Current Events in September 2013

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    Fraudulent debt relief operation shuttered

    Selling debt relief services and telemarketing are among the banned activities

    Innovative Wealth Builders, Inc., (IWB) and its three Florida-based principals -- Carly Janene Pelland (also known as Carly Zurita), Sheryl Leigh Lopez, and Tamara Dawn Johnson -- have run into a Florida buzz saw.

    A federal court judge in Florida has approved and signed a stipulated order that pretty much puts them out of business. The order prohibits the settling defendants from making any material misrepresentations in connection with advertising, marketing, promotion, offering for sale, or sale of any financial related product or service. It also includes a $9.9 million judgment against the defendants.

    The order came as a result of the defendants agreeing to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allegations that they falsely promised to substantially reduce consumers’ credit card interest rates and save them thousands of dollars on their credit card debts.

    Massive misrepresentations

    According to the FTC’s complaint, IWB and its three principals violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting credit card interest rate reduction services and refund policies, and billing consumers without authorization.

    The complaint also contends the defendants violated the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule by misrepresenting the debt relief services they were selling, charging a fee before providing these services, and billing consumers without their express informed consent.

    The FTC will continue to move forward with litigation against Independant Resources Network Corp. (IRN), the payment processor that allegedly assisted and facilitated the scam. In June, the FTC amended its original complaint to name IRN as a defendant in the case.

    Innovative Wealth Builders, Inc., (IWB) and its three Florida-based principals -- Carly Janene Pelland (also known as Carly Zurita), Sheryl Leigh Lopez, an...

    Eco-Novelty recalls Cosmo Beads toys

    The toy can be easily mistaken for candy by a child

    Eco-Novelty Corp., of Troy, Mich., is recalling about 3,500 Cosmo Beads Jumbo Size Colorful Water Balls and Jumbo Multipurpose Colorful Water Balls toys.

    The hard and colorful toy can be easily mistaken for candy by a child. When the bead is ingested, it expands and can cause intestinal obstructions inside a child’s body, resulting in severe discomfort, vomiting, dehydration, and could be life threatening. The toys need surgery to be removed from the body. Similar toys have not shown up on x-rays.

    No incidents or injuries have been reported, although the Consumer Product Safety Commission is aware of one incident where an 8-month-old girl ingested a similar water-absorbing polymer ball that had to be removed surgically.

    • Cosmo Beads Jumbo Size Colorful Water Balls and Jumbo Multipurpose Colorful Water Balls toys are water absorbing beads that when placed in water will hydrate up to the size of a racquetball. On the front of the toy packages it states Cosmo Beads Colorful Water Balls, Just Add Water, Biodegradable, Non-toxic and Colorfast. The packages have yellow and black color on the upper left corner and red in the lower right corner. The beads can be seen through an oval, cellophane window near the bottom of the package.
    • Cosmo Beads Jumbo Size were sold as single packets of beads in various colors: clear, green, purple, red and mixed colors. Each packet contains a variety of bead sizes. The front of the Jumbo Size package has a picture of a hand holding two water balls and the words “Grows up to 600X (1.5”) Size.”
    • Cosmo Beads Jumbo Multipurpose came in three packets per set. Each packet contains beads in one size and comes in clear, dark purple and orange colors. The front of the Jumbo Multipurpose packet has a picture of flowers in a glass vase and the words “Deco Centerpiece: Toys-Games: Plant-Vacation watering.”

    The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at Amazon.com, ifleemarket.com and crystalsoilusa.com from June 2011, through August 2013, for between $2 and $20.

    Consumers should immediately take this recalled toy away from children and contact Eco-Novelty for a refund.

    Consumers may contact Eco Novelty at (231) 222-4200 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by e-mail at admin@econoveltycorp.com.

    Eco-Novelty Corp., of Troy, Mich., is recalling about 3,500 Cosmo Beads Jumbo Size Colorful Water Balls and Jumbo Multipurpose Colorful Water Balls toys. ...

    A dip in weekly mortgage applications

    The refinance share is at its lowest level in 3 years

    After posting a modest gain in the previous week, mortgage applications plunged 13.5% in the week ending September 6. The results included an adjustment for the Labor Day holiday.

    According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, the Refinance Index decreased 20% from the previous week and has now fallen 71% from its recent peak the week of May 3, 2013 and is at the lowest level since June 2009.

    The latest decline means the refinance share of mortgage activity has fallen to 57% of total applications from 61% the previous week and is at its lowest level since April 2010.The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 7% of total applications. The Home Affordable refinance Program (HARP) share of refinance applications was unchanged from the prior week at 38%.

    Interest rates

    The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) increased to 4.80% from 4.73%,with points increasing to 0.46 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

    The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased to 4.84% from 4.71%,with points increasing to 0.41 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

    The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA increased to 4.56% from 4.48%,with points increasing to 0.28 from 0.03 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

    The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages increased to 3.83 percent from 3.75 percent, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

    The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.59% from 3.49%,with points increasing to 0.43 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

    After posting a modest gain in the previous week, mortgage applications plunged 13.5% in the week ending September 6. The results included an adjustment f...

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      Be Amazing! recalls monster science growing spiders

      The marble-sized toy can expand inside a child’s body and cause intestinal obstructions

      Be Amazing! Toys of Salt Lake City is recalling about 26,500 Monster Science Growing Spider toy sets.

