Current Events in September 2013

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    Manhattan mail goes missing for a month

    Post office claims it has no way of knowing who was responsible for mail delivery in August

    A Manhattan man and his roommates have gone over a month now without receiving a single piece of mail from the US post office, yet despite repeated complaints through official USPS channels, the post office’s responses have all boiled down to “Not our problem, buddy.”

    Matthew P. shares a New York City apartment with two roommates, and wrote us to complain that, “from approximately August 5 through September 9, 2013, our apartment did not receive any mail via the USPS.”

    When we spoke to Matthew on Sept. 11 the situation had improved slightly, if you call “getting two unwanted pieces of junk mail” an improvement. However, he has yet to receive any bills he must pay, magazines he subscribes to, or letters which various friends and business associates have mailed him.

    On Sept. 7, one of Matthew’s associates sent him a digital photograph of an envelope which said associate had tried to mail: despite having Matthew’s correct address and sufficient postage affixed to the front, it was still returned to the associate with a yellow label reading, “Return to Sender/Not deliverable as addressed/unable to forward.”

    Armed with this photographic evidence, Matthew promptly sent a complaint email via the USPS website, and got a case number in return. He also called the post office later that day and received a second case number.

    And then ...

    What happened next? The short version is, Matthew got the runaround.

    Here’s the more detailed version: On Sept. 10 he visited the Gracie Station Post Office to lodge a complaint in person, and was told he needed to speak to a supervisor, who’d be available the next morning starting at 8 a.m.

    Matthew arrived next morning at 8:30 and learned he wouldn’t be allowed inside until nine. Once inside he still wasn’t allowed to speak to a supervisor in person, only over the phone. But the supervisor assured him he’d get his mail from that point on.

    Matthew wrote to tell us what happened next: “I asked about my missing mail from the previous month. First, [the supervisor] told me that the mail was missing and that if they do not have it at the post office, they cannot deliver it. I asked about my missing mail from the previous month. When I pressed him on why the mail was marked ‘Not Deliverable as Addressed,’ he told me that my regular mail carrier had been out for three weeks because of an illness in the family. He claimed that he did not know the specific dates, but that the carrier was out from approximately late July through mid-August.”

    But surely the post office has alternate mail carriers to cover for colleagues who are out sick? When Matthew asked, the supervisor said that different carriers covered that route on different days, but there was no way to find out which carrier covered a particular route on a certain day, or who specifically marked Matthew’s letters “Not Deliverable as Addressed,” or why.

    Don't fax us ...

    Consumers rate USPS - Lost Mail

    That’s when Matthew grew frustrated enough to write us, but we had no better luck than Matthew at getting to the bottom of this mystery. Despite having Matthew’s address, case number, personal information and permission to speak on his behalf, the Gracie Station Post Office wouldn’t or couldn’t discuss specifics of Matthew’s case with us.

    They did, however, give us a fax number so Matthew could fax them the same complaint he’d sent us, and the digital photo of the properly addressed and stamped envelope with the yellow “Undeliverable” sticker on it.

    We gave this information to Matthew, and three hours later he emailed us an update: “I did try to fax them my information a couple times, but was having trouble -- the transmission connected, but failed each time with a ‘Transmission Incomplete’ error message. I know that there's not anything wrong with the fax I used, and it wasn't a busy signal, so it seems like there could be a problem on their end [….] I have a bad feeling that they tried the old ‘give them a broken fax number’ trick.”

    Matthew emailed us an image of the fax and we tried sending it, but with the same results.

    Matthew also told us that, shortly after his failed fax attempts, he received a robo-email from the post office, assuring him that, “In order to better serve you, your recently submitted inquiry was forwarded to an office that is better suited to address your needs. It is being investigated and you can expect a reply within 2 to 4 business days.”

    Will the post office deliver the missing mail? Or at least figure out exactly who had responsibility for delivering letters to Matthew’s obscure little corner of central Manhattan throughout the month of August? We’ll keep you posted (pardon the pun).

    Matthew's experience, though frustrating, is far from unique. Our database overflows with consumer complaints about all kinds of problems, including lost mail and mail simply not being delivered. These may sound like the same thing, and maybe they are, but some complaints are about individual letters or packages being lost while others, like Matthew's, are about a failure to deliver any mail at all for extended periods of time.

    A Manhattan man and his roommates have gone over a month now without receiving a single piece of mail from the US post office, yet despite repeated complai...

    Realtors: housing market getting back to normal

    Supply is catching up with demand, analysts say

    Home prices are up, which is good news for homeowners hoping to regain some of their equity lost when the housing market plunged five years ago. But much of the upward price movement had to do with supply, not demand.

    For the last couple of years there have been fewer homes on the market. The initial glut caused by foreclosures quickly dried up when banks slowed their seizure of homes in default. People who owed more than their home was worth couldn't afford to sell, so those houses have remained out of the inventory.

    With fewer available homes buyers were suddenly in the unfamiliar position of having to compete for the homes they wanted. Thus, sellers were able to demand a higher price.

    While that has helped drive prices higher, economists point out a market so heavily influenced by supply isn't necessarily a healthy market. Rather, they say, there should be a balance between supply and demand. There still have not been enough buyers in the marketplace, in large part due to the difficulty of qualifying for a mortgage.

    Changing for the better

    However, that may be changing for the better. A report compiled by online real estate marketing site Realtor.com finds there has been a shift in the dynamics of the marketplace. Its report suggests future gains in home prices may occur because of an increase in people shopping for homes.

    A breakdown of the summer home-buying season ending in August shows year-over-year changes now within the single-digits for three indicators Realtors consider critical to market health – inventory count, median age and median list price. Those changes haven't been positive for years.

    "Where we have seen significant volatility in many markets, including double-digit declines in inventory as well as increases in median price for both yearly and monthly views, we are now looking at a housing market that is less heated and moving closer to normalcy," said Steve Berkowitz, CEO of Move, Inc., Realtor.com's parent company.

