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    It's Black Friday: do you know where your deals are?

    If you haven't done your homework you could end up overpaying

    Millions of Americans are in the midst of the annual Black Friday shopping frenzy and those who have done their homework, mapped out a strategy and carefully prepared their budget will likely have the most success.

    From now until Christmas – perhaps even a few days after – you're going to get hit with advertising deals, special offers and bargains “too good to pass up.” A word of advice – keep your wits about you and make sure that deal is really a deal.

    “Shoppers are watching their budgets closely this year, which means retailers are as well,” said Jennifer Calonia, consumer savings specialist for GoBankingRates.com. “With heightened competition for consumer cash, stores are resorting to sneaky tactics. Essentially, true Black Friday deals are dead.”

    But what about all those “door-buster specials?” GoBankingRates.com points to a Walmart Black Friday ad promoting a 16GB Apple iPad Mini at $299 with a bonus $100 gift card thrown in. But read through the fine print. This offer isn't on Black Friday but was a one-hour guaranteed supply on Thanksgiving Day, from 6 to 7 p.m., meaning shoppers had to spend that much more time standing in line without their turkey and fixings.

    Where are the deals?

    GoBankingRates said it compared listed prices against their Black Friday ad prices for a number of items in the most popular shopping categories, including laptops, HDTVs, and toys and gaming. It said it found that some mid-to-high priced items received lower discounts, compared to products that were already marked at a low MSRP.

    If you're looking for a name brand HDTV, the website says Black Friday is not the time to buy. In fact, it said it found that discounts on knock off model TVs weren't that great either.

    There's a good chance that more shoppers than last year are doing their Black Friday shopping online. The deals are just as good, if not better, and you have to admit it's a lot more convenient. Online retailers are particularly motivated because they are looking beyond just the holiday season.

    Critical opportunity

    “With online holiday sales growth set to eclipse brick and mortar stores this year, the 2013 holiday shopping season is a critical opportunity for online retailers to attract frequent shoppers and create loyal, long term customers for the other 11 months of the year,” said Fiona Dias, Chief Strategy Officer at ShopRunner.com, an online buying portal. “Smart retailers realize the holidays are the time to capture customer loyalty for the rest of year. With around 40% of online shopping transactions happening during the holidays, now is the time for retailers to hook new customers with a great shopping experience from browsing to purchasing to fast and free shipping.”

    Dias says shoppers are not just looking for great prices and great service from online merchants. They want free shipping too. It's something shoppers should be able to take for granted this year, she said.

    EBay Enterprise, formerly GSI Commerce, is tracking shopping data this holiday season and notes consumers now have an arsenal of digital devices with which to shop. Even so, it has found that so far 79% of online purchases have been made using the traditional laptop and desktop devices. But Dias says the trend suggests a move toward mobility.

    “With tablets, holiday shopping moves to the couch, train and bed,” she said. “Tablets will be a big winner for this year’s online holiday shopping sales, while consumers will mostly just browse on mobile phones unless retailers offer an expedited checkout process that takes no more than a few clicks.”

    However you're shopping – online or in a store – make sure you know what you're buying. It may be a tablet for $99 but how much storage capacity does it have? What kind of warranty? This is the reason you should check out ads and investigate the products before you decide to buy.

    Look out for identity theft

    Since more consumers are doing their Black Friday shopping online, it's worth repeating that identity theft dangers are escalating, along with the online deals. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is warning consumers to only shop with online retailers they know and trust.

    “When entering credit card information, be sure that an 'https' precedes the website address in your browser’s address bar,” Koster said. “Many browsers will display a padlock icon when you navigate to a secure site.”

    Bob Bunge, a cyber security specialist and engineering professor at DeVry University, told ConsumerAffairs.com earlier this month he expects a big increase in phishing attacks as scammers try to take advantage of the huge increase in consumers making online purchases. Beware of emails offering deals “too good to be true,” he warns.

    Millions of Americans are in the midst of the annual Black Friday shopping frenzy and those who have done their homework, mapped out a strategy and careful...
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    Revelation: Best Buy not always the best buy

    "Do the math first," and this reader's tale shows why

    “Do the math first.” That’s our first rule of responsible consumer spending: if ever you buy something on an installment plan (whether dealer financing, credit card payments, bank loans or anything else), don’t focus only on whether you can afford the weekly or monthly payments—do the math first, to calculate your total cost.   

    But if “do the math first” is our first rule, “keep doing the math” might be our second, especially regarding credit cards and other financing forms where the terms and rates are subject to change all the time.

    Last week we heard from a savvy consumer, Donna P. of Spring Branch, Tenn., who kept doing the math regarding her Best Buy credit card and reward points programs — and that’s how she realized some recent changes weren’t in her favor.

    As Donna told us on Nov. 23: “I just found out about the change in point earnings. Turns out if you choose a no-interest finance option then you get 0 reward points! So, basically, if you choose to pay 26+% interest on your $1,000 purchase then you will earn enough points to get a $50 certificate—but you will pay over $300 in interest over 18 months! Some reward there!”

    Yikes. In fairness to Best Buy (which, after all, is a for-profit company, not a charitable institution), any credit card company offering “reward points,” “cash back” or other free stuff is paying for it not out of its own pocket, but from the interest charges collected from its debtors.

    However, with most credit cards we’ve seen, if you personally pay off your charges early enough to avoid interest fees, then you personally can still get the “free” rewards; the credit card company has enough customers paying high interest rates every month to give you your free stuff and still make a hefty profit. Or, as a friend of ours likes to say, “The irresponsible credit card users pay for all the neat stuff given to responsible credit card users.”

    Sounds like Donna can’t do that anymore, at least not with Best Buy. So what will she do? “I have been an elite member for years. I am so upset I will probably cancel my Best Buy card and no longer shop with them. Supposedly the change was effective in July and nobody at the store every made me aware there was anything different. They are big on offering the promotional financing, but not in explaining you will not be earning points!”

    Keep doing the math

    Again, in fairness to Best Buy, we can’t think of any company that’s big on pointing out “This offer of ours might sound like a good deal for you, but if you do the math you’ll see it’s really not.” That’s why we like to say “Do the math first” and “keep doing the math” — because a company offering a bad deal has no incentive to do the math for you.

    On a related note: holiday gift-buying season is upon us, and a good-quality, multi-function calculator with long-lasting batteries can easily be had for under $10. If you don’t have one already, buy one for yourself before you buy gifts for anyone else — because when you buy those gifts we’ll still say “Do the math first!” and a calculator makes doing the math a lot easier.

    “Do the math first.” That’s our first rule of responsible consumer spending: if ever you buy something on an installment plan (whether de...
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    Extra and "hidden" fees plague car rental customers

    Customer says Dollar charged a towing fee as a reward for his adding air to the tires

    The travel industry is becoming expert at adding fees and extra charges to just about every transaction you can think of, and some you can't. Edward of Staten Island, N.Y., and nearly 500 other consumers think Dollar Rent A Car has taken it to new heights.

