Current Events in September 2013

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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 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

    “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.

    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...

    Job cuts rise sharply in August

    It's the highest level since February

    Pink 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.

    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 ...

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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 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.

      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...

      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 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

      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.

      A nationwide consumer organization says auto insurance companies are using unfair and illegal tactics to jack up premiums. The Consumer Federation of Ameri...

      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 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

      However, 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.

      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...

      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 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

      “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.

      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...

      Samsung introduces its watch-phone, the Galaxy Gear

      The $299 "wearable" device undercuts Google Glass and beats Apple to market

      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.

      Galaxy Note 3 & Galaxy Gear (Samsung photo)Apple likes to accuse Samsung of making copycat products, but today Samsung unveiled its "smartwatch," t...

      "Clean living" may contribute to Alzheimer's

      Cambridge study lends support to the "hygiene hypothesis"

      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 suggests a relationship between cleaner environments and a higher risk of certain allergies and autoimmune diseases, is well- established. We believe we can now add Alzheimer’s to this list of diseases,” said Dr. Molly Fox, lead author of the study and Gates Cambridge Alumna, who conducted the research at Cambridge’s Biological Anthropology division.

      The researchers tested whether “pathogen prevalence” can explain the levels of variation in Alzheimer’s rates across 192 countries.

      After adjusting for differences in population age structures, the study found that countries with higher levels of sanitation had higher rates of Alzheimer’s. For example, countries where all people have access to clean drinking water, such as the UK and France, have 9% higher Alzheimer’s rates than countries where less than half have access, such as Kenya and Cambodia.

      Countries that have much lower rates of infectious disease, such as Switzerland and Iceland, have 12% higher rates of Alzheimer’s compared with countries with high rates of infectious disease, such as China and Ghana.

      Previous research has shown that in the developed world, dementia rates doubled every 5.8 years compared with 6.7 years in low income, developing countries; and that Alzheimer’s prevalence in Latin America, China and India are all lower than in Europe, and, within those regions, lower in rural compared with urban settings -- supporting the new study’s findings.

      The results of the study appear in journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health.

      Too much clean living may be contributing to a surge in cases of Alzheimer’s disease in developed countries, experts believe.Scientists have linked...

      Chobani withdraws some of its yogurt from store shelves

      A mold was causing a weird taste and making containers swell and bloat

      "Fizzy" yogurt that tastes like wine? Yogurt containers that look swelled or bloated? What could it be?

      Chobani, which started pulling some of its Greek yogurt from stores after the complaints surfaced, says it has investigated and found the problem to be a type of mold that is commonly found in dairies.

      The company has been working with retailers to remove and replace containers with the code 16-012 and expiration dates Sept. 11 to Oct. 7.

      Chobani, founded in 2005, says it uses only high-quality, natural ingredients, and says the misbehaving yogurt representes less than five percent of its total production and says all of the affected products came from its Idaho facility.

      Greek yogurt has 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.

      Chobani said the mold did not present a safety issue.

      "Fizzy" yogurt that tastes like wine? Yogurt containers that look swelled or bloated? What could it be?Chobani, which started pulling some of its Greek y...

      Operations of alleged phony payday loan broker halted

      Consumers are said to have lost millions after being promised help in finding loan

      Everybody needs a little help now and then, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says people weren't getting it from a Tampa, Florida-based operation that promised to help them get payday loans. Instead of loans, the FTC charges, the defendants used consumers’ personal financial information to debit their bank accounts in increments of $30 without their authorization.

      The defendants, which claimed to be affiliated with a network of 120 potential payday lenders, misrepresented that 80% of applicants got loans in as little as one hour, according to the FTC.

      Acting at the request of the FTC, a U.S. district court ordered the defendants’ assets frozen to preserve the possibility of providing redress to consumers.

      “Repeatedly, we’ve seen situations where consumers provide sensitive financial information when inquiring about a payday loan online, and that information falls into the wrong hands,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC is committed to shutting down these fraudulent operations.”

