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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 careful...

PhotoMillions 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

Photo“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. 

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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 de...

Photo“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

PhotoAgain, 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.

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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 Sta...

PhotoThe 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

PhotoIt'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. 

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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 pati...

PhotoFor 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.

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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 pump. For the second straight month, the national median home value, as measured by Z...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 hoo...

PhotoPromoters 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."

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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 R...

PhotoWe 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.”

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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 Frida...

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Cold-process soap

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

  • Photo
    Sushi set
    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

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    Anti-gulp bowl
    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.
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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

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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The Captain America Soft Shield contains lead

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

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Lots of toxins in this pencil case, PIRG says

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

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A very noisy toy phone

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

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Buckeyballs can cause big problems in small stomachs

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

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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...

PhotoDespite 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
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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, Gree...

PhotoIf 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.

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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 lates...

PhotoThe 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. 

 

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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 signif...

PhotoHype 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.

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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 ...

PhotoLooks 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.

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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 geneti...

PhotoLed 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.

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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. ‘decreased 0.3 percent from one week earlier, According to data from the Mortgage Ba...

PhotoMortgage 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

PhotoThere 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.

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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...

PhotoBrazilian 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.

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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 air...

PhotoBackcountry 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.

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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 k...

PhotoHow 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

PhotoWith 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.”

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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

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...

Photo
File photo

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

Photo
The Gill sisters (Family photo)

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.

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Memo: Yahoo's own employees don't like new Yahoo Mail

We dare you to read that memo without feeling vicariously embarrassed for Yahoo execs

Just over a month ago, we told you about “Yahoo Mail users in uprising over system changes.” The super-short capsule summary of the story is th...

PhotoJust over a month ago, we told you about “Yahoo Mail users in uprising over system changes.” The super-short capsule summary of the story is this: in October, Yahoo drastically changed its email service, and said the changes are wonderful improvements over the old standard. Actual Yahoo users looked at the changes and said, “Yuck. This is awful; please bring back our old email service.” Yahoo spokespeople reiterated, “No, really, they’re great changes and everyone loves ’em. You love ’em.” Customers re-reiterated, “No, actually, they’re awful and we hate them,” and so on.

And now, a month later, a corporate memo leaked out of Yahoo HQ reveals that Yahoo’s new email interface is so bad, Yahoo’s own employees don’t even like it.

The memo, signed by Jeff Bonforte, SVP Communications Products and Randy Roumillat, CIO, might actually have been written with the intention of being leaked to the media. Here’s what it actually said to Yahoo employees, though:

Hello Yahoos,

Earlier this year we asked you to move to Yahoo Mail for your corporate email account. 25% of you made the switch (thank you). But even if we used the most generous of grading curves (say, the one from organic chemistry), we have clearly failed in our goal to move our co-workers to Yahoo Mail.

It’s time for the remaining 75% to make the switch. Beyond the practical benefits of giving feedback to your colleagues on the Mail team, as a company it’s a matter of principle to use the products we make. (BTW, same for Search.)

Fair enough. Of course, a cynic could counter: as a company it’s a matter of principle to make products we actually want to use without being nagged into doing so. No matter; the Yahoo corporate message went on to list and dismiss some possible objections people might have to giving up their old email in exchange for Yahoo’s new offering, then continued:

 “First, it doesn’t feel like we are asking you to abandon some glorious place of communications nirvana. At this point in your life, Outlook may be familiar, which we can often confuse with productive or well designed [sic].”

True. By the same token, though: At this point in your life Yahoo may be different, which we can often confuse with better or well-thought-out.

“Certainly, we can admire the application for its survival, an anachronism of the now defunct 90s PC era, a pre-web program written at a time when NT Server terrorized the data center landscape with the confidence of a T-Rex born to yuppie dinosaur parents who fully bought into the illusion of their son’s utter uniqueness because the big-mouthed, tiny-armed monster infant could mimic the gestures of The Itsy-Bitsy Pterodactyl. There was a similar outcry when we moved away from Outlook’s suite-mates in the Microsoft Office dreadnaught. But whether it’s familiarity, laziness or simple stubbornness dressed in a cloak of Ayn Randian Objectivism, the time has come to move on, commrade [sic].”

We too are fans of overdone and somewhat hallucinatory metaphors which is why, when we read that, we imagined Yahoo executives as a starving but wily Coyote, futilely chasing the Road Runner of Relevancy through the Desert of Internet Popularity before running off the edge of the Cliff of Not Understanding What the Hell Ayn Rand has to do with Reluctance to Switch to an Inferior Email Product, and falling with a crash down into the Canyon of Cluelessness.

The Yahoo memo goes on to say: “Using corp mail from the Y Mail web interface is remarkably feature rich.” The next two paragraphs list various features along with reassurances that said features are wonderful and extremely popular. “We have been testing this feature with select users in and out of the company and the response has been fantastic: 'Whoa!', 'Amazing', 'Already in love with it. Woot!' and, my favorite, 'So nicely integrated that it appears as if it’s always been there. I already can’t imagine it not being there again'.”

How wonderful! If the new and improved Yahoo Mail is even half as fantastic as the corporate memo claims, we can’t imagine why only a quarter of Yahoo’s own employees have gone along with it, let alone Yahoo customers whose salaries and job security don’t require them to support Yahoo products.

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Canada OKs genetically-modified salmon eggs

It brings the world's first animal frankenfood closer to the dinner table

Genetically modified grain, though controversial, is nothing new. But look out, fish fans, genetically modified salmon is moving closer to supermarkets and...

PhotoGenetically modified grain, though controversial, is nothing new. But look out fish fans, genetically modified salmon is moving closer to supermarkets and your dinner table.

Environment Canada has granted a U.S. biotch firm, AquaBounty Technologies, permission to begin exporting genetically-modified (GM) salmon eggs from its hatchery on Prince Edward Island, Canada, to a site in Panama, where the eggs will be hatched and the resulting fish grown. 

AquaBounty says the eggs include a gene from the Chinook salmon that provides the fish with the potential to "grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon." 

A Canadian environmental group called it "an alarming decision that sets Canada up to be the source of global environmental risk."

“We are extremely disappointed and alarmed that our government has approved the production of GM fish eggs. GM salmon egg production in Canada endangers the future of wild Atlantic salmon around the world,” said Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. “It's simply crazy that the world’s first GM fish eggs are now going to be coming from Canada.”

“We’re devastated that Prince Edward Island is now officially the home of the Frankenfish,” said Leo Broderick of the Prince Edward Island (PEI) group called Islanders Say No to Frankenfish, “We don’t want our Island to be the source of this dangerous living pollution.”

It's the first time a government has approved commercial-scale production of a genetically-modified food animal, according to The Guardian. It opens the way for AquaBounty to begin ramping up production in hopes of winning entry into the U.S. market, where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to reach a decision on salmon and 30 other species of fish soon.

"High risk"

The Canadian government made the decision despite admitting that the genetically-modified fish would present a "high risk" to wild Atlantic salmon if they escaped into the wild but said that wasn't likely to happen.

“There are strict measures in place to prevent the release of this fish into the food chain,” an Environment Canada spokesman said by email, The Guardian reported. “In Canada, no genetically modified fish or eggs are currently approved for the purposes of human consumption.”

The genetically-modified fish may not have smooth sailing in the U.S. Consumer groups are organizing against it and several major retailers have already said they won't carry it.

In May, Target became the latest large food retailer to pledge that it won't sell genetically engineered salmon. It joined nearly 60 other stores inlcuding Trader Joe's, Aldi, Whole Foods, Marsh and Hy-Vee.  

“There’s no room on our plates for genetically engineered seafood. Consumers don’t want it and price-competitive stores across middle America are refusing to sell it,” said Eric Hoffman food & technology policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth. "We need to see more big retailers take this kind of initiative. We're hoping that Safeway, which has become a real leader in seafood sustainability in other ways, and other major grocery stores turn the corner here and pledge to stay away from genetically engineered salmon."

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Feds lift Avandia restrictions

It seems there is no elevated risk of heart attack after all

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is giving the “all-clear” to the diabetes drug Avandia (rosiglitazone), at least when it comes to cardiovascular r...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is giving the “all-clear” to the diabetes drug Avandia (rosiglitazone), at least when it comes to cardiovascular risk.

The agency says it is following the recommendations of expert advisory committees and removing certain restrictions on prescribing and use of medication after results from the Rosiglitazone Evaluated for Cardiovascular Outcomes and Regulation of Glycemia in Diabetes (RECORD) clinical trial showed no elevated risk of heart attack or death in patients being treated with Avandia when compared to standard-of-care diabetes drugs.

In other words, these data do not confirm the signal of increased risk of heart attacks that was found in a meta-analysis of clinical trials first reported in 2007.

The actions “reflect the most current scientific knowledge about the risks and benefits of this drug,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Given these new results, our level of concern is considerably reduced; thus, we are requiring the removal of certain prescribing restrictions.”

Lifting the limits

The FDA’s actions include requiring modifications to labeling about cardiovascular safety, requiring changes to the Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) program, and releasing a postmarket study requirement.

Once the changes are final, rosiglitazone’s indication for use will no longer be limited to certain patients. The FDA anticipates that the new indication will state that the drug may be used along with diet and exercise to improve control of blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus, an indication similar to other diabetes drugs currently available.

Once the changes to the REMS are finalized, health care professionals, pharmacists, and patients will no longer be required to enroll in the rosiglitazone REMS program to prescribe, dispense, or receive rosiglitazone medicines. Patients will also be able to receive rosiglitazone through regular retail pharmacies and mail order pharmacies.

The manufacturers of rosiglitazone drugs will be required to ensure that health care providers who are likely to prescribe rosiglitazone-containing medicines are provided training based on the current state of knowledge concerning the cardiovascular risk of these medicines.

The FDA is also releasing GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) from the postmarket requirement to conduct a clinical trial, known as Thiazolidinedione Intervention with Vitamin D Evaluation (TIDE), comparing Avandia to Actos (pioglitazone), the only other approved drug in the thiazolidinedione class, and to standard diabetes drugs. The FDA has concluded that this trial is no longer necessary or feasible.

In 2010, in response to data from a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomized trials that suggested an elevated risk of cardiovascular events in association with rosiglitazone use, the FDA announced it would restrict the drug to use in patients with type 2 diabetes who could not control their diabetes on other medications.

The agency also required GSK to convene an independent group of scientists to readjudicate key aspects of RECORD, which studied the cardiovascular safety of Avandia compared to standard diabetes drugs to provide clarity about the integrity of the study findings.

On June 5 and 6, 2013, the readjudicated results of RECORD, which were consistent with the original findings of the trial, were discussed at a joint meeting of the Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee and the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee.

Committee members generally agreed that the readjudication was well conducted and provided reassurance that the original study findings were accurate. A majority of the committee members voted to recommend that the REMS for rosiglitazone be eliminated or modified to lessen restrictions to use.

In addition to Avandia, rosiglitazone is available in combination with other diabetes medications, including metformin under the brand name Avandamet and glimepiride under the brand name Avandaryl.

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Now may be a good time to buy a used car

Prices are down from the summer as well as year-over-year

There have been some pretty good deals on new cars as automakers close out the 2013 model year and start cranking out 2014 models. But consumers looking fo...

PhotoThere have been some pretty good deals on new cars as automakers close out the 2013 model year and start cranking out 2014 models. But consumers looking for a good used car are finding some pretty attractive deals as well.

Automotive website Edmunds.com, which regularly tracks new and used car prices, reports the average used car sold by franchise dealers in the third quarter of 2013 was $15,617. That's down 2.8% from the second quarter and down 0.9% from the third quarter of 2012.

Though the quarter isn't over, some analysts think the used car market will show an even bigger decline in the final period of the year. The fourth quarter began, they points out, with a 17-day government shutdown that may have caused some consumers to postpone a planned purchase.

Others suggest that the used car market is simply bearing the brunt of the new car market's success.

Falling prices

"Now that the new car market has hit its stride, buyers are no longer drawn to used cars the way they have been in recent years," says Edmunds.com's Director of Used Car Analysis Joe Spina. "Used car prices will likely continue to decline in the coming months simply because there will be more of these vehicles sitting on dealer lots."

Even so, used cars still cost more than they once did. Despite little or no increase in the government's main inflation gauge, the average used car price is higher than it was before the 2008 financial crisis. The same can't be said for the average home price.

Where do you find the best deal on a used car? If you have a pre-determined make and model you're holding out for, chances are you're going to pay the market price. On the other hand, if you aren't that picky and just want the best deal, then consider the cars that no one else really wants.

Being flexible saves money

PhotoIndustry data show vehicles bearing the Volvo, GMC and Chevrolet nameplates sat on used dealer lots longer than any other brand in the third quarter. Holding out for a Honda, Toyota or Lexus? Good luck. Those cars sold fastest in the third quarter so you can expect to pay more.

Where you buy may be just as important as what you buy. Buying a used car on Craigslist or other online platform may yield an attractive purchase price but may carry other risks. The car will come with no warranty and if it needs expensive repairs two weeks after you drive it home, you're on the hook.

A used car dealer may offer a little more safety, but not always. Dealers have window stickers telling you if the car comes with any kind of warranty. Most dealers will usually offer at least a 30-day warranty, covering needed repairs the first month you own the car. If the car is being sold “as is,” that could be a definite red flag.

Consumer protections

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Used Car Rule requires dealers to post a Buyers Guide in every used car they offer for sale. This includes light-duty vans, light-duty trucks, demonstrators, and program cars. Demonstrators are new cars that haven’t been owned, leased, or used as rentals, but have been driven by dealer staff. Program cars are low-mileage, current-model-year vehicles returned from short-term leases or rentals.

The Buyers Guide tells you if the car is being sold “as is” or comes with a warranty. If if has a warranty, it will tell you what percentage of the repair costs a dealer will pay under the warranty.

The Buyers Guide will also point out the major systems on the car that could cause you trouble and urges you to ask to have the car inspected by an independent mechanic before you buy it.

Check a trusted database service that gathers information for an independent and efficient review of a vehicle’s history. For example, the Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System(NMVTIS) offers information about a vehicle’s title, odometer data, and certain damage history.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) maintains a free database that includes flood damage and other information so you can check a car's history by its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). You also can search online for companies that sell vehicle history reports.

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FDA orders a halt to 23andMe personal genetics kit

The agency says the testing kit is a "medical device" that poses health risks to its users

Spitting into a tube might be construed as bad manners but as the Food and Drug Administration sees it, it amounts to using an unlicensed medical device if...

PhotoSpitting into a tube might be construed by some as bad manners but as the Food and Drug Administration sees it, it amounts to using an unlicensed medical device if the tube came from 23andMe, which for $99 and a tubeful of spit will provide you with your personal genome.

Millions of people -- including me -- have signed up for the service and, a few weeks after submitting our samples, received an amazingly complete batch of information "on 240+ health conditions and traits" in our genetic code.

I also ordered the kits for my family, thinking we could spend some cozy evenings around the fire comparing our risks of atrial fibrillation, Alzheimer's disease, breast cancer and other cheerful topics. So far, it hasn't been much of a conversation starter but, on the positive side, none of us found much of anything to worry about in the reports we received.

Perhaps the most interesting finding so far was the one that said that 3% of my DNA is Neanderthal in origin, putting me in ther 94th percentile of non-homo sapien ancestery among those of European lineage. This despite my relatively slight frame and lack of noticeable eyebrow ridge.

Oh, my genome also shows a lower than average risk of Alzheimer's, which is good, although my wife has a higher than average risk, so if you balance those out, we're roughly back at average, couplewise. 

Nanny state

Photo
The author's ancestors

The FDA's stated concern with all of this is not that we'll all waste $99 and a lot of time poring over results that may or may not mean anything but rather that we will be driven to drastic measures because of the findings.

As an example, the agency said, "if the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions."

Well, maybe, although when I told my internist that the 23andMe test showed I had a higher risk of atrial fibrillation, he scoffed and said the sample size was too small.

"Besides," he said, "A genetic predisposition is just that -- a predisposition. It doesn't mean you'll ever get it or that it will be severe. Just forget it." (The geneticist's answer to this, we're told, is that most doctors don't know much about genetics). 

The FDA's fear that a woman might be driven to having a prophylactic mastectomy because of her DNA results may be overstated, given the average physician's seeming aversion to genetic fortune-telling.

It's hard to imagine an oncologist agreeing to such a procedure without undertaking much more extensive testing and putting the patient through extensive counseling.

Nevertheless, for now, if you haven't already ordered your 23andMe kit, you'll have to get in line and wait for a possible change of heart by the FDA.

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Another drop in consumer confidence

It's the second straight decline

Heading into the holiday -- which is to say shopping -- season, consumers have a dimmer view of the economy. The Conference Board reports its Consumer Con...

PhotoHeading into the holiday -- which is to say shopping -- season, consumers have a dimmer view of the economy.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index declined in November following a sharp 9-point decrease the month before. The Index now stands at 70.4 -- a 2-point drop from October. The Present Situation Index edged down to 72.0 from 72.6, while the Expectations Index slipped to 69.3 from 72.2 last month.

“Sentiment regarding current conditions was mixed, with consumers saying the job market had strengthened, while economic conditions had slowed,” said Lynn Franco, the Board's director of economic indicators. “However, these sentiments did not carry over into the short-term outlook. When looking ahead six months, consumers expressed greater concern about future job and earning prospects, but remain neutral about economic conditions. All in all, with such uncertainty prevailing, this could be a challenging holiday season for retailers.”

Ebb and flow

Consumers’ assessment of overall current conditions decreased slightly. Those claiming business conditions are “good” edged up to 19.9% from 19.5%, while those claiming business conditions are “bad” increased to 25.2% from 23.0%.

Consumers’ appraisal of the job market was little changed. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” ticked up 0.2% -- to 11.8%, while those saying jobs are “hard to get” decreased to 34.0% from 34.9%.

Consumers’ expectations, which had decreased sharply in October, declined further in November. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased slightly to 16.6% from 16.0%, while those expecting business conditions to worsen fell to 16.8% from 17.5%.

Jobs concerns

However, consumers’ outlook for the labor market was more pessimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead fell to 12.7% from 16.0%, but those anticipating fewer jobs also decreased 0.9% -- to 21.7%. The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase declined to 14.9% from 15.7%. Those expecting their incomes to drop rose slightly to 15.9% from 15.5%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was November 15.

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Building permits surge in October

Home prices continue to rise

The partial government shutdown earlier this fall is still having an impact at least as far as the collection of data on new home construction is concerne...

PhotoThe partial government shutdown earlier this fall is still having an impact -- at least as far as the collection of data on new home construction is concerned.

Building permits authorizing the construction of privately-owned housing units shot up 6.2% in October -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,034,000.

Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) figures show this followed a rate of 974,000 in September and is 13.9% above the year-ago rate of 908,000.

Permits for single-family home construction were at a rate of 620,000 in October, while authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more totaled 387,000.

No construction data

Because of the partial shutdown of the government, there is no figures on new home construction, or housing starts. According to officials, “the lapse in federal funding affected the data collection schedule for the Survey of Construction, the source of data on new housing units started and completed.”

Data on housing units started in September, October and November will be released next month.

The full report is available on the Census Bureau website.

Home prices

PhotoTwo measures of growth show home prices are continuing to head higher.

From the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), word that its House Price Index (HPI) rose 2.0% in the third quarter, the ninth consecutive quarterly price increase in the purchase-only index. It also marks the first time since 2009 that the national house price level is higher than it was five years ago.

“Overall, the housing market experienced another strong quarter, but price appreciation in the latter part of the quarter was relatively subdued,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Elevenths. “Price increases in August and September of 0.4 and 0.3%, respectively, were notably below appreciation rates observed earlier this year and in late 2012.”

According to the report:

  • The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 48 states and in the District of Columbia during the third quarter. Top 5 in annual appreciation: 1) Nevada 2) California 3) Arizona 4) Florida and 5) Washington.
  • Of the nine census divisions, the Pacific division experienced the strongest increase in the latest quarter, posting a 4.2% increase and a 19.2% increase since last year. House prices were weakest in the East South Central division, where prices increased 0.8% from the prior quarter.
  • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., third quarter price increases were greatest in the Stockton-Lori, CA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where prices increased by 8.3%. Prices were weakest in the Virginia-Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC MSA, where they fell 2.2%.
  • Over the past year, only 1 MSA -- Winston-Salem, NC -- had a negative appreciation rate and 11 of the 20 MSAs with the highest appreciation rates were in California.
  • The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the U.S. has increased for the last 20 consecutive months.

The complete report can be found on the FHFA website.

Case-Shiller

The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices show the U.S. National Home Price Index rose 3.2% in the third quarter of 2013 and is up 11.2% over the last four quarters.

In September, the 10- and 20-City Composites gained 0.7% month-over-month and 13.3% year-over-year. While 13 of 20 cities posted higher year-over-year growth rates, 19 had lower monthly returns in September than August.

Price growth in 19 cities slowed month-over-month from August to September. Las Vegas and Tampa showed the most weakness with their rates declining by 1.6%. Las Vegas went from a +2.9% monthly return in August to +1.3% in September, while Tampa decreased from +1.8% to +0.2%. Charlotte was the only city to lose value in September -- its first since November 2012. Detroit managed to take the lead with a monthly increase of 1.5%, but still remains the only city below its January 2000 level.

Looking at the September annual rates of change, 13 cities showed improvement versus their August year-over-year returns. Cleveland accelerated the most (from +3.7% in August to +5.0% in September), but it remains the second worst performing city with only New York trailing at +4.3%.

Twelve MSAs showed double-digit increases with Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco posting gains of over 20%. Las Vegas posted an impressive year-over-year increase of 29.1% in September, down marginally from 29.2% in August.

The full report is available on the S&P/Case-Shiller website.

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New meat labeling rule now in effect

Legal challenges continue but for now, the rule is the law of the land

Despite last-minute legal challenges, a new rule requiring country-of-origin labels on some meats are now in effect. The meat industry and the governments...

PhotoDespite last-minute legal challenges, a new rule requiring country-of-origin labels on some meats are now in effect. The meat industry and the governments of Canada and Mexico are challenging the rule in court but, for now at least, it's the law of the land.

The country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requires that stores identify the country where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. It covers beef, chicken, pork, lamb and goat. Ground meats, deli and processed products are exempt.

The new labels are required to be much more specific than the old ones. They must say, for example, "Born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the U.S." 

The rule's backers say that consumers have a right to know where their next meal came from. The meat industry says it may cause other countries to shun American meat since they will have a harder time selling their products in the U.S.

Canada and Mexico are two of the biggest importers of U.S. meat and have challenged the rule through the World Trade Organization.

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Edison's light bulbs to cease U.S. manufacture Jan. 1

If you prefer old-school light bulbs to modern alternatives, now's the time to stockpile

If you prefer the shine of incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent or LED alternatives, now’s the time to stockpile: on January 1, the manufacture of...

PhotoIf you prefer the shine of incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent or LED alternatives, now’s the time to stockpile: on January 1, the manufacture of traditional 40- and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs in the U.S. ends, by federal law (the manufacture of 100-watt bulbs ended last year).

It will not be illegal for people to possess or use incandescents, nor will stores on January 1 be forbidden to sell any incandescent stock remaining on their shelves, but once those incandescent bulbs are gone, American stores won’t be able to buy or stock any more of them.

The rationale behind the incandescent ban is that incandescents require far more energy than compact fluorescent (CFL) or light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs to emit the same level of illumination.

But opponents of the ban raise many objections, including the fact that CFL bulbs contain trace amounts of mercury — granted, probably not enough that discarding one single CFL bulb will cause any real problems, but enough that hundreds of millions of Americans using and eventually discarding billions of bulbs are likely to ensure horribly toxic pollution-contamination problems in the future.

Fans of incandescent lighting also point out that CFL or LED light is not identical to the illumination from an incandescent bulb. Flickering fluorescent lights can cause seizures in people prone to having them; studies have shown CFL bulbs can emit enough ultraviolet radiation to cause skin cancer;  and both LED and CFL bulbs emit light in the cooler ends of the spectrum, which renders colors differently.

(Disclaimer: as a personal matter, we’ve never liked CFL and LED light, which always struck us as bleak and depressing. LED lanterns are great to have on hand for emergency power outages, but for regular illumination we’ve laid in a decent-sized stockpile of traditional Edison incandescents.)

(Editor's note: We disagree with Jennifer. We have equipped our home and office with LED bulbs tuned to "natural daylight." Vast improvement asthetically. Also, they run much cooler, use less electricity and last indefinitely We have some LED bulbs that are five years old and have not had a single one burn out.)

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DelMonaco Specialty Foods recalls Bolognese sauce products

The product contains milk, an allergen not listed on all products

DelMonaco Specialty Foods of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling approximately 5,616 pounds of Armanino brand Bolognese sauce products. There have been no r...

PhotoDelMonaco Specialty Foods of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling approximately 5,616 pounds of Armanino brand Bolognese sauce products.

There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

While the product contains milk, an allergen that was declared on the product label, the label was not applied to all the products in each lot.

The Bolognese Sauce with Beef & Pork products were produced on September 25, September 27, and November 7, 2013.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 7.5 pound cases containing twelve 10-ounce bags of “Bolognese Sauce with Beef & Pork” with case number 31113 printed on the interior bag.
  • 7.5 pound cases containing twelve 10-ounce bags of “Bolognese Sauce with Beef & Pork” with case number 27013 printed on the interior bag.
  • 12 pound cases containing four 3-pound bags of “Bolognese Sauce with Beef & Pork” with case number 31113 printed on the interior bag.
  • 12 pound cases containing four 3-pound bags of “Bolognese Sauce with Beef & Pork” with case number 26813 printed on the interior bag.

The products, which are missing the USDA mark of inspection with establishment number “EST. 17702” inside, were sold for institutional use in Hayward and San Francisco, Calif.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall can contact Sandra Johnson, Sales Coordinator, at 408-500-4114.

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Jayone recalls dried seaweed salad

The product may contain traces of peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label

Jayone Foods of Paramount, Calif., is recalling all date codes of Trader Joe’s Dried Seaweed Salad with Spicy Dressing (SKU 97677). The product may contai...

PhotoJayone Foods of Paramount, Calif., is recalling all date codes of Trader Joe’s Dried Seaweed Salad with Spicy Dressing (SKU 97677).

The product may contain traces of peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label.

The dried seaweed salad, packaged in a 3.5 oz. foil pouch and found in the grocery aisle at Trader Joe's, was sold nationwide.

Customers who have purchased the product and are sensitive to peanuts should to return it to Trader Joe’s for a full refund or dispose of it.

Customers with questions may contact Jayone Food, Inc., 8:00a.m.-5:00p.m. PST, Monday-Friday at (562) 232-2754.

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Intevation Food Group recalls frozen chicken products

The products contain egg, an allergen not declared on the label

Intevation Food Group of Plover, Wis., is recalling approximately 156,924 pounds of frozen chicken fettuccine alfredo products. The products contain egg, ...

PhotoIntevation Food Group of Plover, Wis., is recalling approximately 156,924 pounds of frozen chicken fettuccine alfredo products.

The products contain egg, an allergen, which is not declared on the product label. There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products

The products subject to recall include:

  • 18-oz. trays of “OMAHA STEAKS, 2367 Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo,” bearing the establishment number “P-39949” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

The products were packaged and produced on various dates from May 11, 2012, through October 8, 2013, and were shipped to distributors in Nebraska for further distribution through retail and Internet/catalog sales. The products may also be identified by the case codes 9502367 or 9802367.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the Customer Care Hotline at (877) 789-7117.

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Some credit cards offering 0% interest until 2015

But make sure you know how much the balance transfer fee is

One way to save money is to reduce the amount of interest you pay on your credit card balance. If you can pay 0% for a few months you can make speedy progr...

PhotoOne way to save money is to reduce the amount of interest you pay on your credit card balance. If you can pay 0% for a few months you can make speedy progress in paying down your debt.

While all credit card balance transfer offers need to be carefully considered, there appears to be a flurry of new offers for consumers to consider. Best of all, many of them extend to 2015, giving you plenty of time to make interest-free payments.

But understand this – these generous balance transfer offers almost always come with a balance transfer fee, which must be factored in when you weigh the potential savings. The cards below all have a three percent transfer fee, which tends to be on the low end.

The Citi Simplicity Visa Card is offering 0% on balance transfers and purchases for 18 months. After that, the rate could range from 12.99% to 21.99%. The card also advertises no late fee, no penalty rate and no annual fee. The balance transfer fee is $5 or three percent, whichever is greater. 

The Chase Freedom Card offers 0% for the first 15 billing cycles. At the end of that introductory offer the rate will range from 13.99% to 22.99%, depending on creditworthiness. You lose that 0% introductory rate, however, if you are late with a payment or violate any of the other terms and conditions. The balance transfer fee is $5 or 3% of the total, whichever is greater. 

PhotoThe Discover It Card is offering 0% for 18 months on balance transfers and for six months on purchases. It has no annual fee and is currently offering new card holders a free FICO score with their first statement. It also promises late payments won't raise your interest rate. The balance transfer fee is $5 or 3%, whichever is greater. 

The Capital One Platinum Prestige Card is offering 0% until March 2015 on both balance transfers and purchases. The transfer fee is 3% but there is no annual fee. 

Time is money

Getting a 0% rate for just a few months – six months, for example – can severely cut into your savings if you must pay a balance transfer fee that's 3% or more. What makes the above cards more attractive is the longer period with no interest charges on the outstanding balances.

However, you are paying interest in the form of the balance transfer fee. It might amount to less than 1% or it might be more, depending on the size of your balance. Make sure you understand what your “real interest rate” is before moving forward.

Only one of the extended-period 0% card offers we analyzed also waived the balance transfer fee, making it an attractive offer. The Chase Slate Card is offering 0% for 15 months for both balance transfers and purchases. There is no balance transfer fee for transfers made in the first 60 days the account is open. After that, the transfer fee is 3%. There's no annual fee. 

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BBC reports poor working conditions in Amazon warehouses

But reports of bad conditions in American warehouses are much older

With holiday gift-buying season upon us, retailers are hiring extra temporary workers to help handle the rush, and a BBC reporter who went undercover to wo...

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Some last-minute Black Friday tips

If you are going to shop, here are some suggestions

Thanksgiving week has arrived and dedicated Black Friday shoppers are gearing up for the big shopping day, that for the most part begins the night before. ...

PhotoThanksgiving week has arrived and dedicated Black Friday shoppers are gearing up for the big shopping day, that for the most part begins the night before. There's no data to back this up but it's very likely that holiday meal plans have been changed this year so as not to interfere with early store openings.

What's left is to make final preparations to hit the stores and search for bargains. Here are some suggestions for making your outing more successful and less stressful:

Four suggestions

  • Make a list and check it twice – Write down the names of everyone you are shopping for and, if possible, potential gift ideas for each one. It will help you focus attention on spotting bargains and keep you from the frustration of forgetting someone as you fight the crowds.
  • Know where the deals are – More retailers are playing the game by announcing their Black Friday offers well in advance. If you haven't done so by now, check the multitude of sites that publish up-to-the minute Black Friday ads from major retailers. You'll find them simply by Googling “Black Friday.” Also, know when the stories are opening. There's no need to camp out but you don't want to be the last shopper through the door either.
  • Think local – Yes, big box retailers get all the attention and most of the sales on Black Friday but local merchants also are offering deals, even if they don't have the big advertising budgets to promote them. But the Internet can clue you in. Web sites like LivingSocial and Groupon can connect you with deals from your nearby merchants.
  • Boost your savings – Loyalty programs and gift cards can help you get more value from your Black Friday shopping -- sometimes in surprising ways. A regional convenience store operator, for example, is offering fuel rebates of up to $1 a gallon on gasoline for customers using its loyalty card.

If someone on your list wants a PlayStation 4, Thankshopping.com is promising to report this week on the best place to buy the game console. The site says it will post prices and retailers for the game on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

The Playstation 4 is Sony's latest generation game console released just in time for the holidays. It starts at around $579 with reviewers praising its improved graphics, interface and controller.

Find deals without leaving home

As we have pointed out previously, it isn't necessary to trek to the mall and fight the crowds in order to get a great Black Friday deal. Many retailers have been promoting “door-buster” deals all month on their websites. And there will be plenty more deals online on Black Friday for shoppers who prefer to stay home and shop from their computer.

The Craft Star, a QVC-TV style website that sells craft and homemade items, is promising a number of deals on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The owners of the site say anyone can enter to win free holiday gift products, with the giveaways beginning at 4 am Eastern time on Black Friday. On Cyber Monday, December 2, a giveaway valued at $20 will be featured every hour on the hour from 6 a.m. EST until 6 p.m. EST.

In addition, most major retailers plan online promotions throughout the day on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

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Non-Bell wireless carriers are more consumer-friendly, study finds

The FCC should consider the findings when it awards additional spectrum space

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will soon be holding auctions to award additional spectrum space to wireless carriers, and the Consumer Federat...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will soon be holding auctions to award additional spectrum space to wireless carriers, and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) says a recent study offers some valuable guidance for the commission.

The study -- Comparing Apples to Apples: How Competitive Provider Services Outpace the Baby Bell Duopoly -- concludes that unaffiliated wireless broadband service providers who compete against the “Baby Bells” offer products that are much more innovative and consumer-friendly.

"These findings reinforce our earlier analysis that placing limits on the amount of spectrum AT&T and Verizon can acquire in the upcoming auction of low frequency spectrum would strengthen competition and promote the public interest," CFA said in a statement. "The wireless broadband services offered by Sprint and T-Mobile match the 'Baby Bells' in their limited offerings, but their ‘unlimited’ services deliver lower cost and allow consumers to escape from the overage fees and contract locks that the Bells impose."

Significant differences

The study found statistically significant differences in the following attributes of broadband service:

  • monthly bill
  • cost per megabit
  • download speed
  • upload speed
  • presence of a data cap
  • type of data cap.

Comparing the wireless services offered by the Baby Bells to the other wireless service providers (Sprint and T-Mobile) CFA found that:

  • Non-Baby Bell U.S. wireless broadband service providers offer much more attractive service than services offered by Baby Bell wireless broadband providers.
  • Non-U.S. wireless broadband service providers offer much more attractive service than Baby Bell U.S. wireless service providers.

CFA said the argument fares quite well when careful comparisons are made about wireline broadband:

  • Municipal wireline broadband service providers offer much more attractive triple play services than other wireline broadband service providers in the U.S.
  • Non-U.S. wireline broadband service providers offer much more attractive triple play and broadband-only services than U.S. service providers.

CFA said findings that "the dominant incumbents charge more and deliver less attractive services reinforce our earlier conclusions that they are abusing their market power."

Since the Baby Bells already control a disproportionate share of the low frequency spectrum, rules that ensure a better balance in those spectrum holdings will be to the benefit of the consumer and the economy by strengthening competition in the wireless sector, the non-profit consumer advocacy organization concluded.

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Duct cleaning isn't always a rip-off

Cleaning out your air ducts is important but many companies do a poor job

Many homeowners think that duct-cleaning is a rip-off and in many cases, they're right. The field is full of disreputable fly-by-night, operators who ...

PhotoMany homeowners think that duct-cleaning is a rip-off and in many cases, they're right. The field is full of disreputable fly-by-night, operators who quote unrealistically low rates, do a poor job or both.

In the most recent example, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers today filed suit against Seabreeze Air, LLC and its owners and affiliated companies. They are accused of advertising their cleaning services for very low prices, only to significantly increase their prices once inside a customer’s home.  

“Along with misrepresenting their prices, the defendants also perform shoddy, incomplete work using inadequate tools that leave dust and debris in consumers’ ductwork and sometimes causes damage to homes,” explained Suthers. “Based on consumer complaints, defendants sometimes leave homes in worse shape than before service was performed.”   

 According to the complaint, the companies advertised their services for as little as $34.95 in coupon books such as ValPak and online sites such as Groupon and Living Social. By marketing their services through Groupon and Living Social, consumers paid for vouchers upfront. When service workers were onsite, however, consumers were informed that additional charges would apply.

So if not Groupon and similar sites, how should a homeowner find a reputable and competent duct-cleaning company? The simplest and most reliable way is to ask the company that maintains your home's heating and cooling system to check your ducts and, if they need cleaning, recommend a competent firm to do the work.

Ducts get dirty

The simple fact is that ducts get dirty. This isn't surprising to anyone who regularly changes the filter on a home heating system. In just a month or two, the filter becomes clogged with dust, dirt, animal dander and other debris that can aggravate allergies and drive up your heating and cooling costs.

You can check the ducts yourself by using a flashlight or digital camera to look into the ductwork inside your home. If the ducts haven't been cleaned in a few years, chances are you'll see a hefty layer of gunk in the ducts.

A reputable duct cleaner will use a process called "agitation and collection" -- blasting the gunk loose with compressed air and collecting it by hooking up a giant vacuum to your home heating and cooling system.  

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Feds to require seat belts on buses and motorcoaches

Public transit and school buses are exempt

It won't be long before you have to buckle up when you ride the bus. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a final rule re...

PhotoIt won't be long before you have to buckle up when you ride the bus.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a final rule requiring lap and shoulder seat belts for each passenger and driver seat on new motorcoaches and other large buses. The rule is designed to reduce the risk of fatalities and serious injuries in frontal crashes and the risk of occupant ejection in rollovers.

"Safety is our highest priority and we are committed to reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our roadways," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. He calls the rule “a significant step forward in our efforts to improve motorcoach safety."

Reducing deaths and injuries

NHTSA data show that -- on average -- 21 motorcoach and large bus occupants are killed and 7,934 are injured annually in motor vehicle crashes. Requiring seat belts, the agency says, could reduce fatalities by up to 44% and reduce the number of moderate to severe injuries by up to 45%.

"While travel on motorcoaches is overall a safe form of transportation, when accidents do occur, there is the potential for a greater number of deaths and serious injuries due to the number of occupants and high speeds at which the vehicles are traveling," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "Adding seat belts to motorcoaches increases safety for all passengers and drivers, especially in the event of a rollover crash."

Three-year lead time

The final rule, which amends Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, applies to new over-the-road buses and to other types of new buses with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) greater than 26,000 pounds, except transit buses and school buses. Beginning in November 2016, newly manufactured buses will be required to be equipped with lap and shoulder belts for each driver and passenger seat.

Several companies have already begun voluntarily purchasing buses that include seat belts and the agency will continue encouraging the industry to speed the adoption of lap and shoulder seat belts prior to the mandatory deadline.  

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Alleged 'Rachel Robocall' scammers settle charges

All six are permanently panned from telemarketing and debt relief services

The “Rachel from Cardholder Services” scam has apparently reached an end. The final six of 10 defendants have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (F...

PhotoThe “Rachel from Cardholder Services” scam has apparently reached an end.

The final six of 10 defendants have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they misled consumers with bogus claims that they would lower their credit card interest rates.

The settlement bans Emory L. “Jack” Holley IV, Lisa Miller, and the remaining corporate defendants from telemarketing and marketing debt relief services or assisting others in such conduct, prohibits them from misrepresenting any products or services, and imposes a partially suspended $11.9 million judgment.

False promises

The FTC filed its complaint in the case last fall, alleging that the defendants violated Section 5 of the FTC Act and the agency’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by charging illegal up-front fees during telemarketing calls in which they made false promises to reduce the interest rate on consumers’ credit cards and save them thousands of dollars.

The defendants also were charged with making other misrepresentations, such as claiming that consumers who bought their services would be able to pay off their debts much faster as a result of the lowered credit card interest rates and making false claims about their refund policies.

The other four Key One defendants agreed to settle the FTC charges against them in June of this year. They allegedly participated in the scheme by opening merchant and bank accounts in their names for processing consumer payments obtained in connection with the deceptive sales of credit card interest rate-reduction and by providing substantial assistance, such as web pages, mail drops, customer service, and shipping of CDs with general debt and other financial information to consumers.

Permanent bans

Under the settlement Holley, Miller and the companies they control, will be permanently banned from all telemarketing, with extremely limited exceptions to allow them to engage in legitimate business activities. The settlement also bans them from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any debt relief-related products or services. Several of the defendants are repeat offenders, and this ban will permanently stop them from preying on consumers in financial distress.

The final order also prohibits the six from making any misrepresentations related to any financial product or service, and requires them to substantiate any claims they make to consumers in the future about the potential benefits or effectiveness of any product or service.

Finally, the order imposes a partially suspended judgment of $11.9 million jointly against the corporate and individual defendants. The defendants' assets, currently being held in receivership, will be paid to the Commission.

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Pending home sales drop in October

The decline is the fifth in as many months

Make it five straight. According to the National Association of Realtors the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contrac...

PhotoMake it five straight.

According to the National Association of Realtors, the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, dipped 0.6% in October -- to 102.1, the fifth decline in a row. That puts the index down 1.6% from where it stood a year ago and at the lowest level since December 2012 .

The numbers reflect contracts but not closings.

The weaker activity was not a surprise. “The government shutdown in the first half of last month sidelined some potential buyers,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “In a survey, 17 percent of Realtors reported delays in October -- mostly from waiting for IRS income verification for mortgage approval.”

Yun says there could be a bit of a rebound from this level, but adds, we “still face the headwinds of limited inventory and falling affordability conditions. Job creation and a slight dialing down from current stringent mortgage underwriting standards going into 2014 can help offset the headwind factors.”

Regional picture

Modest gains in the Northeast and Midwest were offset by declines in the South and West, with a greater impact in the high-cost region of the West, where tight inventory also is holding back contract offers. Yun says he expects generally flat home sales going into 2014, but continued growth in home prices from limited inventory conditions.

  • The PHSI in the Northeast rose 2.8% to 85.8 in October, and is 8.1% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index increased 1.2% to 104.1, and is 3.2% higher than October 2012.
  • Pending home sales in the South slipped 0.8% to 114.5 last month, and are 1.5% below the year-ago level.
  • The index in the West fell dropped 4.1% in October to 93.3, and is 12.1% lower than October 2012.

Looking ahead

Yun said there are concerns heading into 2014. “New mortgage rules in January could delay the approval process, and another government shutdown would harm both housing and the economy,” he said.

NAR says annual existing-home sales should be nearly 10% higher this year than in 2012, totaling just above 5.1 million, with a comparable volume expected in 2014. The national median existing-home price for 2013 is projected to be 11% above last year, and then cool to a 5.0 to 5.5% increase in 2014.

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Mexican diet "more dangerous than fast food"

Doctors want mandatory screening of young Mexicans to fight epidemic of heart disease

In the U.S., we hear fast food being blamed for much of the nation's rising tide of obesity and diabetes but there are places where the problem is even wor...

PhotoIn the U.S., we hear fast food being blamed for much of the nation's rising tide of obesity and diabetes but there are places where the problem is even worse -- and one of them is right next door, in Mexico. And now a leading Mexican authority on heart disease says it's time to declare an emergency. He's calling for mandatory screening of 18-year-old Mexicans to halt the epidemic of cardiovascular disease that's plaguing the country. 

"The Mexican diet is more dangerous than fast food chains," said Dr Enrique C. Morales Villegas. "It's a combination of fried food, junk food and soft drinks. The philosophy of life is around comfort. People eat too much and everyday they watch 4 hours of TV, spend 2 hours at the computer and do less than 10 minutes of physical activity."

Morales is the director of the Cardiometabolic Research Centre in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and insists that diet and a sedentary lifestyle are to blame for the problem. He wants the Mexican government to order a mandatory examination for every 18-year-old and to prescribe a regimen of diet and exercise for those who are found to have signs of heart disease.

Mortality from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes in Mexico rose by 9.5% in just one year, from 189,000 in 2009 to 207,000 in 2010. The latest Mexican National Survey of Health and Nutrition reveals that 73% of women, 69% of men and 35% of adolescents are overweight or obese.

"The prevalence of overweight and obesity in Mexico is one of the highest in the world and the problem is increasing in all age groups. Obesity begins in childhood and persists into adolescence and adulthood," Morales said.

The survey also found that diabetes is increasing in men, women and children of all ages, with an estimated adult prevalence of 14-16%.

An average of 31% of adults in Mexico have hypertension. Levels increase with age and two-thirds of 70 year-olds have hypertension. An average of 40% of Mexicans have high levels of bad cholesterol (LDL).

Morales' remarks were prepared for delivery at a health conference in Mexico.

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GM recalls Chevy Malibus

The vehicles have HVAC and power seat problems

General Motors is recalling a more than 57,600 Chevrolet Malibu vehicles in two separate actions. In the first, about 42,696 model year 2014 vehicles manu...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling a more than 57,600 Chevrolet Malibu vehicles in two separate actions.

2014 models

In the first, about 42,696 model year 2014 vehicles manufactured June 12, 2013, through November 5, 2013, are being recalled.

The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) control in these vehicles may intermittently become inoperable when the vehicle is started, preventing the windshield defroster from working. The inability to turn on the windshield defroster may decrease the driver's visibility thereby increasing the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will update the electronic climate control module software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin December 6, 2013. The recall campaign number is 13380.

2013 vehicles

The second recall involves about 14,909 model year 2013 Malibus manufactured October 25, 2011, through June 29, 2012 and equipped with the 8-way power adjustable front seat feature.

The wiring harness for the power seat may contact the seat frame which may chafe the harness. If the harness is chaffed enough to expose the wires, a short circuit could occur, resulting unintended movement of the seat, the seat to become inoperative, sparking under the seat, flickering lights, smoke, or possibly a fire.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the wire harness and repair and secure it as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early December 2013. GM's recall campaign number is 13342.

Owners may contact GM at 1-800-521-7300 regarding either recall.

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Hyundai recalls Entourage vehicles

The front lower control arms may fracture due to corrosion

Hyundai America Technical Center is recalling 15,500 model year 2007-2008 Hyundai Entourage vehicles manufactured from February 16, 2006, through June 30,...

PhotoHyundai America Technical Center is recalling 15,500 model year 2007-2008 Hyundai Entourage vehicles manufactured from February 16, 2006, through June 30, 2008 and sold in, or currently registered in, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

In the affected vehicles, the front lower control arms may fracture due to corrosion resulting from exposure to road salt and water. A fractured control arm can result in the loss of control of the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the degree of corrosion of the front lower control arms, and will either rustproof or replace them, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

Owners may contact Hyundai at 1-800-633-5151 or by email at consumeraffairs@hmausa.com. Hyundai's recall number is 115.

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Creminelli Fine Meats recalls pork roast products

The products are mislabeled and were improperly produced

Creminelli Fine Meats of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling 31 pieces (approximately 101 pounds) of fully-cooked-not-shelf-stable, ready-to-eat pork roast...

PhotoCreminelli Fine Meats of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling 31 pieces (approximately 101 pounds) of fully-cooked-not-shelf-stable, ready-to-eat pork roast products.

The products were produced under the wrong Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan and mislabeled.

There have been no no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

3-4-lb. packages of “Creminelli Artisan Deli Porchetta Seasoned Boneless Pork Roast”

Each package bears the establishment number “34644” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were sold exclusively through the Internet to 28 customers, who have been identified by the company, and delivered to customers between Oct. 15, 2013 and Nov. 15, 2013.

The products were NOT distributed to retail stores or restaurants, and other products produced by the company are not affected.

Consumers with questions about the recall can contact the company at (801) 428-1820 or info@creminelli.com.

