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Are digital coupons the new way to shop for discounts?

More consumers use paper coupons but the gap is narrowing

The onset of the Great Recession happened to coincide with the emergence of the smartphone. Consumers needing to save money suddenly had an easier way to d...

PhotoThe onset of the Great Recession happened to coincide with the emergence of the smartphone. Consumers needing to save money suddenly had an easier way to do it, with online coupons and deals. Being able to access the deals on the go suddenly made online coupons more than a novelty – they became a new and significant force in commerce.

The economy is recovering but digital coupons' use continues to grow. The trade publication eMarketer estimates more than 92.5 million people in the U.S. redeemed a digital coupon in 2012. By 2014, the company predicts U.S. adult digital coupon users will surpass 100 million.

According to the estimates, growth will come in at 4.6% this year and will remain steady through 2014. The number of users who access coupons using desktop computers is nearing maturity, but mobile coupon users — especially those who redeem via smartphones — are helping to boost overall growth.

Deals on the go

Besides being mobile, smartphones allow users to receive deals that are relevant to where they happen to be. A number of sites have used this ability to collect and distribute coupons and deals that are targeted and local.

Groupon and Living Social made big splashes at the beginning of the trend but have since found it tough sledding as bigger competitors, like eBay and Amazon, jumped in, suggesting the daily deals aspect of digital discounts might not have legs.

Taking a different track is 8coupons, which presents users with offers gleaned from other coupon and deal sites. Founder and CEO Landy Ung says users will find savings on a wide variety of products and services, everything from Halloween costumes to travel, all geared to where they happen to be.

“Right now I'm eyeing a deal from Living Social for New Years Eve 2014 in Dubai,” Ung said. “And I just recently purchased a Groupon offer of a trip to Turkey over the Thanksgiving holidays. So I'll be in Turkey during turkey day.”

Getting hundreds to thousands of dollars off international travel tends to draw a whole new breed of consumer to coupons. While paper coupons were once mostly used by consumers just trying to stretch their food budgets a bit, online coupons – particularly mobile ones – tend to draw younger and more affluent consumers.

Affluent consumers like to save too

PhotoEven as early as 2010 Nielsen found that 38% of “super heavy” users and 41% of “enthusiasts” came from households with incomes greater than $70,000. Households with income of $100,000 and up were the primary drivers of coupon growth in 2009, the company found. The enthusiast category also attracts a disproportionate number of households with incomes between $50,000 and $69,900. 

Some speculate part of the digital coupon appeal – especially mobile coupons – is the delivery system and the way they can be integrated into an urban lifestyle. That may be true but Ung says the deals are pretty good too.

“Most of the deals are, on average 40% to 50%, maybe even 60% off,” she said. “Currently we don't have any small, 50-cents-off kinds of discounts you might kind in a newspaper coupon. It's really a very comprehensive discovery and shopping comparison engine for deals.”

Shortcut to bargains

And while you might not find a coupon for a new car, Ung said 8coupons users had access to a deal for thousands off on a wedding, which she notes is usually more expensive than a car. While there are many deal sites out there – and more being launched all the time – Ung said 8coupons can be a shortcut for consumers to find the best bargains.

“Instead of working with the merchants themselves we work with partners like Living Social, Groupon, Restaurant.com, Amazon and eBay to deliver to our users the best deals.”

Finally, demographics may be driving online coupon growth. Digital coupon website RetailMeNot issued a report in early September showing the 18-34 age group is much more likely to use digital coupons than consumers over 35. And 18-34 year olds are three times more likely to use a mobile coupon.

The survey also suggests consumers don't demand huge savings in order to consider an offer to be a “good deal.” Nearly half of those surveyed ranked offers of 25% off – and even less – to be “good deals.”

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Senators want energy drink makers to stop marketing to kids

The companies say they abide by industry guidelines but critics are skeptical

Energy drink manufacturers are going to need a megadose of their own products to stand up to the latest assault from the Senate Commerce Committe, which wa...

PhotoEnergy drink manufacturers are going to need a megadose of their own products to stand up to the latest assault from the Senate Commerce Committe, which wants them to stop marketing to children.

“Unfortunately, American youth have been barraged by aggressive marketing messages from energy drink industry leaders," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the committee chair, as he released a statement asking the companies "to put the health and safety of our children and teens first by voluntarily committing to common sense limitations on marketing.”

Rockefeller and his allies want the companies to agree not to promote rapid or excessive consumption of energy drinks, and to discourage mixing energy drinks and alcohol.

Letters were sent to 5-Hour Energy, AMP Energy, Arizona Energy, Celsius, Clif Shots, Crunk Energy, Full Throttle, Jamba Energy, Monster Energy, NOS Energy, Red Bull, Rockstar Energy, Sambazon Energy, Street King Energy, Target/Archer Farms Energy Drinks, Venom Energy, and Xenergy.  

Latest shot

It's the latest shot in an effort to get the drinkmakers to abide by existing industry guidelines. Critics say the companies pay lip service to the guidelines while continuing to promote their products through social media and other channels aimed at young consumers.

“Energy drink makers have been urging customers to consume too much of their products too fast and too young,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). “We need all major energy drink companies to be good corporate actors and agree to these steps to address appropriate marketing and consumption of their products. We need to ensure that kids and parents are protected from the negative health impacts of these products and are not subject to deceptive marketing practices.”  

At a recent hearing, the drinkmakers said they abided by the industry guidelines, but Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the claims are hollow.

“Across the board, makers of energy drinks say they do not market their products to children,” Durbin said. “But we know that energy drinks are promoted through social media, and that samples are often distributed at places where teens hang out – like sports events, concerts, local parks, and SAT prep courses.

"The truth is that contrary to industry claims, energy drink companies are using highly effective tools to reach young people and it is working. It’s time for these companies to heed the advice of public health experts across the country and stop telling children and adolescents to ‘pound down’ their products,” Durbin said.

Numerous deaths

PhotoEnergy drinks have been blamed for numerous deaths involving young people and various cities, states and agencies have imposed or threatened to impose new restrictions.

San Francisco District Attorney Dennis Herrera sued Monster Beverage in May, trying to require it to curb its advertising and serving sizes.

"Monster Energy is unique among energy drink makers for the extent to which it targets children and youth in its marketing, despite the known risks its products pose to young people's health and safety," he said. "Consumption of highly caffeinated energy drinks by children has been widely condemned by pediatricians and scientists, and the NCAA has banned its member institutions from providing these products even to college athletes because of the grave safety risks."

In March, a study found that energy drinks drinks may increase blood pressure and disturb your heart's natural rhythm. Researchers said changes they observed in heavy users of energy drinks could be associated with life-threatening arrhythmias, possibly leadingt to sudden cardiac death.

In June, a California woman sued Monster, claiming her son died of a heart attack brought on by ingesting a "toxic amount of caffeine and other stimulants."

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

In November 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that 5-Hour energy drinks may have caused 13 deaths and led 33 people to seek hospital care. 

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Agency overseeing reverse mortgages needs bailout

Losses on the popular reverse mortgages are taking their toll on the FHA

The Federal House Administration, which oversees the popular FHA home loan program and other home financing products, is tapping extra money from the U.S....

PhotoThe Federal Housing Administration, which oversees the popular FHA home loan program and other home financing products, is tapping extra money from the U.S. Treasury to meet a projected shortfall in its insurance fund, caused in large part by losses on reverse mortgages.

The agency has been under pressure since the housing crisis. It has made a number of changes that will impact future borrowers across a wide spectrum of home loan programs. FHA Commissioner Carol Galante says the changes will allow the agency to better manage risk and further strengthen the health of the Mutual Mortgage Insurance (MMI) Fund, which covers loans when a borrower defaults.

Essential and appropriate

“These are essential and appropriate measures to manage and protect FHA’s single-family insurance programs” said Galante. “In addition to protecting the MMI Fund, these changes will encourage the return of private capital to the housing market, and make sure FHA remains a vital source of affordable and sustainable mortgage financing for future generations of American home buyers.”

One of the changes is a consolidation of the Standard Fixed-Rate Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) – otherwise known as a reverse mortgage -- with the Saver Fixed Rate HECM pricing options. FHA says it's reverse mortgages that are putting the most strain on the insurance fund.

With a reverse mortgage a homeowner who is at least 62 years old may take the equity in their home while still living there. They either receive the money in a lump sum or in payments.

Over the last decade there has been a rush among seniors to take advantage of this program, taking their equity in a lump sum. During the recession many ran into financial difficulty and could not keep up the tax and insurance payments on their home, resulting in foreclosure and creating a huge drain on FHA's mortgage insurance fund.

Reverse mortgage limits

To prevent this from happening again seniors wanting a reverse mortgage will be limited to the HECM Fixed Rate Saver product. The net result, experts say, will be a reduction in the size of lump sum payouts that are available to home owners.

There are other changes that will affect younger borrowers. FHA says it will increase its annual mortgage insurance premium (MIP) for most new mortgages by 0.10%. Premiums on jumbo mortgages – $625,500 or larger – will go up 0.05%.

Perhaps having more impact, FHA will also require most FHA borrowers to continue paying annual premiums for as long as the loan is active. For the past 12 years FHA cancelled required MIP on loans when the outstanding principal balance reached 78% of the original principal balance. FHA estimates that has cost the insurance fund billions of dollars in revenue.

One of the appeals of the FHA loan program is the low down payment requirement. Instead of 10 to 20% down, borrowers are only required to put up 3.5% of the purchase price, making it more affordable for first-time home owners to buy a home.

In a slight change, FHA is requiring borrowers on jumbo loans – those over $625,000 – to put up at least five percent as a down payment.

Critics and defenders

FHA has a number of critics among Republicans in Congress, who were quick to criticize FHA's need for a bailout.

“This is incredibly disappointing,” said Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX),Chairman of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance. “From testimony and reports to our committee, we knew the FHA was beyond broke. Now we know it’s even beyond its own estimation of bailout broke.”

But defenders of the agency threw some of the criticism back on Congress.

“The proposed draw from the U.S. Treasury Department would not have been needed if Congress had not prevented FHA from clamping down on fraudulent seller-funded down payment loans, as it tried to do,” the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) said in a statement. “It is also the first time in 79-year history that supplemental funding has ever been needed.

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Study finds French wines loaded with pesticides

Even organic wines had pesticide traces, the study found

That Bordeaux may have a fine nose but you may also be getting a snoutful of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, according to tests performed by a Fre...

PhotoThat Bordeaux may have a fine nose but you may also be getting a snoutful of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, according to tests performed by a French consumer group.

The group UFC-Que Choisir tested 92 wines and found trace amounts of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides in nearly every one, according to Bloomberg News.

“By drinking a glass of wine, you have every chance of unknowingly swallowing a few micrograms of these pesticide residues,” UFC-Que Choisir wrote in an article for the October issue of its magazine. “No wine today escapes the pollution by plant-protection products applied to the vines.”

The group noted that wine producers use only 3.7% of the farmland in France but pile on 20% of the pesticides used in the country.

The highest pesticide count was found in a bottle of 2010 Bordeaux, with 14 chemicals detected, followed by 2012 Bordeaux with traces of 13 products, the group reported.

But the lead author of a similar report issued earlier this year said the primary danger isn't to consumers but to vineyard and winery workers. 

"You'll consume much more pesticide residue eating apples and strawberries than drinking wine," said Pascal Chatonnet, Ph.D., owner of Excell laboratory, in a report in Wine Spectator. "Your liver will be completely destroyed long before you'll have toxicity from pesticide residue in wine."

In one test, vineyard workers' hair samples contained 11 times the level of pesticide residues of people living a distance from the vineyards, and close neighbors had five times the levels.

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What car maintenance is most important?

Actually, it's the little things that can yield the most results

Cars on U.S. highways last a lot longer than they once did. In the past a car was well past its prime after five or six years of driving.Today, vehicles ...

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IKEA offers the ultimate flat-pack item: solar panels

The fast-greening retail giant is building its second geothermal-powered store

Why didn't IKEA think of this sooner? The global master of flat-pack packaging has been selling desks, tables, beds, chairs and just about everything else ...

PhotoWhy didn't IKEA think of this sooner? The global master of flat-pack packaging has been selling desks, tables, beds, chairs and just about everything else in rectangular boxes for years. Now it's getting into something that just naturally lends itself to a nice, neat flat package -- solar panels.

IKEA is starting its entry into the home power business in Britain but says it has plans to market renewable energy options worldwide. The system for an average-sized British home will sell for about US$9,200, including installation and maintenance.  

“In the past few years the prices on solar panels have dropped, so it’s a really good price now,” IKEA Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard said. “It’s the right time to go for the consumers.”

IKEA is also going green in the design of its stores. It recently announced plans to incorporate geothermal technology into the heating and cooling system of its future Kansas City-area store now under construction in Merriam, Kansas. The system – which will be the largest such project in Kansas or Missouri – is expected to be operational when IKEA Merriam opens in the fall of 2014. A Denver-area IKEA opened with geothermal in 2011. 

IKEA Sept. 30, 2013, 7:08 p.m.
Consumers rate IKEA

“Using geothermal in our Kansas City-area store reflects our commitment to sustainable building practices whenever feasible,” said Mike Ward, IKEA U.S. president.

“Fortunately, this location provides an opportunity to maximize IKEA Merriam’s renewable energy potential.”

This closed-loop ground source heat pump system involves drilling 180 boreholes – six inches in diameter and 600 feet deep – into the earth across part of the 19-acre IKEA parcel. Pipes placed into these boreholes will form an underground network of loops for circulating 36,000 gallons of heat-transferring liquid (a water-based, anti-freeze solution) connected to 64 forced-air heat pumps to cool and heat the store.

The system also includes five hot-water heatpumps to provide potable hot water needed for the store’s lavatory and restaurant operations.

What's next? Maybe IKEA will sell do-it-yourself home geothermal systems. All you need is a big drill and a couple of free weekends.

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Tick-tock: Tax-filing and payment extensions are about to expire

It’s also a good time to check your eligibility for overlooked tax benefits

Many of the more than 12 million taxpayers who requested an automatic six-month extension this year have yet to file -- and the deadline is approaching: O...

PhotoMany of the more than 12 million taxpayers who requested an automatic six-month extension this year have yet to file -- and the deadline is approaching:  October 15 for most people.

Others though, including members of the military and others serving in Afghanistan or other combat zone localities, typically have until at least 180 days after they leave the combat zone to both file returns and pay any taxes due.

People with extensions in parts of  Colorado affected by severe storms, flooding, landslides and mudslides also have more time  -- until Dec. 2, 2013, to file and pay.

Check out tax benefits

Before filing, the IRS encourages taxpayers to take a moment to see if they qualify for these and other often-overlooked credits and deductions:

  • Benefits for low-and moderate-income workers and families, especially the Earned Income Tax Credit. The special EITC Assistant can help taxpayers see if they’re eligible.

  • Savers credit, claimed on Form 8880, for low-and moderate-income workers who contributed to a retirement plan, such as an IRA or 401(k).

  • American Opportunity Tax Credit, claimed on Form 8863, and other education tax benefits for parents and college students.

  • Same-sex couples, legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriages, are now treated as married, regardless of where they live. This applies to any return, including 2012 returns, filed on or after Sept. 16, 2013. This means that they generally must file their returns using either the married filing jointly or married filing separately filing status. Further details are on IRS.gov.

E-filing: fast, easy and sometimes free

The IRS urges taxpayers to choose the speed and convenience of electronic filing. IRS e-file is fast, accurate and secure, making it an ideal option for those rushing to meet the Oct. 15 deadline. The tax agency verifies receipt of an e-filed return, and people who file electronically make fewer mistakes too.

Everyone can use Free File, either the brand-name software, offered by IRS’ commercial partners to individuals and families with incomes of $57,000 or less, or online fillable forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms available to taxpayers at all income levels.

Taxpayers who buy their own software can also choose e-file, and most paid tax preparers are now required to file their clients’ returns electronically.

Anyone expecting a refund can get it sooner by choosing direct deposit. Taxpayers can choose to have their refunds deposited into as many as three accounts. See Form 8888 for details.

Payment options

Taxpayers can e-pay what they owe, either online or by phone, through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), by electronic funds withdrawal or with a credit or debit card.

There is no IRS fee for any of these services, but for debit and credit card payments only, the private-sector card processors do charge a convenience fee. For those who itemize their deductions, these fees can be claimed on next year’s Schedule A Line 23. Those who choose to pay by check or money order should make the payment out to the “United States Treasury”.

Taxpayers with extensions should file their returns by Oct. 15, even if they can’t pay the full amount due. Doing so will avoid the late-filing penalty, normally five percent per month, that would otherwise apply to any unpaid balance after Oct. 15. However, interest, currently at the rate of 3 percent per year compounded daily, and late-payment penalties, normally 0.5 percent per month, will continue to accrue.

 

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Nissan recalls Infiniti M35 and M45 vehicles

The accelerator pedal sensor signal may deteriorate

Nissan North America, Inc. is recalling 98,307 model year 2006-2010 Infiniti M35 and M45 vehicles manufactured April 4, 2004, through October 5, 2010. Over...

PhotoNissan North America, Inc. is recalling 98,307 model year 2006-2010 Infiniti M35 and M45 vehicles manufactured April 4, 2004, through October 5, 2010.

Over time, the accelerator pedal sensor signal may deteriorate resulting in the output of an incorrect signal causing the engine to go into fail-safe (limp home) mode. In this mode, throttle valve deposits may cause the engine to stall when the vehicle is coming to a stop or at idle, increasing the risk of a crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the accelerator pedal assembly and reprogram the engine control module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early November 2013.

Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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Toyota recalls Siennas

The shift lever could be moved out of Park position without depressing the brake pedal

Toyota is recalling 614,722  model year 2004-2005 Sienna vehicles manufactured January 10, 2003, through August 10, 2005; and model year 2007-2009 Sienna v...

PhotoToyota is recalling 614,722  model year 2004-2005 Sienna vehicles manufactured January 10, 2003, through August 10, 2005; and model year 2007-2009 Sienna vehicles manufactured February 20, 2007, through December 12, 2008.

Due to a problem within the shift lock solenoid, there is a possibility that the shift lever could be moved out of Park position without depressing the brake pedal. Should that occur, the transmission will either engage a drive gear or Neutral, increasing the risk of a backover or roll-away crash.

Toyota will mail interim notifications to owners beginning in late October 2013. When parts are available, owners will be sent a second notice and dealers will replace the shift lock solenoid, free of charge.

Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

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FDA coloring regulations finally apply to pet food

Labels don't list all the ingredients, making it hard to track down problems

You can't avoid allergens if you don't know they're there...

PhotoIf you’re a pet owner, being a responsible, informed consumer is arguably more difficult for you than it is for other Americans, because the labeling requirements for pet food are downright lax compared to the requirements applied to food for human consumption.

For example: not until 2011 did the FDA rule that color additives should be listed on the labels of pet food and animal feed, and even then, companies aren’t expected to be in full compliance until this November. On Sept. 26 the FDA released some guidelines intended to help business owners comply with these new regulations.

On another note, we often hear from readers who say that various brands of pet food made their animals sick — with almost every brand on the market generating its share of complaints. It's hard not to wonder if at least some of these animals’ health problems might be due to allergic reactions — after all, even if you know your pet is allergic to a particular additive, that won’t help you or your pet if you don’t know which foods contain those additives. And, of course, it’s a lot harder to diagnose a food allergy when you don’t know exactly what you (or your pet) have been eating.

Change of ingredients

Pedigree Pet Foods Sept. 27, 2013, 12:29 a.m.
Consumers rate Pedigree Pet Foods

Jeff G. from Franklin., North Carolina, wondered if a change of ingredients might explain why his dogs suddenly developed an inability to handle Pedigree-brand foods. As he told us, “We have 8 dogs. Various sizes and breeds…all fed Pedigree Healthy Digestion canned food for years. Two weeks ago our longhair Dachshund threw up a lot, and then the diarrhea started. Same time frame, our 13-year-old basset hound became unable to control her diarrhea and became disoriented …  When we took them to the vet for examination they of course don't feed Pedigree, so they switched brands for the time they were staying. … Since then we have thrown away the Pedigree foods and have started using the same brand food as the vet. No issues. All is quiet again.

“Now here's the weird thing. My daughter in another state told me that tonight her boxer has thrown up and had been dealing with diarrhea earlier this week. She was feeding the same Pedigree Healthy Digestion food! I asked her to contact our vet to get on the right track.

“Did something change? I know pet food companies alter formulas all the time but all of this coupled with the sheer number of very recent complaints are enough to steer me clear of Pedigree products forever.”

Amy R. of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, also wondered if an ingredient change might be to blame for her pet’s sudden digestive problems—although in her case, it was Hills Science Diet food, not Pedigree.

“My two cats have been eating the Science Diet Adult Indoor Cat dry food formula for over 4 years (and ate the Kitten formula before that). Both starting throwing up from the ‘new and improved formula’ ... They're both almost 5 and I can count on one hand the number of times she has ever been sick. The other one throws up some monster hairballs, but usually every few months at the most. Now, he has been throwing up for a week. On Sunday, he threw up five times; twice with food in it and three times just liquid. After a few good days, I came home tonight, fed them their dinner, and within 20 minutes, he threw it all up. That's been the pattern: within 30 minutes of eating this stuff, he throws it up.” 

Different brands, similar pattern

PhotoAmanda J. of Burleson, Texas, told a similar story about Blue Buffalo pet food: “Our family friend's vet recently went to a vet conference and she said there were many vets bringing up concerns about this brand. They said they had seen animals with pancreatitis, severe intestinal problems, and hair falling out. ... I switched my cats and dog over as soon as I heard this. The cats were losing lots of hair and my terrier was constantly gassy and bloated and her hair was so brittle, it was coming out in handfuls. After one week off BB, every animal was back to normal. ... All I know is something needs to be done about this. We need to be educated consumers when it comes to pet food.”

Mark S. of Bordentown, New Jersey told us another story: “We have been feeding our 3-year-old cat Blue Buffalo cat food since we adopted him three years ago. Over the past week our cat has started experiencing difficulty urinating and stopped eating. When he began to leave clear spots on the floor, we realized something was terribly wrong. We rushed him to our local vet and described to her our experiences. The first question she asked was if we were feeding him Blue Buffalo cat food. We said yes, we have been since we adopted him. She informed us that our cat is the second she saw this week with urinary and kidney damage due to Blue Buffalo cat food.”

Blue Buffalo Pet Foods Sept. 27, 2013, 12:29 a.m.
Consumers rate Blue Buffalo Pet Foods

So Jeff’s veterinarian warns patients away from Pedigree food, Amanda and Mark both know vets who avoid Blue Buffalo, Amy and other pet owners who wrote us swear never to use Science Diet again — it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that whatever brand of pet food you can name, we’ve got a file full of complaints from readers who insist it sickened their pets: Iams, Purina, Beneful, Nutro, 9 Lives and more.

Maybe those readers all were unlucky enough to buy a bad batch, maybe their pets ate something else that made them sick — or maybe the pets are allergic to an ingredient their owners don’t even know they’re eating. We have no pat, easy answer for how to solve this problem, or even to figure out exactly what the problem is — but letting pet owners know exactly what they’re feeding their animals is bound to be a good start.

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McDonald's strips sodas from Happy Meals

New healthy-food ad campaign promises to be interesting

Pre-emptive disclaimer: It is very very important to eat a healthy, balanced diet containing all necessary vitamins, minerals, simple and complex prot...

PhotoPre-emptive disclaimer: It’s very very important to eat a healthy, balanced diet containing all necessary vitamins, minerals, simple and complex proteins, sufficient levels of dietary fiber, and other nutritional stuff. Our own personal kitchen is chock-full of healthy ingredients used to cook healthy meals eaten in accordance with a healthy lifestyle. There’s also a big bag of jellybeans, and we’re eating some even as we type this.

Flavored sugar is all they are, with nary a vitamin or mineral to be found in them, and if we tried subsisting on an all-jellybean diet we’d surely develop horrible health problems before too long. But we’re not going to do that; we eat a generally healthy diet, and know that “eating healthy” doesn’t mean “everything you eat has to be Healthy with a capital H.”  So in general, we eat balanced, nutritious meals consisting of capital-H Healthy stuff — and sometimes we indulge on jellybeans, ice cream or greasy, salty fast food.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s is trying to add more capital-H foods to its menu while reducing the number of indulgence products it offers. That’s why it publicly announced its new intention to stop listing soda as a beverage offering on its Happy Meal menu.

Instead, store menus will offer water, milk and juice, and Happy Meals and other foods will feature “packaging innovations and designs to generate excitement for fruit, vegetable, low/reduced-fat dairy, or water options for kids.”

Humans in general — and children in particular — evolved to crave fat and sugar when we were still hunter-gatherers roaming the prehistoric African savannas. Fatty, sugary foods are extremely rare in the wild, and craving these rare, high-energy, high-calorie foodstuffs (along with our ability to turn excess calories into body fat), helped our ancient ancestors survive the epochs when food shortages were a constant threat.

Blame industrial farming

Photo
Early take-out food

Only in the modern era of industrial-scale farming and food production has the average person needed to worry that their diet might contain too much fat or sugar, or too many calories; for most of our time on Earth, humanity’s main dietary problem was getting too littleof these things.

So, anyway, if McDonald’s thinks a marketing campaign can undo five billion years of evolutionary development and make kids crave water and vegetables in lieu of fatty, sugary yum-yums when they’re in the mood for a treat, we wish McDonald’s the very best of luck.

When AdAge wrote about the new McDonald’s soda-downplaying initiative, it quoted a spokeswoman from the Center for Science in the Public Interest who said “Getting soda out of Happy Meals is historic progress that should immediately be adopted by Burger King, Wendy's, and other chains. Soda and other sugar drinks are leading promoters of obesity and diabetes and one day it will seem crazy that restaurants ever made this junk the default beverage for kids.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps one day it will seem crazy that a grown adult makes no distinction between “drinking soda” and “drinking nothing but soda.” It’s just like jellybeans: neither is a capital-H Healthy food, but both can certainly exist in a healthy diet.

Of course, the CSPI has been opposed to McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets for a long time. In 2010, it tried (unsuccessfully) to sue the company and force it to stop handing out toys along with its Happy Meals.  CSPI spokesman Michael Berman insisted that putting toys in a Happy Meal (or doing anything else which might convince a child to eat something that isn’t Healthy with a capital H), is “as inappropriate and anachronistic as lead paint, child labor and asbestos.”

See? If it’s not Healthy with a capital H, it may as well be outright poison, and thus according to the CSPI, the next time your kid asks you for a Happy Meal so she can have the cool toy inside, it is not inappropriate to feed her lead paint instead. They’re practically the same thing.

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Judge rejects Google's defense, privacy lawsuit moves forward

Plaintiffs say Google's scanning of Gmail messages amounts to wiretapping

A federal judge has turned aside Google's attempt to derail a class action that accuses it of violating wiretapping and privacy laws through its electronic...

PhotoA federal judge has turned aside Google's attempt to derail a class action that accuses it of violating wiretapping and privacy laws through its electronic monitoring of its subscribers' Gmail.

Lead plaintiffs Brad Scott and Todd Harrington claim that the web-based service scans emails for words and content, and intentionally intercepts messages between Gmail subscribers and non-subscribers.

Google has said that emails are only read by computers and that, therefore, there is no invasion of users' privacy. But U.S. District Court Judge Lucy H. Koh rejected Google's claims that wiretapping laws do not apply to its Gmail business and that consumers who email Gmailers have no reasonable expectation of privacy. 

The decision finds that reading emails is not a necessary part of Google's business operations and that California's Invasion of Privacy Laws apply to opening and reading online communications without consent.

"Very big consumer victory"

"Google’s alleged interceptions are neither instrumental to the provision of email services, nor are they an incidental effect of providing these services," Judge Koh ruled. "The Court therefore finds that Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the interceptions fall outside Google’s ordinary course of business."

Consumer Watchdog, a California non-profit, called Koh's ruling "a very big consumer victory for the right to use the Internet without having to give up one's privacy."

“This is a historic step for holding Internet communications subject to the same privacy laws that exist in the rest of society. The court rightly rejected Google's tortured logic that you have to accept intrusions of privacy if you want to send email,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “The ruling means federal and state wiretap laws apply to the Internet.  It's a tremendous victory for online privacy. Companies like Google can't simply do whatever they want with our data and emails.”

Koh explicity rejected Google's argument that because the monitoring was done by machines, it didn't count.

"The statute explicitly limits the use of service observing or random monitoring by electronic communication service providers to mechanical and service quality control checks," Koh wrote. "Accordingly, the statutory scheme suggests that Congress did not intend to allow electronic communication service providers unlimited leeway to engage in any interception that would benefit their business models, as Google contends. In fact, this statutory provision would be superfluous if the ordinary course of business exception were as broad as Google suggests."

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Royal Mail goes private; US mail remains in trouble

What can we learn from the UK? Maybe less than you think

The Royal Mail and USPS have very different expectations...

PhotoThey say misery loves company, so with all the financial (and service-related) problems the US Postal Service has been having lately, it might relieve Americans to know ours isn’t the only postal system in flux. On the other side of the Atlantic, the United Kingdom is privatizing its 360-year-old Royal Mail service; during next month’s public stock offering, the total value of shares in the company is expected to reach as high as $5.3 billion.

If the newly privatized Royal Mail is successful — in the sense of delivering every Briton’s mail and making a profit off the service — this will certainly be cited as precedent by Americans urging the privatization of the USPS.

But this might not be a useful comparison to make. For starters, the United Kingdom – Great Britain and Northern Ireland combined – encompasses 94,058 square miles. That’s 3,000 square miles smaller than Oregon, which is only the tenth-largest US state. It’s 20,000 square miles smaller than Arizona, where US postmen riding on muleback to the bottom of the Grand Canyon deliver mail to members of the Havasupai Indian tribe.

Apples and oranges

And the UK is barely one-sixth the size of Alaska, where some people live in remote wilderness outposts hundreds of miles from the nearest significant population center, outposts accessible only by snowmobile — which US postmen ride to deliver the mail.

Americans living in such remote, barely accessible places pay the same flat rate for mail delivery as do the residents of San Francisco, New York City and other super-densely populated areas — money collected in the high-population zones helps underwrite costs for the low-population zones, in other words.

So even someone who agrees with the suggestion, “Maybe the US should privatize its mail delivery” needs to consider that private companies can’t be expected to run operations at a loss, though the USPS is, arguably, often legally required to do just that.

Pension problems

Defenders of the USPS often say that it wouldn’t be in such dire financial straits if not for the allegedly unfair requirement that the post office pre-fund its employee pension obligations. Critics counter that blaming post office financial problems on the pension requirement is a red herring, since the USPS hasn’t paid into the pension fund for two years anyway.

There’s also the fact that cities all across America, ranging from Detroit, Michigan to tiny Prichard, Alabama, have been declaring bankruptcy and blaming their massive financial problems on unfunded pension obligations.

This strongly suggests that unfunded pension plans leads to financial disaster—yet if the post office defenders are correct, funding pension plans is just as damaging.

And there’s one more major difference to consider, when comparing the costs of running the Royal Mail versus the USPS: the UK has a National Health Service, which means that, for better or worse, the cost of healthcare for a given company’s employees or retirees is collectively borne by all British taxpayers. In the United States, large employers are expected to cover these costs for employees, retirees and their dependents — which is why the US Postmaster General this week asked Congress for permission to overhaul the USPS' employee health benefits system.

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DC-area university answers the need for more and better writers

The country suffers a professional writing gap, George Mason University posits

We hear constantly that the world needs more scientists and technicians, and no doubt this is true. But it also needs people who can explain complex concep...

PhotoWe hear constantly that the world needs more scientists and technicians, and no doubt this is true. But it also needs people who can explain complex concepts in simple, easy-to-understand language -- writers, in other words.

For that matter, it needs people who can explain simple concepts clearly and succinctly. 

As one who has made a sometimes-very-comfortable living as an over-employed English major for 50 or so years, I can attest that there is no shortage of organizations, corporations and institutions bumbling around, losing their way and failing to hit funding goals or win elections because they can't explain themselves to others, or even to themselves. Anyone who can help these lost causes express themselves has a good shot at carving out a secure niche and maybe even a corner office.

Just shout louder

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Washington, D.C., area, where shouting over each other has become the accepted means of communicating. Leaping into this breach is George Mason University, a large state university in Fairfax, Va., a D.C. suburb.

GMU's English Department has launched a PhD program in writing and rhetoric. It's already fully enrolled for fall but students can apply now for the spring semester.

“There is a severe underproduction of experts in professional writing,” says Mason English professor Doug Eyman, director of the new degree program. “The demand is very high.”

The PhD program will prepare students to run writing centers and writing programs and do writing consulting and research in industry and in academia.

“Writing happens programmatically; it happens within organizations and institutions. It’s not just a question of education. And so, all the core courses, composition rhetoric and theory, professional writing, and public rhetoric are all wrapped up in this idea that writing happens in all different places. To think about writing as an organizationally and institutionally specific occurrence . . . is different from other programs, which tend to focus on teaching rhetoric,” Eyman says.

Place of expertise

The English Department currently offers a BA in English with a concentration in writing and rhetoric, a master’s degree in professional writing and rhetoric, and a graduate certificate in writing and rhetoric. So, why a PhD?

“Mason has been known as a place of expertise in composition and rhetoric for some time,” Eyman says. “The way I see it, we have a series of great writing programs, from undergraduate to the master’s degree. Adding the PhD program strengthens those programs and helps draw those programs into a coherent whole.”

The new degree program plays to the strengths of Mason’s already established writing curriculum, such as the flexibility of the program, emphasis on real-world applications, and students driving how the program will be shaped.

“We want to allow students to have a fairly high degree of flexibility in approaching their education. We have areas of expertise that we want them to work in, but we want them to be able to pull from different strands. We also want them to take courses outside of the department, which adds interdisciplinarity and builds on strengths that connect to their research projects directly,” says Eyman.

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Walking: the overlooked, under-utilized exercise

Some health experts suggest it does as much good as a more strenuous workout

There are plenty of ways to get exercise. People play sports like tennis, they go jogging, swimming or join a gym. But walking, it turns out, can be an eff...

PhotoThere are plenty of ways to get exercise. People play sports like tennis, they go jogging, swimming or join a gym. But walking, it turns out, can be an effective and healthy exercise as well, putting less strain on joints – an important point for an aging population.

Because it isn't as strenuous as a lot of other exercises, walking needs to be done regularly. Fortunately, most of us walk as part of our normal daily lives. If we can work in about 30 minutes of brisk walking a day, the American Heart Association says, we can produce a number of healthy benefits.

For example, the Heart Association cites research showing a half-hour of walking each day can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, improve both blood pressure and blood sugar levels, maintain body weight and reduce obesity risks and even improve your mental state. 

Walk this way

When you walk, there's a right way to do it. You may have learned to walk before you were two but chances are you aren't doing it the way that provides the most benefit. 

Health experts at the Mayo Clinic say you should maintain good posture while walking. Your head should be up, not looking at the ground. Your neck and shoulders should be relaxed. Your arms should swing freely with a slight bend in your elbows. Walk at a smooth pace, rolling your foot from heel to toe.

According to Harvard Health, walking is a health indicator as you age. After age 65, for example, how fast you walk may predict how long you will live. Walking at an active pace has long been recognized as a proxy for overall health and has been measured in many studies, the Harvard doctors say. Researchers have found a consistent association between faster walking speed and longer life.

How much do you walk?

PhotoIf walking is an easy way to get exercise then why don't more of us do it? A study by the World Heart Federation suggests most of us are unaware of how much – or how little – walking we do in a normal day. In a global survey 25% of those answering had no idea.

"Awareness is the first step to a healthy heart,” said Dr. Kathryn Taubert, Chief Science Officer, World Heart Federation. “Paying attention to how much we walk should be as simple as watching what we eat. By reaching the recommended guideline of minimum 30 minutes of moderate exercise, which includes brisk walking at least five days a week, many premature deaths can be prevented."

It's actually pretty easy to track your “mileage” while walking. There are cheap digital pedometers that you can carry in your pocket that measure your steps and convert that into miles. In addition, smartphones have apps that will help you track how many miles you've covered. There has been some research suggesting that people who wear pedometers on a regular basis increase their physical activity by almost 27 per cent.

Just as good as running

PhotoThere's also research backing claims that walking provides as much benefit as more strenuous exercise. A study commissioned by the American Heart Association and conducted at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that, if walkers and runners burned the same number of calories during exercise, they experienced similar reductions in a range of conditions, from high blood pressure and high cholesterol to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

When you make walking a major part of your exercise plan you should almost treat it like a sport. The experts at the Mayo Clinic says first and foremost is the issue of footwear. If you are going to be covering a lot of miles than make sure you have sturdy, comfortable shows.

Also, if walking outdoors choose a course with a smooth path or surface, avoiding cracked sidewalks and potholes. Just like any other physical exercise, warm up and stretch your muscles before setting off at a brisk pace. At the end of the walk, slow your pace for several minutes to cool down.

Find walking boring? Move to New York City. You'll be so busy trying to keep up with everyone else while watching for cabs and bikes that it will be downright exciting. And while you're at it, notice how thin most New Yorkers are. Just might be a correlation.

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Seven midsize vehicles earn top marks for front crash prevention

The ratings are based on forward collision warning and automatic braking systems

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has awarded its top marks for front crash prevention to seven vehicles: Cadillac ATS sedan and SRX SUV, M...

PhotoThe Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has awarded its top marks for front crash prevention to seven vehicles: Cadillac ATS sedan and SRX SUV, Mercedes-Benz C Class sedan, Subaru Legacy sedan and Outback wagon, Volvo S60 sedan and XC60 SUV.

The rating system is based on research by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) indicating that forward collision warning and automatic braking systems are helping drivers avoid front-to-rear crashes.

Rating the vehicles

Models with optional or standard front crash prevention systems are rated as superior, advanced or basic depending on whether they offer autonomous braking, or autobrake, and -- if so -- how effective it is in tests at 12 and 25 mph.

Vehicles rated superior have autobrake and can avoid a crash or substantially reduce speeds in both tests. For an advanced rating a vehicle must have autobrake and avoid a crash or reduce speeds by at least 5 mph in 1 of 2 tests. To earn a basic rating, a vehicle must have a forward collision warning system that meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) performance criteria.

For a NHTSA endorsement, a system must issue a warning before a specified time in 5 of 7 test trials under three scenarios.

Dozens tested

Moderately priced and luxury midsize cars and SUVs are the first to be evaluated in the new IIHS test program. These include 74 vehicles, all 2013-14 models. Seven earn the highest rating of superior when equipped with optional autobrake and forward collision warning systems.

In addition to the seven models that were deemed “superior,” six models earn an advanced rating when equipped with autobrake and forward collision warning. These include the 2014 Acura MDX SUV, Audi A4 sedan and Q5 SUV, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Lexus ES sedan and the 2014 Mazda 6 sedan.

In addition, the Volvo S60 and XC60 earn an advanced rating when they aren't equipped with an option called Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake and Pedestrian Detection. The S60 and XC60 are the only models in the new test program with standard autobrake. Called City Safety, the system brakes to avoid a front-to-rear crash in certainlow-speed conditions without warning the driver before it takes action.

Twenty-five other vehicles earn a basic rating. Three models available with forward collision warning earn higher ratings when equipped with autobrake. They are the 2014 Acura MDX and the Cadillac ATS and SRX. Thirty-six models either don’t offer a front crash prevention system, or they have a system that doesn't meet NHTSA or IIHS criteria.

“Front crash prevention systems can add a thousand dollars or more to the cost of a new car. Our new ratings let consumers know which systems offer the most promise for the extra expense,” said David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer.

The front crash prevention ratings complement the IIHS’s long-standing crash test program telling consumers how well passenger vehicles protect people in a range of crash configurations.

In its crashworthiness program, the Institute rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint evaluations.

 

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What you should know about food poisoning

And the things you think you know could be wrong

Every years millions of Americans get food poisoning. Why isn't that a major news story? Because for the vast majority, the “illness” only amou...

PhotoEvery year millions of Americans get food poisoning. Why isn't that a major news story? Because for the vast majority, the “illness” only amounts to a slight discomfort. Often we aren't even aware we've eaten something that wasn't quite right.

Some cases of food poisoning – also known as foodborne illness – can be very serious, even deadly. In 2007 contaminated peanuts got into the food supply, resulting in a number of hospitalizations. While no deaths were officially linked to the salmonella poisoning, there were dozens of claims that tainted food caused or contributed to deaths of family members.

Besides salmonella, listeria is another common bacteria in the environment but it rarely causes infections in people. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1,600 people in the U.S. get sick from listeria each year. However, in 2011 cantaloupes contaminated with listeria caused one of the deadliest foodborne outbreaks in the U.S. As recently as August a produce company recalled 5,400 cantaloupes because they might have been tainted with listeria. 

Who's at risk

The people at most risk of suffering severe effects of food poisoning are the very young and very old, as well as pregnant women. That's because they often have weaker immune systems and when they eat contaminated food, they have a greater chance of becoming severely sick with problems like miscarriage or kidney failure.

One way to avoid food poisoning is to be armed with information about it. Unfortunately, says Christine Bruhn, Director of the Center for Consumer Research at University of California-Davis, there's a lot of misinformation on the subject.

Bruhn has outlined what she says are four myths about food poisoning, starting with the belief that contaminated food will taste bad. Not true, she says. Foods that are contaminated with lysteria, E. coli, salmonella, etc., can all taste great.

Another widespread belief is that once food has been cooked, it's okay to leave it sitting out, unrefrigerated, for lengthy periods of time. False again.

Put it in the fridge

PhotoIf you've cooked something and have leftovers, you've got two hours to get those leftovers in the refrigerator and get them cold in order to prevent the spread of bacteria, Bruhn says. Thin-walled metal, glass or plastic containers that are shallow – no more than two inches deep -- are ideal for storage. She says bags, foil and plastic wrap also work well, especially if you have a piece of food that is large or oddly shaped.

Sometimes people get sick from eating undercooked food. Heat kills bacteria but, if the food isn't heated enough, for long enough, the bacteria lives on.

Think you can tell if food is adequately cooked, just by looking at it? Chances are, you can't. That's why Bruhn says you need to use a food thermometer.

She cites recent research from Kansas State University showing that a quarter of the burgers turned brown before they reached the recommended 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Delayed reactions

A fourth myth is that, if you eat some tainted food, you'll know right away. Not really, Bruhn says. The most common bacteria, such as staphylococcus or clostridium, make their presence known within a few minutes to a few hours, and you can feel really awful for a day or so. The more serious bugs, such as salmonella or certain strains of E. coli, will take longer for illness to appear. Sometimes it can be days. Illness from listeria can take two months before symptoms appear, and you get really sick.

Keeping things in your kitchen clean – including your hands – is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of food poisoning. In a study where people were videotaped in their own kitchen, Bruhn says only half of them washed their hands before starting to prepare food.

Besides your hands, Bruhn says you should clean the cooking and preparation areas, knives and cutting boards. And don't forget the refrigerator. Bacteria can even grow there if you allow food residue to build up.

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Cantaloupe growers arrested in listeria outbreak

Jensen Farms cantaloupes blamed in 33 deaths, hundreds of illnesses

It's been two years since an outbreak of listeria swept the country, sickening hundreds and killing at least 33. The outbreak was eventually traced to cant...

PhotoIt's been two years since an outbreak of listeria swept the country, sickening hundreds and killing at least 33. The outbreak was eventually traced to cantaloupes grown on a southeastern Colorado farm owned by the Jensen family. 

Yesterday, Eric Jensen, 37, and Ryan Jensen, 33, turned themselves in to federal marshals and pleaded not guilty to six misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into the food supply.

It is highly unusual for criminal charges to be filed in a contaminated food case but a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Denver said the Jensen case stood out because of "the magnitude of the number of people who were hospitalized and who died, and it involved 28 of the 50 states."

The federal charges carry penalties of up to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count. A trial date was set for Dec. 2.

Jensen Farms was identified as the source of the outbreak when inspectors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined half-eaten cantaloupe taken from the homes of consumers who had fallen ill. 

Although the CDC has officially confirmed 33 deaths and a miscarriage in the case, at least another 10 people have died, the Denver Post reported.

The Jensen brothers' attorney said the two did not know that the contamination had occurred.

"As they were from the first day of this tragedy, the Jensens remain shocked, saddened, and in prayerful remembrance of the victims and their families," the attorney said in a prepared statement.

The Jensens also face numerous civil lawsuits filed by victims of the outbreak and their families. 

 

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Incomes and spending on the rise in August

In addition, people even put away a little for a rainy day

Consumers saw their incomes rise in August -- and ran right out and spent most of it. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, personal incomes rose ...

PhotoConsumers saw their incomes rise in August -- and ran right out and spent most of it.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, personal incomes rose by 0.4% last month to $57.2 billion. At the same time, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased 0.3% to $34.5 billion.

Incomes

The incomes increase came as private wages and salaries rose $28.5 billion, with goods-producing industries' payrolls up $7.9 billion, highlighted by an jump of $6.4 billion in manufacturing payrolls. Services-producing industries' payrolls increased $20.5 billion, while government wages and salaries were up $2.0 billion in August. Government wages would have been $7.3 billion higher were it not for the impact of furloughs that affected several federal agencies.

Spending

Personal outlays, which include PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments, increased $38.4 billion in August, compared with an increase of $22.2 billion in July. PCE made up the bulk of that, totaling $34.5 billion, compared with an increase of $18.3 billion the previous month.

Even with the increase in spending, consumers managed to sock a little away. Personal saving -- disposable personal income less personal outlays -- was $580.7 billion in August, compared with $562.8 billion in July. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 4.6% in August, up 0.1% from July.

The full incomes and spending report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Toys R Us recalls Journey Girl travel trunks

The blue metal handle on the trunk can be sharp

Toys R Us Inc., of Wayne, N.J. is recalling about 12,650 Journey Girl travel trunks. The blue metal handle on the trunk can be sharp posing a laceration ha...

PhotoToys R Us Inc., of Wayne, N.J. is recalling about 12,650 Journey Girl Travel trunks.

The blue metal handle on the trunk can be sharp posing a laceration hazard to the user.

This recall involves the Journey Girl Travel Trunks used to carry 18-inch-tall toy dolls. The 21-inch tall curved top trunks are purple with a blue pattern and a blue metal handle. The trunks were sold with three clothes hangers and two pull out drawers for storage.  Travel trunks included in the recall have UPC # 48970277965070 and model number 5F5F79E. The model number is printed on the bottom of the travel trunk next to the UPC code.

The company has received six reports of incidents involving the handle on the trunk, including one report of a consumer who received stitches as a result of a laceration.

This recall involves the Journey Girl Travel Trunks used to carry 18-inch-tall toy dolls. The 21-inch tall curved top trunks are purple with a blue pattern and a blue metal handle. The trunks were sold with three clothes hangers and two pull out drawers for storage.  Travel trunks included in the recall have UPC # 48970277965070 and model number 5F5F79E. The model number is printed on the bottom of the travel trunk next to the UPC code.

The trunks, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Toys R Us stores nationwide and online at www.toysrus.com from October 2012 through February 2013 for about $30.

Consumers should immediately stop using the travel trunk, put it out of reach of children and return it to a Toys R Us store for a full refund or store credit.

Consumers may contact Toys R Us at (800) 869-7787 from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET on Sunday.

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Gay-rights advocates try to set Barilla pasta straight

Gay-bashing proves an unsuccessful branding strategy

Gay rights advocates — many of whom, incidentally, are not gay — are calling for a boycott of Barilla-brand pasta after company chairman Guido Barilla told...

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Safety advocates sue feds over delays in backup camera rule

Two children are killed each week, on average, in backover accidents

Ellen Adams, who child was killed in a backover accident, speaks at a D.C. rally in April 2013.It's been five years since Congress passed a law requiri...

Photo
Ellen Adams, whose child was killed in a backover accident, speaks at a D.C. rally in April 2013.

It's been five years since Congress passed a law requiring back-up cameras on cars, hoping to prevent the "backover" accidents that kill more than 100 people, many of them children, each year.

Nothing much has happened since then, as the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) mulls over how the rules governing the cameras should be written.

Tired of waiting, safety advocates and two parents who unintentionally hit their children when backing up filed suit yesterday, asking the court to order DOT to promptly issue the rules.

DOT has estimated that the rule it proposed in 2010 but failed to finalize would have prevented 95 to 112 deaths and 7,072 to 8,374 injuries each year. When it passed the legislation, Congress set a deadline of 2011 but the Obama Administration has repeatedly delayed action and has now postponed the rule until 2015.

The problem is rather simple: Even drivers who carefully use all three mirrors cannot see a blind zone several feet high directly behind their vehicles.

Forty-four percent of those killed in backover incidents are children under 5 years old. Each week, on average, 50 children are injured, two fatally, by backover crashes. Tragically, the drivers are often the children's parents or grandparents.

Speaking at the April rally, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) recalled that while it was a struggle to get the bill passed, he had expected that it would be put into effect quickly.

“It was hard enough getting the bill passed” he said. “Then we thought it was going to be a matter of days, weeks, months for the standards and rules to be put into effect. Now it’s five years later and it still has not gotten done.”

Too expensive?

Photo
Cameron Gulbransen, after whom the back-up camera law is named

Why the delay? Cost appears to be the major reason. Car manufacturers have been complaining that the devices are too expensive. A recent analysis of the rule's cost pegged it at $2.7 billion, which works out to about $18 million per life saved. 

But safety advocates say the cost is minimal compared to all the other gadgets and effluvia being added to cars -- satellite radios, onboard wi-fi and automatic parking among them. 

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

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

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Is it any easier to get a mortgage now?

With the market recovering, getting a loan can still be tricky

Five years ago, when the bottom fell out of the housing market, the mortgage lending industry did an about-face. It changed from an era of easy credit for...

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Before shopping, know your store's return policies

Some stores make the process easier than others

With the holiday shopping season looming – and it seems to start earlier every year – consumers will soon be trekking to the mall or ordering o...

PhotoWith the holiday shopping season looming – and it seems to start earlier every year – consumers will soon be trekking to the mall or ordering online. And if the purchase is the wrong size, color or is defective, it will be returned for something else or a refund.

Returning something you bought at a store or online can be easy or challenging, depending on the particular retailer, its policies, and a number of other circumstances.

Walmart

Consumers rate Wal-Mart - Customer Service

Walmart, for example, does not have one return policy but several, depending on the department. 

For example, some – but not all – items from the electronics department must be returned within 15 days of receipt. The jewelry department, meanwhile, gives you 90 days.

“All jewelry, including fine jewelry, may be returned to a Walmart store with a receipt,” the policy states. “If you choose to exchange the item in-store, you may only exchange for an item that is in stock at that store; the exact same piece may not be available.”

Target

At Target, the store will take returns of “most” unopened items in new condition returned within 90 days. Again, there are variables within the return policy. 

“Some items have a modified return policy that is less than 90 days,” the policy states. “Those items will show a 'return by' date or 'return within' day range under the item on your receipt or packing slip and in the 'Item details, shipping' tab if purchased on Target.com.”

Consumers rate Target - Returns & Exchanges

Target does not accept returns of opened or damaged items.

Best Buy

Electronics and appliance retailer Best Buy  requires the original receipt, gift receipt or packing slip for all returns and exchanges. In addition, if you are returning or exchanging an item in a Best Buy store, you'll need to show a valid photo ID.

As with many retailers, time is of the essence. Best Buy allows a 15 day return window on all eligible products, but extends it to 30 days for Best Buy Elite members. The window widens to 45 days for Best Buy Elite Plus members. However, there is a caveat.

“Best Buy reserves the right to deny any return or exchange,” the policy states.