    Inventories are growing

    The August numbers show the inventory of homes for sale is growing again. The net number of listings went up, even though the summer season was drawing to a close. Nearly one-third of the 146 markets measured are within five percent of last year's inventory levels, and more than two-thirds of markets registered a net increase in inventory over last month.

    With inventory levels rising you might expect prices to move in the opposite direction. In August, that didn't happen. The national median list price was the same as it was in July. Though the overall number remained flat, 123 of the 146 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) covered by the analysis showed a year-over-year increase in the average list price.

    California markets continue to dominate the list of areas experiencing the largest year-over-year median list price increases. That's something of a surprise since there has been a surge in new property listings in those markets.

    Additional data

    Statistics collected by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) tend to also reflect this hopeful trend. NAR reports median home prices were higher in a majority of metro areas in the second quarter of the year, with the national year-over-year price registering the strongest gain in seven and a half years.

    However, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun, at the time of the report, said he had yet to see the supply of available homes catching up to demand.

    “Higher interest rates are now causing sales to level out, but the tight supply conditions look to be with us for the balance of the year in most of the country,” Yun said. “Areas with tighter supplies generally are seeing the strongest price growth, including markets such as Sacramento, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Naples, San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

    Higher mortgage rates, ironically, may be one of two trends that might support a continued housing recovery. It's true that a higher rate will make a monthly payment slightly higher. At the same time, higher rates make lenders increasingly willing to make loans, since the reward for their risk is higher.

    Finally, the government's proposed new Qualified Residential Mortgage (QRM) rule, issued at the end of August, is likely to open home ownership to more people. NAR President Gary Thomas says the new standard strikes a reasonable balance -- “stringent enough to protect consumers from unscrupulous lending practices but creating new opportunities for private capital to reestablish itself as part of a robust and competitive mortgage market.”

    With the financial incentive of higher rates and lending guidelines that favor more buyers, Realtors expect more consumers will shop for houses, providing the stability the housing market needs if it is to fully recover.

    Home prices are up, which is good news for homeowners hoping to regain some of their equity lost when the housing market plunged five years ago. But much o...

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      EPA provides free mileage info for used car buyers

      But will dealers make the information available to consumers?

      If you're shopping for a new car, it's easy to find the estimated miles per gallon rating -- it's staring you right in the face in the window sticker that's required on all new cars.

      If you're one of 40 million consumers buying a used car each year, on the other hand, you may have to dig deeply to find the information -- although car dealers are being given the opportunity, starting today, to provide easy-to-understand information about the fuel efficiency of the cars and trucks in their used inventory.

      A new online tool from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes it easy for dealers to create consumer-friendly labels that list the gas mileage and the CO2 emissions levels of used vehicles sold in the United States since 1984.

      “Providing gas mileage information to consumers will be a giant step forward in protecting American pocketbooks, addressing the nation’s dependence on oil, and reducing pollution,” said Jack Gillis, Consumer Federation of America’s Director of Public Affairs and author of The Car Book.

      Currently, seventy-five percent of car buyers in the market choose to buy used vehicles. Because the information is hard to find, very few have any idea of the fuel economy of the vehicles they are considering.

      “Consumers who are in the dark about a vehicle’s fuel economy are buying blind. They don’t know how much they’ll have to spend on gas until they’ve already made a significant purchase and a potentially costly mistake,” said Gillis.

      The information is available online but many consumers don't have access to the Internet when they're looking at cars, or simply don't think to look there. We went to www.fueleconomy.gov and did a comparison of four admittedly profligate cars just to see how the online system works.

      Optional for now

      The new labeling tool is currently being offered to dealers as an optional resource, but that could change if dealers fail to adopt this easy-to-use consumer information program.

      “Used car dealers are being given the chance to jump on one of the most important rating programs available. If they fail to provide their customers with this easy-to-access information, the Consumer Federation of America will push hard to mandate the labels on every used car,” said Gillis.

      A powerful tool for car buyers, the new labels will also motivate carmakers to move quickly to meet recent federal standards to increase the average fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the U.S. to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.

      Why? Dealers know that consumers these days are scrambling to buy higher mileage cars and they want the used models of their vehicles to maintain their value.

      “Vehicle fuel efficiency is an increasingly critical factor for car buyers and, if the dealers take simple steps to inform buyers, American families will reward them with their dollars for the most fuel efficient used cars,” said Gillis.  

      An EPA sticker for a plug-in hybridIf you're shopping for a new car, it's easy to find the estimated miles per gallon rating -- it's staring you right ...

      Struggling homeowners illegally evicted, abused, Illinois charges

      Safeguard Properties allegedly breaks into homes, evicts residents before foreclosures are finalized

      One of the nation's largest foreclosure-service comanies, Safeguard Properties LLC, is being sued by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who charges the company is illegally evicting struggling homeowners by breaking into their homes, changing locks to bar residents from re-entry, and shutting off utilities well before a foreclosure is finalized.

      Madigan filed her lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Safeguard, a Delaware corporation based in Ohio. It is the largest privately held company in the country hired by mortgage lenders to determine whether a home in default or foreclosure is still occupied. If a home is vacant, Safeguard is supposed to secure and maintain the property to ensure it does not lose value during the foreclosure process.

      But Madigan alleges that Safeguard routinely treated occupied properties in Illinois as vacant, instructing its contractors to winterize and secure homes that occupants still had a legal right to live in. In many cases, Safeguard’s contractors broke into homes, changed the locks, turned off the utilities and removed occupants’ personal possessions in spite of clear evidence that the homes were still occupied.

      “This case shows the lengths that banks and their service providers will go to abuse and intimidate borrowers in foreclosure,” Madigan said. “This company was illegally breaking in to people’s homes, removing all their possessions and locking them out. It is a homeowner’s worst nightmare.”

      Worst nightmare

      As the number of foreclosures has climbed in recent years, mortgage lenders have increasingly relied on third-party companies like Safeguard to ensure that properties do not lose value after their owners default on the mortgage.

      The vendors manage the properties throughout the foreclosure process and, most times, after the foreclosing lender buys a property at a foreclosure auction. However, homeowners and tenants have a legal right to occupy a home until the completion of the foreclosure process.

