales and prices are rising.

That point was driven home earlier this month when CoreLogic reported that home prices nationwide, including foreclosures and short-sales, increased 11.9% in June, year-over-year. It was the 16th straight monthly increase in home prices. Though prices in most markets are not back to where they were at the height of the housing bubble, the rebound is presenting some people the opportunity to cash in, in one way or another.

The most obvious way to cash in is to put your home up for sale. If you bought before 2003, when prices began to surge, you may have regained a lot of your lost equity. That lost equity may have prevented you from putting your house on the market over the last few years.

Now's the time

“Now may be the time to do it,” said Pat Esswein, who writes about real estate for personal finance publication Kiplinger. “It certainly is a quicker process, and in many markets you can sell for more money than you could a year or two ago.”

Of course, all real estate is local. It's possible that market conditions where you live haven't fully recovered. But if you live in one of the hardest hit markets, you may have recovered quite a bit of equity.

“In Phoenix, for example, they've seen home process rocket up, by more than 20% in some cases,” Esswein said. “But that's somewhat unusual. But at least prices in most markets are moving in the right direction. Homes are appreciating in value to some degree. There are still a lot of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages. They'll probably have to wait some time yet before they have enough equity to allow them to sell.”

One reason prices have recovered is the short supply of homes for sale. Over the last year foreclosures have slowed considerably. Those underwater homeowners can't sell. That means you might be able to sell your home quickly but might not be able to find another house right away. That can raise problems for the seller.

Make choices

Photo“You may have to eliminate some things from your wish list or you may have to broaden the geographic scope or your search,” Esswein said. “If you feel you're going to need more time to find something, many sellers are asking the purchasers to do what's known as a lease-back arrangement, where the seller can rent back their current home for some period of time after settlement.”

But that isn't always feasible. The buyer might not have the luxury of waiting three months before taking possession of the property.

Selling your home is not the only way to cash in on the recovering market. Many homeowners have refinanced, taking advantage of historically low interest rates. The lower rates have resulted in lower monthly payments, in effect putting money in the homeowner's pocket every month.

“People have been refinancing right along as rates dropped to historic lows,” Esswein said. “And even though there has been some volatility over the last few months, rates still are historically low.”

Lower payment is primary goal

When most people refinance their mortgages these days, they are doing so to lower their payments. By and large they are more likely to pay down principal at closing, rather than take out equity in cash.

“If you have equity you could do a cash-out refi, but of course when you take cash out, you are reducing your equity in the home and increasing the risk to the lender, so they charge you a premium,” Esswein said.

During the housing bubble millions of consumers did, in fact, take cash out of their homes when they refinanced. After all, it was generally assumed that the value of real estate would always go up.

Of course, it didn't. The resulting housing crash left many people who once had a lot of equity in their homes with negative equity. A number of those cases ended in foreclosure.

Will history repeat itself? Esswein says it's not likely. Lenders are a lot more prudent than they once were – and so in fact are homeowners. Still, the recovering housing market may allow some homeowners to “cash in,” even if it means just being able to finally sell their homes.

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Feds want carmakers to make recall notices more noticeable

By next year, consumers will be able to search by VIN number to check for recalls

Anyone who's ever tried to chase down automobile recall information may welcome the news that federal safety regulators are trying to make the process a li...

PhotoAnyone who's ever tried to chase down automobile recall information may welcome the news that federal safety regulators are trying to make the process a little simpler. 

The completion rate for recalls hovers around 70 percent, which everyone agrees isn't very good for defects that can be life-threatening.

Consumers now see recall notices in newspapers, on news broadcasts and websites but it's not always easy to know if a particular car is covered, since many recalls cover only certain manfacture dates, geographic locations and so forth.

Going to SaferCar.gov, the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will generally provide the definitive answer, but not everyone knows about it. So NHTSA is going to require automakers to install a tool -- actually a link to NHTSA -- on their websites to allow consumers tomore easily find out if vehicles have been recalled by searching with their car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) starting next year.

Photo
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx

"Safety is our highest priority, and an informed consumer is one of our strongest allies in that effort," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "Owners and potential buyers alike will soon be able to identify whether a safety recall for their specific vehicle is incomplete, using our free online search at SaferCar.gov."

NHTSA's online search does not now include the VIN option. Owners must search by year, manufacturer and model and then, in some cases, wade through additional details that determine whether their specific vehicle is part of the recall. 

NHTSA is also imposing new requirements on the recall notices that manufacturers mail to vehicle owners, specifying that they must use "urgent safety recall'' in capital letters and an enlarged font at the top of the letter.

Manufacturers grumble

Manufacturers are grumbling about the process, which requires them to install a link that will take their customers away from their site and plop them down on the NHTSA site. They say they could do the job better on their sites. 

"Automakers can provide a one-stop digital storeroom for consumer information that the government cannot provide," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a prepared statement.

"Automakers are already providing safety recall information on their own websites. Consumers go to automaker websites when they were looking to buy their car, so it makes sense to provide safety recall information on those same websites," the automakers' group said. "Not only are consumers familiar with the websites of auto companies, but these websites also provide additional information on vehicles and customer service campaigns that would not be available on a separate government website, which was an option that the government chose not to adopt."

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Coke tries to rehabilitate aspartame

Consumers "can feel good about" artificial sweeteners, new ads claim

Coca-Cola and other soft-drink manufacturers are feeling backed into a corner. Their sugary drinks are lambasted for contributing to the obesity epidemic a...

Photo
This Coca-Cola ad appeared in some versions of USA Today (Photo credit: AdWeek)

Coca-Cola and other soft-drink manufacturers may be feeling backed into a corner. Their sugary drinks are lambasted for contributing to the obesity epidemic and their "diet" drinks made with artificial sweeteners are condemned as health hazards.

It's enough to make you go into the bottled water business. Oh wait, they've done that and been blamed for contributing to environmental damage. 

But the soft-drink makers didn't get to be the globe-girdling giants that they are by turning the other cheek. Coca-Cola has been taking a more aggressive approach than its competitors and is about to launch an advertising campaign defending its use of artificial sweeteners, according to AdWeek. The newspaper ads are expected to roll out over the next few weeks.

"Our use of high-quality, low- and no- calorie sweeteners, including aspartame, allows us to give people great-tasting options they can feel good about," reads a copy of the ad posted to Twitter by Beverage Digest. "Time and again, these low- and no-calorie sweeteners have shown to be safe, high-quality alternatives to sugar."

That's not going down well with food safety advocates like Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who issued a blunt statement saying the company would be better off getting rid of aspartame entirely.

Switch to water

"Aspartame has been found to cause cancer — leukemia, lymphoma, and other tumors — in laboratory animals, and it shouldn’t be in the food supply," Jacobson said. "We certainly want Coca-Cola to shift its product mix toward lower- and no-calorie drinks, but aspartame’s reputation isn’t worth rehabilitating with this propaganda campaign."

Jacobson said Coke would do better to shift to safer, natural sweeteners, like those made from the stevia plant, a type of sunflower widely used as a sweetener in Japan and other countries. Back in 2008, however, Jacobson objected to plans by Coca-Cola to use rebiana, which is made from stevia, saying it had not been adequately tested.

But leaving that aside, Jacobson argues that if aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are bad, the sugar versions of Coke and other drinks are worse.

"Consumers should know that the greater and more immediate danger to their health is posed not by artificial sweetened products, but by the full-calorie versions of Coke, Pepsi, and other sugar drinks. Rather than posing small risks of cancer, the high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars in these drinks cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. Everyone would be better off drinking water or seltzer water instead," he said.

Coke fights back

But Coke's not ready to surrender. In fact, it's been running a public relations campaign defending aspartame for several months. Last month it released an infographic, "The Skinny on Aspartame," promoting the ability of the sweetener to help consumers cut back on calories and carbohydrates.

Photo

The campaign also seeks to let some of the fizz out of stories about potential negative health consequences of aspartame.

"As a scientist (as well as a consumer of these sweeteners), let me reassure you – these sweeteners are among the world’s most thoroughly studied ingredients. In fact, millions of people—from all over the world--have been enjoying these sweeteners safely for many decades," said Rhona Applebaum, PhD, Vice President and Chief Science and Health Officer for The Coca-Cola Company, in a blog posting.

She said the infographic "offers credible information from independent sources like the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association and U.S. Food and Drug Administration" and said it "highlights that aspartame has been proven safe time and time again with more than 200 studies spanning 40 years." 

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What to look for in mobile cloud-based storage

Robust encryption and remote wipe can help protect your data

Hackers and identity thieves are increasingly focused on mobile computing. With so many smartphones and tablets now, mobile is increasingly becoming how co...

PhotoHackers and identity thieves are increasingly focused on mobile computing. With so many smartphones and tablets now in use, mobile is increasingly becoming how consumers use the web.

Criminals also like the fact that many mobile devices have little or no security protection – not on the device itself and not on the data that is stored in the cloud.

Mobile data can be stored both places and security experts say both need strong protection. Chris Rancourt, an editor at NextAdvisor.com, says consumers who use an online backup service to store and share their data in the cloud need to be especially careful.

“When you put your information on the cloud, you get this extra level of security with their encryption,” Rancourt said. “Most services now use encryption but some are stronger than others.”

Increasingly popular

PhotoCloud storage and backup services have become increasingly popular. They store data off-site, protecting it from a catastrophic computer crash or other physical damage. They also make it accessible from other computers in other locations.

“Pretty much any information you can upload to the cloud – pictures, documents, videos. And all that information can be encrypted and stored safely inside your cloud or online back-up service,” Rancourt said. “The backup services that we use provide coverage for Apple, Android – pretty much the whole spectrum.”

Rancourt suggests picking a backup service with very robust encryption. One service that falls into that category, he says, is SpiderOak. There is one security feature, in particular, that he likes.

'Zero-knowledge' security

“They have this policy where no one in their company will know your password,” he said. “If you lose your password they can't go in and retrieve it for you. It's really up to you, which makes the security a lot stronger, but at the same time you have to be responsible for your own stuff.”

Absent-minded consumers can run the risk of losing everything if they forget or lose their password. Writing it down in several secure places, however, might be all the insurance policy you need.

Sugarsync is another secure backup service. With Sugarsync, you can safely store important files and then sync them across an unlimited number of computers. If the data is updated on one computer, it's also updated on the rest.

Mozy is a low-cost cloud storage service. The company's backup plans start with one computer per subscription, but it can sync up with other computers that aren't part of the plan.

First line of defense

PhotoThe best feature of these companies' backup services may be the sophisticated encryption. Rancourt says it provides a great first line of defense.

“For companies like SpyderOak you actually have to have an encryption key in order to decode the information and read it as something legible,” he said. “Most services have something like that as well.”

But hackers are resourceful individuals. Suppose they get access to your cloud and your encrypted information by stealing or finding your lost device. It might look like gibberish at first, but given a few hours, it's just possible some hackers might be able to crack the encryption. That's why you need a second level of defense – remote wipe.

If your device is lost or stolen, remote wipe will still give you access to all your files and documents from another computer but allow you to block access on the missing device. You can even delete files.

“Let's say you keep all your bank information on your cloud,” Rancourt said. “Someone can actually hack in there and steal your identity.”

It should go without saying that you should have robust security features on your hardware as well. Getting a strong mobile security package for your smartphone or tablet will reduce the risks from lost or stolen devices.  

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Clues to stroke risk may be found in the eyes

High blood pressure is the common denominator

It's been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Now, some doctors believe that the eyes may also be a window to a person's stroke risk. Research...

PhotoIt's been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Now, some doctors believe that the eyes may also be a window to a person's stroke risk.

Researchers who took part in a study reported in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension believe retinal imaging may someday help assess if you're more likely to develop a stroke -- the nation's No. 4 killer and a leading cause of disability.

"The retina provides information on the status of blood vessels in the brain," said Mohammad Kamran Ikram, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study and assistant professor in the Singapore Eye Research Institute, the Department of Ophthalmology and Memory Aging & Cognition Centre, at the National University of Singapore. "Retinal imaging is a non-invasive and cheap way of examining the blood vessels of the retina."

Hypertension the key

PhotoHigh blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for stroke worldwide. However, it's still not possible to predict which high blood pressure patients are most likely to develop a stroke.

Researchers tracked stroke occurrence for an average 13 years in 2,907 patients with high blood pressure who had not previously experienced a stroke. At baseline, each had photographs taken of the retina, the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eyeball. Damage to the retinal blood vessels attributed to hypertension -- called hypertensive retinopathy -- evident on the photographs was scored as none, mild or moderate/severe.

During the follow-up, 146 participants experienced a stroke caused by a blood clot and 15 by bleeding in the brain.

Finding a link

Researchers adjusted for several stroke risk factors such as age, sex, race, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, body mass index, smoking and blood pressure readings. They found the risk of stroke was 35 percent higher in those with mild hypertensive retinopathy and 137 percent higher in those with moderate or severe hypertensive retinopathy.

Even in patients on medication and achieving good blood pressure control, the risk of a blood clot was 96 percent higher in those with mild hypertensive retinopathy and 198 percent higher in those with moderate or severe hypertensive retinopathy.

"It is too early to recommend changes in clinical practice," Ikram said. "Other studies need to confirm our findings and examine whether retinal imaging can be useful in providing additional information about stroke risk in people with high blood pressure."

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Researchers pick out the best family-friendly restaurants

And parents convey what's most important to them when dining out with the family

Besides the tasty food, what is it about eating out that strikes our fancy?Is it the ambiance of a restaurant that attracts us? Is it the convenience of ...

PhotoBesides the tasty food, what is it about eating out that strikes our fancy?

Is it the ambiance of a restaurant that attracts us? Is it the convenience of having someone prepare and bring us our food? Or is it just the fact that we're out and about and not stuck at home?

Maybe it's all three of those things that attract us to restaurants, but one particular aspect of eating out that many people love, is doing it with their family. Because there's nothing like having your loved ones surround a restaurant table that has a bunch of good looking food on it.

In fact, 59% of parents in the United States eat out with their children once a week or more, according to statistics released by Restaurant.com, and 70% say they go to restaurants with their kids because it's a great way to bond with them.

And here are some other statistics: 66% of parents said eating out provides an educational experience for their children and the chance to introduce new foods that their kids wouldn't try at home. Plus, 57% of parents said they use eating out to teach their kids proper table manners.

When it comes to choosing the right restaurants, parents often select places that have healthy menu options instead of a bunch of greasy childhood favorites. And some parents check to see if a place has joined the Kids LiveWell Program.

The Kids LiveWell Program was started by the National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining, and currently about 40,000 restaurants across the country participate.

Each restaurant that joins the program commits to offering healthy menu items for kids and promises to increase its selection of things like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

David Decker, president of Consumer Edge Insight, said places like Applebee's have become more popular since joining the Kids LiveWell program, because parents use an entirely different criteria to judge if a restaurant is good for their family or not.

"Families with kids have many criteria to satisfy when they choose a restaurant," said Decker in a published interview back in 2012. "Those that are looking for a casual or family-dining restaurant that is both kid-friendly and offers healthier menu items should consider going to Applebee's. Applebee's joining the Kids LiveWell program earlier this year may be contributing to this perception."

Best 100

PhotoEarlier this year, the site Urbanspoon listed the best 100 places to eat out with your children.

In Florida, places like the Hot Dog Shoppe, STEWBY'S Seafood Shanty, Ethos Vegan Kitchen and Black Sheep Restaurant made the cut. In Illinois, Hot Doug's and Lou Malnati's Pizzeria were listed.

And on the West Coast, Lost Altos Grill in the Bay Area was chosen, along with 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria in Los Angeles. You can see the full list here.

Patrick O'Donnell, co-founder of Urbanspoon, said kids are more daring than we think when it comes to trying new foods, and many restaurants are starting to recognize that.

"A great family friendly restaurant isn't all about grilled cheese sandwiches," said O'Donnell. "As a family of foodies, my kids are adventurous eaters. Family friendly restaurants need to offer a nice atmosphere and a diverse menu, which will make everyone happy. Urbanspoon helps make that decision on where to take your whole family simple."

Burgers & fries

As far as what type of cuisine was most popular among families, American cuisine was number one, according to the Restaurant.com survey, with 40% choosing places heavy on the burger, fries and steaks. 

The next most popular cuisine among families was Italian (25%), followed by Mexican (21%). And when it came to being satisfied with the menu options for kids, 83% of parents said most restaurants are doing a good job. 

Plus, 56% of parents feel that U.S. restaurants are providing enough healthy food selections for kids.

In addition, 74% of parents said they rather entertain their children with good conversation at a restaurant, and 53% said they like when restaurants use crayons and paper to entertain.

And of course a big perk to bringing kids out to eat is taking advantage of all the coupons and deals.

According to the survey, 96% of parents have used a coupon or a deal of some sort when eating out with their children and 37% said they take advantage of these offers more often than not.

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Mortgage applications reverse course, decline again

Adjustable-rate mortgages appear to be growing in popularity

After posting their first increase since June last week, applications for mortgages were down again in the week ending August. 9. Data from the Mortgage B...

PhotoAfter posting their first increase since June last week, applications for mortgages were down again in the week ending August. 9.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were off 4.7%.

The refinance share of mortgage activity remained unchanged at 63%, while the adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 6% of total applications.

Interest rate influence

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRM) with conforming loan balances ($417,500 or less) decreased to 4.56% from 4.61%, with points decreasing to 0.39 from 0.42 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,500) fell to 4.57% from 4.64%, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.34 (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 decreased to 4.25% from 4.33%, with points increasing to 0.30 from 0.26 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 3.60 percent from 3.66 percent, with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was down 3 basis points to 3.36%, with points unchanged at 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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Holding the line on inflation

Producer prices were unchanged in July after rising in June and May

Following fairly hefty increases the two previous months, prices one step shy of the retail level held steady in July. Figures from the Bureau of Labor St...

PhotoFollowing fairly hefty increases the two previous months, prices one step shy of the retail level held steady in July.

Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the producer price index (PPI) for finished goods was unchanged last month. The PPI was up 0.8% in June and 0.5% in May. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had been forecasting a gain of 0.3% for July.

Energy and food

Major factors in the July showing include drop of 0.2% for energy products, which shot up 2.9% the month before. Most of the energy decline was the result of a 3.9% plunge in the cost of residential natural gas. Gasoline and lubricant prices also fell.

Consumer foods, meanwhile, were unchanged last month after rising 0.2% June. A 5.6%t increase in the price of pork in June partially offset a 10.6% slide in prices for fresh vegetables, except potatoes.

The so-called “core” rate of wholesale inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy sectors, inched up 0.1% -- the ninth consecutive increase. The advance was led by higher prices for pharmaceutical preparations, light motor trucks and for communication and related equipment.

For the 12 months ended in July, the PPI is up 2.1%

The complete report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Just three tarmac delays in June: two domestic and one international

The performances were a big improvement over May

It was 2-1 for the domestic flights in terms of unacceptable tarmac delays in June. In other words, airlines reported two tarmac delays of more than three...

PhotoIt was 2-1 for the domestic flights in terms of unacceptable tarmac delays in June.

In other words, airlines reported two tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and one tarmac delay of more than four hours on an international flight, according to the Transportation Department's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report.

In May, carriers reported 5 such tarmac delays for domestic flights, but none for international flights.

The 16 carriers that file their on-time performance data with DOT reported that 71.9% of their flights arrived on time in June, compared with the 80.7% on-time rate from June 2012 and the 79.4% mark from May 2013.

The report also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, along with information on airline bumping, mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers, and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints. Reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air, are also covered.

The complete report is available om the DOT website.

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Beijing Capital Tyre recalls tires

The tires may crack in the tread area leading to sudden air loss

Beijing Capital Tyre (BCT) is recalling 2,711 Autoguard LT245/75R16 tires manufactured June 25th, 2012, through November 11th, 2012. These tires failed th...

PhotoBeijing Capital Tyre (BCT) is recalling 2,711 Autoguard LT245/75R16 tires manufactured June 25th, 2012, through November 11th, 2012. These tires failed the endurance test standards of FMVSS 139 and contain incorrect maximum load load data on the sidewall.

During use, the tires may crack in the tread area leading to sudden air loss, and tire failure. Additionally, owners may unknowingly overload the tires which may lead to tire failure. Either condition increases the risk of a crash.

BCT will notify owners and dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Tire Group International, Inc., BCT's U.S. contact, at 1-305-696-0096 extension 5538.

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NY sues payday lenders Western Sky Financial, CashCall

Companies told borrowers they were exempt from New York law

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that his office has filed a lawsuit against Western Sky Financial, LLC, CashCall, Inc., WS Fu...

PhotoIn a challenge to Indian tribes that say they are exempt from state laws, New York's Attorney General is suing payday lenders who promised fast cash at high interest rates to consumers who urgently needed money, charging that they violated New York's usury and lending laws.