      The soft and colorful product can be mistaken by a child for candy. When the marble-sized toy is ingested, it can expand inside a child’s body and cause intestinal obstructions, resulting in severe discomfort, vomiting, dehydration and could be life threatening. The toys do not show up on an x-ray and need surgery to be removed from the body.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported, although the Consumer Product Safety Commission is aware of one incident where an 8-month-old girl ingested a similar water-absorbing polymer ball that had to be removed surgically.

      This recall involves Monster Science Growing Spider toy sets, with model numbers 7280 and 7289. The sets contain marble-sized polymer ball “spider eggs” that can absorb from 300 to 800 times their weight in water and can grow up to eight times their original size. The sets consist of one polymer spider and three “spider eggs.”

      The Be Amazing! Toys star logo and the words Monster Science Growing Spider, Ages 8+, Just drop in water, Grow Giant Spider Eggs and Eggs Grow Up to 8X Original Size are printed on the front of the packaging. The model number is on the bottom of the back of the packaging. The front and back of the packaging have warnings not to use the toy without adult supervision.

      Be Amazing! announced the recall of a similar toy in August 2013.

      The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores nationwide from August 2011, to August 2013, Spirit Halloween stores nationwide from August 2011, to November 2011, and from August 2012, to November 2012, and Target stores nationwide September to November 2012, for between $3 and $5.

      Consumers should immediately take this recalled toy away from children and contact Be Amazing! Toys for a refund.

      Consumers may contact Be Amazing! Toys toll-free at (877) 798-9795, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.  

      Be Amazing! Toys of Salt Lake City is recalling about 26,500 Monster Science Growing Spider toy sets. The soft and colorful product can be mistaken by a ...

      September 2008: A look back

      Pivotal month five years ago sent the economy into a tailspin

      The world changed five years ago, in September 2008. On September 15 investment banking giant Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, sending a shock wave through the financial world, freezing the credit markets and causing overnight massive layoffs that sent the unemployment rate surging to a 14-year high.

      Many mark the start of the Great Recession with the Lehman collapse but the economy had been in recession since the previous December. If that weren't bad enough, gasoline prices surged to record highs in July. By early October real economic fear gripped the country and much of the world, resulting in a series of controversial government remedies, some of which continue today.

      Taking stock

      So, where are we today, five years after all of this started? A survey by Country Financial suggests many Americans do not feel their personal financial security or the economy overall are any better compared to five years ago.

      Fifty-four percent say they feel less financially secure now than they did five years ago and another 19% feel the same. Just 27% feel more financially secure.

      How's the U.S. economy doing? Nearly half in the survey said the economy is worse than it was five years ago and another 19% say it's about the same. Only 29% say it's better.

      Economist's view

      Economist Joel Naroff, of Narroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., is among the 29% who say the economy is better. At least, he says it is as good as could have been hoped.

      “The two sectors that collapsed, housing and finance, are usually the leaders during a recovery and it took four years for housing to start to come around and finance is still in the process of healing,” Naroff said.

      Added to the problems, he says, European and Asian economies have also been weak. It should be no surprise that economic growth is anemic, at best. Yet, he says, it seems to surprise a lot of people, which is part of the problem.

      Perception

      “It is that perception that is, in part, holding things back,” Naroff said. “Businesses are not convinced the economy will shift into high gear so they are holding back on hiring. That has kept the unemployment rate at unacceptably high levels. Worse, with so many people looking for work, firms have had no pressure to raise wages. Real earnings have stagnated and in a consumer-driven economy, it is hard to expand robustly if households don't have the financial ability to lead the way.”

      And the outlook isn't promising for people hoping for a pay raise. Until the unemployment rate falls to a level where businesses have to bid for workers, thereby raising wages, the recovery will continue at a lackluster pace, he says.

      When quizzed about the lasting effects from the Great Recession, consumers in the Country Financial survey cited “a hit to savings” as the biggest scar, even more so than the loss of home value. At the top of the list of lasting effects that still worry Americans are a reduced retirement nest egg – 22% – and depleted emergency savings – 21%. By comparison, just eight percent mention reduced home value.

      Housing rebound

      That could be because the housing market appears to be in the beginning stages of a recovery. In fact, in the last year the housing market and auto sales – two sectors devastated by the Great Recession – have becoming the strongest pillars in an otherwise weak U.S. economy.

      “The housing and vehicle sectors have recovered, in part, because of low rates and growing confidence about the future,” Naroff said. “While people are not exuberant, they are no longer fearful of losing their jobs. Given that they have run their vehicles into the ground, this growing expectation about the future is leading to a pick-up in demand.”

      As carmakers have racked up record sales month after month, the fleet of automobiles on U.S. highways has gotten newer and more fuel-efficient, and that has paid an unexpected dividend. Despite a recovering economy demand for gasoline has continued to decline, removing pressure on supplies and prices.

      Investors driving housing market

      “As for housing, the market has changed to where investors are becoming a key element of demand,” Naroff notes. “This created a bottom in prices and started the upturn. As prices rose, more people had the equity to both sell the homes they wanted to shed for years and also buy a different one.”

      If this trend continues, he says the number of people “underwater” on their mortgage will dwindle sharply and that will lead to renewed health in the housing market.

      In the meantime, the last five years have left very real economic scars on a wide swath of the U.S. population. In the Country Financial Survey, nearly half of those questioned said they don't expect any economic improvement in their lives in the next five years.

      Forty-six percent expect to experience another recession in the next five years and another 32 percent aren't sure. Thirty-six percent say improvements in the job market will make them feel more financially secure.