    "Car was rented from Fort Lauderdale, FL facility. 'Tire Low' signal showed ten minutes after I left site," Edward said in a posting to ConsumerAffairs today. "Was on the highway at the time and the next exit was a distance away. I added air and the signal was removed. The next morning the tire was flat."

    "I contacted DRC and they would not replace the car, instead they gave me the option to have a servicing company replace the tire with the spare 'donut' tire in the trunk," he said. Edward said he didn't think it was safe to drive with the donut on the highway but the Dollar clerk refused to replace the car.

    "Upon returning the car, they added a $78.95 charge to my bill calling it 'TOWING.' There was no TOWING involved. When I challenged the charge via American Express, DRC responded that it was an accurate charge under the contract. Let it be known that this charge was very well hidden in the small print and not fully explained."

    Accused of theft

    Unfortunately, Edward isn't alone. Jan of Ft. Myers, Fa., rented a Dollar car in Sanford and had trouble starting it. A Dollar employee told her not to worry, saying the battery would charge on her way home. Jan said she even left the car idling while she had lunch, hoping to recharge the battery.

    "Came home, switched it off. Would never start again! After talking to a million tapes on the phone, I finally talked to a person. They decided to collect car on a truck at my house," she said. A week later, Jan started getting calls from Dollar saying she hadn't returned the car.

    "I had to drive over to airport, talked to a Dollar guy. He was going to take care of the problem This was on Wednesday. Phone calls never stopped! Saturday I received a letter telling me they would report car stolen. Monday I finally reached the guy I talked to at the airport. He promised me again he was going to take care of the problem," Jan said.

    But the same day she got a call from a Dollar manager in Sanford asking "Where the hell is our car?"

    "I explained everything for the tenth time," Jan said. "Apparently the truck driver took car to the wrong repair shop." Jan said she finally got an apology and a promise of a credit but says this will be her last experience with Dollar.

    Drop charge

    It's not only Florida Dollar locations that cause problems. A consumer called "IG" rented a car in San Diego and asked if there would be a drop charge if he returned it in Los Angeles the same day.

    "The agent said no, it's only the rental price. In LA they charged me $140 extra on an $44 rental price. That's the worst company I ever rented with. ... "They also tried to charge me $15 toll which I paid."

    Steve of the UK stumbled off a long flight in Las Vegas and picked up his car without thoroughly reading the contract.

    "When i reviewed the receipt I was charged for everything but the kitchen sink -- upgraded insurance, hyped road care, and taxes on everything," he said. "The original on the web was $14 a day, ended up $289 for two days including a full tank of petrol. What an absolute rip off."

    Barbie of Houston is still smoldering over her experience with Dollar.

    "I recently rented a car and when I called to extend the rental they charged me $65.00 just to extend for more days. When I turned the car in we did a walk-around, all was good and my ticket was signed off. Two days later I had a $250.00 charge to my credit card for a cleaning fee," she said. "They stated there was a smoke smell, ashes, and pet hair. Well first off I don't smoke and I do not own a pet."

    Barbie said she called to dispute the charge and was given a case number. Three weeks later, Dollar called to say she would have to pay the fee.

    "I would have been okay and accept this if I smoked or owned a pet. They are such a rip-off. I will never rent from them again or recommend anyone into that trap," she said. 

    The travel industry is becoming expert at adding fees and extra charges to just about every transaction you can think of, and some you can't. Edward of Sta...
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      Martha Stewart products don't always spread good cheer

      Customers looking for help with problem products come up empty-handed

      For whatever reason, Martha Stewart retains much of her celebrity appeal even as customers find themselves with darkened Christmas trees, glass-strewn patios and crumbling dishes.

      For those setting forth in search of holiday decorations, it may be worthwhile to take a minute and review the experience of Carolyn of Jasper, Ala., who yesterday recounted her experience with a Martha Stewart Christmas tree she bought last year.

      When she got the tree home, she discovered the lights didn't work. Being recently widowed, she didn't feel up to taking the tree back. When she took it out this year, same problem -- no lights.

      "My nephew took it back to Home Depot where I got it to see if they could get the lights to work. They couldn't get it to work either but also said there was nothing they could do. They gave me a pack of fifty lights to put on it where lights didn't work," Carolyn said.

      "Very dissatisfied with this product. Think I'm done with Martha Stewart If they stood by their products they would make this up. Home Depot said they had had a lot of complaints about lights on her trees."

      Joady of Brockton, Mass., meanwhile, is irate about a set of Martha Stewart dishes. 

      "Am very disappointed in the quality of the product. Every dish, saucer and dessert plate I have has chips," she said. "The dishware says microwave safe, and the dish will get hot. I actually had the dessert plate crack in two pieces after 20 seconds in the microwave. The teacups constantly need to be filled with bleach to eliminate tea stains."

      "Will not buy Martha Stewart dishware again, nor will I encourage friends and family to do so. I thought that this savvy businesswoman would make sure anything with her name on it would be up to her standards of perfection ... apparently not."

      Ed of Aberdeen, Md., wrote to complain about a mattress: "My mother purchased a Martha Stewart Queen Size Mattress Set, and in less than 2 years, the mattress has completely collapsed by 2 1/2 inches! We even turned the mattress last year, to see if it would help, but that side also collapsed!"

      "I guess having her name on ANY product, isn't an endorsement for the products under her name. I feel sorry for Sealy for making the damn thing, because normally, their products are wonderful," Ed said, echoing a sentiment expressed by many consumers -- namely, why doesn't Ms. Stewart instruct her minions to be a bit more forthcoming when consumers encounter problems with her products?

      Think we're exaggerating? Take a look at the 1,500 or so complaints about exploding glass tables and other outdoor furniture. In years of sifting through such complaints, we've never encountered the slightest expression of concern, remorse or anything else from Ms. Stewart's company. Retailers occasionally try to help but as far as the Stewart brand is concerned, the policy seems to be: once you buy it, it's yours.

      For whatever reason, Martha Stewart retains much of her celebrity appeal even as customers find themselves with darkened Christmas trees, glass-strewn pati...
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      Home values fall two straight months

      But a few markets remain red hot

      The steady recovery in the housing market appears to have hit a speed bump. For the second straight month, the national median home value, as measured by Zillow.com, a real estate listings website, dipped slightly from the month before.

      The October decline, though slight, is notable because September's median price fell from August. Back to back declines had not occurred since October 2011, when the housing market was still in the midst of recession.

      The numbers aren't getting much attention because the more closely-followed number is the year-over-year number. Months are not usually measured against the month that came before so much as the same month 12 months earlier.

      Here, the news for homeowners is a bit more reassuring. Home values nationwide rose 5.2%. However, that rate is significantly slower than in previous months, suggesting that the market has begun to cool off. But is it anything to worry about?

      Nice while it lasted

      "The months-long period of annual home value appreciation rates in the six and seven percent range was great while it lasted, but we knew it would not continue indefinitely,” said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries. “The slowdown we've seen these past few months was expected, and is largely welcome news for a market still struggling to find its natural balance."