      Information gathering

      The FTC claims that defendants Sean C. Mulrooney and Odafe Stephen Ogaga and five companies they controlled used websites with the names Vantage Funding, Ideal Advance, Loan Assistance Company, Palm Loan Advances, Loan Tree Advances, Pacific Advances, and Your Loan Funding to collect consumers’ names, Social Security numbers, bank routing numbers, and bank account numbers, which allowed them to access consumers’ checking accounts.

      They also obtained other consumers’ financial information by paying more than $500,000 to third parties, and debited those consumers’ accounts without authorization as well, according to documents filed with the court. In all, the defendants victimized tens of thousands of consumers, taking more than $5 million from their bank accounts.

      Many of the victims were in difficult financial straits to begin with, and as an added insult, often began receiving harassing telemarketing and debt collection calls shortly after the defendants made their unauthorized withdrawals, according to the FTC.

      Consumers who complained to Defendants’ Philippines-based customer service agents were frequently offered refunds and $100 gasoline vouchers that never materialized, according to the FTC.

      Mulrooney and Ogaga apparently used proceeds from their allegedly illegal scheme to finance a lavish lifestyle. Mulrooney is the registered owner of a 2012 Maserati GranTurismo, while Ogaga owns a 2011 Rolls Royce Ghost and a 2006 Ferrari 430, according to documents filed with the court.

      Payday fraud cases

      This is the FTC’s third recent case involving allegedly fraudulent online payday-loan-related operations, and the first one in which the defendants claimed to broker payday loans. In two previous cases, American Credit Crunchers, LLC and Broadway Global Master Inc., the defendants allegedly attempted to collect on payday loan debts that either did not exist or weren’t owed to them.

      The complaint charges the defendants with violating the Federal Trade Commission Act by using unfair billing practices, and by misrepresenting that they will help consumers find a payday loan and use their personal and financial information to get the loan. The complaint also alleges that the defendants untruthfully claim four of five consumers who applied were approved for a payday loan.

      In addition to Mulrooney and Ogaga, the Vantage Funding complaint names Caprice Marketing LLC; Nuvue Partners LLC; Capital Advance LLC; Loan Assistance Company LLC; and Ilife Funding, LLC, formerly known as Guaranteed Funding Partners LLC.

      Everybody needs a little help now and then, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says people weren't getting it from a Tampa, Florida-based operation th...

      Furnishers get guidelines for investigating consumer credit report disputes

      You have the right to know that your dispute is being handled properly

      Furnishers, companies that supply information to consumer reporting companies, got the word that they have an important role in handling consumer disputes.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has put out a bulletin  stressing that, under the law, these companies,are responsible for investigating consumer disputes forwarded by the consumer reporting companies. They also are responsible for reviewing all relevant information provided with the disputes -- including documents submitted by consumers.

      “Credit reports play a critical role in the lives of consumers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Given the importance of these reports, consumers need to know that their documents are being reviewed when they dispute what they believe is a mistake on a report.

      Filing disputes

      Consumers may file a dispute with a consumer reporting company about an item on their credit report. When that happens, the consumer reporting company ordinarily must inform the furnisher that the consumer has filed a dispute.

      The consumer reporting company is also required to forward all relevant information it has about the dispute to the furnisher. Once the furnisher receives the information, it must review it, conduct an investigation and respond to the consumer reporting company.

      An electronic system, known as “e-OSCAR,” is used by the three largest nationwide consumer reporting companies -- Equifax Information Services LLC, TransUnion LLC and Experian Information Solutions, Inc. -- to send information relating to consumer disputes to furnishers. In a December 2012 report, the CFPB highlighted the fact that the “e-OSCAR” system did not provide a means for credit reporting companies to forward to furnishers any documents submitted by consumers.

      That has changed. The “e-OSCAR” system has been upgraded so that the three companies can now send furnishers any relevant dispute documents mailed in by consumers.