"Western Sky and CashCall charged exorbitant interest rates on their loans to scam New Yorkers out of millions of dollars,” said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. 

Schneiderman alleges Western Sky and CashCall "mistakenly assert" that laws of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe apply to their loans. He said Western Sky is not owned by the tribe, as several courts have already held. The lawsuit charges that Western Sky made the loans, when it then sold to WS Funding, a CashCall subsidiary. 

The companies charged annual rates of interest ranging from 89% to more than 355% to thousands of New York consumers, Schneiderman said, rates that far exceed the maximum rate allowed under New York law, which is limited to 16% for most lenders not licensed by the state. The companies are not licensed in New York.

Tribes push back

PhotoIndian tribes have been pushing back against attempts by state and federal regulators to make them comply with laws prohibiting usury. On Monday, a group of 16 tribes sent a letter to New York's top banking regulator, saying they would not comply with cease-and-desist orders he issued last week.

The companies took advantage of consumers by charging extremely high rates of interest that were above New York State’s usury caps, the suit charges. For example, consumers who received loans of $1,000 were charged an interest rate of more than 234%, and had to repay as much as $4,942 in interest and principal over just two years.

New York borrowers who questioned the legality of these loans were falsely told by the companies that New York law did not apply, Schneiderman said. Some consumers were also targeted with deceptive debt collection calls in further violation of New York law.

$185 million in interest

PhotoSince 2010, the companies have made at least 17,970 loans to New York consumers, lending more than $38 million in principal. New York consumers owed more than $185 million on these loans in finance charges alone.

The Attorney General's lawsuit -- which is based on an investigation that began last fall -- seeks a court order prohibiting the companies and individuals from engaging in further illegal lending or enforcing existing usurious loan contracts, cancellation of all outstanding loans, restitution for New Yorker borrowers of all interest collected above the legal limit of 16% interest, and disgorgement of profits. The lenders also face penalties of up to $5,000 per violation for deceptive acts and practices.

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More meat eaters are eating mock meat

But that doesn't mean they're giving up meat entirely

I'm a pescatarian, but I eat a lot of vegetarian food and alternative meats.One thing I love doing is searching around my area for new vegetarian restaur...

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Tracking of customer returns raises privacy concerns

It's been going on for nearly 10 years but the practice is attracting new scrutiny

The next time you go to return an item, take a look at the back of your receipt. It may warn you that your actions are being tracked.Retailers say it's all...

PhotoIt was back in 2005 that ConsumerAffairs reported that retailers were beginning to collect information about which customers are more likely to return purchases, using a company then known as The Return Exchange.

The goal was to ferret out consumers who returned so many items so often that they were a drain on the bottom line, and also to identify those who were perhaps engaging in criminal activity.

The word has gotten around and even The Associated Press has caught up with it, reporting ominously that, "It's not just the government that might be keeping tabs on you. Many retailers are tracking you too -- or at least your merchandise returns."

The Return Exchange that we reported on in 2005 is still around though it's now known as The Retail Equation and boasts that more than 10% of all general retail sales are now processed through its "return optimization solutions." 

Weed out fraud

The goal is still the same: to discourage excessive returns and to weed out fraudulent ones. The retail industry estimates that consumers return $264 billion worth of merchandise each year, almost 9% of total sales. Worse, retailers say they lose big bucks to fraud, an estimated $8.9 billion in 2012, $2.9 billion of it during the holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.

Photo"Return fraud comes in a variety of forms and continues to present challenges for retailers trying to grapple with the sophisticated methods criminals are using to rip off retailers,” said NRF Vice President of Loss Prevention Rich Mellor. “Even more troubling is the fact that innocent consumers often suffer because companies have to look for ways to prevent and detect all types of crime and fraud in their stores, oftentimes resorting to shorter return windows and limitations on the types of products that can be returned.” 

According to the survey, nearly all (96.5%) retailers polled say they have experienced the return of stolen merchandise in the last year, and 84.2% say they have experienced the return of merchandise purchased on fraudulent or stolen tender.

The line between fraud and consumers simply being particular can, of course, be a fine one. Take "wardrobing," for example. This is the common practice of buying an expensive item like a designer dress, wearing it once and then returning it. The consumers who do this probably consider it clever, while most retailers consider it fraudulent. 

Store employees are often involved in return fraud. More than 80% of retailers said in a survey that that had been a problem for them in the past year.

Privacy concerns

Back in 2005, consumer outrage was mostly focused on actual incidents in which shoppers were turned away when they tried to return merchandise. Today, the concern centers more around privacy, as in the AP's sensationalistic lead comparing return policies to government snooping.

PhotoThe U.S. Public Interest Research Group is up in arms about it, issuing a statement that said, in part: "There should be no secret databases. That's a basic rule of privacy practices."

Retailers argue that the databases are not secret and that, in fact, the return policies that are displayed in stores and printed on receipts state that returns may be subject to clearance procedures.

The Return Equation argues that its data collection enables retailers to be more liberal in accepting returns than might otherwise be the case, saying: "The Retail Equation’s Verify Return Authorization solution was launched almost 10 years ago and provides the retailers you shop the ability to extend more flexible and liberal return policies, while still taking a proactive approach to curbing the problem of return fraud and abuse."

The Retail Equation's website contains instructions on how consumers who were warned or denied a return or exchange can get a copy of their "return activity report."   

The company's practices have so far survived legal challenges. A privacy lawsuit against Best Buy was thrown out recently. 

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Feds, states challenge American-US Airways merger

Merger would reduce competition, hurt smaller airports, suit alleges

 Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced today that the State of Texas, along with Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, the Distr...

PhotoThe U.S. Justice Department, six state attorneys general and the District of Columbia filed suit today challenging the proposed $11 billion merger between US Airways Group Inc. and American Airlines’ parent corporation, AMR Corp. 

The suit alleges that the merger, which would result in the creation of the world’s largest airline, would substantially lessen competition for commercial air travel in local markets throughout the United States and result in passengers paying higher airfares and receiving less service. 

The participating attorneys general are:   Texas, where American Airlines is headquartered; Arizona, where US Airways is headquartered; Florida; the District of Columbia; Pennsylvania; Tennessee; and Virginia.

“Airline travel is vital to millions of American consumers who fly regularly for either business or pleasure,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.   “By challenging this merger, the Department of Justice is saying that the American people deserve better.   This transaction would result in consumers paying the price – in higher airfares, higher fees and fewer choices.   Today’s action proves our determination to fight for the best interests of consumers by ensuring robust competition in the marketplace.”

Acting in tandem

In recent years, major airlines have, in tandem, raised fares, imposed new and higher fees and reduced service, the department said.

“The department sued to block this merger because it would eliminate competition between US Airways and American and put consumers at risk of higher prices and reduced service,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. 

American and US Airways compete directly on more than a thousand routes where one or both offer connecting service, representing tens of billions of dollars in annual revenues.   They engage in head-to-head competition with nonstop service on routes worth about $2 billion in annual route-wide revenues.  Eliminating this head-to-head competition would give the merged airline the incentive and ability to raise airfares, the department said in its complaint.

According to the department’s complaint, the vast majority of domestic airline routes are already highly concentrated.  The merger would create the largest airline in the world and result in four airlines controlling more than 80 percent of the United States commercial air travel market. 

The merger would also entrench the merged airline as the dominant carrier at Washington Reagan National Airport in Virginia, with control of 69 percent of the take-off and landing slots.   The merged airline would have a monopoly on 63 percent of the nonstop routes served out of Reagan National airport.   

As a result, Washington, D.C., area passengers would likely see higher prices and fewer choices if the merger is allowed, the department said in its complaint.   Blocking the merger will preserve current competition and service, including flights that US Airways currently offers from Washington’s Reagan National Airport. 

The complaint also alleges that the merger is likely to result in higher ancillary fees, such as fees charged for checked bags and flight changes. 

The department also said that the merger will make coordination easier among the legacy carriers.   Although low-cost carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue offer consumers many benefits, they fly to fewer locations and are unlikely to be able to constrain the coordinated behavior among those carriers.

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Don't get stuck with a subprime loan if you can avoid it

Study shows high-income minorities more likely to be sold subprime loans

When you apply for a loan, whether it's to purchase a home or an automobile, the lender is going to make a determination about your creditworthiness. If th...

PhotoWhen you apply for a loan, whether it's to purchase a home or an automobile, the lender is going to make a determination about your creditworthiness. If they decide you have good credit, you'll get better terms and a competitive interest rate. If they decide you are not creditworthy, you are likely to end up with a subprime loan.

During the run-up to the housing collapse, many people purchased homes with subprime loans. The interest rates were low to start, but quickly reset to very high rates, raising the monthly payments, in some cases, to unaffordable levels.

The housing crisis may be over but a lot of borrowers are still being saddled with subprime loans. Let's be clear – if you have blemished credit, a subprime loan may be the best you can do. But it turns out that people with pretty good credit can be lumped into that category.

A 2007 analysis by the Wall Street Journal showed that, of the $2.5 trillion in subprime loans made since 2000, an increasing proportion went to people who should have qualified for prime loans.

Racial disparity

A New York University (NYU) study of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data since 2006 — the peak of the previous decade's housing boom – shows something a bit disturbing. African-American and Latino mortgage applicants were more likely to be denied prime loans, even though they were in relatively high income brackets.

"These findings offer strong evidence for the continuing significance of race in one specific, but crucial, aspect of the housing market: the mortgage application process," said Jacob Faber, a doctoral fellow at NYU's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. "The historical absence of affordable credit in communities of color and for applicants of color, which created a market void into which subprime lenders grew, was not accidental. While it is not possible, in this study, to identify personal prejudice on behalf of lenders, racial disparities in subprime lending are nonetheless part of a long trajectory of structural, race-based disenfranchisement."

That suggests that if you are a minority, you are more likely to be placed into the subprime category, even if you have the income and credit history to qualify for a prime loan. In fact, even if you are not a minority, you should be aware of the differences in prime and subprime loans and try to avoid being sold a subprime loan if you can avoid it.

Identifying a subprime loan

But how can you tell? Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data does not include a field that identifies whether an individual loan application is a subprime loan application.

The first giveaway is the interest rate. Subprime loan rates can range from 1% to 2% to over 10% higher than the cost of a conventional loan, depending upon a lender’s rates and the borrower’s credit history. That's why you should be aware of what the prevailing interest rate is for the type of loan you are seeking.

Over time – and remember a mortgage is usually for 30 years – the difference in interest rates and monthly payments between prime and subprime loans can be thousands of dollars. The difference in prime and subprime interest rates for a $100,000, 30-year, fixed rate mortgage loan can be as much as 50%.

Know your credit score before sitting down with a loan officer. If you have a good credit score – 720 or above – and a good income, there should be no reason you can't qualify for a prime loan, with the best terms. Knowing where you stand will help you spot a subprime loan offering.

A subprime loan may not only have a higher interest rate, it may also not be at a fixed rate. Rather, it may be an adjustable rate loan. And chances are, the rate is going to adjust higher, not lower. That's what happened during the housing boom.

Avoid finance companies

Where you borrow may also be important. If you are buying a car on credit, you are less likely to get stuck with a subprime loan if you borrow from your bank or credit union that if you get financing from a lender associated with the dealer. According to the Louisiana State University Ag Center, borrowers are more likely to be classified subprime if they do business with a finance company rather than a bank or credit union.

Despite their drawbacks, subprime loans can allow people with blemished credit to purchase a vehicle or a home. But there is a price to be paid. If you have good credit and a solid income, there is no reason you should be placed in that category.

Remember, subprime loans are not necessarily predatory loans, though they can be. Rather, a subprime loan compensates the lender for additional risk.

But if you have a good credit score, a lender is not taking on additional risk by making a loan to you. That's a good reason to know your credit score and to be aware of the prevailing terms for the kind of loan you are seeking. If you suspect that you are being sold a subprime loan when you can qualify for something better, it's a good reason to walk away and talk to another lender.

Minorities should be watchful

In light of the NYU study, minorities perhaps should be even more sensitive to this issue. The study showed that even wealthier black and Latino applicants received less-advantageous loan terms than did their white counterparts. Once they cleared the loan-approval hurdle, African-American and Latino applications were 2.4 times more likely to result in a subprime loan than were whites. Asians were 28 percent less likely than whites to be offered a subprime loan.

"Lenders have argued that subprime loans, with their higher costs, were intended to pass more of the risk along to borrowers they deemed less likely to meet the repayment schedule of a mortgage loan," Faber said. "But these findings don't substantiate lender claims that subprime loans were for riskier borrowers — higher incomes, regardless of race, should have indicated lower risk for the lender and less need for a high cost loan."

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Retail sales post fourth straight gain in July

Gasoline sales account for a sizable portion of the increase

Consumers continued to do their part during July to keep the economy growing. Government figures show retail sales were up 0.2% last month, building on an...

PhotoConsumers continued to do their part during July to keep the economy growing.

Government figures show retail sales were up 0.2% last month, building on an revised increase of 0.6% in June. It was the fourth consecutive month that retail sales were higher. The last decline came in March, when sales slipped 0.3%

Retail sales are closely monitored as consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of all economic growth.

The July advance was in line with expectations from economists surveyed by Briefing.com, who had projected growth of 0.2% in July.

Ups and downs

Major contributors to the increase in retail sales included clothing stores and gasoline stations with sales jumps of 0.9%, and food and beverage stores which saw an increase of 0.6%

Sales fell at furniture and home furnishing stores (1.4%) and motor vehicle and parts dealers (-1.0%)

Excluding the volatile auto sector, retail sales in July were up 0.5%

The full July retail sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Credit card delinquencies and debt near two-decade lows

TransUnion expects the trend will continue into the near future

Consumers appear to be paying closer attention to the debt they're running up on their plastic. TransUnion reports the national credit card delinquency r...

PhotoConsumers appear to be paying closer attention to the debt they're running up on their plastic.

TransUnion reports the national credit card delinquency rate -- the ratio of borrowers 90 or more days past due -- decreased to 0.57% in the second quarter from 0.63% the same period a year ago. On a quarter-over-quarter basis, credit card delinquencies dropped from 0.69% in the first quarter.

In fact, the credit card delinquency rate ended the second quarter only one basis point from the all-time low of 0.56%, set in the second three months of 1994.

Average credit card debt per borrower remained nearly unchanged over the last year, dropping from $4,971 in a year earlier to $4,965 in this year's second quarter. On a quarterly basis, card debt increased from $4,875 in the first three months of this year.

"Despite recent improvements in the employment situation, consumers continue to value their credit card relationships as a primary means of liquidity. This is best demonstrated by the historically low credit card delinquency rates we observe today," said Ezra Becker, vice president of research and consulting in TransUnion's financial services business unit. "Credit card debt also remains relatively low, and while we did observe a quarterly rise in debt, we would need to see a few more quarters of increases to describe it as a significant trend. Having said that, the data supports that consumers will continue to prioritize their credit card relationships over other credit obligations, and delinquencies should remain low into the near future."

The continuing trend

Since 2000, the average 90-day credit card delinquency rate for the second quarter of the year has been 1.07%. In that same time period, average credit card debt in the second quarter has averaged $5,169.

Only two states -- Indiana and New Hampshire -- saw rises in their delinquency rates year over year, though the magnitudes of the increases were small.

On a more granular level, 74% of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) saw declines in their respective delinquency rates in in the second quarter relative to one year ago. This is an improvement over the previous quarter, when 65% of MSAs experienced year-over-year decreases.

Some of the MSAs that experienced the largest year-over-year decreases in this year's second quarter included Seattle (26.5% decline from 0.49% to 0.36%), Denver (21.4% decline from 0.56% to 0.44%) and Minneapolis (21.3% decline from 0.47% to 0.37%).

Looking ahead

Based on current economic assumptions, TransUnion sees credit card delinquencies remaining relatively flat in the third quarter -- closing at about 0.6%. This forecast is based on seasonality effects and various other economic factors such as anticipated gross state product, consumer sentiment, disposable income, and employment conditions.

The forecast changes as the economy deviates from a conservative economic outlook, if there are unanticipated shocks to the economy affecting recovery, or if lenders materially change their underwriting standards.

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Playing with laser toys is not always kid stuff

Mishandling the devices can have serious health consequences

Lasers are cool! Just ask anyone who has seen Luke Skywalker battle Darth Vader with a lightsaber. Cool as they might be, the highly-concentrated light f...

PhotoLasers are cool! Just ask anyone who has seen Luke Skywalker battle Darth Vader with a lightsaber.

Cool as they might be, the highly-concentrated light from lasers -- even those in toys -- can be dangerous, causing serious eye injuries and even blindness when operated unsafely, or without certain controls. And not just to the person using a laser, but to anyone within range of the laser beam.

Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a draft guidance document on the safety of toy laser products.

According to Dan Hewett, health promotion officer at FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, "A beam shone directly into a person's eye can injure it in an instant -- especially if the laser is a powerful one."

However, laser injuries usually don't hurt, and vision can deteriorate slowly over time. Eye injuries caused by laser light may go unnoticed, for days and even weeks, and could be permanent, he says.

Regulating lasers

A laser creates a powerful, targeted beam of electromagnetic radiation that is used in many products, from music players and printers to eye-surgery tools. FDA regulates radiation-emitting electronic products, including lasers, and sets radiation-safety standards that manufacturers must meet. Hewett explains that this includes all laser products that are marketed as toys.

Some examples of laser toys are:

  • lasers mounted on toy guns that can be used for "aiming;"
  • spinning tops that project laser beams while they spin;
  • hand-held lasers used during play as "lightsabers;" and
  • lasers intended for entertainment that create optical effects in an open room.

Toys with lasers are of particular interest to the FDA because it's often children who are injured by these products, says Hewett. He notes that because advertisers promote them as playthings, parents and kids alike may believe they're safe to use.

"For toys to be considered minimal risk, we recommend that the levels of radiation and light not exceed the limits of Class 1, which is the lowest level in regulated products," Hewett says. Lasers used for industrial and other purposes often require higher radiation levels, he explains. But in toys, those levels are unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

In recent years, lasers have increased markedly in power and have gone way down in price. And while adults may buy a laser pointer for use in work, kids often buy them for amusement.

"Low-cost, compact laser pointers used to be quite low in power," Hewett says; but, in the last 10 years, many laser pointers have increased in power 10-fold and more. The fact that lasers can be dangerous may not be evident, particularly to the children who use them as toys, or to the adults who supervise them.

What to do

FDA offers these tips to keep in mind when handling lasers:

  • Never aim or shine a laser directly at anyone, including animals. The light energy from a laser aimed into the eye can be hazardous, perhaps even more than staring directly into the sun.
  • Do not aim a laser at any reflective surface.
  • Remember that the startling effect of a bright beam of light can cause serious accidents when aimed at a driver in a car or otherwise negatively affect someone who is engaged in other activity (such as playing sports).
  • Look for a statement that it complies with 21 CFR (the Code of Federal Regulations) Subchapter J on the label.

"If you buy a laser toy or pointer and you don't see this information in the labeling, it's best not to make any assumptions about its safety," Hewett says.

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Feds okay new HIV infection treatment drug

The newly approved medication can be taken by a broad range of patients

Tivicay (dolutegravir), a new drug to treat HIV-1 infection, has won the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration . Tivicay, a pill taken daily ...

PhotoTivicay (dolutegravir), a new drug to treat HIV-1 infection, has won the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration .

Tivicay, a pill taken daily in combination with other antiretroviral drugs, is an integrase strand transfer inhibitor that interferes with one of the enzymes necessary for HIV to multiply.

The drug is approved for use in a broad population of HIV-infected patients. It can be used to treat HIV-infected adults who have never taken HIV therapy (treatment-naive) and HIV-infected adults who have previously taken HIV therapy (treatment-experienced), including those who have been treated with other integrase strand transfer inhibitors.

Tivicay is also approved for children ages 12 years and older weighing at least 40 kilograms (kg) who are treatment-naive or treatment-experienced but have not previously taken other integrase strand transfer inhibitors.

“HIV-infected individuals require treatment regimens personalized to fit their condition and their needs,” said Edward Cox, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Office of Antimicrobial Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The approval of new drugs like Tivicay that add to the existing options remains a priority for the FDA.”

Series of trials

Tivicay’s safety and efficacy in adults was evaluated in 2,539 participants enrolled in four clinical trials. Depending on the trial, participants were randomly assigned to receive Tivicay or Isentress (raltegravir), each in combination with other antiretroviral drugs, or Atripla, a fixed-dose combination of efavirenz, emtricitabine and tenofovir. Results showed Tivicay-containing regimens were effective in reducing viral loads.

A fifth trial established the pharmacokinetics, safety and activity of Tivicay as part of treatment regimens for HIV-infected children ages 12 years and older weighing at least 40 kg who have not previously taken integrase strand transfer inhibitors.