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Ford recalls Focus Electric vehicles

A powertrain control module software problem may result in a stall-like condition

Ford Motor Company is recalling 2,456 year 2012-2014 Focus Electric vehicles manufactured September 15, 2011, through August 23, 2013. In the affected ve...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 2,456 year 2012-2014 Focus Electric vehicles manufactured September 15, 2011, through August 23, 2013.

In the affected vehicles, a powertrain control module software problem may result in a stall-like condition. An unexpected loss of power while driving increases the risk of a crash.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the power control module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by late November 2013.

Owners may contact Ford Motor Company Customer Relationship Center at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's recall campaign number is 13S09.

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50 Years After Dallas: Theories about who killed JFK

Hundreds of books, thousands of articles, countless investigations lead to only two conclusions

Hundreds of books make up the genre of JFK assassination literature. Many are well-researched volumes that make a strong case that the murder happened one...

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Wireless carriers -- minus Verizon -- agree to stop unauthorized third-party charges

States once again step in where feds failed for decades to do anything to protect consumers

Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced a major breakthrough in the fight against ‘mobile cramming’ — unauthorized third-party char...

PhotoAfter decades of inaction by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 45 states have taken the lead in beginning to clean up the scandalous and longstanding cell phone ripoffs that have cost consumers billions. 

The states have achieved a major breakthrough in the fight against "mobile cramming" — unauthorized third-party charges that appear on mobile telephone bills. Cramming on cell phones and landlines is estimated to cost Americans $2 billion per year.

AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile have agreed to stop passing on the charges, but Verizon Wireless is not a party to the agreement.

The problem was created by Congress when it passed the lobbyist-led Telecommunications Act of 1996 and included the provision that telephone carriers must pass on bills submitted by third-party providers. Everyone knew this was a wild and crazy invitation to scam artists but no one cared enough to do anything about it.

Too busy to help consumers

PhotoThe FCC has been too busy helping telecom and cable companies divide up the spoils to worry about a little thing like consumers being wrongfully separated from their money.

“This is a victory for cell phone users in Washington and across the nation,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “I am hopeful other phone carriers will follow this lead. My office will continue to work with other states for industry reforms and to recover money for consumers victimized by unauthorized mobile charges.”

As a result of the states' action, AT&T Mobility, Sprint and T-Mobile have agreed that they will no longer charge their customers for commercial Premium Short Messaging Services, also known as "PSMS," or "premium text messages."

PSMS is the platform that third-party content providers use to charge consumers via their cell phone bills. Examples of PSMS charges include those for horoscopes, weather information, dating advice, sports alerts, and similar services.

PSMS accounts for the majority of third-party charges on cell phones and for the overwhelming majority of cramming complaints. While PSMS has some benefits, like charitable giving, it is also a major contributor to the current mobile cramming problem.

Forty-five attorneys general led by Washington, Vermont, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, and Texas have been engaged in discussions aimed at stopping the practice of mobile cramming.

AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile are the second, third and fourth largest providers of mobile telephone services nationwide. AT&T and T-Mobile have confirmed they will continue to allow charitable donations to be billed via PSMS. Sprint was unable to confirm if they will do so at this time.

Verizon and numerous small carriers remain in the uncharted wilderness, exposing their customers to the third-party charges, which often go undetected and which can be difficult to dispute. 

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Survey shows we're becoming a nation of re-gifters

In some cases, it passes the etiquette test

Not every present we receive is something we really want. In fact, some can be downright bizarre. Increasingly those gifts end up being gifts given to some...

PhotoNot every present we receive is something we really want. In fact, some can be downright bizarre. Increasingly those gifts end up being gifts given to someone else, a practice known as “re-gifting.”

While it might seem impolite to recycle a gift, the evidence suggests the practice is becoming mainstream. A survey by Ebates.com found that one-third of U.S. consumers re-gift during the holiday season. This year, 39% said they will give a gift they received to someone else.

The perfect re-gift

What makes the perfect re-gift? Respondents to the survey favor home décor items, gift cards, bottles of wine, books and perfume or cologne. The term “re-gifting,” by the way, is said to have originated in a 1990s episode of Seinfeld.

To find out if re-gifting is ever acceptable, we consulted etiquette guru, EmilyPost.com. We were surprised to find that it is, sort of.

“Gifts should be recycled only rarely, and only when the following criteria are met:

  • You're certain that the gift is something the recipient would really like to receive.
  • The gift is brand new (no cast-offs allowed) and comes with its original box and instructions.
  • The gift isn't one that the original giver took great care to select or make.

Risky re-gifting

But re-gifting must be done carefully. It becomes risky when the original giver, original recipient and new recipient all know each other, as in the above Seinfeld clip. Ask yourself if it would be awkward if they all knew that you've recycled a gift from one to the other.

Re-gifts sometimes come in handy when you unexpectedly receive a gift from someone and feel you must reciprocate. In the Ebates survey, 50% of those questioned said they plan to have a “back up” gift at the ready for just such an occasion. Coincidentally, the top choices of “back up” gifts include a gift card, candy or snack, wine or champagne, a book, and home décor – many of which made the list of most popular re-gifts.

Celebrating re-gifting

There is even a website – regiftable.com – that celebrates the practice of re-gifting. The site, operated by the Money Management Institute (MMI), promotes re-gifting as a way to be frugal and practical during the holiday season. But it cautions that not all gifts are re-giftable.

“Never re-gift handmade or one-of-a-kind items,” the site advises. “Signed books and monogrammed items are off-limits. Do you have to be told not to re-gift free promotional items? Some gifts that are good candidates for re-gifting include good (unopened!) bottles of wine, new household items and inexpensive jewelry.”

Should you ever re-gift to your spouse or significant other? It's probably a very risky move, though the Ebates survey suggests it might be tempting.

The survey found consumers – 30% of women and 23% of men -- have the hardest time buying for their significant others. The survey found that trend remained consistent regardless of whether the couple had children, but became increasingly difficult as their incomes rose.

So if you open a nicely wrapped gift this holiday season and find a home décor item, gift card, bottle of wine, a book or perfume or cologne, you might have been re-gifted.

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FCC contemplates libertarian stance towards airborne cellphone usage

If texting is OK, why not talking? Maybe airlines will charge extra for Quiet Class

Government. All too often, it doesn't do what people want it to do, instead spending the people's time and money doing things people either don't care abou...

PhotoGovernment. All too often, it doesn't do what people want it to do, instead spending the people's time and money doing things people either don't care about or actively don't want.

No, we're not talking about Obamacare, although that might be a case in point, depending on your outlook. We're talking -- for now, at least -- about the Federal Communications Commission, an agency that has a long and well-deserved reputation for slavishly bowing to the needs of the telecom, cable and broadcasting companies it regulates while losing sight of the needs of everyday taxpayers.

Case in point: cramming. But don't get us started. The latest episode in that long and sordid tale is covered in a separate story today, one chronicling how states took matters into their own hands after waiting more than a decade for the feds to do something about cellphone cramming.

Now the latest buzz in telecom circles is that new FCC Chairman and former cable lobbyist Tom Wheeler wants to redo the nation's telephone network, converting it basically to Internet telephony. No one is taking to the streets to demand this, although the telephone companies would certainly like to sell everyone broadband and stop maintaining their copper-based telephone networks.

In the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the copper network is in such bad shape that police have been pounding on the wrong doors in the middle of the night, as the 9-1-1 system sends them to the wrong address, according to local news reports.

But never mind that. The FCC has taken up a new cause -- cellphones on airliners. The agency says it will soon propose allowing passengers to use their phones once flights reach cruising altitude, something nearly no one wants and several airlines already say they won't allow.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) struck a similar blow for freedom, allowing the use of laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc. in flight as long as no talking was involved. 

Talk it up

Photo
Quiet Class rejectee?

The FCC basically says there's no technical or safety reason to prohibit the calls. That may well be true, although the airlines would have to install equipment that would enable on-board cellphones to make contact with cell towers on the ground. 

Actually, some engineers will tell you that cellphones work just fine in flight right now but have a tendency to "suck up" available bandwidth from ground stations. Equipment installed on airplanes would likely throttle down air-to-ground communications to a more reasonable level, these telecom engineers say. They asked not to be identified because their employers would object to their discussing the matter.

The FCC says it is carrying out the will of the people.  It cited a survey of 1,600 U.S. adults that showed 51% opposed allowing in-flight calls while 47% thought it was a good idea. Hmmm ... maybe the FCC needs to look at those numbers again.

Whatever happens at the FCC, Southwest, Virgin America and Delta all say they don't plan to allow in-flight phone calls, citing overwhelming sentiment against it.

Those travelers who are somewhat long in the tooth may recall the days when airliners had smoking and no-smoking sections, which was kind of silly since smoke tends to drift, but it was widely accepted and strictly enforced.

Perhaps what will end up happening if the FCC liberates airborne cellphones is something similar. It's pretty easy to imagine the airlines -- which now put a price on everything -- charging an extra $20 or so for seats in the no-yakking section. Amtrak has quiet cars, after all, why can't United?

Of course, if there's going to be a Quiet Class, it would have to bar babies and anyone else likely to start yelling, crying loudly or uttering indecipherable grunts. Which would probably include most of us, at least now and then.

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Feds and Wise Media settle cramming charges

Defendants are banned from using mobile phone bills to charge consumers

An Atlanta-based company and its operators are settling Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allegations that they crammed charges on consumers’ cell phone bills...

PhotoAn Atlanta-based company and its operators are settling Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allegations that they crammed charges on consumers’ cell phone bills without their consent to the tune of $10 million.

Two settlements with Wise Media and its CEO, Brian M. Buckley, and Winston J. Deloney, permanently ban them from placing any charges on consumers’ telephone bills or assisting anyone else in doing so. They also are prohibited from using any other method to charge consumers for goods or services without ensuring that they are aware of the terms of the purchase and have expressly agreed to be charged.

“This case involved a new delivery system for an old-fashioned scam,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Getting consumers’ consent before charging them is as basic a consumer protection as you’ll find, whether you’re dealing with a brick and mortar store or with a mobile payment provider.”

'Premium services' charge

The FTC’s complaint alleged that Wise Media billed consumers for so-called “premium services” that sent text messages with horoscopes, flirting and love tips and other information. It also claims consumers across the country were signed up for these services, and that the operation placed repeating charges of $9.99 per month on mobile phone bills, without consumers’ knowledge or permission.

The settlement with Wise Media and Buckley includes a judgment of $10,965,638, which is partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay the full amount. Buckley will be required to surrender nearly all of his assets along with any remaining assets of Wise Media, valued in excess of $500,000.

The settlement with Deloney and Concrete Marketing Research, LLC, a relief defendant charged with receiving ill-gotten gains from the unlawful conduct, requires them to pay $175,817.  

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Feds block automakers from claiming safety ratings of more than 5 stars

Tesla had caimed its Model S got a 5.4 rating, when in fact no such rating exists

DETROIT (Reuters) -- U.S. regulators blocked automakers from promoting vehicle safety ratings of more than 5 stars, three months after Tesla Motors Inc. to...

PhotoConsumer Reports and Tesla owners think the Tesla S electric luxury sports sedan is great. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is sounding a little peeved about Tesla's incessant self-promotion.

Consumer Reports recently gave the car its highest-ever rating and, just yesterday, said the Tesla S had achieved the highest customer satisfaction rating -- 99 out of 100 -- any car has achieved in recent memory. OK, probably it's the highest rating ever but nobody wants to come out and say so.

Meanwhile, NHTSA has opened a preliminary inquiry into a couple of fires that occurred when two of the $90,000 cars hit debris in the roadway and burst into flames.

NHTSA's nose is also out of joint over Tesla's claim that it is the safest car ever. The company has been claiming that it achieved a 5.4-star safety rating in NHTSA's collision tests. NHTSA sternly replied that its ratings only go up to 5 -- so a 5.4 rating is impossible.

Guidelines updated

PhotoJust to make sure Tesla gets the point, NHTSA has updated its guidelines to explicit bar companies from promoting safety scores higher than 5 stars. The guidelines also state that safety scores are always whole numbers. 

"Tesla's claim was an example of the potential confusion and inaccuracy that could be caused by incorrect use of the 5-Star ratings information in advertising and marketing statements," NHTSA said in a statement

"Advertisers who claim more than 5 stars are misleading the public," NHTSA said, warning that violations could lead to sanctions.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, for once, declined to comment. The 5-star safety rating system has been used by NHTSA since model-year 1994 vehicles and the agency does not issue scores above that threshold.

Musk, has generated almost as much heat as the car fires with his over-the-top claims and his aggressive response to NHTSA's inquiry, leading some to wonder whether he is trying to be the next Donald Trump of the automotive industry.

Some of Musk's less cautious rants have bordered on being untruthful. Earlier this week he claimed in a log post that Tesla had asked NHTSA to investigate the fires, a claim NHTSA flatly denied.

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Angelcare recalls baby monitors after two deaths

Infants can become tangled in the cord and strangle

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in cooperation with Angelcare Monitors of Quebec, Canada, is announcing a recall to provide cord covers...

PhotoThe U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is announcing a recall to provide cord covers for 600,000 Angelcare Movement and Sound Monitors with Sensor Pads.

The cord attached to the baby monitor’s sensor pad is placed under the crib mattress, which poses a strangulation risk if the child pulls the cord into the crib and it becomes wrapped around the neck.

Angelcare and CPSC have received reports of two infant cord strangulation deaths. In November 2011, a 13-month-old girl died in San Diego, California, and, in August 2004, an 8-month-old girl died in Salem, Oregon. In both fatalities, the cord from the sensor pads was pulled into the crib by the infant.

In addition, there have been two reports of infants who became entangled in cords of Angelcare baby monitor models, which did not result in fatalities. In these incidents, it could not be determined if the “sensor pad cord” or the “monitor cord” was involved in the incident.

The recall involves the Movement and Sound Monitor manufactured by Angelcare. This design of baby monitor includes a unique sensor pad placed inside the crib, under the mattress, to monitor movement of the baby. An electrical cord about 11 feet long is permanently connected from the sensor pad to the nursery monitor unit.

The hazard is created by a cord within reach of a baby inside the crib. The cord can be pulled into the crib and can wrap around the child’s neck. The recall involves all versions of Angelcare sensor monitors including model numbers: AC1100, AC201, AC300, AC401 AC601 and 49255 that did not include rigid cord covers, offered in the remedy. The model number is located on the back of the nursery monitor unit. The monitors were manufactured between 1999 and 2013.

Angelcare is providing consumers with a repair kit that includes rigid protective cord covers through which the sensor pad cords can be threaded, a new, permanent electric cord warning label about the strangulation risk, and revised instructions.

The recalled baby monitors were sold at Babies R Us/Toys R Us, Burlington Coat Factory, Meijer, Sears, Walmart, Amazon.com, Target.com, Overstock.com, and nearly 70 small baby specialty stores, from October 1999, through September 2013, for about $100to $300.

Consumers should immediately make sure cords are placed out of reach of the child.

Consumers may contact Angelcare toll-free at (855)355-2643 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Tis the season to buy a house

Only motivated sellers are listing their homes in December

With the arrival of the holiday season who has time to go looking for a house? For that reason there aren't many buyers this time of year.But there shoul...

PhotoWith the arrival of the holiday season who has time to go looking for a house? For that reason there aren't many buyers this time of year.

But there should be, because that's when you may find some incredible deals.

It's understandable that owner-occupants aren't eager to buy a house at this time of year. There are too many other distractions and besides, who wants to move in January?

But for investors, it's an entirely different matter. Joy Bender, a real estate agent in San Diego, Calif., says investors who sit on the sidelines in December may be passing up a profitable opportunity.

Motivated sellers

"A seller who is actively showing their property during the holidays is more motivated to sell than a seller merely testing the highs of the market," Bender said.

For example, in her market Bender says there are some builders offering unusual discounts on current phases of move in ready models in an effort to clear inventory off the books. Some sellers may be motivated for tax reasons.

“Sellers may be motivated to strategically close escrow by the end of 2013 for tax advantageous planning within regards to capital gains,” Bender said. “Buyers can also anticipate possible tax deductions for 2013 with pre-paid mortgage interest along with origination and discount points paid on closing costs.”

Buyers regaining some leverage

In some markets in the country in recent months sellers have been in the driver's seat. Inventories have been low and buying interest high. For that reason an investor seeking to buy a house well below market has often been frustrated lately. But Bender says that's changing.

"We've seen a significant shift in overall demand eliminating some of the multiple offer situations we have been struggling with all year," she said. "There has been a dramatic decrease in buyer activity especially in the high end and vacation home market."

Recent data backs that up. Sales of existing homes declined in September and October, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Only a further tightening of inventories prevented overall prices from falling. The median price rose 12% year-over-year, dampening investor enthusiasm.

Cash talks

But Bender thinks the end of 2013 might provide investors with an opportunity, especially if they can make a cash offer. A seller pressured by a deadline may be inclined to accept a lower offer if it is cash, since there is little chance the deal will fall through.

The biggest downside to end-of-the-year home buying is the limited inventory. It may be hard to find a home that meets your needs. But that's only the case if you plan to live in the house.

An investor is looking at it in a completely different way. They either plan to flip it or convert it to rental property. The color of the tile in the bathroom isn't a deal-breaker.

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Study: Overthinking food choices could lead to weight gain

Sometimes politeness can backfire

If our distant ancestors could see us now they’d be flabbergasted and frustrated by how we managed to take a biological process as simple and basic a...

PhotoIf our distant ancestors could see us now they’d be flabbergasted and frustrated by how we managed to take a biological process as simple and basic as eating and turn it into an overcomplicated overanalyzed mess.

Granted, our modern world does contain some culinary complications our ancestors never had to handle: their primary food-related health problems mostly involved malnutrition and famine, whereas ours center around too much access to too many temptingly fattening foods.

Even so, we confess to a bit of head-shaking when we read this press release from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, about another eating-habits research study. The press release had the headline “Political correctness could affect holiday weight gain.”

In the context of the article, it’s obvious that “political correctness” here actually means “being hyper-vigilant against the possibility of offending someone due to their weight.” Indeed, the actual research study doesn’t mention political correctness at all, but instead has the title Matching Choices to Avoid Offending Stigmatized Group Members.

The gist of the research seems to be that, when people are asked to select food both for themselves and for others, and are given a choice between healthy or unhealthy food options (wheat crackers or chocolate-chip cookies, respectively), those choices are likely to change based on whether the various people are overweight or of normal weight.

As the press release says:

… in similar, additional studies, participants told researchers they thought it would be offensive either to give an overweight person healthy food and then take unhealthy food for themselves or, conversely, to give an overweight person unhealthy food and then take healthy food for themselves.

"This suggests that if you are heading back to the buffet to cut a piece of pumpkin pie for your overweight uncle, you might also cut a larger piece than normal for yourself, so you don't hurt his feelings," [researcher Peggy] Liu said.

We must be doing buffets and dinner parties wrong; in buffet situations we only select food for children too young to do so themselves, and at parties we always let our guests pretty much choose what they want from whatever options we’ve made available. That said, we do indeed think it would be offensive if we not only abandoned this practice, but made a point of serving delicious cookies to our skinny guests and whole-wheat crackers to the plump ones.

Despite this, the study does make some potentially good points regarding how your own personal food choices could be affected by what others are eating—such as eating more pie than you intended so your uncle’s serving looks smaller. It might be hard to avoid overthinking such matters, because when you get right down to it, we’re evolutionarily hard-wired to have a bit of a Goldilocks fetish where food is concerned—especially fat, sugar and salt, which collectively bear the bulk of the blame for modern obesity problems.

Because our bodies need all of these things to survive and be healthy: eat too little, you can get sick or even die. Eat too much, and you can also get sick or even die. Only when everything’s Just Right do you feel just right too, and we’d tell you how to eat Just Right according to the latest nutritional scientific consensus, but new research will probably make our advice obsolete by next week, so we’ll keep eating according to our old rule: A little bit of everything, but not too much of anything. (Except maybe at a Thanksgiving feast.)

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Does heavy drinking harm a marriage? It depends on who's drinking

Study finds a higher divorce rate when only one person is a heavy drinker

You might think that heavy drinking would be bad for a marriage -- and you'd be right if only one person was doing the drinking. But a new study finds that...

PhotoYou might think that heavy drinking would be bad for a marriage -- and you'd be right if only one person was doing the drinking. But a new study finds that if both couples drink, the divorce rate is the same as for other couples.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) followed 634 couples from the time of their weddings through the first nine years of marriage and found that couples where only one spouse was a heavy drinker had a much higher divorce rate than other couples.

But if both spouses were heavy drinkers? The divorce rate was the same as for couples where neither were heavy drinkers.

“Our results indicate that it is the difference between the couple’s drinking habits, rather than the drinking itself, that leads to marital dissatisfaction, separation and divorce,” said Kenneth Leonard, PhD, RIA director and lead author of the study.

The study’s co-authors were Gregory Homish, PhD, and Philip Smith, PhD, of UB’s Department of Community Health and Health Behavior.

Over the course of the nine-year study, nearly 50 percent of couples where only one partner drank more heavily wound up divorcing, while the divorce rates for other couples was only 30 percent. (“Heavy drinking” was defined as drinking six or more drinks at one time or drinking to intoxication.)

“This research provides solid evidence to bolster the commonplace notion that heavy drinking by one partner can lead to divorce,” Leonard said. “Although some people might think that’s a likely outcome, there was surprisingly little data to back up that claim until now.”

Surprising outcome

The surprising outcome was that the divorce rate for two heavy drinkers was no worse than for two non-heavy drinkers.
“Heavy drinking spouses may be more tolerant of negative experiences related to alcohol due to their own drinking habits,” Leonard said. But he cautioned that this does not mean other aspects of family life are unimpaired. “While two heavy drinkers may not divorce, they may create a particularly bad climate for their children.”

“Ultimately, we hope our findings will be helpful to marriage therapists and mental health practitioners who can explore whether a difference in drinking habits is causing conflicts between couples seeking help,” Leonard said.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the findings will appear in the December issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

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World's first marijuana retail license issued in Colorado

Retail marijuana sales one of the fastest-growing businesses in the country

The Central City Chief of Police hand-delivered the world’s first retail license to sell marijuana to Annie’s, a medical marijuana dispensary t...

Photo
Annie's Dispensary (Facebook photo)

The Chief of Police hand-delivered the world’s first retail license to sell marijuana to Annie’s Central City Dispensaryin Colorado yesterday, a historic occasion in a historic old gold-mining town. 

Though sales to adults 21 and over won’t begin until the first of the year, businesses have already started applying for the licenses, which are expected to bring in close to $67 million in revenue for the state each year.

“Cannabis is one of the fastest-growing industries,” Steve Berg, former managing director of Wells Fargo Bank and editor of a report titled the state of Legal Marijuana Markets, told the Huffington Post. “Domestically, we weren’t able to find any market that is growing as quickly.”

Currently operating medical marijuana dispensaries have been given a three-month head start on other businesses applying for the licenses, though some cities, including Denver, have extended the lead time for current dispensaries to a year or more.

The state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division has accepted 136 applications from recreational marijuana stores so far. Another 400 are eligible to apply, though the state has said only establishments in “good standing” will be accepted. 

“This is a historic occasion, and at each milestone I am reminded of what we have achieved here,” said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), a former police officer and current head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs. “The legalization of marijuana is good for law enforcement, good for families, good for our communities. The voters of Colorado and Washington are leading the way down a path that soon the rest of the nation will follow.”

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is a group of police, prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials who, after fighting on the front lines of the war on drugs, now advocate for its end. #

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McDonald's boneheaded budgeting tips for employees

Sell your Christmas gifts, take two vacations a year and think happy thoughts

You’ve probably noticed the economic controversy raging in America these past few years. On the one side you have one people complaining “Thoug...

You’ve probably noticed the economic controversy raging in America these past few years. On the one side you have people complaining “Though American productivity keeps rising American wages keep falling, especially at the lower ends of the spectrum, and something ought to be done about that.” On the other side is the counterargument “If people make low wages it’s because their job skills aren’t very valuable, so they should do something to qualify for a better gig.”

And if we were wont to believe in conspiracy theories, we’d swear that corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s have recently been taken over by secret agents working for the “wages are too low” side, and their mission is “Learn all we can about Ebenezer Scrooge and Scrooge McDuck, then figure out ways to make our companies look worse.”

Earlier this week we told you about the Walmart in Ohio that asked its employees to contribute to a canned-food drive for the benefit of other Walmart employees who can’t afford to feed themselves. Members of a Walmart workers’ organization said the canned food drive underscores the need for Walmart to pay higher wages; a Walmart spokesman countered than the food drive demonstrates how much Walmart employees care for each other.

Budgeting tips

In all fairness, the Walmart food drive was an individual store manager’s prerogative, not a corporate-wide policy. The same cannot be said for the facepalm-inducing McDonald’s employee webpage uncovered this week by LowPayIsNotOK.org. McDonald’s offered its employees such useful household-budgeting tips as “You may also want to consider returning some of your unopened [holiday gift] purchases that may not seem as appealing as they did. Selling some of your unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist could bring in some quick cash” and “At least two vacations a year can cut heart attack risk by 50 percent."

Perhaps the McDonald’s employees can pay for their stress-reducing twice-yearly vacations with the money they make selling unopened holiday gifts? And remember another helpful stress-reduction tip their website offered: “Quit Complaining: Stress hormone levels rise by 15 percent after ten minutes of complaining.” If you think making a living on low pay is stressful, that’s nothing compared to the stress of complaining about it.

This isn’t the first time McDonald’s made headlines this year for giving callously clueless budgeting tips to its employees. Last July, bloggers for Slate and ThinkProgress uncovered a sample budget that McDonald’s had made available to its employees from 2010 until bloggers told everybody about it. The budget shows how easy McDonald’s thinks it is for its employees to manage household expenses: first, assume the average McDonald’s employee works two jobs for a net monthly income of $2,060, then spends $20 a month on health insurance, nothing on heat and nothing on food — (though food might fall into the “Other” category, for which the sample budget allows $100 per month).

If you want to spend nothing on heat and $20 a month on health insurance, your best bet is to live in southern California—circa 1947 or so. But neither last summer’s McDonald’s budget nor its current employee financial tips include instructions on how to build a working time machine. It does, however, offer this tip for hungry employees seeking to stretch their food budgets further: “Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.”

As consumer journalists dedicated to helping our readers get the most out of their money, we hope you find these suggestions helpful. We rather doubt it, though.

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Elliptical cycles recalled

The front fork on the cycles can separate

ElliptiGO of Solana Beach, Calif., is recalling about 7,200 ElliptiGO outdoor elliptical cycles in the U.S and Canada. The front fork on the cycles can se...

PhotoElliptiGO of Solana Beach, Calif., is recalling about 7,200 ElliptiGO outdoor elliptical cycles in the U.S and Canada.

The front fork on the cycles can separate and the drive arm axles can detach during use, posing a fall hazard. The company has received one report of the fork separating and ten reports of the drive arm detaching. One injury consisting of a minor abrasions caused by a drive arm detaching has been reported.

The ElliptiGO 3C, 8C and 11R models are outdoor elliptical cycles used by adults for exercise. It is a scooter-like device that combines an elliptical trainer with a bicycle. The ElliptiGO cycles have an aluminum frame, drive arms, two 20” spoked-wheels, an internally geared hub, front and rear brakes and adjustable-height steering column. All cycles have the word “ElliptiGO” along the outside of the frame. The 3C and 8C model cycles have a “C-Series” decal towards the rear of the frame and aluminum drive arms. The recalled 11R cycles are matte black with white markings and the “11R” decal is found towards the rear of the frame. The serial numbers on all models are located on the frame in front of the back wheel near where the kickstand attaches to the frame. Serial number ranges for the recalled 3C and 8C models are from 11-010-001 through 13-028-102, and for the 11R model from 12-003-069 through 12-020-035.

The cycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at ElliptiGO Inc. online at elliptigo.com and through various specialty bicycle and specialty fitness retailers nationwide from April 2011, through October 2013, for about $1,800 to $3,500.

Consumers should stop using recalled ElliptiGO cycles until they have the fork upgraded with a safety retrofit and/or upgraded replacement drive arm axles installed.

Consumers may contact ElliptiGO toll-free at (888) 551-0117 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or at www.elliptigo.com/safety to locate the authorized repair center closest to them.

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Tendex recalls P-Boost, NatuRECT

The products contain undeclared ingredients

Tendex is recalling Lot# F51Q of P-Boost and Lot # F51Q of NatuRECT. FDA laboratory analysis on the product, which the firm also labels as NatuRECT, has d...

PhotoTendex is recalling Lot# F51Q of P-Boost and Lot # F51Q of NatuRECT.

FDA laboratory analysis on the product, which the firm also labels as NatuRECT, has determined that it contains undeclared tadalafil, an active ingredient of FDA-approved drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED), making them unapproved drugs.

The products are labeled and intended to be used as dietary supplements for sexual enhancement and are packaged in 1 capsule blister packs and 5, 10, 20, 40 capsule bottles. Both products are distributed nationwide to wholesale and retail customers and via the internet.

Consumers who have product which is being recalled should stop using them and return them to place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact Tendex at (800) 984-0341, from Monday to Friday, 9:00AM-5PM, PST.

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Black Friday deals you can get right now

Retailers continue their push to sell ahead of the official opening day of shopping

There has been no let up in retailers' push to launch their Black Friday deals ahead of the big day itself. Yes, these stores hope you still line up at the...

PhotoThere has been no let-up in retailers' push to launch their Black Friday deals ahead of the big day itself. Yes, these stores hope you still line up at the crack of dawn the day after Thanksgiving to fight over door-buster specials, but you really don't have to.

Walmart has been among the most aggressive, vowing to match any Black Friday price from its competitors. In the meantime, it continues to offer some pretty compelling online deals right now.

For example, Walmart.com is selling a seven-inch Nextbook tablet with 8GB of memory with Google Mobile Services for $59. An RCA seven-inch tablet with 4GB of memory is $49.

Laptop bundle

The site is also currently offering a laptop bundle package, including your choice of an Asus, HP or Gateway computer, a carrying case, a printer and a USB flash drive for $299.

Flatscreen TVs are always a big Black Friday draw but you can get a deal right now, online. Walmart is offering a Sceptre 40" Class LCD 1080p 60Hz HDTV for $259. A 32” RCA 1080p 60Hz Class LED (3.1" ultra-slim) HDTV is $229.

Sears has a 100-piece Craftsman drill accessory kit for $14.99 when you order online. You can pick it up free at a nearby Sears store.

Tells time and calories burned

PhotoBest Buy is currently offering a Timex Unisex Health and Fitness Personal Trainer analog watch for $19.99 when ordered online. it comes with free shipping and spits out a variety of health-related data, including calories burned.

For the gamer on your list, Green Man Gaming is selling Call of Duty: Ghosts for $42.99. That's down from $59.99 and requires a free steam account to play.

In the toy department, Kohls is currently offering the Monster High Draculaura Doll & Jewelry Box Coffin Set by Mattel for $36.99. The regular price is $49.99. It also has the VTech KidiJamz Studio for $49.99.

Mobile advertising

PhotoWhile retailers this year are using the web like never before to spur pre-holiday sales, they haven't given up on trying to draw you into their brick and mortar space. But instead of relying on traditional advertising, more merchants are going mobile.

A survey conducted by fashion shopping app Snapette found that women, especially, are responsive to mobile alerts detailing discounts and more likely than men to shop in-store to save on shipping costs.

"Women tend to be more regularly engaged in shopping related activities, such as searching out deals, subscribing to promotional newsletters, following specific designers on social media, thus may rely less on targeted research immediately prior to making a purchase," said Sarah Paiji, co-founder and President of Snapette.

Mobile ad spending is up a reported 81 percent this year.

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No, you won't hook up with a supermodel through Citysex.com

Reader reports that women profiled there may not even know it

One of the nastiest facts of Internet life is this: once you put your name, image or writings out there, you can’t really control what happens to the...

PhotoOne of the nastiest facts of Internet life is this: once you put your name, image or writings out there, you can’t really control what happens to them next. There’s countless horror stories of people who (for example) set up a perfectly innocuous profile someplace, then found their photo, name and other details appearing in advertisements or profiles with companies they never even knew existed.

We heard just such a story this week, from Anna S. in Minnesota.

I have a plentyoffish.com profile, which is a nonsexual dating website. I was bored one day and decided to Google the screen name I use on my profile for plentyoffish.com. I had noticed that a website appeared as citysex.com had my same user name, location, picture, age and etc listed there. I've made every attempt to contact them and have gotten nowhere. I feel embarrassment and guilt knowing someone my friends, family, or anyone that googles my user name is shown citysex.com. I'm extremely depressed knowing that millions of people I don't know are seeing my picture and information, thinking I want to meet for sex.

Uh-oh. We visited Citysex.com, which promises to help us “Find your perfect match & GET LAID TONIGHT!” It also claims that the small, obscure and downright boring suburban town where we live is populated by an implausibly high number of young-adult supermodel clones, all looking to have either a “discreet affair,” a “kinky relationship” or “group sex.” With us. Tonight. Because, despite looking like supermodels, these people supposedly can’t find a date without the assistance of a skeevy-looking sex site.

Our plan was to find the Citysex.com “Contact us” feature, then write to ask them how somebody like Anna could take down a fake profile. What we discovered is that Citysex.com is based in Cyprus. Its “privacy policy” basically boils down to “Once you register with us, we can do pretty much whatever we want with your profile.” But what about people who never registered with them in the first place?

The closest we could find was this:

"OPT-OUT" - REVOCATION OF CONSENT PROCEDURE

The Site also offers all Members and Users a procedure for 'Opting-Out' if the Member or User subsequently chooses to revoke or withdraw any consent to receive Offers by sending an e-mail from the email address you wish to opt out to "cs@citysex.com" clearly stating the email address in the body of the email and that the Member or User has revoked or withdrawn consent to receive any future Offers from Site to such email address.

This doesn’t bode well for Anna. Suppose, for example, we decided to use our email address to set up a fake Citysex profile for you, and then you learn of this and try taking your fake profile down — if we’re reading this Citysex agreement correctly, there’s nothing you can do because your fake profile will only go away if the takedown request is sent from our email address.

Not too encouraging

PhotoHoping to be proven wrong, we did send a message to that Citysex email address, giving them Anna’s details and asking how she can get “her” profile taken down; we also gave this information to Anna herself. But, frankly, we’ll be very surprised if anything comes of it — especially in light of what we found when we did an online search for “Citysex.com” and “scam.”

Scambook.com has been collecting Citysex complaints since February 2012. Most of the complaints involved unapproved credit card charges – “I signed up for one month membership, they charged me for three” or “they advertised ‘free to join’ … then came an unauthorized charge on my credit card.” But men also complained that the women in the profiles were fake: “none of the girls are real, they are paid models. As soon as I ask one I was chatting with I found out real quick she doesn’t know anything about the town I live in, population 200. I ask her to meet me at the diner and she said which one. We don't have one just a single red light..she finally slipped and said she lived in LA.”

Citysex also came up on a Yahoo answers board; a man posted a question about a scammy come-on he received, allegedly from a beautiful woman sending “friend” requests to random men on Facebook. Two weeks before our search, someone else reported getting similarly scammy Facebook requests: “I actually have this [girl] trying to do this. Same site and is wanting me to go to a redirecting site just to get to CitySex. I kept asking what the name of the site was and she was playing dumb.”

Citysex.com also came up on the Dating Judge website (which is not safe to click on at work or around children, due to some sexually explicit images); Datingjudge.com apparently judges sex-and-dating sites for their trustworthiness, and tagged Citysex.com in many of its scam-alert postings. Citysex.com also got a “Trust Score” of zero percent on Scamadviser.com (which lists it as a US-based site, rather than Cypriot),  and multiple people at PissedConsumer.com warn that “City sex is a scam.”

So if you are a man looking to meet a sexy woman, we can definitely tell you you’ll meet no such women through Citysex.com. But if you’re a woman horrified to learn that Citysex is using your name and image to reel in gullible men — unfortunately, we have no idea what you can do, other than perhaps showing your friends and family this article, should any of them be foolish enough to think you actually posted a come-hither profile on Citysex.com.

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Holiday air fares head sky-high

Plane tickets for Thanksgiving and Christmas are averaging more than $400

Planning on doing some holiday travel? Better be prepared to pay premium prices. Based on holiday travel tickets booked by travelers on priceline.com, t...

PhotoPlanning on doing some holiday travel? Better be prepared to pay premium prices.

Based on holiday travel tickets booked by travelers on Priceline.com, the average Thanksgiving airfare is now hovering around $407, while the average Christmas airfare is about $450.

Booking your flight

If you were hoping to fly cheaper for the Thanksgiving holiday, you're a little late. The least costly day to fly is today -- November 21 -- with the average airfare at a wallet-friendly $336. Other affordable days are tomorrow (November 22), November 28 (Thanksgiving Day) and 29. The most expensive day to fly is December 1, when the average domestic fare is around $490. Other expensive travel days are November 27 and December 2.

For Christmas, consider flying on Dec. 23, 24, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, when average fares can be as low as $397. Travelers will pay the most -- as much as $500 -- to fly on Dec. 21 and January 4.

What to do

  • Look for early morning or late evening flights -- the ones that holiday travelers typically don’t take. They tend to be cheaper.
  • Try different departure and return days. An extra day here and there can lower the fare. Staying over a weekend can drop the fare as well.
  • Smartphone or tablet owners can download travel apps. Having one or more travel apps is a big stress reliever, since you have the ability to book last-minute hotel rooms and rental cars, and check on flights and weather conditions.
  • Read up on the baggage restrictions of your airline and don’t overpack. Fees for extra or overweight bags can run as high as $100 each. In 2012, media reports showed that the 15 major airlines pulled in $3.5 billion in baggage fees.
  • Send presents on ahead. UPS shipping costs are a bargain compared to those extra baggage fees – and, those presents ARE extra baggage.
  • Be sure that the name you give for your ticket matches the ID you’ll use at the airport. That way, you won’t be hit with a ticket change fee.
  • Always check your flights before heading to the airport, just in case of changes.
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Feds put finishing touches on new mortgage forms

The forms are designed to improving consumer understanding and preventing surprises

Easier-to-use mortgage disclosure forms that clearly lay out the terms of a mortgage for a homebuyer are on the way. The Consumer Financial Protection Bur...

PhotoEasier-to-use mortgage disclosure forms that clearly lay out the terms of a mortgage for a homebuyer are on the way.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's (CFPB) new “Know Before You Owe” mortgage forms, which will replace the existing federal disclosures, are designed to help consumers understand their options, choose the deal that’s best for them, and avoid costly surprises at the closing table.

“Taking out a mortgage is one of the biggest financial decisions a consumer will ever make,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Our new ‘Know Before You Owe’ mortgage forms improve consumer understanding, aid comparison shopping, and help prevent closing table surprises for consumers.” The rule, he said, “is rule is an important step toward the consumer having greater control over the mortgage loan process.”

Sweeping changes

For more than 30 years, federal law has generally required that within three business days after receiving a mortgage application, mortgage lenders must deliver two different, overlapping disclosures to consumers. At the closing stage, federal law again generally requires two forms. All of these forms contain duplicative and sometimes confusing information. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act recognized the need to simplify and streamline this information for consumers and transferred responsibility for the forms to the CFPB.

The final rule requires that lenders use the CFPB’s new disclosures, puts in place rules about when the new forms are given to the consumer, and limits how the final deal can change from the original loan estimate. They are available in English and Spanish.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) applauds the CFPB's goal of creating mortgage regulations that protect consumers and strengthen the real estate finance system. "We are pleased that they recognized the enormity of change being implemented in the mortgage systems," said MBA President and CEO David Stevens. "The August 2015 deadline is a clear recognition by the CFPB of  how significant the change is and the time needed to implement this new rule. MBA continues to support clear disclosure forms for consumers that allows them time to review their loan and comparison shop.”

The forms

The Loan Estimate: This form will be provided to consumers within three business days after they submit a loan application. It replaces the early Truth in Lending statement and the Good Faith Estimate, and provides a summary of the key loan terms and estimated loan and closing costs. Consumers can use this new form to compare the costs and features of different loans.

The Closing Disclosure: Consumers will receive this form three business days before closing on a loan. It replaces the final Truth in Lending statement and the HUD-1 settlement statement, and provides a detailed accounting of the transaction.

Improved consumer understanding

An extensive study confirmed the benefits of the new CFPB forms. Consumers of all different experience levels, with different loan types -- whether focused on buying a home or refinancing -- were able to understand CFPB’s new forms better than the current forms. Testing showed that 29% of participants who used the new forms were better able to answer questions about a sample loan and were better able to decide whether they can afford the loan -- including the cost of the loan over time.

Specifically, the forms help consumers better understand key information:

  • Risk factors: Because information on the CFPB forms is disclosed in an easy-to-read format, consumers can more easily identify risky loan features. In addition, lenders will have to tell homebuyers about prepayment penalties, larger-than usual periodic payments, and complicated loan structures.
  • Short-term and long-term costs: By putting the important information in a clearer format than the current forms and in plain language, both the Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure more easily explain the total costs of the loan. This includes an important breakdown of the loan amount, the principal and interest payment, and how it could change, and closing costs.
  • Monthly payments: The new forms state in bold font what a consumer’s monthly principal and interest payments will be. If it is an adjustable-rate loan, the forms say the projected minimum and maximum payments over the life of the loan.

Better comparison shopping

When consumers understand their loan offers, they can better compare competing offers. In testing, the CFPB’s new forms performed better than the current forms when it comes to comparing competing offers by as much as 42%. This leads to better consumer choice. The forms enable better:

  • Comparisons of competing loan offers: The new forms use formatting that clearly breaks down the costs of the loan, such as the interest rate, mortgage insurance costs, and closing costs. As a result, would-be-homebuyers and those refinancing their existing mortgage are better able to distinguish between two different loan offers.
  • Shopping for closing costs: Closing costs are the costs of completing a mortgage transaction, including origination fees, appraisal fees, title insurance, taxes, settlement services, inspections, and homeowner’s insurance. Consumers can save money if they shop around for their own service providers for some of these costs. The CFPB forms plainly outline what closing services a consumer will need and which ones they can shop around for.

Avoiding costly surprises

With the current forms, consumers can have a hard time comparing their original loan terms to their final loan offer. Consumers need to be reasonably sure that the mortgage they signed up for is the one they are getting. The CFPB’s rules curtail “bait and switch” tactics, where the terms change at closing, by implementing several new consumer protections:

  • Easier comparisons of the estimated and final terms of the loan: By making the Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure very similar in format, consumers are better able to compare their estimate with the final terms of the loan. In testing, the CFPB’s new forms performed better than the current forms when it comes to comparing estimated and final numbers by as much as 28%.
  • More time to consider choices: By providing the Closing Disclosure three days before closing, consumers can review their final loan terms and costs in an unpressured environment rather than at the closing table. This allows consumers time to confirm whether they are getting what they expected. It also gives consumers time to ask questions and negotiate over changes that have occurred. This is especially true for consumers who are refinancing and can more easily delay the closing of the loan.
  • Limits on closing cost increases: The new rule restricts circumstances in which consumers can be required to pay more for settlement services than the amount stated on their Loan Estimate. Lenders cannot impose new or higher fees on the final loan unless there is a legitimate reason.

The new rule takes effect Aug. 1, 2015. The CFPB is already working with industry and consumers toward effective implementation.  

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Avoiding the economic toll of divorce

Breaking up is hard to do, and costly too

Divorce happens. Staying together “for the sake of the children,” belongs for the most part to another era.While psychologists are divided ov...

PhotoDivorce happens. Staying together “for the sake of the children,” belongs for the most part to another era.

While psychologists are divided over whether staying in a rocky marriage is the right thing to do, economists are nearly universal in their opinion that divorce is bad economically.

First, there's the actual cost of getting a divorce. In most cases, both spouses hire their own lawyers. Both parties end up with legal bills.

$20,000 divorce

The web site Maritalstatus.com recently reported the average cost of a divorce in the U.S. to be about about $20,000. Throw in alimony payments that one party might get stuck with and the costs can grow even higher.

Next comes the settlement. When living as a couple, a husband and wife might both be earning incomes. But they pool their money to pay for a mortgage, buy groceries and make car payments. There's an economy of scale that works in their favor.

When they become single again, it's two households to maintain, with all their expenses. In the settlement, one party might get stuck with the lion's share but often both parties take a financial hit.

Women may take the bigger hit

More often than not, women come up short. A recent Census Bureau report found that 21% of recently divorced women were living below the poverty line – more than twice the rate for men.

Sometimes one party will get the house, but increasingly, that asset has to be sold off to divide property in an equitable manner. If one party owns a business, they might be forced to sell, or take on a significant loan, in order to pay off a divorced spouse.

If one spouse has dropped out of the work force to take on more child-rearing responsibilities they will usually find they have lost significant earnings power when they re-enter the work force.

Avoiding divorce

None of this is to argue that couples should remain in bad marriages. But avoiding the point where a marriage goes off the rails could make everyone happier – and wealthier – in the long run.

Something as simple as talking to each other might go a long way toward heading off a divorce, according to research compiled by YourTango.com, a relationship website. It surveyed mental health professionals to learn what is most likely to lead to irreconcilable differences.

“Communication problems” was cited by 65% of respondents, making it the most common response. Not far behind was “couples unable to resolve conflict,” at 43%.

Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars

As you might expect, men and women see the communication problem differently. Seventy percent of men blamed the problems on nagging and complaining, and their spouse not expressing enough appreciation.

Eighty-three percent of women said their partners didn't validate their feelings and opinions and 56% complained he didn't listen or talked too much about himself.”

If any of these things sound familiar, you might want to get acquainted with the traits of a successful marriage. According to the mental health experts in the poll, successful couples pursue individual interests and hobbies and don't try to do everything together. They also learn to argue in a healthy way.

They point out that listening, appreciating and supporting can go a long way toward saving, not just a marriage, but a lot of money too.

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It's on fire: Tesla S gets top spot in Consumer Reports

Audi A6, Mazda6, Dodge Charger V8, VW Golf TDI top their categories

It may be embroiled in a safety controversy driven largely by the over-the-top bluster of its manfacturer's CEO but the Tesla Model 6 all-electric sports s...

PhotoIt may be embroiled in a safety controversy driven largely by the over-the-top bluster of its manfacturer's CEO but the Tesla Model 6 all-electric sports sedan is first in the hearts and minds of its owners, according to the Consumers Reports annual owner-satisfaction survey.

Owners of the Tesla Model S gave it the highest owner-satisfaction score Consumer Reports has seen in years: 99 out of 100. While the $89,650 Model S isn’t for everyone, CR collected more than 600 survey responses from owners of 2012 and 2013 models. Moreover, its owner-satisfaction score matches the near-perfect 99 overall test score the Model S earned in Consumer Reports’ performance ratings.

“In testing, the Model S stands out for its innovative design, outstanding performance, and surprising practicality. These results suggest Tesla owners are very, very satisfied,” said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of automotive testing.

Other winners

PhotoOther models that topped their categories in Consumer Reports’ latest owner-satisfaction ratings are the Porsche Boxster sports car (which was second overall), Audi A6 luxury sedan, Mazda6 midsized sedan, Subaru Forester SUV, Dodge Charger (V8) large sedan, and the diesel-powered Volkswagen Golf TDI compact car.

Luxury and high-performance cars tend to do well in CR’s owner-satisfaction ratings, and Audi had more high-scorers than any other luxury brand. But models without a prestige brand or a sporty focus also made a mark. The redesigned Mazda6 and Subaru Forester, for example, are moderately priced, mainstream vehicles that outscored all models from BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz.