      Furnisher actions

      The bulletin details expectations of how furnishers should comply with the requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, particularly with respect to investigations of consumer disputes they receive from consumer reporting companies. It specifically addresses furnishers’ obligation to review all relevant dispute information provided by the consumer reporting companies.

      The CFPB expects each furnisher to fulfill its legal obligations by:

      • Receiving information and investigating disputes: When a consumer files a dispute about a credit report item, companies need to be able to receive information about the dispute and must investigate the consumer’s concerns.
      • Providing investigation results: Furnishers must report the results of the investigation to the consumer reporting company that sent the dispute originally.
      • Correcting inaccurate information: Furnishers are required to report the results of the investigation to nationwide consumer reporting companies if those companies may have received inaccurate or incomplete credit information. Furnishers also have to modify, delete, or permanently block disputed information that is incomplete, inaccurate, or cannot be verified.

      If the CFPB determines that a furnisher has engaged in any acts or practices that violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act or other federal consumer financial laws, it will take appropriate supervisory and enforcement actions.

      What to do

      The CFPB accepts consumer complaints about credit reporting. If a consumer is dissatisfied with the resolution of a dispute with a consumer reporting company or if the consumer reporting company does not respond, consumers can submit a complaint with the bureau.

      To submit a complaint, consumers can:

      • Go online at www.consumerfinance.gov/Complaint
      • Call the toll-free phone number at 1-855-411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at 1-855-729-CFPB (2372)
      • Fax the CFPB at 1-855-237-2392
      • Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244

      Furnishers, companies that supply information to consumer reporting companies, got the word that they have an important role in handling consumer disputes...

      Home prices climb again in July

      Hardest hit areas are leading the way

      The latest Home Price Index (HPI) report released by CoreLogic suggests there's no end in sight to the increase in home prices.

      Home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- shot up 12.4% in July from the same month a year ago. That marks the 17th consecutive monthly year-over-year increase in home prices nationally. On a monthly basis, prices in July rose 1.8% from the previous month.

      Distressed sales include short sales and real estate owned (REO) transactions

      When distressed sales are taken out of the mix, prices a year-over-year basis were up 11.4% in July and -- on a month-over-month basis -- prices posted an increase of 1.7% in July 2013.

      "Home prices continue to climb across the nation in July with markets hit hardest during the downturn leading the way," said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. "Nationally, home prices are now within 18 percent of their peak levels reached in April of 2006."

      Report highlights

      The CoreLogic HPI report also found:

      • Including distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were: Nevada (+27%), California (+23.2%), Arizona (+17%), Wyoming (+16.4%) and Oregon (+15%).
      • Including distressed sales, this month only one state posted home price depreciation: Delaware (-1.3%).
      • Excluding distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were: Nevada (+24.2%), California (+20.2%), Arizona (+14.9%), Utah (+13.5%) and Florida (+13.5%).
      • Excluding distressed sales, no states posted home price depreciation in July.
      • Of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population, 99 were showing year-over-year increases in July, the same as in June.

      Looking ahead

      The CoreLogic Pending HPI indicates that August 2013 home prices -- including distressed sales -- will rise by 12.3% on a year-over-year basis from August 2012 and by 0.4% on a month-over-month basis from July. Excluding distressed sales, August 2013 home prices are poised to rise 12.2% year over year from August 2012 and by 1.2% month over month.

      "Home prices continued to surge in July," said Dr. Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. "Looking ahead to the second half of the year, price growth is expected to slow as seasonal demand wanes and higher mortgage rates have a marginal impact on home purchase demand."

      Mortgage applications

      Mortgage applications rose last week for the first time in a month.

      According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending August 30, applications were up 1.3% from the previous week.

      The Refinance Index, meanwhile, was up 2%. That put the refinance share of mortgage activity increased at 61% -- up 1% from the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity fell to 7%, while the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) share of refinance applications increased to 38%, up 3 % from the week before and the highest since MBA started tracking it in early 2012.