Common side effects observed during clinical studies include difficulty sleeping (insomnia) and headache. Serious side effects include hypersensitivity reactions and abnormal liver function in participants co-infected with hepatitis B and/or C. The product label gives advice on how to monitor patients for the serious side effects.

Tivicay is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Isentress is marketed by Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck, and Atripla is marketed by San Francisco, Calif.-based Gilead.

About 50,000 Americans become infected with HIV each year and about 15,500 died from the disease in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Are rising U.S. fuel exports keeping consumer prices high?

America is exporting record amounts of motor fuel

As gasoline prices at the pump have climbed over the last four years, so have U.S. exports of refined petroleum products, primarily diesel fuel.U.S. Ener...

PhotoAs gasoline prices at the pump have climbed over the last four years, so have U.S. exports of refined petroleum products, primarily diesel fuel.

U.S. Energy Information Administration data suggests net exports of refined products will hit a record level of 1.54 million barrels a day this month – more than twice the level of last August's exports. Ironically, the surge in exports coincides with a steady decline this month in U.S. fuel prices.

The reason for the decline in prices is falling demand and the process of switching over to winter-blend gasoline from the more expensive summer blend. It turns out the U.S. just has that much oil these days, and enough refining capacity to ship millions of barrels of diesel fuel overseas.

Some analysts have even declared that the U.S. is fast becoming “petroleum refiner to the world.” Just two years ago the U.S. became a net exporter of petroleum products. Now we're the world's biggest exporter.

Swimming in oil

The U.S. is now swimming in oil, thanks to the oil shale revolution that has turned places like North Dakota into the new Saudi Arabia. The U.S. still has a law on the books – passed during the oil shock of 1979 – that prohibits the export of crude oil, except to Canada and Mexico. The law, however, makes no mention of oil that has been refined into gasoline or diesel fuel.

It's diesel fuel that is leading the petroleum export surge. The profit margins are higher and the international demand is stronger for diesel than gasoline. Much of the world's automobile fleet runs on diesel.

But a number of consumer advocates have wondered aloud in recent months whether this rush to sell refined petroleum products to the rest of the world hasn't hurt the U.S. consumer. If we have so much excess petroleum product, why aren't U.S. pump prices lower? The answer may not be that simple.

Some experts agree

PhotoEven some industry experts agree that exports keep fuel prices higher for U.S. consumers, although they disagree over how much. Francisco Blanch, a commodities expert at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, believes the difference is significant. He recently told NBC News that if there were a ban on U.S. petroleum exports, U.S. prices would be much lower while fuel prices would be much higher elsewhere in the world.

The fact that U.S. crude oil can't be exported, he says, also keeps prices down for U.S. consumers. This is an opinion consumers may want to keep in mind, as the Wall Street Journal reports there are whispers in Washington that the law banning crude oil exports needs to be revised.

In fact, during a recent interview President Obama predicted that the Keystone Pipeline will one day carry U.S. crude oil to Gulf Coast terminals for shipment around the world. That can't happen unless the current law is modified or repealed.

Arguments for lifting the ban

In a recent editorial, Bloomberg News called for a reversal of the crude oil export ban, pointing out circumstances have changed drastically since the law was passed. The editorial warns that the ban threatens to put a damper on the U.S. shale oil boom.

OPEC, however, probably hopes the ban remains in place. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an OPEC official and a member of the Saudi royal family, recently warned his government that the boom in U.S. shale oil and gas could reduce demand for Saudi crude.

Just a little stability, please

PhotoWhat's best for the U.S. consumer? If you conducted a survey at the gas pump, you would probably find that a large majority favor retaining enough petroleum product in the U.S. to keep prices competitive and predictable. When prices yo-yo as they do throughout the year, it plays havoc with the family budget.

Drivers on the East Coast, meanwhile, would probably like to see the lower gasoline prices drivers in the Southeast enjoy. One reason they pay significantly more for fuel, however, is that their crude oil doesn't come from the new bounty of the oil shale revolution. Instead, East Coast refineries import oil from Europe and the Middle East.

Why can't the plentiful oil from America's heartland be shipped east? It can, but only if transported aboard U.S.-registered tankers. There's a law that requires that.

The refineries say U.S. ships cost more, which would actually result in even higher prices at the pump. It's cheaper, they say, to import the oil they need to produce motor fuel.

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Caring for your pet the digital way

We've selected some of the best apps for pet owners and their pets

If you're a parent, there's a good chance that you've either researched or downloaded an app to help you document your child's development, get nutritional...

PhotoIf you're a parent, there's a good chance that you've either researched or downloaded an app to help you document your child's development, get nutritional information or help you find a bunch of useful services.

But what about pet owners? What apps are out there for them?

There are a number of apps floating around that can do everything from helping you locate the nearest dog park to connecting you with other pet owners to get advice and make new friends.

So to help pet owners sift through the best apps out there, we've selected a few of them like the Fido Factor, made by the company Appetyte. This app lets people know which places allow dogs, whether it's a department store, restaurant, bar or just about anyplace else.

Photo

In addition, the app gives you specific rules for each place, so you'll know things like the leash rules or the fees you'll have to pay.

And if you find a new location that allows dogs, you can add it to the app's website FidoFactor.com to let others know where it is, and you can write a review to let others know if it's truly dog-friendly or not. Plus, you can read reviews of each location to see if it's worth bringing your dog there, because just because a place says it allows dogs, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's a great place for your dog to be.

To find a dog-friendly location you can either search by business name or type of location and get things like directions, hours of operation and the place's phone number. And FidoFactor allows you to take photos of your dog at these locations and upload them for other users to see and comment on.

Healthcare advice

Rudy Trematerra, the creator of The Pets Diary app, says he's created the first app that lets you know how to properly care for your pet, in terms of vaccinations and vet visits.

If you have multiple pets, you can create multiple folders so you can manage each pet's information. And you can follow a calendar so you'll know when your pet needs a certain type of care.

Photo

Additionally, the app lets you add other reminders like when your pet needs to be groomed and once added, the app tells you when these things need to be done. 

Although The Pets Diary is used and enjoyed by many, some say one thing it lacks is the ability to document a particular ailment.

"I wish it let you put more details such as diet, weight and my pet's monthly meds like heart worm," one user wrote. "There is a way around the meds and keeping records. I just save the med as a vaccine and write a comment. As for keeping track of sickness, I just put it in as a vet visit and I just write a comment. It works alright."

In case of emergency

This next app is kind of in the same category as The Pets Diary, as it helps with the care and the well-being of your dog or cat. But instead of telling you when to take your pet to the vet, it tells you what to do in an emergency.

Whether your pet has a bad accident of some sort or whether he's choking on something, Pet First Aid: for Your Dog, Cat, Puppy, or Kitten will tell you the right steps to take.

PhotoThe app has news articles and emergency tips on poisoning, drowning, bleeding, animal CPR, muzzling, burns and a bunch of other topics. So you would really use the app and read these things before an emergency occurs and hopefully, you'll have a better understanding of what to do.

All of the information on Pet First Aid is updated by PetTech of Vacaville, Calif., who are said to be experts on pet emergencies and emergency preparedness.

And just like The Pets Diary, this app can tell you when your pet will need preventative care, but most people use it for emergency purposes.

"I own a pet resort and thought this would be a great app to add to my iPhone," wrote one user. "Never did I think I would use it and save the life of my own dog. My dog was acting strange after a day of relaxing and I referred to this app for help."

"Within minutes I had figured out what was wrong and rushed him to the emergency animal hospital. Surgery was required and saved my dog's life. The doctor told me if I had waited till the next morning, he would not have survived. This is the best money I ever spent on an app," the user wrote.

 

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PerkStreet goes out of business

The no-fee debit card had lots of friends but wasn't a financial success

It was one of those things that sounded too good to be true but it was great while it lasted. PerkStreet Financial, which has been offering a no-fee debit ...

PhotoIt was one of those things that sounded too good to be true but actually turned out to be just as advertised. While it lasted.

PerkStreet Financial, which has been offering a no-fee debit card and checking account, told its customers today that it is going out of business.

However, the company said customers' money is safe and they will continue to be able to access their funds, use their debit cards and write checks through The Bancorp Bank, which has been PerkStreet's servicing institution since PerkStreet arrived on the scene five years ago. Accounts will be automatically converted, the company said.

What won't continue are the perks that gave PerkStreet its name. To encourage customers to use their cards, PerkStreet awarded rebates -- or "perks" -- that could reach 2% of total purchases for customers who maintained a $5,000 balance. In March 2012, the company scaled that back to 1%, saying that not many customers were keeping enough on deposit to hit the 2% threshold anyway.

Instead, it substituted 2% rebates on purchases at select online sites, including Walmart, Target and Amazon. PerkStreet CEO and founder Dan O'Malley said he thought that making 2% rebates more widely available, without requiring a minimum deposit, would benefit more customers.

Rebates? Who cares?

Perhaps, but it could also be that many customers were like me and were so delighted with the free checking and debit card that they didn't bother with the perks. After writing about PerkStreet in December 2011 in a story titled "What if the bank paid you to have an account?" I opened an account to see if PerkStreet was all it claimed to be, vowing to write a withering exposé if it turned out to be just the usual fluff.

I didn't get the exposé but I wound up with a great little checking account and debit card to serve as my slush fund, using it to buy movie tickets, groceries at Trader Joe's and bottles of wine here and there. I also set up automatic payment of a couple of utility bills, condo fees and other annoyances.

Then, with great pleasure, I dropped by the local Wells Fargo branch and closed the personal account that I had maintained there at great expense and with much aggravation. Even though I paid no attention to PerkStreet's rebates, I occasionally got automatic $30 or $40 rebates that simply perked up in my account.

What was best for me was the simple fact that the account was free, whereas the Wells Fargo account had been loaded with fees too numerous to count and constant errors and glitches in trying to manage the account online.

Promoting the debt-free life

Photo
Dan O'Malley
Back in 2011, PerkStreet's O'Malley, a former Capital One executive, explained how he dreamed up the idea of a debit card that paid rebates, instead of the much more common rebate-paying credit card.

"I realized the product I was selling was designed to get people into debt," O'Malley said then.  "A majority of families are not going to be able to pay off their credit card debts.  I found it distasteful."

O'Malley vowed to set up a reward program using debit cards, something that would reward consumers who spent only as much money as they had in their account.

It worked great for its customers but not, apparently, as a business.

"Ultimately ... we could not find the financial success required to continue building the business," the company said in an email to its customers. "Over the last 6 months we have been pursuing additional investment to grow our business to the point it could be self-sustaining. Unfortunately, we were unable to secure more funding and now must begin the process of closing the company."

"We started PerkStreet with the seemingly impossible goal of making banking more rewarding for the average person. We were able to give cash back for spending money that was already earned, not risking going into debt by spending on a credit card," the company's statement said. "We believed we could reward everyone, not just the people who would tell you it takes money to make money. The last 5 years were an incredible journey. We've given out over $4 million dollars in perks and done groundbreaking things to create our amazing online community. We are deeply saddened to see it end." 

 

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What to do about a snoring spouse

It differs for each couple, but maybe the answer is sleeping in separate rooms

Have you ever slept next to a noise that sounds like part broken fog horn, part wild animal?  Meaning, does your partner keep you up with a bunch of l...

PhotoHave you ever slept next to a noise that sounds like part broken fog horn, part wild animal?  Meaning, does your partner keep you up with a bunch of loud snoring every night?

If so, you're not alone, because according to a National Sleep Foundation study, 67% of U.S. adults say their partner snores. Aeparate study conducted in the UK found that the average married person loses about 730 hours of sleep each year because their spouse snores or moves around.

And in yet another survey that shows what people are doing about it, 30 to 40% of couples choose to sleep in different beds.

"People will say they sleep better [together], but when we actually monitor their brains we see that their brain is not getting into deeper stages of sleep because they're continuously being woken up by movement or sound," said Dr. Colleen Carney, director of Ryerson's Sleep and Depression Laboratory, in a published interview. "It creates a lot of problems."

Lot of problems

In addition, Carney says couples shouldn't feel their relationship will suffer because they sleep in separate beds. In fact, she said oftentimes it can improve the relationship, because both people are getting enough sleep.

"People can have very good and satisfying relationships sleeping apart," said Carney. "Some people might be headed to divorce and then they actually sleep apart and find this new way to connect."

Social beings

Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist, at the RAND Corporation, said it's hard for a lot of couples to sleep alone, because wanting someone next to you during the night is a natural feeling.

"Humans are inherently social beings and we derive a sense of safety and security from our social environment," said Troxel. "This fundamental need for safety and security at night may explain why we generally prefer to sleep with another human being, even when sharing a bed may not always result in the best quality sleep."

But it's not only snoring and movements that will keep a couple awake, it's other things too.

In the UK survey, 40% said their partner hogged the bed and 30% said they fought over the covers. Plus, 47% said they would put up with it, because they feared sleeping in separate beds would harm their level of intimacy.

Pre-sleep intimacy

PhotoBut that's not necessarily true, said Troxel. She said the few hours before bed is actually a better time to be close with your partner. 

"Ultimately, the time couples spend together before falling asleep may be the most important time for connecting, being intimate and just being alone together, without all of the other distractions of the day" she said.

"Whether couples sleep in the same bed or separate beds, they need not give up on that important and satisfying pre-sleep time together. Perhaps the real benefits of sleeping together are realized in the precious lull before sleep comes."

The folks at the National Association of Home Builders said by 2015, 60% of homes in the U.S. will have two master bedrooms and experts say couples shouldn't feel like there's anything wrong with their relationship if they want to sleep apart. 

"People don't like to talk about sleeping in separate beds because there's a stigma that there must be something dysfunctional in the relationship," said marriage therapist Allison Cohen in a published interview. "But for those people who put tremendous value on getting a good night's sleep, which I think most of us do but are afraid to say, it can be an incredibly creative solution that is really effective for the relationship."

Just not possible

One woman, who goes by the user name Dollbaby 710, told MSN that she'd love to share a bed with her spouse, but it just isn't possible. And she has no regrets about it.

"I would love to sleep in the same bed with my husband but it is pretty much impossible," she wrote. "He starts snoring loudly the minute he falls asleep and it continues all night long. After about four months of me not getting much sleep after we married, we came to a mutual decision to sleep in separate rooms. We are both happier now because now I am not so grouchy from being sleep deprived every night."

This might be the answer for you, if you've been going back and forth about sleeping in separate rooms, but it's different for each couple.

"There is no one-size-fits all approach," said Troxel. "Couples need to decide what works best for them and consider how to optimize their sleep as well as their time together so that they can be the best possible partner for their loved one."

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The most effective high blood pressure treatments

More doctors are beginning to emphasize lifestyle changes

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, has been called the silent killer because many who have it are unaware they have a condition that can shorten their l...

PhotoHypertension, or high blood pressure, has been called the silent killer because many who have it are unaware they have a condition that can shorten their life. Recognizing that you have the condition, however, is just the first step. Next, you have to treat it.

First, let's define our terms. When we say “high blood pressure” we are talking about a blood pressure reading above 140/90 – the 140 being the systolic number, which measures the the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. The 90 is the diastolic number, which measures the pressure between beats.

While the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute – part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – declares 140/90 to be normal, most physicians now want their patients to have a reading of 130/80 or below.

Get healthy

Adopting a healthy lifestyle is an effective first step in both preventing and controlling high blood pressure. If lifestyle changes alone are not effective in keeping your pressure controlled, it may be necessary to add blood pressure medications. In fact, most people with high blood pressure take one or more prescription medications.

One of the older class of medications is the beta blocker. Beta blockers reduce nerve impulses to the heart and blood vessels, slowing the heart, so it doesn't work as hard.

Angiotensin converting enzyme, or ACE, inhibitors prevent the formation of a hormone called angiotensin II, which can cause blood vessels to narrow. The ACE inhibitors cause the vessels to relax and blood pressure goes down.

Angiotensin antagonists shield blood vessels from angiotensin II. As a result, the vessels become wider and blood pressure goes down. Calcium channel blockers, or CCBs, keep calcium from entering the muscle cells of the heart and blood vessels. This causes the blood vessels to relax and pressure goes down.

Alpha blockers reduce nerve impulses to blood vessels, which allows blood to pass more easily, causing the blood pressure to go down. Alpha beta blockers work the same way as alpha blockers but also slow the heartbeat, as beta blockers do. As a result, less blood is pumped through the vessels and the blood pressure goes down.

Cheap and under-used

PhotoPerhaps the simplest drug is a diuretic, also called a water pill. It works in the kidneys and flushes excess water and sodium from the body. It's cheap and, according to one blood pressure expert, under-used. In 2012 Dr. Samuel J. Mann, a nationally-known hypertension specialist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, questioned the widespread use of today's most popular hypertension drugs.

"Despite their best intentions many physicians continue to place their hypertensive patients on blood pressure medications, drug combinations or doses that may not be the best treatment available to them, Mann said. "I believe that with the medications we have, we can do much better than we are doing.

Mann's view may be gaining wider acceptance. Many physicians are now emphasizing a healthy diet, reducing sodium consumption, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing alcohol use.

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic have come up with “10 ways to control blood pressure without medication.” They include losing weight, reducing sodium, getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy diet. 

If you are currently taking blood pressure medication, don't stop taking it without consulting with your doctor first. Even if you continue to take medication, making lifestyle changes to promote a normal blood pressure can only improve your health.

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How safe is anesthesia for young brains?

Research has yet to come up with a clear answer

Ranking high on the list of a mom and dad's nightmares is being told their small child needs surgery. Questions by the dozens run through their heads: doe...

PhotoRanking high on the list of a mom and dad's nightmares is being told their small child needs surgery.

Questions by the dozens run through their heads: Does my child really need the operation? Will the operation take care of the problem? How long will recovery take? Another question they ought to be asking is: Does anesthesia affect my child's developing brain?

Because more than a million children in the U.S. under the age of 4 need anesthesia for surgery each year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other health organizations have teamed up to answer this question.

Studies yield mixed results

Previous scientific studies in young animals have shown that commonly used anesthetics can be harmful to the developing brain. However, results have been mixed in children. Some studies of infants and young children undergoing anesthesia have reported long-term deficits in learning and behavior, while other studies have not.

These conflicting results make it obvious that more research is needed to understand fully the risks anesthesia may pose to very young patients.

To close these research gaps, FDA and the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS) started an initiative called SmartTots (Strategies for Mitigating Anesthesia-Related neuroToxicity in Tots). SmartTots seeks to ensure that children under age 4 will be as safe as possible when they need anesthesia. Studies have shown that this is a period of significant brain development in young children.

"Our hope is that research funded through SmartTots will help us design the safest anesthetic regimens possible," says Bob Rappaport, M.D., director of the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Addiction Products at FDA. "This research can potentially foster the development of new and safer anesthetic drugs for use in pediatric medicine."

According to SmartTots steering committee co-chair James Ramsay, M.D., young children usually do not undergo surgery unless the procedure is vital to their health. "Therefore, postponing a necessary procedure may itself lead to significant health problems and may not be an option for the majority of children," Ramsey says.

Continuing research

SmartTots was launched in 2010 in part to fund research that would build on the work done at FDA and several universities.

Since 2003, Merle Paule, Ph.D., director of the Division of Neurotoxicology at FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), and colleagues have been exploring the effects of ketamine -- an anesthetic commonly used on children-on the brains and learning ability of young rhesus monkeys.

"Earlier research has shown that exposing young rat pups to ketamine caused learning problems when they became adults, but we wanted to see what would happen with primates," said Paule. Primates, such as the rhesus monkey used in this research, more closely resemble humans in physiology and behavior.

"The learning of concepts such as matching (see a triangle, match it with another triangle from among other symbols) took much longer in the ketamine-treated monkeys And even after basic concepts were learned, the ketamine-exposed animals performed less accurately than animals in the control group," Paule says.

The same holds true for the test monkeys even today, Paule says. Six years after their ketamine treatment, they're still showing below-normal brain function.

Children and ketamine

What might that mean for young children who have been exposed to ketamine or other anesthetics during surgery?

"We can't know with certainty at this time," says Rappaport, a member of the steering committee that coordinates, manages and oversees the SmartTots initiative. "We need to definitively answer the questions of whether anesthetic use in children poses a risk to their development and, if so, under what circumstances."

FDA and other health-related organizations recognize the importance of learning more on this topic. For example, do other forms of anesthesia similarly affect the brain's ability to, learn and remember? How long might these deficits last?

SmartTots Paves the Way

The SmartTots partnership is working to mobilize the scientific community around this issue, stimulate dialogue among leaders in the anesthesia community and work to raise funding for the necessary research ahead.