      Among the most egregious examples cited in Madigan’s lawsuit, an Illinois homeowner on at least a dozen occasions told Safeguard he was still living in his home yet returned home one day to find his front and back doors broken into with a sledgehammer.

      Another homeowner, a member of the U.S. Armed Forces who was in the process of a short sale on his property, returned home from out-of-state training to find it had been broken into, the locks changed and utilities shut off. Another homeowner, who had fallen behind on her payments but had not entered default, returned home to find it had been broke into, the locks changed, her water shut off and anti-freeze poured into her pipes to winterize the property.

      Read Madigan’s lawsuit here.

      Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (file photo)One of the nation's largest foreclosure-service comanies, Safeguard Properties LLC, is being sued by...

      Would you believe a 10-hour battery life in forthcoming Chromebooks?

      Latest line of Chromebooks will be based on new Intel processor that boosts efficiency

      The world stops spinning when new iPhones come out and alarm bells ring when Microsoft shuffles executives, but in relative obscurity Google Chromebooks are carving out a big share of the laptop market, as geeky designers and end users find something inexpensive they can get excited about.

      The latest news on the Chromebook front was revealed yesterday in San Francisco at the Intel Developer Forum, where execs said forthcoming Chromebooks will be based on Intel's Haswell processor family, noted for its power efficiency and computing prowess. 

      "The battery life on the new Chromebooks will be up to 50% better, and the trick is also doing that while delivering amazing levels of performance," said Navin Shenoy, VP of Intel's PC client group and general manager of the mobile platform division, in a press briefing. "And we'll see 15% or more improvement on performance using Haswell."

      It was, technerds will recall, a Haswell-based Core i5 that helped double the battery life of Apple's latest MacBook Air, launched in June.

      There will also soon be more versions of the Chromebook. as Asus and Toshiba are joining current Chromebook makers Acer, HP, Lenovo and Samsung. There's also a high-end Chromebook, the Pixel, that carries the Google brand.

      Retailing giants Best Buy, Staples and Walmart are all promoting the Chromebooks heavily. Prices start in the low $200 range, yet the little machines deliver performance and durability that rival full-fledged desktop-equivalent machines costing five or six times as much.

      They boot up in seconds, don't require anti-virus software and updates are performed in the background. Chromebooks work with cloud-based apps that provide a full office suite and a wide range of productivity and entertainment functions.

      A Lenovo ChromebookThe world stops spinning when new iPhones come out and alarm bells ring when Microsoft shuffles executives, but in relative obscurit...

      Sears reforms refund policy New York called deceptive

      The "Come Back Cash" promotion didn't work out well for customers who returned merchandise

      New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has reached a settlement with Sears over a refund policy that Schneiderman charged was deceptive.

      At issue is Sears' "Come Back Cash" promotion. In the promotion, a consumer who purchased merchandise above a "qualifying threshold" amount was given a $10 or $20 promotional award card.

      However, if the consumer later returned some of the merchandise, Sears reduced the refund by a pro-rated amount of the value of the award card, even if the cost of the unreturned merchandise remained above the qualifying threshold and/or if the customer did not cash in the award.

      The company, which operates 45 stores in New York, has agreed to pay $150,000 in fines and has already reformed the policy. 

      "This settlement ensures that consumers who participate in a promotion of this type and later return merchandise will receive a full and fair refund - and not a penny less," Schneidermansaid. "Sears' refund policy improperly reduced refunds to customers whose purchases stayed above the qualifying threshold in the promotion, or whose promotional award card had already expired without being used." 

      Consumers rate Sears Roebuck & Co.
      The Attorney General's investigation revealed that there were a total of 25,998 transactions involving New York consumers whose refunds were improperly reduced and that Sears reduced the refunds issued to those consumers in the total amount of $82,825.62. 

      New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has reached a settlement with Sears over a refund policy that Schneiderman charged was deceptive.At i...

      Virgin America fined for safety violation

      The carrier failed to provide safety videos to hearing-impaired passengers

      The failure to make its in-flight safety video accessible to passengers with hearing impairments will cost Virgin America $150,000. In announcing the fine, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) also ordered the carrier to cease and desist from further violations.

      “Safety is our number-one priority and that includes ensuring that every airline passenger has access to airline safety briefings,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We will continue to take enforcement action when our disability rules are violated so that all passengers are aware of critical, potentially life-saving information.”

      DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office investigators found that since October 2007, when the airline first began scheduled service, Virgin America used its in-flight entertainment system to present the pre-flight safety briefing but failed to ensure that the video was accompanied either by open captioning or an inset for a sign language interpreter. This violated DOT’s rule, which is part of its regulations implementing the Air Carrier Access Act, requiring video safety briefings to be accessible to passengers with hearing impairments.

      Although captioning for in-flight safety videos created before Nov. 10, 2009, is not required to be in high contrast, Virgin America has agreed to add high-contrast captioning to its video by Sept. 30, 2013.

      The failure to make its in-flight safety video accessible to passengers with hearing impairments will cost Virgin America $150,000. In announcing the fine,...

      Initial jobless claims number plunges -- but don't get excited

      The figure was the lowest in 7 years, but it was due to computer issues

      First-time applications for state unemployment benefits plunged by 31,000 during the week ending September 7 to 292,000. That's the lowest point for claims since March 2006.

      However, the Labor Department (DOL) says two states upgraded their computer systems, resulting in the unexpected drop and that it does not believe the drop in claims this week signals a change in labor market conditions. Conditions remain better than where they were a few months ago but nowhere near as strong as a sub-300,000 reading would suggest. It's unknown how long the computer errors will remain in the system and DOL says it could affect the data for the next few weeks.

      The 4-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market because it strips out the weekly volatility, was down 7,500 to 321,250.

      The full jobless claims report is available on the DOL website.

      First-time applications for state jobless benefits plunged by 31,000 during the week ending September 7 to 292,000. That's the lowest point for claims sinc...