Amazon.com

More and more shopping is being done online, meaning brick and mortar retailers have to maintain policies for both in-store and online sales. Amazon.com doesn't have to deal with in-store returns but does have the challenge of maintaining a policy for a wide variety of merchandise. 

However, in general the company says you may return most new, unopened items sold and fulfilled by Amazon.com within 30 days of delivery for a full refund.

Best Buy Sept. 26, 2013, 1:02 a.m.
Consumers rate Best Buy
The reason many retailers closely scrutinize returns is because they say the process has been abused. Despite that, some national retailers have been recognized for their relatively liberal return policies.

Costco

Costco is a membership organization, meaning its customers pay an annual fee for the privilege of shopping there. That could be why the store asks few questions when a member wants to return something

“We guarantee your satisfaction on every product we sell with a full refund,” the policy states.

However, Costco places a 90-day window on refunds for televisions, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, touch screen tablets, MP3 players and cellular phones.

Kohls

To return an item at Kohls a customer can take the item and receipt to a Kohls store customer service desk. If the item was purchased online, you need the packing slip.

“Our stores have the capability to locate a Kohl's Charge purchase for up to 12 months after the purchase date,” Kohls says on its website. “Once the purchase has been located, the credit may be applied to your Kohl's Charge account. At this time, non-Kohl's Charge purchases, or purchases made outside of the 12 month time frame may receive a Kohl's Merchandise Credit or a corporate-issued refund check.”

Nordstrom

Nordstrom also has a reputation for a relatively easy return or exchange. Nordstrom requires the receipt, or the packing slip and credit card used to make the purchase if it was an online transaction. 

It maintains a toll-free number – 1-888-282-6060 – for consumers who have questions or need help making a return.

L.L. Bean

While L.L. Bean operates some brick and mortar stores, the bulk of its sales are online. When a consumer wants to make a return, they are required to fill out a return and exchange form. 

“Download and complete the online form, or use the form printed on the packing slip that came with your order,” the company instructs.

Consumers then print a pre-paid return label. However, only Visa card members get the free shipping – all others will have $6.50 deducted from their refunds.

CVS

Like many retailers that sell diverse products, CVS has different return policies for different types of products. But its store brand pharmacy products carry a straight, “no questions asked” policy. 

“All CVS/pharmacy Brand products are 100% satisfaction guaranteed or your money back,” the policy states. “If you're dissatisfied for any reason, you can return the CVS/pharmacy Brand product (opened or unopened) along with your receipt or invoice to any CVS/pharmacy store. We'll refund the full purchase price — no questions asked!”

CVS maintains the same return policy for the beauty products it carries.

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Study: Airlines profit at consumer expense

Excessive fees, misleading cancellation insurance products are behind it

Who would be in favor of rising airline cancellation fees, unaffordable refundable tickets and misleading travel insurance marketing? The airlines, that's...

PhotoWho would be in favor of rising airline cancellation fees, unaffordable refundable tickets and misleading travel insurance marketing?

The airlines, that's who, according to the National Consumers League (NCL). A new report from the consumer group says those have become major players in the airline industry’s growing drive to profit from life’s unpredictable events. Findings suggest that the airlines are supplementing cancellation/change fees revenue with commissions from the sale of travel insurance policies that are often misleadingly marketed to consumers.

“The fact is, stuff happens and consumers may need to change or cancel a flight,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “We think it’s a bad business practice for airlines to rely on life’s unpredictability -- a child’s broken arm, a parent needing to be taken to the hospital, a canceled conference -- to bring in billions of dollars in revenue. What’s worse, consumers who want to hedge against the risk of expensive change fees by buying travel insurance often find that they aren’t covered when the unexpected happens.”

Louis of Houston, Texas, knows what its like to be jammed up by an emergency. When he and his partner were on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, they learned from their babysitter that their daughter had a seizure had been taken to the hospital. “I called reservation service (for United Airlines) and was told we would need to pay a $200 fee per ticket to change the return date and pay $400 each for a new ticket,” he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. However, he found a way around it. After getting no help from the agent, he writes, “I hung up and immediately called back and purchased two new tickets for $400 each. By doing so I saved the $200 change fee.”

The high cost of flying

PhotoAccording to the report, entitled "$tuff Happens: Airlines Benefit Handsomely From the Unexpected … and Consumers’ Fears About It:"

  • Cancellation/change fees now account for more than $2.5 billion in airline revenue, an increase of more than 176% since 2007;
  • Annual sales of travel insurance and related services increased by approximately 46% from 2006-2012 to $1.9 billion;
  • Trip cancellation/interruption policies -- the type most often marketed to consumers by airline websites and online travel agencies -- accounted for 94% of travel insurance premiums in 2012, an increase of more than 22% since 2006;
  • Refundable tickets are not an affordable alternative for most consumers. On average, the least-expensive refundable ticket is 350% more expensive that the least-expensive non-refundable ticket (which make up more than 80% of all tickets sold).

Misleading marketing

United Airlines Sept. 26, 2013, 1:12 p.m.
Consumers rate United Airlines
As a hedge against rising cancellation/change fees and prohibitively expensive refundable tickets, it is logical for consumers to look to travel insurance. Unfortunately, travel insurance policies are misleadingly marketed by online travel agencies and airline websites. Terms like “worry-free” and “peace of mind is only a click away,” encourage consumers to purchase add-on travel insurance policies during the ticket-buying process without learning about the significant limitations and exclusions hidden in the fine print of these policies.

“In comparison to a potential $200 cancellation fee, 5% of the cost of the ticket for travel insurance may seem like a great deal to many consumers,” said report author John Breyault, NCL vice president of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud. “All too often, however, consumers find that the protection they thought they had is denied due to pre-existing condition exclusions and other fine print.”

To address the linked issues of rising cancellation/change fees, unaffordable refundable tickets and misleadingly marketed travel insurance, NCL is recommending that there be no cancellation/change fees for changes made more than 5-10 days prior to a trip, that consumers be allowed to transfer their tickets to another traveler without a fee and that standby fees be eliminated, among other reforms.

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Fewer toxins found in pregnant women's bloodstreams

Phasing out flame retardants in furniture, electronics and plastics has helped

Phasing out the use of potentially harmful flame retardants in furniture foam, electronics and plastics has lowered pregnant women’s exposure to the...

PhotoCalifornia's population of 38 million gives it a lot of clout, and not just in the movie business. When California imposes new safety or environmental standards, manufacturers often decide to make the change in all their products, not just those sold in California, simply because the state is such a huge portion of the U.S. market.

That's what happend with flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). They were commonly used in furniture, electronics and plastic products until 2003, when Calfiornia banned the manufacture and import of certain PBDEs, and industries throughout the U.S. phased out their production.

So what has happened since then? Ami Zota, an assistant professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and colleagues decided to take a look. 

What they found -- in a nutshell -- was that the ban has been beneficial. It has lowered pregnant women’s exposure to the substances, which are associated with health problems in both pregnant women and their newborns, who are at greater risk for having poor attention spans and reduced IQs. The new study, which was published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology, was the first to examine the phase-out’s effectiveness.

Human exposure to PBDEs continues from house dust, food and use of older products containing the flame retardants but even so, Zota's team found a 65 percent drop over three years (2008-2011) in the levels of PBDEs in blood samples from pregnant women who visited San Francisco General Hospital, suggesting that the ban had a positive impact.

However, the authors caution that because the substances remain in the environment for a long time, exposure will likely continue. The researchers say this study shows the importance of biomonitoring (measuring the presence of substances in the human body) to track changes in levels in the human population, and the value of that information in shaping public health policy.

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Searching for a safer sunscreen

Researchers test two versions of a popular sunscreen ingredient

Using a particular type of titanium dioxide — a common ingredient in cosmetics, food products, toothpaste and sunscreen — could reduce the pote...

PhotoUsing a particular type of titanium dioxide — a common ingredient in cosmetics, food products, toothpaste and sunscreen — could reduce the potential health risks associated with the widely used compound, researchers have found.

Millions of tons of the substance is produced each year for use. It's generally considered a safe ingredient in commercially available skin products because it doesn’t penetrate healthy skin. But there’s a catch: it can cause potentially toxic effects when exposed to ultraviolet light, which is in the sun’s rays and is the same kind of light that the compound is supposed to protect against.

To design a safer version for human use, the researchers set out to test different forms of the compound, each with its own architecture. Francesco Turci and colleagues published their research in the American Chemical Society journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.

They tested titanium dioxide powders on pig skin (which often substitutes for human skin in these kinds of tests) with indoor lighting, which has very little ultraviolet light in it. They discovered that one of the two most commonly used crystalline forms of titanium dioxide, called rutile, easily washes off and has little effect on skin.

But anatase, the other commonly used form, was difficult to wash off and damaged the outermost layer of skin — even in low ultraviolet light. It appears to do so via “free radicals,” which are associated with skin aging.

“The present findings strongly encourage the use of the less reactive, negatively charged rutile to produce safer [titanium dioxide]-based cosmetic and pharmaceutical products,” the researchers conclude.

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Third look, same number for the nation's economy

Second quarter GDP growth holds at 2.5%

Government numbers-crunchers have come up with the same number as they did a month ago for their final look at the growth rate for the economy during the s...

PhotoGovernment numbers-crunchers have come up with the same number as they did a month ago for their final look at the growth rate for the economy during the second quarter: 2.5%

This latest estimate is based on more complete source data than were available for the second estimate issued last month. Thus, the general picture of economic growth remains largely the same.

In the first quarter, real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased 1.1 percent.

Growth factors

The increase in real GDP, the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States, during the second quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), exports, nonresidential fixed investment, private inventory investment, and residential fixed investment. Those gains were partly offset by a decline in federal government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

Analysts at Briefing.com say the economy is still facing substantial headwinds that were not resolved in the better second quarter GDP data – and that expectations for future growth remain soft.

The full GDP report is available at the Commerce Department website.

PhotoJobless claims

In a separate report, the Labor Department (DOL) reports first-time claims for unemployment benefits fell by 5,000 in the week ending September 21 -- to a seasonally adjusted total of 305,000. At the same time the previous week's total was revised upward by 1,000 to 310,000.

Technical problems are still causing biases in the initial claims number. Computer glitches in California and Nevada kept many people from filing for unemployment benefits, creating a backlog of filings, which resulted in a temporarily lower initial claims level.

DOL says it expects the backlog to be processed over the next week or two before the claims level returns to normal.

The 4-week moving average, which strips out the weekly volatility, fell by 7,000 to 308,000.

The full jobless claims report may be found on the DOL website.

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Texting debt collector to settle FTC charges

The defendant in the first case of its kind will pony up big money

In the first Federal Trade Commission (FTC) case of its kind, Glendale, California-based debt collector will pay $1 million dollars to settle charges of us...

PhotoIn the first Federal Trade Commission (FTC) case of its kind, a Glendale, California-based debt collector will pay $1 million to settle charges of using text messaging to attempt to collect debts in an unlawful manner.

According to the FTC, Archie Donovan and two companies he controls -- National Attorney Collection Services, Inc., and National Attorney Services LLC -- used English- and Spanish-language text messages and phone calls in which they unlawfully failed to disclose that they were debt collectors. They're charged with violating both the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the FTC Act.

Unlawful disclosure

In their text messages, phone calls and mailings, the defendants also falsely portrayed themselves as law firms -- by using the names National Attorney Services, National Attorney Service, National Attorney, and Abogados Nacionales. Building on their deceptive company name, the defendants falsely threatened to sue consumers for not paying their debts or to garnish their wages.

PhotoThe FTC also contends Donovan and his companies illegally revealed debts to the consumers’ family members, friends and co-workers. Among other tactics, the defendants used mailing envelopes picturing a large arm shaking money from a consumer who is strung upside down.

The law does not allow debt collectors to disclose publicly someone’s private debts, because doing so could endanger their jobs and reputations. Mailing envelopes can include only the name and address of the company, and cannot indicate that the consumer may owe a debt.

“No matter how debt collectors communicate with consumers -- by mail, by phone, by text or some other way -- they have to follow the law,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC has a zero tolerance policy for deception.”

In addition to the $1 million civil penalty, the settlement requires the defendants to stop sending text messages that do not include the disclosures required by law, and to obtain a consumer’s express consent before contacting them by text message.

The defendants also are barred from falsely claiming to be law firms, and from falsely threatening to sue or take any action – such as seizure of property or garnishment – that they do not actually intend to take.

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Pending home sales slip in August

Higher interest rates and prices are part of the mix

Several factors including tight inventory conditions, higher interest rates and rising home prices pushed pending home sales down slightly in August, Accor...

PhotoSeveral factors including tight inventory conditions, higher interest rates and rising home prices pushed pending home sales down slightly in August.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) dipped 1.6% to 107.7 from its July reading of 109,4, Still, the PHSI remains 5.8%  above August 2012 when it was 101.8. Pending sales have been above year-ago levels for the past 28 months.

The decline was not a surprise, given the elevated levels of closed existing-home sales at the end of summer. “Sharply rising mortgage interest rates in the spring motivated buyers to make purchase decisions, culminating in a six-and-a-half-year peak for sales that were finalized last month,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Moving forward, we expect lower levels of existing-home sales, but tight inventory in many markets will continue to push up home prices in the months ahead.”

Regional breakout

The PHSI in the Northeast rose 4.0% to 84.8 in August, and is 5.1% above a year ago. In the Midwest the index dropped 1.4% to 111.6 in August, but is still 13.8% above the August 2012 level. Pending home sales in the South fell 3.5% to an index of 116.9, but are 3.7% above a year ago. The index in the West declined 1.6% in August to 106.9, but is 1.7% higher than August 2012.

Looking ahead

Although total existing-home sales this year will be up about 11% to nearly 5.2 million, little change is seen in 2014, with sales forecast to increase less than 1%.

The national median existing-home price should rise 11 to 12% for all of 2013, easing to an increase of 5 to 6% percent next year, with general improvement expected in inventory supplies.

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Beware the tech support scam

Despite what a caller tells you, your computer is fine

You get a call at home from someone who claims to be from Microsoft tech support. In an urgent, breathless tone, he warns your computer has been compromise...

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The Italian job: When non-GMO farming didn't work

Sticking with non-GMO agriculture isn't always the solution

Our story begins in sunny Italy where corn provides a lucrative export to countries in Europe with less temperate climates that cannot grow corn. Or ...

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Mistakes retirees make and how to avoid them

Many mistakes are made in pre- and early-retirement years

If you are getting ready to finally retire you have probably been crunching numbers, debating relocating and planning your budget – all good steps. B...

PhotoIf you are getting ready to finally retire you have probably been crunching numbers, debating relocating and planning your budget – all good steps. But despite the best of intentions, many seniors start off their golden years with a blunder or two.

Avoiding these speed bumps will make things go more smoothly, not to mention helping you sleep better at night. So here's a heads-up.

Playing it too safe

The first mistake might not seem like a mistake at all, which is why some people make it. It's being a little too careful with your money. But careful is good, right? You've socked it away in CDs and Treasury bonds, where it's safe.

A little too safe. There is such a thing as the risk-reward ratio and retirees need some reward if they want their money to last through their retirement. That means taking a little bit of risk – not too much but enough to provide an acceptable return.

Most financial planners will tell you that you need to keep a healthy portion of your portfolio in stocks. Yes, stocks have their ups and downs but over time they have tended to go higher. Investing in stocks that provide some kind of dividend can add a little income to the mix, carrying you through times when the market is down.

The tricky part of avoiding this mistake is finding the right mix between security and growth potential. You shouldn't hesitate to seek advice from a trusted, objective financial advisor, and maybe even get a second opinion.

Paying too much in taxes

PhotoAnother mistake is not keeping an eye on your tax bracket. You may have paid your fair share of taxes during your working career but your income should be less – and you should pay less in taxes – in retirement. But there are some things that bump you into a higher bracket.

If you are earning money, then paying more in taxes shouldn't be a problem. But if your mandatory IRA and retirement account withdrawals are bumping you higher, that's going to hurt.

Instead of waiting until you are 70 1/2, when the government starts requiring you to make withdrawals, start pulling money out, and paying taxes on it, sooner. That doesn't mean you have to spend it, it only means you have to move it out of your tax-deferred account. After paying the tax, put the money into a savings account or invest it until you need it.

Helping the kids

Many Baby Boomers are retiring at a time when their children are struggling through the hardships associated with raising their own young families. Young people have taken the brunt of the Great Recession, with a tougher job market and less generous salaries and benefits when they do find work.

Often they turn to Mom and Dad for some help. Sometimes parents see their children struggle and volunteer to open their checkbook.

Helping your children is okay, financial planners advise. But just make sure your retirement needs come first and you can really afford it.

Things that could be mistakes

Some financial planners list taking Social Security too early and paying off a mortgage balance as mistakes while others disagree. Yes, delaying Social Security until you are 70 will result in monthly payments that are eight percent higher. However, payments are based on actuarial tables and on average, people will draw the same total amount whether they start drawing at 62 or 70.

If you expect to continue earning income through retirement, and expect to be less reliant on Social Security, early enrollment might not hurt that much. If you expect Social Security to be the major part of your retirement income as you age, then those counseling an age 70 draw date are probably correct.

When it comes to paying off your mortgage in retirement, there is no hard and fast rule. It might make sense but, if you can put the money into investments that provide a high return, it might not.

Which brings us to the last mistake many retirees make – not seeking and listening to advice. Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, retired Boeing executive Henry Hebeler says not thinking you need professional advice is high on the list of retirement mistakes Boomers are making, and he speaks from experience.

“Having been retired now for almost 25 years and with many friends in their 80s, I know plenty of mistakes that we’ve all made when we were preparing for retirement,” he writes. “Of course the most common is not saving enough, and that’s a problem that is going to be facing the majority of Boomers. Another is thinking that you don’t need some professional advice, either because you think you know enough yourself or because you don’t think you need a second, objective, opinion.”

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New from the US Postal Service: rate increases and "futurist consultants"

Possible three-cent increase on the horizon

USPS to increase stamp price and marketing costs...

PhotoFor Americans who send lots of first-class mail (despite the post office’s occasional difficulties in delivering it), now might be a good time to stock up on “Forever” stamps at 46 cents apiece,  since the eternally cash-strapped US Postal Service has requested a three-cent increase which, if approved, will raise the price of a first-class stamp to 49 cents.

Meanwhile, the post office is also paying a "futurist marketing consultant"  $565,769 to analyze and make recommendations about the future of postage stamps.

If our math is correct, and if the three-cent price increase is approved, the USPS will have to deliver a mere 18,858,967 pieces of first-class mail for the extra three cents apiece to cover the cost of the consulting firm’s fee.

Other ideas

Consumers rate USPS - Lost Mail

The Postal Service is one of those businesses that everyone thinks he could run better than the incumbents, as our recent stories have demonstrated. We were flooded with suggestions, including one from Hank of Wichita Falls, Texas, who thinks the answer is to outsource USPS to a private contactor. 

"[It] seems like all that continues to happen every year is to raise the rates, raise the rates, raise the rates!  Why hasn’t anyone suggested to Congress that there is a distinct possibility that the USPS could be better operated by a private contractor?" Hank asked.  "Maybe in one of your subsequent articles you might be able to pose the question, not that anyone would listen to you, but it is worth the shot!"

Any discussion of the Postal Service brings out complaints about the Congressionally-imposed requirement that the USPS pre-fund its pension obligations. 

"Last quarter the USPS would've posted a $690 million profit were it not for the $5.5 billion prefunding it has been required to fund for people that have not been born yet, and yes the prefunding comes off the bottom line. So I guess the USPS can make a profit," said Teresa in a Facebook posting. Well, yes, Teresa, if you don't count overhead and G&A costs, nearly any business can pretend it's making a profit but that's not anything Congress is ready to sit still for in this case.

Then there was Katie, who apparently works for the Postal Service:

"When Congress asked the postmaster to take a cut in pay he said no but right now in the USPS supervisors and managers try to force employees to work for free, absorb time within your route but they can sat back and abuse payroll by removing employees' overtime," Katie said. "It's sad that people can ride all day, threaten you on USPS payroll and they claim that there's no money in the budget but they seem to come up with money to pay for rental cars. They have certain supervisors that think they can lay up and sleep with employees cause they think they in authority." 

Katie didn't actually suggest any concrete ways of saving money but her comment certainly demonstrates the deep unrest that seems to be constantly bubbling under the surface at the post office. 

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Ob-Gyns: Environmental chemicals harm reproductive health

EPA should better define the dangers toxic chemicals pose, physicians groups say

Toxic chemicals in the environment can have "significant and long-lasting effects on reproductive health" and need to be more carefully regulated, two phys...

PhotoToxic chemicals in the environment can have "significant and long-lasting effects on reproductive health" and need to be more carefully regulated, two physicians groups say.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine are urging ob-gyns to advocate for government policy changes to identify and reduce exposure to toxic environmental agents.

“Lawmakers should require the US Environmental Protection Agency and industry to define and estimate the dangers that aggregate exposure to harmful chemicals pose to pregnant women, infants, and children and act to protect these vulnerable populations,” said Jeanne A. Conry, MD, PhD, president of the College.

“Every pregnant woman in America is exposed to many different chemicals in the environment,” said Dr. Conry. “Prenatal exposure to certain chemicals is linked to miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects.”

"Significant and long-lasting"

Many chemicals that pregnant women absorb or ingest from the environment can cross the placenta to the fetus. Exposure to mercury during pregnancy, for instance, is known to harm cognitive development in children. 

The scientific evidence over the last 15 years shows that exposure to toxic environmental agents before conception and during pregnancy can have significant and long-lasting effects on reproductive health.

“For example, pesticide exposure in men is associated with poor semen quality, sterility, and prostate cancer,” said Linda C. Giudice, MD, PhD, president of ASRM. “We also know that exposure to pesticides may interfere with puberty, menstruation and ovulation, fertility, and menopause in women.”

Other reproductive and health problems associated with exposure to toxic environmental agents:

  • Miscarriage and stillbirth
  • Impaired fetal growth and low birth weight
  • Preterm birth
  • Childhood cancers
  • Birth defects
  • Cognitive/intellectual impairment
  • Thyroid problems

Approximately 700 new chemicals are introduced into the US market each year, and more than 84,000 chemical substances are being used in manufacturing and processing or are being imported.

“The scary fact is that we don’t have safety data on most of these chemicals even though they are everywhere—in the air, water, soil, our food supply, and everyday products,” Dr. Conry said. “Bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disruptor, is a common toxic chemical contained in our food, packaging, and many consumer products.”

“To successfully study the impact of these chemical exposures, we must shift the burden of proof from the individual health care provider and the consumer to the manufacturers before any chemicals are even released into the environment,” said Dr. Conry.

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Suit charges Rent-A-Center spied on customers through their computers

Secret program captured photos, screenshots and keystrokes, suit charges

A lawsuit charges that a Rent-A-Center subsidiary spied on its customers courtesy of a "secret, undetectable" program that it installed on the rent-to-own ...

PhotoA lawsuit charges that a Rent-A-Center subsidiary spied on its customers courtesy of a "secret, undetectable" program that it installed on the rent-to-own computers in customers' homes. A similar suit in 2011 accused Aaron's Rent To Own of spying on its customers in a similar manner.

The lawsuit claims the program gathers information on consumers' online activities and emails them back to ColorTyme Inc., and its franchise outlets.

In the suit, Leslie Arrington says she signed a rent-to-own contract for a personal laptop computer with a ColorTyme franchisee in Clarkston, Wash., on March 31, 2011, Courthouse News Service reported.

Arrington says she never consented to the software's installation and was not informed of it by ColorTyme. Her suit seeks class action status on behalf of all consumers in the same situation. It charges that the defendants violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

ColorTyme and CMG moved to dismiss, but U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon in Pittsburgh denied the motion.

The Aaron's suit charges that the retailer uses the software to spy on its customers. The alleged spying began as early as 2007 and enables Aaron's and its agents to capture screen images, keystrokes and images from computers rented and sold to the firm's customers.

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Why you should call in sick

This cold and flu season, don't be a hero. The office will thank you

As another cold and flu season gets underway, one things is a given. There's going to be a lot of coughing and sneezing around school or the office. That j...

PhotoAs another cold and flu season gets underway, one thing is a given. There's going to be a lot of coughing and sneezing around school or the office. That just increases the chances you, and others, will get sick too.

Getting a flu shot might help but there are other steps you can take to improve your odds of staying healthy this fall and winter. The first is to avoid others who are already sick.

That isn't always easy to do. Invariably a co-worker or two will drag themselves into the office, even through they are obviously ill. A survey by Kimberly-Clark Professional found that 59% of people reported going to work when they're sick.

Three in 10 said it was because they were too important to the business operation or had too much work to do and couldn't lose the time. But that may be a short-sighted view. Health experts say a contagious person in the office can wreak health havoc in a place of business.

Germ hot spots

Think about all the places germs may show up: an elevator button, a stair railing, the handle to the coffee urn and your stapler that everyone borrows. Viruses on surfaces like sink faucets and door handles quickly move from surface to hands, especially in public places.

PhotoPublic places outside the office are also crawling with germs this time of year. If you take public transportation, for example, you are almost certainly picking up germs. You can be sure germs reside on the handles of grocery carts.

Since most germs travel from hands to mouth your first line of defense is to keep your hands clean. It will pay to keep sanitary moist wipes, or liquid, alcohol-based hand cleaner, in handy locations. While these hand sanitizers are often effective shields, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says old-fashioned hand washing is even more effective.

“Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of germs on them,” the CDC says. “If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.”

Not as easy as it sounds

And washing your hands means washing them thoroughly. The CDC says there is a prescribed manner of doing it:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  • Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.

Even if you are exposed to cold and flu germs you may avoid getting sick if your immune system remains strong. You can promote a robust immune system by eating a diet rich in nutrients – especially vitamin C – and getting enough sleep at night.

A healthy lifestyle can also be important, especially in warding off the flu. The CDC cites studies that suggest smokers are more likely to get the flu than non-smokers.

Getting the message

The Kimberly Clark survey suggests consumers have become more sensitive to germ-transmission issues over the years. Seventy-nine percent said they wash their hands after coming in contact with a sick colleage and 81% said they use a hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes.

Photo"Germs can be spread throughout the workplace and elsewhere when people touch hot spots that have been contaminated by people who are ill," said Dr. Charles Gerba, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Arizona. "That's why individual efforts can make such a big difference.”

Here's something else you can do. Ask your boss or human resources manager to take the lead, providing hand-cleaning tools and encouraging frequent hand-washing. And though they may not want to encourage absenteeism, workplaces really should encourage employees to stay home when they feel they are contagious with the cold or flu.

If you do become sick with a flu-like illness, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Yes, you are important and you have work to do but call in sick and don't feel guilty about it.  

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How to minimize dangers in the kitchen

Lots of hot, sharp things are lying in wait for the unwary

The kitchen is a dangerous place. It's full of knives, cooktops, hot liquids and other hazards. A little advance planning can help to minimize these hazard...

PhotoThe kitchen is a dangerous place. It's full of knives, cooktops, hot liquids and other hazards. A little advance planning can help to minimize these hazards and the October 2013 issue of ShopSmart, from Consumer Reports, identifies the kitchen products that cause the most harm and simple ways to avoid them.

ShopSmart ranked the kitchen products that send the most people to the emergency room.  In descending order, they are: knives, ranges, cookware, slicers and choppers, microwaves and blenders. Below are some simple ways to avoid getting hurt when using these products and appliances.  Importantly:  Always keep a fire extinguisher with a minimum 5-B:C rating on hand.

  • KNIVES.  Dull knives are more dangerous than sharp ones, so keep knives sharpened and stored in a block.  Use a cutting board that doesn’t have a slippery surface, and place a damp towel under it to keep it from moving.

  • OVENS/RANGES. Install an anti-tip bracket to secure the unit in place.  Never place heavy roasts and other food on an open oven door. 

  • COOKWARE. Always use oven mitts to pick up hot pots and pans.  If a grease fire starts, smother the flames with a cookie sheet or lid for 10 to 15 minutes to make sure the fire is out.

  • SLICERS & CHOPPERS. Don’t leave motorized models on for a long time; they can overheat.  Never reach into a slicer or chopper. Because many parts, including blades, are dishwasher safe, don’t handwash them.

  • MICROWAVE OVENS. Be careful when removing a wrapper or cover from microwaved food; steam can escape and cause a nasty burn.  Let food cool a minute or two before removing it from the microwave.  Boil water on the stove; water heated in a microwave can become super-heated and erupt violently without warning. 

  • BLENDERS. Most blenders don’t have safety interlocks, so don’t reach inside, especially if it is plugged in.  To clean blades without touching them, add hot water and a bit of dishwashing liquid to the blender container and let it run on high for a minute, then rinse.  If the blender has a container that disassembles, wash the parts in the dishwasher, as the rubber gasket can harbor bacteria.

The full report on kitchen dangers can be found in the October 2013 issue of ShopSmart, on newsstands now. 

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Outlook for retail hiring this holiday season: cloudy at best

A repeat of last year’s 12-year high may not be in the cards

Retail holiday hiring hit a 12-year high in 2012, but a leading employment consultant says we shouldn't expect a repeat this year. The outlook from outpla...

PhotoRetail holiday hiring hit a 12-year high in 2012, but a leading employment consultant says we shouldn't expect a repeat this year.

The outlook from outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas says shaky consumer confidence and increased efficiencies among retailers may prevent seasonal employment gains from reaching such lofty heights in 2013.

Challenger's annual holiday hiring forecast estimates that seasonal job gains will not see a significant decline from last year’s robust numbers, but will -- at best -- match the level of hiring we saw in October, November, and December 2012. With many retailers already starting holiday-themed ads and breaking out Christmas decorations in stores, those hoping to get in on the seasonal hiring push should get on the stick.

Looking for strength

Last year, retail employment increased by a non-seasonally-adjusted 751,800 between October 1 and December 31-- the heaviest holiday hiring binge since 2000, when retailers added 788,200 to their payrolls during the final three months of the year. That worked out to a gain of 11% from 2011, when 679,300 extra seasonal workers were hired.

Last year marked the fourth consecutive increase in holiday hiring since 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, when retailers added just 324,900 workers -- the fewest since 1982 when retail employment grew by only 259,500 during the holiday season.

There are several factors that could keep holiday hiring from reaching last year’s level. “While, the economy and job market are improving, it has now been four years since the recession officially ended and millions of Americans are still unemployed or underemployed,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “As a result, consumers remain uneasy, which is evidenced by wide monthly mood swings in confidence surveys.”

The early prognosis on September sentiment from Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan found that sentiment slipped to its lowest level since April. The drop comes just over one month after hitting a six-year high. Such mood swings are not instilling a lot of optimism among those charged with reading the retail sales tea leaves.

Additionally, The Conference Board reported this week that its Consumer Confidence Index fell in September, largely on concerns about jobs and earnings.

The latest forecast from retail research firm ShopperTrak predicts that sales at U.S. stores will climb only 2.4% in November and December, compared with increases of 3% in 2012, 4% in 2011 and 3.8% in 2010. Meanwhile, store visits are expected to fall 1.4% during those months.

Online vs. brick and mortar

Photo“Price conscious consumers are doing more and more of their holiday shopping online, where they often find the best deals and can typically enjoy free delivery and no sales tax,” said Challenger. “The ongoing shift to Internet shopping could see some seasonal hiring in this area, but the numbers will never match the employment gains seen in traditional brick-and-mortar establishments, primarily because there simply are not has many. For every Amazon, there are dozens of national retail chains with the potential to hire thousands.”

Last year, Amazon announced plans to hire 50,000 seasonal workers to meet increased holiday activity. While that figure is impressive, it is virtually the only online retailer that has that level of hiring capacity. Meanwhile, just a handful of traditional brick-and-mortar retailers added more than 400,000 holiday workers in 2012. Based on news reports from last September and October, Target added 88,000; Macy’s, 80,000; Kohl’s 52,700; Walmart, 50,000; and Toys R Us, 45,000, just to highlight a few.

“Whether it is related to increase online shopping or the shakiness in consumer confidence, the expectation that there will be fewer people in the stores could prompt some retailers to reduce the number of extra people they will need on the sales floor,” Challenger noted. “However, low expectations are not the only factor that could contribute to flat hiring. The fact is that retailers are getting smarter about staffing. The era of Big Data has armed everyone with the information they need to more accurately predict the ebbs and flows in sales activity and adjust hiring accordingly.”

Time to act

PhotoChallenger says it's never too early for holiday job seekers to begin their searches. “The bulk of the seasonal hiring decisions will be made in October,” he points out, adding that job-seekers shouldn't give up if their first attempts at finding a job are unsuccessful. “There is constant churn in the retail industry. It has some of the highest turnover rates of any industry.

“Additionally, do not limit yourself to ‘on-the-floor’ sales positions. The big box stores, in particular, also need extra workers in their shipping facilities and overnight stocking positions. Opportunities also exist outside of retail, in areas like catering and with shipping companies, restaurants, movie theaters, caterers, etc.”

Start your job search by contacting friends already working in establishments that could need holiday workers, Challenger advises. “You should also target establishments of which you are a frequent customer. If there are certain retail outlets where you would prefer to work, start going there when business is slow and try to make a connection with a manager or assistant manager. The key is separating oneself from the pile of applicants the store will see between now and Halloween.”

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New home sales rebound in August

Housing prices, meanwhile, were also higher

After crashing and burning in July, sales of new single-family houses bounced back in August with an increase of 7.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate...

PhotoAfter crashing and burning in July, sales of new single-family houses bounced back in August with an increase of 7.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 421,000.

As they released their latest figures, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had even more bad news about the preceding month. The previously reported rate of 394,000, which represented a plunge of 13.4% from June, was revised downward to 390,000.

While the August figure topped the Briefing.com estimate of 415,000, sales were at their second lowest level since December 2012.

The median sales price of new houses sold in August was $254,600, a gain of just 0.6% -- the smallest since June 2012, while the average sales price was $318,900.

The estimate of new houses for sale at the end of the month was 175,000, representing a supply of 5.0 months at the current sales rate.

Mortgage applications

PhotoSeparately, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports mortgage applications rose 5.5% during the week ending September 20. The Refinance Index was up 5%, holding the refinance share of mortgage activity steady at 61 percent of total applications.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 7% of total applications, while the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) share of refinance applications increased to 41 %, and is the highest since MBA started tracking this measure in early 2012.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased to 4.62% from 4.75%,with points increasing to 0.41 from 0.39 (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 $417,000) decreased to 4.66% from 4.83%,with points decreasing to 0.29 from 0.33 (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 4.32% from 4.50%,with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.68% from 3.81%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs decreased to 3.39% from 3.54%,with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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Overdosing on Tylenol is easier than you think

ProPublica's investigative series slams lack of FDA oversight

Acetaminophen isn't as safe as the commercials say...

PhotoDid the FDA and MacNeil Consumer Healthcare, manufacturer of Tylenol, deliberately suppress information showing how the main ingredient acetaminophen is far more lethal, and in far lower doses, than most Americans previously thought?

That's the charge leveled in a series of investigative stories by the non-profit investigative news site ProPublica, which notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enjoys strong legal authority in this country: basically, the power to decide whether Americans may legally buy, sell or consume various foods and medicines. But in exchange for this power, the FDA is supposed to monitor the safety and efficacy of the drugs it regulates, and release rather than suppress information relating to those topics.

This did not happen, according to ProPublica reporters Jeff Girth and T. Christian Miller, whose stories charge that, “During the last decade, more than 1,500 Americans died after accidentally taking too much of a drug renowned for its safety: acetaminophen, one of the nation’s most popular pain relievers.

“Acetaminophen – the active ingredient in Tylenol – is considered safe when taken at recommended doses. Tens of millions of people use it weekly with no ill effect. But in larger amounts, especially in combination with alcohol, the drug can damage or even destroy the liver,” ProPublica noted.

Studies ignored

PhotoGranted, 1,500 deaths in a decade is a statistically tiny number, compared to the tens of millions who use acetaminophen with no ill effects every year. But those numbers could have been—should have been—smaller still. ProPublica reports that since 1977, the FDA and MacNeil ignored studies showing that acetaminophen has a much narrower margin of safety than most over-the-counter painkillers—in other words, the difference between a safe dose from a harmful one is much smaller than in most medications.

Even more damning are claims that, “For at least 15 years, until 2011, McNeil continued selling two versions of Tylenol for young children, despite knowing that parents and even medical professionals mixed them up, sometimes with serious consequences. And the Food and Drug Administration failed to intervene.”

Turns out it’s far too easy to overdose on acetaminophen without realizing it. In 2003, five-month-old Brianna Hutto went into a coma after an accidental overdose destroyed her liver. Her parents had given her the prescribed dose of Tylenol: one teaspoon every four hours.

But until 2011, MacNeil sold two different forms of pediatric Tylenol: Infants’ Tylenol and Childrens’ Tylenol. And, paradoxically, the active dose in the Infants’ version was stronger than that in the Childrens’. As ProPublica pointed out, “By confusing the pediatric products and administering too much of the infants’ version, parents could inadvertently overdose their children. Other manufacturers also made two children’s products with different concentrations of acetaminophen.”

Easy to OD

Confusing “Infant” and “Children” medications isn’t the only way Americans stumble into accidental acetaminophen overdoses. A poll conducted by ProPublica showed that, for example, 35 percent of Americans did not know it’s possible to overdose on acetaminophen by combining the maximum recommended dose of Extra-Strength Tylenol with a dose of NyQuil.

Over 600 medications – both over-the-counter and prescription-only—contain acetaminophen.

ProPublica developed an app showing consumers which medications contain acetaminophen, and in what amounts, but warns app users that “a single dose might be more than the amount shown. For example, one pill might contain 325 mg but the recommended dose might be two pills, or 650 mg.”

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Shopping for a car with safety in mind

Automakers improving safety in response for consumer demand

In the 1960s cars didn't have seat belts, unless you ordered them as an option. Over the years, auto safety has become a top consumer priority and a major ...

PhotoThe commercial for the sleek BMW isn't promoting the car's pick up and race car handling. Rather, the highlight of the spot is the car's warning system that alerts the driver that there's a cow standing in the roadway.

In the 1960s U.S. cars didn't even have seat belts, unless you ordered them as an option. Over the years, auto safety has become a top consumer priority and a major selling point for manufacturers.

Volvo built its reputation on safety, pioneering many safety improvements now taken for granted. Mercedes Benz recently escalated the marketing of its safety features, highlighting its accident avoidance system in a number of television commercials.

Consumers – especially ones with young families -- now want and expect safe cars and manufacturers in nearly every price range are now designing their vehicles with safety in mind. The safety features address two areas; ways to help you avoid getting into an accident and giving you added protection if an accident occurs.

High-tech improvements

To avoid accidents carmakers over the years have added improved stability control and braking – in addition to the high-tech collision avoidance systems available on the Mercedes and other high-priced vehicles. Common now, on even many entry-level cars – are multiple airbags, improved chassis designs and crumple zones that can keep the occupants safer in a crash.

Cars with six airbags, including ones on the side called “curtain airbags,” have become the norm, especially on vehicles earning spots on the official and unofficial safe car lists.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains the official auto safety list, awarding 5-Star Safety Ratings to the safest vehicles, broken down by vehicle type and class. Starting with 2011 models, NHTSA introduced tougher tests and a new 5-Star Safety Ratings that provide more information about vehicle safety and crash avoidance technologies. Because of the more stringent tests, 2011 and newer vehicles are held to a higher standard than those that came before.

To shop for a safe car or truck, consumers can start here, comparing the safety ratings on the vehicles they are considering. 

Safety ratings

PhotoThe Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is one of the major non-government testing agencies that rates automobiles for their safety. To determine crashworthiness — how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash — IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in five tests: moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints.

In its latest ranking, the 2014 Honda Odyessy – a minivan – earned the Institute's top safety rating for good performance in all five IIHS crash evaluations, including the challenging small overlap front test, which is getting more attention from safety engineers. The Institute rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor based on performance in the moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, rollover and rear crash evaluations. The video below shows why it's important.

In August the Institute issued its small overlap front crash test results, showing a range of performance among many of the most popular small cars on U.S. highways. Of the 12 models evaluated, half earned a good or acceptable rating and qualified for the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK+ award.

Honda Civic No. 1

The standout in the group was the Honda Civic. The two- and four-door models were the only small cars to earn the top rating of good in the test. The Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and 2014 model Scion tC earn acceptable ratings.

As a group, the small cars didn't perform as well as their midsize, moderately-priced counterparts in the same test. However, they had better results 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," said David Zuby, IIHS's 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."

The good news, says Zuby, is that there are six small cars qualifying for IIHS's highest safety award. That, he says, broadens the choices for consumers who are looking for safety and affordability.

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Attorneys general press FDA to ban the sale of e-cigarette to minors

The AGs also want the FDA to regulate the ingredients and advertising of e-cigs

 Attorney General Lisa Madigan today urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and to regulate ingre...

PhotoThe attorneys general of 40 states today urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and to regulate ingredients and advertising of the popular new products, which the AGs said are highly addictive.

The FDA has been studying the issue for more than a year and is expected to issue regulations shortly.

In a letter to the FDA, the 40 attorneys general called on the agency to take all available measures to regulate e-cigarettes as “tobacco products” under the Tobacco Control Act. E-cigs are battery-operated products that heat liquid nicotine, turning it into a vapor that is inhaled by the user.

Unlike traditional tobacco products, there are no federal age restrictions that would prevent children from obtaining e-cigarettes but the AGs say there should be. They urged the FDA to protect teens and children from becoming addicted to nicotine, citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey that showed the percentages of youth who have tried or currently use e-cigarettes roughly doubled from 2011 to 2012.

The survey estimated that in 2012 nearly 1.8 million middle and high school students had tried e-cigarettes.

"Deceptive health claims"

“It’s widely known that most adult smokers start smoking at an early age, in part because manufacturers and advertisers have historically targeted young consumers with flashy marketing campaigns and deceptive health claims,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. “We’re seeing the same tactics at work in the e-cigarette industry. The FDA needs to put a stop to this before more teens take up this dangerous habit.”

The AGs' letter noted that e-cigarette manufacturers are using celebrity endorsements, television advertising, cartoons, attractive packaging and cheap prices to encourage young people to try e-cigs.

PhotoSome marketing, they said, has included claims that e-cigs do not contain the same level of toxins and carcinogens found in traditional cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products.

"These claims imply that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to smoking, when in fact nicotine is highly addictive, the health effects of e-cigarettes have not been adequately studied, and the ingredients are not regulated and may still contain carcinogens," Madigan said. "The lack of regulation puts the public at risk because users of e-cigarettes are inhaling unknown chemicals with unknown effects."

In 1998, the attorneys general of 52 states and territories signed a landmark agreement with the country’s four largest tobacco companies to recover billions of dollars in costs associated with smoking-related illnesses and restrict cigarette advertising to prevent youth smoking.

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Massive sweepstakes scam halted

You are a 'guaranteed' winner -- but you're not

A massive sweepstakes scam that has taken more than $11 million from consumers throughout the U.S. and dozens of other countries including Canada, the Unit...

PhotoA massive sweepstakes scam that has taken more than $11 million from consumers throughout the U.S. and dozens of other countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan, has been brought to a screeching halt -- for the time being anyway.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is seeking to put a permanent end to the allegedly illegal practices that have continued for seven years, and return money to victims.

Bogus letters sent

According to the FTC’s complaint, Liam O. Moran, a resident of Ventura, Calif., and his companies, mass mail personalized letters to millions of consumers telling them that they have won a large cash prize, typically more than $2 million with bold, large-type statements such as “Over TWO MILLION DOLLARS in sweepstakes has been reserved for you.”

Consumers are told that they can collect the prize by sending in a small fee of approximately $20 to $30. The letters often indicate that recipients are “guaranteed” to receive the prize money if they pay the fee, and they create a sense of urgency by stating that it is a limited-time offer.

In “dense, confusing language,” often on the back of the letters, there are statements in direct conflict with the bold claims of major winnings, the FTC said. A very careful reader might learn that he -- in fact -- has not won, and that the defendants do not sponsor sweepstakes but instead claim only to provide consumers with a list of available sweepstakes. Consumers frequently fail to see or understand this language and send money to the defendants.

The FTC contends that this language does not appear designed to correct deceptive statements, but exists mainly as an attempt to provide a defense to law enforcement action. Consumers get nothing of value in exchange for their payment.

The defendants have sent more than 3.7 million letters during the past two years, including nearly 800,000 letters to people in 156 countries in the first half of 2013. They have collected more than $11 million from consumers since 2009. The vast majority of the victims of this scam appear to be over 65.

The case continues

The court order temporarily stops the illegal conduct, freezes the operation’s assets, and appoints a receiver over the corporate defendants while the FTC moves forward with the case.

Moran’s co-defendants are Applied Marketing Sciences LLC; Standard Registration Corporation, also doing business as Consolidated Research Authority and CRA; and Worldwide Information Systems Incorporated, also doing business as Specific Monitoring Service, SMS, Specific Reporting Service, SRS, Universal Information Services, UIS, Compendium Sampler Services, and CSS.

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Another month of rising home prices

Two widely watched measures show the advance continuing

Your home was worth more in July than it was in June -- a pattern that's stretched over at least the last four months. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller H...

PhotoYour home was worth more in July than it was in June -- a pattern that's stretched over at least the last four months.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, home prices in July were up 1.9% and 1.8% from June for the 10- and 20-City Composites. All 20 cities have showed showed monthly gains for at least the last four months. Phoenix has now posted 22 consecutive months of advances.

Although home prices in all the cities increased, 15 cities and both Composites saw the increase in the monthly rates decelerate in July versus June. Over the last 12 months, prices rose 12.3% and 12.4% as measured by the 10- and 20-City Composites. The year-over-year returns show a brighter outlook with 13 cities posting improvement in July versus June values. Las Vegas increased the most from +24.9% in June to an impressive +27.5% in July.

No peaks yet

“Home prices gains are holding their 12% annual rate of gain established by the two Composite indices in April,” says David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The Southwest continues to lead the housing recovery. Las Vegas home prices are up 27.5% year-over-year; in California, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego are up 24.8%, 20.8% and20.4% respectively. However, all remain far below their peak levels.

Since April 2013, all 20 cities are up month to month; however, the monthly rates of price gains have declined, with more cities are experiencing slow gains each month than the previous month. That, says Blitzer, suggests the rate of increase may have peaked.

“Following the increase in mortgage rates beginning last May, applications for mortgages have dropped, suggesting that rising interest rates are affecting housing,” he said, adding, “The Fed’s announcement last week that QE3 bond buying will continue for the time being may have only a limited, though favorable, impact on housing.”

As of July 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 21-22%. The recovery from the March 2012 lows is 20.5% and 21.2% for the 10-City and 20-City Composites.

FHFA house price index

Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) monthly House Price Index (HPI) shows home prices were up 1.0% in July from their June levels. That's the eighteenth consecutive monthly price increase.

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages either sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Compared with July 2012, house prices were up 8.8% in July. The U.S. index is 9.6% below its April 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the March 2005 index level.

For the nine census divisions, monthly price changes from June to July ranged from -0.7% in the East South Central division to +2.2% in the Pacific division, while the 12-month changes ranged from +3.8% in the East South Central division to +20.8% in the Pacific division.

The full July report is available on the FHFA website.

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Whoops! Consumer confidence slips a bit

Concerns about jobs and earnings are to blame

Consumers appear to have become a bit wobbly about the economy in September. According to the Conference Board, its Consumer Confidence Index, slipped thi...

PhotoConsumers appear to have become a bit wobbly about the economy in September.

According to The Conference Board, its Consumer Confidence Index, slipped this month after showing some strength in August. It now stands at 79.7 – a drop of just over two points from its reading of 81.8 the previous month. The Present Situation Index grew to 73.2 from 70.9, while the Expectations Index fell to 84.1 from 89.0 last month.

“Consumer Confidence decreased in September as concerns about the short-term outlook for both jobs and earnings resurfaced, while expectations for future business conditions were little changed,” said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators. “Consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions, however, was more positive. While overall economic conditions appear to have moderately improved, consumers are uncertain that the momentum can be sustained in the months ahead.”

How they see it

Consumers’ appraisal of present-day conditions improved moderately. Those who say business conditions are “good” increased to 19.5% from 18.7%, while those who think conditions are “bad” fell to 23.9% from 24.5$.

Consumers’ assessment of the labor market also was more favorable. Those who believe jobs are “plentiful” inched up to 11.5% from 11.3%, while those saying jobs are “hard to get” fell to a five-year low of 32.7% from 33.3%.

Consumers’ expectations, which had increased in August, declined in September. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months edged up to 20.9% from 20.6%, while those expecting business conditions to worsen was virtually unchanged at 11.0%.

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market, however, grew more pessimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead dropped to 16.9% from 17.5%, while those anticipating fewer jobs increased to 19.7% from 17.2%. The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase declined to 15.4% from 17.5%.

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 September 13.

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Burger King unveils lower-calorie "Satisfries"

They're fried in a new batter that doesn't absorb as much oil

Face it, it's pretty hard to give up French fries. So Burger King is hoping its new lower-calorie fries will find a following....

PhotoFace it, it's pretty hard to give up French fries. So Burger King is hoping its new lower-calorie fries will find a following.

The company says its new "Satisfries" have 70 fewer calories than a same-sized serving of their regular fries -- 270 compared to 340. The ingredients are the same -- potato, oil and batter.

The difference, Burger King says, is in the batter, which absorbs less oil and, therefore, less fat and fewer calories. 

This isn't really a new idea. For decades, food manufacturers have been producing lower-fat, lower-calorie versions of what are basically indulent foods -- ice cream, cookies and so forth.

It's a way of having your cake and eating it too, as the saying goes. BK is hoping to lure customers who want to cut back on calories and fat but don't want to give up the satisfaction of munching on a new crispy French fry.

Burger King isn't saying exactly what it did to the batter, in hopes of staying ahead of the competition for at least a few months.

The new fries have a different shape -- they're crinkle-cut, whereas Burger King's regular fries are straight-edged. The company says the shape has nothing to do with the caloric content; it's just intended to help customers and employees tell which kind of fry they're eating.

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Honda recalls Odyssey and Acura MDX vehicles

The vehicles' airbags could fail

Honda is recalling 374,618 model year 2003 and 2004 Odyssey and model year 2003 Acura MDX vehicles. Due to electrical noise, a component in the air bag c...

PhotoHonda is recalling 374,618 model year 2003 and 2004 Odyssey and model year 2003 Acura MDX vehicles.

Due to electrical noise, a component in the air bag control module may fail causing the front air bags, side curtain air bags, and/or seatbelt pretensioners to deploy inadvertently while the vehicle is being operated. Inadvertent deployment of the air bags may increase the risk of injury and the possibility of a vehicle crash.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will install a noise suppressor unit, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on, or about, October 28, 2013.

Owners may contact Honda at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's recall numbers are JC2 (Honda Odyssey) and JC3 (Acura MDX).

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Latest threat from China: Chicken

Senator wants more rigorous inspections and clear labeling of Chinese chicken imports

Chicken from China has been blamed for many pet owners for the illnesses and deaths their dogs have experienced after eating treats made with chicken from ...

PhotoChicken from China has been blamed by many pet owners for the illnesses and deaths their dogs have experienced after eating treats made with Chinese chicken.

The only consolation was that Chinese chicken wasn't approved for human consumption in the United States. But that's about to change. Soon, chicken from at least four Chinese plants will not only be allowed into the U.S. but will be sold without any labeling that identifies its origin.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) thinks this is foolhardy and is demanding action from the Agriculture Department.

“Given the well-documented shortcoming of the Chinese food safety system, we shouldn’t allow unmarked meat into our markets that is processed in Chinese facilities that are not subject to food safety inspections,” Brown said in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “This action could endanger the health and safety of American consumers and potentially undermines confidence in our nation’s food safety standards.”