      "It's not surprising Americans have a cautious outlook on the next five years, given the ongoing impact of the recession," said Troy Frerichs, director of investments-wealth management at Country Financial. "The best way to approach financial uncertainty is to be prepared for anything.”

      The world changed five years ago, in September 2008. On September 15 investment banking giant Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, sending a shock wave thr...

      The new iPhone 5C comes in colors everywhere

      The 5C is not only colorful, it's also a lot cheaper than its predecessor

      Apparently taking its cue from the Rolling Stones, Apple today unveiled the new iPhone 5C, one of two phones that will replace the current iPhone 5.

      And what's so new and different about the 5C? Well, not much. It's basically the same as the iPhone 5, now officially yesterday's news. A new, fancier model is the 5S.

      The "C" -- we think -- stands for "color" and that's because the 5C, well, it comes in color everywhere -- at least five of them. 

      Or it could stand for "cheap." The 5C will cost just $99 with a contract, thus making one of the world's costliest smartphones more affordable, as Apple works to boost its market share in developing countries. 

      Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, showed the colorful versions of the iPhone 5C today at the company's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. It's made of polycarbonate plastic, in green, blue, white, red and yellow and has no visible seams.

      "The iPhone 5C is beautifully, unapologetically plastic," Schiller said. "Multiple parts have been reduced to a single polycarbonate component whose surface is continuous."

      The 5S

      And then there's the new high-priced spread, the iPhone 5S. No colors here. It comes in aluminum but features a faster processor and a fingerprint sensor that is supposed to make it more secure. With a contract, the iPhone 5S will set you back $200, twice as much as the colorful 5C.

      Both phones will be available in the U.S., Japan and China on September 20. 

      Apparently taking its cue from the Rolling Stones, Apple today unveiled the new iPhone 5C, one of two phones that will replace the current iPhone 5.And w...

      Proposed rules could place more pressure on for-profit colleges

      Feds hope to hold educators more accountable

      A little more than a week after the state of New York sued Donald Trump for $40 million, claiming his Trump University doesn't give students much benefit, the feds are taking a harder look at all for-profit career education institutions.

      The U.S. Department of Education has released draft regulations that would hold these institutions – mostly providing technical training – accountable for how their students fare in the real world, after graduation. Specifically, the regulations would measure graduate earnings and compare them to the debt the students ran up while getting the training.

      Programs that repeatedly produce graduates with a lot of debt and little in the way of employment prospects would be cut off from the lucrative federal aid spigot. And therein lies the government's leverage.

      Federal aid

      Federal loans and aid provide students with the means to go to college and pay ever-increasing tuition – whether it is a state-supported institution or one of the many for-profit institutions. With access to this wealth of federal aid, for-profit schools of all types tend to be profitable indeed.

      But losing access to that stream of taxpayer money would hit for-profit schools hard. In fact, if could deal a fatal blow.

      While the department’s Gainful Employment rule would apply to career education programs at all kinds of institutions, its impact might be felt most strongly at for-profit colleges. The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) cites a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that it said found for-profit college attendees had higher levels of debt, were less likely to pass licensure tests needed for employment, and were less likely to be employed than those who attended public or private, non-profit schools.

      CRL says the report showed nearly half of borrowers who default on federal student loans in the first few years of repayment had attended for-profit colleges, even though for-profits only enroll 12% of all students.

      How the rule would work

      The rule would work like this: A career education program would be considered failing if its graduates had debt exceeding 12% of their annual earnings and 30% of their discretionary earnings. Discretionary income is anything above 150% of the poverty line and covers non-necessities – things like money for entertainment or vacations. CRL, an activist group that advocates more consumer-friendly lending practices – says the new rules are a good first step.

      “Ensuring that a borrower has the ability to repay a loan -- including a student loan -- is a tenet of good lending practices,” CRL said in a statement. “Federal banking regulators have recently promoted similar standards for mortgage lending and small-dollar loans.”

      That said, CRL said it thinks the rules could be tougher in two key areas. First, it would include all attendees — not just graduates — when determining eligibility for Federal financial aid. After all, a lot of students start these programs, run up student loan tabs, then don't graduate. They still have to pay back those loans and should be part of the accountability formula, CRL says.

      Meeting license requirements

      Second, CRL says it would like to see greater emphasis on ensuring that programs meet licensure or other requirements for securing employment. Many jobs require that prospective employees obtain some sort of licensing or graduate from an accredited program.

      This isn't the first time that the Department of Education has attempted to increase accountability requirements for for-profit institutions. When it proposed similar tougher rules in 2011, the trade group representing for-profit colleges sued. A federal judge sided with the colleges, ruling that one of the Education Department's rules was arbitrary.

      The Department of Education's revised rules eliminates that provision, causing optimism among backers of the tougher rule that these revised regulations might pass muster. Meanwhile, work has resumed this week on the second round of negotiations over the proposed rule.  

      A little more than a week after the state of New York sued Donald Trump for $40 million, claiming his Trump University doesn't give students much benefit, ...

      Brand loyalty makes me feel like an alien

      I know people care about designer labels; I just can't figure out why

      I love pretty clothes but I hate “fashion news” because – although I have no difficulty understanding the vocabulary – deep in my gut I just don’t get it. Like this press release about the “Brand Keys Fashion Brand Index,” which says that the popularity of designer-brand clothes has skyrocketed in the past decade, recession be damned: “When it comes to fashion, brands matter more -- up 10X in 10 years.”