As part of these efforts, SmartTots issued a consensus statement that's been endorsed by organizations including the FDA, American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Society of Anesthesiologists and the European Society of Anaesthesiology in December, 2012. The statement acknowledged that, in the absence of conclusive evidence, it would be unethical to withhold sedation and anesthesia when necessary.

SmartTots is funding research underway at Columbia University and the University of Iowa on the effects of anesthesia on infant brain development, and on cognitive and language ability. All research first undergoes approval by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), a committee formally designated to approve, monitor, and review biomedical and behavioral research involving humans. The top priority of IRBs is to protect human subjects from physical or psychological harm.

In the meantime, Ramsay says parents and other caretakers should talk to their pediatrician or other health care professionals about the risks and benefits of procedures requiring anesthetics and weigh them against the known health risks of not treating certain conditions.

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The high cost of poor health

Controlling your weight may be the key to controlling your budget

It doesn't pay to get sick. Aside from the serious health issues an illness raises, there is a strong economic concern too.People faced with a chronic he...

PhotoIt doesn't pay to get sick. Aside from the serious health issues an illness raises, there is a strong economic concern too.

People faced with a chronic health condition often find they have to spend thousands of dollars over time on treatment. A recent Harvard study found that illness or medical bills contributed to 62.1% of all bankruptcies in 2007.

Now, researchers writing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine have put a price tag on the cost of developing type 2 diabetes, a preventable condition most often brought on by obesity or a poor diet.

Younger is worse

The younger you are when diagnosed with the disease, the more it will cost to treat it over your lifetime. For example, for men diagnosed with type 2 diabetes between the ages of 25 and 44, the lifetime direct medical cost of treatment is $124,700. Diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 64, the condition costs $84,000 to treat.

The treatment costs are higher for women, the researchers found. Women diagnosed between the ages of 25 and 44 can expect to pay $130,800 for treatment over the remainder of their lives.

“Over the lifetime, type 2 diabetes imposes a substantial economic burden on healthcare systems,” the researchers conclude. “Effective interventions that prevent or delay type 2 diabetes and diabetic complications might result in substantial long-term savings in healthcare costs.”

According to the American Diabetes Association, type 2 is the most common form of diabetes. Though it can be hereditary, type 2 diabetes is, in many cases, a preventable disease.

Insulin resistance

PhotoWhen you have type 2 diabetes, your fat, liver, and muscle cells do not respond correctly to insulin, a condition known as insulin resistance. As a result, blood sugar does not get into these cells to be stored for needed energy.

In most cases type 2 diabetes develops slowly. Most people with the disease are overweight when they are diagnosed. Increased fat makes it harder for your body to use insulin correctly. Maintaining a healthy weight and diet and getting regular exercise is one way to prevent this condition.

Other conditions can also be expensive to treat. In addition to increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke, high blood pressure carries an economic cost as well. It may require one or more prescription medications and, should you have a heart attack or stroke, can result in hospitalization and a lengthy recovery.

High cholesterol

Having too much cholesterol in your blood is another potentially costly condition. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that's found in the fats, or lipids, in your blood. While your body needs cholesterol to continue building healthy cells, having high cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.

Some people who develop high cholesterol have a genetic predisposition to the condition. However, many have too much cholesterol because of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle.

Statins, a class of drugs to treat high cholesterol, are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S. and tend to be very expensive. Suffering a stroke because of high cholesterol is even more expensive, not to mention a threat to your life.

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to inflammation of the liver and, eventually, cirrhosis. In extreme cases it can require a liver transplant.

Obesity may be key

PhotoObesity is another mostly-avoidable condition that can lead to a lifetime of high medical bills and may be a key to preventable diseases. In addition to being a contributing factor to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, obesity can place undue stress on all the body's internal organs.

In 2012 researchers at Lehigh University reported obesity alone adds $190 billion in U.S. medical expenses each year. The figure includes prescription medications, hospitalizations and higher health insurance premiums.

For individuals, physicians say maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet is not only a good way to protect your health but, over the long run, to reduce the amount of money you have to spend on health care.

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Has technology ruined music?

Some might say yes and there's even scientific evidence to back them up

Most times, the advancement of technology is a wonderful thing. When a new invention or gadget comes out, it'll often make our lives easier or allow us to ...

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Refunds headed to purchasers of children's vitamins

Feds say the marketer of Disney- or Marvel Hero-themed products made false claims

Thousands of consumers should soon be finding a pleasant surprise in their mailboxes. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has just mailed more than 10,000...

PhotoThousands of consumers should soon be finding a pleasant surprise in their mailboxes.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has just mailed more than 10,000 checks to consumers who bought Disney- or Marvel Hero-themed vitamins for their kids featuring characters such as the Disney Princesses, Winnie the Pooh, Finding Nemo and Spider-Man.

Consumers who submitted claims for vitamins they bought between May 1, 2008 and September 30, 2010, will be receiving more than $425,000 -- 100% of what they paid, up to $125 per household. The refunds are part of a settlement with vitamin marketer NBTY Inc. and two subsidiaries, which resulted from charges that they made false health claims about their vitamins.

Consumers who receive the checks have 60 days to cash them. They should be aware that the FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before refund checks can be cashed. Those with questions should call the refund administrator, BMC Group, at 1-866-224-4336.

Major retailers such as CVS Pharmacy, Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, Kroger, Kmart, Meijer and Rite Aid sold the vitamins. They also were sold online.

The settlement

The FTC reached a settlement in 2010 requiring the marketers to stop making allegedly false and unproven claims that their vitamins promote healthy brain and eye development in children.

The FTC charged NBTY, Inc., NatureSmart LLC, and Rexall Sundown, Inc., with making deceptive claims about the amount of DHA, an Omega-3 fatty acid, in their children’s vitamin gummies and tablets, and the effect of that amount on eye and brain development in children.

Consumers are urged to evaluate advertising claims carefuly for vitamins and other dietary supplements.   

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Ford recalls Focus BEVs and STs

The front side marker lamps may not function

Ford is recalling 6,308 model year 2012-2013 Focus BEV vehicles equipped with High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights, manufactured September 15, 2011, t...

PhotoFord is recalling 6,308 model year 2012-2013 Focus BEV vehicles equipped with High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights, manufactured September 15, 2011, through May 6, 2013; and model year 2013 Focus ST vehicles equipped with High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights, manufactured February 16, 2012, through May 7, 2013.

Due to a wiring incompatibility, the front side marker lamps may not function. Without the proper illumination of the side maker lamps, the vehicle may be less visible in night time conditions, increasing the risk of a crash.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will modify the headlamp assembly wiring, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in mid-August 2013.

Owners may contact the Ford customer relationship center at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's recall number is 13C04.

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United Processing recalls boneless veal products

The products may be contaminated with e. coli

United Processing of New York Mills, N.Y., is recalling approximately 12,600 pounds of boneless veal products because they may be contaminated with E. coli...

PhotoUnited Processing of New York Mills, N.Y., is recalling approximately 12,600 pounds of boneless veal products because they may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, E. coli O145 and E. coli O45.

There have been no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

The 60-lb. boxes of boneless veal bear the establishment number “M- 27450” inside the USDA mark of inspection on a generic box label. The products were produced on June 17, 18, 24, 28 and 29, 2013 then distributed to wholesalers in New York and California for further processing.

FSIS became aware of the problem during inspection program personnel review. The firm sampled the product per their food safety program, and inadvertently shipped the product into commerce.

FSIS and the company have received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact the company’s plant manager, Jon Gorea, at (315) 768-7100, ext. 228.

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Study contradicts fears of cell phones distracting drivers

Researchers studied 8 million crashes, found no correlation with cell phone use

We hear all the time about how disastrous distracted driving is, how using a cellphone behind the wheel is like driving drunk. Former Secretary of Transpor...

PhotoWe hear all the time about how disastrous distracted driving is, how using a cell phone behind the wheel is like driving drunk. Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made it a major initiative and spent all kinds of time and money on studies and educational campaigns.

But now a study from Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science finds that talking on a phone while driving does not increase the risk of a crash. 

For the study, Carnegie Mellon's Saurabh Bhargava and the London School of Economics and Political Science's Vikram S. Pathania examined calling and crash data from 2002 to 2005, a period when most cell phone carriers offered pricing plans with free calls on weekdays after 9 p.m

No correlation

They compared data from mobile network operators and accident reports and found that there was no direct correlation between the number of phone calls made during a certain time period and the number of crashes during the same time.

"Using a cell phone while driving may be distracting, but it does not lead to higher crash risk in the setting we examined," said Bhargava, who is an assistant professor of social and decision sciences at CMU. "While our findings may strike many as counterintuitive, our results are precise enough to statistically call into question the effects typically found in the academic literature. Our study differs from most prior work in that it leverages a naturally occurring experiment in a real-world context."

Photo
Saurabh Bhargava

In the study, the researchers identified drivers as those whose cell phone calls were routed through multiple cellular towers. They first showed that drivers increased call volume by more than 7 percent at 9 p.m., when the calls became free. They then compared the relative crash rate before and after 9 p.m. using data on approximately 8 million crashes across nine states and all fatal crashes across the nation.

They found that the increased cell phone use by drivers at 9 p.m. had no corresponding effect on crash rates.

Additionally, the researchers analyzed the effects of legislation banning cell phone use, enacted in several states, and similarly found that the legislation had no effect on the crash rate.

Drivers may compensate

"One thought is that drivers may compensate for the distraction of cell phone use by selectively deciding when to make a call or consciously driving more carefully during a call," Bhargava said. "This is one of a few explanations that could explain why laboratory studies have shown different results.

"The implications for policymakers considering bans depend on what is actually driving this lack of an effect.  For example, if drivers do compensate for distraction, then penalizing cell phone use as a secondary rather than a primary offense could make sense," he said. "In the least, this study and others like it, suggest we should revisit the presumption that talking on a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as widely perceived."

Pathania, a fellow in the London School of Economics Managerial Economics and Strategy group, added a cautionary note: 

"Our study focused solely on talking on one's cell phone. We did not, for example, analyze the effects of texting or Internet browsing, which has become much more popular in recent years. It is certainly possible that these activities pose a real hazard."

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How should you be planning for retirement?

Increasing savings and reducing debt is still the key

Retirement shouldn't be all that complicated. You work for 40 years or so then live off your benefits and savings. At least that's the ideal.The Great Re...

PhotoRetirement shouldn't be all that complicated. You work for 40 years or so and then live off your benefits and savings. At least that's the ideal.

The Great Recession derailed much of that conventional thinking and the brave new world of the corporate workplace has added new elements of uncertainty, not to mention loss of income in some cases.

This week a couple of pundits even raised questions about that most sacred of retirement tools, the 401(k) savings plan. Contributions to that account are tax-deferred, meaning you don't pay taxes on that income until you start withdrawing the money. In the meantime, it grows each year tax-free.

'They stink!'

But stock guru Jim Cramer says “most 401 (k) plans stink.” On CNBC, Cramer took aim at what he called most plans' high fees and limited investment choices.

Also this week, Marketwatch's Cliff Goldstein penned an article entitled “5 reasons not to contribute to your 401(k).” Goldstein worries about employers who don't match contributions and employees who pile money into their retirement accounts when they have mounting debt and other needs. 

While 401(k) plans continue to work well for many savers, there does appear to be new thinking about retirement in general and preparing for it.

"We know we will at some point want – or need – to stop working, but we so rarely think about a systematic approach to doing so, and that is often the undoing of many of us once we enter our golden years," said Wayne von Borstel, author and financial planner. "But if we follow four fairly basic rules, we can prepare for a retirement that is comfortable and secure."

Collect some cash

Von Borstel says the first rule is to create a cash reserve safety net beyond your retirement savings. Many people are under the assumption that's what their retirement account is. It isn't. Should you have to tap it before age 58 and a half, you would incur a hefty 10% penalty. You would also have to pay income tax on the withdrawal as though it were ordinary income.

A savings stash gives you after-tax money that you can use to pay an emergency expense, including the loss of income. Von Borstel suggests a healthy balance between your cash stash and your retirement savings, with six months of living expenses in savings.

The second rule is to be conservative with a portion of your portfolio. While bonds may seem boring, Von Borstel says you may need something in your retirement account that can provide steady income.

"One of the worst things we can do in retirement is liquidate retirement accounts in a down market,” he said.

Be realistic

PhotoNumber three is to set a realistic goal. Back before the Great Recession financial planners urged their clients to aim high. But you are more likely to meet your goal if it is set at a realistic number.

The fourth rule is to eliminate all debt by the time you retire. That includes home mortgages.

"If we own our home and don't owe anyone a red cent, we can hunker down and live on almost nothing,” von Borstel said. “In that way, the probability of surviving any financial disaster is [improved]."

A big problem with the thinking about retirement is that it sometimes takes a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach. It shouldn't.

Each retiree is different, with different needs and expectations. It doesn't hurt to review your retirement savings plan from time to time and make adjustments. In fact, it's a good way to make sure your future plans are in sync with present realities. Discussing your situation with a trusted, competent and objective financial advisor is a good start.

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Cool and inexpensive items for the dorm room

The little ones aren't the only students going back to school.

When we hear the phrase "back-to-school" most of us think of younger kids preparing for the first day. And part of the reason for that is because most of t...

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The one-sport child athlete: good or bad?

Physical harm and loss of motivation are among the concerns

If you're an adult of a certain age, you probably remember spending much of your time outside as a kid. Whether it was playing with the other kids in the n...

PhotoIf you're an adult of a certain age, you probably remember spending much of your time outside as a kid. Whether it was playing with the other kids in the neighborhood, running around your block or being involved in a bunch of different sports, you probably spent very little time indoors.

But kids are different today. Video games have become a major source of entertainment, a lot of parents don't let their kids outside unsupervised anymore and -- when it comes to sports -- a lot of kids play just one.

Having a child play just one sport all year around is sort of the new trend these days. If you look at leagues like the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), you'll likely see young athletes just aren't playing for fun anymore, they're actually training.

A lot of parents who have athletic kids put them in just one sport because they think it will give them an advantage. The common belief is, while the other children move on to other sports, one-sport athletes will still be in training mode and getting better.

The wrong approach?

But that could be the wrong approach, says Dr. Timothy Hewett of Ohio State University's sports medicine division. He says kids doing the same athletic moves year after year, increases their chance of becoming injured.

"You could call it the Tiger Woods syndrome," said Hewett. "Young athletes feel like they have to play a single sport and they have to play it year-round."

Another potential problem with kids playing one sport is they have a greater chance of gaining weight after an injury, and that weight-gain can stick around for quite some time.

"Even when we follow them over multiple years, they tend to retain the weight gain," said Hewett.

Wear and tear

PhotoAfter studying over 500 athletes for a 10-year span, Hewett and his research team found that single-sport athletes had a 50% higher chance of getting a knee injury.

When a child plays and practices just one sport over a long period of time, the process of wearing-and-tearing begins very early and playing different sports gives certain body parts a break.

Dr. James Dreese, an orthopedic surgeon in Maryland, said it's all of the hours of competition that can potentially harm a child who plays just one sport.

"When athletes that play one sport and one sport alone, there's probably more hours of competition in that one sport than there were competing if they had two or three other sports," he said. "It's the hours of competition that puts them most at risk for having those problems."

Multiple-sport benefits

John Donahue, a track coach in Souderton, Pa., said playing multiple sports isn't only healthy for kids physically; it helps them in other ways, especially if a child is a star in one sport.

"Maybe if you're the star in football, you being the second-string guard [in basketball] is good for you instead of just being in the weight room four days a week in the winter," said Donahue in a published interview.  "I would say it's more fun, better for your overall development and better for your school."

In a joint study conducted by Loyola University Medical Center and Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, researchers examined the health data of 1206 athletes between the ages of 8 and 18. Out of those athletes, there were 859 injuries reported and they were all connected to playing one sport over and over.

The researchers said young athletes shouldn't play or practice any more hours than their age. And that's every week.

"We should be cautious about intense specialization in one sport before and during adolescence," said Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University.

Loss of interest

PhotoThere's another risk of kids playing just one sport. They can become bored and want to give it up, which is the opposite of what many parents want.  

Aaron Locks, owner of the fitness center University of Sports, said if a child only plays one sport it can take away the fun. And having fun is the main reason a child should be playing sports at a young age.

"It's really unfortunate when a 10-year old is told to pick just one sport," he said. "Kids should use sports to have fun. They need to play different sports and enjoy them all as much as they can."

But keeping kids engaged should just be one of your goals when you put them in different athletic activities, says Hewett. Allowing them to play multiple sports gives them balance.

"A diversity of activity is going to promote balance within your neuromuscular system," said Hewett. "You're going to be able to be proficient and excel at multiple tasks."

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Walmart, Target store brands tastier than major brands in Consumer Reports tests

Only one cereal got an "excellent" rating for taste

It used to be said that most breakfast cereal was about as tasty and nutritious as the box it came in. That's no longer true but the latest taste tests fro...

PhotoIt used to be said that most breakfast cereal was about as tasty and nutritious as the box it came in. That's no longer true but the latest taste tests from Consumer Reports found only one cereal rated as "excellent" and found that store brands sometimes outrank major national brands.

In the non-profit magazine's September 2013 issue and at its website, www.ConsumerReports.org, the taste testers picked Bear Naked Fruit and Nut granola as the only cereal that was excellent for taste, with clusters, pecans, walnuts, almonds, raisins, cranberries, sesame seeds, coconut slivers, brown sugar, honey and cinnamon.  But its overall nutrition was fair -- 140 calories and two grams of fiber per quarter-cup serving.

Two store brands, Market Pantry Frosted Shredded Wheat (Target) and Great Value Raisin Bran (Walmart), got a "very good" taste score and were deemed CR Best Buys, beating out name-brand products from Kellogg’s and Post. Of the 26 cereals tested, most of them rich in fiber, more than two-thirds were "very good" or "excellent" in taste.

“The taste of fiber-rich cereals has come a long way,” said Maxine Siegel, Food Testing Team Leader at Consumer Reports. “In our latest tests, we found that you can buy shredded wheat and raisin bran by price, not name brand, and still expect similar quality in taste and nutrition.”

PhotoOverall, 18 cereals tasted at least very good or better in Consumer Reports’ latest tests, and 11 were very good or excellent for nutrition. 

Granolas, often thought of as healthy, are among the highest in calories and fat. The granola cereals Consumer Reports tested had up to ten grams of fat per serving, compared with one gram in the other types of cereals.

Four cereals were both very tasty and very nutritious based on calories, fat, sodium, sugars, iron, calcium, and fiber: Kellogg’s All-Bran Original, Post Grape-Nuts The Original, Post Shredded Wheat Original Spoon Size, and Post Shredded Wheat Wheat n’ Bran Spoon Size.

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Toyota recalls Tacoma Access Cab vehicles

The screws that attach the seat belt pre-tensioner to the seat belt retractor can loosen over tim

Toyota is recalling 342,451 model year 2005-2010 Tacoma Access Cab vehicles manufactured September 14, 2004, through March 29, 2010; and model year 2011 Ta...

PhotoToyota is recalling 342,451 model year 2005-2010 Tacoma Access Cab vehicles manufactured September 14, 2004, through March 29, 2010; and model year 2011 Tacoma Access Cab vehicles manufactured July 1, 2010, through September 7, 2011.

If the access doors are repeatedly and forcefully closed, the screws that attach the seat belt pre-tensioner to the seat belt retractor can loosen over time. If the screws loosen completely, the seat belt pre-tensioner and the retractor spring cover could detach from the seat belt retractor and the seat belt pre-tensioner will not perform as designed, increasing the risk of injury in a severe crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the seat belt assemblies. Based on the inspection, the seat belt assembly will be replaced or new pre-tensioner screws will be installed with thread-locking sealant and a retractor spring cover with stopper ribs to prevent loosening of the screws. These services will be provided at no cost to the owner. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

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Giant Bicycle recalls XtC bikes and seatposts

The seatposts can crack causing a fall hazard

Giant Bicycles of Newbury Park, Calif., is recalling XtC bicycles and seatposts. The seatposts on the affected bicycles and the after-market seatposts ca...

PhotoGiant Bicycles of Newbury Park, Calif., is recalling XtC bicycles and seatposts.

The seatposts on the affected bicycles and the after-market seatposts can crack, posing a fall hazard. The company has received five reports of the bicycle seatposts breaking. No injuries have been reported.

This recall includes 2013 model year Giant XtC Advanced SL 29er 0 and 29er 1 series bicycles and 27.2 mm carbon fiber seatposts sold separately. The SL 29er 0 model bicycle is white, black and blue. The SL 29er 1 model is white, black and red. The letters “XTC” appear on the down tube of the frame on both bicycles. The name “Giant” and “Contact SLR” appear on the 27.2 mm carbon fiber seatposts.