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is also questioning the policy, saying that Chinese food-safety regulations are “terrible.” DeLauro says she fears the consequences of China's use of illegal antibiotics and its ongoing problems with various strains of bird flu.

Equivalent to what?

USDA recently reaffirmed an "equivalency standard" that grants four Chinese poultry processors the ability to ship processed meat into American markets, based on the premise that the Chinese inspectors are equivalent to their American counterparts.

Photo
Sen. Sherrod Brown

Under the USDA guidelines, no USDA inspector will be present in Chinese facilities and products will lack country of origin labeling. Consumers will be unable to identify whether the chicken in their nuggets, patties or canned soups is from Chinese processors.

It's not the first time Brown has played a role in food safety. During a U.S. Senate Agriculture hearing in July, Brown urged heightened scrutiny of a Chinese-subsidized company’s bid to buy Smithfield Foods. Brown emphasized that any review of the deal should consider the national security, food safety, and long-term food security implications of approving the transaction.

In 2012, Brown led the way in holding the Food and Drug Administration responsible after an Ohio family’s five-month old puppy, Penny, passed away after eating tainted chicken jerky made in China, one of many such cases reported in recent years. 

In February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it has been trying to find a cause for the widespread reports of dogs that became ill and died after eating jerky treats containing chicken from China. Without directly blaming China, the FDA noted that there has been a dramatic increase in pet food imported from China over the last ten years.

PhotoThe FDA said in February that it had received about 2,200 reports of pets becoming ill or dying after eating jerky treats; 360 died. Most of those reports involved dogs, although a few cats have also become ill.

By the FDA's count, the amount of pet food imported from China has grown 85-fold in recent years, with nearly 86 million pounds of pet food being imported in 2011.

It noted that, at that time, Chinese chicken was not approved for human consumption in the U.S., which made more of it available at attractive prices for use in pet food.

Questions for USDA

In his letter to Vilsack, Brown said that American consumers "deserve to be fully informed of their product choices and should be afforded every opportunity to buy quality, American-sourced food products that support U.S. farmers and U.S.-based employment."  

He posed the following questions

  • When will the first Chinese-processed poultry shipments reach U.S. ports of entry? 
  • Is it true that poultry processed in China would be labeled upon reaching our shores, and possibly subject to reinspection, but regulatory exemptions for processed poultry and meats allow labeling to be removed before these products are purchased by American consumers?  If so, how might this labeling gap be remedied by USDA?
  • What additional regulatory or labeling steps might USDA take to ensure that American consumers are given all currently available information regarding supply chain safety and country of origin of their meat products (processed and unprocessed)? 
  • Has FSIS requested that it be able to station its inspectors in Chinese poultry facilities when products destined for export to the U.S. are processed?  If not, why not?
  • Will there be intensified port-of-entry inspection of products imported from China under the provisions of the August 30, 2013 FSIS announcement?  If so, please identify those measures and the agency responsible for implementation.
  • Is USDA or FSIS also currently working toward approving the shipment of Chinese-origin poultry and other meats (processed or unprocessed) to the U.S.?  If so, what is the status of that effort?
  • What if any further regulatory or administrative steps are required before FSIS decision on processing poultry in China is fully implemented?
  • Which U.S., Canadian, or Chilean poultry slaughter facilities have been identified by USDA that will ship raw poultry to China for further processing?
  • Has USDA developed or sought industry-wide data concerning the anticipated employment effects of its decisions on the U.S. based poultry and meat processing industry?
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It's not easy switching banks

A bill in Congress would make it easier and protect consumers against unfair fees

Have you tried to close a bank account recently? It's not as easy as you'd think. Among other obstacles, many banks will continue to honor automatic paymen...

PhotoHave you tried to close a bank account recently? It's not as easy as you'd think. Among other obstacles, many banks will continue to honor automatic payments, putting an inactive account into overdraft and piling on the fees. Some will even reopen a closed account to pile on more fees.

Sherrie of Memphis learned this when she tried to close her account with Regions Bank. 

"I went into Regions in October or November 2012. I wanted to close my account because I was going through a separation with husband," she said. "I withdrew all except $20 because the teller said there was something pending come back tomorrow it should clear and then close account. The next day I went back in and closed the account and got my last $20."

And that, she thought, was the end of it. 

But in December, Sherrie said, "I received a call from Regions that told me that AT&T opened my checking account up and they have been charging me fees ever since because AT&T opened my account and tried to get money. Now they said I owe them over a hundred dollars worth of NSF fees."

It took a ConsumerAffairs reporter more than a year to finally close a Wells Fargo checking account and cost hundreds of dollars in fees, all because the bank continued honoring direct payment requests from companies that had ignored requests to switch automatic payment drafts to a new account. 

"Commonsense legislation"

Legislation introduced in Congress last week would make life a little easier. The bill was introduced in both the House and Senate by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill). 

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Sen. Tom Harkin
“It should be easy for consumers to place their money in a financial institution of their choice.  But, today, too many hardworking families, in particular those of modest means, do not have the flexibility to close an existing account and move institutions,” said Harkin. “The commonsense legislation we are introducing today will allow consumers to easily and fairly move their money, which will also help make our banking system more competitive.”

“This bill would make sure bank customers are able to transfer their business if and when they decide to do so, eliminating obstacles and ensuring transparency in the banking system,” said Rep. Schakowsky. “I’ve heard from many of my constituents who still have problems moving their money to a new bank, but this bill would end that problem.”

A 2012 report by Consumers Union, “Trapped at the Bank,” found consumers can encounter myriad problems in switching banks accounts such as delays and uncertainty regarding automatic transfers, fees, or banks reopening closed accounts.  The report also found that bank disclosures typically fail to contain even rudimentary information to help consumers in closing an account. 

Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, said, “As frustrated as some people are with their banks, people tend to stay put because it can be a huge hassle to switch.  This bill would remove some of the barriers that make it hard for bank customers to take their business elsewhere.  This is a common-sense solution that gives consumers more choices and options, and it makes the banking system more competitive and accountable.”

What it would do

Regions Bank Sept. 21, 2013, 7:15 p.m.
Consumers rate Regions Bank

The Freedom and Mobility in Consumer Banking Act would create clear rules of the road for how to close an account and move to a new institution.  The bill would direct the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to issue rules to:

  • Give consumers the right to close an account without a fee, regardless of the remaining balance;
  • Give consumers a choice of how to receive their funds upon closing their accounts, including a check or electronic transfer;
  • Protect consumers from having old accounts reopened without their consent;
  • Protect consumers from being charged any account fees after requesting to close the account;
  • Require banks to provide clear account closing procedures; and
  • Require banks to provide a list of all the automated transactions, such as direct deposit and bill payments, that go in and out of a consumer’s existing account to help consumers reroute those transactions to a new account.

Among the national groups supporting this legislation are: American for Financial Reform (AFR), The Center for Economic Justice, CFA, Consumer Action, Consumers Union, The National Fair Housing Alliance, The National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low- income clients), and U.S. PIRG.

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Maybe the US Postal Service can't be profitable

USPS troubles aren't new, but no one seems very eager to fix them

Maybe it’s time to admit the US Postal Service can’t make a profit in the twenty-first century. I check my mailbox every day and this week&rsqu...

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The "Forever" stamp is good for now, anyway.

Maybe it’s time to admit the U.S. Postal Service can’t make a profit in the twenty-first century. I check my mailbox every day and this week’s snail-mail tally includes two bills, one magazine, a jury-duty questionnaire (ugh) and dozens of pieces of junk mail: fliers, catalogs, coupon books, political endorsements, advertising postcards and a baker’s dozen of credit-card offers.

Almost all of this junk mail went directly from my mailbox to my recycling bin (except the credit-card offers, which first had to be cut into unreadable little pieces as protection against identity theft).

The U.S. Post Office is established in the U.S. Constitution; Article 1, Section 8 grants Congress the power, “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.” Back in the eighteenth century, mail was pretty much the only mass communication system in existence, so this was a very big deal.

Now it’s 2013, you’re reading this on the Internet, and if you’re in the habit of regularly checking Internet news sources you’ve noticed that never a year goes by without some version of the “U.S. Post Office is in financial trouble” story making the rounds.

We published one just a few days ago, after the U.S. Postmaster General testified before the Senate that the post office is in serious financial trouble, and will soon have only enough money on hand to cover five days’ worth of operating expenses.

Not really surprising

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Post offices like this in New York probably are profitable, even though they're not as essential as those in rural areas which generally aren't profitable.

It's not like this is really surprising. Two years ago, Business Insider reported that “The US Postal Service Nears Collapse” and partially explained why:

“[The post office] relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining—in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.”

Hence the bagfuls of junk mail I throw out every week. What happened to all those first-class letters? Email and free domestic long-distance calls made most of them obsolete. So the post office covers part of the financial gap by delivering junk mail to people who don’t want it, which doesn’t sound like a viable long-term business model.

Maybe the problem is inherent to anything where you’re supposed to apply terms like “business model” or “profitable operating costs” to what arguably qualifies as a legal obligation or a public utility. In the era of the Internet, unlimited long-distance phone calls, and private delivery services like FedEx and UPS, is the old-school post office model still necessary?

Density drives profits

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Postal clerks once rode the rails to sort mail overnight. (Source: Postal Museum Blog)

Maybe it is, at least for people living out in the sticks. It’s easy for private companies like FedEx and UPS to make a profit delivering to people living in areas of high population density. But consider what Business Insider noted about the post office back in 2011:

“The USPS is a wondrous American creation. Six days a week it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail—40 percent of the entire world's volume. For the price of a 44¢ stamp [46¢ as of 2013], you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation's borders. The service will carry it by pack mule to the Havasupai Indian reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mailmen on snowmobiles take it to the wilds of Alaska. If your recipient can no longer be found, the USPS will return it at no extra charge. It may be the greatest bargain on earth.”

True enough, and it’s great that Americans living in remote wilderness areas accessible only by snowmobile or pack mule can still get mail sent to and from their fellow Americans in the rest of the country. But how realistic is it to criticize the guys expected to deliver mail on muleback for only 46 cents per letter, because they aren’t operating in the black?

Of course, everybody knows all this already. But like so many things that seem eternally stuck in Congress, nobody wants to do much of anything about it. Except talk. Maybe we should all send them a letter?

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On a diet? Sugar might be better than low-calorie sweetener

Studies suggest artificial sweeteners won't satisfy sugar cravings

Your brain is much harder to fool than your tongue...

PhotoIf you’re trying to lose weight or keep from gaining any, eating actual sugar might be better than making do with low-calorie artificial sweeteners.

So says Yale University professor Ivan de Araulo, in a press release published on Sept. 22. De Araulo was lead researcher of a study which seems to indicate that your brain is much harder to fool than your tongue—however sweet an artificial sugar-free might taste, it won’t satisfy your brain’s food-craving center as effectively as genuine sugar.

With all the “sugar makes you fat” and “beware diabetes” warning stories you see in the news, sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s a valid biological reason humans evolved to crave sugar: it’s a concentrated source of food energy. Sugar isn’t inherently bad for your health; excessive amounts of sugar is.

Fewer calories

The logic behind using artificial sweeteners in lieu of sugar is that the fake stuff has fewer calories than sucrose or fructose; thus, the weight-conscious person can satisfy their craving for sweets while consuming far less calories.

The problem, as suggested by de Araulo’s study (among others),  is that artificial sweeteners might not satisfy that craving after all. As de Araulo wrote in his press release, “The study identified a specific physiological brain signal that is critical for determining choice between sugars and sweeteners. This signal regulates dopamine levels – a chemical necessary for reward signalling in the brain – and only arises when sugar is broken down into a form where it is usable as fuel for cells of the body to function.”

In other words: when you have a sugar craving, what eventually satisfies that craving is not the sensation of sweetness on your tongue, but the presence of dopamine in your brain. And, regardless of what sweet flavors stimulate your taste buds, your brain won’t generate that dopamine unless it gets some genuine sugar to work with.

Yale and de Araulo are far from the first researchers to suggest that low-calorie sweeteners might paradoxically result in weight gain caused by increased food cravings; as early as 2008, we noted that

“Psychologists at Purdue University's Ingestive Behavior Research Center reported that, compared with rats that ate yogurt sweetened with sugar, those given yogurt sweetened with zero-calorie saccharin later consumed more calories, gained more weight, put on more body fat, and didn't make up for it by cutting back later.

“Authors Susan Swithers, PhD, and Terry Davidson, PhD, theorize that by breaking the connection between a sweet sensation and high-calorie food, the use of saccharin changes the body’s ability to regulate intake.”

Five years later, de Araulo and his team made the similar observation that “humans frequently ingesting low-calorie sweet products in a state of hunger or exhaustion may be more likely to 'relapse' and choose high calorie alternatives in the future.”

The solution, according to de Araulo, might not be to cut out the use of artificial sweetener altogether, but to combine them with actual sugar in amounts sufficient to satisfy the brain’s craving for it. “The results suggest that a 'happy medium' could be a solution; combining sweeteners with minimal amounts of sugar so that energy metabolism doesn't drop, while caloric intake is kept to a minimum.”

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It's not just knowledge and skills that get you the job

A new study offers tip on getting hired and climbing the ladder

Pretty much everyone agrees that strong skills and experience are essential to getting a job. But, those only the only factors that enter into the decision...

PhotoPretty much everyone agrees that strong skills and experience are essential to getting a job. But, those only the only factors that enter into the decision-making process when the hiring is actually done.

A new study from CareerBuilder.com finds that a sense of humor, an eye for fashion, or even knowledge of current affairs and pop culture could also play some part in influencing who gets the job and who doesn't.

Where the rubber meets the road

The nationwide study, conducted online by Harris Interactive in the May-June 2013 period included 2,076 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries. Employers were asked, if they had two equally qualified candidates, which factors would make them more likely to consider one candidate over another. Their responses included:

  • The candidate with the better sense of humor - 27%
  • The candidate who is involved in his or her community - 26%
  • The candidate who is better dressed - 22%
  • The candidate with whom I have more in common - 21%
  • The candidate who is more physically fit - 13%
  • The candidate who is more on top of current affairs and pop culture - 8%
  • The candidate who is more involved in social media - 7%
  • The candidate who is knowledgeable about sports - 4%

“When you’re looking for a job, the key is selling your personal brand. Employers are not only looking for people who are professionally qualified for the position, but also someone who is going to fit in at the office,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. “Once you get the job, however, the process doesn’t simply stop. Employers will continuously assess personality, performance and behavior when considering prospects for promotions. You want to treat your current job like an extended interview for the next job you want in the company.”

Movin' on up

One third (33%) of employers said they are more likely to promote an employee who has been vocal about asking for a promotion in the past. However, there are also several behaviors other than sub-par or average performance that employers identified as red flags, keeping employees from promotions, including:

  • Someone who says, “that’s not my job” - 71%
  • Someone who is often late - 69%
  • Someone who has lied at work - 68%
  • Someone who takes credit for other people’s work - 64%
  • Someone who often leaves work early - 55%
  • Someone who takes liberties with expenses charged back to the company - 55%
  • Someone who gossips - 46%
  • Someone who doesn’t dress professionally - 35%
  • Someone who swears - 30%
  • Someone who doesn’t say anything in meetings - 22%
  • Someone who cried at work - 9%
  • Someone who has dated a co-worker - 8%

The survey also found that promotions aren’t necessarily accompanied by higher compensation. Nearly two-thirds of employers (63%) said that a promotion at their firms doesn’t always include a pay raise.

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Buying your car at the end of your lease

How to tell if it makes sense

The end of your auto lease is approaching and you have to make a decision. Do you turn the car over to the lender, as called for under the lease agreement,...

PhotoThe end of your auto lease is approaching and you have to make a decision. Do you turn the car over to the lender, as called for under the lease agreement, or do you purchase it?

As is the answer to a lot of questions, it depends. Primarily, it depends on the residual value of the vehicle, specified in the lease. That number, in large part, will determine whether the purchase would be to your advantage.

Currently there are many attractive lease deals in the marketplace. Consumers can lease a nice car for not much more than $200 a month.

Pay now or pay later

The thing that makes those current lease deals so attractive, however, works against you if you want to buy the vehicle. Lease payments are partially based on the residual value of the car at the end of the lease. Because cars – even small economy cars – are holding their values at a much higher rate these days, those residual values are higher.

A higher residual value at the end of the lease means your payments are lower but your purchase price, at the end of the lease, would be higher. But don't forget, that residual price was set at the beginning of the lease term – often three or more years ago.

The experts at automotive site Edmunds.com say how accurately the residual value in your lease agreement reflects current market values is the deciding factor in whether buying your lease vehicle is a good deal or not.

Know the market value

Edmunds.com Sr. Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed says the general rule of thumb is if the residual value is less than the current market value, “then the buyout is a good deal.” Edmunds' True Market Value estimator is one source of current market values. Kelly Blue Book's Blue Book Value is another.

On the flip side, Reed advises that if the car's residual value is higher than the market value, then the smart play is to turn in your leased car and move on to the next vehicle.

Autotrader.com, another automotive website, brings up another reason you might be motivated to purchase your leased vehicle. The lease agreement requires you to keep the vehicle in excellent condition and drive it no more than a set number of miles.

If you go over the miles, and pick up a small dent in the rear door along the way, you'll have to pay for those transgressions – unless you purchase the vehicle. The amount of that fee might be a factor in your decision.

The phone call

As the end of your lease approaches the leasing company will probably call you to discuss your options. According to Autotrader, you should ask plenty of questions but make no decision while you are on the call. Ending the lease to your advantage will require some research and thought.

As your lease is ending you may already be inclined to purchase your car, but according to Bankrate.com, you should refrain from calling the leasing company. Rather, you should wait for the leasing company to call you.

The leasing company is going to sell your car to someone. If they can sell it to you, their life is a little easier. Therefore, there might be some room for negotiation, despite what you agreed to in the leasing contract. But Bankrate notes the leasing company will be less inclined to negotiate if you express enthusiasm for the purchase option. In other words, wear your poker face.

Nearly everything's negotiable

Many lease agreements include a "purchase option" fee, which is a fee of up to a couple of hundred dollars that must be paid on top of the residual price. This should be the first thing you try to negotiate away.

If the agreed-to residual value is higher than the current market value, you may have some leverage to negotiate it lower. Remember, the leasing company is going to sell your car – if not to you then to a wholesaler, who clearly knows what the real value is.

According to Edmunds, even the end of the lease can be subject to negotiation. If you aren't ready to end the lease but don't want to make a purchase decision either, you may be able to continue to lease on a month-to-month basis at the same price.

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Spooked by the economy? Fewer people to celebrate Halloween this year

A National Retail Federation survey says budgets will be trimmed, as well

Halloween sales may be cooler, along with the October weather, as fewer consumers plan to celebrate the holiday. According to the National Retail Federat...

PhotoHalloween sales may be cooler, along with the October weather, as fewer consumers plan to celebrate the holiday.

According to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) Halloween Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, nearly 158 million consumers will participate in Halloween activities, compared with the survey high of 170 million last year.

The survey also says that those who do celebrate will trim their budgets, with the average celebrant expected to spend $75.03 on decor, costumes, candy and fun, down nearly $5 from last year. Overall, average spending on Halloween has increased 54.7 percent since 2005, with total spending estimated to reach $6.9 billion this year.

“Still one of the most beloved and anticipated consumer holidays, Halloween will be far from a bust this year,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “After a long summer, the arrival of fall will put millions of Americans in the spirit to partake in traditional and festive activities.”

How we spend

One of the most cherished parts of the holiday -- dressing in costume -- will once again be popular. According to the survey, 43.6% of people plan to dress up and will spend a total of $2.6 billion on traditional and awe-inspiring costumes. Specifically, consumers will shell out $1.04 billion on children’s costumes, and $1.22 billion on adult costumes.

When it comes to pets, 13.8% of those celebrating will take the extra time to find the perfect costume for their four-legged friends to the tune of approximately $330 million.

Additionally, celebrants will spend $2.08 billion on candy and $360 million on greeting cards. Second only to Christmas in terms of spending on decorations, consumers will shell out $1.96 billion on life-size skeletons, fake cob webs, mantle pieces and other festive decorations.

When we shop

For the first time, NRF asked when people will begin shopping for Halloween. According to the survey, nearly one-third (32.8%) begin shopping before September 30. An additional 67.2% of consumers will shop in October. Specifically, 43.6% will begin the first two weeks in October and 23.6% will wait until the final two weeks of the month.

When it comes to inspiration for costume ideas, one-third (32.9%) will search for costume ideas online, another third (32.8%) will look for new ideas in a store, and one-fifth (20.8%) will seek advice from friends or family. Additionally, 14.1% will check Facebook  for inspiration and 3.8% will review blogs.

Nearly one in 10 (9.3%) will scour the visually-appealing Pinterest for costume ideas, versus 7.1% last year. Of those buying or making costumes, the average person will spend $27.85 -- a few cents less than last year.

How we celebrate

There are a variety of ways consumers will celebrate this year, with handing out candy being the most popular (72.0%). Others will carve a pumpkin (44.2%), visit a haunted house (20.3%), take their child trick-or-treating (31.7%) and decorate their home and/or yard (47.5%). Three in 10 (30.9%) will attend or host a party.

Despite the anticipation of the popular fall event, one-fourth of U.S. consumers (25.2%) say the state of the economy will affect their Halloween spending plans -- nearly nine in 10 (86.1%) will spend less overall, up a touch from last year. Additionally, 32.7% will buy less candy and 18.1% will make a costume instead of buying one.

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U.S. Marshals raid Virginia food companies

The facility was found to be infested with rodents and insects

U.S. Marshals seized food products at two Virginia companies -- Gourmet Provisions and Royal Cup -- after investigators found widespread and active rodent ...

PhotoU.S. Marshals seized food products at two Virginia companies -- Gourmet Provisions and Royal Cup -- after investigators found widespread and active rodent and insect infestation on the premises.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initiated seizures of products manufactured by Gourmet Provisions and stored by the two companies on September 16, 2013, under warrants issued by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

Failed inspection

During the most recent inspection, investigators found widespread rodent and insect activity, unclean equipment, and structural defects. Effective measures had not been taken to exclude insects and rodents from the facility and to protect food products and food contact surfaces from contamination.

“These companies have a responsibility for the safety and quality of their products,” said Melinda K. Plaisier, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “When firms do not uphold this responsibility, the FDA will take actions that demonstrate its commitment to assuring consumers that foods they buy are prepared, packaged, and held under sanitary conditions.”

Some of the seized goods had been under an embargo by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Gourmet Provisions manufactures and packages ice cream cones and stores other finished food products in its warehouse. Royal Cup stores coffee service items in a separate area within the Gourmet Provisions warehouse. Gourmet Provisions does business as Matt’s Supreme Cones. The two businesses are located on the same premises in Waynesboro, Va.

To date, no illnesses have been associated with these products.  

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The jury is still out on vitamin supplements

But evidence continues to support the power of the vitamins themselves

There are two ways to get vitamins, from food and from pills. Millions of consumers take vitamin supplements, yet they remain the source of confusion and c...

PhotoThere are two ways to get vitamins, from food and from pills. Millions of consumers take vitamin supplements, yet they remain the source of confusion and controversy. One study claims they have little value, another finds that they do.

Then, there's the whole alphabet of vitamins, each one with a different attribute. And the body of knowledge about individual supplements changes with each new study.

For example, a new study in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests vitamin B supplements may help reduce the risk of stroke. 

“Previous studies have conflicting findings regarding the use of vitamin B supplements and stroke or heart attack,” said author Xu Yuming, with Zhengzhou University in Zhengzhou, China. “Some studies have even suggested that the supplements may increase the risk of these events.”

Conflicting studies

If one study suggests a supplement is good for you and another says it's bad for you, it's really important to find the truth before you start taking it. In this latest study, which analyzed 14 randomized clinical trials with a total of 54,913 participants, vitamin B lowered the risk of stroke in the studies overall by seven percent. However, those who did suffer a stroke didn't fare any better because they were taking the supplements.

The researchers conclude that some vitamin B is better than others. Vitamin B9, often found in fortified cereals, appeared to reduce the helpful effects of vitamin B. Vitamin B12 did not appear to help reduce strokes.

“Based on our results, the ability of vitamin B to reduce stroke risk may be influenced by a number of other factors such as the body’s absorption rate, the amount of folic acid or vitamin B12 concentration in the blood, and whether a person has kidney disease or high blood pressure,” said Yuming. “Before you begin taking any supplements, you should always talk to your doctor.”

Getting up to speed on vitamins

Good advice. And it might also be helpful to educate yourself about vitamin supplements in general. A good place to start is with government health experts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

PhotoNIH cites B12 as one of the more important B vitamins, since it is a nutrient that helps keep the body's nerve and blood cells healthy and actually helps produce DNA, the basis of your genetic make-up. People take B12 to help prevent a type of anemia that makes people feel tired and sluggish.

B12 is found naturally in a wide variety of food, including beef liver, clams, fish and many dairy products. Vitamin B6 is important to your metabolism. It's found in poultry, fish, non-citrus fruit and starchy vegetables.

Vitamin C is another common vitamin that is popular as a supplement. In the body it acts as an antioxidant, protecting cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Fruits and vegetables are the best source of vitamin C. While vitamin C supplements are available, NIH says most people get enough of the nutrient in their diet.

Cancer fighter?

However, some people load up on vitamin C in the belief that it helps protect them against cancer. The experts at NIH say it isn't clear from scientific evidence that's the case. At least, it hasn't been proven. The agency does say that a few studies in animals and test tubes indicate that very high blood levels of vitamin C might shrink tumors, but that more research is needed to determine whether high-dose intravenous vitamin C helps treat cancer in people.

As you were probably told as a child, vitamin D promotes bone strength. Vitamin D is also important in other ways. Muscles need it to move, nerves need it to carry messages between the brain and every body part, and the immune system needs it to fight off bacteria and viruses.

Together with calcium, vitamin D also helps protect older adults from osteoporosis. That's why many middle-aged women, especially, take vitamin D supplements. Fish and dairy are the most common natural sources of the nutrient.

Vitamin E is another antioxidant that is popular in supplement form. It's important to the body's immune system and can promote healthy blood vessels. Vitamin E is found naturally in vegetable oil, nuts and green vegetables.

Getting vitamins from food is best

PhotoWhere does NIH come down on supplements? The agency says if you don't eat a nutritious variety of foods, some supplements might help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients. However, it says supplements “can't take the place of the variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet.”

Which is why they are called "supplements." Before deciding to take any kind of dietary supplement be sure to discuss it with your physician.

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Marketers agree: Taking women seriously is seriously hard to do

Color it pink and it's good to go

Women aren't as exotic as market researchers think...

PhotoI’m sure MediaPost meant well when it published this article but even so -- my fragile, delicate, ladylike shoulders slumped when I read that “Marketers Should Take Women Seriously as Consumers,” because every time marketers attempt to take us womenfolk “seriously” they make utter asses of themselves.

Item one: “Bic For Her” pens. Remember those? Last year, some guy (it had to be a guy) high in the ranks of the Bic corporation decided traditional ballpoint pens were too manly and aggressive for the female half of the human race, so they came out with “Bic Cristal For Her” pens  which, according to the ad copy on Amazon, features an “Elegant design: just for her!” (translation: the plastic outer casings come in various pastel colors) and a “Thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand.” On Amazon, Bic Cristal For Her ladylike writing implements cost $9.04 for 16 pens, compared to only $1.71 per dozen for the standard, manly Bic Cristal.

Why are Bic’s ladypens for her over four times more expensive than standard manpens? Maybe Bic thinks women won’t notice the differential because we’re all so bad at math. Or perhaps Bic, like MediaPost, sought advice from Michael J. Silverstein of the Boston Consulting Group, and learned that one way to tell the difference between ordinary “consumers” and exotic “women consumers” is that women “are willing to pay more across many categories for products and services.”

A car for women

Item two: A decade ago, the Volvo car company decided to kick in the new millennium by introducing a special concept car “for women.” What does Volvo think women want—reliability, good mileage, extra safety features? Nope. The concept car featured interchangeable upholstery, because – actual quote – there’s “No need to trade in your car just because you have grown tired of its colour scheme!”

PhotoThe car also had a hood that cannot be opened, because Volvo quoted an actual woman who said “The only time I ever open my [car’s hood] is when I need to fill up with windscreen washer fluid.” (Does she never even check her car’s oil levels? Of course not; checking the oil requires handling the dipstick and a proper woman never touches any dipstick unless it’s attached to her lawfully wedded husband.)

Item three: Pastel-colored tools “for women.” Hammers, screwdrivers, paintbrushes and sundry other hand tools just like the menfolks’, except they’re vastly more expensive and come in feminine colors like pink. Or mauve.  Or floral patterns.

PhotoAccording to Silverstein and other deep, manly thinkers in the Boston Consulting Group, the two things women dislike most about various products is “poor product design for women” and “clumsy sales and marketing.” I can’t argue with that premise; I just wish companies would stop deciding the antidote to poor design and clumsy marketing is “Color everything pink, add the words ‘for women’ in a frilly-script font and then charge at least double for everything.”

Here’s an idea: unless you’re selling actual gender-specific medicines, undergarments or hygiene/grooming products, why don’t you forget about marketing “to women” or “to men,” and just try marketing to people?

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New bill would toughen food labeling standards

But imposing new regulations on the food industry is treacherous work, often unsuccessful

A mock-up of the proposed new labelFood labels are notoriously hard to read and often difficult to understand. A newly-proposed bill in Congress seeks ...

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A mock-up of the proposed new label

Food labels are notoriously hard to read and often difficult to understand. A newly-proposed bill in Congress seeks to change all that. It would create a single, standard front-of-package label, require greater disclosure of sugar and caffeine content, and define how common claims such as "natural" and "healthy" can be used. 

The Food Labeling Modernization Act is being introduced by three Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), with backing from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

"In the Bizzaro world of Superman comics, up is down, day is night, and things are generally the inverse of what they are in reality," said Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI's executive director in a prepared statement. "Regrettably, when harried dads and moms plow their shopping carts down supermarket aisles, they encounter a similar, strange world: One where 'whole grain' waffles can be made mostly of white flour, where 'all natural' granola bars can have factory-refined high maltose corn syrup, and where artery-clogging ice cream bars can cheerfully boast of their lack of trans fats."

The bill's sponsors argue that major labeling requirements, last updated in 1990 and, in some cases, the 1930s, are in need of major changes to deliver the consistent, clear information that Americans need to combat the obesity crisis and make healthier choices.

The bill would direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a single, standard front-of-package nutrition labeling system for all food products that are required to carry nutrition labeling. 

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Comparison of current food label and the proposed new label. Source: CSPI

Children at risk

“Childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the past 30 years and is a huge public health problem in this country that puts millions of American children at risk. Healthy eating is critical to combating this epidemic," said Rep. Pallone. "That is why it is so important that when families make the effort to eat nutritious, healthy food, the labels on food products help them make the right choices—not confuse or mislead them.” 

Sen. Blumenthal said food labels are often "deceptive."

“Grocery stores throughout the country are filled with products that bear labels with deceptive dietary information,” Blumenthal said. “The Food Labeling Modernization Act updates laws that haven’t been touched since 1930s, ensuring that consumers will know what they’re eating and parents will know what they’re feeding their kids.”

Terms defined

The bill would established definitions for the terms "healthy" and "natural" and would require that any product using the "whole grain" claim conspicuously post the amount of whole grain (as a percentage of total grain) on the label. 

It would also:

  • Require the daily values for calories and sugar, as well as the amount of any artificial sweeteners, to be listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel.
  • Require any product containing an amount of food reasonably consumed on a single occasion to state on the label that a single package contains one serving size.
  • Require disclosure of the amount of caffeine in the product, if it exceeeds 10 milligrams. 
  • Require the Secretary to issue comprehensive guidance for industry clarifying the scientific support needed to prevent false or misleading information.

Industry's counter-campaign

No one expects anything to happen anytime soon. Any attempt to impose new regulations on the food and drug industries turns into a long process. The food industry is expert and experienced at getting its way and has already launched its own program to simplify and standardize food labels.

Called Facts Up Front, the industry program is supported by a $50 million marketing campaign that touts it as an easy way for consumers to pick out healthy foods. But critics say it actually makes matters worse by allowing companies to highlight positive, marketable nutrients like fiber and protein, rather than listing only calories, saturated and trans fats and sodium content.

Many observers see the industry campaign as an effort to head off legislation like that introduced by Blumenthal et al.

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Allegiant Air grounding planes for inspection

The low-cost carrier said about half its fleet will be out of service

Saying it discovered a "compliance issue" involving emeregency slides, Allegiant Air says it will take about half its fleet out of service for inspecti...

PhotoSaying it discovered a "compliance issue" involving emeregency slides, Allegiant Air says it will take about half its fleet out of service for inspection.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant operates 64 airplanes, including 57 older MD-80s, the aircraft affected by the issue. Taking the airplanes out of service will cause major disruptions for its passengers. 

"We apologize for the disruption to our passengers and ask that they please remain patient as we work to correct the issue, reschedule affected flights and accommodate any passengers impacted," said Andrew Levy, Allegiant Travel Company President. "Allegiant is committed, above all else, to the safety of our passengers and crew, and we are dedicated to working around-the-clock to ensure that all of our fleet meets the highest standards."

Allegiant said it doesn't know how long the disruptions will last but said it has added call center staff to contact affected travelers directly. Customers may also sign up for flight alerts for individual flights at https://www2.allegiantair.com/flight-status or call 702-505-8888.

Allegiant flies mostly to tourism spots in Florida, Hawaii and the Southwest. It charges low fares but piles on fees for such things as assigned seats, refreshments and bagge. It also sells hotel rooms, rental cars and tickets to tourist attractions.

 

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A colonoscopy can stop colon cancer before it starts

Harvard researchers say more colonoscopies would result in fewer deaths

Colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, is caused by tumors growing in parts of the large intestine. In the past a colon cancer diagnosis was very o...

PhotoColorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, is caused by tumors growing in parts of the large intestine. In the past a colon cancer diagnosis was very often fatal. By the time it was discovered, it was usually too late.

But since these tumors almost always start out as benign polyps growing in the large intestine, doctors believed they could drastically reduce colon cancer deaths if they could just discover – and remove – these polyps before they transformed into cancerous tumors.

Thus was born the colonoscopy, a procedure by which a tiny camera is inserted through the patient's rectum for a look around the large intestine. The probe is equipped with a surgical instrument that can remove most polyps that are discovered.

With this screening tool, doctors expressed confidence they could significantly reduce the rate of colon cancer. But first, patients had to agree to submit to a colonoscopy and the public, it turned out, was a bit squeamish about this rather invasive procedure. Having to drink the unpleasant colon-cleansing cocktail the night before didn't help.

The Couric effect

Then there seemed to be a rather abrupt shift in the public attitude. In March 2000 NBC Today Show host Katie Couric underwent a very public colonoscopy on network television. Couric had become a strong advocate of the procedure after her husband Jay died of colon cancer.

Suddenly, more people were making appointments for colonoscopies, a result of what many doctors call “the Couric effect.” A later Archives of Internal Medicine study documented a 20% spike in colonoscopies in the wake of her broadcast.

For her part, Couric remains a strong advocate of the colonoscopy and, when it was time for her next one, once again invited the cameras in, resulting in a video that is both humorous and serious.

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 102,000 new cases of colon cancer in the U.S. in 2013. At the same time, the group notes the death rate from the disease has been dropping over the last 20 years.

“There are a number of likely reasons for this,” the group says. One is that polyps are being found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers. Screening is also allowing more colorectal cancers to be found earlier when the disease is easier to cure.

New evidence

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) maintains 40% of all colorectal cancers could be prevented if people of average risk underwent a colonoscopy every 10 years. 

"Colonoscopy is the most commonly used screening test in the U.S. but there was insufficient evidence on how much it reduces the risk of proximal colon cancer and how often people should undergo the procedure," said Shuji Ogino, co-senior author and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH. "Our study provides strong evidence that colonoscopy is an effective technique for preventing cancers of both distal and proximal regions of the colorectum, while sigmoidoscopy alone is insufficient for preventing proximal cancer."

The study also found that people who get a clean bill of health after a colonoscopy have a significantly reduced risk of colorectal cancer for up to 15 years after the procedure, although the data support repeat screening at shorter intervals among individuals with a personal history of adenoma -- a benign tumor of glandular origin that can become malignant over time -- or a family history of colorectal cancer.

When to get one

Unless you happen to be 50 years old or older, you may not have to worry about a colonoscopy for a while. It's generally recommended that people of average risk undergo their first procedure at age 50 and then, assuming no polyps are found, follow up with another 10 years later.

Who is at risk for colon cancer? According to the Mayo Clinic, age is the greatest risk factor. The majority of people diagnosed with colon cancer are over age 50. African-Americans have a greater risk than other races and you might be more likely to develop the disease if you have a parent, sibling or child with the disease. If more than one family member has colon cancer or rectal cancer, your risk is even greater. 

There is some research suggesting colon cancer and rectal cancer may be associated with a diet low in fiber and high in fat and calories. Some studies have found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who eat diets high in red meat.  

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Dog food additive may prevent disabling chemotherapy side effect

Johns Hopkins researchers say the substance fights neuropathy in mice

Many consumers have become wary of dog food because it contains so many additives. But researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that a common pet food ...

PhotoMany consumers have become wary of dog food because it contains so many additives. But researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that a common pet food preservative may prevent the painful nerve damage that afflicts many cancer patients taking the drug Taxol.

The preservative, an antioxidant called ethoxyquin, was shown in experiments on mice to bind to certain cell proteins in a way that limits their exposure to the damaging effects of Taxol, the researchers say.

Four out of five patients taking Taxol develop painful nerve damage in their hands and feet. The researchers hope that with what they've learned about ethoxyquin, they can develop a drug that could prevent the nerve damage.

While half of Taxol users recover from the pain damage, known as peripheral neuropathy, the other half continue to have often debilitating pain, numbness and tingling for the rest of their lives.

"Millions of people with breast cancer, ovarian cancer and other solid tumors get Taxol to treat their cancer and 80 percent of them will get peripheral neuropathy as a result," says Ahmet Höke, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurology and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Neuromuscular Division. "They're living longer thanks to the chemotherapy, but they are often miserable. Our goal is to prevent them from getting neuropathy in the first place."

A report on Höke's research is published online in the Annals of Neurology.

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BMW recalls passenger cars with taillight problems

Rear lamps could malfunction, increasing the risk of a crash

BMW is recalling 134,100 model year 2008 through 2010 528i, 535i, 550i, and M5 passenger cars manufactured from March 1, 2007, through December 31, 2009. ...

PhotoBMW is recalling 134,100 model year 2008 through 2010 528i, 535i, 550i, and M5 passenger cars manufactured from March 1, 2007, through December 31, 2009.

Over time, increased resistance at the taillight electrical contact points may cause damage to the ground terminal and housing of the connector resulting in an intermittent or permanent loss of functionality of one or more rear lamp functions (tail, brake, turn-signal, reverse). Intermittent light operation reduces the ability to warn other motorists of the driver's intentions, increasing the risk of a crash.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the rear lamp bulb carriers free of charge. The recall is expected to begin during October 2013.

Owners may contact BMW customer relations at 1-800-525-7417 or email BMW at CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

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Central Valley Meat recalls ground beef products

The beef may contain small pieces of plastic

Central Valley Meat Company of Hanford, Calif., is recalling 58,240 pounds of ground beef that may contain small pieces of plastic. The products subject t...

PhotoCentral Valley Meat Company of Hanford, Calif., is recalling 58,240 pounds of ground beef that may contain small pieces of plastic.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 40-lb. cases containing 10-lb. chubs of “Fine Ground Beef.”

The products bear the establishment number “Est. 6063A” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. The products were produced on April 1, 2013, and can be further identified by case code “6063A3091A” or “6063A3091B.”

The products were shipped to distribution centers in Arkansas, California, Montana and Texas, and were intended for use by the National School Lunch Program.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Brian Coelho, General Manager, at (559) 583-9624.

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Shimano American recalls disc brake calipers

The calipers on the disc brakes can fail

Shimano American Corporation of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 7,300 sets of disc brake calipers in the U.S. and Canada. The calipers on the disc brak...

PhotoShimano American Corporation of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 7,300 sets of disc brake calipers in the U.S. and Canada.

The calipers on the disc brakes can fail, posing a collision hazard. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall includes all Shimano BR-CX75 aftermarket disc brake calipers and BR-R515 disc brake calipers installed on road and cyclocross bicycles sold by other manufacturers including BMC, Giant, Ibis, Raleigh, Shinola, Specialized and Volagi. “Shimano,” “China” and the model number are embossed on the outside of the brake caliper. Both models have either black or silver finishes.

The calipers, manufactured in China, were sold at bicycle specialty stores and dealers nationwide from February 2012, through May 2013, for about $75 for the BR-CX75 model disc brake calipers and the BR-R515 model disc brake calipers price was included in the cost of the bicycles where installed.

Consumers should immediately stop using the bicycles with recalled Shimano brakes and contact a Shimano authorized dealer to receive a free installation and replacement of the calipers.

Consumers may contact Shimano American at (800) 353-4719 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Google baking up a replacement for cookies

Reports say the search giant is developing a proprietary tracking method to replace cookies

So this is how the cookie crumbles -- Google crushes it and sweeps the crumbs off the table.Consumers, parents, regulators and privacy advocates have com...

PhotoSo this is how the cookie crumbles -- Google crushes it and sweeps the crumbs off the table.

Consumers, parents, regulators and privacy advocates have complained for years about the tiny pieces of code called "cookies" that websites and advertisers place on users' computers, objecting to their use in "tracking" consumers around the web.

Google is said to be baking up an alternative -- something that would provide better security and anonymity for users while presumably improving the advertising and marketing functions that keep websites in business.

No one likes advertising -- or at least few people admit to liking it -- but it does pay the bills, after all. Creating the content and managing the increasingly complex task of keeping websites operating smoothly is by no means cheap. Take away the anonymous tracking that now enables advertisers to target ads that likely to be, well, on target to specific audiences and you pretty much take away the Internet as we know it.

Tighter control

If Google, which after all has more Ph.D. engineers than most companies have paper clips, can perfect its still-secret new system, advertisers would have to come to Google to get the marketing informatiion that they now get from cookies.

There have been attempts to limit the use of so-called "third-party cookies" but so far none has succeeded. Just a few days ago, the ad industry pulled out of a group effort to impose new Do Not Track protocols. 

PhotoJust to be clear: A "first-party cookie" is one that is placed on your computer by a site you visit frequently -- Amazon, let's say.  It's basically your name tag when you return to that site. The first-party cookie makes it unnecessary for you to go through the log-in process each time you visit and it also enables Amazon to show you what amounts to a customized site -- one that features the types of products you've bought in the past and browed for recently.

Third-party cookies, on the other hand, are placed by advertisers whose ads you see in the course of clicking around the web each day. They enable the advertisers to see where you go -- what sites you visit and, perhaps, what items you order. Again, this enables the advertiser to show you ads based on your apparent shopping preference.

Sex toys & cigars

This sounds harmless but if you go shopping for, let's say, sex toys, you don't really want your screen festooned with ads for such gadgets the next time your spouse or significant other sits down to use your computer. Of if you promise your spouse you have quit smoking but your screen is full of ads for mail-order cigars, domestic disharmony may result.

PhotoIf Google can get a lock on the tracking business, it could enforce privacy rules that would satisfy many of the objections that are floating around today. Of course, saying it could doesn't necessarily mean it would but it's at least a possibility.

The advertising industry is not exactly in a state of bliss over the possbility that it might have to bow down to the mighty Google and already is quibbling over the name that Google is said to have assigned to the project: AdID.

AdID, it turns out, is the trademark of the Association of National Advertisers and the 4As -- the American Association of Advertising Agencies. It's a digital coding technology for identifying and managing ads across various platforms.

OK, so maybe Google can't use the AdID name. It's easy enough to think up alternatives. At the moment, the problem is not a shortage of snazzy names, it's a surplus of cooks in the bakery -- and we all know the result of that. 

 

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Chase ordered to refund $309 million to consumers

Credit card customers were charged for credit monitoring service they didn't receive

Chase Bank and JPMorgan Chase Bank have been ordered to refund $309 million in illegal credit card charges to more than 2.1 million consumers. The Con...

PhotoChase Bank and JPMorgan Chase Bank have been ordered to refund $309 million in illegal credit card charges to more than 2.1 million consumers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) said Chase engaged in unfair billing practices for certain credit card “add-on products” by charging consumers for credit monitoring services that they did not receive.

“At the core of our mission is a duty to identify and root out unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices in financial markets that harm consumers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This order takes action against such practices and requires Chase to fully refund more than $300 million to consumers who were charged illegal fees.”

According to the CFPB order, Chase enrolled consumers in credit card “add-on” products that promised to monitor customer credit and alert consumers to potentially fraudulent activity even though many never actually received the service.

In order for consumers to obtain credit monitoring services, consumers generally must provide written authorization. Chase, however, charged many consumers for these products without or before having the written authorization necessary to perform the monitoring services. Chase charged customers as soon as they enrolled in these products even if they were not actually receiving the services yet.

The agencies found that Chase engaged in these practices between October 2005, when Chase first offered the products, and June 2012, when Chase stopped billing consumers who were not receiving the promised benefits.

Requirements

Chase Credit Cards Sept. 19, 2013, 5:13 p.m.
Consumers rate Chase Credit Cards

To ensure that Chase honors its obligation to repay all affected consumers and that consumers are no longer subject to these unfair billing practices, the CFPB’s order requires that Chase Bank USA, N.A. and JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A.:

  • End unfair billing practices:  Consumers will no longer be billed for these products if they are not receiving the promised benefits. Chase also must take steps, subject to the Bureau’s approval, to ensure these unlawful acts do not occur in the future.
  • Complete repayment, plus interest, to more than two million consumers: Chase must pay a full refund, approximately $309 million, to more than two million consumers who enrolled in the credit monitoring product and were charged for services that were not received. In addition to the amount paid for the product, Chase must refund interest and any over-the-limit fees resulting from the charge for the product.
  • Conveniently repay consumers: If the consumers are still Chase customers, they received a credit to their accounts. If they are no longer a Chase credit card holder, they received checks in the mail. Consumers were not required to take any action to receive their credit or check. Most consumers should have received refunds by November 30, 2012.
  • Submit to an independent audit: Chase has engaged an independent auditor to help ensure the refunds have been provided in compliance with the terms as set forth in the CFPB’s order.
  • Improve oversight of third-party vendors: The CFPB is also requiring that Chase strengthen its management of third-party vendors who manage these identity protection products.
  • Pay a $20 million penalty: Chase will make a $20 million penalty payment to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.
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The US Post Office is in trouble again (yet)

Postmaster General's Senate testimony surprises nobody

USPS down to five days' operating expenses...

PhotoWe’ve been getting lots of complaints about the US Postal Service lately – like the Manhattan man who, along with his two roommates, went for five weeks without receiving a single piece of mail – so we were not surprised by the latest news stories warning that the USPS is, once again, in financial trouble. Here’s some of what Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said before a Senate committee meeting on Sept. 19:

"By mid-October 2013, the Postal Service projects it will have a cash balance on hand of approximately five days of average daily expenses. For an organization the size of the Postal Service – which has revenues of $65 billion and a total workforce of approximately 490,000 career employees – that is a razor-thin margin. By way of comparison, most private sector companies usually have available liquidity of at least two months of operating expenses."

(On the other hand, most private sector companies would go out of business if they lost their customer’s property every day for five weeks and then protested that they can’t possibly be expected to know who was responsible.)

And, speaking as an American taxpayer who’s had sundry important things lost or misdelivered by the post office,  when we read that Donohue said “In no uncertain terms, the Postal Service does not want to become a burden on the American taxpayer,” we could not avoid rolling our eyes and thinking “It’s waaaaay too late to worry about that, now.”

Not all its fault

Photo
Patrick Donahoe

But we admit: this attitude is not entirely fair. For all the customer service complaints which the USPS legitimately deserves, it’s also true that many of the postal services’ financial problems are not its fault. As our colleague Truman Lewis reported last March:

“[U]nlike private companies, the Postal Service can't sell any products below cost, even if doing so would enable it to snag contracts that would be profitable overall. 

“Who would impose such an onerous and unbusinesslike restriction on what is supposed to be a semi-independent government corporation? Congress, of course.

“The Postal Service has much in common with Amtrak and the District of Columbia. All are hamstrung by Congressional micromanagement that leaves them often unable to pursue simple initiatives that would improve their fortunes and provide better service to their clients [….] while the Postal Service is forbidden from, say, granting a big discount on one service that would let it sell additional, profitable services, it is also hamstrung by a Congress that continues to require Saturday delivery and other anachronisms that waste millions of dollars while doing little or nothing to generate profits.”

So Postmaster General Donohue was perfectly correct when he told the Senate that “We have the responsibility to provide and to fund universal service for our nation, but we do not have sufficient authority or flexibility to efficiently carry out that mandate. Postal reform legislation is urgently needed. In its absence, continued significant net losses are inevitable.”

What does this mean for you, the average USPS customer? There’s probably nothing you can do to prevent a possible tax increase intended to cover USPS costs, but you can at least protect yourself from eventual rate increases: next time you buy a roll or book of first-class stamps, get the stamps that say “Forever” rather than the ones printed with a 46-cent value.

"Forever" may not really be forever but it's a lot longer than a few months.

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When to use a credit card and when not to

Often, cash or a debit card is the more prudent choice

For consumers, credit card debt is an obstacle to prosperity. Every month you have to pay on the balance, leaving less money for other things.While it's...

PhotoFor many consumers, credit card debt is an obstacle to prosperity. Every month you have to pay on the balance, leaving less money for other things.

While it's true you have to write a check for your monthly rent or mortgage, or to make a car payments, those are expenses that buy you something each month. The rent payment gives you a place to live. The car payment gives you transportation.

A credit card payment, on the other hand, gives you nothing, except maybe a case of heartburn at bill-paying time.  If you carry a balance, you are making payments on that dinner out with friends four months ago, a vacation from two years ago, and that expensive piece of exercise equipment you bought last January that is now gathering dust in the corner.

High interest rates

On top of that, a credit card balance carries the highest interest rate of any of your debt, unless you have taken out a payday loan. Low credit card interest rates are around 9% and they can be as high as 30%.

There is a school of thought that says you should charge everything on a credit card that offers a generous rewards program, so that you can benefit from cash back, discounts on travel or other perks. There is something to be said for that, but it requires firm discipline in paying off the balance each month. Otherwise, you could be paying on a couple of years' worth of gasoline purchases at 14.9% interest.

That, in a nutshell, is the danger in using a credit card for all your purchases. Deployed as a component of your budget plan, a credit card can be a powerful and useful tool. Used indiscriminately, without a plan, it can wreck your financial future.

The problem with charging everything is you lose track of what you've charged. You have every intention of paying off the balance at the end of the month. But when the bill arrives, you are shocked at how much you owe. As a result, you pay only a portion, telling yourself you'll pay the rest next month.

But next month the bill arrives and the balance is even bigger. That's how five-digit credit card balances start.

Not as rich as you think you are

PhotoUsing a credit card for all or most of your purchases also makes you feel wealthier than you really are. You might not worry about whether you can pay for a purchase at that particular moment because the plastic has it covered. Then, of course, the reality of your financial condition returns when the bill arrives.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid using a credit card to pay for consumables. Groceries and gasoline are good examples. Many consumers purchase both more than once a week so, if you are using a credit card, you can quickly lose track of your total spending.

Instead, use cash or a debit card – which is the same a cash, since it comes directly out of your bank account. Once you make the purchase you no longer have the money. It's literally pay as you go.