      Capsule summary: once upon a time, only 3 percent of polled American consumers claimed to care about brand names in their fashion choices, but now it’s up to 30 percent. If you are a fashionable male then, statistically speaking, you’re supposed to really, really care about brands like Armani, Burberry and Ralph Lauren/Polo; meanwhile, a stylish lady is statistically enamored of brands including Chanel, Armani, Victoria’s Secret and the Gap.

      I don’t disagree with any of this; I’m just saying I don’t get it. Thing is, with the exceptions of shoes, socks, swimsuits and underthings, pretty much all of the clothes I’ve bought in my adult life came from thrift stores or secondhand shops, so when I’m trying things on my only three concerns are: “Do they flatter me, are they comfortable, and are they in good condition?”

      If I answer yes to all three, I don’t care about the brand – my closet does indeed contain some high-end labels, but also companies I’ve never heard of, and I doubt the Brand Keys Fashion Index has, either. (For many of those brands, I had no idea they were so expensive until I’d visit an upscale mall and notice entire stores with the same name as the label I’d just cut out of my new seven-dollar dress or five-dollar sweater.)

      So when I read about people who truly, sincerely, honestly care about clothes branding … well, if you read science fiction you’re familiar with the trope where otherwise-intelligent aliens are utterly incapable of comprehending basic human emotions: “Earthling, why does the demise of your offspring upset you so? He was an unhealthy specimen and a poor candidate to reproduce your genes into the next generation. Now that your inferior offspring is dead, you have more resources to invest in healthy offspring capable of continuing your genetic legacy ....” 

      That’s kind of how I feel about fashion-label loyalty. I’m not denying that it exists; I’m just saying that I do not get it.

      Decade-long increase in brand loyalty baffles discount fashionista...

      Broccoli may protect against skin cancer

      Believe it or not, rubbing the veggie on your skin may turn out to be protective

      It has long been known that broccoli contains a substance that helps the body fight cancer. But the assumption was that you'd have to eat the broccoli to get the benefit.

      Turns out that may not be so. Researchers say rubbing broccoli on the skin could be just as effective -- maybe more so -- as using sunscreen to ward off skin cancer. 

      Sally Dickinson, research assistant professor in the Pharmacology Department of the University of Arizona Cancer Center, teamed up with researchers from John Hopkins University in Baltimore to study the possibility.

      “Even though there is heightened awareness about the need for limited sun exposure and use of sunscreens, we’re still seeing far too many cases of skin cancer each year,” Dr. Dickinson said. “We’re searching for better methods to prevent skin cancer in formats that are affordable and manageable for public use. Sulforaphane may be an excellent candidate for use in the prevention of skin cancer caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays.”

      Sprout solution

      Her pilot study in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University will test a topical broccoli sprout solution on the skin a group of patients to see if the compound is effective in the context of solar simulated light. Previous studies have shown that the extract is quite safe for both topical and oral administration.

      It was at Johns Hopkins in 1992 that researcher Paul Talalay discovered the health-promoting properties of sulforaphane glucosinolate, the cancer-fighting chemical abundant in the pungent Brassica family of vegetables.

      Now Dickinson and her team say sulforaphane has many theoretical applications if the dosage is measured properly.

      "We already know that it is very effective in blocking sunburns and we have seen cases where it can induce protective enzymes in the skin," she said. "We already know that it is very effective in blocking sunburns and we have seen cases where it can induce protective enzymes in the skin."

      Sulforaphane is the kind of compound that has so many incredible theoretical applications if the dosage is measured properly,” Dr. Dickinson said. “We already know that it is very effective in blocking sunburns, and we have seen cases where it can induce protective enzymes in the skin.”

      Someday, patients with compromised immune systems may be able to apply sulforaphane to their skin in order to reduce their risk of skin cancer. 

      Sales have doubled

      Since Johns Hopkins' Talalay made his discovery, sales of broccoli have doubled in the United States and Talalay and colleagues have formed Brassica Products, which now produces and sells two million four-ounce packages of broccoli sprouts a year nationwide.

       The sprouts pack 20 to 50 times the cancer-fighting punch of the mature broccoli plant. They're promoted as helping people help themselves fight disease, a process Talalay, now 85, calls "chemoprotection," as opposed to the chemotherapy that is used once someone contracts cancer.

      "'Protection' implies an empowering function that an individual can use," he said in a recent issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine. "From this idea has come a principle that one can use the body's own protective mechanisms and boost them. That's the principle that animates us."

      It has long been known that broccoli contains a substance that helps the body fight cancer. But the assumption was that you'd have to eat the broccoli to g...

      Bogus debt collection, credit management schemes derailed

      FTC imposes $25 million judgment against repeat offender Brett Fisher

      Brett Fisher probably wishes the Federal Trade Commission didn't exist. Back in 2010, the agency imposed a $17.2 million judgment against him in a case involving advance-fee credit cards. Fisher got out of that one with a payment of $21,000, which was all he was able to scrape together.

      This time around, the FTC has imposed a $25.3 million judgment against Fisher in a case involving two Tampa, Fla., operations that allegedly bilked consumers out of millions of dollars before being shut down by a federal court last year.

      According to the FTC, the defendants used phony debt collection calls from India and bogus claims that they would reduce consumers’ credit card interest rates to bilk consumers. Fisher masterminded both schemes, the FTC alleged.

      Besides the $25.3 million judgment against Fisher, other defendants are required to surrender their assets to satisfy their monetary judgments. 