“Novelty can play a big role in launching a car into the top ranks, which isn’t surprising because brand-new designs can generate a lot of excitement. But enthusiasm can wane quickly if a car turns out to be not very special,” said Anita Lam, Consumer Reports automotive data program manager.

That’s the case with the Toyota Prius C hybrid, a smaller version of the regular Prius. It garnered one of the highest scores in its 2012 debut year but dropped a significant 10 points this time around. Other cars that faded significantly in their owners’ estimation were the Chrysler 200, Hyundai Sonata, and Subaru Impreza hatchback.

Consumer Reports’ annual owner-satisfaction survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, generates ratings by asking subscribers a key, revealing question, “Considering all factors (price, performance, reliability, comfort, enjoyment, etc.), would you get this car if you had it to do all over again?” A model’s score is based on the percentage of respondents who answered “definitely yes.”

This year, Consumer Reports received responses on about 350,000 vehicles and more than 285 models and variants spanning the 2011 through 2014 model years.

Complete car owner satisfaction scores and ratings tables appear on www.ConsumerReports.org today, and in the January issue of Consumer Reports, on newsstands December 3. 

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Good news: The frogs and toads aren't all croaking

A 10-year study of 68,000 frogs finds that abnormalities aren't as common as had been feared

A 10-year study shows some good news for frogs and toads on national wildlife refuges. The rate of abnormalities such as shortened or missing legs was le...

PhotoCORRECTION: This story inadvertently misstates several important findings. Please see the later corrected version. 

---

Not too long ago, it looked like the world's frogs and toads were on their way to extinction, dying off by the millions and threatening to make swamps and marshlands errily quiet. Maybe they were but a ten-year study finds that things may be turning around.

The study found that the rate of abnormalities such as shortened or missing legs was less than 2 percent overall — indicating that the malformations first reported in the mid-1990s were rarer than feared. But much higher rates were found in local "hotspots," suggesting that where these problems occur they have local causes. The results were published Nov. 18 in the journal PLOS ONE.

"We now know what the baseline is and the 2 percent level is relatively good news, but some regions need a deeper look," said Marcel Holyoak, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, and a co-author on the study. Hotspot regions included the Mississippi River Valley, California and south-central and eastern Alaska.

68,000 studied

Fieldwork for the study was carried out by the Fish and Wildlife Service at 152 refuges across the country between 2000 and 2009. Researchers collected more than 68,000 frogs and toads for the study. The complete dataset is available to researchers and the public online.

The aim of the study was to understand where and when these abnormalities occur — are they widespread, or localized? Are they persistent, or do they appear and fade away? — rather than to identify specific causes, Holyoak said. Understanding the patterns of these hotspots in space and time can help researchers home in on likely causes, he said.

The results show that abnormality hotspots occur in specific places, but within these hotspots the rate of malformations can change over time, Holyoak said.

"We see them at an elevated frequency one year or for a few years, and then they recover," he said.

The most common problems observed were missing or shortened toes or legs, and skin cysts. Only 12 cases of frogs with extra legs were found.

Many different potential causes have been put forward for the abnormalities, including pollution from industry or agriculture, parasites, ultraviolet exposure and naturally occurring heavy metals leaching into water bodies. The exact cause may vary from place to place, Holyoak noted.

The study comes against a background of a general decline in amphibian populations both in the U.S. and worldwide. For example, the California red-legged frog celebrated by Mark Twain's story is now listed as threatened. Frogs and toads may be especially sensitive to changes in climate and air or water quality. It's not clear whether hotspots of malformations contribute to this general decline, Holyoak said, but the new dataset will help researchers explore the problem.

Mari Reeves, a graduate student working with Holyoak, led the data analysis and is corresponding author on the paper. Reeves now works at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.

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Wholesale inflation takes another month off

Falling energy prices keep things in check

The cost of goods one step shy of the consumer level fell again in October. According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Producer Price Index (PPI) declin...

PhotoThe cost of goods one step shy of the consumer level fell again in October.

According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Producer Price Index (PPI) declined 0.2% following a 0.1% decline in September. For the 12 months ended October 2013, the PPI is up just 0.3%.

Energy and food

As was the case with consumer inflation in October, a drop in gasoline prices (-3.8%) was a major factor in the PPI decline. The energy sector as a whole was down 1.5% -- the first decline since a 2.5% drop in April. Lower prices for diesel fuel and residential natural gas also contributed to the decline.

Foods prices, on the other hand, jumped 0.8%, the largest advance since a 0.9% surge in March. Nearly 60% of that is due to beef and veal prices, which shot up 7.5%. Higher prices for fresh and dry vegetables also were a factor.

Excluding the volatile food and energy sectors, the “core rate” of inflation was up 0.2% in October. Year-over-year, core inflation is up a modest 1.4%.

The complete PPI report is available on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

PhotoJobless claims

There was a big drop in the number of first-time applications for state unemployment benefits in the week ending November 16.

In a separate report, DOL says there were 323,000 initial claims filed -- a decrease of 21,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 344,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had projected a level of 333,000 The initial figure for the previous week was 339,000.

DOL analysts say seasonal adjustments from the Veteran’s Day holiday may have played a role in the sharp decline in claims, although how big a factor is unknown.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and seen as a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was down 6,750 -- to 338,500.

The full report can be found on the DOL website.

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Rhino 5 Plus, Maxtremezen and Extenzone recalled

The products contain undeclared drug ingredients

Jobbers Wholesale is recalling Lot No. KWAKPMC030505175957019 of Rhino 5 Plus, Lot No. JBP-L-1270-70 of Maxtremezen and Lot No. KWAKPMC03050517 of Extenzon...

PhotoJobbers Wholesale is recalling Lot No. KWAKPMC030505175957019 of Rhino 5 Plus, Lot No. JBP-L-1270-70 of Maxtremezen and Lot No. KWAKPMC03050517 of Extenzone.

Laboratory analysis found these products, marketed as dietary supplements for sexual enhancement, to contain undeclared desmethylcarbondenafil and dapoxetine. Desmethylcarbondenafil is a phosphodiesterase PDE-5 inhibitor which is a class of drugs used to treat male erectile dysfunction, making these products unapproved new drugs. Dapoxetine is an active ingredient not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The company has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall.

The products are packaged in 1 capsule blister packs and were distributed to selected retail customers in California from June 1, 2013, to November 7, 2013.

Consumers and retailers who have the recalled products should stop consumption or further distribution and return to place of purchase or directly to Jobbers Wholesale, 16101 Garfield Avenue, Paramount, CA 90723.

Consumers are asked to have order number or proof of purchase.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall can contact Jobbers Wholesale by phone (562-331-0700), from Monday to Friday, 09:00-17:00.  

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Toyota recalls Camrys, Avalons and Corollas

The windshield wiper switch assembly may short circuit

Toyota Motor Engineering & manufacturing North America is recalling 9,795 model year 2013-2014 Camry and Camry HV, model year 2013 Avalon and Avalon HV and...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & manufacturing North America is recalling 9,795 model year 2013-2014 Camry and Camry HV, model year 2013 Avalon and Avalon HV and model year 2014 Corolla vehicles.

In the affected vehicles, the windshield wiper switch assembly may short circuit. A short circuit could cause inoperative windshield wipers, reducing driver visibility and increasing the risk of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the wiper switch assembly, free of charge. The recall began on November 8, 2013.

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

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Yokohama recalls tires lacking load/inflation information

Owners may overload the tire which could result in tire failure

Yokohama Tire Corporation is recalling 1,192 7.50R16 RY215 tires manufactured January 1, 2006, through August 1, 2011. These tires are missing the "DOT" ...

PhotoYokohama Tire Corporation is recalling 1,192 7.50R16 RY215 tires manufactured January 1, 2006, through August 1, 2011.

These tires are missing the "DOT" prefix, the required load/inflation information and do not list the material and number of structural plies. Without load/inflation markings, owners may overload the tire which could result in tire failure, increasing the risk of a crash.

Yokohama will notify owners and dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by late November 2013. Owners may contact Yokohama at 1-800-423-4544.

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Tesla fires can't be ignored, no matter what Tesla's CEO claims

Cars that catch fire on the highway must be investigated, safety advocates say

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced earlier this week that it was opening a preliminary evaluation into battery fires...

PhotoWhen the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced earlier this week that it was opening a preliminary evaluation into battery fires in the $90,000 battery-powered Tesla S luxury car, It got a yawn from experienced safety advocates and reporters who routinely cover the NHTSA beat. It is, after all, what safety agencies do -- investigate safety issues.

"The NHTSA investigation is the best way Tesla has to insure the safety of the Model S and restore consumer confidence," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said. "Unlike the Chevrolet Volt, the Tesla fires occurred on the road and not in the lab.  Unlike the Volt, the Tesla had three fires not one.  Tesla needs to fully cooperate with NHTSA to determine the problem is lack of a shield and not a more serious battery problem like the Boeing Dreamliner."

Like any federal agency, NHTSA lumbers along at a stately pace, moving more slowly than many would like but sweeping up an awful lot of data about an awful lot of cars and trucks. A preliminary evaluation is the tenderest touch you can get from NHTSA; it simply means an issue has come to its attention and it is looking into it to determine whether it merits further probing.

But, like a visit from legendary TV detective Columbo, a preliminary evaluation may be start off softly but be just the beginning of a lengthy investigation that eventually leads to a costly and damaging recall.

PhotoSpecifically, NHTSA is so far looking into two accidents in which a Tesla S hit metal debris on the roadway, damaging the battery tray and starting a fire. There have actually been three such accidents in five weeks but one was in Mexico, and thus outside NHTSA's jurisdiction.

This rather mild response from the feds quickly ignited a fire under Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has aggressively pursued and basked in millions of dollars worth of free publicity since launching his fast, sleek and expensive little gem. Critics on Wall Street and elsewhere are saying that Musk is doing more damage to his company's reputation than the NHTSA probe and are suggesting bluntly that he learn to keep his mouth shut.

"This showcases Tesla's need for a well-staffed formal PR function and its need to put a leash on Musk," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, said, according to TechNewsWorld.

A defect demands a recall

Leaving aside the public relations issues, Ditlow and other safety advocates say NHTSA is simply doing what the law requires it to do. If it determines a defect exists, a recall is the legally required outcome. Ditlow has little doubt about the eventual outcome. 

"Under both the established case law and comparative recalls, Tesla has a safety defect demanding a recall," he told ConsumerAffairs.

PhotoDitlow documented his assertion by citing a 1976 NHTSA proceeding against General Motors involving defective carburetors. In that case, a federal court held that a fire in a vehicle on the road is a safety defect under the Safety Act, whether or not there are injuries involved.

In another case, involving the Ford cruise control deactivation switch fires, there was an incidence rate of 65 fires in 3,723,142 vehicles or 0.001746%. The incidence rate in the Tesla is 2 out of 19,000, excluding the one in Mexico, or 0.011% -- which means the incidence rate is already 6.3 times higher in the Tesla than in the recalled Fords, Ditlow said. 

The timeline

Further, there is the little matter of exposure over time, which Musk appears to have ignored in his many assertions that Teslas experience a lower percentage of fires than gasoline-powered cars.

"The Ford recall was on 1995-2002 vehicles (3-10 years old) so that exposure in terms of registered vehicle years or vehicle miles traveled is far greater than the 2013 Tesla which is 1 year old," Ditlow said. "Just doing a back of the envelope calculation, the incidence rate on the Tesla Model S based on registered vehicle years is 63 times higher than the recalled Fords."

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Choosing a washer: front load or top load?

There are major differences in cost, efficiency and performance

Manufacturers continue to refine the washing machine, mostly adding new features and increasing energy efficiency and water consumption. But a consumer sho...

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Cash America to refund up to $14 million

The payday lender illegally overcharged servicemembers and robo-signed documents, feds charged

One of the largest payday lenders in the country will refund up to $14 million after being accused of robo-signing court documents in debt collection cases...

PhotoOne of the largest payday lenders in the country will refund up to $14 million after being accused of robo-signing court documents in debt collection cases. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) also found that Cash America violated the Military Lending Act by illegally overcharging servicemembers and their families. 

It is the first action against a payday lender by the CFPB, which earlier this month announced that it was accepting consumer complaints about payday lenders. 

Cash America will pay up to $14 million in refunds to consumers and it will pay a $5 million fine for these violations and for destroying records in advance of the Bureau’s examination.

“This action brings justice to the Cash America customers who were affected by illegal robo-signing, and shows that we will vigilantly protect the consumer rights that servicemembers have earned,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We are also sending a clear message today to all companies under our watch that impeding a CFPB exam by destroying documents, withholding records, and instructing employees to mislead examiners is unacceptable.”

Payday loans are often described as a way for consumers to bridge a cash flow shortage between paychecks or the receipt of other income. They can offer quick access to credit, especially for consumers who may not qualify for other credit. Many payday loans are for small-dollar amounts that must be repaid in full in a short period of time.

States in recent months have taken tough action against online payday lenders and a coalition of consumer groups and civil rights activists say federal regulators should crack down as well.

Cashnet Nov. 20, 2013, 7:33 p.m.
Consumers rate Cashnet

In a letter to federal bank regulators, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the 29 groups recently offered thanks for enforcement efforts thus far but called for stronger measures to stop illegal payments from being taken out of consumers’ bank accounts.

Specifically, the groups want regulators to stop banks and payment processors from helping Internet and tribal payday lenders collect illegal payments. It's part of an emerging strategy targeting loans the groups consider predatory, trapping consumers in a cycle of high-interest debt.

Cash America is a publicly traded financial services company headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas that provides consumer financial products and services, including payday loans, lines of credit, installment loans, and pawn loans. With hundreds of retail locations across more than 20 states, it is one of the largest payday lending companies in the United States. Cash America’s Chicago-based subsidiary, Enova, offers online loans in 32 states under the brand name CashNetUSA.

Remedies & penalties

PhotoTo ensure that all impacted consumers are repaid and that consumers are no longer subject to these illegal practices, Cash America has committed to:

  • Refund consumers: Cash America has already voluntarily paid back roughly $6 million to military borrowers and victims of the robo-signing practices. Through today’s CFPB order, they have committed to offer an additional $8 million to consumers, for a total refund of up to $14 million. Consumers who were subject to debt collection lawsuits in the state of Ohio from 2008 through January 2013 are eligible. More information is available at: www.consumerfinance.gov/blog/our-first-enforcement-action-against-a-payday-lender
  •  Dismiss pending collections lawsuits: Within months of the CFPB discovering the robo-signing, Cash America dismissed pending collections lawsuits, terminated all post-judgment collections activities, cancelled all judgments obtained, and corrected information it furnished to credit bureaus for the nearly 14,000 wrongful cases filed in Ohio.
  • Pay a $5 million fine: Cash America will pay a $5 million civil money penalty. 
  • Improve internal compliance systems: Cash America will develop and implement a comprehensive plan to improve its compliance with consumer financial protection laws, including the Military Lending Act.
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Feds: "Scam recovery kit" promoters rubbed salt in consumers' wounds

Victims of scams were told they could get their money back by paying up to $499

Brian HesslerPut yourself inside the head of a scam artist for a minute. Who are the people most likely to fall for whatever scheme you're pushing? Why...

Photo
Brian Hessler

Put yourself inside the head of a scam artist for a minute. Who are the people most likely to fall for whatever scheme you're pushing? Why, people who've already fallen for other scams, of course.

That may have been the thinking that went through the heads of the founders of Business Recovery Services, who now will be doing a bit of recovery themselves. The company and its owner, Brian Hessler, have been hit with multi-million-dollar judgments and will be banned from selling recovery services.

“In effect, this scheme rubbed salt in the wound of people who had already been victimized, targeting them and defrauding them all over again,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC is committed to taking action against these types of egregious scams.”

The judgments permanently ban Hessler and his company, based in Mesa, Arizona, from selling any services that are represented to recover or assist in the return of money or any other item of value paid for by, or promised to, a person in a previous transaction.

In 2011, the FTC charged Hessler and his company with selling worthless do-it-yourself kits, priced up to $499, for people who had lost money to business opportunity and work-at-home operations.  The case was part of an enforcement sweep targeting scams that took advantage of financially strapped consumers.

The defendants are also barred them from disclosing or otherwise benefitting from customers’ personal information, failing to dispose of this information properly, and misrepresenting any facts material to a consumer’s decision to buy a product, donate to charity, or enter a contest.

The default judgment imposes a $5.2 million judgment against Business Recovery Services.  The consent judgment against Hessler imposes a $5.2 million judgment that was suspended upon payment of $90,000.

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Study: Solid food plus breast feeding may prevent child allergies

British researchers say the 17th week is the best time to introduce solid food

British researchers say that introducing solid food with breast milk after the 17th week of birth could reduce food allergies in babies.The researchers, ...

PhotoBritish researchers say that introducing solid food with breast milk after the 17th week of birth could reduce food allergies in babies.

The researchers, led by Dr Kate Grimshaw, dietitian and senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, say that giving the baby solid food beside breast feeding helps it develop a better, stronger immune system to fight food allergies.

"Introducing solid foods alongside breastfeeding can benefit the immune system," Dr Grimshaw explains. "It appears the immune system becomes educated when there is an overlap of solids and breast milk because the milk promotes tolerogenic mechanisms against the solids.

"Additionally, our findings suggest 17 weeks is a crucial time point, with solid food introduction before this time appearing to promote allergic disease whereas solid food introduction after that time point seems to promote tolerance."

Infants are largely intolerant of solid food before four to six months of age. This is thought to be due to the infant gut being relatively immature, which may cause symptoms of food allergy.

The research supports the recommendations of the American Academy of Paediatrics and other health organizations who who urge mothers not to introduce solid foods before four to six months of age. Furthermore the findings also support the American Academy of Paediatrics' breastfeeding recommendations that breastfeeding should continue while solid foods are introduced into the diet.

The study was funded by the UK Food Standards Agency and published in Pediatrics.

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Why we should all learn CPR

Studies show it's easy to learn and saves lives

How many times have you thought to yourself, “maybe I should learn CPR?” Maybe you should. This simple procedure saves countless lives each yea...

PhotoHow many times have you thought to yourself, “maybe I should learn CPR?” Maybe you should. This simple procedure saves countless lives each year.

When someone goes into cardiac arrest their heart stops beating, meaning blood stops moving through their body. When that happens, oxygen doesn't make it to the brain and serious brain damage occurs or the patient dies.

It would be convenient to go into cardiac arrest inside the walls of a hospital, but unfortunately that only happens about 20% of the time. The rest of the time it happens at home, or at the office or while walking down the street. According to the American Heart Association, about 288,000 cases of cardiac arrest occur each year outside of a hospital and fewer than 10% of the patients survive.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the formal name for CPR, is a way to manually pump the heart, moving blood through the body, until medical help arrives. The procedure isn't likely to restart the heart but it can restore at least partial blood flow.

Just 38 minutes

Japanese researchers have found that performing CPR on a heart attack victim for 38 minutes or longer can improve a patient’s chance of survival. It also improves the chances that survivors will have normal brain function, researchers said.

Of course, time is of the essence. After allowing for other factors that can affect neurological outcomes, researchers found that the odds of surviving an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest without severe brain damage dropped five percent for every 60 seconds that passed before normal blood circulation was restored.

The problem is, most people haven't been trained in administering CPR. Fortunately, it's not a complicated procedure and is fairly easy to master.

Research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2013 in Dallas found that just one minute of training for bystanders in a crowded shopping mall could save a cardiac arrest victim.

60 seconds of training

The researchers used a one-minute CPR video to improve responsiveness and teach compression only CPR to people with no CPR experience. Compression only CPR – now the preferred method – does not require breathing air into the victim's mouth but simply applying pressure to the chest in a regular rhythm. The brief American Heart Association video below shows how it is done.

To prove their point, researchers divided participants in the study into two groups: 48 adults looked at the video, while 47 sat doing nothing for one minute.

With a mannequin playing the role of a heart attack victim, both groups were asked to do "what they thought best." Researchers measured responsiveness as time to call 9-1-1 and start chest compression and CPR quality reflected by chest compression depth, rate and hands-off interval time.

Results

The people who watched the one-minute video called 9-1-1 more frequently, initiated chest compression sooner, had an increased chest compression rate and a decreased hands-off interval, researchers said.

"Given the short length of training, these findings suggest that ultra-brief video training may have potential as a universal intervention for public venues to help bystander reaction and improve CPR skills," said Ashish Panchal, lead researcher of the study.

It's probably advisable, however, to spend more than 60 seconds learning CPR. There are a variety of courses offered by groups that can probably be found in your local area. To help you find a course near you, the American Heart Association provides this handy course locater.

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Synthetic marijuana linked to stroke in young people

"Spice" also implicated in heart attacks, psychosis, hallucinations and other bad outcomes

There's a popular belief that anything that's "natural" is better than anything that's not. It's not always true but in the case of marijuana, it just may ...

PhotoThere's a popular belief that anything that's "natural" is better than anything that's not. It's not always true but in the case of marijuana, it just may be that sticking to the real thing is safer than using synthetic substitutes, popularly known as "spice" and "K2." (Using none at all is OK too, of course).

A University of South Florida neurology team reports that stroke may be among the severe health hazards associated with synthetic marijuana.

An advance online article in the journal Neurology  details case studies by the USF neurologists of two healthy, young siblings who experienced acute ischemic strokes soon after smoking the street drug spice.  Ischemic strokes occur when an artery to the brain is blocked.

Seizures, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, psychosis, hallucinations and other serious adverse effects have been associated with smoking synthetic pot.  Medical journals have also begun to report a growing number of strokes potentially related to the use of natural (non-synthetic) marijuana.

“Since the two patients were siblings, we wondered whether they might have any undiagnosed genetic conditions that predisposed them to strokes at a young age. We rigorously looked for those and didn’t come up with anything,” said senior author W. Scott Burgin, MD, professor of neurology at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Tampa General Hospital.

“To the best of our knowledge, what appeared to be heart-derived strokes occurred in two people with otherwise healthy hearts.  So more study is needed.”

USF vascular neurology fellow Melissa Freeman, MD, was lead author of the paper.

Herb mixture

Synthetic marijuana refers to a mixture of herbs, often resembling lawn clippings, that have been sprayed or soaked with a solution of designer chemicals intended to produce a high similar to cannabis when consumed.  Spice can be much more potent than conventional marijuana because of the more complete way the psychoactive ingredient in the synthetic product binds to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, Dr. Burgin said.

People who smoke spice expose their brains to unidentified chemicals untested on humans.

“You don’t know what you’re getting when you smoke synthetic marijuana,” Dr. Burgin said. “It’s like the Wild West of pharmaceuticals, and you may be playing dangerously with your brain and your health.”

Not identified in standard toxicology screens, spice has become second only to natural marijuana as the most widely used illicit drug among high school seniors, according to a 2011 survey sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

More physicians need to be more aware of the potentially toxic effects of recreational synthetic drugs, especially when seeing conditions like heart attack or stroke not as common in young patients, Dr. Burgin said. “Be willing to ask about pot and spice use, because it’s not something patients are inclined to volunteer and synthetic marijuana does not show up on routine drug tests.”

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Another dip for sales of existing homes

On the other hand, prices keep rising

It's a classic good news-bad news situation: The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports that while sales of previously-owned homes fell in October ...

PhotoIt's a classic good news-bad news situation: The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports that while sales of previously-owned homes fell in October for the second straight month, tight inventories kept home prices rising.

According to the NAR, total existing-home sales, which include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, were down 3.2% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.12 million. Still, they're 6.0%t higher than they were a year earlier. Sales have remained above year-ago levels for the past 28 months.

However, a flattening trend is expected. “The erosion in buying power is dampening home sales,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Moreover, low inventory is holding back sales while at the same time pushing up home prices in most of the country. More new home construction is needed to help relieve the inventory pressure and moderate price gains.”

Prices on the rise

PhotoThe national median existing-home price for all housing types was $199,500 in October -- a surge of 12.8% from a year earlier and the 11th consecutive month of double-digit year-over-year increases. The median is the point which half the prices are higher and half are lower.

Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 14% of October sales, unchanged from September; they were 25% in October 2012. Part of the gain in median price is from a smaller share of distressed sales.

Total housing inventory at the end of October was down 1.8% percent to 2.13 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 5.0-month supply at the current sales pace. Unsold inventory is 0.9% above a year ago, when there was a 5.2-month supply.

Where they sold

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast declined 2.9% in October, but are 11.7% higher than October 2012. The median price in the Northeast was $247,300 -- up 7.4% from a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, existing-home sales slipped 1.6%, but are 8.0% above a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $154,700 -- 9.3% higher than October 2012.
  • Sales of previously-owned homes were down 1.9% in the South, but are 7.3% above their year-ago level. The median price was up 12.9% from a year ago to $171,500.
  • Constrained inventory sent sales in the West plunging 7.1%, and 0.8% below a year ago. The median price in the West was $284,800 -- up 17.2 percent from October of last year.

Mortgage applications

PhotoSeparately, data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show mortgage applications were down 2.3% during the week ending November 15, 2013. The results include an adjustment to account for the Veteran’s Day holiday.

The Refinance Index slid 7%, putting the refinance share of mortgage activity at 64% percent of total applications -- a drop of 2% from the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 7% 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) rose two basis points from 4.44% to 4.46%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.44 (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) dipped to 4.47% from 4.48%, with points decreasing to 0.22 from 0.34 (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 was down 2 basis points to 4.14%, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was unchanged at 3.52%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.12% from 3.11%, with points increasing to 0.37 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
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Verizon is the latest to go the showroom route

Like Google, Verizon follows in Apple's footsteps

Yesterday, we wrote about Google's plans for pop-up "showrooms" around the country and now Verizon trying something similar, with the first Verizon "supers...

PhotoYesterday, we wrote about Google's plans for pop-up "showrooms" around the country and now Verizon is trying something similar, with the first Verizon "superstore" opening in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

Of course, a bigger, cooler store won't solve many of the problems hundreds of consumers have written to ConsumerAffairs about. Their problems deal with the phones and Verizon policies, not the decor in the phone store.

Take Joe of Whites Creek, Tenn., who wrote to us earlier this month. 

"I purchased a new Galaxy S4 phone on a continuing contract. Five weeks later the phone died and according to a local Verizon representative the phone could not be repaired locally. The store ordered a replacement phone," Joe said. "On 11/5/13, a like-new Galaxy S4 phone arrived."

But "like new" was not what Joe was anticipating.

"I expected a new phone because my phone was only five weeks old. Five weeks ago I paid for a new phone and now Verizon expects me to accept a used phone. I am being strong-armed into taking a used phone or pay early termination fees on my phone and other phones on the contract. Are you kidding?"

Verizon Wireless Nov. 20, 2013, 3:58 p.m.
Consumers rate Verizon Wireless

Despite such unpleasant experiences, Verizon is hoping its expanded stores turn into friendly spots where consumers can hang out, get their hands on the tablets, smartphones and other gadgets that will be on display.

There are differences, though. While Google's showrooms will apparently be open for only a brief time in the run-up to the holidays and will not actually be making any on-premise sales, the Verizon stores will be more or less permanent and will be actual stores -- meaning you'll be able to walk out with the merchandise under your arm.

Both companies are going for high-traffic locations, mostly in major malls.

Verizon, of course, already has plenty of smartphone stores but they tend to be on the small side. At a news conference yesterday, Verizon Chief Operating Officer Marni Walden said the expanded stores will not just be trying to move the merchandise, they'll also be educating consumers about the technology behind the devices, according to a report in AdAge

The Minneapolis superstore features different "zones," including a "Get Fit" zone, complete with a treadmill. There, consumers can get in a quick workout while trying out the activity-tracker bracelet FitBitZip, which among other things tries to calculate how many calories you're burning.

Another zone, "Amplify It," lets music enthusiasts try out different speakers and test DJ apps. The zones will change occasionally and some will be seasonal, the company said.

Smaller stores

Verizon's smaller stores are also being redesigned and turned into smaller versions of the superstores. AT&T is doing something similar with its stores, getting rid of counters and cash registers.

It's good, we guess, that the lumbering giants are trying to be cool -- you know, like Apple. But in their rush to copy Apple's successful retailing model, they might want to consider how well that model worked for J.C. Penney when it named former Apple marketing executive Ron Johnson to be its CEO. Johnson proceeded to remake J.C. Penney stores in Apple's image, which didn't turn out quite as planned.  

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Online 'Yellow Pages' scam halted

Feds say small businesses and churches were targeted

A federal judge, acting at the request of the the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has temporarily halted, and frozen the assets of, a Montreal operation th...

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When "goodbye" translates to "good buy"

Homophones -- words that sound alike -- may trigger consumer impulses

There are plenty of people who find hidden meanings in the written word, whether they're actually there or not. Now researchers say the use of homophones -...

PhotoThere are plenty of people who find hidden meanings in the written word, whether they're actually there or not. Now researchers say the use of homophones -- words that sound alike -- may in fact be used to trigger specific actions by those who read them.

"We show that mentally distracted people will think of purchasing, or 'buy' when reading 'bye.' When the concept of purchasing is primed by reading 'bye,' consumers may be willing to pay more for a product or service," write authors Derick F. Davis of the University of Miami and Paul M. Herr of Virginia Tech, writing in  the Journal of Consumer Research.

Their research showed that priming via a homophone elicits a predictable effect even when the connection between the homophone and the desired behavior is not obvious. For instance, when primed with the term "goodbye," a consumer may perceive they have just received a good deal, or "good buy."

The research extends to broader applications than just consumer behavior, the authors note.

"Building from these findings," they explain, "it may be possible to aid in individuals' dieting goals by having them read 'wait,' or influence how bold they feel when they read about a 'boulder.'"

The concept of priming is common in advertising, but the connection between the use of homophones and modified consumer behavior may have new application for brands as well as public policy makers.

One real-world example is the weight-loss drug Alli, which sounds like ally—one's comrade or friend in an effort. Consumers may be more likely to perceive Alli as being a helpful "ally" in their weight-loss goals.

"The relationship between word sound and word meaning may be interesting in the many areas where the written word is used to communicate meaning," the authors conclude.

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Consumer inflation goes AWOL

Falling gasoline prices played a big role

Anyone looking for rising consumer prices during October was sure to be disappointed. Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show the Consumer Pr...

PhotoAnyone looking for rising consumer prices during October was sure to be disappointed.

Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was down 0.1% last month, putting the rate of inflation for the last 12 months at an even 1.0% -- the smallest 12-month increase since October 2009.

Energy & Food

Gasoline prices plunged 2.9% in October, while other energy costs were mixed, with electricity rising (0.1%), but prices for fuel oil and natural gas declining (0.6% and 1.0%, respectively). Energy prices overall declined 1.7% in October after increasing in September. The cost of energy has fallen 4.8% over the last year, with gasoline prices down 10.1%.

Food prices inched up 0.1% in October after being unchanged in September. Among major grocery store food groups, prices for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose 0.6% -- the largest increase of any group and the fifth increase in a row. Nonalcoholic beverage costs were up 0.4% after declining in each of the three previous months, and fruits and vegetables rose 0.2%. In contrast, cereals and bakery products prices fell 0.4%, and dairy and related products fell 0.2%

The “core rate” of inflation, which excludes the volatile energy and food categories, rose 0.1% in October -- the same as in August and September. The core rate is up 1.7% for the 12 months ending October -- the same increase as the 12 months ending September.

The complete CPI report is available on the DOL website.

Retail Sales

PhotoMeanwhile, the Commerce Department reports retail sales rose 0.4% in October to a seasonally adjusted total $428.1 billion.

Major factors include increases of 1.3% in sales by auto and other motor vehicle dealers, 1.6% by sporting goods, hobby, book & music stores and 1.4% at clothing & clothing accessories stores.

Retailers that didn't do so well include Building material & garden equipment & supplies dealers, where sales plunged 1.9% and electronics & appliance stores, which suffered a 1.4% decline.

The complete October retail sales report can be found on the Commerce Department website.

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Fossil Fuel Products recalls of 'RezzRX'

The erectile dysfunction treatment is classified as an unapproved new drug

Fossil Fuel Products is recalling lots QL110714A102 (20-count bottles) and QL110408B046 (single blister packs) of “RezzRX.” The products have been found...

PhotoFossil Fuel Products is recalling lots QL110714A102 (20-count bottles) and QL110408B046 (single blister packs) of “RezzRX.”

The products have been found to contain hydroxylthiohomosildenafil and amionotadalafil which are active ingredients of FDA approved drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED), making “RezzRX” an unapproved new drug.

The company says it has received no reports of adverse events related to this recall.

The product is marketed as a natural supplement for sexual enhancement and is packaged in single blister retail cards containing 1 yellow capsule and 20-count white bottles containing 20 yellow capsules. The affected RezzRX lots include the following lot numbers and expiration dates [QL110714A102 Exp 11/2013 and QL110408B046 Exp 06/2015]. RezzRX was distributed nationwide through various websites and retail stores in Georgia.

Consumers/distributors/retailers that have recalled product should stop using it and return it to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact Fossil Fuel Products at 1-877-773-9979 or by email at info@rezzrx.com, Monday-Friday, 9:00 am- 5:00 pm, EST.  

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Recognizing high-risk alcohol consumption

It's especially important during the holiday party season

The holiday season means parties and special meals with family and friends, where the wine and spirits flow freely. Sometimes a little too freely.A new s...

PhotoThe holiday season means parties and special meals with family and friends, where the wine and spirits flow freely. Sometimes a little too freely.

A new survey finds that many people are not aware of what high-risk alcohol consumption looks like. Not only do they not recognize it in those around them, they don't recognize it in themselves.

"Alcohol is still the number one cause of damaging behavior at holiday celebrations throughout the U.S.," said Dr. Harris Stratyner, Regional Clinical Vice President of Caron Treatment Centers in New York, which commissioned the survey. "We tend to see an increase in alcohol abuse during the holidays and the findings show that many people have no sense of how much alcohol is healthy to consume or how it impairs them when they go past that low-risk limit. It's a serious public safety concern when 60% of adults who attend holiday parties witnessed dangerous and even illegal behavior."

Low-risk drinking

To recognize high-risk drinking it might be helpful to start with what constitutes low-risk drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) sets the boundary of low-risk consumption as no more than four drinks per day for men and no more than three drinks per day for women.

However, drinking at that pace on a daily basis would clearly place you in high-risk territory. The NIAAA says men should limit themselves to no more than 14 drinks per week and women should have no more than seven drinks in that time.

It goes without saying that holiday parties and gatherings can be enjoyable without alcohol consumption but many find a drink or two adds to the spirit of the occasion. And if you are inclined to over-indulge, the holidays just seem to bring that out.

The survey found that 60% of those who attended office holiday parties have seen someone under the influence of alcohol behave inappropriately. Inappropriate or embarrassing behavior included an intoxicated male colleague who "slapped a female co-worker on her bottom" and another who "threw up on the boss."

Families that drink together...

PhotoEven family gatherings – perhaps especially family gatherings – can be marred by too much alcohol. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported attending a family holiday function where a family member behaved inappropriately after drinking too much alcohol. The inappropriate behavior included "a knock out drag out fist fight," though most of the abusive behavior detailed in the survey was verbal.

While recognizing high-risk drinking in your own behavior is very important, it is increasingly important to recognize it in others if you are the host of a holiday party, whether its an office party or a private affair with family and friends.

If you are the host and someone leaves your home in an intoxicated state and gets into an accident, you could be legally exposed. To steer clear of trouble, legal experts suggest providing plenty of filling food and non-alcoholic beverages at the gathering. Have a designated bartender – don't let guests serve themselves. Stop serving alcohol well before the party ends and be ready to arrange transportation home for a guest who gets tipsy.

Dangers of an office party

The liability risks may be greater for a business hosting an office party. The best way to avoid exposure is to not serve alcohol. However, if you are serving liquor, limit consumption.

One way to do that is to provide attendees with two tickets each for drinks. Avoid serving up alcohol-laced punch, since some people may gulp it down without realizing how much alcohol they're consuming.

Some companies make a point of holding office holiday parties off-site, getting it completely out of the business environment. Some companies have even provided taxi vouchers to pay for cab ride homes, but legal experts caution you should take no steps that could be seen as encouraging alcohol consumption.

Whether it is a business or private function, those who treat alcohol addiction want attendees and hosts both to be mindful of keeping their alcohol use in check. Because if there is a problem with alcohol, it almost always shows itself during the holidays.

"We want to help individuals and families change their perception about what healthy alcohol consumption actually looks like and empower them to seek help for substance abuse," said Paul Hokemeyer, Senior Clinical Advisor at Caron.

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Southeast Toyota Distributors recalls Tacoma vehicles

Lug nuts to attach the spare tire were not provided with the vehicle

Southeast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 979 model year 2012-2013 Tacoma vehicles equipped with 18" Maverick Alloy Wheels. In the recalled vehicl...

PhotoSoutheast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 979 model year 2012-2013 Tacoma vehicles equipped with 18" Maverick Alloy Wheels.

In the recalled vehicles, the spare tire requires the use of a different style of lug nut to attach it to the vehicle than the other wheels use. These lug nuts were not provided with the vehicle. If the spare tire/wheel is installed on the vehicle using the lug nuts from another wheel, damage to the wheel could result and may eventually lead to a loose wheel, increasing the risk of a crash.

SET will notify owners, and dealers will: (a) Install a Warning Label on the spare tire/wheel, (b) supply a bag containing proper spare wheel lug nuts, and (c) place an Owner's Manual Addendum in the vehicle's glove box. The recall is expected to begin in November 2013.

Owners may contact SET at 1-954-429-2000.

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What to look for in a gift card

That simple gift is a bit more complicated than you think

Increasingly holiday shoppers just reach for a gift card rather than select a traditional gift item. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF) more...

PhotoIncreasingly holiday shoppers just reach for a gift card rather than select a traditional gift item. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF) more than 80% of shoppers plan to buy at least one gift card this holiday season, thus simplying their shopping for at least one recipient. 

But if you think that gets you completely off the hook when it comes to making decisions, you've got another think coming. All gift cards are not alike and choosing carefully, and with a little thought, could make your gift be even more appreciated.

What kind of card?

First, you have to decide whether you want to give a specific or general purpose gift card. If the recipient likes shopping at a particular retailer, then maybe a card good at that store would be a little more personal. An avid angler might appreciate a gift card for a sporting goods retailer specializing in fishing gear.

A general purchase card, on the other hand, is more flexible. It can be used almost anywhere and for almost anything. If you really don't know the recipient that well – their likes and dislikes – that could be the way to go. But on the impersonal scale, a general purpose card is near the top. It's the next thing to giving the recipent cash.

Value erosion

However, fees are another consideration since they can easily erode your gift. Your gift of $50, for example, is worth less by the time the recipient has made a purchase.

Fees, it seems, are another good reason to choose a brand-specific card over a general purpose one. New research by Bankrate.com found onlyone in nine brand-specific gift cards charge purchase fees, compared to 100% of general-purpose gift cards.

The researchers looked at 55 widely-held brand-specific cards that include retailers, restaurants, airlines and gas stations. It found only three charge a purchase fee to all customers, and three others charge a purchase fee in some cases.

Compare that to the seven general-purpose cards in the survey from American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. They all charge purchase fees. That leaves the gift-giver with an unanticipated decision to make.

Fees to be aware of

Photo"While most Americans prefer to receive general-purpose gift cards because they can be used almost anywhere, they should be aware of the fees these cards charge both purchasers and recipients," said Janna Herron, credit card analyst, Bankrate.com. "For example, all of the general-purpose cards that we surveyed charge the purchaser up to $6.95, and 71% charge dormancy or maintenance fees to the recipient. None of the brand-specific cards charge dormancy or maintenance fees."

The NRF survey shows that gift cards have been the most popular gift choice over the last five years. And many consumers now actually prefer to get a gift card, finding nothing impersonal about it. College students and other young adults, for example, look forward to gift cards because their tastes are so specific and probably very different from the gift-giver's.

The Bankrate survey found that just over half of Americans – 53% – now prefer general-purpose gift cards. Drill down a bit deeper and you find that two-thirds of people who make more than $75,000 a year prefer general-purpose gift cards.

Consumer protections

Gift Cards are a safer gift than they once were. The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act, passed in 2009, provides that gift cards cannot expire within five years from the date they were activated and generally limits inactivity fee on gift cards except in certain circumstances, such as if there has been no transaction for at least 12 months. In addition, the Bankrate survey found 69% of gift card issuers will replace the card and/or funds in the event of loss or theft.

That still leaves you with one final decision – how much to put on the gift card? If it helps, the Bankrate survey found that between $25 and $50 is the most common amount.

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Consumers: KitchenAid dishwashers keep washing out

No recalls, but our readers think there should be

A well-known proverb states that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. As a corollary, a machine is only as reliable as its weakest part. And base...

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"Google Money Tree" payment processor cuts deal with feds

The work-at-home scam cost consumers $15 million, prosecutors charged

A proposed settlement has been reached between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Process America Inc. and its owners, resolving allegations that the p...

PhotoA proposed settlement has been reached between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Process America Inc. and its owners, resolving allegations that the payment processor used unfair tactics to open and maintain scores of merchant accounts for Infusion Media which perpetrated the “Google Money Tree” work-at-home scheme.

Using these merchant accounts, Infusion Media charged more than $15 million in unauthorized charges on consumers’ debit and credit card accounts.

Payment processors and Independent Sales Organizations (ISOs) enable merchants to charge consumers’ credit cards for products and services. In exchange, they get paid for each payment transaction the merchant processes.

False claims alleged

In June 2009, the FTC charged the Infusion Media defendants with falsely claiming that consumers could earn $100,000 in six months, misrepresenting an affiliation with Google, and tricking consumers into signing up for automatic monthly charges that would continue until the consumer took affirmative steps to cancel.

The complaint against Process America claims the defendants knew or should have known that they were processing charges that consumers had not authorized. Evidence that consumers were being charged without their permission included plainly deceptive statements on merchant websites, notices that the merchant should be placed in Visa and MasterCard chargeback monitoring programs, and chronically excessive chargeback rates -- the percentage of charges that are challenged by consumers and result in the charges being reversed.

From 2008 through 2009, the defendants opened and maintained 131 merchant accounts through which the perpetrators processed more than $15 million in unauthorized charges on consumer debit and credit card accounts.

To keep Infusion Media’s merchant accounts open, the defendants allegedly engaged in tactics that were designed to evade fraud monitoring programs implemented by Visa and MasterCard. These tactics included submitting merchant applications containing false information and “load balancing” – distributing transaction volume among numerous merchant accounts. As a result, Infusion Media’s scam operated for nearly a year, and Process America continued to earn fees from its payment processing activity.

Resolving the charges

To resolve the allegations in the complaint, the individual defendants -- Kim Ricketts, Keith Phillips and Craig Rickard -- have agreed to separate permanent injunctions containing prohibitions and restrictions on their future payment processing activities:

Rickard is banned from payment processing and acting as an ISO. He is prohibited from acting as a sales agent for any client engaged in (a) unfair or deceptive business practices; (b) certain categories of high-risk activities, including negative-option marketing (where the seller interprets consumers’ silence or inaction as permission to charge them), money-making opportunities, credit card or identity theft protection, timeshare resale services, buying clubs, medical discount plans; or (c) conduct that has qualified a client for a chargeback monitoring program.

He also is prohibited from acting as a sales agent for any client without first screening them for unfair or deceptive business practices. The order imposes a judgment of more than $184,000 that will be suspended based on his inability to pay. The full judgment will become due immediately if Rickard is found to have misrepresented his financial condition.

Ricketts and Phillips are prohibited from acting as payment processors, ISOs, or sales agents for any client engaged in (a) unfair or deceptive business practices; or (b) certain categories of high-risk activities certain categories of high-risk clients. They also are barred from acting as a sales agent for any client without screening and monitoring them for unfair or deceptive business practices.

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New meat labels coming this weekend?

U.S. meatpackers make last-ditch appeal to stop new USDA labeling requirements

There’s a legal battle brewing in the meat-packing industry over proposed new country-of-origin labeling requirements. The Wall Street Journal notes ...

PhotoThere’s a legal battle brewing in the meat-packing industry over proposed new country-of-origin labeling requirements. The Wall Street Journal notes that “Big U.S. meatpackers are appealing to Congress in a last-ditch effort to stave off new federal labeling rules that require more information about the origins of beef, pork and other meats.” The new rules are slated to take effect this Saturday.

If enforced, the labeling requirements will mandate that meat packaging identify the country or countries where the animal was born, raised and killed. Large meat-packing companies like Cargill and Tyson Foods oppose the new regulations, on the grounds that they impose “unnecessary” costs on the industry. However, the Journal reports, the new regulations enjoy the support not only of consumer groups, but also of U.S. beef ranchers.

No mystery why consumer groups would support labeling requirements maximizing consumer information; American beef ranchers doubtless support the mandate on the grounds that U.S. consumers might prefer all-American beef over that imported from a reputed-unsafe country such as China.

Not so simple

What makes labeling laws particularly tricky is that it’s not simply American interests (business or consumer) that must be considered; there are also World Trade Organization and other international requirements that must be met if America is to continue trading with the rest of the world. And it’s not just American meat packers who oppose the new labeling regulations; our trading partners Canada and Mexico do, too. Indeed, the Journal reports that Canada is even threatening to impose retaliatory tariffs on American imports, if the new regulations take effect.

The previous labeling requirements — perhaps we should say “The current labeling requirements, until the new rules kick in this Saturday” — have been in place since 2008, and under these rules, the catchall label “Product of Canada, the U.S. or Mexico” could apply to animals born in one of those countries, but slaughtered and packaged in another.

The new rules would require labels to make distinctions between the three countries, as necessary; U.S. meatpackers and their allies argue this would impose unnecessarily high costs. On the other hand, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed the new rules last spring, it did so in part to address World Trade Organization complaints that the previous labeling rules unfairly discriminated against Canada.

As of press time it appears the new labeling requirements will come into force this Saturday. How or if it will affect consumer meat prices remains to be seen.

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Feds probe Tesla fires while Tesla CEO smolders

You're more likely to be struck by lightning than to have a fire in your Tesla, he insists

Tesla says its Model S plug-in hybrid is the "safest car in the world." But the feds would like to know why three of them have caught fire in five weeks. T...

PhotoTesla says its Model S plug-in hybrid is the "safest car in the world." But the feds would like to know why three of them have caught fire in five weeks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it is investigating the risk posed when the car's undercarriage strikes an object.

The fires have all followed highway mishaps in which the battery compartment was punctured.

"The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is aware of two incidents occurring on US public highways in which the subject vehicles caught fire after an undercarriage strike with metallic roadway debris. The resulting impact damage to the propulsion battery tray (baseplate) initiated thermal runaway," NHTSA said in a posting on its website. The agency noted that in each case, the car's warning system alerted the driver to the problem before the fires began.

"In each incident, the vehicle's battery monitoring system provided escalating visible and audible warnings, allowing the driver to execute a controlled stop and exit the vehicle before the battery emitted smoke and fire. Based on these incidents, NHTSA is opening this preliminary evaluation to examine the potential risks associated with undercarriage strikes on model year 2013 Tesla Model S vehicle."

Such preliminary evaluations are very common and occur almost daily. A small percentage are escalated into full-scale investigations and an even smaller percentage result in recalls. 