      Humphries says some of the conditions that heated up the moribund housing market have changed. Historically low interest rates have risen and so have home prices, though they remain well below their bubble levels. Demand has begun to slacken as a previously-tight inventory has begun to expand a bit. In short, Humphries says the housing market is getting back to normal.

      The Zillow Home Value Index places the national median home value in October at $162,800, down just 0.1% from September. But of course, all real estate – just like politics – is local. Some housing markets remain red hot.

      LA still sizzles

      In Los Angeles, for example, the median home value in October was $487,600, up 1.2% over September and up more than 20% year-over-year. Miami-Ft. Lauderdale saw home values rise 1.2% over September and 16.9% over October 2012.

      On the other end of the scale, the median home value in St. Louis fell 0.9% to $128,200 in October – less than one percent above year-ago levels. Baltimore is another trouble spot for homeowners. Prices were down 0.7% from September and up only 4.3% from October 2012.

      According to Zillow, half of the 388 metros covered experienced monthly home value depreciation in October from September. Among the 30 largest metro areas included in the Index, 10 experienced monthly depreciation in October, and two more were flat.

      Slow going ahead

      Where do we go from here? Zillow projects that home values should rise just 2.7% over the next 12 months – with some markets winners and some losers. For example, Zillow projects seven of the top 30 metros will see home values fall over the next year, with the biggest declines in St. Louis, Philadelphia and New York.

      Going forward foreclosures may be less of a factor. The number of completed foreclosures in October fell to 5.44 homes foreclosed out of every 10,000 homes nationwide. That's down from 5.5 homes in September.

      The re-sale of foreclosures amounted to 8.7% of home sales. in October, up half a percentage point from September but down 2.1% from October 2012.

      The steady recovery in the housing market appears to have hit a speed pump. For the second straight month, the national median home value, as measured by Z...
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      E-cigs a "new phase of the nicotine epidemic," study finds

      Rather than a way to stop, e-cigs are "a new route to nicotine addiction for kids"

      Promoters of e-cigarettes like to claim the devices are a good way to quit smoking, but a new study finds that they are more likely to get young people hooked on nicotine, causing them to smoke more, not less.

      In the study, said to be the first of its kind, UC San Francisco researchers said the youths they studied using e-cigarettes were more likely to be trying to quit, but also were less likely to have stopped smoking and were smoking more, not less.

      "We are witnessing the beginning of a new phase of the nicotine epidemic and a new route to nicotine addiction for kids," according to senior author Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, UCSF professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF.

      E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that look like cigarettes and deliver an aerosol of nicotine and other chemicals. Promoted as safer alternatives to cigarettes and smoking cessation aids, e-cigarettes are rapidly gaining popularity among adults and youth in the United States and around the world. The devices are largely unregulated, with no effective controls on marketing them to minors.

      In the UCSF study, the researchers assessed e-cigarette use among youth in Korea, where the devices are marketed much the way they are in the U.S. The study analyzed smoking among some 75,000 Korean youth.

      The study appears online in the current issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

      "Our paper raises serious concern about the effects of the Wild West marketing of e-cigarettes on youth," said Glantz.

      Penetrating youth market

      Despite industry claims that it markets only to adults, e-cigarettes have achieved substantial penetration into the youth market.

      In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the majority of adolescent e-cigarette users also smoke regular cigarettes, and that the percentage of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012. An estimated 1.78 million U.S. students had used the devices as of 2012, said the CDC.

      In the UCSF study, the researchers report that four out of five Korean adolescent e-cigarette users are "dual" smokers who use both tobacco and e-cigarettes.

      The authors conclude that young e-cigarette smokers "are more likely to have tried quitting smoking, which suggests that, consistent with cigarette marketing messages, some youth may be using e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid…Use of e-cigarettes is associated with heavier use of conventional cigarettes, which raises the likelihood that actual use of e-cigarettes may increase harm by creating a new pathway for youth to become addicted to nicotine and by reducing the odds that an adolescent will stop smoking conventional cigarettes."

      Promoters of e-cigarettes like to claim the devices are a good way to quit smoking, but a new study finds that they are more likely to get young people hoo...
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      Fired Pizza Hut manager offered job back

      Tony Rohr was let go for giving his employees the holiday off

      We hope everybody had a nice Thanksgiving. Here’s the story of one American with much to be thankful for this year: Indiana restaurant manager Tony Rohr, who will not be joining the unemployment lines after all.

      Rohr made headlines the day before Thanksgiving because he wanted to close his store over the holiday. This plan met with great approval among his employees, who wanted the day off to spend with their families, but much disdain from Pizza Hut’s corporate offices (or, more specifically, from the franchisee who owned Rohr’s store), who wanted to keep all stores open that day.

      As we reported earlier, before the holiday Rohr attended a managers’ meeting where he objected to the holiday-operation plan. “I said, 'Why can't we be the company that stands up and says we care about our employees and they can have the day off? …. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only two days that they're closed in the whole year and they're the only two days that those people are guaranteed to have off and spend it with their families.”

      For violating corporate policy, Rohr either quit or was fired; there’s some disagreement over the exact circumstances. But it doesn’t matter since on Thanksgiving Day, CNN reported that Pizza Hut’s corporate office (presumably inspired by the pro-Rohr backlach inspired by his story) said in a statement that the franchise owner who fired Rohr (or encouraged him to quit) had “made a serious error in judgment,” and that “We respect an employee's decision not to work on a holiday if they so choose, which is why the vast majority of Pizza Huts in America are closed on Thanksgiving. The stores that are open to service their local communities are staffed by team members with the willingness to work on this day as determined by their own personal situations.”

      For his part, Rohr (speaking on Thanksgiving) said he had not yet decided whether he would return to his old job, and dismissed claims that his day-off stance made him a hero.

      “All my friends are telling me how cool it is and how proud they are -- 'You're my hero' and stuff you don't expect to hear. No, I'm just some guy who told his boss 'No' and got burned. There are people who save lives.”

      We hope everybody had a nice Thanksgiving. Here’s the story of one American with much to be thankful for this year: Indiana restaurant manager Tony R...
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      On a budget? Here are 20 gifts under $20

      Read this before you reach for a gift card

      Survey after survey has suggested consumers plan to spend less this holiday season. In response, retailers have ramped up the sales and started Black Friday promotions three weeks early.

      But just because you've put yourself on a budget this holiday season doesn't mean you can't buy thoughtful gifts the people on your list will appreciate. To get you started here are 20 gifts that sell for $20 or less. Keep in mind that many of them have to be purchased online.