There are some purchases where security may dictate using a credit card, however. In a restaurant, it's probably best not to let your debit card out of your sight, whereas your liability for fraudulent charges on your credit card is limited. The same is true for making online purchases – using a credit card instead of a debit card is probably safer.

When it makes sense

There are, however, times when using a credit card makes sense. New furniture for the family room might cost more than you can swing in this month's budget. But if you think you can pay it off over three months, a credit card allows you to make the purchase now. Just be sure that you can make those three payments and not add any additional purchases that will derail your payment plan.

If you feel you need to use a credit card for everyday purchases, it is best to have more than one card and use them for their intended purposes only. For example, have one card that is only used to purchase gasoline and nothing else. Just be sure you pay the balance, in full, at the end of each month.

Having credit cards and paying off the balances also helps you improve your credit score, something a debit card doesn't provide. The key is to not over-use it, carefully monitoring your spending, and using a credit card the way it was first intended – quick access to credit for a special purchase.

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Use your psychic powers to become a millionaire ... or not

The James Randi Educational Foundation pays $1,000,000 for proof of the paranormal

We can’t investigate paranormal claims, but we know someone who can ...

Photo
James Randi

Here at Consumer Affairs we’re acutely aware of our own limitations which is why, when investigating various claims or complaints made by our readers, we generally stick with the standard mainstream, scientifically-accepted human senses: things we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Claims of psychic phenomena or extra-sensory perception (ESP) are, by definition, excluded from this list because if psychic talents do exist, they have not been bestowed upon us.

We mention this because, when we checked our email today, we found a press release offering a review copy of a self-published book claiming to discuss psychic phenomena. “Author warns of government harnessing the ‘God Spot’,” read the email’s subject heading, and the text assured us that “many people today experience psychic phenomena and have no real way to talk about or document them,” which means that “government intervention and destruction of privacy could eventually take place not only on social media and telephones but also psychic abilities targeted in the brain.”

A new plateau in surveillance

In other words, the author is warning that, besides eavesdropping on our telephone calls, emails and social media activities, the government may soon be looking inside our minds to see what we're thinking. 

You can, of course, find people roaming the streets of any big city, already claiming that the government is reading their thoughts. Our editor once narrowly escaped being stabbed by a butcher-knife-wielding woman who accused him of broadcasting her dreams on the local all-news radio station.

Nevertheless, this does pique our interest. After all: if psychic, supernatural or extrasensory powers can be proven to exist, that would arguably be the greatest scientific discovery in history. Unfortunately, as we said already, we’re utterly unqualified to investigate such claims ourselves.

However, there is an established non-profit organization that not only investigates psychic or supernatural claims under controlled laboratory conditions, but has established a million-dollar trust fund payable to anyone capable of demonstrating genuine psychic or extra-sensory abilities under these conditions.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is “an educational resource on the paranormal, pseudoscientific and the supernatural” which for several years now has sponsored the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. (Actually, JREF’s financial records show that, thanks to compound interest, the account balance had grown to over $1.4 million by March 2013.)

The ground rules for the million-dollar challenge are pretty straightforward. JREF’s website says:

“The Foundation is committed to providing reliable information about paranormal claims. It both supports and conducts original research into such claims.

“At JREF, we offer a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The JREF does not involve itself in the testing procedure, other than helping to design the protocol and approving the conditions under which a test will take place. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform a relatively simple preliminary test of the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test. Preliminary tests are usually conducted by associates of the JREF at the site where the applicant lives. Upon success in the preliminary testing process, the ‘applicant’ becomes a ‘claimant.’”

The application form and a more detailed copy of the rules can be found on JREF’s website here. We're not recommending this, mind you. Merely passing it along for what it's worth. 

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Critics say Facebook privacy changes endanger teens

The changes would expose teens to the same data collection adults now face

Over 20 public health, media, youth, and consumer advocacy groups sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today objecting to Facebook’s r...

PhotoOver 20 public health, media, youth, and consumer advocacy groups have written to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) objecting to Facebook’s recent proposed changes to its privacy policy. The groups raised concerns about the potential negative impact of these changes on teens, saying the changes would expose teens to the same problematic data collection and sophisticated ad-targeted practices that adults currently face.

“The FTC, which has acknowledged that teens require special privacy safeguards, must act now to limit the ways in which Facebook collects data and engages in targeted marketing directed at adolescents,” the organizations say in a letter to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.

The groups—including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Consumers Union, Public Citizen, Consumer Watchdog, Pediatrics Now, and the National Collaboration for Youth—challenged changes to the “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” that give Facebook permission to use, for commercial purposes, the name, profile picture, actions, and other information concerning its teen users.

"Unfair terms"

The groups also objected to new language directed at 13-to-17-year-old users that states that teens “represent that at least one of their guardians or parents have given consent for this use of their personal information on their behalf.”

“[The FTC] should prevent Facebook from imposing unfair terms on teens and their parents that place them in a position of having to say they secured informed, affirmative consent from a parent or guardian,” the letter said. 

“These new changes should raise alarms among parents and any groups concerned about the welfare of teens using Facebook,” said Joy Spencer, who runs the Center for Digital Democracy’s digital marketing and youth project. “By giving itself permission to use the name, profile picture and other content of teens as it sees fit for commercial purposes, Facebook will bring to bear the full weight of a very powerful marketing apparatus to teen social networks.”

Dr. Gwenn O’Keefe at Pediatrics Now also expressed concern. “Given the number of teens who are legally on Facebook and pre-teens who are on there posing as teens,” she declared, “it’s in everyone’s interest that Facebook create an environment that is appropriate and healthy for the development of teens.”

Consent decree

Citing the FTC’s 2011 Consent Decree with Facebook, the letter asked the agency to hold Facebook accountable, redress the changes, and protect the interests of teens.

Facebook recently settled a class-action lawsuit about sponsored stories by promising to change some of the language in its terms of service, in order to reflect how the program operates. Among other revisions, Facebook said it would add language requiring minors to represent that their parents agreed to the terms of service -- including the use of their children's names and photos in sponsored stories ads. 

Facebook also said it would give users more control over their appearance in sponsored stories, and would pay $15 each to around 600,000 people who objected to their appearance in prior sponsored-stories advertisements.

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Recession's end hasn't helped everyone

Many businesses have recovered, consumers not so much

Five years after the financial meltdown, triggered in part by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008, a lot of attention has been paid to the bus...

PhotoFive years after the financial meltdown, triggered in part by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008, a lot of attention has been paid to the business sector and how it has recovered.

AIG, the insurance giant that was saved from bankruptcy by a taxpayer bail-out, has repaid the government, with interest. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are now both profitable. So are the nation's largest banks, which have benefited from the Federal Reserve's low-to-no interest rate policy.

The average consumer, on the other hand, hasn't fared nearly as well. This week the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the average American family earned $51,689 – in today's dollars – in 1989 but in 2012 earned $51,017. In 2011 the median income was $51,100, showing that wage-wise, the American family is still losing ground.

Distraction at work

The Great Recession, which started in December 2007, officially ended in mid 2009. But for millions of consumers, it hasn't felt like it. Wayne Hochwarter, a business professor at Florida State University, has just completed a study that documents the recession's lingering impact. He found that the effects of the recession remain a “distraction at work” for about 40 percent of workers.

His survey of more than 600 blue and white collar workers this year found a common theme; frustration, feelings of isolation, pessimism about the future of their companies, career disappointment, job anxiety and burnout.

“I view the recession as a traffic accident,” said a plant manager who responded to the survey. “The crash may be over, but the car will never be the same even after we did our best to fix it.”

In the immediate aftermath of the financial meltdown the private sector reacted with massive workforce reductions. Overnight millions found themselves unemployed. Those who remained were sometimes faced with increased responsibilities and had to live with the concern that they might be next.

Working harder

PhotoMore than four years after the recession officially ended, Hochwarter’s study found 44% of respondents said “they still must work harder as a result of the recession in their organization.” Nearly half said “they still must do more with less due to the recession.” Thirty percent worried about their job security.

The study also seemed to expose a divide among managers and employees. Forty-six percent said management is “stingier” than it used to be.

“Management just doesn’t see how bad it is because it really isn’t all that bad for them,” an industrial salesperson told Hochwarter. “But it is for the rest of us.”

The feelings of slipping backward economically may not go away anytime soon. Bloomberg BNA this week released its Wage Trend Indicator (WTI) and it suggests the slow pace of annual wage increases in the private sector likely will continue in the coming months.

Plenty of people seeking work

"Although we are continuing to see slow but steady job growth, there is still a very large pool of unemployed workers, which tends to lower the pressure on employers to raise wages," economist Kathryn Kobe, a consultant who maintains and helped develop Bloomberg BNA's WTI database, said.

The Index projects wage gains in the private sector to remain anemic – at around 1.9%.

Economic frustrations in the workplace boiled over into public view last month when fast food restaurant employees in several large cities went on strike for higher wages. Many restaurants pay the government's minimum wage, which a number of employees complained was not a living wage.

While most fast food restaurants attempt to hire high school students looking for extra spending money, the realities of today's job market may mean older workers – with more economic responsibilities – are now taking these jobs.

The nation's largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, says America remains in what it calls a “jobs crisis.” While the pace of hiring since the beginning of 2013 has picked up momentum, many of the jobs have been part-time. Also worrying economists is the fact that the unemployment rate is falling for all the wrong reasons. It fell in August to 7.3%, in part because more than 300,000 people dropped out of the labor force.

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Existing-home sales surge in August

The sales level is the highest since early 2007

Buyers continue to gobble up previously-owned homes. Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show sales of existing homes rose 1.7%...

PhotoBuyers continue to gobble up previously-owned homes.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show sales of existing homes rose 1.7% in August to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.48 million houses. That's the highest level in six-and-a-half years and 13.2% above the year-agolevel of 4.84 million units.

At the same time, the median price shows nine consecutive months of double-digit year-over-year increases.

At a plateau?

A temporary peak may be in the offing, though. “Rising mortgage interest rates pushed more buyers to close deals, but monthly sales are likely to be uneven in the months ahead from several market frictions,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Tight inventory is limiting choices in many areas, higher mortgage interest rates mean affordability isn’t as favorable as it was, and restrictive mortgage lending standards are keeping some otherwise qualified buyers from completing a purchase.”

Total housing inventory at the end of August rose to 2.25 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 4.9-month supply at the current sales pace. Unsold inventory is 6.3% below a year ago, when there was a 6.0-month supply. “Limited inventory in some areas means multiple bidding remains a factor; 17 percent of all homes sold above the asking price in August, although 63 percent sold below list price,” Yun said.

Data from the NAR’s listing site shows large declines in inventory from a year ago in Naples, Fla., (-23.5%); the Detroit area (-23.3%) and the greater Boston area (-20.7%).

PhotoPrices on the rise

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $212,100 in August, up 14.7% from August 2012. It's the strongest year-over-year price gain since October 2005 when the median rose 16.6%, and marks 18 consecutive months of year-over-year price increases.

All-cash sales made up 32% of transactions in August, up 1% from July and 27% in August 2012. Individual investors, who account for many cash sales, purchased 17% of homes in August, compared with 16% in July and 18% in August 2012. Last month, three out of four investors paid cash.

Regional breakdown

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast were unchanged at an annual rate of 710,000 in August but are 12.7% above August 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $268,800, up 7.6% from a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, sales increased 3.1% to a pace of 1.32 million, and are 18.9% higher than a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $166,100 -- 10.0% above August 2012.
  • In the South, existing-home sales rose 3.8% to an annual level of 2.19 million in August and are 13.5% above August 2012. The median price in the South was $181,000, up 14.6% from a year ago.
  • Existing-home sales in the West declined 2.3% to a pace of 1.26 million in August but are 7.7% higher than a year ago. With the tightest regional inventory conditions, the median price in the West rose to $287,500, which is 18.8% above August 2012.
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TV drug ads: Is what you see what you get?

Not all the information in commercials is on the up-and-up

If you watch any TV at all, you know there's no escaping the constant barrage of commercials for drugs claiming to cure whatever ails you. You'd do best ...

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Computer problems continue to affect jobless claims report

Officials hope to have the problem resolved shortly

The government reports first time claims for state jobless benefits shot up by 15,000 in the week ending September 14 to a seasonally adjusted initial tota...

PhotoThe government reports first time claims for state jobless benefits shot up by 15,000 in the week ending September 14 to a seasonally adjusted initial total of 309,000. But analysts say it's hard to gauge how accurate that number really is.

According to economists at Briefing.com, computer glitches in California and Nevada prevented many claimants from filing for benefits. Those problems created a backlog of filings, which resulted in a temporarily lower initial claims level. The Department of Labor says it expects the backlog to be processed over the next week or two before the claims level returns to normal.

When the mess is cleaned up, Briefing says it expect the initial claims level to settle back to its previous 330,000 trend.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, totaled 314,750 -- down 7,000 from the previous week.

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

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Text spammers settle FTC charges

The defendants allegedly peddled bogus offers for 'free' gift cards

An affiliate marketing company and its two principals have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges for An outfit that allegedly sent out more t...

PhotoAn outfit that allegedly sent out more than 42.5 million unwanted and deceptive text messages to consumers has agreed to settle charges leveled by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The case against Rentbro, Inc., and its principals, Daniel Pessin and Jacob Engel of Ft. Lauderdale, is part of the FTC’s continuing crackdown on spam text messages. The settlement prohibits them from sending unwanted texts to consumers, and from misleading consumers about whether they have won gifts or prizes and whether a product is “free” or without cost or obligation.

“FTC action in cases like this one have dramatically reduced the amount of illegal text message spam, especially as it relates to bogus gift card offers” said FTC Midwest Region Director C. Steven Baker. “Not only are spam texts annoying and illegal, but they can also cost consumers money.”

You're a winner!

According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants sent deceptive text messages to millions of consumers telling them they had been selected to receive $1,000 gift cards to major retailers such as Best Buy, Target, and Walmart. A typical message stated, “Your entry in our drawing WON you a FREE $1,000 Target Giftcard! Enter “312” at www.target.com.tgrz.biz to claim it and we can ship it to you immediately!”

The hyperlink included in the text message brought consumers to a website the defendants created to reinforce the deceptive gift card message and then to a variety of third-party websites where consumers were asked to submit personal information under the guise of claiming their gift cards. After their personal information was collected, consumers were told they had to sign up for more than a dozen risky trial offers, none of which was free, to qualify for the promised “free” gift card.

In addition to prohibiting the unlawful conduct, the stipulated order against the defendants requires them to turn over all of their remaining assets and imposes a partially suspended monetary judgment of $377,321, which is all of the money received in connection with the scam.

This case is the second settlement stemming from an FTC enforcement sweep initiated earlier this year against 29 defendants responsible for sending more than 180 million spam text messages.

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Prepaid money card fraud: What can you do?

Prepaid cards lack the legal protections of credit or debit cards

The MoneyCard is a reloadable prepaid card, which means cardholders don’t enjoy the level of anti-fraud protection that credit card or even debit card user...

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Yes, you can avoid paying bank fees

But it requires some trade-offs and shopping around

Once upon a time you chose your bank mostly out of convenience. If it had a branch in your neighborhood or where you shopped, that was where you did your b...

PhotoOnce upon a time you chose your bank mostly out of convenience. If it had a branch in your neighborhood or where you shopped, that was where you did your banking. One bank was pretty much like the other.

Today, if you are choosing your bank out of convenience, chances are you are paying a number of fees each month. Twenty years ago, nearly all banks offered a free checking account. Today, very few do. What's changed?

“The competitive environment that banks find themselves in since deregulation began in the mid 1980s, some of the regulatory requirements and just the nature of the way banks are viewing their business have made them really heavily dependent on fee income,” said Brian Davis, associate professor of finance at the Smeal School of Business at Penn State University. “They will charge fees as long as they can get fees.”

Changes in last five years

The financial crisis five years ago also sent a shock wave through the banking industry. Making loans – the way banks historically earned profits – was viewed as somewhat risky. Besides, interest rates were so low the profit didn't always seem to be worth the risk.

PhotoBut there was something else at work. Davis, who previously served as a management consultant in the banking industry, says banks started looking at their customers differently.

“One of the things they started to do was to say, 'there are some customers that are highly unprofitable. They put just a small amount of money in the bank, they write a lot of checks and have a lot of overdrafts.' So in order to make their overall customer base more profitable, they started charging fees,” Davis said.

Overdraft fees are the fees consumers are probably most familiar with. If you write a check and have insufficient funds, the bank charges a fee. But most people, these days, use a debit card instead of a check.

Opting in will cost you

The good news for consumers is banks cannot charge an overdraft fee unless you “opt-in” to their “overdraft protection.” If you opt-in, the bank covers your purchase when you are overdrawn, but charges a fee. Unless you opt-in, your purchase will be declined if you don't have enough money in your account – but there is no fee.

Though banks will encourage you to opt-in, consumers who want to avoid paying overdraft fees should not do it. Better to have a purchase declined than rack up fees that can run $35 a pop.

When considering a bank, Davis says your first step should be to analyze the bank's fees.

“They have to disclosure whatever fees they charge in any marketing materials and on their statements,” Davis said. “Your statement is about five pages long now. All the fee information is in there.”

Trade-offs

PhotoShopping for a bank, then, is a lot like shopping for anything else. You are looking for the best deal and the product that best suits your needs. And to avoid fees, there may be some trade-offs.

“Convenience – having a bank just a block from your house – can no longer be a deciding factor,” Davis said. “As a consumer, if that bank's fees are worrisome to you, you have to compare the convenience to the money you would save at a less convenient bank.”

And that most likely comes down to not using one of the big, national banks for your everyday banking needs. They may be a good choice for a mortgage or car loan, but if they view you as less than their ideal customer you are likely to pay some fees. For everyday banking needs, Davis suggests thinking small.

Credit unions

Photo“My first stop is a credit union,” he said. “If I can, I'll do business at a credit union because most won't charge as many fees and the fees they do charge tend to be lower.”

Small community banks are also a competitive choice. Some might have special “rewards checking” accounts that pay you interest and waive certain fees if you meet a number of monthly requirements. It's very possible your bank could end up paying you instead of you paying it. The secret, says Davis, is being a savvy shopper for banking services.

“You have to shop around and ask very direct questions at the bank before you open an account,” he said. “Ask up front how they can save you money.”

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Kids and smartphones: the debate continues

More than half of U.S. children now using mobile devices

It's remarkable when you stop and think that the smartphone – outside of the Blackberry – really didn't exist before 2007. Now, in less than a ...

PhotoIt's remarkable when you stop and think that the smartphone – outside of the Blackberry – really didn't exist before 2007. Now, in less than a decade, almost everyone has one.

Earlier this year Nielson reported that 61% of Americans with a mobile device had a smartphone. The Blackberry now claims a small share while the vast majority use either an Android device or an iPhone.

What may be even more remarkable, however, is the number of children who have access to a smartphone or some other mobile device. A year ago the NPD Group surveyed families with children between the ages of two and 14. It found fewer than half of those families reported owning a smart device. This year, the number has soared to 79%.

A year ago only a third of children in the families with smart devices used them. This year the survey shows 51% use smartphones or tablets and 40% of the children have devices of their own, or are primary users.

Positives and negatives

This trend tends to be viewed both positively and negatively. Some educators see the plus side, noting the huge increase in the number of educational apps for smartphones and tablets. A recent accounting by Education.com found more than 3,400 education apps at the iTunes store. Many of them are designed for very young children, between the ages of two and five.

Many educators believe the potential benefits outweigh any negatives. Children tend to naturally take to technology and lessons imparted via technology media can be effective, they say.

Their mobility is another advantage. They are available in almost any location and, should a child become antsy, a parent can pull out a mobile device equipped with some educational app in the form of a game, to keep the child occupied.

But there are issues with handing your toddler a smartphone, other experts say. Dr. Carolyn Jaynes, a learning designer for Leapfrog Enterprises, suggests waiting until your child is at least in preschool before introducing them to the world of mobile gadgets.

Real-world experiences

Photo“Children under two years of age learn best from real-world experiences and interactions, and each minute spent in front of a screen-based device is a minute when your child is not exploring the world and using their senses, which is extremely important in their development process,” she said in an interview with PBS.

However, she concedes that preschoolers can benefit from educational content, presented through an electronic media.

As children get older the pressure to allow them to use a mobile device gets even greater. Smartphones – and even tablets – are fast becoming standard equipment for teens, and even some pre-teens.

That, of course, raises another set of issues. It's easier to monitor a child's use of the Internet when their computer is a desktop set up in the family room. It's a lot harder to monitor their online activities when they can access the Internet wherever they happen to be.

Help for parents

Lookout.com has published a helpful guide for parents of older children who are just now confronting this issue. 

Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, which conducts research into media use, says a big factor in deciding to grant your child's request for a mobile device is the reason for the request. Often, she says, parents reject the request out of hand before hearing the reason for it.

Charlie Osborne, journalist and former teacher, is not a big fan of giving children smart devices. As a teacher, she says she constantly had to cope with the interruptions mobile devices caused in class.

Writing at ZDNet, Osborne rejects the notion that today's digital generation is growing up to be history's most advanced.

"As a former teacher, I don't see it,” she writes. “Children are not the most advanced – they're the most distracted. Furthermore, they are liable to become the most idiotic and lacking in social skills as their eyes are turned away from learning about their environment, instead commenting on their friend's latest duck-pout profile picture on Facebook.”

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Starbucks declares its stores gun-free zones

Guns and coffee a "unsettling and upsetting" combination

There was a time when saloons in the Wild West required that swashbuckling cowboys check their six-shooters at the door. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has d...

PhotoThere was a time when saloons in the Wild West required that swashbuckling cowboys check their six-shooters at the door. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has decided that's a pretty good policy.

In full-page newspaper ads today and on the company's website, Schultz is announcing that guns -- like cigarettes -- are no longer permitted in Starbucks stores or outdoor seating areas. But Schultz says baristas won't be asked to enforce the rule since doing so "would potentially require our partners to confront armed customers." 

Schultz has been wrestling with the issue for months. Like most businesses, Starbucks has not had a firm policy about whether guns are permitted on the premises. But that's no longer acceptable in today's blac-and-white, either-or culture, where everyone must stake out a do-or-die position on seemingly every possible option.

Gun advocates have taken Starbucks' previous laissez-faire attitude as welcoming while gun control advocates have taken offense at it.

"Both sides of the issue have staged events at Starbucks, so our company has been characterized as pro and anti-gun, but we're neither," Schultz insists. 

Starbucks Sept. 18, 2013, 1:24 p.m.
Consumers rate Starbucks
There were protests around the country recently calling on gun control advocates to observe a "Skip Starbucks Saturday" day and get their daily dose of java elsewhere. Schultz says the impact wasn't measurable and insists his change of heart isn't driven by the bottom line.  

Schultz is quoted as saying there have been "episodes" involving guns in some stores recently that upset customers and staff, but he didn't specify just what those incidents were.

The policy change comes just two days after the latest mass shooting -- the Navy Yard incident that left 13 people, but Schultz said the change was in the works before the Washington shootings.

Howard Schultz's letter reads in full:

Dear Fellow Americans,

Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns. In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That's why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.

From the beginning, our vision at Starbucks has been to create a "third place" between home and work where people can come together to enjoy the peace and pleasure of coffee and community. Our values have always centered on building community rather than dividing people, and our stores exist to give every customer a safe and comfortable respite from the concerns of daily life.

We appreciate that there is a highly sensitive balance of rights and responsibilities surrounding America's gun laws, and we recognize the deep passion for and against the "open carry" laws adopted by many states. (In the United States, "open carry" is the term used for openly carrying a firearm in public.) For years we have listened carefully to input from our customers, partners, community leaders and voices on both sides of this complicated, highly charged issue.

Our company's longstanding approach to "open carry" has been to follow local laws: we permit it in states where allowed and we prohibit it in states where these laws don't exist. We have chosen this approach because we believe our store partners should not be put in the uncomfortable position of requiring customers to disarm or leave our stores. We believe that gun policy should be addressed by government and law enforcement—not by Starbucks and our store partners.

Recently, however, we've seen the "open carry" debate become increasingly uncivil and, in some cases, even threatening. Pro-gun activists have used our stores as a political stage for media events misleadingly called "Starbucks Appreciation Days" that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of "open carry." To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores. Some anti-gun activists have also played a role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction, including soliciting and confronting our customers and partners.

For these reasons, today we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas—even in states where "open carry" is permitted—unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.

I would like to clarify two points. First, this is a request and not an outright ban. Why? Because we want to give responsible gun owners the chance to respect our request—and also because enforcing a ban would potentially require our partners to confront armed customers, and that is not a role I am comfortable asking Starbucks partners to take on. Second, we know we cannot satisfy everyone. For those who oppose "open carry," we believe the legislative and policy-making process is the proper arena for this debate, not our stores. For those who champion "open carry," please respect that Starbucks stores are places where everyone should feel relaxed and comfortable. The presence of a weapon in our stores is unsettling and upsetting for many of our customers.

I am proud of our country and our heritage of civil discourse and debate. It is in this spirit that we make today's request. Whatever your view, I encourage you to be responsible and respectful of each other as citizens and neighbors.

Sincerely,

Howard Schultz

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Three-dollar gas is here to stay

That's been the cost for a thousand days and counting

The inflationary dollar passes another milestone...

PhotoTuesday marked an historic occasion for American drivers: the American Automobile Association marked it as the one-thousandth consecutive day that the average gallon of gasoline cost more than $3.00 (with prices averaging over $3.25 per gallon for 913 of those thousand days, too).

Prices are likely to drop a bit before winter arrives, but even so, AAA’s CEO Bob Darbelnet said, “Paying less than $3.00 per gallon for gasoline may be automotive history for most Americans, like using 8-track tapes or going to a drive-in movie.”

Of course, some of this price increase can surely be blamed on inflation; with the exception of computers and other electronics (which tend to get cheaper and better every year due to technological advances), everything today costs more than it did during the 8-track-tape era.  The Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation calculator provided by the US Department of Labor says that $3.00 in 2013 is equivalent to $2.21 back in 2000 and $1.06 in 1980.

Last year, Energy Trends Insider looked at historical gas prices relative to inflation and concluded that, in 2012 dollars, gas cost $3.35 per gallon in 1919 and $3.44 during the “gas crisis” years of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

So it looks like the $3 threshold is more of a psychological milestone than an actual price record. Even so, this offers scant comfort to American drivers trying to fill their tanks at gas stations that still refuse to accept any bills higher than a twenty.

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Servicemembers to get more protection from payday lenders

Examiners will be targeting Military Lending Act violations as they supervise lenders

Federal examiners have been given their marching orders on protecting servicemembers from shady payday lenders. Guidelines set up by the the Consumer Fina...

PhotoFederal examiners have been given their marching orders on protecting servicemembers from shady payday lenders.

Guidelines set up by the the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will aid examiners in identifying consumer harm and risks related to Military Lending Act (MLA) violations when supervising payday lenders.

The MLA is designed to provide greater protections for military families, including capping annual percentage rates at 36 percent. The new guidelines are included in an updated exam manual that the CFPB has released for the short-term, small-dollar lending industry.

“Protecting servicemembers is a priority for the CFPB,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We will use the authority Congress gave us to enforce the Military Lending Act and to safeguard our men and women in uniform from illegal payday loans.”

Policing payday loans

Payday loans are typically designed as a way to bridge a cash shortage between pay or benefits checks. Such loans are generally for small-dollar amounts and borrowers must repay them quickly. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act specifically tasked the CFPB with supervising payday lenders for the first time at the federal level.

In 2006, the Department of Defense issued a report concluding that predatory lending practices by payday lenders and other creditors near military bases were a threat to military personnel and their families. In 2007, Congress passed the MLA to help address this problem and the Department of Defense issued rules to implement the law.

In general, the law shields active-duty military personnel, active National Guard or Reserve personnel, and their dependents from lending practices that Congress determined should not be tolerated in lending to servicemembers. In 2012, Congress amended the law by, among other things, giving the CFPB the authority to enforce it.

Playing by the rules

Through its enforcement and supervisory work, the CFPB will scrutinize lenders to make sure that they are following the MLA requirements when they make short-term, small-dollar loans to servicemembers and their dependents. Specifically, payday lenders must follow the requirements of the law for all closed-end loans of $2,000 or less and with terms of 91 days or less. These requirements include:

  • Annual percentage rate capped at 36 percent: Because most payday loans are for several hundred dollars and have finance charges of $15 or $20 for each $100 borrowed, a typical two-week term can equate to an annual percentage rate (APR) ranging from 391 percent to 521 percent. Payday lenders must cap the APR -- which incorporates all fees and costs associated with the loan -- at 36 percent when lending to servicemembers.
  • No rolling over of loans: When consumers cannot pay back the loan at the time it is due, borrowers can often pay only the finance charges and renew the loan. This fee does not reduce the amount owed. If a payday loan is rolled over multiple times, it’s possible to pay several hundred dollars in fees and still owe the original amount borrowed. Payday lenders are banned from rolling over loans for servicemembers, unless the new transaction results in more favorable terms for the servicemember.
  • No signing away of servicemember rights: The MLA prohibits lenders from making servicemembers waive their rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act or other state or federal laws that provide critical consumer protections. The MLA also prohibits lenders from requiring servicemembers to waive their right to seek resolution of any legal claims in court.
  • No requiring allotments to repay: Under the military allotment system, military personnel can repay their loans by having payments directly deducted from their paycheck before their salary is deposited in their account. When servicemembers pay by allotment, they lose certain consumer protections as well as their flexibility to adjust their budget if a financial emergency comes up. The MLA bans lenders from requiring military members to pay by the allotment system and gives servicemembers control over how their income is spent.

In January 2012, the CFPB published its first short-term, small-dollar lending procedures manual. The field guide describes the types of information that the agency’s examiners gather to: evaluate payday lenders’ policies and procedures; assess whether lenders are in compliance with federal consumer financial laws; and identify risks to consumers throughout the lending process. Risks to consumers resulting from MLA violations are significant and subject to CFPB enforcement.

The revised Short-Term, Small-Dollar Lending Procedures can be found at: http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201309_cfpb_payday_manual_revisions.pdf

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New home construction up again in August

Mortgage applications continue their rise

All in all, some good news on the housing front. The government reports new home construction rose 0.9% in August, with ground being broken for new homes...

PhotoAll in all, some good news on the housing front.

The government reports new home construction rose 0.9% in August, with ground being broken for

new homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 891,000 following the strong showing in July, when housing starts totaled 883,000. The rate of starts for new homes was up 7.0% to a rate of 628,000 while the rate for buildings with five units or more was 252,000.

Year-over-year, the pace of construction is up 19.0%.

Not all of the news was positive, though.

Permits for new construction fell 3.8% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 918,000. Still, that's 11.0% above the August 2012 estimate of 827,000. A breakdown of the permits shows single-family authorizations in August were up 3.0% to a rate of 627,000, while authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 268,000.

The complete report on residential construction for August can be found on the U.S. Census bureau website.

Mortgage applications

PhotoSeparately, the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) reports applications for mortgages were up 11.2% from a week earlier.

The Refinance Index jumped 18 % from the previous week, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 61% of total applications from 57% the week before. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity, meanwhile fell to7% percent of total applications, while the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) share of refinance applications increased to 40%, and is the highest since MBA started tracking this measure in early 2012.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased to 4.75% from 4.80%,with points decreasing to 0.39 from 0.46 (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 $417,000) decreased to 4.83% from 4.84%,with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA decreased to 4.50% from 4.56%,with points increasing to 0.41 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.81% from 3.83%, with points decreasing to 0.34 from 0.42 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs decreased to 3.54% from 3.59%,with points remaining unchanged at 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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New online tool spotlights mortgage information

Consumers are able to see what's happening in their local mortgage market

Consumers now have easier access to public mortgage information thanks to an online tool launched by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)...

PhotoConsumers now have easier access to public mortgage information thanks to an online tool launched by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)

The tool enables greater transparency by helping inform people of trends in their local mortgage markets, using public mortgage information collected under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA).

“Just as the real estate motto ‘location, location, location’ was true before the recent financial crisis, it was true for the crisis. Every community was affected differently,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Our tool puts valuable information into the hands of the public in an accessible way, so they can understand what is happening in their local mortgage markets. A more transparent mortgage market will lead to a better marketplace and better outcomes for consumers.”

The need for info

In 1975, Congress passed the HMDA requiring most mortgage lenders to make loan information available to the public. Last year, there were approximately 18.7 million HMDA records from 7,400 financial institutions. This information includes the majority of the country’s mortgage applications and mortgages made -- known as loan “originations” -- by banks, savings associations, credit unions, and mortgage companies.

The public information is important because it helps show whether lenders are serving the housing needs of their communities; it gives public officials information that helps them make decisions and policies; and it sheds light on lending patterns that could be discriminatory.

The new CFPB tool focuses on the number of mortgage applications and originations, in addition to loan purposes and loan types for 2010 through 2012. It looks specifically at first-lien, owner-occupied, one- to four- family and manufactured homes.

Using the tool, the public can see nationwide summaries or they can choose interactive features that allow them to isolate the information for metropolitan areas. Consumers can easily explore millions of data points with these user-friendly graphs and charts.

How it works

Trends and highlights from the information shown by the tool include:

  • Heat map shows that mortgage applications and originations were up: One way to measure the strength of a local mortgage market is to look at the number of mortgage applications and originations. The CFPB tool contains a nationwide heat map showing that applications and loan originations increased in most local mortgage markets in 2012. This tool allows users to drill down to see this information by metropolitan area. The data show:

      -- Nationwide, loans for home purchases increased by 13% from 2011 to 2012.

      -- In most counties across the country, mortgage applications were down from 2010 to 2011, but they rebounded in 2012.

      -- Of the nearly 13 million applications in 2012 for home purchase loans, home improvement loans, and refinancing, more than 8 million resulted in loan originations.

      -- The number of loan originations increased by about 2.4 million, or 39%, from 2011 to 2012.

  • Interactive graph shows that mortgage volume increased, driven by refinancing: A significant driver of the increased mortgage numbers in 2012 was a rise in the number of refinancings. An interactive graph in the CFPB tool, which breaks down the number of loans by purpose and by metropolitan area, shows:

      -- The number of refinancing applications increased from 6.6 million in 2011 to 9.3 million in 2012.

      -- The number of refinance loan originations increased from 3.8 million in 2011 to 5.9 million in 2012, representing a 54% increase.

      -- Refinance origination activity continues to vary by location. For example, Cincinnati, Ohio experienced a 47% increase while Las Vegas, Nev. saw an increase of 205%.

  • Interactive graph on loan type shows the prevalence of FHA and VA lending: Since the housing crash, homebuyers have been heavily reliant on mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). An interactive graph in the CFPB tool, which breaks down the number of loans by type and by metropolitan area, shows:

     -- In 2012, FHA- and VA-backed loans accounted for about 15% and 7%, respectively, of home purchase, refinance, and home improvement loans combined. In 2011, these figures were 18% and 6%, respectively.

     -- Areas with large numbers of military families often have a higher share of VA lending, as seen in metropolitan areas such as Gulfport, Miss., where 21% of loans were VA, and Fairbanks, Alaska, where 29% of loans were VA.

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Consumers protest Avis bills that go on forever

You turn the car in, everything's fine. Weeks later, new charges for imagined damages appear

Customers allege Avis charging for damages after cars pass inspection...

PhotoPretty much all rental-car companies require customers to pay with a credit card, in part so they’ll have the number on file in case they need to adjust your final bill. But many of our readers lately have complained that Avis has taken advantage of this by putting charges on their cards long after the customers thought the transaction was complete.

Two readers recently presented very similar stories: both claim to be non-smokers who rented cars, passed inspection upon returning them, yet later found additional amounts charged to their credit cards when Avis claimed to have found smoking paraphernalia -- a cigarette in one car, and a match in the other.  

Customer “MG” in Altamonte Springs, FL rented a car out of the Tampa airport from July 28-31 and said, “Upon returning the car at the airport, a young woman inspected the car and provided me with my receipt [….] not until I arrived home did I look at the receipt. To my surprise, I was charged an additional $47.96 for the Loss Damage Waiver. My rental agreement clearly showed that I declined this option and had my initials right by this. I immediately called Avis and the following week, the charge was reinstated back on my credit card.”

Sounds like a typical “check your receipt before you accept it” cautionary tale, albeit with a happy ending since her money was refunded. So what’s the problem?

MG continued: “Today ... is nearly three weeks after I returned the rental car. My card has been charged $250 twice and, upon contacting Avis, they have sent pictures of the odometer and of a cigarette they say they found in the car. As a nonsmoker, I know this was not from me. Also, no other person was in the car at any time it was in my possession. The odometer reading they took a picture of was 2 miles past the reading I returned the car at. I have written customer service. Any advice on what else I can do? I left the car in pristine condition but did not take photos of the car. I merely have my receipt and rental agreement.”

One lone match

PhotoNew Jersey resident Hinda D. had a similar surprise after returning a rental car to Avis in   Charlotte, NC. When she returned the car, she said, “an agent person greeted me, took the car keys, checked the car for any missing items, checked the odometer for mileage and ensured the car was clean, they even checked the trunk. They informed me everything was good [….] two weeks later, I received a letter from Avis informing me that they will charge my credit card for cleaning the car. I have been since asking for pictures and explanation of the charge. And all I get is, they found a match in the car. I don’t smoke, I didn’t have anyone in the car and when I returned the car there were no matches [inside] and the agent that inspected the car did not say anything about the car requiring cleaning, or if anything was out of order.”

Hinda also observed that the burden of proof is on her, to prove her innocence regarding the rogue match, and protested, “I don’t know how.”

We posed the question in an email to Avis, but have so far received no response.

Even if Hinda or MG did take a collection of photographs before returning their cars (which is generally a good idea anyway), ordinary photos taken of a car’s clean interior wouldn’t necessarily disprove an agent’s later claim of finding something as small as a match somewhere under a seat or beneath a floor mat.

1,000 Euros

PhotoAmerican Avis customers (or customers accused of smoking) aren’t the only ones protesting what they say are false damage complaints. Emily M. wrote us on Sept. 13 to share her story of renting a car in Stuttgart, Germany. “[T]here was a lot of damage on the body of the car and it was difficult to see exactly which scratch related to which mark on the file; however, we took the car anyway and assumed they had a more detailed record somewhere on file.”

In retrospect, two large collections of detailed photogaphs, one taken at the start of the rental and another taken at the end, might have saved Emily much time and trouble. Or maybe not.

Emily said, “Upon returning the car we were told by the engineer that all was well with the vehicle and we could go. However, a week later I found out by chance that Avis had taken 1,000 euros out of my bank account without informing me. After calling the company we found out that this money was taken due to alleged damage to the car. The only problem we had with the car during the trip was a punctured tyre. (Incidentally, we were told by Avis during a phone car on the 13th of August that if we changed the tyre ourselves we should keep the receipt and would be refunded – instead, they have also taken money from my bank account for a new tyre for the car). There was no additional damage done to the car during the month that we had it and so, as you can imagine, we are extremely put out about having 1000 euros taken from us without explanation or notification.”

Avis Sept. 17, 2013, 7:47 p.m.
Consumers rate Avis

Even returning cars unmistakably free of damage or dirt isn’t necessarily enough to prevent future charges. You needn’t even be accused of dirt or damage to get unexpected charges, apparently. Robert R. of Jenison, MI wrote us on Sept. 17 to complain about a computer error on Avis’ part:

“Upon return of my rental car, the final bill was tallied and I was surprised that it was about $35 less than I expected. I asked about it, and the counter rep said they'd rather give us a surprise on the downside instead of the upside and I was getting a better deal. Wow, how often does that happen? I took my printed receipt, they swiped my card, and I signed for the charges. I left really pleased, telling everyone about such a great experience.”

What changed Robert’s mind? “Three weeks later, I get a letter from Avis corporate saying due to a computer error on their part, my discount was improperly applied and they were going to rebill my credit card for additional charges. I was surprised they would do this. Even it their computer did make a mistake, you'd think they'd simply dismiss it, fix things on their end, and leave the customer happy. No, they didn't ask... they TOLD me they'd be charging my credit card. I would have gladly offered to pay them the difference, but their arrogant attitude upset me.

"I called to complain and told them that I have not authorized them to charge my card again, but was quickly told that on the rental agreement, paragraph 17 I believe, I gave them full rights to access my credit card in the future for any additional charges they felt I owed them," Robert added."They may legally be able to do this due to the all the fine print on the rental agreement, but I never suspected I was giving them unlimited access to my credit card in the future. You need to read the fine print, and don't ever think Avis will work with you even when they make the mistake.”

Avis responds

So if a customer has rented a car from Avis in the past, at what point can he or she conclusively say, “This transaction is finished, and I needn’t worry about any more bills from it?” If a receipt showing that a customer passed his post-rental inspection isn’t sufficient protection from future dirt or damage claims, what is?

These are among the questions we posed to Avis. This was the response we received: "Our policy is that with the exception of ordinary wear and tear, customers are responsible for any damage to the vehicle as per the terms and conditions of the rental agreement."

"Vehicles are inspected both at the time of return and again, after they have been cleaned, as often times, scratches, dings, windshield damage and undercarriage damage are not visible until the vehicle has been cleaned," said Avis spokeswoman Alice Pereira. "To avoid a cleaning fee, we encourage customers to refrain from smoking in or near the vehicle at all times and to refrain from transporting excessive dirt and soil into the vehicle." 

Pereira pointed out that customers can always pay extra for a Loss Damage Waiver, which she noted " eliminates or reduces the financial liability for loss or damage to the rental vehicle (providing it is used in accordance with the terms and conditions of the rental agreement)."

The standard cleaning fee for cars Avis thinks are too dirty is $250, Pereira said.

What to do 

So, as Avis sees it, there's not much you can do but buy the damage waiver and wear little plastic booties whenever you're in the car. If you still incur a cleaning charge that you think is unjust, here are a few things you might consider:

Go to court. If you are wrongly charged for more than a few dollars, consider filing a claim against Avis in Small Claims Court. The cost to file is minimal and you do not need a lawyer. Often, large companies don't bother to appear and the consumer wins by default. You can then place a lien on the nearest Avis facility to enforce your claim.

Complain loudly. Post reviews on ConsumerAffairs and other peer review sites and on Facebook and other social sites.

Call in the law. File complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, your state attorney general and your local government's consumer office.  

Plan ahead. Whenever you sign a credit card receipt, write in this line just above your signature: "Paid in full. No further charges will be honored." This gives you a slight leg up when contesting additional charges with your credit card company.   

It's possible none of these will work but they at least offer some options. 

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Critics pile onto latest Facebook attempt to hijack users' images, content for use in ads

Sen. Markey asks FTC to open an investigation into whether the changes were properly done

Facebook is under increasing pressure to withdraw proposed changes that would allow the company to use the names, images, and content of Facebook users for...

PhotoFacebook is under increasing pressure to withdraw proposed changes that would allow the company to use the names, images, and content of Facebook users for advertising without consent.

Privacy groups and several influential political figures say the latest changes may be a violation of a 2011 settlement agreement between Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Last month, Facebook proposed changes to its privacy policies saying that consumers would automatically cede to Facebook the right to use their personal information, including names, faces, and other information, unless they expressly revoke permission.

“This troubling shift in policy raises a number of questions about whether Facebook is improperly altering its privacy policy without proper user consent and, if the changes go into effect, the degree to which Facebook users will lose control over their personal information,” wrote Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a letter to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.

Markey said the changes also raise questions about "the degree to which Facebook users will lose control over their personal information."

FTC opens investigation

Facebook Sept. 17, 2013, 7:35 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook

The New York Times reported recently that the FTC has opened an investigation into the changes, after hearing from Markey, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and others.

In its letter to the FTC, EPIC said the issue has taken on new urgency because of Facebook's alleged attempts to squelch dissent.

"On November 21, 2012 Facebook revised its governing documents to prevent users from voting on proposed changes. In 2010 FB shut down all of the privacy groups on Facebook, including 'FB users against new TOS,' which had more than 150,000 members. And Facebook subsequently revised its governing documents to prevent the use of the company's name
in any Facebook group, including groups that were formed to protest Facebook’s business practices," EPIC said. 

"The right of a person to control the use of their image for commercial
purposes is the cornerstone of modern privacy law. Consumer privacy groups have worked diligently to preserve this right and to protect the interests of Facebook users," EPIC concluded, calling on the FTC to enforce the 2011 settlement agreement.

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Northwest Airlines boots rabbi, gets a date with the Supreme Court

Can an airline strip passengers of their elite status for complaining about the service?

Rabbi GinsbergCan an airline throw you out of its frequent flyer program if it thinks you complain too much? Northwest Airlines thinks it can, but...

Photo
Rabbi Ginsberg

Can an airline throw you out of its frequent flyer program if it thinks you complain too much? Northwest Airlines thinks it can, but the U.S. Supreme Court will have the last word.

The court has agreed to hear the case of Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg vs. Northwest in December. The Minneapolis-area rabbi challenged Northwest after it stripped him of his elite Platinum status in 2008.

Rabbi Ginsberg is a consultant, author and speaker who flies hundreds of times per year. He came to rely on his Platinum status for upgraded seats and the other goodies the airlines bestow on their best customers.

But one day in 2008, he got a call from Northwest advising him that he was being booted out of the frequent-flier program. Why? Ginsberg says Northwest told him he complained too much.

Suspicious timing

Ginsberg admits he complained about things like lost and delayed luggage but he doesn't think that's the real reason he was ejected.

"This happened at the time that Northwest and Delta were merging," he told the Minneapolis City Pages. "The suspicion was that they had too many frequent fliers at the higher status in their roll, and they were showing too much of a liability on a balance sheet for the accumulated miles by those passengers. So they had to creatively find ways of getting rid of people."

Others may have gone quietly but not Ginsberg. He filed suit in federal court and, after a series of dismissals and appeals, the case is headed for the Supreme Court, where Ginsberg will be represented by Public Citizen.

Consumers rate Northwest Airlines

The question before the court is whether the Airline Deregulation Act pre-empts Ginsberg’s contract claim based on the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The answer is no, according to Supreme Court precedent, Public Citizen says in its brief.

“The Airline Deregulation Act does not give airlines free rein to breach the obligation to perform their contracts in good faith.” said Adina Rosenbaum, the Public Citizen attorney who will argue the case before the Supreme Court in December. “Moreover, claims that are about membership in a frequent flyer program are not sufficiently related to air travel to be pre-empted.”

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Celebrating 30+ years of the minivan

Suburbia hasn't been the same since the Boomers adopted the boxes on wheels

The Chrysler Group this week marked the 30th anniversary of its launch of the minivan, a vehicle that struck a chord with Baby Boomers in the midst of thei...

PhotoThe Chrysler Group this week marked the 30th anniversary of its launch of the minivan, a vehicle that struck a chord with Baby Boomers in the midst of their child-rearing years.

The vehicle has become closely identified with “soccer moms” who have used it to haul children to all manner of activities. And while Chrysler certainly put its stamp on the vehicle type, beginning in 1983, the minivan actually goes back much farther.

Volkswagen introduced the minivan in 1950, only it called it the “Transporter” and “Minibus.” It not only inspired the later minivans, but also the cargo vans that appeared on U.S. highways in the 1960s.

What it provided was three rows of seating, meaning it could accommodate a large number of passengers. With the seats removed it could be used to haul cargo. Because it was cheap and versatile, the VW Minibus was a counter-culture favorite, perhaps as closely associated with hippies of the late 60s and early 70s as the later minivan is with suburban housewives.

Chrysler and Iacocca

In the 1980s Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, who took over the carmaker when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, presided over the launch of the minivan – the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. The vans featured a boxy design and three rows of seats, which could seat up to seven people.

PhotoThe middle and rear rows were removable, turning the roomy passenger vehicle into a versatile cargo-hauler. A sliding side door and a rear cargo hatch provided easy access to the rear area, whether for people or cargo.

The Chrysler minivans proved both a popular and critical success. Sales surged and Car and Driver named it 1985's Car of the Year.

By then, however, other carmakers had been awakened to the minivan's potential. In fact, Toyota introduced its first minivan in the U.S. at the same time as Chrysler. It just didn't get the same buzz, or the same sales.

Toyota competes

Toyota's minivan, the MasterAce, was replaced with the sleeker, more refined Previa in 1990.

In 1986 Ford, which reportedly rejected the minivan concept when Iacocca first pitched it there in the 1970s, introduced a minivan of its own, the Aerostar. It made both a passenger and a cargo version of the vehicle, with the passenger version evolving into the Windstar in the 1995 model year.

General Motors also entered the fray, offering the Chevy Astro/GMC Safari. Nissan and Mitsubishi imported minivans to the U.S. market in the mid to late 1980s to take advantage of America's growing infatuation with this vehicle type.

Honda's entry into the minivan wars, the Odyssey, had what automotive site Edmunds.com com calls “a rather humble debut” in 1995. For example, it didn't have sliding doors as other minivans had, but rather four conventional swing-out doors with roll-down windows. Since then, however, its Odyssey has become a leader in the vehicle type.

Competition from the SUV

By the 1990s the sport utility vehicle (SUV) was beginning to replace the minivan in popularity as a family car. They were seen as sexier and promoted for their ruggedness, though most drivers never left the asphalt with them.

Despite the fact that some models have disappeared from the highway over the years, the minivan has endured over the last three decades. Families still value them, as do fleet operators who have people and cargo-hauling needs.

Along the way there have been a number of improvements, from automatic cargo doors on both sides of the vehicle and middle and rear seats that fold into the floor, making it easier to switch from passengers to cargo.

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Graduated driver licensing may present a false sense of security

Parents and their children give different answers on safety survey

All states have toughened requirements for young people to get behind the wheel. The most popular form of this is the graduated driver licensing (GDL)law, ...

PhotoAll states have toughened requirements for young people to get behind the wheel. The most popular form of this is the graduated driver licensing (GDL) law, which is an experience-based method of training – and licensing – novice drivers.

Parents might sleep better at night knowing their teen is having to go through a series of steps before becoming a fully licensed driver and therefore, will be safer on the road. But there may be a major disconnect between that assumption and reality.

A new survey conducted for State Farm Insurance found that parents over-estimate two key provisions of GDL laws – nighttime driving and passenger restrictions. Most GDL laws, for example, severely restrict teen drivers from driving when it is dark. They also restrict the number of teen passengers who can be in the car.

Big disconnect

In the survey, 69% of parents said they believed their teens almost always followed the nighttime restrictions. But only 48% of the teen drivers questioned said they almost always followed those restrictions.

GDL laws restrict the number of passengers who can ride with a novice driver, in the belief that a car full of noisy and rambunctious teens can prove to be a deadly distraction for someone just learning to drive. In the survey, 70% of parents said they believed their children almost always followed this rule but only 43% of GDL drivers said they complied.

“GDL laws are effective tools in reducing the crash risk of new drivers,” said Chris Mullen, Director of Technology Research at State Farm. “Passenger and nighttime restrictions are essential to any successful GDL law. It is concerning to see a majority of teens admit not adhering to these laws; but perhaps more concerning to learn some parents may be unaware of their teen’s behaviors. We know through past research, parental involvement is key to keeping teens safe on our roadways.”

States have different rules

States began enacting GDL laws in the mid 1990s and all have them at this point. However, provisions vary state to state. 

For example, 37 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use by novice GDL drivers, according to the Governors' Highway Safety Association. Forty-eight states and DC ban nighttime driving during the intermediate period. Forty-seven states and DC restrict the number of passengers during the intermediate phase.

New Jersey is the only state that requires a driver under age 21 and going through the GDL period to display a decal on their vehicle, identifying them as a GDL driver.

At the federal level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been a major proponent of the GDL system. The agency notes that 16 to 17-year-olds are significantly over represented in fatal crashes.