      Beware of "concussion-proof" football helmets

      There is no such thing, experts warn; minimizing head-to-head hits is the best prevention

      Football season is upon us and many parents of young players may be swayed by helmets claiming to be "concussion-proof." There is no such thing, experts warn.

      Some manufacturers are promoting aftermarket add-ons for football helmets – such as liners, bumpers, pads and electronic devices – that promise to reduce the risk of concussion. However, there is little research evaluating the effect of physical impact on young athletes, and risk-reduction claims about helmets designed for adult players may not be relevant to younger players, New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman warned. 

      “It’s important to remember that no helmet can fully prevent a concussion,” Schneiderman said, as he cautioned manufacturers against making claims they can't back up. “Ensuring that manufacturers don’t mislead the public and endanger young New Yorkers is a key concern for my office."

      Head injuries, including concussions, can happen at any time on the field of play, regardless of the type of helmet being worn. False claims may give players and parents a false sense of security. Instead, parents, coaches and young football players should rely on a number of tips and strategies to help reduce the risk of head injury, including: learning and recognizing symptoms of a concussion; minimizing head-to-head hits on the field, and enforcing stronger and stricter penalties against such behavior.

      What to do

      Although the age, condition, type and fit of the helmet are important factors, reducing the risk of concussion is not “all about the helmet.” Schneiderman issued these tips to reduce the risk of concussion and head injury in youth football:

      • Players, parents and coaches must be trained on the symptoms and risks of concussion.
      • Recognizing the signs of concussion and removing a player immediately is extremely important. 
      • New York State law requires that players be removed from play until they are asymptomatic for a minimum of 24 hours and have written approval from their physician to return to play. Many other states have similar laws. 
      • The number of concussions can be significantly reduced with modifications to practice format and an emphasis on penalty enforcement.
      • Reducing the number of hits is instrumental to reducing the risk of concussion because of the cumulative risk from repeated hits. Limit the amount of contact in practice and forbid drills that involve full-speed, head-on blocking and tackling that begins with players lined up more than three yards apart. 
      • Players need to be trained to focus on techniques that minimize head-to-head hits. Coaches and referees must strictly enforce penalties against such behavior.

      With football season set to begin, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today issued a consumer alert on the risk of concussions to young football players...

      Dorel recalls child restraint systems

      Installation instructions are incorrect

      Dorel Juvenile Group (DJG) is recalling 89,527 Safety 1st Complete Air LX (models CC050xxx), Safety 1st Complete Air SE (models CC051xxx), and Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite (models 22187xxx , 22465xxx ,CC033xxx , and CC046xxx), and Eddie Bauer Deluxe 3 in 1 convertible (models 22790xxx , and CC046xxx) child restraint systems manufactured from July 20, 2010, through May 18, 2011. [Note: The 'xxx' at the end of each model number represents different color options that each seat could be.]

      The rear facing belt path installation arrows are incorrect and could be potentially construed as pointing toward the forward facing vehicle belt path location. If the child seat is not installed properly, the child may be injured in the event of a crash.

      DJG will notify registered owners and provide free label kits consisting of modified labels which will correct the potential inconsistent information and instructions as to the proper installation of the restraint, free of charge.

      Owners may call DJG toll-free at 1-877-675-2355.

      Dorel Juvenile Group (DJG) is recalling 89,527 Safety 1st Complete Air LX (models CC050xxx), Safety 1st Complete Air SE (models CC051xxx), and Safety 1st A...

      Hachette Book Group recalls children’s books

      A metal rod holding small beads on the cover of books can detach and release small parts

      Hachette Book Group New York, N.Y., is recalling about 70,000 children's books titled “Count my Kisses, 1, 2, 3” and “Red, Green, Blue, I Love You.”

      A metal rod holding small beads on the cover of books can detach and release small parts that present a choking hazard. A detached metal bar can expose a sharp edge posing a laceration hazard. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      The board-shaped children’s books have cut out covers that serve as a handle and include an embedded bar in the handle with beads for children to play with. “Ages 3+” is printed on the back covers and the ISBN numbers are also on the back covers near the bar code. Two titles are included: Count my Kisses, 1, 2, 3, ISBN: 978-0-316-13354-8, has five colored cylindrical wooden beads with printed hearts on the rod; and,
      Red, Green, Blue, I Love You, ISBN: 978-0-316-13353-1, has five colored circular wooden beads on the metal rod.

      The books, manufactured in China, were sold at Barnes & Noble, online at Amazon.com and by other booksellers and retailers from June 2013, to August 2013, for about $8.

      Consumers should immediately take the recalled books away from children and return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Hachette Book Group at (888) 965-5802 from 8 a.m.to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

      Hachette Book Group New York, N.Y., is recalling about 70,000 children's books titled “Count my Kisses, 1, 2, 3” and “Red, Green, Blue, I Love You.” A meta...

      Chobani in meltdown as 89 illnesses are reported

      The "fizzy" yogurt contained mold from its Idaho plant, the company says

      That bad batch of Chobani yogurt is giving its manufacturer a bad case of heartburn and making some of its customers sick. Chobani says it is speeding up its recall of the mold-infested yogurt following reports of 89 illnesses.

      Earlier, consumers had complained the yogurt tasted funny and said the containers bulged oddly but there were initially no reports of illness. The company had previously claimed the mold did not present any safety issues.

      The company now says that 95 percent of the recalled yogurt has been retrieved and destroyed. The affected yogurt cups have the code 16-012 and expiration dates between Sept. 11 and Oct. 7.

      Brand damage

      Besides making consumers sick, incidents like this can be disasters for a brand. Chobani had been surging in popularity in recent years, as consumers say they prefer its thicker consistency and relatively higher protein content when compared with the sweeter yogurt varieties that have long been sold in American supermarkets.

      Consumers are quick to turn their backs on products that present safety issues, especially when the manufacturer does not respond quickly.

      "I returned my first purchase of Chobani to Costco, after some of the lids started 'swelling.' Tried it again later, and found that it tasted just like any other yogurt. I now buy Fage...and like it much better!" Dawn Eshelman said in a Facebook posting, commenting on an earlier ConsumerAffairs story.