Aggressive stance

Nevertheless, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been taking an aggressive stance towards any suggestion that the cars could have even the slightest flaw, first denying the cars posed a greater fire risk than others and noting that gasoline-powered cars can also catch fire. Next, Musk said there was "definitely not going to be a recall." Then he claimed that he had asked for the NHTSA investigation, something NHTSA Administrator David Stickland said was news to him, according to Automotive News.

Strickland said he was "not aware of" Tesla asking for the investigation and said NHTSA had informed Tesla on Friday that it was opening the probe.

In a blog post yesterday, Musk continued to insist that the Tesla was no more fire-prone -- and perhaps less so -- than gas-powered cars. 

Less fire-prone

"Since the Model S went into production last year, there have been more than a quarter million gasoline car fires in the United States alone, resulting in over 400 deaths and approximately 1,200 serious injuries (extrapolating 2012 NFPA data)," he wrote. "However, the three Model S fires, which only occurred after very high-speed collisions and caused no serious injuries or deaths, received more national headlines than all 250,000+ gasoline fires combined."

Noting that there are 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road today, Musk said the known incidents involving fire amount to one fire per 6,333 cars, compared with one fire per 1,350 gasoline-powered cars.

"By this metric, you are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S! Considering the odds in the absolute, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla," Musk said.

Blames the press

Musk, who has actively sought and reveled in, media coverage of his expensive battery-powered sports car, now complains about press coverage of the fires.

"The media coverage of Model S fires vs. gasoline car fires is disproportionate by several orders of magnitude, despite the latter actually being far more deadly," he complained.

Musk was not complaining in May when Consumer Reports magazine gave the Tesla Model S the highest score it's ever awarded a car -- 99 out of 100.

"The Tesla Model S takes everything you know about cars and stands it on its head," the magazine said. "It's a very agile, super-quick electric luxury sedan (with a hatchback!) that seats seven and gets the equivalent of 84 mpg."

The CR rating got lots of attention, especially given that the $90,000 Tesla will at best go 225 miles without pausing for five hours or more to recharge. 

Sales have been as blistering as the car's 0-60 mph performance and its stock price has been even faster off the line.  The company's stock price when the Consumer Reports review was released was $66.81. Today it stands at $126, down from a high of $194 but still up 282% for the year. 

 

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Google opening retail showrooms in select locations

They won't be stores, just showrooms. Want to buy? Go online

Google will open retail showrooms this month featuring products such as Nexus 7 tablets, Chromebook computers, and Chromecast video-streaming devices. Cons...

PhotoGoogle takes another step in its transition to an Apple-style company this month as it opens retail showrooms where consumers can try out such products as Nexus 7 tablets, Chromebook computers, and Chromecast video-streaming devices.

They are literally showrooms, not stores. You can walk in and examine the merchandise and, if you like it, order it online. Google has previously worked with retailers like Best Buy to set up sections that display nothing but Google products, but this is taking it a step farther.

The showrooms will feature a large snow globe complete with snow, we're told. Customers will be able to take pictures and videos of themselves with the products that they can share online -- right from the Google showroom! We're not sure this will have the gee-whiz effect Google is hoping for, but who knows?

Just where the showrooms will be isn't quite clear at this point. 

How, you ask, is this like Apple? Well, Google has been steadily moving towards becoming a manufacturer of integrated software and hardware products -- laptops, tablets and smartphones that come with their own operating system. 

Life is a lot easier for a manufacturer when devices can be designed to run one, and only one, operating system. Microsoft rather valiantly for years produced its Windows OS that will more or less happily run on just about any machine and interact with a nearly infinite number of peripherals -- you know, printers, scanners, keyboards, etc. Its reward was being portrayed in commercials as a rumpled guy who produced bloatware instead of the cool dude who put out walled-garden my-way-or-the-highway products.

There's also the "cool" factor. Apple had it in the Steve Jobs era. Google is trying but may not be quite there yet.

Will opening what amount to ersatz igloos in shopping centers move the cool needle? Well, we'll see, won't we?  

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Parents group picks toys for its Seal of Approval

Toys and games tested by both parents and children

With the holiday shopping season well underway it's a safe bet that millions of parents are browsing online and visiting stores, snapping up the latest and...

PhotoWith the holiday shopping season well underway it's a safe bet that millions of parents are browsing online and visiting stores, snapping up the latest and “hottest” toys and games. To provide some helpful advice, the National Parenting Center has released its 23rd annual Holiday Seal of Approval report.

The report makes recommendations for gifts after two months of consumer testing by parents and children at The National Parenting Center's test centers. the report includes reviews of the recommended toys and games.

The program is an independent testing system to judge a variety of products introduced and marketed to the parent andchild consumer market. The reviews and recommendations are based on observations over the eight week period as testers play with, build, read about, and judge the products.

More than a dozen categories

The products are broken down into more than a dozen categories, includings kits and crafts, audio, outdoor play, educational toys, video games and toys, puzzles and dolls.

This season only two video games make the list. Skylanders SWAP Force by Activision, is recommended for kids age 6 and older and lists for $74.99. The National Parenting Center review calls the game a mega-hit of mega-proportions.

“The frenzy to play with this newest version of the wildly popular game in our testing centers was intense,” the review says. “The popularity is clearly off the charts but more importantly, after spending time with the game, parents say that it is all for good reason.”

The game is also versatile. It contains a portal that plugs into your XBox, Playstation or Wii. The other video game winning the Seal of Approval is Sesame Street: Solve it with Elmo, Abby & Super Grover 2.0, by LeapFrog. It's suggested for ages three to five and sells for $24.99.

Promotes science learning

PhotoAs you might expect with the Sesame Street tie-in, this game is educational. It focuses on the currently trendy STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

“While playing with their favorite Sesame Street characters, kids are learning problem solving, levers and weights, weight and balance, engineering, magnetic forces, and more,” the review notes.

Some other toys making the list this year are:

  • Switch & Go Dinos Blister the Velociraptor, by VTech Electronics, recommended for age three to eight and selling for $24.99. Being able to transform a vehicle into an animal and then back again was described again and again by young testers as “awesome.”
  • PopStars! Stage, by Playmobil USA, recommended for ages four to 10 and selling for $39.99. The set comes with 4 pop star figures, each in different poses. Children are given the opportunity to play tour manager arranging the stage, positioning the musicians, placing equipment, setting the lights, which are real flickering LED’s, and even playing sound mixer adjusting the volume on the speaker. (See video below)
  • Glow Pets, by Ontel Products Corp, recommended for ages three and up and sells for $29.99. Glow Pets are oversized stuffed animals with a magical light hidden inside the body that makes them glow in the dark.
  • 90' Eagle Series Zipline Kit by Brand 44, recommended for ages eight and older and sells for $169.99. You’ll need 90 feet of space between two sturdy trees to start. Testers found the quality to be superb, featuring stainless steel cable along with galvanized clamps and hardware.
  • Marker Maker by Crayola, recommended for ages eight and up and sells for $24.99. The pre-craft kit helps kids make their own markers that they can then use in other activities. This product is a mix of science project and art project. Reviewers found kids loved mixing their own colors and making their own markers.

The Seal of Approval compiles its list of potential gifts by gauging consumer reaction to products currently being marketed to both parents and their children such as toys, games, books, videos, websites and educational products. Each is reviewed on a variety of factors including, but not limited to, price, packaging, design, stimulation, desirability, age appropriateness and instructions, among other criteria.

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JPMorgan finalizes $13 billion settlement with feds, states

$4 billion of the settlement will go to provide relief to underwater homeowners

The Justice Department and a number of states today announced a $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan -- the largest settlement with a single entity in Am...

PhotoThe Justice Department and a number of states today announced a $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan -- the largest settlement with a single entity in American history -- to resolve federal and state civil claims arising out of the packaging, marketing, sale and issuance of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) by JPMorgan, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual prior to Jan. 1, 2009. 
 
As part of the settlement, JPMorgan acknowledged it made serious misrepresentations to the public -- including the investing public -- about numerous RMBS transactions. 
 
The resolution also requires JPMorgan to provide much needed relief to underwater homeowners and potential homebuyers, including those in distressed areas of the country.  The settlement does not absolve JPMorgan or its employees from facing any possible criminal charges.

“Without a doubt, the conduct uncovered in this investigation helped sow the seeds of the mortgage meltdown,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  “JPMorgan was not the only financial institution during this period to knowingly bundle toxic loans and sell them to unsuspecting investors, but that is no excuse for the firm’s behavior.  The size and scope of this resolution should send a clear signal that the Justice Department’s financial fraud investigations are far from over."

The settlement includes a statement of facts, in which JPMorgan acknowledges that it regularly represented to RMBS investors that the mortgage loans in various securities complied with underwriting guidelines even though JPMorgan employees knew that the loans in question did not comply with those guidelines and were not otherwise appropriate for securitization, but they allowed the loans to be securitized – and those securities to be sold – without disclosing this information to investors.  

Relief for homeowners

Of the record-breaking $13 billion resolution, $9 billion will be paid to settle federal and state civil claims by various entities related to RMBS.  JPMorgan will pay out the remaining $4 billion in the form of relief to aid consumers harmed by the unlawful conduct of JPMorgan, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. 

That relief will take various forms, including principal forgiveness, loan modification, targeted originations and efforts to reduce blight.  An independent monitor will be appointed to determine whether JPMorgan is satisfying its obligations. 

If JPMorgan fails to live up to its agreement by Dec. 31, 2017, it must pay liquidated damages in the amount of the shortfall to NeighborWorks America, a non-profit organization and leader in providing affordable housing and facilitating community development. 

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14 trends for 2014

What brands need to do to maintain consumer loyalty in the new year

In numerology, the number 14 is associated with forward movement, new methods of experience, opportunity, and personal engagement, a good omen as to the co...

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Growth projected for Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales -- but not much

Weakened consumer confidence will have consumers looking for bargains

Nearly stagnant disposable incomes, the government shutdown and a general waning of consumer are expected to take a toll on sales in the coming Christmas s...

PhotoNearly stagnant disposable incomes, the government shutdown and a general waning of consumer coonfidence are expected to take a toll on sales in the coming Christmas shopping season.

IBISWorld is forecasting weak Thanksgiving and holiday gift spending, with revenue generated by the Thanksgiving holiday increasing only slightly from 2012. And, say these experts, while Cyber Monday sales are anticipated to increase strongly by double-digits this year, this growth rate is deceptive. Forecasters say it's mainly due to consumers’ continued shift away from physical store shopping and toward online deals.

The bottom line: Overall gift spending from Black Friday through Cyber Monday is expected to grow by a meager 2.2% year-over-year.

Thanksgiving

PhotoCompared with last year, Thanksgiving spending is anticipated to grow 3.7% -- to $8.2 billion. More than two-thirds of this figure is expected to come from spending on food and drink for family gatherings and festivities; this category is expected to increase 5.1% from 2012. Celebrating the year-end holidays with loved ones remains an important tradition for many Americans, so spending on consumables is not expected to suffer much, despite poor confidence.

Families and relatives are expected to gather around the turkey this year, with 87.8% of US households expected to celebrate T-day. The average household will spend $52.75 on Thanksgiving dinner and $31.23 on turkey alone. Other, more discretionary expenses such as greeting cards, gifts and decorations are not anticipated to grow much this year -- increasing only 0.7%. Consumers are more likely to dedicate their cash to food and drinks.

Thanksgiving Sales

 200820092010201120122013
Food and drink ($m)$4,741.8$4,530.9$4,746.6$5,046.1$5,393.5$5,666.5
Turkey ($m)$2,699.4$2,533.6$2,722.6$2,987.4$3,253.3$3,354.2
Other expenses ($m)$2,442.7$2,333.3$2,289.1$2,384.3$2,497.9$2,557.5
Total ($m)$7,184.5$6,864.2$7,083.3$7,478.1$7,933.8$8,224.0
% annual change -4.5%3.2%5.6%6.1%3.7%

All dollar figures are in constant 2013 dollars

PhotoHoliday shopping

With tight budgets expected this season, Black Friday and Cyber Monday spending increases are projected to be smaller than those of 2012. This year, Black Friday is forecast to generate $13.6 billion in revenue -- an increase of 3.9% over last year’s total. The smaller increase is due to the continued sluggish growth in disposable incomes and relentless high unemployment. Still, growth in Black Friday revenue will be driven largely by door-buster deals and online sales that start at midnight. With bellies full of turkey, consumers are likely to jump on these online promotions; others will opt to walk the food off at retail locations, vying to score a great deal.

Spending during the Black Friday weekend (which includes Friday, Saturday and Sunday) is anticipated to grow just 1.7% to $38.7 billion. The bulk of weekend purchases (35.2%) is expected to be made on Black Friday itself, owing to enticing sales and the spirit of the day itself.

Cyber Monday, while still only about 15.0% the size of Black Friday in terms of revenue, is forecast to record double-digit growth of 13.1%. The $1.8 billion shopping day has increasingly made its way to the top of shoppers’ preferences for its plethora of online deals and free shipping promotions. This year will be no exception, as Cyber Monday outpaces growth during the remainder of the shopping weekend.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday Sales

 200820092010201120122013
BlackFriday ($m)$12,043.9$12,042.6$12,348.2$12,382.4$13,113.3$13,618.5
% annual change 0.0%2.5%0.3%5.9%3.9%
Black Fridayweekend ($m)$32,273.7$32,184.6$33,891.2$34,637.1$38,034.8$38,688.3
% annual change -0.3%5.3%2.2%9.8%1.7%
CyberMonday ($m)$914.4$949.1$1,080.5$1,293.8$1,565.8$1,770.7
% annual change 3.8%13.9%19.7%21.0%13.1%
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Builders remain confident in November

There's been a glimmer of optimism for six straight months

It didn't get any better but then it didn't get any worse, either. According to the National Association of Home Builders http://www.nahb.org/default.asp...

PhotoIt didn't get any better but then it didn't get any worse, either.

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index, builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes was unchanged in November from a downwardly revised level of 54.

For six months in a row now, more builders have viewed market conditions as good than poor.

“Given the current interest rate and pricing environment, consumers continue to show interest in purchasing new homes, but are holding back because Congress keeps pushing critical decisions on budget, tax and government spending issues down the road,” said NAHB Chairman Rick Judson. “Meanwhile, builders continue to face challenges related to rising construction costs and low appraisals.”

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.” The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores from each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

Holding its own

The HMI index gauging current sales conditions in November held steady at 58. The component measuring expectations for future sales fell one point to 60 and the component gauging traffic of prospective buyers dropped one point to 42.

The HMI three-month moving average was mixed in the four regions. No movement was recorded in the South or West, which held unchanged at 56 and 60, respectively. The Northeast recorded a one-point gain to 39 and the Midwest fell three points to 60.

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Things to consider when selecting senior home care

Careful screening of home health care aides is important

America is getting older. The youngest Baby Boomers turn 50 next year, the oldest celebrate their 68th birthdays. Many are already contemplating how they w...

PhotoAmerica is getting older. The youngest Baby Boomers turn 50 next year, the oldest celebrate their 68th birthdays. Many are already contemplating how they will age – and where.

Not surprisingly, many current and future seniors would like to remain in their homes rather than move into an assisted living facility or nursing home. The concept, known as “aging in place," aims to keep seniors in their homes and involved in their communities as they get older.

To do so, however, they must overcome some significant challenges. Transportation, physical mobility, and in-home safety can present major problems that force seniors into assisted living facilities before they would like.

A 2012 survey by the National Council on Aging found about 90% of respondents said they prefer to remain in their homes as they get older. Of this group, 85% are confident in their ability to do so without making any significant modifications to their home.

Economic realities

Seniors planning to stay in their homes cite not wanting to move out of a home they like and a desire to stay close to friends and family as the top motivators behind their choice. But current economic realities are also a factor: nearly a quarter of respondents who plan to stay in their current home do not believe they can sell it in today’s market, and 26% say they cannot afford the cost of moving their belongings.

To assist seniors and their families in reaching their “aging in place” goals new businesses are springing up to provide a variety of in-home services – everything from delivering meals to in-home health services. Though there are a few national firms, the majority are local or regional in nature.

What to look for

What do you look for when selecting a company to provide home care services? Experts at the Mayo Clinic say it starts with qualifications. The company should be licensed, if your state has that requirement. At the very least, the company or agency should be certified by Medicare to meet federal requirements for health and safety. 

Be sure to ask about exmployee screening. How are employees selected and what references can they provide? This is especially important if you are considering a home health aide.

You should also try to gauge the quality of care the agency provides. One way to do that is to ask about training. How, for example, are caregivers supervised and evaluated?

Other tips

PhotoHere are some other things to consider:

  • Included services: Not all companies and agencies provide the same services. Understand what your needs are and make sure they match with the agency's capabilities. When interviewing prospects tell them the specific type of senior home care you are interested in and ask if they can accommodate your requests.
  • Hours of service: Do you need around the clock help? If so, make sure the company you are considering can provide it. Will it be provided by a single aide or in shifts?
  • In case of emergency: What happens if there is an accident or emergency? Discuss emergency procedures with any agency you are considering.
  • Care plan: An agency that seeks input from the family and the senior to be cared for, then designs a plan around it, will likely have the most flexible care plan. The plan should spell out what services are to be provided.
  • Payment: Discuss payment upfront so there are no surprises. Many home care agencies and companies provide services covered by Medicare, Medicaid and other benefit programs.

Staying healthy helps

For their part, aging Baby Boomers can make it easier to age in place by maintaining and improving their health, so that they can remain independent longer. The National Council on Aging survey suggests many of today's seniors are optimistic about what the future holds for their health – maybe a little too optimistic.

In the survey a large majority of seniors gave themselves high marks when it comes to maintaining their health: 92% said they manage stress very well or somewhat well, and 84% said they are confident that they will be able to do what is needed to maintain their health over the next five to 10 years.

But the percentage of respondents who exercise or engage in regular physical activity to maintain their health is considerably lower, the survey revealed.

Just over half of the surveyed seniors said they exercise or are physically active at least four days per week, while another quarter indicated they are active one to three days per week. About one in 10 respondents reported that their exercise or physical activity is limited to just a few days each month, and 11% are never physically active.

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Online retailer tries to fine couple for posting negative review

Ripoff Report demands $2,000 to remove the offending report

Businesses don't like it when their customers post negative reviews but most don't go as far as a Michigan trinket company called KlearGear.com.According...

PhotoBusinesses don't like it when their customers post negative reviews but most don't go as far as a Michigan trinket company called KlearGear.com.

According to a report on KUTV in Salt Lake City, Kleargear imposed a $3,500 charge on a couple who ordered a number of trinkets from the company, which sells novelty items that it thinks will appeal to the technically-inclined. An example is the $14.95 "Can of Whoop Ass," something every electrical engineer needs on his desk, as KlearGear sees it.

According to the KUTV report, Jen Palmer said that her husband ordered a number of items from KlearGear back in 2008. Thirty days went by and the items had not shown up, so the transaction was automatically canceled by PayPal.

Palmer, not satisfied with having her charge canceled, tried to call the company but didn't get through, so she posted a negative review on RipOff Report, saying the company had "incompetent customer service."

PhotoTime went by and, three years later, her husband received an email from KlearGear, claiming he owed $3,500 for violating a clause in the company's terms of service that supposedly prohibited customers from posting negative reviews.

No such clause appears today but according to published reports, the clause formerly said: "In an effort to ensure fair and honest public feedback, and to prevent the pung of libelous content in any form, your acceptance of this sales contract prohibits you from taking any action that negatively impacts KlearGear.com, its reputation, products, services, management or employees." ​

Trying to extract themselves from the fix they found themselves in, the Palmers contacted Ripoff Report, which allegedly tried to shake them down for $2,000 to remove the report. The Palmers declined.

And that would be that, except that KlearGear has apparently besmirched the Palmers' credit rating, claiming that the unpaid $3,500 is a legitimate debt. We tried to call KlearGear.com president Lee Gersten but consistently got a busy signal. Not voice mail. A busy signal. Remember those?

 The Palmers say that because of the bad mark on their credit, they've been unable to get a loan for a new car or to fix their home's furance.

Guess they really need that can of Whoop Ass now. 

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Walmart's employee canned-food drive backfires

Food drive to feed hungry Walmart employees revives old charges of low employee wages

A Walmart store in Canton, Ohio set up a canned-food drive, asking employees to donate food to co-workers who presumably can’t afford to feed themsel...

PhotoA Walmart store in Canton, Ohio set up a canned-food drive, asking employees to donate food to co-workers who presumably can’t afford to feed themselves on whatever they’re making at Walmart.

According to Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg, when he spoke to the  Cleveland Plain Dealer, the food drive is proof that Walmart employees care about each other. But according to an organization of Walmart workers seeking better pay and working conditions from their employer, the canned food drive is more evidence that Walmart underpays its employees.

Members of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (a.k.a. OUR Walmart), which first posted a photograph of the canned food drive to its Facebook page on Monday, along with a request to “LIKE if you think Walmart should pay us enough that we can afford to buy our own Thanksgiving dinners!” Indeed, when Cleveland.com reported the story, they headlined it with a question: “Is Walmart’s request of associates to help provide Thanksgiving dinner for co-workers proof of low wages?”

Walmart subsidized?

Walmart critics have long charged that taxpayers effectively “subsidize” the company because so many Walmart workers make so little money, they qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and other low-income welfare benefits; OUR Walmart alluded to this on Monday when it posted the food-drive photo next to the captions “Walmart is asking us to donate food to our coworkers. Why can’t Walmart pay us enough so we can feed our families?” and above a Walmart employee quoted as saying “If I made $25,000/yr, I wouldn’t have to rely on food stamps.”

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Beware of doctors pushing high-interest credit cards

High-pressure sales tactics can cause financial disaster for patients

Patients tend to trust their doctors, which isn't always a good thing. Taking a physician's advice about health care may turn out all right but when the su...

PhotoPatients tend to trust their doctors, which isn't always a good thing. Taking a physician's advice about health care may turn out all right but when the subject turns to finances, it may be best to look elsewhere.

A recent New York Times series and a warning last week from New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman illustrate the extent of the problem: incrasingly, health care providers are urging patients to use medical credit cards to pay for treatments not covered by their insurance plans.

“The explosion of medical credit card debt is a major concern for many Americans, particularly vulnerable seniors and low-to middle-income households. For patients, the financial consequences can be dire,” said Schneiderman. “The problem is made even worse by companies that encourage high-pressure sales tactics in our health care settings and companies that charge outlandishly high interest rates.”

The cards became popular about a decade ago among cosmetic surgeons, whose services are often not covered by insurance. Doctors then and now benefit in two ways by pushing the cards onto their patients: they get a healthy kickback from the card provider and they get to charge their patients their full rate for whatever procedure they undergo and can often charge their full fee upfront, even for a continuing course of treatment that would normally be billed in increments.

The cards are now becoming popular among general practice physicians, dentists and others, especially those who deal with lower-income and older Americans, who often face large out-of-pocket expenses for basic care that is not covered by Medicare or private insurance.

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In June, following an investigation, the Schneiderman's office reached a pact with one such company, CareCredit, which is a subsidiary of GE Capital Retail Bank. The investigation found that the application process is often rushed; providers frequently fail to inform consumers of the basic terms of the card, and patients incur costly credit charges that they initially mistake for payment plans.

The agreement requires a three-day “cooling-off” period to give consumers an opportunity to consider the card’s terms and the treatment plan; a limit to what the provider can charge in advance, and additional transparency to make consumers aware of high interest rates if charges are not paid off at the end of the promotional period. 

In an effort to help those most susceptible to the damage that these cards and lines of credit can cause, Schneiderman issued the following tips to help consumers:

  • Give yourself time to understand the terms of financing. Take the time to read the entire contract; don’t rely on a sales pitch.
  • Resist any pressure to apply immediately, even though it is your provider who is offering you the financing.
  • If your provider tries to charge you in advance of treatment, ask to be charged for each visit separately instead. If your request is refused, consider finding another provider.
  • If the services will span more than one visit, ask for a detailed treatment plan.
  • If applying for deferred interest ("no-interest") financing, understand how the deferred interest will accrue and when it will be imposed. Understand the monthly payments you must make in order to avoid interest.
  • Ask your provider for alternative payment options, such as an in-house payment plan. Your provider may also be willing to negotiate the fee. Once you sign up for a credit card or other financing, you may have more difficulty addressing billing matters with your provider.
  • Make sure your insurance coverage, if any, is exhausted before using a credit card or other financing, and don't allow your provider to charge your credit card for any service that should be covered by insurance.
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Retailers fear Obamacare is hurting sales

But long-term, lower-income Americans should save money, economists say

It sometimes seems that the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as Obamacare, is being blamed for everything except the weather, and now large retail...

PhotoIt sometimes seems that the Affordable Care Act, unpopularly known as Obamacare, is being blamed for everything except the weather, and now large retailers say they're seeing signs it's hurting sales.

Walmart has been suffering anemic sales lately -- it just reported its third consecutive drop in comparable-store sales -- and says it's afraid the looming implementation of Obamacare could make things even worse. 

"For many of our customers, having to afford health care and insurance may be another line item in their personal budget that they may not have had to cover previously." Carol Schumacher, vice president of investor relations, told analysts on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The idea behind Obamacare, of course, is to provide insurance coverage for families that currently have no coverage. But for lower-income consumers who are barely scraping by already, the addition of even a small monthly premium could cause them to cut back on other purchases, Walmart and other retailers fear.

Walmart's not alone. True Value hardware's CEO says Obamacare is "a massive concern." 

"Discretionary spending will certainly be impacted by the changes in the contribution Americans will have to make for health care," John Hartmann said Friday, the Journal reported.

Disaster or blip?

PhotoSo is this a disaster in the making or just a blip?

Many economists vote for the blip. After all, Americans now spend 17.7% percent of GDP on health care, far more than any other developed country.

As Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas point out in the Washington Post's Wonkblog, if the U.S. could get health care spending down to 12%, there'd be an extra $893 or so billion floating around in the economy, money that could be spent on consumer goods, education, infrastructure and, presumably, the lottery.

Of course, the lottery is what uninsured Americans have now: by going without health insurance, they're basically gambling that they won't get sick. But as with most games of chance, the odds favor the house; after all, everyone gets sick eventually and without insurance, the options are to go to the emergency room and let everyone else pick up the tab, or take an even riskier gamble by going without medical care.

Who benefits?

A recent RAND Corporation study, meanwhile, may provide some comfort to the Walmarts of the world, if they're able to pause and look beyond same-store sales over the next quarter.

The study finds that people who are currently uninsured -- which would include many of the lower-income consumers who are Walmart customers -- will see the largest drop in health care spending when they become insured under Medicaid. 

"Among the groups we studied, a clear benefit of the Affordable Care Act is that it will reduce the risk of facing catastrophic medical costs,” said Christine Eibner, a study author and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Consumers with the lowest incomes will see the most-dramatic reductions of their risks.”

People who will be newly insured and do not qualify for government subsidies -- younger, healthier consumers with relatively well-paying jobs -- are those who are most likely to see increased total spending as they begin paying premiums for health coverage. 

Overall, the RAND study found that out-of-pocket medical expenses will decline for most consumers who become newly insured or change their source of health insurance under Obamacare.

In other words, costs may rise slightly for higher-income Americans and go down for lower-income individuals -- which seems to be what most fair-minded people would vote for. 

Leaving aside politics and economics for a minute, the primary goal of the Affordable Care Act is to deliver better health care at lower cost. This is a big order and one that's not likely to happen quickly or smoothly, as the frothy run-up to implementation shows.  

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J.D. Power's top ten favorite cars

The founder of J.D. Power and Associates reveals his personal favorites

Dave Power is the founder of J.D. Power and Associates. The new book about his fifty years in the auto industry, Power: How J.D. Power III Became the Aut...

PhotoDave Power is the founder of J.D. Power and Associates. The new book about his fifty years in the auto industry, Power: How J.D. Power III Became the Auto Industry’s Adviser, Confessor, and Eyewitness to History, is available at all major booksellers. Website:www.davepowerbook.com.

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I owned other cars during the years but these ten stand out in my mind for various reasons. Especially as my company, J.D. Power and Associates, got more established I tried to never own a car that would be obvious or expected. I wanted to show people that the cars that were at the top of the J.D. Power and Associates lists for quality or customer satisfaction didn’t get there because they were my personal favorites. And, you can see, when there were new models, or special editions that offered something different and unexpected, I was a happy pushover.

If there is a secondary commonality among my favorite cars, I suppose it has to be speed. I am not a huge car enthusiast, not one that physically works on his vehicles or is a racing buff, but I’ve been known to push the speed limits around Los Angeles, especially racing down the freeways or the canyons to get to the airport! I can admit this now, but I used to have a few friendly competitions with my employees about our best times driving to the airport.

1. 1959 Ford Thunderbird: My first new car, purchased through Ford’s employee plan. We always love our first new car, don’t we?

2. 1971 Buick Electra Four Door: Metallic green with a black vinyl roof. I drove the family (myself, my wife Julie, and our four kids) from California to the East Coast and back on summer vacation 1971. Last time we did that!

3. 1979 Oldsmobile 98 Diesel: Of course the engine and transmission were horrible quality. But, the fuel economy and extra fuel tanks I had installed in the trunk were the perfect antidote to the energy crisis at that time—especially because my commute from suburban Los Angeles to downtown was 45 miles each way! It was a good-looking 1970s color, a metallic rust—almost copper—exterior, with a tan leather interior. I still believe in the value of diesel engines but in this case GM just did not get it right.

4. 1981 Chrysler Imperial Coupe: Black with rich maroon leather interior. I worked a deal with Lee Iacocca and the Chrysler people to exchange a subscription to one of the JDPA studies for the car. Its styling was controversial at the time but it served the purpose of demonstrating a more expressive image for a big car, which Chrysler needed at the time.

Photo5. 1983 Jaguar XJ-6: Even though the quality was a big problem I found that when it ran, it ran really well. It had a great ride that struck the right balance between being tight and sporty, and yet it was smooth and supple. The engine purred like a Jaguar should. And, it was gorgeous to look at, too. A rich dark blue metallic with camel leather interior. It gave me some great personal experience with Jaguar when we were trying to help them overcome their quality problems.

6. 1986 Audi 5000: Yes, I had one. It was right after the media crisis over the car’s sudden acceleration. Remember this model was expressing a new design language for Audi: smooth, sleek, and modern. Sales were great until the crisis. I wanted to show my support to Audi, and the rest of the auto industry, by owning and driving one because I felt it was safe.

7. 1988 Oldsmobile Touring Sedan: Dark silver with gray leather interior. This was a special edition model developed to provide some excitement into the Oldsmobile line. It had a specially tuned 3.8 liter V6 engine, four-speed transmission, sport-tuned touring suspension, sporty leather interior, and exterior packaging.

8. 1988 Buick Reatta: Bright red with tan interior. Another innovative design that had its fans and critics. Actually it was a car I bought for my wife Julie for her fiftieth birthday as a surprise. She got pulled over by the police the same day she drove it home because the officer wanted to get a closer look. The purpose of the car was to provide Buick with a new image-leading vehicle, and the executives at Buick were dying to get me to buy one.

9. 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS: It started as a special edition model and only had a short production run of a few years. I was able to order one of the last ones built before Chevrolet ended production. It had a Corvette engine and a sport-tuned suspension. Dark maroon and dark tinted windows. A police package beauty: it had speed, was fun to drive, and was big enough for my lanky frame. 

10. 2003 Mercury Marauder: I loved the idea of another police package cruiser for civilian use. Black on black (the only way they came). Like the Impala SS, this was a special edition built for speed. This is the car I still drive today! 

The auto industry has brought richness and satisfaction to my life beyond what I’d ever imagined growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts. The people who choose to devote their life’s work to producing the cars and trucks that drivers want to drive — from the workers on the factory floor to the engineers to the executives to the dealership personnel — have played an important role in shaping our culture, and I’m confident they will continue to do so. 

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Another reason to consider weight loss surgery

For some it may turn back the aging process

Over the past two decades gastric bypass surgery, which promotes significant weight loss by reducing the size of the stomach with a gastric band or by remo...

PhotoOver the past two decades gastric bypass surgery, which promotes significant weight loss by reducing the size of the stomach with a gastric band or by removing part of it, has gone from being a highly risky procedure to one that reliably reduces obesity and related conditions.

Long-term studies have not only shown the surgery promotes significant weight loss but also recovery from diabetes, improvement in the cardiovascular system and a reduction in mortality. Now, researchers at Stanford University say there is another reason to consider the surgery: it can turn back the clock when it comes to aging.

The Stanford study looked at genetic data from 51 patients, before and after they underwent the weight loss surgery. Most were women, approximately 49 years old and with an average body mass index (BMI) of 44.3. The result of the surgery was significant weight loss, with the average patient shedding 71% of their excess weight.

Additional step

But in this study the researchers took an additional step. They measured the length of each patient's telomeres – which are key to the aging process -- before and after surgical weight loss. Telomeres are genetic biomarkers heavily influencing cellular aging and the development of disease. As people get older or suffer from chronic disease, their telomeres get shorter.

The Stanford researchers found that after undergoing the gastric bypass surgery, some patients' telomeres actually became longer. Primarily the best results occurred in patients who, before the operation, had high levels of LDL cholesterol, the so called “bad cholesterol,” and high levels of inflammation.

Within a year of the operation, these patients not only saw these levels drop, they also experienced significant lengthening of their telomeres, when compared to other patients.

Reversing the aging process

“Obesity has an adverse effect on health, causes premature aging and reduces life expectancy,” said study co-author John M. Morton, MD, Chief of Bariatric Surgery at Stanford University Medical Center. “This is the first study to show that surgical weight loss may be able to reverse the effects. If your telomeres get longer, you’re likely to reverse the effects of aging and have a lower risk of developing a wide range of age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart and respiratory diseases, and certain types of cancer.”

The researchers documented the correlation between dramatic weight loss and telomere length, as well as increases in HDL, the so-called “good cholesterol.” They say further studies are needed to confirm the direct effects of telomere length on health outcomes.

Sustained weight loss

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), weight loss surgery provides “medically significant sustained weight loss” for more than five years in most patients. Although there are risks associated with surgery, the agency says it really isn't yet known whether these risks are greater in the long term than those of any other form of treatment. 

“Surgery is an option for well-informed and motivated patients who have clinically severe obesity – BMI 40 or higher,” NIH says.

If you decide to undergo the surgery, NIH says you should be monitored for complications and lifestyle adjustments throughout the rest of your life. Although research regarding obesity treatment in older people is not abundant, age should not preclude therapy for obesity, the agency said.

Though the risks are not trivial, the Cleveland Clinic says outcomes of gastric bypass surgery are getting better all the time as surgeons become more experienced with the operation. The benefits, the clinic says, increasingly outweigh the risks. 

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Toyota, Subaru win value-retention sweepstakes for 2014

Trucks do well, electric cars not so well in latest Kelley Blue Book ratings

2014 Toyota CorollaCars are expensive, so besides finding a model that's safe and gets good fuel economy, it's important to find one that will hold the...

Photo
2014 Toyota Corolla

Cars are expensive, so besides finding a model that's safe and gets good fuel economy, it's important to find one that will hold the highest percentage of its original value.

And for the 2014 models, Toyota is most likely to do the best job of value retention over the first five years, according to Kelley Blue Book.

Toyota's 60-month average residual value improved 2.1 percentage points from last year to 46.1 percent, expressed as a percentage of the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP).  With strength in its overall residual value average for 2014, this marks the third consecutive win for Toyota and fourth overall Best Resale Value: Brand win for the automaker since the inception of the Kelley Blue Book Best Resale Value Awards in 2003. 

Subaru was less than one percentage point away from Toyota and was ranked second among non-luxury brands.

Toyota's more refined sibling, Lexus, improved nearly 2 percentage points to 45.6 percent retained value after five years, helping the luxury brand  to keep its Best Resale Value: Luxury Brand title for the third consecutive year.  Lexus outperformed its closest competitor, Audi, by more than 6 percentage points. 

"Lexus' full lineup had 60-month residual values above its segment averages, except for the GS 450h," said Eric Ibara, director of residual value consulting for Kelley Blue Book.  "Lexus dominates the luxury categories, placing one of its vehicles at the top of its segment six times; a feat none of its competitors can match." 

Overall, 60-month residual values for all 2014 model-year vehicles averaged 39.7 percent.  This represents an increase of 1.5 percentage points compared to the 2013 model-year averages from the same period last year. 

Trucks do well, EVs not so well 

For the 2014 model year, trucks continue to hold their value better than cars, with the average 60-month residual value across all trucks at 41.7 percent compared to the 37.8 percent average across all cars.  Pickup truck segments, both mid-size and full-size, have the highest segment residual values after five years.  

In contrast, pure electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus EV have not been in high demand by consumers who have enjoyed moderate fuel prices during the past 12 months.  The federal tax credit available on these vehicles also depresses used-car values, which contributes to the Plug-In Vehicles segment's lowest average 60-month residual value at 28.7 percent.   

 

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Google announces anti-child porn initiative

Changes to search algorithms, increased human oversight, and more

There are changes coming to Google, though (fortunately) most everyday users shouldn’t notice anything different: Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt ann...

Photo
Eric Schmidt

There are changes coming to Google, though (fortunately) most everyday users shouldn’t notice anything different: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has announced that the company is altering its search algorithms in hopes of making it harder to find or share child pornography. The company is also making extensive use of Microsoft image-recognition technology.

Schmidt explained the new plan in a piece he wrote for the UK'sDaily Mail on Nov. 17. (The announcement first appeared in a British rather than American newspaper because the company’s actions are presumably in response to various anti-child-pornography initiatives by UK prime minister David Cameron, after two particularly brutal real-life child murders last year).

Google is approaching the problem from four angles. The first two are “cleaning up search” in hopes of preventing child-abuse links from appearing in search results, and “deterrence” via pop-up legal warnings that will appear if anyone searches for possibly illegal content. These two are to be achieved automatically, via changes in the search algorithms.

For the third category, “detection and removal,” Schmidt admitted that “There's no quick technical fix” because “computers can't reliably distinguish between innocent pictures of kids at bathtime and genuine abuse. So we always need to have a person review the images.”

If a human viewer determines that a picture or video is indeed pornographic or otherwise indicative of abuse, the image will be given a “digital fingerprint” allowing the company to recognize it anytime it appears on a computer. And, of course, the three previous categories all fall under the aegis of “technical expertise,” which both Microsoft and Google have in abundance.

We certainly don’t envy whichever Google employees -- or, more likely, contract workers -- end us tasked with the job of looking at photos of children all day to ferret out signs of sexual abuse. But Schmidt’s emphasis on human oversight is likely meant to assuage any censorship or civil-liberty concerns the plan might raise.

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Google settles privacy violations for $17 million

States charged Google circumvented privacy settings on Apple's Safari web browser

Google has agreed to pay $17 million to settle charges that it violated consumers' privacy by tracking the web usage of Apple customers who thought their S...

PhotoGoogle has agreed to pay $17 million to settle charges that it violated consumers' privacy by tracking the web usage of Apple customers who thought their Safari web browser's privacy settings protected them.

“Privacy is paramount,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, one of 37 state AGs who prosecuted the case against Google. “If a business improperly intrudes on consumers’ privacy, the Attorney General’s Office will pursue them.”

Google altered its coding to circumvent the Safari default privacy settings, without consumers’ knowledge or consent. This allowed advertisers to set third-party cookies on consumers’ Safari browsers, despite the fact those users believed their privacy settings protected them.

Through its DoubleClick advertising platform, Google’s search engine generates revenue by helping to transmit third-party advertising ‘cookies’ — small files set in Internet users’ Web browsers — that allow advertisers to gather information about those users. Depending on the type of cookie, the information collected could include the user’s web surfing habits and location.

Apple’s Safari Web browser generally blocks third-party cookies in its default privacy settings, including cookies used by DoubleClick to track a consumer’s browsing history.

Unfair practices

From June 1, 2011 until February 15, 2012, Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent the Safari default privacy settings, without consumers’ knowledge or consent. This allowed advertisers to set third-party cookies on consumers’ Safari browsers and gather information, despite the fact those users believed their privacy settings protected them.

Google disabled this coding method in February 2012 after the practice was widely reported on the Internet and in media.

Washington and other states alleged that Google failed to inform Safari users that it was circumventing their privacy settings. They also allege Google misled consumers through earlier representation that cookies were automatically blocked for Safari users.

The attorneys general also alleged Google violated state consumer protection and related computer privacy laws by circumventing Safari’s default privacy cookie-blocking settings.

$17 million 

Google has agreed to pay the states $17 million to settle the case. The funds may be used for civil penalties, attorneys’ fees and future consumer protection education.

Google also agreed to injunctive relief that requires the following: 

• Refrain from using code to override a browser’s cookie blocking settings without the consumer’s consent unless it is necessary to detect or prevent fraud, security or technical issues.
• Not misrepresent or omit information about how Google connects advertisements to consumers’ browsers.
• Improve provided information regarding cookies, their purposes, and how they can be managed by consumers using Google’s products or services and tools.
• Maintain systems designed to ensure the expiration of the third-party cookies set on Safari Web browsers during the period that Google had circumvented the default settings.

States involved

Washington was part of a 10-state executive committee that led the investigations, which also included Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Vermont. The multi-state settlement also included Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, District of Columbia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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Ready, set -- go!!

Shoppers are gearing up for the annual Thanksgiving weekend assault

Thanksgiving falls as late this year as the calendar possibly allows and that has holiday shoppers already mapping their shopping strategies for the big we...

PhotoThanksgiving falls as late this year as the calendar possibly allows and that has holiday shoppers already mapping their strategies for the big shopping weekend.

A preliminary Thanksgiving weekend shopping survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF) finds up to 140 million people plan to or will shop over the weekend (Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) -- down slightly from the 147 million who planned to do so last year.

In this survey, NRF asked if people plan to shop on Thanksgiving Day, and of those who plan to shop that weekend, nearly one-quarter (23.5%) or 33 million people plan to shop on Thanksgiving Day.

“Though many people have already started to check off items from their holiday shopping lists, we fully expect to see many more come out on Thanksgiving Day and throughout the weekend to take in the festive sights and sounds -- and to take advantage of unbeatable deals,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “As the official kick off to the holiday season, retailers are prepared to pull out all the stops for their online and in-store shoppers, including offering sweepstakes with cash prizes, free gifts with purchase and even exclusive opportunities to score top gift items before everyone else.”

Bracing for Black Friday

PhotoAccording to the survey, Black Friday will be the biggest day of the weekend: 69.1% of those asked (approximately 97 million) plan to shop on Black Friday. Additionally 43.8% (61 million) will shop on Saturday and 24.2% (34 million) will shop on Sunday. And, of those who plan to shop on Thanksgiving Day this year, seven in 10 (69.2%) say they shopped online and in stores on Thanksgiving in 2012.

“Savvy shoppers know that the biggest shopping weekend of the year means even bigger savings, and those with specific gifts to buy will definitely be out and about or online over the holiday weekend,” said Prosper’s Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “Though most will adhere to a very strict budget and will make thoughtful decisions about the gifts they purchase, it’s evident that Americans are in the holiday spirit, despite their cautious approach to spending.”

When it comes to the many ways that savvy shoppers plan to keep up with retailers’ holiday promotions, the classic advertising circular wins again: half (49.1%) will scour newspapers for information about upcoming sales events. However, many people are still very much tuned into retailers’ digital news: 33.5% will look for special emails from retailers, 27.0% will follow retailers’ websites and 21.9% will scour coupon websites to look for deals.

The online factor

PhotoShoppers can look forward to numerous online, mobile and in-store promotions from retailers for Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday weekend. According to Shop.org’s eHoliday survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, half of retailers surveyed (51.1%) are planning to start their Thanksgiving weekend online promotions at least five days before the big weekend. Recognizing the growing trend among consumers to shop online on Thanksgiving Day, 53.5% say they will offer promotions specifically for that day.

Over the course of Black Friday weekend, retailers will tout a variety of offers, including special email campaigns (44.2%) and one-day sales (41.9%), but consumers will also benefit from a “freebie with purchase” promotions (23.3%), free standard shipping on all purchases (20.9%) and discounted shipping (20.9%).

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A drop in airline consumer complaints

Both year-over-year and monthly performances show improvement

Things have apparently become a little better for the flying public. Consumer complaints about airlines filed with the government were down 14.1% during t...

PhotoThings have apparently become a little better for the flying public.

Consumer complaints about airlines filed with the government were down 14.1% during the first nine months of this year from the same period in 2012.

The Transportation Department's (DOT) Aviation Consumer Protection Division received 10,439 consumer complaints from January to September 2013, versus the total of 12,153 filed during the first nine months of 2012. In September, there were 1,008 complaints about airline service from consumers, down 6.8% from the 1,081 complaints filed the year before and down 23.5% from the 1,318 received in August.

The consumer report also includes data on tarmac delays, on-time performance, cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, along with information on airline bumping, mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers, and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints. Reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air, are also covered.

The complete report is available on the DOT website.

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Be thankful for cranberries; study finds they have health-giving properties

Heart, urinary and gastrointestinal tract benefit from cranberries, researchers report

Cranberries are a staple of Thanksgiving dinner but a new study finds they also have remarkable nutritional and health benefits. A new research review...

PhotoCranberries are a staple of Thanksgiving dinner but a new study finds they also have remarkable nutritional and health benefits. A new research review published in the international journal Advances in Nutrition provides reasons why these tiny berries can be front and center and not just a side dish.

The review authors conclude that cranberries provide unique bioactive compounds that may help reduce the incidence of certain infections, improve heart health and temper inflammation.

"Hundreds of studies show that the bioactive compounds found in cranberries improve health," said lead author Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, Director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory and Professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. "For example, the polyphenols found in cranberries have been shown to promote a healthy urinary tract and exert protective benefits for cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions."

Flavanols

Based on the totality of the published cranberry research, the authors concluded that the cranberry fruit is truly special because of their "A-type" flavanols, in contrast to the B-type flavanols proanthocyanidins present in most other types of berries and fruit.

The A-types appear to provide the anti-adhesion benefits that help protect against urinary tract infections, which affect more than 15 million U.S. women each year. They present evidence suggesting that cranberries may also reduce the recurrence of the infections – an important approach for relying less on antibiotic treatment for the condition.

While all fruit contributes necessary vitamins and minerals to the diet, berry fruits offer a particularly rich source of health-promoting polyphenols. Because of their tart taste and very low natural sugar content, sugar is often added to cranberry products for palatability. Even with added sugar, cranberry products typically have a comparable amount of sugar to other unsweetened fruit juices and dried fruit products.

Additionally, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans asserts that the best use of calories from added sweeteners is for improving the palatability of nutrient-rich foods, as is the case when adding sugar to cranberries.

Ten worldwide experts in cranberry and health research contributed to the article, including scientists and medical experts from Tufts University, Pennsylvania State University, Boston University, Rutgers University, French National Institute for Agricultural Research, University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom and Heinrich-Heine-University in Germany. The authors included more than 150 published research studies to create the most thorough and up-to-date review of the cranberry nutrition and human health research.

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Most teens with mental health issues get no treatment

Fewer than half receive treatment from a mental health specialist

After mass shootings or other violent incidents involving young males, there is a brief discussion of the need for better mental health treatment but as a ...

PhotoAfter mass shootings or other violent incidents involving young males, there is a brief discussion of the need for better mental health treatment but as a new study makes clear, discussion is about all there is.

More than half of adolescents with psychiatric disorders receive no treatment of any sort, according to the study conducted by E. Jane Costello, a Duke University professor of psychology and epidemiology and associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. When treatment does occur, the providers are rarely mental health specialists, says the study, which was based on a survey of more than 10,000 American teenagers.