      Defendants Pro Credit Group, LLC, Consumer Credit Group, LLC, and My Success Track, LLC, are not parties to these settlements, are not currently represented, and are facing default judgments, the FTC said.

      Debt collection scheme

      The FTC alleged that between January 2010 and August 2011, Fisher and other defendants set up U.S.-based financial accounts for a call center operation based in India to unfairly collect payday loan debts from consumers who either did not owe them, or owed them to somebody else. 

      The callers used threats, lies, and abusive tactics to collect debts from consumers who had previously applied for or received loans from online payday loan companies and had supplied sensitive personal financial information that later found its way into the hands of those involved with the scam.

      Once consumers agreed to pay, Fisher used Sanders Legal Group, P.A. to process at least $5 million from consumers whom the India-based callers had misled. Although numerous consumers complained to the local Better Business Bureau chapter about the abusive tactics of the callers, and many consumers tried unsuccessfully to get refunds, the defendants continued processing consumers’ payments.

      "Lower interest"

      In the credit management case, the FTC said Fisher, several other individuals and five companies they controlled – Pro Credit Group, Sanders Law, Consumer Credit Group, LLC, My Success Track, LLC, and First Financial Asset Services, Inc. – deceived consumers by offering a bogus service to negotiate lower interest rates. 

      As part of their scheme, the defendants allegedly used prerecorded telemarketing robocalls, including one from “Rachel” at “cardholder services” that urged consumers to press a number and speak to a live representative in order to obtain lower interest rates. 

      Nancy of Paola, Kans., got several of those calls. "I'm continually getting automated calls from Consumer Credit threatening me, to call them back," she said in a posting to ConsumerAffairs.

      According to the complaint, defendants’ telemarketers falsely represented that they had established relationships with consumers’ lenders and often assured consumers that, if they did not see the promised results, they would receive full refunds.

      According to the FTC, the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule by allegedly charging consumers between $695 and $995 up front for their bogus service and failing to obtain written approval from consumers before sending them robocalls. 

      That's apparently what happened to Randy of Leesville, S.C., who posted to ConsumerAffairs about his experience with Consumer Credit Group last year.

      "I was contacted and was charged on my credit card without any response and the phone number is no longer in service. I was told they could not help me refund my money. I have tried to contact them with no way to get my refund," Randy said.

      Brett Fisher probably wishes the Federal Trade Commission didn't exist. Back in 2010, the agency imposed a $17.2 million judgment against him in a case inv...

      Walmart launches smartphone trade-in program

      You can get credit for your device while keeping it out of a landfill

      Want to trade in your smartphone without a hassle? Walmart has a program that it says will let you do exactly that.

      Starting Sept. 21, U.S. consumers will get immediate credit towards the purchase of a new smartphone when they trade in their current device at an of more than 3,600 Walmart stores and Sam’s Club locations across the country.

      The program offers a credit of from $50 to $300 for more than 100 for working, non-damaged smartphones. Examples include: $300 for an Apple iPhone 5, $175 for a Samsung Galaxy SIII and $52 for a Samsung Galaxy S2.

      "Smartphones have become a part of our customers' everyday lives and as new devices launch more frequently, trade-in programs are becoming more popular,” said Steve Bratspies, executive vice president of general merchandise for Walmart U.S. "More and more, customers are choosing where they purchase new smartphones based on where they'll get the best value for their trade-ins. Our goal is to give them more value for their old devices and the lowest price for their new one.”

      What to do

      Customers should bring their working smartphone to an associate in the electronics department at Walmart stores and Sam’s Club locations. In partnership with CExchange, the value of the smartphone will then be assessed by answering simple, unbiased questions on the device’s condition and specifications.

      Once accepted, the trade-in value will be applied to a new smartphone of their choice -- like the Apple iPhone 5 for $98 or the Samsung Galaxy S4 for $138 -- with a two-year contract from AT&T, Verizon Wireless or Sprint.

      Customers can also apply the trade-in value to smartphones available with prepaid plans like Straight Talk, which is only available at Walmart, which provides talk, text and data for $45 a month.

      Mother Nature benefits

      Walmart says the trade-in program is consistent with its sustainability goals and will help customers and members recycle smartphones responsibly. According to CExchange’s green policy, smartphones traded-in at Walmart and Sam’s Club will be never be sent to landfills, domestically or internationally.

      “We’re saving our customers money while keeping thousands of smartphones from going to landfills each year,” said Bratspies. “Walmart’s smartphone trade-in programs are good for business, our customers and the environment.”

      Want to trade in your smartphone without a hassle? Walmart has a program that it says will let you do exactly that. Starting Sept. 21, U.S. consumers will...

      Princeton named top college in annual U.S. News rankings

      Schools that do well promote the annual rankings heavily; others ignore them

      What's the best college of them all? According to U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings, it's Princeton, followed by Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford. The University of California-Berkeley was named the best state school.

      U.S. News was once a newsmagazine but it now just churns out lists which, for some reason, are regarded as highly authoritative even though like all such rankings, they don't necessarily translate into actionable information for individuals. 

      Nevertheless, U.S. News promotes the rankings heavily, as do schools that rank highly.

      “Higher education remains an important indicator of future earnings and career stability and  we’re pleased to provide this useful tool and data to help students make an informed decision,” said Matt Speer, Director of Sales and Marketing for U.S. News University Connection. ”U.S. News University Connection is proud to play a role in helping students choose a school and degree program that can allow them to compete in today’s challenging job market.”