      Consumers have flocked to Chobani's Facebook page to express their unhappiness.

      "I only just found out about the recall. I have been sick for over a week with terrible abdominal pain and other symptoms and had no idea why. All of the yogurt I have has the code that is the subject of the recall," said a a consumer named Laurel. "I love your yogurt and don't plan to change brands, but please give me some answers. I am in great discomfort. I also contacted your website. I have not found any info anywhere on the web about how to treat the symptoms."

      "Boy, have you blown this debacle," said a consumer using the name Jay Placemat./p>

      Some took the opportunity to complain about other aspects of Chobani's products.

      "Chobani - why don't you get a clue and become a leader in poison-free yogurt?" said one. "I used to buy your yogurt - now that I've learned it comes from cows fed with genetically engineered corn mix, I'm staying away from it by a cannon shot."

      Chobani has been responding to the Facebook postings, assuring customers it's doing all it can and expressing concern over their welfare. But whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

      That bad batch of Chobani yogurt is giving its manufacturer a bad case of heartburn and making some of its customers sick. Chobani says it is speeding up i...

      Sleep disorders leave consumers searching for relief

      But you might need more than a special pillow or a pill now and then

      If you watch much cable TV you no doubt have seen plenty of commercials for special pillows to help you get a better night's sleep. Some regulate the surface temperature, others conform to the shape of your head.

      But getting a good night's sleep is about more than having a special pillow, or even an adjustable bed. A number of sleep disorders could be depriving you of the rest you need.

      Among the most common sleep disorders is insomnia. Suffers may have trouble falling asleep at night or they may wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to sleep. In some cases, both may occur.

      According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Symptoms of insomnia include lying awake for a long time before you fall asleep; sleeping for only short periods; being awake for much of the night; feeling as if you haven't slept at all; and waking up too early. 

      Sleep study

      If you see a doctor about this problem he or she may conduct a physical exam and look at your medical history. They may also suggest a sleep study. A sleep study measures how well you sleep and how your body responds to sleep problems. Treatments include lifestyle changes, counseling, and medicines.

      Sleep problems may also be due to a condition called sleep apnea. This common disorder causes your breathing to occasionally stop or get very shallow. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur 30 times or more an hour, according to NIH.

      There is usually some physical cause of sleep apnea. An obstruction causes your airway to collapse or become blocked. Sleep apnea is often associated with loud snoring. Being overweight is a risk factor. Doctors usually diagnose sleep apnea based on medical and family histories, a physical exam, and sleep study results.

      People with sleep apnea often don't realize they have a sleep disorder because they might not become fully awake. However, their sleep is constantly interrupted throughout the night, often making them tired and drowsy the following day.

      Accident prone

      People with sleep apnea can be at higher risk for auto accidents, on-the-job mishaps, and other medical problems. If you think you are suffering from sleep apnea, it is recommended that you get treatment. Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery, and breathing devices can treat sleep apnea in many people.

      Restless Leg Syndrome is less common but can be an impediment to a good night's sleep nonetheless. It produces a powerful urge to move your legs and your legs become uncomfortable when you are lying down or sitting. The condition can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.

      Restless Leg Syndrome may be caused by disease or various health conditions. Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol may make symptoms worse. Doctors sometime prescribe relaxation exercises as a treatment.

      The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken a closer look at sleep, and its effect on overall health, since the mid 1990s. Its 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey including questions about sleep patterns and found that 35.3% of adults reported seven hours or less of sleep during a typical 24-hour period and 48% reported snoring.

      Nearly 40% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month, and 4.7% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month.

      Sleeping pills

      To help with sleep consumers for decades have turned to prescription and over-the-counter sleeping aids. According to the Mayo Clinic, over-the-counter sleep aids can be effective for an occasional sleepless night. 

      “There are a few caveats, however. Most over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines,” the clinic says on its website. “Tolerance to the sedative effects of antihistamines can develop quickly — so the longer you take them, the less likely they are to make you sleepy.”

      If you decide to take an over-the-counter sleep aid, don't start without discussing it with your doctor first. Also, be aware of side effects and avoid using alcohol.

      If you watch much cable TV you no doubt have seen plenty of commercials for special pillows to help you get a better night's sleep. Some regulate the surfa...

      Patchwork of state marijuana laws could spell trouble

      Never underestimate the War on Drugs' potential for collateral damage

      It looks like the beginning of the end for American marijuana prohibition, which has been every bit as successful as 1920s alcohol prohibition while lasting almost ten times as long.

      Granted, we’re still a long ways away from a time when we can report on the relative quality of various marijuana brands or which shape of waterpipe is best at filtering smoke. Meanwhile, as America turns into a legal patchwork quilt where marijuana is safe and legal in some states while remaining a super-dangerous Schedule I drug in others, a couple aspects of the law purely scare the hell out of many observers.

      The federal government has decreed that, among other things, states with legal marijuana must have systems in place to prevent its being transported to states where it is not legal. But how will this be possible, short of intimately searching every person, package and vehicle exiting a legal-marijuana state? And here’s an even worse thought: given the frequent overzealousness of the anti-drug police, think how ridiculously easy it will be for dishonest people in legal-pot states to utterly destroy the lives of enemies in non-pot states!

      After all, American anti-drug laws (or, rather, those who enforce them) have long since abandoned the quaint old notion of “innocent until proven guilty”—if there’s any illicit plant matter in your vicinity, cops automatically assume you are, at minimum, Pablo Escobar 2.0.

      For example ...

      Consider this example (which I mention not because it’s unique but because it’s so depressingly common): One afternoon in 2008, a man named Cheye Calvo, then-mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, returned home from walking his dogs when suddenly, armed SWAT team members broke into his house, shot and killed his dogs, forced him at gunpoint to walk downstairs in his underwear and sit, handcuffed, next to the stiffening corpses of his beloved pets … because somebody sent his wife a package of marijuana via UPS.

      Neither Calvo nor his wife had any knowledge of the package; authorities later admitted they were victims of a scheme wherein drugs are sent to unknowing recipients and then intercepted along the way.