      In the kitchen

      • Food Network Waterproof Digital Thermometer - Every chef needs precise data on the cooking progress. This digital thermometer provides it. From Kohl's at $14.99.
      • Roma 6" Traditional Pasta Machine - Instantly helps you turn your kitchen into an Italian restaurant. Available at Walmart for $19.98.
      • Fox Run Craftsmen Aluminum Ravioli Maker - To supplement the pasta machine consider this tool to crank out ravioli. From WayFair for $15.70.
      • Touchless Bag Resealer - Just slide Bag Re-Sealer across bags to seal in freshness. Safely pack cosmetics when traveling. Magnetic back keeps Bag Re-Sealer handy on your refrigerator. At Amazon.com for $16.98.
      • Ekco PAO! 9-Piece Deluxe Sushi Set - The Sushi Maker Kit includes a sushi rolling mat, a three-step sushi maker, a rice paddle, two dipping sauce dishes, two pair of chopsticks and two chopstick rests. The Sushi Rolling Mat set also comes with complete instructions, cooking tips and recipes. At Walmart $14.98
      • Sushi for Dummies - You say you don't know how to make sushi? How hard could it be, there's no cooking involved? Still, this book guides you through the process. At Target for $16.99.

      For pet owners

      • Dogit Go Slow Anti-Gulping Dog Bowl – Know someone with a dog who eats like a pig? This gift may help the pet's digestion and reduce the sloppy messes around the dog's eating area. You'll find it at Petsmart for $11.99.
      • TagWorks Sport Gold Fish Pet Tag – If someone on your list has a cat that tends to wander far from home this classy, personalized tag may make sure they find their way home. Permanent laser-engraved text. 3M protective film enclosed to prevent wear caused by the constant rubbing action of a license tag. Attaches to most collars. From Petsmart for $9.99.
      • Rayovac Keychain Charger – Cellphone batteries die at the most inopportune times. But having this handy charging device on your keychain means you've got a little extra juice when you need it. Available at Walmart for $8.97.
      • Giant jack to hold your smartphone – This large plastic jack (as in the child's game Jacks) cradles your smartphone when it isn't in your pocket. Instead of laying your phone on the table where it can pick up scratches, place it in Jack’s waiting arms until you need it. The stable, horizontal positioning is also ideal for Web browsing or participating in video chats with friends. At Brookstone for $5.99.
      • C9 by Champion Men's Easy Touch Running Gloves - Assorted Colors. Lightweight and comfortable with touchpads on the index fingers for smartphone use. At Target.com for $11.19.

      Handmade gifts

      Ordering from Etsy can often produce high quality, thoughtful gifts for very little money. While many items are one-of-a-kind handmade objects most artists will make another upon request. Here are a couple of examples:

      • Cold-process soap handmade with moisturizing oils - saponified olive, palm, soybean, cocoa butter, shea butter, sunflower and coconut oils, Guiness Extra Stout Beer, cocoa powder, scent. Handmade by All Things Herbal in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota. $6
      • Personalized Initial Necklace with Pine Cone Charm Silver Toned Monogrammed Jewelry Copper Rustic Nature - From It's Taylor Made for $15.
      • Radio Flyer My 1st Scooter - An old fashioned toy but kids will probably think its something new. After all, when was the last time you saw a kid on a scooter? A clearance items at AceHardware.com. $19.99.
      • Nakamichi Mini Speaker – When ear buds just won't do, amplify your smartphone or tablet with a battery powered speaker that pumps out great quality. The built-in lithium battery recharges using the Mini USB Port. Also plays MP3s with your Micro SD card or Flash drive. At Sears for $14.99.
      • LEGO Star Wars AT-RT Walker – The popular LEGO line of toys can be on the pricey side but we found this Star Wars-themed item at Toys R Us for $17.99.
      Survey after survey has suggested consumers plan to spend less this holiday season. In response, retailers have ramped up the sales and started Black Frida...
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      Toxins, magnets, choking hazards, deafening noises -- they're all waiting in Toyland

      28th annual Trouble in Toyland report identifies dangerous presents that don't belong under the tree

      Toys remain a central focus of the holiday season. And unfortunately, they continue to present many of the safety and health hazards documented in previous years, according to the latest Trouble in Toyland study, which again identified toxins, choking, magnets and noise as the primary hazards.

      The study is the 28th annual survey of toy safety produced by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). The annual report has led to more than 150 recalls and other regulatory actions over the years. It focuses primarily on dangers to infants and toddlers, who account for the majority of injuries from toys.

      Lead and other toxins

      Exposure to lead can affect nearly every organ in the body and is particularly danagerous to the central nervous system. It's particularly hazardous to young children, whose brains are still developing. The federal lead standard is 100 parts per million (ppm) but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a limit of 40 ppm.

      Leading the way in lead content in the PIRG study this year is the Captain America Soft Shield, which was found to contain 29 times the legal standard for lead.

      The Ninja Turtles Penicl Case was the leader in the "other toxins" category, containing 150,000 ppm of phthalates and excessive levels (600 ppm) of the toxic metal cadmium.

      Choking hazards

      Choking on small toy parts, balloons, balls and other small objects continues to be the major cause of toy-related deaths and injuries. More than 90 children died between 2001 and 2012 from choking. 

      The PIRG investigators reported finding numerous toys that contained small parts. Some were improperly labeled as being safe for children under three. Especially hazard, PIRG said, are toy foods, which to small children look good enough to eat.

      Magnets

      Buckeyballs and other toys made with small magnets have been outlawed but are still available and still causing accidents. It's estimated there were 1,700 emergency room cases involving the ingestion of magnets between 2009 and 2011.

      The danger with these and other small magnets is that children can swallow individual magnets, which then bind together in the gastrointestinal tract, potentially causing serious damage.

      Noise

      A third of Americans with hearing loss can attribute it to noise and fully one in five U.S. children will have some degree of hearing loss by age 12, studies have found. Much of this is attributed to using toys and other products that are simply too loud.

      Prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels will cause hearing loss, and toys that are intended to be held close to the ear -- like toy telephones -- are supposed to be limited to 65 decibels.

      But the PIRG study found many toys on store shelves that exceeded those limits. The Chat & Count Smart Phone, for example, produces more than 85 decibels even though most children will hold it against their ear.

      What to do

      What's a gift-buying consumer to do? With so many toys on the market, there's no way anyone can produce a definitive list of safe and unsafe toys. Safety regulators aren't able to test every toy and many manufacturers and retailers find ways to skirt regulations.

      So, it's up to consumers to examine toys carefully before buying them. Watch for sharp corners and edges, small parts and excessive noise. It's not quite as easy to detect toys that may contain toxins, which can be found in both metal and plastic toys. It's a good idea to have children screened for excessive lead exposure; it's a simple blood test that can be performed at the next pediatrician visit.

      Here are some simple tips from PIRG: 

      Bigger is better.Don't buy small toys or toys with small parts for children younger than 3 years. If a toy or part of a toy can pass through a toilet paper tube, don't buy it for a child under 3, or any child who still puts things in his or her mouth.

      Never give young children small balls or balloons.Avoid balls and other spherical toys smaller than 1.75 inches in diameter (a little bit larger than a golf ball) for children under 6. Small balls, balloons and pieces of broken balloons are particularly dangerous, as they can completely block a child's airway. Never give latex balls to children younger than 8 years old.