      Data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that workers who hold a bachelor’s degree earn significantly more than those who hold only a high school diploma, and are much less likely to experience unemployment, Speer noted.  In 2012, bachelor’s degree holders had a median weekly income of $1,066 and an unemployment rate of 4.5%. Workers with only a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $652 and saw 8.3% unemployment.

      Best Colleges 2014 "provides education seekers with authoritative rankings of colleges and universities that award bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees," U.S. News said in a press release. 

      The complete rankings are available on USNews.com and USNewsUniversityDirectory.com. The print edition will hit newsstands on Sept. 24, 2013.

      Schools are grouped into ten categories:  National universities, national liberal arts colleges, regional universities (North, South, Midwest and West), and regional colleges (North, South, Midwest and West). 

      Within each category, institutions are ranked according to several indicators of academic excellence, including alumni giving, assessment by administrators at peer institutions, faculty resources, financial resources, retention of students and student selectivity. 

      What's the best college of them all? According to U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings, it's Princeton, followed by Harvard, Yale, Columbia ...

      iTunes broke faith with "Breaking Bad" fans, class action charges

      Suit claims Apple sold a "Season Pass," then broke the season into two parts

      If you buy a ticket to a football game, you don't have to buy a second ticket if you want to stay past halftime.

      That's the argument that's being made in a class action lawsuit against Apple. Lead plaintiff Noam Lazebnik says iTunes sold customers a "Season Pass" for the final season of "Breaking Bad," the saga of a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cooker and murderer.

      Season 5 of "Breaking Bad," produced by AMC Networks, was announced as the final season and was to include 16 episodes.

      AMC said in a 2012 press release that the "final season" -- Season 5 -- of the show "consists of 16 episodes, with the first eight episodes beginning July 15th and culminating with the series' final eight episodes next Summer 2013," according to the complaint, Courthouse News Service reported.

      So that's one season consisting of 16 shows stretched out over the time period that would normally be two seasons, more or less. 

      So when Season 5 became available on iTunes, customers were offered a "Season Pass" -- $21.99 for high definition and $13.99 for standard definition -- that Apple said "includes all current and future episodes of Breaking Bad, Season 5,'" Lazebnik says in the complaint.

      But when the second half of the season became available on iTunes in early August this year, customers with a season pass had to pay another $22.99 or $14.99 to get them, Lazebnik says. The suit asks that Apple be ordered to refund the second-half charge and pay damages. 

      If you buy a ticket to a football game, you don't have to buy a second ticket if you want to stay past halftime....

      'Severely obese:' a worrisome classification

      Five percent of U.S. kids are said to fit that description

      There's a newly defined class of weight risk -- severely obese. And according to a scientific statement from American Heart Association, published online in the journal Circulation, about 5% of U.S. children and teens are in that category.

      "Severe obesity in young people has grave health consequences," said Aaron Kelly, Ph.D., lead author of the statement and a researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. "It's a much more serious childhood disease than obesity."

      While childhood obesity rates are starting to level off, severe obesity has increased, Kelly said.

      What is 'severely obese?'

      The statement defines children over age 2 as severely obese if they either have a body mass index (BMI) that's at least 20 percent higher than the 95th percentile for their gender and age, or a BMI score of 35 or higher. A child in the 95th percentile weighs more than 95 percent of other children of the same gender and age.

      BMI is a measurement based on weight and height. Age- and gender-specific growth charts are used to calculate BMI for children. Children at the 95th BMI percentile or higher are obese, and those between the 85th and 95th percentiles are overweight.

      A 7-year-old girl of average height weighing 75 pounds, or a 13-year-old boy of average height weighing 160 pounds, would be defined as severely obese.

      The consequences

      Severely obese children have higher rates of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues at younger ages, including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and early signs of atherosclerosis -- the disease process that clogs arteries.

      Treatment options for children with this level of obesity are limited, as most standard approaches to weight loss are insufficient for them.

      What to do

      Most experts recommend a step-wise approach for treating severely obese children, with treatment getting gradually more intensive from lifestyle changes, to medication and potentially surgery.

      "But the step from lifestyle change and medication to surgery is unacceptably large because weight loss surgery isn't appropriate for or available to all severely obese children," Kelly said.

      The statement calls for "innovative approaches to fill the gap between lifestyle/medication and surgery."

      The statement suggests ways to close the gap, including:

      • conduct more research on bariatric surgery's effects and safety;
      • evaluate effectiveness of lifestyle modification interventions, including adherence to dietary and physical activity plans;
      • fund research to find other useful interventions, including better drugs and medical devices; and
      • recognize severe obesity as a chronic disease requiring ongoing care and management.

      There's a newly defined class of weight risk -- severely obese. And according to a scientific statement from American Heart Association, published online i...

      Toyota recalls various Lexus vehicles with engine bolt problems

      The bolts could become loose due to abnormal impacts

      Toyota is recalling 101,584 model year 2007-2011 Lexus GS350 vehicles manufactured June 19, 2006, through July 12, 2011; model year 2006-2011 Lexus IS350 vehicles manufactured May 27, 2005, through July 13, 2011; and model year 2010-2011 Lexus IS350c vehicles manufactured November 25, 2009, through July 19, 2011.