"It's still the case in this country that people don't take psychiatric conditions as seriously as they should," Costello said. "This, despite the fact that these conditions are linked to a whole host of other problems."

Costello noted that not all teens in the study fared the same. Treatment rates varied greatly for different mental disorders, for instance. Adolescents with ADHD, conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder received mental health care more than 70 percent of the time. By contrast, teens suffering from phobias or anxiety disorders were the least likely to be treated.

Results also varied greatly by race, with black youths significantly less likely to be treated for mental disorders than white youths.

Wide variations

The care that teenagers received also varied greatly. In many cases, care was provided by pediatricians, school counselors or probation officers rather than by people with specialized mental health training. There simply are not enough qualified child mental health professionals to go around, Costello said.

"We need to train more child psychiatrists in this country," Costello said. "And those individuals need to be used strategically, as consultants to the school counselors and others who do the lion's share of the work."

The study draws on data from the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement, a nationally representative face-to-face survey of 10,148 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17. It was published online Nov. 15 in Psychiatric Services.

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Illinois sues online used auto parts company

PartzNow.com cheated customers out of thousands, state charges

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against an online used auto parts company based in Bloomington, Ill., for allegedly cheating con...

PhotoIllinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against an online used auto parts company based in Bloomington, Ill., for allegedly cheating consumers out of thousands of dollars.

Madigan filed the lawsuit against Partz Now Inc. and owner Alan Carter, of Bloomington. Carter has operated Partz Now online since 2009, selling used auto parts to consumers nationwide. Madigan’s lawsuit alleges consumers never received their orders from www.partznow.com, or in some cases, received the wrong part and were not refunded.

“Anyone can set up shop on the Internet,” Madigan said. “That’s why it’s important to ensure you’re working with a reputable company." She urged consumers to check for complaints before making any significant purchases.

Consumers around the country reported complaints to Madigan’s office, reporting losses of at least $13,000. Madigan is asking the court to shut down the business and prohibit Carter from selling auto parts. The suit also seeks to cancel pending contracts with consumers, obtain restitution for affected consumers and impose civil penalties on the defendant.

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Crunch Pak brand apple slices recalled

The fruit may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Crunch Pak of Cashmere, Wash., is recalling 5,471 cases of Crunch Pak Apple Slices due to a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes. No illnesse...

PhotoCrunch Pak of Cashmere, Wash., is recalling 5,471 cases of Crunch Pak Apple Slices due to a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported in association with this recall to date. No other Crunch Pak products are affected by this recall.

The company sold the recalled product to retail customers and regional distribution centers,

The following products are subject to this nationwide recall:

Product Description for Nov. 14, 2013 Voluntary Recall Totaling 5,471 cases
UPC Code *
Best if Used By Date*
Crunch Pak® Tart Apple Slices 14 ounce bag
732313141209
11/14/13
Crunch Pak® Tart Apple Slices 2 ounce bag with Low Fat Caramel Dip Multi pak of 5
732313091139
11/14/13
Crunch Pak® Tart Apple Slices 2 ounce bag Multi pak of 6
732313121034
11/14/13
Crunch Pak® Tart Apple Slices 3 pound bag
732313481206
11/14/13
Crunch Pak® Sweet Honeycrisp Apple Slices 12 ounce bag
732313120013
11/14/13
Crunch Pak® Blue Raspberry Flavorz Apple Slices 2 ounce bag Multi pak of 5 with Monsters University
732313089969
11/18/13
 

In order to identify the recalled products, both the product description or UPC code AND the Best-if-Used-By-Date must be used. Both are printed on the back of the packages.

Consumers who have recalled product in their possession should not consume it, should destroy or discard it, and retain the receipt of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact Crunch Pak at 1-509-888-7648, M-F, 8:00am – 5:00 p.m (PST).

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Chrysler recalls nearly 1 million RAM trucks

A tie rod assembly problem could result in a loss of steering control

Chrysler has announced two recalls of RAM trucks totaling nearly 1 million vehicles. In the first instance, the automaker is recalling about 707,176 model...

PhotoChrysler has announced two recalls of RAM trucks totaling nearly 1 million vehicles.

In the first instance, the automaker is recalling about 707,176 model year 2003-2008 Dodge RAM 2500 4x4 and 3500 4x4, model year 2007-2008 Dodge RAM 3500 4x2 Cab Chassis and model year 2006-2008 Dodge RAM 1500 Mega Cab 4x4 trucks manufactured February 12, 2002, through February 13, 2008.

The second recall involves some 265,044 model year 2008-2012 RAM 2500 4X4 and 3500 4X4 trucks.

In both cases, the left tie rod assembly may break, which could result in a loss of steering control, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the steering linkage and install a new left tie rod assembly, as needed, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign numbers are N62 and N49, respectively.

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Cyber Monday full of identity theft risks

A security expert offers advice for minimizing them

Consumers are already doing more of their holiday shopping online. Even so, Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, is expected to be the busiest onli...

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This week in homeowners association news

There's never a shortage of HOAs-behaving-badly news stories

We don’t hide the fact that we take a generally dim view of homeowners’ associations (HOAs); indeed, we’ve gone so far as to call them &l...

PhotoWe don’t hide the fact that we take a generally dim view of homeowners’ associations (HOAs); indeed, we’ve gone so far as to call them “government without the checks and balances.”

And anytime we find ourselves thinking “Hmm, maybe we could consider buying into an HOA community after all,” we simply do an online search for any of the past week’s news stories containing the acronym “HOA” or phrase “homeowner’s association,” and always find fresh examples of why we’re never buying any house requiring membership in a homeowners’ association.

Topping the list of this week’s horror stories is the case of 75-year-old Ingrid Boak, whose mortgage-free, paid-for home in the Masterson Station Neighborhood Association of Lexington, Kentucky, was confiscated and sold over less than $250 in unpaid HOA fees -- $48 per year for six years, according to WLEX-TV. Apparently Boak, a German immigrant, did not realize when she bought her house that participation in the HOA was mandatory for all homeowners – she ignored the letters the HOA mailed her, thinking they were merely offers to join a social club.

Boak is still living in her old home—except now, she pays rent to the people who bought it out from under her when the HOA sold it at auction.

Trees were too short

Meanwhile, in Merrit Island, Fla., homeowner Patrick Fitzgerald planted two magnolia saplings in this front yard, and his HOA fined him $5,000 (at $100 per day) because the trees were “too short.”

The association board countered that trees in the HOA are supposed to be a minimum of 8 feet tall; if left alone the magnolia saplings should eventually reach if not surpass that, but apparently the HOA doesn’t feel like waiting.

In California this week, a couple living in Blackhawk filed a federal lawsuit against their HOA. Seth and Carolynn Neri charge that their HOA discriminates against their three children by passing rules forbidding any outdoor play. The lawsuit alleges that the HOA threatened to put a lien on the Neri’s home if their children didn’t stop playing outside.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, 66-year-old condo owner James Johnson has spent two years trying to convince his HOA board to make repairs to his home’s foundation — repairs which he contends the board is contractually obligated to make. Members of the Quail Run HOA board confirmed to WCNC news that the HOA is supposed to make the repairs, but has delayed doing so for two years and counting because Johnson is a “troublemaker.”

As the WCNC news writer noted, with what we suspect is considerable understatement: “NBC Charlotte asked where HOA rules say being a ‘troublemaker’ means repairs taking years, but didn't get an answer at the time of this writing.”  

PhotoIn the Stapleton neighborhood of Denver, Colo., an HOA is seeking to ban “small farm animals” such as rabbits and chickens, despite a city sustainable-living ordinance allowing them in non-obtrusive numbers. Homeowner Caroline Batorowicz-Vierow keeps two chickens and a rabbit in her garage, and uses their pellets to fertilize her garden; the HOA board wants her to lose the animals, though board members would not comment on the situation to local news.

Batorowicz-Vierow’s predicament touches upon another problem with joining an HOA: even if you like and agree with all of its rules now, one change in the board membership can make all those rules reverse.

Finally, out of Marietta, Georgia, comes an HOA story with a more-or-less happy ending for individual HOA homeowners:  former HOA treasurer Jim Goshay has been charged with a felony after allegedly embezzling $43,000 from the HOA fund. Goshay paid the money back once he discovered the cops were investigating him, and was dismayed to discover that he’s being prosecuted anyway. But at least the HOA got its money back, so the homeowners won’t have to pay increased HOA dues to make up the difference.

Remember: we culled these stories after searching just the past week’s worth of news. We’re sure we’ll find a fresh new collection of bad-HOA stories if we search again in seven days.

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Big changes under the Golden Arches

NFL-themed toys, "Fast Forward" drive-throughs and McCafe coffee in stores

Change is coming to McDonaldland. Last month, when we mentioned McDonald’s then-new plan to pass out self-published pro-nutrition kids’ books w...

PhotoChange is coming to McDonaldland. Last month, when we mentioned McDonald’s then-new plan to pass out self-published pro-nutrition kids’ books with its Happy Meals, we were rather skeptical of the idea that the program would prove successful.

But successful or not, it didn’t last long. Now, barely more than a month later, McDonald’s is unrolling another new Happy Meal promotion: NFL-themed toys to tie in with the children’s Rush Zone show on Nickelodeon, in addition to McDonald’s status as the NFL’s “official restaurant sponsor.”

The company is also investing an additional $3 billion (that’s “billion” with a “B”) to remodel its famous Golden Arches – or, rather, to remodel the restaurants which bear them. 

The scheduled enhancements are to include extra drive-thru windows (a “Fast Forward Drive-Thru,” where customers can go if their order isn’t ready by the time they reach the regular pickup window).

McDonald’s is also branching out into the grocery-store-coffee business; AdAge reported the company’s intention to start selling its McCafe coffee in grocery stores next year.

AdAge quoted a McDonald’s executive who noted that 70 percent of American coffee consumption is at home, yet the chief purpose of the grocery store sales is supposed to be the creation of “greater awareness and [to] sell more coffee in our restaurants.” To that end, the company has also admitted that its customer service record needs improvement, especially when handling lunchtime crowds.

So, to recap the week in McDonald’s improvisations: more coffee sales, hopefully faster coffee sales, football-themed kids’ toys and a third drive-thru window called “Fast Forward” where customers go to wait when the first two drive-thru windows haven’t finished filling their orders yet. We’re assuming they still sell burgers and fries, too.

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Gift cards are king

A new survey finds spending on them is at an all-time high

A lot of people consider them impersonal, but that doesn't mean they're not popular. According to National Retail Federation's (NRF) Gift Card Spending Su...

PhotoA lot of people consider them impersonal, but that doesn't mean they're not popular.

According to National Retail Federation's (NRF) Gift Card Spending Survey 8 in 10 (80.6%) shoppers will look to add these items to their baskets. The survey, conducted for NRF by Prosper Insights & Analytics, found shoppers will spend an average of $163.16 on gift cards this season -- 4.0% more than the $156.86 they spent last year and the highest amount in the survey’s 11-year history. Total spending on gift cards is projected to reach $29.8 billion.

“Shoppers today recognize gift cards as the perfect fool-proof option for friends and family,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “And traditional gift cards aren’t the only winners this holiday season, as more and more Americans are tied to their mobile devices, we expect digital gift cards to be especially popular with consumers.”

Fulfilling wishes

According to NRF’s first 2013 holiday survey, released in October, six in ten (59.4%) of those polled said they’d like to receive gift cards this year, the seventh year in a row gift cards have topped holiday celebrants’ wish lists.

Consumers will also spend more on the cards they buy: those planning to buy gift cards will spend an average $45.16 per card, compared with $43.75 last year and another survey high. Shoppers older than 65 will spend the most on gift cards at an average of $175.96, followed by 35-44 year-olds who will spend $171.15 on average. Additionally, men will spend nearly $20 more than women on gift cards season ($171.35 vs. $155.42 respectively).

What can you buy?

Department stores (40.3%) and restaurants (34.2%) will be the top choices for those giving gift cards, but nearly one in five (19.0%) will give the gift of a hot cup of coffee -- versus13.0% in 2009. Additionally, 20.1% will purchase gift cards from an electronics store and 12.7% will head to an online merchant.

With gas prices hovering around $3.19, some may see relief at the pump this holiday season from their friends or family members. According to the survey, 12.0% of shoppers will buy gift cards from gas stations, up 1.0% from last year and the highest amount seen in five years.

“Gift givers know that many of their loved ones may have been holding back on spending on themselves all year long, and would love nothing more than to receive a gift card that allows them to purchase whatever they want,” said Prosper’s Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “Shoppers hoping to add an extra touch to their gift cards will have plenty of opportunities to add audio, video or image enhancements to select retailers’ gift cards, making even the smallest gift still very personal.”

When it comes to why people do or don’t buy gift cards, most agree (43.1%) that letting the recipient choose their own gift is what influences their purchases. However, some still feel gift cards are too impersonal (25.3%).

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Young smokers move toward E-cigarettes, hookahs

Increased monitoring and prevention may be needed

Kids have been told for generations that cigarettes are no good for them. So, what are middle- and high-school students doing? According to a report in Cen...

PhotoKids have been told for generations that cigarettes are no good for them. So, what are middle- and high-school students doing? According to a report in Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, they're looking to so-called “emerging tobacco products” such as e-cigarettes and hookahs.

Data from the 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) show that recent electronic cigarette use rose among middle school students from 0.6% in 2011 to 1.1% last year, and among high school students from 1.5% to 2.8%. Hookah use among high school students rose from 4.1% to 5.4% during the same period.

Marketing may be a factor

The report speculates that the increase in the use of e-cigarettes and hookahs could be due to an increase in marketing, availability, and visibility of these tobacco products and the perception that they may be safer alternatives to cigarettes.

Electronic cigarettes, hookahs, cigars and certain other new types of tobacco products are not currently subject to FDA regulation. However, the agency has said it intends to issue a proposed rule that would deem products meeting the statutory definition of a "tobacco product" to be subject to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Cigar smoking worrisome

PhotoAnother area of concern in the report is the increase in cigar use among certain groups of middle and high school students. During 2011-2012, cigar use increased dramatically among non-Hispanic black high school students from 11.7% to 16.7%, and has more than doubled since 2009. Further, cigar use among high school males in 2012 was 16.7%, similar to cigarette use among high school males (16.3%).

“This report raises a red flag about newer tobacco products,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Cigars and hookah tobacco are smoked tobacco -- addictive and deadly. We need effective action to protect our kids from addiction to nicotine.”

The cigars category includes little cigars, many of which look almost exactly like cigarettes but are more affordable to teens because they are taxed at lower rates and can be sold individually, rather than by the pack. Little cigars also can be made with fruit and candy flavors that are banned from cigarettes. A CDC study published last month showed more than one in three (35.9%) middle and high school students who smoke cigars use flavored little cigars.

Kids at risk

“A large portion of kids who use tobacco are smoking products other than cigarettes, including cigars and hookahs, which are similarly dangerous,” said Tim McAfee, M.D., M.P.H., director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “As we close in on the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking, we need to apply the same strategies that work to prevent and reduce cigarette use among our youth to these new and emerging products.”

Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, killing more than 1,200 people every day. More than 8 million people live with a smoking-related disease. Each day, more than 2,000 youth and young adults become daily smokers. Smoking-related diseases cost $96 billion a year in direct health care expenses, much of which come in taxpayer-supported payments.

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Recycling efforts focus on consumer electronics

There's no reason to toss that old cellphone or laptop in the trash

Each year millions of tons of trash are hauled off to U.S. landfills, taxing an already battered landscape. Increasingly, efforts are made to remove danger...

PhotoEach year millions of tons of trash are hauled off to U.S. landfills, taxing an already battered landscape. Increasingly, efforts are made to remove dangerous or toxic elements from the trash and broken or obsolete electronics are getting new attention.

Recycling electronics, such as cell phones, televisions, and computers, along with rechargeable batteries found in many of these items, keeps potentially harmful materials out of the waste stream and the environment. New York City has long banned recharable batteries from its landfills but it is still legal for the city's residents to discard electronics in the trash until 2015, when a new, tougher law goes into effect.

Increasingly, environemental activists are urging consumers to recycle old cellphones, TV sets and computers. According to Earth911, The U.S. electronics recycling industry processed three to four million tons of used and end-of-life electronics equipment in 2011. More than 70% of the collected gadgets can be recycled, recovering items such as plastic, steel, aluminum, copper, gold and silver to be used in new products. Electronics recyclers repair, refurbish and resell functioning electronics as used products both at home and abroad.

Companies get on board

A number of manufacturers and retailers have joined the recycling push. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an online tool to help consumers find local recycling spots for specific manufacturers. 

Among the retailers actively taking part in electronics recycling is Best Buy, which accepts most electronics and large appliances at no charge, but only from consumers. It also says it rejects any items that pose a safety hazard.

Cartridge World, a specialty retailer selling ink and toner cartridges for printers and other devices, says its recycling efforts keep about 4.5 million empty printer cartridges out of landfills every year.

"Our in-store recycling efforts are only a small part of the solution. As a globally recognized electronics brand, we have an obligation to educate and advocate the importance of recycling," said Tom McLaughlin, Cartridge World marketing director. "Unfortunately, electronics are recycled at even lower rates than other common household items, and electronics often have the most devastating impacts on the environment."

A long way to go

In a study earlier this year EPA found that Americans currently recycle only about 35 percent of the trash they produce. It further found that just 25% of the electronics they discard are recycled. Often these products contain chemicals with portential to contaminate groundwater and streams.

According to McLaughlin, toner cartridges, specifically, require about a gallon of oil to make just one cartridge. About 70% of used printer cartridges are currently thrown out.

Cartridge World says its stores often reuse many of the components in empty printer cartridges and that if a store doesn't reuse the cartridge, it recycles the cartridge in an environmentally responsible manner at no cost to the consumer. The company says it also will assist consumers in disposing of larger electronics, such as printers, fax machines and copiers.

Making a couple of bucks for your effort

In addition to getting rid of unwanted devices and being environmentally friendly, consumers also have the opportunity to profit from electronics recycling. Sony has set up Eco Trade, which accepts both eligible Sony and non-Sony products making it easy to trade them in for credit towards the latest Sony products.

There are a number of commercial enterprises that will actually buy your old cellphone, mainly for the minerals like gold and silver that are present in them. Industry experts attending a 2012 conference in Ghana referred to this recycling practice as “urban mining.” One group active in the practice estimates electronic waste now contains precious metal "deposits" 40 to 50 times richer than ores mined from the ground. They say recycling efforts could add more than $21 billion in value each year to the rich fortunes in metals eventually available through "urban mining" of e-waste.  

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Medical device approved for epilepsy treatment

There's now an option for those who don't respond well to medications

Epilepsy patients who have not responded well to medications have a new option for reducing the frequency of seizures. The U.S. Food and Drug Administrati...

PhotoEpilepsy patients who have not responded well to medications have a new option for reducing the frequency of seizures.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a device called the RNS Stimulator, which consists of a small neurostimulator implanted within the skull under the scalp. The neurostimulator is connected to one or two wires (or electrodes) that are placed where the seizures are suspected to originate within the brain or on the surface of the brain.

“The neurostimulator detects abnormal electrical activity in the brain and responds by delivering electrical stimulation intended to normalize brain activity before the patient experiences seizure symptoms,” said Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

Seizure control

Epilepsy produces seizures affecting varied mental and physical functions. They happen when clusters of nerve cells in the brain signal abnormally, which may briefly alter a person's consciousness, movements or actions.

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy affects nearly 3 million people in the United States and is the third most common neurological disorder, after Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. Approximately 40 percent of people with epilepsy are severely affected and continue to have seizures despite treatment.

Strong study results

The FDA’s approval is supported by a three-month randomized control trial of 191 patients with drug-resistant epilepsy.

The study showed that by three months after the implanted device was turned on (active use) patients experienced a nearly 38% reduction in the average number of seizures per month, compared to an approximately 17% reduction in the average number of seizures per month in patients who had the implanted device turned off.

At the end of three months, the median reduction in seizures, which reflects a more typical patient experience, was 34% with active use and about 19% with the device turned off. During the trial, 29% of patients with an active device experienced at least a 50 percent reduction in the overall number of seizures, compared with 27% for those with the implanted device turned off.

Data during a two-year follow-up phase (unblinded), demonstrated a persistent reduction in seizure frequency.

Caveats

Patients with RNS Stimulators cannot undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedures, nor can they undergo diathermy procedures, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

The energy created from these procedures can be sent through the neurostimulator and cause permanent brain damage, even if the device is turned off.

The most frequent adverse events reported were implant site infection and premature battery depletion.

The RNS Stimulator is manufactured by Neuropace, Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

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VitaliKOR Fast Acting dietary supplement recalled

The supplement contains ingredients that make it an unapproved drug

Vitality Research Labs is recalling lots K58Q and F50Q of VitaliKOR Fast Acting, which is marketed as an all-natural nutritional supplement for sexual enha...

PhotoVitality Research Labs is recalling lots K58Q and F50Q of VitaliKOR Fast Acting, which is marketed as an all-natural nutritional supplement for sexual enhancement

Laboratory analysis has determined that this product contains undeclared Vardenafil and Tadalafil, which are active ingredients of FDA-approved drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED). This makes VitaliKOR Fast Acting an unapproved drug.

Vardenafil and Tadalafil may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs such as nitroglycerin and may lower blood pressure to unsafe levels.

VitaliKOR Fast Acting is packaged in chip board exterior carton containing clear plastic bottles with forty (40) light blue capsules, and was sold nationwide through various Internet websites and at retail stores. The number of individual units affected by the recall is 66,090. The lots were produced in January and July of 2013.

Consumers should not consume these lots of VitaliKOR Fast Acting and should return the products immediately to the place of purchase for credit.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall should contact Vitality Research Labs at 1-855-424-1954 or via e-mail at customercare@vitalikor Monday - Friday, 8:30 am - 5:00 pm, PST.  

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Hankook recalls Dynapro MT tires

Tread separation can result in tire failure

Hankook Tire America is recalling 1,495 Dynapro MT LT325/60R18 RT03 tires manufactured August 22, 2011, through September 22, 2013. The affected tires ma...

PhotoHankook Tire America is recalling 1,495 Dynapro MT LT325/60R18 RT03 tires manufactured August 22, 2011, through September 22, 2013.

The affected tires may develop a separation at the tread/belt edge. Tread separation can result in tire failure and loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a crash.

Hankook will notify owners and dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in November 2013.

Owners may contact Hankook at 1-800-466-5665.

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Report: Prepaid money cards better deal than banks

Study finds average users spends less than $7.50 a month in fees

For years the knock against what are known as General Purpose Reloadable (GPR), or prepaid cards is they carried all sorts of fees that made them very expe...

PhotoFor years the knock against what are known as General Purpose Reloadable (GPR), or prepaid cards is they carried all sorts of fees that made them very expensive for consumers to use.

Even so, they have become increasingly popular over the last few years, especially with consumers who no longer use a bank. A new report from Bretton Woods, Inc., a management advisory and research firm, explains why.

“Prepaid cards continue to have a cost advantage over basic checking accounts,” said G. Michael Flores, President of Bretton Woods and author of the report. “The three-year trend shows that the average cost a consumer incurs for a checking account is increasing, while decreasing for GPR prepaid cards.”

In fact, banks have added fees to many of their consumer accounts, including checking, and raised minimum balance requirements. While banks have seemed somewhat indifferent about retaining some segments of their customer base, the prepaid card industry has become more competitive, with firms reducing or eliminating fees in a bid to gain market share.

$7.50 or less a month

The Bretton Woods study shows that the majority of consumers who use a prepaid debit card spend $7.50 or less each month in fees, making it less costly than many bank accounts. While using cash for all transactions carries no direct cost, the report found, it does carry security risks, plus the cost and hassle of paying bills with money orders through the mail.

"While similar to checking accounts, prepaid cards fill a critical financial services need for a new generation that prefers the consumer friendly technology, as well as consumers with limited access to checking accounts,” Kirsten Trusko, President and Executive Director or the Network Branded Prepaid Card Association (NBPCA), an industry trade group.

Trusko said the cards appeal to Generation Y and the "underbanked." In addition, they are also beginning to attract the consumers who have traditionally used banks. Lower fees may well be a reason.

The Bretton Woods report found that consumers using basic checking accounts pay $263 to $473 a year for that service. Consumers using a prepaid card with direct deposit pay, on average, $58 to $263 a year in fees.

Not all the same

PhotoJust as not all banks are the same – a few still actually offer free checking – not all prepaid cards are the same either. A savvy consumer will shop carefully, noting what fees are charged for particular purposes. Consumers should select a card that has the lowest fees for the services they use most.

For example, if you make a lot of debit purchases, you should choose a card with low or no fees for purchases. If you select a card that does not charge a fee for purchases, you can save on ATM fees by always getting cash back when you make a purchase.

In many respects preloaded cards operate much like a checking account. You can have regular payments you receive, like a pay check, direct-deposited to the card. You can also access your account and pay bills online, sometimes at no extra charge. Most cards now also offer mobile banking as well.

Fees will vary

Most prepaid cards charge some type of monthly fee but they vary widely. For example, the ACE Elite prepaid Visa card carries a $9.95 a month fee while the American Express Serve is only $1 a month – and free in New York, Texas and Vermont.

Learning about a prepaid card's fees might not always be easy. In a report earlier this year, Consumer Reports rated 26 prepaid cards, finding that fee information was often hard to find and difficult to understand.

Its top-rated card was the Bluebird Card, a joint venture between Walmart and American Express. It has no activation or monthly fee.

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Fingerhut boots and the Vimes' Boots paradox

"Buy now pay later" credit shopping costs far more than "buy now pay now"

If you’re a Fingerhut shopper looking for ways to reduce your personal debt, bulk up your savings account or otherwise improve your financial bottom line, ...

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Averting showrooming’s Scrooge effect

Retailers need to embrace new practices; price matching may have a negative impact

By Jeff MariolaAs the holiday season swings into gear so does competitive shopping with consumers scoping out merchandise in physical stores and then com...

Photo
Jeff Mariola

As the holiday season swings into gear so does competitive shopping with consumers scoping out merchandise in physical stores and then comparison shopping for the lowest price on their mobile device or computer, dubbed “showrooming” In an effort to combat or “embrace” this phenomenon some retailers led by Best Buy have implemented strategies including price matching to convert more shoppers into buyers. Nobody is winning in this new game, manufacturers, retailers or the customer.

While I applaud retailers’ recognition that mobile technology is here to stay and for building a strategy they can use to their advantage, they are embracing short term solutions at best. Just as Ebenezer Scrooge clung to his tight-fisted and greedy ways before he was enlightened, retailers and manufacturers need to embrace new methodologies and practices to combat “showrooming” as price matching may have a negative impact on everyone in the purchase stream, not just the retailer.

What’s the Scrooge-factor for retailers? Sadly, retailers may find themselves matching prices with unauthorized, fly-by-night retailers that have a few units. While the rogue sellers have very little inventory they can impact price matching generated by algorithmic price dropping which results in margin pressure on everybody. As bricks and mortars begin to match the price with online retailers they will have less money available to promote sales in their stores, maintain the requisite levels of employees needed for great customer service and will drop lines that are no longer profitable.

Bah, humbug effect

Ebenezer has a “bah, humbug” effect on manufacturers as retailers responding to the ever decreasing prices below minimum advertised prices or suggested retail prices often look to the manufacturers for financial compensation. This compensation can come in the form of deductions from invoices being paid, demands for other discounts or other benefits to help subsidize the retailers’ marketing decision to match the lower online price.

The manufacturers’ sales force need to spend quality time promoting the benefits of their products to retailers to ensure the consumer becomes a satisfied purchaser. The price gauging turns the sales team attention to why one retailer is getting a lower price than another. Ultimately, manufacturers may be forced to only work with retailers who sell their products for the value the manufacturer attaches to the product.

The money that the manufacturer is forced to spend on compensating retailers, monitoring price issues and dedicating resources to detail with the resulting customer service issues has to come from somewhere. , It may result in the loss of jobs, reduced marketing and research and development budgets.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has negative consequences for the “showrooming”-addicted consumer as well. While the consumer will have short term gains with reduced prices, the long term forecast will likely result in fewer choices, less innovation and reduced quality as the manufacturers seeks to eke out acceptable margins.

As an industry, we must continue to look for ways to promote products that protect reasonable margins for the retailer and manufacturer while still providing value for the consumer. As the number of smart phones and comparison shopping tools increase, the impact of “showrooming” will continue to mushroom and everyone but a select few will lose.

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Jeff Mariola is CEO of DigitalBrandWorks, a digital consultancy which specializes in representing manufacturers in the digital marketplaces and ensuring proper overall representation of product's pricing and content online. Previously, Mariola served as President of Ambius, the premier creator of ambience for businesses and a division of Rentokil Initial plc., (LSE: RTO) a publicly traded international business-to-business service organization based in the UK, where he led the company’s European and North American businesses.

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A single-serve coffee maker without the prepackaged coffee

The Scoop, from Hamilton Beach, is also environmentally friendly

Single serve coffee makers made mornings much more pleasant for singles and for all consumers who want a cup of coffee at sometime during the day and don't...

PhotoSingle-serve coffee makers made mornings much more pleasant for singles and for all consumers who want a cup of coffee at sometime during the day and don't want to make a full pot. They're especially popular in offices.

Keurig single-serve coffee makers, a wholy-owned subsidiary of Green Mountain Coffee, has been one of the more popular brands, with prices starting at around $100.

But using the Keurig and many of its competitors can be a bit pricy, since you're required to use disposable "Kcups" of premeasured coffee. While they are highly convenient – you just snap them in place, pour in a cup of water and brew – a box of eight Kcups can run $7 or $8.

Of course, you don't have to buy the prepackaged coffee. With a Keurig you can use an optional refillable cup instead, but we have found that on some models it's hard to keep grounds from clogging up the waterway.

Hamilton Beach is ffering a potential solution -- The Scoop, a single-serve coffee maker that does not use disposable Kcups. Instead, it has an easy-to-use refillable filter compartment where you put a scoop of your favorite coffee. Best of all, it retails for only $60. Watch a demonstration below.

The coffee maker appears to be fairly popular among environmentally conscious consumers who like the fact that everything is fully recyclable.

“Main reason I like this model is brewed coffee goes in me; grounds go in garden; and nothing goes to landfill, not even a paper filter, a consumer named CeeCee posted at Amazon.com.

For best results, all single-serve coffee makers should be cleaned regularly. Hamilton Beach says The Scoop should be cleaned at least once a month – once a week in areas with hard water.

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Cluster of bleeding in newborns traced to parents refusing vitamin K injection

Vitamin K at birth has been standard medical practice since the 1960s

A new and unfortunate trned is emerging in some parts of the country: parents are refusing to allow their newborns to receive a vitamin K injection at birt...

PhotoA new and unfortunate trned is emerging in some parts of the country: parents are refusing to allow their newborns to receive a vitamin K injection at birth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the trend was apparently a factor in a cluster of newborns in Tennessee who developed late vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB) -- a serious but preventable bleeding disorder that can cause bleeding in the brain.

In each of the Tennessee cases, the newborn’s parents declined vitamin K injection at birth, mainly because they were unaware of the health benefits of the injection.

“Not giving vitamin K at birth is an emerging trend that can have devastating outcomes for infants and their families,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Ensuring that every newborn receives a Vitamin K injection at birth is critical to protect infants.”

Between February and September, 2013, four cases of late VKDB were diagnosed at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Three of the infants had bleeding within the brain and the fourth had gastrointestinal bleeding. None of the infants received a vitamin K injection at birth.

“Fortunately all of the infants survived,” said Lauren Marcewicz, MD, of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.  “It is important for health professionals to educate parents about the health benefits of vitamin K at birth.”

Standard practice

In the United States, a vitamin K injection at birth has been a standard practice since it was first recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1961. A dose of vitamin K at birth prevents VKDB.

The late form of VKDB can develop in infants two weeks to 6 months of age who did not receive the vitamin K injection at birth and do not have enough vitamin K dependent proteins in their bodies to allow normal blood clotting.  Untreated, this can cause bleeding in the brain, which may lead to neurological problems and can even be fatal.

The risk for developing late VKDB has been estimated at 81 times greater among infants who do not receive a vitamin K injection at birth than in infants who do receive it.

The Tennessee findings were published today in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

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Airline passengers revolt after blind man is kicked off plane

US Airways flight cancelled after passenger walkout

If more customers took the attitude “We’d sooner not fly at all than fly under these conditions,” traveling through American airspace wou...

PhotoIf more customers took the attitude “We’d sooner not fly at all than fly under these conditions,” traveling through American airspace would be far less infuriating. But it happened Wednesday night in Philadelphia, after passengers walked off a US Airways plane to protest what they say was a flight attendant’s unfair treatment of a blind man and his guide dog.

Alfred Rizzi, a legally blind man aided by a guide dog, tried taking a US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Long Island on Wednesday night, but a flight attendant ordered him off the plane, claiming that his dog was “out of control.”

Rizzi’s fellow passengers begged to differ. As ABC news reported:

The passengers say the flight attendant would not let the plane leave without the guide dog going under the plane's seat, which they helped him do. But after waiting on the tarmac for more than an hour and a half, the dog began to get restless.

That's when the flight attendant kicked the man and his dog off the flight.

The outraged passengers said Rizzi did nothing wrong and the flight attendant was being unreasonable; a US Airways spokesman later claimed that Rizzi was being “verbally abusive” to the flight attendant. Regardless of which is accurate, the passengers undeniably all walked off the flight, and US Airways ended up sending everybody to Long Island by bus.

It’s worth pointing out that, even if there hadn’t been any difficulty with Rizzi, his dog and the flight attendant, the passengers on that “express” flight still had to spend over 90 minutes sitting on the tarmac, in addition to however early they had to arrive at the airport to be scanned, searched, and/or prodded by the Transportation Security Administration.

Meanwhile, Google Maps shows that it takes roughly two and a half hours to drive from Philly to Long Island. Not that this matters for a man who is legally blind, but the rest of Rizzi’s fellow passengers might find that next time, driving is not only quicker, but also frees you from involvement with TSA agents, flight attendants, and other people with the authority to make traveling even harder than it is already.   

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AOL, Roku launch news channel

More than 1,000 publishers will be contributing content

Being a pipe is one thing but being a publisher adds a lot of value to a brand. That's why you see Netflix and Amazon producing their own movies and s...

PhotoBeing a pipe is one thing but being a publisher adds a lot of value to a brand. That's why you see Netflix and Amazon producing their own movies and series. HBO and other premium channels did the same thing back in the early days of cable, establishing themselves as something more than just a distribution system.

Now Roku -- one of the early players in the streaming-video business -- is teaming up with AOL to produce a news channel that will be distributed through Roku's set-top boxes.

The companies said the news channel will include news videos from eight categories, including business, entertainment and technology. More than 1,000 premium publishers will also be contributing content, including the Wall Street Journal, BBCNews, HuffPost Live, The Associated Press and Reuters.

The integrated news service will be available free of charge in the U.S. on the new Roku LT, Roku 1 and Roku 2 players. It is slated to automatically roll out as a free software update in the coming weeks to all current-generation Roku devices.

"News is among the fastest growing categories on the Roku platform and this parntership pwith AOL makes it even easier for customers to find and starat watching a variety of news videos," said Steve Shannon, general manager of content for Roku. "This is the first ingrated news service on a TV streaming platform."

 

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Southwest Airlines joins TSA's "Pre-Check"

The low-fare carrier joins five other airlines in the program

Southwest Airlines is officially joining the Transportation Security Administration's "Pre-Check" program, joining American, Delta, United, US Airways and...

PhotoSouthwest Airlines is officially joining the Transportation Security Administration's "Pre-Check" program, joining American, Delta, United, US Airways and Hawaiian Airlines, effective today.

The program is also being extended to all U.S. Armed Forces service members, including those serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, Reserves and National Guard. As a result of the agreement, these individuals will be able to enjoy the benefits of the program at the 100 participating airports across the country, beginning Dec. 20.

The program allows pre-screened travelers to go through special security lanes at airports around the country. It's intended to make life a little easier for frequent flyers and business travelers, who must go through an initial security check and pay $100. 

Travelers cleared into the program are generally not required to remove belts, outerwear and shoes or to take liquids out of suitcases when passing through TSA security checkpoints at airports, although they remain subject to random checks. 

Participants get a "Known Traveler Number" which they must enter when making their travel reservations. The numbers are also issued to United States citizens who become members of several U.S. Customs and Border Protection trusted traveler programs, including Global Entry, Nexus and Sentri. Elite members of airlines' frequent traveler programs also may use "Pre-Check," according to a TSA spokeswoman.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said the addition of Southwest is good news for travelers.

The recent trend in federal aviation policy has been decidedly pro-traveler, and the more people travel, the better it is for U.S. economic and job growth. Pre-Check is a prime example of the innovative policies — Global Entry, Visa Waiver and Automated Passport Control are others — that are making travel easier for the public while still maintaining the optimum security standards that always need to be our top priority."

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Wireless energy stations may recharge electric cars on-the-go

The technology could reduce the "range anxiety" that impedes battery-powered car sales

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed new technology and techniques for transmitting power wirelessly from a stationary source to...

Photo
Prototype wireless charging station (North Carolina State University photo)

Consumers remain understandably nervous about battery-powered electric cars, fearing it will be inconvenient to recharge the batteries and that their car's range won't live up to the manufacturer's promises.

But what if your car could recharge its batteries wirelessly -- the same way your smartphone collects texts and emails and your EZ-Pass pays tolls? That's what researchers at North Carolina State University have been working on.

They say they've developed new technology and techniques for transmitting power wirelessly from a stationary source to a mobile receiver – moving engineers closer to their goal of creating highway “stations” that can recharge electric vehicles wirelessly as the vehicles drive by.

“We’ve made changes to both the receiver and the transmitter in order to make wireless energy transfer safer and more efficient,” says Dr. Srdjan Lukic, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at NC State and senior author of a paper on the research.

The researchers modified the receiver so that when it comes into range and couples with a transmitter coil, that specific transmitter coil automatically increases its current – boosting its magnetic field strength and the related transfer of energy by 400 percent.

The transmitter coil’s current returns to normal levels when the receiver passes out of the range of the transmitter.The researchers developed a series of segmented transmitter coils, each of which broadcasts a low-level electromagnetic field. The researchers also created a receiver coil that is the same size as each of the transmitter coils, and which can be placed in a car or other mobile platform. The size of the coils is important, because coils of the same size transfer energy more efficiently.

Improves on previous versions

These modifications improve on previous mobile, wireless power transfer techniques.

One previous approach was to use large transmitter coils. But this approach created a powerful and imprecise field that could couple to the frame of a car or other metal objects passing through the field. Because of the magnetic field’s strength, which is required to transfer sufficient power to the receiver, these electromagnetic field “leaks” raised safety concerns and reduced system efficiency.

Another previous approach used smaller transmitter coils, which addressed safety and efficiency concerns. But this approach would require a very large number of transmitters to effectively “cover” a section of the roadway, adding substantial cost and complexity to the system, and requiring very precise vehicle position detection technology.

“We tried to take the best from both of those approaches,” Lukic says.

Lukic and his team have developed a small, functional prototype of their system, and are now working to both scale it up and increase the power of the system.

Currently, at peak efficiency, the new system can transmit energy at a rate of 0.5 kilowatts (kW). “Our goal is to move from 0.5 kW into the 50 kW range,” Lukic says. “That would make it more practical.”

The paper, “Reflexive Field Containment in Dynamic Inductive Power Transfer Systems,” is published online in IEEE Transactions on Power Electronics

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Fixed mortgage rates on the rise

Initial jobless claims were down

A stronger-than-expected October employment rate helped push rates on fixed rate mortgages (FRMs) higher during the week ending November 14, Freddie Mac...

PhotoA stronger-than-expected October employment rate helped push rates on fixed rate mortgages (FRMs) higher during the week ending November 14,

Freddie Mac reports the average rate for the 30-year FRM rose to 4.35% from 4.16%, putting the rate at its highest level since September 19, 2013, when it averaged 4.50%. A year ago at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.34%.

The 15-year FRM averaged 3.35%, up 8 basis points from last week's averaged of 3.27%. The 15-year FRM averaged 2.65% a year earlier.

The average for the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) was 3.01% this week , compared with 2.96% last week. Last year, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.74%.

One-year Treasury-indexed ARMs were unchanged this week, averaging 2.61% and up 6 basis points from 2.55% at this time last year.

Stronger than expected economic data releases were responsible for this week's increase in rates. “Nonfarm payrolls increased by 204,000 in October, above the consensus forecast,” noted Freddie Mac Vice President and Chief Economist Frank Nothaft. “In addition, revisions added 60,000 additional jobs to the prior two month releases,he said, adding, “preliminary estimates indicate Real GDP growth in the third quarter was 2.8% -- also above consensus."

Jobless claims

PhotoSeparately, the government reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits fell by 2,000

in the week ending November 9 to 339,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast a total of 330,000. The previous week's figure was revised higher by 5,000 to 341,000.

Analysts note that the Labor Department (DOL) had to estimate the initial claims levels for 5 states because of the Veterans Day holiday, but point out that these estimates are usually robust and should not result in a major revision in next week's data.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate barometer of the labor market, was down 5,750, from the previous week -- to 344,000.

The complete report is vailable on the DOL website.

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Shoppers in the trenches: Holiday shopping is well under way

Clothing, electronics and gift cards are popular items this year

Say what you will about the economy, consumer confidence and all the rest. The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) holiday consumer spending survey finds 53...

PhotoSay what you will about the economy, consumer confidence and all the rest. The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) holiday consumer spending survey finds 53.8% of shoppers say they have already started their holiday shopping

According to the NRF survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, just 46.2% say they have yet to start -- the smallest percent in the survey’s history.

"Shopping early has become a very real trend with consumers today as they look for ways to spread out their budget, and retailers have answered their call with attractive holiday offerings as early as October,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Holiday shoppers will have ample opportunities to find the perfect gift; whether online using free shipping or in store on Thanksgiving or Black Friday, given the competitive nature of the season, consumers will be the clear winners this year.”

Clothing is king

With plans to spend slightly less than last year, consumers will shop for both value and price when checking items off their holiday lists. The most popular choice: clothing and clothing accessories. According to the survey, nearly six in 10 (60.7%) consumers will splurge on fashion and apparel items and other accessories.

Granting their loved ones' wishes, 59.2% of holiday shoppers will also splurge on gift cards, which have come in as the most-requested gift item for seven years in a row. Additionally, 44.3% of people say they will buy toys, 23.3% will buy jewelry items, and 19.0% will buy sporting goods and leisure items.

New tablets and even smart watches will drive more people to give the gift of electronics this year: one-third (33.0%) will buy electronics and/or computer items and accessories, compared with 31.8% last year and the highest percent seen since 2006.

Watching the wallet

“Even with smaller budgets this year, consumers will still splurge on popular discretionary-type gifts for their friends and family, but will shop around and compare prices as they’ve done for years,” said Prosper’s Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “Looking for inspiration online and on their social media channels, many budget-conscious shoppers will also look for ways to surprise their loved ones with homemade and personal gifts.”

The survey also found shoppers prefer to use money they already have or have saved up to purchase holiday gifts, consistent with results seen over past three years. More than four in 10 (43.7%) will rely on debit cards as their primary form of payment. An additional 25.4% will use cash and 2.4% will use a check. Nearly three in 10 (28.5%) will charge their gifts.

When it comes to looking for inspiration for holiday gifts, traditional search methods will prevail, but tips from social media will be popular as well. According to the survey, 47.9% of consumers said they will look for holiday gift ideas online and 36.0% will check out retailers’ advertising circulars. Two in 10 (22.2%) will peruse magazines for ideas, 21.5% will look into email advertisements and 14.0% will use Facebook. Proving they are still seen as a value to shoppers, more than one-third (33.7%) of consumers say they will seek ideas from catalogs. Additionally, 10.1% will use retailers’ apps, versus 8.7% last year, and 7.2 percent will use Pinterest, up 2.4% from last year.

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Dream On Me recalls cradle gliders

The mattress support board can fall out or slide out

Dream on Me of South Plainfield, N.J., is recalling about 700 Lullaby Cradle Gliders The mattress support board can fall out or slide out of the bottom o...

PhotoDream on Me of South Plainfield, N.J., is recalling about 700 Lullaby Cradle Gliders

The mattress support board can fall out or slide out of the bottom of the cradle glider posing a risk that babies can fall out and suffer injuries.

There have been reports of two incidents while infants were asleep inside the cradle. A one-month old infant fell to the floor when the mattress support board partially fell out, but the child was uninjured. A second report involved a four-month old infant who did not fall out of the cradle after the mattress support board became partially disengaged.

This recall involves the Lullaby Cradle Glider manufactured by Dream On Me Inc. The cradle is made of solid pine with slats on all four sides and a base that has a gliding side-to-side motion. The inner dimensions of the cradle measure 34.5 inches by 20.5 inches and includes a mattress pad and four wheels for easy movement. The cradle is sold in one design, four colors 640-C, cherry; 640-W,white; 640-E, espresso; and 640-N, natural. A label identifying the date of manufacture as October 2011 is located on the mattress support board.

The crade gliders, manufactured in China, were sold online only through K-Mart, Kohl’s, Sears, Toys R Us and Walmart from October 2011, through June 2013, for about $130.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cradles and contact Dream On Me to obtain a free repair kit. Instructions for assembly will be included in the repair kit.

Consumers may contact Dream On Me toll-free at (877) 201-4312 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday.

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Step2 recalls ride-on wagon toys

The removable blue seat backs can detach

The Step2 Company of Streetsboro, Ohio, is recalling about 14,000 Whisper Ride Touring Wagons. The removable blue seat backs can detach and allow the chil...

PhotoThe Step2 Company of Streetsboro, Ohio, is recalling about 14,000 Whisper Ride Touring Wagons.

The removable blue seat backs can detach and allow the child in the wagon to fall out.

The company has received 29 reports of the seat back detaching, 28 of which resulted in children falling out of the wagon. Fourteen of these resulted in bumped heads and nine resulted in bruises, scratches or lacerations.

This recall involves Step2 Whisper Ride Touring Wagons. The two-seat plastic wagon is 25-inches wide by 41.25-inches long by 20-inches high with blue seats, a tan wagon base and a red canopy. The Step2 logo appears on the canopy and on the side of the wagon base.

The wagons, manufactured in the U.S., were sold exclusively at Toys R Us stores nationwide and online at ToysRUs.com from February 2013, to August 2013, for about $130.

Consumers should immediately stop using the wagon and inspect it to determine if the seat belt is attached to the removable blue seat back. If so, the wagon is included in this recall. Consumers with the recalled wagons should contact Step2 to obtain a free repair kit.

Consumers may contact Step2 toll-free at (866) 860-1887 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Fran's Fryers recalls various raw poultry products

The products did not undergo federal inspection

Fran's Fryers of Milford, Texas, is recalling approximately 251 pounds of various raw poultry products because they were produced without the benefit of fe...

PhotoFran's Fryers of Milford, Texas, is recalling approximately 251 pounds of various raw poultry products because they were produced without the benefit of federal inspection. There have been no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 2-lb. packages of "Boneless Dark 2# Chicken Leg Meat"
  • 2-lb. and 5-lb. packages of "Chicken Breast Tenders"
  • 3-lb. and 5-lb. packages of "Chicken Bone In Breast"
  • 5-lb. package of "Ground Turkey 5#"
  • 5-lb. packages of "Cut Up Fryer"
  • 5-lb. packages of "Whole Fryers"

Each package bears the establishment number "P 20784" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced on November 11, 2013, and shipped to retail establishments in Texas.