      Read and heed warning labels. Toys with small parts intended for children between ages 3 and 6 are required by law to include an explicit choking hazard warning. Read the labels of play cosmetics and avoid products containing xylene, toluene, or dibutyl phthalate.

      Avoid toys that contain PVC plastics. Avoid toys made of PVC plastic; the toxic phthalates these plastics can contain pose developmental hazards for children.

      Test toys, vinyl products, and costume jewelry for lead.  Despite its known hazards, lead-based paints are often still used on toys and high levels of lead can be found in vinyl lunch boxes and bibs, and in children's costume jewelry. All lead should be removed from a child's environment, especially lead jewelry and other toys that can be swallowed. Use a home lead tester, such as those found at most local hardware stores, to help identify toys and costume jewelry containing this heavy metal.

      Avoid toys containing powerful magnets. The powerful, small magnets used in most magnetic building toys, toy darts, magnetic jewelry, and other toys can fall out of small toys and look like shiny candy. If a child swallows more than one magnet, the magnets can attract each other in the body and cause life-threatening complications. If a child swallows even one magnet, seek immediate medical attention.

      Watch out for watch or "button" batteries. Keep watch or "button" batteries away from children. If swallowed, the battery acid can cause fatal internal injuries.

      If it sounds too loud, it is. Children's ears are sensitive. If a toy seems too loud for your ears, it is probably too loud for a child.

      Watch out for strings and cords.

      • Keep mobiles out of the reach of children in cribs and remove them before the baby is five months old or can push themselves up.
      • Remove knobs and beads from cords longer than one foot to prevent the cords from tangling into a dangerous loop.
      • Clothing with drawstrings on the hood can get caught on fixed objects like playground equipment and pose a strangulation hazard.

      Outfit your kids for safety. Toys such as bicycles, scooters, skateboards and inline skates are safer when children wear protective gear. If you plan to give any of these toys as gifts, make them safer by also giving a helmet, knee pads, elbow pads and wrist guards.

      Stay informed of recalls. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalls numerous toys and children's products each year. Check http://www.recalls.gov/ for an archive of old recalls and to sign up to receive email alerts of new recalls.

      Report dangerous toys. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a report form on its website

      The Captain America Soft Shield contains leadToys remain a central focus of the holiday season. And unfortunately, they continue to present many of the...
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      Holiday travelers can be thankful for low gasoline prices

      Average price is down 14 cents a gallon since last Thanksgiving

      Despite nasty winter weather in many parts of the country, millions of Americans will be hitting the road for Thanksgiving. It's always the busiest weekend of the year at the nation's airports and the highways get their share of travelers too.

      This year, motorists will have something extra to be thankful for when they pull into a gas pump. The national average price of self-serve regular is around $3.28 a gallon, 14 cents a gallon cheaper than last year, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey.

      Prices could be headed lower

      The survey shows prices have jumped about eight cents in the last week but may be headed down again soon. The negotiations over Iran's nuclear program last week resulted in an easing of sanctions, allowing Iran to sell more oil on the world market. In response, crude oil prices resumed their decline this week, falling to below $110 a barrel. Some analysts believe the price could fall another $20 a barrel next year if talks produce a complete lifting of sanctions.

      The Iranian oil is hitting the market at a time when supplies are already plentiful. North American producers are pumping out record amounts of petroleum while U.S. consumer demand for gasoline continues to fall. Without the upward pressure on oil prices there is less to propel gasoline prices higher.

      The primary beneficiaries of this trend are drivers in the U.S. heartland. Six of the ten states with the cheapest gasoline prices are in the Midwest. The remaining four are in the southwest and mountain west, a departure from the normal pattern of the cheapest fuel being found in the southeast.

      Still expensive in the east and west

      California, New York, Florida and Massachusetts remain among the most expensive states for fuel. The average price of gasoline in the Los Angeles area is around $3.60 a gallon. In San Francisco, it's $3.66. Holiday drivers headed to New York will pay an average $3.62 a gallon statewide and $3.69 in New York City.

      Missouri has the cheapest gasoline in the nation with an average price of $2.99 a gallon. Oklahoma is close behind at $3.00.

      Here are the states with the most expensive gasoline:

      • Hawaii $3.94
      • Alaska $3.68
      • Connecticut $3.64
      • New York $3.63
      • Vermont $3.48
      • Maine $3.46
      • Rhode Island $3.46
      • Florida $3.44
      • Massachusetts $3.42
      • Maryland $3.42

      Here are the states with the least expensive gasoline:

      • Missouri $2.99
      • Oklahoma $3.00
      • Kansas $3.01
      • Montana $3.04
      • New Mexico $3.07
      • Arkansas $3.09
      • Minnesota $3.10
      • Utah $3.12
      • Arizona $3.14
      • Nebraska $3.14
      Despite nasty winter weather in many parts of the country, millions of Americans will be hitting the road for Thanksgiving. It's always the busiest weekend...
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      Online companies scam e-cigarette users, suit charges

      Class-action suit in Illinois against Vapor Corp. and Global Vapor

      If you’re an e-cigarette user who’s bought supplies from Vapor Corp. or Global Vapor Partners, which includes the brands Smoker 51, Krave, Green Puffer, VaporX, and EZ-Smoker, you might want to take a close look at your credit card statements — and, possibly, talk to an attorney.

      Courthouse News Service reports that Vapor Corp. and Global Vapor are being sued for fraud in Cook County, Ill. The class-action suit, headed by lead plaintiff Jean-Francois Patterson, claims that the companies have not only been imposing fraudulent credit card charges – up to $100 per month for customers who only ever authorized an initial $4.95 shipping fee – but also made misleading claims on its websites.

      Patterson claims that “"Vapor Corp. and GVP are careful to bury mention of the initial trial charges or the monthly charges in the Terms & Conditions, which never appear on the same page as the free trial offer. Defendants also obscure mention of these fees through the use of flashy graphics and misleading statements that tell consumers that they 'just pay shipping and handling' and that the 'Total' price for starter kit is '0.00' with a shipping and handling fee of '4.95.'”

      However, customers who return the products are charged a $10 “restocking fee” and not refunded shipping costs, which means that under no circumstance does a “free” trial actually cost the consumer zero dollars, the lawsuit alleges.

      The Better Business Bureau gives the company an F rating. We’ll admit we found no other scam reports when we did an online search for “Global Vapor Partners” – but then, our search on Nov. 27 brought back only three pages of any Google results, including the company’s own websites and the recent Courthouse News story.

      Here’s a general rule for safely shopping on the Internet: you should definitely avoid a company whose search results yield page after page of scam complaints — but you should also avoid a company whose search results yield hardly anything at all.

      If you’re an e-cigarette user who’s bought supplies from Vapor Corp. or Global Vapor Partners, which includes the brands Smoker 51, Krave, Gree...
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      Ford recalls the Escape for the seventh time

      This time it's possible oil and fuel leaks that could start a fire

      The Ford Escape is a popular and hot-selling little SUV but it's also spending a lot of time in dealers' service bays having recalls attended to. The latest recall affects about 140,000 of the 2013 Escape models. It deals with a problem in the 1.6-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinger engine that Ford says has caused 13 fires.