The bikes and seatposts, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at bicycle stores nationwide between November 2012, and May 2013, for between $4,300 and $7,700 for the bicycles and $200 for the seatpost sold separately.

Consumer should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and seatposts and contact a Giant Bicycle dealer for a free replacement seatpost.

Consumers may contact Giant Bicycle toll-free at (866) 458-2555 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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U.S. infrastructure getting older but not being replaced

Corrosion is infrastructure's main enemy

Earlier this year the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued a report that probably didn't garner the attention it deserved. Every four years th...

PhotoEarlier this year the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued a report that probably didn't garner the attention it deserved. Every four years the group grades U.S. infrastructure – the network of systems that support modern life – and found it getting worse.

The ASCE Report Card for American's Infrastructure gave the country a D+, down from a C- in 2009. By 2020, the group estimates the U.S. will need to spend $3.6 trillion to repair or replace things.

“The infrastructure in the United States is very old,” said Richard Grant, a principal at Russell Corrosion Consultants (RCC), a company that addresses corrosive challenges to infrastructure. “There are multiple problems going on. You've got water and waste water infrastructure that was put in in the late 1800s or early 1900s. At the time it was designed for a population that was quite a bit less than it is today.”

And when it was built, no one ever dreamed we would still be using it in 2013. A lot of infrastructure – public works projects – was built during the Great Depression, when labor and materials were cheap.

On borrowed time

“The design life of the very old infrastructure was maybe 50 years,” Grant said. “We're well beyond that. We now have the dual problem of aging infrastructure, with greater stress on that infrastructure, and a money crunch to pay for new infrastructure.”

Grant says the problem comes down to corrosion. That's what happens, eventually, when metal is exposed to water. Metal, of course, is a major part of infrastructure. Pipes are made from it. It reinforces concrete. It's made into giant beams to support bridges and tunnels.

“If you have a metallic structure, it is going to corrode,” Grant said. “It's not a matter of if this is going to happen, it is going to happen. The question then becomes, how much is it going to happen and what effect is this going to have on roads and bridges.”

Rail safety

When metal corrodes, it become weaker. Two recent train accidents in Europe have focused attention on rail safety. While corrosion may not have been a factor in those accidents, Grant says the potential for accidents is there when rails are subject to corrosion.

“Corrosion is a concern for transit systems,” he said. “We have a significant number of transit clients across the United States. And what we're really trying to assess there is what's called track-to-earth resistance. The more we can increase the efficiency of the tracks the more we can provide a safe and more efficient transit system.”

While water is a corrosive influence, salt water is even more corrosive. Grant says bridges over salt water deserve special attention, as do roads in snowy climates that are constantly salted during winter months.

“You've seen bridge failures across the United States, some related to corrosion, some related to other incidents,” he said. “Those things are only going to increase over time.”

2007 bridge collapse

PhotoIn 2007 a span of an I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 135. Though safety inspectors pinned the blame on design flaws and not corrosion, the accident illustrates the importance of bridge maintenance.

In its 2013 Report Card, ASCE noted that one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient. The average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges? Forty-two years.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that to eliminate the nation’s bridge backlog by 2028, we would need to invest $20.5 billion a year. Currently the U.S. spends just $12.8 billion. Over all, ASCE sees a huge task ahead in maintaining existing infrastructure while building additional assets.

“While the modest progress is encouraging, it is clear that we have a significant backlog of overdue maintenance across our infrastructure systems, a pressing need for modernization, and an immense opportunity to create reliable, long-term funding sources to avoid wiping out our recent gains,” the report concluded.

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FCC may finally act to cap rates for prison phone calls

A simple phone call to family, friends or lawyer can cost $15 or more

Mignon ClyburnIt has taken forever, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is finally taking up the issue of predatory phone call pricing by p...

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Mignon Clyburn

It has taken forever, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is finally taking up the issue of predatory phone call pricing by prisons. After turning a deaf ear to families' pleas for years, the agency is holding a public hearing tomorrow (Friday) to consider rate caps and other rule changes.

The knee-jerk reaction to charging humane telephone rates for calls from prison is that inmates should suffer for their misdeeds. It is, of course, not the inmates who pay for the calls but their families, most of whom are already suffering economically because of their relatives' imprisonment, something the tone-deaf FCC is finally acknowledging.

"The loved ones at home, they have very little disposable income," said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), speaking at an FCC workshop last month. "They sacrifice food on the table, other expenses, just to stay in touch with their loved ones locked away."

For once, this argument rings a bell at the FCC.

"For too long, the high cost of long-distance calls from prisoners to their loved ones … has chronically impacted parents and children," FCC acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said in a statement. "Multiple studies have shown that meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism."

The issue got no traction with the FCC until Clyburn, who has been on the commission since 2009, assumed the acting chairmanship after Julius Genachowski, who was more interested in Wi-Fi speeds than prison families, resigned. President Obama has nominated cable and wireless industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler to head the commission but he has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, leaving Clyburn in charge for the moment.

“Tom knows this stuff inside and out,” Obama, who while campaigning pledged he would not hire lobbyists, said in announcing his nomination of Wheeler May 1. Big wireless firms like Verizon and AT&T cheered. They “should benefit from a focus on their economic health” by a Wheeler-run FCC, Paul Gallant, Washington-based managing director at Guggenheim Securities, told Bloomberg News in May. 

So for the brief interim period when former campaign strategists (Genachowski) and industry lobbyists (Wheeler) are not in control of the commission, it may actually do something for the little people everyone talks so much about.   Before being named to the FCC in 2009, Clyburn was an elected member of the South Carolina Public Service Commission. She is the daughter of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Big bucks

PhotoThis may not sound like much of an issue but with about 1.5 million people in federal and states prisons, we're talking about a lot of phone calls, expensive ones at that. Some state prisons charge a $4 "connection fee" for each call, plus 89 cents per minute or more.

"In some instances, the price of a single phone call from prison eclipses the cost of an average basic monthly telephone bill," Clyburn said.

Clyburn has proposed rate caps, limits on per-call fees and has suggested it would not be totally unAmerican to allow those imprisoned by their government to make at least a few free calls. 

Phone companies, of course, oppose the changes, saying they would cut into the profit they make on the estimated $1.2 billion of annual charges to prison families.

Two little-known companies get most of the take from prison calls. Global Tel-Link of Atlanta and Securus Technologies of Dallas insist that it costs more to handle prison calls because of the security measures that prisons require. Such as? Oh, call screening, restricting certain numbers and blocking three-way calls -- all activities that are performed by modern digital switching equipment at little or no incremental cost per call.

It's not just these two companies that have their hands in the pockets of prisoners' families, however. The states, counties and private firms that operate prisons award exclusive telephone contracts and give themselves a big share of the profits in the form of commissions.

While most states have gladly scraped off as much of the predatory profits as they can get their hands on, eight states have adopted reforms and more, seeing no sign until recently that the FCC would ever act, are considering it.  

New Mexico recently capped phone rates at 15 cents a minute, plus a $1 connection fee. Missouri charges $1.75 for a 15-minute call.

Snail's pace

The issue has been on hold at the FCC since at least 2000, when 20 prison families filed a class action lawsuit seeking a ruling that the extortionist rates were illegal. The suit was remanded to the FCC, which in 2003 issued a notice or proposed rulemaking. Years passed and nothing happened.

Prison rights groups have been pressing for change all this time. Cheryl Leanza, speaking on behalf of the United Church of Christ's media justice and communications rights ministry, urged the FCC to, for once, move swiftly.

"We cannot delay action on this docket. It's been 10 years," she said, according to a Legal Times blog. "I don't think there's any question the FCC has authority over this issue."

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How to place a security freeze on your credit

It's a low-cost way to protect against identity theft

Identity theft is a growing concern. Cases have skyrocketed, meaning your risks have increased as well.While using caution with your financial documents...

PhotoIdentity theft is a growing concern. Cases have skyrocketed, meaning your risks have increased as well.

While using caution with your financial documents is a good preventive measure, you remain exposed. Security breaches in databases containing your medical records, mortgage information and other sensitive data can result in the nightmare of identity theft. If someone gets access to your Social Security number and other sensitive data, they can open credit accounts in your name.

Fortunately, there is a simple and inexpensive step you can take to drastically reduce your exposure.

Thieves can steal your identity when they access enough information about you to take out loans and open credit card accounts in your name. But to complete the final step in that process the thieves must be able to access your credit reports from all three credit reporting agencies – Experian,Equifax and Trans Union. If they can't access those reports, they can't borrow money in your name.

Simple process

All three credit reporting agencies make it relatively simple for you to place security freezes on your credit reports. There is a small, one-time fee for placing the freeze, with the size of the fee depending on the state in which you reside. However, the typical fee is $10 per credit reporting agency, for a total of $30. If you have been a victim of identity theft, the fee is waived in most states.

Before placing the freeze, you need to understand what that means for you as a consumer. Experian explains it very well.

“A security freeze is designed to prevent credit, loans, and services from being approved in your name without your consent,” the company says on its website. However, using a security freeze may delay, interfere with, or prohibit the timely approval of any subsequent requests or applications regarding a new loan, credit, mortgage, insurance, government services or payments, rental housing, employment, investment, license, cellular phone, utilities, digital signature, Internet credit card transaction, or other services, including an extension of credit at point of sale.”

That means if you are applying for an auto loan, mortgage or credit card, the process will be delayed until you temporarily lift the freeze. That process can sometimes take a day or two.

No spur-of-the-moment credit applications

It also means you won't be able to apply for a credit or charge card in order to qualify for a discount when checking out at a retail score. But maybe that's a good thing.

Placing a freeze on your credit will not interfere with existing relationships with existing creditors. They will still be able to access your account in regard to the account you have with them. They just won't be able to open a new account.

Here are the steps you need to take to freeze your credit at all three credit agencies.

Experian

PhotoGo to Experian.com and click on the “Customer Assistance” tab at the top of the page and choose the option “Security Freeze” from the pull-down menu. That takes you to a page that explains the process and allows you to select your state to complete the freeze.

Part of that process is getting a security code or PIN that identifies you, allowing you to temporarily lift the freeze. You can ask to lift the freeze online or by calling a toll-free number.

You complete the process by paying the fee, if any, with a credit or debit card.

Equifax

PhotoNext, go to the Equifax website. Click on the Credit Report Assistance” link at the top of the page.

Among the options on the page is “Place a Security Freeze.” Click on “expand,” located to the right, and then click the “Get Started” button. Enter the information to place a security information on your site. The information and fee will be very similar to what you encountered at Experian.

Trans Union

PhotoFinally, go to Trans Union.com and click on the “Credit Disputes, Alerts & Freezes” tab at the top of the page. Then, click on “Credit Freeze” sub tab and follow the directions for placing a freeze on your credit.

Remember that a security freeze remains on your credit file until you remove it or choose to lift it temporarily when applying for credit or credit-dependent services.

Freezing your credit is not a 100% guarantee against identity theft, but it blocks thieves from the most lucrative aspects of the crime. Even if someone steals your Social Security number, they will still be unable to open credit card accounts or take out loans in your name.

While unfreezing your credit when you want to buy a car or home may seem like a hassle, it could be a small price to pay to keep your identity from being stolen.

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As a group, small cars lag in front crash test

Only the Honda Civic earned top honors

Of the 12 autos put through their paces in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front crash test, only half earn a good or ac...

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Small cars are nimble, easy to park and thrifty to operate. But they don't necessarily to well in collisions, according to the latest insurance industry tests.

Of the 12 cars put through their paces in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front crash test, only half earn a good or acceptable rating.

The 2-door and 4-door models of the Honda Civic are the only small cars to earn the top rating of good in the test. IIHS evaluated the Civics earlier this year and released the results in March. The Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and 2014 model Scion tC earn acceptable ratings, with the Civics, Dart, Elantra, Focus and tC earning the "Top Safety Pick+" accolade.

So far, 25 models have earned the top honor. The “plus” indicates good or acceptable performance in the overlap test. Winners must earn good ratings for occupant protection in 4 of 5 evaluations and no less than acceptable in the fifth test.

IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in a moderate overlap front crash, small overlap front crash, side impact and rollover test, plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts.

Recent addition

IIHS added the small overlap front test to its lineup of vehicle evaluations last year. It replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle hits another vehicle or an object like a tree or a utility pole. In the test, 25% of a vehicle’s front end on the driver's side strikes a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. A 50th percentile male Hybrid III dummy is belted in the driver seat.

Small cars are the fourth group of vehicles to be tested. All but the tC and Kia Forte are 2013 models.

IIHS also has evaluated midsize luxury cars, midsize cars and small SUVs. Results for minicars will be released later this year.

As a group, small cars fared worse than their midsize moderately-priced counterparts in the same test but better overall than small SUVs.

“The small cars with marginal or poor ratings had some of the same structural and restraint system issues as other models we’ve tested,” says David Zuby, the IIHS chief research officer. “In the worst cases safety cages collapsed, driver airbags moved sideways with unstable steering columns and the dummy’s head hit the instrument panel. Side curtain airbags didn’t deploy or didn’t provide enough forward coverage to make a difference. All of this adds up to marginal or poor protection in a small overlap crash.”

Consumer choice

Having six small cars qualify for the Institute’s highest safety award broadens the choices for consumers looking to buy a small car. The latest results highlight how some automakers are designing models to perform well in the demanding small overlap test. At the same time, other automakers have more work to do.

“Manufacturers need to focus on the whole package,” Zuby says. “That means a strong occupant compartment that resists the kinds of intrusion we see in a frontal crash like this, safety belts that prevent a driver from pitching too far forward and side curtain airbags to cushion a head at risk of hitting the dashboard or window frame.”

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Back-to-school shopping tips

Things you'll need to do to save a lot of money this year

It's kind of sad, but summer is closing out pretty fast, which means kids will be going back to school before you know it.Some kids don't mind that schoo...

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Walmart.com

It's kind of sad, but summer is closing out pretty fast, which means kids will be going back to school before you know it. While some kids don't mind, others are moaning and groaning. But either way, both groups have at least one thing in common: They'll need a bunch of new clothes and supplies for school.

For parents, that means trying to find the best deals on everything from notebooks to sneakers -- not to mention the latest fashion items that your child will say he can't live without. 

According to Sharon Banfield, director of public relations at PriceGrabber, the majority of parents will be spending quite a bit on back-to-school items this year. But if they plan and budget properly, they can save a lot in the process.

"According to PriceGrabber's first Back-to-School shopping survey, 68% plan to spend up to $500 this back-to-school shopping season," said Banfield. "With a little homework, budgeting, and creativity, shoppers can easily reduce this number and get the most for their buck this year."

Take inventory

Experts say parents should walk around their home office, kitchen, bedroom and other places that may have supplies lying around.

From there, grab your child's supply list and see if there's anything you can remove from it. In many cases you'll have a lot of the needed supplies right at home.

And when making your back-to-school list, it's important to separate the things your child will need and the things he or she will want.

This will lower your chances of buying something on impulse. And if you do decide to purchase something that isn't truly needed, be sure to buy the necessities first. Challenge yourself by trying to spend less this year than last year. 

Shopping partners

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Amazon.com

It's a good decision to leave smaller children at home when you shop for back-to-school-items, because you're likely to get distracted by all the question-asking and begging.

But, experts say it's a good idea to bring older kids. In fact, you can turn the entire shopping experience into a budgeting lesson. Plus, back-to-school shopping could be a good way for the entire family to bond.

Consumer savings expert Regina Novickis, who wasn't involved in the PriceGrabber survey, says to avoid buying trendy items right away, because before you use them, they might not be trendy anymore.

"Don't buy that name brand stuff until the kids have been in school for a couple of weeks," said Novickis in a published interview. "Because you never know that something they really liked for a while or they've seen during the summer may not be as trendy when they get back to school. So hold off on buying those items."

In addition, Novickis says you should contact your child's teacher before you go shopping. This way, you'll know what's truly needed and will be less likely to buy anything that won't be used.

Check the sales

The PriceGrabber folks say to utilize end-of-summer sales, because most of those clothes can still be worn until mid to late fall. Plus, you can layer certain pieces of summer clothes so they can be worn until it gets cold.

When you go to brick-and-mortars to shop, arm yourself with your mobile device. That way you can compare prices to see if you'll save money by shopping online.

Furthermore, experts advise buying school items in bulk. While you may spend a little more on the front end, you'll be able to use those items throughout the year and save money on the back end.

For older kids, who may need an electronic gadget or two for school, don't be afraid to buy used items. In fact, you can even rent some of these items.

"As technology is integrating into classroom, refurbished technology is a great option sometimes," advised Novickis. "People who are more tech junkies will purchase something, decide they don't need it and send it back to the manufacturer. It's practically brand new. You get a warranty on it and it's a great option."

Creative budgeting

The bottom line is be creative in your budgeting this back-to-school-season, because school is for learning, not sending your kids off with the latest, greatest and most expensive things.

Plus, there will always be something new in style, so don't go spending your money on items that your child probably won't want in a month or two.

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Average age of cars, light trucks hits new high

Economic conditions and better reliability are contributing factors

Look around next time you're sitting on the freeway or in a parking lot. Lots of cars, yes, and lots of them are getting along in years. We don't know if t...

PhotoLook around next time you're sitting on the freeway or in a parking lot. What do you see?

Lots of cars, yes, and lots of them are getting along in years. We don't know if there's an analogy with dog years but the average age of the 247 million cars and light trucks on U.S. roads is now 11.4 years, according to an analysis by Polk.

Polk, once known as R.L. Polk, takes a snapshot of vehicle registrations on Jan. 1 each year, and here it is what it has found:

AVERAGE AGE OF PASSENGER CARS AND LIGHT TRUCKS
YearPassenger CarsLight TrucksTotal Light Vehicles
20029.89.49.6
20039.99.59.7
200410.09.59.8
200510.19.59.8
200610.29.59.9
200710.39.610.0
200810.49.810.1
200910.510.110.3
201010.810.510.6
201111.110.810.9
201211.311.111.2
201311.411.311.4

Source: Polk

"Interesting times"

As part of its most recent analysis and the growth of vehicle registrations in the past few years, Polk found that the volume of 6- to 11-year-old vehicles is declining, while the group of vehicles older than 12 years is on the rise. 

"These are interesting times for the automotive aftermarket," said Mark Seng, vice president of Polk’s aftermarket practice. "Customers from independent and chain repair shops should be paying close attention to their business plans and making concerted efforts to retain business among the do-it- for-me audience, while retailers have a unique and growing opportunity with potential consumers wrenching on their own vehicles."

But while cars may be getting older, there are nevertheless more of them, a trend Polk says will continue. Polk recently developed a new forecast for vehicles in operation (VIO) through 2018, the first of its kind in the industry. With the rebound in new vehicle registrations, Polk is forecasting the total VIO to grow five percent to more than 260 million vehicles by 2018.

During the past five years, with the significant decline in new vehicle registrations, the market has seen both segments of the aftermarket enjoy strong growth potential. During that time period, the 6-11 year old segment grew marginally and vehicles more than 12 years old increased by more than 20 percent. However, Polk expects the 6-11 year old vehicle segment to shrink by more than 20 percent and the 12+ year old segment to grow at a rate almost half of the prior five-year period.

In other words, it's a good time to be in the car parts and auto repair business.

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Passenger died, bus driver did nothing. No problem, says the judge

The state is not required to administer aid, the court rules

You see ambulances racing around, paramedics dashing back and forth, firefighters bursting into burning buildings, and all of this would lead you to think ...

PhotoYou see ambulances racing around, paramedics dashing back and forth, firefighters bursting into burning buildings, and all of this would lead you to think that city and state governments are required to come to the aid of their citizens, wouldn't it?

Sorry, it's just not so, Chief Philadelphia U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker ruled in the case of the late Leonard Sedden, Courthouse News Service reported.  

It seems that Sedden was riding the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) "night owl" bus on April 11, 2010, from downtown Philadelphia to the Frankford Transportation Center, which was, for him, both the literal and figurative end of the line.

Around 4 a.m., the bus driver had called her dispatcher to report that Sedden was unresponsive, lying in urine and covered with drool.  A SEPTA supervisor boarded the bus and claimed to have found Sedden sitting up and breathing.

Sued for negligence

But by 5:30 a.m., when the bus rolled into Frankford, Sedden was pronounced dead. His family sued SEPTA for negligence, wrongful death and violation of Sedden's civil rights.

But the judge ruled that SEPTA had done nothing to create the conditions that led to Sedden's death and, further, that SEPTA should not have to face claims over its policy on responding to medical emergencies.

"The Supreme Court clearly articulated that the due process clause does not require a state to administer aid when it would be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests," Judge Tucker wrote. "Similarly, it is evident in the 3rd Circuit that the due process clause does not guarantee a 'federal constitutional right to rescue services, competent or otherwise.'"