      Interest rates

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased to 4.73% from 4.80% 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 4.71% from 4.78% for 80%. The effective rate decreased from last week. This is the second consecutive week that the 30-year fixed interest rate for jumbo loans has been lower than the 30-year fixed rate for conforming loans.

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA decreased to 4.48% from 4.52% for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.75% from 3.84% for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs decreased to 3.49% from 3.50% for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

      The latest Home Price Index (HPI) report released by CoreLogic suggests there's no end in sight to the increase in home prices. Home prices nationwide --...

      Options for learning a second language

      It could make sense, both economically and mentally

      In the global economy, speaking more than one language can be a big advantage. It can be a valuable asset in getting a job, maybe more than going back to school to acquire a degree.

      Like any form of education, however, it requires an investment of time, effort and expense. What's the best way to acquire this skill? That's a matter of opinion and may be different for different individuals. Everyone has his or her own way of learning.

      However, there are several ways to go about acquiring new language skills. One of the oldest providers of language education is Berlitz, which has been teaching people second languages for well over 100 years.

      Headquartered in Princeton, N.J., the company, founded in 1878, has more than 550 company-owned and franchise locations in 70 countries. Berlitz pioneered the direct method of teaching language, rather than relying on translation and grammar usage. It focuses on helping students learn to communicate first, with grammatical tools learned later, once the student has acquired basic communication skills.

      Classroom and online

      Berlitz provides both classroom instruction and online learning. The company operates learning centers throughout the U.S. and provides this tool to help consumers find the one nearest to their location. 

      The Berlitz Virtual Classroom is an Internet platform for distance learning. It offers instruction in more than 50 languages.

      Rosetta Stone is another option. It consists of a software package that uses images, text, sound and video to teach a new language. It repeats words and phrases over and over, emphasizing repetition to help users learn. It calls its approach “Dynamic Immersion.”

      In a typical exercise the user links the spoken word or text to several images, creating an association. It's an interactive system, requiring the student to choose images that correlate to the word or phrase they have just seen or heard.

      The lessons wrap up with a review of what has been covered and an evaluation of the student's progress.

      College courses

      A third option is to take a formal college course in the language. If you happen to already be enrolled in college, chances are you already have a language requirement toward your degree. If you are not enrolled in school, you might find a nearby college that offers language courses as part of its adult education program.

      Either way, expect to pay several hundred dollars for whatever option you choose. Also expect to put in your time in acquiring this skill. Laura Keen, writing in Forbes, warns that advertisements promising instant results are highly misleading.

      “There is no method that can do that,” Robert DeKeyser, a professor of second language acquisition at the University of Maryland, told Keen. “The only way to learn a language is to make quite a bit of effort on a daily basis.”

      However, learning a new language may well be worth the time, effort and expense, especially for children. Scientists at McGill University and Oxford have recently concluded that the age at which children learn a second language can have a significant bearing on the structure of their adult brain.

      Their study concludes that the pattern of brain development is similar if you learn one or two language from birth. The sooner the language is acquired, the better.

      The study, using MRI imaging, found those who were bi-lingual as young children had a modified structure of the brain, providing neurological dexterity.  

      In the global economy, speaking more than one language can be a big advantage. It can be a valuable asset in getting job, maybe more than going back to sch...

      BillFloat offers consumers short-term loans to pay a bill

      Upstart taking on big banks and payday lenders

      What happens you you are presented with an unexpected expense or you run a little short because you've gone over your budget for the month?

      If you are like a lot of consumers, you are simply late paying the bill or you pay it and it results in an overdraft charge. Or you visit a payday lender and get a small loan at triple-digit interest.

      None of these are very good solutions, which led businessman Ryan Gilbert to co-found a company to make small, short-term loans to consumers and small businesses. Gilbert is CEO of BillFloat, which as the name implies, extends a line of credit for a specific purpose or bill, then makes the payment for the consumer.