      The company said that "localized overheating of the engine cylinder head" could cause cracks, which would allow oil to leak and ignite if it fell onto a hot surface. 

      Ford has had its share -- and then some -- of fires caused by fluids dripping onto hot engines. In 2007, Ford recalled more than 10 million  cars, trucks and vans because of fires caused by leaks related to a faulty  cruise control switch. 

      In yet another recall, about 9,500 2013 Escapes with the same engine are being recalled because repairs resulting from a previous recall may not have been done correctly. In that case, damaged fuel lines were used in some of the cars, creating the potential for fuel leaks.

      The EcoBoost engine has had more than its share of problems and is the subject of at least one class action lawsuit that charges the engine tends to stall at highway speeds.

      "It is very dangeorus driving on the freeway when you cannot get the truck to drive without shuddering and jerking anytime you give it gas," the owner of an F-150 truck equipped with an EcoBoost engine said in a complaint to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "The dealer has been fixing whatever the code states. However, there is an underlying condition that is causing this to happen that needs to be addressed."

      In February, Consumer Reports magazine singled out the EcoBoost in an article that found turbocharged engines often don't live up to their promise of enhanced mileage and improved performance.

      The magazine's report cited the collection of 2013 Ford Fusions with EcoBoost engines as illustrating how turbos can fail to deliver.

      The smaller engine – a 1.6-liter producing 173 hp – is a $795 option over the basic conventional 2.5-liter Four on Fusion SE models. But that car’s 0-60 mph acceleration time trails competitive family sedans, and it delivers just 25 mpg, placing it among the worst of the crop of recently-redesigned family sedans.

      The Ford Escape is a popular and hot-selling little SUV but it's also spending a lot of time in dealers' service bays having recalls attended to. The lates...
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      Is Black Friday over? Poll finds 56% plan to skip it this year

      It's like the restaurant no one goes to anymore because it's gotten too crowded

      Hype something long enough and people get tired of it. Example: Black Friday. There's increasing evidence everybody's sick of hearing about it, most significantly a new poll conducted for Consumer Reports that found 56 percent of Americans plan to do no shopping at all this weekend.

      On the other hand, 44 percent say they will do some shopping, which is up from the 30 percent who shopped for gifts during last year's Black Friday weekend. While on the surface, this might indicate more shoppers heading for the stores, it's worth noting that intention doesn't equal performance -- the actual turnout may well be lower than last year given the strong negative feelings the poll found. 

      Among the top reasons Americans gave for wanting no part of shopping during Black Friday weekend were:

      • Too many crowds (70 percent)

      • The deals are too overhyped (34 percent)

      • I'd rather do something else (33 percent)

      • I don't want to get up early (30 percent)

      Of those who do intend to shop this weekend, 69 percent will be venturing out to stores, while 58 percent will do so online, and 29 percent will shop both in-stores and online. Among the top reasons people gave for why they’ll be shopping on Black Friday weekend were:

      • Black Friday specials are the best deals of the year (55 percent)

      • The door-buster deals (43 percent)

      • It’s tradition (23 percent)

      • I enjoy the energy of  the holiday shopping season (19 percent)

      “Those who intend to go out shopping on Black Friday probably know what to expect, and to them that’s part of the allure,” said Tod Marks, Consumer Reports senior editor and resident shopping expert. “However, it's easy to get caught up in the shopping frenzy and spend more than you really want to. That’s why it’s important to do your homework beforehand, have a plan and stick to it.”

      Additional results of the Consumer Reports Poll are available at ConsumerReports.org.

      Hype something long enough and people get tired of it. Example: Black Friday. There's increasing evidence everybody's sick of hearing about it, most signif...
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      Pizza Hut manager says he was fired for giving employees Thanksgiving Day off

      Pizza Hut spokesmen semi-disagree with his claim

      Looks like your neighborhood Pizza Hut will be among the businesses open and running on Thanksgiving Day — which is great for anybody desiring a pizza this Thursday, with the possible downside of being unpleasant for Pizza Hut employees who maybe wanted to spend the day with their families instead.

      In Elkhart, Indiana, former Pizza Hut manager Tony Rohr says he was fired over his plan to close his store on Thanksgiving so his employees could take the day off.

      Rohr told WSBT News that the company mandated all stores stay open for the holiday, a policy he objected to at a managers’ meeting. “I said, 'Why can't we be the company that stands up and says we care about our employees and they can have the day off? …. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only two days that they're closed in the whole year and they're the only two days that those people are guaranteed to have off and spend it with their families."

       Although that “guarantee” isn’t as ironclad as it used to be; more and more restaurant and retail employees do not have those holidays off, as more and more businesses stay open then.

      WSBT reports that, in response to Rohr’s objections, Pizza Hut executives pointed out that their decision to open on the holiday isn’t out of line with their competitors' policies (true).

      There is also some disagreement regarding exactly how and why Rohr left his Pizza Hut employment: Rohr says he was fired, whereas Pizza Hut says he quit.

      Looks like your neighborhood Pizza Hut will be among the businesses open and running on Thanksgiving Day—which is great for anybody desiring a pizza ...
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      Lack of BRCA2 mutations doesn't always mean lower cancer risk

      If a woman's family carries the mutation, she may still have a higher risk despite testing negative

      Led by celebrities who have undergone so-called prophylactic mastectomies, many women from families with a history of breast cancer have been having genetic tests to determine whether they carry the BRCA2 mutation.

      But a new study finds that women who are members of families with BRCA2 mutations but who test negative for the family-specific BRCA2 mutations are still at greater risk for developing breast cancer compared with women in the general population.

      The study was published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

      Women with certain mutations in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes are at increased risk for breast cancer. However, if a woman who comes from a BRCA family tests negative for her family-specific BRCA mutation, her risk for breast cancer is considered to be the same as someone in the general population, according to the National Cancer Institute. This study, however, suggests that it may not always be true.

      "We found that women who test negative for family-specific BRCA2 mutations have more than four times the risk for developing breast cancer than the general population," said Gareth R. Evans, honorary professor of medical genetics and cancer epidemiology at the Manchester Academic Health Science Center at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. "We also found that any increased risk for breast cancer is largely limited to BRCA2 families with strong family history and other genetic factors.

      "It is likely that these women inherit genetic factors other than BRCA-related genes that increase their breast cancer risk," he explained. "About 77 single nucleotide polymorphisms [SNPs—genetic variations that can help track the inheritance of disease genes within families] are linked to breast cancer risk. Identification of additional SNPs is necessary to understand why some of the BRCA-negative women from BRCA families are at higher risk."

      The authors note that specialists should use caution when stating that a woman's breast cancer risk is the same as that of the general population following a negative test, because it may not be true for some women who come from BRCA2 families with a strong family history.