"SEPTA was under no obligation to provide rescue services to Mr. Sedden therefore SEPTA's lack of action in this matter did not rise to a constitutional violation," she concluded. 

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What to do after a car accident

Treat every accident as serious and make sure it is well documented

It can happen in the blink of an eye. Another car runs a red light, plowing into the side of your vehicle. Or you lose control of your car and run off the ...

PhotoIt can happen in the blink of an eye. Another car runs a red light, plowing into the side of your vehicle. Or you lose control of your car and run off the road.

The result is damage to your and others' vehicles and possibly, serious injury. When a highway accident occurs, your first feeling may be shock, even if you aren't seriously hurt. But it is important to keep your wits about you.

What do you do first? According to State Farm Insurance, the first thing to do is take a deep breath and calm yourself. Check for injuries and, when in doubt, call for an ambulance.

Minor accidents, when there is little apparent damage, might present the most confusion. But State Farm advises its clients to treat it as a serious encounter. If your car is drivable, remove it from the roadway and turn on your hazard lights. If you have cones or flares, put them out.

Always call the police

Call the police, even if it's a minor fender bender. The main reason is to create an official record of what happened. It could be important later on.

Once the vehicles are secure and police have been summoned, notify your insurance company of the accident.

You should get the names, address, and phone numbers of everyone involved in the accident, along with a description of the car and license plate number and insurance company. Yes, the police will also collect this information in their report but you should record it as well, as a backup.

How you deal with the other driver, or drivers, is also very important. Regardless of who you think was at fault, keep your cool. Having an accident escalate into a road rage incident helps no one – certainly not you.

No apologies

Instead, inquire about the condition of the other driver and his or her passengers. Express concern and compassion but do not, under any circumstance, apologize or accept responsibility for the accident. When answering the police officer's questions, answer with facts. Don't say something like “it was my fault, I'm so sorry.”

What happens after an accident will be important to how responsibility for the accident is assessed and how claims are paid.

Personal injury lawyers say taking pictures of the accident scene is a good idea, if it can be done safely. Since cellphones have camera features, anyone with a phone can take pictures. These could become evidence in any potential case.

Lawyers also recommend seeking medical attention, even if you don't think you have been injured. Again, seeing a physician creates a record that may be important later on.

Do you need a lawyer?

Obviously the insurance companies would like to resolve accident claims without lawyers getting involved. Whether you decide to speak with a personal injury attorney is a judgment call on your part. It might not be necessary but, in some cases, it could ensure you are fairly compensated.

If you are driving a fairly new automobile, for example, on which you are still making payments, you need to be sure that the settlement includes repairing the car to the condition it was in before the accident. For example, the type of parts used in the repair can devalue the automobile if they are used or an inferior grade to what was used when the car was manufactured.

Suffering serious injuries, including those not immediately apparent, may be another reason to obtain legal counsel, according to the legal website Nolo.com.

“Sometimes, the skills of an experienced personal injury lawyer -- or at least the threat to an insurance company that such a lawyer may present -- are worth the money you must pay that lawyer to represent you,” the site says.

Most personal injury attorneys charge clients a contingency fee. That means the client pays no money up front but gives the attorney a percentage of any settlement received. If the lawyer loses the case and you get no money, the lawyer receives no fee.

If you plan to seek legal representation after an accident, you should do so early in the process -- before you make any statements, sign any documents or give any information other than that required by police investigators. Do not talk to adjusters or other insurance company representatives.  

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Sports-related injuries fill emergency rooms with kids

Knee injuries affect females more than males

While it may be true that sports builds character, athletic activity also causes damage -- sometimes severe -- to young bodies. According to a new researc...

PhotoWhile it may be true that sports builds character, athletic activity also causes damage -- sometimes severe -- to young bodies.

According to a new research report released by Safe Kids Worldwide, every 25 seconds, or 1.35 million times a year, a young athlete suffers a sports injury severe enough to go to the emergency room.

The report, "Game Changers," which received financial support from Johnson & Johnson, uses data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC's) National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) to explore what type of injuries are sidelining young athletes.

Concussions and knee injuries

The report, which studied the 14 most popular sports, found concussions account for 163,000 of those ER visits -- or 12%. That's a concussion-related ER visit every three minutes. And, it's not just high school athletes suffering concussions; athletes ages 12 to 15 make up almost half (47%) of the sports-related concussions seen in the ER, a statistic made even more disturbing by the knowledge that younger children with concussions take a longer time to recover than older kids.

The report also revealed that knee injuries account for one in ten sports-related injuries. Knee injuries, specifically tears to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), are disproportionately affecting young female athletes, who are up to eight times more likely to have an ACL injury than male athletes.

"We uncovered some surprising and disturbing data about how often our kids are being injured playing sports," said Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide. "But we also found some inspiring stories from people and programs that are making a marked difference."

Football injuries on top

The study details both the types of injuries and the rates of injuries for the most popular sports. Not surprising, in 2011, the sport with the most injuries is football, which also has the highest concussion rate. Wrestling and cheerleading have the second and third highest concussion rate. The sport with the highest percent of concussion injuries is ice hockey.

The report also includes profiles of actions some communities, sports leagues and individual athletes who are taking a proactive stance in order to turn these statistics around.

What to do

The report outlines and endorses four strategies that communities, coaches, parents and athletes are implementing to make a difference:

  • Get educated, then pass it forward. A common theme among parents and young athletes who are struggling with recovering from an injury is that they wish they knew sooner what they know now. Attend a Safe Kids sports clinic or go to www.safekids.org to find out how to keep kids safe, then tell your friends.
  • Teach athletes injury prevention skills. Instill smart hydration habits, warm-up exercises and stretches to prevent common injuries. Understand stress placed on muscles particular to the sport (pitching arm, knees, etc.) and target exercises to those areas. (Check out this video to strengthen knees and prevent ACL injuries.) Encourage athletes to get plenty of rest.
  • Encourage athletes to speak up about injuries. Too often, athletes feel like they are letting down their teammates, coaches or parents if they ask to sit out. The truth is it takes more courage to speak up about an injury that can have serious and long-term effects.
  • Support coaches in injury prevention decisions. A Safe Kids Worldwide 2012 survey found half of coaches admit to being pressured by a parent or athlete to keep an injured athlete in the game. Coaches need to be educated and confident in making decisions that protect the long-term interests of young athletes.

"Most states have laws to protect young athletes," said Carr, "but the front line of protection for our kids is parents and coaches. Working together, we can keep our kids active, strong and safe so they can enjoy the sports they love for a lifetime."

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Zip International recalls Baltic Sprats

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Zip International Group of Edison, N.J., is recalling Baltic Sprats in Spicy Brine Net Wt. 15.8 Oz (450g) in plastic packaging because it is has the potent...

PhotoZip International Group of Edison, N.J., is recalling Baltic Sprats in Spicy Brine Net Wt. 15.8 Oz (450g) in plastic packaging because it is has the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recalled Baltic Sprats, a product of Latvia, includes best by date October 12, 2013 (UPC: 4750217602547). The best by date is located on the top of the packaging. The product was sold to distributors and retail grocery stores in New York State from May 31, 2013, to June 6, 2013.

Consumers who have purchased this product should not consume it, but return it to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at732-225-3600, 9:00AM-5:00 PM EST from Monday to Friday.

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Toysmith recalls toy light-up frogs and ducks

A metal pin on the bottom of the toys can pose a choking hazard

Toysmith, of Sumner, Wash., is recalling about 30,000 light-up toy frogs and ducks. The metal conductor pin on the bottom of the toys can come out, posing...

PhotoToysmith, of Sumner, Wash., is recalling about 30,000 light-up toy frogs and ducks.

The metal conductor pin on the bottom of the toys can come out, posing a choking hazard. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall includes light-up soft plastic toy frogs and ducks. The toys light up when the sensors on the bottom of the product are touched or placed in water. The frog comes in green and the ducks come in yellow, pink and clear. The toys are approximately 2.25 inches in length and 1.5 inches in height. There is a round tag attached to the product with the UPC number 2424 5159.

The toys, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Cost Plus World Market between July 2012, and December 2012, for around $3.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled products, keep them away from children and return them to place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Toysmith at (800) 356-0474 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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The Post is the past; Is CBS next?

Gouging consumers for content was fun while it lasted

Comedian Bill Maher likes to portray Republicans as being in a "bubble," a bubble that isolates them from the realities of the world. It's a frequent featu...

PhotoComedian Bill Maher likes to portray Republicans as being in a "bubble," a bubble that isolates them from the realities of the world. It's a frequent feature of his Friday night HBO series.

But bubbles are everywhere. Not too long ago, real estate was in a bubble that popped with disastrous results. And the daily newspaper industry has been drifting along in a great big bubble for quite some time.

Most recent example: This week's stunning announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was buying the Washington Post -- home of the fabled though somewhat long-in-the-tooth Woodward-Bernstein team -- for $250 million cash, a mere pittance in Big Media terms.

Over the weekend, The New York Times sold the Boston Globe for $70 million, about 6 percent of the $1.1 billion it paid to buy the newspaper in 1993. Investor Warren Buffet has been buying newspaper companies by the armful for prices that amount to less than 10 percent what they were worth just a few years ago.

The same trend was seen earlier in the music, magazine and local radio business. Companies that have been around so long they seem like institutions collapse virtually overnight and are sold for a song, or are simply wafted away like a leaf in the breeze.

Shock and awe

PhotoWhat's perhaps saddest about all this is that it's so surprising to the executives and corporate officers who for years have been drawing six- and seven-figure salaries to keep their businesses healthy. There are expressions of shock, concern and outrage when board chairs and CEOs discover what everyone else already knew.

Over on 15th Street, NW, the Washington Post has for the last few years bemoaned the falling advertising rates that have left its bottom line on the wrong side of zero. But it's not just ad rates and Craigslist that dragged down the Post. Circulation fell from 800,000 to around 400,000 in a decade.

Readers went elsewhere.

Was it because of the Internet? Or could it have been the free weeklies, The Washington Times, NewsChannel 8, Politico and all the other new news sources that nibbled away at the Post's grip on Washington? Could it have been the Post's stubborn concentration on the relatively tiny city of Washington (population about 500,000) while relegating the Virginia and Maryland suburbs (with about five times as much population)  to the inside pages?

Post Company chairman Donald Graham not long ago derided coverage of consumer news as nothing more than a way to hype the ratings. Thanks, Don.

Could it have been that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal somehow managed to deliver their printed newspapers to Washington-area subscribers without a hitch while the Post's independent distributors went out of their way to antagonize customers and throw their papers in the ditch or simply not deliver them at all?

No one knows, because no one has much cared, certainly not the Post's Circulation Department. It's likely, though, that Jeff Bezos, fabled for his concentration on customer experience, will find out.

Business as usual 

PhotoMeanwhile, back at other Old Media watering holes, it's pretty much business as usual, as illustrated by the current unseemly battle between CBS and Time Warner.

Time Warner CEO Glenn Britt and CBS CEO Les Moonves have been fighting to see who can gouge their customers most effectively and, failing to agree, are taking it out on those very same customers.

Time Warner subscribers in New York, Los Angeles and other mega-markets have been locked out of watching CBS the last few nights as the media titans squabble over how they should share the spoils. The battle has featured all the usual weapons -- dueling TV and newspaper ads, Internet petitions, social media postings and media pitches from p.r. agents.

But while Britt and Moonves are arguing over splitting the take, consumers are finding more and more ways around Time Warner and CBS. There's Dish Network and even the quaint Old World practice of hanging an antenna out the window. Netflix and Amazon, which just a few years ago mostly recycled old movies and TV series, are now producing high-quality original series. YouTube is developing endless channels of new content and a little company called Aereo is making CBS and other broadcast channels available over the Internet.

Tellingly, when Aereo first came on the scene, the networks threatened to take themselves off the air and force consumers to pay their cable systems to watch network shows. The empty boast was met with the ridicule it deserved.  

Not paying enough

We haven't heard the networks threatening to go dark much lately, although we still hear them complaining that consumers aren't paying enough for their priceless programming.  

Someone should point out to Moonves & Co. that that's the exact same song the newspapers were singing a few years ago, when they complained that consumers were not sufficiently eager to pay for news on the Internet. Papers raced to throw up paywalls to lock out the freeloaders who might otherwise see the stories and, not coincidentally, the ads that local businesses were paying to put on the newspapers' web sites.

The paywalls worked out fairly well for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, which actually produce world-class content, but not so well for the Mulkeytown Messenger. There's a lesson in that for broadcasters and cable systems.

Punishing the customer by throwing the paper in the ditch and building paywalls -- or taking the signal off the air -- well, it might feel good at the time but like scratching a mosquito bite, it only makes matters worse.

You listening, Glenn and Les? Consumers are paying big bucks for cable. Unseemly squabbles like this simply make them determined to look elsewhere. And there are plenty of elsewheres out there. 

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Old news is new again, as Facebook sees it

Facebook shuffles things around to keep ads alive longer

Facebook on Tuesday said it would begin publishing blog posts dedicated to explaining ongoing changes to the news feed, the central feature of the social n...

PhotoIt used to be said that news was a highly perishable commodity and that yesterday's news was about as useful as, well, any number of useless things.

But that's analog thinking. If you want to stay on top today, you have to think digitally -- and sometimes that means taking old news and plopping it down on top of the new news.

At least that's how Facebook sees it, or at least how it explains the latest changes in its so-called news feed, which is sort of Facebook's front page.

Through a tweak to the news feed ranking algorithm, “organic stories that people did not scroll down far enough to see can reappear near the top of News Feed if the stories are still getting lots of likes and comments,” Facebook said in its new News Feed FYI blog post, a feature that is supposed to at least partly demystify the news feed.

In short, updates missed initially get bumped back up in the feed to help boost overall engagement. So if you didn't like something Tuesday, maybe you'll like it Wednesday, seems to be the thinking. 

And maybe it's true.

Facebook says its tests show that the change resulted in a 5% increase in the number of likes, comments, and shares on the organic posts people saw from friends, and an 8% increase across the same metrics from "brand pages" -- those from companies rather than just plain old people -- on the site. Where people previously read 57% of updates, on average, the ranking change has led to 70% of updates being read, the blog said.

“The data suggests that this update does a better job of showing people the stories they want to see, even if they missed them the first time. For Page owners, this means their most popular organic Page posts have a higher chance of being shown to more people, even if they're more than a few hours old,” according to the post by Facebook Engineering Director Lars Backstrom.

Backstrom said there are about 1,500 updates the average Facebook user could look at had he but world enough and time. 

So this is all supposed to make our lives better? No, it's supposed to make advertisers' lives better, as we understand it. On a recent conference call with analysts, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said about one in five of the posts people see in their news feeds now are ads.

Zuckerberg said Facebook will "invest more on improving the quality of news feed ads by increasing the number of marketers and overall demand in the bidding process for ad placement."

More ads, more often, in other words. 

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Is August the best month to buy a new car?

Sales data from the last 12 months suggests it is

Car dealers have been dealing so far in 2013, driving sales to record highs. While each month provides some tantalizing offers, August just might be the be...

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DNA detective 23andMe launches first ad campaign

The company can alert you to health threats, find relatives trace your lineage

You've heard of this company -- especially if you have a hypochondria bent and would love to know everything you can about your chances of developing the w...

PhotoWant to know what lies in store for your health? Well, no one can predict the future and our destiny is not entirely determined by genetics but there's a stronger link than you might think.

Many diseases have a genetic component and in some cases, like Angelina Jolie's, genetics testing can alert us to a virtual time bomb ticking away in our bodies, sometimes enabling us to take defensive action.

Until recently, reading the genetic tea leaves wasn't something that was available to the everyday consumer. But today there are companies that do that very thing. Perhaps the largest and best known is 23andMe, a venture co-founded in 2007 by Anne Wojcicki, the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

1 million customers

The company so far has relied on word-of-mouth and online buzz but is now launching a $5 million TV ad campaign, hoping to grow to 1 million customers by the end of the year.

“Our goal with this campaign is to provide consumer education and raise awareness about the potential of personal genetics, while also establishing 23andMe as a recognized and trusted brand,” said Andy Page, president of 23andMe.  “23andMe pioneered direct-to-consumer genetic testing and our investment in advertising also represents a first-of-its-kind TV campaign that pioneers advertising for the direct-to-consumer genetic testing industry as well.”

Just what kid of information does 23andMe provide to consumers?

According to Page and the company's website, from a simple DNA swab, consumers get hundreds of personalized reports about their genetic risk factors for various health conditions, alerts about possible drug interactions and information that can be helpful in tracking down relatives or researching one's ancestry.

23andMe's Personal Genome Service is available for purchase online for $99.  Individuals provide a saliva sample by spitting into a small tube that is then mailed back for analysis. Results are provided in a few weeks through an individual’s secure, password-protected 23andMe online account

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Obesity among low-income preschoolers on the decline

Nineteen states and territories report decreases

Finally, some progress. After decades of rising rates, A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows obesity among low-income pr...

PhotoFinally, some progress.

After decades of rising rates, A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows obesity among low-income preschoolers declined slightly in 19 states and U.S. territories from 2008 through 2011, after rising for decades.

The Vital Signs report found that Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, South Dakota and the U.S. Virgin Islands saw at least a one percentage point decrease in their rates of obesity. Twenty states and Puerto Rico held steady at their current rates, while rates were up slightly in three states.

Previous research shows that about one in eight preschoolers in the U.S is obese. Kids are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as an adult if they are overweight or obese between the ages of three and five years.

“Although obesity remains epidemic, the tide has begun to turn for some kids in some states,” said CDC Director, Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “While the changes are small, for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction. Obesity in early childhood increases the risk of serious health problems for life.”

Wide-ranging survey

For the Vital Signs report, CDC researchers analyzed measured weight and height for nearly 12 million children aged two to four years who participate in federally funded maternal- and child-nutrition programs. Forty states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories (U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) were included report. The data come from the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System.

“Many of the states in which we’re seeing declines have taken action to incorporate healthy eating and active living into children’s lives,” said Janet L. Collins, Ph.D., director of CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. “We must continue to strengthen and expand proven strategies that help our children live healthier lives by avoiding obesity in the first place.”

CDC is encouraging state and local officials to step up efforts to drive down rates of childhood obesity. Business leaders, childcare providers, healthcare providers, communities and families are some of the groups that influence nutrition and physical activity in the places where young children live, learn, and play.

What to do

State and local officials can assist these groups by:

  • Making it easier for families to buy healthy, affordable foods and beverages in their neighborhoods.
  • Helping provide access to safe, free drinking water in places such as community parks, recreation areas, child care centers and schools.
  • Helping local schools open gyms, playgrounds, and sports fields during non-school hours so children can play safely after school, on weekends and over the summer.
  • Helping child care providers adopt best practices for improving nutrition and physical activity and for limiting computer and television time.
  • Creating partnerships with civic leaders, child care providers and others to make community changes that promote healthy eating and active living.
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People living with a stimulator can now get MRIs

And this makes for better treatment, say doctors

If you're a person who has chronic back or limb pain, you may be living with a spinal cord stimulator to help manage that pain.Up until now, patients wit...

PhotoIf you have chronic back or limb pain, you may be living with a spinal cord stimulator to help manage that pain. Until now, that meant you were not able to get Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) screenings because doctors were afraid the implant would heat up or not work properly.

But Medtronic Inc. has developed what may be a solution -- a new implant called the RestoreSensor SureScan MRI neurostimulation system, newly approved by the FDA. Dr. Ali Rezai and Dr. Milind Deogaonkar, of  The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center implanted this device for the first time this week. 

"The ability to safely perform MRI scans after spinal cord stimulator implant is an important advance and a major benefit for our patients," said Rezai. 

According to statistics, there are 60 million MRIs given to patients each year in the U.S. and based on figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of MRIs given between 1996 and 2007 has increased four times over.

Critics say the MRI is being used too often but Rezai says it's still necessary in many cases.

"MRI examinations are necessary and routinely performed diagnosis and clinical care. It's very likely that a patient with chronic pain, spinal disease, neurological and orthopedic disorders will require an MRI scan."

"These spinal cord stimulators can help patients who suffer from extreme back, leg and extremity pain, especially those patients who have failed all previous medications and other approaches to get improvements in their pain and quality of life and functioning."

Neuromuscular specialist Dr. John Kissel said sometimes a patient's level of pain is so high that medication doesn't work. And in these cases, it's best for patients to get a stimulator.

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Study: An apple a day could save $5 billion in health care costs

One additional serving of fruits and vegetables could prevent 30,000 deaths

The old adage “an apple a day” was on to something, according to a study that finds significant potential to prolong lives, improve health, and...

PhotoThe old adage “an apple a day” was on to something, according to a study that finds significant potential to prolong lives, improve health, and save health care costs by eating one additional daily serving of fruits and vegetables.