Immaturity and inexperience

“Our research tells us that immaturity and inexperience are primary factors contributing to these deadly crashes by young drivers,” NHTSA says. “Three-stage GDL laws address these factors by reducing high-risk exposure for novice drivers.”

NHTSA says an analysis of traffic accident data shows that adopting GDL laws will lead to a substantial decrease in the number of crashes involving novice drivers – in some cases as much as 50%. But the State Farm survey suggests that observance of these tougher rules is far from universal.

That suggests parents need to closely monitor their children's vehicle use during the GDL period. Parents believe they are doing so. The survey found 87% saying they almost always monitor compliance.

Their children, however, tell a different story. The survey found only 56% believe their parents were monitoring their activities behind the wheel. Despite the disconnect, GDL laws appear to be working. The accident trend over the last two decades has been moving in the right direction.

“More still needs to be done to save lives,” said Kendell Poole, Chairman, Governors Highway Safety Association. “Parents play a key role in enforcing and monitoring GDL laws and helping teens become safe drivers. Parents should not rely solely on GDL to instill good driving habits. They have to step up as well.”

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Ad industry ditches Do Not Track initiative

W3C "has achieved nothing," advertising rep asserts

The idea of not being followed around the Internet is something that consumers say they want. And advertisers, privacy advocates and regulators say they wo...

PhotoThe idea of not being followed around the Internet is something that consumers say they want. And advertisers, privacy advocates and regulators say they would like to provide it.

But that's about as far as it goes. In the latest blow to online privacy, the advertising industry's privacy group -- the Digital Advertising Alliance -- has withdrawn from the worldwide Do Not Track initiative, according to industry reports.

The initiative is the brainchild of World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group, a coalition of privacy advocates, ad industry reps, technology companies and lawyers who have been trying to agree on a standard browser-based do-not-track mechanism.

"If you measure it by progress, it's dead," said Lou Mastria, managing director of the Digital Advertising Alliance. "It has achieved nothing for privacy in two years," Advertising Age reported.

"Tracking" still undefined

The group has apparently not only been unable to agree on a technical solution to blocking tracking but has also been unable to agree on whether it should be considering policy as well as technical issues.

Tellingly, the group has not even been able to agree on a definition of tracking, let alone what to do about it.

The acrimony that has reportedly marked the group's meetings spilled into the open earlier this week at a panel discussion preceding the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, taking place this week in Seattle as panel members sniped at each.

In a written statement, privacy activist Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said: "If the DAA power brokers -- Google, Yahoo, and the ad giants, had really wanted to deliver new privacy protection clout to consumers, our work would have successfully finished a year ago."

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Mercedes wheel rim case rolls on

Judge appoints special master to handle claims

A long-running dispute between Mercedes-Benz owners and the manufacturer will soon be in the hands of a special master who will try to keep the case rollin...

PhotoA long-running dispute between Mercedes-Benz owners and the manufacturer will soon be in the hands of a special master who will try to keep the case rolling forward.

Vincent Luppino and other plaintiffs claim that Mercedes misrepresented the quality and durability of 17- to 19-inch AMG and non-AMG wheels on cars sold from 2006 to the present.

Mercedes allegedly claimed the rims were made of a lightweight alloy designed to meet "exceedingly high requirements for strength and durability." But the plaintiffs say the rims are defective and tend to bend, dent, warp and fracture, even when drivers are careful to avoid potholes and bumps.

The plaintiffs say Mercedes-Benz failed to honor its four-year, 50,000-mile warranty, forcing consumers to incur a total of $5 million in out-of-pocket costs.

The case has not gone smoothly so far, with numerous and frequent complaints from plaintiffs' attorneys who say Mercedes has been slow to produce documents and other evidence. 

Mercedes-Benz Sept. 17, 2013, 3:35 p.m.
Consumers rate Mercedes-Benz

U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh held that the appointment of a special master, which Mercedes-Benz had opposed, was appropriate owing to the many disputes and delays, noting that after four years, discovery "remains outstanding and/or continues to be hotly disputed," Courthouse News Servicereported.

The case is being heard in New Jersey, where Mercedes-Benz of North America is based.

 

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Gonorrhea, other infections increasingly resistant to drugs, CDC warns

Over-use of antibiotics blamed for the worsening problem

The widespread use of antibiotics in humans and animals is contributing to a rising tide of bacteria that are resistant to modern medicines, taking at leas...

PhotoThe widespread use of antibiotics in humans and animals is contributing to a rising tide of bacteria that are resistant to modern medicines, taking at least 23,000 lives annually, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Antibiotic resistance is rising for many different pathogens that are threats to health,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.”

Infections classified as urgent threats include carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), drug-resistant gonorrhea, and Clostridium difficile, a serious diarrheal infection usually associated with antibiotic use.  C. difficile causes about 250,000 hospitalizations and at least 14,000 deaths every year in the United States.

The over-use of antibiotics is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance. Up to 50 percent of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not prescribed appropriately. 

Antibiotics are also commonly used in food-producing animals to prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote growth.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed guidance describing a pathway for using these drugs only when medically necessary and targeting their use to only address diseases and health problems.

Bacteria evolve

“Every time antibiotics are used in any setting, bacteria evolve by developing resistance.  This process can happen with alarming speed,” said Steve Solomon, M.D., director of CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance.  “These drugs are a precious, limited resource—the more we use antibiotics today, the less likely we are to have effective antibiotics tomorrow.”

The loss of effective antibiotic treatments will also undermine treatment of infectious complications in patients with other diseases. Many medical advances—joint replacements, organ transplants, cancer therapy, rheumatoid arthritis therapy – are dependent on the ability to fight infections with antibiotics. If the ability to effectively treat those infections is lost, the ability to safely offer people many of the life-saving and life-improving modern medical advances will be lost with it.

The CDC report outlines four ways to fight antibiotic resistance:

  • Preventing infections;
  • Tracking resistance patterns;
  • Improving the use of today's antibiotics; and 
  • Developing new antibiotics and diagnostic tools.
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Feds bust bogus medical discount scam that targeted seniors

Deception and illegal telemarketing are among the charges leveled

A medical discount scheme that scammed seniors across the country by offering phony discounts on prescription drugs and pretending to be affiliated with Me...

PhotoA medical discount scheme that scammed seniors across the country by offering phony discounts on prescription drugs and pretending to be affiliated with Medicare, Social Security or medical insurance providers is being shut down.

In a complaint filed against the operators of the scam in the United States and Canada, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleges that seniors in the U.S. were targeted by the deceptive calls. The callers persuaded their victims to turn over their bank account numbers and used that information to debit money from victims’ accounts.

“This scam, which targeted and deceived our nation’s seniors, is as cynical and wanton as they come,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We look forward to bringing this operation to a halt and working to get relief for the victims.”

Empty promises

According to the FTC’s complaint, the telemarketing calls pitched a prescription drug discount card that, victims were told, would provide substantially discounted or even free prescription drugs. Many victims were led to believe they had to purchase the card to continue receiving their Medicare, Social Security or medical insurance benefits.

In fact, the prescription drug discount cards the defendants provided to consumers are available for free by calling a toll-free number or visiting a website. The cards generally do not provide any discounts to consumers who already have insurance either through a government program or a private insurer.

The scam was run from both sides of the border, with the defendants contacting consumers from a telemarketing boiler room in Montreal. The U.S. defendants then used the bank account information consumers provided in the calls to take approximately $300 from consumers’ bank accounts using a “demand draft.” Not all consumers who paid for the purported discount card even received it -- some victims received nothing at all for their money.

Numerous charges

The defendants are charged with violating Section 5 of the FTC Act by deceptively presenting themselves as government or insurance representatives, as well as by telling consumers that the discount plans they were selling could provide substantial discounts on prescription drugs.

In addition, the defendants are charged with violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule for their deceptive acts and for calling consumers whose numbers were on the National Do Not Call Registry.

A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois issued a temporary restraining order halting the defendants’ deceptive scheme and freezing their assets.

The U.S.-based defendants in the case include:

  • AFD Advisors, LLC, of Wisconsin, which also does business as AFD Medical Advisors;
  • AMG Associates, LLC, of Delaware, which also does business as AMG Medical and AMG Medical Associates;
  • Aaron F. Dupont, individually and as an officer of AFD Advisors and AMG Associates;
  • CAL Consulting, LLC, of Georgia, which also does business as Clinacall;
  • Charles A. Lamborn, III, individually and as an officer of CAL Consulting; and
  • Park 295 Corp, of New York.

The Canadian-based defendants are:

  • 9262-2182 Quebec Inc;
  • Stephanie Scebba, individually and as an officer of 9262-2182 Quebec Inc.; 9210-7838 Quebec Inc; and
  • Fawaz Sebal, also known as Frank Sebag, individually and as an officer of 9210-7838 Quebec Inc.
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Home builder confidence stalls in September

Interest rate concerns are a likely factor

Builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes was unchanged in September after improving for four straight months. The reading of ...

PhotoBuilder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes was unchanged in September after improving for four straight months.

The reading of 58 on the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) was just shy of economists expectations. Analysts surveyed by Briefing.com were looking for a reading of 59.

“While builder confidence is holding at the highest level in nearly eight years, many are reporting some hesitancy on the part of buyers due to the sharp increase in interest rates,” said NAHB Chairman Rick Judson, a home builder from Charlotte, N.C. “Home buyers are adjusting to the fact that, while mortgage rates are still quite favorable on a historic basis, the record lows are probably a thing of the past.”

Builder perceptions

Derived from a monthly survey that NAHB has been conducting for 25 years, the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations in the next six months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.”

The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average,” or “low to very low.” Scores from each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

HMI component indexes were mixed in September. While the component gauging current sales conditions held unchanged at 62, the component gauging sales expectations in the next six months declined three points to 65 and the component gauging traffic of prospective buyers increased one point, to 47.

All four regions posted gains in their three-month moving average HMI scores in September, including a two-point gain to 41 in the Northeast, a four-point gain to 64 in the Midwest, a two-point gain to 56 in the South and a four-point gain to 61 in the West, respectively.

“Following a solid run up in builder confidence over the past year, we are seeing a pause in the momentum as consumers wait to see where interest rates settle and as the headwinds of tight credit, shrinking supplies of lots for development and increasing labor costs continue,” noted NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe.

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Consumer inflation on the moderate side in August

Prices were up less than expected

Not much sign of inflation in the newly released figures for August. According to the government, the Consumer Price (CPI) inched up just0.1%, with increa...

PhotoNot much sign of inflation in the newly released figures for August.

According to the government, the Consumer Price (CPI) inched up just0.1%, with increases for shelter and medical care the major contributors. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for an advance of 0.2%. For the last 12 months, inflation at the consumer level is running at a rate of 1.5%.

Food and energy

Food prices were up 0.1% led by fruits and vegetables, which shot up 1.2%. Meat, poultry, fish, and egg prices rose for the third month in a row with a gain of 0.6%, while costs for dairy and related products advanced 0.4% after declining in each of the three previous months. Cereal and bakery product prices jumped 0.3% in August after declining 0.3% in the month before.

Energy prices declined 0.3%, due mostly to a 2.3% plunge in the cost of natural gas. Gasoline prices fell 0.1% after rising in both June and July, and electricity costs were down 0.1% the second decline in a row. Fuel oil was the only major energy component to increase in August, rising 1.2% on top of a 1.1% rise increase in July.

The “core” rate of inflation -- all items less food and energy -- was up 0.1% in August and has risen 1.8% the last year.

The full CPI report can be found on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

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Consumers rein in their spending

Still, conditions are seen as 'positive'

Consumers were a little more tight-fisted in August, according to the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index. The index, which is made up of four components -- ...

PhotoConsumers were a little more tight-fisted in August, according to the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index.

The index, which is made up of four components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- fell to 4.0 from 4.5 in July.

"While the index fell in August, it continues to indicate that overall conditions are positive for consumer spending," said Daniel Bachman, Deloitte's senior U.S. economist. "Americans may remain in a better position to spend, particularly as home prices increase and unemployment rates drop -- both of which contribute to improved household finances and sentiment."

The components

Highlights of the index, which tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending, include:

  • Tax burden: The tax rate is up 6.4% from last year, and is now at 11.8%.
  • Initial unemployment claims: Claims moved down 7.8% from the same period last year to 342,000 in the most recent month.
  • Real wages: Hourly real wages are down slightly from the previous month, but up 0.2% from last year.
  • Real new home prices: Real new home prices climbed 7.9% from this time last year to reach approximately $110,000.

"Consumers are seeing positive signals from the economy which may buoy confidence heading into the holiday season this fall," said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and retail & distribution sector leader. "Retailers that merge consumer data from their e-commerce and in-store businesses to gain a more holistic view of their shoppers will be strategically positioned to capitalize on the upcoming holiday season. They will also be better prepared to more appropriately target consumers -- whether in-store or online -- with the right marketing promotions to drive traffic and conversion."

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Siberoni recalls meat and poultry ravioli products

The products were produced without benefit of inspection

Siberoni of Portland, Ore., is recalling 169,655 pounds of raw and frozen meat and poultry “pelmeni” (Eastern European-style ravioli products) which were p...

PhotoSiberoni of Portland, Ore., is recalling 169,655 pounds of raw and frozen meat and poultry “pelmeni” (Eastern European-style ravioli products) which were produced without the benefit of inspection.

There have been no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 1 lb. packages, in 40 pound cases, of “Siberoni” brand Chicken Pelmeni
  • 1 lb. packages, in 40 pound cases, of “Siberoni” brand Beef Pelmeni
  • 1 lb. packages, in 40 pound cases, of “Siberoni” brand Beef and Pork Pelmeni

All these products bear the establishment number “33788” or “P-33788” inside a USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere on the package. The products were produced prior to September 6, 2013, and were sold directly from the firm’s storefront and via a distributor to retail outlets in Oregon and Washington State.

The problem was discovered when an investigator found, at a distributor, product that the firm had produced while under suspension. Further investigation found that more product had been produced prior to the suspension period, but also without benefit of inspection.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall should contact Siberoni at 503-335-5843.

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Walmart MoneyCards hacked?

Readers across America report mystery purchases in New York

Entire paychecks go missing from Walmart MoneyCard accounts...

PhotoBased on the number of readers writing us from all over the country with almost the exact same complaint, we suspect that a thieving hacker somewhere in New York City is enriching himself at the expense of Walmart MoneyCard holders. Even worse, Walmart appears to have done nothing about this.

Linda P. of Farmington, Missouri, wrote us on Sept. 2 to complain: “[S]ome man in Brooklyn, New York, got my Walmart card number and made a duplicate card through Walmart's system. That man stole every penny I had on my card and Walmart allowed it to happen. He spent MY money that I earned at a Target in Brooklyn, New York [….] When I called Walmart, I explained to them that the money on that card was all I had for another month. I asked them if they could give me a voucher for food, or drinks. They said NO! […] I may lose everything I have and all Walmart has to say is ‘wait until the posted date’? This is unacceptable. Thank you, Walmart, for ‘guaranteeing’ my money.”

Kelly L. of Canton, Ohio, posted a similar complaint on Sept. 13: “I have had my Walmart money card for almost a year now [….] on 09-09-2013 I woke up to check my account and the balance was $1.41 […] the day before, there were 5 purchases from a Target store in New York [….] I am waiting for [Walmart] to send me a new card so I can get the amount owed to me, then I am closing my account.”

Similar problems

Two Californians reported similar problems on Sept. 15: Paul H. from Downey said “I just got paid Friday and deposited most of my check on my Walmart money card. Bought a few groceries with the card, went home and paid my Sprint bill, all was well. The next day on the way to the park I stopped at the Walmart neighborhood market to pick up some things for the grill, at check out my card was declined [….] I thought I would check my account on my phone. After signing in I saw a balance of zero, I thought, what the hell? I checked my transactions and saw the swipe reload, groceries, Sprint and three charges from Target. [….] Once they saw those New York charges and saw that that same day I was making charges in California they should have stepped up and said we know this is a problem and we will get it resolved. But we'll see what happens; I've got a feeling it's not gonna turn out good for me.”

The same day, Jackie S. of Citrus Heights reported: “I have had a Walmart money card in Sacramento California for the past 7 years [….] this past Friday I used my card at Starbucks early Friday morning; by the time I went to pay for my lunch my whole account was wiped clean. After calling Walmart, they said that somebody in New York, New York used it at a Target when clearly I'm in Sacramento, California; they say I can file a claim but it's going to take probably 45 days to get my 1,500 dollars back.”

Despite the frequent mention of Target, there’s no evidence suggesting that company has anything to do with this scam; it’s simply where the hacker or hackers chose to spend their ill-gotten money (there being no Walmart stores in New York City).

What to do

Walmart has not yet responded to a request for comment. 

If you’re a Walmart MoneyCard holder whose account has been hacked, you should immediately contact Walmart (via email rather than over the phone, so you’ll have an electronic paper trail of your complaints), and also contact your local police department to determine how to file a fraud complaint. 

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Ending the obesity epidemic might not be that complicated

When it comes to food portions, size matters ... a lot

There is a school of thought that holds the mystery of rising obesity rates is no mystery at all. The reason Americans are packing on pounds is obvious. We...

PhotoThere is a school of thought that holds the mystery of rising obesity rates is no mystery at all. The reason Americans are packing on pounds is obvious. We eat too much food, not just between meals but during meals.

Pay attention the next time you watch TV and see an advertisement for a restaurant chain. Is the portion the commercial shows you small or large? Silly question. What restaurant chain is going to purchase air time to suggest it's going to serve a small portion?

Restaurants compete for customers by promising bigger servings than their competitors. The extra food doesn't cost all that much but it justifies higher menu prices. So consumers are conditioned to seek out restaurants that “give them their money's worth.”

A day's worth of calories

Except the amount of food on your plate or serving tray might contain enough calories to last you all day – or a couple of days. It's no secret portion sizes have increased dramatically in the last 40 years. Think about that the next time you order a steak in a restaurant.

PhotoRestaurants typically offer steaks that are eight to 12 ounces. A “petite” steak might be six ounces. But the government's recommended portion size is closer to three ounces.

Let's assume you visit your favorite Italian restaurant and order the spaghetti and meatballs. While you are waiting for your food to arrive you eat two slices of garlic bread. Let's forget calories for a moment and just focus on servings – what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets out as a serving, or portion size.

Estimate the size of the serving of spaghetti and meatballs. After surveying your plate you may decide that there are two cups of spaghetti, a cup of tomato sauce and about six ounces of meatballs.

Totaling it up

It might seem like a reasonable meal and you probably don't feel like you are overindulging. But according to USDA, you consumed four servings of spaghetti, two servings of tomato sauce, two servings of garlic bread and two to three servings of meatballs. 

PhotoUSDA doesn't just make up these serving sizes. They use surveys, analyze nutrition content and reach back to previous food guides. And they don't use this formula the same way for each food group. Nutritional content was the determining factor for the serving size of milk but ease of use was considered most important for serving sizes of fruits and vegetables. 

With restaurants piling on the food, weight-conscious consumers need to learn how to size up food portions so that they don't overeat. That isn't always easy.

One reason pre-packaged diet systems work, at least initially, is because they provide all the food the users consume. The portion control is done for you. That doesn't work in restaurants, although some chains have recently taken steps to provide more nutrition information on their menus.

Consumers increasingly aware

A 2011 study by the NPD group found consumers are becoming more aware of portion size and its importance in maintaining a healthy weight. Out of the 30 healthy eating attributes, eating smaller portions ranked 11th in importance among adult consumers across all generations as a healthy eating characteristic.

Interestingly, younger consumers see it as more important than their elders. It ranks highest among Generation X – second-highest among Generation Y. Because of that, you might see restaurants begin to reduce their portion sizes – or at least, provide more options.

"Based on the interest in smaller portions among the younger age groups and the size of these age groups,portion control is an area of opportunity for food manufacturers," said Dori Hickey, director, product management at NPD and author of the report. "As they move through their life, these generations may continue the healthy eating behaviors they adopted in their younger years, making portion-control a long-term opportunity."

In the meantime you can eat in restaurants and not fall into the super-size trap. Consider sharing a dish instead of ordering two entrées. Don't fill up on the hot bread sticks they bring to the table before they serve the meal, no matter how delicious they are.

Finally, stop eating once you are full, no matter how much food is still left. No one is making you clean your plate.

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More institutions taking up the cause of financial literacy

But a survey shows most Americans don't think they need it

With credit card and student loan debt climbing at breath-taking rates, and starting salaries far from keeping pace, being smart about money has never been...

PhotoWith credit card and student loan debt climbing at breath-taking rates, and starting salaries far from keeping pace, being smart about money has never been more important for a young person.

It's no surprise that so many organizations, from credit card companies to non-profit institutions, are offering financial literacy education, imparting the knowledge and skills consumers will need to make the most of their money. The task may not be so easy, however.

A survey conducted for Genworth Financial has found that more than half of Americans questioned think they know a lot about money. More than 50% gave themselves an A or B when it comes to financial literacy. At the same time, they gave their fellow Americans, on average, a D.

Don't bother to learn

It's not that the information is hard to find. Experts say it's not that hard to learn about money – most of us just don't bother to do it.

“Despite having more financial education resources available than ever before in the form of books, TV shows, websites, blogs, etc. we don’t take advantage of them and, if we do, we don’t apply what we learn. Why? Financial decisions, behaviors, and actions are highly motivated by emotional and psychological factors,” said Dr. Barbara Nusbaum, a New York-based psychologist and money coach. “If we can better understand our personal feelings about money, we will be more able to educate ourselves and, most important, better apply this knowledge to secure our own and our families’ futures.”

PhotoVisa has been offering financial literacy education for more than ten years and is among the world's largest providers. In 2008 the financial services company pledged to reach 20 million people worldwide with its financial literacy program by this year.

While consumers of all ages can probably benefit from financial literacy education, there is strong feeling that it is particularly important for teens and young adults. Even Wall Street is taking up the cause.

Knowing the 'wrong information'

Mark Fisher, Chairman of MBF Clearing Corp, is working with the Logical Institute on the launch of a new online financial literacy program, aimed primarily at young people.

“If you go around today and talk to students and say to them, 'what's your interest rate on your credit card,' they'll say 'is there an interest rate?' They have no idea,” Fisher said in an interview on CNBC. “Budgeting, credit decisions, insurance, cash flow, they have no idea. If you ask the same kids 'who won seven Grammies at the last Grammy Awards,' they can tell you you. They have the wrong information.”

Maybe young people don't find financial information interesting enough to hold their attention. Then again, maybe there is so much information that falls under the umbrella of financial literacy it's hard to know where to begin and what to focus on.

Finding the knowledge you need

PhotoFor example, many young people may find the whole idea of learning about life insurance a turn-off. But they might be very interested in learning how to save money on their credit card payments each month. If they could learn which credit cards allow a balance transfer with a 0% interest rate for a few months – and understand that the absence of interest for a few months would help them pay off their balance quicker – financial literacy education might suddenly become very attractive.

Financial education is most effective when you start with children. There are online games, such as Save Perry's Pennies, that introduce kids to the concept of saving money.  Money Memory is a game of memory and knowledge of various currency demoninations. Hip Pocket Change Games is a collection of games for kids and teams that teach about collecting coins, money designs, and other activities.

In addition to children, financial literacy education for adults may also produce positive results, assisting families with setting up budgets and savings plans. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation operates the Money Smart program for consumers outside the financial mainstream. The government says it's served 2.75 million consumers since 2001.

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Europe to Disney: Please fix Disneyland Paris

French Disney park strikes visitors as most un-Disneyfied

"Paris syndrome" is bad enough. "Disneyland Paris syndrome" is worse....

PhotoThere’s two levels of irony beneath the recent Change.org petition  begging the Walt Disney Company to clean up its Disneyland park in Paris: one, many Americans have this idea that anything in Paris (or Europe in general) must surely be better and more sophisticated than its American counterpart; and two, the Disney name has become so associated with clean, shiny, family-friendly fun that “Disneyfied” has become an actual slang term referring to a sanitized, family-friendly version of something.

But if the Change.org petition is to be believed, Disneyland Paris has become a most-unDisneyfied place during its 20 years of existence.

The petition starts out by flattering Disney in general and CEO Bob Iger in particular:  “When Disneyland Park (then Euro Disneyland) opened its gates back in 1992, it truly was Disney's greatest achievement; a technological and artistic marvel. Its high quality shows, rides and theming proved successful with European audiences, and its guest experience was similar, if not superior, to that of Disneyland and Walt Disney World.”

So what went wrong? “[D]ue to constant financial problems, the overall quality of the experience has slowly deteriorated over the years. The many years of budget cuts in maintenance, entertainment and food and beverage, have left the resort in an unacceptable neglected state.”

Neglected state

PhotoThe petition divides its complaints into four sub-categories: Maintenance (“Many themed elements are decaying and crumbling, while others are literally falling apart”); Budget Cuts (resulting in shuttered theaters and under-utilized rides); Food (“the quality is never as good as what’s offered in your American parks”); and Walt Disney Studios Park (described as “the only park to open without a traditional Disney [p]ark ride, the park that is struggling with its identity; in short the park that never met the ‘Disney standard’”).

 Semi-related anecdote: since at least 2006, psychologists have noted the existence of a rare, but real, psychological disorder known as “Paris syndrome.” Japanese tourists who visit the city are particularly prone to suffering from the disorder, a form of depression that strikes when visitors expecting to see a beautiful, idealized version of Paris experience brutal disillusionment upon visiting the actual city.

Thus far there is no official psychological disorder known as “Disneyland Paris syndrome,” but it sounds like Change.org petitioners are getting close.

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Missing mail mystery remains unresolved

If the USPS loses your mail, there's not much you can do

A month's worth of mail allegedly vanishes forever...

PhotoLast week we told you the story of Matthew P., a Manhattan resident who, along with his two roommates, went for more than a month without receiving a single piece of mail from the US Postal Service.

Repeated calls and visits to his local Gracie Station post office did nothing to resolve the issue, though just before our story went to press, Matthew told us that he’d received a robo-email from the USPS promising him that his “recently submitted inquiry was forwarded to an office that is better suited to address [his] needs.”

So how did that work out? Matthew emailed us with an update: he is receiving mail again but there’s still no way of knowing what happened to his month’s worth of missing mail, especially since the “more suitable office” to solve his problem turned out to be—the same Gracie Station office that lost his mail in the first place.

What’s really sad is that Matthew is relatively lucky, so far as these things go: as a U.S. citizen whose mail’s gone missing, he does have the right to make formal complaints (even if said complaints are routinely ignored). Another reader, Tony F. of Sydney, Australia, can’t even do that much.

Hearing aids go missing

Tony wrote us on Sept. 16 to report that a package containing some badly needed hearing aids was shipped from Louisiana to his Down Under home on Sept. 4, but “as of 16 Sep 2013 it is still in Miami, FL [….] I note that unless you are in the USA you cannot inquire or complain through USPS channels. From what I read here it seems that USPS is a postal service in name only and is totally failing in providing the services it charges for. In this case, $50. The people who shipped the package have also been told there is no way of finding out what is happening and when, if ever, it will leave the US for Australia. USPS is a JOKE!”

PhotoIndeed, and the joke is on its customers. So what can you do to ensure your mail will actually be delivered? Conventional wisdom says it’s worth spending a little extra money to send packages or documents via certified mail or return receipt requested. Unfortunately, we know from personal experience that even this won’t necessarily work: in the summer of 2009 we were living in central Connecticut and waiting for our first-ever passport to arrive in the mail.

The U.S. Department of State sent our passport via Priority Mail, with a tracking number. On July 7 we typed that tracking number into the USPS website and were horrified to discover that the passport had allegedly been delivered on June 29. On July 9, we formally reported the passport as “missing,” and the very next day, the now-invalidated passport (which, you recall, had allegedly been delivered to us two weeks before) finally arrived in our mailbox.

Carolina or Connecticut

Our birth certificate, which the USPS swore had also been delivered to our central Connecticut mailbox on June 29, turned up in a Charleston, South Carolina, passport office a couple of weeks later. (To be fair, though: Connecticut and South Carolina are at least in the same time zone,)

So, when federal officials working for the Department of State can’t even get their official national-security documents properly delivered, what’s an ordinary civilian to do?

Short of frequent and fervent prayer, perhaps the best course is to spend a few extra dollars and go with FedEx whenever possible. It's generally regarded as having the best overall record of reliability.

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Extreme binge drinking remains a problem among high school seniors

The percentage of students going on 15-drink binges hasn't decreased in recent years

Consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in a row is common among high school seniors, with some students engaging in extreme binge drinking of as many as 1...

PhotoHigh school seniors are a hard-drinking bunch, a new study finds. Many think nothing of putting away five or more drinks in a single session. And truly excessive binge drinking -- defined as 15 or more drinks -- is becoming more common, according to a study published by JAMA Pediatrics, a JAMA Network publication.

While drinking bouts may be regarded as a rite of passage, they're also a serious public health problem, the researchers said. Binge drinking, commonly defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men, can cause injury, impaired driving and alcohol poisoning, as well as long-term risks such as liver damage, alcohol dependence and alterations to the developing brains of adolescents.

According to the study, 20.2 percent of seniors reported binge drinking in the past two weeks, while 10.5 percent reported consuming 10 or more drinks and 5.6 percent reported consuming 15 or more drinks.

Megan E. Patrick, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues looked at a nationally representative sample of 16,332 high school seniors (52.3 percent female, 64.5 percent white, 11 percent black, 13.1 percent Hispanic and 11.5 percent of other race/ethnicity). A drink was defined as 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine, a 12-ounce wine cooler, a mixed drink or a shot glass of liquor.

Young men were more likely than young women to engage in all levels of binge drinking, as were white compared with black students. Students whose parents were college educated had greater odds of binge drinking but lower odds of extreme binge drinking (15 or more drinks), the results indicate.

No decrease in extreme binge drinking

The authors note that while binge drinking, specifically, and the frequency of drinking, generally, have decreased among adolescents since record high levels in the late 1970s and early 1980s and have continued since 2005 to decrease, extreme binge drinking has not shown such declines since 2005, the study notes.

The authors suggest that further research may consider a broad range of family, school and community risk factors, as well as genetic and mental health indicators for binge drinking.

“The documented rates of extreme binge drinking, and the fact that they have not changed across recent historical time, support the need for additional research to develop effective prevention and intervention strategies to reduce high-risk alcohol behaviors of youth,” the study concludes.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

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Judge upholds country-of-origin meat labeling

Meat industry claimed the labeling requirements amounted to forced speech

 Federal regulations forcing meat producers to include country-of-origin labeling on their products is not forced speech, a federal judge ruled. ...

PhotoWant to know where that ground beef came from?  The meat industry would rather you didn't but a federal judge has turned aside those objections, at least for now.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted new regulations that require Country Of Origin Labels -- COOL in meat-packer parlance -- on meat. That pretty much dooms the common practice of commingling meat from animals of different origins.

While that saves meat packers and retailers time and money, it also makes it difficult to track meat that may have been contaminated in one country or another.

The meat industry has been fighting the new rule and recently the American Meat Institute filed suit saying the labeling requirement amounts to forced speech.

But U.S. District Judge Ketanji Jackson took a meat cleaver to the industry's arguments and dismissed the suit.

"Imported livestock are a critical supply for American processing plants, particularly those near the Canadian and Mexican borders," the meat men's stated. "These processing plants produce meat products for domestic consumption and for export to a number of countries including Canada and Mexico," Courthouse News Service reported. 

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LivingSocial's deals may not be daily much longer

The company is trying to become a more traditional web-based merchant

Trying to do anything, other than eating and sleeping, on a daily basis gets a little old after awhile. Also, if you're trying to sell stuff, one day doesn...

PhotoTrying to do anything, other than eating and sleeping, on a daily basis gets a little old after awhile. Also, if you're trying to sell stuff, one day doesn't exactly give you a lot of time to shove the merchandise out the door or dish up all those fish taco specials.

All of which may help explain why daily deals site LivingSocial is reportedly planning to move to a more traditional web-based business model. Instead of blsting out emails hawking the day's best deals, LivingSocial would become a website and mobile app where consumers can browse through thousands of offers at local merchants whenever they feel like it.

LivingSocial's problem is basically that it was so successful at pushing deals on restaurant, spas and local retailers that it has had trouble replicating its success in other areas.

The new model would theoretically make both merchants and consumers happier. Merchants would get to display more products for a longer period of time and consumers would have a lot more goods and services to browse through.

It's sort of the reverse of what LivingSocial does now. Currently, it tries to generate demand. It dangles stuff out there and hopes consumers will slap their foreheads and say, "Wow, that's just what I need." Under its new model, consumers would already know they wanted a new hair-curling iron when they came to the site and would, it is hoped, be delighted to find just what they were looking for.

It's also thought the new model would be easier for businesses to manage. Currently, if a restaurant offers a great deal for just a day or two, the place is swamped for a short time, then deserted again. By advertising deals and products for a longer period of time, it's thought, the new traffic would be easier to manage.

The new model is expected to be rolled out this week, the Washington Post reports.

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Modifications to mortgage rules completed

Better consumer protections and industry compliance are the goals

The finishing touches have been put on amendments and clarifications to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) January 2013 mortgage rules. The...

PhotoThe finishing touches have been put on amendments and clarifications to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) January 2013 mortgage rules.

The idea, according to CFPB, is to help industry comply and to better protect consumers. In addition, it's hoped the changes will answer questions that have been identified during the implementation process.

“Our mortgage rules were designed to eliminate irresponsible practices and foster a thriving, more sustainable marketplace,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. The new rule, he added, “amends and clarifies parts of our mortgage rules to ensure a smoother implementation process, which is helpful to both businesses and consumers.”

Part of a process

The CFPB finalized several mortgage rules in January 2013. Among these, the Ability-to-Repay rule protects consumers from irresponsible mortgage lending by requiring that lenders generally make a reasonable, good-faith determination that prospective borrowers have the ability to repay their loans.

The mortgage servicing rules establish strong protections for homeowners facing foreclosure, and the loan originator compensation rules address certain practices that incentivized steering borrowers into risky or high-cost loans.

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

In June 2013, the bureau proposed several amendments and clarifications to the mortgage rules that are being adopted by this final rule. This new final rule is intended to clarify interpretive issues and facilitate compliance. Among other things, the modifications:

  • Clarify what servicer activities are prohibited in the first 120 days of delinquency: The CFPB’s servicing rule prohibits servicers from making the “first notice or filing” under state law during the first 120 days a borrower is delinquent. Under the final rule, servicers will be allowed to send certain early delinquency notices required under state law to borrowers that may provide beneficial information about legal aid, counseling, or other resources.
  • Outline procedures for obtaining follow-up information on loss-mitigation applications: The new rule provides specific procedures for servicers to follow if they fail to identify and inform a borrower upon an initial review that certain information is missing from the borrower’s loss mitigation application.

             -- The procedures require the servicer to notify the borrower of the information gap and provide a reasonable amount of time for the borrower to supply the missing information.

           -- The procedures also specify how the regulations’ protections from foreclosure and various procedural rights apply to borrowers during the time period for gathering the additional information and once the information is provided.

  • Facilitate servicers’ offering of short-term forbearance plans: The modifications make it easier for servicers to offer short-term forbearance plans for delinquent borrowers who need only temporary relief without going through a full loss-mitigation evaluation process. Under the final rule, a servicer may, upon reviewing an incomplete loss mitigation application, provide a six-month forbearance to a borrower who is suffering a short-term, temporary hardship.
  • Clarify best practices for informing borrowers about the address for error resolution documents: The January servicing rules allowed servicers to establish an exclusive address for consumers to send error complaints and information requests. The new rule provides more specificity on how to inform borrowers about the address by listing it on certain documents, such as an initial notice and a periodic statement or coupon book if applicable.
  • Facilitate lending in rural or underserved areas: Some of the Bureau’s mortgage rules contain provisions applicable to certain small creditors that operate predominantly in “rural” or “underserved” areas. The Bureau recently announced that it would reexamine the definitions of rural or underserved over the next two years.

           -- While the reexamination process is underway, today’s changes will exempt all small creditors, even those that do not operate predominantly in rural or underserved counties, from a new ban on high-cost mortgages featuring balloon payments so long as the loans meet certain restrictions.

          -- The rules will also make it easier for certain small creditors to continue qualifying for an exemption from a requirement to maintain escrows on certain higher-priced mortgage loans. Because of an update in Census data, some creditors otherwise might have lost their eligibility for this exemption in 2014 or 2015 while the Bureau was reexamining the underlying definitions.

  • Make clarifications about financing of credit insurance premiums: The bureau’s loan originator compensation rule adopted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act’s prohibition on creditors financing credit insurance premiums in connection with certain mortgage transactions.

        -- In response to interpretive questions, today’s final rule makes clear that credit insurance premiums are “financed” by a creditor when the creditor allows the consumer to defer payment of the premium past the month in which it is due.

        -- The final rule also explains how the rule applies to “level” or “levelized” premiums, where the monthly premium is the same each month rather than decreasing along with the loan balance.

  • Clarify the definition of a loan originator: Under the CFPB’s new rules, persons classified as loan originators are required to meet qualification requirements and are also subject to certain restrictions on compensation practices. Creditors and loan originators have expressed concern that tellers or other administrative staff could be unintentionally classified as loan originators for engaging in routine customer service activities. The modifications clarify the circumstances under which a loan originator’s or creditor’s administrative staff acts as loan originators.
  • Clarify the points and fees thresholds and loan originator compensation rules for manufactured housing employees: For retailers of manufactured homes and their employees, the revisions clarify what compensation must be counted toward certain thresholds for points and fees under the Ability-to-Repay and high-cost mortgage rules. The revisions also clarify when employees of manufactured housing retailers may be considered loan originators.
  • Revise effective dates of many loan originator compensation rule provisions: Prior to these changes, the provisions of the bureau’s loan originator compensation rule that have not yet gone into effect were scheduled to take effect on January 10, 2014. The new rule changes the effective date for certain provisions of the rule to January 1, 2014, in order to simplify compliance since compensation plans, training, and licensing and registration are often structured on an annual basis.
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Chicken Provance French puff pastry recalled

The products contain egg, an allergen not listed on the label

Galant Food Company of San Leandro, Calif., is recalling approximately 420 pounds of Chicken Provance French puff pastry product. The products are formul...

PhotoGalant Food Company of San Leandro, Calif., is recalling approximately 420 pounds of Chicken Provance French puff pastry product.

The products are formulated with an egg wash glaze that contains egg, a known allergen, which is not declared on the label. There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The product subject to recall includes:

  • 4-oz. of “Chicken Provance French Puff ” bearing the establishment number “EST. 9014” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the label. Identifying case codes are: 7193, 9053 and 9093.

The products were produced on July 19, September 5 and September 9, 2013 and shipped to restaurants and cafes in the San Francisco Bay area.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Richard Fairchild, the company’s recall coordinator, at 415-552-5475.

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National Beef Packing recalls beef products

The products may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

National Beef Packing Company of Dodge City, Kan., is recalling approximately 690 pounds of beef tongue root filet products that may be contaminated with E...

PhotoNational Beef Packing Company of Dodge City, Kan., is recalling approximately 690 pounds of beef tongue root filet products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

There are no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 30-lb. boxes of “National Beef” Beef Tongue Root Filet, Product Code “12753.”

These products bear the establishment number “EST. 262” inside the USDA mark of inspection and include a pack date of “081913A.”

The products were produced on August 19, 2013, and shipped to a distributor in Amarillo, Texas, for further processing.

Consumers with questions should contact the company at 1-877-857-4143.  

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Acne's hard to get rid of; so is Proactiv

Customers continue to be billed for unwanted products

If you musy buy Proactiv, stick with malls rather than mail orders...

PhotoAcne sufferers beware: Proactiv products might or might not clear up your skin problems, but they’ll clear out your bank account, our readers tell us.

Numerous consumers have written to us with complaints that Proactiv mail orders are well-nigh impossible to cancel.

Don’t believe us? Check out this random sampling of complaints we’ve received in just the past few weeks: 

Andy P. of Riverside, California wrote on Aug. 1 to say: “They will automatically send additional shipments and charge your credit card or bank account with multi-month orders and exorbitant fees (tax, s/h, overpriced merchandise)! You will regret it and will be faced with so much frustration just trying to return the merchandise and get your money back! This is guaranteed!”

Another Californian, Silvia Y. of Culver City, warned on Aug. 24: “Do not be persuaded by their ‘Money Back Guarantee’ and promos, unless of course you don't mind receiving a refund after 5 months and several phone calls to remind them because you've ‘fallen through the cracks’ twice (as one rep put it) [….] Proactiv misrepresents themselves and neglects customers who choose to opt out of their program.”

Stick to the mall

Annette H. of Lakewood, Colorado wrote on Aug. 22 to say that she liked the Proactiv products she bought from a local mall kiosk, so when that kiosk closed she ordered more from the Proactiv website. That’s when her problems started: “I discovered after ordering that it was automatically set up to re-send product every three weeks. They had already shopped a second batch before I realized and was able to call in and cancel [….]When I called to cancel my account I was told that I didn’t need to cancel entirely; they could just put it on ‘hold’ indefinitely and that would preserve my account in case I chose to make a future order. I agreed and everything was fine for six months. Suddenly, this past July, a box of Proactiv showed up on my doorstep [….]  I was told that my account had been suspended for six months but was now reactivated. The kit they sent was a 90-day supply, not even what I had ordered in the past, and they didn’t send me any notice that they were billing my card or sending the product.”

Proactiv Sept. 13, 2013, 6:42 p.m.
Consumers rate Proactiv

After numerous calls and complaints, the company did eventually refund Annette the initial cost of the products—but not the additional $11 shipping fee. So Annette is currently $11 out of pocket with nothing to show for it except vast frustration. Her conclusion? “Proactive is a good product, but their system of forcing you to receive scheduled shipments sucks. They are clearly trying to rip people off by sending them product and hoping they don't bother to complain and that they'll just keep it.”

Myra D. of Worthington, Ohio, wrote on Aug. 29 with a similar complaint: “After cancelling my order, I continued to receive Proactiv products. I called AGAIN after I received more products and a bill, only to discover my previous cancellation never happened [….] Upon speaking to someone, I was told to return the product to cancel out my outstanding balance. So I mailed it/ returned it. Next thing I found out I received a letter from a collection agency.”

Cancel online?

Deanna P. of Honolulu, Hawaii reported on Sept. 12 that she too is finding it impossible to cancel her Proactiv subscription. “Any site that allows you to sign up online should allow you the decency to cancel online as well. Waiting on hold for 15+ minutes to get a customer service representative for something that you can sign up for easily online is not acceptable.”

Even less acceptable was the revelation that Deanna still couldn’t cancel her account: “[The customer service representative] assured me verbally that I would not receive any more product, and I received a confirmation email the next day stating that I was indeed cancelled and my account had a $0 balance [….] I soon forgot about Proactiv and several months went by. Until 3 days ago, when a new box showed up at my door. WHAT? How did this happen when I was told by email and verbally that I had cancelled?” Proactiv eventually offered Deanna the same dubious deal as Annette in Colorado: a refund if she ships the products back at her own expense, but no offer to pay for those shipping fees.

You might not even need to open an account with Proactiv to experience difficulty canceling it. An anonymous complaint we got on Aug. 26 simply said: “My underage son called the 800 number after seeing a commercial on Proactiv. You need to look into this company fast. This is nothing but a credit card scam. Have a child call in to order, tell the customer rep that you are 15 and give them what they think is your parents’ credit card and watch what happens.”

We didn’t actually try that, but we did try calling the customer service number on Proactiv’s website in hope of learning how customers could cancel their accounts. Unfortunately, we had no success. After climbing through Proactiv’s phone tree for awhile we eventually found a human to speak to; he did not give us any complaint or cancellation phone numbers, only a customer service email address.

Direct marketing

PhotoOddly enough, that email wasn’t for an @proactiv account; instead, we were told to email the customer service department of of a company called Guthy-Renker. A quick online search shows that Guthy-Renker is a “direct marketing company” that’s generated numerous customer complaints of its own, including “Guthy-Renker Proactiv solutions sold my private cell phone number!” and “Guthy Renker –Wenhair is deceitful about auto refill” (just like Proactiv, maybe?), and several more in the same vein.

As of presstime, Guthy-Renker has not responded to our emailed request for comment.

What to do

So if you have a Proactiv account that refuses to die, what should you do? In theory, you could try emailing Guthy-Renker (though in practice, we doubt that’ll accomplish anything). Since all of this happens on the Web, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, which has an online complaint form you can use to recount your experience, besides letting us know about it, of course. 

In the meantime, your only option for stopping unwanted Proactiv shipments might be the nuclear option: cancel whatever credit card you have on file with the company.

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PublishAmerica lures aspiring authors but results are questionable

Legitimate publishers don't need advertising to find writers

PublishAmerica makes its money off authors, not readers...

PhotoIf you dream of earning your living as an author—or simply of publishing a book that’ll be seen by people other than immediate friends and family—established writers recommend you not waste your time with vanity press publishers like PublishAmerica.

Novice writers are quick to learn this expensive lesson. David B. of Cleveland, Ohio, wrote us on Sept. 12 to describe how he became the latest writer to learn this the hard way. Last year he wrote a children’s book and submitted it to several publishers. “The only one that responded positively was PublishAmerica [….] It is true they will publish your manuscript for free, but for any other kind of marketing that they do there is a cost involved.”

David knew better than to pay any marketing fees, but still lost money to the company: “So far I have not received any royalties from Publish America, and I know for a fact that my book has been sold through Amazon, and other companies.”

Another children’s book author—we’ll call her “S”—had the same complaint about PublishAmerica: every royalty period, PublishAmerica told her she’d earned no royalties.

“That is a lie, because I know multiple people who bought my book off Amazon and I never saw one penny for those sales,” she told us on Sept. 1. “I wrote and inquired about that and they had some weak excuse that it was Amazon's fault. Yeah, right! I inquired with Amazon and everything was hunky-dory with them.”

The difference between legitimate publishing houses and so-called “vanity presses” like PublishAmerica can be summarized in a single sentence: legitimate publishers make money by selling books to readers, while vanity presses make money from their authors.

Only sign the back

PhotoProfessional writers belonging to the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) have spent almost a decade warning fellow writers away from PublishAmerica and other vanity presses. Three such writers—James D. Macdonald, Victoria Strauss and the late AC Crispin—founded an advice and discussion forum called Absolute Write to warn writers away from vanity press companies.

Visit the forum and you’ll see a bold-print reminder across the top of every page: “A publisher or agency using Google ads to solicit your novel probably isn't anyone you want to write for.”

MacDonald, author of 35 novels, also coined what he calls “Yog’s Law,” which states that “Money flows toward the writer” or “The only place an author signs a check is on the back.”

MacDonald explains this in more detail: “[T]hat doesn't mean that the author should get paper and ink for free, or that he won't pay for postage. It does mean that when someone comes along and says, ‘Sure, kid, you can be a Published Author! It'll only cost you $300!’ the writer will know that something's wrong. A fee is a fee is a fee, whether they call it a reading fee, a marketing fee, a promotion fee, or a cheese-and-crackers fee.”

However, PublishAmerica claims not to charge fees; its website [indeed, its very logo] makes the bold claim “We treat our authors the old-fashioned way—we pay them,” and authors who go with PublishAmerica aren’t asked for fees until after the contract has already been signed.

How to know?

So how can an aspiring author know how to weed out the vanity press publishers? The easiest way is to look at the publisher’s website and ask: “Who are they trying to sell to here—readers, or writers?” Look at the websites of legitimate publishers such as Random House or Simon & Schuster:  the sites are designed to convince would-be readers to part with some money in exchange for a good book.

By contrast, PublishAmerica’s website tries to convince authors to publish with them: “Become a published author for FREE!”

Face it: legitimate publishers—those who make their money selling books to readers—don’t need advertising to find aspiring writers, anymore than legitimate movie studios need advertising to find aspiring movie stars. In both cases, the number of people who dream of earning their living that way is exponentially greater than the number of positions available.

Which is why the Absolute Write forum reminds aspiring authors: “A publisher or agency using Google ads to solicit your novel probably isn't anyone you want to write for.”

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What you need to know to avoid Obamacare scams

Watch out, officials say there's going to be a lot of them

Starting in October people who pay for their own health insurance can start signing up for policies through health care exchanges, operated by states and t...

PhotoStarting in October people who pay for their own health insurance can start signing up for policies through health care exchanges, operated by states and the federal government. It's part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

While a number of people may be looking forward to getting better health coverage than they have now, scammers are already capitalizing on the confusion surrounding the new program to steal money and identities. Law enforcement officials worry it's about to get a lot worse.

For example, do you know what you need to do to get enrolled in a new policy? Do you even know if you are required to take any action? Perhaps not. There has not been a vigorous information campaign associated with the roll out, though it's likely we'll hear more once October arrives. Again, that could be part of the problem.

Not enough information

Scammers often take advantage of high-profile news events to trick their prey. People may have heard something about the topic but lack complete information or understanding. When a smooth-talking scammer gets them on the phone, it's often no contest.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has already been besieged with complaints from consumers, reporting similar variations on the scheme. Usually a caller claims to be from the government and offers to register the victim over the phone. In the process they collect vital information, like Social Security and bank account numbers.

Here are some of the things a scammer might tell you and here's the truth:

You don't need a new ID card

The scammer will say you must have a new medical ID card under the new Affordable Care Act and will offer to register you over the phone. In truth, there is no medical ID card. The only insurance card you will need is one issued by your insurance provider.

The scammer might also offer to take a credit card payment over the phone to allow the victim to opt out of the requirement to have health insurance. That's not how it works. If you do not meet the individual mandate to buy health insurance, you will pay an extra tax. However, that tax is paid to the Internal Revenue Service when you file your tax return.

But complicating matters is the fact that not everyone who you might speak on the phone with about Obamacare is necessarily a scammer. That's because each health exchange will develop a network of “navigators,” whose job it will be to educate people about the new law and answer questions.

Don't pay a fee

Photo
The official New York Health Benefit Exchange site

The navigators are supposed to be drawn from a list of established community organizations and the service is to be provided at no charge. Someone identifying themselves as a navigator, but who asks for personal or financial information – and who requests a fee – should be considered a bad guy.

Bogus websites can be expected to proliferate. Already federal and state regulators have shut down sites seeking to use Obamacare as a pretext for fleecing victims. Some of these sites are not operated by criminals but by businesses stepping way over ethical boundary lines.

Recently a site claiming to be the Pennsylvania Health Exchange was shown to actually be operated by a private insurance broker. After media exposure and a state investigation, the site disappeared.

Further complicating matters is the fact that each state is responsible for operating a health care exchange for its citizens and each exchange may be different. A consumer's best defense against scammers will be awareness that they are out there and taking the initiative – contacting your state's exchange directly, not responding to telephone calls.

How do you find your state's exchange. The official Obamacare website, HealthCare.gov, offers some guidance. You can find your state's exchange at the bottom of this page

Meanwhile, if you get a phone calls from someone you suspect of being an Obamacare scammer, the FTC says it would like to hear about it. If you have caller ID on your phone, write down the caller's number and give it to the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP.

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Feds disconnect two more illegal robocallers

Companies tricked consumers into deceptive credit card interest reduction scams

The Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on illegal robocallers and today it announced that two more companies have agreed to settle charges tha...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on illegal robocallers and today it announced that two more companies have agreed to settle charges that they used prerecorded calls to trick consumers into deceptive credit card interest rate reduction scams.

Under separate proposed settlements, the defendants behind Treasure Your Success andAmbrosia Web Design will be banned from telemarketing and delivering robocalls.  They also will be permanently prohibited from advertising, marketing, promoting, or offering to sell any debt relief product or service, or assisting others in doing so.