      “We believe that a very large segment of those populations – consumers and small businesses – are ignored by mainline financial institutions, in large part because of the high cost of customer acquisition and servicing, as well as the high cost of arriving at a credit decision.”

      Controlling costs

      Gilbert has developed a business model that reduces some of the costs. For example, you may never have heard of BillFloat. That's because the company spends little on marketing. Instead, it has developed relationships with Verizon, AT&T, hundreds of utility companies, insurance companies and all the sorts of businesses you normally pay on a monthly basis.

      “The company that is their biller would tell a consumer that if they need more time to pay this particular bill, they should contact their third-party partner, BillFloat,” Gilbert said. “So it's that relationship with the billers that helps us acquire customers at a very low cost.”

      Gilbert says BillFloats charges a processing fee, usually around $20, and an interest rate that varies by state, but is normally around what you'd pay on a credit card balance. The alternative is often an overdraft fee, which can be around $35, and a hit on your credit score. A visit to your neighborhood payday loan store could get you started on a a lengthy cycle of debt that could end up costing double or triple what you borrowed.

      Gilbert makes clear that while BillFloat may compete for some of the same consumers who would consider a payday loan, it does not let consumers fall into a cycle of debt.

      No cycle of debt

      “We don't allow you to recycle, we don't allow you to refinance,” he said. “If you've taken a loan from us for $100 to pay your mobile phone bill and it's due in 30 days, in 30 days you can't come to us and take out another loan to pay for the previous loan. We're all about paying bills.”

      Gilbert says BillFloat doesn't make the loan unless it believes the customer has the ability to repay the loan. The company doesn't look at pay stubs and it doesn't consider credit scores. Instead, it looks at the consumer's bank account.

      “The way we answer that affordability question is by analyzing our consumers' bank accounts,” Gilbert said. “By understanding who gets paid, when they get paid, how they use the proceeds of their salaries. We develop our own ratios, based on other information we are able to acquire, to answer that key question, can you afford this credit?”

      BillFloat also carefully controls the distribution of funds. It doesn't transfer money to the borrowers' bank account. Rather, it directly pays the bill the consumer says needs to get paid.

      Credit harder to come by

      The company has only been around since 2009 and Gilbert says he thinks it's sorely needed in the marketplace, since the Great Recession has made it harder for both consumers and small businesses to get credit when they need it.

      “Bigger loans have always been the objective of major banks and when it comes to smaller loans, consumers are left to their own devices and to find other solutions,” Gilbert said. “So you are left with a situation where both small businesses and consumers are going to find payday lenders are the most likely candidate for their needs.”

      Gilbert says his company competes with both major banks and payday lenders. Both, he says, have far more access to capital than BillFloat. In January BillFloat turned to venture capitalists for a $21 million infusion of cash, paying quite a bit more for the money than the Federal Reserve charges banks.

      Payday lending banks

      “Wells Fargo, Fifth Third Bank, Regions and others are in the payday lending business themselves,” Gilbert said. “They have short term credit with APRs in the hundreds of percent, yet their cost of funds is only 20 basis points, or 0.02%.”

      Gilbert says he hope consumers who find themselves financially stretched will look into a short-term loan from BillFloat rather than go to a payday lender or rack up overdraft fees.

      “I think that is a very important outcome for a consumer,” he said. “The cost of a late fee or service termination can be very high and our credit option is a viable alternative.”

      What happens you you are presented with an unexpected expense or you run a little short because you've gone over your budget for the month?If you are lik...

      Walmart slashes iPhone, iPad prices as new launches loom

      Microsoft buys Nokia, hoping to force its way into the smartphone market

      Discounts on Apple products are normal at this time of the year, with new launches scheduled for next week. But Walmart has slashed prices even more than usual, marking the 16-gigabyte iPhone 5 down to $98 from its previously-discounted price of $129 -- less than half the usual $200 price on a two-year contract.