The study, released today by  the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) examines the linkage between fruit and vegetable intake and incidence of cardiovascular diseases. These diseases, the leading killer of Americans, include coronary heart disease and stroke, which together are responsible for 725,000 U.S. deaths each year.

The report finds that if Americans consumed just one additional serving of fruits or vegetables a day, the nation would save $5 billion in health care expenditures and prevent 30,301 heart disease and stroke deaths annually.

If Americans were to go a step further and ate a full 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily, as recommended by federal dietary guidelines, it could prevent 127,261 deaths each year and save $17 billion in medical costs. The economic value of the lives saved from cardiovascular diseases is an astounding $11 trillion.

“Eating right is good for your health, and it rewards both your wallet and the economy,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, an agricultural economist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “Helping Americans eat more of the right foods should be a public policy priority.”

Instead, O'Hara said, current farm policies channel taxpayer dollars into subsidizing crops like corn and soybeans that are used as feed for livestock and as processed food ingredients, instead of encouraging farmers to grow fruits and vegetables.

“In addition to these perverse subsidies, these policies mean that consumers and taxpayers are footing the bill twice – once to subsidize commodity crops that become ingredients in unhealthy foods, and again to treat skyrocketing rates of costly diet-related illnesses such as heart disease and stroke,” said O’Hara.

Treating cardiovascular disease is expensive for individuals, and collectively for taxpayers who fund subsidized health insurance programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. In 2010 alone, the total cost of treating cardiovascular diseases amounted to $273 billion – and these costs are expected to reach $818 billion by 2030. 

“Our food system is quite literally making Americans sick and driving the country further into debt,” said O’Hara. “One solution is to enable better access to fruits and vegetables, and we can do this through incentives that make produce more available and affordable.”

The full text of the study is available online. 

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Mortgage applications reverse course, post slight increase

The gain is the first since mid-June

A glimmer of life in applications for new mortgages. After falling for eight consecutive weeks, mortgage applications increased 0.2% from the previous wee...

PhotoA glimmer of life in applications for new mortgages.

After falling for eight consecutive weeks, mortgage applications increased 0.2% from the previous week. At the same time, though, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports applications for refinancings were unchanged.

The refinance share of mortgage activity was unchanged at 63% of total applications from the previous week, while the adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity remained constant at 6% of total applications.

Interest rates

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,500 or less) increased to 4.61%t from 4.58%, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.38 (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 FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,500) was unchanged at 4.64%, with points decreasing to 0.34 from 0.39 (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 4.33% from 4.30%, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.66% from 3.67%, with points increasing to 0.43 from 0.40 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was unchanged at 3.39%, with points increasing to 0.37 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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Heeren Brothers recalls cantaloupes

The fruit has the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Heeren Brothers Produce is recalling approximately 5,400 cantaloupes. The produce, which was distributed to small, independent grocers in Michigan July 23...

PhotoHeeren Brothers Produce is recalling approximately 5,400 cantaloupes.

The produce, which was distributed to small, independent grocers in Michigan July 23-26, has the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes and should be discarded and not consumed. The Athena Cantaloupes have no stickers or other markings that identify them as such. The recall does not affect any other Heeren Brothers Produce products.

The company has received no reports of illnesses related to this product to date.

Heeren Brothers Produce has alerted retailers and requested that they remove the produce from their shelves, and has also contacted the supplier of the cantaloupes.  

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Gerber recalls Uppercut Knife and Sheath sets

The sheath does not hold the knife securely

Gerber Legendary Blades, of Portland, Ore., is recalling about 2,900 Uppercut Fixed Blade Knife and Sheath sets. The Uppercut sheath does not hold the kni...

PhotoGerber Legendary Blades, of Portland, Ore., is recalling about 2,900 Uppercut Fixed Blade Knife and Sheath sets.

The Uppercut sheath does not hold the knife securely, allowing the knife to come out of the sheath unexpectedly, posing a laceration hazard. The company has received one report of a laceration to a consumer that required medical attention, but no stitches.

All Uppercut Knife and Sheath sets include a black nylon sheath with an engraved Gerber sword and shield logo printed on the front and “GERBER” engraved on the snap clip on the back. The sheaths are approximately 2.25-inches long and 1.25-inches wide at the top, tapering down to 0.5-inch at the base.

The knife sold with the sheath is a T-handled knife with an overall length of 4-inches and a 2-inch double-edged blade that snaps into the molded sheath. The knife has a laser marked white sword and shield logo on the front and a white alphanumeric code on the back tang of the knife.

The Uppercut sets that were sold in a box have model number 30-000650 printed on the box. Sets sold in blister pack packaging have model number 31-001727 printed on the packaging.

The sets, manufactured in China, were sold at sporting goods stores nationwide and online from March 2013, through June 2013 for about $60 per knife and sheath set.

Consumers should immediately cover and store the Uppercut knife in a safe area out of the reach of children. Contact Gerber Legendary Blades for instructions on returning the sheath for a free replacement sheath.

Consumers may contact Gerber Legendary Blades toll-free at (800) 289-4560 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Why shopaholics keep on spending

Psychiatrists identify compulsive spending as a disorder

Some additions are well known and better understood. Drug addition, alcohol addition, and food addiction have primary impact on health. But spending additi...

PhotoSome additions are well known and understood. Drug addiction, alcohol addition, and food addiction have primary impact on health. But spending addition has mostly economic impact, and the impact can be severe.

“Shop til you drop” is a mostly lighthearted term, but it's deadly serious for consumers who run their credit cards up to the limit because of their shopping addiction.

Compulsive shopping or spending can be seasonal relief for depression, anxiety and loneliness during the December holiday season. The credit cards can also come out when a person feels depressed, lonely or angry.

Compulsive buying disorder

The World Psychiatry Association recognizes the condition as compulsive buying disorder (CBD). It notes those suffering from CBD may have substance use disorders, eating disorders, and other disorders of impulse control. It also finds compulsive shopping tends to run in families.

The question is why do shopping addicts keep spending regardless of the consequences? A new study suggests compulsive buying is fueled largely by poor credit management and a belief that new purchases will create a happier life. If you think about it, it's the main reason an alcoholic keeps drinking.

Widespread problem

PhotoWhile the U.S. is perhaps the world's greatest consumer culture, the problem is not confined to our shores. It's estimated that around 10 percent of the adults in the Western world are in the grip of “plastic abuse,” spending on things they don't really want or need. Researchers at San Francisco State University have recently identified specific behaviors that lead to compulsive buying.

"Compulsive shoppers tend to be people who bury their head in the sand and ignore the credit card bill," said Ryan Howell, associate professor of psychology at SF State. "We also found that these individuals keep on buying because they are looking for that 'buy high,' hoping their purchases will lift their mood and transform them as a person."

Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Shopping doesn't raise self-esteem or heal the hurts, regrets, stress, and the problems of daily living.

Researchers at Indiana University created a web page with compulsive shopping disorder information and attached a notation that they would not longer be able to respond to questions because of the high volume of traffic on the page.

Will buy anything

On the site they note that many shopping addicts go on binges all year long and may be compulsive about buying certain items, such as shoes, kitchen items or clothing; some, they say, will buy anything.

“Women with this compulsive disorder often have racks of clothes and possessions with the price tags still attached which have never been used,” the researchers write. “They will go to a shopping mall with the intention of buying one or two items and come home with bags and bags of purchases. In some cases shopololics have an emotional black out and do not remember even buying the articles. If their family or friends begin to complain about their purchases, they will often hide the things they buy.”

PhotoThose with the problem can easily slip into denial. Because they can not pay their bills their credit rating suffers, they have collection agencies attempting to get what is owed, may have legal, social and relationship problems. They sometimes attempt to hide their problem by taking on an extra job to pay for bills.

If you think you suffer from this condition, the first step is to come to terms with it, just like any other additions. Alcoholics, for example, admit they can't control their drinking and adopt abstinence. That, of course, isn't going to work for shopaholics. After all, you still have to buy things.

Instead, you have to adopt some controls. Here's what the Indiana University researchers recommend:

  • Pay for purchases by cash, check, debit card.
  • Make a shopping list and only buy what is on the list.
  • Destroy all credit cards except one to be used for emergency only.
  • Avoid discount warehouses. Allocate only a certain amount of cash to be spent if you do visit one.
  • "Window shop" only after stores have closed. If you do "look" during the day, leave your wallet at home.
  • Avoid phoning in catalog orders and don't watch TV shopping channels.
  • If you're traveling to visit friends or relatives, have your gifts wrapped and call the project finished; people tend to make more extraneous purchases when they shop outside their own communities.
  • Take a walk or exercise when the urge to shop comes on.
  • If you feel out of control, you probably are. Seek counseling or a support group such as Debtors Anonymous.

Taking a course and financial literacy or money management may also yield results. Howell and his SF State colleagues found that lack of money management predicted individuals' compulsive spending, regardless of their personality, gender, age and income. In particular, out-of-control-shopping was primarily driven by poor credit management, such as not paying attention to credit card statements, not paying credit card bills on time and exceeding credit limits.

The researchers also believe credit cards facilitate much of the out-of-control behavior. It's easy to get sucked into a shopping binge with a credit card because it allows a consumer to separate the pleasure of buying from the pain of paying.

"We know that a person's values impact their shopping habits, but values aren't the easiest thing to change" Howell said. "Even if you are still materialistic and you have the desire to acquire more possessions, it's how you manage your behavior that counts. Our findings suggest that you can keep your shopping under control by paying attention to your credit card and checking in with yourself about whether you are shopping for emotional reasons."

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Microsoft cuts Surface price as sales fizzle

The innovative tablet gets little love from consumers

Microsoft jumped into the tablet market last year with a pretty big spash, introducing it's Surface tablets – the RT and Pro – to compete with...

PhotoMicrosoft jumped into the tablet market last year with a pretty big spash, introducing its Surface tablets – the RT and Pro – to compete with the likes of the iPad, the Nexus and the myriad of other players in the space.

Microsoft supported the product with millions of dollars in snappy television ads, apparently to no avail. It turns out the company has spent more on marketing the Surface than it has generated in sales.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has cut the price of the Surface Pro. That brings down the price of the 64GB tablet to $799 and the 128GB tablet to $899. Three weeks earlier Microsoft cut the price of the Surface RT tablets by 30%.

What happened? Did Microsoft just make an inferior product? The technology press doesn't think so.

Evolution of the PC

Five months after the product launched, a reviewer for Gizmag was impressed by the tablet's capabilities and viewed it as part of the evolution of the PC.

“Devices like the Surface Pro are not only the future of the Windows PC, they're already delivering some exciting possibilities in the present,” the review said.

But the reviewer was noncommittal on whether consumers should jump on board now or wait and let the product evolve over a few years.

Another tech site, CNET, was mostly complimentary, calling it the “first tablet that truly can be used for creation and typing, and that actually lives up to that need.”

Its review praised the Surface's ports and expandable memory, long battery life and the innovative kickstand and keyboard.

Less than impressed

PhotoBut consumers have apparently been less than impressed. When Microsoft reported its earnings last month, it revealed that since the Surface's debut, it has produced $853 million in revenue. The company said it spent $900 million to promote it.

Microsoft did not report how many units had sold but others have made estimates. Bloomberg News has put the number around 1.5 million. To put that in some kind of perspective, Apple sold nearly 15 million iPads in just the second quarter of the year.

The product is a powerful tablet. The Surface Pro has been called “a tablet with the guts of a laptop.” You can use it much as you would any other tablet or snap on one of the colorful covers, which acts as a touch-sensitive keyboard, and use it like a notebook PC.

The Surface RT is less powerful and versatile but is still considered a very good device. While the Pro runs the full version of Windows 8, the RT has a more limited mobile operating system.

What's wrong?

So, if it's a good product and gets favorable reviews from people who know and understand technology, why has the Surface left consumers cold? One obvious place to start a search for answers could be the price.

Until last weekend's price cut the Surface Pro cost $1,000 while the Surface RT listed for $900. Consider what tablet shoppers would have to pay to purchase a competitor.

The Apple iPad with Retina Display lists for $489 on Amazon.com, half the original price of the Surface Pro. The Apple iPad Mini – its seven-inch tablet introduced last year, list for under $335.

In fact, consumers seem to prefer smaller tablets. The Mini has been a big seller for Apple, but gets strong competition from Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 8.9, which lists for $314, and the seven-inch version, which goes for $189.

The Google Nexus 7 tablet lists for $200, as does Samsung's Galaxy Tab 3, another seven-inch model. Perhaps it's just as simple as consumers aren't going to pay $1000 for a tablet, no matter how good it is, when they can get another good one for less than half the price.

This isn't Microsoft's first experience with a less-than-successful new product.

Remember Zune? It was Microsoft's answer to Apple's iPod – a brand of digital media products and services that included a line of portable media players, software and a music subscription service.

Microsoft discontinued the Zune hardware in 2011 and pulled the plug on Zune services the following year.

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Thinking about getting married? You'll need to talk about these things first

We spoke to an expert and it's the little things couples should be looking out for

Okay, so you've been dating someone for a few years and the both of you are thinking about walking down the aisle.To learn a little more about marriage a...

Okay, so you've been dating someone for a few years and both of you are thinking about walking down the aisle.

To learn a little more about marriage and being a good spouse, you buy several books, read every article on the subject and talk to folks who have been married for a long time.

Soon after, you feel you know enough about marriage to take the final step and you're sure you'll be able to avoid the big problems that may arise.

But what about the little problems that may come up? Are you equally prepared? Because little problems can turn into big problems further down the road.

So before you get married it's important to have a lot of discussions with your spouse-to-be about the little things that annoy you. That's according to Susan Ziggy, author of the book "What To Do Before You Say 'I Do.'" She says couples need to talk about all of the flaws in the relationship.

"Relationships are as flawed as the people who are in them," she said in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. "There are several things that need to be in place for a good relationship. And everyone has flaws or as I call them 'buttons.' There must be mutual respect, trust, honesty, good communication skills and reciprocity."

"The should haves would be: A good sense of humor, an ability to admit when you are wrong and apologize, healthy ego and self-esteem. Good listening skills are a bonus," says Ziggy.

Smaller issues

Photo

Many experts say problems in the area of finances, communication and sex cause a lot of couples to break up, but Ziggy says it's the smaller issues too.

Carrying resentment is a big issue, she says and many times that resentment comes from simple things like cleaning up the house.

"Not picking up after yourself is another expected silly argument," explains Ziggy. "Usually the woman does the picking up and it is annoying."

"Is it worth ruining your evening? If you say, 'please pick up your socks because I don't want one to be missing in the laundry,' they may do it. If they don't then just pick it up or leave it there and see if they will pick it up later."

Elly Prior, relationship expert and founder of the site Professional-Counseling.com, said if you have your partner's best interests in mind, it'll make arguments easier to get through.

"If you love each other, you'll want the best for your partner or so I hope," she writes. "That means neither letting your partner always have it their way nor manipulating conversations to always have it your way. Both of these extremes are unhelpful and will only cause more problems."

"Remember, you can't change your partner, you can only change yourself."

Ziggy says the tiniest of issues can get under a person's skin to the point where he or she will lash out in in the future. Things like replacing the toilet paper, putting the toilet seat down and deciding what to watch on TV can often lead to nasty arguments.

Driving styles

Arguing about each other's driving style is a common problem too.

"This is a big one, especially for women," says Ziggy. "If you don't like the way your partner drives, get over it! Remember it's the journey that's important, not how slow or fast they drive, unless they have been drinking."

Having differing work ethics is another reason why many couples argue, said Ziggy and each person's work style should be accepted by the other and not criticized.

For example, if your partner is a person who always has to be on his or her laptop doing things for work and you would rather sit in front of the TV without working, you shouldn't argue about it. Nagging someone about those kinds of things doesn't help, says Ziggy.

"Different work ethics might be another sore issue that can lead to resentment," she states. "If one is a type 'A' personality and the other is a type 'B' personality you need to realize that. If you have to be busy all the time, that is your prerogative, don't make it your partners."

"Here is where acceptance is critical," she adds. "Accept that one likes to be crazy busy and the other has different qualities that make you, together a great couple."

How men think

Remembering that men and women think and respond differently is key, says Ziggy. Once you forget this reality, you're asking for big trouble.

"Women need to understand how men think," she advises.

"They seem to assume that men are sensitive and emotional just like they are. Men are genetically geared to think in black and white. Emotion does not play a large role in some men's psyche. They are problem solvers and providers genetically and that is almost impossible to change."

And men should understand they don't have to fix everything, says Ziggy. Which means some guys may have to work on listening without interjecting. 

"Women are genetically geared to be emotional and nurturing. They think in gray. Women want to talk about everything, where men are geared to keep their emotions suppressed."

"If your lady wants to talk then ask her to give you a few minutes to rest and then let her talk. Most of the time women just want to vent about their day. They don't need their man to fix anything, just vent."

"Men don't want to see their partner upset so they try and offer suggestions on how to solve the problem. They should learn not to do that. The woman needs to start her conversations with 'I just want to vent' so the man knows to just listen and not comment," says Ziggy.

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GM slashes price of the Chevrolet Volt, hoping to energize sales

There's lots of competition in what is still a niche market that accounts for only 1% of auto sales

If you've been pining after a Chevrolet Volt, you'll be glad to hear that General Motors is cutting the price of the latest Volt by 13%, hoping to wring mo...

PhotoIf you've been pining after a Chevrolet Volt, you'll be glad to hear that General Motors is cutting the price of the latest Volt by 13%, hoping to wring more sales out of consumers who have had a decidedly low-voltage response to plug-in cars.

The reason consumers are cool to plug-in cars seems to be mostly "range anxiety." They're simply afraid the cars will run out of juice before they get where they're going. This isn't a problem with the Volt, which has a gasoline engine that kicks in when it's needed. But what has been a problem for the Volt is its price -- roughly $40,000, nearly twice as much as you might pay for a fuel-efficient gas-powered car.

Of course, government subsidies take a big chunk out of the bottom-line cost -- $7,500 plus whatever tax break your state may offer and depending on your individual tax liability. 

There's a lot of competition, though, in what is still a niche market. Manufacturers are turning out new electric-car models at a rapid pace, everythiing from the high-end Tesla Model S to the Nissan Leaf, perhaps the two most successful plug-ins. The Tesla S will set you back $100,000 or so while the Leaf goes for around $29,750 -- and that's before you figure in the tax credit.

Nissan and Tesla are both selling cars as fast as they can manufacture them, while Chevrolet dealers have about 105 days' worth of Volts sitting around on their lots. 

The price of gas isn't helping matters either. Although it's hovering around the $4 mark in much of the country, it's apparently not high enough to drive consumers from their cars, especially newer cars that get 20 or more miles per gallon.

"Unmatched balance"

Nevertheless, GM is confident the lower price will get new Volts rolling off dealers' lots.

"The lower price and cost savings from driving on electricity provide Volt owners an unmatched balance of technology, capability and cost of ownership,” said Don Johnson, U.S. vice president, Chevrolet sales and service. “The 2014 Volt will offer the same impressive list of features, but for $5,000 less.

“We have made great strides in reducing costs as we gain experience with electric vehicles and their components,” Johnson said. “In fact, the Volt has seen an increase in battery range and the addition of creature comforts, such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and MyLink, since its launch in 2010.”

Volt owners who charge regularly typically drive 900 miles between fill-ups and visit the gas station about once a month, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an industry group. "The 2014 Volt will continue to provide owners with impressive fuel economy of 98 MPGe (electric) and 35 city/40 highway on gasoline power without any need to change their daily driving habits while saving $900 in annual fuel costs," EDTA said. 

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Kitty litter suit creeps forward

Consumers say Clorox misrepresented its Fresh Step product

Consumers are lining up against Clorox in its epic kitty litter battle with competitor Church & Dwight. It all started back in 2010 when Clorox began c...

PhotoConsumers are lining up against Clorox in its epic kitty litter battle with competitor Church & Dwight. It all started back in 2010 when Clorox began claiming in its ads that its carbon-based Fresh Step was better at killing litter box odors than C&D's baking soda-based product Super Scoop.

C&D sued Clorox, challenging the accuracy of its claims and won an injunction that blocked Clorox from continuing the ads.

Now consumers want a piece of the action and a federal judge has allowed the consumers' suits to go forward, Courthouse News Service reported.

Suits filed in California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas have been consolidated in the Northern District of California, where Clorox moved for dismissal, saying the consumers had not shown they suffered any injury and had not shown that Clorox's product didn't perform as well as C&D's.

But U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti left several claims intact, saying that if Fresh Step is in fact inferior to Super Scoop, it is "irrelevant" that the plaintiffs did not "experience that inferiority first hand."

Conti said the court must also seriously consider the studies C&D performed.