      The police, of course, insisted that they did nothing wrong; terrorizing  innocent families and murdering their pets is a small price to pay in exchange for making marijuana slightly more difficult for determined smokers to buy.

      So here’s the scenario that's scary: Some sociopath with a few bucks to spare thinks “Hmm, as an evil-minded resident of a legal-marijuana state who absolutely despises law-abiding Maryland [or other illegal-marijuana jurisdiction] resident Joe Blow, I think it’s worth spending a few bucks to anonymously mail Joe a couple ounces of weed, then leave an anonymous tip with the anti-drug squad of Joe’s hometown police force....”

      How realistic are those fears? Conventional wisdom says marijuana makes you paranoid; could changes in marijuana law have the same effect? I posed that question to members of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition),  a non-profit coalition of current and former police, prosecutors and other law-enforcement professionals who have realized that the War on Drugs isn’t working.

      As a practical matter

      LEAP member and former prosecutor Jim Doherty suspects the fear of legal marijuana being used to frame innocent people is, technically, unfounded—though not for the reason you might think.

      “Because state and federal search & seizure laws do not allow thorough searches of all individuals crossing between states, there is always the possibility that individuals will cross a state border with drugs (legal or illegal) in their possession,” he wrote in an email. “Recreational marijuana that is produced by licensed growers in the State of Washington will be transported to licensed retailers [….] The problem, at least for the next few years, is that unlicensed marijuana is still being produced and sold outside the regulated market. Unlicensed, unregulated marijuana is untaxed, so that product will be cheaper and more prone to cross state borders.”

      So our hypothetical sociopath won’t frame people with legal marijuana because the illicit variety is cheaper. Still: It’s an undeniable fact that innocent people have been terrorized by police seeking to intercept marijuana mailings. What can be done to protect the Cheye Calvos of the future?

      LEAP member and former special agent David Long suggested:  “My short answer is that one would hope that prosecutors would utilize their lawful discretion in considering whether to prosecute such cases and that politicians would have the guts to see cases like this as isolated incidents that have nothing to do with the overall enforcement of the legalized marijuana regime.”

      Yes, well, some prosecutors might use discretion but there is no shortage of politically ambitious prosecutors riding roughshod over individuals, innocent and otherwise.

      But James Gierach, formerly a prosecutor himself, offered a potentially useful suggestion:  “[H]ow do we prevent an innocent resident of a marijuana prohibition state from being victimized by an enemy or jokester who mails a box of marijuana across state lines, crossing the boundary between legal to illegal?  We need to make it a complete defense to the recipient of the package if the sender uses a false return address on the package.  Then, the insensible will make some sense.”

      Were such a policy in place five years ago, nobody outside of Berwyn Heights, Maryland would ever have heard of Cheye Calvo, and he wouldn't have had to watch angry SWAT team members shoot his dogs, either.

      As marijuana warriors relent in some states, they might get harsher in others...

      Latest air war: dueling Wi-Fi

      Virgin, JetBlue skirmish to win the Wi-Fi race

      Nearly 90 percent of U.S. travelers think every airline flight should have fast Wi-Fi service. Of course, the survey was conducted by Honeywell, which makes -- you guessed it -- equipment that provides in-flight Wi-Fi.

      But while everyone thinks Wi-Fi should be both available and fast, they also seem to think it should be free. Gogo, the biggest in-flight Internet provider, says only about 6% of potential customers actually cough up their credit cards to stay connected.

      That doesn't seem to foretell a massive amount of pent-up demand. Nevertheless, Gogo is upping the ante, announcing today that it is implementing a new system that combines satellite and cell towers on the ground to provide in-flight Web speeds up to six times faster than current speeds.

      Shared signal

      The primary problem at the moment is that the satellite signal is shared by everyone using the service on a particular flight. Thus, it may start out being fairly adequate only to stall to turtle-like velocity as more travelers boot up their laptops.

      Current satellite-to-airplane speeds range from 3 to 10 megabits per second, divided by however many travelers are logged on. Gogo says the new service will be on the order of 60 mbps, which will be great if it works.

      Virgin America says it will roll out Gogo's new service in the second half of 2014 and says it plans to eventually upgrade all 53 of its aircraft.

      JetBlue, meanwhile, has just received government approval for a new high-capacity satellite link that will support streaming video from Netflix and Hulu, among others. JetBlue doesn't have Internet service at the moment. It says it will launch the service this year and hopes to equip its entire fleet of 180 aircraft by the end of 2015.

      Price points

      Currently, travelers pay anywhere from nothing to quite a bit for in-flight Internet. Some carriers provide free service in first class and business. Gogo charges $14 for a single day's usage or $50 for a monthly pass.

      JetBlue says it hasn't finalized pricing but basic Internet will be free, at least at first, with a charge for streaming video, which uses more bandwidth.

      Southwest, never one to hesitate to undercut the competition, currently offers three live video channels and up to 75 television episodes from popular series in partnership with the Dish Network. It charges $8 a day for "regular" Internet usage, meaning web browsing, email, etc.

      As one who flies both Virgin and Southwest, I have found Southwest's service to be roughly comparable to Virgin's in terms of speed. Considering it costs nearly half as much, that has to be counted as a plus. 

      Speaking of payments, Gogo says it is now working with Amazon Payments to offer Gogo users the ability to pay for their in-flight Internet sessions using the information stored in their Amazon accounts.

      This saves you the inconvenience of digging out your credit card and trying to shield it from prying eyes while ordering up the day's serving of Wi-Fi.

      Nearly 90 percent of U.S. travelers think every airline flight should have fast Wi-Fi service. Of course, the survey was conducted by Honeywell, which make...

      Christmas already, Kmart?

      First holiday shopping ad airs a full 105 days before Christmas

      Christmas already? If it still feels like late summer to you, maybe your internal clock is off. Or maybe it really is still late summer, in which case someone must have torn a few extra pages off the calendar at Kmart headquarters.

      How else to explain Kmart running its first holiday ad 105 days before Christmas?