      The very latest (for another week anyway) iPad with the ultra-high def Retina display is now priced at $449, the iPad 2 at $349.

      Raising even more eyebrows is Microsoft's $7.2 billion acquisition of Finnish smartphone maker Nokia. The deal "provides Microsoft with the opportunity to extend its service offerings to a far wider group around the world while allowing Nokia's mobile phones to serve as an on-ramp to Windows Phone," the companies said in a joint statement.

      Microsoft has been notably unsuccessful in winning wide adoption of its smartphone software, leaving Apple and Android to divide the market.

      Whether Microsoft is ever able to duplicate the excitement that surrounds the release of new Apple products is debatable. Back in 1995, consumers camped out all night outside software stores to buy Windows 95, Microsoft's first graphical user interface. But 18 years later, it's hard to get anyone very excited about any of Microsoft's new products.

      Nokia is not exactly a trend-setter anymore either, so whether the lash-up with Microsoft produces anything that makes consumers' hearts beat faster remains to be seen.

      Discounts on Apple products are normal at this time of the year, with new launches scheduled for next week. But Walmart has slashed prices even more than u...

      Naked Juice fans may guzzle down a $75 settlement

      A lawsuit challenged the use of phrases such as "100 percent fruit"

      Anyone who drinks a concoction containing broccoli and spinach must be doing so because they expect to reap a health benefit of some kind.

      But since it also contains apple, kiwi, mango, banana and other tasty fruits, Naked Juice's "Green Machine" smoothie is actually delicious, or so we found when we swallowed hard and bravely downed a bottle while navigating the treacherous shoals of the New Jersey Turnpike over the Labor Day.

      See, there really is no limit to the risky research we consumer reporters will take to dig out the naked truth.  

      Naked not transparent

      But delicious just isn't enough for some people and a class action lawsuit claims that Naked Juice is not being sufficiently transparent about what's really in those bottles. The company denies all the claims but has agreed to pay $9 million to settle the case, which could be good news for habitual guzzlers.

      Under terms of the settlement, anyone who bought Naked Juice in the last six years could get up to $75. Full details, including instructions for filing a claim, are at the class-action's website, NakedJuiceClass.com.

      The suit challenged the company's claims of "100 percent juice," "100 percent Fruit," "From Concentrate," "All Natural," "All Natural Fruit," "All Natural Fruit + Boosts" and "Non-GMO. 

      Consumers who bought the beverage between Sept. 27, 2007 and Aug. 19, 2013 can request a claim form electronically or through the mail but must do so by Dec. 17, 2013. 

      Those who bought the beverage and still have proof are entitled to cash payment of up to $75 while those without proof are eligible for up to $45, depending on how much you spent on Naked Juice. 

      The lawsuit claims that the specific smoothies named in the suit  contain ingredients that are not 'All Natural' because they contain GMOs (or Genetically Modified Organisms). Naked Juice, which looks like a cute little garage start-up but is actually owned by PepsiCo, denies all these claims.

      "Our juices and smoothies are made with all-natural fruits and vegetables-with no added sugar and no preservatives," the company said in a statement. "In some products, we also include an added boost of vitamins.  Naked juice and smoothies will continue to be labeled 'non-GMO,' and until there is more detailed regulatory guidance around the word 'natural' -we've chosen not to use 'All Natural' on our packaging."

      Anyone who drinks a concoction containing broccoli and spinach must be doing so because they expect to reap a health benefit of some kind. But since it a...

      Amazon offers Kindle versions of previously purchased print books for $2.99 or less

      It's the latest "bundle" that makes content available in different wrappers

      If you think about it, a book is really not much different from a song, a movie or a newspaper. They're all content embedded in a delivery medium -- paper, vinyl, a CD or a digital file on your hard drive or in the cloud.