Treasure Your Success

In its original complaint against Treasure Your Success, the FTC alleged that the defendants tricked consumers into paying up-front fees of as much as $1,593, using deceptive offers for credit card interest rate reduction services.

The complaint named two individuals, Willy Plancher and Valbona Toska, as well as their three companies, WV Universal Management, Global Financial Assist, and Leading Production.  The defendants began marketing credit card interest rate reduction services in 2010.  

According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants lured consumers by telling them they could substantially reduce their credit card interest rates, down to as low as three percent, in many instances.  After collecting the upfront fees, however, consumers typically failed to get any interest rate reduction or any savings at all.

In November 2012, at the FTC’s request, a federal court halted the scheme and froze the defendants’ assets pending further court proceedings.  The proposed order holds the defendants liable for $2,032,626, based on the amount of consumer injury in the case.  Due to the inability of the individual defendants to pay redress, the monetary judgment has been suspended.  However, if the defendants misstate or fail to disclose any of their material assets, the full amount of the judgment will be immediately due and payable.

Ambrosia Web Design

According to the FTC’s complaint, the Ambrosia Web Design defendants delivered prerecorded calls that urged consumers they called to “press one” if they were interested in credit card interest rate reduction services.  Consumers who pressed one were connected to a telemarketer who promised to get them very low interest rates or, in some cases, specific amounts of interest savings. 

The defendants often deceived consumers into thinking defendants were affiliated with a government program.  If consumers agreed to sign up, the telemarketer got their credit card information, often charging an illegal advance fee before providing any service, the FTC alleged.

The FTC alleged that defendants then typically failed to deliver on their promises. In addition, the FTC charged defendants with failing to disclose their purported no-refund/no cancellation policy and billing some consumers without their express authorization.  Finally, the FTC alleged defendants illegally called many phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.

In addition to the bans on outbound telemarketing and robocalling, the proposed settlement order:

  • Bans the defendants from using certain payment processing methods, such as remotely created checks, that are often used to conduct fraud;
  • Prohibits the defendants from making misrepresentations regarding any “financial products or services;” and
  • Prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting the efficacy of a product or service.

The proposed settlement requires the defendants to liquidate virtually all of their assets, including a valuable watch and a sports memorabilia collection.  It also includes a judgment of $8.3 million, which will be suspended if defendants comply with the terms of the settlement.

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Consumers report a sharp rise in financial difficulties, gloomier outlook

Consumer Reports "trouble tracker" finds surge in financial problems among lower-income families

There's a lot of talk about a financial recovery but for many Americans, that's all it is -- talk. So says the Consumer Reports Index, an overall measure o...

PhotoThere's a lot of talk about a financial recovery but for many Americans, that's all it is -- talk. So says the Consumer Reports Index, an overall measure of Americans’ personal financial health, which found that Americans reported a sharp rise in financial difficulties and a weaker view of their overall financial health in the past 30 days.

“The economy is staggering along. This recovery remains the weakest since World War II. Uncertainty hangs over the lower-income consumers like a veil of smoke fed by the lackluster recovery in jobs, “said Ed Farrell, director of consumer insight at Consumer Reports.

The Consumer Reports Index’s trouble tracker climbed to 46.0 in August from 34.7 the prior month. This significant rise was driven by a surge in financial troubles among lower-income consumers (households earning $50,000 or less) and Americans with a high school education or less.

The trouble tracker measure addresses both the proportion of consumers that have faced difficulties as well as the number of hurdles they have encountered.  Affluent and college-educated consumers showed little change in the amount of financial trouble they faced in the past 30 days.

It flows downhill

Lower-income households continue to be disproportionately affected by the economy’s crawling recovery. Twenty-seven percent of them reported they were unable to afford medical bills or medications in the past 30 days—that’s 11 percentage points higher than the national average. Missed bill payments and lost or reduced healthcare coverage also remain among the most prevalently reported financial troubles overall.  
 
The Consumer Reports Index’s sentiment measure dropped into negative territory for the first time in five months, falling to 48.6 from 50.8 the prior month. After three straight months of decline, sentiment is at its lowest level since October 2012. The greatest decline in sentiment was also among lower-income households and those that have a high school education or less.

The level of stress that consumers felt was up from the prior month, 58.0 versus 53.7, respectively. The most stressed Americans: women (59.6), those in households earning under $50,000 (62.0), aged 35-64 (60.9), and those in the Northeast (61.5).

The Consumer Reports Index, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, is a monthly telephone and cell phone poll of a nationally representative probability sample of American adults.

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Lawsuit claims Well Fargo managers open phony accounts to keep their jobs

Lawsuit charges that new-customer quotas drive managers to create bogus accounts

Everyone denies having quotas. The police insist they don't but ask yourself how often you've gotten tickets late in the month. Telephone solicitors say th...

PhotoEveryone denies having quotas. The police insist they don't but ask yourself how often you've gotten tickets late in the month. Telephone solicitors say they don't have quotas but how often have you been signed up for something you never heard of?

David E. Douglas says Wells Fargo Bank is up to the same shenanigans. In a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Douglas charges that employees of three different Wells Fargo branches opened new accounts in his name and his business' name without his knowledge.

Douglas says branch employees are under so much pressure to sign up new customers that they use the information they already have on existing customers to open phony new accounts. Douglas claims the individual defendants opened at least eight accounts in his name and forged his signature on the applications without his knowledge, Courthouse News Service reported.

Wells Fargo Sept. 13, 2013, 5:46 p.m.
Consumers rate Wells Fargo

Given the demands Wells Fargo makes on its employees, it "should have known that its employees and bank managers routinely use the account information, date of birth, and Social Security and taxpayer identification numbers of defendant Wells Fargo's existing bank customers to use the existing bank customers' money to open additional accounts in the existing customers' names without their knowledge or consent and by forging the signature of their existing customers without their knowledge or consent to open said additional accounts, including purported business accounts for businesses that do not exist," Douglas' suit charges.

Even after being alerted to the issue, Wells Fargo did nothing, Douglas alleges. He says in the suit that when he found out about the unauthorized accounts, he contacted a fraud investigator at the bank's Beverly Hills branch. She assured him that Wells Fargo would "conduct a thorough investigation and make him whole," but he never heard back from her or anyone else at the bank, so he was forced to sue, Douglas says in the complaint.

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Retail sales inch higher in August

The latest numbers failed to meet expectations

Retail sales rose a tepid 0.2% in August, disappointing analysts, including those at Briefing.com who were looking for a much stronger showing of an 0.4% g...

PhotoRetail sales rose a tepid 0.2% in August, disappointing analysts, including those at Briefing.com who were looking for a much stronger showing of an 0.4% gain. Sales in July were revised higher to show an advance of 0.4% rather than the 0.2% initially reported.

The August advance was paced by a rise of 0.9% in Auto sales following the July drop of 0.5%. Analysts at Briefing.com say they expected a better number, given the August motor vehicle report, which was the strongest for that month since 2003.

Excluding autos, overall retail sales were up just 0.1%.

Other areas of strength in August were furniture and home furnishings (+0.9), electronics and appliances (+0.8%) and health and personal care (+0.6).

Those were partially offset by declines in sales of building materials and garden supplies (-0.9%)., clothing and accessories (-0.8%) and sporting goods, hobbies and books (-0.5).

Lindsey Piegza, chief economist Sterne Agee, calls the August report “disappointing.” And she isn't particularly optimistic about the future. “Consumption has been lackluster volleying at a near 2% rate through the first half of the year,” she notes. “With income growth of less than 1% and waning momentum in the jobs market, consumption is likely to falter further.”

The complete retail sales report for August can be found on the Census Bureau website.

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Wholesale prices resumed their climb in August

Higher food and energy costs were major contributors

After taking a break in July, prices for goods one step shy of the consumer were on the rise again. The government says its Producer Price Index (PPI) for...

PhotoAfter taking a break in July, prices for goods one step shy of the consumer were on the rise again.

The government says its Producer Price Index (PPI) for finished goods, which was unchanged in July, rose 0.3% in August. For the 12 months ended last month, prices are up 1.4% -- the smallest advance since a 0.5% rise in April 2013.

Energy and food increases

Nearly two-thirds of the August increase came from an 0.8% surge in energy prices. In that sector, gasoline prices shot up 2.6%, while liquefied petroleum gas and residential electric power were also higher.

Food costs, which were unchanged in July, jumped 0.6% as fresh and dry vegetables surged 26.9%.

Stripping out the volatile food and energy categories, the “core rate” of wholesale inflation was unchanged in August after nine consecutive increases.

The full PPI report for August  can be found on the Labor Department website.

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Travelers plagued by tarmac delays in July

The vast majority involved a single incident

Anyone flying in or out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport on July 22 had a tough time of it. Twelve of the 13 tarmac delays of more than three hours on dome...

PhotoAnyone flying in or out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport on July 22 had a tough time of it.

Twelve of the 13 tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights reported during July occurred at LaGuardia. The front landing gear of a Southwest Airlines plane collapsed upon landing at the airport, causing it to be closed temporarily.

In addition to the 13 domestic delays, there were three tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights in July.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is investigating all the delays.

The 16 airlines that file their on-time performance data with DOT reported that 73.1% of their flights arrived on time in July, down nearly 3% from the previous year, but an improvement up the June 2013 mark of 71.9%.

The report also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, along with information on mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers, and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints received. Also included are reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air.

The full report is available on the Department of Transportation website.

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Manhattan mail goes missing for a month

Post office claims it has no way of knowing who was responsible for mail delivery in August

A Manhattan man and his roommates have gone over a month now without receiving a single piece of mail from the US post office, yet despite repeated complai...

PhotoA Manhattan man and his roommates have gone over a month now without receiving a single piece of mail from the US post office, yet despite repeated complaints through official USPS channels, the post office’s responses have all boiled down to “Not our problem, buddy.”

Matthew P. shares a New York City apartment with two roommates, and wrote us to complain that, “from approximately August 5 through September 9, 2013, our apartment did not receive any mail via the USPS.”

When we spoke to Matthew on Sept. 11 the situation had improved slightly, if you call “getting two unwanted pieces of junk mail” an improvement. However, he has yet to receive any bills he must pay, magazines he subscribes to, or letters which various friends and business associates have mailed him.

On Sept. 7, one of Matthew’s associates sent him a digital photograph of an envelope which said associate had tried to mail: despite having Matthew’s correct address and sufficient postage affixed to the front, it was still returned to the associate with a yellow label reading, “Return to Sender/Not deliverable as addressed/unable to forward.”

Armed with this photographic evidence, Matthew promptly sent a complaint email via the USPS website, and got a case number in return. He also called the post office later that day and received a second case number.

And then ...

What happened next? The short version is, Matthew got the runaround.

Here’s the more detailed version: On Sept. 10 he visited the Gracie Station Post Office to lodge a complaint in person, and was told he needed to speak to a supervisor, who’d be available the next morning starting at 8 a.m.

PhotoMatthew arrived next morning at 8:30 and learned he wouldn’t be allowed inside until nine. Once inside he still wasn’t allowed to speak to a supervisor in person, only over the phone. But the supervisor assured him he’d get his mail from that point on.

Matthew wrote to tell us what happened next: “I asked about my missing mail from the previous month. First, [the supervisor] told me that the mail was missing and that if they do not have it at the post office, they cannot deliver it. I asked about my missing mail from the previous month. When I pressed him on why the mail was marked ‘Not Deliverable as Addressed,’ he told me that my regular mail carrier had been out for three weeks because of an illness in the family. He claimed that he did not know the specific dates, but that the carrier was out from approximately late July through mid-August.”

But surely the post office has alternate mail carriers to cover for colleagues who are out sick? When Matthew asked, the supervisor said that different carriers covered that route on different days, but there was no way to find out which carrier covered a particular route on a certain day, or who specifically marked Matthew’s letters “Not Deliverable as Addressed,” or why.

Don't fax us ...

Consumers rate USPS - Lost Mail

That’s when Matthew grew frustrated enough to write us, but we had no better luck than Matthew at getting to the bottom of this mystery. Despite having Matthew’s address, case number, personal information and permission to speak on his behalf, the Gracie Station Post Office wouldn’t or couldn’t discuss specifics of Matthew’s case with us.

They did, however, give us a fax number so Matthew could fax them the same complaint he’d sent us, and the digital photo of the properly addressed and stamped envelope with the yellow “Undeliverable” sticker on it.

We gave this information to Matthew, and three hours later he emailed us an update: “I did try to fax them my information a couple times, but was having trouble -- the transmission connected, but failed each time with a ‘Transmission Incomplete’ error message. I know that there's not anything wrong with the fax I used, and it wasn't a busy signal, so it seems like there could be a problem on their end [….] I have a bad feeling that they tried the old ‘give them a broken fax number’ trick.”

Matthew emailed us an image of the fax and we tried sending it, but with the same results.

Matthew also told us that, shortly after his failed fax attempts, he received a robo-email from the post office, assuring him that, “In order to better serve you, your recently submitted inquiry was forwarded to an office that is better suited to address your needs. It is being investigated and you can expect a reply within 2 to 4 business days.”

Will the post office deliver the missing mail? Or at least figure out exactly who had responsibility for delivering letters to Matthew’s obscure little corner of central Manhattan throughout the month of August? We’ll keep you posted (pardon the pun).

Matthew's experience, though frustrating, is far from unique. Our database overflows with consumer complaints about all kinds of problems, including lost mail and mail simply not being delivered. These may sound like the same thing, and maybe they are, but some complaints are about individual letters or packages being lost while others, like Matthew's, are about a failure to deliver any mail at all for extended periods of time.

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Realtors: housing market getting back to normal

Supply is catching up with demand, analysts say

Home prices are up, which is good news for homeowners hoping to regain some of their equity lost when the housing market plunged five years ago. But much o...

PhotoHome prices are up, which is good news for homeowners hoping to regain some of their equity lost when the housing market plunged five years ago. But much of the upward price movement had to do with supply, not demand.

For the last couple of years there have been fewer homes on the market. The initial glut caused by foreclosures quickly dried up when banks slowed their seizure of homes in default. People who owed more than their home was worth couldn't afford to sell, so those houses have remained out of the inventory.

With fewer available homes buyers were suddenly in the unfamiliar position of having to compete for the homes they wanted. Thus, sellers were able to demand a higher price.

While that has helped drive prices higher, economists point out a market so heavily influenced by supply isn't necessarily a healthy market. Rather, they say, there should be a balance between supply and demand. There still have not been enough buyers in the marketplace, in large part due to the difficulty of qualifying for a mortgage.

Changing for the better

However, that may be changing for the better. A report compiled by online real estate marketing site Realtor.com finds there has been a shift in the dynamics of the marketplace. Its report suggests future gains in home prices may occur because of an increase in people shopping for homes.

A breakdown of the summer home-buying season ending in August shows year-over-year changes now within the single-digits for three indicators Realtors consider critical to market health – inventory count, median age and median list price. Those changes haven't been positive for years.

"Where we have seen significant volatility in many markets, including double-digit declines in inventory as well as increases in median price for both yearly and monthly views, we are now looking at a housing market that is less heated and moving closer to normalcy," said Steve Berkowitz, CEO of Move, Inc., Realtor.com's parent company.

Inventories are growing

The August numbers show the inventory of homes for sale is growing again. The net number of listings went up, even though the summer season was drawing to a close. Nearly one-third of the 146 markets measured are within five percent of last year's inventory levels, and more than two-thirds of markets registered a net increase in inventory over last month.

With inventory levels rising you might expect prices to move in the opposite direction. In August, that didn't happen. The national median list price was the same as it was in July. Though the overall number remained flat, 123 of the 146 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) covered by the analysis showed a year-over-year increase in the average list price.

California markets continue to dominate the list of areas experiencing the largest year-over-year median list price increases. That's something of a surprise since there has been a surge in new property listings in those markets.

Additional data

Statistics collected by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) tend to also reflect this hopeful trend. NAR reports median home prices were higher in a majority of metro areas in the second quarter of the year, with the national year-over-year price registering the strongest gain in seven and a half years.

However, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun, at the time of the report, said he had yet to see the supply of available homes catching up to demand.

“Higher interest rates are now causing sales to level out, but the tight supply conditions look to be with us for the balance of the year in most of the country,” Yun said. “Areas with tighter supplies generally are seeing the strongest price growth, including markets such as Sacramento, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Naples, San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

Higher mortgage rates, ironically, may be one of two trends that might support a continued housing recovery. It's true that a higher rate will make a monthly payment slightly higher. At the same time, higher rates make lenders increasingly willing to make loans, since the reward for their risk is higher.

Finally, the government's proposed new Qualified Residential Mortgage (QRM) rule, issued at the end of August, is likely to open home ownership to more people. NAR President Gary Thomas says the new standard strikes a reasonable balance -- “stringent enough to protect consumers from unscrupulous lending practices but creating new opportunities for private capital to reestablish itself as part of a robust and competitive mortgage market.”

With the financial incentive of higher rates and lending guidelines that favor more buyers, Realtors expect more consumers will shop for houses, providing the stability the housing market needs if it is to fully recover.

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EPA provides free mileage info for used car buyers

But will dealers make the information available to consumers?

An EPA sticker for a plug-in hybridIf you're shopping for a new car, it's easy to find the estimated miles per gallon rating -- it's staring you right ...

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An EPA sticker for a plug-in hybrid

If you're shopping for a new car, it's easy to find the estimated miles per gallon rating -- it's staring you right in the face in the window sticker that's required on all new cars.

If you're one of 40 million consumers buying a used car each year, on the other hand, you may have to dig deeply to find the information -- although car dealers are being given the opportunity, starting today, to provide easy-to-understand information about the fuel efficiency of the cars and trucks in their used inventory.

A new online tool from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes it easy for dealers to create consumer-friendly labels that list the gas mileage and the CO2 emissions levels of used vehicles sold in the United States since 1984.

“Providing gas mileage information to consumers will be a giant step forward in protecting American pocketbooks, addressing the nation’s dependence on oil, and reducing pollution,” said Jack Gillis, Consumer Federation of America’s Director of Public Affairs and author of The Car Book.

Currently, seventy-five percent of car buyers in the market choose to buy used vehicles. Because the information is hard to find, very few have any idea of the fuel economy of the vehicles they are considering.

“Consumers who are in the dark about a vehicle’s fuel economy are buying blind. They don’t know how much they’ll have to spend on gas until they’ve already made a significant purchase and a potentially costly mistake,” said Gillis.

The information is available online but many consumers don't have access to the Internet when they're looking at cars, or simply don't think to look there. We went to www.fueleconomy.gov and did a comparison of four admittedly profligate cars just to see how the online system works.

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Optional for now

The new labeling tool is currently being offered to dealers as an optional resource, but that could change if dealers fail to adopt this easy-to-use consumer information program.

“Used car dealers are being given the chance to jump on one of the most important rating programs available. If they fail to provide their customers with this easy-to-access information, the Consumer Federation of America will push hard to mandate the labels on every used car,” said Gillis.

A powerful tool for car buyers, the new labels will also motivate carmakers to move quickly to meet recent federal standards to increase the average fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the U.S. to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.

Why? Dealers know that consumers these days are scrambling to buy higher mileage cars and they want the used models of their vehicles to maintain their value. 

“Vehicle fuel efficiency is an increasingly critical factor for car buyers and, if the dealers take simple steps to inform buyers, American families will reward them with their dollars for the most fuel efficient used cars,” said Gillis.  

 

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Struggling homeowners illegally evicted, abused, Illinois charges

Safeguard Properties allegedly breaks into homes, evicts residents before foreclosures are finalized

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (file photo)One of the nation's largest foreclosure-service comanies, Safeguard Properties LLC, is being sued by...

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Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (file photo)

One of the nation's largest foreclosure-service comanies, Safeguard Properties LLC, is being sued by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who charges the company is illegally evicting struggling homeowners by breaking into their homes, changing locks to bar residents from re-entry, and shutting off utilities well before a foreclosure is finalized.

Madigan filed her lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Safeguard, a Delaware corporation based in Ohio. It is the largest privately held company in the country hired by mortgage lenders to determine whether a home in default or foreclosure is still occupied. If a home is vacant, Safeguard is supposed to secure and maintain the property to ensure it does not lose value during the foreclosure process.

But Madigan alleges that Safeguard routinely treated occupied properties in Illinois as vacant, instructing its contractors to winterize and secure homes that occupants still had a legal right to live in. In many cases, Safeguard’s contractors broke into homes, changed the locks, turned off the utilities and removed occupants’ personal possessions in spite of clear evidence that the homes were still occupied.

“This case shows the lengths that banks and their service providers will go to abuse and intimidate borrowers in foreclosure,” Madigan said. “This company was illegally breaking in to people’s homes, removing all their possessions and locking them out. It is a homeowner’s worst nightmare.”

Worst nightmare

As the number of foreclosures has climbed in recent years, mortgage lenders have increasingly relied on third-party companies like Safeguard to ensure that properties do not lose value after their owners default on the mortgage.

The vendors manage the properties throughout the foreclosure process and, most times, after the foreclosing lender buys a property at a foreclosure auction. However, homeowners and tenants have a legal right to occupy a home until the completion of the foreclosure process.

Among the most egregious examples cited in Madigan’s lawsuit, an Illinois homeowner on at least a dozen occasions told Safeguard he was still living in his home yet returned home one day to find his front and back doors broken into with a sledgehammer.

Another homeowner, a member of the U.S. Armed Forces who was in the process of a short sale on his property, returned home from out-of-state training to find it had been broken into, the locks changed and utilities shut off. Another homeowner, who had fallen behind on her payments but had not entered default, returned home to find it had been broke into, the locks changed, her water shut off and anti-freeze poured into her pipes to winterize the property.

Read Madigan’s lawsuit here.

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Would you believe a 10-hour battery life in forthcoming Chromebooks?

Latest line of Chromebooks will be based on new Intel processor that boosts efficiency

A Lenovo ChromebookThe world stops spinning when new iPhones come out and alarm bells ring when Microsoft shuffles executives, but in relative obscurit...

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A Lenovo Chromebook

The world stops spinning when new iPhones come out and alarm bells ring when Microsoft shuffles executives, but in relative obscurity Google Chromebooks are carving out a big share of the laptop market, as geeky designers and end users find something inexpensive they can get excited about.

The latest news on the Chromebook front was revealed yesterday in San Francisco at the Intel Developer Forum, where execs said forthcoming Chromebooks will be based on Intel's Haswell processor family, noted for its power efficiency and computing prowess. 

"The battery life on the new Chromebooks will be up to 50% better, and the trick is also doing that while delivering amazing levels of performance," said Navin Shenoy, VP of Intel's PC client group and general manager of the mobile platform division, in a press briefing. "And we'll see 15% or more improvement on performance using Haswell."

It was, technerds will recall, a Haswell-based Core i5 that helped double the battery life of Apple's latest MacBook Air, launched in June.

There will also soon be more versions of the Chromebook. as Asus and Toshiba are joining current Chromebook makers Acer, HP, Lenovo and Samsung. There's also a high-end Chromebook, the Pixel, that carries the Google brand.

Retailing giants Best Buy, Staples and Walmart are all promoting the Chromebooks heavily. Prices start in the low $200 range, yet the little machines deliver performance and durability that rival full-fledged desktop-equivalent machines costing five or six times as much.

They boot up in seconds, don't require anti-virus software and updates are performed in the background. Chromebooks work with cloud-based apps that provide a full office suite and a wide range of productivity and entertainment functions.

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Sears reforms refund policy New York called deceptive

The "Come Back Cash" promotion didn't work out well for customers who returned merchandise

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has reached a settlement with Sears over a refund policy that Schneiderman charged was deceptive.At i...

PhotoNew York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has reached a settlement with Sears over a refund policy that Schneiderman charged was deceptive.

At issue is Sears' "Come Back Cash" promotion. In the promotion, a consumer who purchased merchandise above a "qualifying threshold" amount was given a $10 or $20 promotional award card.

However, if the consumer later returned some of the merchandise, Sears reduced the refund by a pro-rated amount of the value of the award card, even if the cost of the unreturned merchandise remained above the qualifying threshold and/or if the customer did not cash in the award.

The company, which operates 45 stores in New York, has agreed to pay $150,000 in fines and has already reformed the policy. 

"This settlement ensures that consumers who participate in a promotion of this type and later return merchandise will receive a full and fair refund - and not a penny less," Schneiderman said. "Sears' refund policy improperly reduced refunds to customers whose purchases stayed above the qualifying threshold in the promotion, or whose promotional award card had already expired without being used." 

Consumers rate Sears Roebuck & Co.
The Attorney General's investigation revealed that there were a total of 25,998 transactions involving New York consumers whose refunds were improperly reduced and that Sears reduced the refunds issued to those consumers in the total amount of $82,825.62. 

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Virgin America fined for safety violation

The carrier failed to provide safety videos to hearing-impaired passengers

The failure to make its in-flight safety video accessible to passengers with hearing impairments will cost Virgin America $150,000. In announcing the fine,...

PhotoThe failure to make its in-flight safety video accessible to passengers with hearing impairments will cost Virgin America $150,000. In announcing the fine, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) also ordered the carrier to cease and desist from further violations.

“Safety is our number-one priority and that includes ensuring that every airline passenger has access to airline safety briefings,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We will continue to take enforcement action when our disability rules are violated so that all passengers are aware of critical, potentially life-saving information.”

DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office investigators found that since October 2007, when the airline first began scheduled service, Virgin America used its in-flight entertainment system to present the pre-flight safety briefing but failed to ensure that the video was accompanied either by open captioning or an inset for a sign language interpreter. This violated DOT’s rule, which is part of its regulations implementing the Air Carrier Access Act, requiring video safety briefings to be accessible to passengers with hearing impairments.

Although captioning for in-flight safety videos created before Nov. 10, 2009, is not required to be in high contrast, Virgin America has agreed to add high-contrast captioning to its video by Sept. 30, 2013.

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Initial jobless claims number plunges -- but don't get excited

The figure was the lowest in 7 years, but it was due to computer issues

First-time applications for state jobless benefits plunged by 31,000 during the week ending September 7 to 292,000. That's the lowest point for claims sinc...

PhotoFirst-time applications for state unemployment benefits plunged by 31,000 during the week ending September 7 to 292,000. That's the lowest point for claims since March 2006.

However, the Labor Department (DOL) says two states upgraded their computer systems, resulting in the unexpected drop and that it does not believe the drop in claims this week signals a change in labor market conditions. Conditions remain better than where they were a few months ago but nowhere near as strong as a sub-300,000 reading would suggest. It's unknown how long the computer errors will remain in the system and DOL says it could affect the data for the next few weeks.

The 4-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market because it strips out the weekly volatility, was down 7,500 to 321,250.

The full jobless claims report is available on the DOL website.

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Beware of "concussion-proof" football helmets

There is no such thing, experts warn; minimizing head-to-head hits is the best prevention

With football season set to begin, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today issued a consumer alert on the risk of concussions to young football players...

PhotoFootball season is upon us and many parents of young players may be swayed by helmets claiming to be "concussion-proof." There is no such thing, experts warn.

Some manufacturers are promoting aftermarket add-ons for football helmets – such as liners, bumpers, pads and electronic devices – that promise to reduce the risk of concussion. However, there is little research evaluating the effect of physical impact on young athletes, and risk-reduction claims about helmets designed for adult players may not be relevant to younger players, New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman warned. 

“It’s important to remember that no helmet can fully prevent a concussion,” Schneiderman said, as he cautioned manufacturers against making claims they can't back up. “Ensuring that manufacturers don’t mislead the public and endanger young New Yorkers is a key concern for my office."

Head injuries, including concussions, can happen at any time on the field of play, regardless of the type of helmet being worn. False claims may give players and parents a false sense of security. Instead, parents, coaches and young football players should rely on a number of tips and strategies to help reduce the risk of head injury, including: learning and recognizing symptoms of a concussion; minimizing head-to-head hits on the field, and enforcing stronger and stricter penalties against such behavior.

What to do

Although the age, condition, type and fit of the helmet are important factors, reducing the risk of concussion is not “all about the helmet.” Schneiderman issued these tips to reduce the risk of concussion and head injury in youth football:

  • Players, parents and coaches must be trained on the symptoms and risks of concussion.
     
  • Recognizing the signs of concussion and removing a player immediately is extremely important. 
     
  • New York State law requires that players be removed from play until they are asymptomatic for a minimum of 24 hours and have written approval from their physician to return to play. Many other states have similar laws. 
     
  • The number of concussions can be significantly reduced with modifications to practice format and an emphasis on penalty enforcement.
     
  • Reducing the number of hits is instrumental to reducing the risk of concussion because of the cumulative risk from repeated hits. Limit the amount of contact in practice and forbid drills that involve full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling that begins with players lined up more than three yards apart. 
     
  • Players need to be trained to focus on techniques that minimize head-to-head hits. Coaches and referees must strictly enforce penalties against such behavior.
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Dorel recalls child restraint systems

Installation instructions are incorrect

Dorel Juvenile Group (DJG) is recalling 89,527 Safety 1st Complete Air LX (models CC050xxx), Safety 1st Complete Air SE (models CC051xxx), and Safety 1st A...

PhotoDorel Juvenile Group (DJG) is recalling 89,527 Safety 1st Complete Air LX (models CC050xxx), Safety 1st Complete Air SE (models CC051xxx), and Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite (models 22187xxx , 22465xxx ,CC033xxx , and CC046xxx), and Eddie Bauer Deluxe 3 in 1 convertible (models 22790xxx , and CC046xxx) child restraint systems manufactured from July 20, 2010, through May 18, 2011. [Note: The 'xxx' at the end of each model number represents different color options that each seat could be.]

The rear facing belt path installation arrows are incorrect and could be potentially construed as pointing toward the forward facing vehicle belt path location. If the child seat is not installed properly, the child may be injured in the event of a crash.

DJG will notify registered owners and provide free label kits consisting of modified labels which will correct the potential inconsistent information and instructions as to the proper installation of the restraint, free of charge.

Owners may call DJG toll-free at 1-877-675-2355.

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Hachette Book Group recalls children’s books

A metal rod holding small beads on the cover of books can detach and release small parts

Hachette Book Group New York, N.Y., is recalling about 70,000 children's books titled “Count my Kisses, 1, 2, 3” and “Red, Green, Blue, I Love You.” A meta...

PhotoHachette Book Group New York, N.Y., is recalling about 70,000 children's books titled “Count my Kisses, 1, 2, 3” and “Red, Green, Blue, I Love You.”

A metal rod holding small beads on the cover of books can detach and release small parts that present a choking hazard. A detached metal bar can expose a sharp edge posing a laceration hazard. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The board-shaped children’s books have cut out covers that serve as a handle and include an embedded bar in the handle with beads for children to play with. “Ages 3+” is printed on the back covers and the ISBN numbers are also on the back covers near the bar code. Two titles are included: Count my Kisses, 1, 2, 3, ISBN: 978-0-316-13354-8, has five colored cylindrical wooden beads with printed hearts on the rod; and,
Red, Green, Blue, I Love You, ISBN: 978-0-316-13353-1, has five colored circular wooden beads on the metal rod.

The books, manufactured in China, were sold at Barnes & Noble, online at Amazon.com and by other booksellers and retailers from June 2013, to August 2013, for about $8.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled books away from children and return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Hachette Book Group at (888) 965-5802 from 8 a.m.to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Chobani in meltdown as 89 illnesses are reported

The "fizzy" yogurt contained mold from its Idaho plant, the company says

That bad batch of Chobani yogurt is giving its manufacturer a bad case of heartburn and making some of its customers sick. Chobani says it is speeding up i...

PhotoThat bad batch of Chobani yogurt is giving its manufacturer a bad case of heartburn and making some of its customers sick. Chobani says it is speeding up its recall of the mold-infested yogurt following reports of 89 illnesses.

Earlier, consumers had complained the yogurt tasted funny and said the containers bulged oddly but there were initially no reports of illness. The company had previously claimed the mold did not present any safety issues.

The company now says that 95 percent of the recalled yogurt has been retrieved and destroyed. The affected yogurt cups have the code 16-012 and expiration dates between Sept. 11 and Oct. 7.

Brand damage

Besides making consumers sick, incidents like this can be disasters for a brand. Chobani had been surging in popularity in recent years, as consumers say they prefer its thicker consistency and relatively higher protein content when compared with the sweeter yogurt varieties that have long been sold in American supermarkets.

Consumers are quick to turn their backs on products that present safety issues, especially when the manufacturer does not respond quickly.

"I returned my first purchase of Chobani to Costco, after some of the lids started 'swelling.' Tried it again later, and found that it tasted just like any other yogurt. I now buy Fage...and like it much better!" Dawn Eshelman said in a Facebook posting, commenting on an earlier ConsumerAffairs story.

Consumers have flocked to Chobani's Facebook page to express their unhappiness.

"I only just found out about the recall. I have been sick for over a week with terrible abdominal pain and other symptoms and had no idea why. All of the yogurt I have has the code that is the subject of the recall," said a a consumer named Laurel. "I love your yogurt and don't plan to change brands, but please give me some answers. I am in great discomfort. I also contacted your website. I have not found any info anywhere on the web about how to treat the symptoms."

"Boy, have you blown this debacle," said a consumer using the name Jay Placemat./p>

Some took the opportunity to complain about other aspects of Chobani's products.

"Chobani - why don't you get a clue and become a leader in poison-free yogurt?" said one. "I used to buy your yogurt - now that I've learned it comes from cows fed with genetically engineered corn mix, I'm staying away from it by a cannon shot."

Chobani has been responding to the Facebook postings, assuring customers it's doing all it can and expressing concern over their welfare. But whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

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Sleep disorders leave consumers searching for relief

But you might need more than a special pillow or a pill now and then

If you watch much cable TV you no doubt have seen plenty of commercials for special pillows to help you get a better night's sleep. Some regulate the surfa...

PhotoIf you watch much cable TV you no doubt have seen plenty of commercials for special pillows to help you get a better night's sleep. Some regulate the surface temperature, others conform to the shape of your head.

But getting a good night's sleep is about more than having a special pillow, or even an adjustable bed. A number of sleep disorders could be depriving you of the rest you need.

Among the most common sleep disorders is insomnia. Suffers may have trouble falling asleep at night or they may wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to sleep. In some cases, both may occur.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Symptoms of insomnia include lying awake for a long time before you fall asleep; sleeping for only short periods; being awake for much of the night; feeling as if you haven't slept at all; and waking up too early. 

Sleep study

If you see a doctor about this problem he or she may conduct a physical exam and look at your medical history. They may also suggest a sleep study. A sleep study measures how well you sleep and how your body responds to sleep problems. Treatments include lifestyle changes, counseling, and medicines.

Sleep problems may also be due to a condition called sleep apnea. This common disorder causes your breathing to occasionally stop or get very shallow. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur 30 times or more an hour, according to NIH.

There is usually some physical cause of sleep apnea. An obstruction causes your airway to collapse or become blocked. Sleep apnea is often associated with loud snoring. Being overweight is a risk factor. Doctors usually diagnose sleep apnea based on medical and family histories, a physical exam, and sleep study results.

People with sleep apnea often don't realize they have a sleep disorder because they might not become fully awake. However, their sleep is constantly interrupted throughout the night, often making them tired and drowsy the following day.

Accident prone

People with sleep apnea can be at higher risk for auto accidents, on-the-job mishaps, and other medical problems. If you think you are suffering from sleep apnea, it is recommended that you get treatment. Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery, and breathing devices can treat sleep apnea in many people.

PhotoRestless Leg Syndrome is less common but can be an impediment to a good night's sleep nonetheless. It produces a powerful urge to move your legs and your legs become uncomfortable when you are lying down or sitting. The condition can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Restless Leg Syndrome may be caused by disease or various health conditions. Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol may make symptoms worse. Doctors sometime prescribe relaxation exercises as a treatment.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken a closer look at sleep, and its effect on overall health, since the mid 1990s. Its 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey including questions about sleep patterns and found that 35.3% of adults reported seven hours or less of sleep during a typical 24-hour period and 48% reported snoring.

Nearly 40% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month, and 4.7% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month.

Sleeping pills

To help with sleep consumers for decades have turned to prescription and over-the-counter sleeping aids. According to the Mayo Clinic, over-the-counter sleep aids can be effective for an occasional sleepless night. 

“There are a few caveats, however. Most over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines,” the clinic says on its website. “Tolerance to the sedative effects of antihistamines can develop quickly — so the longer you take them, the less likely they are to make you sleepy.”

If you decide to take an over-the-counter sleep aid, don't start without discussing it with your doctor first. Also, be aware of side effects and avoid using alcohol.

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Patchwork of state marijuana laws could spell trouble

Never underestimate the War on Drugs' potential for collateral damage

As marijuana warriors relent in some states, they might get harsher in others...

PhotoIt looks like the beginning of the end for American marijuana prohibition, which has been every bit as successful as 1920s alcohol prohibition while lasting almost ten times as long.

Granted, we’re still a long ways away from a time when we can report on the relative quality of various marijuana brands or which shape of waterpipe is best at filtering smoke. Meanwhile, as America turns into a legal patchwork quilt where marijuana is safe and legal in some states while remaining a super-dangerous Schedule I drug in others, a couple aspects of the law purely scare the hell out of many observers.

The federal government has decreed that, among other things, states with legal marijuana must have systems in place to prevent its being transported to states where it is not legal. But how will this be possible, short of intimately searching every person, package and vehicle exiting a legal-marijuana state? And here’s an even worse thought: given the frequent overzealousness of the anti-drug police, think how ridiculously easy it will be for dishonest people in legal-pot states to utterly destroy the lives of enemies in non-pot states!

After all, American anti-drug laws (or, rather, those who enforce them) have long since abandoned the quaint old notion of “innocent until proven guilty”—if there’s any illicit plant matter in your vicinity, cops automatically assume you are, at minimum, Pablo Escobar 2.0.

For example ...

Consider this example (which I mention not because it’s unique but because it’s so depressingly common): One afternoon in 2008, a man named Cheye Calvo, then-mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, returned home from walking his dogs when suddenly, armed SWAT team members broke into his house, shot and killed his dogs, forced him at gunpoint to walk downstairs in his underwear and sit, handcuffed, next to the stiffening corpses of his beloved pets … because somebody sent his wife a package of marijuana via UPS.

Neither Calvo nor his wife had any knowledge of the package; authorities later admitted they were victims of a scheme wherein drugs are sent to unknowing recipients and then intercepted along the way.

The police, of course, insisted that they did nothing wrong; terrorizing  innocent families and murdering their pets is a small price to pay in exchange for making marijuana slightly more difficult for determined smokers to buy.

PhotoSo here’s the scenario that's scary: Some sociopath with a few bucks to spare thinks “Hmm, as an evil-minded resident of a legal-marijuana state who absolutely despises law-abiding Maryland [or other illegal-marijuana jurisdiction] resident Joe Blow, I think it’s worth spending a few bucks to anonymously mail Joe a couple ounces of weed, then leave an anonymous tip with the anti-drug squad of Joe’s hometown police force....”

How realistic are those fears? Conventional wisdom says marijuana makes you paranoid; could changes in marijuana law have the same effect? I posed that question to members of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition),  a non-profit coalition of current and former police, prosecutors and other law-enforcement professionals who have realized that the War on Drugs isn’t working.

As a practical matter

LEAP member and former prosecutor Jim Doherty suspects the fear of legal marijuana being used to frame innocent people is, technically, unfounded—though not for the reason you might think.

“Because state and federal search & seizure laws do not allow thorough searches of all individuals crossing between states, there is always the possibility that individuals will cross a state border with drugs (legal or illegal) in their possession,” he wrote in an email. “Recreational marijuana that is produced by licensed growers in the State of Washington will be transported to licensed retailers [….] The problem, at least for the next few years, is that unlicensed marijuana is still being produced and sold outside the regulated market. Unlicensed, unregulated marijuana is untaxed, so that product will be cheaper and more prone to cross state borders.”

So our hypothetical sociopath won’t frame people with legal marijuana because the illicit variety is cheaper. Still: It’s an undeniable fact that innocent people have been terrorized by police seeking to intercept marijuana mailings. What can be done to protect the Cheye Calvos of the future?

LEAP member and former special agent David Long suggested:  “My short answer is that one would hope that prosecutors would utilize their lawful discretion in considering whether to prosecute such cases and that politicians would have the guts to see cases like this as isolated incidents that have nothing to do with the overall enforcement of the legalized marijuana regime.”

Yes, well, some prosecutors might use discretion but there is no shortage of politically ambitious prosecutors riding roughshod over individuals, innocent and otherwise.

But James Gierach, formerly a prosecutor himself, offered a potentially useful suggestion:  “[H]ow do we prevent an innocent resident of a marijuana prohibition state from being victimized by an enemy or jokester who mails a box of marijuana across state lines, crossing the boundary between legal to illegal?  We need to make it a complete defense to the recipient of the package if the sender uses a false return address on the package.  Then, the insensible will make some sense.”

Were such a policy in place five years ago, nobody outside of Berwyn Heights, Maryland would ever have heard of Cheye Calvo, and he wouldn't have had to watch angry SWAT team members shoot his dogs, either.

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Latest air war: dueling Wi-Fi

Virgin, JetBlue skirmish to win the Wi-Fi race

Nearly 90 percent of U.S. travelers think every airline flight should have fast Wi-Fi service. Of course, the survey was conducted by Honeywell, which make...

PhotoNearly 90 percent of U.S. travelers think every airline flight should have fast Wi-Fi service. Of course, the survey was conducted by Honeywell, which makes -- you guessed it -- equipment that provides in-flight Wi-Fi.

But while everyone thinks Wi-Fi should be both available and fast, they also seem to think it should be free. Gogo, the biggest in-flight Internet provider, says only about 6% of potential customers actually cough up their credit cards to stay connected.

That doesn't seem to foretell a massive amount of pent-up demand. Nevertheless, Gogo is upping the ante, announcing today that it is implementing a new system that combines satellite and cell towers on the ground to provide in-flight Web speeds up to six times faster than current speeds.

Shared signal

The primary problem at the moment is that the satellite signal is shared by everyone using the service on a particular flight. Thus, it may start out being fairly adequate only to stall to turtle-like velocity as more travelers boot up their laptops.

Current satellite-to-airplane speeds range from 3 to 10 megabits per second, divided by however many travelers are logged on. Gogo says the new service will be on the order of 60 mbps, which will be great if it works.

Virgin America says it will roll out Gogo's new service in the second half of 2014 and says it plans to eventually upgrade all 53 of its aircraft.

JetBlue, meanwhile, has just received government approval for a new high-capacity satellite link that will support streaming video from Netflix and Hulu, among others. JetBlue doesn't have Internet service at the moment. It says it will launch the service this year and hopes to equip its entire fleet of 180 aircraft by the end of 2015.

Price points

Currently, travelers pay anywhere from nothing to quite a bit for in-flight Internet. Some carriers provide free service in first class and business. Gogo charges $14 for a single day's usage or $50 for a monthly pass.

JetBlue says it hasn't finalized pricing but basic Internet will be free, at least at first, with a charge for streaming video, which uses more bandwidth.

Southwest, never one to hesitate to undercut the competition, currently offers three live video channels and up to 75 television episodes from popular series in partnership with the Dish Network. It charges $8 a day for "regular" Internet usage, meaning web browsing, email, etc.

As one who flies both Virgin and Southwest, I have found Southwest's service to be roughly comparable to Virgin's in terms of speed. Considering it costs nearly half as much, that has to be counted as a plus. 

Speaking of payments, Gogo says it is now working with Amazon Payments to offer Gogo users the ability to pay for their in-flight Internet sessions using the information stored in their Amazon accounts.

This saves you the inconvenience of digging out your credit card and trying to shield it from prying eyes while ordering up the day's serving of Wi-Fi.

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Christmas already, Kmart?

First holiday shopping ad airs a full 105 days before Christmas

Christmas already? If it still feels like late summer to you, maybe your internal clock is off. Or maybe it really is still late summer, in which case some...

PhotoChristmas already? If it still feels like late summer to you, maybe your internal clock is off. Or maybe it really is still late summer, in which case someone must have torn a few extra pages off the calendar at Kmart headquarters.

How else to explain Kmart running its first holiday ad 105 days before Christmas?

But maybe it makes sense after all. The ad promotes the retailer's layaway program, part of a package of services, including low-cost check-cashing, intended to benefit cash-short consumers.

Now through Nov. 23, Kmart said it will waive layaway fees, both in-store and online, to provide its "Shop Your Way" members an alternative solution to credit cards during the holiday shopping season. Customers can initiate a layaway contract online and choose to ship their purchases home or pick up their purchases from their selected Kmart.  Shipping is free for purchases over $59. 

Sears and Kmart lay claim to being the only retailers to offer layaway nationally, both online and in-store; there is no minimum purchase and products from most departments are eligible, including apparel, electronics, toys, home, footwear and more. 

The holiday ad features a gingerbread man sneaking up on a woman working in an office cubicle. A voiceover says: "Don't let the holidays sneak up on you. Shop early with Kmart free layaway. … Kmart. Get in, get more Christmas."

While the layaway program has proven popular in past years, the ad is not going over so well in some quarters. In much of the country, kids are barely back in school and already it's holiday shopping time?

Consumers have been flocking to Kmart's Facebook page to gripe about the ad.

Photo

Could be, but Kmart defenders say the retail chain is just trying to give customers enough time to find the items they want to put on layaway and save up the money they'll need to pay for them in time for the holidays.

Check-cashing service

Kmart  Sept. 11, 2013, 2:09 p.m.
Consumers rate Kmart
Kmart is also announcing its launch of check cashing service for Shop Your Way members and customers at store locations nationwide.  For a fee of $3 or less, including some locations with no fee, members can present a valid identification card with their check and receive cash for government checks (up to $2,000), payroll checks (up to $1,500) and personal checks (up to $400), with certain conditions.

According to the 2011 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), more than one in four households (28.3 percent) are either unbanked or underbanked, conducting some or all of their financial transactions outside of the mainstream banking system.  About 8.2 percent of U.S. households, or nearly 10 million, lack a bank account.

"With the addition of check cashing to our Kmart financial services portfolio, our Shop Your Way members now have the convenience of cashing checks where they shop, saving them time and money," said Jai Holtz, vice president, financial services, Sears Holdings. "Along with Kmart's other financial services offerings, including Layaway, walk-in bill pay, money transfer, money orders, ATMs and prepaid debit cards and reloads, we are providing one-stop shopping for our members' needs."

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Are we any closer to an Alzheimer's cure?

There are tantalizing suggestions that we are, we just won't know for a while

The last five years have witnessed promising breakthroughs in research into Alzheimer's disease, the fatal condition that robs its victims of their memory ...

PhotoThe last five years have witnessed promising breakthroughs in research into Alzheimer's disease, the fatal condition that robs its victims of their memory as they age. But a lot can happen getting from the scientific experiment level to an approved therapy.

For example, at the beginning of 2013 researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported a promising new Alzheimer's treatment. They showed how a molecule called TFP5, when injected into mice with a disease that is the equivalent of human Alzheimer's, symptoms are reversed and memory is restored -- without obvious toxic side effects. 

Could this be a cure for a dread disease? We won't know for a while. The treatment must be subjected to a vigorous clinical trials, which presumably are underway. This is just one of the hopeful developments that have contributed to optimism that Alzheimer's might one day be a non-factor in the aging process.

Most common form of dementia

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 50 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Since getting older is a major risk factor, Alzheimer's is a threat to the large Baby Boom generation.

There are already a number of drugs available to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and some researchers are working on these existing therapies, to make them more effective. The Salk Institute, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and a number of other research entities have defined a key mechanism behind the disease’s progress, giving hope that a newly modified Alzheimer’s drug will be effective.

In 2009 Stephen F. Heinemann, a professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, found that a substance called Alpha7 may help trigger Alzheimer’s disease.

“Previous studies exposed a possible interaction between Alpha-7 nicotinic receptors, labeled ?7Rs, with amyloid beta, the toxic protein found in the disease’s hallmark plaques,” said Gustavo Dziewczapolski, a staff researcher in Heinemann’s lab. “We showed for the first time, in vivo, that the binding of this two proteins, ?7Rs and amyloid beta, provoke detrimental effects in mice similar to the symptoms observed in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Promising results

This week Metabolic Solutions Development Company presented promising results of its Phase 2a study of a new diabetes drug that may prove effective against Alzheimer's. The study found the drug maintained glucose metabolism in key regions of the brain associated with cognitive decline due to Alzheimer's.

Although most research shows Alzheimer's is closely associated with the build-up of harmful plaques in the brain, other inquiries have also shown reducing the role of glucose metabolism in the brain also may play a role.

A key breakthrough? Again, scientists say we may not know for a while, but they applaud the effort.

"We are in urgent need of new approaches in Alzheimer's drug research because there are currently no approved therapies to halt or even slow progression of the disease," said Howard Fillit, MD, Executive Director and Chief Science Officer of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation.

Yale discovery

Last week researchers at the Yale School of Medicine reported what they called a breakthrough in understanding and curing Alzheimer's. The scientists have focused on a receptor called metabotropic glutamate receptor 5, or mGluR5, as the missing link in the chain of biological processes that lead to Alzheimer’s disease. 

While all of this is highly encouraging, the proof will be in clinical trials – and time is of the essence. Millions of people are dependent upon the results.

Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to affect more than 26 million people worldwide – more than five million in the U.S. alone. It is only going to get worse as the huge Baby Boomer generation ages. Nearly 106 million people are projected to suffer form the disease by 2050.

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Aging in place: technology may make it easier

With a little IT support, seniors may find they can remain in their homes longer

As people age and become infirm, either mentally or physically – or both – a nursing home is almost always the next step. But if you ask the se...

PhotoAs people age and become infirm, either mentally or physically – or both – a nursing home is almost always the next step. But if you ask the senior population – and a number of polls have done exactly that – most prefer to remain in their homes.

The concept is called “aging in place,” and it's gaining currency by the year. To meet this desire the home health care industry has enjoyed robust growth. In-home health care services have emerged as less expensive and a more personalized alternative to residential care facilities for seniors. The senior lives at home but is frequently visited by a health care professional, who checks up on them, making sure they are safe, eating well and taking their medication.

Technology tackles the problem

There have also been a number of technological innovations that have allowed the senior population to remain at home longer. Security firms offer emergency alert systems in which the senior wears a pendant with a button. Pushing the button will summon a security company operator or emergency services personnel.

But the senior in need of assistance must be conscious and have the ability to push the button. So engineers have been at working making that system less reliant on the user's participation.

To help solve that problem, electrical engineers at the University of Utah have produced a network of wireless senors that can detect when a person falls. It sounds like something out of "Mission Impossible" but the researchers say it could make a real difference in the lives of the elderly.

Falling can be deadly

Why? Because for people age 65 and older, falling is a leading cause of injury and death. Most of the current monitoring devices monitor a person's posture or require them to push a button to call for help. It also requires them to be wearing the pendant when they fall down. The system designed by Utah researchers works without the participation of the person being monitored.

"The idea of 'aging-in-place,' in which someone can avoid moving to a nursing home and live in their own home, is growing," said Neal Patwari, senior author of the study and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah. "Ideally, the environment itself would be able to detect a fall and send an alert to a caregiver. What's remarkable about our system is that a person doesn't need to remember to wear a device."

The team says it plans to develop this technology into a commercial product through Patwari's Utah-based startup company, Xandem Technology. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Science and technology hold the key

PhotoOther experts believe science and technology do, indeed, hold the key to people being able to remain in their homes, rather than move into residential care facilities. The Japanese government is taking the lead in encouraging companies to develop low-cost robots who can serve as in-home nursing aides.