      But maybe it makes sense after all. The ad promotes the retailer's layaway program, part of a package of services, including low-cost check-cashing, intended to benefit cash-short consumers.

      Now through Nov. 23, Kmart said it will waive layaway fees, both in-store and online, to provide its "Shop Your Way" members an alternative solution to credit cards during the holiday shopping season. Customers can initiate a layaway contract online and choose to ship their purchases home or pick up their purchases from their selected Kmart.  Shipping is free for purchases over $59. 

      Sears and Kmart lay claim to being the only retailers to offer layaway nationally, both online and in-store; there is no minimum purchase and products from most departments are eligible, including apparel, electronics, toys, home, footwear and more. 

      The holiday ad features a gingerbread man sneaking up on a woman working in an office cubicle. A voiceover says: "Don't let the holidays sneak up on you. Shop early with Kmart free layaway. … Kmart. Get in, get more Christmas."

      While the layaway program has proven popular in past years, the ad is not going over so well in some quarters. In much of the country, kids are barely back in school and already it's holiday shopping time?

      Consumers have been flocking to Kmart's Facebook page to gripe about the ad.

      Could be, but Kmart defenders say the retail chain is just trying to give customers enough time to find the items they want to put on layaway and save up the money they'll need to pay for them in time for the holidays.

      Check-cashing service

      Consumers rate Kmart
      Kmart is also announcing its launch of check cashing service for Shop Your Way members and customers at store locations nationwide.  For a fee of $3 or less, including some locations with no fee, members can present a valid identification card with their check and receive cash for government checks (up to $2,000), payroll checks (up to $1,500) and personal checks (up to $400), with certain conditions.

      According to the 2011 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), more than one in four households (28.3 percent) are either unbanked or underbanked, conducting some or all of their financial transactions outside of the mainstream banking system.  About 8.2 percent of U.S. households, or nearly 10 million, lack a bank account.

      "With the addition of check cashing to our Kmart financial services portfolio, our Shop Your Way members now have the convenience of cashing checks where they shop, saving them time and money," said Jai Holtz, vice president, financial services, Sears Holdings. "Along with Kmart's other financial services offerings, including Layaway, walk-in bill pay, money transfer, money orders, ATMs and prepaid debit cards and reloads, we are providing one-stop shopping for our members' needs."

      Christmas already? If it still feels like late summer to you, maybe your internal clock is off. Or maybe it really is still late summer, in which case some...

      Are we any closer to an Alzheimer's cure?

      There are tantalizing suggestions that we are, we just won't know for a while

      The last five years have witnessed promising breakthroughs in research into Alzheimer's disease, the fatal condition that robs its victims of their memory as they age. But a lot can happen getting from the scientific experiment level to an approved therapy.

      For example, at the beginning of 2013 researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported a promising new Alzheimer's treatment. They showed how a molecule called TFP5, when injected into mice with a disease that is the equivalent of human Alzheimer's, symptoms are reversed and memory is restored -- without obvious toxic side effects. 

      Could this be a cure for a dread disease? We won't know for a while. The treatment must be subjected to a vigorous clinical trials, which presumably are underway. This is just one of the hopeful developments that have contributed to optimism that Alzheimer's might one day be a non-factor in the aging process.

      Most common form of dementia

      Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 50 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Since getting older is a major risk factor, Alzheimer's is a threat to the large Baby Boom generation.

      There are already a number of drugs available to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and some researchers are working on these existing therapies, to make them more effective. The Salk Institute, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and a number of other research entities have defined a key mechanism behind the disease’s progress, giving hope that a newly modified Alzheimer’s drug will be effective.

      In 2009 Stephen F. Heinemann, a professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, found that a substance called Alpha7 may help trigger Alzheimer’s disease.

      “Previous studies exposed a possible interaction between Alpha-7 nicotinic receptors, labeled ?7Rs, with amyloid beta, the toxic protein found in the disease’s hallmark plaques,” said Gustavo Dziewczapolski, a staff researcher in Heinemann’s lab. “We showed for the first time, in vivo, that the binding of this two proteins, ?7Rs and amyloid beta, provoke detrimental effects in mice similar to the symptoms observed in Alzheimer’s disease.”

      Promising results

      This week Metabolic Solutions Development Company presented promising results of its Phase 2a study of a new diabetes drug that may prove effective against Alzheimer's. The study found the drug maintained glucose metabolism in key regions of the brain associated with cognitive decline due to Alzheimer's.

      Although most research shows Alzheimer's is closely associated with the build-up of harmful plaques in the brain, other inquiries have also shown reducing the role of glucose metabolism in the brain also may play a role.

      A key breakthrough? Again, scientists say we may not know for a while, but they applaud the effort.

      "We are in urgent need of new approaches in Alzheimer's drug research because there are currently no approved therapies to halt or even slow progression of the disease," said Howard Fillit, MD, Executive Director and Chief Science Officer of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation.

      Yale discovery

      Last week researchers at the Yale School of Medicine reported what they called a breakthrough in understanding and curing Alzheimer's. The scientists have focused on a receptor called metabotropic glutamate receptor 5, or mGluR5, as the missing link in the chain of biological processes that lead to Alzheimer’s disease. 

      While all of this is highly encouraging, the proof will be in clinical trials – and time is of the essence. Millions of people are dependent upon the results.

      Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to affect more than 26 million people worldwide – more than five million in the U.S. alone. It is only going to get worse as the huge Baby Boomer generation ages. Nearly 106 million people are projected to suffer form the disease by 2050.

      The last five years have witnessed promising breakthroughs in research into Alzheimer's disease, the fatal condition that robs its victims of their memory ...

      Aging in place: technology may make it easier

      With a little IT support, seniors may find they can remain in their homes longer

      As people age and become infirm, either mentally or physically – or both – a nursing home is almost always the next step. But if you ask the senior population – and a number of polls have done exactly that – most prefer to remain in their homes.

