Current Events in September 2013

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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

    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?

    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. 

    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...

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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 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 Buyrequires 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.

      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.

      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...

      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 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

      According 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

      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.

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

      Fewer toxins found in pregnant women's bloodstreams

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

      California'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.

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

      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 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.

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

      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 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.

      Jobless 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.

      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...

      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, 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.

      The 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.

      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...

      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.

      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.

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

      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 at least it did, until a few years ago…

      The European corn borer has been wreaking havoc on Italy’s corn fields of late. Compounding matters, the feces of this pest provide fodder for a bevy of microscopic fungi which release a lethal natural poison (fumonisin) that can cause permanent neurological damage in a human fetus.

      In spite of this, Tiberio Rabboni, the chairman of one of Italy’s agricultural departments, insisted that only traditional methods be used to fight this plague, never explaining what these methods were exactly. You see, Rabboni has never run a farm; never worked on one, and yet remains a rabid supporter of organic farming.

      Prohibited substances

      Eventually Rabboni would concede that pesticides should probably be used, the problem being that the pesticides approved for use in Europe proved ineffective. So Rabboni finally decided that farmers should resort to using prohibited substances, chemicals that are routinely used here in North America but which are deemed "dangerous" by EU authorities who use the precautionary principle as their guide in all such matters.

      Corn farmers here in North America meanwhile don’t have problems like this. In addition to having a longer list of approved chemicals, we grow genetically-modified (GM) varieties of corn that are resistant to this pesky parasite, resulting in less chemical-use per-acre.

      Back in Italy, things went from bad to worse when a drought struck in 2010. What little corn survived the corn borer produced withered kernels that were very low in starch, rendering them unsuitable for human consumption. In turn, the population of moths grew exponentially, resulting in even more of the lethal pathogens that feed upon their feces.

      But GM crops are banned in Europe, and there was no way Rabboni was going to consider making an exception. Bad corn could simply be fed to pigs instead of humans. And that was that.

      Not even animal feed

      But with concerns still lingering over elevated fumonisin levels, scientists started testing and soon realized that the majority of Italy’s corn wasn’t even acceptable for animal feed. And so Rabboni decided corn would be imported from America to mix with Italy’s toxic corn to bring it down to a level acceptable to feed to animals. That’s right… GM corn, of the very same varieties that Italian farmers are not allowed to grow, imported from America.

      Why not let European farmers just grow this GM corn themselves and avoid these problems in the first place? Amid a firestorm of controversy and accusations of hypocrisy, Rabboni would make yet one more pronouncement on everyone’s behalf. Italy’s seriously-compromised corn harvest would not be cut with healthy GM corn from America. It would all go to energy production instead. Problem solved! Sort of. What were farmers supposed to feed their pigs?

      Rabboni then made his last and most ironic decision: GM corn would indeed be imported from America after all, not to be blended with Italy’s contaminated corn, but simply to be fed directly to Italy’s pigs.

      Italy wound up importing 300 percent more American corn than it had at any other time, and paid triple the price to American farmers while Italian farmers who are not allowed so much as a single GM seed on their farms watched the fruits of their labors go for mere cents on the euro, if they were lucky. Many of their corn harvests were simply destroyed if the amount of energy required to transport them to an electrical-generating facility exceeded the cost of the electricity it would produce.

      The full version of this article is available at The Genetic Literacy Project

      ---

      Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector who worked on contract under the USDA’s National Organic Program. He is a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, The Frontier Centre for Public Policy and Committee For a Constructive Tomorrow, and is the author of "Is it Organic?"

      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...

      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. 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

      Another 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.”

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

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

      Possible three-cent increase on the horizon

      For 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. 

      USPS to increase stamp price and marketing costs...

      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 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.

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

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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 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.

      Public 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.

      "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.  

      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...

      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 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. 

      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...

      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 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

      “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

      Challenger 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.”

      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...