The government earlier this year offered financial assistance for the development of machines that can provide very specific functions that would assist an elderly person and reduce the need for human assistance. The government specifies the need for a robot that can lift an elderly person, assist them in walking and keep track of patients with dementia, to keep them from wandering off.

In that last requirement, the Utah researchers say their product could be valuable.

"With this detection system, a person's location in a room or building can be pinpointed with high accuracy, eliminating the need to wear a device," said Brad Mager, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering and first author of the study.

While technology works on the problem, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says simple logistical arrangements can aid seniors in their desire to age in place. The agency says it is important that senior have housing options that not only allow them to remain in their community, but include a safe and secure pedestrian environment, and near destinations such as libraries, stores, and places of worship.

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More hiring expected as the year winds down

Employers' plans are the strongest in 6 years

Looking for work? Your best shot at finding it may come later this year. According to ManpowerGroup, 18% of the more than 18,000 employers expect an incre...

PhotoLooking for work? Your best shot at finding it may come later this year.

According to ManpowerGroup, a workforce consulting concern, 18% of the more than 18,000 employers expect an increase in staff levels in their fourth quarter hiring plans, while 8% expect a decrease in payrolls. That indicates elevated confidence for the three months of 2013. Employers seasonally adjusted Net Employment Outlook of 13% is the strongest fourth quarter outlook since 19% in the final quarter of 2007.

"We've seen consistent, yet measured, momentum in employers' hiring plans in a steadily improving market," said Jonas Prising, ManpowerGroup president. "Employers have reached a level of confidence in navigating unstable conditions, and the strength of the fourth quarter survey data suggests a stronger close to 2013."

Signs of confidence

This quarter's research shows the outlook remains stable quarter-over-quarter and is slightly elevated compared to last year at this time. Intent to hire also continues to rise with 18% of employers indicating an increase in staff levels for the final three months of the year. This is the highest percentage of employers projecting an increase in hiring in the fourth quarter since before 2009 when the number consistently remained above 20%.

Growth is also reflected among several key industry sectors. At +22%, the outlook for wholesale & retail trade reflects a moderate increase in hiring year-over-year and is the strongest outlook for this sector since it reached +26% in the last quarter of 2007. Construction employers also indicate continued progress when compared year-over-year, as the Net Employment Outlook increases slightly from +1% in the fourth quarter of 2012 to +5% this year.

"Employers plan to hire during the fourth quarter, particularly in the wholesale & retail trade sector, and that's good news for job seekers looking for employment during the busy holiday season," said Prising. "Employers bring on new staff when they start seeing increased demand for their products and services, and this intention to hire may signal optimism among U.S. employers."

Where they're hiring

Among the 50 states, employers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas indicate the strongest Net Employment Outlook -- all at +15%. Employers in all 100 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) surveyed report positive hiring plans, with the strongest Outlook in Houston, reaching +28%.

For this year's fourth quarter, employers have a positive outlook in all 13 industry sectors included in the survey:

  • wholesale & retail trade (+22%)
  • leisure & hospitality (+17%)
  • professional & business services (+13%)
  • transportation & utilities (+11%)
  • information (+11%)
  • financial activities (+10%)
  • mining (+9%)
  • education & health services (+9%)
  • durable goods manufacturing (+8%)
  • nondurable goods manufacturing (+7%)
  • construction (+5%)
  • government (+4%) and
  • other services (+2%).

When the industry sector data are compared quarter-over-quarter, employers in the wholesale & retail trade and education & health services sectors anticipate a slight hiring increase, while employers in the information sector expect the hiring pace to remain stable.

The hiring pace is expected to moderately decrease in seven industry sectors: durable goods manufacturing, nondurable goods manufacturing, transportation & utilities, financial activities, professional & business services, other services and government. A considerable decline in hiring is anticipated in the mining, construction and leisure & hospitality sectors.

A positive Net Employment Outlook is reported in all four U.S. regions. Quarter-over-quarter, plans to add employees are slightly stronger among employers in the Northeast, and remain essentially the same among employers in the Midwest, South and West.

Compared to one year ago at this time, employers in the Northeast and West project a slight increase in hiring for Quarter 4 2013, and employers in the Midwest and South expect a stable hiring environment.

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Fraudulent debt relief operation shuttered

Selling debt relief services and telemarketing are among the banned activities

Innovative Wealth Builders, Inc., (IWB) and its three Florida-based principals -- Carly Janene Pelland (also known as Carly Zurita), Sheryl Leigh Lopez, an...

PhotoInnovative Wealth Builders, Inc., (IWB) and its three Florida-based principals -- Carly Janene Pelland (also known as Carly Zurita), Sheryl Leigh Lopez, and Tamara Dawn Johnson -- have run into a Florida buzz saw.

A federal court judge in Florida has approved and signed a stipulated order that pretty much puts them out of business. The order prohibits the settling defendants from making any material misrepresentations in connection with advertising, marketing, promotion, offering for sale, or sale of any financial related product or service. It also includes a $9.9 million judgment against the defendants.

The order came as a result of the defendants agreeing to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allegations that they falsely promised to substantially reduce consumers’ credit card interest rates and save them thousands of dollars on their credit card debts.

Massive misrepresentations

According to the FTC’s complaint, IWB and its three principals violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting credit card interest rate reduction services and refund policies, and billing consumers without authorization.

The complaint also contends the defendants violated the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule by misrepresenting the debt relief services they were selling, charging a fee before providing these services, and billing consumers without their express informed consent.

The FTC will continue to move forward with litigation against Independant Resources Network Corp. (IRN), the payment processor that allegedly assisted and facilitated the scam. In June, the FTC amended its original complaint to name IRN as a defendant in the case.

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Eco-Novelty recalls Cosmo Beads toys

The toy can be easily mistaken for candy by a child

Eco-Novelty Corp., of Troy, Mich., is recalling about 3,500 Cosmo Beads Jumbo Size Colorful Water Balls and Jumbo Multipurpose Colorful Water Balls toys. ...

PhotoEco-Novelty Corp., of Troy, Mich., is recalling about 3,500 Cosmo Beads Jumbo Size Colorful Water Balls and Jumbo Multipurpose Colorful Water Balls toys.

The hard and colorful toy can be easily mistaken for candy by a child. When the bead is ingested, it expands and can cause intestinal obstructions inside a child’s body, resulting in severe discomfort, vomiting, dehydration, and could be life threatening. The toys need surgery to be removed from the body. Similar toys have not shown up on x-rays.

No incidents or injuries have been reported, although the Consumer Product Safety Commission is aware of one incident where an 8-month-old girl ingested a similar water-absorbing polymer ball that had to be removed surgically.

  • Cosmo Beads Jumbo Size Colorful Water Balls and Jumbo Multipurpose Colorful Water Balls toys are water absorbing beads that when placed in water will hydrate up to the size of a racquetball. On the front of the toy packages it states Cosmo Beads Colorful Water Balls, Just Add Water, Biodegradable, Non-toxic and Colorfast. The packages have yellow and black color on the upper left corner and red in the lower right corner. The beads can be seen through an oval, cellophane window near the bottom of the package.
  • Cosmo Beads Jumbo Size were sold as single packets of beads in various colors: clear, green, purple, red and mixed colors. Each packet contains a variety of bead sizes. The front of the Jumbo Size package has a picture of a hand holding two water balls and the words “Grows up to 600X (1.5”) Size.”
  • Cosmo Beads Jumbo Multipurpose came in three packets per set. Each packet contains beads in one size and comes in clear, dark purple and orange colors. The front of the Jumbo Multipurpose packet has a picture of flowers in a glass vase and the words “Deco Centerpiece: Toys-Games: Plant-Vacation watering.”

The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at Amazon.com, ifleemarket.com and crystalsoilusa.com from June 2011, through August 2013, for between $2 and $20.

Consumers should immediately take this recalled toy away from children and contact Eco-Novelty for a refund.

Consumers may contact Eco Novelty at (231) 222-4200 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by e-mail at admin@econoveltycorp.com.

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A dip in weekly mortgage applications

The refinance share is at its lowest level in 3 years

After posting a modest gain in the previous week, mortgage applications plunged 13.5% in the week ending September 6. The results included an adjustment f...

PhotoAfter posting a modest gain in the previous week, mortgage applications plunged 13.5% in the week ending September 6. The results included an adjustment for the Labor Day holiday.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, the Refinance Index decreased 20% from the previous week and has now fallen 71% from its recent peak the week of May 3, 2013 and is at the lowest level since June 2009.

The latest decline means the refinance share of mortgage activity has fallen to 57% of total applications from 61% the previous week and is at its lowest level since April 2010.The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 7% of total applications. The Home Affordable refinance Program (HARP) share of refinance applications was unchanged from the prior week at 38%.

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% from 4.73%,with points increasing to 0.46 from 0.33 (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 $417,000) increased to 4.84% from 4.71%,with points increasing to 0.41 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA increased to 4.56% from 4.48%,with points increasing to 0.28 from 0.03 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages increased to 3.83 percent from 3.75 percent, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.59% from 3.49%,with points increasing to 0.43 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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Be Amazing! recalls monster science growing spiders

The marble-sized toy can expand inside a child’s body and cause intestinal obstructions

Be Amazing! Toys of Salt Lake City is recalling about 26,500 Monster Science Growing Spider toy sets. The soft and colorful product can be mistaken by a ...

PhotoBe Amazing! Toys of Salt Lake City is recalling about 26,500 Monster Science Growing Spider toy sets.

The soft and colorful product can be mistaken by a child for candy. When the marble-sized toy is ingested, it can expand inside a child’s body and cause intestinal obstructions, resulting in severe discomfort, vomiting, dehydration and could be life threatening. The toys do not show up on an x-ray and need surgery to be removed from the body.

No incidents or injuries have been reported, although the Consumer Product Safety Commission is aware of one incident where an 8-month-old girl ingested a similar water-absorbing polymer ball that had to be removed surgically.

This recall involves Monster Science Growing Spider toy sets, with model numbers 7280 and 7289. The sets contain marble-sized polymer ball “spider eggs” that can absorb from 300 to 800 times their weight in water and can grow up to eight times their original size. The sets consist of one polymer spider and three “spider eggs.”

The Be Amazing! Toys star logo and the words Monster Science Growing Spider, Ages 8+, Just drop in water, Grow Giant Spider Eggs and Eggs Grow Up to 8X Original Size are printed on the front of the packaging. The model number is on the bottom of the back of the packaging. The front and back of the packaging have warnings not to use the toy without adult supervision.

Be Amazing! announced the recall of a similar toy in August 2013.

The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores nationwide from August 2011, to August 2013, Spirit Halloween stores nationwide from August 2011, to November 2011, and from August 2012, to November 2012, and Target stores nationwide September to November 2012, for between $3 and $5.

Consumers should immediately take this recalled toy away from children and contact Be Amazing! Toys for a refund.

Consumers may contact Be Amazing! Toys toll-free at (877) 798-9795, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.  

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September 2008: A look back

Pivotal month five years ago sent the economy into a tailspin

The world changed five years ago, in September 2008. On September 15 investment banking giant Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, sending a shock wave thr...

PhotoThe world changed five years ago, in September 2008. On September 15 investment banking giant Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, sending a shock wave through the financial world, freezing the credit markets and causing overnight massive layoffs that sent the unemployment rate surging to a 14-year high.

Many mark the start of the Great Recession with the Lehman collapse but the economy had been in recession since the previous December. If that weren't bad enough, gasoline prices surged to record highs in July. By early October real economic fear gripped the country and much of the world, resulting in a series of controversial government remedies, some of which continue today.

Taking stock

So, where are we today, five years after all of this started? A survey by Country Financial suggests many Americans do not feel their personal financial security or the economy overall are any better compared to five years ago.

Fifty-four percent say they feel less financially secure now than they did five years ago and another 19% feel the same. Just 27% feel more financially secure.

How's the U.S. economy doing? Nearly half in the survey said the economy is worse than it was five years ago and another 19% say it's about the same. Only 29% say it's better.

Economist's view

Economist Joel Naroff, of Narroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., is among the 29% who say the economy is better. At least, he says it is as good as could have been hoped.

“The two sectors that collapsed, housing and finance, are usually the leaders during a recovery and it took four years for housing to start to come around and finance is still in the process of healing,” Naroff said.

Added to the problems, he says, European and Asian economies have also been weak. It should be no surprise that economic growth is anemic, at best. Yet, he says, it seems to surprise a lot of people, which is part of the problem.

Perception

Photo“It is that perception that is, in part, holding things back,” Naroff said. “Businesses are not convinced the economy will shift into high gear so they are holding back on hiring. That has kept the unemployment rate at unacceptably high levels. Worse, with so many people looking for work, firms have had no pressure to raise wages. Real earnings have stagnated and in a consumer-driven economy, it is hard to expand robustly if households don't have the financial ability to lead the way.”

And the outlook isn't promising for people hoping for a pay raise. Until the unemployment rate falls to a level where businesses have to bid for workers, thereby raising wages, the recovery will continue at a lackluster pace, he says.

When quizzed about the lasting effects from the Great Recession, consumers in the Country Financial survey cited “a hit to savings” as the biggest scar, even more so than the loss of home value. At the top of the list of lasting effects that still worry Americans are a reduced retirement nest egg – 22% – and depleted emergency savings – 21%. By comparison, just eight percent mention reduced home value.

Housing rebound

That could be because the housing market appears to be in the beginning stages of a recovery. In fact, in the last year the housing market and auto sales – two sectors devastated by the Great Recession – have becoming the strongest pillars in an otherwise weak U.S. economy.

“The housing and vehicle sectors have recovered, in part, because of low rates and growing confidence about the future,” Naroff said. “While people are not exuberant, they are no longer fearful of losing their jobs. Given that they have run their vehicles into the ground, this growing expectation about the future is leading to a pick-up in demand.”

As carmakers have racked up record sales month after month, the fleet of automobiles on U.S. highways has gotten newer and more fuel-efficient, and that has paid an unexpected dividend. Despite a recovering economy demand for gasoline has continued to decline, removing pressure on supplies and prices.

Investors driving housing market

Photo“As for housing, the market has changed to where investors are becoming a key element of demand,” Naroff notes. “This created a bottom in prices and started the upturn. As prices rose, more people had the equity to both sell the homes they wanted to shed for years and also buy a different one.”

If this trend continues, he says the number of people “underwater” on their mortgage will dwindle sharply and that will lead to renewed health in the housing market.

In the meantime, the last five years have left very real economic scars on a wide swath of the U.S. population. In the Country Financial Survey, nearly half of those questioned said they don't expect any economic improvement in their lives in the next five years.

Forty-six percent expect to experience another recession in the next five years and another 32 percent aren't sure. Thirty-six percent say improvements in the job market will make them feel more financially secure.

"It's not surprising Americans have a cautious outlook on the next five years, given the ongoing impact of the recession," said Troy Frerichs, director of investments-wealth management at Country Financial. "The best way to approach financial uncertainty is to be prepared for anything.”

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The new iPhone 5C comes in colors everywhere

The 5C is not only colorful, it's also a lot cheaper than its predecessor

Apparently taking its cue from the Rolling Stones, Apple today unveiled the new iPhone 5C, one of two phones that will replace the current iPhone 5.And w...

PhotoApparently taking its cue from the Rolling Stones, Apple today unveiled the new iPhone 5C, one of two phones that will replace the current iPhone 5.

And what's so new and different about the 5C? Well, not much. It's basically the same as the iPhone 5, now officially yesterday's news. A new, fancier model is the 5S.

The "C" -- we think -- stands for "color" and that's because the 5C, well, it comes in color everywhere -- at least five of them. 

Or it could stand for "cheap." The 5C will cost just $99 with a contract, thus making one of the world's costliest smartphones more affordable, as Apple works to boost its market share in developing countries. 

Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, showed the colorful versions of the iPhone 5C today at the company's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. It's made of polycarbonate plastic, in green, blue, white, red and yellow and has no visible seams.

"The iPhone 5C is beautifully, unapologetically plastic," Schiller said. "Multiple parts have been reduced to a single polycarbonate component whose surface is continuous."

The 5S

And then there's the new high-priced spread, the iPhone 5S. No colors here. It comes in aluminum but features a faster processor and a fingerprint sensor that is supposed to make it more secure. With a contract, the iPhone 5S will set you back $200, twice as much as the colorful 5C.

Both phones will be available in the U.S., Japan and China on September 20. 

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Proposed rules could place more pressure on for-profit colleges

Feds hope to hold educators more accountable

A little more than a week after the state of New York sued Donald Trump for $40 million, claiming his Trump University doesn't give students much benefit, ...

PhotoA little more than a week after the state of New York sued Donald Trump for $40 million, claiming his Trump University doesn't give students much benefit, the feds are taking a harder look at all for-profit career education institutions.

The U.S. Department of Education has released draft regulations that would hold these institutions – mostly providing technical training – accountable for how their students fare in the real world, after graduation. Specifically, the regulations would measure graduate earnings and compare them to the debt the students ran up while getting the training.

Programs that repeatedly produce graduates with a lot of debt and little in the way of employment prospects would be cut off from the lucrative federal aid spigot. And therein lies the government's leverage.

Federal aid

Federal loans and aid provide students with the means to go to college and pay ever-increasing tuition – whether it is a state-supported institution or one of the many for-profit institutions. With access to this wealth of federal aid, for-profit schools of all types tend to be profitable indeed.

But losing access to that stream of taxpayer money would hit for-profit schools hard. In fact, if could deal a fatal blow.

While the department’s Gainful Employment rule would apply to career education programs at all kinds of institutions, its impact might be felt most strongly at for-profit colleges. The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) cites a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that it said found for-profit college attendees had higher levels of debt, were less likely to pass licensure tests needed for employment, and were less likely to be employed than those who attended public or private, non-profit schools.

CRL says the report showed nearly half of borrowers who default on federal student loans in the first few years of repayment had attended for-profit colleges, even though for-profits only enroll 12% of all students.

How the rule would work

The rule would work like this: A career education program would be considered failing if its graduates had debt exceeding 12% of their annual earnings and 30% of their discretionary earnings. Discretionary income is anything above 150% of the poverty line and covers non-necessities – things like money for entertainment or vacations. CRL, an activist group that advocates more consumer-friendly lending practices – says the new rules are a good first step.

“Ensuring that a borrower has the ability to repay a loan -- including a student loan -- is a tenet of good lending practices,” CRL said in a statement. “Federal banking regulators have recently promoted similar standards for mortgage lending and small-dollar loans.”

That said, CRL said it thinks the rules could be tougher in two key areas. First, it would include all attendees — not just graduates — when determining eligibility for Federal financial aid. After all, a lot of students start these programs, run up student loan tabs, then don't graduate. They still have to pay back those loans and should be part of the accountability formula, CRL says.

Meeting license requirements

PhotoSecond, CRL says it would like to see greater emphasis on ensuring that programs meet licensure or other requirements for securing employment. Many jobs require that prospective employees obtain some sort of licensing or graduate from an accredited program.

This isn't the first time that the Department of Education has attempted to increase accountability requirements for for-profit institutions. When it proposed similar tougher rules in 2011, the trade group representing for-profit colleges sued. A federal judge sided with the colleges, ruling that one of the Education Department's rules was arbitrary.

The Department of Education's revised rules eliminates that provision, causing optimism among backers of the tougher rule that these revised regulations might pass muster. Meanwhile, work has resumed this week on the second round of negotiations over the proposed rule.  

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Brand loyalty makes me feel like an alien

I know people care about designer labels; I just can't figure out why

Decade-long increase in brand loyalty baffles discount fashionista...

PhotoI love pretty clothes but I hate “fashion news” because – although I have no difficulty understanding the vocabulary – deep in my gut I just don’t get it. Like this press release about the “Brand Keys Fashion Brand Index,” which says that the popularity of designer-brand clothes has skyrocketed in the past decade, recession be damned: “When it comes to fashion, brands matter more -- up 10X in 10 years.”

Capsule summary: once upon a time, only 3 percent of polled American consumers claimed to care about brand names in their fashion choices, but now it’s up to 30 percent. If you are a fashionable male then, statistically speaking, you’re supposed to really, really care about brands like Armani, Burberry and Ralph Lauren/Polo; meanwhile, a stylish lady is statistically enamored of brands including Chanel, Armani, Victoria’s Secret and the Gap.

I don’t disagree with any of this; I’m just saying I don’t get it. Thing is, with the exceptions of shoes, socks, swimsuits and underthings, pretty much all of the clothes I’ve bought in my adult life came from thrift stores or secondhand shops, so when I’m trying things on my only three concerns are: “Do they flatter me, are they comfortable, and are they in good condition?”

If I answer yes to all three, I don’t care about the brand – my closet does indeed contain some high-end labels, but also companies I’ve never heard of, and I doubt the Brand Keys Fashion Index has, either. (For many of those brands, I had no idea they were so expensive until I’d visit an upscale mall and notice entire stores with the same name as the label I’d just cut out of my new seven-dollar dress or five-dollar sweater.)

So when I read about people who truly, sincerely, honestly care about clothes branding … well, if you read science fiction you’re familiar with the trope where otherwise-intelligent aliens are utterly incapable of comprehending basic human emotions: “Earthling, why does the demise of your offspring upset you so? He was an unhealthy specimen and a poor candidate to reproduce your genes into the next generation. Now that your inferior offspring is dead, you have more resources to invest in healthy offspring capable of continuing your genetic legacy ....” 

That’s kind of how I feel about fashion-label loyalty. I’m not denying that it exists; I’m just saying that I do not get it.

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Broccoli may protect against skin cancer

Believe it or not, rubbing the veggie on your skin may turn out to be protective

It has long been known that broccoli contains a substance that helps the body fight cancer. But the assumption was that you'd have to eat the broccoli to g...

PhotoIt has long been known that broccoli contains a substance that helps the body fight cancer. But the assumption was that you'd have to eat the broccoli to get the benefit.

Turns out that may not be so. Researchers say rubbing broccoli on the skin could be just as effective -- maybe more so -- as using sunscreen to ward off skin cancer. 

Sally Dickinson, research assistant professor in the Pharmacology Department of the University of Arizona Cancer Center, teamed up with researchers from John Hopkins University in Baltimore to study the possibility.

“Even though there is heightened awareness about the need for limited sun exposure and use of sunscreens, we’re still seeing far too many cases of skin cancer each year,” Dr. Dickinson said. “We’re searching for better methods to prevent skin cancer in formats that are affordable and manageable for public use. Sulforaphane may be an excellent candidate for use in the prevention of skin cancer caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays.”

Sprout solution

Her pilot study in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University will test a topical broccoli sprout solution on the skin a group of patients to see if the compound is effective in the context of solar simulated light. Previous studies have shown that the extract is quite safe for both topical and oral administration.

It was at Johns Hopkins in 1992 that researcher Paul Talalay discovered the health-promoting properties of sulforaphane glucosinolate, the cancer-fighting chemical abundant in the pungent Brassica family of vegetables.

Photo
Sally Dickinson
Now Dickinson and her team say sulforaphane has many theoretical applications if the dosage is measured properly.

"We already know that it is very effective in blocking sunburns and we have seen cases where it can induce protective enzymes in the skin," she said. "We already know that it is very effective in blocking sunburns and we have seen cases where it can induce protective enzymes in the skin."

Sulforaphane is the kind of compound that has so many incredible theoretical applications if the dosage is measured properly,” Dr. Dickinson said. “We already know that it is very effective in blocking sunburns, and we have seen cases where it can induce protective enzymes in the skin.”

Someday, patients with compromised immune systems may be able to apply sulforaphane to their skin in order to reduce their risk of skin cancer. 

Sales have doubled

Since Johns Hopkins' Talalay made his discovery, sales of broccoli have doubled in the United States and Talalay and colleagues have formed Brassica Products, which now produces and sells two million four-ounce packages of broccoli sprouts a year nationwide.

 The sprouts pack 20 to 50 times the cancer-fighting punch of the mature broccoli plant. They're promoted as helping people help themselves fight disease, a process Talalay, now 85, calls "chemoprotection," as opposed to the chemotherapy that is used once someone contracts cancer.

"'Protection' implies an empowering function that an individual can use," he said in a recent issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine. "From this idea has come a principle that one can use the body's own protective mechanisms and boost them. That's the principle that animates us."

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Bogus debt collection, credit management schemes derailed

FTC imposes $25 million judgment against repeat offender Brett Fisher

Brett Fisher probably wishes the Federal Trade Commission didn't exist. Back in 2010, the agency imposed a $17.2 million judgment against him in a case inv...

PhotoBrett Fisher probably wishes the Federal Trade Commission didn't exist. Back in 2010, the agency imposed a $17.2 million judgment against him in a case involving advance-fee credit cards. Fisher got out of that one with a payment of $21,000, which was all he was able to scrape together.

This time around, the FTC has imposed a $25.3 million judgment against Fisher in a case involving two Tampa, Fla., operations that allegedly bilked consumers out of millions of dollars before being shut down by a federal court last year.

According to the FTC, the defendants used phony debt collection calls from India and bogus claims that they would reduce consumers’ credit card interest rates to bilk consumers. Fisher masterminded both schemes, the FTC alleged.

Besides the $25.3 million judgment against Fisher, other defendants are required to surrender their assets to satisfy their monetary judgments. 

Defendants Pro Credit Group, LLC, Consumer Credit Group, LLC, and My Success Track, LLC, are not parties to these settlements, are not currently represented, and are facing default judgments, the FTC said.

Debt collection scheme

The FTC alleged that between January 2010 and August 2011, Fisher and other defendants set up U.S.-based financial accounts for a call center operation based in India to unfairly collect payday loan debts from consumers who either did not owe them, or owed them to somebody else. 

The callers used threats, lies, and abusive tactics to collect debts from consumers who had previously applied for or received loans from online payday loan companies and had supplied sensitive personal financial information that later found its way into the hands of those involved with the scam.

Once consumers agreed to pay, Fisher used Sanders Legal Group, P.A. to process at least $5 million from consumers whom the India-based callers had misled. Although numerous consumers complained to the local Better Business Bureau chapter about the abusive tactics of the callers, and many consumers tried unsuccessfully to get refunds, the defendants continued processing consumers’ payments.

"Lower interest"

PhotoIn the credit management case, the FTC said Fisher, several other individuals and five companies they controlled – Pro Credit Group, Sanders Law, Consumer Credit Group, LLC, My Success Track, LLC, and First Financial Asset Services, Inc. – deceived consumers by offering a bogus service to negotiate lower interest rates. 

As part of their scheme, the defendants allegedly used prerecorded telemarketing robocalls, including one from “Rachel” at “cardholder services” that urged consumers to press a number and speak to a live representative in order to obtain lower interest rates. 

Nancy of Paola, Kans., got several of those calls. "I'm continually getting automated calls from Consumer Credit threatening me, to call them back," she said in a posting to ConsumerAffairs.

According to the complaint, defendants’ telemarketers falsely represented that they had established relationships with consumers’ lenders and often assured consumers that, if they did not see the promised results, they would receive full refunds.

According to the FTC, the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule by allegedly charging consumers between $695 and $995 up front for their bogus service and failing to obtain written approval from consumers before sending them robocalls. 

That's apparently what happened to Randy of Leesville, S.C., who posted to ConsumerAffairs about his experience with Consumer Credit Group last year. 

"I was contacted and was charged on my credit card without any response and the phone number is no longer in service. I was told they could not help me refund my money. I have tried to contact them with no way to get my refund," Randy said.

 

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Walmart launches smartphone trade-in program

You can get credit for your device while keeping it out of a landfill

Want to trade in your smartphone without a hassle? Walmart has a program that it says will let you do exactly that. Starting Sept. 21, U.S. consumers will...

PhotoWant to trade in your smartphone without a hassle? Walmart has a program that it says will let you do exactly that.

Starting Sept. 21, U.S. consumers will get immediate credit towards the purchase of a new smartphone when they trade in their current device at an of more than 3,600 Walmart stores and Sam’s Club locations across the country.

The program offers a credit of from $50 to $300 for more than 100 for working, non-damaged smartphones. Examples include: $300 for an Apple iPhone 5, $175 for a Samsung Galaxy SIII and $52 for a Samsung Galaxy S2.

"Smartphones have become a part of our customers' everyday lives and as new devices launch more frequently, trade-in programs are becoming more popular,” said Steve Bratspies, executive vice president of general merchandise for Walmart U.S. "More and more, customers are choosing where they purchase new smartphones based on where they'll get the best value for their trade-ins. Our goal is to give them more value for their old devices and the lowest price for their new one.”

What to do

PhotoCustomers should bring their working smartphone to an associate in the electronics department at Walmart stores and Sam’s Club locations. In partnership with CExchange, the value of the smartphone will then be assessed by answering simple, unbiased questions on the device’s condition and specifications.

Once accepted, the trade-in value will be applied to a new smartphone of their choice -- like the Apple iPhone 5 for $98 or the Samsung Galaxy S4 for $138 -- with a two-year contract from AT&T, Verizon Wireless or Sprint.

Customers can also apply the trade-in value to smartphones available with prepaid plans like Straight Talk, which is only available at Walmart, which provides talk, text and data for $45 a month.

Mother Nature benefits

Walmart says the trade-in program is consistent with its sustainability goals and will help customers and members recycle smartphones responsibly. According to CExchange’s green policy, smartphones traded-in at Walmart and Sam’s Club will be never be sent to landfills, domestically or internationally.

“We’re saving our customers money while keeping thousands of smartphones from going to landfills each year,” said Bratspies. “Walmart’s smartphone trade-in programs are good for business, our customers and the environment.”

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Princeton named top college in annual U.S. News rankings

Schools that do well promote the annual rankings heavily; others ignore them

What's the best college of them all? According to U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings, it's Princeton, followed by Harvard, Yale, Columbia ...

PhotoWhat's the best college of them all? According to U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings, it's Princeton, followed by Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford. The University of California-Berkeley was named the best state school.

U.S. News was once a newsmagazine but it now just churns out lists which, for some reason, are regarded as highly authoritative even though like all such rankings, they don't necessarily translate into actionable information for individuals. 

Nevertheless, U.S. News promotes the rankings heavily, as do schools that rank highly.

“Higher education remains an important indicator of future earnings and career stability and  we’re pleased to provide this useful tool and data to help students make an informed decision,” said Matt Speer, Director of Sales and Marketing for U.S. News University Connection. ”U.S. News University Connection is proud to play a role in helping students choose a school and degree program that can allow them to compete in today’s challenging job market.”

Data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that workers who hold a bachelor’s degree earn significantly more than those who hold only a high school diploma, and are much less likely to experience unemployment, Speer noted.  In 2012, bachelor’s degree holders had a median weekly income of $1,066 and an unemployment rate of 4.5%. Workers with only a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $652 and saw 8.3% unemployment.

Best Colleges 2014 "provides education seekers with authoritative rankings of colleges and universities that award bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees," U.S. News said in a press release. 

The complete rankings are available on USNews.com and USNewsUniversityDirectory.com. The print edition will hit newsstands on Sept. 24, 2013.

Schools are grouped into ten categories:  National universities, national liberal arts colleges, regional universities (North, South, Midwest and West), and regional colleges (North, South, Midwest and West). 

Within each category, institutions are ranked according to several indicators of academic excellence, including alumni giving, assessment by administrators at peer institutions, faculty resources, financial resources, retention of students and student selectivity. 

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iTunes broke faith with "Breaking Bad" fans, class action charges

Suit claims Apple sold a "Season Pass," then broke the season into two parts

If you buy a ticket to a football game, you don't have to buy a second ticket if you want to stay past halftime....

PhotoIf you buy a ticket to a football game, you don't have to buy a second ticket if you want to stay past halftime.

That's the argument that's being made in a class action lawsuit against Apple. Lead plaintiff Noam Lazebnik says iTunes sold customers a "Season Pass" for the final season of "Breaking Bad," the saga of a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cooker and murderer.

Season 5 of "Breaking Bad," produced by AMC Networks, was announced as the final season and was to include 16 episodes.

AMC said in a 2012 press release that the "final season" -- Season 5 -- of the show "consists of 16 episodes, with the first eight episodes beginning July 15th and culminating with the series' final eight episodes next Summer 2013," according to the complaint, Courthouse News Service reported.

So that's one season consisting of 16 shows stretched out over the time period that would normally be two seasons, more or less. 

So when Season 5 became available on iTunes, customers were offered a "Season Pass" -- $21.99 for high definition and $13.99 for standard definition -- that Apple said "includes all current and future episodes of Breaking Bad, Season 5,'" Lazebnik says in the complaint.

But when the second half of the season became available on iTunes in early August this year, customers with a season pass had to pay another $22.99 or $14.99 to get them, Lazebnik says. The suit asks that Apple be ordered to refund the second-half charge and pay damages. 

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'Severely obese:' a worrisome classification

Five percent of U.S. kids are said to fit that description

There's a newly defined class of weight risk -- severely obese. And according to a scientific statement from American Heart Association, published online i...

PhotoThere's a newly defined class of weight risk -- severely obese. And according to a scientific statement from American Heart Association, published online in the journal Circulation, about 5% of U.S. children and teens are in that category.

"Severe obesity in young people has grave health consequences," said Aaron Kelly, Ph.D., lead author of the statement and a researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. "It's a much more serious childhood disease than obesity."

While childhood obesity rates are starting to level off, severe obesity has increased, Kelly said.

What is 'severely obese?'

The statement defines children over age 2 as severely obese if they either have a body mass index (BMI) that's at least 20 percent higher than the 95th percentile for their gender and age, or a BMI score of 35 or higher. A child in the 95th percentile weighs more than 95 percent of other children of the same gender and age.

BMI is a measurement based on weight and height. Age- and gender-specific growth charts are used to calculate BMI for children. Children at the 95th BMI percentile or higher are obese, and those between the 85th and 95th percentiles are overweight.

A 7-year-old girl of average height weighing 75 pounds, or a 13-year-old boy of average height weighing 160 pounds, would be defined as severely obese.

The consequences

PhotoSeverely obese children have higher rates of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues at younger ages, including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and early signs of atherosclerosis -- the disease process that clogs arteries.

Treatment options for children with this level of obesity are limited, as most standard approaches to weight loss are insufficient for them.

What to do

Most experts recommend a step-wise approach for treating severely obese children, with treatment getting gradually more intensive from lifestyle changes, to medication and potentially surgery.

"But the step from lifestyle change and medication to surgery is unacceptably large because weight loss surgery isn't appropriate for or available to all severely obese children," Kelly said.

The statement calls for "innovative approaches to fill the gap between lifestyle/medication and surgery."

The statement suggests ways to close the gap, including:

  • conduct more research on bariatric surgery's effects and safety;
  • evaluate effectiveness of lifestyle modification interventions, including adherence to dietary and physical activity plans;
  • fund research to find other useful interventions, including better drugs and medical devices; and
  • recognize severe obesity as a chronic disease requiring ongoing care and management.
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Toyota recalls various Lexus vehicles with engine bolt problems

The bolts could become loose due to abnormal impacts

Toyota is recalling 101,584 model year 2007-2011 Lexus GS350 vehicles manufactured June 19, 2006, through July 12, 2011; model year 2006-2011 Lexus IS350 v...

PhotoToyota is recalling 101,584 model year 2007-2011 Lexus GS350 vehicles manufactured June 19, 2006, through July 12, 2011; model year 2006-2011 Lexus IS350 vehicles manufactured May 27, 2005, through July 13, 2011; and model year 2010-2011 Lexus IS350c vehicles manufactured November 25, 2009, through July 19, 2011.

These vehicles, equipped with the 2GR-FSE engine, use bolts to secure the housing and sprocket of the Variable-Valve Timing (VVT) system gear assembly. These bolts could become loose due to abnormal impacts generated within the gear assembly immediately after a cold start-up. The loose bolts could cause the VVT gear housing and sprocket to separate and result in the engine stopping while the vehicle is being driven, increasing the risk of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and Lexus dealers will replace the VVT unit free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

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Toyota recalls RAV4 and Lexus HS250h vehicles

Failure of the rear tie rod could cause a loss of vehicle control

Toyota is recalling nearly 800,000 model year 2006 through 2011 RAV4 and 2010 Lexus HS250h passenger vehicles manufactured from October 2005, through Septe...

PhotoToyota is recalling nearly 800,000 model year 2006 through 2011 RAV4 and 2010 Lexus HS250h passenger vehicles manufactured from October 2005, through September 2010.

If the nuts for adjusting the rear wheel alignment are improperly tightened during service, the rear suspension arm (rear tire rod) may develop unwanted movement and rust leading to thread damage and eventual failure. Failure of the rear tire rod will cause an abrupt change in the vehicle's alignment, which could cause a loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the tie rods and replace any that have rust or corrosion on the alignment adjustment threads. All of the rear tie rods will then be encased in an epoxy to prevent future environmental damage.

Due to limitations in parts, the recall remedy will be launched in phases from September 2013, through February 2014. All owners will receive notification of the recall, with most receiving second notifications when parts are available in their area.

This recall supersedes a Toyota and Lexus recall issued about a year ago. All vehicles that have been inspected and remedied under the previous recall need to be re-inspected and have the appropriate remedy applied.

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"Flushable" wipes fouling up the waterworks

Just because something says it's "flushable" doesn't mean it won't cause problems

A backed-up sink or toilet is bad enough but entire sewer systems are getting clogged up by pre-moistened "personal wipes" and other consumer products that...

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Aging: is it all in your head?

The Fountain of Youth may have been within you all along

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady recently turned 36 and is entering his 14th season in the National Football League, a point at which most profes...

PhotoNew England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady recently turned 36 and is entering his 14th season in the National Football League, a point at which most professional athletes start thinking about hanging it up. But not Brady.

The future Hall of Fame signal-caller has suggested he may play when he's 50 years old. On CNBC recently, touting a new chain of gyms in which he has invested, Brady scoffed at the idea he is getting to be too old to be an elite quarterback.

"It's a bunch of crap that people think as you get older you get worse,” he told the network.

Some scientists agree with Brady, though they might not put it in exactly those terms. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified a sirtuin protein called Sirt1 that operates in the brain, bringing about a significant delay in aging and an increase in longevity. It's also associated with a low-calorie diet.

Eat less

There's a significant body of evidence that suggests a healthy but low-calorie diet will help you live longer. But Shin-ichiro Imai and his colleagues say they have shown how Sirt1 prompts brain activity that triggers dramatic physical changes that may explain why people live longer. Skeletal muscles get stronger and the subject experiences increased energy and longevity.

“In our studies of mice that express Sirt1 in the brain, we found that the skeletal muscular structures of old mice resemble young muscle tissue,” said Imai. “Twenty-month-old mice – the equivalent of 70-year-old humans -- look as active as five-month-olds.”

Imai said that the mice in the study didn't just age more slowly. They actually put off the time at which the normal effects of aging begin to show themselves. Having narrowed control of aging to the brain, Imai’s team then traced the control center of aging regulation to two areas of the brain.

'Tantalizing possibility'

PhotoAccording to the researchers, their discovery means more than extending the careers of professional athletes. It raises the tantalizing possibility of a “control center of aging and longevity” in the brain, which could be manipulated to maintain youthful physiology and extend life spans.

Imai and his colleagues are not the first to suggest that the Fountain of Youth is not some external product but rather to be found from within. In 2011 noted cardiologist Dr. Clyde Yancy said people who follow seven simple steps to a healthy life can expect to live an additional 40 to 50 years after the age of 50.

"Achieving these seven simple lifestyle factors gives people a 90 per cent chance of living to the age of 90 or 100, free of not only heart disease and stroke but from a number of other chronic illnesses including cancer," Yancey, a professor of medicine and chief of cardiology at the Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a speech in Vancouver, British Columbia.

According to Yancy, the seven secrets to a longer, healthy life are as follows:

  • Get active: Inactivity can shave almost four years off a person's expected lifespan. People who are physically inactive are twice as likely to be at risk for heart disease or stroke.
  • Know and control cholesterol levels: High blood cholesterol can lead to the build-up of fatty deposits in your arteries, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • Follow a healthy diet: Healthy eating is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. 
  • Know and control blood pressure: High blood pressure is often called a 'silent killer' because it has no warning signs or symptoms . By knowing and controlling your blood pressure, you can cut your risk of stroke by up to 40 per cent and the risk of heart attack by up to 25 per cent.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight: About one-third of American adults are classified as obese. Almost 60 per cent of Canadian adults are either overweight or obese, major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Being obese can reduce your life span by almost four years.
  • Manage diabetes: Diabetes increases the risk of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), coronary artery disease, and stroke, particularly if your blood sugar levels are poorly controlled.
  • Be tobacco-free: Thousands die prematurely each year due to tobacco use, and thousands of non-smokers die each year from exposure to second-hand smoke. 
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Soup from a coffeemaker? Coming right up

Campbell's and Keurig planning to brew up some new concoctions

Depending on your taste preferences, the impending product marriage between Campbell’s Soup and Keurig Coffee indicates either a Golden Age of instan...

PhotoDepending on your taste preferences, the impending product marriage between Campbell’s Soup and Keurig Coffee indicates either a Golden Age of instant just-add-water food and beverage options, or proof that the apocalypse is nigh.

Keurig machines are well-known to office workers throughout America: put one of those little plastic cups into the machine, wait for it to add water, and in less than a minute you have a steaming mug of something that tastes exactly like weak, watered-down coffee. So, Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison figured, why not do the same thing for soup?

Forbes market reporter Abram Brown noted that, “Campbell’s iconic red-and-white cans don’t sell like they used to -- and they’ve been nudged from their place in American pantries. In response, Morrison rolled back a drive into low-sodium soup (it surprised people and raised questions they hadn’t thought about), and Campbell snapped up Bolthouse Farms, which gives the soupmaker access to the fast-growing packaged fresh-food market.”

I’m one of those people surprised by Campbell’s low-sodium soup. Specifically, I was surprised to learn that in soup contexts, “low sodium” is synonymous with “no flavor at all.”

I always keep a few cans of chicken noodle on hand for when I suffer a cold; one feverish day a couple years ago, my then-boyfriend bought my sick self some soup but accidentally picked up the “low-sodium” variety, which was utterly vile. Even adding copious amounts of salt to the boiling soup didn’t help.

I eventually threw the cans of low-sodium soup away; I would’ve given them to the food bank, but figured, “If you are poor enough to need a food bank, your life is already unpleasant and stressful and I'll not make it worse by inflicting flavor-free soup on you.”

Chicken noodle is one of the three soup varieties Campbell’s will add to Keurig machines next year. So if you’re a fan of Campbell’s chicken noodle but have thought, “This would taste a lot better if the noodles and chicken bits were first completely dried out and then reconstituted with coffee-flavored hot water,” then 2014 ought to be a banner year for you.

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Making your money last through retirement

Disciplined saving and not pushing the panic button are key

The statistics about retirement savings are pretty sobering. The Employment Benefit Research Institute has found that more than half of Americans have save...

PhotoThe statistics about retirement savings are pretty sobering. The Employment Benefit Research Institute has found that more than half of Americans have saved less than $25,000. AARP reports that half of Baby Boomers doubt they'll ever be able to retire. 

The problem of little or no retirement savings is a front-burner topic. What is less discussed is how to make the money you have saved for retirement last. Since you don't really know how long you will live you don't really know how much you'll need. But Jane Bennett Clark, senior editor at Kiplinger Personal Finance, says you'll probably need more than you think.

“With increased longevity you could end up living 25 to 30 years into retirement so you really can't afford to ignore the effects of inflation on your buying power of your retirement savings over several decades,” Clark said. “So in order to beat inflation you have to invest some of your savings for growth and that means investing in stocks.”

Rule number one

In a recent article she profiled a couple who retired around the time the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008. They watched in horror as the value of their retirement account portfolios plummeted. However, they held on and didn't sell, meaning they caught the upside when the market bottomed in March 2009 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average more than doubled. Her number one rule? Don't dump stocks. 

That's not the same as the “buy and hold” strategy, however. If a fund or individual stock is performing poorly there's no reason not to sell and move the money into another fund or stock. Just don't panic and sell into a bear market because they are usually followed by bull markets.

Clark thinks a good general guideline for people entering retirement is to keep a ratio of 40% stocks to 60% fixed income. With interest rates and bond yield tiny over the last five years dividend stocks have increased in popularity. These equities pay shareholders a dividend each quarter, many the same or much higher than bond yields. But Clark sees some dangers.

Be careful with dividend stocks

Photo“Dividend stocks are becoming expensive so you have to be picky about what you're getting,” she said. “Also, stocks can fall when interest rates finally do rise.”

And “expensive” doesn't strictly apply to the price, but rather the price in relation to earnings. An “expensive” stock is one that sells for a high multiple of its earnings per share – a multiple that might not be justified by its prospects for future growth.

Figuring out what's expensive and what isn't takes some time and effort, which is why most retirement accounts are made up of mutual funds. These funds are professionally managed with fund managers deciding when to buy and sell the stocks that make up the fund.

Stock guru Jim Cramer recently criticized the typical 401(k) plan for what he called a lack of attractive options for investors. He has always been a a proponent of owning individual stocks – but only after the investors takes the time to learn the ins and outs of investing.

Are you a stock picker?

“I don't think most people have the interest or the time or knowledge to track individual stocks and be stock pickers,” Clark said. “If you like to do it, great. But I think mutual funds are the logical choice for most people.”

Even if your investments are exclusively in funds, Clark says some are conservative and some are more growth oriented. She suggests spreading your money around in both types, in what she calls the bucket system.

“You invest enough money in liquid, conservative accounts to cover several years worth of basic costs,” Clark said. “Then you might create another bucket with investments that give you more potential for yield and that would cover some of your discretionary expenses. And then a third bucket would be for growth investments.”

Stepping up savings

As Baby Boomers approach retirement and worry that they don't quite have it covered, are there things they could be doing to help them sleep better at night?

“The obvious answer is they can be saving as much as possible, including taking advantage of their catch-up contributions to their 401(k) and Roth IRA,” she said. That's a really good opportunity to pile money into their tax deferred accounts.”

Individuals who are 50 years old at the end of the calendar year can make extra “catch-up” contributions to their retirement accounts. The Internal Revenue Serice (IRS) explains it here

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Gas prices hold steady but MidEast, hurricane season could spell trouble

Labor Day prices were the fourth-highest on record

A gas station in Northern VirginiaLabor Day marked the end of the summer driving season with the fourth highest Labor Day price on record, with a natio...

Photo
A gas station in Northern Virginia

Labor Day marked the end of the summer driving season with the fourth highest Labor Day price on record, with a national average price for regular unleaded gasoline of $3.58 per gallon Friday, up a penny from a week ago, yet three cents less than a month ago and 30 cents less than a year ago.

However, the average price for motorists over the course of the summer ($3.58) was the third highest on record behind 2008 ($3.95) and 2011 ($3.65).

What happens next is the question now. While oil prices remain at lofty levels due to geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and North Africa, retail gas prices have not moved markedly higher during this period.  

Upward pressure from higher oil prices has been largely offset by comfortable domestic gasoline supplies, demand that has lagged a year ago, and an Atlantic hurricane season that has, thus far, been very weak; for the first time in more than ten years there has been no Atlantic hurricane through the end of August and it is possible that this year may mark the latest date in the satellite era for a first hurricane to form.  

With this in mind, the potential remains for higher retail prices in the coming weeks and months should storms impact gasoline production and distribution.

“Gasoline prices usually drop with the end of the summer driving season, but it is impossible to say whether this will be a typical year given the potential risks facing the market,” said John B. Townsend, Manager of Public and Government Affairs AAA Mid-Atlantic.  “Escalating tensions in the Middle East and North Africa, possible U.S. action in Syria or a major hurricane could make it more expensive to buy gas, while a relatively calm month should send prices much lower. It is too soon to know how these factors might affect motorists in the coming weeks.”

 

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Microsoft expands Xbox Music Service, taking on Spotify

The streaming music business is turning into a gusher

If there is anyone who has not gotten into the streaming music business, it's hard to think who it is. Microsoft is the latest to take the plunge, announci...

PhotoIf there is anyone who has not gotten into the streaming music business, it's hard to think who it is. Microsoft is the latest to take the plunge, announcing that its Xbox Music site today begins free streaming of its 30 million-song library.

Last October, Microsoft launched its Xbox Music service first on Windows 8 computers and tablets, then on the Xbox 360 and Windows phones.

But Microsoft has a long way to go if it wants to bump Spotify out of first place. It currently is thought to have fewer than 200,000 subscribers, compared to Spotify's more than 9 million.

The change announced today adds more devices to the Xbox universe, since the service will now be available on just about any kind of device that can connect to the Internet.

To hear it Microsoft tell it, it's the greatest thing since eifght-track tapes.

"Xbox Music combines the best of all music offerings with free streaming on the Web and on Windows 8 PCs and tablets, Internet radio, subscription (called Xbox Music Pass), and download-to-own options," Microsoft said in a press release. With today’s news, access to Xbox Music grows to include iOS and Android devices, as well as a free Web-based interface on computers. 

“Xbox Music now, more than ever, powers music experiences between Windows 8, Xbox, Windows Phone, and now iOS, Android and the Web,” said Jerry Johnson, general manager of Xbox Music. “We’re also excited to connect artists with their fans on the most anticipated consumer product of the year when Xbox One launches Nov. 22.”

Starting today, an Xbox Music Pass brings the catalog of music to iOS and Android devices. Consumers can get unlimited access to songs and artists with playback to their tablet, PC, phone and Xbox console for $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year.

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McDonald's testing box o'burgers

It's sort of like a bucket of chicken but who wants cold burgers?

KFC has had a long and profitable relationship with its bucket of fried chicken. And the McDonald's Happy Meal -- basically a burger in a box -- has been a...

PhotoKFC has had a long and profitable relationship with its bucket of fried chicken. And the McDonald's Happy Meal -- basically a burger in a box -- has been a big seller with kids. 

So why not a box of burgers -- a family-sized meal package?

McDonald's is testing the idea in Kansas City and calling it the Blitz Box. It contains two Quarter Pounders with cheese, two medium french fries, and 20 Chicken McNuggets, according to Burger Business. 

All of this would set you back $14.99.

For now, McDonald's says there are no plans to expand beyond Kansas City, Mo., where the burger box is part of a promotion tied to the Kansas City Chiefs and the opening of the NFL season. It goes without saying, though, that if it's a blockbuster in KCMO, you can expect to see it elsewhere.

 McDonalds  Sept. 9, 2013, 4:55 p.m.
Consumers rate McDonalds

The box has been around in various guises since at least March 2010, when the "Dinner Box" was introduced in Australia. In 2011, the chain added a Mates Meal, which substituted chicken for burgers, Burger Business reported. In Malaysia, you can get a "Family Breakfast" and in the Czech Republic, it's a "McBox."

But Burger Business editor Scott Hume writes that while a box of chicken is a natural, it doesn't necessilary work that well for burgers. 

"Cold chicken is fine, but cold burgers are not," he writes. "But now the tight marketplace has convinced McDonald's to try it." 

McDonald's has had to cut back on its Dollar Menu as the price of beef has risen, he noted.

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CDC: Many heart disease and stroke deaths are preventable

Cardiovascular diseases are responsible for a third of all U.S. deaths

If there were things you could do to keep from dying of a stroke or heart attack, would you do them? Fortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Cont...

PhotoIf there were things you could do to keep from dying of a stroke or heart attack, would you do them?

It's not a rhetorical question. Fortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are actions you can take.

A new CDC report says there were more than 200,000 preventable deaths from heart disease and stroke in the United States in 2010, with more than half the people dying under the age of 65.

The Vital Signs report looked at preventable deaths from heart disease and stroke defined as those that occurred in people under age 75 that could have been prevented by more effective public health measures, lifestyle changes or medical care.

Cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke, kill nearly 800,000 Americans each year; that's one in three deaths. However, the report notes that most cardiovascular disease can be managed or prevented in the first place by addressing risk factors.