      These vehicles, equipped with the 2GR-FSE engine, use bolts to secure the housing and sprocket of the Variable-Valve Timing (VVT) system gear assembly. These bolts could become loose due to abnormal impacts generated within the gear assembly immediately after a cold start-up. The loose bolts could cause the VVT gear housing and sprocket to separate and result in the engine stopping while the vehicle is being driven, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Toyota will notify owners, and Lexus dealers will replace the VVT unit free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

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

      Toyota is recalling 101,584 model year 2007-2011 Lexus GS350 vehicles manufactured June 19, 2006, through July 12, 2011; model year 2006-2011 Lexus IS350 v...

      Toyota recalls RAV4 and Lexus HS250h vehicles

      Failure of the rear tie rod could cause a loss of vehicle control

      Toyota is recalling nearly 800,000 model year 2006 through 2011 RAV4 and 2010 Lexus HS250h passenger vehicles manufactured from October 2005, through September 2010.

      If the nuts for adjusting the rear wheel alignment are improperly tightened during service, the rear suspension arm (rear tire rod) may develop unwanted movement and rust leading to thread damage and eventual failure. Failure of the rear tire rod will cause an abrupt change in the vehicle's alignment, which could cause a loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the tie rods and replace any that have rust or corrosion on the alignment adjustment threads. All of the rear tie rods will then be encased in an epoxy to prevent future environmental damage.

      Due to limitations in parts, the recall remedy will be launched in phases from September 2013, through February 2014. All owners will receive notification of the recall, with most receiving second notifications when parts are available in their area.

      This recall supersedes a Toyota and Lexus recall issued about a year ago. All vehicles that have been inspected and remedied under the previous recall need to be re-inspected and have the appropriate remedy applied.

      Toyota is recalling nearly 800,000 model year 2006 through 2011 RAV4 and 2010 Lexus HS250h passenger vehicles manufactured from October 2005, through Septe...

      Aging: is it all in your head?

      The Fountain of Youth may have been within you all along

      New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady recently turned 36 and is entering his 14th season in the National Football League, a point at which most professional athletes start thinking about hanging it up. But not Brady.

      The future Hall of Fame signal-caller has suggested he may play when he's 50 years old. On CNBC recently, touting a new chain of gyms in which he has invested, Brady scoffed at the idea he is getting to be too old to be an elite quarterback.

      "It's a bunch of crap that people think as you get older you get worse,” he told the network.

      Some scientists agree with Brady, though they might not put it in exactly those terms. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified a sirtuin protein called Sirt1 that operates in the brain, bringing about a significant delay in aging and an increase in longevity. It's also associated with a low-calorie diet.

      Eat less

      There's a significant body of evidence that suggests a healthy but low-calorie diet will help you live longer. But Shin-ichiro Imai and his colleagues say they have shown how Sirt1 prompts brain activity that triggers dramatic physical changes that may explain why people live longer. Skeletal muscles get stronger and the subject experiences increased energy and longevity.

      “In our studies of mice that express Sirt1 in the brain, we found that the skeletal muscular structures of old mice resemble young muscle tissue,” said Imai. “Twenty-month-old mice – the equivalent of 70-year-old humans -- look as active as five-month-olds.”

      Imai said that the mice in the study didn't just age more slowly. They actually put off the time at which the normal effects of aging begin to show themselves. Having narrowed control of aging to the brain, Imai’s team then traced the control center of aging regulation to two areas of the brain.

      'Tantalizing possibility'

      According to the researchers, their discovery means more than extending the careers of professional athletes. It raises the tantalizing possibility of a “control center of aging and longevity” in the brain, which could be manipulated to maintain youthful physiology and extend life spans.

      Imai and his colleagues are not the first to suggest that the Fountain of Youth is not some external product but rather to be found from within. In 2011 noted cardiologist Dr. Clyde Yancy said people who follow seven simple steps to a healthy life can expect to live an additional 40 to 50 years after the age of 50.

      "Achieving these seven simple lifestyle factors gives people a 90 per cent chance of living to the age of 90 or 100, free of not only heart disease and stroke but from a number of other chronic illnesses including cancer," Yancey, a professor of medicine and chief of cardiology at the Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a speech in Vancouver, British Columbia.

      According to Yancy, the seven secrets to a longer, healthy life are as follows:

      • Get active: Inactivity can shave almost four years off a person's expected lifespan. People who are physically inactive are twice as likely to be at risk for heart disease or stroke.
      • Know and control cholesterol levels: High blood cholesterol can lead to the build-up of fatty deposits in your arteries, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke.
      • Follow a healthy diet: Healthy eating is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. 
      • Know and control blood pressure: High blood pressure is often called a 'silent killer' because it has no warning signs or symptoms . By knowing and controlling your blood pressure, you can cut your risk of stroke by up to 40 per cent and the risk of heart attack by up to 25 per cent.
      • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight: About one-third of American adults are classified as obese. Almost 60 per cent of Canadian adults are either overweight or obese, major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Being obese can reduce your life span by almost four years.
      • Manage diabetes: Diabetes increases the risk of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), coronary artery disease, and stroke, particularly if your blood sugar levels are poorly controlled.
      • Be tobacco-free: Thousands die prematurely each year due to tobacco use, and thousands of non-smokers die each year from exposure to second-hand smoke. 

      New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady recently turned 36 and is entering his 14th season in the National Football League, a point at which most profes...

      Soup from a coffeemaker? Coming right up

      Campbell's and Keurig planning to brew up some new concoctions

      Depending on your taste preferences, the impending product marriage between Campbell’s Soup and Keurig Coffee indicates either a Golden Age of instant just-add-water food and beverage options, or proof that the apocalypse is nigh.