      Copyright law generally allows you to make a copy of, let's say, an album you bought in LP form. You can legally play the record and capture the content in a new medium -- a CD or your hard drive. To use plainer language, the printed book is sort of a wrapper for the content created by the author.

      Online giant Amazon already gives you a digital version of any CDs you buy and now it's making a similar offer for its Kindle customers, with a new program called "Kindle Matchbook."

      Matchbook lets you buy the Kindle edition of print books you purchased new from Amazon. Print purchases all the way back to 1995 — when Amazon first opened its online bookstore — will qualify once a publisher enrolls a title in Kindle MatchBook. Amazon said.

      Over 10,000 books will already be available when Kindle MatchBook launches in October, including best sellers like I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and The Hangman’s Daughterby Oliver Pötzsch, with many more titles to be added over time. 

      “If you logged onto your CompuServe account during the Clinton administration and bought a book like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus from Amazon, Kindle MatchBook now makes it possible for that purchase — 18 years later — to be added to your Kindle library at a very low cost,” said Russ Grandinetti, Vice President of Kindle Content. “In addition to being a great new benefit for customers, this is an easy choice for publishers and authors who will now be able to earn more from each book they publish.”

      Amazon said that "bundling" print and digital has been one of the most requested features from customers. With Kindle MatchBook, they can keep their favorite book on their shelf, and have a copy in their digital library for reading.

      Customers can learn more by visiting www.amazon.com/kindlematchbook.

      If you think about it, a book is really not much different from a song, a movie or a newspaper. They're all content embedded in a delivery medium -- paper,...

      Study finds little benefit from aliskiren in preventing heart disease

      Study followed 613 patients, found similar outcomes with aliskiren and a placebo

      In a new study, the drug aliskiren did not slow the development of high blood pressure and coronary artery disease compared to a placebo.

      Aliskiren inhibits the production of renin, an enzyme secreted by the kidneys that can cause tightening of the arteries, which in turn contributes to high blood pressure. But in a study of 613 patients, no significant improvement was seen, according to a study published by JAMA. The study is being released early online to coincide with its presentation at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2013.

      “These findings do not support the use of aliskiren for regression or prevention of progression of coronary atherosclerosis,” the authors conclude.

      No significant difference

      Aliskiren is commonly used in patients who show early signs of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease, in an effort to slow the progression of disease. Guidelines generally recommend reducing blood presure to 140/90.

      Stephen J. Nicholls, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, Adelaide, Australia, and colleagues conducted a study to determine if renin inhibition with aliskiren would slow progression of coronary atherosclerosis in patients whose blood pressure was considered optimally controlled to current treatment targets.

      The randomized, multicenter trial compared aliskiren with placebo in 613 participants with coronary artery disease, systolic blood pressure between 125 and 139 mm Hg (prehypertension range), and 2 additional cardiovascular risk factors. The trial was conducted at 103 academic and community hospitals in Europe, Australia, and North and South America.

      The researchers found that there was no significant difference between the treatment groups. 

      In a related editorial, Jean-Claude Tardif, M.D., and Jean Gregoire, M.D., of the Montreal Heart Institute, Montreal, Canada, comment on the findings and discuss two other trials in which aliskiren was not effective in improving clinical outcomes in patients with cardiovascular disease.

      They suggest that, pending further study, "the role of renin inhibition in this context should be limited."

      "Because aliskiren does reduce blood pressure, perhaps this agent could be reserved for use in patients with coronary disease and hypertension who cannot tolerate ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers,” they suggested.

      What to do

      If you are taking aliskiren, talk with your physician about this study. While it was not shown to prevent the progression of heart disease, aliskiren does reduce high blood pressure. 

      Consumers should never self-diagnose or self-treat based on a single research study or, for that matter, any information they find on the Internet. Only your physician can diagnose and treat illness.

      In a new study, the drug aliskiren did not slow the development of high blood pressure and coronary artery disease compared to a placebo.Aliskiren inhibi...