Consumers with questions about the recall can contact the plant manager, Brady Sweet, at (972) 493-5305.

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Whole Foods Market recalls ready-to-eat grain salads

The salads may be contaminated with E. coli O157:h7

Whole Foods Market’s Northern California region is recalling ready-to-eat Artichoke Wheatberry Salad and Southwest SooFoo Salad in response to a recall iss...

PhotoWhole Foods Market’s Northern California region is recalling ready-to-eat Artichoke Wheatberry Salad and Southwest SooFoo Salad in response to a recall issued by Glass Onion Catering.

The salads have the potential to be contaminated with E. coli O157:h7.

To date, 26 illnesses have been reported; however, none of the illnesses are linked to products specifically sold at Whole Foods Market.

Customers may have purchased the products from the fresh deli case, salad bar and/or in pre-packed pint or half-pint containers in the Prepared Foods department. Both products have been pulled from all venues and carry an expiration date between Nov. 9 and Nov. 13.

Four PLUs are associated with these salads:

  • 28563300000- Artichoke Wheatberry Salad
  • 28563400000- Artichoke Wheatberry Salad
  • 28563700000- Southwest SooFoo Salad
  • 28563800000- Southwest SooFoo Salad

The recalled salads were sold in the following 10 Northern California stores:

  • Capitola, 1710 41st Ave, Capitola, CA 95010
  • Fremont, 3111 Mowry Ave., Fremont, CA 94538
  • Oakland, 230 Bay Place, Oakland, CA 94612
  • Lafayette, 3502 Mt. Diablo Blvd, Lafayette, CA 94549
  • Los Gatos, 15980 Los Gatos Blvd, Los Gatos, CA 94032
  • Napa, 3682 Bel Aire Plaza, Napa, CA 94558
  • Noe Valley, 3950 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94114
  • Redwood City, 1250 Jefferson Ave, Redwood City, CA 94062
  • San Mateo, 1010 Park Pl, San Mateo, CA 94403
  • Walnut Creek, 1333 Newell Ave, Walnut Creek, CA 94596

Customers who have purchased these products should discard them, and may bring in a receipt to any of the above stores for a full refund.

Consumers with questions about the recall may call 512-477-5566, ext. 20060, Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST.

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Uninsured face daunting challenge in selecting a health plan

Problems with the sign-up website may be the least of it

The problems with the government's roll-out of the Affordable Care Act have been well-documented. The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) nation...

PhotoThe problems with the government's roll-out of the Affordable Care Act have been well-documented. The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) national sign-up website, Healthcare.gov, has been a disaster. Some state sites have also had issues.

But technical issues aside, consumers – especially those who have never had health benefits – may face even bigger challenges in the new healthcare marketplace. A study by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis finds the whole process, even under the best of conditions, is not exactly a walk in the park.

“Selecting the best health insurance option can be confusing, even for people who have gone through the process for many years,” said Mary Politi, an assistant professor of surgery and the study’s lead author. “We need to do a better job communicating information about health insurance to help people make the choices that work best for them.”

Conducted before the roll-out

The study was conducted just before the Oct. 1 launch of Healthcare.gov and did not anticipate the problems that would occur with the website. However, it did identify difficulties that appear to be common among consumers lacking health coverage.

Most people who have never been insured, the researchers say, are going to be unfamiliar with the language of health benefits, such as “coinsurance” and “deductible,” that are necessary to compare and choose among available health plans.

Even individuals who have had previous experience with health insurance confused the meaning of similar terms, such as urgent care and emergency care or co-insurance and co-payment.

The conclusion that researchers have drawn from all of this is that uninsured consumers are going to be heavily dependent on navigators, individuals and groups hired under the new law to help guide consumers in their local communities through the process.

The researchers say navigators can simplify details, use visuals and provide context for unfamiliar terms to help people better understand their health insurance choices. How that plays out is yet to be seen.

Missed deadline

PhotoIn northwest Ohio the Toledo Blade reports the Neighborhood Health Association and CareNet, two community groups receiving thousands of dollars in grant money from HHS to train health care navigators has yet to get started, missing a Nov. 1 deadline.

Republican opponents of the health care law have been quick to highlight problems with navigators, which supporters of the law contend is unfair and misleading. They suggest that states with GOP-controlled legislatures have thrown up bureaucratic obstacles for the community groups who are trying to get navigators on the job. Officials in those states say the extra regulators are needed to protect consumers and their personal information.

Success stories

Despite problems, some regions of the country report navigators are in place and signing people up. ACR Health, a community group in Syracuse, N.Y., reports problems are few and far between and it has a number of success stories to report.

Community organizations around the country are receiving $67 million under the ACA to train and deploy navigators who help consumers choose a health benefits package and get enrolled. The researchers say they may be able to help.

Based on their findings, they are testing ways to improve communication about health insurance and the newly created state and federal health insurance exchanges.

“This effort is especially important for individuals with limited health literacy and math skills, given the complex information required to understand plan differences,” Politi said.

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Kevin Trudeau jailed after jury returns guilty verdict in just 45 minutes

Trudeau faces an indefinite sentence plus a still-unpaid $37 million fine

Kevin Trudeau is a persuasive guy but he wasn't able to persuade a Chicago jury of his innocence. The jury took just 45 minutes yesterday to find Trudeau g...

PhotoKevin Trudeau is a persuasive guy but he wasn't able to persuade a Chicago jury of his innocence. The jury took just 45 minutes yesterday to find Trudeau guilty of criminal contempt and Chicago U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman ordered the pitchman hauled off to prison for the third time in recent weeks.

There is no defined sentence for contempt, so Trudeau, 50, could wind up spending a long time in the lock-up when he is sentenced in February.  He was jailed twice in recent weeks for allegedly refusing to reveal the whereabouts of his financial assets to pay off a $37 million fine levied by the Federal Trade Commission back in 2009.

The fine was imposed on Trudeau for violating a 2004 stipulated order by misrepresenting the content of his book, “The Weight Loss Cure ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About.”

In 2008, Judge Robert W. Gettleman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ordered Trudeau to pay more than $5 million and banned him, for three years, from producing or publishing infomercials for products in which he has an interest. The ruling confirmed an earlier contempt finding.

"Secrets" revealed

Kevin Trudeau Nov. 13, 2013, 2:27 p.m.
Consumers rate Kevin Trudeau

Trudeau has made millions hawking everything from financial advice to weight-loss solutions, using the theme that there are "secrets" known only to few highly placed insiders. But many consumers, like Rae of Canon, Ga., have found little of value in the books, tapes and DVDs.

"I saw the FREE MONEY telemarketing Infomercial late one night. At the time, my family and I were on the brink of bankruptcy so it appeared to be a gift from God (It was in fact a curse from the DEVIL ...). I really wish I had checked with this site before I called and ordered FREE MONEY!" Rae said in a ConsumerAffairs review in September.

Some consumers, on the other hand, think they got their money's worth.

"I managed to buy 'Your Wish is Your Command.' I got it at a special discount for only $20. I didn't even get upsold. I thought it was the best ever and literally listened to it over 100 times. I joined Global Information Network for $1000 + $150 monthly dues. I thought it was a bit of overpriced but overall I really liked it and felt I was getting something out of it," said "J" of Saskatoon. "I went to a few events, thought they were pretty good. I got his books. I felt some of his natural cures worked. I tried his diet book, didn't think it was that good but there was some good information in there."

Many of Trudeau's fans followed him into court yesterday and left looking dejected after Trudeau was packed off to prison when Judge Guzman expressed concern that Trudeau posed a flight risk, after prosecutors alleged that Trudeau has millions of dollars stashed overseas. 

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Does eating at your desk make you fat?

Another possible factor in modern obesity rates

News flash for weight-conscious office workers: eating at your desk makes you more likely to gain weight than leaving your desk for an official lunch break...

PhotoNews flash for weight-conscious office workers: eating at your desk makes you more likely to gain weight than leaving your desk for an official lunch break — though not for the reasons you might think.

According to an unspecified “survey” mentioned in the British Daily Mail tabloid, eating “al desko” (their pun, not ours) leads to increased weight gain, not just from the inactivity of sitting at your desk all day, but mainly because desk-eaters are more likely to, for example, wash down chocolate and potato chips with a Coke, in lieu of eating healthier, more nutritious food.

Psychologically, it appears, when people can’t take a break from their workday routine and get the chance to recharge their batteries (so to speak), it makes us more likely to “reward” ourselves in other way — like eating tasty but unhealthy junk food.

The survey focused exclusively on British workers and unhealthy British meals (where the average American is concerned, it doesn’t matter how many grams of fat are to be found in a carrot-chutney-with-Wensleydale sandwich from London’s Marks and Spencer) but people in both countries share similar pressures to juggle evermore-hectic work schedules.

Yet blaming office work for expanding waistlines might not tell the whole story. Last May, a Gallup-Healthways survey of American workers found that the jobs with the highest employee-obesity rates weren’t desk jobs, but the transportation, maintenance, repair and service industries, whereas the lowest obesity rates were to be found among doctors, teachers, business owners and other professionals. In other words: the lower the average educational level in a given field, the greater the risk of obesity among its workers.

The poverty connection

And in both America and Britain, there appears to be a strong correlation between obesity and poverty, since high-fat, high-calorie processed foods tend to be cheaper than healthier, less-fattening alternatives.

So: being an educated professional with a desk job might make you fat. Being an uneducated worker with a service or retail job might make you fat. Exposure to modern environmental pollutants might do the trick; after all, it’s not just modern people getting fatter, but modern animals, too.

Indeed, our own evolutionary history conspires to make us gain weight — though we all live in a modern technological society where food is abundantly available, we still have the bodies of cavemen hunter-gatherers wired to crave fat and sugar — which are very rare in wild plants and animals, but extremely common in modern processed food.

Since we’re not willing to drop out of modern society and live in some remote wilderness, what can we do to offset all these fat-making factors? There’s no simple, easy answer (if we had one, we could sell it and get rich), but we know of a good start: if you must eat at your desk every day, at least put down the junk food and replace it with some fruit.

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Mercy Academy's amazing anti-princess ad campaign

Ads urge girls to "prepare for real life"

Usually, when we read about a new advertising campaign aimed at selling things to “women” or “girls” (as opposed to ordinary, gende...

PhotoUsually, when we read about a new advertising campaign aimed at selling things to “women” or “girls” (as opposed to ordinary, gender-neutral “customers”), the results are downright wince-inducing because the marketing industry still appears dominated by people who think “Color it pink, raise the price and the ladies’ll all rush to buy it.”

But, thankfully, it looks like the people at Doe-Anderson know better than that. Doe-Anderson is the ad agency behind a new campaign for Mercy Academy, a girls’ Catholic high school in Louisville, Kentucky.

Rebecca Cullers, writing for AdWeek’s AdFreak blog, first called attention to Mercy’s new “You’re not a princess” campaign, aimed at counteracting the Disney-princess-fairytale mentality that suffuses so much modern “young-girl” American culture.

The campaign features such slogans as “Life’s not a fairytale. Prepare for real life,” “You’re not a princess” and “Don’t wait for a prince. Be able to rescue yourself,” always coupled with the tagline “Prepare for real life,” and the ads even use a color scheme closer to blue than the ubiquitous pink.   

As consumer journalists, we’re not usually in the habit of praising advertising agencies, but Doe-Anderson and Mercy Academy deserve kudos; this campaign hit the ball right out of the park.

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Insurance industry worries about older drivers with smartphones

It's not just young adults and teens who are getting the blame

In any conversation about distracted driving – especially texting behind the wheel – it is almost always in the context of youthful drivers. Af...

PhotoIn any conversation about distracted driving – especially texting behind the wheel – it is almost always in the context of youthful drivers. After all, they're the ones addicted to their smartphones, right?

Not so fast. Increasingly it appears that a growing number of those heads glancing down at smartphone screens behind the wheel have gray hair. Older drivers are quickly catching up with young drivers when it comes to staying connected while driving.

And it's not just texting. A July 2013 survey by State Farm Insurance found a big jump in the percentage of drivers who own smartphones, particularly among drivers age thirty and older. At the same time the percentage of drivers who access the Internet on their phone while driving has nearly doubled over the past five years, going up from 13% in 2009 to 24% in 2013.

More hands-free talking

The survey results also showed the use of hands-free cell phones while driving has increased, while the percentage of people talking on a hand-held cell phone or texting while driving has become stagnant over the past three years.

This may be due, in part, to the growing number of new cars that have a Bluetooth connection. With this system, a driver may answer a call and carry on a conversation simply by pushing a button on the steering wheel, without removing the phone from a pocket or a purse.

While there has been research that suggests talking on a hands-free phone is also distracting, the same could be said for a driver conversing with passengers. It's all a matter of degree. But it's the growing presence of electronic gadgets among drivers that keeps insurance agents up at night.

Multiple distractions

"As smart phone ownership increases for all age groups, the safety community must ensure we are keeping pace with our understanding of the types of distractions drivers face," said Chris Mullen, Director of Technology Research at State Farm. "Much attention is paid toward reducing texting while driving, but we must also be concerned about addressing the growing use of multiple mobile web services while driving."

While 86% of drivers age 18-29 have smartphones, the new data shows 64% of drivers age 50 to 64 do as well, a 20% jump in two years. Even 39% of drivers 65 and older now have smartphones, the survey found.

Distracted driving is a major concern for the insurance industry, which profits when there are fewer accidents. But while most concede that texting while driving is very dangerous, it's less clear that simply talking and driving is.

Questioning conventional wisdom

Another study from Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, also conducted this year, finds that talking on a phone while driving does not increase the risk of a crash. 

For the study, Carnegie Mellon's Saurabh Bhargava and the London School of Economics and Political Science's Vikram S. Pathania examined calling and crash data from 2002 to 2005, a period when most cell phone carriers offered pricing plans with free calls on weekdays after 9 p.m. They compared data from mobile network operators and accident reports and found that there was no direct correlation between the number of phone calls made during a certain time period and the number of crashes during the same time.

"Using a cell phone while driving may be distracting, but it does not lead to higher crash risk in the setting we examined," said Bhargava, who is an assistant professor of social and decision sciences at CMU. "While our findings may strike many as counterintuitive, our results are precise enough to statistically call into question the effects typically found in the academic literature. Our study differs from most prior work in that it leverages a naturally occurring experiment in a real-world context."

For its part, State Farm is encouraging government agencies to continue their high profile campaign against distracted driving, which specifically targets electronic gadgets.

"State Farm continues to support a multi-pronged approach to encouraging more engaged driving," Mullen said. "Legislation, enforcement, education and technology all have a role to play in making our roads safer for all who share them."

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Interest rates vs. home prices: which one is too high?

High-interest debt is bad. High-principal debt can be worse.

If you’ve been paying attention to post-housing bubble American economic news, you’ve probably noticed two consistent (and contradictory) stories that keep...

PhotoIf you’ve been paying attention to post-housing bubble American economic news, you’ve probably noticed two consistent (and contradictory) stories that keep appearing. The first story says “Home builders and sellers mourn that Americans aren’t buying enough houses, or aren’t paying enough for them.” The second story: “Americans seeking a place to live mourn that the rent [and other housing costs] is too damn high.”

Anyway, we recently reported that American mortgage applications have dropped for the second week in a row; the number of applications in the week ending Nov. 8 was a whopping 1.8 percent lower than the previous week’s number of applications.

And soon after that article went up, we read an unintentionally bizarre article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, headlined “D. R. Horton CEO: Somebody please tell home buyers rates are still low.”

D. R. Horton is a Texas-based homebuilding company and, as you can probably guess from the headline, the gist of the story is that Horton’s CEO is not happy that his sales dropped two percent in the previous year, and he speculated maybe fewer Americans are buying homes because they/we are just too clueless to understand that interest rates are still quite low by historical standards, which presumably means we’re supposed to BUY BUY BUY!

Meanwhile, BusinessWeek thinks a recent one-point increase in interest rates might be sufficient to explain the “low” number of American home sales. Check out this quote:

…. buyers might also be getting a little better at mortgage math, given the brutal lessons the real estate market doled out in 2008 and 2009. A single percentage point over three decades adds up fast.

Take the average D.R. Horton home. A year ago, it sold for $227,304, which a buyer could have financed for 30 years at around 3.38 percent, according to Freddie Mac. Recently, it sold for $261,400, and buyers probably locked in a rate around 4.49 percent.

The difference in sales price is only $34,096, but the 2013 buyer will end up paying about $104,000 more over the life of the loan, including an additional $64,000 or so in interest payments.

Lot of money

There’s no denying: $64,000 is a lot of money, even spread out over 30 years. But we’re more interested in this statistic: the price of a typical D. R. Horton home rose nearly 15 percent in one year, an increase more suited to the exuberant housing bubble era than the contemporary low-wage/high job insecurity American economy.

Which is not to say higher interest rates aren’t a factor at all; another undeniable fact is that interest rates and finance charges are important factors to consider, when you’re taking out a loan. As we’ve noted before: one of the most common and costly financial mistakes people make is that when they take out a loan, they only look at the size of their weekly or monthly payment rather than calculate the overall cost of repaying the debt.

But is there anything besides interest rates and financing costs you should worry about? Yes: the principal. The size of the original debt itself. We’re even heretical enough to believe the size of the principal matters more than the interest rate. After all: if you have a high-interest-rate mortgage debt, you can probably refinance it into a lower-rate debt once overall interest rates go down. However (as countless “underwater” mortgage-holders have discovered to their sorrow), refinancing, say, a $200,000 debt so that you only owe $100,000 is rarely if ever an option.

In pre-housing bubble America, the conventional wisdom for mortgage affordability used to say “For long-term fixed-rate mortgages, you can afford a loan equal to three times your annual income, after making a down payment of at least 20 percent” alongside “Your total monthly housing costs should not exceed one-third of your available income.”

So maybe we can blame D. R. Horton’s disappointing sales numbers on wannabe home buyers with unrealistic interest-rate expectations. However, we’d like to think it’s because more people are crunching the numbers and deciding “As a median American family living on the median American household income of just over $50,000 per year, we can’t afford a $260,000 mortgage debt no matter how low of an interest rate we get on it.”

Or maybe not. On the same day BusinessWeek reported the Horton CEO’s dissatisfaction with the previous year’s sales numbers, Forbes.com reported that “D. R. Horton’s order book grows,” while the company’s revenue climbed to $1.82 billion.

No surprise there, really: a two percent drop in sales plus a 15 percent increase in sale prices still equals healthy growth for the seller.

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A heads-up for acetaminophen users

Doubling up on your medication is not a good idea

Cold and flu season is kicking into high gear, prompting the Acetaminophen Awareness Coalition (AAC) to urge consumers to double check to avoid doubling up...

PhotoCold and flu season is kicking into high gear, prompting the Acetaminophen Awareness Coalition (AAC) to urge consumers to double check to avoid doubling up on medicines that contain acetaminophen when treating winter illnesses.

Acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, is also found in more than 600 different medicines, including prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, fever reducers, sleep aids and numerous cough, cold and flu medicines. Approximately 23% of U.S. adults use it. While it is safe and effective when used as directed, there is a limit to how much can be taken in one day. Taking more than directed is an overdose and can lead to liver damage.

Colds and flu

Americans suffer from an estimated one billion colds each year, and as many as 20% of us will get the flu. Seven in 10 people will reach for over-the-counter medicines, many of which contain acetaminophen, to treat fevers, sinus headaches and other unwelcome cold and flu symptoms.

“It is especially important for patients who regularly use medicines with acetaminophen for pain conditions such as arthritis or headaches, to ‘Double Check, Don’t Double Up’ before taking a cold or flu medicine that also contains acetaminophen,” said pharmacist Phil LaFoy, a member of the National Community Pharmacists Association, a founding organization of the AAC. “Educating patients on safe acetaminophen use is the first step in preventing liver damage.”

“Consumers should be diligent about reading their medicine labels, knowing the ingredients in their medicines and following dosing directions when taking all medicines—especially during cold and flu season when medicines for coughs and stuffy noses are commonly layered on top of other medications they may be taking,” said Kathleen Wilson, nurse practitioner and member of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, a founding organization of the AAC. “Because acetaminophen is in many pain relievers as well as medicines to treat cold and flu symptoms, I remind my patients to double check medicine labels and avoid taking two medicines that contain acetaminophen so they don’t exceed the daily limit when taking multiple medicines.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends taking no more than 4,000 mg of acetaminophen in a 24-hour period. You can check here for more information and a list of some of the common medicines that contain acetaminophen. 

What to do

When taking medicines for cough, cold or flu, the Acetaminophen Awareness Coalition counsels consumers to follow these four simple acetaminophen safety steps:

Always read and follow the medicine label.
Know if medicines contain acetaminophen, which is in bold type or highlighted in the “active ingredients” section of over-the-counter medicine labels and sometimes listed as “APAP” or “acetam” on prescription labels.
Never take two medicines that contain acetaminophen at the same time.
Ask a healthcare provider or a pharmacist if you have questions about dosing instructions or medicines that contain acetaminophen.

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New guideline set for cholesterol management

Lifestyle and statin therapy are getting a lot of attention

A new guideline has been released for treatment of cholesterol in people at high risk for cardiovascular diseases caused by hardening and narrowing of the ...

PhotoA new guideline has been released for treatment of cholesterol in people at high risk for cardiovascular diseases caused by hardening and narrowing of the arteries that can lead to heart attack, stroke or death.

The guideline, released by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, identifies four major groups of patients for whom cholesterol-lowering statins, have the greatest chance of preventing stroke and heart attacks. It also emphasizes the importance of adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle to prevent and control high blood cholesterol.

“The new guideline uses the highest quality scientific evidence to focus treatment of blood cholesterol on those likely to benefit most,” said Neil J. Stone, MD, Bonow professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and chair of the expert panel that wrote the new guideline. “This guideline represents a departure from previous guidelines because it doesn’t focus on specific target levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, commonly known as LDL, or ‘bad cholesterol,’ although the definition of optimal LDL cholesterol has not changed. Instead, it focuses on defining groups for whom LDL lowering is proven to be most beneficial.”

Four groups identified

The new guideline recommends moderate- or high-intensity statin therapy for these four groups:

  • Patients who have cardiovascular disease;
  • Patients with an LDL, or “bad” cholesterol level of 190 mg/dL or higher;
  • Patients with Type 2 diabetes who are between 40 and 75 years of age; and
  • Patients with an estimated 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease of 7.5 percent or higher who are between 40 and 75 years of age (the report provides formulas for calculating 10-year risk).

In terms of clinical practice, physicians can use risk assessment tools in some cases to determine which patients would most likely benefit from statin therapy, rather than focusing only on blood cholesterol to determine which patients would benefit.

“The likely impact of the recommendations is that more people who would benefit from statins are going to be on them, while fewer people who wouldn’t benefit from statins are going to be on them,” Dr. Stone said. Doctors may also consider switching some patients to a higher dose of statins to derive greater benefit as a result of the new guidelines.

Statins and lifestyle

The guideline was prepared by a panel of experts based on an analysis of the results of randomized controlled trials. The panel was charged with guiding the optimal treatment of blood cholesterol to address the rising rate of cardiovascular disease, currently the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S.

The panel chose to focus on the use of statins after a detailed review of other cholesterol-lowering drugs. “Statins were chosen because their use has resulted in the greatest benefit and the lowest rates of safety issues. No other cholesterol-lowering drug is as effective as statins,” said Dr. Stone. He added that there is a role for other cholesterol-lowering drugs, for example, in patients who suffer side effects from statins.

The report also stresses the importance of lifestyle in managing cholesterol and preventing heart disease. “The cornerstone of all guidelines dealing with cholesterol is a healthy lifestyle,” said Dr. Stone. “That is particularly important in the young, because preventing high cholesterol later in life is the first and best thing someone can do to remain heart-healthy. On the other hand, if someone already has atherosclerosis, lifestyle changes alone are not likely to be enough to prevent heart attack, stroke, and death, and statin therapy will be necessary.”

Recommendations

In addition to identifying patients most likely to benefit from statins, the guideline outlines the recommended intensity of statin therapy for different patient groups. Rather than use a “lowest is best” approach that combines a low dose of a statin drug along with several other cholesterol-lowering drugs, the panel found that it can be preferable to focus instead on a healthy lifestyle along with a higher dose of statins, eliminating the need for additional medications.

“The focus for years has been on getting the LDL low,” said Dr. Stone. “Our guidelines are not against that. We’re simply saying how you get the LDL low is important. Considering all the possible treatments, we recommend a heart-healthy lifestyle and statin therapy for the best chance of reducing your risk of stroke or heart attack in the next 10 years.”

The guidelines are intended to serve as a starting point for clinicians. Some patients who do not fall into the four major categories may also benefit from statin therapy, a decision that will need to be made on a case-by-case basis.

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Netflix revamps to go after cable

New format provides improved display on TVs, tablets, smartphones

Film streaming service Netflix is redesigning the way it appears on TVs in a bid to compete on the level of full-scale cable TV providers and pay-per-view....

PhotoNetflix has a new look -- one it hopes will better lend itself to viewing on TV screens instead of smaller tablet and smartphone screens. 

"Our members collectively watch more than a billion hours of Netflix a month, most of that is on a TV," said Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt. "This is the biggest change to the Netflix experience on televisions in our history, making it even easier to find something great to watch on Netflix."

The new design was created specifically for the big screen, featuring multiple cinematic images for each title along with a new, snappy description and more personalized detail on why Netflix suggests it, the company said. 

The new format also lists Facebook friends of each subscriber who have already watched each programme, if a subscriber has paired their Netflix account to the social network.

The new TV experience is delivered by a new Netflix software platform that runs efficiently on various devices, from low-powered set top boxes, recent model Smart TVs and Blu-ray players to high-end game consoles. Previously each device had its own Netflix experience, which meant features took longer to roll out across devices. The Netflix website remains unchanged.

"This new software platform will allow us to innovate even faster and continuously improve the Internet television experience for our members across multiple devices," said Hunt.

The new format launches today and will be rolled out to all members globally within two weeks. Devices that will support the new experience include PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Roku 3, newer Smart TVs and recent Blu-ray players. Additional devices, including other Roku boxes, will be added at a later date.

Eating cable's lunch

Netflix, whose share price has more than trebled this year, is fast becoming a major threat to pay-per-view channels and premium cable channels. It already has than 30 million subscribers in the U.S. - surpassing that of HBO's older pay-per-view channel - and 1.5 million in Britain.

Netflix and other streaming video services are in the right place at the right time to grab the loyalty of younger consumers. Millennials -- the 18-to-24 group -- are dropping their TV remote controls at a faster rate than any other demographic, according to new research expected to be released this week by digital ad firm YuMe and the IPG Media Lab, Online Media Daily reports.

The Millennials are making video viewing a more personal experience, preferring tablets and smartphones to large-screen TVs, the study finds; they consume the majority of their video content via smartphone (about 20%); just over 15% via tablet devices; just under 15% via PC; less than 10% via live TV; and less than 7.5% via DVR devices.

 

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WikiLeaks: White House pushing for curbs on Internet freedom

Obama Administration also promoting terms that raise drug prices, leaked documents indicate

Secret documents published today by WikiLeaks and analyzed by the nonprofit consumers group Public Citizen reveal that the Obama administration is dem...

PhotoSecret documents published today by WikiLeaks and analyzed by the nonprofit consumers group Public Citizen reveal that the Obama administration is demanding terms that would limit Internet freedom and access to lifesaving medicines throughout the Asia-Pacific region and bind Americans to the same bad rules, belying the administration’s stated commitments to reduce health care costs and advance free expression online, Public Citizen said today.

“The WikiLeaks text ... features Hollywood and recording industry-inspired proposals – think about the SOPA debacle – to limit Internet freedom and access to educational materials, to force Internet providers to act as copyright enforcers and to cut off people’s Internet access,” said Burcu Kilic, an intellectual property lawyer with Public Citizen. “These proposals are deeply unpopular worldwide and have led to a negotiation stalemate.”

WikiLeaks published the complete draft of the Intellectual Property chapter for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed international commercial pact between the United States and 11 Asian and Latin American countries. Although talks started in 2008, this is the first access the public and press have had to this text. The administration has refused to make draft TPP text public, despite announcing intentions to sign the deal by year’s end. Signatory nations’ laws would be required to conform to TPP terms.

The leak shows the United States seeking to impose the most extreme demands of Big Pharma and Hollywood, Public Citizen said, despite the express and frequently universal opposition of U.S. trade partners. Concerns raised by TPP negotiating partners and many civic groups worldwide regarding TPP undermining access to affordable medicines, the Internet and even textbooks have resulted in a deadlock over the TPP Intellectual Property Chapter, leading to an impasse in the TPP talks, Public Citizen said.

“Given how much text remains disputed, the negotiation will be very difficult to conclude,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s global access to medicines program. “Much more forward-looking proposals have been advanced by the other parties, but unless the U.S drops its out-there-alone demands, there may be no deal at all.”

The worst to date

“The Obama administration’s proposals are the worst – the most damaging for health – we have seen in a U.S. trade agreement to date. The Obama administration has backtracked from even the modest health considerations adopted under the Bush administration,” Maybarduk said. “The Obama administration’s shameful bullying on behalf of the giant drug companies would lead to preventable suffering and death in Asia-Pacific countries. And soon the administration is expected to propose additional TPP terms that would lock Americans into high prices for cancer drugs for years to come.”

Last week, the AARP and major consumer groups wrote to the Obama administration to express their “deep concern” that U.S. proposals for the TPP would “limit the ability of states and the federal government to moderate escalating prescription drug, biologic drug and medical device costs in public programs,” and contradict cost-cutting plans for biotech medicines in the White House budget.

Other U.S.-demanded measures for the TPP would empower the tobacco giants to sue governments before foreign tribunals to demand taxpayer compensation for their health regulations and have been widely criticized. “This supposed trade negotiation has devolved into a secretive rulemaking against public health, on behalf of Big Pharma and Big Tobacco,” said Maybarduk.

“It is clear from the text obtained by WikiLeaks that the U.S. government is isolated and has lost this debate,” Maybarduk said. “Our partners don’t want to trade away their people’s health. Americans don’t want these measures either. Nevertheless, the Obama administration – on behalf of Big Pharma and big movie studios – now is trying to accomplish through pressure what it could not through persuasion.”

The text obtained by WikiLeaks is available at wikileaks.org/tpp. Analysis of the leaked text is available at www.citizen.org/access.

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Mortgage applications post second straight decline

But the previous week wasn't as bad as first reported

Mortgage applications were down for the second time in as many weeks during the week ending November 8. But there is a bit of good news hidden in the repor...

PhotoMortgage applications were down for the second time in as many weeks during the week ending November 8. But there is a bit of good news hidden in the report from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

While the MBA's Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications dipped 1.8%, it also notes that during the week ending November 1, the decline was just 2.8% instead of the 7.0% initially reported.

The Refinance Index fell 2% from the previous week, with the refinance share of mortgage activity remaining at 66%. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7% of total applications.

Interest rates

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) increased to 4.44%, the highest level in a month, from 4.32%, with points increasing to 0.44 from 0.42 (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 4.48%, the highest level in a month, from 4.37%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.26 (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 4.16% from 4.07%, with points increasing to 0.32 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs increased to 3.52%, the highest level in a month, from 3.44%, with points decreasing to 0.27 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.11% from 3.08%, with points decreasing to 0.27 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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Atherstone Foods recalls salads and wraps

The products may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

Athertone Foods of Richmond, Calif., is recalling “Best Buy” dates 9-23-13 through 11-14-13 of ready to eat salads and wraps because they may be contaminat...

PhotoAthertone Foods of Richmond, Calif., is recalling “Best Buy” dates 9-23-13 through 11-14-13 of ready to eat salads and wraps because they may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

No illnesses have been associated with these products to date.

The following products are subject to recall:

Product Description

UPC

Areas Distributed

Retailers

Delish Greek Style Orzo Salad (6.oz)

 Clam Shell

49022 74630

Northern CA

Walgreens

Delish Asian Style Noodle Salad (6. oz)

 Clam Shell

49022 74628

Northern CA

Walgreens

Delish Vegetarian Wrap (11.3oz) Cellophane

49022 55349

Northern CA

Walgreens

Classic Greek Salad (9. oz) Clam Shell

0083 5794

Northern CA Northern NV

Trader Joe’s

Southwestern  Salad Kit (20 Lbs box)

N/A

Northern CA

Whole Foods

Wheat Berry Salad Kit (20 Lbs box)

N/A

Northern CA

Whole Foods

The “Best Buy” dates can be located on the front of the package label.

Consumers who purchased the contaminated products are urged to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund or dispose of it.

Consumers with questions may contact Atherstone Foods at (510) 236-8905 Mon-Fri 9am-5pm PST.

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Wood Castle Furniture recalls bunk beds

The openings between the guardrails present an entrapment hazard

Wood Castle Furniture of Albany, Ore., is recalling about 1,000 Riley Duo bunk beds The openings between the guardrails on the bunk bed can exceed 3 ½ inc...

PhotoWood Castle Furniture of Albany, Ore., is recalling about 1,000 Riley Duo bunk beds

The openings between the guardrails on the bunk bed can exceed 3 ½ inches in width, which is too wide and does not meet safety standards. This presents an entrapment hazard where a child could be seriously injured or become asphyxiated.

No incidents or injuries have been reported

This recall involves Riley Duo model bunk beds with model number C 5702, E 5702 or M 5702. The Duo has a twin size mattress frame on top and a full size mattress frame on the bottom. The solid wood bunk bed was sold in cherry, eastern maple or pacific coast maple. A warning label on the end rail of the top bunk has model number “5702” and “Duo Bunk” printed on it.

The bunk beds, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Dania Furniture and Room and Board Furniture stores nationwide and online at Roomandboard.com from January 2008 through December 2011 for between $1,500 and $1,700.

Consumers should immediately contact Wood Castle Furniture for a free repair. Either the consumer or a company representative can determine if the guardrails spacing is too wide. Consumers with young children should discontinue use of the bunk bed until the hazard has been remedied.

Consumers may contact Wood Castle Furniture collect at (571) 754-9304 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Retailers want you to shop now for the holidays

Survey shows many of us are doing just that

Since 2008, the holiday shopping season has been more competitive and, it seems, increasingly hyped. Black Friday has become an unofficial holiday like the...

PhotoSince 2008, the holiday shopping season has been more competitive and, it seems, increasingly hyped. Black Friday has become an unofficial holiday like the Super Bowl and retailers try to outdo one another, not only in their door-buster deals but with their earlier and earlier openings.

For the last two years most major retailers have been open at least part of Thanksgiving Day. This year Kmart is pushing the envelope, announcing it would open early on Thanksgiving Day and remain open the next 41 hours straight, through Black Friday.

But while millions of consumers are expected to fill the stores on Black Friday, the stores are offering holiday deals now, encouraging consumers not to wait until Black Friday. Make no mistake, they still want full stores on November 29 but their strategy appears to be to persuade consumers to shop early and often. The strategy appears to be working.

Shopping early

PhotoICSC, a trade group representing the shopping center industry, says its research suggests 62% of consumers plan to wrap up their holiday shopping on or before December 16. One reason may be the increasing number of in-store and online pre-holiday sales.

The survey also found that toys and games are likely to be the most sought-after gift items this year, followed by consumer electronics. Gifts receiving the most specific mentions include smartphones, tablets, game consoles, digital cameras and televisions.

When it comes to selecting gifts, the survey found that it's mainly bargains that attract buyers. Of the women who were surveyed, 37% mentioned “seasonal discounts” as the main reason for a purchase, followed by 20% who cited “gift practicality.” The survey found men slightly less interested in saving money and slightly more concerned about the practicality of a particular gift.

Men, particularly young men, are most likely to buy consumer electronics this year. Approximately one-third of respondents from households with a combined annual income of $100,000 or more are expected to shop on Cyber Monday vs. Black Friday. The opposite is true for respondents from households with a combined annual income of less than $35,000.

More online shopping

PhotoIn fact, online sales have increasingly become a bigger part of the holiday shopping season, which may explain the early appearance of online bargains. Consumers can shop at anytime and even brick and mortar stores can benefit when consumers buy from them online. Some stores encourage consumers to make their purchases through the store's website, then pick up the merchandise at the brick and mortar location, thus avoiding shipping charges.

Despite the growing emphasis on pre-Black Friday holiday sales, the day after Thanksgiving remains a huge day for retailers. This week Toys R Us announced its Black Friday plans, opening at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

The company has announced it plans more than 300 doorbuster values, while supplies last, during the Black Friday weekend. Among the deals Toys R Us has announced in advance are:

  • A free $50 Toys R Us gift card with the purchase of a 5th generation Apple 16GB iPod Touch
  • Monster High School Play set – regularly $74.99 – for $29.99
  • LEGO Legends of Chima Eagles' Castle – regularly $44.99 – for $22.49
  • Disney Infinity Starter Pack – regularly $74.99 – for $37.49
  • Skylanders SWAP Force – regularly $74.99 – for $37.49

Like most retail chains Toys R Us will publish its deals in a newspaper circular but it, like most others, is expected to leak on numerous Black Friday ad sites. The company itself will provide a preview on its Facebook page Sunday November 24.

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Car insurance costs up 43% in recent years, with only California showing a decrease

Escalating costs make it hard for lower-income consumers to comply with state insurance requirements

Car insurance rates have increased by 43% on average in the last 25 years, with only California showing a decrease, a study by the Consumer Federation of A...

PhotoCar insurance rates have increased by 43% on average in the last 25 years, with only California showing a decrease, a study by the Consumer Federation of America finds.

The escalating rates are being driven at least in part by insurance companies' use of non-driving factors -- such as credit ratings -- in arriving at premiums. 

Only in California, where a 1988 ballot initiative -- Proposition 103 -- transformed oversight of the industry and curtailed some of its most anti-consumer practices, did insurance prices fall during the period.  CFA found that the amount that drivers spend on auto insurance in California declined by three-tenths of one percent, resulting in billions of dollars of annual savings.

“It is the 25th Anniversary of Prop 103, passed on November 8, 1988.  On this silver anniversary we can report that the Proposition delivered over $102 billion in savings for California’s motorists, an average annual savings of $345 per household, or $8,625 per family over the entire period,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA's Director of Insurance and former Texas Insurance Commissioner and Federal Insurance Administrator under Presidents Ford and Carter. “This was the result of strong regulatory oversight and a more competitive market fostered by the 1988 insurance reform measure.”

States failing their citizens

State Farm Auto Insurance  Nov. 12, 2013, 7:18 p.m.
Consumers rate State Farm Auto Insurance

Insurance is one of the few consumer services that is regulated on a state-by-state basis, which would lead one to think that state regulators -- who are, in many states, elected -- would be driven to ride herd on insurance companies, requiring them to provide the best possible coverage at the lowest possible cost.

But it seldom works out that way, as the CFA study found. In many states, insurance companies can raise their rates without prior permission, a system that CFA found discourages rate competition.  

“Consumers across the country would be better served with a more robust, prior-approval system of auto insurance regulation than the system currently in place in most states,” Tom Feltner, CFA’s Director of Financial Services said.  “When drivers, particularly low- and moderate-income drivers, are required to purchase auto insurance, states have a responsibility to address the high cost of coverage.”

Feltner said the prior approval system of regulation, in which insurers must apply for rate changes before they can be imposed in the market, is most effective at keeping rates low.

The CFA study also found that markets that are less or not regulated tend to have the most substantial increases.

Prop 103

Progressive Insurance Nov. 12, 2013, 7:18 p.m.
Consumers rate Progressive Insurance

The low rates that Californians have enjoyed under Prop 103 have spurred competition and reduced costs to consumers without impacting safety, CFA found. 

Proposition 103 built strong incentives for safety into the initiative.  Drivers with clean records gain a 20 percent rate discount.  They also receive the right to buy insurance from the company of their choice through Proposition 103’s “Good Driver Protections."

Also, state rules prohibit many of the discriminatory elements that plague low-income and minority consumers in other states, especially prohibitions on use of credit scoring and prior insurance coverage as rating factors. 

Perhaps surprisingly, insurers earned above-average profits in California during the study period, CFA said. 

“If every state in the nation were to implement and enforce a regulatory and pro-competitive agenda as demonstrably pro-consumer as that in California, our research indicates that Americans could save over $350 billion over the next decade ($3,361 per household), even as insurance companies realize reasonable profitability and competition remains robust,” said Hunter.  

“When it comes to regulating an industry as large as the auto insurance industry that impacts so many millions of Americans who are required to purchase insurance, we ask of policymakers and regulators the same question we asked when we first began reviewing auto insurance systems around the country more than a decade ago: Why not the best?”

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Coming soon: vibrating flashing-light GPS jackets?

Prediction: it'll be expensive

If you’re one of those people blessed with more money than (fashion or financial) sense, you’ll definitely want to add a “Navigate”...

PhotoIf you’re one of those people blessed with more money than (fashion or financial) sense, you’ll definitely want to add a “Navigate” jacket to your wardrobe.

The jacket, invented by the Australian company Wearable Experiments, is equipped with GPS devices and other technological flourishes, to help pedestrians navigate through unfamiliar cities. Wearbale Experiements co-founder Ben Moir boasted that, “The technology built into the jacket is subtle and unobtrusive.”

“Subtle,” in this case, includes flashing LED lights sewn into the jacket’s sleeves, and vibrating devices in the shoulders. The sleeve lights start flashing as the jacket-wearing pedestrian approaches a turn, then the left or right shoulders vibrate to indicate a change of direction.

GPS-enabled clothing is nothing new; early in 2009, various snowboarding blogs heralded the introduction of GPS-infused coats marketed to snowboarders, cross-country skiers and other people whose hobbies regularly take them into cold, remote wilderness environments where getting lost can easily be fatal. And there’s no doubt that GPS clothing using directional vibrations to guide pedestrians could prove very useful for people whose vision is impaired badly enough to make personal navigation a challenge.

Everyday wear

What seems to set the Navigate jacket apart from earlier GPS clothes (in addition to the light-show rave sleeves) is that, based on our own (admittedly brief) online searches, it appears to be the first such jacket intended as ordinary everyday wear, rather than specialized garments for wilderness explorers and other niche market customers.

A writer for the BitRebels technology blog sounded excited about the world-freeing possibilities inherent in the new jacket: 

Wouldn’t it be quite interesting to wear one of these GPS jackets to guide you while in a city you have never been in before? I mean, just entering a destination through your smartphone and then head there with the help of the directions your jacket would give you. It would be the ultimate tourist accessory and with the subtle tappings and the LED lights not taking up too much of your time (where the smartphone would require you to constantly look at it) you would have more time to enjoy the actual city itself and what it has to offer.

Huh. We’ve used both smartphones and independent GPS devices to help us find our way through unfamiliar cities and suffered no shortage of time to “enjoy the actual city itself,” because we didn’t realize we had to “constantly” look at our GPS in order for it to work. Not to brag or anything, but: we’re perfectly capable of, for example, looking at a GPS just long enough to determine “Okay, in three blocks we’re supposed to turn right onto Tourist-trap Street,” and then — we do.

Granted, this requires a certain minimal level of intellectual effort — it helps if you read the actual signs, to determine which one is Tourist-trap Street — but this is not a problem because we figure the whole point of doing the tourist-visit thing is to look around and see what’s actually there. 

Thus far there’s no word on when the jackets will be available for sale, or what their price will be. We suspect it will be much higher than the cost of an individual jacket, GPS system and multiple LED lights, though.

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Settlement clears way for American-US Airways merger

Carriers agree to give up slots to low-cost carriers at key airports around the country

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne is today announcing a settlement with American Airlines and US Airways regarding their impending merger.  The settl...

PhotoAmerican Airlines and US Airways have ended a lengthy standoff with the U.S. Justice Department and six states, potentially clearing the last hurdle to their $16 billion merger.

The carriers agreed to give up slots at key airports around the country to low-cost carriers, a concession that's intended to increase competition and hold down fares in key markets.

“Competition in the airline industry has been preserved by this settlement,” said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, one of the state AGs involved in the negotiations.  “The required divestitures of key assets at airports across the country will spur competition by allowing other airlines, most notably low cost carriers, to enter and expand service to cities across the country.”

The proposed settlement will open up slots for low-cost carriers at Boston Logan, Chicago O’Hare, Dallas Love Field, Los Angeles International, Miami, New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan National. 

Six state attorneys general – Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee and Virginia – and the District of Columbia joined in the proposed settlement, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  If approved by the court, the settlement will resolve the U.S. Justice Department's competitive concerns and the lawsuit. 

Antitrust lawsuit 

On Aug. 13, 2013, the Justice Department, six state attorneys general and the District of Columbia filed an antitrust lawsuit against US Airways and American alleging that US Airway’s $11 billion acquisition of American would have substantially lessened competition for commercial air travel in local markets throughout the United States. 

The department alleged that the transaction would result in passengers paying higher airfares and receiving less service.  In addition, the department alleged that the transaction would entrench the merged airline as the dominant carrier at Reagan National, where it would control 69 percent of take-off and landing slots, thus effectively foreclosing entry or expansion by competing airlines.
 

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Court orders counterfeit shopping website shut down

But stay on guard: replacements are being minted daily

Yesterday we published a story warning you to avoid a scammy Chinese website called Womensbootsforcheap.com, which we learned about after getting a complai...

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States: Smartphone makers must do more to protect consumers

Manufacturers need to do more to protect smartphone users against theft

Smartphone giants Samsung, Google/Motorola and Microsoft need to do more to protect consumers from smartphone theft, according to 31 state attorneys genera...

PhotoSmartphone giants Samsung, Google/Motorola and Microsoft need to do more to protect consumers from smartphone theft, according to 31 state attorneys general.

“The growing popularity of smartphones has made them valuable targets for thieves who sell them on black markets across the country and around the world,” said Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden.  “I’m concerned that this thriving black market puts consumers needlessly at risk of theft and violence."

Biden, who with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is leading the multi-state effort said the smartphone industry "can and should do more to develop anti-theft features that reduce or eliminate the value of these devices to criminals.”

The AGs want the companies to develop technology that would permanently disable stolen smartphones. They say that would dry up the resale market and make the phones less attractive to thieves. 

“While some new anti-theft security features are encouraging, the response from manufacturers needs to be more robust,” the AGs said in a letter to the companies. “For example, to the extent these security features have an opt-out component, or require consumers to pay for them, they may not be very effective.” 

Kill switch

The attorneys general pointed to the South Korean requirement that devices be produced with a “kill switch” that would enable stolen devices to be permanently disabled as an example of technology that would protect consumers and discourage theft.

The AGs are members of the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) Initiative, a coalition of prosecutors, police chiefs, attorneys general, public officials and consumer activists launched earlier this year to combat the rise in violent street crimes involving smartphone thefts.  Coalition members are committed to pressing the industry to find effective solutions to stopping the epidemic known as “Apple Picking” – the theft of popular mobile communications devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Nationally, thefts of smartphones have spiked dramatically.  In the US, one in three thefts involves a mobile communications device, and Consumer Reports estimates that 1.6 million Americans were victimized by smartphone thieves in 2012.  Mobile electronic devices that are stolen across the US help feed the growing international trade in stolen devices.

