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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 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.

    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...
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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 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.

    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...
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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 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

    It 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.

    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...
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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 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

      Instead 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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"

      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.

      But 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.

      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...
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      New drinkware hopes to reduce date rapes

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

      The 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

      To 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."

      Another 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. 

      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...
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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 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.

      Chrysler is recalling 491 model year 2013 Fiat 500e electric vehicles manufactured December 16, 2012, through August 13, 2013. The half shaft joints may ...
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      Hyundai sunroof picks worst possible time to blow off

      On a crowded, rickety old bridge, the Veloster sunroof "explodes," sending glass flying

      Aimée Ricca hates the Tappan Zee Bridge under the best of circumstances. The rickety old bridge is the longest in the state of New York and rattles away 138 feet above the Hudson River as it connects New York's Westchester and Rockland Counties, about 40 miles north of New York City.

      A $4 billion replacement is in the works but for now, commuters are packed into seven narrow lanes, one of them reversible. It's one of those bridges where you really don't want anything to go wrong. It's choked with traffic at most hours and is narrow, with no shoulders or room to pull over.

      So when Ricca's sunroof shattered and blew off her 2013 Hyundai Veloster without warning as she drove over the bridge Tuesday morning, she was not happy. 

      "I didn't know what the hell was happening," Ricca said. "What was that noise? What's going on? I don't know how I had the presence of mind to hit the hazard lights and the Blue Link button (a Hyundai feature, similar to GM's OnStar, that can summon help in an emergency). That kept me calm until I could get off the bridge and pull over."

      Hyundai did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

      Not an isolated incident

      This is hardly an unknown problem in the Veloster. In February, Hyundai recalled 2012 Veolsters with sunroofs that were manufactured from July 4, 2011, through October 31, 2011.

      "The panoramic sunroof assembly may have been weakened during installation at the factory. If the assembly was weakened at the factory, the panoramic glass panel may break while the vehicle is in motion leading to personal injury or a vehicle crash," Hyundai said.

      In a lawsuit filed in January, a Texas family charged the sunroof on the 2012-2013 Veloster "explodes without warning," turning the $17,600 car into a death trap.

      Linda, Sonia and Fernando Palacios, of McAllen, Texas, bought a Veloster for their mother last year and were shocked when the roof exploded while the vehicle was parked in December 2012.

      The explosion sent shattered glass all over the car, damaging the seats. The force of the explosion was so great that it bent the metal frame surrounding the sunroof assembly, they said.

      And that, says Ricca, is exactly what happened to her. Without warning, the sunroof "exploded" and threw shards of glass into the car and onto the roadway and passing cars. Like the Palacios, Ricca said the metal frame that holds the sunroof was bent. 

      "It was about 68 degrees. I drive 100 miles every day and this was just a normal day -- nothing hit me, it wasn't storming. There was nothing remarkable, just normal driving on a Tuesday morning," Ricca told ConsumerAffairs. "There's damage inside the car -- the upholstery, the dashboard. I got cut up too, one big triangle-shaped piece fell in my lap, smaller pieces were all over my clothes and hair."

      Ricca said she did not seek medical attention despite having numerous small cuts on her hands, arms and face.

      Hyundai's response

      But while the dealer was helpful, Ricca is not as impressed with Hyundai's response. The three-month-old car was towed to Hyundai of White Plains, where Ricca said everyone was "very nice and very patient." They replaced the sunroof but the other interior damage still needs to be seen to, she said.

      "I'm very upset with Hyundai. The car is only three months old. At least they should expand the recall, or warranty my sunroof for life. But they said no, it's premature to do anything," Ricca said, adding that Hyundai said it would have to happen again for them to do anything.

      Ricca, a public relations professional, has been telling her story to everyone who will listen and says she will continue to do so until Hyundai does something to protect her and other consumers from similar incidents.

      She said she has already been blocked from a Veloster message board, apparently because of her comments criticizing Hyundai.

      Aimee Ricca hates the Tappan Zee Bridge under the best of circumstances. The high, rickety and long old bridge over the Hudson River connects New York's We...
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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 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

      But 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

      “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.

      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...
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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 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

      ISRI 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."

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

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

      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.

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

      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...
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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 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."

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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

      “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.

      Even 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.

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

      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...
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