      Led by celebrities who have undergone so-called prophylactic mastectomies, many women from families with a history of breast cancer have been having geneti...
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      Mortgage applications dip

      It’s the fourth straight decline

      Mortgage applications are down for the fourth time in as many weeks. 

      According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications fell 0.3% in the week ending November 22, 2013.

      The Refinance Index increased 0.1%, bringing the refinance share of mortgage up 2% from the week before -- to 66% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 8% of total applications.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) increased to 4.48% from 4.46%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose 1 basis point to 4.48%, with points decreasing to 0.15 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA increased to 4.16% from 4.14%, with points decreasing to 0.24 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was unchanged at 3.52%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was up 6 basis points -- to 3.18%, with points unchanged at 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

      Jobless claims

      There was a big drop in initial jobless claims last week, but analysts warn against reading too much into it.

      The government says first time applications for state unemployment benefits were down 10,000 In the week ending November 23 -- to a total of 316,000. Economists at Bfriefing.com had been calling for an increase of 7,000.

      The Labor Department (DOL) says that for a second week in a row, seasonal adjustment difficulties from the Thanksgiving and Veterans Day holidays made it difficult to get an accurate reading, and that the problems will likely continue for another week. Analysts say that means this week’s large drop in claims cannot be solely attributed to improvements in labor conditions.

      The 4-week moving average, which is considered a better gauge of the labor market because it lacks the weekly number’s volatility, fell 7,500 to 331,750.

      The complete report is available on the DOL website.

      Mortgage applications are down for the fourth time in as many weeks. ‘decreased 0.3 percent from one week earlier, According to data from the Mortgage Ba...
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      Brazilian airline fined for violating consumer rules

      The carrier failed to post information and features as required

      Brazilian airline GOL will pay a fine of $250,000 for violating a number of Department of Transportation (DOT) rules protecting the rights of air travelers. It’s the largest penalty assessed for violations of the rules adopted in April 2011.

      DOT has ordered the airline to cease and desist from further violations of its airline consumer rules.

      “We adopted these rules to ensure that passengers are treated with respect when they buy a ticket or board a plane,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We will not tolerate disregard of our rules and will take enforcement action when necessary to protect travelers.”

      Lack of information

      DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that GOL’s U.S. website -- for a period of time after it was launched in November 2012 -- failed to include a variety of information and features required by DOT air travel consumer protection rules.

      The website did not include a contingency plan for handling lengthy tarmac delays or a link from the homepage to a list of fees for baggage and other optional services.

      Excruciating searches

      GOL also violated the full-fare advertising requirement by failing to include taxes and fees in fares displayed on the website in response to consumer searches. The full fare, including taxes and fees, was available only after the consumer selected a specific itinerary.

      The airline also failed to post its contract of carriage in an easily accessible form on its website. A consumer had to begin the process of searching for an itinerary before being able to gain access to the contract information.

      This made it hard to easily compare GOL’s contract with those of other airlines, and made obtaining the contract difficult for passengers who wanted to review the information online before booking a flight by telephone or with a ticket agent.

      GOL also failed to include on its website required information on how consumers can file a complaint with the airline.

      Brazilian airline GOL will pay a fine of $250,000 for violating a number of Department of Transportation (DOT) rules protecting the rights of air travelers...
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      Backcountry Access recalls Avalanche airbags

      The trigger assembly can fail resulting in the airbag not deploying

      Backcountry Access of Boulder, Colo., is recalling about 8,200 Avalanche airbags in the U.S. and Canada.

      The trigger assembly can fail resulting in the airbag not deploying, posing a risk of death and injury in the event of an avalanche.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves BCA Avalanche airbags, models Float 18, 22, 30, 32, 36 and Throttle. The airbags are used for skiing, snowmobiling and mountain climbing to help keep the user above the surface if an avalanche occurs. The airbags are yellow and are housed in a blue, red or black pack. The packs have the model name printed on them. “Float” and the “bca” logo are printed in black lettering on the airbag. Lot letters A through E are included in the recall. The lot letter can be found on the trigger handle.

      The airbags, manufactured in China, were sold at specialty outdoor stores worldwide and online at www.backcountryaccess.com from August 2011 through October 2013 for between $499 and $750.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled airbags and contact BCA for a free replacement trigger assembly.

      Consumers may contact Backcountry Access (BCA) at (800) 670-8735 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. MT Monday through Friday or by e-mail at warranty@backcountryaccess.com.

      Backcountry Access of Boulder, Colo., is recalling about 8,200 Avalanche airbags in the U.S. and Canada. The trigger assembly can fail resulting in the air...
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      Avoiding the season's worst financing offers

      Deferred interest can carry some pretty steep risks

      How are you paying for holiday gifts this year? It's always best to pay with cash, to ensure you don't go over your budget.

      But most people rely on some kind of financing, either a credit card or a store charge card. Just remember that not all financing offers are alike and some could make you a lot poorer a few months later.

      Ticking financial time bomb

      The reason is something called “deferred interest.” It's a ticking financial time bomb usually disguised by appealing headlines like “0% Interest for 12 months” or “Special Financing,” which sound like good deals. And they can be, if and only if you pay off the entire balance within the advertised time limit.

      If you take an extra month to completely pay off the balance, then the interest rate that has been deferred all this time suddenly is retroactively applied to the original balance, no matter how much has been paid off.

      “When consumers see a no-interest offer, they tend to take that at face value, thinking they’re gaining a true respite from finance charges for the advertised length of time,” said Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of Cardhub.com, a financial website that analyzes credit offers. “That’s why deferred interest is both so dangerous and reminiscent of the ‘gotcha’ type of practices that were prevalent prior to the Great Recession and subsequently outlawed by the CARD Act.”

      Buried in the fine print

      The details about the deferred interest offer are in the fine print of the financial agreement the consumer signs to open the credit account. But if you don't read it, you remain blissfully unaware that you've signed up for deferred interest until you interest charges are suddenly inflated.

      According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) the retailer or credit card company must tell you the date by which you must pay off your balance to avoid being charged deferred interest. That information is required to appear on the front page of your bill. Another thing to look out for – certain deferred interest promotions may run by weeks instead of months, so they might have a different ending date from your regular monthly payment due date.

      If you purchase something on a deferred interest plan, your credit card bill may show your purchase as a separate balance from other purchases on which you can’t defer the interest. Transactions at different APRs may also show as separate balances, the CFPB says.

      The best and the worst

      With the holiday shopping season approaching, Cardhub conducted a study of current credit and financial offers available to consumers. It found that 70% of major retailers offer a financing option. The best deals, the study says, come from retailers that do not use deferred interest. They include Target, Nordstrom, and Gap.

      Papadimitriou says the worst financing deals come from retailers that not only offer deferred interest, but also are not very transparent about their policies. On that list he includes Pottery Barn,Amazon.com, Lowe’s, and Macy’s. Making it a bit tougher for consumers this year, nearly half of the retailers offering a financing package this holiday season employ the deferred interest feature.