Who is at risk?

While the number of preventable deaths has declined in people aged 65 to 74 years, it has remained unchanged in people under age 65. Men are more than twice as likely as women -- and blacks twice as likely as whites -- to die from preventable heart disease and stroke.

“Despite progress against heart disease and stroke, hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year from these preventable causes of death,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Many of the heart attacks and strokes that will kill people in the coming year could be prevented by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol and stopping smoking.”

The report pointed out these factors regarding about the risk of preventable death from heart disease and stroke:

  • Age: Death rates in 2010 were highest among adults aged 65-74 years (401.5 per 100,000 population). But preventable deaths have declined faster in those aged 65–74 years compared with those under age 65.
  • Race/ethnicity: Blacks are twice as likely -- and Hispanics are slightly less likely -- as whites to die from preventable heart disease and stroke.
  • Sex: Avoidable deaths from heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure were higher among males (83.7 per 100,000) than females (39.6 per 100,000). Black men have the highest risk. Hispanic men are twice as likely as Hispanic women to die from preventable heart disease and stroke.
  • Location: By state, avoidable deaths from cardiovascular disease ranged from a rate of 36.3 deaths per 100,000 population in Minnesota to 99.6 deaths per 100,000 in the District of Columbia. By county, the highest avoidable death rates in 2010 were concentrated primarily in the southern Appalachian region and much of Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. The lowest rates were in the West, Midwest, and Northeast regions.

Making progress

The overall rate of preventable deaths from heart disease and stroke went down nearly 30% between 2001 and 2010, with the declines varying by age. Lack of access to preventive screenings and early treatment for high blood pressure and high cholesterol could explain the differences among age groups.

CDC point out that through the Affordable Care Act, more people will have access to health coverage and preventive care, including young people and other medically underserved groups.

What to do

To save more lives from these preventable deaths, doctors, nurses, and other health care providers can encourage healthy habits at every patient visit, including not smoking, increasing physical activity, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and taking medicines as directed.

Providers should track patient progress on the ABCS of heart health -- aspirin when appropriate, blood pressure control, cholesterol management and smoking cessation.

Health care systems can adopt and use electronic health records to identify patients who smoke or who have high blood pressure or high cholesterol and help providers follow and support patient progress.

Communities and health departments can help by promoting healthier living spaces, including tobacco-free areas and safe walking areas. Local communities also can ensure access to healthy food options, including those with lower sodium.

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Thousands quit smoking; CDC claims credit

The agency says it's because of a national media campaign

If you are among the thousands who have recently quit smoking, you can thank Uncle Sam. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),...

PhotoIf you are among the thousands who have recently quit smoking, you can thank Uncle Sam.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1.6 million smokers attempted to quit because of the agency's “Tips From Former Smokers” national ad campaign. And, as a result of the 2012 campaign, CDC says more than 200,000 people actually kicked the habit.

And even better, the agency says researchers estimate more than 100,000 will likely quit smoking permanently. These results, CDC says,exceed the campaign’s original goals of 500,000 quit attempts and 50,000 successful quits.

“This is exciting news,” said said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Quitting can be hard and I congratulate and celebrate with former smokers -- this is the most important step you can take to a longer, healthier life.” Frieden says anyone who tried to quit should keep trying, adding, “it may take several attempts to succeed.’’

Smokers and nonsmokers surveyed

A study, published by the a medical journal, The Lancet, surveyed thousands of adult smokers and nonsmokers before and after the campaign. It found that millions of nonsmokers reported talking to friends and family about the dangers of smoking and referring smokers to quit services. Almost 80% of smokers and almost 75% of non-smokers recalled seeing at least one of the ads during the three-month campaign.

Calls to the quitline more than doubled during the campaign and visits to the website were more than five times higher than for the same 12-week period in 2011, according to a 2012 report.

“Hard-hitting campaigns like ‘Tips From Former Smokers’ are great investments in public health,” said Tim McAfee, M.D., M.P.H., director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health, and lead author of the study. “This study shows that we save a year of life for less than $200. That makes it one of the most cost-effective prevention efforts.”

More to come

The Tips campaign, CDC contends, is an important counter to the more than $8 billion the tobacco industry spends annually to make cigarettes more attractive and more available. Spending on educational campaigns such as Tips, says the agency, can help to save more lives and reduce health care costs. The taxpayer-funded Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund paid for the $54 million Tips 2012 campaign. A second set of Tips ads aired earlier this year and plans are under way for a new set in 2014. CDC will release initial results of the 2013 ads later this year.

This coming January marks the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health, which concluded that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, killing more than 1,200 people every day.  

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Galant Food recalls calzone products

The products contain egg, an allergen not listed on the label

Galant Food Company of San Leandro, Calif., is recalling approximately 1,650 pounds of fresh or frozen calzone products. The products are formulated with...

PhotoGalant Food Company of San Leandro, Calif., is recalling approximately 1,650 pounds of fresh or frozen calzone products.

The products are formulated with an egg wash glaze that contains egg, an allergen not declared on the label. There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 10-ounce packages, in 7.5 pound cases, of “ENZO’S Italian Combo Calzone” bearing the establishment number “EST. 9014” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the label. Identifying case codes are: 7163, 7173, 7183, 7223, 7253, 8143, 8303 and 9043.
  • 10-ounce packages, in 7.5 pound cases, of “ENZO’S Chicken Fajita Calzone” bearing the establishment number “P-9014” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the label. Identifying case codes are: 7163, 7173, 7183, 7223, 8133 and 9043.

The products were produced between July 16 and Sept. 4, 2013, and shipped to distributors, retail locations and possibly restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area.

The problem occurred because the wrong computer was connected to the label printer during the firm’s recent relocation.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Richard Fairchild, the company’s recall coordinator, at 415-552-5475.

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Why breakfast is important

Eating this meal may help you control your weight

“Three square meals a day,” the saying goes. But how many of us actually eat three meals a day? Specifically, how many of us eat breakfast ever...

Photo“Three square meals a day,” the saying goes. But how many of us actually eat three meals a day? Specifically, how many of us eat breakfast every day?

In many households, mornings are a chaotic time. Kids have to get off to school and parents usually set off in different directions, sometimes facing long commutes to get to their jobs. Who has time for breakfast?

For decades nutritionists have called breakfast “the most important meal of the day” and that hasn't changed over the years.

Despite that, a recent survey conducted for the California Almond Board found 50% of women said they skip breakfast on busy mornings. Some said they don't eat because they just aren't hungry in the mornings.

Mood, weight, well-being

"Ditching breakfast can affect your mood, weight and well-being," said nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of "Read It Before You Eat It." "Breakfast helps fill up our minds and bodies after we've gone without food for several hours while sleeping."

The American Diabetes Association has also weighed in on the issue of breakfast, pointing out it usually ends the longest period most people go without nourishment. If the last thing you eat is at 8 p.m. and then sleep to 7 a.m., that's eleven hours of fasting.

“Your body enters into a prolonged fasting state,” the association says in an article on its website. “It starts to believe that you won’t be eating any time soon. When you finally eat lunch, your body stores it as fat because it thinks, 'I’d better save this for later. I don’t know when the next meal will come.' That, of course, leads to weight gain. When you break the fast in the morning, on the other hand, your body can use that food to power you through the day.” 

Eat the right things

PhotoNutritionists generally say that people who eat breakfast tend to eat healthier throughout the day. And eating the right things for breakfast can be just as important as eating the morning meal.

Eating a huge breakfast of eggs, sausage and pancakes – typical in the past – is not going to be helpful, unless you are preparing for a day of hard, manual labor, like plowing the back 40. Even then it probably isn't the best choice. Starting the day with a lot of calories probably means you'll consume a lot more before the sun sets.

Dr. Heather Leidy, a nutrition expert at the University of Missouri, says the best breakfasts are low in carbs and fat and high in protein and fiber. Fiber will fill you up and keep you from being hungry later on. And less is more. A healthy breakfast, she says, should really be no more than 500 calories.

Eating a healthy breakfast is particularly important for children and adults with chronic health conditions. According to Katherine Zeratsky, at the Mayo Clinic, it can also help people lose and control their weight. In addition to keeping you from getting hungry later in the day it will also boost your energy level. 

Healthy breakfast foods

What makes for a healthy breakfast? According to the John's Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, you should sample from the bread and grain, dairy and fruit or vegetable food groups. When you have little time for breakfast, have fruit, non-fat yogurt or granola bars on hand. 

You can also be creative. There's no law saying your have to consume traditional breakfast food first thing in the morning. If you have leftovers from a healthy dinner the night before and the mood strikes you, there's no reason you can't have warmed up salmon and vegetables for breakfast.

Cold pizza, on the other hand, is probably a bad idea.

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What makes us fat? Germs, researchers say

Having the right intestinal microbe mixture can mean the difference between being lean or obese

Lots of things can make us fat -- too much food, too much sitting around and so forth. But researchers at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) s...

PhotoLots of things can make us fat -- too much food, too much sitting around and so forth. But researchers at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) say there's another factor, one you might not of: the microbes in your gut.

Working in mice transplanted with intestinal microbes from lean and obese twins, a new WUSTL study shows that altering the microbial mix prevents mice destined for obesity from gaining weight and fat or developing related metabolic problems linked to insulin resistance.

But there’s a caveat: Microbes associated with leanness can’t take up residence in mice with “obese” gut microbes unless the animals eat a healthy diet. The research is reported Sept. 6 in the journal Science.

“Eating a healthy diet encourages microbes associated with leanness to quickly become incorporated into the gut,” said senior author Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, director of the Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology at Washington University.

“But a diet high in saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables thwarts the invasion of microbes associated with leanness. This is important as we look to develop next-generation probiotics as a treatment for obesity,” Gordon said.

While the research may lead to effective new treatments in the future, for now the advice remains the same: eat your vegetables and move around a little.

The study

The research involved identical and fraternal female human twin pairs, ranging in age from 21 to 32, in which one twin is obese and the other lean. This stark weight disparity occurs in about 6 percent of twins and is more common among fraternal twins than those who are identical.

As part of the study, the twins’ gut microbes (captured from fecal samples) were transferred into mice that had been raised in a previously microbe-free environment. Because mice naturally eat each other’s feces, the researchers had a chance to observe what happens when a mouse carrying a collection of gut microbes from an obese twin is housed with another mouse carrying gut microbes from the lean twin.

Do the mice transfer microbes to one another through their feces, the researchers asked. And if so, which microbes ultimately take over?

The answer depends on diet.

If the animals ate a healthy diet low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables, microbes from the lean twin invaded the gut of the mouse with the obese twin’s microbes, preventing weight gain and the development of metabolic problems associated with insulin resistance. In people, insulin resistance is associated with significant weight gain and typically is the first sign of metabolic problems that eventually can lead to diabetes.

In 2009, a study by Gordon and his colleagues indicated that the collections of microbes in the guts of obese people lack the diversity and richness of people who are lean. This observation was confirmed by the new research.

“We think the lack of diversity leaves open niches – or jobs, if you will – that can be filled by microbes associated with leanness,” he said. “Our results underscore the strong interactions between gut microbes and diet and help illustrate how unhealthy diets select against gut microbes associated with leanness.”

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Google fails in bid for dismissal of class action challenging its handling of Gmail

Judge takes dismissal motion under advisement but warns parties to prepare for trial

A massive class action case against Google has survived, at least for now, a motion for dismissal by Google. The case concerns Google's policy of scanning ...

PhotoA massive class action case against Google has survived, at least for now, a motion for dismissal by Google. The case concerns Google's policy of scanning every email sent to and from Gmail users so it can pick out keywords that are used to target advertising to its users.

The plaintiffs in the case argue that Google is violating federal wiretapping laws and California state privacy laws by reading the emails. Google, for its part, has challenged the legal standing of the two lead plaintiffs because they don't live in California and has claimed its electronic eavesdropping is legitimate.

But U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh seemed lukewarm to Google's arguments and warned the parties to be ready to go to trial in 2014, Courthouse News Service reported. 

Google lawyer Whitty Somvichian argued that the company's practice of scanning emails is used solely for its targeted advertising scheme and to enhance its other services.

"It's a legitimate business function," Somvichian argued at the Thursday hearing. "All users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing."

Emails aren't postcards

PhotoBut plaintiffs' attorney Sean Rommel fired back, saying Google's practices benefit Google alone.

"Emails are not postcards, they're private transmissions protected by Congress," Rommel said. "Google reads every single email sent. Advertising is the greatest smokescreen in the modern era."

While Google claims it gives adequate notice of its policies to its users who must agree to its terms of service to open a Gmail account, Rommel noted that Google reads the messages of non-Gmail users who write to Gmail users.

Those non-Gmail users have never agreed to Google's terms of service, he noted.

"Every Gmail user gives Google a lifetime license to use every email received and sent," Rommel added. "That's astonishing and the scariest thing I've ever heard." according to the Courthouse News Service report.

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Teens flock to e-cigs, usage more than doubles in one year

More than 75% of teen e-cig users smoke conventional cigarettes too

Manufacturers of electronic cigarettes -- or e-cigs -- like to say the devices help smokers quit while also dissuading non-smokers from taking up the tobac...

PhotoManufacturers of electronic cigarettes -- or e-cigs -- like to say the devices help smokers quit while also dissuading non-smokers from taking up the tobacco-smoking habit.

But data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the claims may be a smokescreen. The percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to the findings from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

The survey is likely to provide ammunition to critics who say the federal government is not moving quickly enough to regulate the e-cigs. In April, five U.S. Senators wrote to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging her agency to issue regulations for the devices. The letter was signed by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Il.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Oh.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.). 

The FDA has left no doubt it intends to regulate e-cigs. The only questions are when and how.

“These data show a dramatic rise in usage of e-cigarettes by youth, and this is cause for great concern as we don’t yet understand the long-term effects of these novel tobacco products,” said Mitch Zeller, director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “These findings reinforce why the FDA intends to expand its authority over all tobacco products and establish a comprehensive and appropriate regulatory framework to reduce disease and death from tobacco use.” 

Britian began regulating e-cigs in June, treating them as non-prescription medicine, allowing them to be sold widely by retailers but empowering the government to enforce quality and purity standards.  

The CDC survey found that the percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e-cigarette rose from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10.0 percent in 2012. In the same time period, high school students using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent.  Use also doubled among middle school students. 

Altogether, in 2012 more than 1.78 million middle and high school students nationwide had tried e-cigarettes. 

Lifelong addiction

"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling," said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.  "Nicotine is a highly addictive drug.  Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes."

PhotoThe study also found that 76.3 percent of middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days also smoked conventional cigarettes in the same period.

In addition, 1 in 5 middle school students who reported ever using e-cigarettes say they have never tried conventional cigarettes. This raises concern that there may be young people for whom e-cigarettes could be an entry point to use of conventional tobacco products, including cigarettes.  

“About 90 percent of all smokers begin smoking as teenagers,” said Tim McAfee, M.D., M.P.H., director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health.  “We must keep our youth from experimenting or using any tobacco product. These dramatic increases suggest that developing strategies to prevent marketing, sales, and use of e-cigarettes among youth is critical.” 

No proof

Although some e-cigarettes have been marketed as smoking cessation aids, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that e-cigarettes promote successful long-term quitting, the FDA noted. However, there are proven cessation strategies and treatments, including counseling and FDA-approved cessation medications.

Cigarette smoking remains the leading preventable cause of dis­ease, dis­ability, and death in the United States, responsible for an estimated 443,000 deaths each year.  And for every one death, there are 20 people living with a smoking-related disease.  To quit smoking, free help is available at 1-800-QUIT NOW or www.cdc.gov/tips.

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PayPal upgrades its app to make it more useful in retail settings

It will be easier to pay for purchases, and users can order ahead at participating restaurants

PayPal is upgrading its iPhone and Android apps today, making it easier to pay for purchases in stores. It's supposed to make it easier to use various stor...

PhotoPayPal is upgrading its iPhone and Android apps today, making it easier to pay for purchases in stores. It's supposed to make it easier to use various stored accounts, like bank accounts and credit cards, to make purchases.

PayPal executives say that most mobile wallets -- like Google Wallet -- haven't taken off because they're simply too cumbersome, making it more convenient to pull out a credit card or just pay cash. 

That may still be true but PayPal has added or reshuffled several features that it thinks will make the app more popular. For one, it's now easier to send money to friends or pay for certain items iin stores. 

Users will also be able to place and pay for orders ahead in participating restaurants and shops like Jamba Juice, which was one of the first to test the new system. Special offers and coupons will also be more prominently feature, the company said.

PayPal is also making Bill Me Later a payment option.

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Oyster hopes to be a Netflix for books

No movies but new start-up offers a $9.95 per month subscription to 100,000 books

OK, we've got streaming music and video from Netflix, Amazon and other providers. So why not streaming books?Well, it might be kind of hard to read strea...

PhotoOK, we've got streaming music and video from Netflix, Amazon and other providers. So why not streaming books?

Well, it might be kind of hard to read streaming text but you get the idea. A new start-up called Oyster is promoting an all-you-can-read service for $9.95 per month. It has an initial library of 100,000 books and unlike a bricks-and-mortar library, you don't have to wait if someone else is reading the title you want.

Taking a page from the snobbish Google-style rollout that gives first crack to those who are for some reason anointed, Oyster advises that the common rabble can't sign up yet. But Oyster promises that if you ask nicely, they'll let you know when you might be admitted.

At least that's what we think the site's home page says. It would take a mirror to read the text in the blue box, but perhaps that's a test to exclude those not deemed worthy of admission.

"We created Oyster to evolve the way people read and to create more of the special moments that only books can offer," Oyster's site advises, failing to mention it also apparently hopes to modify the accepted usage of "evolve," which has not previously been a transitive verb.

For now, the VIPs will have to read their books on iPhone although Oyster says it will have an iPad app this fall. No word on an app for Android. Too common, perhaps?

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August job creation falls short of forecasts

The latest figures show we're still not there when it comes to economic recovery

The nation's economy cranked out 169,000 jobs in August, falling short of the 177,000 forecast by analysts surveyed by Briefing.com. As it released the fig...

PhotoThe nation's economy cranked out 169,000 jobs in August, falling short of the 177,000 forecast by analysts surveyed by Briefing.com. As it released the figures from last month, the Labor Department revised its July total sharply lower, from an initially reported 162,000 new jobs to just 104,000.

At the same time, the unemployment rate inched down 0.1% -- to 7.3%. A year ago, it stood at 8.1%. However, analysts say the August drop was not due to strengthening trends in the labor sector. Instead, it was the result of the labor force declining by 312,000 people in August. The number of people employed actually fell by 115,000.

The gains

Retail trade led the advance, adding 44,000 jobs in August for a total of 393,000 new jobs over the past 12 months. Job growth also occurred in clothing stores (+14,000), food and beverage stores (+12,000), general merchandise stores (+9,000), and electronics and appliance stores (+4,000).

Who's working

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (7.1%), adult women (6.3%), teenagers (22.7%), whites (6.4%), blacks (13.0%), Hispanics (9.3%) and Asians (5.1%) were little-changed in August.

The number of people out of work for 27 weeks or more (long-term unemployed) showed little change at 4.3 million. They make up 37.9% percent of the jobless population. Over the past 12 months, the number of long-term unemployed has declined by 733,000.

The full August employment report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Manning Equipment recalls Ford pickups

A tailpipe problem could allow heat buildup in the rear compartment

Manning Equipment Inc. LLC is recalling 37 model year 2012 Ford F-350, F-450 and F-550 gasoline engined dual rear wheel chassis vehicles manufactured Octo...

PhotoManning Equipment Inc. LLC is recalling 37 model year 2012 Ford F-350, F-450 and F-550 gasoline engined dual rear wheel chassis vehicles manufactured October 2011 through June 2012.

The tailpipe on the exhaust system does not extend out beyond the edge of the body, allowing heat to build up in rear curbside storage compartment, which could result in fire.

Manning Equipment has notified owners, and dealers will install tailpipe extensions free of charge. The recall has already begun.

Owners may contact Manning Equipment at 1-502-426-5210.

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Honda recalls Pilots and Odysseys

Engine pistons may be susceptible to premature wear

Honda is recalling 270 model year 2013 Pilot 2WD and 4WD vehicles and model year 2013 Odyssey vehicles. During manufacturing of the engine piston, it is ...

PhotoHonda is recalling 270 model year 2013 Pilot 2WD and 4WD vehicles and model year 2013 Odyssey vehicles.

During manufacturing of the engine piston, it is possible that the heat treatment process was not properly applied, resulting in the piston having an insufficient hardness level, making it more susceptible to premature wear. A worn piston may suddenly fail, causing the engine to stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the engine short block free of charge. The recall is expected to begin September 16, 2013.

Owners may contact Honda at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's recall numbers are JB4 for the Odyssey and JB5 for the Pilot.

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Toyota recalls Highlander, Lexus vehicles

The recalls involve heat damage and timing devices

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., is recalling some 235,000 vehicles in two separate actions The first involves approximately 133,000 MY 2006-2010 Highlander Hy...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., is recalling some 235,000 vehicles in two separate actions

The first involves approximately 133,000 MY 2006-2010 Highlander Hybrid and MY 2006-2008 Lexus RX 400h vehicles.

In the recalled Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h vehicles, transistors within the hybrid system's inverter assembly can experience heat damage due to variations in characteristics of the transistors built in parallel circuits. Should this occur, various warning lights on the instrument panel will illuminate, and in most cases the vehicle will enter "limp home mode." In limited instances, the hybrid system will shut down and resulting in the vehicle stopping while the vehicle is being driven.

The second recall involves approximately 102,000 MY 2006-2011 Lexus IS 350, IS 350C, and GS 350 vehicles.

In these vehicles, bolts used to secure the variable valve timing control device can become loose, causing the vehicle to stop while being driven. Early warning for this condition can be an abnormal noise just after start-up.

Owners of vehicles subject to these recalls will receive a notification by first class mail.

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Researcher: Twitter users reveal too much information

Some of it is their fault, some of it isn't

Social media users compromise their privacy all the time. They post pictures while they are on vacation, for example, advertising the fact they aren't at h...

PhotoSocial media users compromise their privacy all the time. They post pictures while they are on vacation, for example, advertising the fact they aren't at home. They reveal other personal information that ought to be private.

But the social media infrastructure may also present some privacy problems. Chris Weidemann, a graduate student at the University of Southern California (USC), has focused his efforts on Twitter, finding that some Twitter users may be inadvertently revealing their location through updates on the social media channel.

“Really there are four ways a user can give away information,” Weidemann said in an interview. “The first, a user can geo-enable their tweets – meaning they include GPS coordinates. Roughly four to eight percent of all Tweets are geo-enabled - that's 30 million Tweets a day that have GPS coordinates associated with them. This provides accuracy down to the five to 50 foot level, depending on the mobile device the user is using and if they're indoors or outdoors.”

This vulnerability in compounded when a user with geo-enabled Tweets makes reference to a personally identifiable feature that provides additional metadata about the location. For example, someone might Tweet "I just got home from a long day and now I just want to watch TV." Weidemann says that could tell someone, should they want to know, where “home” is.

TMI

A third way users provide location data is when they simply broadcast too much information. For example, someone may Tweet they are meeting friends at a particular restaurant for dinner.

“A process known as natural language geo-coding is used on the text to try and derive location coordinates for these locations,” Weidemann said. “This can be taken one step further when you have a user who provides some geo-ebabled Tweets for location reference. For instance, if a user enables GPS sharing on one Tweet, but not the others, I can then use their known locations to narrow down the geo-coding search results for the Tweets without locations.”

The fourth way is far less risky, Weidemann concedes. It uses information gleaned from a public Twitter profile to determine what country and time zone a Tweeter is in.

As part of a research project, Weidemann and fellow researchers developed an application called Twitter2GIS, to analyze the metadata collected by Twitter, including details about the user's hometown, time zone and language. It was then processed by a software program, which mapped and analyzed the data, searching for trends.

Results

PhotoHere's what they found: during a one-week sampling period, some 20% of the Tweets they collected showed the user's location to an accuracy of street level or better. Many also revealed their physical location directly through active location monitoring or GPS coordinates.

An additional 2.2% of all Tweets – about 4.4 million a day – provided so-called "ambient" location data, where the user might not be aware that they are divulging their location.

"The downside is that mining this kind of information can also provide opportunities for criminal misuse of data," Weidemann said. "My intent is to educate social media users and inform the public about their privacy."

As a grad school project Weidemann has developed a site called geosocialfootprint.com to keep social media users informed on privacy issues.

Decreasing geo-social footprint

“Not only does the site help them visualize that risk in a map, but it also points out areas of concern, provides a basic risk assessment, and also tries to provide some dynamic suggestions on decreasing a geo-social footprint,” he said.

For Twitter users worried that they might be revealing too much information, the social media site provides some documentation on how to disable geo Tweets and instructions for deleting your old Tweets. 

In the meantime, Weidemann hopes social media users, include those active on Twitter, begin to think more about privacy and exercise more caution. There's a lot more information out there than you think.

“I think most people would be shocked at the results if they paid an investigator to collect information on themselves,” Weidemann said. “I have received feedback already from shocked users, and for now I'm doing nothing more than helping them visualize their Tweets.”

It's especially worrisome, he says, for teenagers and children who use social media. Not only do they open themselves up to location privacy matters but also general privacy concerns.

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Consumers try to stay anonymous online, study finds

Web users want to hide their identity from criminals, advertisers, people in their past

If anyone still doubts Americans are concerned about their privacy online, a new Pew Researcher Center study should dispel those doubts. The researchers fo...

PhotoIf anyone still doubts Americans are concerned about their privacy online, a new Pew Researcher Center study should dispel those doubts. The researchers found that nearly nine in 10 Web users try to remain anonymous online by clearing their cookies and browser histories, encrypting email or using proxy servers.

Pew also found that consumers frequently edit or delete things they've posted in the past, set their browser to disable cookies, avoid websites that asked for their real names and use fictitious names and email addresses.

The report also found that people are more concerned about the amount of data available about them today online than in the past. In July, 50% of Web users said they were concerned about how much information about them was online, up from 33% in September of 2009, Pew found.

Real problems

The researchers said consumers' fears are often based on problems they've experience because others stole their personal information or took advantage of their visibility online. 

It cited these examples:

  • 21% of internet users have had an email or social networking account compromised or taken over by someone else without permission.
  • 13% of internet users have experienced trouble in a relationship between them and a family member or a friend because of something the user posted online.
  • 12% of internet users have been stalked or harassed online.
  • 11% of internet users have had important personal information stolen such as their Social Security Number, credit card, or bank account information.
  • 6% of internet users have been the victim of an online scam and lost money.
  • 6% of internet users have had their reputation damaged because of something that happened online.
  • 4% of internet users have been led into physical danger because of something that happened online.
  • 1% of internet users have lost a job opportunity or educational opportunity because of something they posted online or someone posted about them.

Some 68% of internet users believe current laws are not good enough in protecting people’s privacy online and 24% believe current laws provide reasonable protections.

Photo

Concern is growing

Consumers' concerns about their privacy have been growing steadily in recent years. Pew found that 50% of those surveyed say they are worried about the amount of personal information about them that is online — a figure that has jumped from 33% who expressed such worry in 2009.  

Another study, this one conducted by advertising agency Omnicom's Annalect, also found consumers increasingly concerned. The study found 57% of web users in July were "concerned" or "very concerned" about their online privacy, up from 48% in June. The jump was attributed to the news that the NSA has been collecting metadata about U.S. citizens for years.

"People would like control over their information, saying in many cases it is very important to them that only they or the people they authorize should be given access to such things as the content of their emails, the people to whom they are sending emails, the place where they are when they are online, and the content of the files they download," the Pew researchers said.

Companies try to duck

The rising tide of consumer resistance, often bordering on outrage, doesn't seem to be making an impression on companies, which are trying to find ways to hide their surveillance activities rather than cutting back on them.

After conducting its study that found 57% of consumers concerned about their online privacy, Annalect, a market research company, said it would "continue to evolve how we measure and triangulate consumer consumption patterns."

Adam Gitlin, global managing director for digital analytics at Annalect's data group, told Online Media Daily his company was "looking at all possibilities" for tracking people without cookies.

Some industry executives have been talking about "device fingerprinting," a method of tracking people by keeping track of the characteristics associated with their computers. 

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Study: Walgreens prices vary widely from store to store

Choosing the "wrong" Walgreens could cost shoppers 55% more

Buyer Beware:  Walgreens Prices All Over the MapPrices Vary More at Walgreens than Competitors; Choosing the “Wrong” Walgreens Could Cos...

Everyone knows it pays to shop around for prescriptions and other pharamacy items. But while most of us may not think it's necessary to shop around different stores in the same chain, a new study finds that's not always true.

PhotoWalgreens shoppers could be paying too much depending on which location of the chain they choose, with stores in the same market offering the same products for up to 55 percent more, a new study finds.

The study of several markets throughout the country finds that price variation across Walgreens locations was up to five times higher than at Rite Aid and two-and-a-half times higher than CVS. 

The report, released by Change to Win (CtW) Retail Initiatives in partnership with the National Consumers League (NCL), compiles data on a basket of 25 items at 485 CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid locations in Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, New York City, and Orange County, California.  

“Certainly consumers expect different chains to offer different deals,” said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL. “But price variation within a single chain is a wake-up call for consumers, who don’t tend to shop around and compare within a chain. This is a reminder that caveat emptor – let the buyer beware – applies even within the same chain, where prices may vary depending on where you’re shopping.”

All over the map 

Walgreens Sept. 5, 2013, 6:18 p.m.
Consumers rate Walgreens

The study found that Walgreens prices were "all over the map."

"Walgreens stores in a single market were up to five times more likely than a competitor to charge different prices for the same item.  This price variation was not limited to one or two items; researchers encountered storewide price differences at Walgreens at a rate several times higher than the other chains in most markets.

“Price variation isn’t fair to consumers, who need their dollars to stretch in a tough economy and deserve to get the best price available, regardless of which Walgreens they happen to walk into,” said Nell Geiser, Research Director of CtW Retail Initiatives.

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Samsung's new TV lets two people watch different shows at the same time

Viewers use special glasses to see programs on the curved OLED screen

So yesterday, it was Samsung's new watch-phone that was the latest and greatest. But today, well, that's so yesterday. Because today, the big gasp com...

PhotoSo yesterday, it was Samsung's new watch-phone that was the latest and greatest. But today, well, that's so yesterday. Because today, the big gasp comes from Samsung's new TV that lets two people watch different shows at the same time.

It's called the Samsung S9C and it features a 55-inch curved screen that creates what Samsung says in a "cinema experience in their living room." It all works courtesy of an OLED screen that displays two images at once in full HD video. OLED is a new way of displaying an image on a screen and is considered the technology that's most likely to replace liquid-crystal display (LCD) TVs, which is what most of us have scattered around the house.

LG introduced a 55-inch OLED TV in February, but minus the two-in-one feature. 

To use the two-shows/one-screen feature, the viewer wears special glasses -- called "Samsung MultiView" -- to pick up whichever one she wants to watch. Audio is delivered through an earpiece. 

It's priced at about $9,000 in the U.S. 

"Two TVs in one: The first TV that allows two people simultaneously to watch different full-screen programs in full HD and stereo sound," Sony said in a press release. "Your friends and family will love watching two separate shows at the same time both with complete full HD video and sound all on the same TV."

The S9C was unveiled at a press conference at a tech show in Berlin, the same show where Samsung introduced its wrist-phone, the Galaxy Gear yesterday.

Curved screen

PhotoDon't want to watch two shows at once? There's always the plain old S9 OLED, which also features a curved screen, said to make the viewer feel like he's "standing in an area," Samsung said.

OLED screens have several advantages over plain old LED. They're brighter, the color is truer and the blacks are blacker, creating much higher contrast than older screens. They can also be flexible enough to curve.

Samsung also introduced the S9000, which it calls an "Ultra High Definition" TV. It displays eight million pixels, up to four times more than existing HD screens.

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Planning retirement, together

A couple may not be ready to stop working at the same time, for a host of reasons

Chances are you and your spouse do lots of things together and have throughout the time you've been married. If you are close in age you may be thinking of...

PhotoChances are you and your spouse do lots of things together and have throughout the time you've been married. If you are close in age you may be thinking of retiring together.

Good idea? It depends on who you ask. The experts at Investopedia suggest there are emotional, as well as financial reasons couples shouldn't end their careers at the same time. Financially, it may benefit the couple if one person works longer. It increases the amount of Social Security benefits they are entitled to receive as a unit. 

Emotionally, joint retirement means two people who have led separate lives during the workday wake up one morning and find they are together the whole day. Sometimes, that can be a bit of an adjustment.

Learning to live with one another

Earlier this year a British study found that when a couple retired at the same time it put a strain on their relationship. Eighty percent confessed they didn't have any of the same hobbies or interests and 40% admitted they had to learn how to live with each other again. 

"It is easy to believe that, when couples reach retirement, they might encounter all sorts of problems with their relationship,” said Stacey Stothard, Corporate Communications Manager at Skipton Building Society, which conducted the research. “For the previous 30 or 40 years, they will have been set in a routine – going out to work, juggling looking after the children and pursuing their individual interests. Day to day, they might only have had an hour or two of quality time together, with the rest of their day allocated to other commitments. Suddenly, when faced with the prospect of spending 24 hours a day together, seven days a week, without work or the children to talk about, couples can find it hard to adjust."

The adjustment may be made easier with some planning. Planning for retirement, after all, isn't all about dollars and sense. Timing, and the interaction between two individuals, is a big part of it.

Similar to becoming parents

Photo“The transition into retirement, in some ways, is like the transition into parenthood,” said Angela Curl, an assistant professor in the University of Missouri (MU) School of Social Work. “When couples prepare to become parents, they do a lot of planning for the future. They spend time thinking, ‘How might our relationship change? How will our lives be different, and what do we need to do to accommodate this life change?’ It’s the same way with retirement. It affects so many different areas of life, and by preplanning, couples can make retirement a more positive experience.” 

Curl examined data from the Health and Retirement Study, which included information from married couples who were 45 years of age and older and worked full or part time. She discovered that when one spouse planned, the other spouse also planned. Even though husbands planned more often than wives, the spouses influenced each other. She also was able to separate myth from reality.

Get real

“On commercials, retirement is portrayed as a life of golfing, relaxing or walking along beaches together,” Curl said. “Sometimes individuals have unrealistic expectations about what retirement will be like. Individuals can envision retirement one way, but if their spouses don’t envision retirement the same way, it can be problematic. Talking to your spouse about retirement before you leave the workforce is important in reducing conflict.”

Curl found that upper income men tended to be most active when it comes to planning for a retirement, both in terms on finances and the social transitioning out of the workforce. She thinks employers can do a better job of helping women and minorities plan for successful retirements.

“Individuals need to plan for retirement in more concrete ways. If individuals want to volunteer when they’re retired, they might ask themselves where and how often they will volunteer. Having specific plans and steps to follow will help individuals enter retirement with more success.”

And talking with your spouse about your retirement plans – and theirs – may also increase the chances for a successful retirement, both financially and emotionally.

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Job cuts rise sharply in August

It's the highest level since February

Pink slips were flying in August as employers announced plans in August to cut payrolls by 50,462. That's an increase of 33.8% from the 37,701 planned job ...

PhotoPink slips were flying in August as employers announced plans to cut payrolls by 50,462. That's an increase of 33.8% from the 37,701 planned job cuts announced a month earlier.

According to outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc, the August level was also 57%t higher than a year ago, when employers said they would reduce payrolls by 32,239. It's the third straight month in which job cuts outpaced the comparable period from 2012.

The largest job-cut month so far this year is February, when announced terminations reached 55,356. Employers have now announced 347,095 job cuts so far this year, virtually matching the 352,185 announced from January through August 2012.

Where they cut

August workforce reductions were dominated by the industrial goods sector, where manufacturers announced 22,162 job cuts. That's the largest job-cut total for this sector since January 2009, when 32,083 planned reductions were announced. It's also the largest one-month job-cut total for a single industry category this year and nearly surpasses the 26,103 job cuts announced by industrial goods manufacturers in all of 2012.

“Heavy job cuts in the industrial goods sector are never a good thing, as they can be indicative of widening cracks in the economy’s foundation,”said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “However, the August surge in industrial goods job cuts was driven largely by falling global demand for mining equipment. While that definitely has an impact on the economy, it is not as worrisome as an overall slowdown in construction or manufacturing.”

Well below the more than 22,000 job cuts announced in the industrial goods sector, the second-ranked computer sector announced 4,663 job cuts in August -- a surge of 194% from 1,587 jobs cut in July. To date, the computer sector has announced 26,180 job cuts, down 30% from 37,670 recorded through eight months of 2012.

The financial sector remains the top job-cutting industry year-to-date, with 41,942 reductions as of August. That eight-month total is 56% higher than the 26,887 financial sector job cuts announced by this point a year ago.

Jobless claims

Looking at more immediate figures, first-time applications for state jobless benefits fell by 9,000 in the week ending August 31 to a seasonally adjusted total of 323,000. The government says no seasonal factors from the Labor Day holiday affected the data.

The 4-week moving average, which smooths out thew weekly volatility and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 328,500 -- down 3,000 from the previous week. It's the first time the moving average has dipped below 330,000 since October 2007, a clear indication, analysts say, that the labor market is improving.

The complete report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Kids are back in school and that requires extra caution on the roads

An average of 17 school-age children die in school transportation-related crashes each year

If you haven't noticed, the yellow buses are back on the road -- and that means kids are back in school. That often means an increase in road travel and sh...

PhotoIf you haven't noticed, the yellow buses are back on the road -- and that means kids are back in school. That often means an increase in road travel and shifting traffic patterns shift, so this time of year -- along with being busy -- can also be a dangerous one, especially for children.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics, more school-age pedestrians have been killed between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. than any other times of day.

So, as kids walk, ride bikes or take a school bus or public transportation to and from school, NHTSA reminds parents and students of safe transportation practices to ensure a safe journey to and from school.

What to do

School Bus

School buses are the safest mode of transportation for getting children back and forth to school. Even so, kids need to be especially careful around the school bus "danger zone" -- 10 feet in front, 10 feet behind, and on each side of the bus. Kids should:

  • Wait five giant steps from the road and when the school bus arrives, wait until the driver says to board.
  • When boarding the school bus, quickly find a seat, sit facing the front and do what the school bus driver says to do.
  • When exiting the bus, look out for cars. When off the bus, take 5 giant steps from the school bus.
  • Look left-right-left to make sure no cars are coming and wait for the driver to signal it's safe to cross.

Walking

Pedestrians NHTSA recommend that kids 10 years old and younger be accompanied by an adult or young adult to and from school. Kids should:

  • Walk on the sidewalk and if there is none, walk facing traffic.
  • Not push or shove others when you walk.
  • When crossing the street, look left-right-left for cars. Do not cross if a car is coming and use a crosswalk if available.

Biking

The two best protections when biking to and from school are a properly fitted bicycle helmet and a good grasp of traffic safety rules. Kids should:

  • Always wear a helmet and make sure to buckle the chin strap.
  • Ride along streets with low traffic volume and at lower speeds.
  • Always ride in the same direction as traffic, and stop at all stop signs and signals.
  • Never use headphones or cell phones while riding.

Car

  • Children should always ride in the back seat. Children in the front seat are 40% more likely to be injured in crashes.

One last tip: whether walking, biking or driving, stay completely focused on the road and put your cell phone away.

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Insurers use unfair, discriminatory pricing system to drive up rates, group charges

Consumer Federation says the practice is illegal in every state yet commonplace among large firms

A nationwide consumer organization says auto insurance companies are using unfair and illegal tactics to jack up premiums. The Consumer Federation of Ameri...

PhotoA nationwide consumer organization says auto insurance companies are using unfair and illegal tactics to jack up premiums. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is calling on state insurance commissioners to order the practice -- called "Price Optimization" -- halted immediately.

Half of large auto insurance companies report that they use the technique to increase premiums on certain customers despite no increase in risk associated with those policyholders, according to a study by Earnix, an industry consulting firm, a practice that CFA said "invariably and unquestionably leads to unfair discrimination and illegal rates."

"Price Optimization is nothing less than the rejection of actuarial standards for the sake of increased profits and at the expense of unwitting policyholders," said CFA's Director of Insurance J. Robert Hunter in a letter to state insurance commissioners last week

The Earnix study found that 45 percent of insurers with more than $1 billion in annual auto insurance premiums use Price Optimization techniques. The firm's website explains that the rise of these non-actuarial pricing mechanisms is because "traditional ratemaking based on risk and cost is no longer sufficient."

Customers must have insurance

Photo
CFA's Bob Hunter

Laws in every state require that insurance companies abide by actuarial standards in setting rates and premiums and prohibit the kind of discrimination upon which Price Optimization relies. CFA's Hunter, a former Texas insurance commissioner, notes that auto insurance is not like other products in the marketplace, where customers can be very price-sensitive.

"It's the law of the land that you must buy auto insurance. Those who don't buy it risk getting fined, losing their car or even serving jail time in some states," Hunter said. "With Price Optimization, insurance companies exploit the law by demanding higher prices from customers required to buy their product. But they're not only exploiting the law, they're also breaking it."

Under Price Optimization, after premiums are established using risk-based ratemaking methods, the prices are adjusted within rating segments based on such factors as market conditions for that segment.

If a segment of the population is unlikely to switch companies if prices go up more, the prices are raised to the “optimum” level for that group. Thus, two policyholders with identical risks as determined by cost-based methods would pay different prices for the same policy. “This is classic unfair discrimination and is illegal in every state,” said Hunter.

CFA's letter to state regulators highlights the particularly harmful effect the practice has on lower income drivers. Research shows that poorer consumers do not compare prices for services such as insurance as often as wealthier consumers. Since Price Optimization uses market analysis to segment customers based on price elasticity, lower income consumers become immediate targets for unnecessary rate hikes.

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Are you eligible for student loan forgiveness?

If you are, the government is encouraging you to take advantage of it

The toll of student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and is a growing cause f...

PhotoThe toll of student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and is a growing cause for concern among economists and policymakers.

The concern is potential default, creating a wave of repercussions that could set off a new credit crisis, potentially worse than the one created by the foreclosure tsunami. Many former students still paying off their student loan balances work in public service jobs that typically have low salaries. Congress has approved measures to forgive some debt for these consumers but the programs have not been well publicized.

The CFPB is trying to raise awareness, creating a toolkit to offer practical advice to public sector employers and employees, advising that an early start can make the difference of thousands of dollars. 

By CFPB estimates, as many as 25% of U.S. workers may be eligible for some form of student debt forgiveness. Eligible employees work for government agencies or non-profits and include teachers, librarians, first responders and some healthcare professionals.

Mired in debt

“Our young people should not be mired in debt because they stir themselves to the call of public service. They deserve to know all their options,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Our toolkit and pledge can be a win-win for employers, the public they serve, and their employees who are facing student debt loads that are imposing unprecedented burdens upon this generation.”

To qualify for the forgiveness program, your loans much be federal, and a certain kind of federal, and cannot be private. Second, you must make 120 qualifying payments on those loans while employed full time by certain public service employers. That's 10 years of payments while working in the public sector.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, only loans you received under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program are eligible for this program. Loans you received under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, the Federal Perkins Loan (Perkins Loan) Program, or any other student loan program are not eligible.

Consolidation possible

PhotoHowever, your FFEL or Perkins loans may be consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan to gain eligibility. But only payments you make on the new Direct Consolidation Loan will count toward the required 120 qualifying payments for loan forgiveness. Payments made on your FFEL Program or Perkins Loan Program loans before you consolidated them, even if they were made under a qualifying repayment plan, do not count.

Even with these limitations, the CFPB believes millions could benefit if they only were aware of the program. It's reaching out to public sector employers first, urging them to inform their employees about their options.

The toolkit provides a guide for employers to assist their employees with verifying their eligibility and steps they need to take to qualify. Meanwhile, some in Congress are promoting additional legislation to ease the debt burden on college graduates.

Something more?

Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) is calling for a new federal student loan repayment system that would alleviate the financial burden on college graduates as they begin their careers.

“By creating an equitable system to ease student loan debt we can lessen the financial impact on the next generation while jumpstarting the economy, creating jobs and promoting financial responsibility for higher education,” Bass said in a post on her website. 

She's backing the Student Loan Fairness Act. a combination of two bills that died in the 112th Congress – The Student Loan Forgiveness Act (H.R. 4170) and The Graduate Success Act (H.R. 5895). The new bill would establish a new 10-10 standard for student loan repayment. In the “10-10” plan, an individual would be required to make ten years of payments at 10% of their discretionary income, after which, their remaining federal student loan debt would be forgiven.

American Student Assistance, a non-profit, is also heavily involved in promoting ways for graduates to shed some of their student loan debt. The group recently published “60 Ways to Get Rid of Your Students Loans Without Paying Them,” a title that may stir more interest than the CFPB's toolkit.

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The pension vs. 401(k) debate

Despite the argument, the pension appears to be fading away

Many Baby Boomers who began their careers in the 1970s were enrolled in what is known as a “defined-benefit” pension plan.If you began your c...

PhotoMany Baby Boomers who began their careers in the 1970s were enrolled in what is known as a “defined-benefit” pension plan.

If you began your career in the 1990s or later, chances are there was no mention of a pension when you started your job. Rather, the HR manager probably gave you forms for the company's 401(k) plan.

There is a big difference between the two and heated arguments over which is better. A pension is a lot like Social Security. The employee pays in a set amount – or has a set amount paid in her behalf – and then when she retires she receives a defined payment as long as she lives.

With a 401(k) plan, the employee pays a set amount of his earnings each month into a tax-deferred savings plan. The company may or may not match the amount. The money is invested in equities – usually mutual funds – that hopefully grow over time, providing the beneficiary significant retirement savings.

Employers favor 401(k) plans

It's no secret that large employers prefer the 401(k) over pensions. Some high-profile companies that have declared bankruptcy in recent years have cited pension obligations as one reason for their financial difficulty.

Companies and municipalities that still have pensions have struggled in recent years to keep them adequately funded. Pensions are required to maintain certain levels of liquidity to meet current and future obligations. When cutbacks result in fewer employees contributing, it can lead to a shortfall, or what is known as unfunded or under-funded pension liabilities.

A 2012 study by Morningstar found that 21 state governments reported pension funding ratios that fell below 70%, which the analyst firm considers the threshold for a fiscally-sound pension system.

So a 401(k) system, which gives the employee a greater degree of control, is the answer, right? Not everyone agrees. A paper from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), an independent, nonprofit think tank, makes the claim that the movement to 401(k) plans has left the vast majority of Americans unprepared for retirement. 

Not a pension replacement

Photo“401(k)s were never designed to replace pensions for most workers,” said EPI economist Monique Morrissey, co-author of the paper. “They serve primarily as a tax shelter for high earners. The 401(k) revolution has been a disaster, yet some policymakers are calling for cuts to Social Security, which will be the only significant source of retirement income for most Americans -— if they are able to retire in the first place.”

The EPI paper says wage earners in the top 20% accounted for 72% of total savings in retirement accounts in 2010. They were the only income group that had more than their annual income saved in these accounts.

At the same time, Morrissey says participation in employer-based retirement plans by workers age 25-61 declined over the past decade, from 52% in 2000 to 45% in 2010.

Not cut-and-dried

But another group, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), says the answer is not so cut-and-dried. Its detailed analysis finds there is no single answer because it says many factors affect the ultimate outcome: interest rates and investment returns; the level and length of participation; an individual’s age, job tenure, and remaining length of time in the work force; and the purchase price of an annuity, among other things. 

But all things considered, it says it tends to lean toward the 401(k).

“If historical rates of return are assumed, as well as annuity purchase prices reflecting average bond rates over the last 27 years, and real-life job tenure experience, EBRI’s modeling results show a strong advantage for voluntary-enrollment 401(k) plans over both the final-average defined benefit plans and cash balance plans,” said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and author of the study.

However, by reducing the assumed returns of a voluntary plan, EBRI concedes these plans can lose their comparative advantage, particularly among lower-paid employees.

Morrissey maintains retirement disparities have grown because the tax policies governing retirement accounts favor high income families and because many 401(k) participants cannot afford to contribute enough to their plans. By contrast, she says most workers in defined-benefit pensions are automatically enrolled and, in the private sector, are not required to contribute to these plans.

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Samsung introduces its watch-phone, the Galaxy Gear

The $299 "wearable" device undercuts Google Glass and beats Apple to market

Galaxy Note 3 & Galaxy Gear (Samsung photo)Apple likes to accuse Samsung of making copycat products, but today Samsung unveiled its "smartwatch," t...

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Galaxy Note 3 & Galaxy Gear (Samsung photo)

Apple likes to accuse Samsung of making copycat products, but today Samsung unveiled its "smartwatch," the Galaxy Gear, at a Berlin trade show while Apple has yet to introduce its rumored equivalent device.

Samsung may also be putting the arm on Google, which has been promoting its eyeglass-like Google Glass product for months but is not yet making it available for purchase by the non-technorati-elite. Sony also has a smartwatch though it hasn't attracted much attention in the U.S. 

Samsung says the Gear will go on sale as early as this month and will be priced at $299.

Not a stand-alone

But while Samsung has stunned the industry with its speed in getting new products to market, some may be disappointed with the relatively limited functionality of the Galaxy Gear. The company says it won't be a stand-alone device, but will instead work as a companion device to Samsung's Galaxy Note 3, a new smartphone-tablet the company also announced today. It's not compatible with the Galaxy S4 smartphone, Samsung's current flagship phone.

The Gear has a relatively small screen and doesn't yet have the bendable display that had been rumored, although Samsung is known to be working on a flexible display.

The Gear's built-in speaker does, however, allow users to conduct hands-free calls directly from the Gear.

"For example, a user leaving the grocery store, whose hands are full with shopping bags, could still make a call by speaking into the Galaxy Gear without touching the screen. Users can also draft messages, create new calendar entries, set alarms, and check the weather on the Galaxy Gear with S Voice," a feature similar to Apple's Siri, the company said in a news release.

Easier and more enjoyable

“Samsung’s ongoing smart device innovation leadership reflects our commitment to listen to our consumers, who want their daily lives to be easier and more enjoyable. Samsung Galaxy Gear benefits consumers by integrating smart device technology even deeper into their everyday lives, and bridges the gap between the mobile device and fashion worlds to create truly wearable technology,” said JK Shin, CEO and President of IT & Mobile Division, Samsung Electronics.

“Samsung Galaxy Gear frees users from the need to constantly check their smart devices while maintaining connections. It provides what we call ‘smart freedom,’ by allowing users to choose how, why, when and where they are connected,” Shin said.

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"Clean living" may contribute to Alzheimer's

Cambridge study lends support to the "hygiene hypothesis"

Too much clean living may be contributing to a surge in cases of Alzheimer’s disease in developed countries, experts believe.Scientists have linked...

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Dr. Molly Fox charts the incidence of Alzheimer's and sanitation (Source: Cambridge University)

It's been suggested before and now British researchers have taken a closer look at evidence that there may be such a thing as being too clean.

Cambridge University researchers say they have found a “very significant” relationship between a nation’s wealth and hygiene and the Alzheimer’s “burden” on its population. High-income, highly industrialized countries with large urban areas and better hygiene exhibit much higher rates of Alzheimer’s.

The theory is that greatly reduced contact with bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms can lead to problems with immune development and an increased risk of dementia.

Using "age-standardized" data -- which predict Alzheimer’s rates if all countries had the same population birth rate, life expectancy and age structure -- the study found strong correlations between national sanitation levels and Alzheimer’s.

Hygiene hypothesis

This latest study adds further weight to the “hygiene hypothesis,” suggesting that sanitized environments may cause the immune system to develop poorly, exposing the brain to the inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which s