"At this stage, the court must take all well-pleaded, factual allegations as true," Conti said. "According to the complaint, C&D studies show that baking soda-based cat litters are objectively better at reducing cat odors than Fresh Step. The notion that one cat litter is objectively better at fighting odors is not implausible. Indeed, that is the very claim that Clorox makes in its own advertisement. In sum, Clorox's arguments raise factual issues that are not suitable for determination on a motion for judgment on the pleadings."

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Babies spitting up -- normal in most cases

But there are instances in which action is necessary

If you're a parent, you've been there and done that: your baby spits up and spits up and …. Some parents and other caretakers -- understandably -- become ...

PhotoIf you're a parent, you've been there and done that: your baby spits up and spits up and ….

Some parents and other caretakers -- understandably -- become are concerned abut the health of the child when this happens. Is the baby getting enough nourishment? Is frequent spitting up a sign of a more serious illness? Does the infant need medical treatment?

Relax. According to Andrew E. Mulberg, M.D, a pediatrician and pediatric gastroenterologist at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), frequent spitting up is absolutely normal in most cases and not a symptom of poor health. As long as the child is alert, reasonably content, gaining weight and not showing other signs of illness, this is not usually a cause for concern, he says.

What's up -- so to speak?

Then why is the baby's food coming back up so frequently?

In infants, the ring of muscle between the esophagus and the stomach -- the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) -- is not fully mature, allowing stomach contents to flow backward, Mulberg explains. In time, the LES will mature and open only when the baby swallows and will remain tightly closed the rest of the time, keeping stomach contents where they belong.

"By the time the child is 18 months of age or younger, the problem, known as gastroesophageal reflux (GER),usually resolves itself," says Mulberg.

In a small number of cases, a more serious condition known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) may exist. GERD also can cause excessive spitting up, but requires treatment to avoid additional health complications, such as tissue damage in the lining of the esophagus.

You should consult your doctor immediately if a baby shows such symptoms as spitting up blood, blood in the stool, weight loss, failure to thrive including lack of weight gain and persistent coughing or wheezing, Mulberg says.

PPIs: yes or no?

Many parents are worried enough to try over-the-counter (OTC) medications, including proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) such as Prilosec. PPIs work by reducing the amount of stomach acid made by glands in the lining of your stomach and are often used by adults to treat GERD, commonly known as heartburn.

However, PPIs sold over the counter are not approved by FDA to treat reflux in infants.

An FDA advisory committee met in November 2010 to discuss four clinical trials investigating the effects of PPI treatment of infant GERD. The committee concluded that PPIs should not be prescribed as therapy for otherwise healthy infants less than 1 year old, unless there is evidence of tissue erosion in the esophagus.

As for what drugs may or may not be needed, that's a determination the health care professional must make after conducting a thorough physical examination. Mulberg suggests that parents should be ready to discuss the baby's mealtime behaviors in some detail, as well as the child's general mood. Before an appointment, parents should be prepared to answer questions such as:

  • Does the baby spit up at every feeding?
  • How much liquid is the baby spitting up?
  • Are you breast-feeding?
  • If not breast-feeding, what type of formula are you using?
  • Have you recently switched formulas?

What to do

Once a more serious disease is ruled out by a health care professional, there are a number of things parents and other caretakers can do to help prevent babies from constantly spitting up. These include:

  • Holding the baby in an upright position when feeding.
  • Feeding the baby smaller portions at a time.
  • Thickening feedings with rice cereal or other infant cereals, which help the food to sit in the stomach longer.
  • Making a switch to a different formula.

"It's understandable why new parents, especially, are worried when their child seems to be spitting up nonstop," Mulberg says. "Generally, the parents are pretty sleep deprived, too -- which doesn't help the situation."

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CoreLogic: June home prices up sharply year-over-year

And the outlook is good for the move higher to continue

There seems to be no letup in the rise in home values. CoreLogic reports home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- were up 11.9% on a year-o...

PhotoThere seems to be no letup in the rise in home values.

CoreLogic reports home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- were up 11.9% on a year-over-year basis in June 2013. It's the 16th consecutive monthly increase in home prices nationally. Distressed sales include short sales and real estate owned transactions.

On a month-over-month basis (June-over-May), CoreLogic's Home Price Index (HPI) has prices up 1.9%.

The provider of residential property information, analytics and services says its Pending HPI indicates that July home prices -- including distressed sales -- are expected to rise by 12.5% on a year-over-year basis from July 2012 and 1.8% on a month-over-month basis from June 2013.

“Remarkable” appreciation

"In the first six months of 2013, the U.S. housing market appreciated a remarkable 10 percent," said Dr. Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. "This trend in home price gains is moving at the fastest pace since 1977."

"The U.S. housing market experienced robust price appreciation during the first half of 2013 and our forecast calls for double-digit growth through July," said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. "Despite their rebound of late, home prices remain reasonable in a historical context, with most states near peak affordability levels."

June highlights

  • Including distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were: Nevada (+26.5%), California (+21.4%), Wyoming (+16.7%), Arizona (+16.2%) and Georgia (+14.3%).
  • Including distressed sales, this month only two states posted home price depreciation: Mississippi (-2.1%) and Delaware (-1.1%).
  • Including distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the national HPI (from April 2006 to June 2013) was -19%. Excluding distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the HPI for the same period was -14%.
  • The five states with the largest peak-to-current declines, including distressed transactions, were Nevada (-44.3%), Florida (-38.6%), Arizona (-33.9%), Rhode Island (-31.7%), and Michigan (-31.1%).
  • Of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population, 99 were showing year-over-year increases in June, one more than in May 2013.
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Problems with lower body sill bolts prompt Nissan Versa Note recall

Missing lower body bolts may increase the risk of a crash

Nissan is recalling 7,707 model year 2014 Versa Note vehicles manufactured April 23, 2013, through July 3, 2013. The lower body sill bolts may be missing ...

PhotoNissan is recalling 7,707 model year 2014 Versa Note vehicles manufactured April 23, 2013, through July 3, 2013.

The lower body sill bolts may be missing or incorrectly torqued. Missing lower body bolts may affect the vehicle's integrity in the event of a rear impact, increasing the risk of injury.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will install and tighten to specification the lower body sill bolts, as needed, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin August 12, 2013.

Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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Peanut allergies remain a serious health threat

Age and family history are the primary risk factors

Peanut allergies are a matter of life and death. That point was driven home recently when a 13-year old California girl attending summer camp died after ta...

PhotoPeanut allergies are a matter of life and death. That point was driven home recently when a 13-year old California girl attending summer camp died after taking a bite of food that contained peanuts.

A growing number of people, mostly children, are living with severe peanut allergies that can kill. The problem has grown so serious that DBV Technologies, a French firm, is working on a patch that will help protect people with this heightened sensitivity from some of the dangers they now face.

Not all peanut allergies are life-threatening. Sometimes they trigger only a minor irritation. The danger is that they can evolve and become more dangerous over time. For some people with peanut allergy, such as the young California victim, even tiny amount of peanut can cause a serious reaction.

It's important to be aware of the symptoms of peanut allergies. According to the Mayo Clinic, these symptoms usually appear within minutes of exposure. 

Symptoms

The more minor symptoms include:

  • Skin reactions, such as hives, redness or swelling;
  • Itching or tingling in or around the mouth and throat;
  • Digestive problems, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting;
  • Tightening of the throat;
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing; and
  • Runny nose

Anaphylaxis is the life-threatening reaction to peanuts. It's a medical emergency that requires treatment with the drug epinephrine, a stimulant. Injectible versions of the drug go by the trade names EpiPen and Twinject. Some people with peanut allergies carry these injectable drugs with them at all times.

Anaphylaxis symptoms fall into the serious and life-threatening category:

  • Constriction of airways;
  • Swelling of your throat that makes it difficult to breathe;
  • A severe drop in blood pressure (shock);
  • Rapid pulse; and
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness

Anaphylaxis symptoms should be treated in an emergency room.

Allergy can appear suddenly

PhotoMany children grow up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Peanuts are in all sorts of candy and desserts. So why would a child suddenly develop an allergy to this most common of foods?

According to physicians, a peanut allergy can develop when your immune system suddenly changes the way it classifies peanuts. Instead of seeing the lowly peanut as a benign form of protein, the immune system identifies it as a toxic substance.

The body reacts by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream to do battle with the peanuts and it is these chemicals that cause the symptoms, both minor and severe. The million-dollar question is why some people develop this glitch in their immune systems and others don't.

There are a number of risk factors, age being the primary one. Food allergies generally appear early in life. Children, in fact, are most vulnerable to peanut allergies. Sometimes they outgrow them but usually they don't. If someone else in your family has a peanut or other food allergy, you could also be at greater risk of developing the condition as well.

One of the most dangerous food allergies

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) estimates as much as two percent of the U.S. population may be affected by peanut allergies. The group says peanut allergy is one of the most common causes of death due to food allergies.

“As with most allergies, avoidance is key,” AAFA advises on its website. “Make sure to read all labels for foods, medicines, cosmetics, creams and ointments that may contain any type or amount of peanut. A history of allergic reactions shortly after exposure to peanuts might suggest an allergy.”

The only way to tell for sure, however, is to consult with your doctor. Tests exist that can quickly identify the presence of the allergy. If you suspect you or your child may have a peanut allergy, talk to your doctor about a complete diagnosis.

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Prankster trips up TripAdvisor with a really fishy story

Scuba divers waiting to dive in and grab your seafood? Really?

It sounded too good to be true -- a "simply divine" and "mind-blowing" seaside restaurant where scuba divers were standing by to catch diners' orders.The...

PhotoIt sounded too good to be true -- a "simply divine" and "mind-blowing" seaside restaurant where scuba divers were standing by to jump in and catch diners' orders.

How's that again? Yep, you heard right. According to the glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, "Oscar's" was a floating restaurant in Devon, England, where divers would jump into the water and grab the exact fish you ordered.

It sort of took the concept of "Today's Catch" to new heights. Or depths.

Hungry seafood lovers flocked to Devon, looking for New Quay Lane, where Oscar's was said to be built into the hull of an old fishing boat. 

There was only one problem.  No Oscar's. The place doesn't exist. Oscar's was a hoax. 

"Tough luck"

The rave reviews had been posted by a businessman who said he wanted to see how long it would take TripAdvisor to catch the fraud, according to The Daily Mail.

"I was also aware that various establishments had contacted TripAdvisor about obvious fake reviews, but the response always seemed to be: 'Tough luck!'" the Mail quoted the unnamed businessman as saying.

The hoax follows an episode that was revealed in May, when an Australian hotel executive allegedly admitted writing 106 hotel reviews, praising his hotels and trashing his rivals.  

Harmless fun? Well, maybe if you think fraud is fun. But pranksters should remember that consumers rely on online peer reviews and consider them among the most trustworthy sources of information, studies have found. Also, submitting a false review can land businesses in big trouble, both with consumers and with agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, which considers posting a false review comparable to publishing a fraudulent advertisement.

Review sites don't necessarily like being lied to either. Auto site Edmonds.com sued a reputation management firm recently, claiming it submitted fraudulent reviews about its car dealer clients. 

For its part, TripAdvisor says its internal controls catch most fraudulent postings while its readers alert it to others.

"With over 70 pieces of content coming in every minute covering more than 2.7 million properties around the world, occasionally a review or business that does not meet TripAdvisor’s guidelines may slip through the cracks, and in these rare cases, our members can report the material to us, helping maintain the high quality content of our site," TripAdvisor spokeswoman Brooke Ferencsik told ConsumerAffairs.

"Any member can alert us to a suspicious review by clicking on the ‘Problem with this review?’ link that is displayed in the bottom hand corner of every review on our site. In addition, in the rare event that a member finds a suspicious listing, they can report the matter to us directly via our online help center," Ferencsik said.

"As the world's most visited travel site, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that the content on TripAdvisor remains accurate and provides a trusted and useful source of information for those planning a trip anywhere in the world," she said.

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Florida becoming a center for identity theft

Complaints also mount in some major metro areas

The crime of identity theft isn't new. What's new is its increasing frequency and the fact that it tends to be clustered in certain cities and certain stat...

PhotoThe crime of identity theft isn't new. What's new is its increasing frequency and the fact that it tends to be clustered in certain cities and certain states.

One state in particular.

“The largest number of complaints come from big metropolaton areas where there's a high density of consumers,” said Stephen Ebbett, President of Protect Your Bubble, a non-traditional insurance company based in Atlanta. “What's interesting, though, is when you look at the top 20 identity theft markets. Thirteen of the top 20 are in Florida.”

According to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) accounting, Miami had more identity theft complaints last year than New York City – 35,914 to 23,297. Tampa logged 9,805 complaints, 2,300 more than Philadelphia. What is it about the Sunshine State that attracts so many identity thieves?

Government benefits link?

“One of the things we're trying to understand is why Florida has such an epic problem,” Ebbett said. “One of the facts that we've unearthed is that 72% of fraud victims in Florida experience identity theft related to government documents and benefits.”

It's not just elderly retirees who are being hit. College students are victims too.

“You've got a lot of universities down there,” Ebbett said. “You've also got a lot of people on both ends of the economic spectrum.”

The company has listed the 10 most dangerous U.S. metropolitan areas for identity theft, based on its analysis of FTC complaints:

  1. Miami – 35,914
  2. New York – 23,297
  3. Los Angeles – 18,254
  4. Atlanta – 12,992
  5. Chicago – 11,128
  6. Tampa – 9,805
  7. Dallas – 9,056
  8. Detroit – 8,085
  9. Houston – 7,550
  10. Philadelphia – 7,216

Protect Your Bubble is involved in identity theft awareness because it markets an insurance policy against identity theft, starting at $7.99 a month. Ebbett says it is a fast-growing segment of the business.

More sophisticated thieves

Consumers are increasingly vulnerable to identity theft for a variety of reasons. Identity thieves have more sophisticated methods and tools. The fact that more and more of daily life now occurs online can't be overstated.

“Obviously electronic communication can be a factor,” Ebbett said. “Don't open emails from people you don't know. When you delete the email, make sure you delete it from your trash as well. Until you do, the file is still residing on your computer.”

While maintaining up-to-date anti-virus software on your PC is important, more and more people are doing their online business with their smartphones. Ebbetts says many overlook basic security measure.

“A lot of people don't even lock their smartphones,” he said.

Be careful what you post on social media – it can be a bonanza for identity thieves. Make sure you're using the strictest privacy settings and keep personal details to a minimum. Don't post personal data like your address or phone number.

Old school methods still work

The old school methods of swiping your identity are also still very effective. Physical mail provides identity thieves a lucrative target. That's why you should shred credit card and banking statements after you've reviewed them to keep that information from falling into the wrong hands.

When you need to mail a check, drop it off at the post office or into a secure mailbox so thieves can’t steal your mail and access account numbers.

The main reason to protect your identity is the cost of recovering it, in both money and time.

“One of the thing I want to stress to people is how time-consuming it is to repair your credit and recover your identity. We estimate the average time to be about 150 hours.”

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Study links channel blockers to breast cancer

More study is needed before decisions are made about treatment

A new study links long-term use of calcium-channel blockers with higher breast cancer risk. The drugs are some of the most commonly prescribed and are used...

PhotoA new study links long-term use of calcium-channel blockers with higher breast cancer risk. The drugs are some of the most commonly prescribed and are used to treat high blood pressure.

The study, conducted by Christopher I. Li, M.D., Ph.D., of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, and colleagues was published today by JAMA Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication.

The population-based study looked at women aged 55 to 74 in the three-county Seattle-Puget Sound area.  

It found that current use of calcium-channel blockers for 10 or more years was associated with higher risks of ductal breast cancer. Other medications prescribed for high blood pressure -- diuretics, beta-blockers and angiotensin II antagonists -- were not associated with increased breast cancer risk, the results indicate.

“While some studies have suggested a positive association between calcium-channel blocker use and breast cancer risk, this is the first study to observe that long-term current use of calcium-channel blockers in particular are associated with breast cancer risk. Additional research is needed to confirm this finding and to evaluate potential underlying biological mechanisms,” the study concludes.

But others cautioned that the findings are preliminary and should not be used to make immediate decisions about women's health. 

“Given these results, should the use of [calcium-channel blockers be discontinued once a patient has taken them for 9.9 years?" asked Patricia F. Coogan, Sc.D., of the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University in a commentary that accompanied the report. "The answer is no, because these data are from an observational study, which cannot prove causality and by itself cannot make a case for change in clinical practice.”

Shouldn't be ignored

But Coogan said that doesn't mean the study should be ignored.

“Should the results be dismissed as random noise emanating from an observational study? The answer is no, because the data make a convincing case that the hypothesis that long-term [calcium-channel blocker] use increases the risk of breast cancer is worthy of being pursued,” Coogan said. 

"The present study provides valid evidence supporting the hypothesis that long-term ... use increases the risk of breast cancer. If true, the hypothesis has significant clinical and public health implications,” Coogan concluded.

Antihypertensive medications are the most commonly prescribed class of drugs in the United States and in 2010 totaled an estimated 678 million filled prescriptions.

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A little digital assistance for foodies

Because foodies need all the help they can get trying to figure out what to eat

It's hard not to be a foodie nowadays.With new restaurants popping up left and right and 24-hour food channels, many of us have tasty dishes on our minds a...

PhotoIt's hard not to be a foodie nowadays. With new restaurants popping up left and right and 24-hour food channels, many of us have tasty dishes on our minds all the time.

When it comes to figuring out what to eat, what to cook and which restaurants to visit, there are countless numbers of apps and websites to help you. So we pulled some of the best

Evernote Food

On Evernote Food, you can search for recipes and lock them into your device, look for restaurants in or out of your area, take photos of the things you eat and cook and share those photos with your Facebook and Twitter followers.

And the restaurant search feature lets you search by cuisine.

For those folks who like to take photos of their meals when they go out to eat, there is a My Meals feature that allows you to add and save images and keep a record off all the restaurants you've been to.

You can write little notes on the photos, too if you're interested in documenting each meal experience and detailing things like how good the dish was, how the restaurant looked and so on.

The My Cookbook feature lets you organize recipes based on ingredients or a particular diet, which can be really helpful. The only downside to the app -- based on a few reviews -- is that it's a little bit hard to pull up recipes after you've saved them.

"Love the looks of this app, especially for the price," one user wrote. But "why wade through every recipe looking for something when I know I want a salad or a soup."

Users hope the makers of the Evernote Food app will eventually make searching for recipes a lot easier. The price to download it is $4.99

Big Oven

PhotoThe app BigOven is supposed to have 250,000 recipes in total. You can search for them either by ingredient or by course, or you can scroll through different meal ideas until you find what you're looking for. Plus, there's a cool leftover feature.

All you have to do is type in three ingredients and the app will suggest a meal idea based on them. This obviously can be very useful when you have no idea what to prepare. 

The app will give you recipe reviews, too and you can share what you cooked on your social media page. Big Oven also lets you see what your friends and followers are cooking as well.

Fooducate

Fooducate which helps consumers pick the healthiest foods. The creators claim it has the largest database of nutrition information and all you have to do is pick up an item in the store and scan it. 

From there, the app tells you how much sugar is in the product, how much trans fat it has, how much high fructose corn syrup is inside and what kind of additives and preservatives the product has.

In addition, it tells you if the product has any GMOs, artificial sweeteners or any other ingredients that you may be trying to avoid.

One user said the app taught him a lot about nutrition. "I really like this app," the user wrote. "It is easy to track what you eat and it is very educational."

Vegetarian alternatives

PhotoWhat if you're a vegetarian? Are there some good apps out there for you?

The answer is yes -- a bunch. Among them is VeganXpress, which helps you find out which items are vegan in non-vegan restaurants.

For example, you're eating with your friends at Carrabba's, let's say, and you have no idea what the vegan dishes are.

All you have to do is pull up the restaurant on your device, and the app will tell you what you can order and what you'll have to stay away from, if you're trying to follow a vegan diet.

VeganXpress is good for travelers too, especially those who may not know where to get a good vegetarian meal when they're out of town. 

The makers say the app has about 130 popular restaurants listed, so there's a good chance you'll be able to find what you're looking for when you're dining out.

So there you go. A few apps to assist the foodie, because with a rapidly changing food scene, consumers can use all the help they can get when they want to figure out what to eat.

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Reducing the Alzheimer's risk in women

Breastfeeding -- and the length of time it's done -- may be a key

Younger people likely don't spend a lot of time thinking about Alzheimer's Disease, but maybe they should -- especially women who are new mothers or are ab...

PhotoYounger people likely don't spend a lot of time thinking about Alzheimer's Disease, but maybe they should -- especially women who are new mothers or are about to become mothers.

A new study suggests that mothers who breastfeed run a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's and that l