      Not just retailers

      It isn't just retailers that make deferred interest offers. The study finds that some credit card issuers do as well, especially during the holiday shopping season. Two companies – Citi and GE Capital – issue nearly two-thirds of all the deferred interest credits.

      An advertising headline declaring “90 days same as cash” is not quite right. What it should say is “90 days same as cash if you pay off the entire balance within 90 days.”

      Why steer clear of deferred financing options? Not meeting the agreed-to deadline carries steep financial consequences.According to the study, paying off your credit card debt one month behind schedule could increase your financing costs by more than 27 times.

      “The average household already has $6,700 in credit card debt, we’re expected to incur $41.2 billion in new debt this year, and the economy is still on shaky ground,” Papadimitriou said. “We don’t need hidden costs adding to our problems.”

      How are you paying for holiday gifts this year? It's always best to pay with cash, to ensure you don't go over your budget.But most people rely on some k...
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      Unintended acceleration is claimed in New York accident

      A Jeep plowed into a crowd and killed a 15-year-old girl

      A New York woman who was involved in an October accident that killed a 15-year-old Irish girl blames the accident on unintended acceleration involving a Jeep Cherokee SUV and says federal safety regulators have not done enough to eliminate the problem.

      But a Chrysler spokesman said safety regulators have never documented an unintended acceleration claim due to mechanical error in any Jeep model.

      "There are few motor vehicle defect allegations that have been more exhaustively investigated or more thoroughly refuted than claims of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA)," Chrysler's Michael Palese told ConsumerAffairs. "Comprehensive studies by safety regulators at the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Japan’s Ministry of Transportation, Transport Canada, plus dozens of independent analyses all reached the same conclusion: these incidents are caused by driver error, specifically drivers who believe they are applying the brakes when they are actually pressing the accelerator.  No study has ever identified any specific defect in any vehicle that would cause sudden, unintended acceleration." 

      The woman whose car was struck by an out-of-control Jeep says unintended acceleration is "the only thing that makes sense."

      "The car I was in was hit by a 2002 Jeep Cherokee careening out of a parking lot at a very high rate of speed.  The lady in the Jeep had been a volunteer for the school's fundraiser held adjacent to that parking lot," Marianne O'Grady told ConsumerAffairs.  "After the lady barrelled into my car at such a high rate of speed and sent me going forward, she incredibly accelerated past me, and continued on a path of destruction which included one fatality."

      After striking Marianne's car, the Jeep, driven by Roseanne Piccirilli, 55, plowed into a crowd of people attending a street fair in Yonkers, N.Y., the evening of Oct. 11. Kalie Gill, 15, from Fenagh, Co Leitrim, Ireland, was killed and four other persons were injured, two critically, including Kalie's sister, Lindsey, 12. The sisters were students at St. Paul the Apostle School in Yonkers, where Piccirilli is a teacher. 

      Investigation continues

      Police have not charged Piccirilli pending the outcome of an accident reconstruction investigation and the girls' mother, Karen Gill, said she does not hold the teacher responsible.

      Doctors say Lindsey is expected to make a complete recovery but the family faces catastrophic medical expenses and does not have health insurance. At least two benefits are being held to raise funds for her case.

      "She's a good woman, a good person and she didn't mean to do this," Karen Gill said in the waiting room at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, USA Today reported. "I believe it was a freak accident. I just wish her well." 

      “It’s an unusual case,” Yonkers Police Commissioner Charles Gardner said, according to the Yonkers Journal News. He said tests on the Jeep and toxicology reports were expected to take at least several weeks.

      Lindsey had been in an induced coma for several days after the accident and was unable to attend her sister's funeral but sent a letter that was read at Kalie's funeral Mass, the Independent reported.

      "When I found out about your death, I tried to cry, but no tears came out," she wrote. "I just sat and looked at the ceiling and froze – thinking you were looking down and praying for me."

      She added: "I love you and I always thought of you as my best friend, sister. . . I'm sorry I can't make it to your wake and funeral, but I am here trying to survive for you."

      Shot forward

      Witnesses quoted by local news reports said the Jeep backed out of its parking spot at a high rate of speed, then shot forward when it was shifted into Drive.

      "The lady had no drugs or alcohol in her blood, and the sudden acceleration problem is the only thing that makes sense," O'Grady said.

      While reports of unintended acceleration are common, there are few instances in which the vehicle is found to be at fault. Most cases involve "pedal misapplication" -- meaning that the driver accidentally steps on the accelerator instead of the brake. 

      15 cases per month

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that there are at least 15 pedal misapplication crashes in the United States every month. Drivers in almost two-thirds of the crashes are women and the crashes most often occur in parking lots, NHTSA found. It said drivers involved in pedal misapplication crashes tend to be shorter.

      But whatever the cause, accidents do happen and they sometimes involve drivers whose qualifications make it unlikely they didn't know which pedal was which.

      In August 2009, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350 on a San Diego freeway. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV. The accident helped put unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles at the top of the safety agenda and eventually led to the 2010 recall of millions of Toyota and Lexus models.

      Investigators say other cases often involve shorter drivers, who may have trouble reaching the pedals and may be more prone to confuse the accelerator and brake or may be more likely to step on both pedals simultaneously.

      Jeeps been the subject of previous complaints. In June 2006, then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told federal regulators that they ought to investigate Jeeps after a 52-year-old man was run over and killed by a Grand Cherokee in a Connecticut car wash.

      But Chrysler's Palese said Jeeps have been cleared of previous false acceleration claims by federal investigators: "Chrysler Group has not been immune from false SUA claims.  In 2002, for example, NHTSA specifically declined to open an investigation regarding complaints of SUA with Jeep Cherokee and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles.  On September 20, 2002, NHTSA issued a Denial of Motor Vehicle Defect Petition, which stated:  'it appears that the predominant cause of sudden acceleration incidents involving the subject vehicles has been pedal misapplications.'"

      Nevertheless, Jeeps seem to have acquired an especially fearsome reputation among car wash operators, like Dan of Palmyra, Pa. 

      "My family has owned and operated automatic car washes for nearly 50 years. Over the past 10 years, we have had half a dozen incidents with Jeep Grand Cherokees accelerating out of control," Dan said in a 2011 ConsumerAffairs posting. "Every time it has happened, our employees have maintained that the vehicle took off on them and they could not stop it. The first few times it happened, we assumed it was driver error but not anymore. There is case after case of this happening and nobody at Chrysler will do anything about it.

      Engineers regard such accounts as anecdotal and say there is seldom sufficient evidence to pin the blame on a specific vehicle or manufacturer. NHTSA has proposed requiring a "brake-throttle override" but it's not clear how, or if, that would solve the problem of drivers stepping on the wrong pedal.

      Despite such assurances, O'Grady blames the federal agency for accidents like the one in Yonkers.

      "If the driver is telling the truth about sudden acceleration, then a 15-year-old girl is dead because of that agency's failure to investigate claims of sudden acceleration," she said.

      File photoA New York woman who was involved in an October accident that killed a 15-year-old Irish girl blames the accident on unintended acceleration in...
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