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Get ready for the Thanksgiving crowds

A new survey shows travel will be heavy

For a lot of Americans this Thanksgiving holiday, it'll be “over the river and through the woods,” or some variation thereof. Travel site TripAdvisor's an...

PhotoFor a lot of Americans this Thanksgiving holiday, it'll be “over the river and through the woods,” or some variation thereof.

Travel site TripAdvisor's annual Thanksgiving travel survey finds revealing that 39% plan to travel this year -- up seven percent from 2012. Of those heading out, 37% will take to the skies, while 57% will be on the road.

Thanksgiving spending

Forty-six percent of travelers plan to spend more on Thanksgiving travel this year than they did in 2012, while 44 percent anticipate spending about the same.

  • 14% plan to spend more than $3,000
  • 21% expect to pay $1,000-$2,999
  • 23% are budgeting $500-$999

Shopping malls will be crowded along with roads and runways, with 45% of U.S. respondents saying they expect to take a Black Friday shopping trip -- up 12% from those that anticipated doing so in 2012.

"With a seven percent increase in those planning a Thanksgiving pilgrimage this year, it's clear Americans are hungry for the holiday," said Brooke Ferencsik, director of communications for TripAdvisor. "As more than a quarter of travelers plan to depart the day before Thanksgiving, travelers with flexible schedules will be best served leaving Tuesday or earlier."

Turkey Day travel stress

Seventy percent of those asked admit to being stressed by Thanksgiving travel. Top sources of frustration include congested roadways, crowded airports/long security lines and bad weather. To cut down as much as possible on the stress, 64% plan to travel during off-peak hours, but 27% say they'll be traveling on Wednesday -- the busiest day for Thanksgiving travel.

Eight percent of travelers say they'll try to relieve stress by paying for a a hotel or motel room rather than staying with family and friends, and 16% will have Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant mainly to avoid cooking

Tapping technology

Fifty-seven percent of travelers plan to use a mobile device to help them with their Thanksgiving travel, with 85% of that group turning to a smartphone and 47% will utilizing their tablet.

The top five reasons travelers plan to utilize their devices:

  • Check the weather (70%)
  • Use navigation (51%)
  • Research restaurants (40%)
  • Check flight status (36%)
  • Check-in to a flight (35%)

Where we're going

The top U.S. cities travelers plan to visit:

  • New York City
  • Chicago
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Los Angeles
  • Boston / San Francisco (tie)
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Diabetes isn't just a human disease; dogs and cats get it too

Merck launches consumer education campaign to call attention to the problem

November is not only American Diabetes Month, it's also Pet Diabetes Month, intended to remind pet owners that their dogs and cats can develop diabetes jus...

PhotoNovember is not only American Diabetes Month, it's also Pet Diabetes Month, intended to remind pet owners that their dogs and cats can develop diabetes just as humans can.

"Pet owners should be aware of the possible warning signs of pet diabetes and see their veterinarians for a definitive diagnosis," said Dr. Madeleine Stahl, a veterinarian speaking on behalf of Merck, which makes Vetsulin, an insuline product for dogs and cats. "Considering the fact that pet diabetes can be effectively managed, lack of owner awareness may be the biggest risk factor associated with this condition." 

Lethargy, excessive thirst and frequent urination are some of the most common signs of diabetes mellitus in dogs and cats. Pets may also exhibit increased hunger while losing weight, cloudy eyes (due to cataracts) in dogs and weakness of the back legs in cats.

Though any dog or cat can have diabetes, it is most commonly found in miniature schnauzers, German shepherds, golden retrievers and poodles. It strikes females more than males and it usually appears in a dog's middle years – age six to nine.

The causes of diabetes in dogs are similar to those in people. The islet cells in the pancreas slow down, failing to produce enough insulin. Without the proper amount of insulin, glucose can't pass into cells and produce energy for metabolism.

The result is high blood sugar as well as too much sugar in the urine.

Awareness campaign

To call attention to the problem, Merck Animal Health is launching a global awareness campaign during November. It has created three videos to help pet owners learn more about the condition and its signs. Those videos can be found at www.petdiabetesmonth.com along with a variety of pet owner educational materials.

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A case of the blues: Small businesses optimism on the decline

Business owners, by and large, point the finger of blame at Washington

It couldn't have come at a worse time. On the cusp of the holiday shopping season, small business optimism dropped from 93.9 to 91.6, according to the Nat...

PhotoIt couldn't have come at a worse time.

On the cusp of the holiday shopping season, small business optimism dropped from 93.9 to 91.6, according to the National Federation for Independent Business (NFIB). The decline comes amid a sharp decline in hiring plans and expectations for future small business conditions.

Of the ten components that make up the NFIB Index of Business Optimism, seven turned negative -- falling a total of 27 percentage points. The stalemate in early October over funding the government as well as the failed “launch” of the Obamacare website left 68% of owners feeling that the current period is a bad time to expand; 37% of those owners identified the political climate in Washington as the culprit -- a record high level.

“Washington paralysis is never good news for the economy, so it was no surprise that while politicians were arguing over whether or not the government should remain fully operational, small-business optimism measures deteriorated,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “Small employers are not fooled by headlines announcing record high stock market indices; everyday they live the economic realities of over-regulation, increased taxes, weak sales and a government without any direction or plan for the future.”

Optimism Index

The NFIB optimism index lost 2.3 points to 91.6, with two components -- the outlook for business conditions and the outlook for real sales gains -- accounting for 52% of the decline. A weaker outlook for business produced dissatisfaction with inventory stocks, and fewer plans to create new jobs.

The average value of the index since the recovery started is 91 -- 8 points below the 35 year average through 2007 and well below readings typically experienced in a recovery, so the current reading is hardly something to cheer about. It is very hard to identify any current developments that would make owners more optimistic. The new budget deadline of January 15, 2014 is approaching quickly and Congress continues to wrangle over the healthcare law and little else.

Labor markets

Twelve percent of the owners (up 1 point) reported adding an average of 3.5 workers per firm over the past few months. Offsetting that, 9% reduced employment (down 2 points) an average of 2.8 workers (seasonally adjusted), producing the seasonally adjusted gain of 0.11 workers per firm overall. The remaining 79% of owners made no net change in employment. Fifty-one percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 40 reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions.

Reports of workforce reductions have reached normal or sub-normal levels, explaining the favorable levels of initial claims for unemployment. Nine percent reported reducing employment, the lowest reading since 2006. But owners report sub-par levels of hiring, so job growth remains anemic even with low levels of initial claims. Twenty-one percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period (up 1 point), a positive signal for the unemployment rate. But, job creation plans lost 4 points from September, landing at a net 5%.

Inventories & sales

The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales in the past 3 months compared with the prior three months deteriorated 2 points to a negative 8%. Seventeen percent still cite weak sales as their top business problem. The net percent of owners expecting higher real sales volumes fell 6 points to 2% of all owners (seasonally adjusted). Not much help for hiring or inventory investment in those numbers.

The pace of inventory reduction continued, with a net negative 6% of all owners reporting growth in inventories (seasonally adjusted) -- 1 point better than September. The net percent of owners planning to add to inventory stocks was a net negative 1%. The negative outlook for the economy and real sales prospects adversely affected inventory satisfaction. The net percent of owners viewing current stocks as too low fell to a net negative 5%, the worst reading since 2011.

Capital spending

The frequency of reported capital outlays over the past six months rose 2 points to 57%, the best showing since January, 2008 -- improved, but still relatively weak. A net 2% of all owners expect improved real sales volumes, down 6 points. Seventeen percent reported “poor sales” as their top business problem, unchanged from September. Reported sales trends deteriorated 2 points to a net negative 8%. Overall, the environment for capital spending deteriorated as what little confidence owners had in the future eroded further. The percent of owners planning capital outlays in the next 3 to 6 months fell 2 points to 23%. Six percent characterized the current period as a good time to expand facilities (down 2 points).

Inflation

Seasonally adjusted, the net percent of owners raising selling prices was 5%, up 4 points. Twenty percent plan on raising average prices in the next few months (unchanged), and 3% plan reductions (up 1 point). Seasonally adjusted, a net 18% plan price hikes, down 1 point. Not much of this is likely to “stick” if owners are correctly forecasting the future of the economy over the next six months.

Profits & wages

Earnings trends did not improve in October, holding at a negative 23%. Two percent reported reduced worker compensation and 18% reported raising compensation, yielding seasonally adjusted net 16% reporting higher worker compensation (down 1 point). A net seasonally adjusted 10% plan to raise compensation in the coming months -- down 3 points. Overall, the compensation picture remained at the better end of experience in this recovery, but historically weak for periods of economic growth and recovery. This is consistent with the macro reports about weak growth in income and compensation. With a net 16% raising compensation but a net 5% raising selling prices, profits will continue to be under pressure.

Credit markets

Six percent of the owners reported that all their credit needs were not met, unchanged from September. Twenty-eight percent reported all credit needs met, and 53% explicitly said they did not want a loan. Only 2% reported that financing was their top business problem. Twenty-eight percent of all owners reported borrowing on a regular basis, down 2 points and a record low. A net 6% reported loans “harder to get” compared to their last attempt (asked of regular borrowers only), up 1 point from September. The net percent of owners expecting credit conditions to ease in the coming months was a seasonally adjusted negative 8 percent, 1 point worse than September. A surprising result in an economy with the most aggressive monetary policy in history.

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RAM 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks recalled

The warning lights in the instrument cluster may fail to illuminate as designed

Chrysler Group LLC is recalling 8,370 model year 2014 RAM 1500, 2500, and 3500 trucks manufactured July 1, 2013, through August 22, 2013. Randomly, the w...

PhotoChrysler Group LLC is recalling 8,370 model year 2014 RAM 1500, 2500, and 3500 trucks manufactured July 1, 2013, through August 22, 2013.

Randomly, the warning lights in the instrument cluster may fail to illuminate as designed. Inoperative warning lights may not properly warn the driver of vehicle problems, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will update the instrument cluster software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in late November 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N59.

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Researchers predict the Alzheimer's disease timeline

New method could be a valuable tool for both doctors and patients

Getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is devastating for both the patient and their loved ones. At present there is no cure and the patient faces a gr...

PhotoGetting a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is devastating for both the patient and their loved ones. At present there is no cure and the patient faces a gradual memory loss and, ultimately, death.

After the initial shock a patient may have many questions, not least of which is “how much time do I have?” Doctors currently have no good answer for that, but they might soon. A research team at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) has clinically validated a new method they say can predict how long a patient has between diagnosis and full-time care, nursing home residence and death.

The method, which uses data gathered from a single patient visit, is based on a complex model of Alzheimer’s disease progression that the researchers developed by consecutively following two sets of Alzheimer’s patients for 10 years each. Their findings are published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. 

Hard to predict

“Predicting Alzheimer’s progression has been a challenge because the disease varies significantly from one person to another,” said senior author Yaakov Stern, PhD, professor of neuropsychology at CUMC. “Two Alzheimer’s patients may both appear to have mild forms of the disease, yet one may progress rapidly, while the other progresses much more slowly. Our method enables clinicians to predict the disease path with great specificity.”

Stern says the new predictor model – dubbed L-GoM – takes into account the complexity of Alzheimer’s disease. He says patients don’t typically fall neatly into mild, moderate, or severe disease categories and therefore they are uncertain of how much time they have before they begin to feel the degenerative impact of the disease.

“For example, a patient may be able to live independently yet have hallucinations or behavioral outbursts,” said Stern, who also directs the Cognitive Neuroscience Division at CUMC. “Our method is flexible enough to handle missing data. Not all 16 variables are needed for accurate prediction – just as many as are available.”

Too much information?

PhotoIt may not be the kind of information an Alzheimer's patient wants to have, but it can be vitally important to their caregivers, and to the patient's quality of life.

“In addition to time to nursing home residence or death, our method can be used to predict time to assisted living or other levels of care, such as needing help with eating or dressing, or time to incontinence,” said Ray Razlighi, assistant professor of neurology at CUMC one of the study's authors.

Knowing how long you have before your memory slips away would allow you to be a more active participant in crucial end-of-life decisions and provide a timeline for getting legal and financial affairs in order. For caregivers, knowing what to expect and when might help them get through what will be an extraordinarily difficult time.

Alzhiemer's disease cases are expected to increase rapidly as the large Baby Boom generation enters old age. As many as 5.1 million Americans may currently have Alzheimer's disease, but estimates vary.

The disease

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age 60.

According to the National Institutes of Health, memory problems are typically one of the first signs of Alzheimer's disease. Sometimes, other thinking problems, such as trouble finding the right words or poor judgment, are the early warning signs. Other symptoms may include:

  • Getting lost
  • Trouble handling money and paying bills
  • Repeating questions
  • Taking longer to complete normal daily tasks
  • Poor judgment
  • Losing things or misplacing them in odd places
  • Mood and personality changes

Near the end, people with severe Alzheimer's cannot communicate and are completely dependent on others for their care. They may be in bed most or all of the time as the body shuts down.

All of this, of course, takes an enormous toll on the caregiver. NIH offers a guide for caregivers that offers advice for coping, starting with the diagnosis. 

Nikolaos Scarmeas, one of the Columbia researchers, says he and his colleagues believe their method of determining the timeline of the Alzheimer's progression will advance efforts to diagnose, treat and manage the effects of this dread disease.

“It may become a valuable tool for both physicians and patients’ families,” he said.

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Postal Service will start delivering for Amazon on Sunday

New York and Los Angeles are first in line, with more to be added next year

Congress has refused to let the U.S. Postal Service stop delivering on Saturday, so instead it will start delivering packages for Amazon on Sundays.Amazo...

PhotoCongress has refused to let the U.S. Postal Service stop delivering on Saturday, so instead it will start delivering packages for Amazon on Sundays.

Amazon Prime members, who receive unlimited, free two-day shipping on millions of items, can now receive their packages on Sunday in the New York and Los Angeles areas, with more cities to be added next year.

The Postal Service -- famously short of cash because of requirements that it pre-fund healthcare benefits for its workers -- has been looking for ways to cut expenses and increase revenue. 

Package delivery is one of the Postal Service's more profitable lines of business and has actually been growing even as the volume of first-class mail has been decreasing. You can thank the Internet for both trends.

While the USPS has been pulling out all the stops to improve its bottom line, Amazon has been working to establish faster delivery service in major markets. It has experimented with same-day service and, with the USPS deal, Sunday service.

Voracious shoppers

“If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can order a backpack for your child on Friday and be packing it for them Sunday night,” said Dave Clark, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide operations and customer service. “We’re excited that now every day is an Amazon delivery day and we know our Prime members, who voraciously shop on Amazon, will love the additional convenience they will experience as part of this new service.”

“As online shopping continues to increase, the Postal Service is very happy to offer shippers like Amazon the option of having packages delivered on Sunday,” said Patrick R. Donahoe, Postmaster General and Chief Executive Officer. “With this new service, the Postal Service is now delivering packages seven days a week in select cities."

To participate, Amazon customers can simply add millions of eligible items to their cart and will see the Sunday delivery promise at checkout when available in their region.

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Beware of scammy shopping websites

One reader's cautionary tale contains valuable lessons for others

If you’re looking to buy boots now that winter is approaching, beware: Jonnette H. from Vancouver, Wash. wrote and warned us to avoid the site womens...

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Consumer protection tips for veterans

Armed service members are targeted by scam artists and unscrupulous businesses

Active duty military members too often fall victiim to unscrupulous businesses Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today issued a consumer advisory highl...

PhotoActive duty military members too often fall victiim to unscrupulous businesses and scam artists. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman recently discussed the problem and highlighted state and federal laws protecting current and former members of the armed services.

“Our nation owes a great debt to military service members, veterans, and their families. It's despicable that anyone would seek to take advantage of those who have sacrificed to ensure our safety and preserve our rights here at home,” Schneiderman said.

He noted that military personnel and their families are consistently targeted by scam artists. The unique characteristics of service members – a guaranteed paycheck, job security, and the transient lifestyle of multiple deployments and relocations – make them more susceptible to a variety of frauds.

As scamming incidents in the military often parallel those in the civilian community, service members and veterans should follow these basic consumer tips in order to avoid becoming victims:

  • Don‘t rush into making purchases or investment decisions. Take your time;
  • Always carefully read through a contract;
  • Resist high-pressure sales tactics. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is;
  • Beware unsolicited phone offers -- don’t be afraid to hang up on solicitors who are rude or pushy;
  • Use care when giving out personal information such as bank account or Social Security numbers; never give that information to people you don’t know;
  • Get written estimates;
  • Ask about refund policies and warranties before you buy;
  • Prepare a list of questions in advance when considering a major purchase;
  • Call the Better Business Bureau to find out about a firm’s track record.

Protections guaranteed

In addition, service members and their families should stay abreast of the rights and protections guaranteed them under the Service Members' Civil Relief Act (SCRA) in order to avoid frauds and other financial difficulties:

  • Interest rate on mortgage payments and credit card obligations may be capped at 6% during the period of military service (and one year after the service member's return, in the case of a mortgage) if service materially affects the member's ability to pay.
  • Mortgage lenders may not foreclose, or seize property for a failure to pay a mortgage debt, while a service member is on active duty or for nine-months grace period prior to December 31, 2012, unless they have the approval of a court.
  • A landlord may not evict a service member or family from a primary residence where the rent is $2,975.54 or less (adjusted annually) except by court order.
  • Service members have the right to stay any civil proceeding, including foreclosure action and debt collection, for at least 90 days if they cannot appear, and without accrual of penalties. The court has discretion to grant additional stays upon further application.
  • Service members who receive permanent change of station orders, or who are deployed to a new location for 90 days or more, have the right to terminate contracts, including vehicle leases, phone contracts, etc., effective 30 days after the next rental payment is due (if no lease) or the last day of the month following the month in which notice is given.
  • A military legal assistance office locator for each branch of the armed forces can be found here.

G. I. Bill

Service members and veterans who are seeking to further their education at a for-profit higher education institution, such as trade school, should choose carefully.

The for-profit education industry has recently been plagued by complaints and reports alleging that some proprietary school officials and recruiters engage in deceptive conduct, including misrepresenting the quality and cost of the education they provide, engaging in high-pressure tactics, and misrepresenting the job prospects and earnings of students who complete their program.

  • If you are considering a two-year program and hoping to transfer to a four-year college, make sure that your credits will transfer with you. If the school does not have a "Regional Accreditation," you may have trouble transferring any credits you earn to another institution.
  • If you're looking to obtain a certificate for a specific occupation, make sure the certificate will be accepted by the state agency that regulates that occupation.
  • If you are considering enrolling at a for-profit school, consider that for-profit schools are often much more expensive than similar programs at public universities and community colleges. And, if the program does not meet your needs or if you drop out, you may have exhausted your VA benefits and be left without sufficient funds to continue your education.
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Are hackers attacking healthcare.gov?

If so, they're having little effect on the troubled site's functioning

You’ve probably noticed how for the past several days, ever since the website Healthcare.gov first went public, there’s been a constant stream ...

PhotoYou’ve probably noticed how, ever since the website Healthcare.gov first went public, there’s been a constant stream of news reports on the theme “Disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, namely because it’s impossible for anyone to actually navigate the website.”

So when we read this Information Week article with the headline “Hackers threaten destruction of Obamacare website,” we weren’t sure if the hackers’ efforts should be considered too little, too late or mere overkill.

But that’s not stopping the hackers from trying. As security writer Marc Eisenbarth noted on the Arbor Networks Security Blog:

“Reports have indicated that the site has been inaccessible to some people when they have attempted to visit it.  ASERT has no direct knowledge of any significant denial of service attacks directed towards the site.  However, ASERT has recently found one tool that is designed to overload the webpage.”

Not really hacking

A denial of service (or DoS) attack isn’t really “hacking,” in the sense of breaking into a computer or database to steal or corrupt any files within. It’s more like the Internet equivalent of having thousands of people constantly call a telephone number, solely to tie up that phone line and prevent other calls from getting through.

ASERT discovered a social media site offering to let users help “Destroy Obama Care” [sic] by using a program that constantly alternates between visiting the healthcare.gov site and its “Contact Us” page.  

Ominous as that sounds, Eisenbarth wrote that “the request rate, the non-distributed attack architecture and many other limitations make this tool unlikely to succeed in affecting the availability of the healthcare.gov site.”

So while this particular attack may not have much effect, it’s worth counting as a data point toward a possibly disturbing trend: “This application continues a trend ASERT is seeing with denial of service attacks being used as a means of retaliation against a policy, legal rulings or government actions.”

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Battery-powered cars the future? Hyundai doesn't think so

Hyundai is promoting its hydrogen fuel cell as an alternative to batteries

Battery-powered electric cars are being heralded as the clean-air, carbon-neutral future, but there are some big obstacles, including range anxiety, high c...

Photo
Hyundai's fuel-cell-powered Tucson crossover (Hyundai photo)

Battery-powered electric cars are being heralded as the clean-air, carbon-neutral future, but there are some big obstacles, including range anxiety, high cost and the often-ignored fact that the generation of electricity is not always an environmentally-friendly process.

Hyundai is promoting its hydrogen-powered vehicle as a much better answer. The third-generation Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) does away with heavy batteries, can go as far as 300 miles between fuelings and never needs to be plugged in.

The Tucson crossover uses fuel-cell power from compressed hydrogen to generate its own electricity and power an electric motor. The FCEV Tucson performs at a range equal to gasoline-powered vehicles and does so with an energy source that is not only renewable but also far safer than gasoline, according to Hyundai.

Production of the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell began at the company’s Ulsan manufacturing plant in Korea in January 2013, making Hyundai the first automaker to begin commercial production of a hydrogen-powered vehicle. The first complete car rolled off the assembly line on February 26, 2013.

The company is planning a roll-out of the cars next year in California, which has been actively encouraging construction of refueling stations.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) in August awarded Hydrogen Frontier, Inc. a $3 million grant to build a new 100 percent renewable hydrogen fueling station for fuel cell electric vehicles at Hyundai’s hydrogen energy generation and fueling station in Chino, Calif. The station is supposed to open to the public by October 2014, joining the eight public stations open today and 17 more that are in development. The goal is to have 68 stations in place to support the larger rollout of the vehicles in the next few years.

“Hyundai has been supporting governments, energy companies and other organizations globally to develop an easily accessible and affordable hydrogen infrastructure,” said Dr. Sung Hwan Cho, president, Hyundai America Technical Center, Inc. “With world-class partners like Hydrogen Frontier and the support of the California government, we are expanding the hydrogen fueling infrastructure and taking one more step toward mass production of a fuel cell electric vehicle.”

Hydrogen fuel cells use hydrogen to create electricity which powers the electric-drive vehicles. Fuel cell vehicles have no tailpipe greenhouse emissions and their range between fill-ups and the speed at which they refuel are comparable to that of conventional vehicles. The development of fueling stations, such as the Chino facility, is crucial to the success of fuel cells in the marketplace. 

Batteries: yesterday's news?

As anyone with a smartphone knows, lithium ion batteries -- the kind used in most electric vehicles -- can be troublesome. Charging is time-consuming and the batteries have an unfortunate tendency to overheat, occasionally starting fires.

They're also expensive, which limits automakers' profits and makes electric vehicles so expensive that government subsidies are required to move them off dealer lots. So far, no one has found a way to reduce the cost of the batteries used in cars and the search for economies of scale hasn't produced any answers, Kwon Moon-sik, Hyundai Motor Group's president of R&D, said at a recent conference.

"There is no problem with the technology -- only with the cost and profitability," Kwon said of battery EVs, according to Automotive News. "We cannot make a profit with them."

Other automakers are still in the research phase and several have formed partnerships to spread the development costs, but Hyundai is going it alone for now, hoping to build demand for the technology and thereby spark development of more fuel station networks.

Feds get on board

The federal government initially shunned fuel cell technology in favor of batteries, but in May launched H2USA, a public-private partnership with Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Toyota to promote hydrogen refueling infrastructure.

H2USA will bring experts together to solve key infrastructure challenges, including leveraging low-cost natural gas resources. Through the program, industry and government partners will identify actions to encourage early adopters of fuel cell electric vehicles, conduct coordinated technical and market analysis, and evaluate alternative fueling infrastructure that can enable cost reductions and economies of scale.

“Fuel cell technologies are an important part of an all-of-the-above approach to diversify America’s transportation sector, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and increase our competitiveness in the global market,” said assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, David Danielson in the Energy Department’s press release. “By bringing together key stakeholders from across the U.S. fuel cell and hydrogen industry, the H2USA partnership will help advance affordable fuel cell electric vehicles that save consumers money and give drivers more options.”

“Hyundai’s Tucson Fuel Cell program is an integral part of our plan to develop low-carbon, fuel-efficient vehicles that minimize fuel consumption and reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” said Gil Castillo, senior group manager, alternative vehicle strategy, Hyundai Motor America. “Our partnership with the Energy Department and H2USA is another way Hyundai is striving to meet the critical social needs for both mobility and environmental preservation.”

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Nail gun injuries on the rise

They're easy to use but they're also dangerous

Young males in the work environment are at greatest risk of sustaining a nail gun injury to their non-dominant hand, a new study has found.Writing in the...

PhotoHey guys, just because that nail gun is quick and easy to use doesn't mean you don't have to pay attention. Researchers in Australia say there's been an increase in the frequency of injuries to nail gun users, both those in the workplace and at home.

Young males in the work environment are at greatest risk of sustaining a nail gun injury to their non-dominant hand, a new study found. The researchers said nail guns are commonly used in the building and construction industry because they increase productivity and are technically easy to operate.

A previous study showed a three times increase in consumer-related nail gun injuries from 1991 to 2005, which coincided with the availability of pneumatic nail guns to the general public. In the present study, only four cases (4.6%) were sustained in a non-work-related setting.

"Whilst nail gun injuries involving the skull, chest and abdomen have been reported, the vast majority of injuries occur to the upper and lower limbs," according to the study published in Emergency Medicine Australasia, the journal of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also found that most nail gun injuries occur to the hands and arms. 

Nail gun injuries result in a significant loss of productivity, as well as having a significant financial cost. Information obtained from the Queensland Employee Injury Data Base shows an average of 81 workers' compensation claims for nail gun injuries each year over the past five years in Queensland.

Each case subsequently resulted in an average of 15 days off work.

Contaminated environment

PhotoNail gun injuries most often occur in a contaminated environment and each nail can contain metal barbs or may be coated with polymer or plastic which can become embedded in the wound.

Also, the nail may potentially be discharged into the body with a significant kinetic energy causing marked soft tissue damage. Potential complications of nail gun injuries are direct damage to soft tissues, tendons, and bones and can result in infections and septic arthritis.

Out of 87 cases identified in this study, which was conducted between January 2007 and July 2012, 58% underwent surgery, 32% were treated solely in the emergency department, and 10% were transferred to a private facility.

At the time of operation, 14% of cases had tendon, joint or neurovascular involvement and 20% had retained foreign material.

The researchers said surgery for such injuries is generally short and safe, involving removal of embedded material, repair of structural damage and a sterile washout.

What to do

The CDC offers these tips to prevent injury:

  1. Use full sequential trigger nail guns;
  2. Provide training;
  3. Establish nail gun work procedures;
  4. Provide personal protective equipment (PPE);
  5. Encourage reporting and discussion of injuries and close calls; and
  6. Provide first aid and medical treatment.
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"Healthy" vegetable oils may not be so healthy

Study says some vegetable oils may actually increase the risk of heart disease

Some vegetable oils that claim to be healthy may actually increase the risk of heart disease, and health regulators should reconsider cholesterol-lowering ...

PhotoSome vegetable oils that claim to be healthy may actually increase the risk of heart disease, and health regulators should reconsider cholesterol-lowering claims on food labeling, according to a study published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

Replacing saturated animal fats with polyunsaturated vegetable oils has become common practice because they can reduce cholesterol levels and help prevent heart disease. In 2009, Health Canada's Food Directorate, after reviewing published evidence, approved a request from the food industry to apply a heart disease risk reduction claim on vegetable oils and foods containing these oils. The label suggests "a reduced risk of heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels."

But that may not be true of all vegetable oils, the researchers found.

"Careful evaluation of recent evidence, however, suggests that allowing a health claim for vegetable oils rich in omega-6 linoleic acid but relatively poor in omega-3 α-linolenic acid may not be warranted," write Drs. Richard Bazinet, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto and Michael Chu, Lawson Health Research Institute and Division of Cardiac Surgery, Western University, London, Ontario.

Corn, safflower oil

Corn and safflower oil, which are rich in omega-6 linoleic acid but contain almost no omega-3 α-linolenic acid, are not associated with beneficial effects on heart health according to recent evidence.

The authors cite a study published earlier this year in February 2013 "… in which the intervention group replaced saturated fat with sources of safflower oil or safflower oil margarine (rich in omega-6 linoleic acid but low in omega-3 α-linoleic acid). They found that the intervention group had serum cholesterol levels that were significantly decreased (by about 8%-13%) relative to baseline and the control group, which is consistent with the health claim." However, rates of death from all causes of cardiovascular disease and coronary artery disease significantly increased in the treatment group.

In Canada, omega-6 linoleic acid is found in corn and safflower oils as well as foods such as mayonnaise, margarine, chips and nuts. Canola and soybean oils, which contain both linoleic and α-linolenic acids, are the most common forms of oil in the Canadian diet. "… it is unclear whether oils rich in omega-6 linoleic acid but low in omega-3 α-linolenic acid also reduce this risk. We suggest that the health claim be modified such that foods rich in omega-6 linoleic acid but poor in omega-3 α-linolenic acid be excluded," conclude the authors.

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Chrysler recalls RAM trucks

The left tie rod assembly may break

Chrysler Group LLC is recalling 36,710 model year 2008-2012 RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks manufactured February 20, 2007, through December 22, 2012. The left ...

PhotoChrysler Group LLC is recalling 36,710 model year 2008-2012 RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks manufactured February 20, 2007, through December 22, 2012.

The left tie rod assembly may break. A failure of the tie rod assembly may result in a loss of steering control, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will install a new left tie rod assembly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-247-9753. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N63.

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Garden-Fresh Foods again expands food recall

The products may be Contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes

Garden-Fresh Foods is expanding its previous recalls of fresh cut vegetables, ready-to-eat salads, slaws, dips and spreads sold under various brands and co...

PhotoGarden-Fresh Foods is expanding its previous recalls of fresh cut vegetables, ready-to-eat salads, slaws, dips and spreads sold under various brands and code dates manufactured prior to November 06, 2013. All packaging types and sizes are included.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The company has not received reports of illnesses due to consumption of these products.

The products were sold nationwide to retail stores, restaurants and institutions. Garden-Fresh Foods Inc. is concerned that expired product may be frozen in consumer homes. Consumers who have purchased these products are urged to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-645-3367 Monday through Friday between the hours 8:00AM - 4:30 PM.

Products included in this recall are:

BrandProduct DiscriptionPack SizeRetail UPC CodeMaster Case UPC CodeExpiration Dates
Chef's KitchenDeluxe Egg Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52044 511/17/2013 - 12/4/2013
      
Copperwood KitchensSteakhouse Macaroni Salad2/5 lb. 8 11839 01018 012/5/2013
Copperwood KitchensChopped Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 8 11839 01020 311/21/2013 - 12/4/2013
      
Dairy FreshPotato Salad with Egg 2/5 lb. 0 70163 89085 512/5/2013
Dairy FreshHomemade Macaroni Salad2/5 lb. 0 70163 89080 012/8/2013
Dairy FreshMustard Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 70163 89090 912/3/2013 - 12/10/2013
Dairy FreshHomemade Dixie Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 70163 55890 812/8/2013
Dairy FreshMexicalli Taco Pasta1/5 lb. 0 70163 55999 812/10/2013
Dairy FreshBaked Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 70163 40659 612/1/2013 - 12/15/2013
Dairy FreshChopped Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 70163 57363 512/1/2013
Dairy FreshMacaroni Salad2/5 lb. 0 70163 56415 212/5/2013
Dairy FreshPasta & Tomato Salad1/5 lb. 0 70163 41000 811/26/2013 - 12/3/2013
Dairy FreshKrab Salad1/5 lb. 0 70163 41001 512/8/2013 - 12/14/2013
Dairy FreshAsiago Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 70163 50041 911/26/2013
Dairy FreshVenetian Bow Tie Pasta1/5 lb. 0 11596 50042 311/26/2013
Dairy FreshSour Cream Mac & Cheddar2/5 lb. 0 70163 50043 311/26/2013
Dairy FreshHomemade Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 70163 56575 312/6/2013
Dairy FreshHomemade Mustard Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 70163 56700 912/10/2013
Dairy FreshDeluxe BLT Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 70163 50074 711/26/2013 - 12/10/2013
Dairy FreshAsian Vegetable Orzo1/5 lb. 0 70163 50242 011/26/2013 - 12/10/2013
Dairy FreshRed Skin Potato & Herb1/5 lb. 0 70163 53370 712/3/2013 - 12/10/2013
      
Family StylePotato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51061 311/27/2013
Family StyleMacaroni Salad2/5 lb.0 11596 52060 50 00 11596 52060 511/22/2013 - 12/7/2013
Family StyleCole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 11596 53060 411/26/2013 - 12/5/2013
      
Farmer's MarketFresh Salsa Jalapeno Mild6/15 oz.0 11596 06142 90 00 11596 06142 912/14/2013 - 12/15/2013
Farmer's MarketFresh Salsa Serrano Spicy6/15 oz.0 11596 06143 60 00 11596 06143 612/14/2013 - 12/15/2013
Farmer's MarketFresh Salsa Habanero Hot6/15 oz.0 11596 06144 30 00 11596 06144 312/15/2013
      
Finest TraditionsStrawberry Yogurt Cheesecake Dessert1/5 lb. 10 733147 11018 511/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsMint Chocolate Chip Cookie Mousse1/5 lb. 10 733147 11017 811/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsApple Salad Base1/2.5 lb. 10 733147 11020 811/27/2013
Finest TraditionsTaco Spread2/4 lb. 10 733147 11019 212/18/2013 - 12/20/2013
Finest TraditionsTies & Tomatoes Pasta Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10686 711/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsBroccoli Cauliflower Salad Base5/2.125 lb. 10 733147 10647 811/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsDeluxe BLT Pasta Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10770 311/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsSteakhouse Potato Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10773 411/11/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsFruit Dip6/11 oz. 10 733147 10853 312/20/2013 - 12/27/2013
Finest TraditionsMock Crab Salad6/16 oz.7 33147 00027 410 733147 10001 811/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsDeluxe Potato Salad4/8 lb. 10 733147 10450 411/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsMock Crab Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10287 611/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsMacaroni Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10286 911/18/2013 - 12/4/2013
Finest TraditionsCreamy Country Cole Slaw1/8 lb. 10 733147 10140 411/20/2013 - 12/4/2013
Finest TraditionsKrab Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10172 511/18/2013 - 12/2/2013
Finest TraditionsTuna Pasta Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10067 411/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsHomemade-style Cole Slaw1/8 lb. 10 733147 10170 111/20/2013 - 12/4/2013
Finest TraditionsDeluxe Potato Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10130 511/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsRobust Pasta Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10145 911/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsRoasted Garlic Potato Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10159 611/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsPenne Pasta with Roma Tomatoes1/8 lb. 10 733147 10286 911/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsSouthwest Taco Pasta1/8 lb. 10 733147 10287 611/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsCreamy Fruit Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10101 511/6/2013 - 11/25/2013
Finest TraditionsGarden Vegetable Spaghetti Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10196 111/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsTuna Salad Spread2/4 lb. 10 733147 10186 211/30/2013 - 12/14/2013
Finest TraditionsHomestyle Potato Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10134 311/20/2013 - 12/11/2013
Finest TraditionsFat Free Four Bean Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10180 011/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsHomestyle Potato Salad4/8 lb. 10 733147 10452 811/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsPumpkin Mousse1/5 lb. 0 00 11596 55053 411/15/2013 - 12/4/2013
Finest TraditionsRigatoni Pasta Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10148 011/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsWild Rice Salad Base1/8 lb. 10 733147 10182 411/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsSpinach Dip1/8 lb. 10 733147 10123 711/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsDill Dip1/8 lb. 10 733147 10122 011/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsEgg Salad Spread2/4 lb. 10 733147 10189 311/15/2013 - 12/4/2013
Finest TraditionsPea & Cheese Pasta Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10146 611/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsSmoky Baked Beans4/8 lb. 10 733147 10456 611/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsFresh Salsa Spicy6/11 oz. 10 733147 10996 712/9/2013
Finest TraditionsFresh Salsa Mild6/11 oz. 10 733147 10994312/9/2013
Finest TraditionsCranberry Relish2/5 lb. 10 733147 10862 53/31/3014
Finest TraditionsSmoked Imitation Salmon Spread1/8 lb. 10 733147 10120 611/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsBaked Bread Pudding1/7 lb. 10 733147 10099 511/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Finest TraditionsBlue Cheese Potato Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10137 411/11/2013 - 11/25/2013
Finest TraditionsDeluxe Potato Salad6/16 oz.7 33147 00007 610 733147 10133 611/27/2013 - 12/11/2013
Finest TraditionsSouthwest Dip1/8 lb. 10 733147 10125 112/4/2013
Finest TraditionsBlack Olive Jalapeno Pepper Spread2/4 lb. 10 733147 10859 511/25/2013
Finest TraditionsCheddar Cheese & Olive Spread2/4 lb.  10 733147 10860 111/25/2013
Finest TraditionsNevada Chicken Salad Base1/8 lb. 10 733147 10912 711/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsSmoky Baked Beans6/16 oz.7 33147 00161 510 733147 10243 211/28/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsSmoky Baked Beans6/16 oz.7 33147 00161 510 733147 10243 211/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsMacaroni Salad6/16 oz.7 33147 00018 210 733147 10157 211/25/2013 - 11/25/2013
Finest TraditionsHomemade-style Cole Slaw6/16 oz.7 33147 00025 010 733147 10165 711/20/2013 - 12/4/2013
Finest TraditionsHomestyle Potato Salad6/16 oz.7 33147 00019 910 733147 10175 611/27/2013 - 12/11/2013
Finest TraditionsCheddar & Bacon Potato Filling1/8 lb. 10 733147 10262 311/11/2013 - 11/18/2013
Finest TraditionsSour Cream & Chive Potato Filling1/8 lb. 10 733147 10261 611/11/2013 - 11/18/2013
Finest TraditionsCreamy Cheddar Macaroni Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10156 511/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsStrawberry Creme Dessert1/8 lb. 10 733147 00021 911/11/2013 - 11/25/2013
Finest TraditionsPistachio Whip 1/8 lb. 10 733147 00020 211/11/2013 - 11/25/2013
Finest TraditionsCookies & Creme Dessert1/8 lb. 10 733147 00022 611/11/2013 - 11/25/2013
Finest TraditionsSmoked Imitation Salmon Spread6/12 oz.7 33147 00127 110 733147 10079 711/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsEgg Salad Spread6/12 oz.7 33147 10491 010 733147 10492 411/15/2013 - 12/7/2013
Finest TraditionsTaco Dip6/8 oz.7 33147 10556 610 733147 10557 011/27/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsDill Dip6/8 oz.7 33147 10554 210 733147 10555 911/27/2013 - 12/11/2013
Finest TraditionsSpinach Dip6/8 oz.7 33147 10538 210 733147 10539 611/20/2013 - 12/11/2013
Finest TraditionsSouthwest Dip6/8 oz.7 33147 10540 510 733147 10541 911/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsChipolte Potato Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10281 411/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsDeviled Egg Potato Salad1/8 lb. 10 733147 10992 911/11/2013 - 11/25/2013
Finest TraditionsCranberry Relish6/12 oz.0 733147 10864 210 733147 10863 23/31/2014
Finest TraditionsClub Salad Kit1/3.75 lb. 10 733147 10977 611/20/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsAsian Vegetable Orzo1/5 lb. 10 733147 10976 912/2/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsSpinach Pasta Salad Base1/5 lb. 10 733147 10978 311/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Finest TraditionsSeafood Salad Louie1/5 lb. 10 733147 10974 511/20/2013 - 12/6/2013
      