      The concept is called “aging in place,” and it's gaining currency by the year. To meet this desire the home health care industry has enjoyed robust growth. In-home health care services have emerged as less expensive and a more personalized alternative to residential care facilities for seniors. The senior lives at home but is frequently visited by a health care professional, who checks up on them, making sure they are safe, eating well and taking their medication.

      Technology tackles the problem

      There have also been a number of technological innovations that have allowed the senior population to remain at home longer. Security firms offer emergency alert systems in which the senior wears a pendant with a button. Pushing the button will summon a security company operator or emergency services personnel.

      But the senior in need of assistance must be conscious and have the ability to push the button. So engineers have been at working making that system less reliant on the user's participation.

      To help solve that problem, electrical engineers at the University of Utah have produced a network of wireless senors that can detect when a person falls. It sounds like something out of "Mission Impossible" but the researchers say it could make a real difference in the lives of the elderly.

      Falling can be deadly

      Why? Because for people age 65 and older, falling is a leading cause of injury and death. Most of the current monitoring devices monitor a person's posture or require them to push a button to call for help. It also requires them to be wearing the pendant when they fall down. The system designed by Utah researchers works without the participation of the person being monitored.

      "The idea of 'aging-in-place,' in which someone can avoid moving to a nursing home and live in their own home, is growing," said Neal Patwari, senior author of the study and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah. "Ideally, the environment itself would be able to detect a fall and send an alert to a caregiver. What's remarkable about our system is that a person doesn't need to remember to wear a device."

      The team says it plans to develop this technology into a commercial product through Patwari's Utah-based startup company, Xandem Technology. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

      Science and technology hold the key

      Other experts believe science and technology do, indeed, hold the key to people being able to remain in their homes, rather than move into residential care facilities. The Japanese government is taking the lead in encouraging companies to develop low-cost robots who can serve as in-home nursing aides.

      The government earlier this year offered financial assistance for the development of machines that can provide very specific functions that would assist an elderly person and reduce the need for human assistance. The government specifies the need for a robot that can lift an elderly person, assist them in walking and keep track of patients with dementia, to keep them from wandering off.

      In that last requirement, the Utah researchers say their product could be valuable.

      "With this detection system, a person's location in a room or building can be pinpointed with high accuracy, eliminating the need to wear a device," said Brad Mager, a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering and first author of the study.

      While technology works on the problem, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says simple logistical arrangements can aid seniors in their desire to age in place. The agency says it is important that senior have housing options that not only allow them to remain in their community, but include a safe and secure pedestrian environment, and near destinations such as libraries, stores, and places of worship.

      As people age and become infirm, either mentally or physically – or both – a nursing home is almost always the next step. But if you ask the se...

      More hiring expected as the year winds down

      Employers' plans are the strongest in 6 years

      Looking for work? Your best shot at finding it may come later this year.

      According to ManpowerGroup, a workforce consulting concern, 18% of the more than 18,000 employers expect an increase in staff levels in their fourth quarter hiring plans, while 8% expect a decrease in payrolls. That indicates elevated confidence for the three months of 2013. Employers seasonally adjusted Net Employment Outlook of 13% is the strongest fourth quarter outlook since 19% in the final quarter of 2007.

      "We've seen consistent, yet measured, momentum in employers' hiring plans in a steadily improving market," said Jonas Prising, ManpowerGroup president. "Employers have reached a level of confidence in navigating unstable conditions, and the strength of the fourth quarter survey data suggests a stronger close to 2013."

      Signs of confidence

      This quarter's research shows the outlook remains stable quarter-over-quarter and is slightly elevated compared to last year at this time. Intent to hire also continues to rise with 18% of employers indicating an increase in staff levels for the final three months of the year. This is the highest percentage of employers projecting an increase in hiring in the fourth quarter since before 2009 when the number consistently remained above 20%.

      Growth is also reflected among several key industry sectors. At +22%, the outlook for wholesale & retail trade reflects a moderate increase in hiring year-over-year and is the strongest outlook for this sector since it reached +26% in the last quarter of 2007. Construction employers also indicate continued progress when compared year-over-year, as the Net Employment Outlook increases slightly from +1% in the fourth quarter of 2012 to +5% this year.

      "Employers plan to hire during the fourth quarter, particularly in the wholesale & retail trade sector, and that's good news for job seekers looking for employment during the busy holiday season," said Prising. "Employers bring on new staff when they start seeing increased demand for their products and services, and this intention to hire may signal optimism among U.S. employers."

      Where they're hiring

      Among the 50 states, employers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas indicate the strongest Net Employment Outlook -- all at +15%. Employers in all 100 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) surveyed report positive hiring plans, with the strongest Outlook in Houston, reaching +28%.

      For this year's fourth quarter, employers have a positive outlook in all 13 industry sectors included in the survey:

      • wholesale & retail trade (+22%)
      • leisure & hospitality (+17%)
      • professional & business services (+13%)
      • transportation & utilities (+11%)
      • information (+11%)
      • financial activities (+10%)
      • mining (+9%)
      • education & health services (+9%)
      • durable goods manufacturing (+8%)
      • nondurable goods manufacturing (+7%)
      • construction (+5%)
      • government (+4%) and
      • other services (+2%).

      When the industry sector data are compared quarter-over-quarter, employers in the wholesale & retail trade and education & health services sectors anticipate a slight hiring increase, while employers in the information sector expect the hiring pace to remain stable.

      The hiring pace is expected to moderately decrease in seven industry sectors: durable goods manufacturing, nondurable goods manufacturing, transportation & utilities, financial activities, professional & business services, other services and government. A considerable decline in hiring is anticipated in the mining, construction and leisure & hospitality sectors.

      A positive Net Employment Outlook is reported in all four U.S. regions. Quarter-over-quarter, plans to add employees are slightly stronger among employers in the Northeast, and remain essentially the same among employers in the Midwest, South and West.

      Compared to one year ago at this time, employers in the Northeast and West project a slight increase in hiring for Quarter 4 2013, and employers in the Midwest and South expect a stable hiring environment.

      Looking for work? Your best shot at finding it may come later this year. According to ManpowerGroup, 18% of the more than 18,000 employers expect an incre...