      Keurig machines are well-known to office workers throughout America: put one of those little plastic cups into the machine, wait for it to add water, and in less than a minute you have a steaming mug of something that tastes exactly like weak, watered-down coffee. So, Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison figured, why not do the same thing for soup?

      Forbes market reporter Abram Brown noted that, “Campbell’s iconic red-and-white cans don’t sell like they used to -- and they’ve been nudged from their place in American pantries. In response, Morrison rolled back a drive into low-sodium soup (it surprised people and raised questions they hadn’t thought about), and Campbell snapped up Bolthouse Farms, which gives the soupmaker access to the fast-growing packaged fresh-food market.”

      I’m one of those people surprised by Campbell’s low-sodium soup. Specifically, I was surprised to learn that in soup contexts, “low sodium” is synonymous with “no flavor at all.”

      I always keep a few cans of chicken noodle on hand for when I suffer a cold; one feverish day a couple years ago, my then-boyfriend bought my sick self some soup but accidentally picked up the “low-sodium” variety, which was utterly vile. Even adding copious amounts of salt to the boiling soup didn’t help.

      I eventually threw the cans of low-sodium soup away; I would’ve given them to the food bank, but figured, “If you are poor enough to need a food bank, your life is already unpleasant and stressful and I'll not make it worse by inflicting flavor-free soup on you.”

      Chicken noodle is one of the three soup varieties Campbell’s will add to Keurig machines next year. So if you’re a fan of Campbell’s chicken noodle but have thought, “This would taste a lot better if the noodles and chicken bits were first completely dried out and then reconstituted with coffee-flavored hot water,” then 2014 ought to be a banner year for you.

      Depending on your taste preferences, the impending product marriage between Campbell’s Soup and Keurig Coffee indicates either a Golden Age of instan...

      Making your money last through retirement

      Disciplined saving and not pushing the panic button are key

      The statistics about retirement savings are pretty sobering. The Employment Benefit Research Institute has found that more than half of Americans have saved less than $25,000. AARP reports that half of Baby Boomers doubt they'll ever be able to retire. 

      The problem of little or no retirement savings is a front-burner topic. What is less discussed is how to make the money you have saved for retirement last. Since you don't really know how long you will live you don't really know how much you'll need. But Jane Bennett Clark, senior editor at Kiplinger Personal Finance, says you'll probably need more than you think.

      “With increased longevity you could end up living 25 to 30 years into retirement so you really can't afford to ignore the effects of inflation on your buying power of your retirement savings over several decades,” Clark said. “So in order to beat inflation you have to invest some of your savings for growth and that means investing in stocks.”

      Rule number one

      In a recent article she profiled a couple who retired around the time the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008. They watched in horror as the value of their retirement account portfolios plummeted. However, they held on and didn't sell, meaning they caught the upside when the market bottomed in March 2009 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average more than doubled. Her number one rule? Don't dump stocks. 

      That's not the same as the “buy and hold” strategy, however. If a fund or individual stock is performing poorly there's no reason not to sell and move the money into another fund or stock. Just don't panic and sell into a bear market because they are usually followed by bull markets.

      Clark thinks a good general guideline for people entering retirement is to keep a ratio of 40% stocks to 60% fixed income. With interest rates and bond yield tiny over the last five years dividend stocks have increased in popularity. These equities pay shareholders a dividend each quarter, many the same or much higher than bond yields. But Clark sees some dangers.

      Be careful with dividend stocks

      “Dividend stocks are becoming expensive so you have to be picky about what you're getting,” she said. “Also, stocks can fall when interest rates finally do rise.”

      And “expensive” doesn't strictly apply to the price, but rather the price in relation to earnings. An “expensive” stock is one that sells for a high multiple of its earnings per share – a multiple that might not be justified by its prospects for future growth.

      Figuring out what's expensive and what isn't takes some time and effort, which is why most retirement accounts are made up of mutual funds. These funds are professionally managed with fund managers deciding when to buy and sell the stocks that make up the fund.

      Stock guru Jim Cramer recently criticized the typical 401(k) plan for what he called a lack of attractive options for investors. He has always been a a proponent of owning individual stocks – but only after the investors takes the time to learn the ins and outs of investing.

      Are you a stock picker?

      “I don't think most people have the interest or the time or knowledge to track individual stocks and be stock pickers,” Clark said. “If you like to do it, great. But I think mutual funds are the logical choice for most people.”

      Even if your investments are exclusively in funds, Clark says some are conservative and some are more growth oriented. She suggests spreading your money around in both types, in what she calls the bucket system.

      “You invest enough money in liquid, conservative accounts to cover several years worth of basic costs,” Clark said. “Then you might create another bucket with investments that give you more potential for yield and that would cover some of your discretionary expenses. And then a third bucket would be for growth investments.”

      Stepping up savings

      As Baby Boomers approach retirement and worry that they don't quite have it covered, are there things they could be doing to help them sleep better at night?

      “The obvious answer is they can be saving as much as possible, including taking advantage of their catch-up contributions to their 401(k) and Roth IRA,” she said. That's a really good opportunity to pile money into their tax deferred accounts.”

      Individuals who are 50 years old at the end of the calendar year can make extra “catch-up” contributions to their retirement accounts. The Internal Revenue Serice (IRS) explains it here

      The statistics about retirement savings are pretty sobering. The Employment Benefit Research Institute has found that more than half of Americans have save...