Garden-FreshRainbow Cabbage Shredded4/5 lb. 0 11596 50101 710/28/2013  - 11/5/2013
Garden-FreshCabbage Shredded with Carrot 1/8"4/5 lb. 0 11596 50105 510/30/2013 
Garden-FreshCabbage Chopped1/5 lb. 0 11596 50107 910/30/2013  - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshCabbage Chopped4/5 lb. 0 11596 50108 610/28/2013  - 11/5/2013
Garden-FreshCabbage Chopped 3/4"4/5 lb. 0 11596 50115 411/1/2013 
Garden-FreshCabbage Chopped with Red Cabbage4/5 lb. 0 11596 50119 210/31/2013 
Garden-FreshRomaine Chopped 2"4/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50144 411/1/2013
Garden-FreshLettuce Tossed1/5 lb. 0 11596 50149 9 11/4/2013
Garden-FreshLCR Lettuce Tossed / Garni Bags4/5 lb. 0 11596 50150 511/4/2013
Garden-FreshChopped Lettuce Romaine Blend 80/204/5 lb. 0 11596 90150 310/28/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshLettuce Chopped 2"4/5 lb. 0 11596 50155 010/22/2013 - 11/14/2013
Garden-FreshLettuce Shredded 1/8"4/5 lb. 0 11596 50157 410/30/2013 - 11/9/2013
Garden-FreshLettuce Shredded 1/8"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50159 810/30/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshLettuce Shredded 3/16"4/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50169 711/9/2013
Garden-FreshGarden Salad Kit1/3 lb. 0 11596 30177 811/9/2013 - 11/14/2013
Garden-FreshGreek Salad Kit1/2.5 lb. 0 11596 30178 511/9/2013 - 11/14/2013
Garden-FreshBow Tie Salad Kit1/5 lb. 0 11596 50179 611/9/2013 - 11/14/2013
Garden-FreshCelery Diced 1/4"1/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50202 110/31/2013
Garden-FreshCelery Diced 1/4"2/5 lb. 0 11596 50206 911/13/2013
Garden-FreshCelery Diced 3/8"2/5 lb. 0 11596 02081 510/28/2013 - 10/30/2013
Garden-FreshCelery Sticks2/5 lb. 0 11596 50209 010/28/2013 - 11/4/2013
Garden-FreshCelery Sticks  1/5 lb. 0 11596 50210 611/1/2103 - 11/9/2013
Garden-FreshCelery Diced 1/2"2/5 lb. 0 11596 50211 311/1/2103
Garden-FreshCelery Sliced 1/4"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50215 111/1/2103
Garden-FreshCarrots Diced 1/4"1/5 lb. 11596 50252 610/30/2013 - 11/5/2013
Garden-FreshCarrots Diced 1/4"1/10 lb. 0 11596 50253 311/5/2013
Garden-FreshCarrot Sticks2/5 lb. 0 11596 50259 511/4/2013
Garden-FreshCarrot Sticks 3.5"1/5 lb.  0 11596 50260 110/28/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshCarrots Shredded 1/8"1/5 lb.  0 11596 50270 010/28/2013
Garden-FreshCarrot Shredded 1/8"4/5 lb. 0 11596 50274 810/28/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Diced 1/4"4/5 lb. 0 11596 50301 211/1/2013 - 11/4/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Diced 1/4"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50302 811/11/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Diced 1/4"1/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50304 210/31/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Diced 3/8"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50305 910/30/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Diced 1/4"2/5 lb. 0 11596 50306 611/9/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Sliced 3/16"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50310 5 11/10/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Sliced 3/16"2/5 lb. 0 11596 50311 010/31/2013 - 11/1/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Sliced 1/4"2/5 lb. 0 11596 50314 10/29/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Slivered1/5 lb. 0 11596 50315 810/30/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Julienne Cut2/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50321 911/6/2013 - 11/11/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Diced 3/8"2/5 lb. 0 11596 50329 510/30/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshOnions Julienne Cut2/5 lb. 0 11596 50340 010/29/2013 - 11/1/2013
Garden-FreshRed Onions Diced 1/4"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50352 311/1/2013
Garden-FreshRed Onions Sliced 3/16"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50367 710/28/213
Garden-FreshRed Onions Sliced 1/4"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50369 110/28/2013 - 11/1/2103 
Garden-FreshRed Onions Sliced 1/8"2/5 lb. 0 11596 50374 510/29/213 - 10/31/2013
Garden-FreshPotatoes Whole Peeled A1/30 lb. 0 11596 90405 411/1/2013 - 11/5/2013
Garden-FreshPotatoes 1/2x1/2x1/2 Diced1/30 lb. 0 11596 90415 311/1/2013 - 11/5/2013
Garden-FreshPotatoes 1/2x1/2x1/2 Diced1/15 lb. 0 11596 00415 011/1/2013 - 11/5/2013
Garden-FreshPotatoes 3/4 x 3/4 x 3/4 Diced1/30 lb.  11/1/2013 - 11/5/2013
Garden-FreshBroccoli Florets1/5 lb. 0 11596 50515 210/28/2013
Garden-FreshGreen Peppers Diced 3/8"1/5 lb. 0 11596 50549 710/31/2013 - 11/5/2013
Garden-FreshGreen Pepper Sticks 3/16"1/15 lb. 0 11596 55835 611/5/2013
Garden-FreshTomatoes Sliced 1/4"2/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50571 811/5/2013 - 11/13/2013
Garden-FreshTomatoes Diced   2/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50572 510/31/2013
Garden-FreshTomato Wedges1/3 lb. 0 11596 50574 910/28/2013
Garden-FreshPeeled & Sliced Cucumbers1/7 lb. 0 11596 70582 811/11/2013
Garden-Fresh1/4" x 1" Red Pepper Sticks2/2 lb. 0 11596 40585 811/9/2013-11/11/2013
Garden-Fresh1/4" x 1" Green Pepper Sticks2/2 lb. 0 11596 40586 511/9/2013-11/11/2013
Garden-Fresh1/4" x 1" Yellow Pepper Sticks2/2 lb. 0 11596 40587 211/9/2013-11/11/2013
Garden-FreshRed Cabbage Shredded1/5 lb. 0 11596 50590  Manufactured on
10/28/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshRed Cabbage Shredded4/5 lb. 0 11596 50592 310/28/2013 - 11/6/2013
Garden-FreshGreen Onion Sliced1/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50598 510/28/2013 - 11/16/2013
Garden-FreshVegetable Blend1/2.5 lb. 0 11596 50750 710/31/2103 - 11/18/2013
Garden-FreshSoup Mix 3/4"2/5 lb. 0 11596 50763 710/31/2103 - 11/8/2013
Garden-FreshChipotle Ranch Potato Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 51002 611/28/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshAmish Country Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51005 711/22/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshAmerican Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51010 111/22/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshMustard Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51013 211/26/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshRed Potato & Herb Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 91014 711/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshAmish Country Mustard Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51015 611/22/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshLarge Diced American Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 91018 511/22/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshPremium Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 91019 211/22/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshGerman Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 91020 811/21/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshTwice Baked Potato Salad Kit1/5.25 lb. 0 11596 61069 611/9/2013 - 11/13/2013
Garden-FreshBaked Potato Salad Kit1/5.75 lb. 0 11596 61071 911/21/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshCountry Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51075 012/5/2013
Garden-FreshSteakhouse Potato Salad Kit1/10.75 lb. 0 11596 51076 711/21/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshReduced Fat Mustard Potato Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 51202 012/6/2013 - 12/16/2013
Garden-FreshMacaroni Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52005 611/21/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshAmish Country Macaroni Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52010 011/22/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshItalian Pasta Salad1/8 lb. 0 11596 92012 411/21/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshCombo Bean Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52013 111/22/2013 - 12/31/2013
Garden-FreshSweet & Sour Cucumber2/5 lb.  0 11596 52014 811/15/2013 - 11/30/2013
Garden-FreshKidney Bean Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52016 211/21/2013 - 12/4/2013
Garden-FreshBeet & Onion Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52018 211/21/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshWisconsin Cheddar & Pea Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52021 611/17/2013 - 12/1/2013
Garden-FreshEgg Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52022 311/17/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshVenetian Bow Tie Pasta1/5 lb. 0 11596 52027 811/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshSour Cream Mac & Cheddar2/5 lb. 0 11596 92031 311/22/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshGreek Style Pasta with Feta1/5 lb. 0 11596 52033 911/22/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshDeluxe BLT Pasta1/5 lb. 0 11596 52039 111/26/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshDeluxe Egg Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52043 811/16/2013 - 12/2/2013
Garden-FreshSouthwestern Pasta1/5 lb. 0 11596 52046 911/25/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshSweet Bow Tie Pasta with Bacon1/5 lb. 0 11 11596 52047 211/22/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshSun Garden Salad1/4 lb. 0 11596 42059 211/17/2013 - 12/1/2013
Garden-FreshWhole Grain Penne with Spinach, Tomato & Feta1/5 lb. 0 11596 52063 611/26/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshFat Free Broccoli with Rigatoni Salad2/4 lb. 0 11596 52064 311/9/2013
Garden-FreshCalifornia Pasta Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 82068 211/10/2013 - 11/20/2013
Garden-FreshAsiago Pasta Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52069 811/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshMediterranean Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52071 112/4/2103 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshSpinach Pasta Salad Kit1/5.25 lb. 0 11596 62072 511/21/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshAsian Vegetable Orzo1/5 lb. 0 11596 52073 511/28/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshQuinoa Natural Energy Salad1/8 lb. 0 11596 82074 312/2/2013
Garden-FreshCheese Tortellini Salad Toscana1/5 lb. 0 11596 52075 911/2/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshTaco Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52076 611/22/2013 - 12/17/2013
Garden-FreshCheddar Pasta Salad Kit1/4.6 lb. 0 11596 62079 411/9/2013 - 11/16/2013
Garden-FreshMinestrone Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52085 811/22/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshParmesan Peppercorn Pasta Salad Base1/5 lb. 0 11596 52086 511/20/2013 - 12/1/2013
Garden-FreshWhole Wheat Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes1/5 lb. 0 11596 52094 011/30/2013 -12/14/2013
Garden-FreshHealth Salad 1/8 lb. 0 11 11596 82114 211/21/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshWheat Berry Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52118 311/10/2013 - 11/18/2013
Garden-FreshDeviled Egg Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52122 011/20/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshSpaghetti Salad1/5 lb. 0 11 11596 52130 111/22/2013 -12/6/2013
Garden-FreshPremium Egg Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52136 711/16/2013 - 11/22/2013
Garden-FreshRed Potato & Spinach Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52140 411/28/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshRanch Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52202 911/25/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshFarm Stand Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11 11596 52204 911/21/2103 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshWhole Grain Garden Pepper Pasta1/5 lb. 0 11596 52207 411/26/2013 - 11/29/2013
Garden-FreshItalian Market Salad Kit1/5.25 lb. 0 11596 62208 811/25/2013
Garden-FreshBacon Mac & Cheddar Kit1/5.75 lb. 0 11596 62209 511/21/2103 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshCalico Beans4/5 lb. 0 11596 52500 611/22/2013 - 12/2/2013
Garden-FreshSpaghetti Salad4/5 lb. 0 11596 52501 311/22/2013 - 11/28/213
Garden-FreshSun Garden Salad4/4 lb. 0 11596 42502 311/17/2013 - 11/27/2013
Garden-FreshCaprese Pasta Salad Kit1/5 lb. 0 11 11596 52701 311/11/2013 - 11/26/2013
Garden-FreshVinegar & Oil Cole Slaw1/8 lb. 0 11596 83000 111/21/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshCreamy Cole Slaw4/8 lb.0 11596 53005 50 00 11596 53005 511/26/2013 - 12/4/2013
Garden-FreshDixie Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 11596 93007 711/21/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshAmish Country Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 11596 53010 911/21/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshCreamy Shredded Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 11596 93014 511/21/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshPoppy Seed Cole Slaw1/8 lb. 0 11596 83016 211/21/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshCranberry Walnut Red Cabbage Slaw1/8.25 lb. 0 11596 83028 511/18/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshBroccoli Cranberry Cole Slaw Kit1/3.15 lb. 0 11 11596 43029 011/9/2013 - 11/11/2013
Garden-FreshApple Harvest Cole Slaw Kit1/10.5 lb. 0 11596 93032 911/8/2013 - 11/13/2013
Garden-FreshGenoa Chopped Salad Kit1/7.95 lb. 0 11596 73037 011/9/2013 - 11/12/2013
Garden-FreshAsian Chicken Salad Kit1/5.5 lb. 0 11596 53036 911/14/2013 - 11/30/2013
Garden-FreshParmesan Pepper Salad Kit1/6.3 lb. 0 11596 73037 011/9/2013 - 11/12/2013
Garden-FreshBroccoli Cheese Salad Kit1/11.25 lb. 0 11596 93038 111/9/2013 - 11/13/2013
Garden-FreshFresh Creamy Cole Slaw Kit2/6 lb. 0 11596 63039 711/8/2013 - 11/15/2013
Garden-FreshSummer Cole Slaw Kit1/3.875 lb. 0 11596 43041 611/9/2013 - 11/16/2013
Garden-FreshClub Salad Kit1/3.75 lb. 0 11596 53043 711/22/2013 - 12/2/2013
Garden-FreshCreamy Cole Slaw Dressing4/2 lb. 0 11596 43200 712/17/2013 - 12/27/2013
Garden-FreshReduced Fat Cole Slaw1/5 lb. 0 11596 53202 812/6/2013 - 12/15/2013
Garden-FreshReduced Fat Cole Slaw4/5 lb. 0 11596 53500 512/6/2013 - 12/14/2013
Garden-FreshMustard Potato Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14010 00 11596 14010 011/21/2013- 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshAmerican Potato Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14015 50 11596 14015 511/21/2013 -12/10/2013
Garden-FreshGerman Potato Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14017 90 11596 14017 911/25/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshMacaroni Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14018 60 11596 14018 611/25/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshCreamy Shredded Cole Slaw12/16 oz.0 11596 14022 30 11596 14022 311/21/213 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshAmerican Potato Salad8/32 oz.0 11596 24200 20 11596 24200 211/25/2013 - 12/4/2013
Garden-FreshCreamy Shredded Cole Slaw8/32 oz.0 11596 24203 30 11596 24203 311/25/2013 - 12/3/2013
Garden-FreshMacaroni Salad8/32 oz.0 11596 24210 10 11596 24210 111/22/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshMustard Potato Salad8/32 oz.0 11596 24215 60 11596 24215 611/25/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshMacaroni Salad6/48 oz.0 11596 34305 10 11596 34305 111/22/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshCreamy Shredded Cole Slaw6/48 oz.0 11596 34309 90 11596 34309 911/27/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshAmeican Potato Salad6/48 oz.0 11596 34310 50 11596 34310 512/3/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshMustard Potato Salad6/48 oz.0 11596 34313 60 11596 34313 611/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshGerman Potato Salad4/48 oz.0 11596 34319 80 00 11596 44319 511/21/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshSeafood Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 55007 711/25/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshStrawberry Yogurt Cheesecake Dessert1/5 lb. 0 11 11596 55028 811/25/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshRocky Road Dessert1/4 lb. 0 11596 45029 211/26/2013 - 11/29/2013
Garden-FreshBread Pudding 1/7 lb. 0 11596 75034 711/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshPumpkin Bread Pudding1/7 lb. 0 11596 75036 111/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshTropical Waldorf Salad Kit1/6.0625 0 11596 65047 011/11/2013 - 11/13/2013
Garden-FreshTaffy Apple Salad Kit1/5 lb. 0 11596 55049 711/11/2013 - 11/13/2013
Garden-FreshPineapple Dessert1/10 lb. 0 11596 95050 112/4/2013
Garden-FreshPumpkin Mousse1/5 lb. 0 11596 55053 411/16/2013 -12/4/2013
Garden-FreshApple Salad Base1/2.5 lb. 0 11596 25057 111/21/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshHawaiian Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 55058 911/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshCookies & Crème Mousse1/5 lb.0 11596 55062 60 00 11596 05062 111/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshMint Chocolate Chip Cookie Mousse1/5 lb. 0 11596 55069 511/22/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshEuropean Style Chocolate Mousse1/5 lb. 0 11596 55085 511/16/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshWatergate Salad1/8 lb. 0 11596 85086 312/1/2013 - 12/19/2013
Garden-FreshCranberry Ambrosia2/5 lb. 0 11596 55091 611/25/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshCranberry Orange Relish2/5 lb. 0 11596 55094 712/31/2014
Garden-FreshCranberry Apple Relish1/5 lb. 0 11596 17092 312/16/2013
Garden-FreshShrimp Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 55100 511/25/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshPremium Tuna Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 55101 211/26/2013 - 12/11/2013
Garden-FreshSeafood Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 55102 911/30/2013 - 12/11/2013
Garden-FreshFantastic Seafood Salad Kit2/5 lb. 0 11596 95104 111/12/2013 - 11/19/2013
Garden-FreshCreamy Tuna Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 55108 111/26/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshCreamy Seafood Salad2/5 lb.0 11596 55124 10 00 11596 55124 111/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshTexa Style BBQ Beans1/5 lb. 0 11596 55131 911/25/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshTuna Twist Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 55134 011/21/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshBroccoli Cheese Salad Base1/5 lb. 0 11596 55136 411/25/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshGourmet Dill Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 55137 111/27/2013 - 12/6/2013
Garden-FreshLayered Seafood Dip Base1/4 lb. 0 11596 55153 111/21/2013 - 11/29/2013
Garden-FreshSeven Layer Salad Kit2/3.75 lb. 0 11596 85161 712/2/2013 - 12/14/2013
Garden-FreshLayered Taco Dip Kit1/8.125 lb. 0 11 11596 95162 711/9/2013 - 11/20/2013
Garden-FreshTomato Mozzarella Kit1/5 lb. 0 11596 55163 011/11/2013 - 11/26/2013
Garden-FreshEgg Salad Spread1/5 lb. 0 11596 55168 511/22/2013 - 11/30/2013
Garden-FreshAmish Country Baked Beans2/5 lb. 0 11596 55186 911/21/2013 - 12/9/2013
Garden-FreshSeafood Salad Rouille1/5 lb. 0 11596 55187 612/6/2013
Garden-FreshChopped Broccoli / Cauliflower Salad Base1/5 lb. 0 11596 55188 311/27/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshLite Italian Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 55208 811/22/2013 - 12/10/2013
Garden-FreshCalico Beans1/5 lb. 0 11596 52596 911/11/2013 - 12/2/2013
Garden-FreshPremium Rotisserie Chicken Salad Base4/2 lb. 0 11596 25430 212/8/2013 - 12/16/2013
Garden-FreshOld Fashioned Rotisserie Chicken Salad Base4/2 lb. 0 11596 25433 311/21/2013 - 12/5/2013
Garden-FreshBuffalo Style Rotisserie Chicken Salad Base4/2 lb. 0 11596 25434 011/22/2013 - 12/4/2013
Garden-FreshChipotle Rotisserie Chicken Salad Base4/2 lb. 0 11596 25436 411/22/2013 - 12/4/2013
Garden-FreshBlack Bean Couscous1/5 lb. 0 11596 55620 811/18/2013 - 11/26/2013
Garden-FreshPremium Asiago Pasta Salad1/4 lb. 0 11596 45624 912/2/2013 - 12/11/2013
Garden-FreshPenne Pasta with Grape Tomatoes1/5 lb. 0 11596 55625 311/16/2013 - 11/23/2013
Garden-FreshAnti Pasto Salad Kit1/6 lb. 0 11596 65634 211/8/2013 - 11/11/2013
Garden-FreshBaked Egg Custard6/12 oz.0 11596 07032 20 11596 07032 211/25/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshBaked Bread Pudding6/12 oz.0 11596 07034 60 11596 07034 611/27/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshPumpkin Bread Pudding6/12 oz.0 11596 07036 00 11596 07036 011/27/2013 - 12/7/2013
Garden-FreshCranberry Orange Relish6/16 oz.0 11596 17092 30 00 11596 17092 312/31/2014
      
Grandpa'sGerman Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 91023 912/5/2013 - 12/14/2013
Grandpa'sPotato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 91026 011/27/2013 - 12/10/2013
Grandpa'sDeviled Egg Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51065 111/22/2013 - 12/10/2013
Grandpa'sDeviled Egg Potato Salad4/5lb. 0 11596 51065 111/28/2013 -2/10/2013
Grandpa'sRed Skin Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51080 411/22/2013 - 12/10/2013
Grandpa'sSour Cream Cucumber Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52080 311/11/2013 - 11/25/2013
Grandpa'sCole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 11596 93021 311/21/2013 - 12/7/2013
Grandpa'sDeviled Egg Salad6/16 oz.0 11596 14012 40 00 11596 14012 4 11/26/2013 - 12/9/2013
Grandpa'sGerman Potato Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14016 20 00 11596 24016 912/5/2013
Grandpa'sPotato Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14027 80 11596 24027 511/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Grandpa'sPotato Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14027 80 11596 24027 511/25/2013 - 12/9/2013
Grandpa'sCole Slaw12/16 oz.0 11596 14028 50 11596 24028 211/26/2013 - 12/6/2013
Grandpa'sCole Slaw12/16 oz.0 11596 14028 50 11596 24028 211/25/2013 - 12/3/2013
Grandpa'sRed Skin Potato Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14061 20 11596 24061 911/25/2013 - 12/10/2013
Grandpa'sMacaroni Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14066 70 11596 24066 411/25/2013
Grandpa'sSteakhouse Potato Salad12/16 oz.0 11596 14068 10 11596 24068 811/25/2013 - 12/10/2013
Grandpa'sCole Slaw4/48 oz..0 11596 34325 90 00 11596 44325 611/21/2013 - 12/7/2013
Grandpa'sPotato Salad4/48 oz.0 11596 34326 60 00 11596 44326 311/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Grandpa'sBaked Beans2/5 lb. 0 11596 55180 711/26/2013  - 12/9/2013
Grandpa'sSteakhouse Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 55604 811/21/2013 - 12/6/2013
Grandpa'sCucumber Dill Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55900 112/23/2013- 12/28/2013
Grandpa'sSpinach Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55901 812/23/2013- 12/31/2013
Grandpa'sArtichoke Spinach Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55902 512/21/2013
Grandpa'sTaco Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55903 212/16/2013 - 12/31/2013
Grandpa'sVegetable Bagel Spread1/5 lb. 0 11596 55905 611/11/2013 - 11/30/2013
Grandpa'sCrab Like Cheese Ball1/5 lb. 0 11596 55906 311/28/2013
Grandpa'sGarlic Herb Spread1/5 lb. 0 11596 55907 011/21/2013 - 11/29/2013
Grandpa'sKrab Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55909 411/26/2013 - 12/5/2013
Grandpa'sTaco Spread2/4 lb. 0 11596 55910 012/24/2013 - 12/31/2013
Grandpa'sFresh Bruschetta1/5 lb. 0 11596 55911 712/1/2013 - 12/16/2013
Grandpa'sFresh Salsa1/5 lb. 0 11596 55912 412/1/2013 - 12/12/2013
Grandpa'sFresh Salsa4/5 lb. 0 11596 55913 112/1/2013 - 12/12/2013
Grandpa'sRoasted Corn & Black Bean Salsa1/5 lb. 0 11596 55915 511/29/2013 - 12/2/2013
Grandpa'sFresh Mango Salsa1/5 lb. 0 11596 55916 212/9/2013 - 12/12/2013
Grandpa'sBlack Bean Salsa1/5 lb. 0 11596 55917 912/7/2013
Grandpa'sPotato Salad18/3.5 oz.0 11596 08005 50 00 11596 08005 511/21/2013 - 12/9/2013
Grandpa'sCole Slaw18/3.5 oz.0 11596 08006 20 00 11596 08006 211/21/2013 - 12/5/2013
      
Holiday PantryTuna Salad Spread4/8 lb. 10 733147 10780 211/25/2013
      
Knowlan'sChicken Pasta Salad Base1/8 lb. 10 733147 00202 211/25/2013 - 12/2/2013
Knowlan'sClub Salad Base1/8 lb. 10 733147 00201 511/25/2013 - 12/92013
Knowlan'sMandarin Salad Base1/8 lb. 10 733147 10153 411/25/2013 - 12/92013
      
Maggie'sWhite Fruit Dip6/12 oz.0 11596 06200 60 00 11596 06200 611/20/2013 - 12/4/2013
Maggie'sTaco Dip6/12 oz.0 11596 06201 30 00 11596 06201 312/20/2013 - 12/30/2013
      
MarshAmish Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51009 511/21/2013 - 11/30/2013
MarshBaked Potato Salad Kit1/5.75 lb. 0 11596 51083 511/22/2013 - 12/6/2013
MarshSignature Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51085 911/22/2013 - 12/10/2013
MarshGrandpa's Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 11596 93021 311/17/2013 - 12/1/2013
      
Martin'sCabbage Shredded with Carrot 1/8"2/4 lb. 0 11596 50112 311/13/2013 - 11/20/2013
Martin'sChef/Cobb Salad Kit1/4.625 lb. 0 11596 50180 211/9/2013 - 11/16/2013
Martin'sCaesar Salad Kit1/3.625 lb. 0 11596 40182 911/9/2013 - 11/16/2013
Martin'sVeggie Party Tray Kit1/9.3 lb. 0 11596 90705 511/9/2013 - 11/11/2013
Martin'sOriental Cabbage Kit1/10 lb. 0 11596 53050 511/9/2013 - 11/11/2013
Martin'sWhite French Dressing4/2 lb. 0 11596 55350 411/16/2013 - 11/30/2013
Martin'sRotisserie Chicken Salad Base4/2 lb. 0 11596 55354 211/17/2013 - 11/30/2013
Martin'sBroccoli Bacon Salad Kit5.8675 lb. 0 11596 55357 311/9/2013 - 11/11/2013
      
Old TymeStrawberry Yogurt Cheesecake Dessert1/5 lb. 0 94776 03303 411/26/2013 - 11/29/2013
Old TymeSweet Bow Tie Pasta with Bacon1/5 lb. 0 94776 03409 311/22/2013 - 12/6/2013
Old TymeItalian Pasta Salad1/8 lb. 0 94776 03412 311/21/2013 - 12/6/2013
      
Our OwnHomestyle Potato Salad4/5 lb.0 11596 51042 20 00 11596 51042 211/16/2013 - 12/5/2013
Our OwnPremium Potato Salad4/5 lb.0 11596 91045 10 00 11596 91045 111/20/2013 - 12/5/2013
Our OwnHomestyle Mustard Potato Salad4/5 lb.0 11596 51047 70 00 11596 51047 711/16/2013 - 12/5/2013
Our OwnFettucine Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52150 311/21/2013 - 12/6/2013
Our OwnGreek Village Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52151 011/30/2013 - 12/4/2013
Our OwnGarden Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52153 411/22/2013 - 12/6/2013
Our OwnVinegar & Oil Cole Slaw1/8 lb. 0 11596 83002 511/21/2013 - 12/6/2013
Our OwnCheesecake Delight1/8 lb. 0 11596 85066 511/21/2013 - 12/9/2013
Our OwnHawaiian Salad1/4 lb 0 11596 45068 111/26/2013 - 12/9/2013
Our OwnSpinach Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55149 412/1/2013 - 12/19/2013
Our OwnChili Con Queso Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55189 011/21/2013 - 12/9/2013
Our OwnFresh Salsa1/5 lb. 0 11596 59021 9 11/22/213 - 12/9/2013
      
Rogge'sWhite Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51052 111/17/2013 - 12/4/2013
Rogge'sMustard Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51053 811/17/2013 - 12/4/2013
Rogge'sSliced Extra Sweet Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51054 511/27/2013
Rogge'sMacaroni Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52019 311/11/2013
Rogge'sSour Cream Cucumber Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52027 511/12/2013
Rogge'sKrab Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 55110 411/22/2013 - 12/9/2013
      
Roundy'sDill Dip6/12 oz.0 11150 52603 60 00 11150 52603 612/16/2013 - 12/24/2013
Roundy'sTaco Dip6/12 oz.0 11150 52604 30 00 11150 52604 312/16/2013 - 12/24/2013
Roundy'sSalsa12/15 oz.0 11596 06117 70 11596 06117 712/1/2013 - 12/9/2013
Roundy'sBlack Bean Salsa12/15 oz.0 11596 06118 40 11596 06118 412/1/2013 - 12/9/2013
Roundy'sBagel Spread12/12 oz.0 11596 06156 60 00 11596 06156 611/22/2013 - 11/26/2013
Roundy'sArtichoke Spinach Dip6/12 oz.0 11596 06170 20 00 11596 16170 912/17/2013 - 12/24/2013
      
SpartanAmerican Potato Salad6/16 oz.0 11213 90320 00 00 11213 90320 011/25/2013 - 12/2/2013
SpartanMustard Potato Salad6/16 oz.0 11213 90319 40 00 11213 90319 411/26/2013 - 12/2/2013
SpartanCreamy Shredded Cole Slaw6/16 oz.0 11213 90322 40 00 11213 90322 411/25/2013 - 12/2/2013
SpartanMacaroni Salad6/16 oz.0 11213 90321 70 00 11213 90321 711/25/2013 - 12/2/2013
SpartanCreamy Shredded Cole Slaw4/48 oz.0 11213 90327 90 00 11213 90327 911/26/2013
      
Spoon RiverPotato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51032 311/28/2013 - 12/5/2013
Spoon RiverSeafood Salad Kit1/5.5 lb. 0 11596 5510611/21/2013 - 12/10/2013
Spoon RiverPimento Cheese Spread1/5 lb. 0 11596 55678 912/23/2013
Spoon RiverWestern Veggie Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55679 612/16/2013 - 12/30/2013
Spoon RiverDill Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55680 212/16/2013 - 12/30/2013
Spoon RiverSpinach Dip1/5 lb. 0 1159655681 912/16/2013 - 12/31/2013
Spoon RiverButtermilk Ranch Dip6/12 oz.0 11596 05684 50 00 11596 05684 512/16/2013 - 12/31/2013
Spoon RiverButtermilk Ranch Dip1/5 lb. 0 11596 55685 712/16/2013 - 12/31/2013
Spoon RiverSignature Macaroni Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 55690 111/21/2013 - 12/4/2013
      
VaneePotatoes 3/8x3/8x3/8 Diced White1/30 lb. 0 11596 90453 511/11/2013
VaneeCarrots diced 3/4 x 3/4 x 3/41/25 lb  11/11/2013
      
WeisTuna Salad9/8 oz.0 41497 05345 20 00 41497 05345 211/26/2013 - 12/9/2013
WeisEgg Salad9/8 oz.0 41497 05365 00 00 41497 05365 011/20/2013
WeisCreamy Cole Slaw6/16 oz.0 41497 05837 20 00 41497 05837 211/25/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisOriginal Potato Salad12/16 oz.0 41497 05838 90 00 41497 05838 911/25/2013- 11/28/2013
WeisOriginal Macaroni Salad6/16 oz.0 41497 05839 60 00 41497 05839 611/25/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisPotato & Egg Salad12/16 oz.0 41497 05841 90 00 41497 05841 911/25/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisAmish Macaroni Salad12/16 oz.0 41497 05844 00 00 41497 05844 011/25/2013 - 11/28/2013
WeisAmish Potato Salad12/16 oz.0 41497 05845 70 0041497 05845 711/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisRed Potato Salad6/16 oz.0 41497 05848 80 00 41497 05848 811/25/2013 - 11/28/2013
WeisOld Fashioned Cole Slaw6/16 oz.0 41497 05849 50 00 41497 05849 511/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisOriginal Potato Salad4/3 lb.0 41497 05900 30 00 41497 05900 311/21/2013
WeisAmish Potato Salad4/3 lb.0 41497 05901 00 00 41497 05901 011/21/2013 - 11/28/2013
WeisPotato & Egg Salad4/3 lb.0 41497 05902 70 00 41497 05902 711/21/2013 - 11/28/2013
WeisOriginal Macaroni Salad4/3 lb.0 41497 05904 10 00 41497 05904 111/21/2013 - 11/28/2013
WeisAmish Macaroni Salad4/3 lb.0 41497 05905 80 00 41497 05905 811/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisChreamy Cole Slaw4/3 lb.0 41497 05906 50 00 41497 05906 511/21/2013 - 11/28/2013
WeisPotato & Egg Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51101 611/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisOriginal Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51102 311/21/2013 - 12/2/2013
WeisAmish Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51103 011/21/2013 - 11/29/2013
WeisRed Potato Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 51105 411/21/2013 - 12/4/2013
WeisAmish Macaroni Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52105 311/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisOriginal Macaroni Salad2/5 lb. 0 11596 52106 011/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisSpiral Pasta Salad1/5 lb. 0 11596 52107 711/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisBaked Lima Beans1/5 lb. 0 11596 52111 411/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisOld Fashioned Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 11596 53100 711/21/2013 - 12/2/2013
WeisCreamy Cole Slaw2/5 lb. 0 11596 53101 411/21/2013 - 12/3/2013
WeisPepper Cabbage2/5 lb. 0 11596 53102 111/21/2013 - 11/28/2013
WeisSeafood Salad Supreme1/5 lb. 0 11596 55218 711/21/2013 - 11/29/2013
WeisEgg Salad  1/5 lb. 0 11596 55221 711/16/2013 - 11/28/2013
      
Wong's WokCelery Diced 5/8"2/10 lb. 0 11596 50200 7 10/31/2013
Wong's WokCarrot Shredded 3"1/5 lb. 0 11596 00270 510/29/2013

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Buying into an HOA leads to buyer's remorse

Many readers empathized with our recent "HOA horrors" story

Of all recent articles weve published, none inspired more reader response than "Homeowners associations: government minus the checks and balan...

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Adobe customer data breach worse than originally reported

Initial estimates of 2.9 million affected accounts balloons to over 150 million

If you have an Adobe account, beware: you should change your password and keep a closer-than-usual eye on your credit report and other financial activities...

PhotoIf you have an Adobe account, beware: you should change your password and keep a closer-than-usual eye on your credit report and other financial activities.

Last month Adobe admitted it had suffered a major cyber attack that compromised the data of 2.9 million users; in addition to passwords and email information, that compromised data might also have included customers’ debit or credit card information.

It gets worse. Adobe’s initial report of 2.9 million compromised data accounts was bad enough, but three weeks later, on Oct. 29, Adobe revised the estimate upward to 38 million accounts., over 10 times higher than their original number.

Then, on Nov. 4, Paul Ducklin at Sophos’ Naked Security blog reported that data from over 150 million hacked Adobe accounts had appeared online.

Adobe, however, is sticking to its earlier 38 million figure. But tech and computer security journalists everywhere from GeekWire to the Guardian seem to believe Ducklin over Adobe. This is an important point of contention because Adobe said it has sent warning letters to, and arranged credit alerts for, all customers whose data has been compromised—presumably, to 38 million people. But if Ducklin’s is the correct number, that leaves an additional 112 million Adobe customers at risk and unaware of it.

LastPass has created an online tool Adobe customers can use to see if their emails have been compromised—and it’s worth noting that LastPass thus far says it hasn’t noticed any signs of unauthorized activity in any Adobe user’s emails.

We’re not tech-security experts; if you’re a concerned Adobe user, the tech articles we’ve linked to here offer far more specific advice than we can. However, we do have some generalized online security tips that all people, not just Adobe users, should keep in mind.

If a hacker breaches the database of a company that has your personal information, well, there’s really nothing you can do to prevent that. Even adopting a Luddite lifestyle — “I will never ever buy anything, or undergo any financial transaction, online!”— offers no guarantees. (We personally had to put a credit alert on our accounts a few years ago, after somebody working for our state’s tax-collection bureaucracy lost a laptop computer loaded with the names, Social Security numbers and other information about tens of thousands of state taxpayers, including us.)

But what you can do — what you should do — is conduct your online affairs so that the damage from any one company data breach will be limited to your activities with that company.

For example: never use the same password for more than one account. Some people, for simplicity’s sake, like to use a single password for everything: online email, online banking, online shopping, maybe an online chat forum or two. That definitely makes it easier for you to remember your passwords — and also means a hacker who breaches one of your accounts gets access to all of them.

If you only have a few regular online activities, you might also consider opening a separate web-based email account for each one: use this email address to register for Facebook, use that email for shopping at Amazon. (Confession: we don’t strictly follow that advice ourselves, because we have too many online accounts; however, we do limit ourselves to only two or three accounts per email address.)

And every few days or so, you might try typing terms like “hacker” or “compromised data” into an online news search engine, and see what recent stories pop up; if you read the names of companies with whom you have an account, that’s when you know to be extra-vigilant.

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Getting to know you: Airlines mining their customer data more aggressively

Carriers may be able to tailor service to passengers' individual quirks

"Good afternoon, Mr. Hood," said a Lufthansa flight attendant as she bent down over my coach-class seat on a recent trip across the pond.I was shocked. T...

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Strangers on a plane
"Good afternoon, Mr. Hood," said a Lufthansa flight attendant as she bent down over my coach-class seat on a recent trip across the pond.

I was shocked. The last time a flight attendant called me by name was when United threw me off a flight in Denver because the gate agent had given my seat to someone else.

While Lufthansa may be a step ahead in the customer service department, other airlines are closing fast. Soon, the Wall Street Journal reports, flight attendants will know our birthdays, how we like our coffee and whether we're likely to buy anything on board.

Not to mention whether we're likely to drink too much and cause trouble. In that case, maybe we'll get the treatment I received in Denver. (I was sober as the proverbial judge, by the way). 

After all, the airlines already have a lot of this information lurking in their databases. And thanks to such Big Data troves as Experian, it won't be long before they can fill in any blanks that remain.

This could mean that as the flight attendant wanders down the aisle with a tablet computer, he'll have a good idea of what we're likely to want and, perhaps, whether we'll be in a pleasant mood or whether we're the type who writes to ConsumerAffairs after each flight to complain about something.

More significantly, the tablet may have information on our food allergies, medical conditions and disabilities, which could actually be a good thing.

Gut reaction

Unlike some industries, the airlines have been slow to actually put all of this into practice. American Airlines, for example, has until recently had a "gut reaction" that it should protect its customers' privacy.

But now, Maya Leibman, chief technology and information officer for AA, says the carrier is learning to walk the line "between providing excellent customer service and suddenly becoming creepy," the Journal reports.

Allegiant seems to be the carrier that has most enthusiastically embraced all this data. That's at least partly because it's really more of a flying salesroom than transportation company. During its flights to and from Las Vegas, flight attendants pitch everything imaginable, including show tickets and tours. This reliance on in-cabin sales gives it a real incentive to keep track of the big spenders on board.

Do you think the airlines will soon know which passengers are likely to have crying babies with them? 

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Verizon tracks the movements of its smartphone customers

It's intended to help advertisers measure the effectiveness of their ads

Google and the NSA, among others, have taken a lot of heat for tracking Americans' activities. Ah, but they're not really able to track every step you take...

PhotoGoogle and the NSA, among others, have taken a lot of heat for tracking Americans' activities. Ah, but they're not really able to track every step you take, every move you make, as the old song has it.

So, who can? Why, your cell phone carrier, of course, and it turns out they're doing just that.

Verizon has a new division called Precision Marketing Insights that will initially help sports clubs and venues learn more about their fans by tracking their activities before and after the game.

Do all those ringside ads and promotions on the scoreboards really cause fans to stop off at Pizza King on the way home? Do NASCAR fans stop off at a Sunoco station after a day at the races?

The NBA Phoenix Suns tested the service last season, Ad Age reports today, and the Portland Trail Blazers are said to be thinking about it.

A byproduct

The technology behind this is pretty simple, once you have a massive cellular network in place. As Colson Hillier, VP of Verizon Precision Market Insights, explained it to Ad Age, tracking customers is really just "a byproduct of being a network operator."

That's because, even when you're not using it, your smartphone is constantly pinging the network, letting it know that it's available to take calls and receive text messages. 

"We can tie a device back to the cell towers which it registers against," said Hillier, and that pretty much tells you where each customer is, within a block or two.

While this could be a game-changer for sports teams, it could be an even more effective tool for retailers, as Hillier sees it. "There's no reason a retailer couldn't try to understand what's happening around their location," he said.

It's anonymized

Does this mean Home Depot would know that after you kicked the tires on all those lawn tractors, you ended up buying one at Costco?

Well, as usual, the official answer is no. Verizon says it "anonymizes" the data, scrubbing it of individual identities. However, and it's a fairly big however, it adds in demographic data that it gets from Big Data venders like Experian, so that the behavior patterns of, say, suburban married white males 25-49 with two children, would become evident.

Frequent stops at McDonald's perhaps?

Verizon executives at a recent conference said they had thought through all the privacy issues and didn't find any problems. Besides, they said, the terms and conditions section of their wireless service contracts makes it clear that they're allowed to do this. So, no problem.

Don't like it? Well, your phone has an on-off button.  

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Diabetes a growing health threat

Rising obesity, aging population sends diabetes toll higher

As America packs on the pounds and becomes more sedentary, the number of cases of diabetes grows. The disease, a malfunction of the body's ability to proce...

PhotoAs America packs on the pounds and becomes more sedentary, the number of cases of diabetes grows. The disease, a malfunction of the body's ability to process blood sugar, is particularly prevalent among overweight seniors, according to health statistics.

Data from the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet found a total of 25.8 million children and adults in the U.S. – 8.3% of the population – have diabetes. About seven million of those cases remain undiagnosed, making them even more dangerous. 

To understand diabetes and whether you have it, or are at risk, we need to start with the classifications of the disease – Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

In Type 1 diabetes, your body does not produce enough insulin. It needs insulin to break down carbohydrates and fat and regulate your metabolism. People with Type 1 are usually diagnosed as children or young adults and the disease is not preventable. It's also fairly rare, making up only 10% of the diabetes cases in the U.S.

Type 2, on the other hand, is preventable in most cases. In Type 2 diabetes, blood sugar levels are abnormally high, a condition known as hyperglycemia. If you are overweight or obese you have a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, compared to those with a healthy body weight. Not surprisingly, doctors have seen a corresponding rise in Type 2 diabetes with the recent rise in obesity.

Symptoms

How do you know if you have diabetes? The symptoms for the two types vary slightly. According to the Mayo Clinic, those with pre-diabetes or Type 2 may not have any symptoms right away. On the other hand, if you have developed Type 1 diabetes, you'll experience symptoms almost immediately. Symptoms for both types include: 

  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Extreme hunger
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Presence of ketones, a byproduct of the breakdown of muscle and fat that happens when there's not enough insulin, in the urine
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Slow-healing sores
  • High blood pressure
  • Frequent infections, such as gums or skin infections and vaginal or bladder infections

Seniors at risk

If you are a senior and have put on weight late in life, you may be especially vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes. Though the reasons are unclear, doctors suspect that the combination of adding body weight while decreasing physical activity in old age is a major catalyst. Men whose testosterone levels fall as they age may also be at higher risk, since some research suggests low testosterone levels are linked to insulin resistance.

People with diabetes, either Type 1 or Type 2, typically manage their disease with insulin, a nutritious diet and regular physical activity. Type 2 patients may be able to avoid insulin – at least in the beginning – by following a healthy lifestyle. However, Type 2 is a progressive disease that, over time, usually gets worse.

Toby Smithson, a nutritionist and author of the book “Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies, says proper meal planning is a simple way patients can gain influence over the potentially harmful influence of food.

"People with diabetes want to stay healthy, but we are constantly surrounded by images of food, messages about food, and food itself,” Smithson said. “Your amazing brain can make the best food choices for your health if you give it the facts and some quiet time to come to a conclusion. But, wander aimlessly through the grocery or start down a buffet line with an empty plate and impulse wins every time. Planning ahead is the secret to healthy eating and diabetes health."

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New York seniors increasingly the target of scams

Survey finds an alarming number of the crimes go unreported

In a new report, AARP has found a surge in scams in New York City directed at senior citizens. Not only are the numbers up, the AARP report estimates that ...

PhotoIn a new report, AARP has found a surge in scams in New York City directed at senior citizens. Not only are the numbers up, the AARP report estimates that one third of elderly fraud victims don't report the crimes.

"Scam artists and fraudsters in New York City looking for their next victims have their craft honed down to a science," said Beth Finkel, State Director for AARP in New York.

Law enforcement has known for a long time that criminals usually prefer seniors as their victims, especially for economic crimes. Seniors are likely to have money tucked away. They probably own their home, or have lots of equity in it and have excellent credit.

Seniors are less likely to hang up on an unscrupulous telemarketer. Growing up in a different era, they are less wise to the ways of the world and more polite and trusting.

Unreported crimes

According to the FBI, older consumers are less likely to report a fraud because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t know they have been scammed. Seniors might also be reluctant to report scams because they are concerned their relatives may think the victims no longer have the mental capacity to take care of their own financial affairs.

When seniors do report scams, the FBI says they sometimes make poor witnesses. The scammers know the effects of age on memory and are counting on elderly victims not being able to supply enough detailed information to investigators. It may also take them longer than younger victims to realize they have been scammed.

According to the FBI, seniors are often targeted with healthcare scams, sold counterfeit drugs, talked into expensive funeral prepayments, and sold bogus anti-aging potions and other useless products. In recent years, because of their usually high credit scores, they have been targeted by identity thieves.

Reverse mortgage scams

PhotoThe FBI and other government agencies have urged seniors to be especially vigilant when considering reverse mortgage products. Reverse mortgages, also known as home equity conversion mortgages (HECM), have increased more than 1,300 percent between 1999 and 2008, creating significant opportunities for fraud perpetrators.

In many of these scams, victimized seniors are offered free homes, investment opportunities, and foreclosure or refinance assistance. They are also used as straw buyers in property-flipping scams. Seniors are frequently targeted through local churches and investment seminars, as well as television, radio, billboard, and mailer advertisements.

A legitimate HECM loan product is insured by the Federal Housing Authority. It enables eligible homeowners to access the equity in their homes by providing funds without incurring a monthly payment. Eligible borrowers must be 62 years or older who occupy their property as their primary residence and who own their property or have a small mortgage balance.

Depth of the problem

In the AARP survey, 29% of New York City residents 50 or older said they or someone they know has been the target of fraud or a scam. Broken down by age, 32% of 50 to 64-year-olds say they or someone they know have been a target or victim, five percent higher than those 65 and older. However, older seniors have a much higher rate of letting the scam go unreported, with 37% not reporting them, compared to 26% of 50- to 64-year-olds.

In New York the most common senior-directed scam in Queens involved credit cards. In the Bronx and Brooklyn, identity theft was the most common scam. In Manhattan, investment fraud and check-cashing schemes were the most common scams.

AARP says seniors and their younger family members could help reduce scams by working together.

"Younger people are more likely to see an older relative or friend be targeted or become a victim of a scam in New York City and report it, but older individuals are often worried about speaking up. Sometimes, they're embarrassed," said Finkel.

But Finkel says younger family members should explain to senior family members that they can help prevent other seniors from becoming victims if they speak up.  

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Mobile and local: The way to shop this holiday season

Rising smartphone ownership is expected to make a big impact

The digital shopping route appears to be the way many consumers will take when it comes to gift-buying this holiday season, while others will patronize loc...

PhotoThe digital shopping route appears to be the way many consumers will take when it comes to gift-buying this holiday season, while others will patronize local small businesses.

According to Deloitte's 28th annual survey of holiday spending intentions and trends, the fact that smartphone ownership has risen to 61% of respondents from 42% just two years ago suggests consumers will rely heavily on digital bargain hunting.

Women, younger generations and households earning less than $100,000 annually showed the most significant leaps in smartphone ownership, expanding the base of shoppers that retailers can access via mobile devices. For example, nearly six in 10 (59%) of women surveyed own smartphones, up 13% from last year, and 79% of consumers ages 18-24 own a smartphone.

Smartphones and tablets

Among smartphone owners, nearly seven in 10 (68%) plan to use their Photodevices for holiday shopping. These consumers will primarily use smartphones to search for store locations (56%), check and compare prices (54%) and obtain product information (47%).

Consumers that use smartphones to assist in holiday shopping will likely help retailers' registers jingle this year, as these shoppers plan to spend 27% more on holiday gifts than non-smartphone owners.

The survey also found a significant number of consumers expecting to shop using their tablets. Among the 38 percent of respondents that own tablets, nearly two-thirds (63%) indicate they plan to use it for holiday shopping this year, with "shop or browse online" ranking as the No. 1 activity.

"Tablets are a two-way street for retailers," said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP, and retail & distribution sector leader. "They have opened up an entirely new consumer touchpoint, where shoppers can view multiple retailers' products regardless of their location -- from their couch to the point of purchase. Retailers can also put tablets to work in their stores, providing both their sales team and customers with a broader lens into merchandise selection. Now that the majority of consumers also own smartphones, these two devices have altered the way they interact with a brand, while also yielding a higher spend per customer."

Close to home

This year, two-thirds (66%) of shoppers plan to shop locally at small businesses, independent retailers or boutique shops which are not part of national chains.

The survey indicates that one-third (34%) of consumers' budgets will be spent at local stores. Among the reasons for shopping locally, consumers cite desire to support the local economy (60%), to find one-of-a-kind gifts (53%) and because it is more convenient (44%). Nearly one-third (30% report having greater loyalty for the local store over national chains.

Stores still in the running

PhotoWhile the Internet ranks as the top shopping destination for the 2013 holiday season, 37% of respondents still prefer shopping in a physical store rather than online for holiday products. Service levels continue to influence respondents' willingness to give a retailer their business.

More than half (54%) of shoppers say that knowledgeable store associates will lead them to making an in-store purchase, and 32% feel store associates can provide customers a better shopping experience when equipped with the latest mobile technologies. Yet, nearly six in 10 (59%) shoppers feel they are better connected to consumer information, including coupons, competitive pricing and product availability, than store associates.

"In the store, retail associates can be engaged to drive loyalty rather than just complete a transaction," Paul noted. "The most successful retailers are empowering their associates to become devoted brand advocates who are knowledgeable, connected online, have the authority to price match and are aware of products available through other channels."

Retailers also benefit from providing shoppers with self-help technology in the store. Nearly six in 10 (58%) of shoppers will use self-help technologies -- the most common being price checkers (60%) and self-checkout payment lanes (57%).

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Consumers want to be paid for giving up their data

Microsoft exec didn't seem to have money in mind as he discussed the issue, though

Rick ChavezIt used to be that publishers, broadcasters and websites captured audiences, then conducted research to get a rough picture of who was in that...

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Rick Chavez

It used to be that publishers, broadcasters and websites captured audiences, then conducted research to get a rough picture of who was in that audience so they could go sell ads to the most suitable brands.

That still happens, of course, but the brands increasingly have access to even more data than the publishers, thanks to Big Data, the databases in the cloud that sift, winnow and stir the billions of bits that fly their way from all kinds of sources -- including retail purchases, loyalty club data, web browsing info and the information that we all willingly provide every time we fill out a form.

Everybody makes a lot of money on this, so everything is just ducky, right?

Well, actually, not everybody is making money on it. Consumers, the fount from which all blessings flow, are lucky to get a "Hey thanks" for giving up all this actionable data about themselves.

But that's changing. Consumers understand the value of their data and they damned well expect to be paid for providing it, a Microsoft executive cautioned at a recent New York conference.

In fact, 59% of people say they are more likely to buy from a brand that rewards them for their information, according to Microsoft’s latest Digital Trends study, which relied on a global survey of some 8,000 consumers, said Rick Chavez, general manager of the Online Services Division at Microsoft.

In addition, Chavez said consumers want a more "intelligent" relationship with technology. Simply put, they want the stuff to work without calling a lot of attention to itself.

“We want technology that disappears, but that doesn’t disconnect … In short, we want technology that’s on in the right way, and by ‘right’ we mean responsive to our needs in the moment … Not hyper-responsive, not intrusive and not constraining, but in the right way and at the right time,” Chavez said, according to MediaPost.

Age of serendipity

But at the same time, Chavez said consumers want to have a little excitement in their lives, maybe even a delightful surprise, something other than the Blue Screen of Death presumably.

“The Age of Serendipity is about receiving something at the right time and place, and in the right frame of mind,” Chavez added. “Give consumers a pleasant surprise, and they’re more likely to build a long-term relationship with [brands].”

"The challenge for marketers is in capturing that interplay and feeding back information — whether it’s logical, informational or more emotive and inspirational in nature — to the consumer at the right time and place in order to facilitate her decision-making process," Chavez said on his blog

OK, fine, but what happened to paying consumer for their data?
 

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Castle & Cooke to pay $13 Million to resolve mortgage case

Feds say the company steered consumers into costlier loans

More than $9 million in restitution for consumers and $4 million in civil money penalties. That's what it'll cost against Castle & Cooke Mortgage, LLC and...

PhotoMore than $9 million in restitution for consumers and $4 million in civil money penalties. That's what it'll cost against Castle & Cooke Mortgage, LLC and two of its officers for allegedly paying loan officers illegal bonuses.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has asked a federal district court to approve a consent order levying those fines against the company for allegedly steering consumers into costlier mortgages

“Our action has put an end to illegal steering of consumers and has put more than $9 million back in their pockets,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This outcome embodies our mission -- to root out bad practices from the marketplace and ensure consumers are being treated fairly.”

The Utah-based mortgage company originated about $1.3 billion in loans in 2012. It maintains 45 branches and does business in 22 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Utah.

Lending rules violated

In July 2013, the CFPB filed a complaint  in federal district court against the mortgage company and two of its officers for allegedly paying illegal bonuses to loan officers who steered consumers into mortgages with higher interest rates.

The complaint claimed that Castle & Cooke, through actions taken by its president, Matthew A. Pineda, and senior vice-president of capital markets, Buck L. Hawkins, violated the Federal Reserve Board’s Loan Originator Compensation Rule by paying loan officers quarterly bonuses that varied based on the interest rate of the loans they offered to borrowers.

That rule banned compensation based on loan terms such as the interest rate of the loan. The rule had a mandatory compliance date of April 6, 2011, and authority over that rule transferred to the CFPB on July 21, 2011. The CFPB estimates that more than 1,100 quarterly bonuses were paid to over 215 Castle & Cooke loan officers.

Enforcement action

To ensure that all affected consumers are repaid and that consumers are no longer subject to these illegal practices, the defendants have agreed to:

  • End unlawful compensation practices: Castle & Cooke must end compensation practices, such as giving loan officers bonuses that vary based on the interest rate of the loans they offered to consumers, that violate the Loan Originator Compensation Rule.
  • Pay $9,232,896 toward consumer redress: The defendants will pay $9,232,896 to administer redress to consumers for their actions. Any borrower who has obtained a home loan from a Castle & Cooke loan officer since April 6, 2011, and whose loan officer received a quarterly bonus from Castle & Cooke for that loan, will receive a check. CFPM estimates that more than 9,400 consumers will receive checks.
  • Pay a $4 million civil money penalty: The defendants -- Castle & Cooke, Pineda, and Hawkins -- will pay $4 million to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund for their alleged violations.
  • Ensure that Castle & Cooke retain records of compensation: Castle & Cooke will abide by federal law that requires creditors to retain evidence of compliance, such as payroll records.  
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